Actions of a Votary

by Chuck Teixeira

illustrated by Brian Holliday

Votary IllustrationKyo Vivaldo was glad she turned out less docile than Ray thought a Japanese wife would.  Kyo was close to starvation in 1967 when Ray found her, branded by yakuza, at a bar on Koku-sai Dori.  He would rescue her, the way an animal shelter accepts an abused dog.  In exchange, she would keep house while he ran an Alfa repair shop, making good money by fixing cars nobody bought anymore.  In his free time, he would do whatever he liked with whomever he pleased.  That was the deal he must have thought they had reached.  Had he also thought that a stomach shrunk in the post-war underworld would keep her from gaining weight; and that the scar across her forehead ensured submission?

Not happy in the States, Kyo sought consolation in food.  She also sought revenge in resisting Ray’s promiscuity and neglect.  She would not let Ray hide that from himself – no matter how seldom he looked at her.  Then, in 1980, when he had finally saved enough to return her to Naha, she received a call from a woman who practiced the same religion she had in Japan.  One of the founders of their church, their Sensei, was coming to San Francisco again.

“I not burden you much longer,” Kyo said wiping the dishes.  She stacked her words.  “When Sensei see grim life with you, he take me back home.  And not with your money.”

“Kyo,” Ray said.  “From the start, I warned I would not be good company.”  Ray rose from his chair and tried to leave the kitchen.

Kyo was faster.  “At the start, I no English.  You no Japanese.  And I not know you like women only as chore-hound mule-deer.”

“I never called you that,” Ray said.

“You called me charging rhino.”

“I said I was sorry.  I say I’m sorry every time you remind me.  How many times do I have to apologize?”

As far as Kyo was concerned, Ray’s apologies could continue forever.  “If I not marry sister boy,” Kyo said, “I not be fat pig.”

“But you did marry a sister boy,” Ray said.  “And you were glad to stop selling radioactive sake.”  Kyo surveyed her chances of feeling glad again.

“You were grateful then,” Ray said.  “And I felt okay about what I was doing.  You needed help.  I needed cover.  I’ve done my part.”

Kyo tried to tear the dishtowel in half.  She could not feel grateful.  Back in Okinawa, enfolded in misfortune, she had thought nothing good could get near her.  Then Ray came close enough, in the bar where she was drowning, to throw what she believed was a lifeline.  Now she thought because life had been so wretched better things were inevitable; and she had been stupid to accept Ray.

For Sensei’s visit, Kyo took a long series of bus rides from their home in Novato to the Galleria on Henry Adams.  At the meeting-place, she noticed that many women arrived with their husbands – some of whom seemed decent, waiting in their cars or mingling on the street until their wives finished.  One of the church leaders, Fumiko Pearson, with a somewhat disheveled husband, gave her a ride all the way to the front door of her home.

Inside, Kyo searched for Ray and announced, “I have mission in America.  I hate it, but I stay.”

“No need to stay,” Ray said.  “No need to make me miserable over your mission.”

“I do my mission,” Kyo said.  “You be miserable if you not do your mission.”

“All right, all right,” Ray said, wanting to leave the subject.

“Sensei say that women from Okinawa suffered most, so we have mission to become the happiest.”

“Suffering is a hard habit to break,” Ray said.

“Like eating too much?” Kyo challenged him to say it out loud.  “Like eating too much?”

“No,” Ray said, “Much harder than that.”

Like every other human, Ray must have had a mission, at least at one time in his life, something only he could do.  Kyo doubted Ray’s mission had any connection to the disgraceful conduct that passed as happiness for him.

Kyo discovered that her time away on church activities let Ray entertain many guests.  He seemed grateful for that.  Sometimes, Kyo got home early and found him with company.  She never complained.  But she insisted on telling them about her religion.  Pegged as married to a religious fanatic. Ray asked Kyo to limit her proselytizing.

“What limit you thinking?” Kyo asked.

“Only the first guest I bring home in any month.  And if you’re not here for the first guest, I get a free pass that month.”

“No, no, no” Kyo said.  “I need lots of practice and encouragement to fulfill my mission.”

Kyo knew she was doing something bad – expecting her husband to find people for her to convert to her religion.  She suspected that Ray knew it was bad too, that he adjusted his schedule to usher partners from the house before she got home.  Sometimes, the smirk on his face suggested that sex had a special kick with partners she couldn’t reach.  After a few months of finding Ray like that, Kyo decided to host church activities at home.  With all the tension between Ray and Kyo, however, the feeling there was not good.  Church members grew reluctant to bring guests.  After a while, even members stopped coming.

Fumiko Pearson visited Kyo and asked about the difficulties she was having.  “How are you progressing on the three goals Sensei gave to us?  Driver’s license, U.S. citizenship, competence in English?”

Kyo resented Fumiko’s quizzing her on any aspect of life.  The most difficult part of their religious practice was bringing new people into the church.  And Kyo brought in more converts in only one year than Fumiko had done in her entire life.  In her desperation, however, Kyo could not afford to offend anyone, so she acted and spoke as meekly as she could.

She opened her purse and showed Fumiko her driver’s license.  “I already accomplish first goal.  I work toward second.”  Unnatural, Kyo thought, that Japanese ladies stumble through conversation in English.  And unfair for Fumiko, who had been in America much longer than Kyo, to insist on English.

Fumiko asked for Kyo’s citizenship handbook.  Kyo started searching through a pile of papers on the dining room table.  “Mr. Vivaldo may be borrowing,” Kyo said in English then switched to Japanese.  “He has interest in immigration matters.”

“Kyo!”  Fumiko said sharply.  “You need to strengthen your own interest in immigration matters.  And you must seize every opportunity to improve your English. That would make you more effective in church activities.  As would your losing a little weight.”

Who was Fumiko to talk about effective, Kyo thought bitterly.  Fumiko would not recognize effective if it dropped on her altar.  “I have not had much time to study,” Kyo continued in Japanese, “and I am still hard of hearing.  You know I suffered injuries.”

“And what of Mr. Vivaldo,” Fumiko asked.  “How do you converse with him?”

Kyo said she hoped that, for good conversation, she substituted excellent cooking.

Fumiko asked whether Mr. Vivaldo considered the exchange fair.

Kyo bristled at the suggestion of deficiencies in her relationship with Ray.  And from Fumiko Pearson, married to a drunk who stopped tormenting her only during bouts of recovery.

If Fumiko wanted to hear about problems at home, Kyo would satisfy her curiosity, but in Japanese to allow only misunderstandings.that Kyo wanted to create.  “When Mr. Vivaldo said he would never practice this religion, I thought I could encourage him with my experiences.  But after a while, he didn’t want to listen anymore.  All the stories are the same, he says.  When things work well, there is talk of miracles that he doubts.  When things work poorly, there is talk of hope for the future.”

“In your mouth,” Fumiko herself switched to Japanese, “talk of hope may be a substitute for the real thing.”

Kyo’s anger swelled.  She fought back as best she could.  “I thought my own devotion to the church would produce enough fortune for the two of us.  It hasn’t produced enough for three.  Not having a child is a disappointment.”  Kyo found herself approaching her real problem with Ray, without quite disclosing it.  “Mr. Vivaldo is from a large family.  He wants children of his own.”

Fumiko, similarly childless but much older, encouraged Kyo to seek professional medical care.  She also suggested that Kyo spend more time at home with Mr. Vivaldo and stop having activities there.  She hoped that Kyo would call her in the next few weeks to report improvement in the situation.

“No activities here ever?” Kyo pleaded, returning to English as a form of repentance.

Fumiko paused a moment then reached into her brief case.  She handed Kyo a folder of exam booklets.  “You may proctor the test at the end of the month.”

“Thank you,” Kyo said, hoping her tone suggested a dog’s wagging its tail.

“Make sure no one sees any of the questions before the time of the test itself.  No one, do you understand?”

“Yes,” Kyo said.  “No one.”

Kyo’s relief at Fumiko’s departure soon yielded to curiosity about the questions on the exam.  The test booklets came in packets of 25, each packet sealed in clear plastic.  If she broke the seal before the exam date, someone might suspect that she had cheated to pass the test.  Kyo broke the seal and looked at the first question, in English, multiple choice:

Question No. 1:  When may a disciple make a bad cause?

a.         Between the hour of the ox and the hour of the rat;

b.         When the protective forces of the universe are operating on
all cylinders;

c.         During a well deserved vacation;

d.         Any time after sustained prayer.

Kyo’s distress over the exam question soon yielded to annoyance about Fumiko’s guidance to overcome a problem different from the one Kyo actually had.  What exactly was professional medical care? How was she going to get Ray to cooperate?

He was in his study typing on the computer keyboard.  Standing at the door, Kyo asked if she could come in.

“Just say what you have to say.  If it interests me, I’ll invite you in.”

This was not a subject Kyo could discuss from a distance.  “Ray, please, I need face to face, person to person, heart to –

“All right, all right,” Ray said, determined to focus on her scar throughout the conversation.

“Fumiko Pearson was here today,” Kyo began.

“This Fumiko person, what did she want?

“Fumiko Pearson one of our church leaders,” Kyo said.  “She think having children may be part of my mission.”

Ray hated the way Kyo insisted on including Anglo last names when she referred to war brides in the church.

“You can have as many children as you want with this Fumiko person.”

“Fumiko Pearson not want children with me,” Kyo said.

“That makes two of us,” Ray said.

“You and I go to doctor to see if we have children inside us.  Maybe they want to come out.”

“Maybe we should leave them alone.”

“Ray, if you go to doctor, I be good friend.”

“What’s a good friend?”

“What you want a good friend to be?”

“Never, ever mention your religion again – not to me, nor to anyone you meet through me.”

“Ray,” she stretched the vowel.  “That too hard!”

“Kyo,” he said.  “That just the beginning.”

The medical tests showed that Ray was fine.  Kyo was the one with a problem that was too expensive and too risky to address.

The afternoon that Kyo reported this result, Fumiko encouraged her to consider the young people in church as her own children.  Many young people repelled Kyo, especially the ones she met through Ray.  Some of the youth at church activities also distressed Kyo – drug users, sloths and thieves.  When she had hosted meetings at her home, many had asked to make local calls then stuck her with bills for long distance to Ohio and Texas.

Fumiko encouraged Kyo to deepen her understanding of her mission by focusing on study.  “Attend at least one study meeting every month, with or without guests, and report back to me after each one.”

Kyo doubted the value of any meetings without guests.  She believed the fastest way – the only way really – to change her destiny was to engage directly in persuading new people to convert to her religion.  Kyo felt that her destiny needed changing.  She felt disoriented in the propagation-free zone she was entering with Ray.  She was uncertain where it would lead.  All the more since finding a rubber penis, that very morning, in the glove compartment of Ray’s old Spider, the battered one on blocks in the back yard.  She had looked there for a screw driver because she couldn’t find the one she thought she had buried in a kitchen drawer.  She needed the screwdriver to mount a calligraphy she had received from Sensei several months ago.  It translated “Unbounded Wisdom, Limitless Fortune.”

Why had she waited that long to hang the calligraphy? Should she service Ray with the rubber penis? Should she use it to beat him to a pulp? Her hands were shaking as she worked the screws into the frame for the calligraphy.  She had to leave for a study meeting in San Francisco.  Ray would come home while she was gone.  She didn’t want him to find a mess when he did.

Kyo would be driving in the rain all the way from Novato.  She would pay for gas and a bridge toll.  The least the members could give her were a few guests she could try to persuade to join the religion.  And if they didn’t have any guests, the members could be out on the sidewalk trying to corral passers-by.  It would be encouraging to see that effort as she pulled up to the curb.

No such luck.  Pious talk aside, Kyo thought practitioners in San Francisco, even ones who sometimes risked ridicule on the street, were just going through the motions.  Compared to church activities in Okinawa around the time she met Ray, believers in California were sleep-walking through precious opportunities to change their lives.  Their lazy nature showed in everything, from wilted offerings on undusted altars to limp-wristed gong work at the beginning and end of the sutra.  And way too many gays treating the organization like a spiritual home they could decorate in lavender.

Hard workers were needed to rid the world of misery, crime and war.  Kyo hoped she was one of them.  And among the members on the floor in front of her, she hoped to find another few.  Maybe Ellen would make it.  Kyo asked her to read the passage for study this month.

Ellen recoiled.  Kyo regretted that she had been abrupt the last time she attended a meeting in Ellen’s apartment.  Ellen’s brother from Des Moines had been there.  The people in the room were talking about the church, that there were no commandments, just dignity in human life and in the desires that sprang from it.  But, toward the end of the meeting, he asked about a supervisor at work – a woman who kept touching him and inviting him out for drinks.  He wanted to know what to do.  Kyo said Ellen’s brother should pray earnestly for his supervisor’s happiness.  That seemed consistent with guidance Kyo had heard other leaders give.  But then she added, “What wrong? You no like women?”

Despite that error, Kyo was confident Ellen had practiced long enough to know that suffering was temporary – even if close contact with church leaders challenged one’s ability to endure.  Ellen had said many times that she liked study meetings.  It gave her a chance to read the scripture aloud, always a good cause.  In lighter moments, Ellen had suggested varying the text in an irreverent manner so the members could relax and enjoy themselves.  Kyo could not approve of that.  Kyo worried that Ellen and her members might retain enough foreign phrases – nippologues and sanskritters they called them – to lull leaders into inattention.  Kyo pounced before the reading began.

“Ellen,” she said, “How come you not using book? What on that paper?”

“Fujimbo,” Ellen said employing the Japanese title for women’s leader, a title Kyo liked.  “I copied the scripture by hand to engrave it more deeply in my life.”

Ellen was a single parent.  Kyo believed that “single parent” was a more polite thought than “unwed mother.”  Polite thinking didn’t mean Ellen was any less damaged.  But having to provide for a child meant Ellen would be easier to control than some others in the room.  Especially because Ellen had been Catholic, like Ray.  Avoiding trouble was pretty much the best that ex-Catholics could hope for.  Even when Ellen’s goals lacked common sense, like wanting to switch from dentistry to theater, her conduct mostly conformed.

“You sure you copy accurate,” Kyo said.

“Yes, Fujimbo,” Ellen said and offered the paper for review.

Kyo waved it away.  Trying to read English was even more fatiguing than trying to speak it, especially things written by hand, particularly tonight after the long drive through the storm.  Kyo began to drowse as Ellen turned back to the group and read.

The Tripitaka Master Prays for Relief

I have received your message about the painful surgery on your mouth.  Federal privacy regulations prohibit my contacting your oral surgeon to confirm the accuracy of your report.  And our mutual acquaintances in Kamakura have proved unreliable.

At first, I hesitated to question your statements.  I do not doubt your sincerity.  But the recent incident involving Beltran Buddh caused me to wonder.  You reported, at that time, that following my guidance had placed you within reach of intimacy with young Beltran.  Having known and admired him for many years, you finally succeeded in using your public office to cause his arrest and then his release into your custody.  True, the lion king advances three steps, then gathers himself to spring, unleashing the same power whether he traps a tiny ant or attacks a fierce animal.  But your interference in Belt’s life is not what I meant by exerting yourself to the utmost.  And events developed as I had predicted – the photo of you embracing him, like a gray-haired balloon that static electricity has snagged on a phone pole.  And on the front page of the church newspaper! Who made that editorial decision?

It must be a profound connection from the infinite past that causes you to ask about the mouthwash you received with its admonition against violent swishing.  The great teacher T’ien T’ai (Chinese Chi-hi) expounded the teaching of Jikkai Gogu (mutual possession of the ten worlds) and Honmatsu-kukyo-to (consistency from beginning to end). He taught that Hell is the lowest world, in which one’s life is imprisoned by suffering, like a toothache.  And when we are in hell, everything about our life is also hellish.  That is why you have dark thoughts about never again being free to engage in violent swishing.

But T’ien T’ai also taught the principle of Ichinen Sanzen (three thousand realms in a single moment of life).  That we can transform our lives.  Your life may be in hell now (because of the oral surgery and the unflattering shot of you with the Buddhster), but everything can change in a moment.  As your mouth heals, you will find yourself thinking once again, joyfully, about stiletto heels deep in the eyes of your rivals.  Then no one will say how ridiculous you look with a man half your age because no one will be able to see.  In this time as well, we thank our adversaries for causing our strengths to emerge.

 

There was too much giggling to escape Kyo’s attention.  Shaking off slumber, she concluded that Ellen had stumbled over some of the foreign language names.  But a little inaccuracy should not divert disciples or feed an appetite for frivolity and distraction.

Banging on the gong for attention, Kyo said, “I hope you not come here on drugs.  What we offer,” she pointed to the altar, “we get back in our lives.”  To illustrate, she aped stumbling around.  “If we offer confused, we increase our confused.”  Kyo’s acting opened a channel for laughter.  Kyo smiled at the recognition of her comic gifts.  “I think you flatter me,” she said, “but that not going to work.”

Kyo reminded the members about the exam at the end of the month.  “I think it may be difficult,” she said.  “Here’s question you should think about.  It’s just a sample question.  It probably won’t be on the exam itself.”  Kyo opened the exam itself and read:

Question 7:      Among the three treasures of the Church – the Teacher, the teaching and the community – why is it hard to treasure some individuals in the community?

a.         We don’t remember what causes we made in the past to draw that                                                  person into our life;

b.         We don’t recognize the contribution that person is making to the                                                     fulfillment of our own mission for world peace;

c.         We haven’t refined our senses enough to enjoy the happiness that                                                   person is bringing;

d.         Meeting people we hate is even more painful than leaving people                                                     we love.

Most everyone in the room, except Kyo, seemed confident about knowing the right answer.  Kyo suspected that Ellen was smart, as were other people in the room, mostly friends Ellen had brought into the church.  Kyo also suspected that only misfortune kept smart people from becoming arrogant.

Bracing her large body against the door frame, Kyo slipped on her rain boots to leave.  When she thanked Ellen for hosting that night, Ellen asked if she had been able to get guidance about the problem they had discussed earlier in the week.  Ellen’s only child, a teenage boy named Alex, had started staying away from home.  Kyo had promised she would speak with Koji, the leader of the young men’s division.  She had forgotten to phone Koji; but she couldn’t admit that.  If she did, Ellen might complain to Fumiko Pearson.

“I have a call into Koji,” Kyo lied, “but he not return it yet.  He may away on business.  Sorry.  I call again.”

Ellen had phoned Kyo to report that a friend saw Alex smoking outside Steiner’s, a gay bar in Sonoma.  Alex’s father lived in Sonoma and sold drugs there.  Ellen was afraid Alex would start working for his father.  Kyo sensed that Ellen wanted everyone out of the apartment, that she wanted to be left alone to pray for her son while he was in danger.

Was he still within reach of Ellen’s prayer? Would Ellen’s prayer be more effective if she presented a more innocent self by wearing the uniform from the religious high school she had attended? Would Kyo’s own prayer be more effective if she lost enough weight to fit back into the shabby little kimono she had worn night after night in Koku-sai Dori?

“I not hear from Koji yet,” Kyo said, relieved to produce a truthful fragment in the situation.  “When I do, I let you know what he say.”

“Thank you, Fujimbo,” Ellen said, eyes lowered as she pushed Kyo through the door.

Cars shot from the south entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge and worked their way through the dark rain into glistening lanes of traffic.  Fumiko once told her that, during Sensei’s first visit to San Francisco, he had taken the members to the visitors’ center at the Bridge.  He had talked about the tiny, brittle wires that wound around each other to form the powerful cables.  He said that none of the wires was strong on its own.  But together they held the span high above the water, so people could cross safely or jump to their deaths.

When Kyo arrived home, she phoned Koji.  He would meet with Alex in the next day or so, he hoped.  Kyo then phoned Fumiko Pearson and reported on the study meeting and on what she knew about Ellen and Alex and Koji.  Kyo hung up quickly, before Fumiko could probe into citizenship or English or the exam.

Ray was in his study clicking on the keys of the computer.  Kyo washed the dishes in the sink and then stood near the study door.  “What you doing?” she said.

“I’m on a web site for older gay men,” Ray said, “and younger guys who like them.”

“Are you the older?” Kyo hesitated, worried that gay men feared aging.

“I’m older, but I’m a top,” Ray said.  “Tops are in short supply.”

“Is that fun?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” he said.  “But there are limits to what I’m willing to do.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“Like last week,” Ray said.  “A twink from Sonoma wanted me to walk around naked, in a pair of over-the-calf dress socks, to remind him of the first priest who abused him.”

Kyo thought about items in the family wash.  “You no have black dress socks.”

“He brought a pair with him,” Ray said.

“ Oh,” Kyo said, wondering who she was out saving when that happened.  “This morning, I find a rubber penis in your truck.  Should I be doing something with it?”

“It’s not mine,” Ray said.  “The twink must have planted it – to get even with me.”

“Oh,” she said, wondering if she should rephrase her question.

Sensing she might, Ray said, “You can keep it.  Now go to bed.  You have to get up early to pray.  I’ll probably turn in shortly.”

“Good night,” Kyo said.  She thought about kissing Ray.  On the forehead or even on the bald spot in the back.  Kyo knew he might never sleep with her.  But some boundaries could be good, she guessed, glancing over the edge of the rest of her life.

© Chuck Teixeira.  All rights reserved.

One Response to Actions of a Votary

  1. George Ross says:

    This story, “Actions of a Votary,” against the background of the ways of a particular Japanese Buddhist practice, is a cautionary tale of the difficulties that arise when two cultures meet. Add to this the elements of diverse sexual orientation and social reactions to homosexuality, and you have the makings for a full length novel. Perhaps Chuck Teixeira will take that project on one day. It’s a book I would definitely read.

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