Shabu-Shabu, a short story

This story first appeared in The Ryder Magazine, 2016.


by Karol Lagodzki

Flickr CC License

Carlo grunts and works his bulk into the space at the table like a portly eel.

“Beef,” he declares.

“Seafood.” I don’t want to order the same thing.

“Beef,” Hori-san tells the mini-skirted waitress who bows her rouged cheeks half-way to the floor. Hori-san smiles and offers a nod in response.

“This is the best shabu-shabu in Tokyo.” He turns to Carlo and me. “You are going to love it.”

Yes, I am. There were a few things our boss Rebecca emphasized when she prepped us for the trip. Beware of the bidet toilets. No shorts or sneakers. Forget personal space. Consider every yes a tentative no. Show gratitude for all hospitality and eat what you’re served. “Grow up, Stefanski,” she finished; I’m not sure that was a business travel decree.

Our waitress glides away. Last night, having become lost while looking for an ATM, I found Tokyo frightening; once it got dark, I expected Harrison Ford to burst in from around the corner chasing a blonde android. I am discovering parts of it I could like now.

“Hori-san,” I address our host. “I haven’t had a chance to try shabu-shabu. Will you please guide us?”

“It’s easy, John.” The smile that of a mall Santa or a grandfather – not the one who died of cancer or the alcoholic; somebody else’s grandpa, I suppose. “You boil a pot of broth and throw the meat in. You must not let it run away.”

I nod and smile. Another idiom lost in translation. Hori-san nods and smiles. Now Carlo does it. We are three men seated around a low table nodding and smiling. My legs extend into the pit under the table and I imagine snakes before I can stop myself. I am six-four. Carlo and Hori-san could easily jump away while I worked my joints in succession to unfold and remove my body from the pit of vipers. Of course, there are no snakes under the table. I put them out of my mind.

“Do you like Tokyo?” Hori-san inquires. “Have you seen any sights?”

“Not this time, Butch. Had to sleep the flight off.” Carlo uses the English nickname Hori-san’s picked up and polished to a gleam in his forty years of corporate life. “We’ll get out before we’re done. Any recommendations?”

Hori-san continues to smile, and my cheeks begin to cramp; I will snap a face tendon if I don’t ease up. How does he smile so? He launches into a discourse about the relative advantages of Tokyo’s attractions and shopping districts. Hori-san squeezes his city into a parcel in less than five minutes, labels it precisely and serves it to Carlo and me on top of the table, next to the sake and the empty ash tray. As he finishes, I sense the moment when the last microgram of caffeine leaves my body and the released jet lag pounces eagerly. I drink from my water glass and wish it were Mountain Dew. The skin on my face melts and erupts with geysers of sweat from gigantic pores.

Blessed Adrenaline. That’s what I decide to call our waitress as she pirouettes over and places burners in the middle of the table. Soon flames dance, too, if not as gracefully as she, under large pots of steaming liquid. The beef comes first, thinly sliced Kobe, and I allow myself a brief pang of regret and envy. But, then, here’s the seafood.

A planned city covers the tray. It dedicates a neighborhood to filleted vertebrate fish. Here, the oysters live. Hello there, whatever you are. And, the closest to me, sea urchins sit quietly, minding their own business. In the center, a queen over her vassals, a squid with a head the size of a jawbreaker preens her tentacles with regal waves fit for a Miss Nevada quarterfinal. Regina – the name scales the lip of my mind and hooks there sharply.

Hori-san nods in my direction and pushes a set of tongs closer to me. Regina’s tentacles flail outside of the bowl, and she slinks onto the tray. Away from the fire. Toward me.

“Don’t let it run away,” Hori-san repeats and nudges the tongs.

I wonder whether the Spanish Inquisition ran a new employee orientation program. Day one: the proper procedure for snapping the shin bone, and, in the afternoon, dislocations. Head crushing 101. Whenever I picture their supply cabinet, grasping tongs will always feature on the center shelf. I examine my device – it is well-made, meant to last, Japanese.

In another moment Regina dangles from the pinched tines; her eye studies me – unblinking, stubbornly horizontal, her tentacles flow like a pirate’s dreadlocks. At a prompt from Hori-san, I suspend Regina over the boiling pot, and her feet recoil from the steam like mine do from Las Vegas asphalt. Stop it, the eye says, unblinking, still horizontal. Hori-san smiles and gestures; the Caesar pronounces his judgment and I must carry it out. The tongs open.

I see Regina again ten minutes later when Hori-san hands me a pair of shears. “Cut the tentacles off,” he says, “you must boil the head for a long time.” Soon, the octopus dangles over my plate, her eyes vacant, unblinking. I snip the rubbery cords, and they tangle together like a Velcro garden hose. I will boil the head for a long time.

I eat Regina. I chew. A long time. I drink Sapporo beer and sake. I thank Regina and drink more sake. Hori-san smiles. “You must eat the brain,” he says. “It is the best Japanese delicacy.”

I’m alone with Carlo when the metro spits us out two blocks from the Shinjuku Hilton.

“Damn, I’m still hungry,” Carlo says and points to a set of grand, bright yellow arches. “Burgers?”



Copyright © 2017 Karol Lagodzki. All Rights Reserved.

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