A tale of a man in a foreign city by Tai Matsumoto, an author well known for his detective novels. As nice as San Francisco really is, any place can feel strange if you’re a stranger yourself.
By Tai Matsumoto
Translated by Emily Balistrieri
In San Francisco with its many hills, whether traveling by train or by car, your field of vision changes at a dizzying pace. Buildings eight or ten stories high will suddenly look tiny like models below you.
On rainy days each building retains its own color — red, black, etc. — but on clear days they all sparkle amber in the sun.
If you go left where the elevated train tracks veer away, you’ll find Golden Gate Park.
My Pacific coast trip at its end, I was staying at the Willows Inn in the P neighborhood awaiting a steamer back to Japan. It was an early spring afternoon that I was walking through the sparsely wooded park. Even trees that looked so withered only branches remained were, upon closer inspection, sending new growth up towards the bright sky. I had left the quiet path and entered the plaza outside the aquarium when someone suddenly called out to me.
“Hello, excuse me…”
It was unmistakably Japanese, with that familiar tone of reserve. I stopped instinctively and saw a 25 or 26-year-old Japanese man in a gray suit half risen from a bench in the shade, looking up at me imploringly.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
Jumping to conclusions, I approached him. I had assumed he had run into some trouble making ends meet that day and was begging, but immediately realized my mistake. He was impeccably dressed and his shoes gleamed.
“I’m sure you’ll think me odd if I ask this of a complete stranger out of nowhere, but please save me. I’m in a terrible fix. Do excuse me, but the moment I saw you I felt that if anyone could listen to my strange story and keep their head, you could, and so I called out to you in spite of myself.”
The young man kept nervously glancing over my shoulders while he spoke.
“Save you? You think I can do that? And what on Earth is this terrible fix or whatever you’re in?”
“It’s something that should absolutely never have happened. But the reality of it is closing in. At this rate, I’ll probably be killed within a few days.”
I had sat down on the bench, holding back the smirk I could feel in the corners of my mouth, and taken out my cigarettes. But when I saw the young man’s stricken expression, the smirk vanished.
“I came here with my wife from Canada and we are receiving the hospitality of an influential Japanese man here, but it seems as though he’s about to steal her away from me. I am under tight observation. Look over there. Those are that man’s underlings; they’re keeping an eye on me so I can’t make a move.”
A ways away near the park’s entrance two Japanese men wearing flat caps were standing around chatting, but they suddenly started to move in our direction.
“Ahh, oh no! They’re coming this way!” the young man shouted, pale with dread.
“Why don’t you go to the police, or the consulate?”
“The police? I’d be shot dead before I could even get up the stoop out front.”
“If the house is that dangerous, how about getting out of there and escaping to someplace safer like Chicago or New York?”
“Escaping as a couple is impossible! If I fled on my own, my wife’s fate would be sealed within the day. I beg you, would you please somehow save us?”
“Very well. I’ll do what I can, but you’ll have to explain a bit better what’s going on.” I felt the reckless blood of my younger days pulse through me.
We couldn’t just stand there waiting for the flat cap fellows to arrive, so I had thought to go confront them, but the young man insisted otherwise.
“Thank you. I need to fill you in on the details, but to throw those guys off, it’s best that we part ways here for now.”
“Understood. I’m Kawase, staying at the Willows Inn in P. Come see me at your leisure.”
“Then allow me to come by at nine tonight.”
I sensed the young man’s delicate situation and left the area before the suspicious men arrived.
Several minutes later I was strolling through the museum complex.
I walked along, sometimes ahead of, sometimes behind a group of lively young ladies and a beautiful woman leading a child by the hand, looking at old wall hangings and ancient works of art.
After a while of circling through the aquarium I came out of a dark hallway and was met with the scene of two lions racing about in a forest. They were both stuffed, but they appeared quite real.
“You really think something so absurd would be happening in the middle of this huge city?” I chided myself aloud. It seemed the young man’s weird story from before was weighing on my mind.
Shortly after, I left the building and headed back to my hotel.
The almost stagnant-seeming position of the sun in the calm sky was stretching out the shadows of the trees.
The park was silent, as before, and I saw neither the weird young man nor the flat cap fellows.
That evening I was invited to my old friend the vice-consul Namiyama’s place and treated to Japanese food for the first time in a while. After dinner we settled into easy chairs puffing Havanas and I told him the story of the mysterious young man in Golden Gate Park. He chuckled to see how terribly concerned I was and said, “You know, that’s quite common among Japanese here on the coast — it’s called a marauder marriage. I don’t really think anyone would go as far as to kill someone like that young man says, but then again there’s no telling what a truly horrible guy would do.”
“But how can such unreasonable things be allowed to go on? I mean, it’s just beastly! Is there nothing we can do?”
“This isn’t Japan. The police don’t take incidents that occur between Japanese seriously. And I hear that the scoundrels who are liable to do this sort of thing generally have dark pasts. If you’re going to do something about it, it’s either brains or brawn. You either have to beat them up at the front door, or escape through the back. But that’s not something you should have to worry about. It could turn out that it’s just the man making a fuss and the woman has no issue. Just try coming all the way to the states and living in poverty; you can never tell which of two men a woman will choose. Unlike in Japan, you really feel the pinch of your circumstances here,” Namiyama replied openly.
That was the last we said on the matter.
Just then, his wife and children came in and we all amused ourselves with small talk.
Even so, the young man remained on my mind, so I took my leave a bit early and returned to the hotel before nine.
Here and there in the lobby I saw quite a few new Japanese faces, as if they had come in on an afternoon train. The xMaru’s sail date was just a few days away.
My guest had not yet arrived.
Just in case, I went to reception and told them to let any visitors come straight up before retiring to my room on the second floor.
I changed from my jacket into a dressing gown, wrote letters to my younger sister and friends in Los Angeles, read the evening paper. All the while time was passing and it struck 12 without the young man showing up.
At some point the lights on the lower floor had been turned off and the whole building had gone still. All that could be heard was the occasional distant noise of a car going by.
What happened to the young man? Perhaps he couldn’t find an opening to get out of the house?
I turned out the light near my pillow and went to bed with the unpleasant feeling I’d been a bit betrayed. But as my body relaxed, I calmed down. Soon I was composed enough that even though his nine o’clock appointment had been carelessly missed and it was now past 12, I could sympathize with his predicament.
All night I slipped in and out of dreams of him, awakening each time with the image of his entreating eyes in my mind.
When I opened my eyes, the morning sun shone brightly on the wall at the head of the bed.
As if experiencing some kind of premonition due to the bustling noises on the lower floor, I dressed hurriedly and rushed downstairs with a strange uneasy feeling.
There had been a murder.
A milkman passing by at dawn had discovered a young Japanese man, stabbed in the chest and dead, in the vacant lot beside the church right in front of the hotel. The hotel manager who had been the first to race to the scene said, “It was a man I’ve never seen around here before. He wore a gray suit and a navy necktie with white polkadots.”
Everyone one of his words corresponded with my memories. Hearing the body had already been taken to the police station, I immediately phoned Vice-Consul Namiyama.
Half an hour later he flew over in his car and took me to the police.
As I expected, the body was indeed that of the young man I had been waiting for the previous night. He had been within a hair’s breadth of arriving when he was killed.
His pockets had been emptied, the tags ripped off his clothes — there was nothing that could be used to identify him.
There was no hat found at the scene. Either the culprit walked away with it, or the young man had seized an opening to sneak out of the house and hurried to my lodgings without putting one on. To see the man who had put so much faith in me yesterday afternoon, who had looked at me with the eyes of a younger brother relying on his older brother — to see him now lying before me as a corpse, it felt as if it were my fault and I dolefully held back tears. I had never asked his name. I had decided to hear all the details that night at nine, so I didn’t know a single thing about the pitiable young man except that he existed.
Who was the man he feared? And what had become of his young wife for whom he was so concerned?
He had said they had come from Canada, but he hadn’t checked in at the consulate yet. Since there was no way to know who he was, the consulate gave him temporary burial as a person unknown.
For three days I telephoned Namiyama, multiple times per day, to inquire after the unfortunate young man, but before the mystery could be solved I ended up a passenger on the xMaru bound for Japan.
Ten small packages had arrived in my cabin. Inside were small gifts from various people I had only met briefly during my trip. It was a bother to look up who had sent each item, so I just put them straight into my luggage.
The voyage was calm. I made lots of new friends. Every day was golf on the deck or other athletic events, and the nights were a flurry of dances; before I knew it the fabulous 14-day trip was over. And the memories of the young man that had so pained my heart had faded somewhat.
It wasn’t until I was settled into my home in the suburbs of Tokyo that I first opened the packages I’d thrown into my bag.
There was chocolate in a glass case from the veteran actor S, addressed to my wife. A silver ashtray from my sister, an antique dagger from a Mexican novelist — these and other rare and beautiful things lined up on the table. Among the packages, I discovered one whose sender was unknown.
The name on it was certainly mine, but I didn’t recognize the handwriting. The box was cardboard, about the size of a postcard and two inches thick. When I opened the lid I found a pair of red tortoiseshell cuff links and a leather belt with metal letters ST; neither item was new. As I puzzled over who on Earth would have sent me these old things, I took them out of the box and discovered a scrap of paper at the bottom. In pretty women’s handwriting it said:
To Jūji Tazawa, 2-5 Sotodechō Honjo-ku
I was quite sure I didn’t know anyone by the name of Tazawa. Gazing at the weird items, I suddenly thought of the young man I met in Golden Gate Park. There was no doubt in my mind that these were the dead man’s articles.
He must have grown up in Honjo; the handwriting must be his wife’s and she must mean for me to deliver these things.
One day I took the keepsakes and went. But after the Great Kanto Earthquake the town had changed completely, so I couldn’t locate the Tazawa household.
A public servant told me that Honjo was hit the hardest by the quake, and that many whole families had been wiped out.
San Francisco is a mysterious town.
That evening I wrote a long letter to Namiyama.
English translation © 2015 Emily Balistrieri. All rights reserved.