Chiao En Huang studies Graphic Design in CCSF. Currently, Chiao works at speciality coffee shop SPRO. “Obviously, [to] create is one of my biggest hobbies. I also do a lot of painting and drawing. Line (geometric) and color are two really big inspiration for me.” More work can be viewed at Chiao En Huang’s website: www.chiaondesign.com.
A Simple Task
by Dana Wagner
Call me Kobayashi.
That’s what the short, clean-cut Japanese man in the dark suit had said when he’d given me the small package. If his name had actually been Kobayashi, he wouldn’t have said it the way he had, but as I walked through the afternoon crowd in the Ginza district with the brown-paper-covered parcel under my arm, I was still wondering why he’d picked that as his cipher … and why he’d picked a cipher at all, an obviously fabricated pseudonym that had been completely unnecessary since I was highly unlikely to ever see him again. It seemed pointless, a deception merely for the sake of itself. Maybe that had been the point, simply to impress upon me how little I knew. You do not know my name, he was saying, you do not know anything about me, and there is very little of this you will ever understand.
Not that I needed much reminding. As a foreigner living in Tokyo, I felt uncertain and unwelcome even on the best of days. The man allowed into the party solely because he could score something everyone there wanted, tolerated and even spoken to, but with whom no one wanted any kind of personal connection. The Japanese would smile, buy you business meals, make small talk, get drunk with you, and play at being your guides through their complex society while they sought to exploit your knowledge of western markets, but they would never, ever let you in or do anything to give you any illusions about being truly trusted or included. They barely let each other into their inner lives, and they weren’t about to shake off centuries of xenophobia and emotional repression for a nondescript American businessman like me. I was no stranger to being the painfully self-aware stranger in their midst. So why was it eating at me that this Japanese man of indeterminate age, whom I had never seen before and would hope never to see again, had bothered to give me a transparently fake name?
Because he had bothered. That was the thing about the Japanese I dealt with in my business interactions, whether inside or outside the office. They never bothered with anything gratuitous. If they had to suck it up and place a veneer of hospitality on top of their forced relationships with the corporate emissaries of the West, they would, but they weren’t going to put anything more into it than necessary. Everything they did and shared with a gaijin like me was a deliberate choice and had a desired purpose. Often it was immediately clear to me what it was, sometimes it wouldn’t become clear until much later, and sometimes I would never figure it out. But always I knew it was there. There was always something. If this squat Japanese man who’d pushed the package towards me across his desk had told me to call him Kobayashi, then there had been a reason, and I was focused on trying to puzzle out what it had been.
I crossed the busy street and began ascending the steps to the JR Line rail station, surrounded by commuters wordlessly climbing the same stairs. Mainly men. Mainly in suits tailored to be more tightly fitted than mine. Mainly a foot or more shorter than me. I knew once we were all in the packed rail car, my head would poke out awkwardly as usual from the throng, a pale periscope breaching the sea of short, straight, black hair. The sun was still out, but it was late enough in the day that the evening commute had begun, and when I arrived at the train platform at the top of the stairs, I only saw a few students and a couple of women with the oddly fashionable orange-dyed hair mixed in with the crowd of salarymen waiting there. It wasn’t as dense of a pack as it would be in an hour—I could still walk comfortably through the other commuters to get closer to the rails—but it was filling up. The JR Line ran with meticulous precision that time of day, perfectly calibrated to relieve the human congestion so that the stations were never too full and the trains never too empty. Urban efficiency at its finest.
I found a relatively uncrowded spot in which to stand and shifted the package from under my right arm to under my left. My thoughts went back to “Kobayashi.” What had he been trying to tell me? Was he really just trying to emphasize how uninformed and out of my element I was? Unlikely. He needn’t have bothered, as must have been clear to him. And why would he have cared? He would only have felt that appropriate if he’d been worried that, without some reinforcement, I might have taken some action against him. Exposed him. Delivered the package to some different location. Taken it to the authorities. Thrown it away. Opened it.
But they’d already seen to it that I would’ve had to have been crazy to do any of those things. And it seemed they’d done enough vetting to be confident that I wasn’t crazy. And I’m not. There’s nothing crazy or unpredictable about me.
I’m about as middle-of-the-road as they come. I grew up as the middle child in a middle-class family in the middle of America. I played center field on my consistently mediocre high school baseball team, and I’d graduated in the middle of my class from a mid-tier public university. After floundering around with some forgettable jobs, I’d landed a position in middle management at a Midwestern bank, where I’d spent the past decade earning an average salary and average performance reviews. It was practically laughable. I couldn’t have been any more in the middle if my name had been Malcolm.
Pretty much the only unusual thing I had ever done in my life had been to agree, almost half a year ago, to accept this one-year detail to man a desk at our partner bank here in Japan. Management had said they’d wanted someone reliable, by which they’d probably meant someone safe and unlikely to cause any embarrassment, to spend a year learning the Japanese approach to banking and building stronger relationships with our sometimes collaborative investment partners here on the other side of the ocean. I’m not exactly sure what I had wanted. Maybe I hadn’t had anything better to do. Maybe some little part of me had just been tired of living so much in the predictable middle all the time. Whatever my reasons, I’d said yes and moved to a small corporate apartment in Tokyo with a few boring suits and barely any personal possessions. It was almost as if, having decided to step away from my usual middling routines and take up halfway around the world in a very foreign society, I’d been determined to make the experience as unremarkable as possible.
And yet here I was, standing in a Japanese commuter rail station with a strange package tucked under my arm, with no true idea why I had it or what significance it held, feeling entirely in over my head and trying to distract myself by obsessing over one of the smallest and least odd details of my day: the fact that this unknown man in his unmarked office had told me to call him Kobayashi.
The oddity of that detail kept gnawing at me. I may be as average as they come in so many respects, to the point where I pity the obituary writer tasked with trying to identify and report any distinguishing details of my life, but I’m not a dummy. I may never act in any extraordinary ways, but I enjoy reading about things and thinking about things. I daydream about things all the time. And I understand things happen for a reason.
The man had told me to call him Kobayashi for a reason.
A loudspeaker suspended above the rail platform delivered a short announcement in deep-voiced, official-sounding Japanese. I guess almost all Japanese sounded official to my ear. I couldn’t understand the announcement, of course, but I knew what it said: be aware that a train will be arriving shortly. One always was. The thickening crowd of dark-suited salarymen with their standard-issue briefcases stirred around me.
What had been his reason? My thoughts kept spinning in the same circle. Why would he tell me to call him Kobayashi, when there would never be any reason for me to call him anything at all?
This unforeseeable series of events had all started, for me at least, that morning, the morning of what had looked to be another disposable day spent sitting at my adopted desk in my grey-walled cubicle, nestled among countless identical grey cubicles, reviewing account summaries and awaiting the inevitable strained business-social lunch with some group of my interchangeable local colleagues.
I had been a bit startled when my desk phone had rung because our desk phones almost never ring, and mine least of all. The only people who called me on it were my so-called superiors in the United States, and it had already become too late in the morning for them to still be working, and the occasional fellow ex-pat looking to grab a beer in Roppongi after work, and it had still been far too early in the day for those calls to be going around. So I had jumped slightly at the sound of my own phone and had to self-consciously try to recover and assume a perfectly flat, business-in-Japan-appropriate tone when I picked up and answered.
The unfamiliar male voice on the other end of the line had delivered a flood of short, declarative statements in barely (but perceptibly) accented English.
You do not know who we are, but we know who you are.
We know everything about you.
You do not need to worry. We are not interested in causing you any misfortune.
By the time I’d heard this, I’d recovered enough to try to cut in with a question about who the hell this bizarre caller was and what he thought he was doing, but the barrage of conclusory statements continued.
Listen. You do not yet need to talk.
You are perfect for what we need you to do, and you will benefit from it.
If you follow our instructions, you will not be at risk.
We need someone who knows no one to perform a simple task about which he knows nothing.
It will not take more than two hours of your time.
Do you understand everything I have said?
A second had passed before I’d realized that this last sentence had been a question calling for my response. I’d shot back in a somewhat confused and upset tone, though still keeping my voice low enough to avoid attracting the attention my nearby coworkers, that no, this was coming out of left field, and no, I had no idea what this unknown man with his weirdly stylized language was talking about at all.
Good, that is to be expected.
Your reaction is as expected.
You will now continue to listen to me.
You have a personal savings account at the bank that employs you.
If you check that account right now, you will see that it received a sizeable deposit this morning.
I will now give you a moment to verify this for yourself. Let me know once you have done so.
As soon as he had stopped talking, I had nervously raised my head above the walls of my cubicle and glanced around the office floor, the phone receiver still pressed to the side of my face. No one had looked back at me. No one had been doing anything other than their usual work in their usual grey cubicles with the usual low level of background noise from occasional phone calls and movements around the office. All totally usual. I had sat back down, my initial confused shock and anger giving way to a still somewhat bewildered curiosity. I asked my mysterious caller whether this was some kind of a joke—I’d seen enough low-grade thrillers to know that this was what one was supposed to ask.
This is not a joke.
Use this time to check your personal savings account as instructed, and you will see that it is not a joke.
Lacking any more creative options, I had then done as I’d been told, and in a few moments, I’d checked my account from my desk computer and seen that it had recently received a deposit equivalent to nearly my entire pre-tax annual salary.
This must have triggered some kind of subconscious audible reaction, because as soon as the windfall in my account had registered with me, the caller resumed.
Good. Now you know we are serious.
You need not worry about reporting or explaining the deposit. The bank will not report it. No one will ask you any questions.
You will receive another deposit of the same size this evening after you complete your simple task.
You will tell your manager after lunch that you are feeling ill and need to take the afternoon off. He will agree, and he will not ask you any questions.
You will travel to an address that I will supply in a moment. You will ring the door there, and you will be admitted. No one will ask you any questions.
You will meet someone there who will give you something to bring somewhere else. You will follow his instructions as you will mine.
All of this will be simple and straightforward.
You will not be doing anything illegal, and as I stated, if you follow all the instructions, you will not be at risk.
At the end of the day, you will have been well compensated for your efforts, with greater financial resources than you have ever possessed, and you will not need to do anything further.
You will never hear from us again.
Do you understand?
Of course I’d still understood very little, but none of my subsequent attempts to learn more—What was this about? Who was this caller? Why had he decided to involve me, of all people?—proved successful. The impassive voice on the line had just kept repeating that I knew everything I needed to know.
I probably should have just hung up. I didn’t really need the money; I didn’t have anything interesting to do with it. But I had worried, in this unfamiliar country with these funds of unknown origin now sitting in my personal bank account, of the consequences of not doing precisely what I had become so accustomed to doing the past six months: simply going along and following the lead of my local hosts, even if I didn’t fully understand who they were or what we were doing. Perhaps that had been part of why they’d selected me—not only did I have no real connections in or noteworthy knowledge of Tokyo, but after half a year, I’d learned it was usually far easier to shut up and go with the flow despite whatever weirdness I encountered. I wasn’t exactly known for rocking the boat, on either side of the ocean. Maybe my local manager, whom this ominous caller apparently knew well enough to know he wouldn’t question my request for time off, had even told them this?
I hadn’t known. All I had been focused on had been the fact that, all else notwithstanding, it seemed the easiest and fastest way to get all of this behind me and return to my routines would be to spend a couple of hours following directions and delivering something from point A to point B. I hadn’t wanted any trouble, and I hadn’t known of any better approach. Besides, if everything this man had said were true (and I didn’t count dishonesty among the common flaws or tactics of the Japanese), it would be foolish not to comply. I could earn almost twice my annual salary, tax-free, for just a couple of hours of simple work. I had no idea what they were playing at, but they had sure given me a huge incentive to play along and not to step out of line.
A bolder person probably would have thought of a better way to handle all of this and not gotten involved, and a less bold person probably would have panicked or simply refused to consider anything so suspicious and also not gotten involved. I had been stuck in the middle as usual and done neither. They’d chosen me well.
Giving in to the surreality of the situation as I had so many others in this often-disorienting place, I had received the address (I was to write it on a small piece of paper and then dispose of that paper in a trash can outside the building as soon as I arrived there, I’d been told), and I had followed the caller’s instructions to the letter, taking my unquestioned afternoon leave of absence and taking the unparalleled Tokyo subway system to the specified building, which is where I’d received the unmarked brown-paper package in the unmarked room from the man whose name was certainly not Kobayashi.
I felt the package under my arm as I thought about the unseen train that was approaching. Soon it would round the bend on the elevated tracks and be in full view as it pulled into the station. I sensed the crowd of mainly commuters leaning ever so slightly forward in anticipation.
The man who had given me the package and the false name had not given me much else, just instructions to deliver the wrapped parcel, unopened and undisturbed, to another location on the other side of the sprawling city, which is why I was now having to use the JR Line to get over there. His voice had been different from that of the man who had called me at my desk—I’d listened for that—and to my untrained eye, there had been almost nothing distinguishing about him. He’d been a little on the shorter side, even for a Japanese man, but otherwise I couldn’t have picked him out from the crowd of transit passengers growing around me. His age, build, inflection, hair and eye color, manner of dress … all had seemed perfectly ordinary and average. Perhaps I had met my Japanese twin. Perhaps that had been intentional too. Maybe, I started thinking, he had been selected for the same reasons I had. Maybe he had realized this as well. Maybe he had felt some unexpected kinship for me and had therefore broken protocol in an almost impossible-to-detect way by instructing me to call him Kobayashi. Maybe this was a clue offered to his American double, ensnared in the same web.
Nonsense. I banished all of these thoughts as the train rounded the corner and came into view about a hundred meters away. The Japanese didn’t feel kinship for white businessmen, and certainly not for ones they were only meeting anonymously for a few minutes of clandestine dialogue in an undecorated office. Still it ate at me: Why, then, had he bothered to say anything extraneous to me at all?
I tried to bury this pointless train of thought as the actual train slowed down and continued its approach. I simply had to deliver this package to the other side of the city as instructed, and everything would be over. I’d followed all the instructions so far, and so far nothing had gone wrong. No one had jumped out from the Tokyo crowds or from the shadows between buildings to accost me. No Japanese police officers had emerged to question me and taken me into custody. The unknown package at my side had not detonated. Everything had gone smoothly, just as promised, and my service was almost complete.
But I really hadn’t been carrying this package for very long at all, just the handful of minutes it had taken me to walk out of that indistinguishable office building, across the Ginza, up the steps, and over to this train platform. Fifteen minutes at most. Having this package under my arm changed things, put me directly at stake in a way I hadn’t been before. I hadn’t the faintest notion what was in it, what it could do, or for whom it was meant.
I started to feel myself sweating as I thought about it. I had no clue who or what was waiting for me at the address I’d been asked to memorize and repeat back before leaving that small, unremarkable office with the package that now felt so uncomfortable under my arm. I could be walking into all sorts of traps, stings, or ambushes. Maybe even if that wasn’t the intention, I wouldn’t make it to my destination—I’d be intercepted by some other person or group with their own interests in whatever it was I carried. Some rival organization. Yakuza. Law enforcement.
Or maybe I wasn’t even intended to arrive at what I’d been told was my destination at all. Not-Kobayashi had directed me to go straight there and to waste no time doing so. At this time of day and from this part of the city, the JR Line was the obvious travel choice; anyone would know that. Had he even suggested it when giving me the package? In my sudden effort to remember, I couldn’t be certain. More alarming thoughts crept in. I could be carrying a bomb or a toxic gas canister timed to go off in the train during my trip. It could be rigged to explode at the chiming sound the train doors make just before they slide open.
The train slid to a stop in front of me and all the other expectant commuters. Anyone not fixated on it would’ve noticed how pale and shiny with clammy sweat my face had become, and realizing this made me even more tense. I felt the weight of the crowd building up to push me. I closed my eyes. The automated chime sounded.
Panic. But nothing. I opened my eyes to see the doors gliding slowly open in font of me and realized I’d been holding my breath as tightly as I was now gripping the package. Tried to breathe as a few people moved out of the train car, and out of the cars to my left and right, and an anxious crowd readied itself to swell in.
I again became hyperaware of the brown package, its paper covering now damp with the sweat it had absorbed through my shirt as I clutched it against my side, under the flap of my suit jacket. I couldn’t tell anything from its weight. Maybe it was empty, a Maguffin created simply to convince me to walk into some hostile scenario, to deliver the unsuspecting me into the hands of some captor or tormentor for some unknown reason, to settle some unknown debt or score. Maybe I was the package.
People started moving forward into the train on all sides of me. I glanced around, and my eyes locked momentarily with those of someone who looked like just another Japanese businessman in the crowd, standing about twenty feet to my right on the platform. He quickly looked away and was lost in the surge of dark hair and suits rolling into the rail cars. Very unusual. My heart’s pounding escalated within my tightening chest. I’d looked over hundreds of crowds here and never made eye contact with anyone who wasn’t another foreigner. The Japanese don’t look directly at people in public the way we do. Not unless they’re watching you. Had that man been watching me?
The commuters were pressing past me in great numbers and pushing into me from behind, but I stood rooted in place.
Kobayashi. Kobayashi. Call me Kobayashi. What could it have meant? I probably had a minute at most to decide whether to flow with the masses into the open train car in front of me.
Sweating profusely now through my jacket, I mentally raced through every Kobayashi I could conjure up. I’m a pretty standard bank employee, but I read the newspapers. I got a decent education, and I have a pretty good memory. I like books and movies like everyone else. I’ve encountered a lot of Kobayashis. My mind flew through them.
Kobayashi was the guy who ate all the hot dogs, winning those contests on Coney Island every year. Not a sophisticated reference, but a Japanese guy trying to drop a reference on a clueless American mule probably wouldn’t be going for sophistication or subtlety. But why evoke someone who gagged down cheap sausages faster than he could chew? You’ve bitten off more than you can handle, he was telling me. You’re in over your head. Get out.
Probably not. Too much of a stretch. Telling me to call him Kobayashi would have been too opaque of a way to try to convey that. Too indirect. Too unlikely. If there were anything to it, it had to be another Kobayashi.
The Kobayashi Maru? A training exercise for Star Fleet cadets in which victory is impossible? This is an unwinnable situation for you, the short Japanese man said in my head. Also unlikely. It’s mainstream science fiction, but it wouldn’t be a primary association for anyone raised in Japan surrounded by Kobayashis. But I hadn’t been raised in Japan, and he would of course have known that. What Kobayashis would he think I might know?
The train car was almost full now as the last stragglers from the platform pushed their way in. A few shot quick glances at me, the sweaty, strangely paralyzed pillar of indecision fixed in place, holding a brown package.
Kobayashi. A red herring in that modern noir film, the one where the guy pretending to be crippled spins up a whole fabricated story; someone who seems important but who actually isn’t. What you think is happening here is not what is happening. You don’t understand what is going on.
The director of that samurai film where the poor traveling sap gets in over his head and end up having to commit ritual disembowelment in the courtyard of some callous feudal lord? I’d seen that in some class in college when the professor hadn’t felt like preparing a lecture that day. I didn’t remember much about it other than that disturbing scene. You’re messing with people you don’t understand, and it will kill you. You’ll be forced to become the instrument of your own demise.
No. If the competitive eater was too common of a reference, this was too obscure. Some of the train passengers were looking curiously out at me through the still-open doors of the train car, no doubt wondering whether the stupefied-looking white mess with the parcel under his am was about to push forward into their ranks. My mind was reeling. I felt a desperate sort of despair. I didn’t know what to do and had no way of knowing what the man had meant Kobayashi to refer to, if he’d even meant it to refer to anything at all. He could’ve just picked something random, made it up for no purpose. The bastard’s name might even be Kobayashi for all I knew.
No no no. Call me Kobayashi. Like in Melville. The introduction of an unreliable narrator who may not even be telling you his real name. Don’t trust me. You can’t trust anything about this.
The automated chime sounded again. The doors were about to close.
It hit me.
All of the meanings I was coming up with were bad. Very bad. My mind spun through all the possible Kobayashi associations I could muster, over and over, and I was biting off more than I could chew, being misled, in over my head, or being set up for certain failure under any of them. They all told me to run.
The Japanese man in the office may have known as little about me as I’d known about him, and he may not have known I’d get any of these references. But he’d have known that I’d been alive long enough to have a chance of getting at least one of them, and maybe I didn’t need any more than that. All the associations pointed to same conclusion. Kobayashi is bad. Kobayashi is a warning.
Or not. This could all be nothing. Just panic and foolish thoughts endangering my mental stability and financial well-being, urging me to rock the boat that I never rock. But how not to? The inexplicable package pressing against me, the train doors starting to glide shut in front of me in slow motion as I remained there, unsure whether following the strange instructions and lunging through those doors or not following them and fleeing would be the more disruptive path.
I clung to my increasing certainty that “Kobayashi” had been a warning. I didn’t know why that man would have tried to warn me or even whether he truly had, but more and more, Kobayashi represented the perilous unknown.
The doors were almost closed, separating me from the cargo of business-attired passengers crammed in behind them, as I persisted in standing there, sweating and uncertain but in passive rebellion against my explicit instructions as I made no move. The anxiety and foreboding about Kobayashi and whatever it could have signified were too great for me to push forward. The doors sealed shut.
The train slowly began to pull away, and I pulled myself away from it, moving my legs for what felt like the first time in ages as I turned towards the stairs that led back down to the street. More commuters were already coming up them and arriving on the platform to await the next train and to start the cycle anew. I walked into their tide and past them, down the steps I’d come up just a few long minutes before, oblivious to everyone else, not looking behind me to see if anyone watched or followed.
I hoped I was walking back down into my ordinary life, as ordinary and routine as I could make it in this hypermodern yet archaic place, its people and protocols all beyond me. I don’t need extraordinary wealth or anything extraordinary at all. I’m okay not rising above the middle if it means not falling far below it either.
I dumped the package in a small trash bin attached to the pole of a street sign, one that stood close to where the stairs let me back out onto the sidewalk. I barely broke my stride and kept walking forward, away from it and into the Ginza crowds, with no clear direction or goal, just hoping I was no longer involved.
Either you get involved in these things, or you don’t.