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“Is that mask necessary?”
“Don’t you have lung problems, … sensei?” She pauses before the ‘sensei’ title. Maybe she finds something amusing in the idea of Jack Hobbs being anybody’s teacher. “I assumed that you would want me to wear it for as long as possible ...”
“Did you understand the instructions about your clothing? Don’t you even remember the damn advertisement?” He wheezes, pulls his own mask down and presses down on the inhaler.
The only response he gets is a titter and a bow. Even with the padded mask covering everything below the bridge of that slim nose, he can tell she’s beautiful. Long black hair flowing down to the small of her back that you could trail your fingers through, a paleness to her face, arms, and legs that would offset against the candlelight. And those eyes! Dark pools weighted in the essence of her mystery.
Does he feel a hint of life in what dangles between his legs?
“If you are modeling for this portrait, you’ll need to show that pretty face.”
She removes her sandals, steps up from the maple flooring onto the raised tatami. She’s graceful, like a performing geisha, each step taken with confidence. Comfortable in her flesh, her bones. She swishes a strand of hair off her shoulder before bending over to check one of the tatami mat’s corners. “Do you change these regularly?”
She’s one of this new breed who gets the boys to play fetch for them before upgrading to the bigger beasts. I’ll paint her haughty and proud, the type who eventually catches some poor sap’s dick in a vice and squeezes it until he has no fight left. Someone would pay well for such a piece, would place it snugly in their man-cave, and sit there lusting over it in the evenings. Then crawl to bed with their tail between their legs to their ‘no-sex please and thank you spouse’, all shrunken, miserable, and guilt-ridden. A Sumi brush snaps in his hand. He gawps, half-stupidly, as it drops from his grasp. He wasn’t aware he’d even picked it up.
“Hobbsu-san? Daijobu desu ka? Are you okay?”
“I was thinking about the portrait!” he blusters. “A mask might suit you.” Maybe like that Mad Max film or some of those anime models, he ponders. But cosplay models do that nonsense already for photo shoots. Buyers came to him for something different.
Well-known expatriate artist Jack Hobbs was found dead in his studio this morning. Hobbs was once a consistent contributor to the Tokyo art scene. Since his arrival from the United States in the late 1990s, he was known for his portraits of fashionable young women.
“You’ll need to supply medical certificates. PCR tests must be taken a day before each sitting. If you come back positive, no matter how close to the portrait’s completion, you get nothing for your time. Understood?” He wags a finger, as if she’s an over-indulged university student he’s chiding over some missing homework. Another bow. A hum of self-amusement. “Who taught you your Japanese, Hobbsu-san? It sounds so … unique.”
Hobbs reaches for his camera, ignoring her barb about his language level. He snaps a dozen shots of her in different poses on the tatami. “Lie down. Lean your head back. Sit up. Cross your legs. Kneel. Put your hands behind your back. Not that way!” Occasionally he reaches out for an ankle or wrist, but each time she budges away, correcting the position herself. You don’t want me to touch you? Let’s see how that plays out.
He dismisses her with a final reminder to be on time next week. He isn’t one for waiting hunched behind the wheel of a car outside train stations. Stewing over his wasted time until she feels like gracing him with her presence.
He stretches the polaroids out across a flat canvas. Many of the poses offer potential, some even reminders of past subjects: this one of Mitsuko and her wide, unblinking eyes; this of Keiko and her slender white neck; this of Asuza and – back then - her unusually fulsome cleavage. Yet when he tries to stretch his imagination beyond the photos, he finds only the typical vague cliches. It’s like one of those old card packs that kids would play with, thumbing over the images only to discover that some killjoy has removed cards at random throughout the set. His thoughts come disjointed, vague; his mind’s eye refuses to conjure the fluidity of movement he tries to attribute to her.
He lets out a ‘pshaw’ of resentment and waves a dismissive hand towards the now empty tatami space. He has to plan. That, he can do without her presence or her mocking tongue.
A keen appreciator of Japanese portraiture dating back to the Edo period, Hobbs mined many of the old Japanese masters for inspiration, a practice that saw critics waspishly accuse him of being little more than a magpie engaged in clumsy misappropriation.
It was Jack Hobbs’ wish to paint rather than merely photograph that set him apart from the talentless clods pointing and clicking. His trick lay in courtship, his portraiture finding depths within his subjects that they weren’t even sure they possessed themselves. That enough girls rolled into bed with him once the work was done was not something to provoke condemnation. “You know what you are getting yourselves into,” he always insisted. He may have coaxed them into his studio like he might a wary Nara doe, but they quickly saw what they could get from him. Immortality on canvas. And who wouldn’t be seduced by an offer like that?
“But how to paint you,” he murmurs, thinking of his previous works which took inspiration from Hokusai to Koide to Shima Seien. This young woman is unusual. Confident, jokey, possessing so much self-assurance as she strolled around his studio. It’s like she’s been here before. Like she somehow knows me. Maybe somebody’s been gossiping about old Jack Hobbs.
There’s little he can do about that.
He picks up a polaroid of her lying on her back, that slender neck exposed, those breasts ripe for his touch. Yes, this is close to the right pose. He picks a canvas from the wall and pins the picture to the top left corner. He’ll do some sketches, get the outlines as close to actuality as he can. Next week, he’ll insist she remove the mask.
The week passes in a flurry of curves and loops, considerations of tertiary and quaternary colors, thoughts of angle and perspective. A giddiness enters his movements. There’s no more dallying in restaurants or propping up snack bars to ogle the working girls. His meals become store-bought lunch boxes which he tosses half-eaten to the corner of his work space and which soon stink of congealed fried chicken and soy sauce drippings. He sleeps on a hastily unrolled, heavily-stained futon. He ventures out briefly, when the almost full-moon glints through the maple and cherry blossom trees. The 7-11 staff don’t even ask if he wants a plastic bag or chopsticks; they stuff them in along with the lunch boxes, beer cans, and Lucky Strikes. Fellow customers queue at different tills.
Nonetheless, until recent years, his work found favor back in his native homeland, in France, and in his adopted Japan. Recent health problems had limited his output; however, there was persistent talk of a comeback for the still energetic American.
He often sits in the small garden at the back of the studio after dark, listening to the crickets chirping, the occasional warbler or bamboo partridge - one, two, three; one, two, three. Soon the azaleas will bloom, taking sustenance from the soil he’s enriched over the years. Beauty begetting beauty, as one might say.
On the day before she returns, he doesn’t even eat. He works, often brushing cigarette ash from the sketches. He’s liberated. No need to wash, to interact with others. He sketches, experimenting with shades, with poses and concepts. More than once he thinks of Shunga like Hokusai’s Fisherman’s Wife. He drinks. He thinks of Beckett and Krapp’s Last Tape. I wouldn’t give it up. Not any of it. Not for the fire that’s in me now. The present mingles with memory. They will all come together in this, the summation of his life’s work. He prepares to paint.
He’s at the JR station early, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. She’s on time. He once again communicates his displeasure at her choice of attire. “You come for a portrait sitting and then dress like you’re dropping some books off at the library or going for an English lesson.” He almost runs down a local as he drives out of the parking lot, the woman grimacing when she sees who’s behind the wheel.
The girl hums J-pop standards as he carps on during the short drive home, she’s paying more attention to the fashion chain stores and coffee shops they drive past.
“You must disrobe,” Hobbs barks as soon as they enter. She titters. “Really, Sensei? Did you learn your Japanese from watching Samurai dramas?” She reaches down and picks up one of his sketches, then another, then another.
“Are you here to model or to clean up?”
“So many different faces, Sensei. All these girls?”
“I’ve been more prolific than anyone could have realized.” He watches her step out of her sandals. She sets different sketches along the wall space, propping them up when she can. Yes. I’m responsible for all of them. But there was another type of fire in him then. And his inner desires were always adept at overcoming any qualms.
Act as you would like to have lived, he thinks. He’s sure he read that in some book back in his twenties, a way of living that the self-help goonies turned into their tawdry ‘fake it until you make it’ mantra. And where did that get us?
He stands over a book at his writing desk, going through the ritual that prepares him to paint, reading past reviews of his work, then congratulating himself over his success in negotiating the lauditory descriptions in third person.
“Sensei? Are you ready?” Her voice was mesmerizing.
“Yes. As ready as I’ll ever be.” He turns from his writing desk, lets the cotton yukata fall to the floor, with only an abstract thought to how his shrunken, dangling ball sac must look.
Her eyes shine above the mask, drawing him toward her. Is that an invitation? he wonders.
He walks toward his canvas, hand poised to pick up his brush. She has disrobed as instructed. Her skin looks almost translucent in the raking light.
Only the mask hides her full beauty. He wants it removed. He must remove it.
He grunts his way onto the tatami. The cast of their shadows, his crouched, hers towering over him, reminds him of something.
“Am I beautiful, Sensei?”
“You are ravishing.”
“Then you’ll do anything for me.” She reaches behind either ear and removes her mask. The flaps of skin droop away from either cheek. He notes the rotting of her teeth, the way her tongue twists, flaps, slides against those blackened teeth as she speaks, clicking against the hard and soft upper palates at the roof of her mouth. “Do you still think I am pretty?”
He nods, transfixed. She hands him a blade and motions to where she wants the cuts. He slices one off and then the other, the pain roiling outwards from his crotch, and yet what use has he truly had for them these past few years. He places them and the knife reverentially at her feet, then he lies down, closes his eyes, and waits. The first incision across the right of his mouth isn’t as painful as expected. She’s methodical with the knife, gliding the blade through the mucosa of his saggy cheek like she’s a sculptress.
Of course she is beautiful, he thinks. She is Mariko, Meiko, Risa, Azusa. Mitsuko, Keiko, and the others. The dribble past his ear will turn to plops of flesh and tissue marking this section of tatami. Images of his past canvases flicker through his mind, interspersed with the applause of admirers all eager to talk to Jack Hobbs about his techniques, his inspirations, his drives. She will bring them to me again.
By the time she has started on the left side of his face, his heart has given out. She hacks out his tongue, steps naked into his back garden, her toes kneading into the soil. She digs at a patch of grass with her blood-slicked hands, thrilling at the way the dirt wedges beneath her nails, and places the appendage and two testes on a small mound of the earth. It will be enough of a prompt to persuade the police to start digging, to finally do their jobs. She dresses, reattaches her mask, and takes a final, satisfied glance at her handiwork, both on the tatami and in Jack’s back garden, before leaving.
Hobbs settled some years ago in the town of Mishima, close to the base of Mount Fuji, where he kept a small studio. He leaves no immediate family.
The excavations mean the azaleas won’t bloom behind Jack Hobbs’ studio this year. The weathered barricade tape warning people to stay out will survive the driving June rains, will flutter gently in the occasional summer breeze, will endure through the cloying August humidity. People will rush past, shaking their heads, trading scandalized whispers about all those poor girls. They always knew there was something wrong about him. But nobody could have imagined that!
It was an unusual way to kill oneself. An even grislier way to confess - gelding himself and leaving them along with his tongue in the garden.
In years to come, neighborhood bullies will dare the younger kids to run up to the dilapidated house, to knock on the front door, they’ll tease about how the knock can summon its occupant spirit away from his next canvas, from where he’s wondering over the best curves and lines, the most suitable tones and hues.
“Go on, I dare you to do it!”
“What are you, a chicken?!”
“You can’t believe in ghosts at your age!”
“Old Jack Hobbs! Old Jack Hobbs!”
Some of those bolder ones will even climb the fence around back to snap off a piece of tree branch at one of the knuckles as evidence of their bravery. They’ll show it to their friends, boast of how they were unafraid, and then toss that trophy away, not daring to bring such a thing home. Who knows what keeping such a thing might invite into their bedrooms?
Who knows what may have grown from that poisoned soil?
Or what still lurks and dreams within those disintegrating walls?
L.P. Ring is the author of four Seoul-based crime novels and a neo-noir thriller which are all available on Amazon and other platforms. He's had work published with lifestyle magazines in Japan and South Korea and crime fiction published with the UK-based Close To The Bone. He currently lives in Japan with his wife and a cat who’s always around at mealtimes.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.