Fire (A Short Story)


Paul Dogolov stood at the window of the room in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and gazed at the East Garden of the Emperor’s Palace across the way.

Diane, his wife, was complaining. “I don’t understand. Does he want you to do it or not?”

He was wondering if his life was a dream. “He says he wants me to do it.” He spoke absently, looking out over the acres of black pine trees that surrounded the Palace. There were the pines, then a wide moat, then the Palace wall.

He pictured the Emperor in his palace, clad in kimono of dazzling silk, rose and gold like a burst of dying light at sunset, playing mahjongg. No. No. It would be Go. Of course. The Emperor of Japan would play Go.

Joggers ran alongside the moat. He was surprised at the numbers. There were more, even, than the crowds which pounded along San Vicente Boulevard not far from where he lived in Los Angeles.

“If he wants you to do it, why isn’t he paying your price?”

“You know the way these things are,” Dogolov said. An army of khaki-clad gardeners were working with shears on the Japanese pines. “He’s assured me-”

“He’s assured you. Oh, yes. He says there will be more. And you believe that. There will never be. And that’s the name of that tune,” she said.

“I never wanted to get into this in the first place,” he said. He was empty, desperate, no spark inside, not caring for anything. He wondered how long a person could go on feeling as empty as he did without disappearing into some black hole of the human soul. “It’s a script I just don’t want to do.”

“Then why are you going through the motions?”

She knew very well why. The house in Mandeville, her Jaguar XJS, a credit-card plastic nightmare, a financial swamp: he doubted they’d ever drag themselves out. Diane’s spending was pathological, it was sinking them, and when the glimmer of this job had come up, when Kanter had told him over lunch at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel (he had the fruit palette, Kanter, the warm chicken salad) that he had talked with Richert, his partner, about Dogolov writing a gangster picture set in Japan, he had leaped at it.

They had made the deal, and it was not a very good one, a step-deal with the large numbers coming at the back end, and he lied to himself that the film would get made and then he would see the back-end numbers. Back-end numbers, elusive back-end numbers, sirens sent to lure the Hollywood writer to false dreams and disaster!

As part of the deal he would go to Japan and, as Kanter put it, “get into Richert’s head, sniff out the territory.” Diane expected to accompany him, but his expense allowance wouldn’t cover it and they argued over it and finally he had given in, as he so often did, it was just so draining to fight over money; he would put it on plastic. Why not? His whole life was on plastic, infiltrated by plastic, suffocating in plastic.

He loathed the project, a Japanese and Sicilian Mafia thing infected by bizarre political meanderings in which all the ills of mankind were laid to a world-wide conspiracy engineered by the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds and the CIA. “All the wars since Napoleon’s time can be traced to them,” Richert said.

“Sounds plausible,” Dogolov answered, forcing himself to appear amiable and interested.

“A message for humankind,” was how Kanter had characterized the piece. “But entertaining. We’ve got to educate the kids.”

And now Dogolov and his wife were in a Tokyo hotel room waiting to have dinner with Richert that night. “Do you like this?” She had on a flowered silk dress she had bought that afternoon. She displayed it for him. He did not like it. He certainly didn’t like its price.

“Fine,” he said.

Something had happened to him these past few years, a shattering awareness of an essential lack in him, in the core of him, which undermined in some awful way whatever belief he ever had had in his talent, indeed, whatever faith he had had in himself as a human being. He noticed, increasingly, he was saturated with shame. Over what? For whom? Wherever he went, whatever he did, it dogged him.

He watched too much television, read too many newspapers. He had long ago ceased thinking of himself as a writer. He wrote, and made a living at it, but he might just as well have worked in a shoe store.

Things literary didn’t interest him at all. He had given up on books. He preferred magazines, nature magazines, if he had a choice, but most anything trivial would do, The National Enquirer, People, TV Digest.

He thought of Chekhov’s The Seagull. When he had been young he had identified with Trepleff. These days he felt very close to Trigorin.

And yet- and yet, there had been a time when he had been called- a discovery! That was what the New York Times had said of him after the publication of his first novel. It had been in their Christmas book section edition and someone (a writer at the sports desk, which did take a bit off the bloom) had included him in their stocking-stuffer list: “Paul Dogolov and Time Out- a discovery!”

He lived in Greenwich Village those days, Barrow Street- this was long before Diane. He had read his mention in the Times and stayed up all night just walking the streets- “A discovery!”- and dreaming of his future, the great books he would write, the extraordinary things he would accomplish. At down he found himself in the Rienzi Coffee House and there was his photograph up on the wall, taken by Roy Schatt, occupying a space between James Dean and Martin Landau. And someone had taped the Times article beneath his picture. “A discovery!”

Paramount bought the book for what seemed like an amazing amount of money and even permitted him to do the screenplay. They changed the title to “Ride an Evil Wind” and the picture made a few bucks and he was asked to do another script. After so many years of poverty it was nice to have money in the bank, to be able to afford a good restaurant, buy some clothes. He told himself he would immediately get back to writing novels, but somehow nothing was ever finished and he had to earn a living and he returned to writing screenplays for hire and dreamed about being a discovery again.

He would muse, with some bitterness, that he had gone from promising to has-been without ever having been a success.

Diane was trying on another dress and talking about shopping: she needed a jade pendant, a silk kimono, Japanese etchings and porcelain for the new house, and, of course, they could afford none of it, and he tuned her out and was thinking instead (the kimono-clad Emperor relegated to the far reaches of, if not his palace, then Dogolov’s mind) of his apathy, how powerful it had been these past weeks.

I carry on my life, he was thinking, plot my strategy with Richert, pretend I’m working on this project, and I feel nothing. Less than nothing, some minus quotient on the feeling scale.

The phone was ringing. Dogolov picked it up, dread in his heart. Richert’s voice came over the line, dry as stone. Dinner was at seven. The hotel restaurant, The Crown Room.

They arrived on the dot and, of course, Richert was not there as Dogolov knew he would not be: in the ten years since he had first entered Paul Dogolov’s life, Richert had never once been on time. An hour’s delay was small change. Whole afternoons, days, had gone up in flames and the producer had not arrived. The next day he would look vaguely annoyed when reminded that they had had an appointment.

The restaurant was subdued, elegant, filled with people of means, Japanese, occidentals. The people at the next table were speaking German.

Dogolov and Diane had drinks. He gulped a martini and ordered another. She had a Kir Royale.

“I just don’t want to hear any complaints,” she said. “You drink that stuff, then all I hear is how your stomach hurts. What do you expect?”
The staff at the restaurant, hovering about their table like so many elegant birds of prey, professionally attentive to Paul, were really only interested in Diane and she knew this and basked in the attention and Dogolov was pleased.

Tall and blonde with a lithe, athletic body, she presented a striking figure. Separately her features did not impress- eyes too narrow, lips too thin- but taken all together the effect was pretty spectacular.

In the right light there was something otherworldly about her; she seemed not to walk, but to glide through light and shadow. And it was the ethereal quality that had first captivated Paul Dogolov, had literally taken his breath away.

When he had first met her- shortly after the divorce from his first wife- he had just assumed she was in the performing arts, a ballet dancer, a model.

She was, in fact, a production assistant for a film company.

In Japan the reaction to her was extraordinary: men followed her in the streets, came up to her in the hotel lobby. There was nothing blatantly sexual in their approaches- if anything, they were touchingly polite: just wanted to speak to her, to touch her golden hair, to take a picture with her; and, while she affected annoyance, her mood invariably was more cheerful after one of these encounters.

Richert arrived an hour and fifteen minutes late; he seated himself without apologizing. He did not smile, did not shake hands.

Short, muscular, youthful-looking (though forty, he appeared ten years younger) he always seemed to Dogolov more like a high school physical education teacher than a Hollywood producer. Only when he turned in profile did that impression fall apart: he had lately taken to wearing his hair in a ponytail.

He had a swarthy complexion and a pitted face (teenage acne, no doubt) and Dogolov secretly hoped as a kid he had suffered over it, but doubted it: Richert would never suffer over anything.

He glanced at his watch, then at the menu. His expression was one of vague annoyance. It said, I have urgent matters pending, you’re not important at all, I’m barely aware of your existence. Did he practice this look in front of a mirror, Dogolov wondered?

“The script doesn’t work,” he said.

“yes, yes, I know,” Dogolov said. He took in a deep breath, curled his toes in his shoes. God, he hated this bastard.

He remembered the first deal they had had together, a cop film, shortly after Richert had ceased being an agent.

He had an office at Paramount and called to see Dogolov. Paul knew things would not be pleasant as soon as he entered the place. There was a sign behind Richert’s desk: “The Golden Rule: He Who Has The Gold Makes The Rules.” “You know, Dogolov,” Richert had said, “I think your writing is basically second rate, verbose and fruity like a roadshow Faulkner, with a little Sterling Silliphant thrown in, but if you just listen to what I have to say, I think we’ll get a workable script.” Paul had grinned and nodded his head. And it had been that way ever since. Richert talked. Dogolov groveled. His soul died.

Richert sat back in his chair and fixed Dogolov with a dead gaze. “To make this work we have to make a political statement that’s clear and cogent.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Dogolov said.

They ordered their food. It arrived as Richert was attempting to formulate his statement. Paul had chosen duck a l’orange. It tasted of fish oil.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to make this film.”

“I understand.”

“Okay, now how do you visualize it?”

“It would be a rhythm. Fast. Click, click. A train racing through the countryside-”

“You’re not into my head on this thing,” Richert said. “I want something slow, controlled, very Japanese, very Mizaguchi.”

“We can do it that way. It all depends on what you want.”

“I just want you to get into my head.” He looked away, shaking his ponytail.

“Let me just get where you’re going with this-”

Richert stared directly at him and Dogolov wondered at how dead his eyes were. How do people achieve that iciness? Were you born with it?

Richert said quietly: “Sometimes you’re a very dim bulb. Come on Paul, get with it. We’re creating cinema. We’re making visual and intellectual statements. We’re affecting the world.” Dogolov felt his whole body grow cold; the perspiration ran cold beneath his shirt. He looked at Diane and she was angry and he wanted to grab Richert by the throat, strangle him with his ponytail, but he could not because without Richert at this moment he had no career.

“I just want to get your thinking,” Dogolov said, forcing himself to look amiable, controlling his rage.

“When you talk to me,” Richert said, “you’re looking at the face of reality. That’s something you need to do, Paul. You need that very much.”

Richert was staring at him with those dead eyes and Paul attempted to stare back, but after awhile he felt truly foolish and defeated and he looked away.

Three Japanese in business suits had entered the restaurant. Richert rose, swishing his ponytail. “I have a meeting,” he said. He motioned for the waiter to serve his food at another table.

“What should I do?” Dogolov said.

Richert looked at him as though that were the most astonishing question he had ever heard. “Howard will be by in the morning to take you around Tokyo. Then I suggest we meet in Hiroshima in a day or so. Howard will make arrangements.”

Paul had no idea who Howard was but before he could ask, Richert was off to meet with the three Japanese.

Dogolov gazed after him, feeling very alone, aware more than ever that in this life the brutal survived and that he was not equipped for it.

Dogolov rose and entered the men’s room. It was deserted. He turned to the mirror and screamed very loud and long and pounded the wall with one hand over and over, weeping. Then he splashed water on his face and returned to Diane.

They left the restaurant and browsed through the shopping arcade of the hotel. Diane found an ivory pendant she wanted to buy. It cost a thousand American dollars. Paul said they could get it cheaper in Hong Kong. “But we’re not going to Hong Kong,” Diane said.

“Someone will be. They’ll get it for us.”

“I’m never going to get it, then,” she said. “Remember that straw hat in San Diego? You said we’d find it cheaper in Tijuana.”

“Will you never let me forget that straw hat? Is my whole life going to be regrets and recriminations over a Tijuana straw hat?”

“We never got to Tijuana. That’s the story of my life without you!”

That night as he slept, Dogolov dreamed of the television director, Klujan, his best friend. The year before he had died of lung cancer. The cause, Dogolov was sure, was stress. The sociopathic bloodsuckers of the business, the liars, cheats, those who never returned phone calls, who snubbed you at Polo Lounge, the Kanters and Richerts and their ilk, had done him in. Each meeting I take, Dogolov told himself, is a step closer to the grave, a mutated cell, a mote of fat clinging to the wall of an artery.

Klujan’s immunological system had been overwhelmed by schlock karma.

In his dream Dogolov was profoundly aware that his life was a dream and that he had control of it and that if he concentrated hard enough he could wake up from it. He could then go back to sleep and re-do the dream, removing Klujan’s death and his friend would be alive again. Of course, in re-working that part of his life, he would lose total memory and knowledge of the original. He was afraid. What else would he be erasing from his life? And would he, in fact, be able to go back to sleep and continue the dream of his life, or would he be dead?

Howard was a tall man in his sixties with a face the color of newspaper and gray hair and a heavily wattled neck. He wore thin wire glasses and a baggy gray suit. Paul had no idea what his relationship to Richert was; he could only glean that he had been living in Japan for two years, working in some capacity for the government and had once worked in distribution for United Artists in the States. “Mr. Richert’s going to meet us at the lake.”

“Lake?” Paul asked. “What lake?”

“Hakone, right near Mt. Fuji. A lot of the film’s going to take place there.”

They set off and were immediately in a mess, circling about Tokyo, missing turns, narrowly avoiding accidents. “I’ve never made this trip on my own,” Howard said, clearing his throat. From time to time Howard would forget that the Japanese, like the British, drive on the left side of the road. Dogolov would politely remind him and Howard would clear his throat and pull the car back into its proper lane; twice they just avoided head-on collisions and Diane swore quietly. They were lost.

After driving around aimlessly for an hour, Howard decided he needed directions. He stopped in front of a row of stores with neon signs in English: “Way Out-A Classic,” “Delish Curry,” “Hair Cutting Saloon.” Diane got out of the car to window shop. “Way Out-A Classic” was festooned with James Dean and Elvis Presley tee shirts. Dogolov laughed. Diane was on the verge of tears. The only thing that perked her up was when a group of middle-aged Japanese men came to her and insisted she take a picture with them.

At last they were back on the road, heading, Howard assured them, right for the mountain. “Let’s see,” he said, “Fuji should be over there somewhere.”

The day was overcast. Dogolov could see no mountains. “What with the smog and all, you can’t see the place till you get right up close. It’s worth the trip, though.”

“Why would Richert want us to meet him at Mt. Fuji?” Diane said, glum and angry.

“He has his reasons,” Howard said. “You can take that to the bank.”

“How did you hook up with him?” Dogolov said.

“I was working with the military out at Yakuska. That’s the big military base over by Yokohama. Mr. Richert needed someone to grease the skids with the army boys. That’s the name of the game.”

“What does Richert have to do with the military?”

“It’s a statement he wants to make with this film is how he puts it.”

They were climbing upward. The day had turned drizzly. They drove through fog and cloud. They came to a lovely mountain lake with some white mist rolling down to its edge. “Fuji’s up there somewhere.” Howard gazed about him, searching. “You can’t really lose her,” he said, perplexed. “She’s a mountain.”

And then, suddenly, as they rounded the lake, the clouds parted on the left and there was Fuji looming directly above them, its volcanic cone snow-capped just as in the postcards, awesome, majestic.

They climbed higher, passing through forests of graceful cedar trees, then pine, and fir. There were great, feathery stands of a pine Dogolov had never seen before, a kind of half-evergreen whose needles even now, in the cool autumn air, were turning a delicate yellow. And there were blood red maple and ghostly white birch.

The mountain would disappear behind the cloud, then again, suddenly appear, looming above them. Howard had a camera with him and he pulled the car over and jumped out and began madly snapping pictures.

Diane and Dogolov drew their coats about them and moved their arms to keep warm in the icy air.

They arrived at a rest station at a mid-point up the mountain. The road ended there. You had to walk up a path the rest of the distance to the summit. The air was like ice now. Small granules of snow fell. The mountain loomed above them, cold, dark, icy, ominous. “Where’s Richert?” Diane said.

“I have to call him,” Howard said.

“He’s not going to be up at the top, is he?” Diane said. “Cause if he is, I’m not making the trip. Not for him or his script.”

Howard reddened, cleared his throat and hitched his trousers up. They headed for the rest station, a large souvenir store filled with tourists and school kids in uniform. As Diane made her way into the store she was suddenly engulfed by children who wanted to have their pictures taken with her. They tugged at her blonde hair and giggled. Teachers came to her, men in their twenties, and also asked to have their pictures taken. They stood there, nodding and grinning and fingering her long hair, displaying it to one another as though it were something truly miraculous.

While Howard went looking for a telephone, Dogolov and Diane snacked on corn roasted over charcoal at a stand in front of the station. It was tasty but cold.

Howard returned, looking grim. He walked right on by them, heading to the car. “What is it?” Dogolov called after him.

Howard started the car. His face had drained of color, eyes darting from side to side, mind racing. Dogolov and Diane entered the car. “What?” Diane said.

“He’s in Hiroshima.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“Waiting for you.”

“What are we doing here?” Diane said.

“I’m just following what he said.”

They started back down the mountain, speeding. Howard kept clearing his throat, but did not speak. They almost plunged off the road. Howard became befuddled and began driving on the wrong side, into what would have been oncoming traffic. Fortunately the road was empty and Dogolov yanked the steering wheel and got them back into the proper lane.

It was past midnight when they arrived at the Imperial Hotel. Diane did not speak. She did not look at Dogolov. She went right to bed. She sighed deeply, ground her teeth. She was asleep.

He lay there, staring at the ceiling, feeling more than ever that there was a great mystery at the heart of life and everyone had solved it except him.

In the morning, Howard took them to the train station. He carried a slip of paper with instructions. “The place is called Ryokan Shokaro, or something like that. This here’s the address.” He showed the slip of paper to Dogolov; it was covered with Japanese writing. “You just show this to the cab driver. The ryokan, it’s a real quaint Japanese-style inn. Some people like ’em. Wouldn’t catch me dead sleeping there.” He cleared his throat, hitched his trousers, then took off, skittering through the cavernous station.

When they went to board, they discovered Howard had taken them to the wrong gate. Theirs was as far from where they now were as was possible in the huge station. They made their train but just barely.

On the trip, Dogolov stared out the window while Diane read a novel by Judith Krantz. They sped past mile after mile of rice paddies laid out in precise squares and neatly terraced hills, thick and lush with green tea plants. And there were homes here and towns and industry, all of it elaborately woven together; traveling through city and countryside, it was impossible to tell where one began and the other left off.

They would pass a forest, then a stretch of factories, then terraced gardens, farms, houses. Behind it all were mountains. And they, too, seemed somehow neat, designed.

The train rounded a bend and a breathtaking hill of pine rose almost straight up above them, a cascading carpet of rich green. And he remembered an article he had read in the English-language Japan Times. Bodies that had been found in the forests surrounding Mt. Fuji, hundreds of young people who had committed suicide.

He opened the script he had been working on for Richert and tried to read it, but thought, no, perhaps it’s better to kill yourself in the trees below Mt. Fuji.

It was dusk when they reached Hiroshima. They ryokan was in a narrow alley not far from the train station. The building appeared small and rundown, the kind of third rate hotel you’d find on the edge of downtown in any American big city.

There was a small, drab lobby, with a middle-aged woman behind a desk watching a television game show. Dogolov showed her the slip of paper Howard had given him. She held up one finger and, nodding, backed away. After a short while she returned, followed by a young American couple, a ragged young man wearing thick glasses and a stunningly attractive girl with bright red hair. “The whole place is booked up for the night,” the girl said. “And she’s never heard of Richert but it’s fine. They’re moving someone else to another ryokan.”

“The Japanese,” the young man said. “Beautiful people. Oh, yes.”

His name was Burlingame and she was Tracy Rose but he called her T.R. and they were from the state of Oregon and Burlingame was in love with T.R., but T.R. had a Japanese boyfriend and things were very bad. He had traveled all the way from the states to see her and she was jerking him around.

Dogolov learned all this while, with Burlingame’s assistance the people in the room Paul and Diane would be occupying, a very old, frail couple, were moved. They had several cardboard suitcases and when Paul moved forward to help, the old lady, clad in kimono and obi, waved him away. She smiled and said ‘arrigato, arrigato’-thank you-through toothless gums.

“I hope you don’t mind me unloading on you,” Burlingame said. “I just had to talk to someone.” Would Dogolov be interested in hanging out that night? He had a few problems he wanted to discuss with him.

“Some other time,” Dogolov said, feeling more tired than he ever had in his life.

A comfortable night, however, was not in the cards. The room was tiny and very cold; there was no bed, only a mat, a futon, over tatami, a bamboo-covered floor. What little heat there was came from a small electric brazier next to the futons. The toilet was in the hall, an elongated hole in the floor.

Dogolov huddled with Diane against the electric brazier, attempting to get warm. The look of disgust on her face stabbed in the heart of him. He felt inept beyond all measure.

He began to shiver. He wrapped the quilted spread around them and hugged the electric brazier, but he could not stop trembling. “I have a chill,” he said. Diane embraced him, holding him without any real feeling.

He slept badly. He had a maze of dreams about Richert and Hollywood and humiliation and duplicity.

He awoke and it was just getting light out; the room was stifling. There was a steady drumbeat of rain outside the window. He pushed aside the rice-paper screen: rain was pouring down, making a small lake out of the courtyard beyond the window.

Richert was waiting for them in the lobby. He had a Japanese driver and a Mercedes limousine outside.

“We have to rush this-I did want to clarify a few things, though,” he said during the drive to Peace Park on the site of the epicenter of the first atomic bomb blast. “I want to see if you’re into my mind on this thing. The reason I’m doing this picture, is to demonstrate the utter stupidity of the atomic option.”

“Yes,” Paul said.

“What are you sitting so close to me for? Look at all the room back here! Do you have to sit right next to me?” Richert said.

“Sorry, sorry,” Dogolov muttered. Humiliated, he moved a few inches away. What does he want from me? How close was I sitting? He couldn’t bear to look at his wife.

“There are world-wide implications here. We incinerated people. It could happen again. And I’m determined to see that it doesn’t. At the same time, I’m committed that this picture bring the people in. Now the nuclear thing is sometimes thought of as a loser. I’m not interested in loser concepts-”

“Yes.”

“-so we have to get some juice into this thing, get the people into the theaters, make it a winner. I’ll be frank with you. I’m not sure you have the winner mentality-”

“Rich,” Paul heard himself saying, “when it comes to this nuclear thing, the only way to approach it is with a winner mentality.”

“You always want to get arty. Now you and I know that’s where the really important stuff in film is, the Bergmans, the Fellinis, but we’re not making films for the archives. We’re here to reach the great mass of people.”

“I would have kept writing novels if I was just interested in my own narrow point of view.” Paul could see Diane staring out the window, her thin lips a narrow contemptuous line.

“What I’m envisioning is a worldwide gross of 100 million as well as a cogent statement on this whole nuclear problem. There’s an objective correlative here-the Japanese gangster and the nuclear gangsterism of American imperialism.”

“I see what you want.”

“So I have the concept and we’ll see if you can get into my head and fulfill what I have there.”

“I’ll do my best. That’s why I wanted to make the trip. I wanted to get into your head.”

“Good. In my head I’ve really bottom-lined it out. So why don’t you just get in there and live with it?”

“That’s my full intention,” Paul said, loathing himself.

The rain had cleared. The day was bright and sunny. A breeze blew across the acres of grass-covered park. The place was filled with kids as young as three and four on up to late teenagers, all dressed in their school uniforms, all happily chattering away.

“This is what I wanted you to particularly see,” Richert said, pausing before a large skeletal dome structure. “It was right here that the bomb hit. Okay, long shot, the dome. Another angle-”

“Do you want me to take notes?”

“Just follow what I’m saying. A young American girl is moving to the dome.”

“I know just the type. We met her last night, didn’t we darling?”

He was trying to include Diane in the process, hoping to alter the contempt on her face before Richert picked up on it. “Young, really attractive girl from Oregon living over here, Japanese scholar back home. Now, I don’t know if you want this to be an R thing or not, but you have these experiences, meet people-”

“I’m not interested in your experiences! There was a French film made in the fifties about a French woman and a Japanese man-”

“Hiroshima, Mon Amour!” Dogolov said, proud that he knew the film, in fact, had many ideas concerning it. He had seen it-when?-1959, Bleeker Street Cinema, had been stunned and shaken by it, over the years, haunted by it, till even now, just thinking about it, emotion welled inside him, a sob riding from the center of his chest, profound, shattering film!

“That film’s arty and a loser today-”

“It would never make it today,” Paul said. “Even in its own day, I thought it was vastly overrated.”

Richert shot him an annoyed look and Dogolov shut up and the contempt he felt for himself was monumental.

Richert went on describing the film he saw in his head. There was almost nothing left of the original script and Dogolov could not follow it and consoled himself with the idea that no one else could either, that an hour from now even Richert would have no idea what foolishness he had been spouting. Dogolov had gone through this with him before. The main thrust, and this he did understand, was that there should be good guys and bad guys and that the American gangsters, in cahoots with the CIA and the Japanese Yakuza, were smuggling dope from Thailand. There was an American girl who is being set up by the CIA for some nefarious militaristic scheme and she meets a Japanese man who was a small child in Hiroshima when the bomb went off and he is now working for nuclear disarmament around the world and-Richert’s inventiveness was endless. “You see what I mean? I’m talking story now.”

“That’s the whole thing. Story is what it’s all about.”

“The French picture had no story. You understand the difference?”

“I’m sick of those oblique, elliptical films.” Paul said. “It’s all story. I test it out on Diane. Diane loves a good story. She’s reading this book by Judith Krantz-”

“Please!” Richert said. “How can you compare this to Judith Krantz? Get into my head, damn it!”

“I’m in there.” Paul felt as though he would throw up.

Richert led them into the Peace Park Museum-“to get the feel of the real event,” he said. “Burning flesh. Melting eyeballs. That sort of thing. I want this film to grab people right in the bowels!”

Someone was pulling at him now as he and Richert and Diane struggled to get across the lobby, he turned and there was Burlingame, the young American from the ryokan, face flushed with excitement, waving a large vinyl bound book at Paul. It was a guest book that visitors to the museum signed. “Look at this!” he shouted. “This is important!”

“You understand where I’m coming from?” Richert said.

“Look at this!” Burlingame shouted.

“A kid from our inn,” Paul said. “The girl I was telling you about-?”

But Richert, who had spotted a well-dressed Japanese man standing with his chauffer across the lobby, wasn’t listening. “I’m running late. Just remember ‘kiss’-”

“Kiss?” Dogolov said.

“Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

“What are we supposed to do?” Diane said. “You brought us over here, now what are we supposed to do?”

“I know what we’re supposed to do,” Dogolov insisted. But he was talking to Richert’s retreating ponytail: he was already moving swiftly away from them, shoving children and their teachers out of his path as he made his way toward the Japanese man and chauffeur at the far exit.

Paul hadn’t gotten into his head and had no idea what he was supposed to do.

“Go after him!” Diane said.

Burlingame was pushing the guest book under Paul’s face. “This is really important,” he said, on the edge of hysteria.

The handwriting was a childish scrawl: “A lot of this atomic bomb wiping out Hiroshima is overrated. That’s the past. What about the future? If you really want to do something meaningful help save the whales and dolphins!”

“That really says it, doesn’t it?” Burlingame said.

Richert would have a tough time selling nuclear war to this kid, Paul thought.

Diane and Paul rushed outside, Burlingame following along, talking a rapid streak, advising them where to go and what to see in Japan. “We’ve lost him!” Diane moaned. “What are we going to do now?”

Dogolov shook his head and stared about him, thinking, if you were standing here just as the bomb hit, you wouldn’t feel a damn thing, you wouldn’t die, you’d atomize; bang! and you’re one with the universe, a minus sign circling a plus sign in one of those building blocks of matter. Maybe that’s not so bad.

Burlingame continued on with them chattering away: “Women are, you see, they’re very-more than different, it’s more primal than that, they’re, they’re…”

Midway across the park, mercifully, he was diverted by a Japanese man who approached to ask in English: could he touch Diane’s hair? He had a lumpy, formless face and eyes that did not focus. There was something unnerving about him.

Diane said yes, and he took several strands in his hand and caressed them. He thanked them, but did not leave. He stood there staring at Dogolov with his dull eyes. He said quietly in perfect English: “Go to Kyoto.”

“What?” Dogolov was not certain he had heard the man properly.

“You must see the fire,” the man said. His stare was unnerving. Dogolov wanted to be away from him.

“I don’t understand,” Dogolov said.

“The Fire Festival,” said Burlingame. “In Kurama. Above Kyoto. I’ve always wanted to go there.” And then he was off talking about whales and dolphins, lecturing the man on oceanic ecology, while Dogolov and Diane beat a hasty retreat.

Yes, Dogolov decided, that’s what they’d do-go to Kyoto to the Fire Festival. “He was trying to tell me something,” he said. “Fire. Of course. Of course.”

Diane agreed if Dogolov would buy her a silk kimono and a porcelain vase when they got there.

They checked out of their ryokan, praying that they’d depart before Burlingame caught them. Mercifully, they missed him.

They took the train to Kyoto, arriving at night. Dogolov had found the perfect ryokan for them; he came across it in a guide book. According to the book, it was the favorite haunt of the great film director Akira Kurasawa. Whenever he was in the city, he stayed there.

Kyoto was special to Kurasawa, the book said. His film, Rashomon, his first great success, had been set there: rashomon, in fact, was Kyoto’s western gate.

The director spent much time in this ancient city, walking its magical streets, gaining inspiration from its quiet temples, luxuriant palaces, graceful gardens. The book did not mention the Fire Festival or whether it did anything for Kurasawa.

Paul imagined meeting the director in the lobby of the ryokan. They would have a beer together and talk about Go. No-chess. Kurasawa is interested in chess. The Master discusses his suicide attempt. Dogolov shares his thoughts about art and commerce. He pitches a story. Death and the artist. We are burned by the fire of death; we transfigure it into art. They decide to make a film together.

The ryokan was cramped and rundown. The lobby was a drab concrete room with several metal chairs and a black-and-white television set. Not likely Kurasawa would hang around here.

“It has atmosphere,” Dogolov said, in a vain attempt to cheer himself up. He vowed to write the guide book a letter.

They deposited their bags in the cold, drab room and went looking for a place to eat. They walked along a narrow canal which fronted the street on which the ryokan was located.

Paul, reading from the guide book, pointed out places of interest. They turned down an alley which led toward the river. “This is where the geishas have their assignations-”

They moved along the cobblestone alleyway. The buildings were old. They had red lanterns glowing in small windows.

Several women, dressed in geisha kimonos glided past them down the alley, moving with short, mincing steps. They had lacquered hair, very white makeup, small, red-painted bow mouths. They entered one of the doorways. A vision flashed through Paul’s mind-the geishas inside and he is with them. They smother him with kisses. Their mouths are soft as rose petals.

He stood with Diane and it was as though they had entered the past, as though they had somehow melted into history.

They emerged at the far end of the alley on the main avenue. History scattered like smoke, the graceful geishas, lanterns, assignations, formality, tradition; a great avenue of neon exploded before them, throngs of men in business suits, couples out on dates, buses, stores, subways, restaurants with plastic replicas of the food they served in their windows, dance halls, movie theaters. They passed an Arby’s fast food place, a McDonald’s, a Dunkin’ Donut and a 7-11 store.

There was an odor of fish in the air. “Let’s just have a hamburger at McDonald’s,” Paul said.

They ate and did not talk and Dogolov’s stomach burned as he downed his hamburger which tasted of fish oil.

An older man approached them at their table. He spoke in Japanese. He bowed several times. Diane smiled and nodded and the man reached out and caressed her hair.

They left McDonald’s and walked along the canal back toward their ryokan. Paul looked back. The man was watching them from the end of the street.

They went to sleep and the room was cold and he dreamed he was in a cedar forest and there was a funeral in the forest and the coffin was made of cedar.

The next morning Dogolov set out to find the Fire Festival. Kurama, he learned, was a distance away; they would have to take the train.

Diane insisted on shopping first. They spent the morning and much of the afternoon going from store to store. She could not find a vase or kimono that she liked. She wanted to return to the ryokan. Dogolov insisted they go to the Fire Festival.

They walked along the river heading for the train station. It had begun to rain and Diane complained constantly. She was wet and cold and her feet ached. What were they doing? Why had they come here? Why were they even in Japan?

They arrived at the Heian Temple. Diane grew quiet, brooded. Somewhere down a side street a reed flute played; Dogolov recognized the song, Sweet Annie Laurie, and wondered who was playing it here in Kyoto and why?

There was something sad and lost in the melody and Dogolov’s mind passed over many things in his life as he and his wife strolled in silence along cobblestone streets. They came to a boulevard, then a bridge over a river, then Kamo, which cut through the center of the city. The sound of the reed flute followed them for a long while. The rain ended. It was now a soft mist.

They came to the massive red-lacquered gates of the temple but could not enter: it was a holiday and the temple was closed. They bought egg salad sandwiches in a small store nearby and sat eating them at the edge of one of the canals leading to the river.

A thin, shabbily-dressed, middle-aged man had been following them and at first Dogolov thought it might have been the man who had approached them in McDonald’s the night before.

He now stood at some distance watching them and Paul studied him and decided, no, it was not the same man; this man was older, uglier. He carried a camera around his neck which he would raise from time to time and point in Diane’s direction and snap off pictures. “What does he want? He’s really getting under my skin,” she said.

Dogolov waved him over. He came with a quick, quirky shuffle, grinning. “Please leave us alone.”

The man stared at Dogolov and his eyes were dark and empty and Dogolov thought perhaps he doesn’t know English. The man raised his camera and clicked off half a dozen shots. Grinning, he reached out and touched Diane’s hair. She cried out and Dogolov pushed the man and he limped off, but remained a distance away, still watching them.

Diane refused to go on. “I’m wet and tired. I want to go back to the ryokan. You promised to buy me a kimono and vase!”

They argued and Paul grew emotional. “This festival could be important for me! There might be something to write about there! I can’t write about shopping tours of Kyoto!”

“Why do you fool yourself like this?” Diane said. “You try to pretend that you have something in you that’s a real writer and it’s just not true and you won’t admit it. The trust of it is, you never had much to say and you obviously didn’t say it very well, so why don’t you just swallow your pride and earn a living?”

He was thinking, if I could re-write my life, removing all the embarrassments and stupidities, what would I be left with? Anything worth of the name human? A very short life, he concluded. Not a novel or a screenplay, not even a short story. A fragment. But pure gold. “I’m going to the festival,” he said.

“Go,” she said.

“Please come with me.”

“I don’t want to go to your silly festival!” she shouted.

The man with the camera was still watching them. “I don’t like the idea of you wandering around this city alone.”

“Christ! Stop treating me like a child!”

She stormed off, walking in the direction of the river. Paul stared after her and suddenly, seeing her determined figure pushing through the crowds of people milling about the Heian gate, he felt a pang of tenderness cut through him like a knife. Despite the brave front, she was lost and helpless.

She hadn’t always had a hard edge. In the early years of their marriage she had been particularly gentle and understanding. Those qualities had been part of the reason he’d married her. He accused himself: he had done something to change her. It was his fault, but what had he done?

He started to follow after her. She was gone, disappeared into the crowd. He called after her. He pushed ahead. He came to the river. She was nowhere to be seen.

The rain had long since stopped, but the evening was damp. There was a chill in the air. Low clouds rolled in from the mountains above the city. The sun had set.

The distance to the train station was farther than it appeared on the map. His arches began to ache. He missed Diane and regretted having argued with her. Who am I and where am I going?

At last he came to a well-traveled avenue and, leaving the river, followed it to the train station.

Crowds milled about on the street. Inside, the station was jammed wall-to-wall with people; long lines stretched from the ticket counters to the curb outside.

Dogolov wandered through the crowd, feeling bewildered and shy. How to find the train to Kurama? What was he doing here? Where was he going? How far? On the map Kurama looked-well, it could be just about any distance. ON the map the whole country seemed not much bigger than Los Angeles. Kurama would be the distance from, say, Beverly Hills to Malibu.

“Hey! Hey, you!” Someone had come up behind him and was shouting in his ear.

He turned and there was Burlingame, the young man from Hiroshima! Dressed in torn tennis shoes, khaki trousers, sweated through white tee shirt, he stood, chomping on a wad of chewing gum, smiling broadly. Pimply-faced, nervous, tormented Burlingame from Oregon.

How? All the way from Hiroshima to Kyoto and then to run into him at the train station to Kurama? What bizarre forces of synchronicity were at work? “This is something,” Dogolov said. “Meeting like this!”

Burlingame didn’t seem much impressed. He stares at Dogolov without much interest, as though their encounter was the most natural thing in the world. “Going to the festival?”

“If I can find the right train.”

Burlingame turned to a man next to him and began speaking in Japanese. The man did not understand him. Dogolov spoke in English and the man answered and told him where to buy their ticket.

“This is really getting to me,” Burlingame said, deeply miffed, eyes darting about the station, muscles of his jaw working furiously. “Doesn’t anyone understand Japanese in this country?”

“Where’s Tracy?”

“Bitch’s off to Lake Biwa with her Japanese boyfriend. She expects me to follow her, to throw scenes, maybe even to commit hari-kiri. She’s one level deep, while I have all these other layers.” He shoved his way to the head of the ticket line. He began immediately to deal in Japanese with the clerk who understood not one word. He was shunted from clerk to clerk. No one understood him. He grew more tense, more dejected. At last Dogolov, employing pidgin-English, made clear that they wanted two tickets to Kurama. They got them and were on their way.

The train pulled out and began to climb into the mountains. Every few minutes it would stop and more people would pile in. The ride became one big party with people shouting to each other, passing around bottles of Japanese brandy, laughing, singing songs.

Dogolov struggled to get air. His right arm, straining to grip an overhead strap, was numb. His arches ached terribly.

Through the window, he could see fires burning on the mountain above them. The night air had become thick with the fragrance of burnt cedar.

Sparks flew in the darkness outside the train like fireflies. Smoke danced on the night air. The air was alive with fire.

The train pulled into the station at Kurama and everyone emptied the cars at a run.

The town was on fire. Narrow lanes wound through wooden huts and every few feet a bonfire blazed. Men in cloth costumes of ancient samurai, with white bands tied about their heads, danced through the streets carrying immense torches. The streets streamed clots of people, screaming, laughing, chanting, while all about great bonfires raged.

Tall cedar trees, illuminated by enormous stacks of fire, rose high above the town. The air was filled with the odor of burning cedar. Sparks leaped against the dark sky.

Just outside the train station there was an open-air eating spot, a counter, several tables. Perspiring waitresses pushed through the crowd, fighting to serve plates of noodles and bowls of soup. The only vacant seats were at a table occupied by a lone middle-aged Japanese man. Burlingame asked in Japanese if they could sit. The man looked confused. “Do you mind?” Dogolov said.

“Please,” the man said in excellent English.

“Why is it no one understands?” Burlingame said. “Why? What’s wrong with me?”

“They have a peculiar dialect here,” the man said, attempting to be polite. “Japanese is like that. People up north might not be able to understand someone from the south.”

Dogolov and Burlingame ordered two bowls of udon with shrimp tempura.

They ate in silence. Burlingame was becoming increasingly more agitated; Dogolov now regretted having hooked up with him. “I mean I don’t understand it,” the young man said after a while, hungrily shoving tangles of noodles into his mouth. “Why don’t they understand me? Even Tracy. You’d think she’d understand me! Well, what do you expect, bitch changes her name like she does her underwear, which is not really that often. What do you expect.” He suddenly stood, his expression agonized. “I gotta go,” he said. “I gotta move.”

“What’s wrong?” Dogolov said.

“I gotta communicate,” Burlingame said and there was pain in his voice. “I got things to do! I’ll see you in Hiroshima!” And he was off, diving into the crowd. He disappeared down the narrow street.

The Japanese sat there, staring at Dogolov. Dogolov grew uncomfortable under his gaze: there was an unsettling femininity about the man. He began to make conversation, asking questions with little purpose. The man spoke in a very quiet voice, staring at Dogolov.

His name was Inoue, he informed Dogolov; he was a doctor who had studied in the United States. As he spoke, he continued to stare at Dogolov. “Are you here by yourself?” Dogolov asked.

“I’m with a woman,” Inoue said. “I live now in Kyoto. She has a cabin here in the mountains.”

He had taken a bottle of brandy from his coat. He offered Dogolov a drink. It was Japanese brandy and excellent. He and the doctor shared the brandy. “What do the people do in this town?” Dogolov said. Warmed by the brandy, he was beginning to feel more comfortable.

“They are wood-cutters. My friend is a dancer in the Gion District. Have you been there?”

“We’re staying near there, my wife and I.”
“Where is your wife?”

“She stayed in Kyoto.”

“She doesn’t like fire?” Dr. Inoue asked with a polite smile.

“I don’t know,” Dogolov said.

They left the area of the train station. The doctor led Dogolov through the narrow main street. The town was one long street set between the high, thickly forested slopes of the mountain.

The whole town was filled with bonfires and torch-bearing men. The air was sweet with burning cedar. People drank and sang, weaving and dancing drunkenly through the town. The sky was red with reflected flame: smoke poured about the trees; it was impossible to tell what was sky and what was fire.

The crush of the crowd increased. Sparks showered down and people pushed frantically against each other trying to avoid being burned.

They climbed a hill to an enormous shrine where the largest bonfire burned. The whole top of the hill was on fire. Dogolov’s eyes and nostrils stung from the smoke.

They watched the fire for a while. The crush of people was extraordinary. Dogolov’s head was swimming with fire. “Come this way,” the doctor said.

They turned down a side path and moved farther up the mountain, away from the fire. There were few houses in this area. “Have you been to Hiroshima?” the doctor said.

“Yes. That’s where I met the young American.”

“I am from Hiroshima,” the doctor said. “I was there when the bomb fell.” He turned and gazed at Dogolov. His eyes were deep and black. “I was born in the United States, but my father took me back to Japan at an early age-just before World War II. My father was a thoughtful, careful man. He believed Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini would prevail.”

They continued up the steep hill. “I was thirty miles from Hiroshima when the bomb fell. I saw the mushroom cloud and, as a child, was thrilled by it. Later, victims horribly burned by the blast came to our family’s house, begging for water. The doctor warned everybody not to give it to them because their insides were burned and it would kill them.”

“Horrible to have witnessed as a young child,” Dogolov said.

“Not so horrible,” Inoue said. “To a child war is a game. Even an atomic war. We live with everything, because it is all we know. Now when I look back it is a dream.”

They had climbed high above the town. They turned and looked and it was all flame and smoke. “I would like you to meet my friend,” the doctor said.

There was a low wooden cottage at the crest of the hill. It was set in a ring of cedar trees.

They moved to the door. The doctor looked back at him and there was a hooded and dead glaze to his stare, and Dogolov suddenly felt something sink inside him and was afraid. I’m drunk, Dogolov was thinking, and I’m distorting things.

The doctor pushed through the curtains covering the doorway and motioned for Dogolov to enter.

A young woman, dressed in a black kimono, lay on a mat on the floor. She had on white makeup; her mouth was a small blood-red bow and here eyes were very narrow and dark and she was exquisite. A lantern burned on the floor near her. Dr. Inoue spoke to her and she stared at Dogolov. “Sit,” she said. He sat next to her on the mat.

“I’ll leave you alone,” the doctor said. There was another room to the cabin and the doctor pushed through the curtains leading to the room and was gone.

Dogolov did not speak. He could feel the girl watching him. “You have no grasp on the world. You’re unhappy,” she said. Her voice was quiet and lightly accented. It almost seemed as though she were singing the words.

“Yes,” said Dogolov. He realized he was very drunk. Everything smelled of burned cedar to him.

“Let go, then,” she said. “Why try to hold on to what makes you unhappy?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not what I thought I was.”

“They tell a story,” the girl said, “of a man who had business in the Eastern part of Kyoto. He reached the house of his business when he realized that in the Eestern part of the city there was even more important business for him. But he said ‘I’m here already in the East. There was no set appointment for what is in the other side of the city. What’s in the West will wait for me. I’ll go there some other time. The sloth of a moment is turned into the sloth of a lifetime.'”

He looked at her and he did not understand and he knew he was very drunk, he was not thinking rationally, he was in danger. Where was the doctor? He thought he heard him stirring in the next room. “Is Inoue your husband?” he said.

“He is my brother,” the girl said. She stretched out and drew Dogolov to her. She kissed him. Her mouth was cool as though she held ice in it. She opened her kimono and then he was making love to her and it was quiet, gentle and his whole being seemed to ache with knowledge of her. How curious! he was thinking. I met the young American from Hiroshima and then-where is he now? Where am I?

As he moved inside the Japanese girl he sensed the curtains leading to the next room stir and he felt certain Inoue was standing behind them, watching the two of them make love.

He fell into a deep sleep.

It was dawn when he awoke. The girl was gone. He rose, dressed and walked outside. In the trees beyond the cabin, Dr. Inoue stood. He was stripped to the waist and was moving in a slow dance.

Dogolov waited for the doctor to acknowledge his presence, but he didn’t and he started back down the hill toward the town.

The fires were dying out. The streets were deserted. Smoke hung over the houses, curled against the hills.

The air was like ice and Dogolov shivered in the morning.

In the restaurant at the train station he had a sweet roll and coffee while waiting for his train.

The morning was gray. Kyoto, as the train rushed through the suburbs, appeared flat, dreary. Fog lay in a thin gray layer above the river. He got off the train where he had boarded it and walked along the river for a very long time.

The air was damp against his face, the walkway along the river slick with moisture.

He approached the canal leading to the inn where he and Diane were staying. In the alleyway along the canal someone was playing a reed flute, Sweet Annie Laurie. Was it the same flute as the day before? How strange to be here in Kyoto listening to a Scottish song on the reed flute.

At his inn the woman behind the desk looked at him as he entered, and there was something frightened in her look. She stared at him and then looked quickly away. Everything is unreal, he was thinking.

The door to his room was open. Two Japanese men waited in the room. One spoke in excellent English. “Something has happened to your wife,” he said. “Last night a man with a camera followed her from the Heian Temple. In an alley just off the Shizo bridge, he stabbed her to death.”

Dogolov could hear in the distance Sweet Annie Laurie, softly, softly, almost inaudibly, a sigh on the wind. And he thought, Wake up. Wake up now. Wake up.

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