The Scent of Kodokushi

Cathy Ulrich

 

If I were a cleaner in Japan, I would be given a special uniform to wear that covered me from head to toe. You wouldn’t be able to see my skin, my hair, my face.

She’s not Japanese, though, our clients would tell my Taisho-sama, the boss. You can tell she’s not Japanese.

It would be my American swagger that gave me away, my slouched shoulders.

She’s a very good cleaner, my Taisho-sama would say. It will be all right.

If I were a cleaner in Japan, my Taisho-sama would be bald like a monk, and so would all my coworkers. I would be the only one with hair, thick and wavy, that I would wash twice every evening and once in the morning, to get the smell of kodokushi off of me.

Can you smell anything? I would ask my Japanese boyfriend. We would share a twelve-tatami apartment and go out for Korean barbecue on the weekends.

I can’t smell anything, he would say, taking a strand of my hair in his hand and holding it to his face.

If I were a cleaner in Japan, my Taisho-sama would pay us in handfuls of cash every evening, so if we didn’t want to come back the next day, we wouldn’t have to. I would put my money into the pocket of my American jeans and only take it out when it got full in there.

Barbecue’s on me tonight, I’d tell my Japanese boyfriend. I’ll treat.

If I were a cleaner in Japan, I would grow to recognize the scent of a kodokushi who had died of a heart attack, or cancer, or an aneurysm. I would walk into their apartments with my Taisho-sama, where they had lain for months without being missed, and know.

Heart attack, my Taisho-sama would say.

Hai, I would agree.

If I were a cleaner in Japan, I would start by throwing away the things that couldn’t be salvaged. We would find blank postcards, hotel ashtrays, half-empty boxes of takeout. We would find cell phones and magazine subscriptions, piles of bills.

How sad, my Taisho-sama would say. How sad.

He would always be looking for photographs, for letters, for voicemails. For someone who would say to the kodokushi: You will be missed.

If I were a cleaner in Japan, we would know exactly what combination of chemicals to use in each apartment to make them good as new. Our clients would be so grateful.

They would say: Oh, you can hardly tell anyone lived here at all.

Is that what it’s like, my Taisho-sama would say, but they’d have only meant that we had gotten the apartment clean.

If I were a cleaner in Japan, I would leave my head-to-toe uniform with my Taisho-sama at the end of the day to be cleaned with the others.

He would say: Thanks for all your work, which is just a thing that Japanese people say to each other at the end of the work day. It wouldn’t mean that I was anything special. He would pass me my handful of cash.

I would ride the train back to my twelve-tatami apartment. It would be late, and the train would be nearly empty. I would sink back in my seat, sitting like an American. There would be an older man on the train. There would always be an older man on the train. He would be sitting alone, like me. He would be heading home to his apartment full of blank postcards, hotel ashtrays, half-empty boxes of takeout. He would be looking out the train window. He would be watching the scenery go by. He would never smile. None of us would.

 


Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including Booth, Lunch Ticket, and Superstition Review.