Origami (Mauricio Palazzo)

Translated by Toshiya Kamei
Edited by Kathryn Hummel

The work at Gaspanic consisted of waiting tables, preparing drinks, making pizzas and hot dogs, receiving payments, making chitchat at the bar, and keeping at bay the mice that hid behind the refrigerator and oven, armed only with my eyes and a broom. It was in Roppongi, the sin district for foreigners full of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, after-hour establishments, and strip joints; where you, friendly reader, can get girls and drugs without problem if you have money and a desire to have fun.

It’s easy. Leaving the subway station, you only have to walk along the avenue that leads to the Tokyo Tower to be bombarded by music and neon signs, which mercilessly illuminate the faces of revelers and the local fauna comprising of African flyers, Chinese sex workers offering massages for five thousand yen, waiters, bartenders, chefs, DJs, dishwashers, and hundreds of beautiful ‘hostesses’ and strippers of all nationalities who, decked out in their high heels, graciously rush to their work.  

The shift was ten hours, with a thirty-minute break, from 8 pm to 6 am. Minimum hourly wage, without food. In that half hour I would run to a Matsuya to gobble down a ‘donburi’ of rice with some strips of meat and onion, along with a watery miso soup. In the remaining nine and a half hours, even if the place was empty, I was strictly forbidden to sit down and had to be on my feet to greet customers with an enthusiastic ‘Irasshaimase!’ and a perfect smile.

The pizzeria was associated with a nightclub of the same name, a popular club with obscure, sleazy hip hop blasting at a deafening level, where you could barely walk without bumping into a damp body. At four in the morning the club spat out a drunken and hungry crowd composed mostly of African-American soldiers, tourists, and Japanese girls whose parents, if they had seen their daughters, would have ipso facto committed seppuku, mortally humiliated by their miniskirts and raunchy dancing.

That was the hour with the highest movement, between four and five. The pizzeria bustled with people and we three workers ran from one place to another, shouting orders over smoke, conversations, and music. Megumi was the supervisor: twenty-seven years old, tiny, dyed blonde hair and crooked teeth, which is considered ‘kawaii’. She listened to romantic songs and dreamed of getting married and leaving the house she shared with her mother and brother, where she was the main breadwinner. Patrick was twenty-two years old, German, and staying for a while with his father who had married a Japanese woman, the second marriage for them both. He was what they call a good boy: he didn’t smoke and only occasionally drank beer, but he soon taught me how to eat hot dogs and pizzas secretly and the technique of taking them home.

His visa didn’t allow him to work in a bar either, so when word spread that immigration officials were nearby, we would sit and pretend to be customers, or simply hide in the storage room, which also functioned as a smoking area, until the danger passed.

The manager, a simple front for an illicit organization, was an eyesore who could have been anywhere from thirty to sixty: dyed blonde, all skin and bones, always clinging to a long cigarette and whose name I prefer not to remember. The most unpleasant person you could meet in life. Never, during the six months I worked there, did she even deign to look at us, Patrick and me. As soon as she came in, sashaying like the shogun’s daughter, she demanded ‘caffé oré’ (‘café au lait’ in the mysterious Japanese pronunciation), sat at a table in the corner, crossed her legs in a braid, and focused her attention on her ‘keitai’ (cell phone), ignoring us completely.

Only Megumi could bring the manager’s ‘caffé oré,’ because she deigned to exchange a few words with her. I remember that I saw her bow in respect or apology only twice: once almost to the ground, before a young guy in a Mercedes Benz who came to scold her for who knows what, and another time in front of the TV star Beat Takeshi, who one evening got out of a majestic white Bentley on the way to a bar adjacent to our place; we all went to say hello with the intimate feeling that meeting Beat Takeshi on any given night was the most normal thing in Tokyo.

At the end of the bar, among customers, I can still see Kanako, an unappealing ‘arafo’ (around forty), who with an ever-present glass of white wine in her hand told whoever would listen to her that, in effect, she was a social worker rather than a mere escort, because although her job was to provide sexual services, she only did it with disabled people — physical and mental — adolescent ‘cherry boys’, and with forty-something otaku and ‘hikikomori’, poor creatures condemned to solitude, too timid or too ugly to get a girlfriend in the demanding Japanese dating scene.

Madoka, another regular, was a perfect girlfriend type, born and bred in Roppongi. Always well-composed, she was studying English literature at college with one goal: to marry a rich man. That didn’t stop her from going out once in a while with a black man she liked. Madoka was always with Kumiko, a skinny girl with short hair and mischievous eyes who posed seminude — and sometimes buck naked — in men’s magazines that can be browsed, free of charge, at any ‘konbini’ (convenience store).

One night Kumiko’s boyfriend, an American soldier, came looking for her, enraged after learning of her promising career in the adult entertainment industry. He tried to stir up a row, but the poor man had been so badly beaten by life, had seen such terrible things in Iraq, that he no longer had the strength to make a drama. We calmed him down soon enough. He lit a cigarette, drained half his beer in one gulp, and told us his story, which was eating him up.

‘We were driving in a convoy of Hummers. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, kids playing soccer appear in the middle of the road. Everyone knows that the order is never to stop a convoy, because it could be an ambush. So Peter floors it, the whole convoy seems to jump like a spring and we run over the boys without stopping…We hit three kids and one died, that’s for sure, that boy couldn’t have survived…Now they tell me Peter shot himself in his house in Wyoming and I’m seriously thinking about following his steps, bro, what else can I do?’

‘Well, the first time I had to clean up the remains of a person who had committed suicide in my station, I threw up three days in a row’ said Tetsuo, then burst out laughing. That night he’d had too much to drink, but he was usually a courteous subway employee.

‘But how? Did you have to clean it yourself? What about the police?’ we asked in chorus.

‘The police took the body, but I had to clean up the whole mess…The good thing is that they sent me to a psychiatrist and gave me three days off.’

‘Only three days!?’

‘And a bonus at the end of the month…But my job is like that, I got used to it. You get used to everything. That’s why sometimes I think we are like this simple origami. Life, with its twists, can turn us into whatever it wants. And you have to adapt yourself to those figures, fit into the mould life offers you. I for one have managed to let my mind go absolutely blank and not think about anything while scrubbing with a push broom. There are even times, especially when I’ve just woken up, but still lying in bed, when I fervently wish someone would kill himself at my station so that extra money and a few days of rest would come my way.’

With a theatrical gesture, he placed a perfectly executed paper heron on the bar.


Mauricio Palazzo is a journalist based in Santiago de Chile. He is the author of Origami (2016). His work has appeared in Eunoia Review and Ginosko Literary Journal.

Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His recent translations of Latin American literature include books by Claudia Apablaza, Carlos Bortoni, and Ana García Bergua.