God knows how long the old man had been staring at the dusty clouds before he was startled out of his dreaming. A soft and warm pressure pushed against his leg. Startled though he was, the old man only looked calmly down, as if he were still following the movement of the clouds.
Dancing by his feet was a fat, ugly black cat. “Hello,” the old man said, addressing the cat.
“Why, hello,” the cat responded. “Pardon the intrusion.”
“No intrusion at all,” the man said amiably. “I was just…well, I’m not sure what I was doing. But I don’t mind a little company.”
The cat looked up at him with inquisitive yellow eyes. Despite his ugly, smushed and scarred face, he had pretty, graceful eyes. He twitched his tail as he spoke. “I’m not particularly looking for company right now. But I saw you sitting here and there was something about you. It made me want to come over and say hello.”
“Hello,” the old man said again.
“Yes, well, we’ve already been through that. Truth be told, I’m rather lost and I don’t know where I’m going. I have walking around these parts for what feels like my entire life and I don’t know how I will ever get back to my home.”
The old man sat and considered this. He was a little hard of hearing, and quite slow to respond, but that was only because he liked to think things over carefully. Lost? The meaning of the word somewhat escaped him. What could this ugly cat be lost from? He himself had never been lost. He had only ever been right here, watching the clouds go by.
“I hope I can help you become un-lost,” the old man finally stated. The cat, who had been waiting patiently, perked his ears. “I don’t think I know these parts very well, but I think if we put our heads together, surely we can figure out where we’re going. But first, it would be very rude of me to continue so without knowing your name.”
After further pacing and considering, the cat jumped onto the bench beside the man. He licked himself for another moment before answering. “My name, huh? Well, I don’t really care either way, but the woman who lives with me calls me Michio. If you need something to call me, you’re welcome to that.”
“Michio? And you say your owner calls you that?”
Michio bristled. “My owner? What do you think I am? No, she’s my friend who is staying with me.” He gave the old man a wary look, his trust waning a little. Still, he stayed where he sat and began to lick himself again. “She’s a woman named Yoriko. She’s quite a rude roommate, to tell you the truth. For whatever reason, she moved all of my food to the top shelves and then closes them so I can’t get to it. It’s quite barbaric. And the house reeks. But of course I’m too polite to say anything. And naturally I can’t just leave the house to her, she would wreck the place! So I imagine you can see my predicament.”
Yoriko. The name flowed through the old man’s head before vanishing again.
“I do see your predicament,” said the old man sincerely. “Do you remember which way you came from?”
“Yes. I came from this direction.” Michio jumped down; he was surprisingly graceful for such a large cat. “And what should I call you?”
It was considerably more difficult for the man to move down from his bench. His legs were stiff, as if he had not moved them for quite a while. He took a few moments to move them around before responding. “You don’t need to call me anything. I’m here to help you, after all.”
Michio seemed to agree with this. “That’s true. In that case, I’ll take you back as far as I can recall.”
The two of them walked side by side across the small park, back out into the city streets. Michio bounded out into the road, easily side-stepping the cars that were coming his way. His companion moved considerably more carefully, stumbling as he rushed to keep up. He could not stop himself from gazing around him as they walked, taking in the talking people and honking cars. No one else gave him or Michio another look, staring at the ground or at each other as they walked. Despite being so completely ignored, the old man was filled with a sudden energy that inspired his aching limbs to hurry on. Michio glanced back at him and was surprised by their new pace, but said nothing.
They came to a stoplight not long after. “Well,” said Michio. “I don’t recall ever seeing this. I must have been in such a rush.”
“Whatever were you in such a rush for?” asked the old man.
Michio squinted at the stoplight suspiciously. “I smelled something delicious. I never found it though; I came across you instead.”
The light flicked yellow for another moment before blaring red at them. All the cars halted to a furious stop.
“We can either continue going straight, or we can go right or left,” noted the old man. “Do you remember any corners?”
“I don’t know,” said Michio. Despite his initial concern about his roommate, he now seemed in no particular rush to return home. He stretched his body and lie on the pavement, his enormous belly filling out the space around him.
The old man considered this. More stores continued straight. He could see the flashing sign of a sushi restaurant. To his right, he saw the distinctive coloring of a subway station. And to his left, apartments. Any of them could be the right choice, and any of them could get them even more lost.
Suddenly, an idea came to him. “What did you smell? That made you wander off?” he asked Michio.
Michio looked up, seemingly surprised to be asked. “Hmm. I think it was octopus. Have you ever had octopus, my friend?”
Perhaps he hadn’t, but he didn’t stop to think. “That sushi place up ahead, it serves fried octopus. You must have just missed it.”
The cat looked that way. “I don’t know if that’s the way I came, truthfully. But I certainly wouldn’t mind going in for a snack.”
And so they continued down the road into the sushi restaurant. Neither was certain what time it was, but the place was completely empty except for a middle-aged man drinking at the bar. The old man and the cat sat a few seats away from him. He didn’t even look up, too involved in his own troubles.
The bartender sauntered over. His sharp eyes noted the cat, but he said nothing. “Is there anything I can get you today, sir?” he asked, addressing the old man.
“Yes,” he answered. “Do you have any fried octopus? There was an extraordinary smell coming from down the road.”
The bartender did not acknowledge the compliment but only nodded seriously. “Coming right up.”
After the bartender had left, the man and the cat sat next to each other in silence. Neither of them looked around, but only stared straight ahead purposelessly. They seemed content to listen to each other’s breathing, at least for the moment.
The restaurant itself was small and somewhat musky. Another couple of waiters sat idly at a nearby table, rearranging and rearranging the napkin dispensers until they finally gave up and stared at the ground. The middle-aged drinker had finished his glass but seemed to have no desire to have another one. More than sad, he looked exhausted. There was a sort of empty, lonely quality to him that matched that of the restaurant.
To the old man, the restaurant felt far colder than outside. While it was cold and not unattractive, there was a quality to it that made him feel uncomfortable. The seats around him all had permanent marks on them, as if they were used to being under someone. And yet here they sat today, completely empty. It made him look away.
“You know,” said Michio, filling the room with his clear voice, “you’re moving your fingers an awful lot.”
Michio nodded at the old man’s wrinkled fingers. He looked down as well, and noticed they were tapping rhythmically, as if to a beat. He stopped. “You were doing it to the beat of the song,” Michio told him.
The old man stared down at his fingers blankly. “What song?”
“The song that’s playing now. It’s quiet, but you just have to listen.”
The old man, whose hearing had been poor as long as he could remember, strained to listen to the quiet of the restaurant. There was nothing and then, all of a sudden, there was music. It was one of those slightly older pop songs that has no particular complexity, but an infective beat. The old man decided he did not care for it, but felt his lips turn upwards in a smile nonetheless.
Michio squinted at him and made a strange sound between a purr and a laugh. “Oh? You like this kind of music, old man?”
The old man only shrugged. “On the contrary, I don’t much like it at all.” And he left it at that, trying to drown out the warmth in his heart that was growing.
Not long after, the fried octopus was brought before them. It smelled even more delicious to Michio than it had on his walk over, and he devoured it before the old man even looked up.
“Mmm,” purred Michio. “I’ll have to remember where this place is. I’m sure Yoriko would like it.”
Yoriko. The old man stared at Michio, lost for a moment. He blinked in confusion at the seats around him, unfamiliar with even his own wrinkled hands. Where am I now? The words the cat had spoken elicited a tremble from him; he was cold and, for just a moment, heartbreakingly sad.
As soon as it had come over him, the wave of feeling passed over the old man. He looked back at Michio, focusing on his ugly face. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” he asked.
Michio squinted his eyes, appearing less concerned than suspicious. “I was just talking about my roommate. Who, by the way, might be wondering where I am at this point. Let’s stop dawdling here and get back to what we were doing.” And with that, the cat jumped from his seat and set off with purpose.
The old man got up more slowly. Instinctually, he reached into his pockets and found several crumpled-up papers. He placed them on the counter without a glance and walked out after his companion, back into the piercing light of the sun.
After finding himself some hearty food, Michio appeared far more energetic and inspired. He turned the first couple of corners without a word of direction from the old man, and regularly commented on their surroundings. “Oh yes, I remember hissing at this dog right here,” he chirped as they passed a sleeping hound. “Aha, this is where some fool tried to pick me up,” he scoffed in front of another store.
The old man did not find himself useless, however. After a few more turns, Michio grew more than a little agitated at the similarities of the apartment buildings. “Why,” he breathed angrily, “would anyone want to make their home look the same as everyone else’s? What’s the point of something like that?” So the old man began asking questions about Michio’s own home, hoping to find some defining feature that would set it apart from the others.
Once Michio stopped focusing on the apartment buildings, he considered this. “Well, of course, my home is quite magnificent. We put flowers on the steps leading up to it, and we keep our names on the door.”
“That sounds quite lovely,” said the old man. And helpful.
The two of them wandered past several more apartments, until they finally encountered one with several yellow flowers sitting in pots on the steps. A couple of them were placed precariously in the middle of the steps, making the idea of going up the steps, especially for such an old man, feel quite dangerous.
Michio, on the other hand, lit up with glee and bounded up the steps. “Yes!” he exclaimed, not bothering to contain his joy. “This is my home! And based on the music in the house, Yoriko is home as well!”
The old man was overcome with a feeling of sadness for a moment. Was he pained to have to part with his new friend? Truth be told, he could not remember the last time he had had someone to speak to. He thought he had been perfectly content on his bench, but now that he considered it, he was not sure how he had been feeling at all back then. It felt so long ago now. Perhaps he had been lonely all this time; perhaps he had never known anything but loneliness.
Before he could expose his feelings to Michio, the old man turned away. His job was done; he had brought his friend home and now had nowhere to be. But as he did so, Michio pawed his leg expectantly. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but unfortunately, I can’t let myself in. So I need you for just another moment to knock on the door for me.”
The old man turned back around. Without any thoughts to his actions, he lifted his hand and wrapped it against the door. And then, he stayed still. He stood with the cat, both staring at the door. He found he could no longer move away. Some force pulled him to the doorstep and filled his heart with an emotion almost like fear.
The music paused. Footsteps approached the door, and as it opened it revealed a short, soft-looking young woman. Her thick glasses slipped down her face as she peered out of the crack, and then nearly fell off altogether as she jumped back. There was an odd emotion on her face as well, but it was certainly not fear.
No, instead tears rushed down her face. “Dad?” she asked breathlessly.
For once in his life, Michio only watched silently. The old man stared back at the young woman. “Who are you?” he asked. His voice was calm and steady, but his face felt wet. He could not quite see the woman before him clearly anymore.
“Dad! It’s Yoriko! You’re safe!” She gasped as Michio suddenly rubbed against her legs, and then laughed. “Michio, did you do this?”
Michio purred like any cat would and sauntered into the house.
Yoriko. The name she said to him was incredibly beautiful. It made his fingers begin to tap once again on the side of his leg, as if to a song only he could hear.
She reached out and pulled him into her arms. For such a small woman, she was surprisingly strong; or perhaps, at that moment, the old man was simply weak. He brought his arms up without thinking and hugged her as well. As he did so, he felt heat in his heart like he could never remember. He could only shut his eyes against the overwhelming scent of her, the softness of her hair, and think one thought, over and over again in his blank mind: