The narrow steps led to a subterranean refuge of dark wood and frosted mirrors, a tableau straight from lunch-bucket America––the life work of a bartender who had over the years exerted the type of tightly wound eccentricity that enabled creation of one’s own. In a land of conformity, intense pockets of personal creativity were allowed to flourish, ask-no-questions individuality coexisting with others’ perfect-to-a-fault tendencies. The foundation of wa was multifaceted no doubt, built to accommodate without bending.
The bartender Yoshi, known by patrons as Moe, had stubbornly maintained his bowl haircut over the years. Hayao knew him as Yoshi, a sign that their relationship had progressed. Giving a nod, Yoshi poured cold Kirin from the tap into a glass with just enough head. As the bartender wiped down the counter, Hayao took in Ultraman figures perched on the cash register in decades-long battle with a plastic dinosaur. Propped in front of a couple bottles, tinted postcards of Los Angeles from the 1940s, Hollywood sign and too-bright palm trees amid Spanish stucco. Gumshoe deluxe.
There was only one other pair of patrons––a quiet couple who seemed to have struck up a friendship at work… unconsummated as yet, Hayao decided. He gave them a year until engagement and a steep decline in their bar-crawling activities, even at the young end of the night. He cast a long look at the solid wood American billiard table, namesake of the bar, beckoning in the center of the room…. the regular customers would not start arriving until past midnight.
He turned back to Yoshi, blessed with unrepentant mop, too thick for his age, and took another draught. They had not known each other in high school, though he always felt that they might have. A similarly hardscrabble experience following the war had led to a shared questioning of all forms of authority. Yoshi had been explicit in his unwillingness to be defined by orders from above. Hayao had been a little more obtuse, turning that conviction within, determined to make sure that fundamental mistakes were not repeated within a system in which fanaticism seemed to keep creeping in.
If shared backgrounds went a long way in cementing their bond, practical synergies did the rest. One of Hayao’s last remaining sources of real information on Roppongi, Yoshi rarely forgot what others told him at the bar. More than that, his quiet countenance brought forth a certain intimacy among those who felt driven to talk into their drinks, if not fully confess.
“Same old cobwebs gathering––on the bright side, robins are starting to nest outside the window.”
“The path of the known recedes as stars arise.”
“Basho?” Hayao asked.
Yoshi shook his head and turned back to the counter with a slight smile. One of his originals.
“Know anything about last night at love hotel, unexplained bodies in the night?”
“I heard something, unknown victim and the assailant… she was either new in Roppongi or kept out of view. Maybe she worked in Ginza, Shibuya. You’re the first to come shaking the tree.”
“Not that I know of, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Does a shadow announce itself?”
Hayao took a long sip and finished his beer. He had been hopeful of quick resolution, but nothing was nothing. Yoshi was on the alert now, something would surely find its way to him. Anyway, there were more bartenders, hostesses, and dealers to finesse as the night progressed.
“Game of billiards?” Yoshi asked, preemptively lifting his pool cue from its slot under the counter. Hayao nodded, “and another beer,” he said, taking out wallet and passing over a bill that accounted for ten drinks. Down payment. Yoshi did not provide change as their attention shifted to the wide table, rare pleasure in the crack of racked legions and the settling of balls into deep pockets.
A half hour later Hayao walked up the steps a little unsteady and braced himself––the wind had picked up, chilling semi-arthritic bones. As he walked down the street toward Roppongi Crossing a man in tan overcoat with unmistakable hammer nose rounded the corner––Kobayashi, his old batch-mate and one-time ally––one of the half dozen on whom suspicion had settled and never quite left when life went off the rails. There was just time for their eyes to meet, not quite enough time for a nod––no inclination on either’s part to stop.
Hayao's persistent sense of drifting gave way to a sharp question, a kick to the system less than a block from the love hotel. Meeting accidental? Probably. Coincidence that they were both trawling the same streets? He thought not.