“Oh! I never would have thought…”
Sachiko covered her mouth with both hands, her eyes wide open as she stared down at me from the top of the gloomy staircase.
“Kenta!” she burst out a moment later, as if she had just remembered my name.
“Sorry, I just didn’t know where else to go,” I mumbled. A wave of shame came washing over me, and I turned my gaze down to the black backpack at my feet containing the bare essentials I had been allowed to keep.
“I just got out of prison…again. I need to get away from it all,” I continued, trying to keep my voice steady as I wondered whether Sachiko would even let me up the stairs after my last visit over ten years ago.
Back then I was on top of the world. A prince deemed to become king, convinced that the bosses of my gang secretly envied me for my physical strength and ruthlessness in business, both traits valued more than anything in their line of work. I was their favorite, and the younger lads both adored and feared me.
That last time I visited Sachiko, I bragged about my success and showered her with stolen jewelry. I even tried to give her an envelope full of dirty money as a way to show my gratitude. Now I understood that the real purpose of my visit then had simply been to show off rather than to genuinely thank her for caring for me when I grew up.
Of course she wouldn’t have any of it and instead started preaching about how much she disapproved of my way of living. I told her to stop and insulted her the same way I did my subordinates at any sign of disobedience. Once, twice, even three times, but she persisted with even stronger fire in her eyes. The fourth time I raised my voice, but she still wouldn’t listen. I was confused, never having experienced such resistance, and stood up and threatened her. That was the only means of communication I knew worked, but with Sachiko it backfired completely. She screamed furiously at me and told me to leave and never come back unless I changed my ways. That was the last time I saw her.
Sachiko suddenly snapped out of her paralysis at the top of the staircase and came down towards me with a cold, determined look on her face, stopping two steps from the bottom right in front of me. She was so short, and I was so tall, that she was actually looking up at me. In spite of her tiny physical presence, I felt intimidated and my heart was pounding. Her black eyes were now glowing with intensity, and I was for an instant struck by her beauty, the wrinkles above her stiff upper lip and by the corner of her eyes adding a sense of dignity, or maybe even wisdom, to her sharp face line that I didn’t recall noticing at our last meeting.
Before I could say anything, her right hand suddenly shot out at me and her palm hit me straight across my cheek and nose. Right after impact, a hissing sound escaped her mouth that ended in a high-pitched shriek as evidence that she had put all the physical strength she possessed into the blow.
My body froze and I stared at her as fury flashed from her eyes, her mouth now a narrow slit exposing her straight white teeth that had always been the centerpiece of her warm smile, of which there was no trace to be found.
The physical pain didn’t bother me. I knew pain and had learned to deal with it. Being slapped around and kicked in the gut when my bosses felt I hadn’t performed according to their expectations was part of everyday life as a gangster. The pain would pass and you moved on, feeling a bit stronger every time. That was the way it worked, and it was a language I understood.
But this slap was different. The gravity from her tiny, bony hand was so much heavier a blow than anything I had experienced, and it caught me off guard. It seemed packed with both emotion and reason - pain inflicted by somebody who actually cared about me - and it shook my whole being on an entirely new level. There was something almost bitter-sweet about it.
Sachiko inhaled deeply, and I noticed her nostrils widening as she straightened her posture again. “That one was from your dead mother!” she yelled and raised her hand again. “This one is from me!”
I closed my eyes to receive the blow.
A couple of seconds passed, but nothing happened. I held my breath for another moment before I opened my eyes again.
Sachiko’s thin arms were now hanging loosely along her sides, her shoulders slouching as if all her energy had suddenly been sucked out of her. Her head was slightly tilted to the side, and her eyes, now round and kind the way I remembered them, were looking straight at me, full of tenderness and compassion. As I watched, her face slowly broke into a sweet smile, but it was not a smile of joy. It was a smile filled with relief and maybe also sorrow.
“You look so much like her,” she said in a faint voice, putting her warm, trembling hand on my cheek and moved it softly up and down as if she was trying to take away the pain she had just inflicted.
Then after a moment her smile disappeared, and she said sternly, “Come with me, Kenta!”
I followed her up the narrow stairs and into the dimly lit space that looked exactly the way I remembered it. A tall wooden bar counter with six stools, red walls decorated with several framed photographs of Paris, a large mirror with silver-colored ornaments, and a heavy chandelier much oversized for the tiny, stuffy space that was her pride and joy. This little restaurant, located in the shanty-like, gloomy nightlife area of Goldengai in Shinjuku, was Sachiko’s lifework that she had been nurturing ever since she arrived in Tokyo around the same time as my mother, now over forty years ago; two young girls having left the poverty of the countryside to try to build a decent life in the city, somehow brought together by fate, only to be separated abruptly when my mother died in an accident at the factory she was working.
“Don’t worry, they’ll never find you here. I won’t let them take you back!” Sachiko said with such determination that I immediately believed her.
She went behind the bar counter - a workplace so compact that it amazed me that she didn’t knock over any glasses or bottles - bent down and pulled out a red apron.
“We’re opening in a minute. You know what to do. I’ll pay you the same amount as before,” she said and handed me the apron.
“We’ll talk later,” she added, turned around and hastily started preparing for her first guests.
I put the apron on and stepped into the little kitchen in the back where I had helped Sachiko doing the dishes when I got out of junior high school. At the time it had been the only way for me to make a living before I found, or was lured into, a path of violence and crime.
As I looked at Sachiko neatly placing out colorful plates and glasses on the counter, I heard the footsteps of her first customers coming up the staircase. For a moment my eyes met Sachiko’s, and still with shame in my voice I bowed deeply to her and said, “Thank you…I know this is more than I deserve.”
She broke into a warm smile again and said, “Tomorrow we’ll visit your mother’s grave. She’ll be so relieved to see you.”
“Now she can finally rest in peace…” she added, her voice trailing off.
I nodded and started washing my hands as Sachiko turned to greet her guests.
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