He used the kind of hand signals you see soldiers use in war movies–whirling his index finger in the air, clenching his fist, making a V with two fingers and pointing at his eyes, stuff like that–which was good because the deafening buzz of the semi made it impossible to hear even the busses that passed on the road in front of the park. A typical Osaka park. Half a meter wide and four meters deep, within whose borders stood a swing-set, a sandbox, two teeter-totters*, a line of three chin-up bars at staggered heights, a jungle gym, four benches, and, planted vertically halfway down into the hard mix of gravel and sand, five truck tires from which peeled five different colors of lead-based paint that were either sold as pastel colors when they were purchased in the 1950s or had turned that way in the blistering Osaka summers, slapped all day by the sweaty palms of little children vaulting over the worn treads and rubbed smooth all through the night by the seats of the jeans of those children’s older brothers and sisters hunched over small bags filled with paint thinner and airplane glue.
What the park did not have was any sort of tree, bush, or blade of grass, which made you wonder just what all those chattering semi were standing on or leaning against. But I suppose they were a special kind of semi that had evolved and adapted themselves in response to the official Osaka municipal policy of removing anything green and growing from within the city limits, which was not a very challenging task as there was, in fact, no soil in Osaka. Grime, there was. Grime, dirt, filth, animal droppings, garbage pulled by crows from torn plastic bags, and split ends pinched off long, shiny hair by young women sitting in subway cars. But soil, no. And workers in the hundreds of undercover city trucks assigned the increasingly unchallenging task of keeping Osaka gray would sometimes grow bored of trying to find plant life within the city to destroy, and would stray to neighboring towns to tear out a bush or drive over a flower.
Perhaps the semi were on the rooftops, I thought, and looked up towards the gray dome that passed for a sky in this city, and that’s when an empty Coca Cola can bounced off the side of my head. I looked in the direction it came from and saw him still crouched behind the same bench. He glared back angrily. I lacked the kind of focus, he had told me time and time again, that would allow us to strike back at the hit squad sent to Japan by the Chicago Public Library to execute me for having returned the library book Teach Yourself Japanese late. About a year late, actually, but nevertheless, it’s worth noting, well before I had indeed taught myself Japanese.
My newly found friend and ally held up two fingers, pointed them at his eyes, clenched his fist and pumped his arm down twice. I pondered these signals as he charged towards the sidewalk like a man a fraction of his age, which still could have been in the hundreds. By the time I stood up, he was already walking back past me, dragging by the straps of their bicycle helmets two young Caucasian men still clinging desperately to their late model mountain bikes.
After depositing the exceedingly well-groomed young men in the sandbox, my geriatric Japanese comrade began to interrogate them.
“Tell me why you’re here!” he demanded, and the interrogatees’ eyes lit up.
“Gladly,” they said in eerie unison, both of them then straightening their inexpensive neckties and tucking in their identical white shirts. One of them then began fishing around in his shoulder bag.
“Are you looking for this?” I asked, picking up a hardcover book that had fallen into the sandbox. I shook some sand out of its pages, and handed it to the young man, reading aloud as I did so the title printed in large, important type on its cover.
“The Book of Mormon.”
“Yes,” the young man said, accepting the book. “Have you read this testament?” he asked, and smiled, blinding me and temporarily silencing the semi with a blazing flash from teeth an otherworldly shade of white. My vision gradually returned, though there remained that bluish white post-Polaroid-flash dot right in the middle of everything I looked at.
“Have you read the good news?” he persisted.
I nodded, bringing the bluish white dot down on top of his head over and over. “I get the Japan Times,” I said.
He smiled again, the blinding, self-assured smile of a 19-year-old with a bag of fresh leaflets. I smiled back, the yellowing, uncertain smile of someone about to buy more Girl Scout cookies than he could afford.
“No, I mean the good news,” he said. “Newspapers are full of irrelevant and useless information, most of it bad.”
“There was a story about a duck that had an arrow in its head,” I told him. “It was spotted in Tokyo, in Ayase River.
“And this troubled you?” he asked. “Perhaps caused you to question the existence of a loving God?”
“No. I just wondered how a duck could have a arrow in its head and still swim in Ayase River.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” the young man told me knowingly. “His many wonders to perform.”
“Yeah, but in Ayase River? You figure if the arrow didn’t kill him, the water certainly . . .”
“You’re here about the book!” my aged Japanese friend burst in, interrupting a conversation that wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
“Yes, yes,” the teenager replied. “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
“No!” my friend shouted back.
“How would you know, jerk-face!” the inexperienced missionary shrieked, not used to confrontation and consequently forgetting, in the grip of an adrenalin-charged flight-or-fight panic, the three weeks of training in Salt Lake City during which it was not suggested even once that he use the term “jerk-face” when talking to a potential convert.
My aged Japanese friend, a sterling example of the famously long Japanese life expectancy, not only did know about such things as the testaments of Jesus Christ but knew the prophet personally and had in fact attended the last half of that period’s equivalent of junior high school with Jesus and about twelve other Jewish kids. But, oddly, that was beside the point.
“Not that book, honky,” my friend continued. “Teach Yourself Japanese. You have been sent by the Chicago Public Library to exact vengeance on this young man for being late in returning the book Teach Yourself Japanese.”
The other missionary, spotting what he perceived to be an opportunity to work in one of the talking points covered in his missionary training, leapt into the breach.
“God forgives all who truly repent,” he said. “How late was the book?”
“About a year,” I answered quietly, repentantly.
There was a moment of silence. The teenager exchanged a glance with his partner, then turned back to me.
“Okay, even God has limits.”
“Huh?” I uttered incredulously.
“No sense wasting our time here,” he said, and they both got back on their bicycles.
“But I really am sorry,” I said, and as I watched them ride off into the distance, which in Osaka is anything beyond two meters, I shouted in desperation, “Can’t we talk some more about God?” They kept riding. I cupped my hands around my mouth and cried out as loud as I could.
“At least let me borrow your book for a while!”