I came home one night to find a dog by the vending machine in front of my apartment building. It was a dachshund. It didn’t have a collar, but it wasn’t a stray as far as I could tell. If it belonged to someone, they had not yet come to pick it up.
“Yo,” I said.
The dog tilted its head as if to bark, but said nothing.
And so I went upstairs to my tiny apartment, and I did what I always did on Monday.
At around three the next morning, I left my apartment to buy a coffee and found the dachshund sitting where I had last left it: next to the vending machine.
“Yo,” I said.
The dog tilted its head again, but said nothing.
“You burning the midnight oil, too?”
The dog looked at me, silent.
“Alright,” I said. I put a few coins in the machine and waited as two cans of coffee slowly clanked to the bottom.
“Well, that’s me,” I said. “You have a good night.”
I took the cans upstairs, poured one into a bowl, then took the bowl outside and placed it in front of the dachshund. It sniffed at the coffee, then looked at me.
“No, it’s cool,” I said. “Go ahead. This one’s on me.”
Then I went inside, drank my coffee, and promptly fell asleep at my keyboard.
The next morning, I found the dachshund at the vending machine again, sitting beside a bowl of coffee.
“Morning,” I said.
The dog tilted its head and said nothing.
I looked around the quiet neighborhood, and listened to the ringing of a train crossing in the distance. I looked back at the six doors that made up the exterior of the apartment building, and wondered if the dog had run away from one.
Then I emptied the bowl of coffee, bought a bottle of water, and poured it into the bowl.
“Who would’ve thought you can’t feed a dog coffee?” I said. “I just found out this morning. Crazy.”
And then I went to work.
That night, I sat on the other side of the vending machine and looked at the dachshund behind its empty bowl.
“Still here, huh?” I said. “It’s a tough life, isn’t it?”
The dog said nothing.
I bought another bottle of water and poured it into the empty bowl, then unwrapped one of the rice balls I’d stolen at the end of my shift and put it on the floor.
The dog looked at the food, then at me, then back at the food.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not going to eat it now that I’ve put it on the floor, and I don’t expect you to pay me back or nothing, so just eat the rice ball, yeah?”
Then I went upstairs, sat at my computer, and typed away at the novel I was still no closer to finishing.
The following day I opened the door to leave for work and found the dog at my door step.
It looked up at me for a moment, then picked up the bowl it had brought with it and trotted into my room.
“Is that how we’re doing this?” I asked.
The dog placed the bowl by the kitchen table, and wandered into my bedroom.
“I don’t know if you’ll like it here,” I said. “I work weird hours; also, something stinks next door and I don’t know what it is.”
The dachshund hopped onto my mattress and laid down in the middle of it.
“Alright then,” I said.
And so I started living with a dachshund.
The following morning, I was woken by a banging on the door next to my apartment, and a voice.
“Mr. Tanaka! Mr Tanaka! It’s me, Suzuki. Your landlord.”
This continued for a few minutes, and was followed by the jangling of keys, the sound of one unlocking the door, and curses muttered under an old man’s breath.
After a few moments of shuffling feet, there was a scream, then some gagging, then something like a mix between laughing and crying.
That afternoon, I found out that Mr Tanaka had died in his apartment.
A few days later, I stood by the vending machine sipping at a can of coffee while a group of old men in surgical masks and plastic suits cleaned out the remains of the apartment that had once belonged to Mr Tanaka.
I remembered waking up at my desk to the muffled sounds of pornography seeping through the wall that separated our apartments. I remembered the odd sensation of passing by Mr Tanaka the very next day, and sharing a polite “good morning.”
This was my one memory of the middle-aged man who had lived next door.
I wondered how he had died, and what kind of life he might have lived, and whether it was fulfilling. I wondered what his apartment might have looked like in comparison to my own, and whether I could move into his with cheaper rent now that somebody had died there.
I wondered a lot of weird things, standing next to that vending machine drinking coffee and watching old men clean a dead man’s apartment, but in the end I wondered one thing more than anything else.
How long would it take before someone found me, if I too, were to die alone?
Not long after the clean up of Mr Tanaka’s apartment, I came home to find a girl by the vending machine in front of my apartment building. She had short hair and a black backpack covered in badges. If she was with someone, they had not yet come to meet her.
“Yo,” I said.
The girl tilted her head for a moment as if to speak, but said nothing.
And so I went upstairs to my lonely apartment, and I did what I always did on Monday.
Some time around two in the morning I left my apartment to buy a coffee from the vending machine.
I found the girl there, leaning against the side of the machine, dipping in and out of a shallow sleep.
“Yo,” I said.
The girl lifted her head, squinted at me, and then looked at her watch but said nothing.
“You burning the midnight oil, too?”
The girl took her phone from her pocket and stared at it for a time.
“Alright,” I said, putting a few coins in the machine and listening to it clank out two cans of coffee.
“Well, that’s me,” I said. “You have a good night.”
I thought about pouring one of the cans into a bowl, but instead I placed it by the girl’s feet. She looked at it for a time, blinking.
“It’s cool,” I said. “Go ahead. This one’s on me.”
Then I went inside, drank my own coffee, and promptly fell asleep at my keyboard.
The next morning, I found the girl at the vending machine again, sitting with an empty can of coffee balancing on her knee.
“Morning,” I said.
The girl tilted her head, sighed, and said nothing.
I looked around the quiet neighborhood, and listened to the the ringing of a train crossing in the distance. I looked back at the six doors that made up the exterior of the apartment building, and wondered if the girl was looking for something behind one of them.
Then I bought another coffee from the vending machine and handed it to the girl.
“If you’re anything like me,” I said, “then you’re probably not much of a morning person.”
And then I went to work.
That night, I sat on the other side of the vending machine and looked at the girl with her two empty cans of coffee.
“Still here, huh?” I said. “It’s a tough life, isn’t it?”
The girl said nothing.
I bought two cans of coffee and rolled one towards her, then held out one of the rice balls I’d stolen from the convenience store.
The girl looked at the rice ball, then at me, and then back at the rice ball.
“Look,” I said, “I’m not going to eat it because I already ate, and I don’t expect you to pay me back or nothing, so just take the rice ball, yeah?”
I watched the girl eat for a time, and listened to the cicadas chirp in the grass nearby.
“Thank you,” she said.
I shook my head.
“Don’t worry about it.”
We sat in silence for a time sipping at coffee and listening to far-off trains carry people to far-off places, and eventually the girl spoke.
“I don’t… I don’t usually do this,” she said, “but the guy in that apartment over there, the one who died; did you know him?”
I thought of summer nights and muffled moans seeping through the walls.
“Not really,” I said.
“Do you know if he had a dog?”
“He stole my dog,” the girl said. “It was my dad. And when he left my mother and I, he took the dog with him. I thought he would give it back, but he didn’t, so I hired a private investigator and we tracked him down to here.”
“But now he’s dead, and his apartment is empty.”
The girl looked at her feet.
“Yeah,” she said. “And there’s no dog.”
We paused to listen to the hollow echo of a train crossing in the distance.
“You didn’t hear anything about a dog when they found him?” the girl asked, “When they found my dad?”
I shook my head.
“And you haven’t seen a little dachshund running around the neighborhood in the last few days?”
I thought of a dachshund asleep on the mattress in my bedroom.
“I haven’t,” I said, “but I would be happy to help you look for it.”
The following night, we wandered the streets near my apartment building looking for the dachshund that lived in my bedroom.
“You don’t think we should make some posters or something?” I said.
“Walking around to put them all up would be exactly the same as just looking for him.”
We walked through a mostly abandoned shopping arcade, and down lonely streets lined with old houses and run-down apartment buildings. It was like catching human life in snippets; silhouettes on curtains, the familiar drone of late-night television, a wafting scent of microwaved food, and the distant echoes of arguments and conversation against a backdrop of buzzing cicadas.
There was life here in a way that did not exist in my apartment. Something interconnected, communal, and familial.
“What sort of a person was he?” I asked. “Your dad?”
The girl shrugged.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I barely saw him. He left the house early and he came home late. He did that every day until he lost his job, and he kept on doing it for two months after.”
“You mean after he lost his job?”
The girl nodded.
“How does that work?”
“He just went on acting like he was working,“ she said. “I don’t know if he was looking for other work or if he was at pachinko or whatever, but he left home and he came home like clockwork; always in his suit, and always with his briefcase.”
“How did you even know he lost his job?”
“One day he left for work, and he didn’t come back. Mom eventually called his office a few days later, and the secretary told her what happened. We never saw him again. That was a bit over a year ago.”
I thought about a very particular kind of wall that grows over time, built from the bricks of all the things you can’t say.
“That sounds… complicated,” I said.
“It wasn’t complicated,” the girl said. “It was pride. And it was stupid.”
I stopped at a vending machine and watched a bug flitter behind the glass next to the drinks on display, and dug into my pockets for change. I thought of secrets lost to waves of helplessness and self-pity, and drowning in a sea of lonely nights and rental pornography.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
“I think she misses you,” I said. “Akemi, I mean.”
The dachshund looked up from the mattress for a moment.
“I really think she does. I mean, she wandered the streets until the early hours of the morning just looking for you.”
The dachshund tilted its head slightly.
“She seems like a nice girl. Anyone who cares that much about a dog must be a nice person, right?”
The dachshund wandered over to its bowl, where it paused for a time.
“I guess the only right thing to do is reunite the two of you, huh?”
I watched the dog lap at its water bowl. I wondered how different the life it lived next door was to the life it lived here.
I could not see the two as particularly different.
“I don’t think we’re going to find him,” Akemi said. “I don’t know if Smiles is here anymore.”
“It’s only been a couple of nights,” I said, handing her a can of coffee. “There’s still nearby parks we haven’t gotten to, and we owe it to him to at least check those out.”
Akemi thought for a time, then shrugged.
“Yeah, okay,” she said. “Maybe they’ll have a swing set.”
And so we ambled lazily towards the park.
“What do you do?”
“I work at a convenience store.”
Akemi brought the swing to a stop and looked at me.
“That’s it?” she said.
“I want to be a writer,” I said. “I’m uh… I’m writing a novel.”
“I knew there was something else,” she said. “So your novel, what’s it about?”
“It’s uh… it’s about a guy who works at a convenience store.”
“What happens in it?”
I told her about work, and how the literal convenience of it brought in people of all types, at all times. I told her how the story revolved around a young man who observed the beginnings and endings of three different relationships as they passed through his convenience store, and how through it all, he couldn’t muster the courage to ask his own co-worker — and his unrequited love — out on a date.
“Huh. That actually sounds like an okay story,” Akemi said. “Can I read it?”
“It’s still not finished,” I said.
“Can I read the draft?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s cluttered and messy, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense yet.”
“How long have you been writing it for?”
I thought about the hopes and dreams that had slowly warped into a monotonous beep of items across a scanner, and the rustle of those items in plastic bags. I thought of nights asleep at a keyboard, and pages and pages of a love letter, written and rewritten, over and over, hidden in a story that was far too old to send.
“Uh… a while,” I said.
We spent nights walking empty streets, looking for a dog we would never find. We drank vending machine coffee and smoked vending machine cigarettes, and created a little map of the neighborhood, complete with rest stops for coffee and conversation.
Akemi said she was studying literature. She didn’t expect it to amount to much more than an office job, but she was thinking of doing a stint in Australia, picking grapes on a working holiday visa.
“I have some friends who are doing it,” she said, “and besides, it seems like a good way to lose a couple of years to something more interesting than this.”
“Maybe you’ll find your calling if you travel,” I said.
“Maybe, but I’m not counting on it.”
Akemi said she was on summer vacation, and she didn’t have anything to do. She didn’t have friends (“I don’t really do the ‘talking’ thing,”) she wasn’t a member of any clubs (“What even is a university hiking club besides a glamorized version of walking, anyway?”), and she didn’t work (“When I need money, I’ll find money.”)
So we spent most of our walks talking about books and stories.
When I listened to Akemi, I often thought of the coincidence that brought our relationship into being, and the serendipitous nature of it. I saw us as kindred spirits linked by the hours after midnight, when the rules that goverened the regular world shifted to allow us to meet.
In many ways, our midnight searches for Smiles were a reflection of the lives we both lived; stumbling through the darkness, hopelessly in pursuit of vague, unknowable dreams we had little hope of finding.
“Okay, so you remember the one rule, right?” I said.
The dachshund looked up from the mattress.
“I need you to act like you don’t know me. Like we’ve never met, yeah?”
The dachshund tilted its head.
“I’m serious,” I said. “It’s important. Akemi wants you back. I want to give you back. Also, I’m dying of guilt but I don’t want to admit you live with me.”
The dachshund dropped its head back to the mattress.
“Good,” I said. “So when I let you out tonight, don’t run too far from the park, okay?”
“So the girl in your story,” Akemi said. “Is she like, based on someone real?”
I looked around the empty park, but found no sign of the dog.
“Uh… yeah,” I said. “She kind of is.”
I peeked into a few bushes.
“Eventually she just quit,” I said. “I don’t know where she went next. I always meant to say something, you know? I always meant to, but I never did.”
“You always thought you had time?”
“Yeah,” I said, returning to the bench. “Something like that.”
“Did you ever tell her you were writing a book? About the convenience store?”
“I did. I told her all about it. Just like I told you.”
“What’d she say?”
“She asked if she could read it.”
“I said yes, but I never finished it in time.”
“You think if you ever saw her again, you’d say something?”
I thought of the jumbled thoughts and feelings woven into the characters and narrative of my novel, and how every page was like the expression of an emotion I couldn’t convey in real life, or to the right people, or at the right time.
I thought of how those jumbled thoughts and feelings, in pages of words on an old computer in a shoddy apartment, were also the entirety of my heart and soul.
Who would I show that to? I wondered.
“I don’t know if I’d know what to say to her, even if I wanted to,” I said. “It’s like, sometimes you feel yourself growing distant from people, and you see a rift forming. And you know you could cross it if you just said something, and not even anything special; just a few words to create a connection, or to remind you both that you have one, and then the rift closes. But sometimes, it’s like the rift grows so wide you don’t know if anyone on the other side would hear you, even if you shouted, so you just keep quiet.”
I picked up my can of coffee from the bench.
“It feels a bit like that,” I said.
Akemi stared up at the night sky.
“I wonder if that’s what he felt like,” she said, “my dad.”
“Maybe. But don’t we all, sometimes?”
We walked around until a little after two, but the dog never showed.
That night, after walking Akemi to her bicycle, I returned home to find the dachshund sitting by the vending machine outside of my apartment building.
“What the hell was that?” I said. “I thought we had a deal.”
I bought a can of coffee and a bottle of water, and we headed up the stairs.
“I don’t know why you would do that,” I said, unlocking my apartment door and watching the dachshund saunter inside. “At some point she’s just going to give up, you know?”
I poured the water into a bowl and watched the dog lap at it.
“At some point, she’s just going to give up, and she doesn’t have anything else. All she has is this vague hope that finding her dog — you — is going to fix things.”
The dachshund looked up at me for a moment.
“Okay, so she never said it directly, but who else goes out every night just to look for their dog? What other reason would she have to keep coming back?”
The dog looked down at the water, then wandered back towards my mattress.
“Don’t be like that,” I said. “You know I can’t just give you back. What’ll she think if she finds out I’ve been hiding you this whole time?”
I sat at my desk chair and looked out the window. I turned on my computer and thought about what to write, but nothing came to mind. I tried to imagine the life of a girl so lost she hires a private investigator to find the dog her dad stole when he dropped off the face of the earth.
It felt eerily similar to a guy I knew who worked at a convenience store, writing a novel he’d never finish for a girl he’d never meet again.
“You know,” I said, “it’s like we’re two sad stories that happened to interweave part way through the middle chapters. And at least one of those stories deserves a happy ending, don’t you think?”
But the dachshund was already asleep.
“I don’t know if this is worth it anymore,” Akemi said. “It’s like we keep walking around in circles.”
I put some coins in the vending machine.
“But he’s worth it, right?” I said. “Smiles?”
Akemi looked at her feet for a time, as two coffees clanked to the bottom of the machine.
“I don’t know, actually.”
“You don’t know? What do you mean?”
“When I was a girl,” Akemi said, “my parents gave me Smiles as a birthday present. I’d bugged them about a dog for so long, and I guess they just relented.”
I passed Akemi a can of coffee.
“I always wanted a pet,” I said.
“So did I. And the first few months were really great. But after a time, I just got tired of feeding him and walking him. Playing with him. That kind of thing. I don’t know; I guess the novelty just wore off, or something.”
I pulled the tab on my can of coffee, and waited for Akemi to continue.
“Eventually, my dad just started taking care of him. He fed Smiles in the mornings before he left for work, and even when he came back late, he always made time to take the dog for a short walk. Sometimes over the weekend he would just sit outside listening to the radio, smoking cigarettes, and talking to Smiles. He would do that for hours.”
I could picture it, somehow; Mr Tanaka on the patio of a small house, listening to the cicadas while he puffed at cheap cigarettes and talked to the dachshund lying by his feet.
Something about the image felt warm, though I couldn’t say exactly why.
“I used to think it was so stupid, you know?” Akemi said. “A grown man talking to a dog like it was a person. But when I think about it now, he really loved that dog, and probably the dog loved him just as much. And I wonder sometimes if they both felt the same way; like they were connected by the fact they were both abandoned. Kindred spirits or something. Is that stupid?”
I shook my head.
“I don’t think it’s stupid.”
“I just… I don’t know if Smiles would want to see me even if he could, you know? I never treated him all that great. I never showed him I cared. But it’s just that… I don’t really have anything else left. Nothing to remind me of what was good before my family crumbled to pieces.”
I drank the rest of my coffee and threw the can in the recycle bin. I could see Akemi then, standing at the edge of a precipice, waiting to fall.
And I realized I didn’t want her to.
“I think you can still make it up to him if you find him,” I said.
Akemi looked at me.
“I could finish my book,” I said, “if I wanted to. I could have finished it a long time ago, if I’m honest. And at first, I didn’t finish it because I was scared. I didn’t want to show it to the girl I worked with because it was my heart. But then she left and suddenly I didn’t really know what my heart was anymore. So I kept trying to find it, but I didn’t get anywhere, because she was gone and she wasn’t coming back.”
I thought for a moment.
“And so I’m stuck in this loop of looking for something I can’t find, which means writing something I can’t finish.“ I shrugged. “But if you find Smiles, you don’t have to be stuck in that loop. You don’t have to be like me. You can find that closure — whether it’s good, bad, or something in the middle — and then you can move on.”
Akemi didn’t say anything for a time.
“You think so?” she said.
“I do,” I said. “Come with me; I have something to show you.”
We passed by the vending machine where we first met, and climbed the stairs to my apartment. I slid the key in the lock, turned it, and listened to the bolt slide free. I gripped the door handle and paused for a moment.
“Wait,” Akemi said. “I… I have a confession to make.”
I turned the door handle, pushed the door open, and hit the light switch. I watched the little dachshund waddle from my bedroom towards the front door, and I sighed.
“I uh… I have, too,” I said.
Akemi knelt down to greet the dachshund, and placed a hand under his chin.
“So is this yours?” she said. “Who’s dog is this? What’s it’s name?”
I looked at the dachshund, then at Akemi.
“Uh… what? Isn’t it yours?”
That morning, as the sun began to rise over my apartment building, Akemi told me that Smiles had passed away not long after Mr Tanaka had moved into his new place. She’d found out a few days after we started going for walks. It hadn’t taken long; she knocked on a couple of other doors, talked with the landlord, and there it was: the truth.
“I think he bought another one,” Akemi said. “I think he bought another dachshund, and you found it.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because that’s what I would have done.”
Akemi watched the dachshund waddle around the parking lot for a time.
“Probably,” she said finally, “we’re more alike than I want to admit. Me and my dad, I mean.”
“When I think about it, I probably would have done the same thing; looked for the little slices of my past life I wanted to enjoy and remember, and tried to fit them into my new life, even if it was better just to let them go.”
I stood up and dug a hand into my pocket for change.
“In a sense, that’s exactly what I was doing,” Akemi said. “Even now. I knew we were never going to find Smiles, but I didn’t want to believe it. And when we were looking for him, I didn’t have to.”
“Is that why you kept coming?” I said.
“Probably,” she said. “But also, I felt like I might still find something. Like if I searched long enough, I might find something else, instead.”
And it struck me then that we were the same. We had endured different stresses, carried different worries, and developed different neuroses, but in the end we were the same; colored with the same shade of solitude.
A few hours later, we walked towards the station, listening to the lazy rumbling of the first trains in the distance.
“What will you do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Akemi said. “Maybe I’ll go home and look for a new pet or something. You?”
“I think I’ll do what I always do,” I said.
We wandered on towards the ticket gates, where Akemi stopped.
“Tell me something,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me, the night when we first talked? Why didn’t you tell me about the dog?”
I thought for a time.
“I didn’t know your dad,” I said. “Yeah, we were neighbors, but it wasn’t like we talked or anything; we were just two people who happened to live next to each other. But when I watched people cleaning out his apartment when he died, I saw flashes of my own future. I watched those guys throw out old rubbish and put clothes into garbage bags, and I saw your dad and me as the same person on different points of a shared timeline. It was like I was in a room all by myself, sitting there as it grew dark. But when I met the dog, and when you talked to me, and when we looked for Smiles, I felt that room get a little brighter. And even though I knew the right thing to do, and even though I knew you were going to find out somewhere down the line or otherwise simply disappear, a part of me just didn’t want the lights to go out again. A part of me just didn’t want to go back to the darkness.”
“That’s about as good as I can put it,” I said. “The only other thing I can say is sorry.”
Akemi shook her head, and walked towards a nearby vending machine.
“That’s okay,” she said, putting some change in the machine and selecting a drink. “I think I understand. But tell me one more thing; is that a line from your novel?”
“Maybe it’ll end up there. Someday.”
“Will you show it to me? Someday? Can I come back and bug you until you have a version you’re happy to share with someone?“
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish it,” I said.
Akemi stood up and put a can of coffee in my hand.
“But what if that’s the point?” she said.
I looked at the coffee in my hand, and thought of the tenuous link that had been created from a can just like this one. I thought of the meandering path from awkward conversation to midnight friendship, and the dachshund that waited for me back home; once the symbol of a hopeless chase for an unachievable goal, now the symbol of a serendipity that wove together two kindred spirits.
“Maybe I’ll write something new,” I said, “and maybe when I finish it, you can read it. How does that sound?”
“That sounds good.”
And as I watched the girl with the short hair and the black backpack walk through the ticket gates and onto a train, I thought that however dark that room in my heart might get, at least now I had a friend to help light some candles.
(Boom Boom Satellites — Stay)
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