The sun rose over the harbor. The sunlight streamed down the alleys and thoroughfares of the city. Fish were delivered to the street markets packed in salty ice. Where the shadows ended along the tattered canvas awnings, the slush melted away in silvery streams.
Thackeray took his hands of the handlebars of his bike, stretched and yawned. P-days in Odawara were as fresh and rejuvenating as the early morning air, a far cry from the stale, mangled afternoons in Kunitachi. Here they could get away to the ocean or the country and still be back before noon. It didn’t take more than half an hour up the winding roads into the foothills before the horizon was taken over by rice paddies and mikan groves.
“The boondocks,” Matlock called it. It made Thackeray remember his transfer to Odawara. Nobody ever told him Japan had boondocks.
“Hey, Dode!” called out Matlock. “What are we doing today?” He shifted gears and glided alongside his companion.
“We’ve got the shopping this week.”
“I dunno. What do you want to see?”
“Haven’t been on the castle tour yet.”
“Me, neither. It does look interesting from the outside.”
They were a mile from the city center on the main street of the small oceanside community that paralleled the Tokkaido highway along the lee side of the high levee. Weathered store fronts jutted out along the sidewalk. Door chimes rang out sharp and clean above the rumble of traffic.
“Hey gaijin-san!” A wiry man in his late thirties waved from across the street. He was standing in front of a DayGlo painted sign that said in large block letters: AOKI SURF SHOP.
The missionaries stopped at a traffic light and waved back. The light changed. The missionaries walked their bikes across the street.
“How’s business, Blue?” Thackeray asked.
“Hey! It’s cold! Business is not so good. But the surf’s up in Azuma!”
“You’re going surfing? You’ll freeze.”
“Hey! That’s my life,” said Blue, with a touch of comic sadness. “So rough, eh?”
Matlock said, “I could stand it.”
“You want to go? Hey, I’ll find another wet suit.”
“Call me in a year and I’ll take you up on that.”
“Hey! You should come now.”
“No can do.”
“Aww. Too bad. You going to the beach?”
“Not so good now. Too cold. No girls to look at, eh?”
“Nope.” Thackeray and Matlock laughed.
“Too bad. Well, I got to go.”
“See you around, Aoki.”
The narrow alley behind the Surf Shop led to an access culvert under the levee. The culvert emptied onto a grassy dune that looked down on the wide expanse of white sand.
It was as if the levee dammed up the impatient civilization behind it. The beach was a sandy swath fifty meters wide that stretched twenty kilometers from the harbor breakers in the north to the lava cliffs of Hakone National Park in the south. Trawlers dotted the seascape. A few old fishermen tended their lines in the surf.
They propped their bikes against a section of storm fencing and set off toward the breakers.
“You know,” said Matlock, pulling off his glasses strap, “I do miss the girls. I haven’t seen a bikini in a month.”
“Gordon says there’re still some sights to see later on in the afternoon.”
“But not worth the time, eh?”
“Gotta know you’re a missionary—with messed up priorities like that.”
“Speaking of which, we still haven’t decided what we’re going to do today.”
Thackeray picked up a stone and skipped it into the surf. “Thought we decided on Odawara Castle.”
“How much is it?”
“Two hundred yen.”
“That’s not bad.”
“Anyway, I need to take some pictures.”
“I’d think you’d have all the pictures you needed by now.”
“Well, I do, actually. Except every time my mom writes, she says how she really appreciates the pictures and slides, but where am I?”
“The boondocks don’t turn ’em on, eh?”
Matlock shook his head. “Guess not.”
“First we stop by Odakyu and get groceries. What do you want to eat this week?”
“Anything but natto.”
Matlock said to his companion, as they rode down the escalator to the grocery store on the bottom floor of the Okakyu, “Got your wallet? I didn’t bring any money.”
“Never go anywhere without it. I’m paranoid about getting caught without my green book.”
“Ever been stopped for it?”
“Twice. Both time in Senzoku. My first senior was one of those aggressive eki dendo types. He made the cops suspicious. Ah!”
An attractive girl wearing a miniskirt version of the store uniform bowed as the missionaries stepped off the escalator. Matlock saluted in turn. The girl giggled and covered her mouth with her hand.
“Slaying triffs again? You’re as bad as Gordon.”
“Only on P-day.”
Thackeray picked up two shopping baskets and handed one to his companion. “What think ye?”
“Spaghetti, for starters.”
“Only if we buy meat.”
“It’s more expensive that way.”
“I don’t see how you and Johnson can stand potatoes in spaghetti. A starch on top of a starch.”
Two girls, wearing high school uniforms and carrying full shopping baskets, walked up to them.
“Good morning Michiko, Shinako.” Thackeray nodded. “Don’t you have school?”
“School starts late today because of teacher conferences.”
“So we’re helping Mom shop.” Shinako said to Matlock, “You’re Matti-san, right?”
Shinako said to her sister, “I told you he had a new companion.”
Matlock shook their hands. Shinako said, “Why don’t you come over sometime and meet our parents?”
“To play,” added Michiko.
“Play?” echoed Matlock.
“Of course,” Thackeray broke in. “We’re free tonight after Eikaiwa.”
“Great!” said the girls together. “We just got a new Off Course album. We can listen to it.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“We’ll be waiting,” said the girls. “We’ve got to go now. Bye-bye.”
The missionaries waved back.
“Nice girls,” said Matlock, raising his brow. “Members?”
“Nope. Triffs. With a capital T. Got picked up before I got here.”
“No possibilities, eh?” asked Matlock.
“There’s always a possibility. But heavy parent permission problems.” Thackeray sorted through a pile of mikans. “Givans and Taylor went through the whole gambit. That’s why we got invited over to play. Their dad put the nix on religion. And just as well. I’m lousy at pressure proselyting.”
“Don’t throw away all hope.” Matlock took the bag of mikans from his companion and weighed it.
“You’ve taught triffs before.”
“Well, there’re triffs and then there are triffs.”
Thackeray took the bag of mikans off the scale and put them into his basket. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll keep an open mind. But by the rules. Parent permission and all.”
“Hey, I’ve got no expectations. I just met them.”
They finished shopping and took their baskets to the cashiers’ aisle. The totals were tallied and Thackeray paid the girl, who handed him the receipt and several plastic bags.
Thackeray hadn’t seen a brown paper grocery bag since coming to Japan. The stores used incredibly strong plastic bags with handles. And the customers had to stuff them themselves.
For bike riders, the plastic bags were a blessing. Thackeray preferred to sling his groceries over one shoulder and steer with one hand, while Matlock looped the bags through his handlebars and kept them out of the spokes by banging them with his knees.
They made quite a sight: the two Americans and their incredible grocery bag and bike balancing act.
By the next Thursday, the first of the winter monsoons had swept ashore a thousand kilometers to the south, bringing gray mornings, wet days and dark nights to the southern end of the Kanto plain.
Thackeray pulled the collar of his jacket over his head and leaned into the rain. Matlock held a red fifteen liter container over his head as he ran down the street. They ducked under the awning of a fruit and vegetable market to catch their breath.
“Fetch!” said Matlock. “What happened to all our perfect Thursdays?”
“I thought it snowed in winter.”
“Not here. And be glad it doesn’t. It gets miserable enough.”
“Where’s the gas station?”
“Another block. Run for cover whenever you see it.”
They dashed for the awning of the bakery, across the street to the deli, to a video arcade, and then to the gas station. The attendant was servicing an Isuzu pickup.
“What do we want?” asked Matlock. “So I know what to do when I grow up.”
“Sekiyu. Kerosene. As in sekiyu stove.”
The Isuzu drove off and the attendant said to the Americans, “You need kerosene?”
“Sure do,” said Matlock. The attendant took the container and walked over to a pump by the garage.
“Very good,” said Thackeray.
“Oh, shut up.”
The attendant lugged the full container back to the Americans and set it down in front of them. “Eighteen hundred twenty-five yen,” he said.
Thackeray handed the broomstick to Matlock and paid the attendant. “Okay,” he said, “put it through the handle and let’s go.”
They grunted, picked up the container, and started up the sidewalk. Matlock asked as they stepped off the curb, “How often do we have to do this?”
“Every couple of weeks.”
“And it makes that big of a difference?”
“Come January, the most precious thing in your life, other than your electric blanket, will be the sekiyu stove.”
A metallic blue Honda whipped by the missionaries and pulled up to the curb. The passenger door opened and Michiko Yamamura leaned out and shouted, “Hey! want a ride?”
Before they could answer, She took the car keys from her mother and jumped out of the car. “You can put the sekiyu in the trunk,” she said. She unlocked the trunk. Matlock wedged the kerosene container between the spare tire and the wheel well.
Thackeray and Matlock got in the back seat. Michiko sat between them.
“Where do you live?” asked Mrs. Yamamura.
“A block north of the station.”
“I know how to get there,” said Shinako.
“I haven’t been in a car since I left home,” said Matlock.
“What’s that?” said Michiko. “Don’t speak English!”
“He said this is the first time he’s been in a car since he left home,” translated Thackeray.
Shinako said to her mother, “You know what? Takori Choro got his driving license when he was eighteen and it only cost him twelve dollars!”
Thackeray said, “That’s nothing. Matlock got his when was sixteen.”
“Sixteen!” The girls gasped together.
Shinako twisted around in the front seat. “Do have your license with you?” she asked Matlock.
Matlock reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Here it is,” he said, handing the license to Michiko.
“You used to have a moustache!”
“Let me see!” Shinako grabbed the license and peered at the laminated card and then at Matlock face. “You look better without it.” She handed back the license.
Matlock said, as he tucked his wallet back into his pocket, “Girls always say that.”
Shinako said to her mother, “Turn here.”
Mrs. Yamamura stopped the car in front of the missionaries’ apartment. Thackeray and Matlock got out. Michiko unlocked the trunk.
“What are doing next Thursday? she asked as Matlock pulled out the container.
“We’re going to Zama Base for Thanksgiving,” Thackeray said.
“Maybe you could come over afterwards?” There was a wistful air to her voice that Thackeray found a bit unnerving.
“I don’t think so. We’ll be pretty busy.”
Matlock slammed the trunk closed. Thackeray opened the car door for Shinako and closed it after she got in. She rolled down the window and said, “We might be able to come to church this Sunday.”
“Great!” said Thackeray.
“We’ll being seeing you then—”
Michiko tapped her sister on the shoulder and whispered something to her. “That’s right!” said Shinako. “I almost forgot.” She took a small envelope from her purse and handed it to Thackeray. “It’s a question we had. Michiko thought we should write it down.”
Thackeray held up the envelope and flipped it over in his hand. “We’ll do our best,” he said.
Mrs. Yamamura started up the car.
“Bye-bye,” said the girls, in that utterly ingenuous manner that made it very hard to leave.