By Michael Fessler
"Masako," I said, a nano-second before she entered the door of my office.
"Oh, but you have spiritual powers, Professor Stark."
"Don't I, though?"
Masako - Professor Kawaguchi, that is - was a burly figure in her mid-forties. She was one of those admirable Japanese professors who had clawed their way through western learning, the process having left a vestige of frustration, if not resentment. It was said that the more miniscule the issue, the more vigorously Masako pursued it. The faculty will gossip.
"What specifically was it you wanted to discuss?" I asked, bracing myself for a rigorous Q & A.
"If you had spiritual powers, you would know, wouldn't you?"
"My prognosticator just crashed."
She bounced her briefcase onto her knees, removed a book, and held it up: The Way of Grammar. I recalled vaguely that I had recommended it to her the previous semester. The publisher had sent me a promo copy.
"There's something strange about this book," she announced. "And it's affecting the students. I think it's a ruse of some kind."
If anyone could find a conspiracy in a grammar book, it was the woman sitting in my office. "Ah," I said.
"Perhaps you could explain, Professor Stark, since it was written by one of you Inscrutable Occidentals."
She removed her steel-rimmed glasses and held them before her. Really, Masako needed something more feminine in the eyeware department.
"Occidentals aren't inscrutable," I said. "We're open, credulous - "
"Masako, the West does not have a monopoly on hegemonic behavior."
I coughed meaningfully.
"Anyway, I haven't looked closely at the book."
"Here's your chance," she said.
I swiveled in my chair. A close look at a grammar book was the last thing I was in the mood for. It had been a long day but even if it had been a short one I wouldn't have been. I gazed out the window. The campus lights had come on and were illuminating the leaves. The bright green world of the night. I wanted to go out into it.
"Masako," I said, reaching up quickly and taking down my copy of The Way of Grammar, which was wedged between two other unread texts. "I'll just put this in my briefcase and review it over the weekend." I stuffed it in, crushing some tests and reports. "I trust that Monday will be soon enough."
She didn't say it would, but I clicked off my computer, stood, grasped my briefcase by the handle, and led her out of my office. In the process, and by an act of sheer will, I blocked out everything she was saying. We walked down the hallway, descended the steps, left Cherry Blossom Hall, and crossed campus together. Her facial expression indicated that she was displeased, if not downright grumpy, at having been brushed off. When we got to the exit gate, I allowed my hearing to return. "All books are strange," I said jovially.
"That's for sure," she stated pointedly, referring, I was certain, to my own less than illustrious conversation text, GET IT OUT! which I had induced her to use many years ago in hopes of increasing my royalties. She had pursued me incessantly for tips on how to teach it. Thank goodness, the book had gone out of print.
At my age weekends were no longer for socializing. They were recovery time. That particular one I caught up on housework, shopped a bit, did laundry, watched a few news programs that I had recorded during the week, and loafed around generally. Only on Sunday night, late, did I remove The Way of Grammar from my briefcase and look through it. Was this in my contract? No, it was not. It was time to start refusing such requests. But I had been saying that for years. The fact is, though I liked to picture myself as flexible, the 'shape of water,' and so on, I was a glad-to-be-of-use foreign professor, hanging onto his job. I was beginning to think there was something to the theory of fixed personality. You don't change your character, you just realize it. Perhaps I had been in Japan too long. But The Way of Grammar...
The first thing I noticed was that it was well laid out. The author, one Kenneth Crowdie, had divided the book into four sections, and they were color-coded: black, white, yellow, red. The white markers were shadowed to bring out the 'whiteness'; otherwise they would have blended in with the white of the page. Surely it would have facilitated things to have chosen, say, blue or green. Perhaps Crowdie (or his editor) had a stubborn streak? People get ideas.
I paged through the text, examining examples at random, a number of which turned out to be peculiar, but not in an unpleasant way. In a unit about the grammar of wishes, Crowdie had supplied the example, "I wish I had an egg." I chuckled at the ordinariness of it. There was a sentence in a chapter on conditionals that went, "I would like to be able to reach the peacock's tail." Not at all mundane. Under a contrary-to-fact exercise, one came across the sentence, "If I owned a talking brass head, I wouldn't sell it." Nor would I.
There were many sentences of this type throughout the book. Not to mention some knowing cross-references. (For the passive voice the reader was directed to Invisibility.) Overall, Crowdie seemed to be suggesting that the quest for grammar was a spiritual journey - a search for what he called epitomes, or self-defining sentences. The more I looked through The Way of Grammar, the more I was willing to credit the book with a "subtext" (a word I hate, by the way). It was hardly grammarly, if you take my meaning. Crowdie had managed to infuse something pleasant, if outré, into the mix. And Azuma, the publisher, had taken a chance. Most textbook companies were conservative.
Masako and I had lunch on Monday at one of the restaurants near campus. She got right to the point: Had I found The Way of Grammar strange? I told her that it was very creative, which was kind of strange, meaning most weren't (Get It Out! hadn't been), and that it struck me as a book that would amuse both the implementer (us boring professors) as well as the end-user (our enemies, the students). I wasn't sure it had an agenda other than that. The title, The Way of Grammar, suggested some type of Asian connection, Asia being full of ways, though so was the West. I made the inevitable joke about transformational grammar. Why do we do dumb things like that? Anyway.
"So it is or it isn't strange?" she said, a slash of hair falling across her forehead.
"The author imputes spirituality to the study of grammar. That's a little strange."
"How about strange, as in manipulation, or playing tricks on the end-user?"
"It didn't stand up and walk on the ceiling, if that's what you mean."
"But you're implying that in some way it is unusual," she persisted.
"It has a certain sprightliness of style."
I had my copy with me and I paged through it for some of the examples I had noted the previous evening. I happened to tilt the book a certain way and the outline of a unicorn appeared in the alignment of type. At first I'd taken it for a watermark.
"It's not your average text, no," I said.
"What do you think this Crowdie is like?"
"I think we can safely say that he has a playful disposition."
Masako gave me a skewed look. One thought of turtle plastrons, which the Shang had used for purposes of divination.
"What are you doing Sunday afternoon?" she asked.
"This is so sudden."
"Kenneth Crowdie is making a presentation at the Bunka Center. I'm going."
Textbook publishers regularly brought in authors to plug their works. Actually quite useful, but I found such events terminally boring. I'd done one myself for GET IT OUT! Talk about picky questions.
"And you want me to accompany you," I said.
"I'm going to query him about the authenticity of the book." She took out the text and directed my attention to certain passages - she had Post-its at the pages. "And I want you to be there, Professor Stark. The Western Mind - "
" - is open and transparent," I said.
Masako bowed curtly, stood, and announced that she had to pick up some things at the bookstore. She put down her portion of the check and left the restaurant. I was grateful that I had no romantic interest in her. My life was complicated enough already. I lingered a bit, and after finishing my coffee, headed back to Cherry Blossom Hall. As I was entering the building, I ran into Harold Gosher, one of our colleagues in Eng-Philo. He was known as the Anti-Grammarian. His hair was combed in triangular fashion, vertex forward. He resembled a woodpecker.
"Any grammar topics, Stark? I need something to waste my time with."
"Don't end your sentences with a preposition."
He laughed directly into my face. A big woodpecker laugh. Really, I wished I had been on the hiring committee when he was being considered.
The presentation was held at one of those Culture Centers that are designed to neutralize the world's most accomplished presenters (steel-screech chairs; gray tile; windows that afford a view of nothing). Kenneth Crowdie, we discovered, was hardly accomplished in any case. He was an unlikely character, quite old, perhaps in his eighties, and his presentation turned out to be sensationally foggy. He read long passages verbatim from the text. He fumbled over notes. Repeated himself. At one juncture he took out four beanbags and tossed them up: "I'll juggle these for a while." They immediately fell to the floor. (Better than OHP though.)
The Question and Answer period that followed was equally perplexing. Initially, a few questions were asked that pretty much answered themselves. Then Masako broke in, raising the point that the book had produced a disturbing, if not subliminal, effect on her students. She wanted to know specifically if he, Kenneth Crowdie, the author, had intended that effect, which she characterized as 'magical' (I slumped down in my steel fold-up chair) and which she likened to a network of mind games? Crowdie struck a wonderfully ambiguous pose: he put his finger to his lips and held it there, which may have meant (a) "Yes, I'm pondering what you're saying, uh, huh, uh, huh," or (b) "Seal your lips, these are deep matters." Anyway, when he finally relaxed his pose, which took a while, he broke into a theatrical bout of stammering, "magical?" cough, cough, "if I could," ho, ho, "one hopes," choke, handkerchief to mouth, and so on.
Another professor in the audience pressed the point. "Has it had that effect on your own students?" she asked.
"Mine?" Crowdie chuckled. "Oh, I've never used the book. You see, I've been retired for many years. I wrote the text after the fact, so to speak."
The long and short of it was that Kenneth Crowdie answered none of the audience's questions satisfactorily (certainly not Masako's), or if he did, he did so in such an oblique manner that no one knew it (which would have been quasi-magical). He appeared to be a weathered old gent, slightly eccentric, who had reached a time in his life when he was not overly bothered by particulars. When the questions finally ceased, there was applause and an escape of nervous laughter. Crowdie remained seated, studying the beanbags on the floor, as if their random positions might have some significance. When at last he exited the room, however, it was rather more nimbly than one would have expected.
The artful text and the befuddled presenter - there would appear to be a disconnect. At least that was Masako's view, and it was strongly-held. Subsequent events only increased her suspicions. On the following Friday she came into my office after having taught The Way of Grammar, viz. a lesson on nouns, under the heading SPONGES. (Crowdie's term, indicating that nouns were universals that absorbed particulars.) The class discussion, as she explained it, had spun out of control, one question sliding into another. She had been a little overwhelmed; she was accustomed to being in charge, not having a red-hot text in her hands.
"But do we have a problem here, or a solution, Masako? It's been my experience that most grammars are stultifying, though one hesitates to sound like Harold Gosher."
"But how did that elderly, confused man produce such a book?" she said.
"Perhaps he wrote the book with his powers fully intact, and became confused later. The publication date was 2001. Five or six years are a long time at his age."
Masako was scornful (to put it mildly).
"Okay," I said, "at least he wasn't as alert as he was at the time of composition. Besides, writers always put down more than they know, and not all writers are good at explaining their work."
"On the other hand, he could be a wily old codger who has his reasons."
The comment angered Masako. The thought that someone might be putting something over on her was not tolerable.
"You noticed, didn't you, Professor Stark, that the beanbags were the same colors as the sections of his book?"
Actually, I hadn't.
"Something's wrong here, and I'm going to find out what it is."
"Masako, not everything can be explained."
She smiled sourly. "We shall see."
She held up a card on which were written a telephone number and address. She informed me that she had arranged a meeting.
"I never joke."
She had a point there.
"But, Masako, we've just been to his presentation. Isn't that enough?"
"Strike when the iron is hot."
She removed her glasses and folded the frames.
"I want you to go with me again."
She stared me down and won. I had time on my hands. That's what I told myself.
"Agatte, kudasai," Kenneth Crowdie said, welcoming us into his home on a drizzly day in July during the rainy season. It was a concrete structure in the Mukojima area of Tokyo, detached but small. We climbed to the entrance via a spiral staircase that coiled along the outside and the treads of which were painted in an alternating succession of the by now ubiquitous black, white, yellow, and red. Entering Grammar House. Maybe the closets were pronouns. This would be the place to bring Harold Gosher: to drive him mad.
"Designed it myself. The colors derive from alchemy," Crowdie said, displaying none of the fogginess he had exhibited at the presentation. He appeared very much in control. "My wife passed away several years ago," he added, "I'm alone these days."
"She was American, of course," Masako said.
"She was Japanese."
There was an awkward silence.
"Separateness is an illusion," he said.
"So you're not really alone here," Masako pounced.
"I misspoke," he chuckled. "We're all part of the Great Big One."
He stood and went into a back room. He was a big man, well over six feet, his frame having thickened with age. We could hear him pottering with plates and so on. He reappeared behind a serving cart. On it was a pot of herbal tea and some cups. There were also some Japanese sweets from Asakusa, the area across the river.
"Now that we're into the rainy season, it gets sticky. This might help."
Masako volunteered to do the serving, but he said, no, he had his yin side.
"But I'm younger than you," Masako insisted.
"Are you?" Crowdie answered, though pleasantly.
The tea needed to 'idle' a bit before drinking, and Crowdie moved the cart to the side. He informed us that his wife, who had been a potter, had created the set, and he related a number of anecdotes about it. He had once caught the pot just before it hit the ground during an earthquake. It was an object with a history. The pot of many stories.
"Call me Ken," he said. "So, you'd like to know about the book?"
"And yourself," Masako insisted.
"In sequence or a burst? Which first? Lay down the rules, as the tea cools!"
He raised and lowered his shoulders. This was not a little amusing. Maybe he was magical. Either that, or a very old rap artist.
"What's IN that pot?" Masako said.
Ken chuckled sociably, and I took the opportunity to inquire about his background. His accent was hard to place.
"Reared in St. Louis," he said. "Along the banks of the strong brown god."
"T.S. Eliot! The Dry Salvages!" Masako lunged, as if playing hyaku nin isshu, the Japanese literary card game.
"So it was Eliot who stimulated your interest in Asia?" she continued.
"Remotely. More immediately was Clayton Crowdie. Uncle Clayton was one of St. Louis's few Taoists. He was fond of saying: The described God is not the true God. It was his sentence. Rankled the local populace no end."
"Like uncle, like nephew?" Masako rejoined.
"No, I became a pro. A pro-fess-or in the field. Clayton was the real thing."
"But both of you pursued Taoism," Masako said. "So you did follow in his footsteps."
"Not his final ones. You see, Uncle Clayton took a flying leap into the Big Muddy. He assumed sub-aqueous residence there, not on a temporary basis."
There was a silence. Ken looked off and recited a poem:
"Your poem?" I asked.
"A clerihew, yes. Wrote it many years ago."
Rather than explain further, however, Ken segued to the topic of the presentation at the Bunka Center. He discussed the difficulties of coming across well in such venues. His publisher, Azuma, had requested the promotion.
"I've never heard of Azuma Press," Masako said.
Ken informed her that he was Azuma. The name had come to him one day when he was crossing Azuma Bridge. He waved his hand in that direction.
"Ah, so the - " Masako started.
"Yes, the publisher in me told the writer in me to submit. An internal debate. Have them all the time at my age."
Apparently Ken liked to throw his listeners off balance. Or perhaps he just enjoyed bantering with younger women, that is, women under eighty.
"I have various pursuits," Ken added, nodding towards the back.
"Not juggling," Masako reminded him.
"Afraid not anymore." He paused and looked off at the hydrangeas on the porch. "You must know the old name for them," he said to Masako, enticing her.
"Shichi hengei," she answered immediately. "Seven changes."
"Are hydrangeas magic then?" he asked.
"What do you think?" she countered.
"I think so," he said. "By the way, that was your seventh question."
Masako, caught off guard, appeared to be counting backwards frantically.
"And now you're changing color like a hydrangea," he teased. "Here, have some of these sweets." He touched the side of the pot. The tea had cooled and was ready for drinking. Ken served us.
"What type of tea is it?" I asked.
"Rinds and roots, in cahoots."
"Is that right?" Masako said. "Well, as to The Way of Grammar...?"
"Ah, the questions you posed at Bunka Hall and that got lost in the shuffle."
"Which you evaded," she said, a self-satisfied look appearing on her face.
Ken patted his fingers together. He appeared to be giving it some thought.
"To answer your questions, there is magic inherent in things."
"In things like grammar books?" Masako pressed.
"If there's magic in things," he said a tad rakishly, "there's magic in the book."
Masako stared at him, and Ken lapsed into a Mandarin silence. He appeared perfectly at ease and ready to sit there for hours. It was as if he were an expert at trances. We must have gone for a good ten minutes without a single word. Masako hugged her chair. I did grammatical thought-experiments: if a house were a sentence, which room would be the main verb - the kitchen or the living room? What about the passive voice? - the bedroom, of course. And so on. Finally, Ken announced that the tea had pepped him up and he was ready for his "evening spin."
"Walk, you mean?" Masako glowered. "We've already had the spin."
Ken seemed to enjoy that, and he winked broadly.
"It needn't interrupt our discussion," he said. "Please accompany me. We'll take the route along the Sumida."
He went into the back, and returned with a scarf and bamboo cane. When he cracked the door, I saw wall-to-wall books. I would have liked to investigate.
"My wife knitted this scarf," he said to Masako, as we were walking out the door. "It possesses magical properties. Colds and flues, be yesterday's news!"
He led us down the multicolored staircase and into the street. It was dusk and the geisha were out shuffling to and from their appointments. It was as if we had entered the Edo Period. Time-travel. Of course, Ken and I would have been in a dicey situation in Tokugawa Japan. I would have anyway - Ken might have been sorcerer to the Shogun. We ascended some steps to the embankment of the Sumida and strolled along the river. Yakatabune - the red-lantern boats - were passing.
As we walked, Masako continued to press Ken about The Way of Grammar, but he fended her off either by changing the topic or giving wittily evasive answers - treatment to which Masako was unaccustomed. She was used to Occidental rugs, like myself. After we had strolled for some time, Ken thanked us for visiting, but said that from that juncture on he needed to walk by himself. I wondered if he and Masako weren't mirror images in a way. She had pursued Western learning, and he, Eastern. Both had crossed over.
When the semester ended, Masako showed me a copy of the exam that she had administered. We discussed the results in her office one afternoon. The answers that the students had come up with were intriguing and some showed a degree of sophistication. A few of the students had become aware for the first time that the way they spoke said something about them. Ken had written: Everyone has a sentence that is his or her own and no one else's. The notion of such a sentence, the so-called 'epitome,' was provocative. Presumably the students had taken the idea in the spirit of a quest and had become energized by tracking down their own particular sentences. I couldn't help contrast the positive effect of The Way of Grammar with the effect that my own text, Get It Out!, had produced. That is, virtually no effect. I remembered one student in particular, Ueda Bun, who had borrowed the book (long after I had discontinued using it) and then returned it without even a single comment. Not that young Bun hadn't been cryptic generally. It had been his habit to inform me before each class: What I say is not all that I know. I would bow and acknowledge it. Maybe there was such a thing as a signature sentence.
Whatever the case, Masako continued to be bothered by The Way of Grammar. She couldn't let it alone, no matter how favorable the exam results had been nor how successful the text had proved to be. Her penchant for contesting rather than accepting was part of the reason, of course. She was a natural born contrarian. I was beginning to think, however, that her opposition had something, if not more, to do with the man behind the work than the work itself. Could she have a thing for Ken? It was not impossible. She was drawn to whatever resisted her. Ken would be just the kind of figure by whom a solitary and armor-plated academic like herself might be captivated. An exchange I had with her - or she with me - one afternoon added to my suspicions along these lines.
"It's time!" she said, stepping into my office.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's time for you to practice what you preach!" she said, boring in.
I'd rather it had been break time.
"You use The Way of Grammar next semester!"
When I'm under siege, I say the dumbest things. I said, "Okay."
"Good. That will give us an excuse for meeting him again."
The fact that I was using the text would be the bait, she informed me. He couldn't deny us, since we were adding to his royalties.
"Only this time I'll let you do the scheduling!" she said.
This was one determined woman. Let me rephrase that: this was one determined person who happened to be a woman.
"Professor Kawaguchi, may I offer some advice about the so-called Occidental Mind, since I appear to be your primary reference on the topic?"
"Please do, Professor Stark."
"Don't think I don't admire your tenacity."
"It would never occur to me."
"I mean this constructively - "
"If it's helpful, it won't matter how you meant it."
"Stay calm, or you'll lose perspective."
"A good detective doesn't lose perspective."
She looked at me pointedly and said, "He can rhyme - you can't!"
The next day I was in the faculty lounge leafing through The Way of Grammar. It was a quiet afternoon and I was giving some thought as to how I would actually teach the text next semester in fulfillment of my promise to Masako. I was also trawling for sentence examples that I might use in one of my classes that day. All teachers do things like that.
"THAT BOOK!" Harold Gosher stated in a loud voice over my shoulder. I almost dropped it. He had snuck up on me, as usual.
"Stark, I've just had a chat with Professor Kawaguchi."
"She is convinced the book was written by some kind of malevolent magus."
"Mischievous, but probably not malevolent."
"She feels that you don't get it, Stark."
"There are many things I don't get, Harold."
"According to Professor Kawaguchi, this Crowdie person has put a bogus text on the market, which she is determined to expose."
"Professor Kawaguchi protests too much. Crowdie is a colorful grammarian."
"Grammarians are not colorful, Stark."
"Kindaichi, the Japanese grammarian, was. He solved a crime through linguistic analysis. Suetonius tells us that Crates of Miletus taught grammar while recuperating from a fall into a Roman sewer. That has colorful aspects. I personally know a grammarian who chants the Dies Irae while diagramming sentences. There is no paucity of color in the field."
"Look, Gosher, The Way of Grammar is an innovative text. That's all I'm saying. The problem is not the book - it's Masako's reaction to it."
He guffawed in my face, and walked out of the lounge. I went to the door and called after him, "An anti-grammarian is simply another type of grammarian!"
That night I went home and took a hot bath to steam off the nuttiness that seems to be an endemic part of university life. I lazed around in my yukata and drank small cups of cold nihonshu. I'm hardly a big drinker, and consequently I got pretty much sloshed. As I did so, I leafed through the Tozai alumni magazine that had arrived in the mail that morning and recognized the names of a few former students. One Watanabe Ai had apparently become a nurse and was serving in an NGO. Itoh Yumi had founded a nail-art boutique. (Would I be eligible for a free pedicure and foot massage?) Ueda Bun, the student who had dissed Get It Out! by not commenting on it, was said to be living abroad, though the country was not named. It wouldn't be, if Bun were in it. What I say is not all that I know...
I put down the alumni bulletin. I remembered the line that Ken had imputed to his uncle-mentor: The described God is not the true God. A recasting of the opening of the Tao te ching, presumably. That was how Masako had interpreted it, if I wasn't mistaken, and I more or less agreed. I mused on this Clayton Crowdie figure about whom Ken had written the clerihew. His alleged suicide could hardly not have been traumatic for his nephew. Did it account for the way Ken kept himself at a distance generally? Ken, in my view, was a showman of the Artful Withholder School: he tended to provide a certain amount of information and then stop the flow, leaving one off-balance. Was there something philosophical behind that (traces of Asian ineffability; the whole truth not graspable; the undescribed God even), or was it just a distaste for letting his feelings out, or hiding them behind theatrics? I didn't doubt that it was a combination of the two, plus a plethora of other elements, a grab-bag and a bargain basket of Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and the St. Looie Blues-tzu.
But to be honest, I didn't do psychology much anymore. Ken's inner depths? No, afraid not. He was an inveterate performer. The issue was not what he performed, but that he performed. One couldn't help but be impressed by the fact that he was still at it. I wondered what I would be like in my eighties, if I made it that far. What would they say of Stark? Stark Went Along. Stirring...
It was a hot afternoon when Ken came tottering through the door of the Dot Bar in Asakusa ("since 1949"). The owner and waiters greeted him and he engaged in a certain amount of light conversation, before finally joining us. He was quite the celebrity.
"Hello, you two," he said. "I see they've put you at my regular table near the front. I called ahead."
Though I had set up the appointment this time, as per Masako's directive, Ken had chosen the venue. We placed our orders, Masako and I having draft beers, Ken a brandy. The drinks arrived shortly.
"So," he said. "Go ahead, quiz me!"
"Ken, as I mentioned to you on the phone, I'll be using your text next semester - "
He bowed and said he appreciated that.
"Just out of curiosity, why did you send me a copy of your book in the first place and get - ?"
" - the whole process started? Didn't I tell you?" he said, tapping the top of his cane. "A student showed me your book, and I felt there were affinities."
"Get It Out!" Masako laughed incredulously. That was a little irritating.
"Yes, I believe that was the title."
"It hasn't been in print for years," I said.
Ken raised and lowered his shoulders. "I made a note to myself at the time."
"Who was the student?"
"A young man," he said, jiggling his memory. "Bun something."
"Ueda Bun?" I supplied.
"Yes, that would be it."
"How did you come to know Bun? Was it just by chance?"
"I keep alert. It's a marketing technique of a modest type."
"I don't associate you with marketing
"I'm as unobtrusive about it as possible."
"What were the affinities?" Masako demanded.
Right, I was interested in that myself.
"What things?" she asked.
"Things," he answered, showing not the slightest intention of explaining.
"Well, there's no need to discuss Get it Out!" she said perfunctorily. "As to your text, we still think the book is a sham, at best."
We? I thought no such thing.
"Your pugnacity, madam, is a flirtation," Ken said.
I couldn't have agreed more.
He added, with a bow, "But let's relax our syntax, shall we?"
"Speaking of which..." I paused meaningfully. "Ken, the point of your book is that the quest for grammar or syntax is a quest for the self. Am I right?"
"Yes," he agreed. "As you know, it extends an invitation to the student to search for his or her signature sentence, the epitome."
He sipped his drink very deliberately after saying that. Sunlight was streaming into the Bar at his back. Masako and I, however, had to shade our eyes, which put us at a disadvantage, you might say.
"And you received some unusual answers, I would guess?" Ken said, turning to Masako.
"Yes," she admitted.
"Now, Masako, or should I call you, The Hydrangea Lady?"
She started at the phrase, and her steel-rimmed glasses slipped. Ken waited for her to adjust them. "What is your epitome?" he asked.
Masako was affronted and remained silent.
Ken proposed one: "We still think the book is a sham, at best."
He paused. Big pause. Like the Grand Canyon.
"I'm going to perform a reading of your sentence."
"That won't be necessary," she insisted.
He asked for forbearance, removed a Dot Bar napkin from the container on the table, and wrote: We still think the book is a sham, at best. His penmanship was flamboyant, with flourishes. Writing as theatre. He folded up the napkin and pressed it to his forehead dramatically.
"Your epitome," he said in a trance-like voice, "suggests a penchant for cover, the use of the word we being the operative term there. Strength in plurality. Still shows persistence."
Masako remained silent, peering at him. Her forelock had detached itself and fallen across her brow. It resembled a sharp object.
"I see the word sham" - he paused and tapped his lips - "as an indication of inverted craving for the exotic. You love what you oppose."
Spot on, though he might have been less pointed, of course.
"At best?" he said, jiggling the paper to extract further meaning from it. "Forgive me, but a smudge of vindictiveness there -"
"Are you going senile?" Masako asked, stopping him right there.
"Going to smile?" he responded, cupping his ear.
There was an uncomfortable silence at this point. Masako was angry; she didn't like being toyed with. Ken, however, was completely at ease. He sat back, as if enjoying an idle moment and barely aware of our presence. When an interval had passed, he removed a matchstick from a Dot Bar box, held it up, struck it, and touched it to the napkin on which he had written Masako's epitome. The napkin caught flame, burned, and turned to ash. Ken took a fresh napkin, swept the ashes into it with the edge of his hand, folded it up into a triangle, and placed it in front of Masako.
"These are the cremains of your sentence," he said. "Meditate on them. Illumination will come to you."
Masako stared at the napkin for a long while - gaped in disbelief would be more accurate. Finally, she shoved it away. By now the sun had passed over, leaving the front of the restaurant in shadow. Ken had probably worked out the declination. He nodded to the manager, and the lights were brightened. That was all, folks.
"I hope you understand," he said, rising and bowing. He picked up the tab and the three of us left the restaurant together. We walked through one of the old arcades, Ken making knowing comments. When we reached the Azuma Bridge, he identified it as being the color of cinnabar and chuckled. Then he bade us goodbye.
"Tricks," Masako said in a low, rasping voice. "And more tricks."
But Ken had already separated from us. We watched him totter across with his bamboo cane. About half way over, he shifted slowly and waved. His cane suddenly resembled a patriarchal staff: he had grasped it in the middle and elevated it slightly, his body blocking what would have been the lower part. He looked like a Biblical figure, or the old man from the R. Crumb cartoons. Then he shouted something there was no chance of us hearing. Masako was incensed. In fact, she wouldn't talk to me for an entire week, and during the spring break we had no contact whatsoever.
I understood Masako's feelings (kind of) but her feistiness, or prickliness, had not helped matters. Then again what was she really after? To expose Ken as a colorful performer? To have his book banned from the stores and universities because it was playful? Or just to get some personal attention from a symbolic authority figure to whom she was perversely attracted? ("You love what you oppose," as the symbolic authority figure himself had put it.) I thought it might be a good idea, under the circumstances, to arrange a visit to Mukojima - but without Masako. Perhaps I could get some sense out of Ken as to his side of things, if it were just the two of us. You know, man to man.
Events obviated that. One afternoon as I was having a coffee in Yanagibashi, who should totter by, tapping his bamboo cane to some unheard melody, but The Grammarian himself? I left my table and caught up with him. He looked me up and down, saying, "Winds blow, plants grow, you're someone, I know." I had never been so flamboyantly saluted. He remarked that Yanagibashi was one of the old geisha quarters - I was aware of that, wasn't I? I said I was.
"And where is the Hydrangea Lady?"
"I think you freaked her out, Ken. She feels both you and your text are a grand conspiracy. Maybe she's right," I said, tempting him.
He answered that everything was connected, if that's what I meant.
"It seems ironic that Masako is an Asian woman trying to understand Western learning, and you're a Western man who has adopted Asian learning."
"All is flux," he said.
"But you never met in the middle."
"Would that have been better? Provided there is a middle."
"It would have saved me taking a lot of grief from Masako."
"Yes, I see your point."
"Grief is good for you," he added.
"She's not my type, Ken."
Yakatabune were loading up for the evening's parties on the Sumida. Willows drooped along the bank.
"Do you come to Yanagibashi often?" I asked.
"When I feel adventurous. It's two bridges down."
"What kind of adventures do you have at your age?"
"An adventure a minute."
"You've lived a long time, Ken, and apparently you've had a full life, both physically and metaphysically. What about Masako's point? She's not tactful, but the question is apposite. Is it all prestidigitation and tricks?"
He planted his cane and tilted his head back. Just for a moment his eyes seemed to be moving around behind his face, as if the real person were on the inside and his body were a costume.
"No obligation," I said. "Just curious."
"I've..." he hesitated, appearing to be thinking. "I'll get back to you on that." For once, he seemed a little weary. I was talking to an old man, I realized, and I felt a little ashamed of my baiting-nephew tone.
"I look forward to it," I said.
He pushed down heavily on his cane and made it around the corner. The willows along the mouth of the river swayed in the wind, and it almost looked as if he had turned into one of them. I assume he crossed the Sumida by way of Ryogoku Bridge and then walked up the eastern bank to Mukojima.
One afternoon in late September, not long after the above, I was idling in my office, doing the usual nothing, and I took down my only surviving copy of GET IT OUT! I hadn't opened the book for years, and dust had settled over it. In fact, the last time I had taken it down was to lend it to the aforementioned Ueda Bun. I wondered where Bun was - at an ashram in India? In Fez, wearing a fez? Well, the book had gotten me tenure. I wiped off the cover. As to "affinities," the only ones I could imagine were a few light verses that I had dashed off for the Rhyme & Rap chapter. These might have shown some kinship with Ken's spells and incantations - winds blow, plants grow. We always put down more than we realize, or should I say know? On the other hand, Ken may have been just sending me up - he was nothing if not cagey.
"What's your tenacious little mind up to now, Stark?"
It was Harold Gosher. No good. I had forgotten to bolt the door and put tape over the window.
"Tsk, tsk, examining your own text, I see."
He stood there like a woodpecker appraising a branch.
"A word of advice, Stark."
Didn't need it.
"No matter how long you stare at your mistakes, THEY WON'T DISAPPEAR."
He snatched Get It Out! from my hand and fanned through it. I should have left the dust on the cover.
"Now what's this gibberish?" he laughed, pointing to some penciled in lines.
"Harold, if you don't mind - " I said, and took back my book.
"If you're going to be like that, Stark."
I was. He huffed, and out the door he went. Once he was gone, which could not have been soon enough, I sat down and read the lines he had alluded to:
Dried rind shaded
Ken's writing, of course. The theatricality of the hand was unmistakable. I conjectured that he had penciled it in with Bun's knowledge. A petite collusion, if I may call it that. But who could say for certain? Perhaps Bun had just been the delivery boy. I'd have to track that down someday. I didn't take the lines as gibberish, of course. They struck me as a kind of apologia, albeit in the esoteric Crowdie style. It was almost as if Ken had put a warp on the time-line. That is, he had gotten back to me in advance. I recalled how he had hesitated at Yanagibashi when I queried him about Masako's question. "I've..." he'd said before reconsidering. Could he have meant: I've... already gotten back to you? I left my office and climbed the steps to Masako's.
"He's a charlatan," she said, when I showed her the poem and explained the circumstances.
"You don't think there's anything to it?"
"There's something to everything, Professor Stark."
"But, Masako, it's conceivably his answer to your question about whether his life and book were all trickery. Ken crossed by these bridges. He didn't jump. His work was serious. Grammar, or sentence-reading, is the way to self-knowledge."
"Oh, so the epitome is the elixir?" she said with deep sarcasm.
"In a manner of speaking."
"But what do the lines of the poem mean, Professor Stark?"
"Life is drying, ridging, fading. Set against these depredations is the The Way of Grammar. Self-knowledge. Self-cultivation."
She shook her head.
"Okay, cross the Azuma, or Fading Cinnabar Bridge, and come to the House of Grammar where the sprightly old man lives."
"No!" she said. "His answer was a trick that said it wasn't a trick. It's still a trick. He's a charlatan!"
"But, Masako, be honest. He intrigues you."
She stared at me as if I had accused her of enjoying life.
Whether Ken Crowdie was a charlatan or not was already moot, however. The old grammarian had conveniently been making his exit even as we spoke. I learned the news the following evening in the periodical room. Harold Gosher, the anti-grammarian and lunatic, slammed down a copy of The Tokyo News and said, "Read and don't weep." He pointed to the obituary column: Kenneth Clayton Crowdie. Then he stomped out. Ken had succumbed on the day prior to the conversation between Masako and myself, though no doubt he would have wanted it known that he had been ferried off on a unicorn. I can't say I wasn't moved. The obituary summed it up this way - not excluding a hint of exasperation:
Ken Crowdie, old Japan hand and perpetrator of Asian philosophies, was much appreciated for the arcane humor with which he relieved unrelievedly the business of scholarly life.
When I showed the obit to Masako, she reiterated that he was a charlatan. She also claimed that she had burned her copy of The Way of Grammar, but I don't believe it.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 3 Jul 2008