Tony Concannon grew up in Massachusetts and began writing in 1979. Much of his fiction is set in Japan, where he taught English for 18 years. Since returning to the United States, he has been working in human services. Stories of his have appeared in On The Premises, Columbia Journal, Litro, The Taproot Literary Review, and Thema.
by Tony Concannon
It was late June when I dribbled my basketball into the park and saw the backboard was gone. The rainy season had started and I hadn’t been down to the park for nearly a week.
On the other side of the park a group of Japanese boys were playing soccer and I walked into the middle of their game and pointed at the pole to which the backboard had been fixed. “What happened?” I asked in Japanese.
The boys stopped and looked at each other.
“When did it happen?” I asked when I got no response.
“Friday night,” one of the boys said and the others nodded.
I thanked them.
On my way out of the park I slammed my basketball against the fence. I was disappointed, to say the least. The court had become my refuge, almost a home away from home, especially since Yuriko had moved out on me in December. Other than the ones in the schoolyards, which were always locked, it was the only outdoor basketball court I’d ever seen in Japan. I’d discovered it two years earlier when Yuriko and I had rented an apartment in one of the suburbs west of Tokyo. I was no player but I’d always loved shooting baskets and I’d bought myself one of those red, white, and blue balls and started going down to the park in the afternoons and on the weekends. It was a dirt court but the ground was firm. The wooden backboard was attached flush to the thick metal pole and you had to plan your layups carefully to avoid injury. The wood was warped and the gray paint chipped and peeling. There were always groups of Japanese kids playing baseball or soccer in the park and I’d draw lines in the dirt so they, especially the baseball players, wouldn’t get too close.
I wasn’t ready to give up on shooting baskets. I wanted to find out what had happened to the backboard and get a new one put up. I’d seen city workers emptying the trash barrels in the park and I figured the city had jurisdiction over it.
Walking down the road to my apartment, I passed a Japanese man on a bicycle. The man’s son was riding on the back and there were two baseball gloves on the handlebars. The man, who was thin but muscular, and I looked at each other but neither of us spoke. A few weeks earlier my friends and I had had a run-in with him at the park.
I dropped off the basketball at my apartment and headed off to City Hall, which was about a mile away. I’d been there a few times to pay my taxes or health insurance premiums. The woman at the information desk directed me to the far end of the building. A young man was sitting at the counter. At the desk in the rear an older man was smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. Both men listened intently as I explained in Japanese, which I spoke quite well, about the park and the backboard. When I’d finished, the older man addressed me.
“It was stolen,” he said.
The man’s face showed no emotion.
“We think it was a prank,” he said.
“When are you going to replace it?” I asked.
The older man said something I couldn’t catch to the younger man. The older man resumed reading his newspaper.
“There is no money in the budget,” the young man said to me. “You can write out a suggestion and put in the box. Then they’ll consider it for the next budget.” He pointed out the box on top of the counter.
“When will that be?” I asked.
I might not even be in Japan then. I was pissed but I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Do you want to write one?” the young man asked.
It was Thursday and our drinking group met that night. There were four of us: my best friend Keith, Rob, Marty, and myself. All of us were American. We were a somewhat mismatched group. Keith and I were tall and husky and Rob and Marty were shorter and thin. My mind had been on the backboard all afternoon and I was pretty worked up by the time I got to the bar. As soon as I told them what had happened, Rob put into words exactly what I’d been thinking.
“You scared the shit out of some little kid playing soccer, who went home and told his father. Or maybe it was that asshole guy playing catch with his son. Anyway, someone complained. They didn’t know how to handle it. You can’t forbid an American from playing basketball just because some little kid’s afraid of him. So they solve it the Japanese way. They take down the backboard in the middle of the night and say someone stole it. I mean, who’s going to steal a backboard in Japan? It’s not as though people around here have garages to put it on.”
“What am I supposed to do? I can’t prove they took it down.”
“The more I think about it,” Rob said, “the more I’m convinced it was that asshole guy playing catch who complained. He probably has a cousin on the city council. Guys like that always do.”
“Have you seen him since that time?” Keith asked me.
“I see him all the time. He lives right down the road from me. I saw him and his son today.”
“It’s definitely him,” Rob said.
“We’ve got to get back at him,” Marty said. “We’ll steal his bicycle.”
“This is Japan,” Keith said. “If they catch you, you’re screwed.”
“We won’t get caught,” Rob said. “We’ll steal it and tie it to the pole. That way, he’ll know Bill did it.”
“Why would I want him to know it was me?” I asked.
“Because it would have no meaning if he didn’t,” Rob said.
“Maybe it was the French guy,” Marty said. Rob laughed and even Keith smiled.
“Thanks, Marty,” I said. Yuriko had left me for a guy from France.
Rob picked up his glass. “To the backboard,” he said
Later, walking home from the station and when I’d sobered up, I had second thoughts about tying the man’s bicycle to the pole. We had no idea if he’d anything to do with the backboard disappearing. The run-in with him had happened when Keith, Rob, Marty, and Keith’s girlfriend Sachiko had come out to play basketball in May. On the other side of the park a group of boys had had a soccer game going and I’d found a stick and drawn the lines of a basketball court in the dirt.
In the middle of our game the man and his son rode up on a bicycle and started playing catch between us and the boys playing soccer.
“Don’t take your eyes off this one,” Rob muttered. “He might stick one in your ear.”
“He does the same thing every time,” I said. “I think he’s trying to scare me away.”
“We’ll scare him away if he’s not careful.”
“Just ask him to move back,” Keith said. “Sachiko, can you ask him to move back.”
Sachiko, who’d been sitting against the fence, drinking a beer, stood and walked out to the man. He stared ahead as she spoke. When she’d finished, he said something and took one big step away from us. He motioned for the boy to move over. Sachiko walked back to where she’d been sitting.
“That was big of him,” Rob said loudly. “Hey, move back before you kill someone.”
“This park is for children,” the man said in perfect English.
“You don’t look like a child to me,” Rob said.
“You don’t look like a child to me,” the man mimicked Rob.
“Forget about him,” Keith said. “Let’s just play.”
“If I get beaned, someone who is not a child is going to be eating a baseball,” Rob said. He glared at the man, who’d resumed playing catch with his son.
“Don’t be starting a fight here,” Keith said.
“The guy’s an asshole.”
“He said the soccer players needed the space,” Sachiko said.
“Tell me about it.”
I was still thinking about the backboard when I reached my apartment. Whenever I unlocked the door, I always had the irrational hope Yuriko would be there. Of course, she never was. The empty apartment, especially at night, depressed me. The truth was I was tired of living in Japan. I’d been there nearly six years. I’d come when I’d been 24, just a few months out of grad school, full of idealism about the world. I’d worked hard at learning Japanese and gone out of my way to make Japanese friends. I didn’t care about doing any of that anymore. I had enough self-awareness to understand the breakup with Yuriko had played a big part in the change in my feelings toward Japan. My contract with the university, where I taught English, was up in March, and I was thinking of going back to the United States then.
On Friday evening I waited at home for the tofuman. I wanted to ask him about the backboard. Every evening he rode around the neighborhood on his motorbike, selling tofu. He’d blow a horn and all the housewives would run out with a small bowl. He was also the local town crier, as he passed along the gossip he heard at each stop.
“I want to ask you something,” I said in Japanese after I’d paid for my tofu.
“Go ahead,” he said. He was a short man with a round face.
“You know the little basketball court in the park at the end of the road?”
“The backboard was stolen. Or at least, that’s what they told me at City Hall.”
“Stolen in Japan?”
“I know. It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “You didn’t hear anything?”
“Would you mind asking around?”
“I wouldn’t mind. I’m curious now.”
On Saturday morning I headed out to get some movies at the video rental shop next to the train station. It was a bit of a trek but I enjoyed the walk. There were still farm fields in the area and a canal that had been dug several centuries before. The road ran past the park and I saw the man and his son riding toward me. The man stopped.
“No basketball,” he said in English.
“I’m sorry,” he said and then he and his son rode off. Wondering what he’d meant, I continued up the road.
The sky had been dark all morning and the first raindrops were coming down. I crossed the canal and climbed the big hill. As I descended the other side, I began to look for Yuriko. After she’d left me, she’d moved in with the Frenchman, who lived on the other side of the station. She’d studied in Paris and spoke French.
I didn’t see her in front of the shops along the street and I went into the video rental shop on the right. She was there, with the guy from France, riffling through the movies. Their backs were to me. Yuriko, who was tall and slender, was so pretty. Her long hair framed her face. Her mouth and nose were perfect. Marcel, the Frenchman, was shorter than me but he had big, sloping shoulders. Yuriko had told me he’d been some kind of judo champion in France. She turned her head and noticed me.
“Any good movies?” I asked her in Japanese, the language we always spoke. I didn’t look at Marcel.
“A few,” she answered.
“Leave some for me.” I moved past them to the next aisle.
Two minutes later she came up to me
“Will you be home tomorrow morning?” she asked quietly.
“I’ll drop by. I want to talk with you about something.”
I watched them leave. It was raining harder and the two of them, huddled under the same umbrella, headed down the street.
It was still raining when I met up with Rob and Marty in Roppongi that evening. Keith was at a wedding with Sachiko.
Rob started in on the backboard as soon as I sat down and ordered a beer. “When are we going to do it?” he asked me.
“Steal the guy’s bike.”
“We don’t know for sure if he had anything to do with it.”
“Do you think it was stolen?”
“Have you had any trouble with anyone else at the park?”
“Then it has to be him.”
The waitress brought me my beer. Rob picked up his glass. “To the backboard,” he said.
“The guy told me he was sorry today,” I said.
“I don’t know if he meant he was sorry he’d gotten the backboard taken down or he was sorry I couldn’t play basketball anymore.”
“He’s not sorry you can’t play basketball,” Rob said. “That’s for sure.”
“I think that’s his way of telling you he did it,” Marty said.
Rob picked up his glass again. “To the backboard.”
“To the backboard,” Marty echoed.
On Sunday morning I was hungover and feeling a little remorseful. I’d promised to help steal the bicycle. Rob had a way of bending people to his will, especially when they were drunk. He was one of those people who blamed their unhappiness on Japan, which begged the question of why he was there in the first place. I had never wanted to be that kind of person.
I didn’t dwell on Rob and the backboard, though. I was too excited. Yuriko was coming. I’d never stopped believing we’d get back together and I was hoping that was what she wanted to talk about. I made pancakes, which she loved. There was a knock and I opened the door. She was wearing sweat pants and a t-shirt and no makeup. I’d always thought she was her most beautiful without any makeup.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning. Come in.”
“Let’s go to Kiraku.”
“I made pancakes for you.”
“Let’s go to Kiraku,” she said again.
“Okay. It’ll be like old times.”
The sun was out as we walked to the coffee shop. When we’d been living together, we’d gone there nearly every Sunday morning to have breakfast and read the newspapers.
“Where’s Marcel today?” I asked.
“At judo practice.”
We didn’t speak again until we were seated and the waitress had brought us our coffees.
“The backboard in the park disappeared,” I said.
“What happened to it?”
“At City Hall they told me it was stolen.”
“No one would steal a backboard in Japan.”
“There’s this one guy who we think might have complained about us to City Hall. Rob wants to steal his bicycle and tie it to the pole.”
“Don’t do what Rob says.”
I knew she couldn’t stand him.
“So what’s up with you?” I asked.
She studied the table before she raised her head and spoke. “I’m moving to France. Marcel wants me to meet his parents. We’re getting married.”
When I could finally speak, I asked, “Is that what you really want to do?”
“I think so. I’m going to be thirty in September.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Soon. Maybe even this week if my visa comes through.”
“What about your parents? Your job?”
“Marcel met my parents. They’re okay about it. I think they just want me to get married. I quit my job.”
I was silent.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said.
“Thank you, I guess.”
“I’m going home now.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
“I want to be by myself. Stay here and finish your coffee.”
She stood. “Goodbye, Bill.”
The sky had darkened by the time I left the coffee shop. It was going to rain again. I couldn’t face being alone in my empty apartment and I headed up the road to the canal.
Yuriko and I had been so good together. We’d met at a disco in Roppongi. It was her birthday and her friend had joked I was Yuriko’s birthday present. We’d danced until closing time. She lived in the same neighborhood as me and we’d taken a taxi home. After that, we were inseparable. Her apartment was on the road next to the station and I’d call for her every evening. It was early fall, a beautiful time of the year in Tokyo, and we’d go for long walks through the winding streets, talking the whole time before we ended up somewhere to have dinner. A year later we’d rented the apartment in the suburbs.
I turned up the bank of the canal toward the big park. The rain started. During our second summer living together, Yuriko had visited her family in her hometown. When she’d returned, all she’d spoken about was her cousin’s engagement. The talk of marriage had taken me by surprise; it had been the farthest thing from my mind. After that summer Yuriko had been different. In October she’d met Marcel on the train and two months later she’d moved in with him.
It was pouring by the time I reached the park. Nobody was out on the boats on the pond. In good weather it was a popular spot for couples. I was soaked from the rain but I didn’t care. I stood there, watching it hitting the surface of the water.
Every day that week I somehow dragged myself to the university to do my classes. I didn’t joke with the students or even smile, as I’d always done. If they noticed, they didn’t seem to care; their minds were on the upcoming summer vacation. All I could think of was losing Yuriko forever. The worst part was that I knew it was my fault. I’d taken her for granted. She’d wanted to get married and I hadn’t. It was as simple as that. Marcel was older. He looked like a man. I still thought of myself and my friends as kids.
On Thursday evening I ran into the Japanese man and his son. I was on my way to Shinjuku for the weekly drinking night.
“Excuse me. Do you know what happened to the backboard?” I asked the man in Japanese.
“No,” he said. His face was impassive.
“At City Hall they said it was stolen.”
“No one would steal a backboard in Japan.”
I was still on the fence about tying his bicycle to the pole.
Rob, Keith, and Marty were already drinking when I arrived at the pub. I ordered a beer.
“We’re going to steal the bike on Saturday,” Marty said. “It’s July 4.”
“I haven’t decided yet if I’m doing it,” I said.
“You promised,” Rob said.
“I was drunk.”
“We’ll get you drunk again.”
The waitress brought me my beer.
“I’ve got bigger problems than a backboard,” I said.
“What happened?” Keith asked.
“Yuriko’s moving to France. She’s getting married.”
“Forget about her,” Rob said. “She cheated on you. She walked out on you.”
“When’s she leaving?” Keith asked.
“Maybe this week.”
I drank half my beer. I wasn’t going to need a push get drunk.
“The week’s almost over,” Marty said.
I caught the last train from Shibuya and it was after midnight when I arrived at the station. I was still drunk. I wanted to apologize to Yuriko before she left. Marty’s remark about the week being almost over had made me realize she could be gone any day. I’d followed her once and I knew where she and Marcel lived.
The streets were empty. Their apartment, on the first floor of a three-story building, was dark. I knocked softly on the door. I didn’t hear anything and I knocked again, this time harder. When I didn’t hear anything, I banged on it.
The door on the right opened and a Japanese man stuck out his head. “You’re waking everyone up. It’s almost one o’clock.”
I banged on the door again.
The man pointed at it. “They moved out. They went back to France.”
I banged on the door.
“Leave or I’ll call the police,” he said. He shut his door.
I kicked his door as hard as I could and headed home. I almost wished he would call the police. Nothing mattered. Yuriko was gone.
I dreamed of her that night. We were shooting baskets in the park. The Japanese man rode up on his bike. Marcel was on the back. The Japanese man had a ladder and Marcel held it while the man climbed up and took down the backboard. When he was finished, Yuriko and Marcel left. It was just me and the Japanese man.
I caught the tofuman again on Friday evening.
“Did you find out anything about the backboard?” I asked.
“It wasn’t stolen. I heard the city took it down.”
“That’s what I thought. Did you find out why?”
I’d been right. Someone had complained. It probably had been that man. Later that night I called Rob.
The following evening I stood on the street outside the apartment building in which the man and his son lived. The air was hot and humid. It was my job to steal the bicycle. Rob and Marty were waiting for me in the park. Keith had wanted nothing to do with the whole thing. The bicycle rack was on the side of the building. There were lights on in many of the windows. Fortunately, the glass was the type which let in light but which you couldn’t see through. As I crossed the parking lot, I heard voices and the sound of a television. Someone was smoking a cigarette. Most of the bikes in the rack were children’s. The man’s bike was big and black with a seat on the back. There were two big black bikes with seats. One was a little larger. The smaller of the two bikes was locked and I pulled out the larger one. I was pretty sure it was the man’s. I got on and rode out to the street.
The bike was hard to pedal. I kept glancing behind me to check if anyone was running after me.
“Good job,” Rob said when I coasted into the park.
“Let’s do this and get out of here,” I said.
Marty had already tied the ropes in place at the top of the pole. I stopped in front of it and dismounted. Marty shinnied up the pole. There was little light but I thought Rob seemed happy.
“Screw this,” I said. “I’m not going to do it.”
I got back on the bike.
“You can’t stop now,” Rob said.
“Wait here,” I said as I sped out of the park.
“Asshole,” Rob yelled after me.
I returned the bike to the rack and walked back to the park. I was glad I wasn’t doing it. It was wrong. Yuriko would have said I was better than that.
“I’m disappointed in you,” Rob said to me.
“Good. Let’s go get drunk so I can drown my sorrows.”
“I think it was a great plan,” Marty said.
“Whatever,” I said as we started up the road to the station.
It took us a while to reach Shinjuku. When we were finally seated at the bar and had our beers, I picked up my glass.
“To the backboard,” I said.
I was walking home about a week later when I saw the man and his son coming my way. They stopped.
“I wanted to tell you,” he said in Japanese. “I dropped by City Hall and asked them to put up a new backboard for you. They said they would consider it for the next budget.”
“Thank you. That was very kind of you.”
I looked at the boy. “He’s going to be a good baseball player.”
The man smiled. “I hope.”
We bowed our heads to each other and went our separate ways.
I seriously doubted the city would put up a new backboard, seeing it had taken down the other one. Nevertheless, it was a nice gesture by the man. I’d probably never find out what had really happened to it, not that it mattered. I still hadn’t decided whether to renew my contract and stay in Japan but I was beginning to lean that way. I’d have to get over Yuriko but that should be easier now that she was gone for good.
Copyright 2022 by Tony Concannon