Chapter 15: I Lose a Friend


In the days following, as I related my experiences to my fellow missionaries, one question was asked me more than any other. This question was also asked frequently by other returned missionaries back in the days when I still told the story aloud to Mormon friends. The question is this: "Did you teach any D's while you were in jail?"

Stay with me, and I'll try to answer it.

Back in lockup, deep in the bowels of Calgary's Remand Center, my new cellmate was gazing at me rather fiercely. But after a moment he shook his head, muttered something about the expletiving cops, and started to pace. And as he paced, he began to rant—and as he ranted, he began picking up momentum.

He seemed to be about thirty or thirty-five. He was wearing a ripped black T-shirt and a pair of very tight tan corduroy jeans. One of the back pockets had been ripped almost off, and bare white skin glowed through the hole. His hair was dark, medium-long, and greasy, and a scraggly mustache sat like moss on his upper lip. He was bleeding from a couple of cuts on his face and from one on his arm.

His rantings were low but animated, and punctuated by jerks of his arms, as if he were striking at unseen cops, or being jolted by electricity. From what he said, I gathered the following:

He'd been out of prison for only two months. He'd bought his mother a TV for Christmas, from some shady types. That night, the shady types, ten or so of them, claiming my new friend hadn't ever paid them, broke into his mum's house and tried to repo the TV. They apparently jumped my friend—at least, the way he told it—and he retaliated with a length of pipe. And now he was in for assault and battery.

From time to time, he'd direct a rhetorical question at me, like "Is that fair?" or "Who do these cops think they are?" I grunted as appropriate, trying to be as noncommittal as possible, not wanting to be drawn into conversation, wanting only to be left alone, and wishing the guy would siddown and shaddup. He was making me nervous.

Finally he slowed down and got himself under a little more control. He asked me for a cigarette. I said I didn't have one. "Too bad," he said. "Smoking's all there is to do in this hole, besides climbing the walls."

Yelling to one of the guards down the corridor got him some cigarettes and matches, and as he settled down on the opposite bench, smoke in hand, he said, "I've been in prison for ten years, all told. Twenty-nine years old. Finally get out, and now this. I tell you, it's no kind of life. So what are you in for, kid?"

I didn't want this. I didn't want to have anything to do with that vermin sitting across from me, but what could I do but answer? "Public mischief," I said, trying to sound tough.

"What'd you do, piss in a fountain?"

"No, I phoned a bomb threat in on a plane."

He laughed. "No way. That's kind of an expensive practical joke, eh?"

"It wasn't a practical joke."

"Then why'd you do it?"

I considered. I wasn't about to admit to this guy that I was a Mormon missionary. "I had a friend who was trying to leave town, trying to . . . run away from some stuff. I didn't think he should go. I couldn't talk him out of it myself, so I decided to stop his plane so someone else could get there and maybe talk him out of it."

The guy looked at me a little differently from how he had been looking at me a moment before. "Did your friend end up staying?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I got caught before I could find out."

He shook his head. "If I'd been him, I sure would have stayed. Someone did something like that for me, went to jail to keep me from doing something, then I'd sure as hell not do it. I mean, this is the worst place in the world. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemies. Those guys that jumped me? When I get out, I'll hunt 'em down, sure, and they'll know never to mess with me again, but the one thing I won't do is turn 'em in. This is no place for a human being to be."

A criminal with a code? With compassion, even? It was slow, but I started seeing the fellow in a different light.

He told me he'd been married once, between gigs in the pen. He had a five-year-old daughter by her that he had never met. He had tried to see his daughter since getting out, but his ex wouldn't let him. He cried about that, about all the trash he knew his wife was talking to his little girl so she would grow up hating her awful daddy who was just trying to provide for his family the only way he knew how. Then he told me how he was going to straighten up, and how there was a woman out there somewhere, a woman just for him. "I'm going to find her," he told me—I couldn't presume to doubt him—"and when I do I'm going to treat her so good she won't believe what's happening. And she's going to be so damn beautiful that I'll want to cry every time I look at her." And he cried some more.

Hell, I was on the verge of crying myself. I wanted to pull a picture of Katrina out of my wallet to show him my life-affirming woman, but of course my wallet was not there when I reached for it. (What a feeling. Reaching for your wallet and finding it not there. Looking at your watch and finding it not there. Sharp, unpleasant reminders of exactly where you are—the joint—and exactly what kind of caca you've gotten yourself into—deep.) But even as I realized I had no picture of Katrina, I realized that I wouldn't have shown it to him anyway. Somehow, his conception of love and beauty seemed more pure than anything I'd experienced. It would have cheapened his dream, my presumption.

After a bit, he pulled himself together and we talked some more. He said we should get together on the outside, and the idea sounded good to me. He said he'd give me his phone number so we could connect after the bail hearings, and I could even contact his lawyer if I needed one. (The lawyer offer didn't appeal to me—I mean, this guy had done ten years—but the getting-together idea did.) I looked all over for something that could be used for writing down his phone number. I tried a burnt match on a matchbook cover, but it didn't work. This was someone I felt I needed to keep in contact with for some reason.

Then he asked me the big question: "So what do you do, anyway? You some kinda student?"

He'd been straight with me. It was my turn. "You may not believe this," I said, laughing in a self-deprecating way, "but I'm a—well, I'm a Mormon missionary."

"Hey, hey, that's cool," he said, putting his hands up in a warding-off gesture. "You know, whatever works for you and all, eh?"

We were quiet for several moments.

Then suddenly my new friend, whose name I did not know, said, reflectively, "You know, I think about God sometimes. I think He's out there . . ."

A shiver raced over my body, and my training—damn it all—kicked in almost reflexively. The first principle of the first discussion started flowing right out that mouth o' mine: "A lot of people all over the world believe in a Supreme Being. They call Him lots of different things, but God is what most of us call Him. We believe that God--"

And right then, as if on cue, a pair of cops showed up at the cell door, rattling a key in the lock. "What's this?" asked my friend.

"You're outta here," one of the cops said to him. "Bail hearing time."

As they escorted him away, he tried telling me his phone number, but I couldn't hear over the noise of the cops telling him to shut up, and the match wouldn't make a mark anyway. I felt as if something very precious was slipping away from me—as if I had somehow spooked it away by starting in on a gospel lesson when it wasn't appropriate. I tried to get his name, thinking that someone desperately needed to talk to his little girl and let her know that her daddy wasn't all bad, that he had a pretty decent heart in there somewhere, but it wasn't to be. He was dragged away within a few moments, and I was left by myself, feeling suddenly more small and alone than I had felt at any time since my arrest.

A couple of years later, I wrote a short story entitled "Cellmates" about this little experience. The story is about eighty or ninety percent true. It seemed the least I could do, capturing in even a small way a portrait of this friend of mine who showed me the good in even the vilest blackguard's heart—who taught me why Jesus, if there's any truth to the rumors, preferred to hang with the publicans and the sinners. In my story, I gave him the name "Daguerre," meaning, loosely, "of war." In real life, I don't know his name. I like to think he made it out eventually, straightened up, and found that beautiful, loving woman he dreamed about. I sure hope so.

And I also strongly doubt it.

Sometime later, in my misery and solitude, a guard came down the corridor and called, "Shunn!"

"That's me," I said with sudden hope. Now I would finally get out! I'd suffered enough. It was time to be on my way. "No one else here."

The guard, a red-haired, sad-faced fellow, stopped at the door and said, "We just got word. No bail hearing for you until tomorrow. Looks like you're spending the night with us."

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

About This Story

“Terror on Flight 789” is a very early, much shorter preliminary draft of what would eventually become my full-length memoir The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. If you enjoy this story, you'll like that thoroughly revised and expanded version even more. Available now!

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