At 7:35 A.M. Ishigami left his apartment as he did every weekday morning. Just before stepping out onto the street, he glanced at the mostly full bicycle lot, noting the absence of the green bicycle. Though it was already March, the wind was bitingly cold. He walked with his head down, burying his chin in his scarf. A short way to the south, about twenty yards, ran Shin-Ohashi Road. From that intersection the road ran east into the Edogawa district, west toward Nihonbashi. Just before Nihonbashi, it crossed the Sumida River at the Shin-Ohashi Bridge.
The quickest route from Ishigami’s apartment to his workplace was due south. It was only a quarter mile or so to Seicho Garden Park. He worked at the private high school just before the park. He was a teacher. He taught math.
Ishigami walked south to the red light at the intersection, then he turned right, toward Shin-Ohashi Bridge. The wind blew in his face, making his coat flap around him. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets and hunched over, quickening his pace.
A thick layer of clouds covered the sky, their gray reflection making the Sumida River look even murkier than usual. A small boat was making its way upstream. Ishigami noted its progress as he crossed the bridge.
On the other side, he took a set of stairs that led from the foot of the bridge down to the Sumida. Passing beneath the iron struts of the bridge, he began to walk along the river. Pedestrian walkways were built into the molded concrete riverbanks on both sides of the water. Further down, near Kiyosu Bridge, families and couples often strolled along the river, but such people seldom visited the riverbanks this far up. The long row of cardboard shanties covered in blue vinyl sheets kept them away. This was where the homeless lived, in the shadow of an expressway overpass that ran along the west side of the river. Ishigami figured the looming overpass must have provided some shelter from the wind and rain. The fact that not a single shack stood on the other side of the river gave weight to this hypothesis, though it was possible the first squatters had settled there by accident and the others had simply followed them, preferring the safety of their community, such as it was, to solitude across the water.
He made his way down the row of shanties, glancing briefly at them as he walked. Most were barely tall enough for a man to stand up inside, and some of the structures only rose as high as his waist. They were more boxes than shacks. Maybe it was enough to have a place to sleep.
Plastic laundry hangers had been rigged up near the boxes, signs of domestic life. A man was leaning up against the railing that ran between the walkway and the water, brushing his teeth. Ishigami had seen him around. He was past sixty, and his grayish white hair was bound in a long ponytail. He had probably given up on work. If it was physical labor he wanted, he wouldn’t have been hanging around now. Those jobs were filled in the early morning hours. He wouldn’t be going to the unemployment office, either. Even if they did find a job suitable for him, with that long hair of his he’d never make it as far as the interview. The chances of anyone wanting him for a job at his age were close to zero anyway.
Another man stood near his sleeping box, crushing a row of empty cans under his foot. Ishigami had witnessed this scene several times before, and he had secretly named this fellow the Can Man. The Can Man looked to be around fifty. He had good clothes and even a bicycle. Ishigami figured that his can-collecting trips kept him more active and alert than the others. He lived at the edge of the community, deep under the bridge, which must have been a position of privilege. The Can Man was a village elder, then—an old-timer, even in this crowd—or so Ishigami saw him.
A little way on from where the line of cardboard shanties petered out, another man was sitting on a bench. His coat must have once been beige, but now it was scuffed and gray. He was wearing a suit jacket underneath it, though, and beneath that a white work shirt. Ishigami guessed that he had a necktie stashed away in his coat pocket. Ishigami had labeled him the Engineer a few days earlier, after spotting him reading an industrial trade magazine. He kept his hair cropped short, and he shaved. Maybe he hoped he’d be going back to work soon. He would be off to the unemployment office today, but he probably wouldn’t find a job. He would have to lose his pride before that happened. Ishigami had first seen the Engineer about ten days ago. He wasn’t used to life along the river yet, still drawing an imaginary line between himself and the blue vinyl sheets. Yet here he stayed, not knowing how to live on his own without a home.
Ishigami continued walking along the river. Just before Kiyosu Bridge, he came upon an elderly woman taking three dogs for a walk. The dogs were miniature dachshunds, each with a different colored collar, one red, one blue, and one pink. As he approached, the woman seemed to notice him. She smiled and nodded. He nodded in reply.
“Good morning,” he offered.
“Good morning. Cold, isn’t it?”
“Quite,” he replied, grimacing for effect.
The old woman bade him a good day as she passed by, and he gave her a final nod.
Some days before, Ishigami had seen the woman carrying a plastic convenience store bag with something like sandwiches in it—probably her breakfast. He surmised from this that she lived alone. Her home wouldn’t be far from here. She was wearing flip-flops, and she wouldn’t be able to drive a car in those. She had probably lost her husband years before and now lived in a nearby apartment with her three dogs. A big place, if she was keeping three dogs there. No doubt her pets had kept her from moving to a smaller room somewhere. Maybe she had already paid off the mortgage, but there would still be maintenance fees, so she had to scrimp and save. She hadn’t been to the beauty salon once this winter. Her hair showed its natural color, free from dye.
At the foot of Kiyosu Bridge, Ishigami climbed the stairs back up to the road. The school was across the bridge from here, but he turned and walked in the opposite direction.
A sign facing the road read “Benten-tei.” Beneath it was a small shop that made boxed lunches. Ishigami slid open the aluminum-framed glass door.
“Good morning! Come in, come in,” came the call. It was a familiar greeting and a familiar voice, but it somehow always managed to put a spring in his step. Yasuko Hanaoka smiled at him from behind the counter. She was wearing a white hat.
Ishigami felt another thrill as he realized that there were no other customers in the shop. They were alone.
“I’ll take the special.”
“One special, coming up,” she replied brightly. Ishigami couldn’t see her expression as he was staring into his wallet, unable to look her in the face. Given that they lived next door to each other, Ishigami felt like he should have something to talk about other than his boxed lunch order, but nothing came to mind.
When he finally came up with “Cold today, isn’t it,” he mumbled the words, and they were lost in the sound of another customer opening the sliding glass door behind him. Yasuko’s attention had turned to the new arrival.
Boxed lunch in hand, Ishigami walked out of the store. This time, he headed straight for Kiyosu Bridge, his detour to Benten-tei finished.
After the morning rush, things slowed down at Benten-tei, at least as far as customers were concerned. In the back, however, there were lunches to be made. Several local companies had the shop deliver meals for all their employees by twelve o’clock. So, when the customers stopped coming, Yasuko would go back into the kitchen to lend a hand.
There were four employees at Benten-tei. Yonazawa was the manager, assisted by his wife Sayoko. Kaneko, a part-timer, was responsible for making deliveries, while Yasuko dealt with all the in-shop customers.
Before her current job, Yasuko had worked in a nightclub in Kinshicho. Yonazawa had been a regular there and Sayoko had been the club’s
“She wants to go from being the
After Benten-tei opened, Yasuko had made a habit of dropping in now and then to see how the two were doing. Business was apparently good—good enough that, a year later, they asked her if she’d be interested in helping out. It had become too much for the two of them to handle on their own.
“You can’t go on in that shady business forever, Yasuko,” Sayoko had told her. “Besides, Misato’s getting bigger. You wouldn’t want her developing a complex because her mom’s a nightclub hostess. Of course,” she’d added, “it’s none of my business.”
Misato was Yasuko’s only daughter. There was no father in her life after Yasuko’s last divorce, five years ago. Yasuko hadn’t needed Sayoko to tell her she couldn’t go on as she was. Besides her daughter’s welfare, there was her own age to consider. It was far from clear how long she could have kept her job even if she wanted it.
It only took her a day to come to a decision, and the club didn’t eve ...