Just imagine: a place where everything you’ve ever lost is for sale.
I came upon it by accident. Over the course of that interminable weekend after Jun died, Asian lady beetles overtook the place in shadowy Totsuka-cho. Orange, winged bodies coated the ceiling and left yellow stains; carapaces crunched underfoot against the bathroom tile. The air smelled like rancid walnuts.
Ms. Waseda, my next-door neighbor, heard about the infestation and offered to rent me her basement apartment, cheap. I said I’d take a look. My mind operated beneath a fog; I was dazed, in shock. Ms. Waseda thought it was the beetles.
The apartment was loaded with knickknacks from travels with her husband, who had died suddenly the year before, and whose life’s work had been vacuum cleaner design. “If you’ve ever used a Sanyo Uzu-Jet,” Ms. Waseda told me, “you’ve used Kazu’s tubes.” I felt close to her after hearing that and signed a lease on the spot.
The main room housed vacuum cleaners in various states of disrepair. “Kazu used this room as a sort of lab,” she said as she showed me in. We kneeled on frayed tatami. “I haven’t had the heart to clean it out yet. I know it’s silly, but I feel like if I put these things away, he won’t be able to come back and finish whatever he was working on.”
I said I didn’t mind, but really, it creeped me out, these machines sitting around, waiting. One stood in the corner, the size of a big kid, with a puffed bag-torso, a rectangular foot-group, and corrugated tubing lolling out of places limbs shouldn’t be. But Ms. Waseda was very nice. She made tea and listened. I described for her the loneliness of mourning someone else’s husband, and how six days prior to the beetles’ arrival, he’d promised a divorce, a ring, a baby.
I told her about the Western-style bed that’d proved unnecessary—we always ended up on the floor—and his PlayStation 3 set up in the main room, where the games and controllers were still scattered on the mats in a pattern that I realized Ms. Waseda saw in that underground room: chaos made meaningful because it is the last arrangement of something lost, a thing to be studied so its creator might be glimpsed, resurrected, known.
After Ms. Waseda slippered out of the room, I looked around. Bristles, hoses, and gears surrounded me. Plastic panels of irregular shape lay scattered, like pieces of a shattered continent.
I thought of our first night together: Tanabata, the festival of lovers banished to the heavens and forever separated by the Milky Way. Before kissing on the pebbled shore, we’d stopped for the man running the shell game: To track the ball just use your eyes, find it now and claim your prize. I quit early on, but Jun wouldn’t give up. After four tries we finally walked away, and he lamented in that dialect, the syllables like rain in a puddle, “I just can’t believe I lost.”
I picked up the end of a long red tube connected to the kid-sized vacuum, moved it up and down. Hajimemashite. Pleased to meet you, sir. I leaned against its bag-body, which crinkled in greeting, and closed my eyes. The lights of paper lanterns shimmered red-yellow in summer night heat smelling of fried squid and bean cakes and a barker called out, his voice like a hook:
One night only, for sale at cost, everything you’ve ever lost!
On the first table stood a stuffed horse I’d won in a coloring contest, long before I heard the word expatriate, long before I knew the Japanese slang for foreigner was outsider. I’d named the horse after its color: Gravel. Days later, Gravel fell from the back of my mother’s bike. No more than three years old, I’d made her retrace the route at least ten times. How could something just disappear?
The pony’s price tag said, “¥350, OBO.” I plunked a bill on the table and looked around. No one was around to make change, and that was fine by me. I scooped up Gravel and brought him to my face. His mushy little body smelled of salt and oil. The blue-gray fur on his back was matted where he must have landed on the winter road. I pressed him to my cheek.
I picked up object after object: pens of blue, black, red, one of lavender, tops chewed. Hair ties, single socks. A pile of teeth like corn kernels. I dropped coins as I moved, a small one for the 110-speed camera I’d dropped from a roller coaster, a larger one for the gold locket, big enough to derail a train, a gift from my high school boyfriend. My arms and pockets were loaded, my waistband holding in a few of the bigger items, the Nintendo console I’d thought stolen, a pink leather boot whose mate still sat in my closet in the Western-bed apartment. I would leave it there to serve as a beetle dwelling, or grave. That boot was the first thing from him I’d lost.
The last table held just one thing, a fist-sized, crimson lump that shivered and thrashed like a fish out of water. I stared until it became a red blur. No price tag. My wallet was empty anyway. I turned away, my arms full and an empty feeling in my chest, a feeling like three shells and a realization—no ball, there never was a ball—and listened for a voice, any voice, to bring me back.