She got to the parking lot earlier than usual. The thick, damp July darkness engulfed her as she stepped out of the car. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity, but the night seemed especially black and heavy. Feeling a bit short of breath, Masako Katori looked up at the starless night sky. Her skin, which had been cool and dry in the air-conditioned car, began to feel sticky. Mixed in with the exhaust fumes from the Shin-Oume Expressway, she could smell the faint odor of deep-fried food, the odor of the boxed-lunch factory where she was going to work.
"I want to go home." The moment the smell hit her, the words came into her head. She didn't know exactly what home it was she wanted to go to, certainly not the one she'd just left. But why didn't she want to go back there? And where did she want to go? She felt lost.
From midnight until five-thirty without a break, she had to stand at the conveyor belt making boxed lunches. For a part-time job, the pay was good, but the work was backbreaking. More than once, when she was feeling unwell, she'd been stopped here in the parking lot by the thought of the hard shift ahead. But this was different, this feeling of aimlessness. As she always did at this moment, she lit a cigarette, but tonight she realized for the first time that she did it to cover the smell of the factory.
The boxed-lunch factory was in the middle of the Musashi-Murayama district, facing a road that was abutting the gray wall of a large automobile plant. Otherwise, the area was given over to dusty fields and a cluster of small auto repair shops. The land was flat and the sky stretched in every direction. The parking lot was a three-minute walk from Masako's workplace, beyond another factory, now abandoned. It was no more than a vacant lot that had been roughly graded. The parking spaces had once been marked off with strips of tape, but dust had long since made them almost invisible. The employees' cars were parked at random angles across the lot. It was a place where no one would be likely to notice someone hiding in the grass or behind a car. The whole effect was somehow sinister, and Masako glanced around nervously as she locked the car.
She heard the sound of tires, and for an instant the overgrown summer grass that bordered the lot shone in the yellow headlights. A green Volkswagen Golf cabriolet, top down, drove into the lot, and her plump co-worker, Kuniko Jonouchi, nodded from the driver's seat.
"Sorry I'm late," she said, pulling the car into the space next to Masako's faded red Corolla. Her driving seemed careless, and she made more noise than necessary putting on the hand brake and closing the car door. Everything about her was shrill and gaudy. Masako stubbed out her cigarette with the toe of her sneaker.
"Nice car," she said. The subject of Kuniko's car had come up a number of times at the factory.
"You really think so?" Kuniko said, sticking out her tongue in pleasure at the compliment. "But it's got me up to my eyes in debt." Masako gave a noncommittal laugh. The car didn't seem to be the only source of Kuniko's debts. She had nothing but designer accessories, and her clothes were obviously expensive.
"Let's go," Masako said. Sometime after the New Year, she'd begun to hear talk of a strange man hanging around the road that led from the parking lot to the factory. And then several of the part-timers had reported being pulled into the shadows and assaulted before barely escaping; so the company had just issued a warning that the women should walk in groups. They set off through the summer darkness along the unpaved, ill-lit road. On the right was a ragged line of apartment blocks and farmhouses with large gardens-not particularly appealing but at least a sign of life in the area. On the left, beyond an overgrown ditch, was a lonely row of abandoned buildings: an older boxed-lunch factory, a derelict bowling alley. The victims said that their attacker had dragged them between the deserted buildings, and so Masako kept careful watch as she and Kuniko hurried along.
From one of the apartment houses on the right, they could hear a man and woman arguing in Portuguese; more than likely they worked at the factory. In addition to the housewives who worked part-time, the factory employed a large number of Brazilians, both ethnic and of Japanese descent, many of them married couples.
"Everybody's saying that the pervert is probably a Brazilian," said Kuniko, frowning into the darkness. Masako walked on without answering. It didn't make much difference where the man was from, she thought, there was no cure for the kind of depression that came from working in that factory. The women would just have to protect themselves as best they could. "They say he's a big, strong man, that he grabs the women and holds them without saying a word." Something in Kuniko's tone betrayed a hint of longing. Masako felt that Kuniko was somehow blocked, closed off, like a thick cloud cover obscuring the stars at night. From behind them came the sound of squeaking bicycle brakes, and when they turned nervously to look, they found an older woman straddling her bike.
"So, it's you two," she said. "Hi." It was Yoshie Azuma. She was a widow in her late fifties, with nimble fingers that made her the fastest worker on the line. The other women had taken to calling her "Skipper" out of grudging respect.
"Ah, the Skipper. Good morning," Masako said, sounding relieved. Kuniko said nothing but dropped back a step.
"Don't you start calling me that, too," said Yoshie, but she seemed secretly pleased with the name. Climbing off her bike, she fell in step with the other two. She was small but solidly built in a low-slung way that seemed ideally suited to physical labor. Yet her face was fine-featured and pale, floating up now almost seductively out of the darkness. It was perhaps this contradiction that made her seem unhappy, somehow unfortunate. "I suppose you're walking together because of the fuss they've been making about that pervert," she said.
"That's right," said Masako. "Kuniko's still young enough to be in danger." Kuniko giggled. She was twenty-nine. Yoshie skirted a puddle that was glimmering in the dim light and turned to look at Masako.
"You're still in the running yourself," she said. "You're what, forty-three?"
"Don't be silly," Masako said, suppressing a laugh. The compliment made her feel self-conscious in a way she rarely did anymore.
"Then you're all dried up, are you? Cold and dry?" Yoshie's tone was teasing, but it seemed to Masako that she'd hit the nail on the head. She did feel cold and dry, almost reptilian, as she slithered along now.
"But aren't you a bit later than usual today?" she said, to change the subject.
"Oh, Granny's been a little difficult." Yoshie frowned and fell silent. She was caring for her bedridden mother-in-law at home. Masako stared straight ahead, deciding to avoid any more questions. As they cleared the row of deserted buildings on the left, they came upon several of the white trucks that delivered the boxed lunches to convenience stores across the city, and beyond the trucks loomed the factory itself, shining dimly in the fluorescent light like a nightless city.
They waited while Yoshie went to park her bike in the racks next to the factory, and then climbed the green, Astroturf-covered stairs that led up the side of the building. The entrance was on the second floor. To the right was the office, and down the corridor was the workers' rest area and the locker rooms. The factory itself was on the ground floor, so once they'd changed, they would make their way downstairs. Shoes had to be removed on the red synthetic carpet at the factory entrance. The fluorescent light washed out the color of the carpet, so that the hallway looked rather gloomy. The complexions of the women around her also seemed darkened, and as she looked at her weary companions, Masako wondered if she looked as bad herself. Komada, the tight-lipped company health inspector, was stationed in front of the cubbyholes where they stored their shoes, and as each woman walked by, she rubbed her back with a spool of sticky tape to remove any dust or dirt she might be bringing in.
They entered the large tatami-mat room that served as the employees' lounge. Small groups of people were chatting here and there, having already changed into their white uniforms. They sipped tea or munched snacks as they waited for work to begin, while a few had found spots in the corner to lie down for a quick nap. Of the nearly one hundred workers on the night shift, about a third were Brazilian, and of these roughly half were men. And since it was the middle of the summer holidays, the number of student workers had increased somewhat; still, the great majority of the employees were part-timers, housewives in their forties or fifties.
The three women exchanged nods with friends as they made their way toward the changing room, but then they noticed Yayoi Yamamoto sitting alone in a corner. She looked up at them as they approached, but no smile came to her face and she remained slumped on the tatami.
"Morning," Masako said to her, and at last she smiled faintly for a moment. "You look exhausted." Yayoi nodded weakly and gave them a despondent look but still didn't answer. Yayoi was the best-looking of the four women-in fact, she was the most attractive woman on the night shift. Her face was almost flawless, with a broad forehead and a nice balance between the eyes and the brow, an upturned nose and full lips. Her body, too, though petite, was perfect. Her looks were so conspicuous at the factory that a number of women had taken to bullying her, though others were nice to her. Masako had adopted the role of her protector, perhaps because the two of them were so different. While Masako herself did her best to live her life according to reason and common sense, Yayoi seemed to be dragging a good deal of emotional baggage through the world. Almost unconsciously, she held on to yesterday's sorrows, playing the role of a pretty woman at the mercy of cluttered and volatile feelings.
"What's up?" asked Yoshie, thumping her on the shoulder with a rough, red hand. "You look bad." Yayoi gave a violent start and Yoshie turned toward Masako, who signaled the other two to go on without her and sat down in front of Yayoi.
"Are you sick?" she asked.
"No, it's nothing."
"Did you have another fight with your husband?"
"I'd be happier if he were still even willing to fight with me," she said glumly, her bleary eyes staring off at some point beyond Masako. Realizing they would have to start work soon, Masako began gathering her hair into a bun.
"What happened?" she said.
"I'll tell you later," said Yayoi.
"Why not now?" Masako urged, glancing at the clock on the wall.
"No, later. It's a long story." A look of rage appeared on Yayoi's face for an instant, then vanished. Giving up the effort, Masako rose to go.
"Okay," she said. She hurried into the changing room to find her uniform. It was only nominally a room, with no more than a curtain separating it from the lounge. On the wall were crowded rows of sturdy hangers, like those at a department store sale. In the section for the daytime employees, the soiled white uniforms hung in tight clusters, while the space reserved for the night shift was bright with multicolored street clothes.
"We'll see you down there," said Yoshie as she and Kuniko left the lounge. It was time to punch in. According to the rules, they had to punch the time clock between 11:45 and midnight and then wait downstairs at the entrance to the factory floor.
Masako pulled her hanger from the bar. It held a white gown with a zipper down the front and a pair of work pants with elastic at the waist. She quickly slipped the gown over her shoulders and, noting the position of the men in the room, pulled off her jeans, then stepped into the work pants. There was no separate changing room for the men, and though she'd been working here nearly two years she still couldn't get used to the arrangement.
After slipping a black net over the hair she'd already gathered with a barrette, she covered her head with the paper hat they all wore, more like a shower cap than a real hat. Someone had nicknamed them "locusts" for their bug-like shape. She picked up a clear plastic apron and left the changing room, only to find Yayoi still sitting where she'd left her, as if she had nothing better to do.
"Hey! Better get a move on," she said, but when she saw how slow she was to get up, she was more worried than bothered. Almost all the other employees had already left the lounge; only a few Brazilian men still lingered on the tatami. They were leaning against the wall smoking, their thick legs thrown out in front of them.
"Morning," said one of them, raising a hand that was still wrapped around a cigarette butt. Masako nodded, giving him a thin smile. The name tag on his chest said "Kazuo Miyamori," but Masako couldn't help thinking how foreign he looked, with his darkish skin, caved-in face, and protruding forehead. She imagined he did one of the more physical jobs, such as shuttling rice to the automated feeder. "Good morning," he said, this time to Yayoi, though she was too distracted to look at him. He seemed disappointed, but then this kind of thing happened often enough in this cold, unfriendly workplace.
They went into the toilet for a moment before donning their masks and aprons. Hands were rubbed raw with scrubbing brushes and then disinfected. They punched their time cards, stepped into the white work shoes, and were checked once more by the health inspector, who had taken up a new station by the stairs that led down to the plant. Once again Komada rubbed their backs with the tape roller while carefully inspecting their fingernails and hands.
"No cuts?" Even the smallest scratch on a finger meant you were ineligible for any job that involved touching food. Masako and Yayoi held up their hands for inspection. Yayoi seemed about to collapse as she stood waiting for the test to end.
"Are you all right?" Masako asked.
"Yes, I guess," said Yayoi.
Copyright © 2005 by Natsuo Kirino. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.