Meeting Antonio Inoki

Benjamin Sixsmith

I was a hundred miles from Okayama and did not have the money for a beer or a pork bun, never mind a bus. The show was in six hours and when I called the promoter I heard a dull beep. I missed Tokyo, where benevolence and mistrust ensured that everything was laid on for a valued gaikokujin.

So, I held my thumb aloft. At six foot and two hundred and fifty pounds, with three day's stubble and a mess of brown hair, I was an intimidating prospect for drivers. Still, I hoped that if the Gods were smiling one of them would recognise me - or, at least, that I'd remind them of a cartoon character.

At the corner where the byroad met the Chugoku Expressway I stood so as to let would-be saviours glimpse the cheek without the scar. A gyaru-oh kid in sunglasses was first to pass. He gave a thumbs-up through the window and shouted a cheerful greeting as he raced into the distance.

 “Git.”

Some drivers slowed, as if observers in a zoo, but then accelerated past me as I looked towards them. An hour dragged by before a green Toyota eased to a stop. A door was pushed aside and a man's face looked out. I cleared my throat.

“English?”

“Japanese.”

“あなたは、岡山に行っている?”

“I see the confusion. You meant do I speak English. Yes.”

“Are you going to Okayama?”

“はい.”

I squeezed into the car. He offered me a cigarette and I shook my head.

“You can, though.”

“Yes,” he said, “I can.”

He occupied the space between youth and middle age. Furrows marked the edges of broad lips and keen eyes, and tinges of grey were shot throughout his hair. He smoked by dragging on a cigarette and turning to exhale through the window. I appreciated the thought but would have been happier if he had kept his eyes on the road.

There is something poignant about futile generosity. I once told my Gran how much I loved her ginger cakes, and she proceeded to reveal them whenever we met. My pleasure at being able to greet them with enthusiasm from the first time to the last makes up for what an ordeal it was to eat the things.

The man fixed his eyes on the road and did not turn or speak to me. I looked out of the window. The borders of the Chugoku Expressway are lined with tall, shaggy trees, and beyond them are farmlands. I thought I could see patterns in the colour of fields – one olive per three light greens or two dark greens to one auburn – but the pastime was soporific. I had had four or five hours sleep in my little capsule and did not want to feel drowsy while I was working.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

 “No.”

“I am.”

I had not wanted him to feel obliged to feed me but he looked as if he had wanted someone to empathise with him.

“Perhaps a bit hungry.”

He nodded and smiled.

“I've left my wife.”

He said it in a tone with which you might tell somebody your name or comment on the weather.

“Oh.”

“She knew that I was leaving. I haven't disappeared.”

He looked as if he wanted to talk.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Akita.”

Akita?”

He shrank into his side of the car.

“What's wrong with Akita?”

“Nothing. But you've driven all the way?”

I noticed that the car was strewn with soda cans. Butts were spilling from the ashtray and onto the cup holder. A musky smell of burgers and BO hung in the air. It reminded me of changing rooms and Bed & Breakfasts.

“Have you stopped since Akita?”

“Yes. For petrol.”

“When did you last stop?”

“About five hours ago.”

“Stop. Stop here. You need a break.”

He opened his mouth to speak and failed to suppress a yawn. Pursing his lips and shooting a glance towards me, he took the next exit and eased to a halt next to a roadside cafe. It was a humbler set-up: a wooden extension to the house that lurked behind it. One of the pot plants was out of order with the others.

I had enough for a coffee and dumped half the sugar bowl into the cup. The man ordered a green tea and bought little rice cakes filled with a paste that looked like jam but tasted more like peanut butter.

“I think she was glad.”

“You didn't get on?”

“We 'got on',” he said, “But I 'get on' with the man who sells me fish.”

“Perhaps you should have married him. You would have eaten well.”

“You can't have a marriage around fish,” he sighed, “Not even salmon.”

I shrugged and ate another cake.

“We had pak choi...”

His fist was tightening around his cup.

“My wife refused a second helping...”

“Oh?”

“I said I thought she liked it, and she told me she pretended to because she thought I liked it, and I said I pretended to like it because I thought...”

“I see...”

“She said she made dinner because she thought I'd be upset. I said that was the reason that I talked to her.”

The cup slipped in his grasp and spilled tea over his wrist. He looked down in surprise before finishing his thought.

“She said that was the reason she slept with me.”

“But you had to leave?” I asked. “Did you not have a job?”

“Yes,” he said, “A lawyer. But if I could not pretend to love my wife I could not pretend to care about thieves and rapists.”

We sat for a while and looked across the countryside.

“What are you doing in Japan?”

 “I am a wrestler.”

He gazed the scar.

“I wondered.”

I touched the old souvenir from a brawl in Texas, where a barbed wire bat had slashed my cheek as it was swung before me. If the other man had been less cautious and just smacked me with the thing, the barbs would have hit so fast that they would have entered and left the flesh without tearing it.

We travelled down the hills and through the suburbs of Okayama. Enclosed by the cool grey tower blocks, we discussed the performers he had watched as a young man.

“Have you met Inoki?”

“Once.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“He asked if I knew the Queen or Dynamite Kid.”

“What is he like?”

“God knows,” I said, “Who would want to know what Inoki is really like? It would be disappointing.”

He insisted on driving me up to the hall.

“Where are you going now?” I asked.

“I don't know,” he shrugged, “Somewhere good for me.”

“Thanks, friend,” I said, as he set his eyes on the distance, “And don't worry. You will be alright.”

I had said that to my Gran as well. Someone has to say it.

The promoter met me inside the arena and was smiles and apologies for the minute he could spare.

“I hope you had a pleasant journey.”

“Sure,” I said, “Fine.”

In the changing room my opponent – a veteran with scars for wrinkles – was pulling spandex over his legs.

“Who's doing what tonight?” he asked.

"I'm losing,” I replied, “And I'll lose like a champ.”