A Glimpse from Bald Peak

by Jim Richards

On a summer morning at Hebgen Lake, Montana, water-skiing came first-always. We got to the lake every morning at eight-thirty, just in time to feel the cold morning breeze surrender to the sun and see the ripples vanish from the lake, leaving it a smooth, blue-green glass. Only this morning the ripples didn’t vanish.

“Well, what do you think, guys?” My dad turned his back to the lake to face us, his hands on his hips.

“It’ll calm down,” Mike said. Mike was sixteen, eight years younger than me, bleach blond, and tan as leather. He fixed his eyes on the lake in serious concentration, as if he could make the ripples on the lake disappear psychokinetically. I stared at him equally as hard, maybe hoping to move something too, inside of him. He was a good-was. But lately he’d taken a dangerously sharp exit off of the straight and narrow onto the rough road of. . . drugs? Immorality? Who knew? Last year he started bawling in the stake president’s office where the whole family was gathered for the setting apart of my sister, Emily, who was leaving on a mission for Spain. We were going around, one by one, expressing our affection for her; when we got to Mike, he burst into tears. Mike, Mr. Non-emotional, Mr. Keep-it-all-inside started bawling, and it wasn’t because Emily was leaving. Unfortunately, his eyes were past crying now; they just stared into the lake, trying o make it smooth, for another rush-of-a-ski ride.

“I don’t know, it looks pretty choppy,” I said to Mike, whose eyes were still locked on the lake. My nine-year-old brother, Eddie, was busy using a yellow, plastic bucket to dig in the sand. He could care less about the lake, the weather, anything. He was nine, and he was happy. Just like Mike used to be.

Dad walked down to the end of the dock, took off his felt cowboy hat, rubbed his bald head, and looked at the mountains, then the clouds, the lake, and back at the mountains; he was playing prophetic weatherman.

“Well, what do you think, Nostradamus?” I yelled, cupping one hand around my mouth.

“Looks like it’s going to be windy for a while,” Dad said, walking back up the dock toward me and Mike.

“Amazing, absolutely amazing!” I said, shaking my head. Mike looked at me and let out a short, breathy laugh. He stepped off the gray dock onto the course sand, slipping his T-shirt off on the way. He was getting big. The muscles in his back looked rock hard as he lay stomach-down on the cool sand, using his shift as a pillow.

“It’ll calm down,” Mike said again.

Actually, he knew that Jenny and Stacy, his fine-fleshed friends, would be coming down to the lake soon from their cabins. For Mike, they were the next best thing to waterskiing. For the girls, Mike was the best thing. And he knew it.

From the dock I could see across the corner of the lake into the marshy meadow of tall grass where a moose meandered.

From the meadow I could see where the pines began, growing thicker and taller as the mountains got higher. From the edge of the forest I could see where the terrain became rocky, steep, and capped with clouds, the highest summit around-Bald Peak.

And from the look on my dad’s face, and his Brigham Young stance, I could see that today he wanted to hike to the top. And so did I.

“Let’s do it, Dad,” I said, raising my eyebrows.

“I’ve always wanted to. Do you think we can make it?” he said, looking at his watch which he wore on the inside of his wrist.

“Well, I’ve been considering it lately, and I think if we ride motorcycles to Lionhead Ridge,” I pointed, “we can hike down the other side and across, to the base of Bald Peak. From there we should be able to climb the south side of the face.”

“‘Well, we’ll figure out how to approach it when we get there,” Dad said starting off toward the motorcycles, “Eddie, come on.” Eddie dropped the bucket, came running across the sand, then stopped next to where Mike was lying in the sun.

“Come on, Mike,” Eddie said. He wouldn’t want to go; I knew it, and Dad knew it. I wished so badly that he would come. It wasn’t that big of a deal, but with each little activity he missed, he separated himself more and more from the family. Thinking “better that he reject me than Eddie,” I spoke up.

“Mike, come with us,” I said. He acted like he hadn’t heard what we’d been talking about.

“What?” he mumbled, without raising his head.

“Hike Bald Peak with us.”

“No . . .” For a minute, I knew he remembered how much fun we’d had on summer hikes in the past-to Coffin Lake, Lionhead Mountain, Sheep Lake-if he would just come he would love it. “No thanks,” he added. Somehow these little ways of distancing himself were more painful than his times of emotional explosions or running away.

The morning was nearing noon, and I had to be to work at Three Bear Restaurant waiting tables at six p.m. I figured three hours up the peak and two hours back down would give me just enough time to shower and drive to the restaurant in West Yellowstone, about ten minutes from our cabin. We needed to hurry and for some brilliant reason we saved time by not preparing a lunch for the hike. We grabbed an almost empty bag of sour cream & onion chips, and a few small bottles of water. I had been in these mountains plenty of times. We would manage.

|                       |                       |

The motorcycle ride to Lionhead Ridge was about twenty minutes for me, thirty for my dad and Eddie. Since I beat them to the ridge, I had some time to listen to myself think-about Mike. What had happened? He used to be so close to everyone in the family, especially me. Now he was only close to his “friends.” We used to laugh together so much, now he would hardly talk to me. Agitated by my thoughts, I listened to the sounds of the mountains instead: a hawk screeching high above the lodgepole pines; tree trunks creaking under the weight of the breeze; grasshoppers whispering like rattlesnakes; sage-hens cooing from the thick brush; and eventually a couple of motorcycles buzzing and echoing up the trail.

We parked our motorcycles behind trees on the hillside where they couldn’t be seen from the trail and started hiking through the woods.

“I think if we cut across, down this side of the ridge, then we will eventually come to the base of Bald Peak where we can hike up,” I said, ducking under a branch.

“We don’t want to go too far down, though. We should stay near the ridge,” Dad said, helping Eddie over a fallen tree. If there is one way my dad and I are alike, it’s this: we’re always right. Well, I’m right, and he thinks he’s right, especially when it comes to the mountains.

“If we stay near the ridge we’ll have to come down eventually anyway to get to the base of the peak.” I angled my path slightly down the mountain.

“But if we don’t stay near the ridge we won’t be able to see where the bottom of the peak is.” He angled his path slightly upwards and Eddie followed behind, picking up rocks and dropping them periodically.

This discussion ended like most between me and my dad, without an agreement. Just me going my way and he going his. We knew we’d end up in the same place. The only difference was that he thought his way was best, and I thought mine was. Actually, both ways turned out to be much more difficult than we had imagined. The mountainside we traversed was steep and there was no trail. We hiked with one leg about a foot uphill from the other, an excruciating task for ankles. Then, when we reached what we thought would be a gradual descent to the base of the mountain we found a series of gullies and steep ravines. For the whole hike we were either going straight down or straight up through thick forest. By the time we got to the base of the mountain we were already terribly tired and way behind schedule.

“Well, we made it . . . to the base,” I said, closing my eyes to keep my sweat from burning them.

“Yeah, should we head back?” my dad said, taking off his sweat-soaked hat.

“Yeah right, we’ve come this far,” I said, shading my eyes to try and locate the peak.

“You’re doing great, Eddie. Can you believe this kid, hiking like this at nine years old?” My dad patted him on the shoulder. Eddie, mimicking, reached and patted my dad on his upper arm. Dad was more patient with Eddie than with any other of his ten kids. Maybe because Eddie was the tenth. He’d had a lot of practice. I don’t think Eddie will ever know the stern and strict love Dad raised me with. Dad was already Eddie’s friend.

When I was nine-years-old, he was only my dad. It wasn’t until I got back from my mission that we became friends, I think. It’s hard to tell with my dad. He keeps things inside, even from Mom. Just like Mike. In a way, I think dad finds in his friendship with Eddie what he missed in Mike. I bet it hurts to be a father, even a good one.

“If we switchback up here,” I pointed, “then we can reach that incline and climb straight up.”

“It’s too steep, we’ll have to switchback at an angle heading for the lower part of the ridge then walk up to the summit.” Dad put his felt cowboy hat back on and motioned Eddie to start out ahead of him. We moved up the mountain steadily on our separate ways for the same destination.

It took us over an hour of switchbacks and bear-crawling up rock slides to finally reach the summit. It was Awesome. From the peak, looking east, we could see the blue entirety of Hebgen Lake, straight ahead, stretched the wide yellow plains where our cabin was; and on the right, we could see the square-mile city of West Yellowstone. I looked at the lake for a long time from this distance, trying to see Mike, which I knew was impossible.

The majestic view from Bald Peak was a natural witness to me of an artistic creator, a testimony of God himself. I felt a powerful reverence, and it made me mad-mad that Mike wasn’t next to me, feeling what I felt. I stood there staring at the lake, inspired and frustrated, as the upward wind chilled my sweaty clothes.

The stale sour cream & onion chips tasted delicious, but didn’t last long. Neither did the water. We had nothing left to satisfy our hunger and thirst. Because of the valleys and steep ravines we knew the hike home would be just as hard as the hike up. It was four o’clock, and I needed to be clean, dressed, and taking someone’s order in two hours. For some reason I thought I could still make it.

“Dad, I think if we hike down the other side of the mountain we can walk along the north ridge-line and make it home faster.” I untied my flannel shirt from my waist and put it on.

“You think so?” If he was about to agree with me, I knew he must be exhausted. “I’ll try anything if we don’t have to go back the way we came.”

My dad stayed mid-way up the mountain while I hiked down the other side to see if it was a possible alternative for a way home. Eddie stayed at the top within Dad’s sight. When I was almost to the very bottom of the backside of the mountain, I realized it would be impossible. I was surrounded by cliffs dropping hundreds of feet into jagged rocks.

“Hey! Are you okay?” my dad shouted. He sounded panicked, like he had shouted several times and I hadn’t heard.

“I’m coming back up!” I shouted twice before he heard me. When I got back up the mountain I bent over with my hands on my knees, struggling to catch my breath. I felt my back and legs cramping up. My tongue was dry as a cat’s paw and my temples pulsed with pain. I had no water, and welcomed the sweat that dripped down my face into the corners of my mouth. I took off my flannel shirt, damp with sweat, and tied it around my waist. My watch read 4:45.

My dad and Eddie had started heading back down the ridge-line and I caught up with them at the top of where we had ascended the face.

“I’m going to have to hurry on ahead, Dad. I have to get to work,” I said between breaths.

“Right. Good luck,” my dad said, without turning around. The fastest way down, I figured, was to sit on my heels and slide on the loose rocks. I did this for forty minutes before I got to the bottom with aching knees and punctured palms from pushing and balancing as I slid down the rocky face. Crossing the first ravine, I realized that the flannel shirt I’d tied around my waist was gone. I didn’t even consider looking back.

The next two hours of my journey were the most grueling of my life. My body’s resources were completely exhausted. My stomach cramped and burned as if it were drying up. I couldn’t make more than ten steps up the steep hillside without stopping. I was in the shadow of the mountain now as the sun got lower, and the mosquitoes came out to feed. I was too tired to brush them away from my neck, my arms, my face. My body no longer sweat, but endured a burning chill like a fever. The evening air and swarms of mosquitoes made me really wish I had not lost my flannel shirt. It was after six, but getting to work was not important, just getting home alive.

Near the top of the last steep hillside, I was resting after every step. Finally, my body refused to go on. I collapsed face-down, dizzy and dehydrated. Lying on my cramped stomach, resting my head on my arm, I could see into a dry creek bed. Buried in the sediment I saw the top of a plastic bottle. I reached for the bottle and uprooted it from the earth. A Pepsi Big-Slam, one liter. Muddy or not, I would drink it. As I twisted the dirty lid I heard the refreshing burst of carbonation, a sharp hiss saying the soda was still good. I put my flaky lips around the muddy mouth of that bottle and drank nonstop till it was gone.

My body must have absorbed the liquid instantly because my stomach felt empty within seconds after the drink. My strength was revived enough to finish the ascent and make it to the motorcycles, where I hopped on, rode home, and made it to work an hour and a half late.

|                       |                       |

In the restaurant I cleared plates and took orders in a daze. I wasn’t there; I was wondering who had dropped that Pepsi and suffered thirst so that I would survive. Maybe some hiker had dropped it out of his pack on Lionhead Ridge last summer, and the spring runoff had washed it down to right where I would need it the next year. I marveled at how miraculously coincidental the whole thing was. It made me wonder if next year a tired hiker might be caught in a storm and find my flannel shirt on the mountainside to keep him warm. As I looked at the hungry tourists eating all around me, I thought about these strange events that make no sense until long after they transpire. It’s like every once in a while God gives us a glimpse from his direction. He lets us look back and says, “See, see the way I weave?”

When I got home from work I wanted to tell Mike what had happened, but he wasn’t home. Dad had made it home, but only after carrying Eddie, vomiting, and suffering early stages of hypothermia and muscle spasms in his legs. I stayed awake for a while, hoping Mike would come home so I could tell him about the hike. Come home Mike, come home, I thought as I fell asleep on the couch. He stayed out all night. I don’t think my dad slept at all. I’m sure my mom didn’t. Mike, what are you thinking? Give me a glimpse, God. Give me another glimpse.

Wednesday Tennis

by Christine Guerra

The courts were reserved—Tuesday nights for the men’s tennis team and Wednesday mornings for the women’s team. After the children had gone to school and the husbands to work, the women would put on short white skirts and gold bracelets. They each drove, one lone head in the minivan, and waited together at the end of the court. They pulled their husbands’ green beer bottles out of the trash and said, “Do you believe them? Glass on the court. What were they thinking?”

“They weren’t thinking.”

“I’ll have a talk with my Harry tonight.”

“If it breaks and gets in the surface, you can never get it out.”

“This is the reason we have a charter.”

“Glass,” Delia said.

They would play until the sun rose above the tree line, till the cool of the morning started to burn off. Not competitive like the men. The men played in the heat. Their shirts would stick, and they would pull them out by the tails to rearrange the beads on their swarthy faces. The men threw away their game balls after a match, considering all the sport to have been smashed out of them by their mighty strokes, but the women pulled the cans of balls out of the trash the next morning, used them for practice, and found they still bounced.

Delia shook her head with the rest of them when they talked about the men. Her husband didn’t play tennis with the neighborhood. He preferred racquetball at the health club. He wouldn’t stand out in the cul-de-sac with the other men on Saturdays, either, and talk about whatever it was those men talked about. Delia didn’t understand this about Paul. The men always looked so friendly. They were older; you could see the shine of their scalps through the wisps of hair. They were stable. When they mowed their lawns, you could tell how far along they were or whether they had done the back first by how much red sunburn showed through their hair. Paul paid a teenager from the next street over to keep the yard. Delia asked him to do it himself, just once, and said she would bring him lemonade when he stopped to change the bag. He told her she could take lemonade to the teenager.

***

            Sonya lived in the stucco house with dormer windows on the corner. She invited Delia to the team. “Come wheeze with the old ladies,” she said. “Lend us some youth.” Sonya came from Norway with her husband and talked as though she had something in her mouth. Delia let the words go into every part of her mouth, especially when she spoke with Sonya, as if she could improve her accent by example. Sonya was an atheist—Delia half-expected her to be a shoplifter or a child abuser.

There was an order to things, Delia thought. Baptists were at the top, the most virtuous. Under them were the Methodists, then Catholics and Jews. Below them, populating the prisons, were the cultists and atheists. Delia had never met anyone in prison. The farthest she’d ever been from the Chatahoochee River was New York City. She had gone there on a theater trip when she was nineteen. It was an ungodly city, a Sodom, a Gomorrah. She hadn’t been mugged, but a waiter padded their bill. To her it was the same. Best to stay in your own pond, she thought. She did not believe in evolution. Fish should stay fish.

Paul had lived in California for a year, before his father repented. That was when Paul was twelve. Paul said that before he met Delia, he had wanted to live in San Francisco, but that Delia had helped him to see what he really wanted. He still thought it was a nice place to visit. Delia was working on that.

***

            The tennis coach was a short Jewish boy who lived in the city and drove a VW Rabbit the color of an under-ripe lemon. “Ladies,” he always said. “Ladies.” He was raised in South Carolina. You could tell. “Ladies, let’s get those racquets up.” He had hair on his arms and very white teeth. He smiled like a toothpaste model. His 1eg muscles were bunched. Sometimes, Delia would catch herself watching him walk, his calves swelling and smoothing.

Sonya would grip her racquet like an ax. The Jewish boy would say, “Ladies, shake hands with the grip,” and she would say, “Glad to meet you.”

Delia kept a paperback Bible on her nightstand. Paul wanted to get her a nicer one, but she said that she would feel bad bending the spine back. When she didn’t feel like reading, she would tell Paul that she had been studying the Word in the afternoon and that she needed time to digest. She believed greatly in the need to digest the Word.

Delia had a bachelor’s degree in biology from the small Baptist college where she met Paul. She had planned on medical school before she met Paul. But when you meet the right one, all your other plans become dispensable. She told Sonya that.

“Two people with one direction,” Delia said.

“It takes work,” Sonya said.

“The Bible says that Jesus will do the work,” Delia said.

Sonya smiled politely. She didn’t believe.

Delia heard the riffled hum of bees.

“I wasn’t accepted to medical school. I wasn’t smart enough.” She held five balls on the flat of her racquet. “I sure don’t know what I would do without Jesus—what I would have done if I didn’t know that Jesus was guiding me.”

“In other places, people don’t believe like you.”

“It’s not believing. It’s just true.”

Sonya drank from a bottle of water that had ice forced through the neck.

***

            Monday mornings, Delia clipped the coupons from the Sunday paper and did the shopping. She liked doing them back to back so that she could remember better what she had clipped. It reminded her of when Paul was still in college and every fifty cents mattered. They went over and over the bills, offering to cut personal luxuries. Paul skipped lunch, without telling her. He insisted that she buy scented candles, since she liked them so much. He would bring them with wildflowers wrapped in the free supermarket newspaper. Now, the house was filled with candles.

She would watch the children on the street and wait for Paul’s car, pushing all the wax to the center of the candle. She thought that she should have lived back when they sealed envelopes with wax drippings. She thought that she would have been very good at that.

She said to Paul, “Maybe I should get a job.”

He said, “Do you need money?”

She said, “I miss working.”

He said, “Do whatever you want.” Delia didn’t mention it again.

***

            Sonya said, “Where did you learn to serve? I can’t do it.”

“Jesus does the work,” Delia said.

“I hope he has more important things to do than that,” another woman said. They laughed, very friendly. Delia decided that the woman must not be a Christian.

Delia said, “I never thought a person could be happy without Jesus.”

“It can be hard to be happy. As hard as serving,” Sonya said.

She swung her racquet short. She didn’t stretch like she should have. The ball bounced in the lane.

The Jewish boy said, “Ladies. Like picking an orange, ladies. “

***

            Tuesdays Delia had lunch with her sister, who lived with a man. The sister swore a lot and made Delia uncomfortable, but at the end of the lunch, she would say, “It is so refreshing to talk to you.” Delia would always bring her a scripture to read, written on a piece of paper, even though she knew that the sister wrapped her gum with it. Delia didn’t really look them up. She copied them off her daily calendar for Christian women.

Thursdays the cleaning lady came, and Delia took the laundry to the cleaners. Fridays she went to the postnatal wing of the hospital and looked at the babies. She would lay her face against the glass and try to read the charts. Paul said, “When the Lord wants us to have children, He’ll send them to us.” He counted days for her. He was tender. She was taking birth control pills, but didn’t tell him.

“Follow through, ladies. Put some power in it, ladies.”

***

            Paul liked to cook. He would bring home special cuts of meat, or ripe vegetables, and make dinner. Delia said it threw off her shopping. She didn’t really like to cook. For lunch, she ate peanut butter sandwiches. She also liked yogurt and chewy granola bars with chocolate chips. She bought the kind of yogurt printed with dinosaurs, because the grown-up yogurt had chunks of fruit in it. She didn’t like chunks.

Sonya had two children, ten and thirteen, and she tutored college students in physics. Sonya had never eaten a peanut butter sandwich in her life. Delia didn’t know that for a fact, but it seemed true. Sonya’s husband looked like he was sixty.

Paul came home and said, “A woman tried to pick me up at the gas station today, can you believe it?”

Delia said, “Didn’t you tell her you were married?”

Paul said, “Sure I did. It’s just funny.”

***

            Delia told her sister, “I don’t know what to do with kids.”

“What? It’s easy. That’s what they invented TV for.” The sister was looking at the waiter, trying to catch his eye.

“What would I feed them?”

“They love peanut butter sandwiches. And macaroni and cheese. And anything that comes in a can. If it gets too tough, give them ice cream. They’ll eat it till they explode.” The man she had lived with before had a son, who was only allowed to visit them once a month. Delia thought that was too generous.

“Why don’t you have any kids?” Delia said.

“Oh,” the sister said, “Because they ruin your sex life. But that wouldn’t bother you as much.”

Delia didn’t answer.

***

            Paul thought they needed a vacation. Time to get away, and relax. Stress could make you sterile, he said. Could make either one of us sterile. He said, imagine us at the beach, with the moonlight and the surf. What a beautiful way to make a baby, he said. We could always tell him where he was made, he said.

Delia said, “Why would you tell a child about where it was conceived? It would warp its mind.”

Delia said she couldn’t go anyway, that she couldn’t leave until the tennis season was over. The others were counting on her, she said.

***

            Delia had trouble praying lately. She felt silly, as though someone watching her would think she was talking to herself. She didn’t sing in the car anymore, either. She never danced alone. She didn’t care for dancing in public, either, unless someone said to her that she danced beautifully. Then she enjoyed it.

***

            Delia said, “Maybe the Lord just doesn’t want us to have children. Maybe we should just give up.”

Paul tried to touch her hand, but she pulled it away.

***

            “Ladies, concentrate. Ladies, be sure to eat lots of carbohydrates before the match. Pastas and breads, ladies. Pastas and breads.”

Delia zipped her racquet into the bag and packed her tennis balls into the can. The lid was missing again.

“I’m bringing cream puffs for after the march.”

“After exercising?”

“We’ve earned some extra calories.”

“Don’t tell Bob. He’s on a no sugar diet.”

“They are worse than the children, really.”

“Yes,” Delia said. “They never want what’s good for them.”

***

            Paul asked if she wanted him to come watch her play. She said yes, but when he was there, he made her nervous. After the first set, she waved him over to the chain-link fence and asked him to leave.

When she got home, he said, “Do you want a divorce?” He stood at the bottom of the stairs. She stood on the third stair. She could see the top of his head, where the hair was just beginning to thin.

She said, “Divorce is a sin in the eyes of God.”

“So is lying,” he said. “You don’t want me. I’m going to a hotel. “

She said, “Wait, we’ll have children. Wait. We can fix this.”

He said, “I don’t understand you.”

She said, “I might be pregnant right now. It might happen tonight. Don’t go.”

He said, “We need help.”

She said, “You’re right. We’ll pray.”

He said, “I don’t think I can right now.”

***

            After dinner, after the news, when the house was dark and cool, Delia watched the moonlight on the wall. In the pine branches, the moon made shapes of light. An old man at first, then a toy soldier. Then it looked like Jesus, bending slightly towards the window.

Purple Armchairs

by Amy Baker

My brother said he saw a band of dogs once that were really skinny and had no hair. They were about a foot tall and had big eyes. He said they were sniffing cars’ tires but quickly trotted away when they saw him. I laughed when he told me, picturing a bunch of lanky, pink-skinned dogs running around. I laughed—until he said that they had a disease.

I had never heard much about Parvo virus before. I thought it had to do with dogs and cats and tapeworms. I wondered if Parvo was the disease the dogs had that made them lose their hair. Someone told me animals die from Parvo. Their dog had it, and it stopped eating.

We had the same dog for nearly fourteen years. She was a gorgeous golden retriever. People used to stop us on the street and tell us how beautiful she was. People think dogs can’t smile, but she could. We would scratch her back and examine her teeth, and come to the conclusion that, “Yep, yep, she’s smiling.” We didn’t treat her like a human, but she thought she was one. She was always healthy and fairly energetic, and then she got a tumor and died. It wasn’t because of the Parvo disease—it was cancer.

The word reminds me of death. Perhaps it is because my dog died of cancer. Perhaps because my dad had cancer, though he didn’t die. I think of a little girl I know cheerfully reading a picture book with her parents on the third floor of a Hollywood hospital, while the invisible cancer grew inside her. She had no hair.

***

            I began to get bruises on my legs in February of 1996 after I went skiing for the third time in my life. I was confidently flying down a blue diamond run at Sundance Ski Resort near Provo, Utah. I heard a groan from behind me and then a “Whooooaaah” and a man barreled into me. My skis flew, and so did I. I finally stopped after thirty feet of sliding. The man who crashed into me was near the bottom of the mountain. I guess he was sorry, though he was too far away to yell it. My legs throbbed as I began the search for my skis. I knew bruises would follow. I just didn’t know they would be massive.

The bruising on my arms was worse than on my legs. I went to a church activity at the park and played grass volleyball one night. Our team won. We laughed and slapped each other high-fives. Later that night, my entire forearms were dark blue and covered with tiny red and blue dots. Playing volleyball had never done that to me. People would gasp at my arms, and I would show them and laugh about it because they looked a lot worse than they felt. I even took a picture of my bruises to send to my family in California.

I thought my family would be surprised too, and laugh, because that is what I did. They didn’t. My mom first asked me if I was eating. She suggested that I go to the doctor when I got home. I flew home to California after finals in April. When I took a shower that night, I noticed huge bruises on the back of my thighs. They were from sitting on the airplane seat.

The next day I went to see a doctor out in North Hollywood. She asked how my year at college had been and then checked my ears with those pointy ear-lookers that have little lights. She asked if anything else was wrong. I showed her my bruises. She looked at them and acted nonchalantly, as if everyone went in there with serious bruising. She told me to have a few blood tests done and to go home. I shrugged, concluding that I needed more iron in my diet, and left the clinic without answers. on the way home I thought of my boyfriend, Matt, who told me that they thought he had leukemia when he was nine. Matt was hospitalized for three weeks. His mom tells of how when she touched his arm it left a bruise in the shape of a handprint. His body had nearly stopped producing platelets, the blood-clotting cells. He had to have a bone marrow test where they stuck a long needle into his lower back to penetrate the spine. The tests came out negative for leukemia. What he did have was idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura—commonly called “ITP.” That’s a very long name for a platelet-destroying pathogen in the body. (Originally, I had thought Matt made the word up!) Doctors don’t know what causes platelet destruction with ITP. (ITP is different from hemophilia—with hemophilia, at any given time your body doesn’t produce enough platelets; with ITP something in your body destroys platelets you have already produced. Both diseases cause severe bruising.)

I had severe bruising. Within three hours of the time I arrived home from the clinic, the phone rang. It was Dr. Baer.

“Guess what,” she said and sighed. “I have news for you.” I sat Indian-style on the blue carpet of my room as my heart beat faster. I leaned forward, as if trying to get closer to the doctor’s voice. “You have something called ITP” she said.

I almost laughed. “You mean idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura?” I said. “My boyfriend had that when he was little.”

All I could think about was how Matt was never going to believe me when I told him this one.

“You are going to have to come in tomorrow and the next day for eight hours of IV in the oncology department.”

Oncology means cancer, I immediately thought. My attention heightened. I felt as though someone had snapped their fingers in front of my face. I grabbed a pen and the nearest piece of paper I could find to write notes.

“Your platelets are being destroyed and we don’t know why. We are expecting to receive tests back soon to find out if a virus is causing this or if we’ll need to do additional tests for leukemia.” I took notes furiously. She said that a normal person has between a 150,000 and 250,000 platelet count. If the platelet count falls below 10,000, internal organs can begin to bleed and there is no way to stop the bleeding—the patient dies. She said my platelet count was 13,000.

I froze. “What’s this IV deal?” I asked. Thoughts of HIV and contracting other diseases from infected blood transfusions saturated my brain. She explained that it was gamma-globulin, a man-made substance that would coat and protect each individual platelet cell. She explained that having the IV treatment tomorrow was crucial to my staying alive. With my platelet count at 13,000, if I bumped into anything the internal bleeding would likely nor stop and I would have to be hospitalized. I made arrangements with her to arrive at the oncology department at 8:00 a.m. the next morning and asked if she could be reached later. I knew my parents would want to talk to her.

***

            Joanne, the nurse, typed my name into the computer and told us we could wait in the treatment room. The first thing I noticed were the room’s big window’s. The walls and floors were white. My mom and I each sat in one of the purple reclining chairs that were against the walls below the windows. Hey purple chairs! I remember thinking. These chairs are the same color as my bruises!

That’s all there was in the room, lounge chairs and small television screens clamped onto the ceiling. The rest of the room was open space. Out the windows, beyond the chaotic city streets that were under construction, I could see the ocean and Santa Monica beach. Catalina Island would have been visible, if it weren’t for the smog.

My eyes shifted from the window when Dr. Sleight emerged from his office. He was tall and bald. He wore a bright blue Hawaiian shirt with gaudy flowers and white pants. I thought the shirt was humorous, though I remember thinking, Are they allowed to wear things like that?

He smiled and shook my mom’s hand, introducing himself. He began to explain the intravenous procedure. He said there was no risk of transferring any diseases during the treatment because the gamma-globulin was man-made. The IV was imperative, he said. He reminded me that my platelet count was 13,000 and if it dropped below 10,000, I would have serious problems. My mom and I still felt apprehensive. Everything had happened too fast. The day before, I had gone to the doctor thinking she was going to tell me to eat more bananas or vitamins. Now I was going to have intravenous treatment. I had never even broken a bone before.

We believed the doctor, though, despite his casual Hawaiian shirt that somehow made him seem less professional. I guess he just had a good sense of humor. He immediately called the lab and asked them to send up the bottles of gamma-globulin. The procedure would take about eight hours that day and eight hours the next. Great, I thought. Sixteen hours in purple reclining chairs with the beach out the window to long for.

The nurse said the IV might make me sick initially. She was right. After eight hours, Joanne removed the needle from my hand with the care of a gentle mother. I winced as the blood poured out. I couldn’t handle the sight or thought of blood and injuries.

My mom drove me home. I was achy and dizzy and almost couldn’t walk. I threw up fourteen times when I got home. My dad and our neighbor, the former bishop, gave me a priesthood blessing that night. I wanted to go to sleep and stop throwing up. I remember feeling that the blessing would give me relief for at least a few hours. It did. I fell asleep.

***

            The next morning I awoke with another eight hours of IV and throwing up to look forward to. Dr. Sleight greeted us in the treatment room with a smile and white pants identical to yesterday’s. He was wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt this time. I wondered how many pairs of white pants he had and how many times he had been to Hawaii.

“Good news, Amy!” he proclaimed. “You have a virus.” My mom and I sat confused as to why that was good news. “With ITP we don’t usually know what is destroying platelets,” he said. “Bur your blood has tested positive for a virus, so we have a better idea of the nature of the beast. You have something called Parvo Virus B- 1 9.” Parvo! That is the dog disease that gives them tapeworms or something. Dogs die from that. They stop eating. I wondered if they lost their hair. My mom must have been thinking the same thing, because she immediately spoke.

“Isn’t that the same disease that dogs and cats get?”

“No!” the doctor said, nearly shouting. He seemed almost offended. “They are completely different! Humans cannot get the Parvo disease that animals get.” My mom turned to me with

a “sorry-I-asked” look. He nodded seriously. “It is not the same disease, and Amy will not die from it.”

The second day of IV treatment went better than the first. I had a severe headache still, but I didn’t throw up. The doctor suggested that I come in tomorrow for a third consecutive day. I would only have a blood test, though, to ensure that the gamma-globulin was working. I then knew where I would be spending my summer—at the hospital.

I began to go to the hospital each week for a blood test to determine my platelet count. If my count was under 50,000, I stayed for eight hours of IV that day and come back for eight hours the next day. I ended up having an IV treatment every third week.

I did not realize at the time how serious it is when platelets are destroyed. During the time that I discovered severe bruises my freshman year at BYU, I made my roommate, Mandy, come with me to donate plasma. (They pay you for your plasma.) The assistants at the plasma center first checked our veins to see if they were big enough. They then told us that they were sorry, but we would have to come back another time. The electricity had gone out.

Mandy and I walked the six blocks home, disappointed not to have gotten paid, but secretly relieved to be getting away from long, sharp needles. What I really should have felt was lucky. If they had stuck a needle in me at that time to remove blood and plasma, I probably would have had to have been hospitalized. I am sure my platelet count was low at the time because my arms and legs were covered with bruises. My body would have had no way to stop bleeding. I could have bled to death.

***

            I didn’t feel sick. I had a virus in my blood, but I didn’t feel different. I got up early and ran two to three miles every day, even on IV treatment days. I lived my normal life, working for my dad’s exchange student company every morning and going out with friends at night. I even went on a four-day backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park in late May, though I probably shouldn’t have. (I didn’t tell my doctor about that one.) The thing that slowed me down was fatigue. I was tired all of the time. I would fall asleep everywhere. At times I lacked the energy to get up, and I would doze off.

My nurse suggested that I not run everyday. She said I needed to allow my body to rest. I had played sports and been active my entire life. I didn’t want to stop running. It seems like such a small thing, but I didn’t think I could live without exercising.

I lived. I was lucky. Some children who regularly received treatment in the purple-chair room of the hospital have already died of cancer, mostly leukemia.

Besides myself, there were nine other “regulars.” They were children who were receiving their treatment at the same time as me. We would smile and say hi, though we didn’t talk much to each other. The only way we knew each other’s medical stories was through observation. There were two boys who always got a mustard-yellow liquid through IV. They were receiving platelets. I wondered if they had hemophilia. I never asked them about their diseases or their lives, nor did they ask me. We just smiled.

I remember one day, when there were only a few people in the room. There was a beeping sound and the nurse gently took the needle out of a little girl’s hand. The nurses loved the children and grew attached to them. One nurse, Joanne, said it tore her heart to work there because children suffered and died a lot of the time. Joanne was a master at IV needle-removing. She could do it with one quick sweep and it didn’t hurt as much as when the other nurses took needles out. Joanne was careful, but the little girl whimpered softly when the needle was removed. She clenched her mother’s arm and tears streamed. The mother stroked her daughter’s hair. Joanne put a soft gauze pad over the puncture wound and smiled.

“Is that your favorite book, Sophia?” The girl nodded, her bottom lip jutting out, and she sniffled. She was reading it the last time I came. The girl s sobs died down when Joanne kissed her forehead. Joanne said it tore her heart to work there, but it must have also fed her soul.

I sat across the room that day with an IV needle in my hand. It was secured with large amounts of tape. I had brought several books to read, but I watched Oprah and Montel Williams talk shows for an hour or so. I seemed to forget about viruses and treatments and leukemia while I watched daughters bring their mothers on the talk shows to get makeovers.

Finally I turned off the television to study Spanish vocabulary words. I was enrolled in Spanish 345 class for fall semester and was nervous that the class would be difficult. My dad gave me the vocab words. He is a high school Spanish teacher.

My IV beeped. Joanne came to push buttons on the digital flow regulator. I asked her how much longer she thought the treatment would take that day. She checked the amount of fluid left in the bottle, looked at her watch, and told me it would be another three to four hours. I smiled and thanked her. I remember, at that moment, wishing I was at the beach.

I am sure all those little children that I saw in the treatment room also wanted to go to the beach instead of the clinic. But they couldn’t. Much of their lives was spent there at the hospital receiving IV fluid or having tests done. Many of them went to the hospital at least twice a week; some went everyday. They did it to stay alive.

Many times I would sit in the purple armchair and count the hours that I had left of IV treatment. I knew that my Parvo virus would go away after it “ran its course” and I would be better. If the virus didn’t leave, removing my spleen would solve the problem. Dr. Sleight didn’t want to do that though, because it would be a major operation and I would have to take pills everyday for the rest of my life. He said he was hopeful that the virus would eventually leave, though it might take two years.

The little children that I shared the treatment room with did not have that comfort. They did not know when they were going to ger better. Many probably never would. Some would not live to see their next Christmas.

One day a girl named Sandra came into the clinic. She was probably about twenty years old. I had seen her previous times, but she never got IV treatment. Most of the time she just sat in the room and waited to see the doctor. One of the nurses paused to look at Sandra on her way to check a boy’s IV flow regulator.

“You got a new wig!” the nurse said. “It looks so good!” Sandra was beaming. I smiled too. It did look good. I didn’t know Sandra wore a wig. I supposed she had lost her hair from chemotherapy.

I sat in the purple armchair and watched the school-age children receive IV while doing their homework. Two brothers always did math together. Their parents never came to the clinic. They probably just dropped them off and picked them up. The process had become a routine, a part of their lives. I thought of their mother asking them later that evening how many math problems they had finished that day at the clinic.

The armchairs were big and comfortable. I remember the feeling of their fibers on my skin and their stale smell, like they’d been taken out of a home’s front room that the family rarely used. You could almost fit two of me in one of the chairs, three of the little kids. I had difficulty falling asleep in them, though. I was afraid I would move around too much in my sleep, and the IV needle would come loose. One day I did fall asleep and the needle slipped. I woke up and the top of my left hand was swollen almost an inch and a half higher than normal. There was a big bubble under my skin. I looked at it and felt like I was going to faint. The nurse hurried over and quickly removed the needle. She said the gamma-globulin fluid had seeped into my tissues, but that the swelling would go down within a few days. I was relieved.

I began to feel more grateful for good health. My body was not completely healthy, but I was glad to be alive. I was able to run and hike and do things that I loved. I could breathe without a respirator, and I could walk. I had forgotten that health and our very lives are such blessings.

***

            Dr. Sleight began to be concerned about what would happen in the fall when school began. I had planned to go back to BYU and was registered for September classes. I was greatly looking forward to it. The question was how I would receive my IV treatments. The closest hospital that accepted our medical insurance was in Denver. One plan was to fly to Colorado every three weeks to receive treatment. My mom suggested that I fly home, though, because I knew the California hospital and staff well. We discussed the subject a bit more and tentatively decided that I would get a blood test to determine my platelet count each week in Provo at the BYU Health Center. I would have the Health Center fax the results to Dr. Sleight. If my platelet count was low enough, I could take some special steroids or fly home for a weekend of IV treatments.

As my mom and I talked one afternoon about plans for the school year, Dr. Sleight went back into his office. He emerged a few minutes later with a lei of artificial flowers around his neck. He was grinning. “How about transferring to BYU-Hawaii?” he said in a salesman voice. “We have a clinic in Hawaii that accepts your insurance!” I laughed. Going to Hawaii sounded like paradise to me. But I shook my head. Everything had been arranged for me to return to Provo. I had paid my tuition and my first month’s rent. My friends were there. I was going back.

I left for Provo two days after an IV treatment on August 24th. My platelet count was high due to the gamma-globulin boost. I said goodbye to my family and then stepped on the plane, wondering if I would be back three weeks later.

***

            I didn’t think much about platelets while at school, though I went to the Health Center each week. At first my count was a high 125,000 from the recent IV in August. Then it began to drop. One week it was 69,000. Dr. Sleight had set the rule that if my platelet count went below 50,000, I would have to fly home. However, after a month my platelet count began to be stable. The lowest it got at school was 65,000. I never flew home. I concluded that the virus had left.

I wonder sometimes at the curiousness of the experience. The electricity went off in the plasma-donating center before I knew I had a virus. The virus gradually went away after I returned to school. I know people prayed for me. Older ladies in my ward’s Relief Society came up to me and said, “Hope you get better sweetie. We’re prayin’ for you.” I appreciated that. My brother wrote to say that his entire missionary district held a special fast for me. They included me in their prayers. I was instantly grateful to them. I think all those people are why the virus left my body and I got better. (Actually, I don’t know if the virus has left. It may still be in my body. My platelet count has gone up, though, and I consider myself better.)

I continued to have my platelet count monitored. I began to go to the BYU Health Center once a month instead of once a week. My count remained steady at 80,000 or higher. I remember the day my count rose about 100,000. I gave the nurse who drew my blood a high five.

One night in Janu ary, my mom called. It was near midnight. “Amy, I have to tell you something,” she said. I sat Indian-style against the wall in my apartment in Provo, Utah. I was in the living room and the lights were off except for one small desk lamp in the corner. “Amy, Joanne called me,” she began. Joanne was the nurse from the oncology department in California. “She said that you can’t fax your platelet count results here anymore.” My curiosity heightened. was the hospital’s fax machine broken? Did I need to start seeing a doctor in Provo instead of Los Angeles? Was I all better? My mom began again. “Amy, I just had to call you really quick and tell you this.” She was silent for a few seconds. “Dr. Sleight is dead.” I gasped. The sound was so loud that my roommates woke up and came into the room.

“What? How did he die?” I asked. Thoughts of diseases ran through my head: AIDS, Parvo, cancer. He had lost all of his hair.

“He was killed in a car accident,” my mom said. I was stunned. I could see Dr. Sleight smiling at us with his bright Hawaiian shirts, suggesting that I transfer schools and go to BYU-Hawaii.

My mom and I spoke a little more and then she had to go. I hung up the phone and was left in shock. My virus had come unexpectedly. I went through a summer of painful and seemingly tedious IV treatments, the last one being two days before I returned to BYU in September. I had not had another treatment since. The virus seemed to have disappeared. And my doctor was now dead—not cancer, not Parvo, but a car accident.

***

            On the third floor of the Kaiser Hospital on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Joanne still tends to the IV’s and needs of bright-eyed children. I know she loves them and their families. Many of the children that were there when I was probably continue to visit the clinic regularly for treatment. They do so to stay alive.

I attend BYU. I have not been to the oncology clinic for a year and a half. The last time I got my platelets checked was four months ago. I have a jogging class and run twelve to eighteen miles a week. I count myself lucky to have good health.

But I remember well the oncology department. I admire our nurse, Joanne. She became a part of our lives. More than once, I remember a little child who died of leukemia, and Joanne had to call and tell their family. I think of the children there. Although I don’t really know them, I feel drawn to go back and visit. I cannot begin to know what it is like to deal with the physical and emotional difficulties of having cancer. But I want to tell the children that I love them. I want to tell them that they inspire me. For two short months, we seemed to share a common understanding because we sat fighting diseases on the threads of purple armchairs.

***

            Sometimes people do not know how to act around those who are different. Before I had a virus, I was never afraid or nervous around people who had illnesses, but I was ever aware of their disease or handicap. I would observe how they acted and performed tasks that I took for granted being able to do. When I spoke with people who had a disease, there was a little cuckoo clock in my brain that, every so often, would come out and say, “Oh remember that he has cancer,” or, “How remarkable that she does all of these things even though she has AIDS.”

What I learned was that the illness is a part of their lives, but it is nor their whole lives. I went to the doctor every week when I had Parvo virus. I had to stop doing some things I normally loved to do. I went to the doctor around the same time each week because I had to. Then I went on with my life.

I think of people with illnesses differently now. I still admire many of them, but my little reminding cuckoo clock is gone. People may have tubes in their noses or have to pull an oxygen tank, but I see them as I see everyone else. I do not think of them as different anymore.

***

            I cannot imagine what it would be like to have cancer. I think of how I sat in a purple armchair next to children with cancer, each of us with an IV needle in our hands. I remember feeling selfish because I had already grown up. I was nineteen. My disease would go away. They were little children, beautiful and full of energy. Many would probably die soon. But they didn’t think about that. They were kids who wanted to play as every child does. Their parents cherished each day.

I think of the day I will return to the clinic. I imagine myself driving through the busy streets of Los Angeles on a warm Friday in June to visit a room full of big windows, purple armchairs, and young children receiving treatments. This time I will no longer feel beckoned by the beach out the window, but by the smiles and silent courage of a stalwart group on the third floor.

Congratulations on Mandela

by Patrick Madden

            Grandma Garcia hated the Negroes. For most bigots I know, racism is a matter of dissociation. They have black friends who, they say, aren’t like other black people, and they keep their attitudes under wraps whenever any real live blacks are present. But not Grandma Garcia; she declared her disdain outright and without provocation. The two years I had lived in Louisiana as a boy had taught me the routine: my neighbors hated the poor thieving blacks who lived in the Broadmoor Apartments in relative squalor, but with an impressive selection of stolen televisions and stereos. Every house within a two-block radius of ours had been robbed in the past couple of years and all my neighbors knew that it was the blacks. So it was understandable that they would harbor animosity, but Grandma Garcia seemed to have no reasons, or felt it unnecessary to explain her feelings.

“Grandma,” said her grandson Jovany loudly and slowly the first time we met her, “these are the missionaries, Madden and Kalu.”

            “I hate the Negroes!” she shouted back in reproach.
            “But Grandma, these are missionaries. They’re from the Church.”
            “What does that matter to me? Get that Negro away from me!”
            She sat rigid in her rocking chair in the half-shade of the laundry yard where her family had put her, probably hoping she’d stay entertained and out of the way. We were struck silent, waiting for Jovany to calm her or explain. She stared at the broken bricks of the back-door frame as if to avoid visual contamination, or to show her disdain. Her eyes were glossed over and clammy. Purple veins bulged from her skeletal hands as she gripped the chair’s armrests in anger. Her lips moved, muttering inaudible complaints, and she furrowed her wrinkles deeper in a demonstrative scowl. Whatever manners she may have learned as a girl were not meant for Negroes, and she was unabashed in her censure.
            From then we kept our visits with the Garcia family brief, usually during the time when their grandmother was sleeping. But every now and then she was sick, or cranky, and got up from her nap to make her demands and nag her grandchildren. She couldn’t smell my companion, but she acted like it. From inside her room she heard his deep, melodious voice and shouted, “Get that Negro out of here!” Eventually, nobody paid attention to her. But it grinded on me. Offense by proxy, that’s what I’d call it now. Kalu didn’t seem to notice.
            One Lazy afternoon Elder Kalu and I were walking near the narrow sycamore-lined road to Santa Bernadina and I was worrying about his ego.
            Continuing my thoughts out loud, I asked him, “How do you deal with it?” He looked up from the road for a second, then quickly sidestepped to shuffle-kick a small rock between my legs.
            “Deal wit’ wat?” Some missionaries couldn’t understand his Nigerian English, but by
then I had enough practice to catch every word.
            “‘With Grandma Garcia’s comments about hating the Negroes.”
            He laughed silently to himself and shook his head. When he looked at me he was smiling.
            “Man,” he drew out the word through his smile, “I don’ care wat she tink about me an I don’ tink about wheda she care fah me.”
            That was that in Elder Kalut mind. He turned his eyes back to the road, searching for a small stone, and when he quickly found one, shot it just under my heel as I stepped. He looked brightly, squinting in the sun as he turned to me and shouted with glee. “Go-o-o-o-ol!” With his laugh the word crescendoed and ebbed as it faded among the trees.
            Aside from Grandma Garcia, Uruguayans are generally very tolerant of blacks. There were never many slaves in the country, and there hasn’t been more than a handful of immigrants to Uruguay from Africa, so that blacks make up a very small percentage of the population. There are no black ghettos and, thus, no natural segregation, and the white Uruguayans excitedly anticipate the only regular congregation of blacks: the Llamadas, a frantic festival of drums and candombe music that kicks off Carnaval in late February.     Ruben Rada, a black jazz/candombe singer and national hero, is affectionately known as “El Negro,” and husbands and wives everywhere sweet talk each other as “mi negrito” or “mi negrita.” I’ve wondered if the reference hails back to the days of slavery when blacks were patronized and oppressed, but even if it does, Uruguayans today don’t know that and they harbor none of the prejudicial overtones of calling each other “little Negroes.”
            So racial tensions run low in Uruguay. Grandma Garcia never explained her reasons for hating blacks, but I suspect it might have stemmed from a bad experience. Or, who knows, she might have been influenced by Nazis who escaped to Uruguay after the war. But other people never showed any prejudice.
            One afternoon Elder Kalu and I were wandering the streets just south of the Garcias’ house and talking with anyone who crossed our path, when we came across a hunched old woman with gray skin and a flowery, silky dress and a scarf which she wore on her head to protect her wiry hair from the sun. She was sweeping the dirt from her front walk into the street and into the atmosphere in great clouds of dust. She looked up curiously when we saluted, but didn’t answer back. “Hello, how are you today?” I repeated.
“Well,” she said slowly, her voice hanging in the air like a question. It wasn’t clear if she
meant “good” or if she meant to continue. We stalled silently for a second, then spoke again.
            “We’re missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said Kalu. “My name is Elder Kalu. I’m from Nigeria. He’s Elder Madden, from the United States.” She stared back at him silently, pursing her lips, but she didn’t say anything. “We have a message about Jesus Christ that we share with the people—”
            “Where in the United States?” she interrupted. It took me a second to understand her question.
            “I’m from New Jersey,” I said.
            “I have relatives in New Jersey,” she said, and then smiled contentedly, as if she’d known I would be from New Jersey.
            “Where in New Jersey?” I asked.
            “New Jersey.”
            “But what city?”
            “New Jersey,” she said with an air of finality, like I was the one who didn’t know his
geography.
            “Oh,” I said, not wanting to argue. “It’s very nice there. Have you ever been to visit?”
            “No,” she said sadly. “My husband is black.” She stood unsteadily and looked at me
slowly, waiting for my nod of understanding. But I didn’t understand.
            “Why can’t you go if your husband is black?” I said.
            She sighed and smiled kindly at me, “A few years ago my relatives invited us to go visit them in New Jersey,” she began. “They have good jobs and a big house and a car. They come to Uruguay sometimes and they wear the nicest clothes and they can speak English. They were going to pay for our tickets and let us stay with them. They said we could see New York from their window. We wanted to go, but we couldn’t because my husband is black.” She looked at me again as if I should know why that was an obstacle.
            “Why not? What does it matter if your husband is black?” I wondered if Uruguayan
passports were restricted to whites, or if the U.S. embassy discriminated against blacks for visas.
            “Because in the United States they kill all the black people,” she said calmly, like it was common knowledge.
            “What?” I asked incredulously. “Why do you think they kill all the black people? Who told you that?”
            “Everybody knows it,” she said.
            “But they don’t kill all the black people,” I said. By now I was feeling defensive. “I grew up with black people. I know lots of black people, and they’re just as happy as everybody else. How can you think we kill them?”
            “I didn’t say you killed them,” she said. “But I saw on the television that they were
killing all the black people.”
            I first thought of South Africa, then of documentaries on the slave trade. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. She was obviously mistaken, I reasoned, but my deep-set need to be right and to correct her wrong notions kept me going. “When did you see that?” I asked.
            “Not long ago,” she said. “Right when my relatives invited us to visit.”
            “But what year?” She was getting impatient with my questions, and Elder Kalu looked at me sternly and notched his thumb between his long, bony fingers in the ‘k’ sign. He meant “kill it.” Shut up, man, she’s not listening.
            “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe five years ago.” She scratched her nose with the broom handle.
            “Was it something that happened then? Or was it a documentary?”
            “It was the news,” she said, annoyed. “They were showing it all over the world.”
            “But where was it from?”
            “The United States, I told you already,” she said. Then, “Los Angeles.”
            It clicked. She was talking about the Los Angeles Rodney King trial riots. One black man beaten by police and random riot coverage equals all black people being killed in the entire country. It obviously wasn’t a logical conclusion, but I tried logic on her anyway.
            “You mean the riots in Los Angeles? That was only one city, and they weren’t killing
black people—black people were robbing Korean people. And besides, Los Angeles is across the country from New Jersey.” She didn’t get it. I continued, “‘Would you be afraid here if the Venezuelans started killing black people?” She stared curiously, unable to connect my question to the conversation. “California is as far from New Jersey as Uruguay is from Venezuela. What happened in Los Angeles has nothing to do with New Jersey. Black people are safe in New Jersey.” I suppose I really wanted to convince her to visit her relatives.
            “All I know is what they told me,” she said, picking up her broom and turning to go back to her sweeping. “They kill all the black people in the United States.” She completed her pirouette, pushed open her front gate and slowly shuffled back into the security of her front yard. Behind her we stared for a while, then shrugged at each other and walked away. Kalu punctuated the conversation with his only contribution to the debate: “I tol’ you man.’ No matter how often I’m forced to learn it, I’ve never yet really understood why some people can’t tap into the Fountain of Reason. Nowadays, what with postmodern philosophers and the slippery nature of truth, it’s difficult to assert any such thing as reason, but I’m convinced that it exists. Still, Jesus warned that before we attempt to take the mote out of our brother’s eye, we ought to remove the beam from our own. But I guess deep down I’ve always thought he wasn’t talking to me. I try to be conscientious and civil to others, either in ignoring or in pointing out their mistakes, and I’m convinced that I can always get the right answer through reason. The most painful argument, for me, is the one that is built on the incorrect assumption that nobody can ever be right, or worse, that if I was wrong last time, then now it’s your turn. Here was a woman whose erroneous ideas were so embedded that she blinded herself to a logical counter-explanation. Yet I wonder where she got her ideas in the first place. She seemed so untrusting, and yet who was able to fill her head with the notion that all the blacks were being killed in the
United States? Did she trust her television? And by what thought process could she interpret the snippets she saw of the riots as a large-scale genocide? But she did, and there was no way I could dissuade her.
            It’s a flaw, I suppose, that I felt the need to show her the truth about my country. I grew frustrated with her denials and illogic, as she turned farther from me because of my over-excitement. All things considered, though, people’s misconceptions about the United States were small in comparison with their lack of knowledge about Africa. Their strange notions drove Elder Kalu crazy. And he decided that his mission in Durazro, besides that of winning converts to Mormonism, was to educate the people about Africa.
            It would be too much of an exaggeration to say always, but I can tell you that nearly
every person we ever talked to in Durazno after Elder Kalu had been there for a week had
already heard about him. “Ah, yes. You’re the Africano,” they’d say, and he’d smile. “I’m Elder Kalu, without an accent.” They were always calling him Kaloo and he hated that.
            “I’m from Nigeria, the ones who are going to win the World Cup,” he taunted. Uruguay hadn’t qualified, and the Uruguayan men were heartbroken. Their glory years had ended with Uruguay’s last win in the Mundial in 1950. Still, they were fiercely proud that such a small country had won two World Cups and were equally humbled that their team this year was sitting at home. Then he’d introduce me. “This is Elder Madden from the United States, where they’re playing the Mundial.”
            Anyone else would have caused a big stir with his boasting and ridicule of the most
sacred of Uruguayan traditions. But the people loved Elder Kalu the Nigeriano even before they ever met him. They seemed proud to have him, a real live African, in their little unknown town. Some Church members, who got to know him personally, claimed to have had dreams that he would come to their town. Once he was there, word about him spread quickly. He told me that in every area he’d been in he heard the same story.
            Even the people who didn’t know him noticed. One Sunday afternoon, Richard Cisneros, from across town, bicycled over to drop off a political cartoon from the Sunday paper. It showed Elder Kalu, helmet-on-head and backpack-on-back, watching a soccer game in a bar with an assortment of locals. One of them says, “Wow! Those Africans sure play well!” Another responds, “Look at the Nigerians run!” And above them all, Elder Kalu chides, in ungrammatical Spanish, “Ha ha ha. We’re in the Mundial, and you all are stuck at home!” We never found out who drew the picture.
            He was famous. Though his celebrity didn’t help much with opening doors to teach the gospel, we had many lively doorway conversations about politics and futbol. The common people were excited to have this novelty in their midst and eager to make a good impression. Most common of their show-off comments was, “Congratulations on Mandela!” Nelson Mandela had just been elected President of South Africa. It was a trying time for Elder Kalu’s nerves.
            Depending on his mood, Elder Kalu might ignore the compliment and get down to
business, or, more likely, give a geography lesson. “¿¡Qué Mandela!?” His tone meant “What are you talking about!?”
            “Mandela’s not from my country. South Africa is as far from Nigeria as Venezuela is
from Uruguay. You don’t hear me congratulating you on Venezuela’s president, do you?” They cowered. We were fond of Venezuela as a distant reference point.
            “Africa isn’t all one country. Not all black people are the same. There are more countries in Africa than any other continent. . . .” They were losing interest but smiling sheepishly. Usually by the time he was done they were casting sideways glances at me, shrugging as if to say “I’m sorry.” I usually smiled at them, basking in his didactic tirade and thinking, in a sing-song, “They’re not listening.” Surprisingly, nobody was ever openly offended by his rebukes.
            People were good natured about being taught African geography and seemed to brush off his reproaches as easily as they forgot what he told them. So, after all, I don’t know what effect Elder Kalu had on most of the people we met. They were too high in the clouds, excited to be graced by the presence of an exotic foreigner, to hear our real message—the one about eternal salvation—and they were too ingrained in their simplistic notions about the outside world to broaden their horizons even when a real live African came to teach them. Elder Kalu took it all in stride, his bright smile—the stereotypical see-it-in-the-dark whites against his dark face-was a constant reminder that he was happy being who he was and doing what he was doing. I was happy he was doing it with me.
            When he realized with certain people that he could never change them, he started telling them, “In Africa, we have lions roaming the streets and eating the garbage just like the dogs do here.” They’d become wide eyed. “And we ride on elephants to go to work.” C’mon, they’d say, You’re joking. “No! And for us malaria is just like an ataque de higado
for you all.” The liver attack was painful, but nothing like malaria, they’d say. “It’s true!” and he’d laugh and they’d know he was pulling their leg, or, in Spanish, pulling their hair. Then he’d whisper to me, “You tell dem enough lies and maybeh you wake dem from deir slumber.”
            We spent our days talking, laughing, singing old Catholic hymns as we rode down the street. We told the skeptical people we met that we had both been altar boys at one time and that the Mormons and the Catholics believed almost the same things. When people just wouldn’t listen, Elder Kalu would tell me, “You can’t fight wit’ a bull.” Then we’d leave. When we saw the sad results of drunkenness, abuse, and irresponsible and fighting parents, Kalu said, “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.” He talked about the members of his tribe, the Igbos, who had mysterious powers to control the weather, and he kept me rapt with accounts of the tribal wars and governmental uprisings in Nigeria during his lifetime.
            One day like any other, as we left the house right on time, according to our prescribed schedule, I mused, like it was a revelation, “There’s nobody here to tell us what to do. We could be doing whatever we want.”
            “Yeah,” he completed my thought, “but we doin’ da right ting anyweh!”
            Though I don’t think it had anything to do with being black, twice in the time I knew him Elder Kalu was called to be a district leader and then a week later “demoted” because another missionary complained and was given the position. Both times it was because Elder Kalu was younger missionwise than another missionary in the district. Usually callings weren’t given on the basis of mission age, but in the two instances involving Elder Kalu, they eventually were. The second time it happened was in Durazno. Once again, I felt offended on his behalf.
            We were sitting on our beds one night in our long underwear and socks with our electric heater boxes blowing in our faces and we were talking. Finally I got up the courage to ask him, “What do you think about Gull and Newton complaining and getting called as district leader over you? That’s twice.”
            He always smiled when I asked him questions he had figured out long ago. He looked up beaming and said simply, “Hey man, we’ all missionaries here.” I understood, and my love of Elder Kalu found a new hold. “Hey man, we’ all missionaries here,” and nothing more. I determined that I would emulate his humility and disinterested service—be a missionary like he was. Shortly after that conversation, we were separated. I went off to remote Carmelo, on the southwestern coast of Uruguay, across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, and Kalu stayed on for another month in Durazno to train a new missionary. I always remembered what he had taught me.
            Because I kept up on the news from Durazno, I was the one who told Elder Kalu when Grandma Garcia finally died. It was the closest to vindictive I ever saw him. “Good,” he said, nodding. I was surprised. He continued, “I hope when she get dere dey put her wit’ all the Negroes dat evah live.” Then he laughed, a great big hearty laugh, and I hoped God would listen to him.

Pro Libertate

by Kent Wallace

The pub where I was drinking with a group of Brits and Egyptians one foggy autumn evening in 1991 in Aberdeen, Scotland, used to be a church. The ornately carved wooden preacher’s pulpit still stood high on the right side of the nave. But now the pulpit contained a mixing board, three spinning record turntables, and a grinning black Rastafarian D. J. with long dreadlocks and a large Jamaican hat. Bob Marley was pounding out of the speakers and reverberating off of the grey granite walls. The music became a cacophony. No one seemed to mind. The pews had been removed to make space for tables, chairs, and a dance floor. The bar stood in place of the altar. Where the crucifix of Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, should have been hanging, there was, instead, a huge mirrored sign advertising “Budweiser—King of Beers.” Despite the high vaulted ceiling, cigarette smoke was thick. It was crowded. The women there were all typically Scottish-ugly, with bad teeth and short, stocky legs. 

lan, Kieran, and I were sitting at a table where the first row of pews should have been. We were ignoring the Egyptians. A barmaid came over and asked us what we wanted, She looked at my elephant skin cowboy boots and Wrangler shirt and asked me if I wanted a Budweiser, and tried to pronounce “Budweiser” with an American accent. I ordered an Irn-Bru, an orange-colored but rusty-tasting Scottish soda pop, lan and Kieran, my two friends, ordered Glenfiddich neat.

We were all taking a three-week course to familiarize ourselves with a new drilling tool our company had developed. Our company, a large American oilfield service company, had its eastern hemisphere office in Aberdeen, and engineers from all over the hemisphere were sent here to train on the new equipment. This new tool was used for measuring the angle and direction of the drill bit, and it gave the data while drilling. It was cutting-edge technology. Some of the components were the same as those used in the Cruise Missile. I had learned more about the inclinometers and magnetometers than I
had really wanted to know, but it really was an interesting course. 

I had become good friends with Ian and Kieran. Kieran was an Irishman who was based in Saudi Arabia, lan was the instructor, and today was his last day at the school. He would be leaving for the Far East the next morning. 

“I’ll miss you two,” Ian said, “but it’s good riddance to our tea-towel-headed friends. Present company excepted, of course, but this was the thickest bunch of engineers I’ve ever taught. I can understand that there might have been some language problems, but we used Arabic numerals in the equations.You’d think they would have understood that part, at least. What a lot of gits.” Ian glared over at the Egyptians’ table.

The Egyptians would all be going back to Egypt and were trying to drink as much as they could before returning to a country where Allah could keep an eye on them. I shared Ian’s dislike of the Egyptians. When we ate lunch, the Egyptians would paw through the food hamper and cast aside all the BLT’s and the ham and cheese sandwiches. They were all married, but they still tried to hit on the secretaries and any other females they saw. At night they drank like fish. These Egyptians were all officers in their army and were as conceited as any group of people I had ever met. They were also incompetent, and the class had dragged along slowly because of them. Until I had met them, I had always wondered how a numerically superior Egyptian army could get its butt kicked consistently by the Israelis. After a few weeks with these guys, I was convinced the pyramids must have been designed and built by aliens. 

Kieran, like the Egyptians, was headed for a Muslim country and seemed to feel a need to get particularly blasted now that the course was over, Ian had been in a black mood all day, Like me, lan was recently divorced. His ex-wife was destroying him financially, so he was going to leave the country. I would be returning to Norway the next day, and I really wasn’t looking forward to going back.

I had been concentrating so much on successfully completing my course work that I had managed to block out all thoughts of anything after this course. I should have been sending out my Christmas cards. For each of the past six years I’d written a cheerful letter full of good news—job promotions, interesting family vacations, the births of my three children, the purchase of a lovely new house with a great view of the ocean. And each Christmas letter had a picture included of my happy family, two proud parents and three lovely blonde children. My ex-wife was a typical Scandinavian beauty. Unfortunately, I thought of her, and the image that came to my mind was of her naked. She had a great body with perfect, full breasts, fine feminine curves, and flawless skin. Even after giving birth to our three children, she still didn’t have a single stretch mark, And I could smell her perfume. 

“Kent,” Ian said as he punched me in the shoulder, “Hey, mate. You still with us. You look like you could use a drink.” I shook my head. 

“You know what sober means?” Kieran asked, He was pretty drunk and slurred the words, I shook my head again. Kieran counted each letter off on his fingers. “Son of a bitch, everything’s real.” I laughed, but Kieran had hit too close to home. Everything was real and it was rotten. I wanted my old life back, but there was nothing I could do about it. I kept drinking my soda pop. Ian was pretty drunk when a uniformed woman police constable came up to him and told him he was under arrest. The woman read (or attempted to read; she was unable to pronounce many of the words) from a typewritten sheet detailing crimes from drunk driving to lewd conduct. Then she took off her blouse. A circle formed, and I found myself with no way to escape and with an unobstructed view as the stripper removed clothing until she was completely nude except for high stockings and a garter belt. She had stretch marks on her belly and thighs. Probably in her mid-thirties and a bottle blonde-not a woman I wanted to see naked. 

The fattest of the Egyptians had gotten so excited about this stripper that he had climbed onto a tiny pedestal table in order to get a better view. The crowd pressed in on me until I was so close to the stripper that I could smell her and see every blemish on her skin. I felt claustrophobic and frantic. I pushed back hard against the crowd to keep as much distance from her as possible. 

She hugged Ian and he grabbed for her breasts. She pushed him away. I saw fear in her eyes. She was trapped by a drunken crowd of men, and she was naked. Before anything else could happen she quickly hugged Ian again and kissed him on the cheek. Then she gathered her clothes and began dressing. Once she was mostly clothed, the crowd broke up. I was disappointed that the Arab’s table hadn’t collapsed underneath him. 

Everyone ignored the stripper as she left. People from the office came over and shook Ian’s hand or pounded him on his shoulder. Ian was in a good mood now. The cigarette smoke hurt my eyes and gave me a headache. Kieran launched into another of his Irish history lessons and told us of the outrageous things the English had done to his people starting hundreds of years ago and continuing right upto the present. 

“What’s it like to be from a country with no history?” Kieran asked me in a break during the Irish history lesson.

“It’s not too bad,” I replied, “What’s it like to be from a country with no future?” I asked flatly. I’d been playing the ugly American with them before, but now nothing seemed funny. On other nights, when they were as drunk as they were now, they’d get serious and start to ask questions about my religion. I’d always make a couple of jokes and let the topic slide. I had learned as a missionary that it was futile to teach religion to someone who was under the influence of alcohol. But, now, I wanted to tell them about my great-grandfather and his baby daughter who was born in a dank dugout in Winter Quarters. This little girl survived the long trip across the plains and died as my great-grandfather’s wagon train entered the Salt Lake Valley. She had the dubious honor of being the first person to be buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery. The mob had forced my people out of the United States while the government stood by and did nothing to protect their rights.

I wanted to tell them about another ancestor who was a scout on the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition in southern Utah, where a group of Mormon pioneers had taken a wagon train through an area so impassable and barren that the area still has few roads and hasn’t been settled. The wrongs my people had suffered were in the last century, but we had gotten over it and pushed our way back into American society. We remembered our past, but, unlike Kieran’s people, we didn’t need to use bombs to punctuate our struggle as a minority group. I wanted that little Irishman to know that my people had a history and that I knew my heritage. Kieran leaned over to me with his whiskey breath and said something else about America that I didn’t catch.

“Do you know what an American is?” I asked. They both shook their heads, “We’re just Europeans who had intelligent ancestors.” They smiled, but I was feeling really angry. Everything suddenly felt so very wrong. I told Ian and Kieran that I needed some fresh air and would be back in an hour.

I stepped outside but I still felt dirty. My clothes smelled like cigarettes and beer from where the barmaid had spilled on me. But the feeling of dirtiness went much deeper. The stripper made me sad. That woman was obviously uneducated and was exploited and demeaned in order to earn money, and I felt like I had been part of it. After all, I had looked. There was more to it than that. A stripper and a bar in a church. It was blasphemous.

A grey fog had rolled into Aberdeen, a grey city built of granite. Everything was monochrome. Grey people wearing grey coats scurried along grey sidewalks. I was wearing an oilskin duster and Tony Lama boots. I was sure I looked as out of place as I felt. I hated Scotland, hated living for three weeks in a constant overcast drizzle. I was glad my ancestors had been bright enough to hightail it off to America. The chieftain of the Clan Wallace now lives in Bermuda. Bright boy. l could hardly wait to leave too, except that I really had nothing to go back to. In the morning I would fly back to a town I used to call home and take another load of my things from what used to be my house to my basement bachelor’s apartment, all under the cold, watchful eye of the woman I had been married to for seven years. We had three children together, but now she would recoil from my touch as I had from the stripper.

I moved off Union Street and followed a street I had never been on before. It felt good to be away from the smoke and the noise. I had learned the appeal of pubs. They were clean, well-lighted places that surrounded a person with sound and a kind of warmth. As long as you had money, you could feel part of something larger in a pub. The loud music prevented serious discussion or thought, which was also probably part of the appeal. Outside it was numbingly cold. The dank fog from the North Sea seemed to go right through to my bones, but the fog also seemed to soften things. I could see no farther than ten meters, Away from the noise of the pub, I could think clearly again. 

I had been divorced now for three months. The four MormonsI had known who worked with me in the oil business had, within a two-year period, all gotten divorced. In each case it was the wife who had wanted out. I was the only one who still managed to remain active, and I was only barely hanging on.

I came to an intersection where there were churches on each corner. Two of them were, in fact, no longer churches but an architectural firm and an insurance building. The third one was being remodeled and had a “For Sale” sign on it. Stained glass windows were being replaced with double-glazed ones.

The one that was still a church looked shabby. Its exterior was darker than the others. Moss grew a few feet up the sides. The massive wooden door was old and scratched and battered. It had a key-hole that would fit a giant skeleton key, and I felt that a good kick could put my foot right through the rotten wood of the door. The times of the services were stapled to the door in a plastic sheet. Scotland seemed in a hurry to join the rest of Europe in its post-Christian splendor. I wished the door was open and that there was a priest inside to talk to. I felt like I was badly in need of absolution. 

I thought about Provo, Utah, my hometown. Churches were still being built there, and they were filled to capacity each week. But Utah seemed so far away to me that I almost doubted its existence.

Maybe I needed to get back to Utah where my Mormon God could keep an eye on me. I was thousands of miles from where I wanted to be and light years away from being who I wanted to be. I could feel the drag of the world working against me, and I knew that if I stayed in the oil business I would eventually turn out like Ian. Or, worse, I might find myself perched on a wobbly bar table like a fat bird straining for a glimpse of an ugly stripper. The money I was earning, however, was too good to leave. Oil is an exploitative business, reaping where it hasn’t sown. It exists for quick profits and leaves town the moment the wells run dry.

I felt like just quitting and taking the next plane to Utah, but I knew that I couldn’t. I was shackled to my job by a golden chain that I didn’t have the will to break. After all, if I left its employ, what would become of me? 

Ian had said that the stripper had been the first naked woman he’d seen after his divorce. I couldn’t have said the same, I hadn’t slept with any of them yet, but it seemed like it would just be a matter of time before I did. Women have always been my weakness,
I thought marriage would have been the cure, and, in a way, it was. I had never been unfaithful to my wife. I also hadn’t ever been totally happy with her, or, for that matter, any other woman I had ever known,.

Hugh Nibley, a notable Mormon scholar, and I once talked about the nature of man. He said that he felt that men belonged in one of three classes-celibates, monogamists, and polygamists. He felt that he was, by nature, a celibate, but he had been married for nearly fifty years and had a fine family. I guess that I have always been inclined more toward polygamy. I was working in the North Sea region and had girls in Bergen, Stavanger, Oslo, Copenhagen, Esbjerg, Aberdeen, Cheltenham, and London. lt was nice that I could get into nearly every town I worked in and have someone to spend time with. I never liked being alone for too long. The girl in Bergen was tall, blonde, and had been a model. The girl in Aberdeen was short, dark, and (by Scottish standards) a beauty. None of the them, however, seemed like someone I wanted to marry. 

A couple in long coats came toward me, gliding like chess pieces through the knee-deep fog. They were the only people I had seen in sometime. Almost everyone was inside on a night like this. As I went further, a man came out of an alley with a glowing cigarette in his mouth. My company had warned all of us engineers about walking alone in Aberdeen, since a Dutch engineer had gotten beaten up and robbed a few weeks previously, I laced my keys through my fingers. I let the big key to my company BMW stick out between the second and third fingers on my left hand. With my right hand, I released the snap on the sheath of my Buck hunting knife. I really wasn’t very worried. Standing six-feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, I felt like a giant in Scotland. The man was a good six inches shorter than me. He ducked backdown the alley. I could see the glow of three cigarettes as I passed by. No one came out, I was almost disappointed. Getting into a fight would have let me release some of the anger that I was holding in. I am, by nature, a very violent person, but I always keep my anger under control. I did, however, find myself regretting my good behavior and often wished that I had beat up some people who seemed to deserve it.

A few weeks before I left for Scotland, I had gone to a party at an American couple’s home in Stavanger. It was a theme party, and we were all supposed to come dressed as a song. I couldn’t think of anything for a costume. When I got there, one man was dressed as Puff, the Magic Dragon. One very confident woman wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka dot bikini.  And one guy was wearing a cheap, shiny blue suit with a tie that had the narrow part hanging below the wide part. He had on white socks and scuffed brown shoes. None of us could guess what song he was. “I came,” he said, “dressed as a ‘Norwegian Wood.”‘

A few days after the party I found myself in front of a Norwegian judge who was dressed just like the guy at the party, and I stood there meekly while he gave my car, my children, and the house I had built to my ex-wife. 

The fog was getting more dense. It swirled around me as  Iwalked. I could no longer see the ground. I began to be afraid, silly fears like my next step would be into a manhole missing its cover. I was sliding my foot along the ground and making sure I was stepping onto firm ground before putting my weight down. The streetlights and autumn trees played tricks on my eyes. I would think I could see someone, but no one was there. My visibility was reduced to a couple of meters, but a thick patch of fog would occasionally drift past and reduce my visibility to nothing. As the fog boiled and swirled around me, I thought I could see faces in the fog.

I became disoriented and terrified, And I was angry at myself for being so afraid. As I walked along, I noticed that the newly painted, black wrought-iron fence by the sidewalk now had painted metal crests between some of the bars. The painted crests were bright colors—red, blue, and gold—the only colors I could see. As I looked closely at one of the crests, I recognized it as the crest of my clan—the same crest that was on the key fob I still had clenched in my fist. Ahead of me loomed a large, lighted statue. The statue was on a little island in the street where the road made a T-intersection. I crossed the road to the statue which stood higher than the fog. The statue was of Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s national hero. A wreath of fresh flowers had been placed at the base of the statue. William Wallace had been dead for nearly seven hundred years, and yet someone was still placing flowers on his statue.

According to legend, William Wallace was six-foot-five-inches tall, brave, fearless, and loved by everyone-except the English. Standing there at the base of the statue, I drew my right hand out of my coat pocket. The blade of my hunting knife looked ridiculously tiny compared with the claymore in the hand of the statue.

I didn’t know where to go, so I sat down on a park bench, the toes of my cowboy boots pointing upwards, my arm along the top of the bench, the knife still held in my hand. I took stock of my life. Nothing was going right, and I had lost everything that mattered to me. I couldn’t think of a single reason for carrying on. I wasn’t suicidal. I just didn’t want to continue to exist. I wished that I could just disappear into the fog. 

William Wallace’s life had never been easy. His father had been killed when he was young. The English had drowned his wife. He had fought against oppression his whole life, and he never compromised. Pro Libertate. For Liberty, the motto of the Clan Wallace, William Wallace wasn’t the type of man who would have allowed himself to be ruined by a badly dressed judge and some lopsided laws. He would have gotten out his claymore and fought for his rights. Of course, he got hung, drawn, and quartered for his efforts. I just had to move into a basement apartment. 

My life had been good for so long. I had always succeeded at anything I’d ever tried, and I usually hadn’t even needed to try very hard. And now it was all unraveling. I just wanted to go back to the pub and get drunk. It seemed too much to have to face the tail end of this century stone cold sober. On the other hand, I’d seen enough of the world to know that it didn’t have much to offer. 

I sat there a long time. After resting for several minutes, I got up and circumambulated the monument. There were inscriptions on each side. One of the inscriptions was some advice that William’s uncle and guardian, Argyle Wallace, allegedly gave to William that had inspired him to fight for Scotland’s freedom. “l tell you the truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live under any slavish bond.” 

The fog started to lift as I sat there. I looked up into the autumn sky and watched the familiar stars. I was no longer as world weary as I had been. Wallace’s statue was luminescent in the starlight. I have never considered myself a mystical person, but something had happened to me. I felt a real connection with my legendary clansman, William Wallace had changed me, had given me some hope. 

Orion was directly above me, I hitched up my own belt and put my knife back into its sheath, I felt some new strength and was ready to go on. Ian, Kieran, and the others would be waiting for me to drive them back from the pub. I remembered the words from Ecclesiastes and decided that I would discover if being a living dog really was better than being a dead lion.

 

Soupe de Poisson

by Eric Freeze

The bench was cold. Red carnations sprouted from a worn stone pot on one end, and I slouched against my pack at the other. It was nine-thirty, about the time my friends the Houdins were supposed to get home from church activities in Montpellier a college town in the south of France. They didn’t know I was coming. 

At the front of the house was a wrought-iron gate. I jumped it after a hitch from a guy going directly to Castlenau-le-les. He said that I was the first Mormon he had ever met, though he had often seen them on T.V. And the fact that I was Canadian, not American, added to a general awe which I admittedly enjoyed. He had a round face and bright eyes, and I really felt that picking up strangers wasn’t something he did everyday. At least that’s the only way that it made sense to me.

I had been lying propped against my pack for twenty minutes when the gate opened the first time. I wasn’t expecting the branch president to come walking up. I was half-asleep, and I know he recognized me, I served as a missionary in the Montpellier branch for five months a year before. It was my last area. He couldn’t remember my name, and he covered his hands when he talked. He came to drop off some items left from a camping trip in Ardeche that the youngest of the Houdins, Augustin, had forgotten. I was talking to him when the gate opened the second time. It was the Houdins. I remember they were happy to see me.

As a missionary, I first met the Houdins at church one Sunday in March. I had just been transferred to Montpellier and was introduced to them by my companion—a missionary whom I had known since the MTC. Specifically, I remember meeting Mathilde Houdin, She was light complexioned and had bleached blonde hair and would playfully hit people when she talked. I remember her because she didn’t hit me, just asked me how I was doing. She had four children: Roman, Samuel, Gisèle, and Augustin. Roman was not living at home and was to be married in a month, Samuel was on a mission, Gisèle had just graduated from the “fac” similar to high school, and would eventually go to Utah the following year to learn English—the same time that I would be going to BYU. Augustin, the youngest, was obnoxiously funny and often went tracting with the missionaries.

I don’t know exactly how my companion and I ended up getting to know them better. I know they invited us over to eat every Sunday. She would make soupe de poisson, and we would eat cheese. They had a nice apartment in a small town not far from Montpellier called Carnot-les-plages, where they had moved after their father died. Their father had been a physician, and they had lived comfortably in a large villa in Bordeaux. Their new apartment reflected the furnishings of this larger villa—their lavish meuble a façade of a less austere life when they lived in Bordeaux, had two cars, and didn’t worry about money. 

We started teaching Sister Houdin’s parents after the long Sunday dinners we had in their home. While the rest of the children went out to play volleyball on the beach, we lingered to teach them both about the gospel. Sister Houdin was excited to see her parents discussing religion so openly; it had been a source of friction ever since the missionaries frist started coming to their home when she was a teenager. Though her parents were never baptized, we found they enjoyed learning about the Church—to know why their daughter was baptized (wasn’t a Catholic baptism enough?) and why she was happy even after her husband died. We also loved coming over to teach because it gave us more time to be with the Houdins. Often after teaching, we would join the children on the beach and play mock games of soccer or volleyball. Sometimes, those Sunday afternoons would turn into evenings or nights; the Houdins would also invite us over during the week for special occasions: a birthday, holidays, Sometimes just to spend time when they wanted company. By the time I finished my mission, my companion and I considered them our family—or we told ourselves they were. That was the only way we could see things clearly—we had both been away from home for almost two years, and this was the first time either of us felt so readily accepted by a family. Her soup, the cheese, grandparents, gospel, and the beach all became part of a familial collage we had been searching for during our missions. We were close and had already started planning time together for the next year, when we would all return for the summer and Bastille Day—not as missionaries, just as her kids.

The first bise was uncomfortable. Mathilde hadn’t seen me for a year, and we hadn’t really written much; I always assumed that since I was coming back, it didn’t matter I hadn’t written. We could cover the whole year when I got there, and I always felt it was better in person. I called them at Christmas and for birthdays—wasn’t that enough? Her daughter was at school with me—I saw her almost every week, so I didn’t think anything was wrong when Mathilde scolded me for not writing. Everything that had happened over the last year, for me, was everything that had happened with them. I still felt so necessarily connected with their lives, and the memory of the apartment, the meals, and the discussions were a part of me. But it was uncomfortable when she bised me. The way she formed her lips and kissed the air—and her cold cheek when she asked me why I hadn’t shaved in the last few days. “l’ve been travelling,” I said, then told them how I met a nice man in the neighborhood who had given me a ride and knew where avenue de trident was because he lived a couple blocks away, and was going there anyway, how it was blessedly coincidental, and weren’t they glad to see me anyway? She still thought I could’ve shaved. 

When the branch president left, closing the wrought-iron gate behind him, Mathilde shooed me inside along with Augustin. They were in a house now. She had found a job and was finally able to pay for something that could accommodate friends and relatives. It was not far from her other house, still near Montpellier, but in a more residential area. Most of what was in the house I still recognized. The meuble was the same-large, dark finished cabinets, and armoirs. They were beautiful, but not perfect. Pock marks from termites a few years ago scarred their surface, but just on the bottom, under the finish. She had bought a new kitchen table, larger than the first, and she had a set of chairs that I thought was new, but they were actually her older chairs, recovered with red cloth and brass studs. I walked on the Turkish throw rug they had had in their living room in Castlenau. I took off my shoes, gripped it through my socks. I spread my feet a shoulder widths apart and started talking to Mathilde. 

“Comme tu es mince! You’re thinner now. Haven’t you been eating anything?” she said. 

“I just haven’t had anyone stuffing soup de poisson down me every time I turn around,” I said. She gave me a curious glance—looking first at my backpack, then at the frayed cuffs of the coat I had bought when we were in centreville in spring a year ago. She looked at my boots, then my face. 

“It’s funny, I still want to call you Elder.” 

I stayed with the Houdins for about a week. Two of those days she took off work, and three Augustin skipped school to stay with me. I felt that they felt obligated to spend time with me , and I was never entirely comfortable with that. Mathilde had worked hard to acquire what she could, to provide a place, things, and room for her children. We talked often about the “Celebration of Music” holiday when my companion would show up as well, and we would all leave for Montpellier to watch different groups perform in cramped cobblestone streets, playing music with instruments, hands, and voices. But my stay there wasn’t summed up in anticipatory events—it was the reality of being a stranger in a strange country among people who claimed to be family to me. I realized that even though we both claimed this bond openly, I was still being looked at, questioned, watched. 

That weekend, the Houdins invited the missionaries over for dinner. We didn’t have soupe de poisson like when I was on my mission, but an easier hamburger and pasta dish. I asked Sister Houdin why, to which she replied,”Je n’ai plus le temps.” With her job and church responsibilities she didn’t have time to make it anymore, In fact, she hadn’t made soupe de poisson since we left over a year ago. It was also the first time in a year that the Houdins had invited the missionaries over. I knew one of the missionaries fairly well—he was in my zone before I finished my mission and was always a good missionary: hardworking, jovial, and open. While they were there, I felt different than I had during the past week. I was comfortable, relaxed. The house and the family were again a part of me, flowing through me. The summer table on the patio where we sat was white and sturdy, nicked on the edges from being so long folded up in the corner of an apartment. It had been left out the same way the missionaries had—put aside for the right occasion, We talked. One of the elders asked me what it was like to come back and visit people in areas where I had served. 

“It’s great,” I replied.

“l’m hoping to do the same thing next summer,” one said. 

“It’s worth it,” I said. 

I looked at Mathilde. She was smiling. If she had been wearing a hat, it would have been white, broad-brimmed.

“It’s hard to see people leave,” she said.

“That’s why I came back.”

“Sometimes I wonder, though, if it’s really good to get close to people. I mean really close. Because then when they leave you start playing like they’re still there, and then when they’re not . . . well, it’s just confusing.” 

“What do you mean?” I said. Getting close to people seemed to me to be exactly what life was about.Wasn’t that why I was here, why I was dipping my straw in my glass of ice water on this white table on the patio? Now, today, with these people? 

“l don’t know, I mean, when you two left, it was hard. Too hard. Maybe if we hadn’t got so close, it wouldn’t be so difficult. If I had distanced myself a bit, or if we had distanced ourselves a bit, then maybe none of that anxiety would’ve really had to happen—whether or not I would ever see you again, or if you would come back, whether or not it would be the same.” 

She was still smiling, but not coyly or without looking at me. The missionaries were also looking at me. They had heard the story before: how when we left, she was depressed and wanted her “children” back. She always said we were like her children. To me that was endearing, meaningful: belonging to someone else in another country like I had been born there, crawled on their furniture and sat at their table, put my clothes neatly in an armoir on grey wire hangers in my room down the hall. She said that we were like that to her, and I felt it. I had reached a point where I felt our lives were completely in common, where we had become family. Now I couldn’t see how someone would rather it hadn’t happened. 

“Do you really think it would’ve been better if . . .”

“If what?”

“Well, if we hadn’t ever met each other, helped your grandparents and everything.”

“No, it just would’ve been easier.”

At this point, one of the missionaries broke in, talking quickly.

“I think that’s why many of the missionary rules are there—so separation is easier. I know in my last area, since the members knew that we couldn’t write after we left, and since we weren’t allowed to call or anything, it made it easier to get to know other missionaries.” 

“We didn’t break mission rules, though,” I said.

“Well, I guess separation is always difficult,” he said.

My hands were cold. I had been playing with my glass of ice water, not thinking. The patio was still white with the sun, and we had finished our meal. I wiped my plate clean with a snub of bread, then carried it over to the sink inside where I washed it and my solitary fork and knife, then left them gleaming to dry. That night, I decided that I needed to see some of my other friends. 

I left the following afternoon, and promised to return before next week for the “Celebration of Music.” My old companion had not yet called or told anyone anything, but we knew he was still planning on coming. It didn’t take me long to gather my things—most of them stayed deep in my backpack. As a guest, I had tried to be meticulous, not leaving anything out for fear I would infringe on their hospitality. That morning, I cleaned the kitchen and bathroom. 

When I left, I didn’t expect the trip to be as long as it was. I took the bus to the train station, then waited for my train, only to find out that the trains were on strike. I was rerouted on a regional train leaving in a couple hours. When I eventually got to Marseille, I was tired, bought a box of french pattiseries at a station bakery, and ate all three of them sitting in a corner between a magazine store and some restrooms. 

I saw three good friends in Marseille—one of whom I had helped teach. Every one of them was happy and flattered I would see them. 

I called, dropped in, and left feeling good, like I had reminded them of something. But I wasn’t as close to any of them as I had been with the Houdin family. 

I returned to see the Houdins the following week. I admit I hadn’t called ahead of time—I mean, I did say when I would be there, but I didn’t give them a day’s notice—just called them before I got on my train. I had used up my phone card the day before trying to figure out how to call home to Canada to let my parents know I was O.K., and I didn’t immediately have any other money. I wasn’t at all prepared for what I heard. 

“Well, I’m not really sure we have any room for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Roman and Valerie are coming tonight, and I think they’ll be staying in the room you were in. Plus Augustin might have some friends over. Sorry.” 

“O,K.,” I said, “l’ll try to work something else out.” 

This initial rejection started a long series of phone calls and curt, very polite conversations—all refusing my company. Mathilde never gave any explanation for her rejections—to her, there just wasn’t any room for me: not on a bed, or the floor, or even outside. 

I was on a bench the next day, eating. I bought a baguette and cheese from a small corner store that wrapped everything in brown paper, then found a bench near a fountain and took off my boots. There was a market that day—a weekly event which always generated crowds of interesting people. I watched the yellow stands of fruit, dark nuts, and olives, and the man selling mushrooms who always wore a brown cardigan, even when it was warm enough that most other people were in shorts. All of the scents and scenes reminded me so much of my mission: the way we would go whizzing by on our mountain bikes, having just enough time to catch a whiff of garlic or chestnuts roasted by a street vendor. 

Through the surging marketplace, a man walked up to me. He carried a boxy tape recorder with myriads of black, white-lined knobs along the side. 

“Could you tell us about the first time you fell in love?” he asked. My green hiking boots were also set up against the bench, and my feet were naked, ready to jump into my open-toed sandals I had retrieved from the depths of my pack. 

“The first time I fell in love?” 

“Yes,” he said. “What was it like? Where was it? Were you immediately attracted to her?” 

The man’s tie dangled near my face, and he held the mike up under my chin. I wondered why his top button was undone. He had hairy arms and his shirt was tucked ruthlessly into his pants, making his tweed slacks seem bigger than they really were, He wore them high, over a modest belly.

“l don’t know what to tell,” I said, “I mean, I have been in love before.” 

The man started recording. I suddenly wanted to slam my feet into my sandals, and walk somewhere-just do something. But it was sunny, and in the park there was a fountain, and I had found an unoccupied bench. I was alone under a tree in the sun which sat like a bright Buddha on a cloud. The man nodded at me to keep talking. 

“Well, I met her during school in the United States,” I said. “It was a private school, and I met her during a Hula exposition from the Polynesian club. I remember her because she didn’t like pizza. They had pizza at the Hula thing, and she wouldn’t eat any of it,.I didn’t ask her out until the second semester, because I didn’t feel that we knew each other well enough.” 

“So it wasn’t love at first sight?” 

“Not exactly. I think I was immediately attracted to her, but I don’t remember actually thinking I was in love. No, I suppose it wasn’t.” 

“So what did it feel like being in love? Were you instantly filled with passion? Did you do anything drastically romantic for her? Did you ever write her a love poem or sing to her?” He was staring at me now, and he talked fast.

“l don’t know,” I said. “We were really good friends. I felt more of a comfort than any passionate fire sort of feeling. I suppose I did romantic things for her, but I don’t think that they were really outlandish. I wanted to write her a poem once, but she was too much of a friend, and I don’t think I’ve ever sung anything that didn’t scare anyone. It wasn’t very mushy, does that make sense?” 

“Yes,” he said, then lowered the microphone and adjusted a knob on the recorder. “Thanks for you time.” 

When he left, I was expecting to feel relief, but instead I felt cheated. The man had not wanted a description of platonic love, but something more deeply passionate, drastic. I began to question whether or not I had been in love, or whether or not I even really knew what the concept of real caring, real basic love for a neighbor or for a good friend would entail. My behavior made it apparent that my perception of the whole relationship with the Houdins had been inherently one-sided; I would only care for people as I wanted to be cared for. I didn’t want outlandish displays of affection because they made me feel uncomfortable—probably because I wasn’t willing to do the same for others. I didn’t think I needed to love with everything that I had, regardless of whether or not it was reciprocated, regardless of hatred, scorn, or negative feelings.

The marketplace was now vibrant. People were bright slashes of reds and oranges, surrounding stands of fruit, bending down like they were bowing, praying. They existed to me only as I existed to them—watching them watching me. I had come to the marketplace and found a bench and sat so it was all mine—so no one could sit next to me, bother me. My father told me once that life was an exercise in empathy. What he said now made sense—love people completely, the way they would be loved, a way they understood. I reworked the conversation that I had had with Mathilde and the missionaries. “Would it had been better if . . .” I heard myself saying, “No, it just would’ve been easier.” Mathilde thought it would’ve been easier because I wouldn’t love her and her family back in the same unconditional way she cared about me. She was experiencing sorrow—I was only willing to do as much as I would require from someone who I thought cared about me. It would’ve been easier—not because she didn’t care, or thought that people shouldn’t get to know each other, but because people don’t always love back unconditionally. People leave, forget, stop sending letters because they think those left behind will understand. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” I stuffed my feet in my sandals, strapped on my backpack and headed to a telephone. 

The next week was interesting. Mathilde eventually accepted my apologies and invited me over for dinner. I called well in advance to let her know when I was coming, and reevaluated my criticisms, my feelings I had the first time. 

When I got there, the table was already set, and it was sunny, reflecting from silverware like wind chimes. We had soupe de poisson— made fresh.
The next day we sat again on the patio, this time near a small fountain in the yard. Augustin and Gisèle had gone shopping and Mathilde had been complaining about the branch, how she wanted to meet someone, remarry, but how it was so hard to find a good member of the Church like her husband. 

“l know you’ll find someone,” I teased.

“But when? I’m already fifty, I don’t like being alone.”

“What do your kids feel about you getting remarried?”

“Well, I know it would be hard for some of them. Gisèle—well, she was always attached to her father. She takes more after him than me, you know.” 

“Why, what was he like?” 

“Oh–he was a good man. Sporty, hardworking, and caring when he wanted to be. But I never really felt that he was the right person for me. I don’t know why, but after I married him, I felt I might’ve made a mistake. Does that bother you?” 

“Not really, but I guess it seems strange.You have a wonderful family.” 

“I know. Yes, I know.” She paused and looked at the fountain and threw a franc she had kept in hidden in her lap. She tossed one to me. “Don’t ever tell my children, though. It’s not like I didn’t love him. I mean—I really did love him—I still do. Sometimes I wonder if he was right, though, I do love him,” 

“Of course you do,” I said, then threw my franc into the fountain. It was hard for me to understand the amount of sorrow this woman was willing to experience, and how she could be the way she was—loving, but wondering always if others shared that love as completely as she was willing to share it. I watched my franc sink like a bright Star of David to the bottom of the fountain. I remember wishing only one thing: that she would be happy. 

East of the River of Birds

by Patrick Madden

 

l'll See if I Can Make It 
Paysandú/Solomon/Feb.94

Not everyone Elder Solomon and I taught had a spiritual experience. After several failed attempts at a second visit to teach the baptismal charla, we were finally able to sit down and talk with Veronica Dos Santos about her reading in 3 Nephi and Moroni’s promise. We arrived at the gate of the house where she lived and I clapped my hands loudly to call the attention of the people we saw sitting quietly in the shade, but who were making an effort to ignore us. After some silent mumbling, which I guess was their debate to elect a representative to talk with us, they didn’t tell us she wasn’t there, like they usually did, but instead motioned for us to enter and a rough, middle-aged man called out “Pasen, come in.” Soon Veronica came through the plastic beads hanging in place of a door, book in hand, and invited us to sit with her a few meters from the others. We sat in frayed folding chairs under the strands of a sort of willow tree. The ground was worn down to hard dirt by the women in sandals who hung clothes on the line over head and by the patchy dogs who kept us with our hands always in the air and our books protected in our laps. They got their licks in every now and then anyway. The sun was hanging low in the sky as we said our opening prayer; then we leaned forward, elbows on knees, with that look that meant we were getting down to business, and we were sincere about it. I guess at the time Solomon was feeling a combination of laziness and inspiration, because he had me start out the discussion, which meant I’d be making the baptismal invitation in principle seven. 

Things went as well as they could with a daydreaming investigator whose answers to our memorized questions were seldom more than a few words of agreement. I was straining to send the Spirit her way. In fact, I was straining to send the Spirit Elder Solomon’s way too, but maybe he just realized what I was naively unwilling to accept: that Veronica, with her wandering eyes and startled looks whenever we talked directly to her, just wasn’t very interested in our message. When it came near to my time to invite Veronica to be baptized, I started fidgeting with my shoes, standing one foot on its side and landing the other on top of it, molding the instep curve in one sole with the forefoot of the other like Africa to South America in Pangaean days (and wondering about the time long ago when I could have walked, of swam, from Montevideo to West Africa, and why, until 1978, had these formerly neighboring peoples been so different in the eyes of the Church). I started paying more attention to the dogs chasing each other than to what Solomon was saying about the gift of the Holy Ghost. 

Then Elder Solomon’s voice broke my lethargic trance. “Elder Madden va a explicarle como estos principios y ordenanzas deben hacer uno diferencia en su vida, Elder Madden is going to explain to you how these principles and ordinances should make a difference in your life.” I looked intently at Elder Solomon, who nodded his approval or his encouragement or maybe his relief at being done; I always had trouble reading him. I shifted to Veronica, flipped the page in my discussion booklet, took a quick glance at the page, and began to repeat, with all the emotion and accent I could muster, the words to the last principle. By the time I was on page two, I was really on a roll, so that I didn’t even flinch when I got to the powerful baptismal invitation. My MTC practice was coming through for me, and I could feel the emotion of this important moment. I asked Veronica, in good commitment pattern form, “Will you be baptized on Sunday, the twenty-seventh, at one o’clock in the afternoon, by someone having the proper authority?” Then I looked up with a slight tight-lipped smile and bright encouraging eyes.

She paused briefly to look at her dogs, who by now were rolling in the dirt, then at Elder Solomon with a puzzled look in her eyes as if to say,”what is he saying?” But she didn’t say that, She asked him “When is it?” 

He glanced at me with an l-told-you-so smirk and answered her, “Sunday, the twenty-seventh, at one o’clock in the afternoon,” 

“Oh, Okay,” she said. “l’ll see if I can make it.” 

Gimme the Goats
Belloni/Haynie&Davis/Feb.95

One night, two missionaries, Elders Haynie and Davis, were riding home through El Boro, one of the toughest parts of town. This is the same area where Elder Gray and his companion waited hours for a re-routed bus that never came and saw the local mob flip and burn a car whose driver wouldn’t pay at their makeshift toll booth. Minutes later a police car drove up a hill, turned a corner, then immediately came flying out, wheels screaming, amidst gunshots and threatening shouts. “The Boro” borders on our area, just west of Avenida Belloni. As for Haynie and Davis, they were riding home one night on Casavalle, probably the second worst street in Montevideo. It was past time to be home in bed, but either their need for numbers or a true desire to save souls made them stop when a scraggly man without a shirt appeared from out of the shadows and waved them down yelling,”Stop! I want to talk to you.” 

They put on the brakes and straddled their bikes in order to take a look around, but before they could even present themselves, the man slammed a gun into Elder Haynie’s neck, I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you exactly how it went from there, but I can tell you what eventually got out, when missionaries bragged about the incident afterward. When the thief yelled “dame la chiva!”—slang for “give me the bike!” (chiva really means “goat,” and I don’t know why it came to mean bike)—they, unfamiliar with street-tough lingo, shyly took off and offered their backpacks, their “mochilas.” From there I can only imagine the hood’s astonishment and nervous doubt: had they misunderstood? were they trying to be funny? And I can picture him and his loose band of hyenic accomplices almost worrying enough to take the backpacks and leave without the bikes. But eventually, with the help of signs and more high-pitched, frantic yelling, he made his point clear (l doubt they got a language lesson and an explanation, “No, actually I wanted your bicicletas. Chiva is only a slang term we use here in the ghetto.”) and made off with their bikes and their backpacks full of scriptures and color pictures of Joseph Smith and Jesus.

We always talked optimistically about how even a stolen Book of Mormon might change a thief’s heart and do some good. And I believe Elder Gene R. Cook, who also served his mission in Uruguay, even tells a story where that did actually happen. But I never heard that story come true for the scriptures Haynie and Davis mistakenly gave away to the thieves that night.

The Willow Tree Gang
Danubio/Hubble/ Feb.95 

One day, I was carrying Elder Kalu's video camera in my backpack as Elder Hubble and I rode from one visit to another, filming Danubio scenes, very near the Batlle encampment. We passed a group of shirtless youths sitting under a sickly willow tree in the shade, and one of them motioned and called for us to stop. After reading about Haynie and Davis's misfortune, you might expect I would think twice about stopping, but it was daytime and I wasn't thinking about being robbed. Still, I could have known from all the other fabled robberies that it wasn't a good idea.

I told Hubble, “Here, let’s stop and see what they want. That’s a lot of charlas.” This was shortly after the weekly required number of street-contact “discussions” was changed to include every person who listened, whereas before that, a street meeting with hundreds of people present would have counted as only one charla, And you had to get at least thirty per week. We were always getting our goals and this opportunity was too good to pass up. We slowed down and cautiously stayed with our bikes. I made a quick pass with my eyes to count our good fortune. There were fourteen young men. I smiled as I asked the apparent leader, the one who had flagged us down, “How are you doing? How can we help you?” 

“You guys are from the religion, right?” he asked. His question was as awkward in Spanish as it seems in English. He was a twenty-year-old vagabond with no shirt and torn blue jeans that were faded on the thighs. Here he was loitering with his friends, playing jokes and cursing, but his interest seemed sincere. 

“Yes,” I answered, “We’re missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” I paused and looked at Hubble, who smiled and said, “We have a message about Jesus Christ. Could we share it with you?” He was getting much better with the language and his boldness was always a great asset, He stared them down hard from behind his wire-rimmed glasses when he asked. 

The leader turned for a second as if to consult with his gang, but they only shrugged, a few of them, and he didn’t say a word. When he turned back to look at us, he answered, “Sit down.” 

His invitation seemed friendly enough, so we kicked back our pedals to stand our bikes against the curb and had a seat at one end of the crowd. All eyes were on us, and I suddenly remembered the stories about thieves in Maroñas and the fact that I had an expensive video camera in my backpack. I made myself think hard so that I would remember, don’t open your backpack no matter what.

Cars and lawnmowers nowadays have this problem worked out, but it’s still difficult to start a conversation right up without some sort of primer. Especially when the conversation is so one-sided and directed as are the charlas. I started off with the standard questions to determine the depth of the water we were wading in, First the harmless questions to get to know them, “Are you from around here?” Yes. “How old are you all?” Ranging from seventeen to twenty-five. “l’m twenty-three, and he’s nineteen.” I figured that was probably enough, so I continued on to the ubicating questions, “Have you ever talked to missionaries before?” No, “Have you heard anything about our Church?” Not much. Okay, simpler, “Do you believe in God?” Some yes, some unsure, some no and looking the other way or rolling their eyes. It’s difficult to cover all the bases, so I went with the right answer, which is, “yes, I do believe in God.” That makes it much easier. I nodded to Hubble and he began, “We also believe in God. He is our Father. He is all powerful, knows everything . . .” 

The discussion continued more or less along the lines prescribed in the booklet. Hubble taught the first principle about God the Father, then asked, “What do you think about God?” The leader answered that he pretty much agreed with what Hubble said, and some of the others nodded in agreement. Others got up and left. Still others made sly comments about the Virgin and why they’d like to meet her more than they’d like to meet God. Those who were attentive shouted back threats at the hecklers, threatening to shoot them in the face and in other sensitive areas, Ignoring the opposition, I plunged forward with a brief description of our Heavenly Father’s plan, and as it became obvious that we were planning to preach and not just chat, the camp became more divided into those who listened, those who left, and those who jeered. One bold detractor shouted out from the back, “You come from the United States, all rich and handsome. What’s God’s plan for me, living in this hellhole?” I told him, “He wants you to be happy and to return to live with him.” He mumbled something to a friend and they laughed. I thought about my answer and felt disappointed in myself.

Because of that realization, and because Hubble was excitedly varying his memorized message in a sincere attempt to actually teach and converse instead of preaching, I began to talk more freely. I let the group’s misguided and sarcastic questions slip by with a chuckle, but when one of them asked, “Where do you think we go after we die?” I let it turn into a discussion. His friends did as much to answer him as we did, and we all considered the possibility of mere wishing and Pascal’s wager for belief in God’s existence as a way of convincing him to believe in the afterlife. Pascal’s argument is all but forgotten nowadays, and he never had universal success with it anyway, but here, at least, was one kid who got it. 

On the one side, things were going well. The leader kept up with a barrage of questions and somewhat managed to keep things settled down otherwise. I didn’t notice exactly when they came back, but the crowd eventually grew back to its original size. I looked at their faces, some interested and looking back at me, and some smiling and whispering things to their companions. For a second, I worried how we could count the charla. We began with fourteen guys there, then it went down to ten, and now it was back up again. But as soon as the thought turned to me and my need to satisfy the number goal, I squelched it, The thought was immediately replaced by a memory of the old stories of how missionaries used to work—how the power of the Spirit worked miracles through missionaries’ words and whole congregations and whole towns were baptized. I never really thought it was possible, but if it happened with entire towns, I imagined it might work out with just fourteen young men. My questions took on a new urgency, and I lit up with a smile whenever they seemed to be getting closer to belief. When it came time to show them a copy of the Book of Mormon, I even almost forgot and opened my backpack to get it. Just in time, I remembered, then felt silly worrying about the video camera, but asked Hubble to get a book out of his pack anyway. As we were showing the pictures and explaining the history of the book I noticed a group in the back passing a shiny black object from hand to hand and laughing. When one of them, a dark young man with long curly hair tied back in a bandana, made a disparaging remark, a skinny, stubble-faced weaselly boy jumped up with a small black revolver in his hand and threatened, “Shut up or I’ll put a bullet in your face.” He had his finger on the trigger, and the gun aimed at the bandana kid, and his friends laughed like it was the regular routine.

I thought suddenly of the improbability of it all. The vision of our fourteen friends clean shaven and dressed in white faded with the crash of reality and the realization of the frailty of the human will to change or to get out of a self-spiting, self-destroying situation. We don’t praise and honor great men because they do what everyone else can do. Their achievements are superior acts of will, made from conscious decisions and a directing force that comes from within. The fact that it’s precious comes from its rarity. Ever since I was young and began paying a good deal of attention to the lyrics in Rush songs, my philosophy has been shaped by rational Ayn Rand objectivism. The reason her heroes shine and her ideal of man is so appealing is that nobody reaches the level of constancy and discipline demanded by it. But we all wish we could and it’s easier to see the motes in others’ eyes than the beam in our own, So a book like The Fountainhead is still a best seller among the very people it condemns. Peter Keating himself probably bought the book. 

Later, though it still happened during the brief time the weasel boy held the gun to his friend’s head, I worried about what they might do to us with the gun. In that moment of disheartening realization and fear, I lost my faith. Not all of it, but the child-like faith that our message could really get through, and these young men would make the difficult decision to better their lives—that faith was gone. I guess that’s the problem with logic and rationality in the face of religion. And a nagging part of me wonders if it was me who caused our message to fail. 

From then, my mind was only focused on leaving. I finished what I had to say, offered them a copy of the book, and Hubble invited them to church on Sunday. We didn’t close with a prayer in the open air, nor did we make an appointment to come back and see them. We didn’t even ask if they wanted to hear more. I had been watching and thought I knew who had the gun, and I could almost be sure that half of the gang would protect us if anything erupted, but I didn’t want to take the chance I glanced back several times as we quickly rode away after hand shakes and good-byes. They sat down again together and leaned on a nearby wall and the interested leader and others who listened were once again lumped into one big group with their friends—discarded by the side of the road, under a scrawny willow tree, in the shade.

The Bidet Towel 
Colon/Gray/Mar.95 

One afternoon after our lunch break, Elder Gray and I were rushing to get out of the house, and for the first time, we shared the bathroom for teeth brushing and hand washing. The bathroom was typical of its kind in Uruguay. It was a small, dark, neglected room at the back of the house with a chipped and worn blue wooden door that hung askew on its hinges and stuck against its frame when it was closed. The room was lit from a small cantilever window high on the back wall and a naked light bulb, whose switch was placed temptingly outside the door in the hallway. The bulb shone dimly from above the stained mirror on the left wall. 

I haven’t yet been able to tap into the logic behind much of the architecture in the country, though I suspect bathrooms may be designed according to a money-saving refusal-to-advance mentality. Gray tile lined the floor and walls up to a height of about two meters as a protective barrier against the outbursts from the bent pipe sticking out of the wall which we used to bathe ourselves every morning. The shower drain was built directly into the floor but it didn’t get any help from the floor’s slant, and there was a long-handled squeegee at hand to nudge the water on its way down the drain and out to the street. The low-rider toilet sat directly in front of the shower pipe and if it weren’t for the plastic electric water heater that capped the pipe and slowed down the water’s flow to a peaceful cascade of drips while it heated, you could probably sit on the “water” (that’s what they called the toilet in Uruguay; imagine it pronounced “wah-tear”) and do your thing while you were washing your hair. I always wondered when I heard the Uruguayan word for “toilet” where it might have come from. Somebody once told me it was a shortening of “water closet,” from the English who developed much of Montevideo and whose railroad’s black-and-yellow bee colors still adorn the uniforms of half of Uruguay’s favorite professional futból team, Peñarol. I’m actually not even sure if “water closet” is a real British term, but it sounds like something I might have heard, and I can imagine the word in a British accent. Still, if the word for the john was somewhat of a mystery, its friend and companion, the bidet—same word in Spanish, English, and, of course, French—had obvious origins. 

Where the bidet might suggest good hygiene and a high-class standard of living, most homes I checked out for this sort of thing had a bidet, but not many were very hygienic or luxurious. Their popularity, though, obviously had an adverse effect on the toilet paper industry in the country, and all we could usually find was raspy greenish-brown rolls that, we joked, must have been made from tree bark. I rarely used the bidet in the homes I lived in, preferring a good chafing to the unfamiliar. Mostly I had fiddled around with them just to see what it was like, and ended up using the toilet paper to dry my rear end after that anyway. I never questioned how other people might dry themselves off and never imagined they might not use the toilet paper, 

When Elder Gray was done spitting his toothpaste lather into the sink, he graciously stepped aside and I began to wash my hands. Another of the architectural annoyances of Uruguay is that, possibly to save money on materials, all bathroom sink faucets are extremely short and barely extend past the sink’s edge, affording no room for your hands under the water. But by now, I had learned to contort my fingers and direct the stream outward from the edge, and I could wash quickly and enjoyably. I lathered up as best I could with the cold water and hard soap and decided to wash my face too.The soap nearly disappeared as my hands rubbed across my brow and cheeks, but the water was cool and refreshing, and at least it rinsed away some of the morning’s sweat. Then I threw meager handsful of water on my face with my right hand while I held my tie in my left to keep it from slipping into the sink. When whatever soap I had gotten on me was rinsed off, I made a habitual grab for the landlady’s old green towel that was always hanging across the room on a rack. I perfunctorily dried my hands and as I lifted the towel to my face I heard a gasp and a surprised, “No way!” I continued my motion and swept the towel quickly from forehead to chin then looked up to see what was the matter. Some delinquent water gathered on the tip of my nose and I tried to blow it off. Before I could ask “What?” Elder Gray mused, “You use that towel to dry your face?” with such an emphasis on the word “face” that I knew something was up. “Yeah,” I answered casually, I couldn’t guess what was wrong with me using the towel. He continued, with a tone of disbelief, “That’s the towel for the bidet!” 

I can’t tell if most people figure that sort of thing out for themselves, or if somebody else tells them earlier on, but I froze and stared at the towel for a second, and for the first time noticed its grungy discolorations and its position right next to the bidet, and suddenly it all made sense. Elder Gray was telling the truth, and I felt so stupid for never having realized it before. My mind flew back to every house I had yet lived in in Uruguay. In every home the story was the same. There was a landlady, a traditional, old Uruguayan woman who I never saw buy toilet paper; there was a bidet next to the toilet in the bathroom; and there was only one towel hanging constantly in there-situated right next to the bidet. I cringed to think of all the times I had washed my face and dried it off.

But at the same time, I realized that this was another case of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Before the unfortunate realization, I never noticed any problems in my complexion and was never able to smell my own face. The knowledge of the towel’s purpose had somehow worked retroactively and turned my stomach for all those times I had unwittingly contaminated my face. But I never knew it then. So, while I certainly stopped drying my face with the towel that was meant for my butt, I felt a little, in a petty way, like Bob Seger, running against the wind and singing “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” 

Odds and Ends

by Dana Anderson

I’ve always been my father’s son. In both physique and temperament, with the exception of his broad shoulders and love of mathematics, I am a bona fide genetic duplicate. Even my grandmother gets us confused from behind, and to this day I can convince my mom over the phone from 3,000 miles away that I’m the middle-aged once-economics professor, now marketing manager for some conglomerate gauge company, toiling in the same closet-cum-office for the past ten years, complaining about the paperwork he delegates to the secretary he’ll never have. He designs and sells those little counters on gasoline pumps. I think about him when I fill up, those clicking spools of numbers, their sums filling the columns of some strange existential ledger. I always try to stop on an even fraction of a gallon, thinking that somehow he appreciates this discrete precision, listless behind that ochre metal desk, calibrating his micrometer for the third or fourth time that afternoon.

My father is the man for whom Franklin planners and pocket calculators were invented. It seemed to me, growing up in our borrowed Pittsburgh flat, that his whole life was an attempt to formulate some algebraic control over our futures, to deduce some Newtonian comprehension of the vectors of our lives and then steer them to the vanishing point of material and spiritual well-being. Newton, however, couldn’t envision the havoc Einstein would wreck on his theories; nor could my father presage the five-year string of relocations, layoffs, and unemployment that would reduce his optimism and careful planning to debt and uncertainty.

However, my conservative father provided for his family no matter what, and he accepted whatever odd job or favor he could. Once he even took a job selling plaster casting material door-to-door to private medical clinics. It was supposed to be some revolutionary new one-step cast-on-a-roll, so easy it would sell itself. Dad practiced at home the evening before his first and last big presentation pretending I had fallen down the stairs, then deftly setting the fractured leg I kept elevated on the arm of our plaid hide-a-bed. He wrote on it in big letters with his Cross mechanical pencil when it dried:

Hey Lucky,

Those are the breaks. Love.

By afternoon the next day he was again walking downtown in his pressed shirt, the want ads from the city daily under his arm.

My father never lost his composure, never left to chance anything that he could pry away. Every position available he applied for, every palmful of coinage he methodically deposited in the small black tin at the back of his sock drawer. It was as if these were the last two variables he could control in his elusive theorem of happiness – his temper and his spare change. At least he had these two sure things. Let the fickle forces of supply and demand push him into and out of every job from here to Harrisburg: he would never crack the scowl of the discomfited, and he would always have a tin full of quarters.

The reliable tedium of meter marketing eventually found my father that year, uprooding us from our uncle’s attic and planting us 200 miles away with the welcome compensation of a steady salary. It was half what he made teaching economics – ten times what he gleaned pushing instant-cast. But the money was a feeble salve for the frustration of his metaphysical impasse. He had given up theorizing about the grand equation. Life was a numbers game not even Descartes’s command of probabilities could call. There was no formula to be divined, no functions by which ambition and effort would yield certain success.

I shared my father’s abhorrence of unpredictability. My life was also a composite of lists – meticulously ordered sequences of things to do, things to plan for; each check mark in the margins was my own attempt at forging absolutes form the abject relativity of every day. But Dad, unlike me, never articulated his disillusionment. He never moaned that the higher math had beat him. He simply fell into the deadpan recitation of maxims that encapsulated his frank acceptance:

“Sometimes your best isn’t good enough.”

“You can’t lose what you never had.”

“C’est la vie.”

Behind the small certainties of his Franklin schedules and regular pay loomed the pall of an indisputable truism – life was not a closed system.

A week-long petroleum convention in Atlantic City, however, somehow kindled in my father that year the subtle, yet unmistakable ardor of a man possessed. As usual, he brought us souvenirs. For Mom, a paperweight. A man stood in the middle of its glassy sphere, his arms outstretched against the city’s skyline in silhouette behind him. Shake it, and hundreds of dollar bill flecks swirled around him, occasionally perching on his palms and shoulders. For me, a deck of cards from the Tropicana Resort with a pencil-sized hole punched through them.

“These cards were actually used in the table games,” he explained. “They punch the hole in the middle so that people can’t sneak them back into the casino and cheat. These could have won somebody a fortune.”

He spoke like the same man unwittingly emulated – the man who pretended that his contribution to the proliferation of gauges made a difference, who invented anecdotes about his insipid days to tell over dinner, who gave thanks in our family prayers for a job I know he hated. But in his stoic composure flickered some hint of hidden knowledge, some trace of revelation. He strode pensively down to his basement study like a prophet descending a mountain.

Mom wasn’t sure what to make of his strange, vatic air. Even our dogs noticed: at the command of his pointed finger they exited the house, urinated, and returned in record time, as if by Olympian decree. We interrogated him nightly. Was it a promotion was it a raise? Did he somehow acquire the secretary they told him he’d never have? He denied all of these, and his usual late hours and we’ll-make-it-to-next-Friday paychecks validated this. I would have wondered forever, if not for the happenstance that made me the sole sharer in the secret of his transfiguration.

 

I had only gone down to the basement to borrow his scissors. It was late evening. Through the crack in the study doorway I saw him leaning over a dilapidated folding table, a glass of chocolate milk for his ulcer on a napkin, a small book open on his lap. His left arm hing at his side. His splayed fingers forming seemingly random configurations, while his right hand manipulated something on the table top. I poked my head quietly through the doorway. He was dealing cards.

Before I could withdraw he turned, holding aloft a queen he had just pulled from the top of the deck.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I just needed to borrow…”

“I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing down here,” he interrupted.

“No. Grandpa taught me how to play solitaire years ago.”

“It’s blackjack,” he corrected, his eyes focused on the queen of spades sandwiched between his index and middle fingers.

The word was almost an invocation, deep in his throat – three incantatory syllables: Bl-ack-jack. Without invitation I straddled a metal folding chair and watched him deal out the four hands he was playing. He leaned to gather the cards and the book closed on his right thigh, revealing its title: Avery Cardoza’s Beat the House Companion (over 500,000 copies in print). Noting my glance, he set the book on the floor, jugged the cards into a crisp rectangle and slid them in front of me.

“52” he said, like some fragment of a combination.

“What, cards in a deck?”

“No,” he uttered, exuding the wisdom of the oracles, “52 percent.”

Somewhere in that Tropicana gift shop, along with our cursory souvenirs, dad had discovered the magic of card counting.

“Roulette. Craps, Baccarat. You name it,” he elaborated. “Like every other game, the odds are against you. You can’t out-play them. But not blackjack.”

He leaned toward me. I sensed a sermon.

“Not blackjack. The secret is to watch the cards. Not just yours – all of them. Low cards are worth plus one, high cards minus one. Just keep up with the addition. If you run a tight count the whole game, you can predict if you’re gonna get. High or low card.”

“Every time?” I puzzled, struggling to grasp his method.

“No, but just enough. Enough to give you a two percent edge over the house. Two whole points!”

This was beyond math. This was karma.

He dealt us each a hand. Solemnly he turned the cards from the top of the deck, awaiting my response of “plus one” or “minus one” before taking another. I fumbled with the summations, holding out with two hands a total he marked on only two fingers.

“That’ll never do,” he chided. “If they know you’re on to the math they’ll cheat you or show you a quick way back to the street. Either get it together up here,” he advised, tapping his right temple, “or keep your hand in your pocket.”

He paused to let the lesson settle.

“The count is seventeen,” he exclaimed, extending his pinky and middle finger.

With a coy grin he explained the reason for his recent late nights in the dank study.

He was learning binary notation – he could count to nearly a hundred effortlessly on one hand. He finished the remaining half of the deck in silence, his knuckles ticking like those spools that indexed the sum of his daily drudgery in gallons. He was a five-fingered abacus.

“Two whole points!” he intoned like a mantra, his eyes surveying the panoply of numbers and suits on the table top. “You won’t get better odds than that, son. Don’t look for them.”

Selling gauges occasionally takes my dad near Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City – a few of the places he can practice his statistical legerdemain. When I pick him up at the airport he confides in me how the tables have treated him – pilfering a few dollars he wouldn’t cry over, or forfeiting ten, sometimes twenty dollars from some ethereal vault he’s paid into all his life. Those night he’ll take Mom and me to dinner, and at home I hear him drop the change from the bill in the black tin at the back of his sock drawer. My dad’s no gambler. He’s just looking for the loopholes of probability – for the calm smile in the face of indifference, for the nickel on the sidewalk – for any small, sure thing.

Gaman

by Derek Otsuji

My grandfather was a man known to me more by his silences than his words. His presence – it did not matter whether he was at the heart of a busy family gathering or seated by himself in his favorite leather chair – seemed to take possession of solitude as if it were something he owned and always carried with him, like his pocketknife. More than just few and far between, his words were foreign, strange. Somewhere between his generation and mine the marrow of that language had dried, its words broken into syllables – crumbled fragments of sound whose meaning had been pulverized to a dust. Without words there was nothing but an occasional gesture or frown to carry messages between his generation and mine. I was raised American, a convert to McDonald’s and GI Joe; and he was trapped somewhere in a distant and forgotten country, seventy years and a half and half an ocean away. Though I could not speak a word to my grandfather in his own tongue, and though I seldom heard a word of it directly from his own lips, I knew of his language from old World War II movies. It was a rapid, machine-gun stuttering of infuriated nonsense, and I was happy to leave it far behind.

My grandfather never got the pronunciation of my name right. The middle “R” he always slurred into an “L” and he had a habit of kicking the final “K” out from the back of his throat like a cough. His clumsy, rough handling of my name grated on my ears, but I never dreamed of showing my displeasure. When he called, I responded promptly––always wary, always trying to read his expression or his gestures or determine the exact direction of his pointing. During these face-to-face encounters of ours, I was vaguely afraid of him. Not that there was anything about him to suggest meanness. But rather that everything about him was unyielding and impenetrable. His face was dark, his complexion wrinkled and leathery. It was hard to see directly into his eyes shielded behind the glare of his horn-rimmed glasses. He was extremely gaunt, which accented the sharpness of his high cheeckbones. His forehead was square and deeply furrowed. His one expression seemed almost plastered on his face, fixed and inscrutable as it was.

One summer, playing tag with my brothers, I fell and scraped my knee. My grandfather, who was working in his garden nearby, picked me up and carried me to the house. Held there in his arms, I stiffened and stopped crying. His hands were like tree bark. My face was so closed to his I could smell his breath, which was dense and sour, clouded by the lingering smell of sake; the peppered stubble of his chin scraped against my cheeks like iron filings. He carried me up the porch steps and yelled something to my grandma inside. I could hear her slippered feet scuttling across the wooden floor. When grandma opened the door my grandmother set me down before her and, without saying a word, promptly turned around and went back to his yard work. The moment he was gone my body, suddenly remembering its pain, began convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. With Grandfather gone and Grandma there looking at me with her soft eyes, patting and stroking my hair, it was safe to cry again. Choking on the sharp in-heavings of my own breath, I explained to Grandma as best I could what had happened as she cleaned and bandaged my wound.

 

For all the years that I knew him, my grandfather worked alongside my dad on a small farm which they had purchased together. They grew a variety of oriental vegetables––daikon, choi sum, mizuna––in addition to their main crop of Manoa lettuce for which they became famous among local produce markets. As a child, I loved going to the farm and helping in the small ways that I could. I pulled weeds, always careful to get the roots, and carried heads of lettuce harvested by my father and stacked them neatly in wooden crates placed at the end of each furrow. The heads of lettuce were like green wrinkled roses, large enough to be held with two hands. A milky substance oozed from their cut stems that dried clear and sticky on my skin. Best of all I liked driving the tractor. Seated on my father’s lap I would steer as he managed the gas and brakes.

Of course, when the work grew tedious I was always free to do other things like climb the fig tree and search for fruit, hunt for skinks among the dry fronds in the banana patch, or grab my insect net and chase after swallowtails and dragonflies. And no matter how long or hard I played, I could always search the field and find my grandfather working––driving the tractor plow, pushing a seeder across a furrow, turning the sprinkler system on or off, thinning out the rows of lettuce. Watching him from a distance working in his slow, methodical way, I was no longer afraid of him. Strangely, I felt safe with my grandfather there working in the fields. He was one of the fixed constants in life by which I oriented myself in the world. In those moments when there was nothing but open field and silence between us, I felt a profound sense of contentment in my grandfather––a feeling that in the rhythm of his work he was happy.

One summer, I was running about the farm chasing dragonflies when my grandfather called my name and summoned me with a quick wave of his hand. He was harvesting lettuce, seated on one of the miniature benchlike stools designed specifically for that kind of work. My grandfather made these small benches so they fit neatly between the furrows where they lettuce grew and allowed one to sit and not have to squat and crouch all day cutting lettuce. As I approached him, he pulled the miniature bench from under his seat and motioned for me to sit on it; then, in a gesture that surprised and pleased me, placed the knife he had been using to harvest the lettuce in my hand. I had never been permitted to handle these knives before and relished the weight of the blade in my palm, the feel of the grain of its wooden handle crusted with scabs of caked-on dirt. Guiding my hands with his own, he took me through the motions of cutting a head of lettuce from its stem. His movements were quick, deliberate, and sure. As we worked together I could feel the strength of his hands, firmly gripped around mine, and saw how the earth they worked embedded itself in thin crescents beneath his nails and ran in shallow rivulets through the creases in his skin. His hands guiding mine, we cut five or so heads of lettuce together until I caught the rhythm of the work. Then he let go and watched my hands work on their own. Satisfied, he stood up and, without a word, walked to another part of the field. I shielded my eyes to watch his figure recede and darken against the weary orange flare of the late afternoon sky, marveling at what had just passed between us, and, after a moment’s pause, continued in the rhythm of work he had set for me.

I understood that for my Grandfather the richness of the soil was his lifeblood and as long as his hands were connected with the earth, vigor flowed through his veins. Work wasn’t a means to make a living, it was part of living––the essential part that could, over the course of years, transform the tedium of the daily struggle for subsistence into the raw life-substance of meaning. Watching him, I could sense it: rising to work in the fields wasn’t a task imposed upon him by necessity, but a natural cycle of life. He had no need to measure his day in hours and minutes, to anticipate the coming of the weekend, or count down the years to the leisure of a retirement. He simply rose at dawn, broke for lunch at high noon, and retired at sunset. And the mere sight of morning light breaking over the field, the satisfaction of watching the labor of his hands bring forth crops from the dark earth, was sufficient to renew his strength day by day. He could imagine no other life. He had no taste for refined pleasures, no sensibility for spiritual mystery. Truth was to plant a seed, to grip his hands around a hoe, to eat a fresh mango from the tree. Truth was a warm bowl of miso soup in the morning, a hot bath in the evening, freshly steamed rice and okazu, a bottle of sake, and a song remembered from the old country sung deep into the night.

 

The September following that summer, I entered the third grade at a private school. Homework and after-school activities took me away from the fields where my grandfather worked, and my hands grew more accustomed to the grip of a pencil than a harvesting knife. In December of that year, my grandfather was hospitalized. Because of my age, hospital policy prevented me from seeing him in person, so I just sat in the waiting room with my two brothers, chilled by the air-conditioner. After what seemed like hours, my younger brother started whining, saying he wanted to go home. I was just about to lose patience with him when my parents walked into the waiting room. My uncle and aunt were with them and they talked in low whispers. They were saying something about the doctor and how he couldn’t understand why my grandfather had not come in earlier. Surely there were signs. Hadn’t he complained of any pain?

I remember seeing my grandfather on his first day home after a long stay at the hospital. His short cropped hair was grayer than I remembered it, and there were shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. My father ushered me to the side of his bed. My grandfather turned his eyes to me. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and for the first time I saw the soft warmth of his deep brown eyes. Without saying a word he took up my hand in his and squeezed it gently. His strength was gone, but there was still a firmness in his grip. As he looked at me, I could see his eyes brimming with intent. There was a brief wordless pause between us. Then, his eyes turned from me, his grip loosened and his hand slipped slowly from mine. My father took me by the shoulders, turned me about, and nudged me gently to the door. I looked back over my shoulder once and saw my grandfather waving to me weakly, scarcely able to lift his head from his pillow. Three days later, my grandfather passed away.

There is a word in my grandfather’s language which I have only come to understand years after his death––gaman. Translated roughly it means to endure uncomplainingly. Perhaps I will never understand the spirit of that word, since I have come to believe the insistence on silence as a symbol of strength to be an unhealthy and outdated cultural myth. What reason could there be behind my grandfather’s refusal to tell anyone of his pain until the cancer had spread too far to be treated? Stubborn male pride––that archetypal idea of manhood, fierce and insistent in its reticence and solitude? Or was it something not nearly so heroic, but rather a childish shame that drove my grandfather to hide his pain the way I once hid a garment I had accidentally soiled? Suffering turns us all into children, turns the body against itself until we realize that we are no longer in possession or control of the body we thought was ours. And once the body is no longer ours, is it a wonder that the tenuous claim of words on ourselves, our world, and our loved ones should suddenly be dissolved? Perhaps it was a sense of fate that condemned my grandfather to a silence that deepened as his illness progressed, a realization that in his suffering he was alone and that all comforts must ultimately fail him. In this sense there could be nothing more heroic or brave or manly about his silence. And yet in those moments when he struggled most fiercely against the inexorable confession of pain, there was something tender about him, as that silence, like a feminine presence, seemed to embrace and envelope even as it threatened to overwhelm and consume. Perhaps this is the spirit of the word gaman, that in our words is a heart of silence that threatens to overwhelm all our utterances at the very moment they are spoken. I am left wrestling against my own faceless angel, that enigma of my grandfather, knowing that in the silence between us there are things that pass deeper than words, and knowing that in a word’s absence there are things irretrievably lost.

Dear Oscar, There Are No Free Helicopter Rides

by Ohio Faulkner

I still remember the wide smile on your face. The inflection in your voice revealed your excitement. Mom had dragged the whole family together for another tooth-pulling Family Home Evening. Sunshine and green grass. No school. And yet Mom imprisoned us to the dining table. Except for you, the family was as impatient as a don on its first night at obedience school. Mom was the master and we were the dogs, but you were smiling. You held that Book of Mormon in your hand as if it were one of your fingers. Someone said a prayer. Then the time belonged to you to give the lesson. “Open your books to Alma 17. I read this earlier this morning,” you said. “This is the chapter where Ammon defends King Lamoni’s flocks from being stolen.” Anxiously, you told of how you though it was “so cool” that the Lord gave Ammon the strength to defend Lamoni’s flocs. We laughed as you recounted how Ammon smote off the arms of the attackers. You said, “It think it would be pretty funny if you were King Lamoni, and your servants brought you a pile of slain arms.” I laughed but I wondered why Ammon mattered. I often think of that Family Home Evening. I often think of that Family Home Evening when I pray that you will soften your heart and return to God.

As you know, going to church was pretty much a forced issue in our family. And yet, our religion believes in freedom of choice. We claim that every man has the right to choose good from evil. As a kid, I didn’t know any of that. I just put on a warm white shirt ironed by Mom and got in the station wagon like the rest of the family. I didn’t rebel. We’d go to testimony meetings and listen to our friends say, “I know Jesus Christ is our Savior. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” I remember saying those things in Primary.

When I was too young to offer my own testimony, the Primary president whispered those sentiments in my ear and I, frozen in anguish, repeated them to a rowdy class. Why do we have to “bear testimonies,” I wondered. With each uttered phrase, I hoped the Primary president would whisper, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen” so I could sit down. I watched my friends as I repeated the words verbatim. They weren’t paying attention. They played with their clip-ons and mad cool noises with their Velcro-strapped shoes. Their distractions looked like a lot more fun than my testimony bearing. I wasn’t saying the things I said because I knew they were true. I said them so I could sit down.

The Primary president instituted a “reverence Award.” Each Sunday, five or so kids were selected as being the most reverent. The weekly Reverence Award winners received a treat and got a star sticker placed by their name on a cupboard chart in the front of the room. At the end of the year, the kid with the most star stickers would be given a Bible and a triple combination and I was presently winning. My amount of star stickers doubled or tripled all the other kids’ totals. No one was more reverent than me.

I remember a Primary lesson at Easter time. The Primary president wanted someone to play Jesus as he lay dead in the tomb. I volunteered. I was an easy pick since I was such a reverence All-Star so the Primary president selected me. She laid me across three of those orange topographically fabricated chairs that smell like dried applesauce. Someone spread a white sheet over me. As I lay there, I started thinking I could probably make my friends laugh. I had a white sheet and could play a ghost Thought of the Reverence Award raced through my mind and delayed my entrance as a funny ghost. Then I thought, “Ah, I’m so far ahead. I can take a Sunday off from being reverent. I’ll just be really reverent again next week and I’ll still have enough star stickers to win the scriptures.” So I propelled my body upward, and with arms stretched in front of me like a mummy, I yelled “Boo!”

Hopes of a spiritual lesson died as all the kids spit laughter. I was a hit with everyone except the Primary President. She frowned while saying that I had been irreverent and hand mad fun of Jesus. That made me feel bad even though I hardly knew who Jesus was. How could I make fun of someone whom I didn’t really know? Besides, everybody had more fun when I played the ghost.

Our family’s religious activity differed from that of our friends. As a kid, I didn’t know that until I waited in the lunch line with my best friend, Scott Geckel. He told me, “Your religion stinks.” He didn’t have to give talks or play Jesus under a white sheet. He didn’t compete for Reverence Awards. The Geckels just sat in a pew for an hour and then went home. A three hour block of church boggle his mind.

Whether being LDS stunk or not, I didn’t really know. Now, I figure when you were eleven, you didn’t know either. We just went to church because our family when to church. As the youngest of five boys, I aggressively watched what you did. You went to church with no visible complaints, so I did too. I wasn’t a childhood prodigy of spiritual things, only a follower. Your excitement about Ammon told me the Book of Mormon was a thing to check out even though I didn’t know it to be true. I didn’t read the Book of Mormon except with the family, but your vigor about Ammon caused me to have faith in something I knew virtually nothing about.

When you gave the Ammon lesson, I was ten. My religious views were apathetic at best. When Scott Geckel said “Your religion stinks,” I responded, “I know.’ I didn’t care. I never wondered whether the Church was the only way to go or not. I played second base for the green baseball team and forward for the blue soccer team. I wanted glowing grass stains that had to be lathered with soap and scratched by scouring fingernails to come clean. I wanted diving catches, header goals, and double plays. I wanted dried mud to crack off my knees as I left the field that soiled me. I wanted the drain to be full of dead grass and dirt clumps when I emptied the tub. I wanted to smell my name in newsprint for scoring goals. I wanted fame. I didn’t lie awake in bed pondering a blood atonement. And I definitely didn’t whistle “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” during recess. I didn’t care. And yet, I knew who Ammon was because of you.

The years passed. You went to church as did I. You went to youth conferences, and Mom forced you to tell me about them. You graduated from high school and joined Jerry at BYU. Jerry turned nineteen and went to Japan on a mission. You turned nineteen. You turned twenty. I wondered why you hadn’t gone on a mission. Jay was turning nineteen soon and anxiously awaited the time when he could turn in his mission papers. People went on missions at nineteen, didn’t they? The boys in our family were all going to go on missions, weren’t they? Were you?

I remember the tension in your face. I did not know then what it meant. I just watched. I though the choice should have been easy for you. You were nineteen. Mormon boys go on missions when they are nineteen. I flexed my silent jaw and mentally urged, “Just go, Oscar!” Shortly after the twentieth birthday, you submitted your mission papers. You were going on a mission.

Roger and I were lying in front of the TV when Mom came in and asked if she could turn the TV off. “Sure Mom.” Maybe we didn’t answer so willingly. I don’t remember. “Oscar’s mission call came in the mail today,” she announced. My food-full mouth tripped curiously over the words, “Where’s he going?” I erected my body up from our carpet that was as dusty as it was brown to learn of your news. Mom explained how she had read your call to you over the phone since you were at BYU. “Yeah, yeah. Where’s he going? Germany?” She looked so disheartened. I wondered why. We were all smiles and laughs when Jerry got his call to Japan. The tears Mom had then had dried long before this moment. Mom cried at stuff like this. Why not now? “Where’s he going?” As if testifying at court, she stated, “He got called to the Utah Ogden Mission and he’s a little disappointed about that.” We couldn’t believe it. Utah! Of all places, you got called to Utah! Maybe our religion did stink. You had studied German for a couple years with hopes of being called there. You had no such luck. That must have been an insult. I thought it was, and your solemnity would later tell me that you also thought so. I learned not to tell people about you mission call unless I was trying to make them laugh.

As a young deacon, I didn’t doubt that your mission call had come from the Lord. At the same time, I didn’t boldly claim that it had. I didn’t know and didn’t rally care. To me, mission calls were bragging rights. Young boys go to far off lands. The bishop proudly reads letters from him to the ward during sacrament meeting. Mothers with boys out at the same time hug and weep, telling each other they know how hard it is to watch the belly of a plane swallow their boys. What a clique! These mothers tell younger mothers, “Someday, you’ll know the pain of being a missionary’s mother.” I’ve often thought to myself, “What a strange hierarchy.”

No one from our Greensburg Ward had ever gone to Japan, so when Jerry got called there, it was cool. His letters home were wrapped in those thread-thin brown envelopes. “He uses those to save postage,” Mom would say. Jerry sent pictures of himself standing by Buddhist temples and one with a frog-like fish that could kill a person if it wasn’t cooked right. I wonder how people learned that! Mom slipped those pictures between the glass and the wooden pane of our hutch. For my birthday, Jerry sent me Japanese chocolate and bubble-gum. Cool! I couldn’t decipher the labels, but hey tasted good. Long after the candy was eaten I still smelt the wrappers. Japanese gum smelled like American doughnuts. The sweet lingering of the smells satisfied me almost as much as the candy itself. You got called to Ogden. I wondered what you could possibly send me from Ogden.

The night before Dad drove you cross-country to the MTC, we traded temple pictures. You busily crammed two year’s worth of possessions into your coffin sized suitcase. You wanted to take a picture of the temple, but you had no room for your D.C. temple picture with the blood-red sky. My smaller D.C. temple picture had a rigid cold-blue sky and easily fit into your luggage. I happily traded for the big picture, thinking it had more possibilities.

Two months into your mission, we moved to Idaho. No one in Idaho believe us when we told them you were in Ogden. Your mission boundaries were only two hours away by car. My recollections of your mission are few. Nothing you wrote in a letter sticks out. If you sent pictures, I can’t remember them. I do remember you called home a lot. I knew your frequent calls violated mission rules because Jerry only called on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Mom and Dad always fussily anticipated Jerry’s calls.

Of course I remember when Roger drove to Willard to spend P-day with you and didn’t return. Mom and Dad traded worry for sleep that night. I didn’t care. I slept. Mom woke me up. She squeezed her head into the bottom of the bunk bed saying, “We need to go to Willard, so you’re going to miss school today.” I had no qualms about that.

On the drive down, Mom and Dad told me what had happened. Some members in Willard knew that Roger, you, and your companion set out to climb Mt. Willard. They grew concerned when night came and your mission car still sat in their driveway. They called the mission president and he called Dad, suggesting that we come to Willard that morning. The drive to Willard wasn’t pleasant. Mom feared the worst.

Upon arriving in Willard, we were instructed to drive to the base of the mountain. The chaotic scene reminded me of scurrying ants trying to salvage a piece of abandoned picnic cheese. Two news helicopters patrolled the sky. Reporters and cameramen tripped over their cords. The clouds eclipsed the sun. The smell of storm accompanied the darkened day. Supposedly, you guys were alive on that mountain. When missionaries get lost, it’s big news in Utah.

Hungry clouds rolled slinkily toward Mt. Willard. They already swallowed the neighboring peaks. In only a few minutes, the clouds would engulf Mt. Willard too. The helicopters would have to land leaving you helpless under the storm.

But just in time, the helicopters spotted you and carried you to safety. With wet eyes, Dad later told me and Mom of your rescue’s timing. His emotion trembled, “Those clouds were moving quick. If the helicopters didn’t see them soon, they would have been stranded. President Wayne told me that he went to pray; he told the Lord, ‘A storm is moving in. We need to get those missionaries off that mountain now!’ He came out from where he was praying. Almost immediately we got word that one of the helicopters had spotted them.”

You’ve always been glad about that helicopter ride, figuring it would be your only free one. After your interview with Channel 5 News we returned to your mission apartment. The light on the answering machine beat like a runner’s hear. Your district leader had left five or six different messages. Each message sounded more urgent. Laughing at his repeated messages of concern, you told of the peril you faced on your return journey from Mt. Willard’s peak. You came down a different path than you had climbed. The new path led you to a succession of three waterfalls. An attempt to climb down the waterfalls in the March weather would have been fatal You had to return to your original path. The snow was as deep as your waist so the going was slow. You went so far on the wrong path that night came before you could return to the path that led home. Sleep would have to be on the mountain, far from the warmth of home. You still claim that you knew exactly where you were, that you were never lost. Looking around your apartment, I couldn’t find my picture of the D.C. temple with the cold-blue sky.

I was fifteen years old and in ninth grade when you came back form your mission. I found my first year of experiences in seminary enlightening. We studied the Book of Mormon that year and I didn’t come any where close to achieving the ideal of daily scripture study. However, I did find one significant scripture, Mosiah 2:33. I am still strengthened by it. Some nights I’d be about ready to jump in bed when I would realize I hadn’t read my scriptures. I’d often read Mosiah 2:33 and call it good. From my first reading, the line “he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge” stuck with me. I’ve often wondered how much of our misdirected behavior God will dismiss because we knew no better. I’ve often wondered if you stopped going to church because you didn’t know such action was contrary to the will of God.

I believe my knowledge of God took root in ninth grade. My trust in God became mine and not my trust in Mom and Dad’s trust in God. A peace had overcome me when Dad explained how President Wayne’s prayer for your escape from Mt. Willard was so promptly answered. I remember that feeling. It is like someone washed my soul with a scrub brush. The feeling is unhurried and not anxious. My soul felt white without any threat of stain. I felt that same peace several times during ninth grade. I cared now. Scott Geckel was wrong; it didn’t stink to be LDS. I wondered if my actions toward God went against my knowledge of Him. I wondered if yours did.

Your immediate inactivity in church after coming home bewildered me. I asked Mom about it. My questions ignited tender emotions and sometimes tears. I learned not to ask those questions anymore because I didn’t know how to comfort Mom. I just quietly observed you. If your name and the Church came up in the same sentence, all heads nodded with a determined frown. It seemed that our family had passed policy on you: everyone in the family needed to be sorry that you didn’t go to church but needed to be relatively silent about it. I wondered why, so I just watched you.

I remember an afternoon a few days after you came home from Ogden. Mom came down the stairs. She hugged you and began to cry. Your hesitant arms crawled around her waist. Mom couldn’t see me because I stood facing you. As Mom embraced you, your eyes rolled. Your head shook back and forth in disgust. I wondered why.

You delivered your homecoming address. The sentiments were pure cynicism. You said, “Maybe some of you are wondering why I went on a mission. My younger brother Jay was getting ready to send in his mission papers, so I figured I should too.” I sat in the pew wondering why you’d say that.

Jerry got married in Manti. Since Roger was on his mission, he was the only member of the family who didn’t make the trek. Being the only unendowed Faulkner, I prepared myself for a long wait in the temple’s lobby, but Mom said you’d wait with me. I wondered why, so final I asked. Mom said, “Oscar doesn’t really feel worthy to go through the temple.” Later, as we ate lunch alone at probably the only diner in Manti, I quoted Mom’s explanation. It was nerve-racking for me to tell you that. I wasn’t only questioning the level of your faith. I was telling you that the level of your faith bothered me. You laughed and said, “Worthy? No. It’s not that.”

My freshman year at BYU seemed to revolve around mission calls. Would I choose to go? Some of the guys I knew at Deseret Towers shamelessly voiced their choice not to go. Others proudly said they would go. Certainly Mom and Dad expected me to go. They never said so directly to my face, but I could feel their urgings. But it was my choice. I needed to go I wanted to go. I went.

As I prepared for a mission, I wondered how you felt before your mission. Did you want to go on a mission? Did you feel you had a choice? One night, we battled a snowstorm on our return to Provo from Logan. There had been accidents the whole way. Our progress moved slowly. We had a lot of time to talk.

We talked off and on, but I kept avoiding what I really wanted to talk about: missions. It seemed to me that our family looked at your life as a fragile vase. If we handled the vase too much by talking, we’d break it. You never began religious talks so I was intimidated to do so now. But I felt justified since I would be on a mission in a few months. You knew I was leaving. You’d been on one and I hadn’t. Finally, I interrupted the silence. “Are you glad you went on a mission?”

“The mission wasn’t good for me. I never should have gone,” you said.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t believe in the religion.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Some of it, like Joseph Smith’s vision, seem pretty spectacular.”

“You’re telling me.”

“Did you ever believe in it?”

“Yeah when I was a little kid”

“I believe in it,” I declared.

“I know. I’m the only one in the whole family who doesn’t.”

“So why did you go on a mission?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t believe in Joseph Smith and all that when I left. I told the stake president and he just told me to go anyway. He said a testimony would come. I prayed and all that stuff, but I never felt anything and I never told anyone on my mission that I had.”

I wanted to defend the church I wanted to share a testimony that would convert you right there. If you never felt the spirit, I wanted you to now. I wanted something I could write up for the Ensign. But I had no clue what to say, so I was silent.

I left on my mission and figured it may be easier to convert you from a distance I fasted and prayed for you. I sent you those evangelical letters full of stream-of-conscious testimony that I am sure you remember so well. It all must have sounded the same to you. When I called on Mother’s Day, Mom paused awkwardly and told me I didn’t need to write those letters to you anymore. I felt embarrassed. Had I failed in writing you those letters? If you had gone back to church I would have been a family hero. But now I felt like I’d been punished. Mom said you didn’t like the letters. “Just tell him about your mission experiences and that you love him,” she directed. I stopped writing you those proselytizing letters.

Now I realize that maybe the purpose of those letters was to rob you of what you may feel has been robbed from you your whole life: your choice. Mosiah 2:33 says we receive an everlasting punishment if we transgress the law of God contrary to our own knowledge of God. As I think about you, I think about going to church as kids without really understanding why. I think about nineteen-year-old Mormon boys going on missions. As I think about these things I realize there are no free helicopter rides. I realize that a Reverence Award misrepresents the daily struggle of the gospel. A person can’t do good for a while and then coast and still come off the winner. I realize that when we get off of the path we often have to walk in waist-deep snow to return. The snow makes the return-trip slow, but teaches us not to go down that path again. We know the danger.

I wonder what caused us to go to church as young boys. Were we there for more reasons than Mom and Dad? Were we more than puppets? I wonder what caused you to be excited about Ammon. I wonder what caused you to go to youth conferences. I wonder what caused you to attend BYU your freshman year. I wonder what caused you to delay a mission and eventually go almost as much as I wonder what caused you to hate it. I consider many of your actions to be sinful. I would even claim to know that they are sins. I wonder why I consider many of your actions sinful and perhaps you don’t. At the same time, I wonder whether your transgressions of God have been contrary to your knowledge of God. I wonder. I wonder.

In my mind there are two ways to make a choice. We can choose to act against Go contrary to our own knowledge of him or we can make choices without knowing God. You made choices to go to church. You made a choice to be excited about Ammon. You made a choice to go on a mission. Did you make those choices knowing that God wanted you to make them? I’ve wondered.

After your rescue form Mt. Willard you claimed, “We were never lost; we knew exactly where we were the whole time.” Could you say you feel the same way in your relation to God—that you’re not lost, but know exactly where you are?

Where were you when you came home from your mission? Where are you now? Are you not lost as the family silently believes? Do you know exactly where you are? I’d like to know because I pray you will return to where the family waits. I pray and pray that you will find the true path home, but more importantly, I pray you will know it’s the true path home. The family loves you, Oscar. Although it would be comforting for Mom and me and everyone else, no helicopter ride is going to give you a free ride this time.

 

Love,

Your brother