Waiting in the Offing

"Itoyama's sharp eye and sly wit set her apart from other Japanese women writers. Her writing style is intellectually controlled, and often glows with wisdom."--Kenzaburo Oe

"My hiccups won't stop."

Makihara Futoshi was standing in his stocking feet just inside the door with a woebegone look on his face. When I stop to think about it, that somewhat troubled expression quite suited him.

It hadn't been my intention to go to Gotanda. After all, I live in Saitama City and normally have no business there. The previous evening a friend of mine in Meguro had hosted a farewell party for me. In the morning, I went with her as far as the station, where she caught the subway for work. Standing on the Yamanote Line platform, I remembered that Gotanda was just one stop away. It occurred to me that as I was to be transferred to Hamamatsu at the beginning of the month, I wouldn't have another chance. And I wanted very much to have a last look at Futotchan's room. So instead of transferring to the Saikyo Line at Ebisu, I turned around and got on the train headed toward Shinagawa and Tokyo.

From the station, I walked for a few minutes along the highway, the cars whooshing past much faster than I would have thought possible in the city. Turning into the alley beyond the convenience store, I saw Lumière Gotanda. As I thought to myself that a new tenant might have already moved in, I looked up at the apartment building, in a side street facing east, and saw that there were no curtains hanging in Futotchan's second-story room. Yet despite the cold, the window was open. At 7:30 AM, this was no time for anyone from the real-estate or cleaning agencies to be there. But now I thought I saw puffs of cigarette smoke. Without thinking, I ran up the stairs and knocked softly on the door, which readily opened. The room was quite bare: no table, no bed.

"Futotchan . . . " I pronounced the name slowly, as though calling to a child. "What are you doing here?"

"I-I don't know."

I wasn't the least bit frightened.

"You were the one smoking just now?"

"Uh, uh, yes. I f-found it . . . out in front . . . and smoked it, but it h-hasn't any taste . . . "

"Are you hungry?"

"N-no, I'm fine."

It was exactly as if it had been a snippet of conversation, as we sat side by side at our desks in the Fukuoka office, working overtime. The feeling was truly indescribable: After all, Futotchan had been dead for three months.

***

I don't know anyone who illustrates as well as Futotchan the notion that a name describes the bodily appearance of its bearer. A supposedly gentle boy named Yu is typically scary; supposedly friendly Kazuto is quarrelsome. Futotchan's parents, on the other hand, seem to have had a clear insight into their son's future appearance.

Early on in his career, he would have been generally thought to be merely on the pudgy side. I vaguely remember the silhouette of "Makihara-kun" after the entrance ceremony, as he spoke to me: "Oikawa-san of the Fukuoka branch?"

I was from Yamanashi; he was from Ibaraki. We had both attended universities in Tokyo; and then gone to work for a household equipment and appliance maker. I knew that there were branch offices all over Japan but never imagined I'd be assigned to Kyushu. There were a few other women in management who had started at the same time, but they were either being kept in the capital or sent to Osaka. During the three weeks of orientation and practical training, I was feeling rather low. At night I would go out on drinking rampages. I suppose I was afraid of the unknown fate that lay in store for me in a place I knew nothing about. In any event, Fukuoka was the headquarters of our corporate rival. Moreover, I had convinced myself that I would be bullied by chauvinistic males in androcratic Kyushu.

Yet when I finally arrived there, I found the streets quite different from what I imagined: they were cheerful and tidy. The streamlined thoroughfare of Taihaku Boulevard, which ran in front of our building, was of a grandeur I had not seen in Tokyo. My house was on another avenue, the Kokutai-doro, its rows of zelkova trees lending it an air of elegance.

On the first day of work, we went to report to the management section and then toured the warehouse, where we saw an array of catalogs and samples. We then calculated our travel expenses from Tokyo to Fukuoka and, having been told by the office manager to purchase a business satchel and a local road map, took a roundtrip subway journey to Tenjin.

"Oikawa, what do you think of it all?"

Futotchan posed the question in the subway as we were returning.

"Huh?"

"Of the streets. It's somehow quite different from what I expected."

"I imagined something a bit more stark."

"For me it's a bit of a letdown."

"Ishikawa is a Kyushu University graduate, and he says Fukuoka's a fine place. Perhaps he's right."

"What are we going to do now that we've gone on and on about how much we hate Kyushu? We won't be able to face the others in our training program."

"It would be pretty stupid if we suddenly started raving about it."

Even after six o'clock, everyone else was working overtime. Having nothing to do, we really wanted a smoke but abstained, not wishing to appear impertinent. Since we didn't have desks yet, we sat at the briefing table and looked at the thick management catalogs. The product numbers for the toilets, the modular baths, and the faucet fittings seemed much too long to learn-and we couldn't tell one item from another anyway.

Someone named Soejima, who had joined the company a year before us, came over and said: "You two can leave now." It didn't seem right to go when everyone else was working.

"Are you going straight home?" I asked Futotchan in the elevator.

"I saw a restaurant in Tenjin that looked interesting."

"What sort of restaurant?"

"It looked like a place with a bit of everything. Fish too . . . "

Conscious of our mixed feelings, torn between apprehension about being in a strange city and pride in having successfully made it through the day, we clinked glasses. By the second round of beers, we had become ourselves and were talking about our leased one-room apartments and plans for going home over the Golden Week holidays.

For the first six months, I followed Soejima-san around to franchise dealers and architectural design firms, as well as to clients with complaints, while Futotchan did the same, except with a mentor named Yamazaki. When not dealing with installation procedures for modular baths, the need (if any) for reinforcing crossbeams when putting in ceiling panels, or windows and/or picture frames interfering with integrated kitchen systems, we were coping with broken gas water heaters and cracked bathtubs. At night, when they had time, the old-timers would offer study sessions that covered knowledge of sales products, blueprint-reading, and product installation plans. Unlike the orientation in Tokyo, they emphasized what to look out for in order to avoid trouble. At the time, however, I did not really get what they meant by that.

Futotchan had been driving since his student days and so was easily able to secure a company car. I had obtained a license but had never driven since. Soejima-san later gave me an earful about how terrified he was sitting next to me at the wheel. Once I got the hang of it, I went for the first time on my own to deliver catalogs to a design office, got lost, and wound up in Nakasu, surrounded by Mercedes sedans.1 That was an unforgettably scary experience!

Everything we had been told about how good the food is in Fukuoka turned out to be true. I never had a home-cooked meal while I was there, so I can't say what that's like, but there were many fine restaurants that we all enjoyed together. And not just seafood. There were mizutaki pot stews, entrail soup, pork belly served in yakitori joints and Chinese-style dumplings much smaller and crispier than anything one gets in Tokyo.

Young as we were, we would spend our days off at the beach swimming and barbecuing, or on fishing trips. At work, lunch most typically consisted, as I remember, of ramen or pickled vegetable fried rice. Futotchan always got an extra helping. He was ballooning before my very eyes, to the point that he now weighed twice as much as I did. Someone, perhaps Yamazaki-san, began calling him Futotchan instead of Makihara, and the name quickly spread from within the company to our clients.

Telephone calls started to come in, even from new owners, speaking in dialect: "Is Futotchan there?"

"I used to be thin," he would say. "When I was a student, I worked part-time as a trim, black-suited, hostess bar barker." The girls who worked in the office and the showroom would laughingly express their disbelief. I too wondered how a Hotei-sama2 like Futotchan could ever have had such a job. Yet it was this same Futotchan whom Iguchi Tamae chose to be hers.

She was a veteran equipment products manager. When both the section chief and maintenance personnel were stumped, they called in Iguchi-san rather than the factory experts. She had a thorough knowledge of older items and claim logs, so that she could provide an answer without the slightest hesitation. I couldn't help being intimidated by her efficiency.

Right up to their engagement, she and Futotchan kept their relationship an airtight secret. Being quite unable to imagine how they talked to each other when they were alone, I was flabbergasted by the announcement. We all thought that she was utterly wasted on him. There were so many other, better men-Tashiro or Soejima . . . Why Futotchan, of all people?

"I just knew he was the one," she remarked to me.

"When did you know? What did you see in him?"

Iguchi-san normally kept her eyes wide open, but now she narrowed them with a hint of smile and said: "From the beginning. When he first joined the company."

"Iguchi-san," I blurted out, carried away by emotion, "Please stick with him! Don't dump the poor guy!"

"Your concern is appreciated, but kindly mind your own business!" she snapped back. Such was, as I say, the Iguchi-san I couldn't help being afraid of.

I got along with everyone at the company, but there were two places where I felt out of place: the locker room and the office kitchenette. The other women were friendly enough to me, but I nonetheless felt like an outsider.

"So the chief sed thot, did 'e nuw?" I'd hear someone asking excitedly, as I came in. But then, still smiling, they would say to me: "Well, another day's work well done!" This was followed up by: "Are you getting used to Fukuoka?"-all in impeccable standard speech.

Even someone with as long a tenure as Iguchi-san invariably spoke to me formally-right up to the day she left. Having been reared in Yamanashi, I could hardly affect to speak Hakata dialect as the others did. On my own turf, back at my desk, I surely had occasion to use some less-than-pristine language of my own, but in the locker room and the office kitchenette I nonetheless felt like a passing ship in the night.

After his marriage to Iguchi-san, Futotchan spoke of her as "Tamae-san"; it seemed much more natural to do that than to refer to her grandly as "my wife."

There are men who become more dependable once they are married, but Futotchan was not that sort. Iguchi-san, on the other hand, seemed to become a kinder person. Or perhaps it was merely that I had accustomed myself to her. At first, I had mistakenly thought of her as hot-tempered, for she had no compunction about getting into fierce discussions-even with the franchise owners. But even though she would flare up at patent absurdities, she was never one to insist upon having her own way. Once I understood that, I had no difficulty in joking lightheartedly with her.

Futotchan grew all the more into his name. In some matters, he struck me as strangely resolute, but when timing was essential, he could also vacillate, so that the company lost an annual contract with a housing corporation to a rival. At the same time, he could be a worrywart about trivialities.

Nevertheless, he had many admirers among the franchise owners, and his sales figures were consistent. He was really good at giving the dealers a sob-story and thus persuading them to transfer to their own warehouses the water heaters and faucet fittings we had in ours. Futotchan's selling point was neither affability nor agility but rather his capacity to perspire on command. Both clients and site managers tend to have soft spots for a sweaty sales representative. However inwardly angry they may be feeling about a malfunctioning product, they will give in at the sight of a man mopping his brow even in winter, as he bows and scrapes.

"What you should appreciate is my sincerity and devotion," he said rather huffily when Soejima-san and I pointed this out to him, "not my physiological peculiarities."

When in due course Iguchi-san found herself pregnant and decided to give up her job, everyone was of the opinion that it was Futotchan who should quit and devote himself to full-time child-rearing. "With that belly of his," Soejima-san went so far as to say, "he'd have no problem bearing the baby himself!"

We were truly sorry to see Iguchi-san leave, but she herself seemed quite content. Still, when a section chief who had been transferred or an old-timer who had resigned came for a visit to Fukuoka, she would show up, already heavy with child. We never forgot her, and whenever a new wave of useless freshman employees rolled in, we thought of how Iguchi-san would have been able to whip them into shape.

Again in due course, the baby arrived-a daughter, whom they named Ruka.

"She looks like me," Futotchan proudly announced, "so she's bound to be a beauty." He appeared to be quite serious. We all hoped that the girl would look like her mother. I was somewhat relieved to note that in this case there was nothing to suggest the proverbial correspondence between name and appearance.3

As I learned to feel at ease in Fukuoka, I gradually found it difficult to converse about common topics of interest with my old school friends. I would listen to them on the telephone but found myself dwelling on their ignorance of anything beyond Tokyo or of where I was working. What was it that we had once felt in common? I gave the question some thought but could not clearly remember. Mine might have been a small and narrow world, but in the end it was only with my colleagues that I could talk freely and openly.

I never had a single quarrel with Futotchan. We had completely different approaches to work but got on perfectly nonetheless. I could be rather harsh with him, but I have no idea whether anything I said affected him. He truly marched to the beat of his own drummer.

I am the sort of person who works according to intuition. I don't know why, but there have been times when, even with a monthly sales quota of between seventy and eighty million yen, I sometimes sensed that a relatively minor project of, let us say, five hundred thousand to a million yen, was going to cause trouble. And my instincts were usually right. Though I was on the lookout for ordering errors, kept an eye on delivery deadlines, and took the trouble to visit the design office and worksite, I would start to get complaints about the delivery of the wrong items resulting from logistical errors. The clients would complain that the color of a product was different from that in the catalog.

Futotchan, on the other hand, had no nose for such trouble-spots. "Watch out for this one," I'd say to him, but he would reply with no more than: "Hmm, is that right?" I'd be on pins and needles until, just as I expected, we heard about out-of-stock items or design errors.

Of course, we sometimes made mistakes too. But in the planning stages that's to be expected. There is no project on earth in which all the right angles and perpendicular lines come out according to blueprint.

I can live with one-time complaints, but I loathe repeated problems on the same project. When a custom-ordered counter failed twice to match the pillar type, I sat at my desk and heaved a sigh. Seeing this, Soejima-san remarked: "Look, Oikawa, don't forget that eventually all jobsites settle down." If he hadn't said that, I might have had many an occasion even thereafter to think about simply running away.

Futotchan's moment of greatest perplexity came not with a major property or VIP mansion but rather over toilet and water-tank sets ordered for a renovated multi-tenant building in Tenjin: a corner-installed, low-flush tank, BBT-14802C, and a Japanese-style unit, 4AC-9. With growing demand at the end of the fiscal year, a measly toilet could not be delivered. I knew this because I was sitting across from Futotchan, as he repeatedly conducted telephone negotiations. When the sought-after item was actually obtained and sent to the site, it proved to be damaged. When the date of delivery for the replacement could not be nailed down, Futotchan came in while I was working overtime.

"Oikawa, this is terrible!" he moaned. "Let me tell you about it."

I thought that we could temporarily get by with a unit we had in stock, though it was the wrong color. But although that might have worked for Western-style toilets and urinals, it wouldn't for Japanese-style toilets, as they are built into the floor. Then, when we had not a single day left, the order came through. Futotchan, who had arranged for it to be flown in, went to Fukuoka Airport for the pickup. When he got to the site, another car was parked in front, so he wound up having to go to the underground parking area in Tenjin and made his way through the city's busiest shopping area with a squat Japanese-style toilet dangling from his shoulder.

"I certainly got a lot of attention," he remarked at an open-air stand, as he picked away at a pot of oden. The next day he got word that the pipe connecting the toilet and the tank was leaking and that there was condensation on the tank. Futotchan went to the site and got quite an earful. But the pièce de résistance came two weeks later, when an elderly squatter slipped on the edge of the toilet step down onto what we call the FL, or floorline. This had, of course, nothing to do with the product, but that was where our indignant client wanted to place the blame. Futotchan apparently paid a call on the accident victim, taking along the customary box of sweets.

During the years of the bubble economy, when new buildings were going up right and left, we were swamped with orders, and it was all we could do to deal with the complaints that accompanied them. The greater our sales volume, the more numerous the discrepancies between invoice and collection figures. Making on-site estimates was time-consuming, but we could not complain about that. The hardest and most discouraging part of our work was dealing with those financial errors.

At three or four in the morning, having at last hailed a taxi, I would pass the street-stand food vendors on their way home and wonder with resentment how they were able to wait until the evening to ply their trade, while I had to put in twenty hours a day.

Just at the time computers were first being introduced into the office, I had come up with a modular kitchen plan, using CAD, when the new operating system erased my many hours of work and then went into repeated system-failure mode. I was re-inputting the vital design data I needed first thing in the morning, when I saw Futotchan loitering about, even though his own work was done.

"If you have nothing left to do, you should go home."

"You don't want me around?"

"It's not that. But there's nothing terribly exciting going on here."

"And nothing particularly bad either."

He had some cans of beer in a sack stashed in the office refrigerator. When my work was finished, we popped them open in one of the meeting rooms and enjoyed a drink together. We were hungry, but even the pubs were closed by that time. We didn't talk about work. I told him about how there had once been an outbreak of weevils in my rice chest. Futotchan told me that leaving red pepper in the kitchen cupboards was a good remedy. Having been his grandmother's pet, he had learned about such things. He also said that he'd received permission to use his upcoming bonus to buy the two-person sea kayak he'd had his heart set on for some time.

"Can you load that sort of thing on your car?"

"No problem. I did the measurements."

Our conversation was no deeper than that.

Soejima-san was transferred to the Saitama branch at about the same time the bubble burst. When it did, the nature of our work dramatically changed. Residential constructions fell sharply. No longer able to rely on the franchise dealers, we found ourselves cultivating contractors as well as renovation and expansion firms and learning to make our living from the orders we received from them.

Having been too busy with the business that came our way to worry about competitors, we were now grappling with them for ever smaller pieces of a shrinking pie. During the bubble years, we had wistfully looked forward to the leisure that we imagined would come with an economic slowdown. But in reality, the number of our visits to would-be clients was all the more closely monitored, and there was also no adjustment in the quotas we had to meet.

At meetings we began to hear "sales commitment" and other such unpleasant terms bandied about. As we had had almost no experience in winning new accounts, our initial efforts were dreadful, but it was then, it seems to me, that we got a real lesson in what it is to run a business.

With the franchises, one could expect a certain degree of understanding regarding unexpected exigencies and emergencies, but with prospective new clients, the first chance was also the last chance. Futotchan was to have just such a meeting in Imari, more than forty miles from Fukuoka, when he found himself with influenza and a fever of nearly 104°F. I wound up driving him there. He had gone for some intravenous treatment at a clinic behind the company, and this had given him such a temporary "high" that he claimed he was feeling chipper and that I shouldn't be making such a fuss about him. But I told him that as I had already canceled an appointment to look after him, I wasn't about to let up.

Futotchan settled into the passenger's seat and, as was his wont, cracked a joke:

"Ah, you're infatuated with me!"

"Infatuated? Who's infatuated, numbskull!"

As we passed Imajuku, Futotchan had already put on several layers of the jumpers that he had packed in the car for project work. He now began to shiver, even as he apologized.

"Sorry to have put you through all of this."

"Now don't you get worked up over me!" I replied.

Futotchan seemed to be smiling weakly out of the corner of his mouth.

"You'd better look sharp when you get there," I told him. "Now get some sleep."

When it came to work, I'd do anything for him. I thought of it as simply a natural consequence of our being fellow inductees.

A year after Soejima-san's transfer to Saitama, I was transferred there as well. When I called him on his extension, I heard him giggling: "I'm going to hand over all the crabby accounts to you!"

I was sad about leaving Fukuoka. Before going there, I had braced myself for a "traditionally chauvinist society" but come to see that the customers valued guts, so that one could be a woman and an outsider and still gain respect. I had an inadequate understanding of architecture, could not even grasp the difference between the technical jargon and Fukuoka dialect, and would thus be raked over the coals at times by various clients. Yet when I look back on it all, most of them were patient and worked to build relationships with me. Clients on the jobsites provided more of my education than my colleagues at the company. After all, they were more in touch with reality.

That having been said, I was nonetheless excited about my transfer. On my last day, Futotchan was sullen and peevish. He and Iguchi-san saw me off at the airport.

"I'm the only one who doesn't get transferred," he said.

"Personnel has forgotten all about you," Iguchi-san replied laughingly.

"Well, as far as I'm concerned, I'm just as well staying in Fukuoka. It's the best place to be."

"One's first assignment is probably special. The only way to find out what Saitama's like is to go there."

"Oikawa-san, you'll always be welcome back home. Come and stay with us."

"Back home," Iguchi-san had said. Those words struck a deep and happy chord. And still I was sad at not having loved Fukuoka nearly enough. If Futotchan hadn't been there, I might have shed a few maudlin tears.

"I wouldn't mind being transferred to Sapporo," Futotchan added. "They say the food's good."

And so I bade farewell to them. As I boarded the airplane, I had the heavy-hearted feeling of taking a step that would never be retraced.

I did not see Futotchan for several years, and when I did it was not in Sapporo but rather in Tokyo. Personnel seemed to have remembered him after all and had him transferred there-but alone. Iguchi-san's mother had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and because of her condition Iguchi-san had gone to look after her, taking Ruka-chan with her.

Futotchan had been in Tokyo for a couple of months when we met for a drink near the office.

"Sorry to have been out of touch for so long," he said the moment he saw me. My goodness, he was more gigantic than ever. Before I could say anything, he smiled wryly:

"The food in Fukuoka was good, but it suits me here too."

He lost no time in leading me to a restaurant he had scouted out, specializing in deep-fried delicacies on bamboo skewers, where we ate splendidly before going to an underground bar in the neighborhood.

"How's Tokyo?" I asked.

"Being here without a company car sucks. I can't very well walk around carrying tools and implements. And I can't take an after-lunch nap."

"In Saitama, we have each our own car, but the smoking area is quite small."

"You know, when you go to your first assignment, you don't know left from right, so you relate comfortably to everyone, even female co-workers, for example . . . But then you get to my age and find yourself in Tokyo, where everyone is on guard. And it's not just the women. It's the salesmen too . . . "

"And it's so humiliating to be wandering about, hopelessly lost in front of the kids who have just joined the company."

"Yes, yes! Tokyo may still be Tokyo, but the places we go are completely different from those we knew as students. It gives me a terribly helpless feeling."

"You'll get used to it, Futotchan."

"Which reminds me . . . Nobody calls me that here . . . "

"That's sad!"

"You're lucky to have Soejima-san and Natsume-san there in Saitama."

"The office is so large that I don't bump into them too often. We don't go out the way we used to."

"I suppose we've grown older too . . . "

"Futotchan, what happened to your sea kayak?"

"Can't use it in Tokyo Bay. It's back in Fukuoka."

Up until then, it was a typical sort of pub conversation between two people in their thirties.

When Futotchan returned from the restroom, I put my 100-yen lighter in my pack of cigarettes as a way of saying "shall we be going?" But Futotchan took another cigarette from his own pack and ordered a Lemon Heart from the waiter. There was still time before the last train, so I ordered the same.

"Do you have any secrets?" Futotchan asked me in a low voice.

"Secrets?"

"Something you can't tell even your family or your boyfriend . . . "

It occurred to me that perhaps this had been his motive in asking me to meet him. But there was no harm in his posing such a question and if it made him feel better, I would listen.

"I can't say that I don't. You mean something that would be embarrassing?"

"So you have something like that too?" Futotchan looked pleased.

"Sexy underwear? That sort of thing?"

"So that's what you'd like to show off?"

"Not to you!"

Futotchan was not being his usual self. He said even more quietly:

"What worries me the most is my HD."

"HD?"

"Hard drive."

"Oh, that? I feel the same way."

"You see? What would happen if we died?"

"Oh, right. People would wind up finding out."

We were playing cards, without revealing our hands, as though our conversation were a game of Old Bachelor.

"Let's make a pact!" exclaimed Futotchan expectantly. "Whichever of us outlives the other has to destroy the HD of the other's PC."

"Can you wreck a PC if you want to? You mean, with a hammer?"

"Oh, no. You don't get it. The HD is the disk that's inside the package that looks like a lunchbox-inside the PC."

"Can't you simply trash the data?"

"No, it's all still there. The authorities can retrieve it, no problem."

The authorities.

"You mean, if someone who doesn't know what's there looks for it, it can be retrieved?"

"Even with the software that businesses use, it's doubtful whether it's possible to erase everything. That's why the physical approach is the best."

"How do you get rid of it then?"

"As I was saying, you pull out the disk inside the lunchbox. If you damage it even slightly, the computer itself won't start up."

"And then everything's erased?"

"You know, what interests me is the fact that inside that lunchbox is something close to a vacuum."

"A vacuum? Do they even exist?"

"That's why I say something close to one. It's not perfect. But, of course, when that hermetically sealed package is opened, air rushes in. I don't know what sort of whooshing or popping sound it makes, but wouldn't that be neat?"

"The sound of a vacuum being filled?" I asked. I wasn't really sure what he was talking about.

"You say it's hermetically sealed," I continued. "So how do you get it open?"

"With a star driver."

He was as much as saying "Let's do it!"

"What's that?"

"It's not a standard screwdriver or Phillips screwdriver. The head is shaped like a star."

"I've never seen one."

"Hey, are you with me on this? What do you say?"

"I suppose. But I hate to think of letting myself be exposed to you."

"That's the whole point of the agreement. Tamae-san or anyone else is bound to check into what I have on my hard drive. I know that. I don't know whether you have a boyfriend or not, but he or someone like that would want to do the same to you. After all, they'd want to know everything. But if you promised not to look, I have the feeling you wouldn't."

"That's for sure. I don't want to see your collection of sick porno or whatever it is you have."

"Just anime. Leave me alone."

"Aha!"

"But again, isn't that where our pact comes in? We agree to destroy the hard drive without looking at the contents."

"I understand. I'll give you my key. If I die, you may come into my apartment and demolish my PC."

I said that partly because I didn't have a boyfriend at the time. But in any case I thought that I wouldn't mind having Futotchan breaking in.

"All right then. It's a deal. I'll buy a set of star drivers and send them to you."

The following week a package really did arrive by interoffice mail. When I opened it in my company car, I found more slender instruments than I had anticipated. In a plastic case was a set of seven drivers, varying in the diameter of the head, along with a pair of thin rubber surgical gloves. I knew that the situation we were envisioning would entail trespassing, but I was nonetheless impressed by Futotchan's meticulousness. I then remembered that when we were still in Fukuoka, he had so many tools and parts carefully stored in his car, including a caulking gun, that the department head exclaimed: "What are you, a handyman?" An image floated into my mind: There he was, having doffed only his suit coat, his huge body dripping in sweat, as he adjusted a kitchen-door hinge or caulked a bathroom sink counter, mumbling clumsy excuses as he worked.

Yet Futotchan had purchased these gloves neither for work nor for surgery: when it came down to it, his purpose bordered on the criminal. In a company envelope was the key to Futotchan's bachelor pad. There was no letter or memo enclosed, only a copy of a Zenrin residential map, with "Lumière Gotanda" circled and "#202" written in felt-tip pen. He was following our guidelines, for we had agreed that important details should be conveyed in writing, potentially hazardous matters by oral communication only.

I picked up the star drivers and stared carefully at them. Except for the shape of the head, they looked no different from any other kind of screwdriver set. And yet with this single, ordinary instrument, my records would vanish.

I imagined Futotchan slipping into my apartment without anyone's knowledge and, with those innocent, pudgy hands of his, opening my notebook computer and destroying the hard disk.

Even as I thought about how strange it was for me to be entrusting my key to someone who was not even my lover, I went to Mister Minute, had a spare made, and sent it off, along with a Zenrin map of my own. I thought we'd be repeating the process every time we were transferred, but each of us had the assurance that the other would not resort to using the other's key except under fatal circumstances . . .

At the time, I had a premonition that I would precede Futotchan in death. Just as all job sites eventually settle down, so we all eventually die, and I thought that the building project that was my life would be completed well before Futotchan's. That was my intuition, and had it not been for the accident that followed, I am convinced that such would have been the reality. After all, there was not the slightest hint of anything that might happen to him. We always kidded each other about dying from spring leak-a flood of accounting errors.

After our conversation in the bar that night in Tokyo until that day when I stopped by his vacant apartment in Gotanda, I did not see Futotchan again.

His death came suddenly. He had been warned about various dangers to his health: high blood pressure, diabetes, and other life-style related diseases, heart ailments, lung cancer . . . But in the end it was something completely unforeseen. He had just left his apartment and was heading for work, when someone fell from the seventh floor of his building and landed on him. Thrown backward, he had suffered a blow to the head that was more or less instantly fatal. I don't know whether the would-be suicide also died or survived, with or without serious injury; about that, Iguchi-san never said a word.

It was Soejima-san who took the call from Tokyo; general affairs office. He then went to the department chief and talked for some time in a low voice before coming to me. "Let's go for a cigarette," he said and led me to where we could talk by ourselves in the smoking area. When he told me that Futotchan was dead, I couldn't believe it. I stared at Soejima-san without speaking, wishing that he would tell me, quickly, that it was a bad joke.

"Why?" asked Soejima-san, expelling a cloud of smoke. "With all the bulk that should have cushioned him . . . "

Hearing that, I did what I had never done before in the company, no matter how upset I was: I wept, howling with tears. Soejima-san patted me on the shoulder from across the table.

"I'll call Iguchi-san," he said. "Let's go to Fukuoka together."

I was still shaking, but I managed to wipe away the tears and return to my desk. It was then that the thought came to me: Futotchan's latchkey and the star screwdrivers were still in my locker, wrapped up in the bag he had sent by company mail.

On the notice board I wrote: "Tokorozawa/Kawagoe-scouting potential clients." I had often used that as a pretext for parking the car next to a secluded park or stadium in order to take a nap or to go shopping at the Omiya Loft. Now for the first time I had an earnest purpose. My colleagues would have no difficulty reaching me by cell phone, but I needed to put down the least suspicious destination, in case something came up.

I got into the car and immediately checked the map. Taking Route 5 on the Shuto Expressway, I turned onto the Inner Circular Route and continued on to Route 2, heading for Gotanda. I felt every inch of my skin tightening from the tension, but at the same time I felt a surge of power in my abdomen. "It's all right," I said aloud as I drove. I didn't know whether I was speaking to myself or to Futotchan.

I left the car in a parking lot and set out on foot. I immediately found Lumière Gotanda. Standing at the door, I looked around as I put on the rubber gloves, feeling like a criminal. As I unlocked the door, I had a stronger reaction than I had expected. Stepping inside, I saw that it was typical of the sort of expanded and reconstructed dwellings that provided the bulk of our business. It had the smell of someone else's home.

I had brought the slippers I used on-site. I put them on and stepped up onto the floor from the threshold. A blanket had been tossed onto the bed and left there that morning; on the floor lay a pair of rolled-up socks. Still, the room was not untidy. I tried not to think of Futotchan, forgetting that he had just died, and concentrated instead on the work to be done, as though this were just another work assignment. Nevertheless, as I equipped myself with the regular and Phillips screwdrivers, large and small, along with the star drivers, and sat down in front of his PC, I found my heart beating at the thought that I was about to perform, quite on my own, a task that could never be undone.

I did not, of course, turn on the switch. I turned the main body on its side, having detached the cable connecting it to the monitor. I began to take it apart.

"It's like opening the cover of a hot-water heater," I thought I heard Futotchan explaining. "It's the sort of thing even you can do."

I had no trouble sliding back and detaching the legs, then removing the four screws with the Phillips driver and opening the case. Inside there were no tightly packed parts as in a hot-water heater, only the stainless-steel compact- and hard-disk drives, the latter being the lunchbox of which Futotchan had spoken-along with two circuit boards, of different sizes, and a small fan: The body of a desktop PC turned out to be disappointingly empty.

A barcode and a yellow seal warning against touching the disk drive in any way were glued to the lunchbox. The removable button and lever were made of yellow-green plastic, so that by pushing and pulling them, I had relatively little difficulty extracting the device.

I was fretting somewhat, as I had very little time. Once I had successfully completed the job, I would have to return to Saitama City and sit through a meeting at five as though nothing had happened. I could not tell even Soejima-san what I had been doing.

Turning the lunchbox over, I saw that it was again covered with stickers that included a barcode and exclamation marks. Along the edges were five screw holes. It all seemed fairly simple. I selected the appropriate head and, as I went from one screw to the next, found myself warming to the task.

But even after they all were out, the lid would not come off. Seeing that the stainless-steel colored seal had stuck to the edge, I tried to peel and scrape it off. My hands were sweating inside the rubber gloves, and I thought that they would reek, but I went on thrusting the regular driver into the seam.

There was no sound of air entering a vacuum, neither whoosh nor pop. "Futotchan, you liar!" I thought. But Futotchan wasn't there. His body might still be in this world, lying in the basement of a hospital somewhere, but I would never again be able to shout such abuse at him. I sat there again in a daze. The lid of the lunchbox was now slightly bent, yielding a narrow crevice but still refusing to open. As I poked and pried at it here and there, a thought came to mind and stayed there: This was Futotchan's coffin. I was wrenching it open and thereby doing damage to his death.

But still I did not falter. The urgency of my mission had gripped me. Once I realized that I could not open the lunchbox with the regular driver, it occurred to me that there must be screws I had so far failed to discover. I painstakingly scraped off a seal labeled FRAGILE and found the two hidden culprits. I removed them with the star driver, and suddenly the box was open.

Inside was a mirror-like saucer. Flashing razor-like beams of light, this disk had fallen silent. It had died, I thought, dazzling the eyes as though to deny it all. I stared at it for a few moments, then picked up the regular screwdriver and sharply drew a scratch from the center to the edge. Erased. It would all be erased.

I had kept my promise. My sense of relief outweighed any feelings of guilt. In the disk I saw the reflection of my miserable face, now on the verge of tears. I did not want to show myself in this state even to Futotchan. I tried to think of something amusing, something to cause a moment's laughter. And so I recalled an episode involving personnel that showed him at his most idiotic.

Futotchan was still in Fukuoka at the time. In the middle of the night, he was scrambling around without authorization in the manager's desk, probably looking for his seal for some sort of document, when he stumbled on some transfer papers. He called me in Saitama.

"Hey, I have some amazing news!"

"Why are you calling at this hour?"

"You remember Natsume? She joined the company the same year we did, right? Well, she's being transferred to Saitama. I just found the chief's papers."

Futotchan was undoubtedly leaning back haughtily in the boss's chair, with his elbows on the armrest.

"You're talking about Natsume? She's been here for a year now."

Futotchan let out a high-pitched "Huh?"

I had a good, long laugh about that. Futotchan's idea of amazing news was already a year old.

But now there was nothing more to laugh about. With my tears falling on the disk, I carried on with my act of desecration. "The most important task," I heard Futotchan say again, "is returning the PC to its original state."

I got the seven screws back in without mishap. I put the tattered pieces of the seals in my pocket and somehow managed to get the rest of the machine put together again. I reconnected the monitor and the cable and turned on the switch.

The OS did not boot up. On the pitch-black screen there were two lines of white letters in the upper-left-hand corner:

Invalid Boot Diskette

Insert Boot Diskette in A:

So this is the end of the drama, I thought.

I put everything back the way it had been and looked around me. I had stopped crying. I understood with painful clarity that Futotchan would never see this PC again. I tiptoed out and locked the door, slipping the rubber gloves into my company bag. The fact that neither Iguchi-san nor anyone from the company had shown up was fortunate. A wintry wind was blowing, but my forehead and armpits were sweating. I returned to the car and started the engine, wondering what to do about the key. Once I was safely far enough away, I went into a convenience store, went into the restroom, opened the lid of the low-level toilet tank in the corner, and tossed it in. On pain of death I won't say where that convenience store is, but unless they've changed the plumbing there, that key is still lying there at the bottom of the tank, the same type-BBT-14802C-that had gone with the Japanese-style toilet which had once caused Futotchan so much trouble.

Soejima-san and I went to Fukuoka at the end of November, just three weeks after the funeral. An exhibition and various office matters made it difficult for us to find a time to go, but we were determined no matter what, for we knew that in December end-of-the-year projects would keep us busy at work even on the weekends.

"How many years has it been since we were last together in Fukuoka?" Soejima-san asked with a wistful look on his face as we got on the subway from the airport. But the next moment he was exclaiming:

"What? They've built a subway line I didn't know about!"

There were posters announcing the opening of Nanakuma Line.

"Well, we hardly know Canal City either," I replied.

"I do," said Soejima-san, pouting. "I've been there three times."

"So you have a special someone in Fukuoka?" I asked teasingly.

Soejima-san turned beet red but after a moment said softly:

"She and I have broken up."

There was something endearing about the way he put it, and I laughed. But as he had always treated me with special affection, the revelation made me feel ever so slightly glum.

Iguchi-san's family home was in a quiet residential area of Munakata. Having greeted Iguchi-san, her mother, and Ruka-chan, now in primary school, we sat in the Buddhist altar room. The memorial photographs of Iguchi-san's father and Futotchan stood side by side. Futotchan had a pleasant expression on his face, looking as if he were about to laugh at one of his own jokes. But somehow he himself did not seem to be there on the altar. I pressed my palms together in prayer and spoke silently to him in my heart, reporting that I had kept my promise. When I opened my eyes and looked at Soejima-san, I saw that he had crossed his arms tightly and was endeavoring with all his strength to hold back tears.

"Damn!" he blurted out. "How could he have left us this way?...He must be feeling quite miserable about it himself, but I feel miserable too! Why couldn't he have been a little more careful, the . . . " He would have added "fool!", but he bit his tongue, for at that moment Iguchi-san returned with tea.

We had been worried about her, but she seemed quite calm. It was as though she had long been accustomed to accepting the reality of death.

"Haven't you lost a little weight?"

"No, not at all," she replied with a laugh. "I've been busy, going back and forth to Tokyo, as well as taking care of my mother, so I've been trying at least to eat properly. In fact, I'm afraid I've gained . . . "

"Go ahead and put on as much as he weighed!" said Soejima-san, returning to his usual self.

That night we ate sashimi and drank a local saké we had fondly missed, Kanhokuto. Soejima-san was soon tipsy-as I'd never seen him before-as he played riddle games with Ruka-chan.

When I had finished my bath, I found everyone had gone to sleep. As I sat down at the dining room table, Iguchi-san brought a bottle of beer. Not wishing to leave the other alone, we clinked glasses. Iguchi-san told me to wait for a moment, then went upstairs and returned with a narrow-ruled notebook.

"Oikawa-san, if you would like to, please look at this, " she said, holding it out to me. Thinking that it might be a personal diary, I felt awkward, but being in no position to refuse, I began to glance perfunctorily through the pages. There, scribbled in pencil, were words in Futotchan's dear and clumsy hand:

Tamae, You are a large red poppy, Ever cheerful and radiant. How I long to hold you in my arms!

"What is this?" I thought.

In the evening light I remember you, The sinking, evening light, Gazing toward Kyushu. Tamae, Tamae, Tamae, Do not be lonely in the night, For my heart is yours.

"That child!" I wanted to shout. "That fatso!"

"Amazing, isn't it?" exclaimed Iguchi-san. She was laughing, and so I joined in.

"Is this poetry?"

"Yes, all of it."

"May I read more?"

"Go ahead, though I'm not sure the author would give his approval."

No, I don't suppose he would. No one would want such bad poetry to be seen by anyone else, even after he was dead.

And then I knew . . . Was this what was on Futotchan's PC? Was this the sort of stuff that had been on the hard disk for whose destruction I had shed cold sweat, wept tears, and braved danger? Damn it! I'd been had!

Such was my reaction. And then to top it off, the dolt had left this notebook behind. Now all my efforts had been for nothing.

I'll be waiting in the offing For you to come in your small boat. I am a great ship, So there is nothing to fear.

A great ship indeed!

And yet "waiting in the offing" resonated strangely in my mind. Of course, when he composed the line, he could not have had the slightest premonition of his death.

"Oikawa-san, what do you think I should do with this?"

Iguchi-san posed the question with an uncharacteristic lack of self-assuredness. Showing the notebook to a third party had, it seemed, caused her to waver. I nonetheless replied without hesitation:

"I'd treasure it."

"Yes, yes, right you are."

I wanted to say something like "It shows how much Futotchan loved you," but was afraid it would sound a bit contrived, so I said nothing. Iguchi-san seemed to understand how I felt, for she said again: "Yes, yes, right you are."

She lowered her eyes, and for an instant I thought she would weep, but she only sniffled once and continued:

"His belongings have all been returned, and going through them has been quite a task. It's easy if the person is still alive, to get rid of things, but as it is, there's a lot of stuff in the storeroom that hasn't been sorted through at all."

"I see . . . "

"His computer is broken. There might be some important data there, so I'd very much like to see the contents, but I don't know whether it was already damaged or whether something went wrong in shipping."

"In shipping . . . " That was the way a veteran like Iguchi-san would talk, but now my spine had turned to ice.

"Ah, well, this falls into the realm of a techie, doesn't it? I could find out about it tomorrow . . . "

"My younger brother is a software engineer. When he looked at it, he said there's been such fundamental damage that it's hopeless. I suppose that disposing of it is the only thing to do, though it does seem that we're rushing into it."

I couldn't very well suggest that it was actually quite fortunate that her younger brother had been spared more wretched poetry.

That PC, that NEC desktop, slain by me, now followed its master Futotchan on the journey of death. But my mind was still not entirely at ease, for I wondered whether Iguchi-san somehow suspected that someone might have deliberately destroyed the hard disk.

And, in fact, I did not sleep well. The sound and feel of the squeak as I drew the fatal line across the silver disk came back again and again to haunt me. I wondered whether in keeping my promise I had really done the right thing.

I returned to Saitama City and resumed my life just where I had left it, rushing off to worksites to apologize, calculating bare-minimum sale price ratios, brazenly opposing the plans put out by our headquarters, shooting the breeze with Soejima-san in the smoking area . . .

It wasn't long before I was transferred. Having been through it before, I took it all in stride. I bought a map of Hamamatsu and looked it over. I asked a woman in management there to find me a one-room apartment with lots of sun. I itemized the matters that my successor would need to address, settled long-term claims, and otherwise tidied up around me.

Then there were the farewell parties with colleagues, franchise owners, and customers. Each time I would think: This may be the last time I drink with them.

Every six months someone would be sent off; every six months someone new would arrive. Transfers could be irregular. One never knew when they were coming. One might remain in a post for a year-or for ten years. Yet that, I thought, was how all corporations live and thrive. I felt sorry for the Saitama customers who were unhappy to see me go, but I felt no great shock or melancholy. Even going to that farewell party my friend in Meguro threw the night before I went to say good-bye to Futochan's vacant apartment, I did not make much of it. *** Futotchan spoke, as though he sensed that I had been wondering whether to tell him.

"It was a bit careless of me to leave that notebook in the house, w-wasn't it?"

He laughed, hiccupping as he spoke.

"But that's all behind me now."

I couldn't say, "Well, yes, Futotchan, after all, you are dead . . . " He himself seemed to be well aware of the fact.

"Oikawa, you know you really ought to give it some thought. Your own hard drive is bad news!"

"What do you mean? How do you know that?"

"I somehow gathered that along the way," he said, catching his breath. "If anyone saw your 'Observation Diary,' there would be a hell of a mess."

"Umm . . . "

Even though I was talking to a ghost, I felt deeply mortified at being confronted with this. I had picked up the habit of peeping at the man living in the apartment across the way and begun keeping a record of my sightings. I called it my Observation Diary.

Of course, he had no idea what was going on. I think he was simply not in the habit of closing his curtains. In the summertime, he would loll about in his underpants, and when I saw that he went in for gaudy bikini briefs, yellow-green and pink, I bought a digital camera with a zoom feature, took some photographs, and stored them with various comments included. I had tried to take some movies too, but somehow that attempt was not as successful. Even though I was about to be transferred, my voyeurism was escalating.

"I-if you're just watching, it's nothing. But when you begin resorting to electronic eavesdropping devices, you can get yourself into big-time trouble."

Futotchan was admirably well informed.

"If I actually met him," I said, fumbling about for an excuse, "I think he'd be quite a bore."

"I suppose he would b-be."

As Futotchan seemed to show no more interest in the subject, I felt relieved.

"Are you off to work?"

"Well, I'm taking half the day off, so it's all right."

"I s-see," Futotchan said, as he sat cross-legged against the wall. I found it remarkable that he had awareness of the days of the week.

"How long, I wonder, will I go on like this . . . "

I felt that I was choking, my voice ceasing to resonate. The thought flickered through my mind that this might be a true vacuum.

"You don't know yourself then?"

"N-no, I don't."

"How much do you remember about what happened just after you died?"

"Uh, that, that . . . "

"'That's that'?"

"Stop it! I'm trying to be serious."

"Sorry. Go ahead."

"It's like going to the dentist and n-never being called, and then wondering whether you r-really made an appointment, then realizing that you have no choice but to go on s-sitting there in the waiting room."

Futotchan started to rest his cheek against the palm of his hand, as was his wont, but finding that he had no table on which to rest his elbow, he abandoned the effort.

"I really don't get it!"

"I don't g-get it either. At some point I've come to know about your s-secret, but I have no idea what's going on with Tamae-san . . . What can I do?"

"There's nothing you can do but see what happens."

I had utterly no idea myself.

"Yes, well. Oh, I forgot to give you the photographs from the barbecue party."

"When was that?"

"In Munakata, no, in Kanezaki. Don't you remember?"

"I remember, but it's all right. Don't worry about it."

"I had d-duplicates made, and I meant to g-give them to you . . . I'm sorry. Oh, but maybe Tamae-san will . . . "

This was, as I found myself remembering with great fondness, so very much like Futotchan, earnestly apologizing for some sort of failure. He was ultimately and utterly dependent on Iguchi-san.

Perhaps all the dead, I thought fleetingly, without any sense of profundity, are dependent on their surviving loved ones.

"I just remembered something strange, Futotchan. One of your worksites . . . "

"Which one?"

"When the inspection opening blew . . . "

"Oh, yes, that . . . I was taking a shower. There was a loud p-pop, and the cap went f-flying . . . !" Futotchan was laughing uproariously.

"What an idiotic life!"

"Joining the company at the same time is an amazing thing."

"Huh?"

"Because it's always such fun to get together."

"For me too."

But now the word "always" gave me a sense of discomfort, as though it were sticking in my throat like the marble I once accidentally swallowed as a child. For now it could refer not to the future but rather only to the past.

"Fun, all right-but odd how it never leads to romance."

"How could it? Each of us knows the wretched side of the other too well!"

I started to say-without completing the thought-that Natsume apparently got it on with Ishikawa. A secret is a secret, I realized, even if the party to whom it might be revealed is dead. And a dead officemate is still an officemate.

"True," said Futotchan, "but even though when I consider the matter objectively, I know you're now a mature adult, I can't help experiencing the same 'tension' I felt when we were just out of college."

"It's as though nothing has changed, right?"

Futotchan nodded with an air of satisfaction. I became aware that his hiccups had stopped. In my mind I could see the image of a countdown clock. I began to talk faster.

"Do you remember? The first time we went to Fukuoka . . . "

"I remember."

There was nothing more to add. We shared the memory of that day in Fukuoka, the anxiety neither of us could conceal as we stood silently in a daze in front of Tenjin Core, having been told to go off to buy work satchels . . . That had been our starting point, something that we would never share with anyone else.

"Futotchan?"

"Yes?"

"Haven't you put on weight since your death?"

"Now what sort of a bizarre suggestion is that?" exclaimed Futotchan with a laugh. "And coming from you, of all people!"

1Nakasu is Fukuoka's entertainment and red-light district, notorious for the influence of Mercedes-driving gangsters. 2One of the seven gods of fortune, Hotei is depicted as grossly rotund. 3Futotchan and Tamae have chosen to write "Ruka" in one of the Japanese syllabaries, not in Chinese characters, so there is no inherent meaning.

Translator's Note: Japanese personal names follow surnames and, as they are usually written in Chinese characters, also typically convey meanings more immediately apparent than those of their Western counterparts. Depending on the character, Yu, for example, can mean "gentle," Kazuto "friendly person." Futoshi means "stout, burly"; Tamae might be translated as "jeweled blessing." Some names, as mentioned above, are not written in characters and may be chosen for largely euphonic reasons.Japanese generally do not use personal names in addressing others except with their own children, junior siblings, relatives, and close childhood friends. Futoshi initially refers to the narrator as Oikawa-san, using the courtesy title suffixed to her name; she in turn calls him Makihara-kun, -kun being a more casual form than -san, as used by social equals in addressing (relatively young) men. Throughout most of the rest of the story, she refers to him as Futotchan, -chan being an endearing suffix that is also attached to children's names, cf. Ruka-chan, thereby mixing affection with respect.

In Japanese corporate society in particular, great emphasis is placed on seniority, so that even the difference of a single year is enough to require deference on the part of more junior employees, who