Sunday, November 25, 2001

Mormons on One Side, Perverts the Other

“And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.”
-The Book of Mormon, Nephi 13:27

    I walked briskly into the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Petaluma, California.  I was a man on a religious mission; October was quickly drawing to a close and I was in desperate need of two copies of the Book of Mormon.  Or at least one.  My buddy Chris and I had decided to be missionary Mormons for Halloween.  We planned on drinking a great deal and then going door to door amongst the trick-or-treaters, telling all who would listen of the evil sinful nature of Hollow’s Eve, how Christ had visited the North American continent after His resurrection, and how they still had time to repent and find the true joy of The Lord if they would just give up whatever they believed in and join us in our trip back to Salt Lake City.  I had already tracked down the short-sleeved white shirt, the black tie, the black backpack, and the bicycle helmet.   However I still had yet to make my “Elder Damian C Cohn, Church of Latter-Day Saints” nametag. And I still needed two copies of the good book.
    I walked right on past the shirts and pants and kitchenware sections as if they didn’t exist: I knew what I wanted.  I had no time to deal with neither rusty muffin tins nor size 42 waist 24 length slacks.  My mind was pure, I would not be tempted.  I cruised right up to the huge, overstuffed bookshelves in the back of the store and begin wading through the romance novels and cookbooks and such.  The store was crowded.  An oldies station was playing Elvis from overhead.  “Blue Suede Shoes”.  “I could use some new shoes,” I suddenly thought, beginning to turn my head toward the shoe racks but then I immediately killed the thought, violently destroying all its dangerous thought trees concerning shoes and Elvis and blue suede as well, for what did any of them have to do with the Book of Mormon? 
    Meanwhile, 2824.2 miles away at the exact same moment (although the clocks said that it was three hours later, but that’s just their math...) Isabell Ingham strolled lightly down a busy street in Washington DC, knowing exactly what she wanted as well; a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes.  She had been busy sewing all morning and was now headed toward a small gas station about four blocks from her new apartment that had both.  The sun was out overhead and she could hear birds chirping from the tall trees scattered all about and even the passing noisy traffic seemed somehow cheerful to her.  She imagined the engines smiling inside the passing metal bodies, the pavement groaning with pleasure as it received the continuous massage from all those rolling tires.  Although she was wearing high-heeled sandals she was still making remarkable progress, fueled on high spirits and carried along by long, powerful legs.  For the first time since she had arrived in DC three weeks earlier she was wearing something other than jeans and a sweater. 
She had decided that morning to sport a long hip-hugging green and blue plaid dress, one that she had made herself, like she had almost all of the clothes that she actually enjoyed wearing.  The sun and breeze felt soothing and invigorating on her bare shoulders while her hands felt warm and safe in the large pockets she had built into the front of the dress.  All that this day needed was a little coffee and a cigarette and she knew just the place.  She quickened her pace a bit.  She was finally beginning to feel at home in DC.  And she hadn’t thought about me in over a week. 
    Meanwhile I was busy looking over the book selection.  To the right of me an old woman was flipping through the LP’s.  We both searched a while and then she snatched one up and sighed in satisfaction, taking the vinyl out of the sleeve for inspection.
    “Just what you were looking for?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes,” she replied, holding the record gingerly by its edges with gnarled fingers. “Perry Como is Home for the Holidays” is what it said on the cover, and Perry was indeed spending his Christmas at home, pictured wearing a Santa hat in front of his fireplace to prove it.  “My copy’s ruined, you see.”  She bent her neck forward so that she could inspect the grooves more carefully, holding it now inches from her nose.  “Hmmmm..... it’s got one bad scratch though, see?” she held the disk out for my inspection.  It didn’t look so bad to me, certainly better than “ruined”.
    “Yeah....” I said, “doesn’t look too deep though, and only through that one track.  You probably won’t even be able to tell.”
    “Well,” she said, sounding unsure, “maybe you’re right.”
    “After all, it’s only fifty cents.” I added.
    “Well, that’s true,” she said sounding even more unsure and slightly sad.  Suddenly I felt as if that was something that I shouldn’t have said; maybe she was a poor old woman to whom fifty cents meant a lot, even worse maybe she was a senile old woman who’s mind had never adjusted with inflation and I had become the smart mouthed young punk reminding her that the world she thought that she lived in did not exist anymore.  I decided that I should share something too in order to smooth out the situation.
    “I’m looking for the Book of Mormon.”
    “Yep.  I’ve been all over town and I haven’t had any luck yet.  All the actual book stores are out and I guess if you have extra copies of the Book of Mormon then you probably think that they’re sacred, and then you wouldn’t be able to stand the idea of them sitting around sharing musty bookshelves in stores like this one with...” I grabbed a book, “Managing Presidential Campaigns in the Television Era.””
    “Yes, I suppose not...” replied the old woman, her voice distant as if she were somehow talking with her mouth closed.  I suddenly realized that this woman was OLD and therefore probably had at least some belief in some sort of Holy Scripture.  Perhaps she was even Mormon herself.  Strike two!  I just couldn’t win.  I decided to give up trying not to offend this woman.  Some things are just unavoidable.
    “Would you have any idea where I could find two copies of the Book of Mormon?”  I asked.
    “I don’t know, but I’m sure they’d be glad to tell you!” she replied with a little sarcastic laugh at the end.  This made me feel a lot better.  Perhaps this woman had some animosity toward the overbearing door-to-door tactics of the Mormons, resenting their intrusive nature.  Perhaps she wasn’t such a delicate old prude after all!
Then she continued on, “I have one friend who could tell ya.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked with hesitation.
“Yeah.  She’s one of them.  You could ask her. She’d be happy to tell you all about it.”
“Hmmmm..,” I said.  I wasn’t sure quite what to make of that one.  Was I about to receive the home phone number of some Mormon? 
“Why do you need two of them, anyway?” she asked.
“Well, my friend and I are going to be Mormons for Halloween.  We’re going to go door to door telling everyone how evil Halloween is and stuff like that.”
“Oh....” said the old woman, looking me in the eye for the first and last time during our conversation, “well then I would never let you talk to any of my friends.”  She held the angry bloodshot stare for a brief moment and then turned and stomped away, leaving Perry Como smiling at me from inside his cozy living room.
Strike three and she was out of there.
I mentally shrugged my shoulders and laughed quietly to myself and was slipping the old woman’s record back into its sleeve just as Isabell caught her first glimpse of the Exxon station she was so looking forward to reaching just a few blocks ahead.  She imagined the coffee just sitting there on the counter in a paper cup with her name on it and the cigarette already lit and hanging in the air waiting for her to catch it between two fingers and take the first drag.  That thought sat so sweet in her mind that she almost didn’t want to reach the gas station at all, just this easy walk on warm DC pavement toward the promise of something even better on into eternity. 
Then a yell from a passing truck kidnapped Isabell from the cozy digs of her imagination and spat her out back into the reality of her tall, vulnerable body walking down the street only partially covered by tight fabric.  She hadn’t heard what the man had said but she didn’t have to.  It was simply another howl from another passing stray.  They thought her beautiful, and this was how they told her; by hollering gibberish from wheeled machinery; by giving her those looks that didn’t say “hi there” but “I want to fuck you” instead, by making suggestive drunken comments about how she should do some modeling...... “in my bedroom”, pant pant, stuff like that. Always lots and lots of stuff like that. 
After she finished cringing she stopped a minute and squatted down to adjust her sandal.  When she got back up the whole event was like a dream that hadn’t happened.  She had gotten quite good at doing that with the memories of all the perverts.  At first it took a few days, but now she had it down to just minutes.  Perhaps soon she would learn to make the perverts disappear before they even arrived.  That would be nice, she thought. 
Then she looked ahead of her and: there was the Exxon station!
She had arrived and was walking through the door and she hadn’t really realized it yet.  The door chime sounded and she smelled the warm aromas of various coffees and pastries.  From behind the counter came a deep welcoming “Greetings, Isabell!”  The voice sounded dark and rich with Columbian accents and just enough sugar.  Classical music played quietly like a gently passing sound stream underneath the whole scene.  Multicolored packs of delicious cigarettes lined the wall behind the counter, and sugary and salty goodness hung ripe for picking from the store’s three isles.  Isabell had reached her oasis.  
Perhaps DC was alright after all.
“Hello there, Ali!” came Isabell’s voice.  “So nice to see you!”
“Yes, always it’s pleasure to see you too, Isabell,” replied Ali, his thick Indian accent transforming her name to sound like “ease able”.   “How is the DC treating you today?  Well, I hope.”
“Right now I am feeling wonderful, darling,” she said. Her voice was quiet and carefully articulated, like it always was.  Isabell had never raised her voice at anyone in her entire life.  “I simply adore your new classical backdrop.”
“Ah, you like?  I bought some new CDs yesterday.  I was tired of the popular rock and roll.”
“Well, it sets off your store just perfectly,’ she replied.  “Soon I’ll fix this lighting up and your store will be a grand palace!”
 The first day that Isabell stopped in to Ali’s gas station Ali had told her that his name meant “friend” in his native language, and over the following few weeks Ali indeed became one of Isabell’s favorite new friends.  Every morning she would stop for coffee there and they would trade the stories of their lives that had led them both to Washington DC.  Isabell loved hearing Ali’s tales of his family’s recent journey from India to the United States and she had many tales of her own to tell, having lived in British Columbia, Wisconsin, California and now DC.  For the past couple of weeks they had been discussing the possibility of Isabell being paid to redo the lights in the store, having had varied experience in the art and of craft of interior design.  Ali was more open-minded than most gas station owners and Isabell thought it a neat opportunity, figuring that no one had ever given much thought to creative lighting schemes for Exxon stations. 
“Yes, I wish you to start right away,” said Ali, his voice full of honest enthusiasm.  “You can do whatever you wish.  I like your idea for long bubbly tubes,” he said, pointing a small dark finger all along the perimeter of the store’s ceiling. 
Originally Isabell had been joking about the tubing idea.  She told Ali of her experience with designing the lighting for night clubs and coffee shops and then Ali asked her what she would do with his store had she the opportunity.  Isabell took one look over her shoulder at the store’s interior and then told Ali that she had a friend in Milwaukee who knew how to make this liquid-filled plastic tubing that carried light using fiber-optics and bubbles using small pumps and that he should run a network of this multicolored tubing all around his ceiling and down the corners so that the whole place could resemble a giant inside-out jukebox.  Then she said that he should only play music by Elvis Presley on the store’s intercom.  
She laughed quietly to herself after telling him all of this.  “Only in Isabell Land could the inside of a gas station be a giant inside-out juke-box,” she had thought. But when she looked up at Ali’s face he was just smiling and nodding a slow, amazed ‘yes’.  He told her to find out how much he would need to pay for such an arrangement and Isabell told him that she would, indeed.  During the following days she had called her friend and priced it out, and now it was only a matter of when.
“Yes, my friend said he will be here in town visiting relatives ‘round about next week,” replied Isabell as she pumped herself some coffee into a large paper cup.  “He says that he would like to come in Tuesday to check the place out.”
“Yes, yes,” he replied, “Tuesday would be perfect.  Later in the evening is okay?  Then it is less busy.”
“Sure thing, Ali, sure thing,” she replied, but her mind was now deeply embedded in the concoction of the perfect cup of coffee.   She was adding very measured amounts of milk, white chocolate and cinnamon into the cup, taking little sips after each addition.  By the time she was finished and walking up to the register Ali already had her pack of Marlboro lights out on the counter. 
“Right on, Ali.” said Isabell.  “So, how much is it then?”
“Well, I will give you special employee discount since you will soon be employee of mine, I only charge you the cigarettes, so it is $4.23 with the tax.”
“Why thank you, my dear.” she replied, pulling a crumpled five out of one of the deep front pockets of her dress. 
As Ali rang up the change he added “I may have another job for you, actually.  Something else I would like to pay for you to do.”
“Oh,” replied Isabell as she looked up at him curiously, “and what would that be?”
“I would very much like to pay to watch you sleep.”
“To watch me sleep?” she asked, her eyes widening, her posture stiffening underneath the dress. 
“Yes, my dear, I will pay very highly just to watch as you sleep.  That is all, there will be nothing else.  I promise.  You will just sleep and I will watch.  We will not have to tell my wife.”
The moment just hung there between them, over the counter, the symphony orchestra hesitating, carefully developing a quiet passage.  Ali just stared at Isabell’s form, his eyes like that of a child’s gazing at a coveted object in a toy store window. 
He had been a good boy all year and now he wanted a sleeping Isabell for Christmas. 
“You.......” Isabell muttered quietly, laughing nervously while shaking her head.  “You fucking little.......”  She angrily tossed the cigarettes against the right side window of the store.
“Isabell! No! I didn’t mean for anything wrong!” implored Ali from behind the counter. “I am so sorry!  Forget I say anything!”
“You......” she repeated, struggling for words through fresh tears, “you fucking.....”.  The words still did not come.  She stood there, red-faced, breathing heavily.  Perverts, perverts, perverts.  The whole world was comprised of nothing but creepy filthy desperate little perverts.  
“PERVERT!” screamed Isabell, squeezing the paper cup until the top popped off and burning hot coffee ran down the sides of her hand like lava from a volcano.  She watched for a moment without wincing as the coffee seared her skin and then dumped the whole thing over onto the counter.
The coffee flooded over both sides of the counter.  Some of it splashed onto Ali’s hands and pants causing him to scream something in his native tongue.  Now the air smelled even more like coffee than before, this time with just enough white chocolate and cinnamon added.
Isabell pushed her way through the double doors and out of that gas station forever just as I realized that there was another bookshelf on the other side of the Salvation Army Thrift Store.  I had been in that store probably close to a hundred times, yet I had still forgotten about the other shelf.   As I walked through the clothes racks toward the shelf “Blue Suede Shoes” finished on the intercom and was replaced by “Jailhouse Rock.” 
“KLVS, all Elvis, all the time,” I muttered to myself in a faux announcer’s tone. A woman trying on a large straw hat in the mirror let out a little laugh.  She was tall and beautiful.  I begin to think of Isabell for a second but then I stopped:  What does she have to do with the Book of Mormon?  Isabell isn’t a Mormon!
As I sternly scanned the rows of hardbacks I began to hear voices.  The wall ended right above the book shelving and the voices were coming from the other side of the wall, where the employees sorted out and priced the donations for sale. 
“Did you hear about that tree that fell yesterday and killed that boy?” asked a man’s voice.
“Yeah, here in Petaluma, right?” replied a woman’s voice.
“How did it kill him?” asked the woman.
“Fell right on top of him.” came the answer.
“Wow,” said the lady, “I wonder what that looked like....”
I had to laugh at that one.  I have a very loud laugh.  It often gets me into trouble.
“Hey, you listening to us over there,” said the man, slightly irritated.
“Yep,” I replied. 
“Oh,” said the woman laughing, “I’m sorry.” 
“Hey, don’t be sorry,” I said, “That was quite a beautiful thought.  That’s why I laughed.”
The woman laughed again, “alright, alright” she said.
I suddenly realized that there was no Mormon literature in this store.  Plenty of cranky old ladies and Elvis tunes and weird dialogue but no Book of Mormon.  With that I immediately turned and walked toward the front entrance. 
Why couldn’t I find a copy of the bloody Book of Mormon?  I have heard that in many parts of the country every hotel room is stocked with a free copy.  Well, I wasn’t going to give up yet.  If there were any in this rotten town I was going to have to hit the streets with a vengeance to uncover them and I had no time to lose.
I pushed my way through the front door and marched on through the sunny streets of downtown.  All about me was the swirl of people high on weekend activities, most with variously shaped stuffed shopping bags in tow, almost all in boy/girl man/woman pairings.  Smiles and sunglasses on their faces, they crossed streets, entered and exited stores and coffee shops, trying not to think of Monday, trying to be happy.  They all seemed to be ignoring me.  Then a couple walked past, an older man with a younger woman, who did seem to notice me.  They were both staring at my face.   Then I passed another couple: same thing.  I then realized that I was talking to myself, about my Mission.
“Gotta be a temple in one seems to know where it is........hey what about that religious bookstore in Santa Rosa........” I muttered to myself as I approached the place where my car was parked.  I got the keys out of my pocket and before I knew it I was in and pulling out into traffic. I am the worst parallel parker on Earth, always leaving my car at some obscene angle that is probably technically illegal, but it makes it real easy to pull out because I’m barely in there in the first place.
I was only three blocks from downtown, in a little residential neighborhood when I saw them.  There were three of them, all the same height, one following the other like a line of ants attracted to the honey of spiritual possibility in the doorway to some house.  They all had black ties and backpacks and nametags and short haircuts.  Everything but the bicycle helmets.
“Holy Shit!”  I of course exclaimed and immediately pulled over.  Luckily I didn’t have to parallel park.  Running into these guys was shurely a sign, a blessing from God maybe, and I didn’t want to waste any time.  I leapt from the car and crossed the street.
.  I tried to act casual as I eavesdropped, leaning against a mailbox while I pretended to search my pockets for a cigarette. They were just starting in on their spiel.  An older man in blue polyester slacks and a white t-shirt was standing behind the screen door looking quite impatient.
“HELLO SIR!” called out the first ant.  The overbearing volume of his voice made it sound like he had taken too many voice training classes back in Utah.
“hello...” came the hesitant gravely voice from behind the screen door.
“HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” asked Captain Confidence.  The other two just stood behind him trying to make silent eye contact through the screen door.  ‘This is great!’, I thought, ‘I’m gonna follow these guys all day and really learn this part!’
“okay.....” came the voice, “how are you?...”
“yesIknowwhoyouareandI’mnotinterested,thankyouverymuch.” the man said quickly as if he was speed-reading a cue card and then slammed the door.
The Mormons lingered on the porch for a few moments and then solemnly turned an about face and marched in reverse order down the steps.  They seemed sad, a bit defeated, but you could tell that they had been through this and worse an infinite number of times since they left home for their Mission.
 They had just a tiny period of mourning and then that wide-eyed look of Hope and Enlightenment returned to their faces as they hit the sidewalk.  They were walking right toward me.  ‘Oh shit, here we go!’ I thought.
“Hi!” I said to them as they walked past me.  The last one in line, “Elder Michael” it said on his nametag, said a small pleasant “hi,” back, but he was eyeing me with intense suspicion, and seemed to be looking over my shoulder at something.  Then I heard a heavy low voice behind me.
“Excuse me sir.”
I turned around.  On the other side of the mailbox was a man in over-alls, a straw hat and a big white beard just standing there in the street. 
“Yes?”  I answered.  What was this?  What did this man want?  The Mormons were escaping to some obviously rented shiny automobile.  ‘So, that’s  why they didn’t; have the helmets,’ I thought.  ‘Perhaps it would be more realistic if Chris and I got a rented car instead of using our bikes.....’
“Is that your car over there?” the man asked.  He had a half smile in the middle of his white beard.  The man looked a little rural even for Petaluma.  If he had had a pitchfork in his hand I would have assumed he was trying out his Halloween costume early.
“You mean the old blue SAAB?” I asked, while thinking to myself what an inopportune time it was to run into another old car freak.  He probably would want to know what year it was and how many miles it had.   Oh well, the Mormons seemed to be slipping my grasp anyway.  “It’s a ’79,” I said, unable to hold back the proud tone that all men use when talking of their automobiles. 
“Well, it just crashed into that little trailer right over there.” he said, still smiling.
“What?” I asked.  I followed his extended finger and sure enough there was my car smack dab up against the back of a small flat-bed trailer about two driveways down from where I had parked it.  I quickly realized that in my Missionary haste I had forgotten to leave the car in gear (my emergency break was broken) and it had rolled forward, gaining momentum over the distance of about 20 feet and then colliding with the parked trailer.
“Oh, shit.” I said.  The Mormons were halfway in their car, but were staring at me now, curious to see what was up.   I looked back at the bearded man and he was staring at me also, still with the same smile on his face.  I figured that perhaps he was tipping me off, signaling me with his knowing grin, that I should take off before the owners of the trailer came out of the house.  He was trying to help me out of a jam.  It didn’t look like there had been any damage to either craft, my rubber bumper resting neatly against the back of the trailer, yet still I was not in the mood to deal with the hassle of exchanged insurance information.  Plus I was still flush with all the instincts I had acquired from all my years without automobile insurance.  I decided to run for it.
“Well,” I said to everyone, “time to make my escape!”  I said this loudly so that the Mormons might hear.  I can’t help it, whenever I get around religious folks I always seem to have to flaunt my amoralistic behaviors.  I wasn’t going to do the “right” thing, I was going to do the logical thing!  After all; I could basically tell that there wasn’t any damage to that rugged looking trailer, and, most importantly, I knew that there was no “God” watching from above and that we create our own moral universes.  I was going to drive on out of there and avoid a whole lot of unnecessary hassle.
I was the enlightened one.
I hopped in my car and started her up  I had left the keys in the ignition..  The Mormons were still staring in my direction.  They all had smiles on their faces now too.  Then I noticed that the man in the farmer costume was approaching my car.  He walked right up to my open window.
“This is my trailer you know,” he stated simply and quietly, still with his little-bit-more-than-Mona-Lisa grin quite intact.  I felt my guts constrict and sweat droplets immediately beginning to push their way through pores on the back of my neck.  This man had been testing me!  I looked over at the Mormons.  They were finally getting into their car.  The last one looked back at me with that same smile before he slammed the backdoor shut behind him.  Before I had taken the smile to be somehow conspiratorial, but now I realized that this was the sarcastic smile of God, laughing at me through these faces as I tried to weasel my pathetic way out of another jam in the most “logical” way possible. Now I was going to have to pay.
I looked back up at the wide face of the man.  Of course it was still smiling also.  I would see that face in my nightmares.  I wondered if his smile meant that he was crazy and about to clock me one.  Oh well, I guessed I sort of deserved it.
“Oh man, I’m sorry.”  I placed my hand over my face in embarrassment.  I was also kind of hoping that when I removed my hand the man would be gone.  He wasn’t.  “Here,” I continued, “I’ll pull my car back and we’ll see if there were any damages.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said in a hushed tone.
“No, I insist.  I feel like such an asshole,” I pleaded.  The man just smiled back. 
Then I realized: perhaps the smile HAD been conspiratorial after all!  Perhaps the man had realized that he would have done the same thing had he been in my shoes.  I decided to level with him.  Perhaps he would find my situation humorous.  I would tell him of my Halloween plans, how I spent my entire day looking for Mormon gear and how I then ran into these actual Mormons and had pulled my car over and in my haste forgotten to leave the car in gear and......
But first I had to make sure of something.
“Um, are you a religious man?”  I asked.
“Yes,” his smile broadened, “I’m a Mormon.”
I took in a deep breath, and then let it out.  “Never mind,” I said.
He patted my shoulder a few times and said “you drive carefully, now, son,” before walking away. 
I watched him for a while as he ambled to the other side of the street until he turned around and let God smile through him again.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I put it in reverse, pulled away from His trailer and then down the street away from Him and out of this story forever just as Isabell’s sandal came undone.  She knelt down onto the sidewalk and fixed it.  She stayed down there for a little while, her tears stopping, her body relaxing, her breath slowing down.  By the time she got up her mind had erased the Exxon station and all of its contents.  The only evidence left of the afternoon’s events were her stinging, redenned right hand and the dried tear marks on her face, which she quickly wiped away with her forearm. 
She was just about to start out walking again when she noticed a little chubby boy standing by himself next to a tree in a small park across the street.  He was wearing an orange striped t-shirt and shorts and staring at her with wide eyes that appeared to not even be blinking.  He stood there frozen with his hands in his pockets.  He appeared to be in some sort of trance. 
“Hello there,” called out Isabell with a friendly smile, but there was no response, the boy just continuing to stare.  Then with a shudder Isabell saw the motion of the boy’s hands on his crotch from underneath his shorts.  The boy’s mouth was hanging open, like he was in some sort of pervert coma.  Isabell just continued to stare back in the boy’s direction, never letting go of her smile, as she imagined the tree tipping over and crushing the little boy and just what all that beautiful mess might look like.    





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  2. Wow. I was completely glued to this from start to finish. You're really good. You know it?

  3. I WAS pretty good, I guess. This is the last short story I ever wrote... and the girl I wrote it for rejected it as a disturbing "letter"...hopefully I'll write another one someday... but thanks for the props..