Fiction Fiction Issue

Missionaries

Elder Case wanted to win enough converts to make district leader. Elder Joseph was … confused.


Illustrations by Sam Weber

Joseph watched as Case began to undress on the bluff overlooking the rock quarry. Case removed his shirt, then his shoes and socks. He planted his feet on the weathered rock at the edge and leaned over to peer into the water below. The sun was directly overhead, and a breeze riffled through the sycamores lining the old factory road. Case’s chest was a white-marble tone, and the line on his arms where his tan began made him look like a painting someone had only half finished. He removed his watch and tossed it onto the pile. It landed with a click, striking the plastic LDS tag upon which his name was spelled out in white letters. Joseph sat behind him in the dirt of the road, next to two bikes and a parked van, studying Case’s outline against the blue sky.

“Not only does the Mormon Church offer salvation,” Case was saying, “but in addition to your salvation package, you receive a principality in the kingdom of God.” He smiled over his shoulder, then pulled his belt out of its loops and tossed it onto the pile. “Which sure beats the living arrangements you have now, Claude.”

Claude was sitting on the bumper of the van, its back doors thrown open to reveal a stained mattress and sheets, across which were scattered several water-stained romance novels. His face was framed by wiry gray hair that extended down his jaw and collected under his chin, and he was trying to roll a joint on the frayed knee of his corduroys. The reek of mildew and sweat coming from the van was overpowering, and Joseph, who was sitting in front of Claude, wondered how long he could hold his breath.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Case continued. “You’ve got a nice thing going here, living in your van. No neighbors to bother you, only one key to worry about, nice view. But it’s not what God’s got planned for you, Claude. Elder Joseph, what does God have planned for Claude here?”

Case turned to Joseph, who’d just picked a dandelion from the grass and was holding it against his nose to combat the odor. Joseph didn’t answer immediately, and Case gave him a look and coaxed him with his hands. “He has a condo set aside for you in heaven, Claude,” Joseph finally answered.

“That’s right, Claude. Have you ever been inside a condo?” Claude looked at Case as if he were crazy. Case just smiled and scratched at the hair under his arms.

Case and Joseph, both 19, their birthdays within a month of each other, had arrived a little over an hour earlier, walking their bikes down the stretch of railroad bisecting Ijams Nature Center until they found the overgrown access road that led to an abandoned marble plant and the adjacent quarry. Case had learned about the place from a college student at the fort, where he and Joseph had been handing out tracts. They’d found Claude’s van parked beneath the kudzu-choked mill, nearly 50 feet above the water in the quarry.

Claude was stretched across the mattress in the back of his van reading a romance novel called Gentle Rogue. The cover depicted a man and a woman, scantily clad, swooning across the rigging of a ship. Joseph was wary of the old man, but Case saw only opportunity.

“Morning,” Case had called with genuine enthusiasm.

Claude dropped the paperback onto his chest, looking at the two over the spine with obvious distrust. “The quarry’s over there, if that’s what you came for,” he mumbled.

“Well, we did come for a swim, but that’s not all,” Case said. “We’re here to help you, sir.”

It amazed Joseph how effortlessly Case was able to sell the Church. He envied Case’s confidence, his ability to grab people. Case had been out in the field for nearly a year now, and by the time Joseph arrived three months ago, Case had already baptized 15 converts, which put him well on his way to becoming district leader in the Knoxville branch. Case believed what Elder Robert back at mission headquarters had told him the day he arrived: “As long as the convert puts out his cigarette on the way down to the water, he is worthy.”

Case shielded his eyes against the sun and turned toward the quarry. The water was a grayish-blue, which reminded Joseph of the Great Salt Lake. He pictured his mother standing ankle-deep in it, head haloed by brine flies, talking about the wonders of God. “A sea in the middle of the waste,” she’d said. “That’s what you have to be in this life, Joseph. Balm in the desert.”

“Hey, Claude. You ever jump from here?” Case ran a hand through his hair, cleared his throat, and spat off the side of the rock. Joseph noticed that the skin along Case’s midriff had pimpled.

Claude ignored Case, concentrating on his efforts with the joint. Joseph rose to his feet and edged out toward the quarry. He put his hand on Case’s shoulder. “I don’t think you should be jumping into there,” he said. “It’s against the rules to swim, you know. Plus, no telling what’s down there.”

Case grunted and shook off Joseph’s hand. “You’re such a lamb, Joseph. Christ, my mother has more backbone than you.”

Joseph lowered his eyes and shrugged. He never liked it when Case swore. “I’m just saying you’re an idiot, that’s all.”

“Won’t deny that.” Case undid the button on his slacks and dropped them, and his briefs, to his ankles. He pulled his feet out, then kicked both garments over with the others. One of the first things Case had done upon arriving in Knoxville was replace his temple garment with Fruit of the Loom underwear. Joseph thought of this as Case turned to him and grinned. For the past few months Joseph hadn’t been able to look at Case without being reminded of what wasn’t under the other boy’s clothes.

Case looked over his shoulder at Claude, and Joseph followed his gaze, trying not to let his eyes rest too long on Case’s naked body. Claude had finished rolling the joint and was passing it in and out of his lips. Case yelled, “You know God doesn’t like you to do drugs to combat loneliness.”

A smile wavered at the corner of Claude’s lips. “You want to hit it?” he asked.

“Well, it seems like the only Christian thing to do.” Case walked over, light-stepping over the gravel and the broken glass. As he approached, Claude moved around to the front of the van.

“Where you going, Claude? Ow, shoot!” Case raised his foot, regarded it for a second, and extracted a thorn from his heel.

“Need a light,” Claude yelled from the front of the van. A few seconds later he came back, lighting the joint with the van’s cigarette lighter.

“You’re a sad man, Claude. It’s divine intervention we came when we did. Isn’t it, Joseph?” Case kept his back to Joseph as he took a hit.

“Yeah, Case.” Joseph noticed the muscles of Case’s back tense, and he wondered if Case could feel him watching. Case passed the joint back to Claude, and the old man extended it toward Joseph, who shook his head and focused on a puddle filled with water and gasoline in the road beside the van, around which hovered tiny violet butterflies.

“You’ll have to forgive Joseph. He lacks social grace.” Case looked over his shoulder, blowing smoke into the air and beckoning Joseph with his finger.

Joseph hesitated. Then he walked over, took the joint from Claude’s hand, and brought it to his lips. He tried to inhale as little as possible. The wind picked up, and the rusted girders of the mill groaned audibly under their cover of vines. Case shivered and wrapped his arms around his chest.

“You going to walk around naked all day?” Claude asked. “You haven’t exactly walked into Eden.”

“Does it bother you, Claude?”

“Not really. You’re not going to tell me about how man was made in the image of God and we shouldn’t be afraid of our nakedness, are you?”

Case smirked and shook his head. “No, I can see you’re the kind of man who doesn’t appreciate a lot of smoke and mirrors. Let’s face it, Claude. You’re hell bound, and I doubt anything can save you.”

“At least you’re honest.”

“I try, Claude. Now.” Case slammed the palm of his hand against Joseph’s chest. “Let’s do this.”

“Do what?” Joseph asked, rubbing his chest.

“Strip.” Case began pulling at Joseph’s shirt.

Joseph watched as one button snapped off and went sailing into the grass. He pulled away and stood staring at Case.

“Come on, Joe. We’re a team. We’re going to the river together.”

“It’s not a river, it’s—”

“Whatever. You know I wouldn’t make you do anything I wouldn’t do.” Case extended his arm. His palm looked soft to Joseph, like an infant’s. “I’ll even hold your hand.”

Joseph felt the blood rise in his neck. “I don’t need to hold your hand.”

Claude began to giggle, which set the van bouncing. Joseph noticed that his teeth were broken and jagged.

“Don’t do it, boy,” Claude said. “Your friend’s crazy.”

“All right,” Case said. “Let’s go take a leap.”

Joseph straightened his shoulders, but as they approached the cliff, he felt his stomach kink. As he inched up to the edge and peeked over, Case came up behind him and swatted the back of his pants. Joseph jumped and clutched Case’s arm.

“Don’t worry,” Case said. “I was just going to suggest you take those off. You don’t want to walk around wet, do you?”

Joseph let go of Case and began to remove his shirt and pants. Case picked up several rocks from the cliff and spun them into the air above the quarry. He turned to look at Joseph, flipping a flat stone over on his palm as he spoke. “You keeping your temple garment on?”

“It’ll dry.”

Case shrugged and hurled the stone away. “Suit yourself. You first.”

“Why do I have to go first?”

“Because I said so.” Case turned and walked a few paces behind Joseph. “I’ll be right after you.”

Joseph heard Claude yell from across the road, “Belly flop, boys.”

A dull ringing started in Joseph’s ear, and it seemed to him that the rest of the world got strangely quiet, that even the insects stopped whatever rituals they were engaged in. It was as if the world had turned to watch him, wondering what he intended to do next. He wondered briefly if God were watching and thought about Salt Lake and his parents. “Never be led from the path,” his father had always said. “Even angels have been known to trip.” Joseph decided he couldn’t do it, the very thought of the fall made his guts churn. But a moment later the weight of Case’s body slammed into his back, sending them both over the edge of the bluff.

He surfaced a second later, gasping for air. Case emerged a few feet away from him and howled, the sound echoing around the walls of the quarry. The burning sensation in Joseph’s side became a searing pain, and he began thrashing. Case swam over and snaked an arm under Joseph’s, holding him above the water. “Sorry, man. I just thought you needed some inspiration up there.”

Joseph tried to catch his breath. “You OK, Joe?” Case patted Joseph’s chest and held him up so that they were both afloat.

“I can’t breathe,” Joseph said.

Case pulled Joseph toward him. “Just keep trying,” he said. “It’ll get easier.” Joseph allowed his back to relax against the firm surface of Case’s chest, their legs entangled under the water. “You did good, Joe. I’m proud of you. We should call it a day after this. To celebrate.”

“What are we celebrating?” Joseph said, wheezing and coughing.

“Well, obviously somebody up there loves us.”

Joseph lay sprawled on the bed with an ice pack pressed against the side of his chest. The swelling had gone down, but a dark-purple bruise ran from under his right arm to below his waist. He winced as he tried to move, shifting his weight on the mound of pillows under him. He eyed Case, who was on the other side of the room crouched in front of the open door of the refrigerator. He emerged with a tub of butter and a butter knife and came and stood by the bed. “Here, put some butter on the bruise,” he said. “It’ll help reduce the swelling.”

“What?” Joseph looked at Case dubiously.

“Trust me. It works.”

Joseph took the tub and knife from Case. He opened the lid and smeared the butter gingerly on his discolored skin. He cringed at the cold.

Case and Joseph’s studio apartment was in the partitioned attic of an old Victorian on Fifth Street. In the three months they’d lived there, clumps of dust had curled into the corners of the linoleum floors. The ceiling sloped at odd angles, and at night the wind whimpered around the eaves, sometimes keeping Joseph awake.

Joseph studied the few stars he could see through the window. He usually tried not to think about his parents until after Case had drifted off into sleep. He was an only child, and his mother hadn’t wanted him to go on the mission. His father, however, insisted it would be a growing experience and would get him out of an awkward phase. Joseph stared at the butter smeared down his side. Some of it was still curled from where the knife had cut it. He thought about the Family Home Evenings he’d spent with his parents. He could hear his father’s slow baritone relating the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Afterward, he’d sat between his father’s legs and watched as he carved sleeping lions from bars of Dial soap. He’d loved the way the soap curled around the edge of his father’s pocketknife, as if the world were bending to his will.

He blinked and tried to turn his head without moving his lower body. “Case, what did you do with your parents on Family Home Evenings?”

Case snorted. “My mother would turn off the TV and make me and my sisters read the Book of Mormon. God, Mondays were frigging boring.”

“What about your dad?”

Case ran a finger through the mess on Joseph’s chest and put his finger in his mouth. “Did I ever tell you my dad is a physicist?” he asked. “He took me to his research facility once for Family Day, when I was ten. He worked with supercolliders at Stanford. We went in 1993, just a few years before someone in his department won the Nobel Prize for discovering the tau lepton, or something like that. That’s what my dad does. He uses these machines to throw particles and atoms at each other to try and see what they’re made of.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“That kind of stuff always excited my dad. He’d come home talking about how he hurled a helium atom at a whatever particle and something remarkable happened. It was all Greek to me, and that’s all he could talk about. Quarks, mesons, dark matter—scientist stuff. It was like some secret code. How’s your side feeling?”

“I can’t feel the lower half of my body. Or the upper half.”

Case laughed. “Me either.” He took a swat at the dust clots on the floor. “So what does your father do for a living, Joe?”

“He sells insurance for an indemnity company.”

“That sounds really ordinary.”

“Sorry.”

Case nudged Joseph’s shoulder. “Scoot over. And give me a pillow. We’ve got an early day tomorrow.” He carried the tub of butter and the knife back to the refrigerator.

“Where are we going?” Joseph asked, sliding toward the wall.

“North Knoxville. Mechanicsville. Elder Robert says the families out that way are lower-income. Poor people are more pliable.”

Case pulled his undershirt over his head and jerked down his pants. He dropped both on the floor and switched off the overhead light. Once his eyes had adjusted to the dark, Joseph looked at Case, who was lying on his back with his arms behind his pillow, staring at the ceiling. His shoulder seemed to radiate heat.

“Hey, Case,” Joseph said.

“What?”

“How come you never call your parents on our P days?”

Case sighed. “I don’t have anything in particular to tell them. Once I make district leader, I’ll call home to let them know. Shouldn’t be too much longer. I’ve brought in more baptisms than anyone else. My dad made AP of the San Francisco mission when he was out in the field, before he went off to college.”

They stopped talking, and Joseph listened as a listless summer rain passed over the roof, the drops pattering against the window above them.

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