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Tác giả: Haruki Murakami
Thể loại: Tiểu Thuyết
Biên tập: Truong Ngoc Tuan
Upload bìa: Minh Khoa
Language: English
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Chapter 15: The Song Is Over
t was June before I returned to the town.
I cooked up some reason to take three days off and took the Bullet Train early one Tuesday. A white short-sleeved sports shirt, green cotton pants worn through at the knees, white tennis shoes, no luggage. I’d even forgotten to shave after getting up that morning. It was the first time I’d put on tennis shoes in ages and the heels were worn through crooked. I’d been walking off-center without knowing it.
Boarding a long-distance train without any luggage gave me a feeling of exhilaration. It was as if while out taking a leisurely stroll, I was suddenly like a dive-bomber caught in a space-time warp. In which there is nothing: no dentist’s appointments, no pending issues in desk drawers, no inextricably complicated human involvements, no favors demanded. I’d left that behind, temporarily. All I had with me were my tennis shoes with their misshapen rubber soles. They held fast to my feet like vague memories of another space-time. But that hardly mattered. Nothing that some canned beer and dried-out ham sandwiches couldn’t put out of mind.
It had been four years. Four years ago, the return home had been to take care of paperwork related to the family registry when I got married. When I thought back on it, what a pointless trip! I thought it was all paperwork. The problem was that nobody else thought it. It comes down to the different ways in which minds work. What’s over for one person isn’t over for another. But the path splits in two different directions, and so you end up apart.
From that point on there was no hometown for me. Nowhere to return to. What a relief! No one to want me, no one to want anything from me.
I had a second can of beer and caught thirty minutes of shut-eye. When I woke up, that initial carefree sense of release was gone. The train moved on, and as it did, the sky turned a rain-gray. Beneath which stretched the same boring scenery. No matter how much speed we put on, there was no escaping boredom. On the contrary, the faster the speed, the more headway into boredom. Ah, the nature of boredom.
Next to me sat a business type in his mid-twenties, engrossed in a newspaper, hardly moving the whole time. Navy-blue summer suit, not a wrinkle. Starched white shirt, just back from the cleaners. Shiny black shoes.
I looked up at the ceiling of the car and puffed on a cigarette. I made mental lists of all the songs the Beatles ever recorded. Seventy-three titles before I ran out. I wonder how many numbers Paul McCartney himself would remember? I stared out the window awhile, then shifted my eyes back to the ceiling.
I was twenty-nine years old. In six months my twenties would be over. A whole decade since living here. One big blank. Not one thing of value had I gotten out of it, not one meaningful thing had I done. Boredom was all there was.
How were things before? Surely there had to have been something positive. Had there been anything that really moved me, anything that really moved anyone? Maybe, but it was all gone now. Lost, perhaps meant to be lost. Nothing I can do about it, got to let it go.
At least I was still around. If the only good Indian is a dead Indian, it was my fate to go on living.
What for?
To tell tales to a stone wall?
Really, now.
“Why stay in a hotel?” J asked when I wrote my hotel number on the back of a matchbook and handed it to him. “You’ve got a home, haven’t you? Why not stay there?”
“It’s not my home anymore,” I said.
J didn’t say anything to that.
With three plates of snacks lined up in front of me, I drank half my beer, then pulled out the Rat’s letters and handed them to J. He wiped his hands on a towel, read the two letters through quickly before going over them again carefully, word by word.
“Hmm, alive and kicking, is he?”
“He’s alive, all right,” I said, taking another sip of beer. “But you know, before I do anything else, I’ve got to shave. You have a razor and some shaving cream you could lend me?”
“I do,” said J, bringing out a travel kit from behind the counter. “You can use the washroom, but there’s no hot water.”
“Cold water’s fine,” I said. “As long as there’s no drunk woman sprawled out on the floor. Makes it hard to shave.”
J’s Bar had completely changed.
The old J’s Bar had been a dank place in the basement of an old building by the highway. On summer nights with the air conditioner going, a fine mist would form. After a long bout of drinking, even your shirt would be damp.
J’s real name was some unpronounceable Chinese polysyllable. The nickname J was given to him by some GIs on the base where he worked after the war. His real name was soon forgotten.
In 1954, J quit his job on the base and opened a small bar. The very first J’s Bar. The bar proved quite successful. A large part of the clientele was from the air force officer candidate school, and the atmosphere wasn’t bad. After the bar got its start, J got married, but five years later his wife died. J never talked about the cause of her death.
In 1963, as the Vietnam War was beginning to go great guns, J sold the bar and moved far away to my hometown. There he opened the second J’s Bar.
He had a cat, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, never touched a drop of alcohol. That’s the sum of everything I know about J.
Up until the time I met the Rat, I always went to J’s Bar alone. I’d sip a beer slowly, smoke cigarettes, and feed coins into the jukebox. This was when J’s Bar was usually empty, so I’d sit at the counter talking about all kinds of things with J, though about what exactly I don’t remember. What could a shy seventeen-year-old high school student and a Chinese widower have to talk about?
When I turned eighteen and left town, the Rat came along and took my place at the bar drinking beer. Five years ago, when the Rat left town, there was no one to take his place. Six months later, when the road was widened, J had to change shops again, and the second J’s Bar was relegated to legend.
The third J’s Bar was a quarter of a mile away, by the river. It wasn’t much bigger than the old place, but it was on the third floor of a new four-story building with an elevator. Taking an elevator to J’s Bar made me feel like I had the address wrong. The same with looking out over the lights of town from the counter.
This new place had big windows facing west and south, out onto the line of hills and the area where the ocean used to be. The oceanfront had been filled in a few years back, and the whole mile there was packed with gravestone rows of tall buildings.
“Used to be water over there,” I said.
“Right,” said J.
“Went swimming there a lot.”
“Yeah,” said J, bringing a generic lighter up to the cigarette at his lips, “they bulldoze the hills to put up houses, haul the dirt to the sea for landfill, then go and build there too. And they think it’s all fine and proper.”
I drank my beer. The ceiling speakers were playing the latest Boz Scaggs hit. There wasn’t a jukebox in sight. Almost all the customers in the place were university student couples, neatly dressed and politely sipping their highballs. No girls on the verge of passing out drunk, no hot fights brewing. You could tell that when they went home, they put on pajamas, brushed their teeth, and went straight to bed. There was nothing wrong with that. Nice and neat is fine and dandy. There’s nothing in a bar or in the world at large that says things have to be a certain way.
J kept his eyes on me the whole while.
“So, everything’s different and you feel out of place?”
“Not really,” I said. “It’s just that the chaos has changed shape. The giraffe and the bear have traded hats, and the bear’s switched scarves with the zebra.”
“Same as ever,” J laughed.
“Times have changed,” I said. “A lot of things have changed. But the bottom line is, that’s fine. Everyone trades places. No complaints.”
J didn’t say anything.
I had myself another beer, J had another cigarette.
“How’s your life going?” asked J.
“Not bad.”
“How’s the wife?”
“Don’t really know. You know how things are between two people. There are times when I think everything’s working out fine and times I don’t. Maybe that’s what marriage is all about.”
“Well maybe,” said J, scratching the tip of his nose with his little finger. “I forget what married life is like. It’s been so long.”
“How’s the cat?”
“Died four years ago. Right after you got married. Something intestinal…. But really, it had a good, long life. Lived twelve years. That’s longer than my wife was with me. Twelve years isn’t a bad little life, is it?”
“Guess not.”
“There’s this animal cemetery up on the hill, so I buried it there. Overlooking the tall buildings. Anywhere around here those buildings are all you can see. Not that it makes much difference to a cat.”
“Sure. Even if a person had died, I wouldn’t have been as sad. Does that sound funny?”
I shook my head.
J set to making some fancy cocktail and a Caesar salad for a customer. Meanwhile, I played with a Scandinavian puzzle on the counter. You were supposed to put together this picture of three butterflies midair over a field of clover, all inside a glass case. I gave up after ten minutes and put the thing aside.
“No kids?” J came back over to ask. “You’re getting on the right age to have kids, you know.”
“Don’t want kids.”
“I mean I would be at a loss if I had a kid like me.”
J chuckled and poured more beer into my glass. “You’re always thinking too far ahead.”
“No, that’s not it. What I mean is, I don’t really know if it’s the right thing to do, making new life. Kids grow up, generations take their place. What does it all come to? More hills bulldozed and more oceanfront filled in? Faster cars and more cats run over? Who needs it?”
“That’s only the dark side of things. Good things happen too, good people can make things worthwhile.”
“Yeah? Name three,” I said.
J gave it a thought, then laughed. “That’s for your children’s generation to decide, not you. Your generation …”
“Is already over and done with?”
“In a sense,” said J.
“The song is over. But the melody lingers on.”
“You always had a way of putting things.”
“Just showing off,” I said.
At nine o’clock, J’s Bar was starting to get crowded, so I said good night to J and left. My face still tingled in the spots where I’d shaved, having only cold water. Maybe because I’d splashed on vodka lime instead of after-shave. J claimed it was just as effective, but now my whole face smelled like vodka.
The night was unexpectedly warm, though the sky was its usual heavy overcast. A moist breeze was blowing in slow and easy from the south. Same as it used to. A sea scent mingled with a hint of rain. Insects calling from the clumps of grass along the river. Everything brimming with a languid nostalgia. It seemed that it would rain any minute. When it did, it came in so fine a drizzle that you couldn’t tell if it was raining or not, but I got completely drenched anyway.
I could just make out the river flowing in the white light of the mercury-vapor streetlamp. The water was as clear as ever. It came straight out of the hills with nothing to pollute it along the way. The river had silted up with the small rocks and gravel washed down from the hills, creating little falls here and there. Beneath each fall, a deep pool had formed where small fish gathered.
During dry spells, the whole river used to dry up into a sandy bed, leaving only a faintly damp white trail. Years ago, on my walks, I’d trace that trail upstream, searching for where the river had gone.
The road by the river had been one of my favorites. I could walk at the same speed as the river. I could feel it breathing. It was alive. More than anything, it was the river we had to thank for creating the town. For grinding down the hills over how many hundreds of thousands of years, for hauling the dirt, filling the sea, and making the trees grow. The town belonged to the river from the very beginning, and it would always be that way.
Because this was the rainy season, the river flowed uninterrupted to the sea. The trees planted along the banks were fragrant with new leaves. There was a greenness in the air. Couples strolled arm in arm, old folks walked their dogs, high school kids hung around their motorbikes, smoking cigarettes. Your typical early summer evening.
I stopped into a liquor store, bought two cans of beer, and carried them in a paper bag down to the sea. Where the river met the sea, it turned into an inlet, or rather into a half-filled-in canal. Here was the only untouched stretch of oceanfront left, fifty yards of it. There was even something of the old beach. Small waves rolled in, leaving smooth pieces of driftwood. On the concrete jetty, bits of old nails and spray-paint graffiti remained.
Fifty yards of honest-to-goodness shoreline. If you overlooked the fact that it was hemmed in by thirty-foot-high concrete walls. And that the walls kept going straight out for several miles, channeling the sea narrowly in between. And that tall buildings lined either side. Fifty yards of sea. The rest was history.
I left the river and walked east along what had been the coastline road. Bewilderingly enough, the old jetty was still there. Now a jetty without an ocean is an odd creature indeed. I stopped at the exact spot where I used to park to look at the sea, went over to sit down on the jetty, and drank a beer. What a view! Instead of ocean, a vast expanse of reclaimed land and housing developments met my eyes. Faceless blocks of apartments, the miserable foundations of an attempt to build a neighborhood.
Asphalt roads threaded through the building complexes, here a parking lot, there a bus terminal. A gasoline station and a large park and a wonderful community center. Everything brand new, everything unnatural. On one side, the piles of soil hauled down from the hills for landfill loomed harsh and gray next to the areas which, not a part of the grand scheme, had been overtaken by quick-rooting weeds.
But what was there to say? Already it was a whole new game played by new rules. No one could stop it now.
I polished off my two beers and hurled the empty cans across the reclaimed land, toward where the sea used to be. I watched them disappear into the sea of windblown weeds. Then I smoked a cigarette.
I was taking my last drag when I saw a man, flashlight in hand, heading my way. Fortyish, gray shirt, gray trousers, and a gray cap. Probably a security guard for the area.
“You just threw something, didn’t you?” said the man.
“Yeah, I threw something.”
“What did you throw?”
“Round, metallic, lidded objects.”
The security guard put on a sour face. “Why’d you throw them?”
“No particular reason. Been throwing things from twelve years back. At times, I’ve thrown half a dozen things at once and nobody said a word.”
“That was back then,” said the security guard. “This is city property now and it’s against the law to discard rubbish on city property.”
I swallowed. For a moment something inside me trembled, then stopped. “The real problem here,” I said, “is that what you say makes sense.”
“It’s the law,” he said.
I sighed and took the pack of cigarettes out of my pocket.
“So what should I do?”
“Well, I can’t ask you go pick them up. It’s too dark and it’s about to rain. So do me a favor and don’t throw things again.”
“I won’t,” I said. “Good night.”
“Good night,” said the security guard as he walked away.
I stretched out on the jetty and looked up at the sky. As the man said, it was starting to rain. I smoked another cigarette and thought over the encounter with the guard. Ten years ago I would have come on tougher. Well, maybe not. What difference would it make anyway?
I went back to the riverside road, and by the time I’d managed to catch a taxi the rain was coming down in a drizzle. To the hotel, I said.
“Here on a trip?” asked the old driver.
“First time in these parts?”
“Second time,” I said.
A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel - Haruki Murakami A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel