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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 189-200

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The Man Who Sold Braces

Yoko Ogawa

Things my uncle made, whatever they were, fell apart in no time. My precious model plane; the brace of his own invention (so he claimed) that was supposed to make you taller; and his coat, which he gave me to remember him by.

Every time I saw him, my uncle was engaged in a different occupation. The job at a hat-maker was followed by an assistantship for a photographer. Then he became, in succession, the manufacturer of the braces, an instructor of table manners, a butler, and, finally, a caretaker of a museum. Maybe the assistantship came after making the braces; I forget now. He married three times, shacking up twice with someone in between marriages. He frequently took up with somebody new, though at the end of his life he lived on his own, without anyone to look after him.

In short, my uncle was someone who repeatedly cast off whatever job or life he had built up, going back to zero each time.

One thing admirable about him--at least it was admirable to me--was that, when what had been in his possession started falling apart, he didn't look sad at all. He wouldn't click his tongue or look sullen; he would calmly watch it fall apart. You could even detect a faint smile.

When the police called to ask me to come and collect my uncle's body, they had already finished the autopsy. Apparently he knew no neighbors and had no friends, and they had a lot of trouble locating his few relatives. I was back at my apartment when they called, preparing for my French class the next day.

"What did he die of?" I asked.

"Smothered to death," the person at the other end of the telephone answered.

"You mean somebody killed him?"

"No. Your uncle was pinned under the garbage he'd spread all over his room."

The respectful manner in which the stranger talked about my uncle's death consoled me a little.

My uncle and I were not blood relations. He was supposed to be my [End Page 189] mother's older brother, but he was in fact my grandfather's oldest son from his previous marriage. He was therefore much older than my mom, and at no point had they lived together. When I was a kid, Mom would sometimes explain to me in what way they were related, but I could never really figure it out.

Nevertheless, my uncle visited us often. He would just appear without advance notice, stay for several days, and then disappear again.

He was an unwelcome guest--even a kid of my age could see that. When he came over, my mother grew nervous and restless, my father crabby. My uncle, though, didn't seem to notice; he ate and drank a lot, cheerful all the time.

I didn't care how my parents felt. I always looked forward to my uncle's next visit. He always brought me something special.

"Well, let's see if you can find where I've hidden it," my uncle would say and lift me up. Then he'd rub his cheek against mine. His stubble would tickle me and I would squirm, which amused him even more, and then he would rub his face all over mine. Finally escaping his embrace, I'd set out to find where he'd hidden his present for me, putting my hands all over his body. Then it was his turn to be tickled and to squirm.

Chocolates from abroad appeared in his hat; a miniature car in the sleeve of his jacket. Once I found a jackknife hidden inside one of his socks. Until I started school, I was convinced that my uncle conjured them up by magic.

There were some semiprecious stones embedded in the hilt of the jackknife, and the whole thing was quite heavy. It was a beautiful object, and just looking at it thrilled me. My mother discovered it later and took...