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Last Respects: Rakuko Rubin

by Rakuko Rubin
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Last Respects
Rakuko Rubin
Translated by Jay Rubin

An email from her mother brought Mayu the news that Shota’s mother had died. Her first thought was to keep it from her husband. But no—of course she should tell him. She caught her breath for a moment and looked across the table at Shinsuke, who was reading the paper over his coffee.

“Yoshimura’s mother died,” she said. “At ninety-one.”

Shinsuke looked up from his paper and set it aside. His hands moved with an unnatural slowness that made Mayu uneasy.

“Oh? When’s the funeral?”
“In three days. On Sunday.”
“You should go, don’t you think?”

He spoke so matter-of-factly she assumed he must be struggling to maintain his usual calm tone of voice.

“I don’t know,” she said.
“It would be the right thing to do. You owe her something, don’t you?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so . . .”
“Anyhow, I’ve got to go to the office. We’ll talk about it later.”

Shinsuke stood and yanked his chair back with a screech.

Mayu was standing at the kitchen window, looking out at the garden. It was small but well-kept, and she could see it all from here. Shinsuke loved flowering plants and was sure to have something blooming in every season—a whole year of color. The hydrangeas were at their peak now, and below the window they nodded their pale purple heads in the light rain. Glancing out at the scene, which was as peaceful as ever, Mayu turned on the spigot to wash the breakfast dishes. The sound of water running into the sink brought back the sharp voice of Shota’s mother, Keiko: “Mayu, don’t tell me your mother let you waste water like that? What a shame! How are we ever going to live in the same house if you weren’t brought up properly?”

At the time, Mayu and Shota had been together for six years and had just begun living with Keiko as newlyweds. Keiko was the proprietress of one of the great old restaurants of Karatsu and was famous in the seaside resort town for her quick mind and sharp tongue. She had raised her two boys alone, grooming the older one, Shota, to succeed her one day. Everyone knew that Mayu would be the perfect new proprietress by his side, blending her bright, graceful social skills with a warm femininity that men found irresistible. Her willowy beauty could not have been more different from Keiko’s spirited jousting with men.

Shota Yoshimura was in charge of the literature and arts page of the Saga Shinbun, the leading newspaper in the city of Saga, where he and Mayu had lived before their marriage. He had well over an hour’s commute to Karatsu, and so when work piled up, he might spend five nights a week in their old Saga condo. While he was away, Mayu was being trained by Keiko to take charge of the restaurant, which meant that her easygoing years with Shota were a thing of the past. Now her days were filled with lessons on hosting guests, cooking the restaurant’s specialties, and the proper wearing of kimono, in addition to which she was sent for training in the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Keiko never relaxed her watchful gaze. It was a bit too much for Mayu, who could hardly wait for Shota to come home on Friday nights. She would pour out to him her misgivings about the decades of living with Keiko still in store for her. “Well you’re the one who wanted to get married” was all Shota had to say in response as if he had taken her on as an act of kindness, and so these conversations never led anywhere.

Some eight months after their fairly lavish wedding reception, Mayu’s mother seemed to think she could relax now that her daughter was successfully married off. She decided to go to Hawaii with a friend on her first-ever trip abroad and visited Saga city hall for a copy of her family register to apply for a passport.

“Did you know, Mayu, that your marriage to Shota was never registered?” she screamed on the telephone, sounding like a totally different person. Mayu had no idea what her mother was talking about at first.
“Calm down, Mother. What’s this all about?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s all about. You’re still right there in my family register where you’ve always been. That means you’re not married.”
“Not married?”

What filled her mind in that instant was the black demon Menburyu Dance mask that she always saw hanging on the wall of the front entrance at Keiko’s house. It was there to ward off evil spirits, Keiko said, but now it overlapped with the face of Keiko herself. The demon seemed to be sticking its long tongue out at her between the gold teeth that lined its gaping red mouth. Mayu felt the blood drain from her face.

“Mayu, did you hear what I said?”
She could not speak.
“Mayu? I’m coming to Karatsu right now.”
Mayu gained a degree of composure. “Not now, Mother. Please. It’s so sudden. I’ll ask Shota about it when he comes home tomorrow. Wait until then.”

Mayu hung up her cell phone without waiting for her mother to answer and crouched down in place. What could this be about? Did Shota know anything about it?
She told Keiko she was not feeling well and shut herself in her room from the afternoon onward. Keiko said nothing in reply.

Mayu let it be known the next morning that she was still unwell and did not take her place at the reception desk. She had her meals delivered to her room. Keiko did not peek in to check on her.

Shota came home around eight that evening, his face bright red from what must have been a good deal of drinking.

“Hey, what’s bothering you? Are we going to have a kid?” Suddenly sober and looking hopeful for some good news, he approached to take her in his arms.

She gave him a hard push and pulled away from him. “I’m not the least bit pregnant.”
“What’s wrong? What are you so angry about?” Stinking of whiskey, he moved closer to her with a broad grin on his face.
“Sit down, Shota. We need to talk.” She knelt on the tatami floor.
“What about? I don’t see . . .”
Intimidated by her fury, he slowly lowered himself onto the tatami and sat facing her with legs folded.
“Now tell me, are we really married?”

She had obviously caught him off guard, but his momentary look of confusion quickly turned to one of anger.
“What the hell are you talking about? Wasn’t our wedding ceremony grand enough for you?”
“Oh, it was grand enough all right. You and your mother had to keep up appearances. So you knew all along, didn’t you?”
“Well . . .”
“Was it something you and she decided together?”
“I . . .” Shota was at a loss for words.
“Why not say it? It’s just like you, such a mama’s boy. That’s it, isn’t it? You’d get rid of me if I didn’t have a baby. Hit the bull’s eye, didn’t I?”

Mayu’s angry outburst grew louder and louder. He quickly slid over, put his arms around her, and clamped his mouth on hers. She struggled to avoid his lips, but he was too strong for her. The more she squirmed, the more he tightened his embrace. Soon he was breathing heavily and reaching between her legs.

Suddenly he gave a shout and released his grip, bringing his hands to his mouth. Blood was oozing between his fingers and dripping onto the tatami.

“You bitch! You goddam bitch!”

Shota ran to the bathroom. Dazed and breathless, Mayu stood and touched her own lips. Her fingers became slippery with blood. She was aware of having sunk her teeth into his lip, but now she realized it had been enough to make his blood gush out. She heard him shouting at her:

“Get out! Get the hell out of here now!”

She went to her mother’s with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. Two days later, Keiko and Shota appeared before the two of them, bowing their heads and pleading with her to come home. Shota’s lip was still swollen.

Mayu stayed cooped up at her mother’s house for nearly a month. Shota came again and again, begging her forgiveness and promising to register their marriage at city hall. Each time he left, her mother would urge her to return to Shota, subtly hinting that Mayu would probably never marry if she didn’t do it now. But Mayu’s mind was made up; she was thirty-seven years old.

The Shiranui was located in the very center of the Nakasu restaurant section of Hakata. Mayu knew the chef and his wife, the Uchikawas, from the time before she and Shota moved in with Keiko. They had been friends ever since Mayu helped them stock up cheaply on the handsome Kuromuta-yaki plates, cups and bowls of a young potter she had discovered in Takeo. She was still a freelancer then, writing articles for local and national magazines introducing the many famous and not-so-famous potters scattered throughout Saga Prefecture. Now she contacted the couple and explained the changes her life had undergone, asking if she could work in their restaurant until she was able to find a position. They took her on without hesitation, and she found a small apartment not far from the restaurant. Shiranui had become popular for its Japanese and Italian fusion cooking—both for its marvelous flavor and for the appealing look of the colorful foods set out on the elegantly simple stoneware.

Mayu had been working at the restaurant for five days when, on a Sunday evening, the owner introduced her to one of their regular customers, a man in his middle forties named Murayama. Murayama seemed curt, even taciturn, and quite incapable of mouthing an insincere compliment, but each time she met him, Mayu sensed that he had something kind and sympathetic inside. Murayama would have dinner at the restaurant two or three times a month, always on a Sunday, and always at the same time, sitting alone at a corner table and ordering the day’s special. He would say a word or two to Mayu and leave after eating without further conversation.

Mayu soon became aware that Murayama’s eyes were following her movements. She indirectly asked the owner about him, but Uchikawa told her only that Murayama was in the construction business and was probably single because he always came to eat alone. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” he said with a kindly smile.

Almost three weeks later, Mayu found a job at a ceramics shop in the Tenjin neighborhood and would be leaving Shiranui in another three weeks. That Sunday Murayama came for dinner much later than usual, at 9:30. The special was already sold out, Mayu told him as she handed him a menu. He took off his glasses and did a quick once-over of the menu. “I always get the special, so I’ve never thought about what to order. I’ll take whatever you recommend,” he said, looking straight at her for the first time. Without the glasses, his round eyes shone with a childish innocence. Mayu felt strangely moved. She almost wanted to shade her eyes.

“Let’s see,” she said. “It’s so late for dinner. How about the bean soup and some grilled vegetables? Then a cup of coffee, and we have some yuzu panna cotta left.”
“Thanks, that’ll be fine. And . . .”
“Something else?”
“No, never mind.” He lowered his gaze.
“I’ll be right back.”

It was almost closing time when Murayama finished his meal. He was the only customer left. When he was paying his bill, Uchikawa appeared from the back of the restaurant.

“Thanks again, Shinsuke. You’re such good customer. Kind of late for you, isn’t it? Your timing is good, though. I wonder if I can ask you to see Mayu to her apartment? It’s right nearby, shouldn’t be too much trouble. I usually do it, but I’m busy tonight.”

Murayama glanced at Mayu. “If you don’t mind . . . ?” he mumbled, his voice barely audible.
“You don’t mind, do you, Mayu? I’ll be his character reference.”
“No, that’s fine.” She turned to Murayama. “If it’s not too much trouble for you . . . ?”

As soon as they were out the door, Murayama turned to Mayu and discharged a volley of words at her as if there was not a moment to be lost.

“I’m sure you realize by now that Uchikawa set this whole thing up. From the first moment I saw you—”

But Mayu cut him off with her own hurried flow of words.

“I’m glad you feel that way, but I’m not the kind of woman you think I am. Please try to forget–”

Murayama stood tall as if he had made up his mind then and there. He brought his face a step closer to hers.

“Uchikawa has told me all I need to know about you,” he said. “I’m asking you to take a chance on me.”

Four months after they stood face-to-face outside the door of Shiranui, Mayu married Shinsuke Murayama. Ten months later, their daughter Shinobu was born.

Stirring the evening’s curry, Mayu thought about the intervening years. She found it hard to imagine Keiko at 91. Had Shota ever married?

“Welcome home, Papa.” Shinobu came into the kitchen hanging on Shinsuke’s arm.
“Aha,” Shinsuke said. “We’re having curry for dinner. Your tummy’s going to be sooo full, Shinobu.”

Mayu was on the verge of tears. Who could have imagined such a scene ten years ago?

“Put out the plates for curry, Shinobu. And spoons,” she said.

With an energetic shout, Shinobu ran into the dining room. Shinsuke came over to Mayu and put his arm around her shoulders.

“You know, Mayu, I’ve been thinking. Take Shinobu with you when you go on Sunday.”
“What? Take Shinobu?”
“I’ll feel a lot less nervous that way,” he said. “If you take her with you, you’re bound to come back to me.”

 


Rakuko Rubin was not killed in 1945 when an American bomb smashed her house to smithereens in Kyushu, Japan, which is why she has been able to write this and other short stories when not working on her pottery wheel. She lives near Seattle with her contrite American husband, a translator of Japanese literature.

Translated by Jay Rubin


Hydrangeas photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


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