The next morning, the rain had passed to the east, and the wet lawns grew steamy as Case and Joseph pedaled into North Knoxville. Joseph’s clothes clung to his body, and sweat ran down his forehead into his eyes. Each revolution of the pedals hurt his side. He tried to ignore the pain, keeping his eyes on Case’s back ahead of him. As they headed into Mechanicsville, Joseph saw that most of the houses they passed were white or sickly green clapboard and leaning at precarious angles, seemingly held up by telephone lines. Some were boarded up and wrapped in yellow police tape.
Case had ripped a street map out of the phone book. They would start on the east end and work their way west, ending up at the edge of the industrial park. Case leaned into a curve and came to a stop in front of a house nearly swallowed by dogwoods. Panting, Joseph came to rest beside him. Case propped his bike against a low wrought-iron fence and slung his backpack off his shoulder. He unzipped the side pouch and took out a tattered copy of the Book of Mormon. “Let me do the talking while we’re here,” he said. He looked at Joseph, who nodded.
Case’s hair was wet on the sides and clung to his face. He swabbed his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “All right, then. Let’s do this.”
Joseph leaned his bike against Case’s and followed after him. Old tires lined the walkway, and from their centers swelled fistfuls of geraniums, marigolds, and some flowers he didn’t recognize. Their scent hovered around him like the perfume his mother wore on Sundays when she attended chapel.
Case stood holding the screen door open against his hip and knocked loudly, breaking the quietness of the morning. Joseph felt the muscles of his neck tense. This was the part of the job he hated—standing at a door unsure what lay behind it. “Do you think anyone’s home?” he asked, just as the door swung open to the end of a chain. The face of the elderly black woman framed by the door seemed surprised it didn’t open all the way.
“Hello, ma’am. My name is Case Riseler, and I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time today.”
“I don’t have any money to give you,” said the woman. She was wearing a blue bathrobe with two huge pockets on the sides, and her gray hair was cut close to her head.
“We’re not looking for money, ma’am. We’d like to talk to you about the Church of Latter-Day Saints. It’ll take no more than 15 minutes of your time.” Case took half a step closer to the threshold and smiled. Somehow he made it seem as if he’d already been invited in. Or at least it seemed that way to Joseph.
The woman hesitated and looked behind her into the house. She mumbled softly, “The house isn’t really clean. And I don’t have much time for religion anymore.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. We’re not here to pressure you. But could we at least step inside for a moment? Maybe cool down a bit? Plus, Elder Joseph here needs to use your restroom, if you don’t mind. Isn’t that right, Elder Joseph?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Joseph said. “I need to use your restroom.”
The woman stared hard at them for a moment. “You don’t look old enough to be elders.” The two boys didn’t respond. “House is a mess,” she said again.
“It’ll just take a moment. Scout’s honor.” Case held up two fingers and put his other hand over his heart.
The old woman began to fish inside the pockets of her robe, then stopped and stared at the two boys. Joseph wondered if she remembered what she was doing. Then she reached up, unlatched the chain, and swung open the door. “All right. But just for a minute.”
The interior of the house was dark. Rays of light stole in through the curtained windows, highlighting the dust. The place smelled of polyester. Behind the woman was what at one time might have been a living room. Joseph could make out a couch and table on the far wall, but the couch was covered with heaps of clothes, newspapers, and assorted gimcracks. Every available inch of the table was covered with curios—porcelain clowns and angels, boys with straw hats and fishing poles, animal figurines. The old woman turned and hobbled through the snarl, down a path that angled to the right into an equally overrun kitchen. Case turned and whispered to Joseph. “Jesus Christ, this woman’s a loon. Look at this place.”
Joseph nodded and fell into step behind Case as they trailed the woman into the kitchen. She seated herself at the kitchen table, upon which rested a tower of salt and pepper shakers, stacked plastic cups, and canned food. Lines of ants stalked across the yellowed linoleum floor, which sagged in several places. Case took a seat beside the woman at the table, balancing the Book of Mormon on his thigh. He smiled and looked around. “Seems cozy. Joseph, why don’t you go find the restroom, while me and Mrs.—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Ida Marsh,” the old woman answered.
“Ida. That’s lovely. Where’s your bathroom?”
Ida raised a gnarled finger and pointed to a door at the back of the kitchen next to the stove. “Through there and to the left. Down at the end of the hall.”
Case looked at Joseph. “You heard the woman, Joseph. In the back there.” He made a scooting motion with his hands.
As Joseph headed into the dim hallway, he heard Case start his spiel. “Ida, have you ever wondered what God has planned for you …” He found the bathroom at the end of the hallway. In the corners of the room, dust-colored mushrooms had sprung up in clusters between the tiles. He stood in front of the mirror and thought about Ida in the kitchen with Case. Then he thought about his own mother, dusting her collection of cut-crystal angels in the living room, where the light from the windows could catch them. He wondered if she could ever end up like Ida—alone, with the house slowly filling in around her. The possibility felt very real. He pictured his mother’s wrist as she went to open a door, her veins visible under her skin, as if they were wrapped in the thin pages of a Bible. He waited a few more minutes, then headed back toward the kitchen.
“I don’t have any way to get down to the mission,” Ida was saying.
“That’s all right,” Case said. “We can send an elder down here to pick you up and take you to the church to be baptized.”
“They’d do that for me?”
She said it without emotion, yet the tone of her voice put Joseph at the edge of tears—he felt just as he had on the tarmac of the airport in Salt Lake City when his mother pressed a silver dollar and a gilt-edged copy of the Book of Mormon into his hand. The book was to keep him on the path. The dollar was for luck, she started to say; his father finished explaining when it was clear she could not. He’d spent it accidentally at an airport kiosk when the plane touched down in Knoxville, on a magazine and a bag of saltwater taffy. He’d reached into his pocket and pulled out all the bills and change he could grasp. When the cashier lifted the coin from the counter, he was too embarrassed to ask for it back. He told himself it didn’t matter. Yet he could still hear the weight of that coin as it was dropped into the coin drawer among its lesser brothers.
“Of course,” Case said. “I’d see to it myself.”
Ida’s hands picked at the threads of her robe. She appeared to be weighing her options. “Well, maybe I should start back to church. Once Stuart gets back from the war, he’ll want to go.”
“Who’s Stuart?” Case asked, swiping at the grime that had appeared on his pants leg.
“He’s my son. He’s over in Vietnam right now.”
Case glanced up at Joseph, who was standing behind Ida. He rolled his eyes and grinned.
“Maybe Stuart could be a deacon in the church when he gets back,” Ida said.
Case turned toward her. “Maybe.”
“Case, we should probably tell Ida how some Mormons feel about blacks in the priesthood,” Joseph said. “I think she should know.”
Ida turned and looked at him as if she didn’t understand what he was saying. Case glared and made a cutting gesture with his hands.
“I mean, the Church officially allowed blacks into the priesthood in 1978, but still …” Joseph’s voice trailed off, and he dropped his eyes.
Ida turned back to Case. “What’s he saying?” She shuffled her feet.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Case said. “He’s talking about the Mormon Church, not the Church of Latter-Day Saints. So if I send a car around on Thursday, will you be here?”
She looked at the corner of the room and grunted. Then she nodded slowly. “I’ll be here.”
Case stood up. “All right, then. We’ll send a car around on Thursday. We’ll let ourselves out, if you don’t mind.”
Case motioned with his book for Joseph to follow. As they crossed the yard, he said, “What was that all about? Why did you tell her about the blacks-in-the-priesthood thing?”
Joseph kicked at the head of a marigold. “I don’t know. I felt sorry for her.”
“Jesus Christ, Joe. It’s not like we were robbing her.” Case pointed at Joseph’s face. “You just thank God she was soft in the head, because if you’d ruined that conversion, I would have skinned your scrawny hide.”
“Don’t you feel bad at all?” Joseph asked.
“Why should I, Joe? Grow a frigging backbone. We’re here to do a job. We’re here to bring people to the Lord.”
It’s like a game to you, Joseph thought. It doesn’t mean anything.
“Don’t you want to make AP?” Case said, as if he’d heard Joseph’s thought. “Don’t you want to make our parents proud? That’s what we’re here to do, Joe.”
Everything felt off-kilter to Joseph. Who did Case think he was, bartering with salvation as if it were currency? “This just isn’t what I thought I’d be doing here.”
Case sighed and shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but hard. “If there was one thing I learned from my father, it’s that the way to make it is by force of will. It’s what people respond to. Otherwise, you end up a statistic, like Ida there.” He pointed toward the house.
Joseph didn’t say anything, and Case stepped toward him until he was uncomfortably close. “Listen to me, Joe. The ends always justify the means.” He stared hard into Joseph’s face and then punched him on the arm. “Come on, don’t look like that. We got a lot more houses to get through. I promise we’ll do whatever you want tomorrow. Just you and me. But right now, I need you to focus.”
Joseph sat on the carpeted floor of the girl’s living room, picking at the matted spots around him. A chronicle of accidents, he thought, his eyes following the lines of the stains, wondering if he could determine where they came from. He was seated Indian-style in front of a blue La-Z-Boy. Case and the girl were seated on the couch. Joseph thought she was a little older than they were, but not by much. She was what Case called a goth kid, dressed all in black, with scuffed combat boots peeking out from under the hem of the layered, gauzy skirts of her dress. She was wearing thick coats of lipstick and eyeliner, and the purple-black color made her look bruised. She and Case were smoking cigarettes, flicking their ashes into the ashtray between them. Case was selling salvation. The girl was listening with a strange expression, a half-smirk. She picked at the fabric of her skirts.
“So do you live here alone?” Case asked. He had his arm slung over the back of the couch.
“Just me,” she answered, smoke streaming from her nostrils.
A stereo on a low table was playing a CD of some band Joseph wasn’t familiar with—a soft, brooding music that he didn’t particularly like. Several shelves of books lined the walls, and he tried to focus on the titles. The only ones he could see clearly were a collection of Lovecraft stories and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.
“So you guys are Mormons?” the girl asked. “How many wives do you all get?” She looked at Case from under her eyelids.
“Most Mormons don’t follow the polygamy thing anymore,” he said. “It’s only the really devout and unconventional sects.” He scratched at his hairless cheek, looking bored. It was the same routine he used with all younger people, pretending that he wasn’t really that interested in what he was doing, that he was cool with just hanging out.
“That’s unfortunate. Polygamy was the one thing that made you guys interesting.”
Case gave the girl a mock-hurt look. “You don’t find me interesting?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
Joseph was growing restless. He didn’t like being in the girl’s house. It smelled of stale incense. Candles were tiered throughout the room, the wax puddled around their bases in stiff globs. “It’s getting dark, Case. Shouldn’t we be going?”
Case turned toward Joseph, but his expression was vacant. Joseph began to feel that he could be heard only vaguely and not seen at all.
“I can take you back to your apartment,” the girl said. “I’m still waiting to see if you can convert me, though.”
“So what’s it going to take?” Case asked.
The girl smiled, and her teeth flashed in the half-light. She flicked her cigarette over the ashtray, and a stray fleck of ash landed on her lap. Case leaned forward and pinched it from the fabric. “Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“You’re getting warmer.”
Case’s eyebrows darted up. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind. So how did you two get placed together?” She turned toward Joseph as if to include him in the conversation, but he ignored her.
“Luck of the draw. I’d say it was a pretty good match, though. We get along really well. Isn’t that right, Elder Joe?”
Joseph nodded, but kept his eyes down. “We get along OK.”
The girl snickered and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Why do you call each other ‘Elder’?”
“It’s an address of respect.”
“Should I call you ‘Elder’?” She stubbed out her cigarette.
“You can call me whatever you want. Speaking of which, I never got your name.”
“Nice to meet you, Margo. So what’s it going to take to get you into the Church?”
“I have reservations,” she said, a smile playing across her lips. “I’m not a stranger to sin. Impure thoughts and all that.”
Joseph suddenly realized that his lungs felt swollen, and he wondered if he’d injured himself seriously when he fell into the quarry.
“Well, we all have those,” Case said. “Nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t think God splits hairs over salvation.”
Joseph could see Case’s erection press against his pants, and he felt himself stiffen. He pulled at the legs of his slacks and hoped no one would notice.
“That’s good to know,” she said, then paused a moment. “Do you want to come to the bedroom with me?”
Case smiled and stubbed out his cigarette. He stood up quickly. “Yeah, let’s go.” Then he looked down at Joseph. “You can find something to do, can’t you, Joe?”
“My side’s really starting to hurt again,” Joseph said, but Case’s attention was focused on the front of Margo’s dress, on the dark velvet pulled snug around her small breasts.
“I have some Advil and other stuff in the cabinet above the stove,” Margo said. “You’re welcome to it. We won’t be long.” She rested her hand briefly on Joseph’s head and walked slowly toward the kitchen, looking back at Case as she entered the short hallway that led to the bedroom.
Case squatted beside Joseph, who leaned forward and crossed his arms over his lap, afraid Case would notice his erection. “I owe you one for this, Joe,” Case said. “Anything you want. I swear.”
Joseph watched as Case followed Margo into the bedroom in back. He heard the squeak of the door. For a few moments, he remained seated, listening to the faint hum that seemed to come from the walls. He rose to his feet and tiptoed to the kitchen and stood in the center of it for a moment, not knowing what to do next. The silence was choking. Then he turned and headed down the hallway toward the sliver of light seeping from a crack in the bedroom door.
He pressed his eye to the crack and saw Case sitting at the edge of the bed, Margo standing in front of him. Case had stripped to his underwear and was slowly unzipping the back of Margo’s dress. It slid off her body and crumpled onto the floor. Case reached for the clasp of her bra, and she pulled the straps from her shoulders. Case bit his lower lip as he hooked his fingers under the elastic band of Margo’s panties and pulled.
Joseph stood watching Case’s hands move up and down the girl’s belly and between her breasts. He thought about all the doors he and Case had passed through over the past few months, and of what Case had told him about the kind of force he needed to be in the world. Joseph reached for the doorknob, but his hand paused above it. He knew if he went any further he would set something off, some part of himself he didn’t wish to recognize. Case pressed his lips against the white of Margo’s stomach, and Joseph heard a sigh escape her lips. She tangled her fingers into Case’s hair.
Joseph forced himself to turn away. He pressed a hand against his bruise as if he were trying to contain it, the throb of the thing. His loneliness at that instant made him gasp. The weight of everything was immense. He pictured his mother and father, growing accustomed to his absence. Somehow everything they’d given him wasn’t enough for this mission.
His back to the door, he decided then that he was going to be different. He was going to be what Case wanted—a force to be reckoned with. With his faith, he would be unstoppable, blessed, a god on this earth, and the world would bend to him. He would take all the Claudes and Idas and Margos and shelter them from lions. Cleanse them of their sins and fears. Then Case would have no choice but to recognize his greatness.
Walking to the end of the hallway by the kitchen, he seated himself against the wall. He sat there quietly, waiting for Case to emerge.