Episode 4: Kayoko Kida, a.k.a. Mama
It was in the clear day light that Kayoko Kida got out of a taxi with both hands full of plastic shopping bags. The driver had offered her help, which she had declined.
After the taxi drove away, Kayoko, carrying all the bags herself, climbed the steps to the entrance of Un Chat Errant. At the top of the stairs, she got the key out from her purse and unlocked the door. She walked straight to the counter, put down her bags, and finally caught her breath before taking off her coat. At this bar, she was known as Mama. She had been doing this every day for nearly sixty years.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. The winter sun was still bright, so she decided not to turn on the lights yet. She put a vase on a small round table by the south-facing window, and, on the table, spread out the flowers she had just bought at a local florist. She picked up one flower, checked the length, and snipped it. The metallic sound of sharp scissors echoed. She tossed it into the vase effortlessly. The fast, staccato beat continued until the last remaining flower — a big, bright, red anthurium. She determined to cut it short. When she added it to the centre of the arrangement, it transformed the soft tone of the flowers into something definitive. The leathery red flower caught the diminishing sunlight from the window. She paused to evaluate. Finally, a smile appeared on her face. She reached into the front pocket of her apron and got out a cigarette. Looking at her creation, she took a long contemplative puff. She stepped back a little and checked the flowers again from a distance. With her wrinkled hands, she dusted off her apron, and quickly cleared the rejected leaves and stems.
Mama changed the flowers every Monday. More than fifty years ago, one of her customers offered to teach her the art of flower arranging. So she took them. She enjoyed it more than she had expected, learning the names of plants and their blooming seasons. She loved finding four seasons in the flowers while working deep into the night. Her favourite flower was baby’s-breath — a cluster of small white flowers — most ordinary, but appropriate for all seasons. They were often used to bring out the centrepiece, good with any flowers. They lasted long, too. Under the dim light, the faint flowers looked as if floating. On a slow night, from behind the bar counter, she would gaze at them and allow herself to drift in thought.
Behind the bar counter, Mama was busy in preparation, efficiently maneuvering within the small cramped space, familiar after so many years. She stopped suddenly, feeling like she had forgotten to do something. She put her hands in to her apron pockets, fiddling with the coins and rubber bands in there while trying to remember what it was. Eventually, it came back to her.
Mr. Monday — her nickname for one of her longest regulars— was stopping by today. Mama opened one of the shopping bags to make sure she had bought his favourite snack. She opened the wall cabinet and checked his whisky bottle. She also grabbed a small box from the cabinet and opened it. It was a cut-crystal glass that she bought at a nearby department store on her day off. A few weeks ago, he lamented the disappearance of proper whisky glasses from many drinking establishments. She remembered and bought this glass for him. She washed it, running the sponge along the grooves of the intricate cuts which mimicked a 60s style. Mr. Monday’s glass, though, had no rim. Mama disliked the flair.
At five thirty, Mr. Monday showed up and said “Hey yo” to Mama. By the door, he took his phone out from his breast pocket and aimed it at the flowers that Mama had just arranged. He struggled positioning the camera, holding it awkwardly. Then he finally pressed the button. After confirming that the picture quality was satisfying, he put the phone back in the same pocket. He said, “This looks like Christmas.”
“What do you mean?” Mama said.
“Well, it’s got a red flower, lots of green, and speckles of white. That’s Christmas.”
“Christmas was over a month ago. I hope you aren’t getting dementia.” Mama joked.
“Speaking of dementia, remember I’m your customer. I’ve come all the way from Kasai to check on you.”
Mama sensed that he was lonely in Kasai, in the east end of Tokyo. From there to Ookayama, it would take an hour by train. During his working years he lived in Ookayama but, a couple of years ago, he decided to move and live closer to his daughter and her family. Mama wasn’t sure if that was really his choice. Nonetheless, he kept coming back to Un Chat Errant every Monday. He could have found a bar near his current place if he had tried. After all, there were plenty of bars in Tokyo. But at Un Chat Errant, he knew almost everyone. He would surely run into his old drinking buddies or younger men and women working for companies, or even younger university students. Here, he can have real conversations and bypass stale ones with people of his age about their failing health and funerals. Even if he didn’t find anyone to talk to, he could just chat with Mama and girls she hired.
Mama took out his whiskey bottle and his new glass.
“You remembered it.” Mr. Monday put a big smile on his face. “This is exactly what I had in mind. My whiskey will taste ten times better in this. Thank you, thank you.” He put his hands together in front of his nose like a Buddhist monk as he watched Mama pour whiskey.
“And this one is for you.” He handed a small black notebook to her. “2014” he said.
“I was waiting for this. Thank you very much.” Mama held it in front of her face and bowed. She immediately began to look through the pages. It was a photo album. “Not bad, not bad. I mean, your photography skills are OK, but my arrangements were excellent.”
Mr. Monday had been taking photos of Mama’s flower arrangements ever since she began to display them at the bar. With all the pictures he took, he made an album for her every single year. By now there were about fifty.
Flipping the pages, Mama could see what the year had been like. In between the flower pictures, Mr. Monday always included some photos of seasons such as cherry blossoms at the university in Ookayama and Christmas illuminations in the Ginza shopping district. There were also a few photos of the regulars at the bar. One of the pictures was particularly memorable; everyone was smiling and each held a Japanese paper fan in their hand.
The picture was taken in mid-June in 2014. It was the beginning of the rainy season. One Friday, the humidity level couldn’t be more unbearable. The rain had stopped before the evening. So had the wind. The rotten smell of rain lingered. Mama was drenched in sweat inside Un Chat Errant because the air conditioner had suddenly died on her. She debated whether she should open the bar since the uncomfortable weather might keep away many of her customers. But there were a couple she could think of whom would come despite the bad weather. Besides, after sixty years of business, there weren’t many days she had closed the bar on such a short notice. In the end, she decided to open. Only a few came in and ordered cold beers. No one stayed long.
The next couple of days was a mess. On Saturday, normally her day off, she came to work on the broken air conditioner. She spent hours disassembling some parts and cleaning the filter. She could usually fix these appliances by herself, but not this one. She couldn’t make it alive again. It had probably reached its life cycle. The air inside the bar remained so stifling that she desperately needed a new working unit. On Sunday, also her day off, she phoned one of her customers who was in a construction business. “Leave it to me,” he assured her. He was one of those people who was able to squeeze people and tweak the rules. She knew some customers didn’t like his presence at Un Chat Errant. And he always came with his entourage, so the other customers never had a chance to talk to him. But she always liked him. She could see why he had followers. Anyhow, he immediately pulled some strings and arranged delivery of a new unit for her. But there was a catch; it wouldn’t get installed until Tuesday.
There was another piece of bad news. It was going to cost her a lot more than she had anticipated. The guy on the other end of the line sounded very sympathetic. It was just that the old unit was so old, installed the 1980s, that the installation of a new unit wouldn’t be straightforward. When she hung up, she worried about incurring such a big expense at this point in her life. She would be eighty this year. Her business wasn’t as strong as it used to be. A year from now, she could still picture herself running this bar. But five years from now? She only saw thick milky fog all around her.
She collapsed onto the bar stool and buried her face into the hands. The wall clock sounded so loud when she wasn’t able to work.
She had never thought about closing Un Chat Errant before. Now, she wondered if she should pick a day to retire. Boom, it’s over. Or, she could gradually phase out. Maybe from five days a week to three days… No, it won’t work. She had to pay the same rent. She could ask one of the girls working for her if they were interested in taking on more responsibility and eventually taking over her business. But the idea of sharing her business with someone else gave her chills. This was her gig. She had always made decisions by herself whenever needed. After running through more scenarios in her mind, she gave up. Then weariness overtook her. She hadn’t slept well since Friday. She started dozing off on her stool. In the meantime, the news about the air conditioner fiasco spread from customer to customer, and finally to Mr. Monday.
On Monday, he showed up at Un Chat Errant with a dozen paper fans. They were a kind that you get for free from banks and local shops. On them were drawings of summer: swimming goldfish, fireworks in the night sky, and morning glory in bloom. After Mr. Monday, a few more regulars followed.
It was such a hot and humid day. The door and windows were left open for whatever breeze could be had. But it turned out to be a good night. Everyone loved the fans and used them to cool themselves. The cold beer tasted good. “This is like we are all going to a summer night festival,” Mama laughed as she fanned herself. Mr. Monday constantly wiped his face with a wet towel, looking flustered and embarrassed at the same time.
Mama looked up from the photo album. Mr. Monday was wiping his face and up toward the forehead. With his receding hairline, it was as though he was wiping his head too.