Novel Excerpt: Red Shoes

 

In Nagasaki, the workdays come and go and I get through them as best I can. The misery of the winter season slowly passes. After work, my Welsh roommate and I rediscover the magic of rental movies as a way to save money and drink less. Michael J. Fox, Molly Ringwald, and other venerable eighties icons manage to move us past February and March. And then, one day without warning, the cherry blossoms bloom. Pink fluffy cotton candy plumes hanging from trees. They somehow make the days seem that much sweeter and usher in the early death of winter. My Welsh roommate points them out to me from the tram on the way to work. “Nothing more glorious than being stuck in Japan during cherry blossom season,” he says.

 

*

 

I can already see the cherry blossoms. Up close they have a subtle beauty, but from where I stand now, on the street a few blocks away from the park, they explode profusely. In a light jacket and jeans, a six-pack of beer in hand, I walk up the mountain toward Tateyama Park. What once was a forest of green has now turned pink, a signal that winter is dead and that spring has come to take its place. I can already see the Japanese families, groups of coworkers, groups of college students, and couples gathering underneath the trees, the light orange of the evening sun beaming softly down on them.

 

Clearly, I think, this is a time for merriment. But the weight where my heart is begs to differ.

 

I walk the rest of the way up the hill to the park where my friends and colleagues are. I realize that having a lead heart is no small inconvenience in a city full of hills and mountains. By the time I get there, sweat is pouring down my face, and I feel as if I’m about to collapse.

 

“More than a bit out of shape, are we?” my Welsh roommate  says to me.

 

“Heart,” I say, panting. “A lead ball where my heart is.”

 

My Welsh roommate wrinkles his brow ever so slightly. “Yeah, you keep saying that. I tell you,

mate, when I first met you, you seemed like a right normal dude, but you just keep getting weirder by the moment. How do you know it’s lead anyway? It could be iron or some other kind of metal, or a stone even.”

 

He has a point there.

 

“First, it’s your crazy paranoia about cats, then visions of your dead foster mum in my class, and now this nonsense about your heart. You used to be normal―or maybe we just drank a lot more back then. Well, I know what can fix that. Here you are, mate.”

 

He passes me a beer.

 

I point to the six-pack of beer in my hand.

 

“Aw, come on now. You know we only drink that shite when we’re dirt poor and want to punish ourselves for pissing away all our money before payday.”

 

He has a point, so I take one of his beers and begin my drinking. I take a second to wave to the rest of the people there: students, friends, and coworkers. No one seems to notice that the evening is conveniently devoid of cats, and that while we’d been talking the space around us had begun to fill with the spirits of the mountain.

 

One of the Japanese staff members I am with notices though. Michiyo. Sweetheart that she is, she never wants to burden anyone with her ghosts. When I notice that she can see them, she tries to avoid eye contact with me. If I had to guess, I would say that they’re her ghosts and that she’s embarrassed. I want to reach out to her and tell her not to be embarrassed. Tell her that we all have our ghosts and they just show up whenever and wherever they please—hatch out of any old cat, roam freely throughout the city, pop out of shadows, and sew loose buttons. But that would have just made her more embarrassed.

 

I sit, and though Michiyo sits far away from me, staring off into the distance, I feel closer to her at that moment than any other person in the park. It won’t be long before she quits and I never see her again. And the world will become that much lonelier.

 

*

 

In the background I can hear my Welsh roommate and one of our new coworkers arguing; James Thompson tries to figure out what to do with himself; Sam from Scotland chats cordially with one of his students; young couples hold hands; and I can hear children playing not far away. It’s in these perfectly sublime moments that the ghost of my foster mother is most apt to appear. I wait and wait, and I think that in time it could even cease to be a haunting moment, something rude and unwelcome, and that I could come to live with her spirit.

 

I wait, and just out of the corner of my eye I see someone. She can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen―conservative hairstyle, sweater and black slacks, Bible in her hand. Studious, passionate, and devoted, this younger version of my foster mother tries to hand church pamphlets to the mortals who pass her way. Even as they ignore her invisible form, her smile lights up the night. She looks my way and gives me a wave, and I smile back. A cool breeze blows her supernatural scent my way, and if everything felt haunted yesterday, it feels all the more haunted today.

 

 

*

 

The night ages quickly. Before long, many of the salarymen are breaking into song; Steve from New Zealand has his T-shirt off and is dancing up a storm; even James, if I remember correctly, is in the spirit, hitting on staff members and generally making a fool of himself with bad Japanese and tales from his college days. It’s only a matter of time before the streaking gets under way, and that would mean that we’d left the dismal winter months behind for good.

 

My Welsh roommate comes up to me much drunker than when I last found him. “Isn’t it grand? The miserable winter is over for good. No more rental movies, thank God…” My Welsh roommate  talks, but as usually happens I find myself instead looking for the spirits. Ghost-spotting, if you will. I was getting used to seeing more of them now. For a moment I think I see a priest. I see him occasionally these days, in his white robe with his beard. How does he fit into the scheme of things? How do any of us fit into the scheme of things? Why am I, out of all the expats, the only one who is haunted? Or were the others just too drunk to recognize their own ghosts? I look to my head for answers it can’t provide, and knowing I have no other place to turn, I also look to that lead ball in my chest. Its silence is more haunting than the ghosts, one of which turns to me, says something in Japanese, smiles and goes on his way. I don’t even realize that he’s a ghost until I notice that my Welsh roommate can’t see him.

 

He’s off now on a different topic: the appalling deficit in fashion sense in Japan.

 

“Look at that, Makiko dressed herself up like an eighties prostitute. Gotta admit though, as eighties-era prostitutes go, she’s got more class than Julia Roberts. Now Koshiro has found himself a spot in a Keith Richards look-alike contest…”

 

I decide that it’s time for a walk. I bid my Welsh roommate  goodbye, which I’m sure he doesn’t even hear because he’s now off to join a group of salarymen. Just as I’m about to start on my way, I hear him chanting, “Nonde, nonde, nonde, nonde, nonde” (“Drink!” five times in a row, sung in rhyme), with the other drunken Japanese men. No doubt, in a moment’s time he will have himself an entirely new group of friends.

*

 

I take myself to the middle of the park where the families and couples are starting to make their way back to their cars and homes. I stop near the entrance of the park and find myself waiting for something. A superreal something tells me that this is the right thing to do.

 

Before long, the flow of people coming down the park steps thickens. They finish their packed dinners, tell their kids they can have one more go on the swings, and then they’re walking down the steps toward me. It’s only a matter of time before I see them.

 

Red shoes.

 

Their logic, simple and superreal, makes it that much easier for me to follow. A pair of high heels at first, some sneakers there, a pair of red sandals of all things. One person, one pair of red shoes, and I follow them until the voice in my head says stop. Then I follow another. Red shoes to red shoes. Red shoes stop, and I wait for another pair to come along. This is stupid, the voice of reason tells me. This randomness will get you nowhere but lost. But my better self knows that really lost is better than simply lost and that if a vision could take me here—to a place as vague and surreal as Nagasaki―it must have greater plans for me.

 

The litany of red shoes ends with a middle school kid with a pair of beat-up old sneakers. A car pulls up on the side of the street, he jumps in, and from there I’m stuck. I wait. The night is getting colder. What seems like an eternity passes without any red shoes. I am so still that I can actually feel myself growing older. The night air is cool and lonely. But against all real logic I wait. I find myself waiting on the sidewalk, staring pointlessly out into space, when for no sensible reason whatsoever a businessman passes by wearing not black business shoes but red running sneakers.

 

What the . . .?

 

I follow him from a safe distance. I’m positive that I’ve managed to make myself inconspicuous. He knows nothing, I tell myself. Then, without warning, he turns around, looks at me and starts running. I decide against chasing him. As I watch him disappear into the distance, I realize that the running shoes weren’t as odd as I first made them out to be. Something in his stride makes me wonder whether this isn’t the first time he’s had to run away from a strange foreigner.

 

What now? And, as if to answer my question, someone rides by on a motorbike. And although she’s driving by rather fast, I’m sure those are red shoes she’s wearing. So I chase her down as fast as the stone weight at my center will let me. I must look stupid, a twenty-something struggling to jog after a motorbike. I’m huffing and puffing, with nothing left to follow but the low hum of the motorbike in the distance. But soon, even this sound disappears. I find myself drenched in sweat in a small neighborhood near the foot of a path that goes farther up the mountain. Though I’m alone, something in the night air seems to flow through me and up the mountain.

 

The lights atop Tateyama Park suddenly go dark, and all I’m left with are a few dim streetlights. There are only two ways I can go now: back the way I came or up the mountain path. Though I’m already tired from running, though the weight at my center begs me to sit down and rest, there really isn’t any choice. I walk the path up the mountain.

 

As I walk, the stone where my heart should be starts to grow lighter. With each step up the mountain I start to feel more empowered. It’s not too long before I see her. Not quite as young as I remember her, and it’s her shoes, yes, but also her breathing, cool and steady, that comes out as red smoke, that allows me to follow her.

 

Soon I’m no longer waiting for anything. I am chasing her along the mountain path. She is impossibly fast, and I have to try to will the lead weight into nonexistence in order to keep up. The mountain path becomes harder and harder to see, and I fear that I’ll soon be caught in the dark on this mountain with no way of getting back. To follow her, to keep going close on her heels, or to give up and go back—and yet still, I feel as if I have no choice.

 

I can hear her laugh. No, not a laugh. Almost a giggle. And it feels as if I’m chasing a little sister or a cousin. The path becomes darker and darker. I strain to see her, her fiery red breath evaporating—and all I have are those bright red shoes to guide me.

 

“So that’s why you wear the shoes,” I say to myself.

 

The steeper it gets, the more fiercely she runs. There is an end. When I reach the top there is this moment where everything, the red shoes, the girl, my life, my presence in Nagasaki, becomes painfully clear. I feel like sitting down and crying. Instead, I fall to the ground, sweat pouring off of me. I look out into the night and notice that there are fewer lights down below than when I first began my journey, as if my own feet had taken me away from civilization and flipped me upside down. Now I’m looking at the city as a constellation of stars. I look for so long that my own eyes flip me on my back and I really am looking at a constellation of stars so bright they block out the world.

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