Photo Credit: Wen Zhang
Ted stood waiting in the middle of the room, his arms hanging at his sides, as his companion came in and closed the door behind him.
“Hi, I’m Ted,” he said, and stuck out his hand. It hovered in the air for a few moments while the other young man set down his suitcase and walked over to him.
They shook hands, then Ted wiped his hand on his pant leg. Tom watched him silently, his heavy, dark eyebrows jutting intently, obstinately, over a mild case of wall-eye.
Strabismus, Ted thought.
“I’m sorry,” Ted said. “My hands sweat a lot, and I always mean to wipe them before I shake hands with someone, but I always forget, and then when I shake hands, I can feel how sweaty my hand is, so then I wipe it afterwards. I’m sorry, I know how it must look.”
“No problem,” Tom boomed. “I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”
“So, what do you think about being sent here?” Ted asked.
“Man, I was so relieved when I opened my mission call. I’m only a few hundred miles from home and I don’t have to deal with some completely bizarre culture.” He picked up his suitcase and headed for the bedroom they would share. “Too bad I still had to learn another language even though I stayed in my own country.”
“Huh. I was kind of hoping they’d send me abroad,” Ted said to Tom’s back. For years he had dreamed of a mission assignment to some remote village where the natives still worshipped pagan gods. He had spent much of his adolescence rehearsing speeches in his mind to dark-skinned tribes who sat rapt before him, surrounded by thatched mud huts and looming jungle foliage. He had imagined the acclaim and respect he would receive from church leaders and family for persuading people lost in darkness to accept the Prophet’s truth. But ever since he learned he would be staying stateside—not even leaving the Southwest—his mental monologues had felt uninspired to him. On the seven-hour bus ride to this small mountain town he had simply repeated to himself the lessons that had been drilled into him at the Mission Training Center.
The next morning, they biked through a working-class neighborhood where rotting double-wides mingled with well-maintained cottages. They spotted some Hispanic guys gathered around a pick-up parked in a driveway, two of them working on the truck, the others standing around holding cans of beer.
They braked and pulled up to the curb. As Ted approached the men, he smiled widely and genuinely, with “eye involvement.” It wasn’t enough to just smile with your mouth, you had to crinkle and twinkle the eyes. Ted found it easier to do if he imagined himself bathed in a pillar of light.
“Buenos días,” Ted began. The men eyed his clothes and snickered a little. Ted tried to ignore their amusement and focus on his message.
“No hablo Español,” one of them said, smirking.
“No problem, we speak English too,” Ted said. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
“No hablo Inglés,” another man said. The group burst into laughter.
“Let’s go,” Tom muttered.
“Maybe another time,” Ted said, still smiling. He waved as they pedaled away.
“Should I have started with English? Were they insulted?”
“We’ll try again sometime. Once they get used to seeing us around the neighborhood.”
They rode up and down the empty streets. The sky was a deep, perfect blue.
“The sky seems closer here than in Salt Lake,” Ted said.
“I think that’s just an illusion. Because you know you’re at a higher altitude,” Tom said.
“Maybe.” He looked and looked at the sky, imagining it was an ocean. If he rode up the side of that A-frame cabin over there, he would take flight and land in the sky, floating along as if his bicycle were a kayak.
They passed a three-story apartment building that occupied half a block. They turned the corner and saw a young woman sitting in the small yard between the back of the building and its parking lot.
“Let’s stop here,” Tom said.
“Hold on. I should freshen up.” His buttoned-up shirt and dark pants made for sweaty riding. He took out two packets of moist towelettes from his pocket and offered one to Tom. Tom shook his head and watched wordlessly as Ted mopped his face and hands and then sealed the soiled wipe in a Ziploc bag and stored it in his knapsack.
They approached the woman. She was rummaging around in a wooden box filled with dirt. She dumped some vegetable scraps into the bin.
“Good morning,” Ted said. His voice came out in a pre-adolescent chirp. He gained control and, in more manly tones, said, “How are you today?”
The woman looked up at them. She smiled widely. “Are you guys Mormons?”
“That’s right,” Tom said.
Her hair was a solid dirty-blonde mat. She extended a hand covered with mud. While Tom shook her hand, Ted looked more closely at the contents of the bin. The soil was clumped together and slimy. Tiny flies darted in and out of it. He thought he saw movement just below the surface. He forced himself to smile and take her hand, then let his hand drop to his side. He felt the filth on his skin and thought of soap and a clean, brightly-lit bathroom with plush white towels.
“What is that?” he asked.
“It’s a vermicomposting bin,” she said, watching his face.
He gave no sign of understanding.
“A worm bin. They eat our kitchen scraps. The landlord here won’t let us have a compost pile or chickens. And this town is too backward to do municipal composting. The worm shit makes great fertilizer.” She gestured to white buckets with plants growing out of them.
Ted had worked in his mother’s garden and he recognized lettuce, kale, and cabbage.
“You grow your own food?” Tom said. “You must have good homemaking skills.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m a regular June Cleaver.” She dug in the bin for a moment, then said, “We can’t rely on food being trucked across the country for much longer, so everyone needs to grow whatever food they can.”
“Yes, the Lord wants people to be self-sufficient,” Tom said.
She rolled her eyes again and snorted. “I’m talking about peak oil and stuff, not about ‘the Lord’.” She made bunny ears with her fingers and flexed them.
“Who’s that?” a voice from above rang out.
Ted and Tom looked up.
There were two young men standing on a narrow balcony two floors up.
“Mormons,” she called.
“What do they want?”
“What do you think?”
“To save us?” the man answered in a childish voice.
Ted clenched his jaw and shook his dirty hand violently. The woman said it was shit. He wondered if he could wipe off his hand while pretending to clean his glasses.
Tom called up, “We’re just going around talking to people.”
“We like to talk to people,” one of the guys said. “Wait, we’ll come down.”
Ted looked at the woman, who continued to dig in the muck. She wore a loose tank top and baggy shorts. Her forearms were sinewy, her biceps the most well-defined he’d ever seen on a female. He noticed that her legs were covered with fine, dark hair and he suppressed a shudder. He could feel the energy of his disgust roiling around inside him as he stared, fascinated. Her legs were firm, slender, and long; they would be beautiful if she would shave them. Half-eager, half-fearing what he might see, he looked under her arms, which were stretched out in front of her as she worked with the filth. Sure enough, dark tufts of hair peeked out. His eyes glanced lightly over her breasts, enough to register that she was not wearing a bra, and then he focused with relief on her face. The bones were broad and long, her mouth huge. She could be an exotic beauty if she would only wash and comb her hair and put on some lipstick and eye makeup. Why would she deliberately make herself ugly? He noticed with a fresh, uncontrollable frisson of revulsion that she wore a nose ring like a savage.
Septum. Septal piercing.
The two men came out of the back door of the apartment building, carrying a glass jug and some empty jam jars, the labels still raggedly attached.
“Want some iced tea?” one of them asked. He was smiling broadly. His hair fell down to his chest in thick, brown ropes. A silver ring in his lower lip flashed in the sunlight.
“No, thank you,” Ted and Tom said in unison.
“Aren’t you hot, biking around? You sure you don’t want some?”
“We’re not allowed to drink tea,” Ted said.
Tom turned his head to fix Ted with his good eye. “We choose not to put stimulants into our bodies,” Tom said to Dreadlocks while looking at Ted.
“Oh yeah? How about relaxants?” He tittered and pulled a glass pipe out of his pocket. The stem of the pipe swirled with colors; the bowl was charred black.
“No thank you, we don’t smoke,” Tom said.
Dreadlocks turned to his friend, whose hair was short but whose earlobes were grossly distended, circular wooden earrings lodged inside the stretched flesh. Ted’s queasiness grew and he shut his eyes for a few moments.
The two men giggled.
Ted began to feel a strange sense of emptiness and aimlessness. Maybe he was still adjusting to the higher altitude.
“So where y’all from?” Earlobes asked.
“Salt Lake City.”
“You go to Brigham Young?”
Ted was sure he had actually said, “breed’em young.”
“No, we have been called to labor before we go to college,” Tom said.
“‘Called to labor’,” Earlobes repeated slowly. Deep dimples creased his tanned cheeks as he revealed straight, white, middle-class teeth.
“We’re doing a two-year mission,” Ted said, rousing himself.
“Oh yeah? I went on a mission instead of going to college. I was on a mission to save the redwoods. I was up in the tall trees for a couple years,” Earlobes said.
This information meant nothing to Ted. He tried to think of a relevant question to ask, but could only smile and nod. He began to relax. These people, these hippies, seemed friendly enough underneath their teasing.
The woman spoke. “Is this what you really want to be doing? Would you rather be in college?”
“I wanted to go to a foreign country,” Ted said quickly. “To convert the… um…”
“Savages?” the woman proposed.
“No! Just more… exotic people, I guess.”
“You wanted to travel, and experience a totally different culture?” she asked.
“Yeah! That’s it.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
“I was assigned to come here.”
She exchanged glances with Earlobes. “What would happen if you quit and decided to travel on your own?”
The question was absurd. “I couldn’t—I saved up for this—my parents are helping—this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“But there are other things you could do. You know, if you really wanted to travel. You could join the Peace Corps. You could teach English abroad,” she said. “You could live with us for a while, get a little job, save some money, then travel. Rent’s cheap when you split it four ways.”
“Or six,” said Dreadlocks.
“Or ten,” Earlobes said, sniggering.
“No, I couldn’t do that. My parents wouldn’t let me.”
“How old are you?”
“I was on my own when I was seventeen,” she said. “You’re an adult. You can live your own life. Your parents need to live their own lives, not yours.”
Ted felt a desperate urge to run to his bicycle and pedal away. What she was suggesting was impossible. And he and Tom were supposed to be guiding the conversation. “Have you heard of Jesus Christ?” Tom asked. He seemed annoyed, almost angry.
“Name sounds familiar,” the woman said, frowning. “Look, you’re not going to convert me. I have my own spirituality, and I’m not interested in dogma or a patriarchal, authoritarian church that doesn’t let people be true to themselves. I go to the woods and the mountains and the desert to worship. And I don’t need to join a church to live right. Organized religions are for people too weak to do the right thing without someone making them do it.”
Ted felt afraid of her now. She seemed so sure and strong, bigger, hairier.
The substance of what she was saying hit him.
“Are you… are you… a pagan?” He hit the “p” much too hard, like he was spitting out the word.
“Sure,” she said, seeming to enjoy Ted’s expression of shock. “I guess you don’t have to go to foreign countries to meet people totally different from you, huh?”
“I’m sorry,” Ted said. “I’ve just never met a real pagan before.”
The three hippies laughed.
“Would you like to go out into the wilderness with us? We’re going on a three-day backpacking trip next week,” said Mother Bear.
Ted imagined the five of them sitting around a campfire as he and Tom taught them about the Prophet. When they got back to town he would proudly report three new converts to the mission president.
“Three days? How will you wash? Where do you go to the bathroom? Do you have an RV?” Ted asked.
“I don’t think we can do anything like that,” Tom said, cutting him off. “Our mission is here in the town.” He looked at Ted and gestured with his head toward their bicycles.
“Do you guys play hacky-sack?” Earlobes asked.
“I did for a little while, when I was thirteen,” Ted said.
“I never played. My parents said hacky-sack was… unsavory,” Tom said.
“Dude. That’s harsh.” Earlobes pulled a beanbag from a pocket of his cargo shorts. Half of it was black, with a white spot in the middle; the other half was white, with a black spot. He dropped it onto his instep and kicked it over to Ted, who reflexively kicked it up in front of him. He bobbed it up and down a few times, then passed it to Dreadlocks. Mother Bear stood up and joined them, while Tom backed away.
“Do you have any idea how ridiculous you looked, playing hacky-sack with a bunch of dirty hippies?”
“Aren’t we supposed to get involved with the local culture?”
Tom chewed his peanut butter sandwich. They were sitting in a park, eating their lunches.
“Okay. All right. But I just don’t think those are the kind of people we should be targeting,” Tom said in a calmer tone of voice.
“What do you mean?” Ted asked.
“Those people are lost, but it’s like they don’t know they’re lost. They think they’re on the right path.”
“Well, aren’t those exactly the kind of people who need saving the most? People on the wrong path?”
“Yes, but I think we need more experience before we can reach those kinds of people. I think we’ll have more success with people who aren’t on any path at all. People who aren’t so closed-minded.”
“You thought they were closed-minded? They seemed pretty friendly to me. They asked us to go camping with them.”
Tom was silent for a few minutes as he finished his lunch.
“I think they thought they were going to convert us. Or at least you.”
“Convert us to paganism? Do pagans do that?”
“Of course! They have cults! We should just stay away from those kinds of people.”
Ted looked up at the rock formation that dominated the western skyline. It stood out so sharply against the clear blue sky that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it. No, not my real eyes. It’s like it hurts some eyes inside of me. He pushed down the strange thought and tried to identify what he could see. Patches of gray-green scrub bearded the dusty yellow face of the outcropping. A separate ridge of rock rose like a nose along the gentle eastern slope. The shadows of tiny clouds dotted the hillside like liver spots or melanoma.
“What’s the difference between a butte and a mesa?” he asked.
“How should I know?”
“What SPF sunscreen are you using? Mine’s 50; do you think that’s good enough?”
Tom packed the remains of his lunch into his knapsack and headed for his bicycle without answering.
Ted was lying on his bed reading a book, relaxing after twelve hours of door reproaches. Tom came into the bedroom.
“What are you reading?”
“A novel.” He showed Tom the cover. Tom peered at it.
Cross-eyed motherfucker. Oops, that was bad.
“Is it a mystery? Science fiction?”
“No, it’s, um… I don’t know. A real-life story? It’s about a guy who lives in London.”
“Is it Christian?”
“No—I mean, it’s not un-Christian. I don’t think so. It’s not about religion. It’s just about his life, his relationships, his work. He goes for long walks in the countryside. There doesn’t seem to be much plot.”
“You shouldn’t waste your time if it’s not even Christian. If it doesn’t talk about God or Jesus at all, it’s probably not something you should be reading. It could be anti-Christian without you realizing it.”
Subversive. The word excited him.
“You should be studying instead.”
Ted put the paperback aside and picked up his Book of Mormon.
A Native-American woman had shooed them from her door, saying she already had her own religion and was busy taking care of her children.
“You know, I can understand why someone who already has a religion might not be interested in converting?” Ted said. “If that’s what they’ve been raised to believe? I mean, this is what we’ve been raised to believe, and we wouldn’t let anyone convert us to their religion.”
“Hello? Their religions are wrong! We’re trying to save them from Judgment? I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Are you a missionary or what?”
“I’m not saying their religions are right or that we shouldn’t try to save them. I’m just saying I can see their point of view.”
“If you can see their point of view, then you should be trying to figure out what kind of door approach will make them want to convert.”
“That’s a good point! I’ll think about that.”
They locked their bikes to a signpost in front of an apartment building. They began punching apartment numbers into the intercom. Number after number rang and rang. Finally a woman answered.
“Hello, ma’am, may we come up and talk to you about Jesus Christ?”
“Fuck off,” she said and hung up.
“People are so much ruder when they’re anonymous,” Tom said. They received a few more similar responses before a man answered who buzzed them in, cutting Ted off in mid-question.
They walked up the stairs to the third floor and knocked at the man’s door. It opened immediately. A pudgy, balding man smiled shyly at them and awkwardly waved them inside.
“Sit down, please. Would you like some herbal tea?”
They accepted and sat on the couch, as the only chair was covered with clothes and advertising flyers. Ted looked around while their host busied himself in the kitchen. The room they were in was the only living space. A narrow kitchen flanked the room on one side, with the bathroom on the other side. Ted shuddered as he realized he was sitting on the man’s bed, then hugged himself, partly to disguise his reaction and partly to comfort himself. He told himself sternly not to look into the bathroom, but he could not help himself. He saw that part of the shower wall was caved in and that someone had applied duct tape in an attempt to hold the crumbling plaster together.
Jury-rigged. Stop-gap measures. Sub-standard housing.
The man set mugs of tea on the end tables and sat down between them on the couch. Ted turned to pick up his mug and noticed a thick coating of dust on the table. It occurred to him that the wood was alive and growing a fur coat. He stifled a giggle. He glanced into the kitchen, saw a sink overflowing with dishes, and left the mug sitting on the table.
“Thank you for inviting us in,” Tom began. “We’re going around talking to people about Jesus Christ. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
The man sat there smiling broadly. His T-shirt was stretched tautly across his flesh and was torn on one side, revealing a roll of pink fat that cascaded over the waistband of his sweatpants.
“The young people were here before,” he said. “They talked to me about Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith. The Prophet.”
“Oh really? And did you join the Church?”
“They came several times.”
Ted began to wonder if the man was simple-minded. He watched his face as Tom launched into his spiel. The man smiled unceasingly and nodded often. He eagerly took the pamphlet Tom offered him. Ted looked around but didn’t see any other books or magazines in the apartment. There was a large television opposite the couch. Soap opera figures moved silently across the screen.
“So,” Tom said. It was the first time anyone had allowed him to reach the end of his pitch. “Do you have any questions?”
The man shook his head no, still smiling.
“You’re welcome to come back, anytime,” he said, now bobbing his head affirmatively.
“So, you’d like to start receiving instruction? With a view towards joining the church?” Tom asked, unable to suppress his eagerness.
“Oh… maybe. But I don’t get out much.”
“You could still join the church. We can come here to give you the lessons. I’m sure we could find a way to get you to services.”
The man moved his head ambiguously.
“So. Why don’t you look over the literature and we’ll come back next week.”
“Oh yes! Please do come back. You’re such nice young men.”
Ted and Tom stood up, shook the man’s hand, and left.
They biked home in the early Arizona sunset. Ted began swerving, riding in big S curves back and forth across the street.
“La la la, la la la,” he sang in an ascending melody in rhythm with his pedal strokes. At an empty intersection he rode in clockwise circles.
“What the heck are you doing?” Tom said. He had slowed his pace to stay with Ted, and now he was stopped, watching him ride round and round.
Ted laughed and didn’t answer but resumed riding in the direction of the mission home, still singing softly.
That evening Ted found himself staring into the bathroom mirror. He reached out to touch his reflection. He tried to pinch the cheek of the face in the mirror, but his fingers only slid across the glass.
The next day they were standing on a porch talking to a woman who seemed not entirely unwilling to listen. She allowed Tom to come to a natural stop, then asked, “But how do you know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God? I thought all the prophets were in the Bible and already, like, accounted for.”
“Ma’am,” Tom said. “I know this is the truth because I have prayed to God and He has told me this true.”
“So God talks to you? Then are you a prophet, too?”
Ted brayed with laughter.
They both stared at him.
He covered his mouth with his hand and pulled down on the flesh, trying to iron his face back into that of a sober man of God, but giggles spattered out between his lips, and soon he was leaning against the house, supporting himself as the laughter swept through him like an orgasm.
“Elder Barrett,” Tom hissed. “Get a hold of yourself!” To the woman he said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, my companion isn’t himself today. Maybe we could come back tomorrow?”
“No, I don’t think so. But thanks for the entertainment,” she said and closed the door.
Tom grabbed Ted by the arm and dragged him to the sidewalk.
“What is the matter with you?”
“‘Are you a prophet? Are you a prophet?'” A few more moans of hilarity escaped him, but he was recovering from his intoxication. “It just occurred to me, how ridiculous we must seem to these people.” He waved his arm around. “And then I thought, how do you know, when you pray, that the answer you get isn’t whatever you’re hoping the answer will be? How do you know it’s really God answering your prayer, and not yourself answering your own prayer? I mean, how do you know?”
Tom looked at him coldly. “If your faith is true, then you know. And if your faith is true, you don’t ask questions like that.”
Ted entered the mission president’s office.
“Sit down, Elder Barrett.”
“So. Elder Bradshaw tells me you’re having some difficulties.”
“No, sir. I wouldn’t say that.”
Elder Michaels cleared his throat and looked at something behind Ted.
“You have… questions. Uncertainties.”
“Oh. Maybe. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes,” the older man repeated. He paused. “Perhaps it has occurred to you—that young men with the kind of questions you have, even sometimes, may not make for the best representatives of the Church in the world?”
“It’s not that bad. I was only wondering out loud. A few times.”
Elder Michaels set his face and addressed his desk. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints views homosexuality as an aberration. An abomination. The Prophet has made this very clear, and we will not be swayed by the propaganda that is becoming so fashionable these days.”
The mission president finally looked Ted in the eye. “If you are flirting with the idea of homosexuality, then you may not continue your work as a missionary.”
“I see.” But Ted did not quite see. Did Tom think that accusing him of being gay was the surest way to get rid of him? Or did he believe that anyone who expressed doubts about faith was suspect in every way?
“Does this mean I’m being sent home?”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone your mission work until you get your ideas straightened out.”
“What will you tell my parents?”
Elder Michaels coughed. “It will be up to you to discuss with your parents the reasons you could not continue your mission work. We’ve bought you a ticket for a bus to Salt Lake. It leaves this evening.”
The bus pulled out of the station and headed toward the interstate. Ted looked out the window and recognized the neighborhood where he had played hacky-sack with the pagans.
The driver got on the PA. “All right folks, we’re gonna be plowin’ straight on through to Sin City, I mean Las Vegas, so sit tight and enjoy the scenery and our nice, clean, non-smoking bathroom. ETA Sin City 11:05 p.m.”
Ted took a last look at the butte, its edges gleaming with the greenish-gold of sunset. What was he going to tell his parents?
“Hey, missionary man.” Ted turned and looked at the young man sitting next to him. It was Dreadlocks. He wore a floppy knit hat in rainbow colors. His lip piercing looked infected. “Is your work here done?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Ya got anything to eat? This bus ticket cleaned me out. I’ve been so broke I decided I had to leave town to try to find a job. I heard there’s a lotta jobs in Vegas.”
Ted handed him the box of cookies he had bought at the grocery store on his way to the station.
“Thanks, man. You goin’ to Vegas to convert the sinners now? Or back to Salt Lake?”
“I… um… Vegas. I’m going to be looking for a job there, too.”
“Cool. Yeah, lotsa jobs there. Lotsa places to crash, too. Well, maybe I’ll see you around, then.”
Dreadlocks put his earbuds in and munched on cookies. Ted turned to look out the window again, but it was twilight now and all he could see was his reflection. He pinched his cheek and saw his reflection do the same.
Lisa Sagrati’s writing has appeared in Red Savina Review, Poydras Review, Nerve, and Taking the Lane. She lives in Arizona. Email: lmsagrati[at]gmail.com