They were interrupted by a new presence at their table: Mayumi, their waitress.
Mayumi was about the same age as Barry’s daughter. Her English was impeccable.
“Hello, Barry-san!” she said, as she began clearing away their dishes. Mayumi was wearing the uniform of the Ichiryu wait staff: black trousers and jacket, with a white shirt, and a little red bow tie.
“Hello, Mayumi-san!” Barry said.
Barry was already friends with Mayumi. Early in their dinner, she had mentioned that she was a student of English literature at a local college in Osaka.
Barry had then told Mayumi that Tessa, his daughter, had just graduated from Northwestern University with her undergraduate degree in the same field. This had sent Mayumi into a rhapsody about her favorite American authors—William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Barry had had to stop her there: He remembered only a few of those names. Hadn’t Hemingway written The Great Gatsby?…
This had brought gentle laughter from Mayumi. Barry had reminded her that it was his daughter, not him, who knew about literature.
“Would you like anything else?” Mayumi asked now.
Barry looked to Sato and Nagase. They had already eaten their fill and drunk their fill. It would be time to call it a night soon.
“Thank you, Mayumi san. Just the check, please.”
“Hai, hai!” she said, beaming.
Barry glanced across the room, and saw that Mr. Kim and his dinner companion were now gone.
Well, so much for Nagase’s worries, Barry thought. He didn’t even stick around. He really did just happen to recognize me from the cover of Advertising World Weekly.
Barry looked next toward the bar, to see if the woman in the black evening dress was still there.
She was still there. Now she was facing away from them, sipping from her cocktail glass.
Before Nagase and Sato departed, there were a few more items of business to discuss—just some details about the launch of the Yukimura ad campaign.
“I’ll be flying home tomorrow morning,” Barry said in conclusion. “But as soon as I get back to my home office, I’ll send you both a detailed summary of all our next steps.”
“Very good, Barry-san!” Sato said.
Nagase smiled and nodded. He seemed to have forgotten about the woman at the bar, about the Korean stranger who might or might not be hiding ill intentions.
Barry noticed that Mayumi had not yet brought the check. He was looking around for her, when she walked up with a glass of champagne on a silver tray.
“For you, Barry-san,” she said. There was the slightest hint of discomfort in her voice.
“But—we didn’t order any champagne,” Barry looked at Nagase and Sato. “Did you order any champagne?”
Nagase and Sato, equally puzzled, shook their heads.
“The champagne is a…gift.”
“From the woman sitting at the bar,” Mayumi said.
As if on cue, the woman at the bar turned around and smiled at Barry. He felt a liquid, animal warmth flow through him. She nodded, in silent confirmation of the champagne.
Sato smiled slyly. “Ah, Barry-san,” he said.
Nagase, predictably, frowned.
Barry felt suddenly awkward. He was sitting there with a glass of champagne, and Nagase and Sato had none.
Best to get it over with, he thought.
Barry stood and acknowledged the woman at the bar with a bow. Then he took a big drink from the champagne glass.
The woman at the bar nodded again, and turned back around.
Barry sat down. “Thank you, Mayumi-san. I’ll take the check, whenever you have it ready.”
Barry sensed that he was blushing now.
“Of course, Barry-san.” Mayumi’s former good mood was gone. She turned and walked away, as if she had just taken part in something improper.
As Barry drank the last of his champagne, Nagase said, “Be careful, Barry-san. If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Nagase and Sato announced that they had to depart. Both men had to report bright and early to the Yukimura headquarters tomorrow morning; and they wanted to catch the next available train to the outlying suburbs of Osaka.
All three men stood from the table, and Barry exchanged bows with his Japanese companions.
“Thank you again, Barry-san,” Sato said.
“No, Sato-san, Nagase-san: Thank you. Thank both of you. Like I said, I wouldn’t have been able to get the contract without your help.”
Nagase said nothing more about the woman at the bar, or the (in Nagase’s view) suspicious Mr. Kim, but Barry guessed that they still weighed heavily on Nagase’s mind.
“Don’t worry about me, Nagase-san,” Barry said. “In less than half an hour, I’ll be back in my hotel room—alone—and falling asleep. I have to fly home tomorrow morning, don’t forget.”
Barry had the feeling that Nagase didn’t believe him. But of course, he also knew that Nagase would never openly question his honesty.
There were a few more words of farewell. Then Nagase and Sato turned to leave. Barry watched them go. Then he sat back down.
Mayumi finally brought the check.
“Thank you, Mayumi-san.”
Barry removed his credit card from his wallet and handed it to Mayumi. She returned promptly with the statement for him to sign. He left her a generous tip. She smiled and bowed, and wished him a pleasant journey. She seemed to have forgotten about her awkward errand involving the glass of champagne. (She had taken away the empty glass when she brought the check.)
“I hope Tessa enjoys graduate school!” Mayumi said. She bowed and left.
Barry’s cell phone chimed in his pants pocket. He took out the phone and—speaking of his daughter—he saw a message from Tessa. It would be late morning in Chicago now.
“Hey, Dad. How is Japan going?”
“Great!” Barry typed back. “I got the big contract. The one I told you about.”
Almost immediately Tessa replied: “Congratulations!”
She sent back a smiley-face emoji, her usual manner of concluding a conversation.
He sent a smiley-face emoji in return.
Barry put his phone away. He now wondered what he was going to do—or not—about the woman at the bar.
The smile might have been nothing more than her reflexive, impersonal way of greeting a stranger. But she had also sent him the glass of champagne. There was nothing reflexive or impersonal about that. That had been a clear signal.
Barry didn’t think that the woman was associated with the Japanese yakuza. Nevertheless, there was something to what Nagase had said: about all of this being too good to be true. Barry had had women flirt with him in bars over the years; but none had ever sent him a drink. Possibly the woman was a professional. In that case, she would have regarded the drink as a business expense.
What if she was a pro? Was he willing to go that route? He had never gone down that road before. Unlike some men, Barry Lawson had never had the need, had always had plenty of other options.
He realized that he was getting a little ahead of himself.
He also saw the irony in the juxtaposition of the text from his daughter, and his plans to seduce a strange woman in a bar—to take her back to his room tonight, if at all possible.
But what could he do with his guilt, except wallow in it? Barry loved his daughter—and his son, Ryan. He also regretted the way things had gone with Joyce, all those years ago.
Mostly because of the things that he had done. The mistakes he had made.
But the past was the past, and the here and now were the here and now. Although he could see a certain logic behind the concept of sexual penance, the fact was that all the self-denial in the world couldn’t undo the mistakes he had already made.
And what about Nagase’s misgivings? Barry respected his Japanese colleague, and felt indebted to him. Nagase, along with Sato, had indeed made the biggest deal of his career possible.
But Nagase was no expert on the Japanese mafia. No more than he was an expert on American organized crime. And tonight, at least, Nagase had shown himself to be something of a worrywart.
Maybe Nagase had even had ulterior motives. Not all Japanese men were comfortable with gaijin—foreigners—who came to Japan with designs on their women. There was a long history of such interactions, with plenty of resentment and cultural baggage attached. In the days immediately following World War II, an American GI could buy the favors of a Japanese pan-pan girl for the price of a pack of Lucky Strikes. One of Barry’s uncles, long since deceased, had been a soldier in the postwar Occupation, and Barry still remembered his stories.
So who knew what Nagase had really been thinking?
Moreover: How many more years did he have of flirting with women in bars, with any reasonable chance of success? How long before he became one of those desperate, pathetic older men who don’t realize that young women can see them as nothing but father and grandfather figures? How many serendipitous moments like this were left to him?
He was forty-seven years old, after all. Barry’s father had been an old man at fifty—and dead by fifty-five of a heart attack. Barry still remembered his father’s funeral, during his freshman year of college.
The woman at the bar wouldn’t sit there forever, and he had already kept her waiting long enough.
It was time to make a move, Barry decided. It was now…or it was never.