“I’ve brought your lunch.”
That ‘tonk tonk tonk’ stops and I realize that the crouching Matsuoka-san was making the noise. They stand up and I see the full picture.
Matsuoka-san is an older woman, late fifties or early sixties. She’s short. She would maybe come up to my nose. Her hair is short but wild, tuffs sticking up in the back. She’s wearing heavy-looking boots and gloves, but thin clothing with her sleeves rolled up. She’s got soot stains all over. There’s a backdoor open behind her, casting her face into a strange profile along with the furnace light. Because of that, I can’t quite make out her expression, but I don’t think it’s anything remarkable.
She bows to me as she speaks, “Thank you Kawagu-eeh? You’re not Kawaguchi-san.” She bows again, deeper this time, “Sorry about that.”
I shake my head, “That’s okay.” I’m underwhelmed.
“Just put it there please,” She says, pointing to a small desk.
She crouches down again, like I’m not here anymore. I do as she asks, but keep her in my line of sight. She raises something up and brings it down hard onto a wood block next to her. It causes the ‘tonk’ of before; the bark shakes and separates from the log. She tosses the two into piles and repeats.
I put the tray down and slowly approach her from her front and at a distance so I don’t get hit. If she notices me, she doesn’t look up.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Making kindling,” she remarks with monotone.
“Kindling?” I echo.
Her head snaps up and she looks me straight in the eye, “Eeeh??” She says, shocked, “You don’t–? Kindling! Kindling!” She throws around her hand for accent, “You use it to start fires! Have you never started a fire before?!”
I’m taken back by her intensity, but I find it kind of funny. I shake my head, “No.”
“That’s too bad. It’s good fun.”
“Eeh? Are you a pyro or something?” She looks up at me and smiles slightly, but doesn’t say anything.
Maybe she is a weirdo.
I look around the basement, Matsuoka-san’s everyday environment. She keeps it dark despite having four neon-light fixtures. There’s the back door, letting in a nice breeze against the inherent heat of the furnace. The wall next to it has a pile of tools, a couples of axes, and possibly a table saw? It’s hard to say, being half draped in cloth. Her desk under the stairs is flanked by boxes of files. There’s a billboard not pinned up; it has a calendar, some lists, and a couple photos. Then there’s the wall of firewood, up to the roof and three layers deep.
What a fire hazard.
“You shouldn’t wear those types of shoes down here.” Matsuoka-san points her hammer at my feet and we both look at my summer sandals, “You shouldn’t wear those shoes when you’re working either!”
“Eh? I’m not a – eeeh?! You don’t know who I am?” I stand up and look down at her, my hand on my chest, my cheeks flush, “I’m not staff! I’m Riko Watanabe! Like the Watanabe who run this ryokan!!”
Still crouched, Matsuoka-san looks up and I see the emotions cross her face rapidly; bemused from my yelling, shock at my name, and then an excitement.
“Eeeeeh??” She stands up, “You’re little Riko-chan! Unbelievable! I haven’t seen you since you were this high!” She laughs and it’s a funny chirp that I barely resist smiling at.
“No way!” I say, stomping my foot for added effect, “How can you work in this ryokan and not see me for–for ten years?! That’s impossible!”
I stand firm, ready for her to yell at me for being so disrespectful. It’s commonplace when I get frustrated with my mother. She gently places her hammer on the ground and stands tall. Instead of yelling, however, she stretches and I hear the tiniest cricks and cracks.
“Has it really been ten years now…?” She murmurs, as though talking to herself, “Funny how the days go when you’re working.” She half-shrugs and turns to her desk, as if leaving the conversation.
“That doesn’t answer my question!! Where have–”
“Please don’t yell.”
Embarrassed, I adjust, “Have you never gone upstairs??” Her casualness is starting to bother me. I can’t believe this woman has never left this basement. I feel like it’s some weird trick. I’m a Watanabe. I know I have little to contribute to the family business, but I at least prided myself on knowing all the staff.
“How could you go ten years as a–a social hermit?!” I ask, my hands up in the air, “And no one has talked about you?! Not even my parents??”
She goes over to her desk and sits down. She gets up, drags a small stool over, and sits down again. She calls me over with a wave and points to the stool. I oblige. She asks if I’ve eaten yet and I say no. She offers her pork bun and I take it. She says thanks for her meal and starts eating.
“It’s easy to get forgotten down here,” She says in between bites, “but I don’t mind it. I don’t have much to talk about. I don’t do a lot outside of work. Don’t let it bother you Riko-chan; I can count on one hand the people in this bathhouse who know my name.”
I try counting in my head who those people could be. Mother, Father, Kawaguchi, maybe Aunty…?
“Eeh?” I realize, “Then…who was bringing your meals before Kawaguchi?” It was because of her and her bad-mouthing that I knew about Matsuoka-san. Kawaguchi had only recently started coming downstairs, so surely there was someone before her that brought Matsuoka-san lunch. But this person never said a word…
Matsuoka-san laughs, “Oh that was Momo-chan! We go way back. She retired a few weeks ago – lovely woman. We had some cake together on her last day.”
Momo-chan must be old lady Momoko Tanaka. As said, she retired a few weeks ago. She had worked in the ryokan since my grandparents ran the place. She was second in command of the restaurant after my father, running the front. She trained all the hosts and servers herself. She was traditional to the bone and got along well with my mother.
I can’t imagine her being friendly with Matsuoka-san.
“Momo-chan never said anything eh? That sounds like her. She was a professional through and through! Hardly knew how to have fun.” She laughs.
I sit in awe of her passiveness. To me, it was like everyone was ignoring her. Until a few days ago it really was like she never existed. But to her, to Matsuoka-san, it was nothing. I guess I kinda understand. She didn’t go upstairs, so she didn’t know and didn’t care what people were or weren’t saying.
“Do you ever go upstairs?” I ask, genuinely curious.
She looks up, maybe in thought or to look at the basement door, “There was a staff photo a couple of years ago…” She mused, “But that was in front of the building, not really upstairs.” She slices her tofu and eats a few pieces. I can tell she’s really trying to think. “I don’t know,” she confesses after a few moments, shrugging again, “there’s nothing up there for me.” And she smiles.
“You’re crazy Matsuoka-san.”
“Eeh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh! I mean in a good way!” I fumble trying to explain myself, “It’s like, you’re really important around here and support everyone else, but no one recognizes that! It’s like you’re a forgotten guardian spirit and the ryokan is the shrine or something…”
Matsuoka-san bursts out laughing and covers her mouth to stop food from coming out. She coughs and laughs and waves me away when I try to help. She sips some tea from a cup that wasn’t part of her lunch.
“That’s some funny thinking,” she says after calming down, “I haven’t laughed like that a while.”
I’m flustered and kind of embarrassed. “What’s so funny about it? It was a compliment!”
Matsuoka-san lifts her hand up and towards me. I stiffen, anticipating a pat on the head. Instead, she smacks my arm like I’ve seen in a couple western shows, though not as hard.
“I appreciate it!” She says, smiling, “But I’m not doing anything special. Anyone could do what I do.”
At first, I feel sympathy towards her, but I suddenly realize something. “Matsuoka-san!” I say with urgency, “Are you the only one who works in the basement??”
She looks a little confused, but nods.
“Eeeeeh??” I shout, “Matsuoka-san! It’s only you? You work here every day??”
She nods again, “Yup. Get in at 6:30, leave after 11.”
I stand up, completely in shock, “No way!! That’s ridiculous! That means you’re never at home! You can’t do any shopping! You can barely get deliveries! You practically live here!!”
“I don’t need to shop since all my meals are provided,” she says casually, “It’s a lot better than what I’d ever make myself!” and she laughs. “My children moved out years ago so there’s nothing to take care of at my apartment. Hmm, I guess you’re right, the basement is like a second home.” She smiles.
I’m still in shock. “That’s not normal!! Do you never take a vacation??”
“I always take Golden Week.” She says, matter-of-factly, “My family and I go south. Last year we went to Fiji. This year we went to Hawaii. My daughters set up a trip for us to see a volcano. They said it was the best place to take me since I’m so used to heat!” She laughs, “Oh sorry, I’m rambling.” Like she predicted my next question, she continues, “You’re grandfather used to take over the furnace work back when he was working here. Lately it’s been your mother’s brother. He comes home for Golden Week and she makes him work down here hahaha!”
I sit down and try to absorb all this information. I hold my head in my hands – adult life sounds terrible.
“Don’t let it bother you Riko-chan,” Matsuoka-san says waving her hand, “It’s not as though I’m working every second of every day. It’s a very simple job.” Counting on her hands, “Keep the fire going; recording inventory; cutting firewood; ordering supplies; clean up; umm, is there anything else? Really, it’s not a lot!”
She pats me on the arm again and smiles. Her way of saying, ‘cheer up.’ She returns to her food, about half-finished. I look down at the pork bun in my hand, crushed slightly from my excitement.
I look around the basement again and try to imagine how Matsuoka-san has lived like this for so long. I try to imagine no days off except one week a year. I try to imagine being in a basement for ten years. Did she like her work? I’ve read stuff online, forum boards and whatever, about people who feel trapped in their job; like if they leave they wouldn’t be able to find something better. I wonder if she thinks like that. I wonder if she had a proper education. I wonder how she got this job in the first place – surely a woman would prefer to be a hostess or in the baths.
Matsuoka-san gets up from her meal, still not done, and walks over to the large wood pile. She grabs two pieces and brings them over to the old furnace. She opens the door and I feel the heat from across the room. It’s a tiny door, but inside it’s bright orange charcoal. Some ash flies free and a bit of smoke comes out too. She crouches down and tosses the first log in and then fumbles with the second. She’s trying to place it specifically, but is having trouble. By her hesitation, it’s probably because she doesn’t want to be burned.
She eventually gets it, closes the door, and comes back to the table. “See?” She says cheery, “Not that tough!” She looks down at her food, “You’re kind Riko-chan, you remind me of my daughters. They’re always worried I’m working too hard or I’m going to hurt myself. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, it’s second nature now!”
“EEEEH??” I screech, but she just laughs.
Before I can ask another barrage of questions, my phone goes off. I murmur excuse me and check it. I groan; it’s Itsuki wondering where I am. He probably doesn’t want our father catching me disturbing the staff. The thought makes me angry. For some reason, it makes me think that if he knew I was with Matsuoka-san, he’d brush it off because she’s not as important.
I feel restless. I want to talk to Matsuoka-san more, but I don’t want to concern Itsuki. Even if I message him back, he’d pester me more and more until I returned.
I turn back to Matsuoka-san and bow, “Thank you for answering my questions and putting up with me! Sorry, but I have to go now!”
She nods, “It was nice having you.”
I thank her again and rush up the stairs. I hesitate at the door and look back down at her. I feel my face flush, “Is it okay if I visit again?”
Matsuoka-san, looking at me, smiles brightly and raises her glass at me.