Buck Cooper crouched into fighting stance. Nothing stood between him and his assailants but his thin kimono and the bitter winter air. Night enveloped him, but the sodium glow of the city streetlights hanging sparsely near the docks gave faint outline to the three black-pajamaed henchmen sent to do him bodily harm.
Buck’s folds of flesh shook like a gelatin on his mother’s holiday table back home—not so much from fear, but from the winter night. These trained fighters’ eyes pierced the night in steely hatred of him, and Buck wondered again whose money they accepted in exchange for this assault under night’s blanket of secrecy; which of his many recently-amassed enemies felt strongly enough about his demise to resort to this?
The tallest of the three advanced first. Buck knew from stories bandied about the stable that these kinds of hits almost always came orchestrated by the Japanese underground, the yakuza. Surrounded by the towering steel freight containers that slid in and soared upward, his world was this alley. Buck had never fought three men at once, except in days on the playground in Texas when bullies ganged up on him almost twenty years ago. If what he did then could even be called fighting. Certainly he had never triumphed in a three on one battle.
A gust of icy air made his throat constrict. The first hitman circled him at a short distance, and Buck rotated to keep him in sight, even though it meant turning his back on the other two.
Puffs of exhaled steam hung momentarily in the freezing air.
With blinding speed the first assailant attacked, and Buck struck out a hand in hopes of catching him by the throat. The impact seared through his shoulder. Protecting his own life was going to be more brutal than he imagined.
Shanghaied To Tokyo
Buck lifted his shoulder-length hair off his neck in a wad. He swiped at a lock of hair frizzing at his brow line. Cutting this mop would make sense—to help cool his head in this heat—but he hadn’t had time. The quality control analysis of this latest drug trial kept him past eight every night for the last month. He could finish it up this afternoon, but then tonight he needed to look for an apartment. Mrs. Jenkins put him on notice two weeks ago. Her nephew was moving into the place, and Buck had to vamoose.
Plus, the Rangers game was on tonight, and Mays had first at-bats—
His phone rang, yanking him out of his field of dreams.
“Mr. Buck? Hi. This is Alison Turner.”
Alison? Buck jumped to his feet. His pulse ratcheted up five notches.
“A-a-alison?” Over the tops of all the cubicles he spotted her head at the front desk. That hair! He could see it rippling over her shoulder from here, like metallic honey.
“At the front desk? Do you speak English?”
“Alison. Uh. Yeah.”
Sort of. He sort of spoke English. Gack! He was being such a dork. Get it together, pal—this is your big chance!
“Oh, thank goodness. You do speak English.” She gave a long whew. “I really need a favor.”
“Sure, Alison,” he stuttered. “Anything.” Buck’s heart thumped like a jackrabbit’s leg. He knew it! He just knew today was the day! He stood up straight and tucked in that damp shirt—again.
“Fantastic. It’s about lunch. Oh, shoot. There’s my other line. Gotta take it. Can you just, like, drop by my desk up here in a few shakes? Whoops. Gotta grab that. Thanks. Buh-bye, Mr. Buck.” The phone clicked off.
Yes! Buck danced a little jig. Finally, the nice guy was going to win. Lunch! She said it was about lunch. She wanted him to take her for the brisket, obviously! Cha-ching! He’d have to hit the ATM real quick. He could make that work. A plate of savory beef and Alison Turner! He plopped down in his chair and stared up at the popcorn ceiling in joy.
He’d always sensed Alison Turner was the one girl who had the X-ray vision that let her see through all Buck’s outer layers into his inner goodness.
Most people had more than X-ray vision when it came to seeing Buck: they saw clean through him. How could someone who took up as much of the visible spectrum of light as he did still be utterly invisible, the fat guy no one noticed? Sometime he’d calculate and find a quantifiable ratio between a person’s becoming less noticeable and reaching a certain body mass index.
Buck thought back. What marked the beginning of his invisibility? When he hit three hundred pounds? And he wasn’t invisible just to women. Around the office barely a handful of guys (mostly Ranjit’s countrymen) knew his name—although only as “Mr. Buck.”
Suddenly it hit him—the reason Alison noticed him today. The promotion! It had to be the promotion. Management had been bandying his name about, Alison caught wind of it and called to congratulate him. Joy melted him into a puddle of grease.
Then reality resurged and bit hard, and he pulled open his desk’s bottom drawer. Book titles stared out at him:
You and Your Super-Slim Hardbody.
Ripped Abs Without Steroids the Dwayne Johnson Way.
Lose to Win.
Several promised quick weight loss with little effort. Others required vast amounts of dedication and time. None of them recommended deep fried okra from Charlie Unger’s five days a week.
A-ha. There it was—the fake “before and after” picture of himself he’d photo-doctored on a free website. It showed how he looked now at 375, beside a potential picture of himself at 220, the perfect weight for his six-foot-six height according to web experts. His Gold’s Gym membership haunted him. Maybe if he hadn’t avoided it so religiously for the past year, he wouldn’t be sitting here cursing the sweat pool between the layers of flab on his back like some panting beached walrus.
“My, my, son. You have got to get that hair of yours cut.” A woman’s voice cut the air, and Buck snapped awake. Mom! “You’re starting to look like Jon Bon Jovi. Or is it David Lee Roth? The blond one.”
“Mom, what’re you doing down here?”
She never came to downtown Dallas. She stood over him in her daisy sundress, clutching and unclutching the strap on her patent leather purse. He stood up and let her have his chair. He perched on the edge of his desk.
“Is there an emergency? Dad—?” There’d been an accident at his lab!
“No, no, Buck. Everything’s fine. Oh, look at that picture of your grandma and grandpa’s farm. So peaceful.”
Yeah, it was. The photo served as his escape hatch some days. At least the family hadn’t sold the farm when Grandpa died, but kept it in a family trust.
“I mean—well, Buck, I came down to ask you a little favor.” Worry lines wrinkled her forehead. She wasn’t the favor-asking type. His mom was the favor-doing type. “I mean, it might be a big favor. I need you to go somewhere with me tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Friday. Friday looked free. “Okay, Mom. No problem. Where?” He could maybe slip out for a family thing during lunch—lots of people did. Not Buck, but lots of other people, people with families, people with things to do.
Buck double blinked and shook his head.
“It’s in Japan.”
“I know where Tokyo is, Mom. What are you talking about?”
“Oh, I knew this was a mistake.” Her big blue eyes glistened. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at them.
“No, Mom. Just tell me what’s going on.” Usually she was a pillar, a brick.
“I told your father we should just use a travel agent, but he said the Yoshidas had everything worked out. Plane tickets, sightseeing, accommodations. They want us to stay with them, you know. I’d never ask you if—”
“Back up, back up. What are you talking about?”
“You know how your father is, Buck.” She rolled her eyes upward. “Hank Cooper. Head full of dreams.”
His mom never spoke this candidly about his dad. She must be really upset. Buck repositioned himself on his desk and folded his arms across his chest to listen.
“Did something go wrong with Nangrimax, Mom? The FDA didn’t deny the application, did they?” Dad’s latest invention could be the best wonder drug since penicillin. “I thought he had a deal in the works.” With a guy in Japan. Ah, Tokyo.
“Oh, sweetheart. We’re still waiting on that process.” She heaved a sigh. “He does have a sweet deal possibility, but that’s the thing. There’s this Mr. Yoshida, a man with money and connections in Tokyo. Your father believes he could be key to getting the product off the ground there. It could mean the difference between glorious success or spectacular failure.”
Buck tugged at his shirt. Failure. Not good.
“We’re going to see Mr. Yoshida. And his family. And for some reason they insist on meeting our whole family, meaning you, too—even though it’s during baseball playoffs, and I’ll miss three games. I’d get your Aunt Nancy or your Aunt Phyllis to go, but no. It has to be the three of us. The Yoshidas have two sons, your dad says.”
She got up and walked the three steps around the middle of his cubicle. “I don’t know. We’ve invested so much. … The point is, we’re desperate to make a good impression, and it starts with all three of us showing up. Buck, I tried to tell them you have a job.” A wince wrinkled her nose. “I’m so bad at these social things, and your father’s worse.”
And she thought Buck was better? Aunt Nancy or Aunt Phyllis or any of his dozen other aunts or umpteen uncles or bazillion cousins could make a good impression. Not Buck.
“Ma, I hadn’t told you and Dad yet—but I’ve put in for a promotion. This might not be the best time—”
Her look of sheer despair brought him up short.
“But don’t you think about that. I’ll just run the trip past management.”
“I’m afraid, Buck.” His mom cast her eyes down at her shoes. “I’m afraid this is it. Your father only has one failure left in him.”
Buck’s throat caught. It sounded like he had no choice. “Tokyo. Tomorrow, then. I’m with you.”
Relief spread across her face along with a happy smile. Buck glanced around and caught a glimpse of Alison’s hair swinging along an inter-cubicle corridor. His heart skipped.
“Mom, I have an appointment to get to, but—tomorrow. Tokyo!” He shot a finger toward the ceiling, and the flab of his underarm wobbled. His sweet mom gave a little jump of delight and pulled a plane ticket from her purse and slung it onto Buck’s desk.
“Oh, thank you! You’ll help us so much. You see things. So. Six o’clock flight. Don’t forget your passport. Oh, and don’t bring that ugly duffel bag. The one with the stripes? It’s just awful.” She bustled away, purse swinging at her side.
Tokyo. Tomorrow. He’d have to find his passport.
Go Toward the Light
“Shh! Buck! The taiko drums will start!” Hiro sat forward. A dozen soul-penetrating drums pounded through the air. At the far side of the ring stood a troupe of bandana-headed men wielding thick wooden sticks and pounding on large kettledrums in rhythm. It was different from anything Buck had ever heard. Their arms struck, hard and synchronous. The sound vibrated into his chest and arms and past his hair. The drummers pummeled the skins of the drums with such force it was almost like a battle.
The drumming lasted several minutes and got the crowd warmed up. Then all was silent. Something big was about to happen.
And it did.
From somewhere in the darker recesses of the crowd marched the sumo wrestlers. He speed-counted fifty-four giants, arms folded across their broad chests, blocking their man-boobs as they entered the arena to the roar of the screaming crowd. He wanted to avert his eyes at first. These tubbalards wore only bright colored lava-lava wraps hanging from their non-existent waists. The aprons looked like the upholstery from a Chinese restaurant turned into shiny bath towels. From his seat, Buck could see just how enormous these guys were. For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel like the Jolly Blond Giant. By comparison, Buck was an average Joe.
Nonstop bowing ensued, followed by more yelling on the loudspeaker, some ceremonial walking around the painted ring on the platform, and then the wrestlers marched off again. Buck wondered if it was over already.
Hiro explained. “They will go and prepare for their matches, change into their fighting mawashi, the sash around their loins. Today is the sixth day of the basho.”
Mawashi. The diaper. Yeah.
“A seven-day tournament?”
“No. Fifteen days. They each wrestle one time per day. They match up against another rikishi in their group once only. No rematches. There is a formula, but more or less it is this: if they beat someone higher ranked, they move up a ranking at the next basho.”
Wait a minute. There were statistics involved? With formulas? Buck’s interest shot up. He needed to know about the rankings. No, he needed to know about everything. Was it like baseball? Did someone keep the stats somewhere official? Did individual wrestlers have scoring histories? How did they win? Were there different moves? He barely knew where to start pumping Hiro for information.
“I don’t get it. How do you win?” Buck reached into Hiro’s proffered peanut bag. Not peanuts—they were some kind of peanut-shaped rice cracker, shiny, tasted like soy and sushi. They could grow on him.
“It is simple.” Hiro sat up straighter. “There is the ring.” He pointed to the stage area. It was about three feet high and about fifteen feet square. On it was painted a ring with two parallel lines of paint inside, a few feet apart. From above, the ring looked like a giant electrical outlet.
“Each man tries to push his opponent out of the ring, or make him touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his foot.”
“So, the big guys face the big guys, and the medium guys face the medium guys?” Buck asked this and remembered there wasn’t a single medium guy in the pack.
“There are no weight classes. Every wrestler competes against every other wrestler in his level, no matter their weight. Sure, the heavier guys have an advantage, even when they are strong to start with. That is why they eat so much chanko nabe.”
“What’s that?” It sounded like Campbell’s Chunky Soup. Or blowing chunks.
“Thick soup with meat and cabbage and eggs and bean sprouts. Very filling. Special sumo food.”
The truth lay somewhere in the middle.
“Is it good?” Buck’s stomach growled when he heard about the soup. It had been a while since the fish hot dogs.
A man of incredible energy started shouting through the loudspeaker. Hiro translated.
“The comic sumo is starting. It sounds like…they will do three skits. The first two are traditional, like I explained. The third will have a surprise guest star.” Hiro sounded dismayed. “They will be selecting a member of the audience.” He frowned and huffed in irritation. “If it is a woman, I am sorry, Buck. I will have to leave.”
Hiro, defender of tradition. Buck couldn’t afford to be a purist. He was just wrapping his head around it all.
The slapstick skit needed no words. The small man approached the massive sumo wrestler with a cocky attitude and got trounced. In the second play, two ancient sumo wrestlers went at each other with decrepit vigor and then simultaneously fell backwards onto the floor into deep sleep.
Buck laughed along with the audience. The guys’ wrinkles-a-flapping made Buck chuckle. Hiro looked up at him and gave a broad smile. Buck liked this kid.
“Someday, Buck, I want to be a sumo commentator. Did I tell you this already? It’s my life-dream!”
The lights suddenly snapped off, leaving Buck in inky darkness, wondering whether he had his own “life-dream.” The loudspeaker’s voice rumbled, with a drum roll of Japanese ilk bumping behind it. Buck had no understanding of the words, but he knew they were introducing the guest wrestler. Who could it be? Some international star even Buck would recognize? He let his mind wander through faces of possible celebrities as his eyes followed the moving spotlight from one section to another in the arena.
When the spotlight came to a stop, it was shining directly into Buck’s eyes. His hand flew to shade them.
“It’s you, Buck!”
“It’s me? What’s me?” A rush of hot fear sloshed up from his gut and colored his neck and head red.
“You’re on the TV screen up there—quick, smile!”
Buck squinted, smiling in confusion, but then he realized almost 15,000 people were staring at him and screaming. Horror. He strained out his best grin, looking back and forth to no avail. The spotlight blinded him. What was going on? How long would they torture him with this fierce glare? Move it along, already. Yeah, fat guy in the audience here—fat enough to be a blond sumo wrestler. Fine. Pick on someone else now.
But the light didn’t dissipate, and the audience started chanting and clapping. Then the clapping got rhythmical, and soon Hiro joined it, too. All the air sucked out of Buck’s lungs, like someone just opened an airplane door. Where was that dangly air mask when he needed it?
“You need to stand up, Buck. Go toward the ring.”
Go toward the light was more like it. Death had hit him swiftly and much more painfully than he’d ever imagined.