Carrousel's Dead-heat

1985, Kodansha

Short stories:

Prologue, Carrousel's Dead-heat

Lederhosen (translated by Alfred Birnbaum in "The Elephant Vanishes")

A Man on a Taxi

Pool Side

Pour Une Infante Defunte (For the Late Princess)

Vomiting, 1979

Take shelter from Rain

Baseball Studium

Hunting Knife (translated by Philip Gabriel in The New Yorker on November 17, 2003)
http://www.newyorker.com/printable/?fiction/031117fi_fiction


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Lederhosen

By MURAKAMI Haruki

Translated by Alfread Birnbaum


"Mother dumped my father," a friend of my wife's was saying one day, "all because of a pair of shorts."

I've got to ask. "A pair of shorts?"

"I know it sounds strange," she says, "because it is a strange story."

A large woman, her height and build are almost the same as mine. She tutors electric organ, but most of her free time she divides between swimming and skiing and tennis, so she's trim and always tanned. You might call her a sports fanatic. One days off, she puts in a morning run before heading to the local pool to do laps; then at two or three in the afternoon it's tennis, followed by aerobics. Now, I like my sports, but I'm nowhere near her league.

I don't mean to suggest she's aggressive or obsessive about things. Quite the contrary, she's really rather retiring; she'd never dream of putting emotional pressure on anyone. Only she's driven; her body--and very likely the spirit attached to that body--craves vigorous activity, relentless as a comet.

Which may have something to do with why she's unmarried. Oh, she's had affairs--the woman may be a little on the large side, but she is beautiful--she's been proposed to, even agreed to take the plunge. But inevitably, whenever it's gotten to the wedding stage, some problem has come up and everything falls through.

Like my wife says, "She's just unlucky."

"Well, I guess," I sympathize.

I'm not in total agreement with the wife on this. True, luck may rule over parts of a person's life and luck may cast patches of shadow across the ground of our being, but where there's a will--much less a will strong enough to swim thirty laps or run twenty kilometers--there's a way to overcome most any trouble. No, her heart was never set on marrying, is how I see it. Marriage just doesn't fall within the sweep of her comet, at least not entirely.

And so she keeps on tutoring electric organ, devoting every free moment to sports, falling regularly in and out of unlucky love.

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and she's come two hours earlier than expected, while my wife is still out shopping.

"Forgive me," she apologizes. "I took a rain check on today's tennis, which left me two hours to spare. I'd have been bored out of my mind being alone at home, so I just thought...Am I interrupting anything?"

Not at all, I say. I didn't feel quite in the mood to work and was just sitting around, cat on my lap, watching a video. I show her in, go to the kitchen, and make coffee. Two cups, for watching the last twenty minutes of Jaws. Of course, we've both seen the movie before--probably more than once?so neither of us is particularly riveted to the tube. But we're watching it anyway because it's there in front of our eyes.

It's THE END. The credits roll up. No sign of the wife. So we chat a bit. Sharks, seaside, swimming.... Still no wife. We go on talking. Now, I suppose I like the woman well enough, but after an hour of this our lack of things in common becomes obvious. The fact is, she's my wife's friend, not mine.

I'm already thinking about popping in the next video when she suddenly brings up the story of her parents' divorce. I can't fathom the connection--at least to my mind, there's no link between swimming and her folks splitting up--but I uess a reason is where you find it.

"They weren't really shorts", she says. "They were lederhosen."

"You mean those hiking pants the Germans wear? The ones with the shoulder straps?"

"You got it. Father wanted a pair of lederhosen as a souvenir gift. Well, Father's pretty tall for his generation. He might even look good in them, which could be why he wanted them. But can you picture a Japanese man wearing lederhosen? I guess it takes all kinds."

I'm still not any closer to the story. I have to ask: What were the circumstances behind her father's request--and of whom?--for these souvenir lederhosen?

"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm always telling things out of order. Stop me if things don't make sense," she says.

Okay, I say.

"Mother's sister was living in Germany and she invited Mother for a visit. Something she'd always been meaning to do. Of course, Mother can't speak German, she'd never even been abroad, but having been an English teacher for so long she had that overseas bee in her bonnet. It'd been ages since she'd seen my aunt. So Mother approached Father--how about taking ten days off and going to Germany, the two of us? Father's work wouldn't allow it, and Mother ended up going alone."

"That's when your father asked for the lederhosen, I take it?

"Right," she says. "Mother asked what he wanted her to bring back, and Father said lederhosen."

"Okay so far."

Her parents were reasonably close. They didn't argue until all hours of the night; her father didn't storm out of the house and not come home for days on end. At least not then, though apparently there had been rows more than once over him and other women.

"Not a bad man, a hard worker, but kind of a skirt-chaser," she tosses off matter-of-factly. No relations of hers, the way she's talking. For a second I almost think her father is deceased. But no, I'm told, he's alive and well.

"Father was already up there in years, and by then those troubles were all behind them. They seemed to be getting along just fine."

Things, however, didn't go without incident. Her mother extended the ten days in Germany to nearly a month and half, with hardly a word back to Tokyo, and when she finally did return to Japan, she stayed with another sister of hers in Osaka. She never did come back home.

Neither she--the daughter--nor her father could understand what was going on. Until then, when there'd been marital difficulties, her mother had always been the patient one--so ploddingly patient in fact that she sometimes wondered if the woman had no imagination; family always came first and mother was selflessly devoted to her daughter. So when her mother didn't come around, didn't even make the effort to call, it was beyond their comprehension. They made phone calls to the aunt's house in Osaka, repeatedly, but they could hardly get her to come to the phone, much less admit what her intentions were.

In mid-September, two months after returning to Japan, her mother made her intentions known One day, out of the blue, she called home and told her husband, "You will be receiving the necessary papers for divorce. Please sign, seal, and send them back to me." Would she care to explain, her husband asked, what was the reason? "I've lost all love for you--in any way, shape, or form." Oh? said her father. Was there no room for discussion? Sorry, none, absolutely none.

"All this came as a big shock," she tells me. "But it wasn't just the divorce. I'd imagined my parents splitting up many times, so I was already prepared for it psychologically. If the two of them had just plain divorced without all that funny business, I wouldn't have gotten so upset. The problem wasn't Mother dumping Father; Mother was dumping me too. That's what hurt."

I nod.

"Up until that point, I'd always taken Mother's side and Mother would always stand by me. And yet there was Mother throwing me out with Father, like so much garbage, and not a word of explanation. It hit me so hard, I wasn't able to forgive Mother for the longest time. I wrote her who knows how many letters asking her to set things straight, but she never answered my questions, never even said she wanted to see me."

It wasn't until three years later that she actually saw her mother. At a family funeral, of all places. By then, the daughter was living on her own--she'd moved out in he sophomore year of college, when her parents divorced--and now she had graduated and was tutoring electric organ. Meanwhile, her mother was teaching English at a prep school.

Her mother confessed that she hadn't been able to talk to her own daughter because she hadn't known what to say. "I myself couldn't tell where things were going," Mother said, "but it all started over that pair of shorts."

"Shorts?" She'd been as started as I was. She'd never wanted to speak to her mother again, but curiosity got the better of her. In their mourning dress, mother and daughter went into a nearby coffee shop and ordered iced tea. She had to hear this--pardon the expression--short story.

The shop that sold the lederhosen was in a small town an hour away by train from Hamburg. Her mother's sister looked it up for her.

"All the Germans I know say if you're going to buy lederhosen, this is the place. The craftsmanship is good, and the prices aren't so expensive, said her sister.

So Mother boarded a train to buy her husband his souvenir lederhosen. In her train compartment sat a middle-aged German couple, who conversed with her in halting English. "I go now to buy lederhosen for souvenir," Mother said. "Vat shop you go to?" the couple asked. Mother named the name of the shop, and the middleaged German couple chimed in together, "Zat is ze place, jah. It is ze best." Hearing this, Mother felt very confident.

It was a delightful early-summer afternoon and a quaint old-fashioned town. Cobblestone streets led in all directions, and cats were everywhere. Mother stepped into a cafe for a bite of kasekuchen and coffee.

She was on her last sip of coffee and playing with the shop cat when the owner came over to ask what brought her to their little town. She said lederhosen, whereupon the owner pulled out a pad of paper and drew a map to the shop.

"Thank you very much," Mother said.

How wonderful it was to travel by oneself, she thought as she walked along the cobblestones. In fact, this was the first time in her fifty-five years that she had traveled alone. During the whole trip, she had not once been lonely or afraid or bored. Every scene that met her eyes was fresh and new; everyone she met was friendly. Each experience called forth emotions that had been slumbering in her, untouched and unused. What she had held near and dear until then--husband and home and daughter--was on the other side of the earth. She felt no need to trouble herself over them.

She found the lederhosen shop without problem. It was a tiny old guild shop. It didn't have a big sign for tourists, but inside she could see scores of lederhosen. She opened the door and walked in.

Two old men worked in the shop. They spoke in a whisper as they took down measurements and scribbled them into a notebook. Behind a curtain divider was a larger work space; the monotone of sewing machines could be heard.

"Darf ich Ihnen helfen, Madame?" the larger of the two old men addressed Mother.

"I want to buy lederhosen," she responded in English.

"For Madame?" he asked back.

"No, I buy for my husband in Japan."

"Ach so," said the old man, "your husband. Zen he is not here viss you?"

"No, I say already, he is in Japan," she replied.

"Ziss make problem." The old man chose his words with care. "Ve do not make article for customer who not exist."

"My husband exist," Mother said with confidence.

"Jah, jah, your husband exist, of course, of course," the old man responded hastily. "Excuse my not good English. Vat I vant say, if your husband not exist here, ve cannot sell ze lederhosen."

"Why?" Mother asked, perplexed.

"Is store policy. Is unser Prinzip. Ve must see ze lederhosen how it fit customer, ve alter very nice, only zen ve sell. Over one hundred years ve are in business, ve build reputation on ziss policy."

"But I spend half day to come from Hamburg to buy your lederhosen."

"Very sorry, Madame," said the old man, looking very sorry indeed. "Ve make no exception. Ziss vorld is very uncertain vorld. Trust is difficult sink to earn but easy sink to lose."

Mother sighed and stood in the doorway. She strained her brain for some way to break the impasse. The larger old man explained the situation to the smaller man, who nodded sadly, jah, jah. Despite their great difference in size, the two old men wore identical expressions.

"Well, perhaps, can we do as this?" Mother proposed. "I find man just like my husband and bring him here. That man puts on lederhosen, you alter very nice, you sell lederhosen to me."

The first old man looked her in the face, aghast.

"But, Madame, zat is against rule. Is not same man who tries ze lederhosen on, your husband. And ve know ziss. Ve cannot do ziss."

"Pretend you do not know. You sell lederhosen to that man and that man sell lederhosen to me. That way, there is no shame to your policy. Please, I beg you. I may never come back to Germany. If I do not buy lederhosen now, I will never buy lederhosen."

"Hmph," the old man pouted. He thought for a few seconds, then turned to the other old man spoke a stream in German. They spoke back and forth several times. Then finally, the large man turned back to Mother and said, "Very well, Madame. As exception--very exception, you please understand--ve vill knownossink of ziss matter. Not so many come from Yapan to buy lederhosen. Please find man very like your husband. My brother he says ziss."

"Thank you," she said. Then she managed to thank the other brother in German, "Das ist so nett vor Ihnen." She--the daughter who's telling me this story--folds her hands on the table and sighs. I drink the last of my coffee, long since cold. The rain keeps coming down. Still no sign of the wife. Who'd ever have thought the conversation would take this turn?

"So then?" I interject, eager to hear the conclusion. "Did your mother end up finding someone with the same build as your father?"

"Yes," she says, utterly without expression. "Mother sat on a bench looking for someone who matched Father's size. And along came a man who fit the part. Without asking his permission--it seems the man couldn't speak a word of English--she dragged him to the lederhosen shop."

"The hands-on approach," I joke.

"I don't know. At home Mother was always a normal sensible-shoes woman," she says with another sigh. "The shopkeepers explained the situation to the man, and the man gladly consented to stand in for Father. He puts the lederhosen on, and they're pulling here and tucking there, the three of them chortling away in German. In thirty minutes the job was done, during which time Mother made up her mind to divorce Father."

"Wait," I say, "I don't get it. Did something happen during those thirty minutes?"

"Nothing at all. Only those three German men ha-ha-ing like bellows."

"But what made your mother do it?"

"That's something even Mother herself didn't understand after all this time. It made her defensive and confused. All she knew was, looking at that man in the lederhosen, she felt an unbearable disgust rising in her. Directed toward Father. And she could not hold it back. Mother's lederhosen man, apart from the color of his skin, was exactly like Father, the shape of the legs, the belly, the thinning hair. The way he was so happy trying on those new lederhosen, all prancy and cocky like a little boy. As Mother stood there looking at this man, so many things she'd been uncertain about slowly shifted together into something very clear. That's when she realized she hated Father."

My wife gets home from shopping, and the two of them commence their woman talk, but I'm still thinking about the lederhosen.

"So, you don't hate your mother anymore?" I ask when my wife leaves the room.

"No, not really. We're not close at all, but I don't hold anything against her."

"Because she told you about the lederhosen?"

"I think so. After she explained things to me, I couldn't go on hating her. I can't say why it makes any difference, I certainly don't know how to explain it, but it may have something to do with us being women."

"Still, if you leave the lederhosen out of it, supposing it was just the story of a woman taking a trip and finding herself, would you have been able to forgive her?"

"Of course not," she says without hesitation. "The whole point is the lederhosen, right?"

A proxy pair of lederhosen, I'm thinking, that her father never even received.


-- End --

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