“No Hiding Place,” a story by Chris LaMay-West, was a finalist in our recently concluded 47th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
No Hiding Place
Chris LaMay West
Seen from above, the motion probably exhibited some coherence. Like how the particles on the surface of a liquid jiggled around each other. What did they call it? Brownian motion. Seen from a distance, the mass of people no doubt also swirled in patterns that had a great deal of regularity. Was there perhaps even a meaning in the group activity, a secret swaying cadence that couldn’t be discerned just from watching the constituent parts?
Carl found how he engaged in metaphysical speculations when in these situations distressing.
But God, you had to do something.
Or else this dance club, The Edge of The World, the apotheosis of all that he had come to hate during this year and a half spent in Japan following his graduation from Berkeley, would be unbearable. Here in the club, his goatee and the short hair that he had cropped in order to not offend Japanese sensibilities, stood out in sharp contrast to the clean-shaven faces and lanky blonde hair that the sunny giants who came to Japan unfurled as they sailed through the room, catching up little dark haired girls in their wake. Sweaty gaijin, tall, booming and friendly, stood in clusters by the bar or out on the dance floor, surrounded by Japanese girls in ratios of two or three to one.
He never really felt comfortable with the foreigners here in Fukuoka, the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan, as they danced, laughed and beautifulled their way through life in each other’s giddy presence.
All the girls at the school where he taught thought he was English because he wasn’t the six-foot tall husky Midwesterner named Scott that they hoped would magically transform them into Americans. Well so what if he wasn’t one of them? He came here for haiku. For pine-tree capped islands wrapped in mist. For the bright red arch of the torii gates in front of Shinto shrines in the chill of morning. For the chance to benkyoosuru some Japanese while he got his graduate school applications together. Right?
And now, after a year and a half in Japan, he would meet Louella in Hong Kong for their trip around Asia in just one week. The trip they had planned ever since they came to teach English in Japan after graduating from Berkeley. China, Thailand, Vietnam, India— a whole world beyond Japan and these predatory gaijin. The thought of getting away acted like a milky pinkish balmative on the unease in his stomach. And besides offering escape, the trip meant he would be with Louella again for the first time in the three months since she had gone back to San Francisco to spend some time with her parents. Seeing her again would be like a shot of sanity, a confirmation of his existence. Loved. By a woman. And therefore real. Whole.
But first the next seven days. Including tonight, his friend Cedric’s going-away party. Cedric was departing from the same language school that Carl taught at just a few days after Carl. And so they were here at the Edge of the World. They’d certainly named it right. The small box-shaped dance club sat two blocks from the city’s waterfront, with all the lights of Fukuoka behind it and ahead only the darkness of the ocean that stretched out toward Korea and China.
Tonight, as usual, the Edge was standing room only. Implausibly perfect gaijin guys and impossibly cute Japanese girls circled each other, hunting and being hunted, in a kaleidoscope of music and movement that, seen from above, no doubt revealed a coherent pattern—
Damn it! It was his head that circled around and around.
Carl shook himself out of his internal monologue and went over to talk to Cedric. It was his farewell party, after all. Cedric, geez. Did people really give their kids names like that in New Zealand? Apparently so. But however antiquated Carl found the name, Cedric himself was all right. For one thing, although laughably tall— did foreigners self-select to come to Japan based on height? — Cedric had a gentle manner, unlike the cocksure extroverts who made up most of the foreign population in Japan. With his gangly height and a pageboy haircut that Carl had never seen outside of Prince Valiant in the Sunday comics, Cedric might even be called goofy.
Carl and Cedric stood at the bar, and over beer plunged into a conversation on the linguistic differences between Chinese and Japanese. Cedric, who lived in China for several years before coming to Japan, explained that Chinese grammar was quite a bit simpler than Japanese, but the pronunciation of Japanese was much easier for foreigners because it has the same vowel base as Spanish and wasn’t tonal like Chinese. Or something like that. For the most part the loud music forced Carl to smile, nod and pretend to hear Cedric well enough to understand.
In-between pseudo-conversational outbursts, Carl downed gulps of beer from the cold hard green bottle. Carlsberg. A nice smooth beer, light enough to down quickly and fill up the hollow space inside when you’re in public feeling nervous because you don’t like crowds and desperately want every girl in the place but are afraid to act and anyway how can you when you have a girlfriend back home. So you just stand around and seethe with envy at the other guys.
Oh God, did he really just think that? It must be the beer. After all, he had a girlfriend and he was satisfied, right? Satisfied despite the thing that stirred in the pit of his belly.
It must be the beer. Yes, he just shouldn’t drink.
Shouldn’t drink like the generic beer he downed in the dorm room hall after that thing with Gina. Shouldn’t drink the vodka that started off that night with Elizabeth. Shouldn’t drink the Everclear he used to chase down the mushrooms after the morning with her in the café. Shouldn’t drink Carlsberg, a nice smooth beer, here among the swirling masses of people. Whose motion, seen from above, must have some coherence.
Oh fuck, enough of this circular bullshit!
He scanned the room and found Cedric, who had slipped away to the dance floor with a group of people during Carl’s descent into introversion. He caught sight of Carl and waved him out to join them. Carl always felt that dancing made him look like he had unknowingly grabbed an electric fence. But it was either the dance floor or stewing in his thoughts at the bar. So he joined them.
He soon forgot himself, and watched the women. And then a sound lifted him even further out of himself. A metal cowbell rattle kicked off the Bob Marley track the DJ had just put on.
I want to love you,
Love and treat you right
Every day and every night.
Who was that girl Cedric was talking to? Man, catch the plaintive wail of those two guitars on the last “love and treat you right.” Little girls with straight black hair and dark serious eyes ran like water here, but she was different. He dug her unruly mass of short dark curly hair. And felt a heart-flutter at the sight of her full lips, slightly parted thanks to her prominent teeth, which gave her beauty an almost comical undertone. But that only made the question in the lyrics of Marley’s next song even more urgent: Could she be, could she be, could she be love?
Next the church choral strains of the organ on “No Woman, No Cry” lit up the club. Here Marley’s voice was an incantation announcing that something portentous and holy was at hand. At hand in the prismatic golden-brown of the girl’s skin. Immanent in her darkness, which broke the pale conformity that reigned in Japan. Definitely not Japanese. Maybe she was Chinese? Or Korean?
At the bridge to the next song the organ and bass went up-tempo and the crowd started to move in a whole new way. He drew closer to her and made eye contact. Her eyes were extraordinary, drowsy and heavy lidded, which made her face seem lost and unfocused. They were the calm surface, it seemed, of something much deeper. The same kind of depth that billowed underneath his own façade of quiet invisibility. He saw the flash of recognition that he was watching glitter in her dark eyes. She smiled.
The guitar of the next song started far off, coming toward them with its insistent bum bum bum bu-bum-bum. He smiled back and moved closer to her. His shoulders started to groove. He danced near her now. Danced with her. At the break between songs he bent toward her.
“Do you know Cedric?”
“What?” She smiled a nervous smile of incomprehension at his question.
“Cedric. Over there,” he pointed. “Do you know him?”
“Do you know your friend?”
Sheesh, language problem. Maybe this wasn’t worth it. He shouldn’t do it anyway. Louella, and on top of that he was leaving in just seven days. And he could feel that once the pin of giving in to the constant longing inside pricked, there would be no stopping the leak. But God, he loved that metal drum rattle. And her eyes.
“Yes, I work with him.”
“Oh, you are a teacher?”
“Yes. How about you?”
“I am a student.”
“What do you study?” Uggh. This whole trite game made him feel like a jerk. Feel like one of them.
“I study Japanese. But I also study English.”
A-ha. So his earlier suspicion had been correct. There was something different about her. She wasn’t part of the vast boopy female horde of Japan. She must be—
“Are you from Korea?”
“How did you know!” Her face lit up.
“You look Korean. You’re very pretty.” Oh God, so cheesy.
She beamed at this. It struck him that this was probably more from pride at being told she looked Korean than being told she was pretty.
They talked back and forth as they danced. Her name was Soon-sung. From a town somewhere near Seoul. In Fukuoka for over a year now, the same as him. Twenty-five. Two years older than him. Sexy. She wanted to be a teacher some day. The image of her with children in a class elicited a burst of fondness from him. That, and her smooth neck, with its light blue veins showing through golden skin, which just begged to be bitten and sucked upon. Her budding lips and heavy-lidded eyes seemed to be signposts. So too her lanky body and its awkward poise. She was—
Not Louella. But that voice submerged back into the dark pool of Soon-sung’s eyes a second after it surfaced.
When the next song ended she introduced him to one of her friends, another Korean girl. She had long straight hair, brighter eyes, and a more conventionally pretty face. But she didn’t begin to compare to Soon-sung in Carl’s eyes. He didn’t catch her name, but he saw her eyes narrow on his arrival. She had probably been fending off stupid guys all night, the way pretty girls have to. He decided to be polite and ask her real questions about herself to show her he was a decent guy.
As the next song started, the three of them danced together. The bass-line itself demanded motion and unity. The song galvanized the crowd into a whole new level of movement. They pulsed, the music pulsed, his body pulsed, and somehow in the midst of this frenetic energy, it was like he was alone with Soon-sung. The irregular movement of her body mapped their rhythms together in some way that escaped conscious comprehension.
He vaguely noticed Cedric on the other side of the room, in rapt conversation with a long-haired girl. Carl realized he had left their group. He’d bailed on him! Well, fair enough, he bailed on Cedric too. Anyway, how mad could he get? He shouldn’t even be doing this.
But he wasn’t. The diaphragm thump of the music was doing it. Or maybe the thickness of her hair, the coarseness he could almost feel. And his imagination of the half-dry warmth of her golden-brown lips. This was better than beer, the cure to all his discomfort; this was the elixir that would fill him up.
The piano chords of the next song started off so gently that he was lured like a fox into the steel jaws of the trap:
Have pity on those
whose chances grow thinner.
There ain’t no hiding place
from the father of creation.
Yes, no hiding place! This was wrong. Just like Gina was wrong. He knew he was doing it all again. The same shit he did with Gina that incurred a karmic load that he paid back by pining for Elizabeth while she wasn’t really there for him, and then— Did he really want to give this particular wheel another turn? And it was even more ridiculous in the face of the fact that he was leaving in just a few days.
But some movement on the dance floor stirred Soon-sung’s scent toward him and the thought went unheeded. He was so close to her now that—
“Hey man, how you doing? Long time no see!”
Carl jumped, and then saw where the greeting had erupted from. A short and thin figure stood behind him, sandy hair almost imperceptibly tinted with gray, with a face that was a mask of outer friendliness over an internal avaricious calculation of maximum gain.
A former marine who had washed up in Fukuoka and now operated his own English school there, Deke owned the condo in Chikuzen Fukae that Carl had stayed in up until three months ago.
“Man, my respect for you has just gone up incredibly.” Deke delivered the line with a leer and a nod toward the girls.
Carl despised Deke’s disrespect for women: the children he abandoned in the Philippines, the Japanese wife he dismissed as “too strong and independent” because she worked, the pregnant Korean girlfriend he had on the side. And now this man, this very same despised man, complimented him. Carl felt the moral equivalent of an urgent need to vomit.
And then the start of “I Shot the Sheriff,” so familiar and upbeat, wiped the thoughts away. The original, with the line that Eric Clapton left out, the line a white boy would leave out:
If I am guilty I will pay!
That line echoed unheeded into metallic infinity. Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner…
Deke worked hard to pick up Soon-sung’s friend, who was going back to Korea on Monday. He offered to go to the airport with her. He leaned toward Carl and shouted in his ear.
“Man, I am not having any luck. I’ve got to learn Korean.”
Oh God. But then Carl’s gaze alighted on Soon-sung, with her dreamy half-closed eyes, and his attention was captured by how the funky guitar, moving, moving, moving of the next song synchronized their bodies in a back and forth motion. It was impossible not to be drawn in by it. Her naïve beauty stalked him. No hiding place.
Carl didn’t want to leave the girls with Deke, but he had been there for hours and he was too tired to try to outwait him any longer. Cedric was still talking with the long-haired girl way on the other side of the club. Well, he didn’t have to say goodbye to him now, he would see him at work tomorrow anyway. It was time to go.
Soon-sung went out front with him to say goodbye as he waved down a taxi. He turned to her, heart aflutter, but so charged up by her sweet scent in the night breeze that he proceeded.
“I want to see you again.” Wow. That really was what he wanted.
“Yes. Me too!”
All right! Shit. Now what?
“Can I get your phone number before I go?”
As she wrote it down, he decided to warn her about Deke.
“You know the man that we were dancing with?”
“Yes, but he is not my friend. He is a bad man. Don’t trust him.”
“Yes, be careful, okay?”
Confronted by her wide eyes, he felt foolish. A taxi arrived. He better fill the gap with something positive before he went.
“I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Yes!” She waved as he got in the cab.
A smile at the so rare confidence that a woman really liked him stayed plastered on his face during the ride home. A smile enervated by the jittery knowledge that he belonged to someone else, and shouldn’t spend time with Soon-sung. Shouldn’t. But his heart beat like drums, disturbing dark still water inside as something like electricity moist rich earth and distant whispers rustled in the night and poured in to him.
Back in the rickety brown wooden box of a room that he rented, he settled down under the covers of the futon. The thin mattress, secure against the firmness of the tatami mats on the floor, buoyed him as he floated on an ear-ringing dance-tinged alcoholic buzz. He thumbed through a guidebook on Thailand for a few minutes and then turned off the light.
This was always when he felt saddest. Eyelids heavy, alone in his little room, huddled in night clothes. But tonight there was no loneliness, no emptiness; he could just collapse onto the pillow. He turned on the radio in the darkness, as he often did when he slept. He flipped to the AM, where Korean radio from the lovely hilly port of Pusan buzzed across the strait from Fukuoka. The soft static hiss and incomprehensible stream of Korean promised something. Something beyond.
His mind drifted to the trip with Louella and dreams of golden Buddhas in crumbling stone temples nestled among steaming malarial jungles. And then it strayed to thoughts of the dance club and dreams possessed by thick short curls and dark eyed beauty. The choice had been made.
As his consciousness got more and more diffuse, something from earlier in the evening played back in his mind:
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner.
There ain’t no hiding place from the father of creation.
No there isn’t. Indeed there isn’t.
Chris LaMay-West believes in the power of rock music, Beat poetry, and the sanctity of Star Trek. He has appeared in Kitchen Sink and Morbid Curiosity, in various online venues including the Rumpus and Opium, and in the “Mortified” reading series. A California native, Chris is currently expatriated to Vermont, where he writes, works for a college, recently served as the poetry editor for Mud Season Review, and lives with his lovely bride, two cats, a dog, and several chickens. His literary exploits can be followed at: https://chrislamaywest.