Finalist of the 2011 Matt Clark Prize in Fiction
Angela walks in wobbling heels, holding her heavy boy against her black sleeveless dress, her arms sticking to his skin. He looks like an old man with tight bracelets. She shifts him to her other arm and makes a face at the rude crunch of his diaper. Around them, the street smells of ammonia. A kitten is crying from a balcony overhead. She wonders if crying might be contagious. Again she shifts her boy, this time as she passes a bar. The door opens, and college students step out, still closing purses and tucking away wallets. One of them glares after Angela while he lights a cigarette. He steps on a dropped match and turns back to his friends.
Around the next corner, Angela passes a fast food restaurant. Though it’s late, the long line tumbles into the street. Tired people, their money spent on drinks instead of food, sway in the line, their hands twitching in pockets, around heavy coins, on lovers’ backs. Angela tries to remember the last time she fed her boy and what the food had been. As she moves away from the restaurant, she looks at his puffy cheeks, and she carries her boy closer to the train station. He starts to cry. His tears land in the sweat on her arms.
She sweats because this city holds its humidity close. “Tokyo,” she had written on a postcard home, “is hot, and so sticky it feels like this card is melting. Have the trees in Michigan started turning colors yet?”
The city squeezes its moisture everywhere—into notebooks, between sheets, under still-new engagement rings. Through train doors, where it fuses with the odor of the sweating businessmen riding together with Angela. She tries standing away from them, but the doors hang open like her boy’s slacked jaw—he’s calm again—and people continue to shove in from the platform. The stink rises. A group of drunken girls with blinding jewelry around their skinny wrists steps inside. Under the fluorescent light, ugly makeup streaks their noses, and their lips leap out from the dull glow of their fake orange tans. Each girl’s hair is a curling, jutting tangle of neon colors. Their voices are fast, their breaths tinged with smoke.
Angela leans against a steel pole and lifts her boy away from the crowd pouring in. His eyes roll around; she wonders how he stays so calm. Ansel. Her boy is named Ansel because his father had some idea about “the majesty of mountains.”
An announcement on the train says the names of stations in Japanese, then English. Angela and Ansel—already she hates the way that sounds—stare at the video screens that play ads while the train moves. The neon-haired girls glance over. As the train pulls away from a station, it switches to the main track, and the people on board swing to one side. One of the girls stumbles into Angela and laughs about something. Ansel starts to cry again. Angela realizes that she doesn’t know where to get off the train.
Water runs in the sink, but the cup in Angela’s hands is clean. She is wearing the dress Eric bought, and his hand is on her shoulder. He’s apologizing—he talks about a restaurant. His finger rubs her skin. Ansel makes noises behind them. Someone in an apartment nearby is watching television and a loud Japanese conversation pours through an open window.
“Dinner out?” she asks. “Eric, what were you thinking?”
“About you, Angie.” A few fans hum through the small apartment.
“That doesn’t mean anything. That’s not what I’m talking about.” She grabs a towel to dry the dish. “You can’t take a baby to a restaurant like that.”
“Well. I’ll call my friend. She’s free. She can watch him.” Angela hears him take his phone from his pocket.
“I don’t want some girl taking my baby.”
“She’s not just some girl, Angie. She’s a good friend.”
“That doesn’t matter. She’s a stranger to me. I don’t want Ansel with a stranger.”
“She’ll come here. It only takes her twenty minutes.”
“What does that mean?” She watches him run his hand through his short, dark hair.
“It’s just convenient, that’s all.” He looks down. “I’m gonna step out for a smoke. We’ll talk when I get back.” Eric takes off his tie and unbuttons his shirt. He drops his phone on a small table near the door then leaves the apartment.
A Michigan farm, two years earlier. Eric’s relatives talk, glance, blink, talk some more. Above her, Eric’s mouth moves, but Angela can’t see what he’s saying. He stands in a blue wooden trailer. A tractor with rust around the wheel wells makes churning noises behind him. Angela cups her hand around her ear.
“I said, ‘Come on up!’” he yells, louder. She takes his hand, and he pulls her into the trailer. It is scattered with hay and crumbling dirt. Small boys lean against the front of the trailer, tearing apart dry leaves.
They sit. “I’m glad you came, Angie,” he speaks into her ear. She smiles and picks up a leaf. The tractor jerks forward into motion.
Behind it, the trailer bounces through uneven ruts. Angela faces backward; through the dust, she watches a white barn fade behind a grassy hill. Eric’s mother, her hair pulled back into a long ponytail, stares after them as dogs circle around. When the barn disappears behind a small hill, branches sneak in overhead. Angela sees a crow land on the yellow farmhouse in the distance. Eric’s fingers spread over her shoulder. Angela rubs her knees through her jeans.
“I love leaves in fall,” he says, pointing up. She stares at the children, two boys with knobby elbows.
“Who are they?”
“My cousins.” Eric tosses hay at them. “Wake up boys, it’s a hayride! You’re supposed to have fun!” One of them coughs.
“Do you do this every year?” she asks.
“Yeah. But this is the first time I brought a girl.” Angela looks at him and smiles, but his eyes are on her body. He leans close to her ear. “We’ve got a lot of rooms,” he says, as if it’s a secret.
The train starts slowing, and the announcement mentions Ueno again. Angela hefts her boy to the door. The train stops, and the doors slide apart. People pour out like grain from a bag. There’s a gap to the platform, and it is hard to step over in her heels. Ansel fights her arms and cries loudly, and the crowd moves away some. A strange smell, food possibly, hangs in the air. She tries to remember anything in the station, but her angle is wrong. Angela follows part of the crowd and thinks about the paper crane in Eric’s room.
People rub against her. She feels the moisture in their shirts and watches it glow red on their faces. Neon lights are buzzing. The people nudge her into a tight collection of small streets. Vendors stand beside tables of t-shirts, yelling. Men in dirty clothes wipe sweat from their necks and wait near a stand with an English sign reading octopus fry. Angela passes the stand; its odor mixes with another that sells sweet breads. She tries to hear if Ansel is crying, but the street is too loud. His face twists, and she thinks that he is crying after all. People are close—closer as the vendor’s tables stretch longer into the street. Some display piles of handbags, some hats, some bargain clothes. Next to it, a large store with green awnings sells dried fish and dark things in plastic bags that also might be food.
Tucking her purse next to Ansel, she turns down a side street and walks by a staircase. A large woman with heavy makeup and a flowered dress appears from below with a garbage bag filled with dead fish. Through the clear plastic, Angela sees a small turtle. She hurries forward to the next narrow street, where she turns into a crowd that carries her past a mobile-phone booth. The young employee in his silver jacket leans in to say something to his coworker as Angela and her boy pass. Ansel makes sounds louder than the crowd now.
A year after the hayride, the knobby cousins are taller. Some little girls run around in raked-up leaves. Eric jokes with his mother about which of the girls’ ponytails is longer now. Angela sits between pumpkins on a picnic table and watches Eric and his family. Some of them are laughing, and she smiles. His mother notices and smiles back.
Eric walks toward Angela and scoops up one of the little girls, whose pink dress is spotted with leaves. He brushes her off, then pulls out his phone and tries to take her picture. With a frown, the girl turns her head away. Eric looks at Angela. She stands, tugs on the bottom of her sweatshirt. He walks up, still holding the little girl.
“Angie, meet Brianna.” He gestures with her as though she is produce.
Angela picks a leaf from the girl’s hair. “You’re a pretty little tree, aren’t you?” The girl stares at the pumpkins.
“You want to carve those?” Eric smiles and sets the girl down. She runs over to the smallest one.
“I want this one!” She smacks the pumpkin then runs back to the leaves.
Eric leans over Angela, kisses her. “I haven’t told them yet,” he says, his voice low.
“You haven’t told me yet.” She walks over to the pumpkins. He follows.
“It’s a big decision, Angie.” He moves his hand over one of the pumpkins, feeling its bruises and gouges.
Angela tugs at her shirt again. “No one else calls me that.”
“I know. You told me.” Eric walks over and grabs her arms gently. She keeps them crossed.
“We’ll have to tell them, Eric.” The wind picks up, and behind her some leaves are falling.
On the train from Narita Airport, Angela watches as houses with blue roofs pass outside the window. She thinks about her son’s father. In her arms, the boy is sleeping. The sun is setting; shadows from faded billboards grow long over tiny green farms. And then Tokyo is around her, as though it had fallen from the sky. At Ueno station, she climbs off the train.
An hour later, Eric walks up. He’s wearing a black suit with sharp shoulders and close-fitting trousers. His face is down, staring at a phone flipped open in his hand. Angela stands with the baby and waves. Eric notices, smiles, and hurries toward her with the phone still open. A chime rings through the station; people scurry to the platforms.
The young parents hold each other for a moment. Eric says something about work and trains and sorry for making you wait. His face looks different, but Angela can’t tell why. Ansel wakes up, and his father tickles him. The baby smiles.
Eric leads the way to another train. They ride it between gray buildings with signs painted bright blue and glowing yellow. Eric talks about his job, something about trading and money. Everyone in the office speaks English, but he’s learning some Japanese. He got reservations at a nice restaurant for Friday. But she should try ramen—real ramen—sometime. And real sushi. It’s only Wednesday—they’ll try lots of things. Sometimes Eric types on his phone while he talks.
In a few minutes he says it’s their stop and stands. Angela follows him through a station that is bigger than Ueno. She can barely focus on all the people passing in front of her. Their faces are flushed with the heat. Eric steps onto an escalator. The air at the top is humid. Angela can see the city lighting up against the evening ahead of her. She puts a hand on Eric’s shoulder.
“Is it far?” she looks at Ansel lying in her arms.
“Maybe a fifteen-minute walk from here. You want to stop and get food on the way?”
She lifts Ansel a little. “It was a long flight, Eric. You don’t have a car?”
He laughs. “A car’s a waste of time and money here.” He glances at Ansel. “Oh. Hey, do you want to get a taxi, then?”
Angela nods, walks to the curb. Taxis are waiting all along the street. She and Eric step up to one, and the door opens automatically. Angela moves back. They get in and Eric guides the taxi to his apartment. The car drives down tiny side roads lined with clumped houses. Teenagers riding double on bikes cruise by. Everything is close: the houses sit behind, almost touching stone fences that are flush with the road. Angela, Eric, and Ansel leave the cab and walk down a sidewalk between apartment buildings.
“I found some places that are looking for English teachers,” Eric tells her as he unlocks his door. The apartment is dark inside. A streetlamp shines through the open door on Eric’s face. His jaw looks hard.
“I’m not sure I want to stay,” she says.
Eric turns on the lights.
“Why Japan, Eric?”
Eric says things about his life, and Angela talks about their baby. There’s nowhere to put Ansel in the apartment. He could have stayed with his grandmother. Their voices get louder, and Ansel cries. Somehow, in the middle of everything, they eat dinner. Angela complains about sitting on the floor. Eric says he hopes the dress he bought still fits her. She proves that it does before carrying the dishes to the sink.
Ansel’s fidgeting has made a small tear in the black dress. Angela whispers in his ear; his hair is sweaty as she wipes it away. People jostle her as she crosses a street. Her boy starts to feel heavy, and she settles with him onto a concrete staircase. Across the street, she notices that the young mobile-phone salesman is still watching her. Angela hears a voice from further up the stairs.
A few steps above her, a Japanese man in a dark hat sits at a small table draped with cloth. A rectangular lamp on it is glowing softly, and a diagram of a palm hangs from the front. The man’s gray face is fixed in a grin, and he waves at Angela.
“Hello!” His voice sounds like ice cracking. “With happy boy. You. I know future. Come. Come.”
Angela lifts her boy and runs up the stairs toward a dark, wooded park. She doesn’t look at the man as she passes his table. Behind her, she hears a train leaving the station.
Angela sits with Eric’s mother and a collection of aunts and uncles around a fresh bonfire whose wood cracks like knuckles. A sunset glows behind thinning trees. The little girls are throwing the orange guts at the knobby cousins. Eric’s aunts and uncles sip beers and joke about someone Angela doesn’t know, and she realizes that Eric is silent. She watches as he carves pumpkins.
He digs into the pumpkin with a short, orange-handled knife. Little bits of the plant’s flesh build up around the lines he makes. Beside the pumpkin, a pile of tea lights sits around an empty plastic bag. Clenching his teeth, he glances back at Angela, then carves faster through the pumpkin.
“We’re getting married,” he calls out. “Angie and I.”
Eyes turn to her; she stares at the fire. Inside the pockets of her sweatshirt, she rests her hands against her stomach.
“That’s wonderful!” The aunts and uncles say things like this. Their expressions seem strange, but it might be the fire. Eric’s mother places a hand on Angela’s knee.
“Welcome to my family, Angie. Eric’s very lucky, and so are we.” She’s talking in one direction, but her eyes are on Eric. Angela smiles and feels small. She wants to sit with the little girls in the leaves. She rubs the elastic at the bottom of her sweatshirt. Someone drops a marshmallow into the fire and curses, and then the aunts and uncles are back to making conversation and opening beers.
“Angie,” Eric calls out. She looks at the pumpkin he’s carved. Its lopsided smile has two teeth; inside, the flame from the tea light wavers. Eric’s hands seem tangled in his pockets, and his eyes are following something invisible in the trees. She walks to his side but does not look at him. He’s trapped in circles, she thinks, though she’s not sure what that means. She notices that he looks small, like her. Maybe he’s knobby under his clothes, too. More leaves fall around him.
“I got a job.” He looks away from the trees, but his gaze only falls on the ground.
“It’s in Japan.” He rolls his shoe in some dirt.
“Japan? When will you leave?”
“They want me there in May. Language classes.”
Looking down her body, he reaches out for her, but she moves away.
“That’s only seven months, Eric.”
“I know,” he says, and his words shake with the trees.
Angela wipes her forehead and looks around. They are back from dinner. Eric is outside talking to the old woman next door. They had left Ansel with her. Angela wonders how Eric has gotten used to sleeping on the thin mattress. It looks like a body collapsed on the wicker-like flooring. The closet smells musty. Both windows look out on other apartment buildings. She notices a folded paper crane, a photo of a carousel, an empty whiskey bottle. They are not familiar. Eric’s phone buzzes on the table, but she ignores it.
And then, for some reason, she opens it. There is a text message. She pushes a button, and moments later Eric walks into the apartment with Ansel. Angela takes a breath as if to speak, but her mouth won’t move. Three words on the screen: “I miss you.” Eric just stares. Angela closes the phone slowly.
Her mind burns for a minute. It refuses to understand what she just read. She looks at her boy. Suddenly his face is foreign to her. She takes him from Eric. The baby’s skin is sticky in the heat. Eric grabs her shoulder. Something about his face makes Angela think of a hungry dog, but she does not know why. “Wait here. We’ll talk. I have to piss. Wait,” he says in short breaths. Then he grabs his phone and disappears into the small room with the toilet.
For a moment, Angela rocks in place. She imagines Eric waiting twenty minutes for his friend. And his friend, waiting only a few days until his wife and “her stupid baby” are gone. It’s just convenient, that’s all.
Angela carries her boy to the door. Her high heels are the only shoes set out and she slips them on. The door seems to open on its own, and the sidewalk feels like it is flowing under her. Cumbersome and squirming, the child struggles in her arms.