Issue 184, Spring 2008
In brazil we knocked the doors of poor people. They answered in threadbare football jerseys, in stained mesh shorts, in Havaianas thin as reeds. We called them humble. We called them receptive. We were Mormon missionaries. We were chest-deep in optimism.
We knocked the doors of people who kept rabid dogs in high-walled yards. The dogs barked like mortar rounds. The walls bristled with beer-bottle shards at their tops, rows of jagged colored teeth catching the sunlight, refracting it down. We knocked the doors of people who sent their children out to shoo us away. “Ninguém está aqui,” they’d say. Nobody’s here. We knocked the doors of people who invited us inside, offered us water and biscoitos and sat through our saving pitch, regarding us kindly, vacantly. We knocked the doors of people who had other people in their care: little people, big people, all sharing a single room, all partitioning off what privacy they could manage with thin and musty sheets. We knocked the doors of people who hung laundry out on kite lines, the white sheets ghostly blue in the almost-dark. We knocked the doors of people who nursed infants at their breasts. Young people, young breasts. We couldn’t look. We couldn’t look away.
One day we knocked a door and an oldish woman answered. This must have been in my second week with Passos. The woman tucked long strands of gray behind her ear, smiling slightly. At either side of her tiny mouth parenthetical creases lifted, then fell back. She straddled the threshold of her door uncertainly. Yes? Could she help us? Passos nudged me, it was my turn, and so I spieled out the opening lines: how we were representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how we came with a message of faith and hope, and so on.
The woman peered at our nametags when I’d finished. “Elder Passos and Elder . . .”
“McLeod,” I said.
“Both Elder? You’re brothers?”
“Elder is a title, ma’am. We have a message for you. May we come in?”
“How old are you boys?”
“We’re both twenty, ma’am. Would you like to hear our message?”
Inside the dark living room—no light besides sunlight slanting sharply, mathematically, through the narrow blinds—we sat opposite the oldish woman on a pair of wooden chairs brought in from the kitchen. We were halfway into our first discussion, asking the woman for her thoughts on God—what did she imagine his attributes to be, his perfections?—when a shirtless man stepped into the room, immense brown belly first. The moment seemed to stop, drawn magnetically to that stomach, so bowed out and smooth. The man was generously proportioned (proportionally proportioned), from the bottoms of his bare, flat feet to the top of his domed head, so bald as to look ceramic. He had hardly sat down beside the woman (his wife? his mother?) before he leveled a stare at me and said, “Americano?”
“How about that fucking president of yours?”
Passos broke in, said, “Sir? Sir.” He explained how we were sharing a gospel message with the good sister here. We were talking about the attributes of God. Would he like to tell us how he imagined him?
“God is good,” the man said. He looked back to me as he said it. “God ain’t greedy either. He don’t want to bomb poor little countries just to get their fucking oil. He don’t want—”
Passos cleared his throat loudly. He stood up and shook the woman’s hand, then the man’s. He thanked them for their time and at the doorway exchanged a few last pleasantries, a few God-bless-yous. I kept silent.
I waited till we rounded the corner away from the house, then I looked at Passos and said, confident of his accord, “Talk about an ignoramus, huh?” I spoke in Portuguese as usual. Passos answered in English. “I did not say I disagree with him.”
Passos practiced his English in our study every morning. I helped him with it, and he helped me with Portuguese. He studied a grade-school primer, working on pronunciation. He said the words out under his breath in a tiny sibilant susurrus. One morning he stopped his whispering and called me over to his desk.
“Elder, how do you pronounce this?” he asked.
I looked at the word he was pointing to. “Umbrella. Um-brel-la.”
“Um-brel-la,” Passos repeated, weighing each syllable. “Umbrella. Umbrella. What a beautiful word.”
On occasion we knocked the doors of rich people. They never answered. We knew they were there. We called them hard-hearted. We called them puffed up. They put electric fence atop their walls instead of broken bottles. On some of the walls—on the white, glaring stucco—local vandals had spray painted looping insignia. Others left messages: filho da puta! imperialistas! viva a revolução!
In our third week together we got inside a Spanish colonial ranch house: a red-tile roof, a two-car garage, a high wall enclosing the property. Elaborate plants lined the walkway. A red convertible shone in the open garage. The man who apparently owned the house wore a crisp blue button-down and tan pleated pants. He had dark hair and olive skin but spoke Portuguese with an accent. He sounded European. Or maybe American.
The man led us into the house and sat us down at a lacquered table. He went out of the room and came back with two glasses of water. Under his arm he carried a thin, spiral-bound book. He placed the glasses on the table. He placed the book on the table. How to Evangelize the Mormons.
Passos made a nasal, deflated sound. He took a drink of his water and rose to his feet, said something about an appointment we’d forgotten, we were sorry.
Out on the street I said, “You think he was a pastor?”
“I’m almost sure of it.”
“I hate that crap.”
“And how about that book? Pretty brazen, huh?”
“Brazen was that car of his. Courtesy of tithe money, I’m sure.”
“Lay not up treasures . . .” I said.
“Tell that to your countrymen,” he said.