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Readings — From the September 2019 issue

The Fruits of Suffering

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From descriptions of dreams in The Grave on the Wall, a memoir by Brandon Shimoda, out this month from City Lights. The book is an elegy for the author’s grandfather Midori.

My father and I are in Manhattan. We are trying to get to Kelly and Neil’s apartment in Brooklyn, but we do not know where the subway is. We stop in at a flower shop. Cross the bridge, the florist says, then turn left.

There are thousands of people on the bridge. The bridge is dark, without lights. The thousands of people have formed a mass and are moving with tremendous speed, like a river, bodies down a river. It’s a protest, I say. We try to join, but it is moving too fast, so we wait for the mass to go by. After it passes, we climb onto the bridge and walk across it into the dark.

On the other end of the bridge is a forest of thin trees bearing enormous red fruit.

Neil and I are in a very run-down bookstore. The bookstore consists of four rickety shelves holding mass-market paperbacks. One shelf is taken up with a series of paperbacks, all the same color and size, each with the name of a state on the spine: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas . . . I flip through a few: historical fiction, all by the same author. The author photo shows a young white man with blond hair wearing a military uniform.

Among the states is, oddly: Japan.

The bookstore clerk tells us the author lives down the road, we should visit. We knock on his door. He is not a young man anymore, but old, bald and bloated. His body shakes. He invites us into his office, then disappears. On his desk is a rare edition of the book on Japan. Instead of being a mass-market paperback, however, the book is a series of drawings on a delicate scroll, tightly wound and set into the shell of a living snail. I extract the scroll from the shell, and begin unraveling it, but unravel it too far, I cannot get it back into the shell! The snail, inside the shell, is like a very wide, very wet tongue, and is trying to either push the scroll out of the way or devour it.

Children are waving long glow sticks. It is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. There is going to be a reenactment. At 9:30 (it should be 8:15), a fake bomb will be dropped. It is called a spectacle bomb. Everyone says it is going to be blinding. You can look, but everyone is advised not to. I separate from the crowd—there is a stifling amusement park atmosphere—and stand on a hill to take notes. I discover strange sores and welts on my body, especially my arms, as though my body is reacting to the radiation, though the spectacle bomb is fake, and has not yet been dropped. I rejoin the crowd to look for something to eat: soda, potato chips. School buses pull up. Children pile out of the buses. It is nine o’clock.

Twenty-four years after immigrating to the United States from Japan, Midori returns, via boat, to Yokohama. Upon arrival he is given a gun. What am I supposed to do with this? he asks. Kill the enemy, he is told. But who is the enemy? he asks. Focus, he is told. You are not in America anymore, Midori. You are in Japan. He stares at the gun in his hands, then looks up. He is alone. It is winter. Snow mutes the smell of smoke.

A monk is sitting behind me. I can feel his smirk on the back of my neck. The secret of the monk’s success: he believes in nothing. Everything is. There is no need for belief. But the monk’s lack of belief is specific. He devised a way to understand life, and called it: suffering. But the monk is intolerant. He cannot bear the sight of his demented grandparents vomiting. They will be dead soon. Their deaths will open a gap in which will materialize a vision of the monk’s immortal self.

The monk saw his grandparents naked once, curled up in a bed that resembled an enormous nest, made of sticks, hair, newspapers. He had never seen them naked before, and was struck by how indistinguishable their bodies were—gray, flaccid—from each other. Life is already too long, he thought. He wanted his grandparents to be young again. It looked very much like the fruits of suffering: speechlessness, incontinence, loss of faculties, an age-old bitterness, fermented.

I explain to my cello teacher that I am having trouble playing with emotion. It’s stuck behind the fingerboard, I say. He takes the cello and turns it around, then tells me to try again.

A truck pulls into the parking lot behind the building where I am struggling with the cello. The truck is mud-brown and green. In its trailer lives a troupe of Kabuki actors. The trailer has ventilation slits that cannot be seen from the outside. When the moment is right, the top and sides of the trailer are taken down to form a stage, and the actors are revealed, but when is the moment right? There is only one right moment, and it must be summoned: if someone asks the driver, What’s in the trailer? But no one ever asks. The Kabuki actors stay in the trailer, keeping themselves occupied, justifying their imprisonment by saying to themselves that they are rehearsing, always rehearsing.

Kabuki used to be performed only by men. That has changed. The women, who have replaced the men, resent the question. They are not content to perform for anyone who asks. That criteria, no matter how infrequently invoked, is, they feel, completely lacking in the respect with which a stranger must ask after what they do not yet know is magic. The women would prefer to rehearse in the privacy of their trailer—in the blades of light stretching through the ventilation slits. Unlike the men, their imaginations do not depend upon the walls. Their rehearsing is devotional. They would prefer to create their performance as a permanently foreign language.

The best time to see a performance is in the winter, just after it snows. It is then that the actors’ costumes, composed of every shape and color, seem, against the surrounding white, to float, electrified.

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