Michael Smith

Creative Nonfiction

Michael Smith is a writer, Francophile, and photographer residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Hopper, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, Lit.cat, The Delmarva Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Drunk Monkeys. Michael is currently seeking representation for his literary fiction novel, Bluebird, a story of a man turning to stone to become impervious to sorrow.


The Way Home

Around five in the grey afternoon and so far from home. I had just turned nineteen. The train pulled into the station in Amiens, France. Across from me, an elderly woman all in sepia examined my paper and said this was my stop. All I knew about Amiens was that it was a city one-hour north of Paris. And that God had sent me there to deliver a message.

I descended the train with a tan suitcase in each hand. These suitcases contained all my belongings. A young American in a charcoal suit and trench coat stood on the quay. My paper said his name was Elder Sean Bingham, my mission companion and trainer. We did not speak to each other. From the train station, he walked ten feet ahead of me through vacant streets to our studio apartment. He opened the door with an old skeleton key. Bingham had crooked teeth and a shaved head and reminded me not at all of my friends back home. He said we had an appointment at seven that evening to provide religious instruction to Francine, a new Mormon convert. I unpacked. There was a phone on the ground I was not permitted to use. My closet contained a bottle of vitamins and some raisins. I wiped dust from a window ledge with a rag until Bingham said it was time to go. We walked to the bus stop. High school girls, all in black jackets with their hair pulled up, stared at us. Their French sounded less elegant than the French on the audio tapes I had used to learn French. We got off the bus at the last stop. Public housing projects loomed in every direction. Everywhere, old Arab men leaned against cement walls. We walked up the stairs to the sixth floor in a building that smelled like piss. Bingham knocked on the door to the left. Francine, the new Mormon convert, opened. She looked like a wild palomino with a black mane. I found her to be pretty. Her apartment was a table and three chairs. From a paperback copy of the Book of Mormon, we read to her of Jesus for a while. She made lemonade from a bottle of lemon syrup. She twitched and complained of custody issues with her baby. It was time to go. We didn’t know that within two weeks, Francine would stop answering the door when we knocked. Bingham and I took the bus back to town. We toasted cheese and marinara on a baguette for dinner, said our prayers, and went to bed. All night I dreamt I was falling.

Bingham and I marched about Amiens with a message from God. In 1830, in a grove of trees in upstate New York, in America, God had talked face-to-face with a young boy, Joseph the Prophet. After Joseph, God had called other prophets. God had told these prophets there was only one true church—only one way home. To make it home: pray, accept Jesus, read the scriptures, join the Mormon church. If not, you are lost. I thought then that the message was borne of love: God has shown us the way home? Don’t you want to know? He tells you what you are doing wrong because He loves you.

We delivered this message on the streets, on the buses, and especially at the doorsteps. I hid my faint heart beneath a steady exterior. We wore dark suits, white shirts, name badges, and when it rained, trench coats. It rained always. In our trench coats, Bingham and I looked like gendarmes. One of those early days, I boarded a bus and an Arab teenager handed me his identity papers when we drew close. I didn’t understand why he did this until years later. I looked at the papers and handed them back to him. A week later a different Arab teenager handed me his bus pass.

We spent many afternoons knocking on doors to share the message. I imagined Jesus holding my hand. His hand, like my Dad’s, was large and strong. Sometimes Jesus squeezed my hand to keep me from crying. The French yelled at us through closed doors. Not today. Go home. I’m not interested. We’re eating. I’ll call the police. Leave me alone. Get out of here. Take a hike. Lay off. I’ve seen your kind before. I don’t want any. Nobody’s home. On the bus, French girls joked about sex. I felt shame at being interested in the forbidden. I was a virgin. French boys mocked us with drinking songs. French kids teased us in slang I couldn’t understand. Middle-aged men waved fingers. Old women crossed the street to avoid us.

The French were a miserable and fallen people. They violated all the commandments. Perfume advertisements at bus stops showed more flesh than I had ever seen. Everyone smoked. Alcohol everywhere. Markets on the Sabbath. Dirty shows on TV. Couples living together out of wedlock. Religious laziness. Suspicion of authority. Where was God?

Our Heavenly Father, Bingham and I prayed. Are there souls here to save? Ears that will listen? Hearts that will open? Are thine elect here? Lead us to them. Guide us. Make us into clean and worthy vessels. Forgive us of our many sins so that thy Spirit will flow through us untainted. God heard our prayers. He led us to some of His elect. Charles, the alcoholic former priest, who stared through the peephole for a while before opening. Bernard, the alcoholic baker who slashed his own wrists to get attention from his former lover, Francine, the new Mormon convert. George, the alcoholic zealot and schizophrenic, who forced his nephew Christophe to join the Mormon church, then later chased us away with a kitchen knife. Jeanette, a trusting Ivorian woman who loved me like a son. I still love her. I don’t know where she is. Jeanette—if you are reading this, please find me.

Other than these glimpses of heaven, the work was grueling. We were more soldats than missionnaires. It was us against them. We had the truth. They didn’t want it. My performance as a missionary was measured by how many French people I baptized. My own salvation, I believed, was tied to that number. I didn’t see the French I met daily as real people. They were a means to an end. The pockmarked woman at the post office who sold me post cards on which I sent homesick words to Mom and Dad: hard-hearted sinner. The thin-nosed stern lady who sold me my first pastry, a millefeuille: vain and indulgent. The man on the PA at the train station with perfect annunciation: puffed-up, vain. The sandwich shop owner. The boulanger. The bus driver. The barman. Each was a person who rejected God’s message, rejected the purpose of life, and rejected me.


I am forty-five years old now. Yesterday, I visited Amiens with my wife. Kim. Kim loves me. I have a daughter. She loves me. My daughter is adopted. My first marriage was a catastrophe. I was depressed for the first month of my daughter’s life—my daughter’s birthmother quaked with grief when she handed her daughter to my ex-wife and me. At forty I had less money than I had at twenty. I am a good father. I am a good husband. My greatest fear is having a severely disabled child. I like kinky sex. I like to write. Because of recurring cancer, I have no testicles. I pay to have my back waxed regularly. My chronic anxiety is stable so long as I take medications for the rest of my life. If you were to meet me, you would probably not remember afterwards. I am never surprised to hear of a suicide. I believe in God. I am still Mormon, in the same way that I am still American, in the same way that my last name is still Smith.

I will not be able to say what I want to say about going back to Amiens as a grown man, with my wife by my side. On television I have seen stories about soldiers who served in Vietnam. When they returned to Vietnam later in life, they felt cleansed and unburdened. Until yesterday I did not understand this phenomenon.

When Kim and I walked out of the train station together, Kim said it looked nice, like Connecticut. We walked from the train station to my old apartment. The streets were lined with row houses of stone and brick: pink, red, white, tan, and brown. The door of the apartment building was twelve feet high and forest green with a large brass handle. We said we would like to live in a charming row house like this back home, if we could afford it. We walked through the park near the apartment. Green upon green upon green. A statue of Jules Verne, ten feet high, that I had never seen before. The date on the statue read 1909. A traffic circle nearby was planted with red and white poppies.

At a pastry shop near the town center, I ordered a raspberry tart. It glistened like wet lips. I counted that Kim and I had eaten more pastries on our trip to France than I had eaten in my two years as a missionary. I recalled having prayed as a missionary that the food I ate would nourish me to do the Lord’s work. Back then, the food had been a means to an end. Yesterday, I said no such prayer. The pastry had no purpose but to be delicious.

We stopped at a bistro for lunch. The man assembled a salad for each of us—baby arugula, small pieces of apple, pieces of cheese, tomato, and a vinaigrette dressing. He prepared our sandwiches. My bread was toasted lightly with dark brown grill marks. Kim’s croque monsieur was brown and orange and yellow and made a cracking sound when she bit into it. During my time as a missionary, I would have informed the man that his life had a purpose. Yesterday, I told him his food was good.

We walked from the bistro to the cathedral. The air was cool. A boy in a red jacket was holding a puppy, and I took a picture. In the picture, the puppy looks at me while the boy looks up at the spire of the cathedral. During my missionary years I saw the cathedral for what it was not—not a Mormon church, not familiar. Yesterday, I viewed the cathedral as an ancient, massive structure erected through great sacrifice. It was tremendous. It was soaring. We went inside. Throughout the nave, transept, and choir, and across the many small chapels, the light shining through stained-glass windows reflected mauve, purple, light blue, gold, and white.

After a tour of the church, we walked around the town center. Kim kept saying how nice it all was. I could not see as clearly as she could. I reminded her what a burden I had carried as a missionary: away from home for the first time, unable to understand a new language, with a stern stranger as my roommate, with no freedom, all the while being rejected, feared, and mocked for saying I had a message from God. I couldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t want to. But I had done it. Somehow.

We boarded the train back to Paris. Our car was empty. We sat facing each other. When the train started moving, I felt as if I had left something behind. I checked my pockets. Wallet. Phone. Passport. Keys. Nothing missing. I asked Kim if she had the camera. She said yes. I asked her to show it to me. I laid everything out on the seat next to me. I counted the money in my wallet. My belt was on. Both shoes. My jacket. I stood up and exited the car to check the baggage compartment. I had forgotten my two tan suitcases. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I raced back to the passenger compartment to check above the seats. And then I remembered Kim and I had traveled from Paris to Amiens just for a day trip, without any luggage. I gave Kim the camera. I put the other items back in my pockets. I pulled my jacket closed and held it there, my arms crossed against my chest. Suddenly my whole body shuddered like a shot of electricity had passed through to recalibrate it. I felt sleepy. I reached across and took Kim by the hand. Outside, the landscape passed by like a memory, just beyond my reach.

More than twenty-five years after first visiting France as a young Mormon missionary, I revisited some of the same scenes near the midpoint of my life. I was overcome with a sense of compassion both for my younger self and the people I had once hoped to convert.