Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.18] Perched on a chair in the dark, Howard waited for the roaches to creep back to the middle of the kitchen floor. Peterson, standing near the light switch, was a white shadow large as a floating stove. Howard straightened each cramped knee and pondered the subtleties of God’s mind, or rather the cultural/genetic construction which he now believed was his image of God’s mind. Several days before, he had felt a rush of hope when he thought about converting Allison, a woman mired in carnality and drunkenness. His philosophy teacher at the University of Utah might claim that God’s will and Allison were the irresistible force and the immovable object. His mother would tell him that the situation had all the markings of a divine test. He felt confounded by all the voices in his head. The strangest part of the evening had been the imagined voice, saying what his sarcastic maternal grandmother would say, had she known about his loss of faith: “Foolish child.”
Despite that warning, all week when Howard couldn’t sleep because the humidity stuck the bed sheet to his back, his mind had gone to Allison. Her angular face, hard mouth, and eyes that could make the devil back down—all reminded him of a woman he couldn’t quite place. He knew Peterson believed that men recognized their future wives by deep memory from the pre-earth life when all humankind was [p.19] in heaven, brothers and sisters. If so, he could have covenanted before birth with Allison, not Belinda.
“Now,” he called. Peterson flipped the light switch and Howard flung himself outward, pounding left and right with the rubber mallet. The record for the apartment had been set more than a year earlier by Elder Shepherdson, who had hung a white-pine plaque with nineteen roaches drawn in brown ink. Only accidental bait was legal.
“Eight,” said Howard.
“That one’s still moving,” said Peterson. “Seven again.”
“Soccer tomorrow? That woman at the concert gave us an opening.” Allison was the kind of woman his senile grandfather had told him stories about—a man-eating pagan.
“Monday is P-day, not Saturday,” said Peterson after a pause. “And soccer won’t wash as contacting work and she’s a flipping lascivious atheist humanist feminist drugheaded winebibbing psychologist.”
“He was the psychologist.”
“And they’re not a legitimate family unit, never will become one. Look, suppose you’re Noah looking for righteous people and they’re the last man and woman on earth, do you think humanity would survive the Flood?” He and Howard traded places.
“Elder, are we so wealthy with contacts?”
“Did I ever tell you about the elders in Humble who tried to kill roaches with circles of gunpowder?” said Peterson. “One night they used too much and set fire to their apartment. The police thought they had discovered a cult of devil worshippers. Now!” Howard flicked the switch and Peterson flailed with the hammer. “Nine.”
“She’s a daughter of Abraham,” Howard said. He crouched near the sink; Peterson shut off the light. “Or do you think God wouldn’t give me an erotic sign?”
“Shut up,” said Peterson. “This kind of talk is frightening the roaches.”
Had there been a sign, a luminosity? No, he was foolish to imagine voices and signs, especially since they contradicted each other. The voice was his superego, sounding like his mother. The sign was his neurons, shorted out by the lift of Allison’s breasts and the reach of her [p.20] thighs, the slow movement of her hands, the way she put her head to one side as she talked, the curious edge to her words. She had stroked the back of Eliot’s hand with her fingertips, and Howard’s own skin had tingled. In the car he had nearly taken the weight of her hair in his hands.
Here we go again, he thought. His hormones were dragging him into another instant romance, the fourth of the past month. Early in June, the speakers in church had been the bishop’s twin daughters, both philosophy majors with pale hair and startling red lips, who had just returned home from school in Utah. Howard had endured a week of sweet agony. His next sudden beloved was Lucy Gomez, whose skin was the color of ripe barley and who had washed her laundry the same place he and Peterson did theirs. They had eagerly tried to teach her, but she wanted conversation, not conversion. Then there was a woman on a bus, auburn hair and blue eyes and thin body. Her face had been lonely as she carried a small girl on her hip down the aisle. All these women had suddenly flared luminous as angels. His passion had little to do with intention; each time he was afflicted by rapture, as if with the flu.
Because he had found the habits of faith so difficult to shed, his first impulse was to blame God. Had the old rogue just let temptation flourish, testing whether Howard, like Job, could endure to the end of his two years of celibacy? Teetering in the dark, he felt that if, despite all his culture’s sanctions, he buried himself in this woman’s body, she might calm his skittish flesh. Following an old habit, he moved his lips in a hymn:
Lead Kindly Light amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on.
The night is dark and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Lead kindly lust.
Someone pounded on the door and pushed it open. Peterson clicked the switch.
“And there was light,” said Elder Francis, entering, his arms [p.21] spread wide. Stocky and short, he wore tinted glasses even though it was night. His white shirt had been starched and pressed commercially. His companion followed, carrying a full grocery bag. Elder Bittner, the greenest of the four missionaries, was as tall as Peterson, but thin, a bristle-haired farm boy from Idaho. Francis and Bittner worked the section of Houston immediately south of Rice University.
“Hey, Elder dudes, I don’t mean to pry,” said Francis, “but what the fetch were you doing in here with the lights off?”
“Killing roaches,” said Howard. “We decided to let the good times roll.” Bittner was subdued; he sat at the table and looked around as if lost.
“Right on,” said Francis. “What’s the high score, Rockwood? Bet these chips I beat it.”
“Elder Rockwood,” said Peterson, “and you’re outside your area.”
“It’s legit,” said Francis. “Written permission from the zone leaders. Our house has been tented for termites. But you only get the pleasure of our company for tonight because we’ve got to get back to our area early in the morning.”
“Hey, Bittner,” Howard said, clapping his friend on the shoulder. They were both rancher stock.
“Hey, Rockwood.” He didn’t smile, didn’t look up.
From the grocery bag Francis lifted two plastic bottles of root beer, a bag of tortilla chips, a bottle of salsa, and a container of sour cream. “With your permission, Elder Proper Peterson, let the party begin.” The four missionaries sat around the kitchen table eating the food.
Francis stood on a chair and held his hands out for silence. “Today Bittner was stricken with tragedy.”
Howard turned to Bittner, whose face had turned from sorrow to anger.
“Geez, Elder,” said Bittner. “Let it alone.”
“This morning Bittner received his Dear John.”
“Rotten break,” Howard said. Talking about Dear John letters made his stomach tight. He had feared all through his mission that Belinda would fall for some fool just before Howard came home. God [p.22] would then arrange for him to marry a pious woman, someone for whom he felt no passion—like Evaline Stewart, an angel-faced neighbor back home.
Francis tried to take Bittner’s face in his hands, but Bittner slapped them away. “Dude, unburden your soul.”
“Francis, you’ve got such a compassionate nature,” said Howard. “No wonder your companions love you so much.” One had punched Francis in the eye, which was not really the offending organ.
“I’m like helping him out,” said Francis. “A cheerful countenance driveth away wrath. Where’s your Bible? This is just the thing for you, Bittner. It’s what I sent my fiancée when she wrote me off.” He swept aside some shirts and socks on the couch and found it. “Eureka.” He turned the pages. “What kind of missionaries are you to hide your light under a bushel?” He held the book open, one finger tracing the lines. “‘And when I received your epistle, I plucked out the hairs of my beard and sat down astonied.’”
“Astonied?” said Peterson. “What the flip is astonied?”
Howard took thick scoops of sauce on chip after chip, eating quickly until his throat and lips burned. “You’d think you’d have a kind word for your companion in his hour of need.”
“I’ll send her that scripture,” said Bittner. “I’ll tell her that I’m grateful she’s gone because that clears the underbrush between me and another girl.”
“Bittner, my bud,” said Francis. “You’ve been keeping secrets from me. I didn’t know you like had options.”
“I don’t like have options. I just want revenge.”
“I knew an elder once who mailed his girl a dead cat in a Tupperware box after she wrote him off,” said Peterson. “It was totally ripe when she opened the package.”
“Dude,” said Francis, clapping Peterson on the shoulder. “It’s music to my ears to hear your lying voice. Your stories should be like recorded for posterity.” He turned to Bittner. “You’ve joined an elite club. Raise your hand if you’ve had a Dear John.” Both Peterson and Howard kept their hands in their laps. Belinda’s most recent letter had a sketch of a wedding announcement—the two of them straddling a [p.23] bareback horse. She had written, “For our honeymoon we can camp on Mt. Brigham and make love in a meadow.”
“I knew about Rockwood’s woman, light of his life, angel of his night dreams, but Peterson, you surprise me. You telling us that some woman’s waiting for your bulky body?”
“I didn’t say that. I cut all ties before I left. I didn’t want anything distracting me from the work. I’ll wait until I get home to worry about women.”
“Eye single to the glory of God. Peterson, you are one rock solid dude. An inspiration to the mission. Speaking of inspirations, tell them how many hours we worked this week. Tell them, Bittner.”
“Inflation,” said Howard.
“The honest truth,” said Francis. “We like knocked on doors and set up a display and talked to people in a mall and used our priesthood to bless thirteen people in a hospital and our members referred three contacts to us this week. President Wister called to praise our hard work. So what do you have to report?”
“We met a psychologist and his lover,” said Peterson. “They’re not married.”
“Tough,” said Francis. “Real tough. Lay the law of chastity on them. That’ll separate the sheep dudes from the goat dudes. Sex just about makes conversion impossible.”
“She’s a six-foot Texan,” said Peterson. “Thin as a cattail.”
“Yikes,” said Francis. “But I was telling you about my Dear John.”
“Thin as a fishing pole,” said Howard. “Tall as an eel. Peterson knew a girl once who was so skinny that one day she slipped down a badger hole when they went for a walk in a meadow. The tragedy has made him shun all wiry women.” Long-limbed Allison strode up the hill, sprawled on the grass. Belinda was shorter, more soft and rounded.
“Rockwood,” said Francis. “Leave the stories to Peterson. Yours like suck.”
“Peterson isn’t as innocent as he seems. He has a woman on his mind—Susy Wister,” Howard said.
Francis’s head whipped toward Peterson, whose throat turned [p.24] mottled pink. Bittner laughed and slapped his leg. “The secret is out,” he said.
The last missionary conference, late in May, Susy, the mission president’s daughter, had sat back of the podium dressed in a polka-dot dress with a white lace yoke. She was a double major at Brigham Young University—home economics and early childhood development. Her father had stood and told the missionaries that he was grateful to have his family on the stand with him because he wanted to make visible the fruits of marriage to a good woman. The admiring gaze of a hundred fifty missionaries had swung toward Susy.
“But I was telling you what my woman wrote me,” said Francis. He still frowned at Peterson. “I’ve memorized it.” He pretended to hold up a page. “‘I’ve done some deep thinking recently and decided that I can never reach your level of spirituality. If we were to get married, that difference would be an unbridgeable gulf between us. I’m settling for a lesser man, one who is more carnal-minded.’”
“Low and foul blow,” said Howard. “Low and foul.”
“I knew an elder once,” said Peterson, and they all groaned, “who was so despondent after receiving a Dear John that his hormonal system shut down. He confessed to President Wister that he had no more interest in the feminine gender. As a cure, they sent him to a house of prostitution without purse or scrip. But it didn’t do him any good because after a week the whole building lifted up to Heaven. He’d purified all those sisters.”
“Can’t you tell normal stories?” said Howard. “Sometimes I wish you’d be lifted up.”
“It’ll never happen. After prayers, just before I take my salt pill, I think one lascivious thought. It’s all that’s keeping me on earth.”
“That and three hundred-odd pounds of flesh,” said Francis, who immediately ran to the bathroom, locking himself inside. “I repent, Elder Dude,” he called out, as Peterson beat the door with the flat of one large hand. “I misspoke myself. Forgive me. Forgive me. I’m such a fool.”
“That’s the first time in three months he’s said the truth,” said [p.25] Bittner quietly. Soon Francis returned, his arm up around Peterson’s shoulder.
When the lights were out and the other missionaries’ breathing had become slow and regular, Howard sneaked downstairs to the laundry room. Dwight, their pot-bellied landlord, was in his office, building a pagoda out of playing cards and eating canned artichoke hearts balanced on thin wheat crackers. “Sitting behind that desk,” said Howard, “you remind me of my bishop back home.”
“Think I just been insulted,” said Dwight. “What you want?”
“What about all that thumping earlier? You missionary boys cutting loose? Drugs, women, and booze?”
“Killing roaches. We have to do something since you’re too cheap to spray.”
“Swear I heard voices coming and going.”
Howard grinned. “Voices? Just Bittner and Francis.”
“You know what the contract says about overnight guests, but I’ll overlook it if you keep that Francis away from me. Smartassed as a thirteen-year-old. Told me I was going to hell if I didn’t listen to him.”
“Well, he was half right,” said Howard. “Now stop swearing and get out the board.”
Dwight grinned. “I can always tell when we’re going to have a little problem sleeping. My fingers start itching and walking toward that deck of cards. The time you get down here I have them shuffled.”
“Stacked, you mean.” Playing cribbage reminded him of his father and grandfather, who both loved the game. Every time he went out to the desert, they had played for hours. Like Peterson with his daily dirty thought, Howard had an unweeded patch which no rule could touch.
An hour later Peterson filled the doorway, his face filled with righteous indignation. Clearly he thought that Howard was a piss-poor team player, God an unsmiling football coach.
“Couldn’t sleep?” said Howard.
“We’re supposed to stay together.”
“It’s worse than being married,” said Howard to Dwight.
[p.26] “He’s mostly safe here, Elder Pete,” said Dwight. “Won’t lose his soul, just a little pocket change.”
“Goodnight, Dwight,” said Howard, laying down his cards. “He’s determined.” He followed as Peterson lumbered up the stairs. He wondered again what it would be like to see with a whole and clear vision.
“It’s midnight,” said Peterson on the stairway. “Promise you won’t go out again.”
“Go to sleep. I promise. Soccer in the morning, right? All we can do is get whipped.”
“I’ll go with you. But it’s a waste of time. Did you feel anything from either one? Neither soul spoke to my soul—our seeds fell on stony ground with those two.”
“Sweet dreams, Elder Pete.”
He lay on his back in bed, hands clasped behind his head. He was seven or eight and he and his father had been trying to get out west one snowy day to feed the cattle when one tire slipped a chain. One back wheel, Howard believed it was the left, dropped into the borrow pit and they were stuck. No, it had definitely been the right wheel. As soon as Howard’s father turned off the engine, warmth had drained from the cab. The wind was blowing snow nearly horizontally, but as Howard followed his father, stepping in his father’s tracks, he felt like it was a grand adventure. They had walked for hours toward his grandfather’s cabin, shuffling through a wide fuzzy-walled tunnel whirled with confetti. His boots were heavy but he lugged them forward, step, step again, through the heavy whiteness. He could tell when they left the road because his feet dropped into the borrow pit, nearly twisting his ankles. In the dream he worried about the child following and turned to look back. The child (was it a boy or girl?) smiled a flat smile and said, “What a crock!” in a voice as deep as Allison’s.
Then he and Belinda galloped a bareback horse together, she hanging on behind him. The motion of the ride, and the feeling of her arms around him and her breasts against his back, aroused him. He thought, I don’t want to spoil this by waking, and immediately he opened his [p.27] eyes. He was angry because what happened when he was asleep was not even God’s business.
He had expected Belinda. After each flash of infatuation, she reasserted herself and he felt as fresh pain the shock of leaving her. His body buzzed, as if someone shot him up with drugs while he slept. He rolled out of bed and dressed, walking out the door and along the bayou.
He and Belinda had dated all through high school. Once, while the rest of the kids at church painted scenery for a one-act play, they had crept into the furnace room. “We’ll have our own play,” she said. But the adult leader had surprised them, and flashed the light on Howard trying to wrench his hand out of Belinda’s bra. They each had several interviews with the bishop, who said certain acts were too sacred to perform outside the holy bonds of marriage. Fondling Belinda had seemed only a more exciting sport than soccer or rodeo, but after his interview Howard knew it was sacred sin, alluring and terrifying. Despite the bishop’s warning, they often parked in the canyon, undressing but holding a blanket, limp protection, between them.
On the day Howard turned eighteen, Belinda shoved the blanket out the car window. “Happy birthday,” she said, kissing him long and deep. The calluses on his palms had scratched against her skin as he caressed her shoulders and cradled her breasts. When they finished, she became unsteady, alternatively crying and laughing. Her strange reaction had frightened him.
When she told him it was time for her period, the wait became mortifying. He didn’t want to see or talk to her, was unable to pray or read the scriptures, couldn’t relax or eat or sleep well. His mother had asked him a dozen times what was wrong, but he hadn’t been able to tell her.
“I’m having it,” Belinda said finally.
“Way to go,” he had said. “Way to go.” After an hour of vigorous talk, with her dark eyes always on him, she had agreed that they wait to marry. One month later he had left for college.
Contrary to what he expected, they gradually drifted apart. School filled his mind. There were more books in the library than he could [p.28] read in an eternity. His professors spoke revelations to him. Belinda, his mother wrote, had gone to Cedar City to school. That summer she worked at the Grand Canyon Lodge as a waitress, but he didn’t write, even though he thought about her. His friends were leaving on missions, and Howard’s mother and the bishop encouraged him to send in his papers. He put them off, afraid to confess what had happened between him and Belinda.
At school that fall, he was again surrounded by thousands of women, and he loved watching their motions. His observations were made poignant because of his one experience of sex with Belinda; he knew the pleasure women could give him. Women’s breasts, thighs, and hips remained alive in his imagination, but whenever he began to feel close to someone, so that he wanted to talk to her, touch her, perhaps think of making love, he became suddenly frightened, guilty— and his interest died. He realized he was as sick as a porno addict—teasing himself with images but never touching or kissing anyone. He was a libertine in imagination, a Puritan in habit. Of the two possible solutions to his dilemma, he wanted to make himself completely a man of God. But he still couldn’t bring himself to undergo a shameful confession.
So the time passed. He dated occasionally, but his serious love was studying the juncture between range plants and animals, and the motions of class history in Europe, which reminded him of plate tectonics. Then the fall of his junior year, his mother wrote him a long letter. Her older sister, Mary, had died and she wrote about the gift of peace, despite her sorrow, that she knew was a sign of God’s love for her and her sister. “Sometimes it seemed that Mary’s arm was around me. Can you imagine God’s love for you, Howard? I have the feeling that you are stuck, that some little thing is blocking you.” Reading the letter, he had wept. Before his old defenses could return, he called and made an appointment with his university bishop. Walking to the interview that Sunday, his body was heavy with anguish; after his confession, he had felt weightless, as if each cell brimmed with light.
His bishop had seized the opportunity to invite Howard onto a mission. They sent in the papers, and Howard sold his truck to pay at [p.29] least part of the expenses. He was filled with the desire to bring others to the tree of life where they could taste the same white fruit he had eaten.
When he returned home the summer before his mission, he rediscovered Belinda, who had finished her second year at Southern Utah University. She was tanned and confident, fuller of body. They went to firesides and church together, quickly comfortable, as if there had been no interruption of their friendship. At first Howard had thought her return was a gift from God signifying that he would restore each of Howard’s righteous sacrifices, but soon he felt a painful ambivalence toward his impending mission.
The Saturday before he left for Texas, they parked in front of the church. Main Street was deserted except for two cars driving slowly and parallel down the middle line. Two teenagers kissed through the back seat windows, reaching their mouths and arms across the gap between the cars. The voices of the drivers and the noise of their engines sounded in the empty street.
At her door, he had put his arms around her and kissed her. “I don’t want to go,” he said. “I want to stay here and marry you.” Her hands had cradled the back of his neck, her lips had been warm. But she finally released him and stepped inside. “We were hasty before,” she said through the screen door. “It would be safer if you let this be our good-bye. I love you, Howard. I want to have children with you. A month after your mission we’ll be married.”
Sitting on the bank of the bayou, Howard sweated. Leaving had petrified him; he believed that if he missed one step, God would take Belinda away again. He threw a rock into the stagnant water. All his mission he had acted with fear and caution; now he was tired. If God existed, he was as contradictory as Belinda. “Touch my breasts, taste my mouth, so that for two years of abstinence your body will be tortured with the memory of pleasure.” God the trickster patriarch. Help me, Friend Jesus, Howard prayed. Talk to the Father for me. Get him to play me some slack.
Grace Montoya, their latest convert, was small, four and a half feet at the tallest. He and Peterson had tracted her out in the Heights, north [p.30] of downtown Houston. “I’ve been expecting you,” she had said when she answered the door. “I had a dream that two sweaty angels came to my house. You’re very funny looking angels.” She had seated him and Peterson on a swinging chair in her backyard and had fed them tamales wrapped in corn shucks, which they had washed down with water in which discs of ice floated. She had watched them eat and giggled. “I never thought that angels eat tamales. I never thought it.”
“We’re not angels,” Howard had told her repeatedly. When they had asked if they could teach her, she had laughed heartily, bending forward at her small waist and reaching up to touch their hands and forearms. They had taught her all seven lessons in two days, and she had listened patiently, never drifting away, never looking bored. But their words had left her unchanged; she already possessed a perfect charity.
When the lessons were over, she said to Howard, “You are a seeker, muy authenticia. Much integrity.”
“No,” said Howard. “You have described yourself.” She smiled and shook her head. God should be more like her.