Tony Concannon grew up in Massachusetts, where he is the director of a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. For many years he taught English in Japan, where much of his fiction is set. Stories of his have appeared in The Taproot Literary Review, Litro, Eastlit, Nazar Look and Down in the Dirt. He is married with two grown sons.
NOTE: This story uses the premise from Contest #24, “Property.”
By Tony Concannon
The boy, his face pressed against the glass, was looking at me through the window. It was Saturday morning and I was sitting on the floor of my apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. My coffee and newspaper were on the low table in front of me. The boy, son of a Nigerian family who’d moved into the empty apartment on the second floor, had climbed over the railing of the veranda on the back side of my apartment.
Each of the eight apartments in the building had a veranda at the rear. The Japanese families used theirs mostly to hang out the wash or to store large items. I kept my empty beer bottles on mine. I’d put out an old chair and on the hot nights I’d sometimes sit out there. I’d been living in the apartment for nearly five years, ever since I’d come to Japan from the US to teach at the local university.
I waved to the boy and he waved back. He was rolling his face back and forth against the glass, trying to see the inside of my apartment. I guessed he was six or seven. I stood to slide open the window and ask him his name and he turned and scampered back over the railing.
He was on my veranda again on Sunday morning. Satomi, the Japanese woman who’d spent the night, and I were having breakfast at the table. Her back was to the veranda. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move and the boy, his face pressed against the glass, was at the window again.
“Turn around slowly,” I said to Satomi in Japanese, the language we used. “Don’t be surprised.”
Satomi turned her head. I could see her body react.
“Who is it?”
“A little kid who lives on the second floor. He just moved in.”
“Iya da. I don’t want him staring at me.”
“Slide over there so your back’s not to him.”
He was moving his face back and forth again, trying to see everything in the apartment.
“Tell him to go away.”
I waved to him and he waved back.
“Don’t wave to him. He won’t leave.”
“I don’t mind him. I want to ask him his name but if I stand up, he’ll go away.”
“He’s not bothering anybody.”
“He’s bothering me.”
“He’s just a little kid. He probably doesn’t know better.”
I wasn’t home much during the weekdays because of my job at the university and I didn’t see the boy again until the following Saturday. It was late April and the weather had turned hot. I’d slid open the glass window to let in some air. There was a noise and the boy was standing on the veranda. He put his face against the screen and looked in.
“Hello. What’s your name?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Do you speak English?”
He still didn’t answer and I pointed at myself. “Gary.” I repeated my name several times and pointed at him and said, “Name?”
He turned and climbed back over the railing.
Later in the morning I went out to do some shopping and I ran into Mrs. Kuwahara, who lived in the apartment next door.
We bowed and greeted each other.
“It’s getting warm,” I said in Japanese. I spoke with pretty much everyone in the neighborhood in that language.
“It’ll be summer before you know it,” she said.
“How is your family doing?” I asked. She and her husband had two children.
“Naomi’s in her last year of high school and Satoshi’s in his first.”
“They’ll be in college before you know it.”
“If they study hard enough.”
“I’m sure they will.”
“Has that little boy been looking in your window?” Mrs. Kuwahara asked.
“The new one on the second floor. Twice this week he was on my veranda, looking into my window, and Mrs. Goto said she’s seen him on her veranda once.”
The Gotos lived on the other side of my apartment.
“I’ve seen him a couple of times.”
“It’s eerie. All of a sudden you turn around and there’s a face in the window.”
“He’s little,” I said. “He probably doesn’t know better.”
“His parents should know better. A Japanese child would never do that. He can play on his own veranda. We’re going to have to speak to Kondo-san.”
I nodded. Mr. Kondo was the landlord and he lived in a small house across the parking lot. Mrs. Kuwahara and I talked a little more about her children and their schooling before I went off to do my shopping.
The boy was on my veranda the next morning. The temperature had dropped overnight and I’d closed the window. He stared into my apartment. I thought about going outside and walking around to the veranda but I didn’t want to frighten him. I sat and watched him until he finally climbed back over the railing.
I could see this was going to become a problem with the neighbors and I wondered if I should talk with the boy’s parents. I’d spoken with his father once, briefly, in the parking lot. He didn’t seem to be around much. I often saw the mother with their younger son and I always nodded and said hello. I decided to let the Japanese sort it out. It was their problem, not mine. It was more their neighborhood than mine, too, even though I’d lived there longer than some of them.
I got pulled in, though. A couple of nights later Mr. Kondo rang my doorbell.
“Konban-wa,” I said after I opened it. He stood in the doorway. He’d been some kind of judo champion in his youth and he was still a powerful-looking man. Per the custom in Japan, I knew he wouldn’t come into the apartment of one of his tenants unless invited.
“Konban-wa.” He bowed his head slightly and apologized for disturbing me. I told him I hadn’t been doing anything consequential and I assured him it was no disturbance. We talked briefly about the sudden changes in the weather. Then he got to the purpose of his visit.
“Mrs. Kuwahara said the boy on the second floor climbed over the railing onto your veranda.”
“A couple of times.”
“The other day Mrs. Goto had her window open and when she came out of the bathroom, the boy was in her apartment.”
“That must have frightened her.”
I nodded. I knew he wanted to ask me to do something.
“I don’t know his parents very well,” I said. “I’ve only spoken to his father once. I say hi to his mother whenever I see her in the parking lot.”
“I see. Neither of them speak Japanese.”
“The father speaks English. I don’t know about the mother.”
Mr. Kondo didn’t say anything. I knew he didn’t speak any English.
“The boy seems lonely,” I said. “I don’t know if he goes to school yet.”
“He’s here all day.”
Both of us stood there not saying anything. “Do you want me to try speaking with them?” I finally asked.
“If it’s no trouble.”
“Not at all.”
He bowed and thanked me. We stayed there in the doorway and talked about baseball for a few more minutes.
The following night I forced myself to climb the steps to the second floor. I got sucked into doing this kind of thing at the university all the time because I spoke the best Japanese of the foreign teachers. It never turned out well for me.
The Nigerian family lived in the apartment at the end and I rang their bell. Inside the boys were making a racket. Their father, Sam, opened the door.
“Hi, I’m Gary from downstairs.”
“I know you. We met in the parking lot.”
The two boys stood behind their father.
“How old are your boys?”
“Six and three.”
“Do they speak English?”
“I bet they learn Japanese quickly.”
“I hope so.”
“I’m really sorry to bother you about this but the landlord, Mr. Kondo, asked me to speak to you.”
His face became serious. “Is there a problem?”
I waved my hand. “Nothing serious. Your older son sometimes climbs over the railing onto the verandas on the first floor. I don’t care but the Japanese families don’t like it.”
He turned and spoke to his son in a language I didn’t know. The boy spoke back. His mother had come out from the interior of their apartment. Sam turned to me.
“I told him not to do it anymore. I’m sorry.”
I waved my hand again. “You don’t have to apologize to me. I don’t care if he climbs onto my veranda.”
“In the town we came from in Nigeria everyone was family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. He’s used to running in and out of everyone’s house.”
“It must be hard for him not having any friends yet.”
Sam didn’t say anything.
“Goodnight,” I said after a moment.
I waved to the boys but they just looked at me. I closed the door and went down the steps. Just as I’d expected, it hadn’t gone over well.
I was away a lot the next couple of weeks. There was a conference in Osaka one week and I’d been spending more nights at Satomi’s apartment. Seeing the boy in the window had unnerved her more than I’d realized. The truth was my apartment was much bigger than I needed, but it didn’t matter because the university was paying. It was part of my compensation. It was a common arrangement in Japan. I was pretty sure all of the Japanese families had the same deal, although I wondered about the Nigerian family. Sam had told me he worked for a Nigerian company exporting oil to Japan. His family might be the only ones in the building actually paying rent.
It was Mrs. Goto who accosted me on my way out this time. She was a tall, attractive woman.
“It happened again,” she said.
“The boy on the second floor. He was on my veranda. Playing with my plants. He knocked a couple over.”
“I thought that had stopped. Mr. Kondo asked me to speak to his parents.”
“They’re not doing a very good job.”
“His father thinks he’s lonely. They come from a small town where everyone knows everyone.”
“They’re living here now.”
“Have you talked to Mr. Kondo?”
“I’m going to.”
“I hope he can help you.”
It was the middle of May by now and the temperature was in the seventies every day. I slept with the windows open. I was still in bed on the following Sunday morning when I heard a noise on my veranda. At first I thought it might be a small animal. I got up and went into the living room to look. The boy was on the veranda. He’d taken all the empty beer bottles out of the cases and lined them up. His back was to me and I didn’t say anything. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was only six-thirty. This wasn’t going to end well, I thought.
It all came to a head a week or so later. I arrived home from work one evening to a wild scene in the parking lot. Mrs. Kuwahara was screaming. All I could make out of her Japanese was “Stay out of my apartment.” Mr. Kondo and a policeman were trying to get her to stop. Sam was speaking with Mr. Harada, who lived on the third floor and spoke pretty good English. The boy was clinging to his mother. She was holding her other son and crying. Most of the neighbors were there.
I made my way around the crowd to where Mrs. Goto was standing.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The boy was in Kuwahara-san’s apartment. She went out to buy tofu and we were all chatting with Arakawa-san. She had the windows open because it’s been so hot.”
Arakawa-san went around the neighborhood on his bicycle every evening and sold tofu. More importantly, he was the local town crier and everyone loved gossiping with him.
“When she went back inside, the boy was pulling the books out of her son’s bookcase. She was so startled, she screamed and dropped her tofu. The boy hadn’t taken off his shoes and he’d tracked mud all over her floor.”
I nodded. It had rained earlier in the day.
“She called the police,” Mrs. Goto added.
Mrs. Kuwahara had stopped screaming and Mr. Kondo and the policeman were talking with Sam. Mr. Harada was interpreting for them. The boy’s mother was still crying. I thanked Mrs. Goto and walked back around the circle of people. I didn’t want to get involved and I went to get something to eat. When I came back an hour later, the parking lot was empty.
I didn’t see the boy on my veranda after that. About three weeks later I stepped out of my apartment on a Saturday morning and Sam was loading boxes into the back of a big truck. “You’re leaving?” I said to him.
“We’re moving to Chiba. One of our friends from Nigeria lives there with his family.”
“They didn’t kick you out, did they?”
“No. We decided to leave. My friend has two boys and it’ll be good for my son. He’s lonely. My wife, too. We don’t fit in here.”
He was right. None of the neighbors had come out to help or even say goodbye. Before, whenever anyone had moved out, everyone had come out and half the women had been crying. Not this time.
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
“Some of our friends are upstairs helping. Thank you, though.”
“Well, good luck.”
We shook hands. I headed off to do a few errands. The Japanese were right: the boy shouldn’t have been playing on their verandas, let alone in their apartments. But was it really such a big deal? It was their neighborhood, I guess.
The whole thing didn’t sit well with me, though, and when I got back from my errands, I rang Mrs. Kuwahara’s doorbell.
She answered the door and we bowed and greeted each other. I got right to the point.
“The family on the second floor moved out,” I said.
“I saw the truck in the parking lot.”
I knew she didn’t miss anything.
“I don’t think you needed to call the police that time.”
“My husband and children said the same thing. They said I overreacted.”
“I feel like they got driven out.”
“People who live here need to learn our ways. You shouldn’t look in other people’s windows or come into their apartments.”
“He’s a child. He didn’t mean any harm.”
“He frightened me.”
“People do things differently sometimes.”
“My children said the same thing but I don’t agree. There’s a right and wrong way to do everything.”
I looked at her face. I wasn’t going to get any further with her. She wasn’t a bad person.
I bowed my head and apologized for disturbing her. She closed her door.
It was a beautiful summer day and I took a book and bottle of beer up to the sundeck on the third floor. I liked the view of the neighborhood from there. When I’d first moved in, I’d been impressed with Mr. Kondo, the owner, for sacrificing the rent from a ninth apartment to put in a sundeck for his tenants. Then Mr. Harada had burst my bubble by explaining Kondo had done it only because he didn’t want the sunlight to his house to be blocked. It was his building.
Copyright 2015 by Tony Concannon