Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup
Six months later I was boarding a 747 for Mexico, having just completed eight weeks’ worth of language training in Provo. My parents flew in from California to say goodbye. The mauve knit dress that used to fit my mother so snugly now drooped on her broomstick bones. My father tried to keep a stoic front. Gripping my hand, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m proud of you, son!” I glared at him defiantly: I’m not doing this for you.
All summer we had butt heads over the mission issue. The climax came the morning after the 4th of July when he slipped into my bedroom and flipped on the light.
“Don’t forget your appointment!”
“What appointment?” was my groggy reply.
“For your mission interview. I made you an- ”
I flung the bed covers aside. “Break it!”
He thought I was joking. “Seven sharp,” he said with a wink. As he grinned down at me, I saw him sharp and clear: a half-bald little Buddha telling me what to do again. I was furious inside. He had no idea what I was going through. In his mind, Nancy’s death was an unfortunate asterisk, a blessing in disguise.
“I’m not going,” I said.
“Seven’s not good?”
“Not the interview.” I looked down at the red bedspread, crumpled in my lap. “A mission.”
His hand fell from the light switch. “You don’t want to go on a mission?”
“I’m not sure .. . I mean, I’m not … ”
I was tightrope-walking over a fiery pit of sacrilege which had never smoldered in his presence in our home. His voice had a warning tone: Stop! But there was a pleading edge, too: Please … not now. My mother was dying. Although he would not say so out loud, he wore this knowledge on his face in his hangdog jowls and bloodshot eyes.
“How do you know we’re the only true church?” I challenged. “Have you ever even been to another church? What do you know about Hinduism? What do you know-”
“Jon!” His voice thundered through my room. “You get your butt to that meeting, do you hear ,me? Jon!”
“No!” I hollered. I was on my feet now, towering over him. “You don’t know any more than I do! The only reason you believe is because your father did and his father and-”
“I’m right. You know I’m right! How do you know anything about the church? Can you prove it? No! Can you-”
“You get to that meeting!”
“Forget it! Forget you!”
Then I was on the floor, rubbing my jaw, staring acidly up at him. His fists were clenched, his iron jaw locked. As he left I muttered, “Asshole!” but by then he was too fed up and disgusted to care.
This was to be the most confusing, frustrating summer of my life. After undergoing several batteries of routine tests, my mother had gone to visit her sister Mitzi in Klamath Falls. “Resting,” my father explained. “She just needs a little Rand R.” Why couldn’t she rest at home? Who was she trying to hide from? Me? Was I to blame for this? Me and my contrary behavior?
“This Plikta girl-she’s not LDS, is she?” my mother ventured.
“Be careful, Jonathan.”
“I’m always careful.”
“I know. But you’re my only-”
“I know, Mom.”
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first … You’re my first and my last.” She spoke to me in scriptures now. It was pathetic, yet I was upset with her, or trying to be. I hardened myself for the inevitable.
“The Spirit can be so willing, but the flesh … ”
“It’s okay, Mom. Don’t worry.”
“I won’t. I know. But … be careful. Please?”
I decided to settle this mission business once and for all. I accepted Brother’s Crumb’s challenge: study it out in your mind and take it to God in prayer. Fast, ponder, and ask. Yes or no? If it’s right, you’ll get a burning feeling in your breast. If not? Fog in the brain. Ask with real intent; the Spirit will manifest.
I hiked down to the River, determined to pray until I received an answer-two days, three days, whatever it took. I wanted something outstanding, a burning bush, a lunar eclipse, a voice. Proof! I wanted concrete proof!
I endured the first day like any other Sunday fast, with growling gut and dizziness. By day two the hollowness in my belly filled with funny puffy stuff that went straight to my brain. I was in an altered state, helium-headed but bewildered. On the one hand, I was determined not to be had by sophistry. Conversely, I wasn’t going to disbelieve simply because Nancy Von Kleinsmid had proscribed belief. Whatever I did, it had to be for the right reason. I had to feel and believe it way down deep. I had to find my own drummer, not Nancy’s or my father’s or James Joyce’s. But who was that, really?
I debated this back and forth, pleading for a sign. At one point, in despair, I stepped out onto the Rock and stared down at the two giant boulders where I had been told that Nancy had crash-landed. Leaning forward, I could feel the River’s spray on my face and the gravity grabbing me by the shoulders and pulling me forward, out, over the edge. Then I heard a voice, not in the screaming waters, but a sigh, an echo whispering: Don’t.
I climbed down and lay beside a scrub pine under a black-and-blue sky sparkling with all the stars of Abraham. For the next hour I bartered. I would serve a mission, I said, if God would spare my mother’s life. Don’t take her from us now. Not because of me and all the rotten selfish things I’d said and done … The irony seemed to snap like a steel-jawed trap: Don’t take her from us … from me . . . That was it! All my life it had been that way: tit for tat. I was an exploiter, always looking out for number one. I asked God to erase my proposal. I’ll do your will, not mine. I’ll do the mission regardless of what happens to my mother.
As I talked with God, the cloud matter in my head grew warm and buoyant. I felt myself floating skyward, starward, as if I were surfacing from the bottom of a pitch black pool. No, the heavens didn’t part. But for the first time since hearing of Nancy’s death I felt a deep, resounding peace. That in itself was a miracle.
I couldn’t undo my past, but I could control my future. I could be good, do right. I couldn’t bring Nancy back from the dead, but I could share the gospel of redemption with the living.
When I arrived home early the next morning, my mother called from Aunt Mitzi’s and ruined everything. It was a little before dawn and her voice was anxious and quavering, so afraid. “Jonathan, I’m sorry to call so early. But I had the strangest dream. Jonathan? Are you there?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m here.”
“Jonathan, I had the strangest dream.”
“I know. You said that.”
“Well, you know what my patriarchal blessing says- ”
“Yes, Mom.” Throughout my youth she had reminded me of the part that said she would interpret dreams like Joseph of Egypt.
“Jonathan, promise me you’ll go on a mission. Will you do that for me? Please? Your father says … Jonathan?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Your father says-”
“Who cares what he says!”
“Oh, Jonathan, please don’t be like that-”
“Mom, when are you coming home?”
“In another week or so. I just need-”
“It’s been a month.”
“I know, Jon, but-”
“You’re not going to get better, are you?”
“Oh, of course I am.”
“Mom . .. Mother … ”
“Promise me, Jon. Please?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice breaking. “Yes. I promise.”
“Oh, Jon, I’m so glad! You just don’t know how happy .. . ”
Then Nancy sneaked in, contesting the lessons of the canyon: Of course you’re going on a mission. Didn’t I tell you? Another prophecy fulfilled.
It was my decision, Nancy.
Oh? On what grounds? Holy confirmation? Hallowed heartburn? You can talk yourself into believing anything. Sorry, Jon. A mother’s deathbed wish, how could you refuse?
My decision, Nancy. Mine.
Nineteen years of conditioning, Jon. Mormon brainwash.
The other missionaries had said their goodbyes and were boarding the plane when Elder Reed, my flight companion, good-naturedly gestured to his watch. I looked at my father who suddenly seemed small and shriveled, like a little round balloon slowly losing air. His sidehair appeared more white than silver. He pulled in his gut and gave me the thumbs up like he used to before a kickoff. “Give ’em heaven, Jon!” he said. He smiled and I smiled back. It was the best I could do under the circumstances.
Leaning into me, my mother licked her forefinger and brushed the short blond bangs back off my forehead, a maternal habit I had tried to dodge since grade school. But this time I allowed it, without fuss, and when she brushed the lapels of my dark suit coat, I allowed her that also, even with twenty-one other missionaries, four of them young women, looking on. Then she stepped back and smiled at me one last time as she straightened my red tie. I kissed her awkwardly on the cheek and started for the boarding ramp.
I turned. She was running towards me, her brittle arms outstretched. I dropped my carry-on bags to receive her. Our bodies met, and she hugged and kissed me with all of the passionate finality of a girlfriend sending her lover to war.