Written by: Kubo Naoyuki
A single scene set in a commuter train. Will Oniyama become a legend?
Oh crap, Oniyama thought.
The old lady who had drifted in when the door opened was now standing in front of him. It was too late for him to feign being asleep.
The train was packed.
She seemed to feel bad about having him give up his seat, but at the same time it would have been heartless of him not to surrender it to her.
Why now, of all times? Oniyama cursed his fate. He clenched his butt and worried himself over what to do.
You see, he first began to feel the call of nature several stations ago. Under normal circumstances, he would have gladly stood up for her. He would have said ‘excuse me, have a seat’ with a refreshing smile on his face. He would have been proud of himself. However, this was a state of emergency.
Oniyama looked up at the old lady in front of him. Her back was a little stooped, and from his perspective, it looked like she was bowing.
He felt his face heat up as he imagined how everyone else in the train saw him right now. All they saw was some guy relaxing in front of an elderly person who clearly needed a seat. He wanted to shrink away and disappear.
Oniyama felt a tight pain in his abdomen and tightened his sphincter in a panic. He used a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow.
It was all the squid shuto’s fault.
That Reiko… his wife’s large, round face surfaced in his mind. He told her there was something wrong with it, but she hadn’t agreed and insisted it was fine. Oniyama, in his own way, didn’t want it to go to waste so he finished off the small bowl with a cup of hot sake. He regretted everything.
As he resisted the urge to scream, Oniyama realized something. Why didn’t the people next to him give up their seats?
He casually turned his head and stole a glance at the passenger next to him. He was sleeping. The bald salaryman next to him had his head down, fast asleep.
That fox! he saw right through the man’s ruse; he had been fidgeting restlessly looking bored out of his mind just a second ago. You know I remember your stinking breath from when you looked at me, Oniyama thought as he glared at the man. The way he was hanging his head didn’t even look natural.
Alright, then... What about the other side? He kept his butt clenched and glanced at the office lady to his left without moving his head.
Unbelievable. She was sleeping too. Another fox. He was sure he saw her playing with her smartphone until just a second ago.
Oniyama was furious. Didn’t they see that this old lady looked like she was about fall every time the train shook? These people were scum of the earth.
As for me, well, I have my reasons, he justified himself to no one in particular. I’m dealing with something major here. Even I probably wouldn’t last long if I stood up and tried to continue this battle on my feet. That jolt just now was pretty dangerous too…Oniyama tried to convince the reluctant part of his soul.
The pain came in waves. It would be somewhat comfortable for a while, like the quiet calm of a still ocean, only for a sudden storm to appear. Oniyama understood and took advantage of this rhythm after experiencing it several times. To be more precise, he relaxed as much as he could in the interval between storms to conserve energy. Then, when the storm arrived, he would use everything he had to oppose it and keep it at bay. This was all he could do in order to have any hope of making it to the station.
Oniyama checked his watch to see how long it was till the next stop. Things had only started getting painful for him five, maybe six minutes ago. Only a few more minutes to go. He just needed to be a little patient. Just a little more and he’d finally be able to get a taste of bliss.
He figured that this was perhaps the first time in his life that it took so long for time to pass.
The storm arrived, a little fiercer this time. Oniyama grit his teeth and focused with all his spirit. He clenched his butt inward. That seemed to work reasonably well. In fact, he felt like could even stand up now. And if he could stand, then giving up his seat was the right thing to do.
Oniyama saw the shadow of his mother who had passed away last year when looked up at the exhausted old woman’s face. Be it New Year’s or Obon, his mother always had the same tired expression when he returned home for the holidays.
He desperately wanted to give the old woman his seat. Oniyama prayed in his heart for his mother to give him strength, and with a silent grunt, pushed himself downward. He planned to use the recoil to spring up to his feet.
But that didn’t work. No matter what he tried, his butt loosened every time he put energy into his thighs. He made a few more attempts, but none of them were successful. Next, he tried using the swaying of the train, but that too, ended in failure. He was afraid that all this squirming was going to cause people to look at him suspiciously.
Oniyama decided to give up and instead imagined himself happily squatting in the bathroom to distract himself. His heart brimmed with a faint joy as he burned that image into his mind.
Suddenly, he remembered that one time. That filthy, smelly public bathroom. Fifteen-year-old Oniyama in the dark, staring at the wall with bated breath. Three years ago, when a slightly stained Madison Square Garden bag was all he had.
You could also say that dirty public bathroom in Ueno Park was where he was born.
Middle-school Oniyama didn’t know why, but it didn’t really matter. He studied when he was told, smoked cigarettes and huffed paint thinner when he was invited. If dinner was ready when he got home, he ate that too. He just ate. His stomach and chest always ached.
His classmates often bullied him because of his weight. They hit him for no reason and if he cried, they hit him again. Oniyama didn’t think this was painful. In fact, he felt like he was always playing a video game. People could return to life no matter how many times they died in video games.
He had an argument with his father over high school exams. Oniyama said he lived like a cockroach, but his father didn’t say anything in return. Oniyama’s chest ached then too.
He hated the lukewarm atmosphere at home; it was suffocating. He hated the way his parents laughed at the TV, his father’s sniffles in the bathroom, his mother’s looks and voice, the crowded family dinners, the sound of washing dishes, the pattern on his pajamas and curtains, the kotatsu. He felt embarrassed by all of it. Angry, even.
When his father’s shouting, his mother’s screaming, his sister’s sobbing, the broken dishes, and everything else became too much to bear, Oniyama ran away from home. He knew it wasn’t where he belonged.
He stuffed his bag with some clothes in the middle of the night and stole some money from his father’s wallet. He didn’t know where he was going, but anywhere was fine.
He took a train to Tokyo. It felt like something new was about to begin. His gut was tense with both anticipation and unease as he watched his familiar town fly past the train window. He thought he heard a baby sobbing somewhere. His own face reflected on the glass and overlapped with the night scenery.
After spending the night in a movie theater and stopping by a sauna, Oniyama soon ran out of money. A park bench was now the only place he could afford to sleep.
He was starving—yesterday morning was the last time he had eaten anything. The evening sun weighed against his empty stomach. With only seven yen his pocket, all Oniyama could do was glare at the fiery sunset behind the Saigō Takamori statue.
A plastic store bag floated in the wind. The town sounded so far away. The adults he saw in Ueno Park during the day were all gone now and had been replaced with another crowd. There was one group sitting in a circle drinking alcohol. Some were fast asleep, and still others sat motionlessly on the benches. Cardboard shacks littered the grounds here and there. It reminded Oniyama of a zoo enclosure.
The streetlights flickered on. That reminded him of his family…they were probably eating dinner around now. He could imagine his mother and father, along with his sister sitting worried around the dinner table. His chest tightened.
Oniyama’s stomach rumbled. He grabbed his bag, stood up from the park bench, and keeping his head down, began to walk around the park.
There were some men sitting on cardboard boxes in a circle, drinking. They wore dirty work clothes, had long, stiff and tangled hair like Indian ascetics, and yellowed eyes. Oniyama tried to sneak around them, but accidentally met eyes with one of the men.
“Hey, kid! Run away from home, have ya? Not bad, not bad. Gotta get it out of your system while you’re young, eh?”
Filthy clothes and grubby eyes. The man was maybe around his father’s age. Heeheehee, Oniyama heard ingratiating laughs from the others in the circle . Every one of them grinned with rotten teeth on full display.
“Why don’t you stay with us for a while? You’re hungry, right?” Despite the voices urging him back, Oniyama continued onward. He had spotted a fifty yen coin under a nearby bench, and quickly slipped it into his pocket before anyone noticed.
He went down the stairs out of the park and into town. He saw a giant neon movie theater sign, overflowing waves of people, a half-peeled election poster fluttering in the wind, a strip club tout looking his way. A crowd of people going to the station flowed like a river. They had someplace to sleep, Oniyama thought.
He passed by a couple wearing school uniforms as he walked against the flow of people. The boy glanced at him. I guess that’s normal for people my age, those eyes unconsciously made Oniyama feel self-conscious. He became painfully aware of his own uniform. His was a blue jumper that made him look like some country bumpkin, dungarees with the hem cut short, and grey sneakers that had probably been white at some point. For Oniyama at that age, being cool was much more important than work, money, dreams, death, and even love. He looked away from the boy and kept walking. Again, his chest ached.
He found a small bakery on a path just off the main road. It had sandwiches, fried dough and other goods lined up in a glass case inside. Handwritten price tags were stuck on all of them, but there was nothing for fifty yen.
Off to the side was a shelf with snacks. He picked up something that kind of looked like a potato chip bag and checked the price. Thirty yen. Oniyama handed the money to the plump old woman at the till and got back twenty yen in change. He hurried back to the park and ate in a frenzy the moment he sat down. It was soon gone.
It was slowly starting to get dark. The park, dimly illuminated by streetlamps, highlighted the city’s uneven shadows. The burning orange sky stretched out above him was also dyed ultramarine, indigo, and violet. Stars twinkled faintly in the far distance.
There was a phone booth slightly ahead of where he was sitting. After hesitating for a while, Oniyama finally decided to approach it…and walked right past the phone booth. He stopped and turned around, then walked to it again. He did this several times before he finally opened the glass door and picked up the green receiver. Since he had kept the coins grasped in his hand all this time, they were now sticky with sweat. He slowly pressed buttons on the phone, figuring his mother was going to pick up. Just hearing the dialing tone made him want to cry. He held the receiver tightly. The ringing stopped. He hung up the phone in a panic.
His copper ten yen coin fell to the ground with a clatter.
Did he really want to go back, or did he not? Could he even go home again? Oniyama’s thoughts were a mess. He stepped out of the phone booth and dispiritedly walked away; he knew he looked miserable. It was a cold and windy October day in Tokyo. He lightly kicked at the pebbles near his feet.
The old lady in front of him had been keeping her eyes lightly closed for a while now. The other passengers either stared at folded up newspapers, kept their heads down, or listened to music. She was like the only odd tree in this grove of humanity—the only one who exuded any sense of warmth.
Oniyama had some leeway to think now that he was feeling more comfortable. He decided to run some mental simulations to plan for what was to come. Alright, how about this?
They were going to make the announcement for the next stop soon. As soon as he heard that, Oniyama would stand up—that was the most important part. Next, he would offer his seat to the old lady. After that he’d face the door, bending his knees and keeping them relaxed to absorb vibrations. It would be all over if he bumped into anyone.
He had to be careful. If the situation called for it he could say, ‘coming through!’ and announce himself—but not too loud since he hadn’t given up his seat. Then he’d wait in front of the door, ready to make a mad dash out the moment it opened. Or maybe he would shuffle his way out. It depended on the situation. He needed to be flexible.
But still, Oniyama wiped his chin with a handkerchief and looked around the train car without moving his head. It didn’t matter who, was there no one who would give up their seat? The folks standing up were no better in his eyes. None of them offered their sympathy or tried to comfort the old woman. What’s more, not a single person even glared at Oniyama or looked at him with scorn.
Oniyama felt a wave of righteous indignation, and at the same time, he felt a stabbing pain in his gut. He quietly exhaled through his nose so the other passengers wouldn’t notice.
Actually, wait a minute, Oniyama began to reconsider. How was this actually going to end? He was starting to wonder if anyone would actually give their seat up. It would take no small amount of courage in this sort of dry, unfriendly atmosphere.
Everyone wore the same disinterested expression. They were either trying to pretend they had forgotten something or just waited with their arms crossed. It was like there was some unspoken rule amongst the crowd about not getting involved. It had become a habit. Oniyama also lived his life that way.
One by one, he began to feel a sense of closeness with the other expressionless passengers.
Take the bald guy next to him for example. He no doubt felt guilty. He definitely wasn’t happy about pretending to be asleep. Oniyama was sure of that. The man was probably treated like a nuisance both at home and at work; he was probably ashamed of his cowardly, half-assed lifestyle. Oniyama wanted to encourage him—you’re not alone, I’m the exact same. Your complexion doesn’t look so good, so make sure to take care of your liver OK? He wanted to pat his shoulder and urge him on.
Next he looked at the office lady who was sound asleep in the seat opposite of him. Oniyama went ahead and assumed she had came from the countryside and was trying her best in the city, Are your parents doing well? He started up a conversation with her in his heart. They’re really worried about their daughter, you know. Why don’t you give them a call every once in a while?
Wait, what if she actually had an argument with her boyfriend last night and couldn’t sleep because she was crying? You know even your old man is trying his best not to cry. The way you hang your head looks unnatural, but hold on for just a little longer. Don’t lose heart, Oniyama encouraged her.
He then turned to the old lady and voicelessly talked to her. Granny, everyone has their own problems to deal with. They’re all truly kind people, so please understand.
Oniyama felt so earnestly about this, that his body accidentally slackened. Not good, Oniyama tensed his entire butt. He couldn’t let his guard down.
He decided to look back on his memories of his time in Ueno park once again for the time being.
It was like time had stopped in the park illuminated by the city streetlights. It felt more like winter than autumn. The twinkling lights in the distance made Oniyama feel like he had been left behind.
Oomph, he suddenly heard someone sit down next to him with a grunt.
At first he really thought it was a monster. The person was wearing a dark red suit over a giant, rough looking body, but at the same time he had long, curly hair and makeup.
“Cold, isn’t it?” Judging from the voice, this was definitely a man. He held a cigarette in his mouth and offered one to Oniyama. “Want a smoke?”
He shook his head.
“So what are you up to in a place like this?” The stranger held his pinky out and took a drag from his cigarette.
Oniyama wasn’t scared so much as he was frightened. There weren’t any in the countryside, but he had seen people like this on TV. He figured it would be better not to get involved, so he looked straight ahead an pretended not to have heard him.
The okama sighed and held his chin in his hands. He then asked Oniyama how old he was and where he came from, but the boy remained stubbornly silent.
“I bet you’re hungry.”
Oniyama turned his head despite himself, but quickly looked away again in a panic.
“Ahaha I thought so. Follow me. I’ll get you something to eat.”
The okama stood up, grabbed Oniyama’s arm and pulled him along. He must have been starving for company. Oniyama couldn’t argue with his aching belly and decided to go along with him. He could always run away if something happened.
The two of them walked, with Oniyama being pulled along.
“Hey, won’t you tell me how old you are? In exchange for the food.”
Oniyama didn’t see any problem with telling him that at least. “Fifteen.”, he answered in a low voice.
“You’re so young…how lovely.” Then, he suddenly licked his neck.
Oniyama frantically yanked his arm back and shook the okama off before punching him in the face.
“Ow that hurts! I was just joking, you didn’t have to hit me! Where are you going? I said wait!. C’mon…”
Oniyama ran away as the okama called for him to come back. He ran into a public restroom and locked the door behind him.
He held his breath and stayed dead still. The bathroom was dark and smelled awful.
“What was that? Ahh, I don’t even care anymore.” He heard a voice outside, but it soon fell silent once again.
Oniyama’s eyes got used to the dark before long. There were newspapers and plastic store bags scattered all over the place. The bathroom was little more than a dingy concrete box. One of the walls had stuff like dumbass and wanna do it graffitied on it. There were even a few crude drawings. But despite its squalid appearance, it was safe here.
After some time, he ventured back outside. The okama was nowhere in sight. Oniyama decided to try lying on a different bench this time. Looking up at the moon made him want to cry, but he eventually dozed off.
He was frightened awake a while later by the sound of people approaching. He saw two uniformed police officers heading his way. Oniyama would be in trouble if they found him.
He quickly stood up, grabbed his bag and walked away to avoid suspicion. They might make me go back if I get caught, he thought to himself. Just in case, he turned around once to see if the officers were still there. They seemed to just be making regular patrols, but Oniyama was spooked enough that he decided to hide in the bathroom once again. He locked the door behind him and sat down on the ground. His butt and back felt chilly as he rested his back on the wall.
He drifted off. When he woke up, he was still inside the bathroom. He sat completely still, arms wrapped around his knees. His eyes began to water. A tear fell, and then another, until it turned into a flood. Once that happened, he let out a truly pitiful whimper and heaved as he tried to hold back his sobs.
Even when Oniyama thought about it now, he felt that what happened next was a strange part of his life. Was it a dream, or something else?
He felt refreshed after exhausting himself crying. It felt like he was in a calm lull. But while his thoughts were clear, his consciousness, regardless of what he wanted, was very hazy. It was a strange feeling.
Oniyama saw himself playing in kindergarten. He saw himself as a baby being held by someone. The next moment, he saw himself now, squatting in the dark. Badump, Badump, a rhythmic sound resounded in his head. A white sphere came into view, and gradually grew larger, illuminating his surroundings. He recognized it as the sun sun. It took on a reddish tinge and swelled and swelled as it rose above his head. Then, it sank down and disappeared below. The area around him became dark, and he began to see light appear from the far away. The sound of the earth shaking, of waves crashing, of babies crying, entered his ears from far and near.
It was then that Oniyama felt it with certainty.
Not something superficial like hopes and dreams. Something…deeper. It was vague. If he were to put it into words, it was like, why do people heal after injuries or illnesses? Why does it hurt when that happens? Why do we pray? Why weren’t we monkeys? Why did night and day exist? Why did animals risk their lives to protect their children? It wasn’t exactly that, but something similar. It was not his head, but his body that suddenly understood.
He was crying in the bathroom when he came to.
Oniyama wiped his tears away with the back of his hand and went outside. The police officers were no longer there. He found another bench and lied down once again. A bit of the strange sensation from just now remained in him, and he felt a bubbling sensation spring up from the bottom of his belly. He was famished, but he didn’t think it was enough to kill him.
He woke up to a large pair of hands shaking him the next day.
“Hey kid, you ran away from home, right? I’ve got some work for you.” There was a very wrinkled face behind the cloud cigarette smoke. The man peered down at Oniyama with a smile on his face. It was blinding, Oniyama narrowed his eyes
“Hey, hey, don’t make such a scary face. You’re hungry, yeah?”
Oniyama found himself nodding.
The labor recruiter ruffled Oniyama’s hair.
“Hahahaha. Alright, C’mere. You got nothin’ to worry about.”
He took him to a dirty cafeteria in the corner of the park.
“Hey old man, gimme two breakfast specials. One extra large.” He yelled towards the counter and lit up another Hi-Lite.
“How old are ya?”
“So you’re in middle school.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“I know that, Einstein. I’m asking which area.”
He stayed silent.
“Ahh, forget about it. I’ve got some construction work in Saitama. Ten days, 4500 yen a day. How about it?” He blew out some smoke.
“But what would I do?”
“Work. You’d work, obviously. Digging holes, filling holes. It’s hard on the body, but not that complicated. Ah, and here’s our food. Eat up, eat up, and don’t hold back.”
There were rice bowls, miso soup, eggs sunny side up, pickled vegetables, and toasted seaweed piled up on the table, all of it steaming hot.
The okama from yesterday was still on his mind.
“Listen, ya moron. I get money if I put you to work. That’s why I’m feeding you. It’s not that hard to understand. So eat.”
It would not be enough to say it was delicious. The white rice was sweet, and the fragrance of the miso soup felt nostalgic. The bowl was soon empty.
“Hahaha, let me get you some more. Hey old man, seconds!” He turned back to Oniyama. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Lunch, two days ago.”
“Two days, huh. You didn’t think about going back home?”
Oniyama shook his head.
Another heaping bowl arrived at the table. The labor recruiter started on his own sunny side up eggs.
They ate, and as soon as he was done, Oniyama’s feet began to feel restless. He could feel strength coming back to him.
He nodded. He had smoked in secret behind the schoolyard before.
“Take one.”, the laborer held the Hi-Lite box sideways.
“We’ll rest for a bit, but it’s work time after that. …Oh right, I’m just gonna say you’re eighteen.”
Oniyama took a cigarette out the box and lit it. He tried to look as natural as possible as he inhaled.
He choked and had a coughing fit. His head was spinning. The labor recruiter cackled.
Oniyama went back to the bathroom from yesterday one last time before he left. But all he saw now was a dirty public park bathroom. The other five people had already gotten on the van ahead of him. It was the start of something new.
The train was passing under a familiar bridge by the time Oniyama came back from his thoughts. They would soon arrive at the next station, and his long battle would finally be over. He He kept his hopes up and did his best to endure the crippling pain that assaulted him. Any time now. He steeled his heart and got ready to stand.
Hmm, Oniyama frowned. The train usually started to slow down right around now. He turned his head and looked at the town streaming past the window.
The skyscrapers began to disappear out of sight. The train station came into view, and then disappeared in the blink of an eye as the train shot past it at high speed.
For a moment, Onyama’s thoughts stopped. His mind went blank.
Finally, he realized.
This was the express train for his morning commute.
As his consciousness dimmed, Oniyama knew that there was no god after all.
The train sparkled in the sunlight as it headed to the next stop, two stations over.