Chapter 13:

"Fortunate Run"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Four maps and two phone calls to his wife later, Yamazaki and I finally return to the starting line. The air conditioner in the car broke along the way, so we’re sweating bullets as we stumble out of our seats and back onto the field. Mrs. Yamazaki finds her husband, shakes her hand, and hands him yakitori - chicken on a stick. I get one too - nothing restores the spirit like grilled food on a hot summer’s day.

I end up retreating to the shade offered by the Kenji High Track and Field Club’s tent. Since it’s summer and everybody has nowhere to go but trouble, the students stick around to see the winner of the adult race. Mr. Matsumoto, the adviser for this club, is on the phone with his wife, trying to walk her through setting up a new microwave at their home, which means nobody has a problem with me putting up a folding chair and eating an orange and smoking an Orange.

Kentaro sits next to me, sifting through his notes. “It’s not like I’m worried or anything about the contest,” he says, “But do you have any advice for me?”

I slump in the folding chair, watching the blue sky hit the hills surrounding the rice fields. “If you’re writing fiction, having your characters smoke is a great way to break up the dialogue.” I let out a long drag that gets carried away by the summer breeze. “Slows down the pace. Gives your characters something to do so they’re not just talking heads in a blank background.”

The future Proust ponders my words. “But smoking sucks.”

I light up another one. “That it does, my friend. That it does.”

Kentaro taps his pen on the pad for a moment. “Do you think Shizuko can win?”

I dip some ash into the portable tray. “You bet your ass I do.”

The adult race is a few kilometers longer than the high school race, so we got some time to kill. Most of the people go on their phones - not too far from here, a cell phone tower looms over the land like a giant. Kentaro writes more notes while Ayako hunches over, like an old school rice planter, filming a beetle as it walks through patches of dirt and grass. There’s a radio playing a baseball game in the neighboring tent - Mabuchi’s down by a lot. One of the Kenji runners hands me a pin, thanking me for my support. Apparently, that high school has an anime mascot, too - I place the pin featuring the determined looking Ken-kun near Aki-chan on my backpack. My little family’s growing.

And then there’s commotion up the road, back towards the city. Ayako yelps and immediately darts for the starting line - aka, the finish line now - with her camera. The rest of us in the tents drift over after her. I say drift, but I have to admit - I’m not too far off the mark from Ayako on this one. I want to see the finish. Or rather - I want to see Shizuko cross the finish line. In this exact moment, there’s nothing more I want in this world than to see Shizuko finish the race. My heart’s racing as I strain my neck, glancing up the road, the mid-rises of Tsukamoto in the background.

A lone figure emerges. With bated breath, I squint my eyes, trying to get a better view. They get closer and closer and here I am, hoping with all my heart that it’s Shizuko-

The crowd goes silent as Johnson the American strolls down the road, clad in Hawaiian shirt and bucket hat. He has earbuds in and saunters along, unaware of anything around him. As he gets close to the hundred-strong crowd, he blinks himself back to awareness. Come to think of it, being a foreigner that now has a hundred people in a small rural town staring awkwardly at you must feel like a horror movie. Or Nebraska.

Johnson sees the literal finish line pulled tight over the metaphoric finish line and steps around it. He wipes the sweat off his brow, but then his eyes light up when he recognizes me. “Oi, tomodachi!” he calls out.

I quickly pull out my phone’s translator app.

What are you doing here? You are in the middle of a race!

The American exclaims something in English and answers with his own phone.

I didn't know there was a race. This seemed like a good way to walk.

“America-san!” Ayako exclaims, whipping her camera out to film him. She speaks in rudimentary high school English.

“do you like japan”

He nods. “Watashi wa Japan daisuke.”

She squeals in delight.

“summer is beautiful in japan. only japan has four seasons”

Johnson ponders this.

“New England. That has four seasons.”

Ayako ponders this.

“only japan has four seasons. Eto…winter, spring, summer, fall. beautiful”

Johnson ponders this.

“What about rainy season?”

The hamster ball in Ayako’s brain temporarily stops turning. While she malfunctions, Kentaro drags my attention away from the cross-cultural exchange back towards the road. Two figures have emerged, both of them pumping their arms, and as they get closer, I see her.

Ume has the lead, but Shizuko isn’t that far behind. Both of them take labored breaths and labored steps, their faces bright red from the prolonged exertion. With the end in sight, they pick up their pace, both of them struggling in one long, final sprint past the gold and green fields.

“Let’s go, Shizuko!” I call out. Kentaro joins me in cheering, waving his arms, so I wave mine. Ayako has one hand on the camera, the other in the air, urging Shizuko onward. The leading duo get closer, sneakers slapping the concrete, a cool breeze at their backs. An electric current runs through the crowd - a photo finish!

The finish line is only a dozen meters away. I’m cheering for Shizuko, and so is Kentaro and Ayako, Yamazaki is calling out for her now, and even behind the megaphone, Mrs. Yamazaki’s eyes flash with recognition. Johnson pulls off his Hawaiian shirt and waves it around over his head; Kentaro stops Ayako before she can do the same. But hell, the crowd’s animated and excited now, and in another life, we’d all be taking our shirts off when we're in this kind of mood.

Almost there, almost there. Shizuko must hear us, because she picks up the pace even further, arriving only a step behind Ume. The frontrunner has a dark complexion on her face and she finds an even higher gear. Shizuko takes a step, and for one brief moment, they’re tied. Everything hangs in the balance. Cicadas chirp somewhere.

But then Ume pulls ahead. Shizuko just can’t keep up, and she has the look on her face, the one indicating victory is just a bridge too far at this point. She falls back; Ume surges forward, and there you have it. Ume rumbles through the finish line, her stomach snapping it in two. There’s a wave of applause and a cascading crowd surrounds her after the exciting finish. The last I see of her, she’s simultaneously trying to catch her breath, gulp down water, and answer questions from the local newspapers.

That’s because I’m not really interested in seeing her. I immediately turn my attention back to the finish line. Shizuko runs through, a moment fortunately immortalized on Ayako’s camera. She peels off to an open patch of grass, her face beet red, her chest rising and falling rapidly. She takes off her hairband, letting loose her ponytail, the dyed hair falling back down to her shoulders. I’m so engrossed I didn’t even realize I was handing her a water bottle. It’s the little things - the red sheen on the nape of her neck, wiping her face with a towel. I don’t think I’ve ever been this interested in a sweaty woman my entire life.

Steward McOy