When I was a child, my grandmother told me where words go at night. All the letters
gather together, she said. They crawl off of notebooks, supermarket receipts, advertisements for pesticides, and undelivered love notes. Together, they creep into the dusk and through the desert dunes, leaving behind a trail of imprints on the sand. They reach the ocean before daybreak and, one by one, dive in for a swim, folding over rocks like foamless waves and blackening the shore with wet ink. “Always treat your words with care,” she liked to say. “They have a secret life of their own.”
When I went to school, I was referred to speech correction classes to fix my stuttering: they called it “childhood-onset fluency disorder.” They taught me how to answer my teachers without hesitation, to speak with proper grammar at a proper volume, and to keep a file of acceptable responses in the shallow, easily reachable part of my throat. I found a part-time job at a word-convenience store, where we sell pre-written words, or “Already-Mades,” to salarymen who must speak in inoffensive but hollow templates.
Every morning a new batch arrives, wrapped in cellophane and packed neatly in plastic boxes. I wait for the packages to defrost, then stack them carefully onto separate shelves, each labelled “Saying Thank You” or “Apologizing to Your Boss” or “Appeasing Your
Mother-in-Law.” At 7:00 a.m. the men begin to file in. They enter in a single straight line,
dressed in pristinely starched suits and knowing precisely what they will buy. I process the men at the register, scanning the barcodes and watching as they tear the wrappings off. They
consume the Already-Mades in large, unsavoring gulps, archiving the words for later use.
Fumi arrives late, running as usual, and I join her as she stacks the shelves.
“It’s almost Valentine’s Day,” I say.
“Oisa.” She smiles, slightly out of breath, and I notice the small gap between her teeth. “I’ll be working on Valentine’s Day too—Oi-neppe!”
Fumi speaks a thick Chiba dialect, often adding “dappe” or “pe” to the end of her
sentences. She jokes that she’s always mocked for it at school, but I want to tell her that when she speaks, it sounds like a stone skipping over still water. An earnest, direct expression tapped out on the tongue at a steady tempo. When I listen to her speak, it makes my own Tokyo-born, “standard” speech seem all too formal—polite but frigid.
“What do you think about the Valentine’s Day Already-Mades?” I ask her, reaching
towards the top shelf.
Fumi always pauses for a second before she speaks. I sometimes imagine that she is lowering a bucket into a well within herself, somewhere deep past her esophagus in between her bowels and her guts, slowly pulling up the words that live there.
“That freeze-dried, factory-pressed, pre-packaged stuff?” Fumi says loudly, and the salarymen near her turn pink. “The ones with glittery red stickers that say ‘Tried and tested by your favorite actors and actresses?’ If someone gave that to me… Uccha-cchau-ppe.”
I laugh, and as I crouch for the low shelf, I notice that Fumi’s shoelaces are tangled. Before I can tell her, Fumi takes a step toward the rack. I watch as she loses her balance, pushing hard into the shelf. The rack slowly tips off of the floor, and, with a horrible metallic clang, crashes into the adjoining shelf. The two shelves smash down like massive dominoes, and the Already-Made packages spill out in a wave of plastic. Fumi and I look at each other. The salarymen wait by the register, anxious about catching the next train.
A pause. Then, the cellophane on the packages begins to rustle. A few at first, then all at once, the wrapping rips from within. Out of the ruptures, little black letters emerge like spiders crawling out of newly hatched eggs. They flood into the convenience store and stretch their limbs, free from the other letters they had been pressed with.
Soon, the walls and windows are plastered with inky scribbles. The suited men have been swallowed whole, submitting without resistance to the tidal wave of indecipherable words. When they have consumed everything in the shop but Fumi and I, the letters file out of the store and start to march through the city in a giant parade. I look at Fumi as she marvels over the festival of words, her eyes shimmering with delight.
“I like you,” I want to say, but the words don’t come.