Nagoya Writes

January 6, 2008

Umbrella Maneuver by Tom Beulle

Filed under: Bauerle,Issue: Dec 2006,Prose — usbengoshi @ 8:12 am

The umbrella man guards us from the nameless dread. Each dawn he steps from beneath the elevated highway where he sleeps in a cardboard box that once housed a copy machine. He stands and stretches while his grim, unwashed face squints into the rising sun. With exact precision, he assembles his equipment. From the pockets of his quilt-lined corduroy pants, he withdraws three fist-sized balls of tin foil. He draws down the zipper of his wrinkle-cracked nylon jacket and then unrolls the foil in long strips, winding it like surgical tape around his upper torso. Soon he is crinkling and shining from stomach to chin. Next, he begins humming softly to himself as he reaches overhead and takes down a set of broken Yamaha stereo headphones that had been dangling from a rusted metal bolt in one of the highway bridge abutments. He tucks the plug end of the headphones beneath the foil under his right arm, wriggling it around to make sure it is making good contact.

When the headphones have been jammed down over his woolen cap, ear scoops securely over his ears, the Umbrella Man reaches inside his cardboard box home and takes out a long black metal object. He unlocks the catch and the head unfolds to reveal the stripped skeleton of an umbrella. The cloth covering has been removed, leaving only the thin metal fishbone beneath. Wrapped around the handle is a thick coil of electrical wire. The Umbrella Man tucks the loose end of the wire under the tin foil covering his stomach and lodges it securely in, just above his navel. Gripping the umbrella in both hands, he points its Medusa metal head directly at the eastern horizon and begins listening for the whispers of warning.

The Umbrella Man is usually the first familiar face I see as I stumble each morning from the Sakai Subway station to the office where I work. He’s there today, surveying the dawn sky; head cocked to one side, best ear thrust forward inside his earphones, turning and adjusting the position of his umbrella for better reception.     It is the middle of summer. The short walk from the station has raised the sweat on my forehead. My shirt was already dripping from the unwanted friction of the packed bodies of strangers on the rush hour subway car. Having been brought up in the spacious prairies of Midwest America, I still feel queasy every time I am forced to endure the touch of the bodies of so many strangers shoved up against mine. One very well dressed, tiny woman had repeatedly pressed herself close to my backside to try and escape the advances of a middle-aged salary man standing behind her. He had kept his face impassive, eyes focused elsewhere, as if nothing were going on, while he used the swaying movement of the crowd to maneuver his crotch up against her buttocks. Her attempts to dodge his pelvic thrusts had caused her to inadvertently dry hump my rear end until I wormed myself around against the press of humanity, lifted her up and put her on the far side of me where the pervert couldn’t reach her.

When I looked the old molester in the eye, there was not one trace of guilt on his face, but a rather sly and knowing smile as if he and I shared some kind of dark secret together. He had misread the meaning of my movements, and immediately tried to stick his privates between my butt cheeks. I grimaced and elbowed the little bastard solidly in the chest. He exhaled with the blow and backed away as far as he could. His face looked genuinely hurt and betrayed. I couldn’t read the look on the lady’s face. Was it gratitude? Shame? Disgust that she had been touched by two men, not just one?

The Umbrella Man stands in his cracked coat and corduroys, oblivious to the heat. His home-made radar dish is held aloft, his entire being open to the heavens as he sifts through the star static and cosmic hum for the signal he seeks. He listens, turns the umbrella a quarter turn, pauses, and listens again.

I sneak closer and ambush him from behind. “Getting anything today?” I ask, maybe a little too loud. He jumps, sucks in a startled breath, relaxes when he turns and sees my face.

“Nothing yet,” he replies. “But it’s coming soon.”

Even though I’ve got my darkest shades covering my eyes, I still have to raise my hand to shield against the reflection of the sun on his foil-wrapped body. One of those weird time-stop distortion moments hits me as he disappears into a shining silver halo.

“What, exactly are you looking for?” I ask. We’ve played this game before, but it pleases me to hear him talk. His voice is deep but merry, like an accommodating bullfrog.

“It,” he replies. “It’s coming for all of us.”

“What is it, exactly? I mean, is it something big or small?”

“Big enough to get us all. Small enough to be personal.”

“Is it hard or soft?”

“Its coming will be gentle. Its arrival will be very hard, maybe impossible to resist.”

“Is it hot or cold?”

“Hot as your darkest desire. The cold you don’t want to know about.”

“Well, let me know when it’s time to head for the hills, will you?” I speak into the light. I am stun blinded, but he crinkles when he moves, so I hear rather than see him nod in affirmation. Then he turns his attention back to the far horizon and the sun’s reflection is blocked by the back of his coat.

When my eyes have refocused, I walk on my way.

As I come abreast the copy machine cardboard box he lives in, I pause long enough to take a thin paper bill out of my pocket and stick it in the cutaway door he has sawed in the side. The Umbrella Man has strict rules. I am only allowed to give him money on the end of the month, because he knows it’s my payday. He gets insulted if I leave more than a 1,000 yen note at a time. After dropping the bill in, I go on my way while we both pretend not to notice what I’ve just done. Today, however, something out of the usual happens. As I walk away, a sharp flash of light at my back lets me know he’s turned to watch me. I hear him take in a breath as if he is about to say something to me. Even though I know I shouldn’t look, my head turns involuntarily toward him. I catch him out of the corner of my eye as he quickly jerks his head away and returns to his task of sifting through the sonics of sunrise. I walk on, leaving him standing boldly on the curb stone, listening and serving as the first line of defense for whatever it is he fears is coming for us all.

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