One Tuesday Beck and I arrived at the welfare hermanas’ house to find them terribly excited.
“You are not going to believe what we just got,” said Bryan, leading us into their apartment.
On the floor was an open suitcase full of American junk food: Oreos, M&Ms, Hershey bars, a box of Cap’n Crunch, and more goodies than I could have imagined.
“Where did you get all this stuff?” asked Beck, who every week had been resisting the temptation to buy one of the ancient Snickers bars in the central market.
“You know the Furnisses, don’t you?” I didn’t, but Beck explained to me that the Furnisses were an American couple from Utah in their thirties who lived in the wealthy neighborhood on the south side of La Paz. He was involved in gold mining or some such thing. Mormons, they had spent a lot of time caring for the missionaries while they were in Bolivia.
“It’s my birthday this Monday,” said Bryan, “so Brother Furniss took an empty suitcase with him when he went to Utah last week and asked me what I wanted in it.” She showed me some expensive American shampoo and soaps, clearly pleased.
“That reminds me,” she said, handing me a Milky Way. “There’s a birthday party at the Furnisses after zone meeting. I hope you guys can come.”
We weren’t about to miss a party, of course. While Beck showered, I sat with the hermanas.
“I wish we didn’t have to have people over for showers,” Hermana Thomas said. “No offense, but they think since we’re nurses, we know the answers to everything. Last week, Elder Wolfgramm came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, asking if I would look at a rash for him. Just promise me you won’t ever do anything like that,” she laughed.
Hermana Clark had gone home. All we knew was that an ambulance had met her at the airport in Salt Lake. “I was really scared that we weren’t going to get her home in time,” said Hermana Bryan. “Oh, I almost forgot. You do know what today is, don’t you?”
“It’s gamma day. You’ve been out three months, and it’s time for your gamma globulin shot.” With that she went to the refrigerator and returned with a needle and a small bottle of the hepatitis vaccine.
I knew about the gamma shots. We were supposed to get them every three months, and hanging from the lightbulb in our apartment was a small Smurf doll with about ten used gamma needles jabbed into him, a reminder of “gamma parties” past.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. I had never given myself a shot before. “Can’t one of you do it?”
“No, you’re going to have to learn how to do it yourself,” said Bryan. “It’s easy. You fill the syringe like this and then make sure you get all the air bubbles out. Then you just put it in the thickest part of your thigh and push the serum in.”
I took the full syringe into the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and sat on the toilet seat. I was actually going to put a needle into my body. I screwed up my courage, counted to three, and jabbed the needle into my thigh, pushing the plunger with my thumb. I felt like I was going to pass out, but I survived. I got a cotton ball and taped it over the wound with a band-aid. It wasn’t so bad, after all.
At home that night, Beck pointed out a huge purple bruise on my thigh. “You must have hit a vein,” he said, not particularly concerned.
That week was branch conference, which meant that we had a special choir of four cholitas who sang “Caros Le Son al Maestro” (they really liked that song in this branch) for the visiting stake presidency. The stake president, the greasy-haired head of the church distribution center, essentially monopolized all three hours of meetings that Sunday. Each time he spoke, he started out friendly enough but slowly built a crescendo into a tirade about the lack of dedication among the members, which explained why the small branch wasn’t growing. Hermano Quispe, the branch president, stared at the floor, looking rather ashamed.
The next day was P-day. After washing up, we went over to Hermana Moreno’s house and borrowed her oven. We made an enormous banana bread out of guineos, the small, finger-sized bananas we usually bought in large bunches and hung from a hook. We had lunch and then went down into the city to mail our letters. At zone meeting, Elder Ford asked us, “Do you either of you know who ‘Elder Johnny-cat’ is?”
I laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s me. How did you hear about that?” At home, my friend Alex somehow got the nickname, “alley cat,” which annoyed him to no end. So, one day, he said, “If I have to be Alley Cat, you have to be Johnny-cat.”
Ford handed me a postcard from Alex in South Africa. The postcard showed two topless African women carrying large water jugs on their heads. The card read simply, “Hey, Elder Johnny-cat! Hope the girls are this good looking where you are. Love, Al.” He hadn’t known that all La Paz mail went to a box at the main post office in La Paz. Ford told me that the postcard had circulated through all three zones, and everyone was wondering who I was. For the next several weeks, I heard a lot of people say, “Oh, so you’re Johnny-cat.” After that I was never Elder Williams again. Even the mission president called me Johnny-cat.
After zone meeting we went back into the city by taxi, arriving at the Furnisses’ three-story home in Cala Coto, the wealthiest neighborhood in La Paz. They had brought sandwiches, pizza, and sodas, and bowls of M&Ms and other American candy lay on the table. Then they brought in a decorated chocolate cake; I had never seen a cake like that in Bolivia. Hermana Bryan blew out the candles, and they served the cake and ice cream. The cake was quite dry and tasted sort of like it had cigarette ashes in it and was very disappointing.
After Bryan opened her presents, Brother Furniss put on a video: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” I drew the line at watching something rated R and went into another room with a couple of other missionaries, who like me were horrified at this flaunting of the rules. By the time the party wound down, it was after 11, and it was impossible to get a taxi or bus back to the Alto, so about eight of us crammed into Brother Furniss’s Land Cruiser, and he drove us home. He asked me a little bit about myself, and then he said he and his wife felt obligated to take care of the missionaries because he knew how difficult it was for us to be there. I was grateful for such a kind and compassionate family, even if they did watch R-rated movies.