Sabishii stands alone in a gloom-choked nook of the heaving tachinomiya, silently awaiting the old man’s return.
Just as he did last night. And the night before. And too many nights to count.
The tachinomiya is deep in the bowels of Akabane, a small basement standing-bar bisecting the crooked yokocho that leads from his factory to the train station. Bespangled with bilious red lanterns and fluttering cloth drapes, it whispers to the workers as they begin their commute home, beckoning them into the warmth, away from the sweeping winter winds that hound the streets of outer Tokyo. If Sabishii listens closely, above the din, he can almost hear the thundering JR Saikyo Line, and the train that should have charioted him home. Then the second, then the third.
I’ll get the next, he resolves, with little conviction.
He thinks of his crumbling apartment in Saitama, and his wife who haunts it, sinking further into despondency with each passing day. He imagines her reaction if she could see him now, feigning overtime, but he cannot leave.
It isn’t the sake that summons him here anymore, he assures himself, it is a rabid curiosity.
Maybe tonight he will return.
At around 6pm every evening, the place is bursting with garrulous workers, easing the aches of the day with sake and merriment, and the air is thick with musk and mould and kusaya. It hums with the mindless chatter of strangers trading their woes and joys. Sabishii had been part of that chatter, once. Now, though, there is only the chase. This infernal game of cat-and-mouse in which he is eternally bested.
He struggles to recall how long ago he first noticed the old man, but the moment itself is firmly etched in his mind.
He had stood at a counter in the far corner, the very same that Sabishii stands at now, framed by the dim red glow. He was a diminutive figure: gnarled and bent like a larch bonsai, shivering with the effort of existence, too old to be so far from a chair. Sallow, sagging cheeks and diaphanous skin, as if he was only a silhouette cut from rice paper. White whiskers like flecks of seafoam. Small, withered hands, never without a drink; he would clasp his cup so tightly that he seemed to cling to it, as though it was the only thing holding him up.
Once Sabishii and his friends had descended the steps into the crowd, he was lost from sight, but the image haunted him. It had been the same the following evening, and each that succeeded, and Sabishii became filled with a macabre fascination, an expressway accident he couldn’t help eyeing.
What could this old man have done to deserve such desolate twilight years?
One day, ravenous with curiosity, Sabishii had pressed his way through the throng, yet when he reached that furthest counter, the old man had vanished. Undeterred, he beckoned the server for a drink with which to await the inveterate patron’s return. But after three cups and the last of his friends’ patience, he did not reappear.
The next night was the same. And the one after.
On, and on.
His friends showed little interest in the old man. Often when they were ready to leave, Sabishii urged them to go on without him, determined that this would be the triumphant night. There was no dissuading him, so they left as he ordered another sake. He would see them raise their eyebrows at one another as they piled out the door. And then he was alone.
He has lost count of how many nights have been swallowed by this:
Waiting and drinking.
Drinking and waiting.
Sabishii stares at the coins glinting in the ashtray before him. There’s more than should be there, he knows, as their apartment falls into greater ruin every day. Maybe I won’t spend it all tonight, he supposes. In vain.
Once the coins are in the ashtray, they are as good as gone.
He drains his fifth cup and glances around the emptying tachinomiya for his friends, before remembering that they dispersed hours ago. Or was that yesterday? The distant howl of the trains is the only indication of time’s passage. They barely accompany him these days, anyway. They think he has an obsession, that he’s addicted.
But Sabishii knows that one of these evenings, the old man will return.
They will share a drink and Sabishii will gaze into those lugubrious eyes, and he will finally uncover the cause of that miserable, lonesome life.
Sabishii stands and drinks alone, privately toasting the anniversary of a marriage that crumbled years ago, like their old apartment in Saitama.
He doesn’t notice that the hands that clasp the cup are wrinkled and withered.
He doesn’t notice that his back is gnarled and bent.
He doesn’t notice that, long ago, he stopped seeking the old man.
There is no longer a job to commute from. And the coins winking in the ashtray before him are his last.
He talks to no one, and he no longer remembers the reason why he came.
And yet, finally, he has his answer.
Joel O’Flaherty is a young writer from Surrey, U.K. He is a fledgling in the literary world, however his micro fiction has been published in Globe Soup. He spends as much of his life as is financially responsible travelling the globe.