Tokyo Weekender’s series TW Creatives feature various works by Japan-based writers, photographers, videographers, illustrators and other creatives in a bid to provide one additional platform for them to exhibit their talent. The works submitted here belong entirely to the creators — Tokyo Weekender only takes pride in being one of their most passionate supporters!
For our last entry for January, we present the short fiction work of Himeji-based author Simon Rowe.
The Convenience Store Ballerina
Car headlights swept Tanaka’s face, rousing him from his doze. He peered out at the car park, still glistening with rain, wondering for a moment where he was. The truck’s passenger seat was empty. Then he remembered: Watanabe had gotten off downtown. All that remained was for him to return garbage compactor #28 to the northside depot.
A convenience store stood on the other side of the car park and Tanaka watched a car that had entered now make an exaggerated arc over the wet asphalt towards it. He lowered the window, letting in the night air, cool and dank as a harbour tide. He inhaled deeply. Was he the only garbage collector in all of Japan who looked forward to the rainy season? He was certainly the only albino garbage collector.
Across the car park, two teenage boys and a girl climbed out of their small Honda. The driver remained inside, bathed in the glow of a dash-mounted TV. Tanaka watched the youths enter, hover over the cup noodle section and make their choices. They approached the counter where a clerk stood watching them. She was young; probably a university student filling in for the old coot who usually worked the graveyard shift, Tanaka thought.
The youths paid, tore off the seals and filled the cups from the hot-water dispenser on the end of the counter. Outside, the driver joined them—a thin girl, older, with braided hair, low-slung jeans and a white baseball cap—and together they squatted on their haunches, council-like, dealing the noodles into their mouths wordlessly. When they had finished, they rose and walked back to the car.
Tanaka stiffened, the furrows on his brow deepening. He flicked his headlights. The youths glanced in his direction but did not stop. Tanaka punched the ignition button, dropped his boot and let the roar of seven thousand cubic centimetres of combusting diesel fill the night. Startled shadows leaped onto the convenience store wall as the five-tonne Hino leaped forward with its headlights blazing. It skidded to a halt metres from the youths and Tanaka thrust his head out of the window.
‘Kurrraah!’ he yelled. ‘Chanto hokase-ya!’
The youths froze, gaping at the enormous pink head with its silver crew cut and gold earring. The boys traded glances, but the girls were already scooping up their dinner mess and stuffing it into the garbage containers outside the store. Tanaka watched their red tail-lights fade to black. Night-time was playtime for the city’s neglected youth. He didn’t care what these kids did with their time, money or imagination so long as they cleaned up after themselves. He revved his engine and turned out of the car park.
A few blocks from the depot, his chest pocket vibrated. He pulled over and glanced at the text missive: ‘Green tea ice cream please.’ Why did insomniacs love sweets so much, he wondered. Was it because they loved sweets that they were insomniacs? All that sugar turning their bloodstream into an Indy 500. Or was it simply that his mother worried about him?
At the next green light he made a U-turn and was soon back at the convenience store. This time he left the truck idling roadside and made his way across the car park on foot. Nearing the store, a sudden movement inside caught his eye; it might have been the clerk running through the shop. Young people did that, ran when they should be walking.
Drawing closer, he heard music. The sensor activated, the doors parted, and a great orchestral wave washed over him. A woman’s cry sounded above it. Then came loud tumbling, crashing noises. Tanaka stepped inside and peered around the corner into the aisle. His eyes widened. Sprawled on the floor, engulfed in tea and coffee packets, lay the clerk. She glanced up and gasped. Tanaka was used to such reactions; his mother said he stood out like a tarantula on a cheesecake. But this young woman’s face wasn’t fearful, it was glowing with embarrassment. She leaped to her feet, rushed to the counter and punched a button on the sound system.
There was an awkward silence.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
She bowed her head, said nothing.
‘That was quite a tumble.’ Tanaka looked back at the mess on the floor. ‘Need a hand?’
‘I can manage,’ she said, slipping past him.
He didn’t doubt her; she was small, lithe, almost catlike as she crouched and gathered up the tins of coffee and packets of sugar and returned them to the shelves. He noted her dark hair, twisted and tamed behind her head so that it exposed the nape of her slim neck. She glanced up and caught him staring. He made for the freezer section at the back of the store.
At the counter she avoided eye contact, swiping the barcode and dispensing the monologue of all convenience store workers throughout Japan, ending with ‘thank you very much’ and ‘please come back soon’. He considered berating her for offering a bag—the town didn’t need more plastic bags blowing like tumbleweeds through the night-time streets—but thought better of it. It would only have embarrassed her. He walked to the door, but at the threshold he hesitated.
‘I’ve seen you before somewhere … You work at the orphanage of the Western Light Temple?’ he said. She looked suddenly guarded, so he added quickly, ‘I collect the temple’s garbage on Tuesdays.’
Her gaze fell to his uniform, the Department of Sanitation insignia and the green ‘Safety First’ symbol. She nodded. And that was that.
Halfway across the car park he threw a glance back at the store. She was at the window, arranging the comics in the magazine rack. Watching him, but not watching.
He climbed into the truck cab and thumbed a text message to his mother: ‘Mission successful.’
Seven days of rain fell on the city. Down at the port, the old fishermen blamed the Black Current for sending a low-pressure system up from the Philippines. Privately, they were happy to drink beer, play Japanese chess, and let the rainwater gush and gurgle its way through the neighbourhood sluiceways. Gardens grew unchecked, hydrangeas of powder blue and pastel pink nodding in the deluges. As the humidity climbed, ripples like tidal marks appeared on the paper sliding doors. Tanaka’s mother found her first slug on the bathroom wall. The wet season was upon them.
Inside the Department of Sanitation depot lunchroom, the banter was not of the weather but of the five million yen in cash that a worker had discovered inside an old Seikosha wall clock at the city recycling plant. Tanaka and his colleagues spoke begrudgingly of this because it was they who delivered the trash, and treasure, to the plant.
There was a standing vow among all the depot’s garbage collectors that, should any one of them be so lucky, the ‘treasure’ would be divided equally among themselves. Tanaka knew there would be other chances. So long as people regarded the banks as thieves then money would always find its way between walls, inside futons and wall clocks. But there would always those unlucky few who took the secret of their hiding places to the grave.
Was his a thankless job? It all came down to perspective. The way Tanaka saw it, garbage collecting wasn’t about cleaning up after others: it was a civil duty, a responsibility to keep the town clean, his town, and get paid for it. Besides, he enjoyed the solitude and the restfulness of the city after dark.
But there were nights when the city wouldn’t sleep. When he and Watanabe would happen on strange things, like husbands beating their wives, kitchens on fire, high-schoolers petting in parks, passed-out drunks—both men and women—and sometimes altercations. Once they watched a foreigner—an Englishman, someone said—stand on a roof in his underwear and scream down at the police, who were forced to dodge roof tiles pitched at them by the crazed gaijin. Night-time was for those who couldn’t handle the daytime.
Saturday was the other garbage collection day for the city’s northern neighbourhoods, and because most people dined out on Sundays, generating little household refuse, Tanaka and Watanabe would almost always finish early on Tuesday nights. So it was that, after having dropped Watanabe off downtown, Tanaka found himself back at the convenience store, once again being woken by headlights, this time a newspaper delivery man on a motorcycle. With his arrival a cat appeared from the shadows, and this was followed by a second and third animal. The rider dismounted, entered the store and returned with a packet of cigarettes. He stood smoking, watching the felines, watching the night sky—rain was the bane of every newspaper delivery person—and when he’d finished, he stepped back inside the store. He returned with a tin of cat food which he opened and scattered about the car park.
After crows, the city’s feral cats were the worst culprits of torn-open garbage bags. But he checked himself because he saw the paradox—that those with little gave to those with even less. Wasn’t that a time-honoured trait of the working class? Wasn’t it their greatest weakness? Or could it be that a simple act of giving brought the greatest pleasure?
The rider straddled his motorbike and kicked the starter pedal. The machine gave a muffled fart, lurched forward and carried the man and his news sheets off into the night.
Tanaka lowered his window and held out an arm, feeling for rain. But instead of droplets he felt a tickling sensation, like the ripples on a pond or the undulations of a spring breeze reaching him through the humid night air. He pushed out his head and listened.
It was classical music.
All at once, the clerk appeared inside the store. She launched herself down the aisle in a spinning motion, arms rising and falling, her face to the garish light so that Tanaka could see for certain it was the same young woman from a week before. When she reached the end of the aisle, she pivoted then she whirled back towards the counter. Her poise and precision reminded him of an expertly cast spinning top.
He left the truck and, moving closer, felt the vibrations strengthen, the music growing strangely familiar—a tune stored in the recesses of his memory, too far away to recall, too weak to decipher. He was halfway across the car park now. It sounded like—
It was Tchaikovsky. His grandmother, God rest her soul, used to play it up loud on summer nights. The music of Europe’s great opera theatres would fill the narrow alleys all the way to the port so that house lights would turn on and the neighbourhood boss would have to pay them a visit.
Headlights swept Tanaka’s face. He wheeled about, pretending he’d forgotten something, and walked briskly back to his truck. Meanwhile, the clerk had hurried back to the counter, fiddled with the sound system and now stood waiting, watching, as a taxi pulled into a parking bay and the driver stepped out.
The signal was lost.
He awoke the following morning to the drumming of rain on the roof tiles and murmured voices in the lounge room. He remembered his mother’s appointment to discuss his grandmother’s upcoming Buddhist memorial ceremony with the family priest.
Tanaka rose from his futon and trod quietly down the hallway to the room his grandmother had kept. It was a small salon, sparsely furnished and still vague with the smell of sandalwood incense. He slid back a cupboard door, reached inside and pulled out a wooden box filled with records. His fingers worked through the faded jackets until he pulled out The Nutcracker, placed it on an old Onkyo turntable he’d rescued from a trash heap, and let the needle rise and fall on the dusty grooves. The first notes of the mysterious melody he’d heard the night before now filled the small room. ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ had been his grandmother’s favourite.
He lay down on the tatami mats and closed his eyes. He must have dozed off because when he came to, the record was rotating soundlessly and whomever was peering through the gap in the paper door was suddenly gone. He listened to footsteps fade along the hallway and heard his mother say, ‘He loved his grandmother very much.’
Tanaka phoned in sick the next day. The doctor said it was a summer flu and rest was prescribed. So he stayed in bed, flipping through manga comics and slurping bowls of warm rice porridge that his mother delivered. To fend off restlessness, he moved the record player into his room. Brahms, Bach and Beethoven drifted from the house all afternoon, causing the neighbourhood boss, who lived at the end of the alley, to cock an ear and look thoughtful.
The following Tuesday, after dropping Watanabe off downtown, Tanaka returned to the convenience store. He waited and watched, eyeing the night creatures that came and went—the cats, bats, drunks and insomniacs—occasionally catching a glimpse of the clerk as she went about her mundane chores.
Then all fell quiet. The store stood lifeless and empty. Tanaka waited. He glanced at his watch: 12:45 a.m. The depot would be closing soon. All at once the doors opened and the clerk appeared wearing gloves and carrying fresh garbage bags. Tanaka watched her sort through the trash, tie the bags and carry them to a garbage disposal pen on the other side of the shop.
He felt his chest pocket vibrate. ‘Vanilla ice-cream, please’, read the message. A flicker of movement inside the store caught his eye. Not a flicker, more like a floating movement—a floating woman. With her hair pulled tightly behind her head, she drifted through the aisles of snacks, coffee and noodles, her hands moving in short graceful motions as if she were swimming. On reaching the magazine racks, she sprang from one foot to the other, lifting each one high over the manga comics and fashion weeklies, until she reached the end of the aisle. Then she stopped, wheeled about and in ever-quickening revolutions danced back alongside the front window, so fast that Tanaka worried she might spin out of control and crash through the glass.
The squeal of vehicle tyres startled him. A small Mazda with hubcaps missing swerved in from the street and attempted a tight U-turn across the car park. A black Jeep followed, its driver clawing the wheel, skidded to a halt and blocked the smaller car’s path. The Jeep driver leaped out and ran towards the Mazda. Perhaps panicked, the driver of the smaller car reversed but, miscalculating his speed, sent the car leaping across a concrete buffer and crashing into the storefront. Tanaka watched in amazement as the entire front window of the convenience store imploded and rained down with a roar.
Now shouting, the Jeep driver hammered his fists on the Mazda window. Managing to pry open the door, he reached inside and grabbed the driver.
The clerk had retreated behind the counter. Tanaka glimpsed her holding a phone to her ear and speaking quickly. He jumped from his cab.
‘Yamero! Yamero!’ he bellowed, bounding across the car park. The Jeep driver turned. At the sight of the huge albino in a mint-green Department of Sanitation uniform rushing towards him, he froze. It gave Tanaka enough time to reach inside the Mazda, grab the ignition key, and keep the two angry men apart until the distant wail of a siren materialised into a patrol car. Strobing red and blue lights were joined by three more police vehicles, two motorbikes, and a gaggle of sleepy-eyed tenants from the surrounding apartment buildings.
The police eyed Tanaka curiously but quickly moved on to the drivers, whom they escorted to separate cars for questioning. A young officer returned to Tanaka a short time later to take down his version of the events. As the clerk made her own statement to a female officer inside the store, Tanaka noticed that her gaze kept shifting towards him.
A tow truck soon arrived and the onlookers drifted back to their homes with news for their friends and co-workers. Tanaka finished with the officer and entered the store. He picked out a tub of vanilla ice-cream and laid some coins on the counter.
‘Thanks,’ she said, taking his money.
‘For breaking it up.’
‘Thanks for calling the cops.’
‘What were they fighting about?’
‘How do you know?’
‘Didn’t you hear them shouting?’
‘I was scared.’
He laughed. ‘So was I.’
‘Why are you watching me?’
Tanaka flinched. He felt his face burn and his mouth turn to wood. ‘I … like classical music,’ he said. Then quickly, ‘The N-N-Nutcracker’s my favourite.’
Her eyes narrowed.
‘My grandmother was a music teacher,’ he said, then regretted it.
‘Is that right? So you’re a Mozart fan?’
A smile worked its way to her lips. ‘Yes, of course,’ she said. ‘Tchaikovsky.’
‘Why do you dance at night?’
‘I need to practise.’
‘You’re a student?’
‘You must be busy. Two jobs …’
‘Tuition is expensive.’ The automated doors rattled open and in strode the store manager, breathless, crunching glass underfoot. His gaze met with Tanaka’s and his anguish turned to surprise. He looked questioningly at the clerk.
‘Thanks,’ said Tanaka. He slipped the ice-cream into his pocket and left.
Rain drifted in long veils across the city. The meteorologists said the wet season had only days to run. Tanaka still savoured the cool, moist nights, but it was his newfound love of classical music that contented him as he passed through the night-time neighbourhoods with the audio system on high volume. Swan Lake and A Midsummer Night’s Dream drowned out the compactor’s roar, and even Watanabe sighed and gave up competing for airtime with Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty.
There were times when Tanaka suspected she knew he was watching, brief moments when she’d glance at the window and probe the darkness with her wistful gaze. What did that mean, that a ballerina might be thinking about a garbage collector? That was truly the material of an opera yet the thought pleased him.
One night, on a circuit of the northern neighbourhoods, Watanabe climbed into the truck cab with a roll of copper wire. ‘This for a turn behind the wheel,’ he said dryly, tossing it into Tanaka’s lap. It became a new way of killing time while awaiting the Tuesday night performances in front of the convenience store. He would sculpt sections of the wire into tiny figurines of ballerinas and set them along the truck’s dashboard. Watanabe began to look at him strangely.
Then one day it happened. Saito and Sugimoto, who drove the #26 compactor, were clearing junk piles on the city’s east side, near the river, when they happened on a set of stereo speakers that were unusually heavy. The two men pried off the timber backing and struck gold—literally. They reported their find, first at the depot, and then at the police station. The bullion, cast into twelve-ounce ingots, was taken into custody and there it stayed until one month later when, still unclaimed, it became the rightful property of the two garbage collectors.
They kept their word, honouring the vow, and the bullion was evenly divided between themselves and their co-workers. Tanaka went straight to the bank, exchanging his share for a tight brick of cash. He bought his mother a new bathtub and deposited the remainder into his savings account.
While his co-workers regaled each other with tales of dining on Kobe beef and buying new football boots for their kids, Tanaka remained silent, his mind elsewhere. He could think only of the young woman who danced at night, who had ignited his love of classical music and given him something to look forward to at the end of his shifts. For several more weeks he marvelled at her impromptu performances, turning his audio system down low, wrapped in the warmth of the night, appreciative.
Then one Tuesday afternoon he paid a visit to the bank and made a large withdrawal. That night he left the truck and crossed the car park to the row of garbage bins that stood next to the convenience store. From his jacket he took out a small cardboard box and stuffed it quickly into the container farthest from the door.
A half hour passed. Tanaka checked his watch: 12:35 a.m. From inside his truck he could see her stocking the fridges, filling shelves and mopping the floor. At 12:42 a.m. a vagrant limped out of the darkness. He was wild-haired with stained shorts and legs covered in bandages. Tanaka leaned forward in his seat, watching him approach the garbage bins, reach into the one nearest the door and fossick. Tanaka’s pulse quickened. The vagrant came up empty-handed and moved on to the second bin. He fished out a half-eaten bento, sniffed it over and tossed it back. His attention then turned to the last bin.
Tanaka opened the truck door and placed one foot on the ground. As he readied himself to dash across the carpark, the convenience store’s doors parted. Out stepped the clerk wearing gloves and carrying garbage bags. The vagrant gave a start, retrieved his hand from the container and limped off, back into the night.
Tanaka slipped back inside his cab. He watched the clerk pull out the bins and sort plastic and cans into separate bags. She paused a moment, lifted out the small box and held it to the light. She pried open the lid. For a moment she stood very still, staring inside, then looked up quickly. She spotted the garbage compactor and began walking slowly towards it. Cloaked in the shadows of his cab, Tanaka watched in terror. His heart began to race. Sweat beaded his brow. She was midway across the car park when three youths carrying skateboards approached the convenience store doors and entered. She hesitated, staring at Tanaka’s truck, then ran back to the store.
Tanaka did not return to the convenience store for many days. Foolishness and regret swept through him, clouding his mind and causing him to make mistakes; he grazed the truck against a power pole and once left Watanabe standing with bags in his hands while he drove off down the street. Co-workers asked how he’d spent his loot, but he just said he was saving it for a ‘rainy day’.
Then one hot night in August he resolved to explain himself, to step up to the mark and tell her it had been him watching her from the shadows all this time, to thank her for the performances, to apologise for being a creep.
He parked in front of the convenience store. Stepping from the truck, he sensed something amiss. The store doors parted and the sugary beat of a girl-band J-pop tune smacked him in the face. Women’s laughter sounded. At the sight of the huge albino, the two middle-aged clerks chanted stiffly, ‘Irasshaimase!’
‘Where’s the woman who works here Tuesdays?’ said Tanaka.
The clerks traded glances. ‘You mean Murakami-san?’ the plump one said.
‘Murakami-san?’ he said.
‘A few weeks ago,’ the slim clerk chimed in, her tone suspicious. ‘Are you an acquaintance of hers?’
‘I’m … I was a regular customer.’
‘Well, she quit,’ the other said with finality.
‘Know where she went?’
Tanaka searched their faces for some hint of a joke but there was none. The women returned his stare.
‘She said she was going to a place called … St Petersburg. To study,’ the plump one said. ‘She’s a dancer, you know,’ the slim one added.
‘I know,’ he said, and the sound of his own voice made him want to cry. He pulled out of his pocket a copper wire figurine and placed it on the counter. ‘If she comes back, please give her this?’ He left the store with women’s eyes on him and this time he didn’t look back.
Tanaka got a new partner the following summer. His name was Kenji Takahashi, a young kid straight out of technical high school, strong and hardworking. They got along well. Takahashi suggested Tanaka buy a dash-mounted TV. All the other drivers had one. If they finished early, they could drink hot canned coffee and watch TV before returning the truck to the depot.
Tanaka suspected the kid just wanted to keep up with the baseball and football scores. He bought one for the both of them that winter, as a Christmas present.
It was three days after New Year when they sat in the car park of a convenience store watching a variety show, clutching their hot coffee, as snow fell thick and heavy across the city. Tanaka, fed up with cheesy jokes and fake laughter, flicked through the channels, searching for a show with more substance. He stopped at an arts program and there it was, The Nutcracker, being performed on stage somewhere in the world by ballerinas with painted faces and bodies that seemed as light as feathers. Takahashi laughed, said he had seen fat middle-aged men do that on a variety show once. Tanaka shushed him curtly. The performance cut to a male reporter interviewing a young Japanese woman dressed in a thick winter coat and fur hat. Snow swirled about her. Tanaka leaned closer to the TV screen. On the woman’s coat lapel, a small figurine gleamed beneath the lights of the camera. Tanaka’s eyes widened. The reporter laughed, concluding the interview, and asked the young woman how to say ‘thank you’ in Russian.
She turned to face the camera and, smiling broadly, said, ‘Bol’shoy spasibo!’
Simon Rowe is a Writers in Kyoto member and author of two books: Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere (2017), and Pearl City: Stories from Japan and Elsewhere (2020). Both available at Amazon Japan and Mighty Tales
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