Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup
That was my last look at Nancy, her Cinderella exeunt. A week later I loaded up my Corvette and left for BYU and didn’t come home until the Christmas holidays when I was shocked to learn that she had married. “No!” I protested. “Not Bill Watson!”
Bill had been Ponderosa’s senior linebacker when I was a willowy freshman trying to crack the varsity lineup. He was called “Buffalo” because he was as big as one and twice as ugly. Thick bulldog jowls pitted with acne scars, a prickly pear chin, and fierce brown eyes, one of which was perpetually swollen shut, he looked like the one-eyed, cutlass-bearing brute on the Oakland Raiders logo.
Bill was something of a local legend. I remember one game when a monster fullback from Wheatland ran a 30-dive, up the gut. Buffalo Bill lowered his helmet and filled the hole. It was like two bighorn sheep butting heads. When the gunshot crack finally faded, only Bill was standing. Smelling salts couldn’t revive his victim. As they called for the stretcher, Buffalo Bill coolly scratched another notch onto his arm pad with his fingernail.
Another time Coach Ramirez was trying to fire us up for a game we knew we were going to put away in the first quarter. “Boys-men! Football is a game of memories! Why, you’ll remember that one block or tackle long after you’ve forgotten some geometry theorem!”
“What’s a theorem?” quipped someone in back.
Everyone, including Ramirez, laughed. But when Buffalo Bill added, “What’s geometry?” there was silence. Was Bill joking? Judging by his gorilla gape, no. Big, solid, beer-drinking, slow-thinking …
“I can’t believe it! Bill Watson! It’s surreal!” I was angry. Before leaving for Utah, I’d tried several times to catch Nancy at home, but she was always “gone”-that was all the tallest of the towheads playing in her dirt front yard would say. A lanky boy with bowl-cut hair and aqua eyes, the instant he saw my red car coming he would drop his whiffle ball or squirt gun and rush over to the picket fence, passively blocking the entry.
“Is Nancy home?”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“When are you expecting her?”
“I don’t know. She’s gone.”
“Is your mother here?”
“Where is she?”
During the exchange, the other children (eight, including two in diapers) would glare at me as if I’d come to take away the farm. “Thanks. I’ll try again later.”
My final visit I left a note: I’m leaving Saturday morning-early. Can we talk? No reply. Did she even see the note? I would never know. My last hope was to see her at graduation. She had declined to give the valedictory address, but surely she would come for her diploma. Wrong again.
At summer school I wrote her at least a dozen times without reciprocation. By mid-July I got fed up: “This is my last letter if I don’t hear from you. I MEAN IT!”
In August football practice officially started. Hell Week. Two-a-day, full pads in the ninety-plus heat. This should have helped take my mind off of Nancy, but it did the opposite, which is one reason I performed so miserably. I couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t run, couldn’t catch, couldn’t block. In the huddle, while the quarterback was calling the play, I’d think of something she had said or done. When I ran a pass pattern, the ball in flight became her self-reviling face. No wonder on film it looked as if I’d slapped the ball away intentionally. I had.
Nancy was only one factor. Another was talent. I was a minnow among barracudas. I still might have succeeded had my heart been in the game, but college ball was a different world. Football was the game of life, literally. You had to eat, breathe, and sleep it. All sweat, no smiles. Fun? Who said anything about fun? I found myself pouring far more passion into writing than pass-catching, and it showed on the field: “Come on, Reeves! Where’s your grit, man? Where’s your want-’em?”
Football-wise things got worse and worse until our second game when an enemy linebacker speared me from behind, destroying my knee as well as my football career. While I silently thanked him, I also wept for having forfeited something that, at one time, I’d desired so ardently. My secret relief was also an admission of defeat.
If I was a washout on the gridiron, in the classroom I was blossoming. My English instructor agreed with Nancy. I had a knack. Reading my personal essay entitled “SNAP! CRACKLE! CRUNCH! Confessions of an Almost College Football Jock,” she insisted I enter it in a universitywide writing contest. Thanks to some senior editing, I placed second and shortly after joined the staff of the Wye, the campus literary magazine, an unprecedented honor for a freshman. This convinced me that Nancy was correct. I did have a higher calling than entertaining bawdy, boozy crowds with high-five heroics on weekend afternoons. My true destiny was to be a writer.
I started my first novel in November, just before Thanksgiving. About that time I also took up cross-country skiing and healthy foods. I was gorging myself on literature. Except for football and the bitter winter weather, college life was agreeing with me. I was earning A’s in all of my classes and making friends easily. In campus literary circles I was well-liked and respected.
I anticipated the Christmas holidays when I could show Nancy my transfiguration. I was also anxious to discuss religion with her. Professor Farnsworth, my religion teacher, had armed me with objective, scientific, quantifiable data to counter Nancy’s arguments. For sixteen weeks I had studied the Book of Mormon with a critic’s eye and participated in discussions with fellow students who met every Monday night and attended church services together Sunday mornings and afternoons. I was seeing life and religion more clearly now. Nancy’s sophistry was just another form of brainwashing. I was ready for her. I didn’t view her as an evil agent, as my mother and others had, but I was not going to let her bully me intellectually. I felt confident I could stand up to her now, and standing up to her I would win her respect. Winning her respect was, well, it was the first of many steps leading towards wherever it was she and I were eventually headed. I would take it line upon line.
I also wanted to see my parents whom I had missed much more than I had anticipated. I wanted to show them how much I had matured. I was an adult now, not the whiny pouty spoiled little boy who had roared out of their driveway in June. Mter an intense semester, I was ready to indulge myself in some old home delights as well. I wanted to sit by the fire and sip eggnog and glut myself at the ward Christmas feast and O.D. on bowl games New Years Day. I wanted all of that. What I didn’t want was to explain my football fiasco to everyone or re-open wounds that were perhaps just beginning to heal. I didn’t want to become entangled. I had a new life, a new image. I was Jonathan Reeves the writer, not the screwball super-jock. I wanted to keep it that way. What I didn’t want was my past. Except for Nancy. Most of it anyway. Her. Us.
With these ambivalent feelings, I returned home for the holidays, where news of Nancy’s marriage awaited me. “But why,” I asked, showing off some of my literary prowess, “would a girl like Nancy marry a bludgeoning Brobdignagian like Bill Watson?”
My mother, who had wrinkled considerably since I’d last seen her, looked up from her Ensign and shrugged. “You know what they say: opposites attract.”
“Oh yes! Bill and Nancy! Ponderosa’s odd couple! The marriage of true minds!”
“You sound a little upset.”
Upset? You bet I was upset! You bet I was mad! I’d been betrayed. All her lofty talk of art and literature, the liberation of the human spirit … Hypocrite! Pharisee! Every time I thought about her verbal barbs and pithy put-downs, my anger flared anew. Nancy, who had once called jocks the lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder, had married one. Who was she to criticize me? Don’t let them get you, Jon! Don’t let us down! Who did she think she was fooling?
Me, that’s who! I’d been duped, conned, made an idiot of. Keith and the others had been right. Brother Crumb was right. My parents were right. Everyone had caught on but me. Losing Nancy to another guy was one thing; losing her to Buffalo Bill Watson was insulting. She had done it either to humiliate me or to avenge herself in some bizarre, self-immolating, Nancy Von Kleinsmid way. There was no other explanation.
Was 1 maybe jealous, too? Just a little bit? 1 scoffed at the suggestion. “Of her? If she wants to go off and marry some hick town Caliban, let her! What’s it to me? She’s just like the rest of them. She’s no different.” “Oh? The rest of them?”
“You know what 1 mean. And please don’t look at me like that. You of all people know exactly what 1 mean.” 1 found it very interesting that, now that Nancy was no longer a threat, my mother was sympathetic towards her. 1 felt betrayed on all fronts.
My mother quietly closed the magazine, set it on the coffee table, and remarked, “I understand she’s expecting in March.”
I shut up. It doesn’t take a genius to calculate the month of conception. I’d last seen Nancy at the beginning of June. Whatever had evolved between her and Bill had been a whirlwind affair which cost her even more respect in my self-righteous eyes. When my mother suggested I pay her a little visit, 1 threw up my hands: “What’s the point? It would be a mockery-a mockery for both of us!” Consequently, the holidays crawled by, and the day after New Year’s 1 returned, rather solemnly, to my beloved books, my literary friends, my cross-country skis.
But it turned out to be a long, dark, cold Utah winter, one of the worst on record, and 1 was full of gloom. Every time 1 watched the storm clouds float over the mighty Wasatch Range with the dark foreboding of the Luftwaffe, 1 felt the same as when I’d learned of Nancy’s marriage: betrayed, insulted. 1 tried to blame it on the weather, but even Eric Swenson, my head-in-the-clouds roommate, knew better. “What’s her name?” he said. “S-N-O-W,” was my reply.
I tried to lose myself in studies. Day after day 1 sat in the austere carrels of the BYU library or near the giant hearth in the Wilkinson Center Lounge, coveting the spring visions of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Hopkins, while outside white confetti fluttered from the sky like a celebration of Melville’s all-color atheism. Suddenly nothing mattered anymore- school, writing, church, life. 1 withdrew from friends and spent more and more time brooding in my cramped little dorm room or taking long, desultory walks to nowhere. One cold, snowy night near the end of February my depression hit rock bottom. Walking along a hilltop on the southwest end of campus, near the Eyring Science Center, I stopped suddenly and let my books drop from my hands. I glared up at the sky, falling in a million little pieces, and said, hopelessly, “What’s the point, anyway? What’s the whole damn point?” Then I lay down in the snow, closed my eyes, and waited for whatever. I remember praying, or at least thinking aloud: Please get me out of here! A moment later I felt a little nudge-a toe, a hand, I couldn’t tell, but it was just stern enough to send me rolling like a log down that hill. I heard a voice at the bottom, laughter. A familiar laugh. I sprang to my feet, looking for the culprit, but saw nothing except the endless curtain of falling snow. I trudged back to my dorm room, wet, cold, and confused. Was this the answer to my prayer? The next day while standing in line at the Cougar-Eat, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. “Excuse me, but can I borrow a pen?” Her brown eyes could have melted all the ice in Antarctica.
I don’t know if it was my desperation, her healing power, or my own brand of reverse revenge, but Vickie Alder helped resurrect me from my dark winter coffin. The snow continued falling, but I had purpose again. To hell with Nancy Von Kleinsmid! She’d made her bed, let her sleep in it with all two hundred-fifty beefy pounds of Buffalo Bill Watson! I had my own life to live.
April 29th of that year would always stand out in my mind for two reasons: it was the first genuine day of spring, and it was the day I received the other news about Nancy Von Kleinsmid. When I drew the blinds that morning, for the first time in five months I saw nothing above the mountains but pure unmitigated blue. The sun rose laboriously, like a winter-stiff athlete out of training.
I was ready. The whole student body was. As the last sheets of snow shriveled to long skeletal fingers to knuckles to nothing, students poured out of their classrooms discarding coats, mittens, mufflers. Coeds, stripping to legal limits, spread their pale bodies on beach towels like the river nymphs back home. Frisbees flew, baseball bats cracked, joggers jogged. To the east, the white tips of the Wasatch blushed hot pink. Westward, Utah Lake was shining like a vast sheet of glass. The fat stacks of Geneva Steel billowed like Moses’ pillar of smoke. Tractors rumbled out of hibernation, churning up dark, thawed earth.
Strolling along the sun-warmed path leading to the campus post office, holding Vickie Alder’s hand, I was in high spirits. Final exams were over and my term papers were in. A long, relaxing summer of reading and writing awaited me, culminating with a backpacking trip to the Uintas with Vickie. I was happily and indulgently reflecting on the neat little future I’d mapped out for myself: two-year church mission, temple marriage, graduate studies, English Professor/Writer-in-Residence . . . Images of a lakefront home with four kids and a golden retriever prancing across a big grassy yard passed through my mind as I started turning the combination knob on my post office box.
It was a typical letter from home. Dad was dropping his practice in Chico so he wouldn’t have to commute. Sister Stanwyck had another set of twins. Bob Gilliam was back from his mission to Japan. Love, Mother. Except at the bottom she had written in tiny but precise cursive: P.S. NANCY VON KLEINSMID PASSED AWAY LAST WEDNESDAY.
My face must have belied my feelings because Vickie slipped her arm consolingly around my waist and leaned her head against my shoulder. Although her soft blond hair felt like silk on my bare arm, it irritated “What’s the matter, Jonathan?”
“Nothing,” I said, folding up the letter and tucking it in my hip pocket.
She stopped. “Jon?”
“Some news about an old friend,” I said.
“A close friend?”
Her arm tightened around my waist. “Jonathan, what is it? What happened?” Her soft, concerned voice, usually so mollifying, was an annoyance. Suddenly everything about her was annoying. Her potent perfume replicated the hyper-sweet stench of the letter.
“Nothing,” I said firmly.
Her arm dropped from my waist, and she assumed an exasperated, put-upon look, her hands akimbo. Then she spewed out some lingo from one of her Family Relations classes. “Jonathan, if we’re going to be serious about this relationship we’ve got to be completely honest with each other. We can’t go around hoarding secrets.”
As I looked at her- the peaches ‘n cream cheeks, the bevel nose, the streaked blond hair tumbling thickly past her shoulders, I recalled Nancy’s prophecy and the black blessing she had given me that early morning after the Preference Dance. Who was this girl? This slender young Idaho Falls doll who loved bowling, Carol Burnett, Robert Redford, and pepperoni pizza? Who was this girl I was planning to companion throughout all eternity? Had we ever discussed Sons and Lovers? Had she read Yeats or Whitman? Did she know a cross-body block from a cross-chest carry? Yes, she was cute, charming, adorable. Everyone thought so. A downhill skier on Saturdays and homemaking leader for the Relief Society on Sundays, she had all of the celestial credentials to make a virtuous, lovely wife and mother.
But who was she really? And what was I? An aspiring writer who hadn’t seen or suffered enough to write anything of import, who ran from professor to professor with manuscripts in hand, fishing for compliments; a pseudo-literary intellectual, a big little kid who, borrowing ideas from the inspired leaders of a lofty institution, had become so cocksure about his faith that he thought he had all the answers to life’s most bewildering questions as neatly tucked away in his hip pocket as the tragic letter he just received from home. What was I really? A yes-man. A snob. For all my new-found academia, I still didn’t think for myself, religiously or otherwise, because I let everyone else think for me. I’d even allowed them to chart out the rest of my life, a very nice life indeed. I looked dapper in my velour shirts and flared slacks, studious with my Viking edition of Faulkner in one hand and my Riverside Shakespeare in the other, dedicated and inspired as I stopped mid-stride to scribble some silly thought in my spiral notebook. I’d become everything Nancy had cautioned me against. I’d been gotten.
I glared at Vickie as if she were somehow to blame. “I’ll call you tonight.”
Her big little chest rose, her lips puckering as she exhaled a long, impudent breath. “Jonathan .. . I want to talk about it now!”
“Later, all right?”
“Jonathan … ”
I smiled at her and she smiled back. Then: “Vickie, for such a sweet spirit, you can be a first-class pain in the ass.”
“Later,” I said, and walked off.
Back in my dorm room I lay on my bed staring at the cross-country skiing poster I’d tacked to the ceiling directly overhead. It was a “scenic” picture featuring a gloved, gaitered, and goggled skier and his little malamute pausing at a rippling snow-banked stream as the sun perched atop a snow-capped peak in the background. At the end of a long day I often flopped down on my bed and took solace in this placid winter scene. But today, in the context of Nancy’s death, it looked ludicrous, like another commercial farce.
I pulled down the blinds, killing the spring sunshine, and closed my eyes. The first thing I saw was her long body, cold and ashen in the moonlight, lying like a corpse across the railroad tracks. Then her slit lips curling into a wicked little smile. Was it maybe a joke? April Fool’s twenty-nine days late? Another morbid Nancy trick? No, don’t even think Don’t even entertain the notion. She was dead. Gone. Never see, hear, touch her again. But how? Why? Delivery room? Car wreck? Broken heart? Gone. Forever.
Other things passed through my mind, but, like a bad laceration, the deeper pain was temporarily numbed by peripherals. My thoughts blurred and began racing everywhere-everywhere but Nancy. What finally came into sharp focus was something that had occurred many years earlier when I was ten, an incident involving a cat that had lost a leg.
It was a kitten actually. I’d discovered it one Saturday morning hiding in the corner of our car port, whimpering. As I walked by, he turned towards me and rose up on his three good legs, offering a pathetic view of the dog-butchered fourth, a furry little sausage hanging from a bloody stump by three or four scarlet threads. I felt sorry for him, not just due to the injury but also because of the way he’d looked at me, his little head tilting innocently to one side, his green eyes meek and trusting.
I was young and easily influenced. In this case I was probably identifying with the white-hatted heroes of TV westerns who shoot their lame horses to “put the poor critter out of its misery” when I decided to do this mangy gray critter a similar favor. If any animal looked miserable, it was that kitten. So with philanthropic intent, I grabbed my pellet gun from my closet, coaxed the animal into a cardboard box, placed the muzzle on the back of his skull, and slowly squeezed the trigger. I winced at the soft, dull “pop!” Unfortunately, the kitten didn’t calmly roll over dead as on TV. He let out a loud, gnashing wail and leaped out of the box with back arched and fangs flashing. I jumped back, the pistol trembling in my hand. Panicking, I cornered him, pinned the muzzle between his eyes, and squeezed again: “Pop!” Again he snarled, leaped, took two quick boxer’s swipes at me with his good forepaw, and hobbled away.
“You stupid cat!” I hurled the worthless pistol aside and gazed around our front yard in guilt and shame, afraid someone may have witnessed my impotent performance. With two pellets in his skull, the kitten had to be killed, I knew that. But now my head and heart were pounding like a fastbreak basketball game.
I grabbed a rock, the biggest I could lift, and again cornered the kitten. His green eyes were cold now, tense, suspicious, afraid. Gripping the rock with both hands, I raised it over my head and released a piercing death-cry as I hurled it down. His head sank a half-inch into the soft red earth, and his little body went limp but only for an instant. He writhed and wriggled and twisted and turned until his head, gouged with divots, runneled with blood, wormed out from under the rock. And he limped away Rasputin-like, amazingly agile for a three-legged creature with two pellets in his head.
That was too much for me. I ran into the house, down the air-conditioned hallway, and into my bedroom where I turned on my TV full-volume and tried to lose myself in the Saturday morning cartoons. I lasted through five minutes of a Bugs Bunny episode before sprinting back outside, grabbing a shovel, and once again cornering the kitten. Pinning him down with my bare foot, I aimed the blade perpendicular to his neck. As I raised the shovel for the kill, I could feel the desperate tension rippling through his little body. A chill ran up my leg and exploded in my chest. I closed my eyes and thrust the blade straight down, anticipating blood, shrieks, gore, and death. The cat shrieked but lived. I raised the shovel and thrust it down again. And again and again and again. Viciously. But the blade wouldn’t penetrate. The kitten screeched louder and louder-an echo? Was it an echo? Again he squirmed out from under my foot, his tough little ribs pumping like bellows, and limped under the sanctuary of my father’s Lincoln Continental.
“Come out of there!” I ordered, desperate, angry, frantically trying to scoop him out into the open with my shovel. “Come out, darn you!” I knew I’d done something very wrong that couldn’t be undone. My father, whose business was bringing human life into the world, had taught me the sanctity of living things. He had told me about Brigham Young chastising the pioneers for killing rattlesnakes on their trek west, and how Great-grandpa Reeves would always trap rather than swat house spiders and tenderly release them outside. Even as a ten-year-old I knew, however noble my intentions, I’d botched up badly. Who was I, after all, to ordain myself mini-god and tamper with the life/death scales? My well-intentioned euthanasia caused the animal more misery in ten minutes than he would have suffered in a lifetime amidst the dogs of Ponderosa.
Desperate, I got down on my knees and tried one last strategy-a soft approach: “Here, kitty kitty kitty! Here, kitty kitty kitty! Nice kitty!” The animal didn’t budge. I wheeled around and ran.
It happened to be one of my father’s rare days off, and he was down on one knee planting geraniums in the backyard when I rounded the corner. With wild hands and weeping eyes, I blurted out my confession.
A hard-working, self-made American hardened by the Depression and World War II, my father the perfectionist had little tolerance for incompetence of any type, although he did have his tender moments. Fortunately for me, this would be one of them. The veins in his shotputter’s arms were bulging, but his expression reflected concern rather than anger. Rising slowly to his feet, he dropped his trowel and patted my shoulder. “Well, we’d better do something, don’t you think, son?” Wiping the gooey tear and mucous mixture from my face, I nodded.
My father owned only one firearm, a black powder rifle the husband of a patient had given him in lieu of obstetric fees. He went into the house and returned with the latter. “Where is it?” he asked.
I pointed to the rear axle of the car. A well-timed meow issued from underneath. My father knelt down and very gently retrieved the kitten from under the vehicle. Stroking him softly, he placed the animal in the cardboard box and pinned his neck down with the pipe-sized muzzle. I backed away a few steps until I couldn’t see. I remember my father’s left eye squinting shut and the kitten’s little paws desperately scratching the walls of the box. I turned away.
There was a long, loud echo, like a miniature cannon. The cloud of dark gray smoke lingered several moments, as did the harsh smell of gunpowder and something even more harsh, like burned rubber. I kept my eyes elsewhere: Mrs. Shaw’s summer garden, swelling with squash, melons, cherry tomatoes, corn stalks with golden tassels-cheerful colors to evoke sweet dreams of sky castles, fairy godmothers, dancing bears, not the gory nightmare at hand.
“Jonathan,” my father said, gently clasping my hand. I knew my duty. Like a condemned man I slowly turned around and approached the box. His little claws were still scratching the cardboard walls when I peeked inside. There was the severed head with the fang· like teeth and the blank green eyes, frozen, artificial, a taxidermist’s handiwork. The body looked less merciful. Gobs of raspberry glistened on the jagged neck as the shoulders, legs, and tail continued jerking as if he were still trying somehow to struggle free. It looked like a ball of bloodied snakes trying to get untangled. I turned away and tried not to hear the frantic scratching in the box.
My father’s hand lightly gripped my shoulder. “Have you learned a lesson, son?”
I turned around and looked up slowly. “Yes, Poppa,” I sniffled and broke out bawling in his mighty arms.