You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

3. The Microscopic Gentleman from Japan

In the old house where George lived that year Mr. Katamoto occupied the ground floor just below him, and in a little while they got to know each other very well. It might be said that their friendship began in mystification and went on to a state of security and staunch understanding.

Not that Mr. Katamoto ever forgave George when he erred. He was always instantly ready to inform him that he had taken a false step again (the word is used advisedly), but he was so infinitely patient, so unflaggingly hopeful of George’s improvement, so unfailingly good-natured and courteous, that no one could possibly have been angry or failed to try to mend his ways. What saved the situation was Katamoto’s gleeful, childlike sense of humour. He was one of those microscopic gentlemen from Japan, scarcely five feet tall, thin and very wiry in his build, and George’s barrel chest, broad shoulders, long, dangling arms, and large feet seemed to inspire his comic risibilities from the beginning. The first time they met, as they were just passing each other in the hall, Katamoto began to giggle when he saw George coming; and as they came abreast, the little man flashed a great expanse of gleaming teeth, wagged a finger roguishly, and said:

“Tramp-ling! Tramp-ling!”

For several days, whenever they passed each other in the hall, this same performance was repeated. George thought the words were very mysterious, and at first could not fathom their recondite meaning or understand why the sound of them was enough to set Katamoto off in a paroxysm of mirth. And yet when he would utter them and George would look at him in a surprised, inquiring kind of way, Katamoto would bend double with convulsive laughter and would stamp at the floor like a child with a tiny foot, shrieking hysterically! “Yis — yis — yis! You are tramp-ling!”— after which he would flee away.

George inferred that these mysterious references to “tramp-ling” which always set Katamoto off in such a fit of laughter had something to do with the bigness of his feet, for Katamoto would look at them quickly and slyly as he passed, and then giggle. However, a fuller explanation was soon provided. Katamoto came upstairs one afternoon and knocked at George’s door. When it was opened, he giggled and flashed his teeth and looked somewhat embarrassed.. After a moment, with evident hesitancy, he grinned painfully and said:

“If you ple-e-eze, sir! Will you — have some tea — with me — yis?” He spoke the words very slowly, with a deliberate formality, after which he flashed a quick, eager, and ingratiating smile.

George told him he would be glad to, and got his coat and started downstairs with him. Katamoto padded swiftly on ahead, his little feet shod in felt slippers that made no sound. Half-way down the stairs, as if the noise of George’s heavy tread had touched his funny-bone again, Katamoto stopped quickly, turned and pointed at George’s feet, and giggled coyly: “Tramp-ling! You are trampling!” Then he turned and fairly fled away down the stairs and down the hall, shrieking like a gleeful child. He waited at the door to usher his guest in, introduced him to the slender, agile little Japanese girl who seemed to stay there all the time, and finally brought George back into his studio and served him tea.

It was an amazing place. Katamoto bad redecorated the fine old rooms and fitted them up according to the whims of his curious taste. The big back room was very crowded, intricate, and partitioned off into several small compartments with beautiful Japanese screens. He had also constructed a flight of stairs and a balcony that extended around three sides of the room, and on this balcony George could see a couch. The room was crowded with tiny chairs and tables, and there was an opulent-looking sofa and cushions. There were a great many small carved objects and bric-à-brac, and a strong smell of incense.

The centre of the room, however, had been left entirely bare save for a big strip of spattered canvas and an enormous plaster figure. George gathered that he did a thriving business turning out sculptures for expensive speak-easies, or immense fifteen-foot statues of native politicians which were to decorate public squares in little towns, or in the state capitals of Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Wyoming. Where and how he had learned this curious profession George never found out, but he had mastered it with true Japanese fidelity, and so well that his products were apparently in greater demand than those of American sculptors. In spite of his small size and fragile build, the man was a dynamo of energy and could perform the labours of a Titan. God knows how he did it — where he found the strength.

George asked a question about the big plaster cast in the centre of the room, and Katamoto took him over and showed it to him, remarking as he pointed to the creature’s huge feet:

“He is — like you! . . . He is tramp-ling! . . . Yis! . . . He is tramp-ling!”

Then he took George up the stairs on to the balcony, which George dutifully admired.

“Yis? — You like?” He smiled at George eagerly, a little doubtfully, then pointed at his couch and said: “I sleep here!” Then he pointed to the ceiling, which was so low that George had to stoop. “You sleep there?” said Katamoto eagerly.

George nodded.

Katamoto went on again with a quick smile, but with embarrassed hesitancy and a painful difficulty in his tone that had not been there before:

“I here,” he said, pointing, “you there — yis?”

He looked at George almost pleadingly, a little desperately — and suddenly George began to catch on.

“Oh! You mean I am right above you —” Katamoto nodded with instant relief —“and sometimes when I stay up late you hear me?”

“Yis! Yis!” He kept nodding his head vigorously. “Sometimes —” he smiled a little painfully —“sometimes — you will be tramp-ling!” He shook his finger at George with coy reproof and giggled.

“I’m awfully sorry,” George said. “Of course, I didn’t know you slept so near — so near the ceiling. When I work late I pace the floor. It’s a bad habit. I’ll do what I can to stop it.”

“Oh, no-o!” he cried, genuinely distressed. “I not want — how you say it? — change your life! . . . If you ple-e-ese, sir! Just little thing — not wear shoes at night!” He pointed at his own small felt-shod feet and smiled up at George hopefully. “You like slippers yis?” And he smiled persuasively again.

After that, of course, George wore slippers. But sometimes he would forget, and the next morning Katamoto would be rapping at his door again. He was never angry, he was always patient and good-humoured, he was always beautifully courteous — but he would always call George to account. “You were tramp-ling!” he would cry. “Last night — again — tramp-ling!” And George would tell him he was sorry and would try not to do it again, and Katamoto would go away giggling, pausing to turn and wag his finger roguishly and call out once more, “Tramp-ling!”— after which he would flee downstairs, shrieking with laughter.

They were good friends.

In the months that followed, again and again George would come in the house to find the hall below full of sweating, panting movers, over whom Katamoto, covered from head to foot with clots and lumps of plaster, would hover prayerfully and with a fearful, pleading grin lest they mar his work, twisting his small hands together convulsively, aiding the work along by slight shudders, quick darts of breathless terror, writhing and shrinking movements of the body, and saying all the while with an elaborate, strained, and beseeching courtesy:

“Now, if —you— gentleman — a little! . . . You . . . yis — yis — yis-s!” with a convulsive grin. “Oh-h-h! Yis — yis-s! If you ple-e-ese, sir! . . . If you would down — a little — yis-s! — yis-s! — yis-s!” he hissed softly with that prayerful and pleading grin.

And the movers would carry out of the house and stow into their van the enormous piecemeal fragments of some North Dakota Pericles, whose size was so great that one wondered how this dapper, fragile little man could possibly have fashioned such a leviathan.

Then the movers would depart, and for a space Mr. Katamoto would loaf and invite his soul. He would come out in the backyard with his girl, the slender, agile little Japanese — who looked as, if she had some Italian blood in her as well — and for hours at a time they would play at handball. Mr. Katamoto would knock the ball up against the projecting brick wall of the house next door, and every time he scored a point he would scream with laughter, clapping his small hands together, bending over weakly and pressing his hand against his stomach, and staggering about with delight and merriment. Choking with laughter, he would cry out in a high, delirious voice as rapidly as he could:

“Yis, yis, yis! Yis, yis, yis! Yis, yis, yis!”

Then he would catch sight of George looking at him from the window, and this would set him off again, for he would wag his finger and fairly scream:

“You were tramp-ling! . . . Yis, yis, yis! . . . Last night — again tramp-ling!”

This would reduce him to such a paroxysm of mirth that he would stagger across the court and lean against the wall, all caved in, holding his narrow stomach and shrieking faintly.

It was now the full height of steaming summer, and one day early in August George came home to find the movers in the house again. This time it was obvious that a work of more than usual magnitude was in transit. Mr. Katamoto, spattered with plaster, was of course hovering about in the hall, grinning nervously and fluttering prayerfully around the husky truckmen. As George came in, two of the men were backing slowly down the hall, carrying between them an immense head, monstrously jowled and set in an expression of farseeing statesmanship. A moment later three more men backed out of the studio, panting and cursing as they grunted painfully around the flowing fragment of a long frock coat and the vested splendour of a bulging belly. The first pair had now gone back in the studio, and when they came out again they were staggering beneath the trousered shank of a mighty leg and a booted Atlantean hoof, and as they passed, one of the other men, now returning for more of the statesman’s parts, pressed himself against the wall to let them by and said:

“Jesus! If the son-of-a-bitch stepped on you with that foot, he wouldn’t leave a grease spot, would he, Joe?”

The last piece of all was an immense fragment of the Solon’s arm and fist, with one huge forefinger pointed upwards in an attitude of solemn objurgation and avowal.

That figure was Katamoto’s masterpiece; and George felt as he saw it pass that the enormous upraised finger was the summit of his art and the consummation of his life: Certainly it was the apple of his eye. George had never seen him before in such a state of extreme agitation. He fairly prayed above the sweating men: It was obvious that the coarse indelicacy of their touch made him shudder. The grin was frozen on his face in an expression of congealed terror. He writhed, he wriggled, he wrung his little hands, he crooned to them. And if anything had happened to that fat, pointed finger, George felt sure that he would have dropped dead on the spot.

At length, however, they got everything stowed away in their big van without mishap and drove off with their Ozymandias, leaving Mr. Katamoto, frail, haggard, and utterly exhausted, looking at the kerb. He came back into the house and saw George standing there and smiled wanly at him.

“Tramp-ling,” he said feebly, and shook his finger, and for the first time there was no mirth or energy in him.

George had never seen him tired before. It had never occurred to him that he could get tired. The little man had always been so full of inexhaustible life. And now, somehow, George felt an unaccountable sadness to see him so weary and so strangely grey. Katamoto was silent for a moment, and then he lifted his face and said, almost tonelessly, yet with a shade of wistful eagerness:

“You see statue — yis?”

“Yes, Kato, I saw it.”

“And you like?”

“Yes, very much.”

“And —” he giggled a little and made a shaking movement with his hands —“you see foot?”


“I sink,” he said, “he will be tramp-ling — yis?”— and he made laughing sound.

“He ought to,” George said, “with a hoof like that. It’s almost as big as mine,” he added, as an afterthought.

Katamoto seemed delighted with this observation, for he laughed shrilly and said: “Yis! Yis!”— nodding his head emphatically. He was silent for another moment, then hesitantly, but with an eagerness that he could not conceal, he said:

“And you see finger?”

“Yes, Kato.”

“And you like?”— quickly, earnestly.

“Very much.”

“Big finger — yis?”— with a note of rising triumph in his “Very big, Kato.”

“And pointing— yis?” he said ecstatically, grinning from ear to ear and pointing his own small finger heavenward.

“Yes, pointing.”

He sighed contentedly. “Well, zen,” he said, with the appeased’ air of a child, “I’m glad you like.”

For a week or so after that George did not see Katamoto again or even think of him. This was the vacation period at the School for Utility Cultures, and George was devoting every minute of his time, day and, night, to a fury of new writing. Then one afternoon; a long passage completed and the almost illegible pages of his swift scrawl tossed in a careless heap upon the floor, he sat relaxed, looking out of his back window, and suddenly he thought of Katamoto again. He remembered that he had not seen him recently, and it seemed strange that he had not even heard the familiar thud of the little ball against the wall outside or the sound of his high, shrill laughter. This realisation, with its sense of loss, so troubled him that he went downstairs immediately and pressed Katamoto’s bell.

There was no answer. All was silent. He waited, and no one came. Then he went down to the basement and found the janitor and spoke to him. He said that Mr. Katamoto had been ill, No, it was not serious, he thought, but the doctor had advised a rest, a brief period of relaxation from his exhausting labours, and had sent him for care and observation to the near-by hospital.

George meant to go to see him, but he was busy with his writing and kept putting it off. Then one morning, some ten days later, coming back home after breakfast in a restaurant, he found a moving van backed up before the house. Katamoto’s door was open, and when he looked inside the moving people had already stripped the apartment almost bare. In the centre of the once fantastic room, now empty, where Katamoto had performed his prodigies of work, stood a young Japanese, an acquaintance of the sculptor, whom George had seen there several times before. He was supervising the removal of the last furnishings.

The young Japanese looked up quickly, politely, with a toothy grin of frozen courtesy as George came in. He did not speak until George asked him how Mr. Katamoto was. And then, with the same toothy, frozen grin upon his face, the same impenetrable courtesy, he said that Mr. Katamoto was dead.

George was shocked, and stood there for a moment, knowing there was nothing more to say, and yet feeling somehow, as people always feel on these occasions, that there was something that, he ought to say. He looked at the young Japanese and started to speak, and found himself looking into the inscrutable, polite, untelling eyes of Asia.

So he said nothing more. He just thanked the young man and went out.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30