Fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)


Mouse Man

by Lester Walbrugh

Whenever he wanted to remember them, Mouse Man would return to the family house and talk to the ghosts.

It was March and the snow on the hills had yet to melt. The early spring winds would race over from the north and sweep down into the valley, bringing the cold that cut deep into his bones. But here in his old room, which for a brief moment during his childhood he had shared with a mouse and her family, a low winter sunbeam lay intimately on his face. It lit his protuberant mouth and his ears—these great ears that will only stop growing when he breathes his last. With hands almost translucent and purple veins lying still over their bony backs, he placed on the tatami a box of candy and from it, picked a green one.

 

***

 

His mother rarely cooked. After her shift at the bento factory, she would return in the evenings, shrunken and used up. At dinner, the two would quietly pick at the leftover bentos she had brought from work. But the year he turned ten—the cherry tree had already shed its blooms—his mother had started preparing, on random evenings, his favourite dish—fried chicken. It was a flustering break from her routine and even more unsettling: while she chopped and sliced, boiled and fried, she hummed songs unfamiliar to him.

"Son, do you want more chicken?" His mother cheerily dumped one hot morsel after another on his plate, and he ate them all. With the dishes done and stored away, she would smile faintly, then steal away with her boyfriend who also happened to be his homeroom teacher, Mr. Kawaguchi. His mother always met Mr. Kawaguchi down the road at the bus stop. On these nights, a neighbourhood kid would babysit him. The neighbour was a thin, bespectacled university student who, while pinching his ears, called him "mouse boy" and would quit only after they turned red and little beads of blood shone from the nicks.

When his mother returned from her dates and through the paper windows he heard her high and whispery voice thanking Mr. Kawaguchi, the boy would still be lying awake in bed, rubbing his ears. He always ate all the fried chicken he could to make up for the pain.

Around the same time the boy's mother started dating Mr. Kawaguchi, in his closet on an old forgotten shirt, a mouse had borne her small litter: five writhing pink bundles of brittle bone and wrinkled flesh. He thought them cute, but his mother was repulsed and the green pellets of poison she left he swept into a glass jar from the kitchen.

On the nights his mother collapsed in front of the TV, perfume and cigarette smoke clouding her, he would finish his homework in a flash then play with the mice. They delighted him. The youngsters ran up and down his arms, over and across his back and shoulders, sniffing. The mother mouse, wary at first, became more unabashed and later even nibbled on the bits of chicken he offered her on his palm. Soon the boy woke in the mornings with her whiskers tickling his face.

By the time summer had flung itself over the island like a hot, wet rag, his mother was meeting Mr. Kawaguchi almost every other evening—the boy grew tired of chicken, but, then, when the first typhoon of the season had twirled past, their dates abruptly stopped.

 

***

 

Mouse Man's skin was red from the cold, his fingers numb. Weather in the mountains brightened everything and all the new colours hurt his eyes. After years in the city, the sweet air soothed his throat, but the snowy mountains surrounding the town hoisted up old memories, jaggedly, as if stuck at the end of a long and tortuous rope.

 

***

 

The typhoon was circling offshore, edging towards their village. Even though it was predicted to make landfall that evening, the windless air told nothing of it. The classroom was cool. Frosted windows blurred the outside, pixelating the passing figures of students and teachers. But as the boy chewed on a block of cheese a classmate had left on his desk, he easily imagined the field, the town and the deep green mountains in the distance. He saved the other half of the rubbery cheese by carefully tucking it back into its wrapper and sliding it into the front pocket of his schoolbag.

Mr. Kawaguchi was wearing his white shirt, the one that bore an oil stain on the front. "—hard work? Yes. They never gave up!" Mr. Kawaguchi slammed his fist on the counter; he gesticulated with flying arms, at once looking both in control and completely ridiculous. The boy wondered what his mother thought when she fell into those long arms, if she sighed.

During the lesson, and complementary to the boy's wandering thoughts, Mr. Kawaguchi's motions had seemingly begun to carry an illicit, murderous intent. His hands were milky white, his fingers long and manicured; they gave the impression of being sharpened on whetstone. The boy excitedly conjured up a gratuitous image of Mr. Kawaguchi brandishing a sleek, shiny sword. The boy caught his breath. He stiffened in his seat. The image sent a tremble through his chest and before passing into his legs, twitched in his groin.

After school, the boy followed Mr. Kawaguchi home. He was intent on discovering what this new feeling meant. The sensual image and his powerful reaction guided him across the road and drove him to rap on Mr. Kawaguchi's front door.

"Oh, hi."

"Mr. Kawaguchi, excuse me for bothering you, but may I come in?"

Mr. Kawaguchi hesitated. "Sure. Come on in."

No sooner had he entered and Mr. Kawaguchi had closed the door behind them that the boy said, "Can you hold me, please?"

"Excuse me?"

"Do you like mice, Mr. Kawaguchi?"

"Sorry, I'm not sure I understand—"

"My face. My ears. This nose. I'm a mouse, aren't I?"

"Son, you're a boy, and a confused one at that. Don't be ridiculous. Your ears are a little big, sure, but you'll grow into them.

"Please just hug me." The words plopped over his lips in stroppy lumps. Then the boy saddened, because, after all, they were not even his own words. They sounded fake, borrowed. His inexperience at articulating his feelings frustrated him immensely.

After a brief pause, Mr. Kawaguchi stepped up and awkwardly hugged him. The boy opened his eyes to the white fabric against his cheek. The oil stain on the shirt loomed big; it seemed to say that his mother with her fried chicken and her strange songs and her terse, high voice belonged to these insipid arms, and that he was nothing but a mouse boy, with no more claim to her than any faint yellow stain of oil.

The boy looked up at Mr. Kawaguchi. Beneath his grimace, the boy read confusion and disgust. "And, you know what? You take it all too seriously. Play it up. Poke fun at yourself before they get a chance to." The boy flinched. The rumble in his soles flickered. It unceremoniously fled and left his feet numb. He despaired when he thought what his mother would make of this. He apologised for his intrusion and returned home.

The members of the soccer club had just finished their afternoon practice and were dispersing outside the school gate, exchanging goodbyes with their pretend-macho "Thank yous" and gravelly interjections of "Good work." The boy slunk past the athletes, hoping some of their camaraderie would somehow disperse through the air and settle on him.

The wind grabbed at his school blazer; gusts whirled past and shook a tangle of bamboo. The wisps of the typhoon were beginning to sweep at their little island.

 

***

 

In the old house, the sunlight had slid to his lap where it gently warmed his thin, grey thighs. From the box of candy, Mouse Man chose a red one.

 

***

 

At the inquisition, his mother managed a tepid story about the mice in his room.

Mr. Kawaguchi sat across from him at the dining room table. He was wearing his white shirt. That night, instead of meeting the teacher down the road, his mother had invited him over for dinner.

His mother knew. She knew about his visit to Mr. Kawaguchi. Mr. Kawaguchi had to have told her. Why else was he there? And throughout dinner, the boy kept his gaze fixed, in mid-air, just slightly in front of the oil stain on Mr. Kawaguchi's shirt, anticipating and dreading the confrontation. He hoped it would come after he had eaten his chicken, and he had already lain down to wait.

The breaded chicken sizzled as it hit the oil. The boy hoped that as it browned, the darkened colour would obscure the green of the crunched pellets.

"Do you mind if I tried one? They look delicious."

"No. It's mine."

"Don't be rude. Mr. Kawaguchi is our guest."

Even before his mother had served the salad, the soup and the buckwheat noodles, Mr. Kawaguchi had gleefully finished all of the boy's chicken.

His ears had hurt for a long time after. When the police questioned him, made their notes, repeated their questions and then made their notes again, he felt like screaming. It was the sight of his ears, rubbed raw, that finally ended their interrogations.

The following winter, when they moved to the city, the boy, torn, said goodbye to his mice in the old house.

 

***

 

Mouse Man unwrapped the last piece of candy: this one small and yellow.

 

***

 

As an adult, he lived a simple, solitary life. His ears still hurt when around others, but a public servant's daily tasks mercifully demanded little in the way of undue interactions.

In the years after his retirement, the old man had taken to regular walks in the park near his apartment, whenever the weather was agreeable. The park was always crowded with families. Their presence tingled in his ears with a kind of light electrical current.

On one of his strolls—it was a sunny weekday afternoon—a small, yellow dot approached and once close-up, drew a length and girth equal to his. It was clad in a form-fitting yellow bodysuit, with yellow sneakers on its feet and most glorious of all, fashioned from silk and worn as a crown: a yellow swirl that resembled the tip of a soft cream cone. The creature doubled its fantasy so far back on itself that it was as real as everything and everyone around it. 

The old man, determined not to let this creature walk away and out of his life, ran it down and apologised with a bow. "You are the most beautiful ... being ... I have ever seen."

From behind red rims, kind eyes peered at him. A smile, unsullied from hurtful words and condemning stares, acknowledged him. The creature bowed gracefully then proceeded on its path, each step deliberate, its head held aloft. The encounter was light and fleeting, but the elderly man who stood staring was exquisitely and profoundly changed.

At the novelty discount store, he purchased a spandex bodysuit, a pair of mittens and a pair of slippers, all in grey. And back in his room, as he rolled the suit over and up his legs and pulled on the arms, Mouse Man felt the rumble return; first as a faint tremor in the soles of his feet then strengthening as it journeyed up his legs, twitching in his groin before it settled in the middle of his chest.

And while walking down the street in his new Mouse Man suit, from where it seemed to have been waiting, from beneath the layered dust of childhood taunts and of the no less bellicose apathy of work colleagues, from beneath the dust of his singular attempt at romance, a smile raced up from its depths and lay, in repose, over his beautiful face.

 

***

 

As he locked up the old house, Mouse Man peered down the length of the weathered porch. Framed by the side of the house and the posts supporting the eaves, in the dark earth of the garden stood the cherry tree. Furious buds of red were straining about its dark branches. In the next few days, for a just moment, a profusion of flimsy blossoms would turn it ethereal.

Mouse Man shuffled to the gate and the bus stop on the corner. He looked forward to returning to his apartment in the city and seeing the cat he had named "Tama."

He had always taken the bus back to the city. The shinkansen traversed the distance in less than two hours, but it was terribly dear and he was an abstemious man, as the elderly tended to be; he saved his pension for essentials like food and rent. He was in good shape. He could afford the relative discomfort of the bus seats and the eight hours' journey and would sleep most of the way.

Pudgy fingers handled his ticket. "Going all the way, are we?"

"Yes."

"You'd be fine sitting on that?"

He unclipped the tail from his mouse suit.

"I'll be fine, thank you."

As the bus pulled away, the passenger in the next seat drew the curtain separating them and discarded his shoes and socks.

The bus engine droned monotonously. The Mouse Man worried that he would have trouble sleeping, but two hours into the journey, much like the ripe note of his neighbour's feet, the noise found a spot in the background. As they reached his stop, he straightened his seat and pulled on his slippers. He snapped the spandex over his bald head, arranged his ears where they plopped through their holes and stuck back on his tail.

Apparently, while the rest of the body stops growing, cartilage never does, thus age has bestowed on him a handsome proboscis and a magnificent pair of ears. Children stared and pointed. It's the Mouse Man, they insisted, their parents shushing them. Turning the corner to his apartment, he felt a slight pull; his tail had come loose and was dragging on the ground. He took hold of its tip and swung it over his arm.

A ginger cat dropped onto a high wall running alongside his apartment building. As it sauntered towards him, it arched its back and, purring, raised its tail. With tender gratitude the Mouse Man said, "Hello, Tama. I'm home."

 
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