Nagoya Writes

February 14, 2008

Shogo’s Dilemma by Paul Binford

Filed under: Binford,Issue: 2004,Prose — usbengoshi @ 4:02 pm

Shogo Nomura was one of those rare people who, even when they are young, or perhaps especially when they are young, seem to draw other people to them like honey draws bees. He was tall, good looking and charming. He had poise, intelligence. An atmosphere surrounded him that exuded confidence and a feeling that if you stuck close to him, everything would be all right. Shogo attracted attention, even if he was sitting still, with his hands folded, not looking at or saying anything in particular.

In Chuo High School on his first day, a small crowd of boys gravitated towards him. It took a certain amount of courage to even approach Shogo, but there they were, Issei Nozawa, Takahiro Sato, Kouyo Watanabe and Akihisa Goto. They surrounded him when their foreign English teacher, Mr. Mike Clark from the state of Washington, arrived to teach Oral English. He noticed Shogo right away, or rather he noticed that the group of boys around Shogo paid no attention to him, but very close attention to Shogo. From his previous experience, the English teacher knew that if he could get on Shogo’s good side and keep him there, it would simplify the job of classroom management.

Clark Sensei proceeded to court the favor of Shogo Nomura. He was especially nice to him in the conversation drills, he talked to him in the hallway between classes, put in a good word for him with Mrs. Nomura at the PTA meetings, gave him a sort of leadership position in the classroom. Shogo was the star center of the school basketball team. Clark made it a point to go to all the games, and often he dropped in at the practice sessions. It worked. Eventually, as the three years of Shogo’s high school career ticked by, Clark ended up as Shogo’s personal, unofficial advisor.

That’s what Shogo tried to explain to his shift foreman at the Central Washington University dormitory kitchen. Shogo had gotten a work-study job, as part of a basketball scholarship to CWU after his graduation from Chuo High School. Clark Sensei had arranged this episode of Shogo’s life. One day while Shogo was scrubbing pots and pans, the foreman wandered by on his way from the dining room to the steam table. “So, Shogo, what brought you to this university in the middle of the apple orchards, anyway?” The foreman, Harold Bouton, asked the same question to all the new students on his crew.

Shogo looked at him, looked back at the frying pan in his hands, looked up, and said, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

“Strange way to answer the question,” Harold thought. He tried another tack. “I mean, why are you here?”

Shogo stared at the frying pan in his hands, puzzled as to how he should answer. He thought of Satoko.

“I wanted to find girl friend,” he said.

“Strange way to meet a girl, scrubbing away in a dormitory kitchen, don’t you think?”

“Not so strange.” Shogo answered.

Harold didn’t say anything.

“I had many many friends at high school.” Shogo continued, “It was great! Once in basketball game, some girls were staring at me. We won the game and went on to play in next round of tournament. Same girls followed my team, but they only looked at me. That night I decided I could choose any of those girls, they all liked me.”

“Sounds like a good deal,” said Harold.

“Not so good. I liked Satoko Inukaibest, she was prettiest and tallest. One day I tried to talk with her, but my friends were in my way. I couldn’t go through the crowd. My friends stopped me and made stupid jokes, and I found that I couldn’t reach Satoko.”

At that point the supervisor of the kitchen crew came into the dishwashing area. A middle-aged lady named Louise Baumgartner, she had learned her trade, institutional kitchen management, at the Women’s State Prison in WallaWalla. Louise had learned to be a good kitchen manager, how to issue orders and commands, meanwhile refusing to take any back-talk from her subordinates.

“You’re not finished yet?” she barked at Shogo. “And you,” glaring at Harold, “Haven’t you got anything better to do? You want me to find something for you?” “No thank you Mrs. Baumgartner, I’ll find something else to do.” And Harold shuffled away.

She hovered over Shogo for a while, like a soaring hawk who has spotted some movement in the grass and is about to dive at it, then glided away into some other corner of the kitchen where her supervisory skills could come into play. It wasn’t until the pots and pans were finished and Shogo was mopping the runway between the pizza ovens and the storage room that Harold and Shogo could carry on their conversation.

“Now, back to Satoko, what did you do about her?”

“Well, I asked my American English teacher for advice. I thought I could talk to him because all Japanese teachers had to follow school rules about dating. Really, we weren’t allowed to go out with girls. But Mr. Clark didn’t care about rules, so I thought he would know better than the Japanese teachers. “

Harold pondered the irony for a while. An American English teacher giving advice to an adolescent boy about his love life in a foreign country with a completely different culture. “Why not?” he concluded. Boys and girls do it everywhere. Why should Japan be that much different?

“And so….?” he asked.

“And so Mr. Clark said I should ditch those boys. But it wasn’t easy. They were always around, looking at me, talking to me, sitting with me in the classroom, at lunch, after school, before school. I couldn’t just walk away from them.”

Shogo pushed the wet mop into the wringing device attached to the mop bucket. A brown, sudsy liquid, odorous with cleaning solvent and grease, oozed out as he pulled the wringer handle. He dipped the mop back into the gooey-looking water in the bucket, wrung it again, and proceeded with his mopping.

“Mr. Clark told me some tricks to play. First we…”

Mrs. Baumgartner came by. She stopped with her red hands gripping her hamlike hips and glared. “Hurry up you, Shugu, or Shaga, or whatever your name is. When you finally finish with this mopping, move on to the ovens. Clean them out next!” She moved on, and so did Harold.

They met again at the large ovens that were built to hold trays of fishsticks, pizzas, bowls of macaroni and cheese. Once Shogo’s head was inside and he was scrubbing away at the soot and cinders in the back of the oven, Harold couldn’t understand his words, which echoed out of the oven as though Shogo were in a steep-walled canyon.Therefore Harold dove in alongside Shogo and scrubbed away as they continued.

“First I went after Akihisa. He wasn’t too clever so I thought I should practice with him first. I told him that the next day, we would all wear a red bow tie to school instead of our school necktie. Then I told other friends that we changed our plan, but Akihisa came next day with a red bow tie! He got in big trouble with his homeroom teacher, then when he couldn’t explain well enough, the homeroom teacher called his mom. After that, he wouldn’t talk to me. I was closer to Satoko!”

The word “Satoko” echoed back and forth in the oven. They pulled their heads out of the oven to wring out the scrubbers they were using. Back inside, Shogo’s voice echoed once again in Harold’s ear.

“Then came Issei. I told him our club activity for Sunday was cancelled, and would he meet me at the park near his house and we would go downtown together. He was waiting at the park while our club had a meeting, and in Japan, missing a club meeting is a big problem. The next day, he wouldn’t talk to me and so, I avoided him too.”

Mrs. Baumgartner’s large face, framed with thick reddish curls, the kind that are formed with a curling iron, suddenly appeared in the oven doorway. Harold and Shogo both looked back and saw her, as her voice fairly boomed, then bounced from side to side of the oven.

“Enough time with that!” I know what you’re doing in there! You’re hiding, to get out of doing real work! Get out, go to the pantry. Make sure all the cans of vegetables are lined up on the shelves correctly! Then take inventory. You can write, can’t you Sago? Write down what Harold tells you to write!” She pushed her bulk away from the ground with her knotted elbows, stood up with a gasp and waddled away.

Inside the pantry was much better than the ovens. Harold was surprised that Ms. Baumgartner had given them the inventory assignment. It was one of the better jobs in the dormitory kitchen. As they shifted cans of tomatoes, kernel corn, baby potatoes and lima beans from shelf to shelf, Shogo told about his greatest coup of all.

“I decided to get rid of the last two at same time. They were Takahiro and Kouyo. I said to them, ‘Let’s tell our parents that we’re staying at each other’s house, but we won’t, we’ll go to a bar.’ You know, in Japan they don’t check ID, like they do in America. It’s easy for high school students to get alcohol. And, the places stay open all night. We wanted to try that, even me, but I didn’t show up at the meeting place. They were afraid to go into a bar without me, and they couldn’t go home because they had told their parents that they would be at each other’s house. They walked around all night and even the next morning, and after that, they hated me. So last, I was free to go after Satoko!”

“Hmm,” observed Harold. “This Mr. Clark came up with a pretty good plan. You pulled it off, and got your freedom. That’s impressive! Write down, three cans of succotash are left.”

“Please spell succotash.”

Mrs Baumgartner poked her head in just then, and seeing Shogo helping with the inventory, and as everything seemed to be going along as she expected, she departed.

“But when I went to look for Satoko, I saw that she was with Issei. Then I looked for my number two choice, Midori, and she was with Takahiro. I looked for my number three choice, Naomi, but she was with Akihisa. Then I looked for the friend I liked the best, Kouyo, to see if we could patch things up, but he was also with a girl. So after all that, I was the one who was alone and the friends I dumped were the ones with girls.”

Harold shook his head and said “That’s really bad luck.”

Shogo continued. “I told Mr. Clark what happened. He said ‘I’m proud of you! You had a good plan and it worked!’ When I said that Satoko was with Issei, and all my former friends now had girlfriends, he said ‘Gee, that’s too bad.’”

“So how did you end up here?” asked Harold, repeating his original question.

“Mr. Clark said I should go to a foreign university. He helped me look through a catalogue of schools with scholarships for foreign students, and we agreed on this one. He said there would be lots of girls here, and opportunities, and beautiful nature.’

“Well, he’s right about the nature,” observed Harold. “I’m not so sure about the girls and opportunities. Have you kept in touch with your former friends?”

“Yes. I got a letter from Issei recently. He said he and Satoko were getting married. He also said that I should thank Mr. Clark for arranging their first meeting.”

“You mean, Mr. Clark helped you get away from your buddies, and meanwhile he fixed it so they got the girls?”

“It seems that’s what happened.”

“And what is this about you saying thanks to Clark?”

“That’s the strangest joke of all. Clark Sensei had already got a job teaching here…”


“Yes.” Shogo said. “He’s here now. He’s teaching Japanese Studies and Basic English. I tried to get into his class but he said it would not be a good idea. I didn’t say ‘Thanks’ for Issei.”

Harold couldn’t think of anything to say about this Mr. Clark, whom he’d never met. “Let’s move this pallet of pizza sauce over to this side of the pantry,” he said. They were interrupted a moment later. A cheery voice, bright with enthusiasm, broke through the grinding of the wooden pallet against the linoleum floor of the pantry.

“Shogo! Genki desuka?”

Mike Clark’s face appeared in the doorway. Dust motes floated in the air, Clark’s shadow fell across the pallet of pizza sauce. Harold looked up and saw Clark in silhouette. Shogo didn’t answer the question.

“I just thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.”

Clark stepped inside, took off his jacket, and placed it on an empty section of shelf.

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Well, we’re just about to finish up here,” answered Harold. “You really want to help out, go see Ms. Baumgartner. I’m sure she’ll be glad to give you something to do.”

“Ahh. Good old Ms. Baumgartner,” Clark sighed. “Actually, I need to talk with Shogo for a minute.” He looked at Harold, his face cocked towards the door, a clear gesture that he wanted the conversation to be private. “It’s about his college life here at CWU, some choices he has to make.”

“What, ya’ want me to leave?” Harold exclaimed. “We’re doing some work here!” Clark folded his arms across his chest and looked at Harold.

“Sure.” Harold gave the pallet a final shove into the corner, straightened and left the room.

“How are your classes going, Shogo?”

“I think they’re going okay. I’m having some trouble in law class. I’m not sure what a “tort” is.”

“Ah, well, that will come to you by and by. Listen, I wanted to talk with you about making an improvement in your living situation. You’re living in the dorm, right?”

“Yes, that’s right. I’m the only Japanese student in my part of the dorm.”

“That’s what I’ve been told. I know there can be a lot of trouble learning to deal with a different culture, like the kids from the Midwest that you share the dorm with. They’re different from Japanese, right?’

“Well, they’re bigger, and louder. Most of them are on the wrestling team.”

“Right. Well, I’ve been thinking. I’ve talked it over with the housing office, and the Financial Affairs Advisor. I’ve arranged — that is if you want to — I can have your housing stipend given to you in cash, so you can have some spending money.”

“Then, where would I live?” asked Shogo.

“That’s the beauty of it. I’ve got a big house. Plenty of room. You could be something like a host student while you’re here, and stay in my house. That way you’ll be with somebody who understands a little bit of the Japanese culture and language, and maybe you won’t be so lonely here.”

Clark Sensei stepped a little closer. He put his hand on Shogo’s shoulder.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you Shogo?”

Mr. Clark’s hand crept up to Shogo’s neckline, where locks of Shogo’s stylishly long black hair dangled over his collar. Mr. Clark touched a few of those locks, and gently twisted them around his forefinger.


1 Comment »

  1. Hi Paul,

    How have you been all these years? I hope you and yours are doing well. I would love to get back in touch as e-pals.

    You are still a great writer! Hope I can locate ya!

    Sue Hamlin

    Comment by Sue Hamlin — October 16, 2009 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

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