Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2
In the first year of his mission, Bernie Kendall wore out the soles of his size-twelve double-E black shoes to nails on Ecuador's streets. A zapatero in Machala whistled and said "Que grandote" when he saw Bernie's feet, charged more than his usual two-hundred sucres to stitch the uppers to truck tire because he bent his best awl trying to get through that ten-ply. But the material would last forever, he promised, running a thumb along the tread-even considering Bernie's size. Bernie didn't care about forever and told the guy he just wanted something to make it through the second year, until he got home to Pingree, Idaho, his mom's roast beef, and girls.
"Yes!" said Clair Elroy. "There's no better combination in the whole mundo, man." Clair Elroy was Bernie's companion in Language School, came down in the same group. He was from Pocatello. "One year's nothing," he said. "It's cake."
Only guys like Clair Elroy could count their calendar pages and make two years sound like less than two years. He always knew of a reason the next month would go by faster than all the rest and saluted every time a Braniff roared into the clouds. First thing in Language School, he told Bernie they ought to get together when they got home. "Pingree's just up the road from me, Kendall," he said. "That ISU campus is thick with babes waiting for guys like me and you. And Ricks College has dances every weekend."
A year later, a year into his mission, Bernie remembered saying it would be a long time before he danced again, before he got back to his Dodge Coronet and helping Uncle Dewart frame houses.
And Clair Elroy said, "You won't even know you've been gone."
Bernie liked listening to Clair Elroy. It was as if his words alone could recalculate time, speed it up, somehow make it possible to go and do a mission and come home without ever leaving. -Two years really isn't that much, said Spanish teachers, culture specialists, the mission president and his wife. just a fleeting moment compared to eternity, but one to serve as a foundation for the rest of your life. So make the most of these two years. Two years away from the distractions of work, college, dances-just pure dedication to the work.
"Arm's length," his mother said, smiling through tears on the day he was officially ordained, when his Uncle Dewart and the bishop and a couple of other church regulars shook his hand. "Two whole years for the Lord," she said, almost silly with happiness, her oldest son setting the example. "Your father would have been so proud of you." She kissed his cheek and dabbed her eyes with a wadded handkerchief.
"God will reserve one of his sweetest daughters just for you," she whispered, "if you'll sacrifice your heart for the twinkling of an eye."
That's the name of the game, Bernie thought. He was half finished, sacrifice on the downhill side. If his mom or anybody else cared to ask, though, the twinkling lasted a little longer than people let on.
" just one more," he said, holding up a finger to the zapatero. A couple of greenolie missionaries looked at him, at that one finger. What would they give to be half done? Cars, savings accounts, stereos, record collections, peanut butter, Dr. Pepper, boxes of American candy bars, maybe even girlfriends. Anything they had. Bernie loved that look-envy, despair, almost reverence for anybody with shorter time than theirs.
And who could blame them? Being brand new in Ecuador was harder than anything he ever went through in Pingree. He remembered feeling fogged out and lost, tagging behind senior companions walking deeper and deeper into mazes of cane shacks or windowless brick apartment buildings. He'd never forget the haze and smoke and mongrel dogs everywhere, reallife Spanish sounding like slurred gibberish, puddles of nasty green water smooth as poison in every low spot. Clair Elroy said hell was a toss-up between July parking lot jobs for Bannock County Asphalt and that first week in Ecuador.
You could always tell missionaries fresh from Language School-shoes shiny, with full heels, unfrayed ties, unfaded shirts and undergarments, unbelieving faces when they walked by the cripples and blind people begging all along Nueve de Octubre, when they saw men in business suits stopping to urinate on a downtown wall.
Not a half hour into the country Bernie was just as amazed when he figured out there wasn't any leash law. He scraped his foot again and again on the sidewalk in front of the airport and tried to laugh with the others. "What a dang kennel," he said, trying to count the dogs slinking around vendors' wagons.
"You got you some stompers, fella," Clair Elroy told him. "Which could be a wee bit of a trial and tribulation since there doesn't appear to be a leash law in this part of the vineyard."
And then you settled into trying to stay busy. Culture class never mentioned getting called over to a sidewalk cantina table, thinking this was a big chance, pumping up to talk salvation to two or three gastados swilling beer. They loved to get you close, blast weedkiller breath right in your face, touch your shoulder with moist hands and cry about somebody dead or their nag mujer or tell you to eat verga, Yankee fag spy. And all the time that crazy hardluck jukebox music plinked so loud you had to yell just to tell those losers so long.
Most missionaries wised up fast, got used to Ecuador. But they never wrote the whole story in their letters. So how could anybody at home, in all the talk about mission blessings, ever get very exact about what you had to go through down here? They just knew you had to go through two years of it, whatever it was, just to be a good catch, a fine young man with your head on straight.
Bernie teased new guys about never going home, forgetting the taste of good hamburgers and root beer, Ritz crackers, about getting used to itchy crepe toilet paper. And after they showed him yearbook pictures of their girlfriends, Bernie said "Pretty nice," let the compliment settle in, then, "She'll never last." Over and over, guys told him to shut up, got almost mad.
"Who're you, Kendall?" they asked. "Who're you to mouth off about girls waiting?" Everybody knew he didn't have a girl at home, no pictures by his bed, only a rare letter when Young Adult Fellowship drew names and spent their Wednesday evening devotionals supporting the work in distant lands. "Why bother?" Bernie always said. "They just write you off anyway."
Nobody liked to hear it, but it was true. From the start Bernie decided if he was going to do a mission, he was going to do it without sweating mail day every week-praying for a letter or a cassette, praying that a Pam or Cindy or Naleen was still hanging tough. No way, thought Bernie. No way. The guys at home, the ones back from their missions talking up the blessings, skipping anything people didn't want to hear-they had the big advantage.
Bernie remembered watching them. Before the mission, he went to Sunday firesides, dances, and retreats, stood around with a cup of punch and napkin full of cookies, like everybody else. Going for the wholesome uplift-and for the girls. When a missionary came home, he was big stuff. Super-star spiritual, Mr. Hero to youth. He talked in church, told endless mission stories, got invited to show his slides of Japan or Germany, Guatemala, Zimbabwe, even some stateside soft-duty like Boston, Albuquerque, Tempe, Arizona, Peoria, Illinois.
Everybody had lots of slides and stories. To Bernie, they all sounded the same. It was so great. I grew so much. He watched girls offer to click the projector, watched them hang close all evening, run for more punch when the guy's Styrofoam cup ran dry, stay around to clean up a few crumbs, a stray paper plate.
Oo, I bet it was exciting down there. And scary. Gol. Were the people really, really poor. Were they receptive?
Just fabulous, excellent, unbelievably wondrous and special-choice, awesome, intense, tremendously tremendous.
I'm so jealous. Did it go by too fast?
Like the twinkling in your eye.
Any answer would do. Then they'd say, Super, That's just super. A few of the cuter ones would congregate after Bernie gave his report in Sunday service, eager to meet him, shake his hand-high school girls when he left, all filled out now, treating him like hot news. Did you hear? Bernie Kendall is home from Ecuador.
It could happen. Bernie remembered the homecoming of a short noname guy, almost bald after his time in the Nevada mission-real exotic trip getting there from Idaho, no food or humidity stories to tell. But still a few girls circled him after the service, happy and swaying in their dresses and bows, clutching quiltcovered scriptures to their sweet little bosoms. They giggled at anything he said, made out like Reno was halfway around the world.
Two years, even two long ones, for that kind of charm, vibes, magic. Not a bad deal. And his mom would be in heaven. She wanted him to go so bad, wanted to stand at the pulpit on Sunday morning and give updates on her missionary son, like other mothers. "A mission will bless your life," she always said. "A girl would be foolish to overlook a nice returned missionary, what with all the kooks in the world."
One year down and nobody chasing him yet, but Bernie had three letters from different girls, all on flower stationery. For somebody without a girlfriend, three wasn't so bad. Not that they said anything. How are you? Are the mosquitos bad? Sure miss you in Young Adults. They all wrote big and loopy, took pains to close with Yours Truly or Love Ya, something harmless, cheerful, but something to keep in mind. The one named Gayla dotted her i's and j's with stars, spent two pages of purple stationery saying she really didn't know what else to write. She said she knew Bernie must be growing and progressing in ways she didn't even understand.
Girls at home were so far away. Clair Elroy said they might as well live on the moon. At least these Latinas lived in Ecuador, part of the real story, not trying to act interested from ten thousand miles in something they didn't understand. And after a few months, they started looking pretty good, too. Bernie warned the greenolies-no matter how big the bedside picture of the girlfriend, the image faded.
Nobody believed him, though, when they saw the ones in El Guasmo with bad teeth, or fullback milkers not a bit shy about unhaltering a giant bazooka in the middle of a gospel charla. New guys saw things like this, went back to the pension after work and wrote the girls in bedside pictures about how they were still adjusting to Ecuador. Only after a month or so did they start to see the chicas in high heels, thin blouses, no damage yet from straight rice. I hope you're adjusted by now, wrote the girls from home. I bet it's a challenge.
But rewarding. That's what Bernie's mom said in every letter. She only is tried to sound the way she thought she should. She didn't know any different. Bernie's dad was in the army when she married him. The stories Bernie remembered were army stories. He wondered if girls circled around to hear those.
A The zapatero in Machala knew his stuff. That truck rubber never showed a sign of wear over some bad terrain in half a dozen barrios. After seven months, it still had tread. While Bernie was in El Salado, his last sector assignment, a street crew with shovels and rakes filled all the puddle sinks with crushed brown shale sharp enough to bruise a foot. His companion for the last three months, a guy named Virlinger from Pleasant Grove, Utah, always complained of sore feet, said the Lord would have to bless his arches if he was going to be doing so much walking. And he said he never adapted well to new climates or diets. He said even the memory of camping trips back home, the smell of Coleman fuel and hotdogs, made him sick to his stomach any time he thought about them.
"I especially don't like rice," he said after their first lunch, "And I've never favored bananas."
Bernie pitied him right off, hated to see him mince those nice Florsheirns on the street. He knew the type-socks and undergarments embroidered with initials, meaningless to the laundry lady-days scheduled to the quarter hour on lists taped to the wall by their pillow-journal, scriptures, hymnbook, Missionary Guide, all personalized, full middle name included, inscribed in gold letters-Garth LeGrand Virlinger, Garth LeGrand Virlinger, a big silver GLV monogram on every piece of luggage, everything metalEagle Scout, club and scholarship person in high school, piano player. Virlinger had paperback books on how to be successful, a leather-bound Franklin day planner and nice pen and pencil set from last Christmas, watches and alarm clocks. He was the only guy in Ecuador who kept files.
Guys like Virlinger did better in a world with air conditioning, vitamin pills, mint floss, eight hours of sleep, lots of corn starch baby powder, green vegetables, Lysol. There were no roaches crunching under your feet in Pleasant Grove, scattering every time a light went on, perching on pop bottle and toilet rims, shower heads, the least crumb or rind.
On his first night in the Salado pension, Virlinger came from the four-by-four bathroom, eyes wide, his mouth foamed with toothpaste. "There's something in the sink," he mumbled. Rust flakes, sludge, pebbles, moss? Bernie saw it all in his first week.
"Don't swallow it," he told Virlinger. "You'll be all right."
Virlinger shook his head. "It's not the water," he mumbled, foam dribbling. "It's a roach."
Bernie took a thong from beside his cot, stepped into the bathroom and slapped hard inside the sink. He mopped up with a crumpled pamphlet, opened the spigot to splash away the stain.
"Gosh, that's sickening," said Virlinger.
"You said it."
Virlinger was even more wide-eyed than most new guys. He didn't know to keep walking when kids ran up to him in the street and blabbed out their primer English. What time is your mother? Hey, mister! Hey, you, son of a beetch! He stood watching their smart-aleck faces, as if trying to remember a chapter or lesson on being laughed at. Same serious squint when carne vendors passed, hoofs and tongues, udders and other organs hanging from their yokes. No picture of anything like that in the culture book. No chapter on chicken claws floating in your soup.
"People eat that sort of stuff?" Virlinger asked.
"You bet your sweet sabroso," said Bernie. "Staple as my Uncle Dewart's fried potatoes."
Virlinger stared. He stared at everything.
"You've never seen that?" Bernie asked, walking past the lottery-ticket Indian ladies outside the post office. They fed open-barrel with half of Guayaquil watching.
"Never." Virlinger's face blanched.
"Not your mom or aunt or a lucky peek at somebody?"
"I'm the youngest."
"We'll walk by here every week," Bernie said. "Get you used to it."
Virlinger didn't hear him, didn't comprender if he did. "To think they're all God's children," he whispered to himself, "and they all need the gospel."
"Pretty amazing, isn't it?"
Virlinger, like most new guys Bernie knew, had to learn the hard way about God's children. They weren't all lining up to hear the good word.
Knocking doors down a freshly-graveled side street off Portete, Virlinger's sixth afternoon in the country, they heard a downshift whine and backfire and turned to see a taxista taking a shortcut over to Gomez Rendon. The gravel had hardly settled, but the guy never eased off his gas pedal for a second, never hinted of slowing down. He dodged the worst spots with hard leans on the steering wheel, rocks pinging like buckshot against his driveline.
"Man alive," said Virlinger.
People up and down the row of huts heard the engine and came to their windows, turned from their conversations. Barefoot kids stopped playing.
Suddenly the rattling stopped with a jolt and puff of dust.
"They drive crazy down here," said Virlinger.
A car door creaked open. The Datsun lurched like an overloaded boat, and then the shirtless driver was out kicking his front tire, yelling "Ay, dios santisimo! Dios santisimo!" He was big for an Ecuadorian, and the car shuddered with every swing of his foot, When the dust cleared, Bernie saw the rock, big as a soccerball, the tire rubber mashed and twisted, two wobbly scratches where the rim gouged along twenty or thirty feet.
When the taxista tired of kicking the Datsun, he slugged its hood several times. His hair came completely ungreased, and he kept running his fingers through it, trying to get the strands out of his eyes. "Ay, Santa Maria." he moaned.
People began to move. "Let's go," said Bernie.
"Maybe we can help," said Virlinger in his Eagle Scout voice.
"No we can't. Come on."
But Virlinger didn't move. He started at the big Ecuadorian. Slowly the guy looked up from where he leaned, arms outspread on the hood of the Datsun. He surveyed the whole street, up and down one side, up and down the other, and focused finally on Virlinger.
"Que me mire, gringo americano?" he yelled, stepping around in front of the bumper, a few steps closer to Virlinger.
Virlinger smiled, didn't have a clue what the taxista said. "Hola. Co-mo esta? Soy misionero."
Bernie grabbed one of his skinny arms. "Come on, Virlinger. The guy's pissed." Probably the same driver who hunted them after a rain, sliced through the gutter at forty-five miles an hour trying to muddy their ties and white shirts.
Virlinger pulled away. "We have to help people." He walked into the street, smiling, fishing for a pamphlet.
The big Ecuadorian sized up his audience from Portete to Gomez Rendom, everybody interested again. He stepped away from the car. "Que te pasa, mormon infeliz?"
Ten feet apart, then five. Virlinger held out the pamphlet. His hand shook. "Somos misioneros de la iglesia-"
Up and down the street people gasped when the taxista hawked and spat.
"Virlinger!" said Bernie. "Get away from there!"
When Virlinger pulled a brand new embroidered handkerchief from his pocket, the pamphlet fell to the ground. He wiped mucous from his hand, wiped again, staring open-mouthed at the man across from him.
"Ven aca," said the driver, grabbing his own crotch. "Tienes juevos, maricon rubia?"
Bernie took a step. "Get over here, Virlinger."
Virlinger backed up, stumbled on crushed brown shale. He looked like he wanted to cry. The driver toed gravel hard, sent dust and pebbles showering at Virlinger's feet.
Bernie dropped his books. Most Latino jerks didn't come this cocky. "Ya basta!" he yelled. He walked straight up to the taxista, a half head taller than the guy, pointed to Virlinger. "No le molesta. Me entiende?"
They stood face to face. The taxista ran both hands through his hair, studied Bernie's forearms, shoulders, worn belt, paused at the ten-ply soles, finally looked at Virlinger massaging his ankle.
"Dile que se cuide," whispered the taxista, "cuando ustedes caminan por la calle." He patted the Datsun's hood. "Yo no sé manejar muy bien."
"Hay que aprender," said Bernie.
With one big hand, the taxista blew his nose into a red mechanic's rag, never looked away. Then, breathing deeper and deeper, he leaned toward Bernie, flared his nostrils and eyes wider and wider, gritted his teeth, lots of cheap fillings flashing.
Bernie couldn't dodge the odor, the guy oily all over from shuttling people around Guayaquil's bad barrios, Pilsner gargler if he ever smelled one. His own white shirt and undergarment were soaked, pants chafing his thighs. And it was strangely quiet-not a dog or burro anywhere close, no tinny jukebox music chipping away at the afternoon. He heard once in a while of missionaries getting beat up, sliced with a broken bottle, rocks thrown at them, balloons full of sewer water.
Suddenly the taxista blinked hard, stomped his foot and growled. Only when Bernie flinched and accidentally touched the guy's arm, only when he expected the next move to be a swing or punch, somebody going for somebody's legs-only then did he hear the guy chuckle, louder every time he inhaled, like a motor gaining steam.
"Hay que aprender!" the taxista yelled, swallowing his laughs, belly heaving. "Bueno, gringo grandote. Que bueno." He threw back his head and laughed so loud the whole street relaxed. He enjoyed the audience, swept his eyes over everybody in front of their huts, shouted his next question to them.
"Qué me responde el gringo jefe, el gringo soldado de dios, el gringo buena gente?
"Hay que aprender!" they yelled.
"Asi!" The taxista turned waited as the street again grew quiet. Then he patted Bernie's shoulder, bowed, gestured as if introducing him to a place like El Salado for the very first time. "El hombre de La Palabra. Salva el mundo!"
People in front of their bamboo buts, ladies with mercado baskets, even kids laughed. They all laughed.
Bernie turned, gathered his things, the pamphlet.
"What did he say?" asked Virlinger. He already had his Florsheim off initialed sock bunched inside, rubbed his ankle with careful fingertips.
Bernie dropped the pamphlet next to the shoe. "He said to watch your step from now on."
"I certainly will," said Virlinger, wincing. "That hermano wasn't too receptive, was he?"
"Don't fill the font just yet."
People on the street started moving again, the driver still chuckling. He flung open the trunk, found the jack, lug wrench, spare. "Salva el mundo!" he yelled after Bernie. "Salva el mundo!"
"What's he saying now?" asked Virlinger, holding his sock in front of his face, squinting to make sure it was right-side-out.
"He's saying this sure is a peach of a way to spend a couple of years in the prime of your life."
Without even a pause to think it over, Virlinger said, "We'll be blessed for it." He finally got to his shoe. "The Lord won't forget this stuff."
Bernie thought of the homecoming firesides, the girls with bows and quilt-covered scriptures. Virlinger could hold them in a circle for hours and hours. He'd make getting spit on sound like a highlight, a real faith-builder.
Even if he turned all the nasty stuff into highlights, Bernie would never have quite as many stories and slides as Virlinger. In twenty-one months he never turned an ankle, never wore a cast or wrap, didn't bring a first-aid kit in his duffel bag. He never hobbled around making people ask what his problem was. Not once was he really very sick. Except for a gamma globulin shot every three months, he didn't need regular medicine of any kind. With the truck tread, his feed did sweat more, and he got fungus bad for a while. But now he powdered every morning and blotted iodine between his toes, and the itch was fading. He missed all the popular mediocre bad stuff to make you sound worthy and dedicated. Nothing ever got to him.
But he couldn't complain. The last thing he wanted was to go home with a disease or virus nobody in the States had a cure for. He'd heard of a missionary, sickly like Virlinger, who got home with a worm no prescription could kill-ended up losing a third of his stomach. There were other stories, too-guys with colitis, dysentery, incurable ringworm, migraines, and one with some hernia thing a doctor in Jipijapa wanted to cut into right there in his barn of a hospital. The missionary had surgery in Los Angeles the next night, finished his two years in Spanish-speaking San Antonio. Probably had three or four kids by now.
When Virlinger heard the story, he said you couldn't neglect your health and expect the Lord to watch over you. It wasn't long before he lectured whenever Bernie bought Pepsi from a montuvio who ladled from a wooden tub into plastic bags.
Even before Virlinger spotted sawdust all over the block ice, he turned down Bernie's offer to buy.
"Who knows what's in that stuff?" Virlinger said.
"They do look sort of like bladders."
"You're sick, Kendall. What good are you to the Lord if you're in bed with bugs or worms?"
The Pepsi was just a start. Bernie hiked through Salado cobble day after day, drank people's Yupi Kool Aid stuff or liquid cherry Jello when he knew they never boiled their water. "Just ask them to," the mission president's wife said in her health seminars. "Your well-being is at stake." She never had to drink Yupi. And you'd never catch her eating hot fried banana chips fresh from a vendor's open-air oil vat, boiled eggs and popcorn, the sorriest hotdogs in the world. Bernie even gagged down a pork sandwich he was sure would give him trichinosis. He watched those sandwich makers slicing from the same roast morning to night, out in the sun, more flies, like seasoning all over the meat, specking the panes of the glass case. But still he couldn't say no to the hermana when she offered him a sandwich. You couldn't say no. It really tasted pretty good, but Virlinger took a few nibbles and started to look sicker than usual, had to say no gracias in his brand new Spanish.
Yet it was this sort of thing, this exactly, that Virlinger could turn into a big spiritual plus, something people at home loved to read about-with the story doctored in the right way. Virlinger suffered from diarrhea his first three weeks in Salado, but he told his mom such things built your faith. She sent Kaopectate tablets in every letter and promised the whole family prayed for him daily.
Early in the mission Bernie's own specimen, sealed in a film canister, tested positive for intestinal parasites. He remembered sitting on the rimless toilet in his pension until his thighs went numb, bowels like a faucet, stomach knotted. He took big pills twice a day, bought half a dozen rolls of toilet paper and two cans of Pino Fresco air perfume for the bathroom. And not one word to anybody about how it built his faith. He could have played it up, could have shown a lot of spiritual progress with that one. But how could you expect a girl or mother ten thousand miles away to really get it? Diarrhea was diarrhea, something to get over, live through, like regular sunburn, toe blisters, sand chiggers, crotch-rot fungus.
Virlinger wanted all his sickliness to sound like dedication, fortitude. On their weekly rec-day, when missionaries from different sectors got together to play football, Virlinger sat in the shade with all his recent letters and a pad of airmail stationery. Guys asked him to join the game, teased him about his pale legs in shorts. But he said no thanks, said he was behind on his letter writing, needed to stay in touch with his home bishop, old Sunday school teachers, young cousins still debating a mission. He wrote more letters than anybody Bernie knew, used every spare moment to strengthen somebody's faith by talking about his own. At their eating pension he looked pale during the whole meal, about to choke on every bite of rice or beans, finally gave up and took out his airmail pad and monogrammed pen while Bernie ate another bowl or plateful.
Finally Bernie had to ask. All those letters couldn't go to family friends. He said everything he had to say to his mom every other week-in one page, sent Uncle Dewart and Aunt Lenore an aerogram on holidays, mostly thanking them for the smoked almonds and licorice they sent the holiday before. And he didn't worry too much about answering the bishop's Xeroxed letters To Our Missionaries in the Field. He spent a while answering those three girls, tried to come across as a real fine, dedicated missionary. But the writing was nothing to miss a meal over.
"You got a woman?" Bernie asked one afternoon during siesta. He loosened his tie, looped it with others around a bedpost, kicked off his tenply shoes. He and Virlinger were going on four weeks as companions. The letters with Pleasant Grove postmarks and stick-on heart seals came two or three at a time, every mail day-but still no picture by the bed.
','Sort of, I guess you could say." Virlinger turned on his cot like he desperately needed a nap. He never talked about her, stuck to the rule in the Missionary Guide about stuff like that. No frivolity, jocularity, irreverence, lightmindedness, or levity of any kind. Keep the discussion about home and trivialities, especially girls, to a polite minimum. And you didn't have to worry about rough-housing or horseplay with a guy like Virlinger.
"Is that who you're writing all the time?"
"I don't write her all the time."
"Baloney." Bernie sank down on his foam-rubber mattress. "Every spare minute you're spilling your guts to somebody."
Virlinger covered an ear with his pillow. "I'm not spilling my guts to anybody."
"What would you call it? What do you say to the girl page after page? I've been down here a long time, and there just isn't that much to say to people back home."
Virlinger didn't answer.
"Do you tell her you love her? Ask her to wait, hang in there?"
He didn't answer.
Bernie tried to imagine Virlinger and a girl doing anything besides quoting scriptures to each other.
"Do you tell her you want her body?"
Virlinger rolled from beneath his pillow, hair mussed into his eyes, nose flushed where his glasses usually rested.
"Would you shut up," he said. "I can't even believe you said that."
"Just trying to get to know the real Garth LeGrand Virlinger."
"Well, keep my private life out of it."
The afternoon heat was dense in the pension. Only Virlinger's fan, mounted on a brick and stack of books, stirred the air at all.
"Is she cute?"
"Oh my heck!" said Virlinger. "We're just close friends. That's all. just buddies."
"I've heard that before. Why won't people level with you about this stuff? She's a good buddy. Everybody says that. What a crock. That's why you drool every mail day? She's just a buddy?"
Virlinger tried to say something fast, coughed instead, coughed in a hard spasm, then couldn't seem to swallow. He shook his head and sank back on his mattress as if props had been kicked out from under him. Still, he didn't make much of a dent in the foam rubber. His piano fingers combed hair out of his eyes.
"I don't drool," he whispered. "She happens to write a very uplifting letter. "
Bernie fanned himself with a pamphlet.
"I've known her since junior high. About the only girl who ever paid any attention to me. And she was fun to be around."
Virlinger stared past the rope stretched between an eyebolt in one wall and a thief-proof window grate, past the draped towels, rec-day shorts, tee shirts, suitcoats worn on Sundays and special occasions only. He stared into the far high corners shadowed with webs and dust. And if staring, just staring, at the ceiling of a pension during a hot siesta in Ecuador could take somebody back to Pleasant Grove, Virlinger would have been there in an instant.
After a while Bernie said, "What's she look like?
Virlinger shrugged, got his wallet from a chair and slipped a picture from its plastic sleeve. He stared for a second, then handed the picture to Bernie.
"Hmm." One look and Bernie knew she crotcheted doilies, sewed her own dresses, kept a hope chest stocked, baked zucchini bread. Across from him Virlinger sat like he did when his stomach hurt.
"You going to marry her?"
"If it works out."
"You better marry her," said Bernie. "You two will be good for each other." He gave the picture back. "If you're not all wasted away."
"You better eat more, then, She'll want a little meat on you. Something to hang onto if she gets the hots when she ses you walk off that airplane."
The fan hummed, clicked like a ratchet every time it began a new sweep. And finally-finally Virlinger smiled, shook his head and smiled again. As if he could picture such a thing in an airport, as if the vision embarrassed and fascinated him at the same time.
"Her name's Melodie. That picture isn't the best."
"Sure it is." Bernie flipped his pillow to the cool side. "You two will sure enough look good together."
Very good. A perfect fit. A sweet daughter of God.
"What about you?" asked Virlinger, eyes closed, innocent, no idea Bernie asked himself the same question a thousand times a day. "You got a girlfriend?"
"All girls are my friends."
"You're asking about serious?"
"You seem like you want it."
"Guess again," said Bernie. "Maybe you want to be signed off-not me."
Serious. Seriously serious. Love ya. Sure miss ya. Young Adult Fellowship girls with flower stationery drew names, wrote that to any missionary, checked the map in the church foyer to make sure they weren't mixing him up with the colored pin stuck in Bolivia or Argentina, connected with a matching tint of yarn to a picture and address. Only one girl on earth would care anything at all about Garth LeGrand Virlinger, anything for just him, his queasy stomach, pimpled face, eyes blind as a bat without those glasses. But he found her. He found Melodie.
And what did it matter if his letters didn't talk about the corner idiots who yelled mormon maricon! mormon maricon! every afternoon and night, in every missionary sector in Ecuador? So what if there wasn't a word about braless girls in paper-thin blouses leaning out of windows, hissing, arching their backs, fingering their hair-sexier than anybody ever told you. Latinas right here, not a million miles away, mashing into them on rush-hour colectivos, asking all the time if missionaries could dance or go out, stroking their eyes up and down conservative polyester-blend American slacks? Nothing about smoke from grilled tripe curbside, the sickly ripeness of the mercado, open sewers in El Cisne. Nothing about barrios crammed with people who didn't want to convert to anything except color TV.
What did it matter? As long as what Virlinger did say was something Melodic could understand. Through adversity we grow, hard but worthwhile. Something she could believe with all her heart.
On his next to the last night in Ecuador, the last ever in Salado, Bernie picked his way between swaths of garbage in the same lot they crossed every day and night for three months. With the truck tread he never worried about Cristal flasks crunching underneath sour peelings and husks, cans, bottles, smoldering ashes, wax paper and Baggies from the street refreshments Virlinger had nightmares about-pickled yucca, peppers, fresh mango and papaya strips, parched hominy, runty spare ribs, and a trail-fry hash Clair Elroy swore they laced with dog meat.
Like all the other nights, while Virlinger leaned against a crumbling cinder block wall to catch his breath, Bernie rocked bottles and hoped the rats would come out. Sometimes he coaxed a throwing contest with Virlinger. He really wanted the rats to come out on his next to the last night in Ecuador.
Virlinger sat limp on a cinder block, wiped his arms with a handkerchief. Bernie toed the neck of a Pilsner bottle upright, backed away to aim, then stopped. Everything about this place seemed distant from the streets and apartment buildings, different. At one end of the lot, green water dribbled night and day from a drain pipe, sounded clear and weirdly soothing, always reminded him of Aunt Lenore's little sewing-room aquarium, him bubbling quietly and easy enough to lull you asleep even when you weren't a tired. And somewhere in the weeds at the other end of the cinder block wall, a pig worked the mercado's rotten melons, always dumped in the same spot. him, Best to stay upwind of places like that.
And suddenly, as if on schedule, the rats came from nowhere, every where, covered the garbage up and down the swaths.
"Now those are genuine rodents," Virlinger whispered.
Bernie gathered rocks, cement chunks, broken bricks. "You get first shot," he said.
I don't want first shot." Virlinger folded the handkerchief, dabbed his upper lip and brow. I don't want any shot."
"Come on." Bernie held out a rock. "Just take one-for me. And don't scare them with any quick movements."
Virlinger looked at him, at the rock. Finally he took it in his thin fingers and stood, fought off a head-rush just to balance his books on a cinder block.
"I don't know about this."
"You say that every time."
Virlinger took as deep a breath as he could, teetered just a bit, then lobbed the rock into a cluster of rats and watched them scatter.
"Oh, nice show," said Bernie. "That's really putting your heart into it."
"What've you got against rats?"
Bernie "Everything. You got to throw like you mean business."
crossed Bernie crammed rocks in his pockets and climbed on top of the garbage, pitched several times with all his might, trotted ahead, stumbling, sinking, then threw again-so hard he knew Virlinger heard the slight zip of his rock Like always, though, the rats seemed to melt, between blinks, into Salado's trash.
Except for one, busy with a bone pile from the pollo dorado place up the street. Standing still under the moon spilling down, Bernie saw the rat's tail slide over a mackerel can, heard the tin's faint rustle.
"You see one?" asked Virlinger.
One last rock. Two steps and he'd fire, drill the rodent right in the middle of supper. He cocked his arm and tiptoed. Virlinger never threw with any muscle, never even tried.
The rat nosed a pollo dorado bone, glued to his spot.
At ten feet, Bernie brought the rock straight back above his shoulder and stepped with his right foot into a little depression, a shadow, something mushy, maybe bananas too ripe to sell, slick like dog crap-stepped with all his weight on one size twelve double-E shoe, stepped, tripped, and broke into a cavity. Something scratched his calf and shin like broken lath, scratched until the pant leg bunched at the knee and stopped sliding. In that instant on the garbage pile, he felt the truck tread bow and knew even before the sting that he was onto a pretty good nail.
"Darn it," he said, tossing the rock aside. "Darn it, darn it, darn it-damn it!"
"What's wrong?" asked Virlinger, staring hard toward the mackerel can. "Did you get it?"
"Nothing," said Bernie. "Nothing's wrong." He lifted his foot, felt the truck rubber flex the other way. Just a little poke, nothing like goofing off with Uncle Dewart's nailgun-latex-coated number eight hair-triggered between two big toes on this same foot, its point just catching some skin. A terrible feelinghelpless, ashamed, unable to budge his sole from the plywood, a drop of blood oozing up around the nailhead. The first time Uncle Dewart let him do roof chalklines with a gun, and Bernie had to yell down for a crowbar, his foot heavy and numb inside a brand new boot.
"What the hell?" Uncle Dewart kept saying. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"Something happen to you?" Virlinger asked, stepping closer, shivering in an eighty-degree night breeze.
"Nothing. I'm okay." Bernie kicked the mackerel can hard, sent up a belch of dust and fresh rot, made Virlinger cough until he gagged.
"Geez," said Virlinger, mopping his mouth again. "It always surprises me how bad this place smells."
When they stopped at a corner tienda for a pop, Bernie leaned against the chest freezer to pull off his sock. He couldn't find a hole in the cloth and only a red-blue dot in his foot. The air made his toes itch.
Virlinger sipped his Buzz lemon-lime, turned from trying not to look at the calendar girls on the wall.
"Hey! Hey, are you hurt?" He knelt down fast, set his bottle on the floor, hitched up his glasses and studied the puncture mark. "I knew you were le hurt back there," he said, craning his neck, squinting through heavy lenses.
"I knew it."
Bernie hopped for balance, pressed a cold Pepsi bottle to his foot. "No biggie. I've seen a lot worse than this."
Virlinger shook his head, stood as if his night had new purpose. "You better do something about that, Kendall. Lockjaw freezes your muscles and joints, the whole body, stiff as a plank. I heard of it happening to a guy over in American Fork. Like rigor mortis before you're actually dead."
Virlinger lowered his voice. "And I hate to say this, but I've heard it can affect a man's ability to sire children." He spoke in a whisper, barely mouthed the words. "Make you sterile."
Bernie hurried to roll the sock back on. "What's the odds, Virlinger? One in a thousand? One in a million?" Under the tienda's single bulb his foot seemed big, even to him. "Where in hell's bells do you hear this stuff?"
"I hate to see you take that chance," said Virlinger, managing another the weak pull on his lemon-lime, piano fingers wrapped around the bottle. "You ought to get you an injection before you go home."
"Don't worry about it." Bernie tipped his Pepsi straight up and chugged until the last strands of foam slid into his mouth, until his eyes watered and a burp burned his throat.
"I'd hate to see anything happen to you," said Virlinger, skinny, stooped, yell pale, sickly. He got quiet, awkward, smiled at the tienda owner. The light glinted off his glasses. "I mean, I'd really feel bad."
There was no way to react to something like this, somebody like Virlinger. You could only stand there, trying to smile back, wishing you could feel what he felt, but not knowing what exactly that was. Joy, peace, bliss, contentment? Happiness by the book? Saying all the right things, acting all the right ways, feeling all the right feelings? Or just happiness? Virlinger's own brand. Which did a mother feel, crying over her boy in a new missionary suit, clutching her Kleenex into fodder?
You choked your way out of the bind, said something stupid, easy, something you'd read or heard others say. Me too, thanks so much. Maybe you hugged or shook hands, anything to break that spell. But at this moment with Virlinger, nothing came to him, nothing worked. Nothing would've said what Bernie really wanted to say.
Later, back in the pension, Bernie kneaded his suitcase full, sat on it and thumbed a latch under each thigh.
From his bed, Virlinger reached to uncoil his mosquito net from the clothesline, let it drape down around him, tucked the hem under his mattress.
"Tomorrow's nothing but going-home paperwork," he said. "A night in an air-conditioned motel room, hot water and tourist food, then you're out of here."
"You'll be married before you know it," said Virlinger.
"Not this kid. I've got some living to do. There are more girls on one dorm floor at Ricks College than all Pleasant Grove put together."
Virlinger didn't hear, talked far away like he always did. "There's somebody out there just for you. I feel confident of that." He pivoted on his knees, searching the mosquito net for holes, same ritual he went through every night. Still, he'd sprawl in his sleep, knees jutted against the net's fabric, wake up with splotches of fresh bites.
Bernie thought about girls and how they were out there, up there, over there-always somewhere else. The last letter his mom wrote included half a page about the nice young ladies attending Young Adult Fellowship. She said any one of them would be lovely company, said a couple of them paid pretty close attention when she happened to mention her son coming home from his mission in Ecuador. That was it, the big ticket. Clair Elroy knew it all along. "Whip a little como estd on them," he always said. "They'll freak."
Virlinger settled onto his mattress, drew the sheet up to his neck and flapped it twice over his frail body. "Are you scared?"
"What's there to be scared of? I survived El Salado. After tomorrow it's all cake."
Virlinger -closed his eyes. "Nothing, I guess." He was just acting nice, trying to make some appropriate conversation, get brotherly. "I think I'll be scared. That's all I meant. I think I will be."
If he closed his eyes tight enough, maybe Virlinger could see himself filling out a pinstripe suit, Melodie in a cotton dress, both of them bright and healthy forever.
"I do hope everything works out for you," Virlinger mumbled, half asleep. "I mean it. I really do."
Bernie had his response planned, ever since the tienda. It's been good. Take care of yourself. I'll get a shot first thing. But he let it go, let Virlinger fall asleep with no heavy last-minute, last-night breakthrough, no big friendship, nothing like that.
For his last chore Bernie soaped the soles of his shoes with a washcloth, dried them on newspaper. The tread was as thick as ever. Maybe he'd show up wearing these at the first few dances, make girls ask questions, tell them about the dogs, the rats.
For a long while after he pulled the string to the lightbulb and stretched out for the last time on a mission cot, Bernie listened to the salsa music from a jukebox somewhere, to Virlinger snoring. Through the gauze of his own mosquito net he saw the moon high and full, framed inside the pension's big window.
Virlinger knew all the things to say, like they were supposed to sound. There's somebody out there for you. He said that. I'd hate to see anything happen to you. He said that, too.
They'd never write, never get together for water skiing or camping or golf. They wouldn't be college roommates or take the same classes. Bernie wouldn't go the the wedding reception in Pleasant Grove or hug Melodie in her white dress. If anybody wanted to know the truth, they'd probably never see each other again. But Bernie thought about what Virlinger said, what he was able to say, thought about the things that made him do what he did, think what he thought, dream about whatever it was a Virlinger dreamed about. And on his next to the last night in Ecuador, the next to the last night before he went home to Pingree and his world, Bernie believed him.