Whisper Alley

Whisper Alley
 

Today it’s raining.  It’s a rain so soft, so comforting, that I’m reminded of my mother.  When I was young, mama used to tell me wonderful stories on days like this.  She would open the windows wide and the quiet drumming would fill the room.  She said the rain was special, that it was like a lullaby that could quiet the busy streets and bring a gentle hush over the city.  To mama, rain was magic.  To me, it was a blessing.

You don’t have to work tonight, right, Mama?

That’s right my little peach, I don’t.

How come you never have to work when it rains?

Just look how peaceful the rain makes the city look.  No one should have to work on days like this. The rain came through the open windows and sprinkled her face.  The droplets sparkled like tiny diamonds.

You’d better close the window Mama.  You’re getting wet.

Daijobu-desu.  It’s all right because the rain feels lovely.

But won’t you catch a cold?

No, Momo-chan.  The rain doesn’t make sickness, it makes things well.  It gives the world a shower and washes away all of its sadness.

If it was cold, mama would let me light the heater.  The smell of kerosene would be strong at first, but it soon would mingle with the burning incense and other smells of our home.  Later, we would sit under the kotatsu, close together, blanket pulled tight around us, and she would tell stories of mysterious talking carp and beautiful singing cranes until I fell asleep.

On days like this, mama loved to drink ocha.  The green tea had a subtle fragrance that belied its bitter taste.  I loved to watch her.  Her movements seemed effortless, so fluid: the way she slowly prepared the tea; the way she held the cup so lightly and placed it gently against her lips.  Even her sipping the tea sounded delicate.  She gave the whole ritual a sense of grace.  I didn’t like the taste of the tea then, but mama would prepare me a cup anyway.  I never drank it.  I would just hold it between my palms and savor its warmth.

Usually I don’t think about mama because I have so much work to do.  I don’t mind my work.  No one bothers me because I do my job well.  I clean what needs to be cleaned, and most importantly, I mind my own business.  My job requires complete discretion.  When I was hired, my senpai patiently instructed me on what was expected from me.  Treat the customers like they’re spirits, she said.  Respect them and show them deference whenever they’re around, but never acknowledge their presence.  That was fine with me because I never pay attention to what anyone does.  Oh, I see faces, and I see other things, but I just ignore what doesn’t concern me.  Besides, I am not paid to remember, or to know things–I am paid to clean.  When I was little, mama used to scold me when I pointed out to her all of the odd things that people do.  When she brought a friend home, she always reminded me of the number one rule:  Good girls see everything, but say nothing.

All of my life I have never owned a car.  To get to work I ride the train.  I don’t mind; in fact, I rather enjoy it.  The station is only a short walk from my home and the streets always seem to keep me company one way or another.  Mama never owned a car either, so even when I was young I always rode the train.  How I used to love the little station by our apartment.  The stands that lined the walls had so many different things to sell that it hurt my eyes to look at them all.  And there used to be so many women wearing beautiful kimonos,filling the station with many wonderful colors.  Now, it seems the only color I see is the color of business suits.

What I liked most about the station, though, was watching the trains pass by as mama and I waited for our connection.  As soon as we heard the signal for an on-coming train, mama would reach down for my hand and tell me to step back from the edge of the platform, even if I wasn’t near it.  If the train were an express, it would roar through the station with such force that I would have to remind myself to breathe.  They came and went so fast that all of the cars blurred together to form a long, gray streak.  Sometimes, faces would emerge through the blur. They always seemed to be wearing empty, distant expressions, like the faces in the old black-and-white photos mama used to show me when I was little.

I never did enjoy riding the trains during rush hour, though.  The people were rude, always shoving to get a seat.  The more they packed themselves in, the tighter I held on to mama’s hand.  I was always afraid I was going to lose her when it got so crowded.  I remember once we were going to see a movie in Yokohama.  I had never visited the city before and I was very excited.  But the longer we traveled, and the closer we got to the city, the more crowded the train became.  At each stop, more and more people got on, until finally, it became so crowded that I couldn’t move.  There were legs and waists and bottoms all around me.  I squeezed mama’s hand to remind her not to let go.  But then, for some unknown reason, the train began to stop.  It braked and the crowd lunged forward.  My feet left the floor.  But, because there were so many people, there was no room for anyone to fall.  It felt as if I was caught up in an ocean wave.  By the time the train jerked itself to a complete stop, everyone was all tangled together.  People began talking at once in excited, high-pitched voices, wondering to each other what the problem was.  I had lost mama.  I wanted to cry out for her, but I knew better than to make a scene.  I was alone without her.

It wasn’t long, though, after everything began to settle down, that I heard mama softly calling my name.  She had been pushed to the other side of the train.  Her back was to me and I could only see her from the waist down.  I recognized her skirt.  It was yellow and had soft purple and blue flowers on it.  It was her favorite.  She told me to wait where I was, that she would come to me as soon as she could, and for me not to disturb anyone.

I was scared.  I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help it.  The tears blurred my vision, making it hard to see.  All of the women around me seemed to feel sorry for me, but there was nothing they could do.  There was no room for them to let me by or to pick me up.  I couldn’t go anywhere.  I could only rock with the crowd from the motion of the train.

After I stopped crying, there was nothing else for me to do, so I played the pretend game.  The pretend game is a game mama taught me to play whenever I was bored.  I used to play it all the time when she was at work, or when she had friends over and I couldn’t be in the way.  It helped me forget the things that I didn’t want to think about.  This time I pretended that I was in a beautiful forest.  All of the legs around me became trees, and all of the arms and hands became branches and limbs.  The people swaying with the train became trees blowing in the wind.  I pretended so hard that birds began to sing and little squirrels began to play at my feet.  I saw mama among the trees but her back was still turned to me.  A path appeared before me that promised to lead me to her.  I began to follow it.

As I was walking down my pretend path, a branch blew up against the back of mama’s leg and started rubbing against it.  She reached back to brush it away, but the wind was strong and the branch blew back.  My pretending stopped.  The branch became a hand.  What was happening?  I looked up at the people around me but no one seemed to notice.  The hand kept coming back and mama kept pushing it away.  Whose hand was it?  I strained to see but there were so many people I couldn’t tell who the hand belonged to.  The only thing I could tell was that his suit was blue, dark blue.

The hand was too strong and it began to slowly crawl up her leg.  Why didn’t mama do something?  Tell someone?  Scream?  I hated that hand.  I wanted to kill it.  I wanted to scream myself, but all I could do was cry.  The women around me thought I was crying again only because I was still separated from my mother.  They tried to comfort me by telling me that mama would be with me soon.  They didn’t know what was really happening.  Even if they had known they probably wouldn’t have done anything about it.  They would have been too scared to say anything, just like mama.  The hand disappearing underneath mama’s skirt is the last thing I remember of my trip to Yokohama.

Don’t ever talk to the customers.  Don’t make eye contact.  If you’re cleaning a room and customers come in, bow, and then quietly leave.  My senpai meant well, but she didn’t have to keep telling me how to act.  I have never cared about any of the people who come here, or even why they come.  When I started working I was very naïve.  I didn’t know what kind of hotel this was.  I thought it was just a regular hotel where people go to take vacations or business trips, not a hotel with rooms that look like boxing rings, or stage coaches, or boats, or race cars.

One day, shortly after I began working at the hotel, I was cleaning a room, I think it was the Cupid Room, and I found a wallet.  I remembered what I was told when I was hired:  If you find anything that belongs to a customer, turn it in to the manager.  So I placed the wallet in my cart and was going to turn it in after I finished the last two rooms on the floor.  But, by the time I finished the floor I had forgotten about the wallet.  That evening, after I had finished my shift and was returning all of my cleaning items, the wallet fell to the floor.  As I was picking it up I saw that a little packet had fallen out.  I didn’t care about the wallet.  I wasn’t even interested in knowing how much money was in it, or who it belonged to, and of course, I turned it into the manager before I left.  But I had never seen a condom before.  I had seen advertisements for them in the train stations; and I remember hearing girls talk about them in high school, but I was new and, of course, well, I had never really seen one before, so I took it.

I have seen thousands of them since then.  I didn’t even know until the manager pointed it out about a month after I had been working at the hotel, that my cart had a little can for used ones.  Now, before I start cleaning I put on rubber gloves so I don’t have to touch them.  I call the gloves “condoms for my hands.”  I never told anyone that.  Well, I did tell Nagumo-san, and she thought it was funny.  But she doesn’t work here anymore.  Some ladies don’t last too long.  When they first start out, they tell me how happy they are just to have a job.  But I guess after they change a few sheets and dispose of a few condoms, they get to thinking.  I usually can tell who will quit and who won’t by the way they pick up soiled sheets or pucker their lips too tightly when they see some of the stranger things left behind by our customers.  As for me, I’ve been doing this too long to quit now.

Mama wouldn’t have been happy about me working in a love hotel, but I sure didn’t like the job she got for me.  She had a friend who worked for the city.  I didn’t do too well in school, so I should have been grateful to him for helping me and mama out like that.  But I couldn’t learn to type very well, and I especially didn’t like working with men.  That’s what’s so nice about the job I have now—only women clean love hotels.  But mama was proud of me so I kept working for the city.  I didn’t want to disappoint her.  But finally, one weekend after she got sick, I just walked into the hotel that I work in now and asked for a job.  I don’t know why I chose this hotel.  Maybe it was because it looked so new back then.  And please believe me, it wasn’t easy for me to sneak behind mama’s back like that, but she was too sick to know.  I always did what she told me to do, but working for the city was just too much for me.  Too many suits with hands like branches.

I remember walking into the hotel for the first time.  It was very dark and there was no lobby, just an entrance way that led to a window.  So I went to the window, which was really just a little half-moon shaped opening in the wall, and I was surprised when I couldn’t see a person.  All I saw were hands holding out a key.  How strange it was to talk to a pair of hands.  But a voice answered, and it and the hands seemed surprised when I asked if I could work there.  The voice behind the hands said that it wasn’t up to her.  All she could do was assign rooms and collect money.  She was very polite, though.  The hands told me how she got her job.  They said that she started out cleaning rooms and worked really hard, and was very discreet, so they put her behind the window.  She also said that if I wanted to work there I would first have to talk to the manager.  She didn’t say that he belonged to the yakuza, and, of course, I didn’t know.  Maybe I wouldn’t even have applied if I had known.  I was very nervous when I walked into his office.  But, I was hired after I told him I was a very discreet person.

I’m a hard worker.  Mama always said that I should work hard and be honest.  That’s what good people do.  She always worked hard.  She had to because papa died when I was a baby.  I don’t know what he looked like because mama didn’t have any pictures of him; but she told me so many wonderful things about him that as a child I felt as if he were always with us.  Because mama took such good care of me, I didn’t usually mind not having a father, except when the kids in my neighborhood teased me about it.  I don’t know why they were so mean.  I don’t know why they said such terrible things.  It wasn’t my fault that my father died—I never believed the things they said anyway.  And when I went to mama crying, she held me real tight.  She always held me so long and smelled so good that I would eventually forget about all the meanness that made me cry.

I like to take my breaks across the street at the soba restaurant.  It’s not a fancy restaurant, just a little noodle house.  Mostly, I don’t even eat when I go there.  I just order ocha, close my eyes, and listen to everyone eat their noodles.  When I was little I used to love the way the noodles slid into my mouth, and how, if I sucked them up really hard, the ends smacked me right under my nose.  Sometimes, the pretty girls from my hotel are at the restaurant, too.  They are such nice girls, always saying hello and talking to me a little.  They usually don’t eat anything, either.  They just sit at their tables and smoke, sometimes they drink tea, and when they see me coming they always smile.  And there are times when, if they’re all chattering at once, or laughing with their heads back, or if they’re so excited about their conversation that when they speak, their hands speak too, like the lady’s behind the window, or, if the smoke from their cigarettes curls slowly away and floats above their heads, they seem so alive, so full of life, so beautiful, that they remind me of mama and her friends, and how they used to laugh and be happy.

The street my hotel is on doesn’t have a name, just a number.  Someone once told me there are too many streets in Tokyo to give them all names.  And he said that a long time ago Tokyo was covered with rice fields, and even as the city grew and grew, some farmers wouldn’t sell their land.  Buildings and streets and sub-divisions had to be built around the fields.  I guess that’s why the city seems so confused and the streets are like giant mazes.

On my eighth birthday, mama sent me down to the market by myself for the first time.  As a child I loved to visit the market, especially the vegetable stand.  Mama called it the rainbow store because of all of the wonderful colors.  The fish stand had such a terrible smell and it always seemed as if the fish, lying there in ice, were still alive.  Their eyes seemed to follow me.  But, I especially loved going to the market because when we went we always visited oji-san.  He wasn’t really my uncle, but he was always nice to me and mama and treated us like family.  I stopped by his house to let him know I was now old enough to go to the market by myself.  He congratulated me and we celebrated with rice cakes.  He even let me have a sip of sake.  He laughed at the face I made.  I laughed with him.  On any other day I would have wanted to stay with him as long as I could, but today was different.  As I left, he bowed low and wished me a very happy birthday.

The sake left me feeling warm and comfortable.  The money in my pocket made me feel grownup.  But soon after I left oji-san’s house, I saw some kids from my neighborhood.  I walked fast, hoping they wouldn’t see me.  Their laughter echoed behind me and without looking I knew they were coming.  I started running with all my might, hoping that if I ran fast enough I would lose them and still be able to make it to the market.  But they kept coming, and the things they hollered came at me faster than I could run.  Each threat and each name they called me rushed up and hit me hard from behind.  It was my birthday, my special day.  Every time I turned a corner I prayed I had lost them.  But they kept coming.  The streets turned strange.  My legs grew weak.  Finally I stopped.  I had to.  I was lost and I was exhausted.  I didn’t care anymore if they caught me.  I tried not to cry as I waited for them to catch up.  I was eight years old and no one had ever hit me before.

It was a long time before mama and I talked about that day.  When we finally did, mama told me how I was crying so hard when she found me, and how I didn’t recognize her because it was dark, and how, when she tried to pick me up I kept hitting her and kicking her, all the while crying out her name.  After we were done talking, mama hugged me hard and told me how sorry she was over and over, Gomenasai, gomenasai…. That was the only time I ever saw mama cry.

Like I said, the street my hotel is on doesn’t have a name because the city didn’t give it one.  But the pretty girls from my hotel have their own name for it.  They call it Whisper Alley.  I always thought it was such a beautiful name, but I never knew why they called it that.  One evening the girls seemed in a particularly good mood and were sharing their smiles with everyone.  As I was leaving for the night, I asked them what the name meant.  I was answered by one of the prettiest girls, the one who reminded me the most of mama.  She explained that at night, when everything is still, when the only thing to be heard is the humming of the neon signs, when no one is out but the lonely people, words must be spoken ever so quietly, in a whisper, so as not to awaken the sleeping children from their sweet and innocent dreams.

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