Golden

By Elizabeth Smith

     “So our next appointment is in a half-hour?” Sister Oliveira asked as she checked her wrist-watch.
     “Yes. With Carlos,” I replied in my choppy, novice Portuguese. We stepped out of our apartment, and I twisted our key three times in the very secure deadbolt. “It is not far. We speak with people along the way.”
     I led my newly assigned, Brazilian colleague to a round-a-bout, and we turned the corner to a wide street. The brilliant summer-afternoon sun reflected off of the white and gray cobblestones. That street was almost always busy, a prime place for meeting people.
     You see, we missionaries were looking for folks who were interested in investigating more about God or our church and who were willing to change: people we affectionately referred to as “golden investigators,” who would get baptized for all the right reasons and continue progressing in their spirituality, perhaps even sharing what they’ve learned with friends or family.
     Thing is, in Portugal almost nobody knew who we were. If we said the word “Mormon,” most people did not recognize it at all, for good or bad, which meant the only way to know if someone were golden was to open our mouths.
So after walking a short way, I greeted an elderly woman carrying groceries and hobbling in our direction.
     “Boa tarde, senhora,” I said in my strong accent. Even after months of practice, it was still difficult for me to pronounce an r and a d in the same word.
     Before I could say much else, Sister Oliveira offered to help carry the groceries. The woman was broad but tiny and wore an apron; even though my colleague was only a hair above five feet, she had to look down to make eye-contact. After eying us, the elderly woman coolly accepted the offer.
     Sister Oliveira grunted as she picked up the sack. Hers was full of jugs and spray bottles.
     “Cleaning this week?” she assumed.
     “That is not your concern.”
     We walked down a block and up another without saying a word more. The woman stopped at the door of a small apartment building sandwiched between a convenience store and an old pawn shop.
     “Thank you, girls.” The woman reached inside her apron pocket for the keys. We set the bags at her feet.
     “May we leave our card?” I pulled one out. “We are missionaries—”
     “I know, I know.” The woman took the card and placed it in one of the shopping bags. “Good-bye, girls.” She entered the building and, before kicking the door closed, she added, “Behave yourselves.”
     Sister Oliveira chuckled, and we went back to the bright street.
     “Remind me who Carlos is again?”
     “He is husband of a recent convert named Paula.” I explained. “Good man. Has many doubts. Sister Sorenson and I plan to teach prayer and how to recognize answers from God.”
     Sister Oliveira nodded. We walked a while without speaking, and I took note of my new colleague. She was a little on the thin side, yet her gait was strong and assertive. She wore neither make-up nor jewelry, but she simply didn’t need them. Even sweating in the afternoon sun, she looked lovely. Besides her natural beauty, her appearance was plain and practical. She even sported a black fanny pack.
     We took a right, down one of my favorite streets in Setúbal: a long, curved alley lined with pink, beige, and white-washed buildings.
     “So, Sister Glade, where are you from?” Sister Oliveira asked, finally relieving me from the silence.
     “Salt Lake City,” was my reply, even though it wasn’t technically true. If you want the specifics, I was raised in Lehi, Utah. It’s the town where the original Footloose was filmed, if that helps. Dancing is not prohibited, in case you were wondering.
     “A fábrica,” Sister Oliveira responded. The factory. And at that, she began taking a better look up at me and my lightning-blonde braid. In Portugal, my hair drew too much attention at times. No doubt blonde girls like me were not too common where she was from either.
     We passed under wet towels baking on the clotheslines of the second-floor windows. A slight breeze carried the sound of a guitar.
     I returned the question.
     “Recife.”
     I blinked. “Cool.”
     And that was when I realized I knew nothing of Brazil, and I’m sure Sister Oliveira noticed, because she looked as if I should recognize the big coastal city, if only by name. I had a lot to learn. Although I never had the guts to ask her since, I sensed in that first day of our service together that she saw me as a walking stereotype. Tall, blonde, ignorant to geography outside my own country, and American—from “the factory” of missionaries, no less.
     Sister Oliveira sighed and changed the topic. “Is Carlos unemployed?”
     It was, after all, pretty early in the day to be teaching the man of the household.
     “Works,” I responded, “but, uh . . .” I squinted.
     “Part-time?”
     “Yes.”
     I could feel a headache coming on, and the nonstop Portuguese wasn’t helping.
We reached our destination—a paned metal door labeled 8 ½. I grinned. Seeing that house number was like seeing Platform 9 ¾ from Harry Potter. I knocked quickly; the door was roasting in the direct sunlight.
     We waited. A gray cat walked between us and purred. No doubt it wanted to be petted, but it was a mangy stray and probably had fleas. It sat on Sister Oliveira’s shoe.
     “You have his number, right?”
     I pulled out the fat, black phone designated for our assigned area and put it to my ear. No answer. I quickly punched the stiff keys and handed the phone over for my companion’s approval. She smirked.
     “No, no, sister. Encontro is not the right word. Let’s say compromisso instead.” She retyped the text before sending it off. I stared at the pavement. Encontro wasn’t “encounter”?
     “What is encontro?”
     Sister Oliveira straightened her face before answering in English. “Date.”
     I laughed heartily and opened my planner to the last page.
     “What are you doing?”
     “I write funny things. Makes me happy on sad days.”
     Sister Oliveira pulled out her own agenda. Our next appointment wasn’t until evening, so we agreed to knock the rest of the homes on the street. Perhaps someone else nearby could use our help.
     The first, number 8, was blue. No one was home.
     Number 7: black with a large doorknob in the center. The bell sounded like an error notification on an old computer. No one home.
     Number 6: wooden, desperately in need of a stain. A plump woman opened it. She claimed she “doesn’t connect with that stuff” but took a card anyway.
     Number 5: Green with a mail slot. A small boy answered. He politely said that mother wasn’t home and the card wasn’t necessary.
     Number 4: wooden, only a keyhole where the doorknob ought to be.
     A thin man wearing dark slacks and a black turtleneck came to the door. He must have been sweating a river. A wave of stale cigarette smoke hit our faces, and we did our best not to cough. We introduced ourselves. His name was Jorge.
Sister Oliveira asked if we could share a spiritual message with him.
     The man agreed and offered to let us in.
     “Not today,” my companion replied. “We should be brief since this is an unexpected visit.”
     “All right.”
     “What is your relationship with God like these days?”
     “Well, I am Catholic.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Nonpracticing.”
     “Would you like to connect with him more?”
     Jorge shrugged. There was something somber, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I took a chance.
     “God helps me in the good and bad times,” I said. “I know he helps you too if you come to him.”
     He looked up intently at me. His eyes were dark, tired.
     “Well. My daughter, Ana, she . . . “ He looked downward and sighed. “She passed on recently.”
     A little corner of my heart turned to lead. Jorge was certainly exhausted, if not physically then emotionally, but his hairline was thick and black; his daughter must have been pretty young—my age at most. I was inadequate to comfort someone suffering so acutely. The biggest loss I had up to that point in my life was when my grandpa died two years prior, but he was frail and foggy. Seeing him alive was more painful to me than seeing him in the casket. What, then, could I have to say to a man who just lost his daughter? Nothing. I had nothing. The words of Christ were all I could offer.
     “In New Testament, Jesus says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give thee rest.’ One way we come to him is prayer.”
     “Prayer? Pray for what? He won’t give her back to me, and that is what I want.”               Jorge’s voice trembled. “God, I miss her.”
     Jorge had a point.
     “He gives rest. Hope. The way forward.” I answered. “We pray for these.”
     “Will you pray with us?” Sister Oliveira opened a booklet to a page of instructions and explained how to give a spontaneous prayer instead of a memorized one. He looked up at us, skeptical, and then admitted there was no harm in trying.
     “Dear God,” Jorge began, staring at his shoes. “I haven’t spoken to you for a long time. I am not sure what to say.”
     He paused and shifted his weight. “Ana, you know, was taken from me. I expect she is near you. Tell her I love her. . . .”
     It was a tender prayer, one that made my skin tingle. After the amen, Sister Oliveira asked if we could visit again another day. Jorge folded the booklet and slid it into his back pocket.
     “No, no thank you,” he replied. “If God wills it, we will see each other again.”
     Then he softly closed the door.
     If God wills it. I cannot tell you how many times I heard the Portuguese say that phrase. They say it out of habit. It’s a cliché meaning that the speaker will make no effort. That afternoon, it annoyed me because I believe God is always wanting to connect with us. All we have to do is grasp his out-stretched hand, let him come and be part of our lives, as we do in all close relationships. And for people like Jorge, who don’t really know how to connect with God, speaking to two missionaries can be a great start. Months later, I tried a more forgiving attitude towards the countless not-yet-golden investigators who turned down my offer with the phrase. I would remind myself that, although I was a full-time missionary, missionary work had nothing to do with me and everything to with those I served, most importantly God. Perhaps Jorge kept the pamphlet, if only for the paintings of some biblical scenes. Maybe he prayed a few times afterward, renewing his relationship with his maker. Maybe he decided to attend mass more often. Or maybe he will bump into other missionaries in the metro later on and agree to listen to them then. And who knows? Maybe one day he would be golden.
     I don’t know if we helped Jorge. What I do know is that I was totally irked by his farewell and I had a dull headache. After knocking the rest of the doors on the street, we stood at the corner. I took a bottle out of my purse and drank a swig of warm water, while Sister Oliveira glanced at her agenda. We had some calls to make and appointments to set, which she gladly did right there in the quiet alleyway, and I gladly thanked her for relieving me from the duty of phone conversations.
     When we finished, it was time to head toward our final appointment: a friendly Angolan mother named Fátima who lived on the other side of our area. We would walk about an hour, stopping every now and again to speak to passersby, most of whom were in a rush to get home from work. But as we began the trek, my stomach growled. It was not uncommon for my fellow missionaries and I to skip dinner. Most people were more free in the evenings to meet with us than at any other time of day. But the heat made me really hungry, and there was a fantastic bakery along the way. My companion consented to get something we could eat quickly.
     We took a left at the wide round-a-bout, passed a vacant lot and a few towering, orange apartments, and reached the delicious scent of flour, cinnamon, and custard. The pastries in the counter display looked heavenly. After ordering, we sat at a blue table outside the bakery and began our meal.
     The phone buzzed. Carlos texted that he had napped through our appointment but would love to talk that night. Although relieved he wanted to touch base again, Sister Oliveira and I decided it would be too difficult to arrive in his neighborhood by a reasonable hour after we finished with Fátima. We set a time for the weekend instead. Then my colleague and I hit the pavement again.
     We trekked down several quiet blocks and across a cobblestone courtyard adorned with yellow roses. Most of the flowers were well past their prime, which, combined with the scents of the road, produced a unique smell of dusty perfume. I led the way to a white-washed building on the far side. The sun was low now, and the glimmering windows stung my eyes, revving up the intensity of my headache from mild to moderate. Two police officers stood outside another apartment building. It looked like there was a break-in.
     In the building’s doorway was a panel of ten or twelve doorbells. I never memorized which apartment number was Fátima’s; I noted its position on the left, next to an x scratched in the metal. I never asked what that was all about, but I had seen it elsewhere too. I certainly hoped the mark wasn’t sinister, but I never went through the effort to find out. If God wills it, I will discover it someday.
     We ascended the stairwell to the third floor and knocked on Fátima’s door.
     “Good evening, girls,” she answered. She was busty and, like my companion and I, sweaty. “Come in.”
     We entered. Boxes of digestive crackers and cans of tuna were strewn across the hallway; empty shopping bags rolled about like tumbleweeds in the warm breeze coming from an open window in the kitchen. The silly noise of a children’s program mumbled on the TV. A little boy skipped in circles on the living room rug. The three of us sat on an old faux leather couch after concluding some small talk about her son, the heat, and Sister Oliveira’s recent arrival.
     “Fátima, you read the little book?” I asked.
     “Oh, yes.” She pranced to the bulky, but mostly empty, bookshelf to retrieve a yellow pamphlet.
     “What did you think?” Sister Oliveira inquired.
     “It was nice, really nice. But I was hoping you would tell me more about this.” She turned to a page with a painting of a boy in the woods speaking to two angels. “I didn’t really understand.”
     My posture straightened.
     “Certainly,” I responded. “Can we begin through making a prayer?”
Fátima suppressed a giggle and nodded before searching for the remote. It must have been five whole minutes by the time she found it and managed to quiet her lively boy by snuggling him in her lap. Not knowing how long the peaceful moment would last, we all immediately bowed our heads as I began.
     “Dear Father—”
     The front door flew open and shut with a bang.
     “Fátima!” a deep voice bellowed.
     “Yes, Bruno?” she answered without turning to greet her husband. She loosened her grip on her child, who slid down to the rug.
     Bruno entered the living room. He stood with his chest puffed slightly upward; the shape of his pectoral muscles peeked through his blue polo.
     “What’s this?”
     I looked up at Bruno, then Fátima, then Bruno, unsure how to proceed. Fátima remained silent as she pulled her mass of braids together into a pink scrunchie.
     “How many times do I—” Bruno started.
     “We are missionaries, sir, here to teach God’s word,” Sister Oliveira cut in. Her face was as smooth as stone, all emotions erased.
     But Bruno was not interested in us. He stared at the back of his wife’s head.
     “They’re good girls, Bruno,” she said. “I will let them in whenever they ask.”
Bruno grabbed Fátima’s ponytail and yanked her to her feet. She screeched. Still clutching her hair, he whipped her body around to face him. Their faces were terribly close.
     “Don’t test me,” he warned. “I decide who and what comes in or out. You obey.”
     At that, I sprung to stand. “You stop!”
     I felt the gentle touch of my colleague’s hand on my arm.
     “Careful, sister.”
     “We don’t need you here,” Bruno snarled. Now that he finally made eye-contact with me, I could tell he had just finished a lonely beer, or three. “She already has her religion.”
     “God is one only, Bruno,” Fátima firmly replied.
     Bruno raised his free arm and smote his wife on the jaw. She gasped. I sprinted to the open kitchen window and screamed for help to the officers below. They jogged to the stairwell. Bruno smacked his wife once more. She howled; her lip had split. I rushed to the door and thrust it open.
     The two officers came to the doorway. Fátima jabbered that Bruno beat her just now and he made her and her son sleep on the floor even though they have a large bed and a couch and she wants a divorce but can’t afford a lawyer and her son is too young to stay with someone so she could work and, and . . .
     “Is this man your husband?” One officer glanced at a silent Bruno, who displayed empty hands.
     “Yes.”
     “Was your life threatened?”
     “He really is drunk and dangerous and you see my bleeding mouth—”
     “But was he going to kill you?” The other officer interrupted, his thumbs in his belt.
     “Well,” she stammered. “No, sir, he wasn’t.”
     “Then there isn’t much we can do, ma’am.” The officer lowered his voice. “We’ll record the incident, but at this moment we would make the situation worse.”
Fátima trembled as she took a shallow inhale. “I understand.”
     “Good evening, ma’am.”
     “Good evening, officers.”
     She gently shut the door. Bruno grunted what I assumed were curses and stormed to the bedroom. The lock clicked. I simply stood, no idea what to do next. She plopped herself back onto the worn couch and covered her eyes. Sister Oliveira and I looked at each other. I sat down.
     “I-I’m so sorry we caused you trouble,” my colleague stammered.
Fátima waved her hand in response. Sister Oliveira pulled a tissue from her fanny pack and offered it. Fátima accepted, dabbed her chin, and peered around the room for her boy. He was curled up beneath the side table. She beckoned to him, and the child buried his face into his mother’s bosom. A suffocating silence occupied the room.
     “You two should probably go,” she finally said. “It will be dark soon.”
     Sister Oliveira shrugged.
     I attempted to tell Fátima she could always call.
     “Girls,” she sighed. “Will you promise me one thing?”
     “Anything.”
     “Marry believers.”
     By the time we left, it was dusk. The streets were now very quiet. It was the calm of evening before the darkness of night. We needed to catch a bus in order to make it back to our apartment by a reasonable hour. We came to a wide street and sat on the bench of the nearest bus stop.
     Almost immediately after sitting, my feet ached, my brain throbbed, and the little weight in my heart became an anvil. Fátima definitely seemed like a golden investigator. She was interested; she had actually read the pamphlet and was ready with questions. But her situation was so awful, and Sister Oliveira and I only made it worse by visiting that night.
     I looked at my colleague’s dark eyes. She looked at my blue ones. We cried. It was the first time I had ever seen such brutality within a family.
     A few minutes passed.
     “We cannot return to her?” I finally said, sniffling.
     “No.”
     Sister Oliveira unzipped her pack for tissues, but she had given her last to Fátima. Instead, we dabbed our faces with the inside of our collars.
     “What a day,” she sighed.
     I chuckled through a sob. There was a hum in the distance; the bus was nearby. We stood, and I rummaged through my purse and offered to pay both our fares. By the time I had counted my coins, the vehicle hissed to a stop, and the door slid open. The bus was practically empty. We sat across the aisle from the only other passenger, a young man with a book.
     “Tell me one of the funny things you wrote in your planner,” my colleague suggested as the bus heaved itself back into the lane.
     I pulled out my agenda yet again and thumbed to the back. I smirked before even beginning the story. Sister Oliveira gave me an expectant eyebrow, and I cleared my throat apologetically before beginning the story of the most embarrassing moment of my life: I was sight-seeing at the castle of Saint Philip with some other missionaries when I desperately needed to pee but could not, for the life of me, find a bathroom. . . .
Sister Oliveira and I erupted into giggles, and our tears of sorrow became tears of silliness. We seemed to interrupt whatever the young man across from us was reading.
     “Oh, girls, what’s so funny?” he asked. He had wire-framed glasses and impeccable posture, which gave him an erudite air.
     I hesitated.
     “We were just discussing a silly experience my colleague had a few days ago,” Sister Oliveira replied. “It’s nothing to repeat.”
     He shrugged.
     “My name is Sister Oliveira. This is Sister Glade. What’s your name?”
     “Tiago,” he answered with a polite nod.
     “Will you come to church with us on Sunday?” I asked. Sister Oliveira glanced impatiently at me. We hadn’t yet mentioned we were representatives of a church.
     “Oh, actually, I moved here a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been looking around at the churches nearby.”
     “We meet at 10:00.” I wrote the address on our card and handed it over.
     He examined the portrait of Jesus, the quote, the name of the street in my blue ink.
     “Why not?”

Comments