While the last of my fourteen missionary students toiled and sweated over his final examination, I remained seated at my desk, feet propped up, reading a paperback that instructs single people how to live victoriously. Only Jay Jarvis remained in my classroom. The other students had already turned in their papers and left to go celebrate, confident in their newfound ability to communicate with South America.
As always, it was hot in our stucco school-on-the-corner. Outside I could hear street vendors barking the price of oranges and bananas, hustling their fruit between bleached-white buildings, their shouts perfectly timed between the impatient blare of car horns. It was not the ideal environment in which to take an exam, but our language school was of the nonprofit variety; we were fortunate to have the ceiling fan.
Jay kept wiping his brow, rechecking his pages. Nervous, that guy. I’d glance up every few minutes, silently cheer him on, and continue reading my book. The word purity kept sparking on the page, as if it wanted to burn itself into my conscience, refuel, and flourish. In sizzling, equatorial Quito, I’d been pondering words like purity on a daily basis.
Here I’d lived alone for my twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth years while teaching Spanish to God’s servants in waiting, and lately the days themselves had seemed combustible, one flaring into another below the lofty peaks of the Andes. On a good day I would go to great lengths to live a life of purity, to the point of imagining all lustful thoughts burning crisply, like some dried-up Latino newspaper. On a bad day the searing imagery would duke it out (and lose) to a scorching, black-hearted nemesis, even though I knew that all around me, in some hidden ember of circumstance, calling me back, was a raging white fire.
Singleness can be a wonderful furnace.
But enough flammable allusion. I just wanted the slowpoke to finish his test. Now that my teaching assignment was nearly over and summer furlough was coaxing me toward leisure, I wanted to get out of Quito and get back to the States. Fast. Let there be a beach, I wished. Let there be girls, I prayed.
I had not been out on a date in seven months, one week, and a day.
Now, whether or not this was my fault was a source of daily deliberation. Perhaps being the language teacher in a school for missionaries doesn’t ring of long-term stability, or maybe I was too straightforward, or maybe the black-hearted nemesis was messing with my head.
Regardless, all that stood between me and furlough was my worst student, still fidgeting there in the back row, still hunched over his desk in a University of Texas T-shirt, still trying his blonde-headed best to finish the exam.
Hurry up, Jarvis.
I drifted in and out of my book, mostly out, my thoughts waffling between furlough and females. I didn’t mind being one of the few unattached people in our school—except for when I’d catch couples holding hands while I was teaching. Those glimpses of bliss would invariably stir up the longing for companionship, reminding me that pillow talk with myself was always so lopsided.
Daily I spoke with God about these and other matters, though not in an empty classroom or a lonely church pew or while kneeling beside my bed. No, my theaters were airy, less formal, and very well lit. In a word, rooftops.
While my student continued to waffle over page 3, I left him to his exam and stepped outside. Our school had an old, pull-down fire escape, and its creak was always the same when I reached up and yanked—a high squeak groaning into a deep moan. Hand over hand at lunch hour, I climbed up rusty iron stairs, past both floors and to the flat roof of our language building. To the east a range of green mountains impaled the clouds, shadowing Quito without remorse. Within seconds—it was as if I had an appointment—a band of yellow rays broke through the clouds, splintered in their passage but still effective in their effort to roast me.
I’d been doing this ever since I’d seen a man addressing the almighty from atop an apartment building in Mexico City. The guy would go out onto the roof three or four times a week and just blather out to God whatever was on his mind.
The effect wasn’t lost on me. From a rooftop my words could spew out like steam evacuating a pot—a pot, of course, being inflexible and in need of frequent washings. From a rooftop I didn’t have to keep my voice down. From a rooftop I was . . . closer.
Here, closer smelled like river rocks and raw vegetables. Knowing that I would soon be leaving Quito, I breathed deep its aroma and savored the exhale. Soon I moved to the far corner of the building, nearest the mountains, and stood on pebbles and tar paper. After five years spanning many roofs, I had yet to fall. Now, as was my habit, I turned my back to the rays and raised my voice toward the highlands:
“Hey, before I climb down and grade Slowpoke’s test, I just want to remind you that it was you who said it was not good for man to be alone. Did you mean a young man? A middle-aged man? Speak whenever you like. Pillow talk with myself . . . is this all there will be?”
Propelled into thin air, my words echoed off a mountainside and settled upon steep, slanted fields all heavy with crops. From my left a pigeon swooped down and landed on the edge of the roof. With two cocks of its head it sized me up before plunging toward the street, leaving behind a single gray feather that teetered at roof’s edge until the air currents yanked it down. Birds were fleeting amigos during my rooftop soliloquies. Perhaps that feather, like a handshake from a former flame, was my consolation prize.
“You know how Latino women in tight tops affect me when I pass them on the street. Do my offenses exhaust you? C’mon, surely they’ll exhaust you at some point.”
I took a breath and watched two clouds waltz around a mountain. Even the atmosphere had paired off.
“So would it ruin your plans to let me meet an interesting woman? I mean, even Jay seems to have found a woman. And does it tick you off to have to listen to my same request over and over? I hope not, ’cause I plan on repeating my request often, at least until you answer.”
And that was all I said, only I repeated my petition in Spanish, just in case being bilingual helped.
Then I stood in that equatorial sun, listening for the voice that always seemed to tarry, hoping for some hint that I’d been heard. But invariably my thoughts became a thousand immigrants arguing in a hundred languages, and if one of the voices was God, he was lost in the static.
So I turned my back to those mountains, peered down at the bustling street, and wondered how I might insert myself into promising circumstances. Although today, as was the case most every day when I stood on the rooftop, I was certain that promising circumstances, like those waltzing clouds, would be slow afoot.
My last student was still nose-to-test when I returned to my desk and began scribbling the names of possible destinations for furlough. A married couple had asked me to hang with them in Quito, but I had eight weeks off and was in the mood to explore.
My main problem with leaving Ecuador and going home was that I had no actual home. As an only child whose parents had died before I’d reached my teens, I knew of no city within the fruited plain that I could point to and proclaim mi casa. Getting passed between aunts and uncles all through junior high and high school had produced no sense of family, just meals, an occasional pat on the rump, and “Keep your chin up, Neil.”
Richmond was my birthplace, but it was merely my launching pad, not home. Before the Ecuador assignment, I’d spent two semesters teaching in Costa Rica and four in Mexico City. Furloughs between those jobs had been brief and uneventful, consisting mainly of sightseeing around the West Coast with my first cousin Dale, an accountant . . . who acts very much like an accountant. Mr. Detail.
I was still seated at my desk, thinking of how I did not want to tour the West Coast again with Cousin Dale, when from the back of the classroom, Jay Jarvis raised his hand.
“Yeah?” I asked, lowering my book to my lap. “You almost done?”
He leaned back in his desk and rubbed his eyes. “Kinda. But what about extra credit?”
I smiled and flipped a page of my book, the title of which could have been Purity for Dummies. “No one else asked for extra credit, Jay.”
“C’mon, Neil! It’s a religious language school. Show me some grace.”
It baffled me how people used grace as a lever. But I wanted to get out of that perspiring classroom and plan my furlough, so I set the book on my desk and did something spontaneous, one of those off-the-cuff gestures that seems so innocent at the time but later proves to be life-altering.
I opened my desk drawer and found some old Ecuadorian paper money—sucres, a near worthless currency that I used in lessons. I smothered the bills with a handful of coins, and with cash in two hands walked to the back of the room.
“Here, Jay,” I said, setting the money atop the desk beside him.
“What, you’re bribing me to finish? Won’t work, Neil, ’cause I know Ecuador uses U.S. dollars.”
I stood over Slowpoke and stuffed my hands in my jeans. “Nope. I’m giving you un minuto to convert these sucres and coins to an exact amount of U.S. currency. Use this exchange rate.” I leaned down and hastily wrote a decimal number, .035, atop his exam. “One minute, Jarvis. That’s all you get.”
Jay stared at the bills and the coins for no more than ten seconds and wrote $11.55 beside my decimal.
Amazing. Mesmerizing might be a better word. In ten seconds Jay had counted the coins and the bills in his head and converted them perfectly. “How did you do that?” I asked.
Not sharing my enthusiasm, he turned his attention back to his test. “Simple, Neil. Much easier than converting this test of yours from English to Spanish. Say, does the word grits have a Spanish cousin?”
“Will you forget about Spanish grits and tell me how you converted those numbers so fast?”
“I was a broker before I was a missionary. Numbers are my sixth sense.”
I sat in the desk to his left and nudged the paper sucres into a pile. “You’re a stockbroker turned missionary?”
“Was headed for Wall Street.”
Head down and concentrating, he didn’t offer to elaborate. We were just two guys at a common pit stop, minutes away from going opposite directions. At least I hoped it was minutes; Jay was tapping his pencil and scrunching his eyes.
The ceiling fan was making a noise, creaking with every third revolution, out of balance but still potent enough to blow the pathetic paper sucres off my desktop. I leaned low out of the desk to gather them. “Done yet, Jarvis?”
Startled, Jay jiggled his pencil and glanced sideways at me. “So how much credit do I get?”
“Two points. But no grits.”
“I might need five.”
I stacked the currency on the desktop. “You’ll get two.”
He was still staring at his exam. “C’mon, Neil. Three? Show me some grace.”
At this point I was tempted to give him twenty points just to get it over with. “Okay . . . three. But I want to request something in return.”
Jay grinned as he initialed the pages of his test. “Anything, Neil. Just name it.”
“Ever since you showed me that picture of your girlfriend last week, I’ve been wondering if she might, you know, have . . . friends.”
He turned his exam facedown, then rubbed his eyes again. “Yeah. Sure, bro. Allie has friends. But not around here.”
I stuffed the sucres in my shirt pocket. “Then where? Down in the village? That’s only, what, a four-hour drive?”
“More like nine. Roads are very bad. But her friends aren’t there.”
Jay looked at me and smiled. “South Carolina.”
I paused for a moment. “Near the coast? Our age?”
“Not far from the beach, and about our age.”
Without stopping to consider if this was an intelligent move, I pressed on. “And are any of these girls available?”
Jay leaned back in his desk and stretched his arms behind his head. “Really don’t know. Haven’t seen any of ’em in six months. But Allie usually mentions stuff like that in her letters. Over the last few weeks none of her letters said anything about ’em. Only that Sherbet got a new top.”
“One of her friends is named Sherbet?”
“One of her friends’ car. You really ought to visit Greenville during your furlough, Neil. For being the heart of the Bible Belt, it’s a city of surprising complexity.”
I held a silver coin on edge with my left index finger and thumped it with my right, sending it spinning like a top across the desk. “Maybe I’ll go to Montana with my cousin Dale.”
Jay reached over and squashed my spinning coin. “It’s summertime in the U.S., Neil. Go where there’s a beach nearby. Relax a little. You look stressed.”
“Jarvis, I am not stressed.”
“Well, you look stressed. Did you not have your daily talk with God on the roof?”
How he knew that was a Latino mystery. “Yes,” I stammered. “Yes, I did. But I’ve also been sitting at my desk for four hours waiting for you to finish the exam. Everyone else was done in two. You’ve got to be the slowest student in the history of language school.”
“Adults shouldn’t daydream in class.”
“You should try it. Might relieve your stress.”
I glanced down at his papers. “I hope you flunked.”
Jay folded his arms, looked up at the ceiling, and exhaled. “It was a tough exam, Neil. Whew, I couldn’t figure out how to translate Galapagos.”
“They’re islands, Jarvis. Part of Ecuador. You know . . . tortoises and all.”
“I know they’re islands. I meant the Spanish spelling.”
“There’s no Spanish spelling, goon head. Galapagos is Galapagos whether you’re in Texas or Ecuador or Vancouver.”
“So I guess I missed that question, huh?”
“You do need more points.”
“What about Peru?”
“It’s still Galapagos in Peru.”
From the look on his face I could tell he was using his math skills to try to estimate his test score. “Okay,” he said, arriving at some mysterious number, “you still want me to call Steve?”
“Who is this Steve?”
“That friend in Greenville I told you about, the one who saved my life when I fell off the boat and whacked my head. He’ll rent you his spare bedroom . . . if you want to visit Greenville, that is. It’s a city of surprising complexity.”
“You said that already.” His anxiousness had me wary, as did the thought of South Carolina.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Neil. It could change your life.”
“I don’t wanna change my life. And I’m not a Bible Belt kinda guy.”
“And you thought I was?”
“I’d need to think about it. Plus, I’d need to find a part-time job.”
Jay had maintained an insistent expression on his face, like he was sure he had my best interest in mind. Then he wagged his finger at me like he was the teacher and I was the student. “Thinking will stifle you, Neil. Just explore South Carolina. Besides Allie’s girlfriends, there’s also this eccentric ex-janitor and a preacher who owns a boat. What else would you do? Go to Disneyland again with Cousin Darrel?”
“Whatever. You really should go visit. And I’m sure there are lots of part-time jobs.”
My thoughts wandered to Montana, then to the Grand Canyon, which I had yet to see. But then these weird images came of me standing there on the edge, next to honeymooning couples, next to teenagers in adolescent romance, and me sleeping alone in some rented camper. I pressed further. “These girls you mentioned . . . they’re not wallflowers, are they? And don’t fib, or I’ll cut your extra credit.”
He looked me straight in the eye and winked. “Neil, they represent a diversity of all that is female.”
“Aw man, now I’m going to Montana for sure.”
He grabbed the edge of my desk and shook it. “No, don’t do that. Listen up, Neil, there’s a hospitable redhead with lots of rules, a tall blonde with a classic convertible, and then this raven-haired girl with a tiny silver piercing who I can’t really recommend . . . but she is entertaining.”
I considered all the possible interpretations of the word entertaining, or entretenido. “Okay, let’s just suppose I do visit this Greenville, and I move in with this guy named Steve. I still won’t have any way of getting around. No car. No motorcycle.”
Jay looked flustered, as if I’d admitted I owned no shoes. “You don’t own wheels, Neil?”
Eyebrows raised, I shook my head.
“Not even some old clunker in a U-Lock-It?”
“I’m tellin’ ya, Jarvis, I own no adult toys. For five years I’ve lived out of a suitcase, teaching Spanish to people much more qualified than you to serve on the mission field.”
I think he knew that I was just needling him, yet he feigned shock anyway. “Well then,” he said, sitting up in his desk, “you can just drive my old Blazer. It’s still at Steve’s, under a tarp in his backyard. You see what’s happening, dontcha, Neil? God is providing for you in exchange for my extra credit.”
“I can’t believe God called you to be a missionary.”
“I’m very giving. And I’ve already offered—” He suddenly stopped talking.
He looked straight up. “Did you know that your ceiling fan creaks every fourth revolution?”
“Fourth, Neil. I’m the numbers guy. Now back to what I was offering—”
“I know what you’re offering. It just sounds a bit . . . ominous.”
Jay took one last glance at his exam and nodded his agreement. “Yeah, Neil. Ominous is a good word. North Hills Presbyterian is definitely ominous.”
More than anything it was his enthusiasm that stoked my interest. My next question was intended to buffer that enthusiasm, though it did nothing of the sort. “So all these friends of yours are Presbyterian?”
“Except for when they’re Baptist or Pentecostal.”
Jay stood and headed for the front of the classroom, exam in hand. He set his papers atop the stack on my desk. “And sometimes Lutheran.”
I followed him to the front and tucked all the exams in a folder. “That fall off the boat gave you brain damage, right?”
“Just go visit, Neil. They have beach trips every summer.”
“Who, the Baptists or the Pentecostals?”
“North Hills Prez. The singles love to go to the beach.”
I didn’t need to ponder for more than a moment. “I do love the beach.”
And right there, right inside that sentence of give-in and self-persuasion, is where my innocent little gesture—currency conversion as extra credit—began my delirious summer.
That evening, under the balmy, pastel skies of Quito, Jay and I met at a downtown eatery where we celebrated, with crab legs and chocolate-chip pizza, his score of 73 on the final exam. I have never seen a grown man so proud of a 73. He even insisted on paying for my dinner. I’ll never forget his glee—in the middle of the crowded restaurant, surrounded by the steamy scent of crab legs and some breakneck Spanish he could not understand, he gestured with a piece of half-eaten dessert pizza. “It’s a sign, Neil. A sign that God wants me on the mission field, wants me to make a difference, wants me to spell Galapagos in every language. Next year I’m learning Portuguese. Do you teach Portuguese too?”
I laughed and shook my head no. Then I stole a bite of his chocolaty dessert and said, “I don’t think Ecuador is ready for you, Jarvis.”
As much as I tried to needle Jay about his inexperience, it never seemed to affect his outlook. I envied him, serving in a remote area like he did. I had always felt a bit too shielded as a missionary language teacher, what with the classroom and the order and the paperwork. Instead of being on the front lines, I’d spent five years preparing others to go to the front lines. I wanted a change, an adventure, a taste of the wild. An almost missionary, that’s what I called myself.
Jay picked up a crab claw and wagged it at me. “I’ll learn as I go, Neil. Now you gotta keep in touch. We’ll exchange emails, okay?”
“Sure, man. I’ll type it in English.”
“That’d be best. So tell me . . . which one of those girls are you gonna ask out when you get to Greenville?”
He wiped his mouth. “Whadda you mean, yes?”
“Since I’ve been dateless for so long, maybe I’ll ask ’em all out.”
For the first time since I’d known him, Jay Jarvis was speechless. He let his mouth drop open, far enough that I could see melty chocolate clinging to his incisors. Then he took a swig of ice-less cola, leaned in, and told me his Greenville story—how he had been immersed in the world of Wall Street, met Allie at the beach, visited her village in the rainforest, and decided to stay. He called himself the rookie missionary and said that he and Allie were jungle dating, whatever that meant. His story made me fear I would never meet anyone that I thought so highly of that I would up and move. I didn’t ask Jay what all he had given up to pursue his girlfriend. But considering his former profession, he’d probably given up a lot.
I admired Jay’s courage, if not his Spanish.
Monday morning, before going our opposite directions, Jay and I shared a cab to the Mariscal International Airport, where he caught a ride in a five-passenger Cessna owned by Mission Aviation Fellowship. I was standing at a lobby window—still pondering Montana and the Grand Tetons, still unsure about where I was headed—when the Cessna taxied by.
Seated in that skinny plane, Jay looked out the window and gave me the thumbs-up sign, apparently still celebrating his 73. It was at that moment—my thumb, his thumb, raised in tandem for a fleeting second on opposing sides of lobby glass—when I realized we were brothers.
I waved just before the white-and-red plane rose and banked into clear skies. Once again, I envied Jay’s journey. I knew that the pilot would drop him off in the jungle town of Coca, where his girlfriend, Allie, would be waiting in an old pickup truck to drive him back to the village. My own flight promised nothing so romantic—some guy named Steve was meeting me in South Carolina.
I had checked one suitcase and had my olive-green cap on my head when I boarded a 757 run by Tortugas Air, bound for Miami, to be followed by a two-hour jaunt to Atlanta. Then a puddle jumper to Greenville.
At takeoff I was half awake, alternating between reads of La Hora and USA Today. It was my contention that one gets a more well-rounded view of the news if it is read in two languages. Setting aside the USA Today—the salaries of the superstars, the price of real estate, and the audacity of the politicians were too shocking—I shifted back into Spanish mode and read Ecuadorian articles about drug traffickers in Colombia, the lack of rain in the jungle, and the growing number of large families in South America. None of that was of much interest to me—I’d nearly given up on ever finding a true family—so I stuffed the paper back in the seat rack and thanked God for furlough.
As the jet leveled off, so did my vision of what lay ahead. I pictured it all like an eager kid gazing for the first time through a telescope. In my lens, however, were not stars or planets or galaxies but things that could be just as distant and hard to fathom—Southern girls.
I wondered if they’d changed much in the years I’d been abroad.
Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico a dark-haired flight attendant named Marlena served pretzels and drinks. “Nice cap,” she said, arriving at my row. “Vacation?”
I nudged my brim higher to see her. “Feels more like adventure.”
She handed me a napkin. “There’s been lots of adventure around lately.”
I figured there was no time like the present. “So, Marlena, where’re you from?”
“Charlotte,” she said. “Same place as my fiancé.” And she flashed me her ring and moved on.