Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup
The night before the Preference Dance my mother and I had it out again over dinner. This time it wasn’t a dramatic face-slapping but more subtle warfare. My father was absent, as usual, and I was rag-bagging again: I was sick of school, sick of sports. Track-especially track. The league finals had been a disaster. Fifth out of eight in the 440. I wasn’t even close. On the anchor leg of the mile relay, I’d passed Harry the Horse on the final turn only to choke coming home. Anyway, who cared? I was never going to run another 440 as long as I lived. The only reason I was even doing football anymore was for the scholarship, so I wouldn’t have to sponge off of my parents. I was sick of Keith and all my other fair-weather two-faced back-stabbing friends. Sick of Coach Ramirez and his banal homilies: “Don’t wait for the breaks-make them!” “Football is the game of life!” Sick of living at home and getting the third degree every time I flushed the toilet. Every time I sneezed. I wanted out! Thank my lucky stars graduation was only a week away. As soon as I got my hands on that diploma I was off, gone-adios aloha sayonara good riddance!- to BYU for summer school.
Actually, this was my father’s idea. That way I could get a head start on studies, he’d said, and take advantage of the summer conditioning program for freshman football. “You don’t want to jeopardize your scholarship.” His real motivation was to get me out of Ponderosa and safely anchored in Happy Valley, far from the evil influence of Fraulein Von Kleinsmid. Fine, I thought. Whatever. Anything to get me out of this claustrophobic intellectually suffocating constipating town!
My mother listened patiently to my little tirade, forking dainty bites of rice pilaf into her mouth and chewing slowly, thoughtfully, occasionally sipping water from the wine glasses she always used at suppertime. Shoveling down chunks of braised beef, I got louder, more aggressive. It was all a big joke to her. I was a joke. Noting a strand of frosted hair that drooped down towards her nostril, I thought it looked like a hook reaching down to pick her nose. I hated her poise and patience, her long-fingered elegance, her magenta jumpsuit from Switzer’s.
I’m sick of you! I felt like saying. Instead, I said the next worst thing: “I’m sick of church! I’m sick of all those close-minded imbeciles … ” For some reason I stopped. Was it her expression-her vacant, uncomprehending eyes? Apathy, indifference? Had she simply given up? I could hear the wind chimes tinkling in the pre-summer breeze. Directly behind her, through the plate-glass window, were the redwood deck where she and I used to share our summer meals and the gingko tree I would dutifully water on her behalf. At that instant everything seemed to freeze in time, or go back to a simpler time when I was her little companion and confidant, playing in the sandbox while she dabbed at canvas, bright yellows, bright reds, sunglasses on her head, sipping lemonade.
As my mother calmly forked more rice pilaf, I noticed something my all-scrutinizing pseudo-writer’s eye had overlooked. She was dying. Overnight, it seemed, she had changed from a silver swan into a doddering old woman. Wrinkles cobwebbed her angular face. Her hair had turned to straw. Was I to blame for this? Me and my obstinate behavior? I felt tenderness and sorrow. But then I heard another voice. Don’t get sentimental now. Buck up, Jon! Just buck up! “I’m not going on a mission,” I announced. “Why should I? I don’t believe a word of that nonsense. And I won’t-I will not-be a hypocrite. Not like the others. Not like you!”
My mother quietly folded up her red cloth napkin. Patience, long suffering, kindness, meekness, persuasion-she was going to unload the full arsenal of church weaponry and I was determined not to succumb. She rose slowly, weakly, from the table. “That girl did this to you,” she whispered, and carried her plate, glass, and silverware into the kitchen. What was the matter with her? What was wrong? Why didn’t she grab me by my blond mop and slap some sense into me? I yelled after her: “That girl! She has a name, you know.” She turned on the faucet and began rinsing her plate.
“Well, you’d better get used to her!” I hollered through the louvered doors. “Maybe you’d better even learn her name! Because it just so happens I’m going to marry her! Yes, muth-ther! That girl!”
I was speaking in frustration. I had no such intention. But if my parents thought that putting a few hundred miles of Utah-Nevada desert between me and Nancy was going to terminate our friendship, they were wrong. Dead wrong. Nancy and I would stay in touch: letters, carrier pigeon, smoke signals, whatever it would take. Better yet, why not bring Mohammed to the mountain? Nancy could get a job in Provo to earn enough for food and rent until she established herself in the world of letters. Then she could write full-time. I’d be in the dormitory, but I could smuggle her food from the cafeteria if needed. Basement apartments were cheap. For $20 or $30 a month you could get a bed, refrigerator, bathroom with a shower, and a hotplate. I wasn’t allowed to hold a job as a condition of my scholarship, so I couldn’t help her with day-to-day expenses. But if things got real tight, I could always sell my Corvette. That would secure ample funds to see us through until I graduated and … Yes? Then what? Well, I hadn’t thought that far ahead, really. I didn’t want to. The main thing was to get her to Provo. If she balked, 1’d say, “You’re going to miss it, Nancy! You’re going to miss the train!”
It was a wild crazy hair-brained out-of-this-world scheme, but it was tailor-made for Nancy, and I would spring it on her tomorrow night, during or after the dance. Of course there were some incidentals to consider such as Nancy’s mother and her family, but wasn’t she the one who quoted chapter and verse from Portrait of the Artist? The real writer must (like Stephen Dedalus) fly above the superficial snares of family, religion, race, culture, to pursue the Priesthood of Art. Well, here was her chance! Freedom! Liberty! And she would even have access to the university library, via me, and if she changed her mind about college education, that would be available in time as well.
But there was another complicating factor clouding my scheme. Would the Spirit perhaps whisper a little more loudly and persuasively in that Mormon town than it had in northern California? Would Nancy’s head and heart be softened? The possibility, however hypothetical, warmed me, making me the betrayer again as well.
Nancy was waiting for me by the four old mailboxes at the top of the lane. Like Cinderella, she was transformed from a tall plain girl in Salvation Army rags to a slender princess in a long sleeveless gown, high heels, and white gloves that reached to her elbows. Her short blond hair had been permed and piled high on her head, accentuating her long neck, but tonight she appeared more the graceful swan than Picasso’s ostrich.
Ladies’ choice, she was supposed to foot all the bills and provide transportation too, but I’d offered the services of my Corvette since she had no driver’s license, let alone a car. I also chose Mac’s Foster Freeze for dinner, to spare her paying for a meal. She accepted the transportation but insisted on dinner for two at Burton’s, a swank coat-and-tie restaurant on the rim of the canyon where they charged ten bucks to peruse the menu. “Just once,” she had said, “we will deign to mingle with the eee-Ieet!” How she scraped together enough money I had no idea, but I pictured her disinterring Mason jars full of nickels and pennies from her basement.
When I stopped the car, she waited for me to get out and open the passenger door, which must have felt as awkward for her as it did for In the past she had always refused such courtesies. “I’m not an
invalid, Reeves!” What would happen if I tried to hold her hand? Should I hold her hand? It would be an insult not to. And how about a goodnight kiss? Why hadn’t I thought through all of these things before? Keep cool, I reminded myself. Play it by ear.
It must have been her first genuine date because she seemed unusually nervous, intermittently tugging at her white gloves and shifting in the bucket seat. Even more telling, she was tongue-tied. An absolute first.
“You look great,” I said.
She smiled. “You, too.”
The conversation didn’t improve much over dinner. Faint circles of blush tinted her cheeks and pinpoints of mascara twinkled darkly around the margins of her eyes. But the white gown was a tourniquet blocking the free flow of ideas to her brain.
I ordered the cheapest entree on the menu, a halibut steak at $19.50, and she asked for the same. No jokes about sprouts or sunflower seeds. We ate in relative silence, as if this meal were our last. I noticed, following dinner, that she stealthily unwrapped a stick of gum and sneaked it into her mouth. Preparing for what? When the waiter brought the check, she placed a $50 bill on it, and we left.
The dance at the high school was so-so. A live band blasted out Credence Clearwater Revival hits so loudly we couldn’t talk except in between numbers, which proved to be an unanticipated blessing in disguise. The gym was loud, hot, sweaty, crowded, a far cry from our intimate afternoons at the River and at Mac’s Foster Freeze. We were getting looks from some of our classmates, especially Keith who kept pointing and whispering nasty asides.
At 9:30 I asked if she wanted to go outside for a walk. No, she said, let’s dance some more! I think she was trying to prove to me, if not to herself, that she could hold her own here. It was a challenge, a test of some kind. She smiled and shook her lanky arms and permed head to the music, a little stiffly and self-consciously, but smiling throughout. I felt sorry for her. She was holding her own maybe, but she wasn’t enjoying it. I know I wasn’t. The next time I asked her, around 11:00, she agreed.
It was cool outside, the pine scent strong and the sky thickly seeded with stars. The half-moon peered down at us like a sleepy eye trying to decide if it was going to open or close. I took her by her gloved hand. She looked at me and smiled nervously. We weaved through the cars in the parking lot behind the gym and crossed the upper playing field, the smell of fresh-cut grass ambrosial.
The stadium bleachers were built into an escarpment that sloped down to the football field and the oval track surrounding it. We descended the concrete steps, slipped through the open chain link fence, and eventually found ourselves sitting on the big foam rubber mattress in the pole vault pit, the rendezvous of many young Ponderosa lovers. Moonlight frosted the infield, and the pines formed a black barricade around the track. Some prankster had jammed the knob of the nearby drinking faucet. Water drooled over the brim, splattering softly on the grass. Crickets were chirping. You could barely hear the muffled pulsations of the band, like soft little heartbeats.
We carried on another short and strained conversation while I awaited the precise moment to reveal my plan, silently rehearsing how. The literary approach: “Nancy, I’d like to make an Immodest Proposal … ” Or the Rhett Butler: “Excuse me, Mizz Nancy, … ” Or play it straight: “Nancy, I need to tell you something … ” Nothing seemed right. Nothing was right that night. Then why, at that point, did I slip my arm around her narrow waist?
“And what is this?” she asked, smiling.
I smiled back. I remember her eyes-soft and meek and dangerously infatuated. I moved a little closer to her, so our hips pressed together in the sinking softness of the foam pad. My right hand stroked the satin fabric up and down her ribcage. And then I made what would be the gravest mistake of my life. I leaned over and kissed her, tenderly, on the lips.
We drove home in dead silence. I took the long route. In fact I made a big loop around town twice, stalling, buying time, trying to think of some way to repair the damage I’d done. Finally, as I started the third loop, she spoke.
“Where are you going?”
“Home,” I said.
I glanced at her, hoping for reassurance. She was staring straight ahead, solemnly, as if riding in a hearse. The left strap was hanging off her shoulder. She let it hang, like an indictment. I’d never seen her cry before. Tear tracks glistened down her face. Her mascara was a delicate chain of black spittle around reddened eyes.
I was struggling for the right words. She despised cliches, yet I finally settled for the very oldest: “Nancy, I’m sorry.” She continued staring out the windshield. “Nancy? I said- ”
She cut me off. “So when do you leave for P.D.?”
“P.D., BYU-what’s the diff?”
“Seven days,” I said.
“And counting,” she whispered. As we drove along the Skyway, the moon played hide-and-seek with the pines. “That’s great,” she said. “A university. The big time. And a football scholarship.” Her comment rang sincere, no sarcasm or bitterness about me leaving and her staying behind. Suddenly she shot up in the bucket seat, tugging at the hem of her gown as if it were some obtrusion to be disposed of. She turned roughly towards me, with her old spunk and vitality. “Well, don’t let them get you, Jon!”
“Look, I know how these church schools operate. They’ll strip you of your you before you can say amen hallelujah. First, they’ll pare away your character, shred by shred. Potter’s clay for their molding. Then they’ll start layering you with the somber robes of conformity, all in the name of God and the booster club. Their strategies are devious. Guilt, compassion, threats of eternal sexlessness-anything to break a maverick like you. Remember Portrait of the Artist? Jimmy Joyce? Carry it with you like it’s your Bible. And careful, Jon. I’ve seen it happen to the best. The last-”
“Nancy,” I said, trying to steer the conversation back where it belonged. Damage had been done and it was my duty to repair it. The Mormon in me said that. But every time I tried to speak, she jumped back in.
“Look, Jon, you may think you’re just another pass-catching bodybuilding connoisseur of jock straps, but you’re not. The others-Keith Bernhard and Dave Jordan and the rest-they’re just your everyday Cro-Magnon blockheads. They’re doomed to this godforsaken town just like the rest of us. But you-” She pulled the fallen strap back up onto her shoulder. “You can make it, Jon. You can break the mold. And you’re going to. You will. Just don’t come back with a crew-cut in dark suit and white shirt trying to make everyone swallow that mythology about gold plates and angels. Jon, don’t let us down.”
“I understand they’ve got great skiing in Utah,” she said, diverting again.
“So I’ve heard.”
“You ought to take it up. Stay away from the downhill stuff, though. Big crowds, expensive lift tickets, the whole phony ski lodge scene. It’s the biggest commercial ripoff since Disneyland. Try cross-country.” I nodded obediently. Only a handful of bearded old snowdogs had even heard of cross-country skiing. “And one more thing. Whatever you do, keep writing. Will you promise me that?”
“Yes, you big dumb ignoramus! One of these days you’ll snap out of it and trade in your shoulder pads for a typewriter. And when you do … ” Her voice trailed off and the energy suddenly left her face. For the next few moments she stared wearily into the darkness as if she were bearing the burdens of a troubled planet. Then, slapping the dashboard: “And when you do, be honest! Write what you really truly feel, not what you or your parents or your bishop or some money-hungry publisher says you should feel. Listen to your heart, go with your guts, and you can’t miss … Next one on the left, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Of course I hadn’t forgotten. And this time when I turned down the lane she didn’t protest. My tires threw a little gravel as I braked in front of the glorified shack she called home. There was a low picket fence out front, the white paint almost gone. Wagons, Tonka trucks, and other kid toys cluttered the dirt front yard. A blurry silhouette was rocking behind the translucent sheet of plastic in the front window.
I switched off the ignition and turned towards her. “Nancy-” But she had already bolted out the door. “Nancy!” She never looked back.
Clutching the hem of her white dress as she stumbled up the porch steps, she brought to mind Cinderella fleeing the prince’s ball at midnight. And I couldn’t help wondering what bizarre metamorphosis would come to pass once she slipped through that front door, what odd vegetables would become her spiked slippers, what shabby smock her evening gown, what tragic mask her cool, composed face.