Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Teachers, #Missing persons, #Japan, #Unrequited love, #Fiction, #Women novelists, #Businesswomen

Sputnik Sweetheart (17 page)


he phone rang on a Sunday afternoon. The second Sunday after the new school term began in September. I was fixing a late lunch and had to turn off the gas range before I answered. The phone rang with a kind of urgency—at least it felt that way. I was sure it was Miu calling with news of Sumire’s whereabouts. The call wasn’t from Miu, though, but from my girlfriend.

“Something’s happened,” she said, skipping her usual opening pleasantries. “Can you come right away?”

It sounded like something awful. Had her husband found out about us? I took a deep breath. If people found out I was sleeping with the mother of one of the kids in my homeroom, I’d be in a major fix to say the least. Worst-case scenario, I could lose my job. At the same time, though, I was resigned to it. I knew the risks.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“At a supermarket,” she said.

took the train to Tachikawa, arriving at the station near the supermarket at two-thirty. The afternoon was blazing hot, the summer back in force, but I had on a white dress shirt, tie, and light gray suit, the clothes she’d asked me to wear. You look more like a teacher that way, she said, and you’ll give a better impression. “Sometimes you still look like a college student,” she’d told me.

At the entrance to the supermarket I asked a young clerk who was rounding up stray shopping carts where the security office was. It’s across the street, on the third floor of the annex, he told me. The annex was an ugly little three-story building, without even an elevator. Hey, don’t worry about us, the cracks in the concrete walls seemed to say, they’re just going to tear this place down someday anyway. I walked up the narrow, timeworn stairs, located the door with
on it, and gave a couple of light taps. A man’s deep voice answered; I opened the door and saw my girlfriend and her son inside. They were seated in front of a desk facing a middle-aged uniformed security guard. Just the three of them.

The room was an in-between size, not too big, not too small. Three desks were lined up along the window, a steel locker along the wall opposite. On the connecting wall were a duty roster and three security-guard hats on a steel shelf. Beyond a frosted-glass door at the far end of the room there seemed to be a second room, which the guards probably used for taking naps. The room we were in was almost completely devoid of decoration. No flowers, no pictures, not even a calendar. Just an overly large round clock on the wall. A totally barren room, like some ancient corner of the world that time had forgotten. On top of which the place had a strange odor—of cigarette smoke, moldy documents, and perspiration mixed together over the years.

he security guard in charge was a thickset man in his late fifties. He had beefy arms and a large head covered with a thick patch of coarse salt-and-pepper hair he’d plastered down with some cheap hair tonic, probably the best he could afford on his lowly security-guard salary. The ashtray in front of him was overflowing with Seven Star butts. When I came into the room, he took off his black-framed glasses, wiped them with a cloth, and put them back on. Maybe his set way of greeting new people. With his glasses off, his eyes were as cold as moon rocks. When he put the glasses back on, the coldness retreated, replaced by a kind of powerful glazed look. Either way, this wasn’t a look to put people at their ease.

The room was oppressively hot; the window was wide open, but not a breath of air came in. Only the noise from the road outside. A large truck coming to a halt at a red light blatted its hoarse air brake, reminding me of Ben Webster on the Tenortone in his later years. We were all sweating. I walked up in front of the desk, introduced myself, and handed the man my business card. The security guard took it without a word, pursed his lips, and stared at it for a while. He placed the card on the desk and looked up at me.

“You’re pretty young for a teacher, aren’t you?” he said. “How long have you been teaching?”

I pretended to think it over, and answered, “Three years.”

“Hmm,” he said. And didn’t say anything else. But the silence spoke volumes. He picked up my card and looked at my name again, as if rechecking something.

“My name’s Nakamura, I’m the chief of security here,” he introduced himself. He didn’t proffer a business card of his own. “Just pull up a chair from over there if you would. I’m sorry about how hot it is. The air conditioner’s on the blink, and no one will come out to fix it on a Sunday. They aren’t nice enough to give me a fan, so I sit and suffer. Take off your jacket if you’d like. We might be here for a while, and it makes me hot just looking at you.”

I did as he told me, pulling over a chair and removing my jacket. My sweaty shirt clung to my skin.

“You know, I’ve always envied teachers,” the guard began. A stillborn smile played around his lips, yet his eyes remained those of a deep-sea predator, searching my depths for the slightest movement. His words were polite enough, but that was only a veneer. The word
sounded like an insult.

“You have over a month off in the summer, don’t have to work on Sundays or at night, and people give you gifts all the time. Pretty nice life if you ask me. I sometimes wish I’d studied harder and become a teacher myself. Destiny intervened and here I am—a security guard at a supermarket. I wasn’t smart enough, I suppose. But I tell my kids to grow up to be teachers. I don’t care what anybody says, teachers have it made.”

y girlfriend had on a simple blue half-sleeve dress. Her hair was piled up neatly on top of her head, and she had on a pair of small earrings. White sandals with heels completed her outfit, and a white bag and small cream-colored handkerchief rested on her lap. It was the first time I’d seen her since I got back from Greece. She looked back and forth between me and the guard, her eyes puffy from crying. She’d been through a lot, it was clear.

We exchanged a quick glance, and I turned to her son. His name was Shin’ichi Nimura, but his classmates had nicknamed him Carrot. With his long, thin face and his shock of unkempt, curly hair, the name fit. I usually called him that, too. He was a quiet boy, hardly ever speaking more than was necessary. His grades weren’t bad; he rarely forgot to bring his homework and never failed to do his share of the cleaning up. Never got into trouble. But he lacked initiative and never once raised his hand in class. Carrot’s classmates didn’t dislike him, but he wasn’t what you’d call popular. This didn’t please his mother much, but from my point of view he was a good kid.

assume you’ve heard about what happened from the boy’s mother,” the security guard said.

“Yes, I have,” I replied. “He was caught shoplifting.”

“That’s correct,” the guard said, and set a cardboard box that was at his feet on top of the table. He pushed it toward me. Inside was a collection of identical small staplers still in their packaging. I picked one up and examined it. The price tag said ¥850.

“Eight staplers,” I commented. “Is this all?”

“Yep. That’s the lot of it.”

I put the stapler back in the box. “So the whole thing would come to sixty-eight hundred yen.”

“Correct. Sixty-eight hundred yen. You’re probably thinking, ‘Well, OK, he shoplifted. It’s a crime, sure, but why get so bent out of shape over eight staplers? He’s just a schoolkid.’ Am I right?”

I didn’t reply.

“It’s OK to think that. ’Cause it’s the truth. There are a lot worse crimes than stealing eight staplers. I was a policeman before I became a security guard, so I know what I’m talking about.”

The guard looked directly into my eyes as he spoke. I held his gaze, careful not to appear defiant.

“If this were his first offense, the store wouldn’t raise such a fuss. Our business is dealing with customers, after all, and we prefer not to get too upset over something small-scale like this. Normally I’d bring the child here to this room, and I’d put a little of the fear of God into him. In worse cases we’d contact the parents and have them punish the child. We don’t get in touch with the school. That’s our store’s policy, to take care of children shoplifting quietly.

“The problem is this isn’t the first time this boy’s shoplifted. In our store alone, we know he’s done it three times.
Three times!
Can you imagine? And what’s worse is both other times he refused to give us his name or the name of his school. I was the one who took care of him, so I remember it well. He wouldn’t say a word, no matter what we asked. The silent treatment, we used to call it on the police force. No apologies, no remorse, just adopt a crummy attitude and stonewall it. If he didn’t tell me his name this time, I was going to turn him over to the police, but even this didn’t raise a reaction. Nothing else to do, so I forced him to show me his bus pass, and that’s how I found out his name.”

He paused, waiting for it all to sink in. He was still staring fixedly at me, and I continued to hold his gaze.

“Another thing is the kind of things he stole. Nothing cute about it. The first time he stole fifteen mechanical pencils. Total value nine thousand seven hundred fifty yen. The second time it was eight compasses, eight thousand yen altogether. In other words, each time he just steals a pile of the same things. He’s not going to use them himself. He’s just doing it for kicks, or else he’s planning to sell them to his friends at school.”

I tried conjuring up a mental image of Carrot selling stolen staplers to his friends during lunch hour. I couldn’t picture it.

“I don’t quite understand,” I said. “Why keep stealing from the same store? Wouldn’t that just increase the chances you’d get caught—and worsen your punishment when you were? If you’re trying to get away with it, wouldn’t you normally try other stores?”

“Don’t ask me. Maybe he
stealing from other stores. Or maybe our store just happens to be his favorite. Maybe he doesn’t like my face. I’m just a simple security guard for a supermarket, so I’m not going to think out all the ramifications. They don’t pay me enough for that. If you really want to know, ask him yourself. I hauled him in here three hours ago and not a peep so far. Pretty amazing. Which is why I dragged you in here. I’m sorry you had to come in on your day off. . . . One thing I’ve been wondering about since you came in, though. You look so tanned. Not that it’s relevant, but did you go someplace special during your summer vacation?”

“No, no place special,” I replied.

Even so, he continued to scrutinize my face carefully, as if I were an important piece in the puzzle.

I picked up the stapler again and examined it in detail. Just an ordinary, small stapler, the kind you’d find in any home or office. An office supply about as cheap as they come. Seven Star cigarette dangling from his lips, the security guard lit it with a Bic lighter and, turning to one side, blew out a cloud of smoke.

I turned to the boy and gently asked, “Why staplers?”

Carrot had been staring the whole time at the floor but now quietly lifted his face and looked at me. But he didn’t say anything. I noticed for the first time that his expression was completely changed—strangely emotionless, eyes out of focus. He seemed to be staring into a void.

“Did somebody bully you into doing it?”

Still no answer. It was hard to tell if my words were getting through. I gave up. Asking the boy anything at this point wasn’t going to be productive. His door was closed, the windows shut tight.

“Well, sir, what do you propose we do?” the guard asked me. “I get paid to make my rounds of the store, check the monitors, catch shoplifters, and bring them back to this room. What happens afterward is another matter entirely. Especially hard to deal with when it’s a child. What do you suggest we do? I’m sure you’re more knowledgeable in this area. Should we just let the police handle the whole thing? That would certainly be easier for me. Keep us from wasting our time when we’re just treading water anyway.”

Actually, at that moment I was thinking about something else. This dumpy little supermarket security room reminded me of the police station on the Greek island. Thoughts of which led straight to Sumire. And the fact that she was gone.

It took me a few moments to figure out what this man was trying to say to me.

“I’ll let his father know,” Carrot’s mother said in a monotone, “and make sure my son knows in no uncertain terms that shoplifting is a crime. I promise he won’t ever bother you again.”

“In other words you don’t want this to be taken to court. You’ve said that over and over,” the security guard said in a bored tone. He tapped his cigarette on the ashtray, flicking the ash into it. He turned to me again and said, “But from where I sit, three times is just too many. Somebody’s gotta put a stop to it. What are your feelings about this?”

I took a deep breath, pulling my thoughts back to the present. To the eight staplers and a Sunday afternoon in September.

“I can’t say anything unless I talk to him,” I replied. “He’s a smart boy, and he’s never caused any problems before. I have no clue why he’d do something so dumb, but I’m going to spend time myself and get to the bottom of this. I really apologize for all the trouble he’s caused.”

“Yeah, but I just don’t get it,” the guard said, frowning behind his glasses. “This boy—Shin’ichi Nimura?—he’s in your homeroom, right? So you see him every day, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“He’s in fourth grade, which means he’s been in your class for a year and four months. Am I right?”

“Yes, that’s correct. I’ve been in charge of his class since they were in third grade.”

“And how many pupils are in your class?”


“So you can keep an eye on them all. You’re telling me you never had any hint that this boy was going to cause trouble. No sign at all?”

“That’s right.”

“Wait a sec—as far as we know, he’s been shoplifting for half a year. Always alone. Nobody’s forcing him to do it. And it’s not spur of the moment. And he’s not doing it for the money either. According to his mother he gets a generous allowance. He’s doing it just to get away with stealing. This boy has
in other words. And you’re telling me there wasn’t any indication of this whatsoever?”

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