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THE BARBARIAN HANDLER

by

Tom Bradley




"The characteristic reliance on intuition by Japanese has blocked the objective cognition of the modern world." --Hasegawa Nyokezan

When you have a truly gigantic husband, one of the advantages of sleeping on the floor in the Japanese style is that he can roll over, or even get up and sneak out on you, and there are no box springs to communicate the seismic event to your side of the bed.

Polly had watched him be morbid at farewells before, but it was always prefatory to a plane trip. Jet engines frightened the nervous strength out of Sammy and made him think of random annihilation. Today's outing, as far as he'd revealed, was to be strictly by surface, therefore should have been a downright mollifying prospect. Like Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, people from Sammy's part of the world were more comfortable in the saddle/driver's seat than in bed.

But, that being the case, why had his wife sensed all those intimations of mortality seeping from him in the darkness like pheromones from skin pores?

Before Polly could further contemplate her husband's ever-shifting peculiarities (it was getting to be a full-time job), the girls began agitating for lunch.

She found his usual Virgilian note magnetized to the tiny fridge. "Promise to burn my oeuvre if I don't return from this journey," it said, even though he had no particular oeuvre to burn, just some notes toward something or other whose exact nature he'd never troubled to specify inside his own head. And that's exactly why she could stand to be married to the man: he was the only one she knew who wasn't consumed by the urge for "self-actualization." He lived his life, most of the time (at least when he wasn't depressed), like someone from a previous, less pampered American generation, whose concerns were still nourishment, shelter and family.

Or had he just been putting on a twelve-year act for her? A disappearance like today's made Polly wonder, though she did not intend to ask questions. Not because she wasn't entitled to know, but because she didn't want to.

And Sammy wasn't the only questionable male presence in this house. In a cranny of the dish cupboard she accidentally unearthed a hoard of old tenor sax reeds, scalloped by the irregular lower teeth and stained brown by the whiskeyed saliva of the previous occupant. Sammy's predecessor as token Caucasian around here had been a near-dwarf who'd died of an especially bitter strain of loneliness before his appointment could be cancelled, or, rather, non-renewed. Rumor had it he'd somehow displeased the Full Professor known, in some quarters, as Itchy Nookie.

The girls had once raided the bottom drawer of the aluminum desk--the only movable object besides three accelerating clocks that had officially come with this place--and they'd found a photo of a short and homely, but undeniably blond, woman. Dressed in a touristy costume, she was squinting through a greyish sunbeam in front of the neighborhood Shinto shrine, a luggage-stuffed airport taxi hovering off to one side. A blowup of this very snapshot was framed and displayed next to the softball trophies in Professor Ichinuki's office. In strictest confidence, he liked telling everybody, including Polly's little daughters, exactly whose sister she happened to be.

Her brother's five-foot-two ghost, as well as his vast collection of highball glasses and beer mugs, filled the house, which was not hard to do; even second thoughts took up an inordinate amount of room in this place. Polly felt she knew him, just from prodding the forlorn piles of Rico brand reeds he'd left behind as his small legacy. They were the semi-flaccid number-two-point-fives, the kind untalented beginners with weak embouchures have recourse to; but he'd practiced long, hard, frantic hours with them.

In Sammy's predecessor the administration had foolishly hired a man who still hoped to fill a position in human society. Then they'd found Sammy to replace the poor dead fellow and, presumably, everything was peaceful now at the personnel office.

But, it was to be hoped, not too peaceful. Polly's worst fear was that the old men in control were secretly planning to invite her husband to stay on until his hair and teeth fell all the way out and his prostate imploded and he became one of them. She suspected Sammy wouldn't have the self-discipline to turn down lifetime employment, especially now the kids were miraculously fluent as natives in the local dialect and could phone in pizza orders for him.

Job security would be far more horrifying than the alternative: all development would stop here. Polly would wind up playing custodian to a premature dodderer, a subtitled Chuck Norris video watcher, who hadn't anything like the gumption to sneak off once in a while and give the girls and their mommy a normalcy break.

She hesitated to admit it to herself, but this was the reason why she hadn't rolled over earlier and raised at least a token objection to being sneaked out on. Protracted absences such as today's were not the best way to consolidate Sammy's position. She might nag him about taking out the trash and changing his underpants, but she wasn't about to remind him that he was expected to punch in a certain number of days each year.

* * * *

On the way out the door to beg grocery funds from the accounting office, Polly paused and observed the people whom her spouse routinely accused, to their faces (though in incomprehensibly rapid Utahnese) of being "General Tojo-style Thought Police." As far as Polly could tell, they were just Neighborhood Association wives in pastel sweat suits, sweeping pine needles and four-inch centipedes into what Sammy called the open sewers.

Strictly speaking, that was yet another misnomer. The sewers were concealed under a latticework of thin concrete slabs, perforated so the miasma could escape safely into everyone's sinuses and not build up a pestilent or inflammable head. (Was this superstition, or just bad science, or perhaps the extenuation of tight-fisted civic planners?)

At any rate, the wives never let Polly help tidy up the street because, in their book, she was the dependent of an honored and very temporary guest. Evidently they hadn't heard that at least one member of this foreign household was hoping to tarry until the dread junior high years rolled around--by which point it would be time to beat the standard retreat to New Zealand or Canada or someplace like that, before Hannah and Naomi could be turned into simpering robots or bullied literally to death in the effort.

Just as she was following her children out onto the stoop, Polly heard a self-consciously brisk step echoing among a contingent of Thought Police a bit further down the way. Was she just imagining it, or did Ichinuki always take a detour past their house on the days when Sammy had slipped out of town? Rather than banter with him in an effort to find out, Polly shushed the already ecstatically adventuring girls ("Mama, look! Another blue-tummy lizard got his head stuck between your spokes!") and ducked back into the house.

After she was sure the unhappy little man had passed, Polly reemerged. She noticed that the members of the Neighborhood Association had stopped chatting. They were all very seriously attending to their sweeping and, with great deliberation, were not looking in the direction of the Edwine house.

"How odd!" they seemed to be thinking in unison. "The big gaijin's wife just came out of her front door, then went back in, only to change her mind and come back out again! In such a boring civilization as ours, that qualifies as downright aberrant behavior! It will surely be the subject of hushed discussion amongst us for weeks to come!"

Polly said "Ohayo" as cordially as possible, and let the women admire the children in their duty-bound way. They marveled for the thousandth time that Hannah and Naomi could speak gaijin so much better than their own pre-schoolers, who were already enrolled in expensive nightly cram courses at the downtown juku.

Eager to get going, Hannah pulled her mama toward the soccer field that had yet to be crossed. Polly heaved the regulation Mildly Put-Out Parent Sigh and allowed herself to be dragged into an overgrowth of hydrangea bushes and blighted banana trees, crowned with pigeon nests for the giant black crows to raid on non-trash days. Among the muddy tendrils underfoot were plenty of lightless nooks for "ghosts and the wicked witch in a purple robe" to hide in, as Hannah kept reminding her unconcerned little sister.

"Daddy saves me," said Naomi.

"We're Americans," said Polly. "We know there are no ghosts. Don't listen to these people."

"Okay," said Hannah. "Then the booger man."

"The booger person," said Polly.

Rather than be corrected, Hannah put on a burst of speed and crashed through the thicket. She ran out into the field and disrupted a soccer match, shrieking, "Look, white stuff on the grass! All in a straight line!"

"Did Fairly Princess write it?" asked Naomi.

The Edwine family minus father vanished into a slow-moving bank of particles freshly belched from one of the uncounted hundreds of thousands of styrofoam incinerators that simmer hot dioxins all across this quadrant of the North Pacific every day and night. Many of them are tucked under classroom windows and near children's recreational facilities; all are perfectly unregulated. Most are tended, or at least ignited, by native men whose masculinity is mollified by the use of fancy cigarette lighters, which they pull from their front trouser pockets.

It was such a sporting nation, Polly wondered why these people weren't more lung-conscious. They even group-chanted to supplement their aerobics. The footballers, among whom she and the girls now dodged and ducked their way, hooted in unison. Even the tennis players on the far side of the parking lot needed the perpetual reassurance of bellowed mob-hypnosis to enjoy their one-on-one game. They sounded like a regiment of Hitler Youth. Did Japanese golfers make so much noise? Chess players?

As the family shopper and bill-payer and phone-answerer, Polly had been forced over the years to learn a lot more of the lingo than her husband, whose ears and tongue, he liked to boast, were still "virginal" in that regard. But even to Polly's broken-in ear the words to the various athletic mantras were mush, like what came out of the mouths of the chorus in a Johnny Weismuller movie.

And then there were the much more elaborately syncopated vocalizations of the barefoot martial artists of some semi-secret and macho sect. Rhythmically speaking, they swung almost as hard as a platoon of African-American marines; but it was a very disciplined platoon. As they jogged by in tight paramilitary formation, pecs flexing, thigh muscles undulating, not a single one of them glanced at her European-sized bosom. (Polly wasn't that much older than they already, was she? Or had she been his wife so long that Sammy's ominous presence clung to her like the long red hairs bristling from every piece of clothing she owned?)

No matter how noisy these youths could be in the daylight, it was nothing compared to the orgy of screaming they'd wrench from their throats after dark in their reinforced-concrete dormitory. They'd supposedly be rehearsing their school song in preparation for a visitation of old and distinguished alumni. But it was just formless retching, convulsive and inarticulate, far less a song than a primitive means of conflict resolution, or at least stress management, among young men forced to live at close quarters, and to serve upperclassmen like slaves in the venerable Confucian tradition. It was nightly throughout the semester, this aberration, and lasted without respite till three in the morning, and took the place of studying or drinking or, certainly, sex.

Polly hoped that Hannah and Naomi's daddy would make it home tonight in time to help reassure them that the big boys had not, with the moonrise, turned into a race of warlocks bent on massacring and cannibalizing each other. When she had to comfort both girls at once, unaided, it was almost impossible to coax them into their peejays, for sleep was naturally the last thing on their little minds while such bloodcurdling howls echoed across the sports field. Ideally, Polly was able to concentrate on soothing Hannah, while Sammy did the same for her little sister--solidarities seemed to have formed naturally along those lines. This was one domestic chore which he did uncannily well, like a hypnotist who needs only to brush a finger along the forearm to induce a state of deep relaxation.

* * * *

Within her husband's place of employment, Polly shushed and hurried the girls down the dank passageways. Through their bright eyes, she saw the shabbiness as if for the first time: the unswept asphalt tile and the unpainted cinder-brick walls, stacked high with mothballed computers whose impossibly cumbersome ideographic programs had never been switched on, much less mastered. Mold sprouted centimeters deep from the monitor screens, and the track balls looked like olive-drab apricots countersunken into the keyboards. But the National Ministry of Education budgets had been duly spent, which was all that mattered.

Out the grease-yellow windows Polly surveyed the grounds. They were landscaped about as well as those of corresponding institutions on the Asian mainland, right down to the uncirculated carp pond and the navel-high thistles, festooned with the sugary litter of prolonged adolescence. This was a national university, and therefore automatically prestigious enough not to worry itself over mere details like building and grounds maintenance or health and fire codes.

What a deathly dreary existence to be on the payroll around here! She could imagine how Sammy must feel, having to work in such a pit. But she doubted the physical plant alone could be the reason why he sometimes felt compelled to escape. His own back yard made this campus look like the Tuileries of Lenotre.

A few mildly stimulating moments in the sixties notwithstanding, there's no such thing as a Japanese university. It's a contradiction in terms. The life of the mind here, such as it is, is lived in the corporations. That's why there's no such thing as Japanese lit-crit or Japanese philosophy or Japanese historiography--no profit in those--just Japanese science: and, more specifically, applied science, for research shows the unpleasant tendency not to bring in dependable returns. Let the dreaming Americans do the theoretical part. This society, its very language, exists with a single end in mind: to further the financial interests of the gerontocrats who run the show.

Ichinuki, not yet a gerontocrat himself, but showing more promise every day, trailed Polly to the accounting office without her noticing. Having lurked in a succession of shadows along the unlit corridors, he now interposed his person between her and her destination. She could tell from reluctantly examining the expression on his small face that he'd guessed why she might want him to get out of the way and let her through that office door. A man lacking an ounce of respect for anybody with a womb, he probably assumed she'd brought the children along as living pleas for pity, to soften the hearts of the clerks who, like their Red Chinese counterparts, wielded the disproportionate power, according to their semi-skilled whims, to deny or bestow professors' emergency food allowances (euphemized travel and research budgets).

Polly decided to make an evasive maneuver toward the ladies' room, but he had different ideas. Right in front of a group of loitering students, Ichinuki blocked her way with his body, and forced her right back to the accounting office door. He leered sidelong at the uncomprehending and basically nice boys, and cleared his throat with a squeaky sound that reminded her of a chipmunk

With exquisite bushido indirectness, he proceeded to make it clear--Hannah and Naomi tugging at her legs all the while--that he, as a descendant of a samurai clan, had just been promoted to Full Professor, one of the youngest on the whole island. Furthermore, as the only native on the English faculty able to put together a sentence in this terribly difficult language, he'd been appointed, by default as it were, the official gaijin handler. He was the de facto controller of the Edwine family destiny, and had it in his power to ensure the yearly renewal of Sammy's ability to feed, clothe, shelter and educate "these two lovely little princesses."

"Your daughters are growing up bilingual in the dialect of this prefecture, and they fit so well into the prepubescent community," he murmured, while trying literally to back their mother into a corner. "Shall they be allowed to gently make that life-informing transition from baby to childhood, from kindergarten to elementary school, without everything being disrupted? I love the shape of small children's hands, don't you? They are designed for grasping toys and delicious treats. They make such sturdy little fists, as if to possess the very moment of immaturity itself, before it goes away forever and leaves them to wither and harden into yet more specimens of scowling, grumbling adulthood. When knuckle-knobs pop out of the dimples of baby fat in the backs of their hands, you know it is too late, the fatal corner has been turned. That's about the time--at least in our children, I don't know about gaijin children--when they start smelling not altogether pleasant, and you must let them go out on dates with the opposite, um, sex."

More squinty leers aimed at the unresponsive boys, who looked about ready to disperse.

Ichinuki's skull, especially the lower mandible, was underdeveloped, like a soft little boy's who hadn't been born with enough vigor to chew his food adequately, and was never persuaded to do so by neglectful parents. His face moaned of calcium deprivation. Polly supposed he was old enough to remember widespread malnutrition in these parts. Despite his relatively plush circumstances at the moment, this man had heard his belly growl. His sexuality had obviously suffered a parallel stunting. Unfortunately, there were no pressure groups in Japan to discourage him from trying to thumb through this exotic foreigner like a crusty bathroom copy of the National Geographic.

"A cozy nest you're building on the other side of the soccer field," he continued. "A little car, a small TV, a pretty good simulacrum of the United States, if a tad cramped. It's something like a scale model, differing mainly in that your neighbors are darker and quieter, and don't know how to carry on a conversation properly. Even with me they can't, speaking that atrocious dialect of theirs. But there's a definite advantage to this: they are much easier to ignore than their enormous, well-armed American counterparts. These divergences from the American Dream seem, to me, to be improvements. Your girls enjoy a secure, stable childhood, unlike anything your own country has been able to offer for about two generations. Yes, they are blissfully unaware, the dear princesses, that it's all balanced just as precariously as one of those sandstone pinnacles in their otoo-chan's native desert. With a timely push by just the right eco-vandal, the whole construct topples and crumbles forever into unbeautiful, random sediment, and you wind up with nothing but an expanse of sand, just like in Saudi Arabia, that other gritty refuge for unemployable English-speaking academics: your girls melanomizing behind the walls of an infidel ghetto at a university named after a Bedouin prince even portlier and more phlegmatic than their papa; their mama growing prematurely old on the fumes from the oil fields that simmer next door in Iraq, her lush brunette locks greying, her ample eyes yellowing and streaking with scarlet; her husband forced, in the faculty lounge each day, to overhear enthusiastic but critical discussions of that week's adulteress stoning in the public square. It's surprising how even a cynical personality like Dr. Edwine's can be eroded from repeated exposure to that Islamic sort of thing.

And yet, by contrast, you are all so comfy here, and safe, never locking your doors. Campus security is only a half-blind old man. It couldn't be more unlike your own country, especially the Hispanic hell holes where you'd be forced to live with an unemployed husband. He's a capable enough man, I suppose, but stateside demographics have conspired to slash Dr. Edwine's professional, um, throat, don't you think? Incidentally, I hear there's no shortage of child molesters in such neighborhoods."

Ichinuki paused to reach out and caress Hannah's hair. Polly wasn't sure why, but she fought the urge to slap his hand away.

"I bet you'd like to stay, eh?" he breathed up into her face. "Your husband's poor predecessor felt the same way. But, being a--let's speak frankly, shall we?--somewhat less than attractive bachelor, he had a more flexible lifestyle. The only touch of stabilizing femininity in his whole unhappy existence was his oneisan, who crossed the Pacific on his behalf only twice: the first time to visit (I had the privilege of meeting her and sharing a few moments) and the second time to collect his body, along with the few valuables he left behind on this earth, and to vacate the premises (in a somewhat perfunctory manner, as I'm sure you've noticed by now). I never was allowed to get to know his sister as, um, shall we say, intimately as I'd have liked. But regretting in hindsight is a counterproductive activity, as our former Prime Minister Takeshita once said when asked how he felt about the hara-kiri of his personal secretary. I say we concentrate on the here and now, don't you agree?"

Apparently deciding that she'd been softened up enough by his dashing eloquence, Ichinuki chose this moment to indulge in a little unprompted confessing, a confidence. Whispering, he revealed his scam of giving automatic incompletes to the coeds who made up about one percent of the student population at this technological institute. He liked to keep them "at his feet" throughout their four-year sojourn on campus.

"I actually do that, I really do that," he insisted hoarsely, leaving Polly to marvel, for the hundredth time, that Japan had no laws against this sort of thing. But she supposed that, even if MacArthur had been prescient enough to force some onto the books, they'd be useless, as Japan is the First World's most Confucian, therefore least litigious society.

Even while undergoing harassment, Polly realized that all this sickness fell well within the range of normality for Japanese males. After all, they really aren't brought up to know any better, and never get much of a chance to enjoy themselves, with their arranged marriages and eighty-hour work weeks. Such a regimented existence lends itself to arrested adolescence, especially when no challenge is posed by the women, who are browbeaten from late elementary school into thinking of themselves as nothing more than accessories to maleness. Masculinity is the norm, femininity a variation thereof. The whole culture is a story of overcompensation for boy-sized psychic penises, the ladies recruited to pitch in selflessly.

As a matter of fact (and incredible as it would have seemed to Polly's pre-Japan self), Ichinuki was a sterling example of his type. At least he didn't have to get numb-drunk to express his desolation. At least he was not so cowardly as to avoid her altogether except at the yearly bonenkai, then to cop a quick feel at the wet bar or buffet table, followed up by a good puke on her party shoes. No, sober, he was up to cornering her openly, in front of students, yet.

Polly not so much told herself this as intuited it. And she was able to gaze down into Ichinuki's eyes with genuine understanding and concern, as she kneed him in the groin.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR



Tom Bradley is the author of five novels, Acting Alone, The Curved Jewels, Killing Bryce, Hustling the East and Black Class Cur. Various of his novels have been nominated for The Editor's Book Award and The New York University Bobst Prize, and one of them was a finalist in The AWP Award Series in the Novel. His short stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. One or two have been translated and published in Japanese (or so he's been told). His screenplay, Kara-Kun, based on his novel of the same name, was a finalist in the Write Movies International Screenwriting Competition. By invitation, Tom has contributed to Inking Through the Soul, an anthology of authors' reflections on their craft, published by Tarcher/ Putnam in January 2001. Tom's short stories and essays have appeared in such publications as Big Bride, Ralph, Salon.com, Exquisite Corpse, LitKit Journal, Jack Magazine, Milk Magazine, Tower of Babel, Oyster Boy Review, Spoken War, Unlikely Stories, Blue Moon, Heresiarch, Eyeshot, The Melic Review, Two Girls Review, McSweeney’s and 3 a.m. Magazine (“Calliope’s Boy”). Excerpts and reviews of Tom's books, links to his online work, plus a couple of hours of recorded readings, are posted on his website.






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