Chapter 4:

"Boulevard of Vanilla Dreams"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

An hour or two of kofun graves and framed poetry written by rail magnates later, Shizuko and I sit in the big cafeteria downstairs. We’re eating taiyaki - that fish-shaped pastry - except these are shaped like the fallen Yoshiaki Crimson Sparrow. Gone, but not forgotten, and the warm bread tastes good in the air conditioned chill. Shizuko eats quietly next to me, nibbling on the bird like a squirrel.

There’s a gift shop next door, filled with the usual kinds of tourist trap goods. The Museum has its own mascot - a happy-go-lucky girl that would fit nicely in a slice of life anime. The bluenette (yes, I’m using that word, since that’s what she is) Aki-chan advises me to support Yoshiaki by buying her merch, which includes battalions of little keychains, platoons of plushies, and a special operations group of figurines. I point out the army to Shizuko, who rolls her eyes with a disbelieving smile.

Upon seeing something like that, I immediately buy her a keychain, one that features Aki-chan holding up a sideways V-sign across her periwinkle eyes (the dark blue hair and light blue eyes match the historically-significant, if rather uninspiring by today’s standards, flag of Yoshiaki). Shizuko raises her hands to tell not to spend that much money (Aki-chan merch is not cheap) on her for something like that. But since I'm still the proud owner of 9,200 yen, I’m more than fine with giving her the little keychain.

She holds up Aki-chan next to her face. Like yin and yang. Before I can protest, Shizuko attaches the keychain to my bag. I guess we got shared custody now. With our overpriced child in tow, we depart the museum. I immediately regret it, since the body simply forgets just how muggy the outside world can be. There’s a weight to it, like a heavy heated blanket that can’t be taken off. Fortunately, it could be worse - the day’s almost over. Looking at historical Yoshiaki took up more time than I expected - the sun’s starting to set.

“You want to get a drink?” I ask casually. Now, hold on a second - could this be a d-d-d-date-o??? My answer to that would be a) I’m asking this out of professional courtesy and b) I’ll get to see a hole-in-the-wall dive bar of sorts for this report and c) I like getting drinks with friends and d) we already have a child together.

Shizuko studies my face for a moment, then nods. She leads us down the main street of Mabuchi, which now is teeming with all sorts of life now that everyone’s getting out for the day - high school students, college kids, salarymen, freeters, the works. We mingle in, following the crowd, which is divided between rushing south for the main station home and cruising north for the izakayas and bars. We move slowly, and so does traffic. Right in the middle of the road there’s one of those trucks blaring advertisements - this one’s for a crepe company specializing in a particular flavor. So, to the blaring of EDM music, a high-pitched voice crawls out of the truck’s loudspeakers and assaults the crowd:


                                   VAN VAN VAN VANILLA

                                                                             VAN VAN VAN VANILLA

                                                                                                                                 VAN VAN VAN VANILLA

Is this what purgatory feels like? The word vanilla on loop? Because both the pedestrians and traffic go at a snail’s pace, the truck is essentially moving with us in lockstep. We can’t escape the


We get caught at another traffic light. How could life have possibly led to this moment of bleeding ears? How could billions of years of evolution, across the eons, from primordial soup to upright man to the discovery of fire to crepe girl giving my ears the verbal equivalent of being broken upon the wheel? At one point did humanity allow this to become acceptable?

But, you know, it’s not all that bad. At existential moments like this, it’s good to have another existence beside you, one tapping the front of her sneaker against the concrete. I’m talking about Aki-chan, of course. Definitely.

Shizuko leads our escape down a side alley and heads into an otherwise nondescript building. One the second floor, we head into a bar called Nha Trang Bay. It’s Vietnamese fusion, a choice I'm completely in support of. It’s well-lit, tinged in red, and the tables and much of the counter are populated by college students. We take two seats on the corner of the bar, and sit diagonally across from the two exceptions - a foreigner and an old man.

This is a smoking bar and you can tell a lot by the way someone smokes. The old man takes slow, thoughtful drags, looking like a monk (or warlord) as he lets smoke escape his month. The foreigner wears a Hawaiian shirt and bucket hat and smokes the kind of cigarette the konbini clerk gets for you when you show him “cigarettes please” on a language translator app. I smoke Oranges, which taste like early summer, something I appreciate any time of the year, especially as August rolls around and summer increasingly becomes a fleeting thing.

Shizuko? She doesn’t smoke anything.

Upon realizing the smog we’re throwing her way, I change course by leaning off to the side and blowing smoke away from her snub my cigarette.

Considering my mission is to report on what I see, I strike up a conversation with the two oddballs. The foreigner’s delighted to talk. He jabs a thumb at his broad chest.

“American,” he tells us, speaking slowly in English, ‘cuz that’s all he can speak. “Watashi wa Johnson. Doko desu watashi? Des Moines.”

Doesn’t ring a bell.

“Iowa,” he clarifies.

The hell is an Iowa?

Johnson chuckles, apparently having done this routine before. “Chicago.“

Ah, Chicago. I nod in recognition. The heartland of America, perhaps a morning drive from Los Angeles.

The cargo-shorts clad man is the only foreigner I’ve seen in Mabuchi. He’s one of a kind, a rare breed, and for that, I buy him a drink - something called a Mississippi Princess, which should remind him of the prairies of his home country.

“Chicago,” the old man repeats, his voice deep in thought. “A city that’s exciting, a city that’s inviting,” he says in Japanese.

Johnson is happy to be part of the conversation - even if, due to the unfortunate language barrier, at arm’s length now - while the old man and I talk. The elder breaks nuts on a tray while galaxies swirl in his eyes.

Upon breaking the last peanut, the old man's milky, distant gaze studies both Shizuko and I. “My father once told me,” he declares softly, “That it takes two wipes to know you need three, but three wipes to know you need two.”

With that, he tosses down the exact change for the bartender and departs. Old people are the greatest.

When Johnson makes his exit as well, that just leaves Shizuko and I. She nurses a mixed drink while I get a small thing of sake. There’s two glasses, so I offer to pour her one, which she accepts with a nod. We slam it down in unison, a rare act of synchronicity that makes your face feel warm, and not just from the drink. Not the kind of heat that’s been battering the city, either - it’s a soft, inviting kind of warm, because billions of years of evolution has brought you this shared moment. Life is filled with ships passing in the night, and once in a great while, a pair might steam along parallel to one another.

We sit in comfortable silence. The red lights bathe us; bar’s conversations wash over us; the night watches over us. I catch her glancing at my eyes sometimes - though, you could also probably frame it as her catching me glancing at her eyes sometimes. They’re gray and clear.

“You know,” I finally say. “You don’t have to talk. I don’t want to make you do something you don’t want to do. But I bet by the end of tonight, I can get at least three words out of you.”

Shizuko ponders my question for a moment, watching the way the red light flickers upon the surface of her cup of liquor. Then, she does something completely unexpected - she gazes up at me, smiling softly, then pulls down an eyelid and sticks her tongue out.

Ha. Very funny.

Then, she doesn’t something even more unexpected. The muscles in her mouth move just right and out comes something that’s a mixture of rusty raspiness and a songbird just trying out its soft vocals for the first time in a long while:

“You lose.”

Steward McOy