by Jonathan Mack
It sounds odd to call Taro my student since he was eighty-seven when he died and already over eighty when he started attending my English class. He was old enough to have been a soldier in World War Two—a very young, near-sighted, and perhaps slightly eccentric one.
I can report that although Taro’s English was slow and halting, he didn’t make many mistakes and he could say what he wanted to say. He did not, however, participate in discussions. While the other students related their ailments, holidays and grandchildren, Taro sat still as a statue, without seeming to move even his eyes, so becalmed you could be excused for thinking that he’d maybe gone a little soft in the head.
Each week, when the discussion had slowed a little, or when I saw that class would soon be over, I’d turn to Taro and ask, “So, Taro, any news?”
If it sounds like I wasn’t a very good English teacher, that’s the truth. I was lazy. I was too tired and too busy, like everyone else in the city of Tokyo. On the plus side, I was not very important in the lives of my students. A focused and energetic English lesson would only have gotten in the way. I was just an excuse. I was an excuse and I knew it. Just as the English language was an excuse.
Tokyo is the number one loneliest city in the world: I will arm-wrestle anyone who says otherwise. But these old people, sitting in a community center beside Akagi Shrine in the elegant district of Kagurazaka, were not lonely. They were having a good time and, if their grown grandchildren sometimes laughed because grandma was taking English lessons, and maybe had been taking English lessons since the Occupation though her English never improved much and she continued to say “I go to shopping” despite being corrected three times every Wednesday, still, I’m telling you, these old people were clever: they knew a thing or two about living.
Just because some people remain immune to wisdom all their lives does not mean that wisdom can be ruled out. Some people do become wise in their old age and some of those people, it turns out, go to English class, even when they are eighty-five years old.
Whenever I called on Taro, his magnified eyes would blink behind the heavy lenses of his glasses and he would rub his lips together to moisten them. Then he would open his spiral notebook and cough to clear his throat. Using his notes to assist him—there were always a few words he’d needed to look up—he would tell the class a story.
In my life so far, Taro is my favorite storyteller. If I tell you one of his stories, you will be disappointed and you will think that I am not a good writer. That is the truth—but I know, too, that I am not important and knowing such counts as a skill nowadays.
Taro’s stories proceeded as slow as tortoises. A sentence was a creative endeavor and, as such, deserved its full allotment of time and space. Each sentence ought to be allotted its own page, as in the storybook of a young child.
For example, when Taro traveled to Paris with his wife. They went to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
“Wonderful, Taro! How romantic! What did you and your wife do in Paris?”
Taro explained that it was raining in Paris. They did not feel energetic. The chambermaid was a single mother raising two children on her own. She taught Taro and his wife to count to ten in French.
“That’s great, Taro! And what did you do in Paris!”
At that point Taro nodded to the other students. They all smiled broadly to each other. I think it actually pleased them that their American teacher understood nothing whatsoever about life.
It was a long time before I understood that . . . nothing special needed to happen. Taro and his wife went to Paris to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. It was raining and they didn’t feel well. They stayed in the hotel and the friendly chambermaid taught them to count to ten in French. That was it. And that was enough.
Or the time Taro found a dead cat on his roof. A cat corpse saturated in cooking oil. Taro’s wife thought she smelled something. Taro got on his ladder and, sure enough, there was a large dead. oil-soaked cat on the roof. There were a lot of restaurants around where he lived. They poured used cooking oil into a barrel, but they didn’t always put a lid over it. The cat must have been lured by the smell and fallen in, then been overwhelmed when it tried to clean itself.
“Oh, Taro! I am so sorry! That’s terrible! That’s disgusting!”
For that matter, what the hell was an eighty-five year old man doing on a ladder?
Again, Taro looked to his classmates. Again, the knowing smiles and nods. Like I said, I think they really appreciated the fact that I could be relied upon to be dumb and insensitive.
The point was not that the cat was disgusting—it was all just interesting. Whether it was a dead cat on the roof or learning to count to ten in French, here was reality, and Taro attended to it.
Nothing bad ever happened to Taro. I was his teacher for years and I can attest to the fact. Nothing good happened either. Everything was just interesting. Whatever it was, he took care of it and wrote an account in his notebook, always with a few new words which he forgot almost as soon as he looked up from the page.
What a very interesting world it was. For example, it was interesting that he was constantly being arrested by the police. As a young man he’d never been arrested, not even once. Now he got arrested all the time.
This was because of his bicycle. He liked his bicycle very much, although it was just the ordinary heavy kind of bicycle which the Japanese use to get back and forth from the grocery store. He had built it himself, from the parts of many different discarded bicycles, and it was several different colors.
In Tokyo, when something breaks, you get a new one. Even if just one small part is broken, you get a new one. It is not usual to fix something, much less to make something from what others have discarded.
The police took one look at Taro’s multi-colored bicycle and assumed that he had stolen it, part by part. They put him in the squad car, drove him to the station, and accused him of being a bicycle thief. It took him a long time to convince him that he was just a person who liked to fix things.
This happened multiple times. It happened so often that the police chief, the moment he saw Taro, would rush over and start apologizing. The chief would apologize profusely, then lay into the patrol cop for having nothing better to do than accuse an octogenarian of stealing a bicycle.
The truth was Taro didn’t mind. He didn’t mind being arrested any more than he minded finding a dead cat on the roof or traveling to Paris. He was not at all displeased. He was not neutral either and certainly he was not unfeeling.
Taro lived to be 87. He was a painter and a teacher of art. For half a century he participated in annual exhibitions. His canvases were abstract and enormous and people who saw them invariably said that they seemed like the work of a much younger man.
As often happens in Japan, his final illness was hardly discussed. He retired from English class, then returned to it. Death, he said, would come when it was time -- it was not necessary to wait for it at home.
Taro lived several years longer than the doctors expected. Despite long friendship, no one in the English class was told he when he took turn for a worse, nor was anyone notified when he died. Someone heard of his death from a neighbor, a few weeks or a month later. This was neither unexpected nor rude—it is how death is done in Tokyo. It is considered polite to just slip out and not make such a fuss about it.
If there was a memorial service, none of us heard about it. It is not known, either, what has become of his paintings: they were so sprawling and ambitious that almost nowhere in Tokyo could a space be found to display them.
Jonathan Mack was raised on a family farm in New Hampshire, but has spent most of his adult life in India and Japan. Stories and essays have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Quarter After Eight, Eleven Eleven, Gargoyle, Epiphany, Zymbol, Hippocampus, Mary, Jonathan, Quick Fiction, The Tokyo Advocate, Japanzine and elsewhere. His blog is Guttersnipe Das.