Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus. But he died for our sins.
“Thank you Amazon Japan,” said Edward to his iPad. He’d purchased a foot stool—bland, functional, cheap—without visiting a store. Thank you was just words. Edward felt no gratitude.
Stores were the biggest rip-off, especially department stores. But Edward tolerated their prepared-food kiosks, usually found at B1 or B2, where sales started at seven thirty. Tomorrow, if he timed his office departure just so, by nine o’clock he’d be eating an acceptable meal, his feet up on his new stool, watching Amazon Prime Video.
“I am an Amazonian tribesman,” said Edward to his iPad. He’d been reading about the discovery, by a drone, of a tribe in Brazil that lacked contact with the outside world. “It’s a good analogy for people like me.” He was now speaking to Jonathan, his only friend, using his cell phone for a voice call—the way God intended cell phones to be used, thought Edward, an atheist. “People like me,” said Edward, “who don’t use Social Media.”
Edward’s mind always capitalized Social Media, though not in the good way. “Don’t use it, don’t like it, never will.” He was back talking to his iPad. “For I am a Social Conservative,” this time mentally capitalizing in the good way.
Yet his social conservatism wasn’t what it used to be. Thus, when the elevator stopped at the eleventh floor of Kagata Shokai’s head office, where he worked in Overseas Accounts Division No. 3, Edward no longer let women disembark first. That had confused the Japanese passengers. In truth, all the brittle fragments of his former chivalry had dissipated as dry mist into the Japanese troposphere through a process his childhood encyclopedia termed “sublimation.” The relevant entry carried a photograph of dry ice.
Another example: Following repeated crashes into modernity, Edward had dulled into a cold calmness with the new categories of sexuality. He no longer cared whether he fit in anywhere. Yet each time he saw the initials LGBT, he thought about the BLT sandwiches, “extra bacon, to go,” that his dad—who, though slimly built and not quite five foot eight, had seemed a Gary Cooper of a man—would order en route to their spot for fly fishing. But both his parents were dead and gone.
The next day, Edward did leave work on schedule. He acquired a deluxe pork cutlet o-bento for only six-hundred eighty-five yen. “Goddamn rip-off,” he muttered to the clerk.
When he ate it, it tasted okay. But it disrespected tradition. “No miso soup,” he said to nobody and nothing.
Edward knew how to make instant miso soup. But even that requires effort. And effort, like the use of post–microwave oven technology, was to be balanced against the possible meager improvements in life’s material rewards. “That is my goddamn prerogative,” he said to his iPad, “and I’m free to do as I like.” His freedom derived from living alone, from living in a Tokyo that tolerated eccentricity among foreigners, and, especially, from having long passed the age of fifty and no longer giving a shit about anything.
Even so, these choices were a burden. During Edward’s morning train ride he’d see other passengers silently play games on their cell phones, presumably to avoid thinking about what awaited them at their jobs. A smart guy like me could figure out how to download a game. But he didn’t.
Calculations were somewhat easier when money could be saved. Edward tapped on his iPad to order 144 yellow toothbrushes at 111.5 yen per toothbrush.
As to his shunning of tweets, Facebook, Instagram, blogs etc., this stemmed as much from Edward’s inability to understand the point as his desire to not understand. “I don’t get it; I don’t want to.”
“Hmmm,” said Jonathan. He was a well-mannered, bespectacled, smooth-headed African American of rather indiscernible age, who many years earlier had read straight through the Encyclopedia Britannica. His eyebrows spiked upward. Jonathan was an exceedingly large person and always full of cheer. He had many friends. Edward only had Jonathan.
And the iPad.
“I’m not a bad guy, you know. Whatever others may say.” He was referring to his siblings, who all still lived in northwestern Pennsylvania. Those siblings, in fact, rarely said anything about Edward.
The iPad expressed no opinion.
“Given my disavowal of technology, it’s ironic that I speak to you more than to human beings. I appreciate this irony because I am self-aware.”
To Jonathan, with whom he now sat at Starbucks, Edward said only, “It is ironic.” He was sipping a short iced maccha frappuccino. Since it was late October, two ceiling-mounted speakers heaved out some dregs of 1950s Yuletide pop. Jonathan smiled a big smile. “In spite of this cacophonic assault”—musical taste being a point at which the friends connected—“I love Christmas.”
He then expressed thanks, to no one in particular, that the Japanese customers were suffering less. For they, not understanding English, did not know these were Christmas songs. Their punishment was only musical, not cultural.
They knew only Japanese Christmas music, which, aside from a few old carols, came in two varieties. The first—always irritating to Edward—was modern American fare translated so insubstantially that, when retranslated back, it returned as a skeletal ghost of the original. The opening lines of Edward’s childhood favourite thus became: “Re-e-e-e-ed no-ose / Rei-ei-ei-ei-ei-eindeer.” This he now sang out sneeringly. He could, however, appreciate the J-Pop offerings, which inevitably concerned the failure of romance. For in Japan, Christmas Eve was when you absolutely must have a date, which, all going well, would end in a love hotel. But things did not go well. Edward’s new favourite had an English title, “Every Sad My Christmas Eve.” Christmas Day, in contrast, was not for lovers, nor for friends, nor for family, nor for religion, nor even a holiday. It was nothing at all.
But as Pat Boone crooned out archaic insipidities, Edward drifted back to another time. He remembered variety specials on a 19-inch black-and-white tv lodged in the family room of an old three-story house in a tucked-away town. That device had never at any time picked up more than two grainy channels. But it served its young masters well as they sat squeezed onto a dark blue sofa, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows. Edward used the tin cup from his oldest brother’s Cub Scout mess kit.
He wanted a warm drink. He rose toward the Starbucks counter, offering to buy a venti-size cocoa for his large friend.
“No thanks,” said Jonathan. “I am dieting. When I get home in December I’ll be gorging myself silly.” Edward shuddered, suddenly cognizant of his close brush with superfluous expenditure. What was I thinking?
Back now, holding one cocoa only—“goddamn rip-off”—he found Jonathan humming away at Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Jonathan smiled; Edward scowled. Those other reindeer never felt love for Rudolph. They were hypocrites. They’d have kept laughing and calling him names, but stopped just to get on Santa’s good side. Maybe they were a sub-species of reindeer that enjoyed sucking up to authority. More likely, they’d sought some specific material advantage. And what did Santa do? Nothing. He was too busy making sure the best toys went to the biggest hypocrites. Like kids who were mean to their little brother all year except Christmas, when they worried about not getting presents. It’s just as well there’s no Santa Claus, thought Edward, a truth he’d learned at the tender age of five.
The store windows, too, blared out Christmas. Yet again he’d be compelled to arrange punctual dispatch of gifts—via Amazon USA—for each niece or nephew still under twenty-one, the agreed cut-off age. Just a few more years of unfairness left, thought Edward, who was childless. Christmas. A goddamn rip-off. And what’s it got to do with Japan? All these years here, and no evidence of Christmas spirit. Nor of Santa Claus. Not even a lump of coal. Edward recalled the apocryphal tale of a Ginza department store window displaying a smiling, big fat life-sized Santa nailed to a cross. Edward chuckled. A good story. It might be true.
At home he activated his iPad. A deep voice boomed out. “Merrrrrry Christmas, Edward.”
“What the … ”
“Edward, have you been a good boy all year?”
“None of your goddamn business.” He had not been good. Neither that year nor any other. Not that he could recall.
His cell phone rang. “How do you like Xmasochate, the app I downloaded?” asked Jonathan. “And you should be more careful about hiding your password.”
“Very droll. How do I get rid of it?”
“Ho ho ho,” replied Jonathan, in a voice deeper than even the iPad’s, before hanging up.
Edward sat on a mismatched orange vinyl chair, his feet flat on the carpetless floor, his bony fingers clutching his iPad. His head bent forward, causing his stringy grey hair to hang in front of his eyes. He didn’t know whether a downloaded application could be dis-installed. He was afraid to check his email. “You stupid machine.”
Still, he’d stick with that iPad. A new one would be a goddamn rip-off.
He checked out the shows on Amazon Prime Video. This was, outside work, his principal manner of engagement with Japanese society.
“Here’s a nice one,” said the iPad. It was billed as “heartwarming” and featured three generations of a family living under one roof. What a load of crap. No plot. No Action.
“Now I can’t rely even on you.”
“Cheer up, Edward,” replied the iPad. “It’s the season for good cheer.”
This goddamn app must go. Meanwhile, there was no point getting mad at Jonathan. Yes, he enjoyed a bit of mischief now and then, but his existence made Edward less lonely. And, objectively speaking, Jonathan was a good person. His career at Peace Initiative International had taken him around the world. He spoke many languages, and had occasionally stared down some seriously bad dudes. Local warlords, even. In the end, they all gave in—after seeing the twinkle in Jonathan’s eye.
Twinkle or no twinkle, Jonathan was no pushover. In judo—the gentle path—he’d moved up to fifth dan. A tough guy with a big heart, just like in the old movies. When Edward questioned why he’d come to Japan, he’d merely replied, “Because they need me here.”
What did Jonathan get from Edward? Well, there was a shortage of foreigners working close enough nearby to meet for lunch on weekdays. Beyond that, Edward was afraid to ask. But they did have points of contact beyond music. Just like Jonathan, Edward had, as a boy, read through an entire encyclopedia—albeit a lesser, less-pricey one—and both remembered many pointless details. They’d quiz each other. “What one country doesn’t put its name on its postage stamps?” “Which two countries have the most nearly-identical flag?”
Every December, when Jonathan left for Jacksonville, the world grew colder. There’s no snow in Florida, Jonathan would say, but Christmas is wherever your heart is. Edward thought this was a load of crap.
He called Jonathan. “You’re not going to delete it, are you?”
“No. At least, not yet.” A pause. “What two ingredients must a praline absolutely have?”
“Nuts and sugar,” said Edward. “When?”
“It’s an educational app. You’ve got to complete the course.”
Edward never accepted Jonathan’s invitation to come along in December. Not at those prices. After peak season, Edward would fly to Saipan, where he’d sit on a beach and do nothing. Every year the same discount package and the same beach, and then, the trip over, the same life. But the hotel room always had two beds. And in mid February he could get another ticket for 25,000 air miles. Maybe this year he’d ask someone to join him. A nice woman, maybe. Just to keep him company. They could fill up at the free buffet breakfast, so she’d only have to pay for two inexpensive snacks a day and the airline’s bogus “fuel surcharge”. Edward didn’t know any foreigners except Jonathan, and didn’t know any Japanese people at all. But maybe he’d meet someone, though probably she’d say no.
But that disappointment would be months away.
Monday morning Edward went to work. His desk, like everyone’s, faced toward the Head of Division No. 3. Still, Edward’s was on the edge of the closest row, a little less crowded than the rows behind him. Classified as a permanent employee, he’d received the prescribed minimum promotions and the prescribed minimum pay raises. That had been enough. Today, though, he dwelled on the fact that alone among all Kagata’s Senior Assistant Deputy Division Heads, he had nobody reporting directly to him. It irked him and irked him more. By five o’clock his frustration overflowed. “I am irked,” he said to his iPad, and approached the Head.
“I presume this is because I’m a foreigner.”
“Ah, well, you see, it’s a case of … Well, you see …” Over in Division No. 1, Ms Cheung—a mere Junior Assistant Deputy Division Head—had two direct subordinates. Didn’t Edward remember?
Edward remembered. He sat back down. Immediately after work, he called Jonathan.
“What league fought against the Peloponnesian League?”
“The Delian League. But what ice hockey league preceded the NHL?”
Edward answered and smiled a small smile. Yet from that day forward he felt approximately fifteen percent more alone.
A month later Jonathan said, “It’s getting chilly.” He rubbed his hands, either for warmth or in glee. Maybe chilly by Florida standards, thought Edward. Just then his iPad, which he’d been certain was in sleep mode, spoke up. “Don’t be glum, Edward. Just seven weeks until Christmas.”
He cringed only a little. He’d grown accustomed to unwanted conversation.
“It has artificial intelligence,” said Jonathan.
“Oh. Hi there, Jonathan.” This was the iPad again. “How’s your mother’s bursitis?” Edward turned the power completely off.
“They’re tearing down my apartment building.” Right from the start Edward had known this would come—that’s why the rent had been low.
“I’ll see if any units are available at my place.”
“No thanks. Out of my price range.”
Edward found an even cheaper apartment. It was more distant, and the building was older and greyer. He moved in on December 10th, when the weather was also grey.
One evening the following week Edward finished work late. He felt tired and unwell. The elevator doors opened at the ninth floor to reveal Alice Cheung, a fifty-year-old woman with soft eyes, who, following her divorce three years earlier, had transferred to head office. She smiled.
“Alice, are you planning anything for the holidays?”
“Oh, Edward, this year is special. They’re letting me take two weeks. I’ll visit my sister in L.A. and then we’ll drive up to see my daughter. She’s just started university in Sacramento. I’m so busy now, but let’s have lunch in January.”
“Sure,” said Edward, though he could not envision such a lunch happening in January or ever.
While walking to the train station he felt lightheaded. He rested against a store window. There was a sale. A poster showed a jolly Santa. Edward stared intensely. Something was very wrong. Santa was in pain. Edward could see Santa’s stigmata. Edward blinked. Nothing changed, except that Santa was no longer smiling.
Edward walked onward. “I am losing it,” he said to his iPad. “I am losing it.” The iPad said nothing.
Edward felt a feverish chill. Once home he went straight to bed and slept the night through. In the morning he went to work, though he was barely well enough. But there was nothing for him at home, and lunch would be with Jonathan. Perhaps Edward would be better then. Perhaps restored.
Jonathan looked burdened. Sad. Edward hadn’t seen this before.
“What’s troubling you?”
Jonathan told his story—and a sad story it was. Edward listened and nodded, but didn’t pay full attention. He had his own problems.
“My little nephew Freddy is in the hospital,” said Jonathan. “He’s only four.” Then some details of medical history and treatment. “Since it’s a pre-existing condition, my brother’s insurance pays only a fraction. He was unemployed, but finally found work. Good work. He was planning to upgrade the coverage, but it didn’t happen yet.”
The brother, who was raising three children on his own, might lose his house and have to move in with Jonathan’s elderly parents. But they lived hundreds of miles away, and he’d have to give up his first decent job in years.
“So I’m chipping in with all my savings. I don’t mind about that. It’s just Freddy …” Jonathan would get a partial refund on his plane tickets—that too would go to his brother. Everyone would miss Jonathan at Christmas, but it couldn’t be helped. “I’ll never have kids of my own. But my nieces and nephews—I’ve always felt lucky to have them.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Edward, mechanically.
“I don’t mean to weigh you down with my troubles. But just talking like this is helpful. Thank you.”
Once again Edward had to work late. By evening his fever returned, but he hoped to be okay in the morning. So he set the alarm on his iPad clock and went to sleep.
The alarm started beeping and Edward tried to focus his groggy eyes. The clock showed 23:59. Must have set it wrong. He poked a finger towards the off icon, but the screen dissolved into a scene of early Postwar Japan. There was a noise of children, but not a happy noise. The iPad zoomed in on a group of tattered, scruffy kids. It was getting dark, and in the glare of fluorescent lights they gazed longingly at toys in a department store window. Santa was there. He seemed to be begging for help. One of the older children spoke. “Santa-san nanka, inai-yo.” There’s no such thing as Santa Claus.
Edward, shivering from his fever, stared and stared. And then he turned away. Time passed and the clock reappeared. Almost midnight.
The alarm beeped louder and louder, and again Edward stretched his thin arm outward. But again, the icon vanished.
Now the screen showed a Tokyo he knew well. People were emptying out from buildings he recognized. Even the Kagata Shokai Building. The people formed columns, and marched in precision down litter-free avenues. Before them stood a great, warehouse-like restaurant, its broad double-doors sliding open to reveal table-for-two after table-for-two. At each table sat a handsome young man and a fine-looking young woman. Each man and each woman held in one hand a pair of silvery lacquered chopsticks, which they used to extract delicate morsels from elegant place settings; their other hands held electronic devices. They stared into these devices, oblivious of the surrounding humanity. None broke his or her gaze for even a moment. They pressed buttons and showed reactions—but not to each other. They took photos of themselves. That was the only time they smiled.
Edward saw a clock on the restaurant wall, its second-hand drawing nearer and nearer to midnight. His panic rose. The clock’s alarm beeped frantically.
“Stop, stop, stop,” he called out, his voice weakening. “I can take it no longer …” The clock filled the iPad’s screen and, once again, Edward went for the “off” icon. And, once again, it vanished.
For a moment there was nothing. But Edward’s vision stayed fixed on the small screen. He was weak and under its control.
His eyes beheld a slate-grey vortex and then, suddenly, once more, he was staring into Tokyo. But this was a Tokyo of mechanization and technology. Of interfaces and robotics, and the Internet of Everything Except People. The Tokyo yet to come. Edward tried to turn away, but a voice came from nowhere. It commanded, “Watch, Edward, watch.” And he watched—in horrible fascination.
He sees himself old and alone. The same apartment, the same job, the same Edward. But not quite. The world is empty and ice cold. He sees the train station. Its blue-light display flashes 12-25 00:00. Edward boards an isolated, one-human-sized compartment. At work he dons a virtual-reality helmet to interact with Division No. 3’s overseas accounts. At home, he unlocks the door and steps into barrenness. He is decrepit, and his decrepit self lies down and closes its eyes. The world drifts through a thick, sweaty mist, and it is so cold. Just as Edward is pulled in, he tries to cry out, but his words are almost too weak. No. This cannot … I will not …
And then the alarm goes off again. It’s seven a.m. Though Edward feels the chill of his sweat-soaked pyjamas, he has the lightness that comes after a fever has broken. He looks out into the world.
“Good morning,” says the iPad.
“You are right,” Edward replies. “It is a good morning. But what day is it?”
“It’s ten days before Christmas.”
“Yes!” says Edward. “It’s not too late.”
During lunchtime he visits the bank with his passbook and registered seal—needless to say, Edward doesn’t use internet banking—and transfers a large sum to Jonathan’s account. A week later he sees off his large friend at Narita Airport. They are both smiling. Freddy will soon be out of the hospital.
“I’m sorry you won’t come along.”
“Maybe next year. Maybe a few days with you and then up to Pennsylvania.”
Jonathan opens his carry-on to pack away some cookies for the flight, and an edge of red cloth pops out. It’s a red felt jacket with big gold buttons and white fluffy trim. Edward’s eyebrows go way up.
“Oh this?” says Jonathan. It was unclear whether his dark skin was blushing. “I put it on every Christmas Eve. The kids love it.”
On Christmas morning it snowed in Tokyo. The first time in decades—probably some weird effect of global warming—and the view from Edward’s window was serene. Before flying away, Jonathan set up Skype on the iPad. Edward considered the time difference with Florida. This will be his first ever video call.
He switches on the iPad, but it says nothing; Xmasochate has dis-installed itself.
Jonathan looks exhausted, as if on Christmas Eve he’d been working all through the night. Maybe it was jetlag. But only maybe.
After the two friends chat, Johnathan directs his smart phone towards a noisy, crowded living room. Children play with colourful toys extracted from under the Christmas tree. One little boy has Barrel Full of Monkeys, an inexpensive toy Edward himself once asked Santa to bring. Edward laughs. He feels like he’s playing too.
Jonathan watches and smiles. Then he gets everyone’s attention.
“One … two … three,” he says, waving his big arms like an orchestra conductor. The children turn toward the phone and call out together—in clear voices and with a charming rhythm—“Merry Christmas, Uncle Edward.”
Then one of them, a girl with glasses and braids who looks about eight, holds up Volume C of the Encyclopedia Britannica—and note, dear readers, that it was this part, completely unrehearsed, that brought a tear to the corner of Edward’s eye.
“Uncle Edward,” she says. “Is it really true they don’t celebrate Christmas in Japan?”
Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. He was born in America, mostly grew up in Canada, and has spent long periods in the UK and France. As to Japan, Mark has, like some of his characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.
If you enjoyed ‘Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge—To Go’ leave a comment and let Mark know.
You can read more of Mark’s fiction below:
“The Selfish Gene”, UC Review, 2018. Print only.
“The Takarazuka Woman”, Spadina Literary Review, #26, August 2018.
“The Avenger”, Tigershark Magazine (#19, August 2018)
“My Irritating Neighbour”, BoomerLitMag (Vol. III, No. 3, August 2018).
“Life is Grand”, Lowestoft Chronicle, Issue 35, Sept. 2018.
“Romantic Canada”, Blank Spaces, September 2018. Print only.
“Fact and Fancy”, Gravel, October 2018.
“Takeda-sensei, the Enemy”, Evening Street Review (expected for Autumn 2019).
“Stepping Outside”, Crack the Spine (#246, December 2018).
“The Rising Sun Always Rises”, Grey Borders Magazine (April 2019). Print only.
“Submission”, Fleas on the Dog (#2, April 2019).
“How the Other Half Lives”, Event (expect for 48/1 or 48/2, 2019).
“Basil the Greek”, Adelaide Literary Magazine (expected for #26, July 2019).
“Kanemaru-san”, Palooka (expected for #11, 2019).
“Day of Rock”, Foreign Literary Journal (TBA).
Photo by Angelo Esslinger
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