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.
After the fight, the mother took the children across the state line to buy fireworks, and the father went to the garage to work on the car he’d been restoring. As soon as the mother left the house, her remaining tears evaporated instantly from the heat. Inside the garage, the father’s sweat formed a clinging bond between the back of his shirt and his skin. He bent over the hood, peering into the mess of gaskets. He adjusted a bolt or two, disinterested at the work. The light was dusty-orange, filtered through a four-paned window on the eastern wall, one of its panes missing, covered by a slice of cardboard. The fight had rattled him, ignited something he couldn’t understand.
The children were both as fiery as bottle rockets, their minds racing at the thought of purchasing illegal fireworks: an espionage mission. They had simultaneously forgotten about the fight they had overheard through the open window as they played upon first mention of spycraft.
Behind the wheel, the mother dug into her nail beds, extracting a piece of misplaced dirt. She, unlike the father, no longer felt rattled. The heat got to our heads, she said to herself as the milemarkers dropped in number. But, as her van crossed the state line, as she saw the signs and the banners, she wondered if there was more to it than the heat. She shrugged the thought away, focusing instead on the squealing children in the backseat.
They purchased six bags of fireworks for the town’s annual Independence Day celebration. Bright and colorful fountains of fire; cherry bombs; moon whistlers that lasted for minutes; mortar shells that erupted in bright splashes of color, all tucked away in brown paper sacks in the back of the van.
And Marla is sitting behind the wheel of the old four-by, driving past her now. It is dusk on the eastern outskirts, and way out past the three curves where my brother lives are the first stars. Adona is buried somewhere in the golden light of end day, in the dregs of sunlight that are still seeping into the basin of the river valley through the clouds. The family lot at Mount Ararat Cemetery is burning its low, hot embers.
Tuck and Marla are up front, and I am crammed up in the back, my long legs hedged between my niece’s booster chair and a Styrofoam cooler half full of beer and half full of deer sausage. A comfortable, boozy silence fills the air of the truck. Until Marla breaks it.
“Some day it’ll by us on Ararat,” she says, twiddling her calloused thumbs against the wheel like her eminent demise is no big deal. “We were talking a month ago, before you got back, about our stone.” Tuck and Marla, ragtag parents extraordinaire, ready to die at fifty. The curveballs never stop.
She goes on. “A joint marker we were thinking. Maybe two little hearts that intertwine in marble, kissed with doves. What do you think?”
Adapted from 阿弥殻断層の怪 (Amigara Dansō no Kai) by Junji Ito
One — The Earthquake
There was a lull in big-ticket news stories that summer, so when the quake hit, the media blitz that ensued seemed a bit excessive at first. It was true that several rural villages and towns, of the few that even remained anymore, were hit with mild setbacks, but no damage had struck the City, where most of the country now called home. Aside from a few crumbling edifices and some broken bones (no reported deaths or missing persons), there wasn’t much else to cover. A destroyed shrine took the top slot for two full news cycles, covered in every angle imaginable—human interest, religious connotations, repair costs, local reactions, the works. At first it seemed that the Amigara Earthquake, named after the mountain that had acted as its epicenter, was simply a natural disaster that underperformed the reputation the media deemed worthy to fabricate around it.
But the news outlets eventually latched themselves onto a potential goldmine of a story—a nerve was struck, the incubus of this whole, strange tale, and the beginning of my involvement in the matter. After the story in question aired, the rest fell into place with ease, as if the pointless rabble, the dry, pastoral filler wasting away the summer, purposefully underperformed the colossal main event that lay waiting in the wings.
I was cramming in a meal between classes, my last two of the term, when the broadcast brass played from the pod on the wall. “Good evening, New Japan. The time is 16:00. We will now present the evening news. Breaking development from the Amigara story…” Great, more of this nonsense. How many ways could they spin this thing? I was halfway across the room to switch the pod to a new channel when my mind processed what they were actually saying. “…natural phenomenon? It seems the shifted fault unveiled a strange pattern. It was first discovered by a passing medical aircraft flying in supplies to nearby villages. The NJB News team has acquired the first known documented footage of the phenomenon, live now from the mountainside. A warning—the following images may be unsettling. Viewer discretion is highly advised.”
I live in a world where I own a garage, and in the garage there is a person I don’t know, waiting for me. The person has a 401(k) but doesn’t know what it means. In their head, they read it as “Four oh one, kay?” I know this because I do the same. John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt? Is that you?
This person has a damp, stained purple rag in their right hand, a present for me. On their mouth is a stain, too. Of convenience store, cherry-red slush.
It is April and I am moments from it now. There is an odd breeze flowing through the still-dead husks of oak leaves leftover from winter, just behind me.
If humans had cat eyes I would open the garage door and see this person’s gaze reflecting against the soft light from the streetlamp. If I saw them, I might freeze for a moment. I might stop and reflect on the state of things — on the weather — on how content I might be feeling — whether what I have eaten agrees with me — whether I have a runny nose.
But then? What? I would know what it means, to be there, to see those deep-sea eyes hovering blindly where they are, just in the corner, unblinking; I wasn’t born yesterday. I would like to think that I have even lived a life fulfilled, have seen and done enough to feel content with what was about to happen. I might think that it would be time to join them, and I would close the door, shuttering their eyes and allowing them the courtesy of approaching me in a perfect stillness. I wouldn’t even scream.
Photograph by Todd Hido, an artist I deeply admire, from his collection “Homes at Night.” Whenever it gets warm and I find myself outside at night, I can’t help but think of this collection as I roam the alleyways in search of something I don’t think exists. Consider checking out and supporting this artist.
The drive home is a rabies shot, agitated, you twitch from state line to county line to places in between, the coordinates slipstream daydreams — You remember the road numbers: 145th, 194th impossibly lengthy, made of pulverized bonemeal and crunch coat, those steel-cut graveled byways
You remember the inhabitants rendered from bacon fat and ham hock tourniquets and night shift salt licks Or those pubertied boys and their percussion kits behind the old band shell, blasting canonfire flams back there on Thursday nights, before the sweating, stinking performance
of pops classics, patriotica, the flags swatting the air, or was that the yellowed sheet music, free from clothespin bondage?
Feeling inspired by Etgar Keret lately, so I wrote this. Thanks for reading!
I wasn’t sure what was happening. The tears didn’t feel natural; they were not the tears I had cried the day before, at least. Yesterday’s tears were shed so freely, so deep into the stacks that I might have been all alone, tucked between an odd alcove near a riot-proof window and a shelf of outdated psychology journals. Since picking up this work study job, I have learned all the best places to cry in the library, from the service elevator (only accessible by library staff), to the most secluded desk in the quiet study, my face pressed against the cold, scarred wood.
Today’s tears were reluctant tears, jammed up inside my eyes. As hesitant as they were to be born, that didn’t stop my body’s other functions from *wanting* them to surface. I parked the book cart outside a bathroom, relieved to find it empty. Standing with my nose pressed against the mirror, I tried my best to avoid scrutinizing what I saw, but my tired and slouched posture, the premature lining on my face that hadn’t been there when I left for college, the puffiness in my eyes, were enough to release the hot, painful tears from their prison.
I wrote this piece as a part of Write Now, a 48-hour flash fiction writing contest for University of Iowa Alumni, and was selected as a finalist. I hope you enjoy it.
My grandmother’s hands are veined tributaries of deep, blue memory, as warm as her famous Sunday dinner rolls, as even and steady as a taut clothesline. Whenever I visit, I make sure to hold them at least once, while we’re sharing a pot of tea, or during our afternoon walk, or when we’re cleaning the dishes.
That connection makes me feel safe; it always has, since I was a small girl, when she would run her hands across my back until I fell asleep. Now a woman myself, I nurture a longing for that connection again, to sleep away the world’s problems on her couch, wake to the small sounds of chores, the clink of plates stacking in the cabinet, the spray of an aerosol cleaner against a dusty surface.
Uncle Leroy’s bare arm was pressed against the vinyl seat cushion for so long that when he unstuck himself to stand and deliver Cousin Darryl’s eulogy, the creases that remained were shaped like the design on a fresh-opened pat of butter. But what could you expect, wearing a cutoff shirt to a funeral? We tried telling him each time we had one of these damn things (the number was getting up there now) that they were supposed to be places of respect, but he always responded that Cousin Darryl (or Sister Patricia or Grandma Diane or Toothless Jim, whoever might be sunnyside up in the casket that week) wouldn’t have gived one fuck what he wore. He had stumped us there, so we let him dress how he pleased.
Hell, he’d likely be laid to rest sleeveless—and soon, by the look of him—so we took the whole ordeal as a premeditated dress rehearsal. Today, for added style, he wrapped a tie around his neck (knotted that fucker, all right, just like you’d tie a noose) and let it hang between his apish tits like a pendulum counting down his final days. It featured a selection of music notes cascading out of a trumpet, overlaid on a pastel gradient. Nobody knew where the hell he got it, but there was something about how it clashed with the dirt and grease stains on the rest of him that made it work.