Coming back from work that day, I had the obscure idea of playing with a thousand-sided dice.
“O-Oh, sorry, I’m busy over the weekends, kids are a handful. Maybe another time?”
“No, It’s fine. Another time then. Take care.”
A prolonged beep bounced around in my ear. After the call ended, I realized how small my contact list was. Falling back into the white sheets, I started at the ceiling. Rain trickled down the windows of the apartment, clicking with each touch. A dull ache ran through my arms and shoulders. Two tickets to a local amusement park sat slotted between my fingers. Using both seemed out of the question. A timid man stood inside the mall, advertising his tickets. It seemed that he wasn’t going to put them to use. Tangling with ticket reselling was never my thing, so the entire situation was more than dreamlike. I bought the tickets, of course, at less than market price. I was too delirious after work.
The morning after, the school had to call in another substitute in my place, the fourth in the last two weeks alone. My boss didn’t buy it. How long would it go for? I didn’t think I’d hit a mid-life crisis in my early 30’s. What was it? Was it the students? Or a lack of a passion towards Japanese literature? Or was it the mere feeling of being in the classroom? Repetition was a strange phenomenon. Repetition turned a fresh artist into a seasoned one. Other times, it was poison. But still, skipping work wasn’t a new venture.
There were a few dim bars, a neon-lit arcade in Akihabara and the Shinjuku National Park. They were all good substitutes for work. Never an amusement park though. They were too loud, too populated. Especially after coming from work. But I didn’t want to waste the tickets, especially as I’d have to break my back for the next week. If I used one, then I ’d have to either give away the other or visit the park alone a second time. Carrying those thoughts, I shut my eyes. Burying my cheeks under a woolen scarf, I left my apartment in the afternoon and tucked my hands into a winter coat. I got into a cab – a beige Toyota Corolla – the most basic of basic vehicles. If someone asked what for an example of a ‘boring’ car, it topped the list. In that sense, it was an extraordinary vehicle. The interior reeked of pine and window cleaning chemicals. The radio was on, but the volume knob sat cranked to the left.
When the driver asked me where I was going, he didn’t have a face. I was too busy unravelling cheap no-named earphones from my handbag. He had the syntax of a middle-aged man, but a lighter voice, a strange combination. The car shifted out from the sidewalk and crawled into a torrent of lined cars. Traffic. Not being in a rush, it wasn’t a problem. But traffic was rarely not annoying. The absence of stimuli was a sad, barren experience. I switched on a recording of Chopin’s 9th Opus Nocturnes – the most tranquil of tranquil music. Liquid arpeggios made the world quiet, null, non-existent. Above all else, Chopin was only the only composer that could do that, for me. Chopin’s Ballades, Nocturnes and Waltzes were useful when marking tests and essays.
“Meeting with a friend there?” The driver asked. Casual conversation. Small talk.
“You’re going alone? In this weather?”
“I guess so.”
“That’s no good.”
I plugged my headphones back in and started reading. I had a paperback copy of the ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’ in my bag. My childhood friend Ebina suggested it to me, eyes wide when she realized that I ’d never read it, despite being a literature teacher. It was a classic too. Feeling embarrassed at the lack of awareness in what was ‘my field’, I borrowed the book. In the cab, I picked up around halfway. But then a few seconds passed, and the car stopped at a red light. A boy in a white ragtag shirt, with a green insignia loitered around on the sidewalk. It was a student from the school, a boy around sixteen years old, missing his tie, half his shirt buttons undone. I appreciated the driver a lot more than before. The burning scent of cleaning solutions wasn’t so bad.
“Chopin?” Asked the driver.
The sound was higher than I thought it was. My face turned red, heated. Where the hell’s the AC? The buttons on the panel are bright green and the dial is on the blue side. Is it broken?
“S-Sorry?” I said, popping one of my earphones out.
“It’s a nice piece, the Nocturne in E-Flat Major. You play?
“Yeah,” I said, “Only a bit though. Good enough to play a few things here and there, not good enough to make a career out of it.
“Ah, that’s a shame, or not. Depends, I guess.”
“Well. It sure would’ve been better than my current job.”
“Do you mind if I play a game?”
“A guessing game. I like guessing what my passengers do for work.”
Playing ‘games’ with a cab driver was a strange concept, albeit amusing. We were moving again. The driver shifted the mirror down, putting his passenger into view. He furrowed his brows, as if he was looking for a certain book in a maze-like library. How many years of driving sat inside that head, behind those narrow eyes? If he lit a cigar and did all three like something out of a yakuza film, I wouldn’t drop my jaw. He wasn’t the only one inspecting. I imagined the scene like Sherlock Holmes examining a worthy, inquisitive criminal mastermind. Of course, the actual scene was far less amusing. There were no mental acrobatics or sharp glares or the fitted European blazers of the late 1800s.
With people around that age, you’d wonder if they were married, or had children. I did just that. No ring.
“Doesn’t seem like you like your job very much. You work with people?”
“Your clothes and bag look expensive, and it looks like you’ve been to a hairdresser recently. So, it doesn’t seem like you’d work in retail, but you don’t strike me as being a good saver either.”
At this point, I stopped slouching. A part of me wanted to tell him to watch the road, but another part of me leapt around, eager to hear more. I ’d rode cabs before, but I never met a driver like this one. He wasn’t quiet, or too loud. And for some reason, hearing him speak had a suspensive effect. I’d heard of the ‘Barnum Effect’ before, things ‘psychics’ prophesied. Yet, I plucked out my other earphone, leaving my ears open. This was different. Not a scam, this was pure observation at work.
“Seems like you make a respectable amount then, but not too much.”
“You wouldn’t be in this old cab then.”
“I could just be cost-efficient, or drunk.”
A hint of cheap sake stuck to my mouth. I didn’t want to think about the dangers of day-drinking. I would’ve been in shambles if my students knew. For me, day drinking was one of those habits, where every conscious attempt to drop it would always fail. Every proclamation after watching an inspiring documentary or celebrity talk, wrapped in a ball of enthusiasm and optimism would fall apart by the next week.
Habits like that never disappeared, but if they did, they’d disappear when you wouldn’t think anything of it. You’d just stop repeating the habit one day and then it dies out. Of course, I hadn’t reached that stage yet, not with this dear habit.
“I don’t think so.”
“To the first or the second?”
“Both. Haven’t met many ‘cost-efficient’ people in this cab. And you’re too stable to be drunk. Someone like you wouldn’t handle alcohol well.”
Leaning back again, for some reason, I had a feeling that the driver already knew. It was like expecting something rare or exceptional, for no real reason, much like drawing a lottery ticket. ‘There’s a chance, imagine the mansions, and the Ferraris and the clothes and the fame and the love’ people told themselves. Entire dreams formed upon a tiny probability, fragile.
“Hm.” A pause. “No idea.”
A chuckle left me.
“All that, to tell me that you don’t know anything. I was expecting something amazing.”
“I’m not an esper. You could be a thousand different things. I wouldn’t know.
Something was wrong. Why would anyone play a game regularly if they couldn’t conclude anyway? Was he lying or hiding the truth? I questioned.
One hundred meters stood between the cab and the venue. When the cab started down the street where the venue was, the clouds swelled. Tap, Tap, Tap, rain pelted the windshield, accumulating into streams. Each drop became indistinguishable from the next. The rain made the sky too dark and grey for the afternoon. It was worse walking around in the rain.
The unpleasant dampness of a rain-spotted school uniform was still fresh in my mind. School days were secure. During those years, I didn’t think about much beyond tests and homework. There was an inherent structure to everything. Children hated that. Some children rebelled and caked the blackboards in obscurities. Now, I was on the other side of the desk, tripping over nothing, wandering.
“Your outing might be cancelled.”
“It seems so.” I said, staring out the window at the park. The few people in it took cover far apart from each other. In a flash of irony, the park didn’t look amusing at all. I couldn’t tell if it was the mass of chaotic clouds above the park, or the sight of visitors sprawling under cover, slipping out the gates. The thought of continuing, despite my love for rain, repulsed me.
“Someone like you goes to Akiba to kill time?”
“It surprises me too.”
The scene out the windows shuttered around. It wasn’t long before people unsheathed their umbrellas. My head rested on the chilly window. Buildings and people drifted past. The metropolis danced around with the coming of rain. Was I always so idiotic? The questions flooded. Mind full, the driver caught my eye. The side of his face did. Discolored patches ran across his cheek, alongside a few red marks. Narrowed eyes stuck to the road. He reminded me of a wartime veteran in a war documentary. That image applied to the driver well.
“Um-“ I started. “Was it stupid to come to an amusement park today?”
It was an odd question. Or depending on some perspectives, an unnecessary question. I didn’t want to ask, but I needed an objective opinion to simmer myself down.
“Everyone needs some time to clear their heads of static.”
“What do you do, to clear your head?”
“I talk and drive.”
“You enjoy this?”
“I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”
“What makes you enjoy it?”
He took some time to think, as if a hundred recollections bounced around in his cranium, reflecting off each side, dispersing into null.
“Every time I pick up a passenger, it’s a new experience. It’s a bit like reading a book. Some days I haul some suit across Tokyo for a business meeting, the next day I haul some high schoolers to a karaoke place at three in the morning and find vomit seeped into the floor mats. And then, sometimes, I take perfectly functional adults to amusement parks in the rain. It’s interesting-
He paused for a moment, mid-thought.
“It’s a bit like driving down a road in one way and then going back up the other way. It’s similar, but at the same time, it isn’t. It looks different, but for an outsider on the sidewalk, it’s all the same.”
“It’s the same for me, no matter which way I’m going.”
“I guess you’re a through and through outsider.”
“A pessimist? Or a realist?”
“Neither, I guess. It’s hard to say.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t think people fit into boxes like that either.”
When most people heard of ‘driving a cab’ the last thing they would associate it with would be ‘fun’ or ‘interest’. Yet, he described it like an organism reluctant to sit in a single state. It didn’t seem like that to me it was always me and ‘some driver’. It seemed like thirty years didn’t make me mature. On the surface, this was no different. I didn’t know his name, but it was different in that we spoke, like I’d speak with Ebina, or a close work colleague. That’s what made it new. With service people like waiters, sometimes it was difficult to think of them as more than a computer running a script. In some sense, it was the same with my colleagues. When a student insulted a teacher, staying composed was the only option.
The cab reached Akihabara twenty minutes later. The cab was cold again for most of the drive there. I went back to reading my novel. Contemplation had a habit of cutting off conversation. Often it was one or the other. But, once the neon lights came into sight, I put away the plastic earphones and the paperback into my bag. Then, I had an odd idea. The driver pulled over next to a shaded sidewalk, close to the district center.
“That would be 2800 yen. Thank you very much.”
I passed three 1000-yen notes into the driver’s hands and left the cab. Within a few seconds, the cab merged back into the traffic, pulling away into a darkened horizon. Sighing, I wondered how long it would take him to notice the odd ink-smudged business card and park ticket sandwiched between the notes. For someone as inquisitive as he was, it wouldn’t have taken long at all, a second or two. I wondered if he would think anything of it and whether I ’d have a text or a call from an unknown number the next morning. Those thoughts lingered in my head for a while. But it didn’t matter. Even if I had nothing the next day, I felt good about only having one ticket in my bag. In a sense, I could breathe easier. With that, I drifted along the sidewalk, with a foreign urge to call my mother.
Emil Black is a university student who lives in Sydney, Australia. In his spare time, when he isn’t slamming out assignments (or failing to), gaming or riding out his life on Youtube, he enjoys putting words to paper.