Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup
My mother never met Nancy face-to-face, yet she became well acquainted with her that spring of 1970. Every night she heard Nancy’s exhortations at our dinner table. “Brother Crumb says not to delve into the mysteries,” I said. “But where would we be today if people hadn’t questioned the status quo? If questioning is of the devil, then the church was founded on two horns and a pitchfork.”
“Joseph Smith was seeking the truth,” my mother would counter gently over dinner. She would set a formal table for the two of us: china, silver, cloth napkins, wine glasses (with cranberry juice). “So am I! Am I supposed to believe just because you do? I have to find out for myself.”
“That’s fine, Jon.” Initially my mother seemed amused, as if my intellectual ventures were a teenage whim to be politely tolerated until I outgrew them, like acne. But as I grew bolder, she became anxious. One night I overstepped my bounds.
“You act like everything’s universally assumed. You quote the Book of Mormon like it’s straight from God’s mouth.”
My mother’s face clouded. “Well, it is, isn’t it? The word of God?”
“Maybe not,” I said. “Maybe we ought to be talking about that instead of putting the cart before the horse.”
“Cart? Horse? Jon?”
“Maybe we ought to discuss something a little more fundamental first-like is there really a God?”
“Jonathan!” The flat of her hand swept across the wide oak dining table and struck my cheek. She recoiled momentarily but quickly recomposed herself. I looked away, angry at myself for provoking her, angry at her for having struck me. And I was ashamed of the thought. Deep down I knew better.
“So much for freedom of thought,” I muttered.
My soft-spoken mother, who wore her frosted hair in a bun, had suddenly turned into a raging Valkyrie. “That’s not you talking, Jonathan!” she insisted, shaking her finger at me. “That’s not you at all! Who’s been putting these crazy ideas in your head? Is it that girl?” She had heard about Nancy through the Relief Society grapevine.
“Why do you say that? Because I’m not toeing the line? Everything’s fine and dandy as long as I nod and smile and play the game by your rules, isn’t it? As long as I go to church and score a few touchdowns, I get my little sports car and everybody’s happy. But as soon as I rock the boat a little-the minute I voice an original thought … ”
My mother straightened her slender frame, set her white teeth, and roared: “That was not an original thought!”
She was right, to a point. Yes, I was parroting Nancy, but wasn’t she articulating doubts and questions I’d secretly entertained for some time? The seed was planted and was bearing a peculiar fruit. Instead of swaggering down the halls at school flexing my muscles, I was beginning to bully people a bit with my brains, especially at church. After listening to one of my diatribes, Steve Powell, a short, sullen convert, began second-guessing his recent baptism. Later, when Bishop Freeman intimated this in a private interview, I answered belligerently: “He’s got to swim on his own.”
“We all know that, Jon, but why not let him grow some gills first, okay?”
And where was my father during all of this? Out. Gone. Delivering babies. I was resentful. “He cares more about his practice than about us!”
“It’s his job, Jon. Mothers don’t go into labor after breakfast and finish up before dinner. You know that.”
“It’s just his excuse.”
“Excuse? What’s gotten into you, Jon? What’s wrong?”
Everything. Everything was wrong now. One night I read her a story I’d written about two men who convince a third to join them in an assassination. Their target? A so-called benevolent dictator. “He was kind and loving as long as his subjects did exactly as he said.”
My mother listened dutifully until the end when the conspirators fell upon the dictator with knives. Her fine-lined eyebrows perked up as I read the closing sentence: “And God dropped dead on the marble floor.” She remained silent but her expression said enough was enough.
Late that night my father called me into his study and confronted me across the expanse of his desk. “Did you write this?” The ceiling light reflected off his half-bald dome like an omnipotent eye.
I’d told myself to be tough. I tried to look him in the eye, but it was like staring into the sun. I glanced at the wood-paneled walls, the scarlet carpeting, Hippocrates’ bronze bust on the shelf. My body trembled, sweat streamed down my armpits. I was burning with shame, although I wasn’t sure if it was because I had betrayed my faith for the flighty ideas of a noodle-necked woman or because, once again, I was shriveling in the overpowering presence of my father. Either way, I lost courage again.
My voice cracked. “Yes, sir,” I whimpered.
He dropped the manuscript on the desk, the paper-clipped pages fluttering loose. “You know better,” he said. It was a statement and a question.
I looked at my hands, humiliated. At that instant I hated my cowardly self even more than I hated him.
“All right then. Let’s get back on track here.” He nodded with finality. Then he circled around his giant desk and embraced me with his bear-strong arms, a traditional demonstration of love after having thoroughly chewed me up and spit me out.
After that I confined my free-thinking to my afternoon sessions with Nancy and to my journal. But there was an irony at work. In losing my voice in front of my father, I found it on paper. From that day on I wrote without Nancy’s poking and prodding. The words no longer spilled out in the self-conscious, premeditated tongue of my mentor but finally in the language of Jon Reeves. Losing, I won. Departing, I was finally arriving-or at least I was moving in the general direction of wherever I was headed.
Nancy remained unimpressed with my literary efforts. My assassination story was lukewarm. She acknowledged its inventiveness but also called it stilted and self-conscious. “Like Ray Bradbury miming Milton,” she said, tapping my precious manuscript with the tip of her red felt-marker. I was devastated. She red-inked my story until it looked as if it was hemorrhaging.
“You’re writing about ideas, Jon, not people. All head, no heart.” She struck her fist against her ply board chest. “Here, Jon! Here! e. e. cummings: since feeling is first, who gives a damn about syntax? Just tell the story straight.”
It was Nancy who kept me in line when I was staggering like a drunkard trying to find my way. In a silent show of rebellion, I’d allowed my blond locks to creep over my collar and ears. “Time for a haircut, isn’t it?” my mother hinted. Coach Ramirez was more forthright: “Cut that damn mop or you’re off the team!” When I proudly refused, Nancy chastised “Just cut it, Jon. Don’t fight the superfluous. Don’t ape those smoking jokers who sew a peace sign on their derriere and proclaim, suddenly, ‘Behold, I’m an individual!’ It’s the inner stuff that counts.”
Meanwhile, my former friends and teammates grew more vicious. The day after I lost the 440 to some gawky freshman from Orland, I found a little surprise in my locker: two golf balls in a mesh pouch with a note attached: LOST SOMETHING? Keith knew I would recognize his chicken scrawl. Someone else had added: SHE’S GOT HIM BY THE BALLS.
What was wrong with Jon Reeves? My parents, my teachers, Bishop Freeman, my friends-everyone wanted to know. Keith thought he had the answer. So did Brother Crumb. Every Sunday morning now he cautioned me and my peers to beware women with tinkling feet. He warned us about dating non·members and marrying outside the covenant. “Even Solomon was led down the primrose path by strange women. And it’s a subtle fall, brethren. They’ll use all their craft and artifice: . flattery, beauty, secret delights . . . ”
Brother Crumb was no simpleton. A huge six·footer with arms the size of tree trunks, he used to play bit parts in gladiator films. For forty·five minutes every Sunday morning he taught me and seven other young men the holy scriptures mingled with the philosophies of men and lurid tales from his hometown, which he called, disaffectionately, “The City of Fallen Angels.” He always dressed conservatively-white shirt and solid tie-perhaps to counterbalance his wild hair and goatee and the fact that he was over forty and single, a combination tantamount to cultism in our provincial little town.
I’d always liked Brother Crumb. He never minced words, although he did adorn them quite a bit. We would listen like Boy Scouts mesmerized around a campfire as he related tales of teenage prostitutes, pimps, and pushers. Lately, however, he seemed to be aiming his hellfire directly at me.
“They’ll baste you,” he whispered, crouching down inside our intimate semi-circle of folding chairs, his barrel chest testing the buttons of his black blazer. “Slowly leading you by the nose like donkeys. They’ll fatten your egos and bellies and turn your tough spirits to lard, and then when you’re soft and plump and pliable, they’ll wave their magic wands and turn you into spiritual swine!”
I would leave Brother Crumb’s class sorely humbled. Swine! Led by the nose! That’s what had happened to me! I’d grown fat, plump, pliable. I couldn’t even win a race anymore. Well, enough! I was going to tell her off. Get thee hence, Woman! What kind of fool was she playing me for? A poet. A writer. Ha!
But Monday morning when I watched her long, lanky body crossing the grassy quad, I grew warm and wobbly inside. It was not hormonal heat but another variety. My resolutions turned to vapor. Nancy and I were friends, and where in the scriptures is friendship condemned? Love thy neighbor as thyself. Wasn’t she my neighbor?
Whenever I tried to share these feelings with Nancy, she tore me to shreds. “Jon, it’s not like we’re hopping into bed together. Or is talking the same as fornication now? The illicit mixing of brain waves? How do you Mormons propose to convert the poor benighted rest of us if you never exchange an idea now and then? Is discourse anathema, like coffee and tobacco? What is it you’re so afraid of? The brain God gave you? Or big bad spooky me?” Pressing her nose to mine, she would bulge her eyes, stick her thumbs in her ears, wriggle her fingers, and cry, “Boooo!” I would try my best not to flinch.
“Do those church people in inquisitional black and white scare you? Hey, call it quits right now! Football, writing- whatever your unicorn, forget it! Genius rides on the nose cone, Jon. It can’t wait around for the brethren’s holy stamp of approval.”
She was right. I could feel it deep down. But Brother Crumb rebutted Sunday morning. Satan was the Father of All Lies, he said. The subtlest beast of the field. Beware his secret machinations. He’ll smudge the line until good appears evil and evil seems good. Obedience? It robs you of your freedom, he’ll say. Repentance? They’re using guilt to manipulate you. Sin? A concept to control you through fear.
And so the battle for my soul waged on. Monday through Friday I frolicked in the wisdom of Nancy’s world only to be called to repentance Sunday morning when I would regrip the iron rod of faith. But this became more and more difficult as time went by. Brother Crumb’s sermons grew stale and scripted. Nancy, on the other hand, kept flourishing. Every day it was some new book, new idea, new insight or metaphor. In priests quorum I played mute, saying nothing unless spoken to, and then my answers were cryptic: yea, nay, suppose so. But privately I countered every word he uttered.
He knew it. He was losing me. The harder he tried, the more stubbornly I resisted. One night, in an act of desperation, he “just happened to be in the neighborhood” and invited me out for ice cream- the oldest trick in the book. Instead of Mac’s Foster Freeze he picked the Bonanza Ice Cream Parlour, a “gay nineties” style shop for the old and middle-aged. He’d heard rumors, he said, about a girl. It wasn’t his business, of course, wasn’t his place to pry-that was the bishop’s job. He smiled. I didn’t laugh. I stared at the glossy menu, angry and annoyed. Then why are you prying? I thought. Why are you trying to make it your business? Shut up and butt out.
“Except I care about you,” he said, cupping his goliath hands on the red-and-white striped tablecloth. His baritone voice, usually thick and rich, sounded froggy and stuffed up. His eyes were red and runny- spring allergies. He kept tripping over his tongue. “You know, Jon, they say … they say the best spirits have been saved for the last days. I think … I think that’s true. Your generation’s been sent to earth at this time to usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ. And I think you’re . .. well, you’re one of those special spirits. You have a special mission here on earth … ” Brother Crumb’s head began arching backwards, his face twisting as if he were in great pain. If he said “special” one more time I was going to scream.
“I don’t know what it is- your special mission- and you probably don’t know either. Not yet. Your patriarchal blessing can help you out there. But you do. I can see it. When you walk in Sunday morning, the whole room lights up. The other priests look up to you. You’re a leader, Jon, and you can use your gift for good or evil. Satan was a brilliant spirit, the Son of the Morning, but he chose-” Brother Crumb’s hand flew to his face as if to slap a mosquito. Too late: his head shot forward, releasing a mighty sneeze that sprayed across the table. “Just remember,” he said, pulling a handkerchief from his pants pocket and applying it to his nose- honk!-“where all your gifts”-honk!-“came from”-honk!
So what’s your point? I thought. At that moment he looked big, silly, oafish. He pocketed his handkerchief, nodding to himself. His eyes closed for several moments, and I wondered if he was praying. Then he told a story. Off the record, he said. He’d never told anyone else, ever. He was twenty-seven, married in the temple, living in North Hollywood. Waiting tables all day and taking an acting class at night. There was this woman, he said, and he began fiddling with one of the little C&H sugar packages in the straw basket. “Women-some of them, you know-they have this way. They’ll tell you things. Try to make you think you’re something you’re not. Not necessarily better than you are, but different. They twist things.” His chocolate chip eyes began melting down his cheeks. “I lost her, Jon. Her and the little boy. I’ve been forgiven- I really believe I have. But it’s a helluva price to pay.” His giant paw reached across the table and gripped my forearm. “Be careful, Jon. Don’t sell your soul for a few cheap thrills. I know. I’ve been there. I’ve been to hell and back. And it burns like you can’t even imagine.”
I tried to remain sour, but I could feel myself softening. I was touched by the fact that he would share such a painful recollection simply to spare me similar suffering. But later, alone, Nancy’s voice chimed in: They’ll lie to you, Jon. They think it’s for your own good, a means to justify the end, but they’re still lies-lies so you can sleep at night. The Mormon in me said Brother Crumb was right. I should set an example. I had responsibilities. But Nancy was right, too. God gave me a brain-use it!
The tug-of-war continued. Not just for my mind but my body also. I couldn’t win a race. Exploding out of the starting blocks, my legs turned to mush. I could see the satiated smiles of my teammates. Well, so the hell what? Stupid dumb moron jocks! There were more important things in life. There was literature, art. Who gave a damn about trophies and touchdowns?
Evidently I did. Each failure played over and over in my mind like a slow and mortifying death dream. Nancy had nothing to do with my failures. I was in a slump, that’s all. With two weeks left before the league finals, I resolved to prove my critics wrong by beating Harry the Horse. First, I would smoke him in the 440 and then humiliate him on the anchor leg of the mile relay. It would be my swan song kiss-my-grits goodbye to all of them-Keith, Coach Ramirez, Ponderosa High. My final statement in the only language they seemed to comprehend.
I went into crash training. No more chocolate sundaes at Mac’s, no more afternoon sessions with Nancy. But no team practices either. I trained solo, after dark, subjecting myself to a grueling regimen of wind sprints: ten 100s, five 220s, four 440s, three 880s, all full out. For two weeks I trained as I never had before. I ran until my legs absolutely refused to move another step, and then I ran a bit more. By the time the league finals arrived, I was in the best physical condition of my life. I was as ready as I could ever possibly be.
But two days before the big meet my teammates tried to sabotage me. They did some cloak-and-dagger business and convinced Coach Ramirez to hold a run-off. All seven of our quarter-milers would race one lap with the first two finishers representing Ponderosa in the 440 and the top four comprising our mile relay team. Never before had there been a cutthroat run-off like that. Entries and relay teams were determined by fastest times. Keith was behind it, no doubt. We didn’t even draw for lanes. I was assigned to lane eight. Outer Darkness. Suicide. Keith was playing it cool, wearing spikes with no socks and sunglasses like giant insect eyes. He hammered in his blocks and stood up, shaking his arms and legs loose. I tried to catch his eye but he wouldn’t look at me. All right then, be that way! I lowered myself into my blocks and at the sound of Coach Ramirez’s whistle broke out like a wild animal. I didn’t look back. Anger, hate, resentment, and revenge powered me around the track. Crossing the finish line, I didn’t look back either. I snatched my sweats off the infield grass and strutted defiantly towards the lockeroom as my teammates, bent-double, hands on knees, panted in my dust.