The Salaryman Story
by Robert Feeney
It was on a night similar to this one that I first heard the salaryman story. Bill had just put his jacket on, and was about to step out the door, when a torrential downpour began. Tony and I laughed, as that was about as clear of a sign as you could get to stay in, or stay out as the case may be. “Out” was Sol’s bar, where we always went, because it had an electronic darts board and cheap drinks. Bill’s house was a good twenty minute walk away and, of course, he hadn’t brought an umbrella. None of us had. The Japanese rainy season wasn’t supposed to begin until June, but, unluckily for Bill, it decided to start early that year. It certainly kicked off with a bang. The force of it against the roof made you worry for your safety, especially given where we were at the time. Let’s just say that the dartboard was by far the most modern fitting in Sol’s bar, and Sol himself wasn’t in a rush to do the place up. I swear, one of the walls was pure corrugated iron, like a badly made shed. Some of the seats were just beer canisters with a piece of wood on top. Not attached, mind, so you had to watch yourself. We enjoyed the DIY feel of the place though, and like I said the drinks were cheap. Which was good, because we weren’t going anywhere that night.
You couldn’t walk in that kind of rain. It was like a waterfall, it would push you down and soak you through in less than a few steps. Tony told us he had been caught out in one before, and once you were that wet, you stopped caring. But he wouldn’t have braved the downpour that night, even if you challenged him. Bill had more reason than us to attempt it. He had somewhere to be, judging by the phone call he’d received just a few minutes earlier. You could tell it was from his wife, because he turned his back on us to take it. When that rain started though, he sat right back down, and ordered another lemon sour. He hadn’t even zipped his jacket up. His face was still flush from the round of tequilas we’d drunk. Just one, of course. “One glass, that’s a pass,” Tony would say, then one of us would have to say “two glass, on your ass”. Because once you drank two, then it was three, then it was trouble. But one gave you a nice buzz.
The rain kind of stung us, because we had exhausted our normal routine for the night, and now we were stuck. The routine was well rehearsed by that stage. First off, Tony would talk about his latest plans to move and teach English in Brazil, or Spain, or China. He liked the idea of Brazil especially, because he thought he could make a lot of money as a male model over there, and that always amused Bill no end. Bill had thinning hair, but Tony, despite only being in his early-twenties, was full-on bald. The top of his head was permanently sunburned during summer, so I don’t know how he would have coped in Brazil. But he liked to talk about it anyway. When he’d got that out of his system, next up was a game of darts, a bit of physical activity to get us going. Tony won that night, which was a relief. He was a competitive man, and if he lost he’d adopt a low sulk for the rest of the night. I remember one time Bill outran him in an impromptu sprint outside the bar, and for the next three hours Tony wouldn’t stop talking about how his shoes had been tied too tight. Tony was younger than me and Bill, so I suppose he thought it was his duty to beat us at physical activities, which he certainly did many times. And maybe that’s why he wasn’t so bothered about losing at cards, as that was the mental side of things. He definitely lost at cards that night, and I won. I know because I still have the receipt we wrote the scores on. I used to keep those random pieces of paper, to remind the other two of times they’d played particularly badly, but I threw most of them out years ago. I still have that one receipt though, in my to-do pile, along with the bills and unfinished manuscripts. Bill gave it to me, to write the scores on the back. Years later, when I had more Japanese, I was able to read the print on the front. It was for a pregnancy test kit, at a cost of two thousand yen, bought in Yamada chemist Tokyo. But I didn’t know about that, back then.
When Bill sat back down, and we all had a drink in front of us, I knew Tony was going to say something, and I was pretty sure what it was as well. He had that look on his face, which told me he was bored, but that he knew exactly what to do to relieve that boredom. And of course, before we can even put the glass to our lips, he comes out and says it.
That word preceded every one of Tony’s backarsed plans to amuse himself, usually at the expense of others. He once challenged Bill to give him a piggyback from Sols to the station, and when he jumped on Bill’s back he drove him into the ground and broke Bill’s arm. That was an insane idea. Tony was a bulky lad with weight from the gym, but I guess both of them must have been fairly drunk. Bill said he didn’t even feel it. He was off work for a week, and the school never forgave him for that, because they had to spend to bring in a cover teacher. Another time, Tony challenged us to do press-ups outside the convenience store near my apartment, and some police turned up to berate us for disturbing the peace. I had to try and explain in half Japanese that we were just a bit drunk, but Bill wasn’t helping things by hyperventilating in the background. Luckily, the police didn’t want to bother with the paperwork involved in bringing in three foreigners at midnight, so they let us go with a warning. And there was yet another time when Tony challenged us to a joust using the zip lines in the kids playground, and we broke them. That was at night as well, so nobody saw us skulking away, half ashamed, half delighted with ourselves. But Bill’s wife found out about it somehow, and she made him promise to give money to the city council to fix it. As far as I know, he never did.
So, the challenges were nothing but trouble. But it was hard to ignore it once it had been said.
“What’s the challenge?” I said.
“Well, we can’t do one outside obviously, so… how about first one to do twenty push-ups?” said Tony. The athletic challenges were weighted in his favour, given his workout regime. Also, there was the potential for looking good in front of any female clientele in the bar (in Tony’s mind that is, the only potential we saw was for looking like insane foreigners). Actually though, that night, there was just the three of us. That wasn’t particularly surprising. It was a Thursday, and Sol was blasting Tina Turner out the door. He’d wanted to call the bar Soul, but someone made a mistake on the sign, and he couldn’t afford to fix it. We liked to remind him of that by calling the bar, and him, by the incorrect title.
“No way, I’m not doing push-ups,” said Bill, “the floor’s filthy, and there might be broken glass somewhere.” That was a good bet, as we had broken many a glass in Sols, and Bill the majority of them. Sol charged them to his tab. In fact, sometimes he would charge Bill for one in a week when he hadn’t even been at Sol’s. He just assumed. In fairness, those weeks were rare.
`“Alright, alright,” said Tony, “how about a game of cards, loser does a forfeit.”
“We just played cards,” said Bill. We had in fact just played a game of cheat, where the object was to lie about the cards in your hand. Tony would cheat in the most outrageous ways, hiding cards in his pocket, throwing them away when we weren’t looking. Bill was terrible at it though, because he was a bad liar. He’d always pause for a few seconds, like his brain was having problems coming up with something. I think he was afraid of losing again that night, and having to buy Tony a drink or something because of it.
“Fine, tell a story then,” said Tony.
“What?” said me and Bill simultaneously.
“Tell a story, and if it’s not good, you have to do a forfeit.”
“How do we know if it’s not good?” I said.
“The other two will vote on it, and if there’s not unanimous approval, you lose.”
“What’s the forfeit?” asked Bill.
“You have to drink a shot of tequila.”
This was both unprecedented and unexpected. Usually Tony’s forfeits involved us buying him drinks. Apart from amusing himself, that was the main reason for the challenges I reckon. Tony always appeared to be semi-broke, even though we knew he was teaching extra classes at the weekend. He probably spent a lot on his protein shakes and gym membership.
“Okay,” said Bill, “who goes first?” Tony choose three cards from the deck.
“Three cards, one Queen. Whoever gets it goes first,” he said, fanning out the cards in front of him. Bill quickly grabbed at one, and flipped it over. There was the Queen. To this day I still don’t know if Tony set that up. But Bill didn’t seem to mind, he went straight into it. He’d been fairly quiet that night, which usually meant he had something to say. I think he had a story ready to go from the first moment we met him that evening, or maybe he’d had it for a while, and that night just set it up perfectly. Anyway, the story he told us was the salaryman story.
Bill said he had this student, a businessman, or as they’d say in Japan a salaryman. They’d borrowed those words from English, and messed up joining them together, creating a title which suggested your life was ruled by your salary. I suppose it was, in a way. Anyhow, Bill told us he had this student, who was a salaryman, who came to class everyday drunk. A certain kind of drunk, which allowed him to be angry without being threatening (which was something Bill wasn’t good at). He had no interest in learning English. In fact, his level of spoken English was quite good. He only wanted to smoke, and complain about his job (who were ironically paying for his lessons). He didn’t know the exact word for his job, it was some kind of office work, but he knew that he hated it. He’d been trying, and failing, to get fired for years. He turned up late, drank cheap whiskey in the office, smoked weed in the bathroom, and read dirty comics in front of the female employees. But it was hard to get fired in Japan. All that happened was his desk was moved farther and farther away from the centre of the office, and more towards the outskirts. In this way, his status was reduced amongst his colleagues. The management hoped that this dishonour would prompt a change of behaviour, but that change never arrived. The salaryman was stubborn, and not typical of the traditional, convention-loving Japanese salaryman, who we all knew would bend over backwards to appease their superiors. The movements of this salaryman’s desk only increased his bad behaviour. He had gotten to a point where his desk was right next to the office entrance. It couldn’t go any farther. One more transgression and he would be out the door and free, or so he thought.
Then, disaster struck. The officers of the national tax agency raided the office. Apparently, the management had been doing some transgressing themselves, to the tune of several million yen. They had a search warrant, and naturally the first place they searched was the salaryman’s desk. And what did they find but the accumulated detritus of his misbehaviour – endless cigarette butts, broken bottles, crumpled tissues, the foulest pornography, and several cockroaches he had smuggled in to keep him company. The officers decided there were easier places to search that day, and left. The salaryman was hailed as a hero. He had given management the time they needed to destroy any incriminating evidence. The company was saved. His desk was moved back into the centre of the office, and he was assured by his boss that he had a job for life there. A salaryman forever.
Bill finished the story by taking a long drink, and then laughing, laughing hard. I asked him if the story was a joke.
“No,” he said, “one hundred percent true. I don’t think his imagination would’ve been good enough to make up something like that.”
“I don’t buy it,” said Tony. “Why did the police give up so easily? They’re professionals, right? I don’t think a dirty desk is going to get in the way of their job.”
“Those big cockroaches are fairly off-putting though, especially the flying ones,” I said.
“Why didn’t he just quit?” said Tony.
“Like you always say you’re going to?” said Bill.
“It’s to do with honour, or something like that. Maybe he needed the redundancy money,” I said quickly.
“Doesn’t make sense.” said Tony.
“Tony, I’ve been here for eight years now,” said Bill, “and I can tell you that story makes more sense to me than most things.”
He started laughing again. He’d had a few I guess. Still, it was too much, it was uncomfortable.
“Okay, let’s vote,” I said. “It’s a thumbs up from me. Tony?” Tony was staring at Bill’s face. He had stopped laughing, and there was just the vestige of a grin there now. Things got silent, apart from the rain, which was still hammering against the roof, trying to get in. I remember seeing what looked like a funeral procession of umbrellas pass by the window. They were just walking at a normal pace, and they were heading north, even though there was nothing there but rice fields and train tracks.
“No,” said Tony. “No, I don’t like it. Thumbs down.”
“Sol, a shot of your finest tequila,” called Tony. Sol got a glass from the fridge, and poured one out. He brought it to the table on a tray. Bill raised his hand, to show who it was meant for. Sol placed the glass in front of him. Bill drank it down. After that, he was a goner.
Two glass, on your ass. More so for poor Bill, who had less tolerance for it than some. I wasn’t feeling that great myself, so I left them an hour or so later. The rain had stopped, so the silences in-between drinks were worse. The two of them had taken to arm wrestling left-handed. I walked home and tried to get some sleep before my classes started. When I went to school in the afternoon with a raging hangover, I had to teach Bill’s classes as well, because Bill never showed up. I overheard the headmaster ringing him up, asking him where he was, and I could hear that long pause before the lie. And so could the headmaster.
Tony and I never even told a story in the end. I had one ready to go as well, and I think Tony did too. But we weren’t much in the mood for stories after the salaryman. It seemed that one was enough that night. We’d all had enough.
I saw Bill’s wife and kid in the street the other day. I guess that’s what reminded me of that night. The two of them, and this fucking rain. The kid’s got sandy coloured hair, like her dad. They didn’t even look at me. I don’t blame them, I’m just a sore reminder to them now. I hardly ever hear from Bill, just the odd email occasionally. I sometimes wonder if I should have done something, but back then I didn’t know what to do, or even if I had to do it. I wonder if Tony feels the same way. Now that Sol’s bar is closed, we’ve had to start going further afield for a drink. Tony doesn’t talk so much anymore about going to Brazil, or Spain, or China, but sometimes he’ll come up with a challenge, for old times’ sake. One night, I challenged him to tell me something interesting, and he started telling the salaryman story, without even realising what he was doing. I told him I’d heard it before.