Autumn was in the air. The mornings were cold, the days still hot. Change was around the corner.
It was a Wednesday the same as any other Wednesday. I entered the now familiar bar and was startled by an unfamiliar face.
A new bartender.
He was much closer to my age than most of the other employees. And he was from here in the states. Hama, our boss, told us to start stacking glasses and went to get boxes of liquor for the day.
I had picked up some Japanese–mostly bar lingo. My co-workers grew tired of my constant stream of conversation and Americanisms so they amused themselves my teaching me Japanese. Mostly phrases that were either sexually suggestive or mildly profane. We all thought I was hilarious. But now here was someone new. My age. English speaking.
I tried to initiate a conversation with the new guy.
“Where are you from?”
“What’s your name?”
“Noble. That’s a nice name.”
“I said Nobu.”
“Nobu. N-O-B-U. Nobu.”
“Ha, ha, ha. Nobu. That’s a nice name, too. My name’s Alice.”
“You’re wearing a name tag.”
“Oh. Well, now that we have that out of the way, what brings you to Denver?”
Nobu gazed at me for a moment. Then he said, “I’d better go help Hama.”
He seemed unnecessarily gruff, but I figured that must be his way. Maybe that’s how people from Chicago were.
I was sure he liked me.
Soon, we found a balance between quiet and conversation and became good friends. We shared stories about our latest dates, offering insights and advice to each other.
One night I heard Nobu and Hama making plans for dinner. They said something about their favorite “after-hours” place. I dropped off my dirty martini glasses near the sink and asked, “What’s an after-hours restaurant?”
They stopped talking to each other and Hama said, “A restaurant closed to the public but serves people they know late at night.”
Cool. Both of them moved to the other side of the bar.
I followed and opened the jars of olives, cocktail onions and maraschino cherries we’d need for happy hour. Thinking about dinner was making me hungry so I popped a cherry in my mouth, the red dye pleasantly tingling on my tongue.
“What’s it’s name? What’s your favorite food?”
Nobu said, “Fuji Inn. Udon.”
I love noodles.
The duo moved to the other side. I followed. I got a handful of napkins and hurriedly twisted them into a circular tower so we could take one at a time. My column didn’t look like the origami creations of my co-workers, but I figured it’d do the trick. I needed to get closer so I could hear more about this restaurant. The napkins fell over. Oh well. I’d fix them later.
Nobu and Tosh were trying to decide who should drive.
I interrupted. “When are you going?”
They took a very long time to answer.
“That’s when I get off!”
Hama said, “I’d better get another case of beer.”
Nobu said, “We need more ice.”
As they walked away, I called, “I can’t go tonight. I have plans.”
I started piercing olives with plastic toothpicks, fitting three in my mouth. My cheeks bulged as I chewed thoughtfully. I had to see this place for myself.
Nobu came back with a bucket of ice. I swallowed, then smiled sweetly at him. I really did love noodles.
Hama got a call around 8:30. His little girl was sick and his wife asked him to pick up some cough medicine on his way home.
I piped in, “Well that’s a crying shame. I know how much you were looking forward to tonight. I’ll go with you.”
“You said you had plans.”
“I’d be happy to change them. Anything for a friend.”
I scurried to a table before he could answer.
I’d driven by the Fuji Inn. It was busy during the day, but the real action happened after-hours, Nobu explained on our way. When it was closed to the public it became a mecca for all the Japanese workers in Denver.
Nobu knocked and a face peeked through the curtains. The door opened to a room rocking with noise, food and laughter. The air was thick with cigarette smoke that formed a shimmering haze hanging from the ceiling. Every table was full, food churning out of the kitchen, liquor flowing, teapots in between each place setting.
There was a microphone on a makeshift stage where you could get up and sing. Karaoke. long before it was widely introduced, rocked the house on Friday nights.
The excitement was heightened my my feeling of being a member of a secret society.
Nobu and I sat on the same side so we could both see the stage. It felt good sitting next to him. I moved a little closer.
The owner went from table to table, taking orders. Nobu ordered udon with unagi. There were no menus and I was afraid if I asked for one I’d be thrown out, an obvious interloper.
“I’ll have what he’s having.”
The owner’s hand hovered over his pad of paper, his eyes asking question I didn’t understand. He shrugged.
Nob said “She’ll have tempura.”
The owner nodded, made a quick note and left.
“I could’ve tried something new. What’s unagi?”
“Eel. They’re famous for their tempura. You’ll like it, Alice.”
I moved a little closer still and poured us a cup of tea, my hand brushing his.
It has worked out very well for us.