The Lion in Winter

It’s never difficult to tell when Nakata-san has arrived; his “Konnichiwa!” is loud, authoritative, and sends the staff into a tizzy of keigo and bowing. I am usually in the 2 foot-square break area when he descends upon us, at the ready with my single piece of paper and a sheet of news topics to discuss. Because Nakata-san comes to class from his office, he is often up to 10 minutes late. This is why yesterday, when I failed to catch that booming, “Konnichiwa!” I assumed he hadn’t yet arrived. I curled up on my tiny stool, debating whether or not to tear into my Calbee potato sticks just yet.

Pumpkin-san poked her head into the break cube.

“Ribu-chan!” she said gently. “Nakata-san is here.”

“Are you sure?” I asked incredulously. “I didn’t hear – uh, see him come in.”

I had to see it to believe it but Pumpkin-san was right; there he was, slumped at the desk with his Russian stoat-collared tweed coat slung over a chair. When I entered, flush with apologies, he didn’t stand to shake my hand as per the usual, merely reached out weakly, his usually bear-like grip limp in my hand.

“Please excuse me,” he said. “Last night, I had too much drink.”

Ah. Of course. A hangover is the only thing that can bring down a man like Nakata-san; the thorn in his massive paw. Even in the face of the global economic crisis, Nakata-san remains cheerful. His family’s company is rock-solid, he says. The yen is strong, especially against the Pound and the Euro – his upcoming trip to France will be a breeze. Things can always be worse.

“Have you been reading about North Korea’s threats?” I ask.

“Nonsense!” he guffaws. “They have no power.”

“You’re not even a little nervous? April 3rd is coming up.”

“Not nervous.”

“Well, I’m nervous.”

“Why?” he asks. “Is no problem.”

Yesterday, though, there was no talk of the yen or Kim Jong-Il’s apparently gnat-like buzzing. Instead, the man gulped swallow after swallow of his bottled water, following my questions with uncharacteristic lethargy.

“I’m sorry,” he said after only 15 minutes of our lesson had passed. “I must go home.”

“Wow, you really are feeling awful, aren’t you?”

“Too much wine,” he said.”I go to home now.”

And, hoisting his massive coat around himself, he was gone – as silently and dejectedly as he had come.

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