Fiction · 07/07/2010

Big In Japan

People in the street and on the subway began looking at her oddly. Double takes with furrowed brows and cinched mouths, as if trying to place where they’d seen her before. The other day in the Laundromat, she even thought she heard a woman whisper to her little girl, “Hey, it’s Betty Zongo.” She wondered if she was hearing things, if her doctor had her pills mixed up. She hoped she wasn’t losing her mind like her father, who was shot down by the Houston police when she was thirteen because he heard Pope John Paul II whispering inside the refrigerator, telling him to hold up a convenience store.

She was a reference librarian, content with being ignored most of her life. Her mother and sister called her meek and mousy, right to her face. Fine with her. After all, one didn’t want to be noticed too much, not in this city. She spent nights and weekends in her apartment watching television, mostly marathons of Life Drop, the new show that followed ordinary people around for a month or two before they went to Tokyo and jumped off the top of the Ruby Imperial hotel.

Maybe it was pheromonal, she figured, people suddenly paying so much attention. She was thirty-eight, after all, winding down her fertile years. The busker in front of the coffee shop who’d never once glanced her way gave her a thumbs up. The short order cook at the diner tendered an odd nod, almost appreciative, as if she’d just shown him a fancy card trick. Then in the elevator the pest control man told her that he admired her work.

“In the library?” she asked.

He paused, scratched his head, gave this some thought. “I guess,” he said. “Sure, that’s part of it.”

Then there was the butcher, the same man whom she’d visited twice a week for how long now? A decade, maybe longer. Shyly, he asked for her autograph, pushed a pen and blank order form across the counter.

“I think you have me mistaken for someone else,” she said.

“You don’t want to give autograph?” he said. “All you have to do is say.”

A fuse had blown in this poor old man’s brain. Too bad. She would have to find a new butcher.

One day a woman called the Quick Reference at the public library and asked for a synopsis of last night’s episode of Betty Zongo. At least that’s what she thought she heard the lady say. Surely she had misunderstood. The woman explained that the show’s broadcast was blacked out because of the lightning storm. Well, she was just beside herself over this, she said. Absolutely livid.

She asked the lady to repeat the show’s name.

“Betty Zongo,” the lady said.

“Who is this?”

The woman gave her name and library patron code.

“It’s a Japanese show about a librarian,” the lady explained. “I guess kind of a comedy?”

“I said who is this?”

“Ma’am, I already told you.”

“You’re not very funny.”

The woman told her to get fucked in the ass and hung up.

That evening she was on a walk in the complex park and a bald man with an eight ball tattoo on the side of his head staggered out of the bushes and asked if she’d seen a Chihuahua. She said she hadn’t. He then asked her if she knew where to score drugs. She said no, she did not.

“Oh my God,” he said, staring at her face.

She skulked away.

“Oh, I seen you on television, lady,” he called to her back. “You’re real good. This mean I’m gonna be on your show?”

She spent the night wondering who’d want to play such a vicious prank. She went out of her way to avoid making enemies. Men had always broken up with her, not the other way around, explaining she was too quiet and reserved, which she took to mean cold fish in bed. Then again, she hadn’t even dated a man in half a decade. Was it possible that someone detested her for no reason whatsoever, except maybe her face, or the way she dressed or walked?

The next day the same lady called the Quick Reference desk and apologized. She’d heard herself on the Betty Zongo show last night and, well, she was just beside herself over this. Absolutely appalled. She hadn’t realized she was speaking to the Betty Zongo. “I don’t know why a pretty and nice girl like you doesn’t have a boyfriend,” said the woman. “I always say that to my friends. I say, ‘What a lovely, polite young lady. She needs a boyfriend’.” Then the lady started saying something about how she should get out in the world, meet an eligible and proper Christian man. Especially with time running out the way it was.

Queasily, she thumped the phone back into the receiver and stared at it for a minute. Then she went to the branch director and told him she was leaving sick for the rest of the day.

At home, she found a pile of letters behind the door under the mail slot. Fifty, seventy, maybe more. She scooped them up in her arms and dumped them on the kitchen table and sat down heavily. The letters had strange stamps and postmarks from around the world, and many were wrinkled and smudged, travel-worn. She opened one from China but whatever the letter said was indecipherable, littered with exclamation marks. She opened another from Akron, Ohio, a woman conveying that she identified deeply with what she was going through. A man from Lisbon, France, sent a nude Polaroid of himself sprawled on a velvet settee, signed “YOUR ‘BIGGEST’ FAN” on the back. “PS,” the man wrote on the bottom, “DON’T GO TO TOKYO.”

She hunted through the apartment, foraging through cabinets, squinting into air ducts, overturning rugs and throw pillows. When she got on her hands and knees and peered under the couch and coffee table, there was laughter from the apartment above. She picked up the lamp, examined its base, and there was more laughter, gruffer, from the apartment to the right.

She ran out of the apartment and through the building into the street. She headed straight to the corner bar. It was dark and almost empty and she sat on a stool. Gasping, heart knocking against her ribs, she ordered a vodka tonic. She didn’t notice the couple on the other side of the bar until she’d swallowed her drink down to the ice cubes. They were college-aged, looked like kids of parents who belonged to country clubs. They kept glancing in her direction.

“What?” she said.

The young woman grabbed the man’s arm and laughed into his shirt.

Her face burned. “What’s so fucking interesting?”

“You’re wearing your bathrobe,” the young man said.

She looked down and saw that she was.

“Hey, aren’t you that librarian on that show?” the girl asked.

Then she noticed some commotion in the back room near the pool tables, the clank of a beer bottle knocking over, a flash of light. A man in a black leather jacket and baseball cap was pointing a handycam. His hat had the “Life Drop” logo on the front.

She got up and started running again.

Back in her apartment she called her mother. “Mother,” she said, “I think I’m losing my mind.”

“What a way to start a conversation,” her mother said. Then she said she was probably just having one of her panic attacks. She asked if she was getting packed and ready to go.

“Go where?” she asked her mother.

“Hello? Your sister’s wedding?”

“I’ve told you a thousand times. I can’t take off work for that long.”

“Honey, it’s your sister’s wedding.”

“Who has a wedding in Tokyo?”

“Japanese people,” her mother said. “Japanese people like Raymond.” Raymond, her sister’s fiancé. “I bought you a ticket. It’s too late to back out.”

She told her mother she had a headache and hung up.

Next day she called in sick from work and shoved the television and computer and microwave into the closet, throwing a blanket over the pile. That weekend she drew the blinds over the windows and stayed in bed, swallowing a sleeping pill whenever she woke, getting up only for a glass of water or to go to the bathroom. By Monday morning there was a hillock of envelopes by the door. On top she saw a postcard with a picture of the Ruby Imperial and picked it up. “Don’t go to Tokyo!” someone had written on the back. “Fuck your sister’s wedding!”

She called a taxi for a ride to the hospital. When she slid into the back, the Mohawked driver smiled in the rearview mirror when adjusted it so it pointed down at his chest. On his t-shirt was a picture of her face and above it a dialogue bubble that read, “What’s so fucking interesting?”

“I’m a huge fan,” he said as he whipped the taxi away from the curb. “I watch your show every night. Like religiously. Check out the shirt.”

“Just take me to the hospital, please.”

He straightened back the mirror and said, “Sure, no problem. The airport.”

“The hospital, I said the hospital,” she said, but it sounded garbled, strange.

“What is that you’re speaking? Chinese? Japanese? I only speak English.”

“The hospital, the hospital, the hospital.”

“Jeez, lady. You don’t have to scream at me. The plane, is that what you’re saying? Yeah, the plane. I get it. The plane, the plane. Damn, you crying or what? No reason to do that.”

There it was, the hospital exit, passing now, going, gone, and she stared longingly out the back window, wailed like a panicked animal. The hospital, she yelled and kept yelling, and the taxi driver yelled back, until it all started to sound even to her like Japan, Tokyo, the Ruby Imperial Hotel.

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Thomas Cooper lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His stories are forthcoming or have appeared in Oxford American, Willow Springs, New Orleans Review, Sonora Review, Quick Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG, Memorious, and many others.