Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 21
Whole Other Bodies
Walter Kirn

[327] I remember the time of my family’s conversion, that couple of months before He saved our souls forever. The nights I stayed awake too late in bed, playing my radio under the covers, one of those midnight talk shows with people calling from every state, a plumber from Utah with cancer saying, “Hi, this is Don, I’m a first-time caller, and in response to that doctor from Boston—” And hearing my parents’ bedroom sounds, their noisy bathroom trips night after night, toilet flushes at five in the morning and someone slamming the cabinet, coughing, spilled pills and my father cursing, kicking the wall as they rolled behind the tub. I remember it as a time of no food, nothing in the fridge, and then, the next day, too much food and all the same kind, cheese, say, pounds of it, but not any bread to put it on, my mother lit up in the fridge door, saying, “Cheese is the one thing you can’t have enough of. This family lives on cheese.” And how she would leave all the windows open and blame it on me or my brother Randy until we went over and closed them, but then in the morning those same windows, open again. Satan was with us then, I think, his spirit of confusion. Inside the house you could feel it.

[328] My friends stopped coming over after school, I stopped letting them. What they might see. My father talking back to the newscasts, making fun of the president, or standing out on the porch with his drink, screaming out at the empty yard, “Of course no one listens! I’ve lost my voice!” And whenever the mailman came to the door with a box that wouldn’t fit through the slot, I’d have to open it only partway, blocking his view of how dirty our house was, of dying plants that never got watered because my mother was always in bed. And sometimes I’d be mowing on weekends, cutting up close to the wall of the house, and I’d look through the window at everyone in there, sitting around the table after lunch, wiping their mouths with paper towels and not knowing what to do next, and I’d think: Too bad for them. Too bad for those sad people. But after my mowing I’d go back in and what I’d said outside would hurt me, I wouldn’t like myself then, so I’d just watch cartoons or something, not thinking.

My father wasn’t going to his job. He’d eat a big breakfast with Randy and me like he was about to go, he’d have on his watch and his best red tie, but the school bus would come and he would still be there, pouring new coffee maybe, and when we’d run out to the bus he’d wave good-bye, though he was supposed to be gone by then. Except that something was holding him back, making him lazy.

Only God could have saved how we were then. We had everything modern, sure, a phone in every important room, a new French blender, tilt-back armchairs with three positions, and no matter where you went in the house, even down in the basement, there was always some money lying around, all these extra dimes and quarters that you could just steal and spend on anything. But none of that was helping, nothing we had or owned. We were pretty helpless.

Then the missionaries came. They were there one day when I got home from school, two young men in tight dark suits drinking strawberry Kool-Aid my mother had served them. The living room chairs were grouped in a circle, so Randy and I sat down and joined in, a long conversation about Our Lord and his plan for the [329] American family. The missionaries had short blond hair and slow western voices, their fingernails were pink and all squared off. They said they didn’t mean to put us out, just wanted to make us aware of some things, and my mother and father smiled and nodded with wide, shining looks in their eyes, though their faces still seemed tired around the edges from so many months of trouble. The missionaries asked questions from a book, hard ones about the soul and where we hoped to go after death, then waited quietly with their hands folded while we all gave our answers.

The change was slow in our house and took a while to notice, our soft new way of doing things, with less bumping into each other, less noise. After their four o’clock visits, the missionaries left pamphlets and books, and my mother would open them up before dinner, asking if she could turn off the set because TV wasn’t important now, its news had nothing to do with us—she’d rather go over the truths of the gospel to calm our spirits before we ate. And my brother would do a thing he’d never done and kindly offer to get us all drinks when we finally sat down at the table. And I would pop up and help him, like magic, not feeling lazy at all, as though it was fun to pitch in and a very nice thing to remember afterwards, how I’d pleased my parents.

The missionaries came twice a week on old beat-up bikes with baskets in front, and one time they brought a movie projector and set it up in the living room, shining its beam on the dark wall where we’d taken down a painting of some dancers. In the movie they showed us, a panel of experts talked about decay, the decay of the nuclear family unit, just like we’d been going through, and it was a wonderful thing to learn that decay was happening everywhere, all over the country and all over the world, not just in our house. The missionaries were proud of the movie and kept leaning forward, pointing their fingers, saying how much we’d enjoy the next part because of its special message, and when the movie was over and Randy turned on the lights, the missionaries rubbed their knees and grinned because they knew how deeply we were learning.

One Saturday morning they took us to a park, me and my brother, no grown-ups. We had a picnic. The missionaries had made [330] the food themselves: peanut butter and honey on white bread, celery sticks and pink lemonade, which they drank even more of than we did. The plan was just to sit under a tree and soak up the peace of sun and fresh air, and before we talked about God that day, they asked us about the sports we played, baseball and soccer and hockey, which were their favorite sports too, and they promised to give us tips sometime. Then the tall missionary with the blonder hair told us about when he’d been a kid, that he came from a ranch with dozens of horses and one time a rattlesnake got in the stalls and he used a twelve-gauge shotgun to kill it. The other missionary talked less, just lay on his side sucking celery sticks, and every few minutes he’d pick up a stone and chuck it sidearm and hit the swing set where no one was playing that day.

My brother got sleepy from reading the Bible, but tried not to show it, being polite. The blonder missionary told him not to worry, to curl up and sleep as long as he wanted, we weren’t going to leave the park without him. And while my brother napped on the grass, moving his legs in his sleep, we talked about whether the Holy Ghost could visit a person in dreams, taking the shape of an animal, say, or of a stranger, teaching truths that the person would wake up knowing. And we agreed that this was possible and might even happen someday to one of us.

I started to love the missionaries and so did my mother. She found out when their birthdays were, that they were both in June, and instead of having our lesson one night we drank chocolate milk and played a game where everyone had to wear blindfolds, which fit right in with my mother’s plan to sneak outside and wheel in two new bikes, singing “Happy Birthday.” The missionaries kissed her on the cheek, then on the back of her hand as a joke, while my father rocked in his chair and smiled. He was at peace like I’d never seen him, his face was smooth where it used to have lines, and I dropped my head to give a prayer of thanks, everyone getting down on their knees and my mother crying but not sad, a beautiful woman with wet cheeks when I secretly opened my eyes before “Amen.”

Then it was time for us all to be baptized, a total immersion baptism in deep blue water. We wore white gowns like karate outfits [331] with loose cloth belts. The missionaries gave sermons first and everyone was there, the whole church, a hundred people from different towns who’d set up a table of cold cuts and cheese to eat at the party afterwards. And the sermons spoke of that perfect love which hovers around us always, in the sky, and of how some people ignored this love by always looking straight ahead with pinched, busy faces. But my family hadn’t done that, we’d looked up.

One by one we went under the water. First my father, my tall father, clean and pale as he held his breath and let himself fall backwards, braced against the missionary’s arm. For a time his hair spread out on the water, then it disappeared, and that was the moment when God took him in entirely. It happened to all of us that day.