Tokyo Memory by David W. Landrum

Musician Stephen falls in love with an entrepreneurial woman who prioritises her career over him, provoking him to stray with a Japanese temptress; by David W. Landrum.

Stephen met Niobe when he was playing guitar and banjo for a local production of a musical, The Cotton-Patch Gospel. She had the part of one of Jesus' sisters. She had given him a smile when she met him at the first rehearsal.

"Wow," she said, "A Japanese banjo player! Now that's a first."

He had the banjo on his lap at that moment. He spread his hands and held them at arm's length out to the sides. She laughed.

They ended up dating. On their first date, he asked her what she did for a living. She said she was a marmateer.

He blinked. "What's that?"

She smiled a cat-like smile. "What do you think it is?"

He racked his brain. "Someone who takes care of marmosets? Do you work in a zoo?"

She laughed delightedly.

"That's a good guess. And it might be an interesting way to make a living. But I do something else - not quite as exotic as taking care of marmoset monkeys - but maybe near to it."

"What? Tell me."

"A marmateer is a jelly-maker. I have my own business. I make and sell jelly and jam - and marmalade."

He had thought this might be a hobby but found out she did it for a living. She made her own product and sold it at farmer's markets and, increasingly, supplied some of the nicer restaurants in town with her handcrafted jellies and jams.

"I was able to quit my day-job as a kindergarten assistant a few months back," she told him. "Now I have more orders than I can handle. Stores want to stock my product and I can't produce enough of it to meet the demand."

They went out on an initial date and then a few more. She showed him the kitchen where she made jellies with fascinating mixtures: raspberry/lavender, banana/orchid, mango/coconut, orange/thyme, carrot cake, spice mulberry, ginger/quince. They talked about music, acting, and ethnic identity. She had been raised a Christian and said she didn't want to consider a sexual relationship - "at least not yet." He did not know if she meant she might eventually consider it or would consider it only after they were married (if that should happen). He learned it meant the latter.

They dated into winter. Her business expanded. She hired help, bought new equipment, and began to supply more restaurants and a few local supermarkets. She presented her business venture in a local competition for entrepreneurs and won a $5000 grant, which enabled her to advertise, snag new customers, and expand her marketing windows. In a very short time, Niobe became well-off with her new business. New horizons lay ahead.

And, too, what Stephen had feared happened. She told him they needed to "back off" a little bit.

"You mean you're dumping me?"

"I am not dumping you, Stephen," she said, slightly annoyed. "I just need some space."

"To do what?"

"You know what. To work. To pay full attention to my business. I'm at a critical stage now."

He did not want to argue or go in circles about her intentions. She meant to dump him. Vision of success had filled her imagination. She saw stars and dollar signs. Those things had blotted him out.

"Come on! We'll see each other, just not as often," she said, exasperated at his reaction. "Like I told you: I'm not dumping you or leaving you. I just want to tone things down, that's all."

He knew he had better not push further or she would get annoyed. But he knew this was a prelude. The more she got wrapped up in her business the less she would think of him, and soon he would become an after-thought. He had seen it happen to friends. Out of sight, out of mind. Eventually, he would drop completely out of her life.

Over the next few months, things fell out just as he had thought they would. Her business took off. She made money. She bought an abandoned factory building, fitted it with new equipment, and began to mass-produce her jellies - keeping firm control on the process so that it did not lose the high level of quality she had always striven to put into it. And it worked. A year after they met - four months after she set their relationship aside, she had expanded into five states, selling her jellies in supermarkets and stores. Her restaurant subscribers had expanded even more profitably. She sold to scores of them, including high-class eateries in New York, Chicago, and Toronto.

And he saw less of her. When he drove and listened to the CD of the German group, Guitar - when he heard "Tokyo Memory" and "Wash Me Away" - he thought of the quality of Niobe's voice.

One afternoon he was sitting in his car listening to "Wash Me Away." He had let it play out, waiting for the song to finish before he went into the coffee bar in front of which he had parked. Someone came up to his car and said, "Nice music."

He looked up. A woman stood by the open window of his vehicle. She was Japanese - very pretty - with a look on her face that seemed quirky and amused. Her forwardness had startled him. Her expression suggested that if he did not respond - if he kept staring at her like a jackass - she might laugh at him or make some kind of sarcastic remark.

"Thanks," he said. "That's by Guitar. They're a German group."

"Yes. I know them. That's their Tokyo album, isn't it?"

"It is. You're a fan?" he asked, trying to get his game on a little more.

"Very much. I like Guitar and I'm a big fan of Ayako Akashiba."

Ayako Akashiba was the woman who did the vocals on the album by Guitar, though she was not a member of the group.

"Me too." Stephen said. "I like all the tracks on Tokyo, but I really listen to it to hear the songs she sings."

The woman smiled. It seemed absurd and awkward for her to be standing there and for him to be talking to her through the window of an automobile. He gestured with his thumb toward the building he was parked in front of.

"Are you going into Deja Brew?" he asked.

"I am." She had a little bit of an accent. She must from Japan, he thought, and not Japanese-American.

"Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

She smiled brightly. "I'd be delighted if you would."

He smiled and climbed out of the car. Getting a better look at her, he saw how pretty she was. Pretty, in fact, was not the word for it. Her good looks astounded him. She was as beautiful as an actress or fashion model - one of those women who is so pretty she does not look real. Tall, trim, with a perfect figure, an exquisitely love face, she walked with him into the coffee bar. She wore very short blue dress and boots and carried a Lana Marks handbag (Niobe had seen a woman carrying one and told Stephen they cost hundreds of dollars - a thing he could not believe until he checked the internet and found it was true). They ordered lattes and sat down at a table.

"I suppose we should know each other's names," Stephen said. "I'm Stephen - Stephen Iwata."

"Happy to meet you, Stephen. Just call me Uzume for now."

"Are you visiting, Uzume? I mean - I know most of the Japanese people in the area. Around here, there aren't a whole lot of us."

"I'm visiting. I'll be here for a few days."

"Visiting. Are you an actress? That would be my guess."

"I'm a dancer," she said. "I'm doing some dance for the Grand Rapids Theater Troupe and some commercials - the commercials involve dancing but I'm doing a couple that don't." She smiled, her eyes sly. "To get on commercials you don't really need talent. You just have to look pretty."

"You won't have any trouble there," he quipped. "And Uzume is a good name for a dancer."

She laughed brightly. She knew the myth that went with her name.

They sipped their coffee drinks and talked about their careers - about acting, working in theater, and music. Whatever else happened between, Stephen thought, they would certainly enjoy this initial conversation.

They were talking when Niobe walked in.

She glanced at Stephen and Uzume, did a double-take, and went to their table.

"Stephen, hello," she said, eyeing Uzume.

He smiled. "Hello, Niobe. Let me introduce you to Uzume."

When two women don't approve of each other you can tell, Stephen had always observed. He saw this - beyond doubt - in the two women at his table.

"Would you join us, Niobe?" he asked.

"I don't want to intrude," she said, a little crisply.

"No intrusion," he said.

"Please sit with us, Niobe," Uzume put in.

Niobe hesitated, contemplated just a second, and said, "Sure." She went to the front counter, ordered what he knew to be her usual drink (hot chocolate), and joined them, sitting next to Stephen so she faced Uzume. The two of them began maneuvering right away.

"Uzume," Niobe said. "Interesting name. She was a goddess, wasn't she?"

"Yes. Most people - at least in the US - don't know the stories about her. But you have a mythic name too."

"I do. I think my mother must have been reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology just before I was born."

Niobe asked Uzume about herself and got details on the commercials she was doing and her plans to participate in a community fundraiser.

"I'll get to see you then," Niobe said. "I'll be there representing the theater troupe I perform in occasionally; and with the group of entrepreneurs who received awards last year for their innovative ideas. We're going to be recognized at the event."

The two of them talked - all but leaving Stephen out. In the middle of their conversation, he got a phone call, noticed the number, and took the call, stepping outside. It was one of his connections - Tim - who worked as an organizer for local performance venues. He was involved, Stephen knew, in the fundraiser his two female friends had been discussing.

"Stephen, we're in a pickle," he said. "Our guitarist bailed on us. You can sight-read, can't you?"

"I can."

"Do you know 'Killing Me Softly With His Song?'"

"Every note of it."

"Good. We need solo guitar on that one. How about the guitar on "Theme to The Rockford Files?"

"My family watched the show when it was in syndication. I thought the riffs in the theme to the show were so cool I learned to play them."

"It sounds like you're just the guy we need," he laughed. Stephen had played for groups and organizations Tim represented many times. "The pay is good, he continued. "You'll get union wages. It'll come to $350 for you - for two hours work. Since this was on short notice, I'll throw in another hundred."

"I can do it," he said.

"Great. I'll drop the scores off at your place as soon as I can."

Tim thanked Stephen.

He returned to the table. Niobe and Uzume were still talking.

"Kanbi," Uzume was saying. "That's a good name. Sweet and luscious."

This was the name of Niobe's line of jams and jellies.

"It thought it would be a perfect name."

"It seems to have been. Your business is doing quite well, I'm told."

"Told by whom?"

She smiled and pointed. "By Stephen."

"I see. Yes, things are going well."

He resumed his place. "The phone call was some business I had to take care of. I'm sorry for leaving."

Niobe replied that she had come here to transact business as well. Two minutes later, her party arrived. She excused herself and joined two men and a woman, all in dressed in business outfits. She had worn a white blouse and a black skirt and had tied up her hair. She looked the part of the efficient Japanese businesswoman - a very different look from the Niobe he had begun to love before things broke down. She and the people she was meeting with got out electronic devices and began to talk and text. Stephen looked at Uzume, who smiled.

"She's a very determined young woman."

"She is." He paused. "Well, I found out I'm going to be playing guitar at the fundraiser tonight."

Her face brightened. "Really. That will be wonderful. Maybe we can go out for a drink afterwards. I don't know anyone here in Grand Rapids. Maybe you can show me around town."

"I'd like that."

"Is your girlfriend coming as well?" she asked.

"She'll be there. Niobe won a grant a while back, and they plan to honor the grant recipients; and she's representing a theater group she acts in now and then."

Stephen knew this might complicate things, but because Niobe had "toned down" their relationship he thought the attention Uzume was giving him might be a little bit of wholesome turnabout. It would remind Niobe she was not the only star shining in his firmament - and that one considerably brighter than she was granting him a wish.

He and Uzume talked on. She asked him what musicals he had played and which were the most challenging. He told her the most challenging was Fiddler on the Roof because the music was so fast; Man of La Mancha was second due to odd time signatures. Uzume had done everything from vaudeville to Shakespeare. Her favorite role had been Rosalind in As You Like It. She said she had an audition with the Radio City Rockettes in two months. "They want to create a little more diversity in their ranks, so I got a chance."

"Would you enjoy that?"

"I think it would be fun - at least for a while."

He kept thinking she might leave but they kept finding things to talk about: music, performance, acting, books they liked, theater, family, the difficulties of a career in entertainment. He was surprised she had been married. "We fell out of love. It just faded," she said, going no further into the matter. He talked about teaching guitar and playing different gigs.

"A lot of people told me I could never make a living playing music," he said, "but I do okay."

They continued their conversation for more than an hour. Niobe finished her business conference, came over to the table, said it had been nice meeting Uzume and that she had to get back to her factory to check on production rates. Stephen told her he would also be there tonight, playing in the orchestra. She smiled and said she would be happy to see the both of them.

Stephen and Uzume talked more. When she was ready to go Stephen offered to walk her to her car.

"I'll look forward to seeing you after the fund-raiser," she said.

She climbed into her Lexus and drove off.

The score for the performance was leaning up against Stephen's door when he got home. He looked through the music. He had done most of the songs before. A couple he had to learn. One was "The Stripper" by David Rose. He played through it and quickly saw the guitar part was not that difficult, but it also tripped something in his memory.

"The Stripper" had been a hit in the 1960s, but somehow Uzume's name came to mind when he looked at the title to the score on his stand. He racked his brain but could not make the connection. He thought of doing a Google search on it but decided not to. He went to the kitchen and made something to eat. Then he remembered.

Uzume was the name of an ancient deity. In the myth of Amaterasu, the Japanese goddess of spring who he hides in a cave after an offense is committed against her and will not bring in spring, so that the people of earth begin to die because they cannot plant and raise crops, the trickster goddess, Uzume, saves the day - and the planet.

Stephen remembered, with amusement, his mother's chagrin when his grandmother told him the tale, outlining how Uzume, the Goddess of Mirth and Laughter, "Got up in front of the other gods and stripped down until she was naked as the day she was born. They were shouting, laughing, and cheering - especially the men. Amaterasu, hiding in her cave, got so curious about the noise she poked her head outside to see what was going. The other gods seized her and brought her out of hiding. Uzume saved the world with her little strip-tease."

Stephen smiled, remembering his mother being scandalized but, since it would have been disrespectful to interrupt an elder, allowed his baba to finish the story. He later heard her relating the incident to his father, clicking her tongue and exclaiming, "To tell such a story to a young child!"

He got out his guitar, worked on the trickier passages in two of the songs they were doing that night, put on his performance clothes, packed up his guitars, and headed for the venue.

Niobe was there. She was hanging out with the other grant winners. She had on a black dress, shorter and tighter than what she usually wore. When she saw him she gave him a smile, hurried over, hugged him, and gave him a kiss on the side of his mouth. Her knot of friends smiled.

"Someone told me you were playing tonight," she said.

"Last minute notification. You look nice."

She held out the side of her skirt. "Thanks. I don't dress up enough. I've been spending too much time in at my factory site. So I went out and bought some new outfits. Can we go somewhere after the program is over?"

"I don't know," he said. "Aren't you going out with your band of grant-winners?"

"They're going to a bar after the show. But I'd like to go somewhere with you."

He knew he had to stop obfuscating.

"Uzume asked me to go out for a drink."

She looked disappointed and then frowned. "And you're going?"

"I didn't want to be rude."

"Okay, yes. I just thought we might go somewhere. We haven't done much of anything lately."

"I thought that was part of my getting 'toned down'."

Anger flashed in her eyes and she opened her mouth to maybe unleash some sort of rebuke at him, but one of her entrepreneur friends called her over just then. She bit off whatever she had meant to say, turned on her heel, and went over to join her friends. Stephen glanced at his watch. It was time for orchestra call.

The program began. As usual, people talked a lot about donors, assistants and secretaries who had done "the real work" for the event, local politicians, and business leaders. Then they introduced the entrepreneurs who were guests of honor that night. They came up on stage, took a bow, and sat down in chairs reserved for them on one side of the stage. Niobe looked pretty with her big eyes, slender figure, and very lovely legs. She had caused Stephen a lot of consternation lately, and he thought she might deserve at bit of misery. But when he looked up at her on stage he thought she looked more forlorn than angry.

The program started; the orchestra began to play. They started off with "Theme to Rocky," went on to do three songs from musicals. Dancers came out on stage for a trio of tunes from musicals, Uzume among them. If Niobe looked good in a black minidress, Uzume looked spectacular in a purple leotard and spangled tights. Her dancing came off flawlessly, perfect, and outrightly sensual. Once she gave Stephen an unmistakable smile. Niobe, who was watching from her place on the side of stage, saw her to do so. Steven noted the alarm in her eyes. After this the dancers exited and a local artist did "Killing Me Softly With His Song," backed up with solo guitar. They finished with the title song from Cabaret and "Tonight" from West Side Story.

The emcee came out on stage after applause for the last number had died down.

Just then Uzume came out on stage, this time by herself.

She was dressed just like Gypsy Rose Lee in the old movie The Stripper. The emcee nodded at the orchestra and they began to play the song by the same name. She immediately began to dance and discard articles of clothing: the long gloves she wore, which she peeled off with slinky movements and tossed out to the audience; next, after a series of provocative dance moves, she pulled off the puff tutu around her waist, again throwing it out for a patron to catch. At that point she wore a leotard, tights, and a sequined vest.

Stephen had to discipline himself to look at the score and not lose his place because he was watching the Uzume. She was attractive in every way imaginable. Like her ancient namesake, she danced incredibly well. Sometimes she seemed to defy the law of gravity and the limitations of the human body. He had never seen a woman so sexually beautiful.

He wondered how the crowd would react to an impromptu strip-tease. Yet no one seemed offended or scandalized by what she was doing. People laughed, applauded, whistled, cheered, and shouted encouragement to her. He had thought he might see some tight-lipped observers with their arms crossed, but a scan of the audience revealed no such thing. Everyone he could see, male and female, young and old, seemed caught up in the performance. In a moment when the guitar dropped out, he focused on Niobe. She was smiling, though she looked tense.

Uzume bent over, let the vest fall off her shoulders and slide down her arms. She stood straight up and tossed it into the crowd. It landed in the midst of three women who engaged in a good-natured tug-of-war for the object. One of the women wrenched the vest away from her two friends, and, from the action/reaction of her pull, fell down then stood up waving it triumphantly, to the laughter and applause of everyone there. Uzume applauded without losing a step in her dance.

She continued to strip, peeling off her tights and the leotard she wore (which had a zipper that enabled her to do so easily). Soon she had pared her clothes down to a skimpy bikini.

The crowded cheered even more loudly.

Uzume did a bit of butt- and boob-shaking and then went to the edge of the stage and gave the stripper exit line, "Okay, that's all you get to see tonight." And in a flash she was gone.

A lot of cheering followed, but Uzume did not come out on stage for a final bow. The orchestra finished up with the "Theme to the Rockford Files." When they were finished playing, the emcee stepped up and said the last dance had raised $2,000 over what had already been pledged. Stephen learned later that Uzume's dance had been billed as a "surprise final performance," that afforded an opportunity to give additional money to the Community Fund if anyone was so inclined.

The program ended. People headed for the food tables and the bar. Uzume appeared after a half hour or so. She looked glamorous in a sequined party dress, her hair down, silver sequined boots to match the dress.

She did, of course, what she was expected to do: hobnobbed with the organizers, accepted adulation from those who had watched her dancing, sipped wine, gave a short interview with a local news team that was there. Finally she broke away from the movers and shakers who had hired her, threaded her way through ardently congratulatory crowd members, and walked straight over to Stephen. She gave him a small kiss on the mouth and asked him to go with her over to the bar. They got glasses of wine. He asked if she wanted to check out the food tables. "I'm hungry," she answered, "but we're going out afterwards - and I don't like buffet food that well."

They drank. People formed a line to congratulate Uzume and gush over her performance. To Stephen's surprise, more than one person knew the story of the Goddess Uzume and of her nude dance that drew the Goddess Amaterasu out of hiding and saved the world from disaster. She quipped that she had had many centuries to practice her strip tease since then.

Niobe came up and complimented Uzume on her performance. She looked washed out and tired. Stephen started to feel bad about sidelining her. But then he remembered she had done the same to him. He did want to be cruel or vindictive, but if you made a bed you had to lie in it.

"You look pretty in that outfit," Uzume said.

"Thank you. I really ought to dress up more often."

"Never hurts to dress up."

Niobe looked at Stephen. "Nice guitar playing. The solo on 'Killing Me Softly' was pretty; and you really wailed on "The Rockford Files Theme."


She smiled and, knowing things were not getting off the ground, excused herself. Uzume watched her walk off, turned, and took Stephen's arm.

"Shall we go?"

Outside, the sky was clear, stars blazing, the moon riding above the downtown buildings. They stopped in a bar and had more wine. She paid. He protested. When she told him the price of the bottle she had selected he agreed that her paying had been a good idea.

After a while he said, "That organization is pretty prudish. How did you get them to authorize a strip-tease?"

She smiled.

"There are ways to get what you want - especially if you're a trickster."

"You're named after one."

"It was an appropriate naming."

They left the bar, walking through the downtown, now largely empty of vehicles and pedestrians.

"I'm staying at the Marriot," she said. "My room has a great view. Come on."

He followed her. He assumed she meant him to spend the night with her. He would not disagree - though, oddly, having seen Niobe made him reluctant. Her pleasant disposition, good looks, industry, intelligence, and - yes, he had to say it - her virginity, made her attractive to him. Uzume said she wanted to get something to eat. They went to the hotel restaurant. Because it was so late the tables were already set up for breakfast. On a small rack sat a container of Mango/Coconut, Kanbi brand. Stephen looked down at it and turned the jar until he could see the small photograph of Niobe on the back of it. He looked up and met Uzume's eyes.

"You love her, don't you?" she asked.

"I guess I do."

She smiled. "I'm glad I could help you see that."

"It might be too late to salvage things."

"It isn't. Trust me. Do what your hearts tells you to do."

"I'm not much of a trickster," he said.

"You aren't. But she is - much more than you realize."

He knew the trip to Uzume's room would not happen. The two of them talked about music, performance, New York City, and about Ayako Akashibi's music. She said she needed to get some sleep, gave him a small kiss, and departed.

The next day, Niobe called and asked if he wanted to have lunch with her. They met at Mapu Sushi and Grill. She had dressed up again. She had also gotten her hair cut short. She asked him about his date with Uzume.

"I wouldn't call it a date," he said. "But it was interesting talking to her."

"It was ironic that she's named Uzume," Niobe observed, "and did a strip-tease just like the goddess did in the story of Amaterasu."

"She didn't get to choose what her mother named her."

"I feel that way too. Do you know the story of Niobe?"

Niobe, in Greek myth, had fourteen children. Because she boasted about them, the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis killed them all the with arrows. Eventually, she was turned to a stone fountain from which water, representing her tears, constantly flowed.

"Just don't get full of pride." He smiled.

"I haven't done very well as far as that goes. I've been caught up in the success of my business. It made me proud of myself. The myth I was named after should teach me that isn't a good thing to do."

They had sushi and rolls. She told him someone wanted to create a franchise on her business. They would run the production of her jellies; she would own the brand and dictate all the other aspects. "My lawyers have looked at it and think it's a good deal," she said. "My brand will go national but I'll still control the quality so that I don't lose the artisan touch I've always tried to put in it - and I get a very nice salary plus a percent of the profits."

"Sounds good."

"I'll have more time for myself. Maybe we can see each other more... if you even want that after what -"

"That sounds lovely, Niobe," he put in, not letting her finish her sentence. "I'd love to spend more time with you. Laurence Juber is playing down in Three Rivers in a few days. Do you want to go?"

She said she would love to. He was glad to have headed off an emotional to-do (Niobe looked ready to cry). He remembered some British writer who had once said, "I can't bear catharsis." Like whoever said this, Stephen hated emotional messiness. He and Niobe talked. As they talked, she came out of her emotional torpor. No need for her to apologize for dumping him, he reasoned; and no purpose in him giving vent to the chagrin he had felt when she put him at arm's length in favor of her career. He sensed the whole experience had taught her that she loved him; and him that he loved her.

They continued to talk. Their tone lightened. They knew things were okay again and that they could be secure in each other. They had a future and there was not much question what that future would hold - maybe not as many children as the first Niobe; but maybe quite a few.

Sometimes, Stephen thought, a trickster's touch is just the touch you need.

1 comment:

  1. Great story and well-crafted in presenting an extraordinary amount of background detail that adds, but does not slow down, the narrative.