Best of the Net 2006  


It began before dawn, one or two at first, then a short line forming, each person quietly paying the man beside the box to lift one small flap slightly for a view inside. Hiroko spotted the line from her window, at once taken by a curiosity for what might be inside the box and a disgust that people would pay to see it. Even more revolting, each person bowed appreciation when the show was over.

Hiroko pressed against the window, the glass chilling her bare breasts. She held up her hands, palms against the pane, and stared at the sky, or where the sky should be. Tokyo lights turned night into day and hid whatever darkness that spread overhead, the way doctors turn diseases into complicated words, lives into charts and measurements, passing occurrences, flickers in a night swallowed by artificial light. No stars in sight, and, for all she knew, no stars in existence. Twenty floors up in a Tokyo district where you could buy everything from henna anime to sheik clothing from around the world, to designer drugs, to companionship for a night or a week or perhaps the rest of your life. But what kind of companionship can that be, she wondered, alone with another person whose only reason to remain legally tied is monetary security? The thought suddenly amused. Aren't all relationships based on such shallow and foolish reasons?

Hiroko's skin pimpled from the icy hiss of the air-conditioner. She savored the cold as those without this convenience sweated in the heat of summer. Her father would have voiced disapproval of such waste, only to chuckle as he lowered the thermostat even more. She shivered.

With each breath, moisture condensed onto the glass like ghosts. She slid one hand down, found the latch, twisted, and pushed the window open. The pre-dawn's tepid, humid air washed over her and mixed with the icy, dry air of her dark apartment. She leaned out, sweeping her gaze over the street beginning to crawl with people, ants never resting, searching for something more to do, moving this and that around, creating a new labyrinth of experiences and meaningless encounters to define each moment of the day.

The base of the window pressed across her thighs, and she wondered if this body could interest anyone for more than a night. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself as she was now, nude in the window, cloaked in darkness from behind, visible only to the most discerning eye, a pale flesh portrait lighted by the same neon glow that washed the pre-dawn sky—small breasts, a figure that curved little more than a boy's at barren hips, short-cropped hair constantly brushed back by thin, delicate fingers. She sighed heavily, leaned farther out the window, and opened her eyes. She spat.

Hiroko lost sight of the spittle ten floors down, drifting like a rain drop. If it struck someone, the person might think it nothing more than moisture from an overworked air-conditioning system. She closed her eyes again, mind following the cluster of saliva that plummeted toward the ground, meeting the sidewalk with an insignificant splatter.

Her breath caught in a sudden shiver with the image, and her eyes came open. Her gaze slid across the street, narrowing at the slender man beside the small shipping box. He had set the box, about two-feet square, against the wall where it would be shaded from sunlight; he'd unfolded a canvas chair, placed it beside the box, and sat down. She could see writing on the box, but she could not make out what it said from this distance. Another illegal street vendor, here today, gone tomorrow, selling god-knows-what, probably "designer" shirts or "Rolex" watches for less than a discount brand and far less reliable. The thought twisted her face with even more contempt for everything that lay before her.

She leaned farther out, daring gravity to take her, her body from the waist up a slender splinter on the side of the building. Her skin moistened with the early morning dampness. A breeze stirred between the buildings, pungent with summer, the interior of her apartment frigid against her legs and buttocks.

I am cold, her father whispers. Cold. Hiroko places another blanket over his brittle body and prays to whatever god might hear her that his fever will break soon. She prays for a miracle, for magic. He's been such a strong man, a man of comfort and love. More than a father, more than anyone, her mother so long dead she can barely remember the woman's face. Now, in three short months, this wonderful man has wasted away into such agony and desperation. I am cold, he whispers.

Across the street, a woman stopped before the box. The woman spoke to the man, bowed, then gave him money. The man opened the top of the box gingerly, and the woman bent low to peek in through the narrow opening. The act made Hiroko think of a time she hadn't recalled in years, when she was eight, when the magician, the father of a friend, lean and gentle, had enticed her classmates to look into his black box. She had seen white fur tucked into a fold in the back.

A moment passed on the street below, and the man closed the box. The woman bowed several times before hurrying away, glancing back again and again.

Hiroko ran her tongue between dry lips. Another person approached the box, an elderly man in a kimono who handed the attendant money, bent low, peeked in, then laughed with a certain innocence. How can anyone, Hiroko wondered, laugh so easily? The man bowed gratitude and shuffled away, giving his head an amused shake, swinging his arms more freely than before. A few minutes later, another man came to the box, then a woman, a group of uniformed children on their way to school, and the line grew steadily.

Hiroko pulled the window closed and secured it. The air-conditioning sighed through the vents, desiccating the moisture from the air. She pulled the drapes closed and lay on the floor, icy to her back and buttocks. She closed her eyes, turned her palms toward the ceiling. At one time, meditation had allowed her to escape from thought, but now, as she concentrated on her breath, it rattled in her ears like her father's final gasp.

Nothing here, or here, the magician says, showing the box around once more, but when I reach in and pull out my hand . . . .

Most of the children applaud with amazement and appreciation, but Hiroko rolls her eyes and lays her head on the desk. She will hear about this insult from her teacher.

The outside air had dampened her skin, and now she shivered slightly. Her mind returned abruptly to the window, and she imagined the man across the street opening the box for someone to look inside. Hiroko sat up, pulling her knees to her chest, her breasts flattening against her thighs.

Find pleasure in everything, her father says. Everything has special quality, a certain magic. Everything. Even the most insignificant . . . .

Hiroko sighs in exasperation.

She rose and went to the window. She peered through the slit in the curtain, as though someone might spot her. The line at the man's box had grown considerably longer. Each person handed the man money, gazed into the box, then thanked him. Some smiled, some laughed, some had no reaction, but none took issue. She pulled back from the curtain and went into the bedroom where she slipped on a casual, one-piece dress. At the door of the apartment, she slipped on sandals and stepped out, leaving the door unlocked. Perhaps, she thought blandly, someone will be waiting to kill me when I return.

Hiroko exited the building and strode down the sidewalk until she stood directly across the street from the man with the box. The line had grown to thirty or more people, with others lining up. The street teemed with vehicles, cars and trucks inching along, bicycles spiriting around and between them. Bikers rang their handlebar bells in warning, carefully negotiating around tourists who didn't understand the bells' meaning from behind. Hiroko weaved through the cars and bicycles and crossed the street. She came up the sidewalk opposite the line of people waiting to peer into the box.

The man beside the box was older than she'd at first thought, his face leathery, his pointy chin sporting thin whiskers that hung in a soft goatee. Hair hung down his forehead, shadowing dark eyes.

"What are you selling?" she asked.

The man shrugged and raised the lid for a woman who bent close.

Idiot, Hiroko thought bitterly. "What's inside the box?" she asked.

The man turned his gaze toward her as he closed the lid. The woman who'd paid to view expressed her delight with a sharp Ha! She bowed appreciation and walked quickly away, her gaze everywhere and nowhere. The next person in line held out his money.

"You want to know what's inside?" the man asked Hiroko. The patron's coins dropped into his hand. He raised the box's lid barely enough for the customer to peer inside. "You want to know?" the man said. He leaned toward her and whispered, "Magic."

Hiroko's face hardened. She turned without a word and fled. She felt the man's eyes on her, and her pace quickened.

She was out of breath as she entered her apartment. She tossed off her shoes at the door and pulled the dress over her head and flung it toward the window. She went to the window and looked out. The man's head tilted up, and Hiroko jerked back, afraid he might see her. She closed her eyes and shook her head. No, she told herself, he could not see. She was behind a curtain in a dark apartment high above the street. And even if he could see . . . ? She shivered in the constant flow of air from the vent and wished she could make the air even colder.


Hiroko parted the curtain again. The line was growing even more as the lunch hour began. She thought of complaining to the police, but what good would it do? He would only move the box to some other street.

The man's eyes flutter, and his head turns on the pillow. Her father's haggard mouth manages a smile, and his eyes light with the image of the girl at his side. You are here, he whispers. Now I'm warm. His eyes close. His body relaxes, but it is not until her aunt enters, touches the man's wrist, and begins to cry that Hiroko realizes her father is dead.

She went to the bathroom where she ran a hot bath and sank herself into the small, square tub. She submerged herself completely. If she could only let go easily . . . .

Time passed, the water cooled. Tears came to her eyes with thoughts of her father, tales he had told of her mother who had died when Hiroko was three, a ghost of a memory. Her skin wrinkled and grew pale in the cooling water until finally she stepped free of the bath and dried herself.

Shadows crept into the valley of buildings, and the sky took on the golden hue of late afternoon. Hiroko rose from the floor where she'd lain since her bath, and crossed to the window. She looked through the drapes and wished she could see stars here as she had seen them in the countryside during her youth, on nights she and her father had sat before their small house and talked about nothing and about everything. The sky had been so black, the night so perfect that stars appeared to swirl around her. But here, the lights of Tokyo would soon flicker on and make the night another artificial day.

She glanced down, saw the man and his box, but the line had shrunken to three people. Then two, and then one. An occasional person would stop after that, hand the man coins, and peer inside. Hiroko wondered if anyone had rebuffed his magic as she'd bathed and then lain on the floor.

As the lights of the city came on, Hiroko's apartment remained in darkness. The night came fully, and Hiroko pulled open the drapes. The man with the box was now alone, the box closed. The street had emptied, and the few pedestrians who still passed showed no interest in the box or its contents.


"Garbage," Hiroko whispered, and then immediately caught her breath, startled as the man looked up sharply toward her window. He rose slowly from his chair, head still cocked, dark gaze toward her. He raised his hands up and then swept them around at the box, taunting, "Come see, come see." But how…? she wondered. How could he know she was at the window?

Hiroko backed away. She went to the kitchen to calm herself, to reassure herself that, indeed, he could not truly see her, that he was only guessing she was there, watching him. She poured a glass of orange juice and returned to the window. She sipped at the juice and shivered. The glass slipped suddenly from her fingers, spilling juice across the floor. She clamped her arms around her stomach and wanted to scream, but only a whimper came.

She cleaned the juice from the floor and looked out the window. The man was still there, and he was still looking toward her apartment. Anger now surged through her. She slipped on the dress she'd worn earlier, a blue dress with a design of sakura, delicate white cherry blossoms floating across her body like snowflakes. She left the apartment, again, not bothering to lock the door, but by the time she reached the sidewalk across from the box, the man had vanished.

She stepped tentatively into the street and crossed to the box. The scribbles on the box indicated that the man had charged one hundred yen for a glimpse at "Nature's Magic." Judging from the line that had been here throughout the day, the magic had paid him well.

Hiroko glanced around. Nearly a block away, a woman hurried toward the intersection. In the opposite direction, lovers lingered at the entrance of an apartment building. Hiroko knelt before the box and placed an ear to the top, listening for any sound within. Nothing. She straightened and wiped her palms on her hips, wet her lips. Her heart pounded as she gingerly took the sides of one flap. She hesitated, started to rise, but then stopped. What was so appealing here? What was so magical? She opened the flap slightly and bent close to peer in. A faint flicker of light glowed within, and Hiroko's breath caught. Her chest throbbed with excitement as the glow began to strengthen.

. . . even the most insignificant . . .

She lifted the flap fully, then opened the others. The box's interior swirled with light, and a single firefly rose up. Others followed, thousands floating upward in a lazy eddy of light, some landing on her, crawling over her breasts and belly, legs and hips. Tears came to Hiroko's eyes, the tiny lights sparkling like stars.

Gently, from somewhere deep within, she began to laugh.

-C.S. Fuqua (Cezanne's Carrot)