Tokyo South

Kunitachi District

Low Tide

Obaasan died the weekend before transfers. Obaasan was the old grandma of the family that ran the Yamazaki fruit and vegetable market.

Friday evening, Thackeray and Lundquist had stopped at the market to get onions and peppers for Sunday dinner. She was sitting on her stool in front of the white enamel freezer selling ice cream. As soon as she saw the missionaries, she began rattling on about an American soldier she’d met after the war. He’d given her a bag of rice when her family was starving. A touching story. The same old story.

Thackeray bought a popsicle. “O-genki desu ka?” he asked her. Bent over the way she was, she peered up at him. Her face split across the wrinkles into a toothless smile and she nodded vigorously. She waved as they left.

Ja, mata,” she said. Come again.

The next day the market was closed. The day after, funeral wreaths sat on easels along the sidewalk.

“The old bag must have finally kicked off,” said Longstreet.

Finally kicked off.

When Thackeray and Lundquist passed by the store early Wednesday morning, Mr. Yamazaki was taking down the funeral wreaths. Thackeray put down his companion’s suitcase and help him fold up the two remaining stands.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Yamazaki. He saw Lundquist’s suitcases and said, “Are you moving?”

“My companion was transferred to Fuchu,” said Thackeray.

“That’s too bad.” He waved to Lundquist. “Goodbye.”

Lundquist had been sent to Fuchu district, one stop down from the mission home. He was replaced by Elder Tuckett. Elder Nowland’s new senior was Elder Kempner. Kempner had been a small group/district representative in Machida, and he did good things with small group/districts.

At least that’s what people said: “He can’t proselyte worth beans but he sure can rep a small group/district.”


Kempner arrived on the noon express. He was a big man—in circumference, not height. He looked like a Volkswagen bug standing on end.

He pushed through the turnstile, sideways. Thackeray stepped forward. “I’m Thackeray. The district leader.”

They shook hands. “I hear you have a hot small district here,” said Kempner.

“That’s what I’ve heard,” said Thackeray. “My half of the district is Kunitachi ward. You’re following in Longstreet’s footsteps.”

“Longstreet, eh?” Kempner harrumphed.

“Our missionary correlation meeting is at twelve o’clock,” said Nowland. “Church starts at one o’clock with Priesthood and Relief Society.”

“What about you guys?”

“Church in Kunitachi starts at nine. Since we’re done first, we usually cook dinner.”

Kempner grunted his approval.


Sunday afternoon, Thackeray and Tuckett taught two mediocre C discussions and ran through an after-baptism questionnaire with Nobuko Watabe.

“How did you first learn about the church?” was the last question.

“I was going to school,” she answered, “and I saw these American women walking around the station plaza talking to people. One of them asked me if I knew anything about the Mormon church. I said I didn’t, but I was late for school. So she gave me a pamphlet.”

Back at the apartment, Thackeray filled out the rest of the after-baptism sheet from the notes he’d taken during the interview.

Tuckett opened the refrigerator door. “What are we going to have for dinner?”

“Whatever’s there.”

“The curry still looks good.” He pulled out the Tupperware dish and sniffed at the contents.

“There should be some old rice in there too.” Thackeray paused at the last question. The answer was: Streeting. He didn’t want to write that down. It looked awkward on the paper. He hadn’t had a single baptism off of streeting. Not his own streeting. All of his baptisms with Peterson and Cantwell had come from referrals or English classes.

Tuckett looked out the kitchen window. “Here comes the rest of the district,” he said.

The front door slammed open and Kempner stomped into his room. Thackeray slid open the shoji screen between the kitchen and the room.

“Dinner’s on the stove.”

Kempner said, “That’s nice,” and chucked his flipcharts and notebook across the room. The notebook flapped open and the new convert activity forms spilled out over the tatami.

Thackeray looked stupidly at the notebook. “Be ready in about ten minutes,” he said and closed the shoji.

“Thackeray!”

Thackeray opened the shoji again and peeked into the room. Kempner sat down and leaned back against the desk. The chair castors dented into the matting. “Get in here.”

Thackeray stepped into the room.

“Know what a boku baptism is, Thackeray?”

“Baptizing kids for the numbers. So?”

“Nobody showed up,” said Elder Nowland.

“Showed up?”

“At church.”

Kempner held up four fingers.

“Actually four people showed up. I mean, four new converts showed up.”

“How many on the rolls?”

“The rolls!?” shouted Kempner, rocking forward in his chair, thrusting his red face towards Thackeray. “Twenty-nine. And guess how many were Longstreet’s? Nineteen. Nineteen! You know what that means? That means it’s gonna be at least three months until the rest of his seventeen dunkings go off new convert and onto membership inactivity.”

Nowland peered at his credit card calculator and said, “Gee. That’s only 13.8 percent.”

“Yeah, just what I’ve always wanted. The record for all-time low.” Kempner sank to the floor on his knees.

“It’s only missionary transfer shock syndrome,” suggested Thackeray. He tried to sound optimistic. “Activity should pick up next week.”

“Pick up from what?”

“Uh—pick up—”

Kempner grabbed his notebook and ripped out a handful of mission statistics reports. “Kunitachi branch: 31 percent.” He threw the paper away and read the next. “Kunitachi branch: 39 percent.” Another: “Kunitachi branch: 64 percent. What’s going on, guys?”

“It—it wasn’t that bad before,” stammered Nowland. “Longstreet Choro would call everybody Saturday night and tell them to come over to the apartment.”

“He’d tell them to come over to the apartment—” Kempner glared at Thackeray.

“Hey!” Thackeray held up his hands. “I’m a ward missionary. I’ve never had anything to do with small groups. I don’t even get why they even exist.”

“They exist, Mr. Thackeray, because the local bishops were getting the idea that this business of baptizing at the speed of light wasn’t so wonderful and spiritual and, gee, I wonder why?” He stared straight at him. Thackeray shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t know if Kempner was making an explanation or an accusation. “So, what’s your excuse—you must have done most of the baptism interviews.”

“Yeah, I did the interviews, but that’s all I did.”

“Did you ever consider failing any of them?”

“For flip’s sake, he was the zone leader.”

“What difference does that make?”

Thackeray bit his lip, trying to remember if he had ever even considered failing one of Longstreet’s investigators. “They all had the right answers,” he said. “I had to pass them. You know how it is.” He didn’t tell Kempner that when he had first come to Kunitachi, he barely knew enough Japanese to ask the right questions, let alone understand the right answers.

“Yeah. Sure. I know.” Kempner picked up his notebook and fastened the bindings. “Yeah, I know.” His voice softened. “Damn, this is going to be impossible. He didn’t leave me anything to work with!” For a moment Thackeray thought he was going to cry.

“Nothing is impossible,” said Tuckett.

“Don’t give me that positive mental attitude crap!”

Tuckett laughed. Kempner began to smile. “Ah, what the hell,” he said. “I won’t be here forever.”

“After you call in those stats tonight, you won’t be here at all,” said Tuckett.

“No such luck.”

“But why should anyone blame Kempner,” protested Nowland. “He didn’t do anything.”

“Let me tell you something, Nowland,” said Kempner. He picked up the phone and dialed. “Longstreet’s a Z.L. He’s a golden boy. So if I wanted to make him look bad I’d have to mess up too many lives. Did it once and that was one time too many.”

“But you’d have to be stupid not to figure out what’s going on. I mean, you got here three days ago.”

“Never underestimate the ignorance of an APe, Nowland.” Kempner paused, listening for the phone to ring at the other end. “Everybody wants the rewards. Nobody wants to hear about the costs.” He held the phone between his shoulder and ear and gathered up the strewn papers in a pile. He looked up and smiled. “You see, I really don’t care.”

Thackeray didn’t believe him.


Two more new converts showed up on Kempner’s small district stats the next week, and activity climbed above 20 percent. The week after it was down to 17 percent. By the end of the month, Kempner had one baptism and that bumped activity back to 20 percent.

“When I leave here, it’s back to zero.” That wasn’t his pride talking but his firm grasp of reality. “And it’s still my fault.” He slapped himself on his ample stomach. “Hey, at least nobody’s gonna order me to cut open this fine belly of mine.”

The summer months soaked on. It’s getting hard to proselyte, Thackeray wrote in a district report he would never send. We just don’t have enough investigators to use up the time teaching or fellowshipping.

So every week, Kempner assigned them one of Longstreet’s baptisms to search out and invite to church. They trekked all over West Tokyo, by train, bus, an occasional taxi when it rained, searching for lost sheep. Thackeray was sorry Chadwick wasn’t there. Chadwick would have loved it.

“The worst thing about streeting,” Thackeray remarked to his companion, “is that you never know whether they’re coming or going. Pick them up, teach them at church, sayonara. Gone forever.”

“One lost cause after another,” said Tuckett.

“Funny thing is,” said Thackeray. “I’m glad none of them feel guilty about it. We got no right to expect anybody else to take getting baptized any more seriously than we do.”

But at least it wasted the time away, watching life pass by outside the train windows. They spent the time talking. There was a lot of time to talk.

Tuckett was from Berkeley. He missed seeing the Golden Gate cutting through the fog in the morning.

“My mom’s from Salt Lake. Born and raised there. She doesn’t know you’re supposed to be liberally-minded in San Francisco. Before I left for the MTC, she made me promise I wouldn’t bring a Japanese girl home with me. You know, I think I’ll find some oriental girl on the way home and talk her into holding my hand when we get off the plane. Give her a heart attack.”

Thackeray said, “I think the first time I thought about going to Japan was after I saw that James Bond movie—You Only Live Twice. What kind of a reason is that?”

“Sounds like a pretty good one to me.”


Late one night, after finishing off a Kirin Lemon at a train kiosk, Tuckett said, grimacing, “Could you believe what that last guy said?”

“You mean, What’s a baptism? That guy?”

“Yeah.”

“I liked your explanation. A holy furo.

“That’s what it was. Literally. Longstreet baptized him in the bathtub.”

“Come to think about it, it is kind of appropriate.”

“What is?”

“The o-furo. You know, washing your sins clean—”

They both laughed. It was either that or weep.


Thackeray was awakened late in the night by the momentary blast of a radio turned on at high volume. He threw off his sheet and opened the patio doors. Each room on the second floor had a pair of large sliding glass windows that faced a lanai. A clothesline was strung across the diagonal. He leaned on the window sill and peered through the screen into the other room. Tuckett stirred restlessly on top of his futons.

“Can’t sleep?”

“It’s too hot.”

“Uh huh.”

Tuckett said, “Nowland says Longstreet got himself transferred back to Shizuoka.”

“Yeah. Must be a heckuva place. I wonder who he was with the first time.”

“Mr. California Sunshine. Joe Shimada. About as Japanese as General Motors. Boy, did he know how to have a good time. When Joe went senior they put him with this Chadwick guy—you know, the mutual self-destruct theory—but they didn’t party themselves to death, they just partied.

“So then they tried the green-machine approach with Longstreet. It worked the first week, and then the two of them got to be such good friends—”

“What busted them up?”

“The ward mission leader ratted him out to the mission president. Longstreet ended up in Senzoku with Bennett. You know, everyone blames the senior for corrupting the junior.”

Thackeray smiled in the darkness.

“And he got himself transferred back there.”

“He sure did.”

“Unbelievable.” Tuckett shook his head. “But a smart move, after the mess he cooked up here.”

“It’s not that bad. Not as bad as Kempner thinks it is.”

“It sure doesn’t look good.”

“All I know,” said Thackeray, “is that I asked the questions and they gave the right answers. Yeah, I know, it’s a crummy excuse. But these days, nobody wants to hear bad news. They’re fine with the excuses.”

Inspiration doesn’t come with the territory, Chadwick had said. Thackeray sank back on his futon. I’m going to die in another year or so, he thought to himself. I’m too young to have a midlife crisis.

The only elder he’d seen die was Bennett and Bennett died easy. And Obaasan. She died for real. Thackeray wished he’d gotten to know her when she was alive. And he could have been better to Lundquist. Being a self-righteous asshole didn’t make anybody a better person. But now it was too late.


The nights were long and muggy, the days hot and humid. Kempner trained them in the secret ninja art of snatching cartons of Mr. Donuts day-olds after closing time. Dumpster diving was hardly proper missionary behavior. But squashed donuts tasted way better than stale bread and overripe mikan. No wonder Kempner was fat.

Streeting was the same as it ever was. But Thackeray caught them and let them go.

Hey, how’ya doing? Know who we are? Right! Missionaries. Ever heard about the Mormon Church? A little? You’re not interested, eh? Well, have a good day.

Still fishing in the tsuribori pond.

Thackeray sat down on the bench in front of the Station Curry Shop. Tuckett walked over and peered down at him.

“What’cha doing?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s a good idea.” Tuckett sat down beside him.

Thackeray stared across the station plaza. A bus pulled into the terminal. Two Americans got off. Tuckett said, “It’s Jensen.”

“Sheez. You’re right. What should we do?”

“Run away.”

“Elders!” Jensen shouted across the plaza.

“This is embarrassing,” said Tuckett.

“What was that?” asked Jensen.

“Nothing.”

“Where’s Kempner Choro? I have to talk to him about his district rep responsibilities.”

“Gee. Can’t imagine why,” said Thackeray. Tuckett looked away and laughed silently.

Jensen stared at them both for a moment. “Something I should know about?”

“No. Sorry.”

“You know, Thackeray Choro, I was going over some of these old baptism recommends, and it seems like you did most of the interviews.”

“So?”

“Maybe you’d like to explain to me what the NCA here is doing at 18 percent.”

“The NCA?”

“New convert activity.”

“Oh. Well, you know, Jensen Choro, got to get those one thousand baptisms. Isn’t that the goal this month?”

“Are you saying they shouldn’t have been passed?”

“I’m saying Longstreet taught them and I interviewed them. That’s all.”

“The district leader is responsible for the welfare of the district, Thackeray Choro. I get the feeling you don’t understand that.”

“The what of the district?” began Tuckett.

“Oh, come off it, Jensen,” said Thackeray. “When’s the last time anybody in this mission failed an interview? You want a baptism, you get it.” He leaned back and rested his arms on the back of the bench. Inside, he felt like he’d had the breath kicked out of him. He couldn’t believe the words he heard coming out of his mouth. He waited for fire from heaven.

“Where’s Kempner Choro?” said Jensen.

“Well, we were by the church about an hour ago and he wasn’t there, so he’s probably at the apartment,” said Tuckett. “I think Thackeray Choro has a map-tract.”

“I know where it is.”

“That’s right. You bought the place, didn’t you?”

Jensen said, “Why don’t you get back to work?” and left.


“Mind if I call in?” Kempner asked Thackeray that night. “I have to give Jensen some junk about district rep.”

“You can do call-ins any time you want to. Two intro lessons for each of us.”

A few minutes later Kempner called Thackeray down to the kitchen. He covered the mouthpiece of the phone with his hand and said, “Jensen wants me to tell you something.”

“Can’t he tell me himself?”

Kempner held up his hand, listened, nodded. A wry smile came to his lips. “He says he watched you proselyte this morning and—”

“I figured that much.”

“And judging by what he saw, he’s taking an hour off your compiled stats for this week—”

Thackeray almost burst out laughing. “I’m cut to the core.”

“And—really?” Kempner covered the mouthpiece again. “He says that while we were talking, Harper Choro went upstairs and he says there were cassettes in your tape recorders that are unacceptable in this mission.”

“Yeah, Sada Masashi. Compared to him, the Mormon Tab is Van Halen.”

Kempner grinned. “Tell me about it.”

“Why not—” Thackeray leaned forward. “The last thing I need in this mission is somebody’s junior companion telling me how to run my life!”

Kempner put the phone up to his ear. “He hung up.”

“He’s a jerk.”

“I dunno,” said Kempner. “Tossing crap around is a good way to end up in the manure pile.”

“It’s also a good way to get transferred,” added Tuckett.

Which he was. To Odawara. Gordon called him the next day and told him he was delighted that he was coming.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.