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Unformatted text preview: Book One: The Thieving Magpie
June and July 1984 1
Tuesdays Wind-Up Bird
* Six Fingers and Four Breasts When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potrul of
spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossinis The Thieving Magpie,
which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio
Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It
could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room,
and picked up the receiver.
Ten minutes, please, said a woman on the other end.
Im good at recognizing peoples voices, but this was not one I knew.
Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?
To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. Thats all we need to understand each other. Her voice
was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.
Understand each other?
Each others feelings.
I leaned over and peeked through the kitchen door. The spaghetti pot was steaming nicely, and
Claudio Abbado was still conducting The Thieving Magpie.
Sorry, but you caught me in the middle of making spaghetti. Can I ask you to call back later?
Spaghetti!? What are you doing cooking spaghetti at ten-thirty in the morning?
Thats none of your business, I said. I decide what I eat and when I eat it.
True enough. Ill call back, she said, her voice now flat and expressionless. A little change in
mood can do amazing things to the tone of a persons voice.
Hold on a minute, I said before she could hang up. If this is some new sales gimmick, you can
forget it. Im out of work. Im not in the market for anything.
Dont worry. I know.
You know? You know what?
That youre out of work. I know about that. So go cook your precious spaghetti. Who the hell- She
cut the connection. With no outlet for my feelings, I stared at the phone in my hand until I remembered
the spaghetti. Back in the kitchen, I turned off the gas and poured the contents of the pot into a
colander. Thanks to the phone call, the spaghetti was a little softer than al dente, but it had not been
dealt a mortal blow. I started eating-and thinking.
Understand each other? Understand each others feelings in ten minutes? What was she talking
about? Maybe it was just a prank call. Or some new sales pitch. In any case, it had nothing to do with
After lunch, I went back to my library novel on the living room sofa, glancing every now and then
at the telephone. What were we supposed to understand about each other in ten minutes? What can
two people understand about each other in ten minutes? Come to think of it, she seemed awfully sure
about those ten minutes: it was the first thing out of her mouth. As if nine minutes would be too short
or eleven minutes too long. Like cooking spaghetti al dente.
I couldnt read anymore. I decided to iron shirts instead. Which is what I always do when Im
upset. Its an old habit. I divide the job into twelve precise stages, beginning with the collar (outer
surface) and ending with the left-hand cuff. The order is always the same, and I count off each stage to
myself. Otherwise, it wont come out right. I ironed three shirts, checking them over for wrinkles and putting them on hangers. Once I had
switched off the iron and put it away with the ironing board in the hall closet, my mind felt a good
I was on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water when the phone rang again. I hesitated for a
second but decided to answer it. If it was the same woman, Id tell her I was ironing and hang up.
This time it was Kumiko. The wall clock said eleven-thirty. How are you? she asked. Fine, I said,
relieved to hear my wifes voice. What are you doing? Just finished ironing.
Whats wrong? There was a note of tension in her voice. She knew what it meant for me to be
Nothing. I was just ironing some shirts. I sat down and shifted the receiver from my left hand to
my right. Whats up?
Can you write poetry? she asked. Poetry!? Poetry? Did she mean ... poetry? I know the publisher
of a story magazine for girls. Theyre looking for somebody to pick and revise poems submitted by
readers. And they want the person to write a short poem every month for the frontispiece. Pays not
bad for an easy job. Of course, its part-time. But they might add some editorial work if the personEasy work? I broke in. Hey, wait a minute. Im looking for something in law, not poetry.
I thought you did some writing in high school.
Yeah, sure, for the school newspaper: which team won the soccer championship or how the
physics teacher fell down the stairs and ended up in the hospital-that kind of stuff. Not poetry. I cant
Sure, but Im not talking about great poetry, just something for high school girls. It doesnt have to
find a place in literary history. You could do it with your eyes closed. Dont you see?
Look, I just cant write poetry-eyes open or closed. Ive never done it, and Im not going to start
All right, said Kumiko, with a hint of regret. But its hard to find legal work.
I know. Thats why Ive got so many feelers out. I should be hearing something this week. If its no
go, Ill think about doing something else.
Well, I suppose thats that. By the way, whats today? What day of the week? I thought a moment
and said, Tuesday. Then will you go to the bank and pay the gas and telephone? Sure. I was just about
to go shopping for dinner anyway.
What are you planning to make? I dont know yet. Ill decide when Im shopping. She paused. Come
to think of it, she said, with a new seriousness, theres no great hurry about your finding a job. This
took me off guard. Whys that? I asked. Had the women of the world chosen today to surprise me on
the telephone? My unemployments going to run out sooner or later. I cant keep hanging around
True, but with my raise and occasional side jobs and our savings, we can get by OK if were
careful. Theres no real emergency. Do you hate staying at home like this and doing housework? I
mean, is this life so wrong for you?
I dont know, I answered honestly. I really didnt know.
Well, take your time and give it some thought, she said. Anyhow, has the cat come back?
The cat. I hadnt thought about the cat all morning. No, I said. Not yet. Can you please have a look
around the neighborhood? Its been gone over a week now. I gave a noncommittal grunt and shifted the
receiver back to my left hand. She went on: Im almost certain its hanging around the empty house at
the other end of the alley. The one with the bird statue in the yard. Ive seen it in there several times.
The alley? Since when have you been going to the alley? Youve never said anything- Oops! Got to run. Lots of work to do. Dont forget about the cat. She hung up. I found myself staring at the receiver
again. Then I set it down in its cradle. I wondered what had brought Kumiko to the alley. To get there
from our house, you had to climb over the cinder-block wall. And once youd made the effort, there
was no point in being there.
I went to the kitchen for a glass of water, then out to the veranda to look at the cats dish. The
mound of sardines was untouched from last night. No, the cat had not come back. I stood there looking
at our small garden, with the early-summer sunshine streaming into it. Not that ours was the kind of
garden that gives you spiritual solace to look at. The sun managed to find its way in there for the
smallest fraction of each day, so the earth was always black and moist, and all we had by way of
garden plants were a few drab hydrangeas in one corner-and I dont like hydrangeas. There was a
small stand of trees nearby, and from it you could hear the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if
it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name. We didnt know
what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didnt bother the wind-up bird. Every day it
would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.
So now I had to go cat hunting. I had always liked cats. And I liked this particular cat. But cats
have their own way of living. Theyre not stupid. If a cat stopped living where you happened to be,
that meant it had decided to go somewhere else. If it got tired and hungry, it would come back.
Finally, though, to keep Kumiko happy, I would have to go looking for our cat. I had nothing better to
I had quit my job at the beginning of April- the law job I had had since graduation. Not that I had
quit for any special reason. I didnt dislike the work. It wasnt thrilling, but the pay was all right and the
office atmosphere was friendly.
My role at the firm was-not to put too fine a point on it-that of professional gofer. And I was good
at it. I might say I have a real talent for the execution of such practical duties. Im a quick study,
efficient, I never complain, and Im realistic. Which is why, when I said I wanted to quit, the senior
partner (the father in this father-and-son law firm) went so far as to offer me a small raise.
But I quit just the same. Not that quitting would help me realize any particular hopes or prospects.
The last thing I wanted to do, for example, was shut myself up in the house and study for the bar exam.
I was surer than ever that I didnt want to become a lawyer. I knew, too, that I didnt want to stay where
I was and continue with the job I had. If I was going to quit, now was the time to do it. If I stayed with
the firm any longer, Id be there for the rest of my life. I was thirty years old, after all.
I had told Kumiko at the dinner table that I was thinking of quitting my job. Her only response had
been, I see. I didnt know what she meant by that, but for a while she said nothing more.
I kept silent too, until she added, If you want to quit, you should quit. Its your life, and you should
live it the way you want to. Having said this much, she then became involved in picking out fish bones
with her chopsticks and moving them to the edge of her plate.
Kumiko earned pretty good pay as editor of a health food magazine, and she would occasionally
take on illustration assignments from editor friends at other magazines to earn substantial additional
income. (She had studied design in college and had hoped to be a freelance illustrator.) In addition, if
I quit I would have my own income for a while from un- employment insurance. Which meant that
even if I stayed home and took care of the house, we would still have enough for extras such as eating
out and paying the cleaning bill, and our lifestyle would hardly change. And so I had quit my job.
I was loading groceries into the refrigerator when the phone rang. The ringing seemed to have an
impatient edge to it this time. I had just ripped open a plastic pack of tofu, which I set down carefully
on the kitchen table to keep the water from spilling out. I went to the living room and picked up the phone.
You must have finished your spaghetti by now, said the woman. Youre right. But now I have to go
look for the cat. That can wait for ten minutes, Im sure. Its not like cooking spaghetti. For some
reason, I couldnt just hang up on her. There was something about her voice that commanded my
attention. OK, but no more than ten minutes. Now well be able to understand each other, she said with
quiet certainty. I sensed her settling comfortably into a chair and crossing her legs. I wonder, I said.
What can you understand in ten minutes? Ten minutes may be longer than you think, she said. Are you
sure you know me? Of course I do. Weve met hundreds of times. Where? When? Somewhere,
sometime, she said. But if I went into that, ten minutes would never be enough. Whats important is the
time we have now. The present. Dont you agree? Maybe. But Id like some proof that you know me.
What kind of proof? My age, say?
Thirty, she answered instantaneously. Thirty and two months. Good enough?
That shut me up. She obviously did know me, but I had absolutely no memory of her voice.
Now its your turn, she said, her voice seductive. Try picturing me. From my voice. Imagine what
Im like. My age. Where I am. How Im dressed. Go ahead.
I have no idea, I said. Oh, come on, she said. Try. I looked at my watch. Only a minute and five
seconds had gone by. I have no idea, I said again. Then let me help you, she said. Im in bed. I just got
out of the shower, and Im not wearing a thing. Oh, great. Telephone sex. Or would you prefer me with
something on? Something lacy. Or stockings. Would that work better for you? I dont give a damn. Do
what you like, I said. Put something on if you want to. Stay naked if you want to. Sorry, but Im not
interested in telephone games like this. Ive got a lot of things I have to- Ten minutes, she said. Ten
minutes wont kill you. It wont put a hole in your life. Just answer my question. Do you want me naked
or with something on? Ive got all kinds of things I could put on. Black lace panties...
Naked is fine. Well, good. You want me naked. Yes. Naked. Good. Four minutes. My pubic hair
is still wet, she said. I didnt dry myself very well. Oh, Im so wet!
Warm and moist. And soft. Wonderfully soft and black. Touch me. Look, Im sorry, but- And down
below too. All the way down. Its so warm down there, like butter cream. So warm. Mmm. And my
legs. What position do you think my legs are in? My right knee is up, and my left leg is open just
enough. Say, ten-oh-five on the clock.
I could tell from her voice that she was not faking it. She really did have her legs open to ten-ohfive, her sex warm and moist.
Touch the lips, she said. Slooowly. Now open them. Thats it. Slowly, slowly. Let your fingers
caress them. Oh so slowly. Now, with your other hand, touch my left breast. Play with it. Caress it.
Upward. And give the nipple a little squeeze. Do it again. And again. And again. Until Im just about
Without a word, I put the receiver down. Stretching out on the sofa, I stared at the clock and
released a long, deep sigh. I had spoken with her for close to six minutes.
The phone rang again ten minutes later, but I left it on the hook. It rang fifteen times. And when it
stopped, a deep, cold silence descended upon the room.
Just before two, I climbed over the cinder-block wall and down into the alley-or what we called
the alley. It was not an alley in the proper sense of the word, but then, there was probably no word for
what it was. It wasnt a road or a path or even a way. Properly speaking, a way should be a pathway
or channel with an entrance and an exit, which takes you somewhere if you follow it. But our alley
had neither entrance nor exit. You couldnt call it a cul-de-sac, either: a cul-de-sac has at least one
open end. The alley had not one dead end but two. The people of the neighborhood called it the alley strictly as an expedient. It was some two hundred yards in length and threaded its way between the
back gardens of the houses that lined either side. Barely over three feet in width, it had several spots
at which you had to edge through sideways because of fences sticking out into the path or things that
people had left in the way.
About this alley, the story was-the story I heard from my uncle, who rented us our house for next
to nothing-that it used to have both an entrance and an exit and actually served the purpose of
providing a shortcut between two streets. But with the rapid economic growth of the mid-fifties, rows
of new houses came to fill the empty lots on either side of the road, squeezing it down until it was
little more than a narrow path. People didnt like strangers passing so close to their houses and yards,
so before long, one end of the path was blocked off-or, rather, screened off-with an unassertive fence.
Then one local citizen decided to enlarge his yard and completely sealed off his end of the alley with
a cinder-block wall. As if in response, a barbed-wire barrier went up at the other end, preventing
even dogs from getting through. None of the neighbors complained, because none of them used the
alley as a passageway, and they were just as happy to have this extra protection against crime. As a
re- sult, the alley remained like some kind of abandoned canal, unused, serving as little more than a
buffer zone between two rows of houses. Spiders spread their sticky webs in the overgrowth.
Why had Kumiko been frequenting such a place? I myself had walked down that alley no more
than twice, and Kumiko was afraid of spiders at the best of times. Oh, what the hell- if Kumiko said I
should go to the alley and look for the cat, Id go to the alley and look for the cat. What came later I
could think about later. Walking outside like this was far better than sitting in the house waiting for
the phone to ring.
The sharp sunshine of early summer dappled the surface of the alley with the hard shadows of the
branches that stretched overhead. Without wind to move the branches, the shadows looked like
permanent stains, destined to remain imprinted on the pavement forever. No sounds of any kind
seemed to penetrate this place. I could almost hear the blades of grass breathing in the sunlight. A few
small clouds floated in the sky, their shapes clear and precise, like the clouds in medieval engravings.
I saw everything with such terrific clarity that my own body felt vague and boundless and flowing ...
I wore a T-shirt, thin cotton pants, and tennis shoes, but walking in the summer sun, I could feel a
light film of sweat forming under my arms and in the hollow of my chest. The T- shirt and pants had
been packed away in a box crammed with summer clothing until I pulled them out that morning, the
sharp smell of mothballs penetrating my nostrils.
The houses that lined the alley fell into two distinct categories: older houses and those built more
recently. As a group, the newer ones were smaller, with smaller yards to match. Their clothes-drying
poles often protruded into the alley, making it necessary for me to thread my way through the
occasional screen of towels and sheets and undershirts. Over some back walls came the clear sound
of television sets and flushing toilets, and the smell of curry cooking.
The older houses, by contrast, gave hardly any sense of life. These were screened off by wellplaced shrubs and hedges, between which I caught glimpses of manicured gardens.
An old, brown, withered Christmas tree stood in the corner of one garden. Another had become
the dumping ground for every toy known to man, the apparent leavings of several childhoods. There
were tricycles and toss rings and plastic swords and rubber balls and tortoise dolls and little
baseball bats. One garden had a basketball hoop, and another had fine lawn chairs surrounding a
ceramic table. The white chairs were caked in dirt, as if they had not been used for some months or
even years. The table-top was coated with lavender magnolia petals, beaten down by the rain. I had a clear view of one living room through an aluminum storm door. It had a matching leather
sofa and chairs, a large TV, a sideboard (atop which sat a tropical-fish tank and two trophies of some
kind), and a decorative floor lamp. The room looked like the set of a TV drama. A huge doghouse
occupied a large part of another garden, but there was no sign of the dog itself, and the houses door
stood open. The screen of the doghouse door bulged outward, as if someone had been leaning against
it for months at a time.
The vacant house that Kumiko had told me about lay just beyond the place with the huge
doghouse. One glance was all I needed to see that it was empty-and had been for some time. It was a
fairly new two-story house, yet its wooden storm shutters showed signs of severe aging, and the
railings outside the second-story windows were caked with rust. The house had a cozy little garden,
in which, to be sure, a stone statue of a bird stood. The statue rested on a base that came to chest
height and ...
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- Fall '19