English as a Dec­o­ra­tive Lan­guage

Prairie Fire - - SANDRA MCINTYRE -

IT WAS THE QUES­TION THAT WAS SUP­POSED TO SUR­PRISE. Miriam the one who was sup­posed to be sur­prised. But to my Miriam, will you…, Miriam re­sponded firmly No. She didn’t say Um or I’m sorry. Just looked me in the face and blinked slowly, glass of cham­pagne bub­bling in her hand. And there I was, stand­ing alone at the al­tar of our hap­pily-ev­er­after, struck dumb. The no a hand crum­pling me into a this-isn’t-work­ing ball of paper. The no a re­lieved ex­hale that blew me, still balled, all the way to Ja­pan.

I tum­bled through the streets of Nara, by all ap­pear­ances a nice young man. Neat. Cana­dian. Fit. You’d never know how small I was in­side. How crum­pled. The metronome of spo­ken Ja­panese kept the beat of my days. On the streets, in the bath­house, at the noo­dle shop, I ges­tured and grunted my way through the nec­es­sary ex­changes. Watched movies I didn’t un­der­stand. Ate meals I hadn’t meant to or­der. Got lost.

It was be­ing alive without re­ally liv­ing. Bill­boards shouted, loud­speak­ers ca­joled, TVs spewed, but it was just noise. Hawk­ers, bores in bars, pachinko par­lour greeters—they spoke in empty word bub­bles, ut­ter­ances blank. Tele­mar­keters called and bad­gered and all I could say was sorry, sorry, be­fore hang­ing up. In the abun­dance of the city, in its sheer vol­ume, I bobbed along, alone and un­touched by so much. In the land of yesyesyes, I could go days without hear­ing no.

Pro­longed con­fu­sion. It was what I’d come for. A co­coon. The safety of sta­sis. A long sleep. A coma.

Shit got real pretty fast. To stay in this place, in this fugue, I had to solve the prob­lem of work and money. Teach­ing was out of the ques­tion—I couldn’t stom­ach the thought of small rooms filled with all those mouths, talk­ing. Of dic­tio­nary games and re­pairs to bro­ken English.

Then, a sim­ple thing. So sim­ple I al­most over­looked it. Hang­ing on a dis­play rack at a drug­store a set of nail clip­pers, dec­o­rated with a pearly plate on which was writ­ten in cur­sive: Re­fresh­ing. Once I saw it, I saw it ev­ery­where: ob­jects adorned with words and phrases; English re­duced to the ir­rel­e­vant, the un­gram­mat­i­cal, the cute.

At Kin­tetsu and Daisō, the kids were buy­ing up stuff im­printed with English, ev­ery­thing from dog sweaters and lunch­boxes to Zip­pos and backscratch­ers. For words, plain words like juicy, to­mor­row, home­made, cloud, for­get, they paid good yen. No one seemed to know how English had be­come the lin­gua franca of cool­ness in Ja­pan—some­thing to do with World War II, Amer­i­can fis­cal strength and nov­elty. Best of all, no­body cared what the words meant. They saw only ro­man type. Caught the whiff of in­ter­na­tional style that went with it. Sit­ting across from me on the train, a Ja­panese guy read­ing The Ja­pan Times wore a T-shirt show­ing a car­toon­ish woman and man at a game of chess. The car­toon man grinned and held up two fin­gers in an ex­ag­ger­ated v-for-vic­tory sign. Un­der­neath, in large, proud let­ters: I beat my wife. Another time, a lit­tle girl in her mother’s arms gripped a worn pink teddy bear whose satiny sash read, sim­ply, Fuck you.

In a busi­ness com­plex in the south of the city, in a plain brick build­ing at­tached to a ware­house, I found the of­fices of Let’s English Ltd. At the re­cep­tion win­dow, a Mr. Sasaki al­ter­nated be­tween scold­ing the re­cep­tion­ist in a ter­ri­fy­ing Ja­panese and try­ing to make me go away. Not be­cause of what I was—a worker ea­ger to do the job when it turned out a worker was needed—but be­cause of what I wasn’t.

“For dec­o­ra­tion, we need a good feel­ing. We need Ja­panese sound of English,” Mr. Sasaki said, his ac­cent hint­ing at Aus­tralia.

“I can do it,” I said. “I know I can.”

“Yes, it is very dif­fi­cult. You are na­tive English speaker. We need quick vo­cab­u­lary not cor­rect mean­ing.”

If I had un­der­stood bet­ter, I would have re­al­ized I was be­ing dis­missed. But I did not un­der­stand. Not then. I stum­bled on­ward through the con­ver­sa­tion, the words like mould in my mouth. “I can do that,” I said. “I can do words, not mean­ing.” ( Al­ways and for­ever, for starters.) “Let me show you.”

Mr. Sasaki scowled but grabbed an ob­ject from the re­cep­tion­ist’s desk and thrust it through the open win­dow. “One time chance!” he barked.

It was a per­sonal-size pack of moist tow­elettes, the kind Miriam kept in her purse and pulled out at the movie the­atre for wip­ing pop­corn grease off our fin­gers. The pack was open, the “magic seal” sticker coiled into a tight, use­less curl.

The fresh st­ing of the al­co­hol in my nose.

(Hold­ing hands in the com­fort­able dark­ness.)

The fresh st­ing of the no.

I swal­lowed the de­li­cious poi­son of the mem­ory.

“Dec­o­rate,” Mr. Sasaki said, slam­ming down hard on the dif­fi­cult “r.”

The pack crin­kled in my grip. The words spilled out of me, po­etry from the deeps: “En­joy Your Sur­prise of Life!”

Mr. Sasaki smiled without look­ing happy. “You start as ju­nior decorator. Mon­day.”

Turned out Mr. Sasaki was right: the job was not easy. Decorating with English called for the mer­est hint of logic, a loose ap­proach to gram­mar and syn­tax, a bit of joy. It was harder than it looked. To my sur­prise, the drive for cor­rect­ness was strong in me, a force I had to fight against. And yet, words as shells, shell cas­ings—some­thing about it made sense.

De­spite strug­gling to cap­ture the im­pre­cise man­gle of Ja­panese English, I liked the job. Be­ing a decorator suited me.

I worked with Hiroshi, whose spo­ken English was good but whose dec­o­ra­tive English was per­fect—beau­ti­fully awk­ward and nat­u­rally oblique. Some of Hiroshi’s shin­ing mo­ments: days-of-the-week con­doms ( Let’s go for it’s Mon­day!) and a Big Bud­dha snow globe that read, Bounce you in belly of love. Sim­ple. Happy. Solecis­tic. I ached to be as good.

I ached for Miriam, too, at once want­ing her back and know­ing I had to get over her. Like she was a moun­tain I had to climb. There could be noth­ing in front of me un­til she was be­hind me.

I had the job and not much else, so I worked. Climbed and worked. Worked and climbed. In time, I had some small suc­cess: my Up Your Bot­toms! shot glasses earned me a raise and my own sec­tion, Sta­tionery.

“There’s more li­cens­ing bull­shit, sure,” I ex­plained to my mother, “but I get more words, some­times whole sen­tences.”

En­thu­si­asm would not dis­tract Mother. “That’s nice, hon, but when are you com­ing home?”

“When I’m tired of it,” I said, though I sus­pected she knew what I re­ally meant. When the bed’s not too big. When the fry­ing pan’s not too wide. When I stop quot­ing god­damn Joni Mitchell.

“Well, how long do you think that will that take?”

Will it, I won­dered hon­estly. “Don’t know,” was all I said.

Har­mony­land! de­clared the glossy brochures fanned across the lunch­room ta­ble. Pho­tos of sparkly amuse­ment park rides and at­trac­tions over­laid with bub­bly, candy-coloured type. A few chil­dren ran hap­pily through the grounds, but mostly it was smil­ing teenagers and adults, cud­dling and pos­ing with a gi­ant, aproned Hello Kitty.

I waved a brochure at Hiroshi. “What’s this?” Kitty’s black olive eyes looked out from the page, her face happy look­ing de­spite be­ing mouth­less.

“For com­pany trip, in next April,” he an­swered, thread­ing a steam­ing noo­dle into his mouth.

Har­mony­land: Hello Kitty theme park; hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for English dec­o­ra­tors. I puz­zled it out. Pop­u­lar, rec­og­niz­able, English…less a thing in it­self than a thing ap­plied. I’d never thought about it be­fore, but Hello Kitty cap­tured the essence of English as a dec­o­ra­tive lan­guage. It was a per­fect in­stance, re­ally. Maybe even the first.

I un­folded the brochure and con­sid­ered a pil­grim­age to Kyushu. As a new em­ployee, I couldn’t en­ter the com­pany trip lottery, but I could go on my own. Look across Beppu Bay from a Won­der Panorama cage. Roam Kitty Cas­tle. Have my picture taken with a sea­son­ally dressed Kitty. Get lost in a dream on the San­rio Boat Ride. Pay homage at Har­mony­land, home of Hello Kitty, birth­place of English as a dec­o­ra­tive lan­guage!

My first rainy sea­son came on like weather in a movie. Drop the rain! the di­rec­tor shouted and it fell by the buck­et­ful, set­ting off car alarms and ham­mer­ing rooftops.

I ar­rived at Let’s English one morn­ing to find Hiroshi rum­mag­ing through the re­cy­cling bin, look­ing for scrap paper. I shook fat drops off my coat and dried my face and neck with my small towel, ab­sent­mind­edly run­ning a few dec­o­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties through my mind. Once in a while, I felt the words of a re­ally good line breathe into me, ex­pand­ing my chest and tug­ging at the creases there. Per­haps, I thought on good days, un­fold­ing them a lit­tle. The heal­ing balm of non­sense.

“Why don’t you use ap­proved Let’s English paper for brain­storm­ing?” I asked, rais­ing my voice so Hiroshi could hear me above the drum­ming of rain on glass.

“Yes-yes,” Hiroshi sang over his shoul­der, still rum­mag­ing.

“Or dip into the box of note­books in the stor­age room,” I con­tin­ued. “Reve­nous ideas for to­day and al­ways?”

“Yes,” Hiroshi said again. “Good idea.”

Through the win­dow, the leaves of the oak trees glowed bright green in the rain. The aban­doned note­books would stay aban­doned, I re­al­ized. What I didn’t know was why Hiroshi said yes when he had no in­ten­tion of res­cu­ing them. What was in the space be­tween his yes and his in­ac­tion, if not agree­ment?

“Ah!” Hiroshi said sud­denly, lay­ing his hands on a thick stack of un­used or­der forms.

“It’s only a spelling mis­take,” I said, test­ing. “The paper is still good.” I watched as Hiroshi placed the stack of forms on his desk next to his pen­cil case, clean side up.

“Spelling mis­take?” Hiroshi’s face went neu­tral as he tried to lo­cate my mean­ing. Then, re­mem­ber­ing, it went soft: the sug­ges­tion, the note­books. “Ah, so. Reve­nous,” he said.

Out­side, a line of black um­brel­las snaked along the side­walk. A man un­der an awning sucked deeply on a cig­a­rette. “Rainbow smiles on rainy day without um­brella,” I said aloud.

A tchk sound from Hiroshi.

I looked at him.

“We hide our mis­take,” he ex­plained. “Bury it to stor­age closet of our heart. We do not en­joy…” He reached for one of the elec­tronic de­vices on his desk, a hand­held Ja­panese-to-English trans­la­tor, and started typ­ing into it. “Dis­cord,” he said fi­nally.

I thought for a minute, then tried again. “Rainbow smiles float you by.”

A sharp nod from Hiroshi and a noise from his throat: Unng.

And I heard it. The sound of agree­ment. The sound of ap­proval. An hon­est-to-good­ness yes.

The mem­ory of a thou­sand Ja­panese yeses rained down on me. One was this: early days at Let’s English. Hiroshi and I had been dis­cussing the prod­ucts cat­a­logue.

“You take ‘Elec­tron­ics and Hobby’ and ‘Home and Gar­den,’” Hiroshi had said. “I take ‘Food and Drink,’ ‘Fash­ion,’ and ‘Healthy and Beauty.’”

“I think you mean ‘Health and Beauty,’” I said. I was try­ing to be help­ful, try­ing to put my lan­guage ad­van­tage to use.

Hiroshi looked up from where he sat at his desk—he’d been brain­storm­ing for the new line of Let’s English fin­ger­nail sets and had just pressed on a half-set of “Scar­lett O’Hara.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, ex­tend­ing his left arm to ex­am­ine his fin­ger­nails. He picked up a pen­cil and re­turned to his scrib­bling.

The yes rang hol­low but my ears didn’t hear it. Back then, I was liv­ing in a world where the mean­ing for no was a sin­gle word. Not the op­po­site of no. Not the si­lence of no. Not a lin­guis­tic mod­ern dance of no.

But I heard it now, against the un­spo­ken truth of Hiroshi’s gut­tural af­fir­ma­tion.

I let go a piti­ful laugh. There I was, think­ing I was safe, when re­ally no was ev­ery­where—be­yond the words. Sub­text. Had it been there with Miriam, too? In­stead of bring­ing up­set, the thought buoyed me. It felt good to feel a new pain.

The letter, thin and in­sub­stan­tial and ad­dressed to me in Miriam’s hand­writ­ing, ar­rived on a Tues­day. I car­ried it around with me, keep­ing an eye on it, wary. The letter might have de­liv­ered any kind of terrible news. My mind went there: a deadly dis­ease; trou­ble at school; love? But I wasn’t too far gone yet to think it might be some­thing good. Hope is ter­ri­bly elas­tic like that.

Days passed and still I held on to it. The longer I went without open­ing it, the more un­cer­tain I grew. By Fri­day af­ter­noon, ex­hausted with the work of won­der­ing, I’d had enough.

“Hey, if Mr. Sasaki comes in, cover for me, will you? I’m cut­ting out early.”

Hiroshi nod­ded. “No prob­lem.”

I turned and looked hard at him, lis­ten­ing for the key of sin­cer­ity. I couldn’t be sure. Once, I would have been, but now I knew bet­ter, de­spite

my­self. At best, yes was am­bigu­ous. I pulled on my coat and pushed out into the late-af­ter­noon driz­zle. To­day, I would risk it.

In the stuffy, over­crowded train car, al­most ev­ery­one was sleep­ing. Head back, mouth open. Chin to chest. Cheek to shoul­der. Snor­ing, drool­ing, fart­ing, dreaming. Obliv­i­ous to ev­ery­thing ex­cept sta­tion an­nounce­ments and deep vi­o­la­tions of per­sonal space. I had man­aged a seat but a busi­ness­man teetered over­head—tem­ple to pole, white spit­tle gath­er­ing in the cor­ners of his mouth—about to drop in a dead sleep on top of me.

Some­one spoke. The Ja­panese came fast and clipped, sep­a­rated by pauses, laugh­ter. The sounds rolled around in my ear. Mostly, the words faded, but a few pushed through into mean­ing, a shaky clar­ity in the static: Satur­day night…fig­ure out…elec­tion day…rou­tine—no—habit… habit of mine…

I scowled and closed my eyes, sink­ing into my coat, hands into pock­ets, kid­ding my­self that I didn’t know what was there.

My heart­beat thumped in my fin­ger­tips where they touched the en­ve­lope. I pulled the letter out and looked at my name pressed into the paper, the re­sult of her hand’s care­ful pen­strokes. Why was I here when I could be at my desk, safely im­mersed in the world of putting words on things? I closed my eyes again. Tee­ter­ing on the edge of sleep, I saw her writ­ing. Christ­mas tags, gro­cery lists, love notes word for word—

My chin hit the knot of my neck­tie. The train lurched and I felt the loom­ing man weave. The train stopped. Dis­ori­ented, I jumped up to fol­low the rush of peo­ple mov­ing through the open door.

I’d got­ten off at the wrong stop—mid­town, near Ko­fukuji Tem­ple and Nara Park. I headed to the park. At the en­trance, a plaque ex­plained in five lan­guages that, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, a god had ar­rived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built cap­i­tal, so to this day the Sika deer are re­garded as heav­enly.

On the east path, I passed a tourist hut sell­ing flags, fans, vel­vet paint­ings, stuffed toy deer and real, sawn-off deer antlers. The even­ing air was warm but the rain clouds had moved away. I took off my coat and walked deeper into the park, to­ward the deer en­clo­sure, watch­ing from afar as the an­i­mals took high steps on flat ground with bony, awk­ward grace. Like bal­let dancers, they looked hun­gry.

I bought rice crack­ers for the deer from a ven­dor. I had barely pock­eted the change when six or seven deer rushed me, fight­ing with each other and nip­ping at my hands as I tried to un­wrap the food. Deer pushed against me from ev­ery side. Star­tled, I let the crack­ers fall and hur­ried away. But one an­gry deer gave chase, snap­ping at my back­side. It closed on the letter in my back pocket and pulled it free.

I spun and grabbed at the en­ve­lope, catch­ing a cor­ner, while the deer held its end tight be­tween grey, grit­ted teeth. Nos­trils flar­ing, the deer re­leased its grip, then closed its strong jaws on the letter again, re­leased

and closed, re­leased and closed, its teeth inch­ing closer to my fin­gers each time.

A po­lite crowd gath­ered to watch the tug-of-war. Two Steam­punk teenagers—girls, maybe—in avi­a­tor gog­gles and tall lace-up boots. An Amer­i­can cou­ple wear­ing match­ing wind­break­ers. An old woman hold­ing a care­fully folded news­pa­per. A park worker lean­ing on an up­right dust­pan and broom, a garbage bag stuck through his belt loop.

I held fast to my ever-shrink­ing cor­ner and growled.

The crowd drew closer to­gether. The deer they could han­dle.

“Naze kareha Naze kore o hanasanai no ka?” the sweeper asked.

The trans­la­tion bloomed in my mind. Why doesn’t he just let go? “Sore ni wa nanika imi ga aru nan­deshou,” the old woman replied. It must mean some­thing to him.

I let go.

The deer stum­bled, stead­ied it­self, then backed away, munch­ing on Miriam’s words. The most im­por­tant meal it had ever eaten.

The crowd scat­tered, chatty and ex­cited af­ter the per­for­mance, while I set my­self down in the mid­dle of the path, breathing heav­ily and sweat­ing. The park worker moved in and swept up a few shreds of bis­cuit wrap­per and paper.

“Dai­jobu?” he asked, lean­ing in to touch me lightly on the shoul­der. I had been watch­ing the lone deer, track­ing its move­ment as it am­bled off through the shad­ows and re­joined the herd, be­com­ing one like the oth­ers. I started at the man’s touch, turned and looked at his con­cerned face, then down at his dust­pan.

“Yes. I’m fine,” I mum­bled in English.

Per­haps it was the friendly con­cern, the lift­ing of cloud cover, the prom­ise of cherry blos­soms work­ing on me, like so much in this place al­ready had. Per­haps my re­sponse was dec­o­ra­tive, and I was not fine, ac­tu­ally. Prob­a­bly it was both: I was fine and not fine, the way only some­one en­joy­ing their suf­fer­ing could be.

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