CHAPTER 8

After a short orientation at the mission home, I traveled by bus to Socorro, a small fishing village on the western coast. My senior companion, Elder Jenkins, met me at the depot, a shack with a makeshift sign. It was spring weather, blue sea, blue skies. It was hard to believe that forty-eight hours earlier I’d been trudging through a snowstorm in Utah. Along the docks, sun-wrinkled fishermen dragged in their nets. Silverscaled fish glistened in wooden trays of ice. I remember walking the dusty streets that first day, the vendedores selling fresh fruits and sugared pastries, fat flies buzzing about, mangy mutts doing their duty on every corner. One image that will remain with me forever: a living skeleton. She was crouching in front of the bakery, a shawl over her head, a ragged dress half-hiding her toothpick body. As Elder Jenkins and I approached she gazed up at us and smiled pathetically, her mouth a cruel Halloween gag. My face sickened, betraying my parochialism: I had never seen true starvation before. She held out a skinny, vein-rippled hand, her palms black-seamed like a mechanic’s, and grunted incomprehensibly. Her eyes were hard-boiled eggs bulging out of cavernous sockets. I heard a faint cry from underneath her rags; then a tiny, shriveled fist reached out. It opened like a little flower, groping, then closed tight.

Elder Jenkins looked aside and walked on, apparently oblivious. I remember thinking: You callous jerk! I stooped and gave the woman an apple I’d just purchased from the fruit vendor. Elder Jenkins glanced back at me through his Poindexter glasses and shook his head. Defiantly, and rather self-righteously, I fished into my pocket and gave the woman a handful of pesos. I got Jenkins’ point, though, when rounding the corner we confronted a gauntlet of villagers in similar rags, hands out, gazing up at us with impoverished eyes and toothless smiles. Okay, Elder. Vale la pena. I can’t feed everyone.

Socorro was tiny. By mid-January Elder Jenkins and I had visited every home a dozen times. No baptisms, a few reluctant encounters. The days were long, the work slow, and the routine tedious: up at six, on with the suit and tie, prayer, scripture study, breakfast (warm multi-colored milk on pseudo-American cereal), hit the streets, knock on doors till noon, prayer, tortillas and beans, companion study, more prayer, a short siesta, more doors, more tortillas and beans (with a little fish or chicken maybe), more doors, more prayers, bed. The rose may have been blossoming in the rest of Mexico, but in Socorro it never formed a bud. Most people politely told us to get lost. A few swore at us in Spanish. Every day I was feeling less and less like an emissary of Jesus and more and more like a salesman, the only difference being that I was trying to peddle religion instead of insurance. When I confessed my feelings to Elder Jenkins, he shrugged: “You’ll get used to it. You just haven’t caught the vision yet.” It was easy for him to say. In four months he would be flying home to Vernal, Utah. He was incontrovertibly “trunky.” His bags were packed, he was counting the days.

I tried to catch the vision but caught the Revenge instead. As I lay in bed, pale, febrile, my once muscular body shrinking as my insides leaked out both ends, I kept asking myself, What am I doing here? Why am I trying to sell these people something they obviously don’t want? If I could offer them something tangible- food, money, a better shot at life … But this. Will religion fill the empty belly of that woman squatting in the dirt? Or hush her infant’s hungry cry? Does it offer these poor people anything here and now, or am I just dangling carrots to string them endlessly along with empty words? Faith, hope, charity. The Savior offered living water; we let the body wilt and wither.

One night, when my fever was burning like a furnace, I rolled over in bed and pressed my face to the window of our tiny quarters. I saw a fat full moon bleeding apocryphally as the sky darkened in the west. Then a miracle: snow on the streets, shriveling fast. Eggs on a hot griddle. Then I saw myself sprinting for the finish line, racing animals of all sizes, Noah’s ark released. Galloping alongside me is a centaur wearing the head of Harry the Horse. I close my eyes and lose him in the dust. I see the Swiss flag, the Red Cross backwards, and standing underneath, arms folded, the Fuhrer with a ten-gallon hat, chaps, and a goatee. Who does he think he’s fooling, smiling and shaking hands like that? He puts his arm around me and asks for my temple recommend. Who does he think he’s fooling? He directs me to a sign: MORMONS, in six languages. Something is burning, barbecued. Black clouds mushroom over Vesuvius. A door opens and my father walks out on his hands. His legs are bloody stumps. Seeing me, he nods and hollers: “Don’t tell them anything, Jon! Not a damn thing!” I have nothing to tell. A Purple Heart shines on his naked chest. His head is shaved bald save a scalplock. “Not a damn thing, Jon!” I follow the flock. Looking up, I see a hole in the sky slowly widening. A huge hand reaches down and gently scoops up the wounded, like baby chicks. I rush over, hoping to be included, but the hand artfully avoids me. Like radar. A soul detector. I note the dirt under the fingernails. Cracks, scabs, calluses. When I crouch down and look up, checking for the sure sign, the hand clenches shut.

“Jon?” “Jonathan?” “Jon?” I woke up shivering-an inner blizzard. The sweat that had drenched me turned to frost. There were voices. Soft and dirgelike. First thought, I’m dead. Second, Good. Then a face loomed overhead, big and bloated, like a head stuffed in a bottle. Its mouth opened, a ring of fangs. I raised my right arm to the square and screamed: “No! Buzz off, Satan!” Talons gripped my shoulder. “Elder! It’s okay! El medico estd aquzi!

The doctor? Yes. Si. Muchas gracias.

Missions are supposed to strengthen your faith, but after a month in Socorro, mine had dwindled to a token vestige. I had naively assumed that once I donned the black-and-white uniform I would magically be converted into God’s agent on Earth. My college-educated mind knew better, but still I was hoping. Miracles, conversions, healings at my hands .. . Instead I was anxious, frustrated, and carrying guilt like a mad jockey on my back. I could feel him kicking my ribs and lashing my backside as Elder Jenkins and I walked the sandy streets, when we knelt in prayer morning and night, as we gobbled down tortillas and beans. After a month I wanted out. I wanted to go home. But that only added to the guilt I’d dragged down south with me. Nevertheless, in my heart I was hoping for a swift but honorable release.

The answer to my prayer came my sixth week in the field when President Adams drove 300 miles from the mission home to personally inform me of my mother’s death. “Was this expected?” he asked, surprised and bewildered by my stone-faced response. “Elder Reeves?”

I shook my head but answered, “Sf,” further confusing him. It was like the day I’d learned of Nancy’s death, a delayed reaction. Mter-shock. President Adams quoted some scriptures to console me. If they live, they live unto me; and if they die, they die unto me. He reassured me that someday I would join my mother in the hereafter.

“Soon?” I asked, with a half-hope that visibly disturbed him. He didn’t realize that now I had two deaths on my head. Those were my thoughts at the time. Death as the dark deliverer, a punishment for my selfishness. My mother’s blood-money. Jon, you’ve done it again!

“Elder? Elder, why don’t you sit down a moment-you look … you don’t look too good.” I liked and trusted President Adams, perhaps because he lacked the polished, well-fed look that seemed to characterize mission presidents. Short, slight, and shifty-eyed, with a five o’clock shadow, he looked more like a fugitive cowboy than the local mouthpiece of God. After expressing his condolences for the third time, he explained that although missionaries were prohibited from calling home, in special cases like this …

The connection was bad. My father’s voice crackled over the phone. “Jon?” he said, weakly. “Are we going to make it?”

I sucked in a deep breath, ran a hand underneath my dripping nose. “Sure, Dad. We’ll make it.

President Adams then informed me that, under the circumstances, I would have the option of going home now or completing the rest of my mission.

Home? My mother was gone, Nancy was gone. “Mi casa estd aquf,” I said, and President Adams smiled, mistaking irony for godly dedication.

My father put in his two cents worth: “Finish your mission, Jon. It’s what your mother would have wanted.”

Tiene rázon, I thought. He’s got a point.

After my mother died, the jockey on my back went crazy. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t anything. I finally met with President Adams and confessed a whole litany of sins, hoping this might purge the gunk from my soul: a Milky Way bar I’d stolen from the 7-Eleven when I was eight; the kitten I’d murdered in the name of philanthropy; a roommate at BYU I’d bullied intellectually; the hell I’d caused my mother, hastening her demise. And Nancy. I told him everything-the Preference Dance, the pole vault pit, her marriage and its tragic aftermath. It was the first time I’d shared this with anyone.

President Adams eyed me gravely. “Elder,” he said, “you did not murder that girl! Do you understand that?”
I bowed my head and whispered, “Yes,” but not very convincingly.

“Do you believe that, Elder?”

I shook my head. No, President.

“You say there was a cliff by a river with some big rocks at the bottom and she jumped-”

“Dived,” I corrected.

“Jumped, dived-how can you be so sure it was intentional?”

“She couldn’t swim, President! What was she doing up there if she wasn’t . .. she had no business otherwise … ”

“Regardless, Elder, regardless. Accident or intentional, you’ve got to stop blaming yourself. The only person guilty of anything is that girl, who-”

“Then she’ll be damned?”

President Adams’s quick little eyes peered into mine, searching for the core. “The Lord doesn’t damn anyone, Elder. There is no hell in his plan.”

“But what’s going to happen to her?”

“Do you believe the Savior suffered and paid for the sins of the world?”

I paused only a moment. “Yes, President.”

His ranch-tanned hand reached across the burnished desk and gripped mine awkwardly by the fingers. “Elder, the Lord forgives you for any part in this. Now, please, you’ve got to forgive yourself.”

“But what about-”

“The Lord’s just, but he’s merciful too.”

“This was different,” I said, pleading, appealing. “She was different. Totally.”
“Well, obviously there were extenuating circumstances. Can we leave it in the Lord’s hands?”

He rose from his padded chair, but instead of the customary handshake across the desk, he walked around it and met me face-to-face. I looked down at the carpet, fire-red. “Does this mean … she’ll go to the Lowest-Low, with liars and thieves and whoremongers? Because if she does, I belong down there with her!”

“Elder!”

“No! I do!” I said.

I don’t remember whose arms went out first, but as we stood there locked in one another’s embrace, my chin resting on his short shoulder, my tears splashing on his crisp, dark suit, a terrible wonderful warmth rippled through my body. He patted my back tenderly. “I know,” he whispered. “I know. Be strong, Elder. The Lord loves you. We’re not accountable for knowledge we haven’t received. Your friend will have a chance to hear the gospel and be baptized. Her sins can be washed away.” I looked up a moment, hopeful. “Baptized?”

“Of course!”

My chin dropped back onto his shoulder. “I know,” I said, still clinging to him. “But that’s .. . ”

“Yes, Elder?”

“That’s partly what I’m afraid of.”

I returned to Socorro determined to “stick it out” but not thrilled with my prospects. Then two events transpired that totally changed the course of my mission.

The first occurred at the end of January, my third month in Socorro. One night as Elder Jenkins and I knelt for companion prayer, in a sudden flash of inspiration or masochism I suggested we seek out the good people of La Fonda, an even tinier village forty miles from Socorro. To my surprise, Elder Jenkins agreed. He, too, was tired of knocking on the same old doors. As senior companion, he should have been more suspect, for President Adams had neither encouraged nor discouraged us from proselyting there, although he expressly directed us to actively tract in the other surrounding towns, some of which were half again the distance from Socorro.

We took the bus early the next morning, heading into the rising sun. The sky looked like doomsday, black and red, a sailor’s omen. When the bus broke down a mile out of town, we should have taken the hint and turned back. But a little adversity made me more determined. So did the flock of buzzards circling the horizon like black ashes spiraling down a grimy drain. Elder Jenkins began losing enthusiasm, so I bolstered him up with Sunday school homilies: “Shoulder to the wheel, Elder! Oh Babylon, we bid thee farewell!” But it was not duty or honor that was pricking me on. I was in a state of reckless abandon. I simply did not care anymore what happened to me.

We arrived in La Fonda about noon and went straight to the plaza. We set up our portable flannel boards and delivered our pitch. “Hermanos y hermanas, vengan por aca! Tenemos un mensaje muy importante … ”

Customarily, there must not have been much action in little La Fonda,
for the sudden appearance of two tall, blond gringos hollering in the
plaza instantly summoned a large crowd of men, women, and children.
Everything was fine until Elder Jenkins started the Joseph Smith story.
Then someone asked a question, and I said the fatal “M” word. A hush
filled the plaza. Then curses, through gritted teeth: “Mormones! Mormones!”
The crowd of curious onlookers transformed into an angry mob,
screaming and hollering and shaking fists. On the outer perimeter I
noticed the local Catholic priest, a wizened, white-haired man, watching
with folded arms. In his dark cassock, he looked like a death figure from
an Ingmar Bergman film.
Elder Jenkins grabbed his flannel board and converted the metal
fold-up frame into a truncated staff which he brandished in self-defense.
I stood in front of him, ostensibly valiant, and confronted the crowd.
Elder Jenkins urged me to flee. “Elder Reeves! Vamanos!” But I stood
my ground, fanatically baiting them: “Yo se que Jose Smith fue un
profeta de Dios! Yo se que fa igfesia mormona es fa verdadera! Yo se
que . . . ”
At that moment I was not frightened. The adrenaline rushed through
me like high voltage, sending strange vibrations to my milquetoast parts,
but I honestly was not afraid. Nor was I courageous. I secretly hoped
the crowd would surge forward, rip me to shreds, and toss me into the
fiery furnace so I could die a martyr, missionary sticks in hand. In this
way I would at least partly expiate my sins and join my mother in the
wild blue forever.
But God was not going to let me off the hook so easily.
The Book of Mormon tells of three days of earthquakes, tornados,
smoke, and darkness so thick and suffocating that people can’t even
light a candle, after which a voice speaks from the sky, neither loud nor
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angry but “penetrating.” The voice of the Catholic priest conveyed such
resonance when he said, simply: “Deja/os!” Let them go.
Instantly the people backed off, mumbling and murmuring. It took
several minutes, but the crowd gradually dispersed. Elder Jenkins raised
his blue eyes to the sky and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving. The
priest came forward and invited us to dine with him. We accepted but
tactfully avoided any discussion of religion. When he offered us lodging
for the night, we politely declined. He did not tell us never to come back.
I suppose he assumed that even two wet-behind-the-ears gringos had
more sense than that.
For the most part, Catholics in Mexico were apathetic towards the
missionaries. If they didn’t want to talk to us, they simply wouldn’t
answer the door. The incident in La Fonda was an aberration prompted
by the fact that several years earlier a misguided missionary had seduced
the mayor’s daughter. Elder Jenkins and I had reaped the bitter
consequences. We learned this after reporting to President Adams at the
mission home. He instructed us to steer clear of La Fonda, to my
disappointment. I was hoping for a second crack at martyrdom. Not Elder
Jenkins. He was so happy not to have been ordered back to Ninevah that
he took me straight to Maria’s, the best fresh fruit drink stand in town,
and treated me to a pina colada whipped in crushed ice (virgin, of course).
Although my motives were impure, that experience had a profound
effect on me. I’d played the lion of God and had enjoyed it. Soon after
I would play his lamb as well, baptizing my first of many converts.
After four months in Socorro, I was transferred to San Miguel,
another little fishing village on the coast, for six months, and then to the
city of Guadalupe. During my first year in the field, I met people from
all walks and stations. I sat in homes on the outskirts of garbage dumps
and in lavish hacienda-style homes on flowered hilltops. I shared my
message with beggars, fishermen, farmers, teachers, doctors, attorneys,
politicians, executives. I saw wealth and poverty. I saw humility and faith
and courage; deceit, hypocrisy, vanity, greed. I saw life’s varied faces for
the first time.
I saw things that defied logic or science. At a youth conference in
midsummer, hundreds of young Mexican Saints traveled by bus to a vast,
grassy plain in the countryside to hear a local church authority speak.
CHAPTER 8 / 81
The conference was scheduled to begin at 1:00 p.m., but all morning
black clouds gathered overhead- huge, swollen udders that any moment
would burst. The four horizons rumbled ominously. Then, at 1:00 sharp,
the first fork of lightening split the sky.
One of the leaders stood up, a young branch president only a year or
two older than I. I watched in awe as he nervously fingered the black
bangs from his eyes, bowed his head, and, in humble Spanish, asked God
to stay the storm until his servants had spoken. His voice didn’t shake
the earth, it was barely audible, in fact. But there was utter silence in
that country place. It wasn’t half a minute before a blue chink appeared
in the filthy sky, and an arrow of sunlight shot down exactly on the
wooden platform, spotlighting President Guillermo. The blue crack
widened to a chasm, and widened still, until the sky was a vast blue lake
with a dark donut around its perimeter. The sun sat dead-center, a
glorious bullseye. President Guillermo spoke. The horizons bellowed,
and lightning flashed like menacing Ninja swords, but not one drop fell,
and the blue center remained clear until the final amen. Then, as the
crowd gathered up their shawls and blankets and commenced the long
trek home, the dark donut swelled and fattened, blotting out the sun.
As my companion and I mounted our bicycles, the first drops of a
three-day deluge pelleted down.
“Fue un milagro, no?” my companion said, smiling as the fat beads
plastered his brown bangs to his forehead.
A miracle? “Par segura,” I replied.
But I continued to struggle with guilt and uncertainty. In my head I
thought God had forgiven me, but inside I still ached. Every night after
my companion fell asleep I would slip outside and empty out my heart.
I did not pray in formulaic thees and thous. I spoke as if God were
standing beside me, or sitting rather, patiently listening, perhaps in the
way a psychotherapist listens to a patient unload his troubled soul. And
each time, gradually, a familiar peace rippled through me. The desolation
would pass-not permanently, but I knew I was not utterly alone in this.
Still, I grieved, I buried myself in activity, bowing to the great God of
Paradox, losing myself to find myself.
It was during this time that writing became my second savior. I was
constantly writing letters and scribbling in my journal, hitting the
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highlights-conversions, healings, the miracle on the plains-but also
jotting down thoughts, images, flashes of insight, descriptions of peculiar
people I met, bits of dialogue I overheard, spats with my companions,
their odd habits and idiosyncrasies, the old storytellers in the plaza, the
gossiping senoras in their homes. Anything, everything, I wrote it down
before it was lost. I never carried a camera, as most missionaries did. In
fact, I took no snapshots at all. My mission was recorded wholly in print.
I went nowhere without one of the spiral notebooks that quickly piled
up in my cramped quarters. For me, writing was not simply therapeutic.
As I scribbled down thoughts and perceptions, I could feel the ink
speeding through the narrow plastic tube and onto the paper like my
life’s blood.
My journals were private. I made that clear to my companions. As a
result, some of them grew paranoid. Whenever I took up my pen I was
a gunslinger drawing a six-shooter. They would fidget nervously or
conceal their faces behind their scriptures, wondering, no doubt, if I was
recording for posterity some cloddish thing they had said or describing
in unforgivable detail the overnight appearance of a pimple and the
subsequent eruption, at fingertip point-splat!-Df a white smear on the
little tin mirror 1’d nailed to the wall underneath a paper sign: VANITY,
SAITH THE PREACHER …
Mter initiating an underground newsletter featuring anecdotes, editorials,
and “Conversion Stories Your Mission President Never Told
You,” I gained a little notoriety among fellow missionaries. “El Autor”
they called me. The Writer. Or El Poeta, although poetry wasn’t my forte.
Everyday I gained strength and confidence in my unofficial calling.
“Why do you do it?” Elder Riley asked one day. “I mean, I hate
writing!”
“Why do fish swim?” I tossed my head back and laughed, but I
couldn’t account for this frenzy, this obsession, this-sin?
My zone leader, Elder Martin, thought so. One day he grew fed up
or emboldened or both, and asked me to read him an excerpt. I did-a
rather sensuous description of a young woman 1’d seen in the marketplace.
Elder Martin eyed me accusatively. “You shouldn’t write things
like that in your missionary journal! You’re supposed to write spiritual
things!”
CHAPTER 8 / 83
I begged to differ, paraphrasing scriptures in my defense: “Everything
is spiritual to God!” “By little things I make big things come to pass.”
“Say what?”
Someone once said a mission is not all good or all bad, but a mixture.
I suppose that depends on your definition of good and bad. If we’re here
on earth to learn about life, then the parameters of goodness are more
broadly defined. Exposure to the blood and crud of the world isn’t bad.
In fact, it’s essential. To quote my father: “It’ll put hair on your chest!”
But that is a philosophical point, and I prefer to leave philosophy to the
philosophers. I will say that every mission assumes its own texture and
character, as unique as the missionary himself or herself. And every
mission has its peaks and valleys and turning points. In my case, it was
my last ten months that were the most pivotal.
It started with my transfer from Guadalupe to the little town of
Esperanza, in the heart of the Sonora Desert, where I served the balance
of my mission. Here I met poverty in its most elementary form. Tortillas
were the staple. Beans, a luxury. Cars were eyebrow-raisers, futuristic.
The people traveled by burro or on foot. The average home had a dozen
kids, a couple of chickens, a goat, and, like it or not, three or four anemic
dogs that slinked around waiting for scraps. The people earned their
bread by dry farming shriveled stalks of dwarf corn. The harvests were
scanty, the sun punishing. It blazed and beat down like a curse.
Scorching days, chilly nights. Bleak Bare. A few patches of sagebrush,
some cactus, and, on the north end of town, a lone cottonwood tree
whose gnarled, twisted trunk looked as if it were the victim of some
unforgiving torture: a daily reenactment of Gethsemane. Otherwise,
looking out in any direction, your eyes would glide uninterrupted to the
horizon, pausing only for an occasional craggy butte that in the chalky
mist and hallucinogenic haze appeared as a shipwreck in a sea of burning
sand.
My heart went out to these people. They were dirt poor but industrious,
humble, happy, and proud. They wore rags but they were clean.
Their homes were old plywood boxes, but they swept the dirt floors a
dozen times daily. Young and old, everyone worked except Hermano
Vasquez who hobbled from house to house with a fake limp, begging
pesos and earning his keep via his comic antics in the plaza.
84
For Elder Clark and me, it was an austere but enlightening existence.
We lived and ate like paupers. Roosters were our alarm clock. Every
morning when their voices scratched the pre-dawn dark, I would peek
through the window of our upstairs room and watch the first trace of
sun like a drop of blood spreading on the horizon. Then the silhouettes
of the villagers marching to the fields, tools like rifles on their shoulders,
whistling and singing Mexican folk songs. Sometimes Elder Clark and I
would join them, in blue jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. By sunup we would
be sweating double thanks to our underlayer of priesthood garments. A
six-six basketball star and a six-three would-be football star, Elder Clark
and I were giants among these people, yet we could barely keep pace.
They called us lazy boWlus. We called them animales. There was
camaraderie; there was spirit. When someone died, the whole village
suffered. We worked with them; we laughed and cried with them. But
we never converted any of them. They converted us. By that I mean they
taught us far more about simple Christian living than we could ever have
hoped to teach them. Although we didn’t share the same faith, we shared
the same humanity. It was true community.
The individual who most typified this lifestyle was the widow Rodriguez.
She lived in a pastel-colored house at the end of a box canyon
where she, like everyone else in that desert town, relied upon God’s
mercy to create the miracle of corn without water. The day we met her
she was working in her field, a small, spindly woman in a long dark skirt
and peasant blouse with puffy short sleeves the color of the clouds that
perpetually lingered on the horizon, forever promising rain but never
delivering. From a distance she looked thin and frail, but up close I noted
the tough muscles in her skinny forearms as she clubbed the stubborn
soil with her primitive tool. Her hair was bound in back, thick and dark
with a silver skunk streak down the center. She looked about sixty
although she may have been much younger. But I also noticed a subtle
hauteur in her wrinkled old face. Perhaps it was the dark eyes or the
aquiline nose, avatar of some ancient Spanish blueblood.
We greeted her. “Buenas, Senora.” Did she have time to talk? We
had a very important message . . .
“Soy Cat6lica,” she said. Catholic. Okay. Vale. Who wasn’t in this
CHA PTER 8 / 85
dinky village? Still, she courteously put aside her tool and invited us into
her home.
The floor was clay, the furniture crude, homemade: sticks of wood
and branches were artfully lashed together with twine. They would have
brought a nice price in a curio shop back home. As Elder Clark and I
expounded on the Joseph Smith story and El Libra de Mormon, she
made us fresh tortillas. To our empty bellies, the smell was tantalizing.
As we wolfed down her generous offering, she listened with interest and
asked all of the right questions. In the end, though, she restated her
position. “Soy Cat6lica.”
I was impressed with the Hermana and wanted to stay longer.
Motioning towards her half-tilled field, I asked if she could use some
help? Her dark little eyes sparkled. “Ah! Par segura!”
I turned to my companion. “Well, Elder?” He was less enthused than
I, but we spent the rest of the afternoon hoeing her field in the scorching
heat. Later, when I pressed for a follow-up visit, Clark resisted. “You
heard her-soy Cat6lica.” He warmed up to the idea, however, after
discovering the Hermana had five daughters, all beautiful. They were
eleven, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, and a buxom, black-haired seventeenyear-
old who we privately christened “Miss Mexico.”
If my first companion was trunky, my last one was hopelessly horny.
Sunday mornings Elder Clark, typically a late riser, would roust me at
the crack of dawn, hustle me through breakfast and morning study, and
then invent some ludicrous excuse that would position us in front of the
Catholic church, a modest structure heralded by a simple wooden cross,
at roughly 8:00 a.m., just about the time the familia Rodriguez was
completing its mile walk into town for morning mass. When on the fifth
Sunday of these machinations “Miss Mexico” turned and smiled at my
companion, or so he thought, claimed, swore by his soul, he was
incurably smitten.
“I really think the Hermana needs to hear the third charla again,
don’t you? She’s really warming up. I can feel it.”
I obliged because I liked the Hermana, and I wasn’t exactly adverse
to the company of her beautiful daughters either. If I appeared less
interested than Clark, it was only because I was still in recovery, i.e_,
Nancy.
86
We visited the Hermana three or four times a week. After doing some
of the heavier outdoor chores, we would enter her home and repeat yet
another of the missionary presentations. Later, as Clark flirted with Miss
Mexico over tortillas, I would chat with the Hermana who shared with
me the details of her life and her little village. After a year in Mexico, I
was quite proficient in the language, and I could not only fully comprehend
but also make an intelligent contribution to the conversation. I
told her about my life in Ponderosa, where it was perpetually green, and
of my parents, the mother I had recently lost and the father who was
still recovering.
“Yel hijo?” she asked. And the son?
“El tambien.” Him, too.
She said she was sorry. “It hurts me,” she said in Spanish, beating
her fist against her flat chest, “right here!” And I could tell by the way
her topaz eyes reddened that she was not just paying me hospitable lip
service.
She told me about the death of her husband. El Gripe, that ubiquitous
Mexican disease, grabbed him one day and refused to let go. She told
me about the birth of each daughter. She told me how it rained once
for ten days and ten nights and the village was almost washed away, a
la Noah’s flood. And there was the giant cactus that every Easter took
on the shape of the sacred Virgin, and the eagle that would perch atop
the Catholic cross, and the curse of Los Borrachos, the drunkards, who
shot the bird over a bet, and the hundred years of drought that followed.
Each night, religiously, I added her tales and anecdotes to the curious
miscellany cluttering my journals.
The Hermana always fed us prodigiously. For a family of spare means,
there was a miraculously steady flow of tortillas in her home. She was
like the widow with the eternal hoard of oil and flour feeding the prophet
Elijah. Clark and I ate and ate until we had to hoist our swollen bellies
off the dirt floor. Our gargantuan appetites amused the Hermana. She
seemed tickled by the challenge to fill our bottomless pits.
Oliver Cowdery, referring to the time he spent with Joseph Smith,
exulted, “Those were days never to be forgotten!” Such were my feelings
about those afternoons with Hermana Rodriguez and my entire stay in
Esperanza. I grew to love that old woman, that village, those people, the
CHAPTER 8 / 87
desert, the heat. Even cockroaches and scorpions took on a fond
familiarity. At the end of ten months, I did not want to leave. It was a
good, hard, simple life, and a sheltered one as well. If I’d enlisted in the
mission force to escape my past, then Esparanza was an answer to prayer.
It was as near true utopia as I would ever come. Plus other factors were
coming into play. In a recent letter my father casually mentioned he had
sold the house and moved to Palo Alto. Ponderosa was no longer home.
And Juanita Rodriguez, “Miss Mexico,” had begun making eyes in her
deliciously intoxicating Mexican way.
But my time was up. I said goodbyes and reported to President Adams
at the mission home. He expressed some concern over the dearth of
baptisms during my last ten months and gave me some parting counsel.
Then I flew back to the states where I encountered the biggest shock
yet.