Thursday
Jul142011

ボブ (Bob)

Jonathan Callahan




This is Part One of a three-part novella, which will be serialized between July and September, in Issues 24-26.

 

By the time the two ALT-bearing taxis coast to a halt alongside the Kyoshokuin Jutaku and disgorge their weary passengers, Bob's already been out in the parking lot for some time, pacing, serially dispatching Marlboro Golds, shirtless in the late-summer sweat, thoughtfully palming the amiable bulge of his bare paunch, waiting to welcome everybody aboard. Greetings! says Bob, I'm Bob. Bob's been in-country a solid year now, Bob explains, and while he certainly wouldn't go so far as to class himself an "expert" on the myriad socio-cultural vagaries his new jutaku-mates can expect to face on a pretty much daily basis now that they've committed to a year of Assistant Language Teaching here in the Land of the Ascendant you-know-what, and while Bob'd be the very first to concede that there are all kinds of nuances and subtleties he hasn't quite figured out and that, sure, even after a whole year among these strange but more often than not benign people, he can pretty much daily expect to confront a certain quantity of petty frustrations that can nevertheless induce discouragement or even fits of rage, he's certainly qualified and frankly excited about the opportunity to help out with whatever aspects of settling in and getting themselves totally acclimated to and comfortable with their new home country away from native home countries anybody might find daunting or stressful during this critical and potentially stressfully daunting—but exciting—first phase of their expatriate lives.

 

Bob ventures a guess based on his own experience with the odious sequence of virtually identical New Assistant Language Teacher Orientations and Pedagogical Seminars and Culture Shock Colloquia and what have you that they subject all incomers to for several character-testing days up in Tokyo and that he likens their compulsory attendance at to what being struck and flattened by the foremost vehicle in some kind of military procession traveling at victory-parade-speed and then inched over repeatedly by each subsequent HUMVEE, Bradley, M1 Abrams Battle Tank, Striker and so forth while somehow managing to stay not only alive but excruciatingly aware as one after another of the autocade's vehicles' treads and IED-resistant tires grinds you into the asphalt or tar would probably feel like that he'll just bet they're feeling some uncanny combination of over-saturated with information on some topics—for instance the harrowingly complex-seeming guidelines for sorting household waste and recyclables into the appropriately hued transparent industrial-grade-plastic bags that are purchasable at just about any establishment hawking purchasable goods, which Bob swears on his keitai does not require the strenuous cerebration the Tokyo clowns make it sound like it will once you've got it down, plus the occasional honest goof won't land you in the Japanese pen or anything—but also simultaneously scared shitless about certain ground-level facts, like:

 

What'll my first day on the job be like? Will they ask me to give some kind of self-introductory speech? If so, will I have to deliver this speech in front of the entire student body, segregated columns (girls in back, some with their little doughy legs tucked up uncomfortably under skirts in the so-called seiza seating posture—don't even get Bob going on the treatment of women in this country unless you want to be appalled) arrayed in docile rank and file on the school auditorium's well-preserved parquet, some of the less inhibited san-nensei—"third-year students," the seniors here in Nihon's final stage of secondary education, which lasts three years—girls blowing clandestine kisses in a gesture you definitely should not interpret as anything more than just casual coquetry, no matter how foxy the series of blinks or salacious the moue? If so, they're not going to ask me to do the thing in Japanese are they? Even if I don't actually speak word one? Is it going to be this fucking hot all summer? Will the kids make fun of me for how much I sweat? Can I furthermore expect the faculty to welcome me with a standing ovation when I first step into the teachers' lounge, and then stare at me with faces waxed in fascinated grins? Given the obscene heat and humidity is it really necessary to wear a shirt and tie every day? Even on days when you don't foresee having to dispatch any official pedagogical duties, in other words when you've got zero in the way of classes scheduled and nobody's asked you to do anything or even so much as looked you in the eye and you're basically just cruising the Net, trying not to get caught perusing sites stocked with questionable content, generating lakes of pungent sweat? (Yes), and so forth, no doubt you've each got your own personal concerns—but this is where Bob comes in. He sees his role as that of a field guide or liaison. A seasoned vet. Ready to help out at the drop of a one-hundred yen coin, or hat. Anything you can think of, anything whatsoever. Fire away. Shoot. Keitai is what they call their cellphones, fyi. Don't ask Bob why.

 

The new language instructors retrieve their luggage and sundry travel effects one parcel at a time but with haste, thanks to the courteous industry of their cab-driver-­̵porters, who bow when the task is completed and resume their starboard positions behind respective wheels untipped—tipping a Japanese service employee would basically be like dropping your pants and loosing a steamer on something highly important to him, for instance in this case his vehicle's dashboard or hood, so Bob—circle the cramped lot before heading back to the streets of Futsukaichi. Which repatriation squared away, the five have their first chance to get a good look at and assess their new digs, and the common feature of these separate appraisals is that the Murasaki Kyoshokuin Jutaku have pretty obviously seen better days. One's initial impression is that these days were probably a number of decades back, their heyday perhaps even predating the war in which either "we" or "the Yanks" kicked this country's ass, depending on which ALT you ask, though, take it from Bob, this isn't something you want to bring up over drinks. Veranda railings sclerotic with rust; stucco flattened out by weather and time or visibly crumbling away; sliding screen doors that your thinking jutaku resident will not be relying on as any kind of reliable front line against the gokiburi ("cockroach") legions' annual summertime offensive, though at this point Bob elects not to address himself to the matter of the bugs; even the scattered satellite dishes look like shit, weather-soiled and dangling spurious cords. Jutaku means basically "government employee subsidized housing," Bob inserts, and while these particular projects might lack somewhat for aesthetic charm, everybody would do well to bear in mind how much worse he or she could do in the States—or, Bob presumes, the U.K.'s conurbations or whatever the hell you call them in Australia, assuming anyone here's from Down Under, if so, the kids and other teachers'll really dig your vocal tics—for what works out to roughly two hundred American bucks a month, when you convert from the yen.

 

Bob figures aloud that now's probably the time his new neighbors will want to shuffle on off to their respective quarters, unpack, settle in a bit, scope out the new living conditions—don't let your first impression discourage you: "run-down" and "squalid" are different things, and history's replete with case studies of down-at-the-heel or even brutally persecuted groups of people in places like internment camps and ghettos making the best of marginal living conditions, after all, the mind is its own place and can make a Heaven of Hell, although vice-versa, too, no question—maybe take a quick nap, but don't clock out for the night!, as Bob's sure he doesn't have to remind everybody what a poor jet-lag-coping stratagem this would be, but before everyone can disperse to go do his or her own private thing lets it be known that as veteran jutaku foreign resident, he's made it a personal goal to take them all under his wing and act as a kind of senpai a la Pat Morita of Karate Kid film-franchise renown, God bless the departed, for as long as they feel like they might benefit from a little mentorship and guidance through their first experience with expatriate life, which, by the way, show of hands, for how many of you will this be your first experience living abroad? Believe it or not, Bob had never set foot on foreign soil before deplaning in Narita at around this time last year, but he's acquired an incredible quantity of data ranging from the quotidian practical such as pertaining to the before-mentioned system of waste-collection and -diposal all the way up to broader socio-cultural observations and sort of nascent anthropological theories about The Japanese, though Bob would be the last person to describe himself as an intellectual powerhouse or anything like that: Most of what Bob's picked up―both locally here over the course of his ongoing international experience in Japan, and more broadly, as a man—has come through trial and error, more of the second category than Bob likes to admit, Bob is ruefully willing to admit, with what's quickly been established as the signature Bob laugh, a vocal emission that sounds less like ordinary human laughter than someone serially shouting the word "Ha," but maybe if anything this is the single one thing that in Bob's view is probably the most critical to bear in mind during the first tumultuous months when daily life may well be frightening and otherworldly and sometimes even trigger fits of rage, but Bob does truly also believe and hope, fun: you're going to make mistakes, if you're like Bob you might even make a few really bad mistakes, and, sure, there will probably be times when you latch the jutaku door and switch off the lights and sit down on the edge of your bed with a bottle of gin and stare motionless into the terrible void, but the important thing is that everybody's got each other now, which is how they should stick, in other words together, no one can beat loneliness alone, and Bob is definitely here to help everybody out, in whatever way he can.

 

By the way: Bob bets nobody's made dinner plans yet, right? Who's up for yaki-tori? It's basically just sticks of grilled meat, but you can choose from all kinds of other options, too, if you're working from a restricted dietary palette for whatever reason, be it medical or ideological or just some other personal circumstances you'd rather not disclose, or if you're the type of person who after a whole lot of travel just doesn't

 

Inside the yaki-tori place it's raucous and smoky and full of Japanese. To a woman and man these patrons enjoy a long stare at the troupe of gaikokujin as they follow Bob into the vaporous gloom, and the interesting thing about this collective appraisal is that it's virtually impossible to decode. Are these local Nihonjin, for example, impressed by this spectacular incursion on their Friday evening of beer and succulent meat? Are they excited by the prospect of cross-cultural exchange? Do they welcome the newcomers' presence in their otherwise uneventful town? Or is it more like they're afraid for their lives? Could it even be that they hate these non-nationals who speak with gusto and at high volume in their abrasively nasal foreign tongue and almost without exception smell unbathed? Perhaps some are still bitter about the lost War. Who knows? The starers are vacant-eyed and neither smile nor scowl, though it's safe to say that no one looks unequivocally thrilled. Meanwhile the meat-grilling proprietors or employees—it's not immediately discernible which—of this establishment greet the new guests with a chorus of something that sounds a little bit like "Here the shy must stay!" and also take a quick break from their food-preparation at various stations to indulge their own long stare. Bob appears to be on friendly terms with these energetic young men, who are on the whole pretty vigorously enthusiastic about their work back there behind the counter, keeping alive a perpetual call-and-response of high-volume reiterations of guest food-or-drink requests and synchronized !s of assent, and at least seem to be in high-enough spirits despite being so absorbed in the concentration-intensive work of pan-frying to perfection salted skewers of meat. Irasshaimase means "Welcome honored patrons," basically, Bob hollers back to the group, as he waddles up to the counter to engage in some friendly banter that he either declines or neglects to translate.

 

Fortunately at least one new ALT happens to have brought to Japan a respectable academic background in the Japanese tongue—it transpires he co-piloted the campus Japanese Language Quarterly, as a mere undergrad at a moderately well-regarded East Coast university whose name he's already worked into conversation close to a dozen times—and when Bob is preoccupied at the bar in the midst of an especially impressive-sounding Nihongo disquisition on some unspecified topic, this small, unwell-looking guy whose unconvincing gesture toward the sub-bottom-lip vibrissae vernacularly known in some quarters as a "soul patch" does little to countermand the unsettlingly detectable psychic emanations of either a virgin at twenty-two or a young man whose successes have come in unsavory circumstances, and who has introduced himself as "Jake," appears to sense an opportunity and inserts that, as far as he is able to tell (which, even taking the inevitable travel-wear into account, is frankly more than enough), Bob, while enthusiastic, and high-volumed, and generally nice-enough-seeming on this everybody's first night in their new international digs, is not producing what any neutral-but-acquainted-with-Nihongo observer would describe, even in a charitable mood, as particularly accurate Japanese. In fact, it's borderline impossible to tell what the fuck he's talking about, amiable interlocutors' agreeable miens notwithstanding. And here Jake quickly, perhaps as a kind of credential-establishing gambit, translates a sample snippet of Nihongo from one of their hosts, as he regales this apparently regular gaijin patron with conversation, and then notes the really egregious lack of any kind of germaneness to their new cultural ambassador's reply, which is not only grammatically unparsable, as a speech utterance, but is in fact semantically unrelated to the sentence to which it's presumably intended to constitute a valid response.

 

While a quick survey conducted by the revenants or wraiths observing this as-yet-difficult-to-perceive-the-wraith-relevant-significance-of episode of cultural relocation gauging group opinion on Bob and Jake at this early stage would undoubtedly indicate a measure of gratitude for their garrulous senpai's hospitality, as well as a vague but rapidly increasing distaste for Jake (whose revelation strikes everybody as pedantic and basically kind of dick), it's hard not to note, upon closer observation, that the smiling Japanese guys actually don't appear to have any idea what the fuck Bob is trying to say. Mostly they just laugh and attend to the sizzling gristle and brawn. The interesting question raised hereby being perhaps whether or not Bob knows that's he's not participating in a successful cultural exchange.

 

Smoke-greasy slices of pork, each bite an unhealthy dose of Na. Beef-and-onion kebabs. Fried mochi that's gooey but good. Whole fish whose eyes Bob says you can go ahead and eat. Mushrooms, which are a little different in Japan. All on thin wooden sticks you stick in a convenient cup after you've stripped them of sustenance. These jovial Japanese meat-slingers turn out to be no joke: Alyssa, the retired ballerina, is already predicting calamitous weight-gain over the course of her stint here, if all of the food is this good, which Bob assures her it is. Jake mumbles something obsequious and creepy about her figure being in no danger of something or other that makes everyone uncomfortable. At a table in the place's right rear deep pocket a cluster of sleek-suited salarymen with facial pigmentation traversing a spectrum from pinkish through scarlet and mauve to in one disturbing case what looks almost like aquamarine have spontaneously risen in their places and linked arms and begun to sing, kicking up their legs in synchrony as a kind of unappealing chorus line—they do that, notes Bob—and at the far end of the counter, in front of the skewered raw beef chunks and intestine of pig, are two young Japanese girls in what the group will soon come to recognize as the ubiquitous high school uniforms: the white blouses, the navy̵-brown checked skirts hiked up to reveal rather generous expanses of thigh above dark socks stretched to mid-calf, and these two have been enjoying themselves mostly without ostentation, engaging in a little light flirtation with their patrons that's probably a bit sketchy in view of the discrepancy in age, but never gets especially out of hand, picking at the offerings dished up before them, emitting the occasional spirited fit of high-register mirth; and now, having quenched their apparently modest appetites for meat, examined their faces in their ketai cameras' reversed displays, brushed up their false eyelashes, gathered their handbags and tugged up their skirts another cm or so, all set to settle the bill, have passed, on their way to the register, just by the alien-resident table. And given Dylan an extremely favorable once-over.

 

Of course, just about any wager-inclined wraith looking in on this evening's first Futsukaichi outing might have put money down on tall, cinematic Dyl taking an eventual pass at Alyssa, given the way he'd positioned himself at roughly 0730 with respect to the former dancer on the twenty-minute amble over here earlier on, from this advantageous perspective conducting a survey, almost academic in its detail-attention, of the long, tony ballet-molded twin-offerings of the former dancer's gams. Then, too, given the way he doesn't say much but when he does speak—as for instance in response to a long-term-hopes-and-aspirations question posed during one brief round of Bob-less banter, in his faintly Appalachian twang, simply: Figure I'll get into film —Jake's not the only one to get the sense that this is a young man who does not particularly wrestle with the quintessentially Jakeian problem of getting girls to bed. So this duo of underaged native flirts had apparently also picked up these effortless amorous bandwidths, as young women will, and the slightly naughtier-seeming of the two had caught his eye and coyly batted the artificially enhanced lash: a wink.

 

In itself no big deal. But what no one at the table but Bob happened to spot was that Dylan returned a subtle wink of his own, truly devastating in its impact on the J-girls, whose exeunt devolved into stumbling giggles and several looks back at the foreign table where Dylan was cool behind his pint, the bolder one proposing an entirely inappropriate group activity in youth-inflected Japanese that's fortunately too demotic to be parsed by any of the jutaku contingent but its wraiths, though Bob has witnessed the whole mini-cultural exchange and can pretty much guess they weren't inviting him out for parfaits, and thus perceives a valuable teaching opportunity:

 

One of the more character-testing aspects of the job, in Bob's view, is the constant moral vigilance required to resist the urge to maybe probe the dimensions or ramifications of the constant coquettish attentions you're bound to receive from Nihonjin jailbait in their revealing little tartan skirts and peppy blouses, with their blemish- and hairless skin (they shave pretty much every visible surface, including knuckles, Bob confirms) and their adorably chunky little legs, which if you're not tempted to peek up at the naughtier regions of from down at the base of the train-station stairs or to hope a little gust of heaven doesn't help you out with as they coast by on their goofy J-bikes, Bob proposes a dearth or possible complete absence of vital fluid in your valves, and, okay, no big deal, but you know it's really only a matter of steps from this kind of harmless flirtation and good-natured appreciation of what it's absolutely natural Bob believes for a red-blooded male to admire and enjoy into territory that Bob describes as morally perilous and legally vulnerable, I mean, this is a country in which it is possible to purchase high school ladies' panties from vending machines, and you'd better believe that's not the only item available for purchase if you're a savvy consumer with excess cash to burn and downtime to disperse. Bob prescribes forbearance: it's just honestly a potential rabbit-hole of bad news and unhealthy Lust and all of that Deadly's attendant self-loathing and guilt. A bad business you truly don't even want to get into and would be exceedingly well-advised to nip right in the bud, take it from your new buddy Bob, this advice obviously only applying to the male contingent of our new social set here tonight, though you females might want to think twice about letting one of these forty-something supposedly married male colleagues get you one-on-one, too.

 

A brief pause, here, followed by:

—What do you mean by "rabbit hole," exactly? (This is John: Asian-American, friendly, unattractive, and, somewhat embarrassingly, pretty much not on wraith-radar, until now.)

—Well, let's just say

 

 

What was Bob's life like, before he caught his big break, viz., this plentifully remunerated gig abetting the Japanese Ministry of Education's perennially unsuccessful endeavor to equip the future members of its corporate workforce with a rudimentary comprehension level of that famously international language of global commerce? Before he was suiting up each morning―literally donning a slightly too close-fitting suit, the fabric of which is sort of permanently damp during the brutal summer months, which are thankfully not too far from finished―and facing with his rubicund face the daily adventure of expatriate life in Japan? Not so bad! Bob hasn't had the chance to talk about it much, he tells Jake, whom he lucked out and bumped into on their separate return commutes from their respective high schools this still-hot late September afternoon, since last year he was the only gaijin abiding at the jutaku, you know, but he's certainly had the opportunity to give it some thought.

 

Granted, he confides to his new friend, just like any American young adult who hasn't yet found his vocational calling and is thus not yet embarked on a challenging but ultimately fulfilling professional career, he was probably drinking a bit too much, and certain of his colleagues at certain of his less-dynamically-stimulating places of employ had on occasion taken him aside and floated the possibility of some kind of diagnosis and/or drying-out treatment, just maybe giving it a try, if Bob were the sort of person to go in for psychiatric horseshit, but you can't let yourself dwell in negative things. Also granted, the situation was your typical dead-end, he continues, smiling down at Jake, who is openly assessing the trimly-attired OL heading up the hill on the other side of the street's derrière and bare thick legs (Bob's a leg man himself, always has been, which works out in this country of predominantly breastless chicks with generally ample lower halves—by the way: they actually call the office ladies OLs, Bob points out) the specifics of which dismal situation are too boring and mundane to even bother going into, he apprises Jake, beyond sufficing it to say that he'd been twenty-seven, pushing twenty-eight, and a little worried that he might spend the rest of his life selling women's shoes.

 

The thing they don't tell you on the front end, when you're thinking about getting into women's footwear as a possible long-term career choice, is that it's not all getting to look at and sometimes, if you' know what you're doing and can pass it off as just a routine part of the general customer-assistance shill, actually touch women's feet, though if you're a guy like Bob who's ever since the faintest stirrings of interest in the fairer sex just honestly had a thing for ladies' feet—the whole leg, to be sure, which by the way, are you seeing this across the street? Mount me, am I right?—the calves, the thighs, give Bob a pair of smooth legs in plain-old cuttoff denim over the most rococo concession to Fashion just about any day of the week, there's no question, but just between Jake and him, he's always had a particular, at times honestly almost painful fondness for women's feet. So you'd think that the associate sales clerk position's opening up just when Bob and Bob's manager at his previous place of employment, Pizza Pete's, had been unable to resolve a difference of opinion on certain quirks of Bob's pizza-delivery methodology, such as the occasional harmless beer or two enjoyed in private out back behind the dumpster between delivery runs, and then the sporadically flexible interpretation of start-times for certain shifts that were inefficiently scheduled to commence well before his presence at the tiny take-out and delivery-only establishment would be a waste of Pete's resources and for Bob a tedious pain in the ass, so that Bob and this manager had conferred and put heads together and mutually determined that their perspectives were just too divergent to harmonize, and they'd amicably agreed to part ways, so that the foot-loving Bob wandering up to the sales desk in this department store's shoe department the very morning an unhappy twenty-year man had declared his intention to put the several-inch-long stiletto heel of the women's footwear article he brandished like an instrument of war through the eye of the recently-promoted-ahead-of-him new Head of Sales, a cocky kid whose MBA wasn't yet two years old, with what a fellow salesclerk named Randolph subsequently filled Bob in on was a truly maniacal look in his eyes and gone rampaging out into the front and chased this green manager around the cross-trainers' rack several times, upending boxes of white Nikes and Addidas with their feminine trimmings in pink and aquamarine, now swinging the stiletto more like a cudgel but still threatening to do the thing with the eye, until a platoon of security had vaulted several sandal displays to come to his aid―it had almost seemed like destiny, Bob reveals, stars arranging themselves auspiciously to provide Bob with this opportunity to earn a modest salary plus commission by spending his time around women's feet, only they don't tell you up front while they're still trying to reel you in that it isn't all pink toenails and hairless sweet-smelling skin, because they obviously want you to serve: what they never tell you is how lonely it can get, pacing the the aisles, jockeying for sales-opportunities, balancing the purely commercial considerations of which gals look like they're actually liable to do more than try on a few pairs so that you can pull a decent commish vs. also obviously wanting to chat up a few young specimens with well-maintained feet, lonely because the intimacy you share with these customers for the fifteen-minutes or so during which you are the only man in the world with sole and exclusive access to these soft groomed pedicured objets d' art is strictly business and what strikes your typical womens' shoe salesmen at first as a stroke of almost radiantly good fortune almost without exception devolves very early on in the game into a kind of daily torture, as you'll never get closer to these women and their feet than you are during the brief interval of the pitch and transaction, and, Bob leans in to ask Jake sotto voce if he's ever even considered―but Bob's confidence is cut short here by the intrusion of a small commotion, a rather boisterous scene for Nihon:

 

Clustered on the sidewalk, obstructing Jake and Bob's homeward path is a parcel of teenaged boys, in baseball attire, presumably these are students from the sports-focused high school directly across the street. If these youth don't seem to realize that they're in the way, interfering with the regular traffic of pedestrian flow, it's because none of them is paying much attention to what's going on down here on the street. To a young man, they've got their heads craned way back and are hooting and shouting encouragement in the manner of a raucous cheering section at, say, a baseball game. And it transpires that they are spectators, for when the two obstructed gaijin in turn crane back their heads they too are able to descry the locus of this adolescent commotion. Up around the building's fifteenth floor, a young man's bare torso is visible above the concrete parapet of his apartment unit's balcony. Most of his bottom half is unseen, the view interrupted by the low wall, but what is available for spectation, protruding gamely through balustrades that form the balcony's stage-left border is the spindly erect shaft of his phallus, which he is attending to with a kind of grim two-handed wrath. Atta boy! bellows Bob, clapping Jake on the shoulder and shaking his head as they nudge through the baseball players, who for once when presented with foreigners are staring at something other than them, though a couple do glance away from the balcony to smirk up at Bob and down at Jake and greet them: Ha-ro!

 

 

It's party time at the kyoshokuin jutaku! Welcome, everybody, a bit belatedly (it's already October) to Japan. ALTs from all over the prefecture have made the trek. The native neighbors are unhappy. These apartments might be shitholes, but they're fairly capacious, and they'll accommodate plenty of drunk. Also, there's a space out front for barbecue and small-group performances of bygone FM radio mainstays, American football-chucking, and general neighborhood-calm disturbance.

 

Bob is not at his best tonight. For one thing, there was the sake-festival a few hours ago, at which Bob drank a lot of sake. Then there was the interregnum during which Bob got to hang out with Alyssa in Alyssa's apartment and drink beer while Alyssa played vintage video footage from her balletic heyday, during her Continental phase. Bob meanwhile thinking: a) Alyssa has really nice legs (and feet—although the ankle-bandages he's never seen them unmarred-by are uncouth); b) I just bet Dylan's already hitting this.

Also, c) the current pace of beer suggests one of two possible Bobcasts for the evening: 1) The Bob everybody likes to be around, or at least feels like everybody likes to be around him; or 2) The Bob who makes mistakes.

So the leg-assessment on the sly between comments on his time-encapsuled host's graceful execution and precise technique, which color-commentary her blow-by-blow explication of the action is fortunately breathless enough not to leave exposed for more than a second or two to substantive examination (Bob'd never actually seen a person dance ballet before today), was tinged with some foreboding. On the other hand, you can't slow down; nights like these, slowing down is suicide.

 

Nevertheless, this break in the pigskin action beneath the back balcony of Chez Fondu (John's reluctance to divulge his surname makes retrospective perfect sense, now that everybody's up to speed) is precisely the sort of circumstance in which teaching opportunities are bound to arise, and, since Alyssa's asking, in Bob's view, your best bet in terms of getting off on the right pedagogical foot would probably be to enter the classroom without any illusory expectations of success, because these are unrealistic and will only lead to your feeling crummy about yourself, as both an English-language instructor, and, as the failure continues and the discouragement piles on, as a man—or of course woman, as would be the case for certain of the present company.

 

But why not aim high? Give these novitiate English-learners as much as you can? Swing for the propaedeutic Green Monster out in right field—or is it left? The one in whichever MLB ballpark that's all but impossible to homer over, but is extremely rewarding if you do, a mark of true power hitter bona fides? Make your timid students' progress toward fluency a kind of personal quest? Trust in your own competency and enthusiasm for the task?—Because English is just not something the Japanese can speak.

 

To be fair, Bob has encountered any number of English-speakers who can't form one solid sentence of Japanese, so it's not like Bob means anything derogatory or offensive about the collective mental capacity of their host country's citizenry—"host" being a word Bob would urge just about any foreigner to save right out in the open on the desktop of the old personal hard drive, as he's found it almost invariably useful to recall that we're basically all here as guests—but the fact is, nobody here really speaks English at all. And why should they? They're Japanese! Sure, they've made it an official priority to acquire some proficiency with the so-called global tongue, but approximately three-fourths of the students you're supposed to be improving the "oral communication" skills of in class have no intention of ever leaving the country except for maybe as part of one of those huge foreign tour groups that come with guides and interpreters and get shuttled around from one sightseeing trap to the next to hop out and take reels of digital photographs of themselves standing in front of whatever they've all shuffled off the bus together to gather around and admire and see, the photographers counting off "Hai: one, two, chee-zu!" while young and old Nihonjin alike flash the nearly universal hand-glyph for "peace."

 

The abrupt resumption of gridiron competition trims the audience for Bob's discouragement down to two humans: Alyssa and some girl whose name Bob didn't get. Alyssa keeps looking up at her own jutaku, on the fourth floor. There's also a cat named Kaki skirting the action behind the cooler and an empty case of Asahi, waiting for these pungent bigcats to wander off so that she can spend some time in the box. Kaki's loved boxes since as long as she can remember, at least as far back as the other jutaku, the small one that had more bugs to play with and less sunlight to curl up in, where she remembers her bigcats were always using the loud voices with each other and the stupid voices with the infant, and she couldn't have been more than a kitten then. Loved being in boxes, specifically. Possibly the most poignant quality of kittenhood lost being how as a young girl Kaki'd been able to fit into just about any box. Sometimes she'd hop into one and scoot off into a corner or behind some heap of the stuff there just wasn't enough space for in that twelve-tatami domicile and curl up for hours while the cast of the female bigcat's plangent Kaki-chan!s steadily eddied up toward panic. Though the pleasure of the box runs deeper than its functional capacity as hideaway, Kaki reflects: there's something elemental, a nameless pull, some secret boxness that in indulgent moods Kaki has even fancied spiritual, a kind of divine encryption, Mystery… The giant bigcat with the salmon face is at it again, embarked on some elaborate pontification she'd probably only be able to parse the gist of, if she were interested in anything other than the box, Kaki's English being only so-so.

 

Bob clues these two in on one important cautionary point to bear in mind in case you're the type of Assistant Language Teacher inclined to take the minimal and frankly laughable from a pedagogical vantage sum of instructional duties associated with the position as a transparent invite to swing for the recreational fences, most nights, and in particular if your recreational performance-enhancer of choice is some variation on fermented grain―which, as a foreigner in Japan, you're not looking at a buffet-table of readily obtainable choices, unless you're willing, as Bob is frankly this year 100% unwilling to risk, the very real contingency of time in Japanese incarceration, which is, Bob has personally heard second-hand, unimaginable, primitively indifferent to basic Western principles of just jurisprudential conduct or humane treatment of the detained (so that your typical apprehended suspect in, for instance, a case of alleged aggravated assault will agree to almost any degree of long-term financial gouging by way of settlement out of court in order to avoid a stay for any length of time; plus if they actually jail you you're out of a job, out of the country forever, that's it)—though we're certainly gaining ground of late in the context of our various imperial-democratic adventures abroad, Ha! Ha! Ha!—somewhat analogous to being one of those eight-year-old kids in some Victorian sweatshop as depicted in practically any Dickens novel you want to pick up (Bleak House being the one Bob heartily recommends), to suggest just one crest of the horror-story iceberg―so if you're going to play it relatively safe and stick with the legal poison, then be advised that it's kosher to drink regularly and with gusto, your colleagues will admire a certain degree of consumptive stamina, since nobody in this country can hold his fucking booze, Ha!, but one thing you definitely want to stay away from as far as you can is showing up for so-called work one morning, clad in your already-sweat-sopping shirt, tie, and so forth, exuding a detectable alcoholic scent, because they'll definitely bring it up with you. Or more accurately, they won't bring it up, but will let you know in their no-uncertain-passive-aggressive terms by like posing some ridiculous line of indirect inquiry that is clearly designed to let the sub-hominid know he's not supposed to show up for work reeking of drink, it's entirely not cool. For instance: It smells like you were able to enjoy last night, weren't you?

 

It's just Alyssa and Bob now, a circumstance Bob is just getting around to appreciating and pondering decision trees with an eye toward escorting her back upstairs, when along comes Jake, who, if possible—and Bob would not have believed it possible had he not witnessed the looping stutter-stride and pixie-blooms on cheeks—might be in worse shape than Bob, but our Jake-tracking contingent confirms that while off on his own roistering-vector he has indeed been roughly trading ounces with Bob, whose body mass index comes out to like 1.5 Jakes.

 

The label pasted to the empty bottle clutched in Bob's left hand indicates that it once contained forty ounces of something called Enjuku. Bob frankly can't remember how he came by this artifact, and certainly has zero recall of the good times and fine quality promised, in English, beneath the illegible crap, to partakers of this beer-approximation, which is cheap because hop-less in a country where it's hard to come by hops, that critical beer-constituent replaced with the abundant local crop, soy—and thus tastes a bit like soy, but not much like beer. In the empty Enjuku bottle Bob perceives an indication that it's high time for the transition to Chu-hi, that deceptively fruity endemic libation, 8% alcohol, and sweet, as without a can of this reliable standby occupying a fist at all times, there's no telling what he'll put back. Jake punches Bob in the chest.

 

What are you doing, Jake, asks Alyssa. Yeah, please don't do that, Jake, says Bob. Jake proposes a reciprocal strike to the chest, which Bob hasn't had time to run the full decision-tree on when all of a sudden a far-off Fondu bellows something about taking this thing upstairs, impressively initiating a slow mass migration almost at once.

 

There's a hillock of sandals and sneakers stacked high in the vestibule, plus one pair of the perforated foam-resin clogs internationally distributed under the trade moniker Crocs, which you just know have to be Jake's. Inside, about thirty malodorous foreign residents cram together and spill assorted liquids on the tatami mats (Jesus guys, they're brand new! a recurring reminder from the apparently unimpaired Fondu).

 

This being the tail end of a party that wasn't all that great to begin with, the smells aren't all that's bad: There's bad guitar-playing, bad singing, bad explanations of all things Japan, bad-liquor consumption, bad jokes, bad motor skills, badminton, improbably, briefly, in miniature, out on the balcony, until the birdie flutters irretrievably down to earth. And overall just some bad vibes. Still no sign of Dylan being really the only positive note.

 

Somehow there's a small arrogant-eyed gray kitten of indeterminate provenance and that tuft-tailed indigenous breed prancing around by the last carton of Asahi, rubbing up against the cardboard edges, circling the box almost like it wants a beer. An O-lineman-sized Alabama ex-pat pours a bit from his own bottle into a little saucer, which the stupid cat doesn't even bother to sniff.

 

Bob locates Al in a corner, improbably alone, and in his friendliest bellow remarks that now that Bob and Al whom he hopes she doesn't mind his calling "Al" have reached a point where they're more or less at ease around each other, Bob would love the opportunity to open up to her about a somewhat personal matter tonight. Bob's sentences seem a lot more syntactically sound to Bob than they do to anyone else, but the thrust of his remarks is that it must be really hard-going for foreign women in Japan, for the simple reason that while foreign men of all persuasion, but generally speaking the lowliest geek-type guys you'd ever come across doing complicated Internet shit in American coffee shops and cafes, the same ones you might have thrown the odd good-natured shoulder into on the occasional high school hallway en passant, are for some reason highly sought-after here: visit any modest metropolitan hub and witness for yourself the whole demographic sub-set of hot-blooded J-girls, habilimented like stylish whores, wobbling along on treacherous heels, seemingly hell-bent on tracking these losers down, or more accurately attracting their attentions by limping past the local Starbucks or other likely gaijin haunts with their cultivated toes-in gait, offering brazen displays of naughty legs, and feet. (As somewhat of a lower-body connoisseur, with special attention to the toes and feet, Bob's always found it fascinating that the Japanese deploy one word—ashi—for the whole shebang, although the written characters are different.)

 

A literal caterwauling erupts, as some clown has taken seriously another's blithe proposal that the darkness-curtailed football game be recommenced indoors, with a non-porcine, meowing, makeshift pigskin, and poor Kaki is being well-protected with both arms just below the chest—this fullback benefited from some quality coaching somewhere along the developmental line, Bob predicts—and not seeming to care if she deviates from that noted Japanese proclivity to keep one's feelings of discontent inside.

 

It's one reason Bob has never pursued romance with the Japanese: he wants to be loved as a person, qua Bob, you could say, not savored like some generous helping of yakitori meat. Sure, the common perception is that these transplanted fringelings are living the Oriental Dream, honoring that great Western tradition of unfavorable home conditions abandoned for adventures in exotic climes, where unsatisfying former identities can be shucked as painlessly as old wardrobes, with no one the wiser since how the hell would anyone know? and, sure, Bob's been tempted to test the local waters all right, maybe stretch the action at a "snack bar" (you know what these places actually are that they for some reason call "snack bars," right?) some night, see where a little purchased flirtation might lead, or else just work up the nerve to settle in next to some cutie heading in to Tenjin on the Nishitetsu train; but wouldn't it be lonely? Suppose you felt a specific something, something potent and acute that you would need to draw on all your articulative powers in the native tongue to really get across, something that you logically wanted to share with this, your closest friend, something that meant a lot to you: wouldn't it be wearisome to know you couldn't ever do it? To live in a kind of permanent interpersonal fog? Always searching for some fumbling approximation—or else just courting resignation to a pair of separate lives? Anyway, Bob's ambivalence notwithstanding, the common theme of conversation with these admired ALTs tends to be how easy the J-girls are to get into the sack, a point Bob hasn't personally confirmed but certainly believes.

 

Whereas—and Alyssa should feel free to contradict Bob here if this observation is in any way off-base—Japanese men by and large seem to locate foreign women somewhere between ungovernable ogrettes and obese pains in the ass. Even the prettiest gaijin seem to draw nothing but disgust from these guys, and Bob theorizes there must be more than a few lonely foreign gals who'd love to get to know a big, jolly, well-intentioned, accommodating foreign resident, a guy who, sure, would naturally find them physically appealing, and would certainly devote ample attention to such a woman's legs and feet, would almost certainly if given the opportunity wind up being one of these guys who when he watches TV the girlfriend's legs are stretched across his lap for him to stroke, gently cup the contours of the calves, the backs of knees, knead the tender little ankles, give the toes a gentle tug, and so forth, but who would also want to get to know the girl, the Who, would want to dive right into her, to know where she comes from, where she's been, what she misses about being a kid, how she'd come to dance ballet, what she dreams of, after Japan, would never tire of kicking back and listening to her talk—and who doesn't want to spend some time being really heard? why, there must be some lonely ALT out there—maybe even right here in Kyushu, or even in this room tonight, unpersuaded by the artificial chaos (the cat was briefly airborne during Bob's bit about the feet) with whom Bob'd develop a friendship, first, of course, and then sort of see where things might lead.

 

Bob carries a towel with him at all times for the purpose he now applies it to, mopping up sweat from the pink forehead and neck, and it's while he's patting down his face a second time that Jake slips in from who knows where and lands a second strike to the chest. This one catches Bob on an unprepared right pectoralis, and while there's ample flesh there to prevent the possibility of being seriously hurt, he can tell right away a bit of breastplate's going to be bruised tomorrow.

Come on Bob, hit me! Jake says.

Bob reholsters the towel and glances over to get Alyssa's take.

 

Certain of the wraith contingent will spend some long hours in the aftermath of what's next, debating at what point Bob was really going to hit this guy, like was he ready to do it in response to the sucker punch—didn't seem like it, you might almost describe the initial look he shoots at Al as "wry"—You believe this guy?—only there's very little sympathy in her response. And a point the wraiths will further debate is whether she can really be held accountable for reacting a tad unfairly here, in the sense that Bob never asked to be hit, since she may at this point have intuited the unfolding action without Bob's having made it all the way down the decision tree, but at any rate, what she says is:

 

Jesus, would you two knock it off already? Could one person at this party attempt to act his age?

And meanwhile, Jake has streamlined his masochistic request into a kind of chanted incantation: Hit me Bob, hit-me-in-the-chest; Hit me Bob, hit-me-in-the-chest, and Bob goes ahead and hits him, only he doesn't just sort of pop him on the pec a little, but—and this is the mistake—gathers full force, which is actually a lot with Bob, and heaves whole-body in and hits him, and Bob's a big boy, so logically it shouldn't come as the shock it does to him when flattened Jake, on his back in the adjacent room, with a few hacking coughs makes his own personal liquid contribution to the beer-pool he's created with his fall, viscous material coming out with each hack, stuff that's of an absolutely more elemental hue than beer, and the whole thing is just not an encouraging sight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don't forget to come back in August for Part Two of "ボブ (Bob)," and then again in September for the conclusion.