Jun looked at Sayako and pointed into the dining room at the customer who had come to murder him. Sayako carried over a glass of cold water and placed it in front of him.
“Welcome to Michi Soba Restaurant!” she said in the spirited up tone that she used with customers, and presented him a menu. Sure, the man looked a bit rough, but more like a construction worker than a murderer.
This is what she was paid to do. Serve glasses of water to customers that walk in and take their food to them when it was ready. Two years out of high school, and she was keeping her eyes open for opportunities.
Jun went back to cutting the handmade soba noodles, gripping a knife tightly while peering suspiciously every few seconds at the man wearing a black mask and a baseball cap who was now studying the menu.
Sayako needed to snap him out of it.
"Boss. If the earth keeps getting hotter and hotter," she said, wiping sweat from her forehead, “why are we even bothering doing all of this? Can I go home now?”
It was sweltering. The air conditioner wasn’t keeping up with the 40C heat that poured in every time the door opened. And proposing not working always got Jun going.
Jun stopped what he was doing and proclaimed, “In 5 billion years the earth is going to fall into the sun and all of eternity will be destroyed, but it's still better these people eat today, isn’t it?”
“But I'm tired of serving water all day in this heat. Where is the line? In 4.9 billion years, can I stop working then?”
Jun ignored her and went back to cutting noodles, but at least he wasn’t staring at the customer any longer.
Music might help lighten the oppressive mood. Sayako turned on the sound system. She couldn’t understand the English lyrics, but they sounded cheerful and sad at the same time. ‘Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl’ began to play.
She decided today's game would be to give every 10th customer the wrong dish. She was up to number 7.
Jun’s mother came in the door. Number 8.
“It’s hot today,” she announced to everyone loudly, “where is the line?” She laughed and sat down at her usual chair. Jun’s mother was loud. She sometimes rattled the customers.
She whispered to Sayako, holding her hand over her mouth, “What’s he up to with his hobby today?”
“He bought a new one,” Sayako said, ”over there,” and pointed at the top corner of the front window.
There was a new surveillance camera. He probably installed it at 5am today, so the other shops wouldn’t see it.
Sayako shook her head, and said, “He left the gas on again last night. He’s more likely to murder himself.”
“It never ends,” Jun’s mother said, “he needs to find a girlfriend soon,” winking at Sayako.
Maybe she was right, when she arrived at the restaurant that morning it looked like Jun was there for hours already.
It had now been 11 years since the 3-11 earthquake. That was the year Jun, in a drunken argument, cracked the skull of a biker in the motorcycle gang he was in. Jun said after being locked up for two weeks, the police released him with no explanation. Maybe the Japanese police don’t care if gang members did each other in.
A friend told him the dead biker’s father was a neighborhood crime boss in Yokohama, and put out a hit on him. “Tanabe won’t come after you himself, he will hire someone. Watch your back,” he said and looked concerned. “You never know who it will be, probably someone who owes them money and doesn’t have any way out.”
For the next 10 years, Jun kept a low profile, working for seaside resort restaurants outside Tokyo. But he returned last year and opened Michi Soba in the center of the city to be closer to his mother.
“Mom?” Jun said, “you must be proud your son has a soba restaurant in Harajuku. Buckwheat noodles are the heart of Japanese tradition. Emperors and shoguns ate soba long before sushi and ramen even existed. This restaurant only uses 100% pure Nagano buckwheat flour, milled to 45% of its original size, and ground on millstones from Kyoto…”
Two teen girls came into the restaurant and sat next to Jun's potential murderer. They looked at the menu and shouted out, “2 orders Kitsune Soba!”
Sayako yelled out, “Thank you for your order!” and rushed to their counter with two glasses of cold water. One of the girls brought out 2 plastic bottles of Evian mineral water and refused Sayako’s offering.
When Sayako came back behind the counter, Jun looked at her and said, “This is why the world is getting hotter and hotter. People are drinking out of plastic bottles of water that have flown around the world, cargo flights are burning jet fuel when they could have our locally produced water here in… “
Sayako hammered a cleaver down and sliced through a thick bunch of green onions. She diced them with thunderous blows. Jun’s face twitched as if he wanted to complain about something but was holding himself back.
Sayako moved on to cutting the other vegetables.
“I’ll murder you!” she shouted at a pumpkin as if she wished to verbally subdue it, before bringing the blade down and cutting it into thin slices for tempura. Thankfully, Jun stopped talking and went back to massaging soba flour dough.
Sayako slipped and the knife nicked her thumb. Blood trickled out.
She held up her bleeding finger to Jun. He looked as if he was going to pass out, but held himself together and went to the first aid kit, bringing back antiseptic and a bandage to put on her finger.
She laughed, and said, “You will remember this moment with fondness. Taking care of an injured woman!”
In their commotion, they forgot to keep an eye on the man Jun thought was the potential murderer, customer number 7. Sayako watched him while Jun put on the bandage,
“Look, he’s not eating,” Sayako said, “the food is getting cold right in front of him.”
The man wearing the baseball cap was putting his hand into his bag and checking something. He fidgeted in his chair nervously.
“Sayako, it must be him!” Jun said.
She could see Jun’s mind racing again. Jun had told her of his escape plan. In the back room, there was a tatami mat he could pick up, slide out underneath the floor boards and run out the back alley. Jun’s eyes looked at her, perhaps realizing he would be leaving her behind with the murderer. They stared at each other awkwardly.
“Boss, if you’re not going to man up,” Sayako said, “how about I go over and check what’s in his bag?”
“I’ll do it,” Jun said, and before she could stop him, he ran over and lunged at the man’s bag to take it away from him.
Instinct is deeply rooted in the human psyche. The man must have felt Jun moving in behind him, and he tightened his grip on the bag. He held on as Jun pulled the bag and then pulled him over, which caused the table to topple, sending the soba noodles, condiments, and dozens of pairs of chopsticks rattling across the floor in a tremendous clamor.
Jun tore the bag away from the man, and looked inside.
“That’s my comfort animal!” the man exclaimed.
Jun pulled out a Shiba Puppy plush toy. He stared at it, not knowing what to say. And then bowed deeply to the man.
“Very sorry for the confusion. Michi Restaurant will give you a free soba lunch,” he said, while continuing to bow.
“I don't want your food!” the man said, and burst into tears and ran out.
A shocked silence fell over the restaurant.
One of the teen girls shouted, "My order is wrong!"
Then the Sapporo beer calendar fell off the wall.
“It never ends!” Jun’s mother yelled out, and laughed while slapping the table.
When the restaurant closed at 6pm, Jun left and on the way home stopped by the temple just behind, rang the bell and threw a coin into the donation tray. He apologized to the gods for upsetting the customer, and then threw in another coin and asked the heavens to allow him to live another day.
Sayako left in the other direction. Serving glasses of water was dull but she thought about what an eventful day it had been. Down the street, her boyfriend would be waiting, he had a few hours free before his night shift job started. She would enjoy giving him a full update.
No one knew yet, but Sayako had found out a week ago that the gangster that Jun was worried about, had already been arrested. Each day she kept thinking she would let him know, but she had to admit she enjoyed the daily fun and games at Michi Soba restaurant. She would wait a little bit longer perhaps. And after all, the event Jun worried about all those years ago had only been an accident, which is why the police let him go. She wiped her forehead, it was still hot now, even after dark on the streets of Harajuku.