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Last Updated on January 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2791

Keiko Furukura is attuned to the rhythm of the Smile Mart. She knows that the woman who takes a cold drink from the refrigerator has just selected her final item, the man who jingles coins in his pocket will buy cigarettes, and the customer at the register who glances, almost imperceptibly, at the hot-food cabinet should not be disturbed as he or she decides whether to order something. She knows the sounds of the convenience store so well that her “body responds automatically.” The rules of her world are ingrained; she does not have to think, only respond.

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Keiko remembers little of her life before she was “reborn as a convenience store worker.” She knows that despite being raised in the suburbs by an ordinary, loving family, she was thought to be a strange child. She recalls the time in nursery school when she and her classmates found a dead parakeet in the park. Most of the children cried over the little blue bird, which “must have been someone’s pet,” but Keiko wasn’t sad:

One girl started to ask: “What should we—” But before she could finish I snatched it up and ran over to the bench where my mother was chatting with the other mothers.
“What’s up, Keiko? Oh! A little bird … where did it come from I wonder?” she said gently, stroking my hair. “The poor thing. Shall we make a grave for it?”
“Let’s eat it!” I said.
“Daddy likes yakitori, doesn’t he? Let’s grill it and have it for dinner!”
She looked at me, startled. Thinking she hadn’t heard properly, I repeated what I’d said, this time clearly enunciating my words. The mother sitting next to her gaped at me, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth forming perfect O’s. She looked so comical I almost burst out laughing.

The first time Keiko saw the Smile Mart was accidental. She was a university student who had gotten lost in an office district on a quiet Sunday, and the convenience store was still a vacant space located on “the ground floor of a pure white building converted into what looked like an aquarium.” A small notice on the window said “HIIROMACHI STATION SMILE MART—OPENING SOON! STAFF WANTED.” She received an allowance but liked the idea of a part-time job. She called the next day, interviewed, and was hired.

An employee from the head office led the fifteen new hires through their training. They learned to smile and greet customers and to raise their voices and say their lines with spirit.

I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.

As an eighteen-year-old on the store’s opening day, Keiko felt she had finally become normal, a part of society. She liked the way the employees, “very different-looking people of all ages,” who had appeared so out of place on the first day of training, had been transformed by their uniforms and set phrases into the “homogeneous being known as a convenience store worker.” Now a thirty-six-year-old, she still likes it. All of the other original hires have left, but Keiko is still here.

Keiko tells her friends Miho, Yukari, and Satsuki that she has a chronic condition, one that makes her too weak for a proper career. It had been her sister’s idea, an excuse for why Keiko continues to work in a dead-end job. Now that they are in their thirties, however, Keiko’s friends are becoming suspicious. They ask her why she isn’t married, if she has ever been in love, if she’s ever even dated anyone. Her sister gave her advice for this situation, too: “You can just give a vague answer to a personal question, and they’ll come to their own conclusions.” But Keiko forgets to be vague, and her friends appear uncomfortable.

I wished I was...

(The entire section contains 2791 words.)

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