Sons & Fathers
By Tony Concannon
Standing in the falling snow outside the package store, Hiroshi Tomita was both drunk and surprised. Snow was rare in Hota, Japan, especially in late March. Three hours earlier, when he’d started drinking in the back of the store, it’d been only raining. Clutching the bottle of sake he’d bought, he started off to Inoue’s house. The sake was a gift for him. That afternoon Inoue had stopped in the package store to have a drink and he and Tomita had spoken for the first time in years.
Inoue hadn’t been able to stop talking about the time he’d beaten Tomita in the sprints at the sports meet in junior high school.
“You cheated. You started early,” Tomita had kept saying.
“I didn’t start early. I started fast. There’s a difference.”
“Then how come I beat you every time all the way through elementary school?”
“I worked on my starts in junior high school.”
“Whatever,” Tomita had said. “Those were good times back then.”
As boys they had been inseparable, playing at the shore or along the river running behind Inoue’s house. Both had been only children and they’d been more like brothers than friends. Everything had changed once they’d reached high school. Inoue had passed the entrance exam for the best high school in Chiba Prefecture, where Hota was. That same year Tomita’s mother had died from cancer and Tomita had dropped out of the local high school. Inoue had gone on to attend Keio University in Tokyo, where he’d settled after graduation, getting a job at one of the big banks and marrying a local girl. Tomita, who’d never married or even held the same job for more than a few years, still lived with his father. This past November Inoue’s father had dropped dead from a stroke and in January Inoue had quit his job at the bank in Tokyo to move back to Hota to take over the family paper mill.
The snow was wet and Tomita shivered as he walked through the town. Small shops lined both sides of the narrow street, which ran parallel to the train tracks. It was dark out already and most of the shops were already closed. Here and there the snow had been pushed out into the middle of the road.
The woman who owned the vegetable store was standing under the awning. She had on black boots. A blue kerchief was tied around her head.
“It’s terrible out,” she said as he passed.
He didn’t stop to talk as he usually did with anyone he met in town. His mind was on Inoue and what he was going to say to him. Trying to emulate America, Japan had gone in the wrong direction after the war. Money was the only thing people cared about. And status. What school. What company. Inoue’s moving back to his hometown was a good thing. It was where he belonged. At the end of the street, Tomita turned left. The wet snow was in his face as he climbed the hill. He was a big man and he walked with long strides. The shrine on the right at the top was dark. Every fall Tomita still helped carry the mikoshi, the portable shrine weighing over a thousand kilograms, through the streets during the town festival. The snow was piling up fast and he nearly lost his footing twice. He stopped under a tree to light a cigarette. Past the shrine was a stone wall going around an abandoned house that had belonged to the richest family in town. Inoue and he used to climb over the wall at night and sneak onto the grounds. Tomita had often thought that those years before his mother died, when he and Inoue had been friends, had been the happiest of his life. He went around a corner, and Inoue’s house, one of the biggest in the neighborhood, was on the left. There was an iron fence and a long gravel driveway.
Tomita turned into the driveway. The snow was several centimeters deep on the grass. The steps had been swept off once, but they were covered in snow again. There was no railing. Tomita climbed the three steps and rang the doorbell. As a boy, he’d called for Inoue in front of the house. There was movement in the big window to the left. Tomita rang the doorbell again. He leaned back to see who was in the window. The angle was wrong and he stepped down one step with his left foot. His foot slipped on the wet snow and suddenly he was lying on his back at the bottom of the steps. He could see the window now. A boy stared out at him.
Tomita was unhurt, but he lay there, not moving. The bottle had smashed against the walk and shattered, splattering sake on his face and clothes. The smell was strong. The boy was watching from the window. The light over the door went on and the Inoue came out of the house and down the steps.
“Are you okay?”
“Did you hit your head?”
“Let me help you up.”
“Just let me lie here.”
“Bring me a towel,” Inoue called to his wife standing inside the open door at the top of the steps.
Tomita looked at the window. The boy was gone. Inoue’s wife came out with a towel and handed it to her husband. She went back into the house.
“Sit up and wipe yourself with this,” Inoue said.
He helped Tomita to a sitting position. Tomita took the towel.
“Why didn’t you answer the door?” he asked.
Inoue didn’t say anything. Tomita glanced at the window. The boy was there again.
“Is that your son?”
My oldest child. Koichiro.”
Tomita was still wiping his face and clothes with the towel when his father came up the driveway. He wasn’t as tall as Tomita, but he had wide shoulders and a thick chest.
“I’m sorry we had to call you,” Inoue said.
“I’m the one to apologize.”
“He said he’s okay.”
“Of course he’s okay. Just drunk. Like he is every night.”
Tomita’s father reached where Tomita was sitting, bent down, and smacked him on the side of the head with the back of his hand.
“Take it easy,” Inoue said.
“Forty years old and still causing problems for me. Get up so these people can be left alone.”
Tomita’s father put his hand under Tomita’s shoulder and tried to pull him up.
“Give me a hand.”
Inoue took the other arm and the two of them pulled Tomita to his feet. Tomita staggered. His father was still holding onto his arm.
“I’ll come back and clean that up for you,” Tomita’s father said to Inoue.
“I’ll get it. I’m just going to put it out back so it won’t stink up the house.”
“He’s so drunk you can smell him from the shrine.”
“Why didn’t you answer the door?” Tomita asked Inoue.
“Don’t listen to him,” Tomita’s father said.
He shoved Tomita down the driveway. Tomita turned his head toward the house. The boy was watching from the window.
* * *
It was still dark when Tomita woke in his room on the second floor. The room smelled of sake. He was stone sober now. His head hurt and his throat was dry. He put on a pair of pants and a sweater and went down the stairs in his bare feet to the bathroom. When he finished, he went into the kitchen and filled a glass with water from the faucet. He drank the cold water and put the empty glass on the counter. From the kitchen drawer, he drew out a knife.
His father slept in the room off the kitchen. Tomita stood at the open door. He held the knife behind his back. During the day the room doubled as a living room. In the darkness, he could make out his father’s form on the floor and the clock on the bureau. It was two-thirty. In the corner was the miniature shrine with pictures of Tomita’s mother and his grandparents. The only sounds were the ticking of the clock and his father’s breathing.
Tomita couldn’t face Inoue now. They could have become friends again, meeting for drinks at the package store once or twice a week. He would have gotten to know Inoue’s son Koichiro, maybe taking him fishing when Inoue was busy at work. Inoue would have helped during the fall festival. They would have shown Koichiro how to carry the mikoshi. The young people in town didn’t care about the festival anymore but Koichiro would have been different. None of that would happen now.
Tomita looked at his father. He slept peacefully, his body rising and falling. He was a carpenter and he got up at daybreak every morning. He was still a powerful man. Jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji. The only things to be afraid of were earthquakes, lightning, fires, and your old man. Tomita hated him. He’d ruined everything.
The clock ticked loudly in the quiet house. Tomita would call the police in the morning and they would come and arrest him for killing his father. He would go to prison. The story would be on the front page of the newspaper and Inoue would read it.
It was nearly three o’clock before Tomita put away the knife and went back to bed. He’d never entered the room. When he woke the next morning he could smell miso. He went downstairs and opened the front door. The sun was strong and it would melt the snow quickly. He shut the door. His father had already left for work. He’d put away his bedding and set up the low table they used for meals. On top of the table, the rice cooker was plugged in and there was a pot of tea.
Tomita was hungry and he went into the kitchen to warm the misoshiru. He was late for his current job at a local machine parts company but he didn’t care.
* * *
A month later Tomita was drinking in the back of the package store. He’d been let go from the machine parts company for being late so often. Asano, his father’s business partner, came in.
“Your father,” Asano said. “They took him by ambulance to the hospital.”
“His heart. His chest hurt and he couldn’t breathe normally. My car’s outside.”
Tomita left the jar of sake he’d been drinking on the counter and followed Asano outside.
“Is he alive?” Tomita asked as he was getting into Asano's car.
“He was when the ambulance came.”
Asano dropped Tomita off in front of the emergency entrance at the rear of the hospital. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” Asano said.
“I’m Akira Tomita’s son,” Tomita told the nurse at the triage desk and she asked him to wait.
She went through a steel door. A moment later she opened the door and beckoned Tomita to come. Inside, a different nurse approached Tomita. She bowed slightly.
“Your father’s going into surgery. He’s lucky to be alive. We had to use the paddles three times. He has a massive blockage on his right side and we’re going to put in a stent.”
“Can I see him?”
“Not until after the surgery. The triage nurse will show you where you can wait.”
She bowed slightly once more.
Tomita was dozing on a bench in the waiting area when one of the nurses gently tapped his shoulder.
“You can see your father now but only for a few minutes,” she said. “The operation was a success.”
In the bed in the recovery room, his father seemed smaller. An oxygen mask was strapped to his face. He muttered something.
“What?” Tomita asked. He leaned closer to his father.
“Help Asano,” his father whispered.
Tomita straightened. His father closed his eyes.
* * *
Tomita called Asano the following morning and began helping him. When Tomita had been young, his father had taught him the rudiments of carpentry in the hope of Tomita someday taking over the business. For years, though, Tomita had resisted his father’s entreaties to work with him. Now Tomita found the work with Asano both easy and enjoyable. Every night, after Asano and he finished for the day, Tomita visited his father at the hospital.
“Did you get the framing done today?” his father asked. All he ever wanted to know was how the work was going.
“Don’t worry. How long did they have you walk today?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
His father hated the treadmill.
“I wish they’d let me smoke,” he said.
* * *
One evening, when Tomita was leaving the hospital, he ran into Inoue and his son in the lobby. The boy’s arm was in a cast. Tomita hadn’t seen Inoue since that night at his house.
“What’s up?” Inoue asked. He was as tall as Tomita but much slimmer.
“My father had a heart attack.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
Tomita nodded. “They put in a stent.”
“That’s good to hear. My father was dead before he got here.”
Tomita was staring at the boy.
“He fell out of a tree and broke his arm,” Inoue said.
“Like you did.”
Inoue smiled. “Probably the same tree. Please give my regards to your father. We’ll have a drink sometime.”
“Take care of your son.”
* * *
At the beginning of June Tomita’s father came home from the hospital. He still seemed somehow diminished and he moved slowly. He needed a second stent, on the other side, which the doctors wanted to do in six months. He made breakfast and lunch for Tomita and had dinner waiting in the evenings. They ate mostly in silence.
“How do those windows look?” his father would ask.
“Fine. Asano knows what he’s doing. How are you feeling?”
His father waved his hand in a dismissive motion. “I’m sick of sitting around here all day.”
“Are you doing your walking?”
His father just shook his head. His cigarette burned in the ashtray.
“The doctor doesn’t want you smoking,” Tomita said.
“Are you going to tell on me?”
* * *
Most nights Tomita stopped for a drink at the package store but he no longer got drunk. He was drinking by himself at the back of the store one evening at the beginning of July when Inoue walked in.
“What are you doing here?” Tomita asked.
“Just stopped by to pick up some wine.”
“Have a drink.”
Inoue took a jar of sake and opened it. “Kampai.”
“Kampai. Hot enough for you?”
“It’s cooler than Tokyo was. How’s your father doing?”
“He’s lucky to have you.”
Tomita laughed. “He’s never said that.”
“Even if he’s never said that, that’s how he feels. You stayed here all these years. I wasn’t here even when my father died.”
“You came back to run the mill.”
“I had no choice. I still feel guilty.”
Tomita drank some sake. “You did what your father wanted. You went to school. You got a good job.”
“He never said it but I think he always wanted me to come back here.”
“My father and I fight all the time,” Tomita said. “That night at your house I wanted to kill him.”
“All sons want to kill their fathers.”
“How about Koichiro?”
“He’s still little.”
“Bring him to the festival.”
“I will. I don’t know if I can still carry the mikoshi.”
* * *
A week later Tomita and his father were eating dinner when there was a shout at the door. It was Inoue.
“Come on in,” Tomita shouted back.
“I’m just here for a moment,” Inoue said when he entered the living room. He was carrying a bag.
“Inoue-kun, come in. Sit down. Have something to eat,” Tomita's father said.
Inoue waved his hand. “I’m just here for a moment. I brought this for you. It’s nothing, really.”
He placed the bag on the table. Inside was a cantaloupe.
“You didn’t have to go to that trouble,” Tomita’s father said.
“No trouble. It’s nothing, really. I ran into Hiroshi and he said you were home.”
“Thank you.” Tomita’s father bowed his head slightly. He motioned with his hand.
“Sit down and have something to eat.”
“I can’t,” Inoue said. “Next time. They’re waiting at home for me. My wife doesn’t like it when I’m late.
Tomita’s father smiled. “Next time then. Thank you for the cantaloupe.” He bowed his head again.
“Take care of yourself,” Inoue said.
Tomita walked him to the door. He went back into the room.
“You should have done what he did,” his father said.
“Stay in school. Get a good job. Get married.”
“How could I?”
“What do you mean how could you? You stopped studying. You dropped out of school.”
“That was after Mom died.”
“You didn’t have to drop out of school because your mother died.”
“What about you? What were you doing? Getting drunk every night. You were never around.”
“I worked. I took care of you.”
“But you were never around. Not for me. Drinking every night until you passed out.”
“It was hard for me after your mother died,” his father shouted.
“It was hard for me, too. I loved her,” Tomita shouted back.
“I loved her, too. She held our family together,” his father said in a softer voice.
Tomita didn’t say anything. He and his father stared at each other for a long moment before Tomita walked out.
* * *
The next night, when Tomita got home, his father was waiting at the table they used every night.
“Please sit down,” his father said.
Tomita sat on the floor across from him. His father put both hands on the floor and bowed deeply.
“I apologize,” he said.
“For what?” Tomita asked.
“After your mother died, I wasn’t a good father to you.”
Tomita shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s over,” he said. “It was a long time ago. You don’t need to apologize.”
“It’s not over. I do need to apologize.”
The clock ticked loudly in the quiet room.
“I was angry after your mother died,” his father said. “I felt sorry for myself. Something had been taken from me and I had no room in my heart for anyone else.”
“I was angry, too,” Tomita said. “I missed her so much.”
His father bowed deeply again. He seemed very old. The powerful man he’d been was gone. His arms were thin and his chest sagged. There was no strength in his face.
“I apologize, too,” Tomita said. “I didn’t have to stop studying and drop out of school. I just didn’t care about anything anymore. I missed Mom so much.” He bowed to his father.
* * *
At the end of July, his father started working half a day, doing the light finish work. Asano and Tomita did all of the lifting and climbing on the ladders. While his father was waiting for the other two to complete something, he would smoke cigarettes and shout orders.
“Hiroshi, that’s not straight.”
“Come up here and do it yourself if you don’t like it.”
“If I did, it would be straight.”
“You’d probably fall off the ladder.”
Asano smiled. He enjoyed the banter.
* * *
It was a Sunday morning in late August when there was no breakfast waiting when Tomita came downstairs. He couldn’t remember ever being up first. He drank a glass of water at the sink before he checked on his father. He looked peaceful. Then Tomita noticed he wasn’t moving.
After the body had been removed, Tomita called his father’s two brothers and his mother’s sister. The neighbors had seen the body being taken away and they’d already begun to prepare for the otsuuya, or the wake, which would be held at the temple that evening. His father had been sixty-seven.
* * *
Tomita went back to work with Asano the day after his father’s ashes had been placed in the family grave on top of the small hill at the outskirts of the town. The house felt empty and each night he drank at the package store. It was the middle of September when Inoue walked in one night.
“Are you doing okay?” he asked.
“I’m getting by.”
Inoue took a jar of sake off the shelf and came over to where Tomita was standing.
“Losing a parent is never easy even at our age,” Inoue said.
“My father and I spoke about a month before he died.”
“I’d always been angry at him since my mother died,” Tomita went on. "I blamed him for what went wrong in my life and I used it as an excuse. He apologized to me. And I apologized to him.”
Inoue opened the jar and took a drink.
“It’s good you had that chance,” he said. “My father died suddenly and a lot was left unsaid between us.”
* * *
The festival was on the last Sunday in September. It was a warm, bright day. Earlier Tomita had helped carry the mikoshi throughout the streets. Inoue, who’d come with his wife and two children, had gamely taken a turn. He and Tomita were drinking at one of the stalls along the street. The mikoshi. was resting on the uma, or blocks, outside the shrine. Inside, the town elders were sitting at a long table. In recent years Tomita’s father had always sat with them.
“My shoulder’s going to be sore tomorrow,” Inoue shouted over the noise.
“Drink more and it won't hurt,” Tomita said.
“I missed this. Tokyo’s different.”
“My father started bringing me here every year as soon as I could walk,” Tomita said.
“My father never brought me here. He was always working. I used to tag along with you.”
“I remember that. We'll have to show Koichiro how to carry the mikoshi when he gets bigger.”
“That would be good.”