Novel Excerpt: Entertaining Angels Unaware
My very talented writer friend, Laura McCune-Poplin, has graciously let us post an excerpt from her yet-unpublished novel, Entertaining Angels Unaware. Laura has written this novel about a LDS woman on her mission in France; I love that she has written it with a non-LDS audience in mind and that it’s not a glossed-over depiction of a missionary’s life. Look for another excerpt in an upcoming issue of Irreantum.
It Was a Good Idea at the Time
excerpt from Entertaining Angels Unaware by Laura McCune-Poplin
If Lucy was blind, she could identify an HLM building by the smell of the lobby, which smelled like lemon scented ammonia and cigarettes, and by the sound of her black shoes on the tile floor. Except on the brightest of days, HLM lobbies were dark and cold, with mailboxes extending the length of the wall identified by name cards written in identical cursive lettering, not because the same person had written all the cards, but because all French handwriting looked alike.
Lucy bent over to read the mailboxes and saw her breath curl in front of her face as she silently mouthed names: Boudou, Crespin, Sabbatini, Bredoutin, Chowachi, Mboup, Roux.
“Who are we looking for again?” she asked Soeur Miller, her companion since October transfers when Soeur Stanley and Elder O’Neill left and Lucy felt like her right arm was being torn from her body, convinced she might never laugh again. But she did. She laughed as soon as Soeur Miller got off the train and set down her bags, belching so loud and long that Elder Williams, O’Neill’s replacement, awarded her the title of honorary Elder. Apparently the café car served Coke.
Soeur Miller pulled the ward list out of her backpack and turned the pages with her mittens. They could no longer read names where the creases in the paper were folded repeatedly. The ink had rubbed off from too much use.
“Are you sure there’s no apartment number?” Lucy asked. She stepped back to look at the rows of alternating turquoise and yellow boxes twenty long and five deep. Lucy had a love-hate relationship with the part of missionary work involving the inactive members of the church. Although she could rationalize the hours spent trying to locate a missing person, she resented having to barge in on people newly discovered, who would rather be left alone. She figured they had stopped coming to church for a reason.
“Nope. No number,” Soeur Miller said, her voice echoing off the sterile metal insides of the lobby. “We could always tract her out.”
Shaking her head, Lucy bent over and resumed reading. “I’d rather read mailboxes.”
“Who’s knocking?” Soeur Miller asked as they climbed the stairwell, their footsteps echoing three floors wide. There was an elevator in the building but Soeur Miller insisted on taking the stairs. In Bourge she had ridden an elevator so old it had gates instead of doors, which slipped two floors and made her pee she was so scared. She had vowed never to ride another elevator for as long as she lived. Lucy didn’t mind. Sometimes she and Soeur Miller would sing camp songs in the stairwell, their mediocre voices made beautiful with hollow acoustics and harmony.
“Who knocked last?” Lucy reached the 12th floor and held open the door to the lobby so her companion would walk through first. Even though they were speaking English, they lowered their voices to almost whispers. Soeur Miller slapped the light switch with the palm of her hand so Lucy could read the numbers on the doors. She was looking for apartment 1273.
“It’s this one,” she whispered to her companion, waving her over. They stood on the straw doormat elbowing each other and repeating “you knock’s” until Lucy gave in. She always gave in, afraid of what somebody might do or say if they opened the door to find two missionaries standing on the doorstep, hitting each other and whispering.
“She’s probably not even home,” she said, sighing as she rapped the door four times. She always knocked in groups of four. Three felt incomplete. A baby started to cry inside and Lucy winced, knowing somehow that it was her fault.
“J’arrive,” a voice shouted as the door slowly opened to reveal a little boy, his diaper falling off and stripes on his face where tears had paved paths through dirt and crusted snot. A woman carrying a half naked baby girl on her hip yanked the little boy away from the door. “How many times have I told you not to open the door to strangers,” she said while looking up, her expression changing from one of anger and apology to one of disgust. “Oh it’s you,” she said, wiping hair from her face with the back of her wrist. In her hand she held a baby bottle. “I thought I told you never to come back.”
“Is there anything we can help you with?” Soeur Miller asked, leaning to the right, trying to see into the apartment. Sometimes Soeur Miller could detect a need just by looking. She was one of those people who instinctively knew how and when to help another person.
“You can leave.”
Lucy nodded and started to turn away from the door when a third child, a little girl who looked to be at least four years old, wearing a dress two sizes too small, came up and grabbed the woman’s leg from behind and leaned her head against the outside of her mother’s thigh.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything?” Lucy asked. She looked at the little girl, who smiled shyly and buried her face in her mother’s misshapen t-shirt with stains down the front.
“I don’t need your religion or your Jesus,” she said, letting go of the doorknob to cup the little girl’s head. The door swung wide and the room became visible. It was clean but almost bare. The linoleum floor looked cold, and Lucy noticed that all three children were barefoot. “I need money. Does your Jesus have money? Can your Jesus give my kids Christmas?”
In her mind, Lucy thought the question redundant because without Jesus there wouldn’t be Christmas in the first place, but she knew that Christelle was referring to presents and not salvation, so she didn’t say anything. After a moment of silence so pregnant with awkwardness and disappointment that even the children remained still, Soeur Miller opened her mouth to tell her about the church welfare program, but the woman held up her hand with the bottle in protest. “Maybe you don’t understand French. I said I don’t want to hear it.” She shut the door, leaving the missionaries standing on her doorstep in darkness. At the other end of the hallway the elevator door ringed open, the light from inside spilling into the corridor, creating shadows and depth where before there was only grey. That was when Lucy got her idea.