The Old Boy
A brief silence filled Yoyogi Park as the murder of crows caught their breath...thoughts settled like wet sand in the back of my mind. For all I knew the crows might have been mocking me. Running again? He’s scared they still love him. They must have known; I hadn’t kept in touch with home since arriving in Tokyo. No particular reason why. I found a new excuse every time. Occasionally I’d entertain the idea of calling, clicking my tongue with approval that it was the right thing to do, then get dressed and go for a walk instead. Funny, how I always remembered to switch off the lights and lock the door. But those were reflexes; so is avoiding family, sometimes.
I just wasn’t interested in staying connected—only in exploring Tokyo’s back alleys, getting lost, and putting it all down on paper. My phone had become a paperweight. And I was fostering a self-imposed isolation with mixed results: for all the time I made to work on being the best version of myself, the concepts of home and family were growing foreign. I realized the problem and knew how to articulate that I was aware of my negligence, but it was all potential energy; I could never work myself up enough to take action. It’s bizarre, to say the least, how easy it is to fall off the face of the earth when you’re outside familiar zip codes. Tired of dragging my feet I decided to rest for a while and sat beside a tree, which clung for dear life to the edge of the fountain’s lake. A gentle breeze sheathed a few of its branches in water; the trunk was so drunkenly warped. Gazing up at it I wondered how this tree could possibly have grown this way. The storms it must have weathered while still a sapling. That blind and delicate search for the source of its shadow. I imagined that, like me, the tree was at peace with solitude. A stranger to everyone but itself; at least we know ourselves best.
It never occurred to me that while I was flippantly referring to myself as gaijin in Japan, my losing touch with home could make it a general term: a foreigner everywhere. I was hiding behind my sunglasses now. Had I withdrawn into myself?
The wind gave no reply, it didn’t need to; instead I searched within the self I thought I’d known so well. A nugget of shame was stubbornly embedded in my throat. And I realized I was unintentionally turning into a bastard. From my family’s perspective, it must have felt like I was severing all ties like I wanted nothing to do with them. The tree dipped its branches into the river once more, groaning against the gentle breeze. The weight of its being must be unbearable at times, I thought. Without its roots, this tree would have been lost to a passing storm long ago.
Two more days passed without an effort to call. I was more focused on burying my guilty thoughts behind crushed Asahi cans. My roommates had started to catch on to my radio silence. The entrance to our dorm may as well have been a revolving door. I was getting carried away with my excursions: instead of being a good son I had retreated to the Tsujiki fish market with a gaggle of friends. At the first opportunity, I broke off and began to drift.
Like the rest of Tokyo, the Tsujiki fish market was one sprawling back alley. Cramped corridors funneled tourists, fishermen, and their merchandise through the bazaar-like arteries, churning out profits. But it felt as if I had wandered into some derelict department store hidden beneath a highway. Above sheet metal signs, the light trickling through the rafters stained concrete pillars a milky-white. The slick cobblestone, caulked with chum, may have been as old as the market itself; many of the fishermen looked the same way. Lips pursed around cigarettes, an inch of undisturbed ash crawling towards its filter.
Oroshi-hosho knives gleaned on their mounted racks, the refined utensils of these butchers; there was no hacking to be seen, and not a morsel left for the crows. Fresh tuna was being carved and unceremoniously scaled with the efficiency of Anubis. Eels were skinned purely by muscle memory. A nail through the head and two strokes of the knife—a sharp flick of the wrist revealing their silver flesh—and they were thrown into Tupperware, swiftly replaced by a fresh victim; cigarettes were then quickly stubbed out or rekindled. The buzz of a nearby band saw matched this tempo. Frozen tuna gliding across its blade, the operator pulling the freshly halved pieces away with the ease of a breaststroke.
As appealing as the spectacles were I felt like a far-removed bystander, just another pair of blinking eyes corralled with the rest of the gaijin along this circuit. Around me, stevedores were leaning impatiently on their gas pedals, racing through pockets of tourists in flatbed turrets loaded with cargo. It was surely a step up from the rickshaws I’d seen in the area. When Uogashi, or riverside fish markets, first congregated by Tokyo Bay in the seventeenth century, these were the only alternative to horseback. I can’t imagine they ran into many high-speed collisions then—although, miraculously, the lunatics manning these miniature trucks hadn’t broken into the double-digits for casualties this morning. Clearly, they had no time for lollygagging: there could easily have been over a hundred tons of seafood in need of transporting. And it wasn’t going to deliver itself.
I continued to meander, and my thoughts followed suit. Not once did I think of home; the impulse to tap at the phantom vibrations in my pockets had disappeared It was during this absent-minded period of exploration that I witnessed a wholly unexpected sight; a boy too young to even smoke working alongside a fisherman, at least three times his age, on a pair of sea bass. He had bristly black hair that glowed in the sheen of the shack’s fluorescent light. A forehead pulled taut by concentration. His cheeks were still chubby with baby fat and dimpled with sweat. He was only wearing a glove on one hand; the other was caked in gruel. The elder was beginning to look a little unsure of himself, nodding reflexively as if receiving instruction.
Moving in closer to inspect their handiwork, I laughed when I realized my mistake—the boy was showing the proper technique to this older man, whose knife wavered insecurely above its carcass. But the boy’s patience never faltered while he waited for his pupil to catch up. Off came the head—thrown to the side—the boy nodded as his incisions were matched. The next step: entrails,
“Rip them out. See how clean the inside is?” He seemed to ask, motioning with his knife. “Mother-of-pearl.” Then he scraped off the scales.
The older man was making a mess of his project but this didn’t seem to faze his teacher; it wouldn’t be right to pick on a rookie. Some people are just born with the talent—or into it—and the rest have to learn for themselves. I watched, utterly fascinated. He was the only child here not being chaperoned by a parent. That brought a smile to my face: my uncle Michael had been the same way when he was younger. Out-fishing the sunburnt regulars hunched over the local bridge to Ocean City by the age of fifteen. By his thirties uncle, Michael was the captain of his own boat, The Highroller, ferrying people out into the waters of Atlantic City to fish for flounder, sea bass, and the occasional glob of seaweed. His son Christopher became first mate shortly thereafter. And ten years later he bought a second boat. Uncle Mike’s business had been shaping up to be a family enterprise but Christopher walked away from it all some time ago. Not that I can blame him, all youth tends towards that desire to blaze your own trail at whatever cost; it felt I was making a similar choice now, in the opposite direction.
Seeing this boy made me reconsider just how old the market was. Here was new blood with an old soul, as fresh as the day’s kill. Teaching. How else could a business outlive its owners? Old men can plant trees but it’s the tradition of watering it every day that provides the youth with shade. It’s how the Tsujiki market has remained the top tier source of seafood for the nation: fresh faces; trade secrets passed down like heirlooms to the younger generations. The old man was bowing bashfully. His lesson had finished.
I lingered around the stall a little longer, hoping to catch the boy’s eye before leaving the market for good, to make the connection I had found in him real. The damn kid wouldn’t stop cleaning his station: he was all fastidious habit. Eventually, I gave in. The rest of the stalls glazed into a continuous boulevard leading me away. Not exactly towards home, but at least in the right direction.
I finally decided it was time to write home. And the first thing I did when I returned to Yoyogi was send this email:
Dear Mom, Dad, and Caterina,
Tokyo has been a great time so far. My eyes haven't burnt off yet staring at all the flashing neon signs—although the sun is also giving it's best shot. I never thought I'd appreciate overcast skies or skyscrapers so much as now that I'm living without either. It’s all low rises and back alleys intermingled with every sort of traffic; but the allure is in full Technicolor. Every building maximizes each square foot of space down to the tile. And each floor is a completely different story. We can go from a dart bar on the third floor to a gym on the fourth and fifth floors, only to find a sushi joint at the top. The best idea is to get as lost as you can. Take every back alley and turn left until you’re back home.
But that doesn’t explain why I haven’t been writing. I know I could have found the time, but something was holding me back. Someone, actually: myself. Now, don’t ever think I was running away from our family. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just couldn’t get out of my own way and send even a lousy ‘Hello I’m still alive and they’re feeding me!’ I was too preoccupied with me.
It was the most selfish choice I could have made but I needed to be alone, and it felt like this was the only way to recreate myself I was making a lot of jokes about being “off the grid,” I think because it meant I was so completely here in the moment. I don’t have one picture to show for the trip but plenty of gravel in my shoe. You know, traveling has always felt like a means of wiping the slate clean and starting fresh. Nobody knows me here. It’s great because then people get to know and love me for the same reasons; the experience is so fresh. I felt more like myself because of it and became so rooted in the present I almost tripped over myself when I realized what it must have been doing to all of you. But I think I finally found what I was looking for. Now, like any faithful messenger pigeon, I’m ready to return to the world.
Love you all so much. I’ll be home in no time at all,
P.S. I still haven’t learnt any freaking Japanese.
By Charles Tabasso
Illustration by Goldie Gross