The Offhand Conversion

“It is not always through sublime persons that great things come into human life.” – H.G. Wells

Even though I no longer consider myself a member of the Mormon church, having improvised my exit strategy around the bachelor’s perpetual delight in frolicking with his lady friends, an incident stays with me that occurred during my mission of many years ago, before standards were tightened up. But before the story of this service I must briefly relate my conversion. It happened offhandedly, which was the problem. Having migrated to Los Angeles after completing a university degree in my native Wyoming, I found the approach of two lovelies to my apartment’s door—sister missionaries, they were called—to be a welcome diversion in my lonely life. The sisters hadn’t arrived here entirely by chance, as I had read some of the church’s literature and permitted a Mormon coworker at the studio to throw my name into the great hopper of prospects that must have been maintained in Salt Lake City. I wouldn’t say I was ripe for the picking but might have been ready to be harvested with ripening to occur on the way to market. Of the two emissaries who were sent, one, Sister Belknap, was exactly the right sort of person to convey the Gospel of the Lord. She was herself a divine, if overly coiffed, creature whose words rang home with particular force whenever she crossed her legs and witnessed to me with her elegant, attenuated calf. Sometimes she absently jounced the suspended foot to a heavenly inner rhythm, and as we sat close together in the tight conversational grouping I had purposefully arranged, she unknowingly drummed my shin. Her partner, Sister Logan—a curiosity in that she came not from Utah but from Oklahoma—made up in wit what she lacked in pulchritude and provided the excellent complement to Sister Belknap’s blessed exuberance.

My baptism occurred within days, with the unforeseeable result that the sister missionaries were almost immediately transferred to Van Nuys, departing from my immediate realm as fast as the jump plane from a paratrooper. Soon after I landed on my own feet, the bishop summoned me to his office at the ward house. He was not the usual sort of hale, blond, backslapping Mormon but instead a man of Latin ethnicity, name of Azevinho (I would later learn he went by Buddy), and serious aspect who knit his brows together and twitched his fine nose and pinched his moist umber lips between his teeth. I had heard he made a nice living composing scores for film and television, and people spoke of him reverentially, as though he were truly an inspired man. However, his concerns about me were rather temporal.

“Tell me when you were baptized,” he said after we shook hands and seated ourselves in his bland office.

“I was baptized—surely you heard the coyotes howling on the hillside—last Sunday afternoon.”

“I imagine you mean angels singing. Anyway, congratulations on that. We’re pleased to add you to our ward. I understand you’re a writer for Johnny Carson.”

“It’s my career ambition,” I said, “but until then I’m just a props guy who slips sheets of jokes under Johnny’s door.”

“Still, that’s very impressive, considering that you’ve recently come here from South Dakota.”

“I’m actually from Wyoming.”

“Yes, the Plains. Anyway, perhaps you’ll have some literary output left over for the pageants we put on right here in the ward. Now, before we go any farther, I’m afraid there’s something I must bring up with you. This is often regarded as unsavory, but for the sake of the sisterhood, I’m obligated.”

I wondered if I had violated a dress code or was exuding a musky scent. Instead, Bishop Azevinho asked, “Do you masturbate?”

The truest answer I could have given him was, “And how!” For a young and virile guy like me, masturbation was but the trumpets on the vine, the leaves on the tree. However, now was not the time for levity but for gravity. The Bish inconveniently peered into my face, expecting me to maintain eye contact when the maintenance I would have preferred was assessing the flecks in the floor tiles, looking for waxy streaks. It struck me that I had never given a second thought to my self-amusement, not until now when it was as if a seventy-five-page indictment had been unsealed in federal court. This is the moment when I realized they really meant it about chastity—I had read something about it somewhere—and probably about all those other deleterious activities that were purportedly to be avoided. Now it was also implied that I would not be frolicking among the sisterhood as I had unwittingly assumed. Maybe this chain of revelation could be taken as my first prompting of the Spirit. I tried to hide my dismay.

“You’ll have to stop that activity,” Bishop Azevinho said, pointing his index finger at me as if I hadn’t been implicated strongly enough.

“I’ll endeavor to stop.”

“You will stop!”

“I will stop.”

“Good.”

“Maybe a twelve-step program exists, or a series of cassette tapes.”

His glare made it evident this was no time for foolery. “There’s something else I’d like you to consider,” he said, and went on to extol the advantages of serving as a missionary for the church. Not only would it be an excellent way of winning control over myself but also of commanding a powerful message that would change the lives of the people I met. The world was just beginning to open to the Gospel. And I would be richly rewarded. It wouldn’t be too much for me, at this stage of my career, to furlough my ambitions; Johnny Carson would still be cracking jokes a couple of years hence, at which time, having gained additional substance and seasoning through my fieldwork, I would be even better prepared to write them. And something in his eyes intimated that after my successful period of self-denial and service had ended, the Lord would be presenting me with the fairest of all the sisters; in no time at all, I’d be happily married and copulating. 

ab

So that’s how I found myself mired in a Swedish provincial city in which, even on a July afternoon if it happened to be chilly and rainy, the gloom and desolation could be overpowering and the only other sound besides spattering drops might be the clacking of a sole woman’s wooden clogs on the cobbles. In the relatively short time since my baptism I had learned, during rigorous missionary training in Salt Lake, at least the rudiments of the Swedish language and was able to recite the lessons my partner and I were to present to persons who are so blithely called “investigators”—the intrepid seekers whom the church intrigues. Likewise perfecting the role, I had clothed myself in a white shirt and quiet blue tie under a baggy navy suit, in the Mormon tradition of dressing like agents of the U.S. government: mostly taxmen or FBI. Also in this same time of preparation, I had achieved sufficient self-mastery to have satisfied even the dourest bishop.

My senior partner, my guide through this gloom, Elder Carson P. Dobbs, brought me home from the train station and opened up the little third-floor apartment we were to share. Elder Dobbs was about five and a half feet tall, prematurely balding, and owning a nose that looked as if it had endured a spell of asteroid bombardment. We were going to share sleeping quarters, he had already informed me—bunk beds, to be more exact—and I was desperately worried he would turn out to be a snorer. Besides all that, though, something about the way he toddled along did very little to inspire confidence as to his enthusiastic leadership. And the same held true for his attitude. When I expressed curiosity about his language proficiency, he told me not to worry about it because everybody in Sweden spoke English and they were more than happy to practice with an American; rarely was there need of speaking Swedish. In fact, he said, tintinnabulation in his voice, he probably knew less of it now than when he began his mission a year ago.

“What about prospects?” I demanded. “Are you teaching a lot of them? I was warned not to expect mass baptisms in the river or anything like that, but I hope there’s a little activity.”

“Nah, not much happenin’,” he said. “In fact, I’d be surprised if you have anybody to teach at all. I spend more time back here during the day than I should. Not that the mission president or zone leaders would be happy to know it. But what do they expect, stationing us in a place like this?”

“I suppose there’s lots of time for scripture study.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

He flopped onto the lower bunk and kicked off his wing-tip shoes. The place was compact, pocket-sized, a snug little den: one room with a rudimentary kitchenette and a bathroom that made me realize how and quite possibly where the term “water closet” had originated. The main chamber of the apartment, which offered but one window, was additionally furnished with two side chairs, a chest of drawers, and a desk with a stool. This is where we were supposed to rise early, say our prayers, study our scriptures, suit up, and feed ourselves. On Monday, our personal day, we would lounge around here in blue jeans if we wanted, or even pajamas, and write letters to our folks and other well-wishers. It was not so much a home as a dank receptacle, but it would do for a spell.
The next morning’s alarm initiated the clamor that was Elder Dobbs’s foray into the bathroom, knowing as he did precisely how long the hot water would hold out. Whether to call him long- or short-winded, I can’t say, but “windy” certainly applied, and there followed three flushes, as though he had considered the distance to the cafeteria. After twenty minutes he emerged clean-shaven and florid, not to mention naked. He was rather a pudgy fellow with a hairy chest and belly. I waited until he edged past the bedstead and began to dress, at which moment I shot into the bathroom and started devising a routine for myself, learning how to navigate the small space without toppling backward into the toilet, a routine worthy of Houdini. Ah, there was an inspiration! If Houdini could break the chains that bound him and escape a safe at the bottom of a tank of water, I could shower, shave, and brush in this tiny booth of a bathroom without getting fractured or even bruised.

On our first two days together we spent just a couple of hours knocking on doors before knocking off for the day. Tracting was “a flippin’ waste,” Elder Dobbs said, whereas I would have called it unremunerative. He read a bit in the afternoons before having a long nap. I sat on the stool at the desk and wrote in my journal, occasionally thumbing through my scriptures. It was still impossible to know whether he was right about speaking English over Swedish, as hardly a door had been opened up: it was as though the city was barricaded against us, and we went mutely about, as much mimes as missionaries. But in the evenings—most likely because he knew it would save his having to cook—we went to visit members who put out smörgås for us. Cold cuts are fine, but I began to hope for a hot meal by Sunday. As it happened, Sunday was my favorite and least favorite day of the week, because in the local branch of the church the members were hardly more experienced than I at actually being Mormon; so it was up to us, the elders, to lead in many ways; my weekday practice at miming proved a useful starting point, the antidote to otherwise just milling about. Nevertheless, I did enjoy seeing the members in action and learning more about them.

The first two and a half weeks unfolded according to this routine, and I was pleased that Elder Dobbs seemed to have accepted me. We were meshing well, I thought. He laughed at my quips and was interested to hear about my life. Although he came from a farm in central Utah, he intended to move to L.A. after his mission and study landscape design. For my part, while I didn’t dislike him, I found myself less responsive. At the end of a large meal, on the rare occasion when we had one, he liked to ask, “Now, how would you like a fried egg?” Such an interrogative would evidently produce hysterical peals back in the wilds of Utah. Maybe it was merely an effect of the hushed environs of Sweden that I failed to do more than smirk.

That he liked me well, indeed, soon became apparent. It was only a few nights later that I awoke to find the bunk bed swaying. Elder Dobbs was climbing the ladder with all the assurance of a telephone lineman. He was of a mind to invade my top bunk. I had just been awakened from a dream about searching for my golf ball in the rough, and from this mental point, quite a distance—a good blast with a five-iron—needed to be spanned to comprehend the reality of my senior partner’s intentions. I finally did—and could tell it was urgent—when he flopped down beside me. I still hadn’t moved but now began to wriggle a bit.

“It’s not what you think it is,” he averred, a dampish zephyr passing over his lips and billowing against my face.

“I think it’s the love that dare not speak its name.”

“Just relax. All I need’s to hold you.”

“I’m going to count to five, but when I reach four, if you’re still here, you’ll go flying onto the floor.”

“Please, just a half hour like this.”

“A half hour? One—”

“Don’t make a big fuss. How do you know you won’t like it?”

I didn’t reach two in the countdown but instead thrust my fist into his soft belly, which caused him to erupt like a balloon, spraying droplets of saliva into my face and shoulders before writhing away from me and assuming the fetal position. His reaction was more exaggerated than merited by the punch, which was more of a chip shot, if we’re to stick with the golf lingo. He began to moan and sough like a Chinook descending onto the Plains. I sat up and threw off the covers. Not that I was livid or incensed—I had received the attentions of men before; it didn’t destroy my self image—but my voice did betray something short of ecstasy.

“Not interested—do you hear me?” I half-twisted around to address him, putting my hand on his shoulder. “So we’re going to make a deal. You and I aren’t destined to be sweethearts. And in return, I won’t say anything about the little interlude we’ve just had, not to the mission president or the zone leadership, and certainly no letter to the Dobbs clan in Utah, where your older brothers, male cousins, and grizzled mountain-man uncles would cage you with a cougar if you ever returned there.”

“I wasn’t going to rape you.”

“Among many other things, no, you weren’t.” I vaulted off the end of the bed, executing a half-twist and reverse pike. At least I think it was a reverse pike: at any rate, an impressive dismount. “How did you end up as a missionary, anyway?”

“O-o-o-o-h-h-h,” he said, a little ominously. “Sometimes you don’t tell everything. And other times there are unasked questions. They just wave you through the checkpoint.”

“I don’t see how you’re going to make it to the end of your mission. You still have a long time to go.”

“Leave that to me. Or maybe I’ll just have to go native.” He was able to sit up now and undertook to let himself down to the floor. Somehow it was like watching fiberglass insulation unroll. The guy was completely lacking in crispness. He turned and looked at me, anguished and obviously pleading. If his dark brown eyes had begun to swirl like a cartoon character’s, it wouldn’t have surprised me. He said, “You’ll just have to cover for me sometimes. ‘Elder Dobbs wasn’t feeling so great today. Sleeping sickness. He must have been bitten by a rabid mosquito.’ That’s what you can tell the zone and the branch president and the members.”

“Dogs are rabid, not mosquitoes.”

“Doesn’t matter. Swedes always act like they understand English, but little things like that get by them. You could say venomous if you want.”

“Bilious. A bilious mosquito. That’ll throw just about all of them.”

Before the attempted seduction, he hadn’t bothered to change out of his sacred garments, but now he went over to the dresser and stripped out of them, then dressed in regular briefs and his P-day outfit of jeans and a gold polo shirt and the same wing-tips. He got a light jacket from the rack by the entryway, and then he opened the door. “Don’t sweat it if you haven’t heard from me for a while. I have to find out what’s out there. I’ll be back Sunday morning in time for church.”

After the door clicked behind him, I thought of many things: whether he shouldn’t have taken a change of clothes and his toothbrush, for example, the neglect of which struck me as curious. I also started to plan a plausible response in case a member of the church spotted me alone in the street, and how to fib and mislead in the daily report to the zone, a call which I would be making for the, Elder Dobbs, unwell with encephalitis. As far as activities at the branch, not much was planned between now and Sunday but on Friday evening some of the youth would be rehearsing a skit. I would just have to lock and unlock the building for them and act as though nothing was amiss.

 ab

 I’ve always been an independent sort of guy. At the age of nineteen, owning my first motorcycle, I took a solo trip around Wyoming, to see it for myself, and came home to Cheyenne burned by wind and sun, characterizing what I’d seen as “quasi-lunar.” I’ve always been fearless when it comes to motorcycles and forthright with verbal descriptions, although less obviously so than the men who named the Grand Tetons. Of course, no one understood me well, but I was used to it and went ahead saying it my way until the day I cleared out for Los Angeles.

Just this sort of experience served me well in my Swedish town of Skövde, which is unpronounceable for the English speaker (a Swede whips up a small cyclone in order to say it in his language). Skövde is a city known for making automobile transmissions. Finding myself ensam, as they say, which is single, or alone, I decided that, just because Elder Dobbs was spinning around on the stool at the gay bar, there was no reason I shouldn’t go ahead with my mission. Then, rather looking forward to the perils that might confront me, I went out to knock on doors. The day was beautiful and sunny with a deep azure sky and the perfume of window box petunias. There was an apartment building I had marked out before and I went right to it, buzzing the units and daring to speak my rough Swedish. The two first-floor occupants politely dismissed me. One second-floor dweller wasn’t home, and the other clicked off. As yet unaccustomed to rejection, I had to gather myself before buzzing 3A. Hearing a woman’s voice without quite understanding it, I unfurled my basic speech, declaring myself to be a missionary for the Kirke av den Siste Dager Helige who would like to talk with her about our church. Again she spoke so quickly that the response got by, but the door buzzed and I grabbed the knob, taking the steps two at a time and arriving winded at her battered brown door. To my knock, she merely said, “Kom in,” which was plain enough, and I stepped into a fine place and encountered a woman in her mid-twenties who wore her bathrobe, white with pink dots, and a pair of gray-and-white bunny-rabbit slippers. She had the tremendous, broad Nordic cheekbones that made her face almost dishlike, and the azure eyes glimmered. Dangling near what appeared to be an infinitely diverting bosom was the silver figure of none other than that Anasazi merry-maker, Kokopelli.

I thanked her for admitting me:“Tak så mycket—”

“You speak English, obviously—an American,” she said, seeming delighted and inviting me to sit on her sofa, which was of uncompromisingly modern design and offered wafer-thin cushions. Of course I sat, putting my scriptures on my lap. “Please excuse the mess here in the room, but my boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—recently moved out and I still haven’t gotten organized.”

“I’m here to tell you about my church, but first I have to say that those slippers are adorable.”

She lifted the right one off the floor, peered at it, and wiggled her toes inside so the rabbit ears twitched. Then she stood straight and tall. “If you have some papers or something, please, go ahead and leave them.”

“There’s also this book, which was specially revealed to the prophet and founder of our church. By the way, I’m Elder Cody. The ‘Elder’ part is a title we use in the church, sort of like ‘Brother.'”

“And is Cody your first or last name?”

“Elder D.J. Cody.”

“Ah. Initials. It’s not common in Sweden, but I’ve heard of other Americans doing this. Well, my name is Karla Mårtinsson. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She pulled a hairbrush out of her pocket and began to stroke it through her endless cascade of blonde hair.

I said, “Likewise,” which she didn’t understand until I approximately translated, saying, “Likaså.” She acknowledged me by noisily dragging in air across her front teeth—a very Swedish trait, I would learn—while continuing with her brushing. I began to recite my speech. This went on for some time, and I had to concentrate hard, fervently wishing it was something I could’ve delivered automatically, through the medulla oblongata, as it were, freeing my forebrain for the purpose of appreciating the beauty before me. After a while she stopped brushing and sat nearby on the sofa, looking at me while pulling hairs from the bristles. When I had finished my spiel, all the while avoiding any mention of the fact that I was supposed to be here with a partner, she said, “I think that’s an interesting story. I didn’t know any of it. Where in America are you from, Elder D.J.?”

“I live in Los Angeles.”

“California. I’ve always wanted to go there and see the palm trees and the beach. This necklace was a gift from an aunt who once went to New Mexico and Arizona.” She scooped it in her hand and displayed it.

“Do you know who Kokopelli is, exactly?”

“Well, yes, sort of. He’s a fertility figure, I believe.”

It seemed best not to elaborate, but I couldn’t help shrugging in a generally positive way.

Now she asked me to excuse her because she was getting ready for work; I could go right on if I had anything else to say. Yes, there was always more material, so I resumed, this time a bit louder after she disappeared into the bedroom. I was somewhere in the plan of salvation—the atonement, I think—when she reemerged from the bedroom holding a neatly folded blouse on top of a skirt with both hands; she had shed the robe and wore only a pair of bright pink panties. My lecture and breathing stopped at once. No doubt my face registered the vacancy of one who has struck a low-hanging pipe. The room shrank. The only thought in my brain was that all this was Elder Dobbs’s fault, but it passed as my senses—sight being the most essential now—filed back in and took their seats in the choir. Karla was speaking.

“I went to the state church several times as a girl. We studied the Bible. I always thought it was so rich.” Her upper lip delicately crinkled on the last word. “I had no idea there were other sacred Christian writings. Won’t you please go on while I dress?”

In preparation before leaving for Sweden, there indeed been a warning that standards of modesty, even between the sexes, were different here, but as it turns out, this is like being warned that Wyoming is a bit windier than most states and then finding out the gales will blow you right out of your unzipped jacket. I stirred through my scriptures and supplies and found a Mormons Bok. Holding it up I said she could have it—I would be happy to leave it. I desperately tried to avoid gawking, gaping, or leering at her splendid breasts. She accepted the book, taking it from me and adding it to her clothes, meanwhile nodding in serene acknowledgement. She walked over to the kitchen, where she set everything on the counter, filled a glass with water, and washed down the white tablet she had taken from a round dispenser. I rallied myself one more time and continued speaking. She finished dressing right there. As it turned out a bra was sandwiched between the blouse and skirt, and she fitted herself into it; and of course, coming from where I do, it was impossible not to think of the roundup of wild mares.

“Shall we go out together?” She came over to me on the sofa. I gathered all my supplies. It would be necessary to go into a café, order a 7Up, and reassemble everything, including me. When I rose, she took my arm. “I’m really sorry to run away like this. But I have to do my job.”

At the door she stepped into a pair of wooden clogs.

“If you’d be interested in attending our church on Sunday, I’d be happy to come for you.”

“I think that could be a good thing,” she said.

With her consent, I offered a brief prayer, an excruciatingly difficult thing to do under the circumstances, but exemplary of the Mormon way. Finally, we started down the stairs together, once again arm in arm. 

ab

 I knew I had done a terrible thing, committed a violation of the two-by-two principle of the Mormon missionary undertaking, and like any violator, I set about to cover up my transgression. Without a partner or any direct supervision here in the desolation of Skövde, the cover-up was easily implemented and flawlessly enacted till the Sabbath. I would just lie low, hang around the apartment, make the daily mumbled phone call to the zone leadership and fib and dissimulate, as required; any additional going about on my own would raise too many questions. Elder Dobbs could have been reported missing, but I was unready to do that, for I was about to bag a trophy on my first hunt. Sunday morning I would circle around Karla’s building, bringing myself up to operating temperature and steadying my hands. Then I would take her to the Skövde branch—for a chapel, the members had some first-floor space in a commercial building not far from her place—displaying her for everyone to admire. Should she follow up her initial interest and decide to be baptized, all the more impressive! As for my departure from protocol, I seriously doubted whether any of the branch members were experienced or savvy enough to understand how grievous it really was.

It seemed safe to assume I wouldn’t see Elder Dobbs before Sunday. And as he knew when walking out, I would have no intention of reporting him missing. It was very unlikely that he hadn’t already engaged in some proscribed activity elsewhere in town, or at his previous posting—maybe he had hopped onto a train—and that he knew where to take refuge. Despite his apparent fecklessness, I had no doubt he was quite capable of living off the land, wherever he was.

Aside from Elder Dobbs, though, there were two other worries. For one thing, I debated whether to confirm beforehand, say, Saturday afternoon, whether Karla still planned to attend the meeting or just to show up at her door on Sunday at the appointed hour. I tormented myself, unable determine a precedent, and paralysis set in. My stomach churned and I gnawed the skin inside my lips. Not for the last time, it seemed an inappropriate issue to raise in prayer with Heavenly Father. It was doubtful that He wanted to hear a buccaneer’s plight. “Oh, dear Lord, I have commandeered this galleon and all the treasure in its hold, which is treasure unto thee. But now my mind overflows with questions. What if my faulty navigation should steer the treasure onto a reef or into the doldrums?” Hard to imagine He wouldn’t have me walking the plank. 

ab

 My second worry concerned the planking, so to speak, that had gone in since my happy encounter with The Next Swedish Mormon. There seemed something dishonorable about it. How depraved that I should be getting a woody all morning, noon, and midnatt, raising the salute to my lovely, trustful investigator. I wanted her to be my first baptism, to cradle her respectfully as I dipped her into the font and not to jab her in the hip or back with the underwater interloper. Yet my mind was becoming a national wetland of carnality. She had mentioned the boyfriend’s moving out. One ideal baptism scenario had already been produced inside my head, but my groin was independently producing a whole series of lurid vignettes that I had to prevent from going into general release by keeping my hands off. But this didn’t forestall my occasional rubbing against the wall, as though one were attempting to use the sole of one’s shoe to scrape a clinging marsupial from one’s ankle. The longer I resisted, the more it felt as though my testicles were calcifying, which was excruciating; but I exhorted myself that by enduring, I would ultimately be entitled to something great.

Had Sisters Belknap and/or Logan experienced a comparable, feminine reaction to me? Women have always struck me as innocent until proven insatiable. Surely, within the cross-section of worthy Mormon ladies drawn to serve the Lord in the mission field, the number of lusty babes and adventurous strumpets would be strictly minimized: they’re the anise seeds trying to pass through the flour sifter. But the inner workings of even a sister missionary’s mind, not to mention her overt actions, may remain invisible until the exception—coming home early after starting to show at three and a half months—proves the rule. As long as this line of thinking persisted in my mind, I had to wonder about the lovely Karla Mårtinsson herself, that Kokopelli figure bumping all day against her breastbone. Dare I suspect my suit and tie and neatly combed hair might even momentarily have altered the pattern of electron flow inside her brain? Assuming disinterest on the female’s part has often been the injudicious mistake of this stag.

The solution to my planking problem as presented by social tradition was the cold shower, a barbaric practice that I avoided in this civilized country. The other side of the coin was to go for a mile run, but the sight of a Mormon missionary loping over the cobbles might well have caused the smattering of Swedes in the streets to call the police, if not to chase and tackle me themselves. The other alternative, recommended by church officials, was to get down on my knees and pray, but I already was far out of bounds after going solo, and now there was this unusual issue. If I’d liked the sound of my own voice, I at least might have sung a hymn.

It’s strange to report that I finally settled myself by picturing the Christmas tree Elder Dobbs had described to me in one of our conversations. It was among the first things he had divulged, lowering his voice a bit as if someone might steal the idea and apply for a patent. He had once captured a large tumbleweed, taken it home, erected it in a block of florist’s foam, and had a heyday hanging ornaments and adding tinsel before topping the masterpiece with an angel. It was said to surpass any fir or spruce, and certainly any artificial tree, and provided a Christmas like no other. 

ab

I decided to go by Karla’s apartment on Saturday evening for a reminder and progress check. The truth was that my yearning for her, just to glimpse her again, to see her hair shimmer like a brimming harvest wagon, to watch Kokopelli cavort between her clavicles, to hear her delicately chiming voice, made staying away impossible. I skulked over to her building, using the alleyways and shadowy side of the street. She sounded delighted to hear from me and buzzed me in. When she opened the door this time, there was no locker-room intimacy; she wore a pair of blue jeans and a short-sleeved embroidered chambray blouse and white sneakers. Her quarter-hectare smile eased all my worries about intruding.
“What a fine surprise! Please come in.”

“You’re so nice to give me such a welcome.”

“Not at all—it’s wonderful to see you.”

In the living room she was in the process of sanding an antique chair, and there were some refinishing supplies on the coffee table. I also noticed nearby the copy of Mormons Bok, and protruding from it was a gaggle of little white page markers. I was impressed with her assiduity.

“So you’re in the furniture business?”

“I’m just doing this for my parents. Their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary is coming up.”

“Well, then, better that you give them a chair than a car, I guess.” It was a stupid thing to say, but she caught my intent to create some delightful repartee and agreed that restoring a car would be too much labor. Just the typical Scandinavian woman, it seemed, ever-poised and finding the delight and humor in everything. She went into the kitchen to fetch apple-cinnamon tea and packaged cookies. Instead of sitting on the sofa, I grabbed her scriptures and followed. The kitchen, nearly the size of my apartment’s main room, had a small table with two chairs. I pulled one out and sat. Accepting the snack from her, I couldn’t help smiling just as sweetly, it seemed certain, as she had earlier.

Varsågod,” she welcomed, waving her hand and returning the smile.

Tusen tak,” I thanked her a thousand times. “So I see you’ve done a lot of reading. You probably have many questions. Maybe I’m not the best scripture man, but there’s plenty of authoritative help available. How did you find it, though—I mean, quite generally?”

“Your church has an amazing story. I had no idea at all. I’m very eager to go with you tomorrow and meet the believers.”

“They’re people who live lives of sacrifice and self-mastery, with great rewards now and even greater ones awaiting in the next life.” I was going to tell her about the Celestial Kingdom but became distracted by the magnificent rustle her body made inside the chambray blouse. I found myself staring at the embroidery, which might have been a Laplander motif. Kokopelli was retired for now; she wore no jewelry—it would have impeded her work—but she needed little ornamentation, or only the simplest: even a wreath of pine cones and a necklace of braided birch bark would have looked terrific on her.

“Would you like to hear some music?” she asked.

“Are you going to sing to me?”

“No,” she laughed.

“Play the violin?”

“No, some recordings. What do you like?”

It was going to kill me to tell her missionaries weren’t supposed to listen to music, so I merely said anything would be fine.

“How about some Swedish music? I’ve been listening to old folk songs.” She hurried into the other room and clattered through a bunch of cassettes, one of which she fed into the player before returning to sit with me. There was a votive candle on the table and she lit it.

“The tea is excellent, like liquid candy,” I said. “Thank you so much for everything.”

“You already said that, thousands of times.” She laughed at her own exaggeration. “You don’t need to repeat it. Besides, it’s nothing.”

For a time we merely sat and listened and sometimes looked right into each others’ eyes. I have to admit that I found the keening voices and shrill fiddling to be more unsettling than anything, and would have preferred something familiar.

“What is this man singing about?” I asked.

“He’s singing about how good the summer sun is to Sweden. It’s one of the merriest old songs.” She rose and collected the cups and saucers, putting everything by the sink. It was insidiously cheap of me, but I couldn’t help stealing a look at her perfection. She almost caught me when she turned suddenly, asking, “Would you like me to teach you a folk dance?”

What else was there to do? I had already derailed. How could this possibly make any difference? “I’m really not supposed to dance,” I protested.

“Of course not, but you’re in Sweden. Most other things that people aren’t supposed to do are permitted here. And besides, I’ll never tell.”

For the first time on my mission, I felt like the clumsy guy from WHY-Oh-Ho!-Ming. I took her hands, looked into her eyes, and followed her steps. But soon I was the cool California dude again and could lead the dance, and then pick up the variations she showed me. After the mission president found out what sort of cultural tidbits I’d acquired, I would probably be on my way home, possibly traveling hand over hand via the Transatlantic Cable. But her warmth and softness and the gleam in her eyes, not to mention the indulgent Swedish summer sun’s radiance, kept me going, and by the end of the long tape, having enacted the music, I no longer found it screechy or shrill.

When she didn’t put in another tape, I knew it was time to go.

“You’re an excellent dancer,” she said.

“You’re an excellent teacher—and dancer. Very graceful.”

“Thank you so much.” She bowed slightly. Then we were embracing each other ever so delicately and there was a corresponding, fragile kiss, her lips as soft and warm as a California jasmine breeze.

“Please don’t tell about that, either,” I said.

She merely beamed at me, a look that suggested it wouldn’t be the only secret kiss of her lifetime.

“I’ll come for you at halv nio,” I said—eight thirty—and asked if she could indeed be ready; it wasn’t necessary to dress too well but neither too poorly. She nodded, still beaming at me and gleaming back at the sun, and I nodded to in return, a million unspoken words losing purchase inside my head like rocks and boulders on an unstable cliff..

Godnatt, J.D.,” she said. “What a pleasure it’s been.” 

ab

When I got back to the apartment, Elder Dobbs was just sitting down with a plate of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. He looked worn and needed a shave. He was dressed in a light-blue polo shirt and jeans with boat shoes, which must all have been new purchases.
“Nothing like home cookin’,” I said.

“You can say that again,” he asserted through a tremendous mouthful. “I’ve been living on knäckebröd and creamed herring, and you lose your taste for that in a hurry. Flip”—his Utah expression destroyed me every time he used it—”these eggs taste unbelievable.”

I sat across from him at the table. “I guess you didn’t make anything for me.”

He gestured to the pan still on the stove and grunted, taking another bite and dangling a slice of potato on his lower lip. “Help yourself.”

“I got an investigator while you were gone. Speaking of unbelievable—she really is. She’s coming to church tomorrow. I figured what the heck, even if you weren’t here, it shouldn’t stop me from going about my business. She doesn’t know anything about partners or any of that.”

“You’re right, it shouldn’t make any difference. I’ll go along in the morning when you pick her up.”

As soon as he finished dining, Elder Dobbs stashed his plate on the drainboard by the sink and began to get ready for bed. It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet but he got into his garments and pajamas, knelt and said his prayers, and tumbled into his bunk. I had been making myself some eggs, but before he went to sleep, which would be presently—he always fell quickly to sleep and rarely woke—I remembered to notify him that I had told no one about his absence, which caused him to grunt twice before he rolled over to face the wall.

In the morning we went by Karla’s, and I introduced her to Elder Dobbs, explaining that we had worked separately last week. He accepted her hand and lightly shook it. She looked magnificent in a rich blue dress with pearl-white pumps and a matching bag, and her hair was pinned back with gold bars. She expressed nervousness but looked and acted serene enough, and the ten-minute walk to the building where the Skövde branch was located probably did all of us good as far as calming down. One of the sisters was playing hymns on the piano when we arrived, and it sounded like stovebolts hitting sheet iron. We introduced Karla to various members, and then sat with her during sacrament meeting. As the sacrament was passed around I focused on the light blonde froth covering her arm. I crossed and uncrossed my legs several times. When it was time for the talks, the speakers went on at painful length and I ended up staring at the walls, the ceiling. Finally, we relinquished her to the Relief Society for their meeting. It was part-way through our own priesthood session that Elder Dobbs and I were called to the small office. We both supposed it had to do with clerical or bookkeeping minutiae: the missionaries often helped out with this in the Shövde branch. Instead, much to our surprise, we found President Smith, our boss in Sweden mission, who had to have come all the way over on this morning’s train from Stockholm. His thin face was creased with distress and his tremendous mane of blond hair had been whitening by the minute. He wasted no time in informing us that news of Elder Dobbs’s desertion, as well as my dissembling, had reached him, and Dobbs would be going home to the states. This deportation would be effective immediately. There was a night flight out of Arlanda airport. As for me, I was to return to Stockholm with President Smith and would be reassigned. New missionaries would come to Skövde this next week. We were to go immediately to our apartment and collect our things.

By now the branch members had divided up into their small classes for even more instruction, and I knew where to find Karla with the Investigators, meeting in a tiny cluster at the back of the chapel room with a branch member filling in for the missionaries as discussion leader. Karla looked as if she were having a fine time. I merely went right up to her on her folding chair and dragged my index finger across her back, from shoulder to shoulder. Then I said, “I’m so sorry, but I’m being transferred back to Stockholm—leaving right now.” I watched her press lips together and thought I saw her eyes dim ever so slightly. “It was such a pleasure to meet you.” I bent very close and whispered, “Last night was wonderful.”

“Yes, it was for me, as well,” she murmured.

Elder Dobbs and I had a solemn return to Stockholm with President Smith on the afternoon train. I couldn’t help imagining Kokopelli as the locomotive engineer. I hoped this train stayed on the tracks. It was killing me to ask how Smith had found out about Dobbs’s going AWOL, but I kept my mouth shut. The answer was something I never would learn. We put Dobbs on the late flight and then I crashed in the mission home’s extra room. The next day, severely chastened about my complicity and warned against any repetition or even the slightest deviation from regulations, I was assigned a new partner right in central Stockholm, a dour experienced Canadian named Elder Tad George. It was a so-so partnership but we got lots of work done and definitely didn’t dwell on any preoccupations. I managed not to think more than three or four dozen times of Karla Mårtinsson until word reached me a few months later that she had, indeed, gone ahead and accepted the Gospel. How I envied the elder who got to hold her while she was immersed in baptism.

I continued to practice the faith for several years after returning to California and beginning to write, as it happened, for game shows, but then I backslid into my old depravities and at present am something of a bon vivant. Those Swedes who looked up to me during my mission, and other faithful members of the church in general, might not welcome this ambiguous report, but I do selectively remain a believer—I like the mystical elements of Mormonism—and certainly regard my mission as a personal success. As for Karla, we are not in contact. When I think of her, surprisingly enough, the image I retain isn’t her prancing around in panties: I recall all her brilliance and vitality being directed to sanding down an antique chair for refinishing. And I always remember her saying nothing was too regular in Sweden.

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2 thoughts on “The Offhand Conversion

  1. Wonderful writing. I guess all churches have a branch of self-righteous hypocrisy.
    Once you’ve been exposed to it, so to speak, its difficult to return to the fold.

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