Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion

I. Houston, Texas

[p.1] “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
—Psalms 137:1

Chapter One

[p.3] From his blanket on the hilltop above the outdoor theater, Elder Howard Rockwood scanned the crowd. Men and women baaed like sheep, gabbled like geese; they spread mats and blankets, opened bottles of wine and soda, lifted fried chicken and fat sandwiches from wicker baskets or grocery bags—a celebration almost like a rodeo or county fair back home in Utah. “A city which is set on a hill,” Howard whispered, “cannot be hid.” Despite his sense of carnival, his soul was in a waning phase, narrowing to a sliver. He felt isolated—in, but not of, the world—as if he sat on a hilltop on Mars or a planet near Kolob. The air was heavy, hot enough to make the Spanish moss sweat and droop from the branches of the live oaks.

Fifty yards below him, Peterson lumbered like a primeval hunter through the crowd. He chatted with a white-haired grandfather who held a white-blonde child on his lap. He accosted a man in a blue “Houston-Proud” T-shirt but passed by a woman in an orange halter top. He drifted down to the security guards who lounged between the motley crowd and the reserved seats, shaded by a high, rusted shell. Peterson’s shoulders were heavy, his neck thick and long, a bear-like neck. Howard knew Peterson watched for a sign, bright as a settling dove, which marked the true-blooded children of Israel. Earlier that week they had been walking along a bayou, the Houston word for a canal [p.4] with fetid water in the bottom, when Peterson had felt the Spirit hover above them, sweep toward downtown, and hesitate above an apartment building just inside the Loop. They knocked on every door but were invited in only once, by a man who proposed union in a revolutionary form of polygamy. Their failure proved nothing to Peterson; he had felt “a true motion of the Spirit in his bones.”

Which was close to what Howard wanted—the certainty that his life wasn’t passing like a dream. He had turned twenty-three the previous April and decided that his mission was like thermal underwear, useful for safety and warmth, but hampering his free movement, the flow of his life. With two months left, he wondered if any of the professions he had made throughout his mission were true. Could Christ actually redeem men and women from the lethargy of flesh? Once the body shut down, once chemical impulses stopped leaping the synapses in the brain, did an impossible spirit live on, or was the mass of cells, recycled, the resurrection? The thin, organic skin of the earth might be the only eternal life. He had thought that, because he was a doubter, he should leave his mission, but he knew that would break his mother’s heart. He had decided to muddle through to the end.

His prayers seemed superficial, partly because of the irony of asking God if he existed, and partly because of Howard’s longstanding fear of the Father of the Universe. God had always seemed to Howard to be a stern teacher, one focused on obedience to rules. His fear had intensified when, right after passing the mid-point of his mission, he started reading the Old Testament. Children were slaughtered by bears, cities destroyed by fire, water, or disease—all to serve the private interest of God’s people. Howard had also become sensitive to contemporary evidence that God had departed or was not paying attention: the burgeoning abuse of children he saw in the headlines of newspapers, the battles so common they could hardly be called war, the gulf between the professors living around Rice University, many of them affluent and bigoted, and those blacks and Hispanics living only a few miles to the south and west, most of them impoverished and ignorant. If God is in charge, Howard thought, then he is unpredictable, arbitrary, even cruel—an abusive father. A simpler explanation was that [p.5] the governing spirit of the cosmos was chaos. Still Howard’s habit was faith, and he doubted even his doubts of God.

Most recently Howard had worried that what he had hoped for his whole mission would happen: that he would return from Texas swathed in glory, finish his last year of college (range management and European history), and gradually take over the ranch from his father; like Abraham, he would build herds and domain; like Joseph, he would heal his cantankerous family; like Moses, he would become a great leader in the church; and like King Solomon, he would engender posterity, not on a harem of women, but only on Belinda Jakeman, who had written him faithfully since the day he left her for God. His future, once fraught with hope, now appeared as the narrow hallway leading to a prison cell.

What next? How could he be Howard, when the universe had become unstable? He could wallow in despair, beset by his fear of God and impending death, or he could embrace life, treasure each second of awareness. On a mission, treasuring life seemed like trying to suck steak through a straw.

Peterson, who was only nineteen and had little fear of the rush of time, refused to take Howard’s ramblings seriously. He said that the debate between faith and doubt was as old as the war in heaven, not merely Howard’s discovery. He said that Howard suffered from Missionary Menopause, a stage he would pass through. Howard’s response was to goad Peterson, saying, “God makes men peak in sexual energy in their late teens and early twenties and calls them to celibate missions. They either translate libido into religious fervor or go crazy.” Then Peterson told him that his obsession with sex would drag him down to hell. Howard answered that he was obsessed not with sex, but with finding truth, and Peterson said he knew of several missionaries who had confused the two. Pondering later, Howard decided that Peterson might have stumbled onto something (“from the mouths of babes”), and he was not surprised when his dream of a full and vital life came to him as a longing for conversation with a beautiful, intelligent woman. He began indulging in a discreet rebellion—watching women.

Sitting alone on the hill above Miller Theater, Howard kept one [p.6] eye on Peterson, conspicuous in white shirt and tie, and the other on the women near him. They wore Levis and tank tops or T-shirts, white shorts and iridescent bras, thin flowered dresses; one sported a green silk pantsuit and earrings which flashed like fishing lures. He glanced at each one and moved on, his gaze never ardent. He released each image of curved lip or swell of thigh before experiencing what he still felt to be soul-dulling lust. Their arms and legs were pale or tanned, ebony or brown; their faces were inviting or cold, each one different. Their voices tangled in the air, rising toward him like jazz riffs.

Suddenly, as if in answer to prayer, a tall woman appeared fifty yards below, one hand flat above her eyes as she scanned the hillside. She seemed endowed with light, an illusion certainly caused by the sun reflecting off her sleeveless, white blouse. A thick-bodied man behind her lugged a food basket. Peterson appeared at the woman’s elbow, grinning and pointing up toward Howard. The woman nodded and Peterson led the way. Loose and confident, she ranged like a farm woman, not prim or artful with her arms and legs. She considered some problem, frowning, working her lower lip with her teeth. She wore a denim skirt, thigh length. “Thanks,” she said to Peterson as they arrived. “From down below this hilltop looked full up.” She lengthened her words, making them languid, a trace of East Texas accent. Her hair was deep brown, almost black; her face was hard. She saw Howard, glanced back at Peterson. “There’s another one of you,” she said. She looked again at Howard and smiled.

Then the man bumped her from behind and she lifted a plaid blanket from the top of the food basket. “Must be ten thousand people,” she said. “By night they’ll be thick as roaches in a sewer.” The man, fastidious in his motions, helped her open their blanket over the triangle of grass. While she looked to be mid-twenties, he was perhaps forty.

“I told you it would be like this,” he said softly. He wore a trim black beard.

“We could have come earlier.” She flipped the blanket hard, yanking it out of the man’s hands. Her eye was wild, as if she were a mare circling a corral, looking for a gate to bolt through. Howard felt he [p.7] couldn’t resist a trapped woman, and he savored again her lanky and rough-edged beauty. Neither wore wedding rings.

The man laid out the blanket, careful to keep a narrow border between his domain and the missionary’s. He placed the basket in the center of his space, took out food and a bottle of wine. “Pastrami, ham, or turkey,” he said. “All with cheese.” The woman looked toward the theater, her mouth a moody line. Then she saw something—maybe the twin girls with flaming hair who played Go Fish on their blanket, maybe the large-bellied man who had covered his face with a cloth napkin, the corners peaking like the ears of a half-submerged hippo—and she smiled, flat and wry, hardly different from her frown. She took a can of beer from the basket, opened it, and Howard caught the thick odor. The man offered her a choice of two sandwiches, but she shoved her palm toward him. “Not hungry.”

“I’m Elder Peterson.” Peterson extended his hand, fingers wide, for the man to shake.

The man, still holding the sandwiches, stared at Peterson’s hand, finally touching it briefly. He glanced across at Howard’s name tag: “Elder Rockwood.” “You’re both named Elder?”

“It’s a title,” said Peterson, “a rank in the priesthood. We’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“The Mormons,” said Howard.

“Oh,” said the man. He looked as if he’d found a worm in his lettuce.

“Should be Younger,” said the woman. “Out of honor to Brigham Young.” She turned back to her drink. The man rummaged in the picnic basket for a plastic cup.

“And you are?” asked Peterson.

“Allison Warren. This is Eliot Stone.”

“What’s your work?” Peterson asked him.

“I teach psychology at the University of Houston. I research sexual dysfunction.”

“Whew,” said Peterson. “Heavy stuff, but I’ll bet couples are grateful for your help.”

“Eliot thinks he and my mother are going to be the next Masters [p.8] and Johnson,” said the woman. The man licked a drop of wine from the brim of his cup. “I write software for oil companies,” she said to Peterson. “Freelance.”

“She helps the rich get richer,” said the man; Eliot, she’d called him.

“Not that much richer,” she said. “The only industry with less margin than the oil business is academia.” Touch and touch, they spar, thought Howard. What’s the real fight?

“Ouch,” said Peterson, smiling, friendly as a puppy.

“You’re either a professional wrestler or a football player,” said Allison to Peterson.

“We’re professional wrestlers for God,” said Howard. Allison gave him her scant smile, sly and reserved as the Mona Lisa. He looked at her long bare legs then glanced away, worried that she might catch him looking and take offense.

“I was a lineman for Brigham Young University before my mission,” said Elder Peterson.

Allison raised her eyebrows at Howard.

“Me?” he said. “Peterson’s body is a gift from God. Mine proves his fallibility.” He wiped both hands down his face. Shut it, he thought.

“I play soccer,” said Allison to Peterson.

“She’s good,” said Eliot. “Frustrates the hell out of those macho Mexicans.”

“Not just the Mexicans,” she said. She gripped her second beer.

“Where do you play?” asked Peterson, leaning forward.

“We play pickup games every Saturday at Memorial Park.”

Peterson smiled and nodded.

“You’re a native Texan,” said Howard.

“We’re an endangered species. The Warrens were here before the Indians and Mexicans.”

“A Texan who can’t stand Texas,” said Eliot.

“Can’t stand Houston,” she said. “There’s a difference. I’m half lone wolf and the city’s finally got me down.” Her voice was nearly as deep as a man’s. She looked at Howard, and he shifted his gaze toward [p.9] Eliot. The stubble of his black beard against a pale face, the snide curl of his mouth irritated Howard.

The hippo man’s wife had come, and he was telling her off, quietly. She chewed her hamburger in his face; her eyes didn’t flicker. A woman and a dog played Frisbee between the guards and the crowd. A boy juggled two shoes and a pink hat. Allison clapped and whooped.

“You’re both from Utah?” she asked.

“Santa Barbara,” said Peterson. “California.”

“And you?” She tucked her hair behind one ear.

“Rockwood, Utah,” said Howard. “A hundred miles southwest of Salt Lake.”

“A Rockwood from Rockwood,” she said.

“He’s the aristocracy,” said Peterson.

“The city elder and the country elder,” Allison said. “Such different birds.”

Howard grinned.

“I’m curious. How does someone from the desert survive in ­Houston?”

Had he survived? “I go downtown and squint till my vision blurs. Then buildings look like bluffs and people’s faces look like the faces of antelope.”

“My parents and I drove through Phoenix and Zion National Park on our way to Yellowstone once,” said Allison. “I thought it was Mars with all the red rock.”

“Rockwood is farther north,” said Howard. “Great Basin.” Eliot pulled out a book and began reading; Howard couldn’t see the cover.

“So how do you proselytize?” she asked.

“We go to Fourth of July concerts and wait until someone talks to us, and then we hit on them,” Howard said.

“When would you like your first lesson?” said Peterson.

She laughed. “Before I was born my mother went to Utah as a graduate student to do research for the Kinsey report. She interviewed hundreds of college students. A few of them, more than a few, dozens of guys like you, filled with piety and integrity like you, refused to be interviewed. Some of them told her that she shouldn’t go around ­[p.10] polluting innocent college students with talk about sexuality. They tried to get her banned from campus.”

“Narrow-minded prudes,” said Eliot. He didn’t lift his eyes from his book.

Peterson arched an eyebrow at Howard as if to say, “Hey, dude, we’re in; this couple is not cold to Mormonism.” He said, “So ever since then you’ve wondered if those few were characteristic of Mormons everywhere. Right?”

She didn’t seem to hear. “My aunt married a Mormon,” she said. “After seven years he became convinced he was one of the prophets described in the Book of Revelation. The bastard planned to throw his children off the spire of the Salt Lake temple, believed they would flame into angels as they fell. She barely escaped the city with them. He’s in a psychiatric hospital in Utah.”

“Crazies are everywhere,” said Peterson.

“How does it feel living among fanatics?” said Allison.

“When I turned twelve,” Howard said, “I went into the mountains and fasted for four days. On the last day magpies and ravens flew in and out of my campfire and an angel dressed in doeskin rode a white donkey down through the aspens.”

“Smartass,” she said, and he smiled at the prospect of four or five more hours of edgy talk. She seemed independent, even brazen—but still hampered by this weasel, Eliot.

“Are you two interested in archeology?” said Peterson. “In ancient America—.”

“I have one more story,” she said. “My mother helped organize the International Women’s Year Conference here before I was born. Mormon women were bused in from all over.”

“You sound critical,” said Peterson. “Mormon women are politically active.”

“In a manner of speaking. My mother talked to some of them, pure reactionaries. They had been organized and instructed by men. They were herded in to vote down every measure for the advancement of women. Puppets.”

[p.11] “Just because their leaders helped them get there,” said Peterson, “doesn’t mean those women were puppets.”

“Right,” said Howard. “Most would have voted like reactionaries without being herded.”

She looked at him and laughed. Again, he thought. Do that again.

“You know, you’re sarcastic about everything,” she said. “I can’t tell what you think.”

“Neither can he,” said Peterson. “He has a knee-jerk mouth. What I meant is that they probably didn’t think of unlimited abortion and making women into men as advancements. Motherhood is a divine right and calling.”

Allison leaned forward—either to speak or take a bite out of Peterson’s face. Howard had only recently discovered that Peterson was a whole man, completely self-consistent. No stranger could decode such a mystery in five minutes.

Eliot placed one hand on her shoulder. She shook it off. “Feels like I’m caught in a time warp.” Her flat smile showed again, hard and quick as a glove across the face.

“Not all Mormons are conservative,” Howard said.

“Fetch,” said Peterson. “Here we go again.”

“My mother is the leader of all the women in our ward,” Howard said. Allison frowned. “Congregation.” He leaned toward her. “She’s not suppressed, oppressed, repressed, or depressed. She organizes and teaches the women service and spirituality and if someone doesn’t have enough to eat, she requests a food order from the bishop and they go shopping.” Below them a boy carrying a fan of American flags groped with his free hand for change.

“Damn,” said Allison. “I touched a nerve here.”

“Look,” said Eliot, “we’re just not the types who would ever ­convert.”

“It takes a special type to believe,” said Howard, feeling weary. He thought with longing of his mother, whose faith seemed as effortless as breathing.

Peterson shrugged his shoulders, turned the other way, started talking to the parents of the red-haired twins. He always focused on [p.12] the men, potential heads of household, and he had little patience when his quarry was a liberal intellectual, not that they had the opportunity to teach many people like that.

Allison added a can to her collection of empties and immediately opened another. Eliot poured one more cup of wine, capped the bottle, and put it back in the basket. He looked at the empty beer cans, then at Allison.

Howard examined her face, closed off, anger waiting just under the surface—not the person to welcome the Mormon story of modern angels visiting the earth. She had been drinking steadily and appeared to be in an unhappy relationship. Like Howard, maybe she was trapped by circumstance. The gospel could bless her life, expand it from narrowness. He had watched it happen before. Despite himself he felt the old rush, the hope of another conversion, which seemed to him as culture-bound as the fever of jumping a buck while hunting. Below them, a boy hawked six-foot balloons, twisted together like strands of DNA. On which gene is the code for propensity of faith, which for self-destruction? The musk of enclosed animals drifted across from the zoo. Howard hooked a finger behind the knot of his tie. He flapped the damp cloth of his white shirt, trying to get some air inside.

An artificial pond lay behind the theater. A duck flapped along the shore and children ran under a sprinkler which tap-tapped in a circle, spreading a sheen over their bodies as they leaped and touched hands. “That would sure feel good right now,” said Howard. “In the evening back home, after it’s dry all day, the air turns moist and cool.”

“I thought Rockwood was in the desert,” she said.

“The Russian olives are blooming, and if I sat on my back porch, I’d smell the sweet scent of alfalfa blossoms because my father hasn’t cut the hay yet.” Then he found himself blabbing on about how his father had changed, becoming weaker, and about his mother, strong as ever, and that he wished he could teleport his mother to the grassy hillside so that anyone who wanted could see that Mormon women were vital, strong, and unrepressed.

“You don’t need to prove anything to me,” Allison said.

[p.13] Howard felt his face flush. He had forgotten that she was a stranger and that they were both bound. She turned toward Eliot, tickling his ear with a stem of grass. Eliot brushed her hand away, not pleased. Howard rested, hands behind his head, and watched Allison and Eliot through half-closed eyes. Their bickering proved their familiarity. She lay on her back; her face pensive and moody. Her hair, which seemed very fine, pooled around her head. Eliot sat cross-legged, his head still bent over his book—arch of back, tidy black hair, tight beard. He started reading out loud, and Howard recognized the beginning of Walden. Eliot reached to massage Allison’s calf.

Howard numbered those whom the Holy Ghost had touched while he taught: Amy and Jack Henderson, married schoolteachers from the Heights; Jerry Candle, son of a rice farmer; the Salley family from East Houston; Andrew Bills, who’d just graduated from high school and didn’t know what to do next; and Grace Montoya, ninety years old. Except for Grace, they had all grasped the gospel as if it were a life preserver; their previous lives had been one desperate strait after another. When they rose smiling out of the waters of baptism, their faces shone bright as pearls. Each time he had been surprised, feeling that he’d had little to do with their conversion. From the beginning of his mission, he had refused zealotry, but, at the same time, he had believed his lack of enthusiasm might anger an imperious and jealous God, one who wanted to devour his soul. Now he didn’t know how to feel. That was putting a name to it—not knowing how to feel.

Allison frowned, pensive. Her face was tanned, made darker by the white of her shirt. As Howard watched, she rolled and lit a thin cigarette, dragged on it, and held the smoke in her lungs. She exhaled slowly and smiled at Eliot for the first time all night. “Here,” she said. Eliot took the peace offering, puffed, and passed it back.

Howard closed his eyes, willing himself away from the sweltering hilltop. The memory was not solitary but one felt on his skin innumerable times. He was out west on his father’s farm, his skin sweaty and dirty, covered with green dust from hauling hay or white clay from digging the wheat grass crowns from the bottom of a ditch or dried manure from castrating calves. The truck churned dust behind them as [p.14] they dropped from Lookout Pass toward home in Rockwood and he smelled moist air under the dappling shade of cottonwoods and willows and all his senses were alive as he stood on his front lawn and looked up at the mountains curved around Rockwood town and felt the porcelain handle of the door in his palm and the natural cold inside the thick-walled adobe. The ranch and town and desert spread always in his head, but they were fifteen hundred miles away and the landscape in his mind was like the chapel of the Holy Grail, not a place he could travel to by moving his legs. Finally, he felt himself slipping toward sleep.

In the dream, he tumbled down an endless tunnel—narrow, soundless, and empty. Not even the eye of God watched him fall. He woke clutching at Peterson’s shirt. It was dusk and the orchestra was tuning up. Eliot and the twin girls stared at him; Allison dozed across Eliot’s lap.

“Are you gifted with the interpretation of dreams?” Howard said to Peterson. “It was a flying/falling dream.”

“Flying dreams are dreams of sublimated sex,” said Eliot, shifting his position.

Allison woke and sat up, moving slightly toward Howard and Peterson. “Freud was up in the night.”

“My flying dreams feel like escape,” said Peterson, “not sex.”

“Interpret it. I flew and fell.”

“In your case, escape from responsibility,” said Peterson. “You’re so trunked out you can’t think of anything but the clear skies of Utah. Falling is a return to reality and duty.”

“Everything was quiet,” said Howard. “I couldn’t see or hear.”

“Sounds like one of those near-death experiences,” said Peterson.

Howard looked at him, surprised. “It did feel like death. Like dying and falling through a tunnel—thick with darkness.”

“As I said, the Freudian interpretation is clear,” said Eliot.

“Both your interpretations are as vague as a horoscope,” said Howard. “I want specifics.”

“It’s a message from your libido,” said Eliot. Peterson frowned, [p.15] staring up into the purplish Houston sky. “The long dark tunnel is a woman’s va—”

“Maybe we’d better stay away from the Freudian,” said Peterson, “innocent as we are.”

“You’re about as innocent as Lot,” Howard said. “Give me your interpretation.” The musicians quieted, waiting for the conductor.

“I need more context,” said Peterson.

“I’m Nebuchadnezzar and you’re Daniel. You don’t need to know the whole dream.”

“You were alone?”

“Totally alone. Cold and alone and unable to see.”

“It’s a message from God.” Peterson glanced toward Eliot. “He was warning you what Outer Darkness is like. He wants you to know what it’s like to deny the Holy Ghost and become a Son of Perdition. Kicked out of God’s kingdom.”

Howard rolled his neck on his shoulders. “Worse than being kicked out. Worse than death. Like consciousness stopping.”

“Libido transformed into lust for death,” said Eliot. “The French call sex the little death.”

“You are fixated,” said Allison, “and you don’t even know it.”

The conductor lifted his arms and the musicians began with the William Tell Overture. Trumpets and other horns multiplied, rising waves of bright blue. Allison slid back against Eliot, who wrapped his arms around her. She lit another cigarette, a joint this time, which she held above her head while Eliot pulled on it. Howard watched in the growing dark as Eliot trailed his fingertips across the inside of her knee. Patriotic music flowed over the hill. They turned forehead to forehead, trading the short cigarette and drinking the rest of her beer. She has to be bombed before she can stand him, thought Howard, resenting every intimacy.

Several times he and Belinda had spread a blanket under a juniper in the canyon, listening to the rustle of aspens, and sharing wet, soft kisses. Her fingertips had wandered the nape of his neck—much better than sitting on a hillside with a hulking Californian or a hard-face, hard-mouth Texan who was always looking for another beer.

[p.16] Finally, the orchestra performed the Star Spangled Banner, and Alli­son struggled to her feet as the first fireworks showered blue, white, and red, lighting the faces of the crowd. She arched her back and looked at the sky, her forearms clasped across the top of her head. Suddenly, she stumbled down the dark side of the hill, moving unsteadily toward a cluster of trees on the street. “Excuse me,” she said. “Not feeling well. Excuse me. Not well at all.”

“Allison,” said Eliot. “Allison, where are you going?” Her white shirt moved down the hill. “Allison!” he shouted.

“Be right back,” she called, the thin voice of a child. Then she disappeared under the trees. Howard saw the headlights of cars passing, heard the sound of their tires and engines. He jumped to his feet and sprinted down the hill, leaping over the heads of people as they craned their necks to see the fireworks. He finally broke free of the crowd and ran between the trees.

Ahead he saw Allison, her shirt brilliant in the beam of headlights. She stepped down into the road, and he ran harder. Then his arms were around her, and he had pulled her back, hearing the whine and fade of the passing car. He lowered her to the grass, breathing an odd mix of smoke, alcohol, and musky perfume. “You shouldn’t have drunk so much,” he said. Eliot and Peterson moved toward them through the trees. Her hands twitched, and she sat, aided by Eliot. “She wasn’t looking,” said Howard. “I grabbed her just as she was stepping off.” His wrists and palms tingled from touching her.

Eliot swore steadily and then laughed. “We’ll need to go back and give CPR to some of those people you jumped over.”

“I’ve never seen you move like that,” said Peterson.

“I didn’t think I’d get to her in time.” Howard bent lower. “Are you all right?”

“Look.” She pointed as fireworks spread across the sky. “Such bright flowers.”

“Let’s get you home,” said Eliot, lifting her to her feet.

“Your stuff,” said Peterson. Howard followed him up the hill to gather the baskets and blankets and beer cans; the fireworks streamed [p.17] and popped above their heads. When they returned, she was leaning against Eliot. Howard smelled vomit, acrid and sweet.

“I think we got everything,” said Peterson. Neither Eliot nor Allison looked up.

“I haven’t drunk so much for a long time,” she said. “I’ve been good.”

“It’s been a tough three weeks,” said Eliot.

She pulled away from him and walked unsteadily to the verge of the street. She looked both ways this time.

Howard and Peterson followed as Eliot helped her to a car, a red Mustang convertible. “Can we drop you?” said Eliot. “Oh, your bikes.”

“We rode the bus,” said Howard. “Peterson had his bike stolen here at the Juneteenth concert.”

“It was worth it,” said Peterson. “We baptized the man we met.”

The two missionaries climbed into the rear seat. Howard sat on the right, and, as Eliot drove, Allison lay back. Her hair fluttered toward Howard’s face, and he leaned slightly forward and breathed. The tangled scent both invited and repulsed him.

Feeling Peterson’s hand on his arm, he leaned back again. He believed that, like Allison, he was fretted by irremediable conditions. Like him, she was a capricious being desiring a clarity which might always evade her. He decided that somehow he would see her again, and his soul expanded, almost like the thrill of truth. Then an old woman —his grandmother, his grandmother’s grandmother?—rasped in his ear, “Foolish, unwary child.” Frightened, Howard leaned out the side of the convertible, filling his head with the smoky odor of the city.