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Shinji arrived at his cousin's house early Monday afternoon after a four-hour train ride from Tokyo. His cousin's wife, Yumi, was the only one home. Despite short notice, she immediately made Shinji feel welcome. Over some tea and homemade apple cake—she said she taught cooking classes at a local cultural center—they had their semi-introductory conversation. They had never had a chance to sit down and talk one-on-one before. And in the course of this initial chat, she told him about an incident involving her son, Kazuo. [End Page 145]
"Incident," they called it, because they had never found out what exactly happened. When Kazuo had come home one night a few months earlier, he had seemed a little quiet. He'd called out from the front door that he was home, gone up to his room to change out of his school uniform and come down for dinner. While he helped set the table, he only gave halfhearted responses to Yumi's questions about his day. But then again, at age thirteen, he was becoming less enthusiastic about sharing his thoughts with his mother in general. Shinji's cousin Akio had been working late, as was often the case, so it had been just the mother and son at the table. Kazuo wouldn't look Yumi in the eyes as they ate from the simmering nabe hotpot between them, but he didn't seem to be consciously avoiding her, either. Then, midway through dinner, he'd said, "I was wondering today, why are manhole lids usually round?"
"Manholes?" Yumi had halted her chopsticks probing the contents of the steaming pot and contemplated for a second. "I think I've read it somewhere. Isn't it to prevent the lid from falling down into the hole? You know, if it's square or any other shape, it could fall through when the lid isn't placed perfectly. Or something like that."
"I see," Kazuo had said, without particular appreciation. Yumi went on to pick out some more vegetables into her bowl.
After eating in silence for another minute or two, Kazuo had asked again, "So I was wondering, why are manhole lids round?"
Yumi blinked and looked at her son's face through the inviting steam from the nabe. He was still looking at nothing in particular, now poking at the food in his bowl with his chopsticks. She had not been able to detect any irony or irritation in his voice.
"Well, so you see, if a lid is square, for example," Yumi said, drawing a shape in the air with her chopsticks, "and if the lid for some reason came down not horizontally but tilted"—she tilted her palm to illustrate—"then because the diagonal opening of the hole would be longer than the width of the lid at this angle, it could fall through. Whereas with a circle, the widest part of the opening, the diameter, is always the same as the diameter of the lid, whichever way you turn it, so it can never fall through. Right?"
"Uh-huh," Kazuo said.
"Is something wrong?"
He continued to poke at the now mushy food in his bowl. Then Kazuo's eyes started to swim a little, as if searching for something to focus on. And as he repeated his question for the third time, his eyes settled straight on [End Page 146] Yumi's face, and he was finally there, looking at her. He finished his sentence and sat there blinking, as if he had suddenly come out into the light.
"But Kazuo, you just asked me the same question three times." Yumi placed her chopsticks down in quiet alarm.
"So it turns out that he didn't remember anything about the two or three hours leading up to that," Yumi said to Shinji now, pouring more tea into his cup.
"Thank you," he said. "The cake is delicious, by the way."
Yumi gave him a smile that took over one side of her face slightly more than the other, then got up to boil...