Jan/Feb 2013  •   Fiction

Death, Disorder, Demura

by Alex Shishin

Professor Uno first learns about it from the local early morning news program: Mr. Hearne, a visiting lecturer in English at his university in Osaka, leaped from Ebisu Bridge and drowned in the Dotenburi Canal a few hours ago. Upon arriving at the university, Uno, the English Department head, meets Ms. Morton, the other visiting lecturer, in the main office. They discover they both have copies of a five-page printed letter from Mr. Hearne in their memo boxes. Ms. Morton breaks down. Uno retreats to his office and takes a draught from the Nikka whiskey bottle he keeps in his locker. Then he sits at his cluttered desk to read what Mr. Hearne wrote.

He reads with difficulty, slowed by his tears and Mr. Hearne's English. Reading, he passes his hand over the remaining wisps of hair on his head. Dandruff falls over the fresh tearstains on the printed page.

"I am killing myself because I am being fired by my university," Mr. Hearne begins. "I was unemployed a long time in the States before coming here, and I am not going to suffer that humiliation again. I am past 50 and lousy employment material."

Uno, who in his 69 years had never been unemployed, doesn't quite understand. He reads on.

"I came to Japan sincere about teaching and with an open mind. But I was humiliated and betrayed."

There has been a misunderstanding, Uno argues with Mr. Hearne's ghost. Hadn't he explained to Mr. Hearne that nearly everyone liked him and he shouldn't take being "rotated out" personally?

Uno had voted for not renewing Mr. Hearne's contract against his better judgment. Mr. Hearne was not a bad teacher. True, he was somewhat disorganized at first, but that was natural, and his students apparently liked him because of his jokes and stories. It was rather unfortunate, Uno thought, that Mr. Hearne was generally unkempt. His shaggy, long blond hair, bushy beard and the faded blue jeans—too tight for his big belly—did embarrass the university. But foreigners' habits were different and should be respected, Uno tried to say at the English department meeting (closed to Ms. Morton as well as Mr. Hearne).

He did not say it correctly; he could not made himself understood. Demura, who studied in America for one year long ago and boasted about his spoken English, deftly countered him, insisting Mr. Hearne was unqualified, that his students didn't respect him, and furthermore, he was often seen drunk on the Midosuji subway line.

"Demura bullied me about my teaching methodologies and personal habits since I started working at the university," Mr. Hearne's letter continued. "I know he wanted me out because he wants a foreign friend of his in Tokyo to take my place. I also know Demura's English stinks. He is a conversation zombie who is only capable of repeating memorized phrases."

How unlike Mr. Hearne, Uno thinks. Mr. Hearne who in his own awkward way seemed to have only good words for people; Mr. Hearne who brought little presents for all the English teachers after his business trip to Tokyo.

Uno remembers the first time he and Mr. Hearne lunched together at the sushiya-san across the street. They spoke little, which suited Uno, as he preferred silence to unnecessary chatter. When the sushi was served, Mr. Hearne folded his hands and said quietly, "Itadakimasu."

"Not many young Japanese are so polite," Uno ventured, and an unspoken friendship was established between the two shy and lonely men.

The students have been dismissed, and the gates have been locked to keep out any of the press who might still have an interest in Mr. Hearne's suicide. Uno has an emergency meeting with Professor Morita, the head of Faculty of Literature, and the president.

The president, who earlier gave a short and dignified statement to the media, holds his head in his hands after expressing his anguish. Professor Morita attempts to speak, but the words do not come. The president apologizes and insists the two men partake of the green tea and plum cake the secretary brought.

The emergency faculty meeting will convene at one. The English department meeting is set for eleven. Professor Uno is late but stops by his office.

He already has Mr. Hearne's letter. Looking at the clutter on his desk, he wonders what else to bring. He glances at the books, periodicals, old examinations, and the various loose papers jammed into every shelf and piled on the floor. He reflects that save for the bottle of whiskey, his office contains no personal effects, not even a photograph of his late wife. He picks up his English-Japanese dictionary from his desk.

All the English teachers are seated in the narrow conference room. Kato, 58, Demura, 58, Deguchi, 46 and Mastsumoto, 32, all have copies of Mr. Hearne's letter. All but Demura have brought their English-Japanese dictionaries. Demura sits with arms folded and wears what seems to Uno to be a smug expression—in contrast to the grief so plainly written on the others' faces. An open Japan Times rests before him on the conference table.

They have started the meeting without him.

"We were discussing how to write a condolence letter to Mr. Hearne's parents," Kato says to Uno as he sits down.

"Matsumoto and I have a rough draft," Deguchi says. "We fear our English might be improper."

"It's all a great pity," Uno sighs as Matsumoto passes him a fresh cup of green tea.

The door bursts open. It is Ms. Morton, who has not been invited to the meeting. Her eyes swim in red craters, and tears leak down her soft, puffy cheeks.

"Shame on all of you!" she exclaims in her too perfect standard Japanese. "You killed him! He loved this school, and you killed him!"

The teachers are silent. Uno looks into his teacup.

"Shame! Shame! Shame!" Ms. Morton cries. "Did you read his letter to the end? He sent copies to all the English language newspapers. The Japan Times, too, Demura-sensei."

"We know," Demura says, arms still folded.

"This school, this department will never live this down. You'll have to resign in shame! One of you—one of you—should do just that!" She leaves and slams the door. The thumps of her boots echo in the hallway.

"How idiotic," Demura says.

No one answers him. Uno remembers the president's words: "Our reputation is ruined. Who can save us now?"

"We should never have hired her," Demura says. "Just because she has a Tokyo University M.A. doesn't make her qualified to teach English at our university."

"Your M.A. is only from Tokyo Metropolitan," Kato says.

Kato and Demura are rivals, but this is the first time either has openly shown hostility to the other.

"At least I speak English fluently!" Demura shoots back.

"Conversation zombie," Mr. Hearne called him. "Peacock" seems more fitting, Uno thinks. Yet, he has to admit, Demura's English grammar is good, quite good.

"Mr. Hearne was an unqualified foreigner," Demura says. "Are we supposed to feel guilty because we followed established procedure in rotating out a foreigner we no longer wanted? Yes, I'm sorry he died, and I'm sorry he had bad feelings about our decision and about me. But that foreigner was crazy. No one will care about him for long."

"You are quite heartless," Kato says in his labored Oxford English.

"Mr. Hearne was incompetent. We had to rotate him out, like him or not," Demura says.

"You talked us into it," Deguchi says, baring his hatred for Demura for the first time. "Our shame is your fault!"

"And you had personal motives, we now see," Kato says.

"I agree," pipes the normally quiet Matsumoto.

"You are only jealous me!" Demura says. "All I've done has been for the good of the department. I said in the beginning we'd have troubles hiring a foreigner from abroad sight unseen, as you well know. Only I tried to give Mr. Hearne any guidance. See how my sincere efforts are rewarded! All this is idiotic. I accept no responsibility."

Uno has never been as angry as he is at this moment.

"Excuse me. Toilet," Uno says quietly and stands.

"I've had my say," Demura says and disappears behind his Japan Times as Uno goes out.

Walking down the corridor, Uno lets his anger subside. Demura has his burdens, he reflects, with a religiously fanatic wife, following the guru of some strange sect, and sons and daughters who loaf in pachinko parlors or run about with hot rodders. Uno's only consolation for being childless.

In the men's room, Uno, who has bladder problems, urinates painfully into the encrusted urinal from which little black flies rise. He recalls Ms. Morton's complaint about the university's toilets: "Foul enough to make a maggot gag."

Ms. Morton lambasted him and his colleagues after the English department announced Mr. Hearne's contract would not be renewed, and she would also be "rotated out" eventually. Yet the only thing she ever said that hurt him personally was a passing remark at the department's end of the year party about the university being dirty and run down. Dirt and drabness are signs of real work taking place, Uno wanted to tell her. Beautiful universities are nothing more than elaborate playpens. The university was "rundown" before he joined it and slipped comfortably into its gray, mumbling world.

What if Mr. Hearne's death brings down the university? He knows no other life.

From the half-opened window, Uno can see the private boys' high school, barely distinguishable from the concrete apartment buildings pressing around it. The boys are a bad lot who often shout insults at passers-by. A year ago, Ms. Morton, with Mr. Hearne in tow, went to the school's principal to complain about the racist remarks the boys had hurled at them. The principal, a proud and ignorant man, complained to the university. It was Uno who was sent to the high school with a box of sweets to make peace, though he himself thought Ms. Morton and Mr. Hearne were in the right.

I have compromised too much in my life, Uno thinks as he washes his hands. Poor Mr. Hearne!

Returning, Uno imagines Mr. Hearne falling, falling into the polluted darkness of Dotenburi Canal, and the terror and the thrill of it makes him giddy.

Uno pauses outside the conference room to catch his breath and dab at fresh tears with his sleeve.

All his colleagues, except Demura, look down when Uno enters.

Demura says, "We've been talking. This whole business with Mr. Hearne will be forgotten in a few days. But if it is not, could you take responsibility for us and resign?"

Uno is too shocked to speak.

Demura says, "We all have families and responsibilities, sensei. You are free of all that. And you are of retirement age. I am sure it won't ever come to that, but if it does, can we have your cooperation?"

"I understand," Uno sighs. "No."

He heads for to his office. His hand conceals a smile.