2 September 2003 | Vol. 3, No. 3
The Japanese Colleague
"It's an Affirmative Action thing," said Jay Hamilton, Minoru Taniguchi's old friend and new colleague, who was African-American. "Not that any of the faculty will say it to our face."
Minoru followed Jay up the stairs.
It was a hot September evening. The sprawling western New England state university was not yet in session. Except for Minoru and Jay, Junkins Hall is empty.
"Like grad school, Minoru! You're affirmed thanks to A.A.—nothing to do with your superior intellect." Jay's laugh echoed in the dimly lit corridor housing the English department. "Your office will probably be over there. Hey, are you okay if the department sticks you with teaching Asian-American lit?"
"I'm a Victorian specialist," Minoru said.
"They stuck me with Black lit surveys, and I'm Renaissance. Like I live and breathe Renaissance. Black lit. It's cool by me—but man! White people hate it when they think we coloreds are invading their territory."
"I won't teach basic Japanese," Minoru said. "I've done enough."
"It won't happen. Expect lots of frosh composition for the next million years. Here's McCormick's office." They stopped by a wooden door like every other, except this one said the occupant was department head. "Surprised she's not here. She lives for the job. Basically okay, but not a shaker and mover."
"We've talked on the phone," Minoru said.
"Our poet-in-residence." Jay said as they moved on. "Only known as Neuopatha. She's been down since leaving her girlfriend."
With over fifteen years in the United States, all of them on the East Coast, Minoru was used to same-sex love relationships. "That's too bad," he said.
"Even Affirmative Action can't help," Jay said. "You know why we're here, Minoru? Oversupply of women. It's the era of the man of color."
"I really appreciate you getting me in," Minoru said.
"The old college tie," Jay laughed.
Caught between the artificial openness and the social exclusiveness of their doctoral program, Minoru and Jay, the only non-Whites, had bonded quickly. They were, otherwise, as opposite as friends could be. Minoru loved the outdoors while Jay, bookish even for a graduate student, claimed an allergy to fresh air and preferred interiors—libraries, museums. Minoru listened to jazz and rock; Jay only liked classical. Jay was a political activist—his only outdoors activities were protest rallies—while Minoru took the outsider's detachment to American politics. Minoru had shoulder length hair and a wispy mustache; Jay had pruned his face and head entirely. They had not corresponded in the five years following their graduation. Minoru, living in New York City and teaching part time at various universities, had been surprised to get Jay's letter about the tenure-track post.
"It was actually this guy Reardon who got you in," Jay said, tapping the paper nameplate saying "Matthew D. Reardon, Professor." Some of us call him Rear End. But he was brilliant, I must admit, in fighting for you. We were stuck between you and another guy, and Reardon clinched it. He said the department would shine with a Japanese colleague teaching English to native speakers. He lived in Japan, you know. "
"I didn't," Minoru said. "Introduce me."
"Introduce yourself," Jay said. "We're not on speaking terms right now. Committee friction. Nothing racial, if you want to know. He's touchy."
The following day, in the late afternoon, Minoru visited Professor Reardon in his cigar reeking office.
Reardon greeted him with, "What do you think of the Emperor system? I think Hirohito was a goddamn war criminal. Should've hung him and trashed the whole goddamn thing."
Reardon was tall and very thin. Minoru guessed he was in his early sixties. He wore blue jeans, held up by suspenders. His striped yellow shirt, missing the top button, exposed abundant white chest hair. The flying white hair on his head, his unkempt mustache and the sad blue eyes bulging out at him through the gold wire rim glasses made Minoru think of him as a cross between Albert Einstein and a badger.
"I have mixed feelings about the emperor system," Minoru said. He had been through this before in America. "One hides feelings like mine in Japan—"
"Just trying to see if I feel like talking to you." Reardon waved a hand as if swatting invisible flies. "Sit down. Have a cigar."
"I don't smoke," Minoru said, sitting in the wooden swivel chair opposite Reardon's cluttered desk.
"Have one anyway. They're Cuban. Goddamn crime, this American boycott. Cubans can't get proper medicines for their sick babies. This goddamn country is the world's biggest kid killer. Did you know that?"
"No," said Minoru who felt a deep foreigner's affection for the US. His eyes swept Reardon's cramped and disorderly office. His library was a mixture of literary texts and books on politics. A large poster of Malcolm X was taped in an odd space between the end of a bookshelf and the window. He saw no family photographs.
"You should know it, Dr. Taniguchi!" Reardon said. "Talk to your friend Dr. Hamilton. We've been in demonstrations together."
"Yeah, really. The reason I don't have family pictures here, Minoru—if I can call you that—the reason I don't have any—" He swatted invisible flies again. "I can read your mind, son—my Japanese wife lives in Tokyo. My only daughter hates my guts."
"Shikata ga na," Reardon said. "That's secondary." He picked up a half smoked cigar, padded his hand about the desk, looking for matches. "What's primary—" He put down the cigar. "What's primary is where are you staying? And who's feeding and fucking you."
"I'm staying in a motel on Route 6," Minoru said. He wanted to leave.
"Get there by car?"
"I'll give you a lift." He padded, padded searching for his keys.
"It's too goddamn hot for suits and ties; why do you wear that stuff?" Reardon said as they drove along Route 6 in Reardon's red vintage Volkswagen convertible.
"I wanted to look nice. I'm new. This is a beautiful car."
"Sure, I understand. Your hair's long anyway. Not that it's anti-establishment these days—I restored this machine myself. It's 1964. Every last bolt is 1964. I've got a 1951 Frazer Manhattan four door convertible I'm restoring—I know a great bar."
"There's my motel, Professor Reardon."
Reardon turned off on to a side road and drove the red Volkswagen into the wooded countryside.
Minoru resigned himself to a wasted evening and, possibly, a drunken driving catastrophe.
Presently they entered a village where the town hall, library, a used bookstore and two churches were planted around the central green.
"New East Warwich, founded in 1723," Reardon said parking.
"The silence reminds me of villages in Japan." He swatted the air with his right hand. "This bar—it's down the alley—they let me smoke cigars. "
"Hello Professor Reardon. Welcome Professor Taniguchi!" The bar's owner, a former student, said as they entered.
Reardon ordered a pitcher of beer and said, "Welcome to New England, Minoru. News travels fast."
"Like Japan," Minoru said.
Reardon lit his cigar, blowing the smoke away from Minoru. The ex-student brought a pitcher and two frosted glass mugs. Reardon filled Minoru's to the top and his to only half.
"When I think drinking and driving I take the VW. That way I watch it. What brought you—A—to this goddamned country and—B—to Victorian Lit?"
"I like America. I lived in Great Neck when I was a kid, " Minoru said. "My dad was a businessman. I hardly knew Japan until high school. My folks wanted me to have some Japanese education. I lived with my uncle and aunt in Tokyo. "
"Must've been rough going as a returnee." Reardon poured beer into Minoru's glass.
Minoru nodded, remembering the days he was being bullied and wishing to be back in Great Neck. "Few people understand, Professor Reardon."
"Yeah, I've been a misfit all my life. I'm supposed to be a Dickinson scholar, that's what they hired me as, but I spend my time writing about politics—when I'm not writing textbooks. Drives the university crazy. Call me Matt. I'm called Rear End behind my back. Kompai!"
He clinked Minoru's mug with his. The two men spontaneously shook hands.
"About Victorian Lit, Minoru—"
"The year we lived in London I saw a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate. I was twelve. Later I discovered Dickens and Hardy. It's such a rich period."
"Very—" Reardon nodded. "Ask me how I feel about Japan."
"How do you, Matt?"
"Love it, hate it," Reardon said leaning back in his chair, his cigar in hand. "You know what I mean, Minoru." He leaned forward suddenly, bringing his face up to Minoru's. "You know the expression Academic Apartheid?"
"Yes, I know the book by—"
"It was actually coined by another guy in the Asahi Evening News in 1986—But that's secondary—"
Reardon's face became flushed. The bulging eyes from inside the wire-rimmed glasses staring at him frightened Minoru.
"Talk about it some other time, son—"
Jay lived fifty miles from the university, in the town where his wife was an assistant professor at a liberal arts college. Minoru saw little of him. He developed a warm working relationship with the poet-in-residence (happy with her new girlfriend) but, as with the mostly White and female department members, no real friendship. Frequent lonely moments brought Minoru to Reardon's cigar reeking office.
"The lady I'm living in sin with wants to meet you," Reardon said one Friday in October. "Drive out to the house Friday afternoon." (Minoru had bought a used Pontiac from a local dealer whom Reardon had recommended.) "Bring a change of clothes."
Reardon lived next to a birch tree forest, not far from the bar where they had had their beer, and where Minoru had nearly passed out thanks to inebriation and Reardon's cigar. Still embarrassed by this, he promised himself not to lose face in front of Reardon's girlfriend.
Looking at the big white colonial house with adjacent red barn and carriage house, all restored by Reardon himself, Minoru, who had lived only in apartments, could not believe that, as Reardon had told him, he had bought the place "for a song" twenty years ago. The red Volkswagen was parked in the wide turnaround driveway in front of the house. In front of it was another Volkswagen, a blue hardtop. When he parked his Pontiac, a tall and attractive blonde woman of about forty got out of the blue Volkswagen. She shook his hand after he got out.
"I'm Mandy Martin, Matt's live-in," she said smiling.
"I got the impression this was a men only thing, so I'm off to Cape Cod for the weekend. I hope you're not offended."
"No, not at all—" Minoru said, trying not to show that he was relieved.
"I'll make Matt invite you for one of my coq au vin parties, " she said. "And, look, a word to the wise," she said lowering her voice. "Matt's a difficult guy even when sober. Take anything he says drunk with a grain of salt. He's really, really a saint at heart, or I wouldn't be with him."
With that, Mandy Martin got into her blue Volkswagen, waved her hand out the window and drove away. Reardon pushed open the screen door and stepped out on to the porch.
He was in his usual blue jeans and suspenders and wore a blue work shirt. Cigar in his mouth, hands at his sides, he watched his girlfriend's car disappear. Then he called out, "Hey Minoru, I want to show you something."
Reardon led Minoru to the barn. He tossed his cigar into a bucket of water in which other cigar butts floated. Then he slid open the big red door and flipped a switch inside. Overhead lights came on. Minoru beheld the white convertible with its top down.
"My Frazer. Every bit of it 1951."
"It looks brand new," Minoru said. He glanced around the neat mechanic's clinic that his friend had built inside the ancient barn.
"I can read your mind, Minoru," Reardon said. "The prurient order of this place compared to the holy disorder of my hole at school. Well, this is where I live. This is where the soul comes alive. I write textbooks, not boring scholarly tomes, because those bastards sell. I write them for babies like this. All I need now is a whatsit. That's technical talk for thingamajig. A little wingwang is all I need. Then she's done. Six years of hard labor and research."
"Did you paint it yourself?"
"Naw. A shop in Hartford does the painting. I don't have the facilities. I just do the body work and mechanical stuff. "
"Wow," Minoru said.
"I already have collectors bidding for this baby. When I finish a car I'll sell it to a worthy collector. Too much responsibility to keep rare cars. Hate responsibilities. Let's get drunk."
The oak living room floor they sat on with the bottle of whiskey was carpetless. The furniture, Reardon said, was all bought second hand and restored by him. Minoru noticed that there was not a single bookcase in the huge living room. ("Got a library upstairs if you want to see books," Reardon said suddenly.) One side of the living room was devoted to trophies, plaques and framed photographs of the restored cares that won them.
"My all time favorite was that 1934 Auburn coupé. An old farmer drove it out here and offered it to me for five grand. I took one look and wrote him a check. First owner. Drove it every day since in 1934. Not one dent! I had it restored in four months! It needed a paint job for sure and new upholstery. I don't do upholstery either. I got this pal, an Audurn-Cord-Duesenberg specialist—You're not interested, are you?"
"I'm overwhelmed," Minoru said. "This is new to me—"
Reardon waved his hands in the air. Cigar ash fell on the oak floor. "I'll restore your car if you like—You got a girlfriend?"
Reardon, who had been sitting in a full lotus position, lay down on the floor in a pose that reminded Minoru of statues of the dying Buddha.
"I'm off girlfriends for a while," Minoru said, sitting cross-legged and wishing he could sit in one of the living room's two rocking chairs. "I had a girlfriend in New York. We were fine until I asked her to marry me. She panicked and we broke up."
"Typical Reardon woman." Reardon drank.
"Mandy seems nice," Minoru said. "I like the stew she made for us."
"Trouble with me is I only appreciate good women in retrospect. Goddamn it, don't you ever be a womanizer, son."
"I'm pretty much an all or nothing man," Minoru said. "A bit of a Victorian prude, I guess."
"The more power to you. You like sitting on the floor?"
"Well, don't then, goddamn it!"
"I'm also plain tight-assed."
After saying that Minoru knew he was drunk.
"You're no tight-ass. I can't stand tight-asses. Go sit in that rocking chair. You've been eyeing it. Dates from the 1920s."
Minoru sat in the rocking chair. Reardon pulled the other rocking chair across from him and sat.
"Can't offer you one of Fidel Castro's finest?"
"Why not?" Minoru accepted the cigar from the wooden cigar box Reardon had taken from the floor.
"I've precut it." Reardon held out his lighter. "Smoke slowly and don't inhale. That's it. Like it?"
"I do," Minoru said. "I used to smoke a pipe but gave it up. Another girlfriend hated it."
"Girlfriends—" Reardon muttered. "What're you working on these days, publish or perish wise?"
"Oh, something on Hopkins and Yeats. I'm presenting it at MLA."
"The passionate priest and the celibate dandy."
"It's giving me some trouble," Minoru said.
"Don't tell me about it. I've served my time doing that stuff. You miss Japan?"
"I don't know. My parents retired to Australia. I have no siblings or real friends back there. Do you?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. Desperately sometimes." Reardon's two big eyes, not quite focusing on Mino