Out

Overview

La reina actual del crimen japonés.

Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie y Yayoi trabajan en el turno nocturno de una fábrica de comida preparada de los suburbios de Tokio. Todas tienen graves problemas tanto de dinero como familiares (maridos infieles, suegras discapacitadas o hijos imposibles) y se desenvuelven en una atmósfera hostil e inhóspita. En el caso de Yayoi desemboca en el asesinato de su marido cuando éste la agrede físicamente. Masako la ayudará a deshacerse del cuerpo, ingrata ...

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Overview

La reina actual del crimen japonés.

Masako, Kuniko, Yoshie y Yayoi trabajan en el turno nocturno de una fábrica de comida preparada de los suburbios de Tokio. Todas tienen graves problemas tanto de dinero como familiares (maridos infieles, suegras discapacitadas o hijos imposibles) y se desenvuelven en una atmósfera hostil e inhóspita. En el caso de Yayoi desemboca en el asesinato de su marido cuando éste la agrede físicamente. Masako la ayudará a deshacerse del cuerpo, ingrata tarea para la que contarán con la ayuda de las otras dos compañeras de trabajo, Kuniko y Yoshie. Juntas descuartizarán el cadáver y lo desperdigarán por varios puntos de Tokio. La policía sospecha de ellas pero todavía no tienen pruebas. Mientras tanto, un prestamista vinculado a los yakuza chantajea a las mujeres para que se ocupen de más cadáveres.Out causó una gran conmoción en Japón y donde ha sido galardonada con el Gran Premio de Escritores de Misterio.

A masterpiece in this genre—Prize jury, Mystery Writers of Japan

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
With volcanic urgency, Kirino's story erupts onto the page with a searing heat, flowing like lava to a remarkable finish. Facing the daily burdens of slavish work conditions, stale marriages, and a society refusing to show them a proper respect, the women on the nightshift at a suburban Tokyo factory are all looking for one thing -- a way out. When pretty young Yayoi takes a beating from her deadbeat husband, her coworkers do little more than help their friend keep pace with the line. But a new kind of sisterhood emerges when Yayoi requires assistance in disposing of her dead husband's body.

Masako Katori emerges as a tenaciously determined leader in the dangerous cover-up, and with the others, provides readers with a disturbing vision of the lengths a human mind will travel in its quest for freedom. For Kirino's women aren't ruthless murderers; they're hardworking housewives with dignity, desperate for respect.

Discover rarely selects a mystery novel for our literary distinction, but unlike more formulaic crime novels, Kirino's work travels outside the boundaries of category fiction and gets under the skin. It's rare when a novel is so well rendered, so reaching in scope, and so thematically relevant that it surpasses its genre and demands a wider readership. Out does that and more. (Fall 2003 Selection)

Black Book
A daring account of empowered Japanese women, and just too damn macabre to discount.
BOOK
Dark, seductive and occasionally brutal, Out explores the lower classes of Japanese society with a distinctive gallows humor.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
A gusty, unflinching foray into the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the human soul.
San Francisco Chronicle
A masterful and psychologically astute novel.
The New York Times
The underworld of pimping and casinos fuels the novel's suspense, as a Brazilian laborer, a haunted ex-convict and a Chinese prostitute play roles in the sinister plot. At its best, Out has the force of a juicy tabloid scandal: we witness the insidious merging of desperation and violence. … Out is a potent cocktail of urban blight, perverse feminism and vigilante justice. — Katherine Wolff
The Washington Post
Out is not easy to read. The passages of violence, in particular, are hampered by an abruptness that borders on the choppy, probably caused by the complexity of translating from the Japanese. But it is a fascinating tale nonetheless. Noir fans will find themselves turning page after page in hopes of discovering that at least some of the women survive. — Katy Munger
Publishers Weekly
Four women who work the night shift in a Tokyo factory that produces boxed lunches find their lives twisted beyond repair in this grimly compelling crime novel, which won Japan's top mystery award, the Grand Prix, for its already heralded author, now making her first appearance in English. Despite the female bonding, this dark, violent novel is more evocative of Gogol or Dostoyevsky than Thelma and Louise. When Yayoi, the youngest and prettiest of the women, strangles her philandering gambler husband with his own belt in an explosion of rage, she turns instinctively for help to her co-worker Masako, an older and wiser woman whose own family life has fallen apart in less dramatic fashion. To help her cut up and get rid of the dead body, Masako recruits Yoshie and Kuniko, two fellow factory workers caught up in other kinds of domestic traps. In Snyder's smoothly unobtrusive translation, all of Kirino's characters are touching and believable. And even when the action stretches to include a slick loan shark from Masako's previous life and a pathetically lost and lonely man of mixed Japanese and Brazilian parentage, the gritty realism of everyday existence in the underbelly of Japan's consumer society comes across with pungent force. (Aug.) FYI: This novel has been made into a Japanese motion picture. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Published for the first time in English, this critically acclaimed Japanese novel brings the mystery thriller to new levels of intensity and realism, drawing readers into a nightmare of murder, suspicion, and fear. Four women, night-shift workers at a factory, band together to help a co-worker who strangles her deadbeat husband. The mastermind, Masako Katori, a middle-aged wife and mother, steers this group of despairing women out of their dead-end lives and into the dangerous underworld of murder and deceit. Skillfully crafted, the novel reveals the frustrations and pressures that drive these women to such extreme measures; the realistic detailing of everyday routines gradually draws the unsuspecting reader into a horrific plot that unfolds into a terrific cat-and-mouse game with the police, the yakuza crime organization, and these sinister women. Winner of Japan's top mystery award, Out has great plot twists, intensity, and an ending that would make Hannibal Lecter smile. This title will fit well in any public library collection.-Ron Samul, New London, CT Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Horrifying violence lurks a hairsbreadth beneath the surface of drab modern Tokyo in veteran Kirino's award-winning English-language debut. Masako Katori works with three friends making box lunches on a night-shift assembly line. Night after night they take turns dishing rice into containers, smoothing it out, placing pieces of meat or fish on top, and covering it with sauce before returning home in dull despair to their tiny apartments, indifferent mates, unresponsive children, and mounting debts. One night one of the team strangles her abusive husband and, remorseless but fearful of exposure, calls on Masako for help. Soon all four friends know about the murder, and they all band together to conceal it from the authorities. Their unlikely strategy, whose every banal discussion and grisly procedure is presented in pitiless detail, doesn't entirely succeed in fooling the police. But the women have made far more dangerous enemies, from an aspiring rapist in their factory to a nightclub owner their handiwork has inadvertently put out of business, and what happens to them unfolds in a series of shocks it would be unfair to reveal. Dramatic as the plot is, however, it's the penetration of Kirino's insight into her characters and their capacity to keep surprising each other that linger longest in this grimly satisfying tale. Crime and Punishment meets A Simple Plan-yet in the end Kirino manages her banal heroines' descent into hell like no one you've ever read before. (N.B.: The Japanese film of Out premiered in New York in late May.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9788496580299
  • Publisher: Planeta Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 5/5/2008
  • Language: Spanish
  • Edition description: Spanish-language Edition
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

NATSUO KIRINO was born in Japan in 1951. Her career as a writer began with comics and pulp fiction, but as soon as her serious mystery novels started to appear, they attracted a huge readership. These by now have won her all the top mystery awards in her country, and two have been turned into full-scale movies. OUT is her first to appear in English.

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Read an Excerpt

NIGHT SHIFT

1

She got to the parking lot earlier than usual. The thick, damp July darkness engulfed her as she stepped out of the car. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity, but the night seemed especially black and heavy. Feeling a bit short of breath, Masako Katori looked up at the starless night sky. Her skin, which had been cool and dry in the air-conditioned car, began to feel sticky. Mixed in with the exhaust fumes from the Shin-Oume Expressway, she could smell the faint odor of deep-fried food, the odor of the boxed-lunch factory where she was going to work.

"I want to go home." The moment the smell hit her, the words came into her head. She didn't know exactly what home it was she wanted to go to, certainly not the one she'd just left. But why didn't she want to go back there? And where did she want to go? She felt lost.

From midnight until five-thirty without a break, she had to stand at the conveyor belt making boxed lunches. For a part-time job, the pay was good, but the work was backbreaking. More than once, when she was feeling unwell, she'd been stopped here in the parking lot by the thought of the hard shift ahead. But this was different, this feeling of aimlessness. As she always did at this moment, she lit a cigarette, but tonight she realized for the first time that she did it to cover the smell of the factory.

The boxed-lunch factory was in the middle of the Musashi-Murayama district, facing a road that was lined with the gray wall of a large automobile plant. Otherwise, the area was given over to dusty fields and a cluster of small auto repair shops. The land was flat and the sky stretched in every direction. The parking lot was a three-minute walk from Masako's workplace, beyond another factory, now abandoned. It was no more than a bare lot that had been roughly graded. The parking spaces had once been marked off with strips of tape, but dust had long since made them almost invisible. The employees' cars were parked at random angles across the lot. It was a place where no one would be likely to notice someone hiding in the grass or behind a car. The whole effect was somehow sinister, and Masako glanced around nervously as she locked the car.

She heard the sound of tires, and for an instant the overgrown summer grass that bordered the lot shone in the yellow headlights. A green Volkswagen Golf cabriolet, top down, drove into the lot, and her plump co-worker, Kuniko Jonouchi, nodded from the driver's seat.

"Sorry I'm late," she said, pulling the car into the space next to Masako's faded red Corolla. Her driving seemed careless, and she made more noise than necessary putting on the hand brake and closing the car door. Everything about her was shrill and gaudy. Masako stubbed out her cigarette with the toe of her sneaker.

"Nice car," she said. The subject of Kuniko's car had come up a number of times at the factory.

"You really think so?" Kuniko said, sticking out her tongue in pleasure at the compliment. "But it's got me up to my eyes in debt." Masako gave a noncommittal laugh. The car didn't seem to be the only source of Kuniko's debts. She had nothing but designer accessories, and her clothes were obviously expensive.

"Let's go," Masako said. Sometime after the New Year, she'd begun to hear talk of a strange man hanging around the road that led from the parking lot to the factory. And then several of the part-timers had reported being pulled into the shadows and assaulted before barely escaping; so the company had just issued a warning that the women should walk in groups. They set off through the summer darkness along the unpaved, ill-lit road. On the right was a ragged line of apartment blocks and farmhouses with large gardens-not particularly appealing but at least a sign of life in the area. On the left, beyond an overgrown ditch, was a lonely row of abandoned buildings: an older boxed-lunch factory, a derelict bowling alley. The women who had fallen victim to the attacker had told of being dragged in among these deserted buildings, and so Masako kept careful watch as she and Kuniko hurried along.

From one of the apartment houses on the right, they could hear a man and woman arguing in Portuguese; more than likely they worked at the factory. In addition to the housewives who worked part-time, the factory employed a large number of Brazilians, both native-born and those of Japanese descent, many of them married couples.

"Everybody's saying that the pervert is probably a Brazilian," said Kuniko, frowning into the darkness. Masako walked on without answering. It didn't make much difference where the man was from, she thought, there was no cure for the kind of depression that came from working in that factory. The women would just have to protect themselves as best they could. "They say he's a big, strong man, that he grabs the women and holds them without saying a word." Something in Kuniko's tone betrayed a hint of longing. Masako felt that Kuniko was somehow blocked, closed off, like a thick cloud cover obscuring the stars at night. From behind them came the sound of squeaking bicycle brakes, and when they turned nervously to look, they found an older woman straddling her bike.

"So, it's you two," she said. "Hi." It was Yoshie Azuma. She was a widow in her late fifties, with nimble fingers that made her the fastest worker on the line. The other women had taken to calling her "Skipper" out of grudging respect.

"Ah, the Skipper. Good morning," Masako said, sounding relieved. Kuniko said nothing but dropped back a step.

"Don't you start calling me that, too," said Yoshie, but she seemed secretly pleased with the name. Climbing off her bike, she fell in step with the other two. She was small but solidly built in a low-slung way that seemed ideally suited to physical labor. Yet her face was fine-featured and pale, floating up now almost seductively out of the darkness. It was perhaps this contradiction that made her seem unhappy, somehow unfortunate. "I suppose you're walking together because of the fuss they've been making about that pervert," she said.

"That's right," said Masako. "Kuniko's still young enough to be in danger." Kuniko giggled. She was twenty-nine. Yoshie skirted a puddle that was glimmering in the dim light and turned to look at Masako.

"You're still in the running yourself," she said. "You're what, forty-three?"

"Don't be silly," Masako said, suppressing a laugh. The compliment made her feel self-conscious in a way she rarely did anymore.

"Then you're all dried up, are you? Cold and dry?" Yoshie's tone was teasing, but it seemed to Masako that she'd hit the nail on the head. She did feel cold and dry, almost reptilian, as she slithered along now.

"But aren't you a bit later than usual today?" she said, to change the subject.

"Oh, Granny's been a little difficult." Yoshie frowned and fell silent. She was caring for her bedridden mother-in-law at home. Masako stared straight ahead, deciding to avoid any more questions. As they cleared the row of deserted buildings on the left, they came upon several of the white trucks that delivered the boxed lunches to convenience stores across the city, and beyond the trucks loomed the factory itself, shining dimly in the fluorescent light like a nightless city.

They waited while Yoshie went to park her bike in the racks next to the factory, and then climbed the green, Astroturf-covered stairs that led up the side of the building. The entrance was on the second floor. To the right was the office, and down the corridor was the workers' rest area and the locker rooms. The factory itself was on the ground floor, so once they'd changed, they would make their way downstairs. Shoes had to be removed on the red synthetic carpet at the factory entrance. The color of the carpet was washed out under the fluorescent lights, making the hallway seem rather gloomy. The complexions of the women around her took on a dark cast to match the decor, and as she looked at her weary companions, Masako wondered if she looked as bad herself. Komada, the tight-lipped company health inspector, was stationed in front of the cubbyholes where they stored their shoes, and as each woman walked by, she rubbed her back with a spool of sticky tape to remove any dust or dirt she might be bringing in.

They entered the large tatami-mat room that served as the employees' lounge. Small groups of people were chatting here and there, having already changed into their white uniforms. They sipped tea or munched snacks as they waited for work to begin, while a few had found spots in the corner to lie down for a quick nap. Of the nearly one hundred workers on the night shift, about a third were Brazilian, and of these roughly half were men. And since it was the middle of the summer holidays, the number of student workers had increased somewhat; still, the great majority of the employees were part-timers, housewives in their forties or fifties.

The three women exchanged nods with friends as they made their way toward the changing room, but then they noticed Yayoi Yamamoto sitting alone in a corner. She looked up at them as they approached, but no smile came to her face and she remained slumped on the tatami.

"Morning," Masako said to her, and at last she smiled faintly for a moment. "You look exhausted." Yayoi nodded weakly and gave them a despondent look but still didn't answer. Yayoi was the best-looking of the four women -- in fact, she was the most attractive woman on the night shift. Her face was almost flawless, with a broad forehead and a nice balance between the eyes and the brow, an upturned nose and full lips. Her body, too, though petite, was perfect. Her looks were so conspicuous at the factory that a number of women had taken to bullying her, though others were nice to her. Masako had adopted the role of her protector, perhaps because the two of them were so different. While Masako herself did her best to live her life according to reason and common sense, Yayoi seemed to be wandering through the world dragging a good deal of emotional baggage with her. Almost unconsciously, she held on to all sorts of gloomy stuff she might otherwise have left behind, playing out the role of the pretty woman taken up with her own cluttered and constantly changing feelings.

"What's up?" asked Yoshie, thumping her on the shoulder with a rough, red hand. "You look bad." Yayoi gave a violent start and Yoshie turned toward Masako, who signaled the other two to go on without her and sat down in front of Yayoi.

"Are you sick?" she asked.

"No, it's nothing."

"Did you have another fight with your husband?"

"I'd be happier if he were still even willing to fight with me," she said glumly, her bleary eyes staring off at some point beyond Masako. Realizing they would have to start work soon, Masako began gathering her hair into a bun.

"What happened?" she said.

"I'll tell you later," said Yayoi.

"Why not now?" Masako urged, glancing at the clock on the wall.

"No, later. It's a long story." A look of rage appeared on Yayoi's face for an instant, then vanished. Giving up the effort, Masako rose to go.

"Okay," she said. She hurried into the changing room to find her uniform. The place was a "room" in name only, separated from the lounge by no more than a curtain. On the wall were crowded rows of sturdy hangers, like those at a department store sale. In the section for the daytime employees, the soiled white uniforms hung in tight clusters, while the space reserved for the night shift was bright with multicolored street clothes.

"We'll see you down there," said Yoshie as she and Kuniko left the lounge. It was time to punch in. According to the rules, they had to punch the time clock between 11:45 and midnight and then wait downstairs at the entrance to the factory floor.

Masako pulled her hanger from the bar. It held a white gown with a zipper down the front and a pair of work pants with elastic at the waist. She quickly slipped the gown over her shoulders and, noting the position of the men in the room, pulled off her jeans, then stepped into the work pants. There was no separate changing room for the men, and though she'd been working here nearly two years she still couldn't get used to the arrangement.

After slipping a black net over the hair she'd already gathered with a barrette, she covered her head with the paper hat they all wore, more like a shower cap than a real hat. Someone had nicknamed them "locusts" for their bug-like shape. She picked up a clear plastic apron and left the changing room, only to find Yayoi still sitting where she'd left her, as if she had nothing better to do.

"Hey! Better get a move on," she said, but when she saw how slow she was to get up, she was more worried than bothered. Almost all the other employees had already left the lounge; only a few Brazilian men still lingered on the tatami. They were leaning against the wall smoking, their thick legs thrown out in front of them.

"Morning," said one of them, raising a hand that was still wrapped around a cigarette butt. Masako nodded, giving him a thin smile. The name tag on his chest said "Kazuo Miyamori," but Masako couldn't help thinking how foreign he looked, with his darkish skin, caved-in face, and protruding forehead. She imagined he did one of the more physical jobs, such as shuttling rice to the automated feeder. "Good morning," he said, this time to Yayoi, though she was too distracted to look at him. He seemed disappointed, but then this kind of thing happened often enough in this cold, unfriendly workplace.

They went into the toilet for a moment before donning their masks and aprons. Hands were rubbed raw with scrubbing brushes and then disinfected. They punched their time cards, stepped into the white work shoes, and were checked once more by the health inspector, this time stationed by the stairs that led down to the plant. Once again Komada rubbed their backs with the tape roller while carefully inspecting their fingernails and hands.

"No cuts?" Even the smallest scratch on a finger meant you were ineligible for any job that involved touching food. Masako and Yayoi held up their hands for inspection. Yayoi seemed about to collapse as she stood waiting for the test to end.

"Are you all right?" Masako asked.

"Yes, I guess," said Yayoi.

"Your kids okay?"

"Unh. . . ," she answered vaguely. Masako looked over at her again, but the hat and mask concealed everything but her listless eyes. Yayoi seemed oblivious to Masako's stare.

The sharp blast of cold air mixed with the odors of various foods made the descent into the factory seem like stepping into a huge refrigerator. A dull chill came creeping up through their shoes from the concrete floor. Even in summer, the factory was icy.

At the bottom of the stairs they joined the other workers waiting to enter. Yoshie and Kuniko, who were further up in the line, turned to signal to them. The four women always worked together and tried to help each other out, otherwise the job would have been even tougher.

The door opened and the workers filed in. They washed again up to the elbows, and their ankle-length aprons were disinfected. By the time Yayoi and Masako finished washing and moved onto the factory floor, the other women had already begun preparations at the conveyor belt.

"Hurry up!" Yoshie scolded Masako. "Nakayama's coming." Nakayama was the foreman on the night shift. He was young, just over thirty, with a foul mouth and an obsession with quotas that earned him the hatred of the part-timers.

"Sorry!" said Masako, picking up her disposable gloves and sterile towel and bringing a set for Yayoi as well. As she stuffed them into her hands, Yayoi looked down at them as if just realizing she was at work.

"Pull yourself together," Masako told her.

"Thanks," Yayoi murmured. As they took their places toward the front of the line, Yoshie showed them the instructions for the day.

"We're starting with curry lunches. Twelve hundred of them. I'll take rice, and you work boxes, okay?" "Rice" meant being at the head of the line as the linchpin of the whole process, the one who determined the speed of the line. Yoshie, who was particularly good at it, always volunteered for rice duty, while Masako took the job of handing her the containers. As she began arranging the plastic boxes, she turned to look at Yayoi. She had moved too slowly to get the easiest job of spooning on the curry. Kuniko, who had managed to get one of these positions, looked back at her and shrugged. They could try to look out for her, she seemed to say, but if she couldn't manage this much for herself, what could they do?

"What's up with her?" Yoshie asked, frowning toward Yayoi. "Is she sick?" Masako shook her head but said nothing. Yayoi did seem unusually distracted. Masako watched as she wandered away from the line, where there were no places left, and headed around toward the position for smoothing the rice, a particularly hard job. Suppressing the urge to get any sharper with her, she whispered to Yayoi as she approached:

"That's hard work."

"I know."

"Hurry up and get started," the foreman barked, striding toward them. "What the hell are you doing?" His expression was obscured by the brim of his work cap, but his small eyes were bright with menace behind his glasses.

"Guess who's here," Yoshie muttered.

"The asshole," Masako hissed, furious at Nakayama's tone of voice. She detested this overbearing foreman.

"I was told to smooth the rice," a woman who appeared to be new said timidly. "What do I do?"

"You stand here and level it off after I put it in," Yoshie said in a tone that was pleasant by her standards. "Then push it along for the curry. She'll be doing exactly the same thing, so just watch her," she added, pointing at Yayoi on the other side of the line.

"I see," said the newcomer, who apparently still didn't understand and continued to stare about her in bewilderment. But Yoshie, who didn't beat about the bush, flipped the switch on the conveyor belt. As it groaned to life, Masako noted that she had set the speed a bit faster than normal. Perhaps because everyone seemed a bit slow today, she was determined to speed things up.

Masako began passing the containers to Yoshie with a practiced hand. A perfect square of rice emerged from the mouth of the rice dispenser and flopped into the container that Yoshie held beneath it. She then quickly weighed each portion on the scale next to her and sent it on down the line with a flourish.

Beyond Yoshie was a long line of workers: one to even out the rice, one to add the curry sauce, one to slice the deep-fried chicken, another to lay it on top of the curry. Then someone to measure out the pickles into their cup, someone to add the plastic lid, someone to tape on a spoon, and finally someone to place the seal on the box. Each meal made its way down the line, assembled in so many small increments, until at last a curry lunch was complete.

This was the way the shift always began. Masako glanced around at the clock on the wall. Barely five after twelve. Still five and a half hours of standing on the cold concrete floor. They had to take turns going to the bathroom, one at a time, with a replacement filling in on the line. You had to announce that you wanted to go and then wait your turn, which sometimes took as long as two hours in coming. They'd discovered long ago that to make the job as bearable as possible meant not only looking out for themselves but also working together as a team. This was the secret to lasting at a place like this without ruining your health.

About an hour into the shift, they began to hear sounds of distress from the new woman. Almost immediately, efficiency began dropping on the line and they had to cut the pace. Masako noticed that Yayoi, trying to help out, had begun reaching across to take some of the newcomer's boxes, though today she'd seemed hardly able to handle her own. The veterans on the line all knew that smoothing the rice was a particularly tough job since it had cooled into a hard lump by the time it left the machine. It took a good deal of strength in the wrists and fingers to flatten the little squares of cold, compact rice in the few seconds the box was in front of you, and the half-stooping position made it hard on the back. After about an hour of this, pain would be shooting from your spine through your shoulders, and it became difficult to lift your arms. Which was precisely why the work was often left to unsuspecting beginners -- though at the moment, Yayoi, who was anything but a beginner, was hard at work at the station, with a sullen but resigned look on her face.

At last they were finished with the twelve hundred curry lunches. The women on the line cleaned the conveyor and quickly moved to another station for their next assignment: two thousand special "Lunch of Champions" boxes. The "Lunch of Champions" had more components than the curry lunches, so the line was longer, filled out by a number of Brazilians.

Yoshie and Masako, as usual, took the rice spots. Kuniko, who was always quick to size up the situation, was saving the easiest job of saucing the fried pork for Yayoi. You took two pieces of pork, one in each hand, dipped them in the sauce, and then placed them in the box, sauced sides together. It was a good station, a bit shielded from the frenzy of the line, something even Yayoi could manage. Masako relaxed a bit and focused on her work.

But just as they had finished with this assignment and were starting to clean up the line, there was an enormous crash as something heavy was knocked over, and everyone turned to look. Yayoi had stumbled against the cauldron full of sauce and fallen flat on her back. The heavy metal lid clattered away, rolling off toward the next conveyor belt, while a sea of viscous brown sauce spread out around them. The floor of the factory was always slick with spattered grease and food, but the workers were all used to the slippery conditions and this sort of accident almost never happened.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Nakayama yelled, descending on them, his face pale with anger. "How could you have spilled all this?!"

"I'm sorry," said Yayoi as some men with mops came running up, "I slipped." She made no move to get up, seeming almost stunned as she sat in the pool of sauce.

"Come on," said Masako, bending over her. "You're getting soaked." As she helped her to her feet, she caught a glimpse of a large, dark bruise on Yayoi's stomach where the shirt of her uniform was pushed up. Was this the reason she seemed so distracted? The contusion was unmistakable on her white stomach, like a mark of Cain. Masako clicked her tongue disapprovingly, but hurried to straighten Yayoi's uniform to hide the bruise from view. There were no spare uniforms to be had, so after a few moments to collect herself, Yayoi was forced to continue work with her back and sleeves covered in sauce. The thick liquid quickly congealed to a brown crust that didn't soak through the cloth, though the smell was overwhelming.

Five-thirty A.M. No overtime today, so the workers made their way back to the second floor. After they had changed into their street clothes, the four women usually bought drinks from the vending machines in the lounge and sat chatting for twenty minutes or so before they headed home.

"You weren't yourself today," said Yoshie, turning to Yayoi. "You okay?" Age and fatigue showed on Yoshie's face, made plain by the hard night's work. Yayoi took a sip of coffee from her paper cup and thought a moment before answering.

"I had a fight with my husband yesterday," she said.

"Nothing special about that, is there?" laughed Yoshie, glancing over at Kuniko with a conspiratorial look. Kuniko's eyes narrowed as she slipped a thin menthol cigarette into her mouth.

"You and Kenji get along, don't you?" she asked in a noncommittal tone. "He takes the kids out all the time, I thought you said."

"Not recently," Yayoi muttered. Masako said nothing but studied Yayoi's face. Once you sat down and held still for a few minutes, the fatigue seemed to work its way through your whole body.

"Life's long, and there are going to be times like this, highs and lows." Yoshie, who was herself a widow, seemed anxious to dismiss the whole discussion with a platitude, but Yayoi's tone turned harsh.

"But he's used up all our savings," she spat out. The others fell silent, startled by this sudden admission.

Masako had lit a cigarette, and as she took a drag she broke the silence. "What did he use it on?"

"Gambling," said Yayoi. "I think he plays baccarat or something."

"But I thought your husband was a pretty reliable guy. Why would he get mixed up in gambling?" Yoshie seemed amazed.

"Don't ask me," Yayoi sighed, shaking her head. "I think there's some place he goes to play, but I don't know much about it."

"How much did you have?" Kuniko asked, unable to conceal her curiosity.

"About five million," Yayoi said, her voice fading to a whisper. Kuniko gulped and for a moment looked almost jealous.

"That's terrible," she muttered.

"And last night he hit me." Showing the anger Masako had seen earlier, Yayoi lifted her T-shirt and displayed the bruise. Yoshie and Kuniko exchanged glances.

"But I bet he's feeling sorry now," said Yoshie in a conciliatory tone. "My husband and I used to fight all the time, and he was a brute. But yours isn't like that, is he?"

"I don't know anymore," Yayoi said, rubbing her stomach.

It was already light outside. The day seemed to be shaping up like the one before it, hot and humid. Yoshie and Yayoi, who commuted on bicycle, said good-bye in front of the factory as Masako and Kuniko headed for the parking lot.

"Not much of a rainy season this year," Masako said as they walked.

"We'll probably have a water shortage," said Kuniko, looking up at the leaden sky. Her face was covered with grease from the night's work.

"If things keep up like this," said Masako.

"What do you think Yayoi's going to do?" Kuniko asked, breaking into a yawn. Masako shrugged. "If it were me, I'd divorce him. Nobody would ask any questions, not after he used up all the savings."

"I suppose so," Masako murmured, but it occurred to her that Yayoi's children were still small, so it wasn't as simple as Kuniko made it sound. They were all heading home, but it seemed that Masako wasn't the only one who wasn't sure where home was. They walked on to the parking lot in silence.

"Good night," Kuniko said as she opened the door of her car.

"Night," Masako answered, never quite sure it sounded right in the morning. Fatigue overtook her as she flopped down into the car, shielding her eyes from the morning glare.

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