The old man always seemed one step away from death. Like the next one would claim him, the reaper mawing at his heels would finally snag a bony ankle and drag him to the underworld. You always thought that it was the strict adherence to routine that kept him alive, as was common with many of the Japanese men you knew from work at the marketplace. Twelve-hour days on his feet allowed for the appearance of togetherness. But watching him closely, as you did, as you could not avoid, you began to notice the wiring starting to loosen. When you saw him in the morning, his first words would fail to materialize—out came only a cough filmed with gruel, some undiscovered mucus that covered his openings like cheesecloth. When he reached low for something, you’d see the stall, the contemplation, as if his joints and muscles were saying, “No. You will not get up from this.”
Today you saw him skittering across the iced parking lot before your shift. His ears latched with muffs, a nude herringbone shawl sarcophagizing his hollowed cheekbones. Oversized khakis flopping around in the breeze, emphasizing the diaper silhouette around his puff-pastry of an ass. Most mornings, though, he would be there well before you arrived, his car parked pell-mell in the tundra of the parking lot. You always wondered why he decided to sleeve his steering wheel in leopard print. Those times he invited you in the car, perhaps after a shift while you both waited for the windows to defrost, you would focus all your thoughts on the steering wheel, trying to shake the image of the mottled hands clutching it. To reach over and peel the cover off, to throw it in a slush puddle, to hide it from him, to burn it to ash. The thoughts circulate without end. Wait patiently. Wait until he leaves the window down or the door unlocked. You will get your chance. You absolutely will.
You weren’t aware of the old man at all when you applied for the job. Then, the kitchen seemed to be dominated by a corps of stoic, blue-aproned women readily prepared to adopt you. To fatten you up with sweets and love. To fill the rosy-cheeked void. The months following your training, these women disappeared: one left for Japan, one was fired, resulting in hundreds of hushed whispers from the rest, another sustained a hip injury, slipped on black ice in the freezer. Each disappeared until it was just you, the old man, and the sparse darkened shadows of the remaining women, all revealing some distant fear in their am-I-next faces. It might have just been you and the old man from the beginning. Perhaps the women were simply phantoms, yokai drifting along, fooling you into thinking you were safe, haunting the rice pots or tofu blocks to pass the time. Waiting for the old man to die and join their trivial beleaguering of the azuki beans or the dirty bathroom. Or perhaps waiting for you to die and join their trivial beleaguering of the natto or the dirty floor. It churned your insides to think such things.
The old man worked beside you in the sushi bar, preparing rolls and nigiri while you chopped the ingredients. Sometimes he would ask politely for green onions, or for the fine tuna from the reserves, but often he would assume you’d read his mind and only outstretch his hand, which only increased your distaste for him. Still, more infuriating were his polite requests in a way, for he would turn and his stale coffee breath would violate you. It would remind you of the other times you were violated in that room. The times when the lights were flicked off for the night and it was just you, him, and a dirty mop swirling soupy water across the tiles. And the tiles knew the secret; they were the only ones.
When he spoke, you wanted to turn and squirt the olive oil used to spray the blades into his mouth to drive him back to his section of the counter. But you simply balked, opting instead to take refuge in the back alley with a giant bowl and an industrial-sized bag of wasabi powder, mixing in water until the smell of the root and chemicals killed all trace of the old man’s wilting bouquet. The alley seemed to be the only place to escape the feelings of dread you felt inside the sushi bar, for the old man had never spoken to you here, on the clock or extracurricular. The concrete lain with a tessellation of dried, frozen rice, the two light poles switching on with a catatonic wheeze, draping the dumpster graveyard in the cold glow of orangish capitalism, it was here you could exist away from him, even if for a minute, with the coldly secular wind unending around you.
When you did something that pleased him, perhaps helped a customer in a way his schoolbook English wouldn’t allow, or made something which adhered to his aesthetic standards, a perfectly sliced avocado or a pot of rice seasoned with the perfect amount of vinegar, he would reach out and touch you. A pat on the back or a rub on the bare skin just above your elbow. Enough to make his presence known to your body once more. Often, he would forget his gloves were on, coating the back of your shirt or exposed arm with strands of tuna ligament. Sometimes he would leave his knife pointed like a dare in front of him. How good a job you did. Does it deserve a hug?
Before he changed into his chef uniform, he wore a hat that said “JERUSALEM” in Helvetica typeset. Simple and understated, white letters against tan, a dark brown bill. You thought it was the only desirable quality about him, though you weren’t sure why. Grasping at straws maybe. He’d hang the hat on a rung above the door to your bedroom before he would begin. There was a similar rung in the sushi bar, and there it’d hang the entire shift, reminding, always remind you. All day his JERUSALEM hat would sit there, taunting you, begging questions of itself. Did he actually go to Jerusalem? When? Why? You never took him for a highly religious man—someone who would hardly seek a church that could accommodate his limited language skills, let alone someone who would pilgrimage to the holy city of a culture to which he would never belong. Once, after he finished his routine and the hat is gone and you are ruined, a single thought sustained you: You will own that hat; it will be yours. You noticed that the text on the hat had started fading slowly over time. Perhaps this is a sign that time is running thin. That you must act soon, goddamn it.
Sometimes he would leave the sushi bar for long periods of time. You could only imagine where those dicey, arthritic knees would carry him, not that the choices were vast. His routine haunts were the seafood department, where he would cajole the slightly younger men, almost begging to join in the taunting of the female cashiers. They would all giggle together, but he would overcompensate and guffaw—HAW, HAW, HAW—noises fueled by protesting lungs, when the perfect one-liner was zinged from the lips of Hentai-san or he made one of the pretty women blush with his stained and outdated comments. The men all knew that she was not blushing from the crudeness of the comment, but rather out of embarrassment for the old man and his tragic attempts to fit in.
Other times, he would trundle over to the bathroom, where you were not about to imagine his goings-on and comings-out. That was dealt with enough. Often, on particularly difficult afternoons, you dreamt that he had fallen in the freezer, slipped on black ice like what’s-her-ghost. Maybe he couldn’t get up or reach the latch to the outside world. Trapped and alone and cold and dying, freezing up with the octopus and roe. Another hunk of flesh to be frozen, defrosted and prepared. No longer a single step away from death, no, but at it, then and there, good-bye. And you and he are the only ones who know it. And you’re the only one who can do anything about it. So you act—you steal the marinated shiitake mushrooms you like from the pantry and eat them while he is not around. While he is dying you are living, thriving—HAW HAW HAW. How it would offend him if he knew.
The old man loved coffee more than he loved his brittle wife, which made you inexplicably happy for her. You would sometimes see her if she drove him to work. All mascara and trickery-smooth, coke-bottle driving glasses with cubic zirconia rhinestones, swaying and broken as him. An embrace might break them both. Perhaps she was glad that the coffee could subdue him as she could not. That you were forced to subdue him as she could not. She must know—the magnified eyes have already betrayed her uneasy gaze on several occasions.
He would brew a fresh pot of coffee each morning. The next pot would come at lunch and one before closing time. Any leftovers were taken home in a travel mug; you liked to imagine that he never slept. That he was actually closer to your age just with shit circadian rhythm that caused him to age rapidly. If time was scarce, if an unexpected rush occurred and he was unable to remove himself from the honor-code he enlisted himself to endure however many hundreds of years ago, he’d opt out and rip open a satchet of Korean instant crystals. He would stash his mugs on the bottom shelf of the island that stood in the middle of the bar. The shelf was so close to the floor that when you swept up at the end of the day, the broom would throw little grains of rice into the mug. He’d drink it regardless, and you weren’t about to say anything, or wipe your internal scorecard.
It is well past closing on a Friday night when you decide to kill him. Fridays are usually the days he would confront you in the small hallway just off the bathrooms, where the employee lockers were located. Confront you and begin his routine, reach up under your apron and unzip your jeans. Silent and uninvited, as it was since the first time he did it all that time ago that left you numb, stunned. Leave them that way so you had to spend the rest of your shift exposed-but-hidden, the zipper poking against the fabric of the apron. There was no need to ask why.
Tonight he is making you stay late and starch the cloth dividers that separate the kitchen from the bar. He has hinted at other chores after, though you know this is a euphemism for the ultimate chore, which will occur well after the others leave for the night. When it is just you and him and your undone zipper.
When he leaves through the back door to take trash to the dumpster, you move. Grab the knife still slick with nitsume and follow him, creeping like his ruined ears might actually hear you. Enough is enough.
He’s there, bent over slightly, breathing heavily—throwing the trash into the dumpster was enough to wind him. It is this moment that has consumed your darkest thoughts, your most poetic renderings, words whispered in the deep of the night, for months. By now, you know what you want, can retrace each step fluidly from those daydreams. You call his name, dishonoring it, dirtying it by leaving off the formal “-san” that’s expected of a junior speaking to his elder. This causes him to look up and see you advancing through the rheum in his eyes. You wonder if he’s noticed the knife’s glint yet, the angry silver sparkle mutated through the orange light, but don’t let the thought deter your movement, no.
You’re looking right at each other as the blade slips inside him. By your hand he is deflating like a giant balloon. Before he is completely spent, he throws his tired arms around you like seatbelts. You allow him—and yourself, in some sick and twisted way—the familiar gesture just one last time, to remind you of your stupidity and weakness. You allow that caffeinated and now bloody breath to enter you once more. He breathes until there is nothing left inside him, his last sips of oxygen gladly ruined by the horrid odor from the dumpsters. You take his now absolute silence for thanks, the way a master thanks his servant for lopping off his head after seppuku. But there is no honor here. Only satisfaction.
You decide to throw him away with the discarded salmon skin. Lifting him is like lifting a pile of leaves, so light, the weight of unimportance. When he falls into the dumpster, the salmon scraps cling to him, creating a monster, a giant, scaled and rotting beast. It lays there, breathing once more, hollow rasps that freeze you to the glittering patchwork of frozen concrete. The monster you have created speaks to you, telling you to undress and touch this and what does it taste like and please not to tell anyone this never and
The creature begins speaking to you in Japanese, delving further back into the old man’s past until he is young again, and the language is no longer slow with age but young and nubile, able to snap from his mouth and strike your face with physical force. Yet the words you are able to understand through the barriers of language and time: they are the same. Now and then align. He is undressing you with the poetics of a language he’s mastered, undressing all the boys who have worked under him. Before succumbing to the memories of the old man as you had when he was living, you approach the depths of the dumpster where he now resides and close the grate. He will no longer own you in this way, nor will he own anyone else. As you reach for the handle, one final glimpse burns itself into the recesses of your memory—eyes of ether, blind but full of the cruelest knowledge. Of your darkest secrets.
Inside the bar, a fly is drawn to the basin of sake that sits below the bug zapper attached to the ceiling. As its body explodes you look up at the underwhelming noise, wondering what will be there. But this is reality once more, and there is nothing, the bug has been dematerialized to wisps. There is no dramatic coda. There is nothing here for you any longer just as there is nothing but unending dark for the creature.
You finish starching the dividers, one last act of undeserved penance. When you are done, you take the JERUSALEM hat from the rung and flick off the lights. In the dark, the sushi bar looks serene, the floor clean, the cloth dividers hanging taut to the frame. The knives stacked and scoured in the breadbox under the cutting boards. You are done, you have arrived. The hat belongs to you now. You have championed it.