70 yen Oden, All This Week!
The sign screamed at him as he watched the fumbling cashier scan the boxes of cigarettes behind the counter, desperately trying to locate the Mild 7s. What is oden, anyway? All those gelatinous lumps of reconstituted fish bits, radish and egg, simmering away in the silver box next to the register. The pale, fleshy, shuddering pieces unnerved him. They kind of look like shriveled body parts, he thought.
“Er, this, ok?” The cashier thrust a packet of Lucky Strikes in front of him. Fine, whatever. Tobacco is tobacco. He just wanted to get away from that bubbling cauldron of oden as soon as possible. No, I don’t need a receipt, thanks.
He’d been sent (he preferred to call it ‘banished’) to the wilds of rural Japan by his company a few months ago to train a dozen or so employers at a small accounting firm. There was one of everything: one set of traffic lights at the one intersection, one school, one police box, one train station, one junior high school and one convenience store. There were two izakayas, though; maybe half a dozen vending machines. And since July, one English speaker.
He’d had four Lucky Strikes and a beer for dinner, when he turned on the TV. Body of Missing Woman Found Without Fingers! Vile. This country’s got its fair share of crackpots.
He felt hungry. Damn, he’d have to make another trip to the convenience store. It was the only place he could grab something to eat at this time of the night, even though it wasn’t midnight yet. He wondered if the nervous cashier was still on his shift.
He joined the line-up of usual suspects at the magazine stand and lazily flicked through one of the weeklies. Hmm, not much happening in the spreads this week, and she looks far too young, even for this particular publication. Another headline splashed across the news section. Gutted and Fingerless! Body Number Three Found in Convenience Store Carpark! Killer On the Loose! The kanji was jagged and dripping red ink for added gore effect.
He flicked back to the underage bikini girl. After several morally-questionable minutes spent trawling the bikini-less back pages, he stuffed the magazine back in the rack and slunk over to the cup noodles instead. He chose the no-frills, no-flavour type, and headed back to the counter, avoiding the ominous oden register. He noticed the amount of oden had significantly depleted from before. Can’t argue with 70 yen oden. The stuff still gave him the willies, though. Oh, fuck, forgot the cigarettes again.
When he got to the office the next day, unshaven and a little hung over, some of the men were absent. Staying away for a few days waiting for this murder spree to settle down, according to the guy in charge of the program. Seemed a bit of an overreaction to him, but he didn’t mind having a few less students to field ridiculous questions from about how to talk to women.
During lunch, it was all anyone could talk about.
“Did you hear they found him with only half his intestines?”
“All his fingers were sawn off, but his thumbs were intact!”
“Well, I heard the policeman who found her spewed in his hat when he saw the giant hole cut in her stomach”
“Hey! Do you mind, I’m trying to eat, and you’re upsetting the others,” he half-heartedly growled at the group of suits discussing the details of the latest kill. Truthfully, their conversation was upsetting him, while they held an audience of eager office ladies that shrieked in mock horror whenever one of them punctuated a particularly gruesome detail with a stabbing action. Every single person had at least one piece of oden in their bento.
He’d been smoking close to a packet a day recently. He’d even begun to enjoy Lucky Strikes more than his usual Milds, and the visually-challenged cashier boy could always spot them more easily. The oden still sat there, and it was now joined by a second gleaming tub, full of the same rubbery floating pieces. Why all the sudden fuss over oden? It had now gone back up to its usual retail price of 110 yen, and yet there was still demand. His town was renowned for its stinginess, but a 40 yen price increase had done nothing to dent the relentless pursuit of oden. He’d only just noticed, but every single person who walked into that convenience store walked out with a serving of oden, along with whatever else they’d initially intended to purchase.
And where was cashier boy? He always worked the late afternoon to midnight shift, without fail. He’d actually started to enjoy their now nightly encounters, a connection that had moved beyond the usual point, grunt, and cash exchange. Sometimes he asked him if was busy at work. Always the same reply: “Ah…so-so?” The female cashier served him instead, finding the packet of Lucky Strikes in less than 3 seconds and sliding it across the counter without a word. Lousy customer service.
He sat, mouth agape, in front of the television. Another body found in a carpark. A young man in a slashed and bloody convenience store clerk uniform, innards removed and hands relieved of their phalanges. The cigarette that had fallen out of his mouth singed a hole in his tatami, but he didn’t notice as he fixated on the image onscreen of a plump and gawky cashier who used to fumble the change as he handed it back. The police had officially released a statement confirming that, yes, they could most definitely assume that victim number four was killed by the same person as the previous three, making this a serial killer case. Poor guy, he thought. Never in his short life could he have possibly imagined that he would never work anywhere but a convenience store, let alone be murdered in one.
It had been several weeks since he had been to the convenience store. After the murder, he wasn’t too keen on venturing anywhere near the place, let alone purchase a pack of shitty cigarettes. But he suddenly had an overwhelming craving. Not for cigarettes, but for a piece of oden. Why oden? He hadn’t a clue why, after an entire year in Japan without touching it. The stuff was creepy, the texture, the shape, the fleshy colour…
The oden was on sale again. This time it was just 50 yen. A good day to pick as his first to eat oden, he figured. The female cashier was working. He asked for three pieces of oden – one of the roundish ones, that lumpy looking one with the hole in the middle, and, hmm, an egg, please. She gave him a strange look, but continued stabbing at the spongy flotsam with the tongs, trying to pick them up. He ventured conversation.
“So, you like oden?”
Again, a slightly strange look.
“Actually, I used to eat it all the time until I saw what happened on the news,” she began.
The news? He didn’t recall any news about oden.
“You remember those people that were murdered, with their fingers cut off and their guts cut out?”
“Well, around the same time, we started receiving far larger shipments of oden than we usually stocked, and some customers remarked that their oden tasted different from usual. Some thought it was a lot nicer than before. Then an investigator put two and two together… of course, we cancelled any further sales of oden and alerted the customers who may have eaten any during that time…” He had already sat his box of oden on the counter and thrown up in the silver one next to the register before she could elaborate.
The round, fleshy mounds of what may have been reconstituted fish bits continued bobbing around in the dark pool of liquid, and the sign continued screaming: 50 yen Oden, All This Week!