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August 30, 2018

From the Balcony

Craig Loomis

From the Balcony photo

From the long wooden balcony, from the house that overlooks a forest that is almost bluegreen in springtime and a witchy red during the fall, the snow slants through the trees like a new

geometry, as if it is right and we are wrong. I sip coffee from a cup that is chipped and cracked and near worthless and watch somebody’s big gray cat glare up at me from under a bush as if this snowing were my idea. Right after that, the snow now coming down doubly hard, fast, even furious, I hear the front door open, close, the stomping of feet.  Thinking who could that be when there are only the two of us and one is still upstairs asleep, I turn, more curious than scared, and in walks Guido.

Guido, I will come to discover, does not believe in coats.  He will tell me this after I give him a cup of coffee and listen to his story about Oscar and ask him if he is cold, and he will say, “Of course, after all, it is snowing.”  And this, too, I will come to discover, is his way: waiting and watching to see if his answer is clever enough.  Then, when I say nothing he will sigh and go on to explain about coats, or no coats, and how they get in the way, soften the skin, not to mention the person, and so on.  But all this is later; in the meantime, without so much as a handshake, he announces, “I am Guido.” 

When I stare back at him, all he can do is sigh and say that he used to live here, he, his wife, a two-year-old son, and a monkey.  He says this last part slowly, watching to see if I hear correctly.  I nod, and although it is much too early to know anything about him, his chin sags thinly in a kind of disappointment; and I say, “Yes, Mr. Sakai, the housing agent, mentioned you.”  Now it is his turn to nod, and when he is done he stares at my cup and I ask him if he would like some coffee, and he says, “Of course.”         

I excuse myself and step into the kitchen.  When I open the cupboard, I do something I don’t recall having ever done before, not once: I stop to think which coffee cup would be right.  It shouldn’t matter, but in this case it does.  Finally, realizing I have taken far too long for any coffee cup, I decide on the big blue one because we almost never use it.

Guido does not sip, he gulps.  Even before I can warn him that it might be hot, he gulps, and all I can do is watch his throat work. 

“Yes, so anyway, there was the three of us, four if you count the monkey.” 

This time I say, “Monkey?” 

“Yes, of course, before Japan I was in Africa, in Kenya. On a big farm, just outside of Nairobi.”  He carves out something like a dome in the air with his hands to help show me just how big a farm it was. “I worked with animals, you know. Big animals, small animals, wild, not so wild—animals of all kinds, you see. It was my job.”  His hands done domeing, he now brings them together, knotting fingers, his knuckles growing white, bloodless. “Yes, my job was to keep them clean and quiet and well-mannered.  You know.  If they acted up, they had to be trained, even punished.  It is the only way.  Anything else is no good.  The only way.”  Guido has not once taken his eyes off me, and as he finishes, a tiny sweat twinkling across his forehead, I try to remember if this had something to do with a question.  “The only way,” and he turns to look out the window, the snow, his hands slowly unknotting, letting them hang loose, rubbing them against his pants.   He goes back to his coffee, followed by a short quiet.  Finally he says, “Here, let me show you,” and he opens the sliding glass door that leads to the balcony and its wooden railing that is dimpled with snow.  He brushes off the snow, saying, “See this?”

I bend to look and see nothing but old balcony wood. “What?”

“This, this scratching part.  Here?”

“Oh yes.”                                                                                                                            

“That is Oscar.  He was always wrapping his chain around this piece of wood.  You see?  Sometimes it was an accident, other times on purpose.  He was always breaking something, tearing, ripping at something. Very naughty.”  His hands back to churning the air.  “They have got to be trained, I tell you.  Like any animal, yes?  Sure.  It is the only way.”

As I step back out of the snow, he takes one last look at the scratched balcony wood and follows, saying in a new voice, “He liked this balcony, he could see all the way down the path.  When the squirrels came too close he cooed.”    

Guido’s hair is the color of freshly cut lumber, but because it is too long and stringy, he is constantly pushing it back; and of course it never stays, sliding back to its same long, stringiness the moment he takes his hand away.  I can only guess that no one has ever bothered to tell him that the way his hair dangles across his face makes him look terrible, like a convict, or worse. He finishes what is left of his coffee, and when he turns to see what books are in the bookcase, I can see his cheeks are a blotchy red. On anybody else it would look healthy, the stuff of outdoors, but not with Guido; he looks too cold for this snow and Japan. He continues to look at the books, his blue coffee cup empty.

Now that I think about it, we have not shaken hands.   His stringy hair leaning across his face, the red blotches across his cheeks and neck, running up and down his arms. But perhaps shaking hands is unnecessary, because although he has been in the house, his ex-house, only a short time, I feel as if I have known him longer, something like a relative, but then that’s not quite it either, still, not shaking his hand is all right.  Besides, it’s too late now, you can’t shake hands after you’ve already met. 

Guido sits down and says, “We had our chairs over there, next to the window, not here, it is too dark here.  This house is good for sunlight, needs sunlight, that is what I miss about it, you know.” 

Just when I tell him I know what he means, there is walking upstairs, creaking across the ceiling, and he throws back his hair, asking, “What is that?”

I am surprised by his wide-eyedness, the way he suddenly stands straighter, taller, and so I don’t answer right away, but look ceilingward, as if considering.  Finally, “My wife.”

Guido does not care for this idea, I can tell, but all he says is, “Really?”

Now he steps to the bookcase, takes out a book, flips through the pages, and announces, “I read this once.  In University.  I remember nothing about it except I finished it.”  Guido then does four things, one right after the other: he slides the book back into the bookcase, puts the blue coffee cup on the table, sits in one of the chairs and then, as if sitting were suddenly all wrong, stands up. It’s then, as he stands, that I realize I am looking for tattoos, but nothing—just white, blotchy skin.

Together we turn to watch the snow come down.

Just before he leaves, Guido will tell me that he is Austrian, asking me, “What do you think of that?”

And of course I think nothing of it, but say, “Imagine that.”

I will come to learn that Guido can never stay long, there are always chores to do, things to pick up, small projects that require his attention.

Later, once he has gone she comes down and asks who that was and I say I will tell her later, and she says fine, but in a good way, and then she goes back upstairs to change and then back downstairs to eat and watch the snow, and then, seeing the time, goes shopping, only to return an hour later with an empty shopping bag, and goes straight to the rocking chair that I made from one of those department store kits and reads her book.  My rocking chair kit was no good; its pieces were always breaking, cracking, slats of wood flopping out of their niches.  In the end, I bought a tube of that glue that is almost impossible to unglue, and that did it. And so, she sits, rocking and reading and sipping tea, all the while resting one hand across her swollen belly.  

Later that night, when it is black and quiet and I have finished telling her everything I know about Guido, she says he sounds interesting, and although I know interesting is not the right word, I say yes anyway.  After we run out of talk and she has turned over, aiming her belly toward the wintry window, I will remember something else about Guido: “He doesn’t use contractions; everything is a clear, clean does not, will not, can not.” Remembering more, the way he uses his hands to help get the words out, a kind of digging and clawing. “The Japanese must think him some sort of European sideshow.”  And although I smile, I don’t know what’s so funny.

Guido will visit his ex-house and our house two more times before the winter is over, and each time he will simply walk in, slip off his shoes, and as he makes his way from hallway to kitchen, announce, “It is Guido.”  I cannot be angry with him, although I have tried.  Each time we will go through what has become a kind of routine: coatless, coffee, checking to see if the marks on the balcony are still there.  Each time he comes she will be upstairs, in bed, asleep, or maybe not.  She will never see Guido.

* * * 

On his second visit I notice his skin tags.  He is leaning to check on a mark, a tear in the tatami that he doesn’t remember, when his shirt billows open and I can see them, lazy stumps of useless flesh bunched on that part of the neck that slopes into shoulder.  He rises, saying, “Maybe Oscar did this, I do not know.  He is capable of this. Yes, he certainly is capable of this kind of destruction.”  I nod, but from then on everything will be different, from then on I will always look at his skin tags before I look at him.          

Pushing his hair out of his eyes, only to have it tumble back to where it began, he announces that, “Oh by the way, I do not care for cellphones either. What can be so important?  What can be so important that can not wait?  Yes?”       

Since we do not have a cellphone, have never had one, I tell him he is absolutely right.  This seems to be please him, this idea of being absolutely right about something.  He holds out his empty blue cup and says in what is not quite a question, “There is more.”

Later that night, I tell her that Guido was here again, that makes twice, and she says, “Yes I heard him.”  She does not seem to be as interested in him, and I can only think that she would change her mind if she met him, saw him.  Although it is not snowing on his second visit, it is cold enough to snow, and that night, when we finally agree it is time to go to bed, to sleep, I, again, think about Guido but now more about his skin tags than the him him, and after a while I reach up to feel along my neck, where the collar rubs. I do not feel any skin tags, but if I move my fingers slowly, even backing up to re-feel, I think there is something like the seed of a lump there, where neck slopes into shoulder, but when I take my hand away and try again, I feel nothing. 

The third time Guido comes he is eating a doughnut.  This surprises me but I don’t know why. Immediately I give him a cup of coffee, his blue cup, and he, like always, takes it like it is his job.  If I were younger and didn’t know what I know now, I would be angry with Guido, from the very first day, angry, but I have learned my lesson and so when he gulps his coffee extra fast, even for Guido, I ask him if he would like more, and he says, “Yes, of course.”  He seems especially quiet this time.  When I ask him how things are, he answers like anybody else, “Fine.”  The big clock on the kitchen wall tick-tocks big and hollow.  A breeze fidgets over the balcony.           

It is silent upstairs. Finally, he turns to me and using his hands says, “I am thinking of going back to Africa, you know.  Kenya.” His right hand has a firm grip on a piece of air.

I fold my arms and say, “Really?”

“Yes, really. I have been away far too long.  I miss Africa.  Can you believe it?  I miss that farm, but more importantly I miss the animals.” 


“Yes, here in Japan, of course it is different.  Will always be different.” Pushing his hair back, his skin tags beaming out from behind his t-shirt.  “So, there you have it, yes?”

It is then, for the first time since I have met him that he smiles. Guido’s teeth are white and straight, almost Hollywood-like.  I catch myself staring.  I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to tell him to smile more, to show off his teeth.  Before he leaves, he will step to the balcony one last time and run his hand across the markings on the railing, and then shake his head.

I wait for something more, but when nothing comes, I say, “Oscar?”

This startles him, and he turns quickly and looks at me like there is something to be mad about.  “Yes, that is right, Oscar.”

* * * 

In one month, Guido will be dead.  They will call it a suicide.  I will hear this from Mr. Sakai, the housing agent, who, unlike Guido, at least knocks before coming in.  With the forest just beginning to grow taller, greener, and our newborn safely upstairs with her, feeding, sleeping, Mr. Sakai, will whisper me the story.  When I ask him why he is whispering, he will motion upward, looking toward the ceiling and say something about my wife, about the baby.  “You know, your wife.”

Again, in my younger days, I would have said something bigger, tougher and American, but I’ve learned my lesson, and so I nod and say as serious as I can, “Yes, I see.”

He says it, the suicide, was done in a small boat.  “He liked to fish, you know.  Yes, had his own boat.  That’s where they found him, in his tiny rowboat, drifting in the middle of the lake.  You know Lake Tama?  Yes?  Not far from here.  Over that hill and then another hill.  Not so far.”

Mr. Sakai stops here.  I wait for him to say more, how he died.  How does one commit suicide in a rowboat?  “Did he drown?”

“Oh no, nothing like that.  I’m afraid it was a bigger, harder death than that.” But Mr. Sakai has done his duty, and there is nothing else to say.  Sometimes his English is very good.  In reporting Guido’s death, he sounded mysteriously correct and clear.  I thank him for the information. 

“Not at all,” he replies.

I will meet Guido’s wife once, four, maybe five months after his death.  She is nothing like Guido.  First, she is Japanese and knows only bits and pieces of English, some German.  But that’s not the nothing like Guido.  One day in the wet-hot of August, there is something like a tapping at the door.  It is so soft and wisp-like that I don’t think it is a knocking, maybe a bird, a branch brushing up against the window, but not a knocking.  But then it comes again and when I go to the door I can see her underwater shadow through the glass; she has brought the two-year-old boy.  She is shy and polite and doesn’t mean to bother us, but, “I am Guido’s wife, you see.”

“Yes, please come in.” We speak in Japanese and English, but mostly a blur of the two, and after talking about Guido and watching her cry and talking about the house and watching her cry some more, and then offering her some coffee and she saying no, we finally run out of things and people to talk about so I ask her about the monkey.  She motions that she doesn’t understand, and so I laughingly take her to the balcony and show her the marks from Oscar’s chain and say saru, monkey, and she blinks back at me, then blushes, and finally cries a third time.  In the end, she turns to the boy, who all this time has been busy turning pages in magazines, running his fingers over photos of horses and kites and shiny new cars, and she says, “That is him, that is our Oscar.”

I can only think that my Japanese is no good and that her English is worse, that there has been some mistake.  But no, she says it again, “This is Oscar.”  That’s when she pulls back his tiny pant leg, exposing the red rawness of his ankle.

I cannot help but whisper, “No.” 

She seems to understand this perfectly, because she answers, “Yes.” 


image: Robert James Russell