Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.49] Allison’s mother paced the boundary between lawn and garden, gesturing, her hands chopping the air as if she practiced karate. Allison’s father bent over a row of chives. Inside, Allison lounged in the bay window of her parents’ library. Eliot sat across the room in her father’s chair, for once not reading. Her mother was tall—only an inch shorter than Allison—big-boned, with a face that was angular, like Allison’s. Her father was short and quiet, his fingers full of vegetables.
Her mother had raged all afternoon since coming home from the university. That morning a group of younger professors, mobilized by Eliot, who was not even in their department, had tried to vote in her mother as chair, but the older professors had risen in force and put down the coup. The Department of Social Anthropology boasted only three women. The other two appeared composed and seamless, unlike her mother, who became hysterical over any injustice. Her mother’s political passion would one day make her chair, but the men, careful in speech, were Texans or adopted Texans, never frivolous with power. A few in the department weren’t even polite on the surface. One required his female teaching assistants to wear dresses and be ready to instruct any of his classes with five minutes’ notice. “Are you intimate with the material or not?” he said to them. Women students were always in her [p.50] mother’s office complaining or asking advice. When Allison was grown, her mother told her what the boys in the department said about these cloistered conferences.
These same men had, when Allison was ten or eleven, patted her hand and called her darlin’ even though they didn’t dare call her mother anything but Dr. Franklin-Warren. When Allison turned thirteen, she called them darlin’ back, venom in her voice.
Eliot’s eyes twitched behind his lids. Outside, Allison’s father handed her mother crowns of broccoli. “I have a bedtime story,” Eliot said. He stood and walked half way to the window. “The mountain woman and her man live alone in a cabin in the Yukon, the last frontier.”
“Anchorage is not on the Yukon River,” she said. “And there is no more frontier.”
He ignored her. “Each evening they shut and bar the door. The woman is tired from her day of trapping, hunting, and writing computer programs which make the work of big oil companies more efficient, and she falls into the arms of her man, who ministers to her needs, cooks for her, cleans house, pampers her. He’s so convenient, so adaptable that she finds him tedious.” She sat up and stared at him. “The windows are covered with oiled paper, and are narrow, so the bears and wolves which prowl around her cabin every night can’t get more than a claw inside. Every morning when she strides out, she sees the grizzly’s prints, long as two hands laid end to end. She has a recurring dream, very erotic, that she unbars the door and the bear shuffles inside to clamber onto her bed.”
“I’m going because I want the job. The fantasy was not some back-to-the-primordial crap. The fantasy was thinking you’d follow me.”
“The fantasy was thinking you could get me to give up my life to be with you.” Eliot gestured—tight, spastic motions. “As much as it hurts, I won’t do it.” He opened the door.
“Toads who never breathe air outside their offices showed up!” she heard her mother shout, waving her arms and filling the air with words.
[p.51] “Next time,” Eliot called to her, “they’d better watch their butts!” Allison’s mother and father both turned toward the house; neither smiled.
“Lois,” Allison’s father said, “you and Eliot did those old boys a genuine service. None of them have stood up on their hind legs and roared for three decades.”
“Go to hell, Frank,” her mother said. “I’m not in the mood for it.”
“Just a minute,” said Eliot to Allison. He smiled broadly as he walked across the lawn.
At last it had happened; Eliot had put words to what she had known all along. She walked across the room and opened the cabinet, poured more whiskey into a glass. His claim that he would exist only as a pale houseman was a smoke screen. If the nature of their relationship was equal here, it wouldn’t change in Anchorage.
In the garden, Eliot stood over her father, who was rapidly picking okra and filling Eliot’s cupped hands with pods. Her mother shouted at Eliot. He presented to Allison’s mother his Charlie Chaplin face, wide-eyed, a sliver of a foolish grin. Soon her mother bent over, hands on knees, laughing. The three of them walked back across the lawn. Eliot carried the okra, his cupped hands high, as if lifting a chalice. Allison’s mother walked with her hand on Eliot’s shoulder. She leaned over and said something close to his ear. Their voices sounded from the kitchen. Allison tried to remember when she had first stolen a drink from the cabinet. Sixth grade? Fourth? She walked into the kitchen.
“I was beside myself,” said her mother. “Now I’m calmer. Frank’s got me chopping garlic and onions. Very therapeutic.”
“Just don’t cut off the end of your finger,” her father said. He poured wine.
Eliot lifted his drink: “To Frank, the farmer, and Lois, the berserker.”
During dinner Eliot engaged her mother, talking about the mechanics of their next stage of STIV. They had hired a pimple-faced boy, an undergraduate in computer science, to take her place, and she found that more offensive than Eliot’s lack of commitment. Her [p.52] mother smiled and leaned toward him as she had in the garden. Eliot had always liked Dr. Franklin-Warren as much or more than he did Allison. Her mother was possessed by vital, intellectual passions. Talking with her was like being swept away in a whirlwind. What person could resist?
At fourteen, Allison discovered that her mother regularly took outside lovers. She had gone to borrow her mother’s faculty card to buy a book and had overheard a conversation between some graduate students. When she told her father, he said, “Your mother and I have an understanding.”
When she was seventeen, her father moved out. It was her parents’ first open break. Before he left, Allison had listened to him and her mother arguing for days in their bedroom, in the garden, the kitchen, so it was no surprise. He had been gone three days when a man showed up, one of her mother’s friends from their years in Charlottesville, where her mother had taught and her father finished his Ph.D.
As soon as the man from Charlottesville came, Allison moved into the building in back of her mother’s house, which her father had used as a study. She lived there through most of the fall, avoiding the strange man, who was taller than her mother but who had an offensively round boy-face. She couldn’t remember his name.
The day before Thanksgiving, her father called. Allison was in the kitchen finding something to eat when her mother answered the phone. That afternoon the man was packed again, waiting in the living room. Before the taxi could arrive, Allison’s father walked into the house, circling her mother’s lover like a predator. He had walked out to the small house, and the man soon left, trying to say something to her mother, who held the door open for him, her face empty of emotion. Her husband had walked in, her lover out, and she stood in the doorway, as isolated and introspective as if she had closed her eyes and was savoring an exotic wine. Allison had gone out to sit with her father. He said, “Your mother and I are the apex of civilization.” His face said that he had no more illusions. Their marriage was simply open to whatever draft chose to blow between them. Allison had decided two [p.53] things: sleeping around was not for her and marriage made it easier to take advantage of someone.
Allison considered the flow of her life with Eliot. Success had been a function of companionship without constraint; now that there was constraint, they would break up. She watched the back of Eliot’s neck, and something stirred low inside, as if once again she turned her hips up to receive him. Lovely, thick-bodied Eliot, only five years younger than her mother. He lifted his glass to her from across the table.
When she was four or five, her father had occasionally taken her to his mathematics lectures. She would sit in the balcony of the auditorium, her books and drawing paper spread around her, while he filled the hall with his voice. He once said to her, “It’s a great help to me that you sit patiently for hours.” She knew now his compliment was inaccurate; being left to herself had never required patience.
Eliot dozed against her shoulder, his hand inside her shirt, flat on her belly. She moved his hand away. Suddenly he pushed his face against her neck. “You know I have immense affection for you and your family,” he said, his voice muffled by her flesh. She heard her mother moving in the kitchen. Allison had supposed at dinner that Eliot’s interest in her mother might still be sexual. She knew they’d slept together before he met Allison. Now there was another story which explained his habit of doting on her mother: he’d wanted to be a son-in-law.
“If I stayed, what would we be like twenty years from now?” she said. “Would I go wild in a garden while you filled my lap with okra?”
“Who knows what could happen in twenty years?”
“I have a story for you. The professor nudges thirty-five. Every day he struts around the class, gesturing, so full of his material that he’s invigorated, enraptured.”
“So full of what?”
“Himself, his own fragrant bullshit. After class, co-eds crowd around him. ‘What did you mean, Dr. Stone, when you said that the [p.54] wallet has become a fatter phallus? Does this mean that women in business suffer from penis envy?’”
Eliot turned to the window. She couldn’t see his face in the dark.
“With the eyes of these women on him, he feels young again. Among them he sees the daughter of one of the full professors. He realizes that, in addition to being ten years younger, she could move him closer to the seats of power. He reaches his hand toward her as if she were a plum. He thinks, ‘What would it be like to have mother and daughter both?’”
He turned back from the window. “I’ve loved you as well as I could, Allison, but I still won’t leave Houston. You don’t have to make our parting unpleasant.” He moved his hand across the back of her neck, rubbing there and on her shoulders, and her eyes misted. Get a grip, she said to herself.
Several months after she first met Eliot, she began to believe that he was someone she could spend her life with. They were compatible sexually, intellectually; they enjoyed many of the same things: the same bluesy rock, Italian and oriental food, the same kind of contemporary novel about relationships. Their differences had seemed superficial. She liked beer, he preferred wine. He was fastidious, she careless with appearance and schedules. She had hoped they might avoid the mistakes her parents had made. Marrying, for one thing, making love into a prison house. She’d been right about the quality of their love, just not the duration.
Her mind went to Howard. He would stick with the woman he chose. The only problem was his Mormonism. It had educated him— giving him consistency and sensitivity—for which she felt an odd gratitude, even if it made him unstable intellectually—but sooner or later, everyone graduated from school.
The fourth Saturday Peterson refused to play soccer. Howard begged and then fell silent, deciding on an experiment—forgetting Allison. But she still rose in his mind and tipped the ball backward over the net. She still sat on the grass in the lotus position, head hanging, supple, speaking with her strong, clear voice. Her words fell through his mind [p.55] like inextinguishable sparks. “I’m playing soccer tomorrow,” he said to Peterson the next Friday. “With or without you.” That night, a downpour started, a full day of rain, then another, a deluge so strong and steady that Howard wondered if the Flood had returned despite God’s promise. Peterson looked at the sky, and said, “It’s God’s hand.” Howard said he was being egocentric.
Water ran down every street, pooled in Hermann Park. Even Peterson wasn’t going to propose that they tract on their bikes when the weather was like standing under a shower, so the two missionaries and Dwight sat on the top step, back under the awning, watching the rain fill the bayou with roiling water that threatened to overflow into the lower apartments. Peterson read while Dwight and Howard played cribbage, but Howard couldn’t keep his mind on the game. “This ain’t no fun,” said Dwight. “You’re playing like a six-year-old.” He took his cards and the peg board and went back inside.
Keeping one eye on Peterson, Howard wrote a letter to Allison. “What I’ve believed all my life, I no longer know to be true.” He wrote about his struggle concerning whether to believe before his mission, but left Belinda out of the story. He described his parents, the desert surrounding Rockwood, his high school experience, but especially his mission, his gradual disillusionment. Then when the mail carrier arrived, he ran down in the rain and handed the letter to her through the window.
That night, with the rain a rhythm on the roof and the flood still rising in the bayou, he imagined sex with Allison. He played for himself every slow detail of the story of their mutual seduction. Then in the shower, with cold water pouring across his chest and legs, he said a prayer. “Father,” he said, “give me a sign that you exist. Provide a way out. Give me the strength to remove this hook from my flesh.”
Early the next morning, Howard’s mother phoned to say that his father had suffered a heart attack. “Makes no sense,” she said. “How could he have an attack and not even know it?”
“A heart attack,” said Howard. “I’m coming home.” He thought of God, grinning and sending the requested sign. His hands shook with anger.
[p.56] “A heart attack?” said Dwight, who was standing in the doorway. “Who?”
“Dad’s had a heart attack and you’ve gone apostate, blessing other women. Who gave you the priesthood?”
The phone was silent. Then she said, “Don’t come home. He has some medicine which should keep him from having another attack. The doctor says he’ll live to be a hundred like all the other Rockwoods. How can I get along with him for thirty-five more years?”
“I’ll be on the plane tomorrow.”
“Fiddlesticks. I knew I shouldn’t have called you. Walter, he thinks you’re nearly dead. Try to convince him otherwise.” He heard her hand his father the phone.
“Howard,” his father said, “what happened was just a ripple in the stream. Stay on your mission. People who come home early aren’t worth a damn.”
“He didn’t mean you,” said his mother, back on the phone. “He meant it’s important for you to see it through. For your self-respect. I won’t bless another woman until you get back.”
“What?” said his father in the background. “What are you talking about?”
“Good-bye, Howard,” his mother said. “Pay attention to the Lord’s work. Don’t let yourself get distracted. He’s getting old, Howard. Your coming home won’t stop that.”
She hung up; Peterson and Dwight stood in the doorway.
“I should be home, not in this swampy, evil hole.” The receiver dangled from Howard’s hand. In the physical world, if you plowed a field and planted it, alfalfa or wheat came up, whichever you had put in the ground. If you cut off a finger, it would lie in the dust. In the spiritual world if you asked for a temptation to be removed, two more rose in its place. “Dwight, never pray. It’s like the monkey giving three wishes: you always get something you don’t want.”
He marched out the door and sat on the edge of the festering bayou. He felt as dazed as a stunned steer—knocked on the head first by a woman who had no place in his universe, then by his mother who had quietly become an apostate, and finally by his father’s failing body. [p.57] He imagined God as an ancient patriarch, so hassled by all his heavenly wives and children that he turned anarchic, actively culturing chaos on earth. God should not leave his children in doubt. The universe should be sure and safe. If he could just stop believing, he thought, his confusion would disappear. It was ridiculous being angry at God, when his father’s heart attack could only be blamed on chaos and coincidence, the fallible human body.
After another night of rain (“The flippin’ seventh,” said Peterson), the clouds dissipated and the aggressive Houston sun turned the atmosphere hot and vaporous. Around lunch time, Howard followed Peterson as they rode their bikes between the University of Texas medical complex and the back side of the zoo. Peterson’s legs pumped like the driving shafts of a steam engine, and he perspired like one. Howard’s back itched from the sweat—dozens of needle pricks—as if he had just been tested for allergies.
They passed an olive-skinned man in a white suit walking with a small girl in a daisy-print sun dress, and then two women—spiked hair and black leather. That morning Peterson had insisted that since they didn’t have anything better to do they had to tract—contacting blindly, following their spiritual sense. Howard refused to exercise his authority as senior companion to overrule Peterson, so they had uselessly knocked on doors, never getting beyond the introduction. They had pedaled down the tree-lined streets near Rice University. As long as they could keep a man or woman engaged on the doorstep, the air-conditioned breeze breathed into their faces. But the relief never lasted long. “No thanks, not interested” or less euphemistic.
Howard pulled his bike even with Peterson’s. “This is a waste of time,” he said.
“We’re just paying our dues,” said Peterson. “God blesses us for our industry in ways we can’t know. I have a premonition we’ll find someone golden today.”
They turned under the arch into Rice campus, which wasn’t far from Allison’s address. Because of the over-reaching branches of live oaks and the high wall surrounding the university, it was quieter inside. Entering the campus, Howard always felt an edge of expectancy, as if [p.58] essential arguments and problems were debated in the buildings. The students walking between classes had the attitude of being initiated into secrets—aloof, possessing a competent rationality. All confusion seemed to be prohibited.
Eliot, predictably obsessed with himself and his projects, asked her to at least outline the next section of STIV for the novice programmer. Why she had agreed, she didn’t know. As she typed, she thought about Howard, wanting to see him again. He had mailed her a letter which described his whole life, as if it were a résumé. Her one reservation about him had been his religion, and remarkable coincidence, he was giving it up. She couldn’t understand why he stayed with Elder Peterson, having no faith in the church they represented.
Answering the door, she said, “Speak of the devil.”
“We only have a minute,” said Peterson, but Howard walked in anyway.
She offered them drinks, but they wouldn’t take beer or tea or even Coke. Finally she made frozen lemonade. They sat on her couch drinking glass after glass, as Peterson scowled at her and Howard talked about when his British ancestors came to Utah and the valleys were filled with grass, belly high to a horse. Their cows, sheep, and horses grazed everything down to stubble; those pioneers thought it would grow back as it had in England, but it never did. Instead sagebrush and weeds filled the valleys. And then he talked about the long rain storm and the difficulty of finding something called Postum in the stores in Houston. “It’s hard to think,” he said, “when the air is so sultry.” Then he fell into silence. He stared at her computer, her poster of Denali, anything to keep from looking full at her. She wanted to slap him awake. Look at me or don’t, she wanted to say. None of this weaselly glancing.
“Imagine yourself believing,” he said suddenly. “Follow your instincts.”
“Follow yours,” she said. “You know what you want.” Then she frowned. What did she want? She imagined Howard after sex. He [p.59] might turn bitter and call her “slut.” He might follow her to Anchorage. He might be damaged or feel himself damaged.
“Elder,” said Peterson. “We need to get back to work.”
“I have a story,” Howard said.
She stared at him. “A story?”
“Before this earth, God’s children had no spine, no separate will.”
“One obstacle for me,” said Allison, “is that your gospel has a male god.”
“No,” said Howard. “Mother and Father God.”
“Elder,” said Peterson, sitting on the edge of the couch. “Preach from the lessons.” His face was tight and angry.
“You don’t even believe this junk,” said Allison. “Your letter—”
He interrupted her. “Together they created children, who hung around heaven, having nowhere to go. Lucifer offered to organize a world, send the kids there but allow no mistakes. The gods thought his plan left no room for growth. He got angry and they kicked him out.”
Allison said, “I read somewhere that it was really the Mother God who was kicked out and then renamed by the Father as Lucifer.”
Peterson set his glass on the table and stood.
Howard shook his head. “But Jesus had another plan. God’s children could make mistakes, sin a little, exercise independent judgment, and then he would atone for their mistakes—a doorway back into the presence of their parents.”
“What’s your point?” she said.
“Just what I was thinking,” said Peterson.
“Let me finish,” said Howard, his voice sharp. “In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve still walked and talked with God, just as they had in heaven. Nothing had changed. No independence. Adam and Eve looked up with reverent child eyes, driving their parents crazy with obedience. So God, Mother and Father, tricked them, commanded them to multiply and replenish the earth and at the same time said don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. A paradox. Without knowledge, no multiplication. The problem was that Adam didn’t dare disobey and didn’t dare obey, like a mule caught between two haystacks.”
[p.60] “So back comes the devil, hero of your story.”
“No. Eve is the hero. She was tired of holding hands, looking moon-eyed. If she could just clear her mind, she knew she could figure out how this multiplying business worked, but there was some fog there, some mist of innocence that kept her from making the connection.”
“She had an itch,” said Allison, “that wasn’t satisfied no matter how she and Adam rubbed against each other.”
Peterson walked toward the door. One hand on the knob, he pleaded, “Elder.”
Howard swallowed. “So, when Lucifer told her that if she would eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil her eyes would be opened and that she would become like God, knowing good and evil, she jumped at the chance. She ate the fruit and became the Earthly Mother, the one who gave us the gift of life at the expense of disobeying her Father.”
“I still don’t get your point,” she said. “Sometimes you must trust evil?”
“No,” said Howard, “that’s not the point at all. You’re like Eve. Ready to move. To repudiate all previous knowledge and become your true self. To embrace what seems contradictory to you.”
Was that the point of every story told by a man—control over a woman? “No,” she said. She tried to figure why he was preaching to her. What was the advantage to him if she converted, when he doubted? It made no sense at all. It was as if religion had warped his mind permanently. “I’m done with revolutions. You’re Eve. You’re the one on the brink.”
“No,” he said. “I’m more frightened of change than you can imagine.”
Elder Peterson walked back across the room, “We have a set of formal lessons we’d like to give you. They teach about the restoration of Christ’s gospel through the prophet Joseph Smith, beginning with a visit by God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. If you listen carefully, the spirit will bear record that it’s true.”
She stood and gathered the lemonade glasses. “Elder Peterson,” [p.61] she said, “you are such a bastard.” She gripped a glass in each hand. “Why don’t you give up on me?” Then she was reminded that he had given up on her from the beginning. He crammed rhetoric down her throat to drive her away. His face was smug, as if he’d made a shot she couldn’t block.
“Like most people, you don’t believe in something you can’t see,” he continued. “That’s perfectly normal. We live in a society that’s so rationalistic that we’ve forgotten how to feel in our bones the movement of the Holy Ghost. But I bear testimony that your spirit, the spirit which can sense what your eyes can’t see, the same essence that lived before this life, will live after this life. Intelligence or spirit is eternal. Your loved one, whoever he is, still lives.”
She was furious. “Dammit. This has never been more than a wet dream for you two. I’ll never convert. Now get the hell out of my apartment.”
That evening while Peterson cooked, Howard walked downstairs. “No cribbage,” he said to Dwight. He had been surprised by the Eve story that had tumbled out of his mouth. Talking, he had adopted someone else’s voice, some woman’s story of the Fall. Not his own. Telling the story, he hadn’t felt that he was declaring knowledge or even, hypocritically, the truth for someone else. He had felt, for the first time in nearly two years, that as he struggled to interpret Eve, his soul was expanding again. Like the seed that sprouted or the man who had prayed, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
He said to Dwight, “I’ve got to talk to someone wiser than me.”
“That’s just about anybody.” Howard ignored the joke and told Dwight that he couldn’t tell if his feelings for Allison were based on love or a desire to rebel.
“You can’t ever know something like that,” said Dwight. “You just mess yourself up thinking about it. My rule is never allow no woman or church or anybody to have so much sway over me I can’t think clear. But I do know what you should do.”
Peterson thundered down the stairs. “What?”
[p.62] “Nothing quick. Every time I’ve done something quick, it blew up in my face.”
“Elder,” said Peterson from the door. “Get upstairs now.” Howard had never before heard panic in Peterson’s voice. By the time he reached the outdoor stairs, he saw President Wister getting out of his car in front of their apartment.
“Thought I’d stop by for lunch,” he said. “What are you having?” In the kitchen Peterson slid a slab of fried, processed meat onto a plate and laid the plate in front of President Wister.
“This is our staple,” said Peterson. “We pour the grease out on the bread instead of butter. Saves money.”
“I was thinking about my garden in Wyoming.” President Wister stared at the falsely pink meat. “We grew tomatoes and peas and lettuce. Butter crunch.” Still without taking a bite, he asked about their work. Then he said, “A wife and children are incomparable treasures.”
After dinner the president interviewed Peterson. Howard sat on his bed, waiting his turn. It was like the last minutes before a test he hadn’t studied for. Finally Peterson came out of the kitchen and he went in. Stocky, half a head shorter than Howard, the president reminded Howard of a bulldog. He trusted him because he was a rancher.
“I don’t want to be transferred,” Howard said.
The president sighed, looking out on the bayou. “Elder, you’re sure that’s how you want to start this interview—planting ideas in my head?”
“Should I have said I want to be transferred?” Howard smiled.
“Tell me about this woman you’re teaching. When Elder Peterson gets anxious, I get anxious too.”
“I think she’s the woman I want to marry.” Like the Eve story, it felt true for him as he said it, as if he was approaching something essential. Then he shook his head. When each random thought bore the mark of truth, he knew he was a wave tossed by every wind.
President Wister was quiet for a moment. “She’s married and you want to marry her?”
“She’s not married.”
[p.63] “This is the woman you think God has reserved for you? You think you’re in a position to make a clear judgment?”
Howard said nothing.
“You haven’t said anything to this woman, led her on in any way?”
“No. Well, I told her the Eve story.”
“The Eve story?” The president watched Howard’s face. “You were raised on a ranch. You seen a cow mire herself trying to get a drink?”
“I’ll arrange a transfer for you. Up north, out of Houston. Country like you’ve wanted your whole mission.”
“Transfer? I have only a month left.”
The president laid his hands on Howard’s arms. “I think it’s best. Be careful, Elder,” he said. “Be like Joseph—flee temptation. Keep your eyes on the Lord’s work. He’ll reward you later if you do. He has a wonderful woman in reserve for you, not some faithless atheist. Perhaps the one writing you from home.”
“You’re treating me like a child,” said Howard. “As if I can’t control myself.”
“I don’t think you’re a child. You are a grown man, and your future is bright with possibility. I just don’t want to lose you.”
Watching the president’s face, Howard’s anger dissipated. It was clear that the man cared for him. In zone conferences, the president’s talks were always carefully prepared and practical.
“Wait until you’re released before you make any decisions. You’ll have a month away from this woman to think carefully about what you want. Think about what you’d be giving up by deciding on impulse.”
Howard knew he had filled his mind with images, not of an eternal family, but of Allison’s thighs and face and voice. He thought about Belinda, and about their plans. Still she was a soft, sweet child compared to Allison, who didn’t mince and sway. When she walked, she swung her legs like a pirate.
Allison bought a fifth of whiskey. It would be a purgatory drunk. Rid herself of affection for two men at once. She tried to remember how it [p.64] had felt to love Eliot and decided that she had deceived herself. Sex was compulsion, not solace. Out of the cradle endlessly rocking. She numbered the loves of her life:
—Her father, from the beginning;
—Dante, a dog she had received as a gift from her mother’s brother, border collie/black lab mixture;
—Sammy, a boy who had a tree hut next to their house in Virginia;
—Three boys in turn in the sixth grade, unrequited;
—Her seventh-grade health teacher—she had been mortified when he demonstrated the Heimlich maneuver on her;
—Herbert Phillipson, with whom she had experimented;
—Sting and, to her shame, Axl Rose;
—Bobby Stupeck, the wrestler, who knew when to stop;
—Mike Stock, a love of two years, ninth and tenth grades, who had prompted her study of contraceptives;
—the college student wearing a Mao hat in the UV library, who in his small office taught her fifteen ways to use a chair;
—the preacher’s son from Cut and Shoot—she’d forgotten his name;
—Virgil Fortunado, captain of the high school soccer team;
—Walt Cottle, the mathematician, friendship and sex, not love (but then what was love?);
—Eliot, bearded, so self-contained he didn’t need her;
—Howard, blocked erotic, mistaken mystic.
Allison took another drink from the bottle, trying to imagine someone with all power and no obligations. She tried to think of herself as a lord, making love to many women. She didn’t know how much license medieval ladies had—certainly not much. Too much dress. Or was that an effort to contain the uncontainable? Precious maidenhead, covered by hoop skirts. Whoops, wrong era. How did women at that time get and use power? Men had greater latitude working their way up and down the social hierarchy. Limberness in social structures. Women probably managed limber sex too.
When Allison opened her eyes, the light in the room made the window opaque. She held her arms around her legs and rocked back and forth on her buttocks, a comforting rhythm.
[p.65] Howard’s voice was the oddest mixture of logic and mysticism. She stood unsteadily and coiled her hair on top of her head. She found the business card Peterson had given her. Walking unsteadily down the stairs into the dusk, she started her car and drove slowly toward the missionaries’ apartment. Tonight she would just talk, but if sometime later she got him in bed and bound him to her, perhaps he would feel enough commitment to give up his former life and follow her to Anchorage. “Eliot,” she said, “you were right to leave me.”
With the moon, her one true friend, steady to the east, she drove the Loop. She felt like the last day before graduation from M.I.T.: everything was over but the words. More like dying and still walking, remembering the pleasures of life. Because the freeway was raised on pillars, she had the illusion that the car floated past the dark city. The buildings tower like buttes, Howard said when she first met him. The streets are deep as canyons.
Everything was dead, except for two or three restaurants lit below the freeway at street level, a few white floors high above them where cleaning people worked. Blade-skaters slipped like coyotes down one dark street; two homeless people stood under a light. Even the underground tunnels would be bright but empty—safe routes from building to building for the business types who paid her money for having fun with equations. Only on the edges was the city alive at night.
Howard, Peterson, and President Wister sat at the kitchen table and argued about the hidden sanctuary of the Lost Ten Tribes. “They’ll emerge in power during the Millennium from under the North Pole,” said Peterson. “They live in a giant cavern under the ice.”
“Or they’ll fly back from outer space,” said Howard.
“They’re not lost, like lost in a forest,” said President Wister. “They’re just scattered through Russia.”
If Allison converted, thought Howard, not only to Mormonism but also to wifeliness, to marriageability, what was interesting about her would disappear. Another paradox. He realized that it wasn’t a paradox to someone, like Peterson, who wanted a wifely wife. What Howard admired about her was her rebelliousness, unconventionality, [p.66] and wildness. Even though his talk with the president had made him want to be sensible, Allison’s qualities were antidotes to the lukewarm way he had felt about his life.
Someone knocked on the door. “Boys,” Dwight called from outside. “Elder Boys. That Texas woman’s here to see you. Told her you don’t like to be woke up but she won’t go away. I need my beauty rest, so you deal with her.”
“Elder boys?” said President Wister.
“Tell her we can’t go out at night,” said Peterson.
“I can’t tell her anything,” said Dwight, already descending the steps. “She’s drunk as hell.”
Howard sat for a moment, then stood and walked toward the door. Peterson stood and followed. Allison was on the steps, leaning back against the iron railing. “I thought I’d come over and surprise you.”
“I’m surprised,” said Howard.
“I’ve been a shi—a schickhead.”
President Wister appeared in the doorway. “Good heavens,” he whispered.
“I decided if I dressed like a medium I might be able to get in touch with the spirits of you primitive missionaries.” She finally saw President Wister. “Oh. An older elder.”
“President Wister, this is Allison Warren,” said Howard. “Allison, President Wister.”
“This is your contact?” said President Wister.
“Contact?” said Allison. “What the hell’s a contact?”
“Was our contact,” said Peterson.
“Listen,” she said to Peterson. “I may be a little drunk, but you don’t have to cut me off hopeless—hopelessly—with no hope or compassion.” Leaning farther back to look up at him, she nearly lost her balance.
“Don’t you boys have curfew?” said Dwight from his office, which was next to the stairs. He emerged and saw President Wister. “Oh, I didn’t know you had a chaperon.”
“Dwight worries,” said Peterson to President Wister. “Thinks he’s our mother.”
[p.67] “I ain’t got the figure,” said Dwight.
“I don’t want to sever relations,” said Allison, speaking slowly and carefully.
“But they’re severed,” said Howard to Allison. “You should go home.”
“I imagine us living in a cabin on the edge of a forest. You and I are biologists together. There’s a little pond and every day I go out and collect plants, which I stuff into my bra.”
“When you’re sober, you don’t want to have anything to do with us,” said Peterson.
“How do you know what I want? Why don’t you keep your mouth shut, Peterson.”
“Elder Peterson,” said Dwight to her. “These boys are ministers of their gospel and you need to keep up certain taboos with them.”
President Wister looked from Dwight to Allison, dumbfounded.
Allison tried to walk toward her car; she stumbled and fell to her hands and knees. Howard and Peterson lifted her up. Howard looked into her slack face. She reeked of whiskey. “You can’t even get yourself home.” He was embarrassed by her drunkenness.
“We’ll need to drive her,” said Peterson.
“It’s against the rules,” said President Wister. “But we have no choice.”
“I don’t need your help,” she said, waving her arms. She sat down on the sidewalk.
“I hope she’s going to be all right,” said Peterson.
“First time you’ve worried about that,” said Howard.
“I’ll call the police,” said Dwight. “They’ll haul her off.”
“No,” said Peterson. “We’ll manage it.”
Howard and Peterson each took an elbow and lifted her to her feet. Dwight backed her car closer to the steps and they helped her inside.
Peterson said, “Dwight, you’ll take over as our leader when President Wister retires, if you don’t watch out.”
“I’d crack the whip, all right enough, for you Elder Boys. There’d be some real action in this city. You’d have to set up an assembly line to process all the converts.”
[p.68] “You’d need to be baptized yourself first,” said Peterson.
“Told you I’ve already been baptized. By malaria once in the army, by scalding once when a boiler blew up on my back.” He had a wrinkled area along his neck and one cheek. “By marriage twice, and that’s the baptism of fire. And by the government every April. I don’t need no more baptizing. But now it’s time for bed.”
“Another inspired transfer,” said President Wister. “I just had the timing wrong. You’ll be in Navasota tomorrow.”
Peterson sat in the driver’s seat; Howard helped Allison into the passenger seat and climbed in back. President Wister followed in his car. The air, even at midnight, was unbearably hot. Howard tried to remember what he had felt earlier, the communion of souls, the electric tension. He examined the dark mass of Allison’s hair; she was another woman now. The president had helped him see more clearly. For the first time in months he thought with pleasure about going home. Maybe he would marry Belinda after all. Whatever else happened, he knew now that he wouldn’t make a foolish decision.
Peterson was snoring, one paw flung up over his head. Despite the air conditioning, it was stifling inside. President Wister had driven home nearly two hours before. Howard pulled on his clothing and walked out onto the stairway. The air was thick, tinted purple; it smelled like a swamp. The moon was a pale disk. He heard the faint roar of a large cat in the zoo, nearly a mile away. Dwight’s light was out, so Howard unlocked his bike and wobbled along the edge of the cement bayou. He had nothing in his mind but a desire to get away from the apartment where Peterson lay snoring.
Two shadows, a man and a woman, sat in the moonlight on the low wall of an overpass. Howard stopped, one foot down, then rode the angle of the bayou down to the floor. A drain pipe had spread a puddle across the bayou; the water sheeted up from his wheels. He lifted his feet up and away from the pedals but his ankles were sprayed.
“Evil night for a ride,” the woman called, her voice thick, the words slurred.
Howard didn’t look back. The tires might slip if he tried to climb [p.69] the bank, so he dismounted and walked up. Riding again, he passed under great, dark trees; from someone’s yard he smelled the aroma of tomato plants and excrement. His tires crunched across broken glass but didn’t go flat. He floated behind dead houses and apartment buildings. He dropped to the floor of the bayou to pass under streets. A branch bayou came in from the other side.
Soon he passed two men or women going through a dumpster. Four shadows stood on the upper edge of the bayou. When he passed, they ran, spreading out across the cement, but he stood on his pedals and sprinted away. This is stupid, he thought. Rockwood, you must have a death wish. He pulled up out of the bayou and pedaled along a street, passing signs offering the services of clairvoyants, nude dancing girls, and bail bondsmen. The humid air, probably still 80 degrees, was thick enough to choke him, and he couldn’t think, couldn’t focus, could only pedal.
He rode into the parking lot of Allison’s apartment. He dismounted and stood under her window, but her lights were out. Suddenly something hit him from behind heavy as a truck. He was on his face in the grass; he thought he might pass out.
“Peterson!” he rasped. “You don’t understand!”
“I understand enough,” said Elder Peterson.
“What were you thinking?” President Wister said.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Peterson.
Howard was lifted off the ground. His head, neck, and back hurt. He felt sick to his stomach. Peterson carried him like a child.
Back at the apartment, his legs still felt weak, so Peterson helped him walk up the stairs.
“I’ll stay here tonight,” said the president.
“I’m sleeping in front of the door,” said Peterson. “He won’t sneak out again.”
Howard didn’t think he could sleep, but some time later he woke from the falling dream; he had slipped wordlessly through darkness. Night filled his throat; he could hardly breathe.