In Sybil’s Garage #2 we published Lauren McLaughin’s “New York City vs. The World.” She has now just released from her website an audio podcast of the story. Check it out here. If you want, you can read along with the text here.
Six Questions About the Sun
by Brian Conn
to the sound of Pelikanol by Einstürzende Neubauten…
As Published in Sybil’s Garage No. 3
Q: Are fish afraid of the sun?
A: Yes. Fish, like all creatures, are afraid of the sun. Some fish never see the sun, but they, along with other creatures that never see the sun (nocturnal insects, creatures that live underground) nevertheless know darkness and light, heat and cold. As a creature contemplates its relationship with heat and light, it becomes aware that, although heat and light sustain it, heat and light also sustain its enemies and surround it with movement, noise, and danger. If fish fear the sun less than other creatures, it is because, deep in the sea, the creatures of the sun may appear to be creatures of darkness. Fish, finding themselves among so many blind creatures, cold creatures, and creatures that draw their sustenance from hot rifts in the earth, may err and suppose it is the darkness that sustains their enemies, but in fact their enemies are sustained by the sun.
There is a story that Tariq the Cosmonaut conceived what was to be his final voyage while walking on a mountain trail at dusk. On the trail he was surrounded by the sun’s creatures: tall trees, nodding ferns, animals rustling in the grasses. He became aware abruptly of the shadows that lay all around him. A root reached from the hillside like a claw. Tariq became afraid. He knew that every creature was created by the sun, and he wondered: Why does the sun create so many creatures and then abandon us to them in the dark? He realized that, although the sun sustains us, it is not our friend, for it is the sun that surrounds us with movement, noise, and danger. He resolved then that his next voyage would take him to the sun.
Q: Should you look directly into the sun?
A: Yes. Everybody should look directly into the sun at least once. It is not necessary to look directly into the sun regularly, because it is possible to remember the experience after looking there only once; but if you ever forget what it is like to look directly into the sun, you should look there again.
We are all creatures of the sun. Although it is not correct to say that we are part of the sun, the heat and light that sustains us and nourishes our food comes from the sun, and all the heat and light that is in us was once in the sun. Therefore, if we want to know ourselves, we must look directly into the sun.
When Tariq the Cosmonaut set out for the sun, he discovered that the experience of looking directly into the sun changes as one’s distance from the sun changes. Once he had gone half the distance to the sun, he described in his daily radio broadcast how he beheld there a variety of colors in constant motion. When he had gone three-fourths of the distance, these colors faded and the sun appeared to him as a fiery mandala in orange and black. When he had gone seven-eights of the distance, the patterns of the mandala faded, and sun no longer seemed to be a flat disc, as we see it, but rather concave, as an immense retina, across which floated countless dark motes which seemed as he approached to whisper to him with a hissing noise. Yet this perception also faded as he drew nearer to the sun.
We must remember, when looking directly into the sun, that the way we see it is not the only way, for our distance from it is fixed. Although it is important for us to develop the best image of the sun we can, we must not become attached to this image, thinking it is the only one. It is for this reason that we should not look too often directly into the sun, fixing its image repeatedly in our minds, but rather, having looked there once, endeavor to remember what we saw.
A: Yes. The sun most often kills with poison. When Tariq the Cosmonaut landed on the sun, he found every kind of poison known to him and hundreds more, stored in rubber balloons hanging in a row from the ceiling of a long, narrow warehouse. Most of the time the thick walls of the warehouse shaded the poisons from the heat of the sun, but in each of the two long walls was a row of hatches, one pair of hatches to each balloon, and these opened and closed at unpredictable intervals. When the hatches before and behind a balloon opened, the intense heat of the sun caused a small amount of the poison in the balloon to turn to vapor and escape through a brass valve near its top, and the solar wind sent the vapor hurtling in the direction of the earth.
Although it is best to protect ourselves by keeping away from the sun’s rays and purifying our food before we eat it, scientists now believe that, whatever precautions we take, we will inevitably be exposed to small amounts of the sun’s poisons. It is to recover from these poisons that we sleep at night. Those who remain indoors and eat only food that has been carefully purified need only one to two hours of sleep; for most of us, however, this level of protection is impossible, and we must be sure to sleep every night until our bodies are fresh. As long as we do this, we can remain healthy, but if we remain awake too long, exposing ourselves and our food to the sun, the sun may kill us.
Q: How does the sun keep burning?
A: The sun must have its supply of fuel continually replenished.
After landing on the sun, Tariq the Cosmonaut noticed that, although the temperature there far surpassed even the hottest temperatures on earth, he seemed to sweat only very little. Sealing his ship at night, however, he began to sweat profusely. He opened the ship’s door, but stretched a fine adhesive net across the opening, sealing its edges. This experiment produced immediate results: there appeared in the net a great number of white birds, each as small as a thumbnail and having a peculiar beak, pouched like a pelican’s and terminating in a bony funnel.
Scientists now believe that millions of these birds fly between the sun and the earth every day, although there are never so many here as Tariq found on the sun. They are so small and their speed so great that they cannot be detected except by sealing a room with an adhesive net, yet they surround us whenever we are outdoors, and their adroitness is such that they are able, without alerting us to their presence, to collect our sweat, tears, saliva, and blood, which they carry in their beaks to the sun, to be its fuel. This is the reason why we seem to sweat more profusely in a closed room: the birds of the sun are able to penetrate only in small numbers, and thus carry the sweat away more slowly, causing it to linger on our skin.
Although it is difficult to estimate what quantity of this fuel the sun consumes, it must be a very great quantity, and Tariq discovered no reserve of fuel on the sun. Many people believe that, were we to take all the creatures of the sun into our homes, and seal our doors and windows, and lie still for one day, or even for one hour, the sun would consume all its available fuel and expire.
Q: What does the sun want?
A: Nobody knows for certain what the sun wants. Its actions seem contradictory: it sustains us yet also sustains our enemies; comforts us yet abandons us; nourishes our food yet poisons us.
Some thinkers have proposed that what the sun wants is a state of darkness, coolness, and peace. Its urge, they say, is to expend itself in a frenzy of meaningless creation and destruction. What it wants is not precisely death, for nothing prevents it from directing its poisons at the birds that bring it fuel, and so destroying itself. No, it yearns rather for the bottom of the sea, where the salty water of life surrounds it, yet where only the most solitary creatures go, where movement and noise are minimal, and where the possibilities for achieving peace amidst life seem greatest. But without the sun the stuff of life would not last even at the bottom of the sea; therefore, the sun must first find a way to shift the burden of sustaining life to a new sun, and only afterwards retire into the sea.
Tariq the Cosmonaut discovered, in a locked brass chest near the center of the sun, a set of blueprints. Although he was a skilled reader of every kind of map and chart, these were of surpassing complexity. He studied them for seven days, during which his radio broadcasts ceased entirely. At last he came to believe that they were the blueprints for the sun, written in an alien hand. He concluded that our sun was not the first, but rather had been created by the creatures of a previous sun in order to allow their sun to realize its desire and shift away its burden of sustaining life. He thought it likely that this previous sun, along with any number of yet earlier suns, now lay dark and peaceful at the bottom of the sea, and he intended on his next voyage to explore not the bright stars of the sky but the dead stars under the sea.
Q: Are there doors on the sun?
A: There are now two doors on the sun. The first of these is made of solid brass and measures seven fathoms tall, three fathoms wide, and one fathom thick. It stands at the center of the sun, and its brass handle scorches and melts anything that it touches. In the last radio broadcast of Tariq the Cosmonaut, he explained a scheme for converting a part of his ship into a tremendous vacuum pump and opening this door by suction. Many people believe that Tariq’s luck ran out with this scheme, and he perished; but many others believe that he passed alive through the door of the sun and may yet return from a strange place.
The second door on the sun is the door of Tariq’s ship. Scientists still receive signals from the ship’s radio beacon, suggesting that it remains on the sun; however, nobody has yet recovered it. Some people are glad that, although nobody else has reached the sun, there is at least one door there the size of doors on earth. They urge their governments to send more ships, more people, more doors, walls, and roofs, and they look forward to a time when the sun will be filled with familiar architecture. But others recall that, although the sun sustains us, it also sustains our enemies and poisons us, and is a source of fear to all creatures. They predict that no voyage to the sun will resolve our fear, and they prefer to remain on the earth, keeping movement and noise at a distance and learning to make their way in the dark.
© Copyright 2006 Brian Conn & Senses Five Press
Kelly Link, Words by Flashlight
Interview by Lauren McLaughlin
to the sound of Sufjan Steven’s Decatur or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother and Aimee Mann’s Little Bombs and Calexico and Iron & Wine’s A History of Lovers and Yo La Tengo’s The Whole of the Law and Ella Fitzgerald singing Why Was I Born and The Winterpills, and lots of other good stuff…
As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 3
Do you listen to music when you write? What kind of music?
I’ve gotten a little superstitious about listening to music when I write. Once a story is going somewhere, I keep listening to the same music whenever I work on that story. It seems to help me keep in voice, and alternatively, if I need to make some kind of dramatic shift, I’ll go and put on something different to shake myself awake, out of that particular set of rhythms. When I’m starting a story, I try to listen to music that’s going to help evoke a certain emotional space or speed or kind of complexity or spareness or loneliness that I want to access for story reasons. I guess it’s like inviting a story to dinner — you want to seduce that story into doing what you want it to do, and so you have to set the mood with the right music.
Aimee Mann is great for working to. Other favorites — Hem, Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline, M. Ward, Magnetic Fields. Those are still my standbys. For a long time I was listening to Summer Teeth, one of Wilco’s CDs. Stupid or too-obvious lyrics drive me insane when I’m working. Mixes with singers and bands like Jenny Toomey, Sufjan Stevens, Postal Service, The Rosebuds, Neko Case, The Decemberists, Yo La Tengo, Mayumi Kojima, lots of others!
For the last year or so, I’ve mostly been writing in cafés, and then I mostly listen to conversations at other tables. I get paranoid when I have my headphones on in public.
When did you decide you wanted to become a writer? Did you ever consider another career, perhaps as a performance skydiver?
I didn’t do anything as active as deciding that I wanted to be a writer. For one thing, I didn’t feel like I was the final authority on whether or not I was anything like a writer. (I’m a timid soul.) I just kept writing stories, because becoming a veterinarian seemed as if it involved too much dissection, too much memorization, too much work. The place that I’ve always felt most at home was in a group of people, or one on one, talking about books or short stories.
After I was already fairly invested in writing short stories, I took a geology course and passionately wished that I was a geologist instead. Library work always seems appealing, and I miss being the new book buyer at Avenue Victor Hugo in Boston. I took a course on writing musicals in college, but dropped out because I couldn’t seem to figure out how to write lyrics that were worth anybody’s time, including my own. Topiary has always seemed like a good occupation, comparable in some ways to writing short fiction. For a long time I took lessons in watercolors, and I loved that — the blotty, sketchy, all-your-sins-right-there-to-look-at aspect of it.
No! Never! I had a noon-to-ten bookstore job, but that didn’t involve wearing pantyhose. Some days I forget to brush my hair. I don’t think I’m cut out for a job where you have to look professionally tidy. I prefer working in my pajamas and taking showers after lunch. And I know how lucky I am.
Early influences were the usual suspects — that is, pretty much everyone who wrote science fiction, fantasy, young adult fiction, short stories, etc, except for Isaac Asimov and Andre Norton. I didn’t read them until it was too late. One of my favorite YA novels, The Borribles, just came back into print. I’m rereading John Collier and Saki and Joan Aiken and Isak Dinesen collections right now, so I guess they’re late influences as well. And I just read a new collection by a writer named Joe Hill — 20th Century Ghosts — which has really gotten stuck in my brain. I’ve been thinking a lot about how Grace Paley and Eudora Welty put stories together.
Zombie movies and Diana Wynne Jones’ novels were both influences on stories in Magic for Beginners.
Is your writing influenced by the reading you did for SciFiction and the Best of… anthologies you edit?
Probably, although I’m not sure I can tell you how. I read voraciously, and there’s almost nothing I’d rather do, and so it’s been disconcerting in both good and bad ways to get paid for doing it. I don’t know if it takes any of the pleasure out of reading, but I do know that worrying about whether it’s taken away some of the pleasure out of reading has taken some of the pleasure out of reading.
And because mysteries, mimetic fiction, and science fiction novels can be considered in no way part of my purview, they’ve become my escape reading. (Although Lorrie Moore just had a short story published in The New Yorker which has a ghost in it — I had to shift gears suddenly, and instead of simply reading the story for the sake of enjoyment, I had to think about it in a new context.)
You mentioned in an interview the desire to write a novel, perhaps one in which people tell stories to each other. Is this still something you would like to do?
Yes, I would like to write a novel, or at least try to write one, although my motives are not entirely pure. For one thing, I get asked about writing novels so much that I feel guilty about never having written one. And although I have no strong desire to write a novel, I would hate not to try. That would just be silly. On the other hand, I hate the idea of slogging through something that turns out to be not good.
One of the most compelling aspects of your stories is their refusal to reduce down to metaphor or allegory. They seem to exist in a universe where the fantastic is mundane and the mundane fantastic. Were you ever tempted or encouraged to mold your vision into something more familiar, something easier to slot into a genre?
I’m fairly stubborn. I’m not easily tempted or encouraged. The thing is, I enjoy reading all sorts of writing. Some of the stuff I like to read is much more experimental than my own work, and some is much more traditional. I just finished reading Naomi Novik’s debut novel, The King’s Dragon, which is a sort of wonderful mash-up of Anne McCaffrey and Patrick O’Brien, and also something much more original, of course, or it wouldn’t stand on its own. It was a blissful reading experience. There are a number of romance writers whose work I genuinely love — Laura London, Georgette Heyer, Laura Kinsale, Eva Ibbotson. I wish I could do that. I wish I could write a novel like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I wish I could write a novel like Bel Canto or Liquor or Air or the People of the Paper. I like conventional narratives as much as I like unconventional narratives.
The thing about the stories I’ve already written is that I wrote them the way it seemed to me that they ought to be written. I don’t wish that they were particularly different, even though I might wish that I’d been a better writer when I tackled them.
I could reduce some of my stories down to their metaphorical or allegorical level, but why bother? I’m interested in things which are confusing or contradictory in a useful or enjoyable way. Even allegories don’t boil down to just one interpretation or meaning. Besides, as far as I can tell, nobody ever reads the same story.
When you’re working on something new, what constitutes the initial spark? Is it a bit of plot? An image? A genre convention you want to explore?
The initial spark usually has something to do with panic — I’m due to turn in a story to a workshop or an editor. It’s a terrible working method.
At the moment, I’m attempting to write at a steadier pace. I’m also aiming for a broader (or maybe I mean deeper) range of character. In terms of style, too, I think I’ve been working with a somewhat limited — although intentionally limited — set of tools. So I’m attempting to be a bit looser as I start stories off. To digress. To make interesting mistakes.
Can you tell me anything about your early publishing career? Did you find it difficult to sell your first stories?
Yes and no. I didn’t send my work out much when I was first writing short stories. I’d sent out two or three stories (the only one I can remember sending out was to the Writers of the Future contest, although I also had this strange ambition to be published in Playboy, even though I’d never bought a copy of the magazine). I got them back again and figured I ought to get better as a writer before I sent more out. One of my instructors in graduate school, Fred Chappell, told me I ought to send a story, “Flying Lessons”, to Ellen Datlow at OMNI. So I did, and I got a very nice rejection back. The next story I sent out was “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” — I sent it to Century (I’d seen a sample of Century at a World Fantasy convention and liked the typeface) and it was accepted just as I was applying to Clarion.
While I was at Clarion, Asimov’s took “Flying Lessons,” and Shawna McCarthy, who was the visiting editor that summer, asked me to submit two stories — “Vanishing Act” and “The Specialist’s Hat” to Realms of Fantasy. She published “Vanishing Act” and never mentioned “The Specialist’s Hat” again. I think that story just disappeared into the great slush sea that menaces all magazines. After Clarion nothing I sent out sold for about a year, even though I was pretty sure that I was writing more interesting stuff then I had been writing before Clarion. By that point, a friend who worked with me at the same bookstore, Gavin J. Grant, was starting a zine and I asked if I could help. We were just publishing stuff for fun, including work by most of our friends, and I gave him “Travels With the Snow Queen,” which had been bounced a couple of times. The next year Ellen Datlow bought “The Specialist’s Hat” and “The Girl Detective.”
Do you complete every story you begin or do you abandon some of them as unworkable?
I don’t abandon stories once I’ve started working on them. Once I sit down and start a story, I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up on it. But I do reject most of the ideas for stories that I come up with. I’m halfway through a story that I started last spring, and it’s a mess, but I hope to finish it fairly soon. Some stories take years to finish. Other stories I write so fast that my hands cramp up. “The Faery Handbag” was fast — I wrote it in under 48 hours. “Stone Animals” was slow (over a year). “Monster,” which was recently published in the McSweeney’s anthology Noisy Outlaws, was fast. I’m grateful when stories come in a rush, although I keep an eye on them afterwards, to see whether they hold together. It’s harder to judge the ones that took so long to finish. With those, I’ve lost perspective. Mostly I’m just glad that I can be done with them.
You’ve explored a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions, like zombies, witches and fairies. Are there others you’d like to tackle?
I’d like to write some actual science fiction. Or at least some space opera. I’d really like to write a romance novel. I’ve never managed to find a way to write about Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel or serial killers or trolls or to use the conventions of sword and sorcery. But I think I’ll always end up wanting to write more ghost stories. I’ll always come back to ghost stories.
What do you think is the role of the small press, in particular the role of magazines like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet?
There are a couple of different reasons for people to start zines like LCRW or do small press work. Mostly it’s to publish the work that you love. You’re not going to get rich doing it, so why publish anything that you don’t love? We started LCRW because it seemed like fun to start a zine, and by the time we were working on the third issue, we realized that there were short stories that weren’t quite genre or mainstream, which were difficult for writers to place even though they were wonderful stories. So we started soliciting some of the writers whom I knew had oddball work. We also wanted to showcase promising work by newer writers, to give them a foothold. And we wanted to publish different kinds of work as well, so that the magazine didn’t feel like too much of one kind of good thing.
As a writer who has published herself, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience which I don’t recommend, because there are too many ways that it can go badly. But I do think that it’s a good thing for a writer to become familiar with the way that publishing works. It’s good to read slush, to think about book production, to learn how copyeditors and proofreaders work, and to consider the book as a physical object. It’s good to think about marketing and about how bookselling works. You can choose your own level of immersion.
If you could assign genre short story projects to other writers, What would they be? For example: assigning William Gibson to write about selkies.
I would make all my favorite writers write ghost stories. (All the ones who don’t already write ghost stories). But really what I’d like to do is make certain writers read certain other writers. It’s the bookseller’s impulse, coming out strong in me, as usual.
Where do you buy your fab t-shirts?
Online! From Threadless.com and from Gama-Go. I like anything with a squid or a yeti or a movie monster on it.
It’s a Sybil’s Garage tradition to ask authors what they are listening to right now. So what are you listening to?
A mix CD I made for Karen Meisner. It’s got Sufjan Steven’s “Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother” and Aimee Mann’s “Little Bombs” and Calexico and Iron & Wine’s “A History of Lovers” and Yo La Tengo’s “The Whole of the Law” and Ella Fitzgerald singing “Why Was I Born” and The Winterpills. Lots of other good stuff. More importantly, it’s snowing! I’m in a cabin out in the woods, and later tonight I will have to make my way back out again by flashlight. Wish I had a sled.
The Jim Hans, Hoboken Extraordinaire Podcast
Interview by Matthew Kressel
to the sound of “Time on my Hands,” a pop song from the early 1930s…
As Published in Sybil’s Garage No. 3.
The story goes something like this: One sunny early autumn day I was strolling down Third Street in Hoboken, heading towards Washington Street when I happened upon a small gate sale. I browsed the various items for a few minutes when a home-grown magazine from the late 70s called Time Machine caught my eye.Full of beautiful engravings and drawings from the early 20th century, as well as letters from Buckminster Fuller and other notables, articles of opinion, comedy, and history, the magazines begged to be purchased. And each of these treasures was only $1. I grabbed the lot of them and went to buy, when an innocent looking man named Jim said, “Oh, you like those? I got more in the back.”
He returned with a stack of several more, remarking, “Those were real fun to make.” I then connected the dots — rather slowly — that this Mr. Jim Hans was the creator of this wonderful magazine. I later found out, Jim holds more secrets. He was the founder of the Hoboken Historical Museum, and his book of history, 100 Hoboken Firsts was recently released by them.
An entire room of his home is filled with the most fascinating items from the beginning of last century. He currently lives in Hoboken with his wife, Beverly. This interview took place a few weeks after our encounter. (We weren’t expecting to release this as a podcast, so please excuse our “ums” and “wells” and verbal hopscotch. A (heavily edited) transcription of this interview is included in Sybil’s Garage No. 3
The Missionary Imposition
by William Shunn
to the sound of Emergency & I by The Dismemberment Plan…
As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 2
To me, the missionary position means sitting on the passenger side of a 1986 Chevy Nova with my right arm jammed back between the seat and the door. There are four of us, tooling around the country lanes of northern Idaho after dark, and I am surreptitiously holding hands with the woman in the seat behind me. It’s not a comfortable position, but that’s how you do it when you’re a Mormon missionary.
For a people who once represented everything lurid and perverse in the American popular imagination, we Mormons certainly don’t derive much pleasure from sex. In fact, the last Mormon-in-good-standing to have a rollicking time in the sack may well have been our founder, Joseph Smith, who invented the whole notion of polygamy back in the 1830’s to legitimize his predilection for philandering. The practice is more properly known as “plural marriage,” and Joseph had married at least thirty-three woman in secret by the time he died at the hands of an angry mob in 1844. Among the wives he left behind were two sets of sisters and several women who were already married to other men.
Although plural marriage was banned by the mainstream Mormon church in 1890 (and again in 1904, for the sake of those who didn’t take the first ban seriously), the multiplicity of wives still figures prominently in our theology. The practice is not outlawed but rather suspended in deference to the laws of the land, and will resume on the other side of the veil, where the ratio of worthy women to worthy men is projected to be as lopsided as the ratio of men to women in Alaska.
But while offered the enticing prospect of eternal sex with multiple (and possibly multitudinous) wives in the afterlife, contemporary Mormon men find it very difficult to enjoy it at all in this life. In our catalog of sins, only two rank more serious than sexual transgression: murder, and denying God after having seen Him personally. (Really.) Adultery, fornication, any sort of homosexual act—one incident of these is enough to buy you an eternal coat of flame, unless you undergo a grueling, humiliating process of confession, contrition, and penitence. The situation is hardly better after marriage. Edicts from church leaders on the acceptability of such practices as birth control and oral sex are ambiguous and portentous, full of euphemism. The path to Mormon bliss is straight and very narrow, and beset on either side with peril.
Our young men have it particularly bad. At the age of 19, in their sexual primes, we impose on them a two-year term of missionary service in which they’re sent into the world two by two to preach Joseph Smith’s Restored Gospel—the parts that don’t involve plural marriage, anyway. Not only are they forbidden books, newspapers, television, movies, and music, but contact with the opposite sex is strictly controlled. No dancing, no dating, and no flirting is tolerated, and sex of any sort is right out.
My tour of duty began in September 1986. As the oldest of eight children in a devout Mormon household, there was never any question that I would serve a mission. Part of my role as firstborn was to be an example to my younger siblings, much as Jesus Christ serves as an example to all the world. I didn’t particularly want to become a missionary. For one thing, I was two years into college already. For another, girls were just starting to show an interest in me, at long last. (My interest in them had gone back much further than my first chaste kiss at the age of sixteen, though it hadn’t progressed much further than that.) Interrupting either pursuit for two years seemed intolerable, but for a good Mormon boy there was just no getting around it—not without revealing myself to my community as a faithless infidel, unworthy of marrying their daughters. Reluctantly I purchased my suits and ties and packed my bags.
After three weeks at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, the church sent me to its Alberta mission, headquartered in Calgary, where I was to spend the next two years scouring the countryside for converts. My first assignment was Brooks, a lonely oil town on the prairie. My trainer, Elder Fowler, showed me the ropes. We would spend our days canvassing door-to-door, preaching repentance and the Book of Mormon. Our mornings were for study, our nights for prayer. Every Monday we would shop and do laundry, and maybe play some basketball or bowl if there were time enough left over before our evening appointments. And always we would obey mission rules.
The rules—an entire handbook of them. Never call friends or family on the phone. White dress shirts only, and always wear your tie and your name tag in public. Companions must sleep in the same bedroom, but never in the same bed. Never touch your anus. Never teach a woman alone in her home without a chaperone present. And the most important rule, passed down like a battered Playboy from seasoned missionaries to greenies, but never found in any book: “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man, but if you look twice you’re not a missionary.”
The rules were all about worthiness. If you kept the rules, God would lead you to the people who were ready to hear the Gospel. If you didn’t, your work would suffer, and you would bear responsibility for those souls you failed to root out and convert. And the world was nothing but a carnal and devilish sinkhole, seeking to drag you under and sap your worthiness.
Being a missionary was a curious exercise in self-confidence. This was the year of “Missionary Man” by the Eurythmics, which we all knew Annie Lennox had written just for us. We were addressed as “Elder,” told all eyes were watching our every action, and that our goodness would be a beacon to the well- and evil-meaning alike. This was a time when a “g.c.,” or “girl challenge,” might signify a transfer to a new part of the mission—or being sent home in disgrace if it weren’t nipped in the bud.
The hazards to our souls were made vivid at one mission conference in Calgary. We had gathered from all corners of Alberta, two hundred of us, to attend two days of meetings and training sessions. Our keynote speaker was a visiting General Authority from Salt Lake City, one of the gray-haired men who administer the affairs of the church. Silver-haired and barrel-chested in this instance, actually—and terrifying, like a less reticent Patton in the army of God.
Rabidly he blasted us with a foretaste of the terrors awaiting those of us who failed to discharge our duties to the utmost jot. His rants about the moral quicksand ready to devour the elder who took a single wayward step chilled our blood. “You watch yourselves out there,” he barked from the podium of the chapel where we met. “You gird up your loins with the armor of God, especially you young elders, because this world is just crawling with women who would love nothing better than to drag you down.”
He might have spared us any elaboration on that topic if it weren’t for my friend Sister Roper. One of the relatively few female missionaries in Calgary, she and her companion Sister Steed were sitting in the pew directly behind me. Into the space at the end of that assertion, Roper coughed a harsh and disbelieving laugh, loud as a gunshot. I turned my head just in time to see her clap both hands over her open mouth, eyes wide with shock.
A stunned and frigid silence reigned for two short seconds, which is all the time it took for our General Authority’s face to suck every quantum of warmth from that chapel. He went from white to molton red before most of us could remind ourselves to breathe. Mouth quivering with rage, he thrust his head as far out over the pulpit as it would go and thundered, “Do you think this is funny, Sister? Do you think it’s a joke when two missionaries tract into a house with only a mother and her teenage daughter at home, and within five minutes the daughter is performing oral sex on one elder in the bedroom while the mother does the same to the other in the living room? Maybe you’d like to be the one who has to listen to stories like this every week, and then explain to the poor, hard-working parents why you had to excommunicate their stupid sons and send them home! Would you like that?”
I’m not sure what all the other elders were thinking as we filed out of the chapel that afternoon, but I’d wager it was similar to my thought: “Gosh, how come stuff like that never happens to me?”
Mission life was hard, very hard, and it could be tempting to imagine a way out. I heard apocryphal tales, like the story of the elder in the South Pacific who was so miserable that he slept with a hooker and confessed to his mission president, just so he could be sent home. This is the Mormon equivalent of a wolf gnawing off its foot to escape a steel trap—with the added bonus that you go to hell afterward.
My own ambitions, or perhaps only my methods, were more modest. I had left a girlfriend behind in Utah, and at night I lay still on my back, imagining her (or maybe one of the sister missionaries) on top of me. At nineteen, it didn’t take much vigor to consummate the fantasy, which was important because I didn’t want to wake my companion in the next bed, who presumably was there to prevent just this activity. In the morning I would awake early and hurry to the bathroom to peel off my sacred undergarments, which crackled where glued to my abdomen.
When I finally confessed my weakness to my mission president, much to my disappointment he failed to excommunicate me and send me home. He merely offered words of encouragement, clapped me on the shoulder, and slipped me a photocopied sheet full of suggestions for overcoming masturbation. This same brief guide is now widely available on the Internet, with such sterling advice as to avoid drinking large amounts of water before bedtime, and to sleep with a Book of Mormon clasped firmly in hand or one wrist tied to the bedpost.
Of all the g.c.’s that might arise to confound a young elder, by far the most serious is one with a sister missionary. Not only are two unusually horny parties involved, but any fruition of the relationship could cost the mission two of its precious laborers instead of just one.
A few weeks before he was scheduled to go home, Elder Fowler confessed to me the reason he had requested a transfer out of Calgary for his last months in the mission. He had become involved there with a missionary named Sister Nylund, and their nightly snogging sessions in Prince’s Island Park were starting to get out of hand. “My companion was making out with her companion, too,” he told me. “It was like a double date. I had to get away. But it’s okay, Elder. She and I are getting married after we’re both home.”
Elder Fowler must have trained me well. It was a year later that my own sister missionary challenge raised its head. Her name was Sister Blaise, and she came from the ranching country of south central Utah. I was serving at the time in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, having run afoul of Canada Immigration and been transferred stateside for what we’ll call visa problems. Sister Blaise and her companion were stationed in Sandpoint, thirty miles south of us on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.
These were small, small towns, and there were only so many times you could knock on the same damn doors to deliver the same damn message. My companion and I visited the sisters frequently in Sandpoint, going so far as to enter their off-limits apartment for four-handed rounds of Uno and Rook. (Regular playing cards were one of many forbidden recreational items.) It was under the table there that Sister Blaise, across from me, first slipped off her sensible shoes and ran her stockinged toes up my ankle. She didn’t even look at me over her cards, but the contact was like a live electric cable brushing my leg.
We never spoke about it, but soon we were taking every opportunity for stealthy touches. Her sun-kissed fingers upon my elbow were manna in the desert. Her chestnut hair tossed against my face could be lethal. We held hands in the car, in that awkward position, as desperately as if letting go meant falling forever into a bottomless abyss. We convinced ourselves our companions remained ignorant. We knew this path might lead to fornication and ruin, but we refused to believe it. We couldn’t care.
Then came word that I was to be transferred two hundred miles away, to a town called Orofino. Sister Blaise clung to me in the dark beside the tiny farmhouse where Fowler and I lived rent-free, in the brief moment when our companions were still inside. “What am I going to do without you, Elder Shunn?” she murmured in my ear.
I bought it. Her cards and letters over the next few weeks—i’s dotted with hearts—finally prompted a late-night road trip to Sandpoint. My new companion didn’t mind tagging along; he was carrying on at the time with a fourteen-year-old local girl.
Four hours after we set out, while Elder Horne lurked out near the car, Sister Blaise met me at the door to her apartment. She wore a quilted bathrobe sashed at the waist, and a high-collared nightgown beneath. She took me to the couch, where we necked furiously with the lights off. Her floral perfume—heavy and matronly, unlike the woman herself—threatened to smother me.
After fifteen minutes or so, a tread in the hallway startled us apart. “When I wake up, Elder Shunn,” said the sleepily menacing voice in the shadows, “I hope I find out you were just a bad dream.” Then Sister Potter turned and lumbered back to the bedroom.
I didn’t hesitate. Over Blaise’s quiet protests, I collected Elder Horne and the two of us hit the road again. We arrived in Orofino together with the sun. I never spoke to Sister Blaise voluntarily again.
I spent many sleepless nights afraid someone might turn us in—or that Blaise or I might break down and confess to our mission president. Neither ever happened, and eventually the feelings of guilt subsided on their own.
After we were both honorably discharged, Sister Blaise ended up marrying another returned elder from our mission. I left the Mormon church on the pretext of having fallen in love with a gentile. The relationship didn’t last, but the apostasy turned out to be far more deeply rooted, and it has.
Now sometimes, very rarely, I catch a whiff of Sister Blaise’s perfume on the streets of Manhattan, and my veins constrict with a coppery thrill. And when I see two young missionaries traipsing along, I want to invite them over for a hot meal and sanctuary from the lone and dreary world. But they wouldn’t understand my sympathy, so I just think to myself, “You poor, horny, homesick bastards. Why do you do it? What do you know that I still don’t?”
© Copyright 2005 William Shunn & Senses Five Press