It was late in the morning. A handful of passengers boarded the train. About as many disembarked.
Thackeray opened the window over his seat. The wind blew against his hair. The sunlight was warm on his face. The sway of the cars and the metronomic click-clack of the steel rails filled his head. He’d finally left Tokyo behind. The train threaded down narrow valleys that closed in the sky and shut out the world. He was surprised at first. He imagined the city would go on forever.
He should have known. In the classroom in the MTC, a map of Japan was tacked to the wall next to the blackboard. The Tokyo South Mission was outlined in red. He could sit back in his chair and trace the thin black lines across the map from city to city with his eyes—
Elder Thackeray! What’s the answer?
“What—what was the question?”
Do you love your companion?
“No. I mean—” Who asked the question? Not Sensei. The branch president at the MTC asked the question. Every Sunday. What a dumb question. At least he didn’t want to kill him. Now, Peterson—Thackeray knew he didn’t love Peterson. But he didn’t hate him anymore. He didn’t want to go through his mission hating anybody.
Elder Lundquist, do you love your companion?
Thackeray smiled at the thought. Hey, Luddy, what about it? The mission president probably asked Luddy the question during the last zone conference. And after what he said about him—it wasn’t that he didn’t like Luddy, Thackeray reminded himself. He didn’t understand Luddy enough to dislike him. He just didn’t want to be his companion anymore. That’s what he told the mission president during their interview: It’s not that I don’t like him. We can’t work together. He can’t teach. He can’t speak.
Back in the MTC, Thackeray had been no savant, either.
“Elder Thackeray, you’ve only memorized one discussion in two months.”
Sensei smiled. “Pretty frustrating, isn’t it? Don’t let it bother you.” Sensei patted him on the shoulder. “Once you break out of the plateau, you’ll do real good. I know it.”
That’s why Peterson didn’t like him. Because he couldn’t speak and he couldn’t teach. Except for the Restoration discussion, and that never impressed anybody. He broke out of the plateau two months too late. Not as bad as Luddy. Luddy might not break at all.
Thackeray opened his eyes. A child was standing in the aisle, staring at him.
“He’s never seen a real gaijin before,” apologized the embarrassed mother. Thackeray smiled disarmingly. He wasn’t tired anymore. He breathed deeply, filled his chest with the hot musty air. He felt like he’d escaped. Escaped from what? The feeling didn’t make sense. He respected Kempner. He liked Tuckett. But the irrational fear that he’d never leave Kunitachi kept him awake late into the long, wet nights. When the transfer came, he almost cried.
The train crossed a long bridge. The glittering currents cut shallow gullies into the wash. A broad concrete levee lined the banks. Old men dangled fishing lines in the water. Children played in the hot sun.
Peterson and Bennett had once spent an evening bitching about “bratty Japanese kids.” Chadwick explained, “Parents indulge their preschool children. It’s like they’re giving their kids a happy childhood before they get chomped up by the educational system. I think it’s kind of the same thing with missions. The church gives us this brief respite before we get chomped up by life.”
“It’s not much of a respite to me,” Thackeray had argued.
“How can it be anything else? What do we do but eat, sleep, read a few scriptures, proselyte a few contacts, mirf around on P-days? No taxes. No girls. I don’t worry about what I’ll do tomorrow or next week. It’s all in the book.” Chadwick smiled. “It’s a wonderful life, Thackeray. I hope you figure that out before it’s too late.”
Maybe, Chadwick. Maybe.
“Look!” A boy stood up on the seat next to his mother and pointed out the window. The peak of Mount Fuji jutted above the mountains. Wrapped in clouds. White like heaven. Then it was gone. Through the windows across the aisle he could see the ocean.
Elder Taylor was standing in the middle of the station plaza, waving, when Thackeray pushed through the turnstiles. At first, he thought Taylor was waving to him. But then he saw the girl. She was looking back at Taylor. By the time he realized she wasn’t looking where she was going, it was too late.
“Hey!” Thackeray dropped his suitcases.
The girl grabbed his shoulders before he lost balance. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, bowing with each “sorry.” Then she straightened. “You must be Taylor Choro’s new companion.”
“Yeah,” said Thackeray.
“See you around,” said the girl.
Taylor Choro walked up. Thackeray said, “Who was that?”
“She a member?”
“Do all new missionaries get welcomed like that?”
“What? Oh, no,” said Taylor. He regained his composure. “Welcome to Odawara district.” They shook hands. Taylor picked up one of Thackeray’s suitcases.
Thackeray asked, “Do we have any lessons today?”
“Not really a lesson. The Yamamuras invited us over.”
“How far along are they?”
“All the discussions.”
“They’re really golden. Givans said they were ready to get baptized if their father would give them permission.”
Taylor turned up the first street off the station plaza.
“Looks like you’ve got a few cabarets even out here.”
Taylor looked a little disappointed, like he’d been beaten to the punch line. “Most missionaries don’t notice. At least, that’s what Gordon Choro says.”
“Well, I was around Tokyo enough. Learned the vocabulary. How far is the apartment?”
They passed the fish market. Seagulls screeched overhead.
“We live on the second floor,” said Taylor. He turned up an open staircase behind a row of vending machines, unlocked the door and held it open. He looked like a doorman, standing there in his still new, pressed suit.
“Thanks.” said Thackeray.
“We’ve even got an air conditioner.” Taylor stepped into the genkan behind him and shut the door.
“We’re in the first room. Right through the shoji. Gordon has the tatami. Sorry.”
Thackeray set his suitcases on the floor and began unpacking. He said, making conversation, “Where you from, Taylor Choro?”
“I’m from New York.”
“New York City?”
“No. Upstate. You’ve been out two months?”
“How’s your lesson plan?”
Taylor shrugged. “So-so.”
“Well, it was rough for me the first couple of months too. Gets easier.”
Thackeray scooped up his socks and threw them into the back of the closet. He paused for a second. Let’s not get off on the wrong foot, he thought. Conversation at all costs.
“Good grocery store in the neighborhood?”
Taylor sort of gestured with his left hand. “Couple of blocks thataway.”
Thackeray was beginning to wonder if he would run out of questions before he finished unpacking.
“Say, Taylor Choro, have a girlfriend?”
“Huh?” A faraway look came to his eyes.
Taylor’s head snapped up and his face began to flush. Oh no, thought Thackeray. The face of the girl at the train station flashed into his mind.
“Hey Thackeray!” Gordon’s hand smacked down on his shoulder.
“Looks like you got here in one piece.” He walked through to his room. “Come in to my office. I’ll show you the trash.”
Gordon sorted through the papers piled on his desk. It was a solid oak office desk, worn and pitted but sturdy. A Coca-Cola bottle opener was fastened to one corner.
“Beat the junk man to it,” Gordon said proudly. He handed Thackeray a weekly report. “Got the chest of drawers the same way.”
“Old school. Real junk. Under the stairs. You don’t want to ride them.”
“That bad.” Gordon stacked the rest of the papers together, opened a drawer and shoved them in. He took Thackeray by the arm and said, “Come take a look at the view.” He opened the sliding glass doors and led Thackeray onto the narrow balcony.
“You can dry your clothes on the racks here.”
“Gotta be careful about the seagulls, though. One other thing. Notice anything strange about your companion?”
“No. Well, there was this girl at the station. You mean—?”
“Is it serious?”
“Not as serious as it is annoying. She was my baptism. But then Mr. Orton Zone Leader come up with this great idea for a zone-wide companion split, so I let Taylor and what’s-his-name from Hiratsuka do the after-baptism interview. Big mistake there, guy.”
“Brown know about this?”
“I was expecting Taylor to transfer this month, not Givans. Guess the higher-ups didn’t get the message. I’ll have to deliver it personally next time. I wouldn’t loose any sleep over it. Just don’t let him out of your sight.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“By the way, we street in front of the station.”
“Anything to avoid?”
“The cops don’t appreciate it when we play Frisbee between arrivals. And Thackeray—”
“It’s your turn to buy Time.”
“English edition. At the newsstand at the station.”
The church occupied the bottom floor of a boxy, three-story office building. The meeting hall could hold about thirty chairs, or half that number plus the ping-pong table that was set up in the middle of the floor when they walked in.
“It’s been a while since I played,” said Thackeray. “How are you at it?”
“Not as good as Johnson. He’s the district champ.”
“He’s got the reach, that’s for sure.”
Taylor walked around the table. This is where we teach,” he said, opening one of the doors to the side rooms. “Givans Choro kept all his investigator sheets in here, too.”
Thackeray followed his companion into the room. Taylor placed a notebook on the table and opened it to the pages with Investigators stenciled at the top and Tokyo South in smaller letters in the right-hand corner. In Kunitachi, Longstreet was always running out of investigator log sheets. Running out of investigator log sheets was a sure way to impress the big shots.
He read the information slowly, deciphering Givans’s notes. Givans had three baptisms in two months. They were still active. “You’re a good man, Givans,” he said to himself.
He heard the front sliding doors open and close. “See who that is—” he said. Taylor was already out the door.
The Yamamura family’s stats filled the bottom of the second page. Every box next to each name was filled with an “X” or a check mark. Alongside the two daughters’ names, Givans had drawn in several more boxes and filled them in. There was some scribbling at the bottom of the page: Challenged for baptism. Strong expectation. I think girls have testimonies. Challenged again. Girls want to but no permission. The writing trailed off with an arrow pointing to the bottom right-hand corner. Thackeray turned the page over. Met with father, Givans continued, and— He’d written something in Japanese in bright red characters.
“You are pushy,” said Thackeray, reconsidering his earlier opinion. It was understandable, though. Good family prospects didn’t show up every day.
“Hey, Taylor,” he said, picking up the notebook, “what does this mean?” He looked around the room. “That’s right, he went to see—” Thackeray got up, opened the door and poked his head out.
“Tay—” he started to say. Taylor was sitting at the ping-pong table, his back to the door. Next to him was the girl Thackeray had run into at the train station. He watched them for a while. They seemed to be doing English homework. Innocent enough. But he couldn’t help feeling a little jealous.
Thackeray closed the door, but not all the way. He sat down, opened the notebook and thought for a moment. Then he yelled, “Taylor Choro!”
There was a quick rattling of chair legs against linoleum and Taylor popped into the room.
“What does this mean?” He pointed at the investigator sheet.
“Oh, that. I think it’s supposed to be kinshi. Prohibited. Mr. Yamamura told us not to talk about religion anymore when we came over.”
“Not at all?”
Taylor shook his head. “He said Michiko and Shinako could come to church but—”
“They can come to church but we’re not supposed to teach them any more lessons until he decides whether or not they can get baptized.”
Thackeray slid back in the chair and stared across the table at the white plaster wall. First Taylor and his love life and now a couple of golden prospects turned to lead.
He closed the notebook and got up. The girl was still sitting by the ping-pong table, studying a school book. She smiled at him when he came into the room. He pushed open the sliding glass doors and stepped out into the bright sunlight. High school students, dressed in navy blue uniforms, were walking down the street to the train station.
“Konnichi wa!” Two girls separated from a small group and skipped across the street.
“You’re the new senkyoshi?”
“Yes. My name’s Thackeray.”
“Hajimemashite.” The both gave him slight bows.
“Has Chieko come by yet?” asked Shinako.
“Who? No, I don’t think so. But Sister Muzutani—”
“Kumiko’s here? Great!” The girls disappeared inside the church. Thackeray walked out to the sidewalk and leaned against a telephone pole. Every now and then, a student shouted, “Hello, hello,” waved and laughed. Thackeray waved back. Directly across from the church, across the JR right-of-way, the pagoda-like upper story of the Odawara castle peeked at him from between the rich foliage of the city park.