• Ohaka Mairi

    Jonathan Levi

    Summer 2020

    Merton was looking through the restaurant window facing onto Icho Namiki-dori, when the woman in the backless blouse walked by.

    Everyone inside the Shake Shack, and of course those sitting outside at picnic tables under the heat lamps, was dressed in something that respected the sudden drop in temperature. Overnight, the giant ginkgo trees that drew the crowds to the avenue had lost the last of their leaves. The crowds who had photographed their babies during the month of November, or had propped their miniature schnauzers and dachshunds on the tops of park benches or overturned picnic baskets to capture the perfect golden filter of sun and falling leaves, had disappeared for other seasonal obsessions.

    It was odd to look out the window on the first day of December and see a woman with a backless blouse, a woman of another season. She was walking across a tennis court—one of the dozen that stretched from the restaurant along Icho Namiki-dori all the way to the baseball stadium. The courts were empty except for a worker riding a power roller, pressing down the clay or the grass or whatever they used—Merton wasn’t one of those tennis-obsessed violinists like Nathan Milstein or Isaac Stern who believed that hitting a ball strengthened his bow hand. He was a pessimist, born in a time of comfort, who believed that he only had a few good years of concerts left in him.

    The woman was walking slowly, in the opposite direction from the power roller. She was slim, dressed in woolen slacks, tweed maybe, more appropriate to the season than her blouse. She wore sensible heels. Her hair was short, in a straight bowl haircut, but lightened in a way that approximated the gold of the leaves, although maybe it was the reflection of the ginkgo that confused him. From the back, or more exactly three-quarter view that Merton had through the window of the Shake Shack, he couldn’t be sure if she was Japanese or more European.

    He’d just come from The National Art Center. A German artist was exhibiting portraits made from the cremated ashes—the cremains—of her dead clients who had commissioned the work when mortality had only been an intimation. It was an unusual subject for a museum exhibition. But over a thirty-year career, playing concertos with orchestras, recitals with pianists, and odd performances with dancers, actors, poets, and visual artists, Merton had seen odder. He had learned that collaboration meant coexistence, not intersection, and not always understanding. Merton had been asked to perform at the opening of AshArt. German music, of course, two Bach violin sonatas. The venue was the twisted cavern of the museum, where the echoes were sufficiently baroque. And so he had stood from ten to twelve that morning in the center of the hall, crafting a screen of harmony, separating himself from the ashes, and playing to the light. The director of the museum had offered Merton a ride back to the apartment on Maisen-dori he always rented when he came to Tokyo, a concrete block that felt as anonymous as the grave. But after two hours surrounded by dust, Merton wanted air. His violin case was well insulated. He decided to walk back through Aoyama Cemetery.

    Merton had never thought about his own endgame. Although his kids were grown and he was into the phase of his life where he was teaching as much as performing, his parents were both still above ground. Discussions of cremation versus burial involved the bodies of other people, not his own. His father was gung ho for burning and had instructed Merton to pour his ashes into the empty Swedish cannon cartridge he’d received on the occasion of one of his dozen honorary degrees. His mother had avoided the subject until she fell and broke her leg. Now, every other email included a link to a green cemetery up the Hudson, or the phone number of the forsaken corner of Brooklyn where her own mother had lain unvisited for the past fifty years.

    Walking through the cemetery, Merton thought, If I’m going to be forgotten, why not here in the middle of Tokyo? A significant corner of the graveyard had been set aside for gaijin, the foreigners, the barbarians who had been denied entrance to Japan for centuries and then kept apart in their own enclaves in Nagasaki and Yokohama and now everywhere else. The section had its own maple trees turning their own shades of lacquer and rust. But Merton had no hankering to be buried among the former ambassadors and missionaries and their families. If I am going to be forgotten, he thought, well and truly forgotten, better forgotten within the untranslatable music of Buddhist gravestones.

    But the deeper he walked within the calligraphy, within the deep scarlet of the fallen maple leaves, the more he thought of the brilliant autumn suburbs of Connecticut. And thoughts of home made him hungry. It was noon. The concert was at seven.

    It didn’t matter that he had to wait in line for thirty minutes behind a trio of high-school students in Nehru jackets and Mao caps just to put in his order—burger, fries, and the chocolate-peppermint shake on special for the month of December. Coming to Japan, as he had a dozen times over the past thirty years, always tempered his clock, his metronome set ten beats slower than New York. After thirty years, he still had only enough language to jump from one branch and glide to the next, without the adjectives of conversation. His body had recognized Tokyo as a place where the traffic flowed around him, where he could relax. Not even the Shake Shack playlist—the Ramones, Babymetal, the Ventures—could accelerate his tempo. He gave his order, took the beeper from the server, stood by the back window, and played through the first Bach sonata in the private studio behind his eyes.

    But the sight of the woman in the blouse without a back—it raised his pulse in a way that confused him. The sensation wasn’t sexual, at least it didn’t register as sexual at the moment. But it felt as familiar and uncomfortable as a half-remembered dream. He handed the beeper to the student waiting next to him. He urged him as best he could to enjoy the free lunch and, with a quick bow, walked out to follow the vision.

    Merton turned left down the alley of ginkgo trees. The city, or the local council, or maybe just the manager of Shake Shack, had let the golden leaves lie on the sidewalk, like the forgotten fans of a thousand miniature geishas. But in the brilliance of their reflection, Merton couldn’t find an entrance into the tennis courts. He tried to look through the thicket of hedge and green fencing that separated the courts from the avenue. But the view was as occluded as his half-memory of the girl in the backless blouse. Only the gasoline staccato of the roller told him that there was activity on the other side of the fence. At the end of the alley, he turned left again. But by the time the curve emptied out at the entrance to Jingu Stadium, he realized that he had turned the wrong way. The entrance to the tennis courts must have been off the street on the other side of the restaurant—a right turn, not a left. He stopped, caught by the vaguely ridiculous image of a fifty-year-old American violinist chasing a woman in a backless blouse in late-autumn Tokyo. And he was still hungry.

    Jonathan Levi is the author of the novels A Guide for the Perplexed and Septimania (The Overlook Press 2016), as well as many plays and opera libretti that have been performed internationally.

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