At nineteen, I donned the crisp white shirt and funereal dark suit of the Mormon missionary and soon found myself in northern Italy. I left behind the relative freedom of an adolescent world and stepped into another of ascetic regiment meticulously outlined in a small rulebook we called The White Bible, which I was instructed to carry in my breast pocket at all times and read weekly. Most rules were straightforward: Arise at 6:30 AM. Return home at 9:30 PM. Stay with your companion. Other rules both baffled and intrigued me with their evocative specificity. I was not to sponsor athletic teams, ride a horse, handle firearms, or sleep in the same bed with my companion.
And then for two years I knocked the doors of darkly lit apartment buildings with one companion after another, inviting the indifferent voices behind the closed doors to hear a message about God. “There’s no one home,” the voices said, and when the monotony of this reply infuriated me, I’d knock again and say facetiously, “If no one’s home, then who’s speaking to me?”
I wore holes through my black Wingtips. Pollution and perspiration tinged my white shirts a dull yellow. The lining of my suit coat disintegrated. Soon, the baby softness melted from my cheeks. Thick hair sprouted from my chest, and coarse stubble darkened my chin at the end of the day. And every week my parents wrote with news from home: They’d bought a new car. The house needed painting. Crane flies were infesting the lawn. An old friend from high school had asked about me. All of this seemed inconsequential compared with the work of salvation—even when no one was interested in the message.
When I couldn’t bear knocking another door, I stood with my companion for hours on the rough cobblestones of ancient piazzas and petitioned passers-by for a moment of their time. Had they heard of the Mormons? Could I share a short message about God? Would they take this book and read it? But these were the same people I saw every day, the same people hurrying to the law office, to the bank, to the market, who smiled and tapped their watches and said, as they always did, “Sorry, ragazzi. No time.”
One evening a week, though, my companion and I loosened our ties and shed our heavy suit coats to teach a free English class. With no pedagogical background in teaching English, we taught what we knew: famous movie lines and Garth Brooks lyrics and American slang. Once we even taught our ecstatic students country line dancing. Unlike those bland, disembodied voices drifting through closed doors or the harried passers-by taping their watches with such pity for us on their faces, our English students adored us, and I adored them. For that brief hour I spoke in my native English and felt a warm nostalgia for that distant adolescent world I’d left behind. And after that brief hour I tightened my tie, pulled on my suit coat, and wandered the vacant piazzas and empty streets until it was time to go home.
Two years. A new companion every couple of months, a new city every four or five. Forli, Trento, Vicenza, La Spezia, Ravenna. At eighteen months in Italy, as an unofficial mission tradition dictated, I burned a white shirt.
As most missionaries did in the final months of the mission, I bought a pair of handmade Italian leather boots and three silk ties. I also availed myself of Italy’s lax copyright laws and amassed enough rare Led Zeppelin, Doors, and Nirvana bootlegs to fill two shoeboxes. To free up space in my luggage, I discarded most of what I’d brought into the mission, the white shirts and pleated slacks, the heavy overcoat and rubber galoshes, and a half-dozen bulky religious texts. What wasn’t threadbare, sullied, or broken, I piled into a closet, where I found a hodgepodge of clothing and stacks of books from missionaries who’d also unburdened themselves before returning home.
And then days before I was to leave Italy, the phone rang in the tiny storefront where we held church services and taught English.
“Ryan,” a familiar voice said. It was Lucca, a student from the English class I’d taught in Forli, the small Italian city where I first served.
Lucca. What a character. He wore calfskin ankle boots and dark, slim-tapered velvet trousers and a voluminous, high-collared jacket made from an actual wolf. Every week after class he’d asked, translating literally from Italian, if he could give us a passage home in his car. But Lucca was more interested in learning English and making some American friends than in our message about God. He dug Poe and Kerouac and the spiritual and salutary properties of crystals and the migration of his eternal soul from one life to the next. He once told me how he dreamed of going to San Francisco to see City Lights Books, and how after he planned to retrace Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s free-spirited journey across America. Caught in the momentary thrall of such heady freedom, I told Lucca we’d make the journey together.
Lucca had called because he was ready to make his journey.
“The missionaries in Forli tell me that you go home next week,” Lucca said. “When you step off plane, I will be with you. And then we will travel America and discuss literature and write poetry. New York. New Orleans. Denver. San Francisco. Like Sal and Dean.”
I was shocked, and mixed with that shock I felt a sudden and acute revulsion for Lucca.
I could already smell the wild perfume of the alder trees and field grass near my home, could hear the eager voices of friends picking up the threads of a conversation we never finished. An acceptance letter to Brigham Young University lay on the desk in my missionary apartment. Many of my friends had recently returned from their missions. We planned to room together. In a steady back-and-forth of letters over the last two years, we’d constructed a college life of long road trips and late night movies and pretty girls. Lucca, quirky Lucca with his broken English and outlandish clothes, wasn’t in those plans.
At one time, what wouldn’t I have done to baptize Lucca, eccentricities and all, to give him a truth I believed would transform his life? But already Lucca felt like a part of another world, a world where I’d done my time and fulfilled my obligations.
I stammered my excuses, decried all of life’s unknowns and uncertainties. I told Lucca to stay in touch, though I had no desire to stay in touch.
This was eighteen years ago. Where are the silk ties? And the music? I listened to the bootlegs for a couple of years, until they bored me and I sold them. And those Italian boots? I seldom wear them. They sit in a dark corner of my closet, coated with a thick layer of dust.
About the Author: Ryan Shoemaker’s work has appeared in Gulf Stream, Booth, Santa Monica Review, and The Fiction Desk, among others. His short story collection, Beyond the Lights: Stories, was a semifinalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. A practicing Mormon, Ryan lives in Burbank, California. Find him online here.