Ai dropped out of high school midway through her second year. In the weeks leading up to the event, she sulked in her bedroom every morning, crying and refusing to get dressed, complaining about the jowl-to-jowl train ride, the teachers—especially smelly Mr. Hayashi in P.E.—the other kids, their stupid banter, the uniform, everything.

Mr. Hashimoto, Ai’s father, didn’t know what to say to her; hadn’t, in fact, known for quite some time. Every morning he would come out of the tatami room he shared with Hanako, sit down at the kotatsu table in the common room, absorb some of the newspaper, drink coffee, and eat the rice and miso soup Hanako had made an hour earlier. Then he lit a cigarette, sipped more coffee, and looked for the right words while musing at Ai’s door, behind which Ai was pitching a fit. No words came. He left matters to his wife, who couldn’t seem to find them, either.

After escaping from the room she shared with Ai, Mariko joined Mr. Hashimoto at the kotatsu, her junior high uniform always pressed. She watched TV and pretended to ignore the whole thing. Sometimes, as Mr. Hashimoto was smoking, Ai would shuffle into the common room in a wrinkled T-shirt and sweat pants, rubbing her red eyes. Looking at her, Mr. Hashimoto, even at this unflattering hour and with fatherly eyes, knew she compared favorably with the girls at the hostess bars in Shinbashi he occasionally patronized on the company expense account. More often than not, though, Ai didn’t come out, and Mr. Hashimoto went off to work wondering at his suddenly willful daughter. Hanako ran out of entreaties. Gradually, without anyone much talking about it, Ai simply stopped going anywhere in the mornings.

With school now behind her, Ai would put in an appearance in the four-room apartment’s common room some time after her father and Mariko were gone to work and school. By that time, Grandma, Mr. Hashimoto’s mother, was usually finished puttering around in her room, where she repaired worn kimonos, and would be sitting at the kotatsu. Hanako would be doing something in the kitchen or getting ready for her part-time job at a friend’s cake shop a couple of stations down. She and Ai exchanged brief greetings, which got friendlier as time went on. Ai and Grandma had not much to say to each other. Grandma was silent on Ai’s quitting school, nonplussed at the sixteen-year-old girl’s power over her own life. These new ways, she thought a little wistfully, were about sixty years too late.

Time chased the seasons around the calendar. At first, Ai loafed in the apartment all day, smoking cigarettes from packs her parents left lying around, watching TV, reading comic books, listening to music. After a while, she started going out. But she returned by suppertime, around 9pm, when her father made it home from the company. No one worried about where she went. In Tokyo, after all, everyone knew bad things only happened to strange people who went to dangerous places.

After a while, bored and tired of begging pocket money off her parents, Ai got a job at a gyudon fast-food joint one stop down. Hanako went there once while Ai was working. She couldn’t decide how she felt about her daughter in a yellow-and-green uniform and a funny-looking paper hat. Her father never came. Grandma, who rarely left the apartment, never made it down either. Mariko showed up once with a gaggle of friends, who thought it was cool her sister had her own money. Ai was slightly embarrassed but managed to stay professional. She lasted there a few months. A string of other part-time jobs followed; her hours grew more irregular. Her family lost track of when and where she was.

There were weightier concerns. The never-ending recession was threatening Mr. Hashimoto’s company. The scuttlebutt had it that low-level managers would be the first to go, should the restructuring axe fall. Long since passed over for any significant promotions, at year’s end Mr. Hashimoto was relieved his company had only slashed annual bonuses by three-quarters. He’d been afraid he was out a job. The bonus continued to shrink at the same rate each year.

Hanako tried to get more hours at the cake shop, itself foundering. By spring, it went under. So she started direct-mailing postcards for a large catalog company, spending hours at the common room desk writing out names and addresses and a perfunctory message by hand. Mariko started high school that spring. She was determined to ride out the difficulties her sister couldn’t endure. This took considerable energy; soon she was as self-absorbed as any high schooler anywhere. Grandma continued tottering around the house, chain-smoking and drinking tea and trying to ignore her shaking hands, which were making needlework more and more difficult. Hanako moved up in the direct-mailing business, compiling lists rather than actually writing out the postcards.

Ai alone seemed unaffected by the increasingly ragged situation. Her pocketbook remained full; there were plenty of part-time jobs. She went farther afield to get them. By the next New Year’s, her family gathered she was working at something somewhere in Shinjuku, fifty minutes away.

Ai now carried a beauty intense as a sixth sense. She left craned necks and downcast eyes in her wake everywhere; she was often mistaken for a model. Nonetheless, the family remained unruffled. No one could have said Ai was treated any differently than her sister Mariko, homely at best.

No one knew where Ai’s beauty originated. Hanako was the archetypal plain Japanese woman, mid-height, very thin, slightly bulging eyes, pigeon-toed legs, sloping shoulders. Mr. Hashimoto was a posterboy nondescript salaryman. Grandma couldn’t remember being especially attractive when she was young. There was no proof one way or another, since all the photographs were destroyed as Tokyo burned in the closing months of World War II. Hanako’s parents died in the same fires when Hanako was still an infant. The spinster aunt who raised Hanako was plain as paper.

The steady stream of boyfriends Ai brought home held her in painful awe, judging by the way they stared at her, half-conversing, as if afraid Ai was an apparition that might vanish if their eyes strayed. None of her relationships lasted——men cannot relax next to near-perfection. Her longest, with a thirty-year-old actor who once had a bit part in a TV drama, went on just over six months. It ended when the would-be Soremachi tearfully confessed he’d drunkenly impregnated his ex-girlfriend three months previously. Ai shrugged, told him it couldn’t be helped, and left. These things didn’t bother her. With Ai’s encouragement, the family began to joke about how long each new boyfriend would last. Soon it resembled a gambling ring. Had their attentions not been so singularly focused on the girl, the boyfriends might have noticed the laughing eyes surrounding them. None did.

Around her seventeenth birthday, Ai spent her first night away from the family, an overnighter to Karuizawa. Her boyfriend then was a bartender at a punk rock live house with shocking green hair and tattooed fingers. She sent a steady stream of cell phone text messages to Mariko, her mother, even her father. She did the same on subsequent stays away. Comforted by the filial piety, her parents felt little need to oversee her absences. They became just one more thing the family stopped keeping track of. Ai was an adult long before the traditional age of twenty.

To his great pleasure, Mr. Hashimoto discovered in his daughter a conversational partner: baseball standings were discussed, as was the distant relative who had been a higher-up in a yakuza crime syndicate and paid for the Hashimoto’s wedding ceremony. And he could ramble on about his one abiding passion, taiko drumming. Ai showed interest after years of paying no attention at all. One of the happiest moments in his life came at the local summer festival, when Ai stood beaming up at him from the front row of his taiko show. Her presence was a delicate absolute, like cherry blossoms in a field of rice. He was the one on the stage with seven other half-naked men, but she was the star. Somehow this didn’t irk.

When Mariko graduated from high school, there was brief talk of her making a run at junior college, but financial reality rendered this impossible. She found a job as a uniform-wearing, tea-serving office lady in Ikebukuro. A decent job, and her daily routine became much like her father’s. These days, Ai rarely went to bed before 3am, and was in no shape to rise with the morning trains. Her father had long since ceased contemplating her door, hoping instead to see her that night, which nowadays happened less and less. Hanako often found herself called in to the head catalog office in Okubo, forty minutes away, so she was frequently out the door with Mr. Hashimoto and Mariko.

When she was at home, Ai normally got up around eleven. Grandma had usually given up fumbling with the worn material in her room, and would be watching TV or smoking and looking out the window at the traffic passing four stories below. Ai would join her. They would sit in silence as smoke curled up and around their heads, drifting slowly into the yellow-turning walls. After a while, Ai would eat something, read the paper, then get ready. Grandma noticed it took Ai five or six cigarettes to do this. It wasn’t that her make-up or hair were that elaborate—the girl’s languid grace simply ruled out haste. This, thought Grandma, must just be the way things were now. Her own marriage had been arranged. Such involved preparation had only been necessary once or twice. Ai was gone nearly every day. The family saw her after the last train or not at all.

This was the state of things when the burst bubble finally caught up with Mr. Hashimoto’s company. Three-fourths of the junior managers received a month’s notice, a pitiful severance and an “early retirement package,” announced by a senior executive, who bowed deeply in apology at a press conference, resigned, and the following month was named to a company advisory committee. The situation in the Hashimoto household wasn’t desperate, exactly, but things were tight. Hanako’s income barely covered their expenses. Mr. Hashimoto and Hanako decided Ai and Mariko would have to chip in. They hated to do it, but the odds of Mr. Hashimoto’s finding another decent job being nil, they had to be realistic. They resolved to talk to the girls soon.

The Friday night after Mr. Hashimoto’s last week on the job, neither Ai nor Mariko came home. Mr. Hashimoto brooded over his “retirement” with a few cups of sake and went to bed. Mariko was with her new boyfriend, a coworker. Mr. Hashimoto supposed Ai was busy in Shinjuku. He thought, Ai’s found her niche. Newly unemployed, the thought was oddly comforting.

Saturday, Mr. Hashimoto got up late, around 10am. He was looking through the paper when Mariko came back, glowing and disheveled from an unexpected pledge of eternal love. He set down the paper to chat with her. Grandma was sewing up an obi in her room. Hanako sipped green tea and looked through a new catalog mailing list. Mariko wanted to go to her room and sleep but her father kept talking. Mr. Hashimoto, frightened at how much time he had to pass from now on, required occupation. Eventually, Mariko got away. Mr. Hashimoto contented himself with the TV.

The day wore on, and Ai didn’t return. Mr. Hashimoto thought, probably she’s with her guy of the moment. Ai had said he was in some sort of telemarketing something or other. After lunch, everyone stayed around the kotatsu, watching TV. The Saturday variety shows kept being interrupted by news bulletins about a fire in Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku’s red-light district. Death toll over fifty, firefighters pulling out bodies burned beyond recognition, suspicions of arson, and so forth. The bulletins kept drowning out punch lines. Mariko rolled her eyes, Hanako gave impatient sighs, Grandma pottered off to her room, and Mr. Hashimoto started to snooze.

At around five, with still no calls or text messages from Ai, the phone rang. Hanako answered. She’d never spoken to a public safety official before. She wasn’t sure what to say. She handed the phone to Mr. Hashimoto. The apartment went still.

Having no car, the Hashimotos took the train to Shinjuku. The train ride—bright, orderly, efficient—was a harshly-lit theater in a universe suddenly gone mad. Buying tickets, Mr. Hashimoto couldn’t seem to find the right coins, Mariko’s ticket wouldn’t go into the slot, Grandma spilled the contents of her purse down the stairs, Hanako kept bumping into passersby. The train was crowded with Saturday night fun-seekers; there were no seats. The family stood, eyes shifting between strangers and family, none sure which was worse. No one offered Grandma a seat.

The building was cordoned off. Police had spread a deep blue tarp over the facade. The fire trucks were gone, but a crowd of onlookers and a phalanx of cameras kept them at a distance. No one in the family could imagine pushing through the crowd. As it was, they could see the eighth floor clearly. That was where they’d pulled out Ai’s body, to which they were denied access, the corpse being potential evidence. Officials refused further comment. The family walked back to the station, a small silent knot. Hanako slipped on a wet wrapper. Grandma fell behind. Mariko dropped her cell phone. Touts tried to drag Mr. Hashimoto into a hostess bar.

The family gathered around a newsstand on the platform. The fire was splashed all over the evening papers: “Pleasure Quarter Bloodbath,” screamed the headlines. Back at home, the news shows carried the relevant details: the eighth floor housed a “massage” parlor, a uniform fetish club, and a gambling club where customers were orally serviced while playing mahjongg. The flotsam and jetsam of these establishments blocked off emergency exits, and billboards sealed off the windows. No one on the floor escaped.

The fire was decreed accidental. The owners of the building were connected to the yakuza; no charges were filed. The incident was gone from the public eye within a week. Victims remained anonymous. There were the usual funerary formalities. Much plainer now, the family shrank into itself.

Going through Ai’s things, Hanako came across a bundle of cash in a New Year’s greetings envelope, equal to three months of Mr. Hashimoto’s former salary. When the bank opened up Ai’s account, Mr. Hashimoto found her savings amounted to more than a year of that salary. An official from Shinjuku Station called, saying the rent on a locker in Ai’s name was past due. Inside, Mariko found thousand-dollar brand-name bags direct from France and Italy, a fur coat, diamonds and pearls, and a lush swishing kimono, improperly folded, worth more than Mariko made in a year. She brought it home to Grandma. Grandma left it crumpled in a corner of her room. The family silently did not speak of these things.

A call came from the police. Did the next-of-kin want Ai’s cell phone, recovered undamaged? It was full of numbers and names and memos the family might like to have. Hanako politely declined. She was told the phone would be duly destroyed. Hanako acknowledged this and hung up, severing the last link to Ai’s real life. Hanako received glances from each member of the family, but there were no questions and she had no comments. Seeing how little they knew, no one wanted to know any more about Ai.

Copyright © Court Merrigan 2004. Title graphic: "Japanese Village" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.