WHEN THE HARD RAIN BEGINS, the train station, which was visible until a minute ago, disappears. The raindrops jump on the ground, and the lukewarm, petrol smell of asphalt is set free by the humidity. People on their way home make "Ugh" sounds, and step off the street. Under the eaves of a drugstore, a young woman puts her red Ferragamo purse into a white plastic bag.
Ken tries to find a spot under the eaves of the nearest store, which is already occupied by people, who eye Ken and make faces, as if chasing a dog away. He proceeds to the next store, and to the next, and the situation is the same. The last is a flower shop, and he finds a small alley behind it. He becomes curious about where it leads. As he turns the corner, the scent of goldband lilies in front of the shop sting s his nostrils.
Ken goes through the dark, narrow alley, passing three cerulean-blue garbage bins and comes to a dead end, and a small courtyard, with a yakitori stall. He sees stoop shoulders of grey, black and dark blue suits surrounding the counter. If I sit among them, would I look the same? He wonders.
Everything is dry in this courtyard, without any trace of rain. Ken looks up.
He sees the blue sky.
Noticing his puzzled face, one of the men sitting in the stall says to Ken, "Sit down here, young man."
Ken sits down between a round-faced man in a grey suit and a grey-haired man in a black suit. "You're new here, aren't you? Surprised? Diego did it," says the same man to Ken, the round face, pointing first at the sky, and next behind the stall. His moon face is oily and as shiny as his black, square-framed glasses.
Behind the stall, a small, dark skinned man sits on a straw mat, cross-legged as if in meditation. Paintings lean against the grey brick wall, visible from where Ken sits. They are all paintings of skies.
"Diego sells clouds," says the grey-haired man. His eyebrows are long and shaggy like a Miniature Schnauzer. "He has stopped the rain for us today, pro bono! You know, it was too sudden," said the man, pointing at the sky like the other man.
This is weird. Ken wants to change the topic. "Are you guys always here, drinking?"
"Almost always," says a man with a yuzu-yellow tie sitting opposite Ken. "What are you going to do at home? As soon as I come home, my wife starts to follow me around, telling me what happened during the day. She follows me to the bathroom, and tells what Kitano Takeshi said on TV. I mean, I like Kitano, but when I come home after a long day, I just want to wash my hands and sit down and have a beer, that's all. I don't really care what Kitano said, you know? Women, why don't they understand?"
The yakitori cook has been quiet the whole while. He grabs five skewers on the grill at a time, dips them into the teriyaki sauce, and lays them back on the grill. The skewers sizzle.
"Are you single, young man?" asks the round face, tilting his head away from the uplifting smoke.
"Sort of," says Ken.
"That's good!" The men surrounding the counter cheer up. Ken sees the middle-aged men having fun with the thirty-something-year-old lost in the alley.
The long eyebrows nudges Ken in the ribs. "Go have a look at Diego." And then, he wipes the dark-violet lump of old, dry soy sauce with his thumb off the mouth of a sauce bottle.
"Hello," Diego says without looking up at Ken, who is standing in front of his "shop." Ken looks around at the paintings. They all describe clouds. Whipped cream horns of cumulonimbus above a lake, a series of L-shaped cirrus over a steel bridge, scales of a sardine of cirrocumulus between coloured trees, an outflow boundary looking like Niagara Falls over the prairies, and a UFO-like, upside-down white plate of lenticular cloud above a mountain in the dark. The one at the left corner grabs Ken's attention. The terra-cotta horizon is about to suck the floating, golden cotton balls. The price for the painting is 200 bucks per 1km.
"That was May the 17th, 2010," says Diego, as if he was talking to himself. Ken doesn't understand what he means.
"I can reproduce any skies, whenever, wherever. I take orders too. It costs extra, though."
Ridiculous, thinks Ken. Still, he asks, "Do you know what the sky looked like on June the 28th, 2008?"
"One moment. I'll check the archives." Diego opens the upper drawer of the apple-green celluloid cabinet he has been leaning onto, and starts to scan the paintings with his root-like forefinger.
Archives, repeats Ken in his mind.
"Was it Tokyo?" asks Diego.
"Here you go. It was very fine the whole day. The first blue sky after the rain for a month."
That is correct. It was Ken's wedding day. He remembers the day as if it was yesterday, for that is one of the most beautiful memories of his miserably ended marriage.
"Nobody trusts me at the beginning," says Diego, examining Ken's expressions. "But I do sell clouds. I can drop some lightning at 4:23 pm tomorrow if you like. Where is your office?"
IT IS SUNNY AND WARM the next morning. Ken's suit from yesterday smells like burnt teriyaki sauce, so he decides to wear another suit for the day. He is so busy that he doesn't think of the oddities in the alley. However, at 4:23 sharp, from his desk at an insurance company, he sees lightning scribble down in the darkening sky.
After work, Ken goes back to the alley. Seeing Ken's come back, the men at the yakitori stall eye each other. "Welcome to the club," says today-again-yuzu-yellow tie.
Ken doesn't sit down at the stall and goes directly to the cloud shop.
"Diego," says Ken, panting. "I don't believe in coincidence, OK? Tomorrow, can you do a drizzle in the morning, a blue sky until three, and then snow?"
"I can do snow but I won't. It's August. How about hail instead? From 5 :00 to 5:20?"
The following day becomes exactly as Ken and Diego have arranged. Ken goes to see Diego again after work.
"You said you take orders, right, Diego? Can you change the past weather?"
"With an extra cost."
"Can you remove the thunder clouds from the sky of the Mount Ten area, August the 12th, 2009?"
"I'll go by train," said Ken's wife, ripping off coupons from a flyer at the kitchen table. "It's just three hours from Tokyo to Osaka. I know it's faster by plane, but think of extra time for checking in, going to the airport."
"But it's 50 bucks cheaper with the last-minute offer," said Ken, smoothing down his wife's silky, jet-black hair. His wife was supposed to visit her family in Osaka with their 11-month old daughter; when they'd gotten married, his wife was already at the end of her pregnancy. The baby who'd been born the previous summer had already started to toddle.
"The little one wants to walk around, anyway. She'd be excited to be on the plane for the first 15 minutes and she'd get bored. If I am to follow her around, it'd be easier to do so on the train than on the plane, don't you think?"
"But it's 50 bucks," repeated Ken.
"Oh well, what can I do with you?" said his wife.
When the negotiation with Diego is done, Ken starts to look forward to the following weekend. Though on Friday evening, he gets dispirited. Maybe I'm up to something really silly. On Saturday, though, he takes a train and leaves for Mount Ten, one hour north-west of Tokyo. The nostalgic box-seat cars make Ken feel as if he were going on an excursion. An old lady next to him is having a bento-box and a bottled green tea.
At quarter to six, Ken is standing at the skirt of the Mount Ten. It's August. The same hot summer as that day. It's muggy like in a sauna, and Ken feels sweat running down between his shoulder blades. A crickets' orchestra is fighting against a cicadas' rock band. A coupling pair of dragonflies is sinking right down and left down as if they are Cossack dancing above the yellowing rice fields.
It is supposed to be the reproduction of the sky of August the 12th, 2009; however, as Ken has ordered, there is no single cloud in the sky. Only the endless gradation of blue is behind Mount Ten. Ken marches through the white and powder-pink and magenta cosmoses, which are grown as tall as Ken's height, toward Mount Ten.
"A thunderstorm is coming," said Ken's wife, watching the weather report on TV, one day before her and the daughter's flight. "I'm worried," she said, taking a pen out of her daughter's mouth. The baby groans for a while as a protest against her mother.
"If it's really critical, they'd cancel the flight, right? If they don't, it should be fine, right?" said Ken, optimistically.
Ken looks up to Mount Ten. There are no other mountains around it, and its shadowy independent twin-peaks, like an upper lip, are outstanding against the deep marine-blue sky. Ken begins to wonder if this is really the reproduction of the sky of the appointed date.
The flight of Ken's wife and daughter departed on time, despite a typhoon warning. Only fifteen minutes from the departure, the flight crushed into Mount Ten. When he heard the news, Ken was watching TV, lying lazily on the rug, eating Cheetos. The anchor of the news show repeated it appeared no one had survived. No one had survived, Ken parroted in his mind. He sat up slowly. The white rug got orange stains from his fingers. He recalled conversations with his wife.
At five to six, as Ken is still gazing into the sky, a white airplane suddenly appears about a kilometre east of Mount Ten. He doesn't know how it has appeared. He tries to figure out which airline it is. Now h e clearly sees the logo of the airline company, so he thinks. Yes, that's it. That's the flight of my family. Ken starts to run, following the plane.
He runs into the fields, pushing away cosmoses, chasing away dragonflies, and he runs, following the plane. It is not until his legs are caught by heavy mud when he realizes he has stepped into the rice fields, and now he has to wade stamping as if a sumo wrestler trying to make his way. The plane hides itself behind the peaks for five seconds. For Ken, this feels like five years. His breath is hot, gasping.
Ken sees the plane coming out from behind the peaks. It's still there. Ken resumes his chase. He runs as far as he has paid for.
ON MONDAY AFTER THE WEEKEND, Ken visits Diego again.
"How did you like it?" asks Diego.
"Diego, can I buy the same sky again, for the next weekend?"
"With an extra cost," says Diego, wiping dust off a painting with his root-like forefinger.