The Peace Memorial Park is Hiroshima City’s main attraction. It is dedicated to the memory of those who died during World War II, when an American fighter plane dropped the first atomic bomb on the city. It attracts many tourists.
I would go there on weekends, to relax and read a book, and observe the passersby. An international library was there, so I could get English books.
Within a month I noticed that the park had a certain routine, certain fixtures. There were people and traditions as permanent to the grounds as its monuments, and this fascinated me, the people especially. I liked to call them citizens of the park because I never went there without seeing them. It was their home.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Jehovah’s Witnesses were a disciplined group. I admired this about them. They would stand in one place for hours, not moving, only smiling and presenting their literature. If the day was too hot they could be seen fanning off the heat. The women wore long white hand stockings and broad hats, to protect themselves from the sun and preserve their make-up. Some carried umbrellas. And they were strategically deployed, in areas of the park where human traffic was most concentrated. They would patiently wait for a tour party to walk their way, or break from touring to solicit them.
Typically, if I happened by, one person from the group would step forward and smile, the Watchtower and Awake! Magazines carefully splayed in their hands so each title was partially visible. They would say, “Konnichiwa.” ‘Good afternoon.’
I would respond pleasantly. “Konnichiwa.”
Then the presenter ask, “Nihongo wakarimasu ka?” ‘Do you understand Japanese?’
I would shake my head, “Wakarimasen.” ‘I don’t understand.’
This was a half-truth.
The group would purse their lips and nod, as if on cue, mulling over my predicament. Another person might say, “Ooh, asoka,” ‘Ooh, I see,’ in a disappointed way. And the others would sigh with one breath, to show their support. After a while the presenter would do a half bow, only moving the head and neck and shoulders, and say, “Sumimasen, gomennasai,” ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry,’ and step back in line. And everyone would smile tightly one last time then simply ignore me, already looking to see who was coming next. I wouldn’t bother saying goodbye or thanking them. It wasn’t appropriate. The encounter had spent itself.
But it was funny. If I happened by that same group again, usually on my way out of the park, they would again greet me in their smiling, pleasant way, as if we were meeting for the first time. And this time a different person would step forward, someone who spoke English. I would feel like ignoring them, just as they had done me, but my politeness would win out, and a new interview would take place.
The English speaker would say, “Hello,” with a slight American accent.
I would respond evenly. “Hello.”
“Do you like Japan?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good!” At this point I would get a thumbs up. “Do you like Jesus?”
“Do you believe that Jesus died on a stake to save you from sin and eternal destruction at Armageddon?”
I would pause, taking time to process the whole sentence, or pretend to. And they would smile more pleasantly, offering silent encouragement.
If my response still wasn’t forthcoming the English Speaker would put things into perspective for me. “Do you know that there are hundreds of gas lines below the surface of this park? And thousands below the surface of Hiroshima City?”
I would shake my head.
“What do you think would happen if they exploded? Hmm?”
I’d try to look solemn, contemplating the consequences.
She would go on: “We would all perish, in flames. Just like the poor victims of the atomic bomb. Would you like to perish in flames?”
The whole group stared at me with blank expressions, their literature pressed against their chests. I was sure most of them didn’t understand a word their colleague was saying but at junctures in her speech they would nod in approval.
After the speech I would be prayed for, everyone holding hands. For my benefit the English Speaker prayed in English. At the end I would be given a magazine and an invitation to Kingdom Hall.
One Sunday evening I stayed in the park until dark. Most people had already left and the lights had come on.
There was an outdoor meeting taking place at the West End. I heard singing. I walked in the direction of the voices until I saw the gathering. Adults and children were holding small clear jars with lit candles in them in one hand and song sheets in the other. On closer observation I realized it was the Witnesses. My first instinct was to turn back. But I didn’t. I didn’t feel like walking about the city aimlessly. And I didn’t feel like going home either. I had nothing or no one to go home to. So I stayed.
I walked over to the gathering and stood at the back. I saw the English Speaker. She stood to the left of the front row. She was singing and appeared in good spirits. An old lady standing next to me offered her song sheet. I took it and thanked her. It was in Japanese. I was about to fold it when I noticed she was observing me, waiting perhaps to see what I would do. I recognized the melody of the song so I hummed it. She smiled. I smiled back, and held the paper towards her so we could share.
The tramp always sat on the same park bench. And he always wore the same clothes. If you walked close enough you realized he smelled.
His only accessories were his transistor radio, shogi board and his dog. A small, brown fluffy dog with a tripping step and an overactive tongue.
Whenever the tramp sat down to play a solitary game of shogi the dog would always break his concentration. He would jump up and down at his feet, and bark in a sharp, crackling way. It would echo through the park.
After a while the tramp would be annoyed enough to kick the dog viciously. The force of the kick sent the small animal flying across the verge. The dog would howl in fright and pain but would find its way back to its master’s feet as soon as its own little feet returned to the ground.
The tramp would then scold the animal, speaking in a wheezing voice punctuated by wet sounding coughs. If anything came up as he coughed he wiped it on his coat sleeves.
The dog would mewl and lick the tramp’s shoes. Shoes so ruined you knew just by looking at them they would come apart without much resistance if ever the laces were taken out. After a while the tramp would purse his thin lips and sigh, shaking his head in a bemused way, the way parents do at wayward children. Then he would gather up the little dog in his arms and speak quietly to it, making cooing sounds as if placating an upset baby. The dog would lick his face and bark. Then the tramp would put the dog down and return to his game. And the whole sequence would repeat itself.
The tramp was probably the most popular citizen of the park. Most people said hi to him, even though I never once saw him return a greeting. And people were always giving him food, for both himself and the dog. Even when they did this he never thanked them. But their benevolence towards him never stopped.
He was a master of shogi, the Japanese equivalent of chess, and this contributed to his popularity. When he wasn’t playing by himself he played with others. Shogi was a big recreational event among park regulars, especially the old men.
I never saw the tramp lose a game. He played several a day. People would gather to watch his matches. He could play fast or slow, it didn’t matter. But he preferred to play slowly. I could see he enjoyed the game better this way. Then he became like a child. He would open his mouth and spread his tongue against his bottom lip and his wet brown eyes would twinkle with secret pleasure. He would move his pieces with exaggerated gestures, his tongue clucking against the roof of his mouth. After each move he would lean back and rest his fist against his jaw and smile at the board, pleased with himself, unaware of the crowd around him, in his own private world, unreachable.
At the end of each game he took a bathroom break. There were several bathrooms across the grounds but like the park bench he only used one. It was the filthiest bathroom in the park. It was also implicitly understood by others that that one was his.
Some evenings he washed himself inside the bathroom. But he chose to undress outside, in plain view of everyone. For some reason, the park security never bothered him. Passing parents would have to cover their children’s eyes. Like his shogi game, the tramp took a certain pleasure in undressing himself. He had a method. First he would remove his flimsy shoes then his socks, then his gray sweat pants, which looked heavy with grime, next his dark, tweed jacket, his yellow saffron neck-scarf, his blue sweater, and finally his shirt. The shirt might once have been white, but now it was beige.
While he bathed the dog stood guard. When he was through he dressed himself with similar ceremony.
Sometimes he washed his clothes in the river adjacent to the park. But then he didn’t wait for them to dry; he wore them while wet.
People started making complaints about the tramp. They weren’t pleased. I thought I knew why.
Late one Sunday morning I sat on a park bench, reading a book with half interest. I saw a smiling young tour guide taking a group of tourists around the grounds. Their approach was a welcome distraction.
They came to stand by the Memorial Bell, opposite where I sat, and formed a queue across the small walkway, the tourists taking turns at ringing the bell, while the smiling guide stood at the base of the monument, reciting historical facts and pausing timely to applaud whenever the bell sounded. I wondered if she ever tired of the routine of her job.
But there was a commotion.
Directly across from my bench, a few feet away from the queue of tourists, the tramp lay on his bench, snoring. I didn’t see the dog anywhere. Some of the tourists had heard him and had swiveled their heads in that direction. An American couple snapped a picture. The Japanese tourists pretended they hadn’t heard anything. Japanese people are good at that. When the next person rang the bell the tramp stirred viciously, as if having a nightmare; but still he didn’t get up. He squirmed on the bench until he recovered his sweet spot and a calm came over his face. He rested a hand beneath his head and eased the other one below the waistband of his pants and down his crotch. He was fondling himself. The calm on his face gave way to a smile.
The American couple snickered. Other tourists were smiling, too. The Japanese tourists became grim. The tour guide began to talk louder and faster. When the bell rang again, this time louder than before, the tramp jumped out of his sleep. A dark green bottle rolled from under his body and onto the grass. He had been drinking. It was common practice for the old men to give him alcohol. He liked drinking. He picked at the corners of his eyes, yawned and tested his jaws, grinding his teeth as if chewing air. His hand was still down his pants; he scratched himself. When he removed his hand he sniffed it. A female tourist grunted in disgust.
The American husband said, “Hey buddy, nice bed you got there.”
His wife pinched his arm.
The tramp looked at the couple strangely, as if seeing them from behind a barrier of opaque glass, then scanned the rest of the group and mumbled something. The tourists became uneasy. The tour guide’s voice became shrill. The tourists weren’t listening.
The tramp then staggered (apparently still drunk) towards the group and seemed to be headed straight for the middle of the queue. The tourists quickly sidestepped his advance. Some people covered their noses. The guide looked helpless. The tramp walked below the bell tower, brushing aside the rigid tour guide, and went over to stand on the verge just outside the tower’s concrete encasement. He spread his legs, relaxed his shoulders, grunted and began to pee. Murmurs broke out. The tour guide looked distressed. When the tramp began to fart the tourists dispersed. The guide was the last to leave. The tramp tensed his body and broke his last wind, exhaling pleasurably. The little brown dog then appeared from out of nowhere and began to lick his shoes.
I got up and left after that.
The next Saturday when I returned to the park I didn’t see the tramp on his bench. I browsed around the park: he was nowhere to be found. A familiar park attendant later told me the tramp had been expelled from the park, for disorderly conduct. The news didn’t come as a surprise. The attendant said the tramp was now living below the bridge, by the river adjacent to the park, where he occasionally washed his clothes.
So that afternoon, after leaving the park, I made a point of stopping outside the main entrance and going by the bridge. I saw the tramp and his dog. I stood there for a time observing them. The tramp sat on the river’s narrow concrete embankment, his feet hanging off, tuning his transistor radio. The dog was prancing about, rather close to the embankment’s edge. I feared for his safety. The river was high that summer; the rainy season had just ended. After a while the tramp stripped down and walked out to the even narrower end of the ledge, where the water was shallow. He was going to take his bath.
About three weeks later the tramp died. He drowned in the river. His body was fished out of a local tributary. The paper reported it as an accidental death: apparently he had rolled off the ledge and into the river while sleeping. Some people said it was suicide. But some of the old men said they had played shogi with him down on the embankment the day before, and he’d been in good spirits. Still others claimed it was murder. Apparently a group of teenagers had taken to harassing him after dark. The park officials had filed a complaint.
One evening when I left the park I stopped by the bridge once more, looking down to where the tramp had been. There was nothing there now. Nothing to indicate that he was ever there. I remembered the familiar park attendant telling me that on the morning following the tramp’s death, the police had discovered the little brown dog, prancing about on its short legs, yapping angrily at the deep river. He was later impounded.
The Cat Lady
The Cat Lady never socialized with anyone, except her cats. In all I counted eight, but there could have been more. New cats would join the lot from time to time.
She had a system. She would dress each cat in a distinct piece of clothing (some wore tubular vests while others wore leggings), and tagged each animal with a bell. The bells had colour-coded ribbons.
Every fifteen minutes she would whistle musically through her gap teeth and the cats would gather by her feet. Then she would count them. If a cat was missing she would grow nervous, calling out its name and looking around frantically. She would also consult the other cats in their secret language. Sometimes she scolded them, wagging her finger and speaking in low, harsh tones.
But I noticed she would never go and look for the missing cat, no matter how long it had been gone for. You could say that this made sense, as she would have to abandon the other cats in order to go in search of one. She would kneel on the lawn and wait. And as she knelt there, stock-still, her legs tucked under her thighs, her bony hands folded in her lap, a placid expression would frame her face and her eyes would focus on some point in space.
The cats seemed to know what was required of them. They would lie or sit close to her, peering into her face. Usually they would be clamoring for attention, rubbing against her and mewling until petted. Other times they fought. But all these actions ceased when a sibling went missing.
Whenever the stray cat returned, probably from a leisurely stroll, the Cat Lady would smother it with affection. A kind of celebratory feast would follow. She would share the cats’ lunches with great zeal. And as they ate she stroked their heads and spoke soothingly to them in their secret language. When they were through she washed the bowls at a nearby water fountain. No one drank from that fountain. Like the tramp’s bathroom, it was reserved for special use.
But one day when one of the cats wandered off, it became obvious that something was wrong.
Evening came; the lights came on. I realized that I had waited with her for over four hours, feeling anxious about the return of the animal. I left her, still kneeling on the lawn, her hands folded in her lap, her long black hair hiding her face, her body slowly rocking back and forth.
As I walked away I reflected on an even sadder fact. In her near catatonic state, all the other cats had abandoned her, too. At some point the animals had grown restless, and had begun pining for her attention, rubbing themselves against her without response. And one by one they simply strayed, scavenging across the park for food.
Two days later when I returned to the park I saw her where she always sat. She seemed rather happy, smiling and humming to herself. To her right there was a single cat, an ugly black Tomcat with a patch of white over its left eye. It had a leash around its neck, and it was tethered to the tree next to where it stood. It was a newly acquired cat. I had never seen it before. The Cat Lady would look in the cat’s direction from time to time, as if to make sure it was still there, and stroke its head. The cat would squeeze its eyes shut and lick its nose. It had a very red tongue. But if she petted it too long the cat became angry; it would hiss threateningly and show its teeth. I saw that the Cat Lady was making a vest; occasionally she would pause to match the garment against the cat’s frame. She seemed pleased with the fit.
I felt happy for her. The leash seemed like an excellent idea. But I couldn’t get over how ugly the cat was.
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