excerpts from THE ARTIST
Sara is the first person I’ve seen since my unemployment money ran out. She closes the door behind me with the soft sound of iron wind chimes. She is shorter than me, her face covered by a cloth mask with a red and white geometric print. My KN-95 feels sterile in comparison, like I misjudged the level of formality. She gestures towards a round table in the center of the room, and we sit down together. The openness of the space is so soothing to me right away.
Sara looks beautiful in the early afternoon light. Her hands are perfectly folded. Everything in the room is white, everything outside of the windows is gray. This makes any small moment of color extremely vibrant - each thread on Sara’s Mexican-style embroidered blouse, the raku vase of pink flowers in the center of the table, the tiny mustard stain on my pants. I do my best to reassure myself that I make sense in this space, full of Japanese art, homegoods, and craft objects that are beyond the economic reach of me or my family. Just sending an application to this job felt like a step towards crafting some sort of life for myself. Washing my hair, brushing my teeth, selecting my outfit. I’m surprised to discover how badly I want to be perceived as beautiful and useful.
“Thank you for taking the time to be here,” says Sara, and I nod. “I want to start by hearing what made you apply to this shop.”
I choose my words carefully. I’ve already gone over in my head how to obscure certain details, like the fact that I only graduated from college six months ago, and that I’ve never had a full time job before. I focus on observations about the shop, observations that I’ve diligently written and rewritten in my notebook.
“One of the things I love most about your selection is the way your products call people to slow down in their day. Treating everyday objects, like a teacup or even a trash bin, as things worthy of thoughtful design is very inspiring to me. It matters, making small things beautiful. Slowing down.”
“Well,” Sara says, “we like that ‘slowing down,’ of course. Here, slow craftsmanship is very valued. We are not Amazon.”
I nod again in agreement.
“But you know…” Sara continues, “In the shop, it can be very busy. We work very quickly. There is so much to get done, all of the time. We really don’t have the opportunity to rest. Is this okay with you?”
I smile and do my best to express that appreciating supreme aesthetics is highly compatible with being a fast worker. The idea itself is abstract - it’s been so long since I was fast at anything. I straighten my spine, push my hair behind my ears. I imagine that Sara understands me as someone with value, and this changes my insides. I develop skills, efficiency, and discipline under her gaze faster than I’ve ever developed anything.
“Well, that’s great,” says Sara. “There’s just one other thing. I’m sorry if this is an assumption…” she starts to laugh, raising her hands to cover her mouth, “but you’re not… Japanese.”
“Definitely a correct assumption,” I smile, realizing that my mask hides the curve of my undeniably Jewish nose.
“Well, you see, the rest of us are…”
Sara becomes very serious.
“You would be the only one. The shop owner, Taku, moved here from Japan 20 years ago. Our staff is always majority Japanese. Even if we were raised over here, we all have Japanese heritage. And there are things we take for granted that you might not really… understand. I wouldn’t want you to feel on the outside.”
Without thinking, I bow my head slightly and say, “Sara, I would be honored to learn more about Japanese culture. I wouldn’t feel on the outside when given this kind of opportunity.”
Before she shows me out of the shop, Sara gives me a tour. Just outside of the main room, she gestures to Grace, who smiles at me warmly from a minimalist wooden table.
“Taku built that,” Sara tells me, “he built everything in here.”
This includes rows on rows of modular cabinets, all crafted from the same unfinished plywood. I learn that Taku selected each silver connecting joint from a vintage collector in Niigata. I learn that Taku designed every ceramic mug, plate, teapot, and bowl in the shop. He selected the cool glazes. Chose to leave some items without any glaze at all. I pick up a small dish. It fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. It is completely flat, except for a tiny outer ridge and an even smaller inner indentation.
“For soy sauce?” I ask, trying to meet Sara’s eye. She’s already waiting at the door.
I put the dish back, but when I set it down the symmetry on the shelf is not as balanced as it was before. Price tags, tiny and black, are more noticeable, awkwardly sticking out, inorganic and unfamiliar. I know Sara is watching me, and I tap the dish back and forth between the surrounding objects, trying to leave things just as perfect as they were before I arrived.
She waves at me.
“I’ll be in touch in the next few days,” she says.
It takes me over an hour to get home. I take the streets, the 10 is too jammed. I wind through Culver City, Mid Wilshire, Koreatown. On every street, whether it’s lined with trees or apartment buildings, crowds of homeless people or perfectly manicured lawns, I wonder what the fuck is wrong with me that I would bow my head and describe myself as “honored” to a Japanese woman. Honored. I’ve never bowed in my damn life.
For soy sauce… unbelievable.
“The first thing you want to do is unpack the object and make sure it doesn’t have any defects,” says Seiji, leaning against a metal shelf full of white paper bags. He pulls one off the shelf. Inside the white paper bag is a small gray box, emblazoned with Taku’s logo. He opens the lid and slides a tiny brass paperweight into the palm of his hand. It’s in the shape of a house, glowing gold. He passes it to me. It’s very heavy. Pulls my hand down to the matte surface of the packing table.
“What do you think it is about this paperweight that makes it worth…” I open the packing slip, “...$354?”
Seiji shakes his head but I think I see the lines of a smile around his eyes. “Isn’t it obvious? Taku designed it.”
He pulls out another box. We inspect a porcelain white cup with three indentations on one side.
“You know,” says Seiji. “Taku designed this cup to be enjoyed by blind people. You don’t need to have the power of sight to enjoy its texture.”
“Is that what makes this one cup worth $175?”
“Here,” he hands me the cup. “Close your eyes and feel it.”
I close my eyes. The white porcelain coating is so smooth. My fingers trail around the cup and I almost lose my footing until I find the indentations. Three on the left side. My pointer finger, middle finger, ring finger. They fit perfectly. I shift my fingers around. They fit perfectly again. I raise and lower the cup in my hand. It’s like playing the piano. When I open my eyes, Seiji is looking at me.
“It is really beautiful,” I say, and hand the cup back to him.
“Taku knows what he’s doing. The orders keep coming in,” as he says it, the computer screen lights up with the news of another purchase. “See?”
I do a mental calculation of how many hours I would have to work to own these precious objects. Like the lack of a comfortable place to eat on my lunch breaks, the number makes me feel squeezed and claustrophobic. I pull my hair away from my face.
Seiji shows me how to layer corrugated kraft paper just so to create a 1-inch buffer between each box and its enclosed object. He teaches me that products will break not from impact with the ground but from impact with each other. This is why it’s important to make sure objects packed together are separated by lots of padding. Once the box is sealed, you shouldn’t be able to hear any movement when shaking it around. Every object squeezed together as tightly as possible. No room for any shifts or collisions.
After we clock out, I get in my car, tossing an empty water bottle and McDonald’s wrappers from my breakfast into the back seat. Just a block away from the shop, I see Seiji smoking. His face is softer than I imagined it to be, he looks ten years younger than I had guessed, barely more than a boy. He doesn’t see me when I pass, but the whole way home I replay the image in my head - his tattoos covered by a quilted jacket, his round cheeks tightening with each inhalation, a silvery cloud above his head.
While I drive home, I think about my life from before. I would be surprised to see myself learn to be so disciplined. I would be surprised to see how quickly I have shed my neuroses and erraticism. I’m subsumed by categorization, structure, routine, and service. All it took was Sara’s commands and the presence of a great artist, somewhere, somehow, shifting behind the scenes. There’s nothing of me left.
Ruby Zuckerman is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her essay "Who Are You To Say That You Are Nothing" was published in Our House, an anthology published by Burn All Books, and her short story "Scott Disick Sucks" was the winner of the 2020 Nick Adams ACM short story contest. Her fiction has been rejected from over 83 literary magazines, although some of those rejections came with a kind and personalized note of encouragement. As a day job, she works at a wedding DJ company and writes for Hannah Hoffman Gallery. She speaks Yiddish.