Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion

Chapter Three

[p.31] When Allison woke, she untangled herself from the sheet and rolled across Eliot toward the closet. He lay half uncovered—black beard, thick down his throat, thighs and belly heavier than sixteen months before when she’d first met him.

She walked into the bathroom, slammed down the toilet seat, and sat. Nearly nine; soccer started at nine. Her head hurt. She walked back into the bedroom. “You coming?”

Eliot pulled a pillow over his face and mumbled something about STIV. He and Allison’s mother called their therapeutic software package Sex Therapy on Interactive Video. The image of dysfunctional men and women panting over computer monitors still made Allison weak with laughter.

“I promised her I’d be there at nine-thirty,” said Eliot.

“Who undressed me last night? You or those missionaries?”

Eliot peered out from under the pillow. “Whoever it was didn’t have a very good time.”

She found some underwear and socks, pulled on her shorts, and sat on the bed.

“I wish you’d just forget about the whole thing,” he said quietly.

“Alaska?” She jiggled the bed as she laced her shoes. His finger followed the line of vertebrae up her back. “Eliot, we’ve both made up our [p.32] minds. We’re just too chickenshit to make it verbal. You’re scared to start over.”

“At a fourth-rate university. I’d lose everything I’ve worked on for the past decade.”

“Exaggeration.” She turned to look at his face, which he held blank. “I’m frightened of keeping it up with freelance work.” She stood, positioned her breasts inside a gray sports bra, then grabbed her black B. B. King T-shirt from the back of a chair. “I’m outta here,” she said.

Within seconds, she was rolling down Bissonet toward the Loop with the top of her Mustang down—the hot, humid wind blowing into her face. Three weeks earlier all her stars had aligned, and she was given the hope of escaping Houston. A woman she had impressed at a computing convention had asked her to join a custom software company that did contract work in Anchorage. The money would be twice what she made in Houston, three times what Eliot made, and it would be constant income—without the fluctuations of freelance work. But Eliot wouldn’t follow her to Alaska. What she wouldn’t give for a tractable man. Her religious/feminist Aunt Jenny from Waco said, “Raise up a boy in the way he should go and when he is a man he will not depart from it.”

She exited and wound through Memorial Park; some of the other players were late also, so she had time to stretch. She hooked her fingers in the net high over her head and pulled herself up and forward, feeling the burn in her thighs and calves as she rocked forward and back.

Two men on bikes rode into the parking lot—the missionaries, still ridiculous in their white shirts and ties. She watched, lips pursed, as they walked toward her. The sight of them nudged her memory: a carnival of people chattering on the hillside, beer slipping across her tongue, the ironic-innocent missionary who looked at her as if she were the first woman he’d seen. Ironic mouth and virginal eyes. His talk about the desert. Eliot reading Walden to her, his jealous voice tolling the syllables as if he chanted a mantra meant to win her back. The thin missionary had flushed red after talking about his mother. He was a [p.33] handsome boy, with mahogany hair and a hawk nose. His long, thin face and wild hazel eyes gave him the look of a desert ascetic. He would probably be fun in bed, maybe inexperienced, but beauty made up for a multitude of sins. Next to him, Eliot had looked like a stodgy professor—which he was. The boy had a delicious, sinewy body, strong forearms, probably from milking all those cows. Corn-fed Mormon virgin. Taking him down would be like taking down a monk.

“You’re over-dressed,” she said as they stopped their bikes next to her.

Barefoot, Howard ranged mid-field, feeling in his bones the sweetness of being on a soccer field again. He hadn’t played since his high school team took third in state. He watched Allison, who crouched in front of the opposite goal, knees bent, arms loose, glaring at him; he had three times received her kicks and fed the ball back to the attacking forwards. To his left, solid as a wall, stood Peterson, who had refused to take off even his tie. The opposing forwards still thought they could slip past him, but Peterson was surprisingly quick on his feet. He stole the ball once again and passed to Howard, with more force than accuracy. Howard held for a while, drawing toward him the defending player, an anglo with curly blond hair and immense thighs. When he charged, Howard kicked the ball to the receiving forward, a balding Hispanic man, who immediately shot on the goal—a sweet parabolic kick which dropped toward the high right corner. Allison turned and leaped, tipping the ball backward over the bar of the goal.

The Hispanic stood in the field and clapped. “Next time, muchacha.”

“Next time my ass!” shouted Allison. “I ain’t ya muchacha.” Howard cringed when she swore. Most ranchers swore, his father included, but his mother never had. She had made him feel it was a low habit. He was surprised that his recent doubts did not sway his gut reactions to swearing and drinking.

The corner kick bounced off Allison’s hands, but one of her team, a tall man with a German accent, kicked it against one of Howard’s [p.34] team and out of bounds. Allison set the ball at the corner of the box and boomed it upfield—a high floater.

Howard took the ball on his chest so it dropped neatly at his feet. He sprinted left around one defender and fed it back to the bald forward, who took it up the sideline. Instead of shooting at the goal, he fed the ball inside. A short man in a blue shirt twisted in the air and hooked it powerfully toward Allison’s left. She dived and knocked the ball down, cradling it in her arms and rolling to her feet as the other forwards rushed her. She took three sprinting leaps and kicked it high again, this time over Howard’s head.

By the end of the 4th of July concert, she had seemed thin, even frail, but now she loomed large as a force of nature. Would she consider it intrusive if he ran to embrace her? The pass dropped close to him, but he wasn’t moving and couldn’t get to it. Allison shouted at him, “Get your head in the game.” Her speech was hard-edged, but her laugh bubbled out of a spring of good humor. Talking with her was like hearing the sudden buzz of a rattlesnake, dangerous and thrilling. A fallen angel had dropped her out of the sky, clouding his mind and confounding his purposes. He pictured Allison wearing not a black T-shirt but a long white dress as she descended into the waters of baptism. But her face was wrong, not pious but aggressive, her mouth twisted by sarcasm as she rose dripping from the font.

After the game the two missionaries hung around. The large one—­ Elder Peterson according to his name tag which he had worn even while playing—pulled three bottles of sports drink out of his backpack. “What happened to Eliot?” he asked. “I thought he ran with you.” Elder Rockwood was distracted, frowning down at the pages of a letter.

“Occasionally.” Alison wondered why he was interested in Eliot.

Peterson leaned forward with the false familiarity of a salesman: it did seem even hotter, if that were possible, he said, than the day of the concert. Yes, it was lucky we happened to be there, a stroke of fortune for us all. You don’t remember a thing? A shame you missed the last songs—such a great concert—and the fireworks, they were great, too. [p.35] Was Eliot still opening new vistas in sex research? It’s fine to record and unravel the tangles of today’s perverse society. Modern life can be so confusing. Then he rambled on about the crisis of values in the United States, teenage pregnancy, drugs, divorce, gangs, sexual perversion, high taxes, and the deficit—a general fragmentation of family life— flinging out a net of words which she at first thought accidental. Howard glanced toward her and rolled his eyes. Then she realized that Elder Peterson wanted to catch a certain kind of fish—not her kind—and to repel all others. It was a conservative net. “Soon life will be as corrupt right here in the U.S.A. as it is in Europe.”

Howard’s feet were skinned and his slacks were streaked with grass stains. Tall and wiry, he had hair the color of mahogany. If it weren’t for Peterson’s zeal, she might find a way of asking him why he was so somber. He held the letter, which was written with a tidy feminine hand, open on his lap, but he was staring at the ground next to his foot. At the concert he had been hyped up, nervous and glib, and she wondered what was making him so blue. She had known that Mormons were polygamist, evangelical, with peculiar theology, but he was an unsteady mix of rational and mystic, innocence and worldliness, sarcasm and piety. Very curious.

Then Peterson used communism and feminism in the same sentence, and she couldn’t take it anymore. What the hell was his first name? He said, “Many people are looking for a haven from the storm in this life and the next”—said it without interest, like something memorized. “Have you ever sorrowed over a loved one who has passed on? Have you thought of the pleasure of greeting them when you leave this life?”

She stood, furious at Peterson’s aggressive questions. He was trying to manipulate her like a wrong-headed life insurance salesman, fishing for any private sorrow or unhappiness. “This whole thing is bullshit.” A bead of sweat ran down Peterson’s face and into his shirt collar.

“Fine,” he said. “I know our message isn’t for everyone.”

She started to walk away and then turned back for her bag, picked it up, and slung it across her shoulder. She looked down at them. Her [p.36] head was fuzzy with anger at Peterson. Her brother had been eighteen, she thirteen, when he killed himself trying to drive under a flooded underpass. Peterson leaned back against a tree, a false, half smile on his lips. The other one, Howard, stared up at her, angry and forlorn, a cross between James Dean and a Boy Scout, lovely to look at. “Don’t let this guy talk you out of coming next week. I know he’s going to try. Tell him you need the exercise. You need to get knocked on your butt once a week. Only next time, don’t dress for church. It’s damned embarrassing.” She squatted to pick up the envelope which lay next to his knee; the return address was Rockwood, Utah. “Bad news?” He handed her the pages. “No,” she said. “I don’t want to read your mail.”

He folded the pages and put them back in the envelope, thrusting it in her bag. “Read it,” he said. “It’s from my mother and I don’t know what to do about it.”

She wanted to fling the envelope to the ground, but something desperate in his face stopped her. Instead she turned and marched to her car. Still angry at the obnoxious questions, she took the ramp too fast and nearly ran into a semi as she pulled onto the Loop. The day Michael died, he had picked her up from school in a storm that had put down twelve inches in ten hours. The underpass seemed to have only a thin sheet of water covering the street, but as Michael gunned the car, water sprayed up heavily around them. “Stop, Michael!” she screamed. They hadn’t quite reached the underpass when the car slipped sideways and then lifted, soon tumbling onto its side—still moving sideways toward the river like a foundering boat.

She had hung by her seat belt as the car turned again, tumbling faster and faster, filling with water. Her seat belt kept her inside as the water sloshed around her. Finally they hit something solid. She unfastened her belt and crawled out the window, clinging to the roof. The car had lodged against a tree on the edge of Buffalo Bayou. Michael seemed unconscious; the car was full of water. When she tried to help him, she slipped into the rushing stream, and barely caught herself by hanging on to the radio antenna. She didn’t have the strength to pull herself back on top of the car. Finally a boat came for her—too late for Michael.

[p.37] Losing him had been unbearable. Because of their parents’ on-­and-­off-again marriage, she and Michael had been forced to rely heavily on each other. Nothing salved her sorrow, especially not the article her mother gave her which described the stages of grief. A librarian at school recommended The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, which offered only distant comfort, and the Book of John, which moved her with its beautiful language. She tried to read The Sickness Unto Death, but couldn’t figure out the sentences. Then she asked a Catholic friend to invite her to mass. The chanted ceremony had affected her deeply; she breathed the incense, a mystery as thick as marijuana smoke. She thought of Christ, the hero, who would descend under the water and return, carrying Michael in his arms. After a year she had changed her mind, believing that Michael was merely flesh rotting in the ground. Her belief in Christ had been like bayou mist and dissipated with the morning sun.

Back in her apartment, she sloughed her clothes off and dumped out her bag. The fat envelope fell out, and she became angry at what seemed to be another missionary trick. She was also curious about this woman who was not repressed, depressed, or suppressed, but who lived in a tiny Mormon, conservative desert town. She opened the letter and read:

Dear Elder Howie,

It’s dry and the Russian olives blossomed early this year. Everywhere I went this week I smelled them. I know I’m not supposed to write what could make you homesick, but I thought you’d find comfort in knowing that the cycles are regular here, well almost regular. Your father cut first crop in June, but took so long to get it up that the new alfalfa had grown up into the windrows. Bishop Hansen finally helped him. Prepare yourself, he is slower than he used to be. I’ve been thinking about going back to college. But there’s no money for it, unless we sold some land, and your father won’t do that. I saw Belinda at the grocery last Monday. She said that she gets a letter from you every Friday or Saturday. Seems that on your end cycles are also regular.

I have a confession to make, more like a confusion. If Bishop Hansen ever finds out, it would certainly break his heart. Maybe he’d release me as Relief Society president, which would finally give me some relief. One of the Hamblin Feldsens moved into the [p.38] Johnson place just after you left. Anyway, Sister Feldsen told me last month that her marriage was breaking up. Her husband told her he didn’t love her anymore, and, as soon as all their children were in college, he wanted a divorce. Their youngest is in kindergarten, for heaven’s sake! What did he think she was going to do for fourteen more years, smile and be grateful for his forbearance? So she went to Bishop Hansen with her troubles. First off, he didn’t believe that Tom Feldsen would say such a thing and then advised her that some of the sisters in the ward might be able to help her take better care of herself. As if her marriage is going to be saved by a makeover.

So she came to me. I told her Tom was the one needing a makeover, and that I had a two-by-four that might do the job. The worst of it is she’d given herself severe headaches by worrying that she was responsible for her husband’s behavior. I told her that she needed to tell her husband that if he was leaving he’d better do it in fourteen minutes not fourteen years, and that he’d better deed the house over to her and send her $500 a month on which he’d already paid the income tax and tithing. But that if he couldn’t make up his mind to do that, he should stay and she’d try to forgive him for being an idiot. She did what I told her. Well, I’m sure she didn’t put it to him in those exact words, but in essence they’re trying to struggle through their troubles.

She still had the headaches and the depression. I talked her into going to a doctor and then a specialist in Salt Lake, who said it was psychosomatic, as if that was telling her anything new. In short, she needs drugs to keep her balance, but her husband doesn’t want her to have a crutch. So she came to me again. The way she looked when she walked in, her head must have felt like one of those cactuses which are ready to burst and send baby spiders flying everywhere. We’d done everything humanly possible, so I knew healing her headache was up to the Lord. I said I’d pray with her. We kneeled down and then I felt strong as anything that I could stand up and lay my hands on her head. I couldn’t bless her through the priesthood because I didn’t have it, so I blessed her through your father’s priesthood. He hasn’t used it since he blessed Nan to get over the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and I thought that somebody might as well get some benefit from it. I felt warm when I laid my hands on her head and a power went out of me, just like is described in the Gospels. Afterward I felt funny doing something which all my life I’d seen only men do. But her headache disappeared that instant and hasn’t returned to this day, two months later. How can good come from an evil act?

After that I blessed Liza Smith to get pregnant, and she did, Beatrice Hansen that she’d have more energy, and she does. I blessed someone I won’t name that she could forgive herself for the unspeakable things her dead uncle did to her when she was little. Last [p.39] week she broke a baseball bat over his headstone. I guess that counts as a partial healing. I blessed Holly Laffert that she would no longer have insomnia. She still can’t sleep. But now she wakes her husband up and they talk or do whatever. I know I’m not supposed to involve a missionary in the mysteries, but I need to know what you think. I know it’s not traditional for a woman to use her husband’s priesthood.

I have another confession. Last weekend your father and I had a terrific argument and I had to get out of the house, out of town. I felt like I was carrying the weight of every woman in the ward on my back. I just started driving and five hours later I was in Ely. Before long the $20 in my purse was $300 at the blackjack tables. I kept thinking that God was leading me on so that he could teach me a lesson in the end, but he never did. I finally quit when I had $550. I called Alice Warner and asked her to take charge in Relief Society, and I rented a room in a fancy hotel and didn’t wake up until 11:00. I don’t know what got into me. Then I called your Aunt Effie. “I’ve been with you all weekend,” I said to her. Slow Effie didn’t catch my drift at first. Anyway, after that, I felt like I could face your father and my calling again. If I ever get feeling too desperate, I’ll just tell Bishop Hansen I went off to Nevada and came back a wicked woman. He’d have to release me on the spot because I would no longer be a proper role model for the sisters in our ward. I’ll just keep this story to myself, you excepting; it’ll be my ace in the hole, so to speak. Funny thing is, we are a little short until your father sells the calves, and I couldn’t figure where I was going to get the money for your missionary account this month. The Lord moves in a mysterious way. Howard, you were always our peacemaker. Now that you’re gone, your father and I are at each other every day. We need you back! Your father says I have turned wacko on him. What kind of word is that to use for your wife?

Your Apostate Mother

Allison let the letter slip onto the bed. She pictured a Quaker woman laying her hands on the head of a blackjack dealer. “Hit me with the Spirit.” Perplexing mother, perplexing son, both trapped in the prison of their beliefs. The voice which had been rising from the letter seemed to still hum in the room. “It’s dry and the Russian olives blossomed early this year.” That afternoon this woman’s son had danced toward the ball, his black slacks flapping, the tail of his shirt [p.40] flying. “The Lord moves in a mysterious way.” When she had kicked the ball over his head, he forgot about the game and watched her, his face and body as pitiful as an orphan’s.

She jumped up from the bed and yanked on the shower. The letter had focused her attention on this country boy, had made his motions precious, like in a movie when light strikes one face in a crowd of faces. Was she such a sucker for a forlorn man?

A week and a half later, sitting in her parents’ beach house west of Galveston, Allison proofread the last few lines of computer code. She was finished with the part of STIV they’d had her write. Her mother and Eliot were painting the outside walls of the house and their words floated up to her through the open window—something about the irony of using sensate-focus in virtual reality therapy. For some reason she had no desire to tell them she had finished.

Sitting on the grass after their second soccer game, Howard’s eyes had swung between her and Eliot, who had dragged himself out of bed. She knew Howard was attracted to her, but he was so swaddled in religion that he could only manage covert glances at her face or her bare legs. He was repressed, unsteady as a squirrel tempted by food in her hand.

She shook her head and double checked the parameters for fractal-generated human figures. Begin at XB and proceed to XY. For STIV her mother and Eliot assumed that sex is like the grammar in a language such as English or computer code: with acts and bodies as the words or variables, and with cultural attitudes as the syntax. If X is a sexual prompt, then Y is the female response—frigidity or sexual frustration. Event driven. Cause and effect.

She grinned, thinking that her Aunt Jenny would say the missionary was a gift—a man-child coming to Allison’s need, just like a revelation. All she needed to do was seduce him and he’d go off to Anchorage with her. But Aunt Jenny’s Mormon man-child had gone visionary. The first rule was never trust a religious man.

That was one problem with STIV—complexity. Too many variables. If X then Y unless Q equals R or P equals W. Perfectly rational. [p.41] Perfectly tangled. How could they possibly feed into a computer signs of attractiveness, courtship methods and rituals, gender roles, civil and religious taboos, instinctual behavior and the bad syntax learned from stereotypes in TV and romance novels—the convoluted language of eroticism? They could never explain why she was thinking about a Mormon boy with pleasure, his thin, mobile face, rich mahogany hair.

Eliot stuck his head in the window. “I was reading a nineteenth-century sex manual,” he said. “Not a how-to book, of course. More like evolutionary goals—phrenology and survival of the fittest. Leafing through, I saw a picture of Brigham Young. It was given as a model of perfect manhood. And I thought of those missionaries.”

“Perfect, how?” she said.

“Potency. Or nobility. I didn’t read it carefully.” He disappeared down the ladder.

She imagined the culture that had produced this lusty ascetic, or so she imagined him as Howard traced her body with his eyes. The same culture had produced his desert-feminist mother. Allison should have been offended by Howard’s grimaces when she swore, his unhappiness when she came to the second game hung over, with sour wine on her breath. Somehow his Puritan traits affected her perversely. Allison, she thought, you’re a fool for fundamentalists. Bobby, the wrestler who’d taught her sex, had told her that his favorite Bible story was Samson and that he always prayed before matches. “God gives me victory,” he’d said. He’d call her Delilah and laugh like hell.

With the next religious boy, names were no joke. At a science fair, she’d met a rancher’s son from Cut and Shoot. He was molds, she number crunching. They’d slipped naturally into talk about the intersection of their fields of interest. He had blue eyes and dimples. She was sixteen and romance still overwhelmed her; he seemed evening to her morning. But she was wrong: his mother was a Pentecostal minister. Instead of going to the awards banquet, they’d driven his pickup to a corner of the parking lot and grappled in back on a yellow raincoat he’d spread, fast and unsubtle sex, what he’d apparently learned by observing his father’s bulls. Nothing like what she’d experienced with Bobby, a slow and sensitive wrestler. When they went indoors again, [p.42] dessert was being served. She led the way to two empty chairs, but he sat across the room from her. He glowered while the awards were presented. Afterward she tried to talk to him. “Slut,” he whispered. “Why did you tempt me?” She had looked into his insane face and the hair rose on the back of her neck. She finally decided that the names simply allowed him to return to his mama with an easy conscience.

The way Howard looked at her after that second game, could he possibly imagine that it was her conversion he wanted? Sometimes he stared at the ground, so focused on her that the air vibrated. If that was all he did, she might have slapped his repressed face, shocked him with some sweet vulgarity, or simply said good-bye, but he showed flashes of returning to the Howard of the first night on the hill above Miller Theater—his face bright with life, giving her back quick, quirky talk, fast as a tennis game. Also he was interested in her, wanting to know about her computer work, her dreams of Anchorage, her life as a child. He had even probed delicately enough that she had told them about Michael. His rebuke to Peterson afterward had been satisfying. She imagined that with a few nudges he would follow her anywhere, to Alaska if she asked, unlike Eliot, who was bound to his own past. Of course, it was just female fantasy; Howard, whom she barely knew, was also bound to a past. If Aunt Jenny had learned anything, it had been that it was impossible to train any man up in the way he should go. The dream of power over someone weaker was the male fantasy; women were too smart to buy into that. Men made Cinderella movies about flower girls, prostitutes, nurses, secretaries, child-brides, slaves, maids, nuns, rape victims, and princesses—all of them trapped by conditions inside conditions like magic boxes. Computers had no monopoly on virtual reality.

Allison’s mother drifted inside, walked across the room to the table, lifted a gallon can of paint, and shook it. A strand of hair lay against her mother’s neck. The form of her back and legs was familiar. As a child, Allison had read on the couch after school. Later her mother would come home, crossing that other room as she had just crossed this one, touching her own neck as she poured a drink from the [p.43] cabinet or sat in the bay window reading the newspaper. “Hey, Ali,” she might say. Perhaps touching Allison on the head. Perhaps not.

“I thought I’d have to paint it alone,” her mother said.

Wanted to do it alone, Allison thought. Or else she would’ve told us, told Dad.

Eliot stepped up and painted the outer wall above the window.

“You could do that from inside,” she said.

“Reaching out?” he said. “I’d fall.”

Allison had met him nearly two years before. She had been debugging a program in her mother’s office when Eliot had knocked on the door. “You’re Lois’s daughter, aren’t you?” he said. “No,” she said. “Just the hired help.” He had looked at her strangely; she knew she had her mother’s face and build. A month later they met again at a party in her parents’ house. When he saw her, he did a double-take. “You lied,” he said. She held up her glass. “This is molecular software. Affects the way my CPU reacts.” They’d spent the evening talking about the evolution of the bra—from the bullet-shaped armor worn by Doris Day and Madonna to the filmy ones shown in current Victoria’s Secret catalogs to the one she wasn’t wearing. They had argued about whether U2 or Jimi Hendrix had a better version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and they agreed that Jack Kerouac had gotten more mileage out of his liver than he should have.

That seemed long ago. Now she knew she couldn’t hold him. She would drive to Alaska a lone wolf, like the yellow-eyed dream-wolf that had once bounded across snow under dark trees. Her totem.

Her mother painted the window sills with a three-inch brush. “We built this house before you were born,” she said.

Eliot climbed down the ladder, then returned with a rag, rubbing something above the window. He smiled in at her and her mother, then disappeared again.

“He’s a perfectionist,” said her mother.

“Drives me crazy,” said Allison.

“He refines my wild and fragmented ideas. I wouldn’t know what to do without him.”

Allison turned toward her mother.

[p.44] “Ali, I’ve kept my mouth shut the last month,” her mother said. “You can’t blame me for his refusal to go with you.”

“It doesn’t matter. If it wasn’t you and STIV keeping him here, it would be something else.” She slammed the roller up and down, showering herself with droplets of white paint.

That night, after her mother had driven back to Houston, Allison walked to the beach. No one was there except a pickup and a tent far down the shore, and the lights of a shrimper miles out in the Gulf. She leaned against the railroad ties stuck upright in the sand, the boundary between the public and private beaches. Eliot slumped next to her; she felt his shoulder against hers. For most of her time with Eliot she had savored the tension before lovemaking—knowing that soon he would turn toward her, or she toward him. But now the prospect didn’t move her.

She stood and walked down to the beach, knowing he was probably arousing himself by looking at her. Suddenly she was angry again, wanting to jerk free of the tether of his sight. She imagined the ways he might have viewed her during the past two years: Student lover? Fresh skin for seasoned hands? Friend? Little sister? Mystery? Her mother, but younger, less of a bitch?

“Allison,” he said.

“I want to move out of this skin,” she called back. “Like a snake.”

Later she watched the breeze blow the curtains inward—curling, softly snapping ghosts. Eliot knelt above her, his face a pale blotch. She found herself picturing Howard—wide-eyed, virginal—looking down at her on the bed. “Anger,” her mother told her when Allison was a raving teenager, “only means you stand to lose something.” She wanted to roll back time to when she and Eliot were like left and right hands and she had felt no confusion when they coupled. She lifted herself on her elbows and pressed her mouth against his, biting his lips.

To Howard’s delight, after their third game of soccer Peterson fell asleep against the trunk of a great tree, legs crossed, hands laid across his knees, palms up. Soon his breathing turned heavy, regular as waves. Peterson could sleep standing in the shower.

[p.45] “I keep running,” Allison said. She was talking again about her plan to relocate in Alaska. “Anybody stands still, entropy sets in.” She looked at Peterson. “Sleeping Buddha. Sleeping Bubba. I don’t keep moving, soon I’m stymied and can’t budge. Now you, you’re nothing like me. You lie through your teeth when you say you’re frightened of going back, having your dreams. Really you’re more frightened of moving on. You’ll slide right back into the same old Utah skin you’ve always worn.”

He was silent. “The desert is like no skin you’ve ever worn,” he said finally, and she laughed. “If you ever went there, you’d change your mind.”

“Is the desert worth going back to Utah culture?”

Jeopardy,” he said. “The answer is Rockwood, Rockwood, Rock­wood.” Sleep on, Peterson, he thought, you’re a big boy and you need your rest.

“What is the roll call at one of your town meetings?” She laid her head on her own shoulder, watching him. He looked into her eyes and neither of them looked away. Swallowed by her amber-flecked eyes.

“Close,” he managed to say. “Next guess.”

“What is a cheer at your high school cow-chip tossing contests?”

“Have some respect. Give up?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Where did I wreck my parents’ car?”

“That’s Rockwood.”

“No,” he said.

“You wrecked their car three times?”

“Not the same car. Once I wasn’t even driving. I was backing the tractor around our new Buick and the front-end loader smashed the windshield and roof. Another time I tail-ended a guy who was stopped at a red light on Main Street.”

“Rockwood has a stop light?”

“Had. They took it out after the accident. Once I slipped off the dam at midnight and dropped my father’s pickup into the reservoir.”

“What were you doing at the dam at midnight?”

“That’s what my parents asked.”

[p.46] “Chappaquiddick?”

“No,” he said. “She pulled me to shore.”

She laughed once, a cough like the bark of a hyena. “But that would be Rockwood, Rockwood dam.”

“Close to what my father said.” He pointed, nearly touching her lips with his fingertip. “Your turn.” He picked up a magazine she had taken from her bag, only to drop it on the grass between them. He stared at the address label, and memorized it.

She flipped her hair back and laid her hand on his knee. “You’re going home soon. Marry a few docile Mormon women?”

He glanced at Peterson and stood, sat again, slightly farther away from her. He couldn’t puzzle out why, when his mind had shucked off tradition, physical habit forced him away from a woman who wanted him. He should rip off his tie and stomp on it. He grinned because that was the deepest liberation his imagination allowed.

“You’re looking forward to it,” she said. “Molly Monday, Tam­my Tuesday, Wanda—.”

“Polygamy is out,” he said. “And Mormon women are not ­docile.”

Allison raised one eyebrow.

“You doubt me?” he said. “Once, driving home from Hamblin, my mother saw four teenagers beating up a Mexican sheepherder. She stopped and faced them down, made three of them stop. One was still down on the guy’s chest, slugging him, so she took a short board out of the truck. Whopped him across the back. Then she said, ‘Have I got your attention now?’”

“You’re lying,” said Allison.

“It’s true. The boy stood up and broke her nose.”

“You can’t move your lips without lying.” Then she stopped grinning. “I want to meet this woman. That letter was astonishing. Your mother seems familiar to me already.” She leaned forward. “Jeopardy. The offspring of a pomegranate and a beehive.”

“I give up.”

“What is your head?” She leaned forward. “You say you want me to convert. To what?”

[p.47] To me, he thought. I want to freeze time, keep you talking on this lawn forever. He finally said, “To the gospel.”

“Triple liar. You look at me like a starving man. How can you imagine that would have no effect on me?” She reached across and took his hand so tightly he couldn’t pull free.

Peterson jerked upright. “Baptism and sealings for the dead,” he said, rubbing his face.

“He’s doing Jeopardy,” she said. “What is the dream life of a Mormon missionary?”

He lumbered to his feet and stared down at their hands. “I must have drifted off.”

As they ate lunch, Howard felt ashamed and frightened that Peterson would tell the mission president that he had held Allison’s hand. He had a longing to talk to Belinda, whose voice he hadn’t heard for nearly two years, but who was so far away he could never touch her. While Peterson took his customary short nap after lunch, Howard walked downstairs and phoned Utah. Dwight, who had been fingering the cribbage cards, pretended to read a newspaper. After the embarrassment of talking to her mother, who preached to him that phoning was certainly a breach of mission rules, he finally got Belinda on the phone. “Howard?” she said. “I mean Elder Rockwood. I didn’t know you could call.” He felt beset and bound by rules.

“Belinda,” he said. “I forgot your voice. I needed a little refresher.”

Dwight peered over the top of the newspaper. “I thought you missionaries aren’t supposed to call women.”

“Dwight, are you my mother? Do you think you can give me a little breathing room?”

“You want me to leave? Not a chance. I want to hear how you pious missionaries talk to women.” Howard glared at him, and he snapped the newspaper back up, covering his face.

They talked about the weather. She laughed when he used the word y’all. “Please laugh again,” he said. She did, but it was forced. Neither of them spoke.

“Still September first?” she said. “I’ll be at the airport.”

[p.48] “Ah—.” But she was already discussing her plans for the wedding. He couldn’t open his mouth to slow her down.

Peterson wandered into the laundry and put his clothing in the washer. He stuck his head in the door. “Hey, Elder, let’s hit the pavement.”

Dwight grinned at Peterson. “Shhh, he’s talking to that wildass Houston woman you told me about. It’s been better than the soaps.”

“Who’s that?” Belinda asked Howard.

“My companion. Want to talk to him?”

“We’re going to be late for our appointment. Who are you talking to really?”

“I’ve got to go,” said Howard. “I can’t say how I feel.”

“I understand,” said Belinda. “With your companion standing there and all.”

Howard said good-by and hung up.

“It’s about time, dammit,” said Dwight. “You’re a rod stuck in the wheels of progress. Can’t phone, can’t work on papers, can’t do nothing. From now on my office is off limits to you.”

“Sure, Dwight,” said Howard. He laid a dime on the desk. “This’s for your time.”

“Disrespectful shit.”

“You called Allison,” Peterson said. “I know you did. I think you’re crazy.”

Howard climbed on his bike and rode ahead. Allison? He breathed deeply, putting her out of his mind—and smelled exhaust and the fumes from the oil refineries thirty miles away in Texas City. The smell of money, the Texans said. Belinda’s voice still sang in his ear; the buildings still echoed the sound of her laughter.