Book excerpt! Chapter 3 from THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST

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Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

Elder Fowler tossed a golf ball lightly in the air as I trailed him up the shady walk. He bobbled the catch, and the ball clacked off the concrete.

“Aw, shit,” he said, lunging for it on the bounce. He snagged it and glanced back at me apologetically. “There I go again. You must think I’m awful.”

I waved him off as best I could while balancing a precarious stack of dark blue books. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re sure? I warned you, I can’t live without my cuss words.”

The fact that my first companion, my trainer, couldn’t keep from swearing was both a disappointment and a relief. I was reasonably fluent in profanity myself, having studied the language in the company of friends since at least third grade, but that was one of the many practices I expected to put behind me now that I was here in the field, in Canada. What I hoped, what I frequently prayed for, was to find some kind of peace in mission service. I hoped to emerge strong and transformed at the far end, with a confident authority and a testimony like a rock, but still be myself. I wanted to fuse my righteous half and my mischievous half into a functioning whole. I wanted to put the war inside me to rest. My trainer’s inability to let go of his cuss words suggested that this might not be as automatic a process as I had hoped. At the same time, though, I was glad he didn’t seem to be the drill sergeant I’d been dreading.

“Don’t worry about it, really,” I said. Confrontation was never my style.

“ ‘Damn,’ ‘hell,’ and ‘shit,’ that’s it, I promise.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.”

Elder Fowler grinned and led the way onto the porch of the brick house. “All right, son, now watch and learn.” He rapped the golf ball smartly on the wooden front door.

“Why do you use that?” I asked, wondering where this mysterious sphere fit into missionary lore.

“It gives you a nice, resonant sound when you knock,” Fowler said, his rangy body curved like an unstrung bow inside his shiny brown suit. Not even a regulation missionary haircut could obliterate his jet-black curls. “Spares your knuckles too, especially when it’s cold out.”

Juggling my slick books, I asked, “Why not just ring the doorbell?”

That characteristic grin split his face. “Knocking’s classier. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I stand at the door and press the buzzer.’ ”

Footsteps sounded from inside. I tensed. This was my first day of door-to-door tracting, an activity that took its name from the religious pamphlets bulging my companion’s pockets. It was, to be more precise, my first minute of tracting, and, despite all the hours spent role-playing at the Missionary Training Center, I had no clue what to expect. Would we be invited inside? Thrown off the porch? Would I melt with embarrassment?

The door creaked open and a heavyset old woman with dyed hair and owlish glasses poked her head out. “Yes, what can I help you with?” she asked, peering suspiciously back and forth.

“Well, good afternoon, ma’am,” Fowler drawled, sounding like a cowboy tipping his hat. “I’m Elder Fowler, and this is my companion, Elder Shunn, and we’re representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes known as the Mormons. We’re visiting people in your neighborhood today with a very important message from our Father in Heaven, and we wondered if we could come in for a few minutes and share that with you.”

The woman was shaking her head even before Fowler finished his spiel, clutching shut the neck of her housedress as if we were trying to peep. “No, thank you, I don’t think so. Not today.”

Fowler craned forward. “Ma’am, is there a more convenient time we might come by to share our message with you?”

She had already begun to retreat, but like an indecisive bird she peeked back around the door. “No, actually I don’t think so.”

Before she could close us out, Elder Fowler nudged me. From my stack I thrust forward a copy of the Book of Mormon, a thick paperback with the title stamped in gold on its pebbled blue cover.

“Ma’am,” said Fowler, “if you learned that our Heavenly Father had sent us a second book to stand hand in hand with the Bible in testifying of the divinity of Jesus Christ, wouldn’t you think that was a wonderful thing?”

“Thank you, boys, but I’m Lutheran and that’s the way I’m going to stay.” Some peevishness was manifesting at last. “At my age I’m not looking for any big changes.”

The needle on my Cringe-O-Meter quivered deep in the red, but Elder Fowler wasn’t nearly ready to give up. “Ma’am, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to read this other testament of Christ for free. If you’ll promise to read these passages we’ve outlined for you, we’ll leave this copy—”

“Thank you, no,” said the woman, pulling her head back in and slamming the door.

Fowler shook his head and removed an index card from his breast pocket. “Okay then,” he said, jotting a note. “We’ll take that as one resounding ‘I’d rather burn in hell.’ Next.”

It was a sunny autumn afternoon in Brooks, Alberta, a booming oil town two hours east of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. Wednesday evening, after a sumptuous dinner at the Tuttle home, the apes had passed out sealed envelopes to all us greenies. These contained our first assignments—companion and proselytizing area. Anxiously we ripped them open. The Canada Calgary Mission covered Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and a corner of British Columbia. One of us could potentially be going to Yellowknife, as far north of Calgary as Calgary was north of Salt Lake City. There was even a rumor that missionaries might be sent to Inuvik, a mere hundred kilometers from the Arctic Ocean.

I unfolded and scanned my brief letter. BROOKS, it read. ELDER MARTIN FOWLER.

I felt vaguely let down. No Arctic adventure for me. That privilege went to Elder Vickers, who would make the flight to Yellowknife the next afternoon.

In the morning, the apes took us to open checking accounts at the Royal Bank of Canada and to apply for Social Insurance cards. When we got back to the mission office, the tiny parking lot was buzzing like a beehive with comings and goings. It was a transfer day, the mission-wide shuffle that takes place every four to six weeks when fresh meat arrives from the MTC. A good sixth of the two hundred elders and sisters in the mission were being reassigned that day—elders promoted to leadership positions, feuding companionships broken up, problem missionaries moved from problem areas, good missionaries stuck in one place for too long offered fresh scenery. Everyone being transferred seemed to detour through the mission office, and every missionary in the city seemed to have turned out to greet them.

The elders who most attracted my attention were the two-year vets checking in for their last night before shipping home. Beaming, confident men, looking hale and fit, ages more godly and mature than the greenies I’d arrived with. I couldn’t imagine ever being one of them, with their easy, solemn camaraderie, couldn’t imagine crossing the vast gulf of time that lapped at their backs, landing on that distant shore a new man. Some of them insisted they’d re-up for another two years if they could, a sentiment I did not understand.

It was in that overwhelming chaos of backslapping and taleswapping and homesickness that Elder Fowler found me. He’d been stationed until now in Calgary itself, a district leader in charge of four companionships, but now, near the end of his mission, he was being dispatched to a lonely prairie town for what would likely be his final assignment—training me.

“This is exactly what I wanted,” he told me as we settled into our mission-owned Citation and headed east, into the unknown. “I went to Prez and I told him I wanted to die in a nice, quiet town away from the city, where maybe I could raise another son.”

Missionaries tended to talk that way, casting their service in terms of life events and familial relationships. This logic made Fowler my “father,” and his long-departed trainer my “grandfather.” Going home was “dying.”

Now, in Brooks, this new father of mine led me all the way back to the sidewalk from the old woman’s front porch, though it would have been quicker just to cross her lawn to the next house. Training me not to cut corners.

“That lady really didn’t let you get a word in, did she?” I said. I wasn’t sure whether to be more dismayed at the woman’s lack of interest in our message or at my companion’s mortifying tenacity.

Fowler shrugged. “Oh, that was nothing, Elder. Wait’ll you meet someone who’s really not interested. Like the kind who opens the door pointing a gun in your face and says you got five seconds to beat it or he starts shooting.”

I boggled. “Did that really happen?”

“More’n once.”

Brick bungalows lined this block, snug as nursery rhymes beneath a canopy of interlocking elm branches and changing leaves. We turned up the walk to the next house, and Fowler handed me the golf ball.

“Your door, Elder.”

My heart stuttered. “What, me?” I stopped and tried to give him back the ball. “I, I, I don’t know how to do this yet. I can’t even remember what you said back there at that door, let alone what I do if we get in. Let me watch you a few more times.”

He held up his hands. “Naw, it’s better this way. You’re only gonna learn by doing it, so you may as well start now.”

“But—”

“Don’t worry—it’s not as hard as it looks. And I’ll be right there for backup in case you get in trouble.”

This was suspiciously similar to my uncle Doug’s proclamation the summer I was twelve, right before he threw me out of a tree into a lake. Several humiliating seconds later he had to jump in after me and haul me, thrashing, to shore.

“All right, all right,” I said, rolling the warm ball around in my hand and leading the way up the porch. I didn’t want my new companion to think I was a wimp. Better to take control of the moment than let the moment take control of me. I stopped in front of the white storm door, golf ball poised to knock.

Fowler pointed to the storm door. “Open that first.”

I looked at him. “It’s okay to do that?”

“You don’t want to dent it, do you?”

I tugged at the collar of my white shirt. My tie felt too tight. I reminded myself that I was doing this for the sake of my soul, and that my reward at the end of it would be Katrina. I squared my shoulders and grabbed the storm door by its handle. Holding it propped open with my shoulder, I rapped the golf ball several times, hard, on the wooden door inside.

“The goal is to produce sound without actually damaging the property, Elder,” said Fowler dryly. “And three or four knocks is plenty.”

“Sorry, sorry.” I waited, my heart hammering in my throat, but after fifteen seconds or so no answer had come. “Okay, no one home.” I turned to leave.

“Give them a chance,” said Fowler with a palm to my chest. “Maybe they didn’t hear you. Of course, they’d have to be deaf not to have heard that, but maybe that’s the case. Or maybe it’s a cripple who has to hobble up from the basement on crutches. Try again.”

Every second we waited on the porch seemed to increase the odds that the door would open, which was the last thing I wanted. But I knocked again and after another minute concluded with relief that there really was no one home.

Elder Fowler selected a tract on eternal families from his pocket, scratched our phone number on the back, and tucked it inside the storm door. When he had finished his notation on the index card and we were back at the sidewalk, I held the golf ball out to him.

“Your door, Elder,” I said.

“Oh, no,” said Fowler, shaking his head. “No turnovers till someone answers the door.”

“Oh, come on.”

“That’s the way it’s done, sorry.” He shaded his eyes suddenly, gazing off into the southern sky. “Hey, do you see that plane, Elder?”

I peered in the direction he was pointing. What looked like a silver speck inched across the sky, spinning behind it a gauzy filament. “Yeah.”

“How far away do you think it is?”

I had no earthly clue. “Ten miles? Twenty? I don’t know.”

Fowler shook his head, grinning. “Ten weeks for me, two years for you.”

My face burned, and the backs of my eyes stung. For the past few minutes I’d managed not to think about the time still ahead of me, but now my companion had slapped me in the face with it.

Fowler laughed and laughed. “Oh, you should’ve seen the look on your face!” He tousled my hair. “I’ve been waiting all day for a chance to use that one.”

“Great, yeah,” I said, smoothing my hair and fuming.

“Do you know what they call missionaries like me? I’m a double-digit midget! Less than a hundred days to go.”

“Let’s just get this door over with.”

I marched up to the next house while Elder Fowler chortled in tow. Three sharps raps of the golf ball brought an older man in a plaid shirt and thick glasses to the door. He looked like a startled rabbit.

“Yes?”

“Um, sir, yes, hello,” I stammered. “We’re, um, missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? And we’re just bringing people a message today about the other testament of Jesus Christ . . .”

I fumbled to get one of the books up into view, but the old man was already waving a peremptory hand and withdrawing. “No, no, no,” he said, and the door closed in my face.

“Hmm,” said Elder Fowler, inscribing a note on his index card. He tapped his pen against his chin. “Maybe we should role-play this a little as we walk.”

I handed him the golf ball. This seemed more appropriate than throwing it at him.

Our tracting had gotten off to a very late start that day. We had left our modest apartment, inherited from the previous missionaries, at 9:30 that morning, right on time, emerging onto a street of withered lawns, struggling saplings, and squat multi-unit dwellings. The grayish tang of the dark, spongy wood that trimmed our own quadplex set my teeth on edge just to look at. It was my first morning in Brooks, and if that weren’t enough in itself to make me homesick, the neighborhood’s barrenness under its small northern sun made me feel disoriented and dispossessed, a conscript into unending exile.

We drove to the industrial fringe of town, where the first stop we made was not some potential convert’s hovel but a health-and-racquet club Elder Fowler had found in the phone book. We were dressed in civilian clothes.

“Don’t feel like you have to join up,” he told me, “but I can’t get by without my workouts.”

A gym membership was definitely against mission rules—whether due to the expense, the time commitment, or the proximity to hot, sweating female bodies, I did not know—but I didn’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud. Besides, if I hit the machines regularly maybe I could go home to Katrina all pumped up. Fowler, a slick if homey talker, negotiated us a nice, discounted weekly rate.

Our next stop was Canadian Tire, a superstore chain so powerful that many other retailers across the nation accepted its in-house currency. I bought a heavy parka, thermal underwear, and snow boots in preparation for winter. While we were at it, I picked up a cheap racquetball racquet too.

After that we hit the municipal library. “It’s a missionary’s best friend in a town like this, partner,” Fowler said. “You don’t want to be a bucket, but you need something to keep you sane.”

“What’s a bucket?”

“A slacker, a goldbricker, a lazy ass. But I’d rather get called any of those than give up my Louis L’Amours.”

This delighted me, as I hadn’t taken my new companion for a reader, but the good Mormon son in me worried that I was starting off my mission on the wrong foot. Though Fowler and I weren’t wearing our suits or name tags, I spent our time in the library paranoid that some local church member would spot us there and rat us out to President Tuttle. We left with a couple of space operas for me, a stack of westerns for him, and a library card apiece.

We bought groceries next and ran them back home. Our apartment was neat, clean, and in good repair, with charts pinned to the walls and pamphlets stacked on most every horizontal surface. The living room featured stylish faux-brick paneling, while the kitchen was airy and bright. As we devoured peanut butter sandwiches, apples, and approximately a quart of milk, Fowler pored over the maps and notes the previous missionaries had left us.

After lunch we changed into our proselytizing clothes—or “pross” clothes—and drove a few miles south of town. North lay the jumbled desolation of the Alberta Badlands, but the landscape here was a patchwork of farms. Leaving our car on the shoulder of the provincial highway, Fowler marched us into a tangled thicket of poplars that cut the cold wind. We knelt in the dirt while Elder Fowler offered a priesthood blessing dedicating the town of Brooks to missionary work.

Only then did Fowler feel we were ready to pick a neighborhood from the map and begin our day’s tracting. According to the records in our apartment, Brooks had been thoroughly canvassed at least four times in the past couple of years, which perhaps accounted for our poor reception. The only person who actually invited us inside was a talkative old woman who told us she’d been a member of the church all her life. We stayed a few minutes to visit and eat the cookies she offered. When the street came alive with kids on their way home from grade school, I found myself longing for the freedom of their unstructured afternoons.

“Man, this is hard,” I said as the latest door closed in my face. Though my delivery had improved a little, we had so far placed only two copies of the Book of Mormon, despite what felt like hours of tracting. We trudged back to the sidewalk. “No one wants to take even a minute to listen to us. It feels like we’ve been going all day, and I can still see where we parked the car.”

“If it’s ground you want to cover, don’t worry. You’re gonna see a ton of Brooks before you’re done here.”

“It’s already hit me like a ton of Brooks,” I said, handing him the golf ball.

“Hey, good one, Elder! You still have your sense of humor, that’s important. You realize we’ve only been going for an hour and a half, right?”

I groaned. “I can’t believe we have to do this eighteen hours a week.”

“At least eighteen.”

My stomach clenched as I ran a quick calculation in my head. Over eighteen hundred more hours of this before I’d see Katrina again.

“All in all, though, we have it pretty good,” Fowler continued. “Under President Farrow we had to do twenty-four. Now, he was a real hardass. Turtle’s a downright pussycat in comparison.”

“Turtle?”

Fowler’s grin looked both mischievous and abashed. “You know—President Tuttle.” At my blank stare, he said, “Remember that cartoon show, Touché Turtle? A swordfighting turtle with a big stupid dog for a sidekick?”

“Oh, yeah. Dum Dum, that was the dog’s name. I loved that show.”

“Don’t you think President looks just like Touché? Same baldy head, same beaky nose, same receding chin.”

Fowler’s impiety thrilled and frightened me, as did the weird way he used “President” like a first name. “Well . . . kind of, I guess. Sure.”

“There you go. Turtle.”

Feeling reckless, I asked, “Then who’s Dum Dum?”

“Depends. It changes every time they bring in a new ape.”

We had reached the next door. “You’re going to hell, Elder,” I said, not without admiration.

“Never said I wasn’t.”

He knocked. No one answered. We soldiered on.

“I bet you’re excited to go home soon,” I said.

Elder Fowler’s face clouded. “I guess so. I don’t know. I miss my family and all.”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“It’s just, things make a lot of sense out here. You know what you’re doing, you know it’s important. You have a purpose. It’s hard work, but it brings you joy. Nothing’s that clear back home.”

Things back home seemed clear to me—perfectly crystalline. “So, what? You’d stay out longer if you could?”

Fowler frowned. “Let me tell you something, Elder. You know why folks call me Methuselah?”

He was almost 23, he had told me earlier, having waited until 21 to start his mission.

“Because you’re older than everyone else?”

“Well, that’s part of it. It took me a couple extra years to make sure this was what I really wanted to do. But once I did, I was committed.” He nodded to himself. “You remember when missions were eighteen months?”

Did I ever. The announcement had come my junior year of high school. For women, missions had always been eighteen months in duration, but in 1982, to encourage more young men to serve, all missions were shortened to eighteen months. This helped me and many of my friends to breathe a little easier. Then, just as I was starting college, the church reversed itself. The new policy hadn’t impacted missionary numbers as hoped, and elders were going home just as they reached their peak effectiveness as proselytizers. Missions for young men were reset to two years.

“I remember,” I said, feeling the sting all over again.

“That’s how it was when I sent in my papers. I got called for eighteen months, but it changed back just before I went into the MTC. When I got there they gave us a choice. We could stand pat at a year and a half, or we could go two years, but we had to decide there. Most of the guys stood pat. Me, I said hit me.” He waved a hand. “I mean, good hell. Were we there to serve the Lord or what? Shit or get off the pot, I say.”

I said nothing, thinking uncomfortably about which choice I would have made. I was ashamed of judging Fowler for his cussing. I had no business here among the real missionaries.

“Anyways, that’s when the guys in my MTC district started calling me Methuselah, on account of how I was gonna outlive them all.”

“If you’re happy here, can you extend an extra month?” I’d heard that if you were a valuable missionary, the church might let you do that.

Fowler shrugged. “I asked, but I think they’re sick of me. And this way I’ll be home for Christmas.”

We were two blocks from our car, having covered two short side streets as we progressed. Now we turned a corner into another spruce little cul-de-sac. We garnered one flat rejection apiece at the first two houses on the block.

I passed Fowler the golf ball. “How many people have you baptized from tracting?”

He thought a moment. “One lady up in Edmonton,” he said.

I gaped. “That’s it? In two years?”

“Well, there are definitely more effective ways to proselytize. Especially in a town that’s been tracted out so thoroughly already.”

“Then why do we have to spend so much time doing it?”

“Oh, lots of reasons. First off, obedience. President says tract, so we tract, and that’s how you get the Spirit—through obedience. Second, it’s a way of getting out in the community and being visible. The members have to see us busy and diligent so they’ll set us up with their non-member friends. And last, I guess, it’s an exercise in faith, and sometimes faith gets rewarded. That dunk in Edmonton? Wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone tracting that day.”

Perhaps this wasn’t the message Fowler meant to send, but an overwhelming realization was dawning on me. The souls in this city were my sacred responsibility. If I failed to find the ones who were ready and waiting for the gospel, their eternal salvation might be lost. I shuddered at the prospect.

But tracting still didn’t strike me as the route to success. “You’d think by now there’d be no one new left to meet.”

We had reached the next porch, where Fowler’s spiel was quickly rebuffed. The burden of one more soul shifted from us back to its owner.

“Elder, there’s always someone new left to meet,” Fowler said as we plodded away from the porch. “People move out, people move in, and some folks just slip through the cracks, no matter how many times you’ve been down their street.” He passed me the ball. “Your door.”

The next house was a cozy brick cottage nestled in shade. Something about the circular window beside the door reminded me of a fairy-tale illustration.

At my knock the door opened wide, and so did my mouth. The woman who stood there couldn’t have been far from my age. Her head, capped with a loose bonnet of curls the color of spice cake, came to just under my chin. I could have lifted her with one arm. She blinked her large brown eyes expectantly, but it wasn’t that or her heart-shaped face or her tiny sweet mouth or her faint spray of ginger freckles that held my gaze.

It was the low-cut V of her sweater. Low.

“Hi, what can I do for you?” she said, her voice the laughter of birds.

The fawn-colored cable-knit’s deep, deep neck plunged most of the way to her navel. She wore nothing beneath it, and the inner swells of her breasts beckoned the touch like fresh snow beckons a sled. Thoughts of Katrina fell out of my head.

I don’t remember what I said to this woodland sprite, this gamine enchantress, this vision in chestnut, but I must have gotten it right, because she stepped back from the door.

“Come in, please,” she trilled.

Half an hour later, Elder Fowler and I stood outside again, blinking in the sunlight. In the voice of an earthquake survivor, Fowler said, “Okay, let’s, um, go over what you did wrong there.”

I turned unseeing eyes toward him, my retinas seared. “Wrong?” Honey thickened my tongue. “I thought that went well.”

He patted my shoulder absently, staring off into the sky. “There were some, well, fundamental errors at the outset that sort of undermined the whole proceeding.”

“Errors?” The word did not compute. “Heidi”—the very name was a magic incantation—“took a book. I got a commitment from her to read it. We’re coming back to teach the first discussion to her and her boyfriend.”

Fowler inclined his head. “She said maybe.”

“Fine. Maybe. But what could be wrong about that?”

“Walking through that door at all was wrong.”

I still saw her before me, legs tucked beneath her on the overstuffed sofa, chin propped up on one exquisite fist, eyes rapt and lips parted, thirsty for the knowledge we offered. “How so?”

“It’s in the White Bible.” Invoking our pocket-sized rulebook, Fowler ran a shaky hand through his hair. “We never teach a woman alone in her home without a female chaperone present.”

“But she invited us in.”

“Yes, Elder. And when she did, the first thing we should have asked was if her husband or father or some other man was at home. If she said no, we should have tried to arrange a time to come back when one was, or when we could bring a woman from the local ward along with us. Under no circumstances should we have gone in there alone.”

“But nothing happened,” I protested, weak with distress.

“Doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Hell, it doesn’t mean she couldn’t say it did. It’d be our word against hers.”

“But Heidi isn’t like that.”

“You can’t know that, Elder.” He took me by the shoulders, eyes beseeching. “But look, this wasn’t your fault. I could have stepped in at any time. Should have.” I had handed him the golf ball before we went inside. Now he bounced it off the sidewalk with a hard clack and sighed. “And I’m afraid there’s another thing you do really need to learn.”

The color drained out of the afternoon. “What?”

“When you’re teaching a woman,” he said, “you should look her in the eyes at least as much as the chest.” He pocketed the ball. “Come on, that’s three book placements. I think we’re done tracting for today.”

Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on November 7, 2015 8:53 AM.

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