by Stephen Wunderli
Jesus has been to Idaho. Evan knows it. Dirt turned over with last years’ alfalfa roots, waiting out the frost; testify of His life when the spring comes. It’s not just sod, it’s the resurrection, green shoots, then clover looking bunches of life after a winter death. So Evan doesn’t work Sundays. The fields go unattended for the day, solitary in their rest, they take their sacrament of irrigation water at 10am—a full load if that son of a bitch Arlen isn’t siphoning off a little more than his rights allow, which he always does on Sunday because he thinks nobody is watching. “God is always watching,” Evan tells him. “And if He doesn’t do something about your stealing water, I’m gonna hit you with a shovel and we’ll sort out justice and mercy in the next life.” Arlen hasn’t been to Church forever. His family has been Mormon for a hundred years, but somebody backslid some time ago and Arlen got used to the idea of having a coffee then stealing water when his neighbors were at Church. But Evan never misses. “There’s a law for everything,” he often says; which is really his way of getting around the whole idea of faith. “You can live without it if you have a knowledge,” he says to the young men in his ward. “And I have a knowledge.”
Evan likes to sit on his porch on Sunday mornings, even in the cold. He doesn’t own a wristwatch. He reads the Book of Mormon and the Sunday paper until he hears the Church choir rehearse, then he finds Meredith, his wife of fifty-one years and they walk across the street to the chapel. Evan has never told Meredith that he doesn’t understand the Book of Mormon. Meredith has never told Evan what she doesn’t like. She has sat in the same kitchen chair for so many years that the linoleum beneath her feet is worn down right to the cardboard. She reads a page in the bible, mostly from psalms because she likes the way the words sound, and then the words of Jesus. She stares out the window for a time after reading then does a crossword puzzle until Evan finds her. “It’s time,” is all he says. She imagines that one day he’ll walk in and say it again, “it’s time,” just like that, and lay down on the sofa and die, go right to heaven with their firstborn son who drowned in an irrigation ditch when he was seven. Meredith crocheted a little frame around his picture with words from the Book of Mormon: “Little children have no need of baptism, but are alive in Christ.” Evan Jr. was getting ready for his baptism by immersion when he fell headfirst into a muddy hole and the arms of the pump held him under until he stopped kicking. The water was still when Evan found him.
John left the farm some years after that. He was five when his brother died, and nineteen when he left home—not to serve a mission for his Church, to make his father proud as a representative of Jesus Christ, but off to mechanic school where he learned to repair small engines. Evan liked to think John was working on a better pump motor, one that wouldn’t drown seven year-old boys; but he wasn’t. John was fixing whacker motors for a cement company. He liked the pounding noise they made, maybe because it was louder than the pounding in his head. John went to Church on Christmas with his parents and the hymns were almost as good as that whacker motor. But somehow, John just couldn’t get back again until the next Christmas. Evan’s Bishop always called him Jack for being a Jack-Mormon, and John smiled about it. He didn’t read the Book of Mormon. “That’s something I’ll do when I get married,” he said to himself. But he never did either.
Evan wasn’t thinking about John when they crossed the road to the chapel. The Bishop had called that morning and wondered if he might have a moment with them. It was half way through July and the heat apparitions were not on the highway yet, though they would be when Evan and Meredith made their way back to the clapboard house Evan was born in. The choir sang A Mighty Fortress, but it was weak. There were too many women and not enough baritones to make the verses a force. Evan could not sing, and he hoped the Bishop was not going to ask him to. Evan would say yes, of course, since he believed in Bishops getting revelation for their people. So sitting in the hardback chairs outside the office, Evan began to feel like his faith was about to be tried. He didn’t know if he could even sing baritone. He reached over and laid his hand on Meredith’s wrist, mindful of the pain her arthritis kept her in; he didn’t look at her. He couldn’t squeeze her hand, but through his calloused fingertips he could feel the blood pulsing in the veins on the top of her wrist, the tiny hairs on the back of her hand deliver that feint electrical surge. Evan had never told Meredith that he could feel her without actually touching her; that he believed her soul was larger than her body and it sometimes burst out through the pores in her skin and he could feel it when she was thinking about him.
“Do we have a hymnbook at home,” he asked.
“In the curio,” she answered.
Evan took his hand off Meredith’s wrist and picked at a sliver festering in the fore-knuckle of his left hand. He noted each of his scars methodically until the door opened and the Bishop welcomed them into his office. When they were seated across the desk from the bishop, he smiled, and leaned toward Evan.
“Do you believe in a living Prophet?” The bishop asked.
“Yes I do,” Evan answered without hesitation.
“Good,” the Bishop said, sliding a few papers toward Evan. “As you know, our Prophet has asked older couples who are capable to consider serving a mission.”
Meredith gasped and held her trembling fingers to her mouth so as not to say anything that might jeopardize her standing with Jesus.
“If that’s what the Prophet is asking, then that’s what we will do,” Evan said.
“I’m not asking for yes or no right now,” the Bishop said. “I want you to go home, look at the affairs of your household, talk it through together, pray about it and ask God if it is something you should do.”
“I understood you to say the prophet was asking,” Evan said. “We’re capable. John can watch the farm if he has some help from the deacons.”
“OK,” the Bishop said, leaning back in his chair. “Take your time, fill out the papers…”
“I said we’re capable…”
The Bishop was quiet for a moment. He was young by Evan’s watch; mid-forties. He owned a pharmacy in town and worked half-days so he could spend the rest of his time being a bishop; visiting widows, camping with the boy scouts, keeping track of every member under his care. It was something a farmer-bishop couldn’t do, not with the sun-up to sundown hours it took to keep tractors running and fields producing. Evan’s resolve was as much a protest against the easy life the pharmacist-bishop enjoyed as it was a manifestation of his faith.
“How is John?” the bishop asked.
“He’s capable too,” Evan answered.
“OK,” the Bishop said. “Let’s talk again.”
Evan stood up, helped Meredith out of her chair. She leaned heavily on the Bishop’s desk until she got her legs under her.
Before Evan left, he turned back to the Bishop. “When we get these papers all filled in, we just take them straight to the Stake President, right?”
“Why don’t we go over them together first,” the Bishop said. “Then you can sit down with him.”
Evan nodded. The Stake President oversaw five Bishops in the Snake River Valley. He was a farmer like Evan, only with seven boys, all of whom stayed on to work the farm. Evan trusted him. Meredith squeezed Evan’s arm. He could tell she was thinking about him.
Evan stared at a talking rubber fish that hung on the wall in the kitchen. It was a present from John some Christmases ago; it sang Blue Moon and moved its mouth mechanically. Hysterical at first, then the batteries died. Evan half wondered if the bass was going to give him some kind of an answer. Miracle of the fish, he thought to himself. And he would need a miracle. His pride had gotten him into a situation. Something his father told him would happen when he was younger, “don’t let your pride get you into a situation,” the old man said, and Evan didn’t even know what a situation was, not until it earned him three stripes on the backside for cheating because Elsa Jane said she would kiss the boy with the highest math score. From then on, that was Evan’s definition of a situation: a promise that turns into a pain in the backside. A pain that can make a boy shy about his feelings. “Maybe I’ve gotten us into a situation,” Evan said to Meredith as she orbited around the kitchen stove. Meredith just smiled. Evan looked away from the fish and through the window out onto the fields thick with green corn stalks not far from harvest. He knew John would take care of the farm for a week, maybe ten days before leaving a note on the bishop’s door that went something like: “I hereby consecrate this farm to the church until my father’s return.” John knew the gospel, but he only lived it when it favored him.
“I believe I’ll need another pair of low heels,” Meredith said. “Maybe next time we’re at Sears….”
“I’ll check the water,” Evan said. And Meredith smiled. She took it as Evan’s way of saying he was off to pray until he got an answer. She knew the story of Joseph Smith, how he prayed and got his answer. The only scripture she knew by heart was the one young Joseph read before striding into the sacred grove: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”
Evan knew what she was thinking; he could feel it when he turned away from her. He knew he had to come back with conviction on his face because in all the years they had been married, he had never been able to fool her. He went first behind the barn, peaked back to see if she was looking at him through the screen. She was. He picked up a hoe and ambled along the side of the irrigation ditch and poked at a few weeds, then hacked until he remembered it was Sunday afternoon. Suddenly he felt unworthy to get any kind of answer and he knew Meredith would read it on his face. The only thing to do now was walk to the edge of the property and wait until the guilt left him, just sit, and wait. Besides, he might see Arlen stealing water and giving him a good clout with a Hickory handle could remove a lot of uncertainty about the way a man felt about himself.
And so it went for a week. Evan would walk out of the house with that searching look on his face, and Meredith would smile, and wait for him to come back after dark. She never asked him where he went, what he fixed or where he watered. She knew her husband was soul searching and that it was a holy process and that she needed to be ready. Some days she clipped pictures of modest shoes from the newspaper. Some days she tried to memorize hymns, but mostly she stitched up the holes in all Evan’s black socks. She wanted her lamp to be full of oil when the call came. But on Sunday morning, Evan hadn’t said anything to her except “I’ll check the water.”
They walked across the street to the tune of Master the Tempest is Raging, Meredith holding the crook of Evan’s arm the way she had since she was 19 years old, the only man she had ever loved. It seemed to Evan that the flesh on his arm had grown around the knuckles of his wife’s hand the same way the skin had migrated over the thin band of gold on his finger. When they sat across the desk from the bishop, that tendon strung diagonal from Evan’s forearm to bicep tightened, a sign of conviction Meredith must have figured because she in turn tightened her grip, and Evan flushed with the warmth of Meredith’s electricity.
“So,” the bishop said, with a little humor. “Have you two done enough praying this week?”
“Can never pray enough,” Evan said, believing he was reprimanding the bishop, keeping him in line. The bishop shifted in his chair. Evan was satisfied with this response. “It’s the same as last week Bishop,” Evan said. “We’re capable, John will take the farm. You don’t say no to the Lord.”
“Sounds like you got an answer to your prayers,” the Bishop said.
Evan stiffened his jaw muscles.
“And John willing to help with the farm,” the Bishop continued. “That is a good situation.”
Of course Evan hadn’t prayed about it at all. He hadn’t discussed it at all with Meredith or John. And suddenly the use of the word ‘situation’ by the Bishop made Evan wonder if he was making a huge mistake, that the Bishop was inspired to use that word as a sign to Evan that it was all wrong. But it was too late, he was already doing the math in his head, adding up the days in the eighteen months they would be gone, trying to figure a way to come out on top of this thing with his pride intact, but deep down, he knew he was cheating at arithmetic again.
From the moment Evan left the Bishop’s office for the second time, he just said yes to everything that needed to be done. He set his resolve and he stuck to it, figuring it was worth the stripes he would take in the end. There was the meeting with the Stake President who was delighted to hear that they were ‘willing and capable.’ There were preparation classes on Sunday afternoons to learn the lessons, but Evan spent much of his time showing off with metaphors, likening corn shucking to repentance and pig breeding to salvation. “Castration is like the Lord’s way of casting off an offending member,” Evan said to a class of three old couples and a mousey woman in wide brown shoes who was supposed to be teaching the class but couldn’t do much more than read from the manual. The women nodded their heads in agreement. Evan was at the head of the class. He even wore a starched white shirt, a charcoal suit from Sears and a rifle tie-clip he got in the mail from the NRA. When the mousey teacher asked about the tie clip, Evan answered: “The Lord needs a straight shooter.” Meredith just smiled. She smiled a lot in the next six weeks. Every little thing had been prepared for; that is, except for John. Evan put it off until the week before they were to leave. Meredith asked John to come for Sunday dinner. John agreed as long as he didn’t have to go to church or have some surprise meeting with the bishop; so the three of them had pot roast in the linoleum kitchen.
“How’s the whacker business?” Meredith asked John.
“Fine, mother,” John said.
“Is there a certificate you get for that?”
Meredith measured everything in life by certificates. Mastering times tables. One-hundred percent spelling accuracy. Pneumatic tool repair proficiency. These were the measures of eternal progression. So long as they kept coming, Meredith knew her family would be together in heaven forever.
“Your father and I got our gospel teacher certificates today,” she said. “It’s hand-lettered on expensive paper. They sent it to someone in Twin Falls to calligraphy it. It’s a gentleman who specializes in certificates.”
“They don’t do that at the whacker factory, mom,” John said. “They calligraphy your name on a paycheck and you hope it don’t disappear by the time you get to the bank.”
“Gospel Teacher certificate,” Evan said with emphasis. “You do know what that means, don’t you son?”
“’fraid I don’t.”
“Means the Lord has called us on a mission, tested our faith for six weeks and we passed. That means you’re gonna watch the farm while we’re gone.”
“I’ll need some gas money,” John said. “It’s a longer drive from here.”
Evan let his temper simmer for a moment, then a scripture came to him from his six week course. “Will a man rob God?” He said to his son.
“What does that have to do with anything?” John asked.
“It means, you’ll take care of the farm and you won’t be getting any damn gas money,” Evan shouted.
John leaned away from his father and looked at his mother.
“Have some pie, John,” she said, handing him a large slice of rhubarb and raisin.
And that’s how the last of the preparations were settled, except for one final comment from John, a comment that sounded like an angel’s trumpet in Evan’s ear, a comment that would keep him awake that entire night.
“Well,” John said. “This seems like an interesting situation for the both of you.”
A month later, Evan and Meredith boarded a bus with two suitcases each and settled in for the long ride to the airport after three weeks of missionary training in Provo Utah. Meredith sat by the window next to Evan, slid her hand into the crook of his arm, slipped her sensible shoes off and fell asleep on his shoulder. Evan reached in his pocket and carefully unfolded the letter they had gotten from the Prophet of the Church. He flattened it across his knees and carefully read it again. ‘You have been called to the Hyderabad, India Mission,’ it said. And there was a nice letter from the prophet himself and a whole packet of instructions—medical check-ups and shots they had to go to Twin Falls for and other things to fill out to get passports and papers and clearances. Through it all, Evan wondered why they needed shots to teach Indians about hydraulics. He’d been on the reservation a number of times, and opening his call from the prophet he was relieved to know he would be teaching some kind of trade. Meredith only said she would go wherever Evan felt good about, but she trembled a lot after that. Evan didn’t figure out they were going half way around the world until he read the letter the second time and noticed there was no ‘n’ on the end of India. He looked carefully at the Encyclopedia Britannica to see where Hyderabad was. That’s when he understood why Meredith was trembling.
Ever since they were married, Meredith and Evan said their prayers at night before they went to bed; Meredith on her side and Evan on his. They bowed their heads and each said their own prayer, usually Evan finished long before Meredith, he waited with one eye open, and when she lifted her head, he closed his eye and kept his head down just a few moments more, until he could feel Meredith thinking about him. Then he opened his eyes and climbed into bed, one blanket in the summer, two in the winter. The night before they left, Meredith squeezed the crook of his arm when Evan was lying beside her “It’ll be OK,” she said softly. “Mother used to tell me you know a prayer is answered because the wind blows just a little when you finish your prayers. Did you feel it blow just then, with your eyes closed?” Meredith asked
Evan stared at the muslin curtains, studying them for any movement at all, then he patted Meredith on the wrist and closed his eyes.”
In the last few years, Evan had taken to falling asleep in the tractor. It was something that just seemed to come on him with age. He’d finish a run with the steel discs down, turning up the earth, or with the trailer on hauling manure, and after a couple hours, usually in the morning, he would stop and let the motor idle. Then he’d pull his cap down over his eyes, lean his head back against the cage and let the low rumble rock him to sleep. The edge of a field was as familiar as his own bedroom, a place to sit and close your eyes among the decomposing rot, the smell of exhaust and hydraulic fluid, the muffled thumps pulsing through the machinery, through his bones. “I’d like to have seen an ocean before,” he said with his eyes closed.
“What made you think of that?” Meredith asked.
Evan shrugged. “Seems a lot of good lessons take place on oceans. It’s good to know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“Like Jesus on the water?”
“That’s a good one,” Evan agreed. “The waves and all. Storms are good too. You can teach a lot with a good storm. We’ve never had so much as a small tornado. Just makes me wonder about being able to teach effective without having been on a ocean.”
“Nobody can live everything,” Meredith said. “If so, we wouldn’t need faith. And that seems to be the better part of the plan, to believe without having been.”
“I know the plan as much as anybody,” Evan said. “Just seems a little experience with a storm at sea would be a good thing to have when you go to teach folks with no knowledge, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
“I have a feeling you’ll have plenty to teach about,” Meredith said. “Your heart’s bigger than most. What comes out will be what’s supposed to come out. Like King Benjamin teaching from the tower, and all the people pitched their tents with the opening toward him and they listened to him teach day and night, almost everything that was in his heart, about how the people should have faith and believe in God and look forward to Jesus and not have so much pride.”
They unloaded curbside at the airport like a tour group—a dozen young men in new blue suits, four young women sensibly dressed, and Meredith leaning on Evan while he directed traffic over the voice of the man who was actually in charge. Bags were tagged and emotions checked. It would be two years before the young men saw home again, eighteen months for the young women and the older couple from Idaho who’d never been anywhere beyond settled Idaho before.
“I still don’t understand how it takes three days to get to India when the plane ride is only eighteen hours,” Meredith said, standing in the security line exactly two hours early.
“Flying against the grain,” Evan said, holding his thick hands out like he was holding the world. “Kinda like turning a brake rotor, it spins one way and the file spins another, shaves more time off. If I file the same direction the rotor is turning, well, it takes longer to take anything off. Time works like that.”
“Oh,” Meredith said.
There isn’t much to look forward to on a long flight. Evan learned this three hours outside of San Francisco, somewhere over the vast ocean the Australian pilot joked was a watering hole. As Evan had boarded the plane, a woman in her fifties was talking loudly on a cell phone. She was dressed like one of those women in that show Evan sometimes came across when he couldn’t sleep at night; Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. As Evan was standing there, behind a line of bent-over passengers, the woman ended her conversation abruptly, turned off her phone and tucked it under the strap of her brassier. Evan was horrified, and he blushed. He told Meredith about it when they settled into their seats, and for three hours he turned it over in his mind, like a barn cat that fixates on a mouse, nipping at it, pawing it, wounding it, letting it go, then stunning it with a slap, teasing it out of unconsciousness only to nip it again until finally it dies and the cat becomes bored. Evan couldn’t sleep with his hips against the back of his seat and his knees against the seat in front of him. He watched the wing of the plane heave in the turbulence for ten hours, his mind surging mechanically forward, unable to release his exhausted body to sleep.
The plane landed badly in Madras, shook side to side as if the pilot was trying to keep it on the runway. Then lifted off two hours later and touched down in Hyderabad. It was the sort of thing that happens in India. The available connecting plane was unavailable. The passengers had all booked tickets to Hyderabad, but the plane stopped in Madras in order to change the passengers to the express flight to Hyderabad. Instead, they waited in the stale air, on the runway in the rain for two hours before lifting off again. By the time they got through immigrations, where Meredith gave up a pair of nylons to the Security Inspector “because,” he told her, “they are flammable,” Evan was so fatigued everything seemed a dream. At 6 feet 2 inches, he was taller than every other human being in his vicinity by more than a foot. Meredith, on the other hand, was the roundest human they had ever seen. She walked slowly, breathed heavily, and smelled like lilacs at a nursing home. This oddity was the center of attention as they finally reached the landing where two young missionaries from the Hyderabad Mission were supposed to meet them. They stood among an entourage of slight men in tattered red coats who offered to carry their bags. But Evan didn’t trust them, so he struggled with all four bags at once while Meredith waddled behind him and dozens of hands pawed at his forearms, and even more voices pleaded: “Please sir…Please sir to carry your bags.”
But Evan wouldn’t relinquish his hold. The sea of brown faces reluctantly parted in front of him, but crowded in behind him, pushing and bumping up against their backsides. Evan set their bags down and an army of cab drivers began the same onslaught. “Please sir to drive your destination. Perfect driver. Please sir.”
Evan could think of nothing else to do but raise his arms, as if he were going to give up the ghost and collapse into the depths of humanity. It was then that he saw two white shirts pushing through the crowd toward them, two young men with the countenance of angels. Seemed like hours before the two reached Evan and Meredith. To Evan, the heavens had parted and messengers arrived. But no sooner were the four of them together than the sea swallowed them up again.
“Elder Sanchez and Elder Haslam,” the taller, whiter one said. “Namaste.”
“Namaste,” Meredith said, delighted to use the only Hindu word she’d learned in her two weeks of training in Provo.
“I’ll get started,” Elder Haslam said. “You get the bags and find a driver.”
“Is it always like this?” Evan asked about the throngs of people pressed so tightly against them that there was no way out.
“Only rains half the year,” Elder Sanchez said. “The other half is pretty hot and dry. That’s comin’ up.”
Evan was still dazed, he was so overcome with culture shock that he hadn’t even noticed it was raining. “I mean…”
“Stay with me,” Elder Sanchez said. “There will be a break in the crowd in just a minute.”
Elder Haslam moved off, away from the other three missionaries. He reached down and plucked a small beggar boy from the crowd and stood him on a trash container. “Ahhhhhh!” he said loudly. The boy was uncertain what he had done wrong and stood petrified. “This boy,” Elder Haslam shouted. “Has something wrong with his head!”
The crowd quickly migrated over to where Elder Haslam was standing to see what was about to happen.
Elder Haslam grabbed the boy’s head with both his hands and playfully shook it, as if he was trying to empty it of its contents. “There seems to be something stuck inside his ear!”
The crowd moved closer, curious. The boy’s eyes grew wide.
“Quickly,” Elder Haslam shouted. “A tin container! Quickly!”
An old beggar with a long gray beard offered his. Elder Haslam tilted the boy’s head to the side. Then he had the boy hold the tin can just below his ear. “Don’t worry boy, we’ll get it out!” The boy looked as if he was about to cry. Elder Haslam held his hands up in the air and flexed his fingers. Evan, too, was puzzled. Then he felt Elder Sanchez tug on his arm. “We can go now,” Elder Sanchez whispered to him. “I have a car waiting.” The three of them made their way around the enthralled crowd to a car Elder Sanchez had commissioned. The driver threw one bag onto the roof, and the others in the trunk. Evan helped Meredith into the car, Elder Sanchez sat in the middle, and Evan climbed in and shut the back door. From the window, Evan watched Elder Haslam.
“This will only take a moment,” Elder Haslam said. And with that he tapped on the boy’s head the way one taps on a nearly empty ketchup bottle. Within a few seconds, a rupee clanked into the tin can. The boy looked at it, rattled it in the can then drew it out for the crowd to see. Of course, the crowd moved in closer.
“Stand back!” Elder Haslam shouted, raising his arms. “There’s more.” He helped the boy pocket the rupee, and taking the tin can, bid the boy to shake his head. “Harder!” Elder Sanchez shouted, but nothing came out. Then he grabbed the boy by the side of the head and looked at him, then at the crowd. “I don’t think he can hear me.”
The boy stared at Elder Haslam, who tugged at the boy’s ear, examined it for some strange obstruction. Then he reached inside it and drew out another rupee. “No wonder!” Elder Haslam said, holding up the tarnished coin. The crowd was delighted. “Now shake your head!” Elder Haslam commanded. And the boy did, and coins rained out of his ear into the can and spilled on the ground. Elder Haslam collected the coins and threw them into the crowd.
“Pinata time,” Elder Sanchez said from the car.
“Elder Haslam hugged the little boy, left him with a piece of candy and another rupee and dashed to the waiting car. Before the crowd could look up, the car was edging its way into the river of traffic.
“Where you from?” Elder Haslam asked.
“That trick, that’s not something they teach at the Missionary Training Center,” Evan said, not answering the question.
“Learned that one on my own. It’s what you’ll figure out about being a missionary in India. What you see isn’t always what’s really going on.”
“Oh,” Meredith said. “I guess we’ll have to get used to that.”
“ I’m from Sacramento,” Elder Haslam said. “Elder Sanchez grew up just south of the border…The Canadian border.”
Elder Haslam laughed
“Michigan,” Elder Sanchez said.
“We have some Sanchez’s in Idaho,” Meredith said. “Maybe you’ve heard of them, Pedro and Jeannette?”
“Hmmm,” Elder Sanchez pondered. “Must be my mother’s side.”
Elder Haslam laughed again.
Evan interrupted the small talk. “They have any tractors in this country?”
“Not many,” Elder Haslam answered, just lots and lots of people.”
“You two don’t look old enough to be missionaries,” Meredith said.
“Both of us are twenty,” Elder Sanchez said. “I just look younger.”
“Mexican’s are like that,” Meredith said. “Can never tell their age.”
“We’re prepared, you know,” Evan said. “We can teach the gospel and tractor mechanics, whatever is needed.”
“Good,” said Elder Sanchez. “There’s an irrigation project where you’re headed.”
Evan went quiet.
“We’re familiar with that kind of work,” Meredith said.
“Well,” Elder Haslam said. “It’s more of a water management project. During the wet season, the fields and roads, even their houses get washed away. So we’re helping the villagers build levees, and a series of drainage ditches, what’s most important is we teach them how to do it.”
“Thought we’d start with a get-together,” Meredith said. “I brought Jell-o.”
“Awesome,” Elder Sanchez said. “I haven’t had Jell-o for over a year.”
It took nearly three hours to drive the fifty miles outside of Hyderabad, wedging first into the series of roundabouts, bumping against oxcarts and diesel trucks piled high with stalks of sugarcane; through the mud, passing the motor-rickshaws packed with schoolchildren; and then on to the bordering towns of gray, crumbling cement with doorways on the curbs and roads so narrow the tires of the car bumped either side like an amusement park ride. And everywhere vendors squatting with bunches of thumb-sized bananas or fried dough, or rancid meat. The rain lifted, but not the grayness.
“I love the colors,” Meredith said, watching three women in rain-soaked saris hurry across the road ahead of their car. More than once their driver swerved into the ditch letting another truck pass—bearing down on them, laden with half-naked laborers and bags of rice or bricks or more sugar cane.
“I don’t see many tractors,” Evan said, sitting uncomfortably in the back seat, clearing the window of steam in the humidity. The towns had thinned out and there were more fields, but scant machinery.
“I’m sure there will be lots of things for you to fix,” Meredith said.
After a few more miles, and one more near collision, the driver stopped at a small cement building with a palm frond roof.
Evan was nearly in shock. “This is where we are going to live for eighteen months?”
“Oh no,” Elder Haslam said. “This is our chapel. It is the only building in the village with indoor plumbing. Thought you might want to freshen up.”
Evan warily got out of the car. He looked about for the throngs of beggars and vendors who would descend on him. He held his elbows out. He wasn’t about to be jostled the way he was at the airport. But no one came. He slowly made his way to Meredith’s side of the car and helped her out. Elder Haslam opened a padlock on the wooden door and swung it open. The room smelled of days-old sweat and the dankness of a flooded basement.
“Two months ago there was three-feet of water in this building,” Elder Sanchez said. “We had to have our services on the roof.”
There was a single closet of a bathroom, with one toilet. Evan motioned for Meredith to go first; then for lack of anything else to do, he traced the waterline left on the wall, just below the pictures of Jesus.
“President Austin will meet us sometime today,” Elder Haslam said. “We don’t really go by watches since the rest of the population doesn’t either.”
“Like farming,” Evan said loudly trying to cover the sound of Meredith in the bathroom.
“I suppose,” Elder Haslam said. “So we’ll get you unloaded at your flat and maybe meet some of the locals before the president arrives.”
Meredith finished her turn in the bathroom and Evan stepped in. The door hung loosely on its hinges, and he coughed the entire time he peed, trying to cover up the embarrassing tinkling sound. He’d gotten older, that was sure, he thought to himself.
The flat was even smaller than the chapel. But the veil of clouds had parted a bit and there was sunlight spotting the landscape. The walls were gray cement, and on the roof were fresh palm fronds. The walls were adorned with the muddy handprints of children, and stones had been painted white and placed in a row leading up to the doorway. There was no door, so Evan and Meredith could see inside: flower petals scattered on the floor, two iron beds with thin mattresses, a wooden table, two chairs and a wash basin.
“It’s beautiful,” Meredith said.
“The village children decorated the outside, and the women did some clean-up.” Elder Sanchez said. “But I’m afraid Brother Dahiri is late building you a door.”
Evan stood peering through a doorway that was a foot shorter than he was; the word ‘situation’ running through his mind, repeating itself in the voices of his bishop, his son, and finally his father. He wasn’t about to let the missionaries wait on him like he was an old woman, so he grabbed two of the bags and struggled through the narrow door. He bent his head, lowered it onto his chest —a pack camel entering the eye of a needle, that narrowest of passages stepping down through the outer wall of Jerusalem. Upon entering the tiny flat, Evan dropped the bags, shuffled to one of the beds and sat down.
“Why don’t you two rest,” Elder Sanchez said, seeing Evan’s drawn face. “We can unload the rest of your bags.”
“Thank you,” Meredith said, limping to one of the wooden chairs and easing into it. “My knees aren’t what they used to be.”
Elder Sanchez smiled. “My mother used to say that.”
“Really?” Meredith replied. “Did she have the knee replacement?”
“No,” Elder Sanchez said. “She died.”
“I’m sorry,” Meredith said.
“It’s OK. We all die. My mother lived a saintly life; fed the missionaries every Sunday.”
“Well that’s good.”
The two young men finished unloading, paid the driver and stepped to the doorway to say they would be back in a bit, and for Evan and Meredith to get some rest while they had a moment, then disappeared. Evan was still staring straight ahead; Meredith approached him, put her hands on his knees and looked into his tired eyes.
“I think there’s more here than we can do something about,” Evan said
“We’ll just do what we can,” Meredith answered. “Now get some rest.”
Meredith helped Evan lie down on the metal bed and pulled off his shoes. Evan remembers his wife rubbing his feet for a moment, then feeling her presence beside him until he fell into a troubled sleep. His head buzzed and when he tried to push it away by tightening his eyelids, light flashed in his eyes and the strangest patterns formed in his mind. He couldn’t control what he was thinking and his thoughts were so lucid, so clear that he didn’t believe he was asleep at all. He stepped over rows of alfalfa, reached into the chestnut tree to find a toy truck in the branches, heard the church choir singing. It was as if all the images his life had stored up were dumped into his head and randomly examined. His heart raced. His breathing shortened and he woke up to a roomful of people, small brown people; children, half naked. He looked around the room for something familiar, and finally found Meredith, sitting among the children, reading a bible story to them. She looked up at Evan when she heard the bed squeak.
“Well, look who is awake?” she said.
The children turned and looked at Evan, thin and gaunt, pale and old, perhaps the oldest man the children had ever seen.
“Does this man know Jesus?” A small boy asked.
Meredith laughed. “Well, he is certainly old enough.”
“He can tell us m’am?”
“I think he needs his rest,” Meredith said. “Why don’t you show me where these beautiful flowers came from?”
The children filed out of the room and Meredith smiled at Evan the most beatific smile he had ever seen. The children clung to her hands and dress, she moved with them out the doorway and when she was gone, the sunlight lay down at the entrance. It was so bright Evan could not see beyond it, but could hear the children laughing and Meredith teaching them songs. Evan closed his eyes again, and the next time he woke up, it was gray outside and raining. Meredith was curled up on the other bed, sleeping. Evan struggled to his feet and stood at the doorway; but the light was gone and everything was gray. He wished he’d had the courage to stand up before, to move to the door and see everything in the light. But he hadn’t, and now it was gone.
“They’ve left,” Evan heard Meredith say.
“The children,” Meredith answered. “It’s been raining for some time. I really don’t know where they all came from or where they went. Cutest little things. They were just standing in the doorway, curious about Jesus.”
“You were reading from the bible?”
“I thought we weren’t to do that?”
“Well, we are missionaries.”
“But it upsets the Muslims. We’re here to fix things.”
“Elder Sanchez said we can only teach in the chapel, and only if the father is present and wants to be there. That’s all.”
“OK. But I think we are going to be on our own for a while. Elders Sanchez and Haslam came by and said The Mission President has a parasite and won’t be out of bed for weeks.”
“So what should we do?”
“I think we should have a social,” Meredith answered smiling.
“I think we should unpack first,” Evan said. “Then we should find this Brother whoever and see why it takes so long to make a door.”
At night, in the village of Vudumudi, the men gather at the temple to smoke and chatter in Hindi or their tribal language. The women are at home, washing children or scrubbing down cooking pots with sand and soap. Some of them come to the well for water, but the men pay no attention to them. There is always a radio playing traditional Indian music somewhere in the distance.
Evan and Meredith sat on the steps of their flat.
“What time do you think it is?” Meredith asked.
“In Idaho or here?”
Meredith smiled. “One day in the field and already we’re lost in the work.”
“I’d say we’re just lost,” Evan answered.
“The stars remind me of home,” Meredith said.
“And the moon…”
“I could sit here a while…like we used to on our back porch after putting the boys to bed.” Meredith said.
“Those were good years, watching those boys wrestle around like a couple of bear cubs.”
Meredith put her head on Evan’s shoulder, held onto his arm and began to cry.
“What is it?” Evan asked.
“I just haven’t heard you talk about those years for a long time. It makes me happy.”
Evan wanted to tell Meredith how happy she made him, but he was choked up, and he couldn’t think of how to organize his words. Suddenly he could see the last 40 years as if they were forty days, laid out in every detail and denial; and Meredith, always there; weeping at the funeral while Evan stood emotionless; cross-stitching their boy’s name on a tapestry for the living room, letting her tears go every Wednesday at the cemetery while Evan waited in the truck. There were times in Church when she cried, times she said she could feel him beside her and Evan wanted to ask: “Who? Jesus? Or Evan Jr.?” But he never did. He stuck to the hymn and let Meredith cling to him, hold onto his forearm as if he were about to help her stand, but stayed sitting, always there to be physically strong. It was about that time when Evan began to feel Meredith, feel when she was thinking about him. The first time it happened, it was in church, during the sacrament. It was quiet. They sat motionless; Meredith with her eyes closed like always, Evan staring straight ahead, his mind on some checklist when a rush of warmth moved through his body, a kind of electricity. He glanced at Meredith. She smiled with her eyes closed, and that’s when he knew she was thinking about him. He felt it on and off for years, most of the time when she was close to him, but once or twice when she was in another room. Still, he never told her what he felt.
That night, since they had no door, they went to sleep in their clothes. The distant radio turned off. The lights in their flat flickered, pulsed, then shut themselves off and when a distant generator spun to a stop, Meredith and Evan kneeled down together and prayed out loud. It was their first night in India, and the first time they had ever said their nightly prayers together.
They awoke the next morning to a sea of brown faces, sitting around their beds, on their doorstep, peering in through the one window.
“What’s this?” Evan asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Look who’s back, and they brought friends.”
Evan sat up and rubbed at his gray hair. The children giggled.
“You must be quite the sight,” Meredith said.
“Please to read Jesus,” a small girl asked.
All the brown faces nodded.
“Well,” Meredith said, looking at Evan. “We were going to read anyway, in our own home, so if you listen in I guess it can’t hurt.”
A stern look crossed Evan’s face, but it dissipated when he felt Meredith thinking about him again. She grabbed her Bible and opened it up, flipped through the pages looking for a story. She had drawn pictures in red pencil on the pages to help her navigate—a fish for that sermon, two eyes for the blind man, a sun for the resurrection. She settled on the passages adorned with a sheep. “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” Then she handed the bible to Evan.
“Your turn,” she said.
Evan took the bible reluctantly. “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.” He looked up into the brown faces and was struck by their beauty, their perfect shapes, their liquid, innocent eyes. It was then that he heard a harsh female voice yelling at the kids outside. Immediately, all the children jumped up and ran out of the flat. Three women entered; the shortest one carried a palm frond basket filled with bananas and papayas. One of the others carried a bottle of drinking water. “We are here from the church…breakfast for the missionaries,” she said. “So sorry about the children, ma’ms.”
Meredith and Evan both stood up.
“Namaste,” Meredith said.
The women laughed. “Assalamu-Alaikum. We are Muslim and won’t be pleased to be speaking Hindi.”
“Aren’t you Mormon?” Evan asked.
“Only on Sunday,” the short one said. “It pleases our families to be Muslim the rest of the week.”
“What about your husbands?”
“They are pleased to take this arrangement too. But there are Christians in the church. There is no Seventh-day Adventist congregation here anymore so they are Mormon today.”
“Are there any tractors in the village?” Evan asked.
“No machinery but the Jesus pumps,” she answered. “It is why we are Mormon too.”
“Why is that?” Meredith asked.
“The pumps are a miracle when they are working.”
“How long have they not been working?” Evan asked.
“Some time now. There is not enough faith in this village for Jesus to work.”
“Sounds like you could use a little knowledge,” Evan said.
“You’ll be gone like the others,” she said. “Missionaries don’t stay for long.”
And with that, the three women left.
“What about our door?” Evan called after them.
“Dahiri will come…” she called back without turning around.
Evan spent the next few days looking for a set of metric wrenches so he could fix the series of pumps; twelve of them and not a one worked. Each feeds a ditch that moves around the village and into a muddy river, that is if they did work. It would mean that the fields could be watered without flooding, the moving water would not let mosquitoes and malaria breed, and parasites found in the muddy paths that burrow into infant’s feet and knees would disappear. Evan discovered that each pump had basically the same problem: rusted out coils that needed to be rewound. He wished he’d brought a spool of copper wire. Meredith wished she’d brought a jell-o mold and a hot plate to boil water. They ate fruit and used the latrine out behind their flat, and everywhere they went they were followed by children, most of them calling Evan Jesus-Sir and begging him to read them a bible story. Sometimes he would take a break from a swamped pump, or stroll through the street market looking for copper wire and read a few passages to the children to keep them happy. Then he’d get back to the pumps. In a week he had most of the coils unraveled, solenoids scrubbed of corrosion and a new set of copper wound into place. But the skin on his feet was peeling off from standing in the water for hours at a time. Meredith, on the other hand, seemed to be reading to the children and women in the village all the time—beside the well, outside their flat, even on the steps of the Hindu temple. In return, what she needed just turned up at the flat: first a pot that could be used for a jell-o mold, and then the hotplate. Evan just shook his head. All this time he’d spent scrounging for tools and Meredith reads a few bible stories and things just show up. Lacking enough copper wire, Evan began greasing a flywheel. That’s when Kumar came splashing through the field. Kumar was a small boy with a shaved head—the remedy for lice, and a withered hand from falling into a fire when he was a baby. He had taken to Evan, followed him most places since he wasn’t big enough to work the fields with one hand yet. It was getting toward the end of the day and Evan was about to knock off when Kumar made the ruckus.
“Jesus Sir! Jesus Sir! The time has come, please to your presence. The door is complete. The door is complete!”
“Dahiri has finished the door?” Evan asked.
“Complete!” Kumar yelled. “You must come!”
Evan wiped his hands and rolled his wrenches up in the rag and stuffed them in a shoulder bag, then sloshed through the water and mud behind Kumar. When they reached the road on higher ground, Kumar ran ahead. Evan couldn’t run. He shuffled like a farmer that had worked too long, his back bent over, his legs a little unsure.
When Evan entered the village, there was a throng of people at his flat. The door was carried ceremoniously like a precious slab. There was singing, and flower petals falling from the sky. The men of the village moved the door above their heads toward the flat as if they all had a hand in its creation. The children struggled to touch it as it passed, jumped or begged their mothers to lift them. Meredith was standing in the doorway, wearing a sari and that beatific smile. When the door finally reached her, three men set it down carefully beside her. It was painted white and somehow reflected the fading sunlight onto Meredith. Evan finally made his way through the crowd to stand beside his wife of fifty-one years. Dahiri stood proudly with them, spoke in his tribal language to the crowd for over fifteen minutes, then, with the help of three other men, nailed the hinges of the door to the frame and demonstrated its swing. The crowd cheered. That night, for the first time since arriving in Vudumudi, Evan could undress completely. He stood in the middle of their small flat, poured water over his body and lathered up. It was the kind of soothing lather that was almost hypnotic in its sensual pleasure. At the end of it all, Evan poured a bucket of water over his head and rubbed at his eyes. “If I was a Catholic like the Mexicans back home,” Evan said, sputtering through the water, “this would count as a baptism.”
Meredith just smiled and shook her head. She had never been one to put any religion over another. When Evan was done, she blew out the candle and bathed herself in the dark.
The next morning, Meredith was up early boiling water, one pot for potatoes, another for jell-o. The children were outside the door. Evan hesitated opening it, enjoying the time alone. But Meredith prodded him. “There are people waiting,” she said.
Evan struggled to his feet and shuffled to the door. When he opened it, a flood of brown faces poured in. He sat down on his bed and began reading about Jesus, not from the bible, but from the Book of Mormon: ‘Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved.’ Evan wiped at his eyes. He was weeping and didn’t know it. The tears just flowed out of him, natural as breath. They just came like unexpected guests, like the brown faces that appeared, then drifted off one by one. Evan continued reading, all that day, with the door open and his voice growing hoarse, and Meredith humming to herself, stirring potato salad, mixing jell-o, the stream of brown faces appearing, disappearing, napping on the floor. Meredith whispered to everyone who came by: “Social tonight at the Hindu Temple. We’re having Jell-o.” By late afternoon there were pots of potato salad, and pots of jell-o covered with plastic wrap and hung by twine in the latrine to cool. “Closest thing to a refrigerator we have,” Meredith said to Evan.
“Well don’t let anybody see you pulling it out of there,” Evan said. “They’ll think American’s are cannibals.”
Meredith stood in the middle of the flat wondering how she could possibly transport all this potato salad and jell-o. The children had gone by then, Evan had stopped reading an hour earlier. “We can use the door,” Meredith said.
“We’ve only had it for a day,” Evan answered.
“We give all that we have,” Meredith said. “And anyway, we’ll bring it back tonight.”
Evan reluctantly knocked the pins out of the hinges and laid the door across the two beds. Then he and Meredith stacked the pots of potato salad and jell-o on the door and walked it carefully out of the flat; then Evan turned around to lead the way, holding the door on the small of his back so Meredith could walk front ways. She limped a bit, and struggled with the weight on the uneven dirt path that led to a road, equally uneven. The children began to gather, cheering and running in circles around the food bearers; they sent for their siblings and parents and before long there was a procession of women and children, then the men came and quietly observed, some smiling, some wondering. Evan and Meredith were both sweating under the load. Children were waving palm fronds to cool them off. They trudged along, from the dirt road to the edge of a gravel road where the trucks sped by stacked high with laborers and sugar cane. They waited some time, crowded up so close to the speeding trucks that the wind would almost blow them backwards if it weren’t for the crowd of people against them from behind. Finally there was an opening in the traffic and the procession hurried across the road onto a narrow sidewalk that circled into a roundabout, and onto a bridge that spanned a muddy river that would’ve been much shallower had Evan finished the pumps and they were gorging the furrows with life rather than baking in the sun. By now the white shirt Evan was wearing was soaking wet, Meredith was limping along, sweat pouring out from under her wig into her eyes. Horns were blaring at the skinny children trying to keep up, who stepped into the road, waved palm fronds, dashed in front of trucks or rolled under ox carts to get close to the two white people; the tall man, bent under his load, his eyes steady on his footsteps, and the round woman in the plain-colored dress and low heels walking with a hitch in her hip, both of them straining under the weight of a door made from green wood and the heaviness of potato salad and jell-o and the expectations of so many brown faces who have never been to a Mormon social before. The sidewalk narrowed even more after passing through the roundabout. Evan and Meredith walked with one foot up on the curb and the other in the street, while keeping the offerings square on the door. Evan looked up for a moment and through sweat-blurred vision, sees the temple just across the bridge, on a small rise, situated so that the sunset during these months after the rainy season, bursts through its dilapidated columns. He wanted to rest, but the closeness of the traffic worried him. He tries to look back, but can’t crane his neck enough to see how Meredith is doing. What he also can’t see is a truck swing wide coming out of the roundabout to pass an oxcart and jump the curb to the sidewalk, hit its worn brakes too late and collide with Meredith; edge her into the railing on the bridge, just above her knee and send her headlong into the muddy river.
One end of the door, Meredith’s end, slams to the ground, spilling potato salad and jell-o on the sidewalk. The truck driver backs up, changes course slightly and roars away. The little brown-faced children pounce on the spilled food. Evan drops his end of the door and it scrapes the back of his legs badly. There is a moment lost when nobody knows what to do, then several of the men scream at a ferry crossing the river, scream to move upstream, but none of them can swim. Meredith has disappeared.
Meredith’s body is laid out on the door in the small flat, spanning the two beds. Evan spent more than an hour pulling leeches off Meredith’s body, and his while the villagers argued about the type of burial Meredith should receive. She was not Hindu. She was not Muslim. She was Christian, but was she a Hindu Christian or a Muslim Christian? The women of the village wrapped her body in linen and covered her with scented oil and flower petals. Evan wept for three days while the villagers argued. Elders Sanchez and Haslam sat at the entrance to the flat, sleeping on the porch, waiting. It rained. Evan couldn’t sleep. He watched the feint light come and go and could eat nothing. The arguing continued, sometimes a village elder would push his face into the room where Evan was sitting next to the corpse and shout something, or spit.
“Some of the men are upset about your preaching Christ to their children,” Elder Sanchez explained. “They see this as god’s way of punishing you.”
“We were only reading,” Evan said without much emotion.
“To some Muslims, that is an offense against god.”
Water from the rain gathered at the doorway, a rivulet formed and moved underneath Meredith, where it began to pool. Evan struggled to move his body to a dry spot where he curled up and began to pray, to ask god to forgive him of his pride, a pride that had gone back years and blackened his insides, sooted his touch and burned into despair, the last bit of wick in a candle until the light goes out. His head fell back against the wall. He lifted it and let it fall back again, pain shooting through his eyes. He slumped forward, grasping his knees and succumbed to the weight of his past, supplicating, petitioning God’s attention, mumbling the way he used to talk to Meredith in their youth, the woman who had taught him how to talk but could not teach him how to listen, not in fifty-one years of marriage, not until she was gone. His voice slowed, a tractor pulling uphill until the gravity is more than the combustion and it stalls. Evan fell asleep.
There’s a moment of grayness in the fields between the sunset and that time when the stars come out, Evan felt himself drifting among it, not knowing that he was asleep. He was a boy, dressed in white, standing up to his waist in the Snake River. His father pushed him under and he kept his eyes open, staring at the sun through the filter of green waves and feeling so hot that he thought the sun was burning through the thick water. He awakened to a small boy pulling on his arm; Kumar. “Please sir to follow; they have taken the wife of Jesus sir.”
Evan wanted to get up quickly, but his body wouldn’t let him, he got to his knees first, then stood, tottering for a moment and moved out the door. Elders Sanchez and Haslam are there. The rain has stopped, but the clouds remain, shackling the light from reaching the earth.
“Nothing we could do,” Elder Haslam said. “The Minister of Health said there could be disease. The Mission President said we have to abide by their laws. The old men consented so long as we don’t preach in this village anymore.”
“But where are they taking her?” Evan asked, his mouth so dry he could barely speak.
“Anthyeshti,” Elder Sanchez said. “Hindu funeral. Can you walk?”
“Yes, Evan said.
Kumar was tugging at his arm “Time of day sir, we must hurry.”
Weak and stiff from lack of sleep and food, Evan struggled to put one foot in front of the other, but soon his blood was pumping and he began to walk a little faster. They rounded a corner in the tight village and came upon the gray procession. Meredith’s body, laid out on the door, was held on the heads of six men, moving slowly, sweat dripping from their faces became caked with red dust from the brick factory where they’d worked all day, like blood trickling from their rag crowns as they bore their load—a white woman, round and heavy, a woman whom they had hardly known, yet a woman who had been the wife of Jesus-sir, who read of God to the children before being swept off the earth. A cool wind kicked up, but Evan was certain only he could feel it. The hairs on his arms stood up under the electricity of Meredith’s thoughts. Or maybe it wasn’t Meredith that was thinking about him, maybe it was Jesus; maybe it had been Jesus all these years, waiting. A few torches lit the way through the darkness. Kumar grabbed Evan’s hand and held it to his wet face. Evan reached down and lifted the boy up, held him in his arms as they shuffled along. Evan could feel his own heart beating against the heart of this small boy, he could feel Meredith in the crook of his arm, her hand where it had always been when they walked together, her warmth next to him, her way of guiding him without leading him as they moved in a crowd toward the park, to their place on the hill for the fireworks every fourth of July; Meredith cradling the baby in one arm, her free hand clinging to Evan, and Evan the father, holding his first son over his shoulder, covering his eyes as fireworks burst into the sky above them, as the flames burned away the darkness. It was so beautiful Evan wept.
“Jesus sir,” Kumar whispered into Evan’s ear. “For the door, you could forgive?”
“Yes,” Evan said, the night becoming almost as day with the funeral pyre burning; a sun floating just over the muddy fields, waves of humidity tumbling across its face. “Yes, I could forgive.”