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THE GIRL AT THE RICE CRACKER SHOP
“Thank goodness it’s finally a bit cooler. It’s only June, for goodness’ sake.”
Emerging from the back of the shop, Satoko began rearranging the packets of rice crackers on the shelves.
“You just got out of the hospital, Grandma. You shouldn’t be running around so much. Dad will give me a hard time if he sees you carrying on like this.” Naho frowned.
“It’s okay, really. I’m better now. That’s why the hospital let me come home. It’s back to business as usual. You know that old saying about how people who don’t work have no right to eat? It won’t be long before you’ll have to stand on your own two feet.”
“Oh God, not that again.” Naho crammed a piece of mayonnaise-flavored rice cracker into her mouth.
Satoko peered into her granddaughter’s face.
“But my, you do love your rice crackers. I know it’s the family business and all that, but you’ve been eating those things since the day you were born. How you don’t get sick of them I’ll never know.”
“This is a new flavor.”
“New or not, a rice cracker’s still just a rice cracker. I can’t bear the things myself. They play havoc with my teeth.”
“Then why did you spend fifty years running a rice cracker store?”
“Like I’ve told you before, Naho, we only started selling rice crackers thirty years ago. We used to sell Japanese sweets until your father decided to switch to rice crackers. Gosh, I still miss those sweet bean jellies.”
“Miss them?” said Naho, pursing her lips. “How? You’re always eating the things.”
Just then, a plump man in a gray suit opened the glass door and entered the store.
“Hello, all,” he sang out cheerfully, giving a little bow.
“Oh, Mr. Takura, thanks for dropping by,” said Satoko. “I feel terrible making you go out of your way in this heat.”
“That’s not a problem. This is my job, after all. Besides, it’s already cooled down a lot this afternoon. At noon, it was unbearable.”
“You must be exhausted. Come in and I’ll fix you a nice cool drink.” Satoko motioned him toward the room behind the store. It was the family living room.
“Thank you, but I’ve just come to pick up that … you know.” Using the tips of two fingers, Takura sketched a square in the air.
“My medical certificate, you mean? No problem. Naho and I went to the hospital today. I told her I’d be fine by myself, but she insisted on coming along.”
Satoko kicked off her sandals.
“It’s all right, Grandma. I’ll get it.” Naho gently edged her grandmother aside and disappeared into the back room.
“You know where it is?” Satoko called out.
“Of course. I’m the one who put it there. You’re the one with no idea where anything is.”
Her grandmother must have made some sort of comment as Naho heard the sound of laughter behind her.
“Don’t forget the tea while you’re at it,” Satoko yelled.
“Yes, I know.”
Naho clucked her tongue. What a nag her grandma was.
She poured out a glass of cold oolong tea, put it on a tray, and went back to the shop. Her grandmother and Mr. Takura were happily chatting away.
“I’m delighted to see you looking so well. When was I last here? Four days ago? You look so much better already.” Takura shook his head in amazement.
“Being back home has helped. I feel much better. I get to be up and doing even though Naho’s always telling me to take it easy. Such a pest.”
“That’s only because she’s worried about you.” Takura reached out and plucked the glass of oolong tea off the tray. “Ah, thank you. It looks delicious.”
“Here you go, Grandma.”
Naho handed an envelope to Satoko.
Satoko took a single sheet of paper out of the envelope, glanced over it, and held it out to Takura.
Takura took the document and looked it over.
“Good heavens, you were in the hospital for two whole months? That must have been tough.”
“I wouldn’t have minded if they’d actually taken care of what I was sent in for, but they didn’t do anything about that. Instead, they found out I had something else wrong with me and then spent two whole months treating that. So frustrating.”
“The certificate says you had an infection of the bile duct. Oh, what’s this here? You also had tests for an aneurysm?”
“The aneurysm’s the important thing. I went in to have it operated on, but the operation was postponed.”
“But you will have the operation at some point?”
“Apparently, yes. But it’s probably better for me just to keep going as long as I can. Operations can be risky at my age.”
“I see what you mean. It’s a difficult call to make.” Takura was looking a little uncomfortable.
“Is the certificate in order?” Satoko asked.
“Yes, along with the documents you gave me the other day, I’ve got everything I need. I’ll go back to the office and process it as fast as I can. Your hospitalization claim will be paid by next month at the latest.”
“You’re going to go back to the office now? That’s terrible.”
“Not at all, not at all. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Takura put the certificate into his briefcase and smiled at Naho. “Thank you very much for the tea.”
“No. Thank you,” Naho replied.
Satoko walked Takura to the street and waved to him as he went on his way.
About two hours later, Fumitaka—Satoko’s son and Naho’s father—got back home. There was grime on the collar of his white polo shirt.
“I was at the rice cracker wholesaler,” he said, slipping off his shoes. “On the way back, it looked like something big was going on over at Kodenmacho. There were loads of police cars around. No sign of a car crash or anything like that, though.”
“Something serious?” Naho suggested.
“Why else would the cops be all over the place?”
“This area’s not safe anymore,” declared Satoko, who was in the kitchen tasting the miso soup. “There are just too many newcomers moving into those new apartment complexes.”
Fumitaka said nothing. He turned the TV on to watch the baseball game while Naho busied herself with setting the table. The idea that new apartment buildings meant more people—including bad people—moving into the neighborhood was a theory Satoko never tired of expounding upon.
The rule in the Kamikawa family was to wait and have dinner once all three of them were home. Since Fumitaka had been out, they were eating later than usual this evening.
Naho had been doing all the cooking until a week ago, when Satoko came home from the hospital. Now everything was back to normal.
Naho had been in kindergarten when her mother was killed in a car crash. Although she’d been little more than a baby at the time, some of the shock and sorrow of those days stayed with Naho even now. That her father was around all day running the family store definitely softened the blow. Satoko’s presence also helped. Although she hungered for a mother’s love, she had Satoko to cherish her and feed her. In fact, the other kids were always jealous when they peeked into Naho’s lunch box.
Back in April, Naho had paled with shock when she learned that Satoko was critically ill. The news caught her off guard, and she couldn’t stop crying.
As Satoko had explained to the insurance salesman, she’d originally been hospitalized to have an aneurysm removed. Before she was operated on, however, she developed a raging fever. No one knew the cause, but it was severe enough for her to lose consciousness.
She was unconscious for three days. When Satoko came around on the fourth day, Naho burst into tears all over again.
The doctor told her that Satoko’s fever was caused by cholangitis, an infection of the bile duct, and in that moment, Naho realized that the person she had most depended on her whole life was now an old woman ridden with disease.
When Satoko was discharged, Naho held her grandmother’s hand and said to her: “You took care of me for many years. Now it’s my turn to look after you.”
Touched by her granddaughter’s words, Satoko wept loudly.
However, their lovefest didn’t last. At first Satoko was willing to overlook Naho’s various domestic missteps, but gradually they started to get on her nerves. Nothing her granddaughter did was right. Satoko criticized her and sometimes barged in and took control of things. Stubborn and quick-tempered, she had no idea how to avoid hurting Naho’s feelings. Unfortunately, Naho’s temperament was similar. “If all you’re going to do is complain, why don’t you just do it yourself?” In no time at all, everything was back to how it had been before Satoko went into the hospital.
No one was more pleased about that than Fumitaka. He’d lost ten pounds while Naho was in charge of the cooking. Now that Satoko was back in the kitchen, he was starting to put the weight back on.
“By the way, you are going to your beauty school, aren’t you?” Fumitaka asked Naho. “You’re not cutting classes?”
“Of course not, Dad. Today’s a school holiday. That’s why I’m at home.”
“That’s all right, then.”
“My little Naho, a hairdresser. I really hope you can make the grade.”
“Of course I will.” Naho glared at her grandmother. She could hardly come out and say that she’d had to skip several days of school because of her grandmother’s condition.
“The important thing is for you to learn to stand on your own two feet, so you can earn money and take of yourself,” said Fumitaka. “I know I’ve said this before, but—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times. ‘People who don’t work have no right to eat.’”
Copyright © 2001 by Keigo Higashino. Translation copyright © 2018 by Giles Murray