Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.70] On the 25th of August, Howard rode back to Houston from Navasota with his zone leaders. Elder Simone, a black man, was from Pittsburgh, and Elder Salsbury from Salt Lake City. Simone argued that one day, possibly in the Millennium, women could receive the priesthood. “Just agree that, potentially, it’s possible.”
“No,” said Salsbury. “Women are universally, significantly different than men. Even as intelligences in the preexistence, they were different. It isn’t in God’s plan.”
Howard said nothing, but their conversation brought back the sound of Allison’s voice. He remembered her saying once, “At what cost do women enter the shelter of your church?”
He missed talking with her—missed feeling that time was alive and his senses were amplified. At least at first, talking to her had been a sharp-edged experience, like a long drink of cold water after a parched day. Toward the end it had all become miserable and muddled.
During the weeks of walking the streets of Navasota and driving through the countryside, he had alternated between the calm knowledge that the universe was only naturalistic and the fear that God might punish him for disbelief. At various times, generally at night, he panicked at the thought that time was speeding faster and faster but he was [p.71] frozen motionless. He knew he had sacrificed vital experiences to be on his mission. If Belinda had agreed to marry him, they would have had two years of love. He worried that the requirements for graduating in range management had changed during his two-year absence. He could hardly imagine telling his parents and Belinda that he had lost his faith. Worse would be to live a lie, never sharing his doubt with anyone he loved. He had pondered various dramatic acts that might shock him out of his paralysis—seizing the microphone in a radio station to declare the gospel to thousands, swimming across the Brazos River in his suit, or hitchhiking south to Houston to see Allison.
The two elders took Howard to the mission home just off F.M. 1960. At the door he shook hands with President and Sister Wister and each of their children. During dinner, their daughter Susy talked about BYU. “Every building is dedicated to God. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the library or the bookstore or the fine arts building, everywhere I go I can feel the Spirit.” She asked about Howard’s plans. He said he would either work his father’s ranch or go to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he’d study history, botany, and range management. “First thing, though,” he said, “I’m going on a week-long horse ride. Get myself reconditioned to the desert.” After dinner he sat on their couch, watching television, something he hadn’t done for two years. He wasn’t released yet, President Wister reminded him, but this small infraction was probably all right.
In Navasota he had examined his experience with Allison from every conceivable perspective. What would she have done if he had made it into her apartment that night? Despite his initial anger, Howard was grateful to Peterson. Still he wished he’d had one more chance, accompanied by Peterson of course, to talk with her, to clarify what he thought of the general moral and ethical structure of the church and why it would be good even for a natural rebel like her.
Howard had written to Belinda that he wanted to wait a while before they married. He implied that he wanted to experience courtship but wrote nothing about his loss of faith and his concern with their long-range plans. In a few hours his plane would leave for Salt Lake City, his sacrifice completed.
[p.72] President Wister and Howard sat together in the terminal lobby. “You made it,” the president said. “You’re going home with an honorable mission behind you. I was worried for a while.” Howard thought about the small choices which made big differences later. His brothers had returned from their missions and settled into their lives; he would do the same. The call to board sounded. Howard handed his ticket to the woman and walked down the tunnel. He found his seat and looked out the window. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed with despair—the same feeling as when Belinda said good-bye through the screen door. The plane would carry him back to his old life, and he would never find the impetus to return for Allison. He stood and walked to the front of the plane.
“Something has come up,” he said to the stewardess. “I can’t leave now.”
“You’re already boarded,” she said. She put out her hand to stop him, but he pulled away. He passed the ticket taker, who glared at him.
“The plane will leave without you,” she called.
President Wister was nowhere in sight. He imagined his parents and Belinda waiting at the airport in Salt Lake, so he rushed to the bank of pay phones to call his mother before she left home. “I missed my plane,” he said, “but my luggage is on board. I’ll call you when I get another flight.” She tried to ask questions, but he just said “goodbye” and hung up. In front of the terminal, he boarded a taxi and gave the driver Allison’s address. He wasn’t sure what he would say to her, but he knew he couldn’t just leave. He might propose. He might tell her that he hoped she would fry in hell. He’d claim her any way he could.
Thirty minutes later he pulled up in front of her apartment. The driver wanted forty-five bucks. Howard thrust the bills at him and ran up the stairs to her door. She might be inside with Eliot; then what would he say?
No one answered. He ran back down and tried to look through the window, but the angle was wrong and he could determine only that the drapes were open. She could have left for Alaska already; her red Mustang was gone. Someone watched him through the neighboring window, so he walked back down to the street. He felt lonelier, more [p.73] disoriented, more foolish than he had felt since first coming to Texas. He was in no man’s land between mission and home. He had ached to be free, but even though he had no companion and no serious obligations, he still felt bound about by restrictions. He stood in the street, looked once more at the apartment, and started jogging toward Dwight’s.
He arrived, dripping with sweat. Dwight came out of one of the downstairs units dressed in hip boots and rubber gloves. Through the open doors of the downstairs units, Howard saw standing water. The stench was terrible.
“Well, I’ll be shit and lie in it,” Dwight said when he drove up. “If it isn’t Elder Howard.”
“You sure that isn’t what you’ve done?” Howard said, holding his nose.
“Plumbing problems up the kazoo, Elder.”
“Don’t call me Elder. I’m on my way home. I’m nearly a free man.”
Dwight took off one glove and shook Howard’s hand with a flourish.
“Where’re Peterson and Thompson?” Howard asked.
“They moved out when the toilets started backing up,” said Dwight. “No loyalty whatsoever. I told them I’d get the place fixed up in no time, but they wouldn’t wait.” He looked at Howard. “You supposed to be alone?”
“I’m supposed to be at the airport, but I thought I’d say good-bye to my friends.” He slapped Dwight on the shoulder. “You ought to move to the desert. You’d fit right in.”
“Can’t leave my place.” He looked across the bayou. “She wasn’t home, eh?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Howard.
“Can’t fool me,” said Dwight. “You got all the marks of a whupped man. But I don’t think she’s the type to move to the desert either.”
“I wanted to say good-bye.”
“Or maybe hello. You know, she came here the day after you left. That Elder Thompson’s near-sighted as a mole. He stood on these [p.74] steps and testified to her. Then she testified back to him, only she used more colorful words. Never saw her again.” Dwight turned back to the apartment. “Well, thanks for coming. But I got work to do, bad plumbing problems. Business shot to hell.”
“Dwight,” he said. “Let me use your truck. I promise not to wreck it.” He looked at the battered three-quarter-ton Chevy with a towing winch on the back.
“Lord, Elder, you don’t want much.” He shook his head. “Keys are on the engine block.”
Howard drove to the University of Houston where they’d once tried to talk to Eliot in his office. Finally he found visitor parking and walked across campus. He felt exposed, as if he stood naked on the top of a cliff. Eliot answered Howard’s knock.
“I’m on my way home,” said Howard. “Thought I’d stop and say good-bye to Allison.”
“I haven’t seen her for several weeks.”
“Has she left for Alaska?”
“She could have.”
Howard turned to leave.
“Wait a minute,” said Eliot. “Her mother just called and canceled a lunch appointment. She said she was headed home to work in the yard.” Eliot gave him the address. “Just go over. If she’s outside, she wouldn’t hear the phone.” He examined Howard. “So you’re going to Anchorage?”
“No,” said Howard. “I’m not.”
“She is. That’s why we split up. She wouldn’t stay here.”
Without answering, he left Eliot’s office. He felt like a fool, missing his plane when he didn’t even know if she was in town. The thought that he had missed her was unbearable. He wanted to talk, not just for an hour, but for fifty years. He wanted her in Rockwood with him, wanted her as his wife. She was so strong, he knew she’d adapt to ranch life. What arguments could he use to show her that their love was more important than going to Anchorage? Words might not do it. He had heard that women use sex to get love, maybe the reverse was true—that having sex with her would bind her to him. Others in [p.75] Rockwood had slipped; people gossiped for a while and then forgot the sin.
Finding the right street and number, he hesitated. What could he say to her, driving up in a wrecking truck spewing blue smoke? The house was red brick, in the middle of the block on one of the streets just north of Rice University. He knocked on the door; no one answered. Peering around the corner of the house, he saw a woman watering some flowers. “Mrs. Warren?” he asked. “I’m Howard Rockwood.”
She studied Howard’s name tag. He took it off with shaking hands and stuck it in his pocket.
“I’m trying to find your daughter.”
“A Mormon missionary. Lord, help us,” she said, turning back to her flowers. “I don’t know where she is now. I’m not even sure she hasn’t left without saying good-bye to me.”
“Thank you,” Howard said and walked toward Dwight’s truck. Looking back, he saw Allison’s mother frown. Howard felt his face and neck burn. Everyone made judgments; he was sick of judgments.
Allison was almost finished packing, but the air-conditioning had broken down. Earlier she had hauled a load of her things to a storage unit; she would ship the rest to Anchorage. Driving up the United States and Canada would make the move a genuine rite of passage, marking her rebirth as a new creature, one separate from Eliot. Her father couldn’t come with his pickup until evening, so she lounged—sweaty, tight, bored. She ate candy bars and tried to imagine the cool air of Anchorage. A big truck pulled up outside, then someone banged on her door. “Not locked,” she called. Howard stood in front of her, his tie awry, face white as an angel’s. Her lethargy evaporated like mist. “Elder H.,” she said. “I thought you’d flown back to Zion.”
“I was on the plane,” he said, “but a perverse spirit possessed me.” He grimaced, as if regretting the words.
“Ha!” she said. “Not perverse. I’m glad to see you.” She dumped her newspaper on the floor to make room for him on the couch. “You don’t have to stand.”
[p.76] He chose a chair across the room. “I couldn’t find you. I was worried you’d left already.”
“Tomorrow,” she said. “I won’t give up my car, so I’m driving.”
“Aren’t you nervous? Heading off to Alaska?”
“Ready for it. Want it now.”
“Long drive,” he said. “It’ll take you at least a week. Dangerous.”
“You volunteering to spell me?” She smiled. Then, “Come with me to Alaska.”
He said nothing.
“Funny. I’ve never seen you without Peterson. Where is he?”
“Still here,” he said.
“Still pushing the word of God. Do you want something to drink?” He watched her, as if she were a snake or tiger, as she walked toward the kitchen. She barked at him, and he stepped back. She grinned. “Damn, you’re jumpy. Soda or water?”
“Water,” he said, his voice cracking.
She opened a cardboard box on the table and took out a glass. She filled it and returned. Their fingers touched as he took the drink. “Ice,” she said. “I forgot ice.”
“It’s just fine,” he said. But she was already back in the kitchen with the freezer door open, her hand on the plastic tray. He followed her, lifting his empty glass.
“Oh,” she said. “Was it warm enough for you?” The tray slipped out of her hand. She laughed again. He picked it up and handed it to her. “I haven’t been this clumsy since junior high.” She twisted the tray and popped out a cube of ice, which she dropped into his empty glass.
He placed the glass on the counter and returned to his chair. She stood behind him; he didn’t look back. Low behind each ear his mahogany hair became curly. The collar of his white shirt was crooked. She wanted to straighten it but knew he would flinch away. She sat on the couch.
“So,” she said, “how was Navasota?”
“Nice,” he said. “Beautiful country.”
“You have good luck?”
“We baptized a prostitute,” he said.
[p.77] “You what?”
“It’s a long story.”
“How will she make her living?”
“The bishop is helping her find new work.”
A drop of sweat ran down her side. “Damned hot. This is how I’ll remember Houston.”
He stared at his hands.
She frowned. “Well what is your plan?”
“I came to say goodbye.” He slid to the edge of his chair. “And to talk about how I can see you again.”
“You’re seeing me now,” she said. “I’ll bet my Mustang to that old truck that you’ve missed your plane.”
“Yes,” he said. “No. I don’t have a plan. I just couldn’t go without first getting straight with you. Things were a little confused the last time.” His face was weary, his shoulders slumped; she wanted him to smile again.
“I was wasted last time.”
“I missed you,” he said.
“I’m happy to see you, too, Howard.” Then she laughed. “Why do I feel so awkward?”
“What if I flew up to visit before winter comes?” he said. “I’d like to see Alaska. I could try to find a place to stay for a few days.”
“I have a better plan,” she said. “I was thinking about driving through Denver, but it would be just as easy to go through Salt Lake. Rockwood can’t be far from Salt Lake. You can keep me from running off the road.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll just get another flight. My parents would worry.”
“I’ve been thinking about your Eve story. Maybe we can figure a way to meet halfway.”
“Utah is halfway,” he said.
“Wasn’t what I had in mind.” She shifted her weight, ready to stand. “I was thinking more of some kind of experiment. Like you coming all the way to Alaska with me now. We see if we’re suited for each other.”
[p.78] “No!” he said, too loudly. “I couldn’t do that.” He stood and moved closer to the door. “Maybe toward the end of September before school starts at the U. Maybe I’ll fly up after I’m released from my mission.” He was standing next to the door.
“Wait!” But he was leaving. His face was set, his hand on the doorknob. She knew if she kept her mouth shut, he’d be gone. She had never been one to ignore the sudden and surprising gifts of fate. She said, “I’ll feel like hell if you open that door, Howard.”
“Will you please marry me?” he said.
She stared at him. “Marry you!” She shook her head. “You turn everything so damned heavy. What makes you think I’d marry a Mormon patriarch?”
“I’m not a patriarch.”
“Just give you time,” she said.
“I love you,” he said, his hand still on the door. “Do you love me?”
She didn’t move, didn’t look away from him. He seemed even more beautiful than when she first saw him. “You’ve been so ardent, I don’t know what I feel. But I know I don’t want you to go. I want you to be with me.”
He turned away from the door.
“Howard,” she said. She wanted to kiss the tip of his hawk nose; she wanted her arms around him.
He crossed the room and stood in front of her. Something inside her lifted and hummed like a jubilant song. She reached up and massaged his palm with her thumb. She found herself weepy. “What do you mean ‘love’? What do you mean?”
He took both her wrists. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I want to know.” He laid his hand on her shoulder. She hooked her hand around his knee, leaned forward, and hugged his legs. He cradled her head, one hand behind each ear; she felt his hands shaking. He kissed the crown of her head, forehead, eyelids, lips. “You taste like chocolate,” he said.
She thought, Now we can begin.