Brigham’s mission call, an excerpt: You are assigned to labor in the Honduras San Pedro Sula Mission. You will prepare to preach the gospel in the Spanish language . . .
Brigham’s mom, Jackie, pulls a map from top shelf of the coat closet and spreads it across the dining room table. She’s on the phone with Grandma Kimball.
“Yes, he just got his call,” she yells into the phone. “Honduras. I see it right here on the map. It’s in southern Mexico…. I’m sure they do. . . . These days everyone has a washing machine and microwave.”
Brigham dusts off his old junior high Spanish assignments. For dinner, Jackie makes tacos. Brigham’s father, John, buys a piñata, which the family blithely pulverizes with a broomstick after dinner.
Brigham, excerpt from talk: I echo the words of that mighty prophet, Joseph Smith, who looking out over his beloved Nauvoo for the last time, said: “I go as a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of sin and offense before God, and before all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall be said of me—he was murdered in cold blood.”
Brigham weeps, Jackie weeps, John weeps, Grandma and Grandpa Kimball weep. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces weep. Brigham’s girlfriend, Heather, weeps, friends weep, babies weep. Priests and High Priests sleep. Bishop Sanders eyes his watch and nervously taps his Wingtips. A deacon brings up a fresh box of Kleenex.
Savory Salisbury steak, spaghetti with a rich meat sauce, a taco bar. Brigham puts on weight. He devotes himself to learning Spanish. In fact, he never speaks a word of English. Brian Holland, his companion, occasionally forgets Elder Kimball’s name.
Brigham mutters goodbyes in Spanish. “Voy a convertir el mundo,” he says. He embraces Jackie, embraces John, affectionately shakes Heather’s hand. While he’s away, she promises to plan their wedding.
Fleas, ticks, chiggers, earwigs, gnats, roaches, rats. Bats, beetles, mice, mites, lice. Spitting spiders, jumping spiders, barking spiders, flying spiders. Fire ants, Azteca ants, Parasol ants, Tuxedo ants. Screaming monkeys. Diggers, gougers, itchers, stingers, stabbers. Iguanas. Mosquitoes.
A letter from John, an excerpt: Brigham, an honorable mission is the foundation of a successful life. I truly believe that. Too many squander the experience. You might feel it’s not in my character to say this, but let me impart some sage advice my father gave me right before I left on my mission. “Son,” he said. “Keep your pecker in the birdhouse.”
Brigham and Pedro Sanchez wade into the dark, meandering river. Piranhas nip at their heels, crocodiles dismember a yak on the opposite bank, primitive savages beat drums in the distance.
Coming up from the water, Pedro embraces Brigham and intones a string of high, lispy Gracias in his ear. Brigham feels Pedro’s hand clamped tightly to his right buttock. “What a strange custom,” Brigham thinks.
A letter from Brigham’s companion, Elder Parker, to Guadalupe Rancho de la Lengua, an excerpt translated from Spanish: What I wouldn’t give to get some distance between me and this new elder. What’s his name? Kimball. That’s right. Every morning I have to wake up to his chipper voice and that stupid grin on his happy face. I want him to stop shining my shoes. I think I’ll scream if he says even more time with that dreamy look in his eyes, “Elder, these are our days in the history of the church.” The only thing that makes life bearable is you, seeing you across the chapel on Sunday, getting your letters. When I get back to Utah, I’ll send money for a plane ticket. We’ll drive up Provo Canyon in my Mustang. We’ll eat lunch in a grassy meadow. You can make those cheese empanadas I love.
Brigham confronts Elder Parker about a letter he finds on the bathroom sink. Parker denies everything. Brigham also expresses concern over Parker’s lack of interest in their morning companionship study. “You’ll never understand our love,” Parker says, and then, right before kicking Brigham in the groin, screams, “Put this in your journal!”
An excerpt from Brigham’s letter to John: I just got transferred to a city off the Mosquito Coast called Trujillo. I’m now companions with Elder Ramirez. He’s from Caracas and tells me he used to be a cage fighter, but gave it up when he became a Mormon.
I don’t think he quite understands what we’re supposed to do. He’s always trying to sell our investigators these Rolex knock-offs. He has a bunch of them looped around a string he’s tied into the lining of his suit jacket, and at the end of a lesson, he opens his jacket and starts making his pitch. It’s quite awkward. Do you think I should speak with Mission President Hurley?
One night Brigham has a mildly erotic dream about Heather. They’re in a city he doesn’t recognize, sitting in the back of taxi that speeds through empty streets. Inexplicably, they’re both dressed in purple leisure suits. Heather delicately kneads the back of Brigham’s neck.
And then he’s suddenly awoken by the sound of naked feet moving over saltillo tile, a book falling, and the swish of fabric. Through the pale darkness, Brigham watches Ramirez thumbing through his wallet, pulling out crisp dollar bills, ogling Heather’s senior picture.
“Elder,” Brigham asks. “Qué estás haciendo?”
“Amigo,” Ramirez hisses, and then in a broken, effeminate English, says, “The only thing in this world that gives orders is balls.” His hair sticks up. His eyes are wild. “Silenzio, Elder.”
Heather hasn’t written in months. Brigham assumes her heavy course load in Family Science at Brigham Young University must be the cause, and then one day a letter arrives. Instead of emanating the pleasant scent of Heather’s Tommy Girl perfume, the letter reeks of dirty diapers.
Heather, excerpt from letter: It just happened so quickly with Phil. I mean, it was just a group of us watching The Never Ending Story, and Phil and I were crying during all the same scenes, like in the end when Bastian and the Empress are sitting there and she has the last grain of sand from Fantasia in her palm. Everyone got tired of the movie and left and it was just the two of us, and I was like, “This is my favorite movie of all time,” and he was like, “Yeah, mine too.” It was like it was meant to be. I mean, we love the same movie. It was a sign. Anyway, since I’d already planned our wedding, all I had to do was replace your name with Phil’s on the invitations. That’s why it happened so quickly. It was crazy. I forgot to write. Forgive me. So have a good mission. There’s someone out there for you. I’d write more but I have to feed Lizzy. She’s been fussy lately. I think she has a rash.
That night Brigham quietly weeps into his pillow.
An excerpt: Elder Kimball, next week I’m sending a new missionary your way, an Elder Casper from Vernon, Utah, fresh from the Missionary Training Center. I’ll expect you to train him well. Teach him to preach the gospel with boldness. Teach him Spanish. With increased responsibility come greater blessings.
Looking over your last letter to me, I see you’re contemplating a major in pre-law when you return to BYU. As an attorney, I advise against it. As you see, I’m as big as a house. It came upon me suddenly in my early thirties. Too much sitting in courtrooms and conference rooms, too many lunches at Essex House and Jean Georges, all those billing hours to make partner. I let myself go. I can’t even buy pants off the rack anymore. My knees are shot. If I could go back, I’d be a logger or a fisherman or a gentleman farmer. I’d have learned how to cobble shoes. Law is death, Elder! Death and pain and loneliness. I’m a tender soul and they think I’m a monster. Find success serving the Lord, Elder. That’s the secret.
Elders Kimball and Casper hike wooded hills, wade sewage-choked streams, knock doors. They smile. They push pamphlets and Books of Mormon on the unbelieving. They pray for the poor and needy. They implore inactive members to return to church.
One day, a little boy stops them. He’s digging in a trash heap. His fingers and cheeks are stained black, and he wears an extra-large T-shirt with Don’t Piss Me Off, Butt-Munch printed across the chest.
(Conversation with boy translated from Spanish.)
The boy points to Brigham’s black nametag. “That’s my name, too.”
“Your name?” Brigham is baffled. He feels he’s missed something.
“Elder,” the boy says. He smiles. Strangely, his teeth are white and straight. “Elder’s my first name.”
Brigham laughs and drops to one knee in front of the boy. “Elder? And where did you get a name like that?”
The boy stares at his grubby bare feet, suddenly shy. “My mommy said it was my daddy’s first name, just like yours. You and my daddy have the same name. Do you know where he is? I never met him.”
Elder Casper grins dumbly as he fumbles through a pocket-sized English/Spanish dictionary. “What’s he saying? I caught about a third of it. His father. Is his father interested in hearing our lessons?”
“Let’s get out of here,” Brigham says.
Don’t drink the water, don’t pet the dogs, don’t ride horses, don’t eat the dried fish, never share a bed with your companion, don’t believe any girl who confesses her love for you—and, keep your pecker in the birdhouse.
Brigham appears at the end of the jet way. His suit is in tatters. He has jock itch and an intestinal parasite. He has about him the smell of the jungle. The camera flashes blind him. He sprints through a paper banner that reads Well done, good and faithful servant. All weep.
Ryan Shoemaker’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Silk Road Review, Santa Monica Review, and Grist: The Journal for Writers, among others. A practicing Mormon, Ryan lives in Burbank, California with his wife and two children.