After my post yesterday on Professor Thayer’s passing and the writing I did for his class, I thought it would be interesting to put up one of my short stories from that semester. This is probably the best one, if that says anything. I wrote it back in the winter of 2001.
Presented now for your reading pleasure:
I sat down but had to tap my foot. Where were they? I glanced at my watch again. 21:19–three minutes later than the last time I had looked. Nineteen minutes late. I sat back in the overstuffed chair and tried to appear relaxed. My fingers started a quick staccato on the chair arm as I tuned back into the conversation around me.
“I dunno, Anderson. Do ya think they’ll schaff it?”
“They’ll be fine. There’s no way they would’ve missed the 9:10.”
One time they had forgotten I was at school. I called home, but Dad was asleep. He said later he hadn’t heard the phone. Mom was out doing errands. It had been three hours before she got my message and came to pick me up. Why did I keep thinking about that?
“Hey–Christensen. Christensen! Man are you spaced or what! For someone who fought bein’ trunky, you sure did die fast.”
I shook my head and didn’t answer. I got back up and went to the window but didn’t look out. My socks swished on the carpet. New ones, bought for today. No holes. I checked my reflection again in the mirror. Dad would comment on my suit. I hadn’t dry cleaned it once the whole two years. What was the point? The lining was worn out from my backpack, and the wool was beginning to fray at the edges.
Elder Habicht always said it had to do with which clothes you wore less. At home, Sunday clothes were special; in the field, P-day clothes were taken care of. Folded up neatly, ready for the next week. Dad wouldn’t understand. Or would he? He had been there–he had done it, too.
I felt my hair over, going through the motions. I had smeared a thick glob of gel in that morning. My comp always called it a helmet, but I didn’t like to worry about it getting messed up.
Things had been different before my mission, of course. Classic rock and T-shirts, late nights and mornings that were almost afternoons. Older and wiser now, I reminded myself. I thrust my wrist free of my white shirt again. 21:23. I started roaming. President Johnson’s apartment had high ceilings and cushy blue carpet. My eyes paused on a picture of the Freiberg temple and a Leipzig Travel Book. I flipped through them for a moment and then went back to the window. No one would call it a gorgeous city–nothing to compare to Paris or London or Salzburg. Leipzig gawked up at the sky in muted grays and browns and blacks as small cars made of compressed cardboard swerved on the streets below. I’d ridden a Trabi every week to church in Schwarzenberg; the scent of bad gasoline and a cramped back seat weren’t easy to forget. It was a joke that they even had seat belts in that death trap. The stupidity of Communism. Bruder Brummel had been waiting at the train station that first night, eager to help the two Elders up to their apartment.
“So Elder Christensen, wo kommen Sie her?”
“Uh… Entschuldigung? I didn’t quite–I mean–Ich habe nicht…” I had looked over at my trainer in desperation, still too new to even remember his name. The snow fell softly over the train station, quickly covering the marks of the passing train as its taillights disappeared in the dark. My last link to anything resembling home. Above us a yellow streetlight bathed the scene in sepia.
My trainer looked at Bruder Brummel in a knowing way, who smiled in return.
“Ach! You are Golden. Ich habe völlig davon vergessen. Welcome to the Erzgebirge!” He jerked his green knit hat down over his ears and signaled for me to follow. The next thing I knew I was in his Trabi, rumbling through the late night up a hill to Communist housing–Neubau. Purple lights gaped down from windows filled with plants and the shifting light of televisions. It had taken five months to understand the thick Erzgebirgisch accents, five months in which the snow had gradually turned into budding leaves and fields of yellow flowers.
Outside a Straβenbahn interrupted my memory, electrical lines sparking furiously as if in imitation of the lightning the night before. Breaking my train of thought. Winter was in the air, and the cold would soon attack the city in force. Already a few areas of the mission had had their first snow. Magdeburg. Cottbus. Eisenach. I listened to the pedestrians walking by underneath the window.
“Ja, es ist mir schon ziemlich kalt. Es wird ein schlecter Winter sein. Sag mal…”
No Englisch. 21:27.
“Come on, Christensen. They’ll be here sooner or später, and waiting up here’s not gonna hilf much. How about we go and grab some Essen?” SYL, mission-style. I had fought it for the first quarter of my mission, but finally resigned myself to the choice between Speak-Your-Language snob or German pidgin.
“You guys go ahead. Sister Johnson is up here still, and there’s a few more things I still gotta erledigen.” I kept pacing once they were gone. I had paced at school that day, too. How do you sleep through five phone calls? My quarters ran out, or I would have kept trying. Forget it. College had been better, hadn’t it? I’d been independent then, hadn’t I?
I thought I’d be independent once I got to Gotha. Third city, DL, Golden Trainer. I’d be in charge. The mission would be smooth sailing from there on out. Four months with a difficult companion, three baptisms, two bike wrecks and one thrashed suit had shown me otherwise. You couldn’t be independent on a mission; it wasn’t your job. Winter had descended and the bikes had been replaced with Bahn cards and missed trains. But with it came a contentment–a satisfaction. I remembered one evening, walking home through a light snow from a late appointment. Elder Jones had been anxious for warmth–I let him walk ahead. He was furious. The purple lights in the windows were comforting by then, and I knew that in a year I would have to let them go. I didn’t know what to think about that, and let myself be enjoy the crunch of the snow underneath my shoes. Jones tapped his foot at the end of the corner; I took my time.
I shook my head back to the now. Here I was ready to face winter, and I was being released. My eyes roamed the apartment, lingering on the dining table in the other room even as my ears pricked toward the window for a trace of English. I strode to the door, opened it, and took the wrought-iron elevator down to the office. With a creak the downstairs door opened, carrying with it the sound of eating Elders. I closed the door and looked around the dimly lit apartment. Light shone into the hallway from the kitchen, and it was there that the office Elders had gathered for their nightly ritual. I stepped over oversized suitcases and walked in.
“Hey! Here he is now! Mr. Big Cheese himself!” With a chorus of greetings, they each resumed their socializing. I tried to talk with them, but they already were focused on events I would have no part of. They had a tomorrow; I had a homecoming. Finally Elder Anderson signaled me into the other room.
“So what’s up?”
“Not much. They’re a half-hour late.”
“Don’t worry about it. They’ll komm schon. Enjoy your last few minutes as a full-blooded Elder.”
“Hey–what’s the matter with you? What’s got into you?”
“Right. You’ve thrown up about five times today. Something’s up. Sag mal.”
“No–I mean it. Nothing. I have nothing to look forward to. I’m gonna go home and sit around for three and a half months and then fly off to school. Nothing.”
“Sounds like a whole lotta something to me.”
“Something like a bad decision is what.”
“I should’ve verlängert. Then at least I’d only have had two months to blow.”
“Come on, man. It won’t be that bad.”
“Leicht gesagt. You’ve got five months left.”
“Well, how about the Büro. You got any suggestions on what I should work on?”
We talked shop for the next while, and Elder Anderson left me to my thoughts. 21:43. After three hours, I’d been pretty steamed. Said some things better left unsaid. Hadn’t I? I shook my head. Memories of the mission were clear as a seven o’clock study session, but anything before the MTC got hazy and wobbly. Some memories you never forget, though. They’re branded in your mind. I’d never forget that experience. I don’t think I wanted to know why. But I was no longer Ben–I was Elder Christensen. Right? That was who I wanted to be. And couldn’t. The doorbell rang, and I got up to answer it out of habit. Then thought again. I stayed in the room, turning off the lights.
Elder Anderson open the main door and through it cut the voice of my father. Release in a sentence. My jumbled thoughts and scattered emotions clicked together at once. Home. I walked to the door and went to meet my family.
There was everything such a reunion should have. Dad commented on how much older I looked, Mom cried, and my brother went on and on about video games. In a blur everything whisked to the car, an expensive Mercedes Benz rental–the wonders of Capitalism–and we were off to the hotel. I squirmed on the leather seats and stared at the seat belt before I put it on.
“Why don’t we go out to dinner?” 22:31. Already past bedtime. What bedtime?
“Sure, why not?”
I looked around the restaurant, curious to see the German waiters bustling back and forth just like their counterparts in America always had. I didn’t have to Contact them. My family went to the menus, asking for help with translation. Rotkohl, Rouladen, Klöβe, Getränke. Orders were placed, and everyone started talking at once.
“So, son. Have you heard much about what’s happening at home?”
“Uh… No, Dad. Not wirklich.”
“What was that?”
“Give him a break, Joe. Tell us all about Leipzig, Ben. Where should we go sightseeing tomorrow?”
“Well, I–uh–I hadn’t really thought about it that much. What with things at the Bür–“
“See, Mary. He hasn’t thought about it. That’s what I told you, isn’t it? Missionaries just keep their heads in the–Now Ben.” At this my father’s face hardened. “I know that you’ve had a good mission. Of course you have–that’s how we raised you! But we’ve got to get you back into the swing of things pronto. You got me? Pronto. You’ve got a lot ahead of you.” A low chuckle. “Boy, do I wish I was back in your shoes. Picking a major, choosing a career–hey, what am I saying? Choosing a wife, right? You’ve got to find a good summer job, right?” His sales pitch stopped, and it took me a moment to realize a response was expected–required.
“Well–yeah. Sure,” and as an afterthought forced out through unfamiliar lips, “Dad.”
“That’s my boy! We raise ’em right, don’t we, Mary?” Mary just kept her mouth closed in a worried grimace as she glanced uneasily between me and my father. “That’s what I say. Well, don’t you worry a bit, Ben, cause I’ve got it all worked out for you. You start the day after we get back in Dan Stuart’s department–down in shipping. It’s a bit of grunt work, but it’ll be fine. Gotta get rid of some of that fat you’ve got stored up there. You’ll have to get a car, of course. That’ll mean car payments and a loan–build credit.”
He went on, but I had stopped listening. Car payments? A loan? Menschenskinder… A wife? I gazed out the window in the direction of the office, my sight now blurred by the falling snow.