Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (38 page)

“I didn't buy this car,” Shoko said, as if by way of apology, gesturing toward her Prius. “My brother bought it for me because it's safe and easy to drive, and gentle on the environment.”

“The Prius is an excellent car,” Menshiki said. “I've thought of buying one myself.”

Was he kidding? Menshiki behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius was as hard to picture as a leopard ordering a salade Niçoise.

“This is very rude of me,” Shoko said, peering into the Jaguar's interior, “but would it be all right if I sat in it for a minute? I just want to try out the driver's seat.”

“Of course,” Menshiki answered. He coughed lightly, as if to bring his voice under control. “Sit there as long as you like. Take it for a spin if you wish.”

I was flabbergasted by how interested she was in Menshiki's Jaguar. On the surface she was so cool and poised, not my image of a car person at all. Yet her eyes were shining when she climbed into the driver's seat. She snuggled into the cream-colored leather upholstery, studied the dashboard with care, and took the steering wheel in both hands. Then she placed her left hand on the gearshift. Menshiki took the car key from his pocket and passed it to her through the window.

“Turn it on if you like.”

Shoko took the key, inserted it into the ignition next to the wheel, and rotated it clockwise. Instantly, the great feline awoke. She sat there entranced for a moment, listening to the deep purr of the engine.

“I remember this sound well,” she said.

“It's a 4.2-liter V8 engine. Your father's XJ6 had six cylinders, and the number of valves and the compression ratio were different too, but they may well sound alike. Both are sinful, though—they squander fossil fuel like there's no tomorrow. Jaguars haven't changed a bit on that score.”

Shoko flipped on the right-turn signal. I heard a cheerful clicking sound.

“This really brings back memories.”

Menshiki smiled. “Only a Jaguar's turn signal sounds like this. It's unlike that of any other automobile.”

“When I was young, I secretly practiced on the XJ6 to get my driver's license,” she said. “The first time I drove another car I was totally confused—the parking brake wasn't where I expected. I had no idea what to do.”

“I know just what you mean,” Menshiki grinned. “The Brits are fussy about the funniest things.”

“I think the interior smells a bit different than my father's car, though.”

“Sadly, you're right. For a variety of reasons, Jaguar can't use the exact same materials on its newer models. The smell changed after 2002, when Connolly Leather stopped supplying their upholstery. In fact, the Connolly company went out of business at that point.”

“How too bad. I loved that smell. I connect it to the smell of my father.”

“To tell the truth,” Menshiki said hesitantly, “I own another Jaguar as well, an older model. It may well have the same odor as your father's car.”

“Is it an XJ6?”

“No, it's an E type.”

“Does that mean it's a convertible?”

“Correct. It's a Series 1 roadster, made back in the mid-sixties. It still runs well, though. It's also equipped with a six-cylinder 4.2-liter engine. An original two-seater. The top has been replaced, of course, so it's not exactly in mint condition.”

Most of this flew over my head—I know nothing about cars—but Menshiki's words seemed to have made a deep impression on Shoko. They clearly shared an interest, and a fairly specialized interest at that, in Jaguars. That made me feel a little calmer. No longer did I have to think up topics to help them through their first meeting. Mariye's boredom was palpable, though—she seemed even less into cars than me.

Shoko got out of the Jaguar, shut the car door, and handed the key to Menshiki, who returned it to the pocket of his chinos. Then she and Mariye got in the blue Prius. Menshiki closed the door after Mariye. I was struck by the different
thunk
it made as it closed, nothing like the Jaguar. In this world, what we think of as a single sound can have so many permutations. Just as we know, from one note struck on the open string of a double bass, whether it's Charlie Mingus or Ray Brown.

“So we'll meet again next Sunday,” Menshiki said.

Shoko gave Menshiki a big smile, took the steering wheel, and drove off. Menshiki and I waited until the squat rear of the Toyota Prius was out of sight before returning to the house. We sat in the living room sipping cold coffee. Neither of us spoke for some time. Menshiki looked exhausted. Like a long-distance runner who had just crossed the finish line.

“She's a beautiful girl,” I said at last. “Mariye, I mean.”

“You're right. She'll be even prettier when she grows up,” Menshiki said. His mind seemed elsewhere.

“What did you think, seeing her up close?” I asked.

Menshiki smiled an uncomfortable smile. “I didn't get a very good look, to tell the truth. I was too nervous.”

“But you must have seen something.”

“Of course,” he said, nodding. He paused for a long moment. “What did you think?” he asked at last, his eyes serious.

“What do you mean, what do I think?”

Menshiki's face flushed again. “Do you see any similarity between Mariye's features and mine? As an artist who has painted people's portraits for many years, I'm interested in your professional opinion.”

I shook my head no. “You're right, I'm trained to take quick note of people's facial characteristics. But that doesn't mean I can tell whose child is whose. Some parents and children don't look alike at all, while total strangers can appear almost identical.”

Menshiki gave a long, deep sigh. It sounded wrenched from his entire body. He rubbed his palms together.

“I'm not asking for a definitive judgment. I'm just asking for your
personal impressions
. Even the most trivial ones. I'd like to know if you noticed something, anything at all.”

I thought for a moment. “As far as facial structure goes, I don't see much concrete similarity. But your eyes do have something in common. In fact, it startles me every so often.”

He looked at me, his thin lips pressed together. “You're saying there's something similar in our eyes?”

“Maybe it's because they reflect your true feelings. Curiosity, enthusiasm, surprise, suspicion, reluctance—I can see those subtle emotions in both your eyes and hers. Your faces aren't all that expressive, but your eyes really are the windows to your hearts. Most people are the opposite. Their faces are expressive, but their eyes aren't nearly so lively.”

Menshiki appeared surprised. “Is that how my eyes look to you?”

I nodded.

“I was never aware of that.”

“You couldn't control it if you tried. Maybe it's because your feelings are on such a tight leash that your eyes are so expressive. It's not that obvious, though—you have to pay really, really close attention to read them. Most people wouldn't notice.”

“But you can.”

“Reading faces is my profession.”

Menshiki considered that for a minute. “So she and I have that in common. But you still can't tell if we're father and daughter, right?”

“I do have certain impressions when I look at people, and I value those. But artistic impressions and objective reality are separate things. Impressions don't prove anything. They're like a butterfly in the wind—totally useless. But how about you? Did you feel anything special?”

He shook his head several times. “I couldn't tell anything in one brief meeting. I need to see her more. I have to get used to being around her first.”

He shook his head again, this time more slowly. He plunged his hands into his jacket pockets as though searching for something, then pulled them out again. As though he'd forgotten what he was looking for.

“No, maybe it's not the number of times,” he went on. “It could be the more we meet the more confused I'll get, the farther from any conclusion. It's
possible
she's my daughter, but then it's possible she isn't. But either way makes no difference to me. Her presence alone allows me to consider that possibility, to physically experience that hypothesis. When that happens, I feel fresh blood coursing through my body. Maybe I've never understood the true meaning of being alive until now.”

I held my peace. What could I say about the feelings he was experiencing, or about his definition of being alive? Menshiki glanced at his thin, expensive-looking wristwatch and awkwardly struggled to his feet from the sofa.

“I owe you my thanks. I couldn't have done a thing if you hadn't given me a push.”

With these few words he stumbled toward the door, struggled a bit to put on his shoes, and stepped outside. From the door, I watched him climb in his car and drive away. When his Jaguar was out of sight, the peaceful quiet of a Sunday afternoon enfolded me once again.

—

The clock said a little after two p.m. I was dead tired. I pulled an old blanket from the closet, lay on the sofa, and slept with it tucked over me. It was past three when I awoke. The angle of the sunlight in the room had shifted somewhat. What a strange day! I couldn't be sure if I had moved forward or fallen behind, or if I was just circling over the same spot. My sense of direction had gone haywire. There was Shoko and Mariye, and then there was Menshiki. Each had a special magnetism. And I had landed smack in the middle of it all. Lacking any magnetism of my own to speak of.

However exhausted I might feel, though, Sunday was far from over. The hands of the clock had only just passed three. The sun was still in the sky. Loads of time remained before a new day dawned and Sunday became a thing of the past. Yet I didn't feel like doing anything. I had taken a nap, but my head was muddled. It felt like a ball of yarn had been crammed into the back of a narrow desk drawer, and now the drawer wouldn't close properly. Maybe this was the sort of day I should check the air pressure in my tires. Anyone feeling this blah should be able to rouse himself to do that much.

Come to think of it, though, I had never checked the air pressure myself. Whenever a gas station attendant said that the air in my tires “looked a little low,” I always asked him to take care of it. Which means I don't own an air pressure gauge. In fact, I don't even know what one looks like. If it fits in a glove compartment, it can't be all that big. Nor so expensive as to require monthly payments. Maybe I should buy one, just to see.

When it began to get dark, I went to the kitchen, cracked open a can of beer, and began preparing dinner. In the oven, I broiled a piece of yellowtail that I'd marinated in sake lees, then sliced pickles, made a cucumber-and-seaweed salad with vinegar, and fixed some miso soup with radishes and deep-fried tofu. Then I sat down and ate my silent meal. There was no one there to talk to, and nothing in particular I could think of to talk about. Just when I was finishing my simple, solitary dinner, the front doorbell rang. There seemed to be a conspiracy afoot to interrupt me toward the end of every meal.

So this day hasn't ended after all, I thought. I had the premonition it would be a long Sunday. I got up from the table and walked slowly to the door.

35
YOU SHOULD HAVE JUST LEFT THAT PLACE ALONE

I walked slowly to the door. Who could possibly be ringing the bell? Had a car pulled up in front without my knowledge? The dining area was toward the rear of the house, but it was a quiet night, so I should have heard the crunch of gravel and the rumble of an engine. Even the vaunted “silent” hybrid engine of a Prius. Still, my ears had picked up nothing.

No one would climb such a long, steep slope on foot at night on a lark. The road was unlit, and deserted. My house had been plopped down on top of an isolated mountain, with no neighbors close by.

For a moment, I thought it might be the Commendatore. But that didn't make much sense. I mean, he could come and go whenever he wanted, so why ring the bell?

I unlocked and opened the door without bothering to check who it was. Mariye Akikawa was standing there. She was wearing the same clothes she had worn that afternoon, only now a thin navy-blue down jacket covered her windbreaker. Naturally, it got chillier once the sun was down. She had a Cleveland Indians cap on her head (why Cleveland?) and a large flashlight in her right hand.

“Can I come in?” she asked. There was no “Good evening,” no “Sorry for the surprise visit.”

“Sure,” I said. “Come on in.” That was it. My mental desk drawer wasn't closing properly yet. That ball of yarn was still jammed in there.

I showed her into the dining room.

“I'm still eating dinner. Mind if I finish?” I said.

She nodded silently. She was free of all the tiresome social graces—they meant nothing to her.

“Want some tea?” I asked.

She nodded again. She took off her down jacket, removed her cap, and straightened her hair. I set the kettle to boil, and put some green tea in a small teapot. I wanted a cup of tea myself.

With her elbows on the table, Mariye watched me polish off the broiled yellowtail, miso soup, and salad as if she had come across something very strange. She could have been sitting on a rock in the jungle, watching a python swallow a baby badger.

“I marinated the yellowtail myself,” I explained, breaking the silence. “It keeps a lot longer that way.”

She didn't respond. I couldn't tell if my words had reached her or not. “Immanuel Kant was a man of punctual habits,” I said. “So punctual that people set their clocks by when he passed on his strolls.”

Absolutely meaningless, of course. I just wanted to see how she'd react to something so totally random. If she was really listening or not. Again, no response. The silence around us only deepened further. Immanuel Kant continued strolling through the streets of Königsberg, leading his regulated and taciturn life. His last words were “This is good” (
Es ist gut
). Some people can live like that.

I finished dinner and carried the dishes to the sink. Then I made tea. I returned with the teapot and two cups. Mariye sat there at the table watching me throughout. She was eyeballing me intently—like a historian meticulously checking the footnotes of a text.

“You didn't come by car, did you?” I asked.

At last she opened her mouth. “I walked,” she said.

“All the way from your house, by yourself?”

“Uh-huh.”

I waited for her to go on. But she didn't. We sat there across from each other at the table for a while without speaking. I'm pretty good at long silences, though. No accident I'm holed up by myself on top of a mountain.

“There's a secret passageway,” Mariye said at last. “It's a long way by car, but not far if you take the passageway.”

“I've walked all over this area but I've never seen anything like that.”

“You don't know how to look,” she shot back. “You really have to pay attention to find it. It's well hidden.”

“You hid it, right?”

She nodded. “I've lived here since I was small. The whole mountain is my playground. I know every part of it.”

“So the passageway is really well concealed.”

She gave another firm nod.

“And you used it to come here.”

“Uh-huh.”

I sighed. “Have you had dinner?”

“I ate already.”

“What did you eat?”

“My aunt isn't a very good cook,” the girl said. Not a real answer to my question—it was clear she wanted to let the matter drop. Maybe she didn't want to recall what she'd eaten for dinner.

“Does your aunt know you came here by yourself?”

Mariye didn't reply. Her lips were set in a straight line. I chose to answer my own question.

“Of course she doesn't. What responsible adult would let a thirteen-year-old girl wander the mountains after dark? Right?”

There followed another period of silence.

“She's not aware of the passageway?”

Mariye shook her head several times. So her aunt didn't know.

“And you're the only one who knows about it?”

Mariye nodded several times.

“In any event,” I said, “given where you live, once you left the passageway you probably went through the woods and past an old shrine to get here. Right?”

Mariye nodded again. “I know that shrine. And I know that someone used a big machine to dig up the pile of rocks behind it.”

“Did you watch?”

Mariye shook her head. “I didn't see them digging. I was at school that day. But I saw the tracks. The ground was covered with them. Why did you do it?”

“I had reasons.”

“What kind of reasons?”

“If I tried to explain from the beginning it would take too long,” I said. So I didn't try. The last thing I wanted was for her to find out that Menshiki was involved.

“It was wrong to dig it up like that,” Mariye said, abruptly.

“Why do you say that?”

She gave what looked like a shrug. “You should have just left that place alone. Everyone else did.”

“Everyone else?”

“It's been there like forever, but no one touched it until now.”

The girl was right, I thought. Perhaps we shouldn't have touched it. Perhaps we should have behaved like “everyone else” had. It was too late to change that now, though. The stones had been moved, the pit exposed, the Commendatore set free.

“Were you the one who removed the lid?” I asked. “Let me guess: you looked inside, then you replaced the boards and the stones that held them down. Am I right?”

Mariye raised her head and looked me straight in the eye. As if to say: How did you know?

“The rocks on the lid had been rearranged. My visual memory is pretty good, always has been. I could see the difference right away.”

“Wow,” she murmured, impressed.

“But the hole was empty. Nothing but darkness and damp air, right?”

“A ladder was there too.”

“You didn't climb down it, did you?”

Mariye shook her head vigorously. As if to say: No way!

“And now,” I said, “you've come here at this time of night for a particular reason, haven't you? I mean, this isn't just a social visit, is it.”

“A social visit?”

“You know, an ‘I happened to be in the neighborhood so I thought I'd stop by' kind of thing.”

She thought for a moment before shaking her head. “No, it's not ‘a social visit.' ”

“Then what is it?” I asked. “I'm more than happy to have you visit me, but if your aunt or your father found out, it could lead to a bizarre misunderstanding.”

“What kind of misunderstanding?”

“There are all sorts of misunderstandings in this world,” I said. “Some go far beyond what you and I can imagine. In this case, it could make it impossible for me to paint your portrait. That would bother me a lot. Wouldn't it bother you?”

“My aunt won't find out,” she said emphatically. “I go to my room after dinner and she never follows me. It's like an agreement we have. I leave through my window and no one knows. No one's ever caught on.”

“So you've been walking the mountain at night for a long time?”

Mariye nodded.

“Isn't it scary all by yourself after dark?”

“Other things are a lot scarier.”

“Like what, for example?”

Mariye shrugged her shoulders slightly but said nothing.

“Your aunt may not be a problem, but how about your father?”

“He's not back yet.”

“Even though today's Sunday?”

Mariye didn't answer. I guessed she wanted to avoid talking about her father.

“Anyway, you don't have to worry,” she said. “No one knows when I leave the house. Even if they found out I'd never give your name.”

“All right then, I'll stop worrying,” I said. “But why did you come here tonight of all nights?”

“Because I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Like what?”

Mariye picked up her cup and took a sip of hot tea. She looked warily around the room as if to make sure no one would overhear. Of course nobody was there but the two of us. That is, unless the Commendatore had returned and was listening in. I looked around as well. But the Commendatore wasn't there. If he was, he hadn't assumed bodily form.

“Your friend who showed up this afternoon, the guy with the pretty white hair,” she said. “What was his name? It was kind of weird.”

“Menshiki.”

“That's right, Mr. Menshiki.”

“He's not really a friend. I met him just a short while ago.”

“Whatever.”

“So what is it about Mr. Menshiki?”

She narrowed her eyes and looked at me. “I think,” she said, lowering her voice, “that man is hiding something. In his heart.”

“What sort of thing?”

“I don't know. But I don't believe he showed up this afternoon by accident, like he said. I think he came for a very specific purpose.”

“What purpose is that?” I asked, a little shocked by how observant she was.

She fixed me with her gaze. “I'm not sure. Don't you know?”

“I have no idea,” I lied, praying that Mariye wouldn't see through my deception. I have never been a good liar. When I lie it's written on my face. But there was no way I could tell her the truth.

“For real?”

“For real,” I said. “I had no idea he would show up today.”

Mariye seemed to buy my story. Menshiki had not told me he would be coming, and his sudden visit had taken me by surprise. So I wasn't really lying after all.

“His eyes are weird,” Mariye said.

“Weird in what way?”

“It's like he's always
scheming
about something. Like the wolf in ‘Little Red Riding Hood.' When the wolf dresses up like the grandmother and lies in bed, you can tell it's him by his eyes.”

Like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood”?

“So you had an adverse reaction to Mr. Menshiki, right?”

“Adverse reaction?”

“A negative impression. A feeling he might harm you.”

“Adverse reaction,” she said. She seemed to be storing the phrase in her mental filing cabinet. Alongside “a bolt from the blue,” no doubt.

“It's not like that,” Mariye said. “I don't think he's planning anything bad. I just think Mr. Menshiki with the pretty white hair is hiding something.”

“And you sense it, right?”

Mariye nodded. “That's why I came to see you. I thought you might be able to tell me more about him.”

“Does your aunt feel the same way?” I asked, trying to deflect her question.

“No,” she answered, tilting her head to one side. “That's not what she's like. She seldom has an adverse reaction to people. And I think she's interested in him. He's a bit older, but he's handsome and well dressed and I guess very rich and living all by himself…”

“So you think she's taken to him?”

“I guess so. She really lit up when she talked to him. Her face, and her voice—it got higher. She wasn't like usual. I bet he felt the change too.”

I said nothing, just poured us both a fresh cup of tea. I took a sip.

Mariye seemed to be turning something over in her mind. “I wonder, how did he know we were going to be here today?” she asked. “Did you tell him?”

“I don't think Mr. Menshiki came planning to meet your aunt.” I chose my words with care, hoping to avoid another lie. “In fact, he tried to leave when he realized the two of you were here, but I talked him into staying. He
happened
to stop by when your aunt
happened
to be here, and when he saw her he got interested. Your aunt is a very attractive woman, you know.”

Mariye didn't look entirely convinced, but she didn't push the issue any further. She just sat there frowning, elbows on the table.

“In any case, the two of you are going to visit his home next Sunday,” I said.

Mariye nodded. “Yes, to see your portrait of him. My aunt seems to be really looking forward to it. To paying Mr. Menshiki a visit, I mean.”

“I don't blame her for getting excited,” I said. “After all, she's living in the mountains with no other people around. Not like in the city, where she'd have opportunities to meet all sorts of men.”

Mariye pressed her lips together for a moment.

“My aunt used to have a boyfriend,” she said, as if letting me in on a big secret. “A man she saw for a really long time. When she was a secretary in Tokyo. But a lot of things happened, and in the end they broke up. It hurt her a lot. Then my mother died, and she came to look after me. She didn't tell me any of this, of course.”

“I don't think she's seeing anyone now, is she?”

Mariye shook her head. “I don't think so.”

“So you're a little concerned that your aunt is interested in Mr. Menshiki, and that she may be experiencing the first stirrings of something. So you came to talk to me about it. Is that right?”

“Tell me, do you think he's trying to seduce her?”

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