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FICTION: SPEEDBUMP


Once upon a time, there was a king who wanted to check up on the public spiritedness of his people so he placed a large rock in the middle of a narrow mountain road. Most citizens, once they got round the rock, were content to just pass on their way, but one man, a poor peasant, put down his load and exerted all his strength to clear the path. Of course, the wise king had placed a purse of gold under the stone so that whoever moved the stone would receive a fitting reward.

This story was fresh in my mind late one night as I was returning home drunk from a fireworks display. Navigating the distorted landscape of my memory, I soon found that I was lost. The street was long and dark and particularly characterless. Despite the dimness it wasn’t particularly quiet. It was just unlit except for the stream of cars with their headlights driving slowly by the small houses tightly wrapped with their garden walls. What surprised me was that I thought I saw a speed bump in the road.

These are quite common back home, and serve a useful road safety function, but, here in Japan, where even sidewalks are considered some sort of perverse luxury, speed bumps are not even to be thought off. I guess people are worried they might upset the bosozoku.

If it was indeed a speed bump, it seemed quite strange that instead of driving over it, the cars were going around it. As I got closer I realized the reason why.

Lying straight across the road like a sleeper on a railway track, I made out the figure of a man. When I reached the spot, I noticed that he was quite old and apparently the worse for drink. He wore a hachimaki wrapped around his head and a haramaki around his torso, both garments symbols of Japan's indigenous laboring classes. Probably a carpenter, I guessed, surmising that he might have finished building a house the same day and gone off on the usual stress-relieving bender, ending up in the middle of the street because Japan was short on gutters.

Normally, I would have felt nothing but distaste for an old vomit-spattered drunk like this, and have conveniently passed on my way, leaving him to his fate or his hangover. But drink had passed my lips and warmed the very cockles of my heart, so I saw things in a different light. Am I not a man and a brother? the slumbering mask of his drunken face seemed to call to me.

The drivers of the cars squeezing by looked at me as if I were stepping out of my mind rather than stepping out into the road as I went to help him. I grabbed the old fellow under the arms and laughed ironically at the stream of abuse that trickled from his snarling lips. Unaware of his danger, he was, no doubt, very comfortable exactly where he was.

I dragged him to the side of the road and clumsily put him down, banging his head in the process. As I did so, something fell out of his haramaki and flipped open. It was his wallet. Without thinking, I picked it up and found it stuffed with a wad of 10,000 yen notes.

I had been right about him having just finished a big job. He had probably been paid cash-in-hand to pull a fast one on the tax authorities, and now here I was with upwards of a million yen in my hands. I instantly remembered the story of the rock in the road. Surely this was too much of a coincidence. This money was clearly intended by some higher being as a reward for my labors and unthinking humanism. I thought about taking the lot, after all I had saved his life. Also, as it was undeclared income, he probably wouldn’t even bother reporting it to the police the next morning.

If I had been sober, this logic would have satisfied me and I would have run off with the whole bundle, but as my sense of fairness was also enhanced by my drunken state, I contented myself with one or two notes, tucking the rest of his money snugly into his haramaki.

I continued on my way, well satisfied in both pocket and soul, but after only about fifty meters, I suddenly heard the shrill screech of bicycle brakes, a thud, and a clatter. Turning round, I saw a salaryman, who also appeared to be under the influence of drink, picking himself up and cursing the recumbent figure who lay under the spinning wheels of his bicycle.

Suddenly he stopped shouting abuse, reached down, and gently shook the old man. Then, just as suddenly, he stiffened, looked up and down the street, got back on his bike and peddled off as quickly as he could down a side street. The old man must have been badly hurt, maybe even dead. Immediately, I started to worry about my fingerprints on his wallet. There was only one thing to do. I went back and took the whole bundle.

C.B.Liddell
Tokyo Journal
August, 2000


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