Somebody flushed the toilet. Thackeray rolled over on the upper bunk. The slats under the mattress creaked. He opened his eyes and listened to the winter rain blowing across the tar and gravel roof of the church apartment.
He snuggled deeper under his futon and electric blanket, safe beneath the covers. How long had he been here? Six, seven weeks. Years, it seemed. Christmas had come and gone, another working day. Nobody was homesick. Or nobody was willing to admit it.
He watched his breath condense into fog and contemplated the sting of cold linoleum on his bare feet. The ward members had purchased two high-BTU kerosene space heaters for the apartment. But kerosene was expensive and the missionaries could afford to use the heaters only a few brief hours a day.
The church apartment was too big to be practical. And housing six missionaries, too crowded to be comfortable. With a little care and upkeep, it would have made a fine studio apartment, but the missionaries treated it more like a halfway house for transients. Which, in a very real sense, it was. A real life illustration of the tragedy of the commons.
The single room and adjoining kitchen nook—like the light that filtered in through the frosted glass windows in the early winter mornings—was uniformly gray. Dust gathered undisturbed in corners, in the closets, under the bunk beds, behind the “tea boxes” (the wooden trunks missionaries used to ship their personal belongings from district to district). The bathroom alone was bigger than the typical “rabbit hutch” apartment: three stalls, three sinks, two showers and a washing machine.
Nothing had been cleaned in some time.
McGowan plodded out of the bathroom tying the strings of the hospital greens he used for pajama bottoms. He yawned and scratched his tangled, rusty hair. McGowan carried a tall, gawky presence about him, a striking contrast with the pair of sharp, blue eyes set deeply into an otherwise languid face.
“Hey Dode,” whispered Chadwick from his bunk. “Goak!” Chadwick was McGowan’s senior companion.
McGowan was immediately wide awake. “Where?”
“Under Longstreet’s bunk.”
McGowan fetched a broom from behind the refrigerator. He crept up to the foot of Longstreet’s bed, crouched and squinted into the musty darkness. He cocked the broom over his shoulder like Jack Nicklaus teeing off at the Masters.
Longstreet lifted his head off his pillow, saw the fierce expression on McGowan’s face and said, “Morning, Mac.” He rolled over and peered under the edge of his mattress. “Got a big mother there.”
“Yeah. Dead meat.” McGowan took a step back and swung the broom. The bristles swished across the linoleum in a wide arc. Lint exploded in a dusty cloud. The cockroach shot out between Mac’s feet. It had a good jump and plenty of traction, but moving across open ground it was caught in the crossfire.
Chadwick shouted, “Five o’clock!”
“Aha!” McGowan pivoted neatly and flicked his wrists in a vicious slap shot. The cockroach hummed through the air like a greasy Oreo cookie, ricocheted off the front of the stove and splattered against the cinder block wall facing the sink.
“Good shot!” Thackeray called out. Chadwick applauded.
Bennett sat up and threw off his covers. “Scrud! Who needs an alarm clock? McGowan’s killing goaks again.”
Elder Peterson stuck his head between the bed uprights and glared at McGowan: “Clean it up.”
McGowan answered with a Benny Hill salute. “Yes, Sir!”
Peterson banged on the bed frame with his feet. “What’s so funny, Elder? It’s time for you to get up.” Only Peterson and the mission president ever called an elder Elder instead of the Japanese Choro.
“I’m up,” Thackeray replied.
“Hey Pete,” said Chadwick, “will you vibrate my bed too?”
Peterson climbed out of bed and stalked into the bathroom, towel and clothes in hand.
“Ever righteous, ever vigilant.” Chadwick jumped off his bunk and sauntered into the kitchen. He was wearing ragged cotton garments and tattered blue pajama bottoms. He scuffed along wearing a pair of bright pink bunny slippers.
“It’s mugi time!” he announced. Time to boil the oatmeal for breakfast.
Thackeray had already figured out that the best elders were crazy. Or at least mildly eccentric. Unlike his companion. Peterson walked out of the bathroom buttoning his shirt.
Chadwick leaned towards Peterson. “And how is our de facto leader doing this fine morning?” Chadwick took pleasure in being district leader only because Peterson wasn’t.
Peterson ignored the quip as if he understood it. He walked back to his bunk and sat on the edge of the mattress. “Up and at ’em, Elder!” he barked again. He rapped on the mattress slats.
“Ah, c’mon,” complained Thackeray, stealing a glance at his clock. “It’s only six-fifteen.”
“Hey, Thackeray,” said Longstreet. “Let’s go for a jog around the block.”
“Forget it.” Thackeray rolled over and sat up. “It’s freezing out there.” He curled his toes and shivered.
“C’mon.” Longstreet skipped across the room and grabbed Thackeray’s left foot.
Thackeray jerked his foot free and Longstreet jumped back, laughing, but Peterson shot up and took Thackeray’s right ankle in a vise-grip.
“Hey!” He jerked back again, but Peterson held on tight. There was an angry look in his eyes and a crooked smile on his face, like a sick Cheshire cat. “Let go—” Thackeray shoved hard and caught Peterson above the left ear. The smile vanished from Peterson’s face. He pulled down with his full weight. Peterson stood only five-seven, two inches shorter than Thackeray. But he was thirty pounds heavier and none of it was fat. Thackeray grasped at his blankets, felt his back scraping past the edge of the bed frame—a moment in free fall—and then the floor came up and smacked him hard and cold on the left cheek and shoulder.
Chadwick strode in from the kitchen. “Hey, no fighting,” he scolded. He shook his ladle at Peterson, flicking a glob of warm, soggy oatmeal onto his face. “Including you, kisama.”
Thackeray lay face down on the dirty linoleum. The pain in his shoulder was hardly as fierce as his indignation. “Hey, you.” Chadwick squatted and tapped Thackeray on the head with the handle of the ladle. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Sure.” Thackeray sat up with his legs bent in front of him and shook his head clear. McGowan pulled him to his feet.
Thackeray glanced at Bennett. The zone leader had observed the whole incident with casual disinterest. “I only got four months to go,” he’d announced the moment Thackeray set foot in the apartment. “I don’t get involved with nothin’ but zone.”
Bennett wiped off his shoes with a dirty cloth and tossed the rag in the direction of his footlocker. See no evil, hear no evil, do whatever.
Tokyo South missionaries were supposed to begin their day with gospel study, then eat breakfast, then review their lesson plans. But Chadwick refused to read the Old Testament on an empty stomach and prepared breakfast first thing in the morning. When the district was gathered around the kitchen table, he sometimes made a stab at a religious discussion.
Chadwick peeled two mikan and mashed the mandarin orange slices into his mugi oatmeal. “So,” he said, picking up a spoonful of the gunk and studying it intensely. “Does God watch the Super Bowl?”
“You mean, does He watch television on Sunday?” said McGowan, between bites of toast.
“He could videotape it,” suggested Longstreet.
“But maybe in heaven Saturday’s Sunday and Sunday’s Monday,” said Thackeray. “Like Sunday is Monday here, you know.”
“By the way, you guys see the Super Bowl?” said Longstreet. “I mean, do they even show it here?”
“Sure did,” Bennett said. “I was in Fujisawa ward. Crazy Nips cut the whole thing down to an hour and a half, though.”
Chadwick said, “You’ve been awfully quiet, Pete. Want more mugi?”
That was the extent of the day’s gospel study. It satisfied the spirit of the rule, the rule being that missionaries were supposed to spend time together at the beginning of every day “strengthening the moral of the district,” according to the Senior Companion’s Handbook. There was certainly not much company to be enjoyed during language study. Language study was also supposed to be a district activity, but it was pursued individually with a vengeance.
Good juniors memorized the discussions and didn’t bother their seniors. Good seniors helped their juniors when they asked, and good juniors didn’t ask. Longstreet was a good junior. His ignorance notwithstanding, Thackeray never asked Peterson any questions. He coveted the time to be left alone.
Language study ended at ten o’clock. Peterson dragged Thackeray out of the apartment at exactly ten o’clock every morning.
“Look at it from our point of view,” Chadwick told him. “At least Pete’s the first one to leave. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Motivated, testimony-possessing missionaries were always on schedule and always on time. Peterson ran his life on the basis of what was expected of motivated, testimony-possessing missionaries.
“You know what Pete wants to be when he grows up?” McGowan asked Thackeray one morning. They were doing the dishes.
“Assistant to the President. That’s one of his goals.”
“Along with his one thousand baptisms, I suppose. How did you find this out?”
“Chaddy always gives his letter to the president a once-over before he sends in the district reports, just to make sure he doesn’t get blindsided. People like Pete are dangerous people for people like Chaddy to be around.”
Peterson, Thackeray had observed, drew his inspiration from Bennett, who was so good at looking good that Peterson never figured out that all the while he was keeping up with Bennett he wasn’t keeping up with anybody.
Longstreet once confessed: “Ben and I mirf around most of the time. He doesn’t even try to compete with Pete, despite all those stupid challenges they have. We make up enough hours to make it look good.”
“But you always have more baptisms—”
Longstreet answered with a shrug.
The number of proselyting hours a missionary put in every day, Thackeray concluded, were in no way related to success in terms of baptisms.
Peterson and Thackeray walked down the gentle suburban streets and past the small park and lake to the train station. A few old men were already at the fishing ponds. Snag a carp, pry it loose, throw it back. Hook it again. Tsuribori, it was called.
Naked branches brushed against the telephone wires that crisscrossed over glistening cobblestones, scattering drops of water down on them. It was an old street, and the missionaries walked up and down it several times a day. At the station, they flashed their rail passes to the ticket taker and boarded the subway.
The bulk of commuter traffic had been delivered two hours before. A few passengers stood, but only to stretch their legs. Two small old women, backs bent in dowager’s humps under their drab kimono, occupied the reserved sections by the exit doors. Housewives and children sat on the worn, red plush bench seats that ran the length of the cars on each side.
There were seven stops within the district boundaries, five of them bigger than Senzoku station. Thackeray considered this a fortunate situation. Not proselyting at the district station kept Peterson from alienating the neighborhood.
Proselyting at the train station plazas included distributing pamphlets and leaflets (English-class invitations, religious tracts) and eki dendo—in English parlance, “streeting”—at Tokyo’s countless train and subway station. Eki dendo had lately become the most productive form of dendo ever. The last zone conference had spelled out the New & Improved “affirming” streeting approaches, as presented by the affable and affirming Elder Kyle.
“And the rest of the story,” Chadwick recounted on the train ride home, doing his Paul Harvey imitation, “is that Kyle went mano a mano with this catch seller in Shibuya a few months back and saw the light. Remember the moment, boys. Twenty years from now when Kyle Choro is CEO of a Fortune 500 multilevel marketing corporation, you can tell your kids you were there when it all started.”
Thackeray and Longstreet didn’t know what he was talking about. Chadwick explained: “It’s called catch sales. Another one of those lovely English loan words. You start with a bunch of marketing agents posing as pollsters or whatever. Our age. They hang around train stations and target—you got it—high school, college students. Kids who’ve got time on their hands, money in their pockets, and who think they’re a lot smarter and hipper than they really are, but have never experienced a truly in-your-face sales job. See, they don’t know your limits, how far you’re willing to go. It’s easy to make them forget their own. Well, you get them into a friendly environment—in our case, naturally, the church—and you make the sale. That’s what it means—you catch them, hook them, and don’t let them off the line until you’ve instilled in them that intangible illusion of mutual obligation.”
Longstreet objected, “I heard Kyle got it from the Moonies.”
“Naw. The Moonies got it from us. About the same time they started dressing in suits and ties.”
Thackeray and Peterson arrived at Gotanda station. Peterson set out to catch his limit. Thackeray tried his best to pretend he didn’t know him.
By noon, Peterson had eleven contacts, four intro lessons, and one lesson appointment—one lesson appointment, three intro lessons and five contacts more than his companion. Being ineffective bothered Thackeray. Bennett continually reminded him that his stats weren’t “up to par,” but then Bennett’s remonstrations were far more tolerable than Peterson’s attempts to motivate him.
“Pick it up!” he was always saying. “Pick it up, Elder. Let’s do the work. Let’s get dedicated. Let’s meet those goals!”
Peterson never ran out of faith-promoting phrases and Thackeray hated eki dendo all the more because of them. He couldn’t rid himself of the belief that approaching a perfect stranger and telling him something he probably didn’t want to hear was contrary to good Christian behavior. Even so, he thought he might try harder when he learned the language. He hardly knew what to say in English, let alone in Japanese. He knew that in a few more months he would do better, but Peterson expected him to do better now.
Like Longstreet. Longstreet did better without even trying.
They taught a Joseph Smith discussion after lunch and returned to Gotanda. An hour or so later, Thackeray watched as two men approached his companion. They were wearing dark sports coats and expressions far too serious for the bustling commercial atmosphere of the station plaza. Thackeray hurried over to see what was going on.
“They want to see our green books,” said Peterson.
Thackeray got out his green book. The older of the two men examined it, then Peterson’s. They nodded and handed them back and walked away.
“What was that about?”
Peterson shrugged. “Nothing.”
That evening, Thackeray got an explanation from Chadwick.
“What happens if you don’t have your green book when they ask for it?”
“You go directly to jail and do not pass go.”
“Really. If you don’t have a passport or a green book, you’re an illegal alien. They won’t let you go until you can prove otherwise.”
“Missionaries always dendo the plaza. Why the hassle?”
“Maybe a shop owner thought you were driving away business. Eki dendo is intimidation by any other name. Think about it—a couple of Americans in your face all day long. Some of those guys would probably like to intimidate back a little.”
After the plainclothes cops disappeared into the train station, Peterson moved back into the plaza. But Thackeray noticed that he stayed away from the sidewalks and was remarkably polite the rest of the afternoon.
They worked until five-thirty and returned to Senzoku in the crush of suburban-bound commuters. Several of the ticket takers working the turnstiles were high school students—still dressed in their school uniforms—working part-time during the rush hours.
The roaring 1980s—the decade that would briefly see Japan elevated to the stature of “Number One”—wouldn’t begin for another year, and the frenzied automation of the nation hadn’t reached the slow-paced suburbs.
Thackeray didn’t know if Peterson had taken out his rail pass or not, but the ticket taker didn’t see it and barked at Peterson.
The kid was acting a bit cocky, so Peterson paid him back. “What?” he said in English, feigning surprise. This was for him a humorous moment. The commuters jammed up against the turnstiles all expected the kid to be able to communicate with the foreigner. He desperately grasped for a few mispronounced words of English. Then Peterson said, “Why, of course,” and produced the rail pass.
The student breathed deeply, bowed, and let him go.
“Crazy Nips,” said Peterson as they walked up to the street level. “What do they study English for?”
They walked home silently through the early evening gloom. Thackeray stayed two steps behind his companion, like a feudal wife. The two of them rarely had anything to say to each other.
Thackeray had been just one more green missionary, fresh from the MTC with three days of orientation under his belt, when he was parceled out to Peterson. Inspiration it wasn’t. In a world of arranged marriages, some worked, some merely survived. Theirs was broken. Chadwick and McGowan’s was a match made in heaven.
Peterson marched up the wrought iron staircase to the apartment, threw open the door and stomped his feet hard on the linoleum. He sniffed the air. “Where’s dinner?”
“Coming up, dear.” Chadwick walked into the kitchen.
Peterson looked at Chadwick and then glanced around the apartment. He snapped, “Where’s your companion?”
Chadwick ignored the question and busied himself at the sink.
Bennett leaned back from his desk—he was filling out zone reports—and looked around. “Yeah, Chad. Where is he?”
“Up on the roof,” Chadwick said. “He’s thinking something out. Got a bad letter, I guess.”
“Dear John?” asked Thackeray.
Chadwick shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well, an elder shouldn’t be anywhere alone,” said Peterson. He started for the door.
Thackeray caught a sharp look from Chadwick. “I’ll go get him,” he said quickly.
“Thanks,” said Chadwick.
A steel rung ladder was bolted to the side of the church. It came down to about four feet off the second floor landing. Thackeray grabbed the second rung and hoisted himself up. The roof was flat, and a large puddle of water had gathered in a slight depression in the far corner. McGowan was leaning against the railing that ran along the edge of the roof. The heavy clouds at the horizon had lifted high enough to let the rays of the setting sun burn a bright red streak across the sky.
Thackeray said, “Nice sunset.”
McGowan looked over his shoulder at Thackeray. “You can even see Fuji-san,” he said. He lifted his long arm and pointed at the distant snow-capped volcano.
Neither missionary spoke for several minutes.
“Uh, they were wondering about you downstairs.”
“You mean Peterson?”
“And how is your Captain Righteous? Howzit feel getting beat up first thing in the morning?”
“Oh, it’s that kind of relationship. He really loves me.”
“Tell me about it.”
Thackeray didn’t reply for a while. Then he said, “Anything you want to talk about?”
A slight smile creased McGowan’s lips. “What? Everybody think I got Dear Johned?”
“Nothing like that. It was from a friend of mine, Randy Robertson—”
He paused. “The four of us were together all through high school—Randy, me, J.J. Huish and Sticker Lafferty. Last summer we all got together one last time and made this pact that we’d do the mission stuff and make it through okay. I mean, what the hell. A year or two and we’d be good with the Lord and it’d all be behind us. Anybody can do that.” He paused again. There were tears in his eyes. “But Sticker—he screwed everything up.” He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. “Listen to this,” he said. He pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his trouser pocket, smoothed it out against the railing and read:
“Me and J.J. went to the BYU-USU game last Friday, dates and everything. Ten days to go, you might as well live it up, right? Well, we’re getting out of the car and here comes Sticker in his Corvette. I couldn’t believe it. He was supposed to be in Costa Rica last Tuesday. I don’t know what he did or didn’t do. I didn’t even know what to say to him.”
McGowan folded the paper up and put it in his shirt pocket. He said, “He couldn’t go a few lousy months without that damn car and his damn Friday nights. I figured he was brighter than that—” His voice trailed off.
Thackeray stood there with McGowan and watched the sunset. He said, “It’s about time to eat.” Then he climbed down to the landing. McGowan will make it, he thought to himself. McGowan was tough. “Just doing my time,” he liked to say. “Just doing what I have to do.”
Thackeray looked up at the darkening sky. It was the truth, really, for all of them. But it wasn’t a truth he grasped viscerally. His truth was all justification and rationalization. He envied that ability to be unconsciously dedicated to the work, to put his brain on hold and do what he had to do. Having to have reasons for everything could be a real bitch at times.
He opened the door and stepped into the apartment. The air was thick with the hot smell of curry.