Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
II. Rockwood, Utah
[p.79] “And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers;
and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
[p.81] From the front, Howard’s house was symmetrical. Two stories high, a chimney at each end (the right-hand one crumbling at the top), two white front doors, four balanced windows in front with glass so old and uneven that the dark Victorian furniture inside rippled as Allison approached the left-hand door. Two halves for his ancestor’s first two wives, Howard had told her; now his parents lived in the northern end; the other side was used for storage. A brass plate above the door read 1865. The brick was manila-colored, sandy to the touch. Allison turned and discovered that Howard had not followed her from the car. “You coming?” She walked back, opened the door, and lay her hand on his shoulder. He flinched; she tugged his hand until he followed.
Three days, he’d said to her, then had given her the kind of grin that implied she’d quickly be converted to him and the desert both. She agreed to his terms, but told him that the morning of the third day she’d hove for Alaska, with or without him. She still felt the odd certitude that she might be able to live with him for decades. But not in Utah. And not with him as patriarch.
He pushed open the front door to the house. She followed him into a musty entryway. She knew this was unfamiliar ground, and she had determined before setting foot out of the car that she would not react with anger, no matter what happened.
[p.82] “Who’s there?” a woman called. “That you, Howard?” Her voice rose in pitch until it broke at his name. To the left was a living room; to the right, stairs rose. The room had a high ceiling; a gilded chain supported a six-armed chandelier in which only three bulbs burned. The wallpaper was faded, printed with patterns of tiny flowers. Howard’s mother rushed down the stairs toward them, carrying a notebook and several shirts on hangers. At the bottom she dropped everything, and the notebook popped open, scattering papers. “Howard,” she said, hugging him, nearly knocking him down. His chin rested on the top of her head. Her hair was in tight curls, salt and pepper. Allison had imagined someone larger, more outwardly confident.
“I was so worried when you missed your plane.” Then she turned and saw Allison. Her mouth and eyes widened, but quick as an eye-blink she smiled. “So this is your friend. It was kind of you to give him a ride.” She spoke slowly, with a non-Texas country drawl; her voice sounded like a tenor saxophone, rich and deep. Allison bent and the three of them gathered the shirts and pages together. Allison picked up a package of letters. The return address said, “Elder Howard Rockwood.” She picked up a sheaf of papers—in bold letters, “Minutes of the Rockwood Ward Relief Society Presidency Meeting.”
“I’m trying to get myself organized,” she said to Allison. “You know how it is in Relief Society, everything ordered perfectly. Well I’m the worst possible president. I’ve always had a talent for talking, but I’m trying to discover a talent for administration.” She shouted, “Walter, he’s made it.” She spoke with Howard’s inflection; Howard had her mouth, full upper lip, tucked-in lower one.
Howard’s father came slowly through a swinging door which led toward the back of the house. He was white-haired, too old to be Howard’s father. He looked like Henry Fonda in one of his last movies. “I heard him when he came in.” He threw his arms around Howard. “How in hell did you miss your plane? I was scared to death you’d have an accident driving up—” He saw Allison and raised his hand slightly in an ambiguous motion. “—because God wasn’t protecting you as a missionary anymore.”
[p.83] Protecting him from what? Allison wanted to ask. She focused on breathing, on controlling her temper, on giving them all a chance with each other before walls were flung up.
“This is Allison Warren,” Howard said. Allison took Howard’s hand, released it again. “These are my parents, Walter and Emily Rockwood.” No one else spoke, no one smiled.
Howard’s mother patted his side. “I can see that those Houston Saints invited you for dinner a few times.”
“He looks fine to me,” said his father.
“I meant it as a compliment,” she said. “You were so skinny, there wasn’t much to get a hold of before.” She hugged him again. “Please sit down,” she said to Allison. They all moved into the living room and sat with hands on knees, not speaking. As Allison watched, tears beaded at the corners of his mother’s eyes, ran down her cheeks. “I don’t know why I’m crying now.” Nor do I, thought Allison, I’ve not harmed him.
Across the room hung the picture of a patriarch and his four wives, two to each side: the first had a face like a queen, wise and kind; one was thin-cheeked and black-haired; the third possessed a round, smiling face and light curls; the last was pale-haired, with gray eyes, and a thin and angular face—obviously Howard’s and his father’s ancestor. Allison stood and walked toward the painting. The patriarch looked straight out, stern as the Ten Commandments.
“When did you leave?” asked his father.
“Hell of a drive,” his father said.
“We stopped at a motel,” said Howard.
“A motel?” said his mother.
“I know I’m just an old Jack Mormon,” said his father, “but isn’t this damn irregular?”
“Walter,” said his mother, “give him time to explain.”
“We’re together,” said Howard.
“Together?” his father said. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Allison and I are together.”
“You’re engaged,” his mother said. “You’ve brought a fiancee [p.84] home from your mission. Why, you’re as level-headed as your father’s Grandpa Isaac.”
“No,” said Howard, “I’m not that level-headed.”
“You’re married,” his mother said. “My Lord, you’ve gotten married.”
“You’re not hearing what I’m saying,” said Howard.
“I’ve got a job in Anchorage,” said Allison. “Howard’s thinking of joining me there.”
“We’ve only talked about it,” said Howard.
I’ve caught a squirming Mormon rabbit, Allison thought. Caught but not held, no more than Eliot had held her.
“You’re not married?”
“We’re not getting married right away,” Howard said.
Allison cleared her throat.
“Good,” his mother said. “Then you can have time to think things through.” Frowning again, his mother studied his face; then she shrugged, turning to examine Allison, who knew she had not adequately imagined how foreign Howard’s parents would be. Howard looked at the floor and rubbed himself behind one ear. His mouth worked like that of a small boy. “Oh, Howard, you’ve put your foot in it this time.”
Howard’s face turned an even deeper scarlet. Certainly not his foot. Allison moved closer to him on the couch, reached for his hand. No one is dead, she thought.
His father got up suddenly and left the room. “Dad,” said Howard, and went after him. Howard’s mother sat staring at the floor. Allison pushed the door, still swinging, and walked through a short hallway, into a kitchen with a stove straight out of Little House on the Prairie, and across a large screened-in porch. It would almost be better if they called her the names they were thinking; that would cause a clear break. She could pull away again, the yellow-eyed wolf, moving easily north alone. But dammit all, she wanted a chance with him.
Howard’s father marched down a lane through the field, his shovel over his shoulder. Howard waited in the barnyard. “Did you see him? He had a heart attack while I was in Houston. He looks as old as [p.85] my grandfather did before he died.” Howard climbed through the fence. “I’ll be right back. I need to talk to him.” Obviously he didn’t want her along. She felt as if she’d walked onto a set of a Western melodrama. Next, she figured, the slighted woman would show up. On the way to Utah, Howard had told her about a girl he once planned to marry.
The end of the haystack went up like stairs. She climbed, slightly worried that a bale would come loose and throw her to the ground. From the top she looked across the narrow valley, made, as Howard had explained, by the centuries’ long meandering of a small creek. The fields were variegated, light and dark green, with a swath in each field silvered with spray from sprinklers. She looked farther east at the gray, nearly barren hillside, the eastern bank of the valley. Above the dry hillside showed the peaks of the blue mountains they had driven through two hours earlier. The view westward was the same—gray hillside, sparsely covered with dry grass, blue peaks in the distance. The next town was forty miles back across white alkali desert. Nothing was green but the fields and the line of trees along the creek. Color had been fried out of the ground and sky. She took a tube of Chapstick from her pocket and coated her lips. Trees in the valley were either as massive as three-story buildings or thin, a hundred feet tall, standing like soldiers along the ditches and fence lines. To her right lay the houses of Rockwood— Howard’s tight-assed Mormon town—and above that a mountain range black with trees and shaped like a knife blade.
Howard stood with his father on the bank of a ditch; Walter leaned on a shovel. Howard pointed back toward the barnyard and then down at something in the ditch. He laid his arm across his father’s shoulders. His mother, the same woman whose letter had entranced Allison, came out the back door with three paper grocery bags; she dumped them into a rusty barrel. She looked up at Allison and then returned inside.
Howard finally walked back and climbed the stack to join her. “I told him he shouldn’t have walked out on us. I told him he needs to accept us.”
“He does?” said Allison. “Have we accepted us?”
“Yes,” said Howard. “We’re just negotiating the details.”
[p.86] Allison laughed but suddenly realized nothing was funny. Details eventually separated her from all she wanted to keep.
“He asked me about my plans. I said to stay here and marry you or go to Anchorage and marry.” Howard climbed down the stack and headed toward the barn. She climbed down and joined him. “I can’t believe how run-down he’s let it get. It looks like someone else’s property.”
“I haven’t changed my mind, Howard. My parents’ marriage—”
“Kept them together.”
“When it shouldn’t have.”
He stopped and turned toward her. “I thought that when we—”
“It did,” she said. “I don’t think of you as a one-night stand, two- night stand, but you’re not so great in bed that I’ve forgotten about my job.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. I’m frustrated you won’t come with me.”
He trailed his hand across a plow, red with rust. “This should be protected with grease.” They entered the barn, where two muck-filled pens connected to outside corrals. A cow and a horse stood inside. The milk cow had manure across her rump and sides. Howard pointed toward her udder, which had large scabs on it. “Look at that. And did you see the haystack? Both the cow and horse have been pushing over the fence and eating. They’ll soon smash the fence flat and ruin the hay. He’s let everything go.”
“Any fool can see he needs your help.” She wanted to be angry with him, but she was too embarrassed. Like him, she had believed sex would bind them—would make him follow her to Alaska. “We’ve both been fools.” He finally looked at her. “Tonight. Let’s go tonight.”
He tried to untangle the wires of the gate, then walked into a small building for pliers and a hammer. “You promised me three days.”
“Don’t rub my face in it.” Three days, she thought, and he’ll work himself back so deep into this damned valley that he’ll never leave.
Although she was nervous, Allison liked the feeling of moving with the massive horse. She and Howard rode through the orchard [p.87] near the house. Her horse stretched its neck to crop the tall grass and pulled the reins out of her hands. She hooked the dangling reins with her foot, pulled the horse’s head up, and kicked it forward. Howard opened the gate without dismounting. They rode through the front yard and north away from Rockwood. Soon a car passed them, then slid to a stop on the shoulder; a young woman flung the door open and ran toward them.
“Belinda,” Howard said, his voice as somber as the toll of a bell. Her curly black hair bounced as she ran. She’s beautiful, Allison thought. Full in breast and hip, not thin, not tall.
“Howard,” Belinda screeched. His horse danced in place, and Belinda slowed, stroking the horse’s neck until it calmed. Then she stood with her hands up on Howard’s leg. “You didn’t come, so I came after you.” She lifted her foot, thrust it into the stirrup with Howard’s, and stood, throwing her arms around him in the saddle. Then she kissed his mouth. The horse pranced sideways; Howard leaned back in the saddle, trying to keep his balance. The leather stretched and groaned. Belinda still held him, but they both leaned at a dangerous angle.
“Belinda, I’d like you to meet Allison Franklin-Warren. Allison, Belinda Jakeman.”
“Allison?” said Belinda. She was nose to nose with Howard.
“I met her in Houston,” he said, straining his neck back to get some distance between them. “It’s been kind of a sudden thing or I would have written you.”
“You would have written me?” she said. “Written me what?” She coughed a short laugh. “I suppose you’re telling me you brought back a wife from Texas.”
Howard said nothing; he tried to hold the horse still.
“That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Close enough,” he said.
“I have your last letter in my car. It came Friday. You didn’t say anything about this.”
“This happened yesterday,” said Howard. “Day before yesterday.”
For a long minute, Belinda’s face was blank. Then it turned hard. “You bastard!” she shouted. “You’ve done it again. I should have [p.88] known.” She turned toward Allison. “And you—!” Her voice lowered. “I don’t know whether to curse you or thank you. He’s not reliable.”
Belinda slid off the horse, flinging the reins at Howard, and the horse jerked back. She grabbed Howard’s foot and lifted. Already off balance, he fell, landing on his back, his foot tangled in the stirrup. Belinda marched toward her car. His horse pranced sideways, dragging Howard a few feet before he was able to kick loose. The horse bucked toward the fence and stood there quivering. Howard rolled over.
The door of Belinda’s car slammed, and Allison heard the engine start. “You’d better get up,” she said. “She’s going to run you over.” He pulled his legs under him. Belinda swung her car around, and he jumped out of the way. She spun gravel as she left.
“I thought she’d cry,” said Howard.
“No,” said Allison. “Anger is much better.” She kicked her horse back through the orchard and into the barnyard. She got off and tied it to the fence.
“Allison,” he said, standing next to her horse. “It happened so fast, I couldn’t think.”
She looked at his face. “It’s over for you. You’ve finished with her.”
“Yes,” he said. “That should make you happy.”
“Are you an idiot?” she said. “You just flushed a big chunk of her life down the toilet.” He looked puzzled. Why was she angry with him? She hadn’t known he was capable of such cruel neglect. Even a telephone call would have been better. Still her own reaction alarmed her; she was trapped in a soap opera, where every emotion was exaggerated.
The four of them sat for a late dinner—roast beef and potatoes, fresh corn, small carrots, with ice cream and sugared peaches for dessert.
“The feds can keep the hell out,” said Walter, not looking at Allison even though she’d raised the subject. “We managed before—they had no right to take it over.”
“Did all right ruining it,” said Howard. “The Forest Service is bringing it back from the damage inflicted by J. D. Rockwood and the other pioneers.”
[p.89] “Walter,” said Allison, her mouth full of corn, “you one of those ranchers who’d shoot a forest ranger?”
“Damn right,” said Walter. Through the evening his talk had been jerky—stops and starts. She wondered if it was his natural manner or just Rockwood male nervousness about women.
“All bark,” said Emily. “Bunch of old desert rats.”
“Some are all bite,” said Walter.
“Think they’re John Wayne,” Emily said. Her elbows on the table, she stared at Howard, her chin resting on her hands.
“What?” Howard said. “Did I forget to comb my hair?”
“I heard a ruckus,” she said. “I guess you broke it to Belinda gently.”
Howard opened his mouth and shut it again.
Emily turned to Allison. “I remember when Walter returned from his mission. He thought he was a hero or a god—the center of the universe.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Walter.
“Guess it’s in their genes,” Emily said. “I don’t mean that. In the air. Returning missionaries, males anyway, think that they’re like sheiks visiting the harvest, culling the herd, separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares. Picking the best mate for the great forever. Most of us, fools that we are, believe it too.”
“I wasn’t careful with her,” Howard said.
“Understatement of the century. Seems to me you need to make some decisions.”
“Yes,” said Allison, trying to keep from grinning. “You need to make up your mind.”
Emily turned to her. “This is a lighter thing to you than it is to Howard. We hadn’t imagined that he would come home just to leave again. In fact, I can’t say I wouldn’t be satisfied to see you head for Alaska and leave him with us. But I want you to know also that you’d be welcome to stay here, as long as you plan to marry. You could set up in the other half of the house. It would take work, but we could get it cleaned up. We could have Bishop Hansen over tonight to marry you.” She paused. “No we can’t. I don’t suppose you had a blood test.”
[p.90] “I’m on my way to Anchorage,” said Allison. “He can come if he wants.”
“Monday you could get a blood test. We could get a few rooms cleaned by then.”
“It’s just dusty,” said Walter. “Nothing else wrong. Only leaks a little, a couple windows broken, pipes might be rusty, but hell, we’d have it livable inside a week or two. Maybe three.”
“Walter,” said Emily. “They can stay there if they want.”
“I’m not staying,” said Allison. She ate carrot after sweet carrot. She should be angry at Emily for inviting her to leave. But she had said it so earnestly. Emily, unlike Howard, seemed to have no deceit in her.
After dinner the four of them walked down through the fields. Allison tried to smell the alfalfa blossoms Howard had told her about, but all she could discern was dust.
“I design software.” Crickets made waves of sound in the pauses between their talk.
“Oh, Lord,” said Walter. He snorted.
“What?” said Allison.
Walter laughed, scratched his head, and laughed again. “I thought at first that you made women’s underclothing.”
“Yes,” said Emily, “that’s just what you’d think.”
Allison laughed, glancing sideways at Walter. He was like Howard would be in forty years. How long would she have with him—two more days, twenty years? While Allison’s mother harangued in the garden, her father filled her hands with tomatoes and snow peas.
“So how did you meet?” Emily said. “Start at the beginning.”
“We were teaching Allison about the gospel,” said Howard.
Walter said, “When did you get to the lesson on chas—”
Emily started moving before he half-finished the sentence; she nearly knocked him over. “Walter, just keep it to yourself.” She took Allison’s arm. “I don’t know if that part of it needs much explanation. I meant, tell us about you. Where you grew up, all that sort of thing.”
She told about her school in Houston, Charlottesville, and at [p.91] M.I.T., that her parents were professors, and what she knew about her job in Anchorage. “I feel like I’m being interviewed.”
“Well, I guess you might feel that way,” said Emily. “But I hope you can see that we’d be a little curious.” She smiled at Allison, and Allison smiled back.
She wanted to say that coupling with Howard had been accidental, experimental, rather comical, something to take without anguish. But she knew, tasting the words that almost came to her tongue, that they would not work. “Right. How could you know my intentions?”
“What are your intentions?” said Howard.
“To steal you away to Anchorage.”
“To be stubborn,” he said. He turned away from them and walked along an empty ditch toward the lights of Rockwood. She started to follow, but then didn’t, not wanting to avoid his mother’s questions. She didn’t want to be with him against his parents. She told them about how she and Howard had met, how she had become first curious, then affectionate of his bright and intense talk, his spiritual integrity.
“Spiritual integrity, hell,” said Walter. “What do you know about spiritual integrity?”
“He is becoming true to himself,” Allison said. “I sure don’t mean commerce with God.”
“True to himself. By throwing morality out the window?” He turned and walked up the lane; Emily and Allison followed, two women with peevish, childish men. She felt invisible in the night. Ahead across the field, two windows in the house were lit.
Emily cleared her throat. “Plenty of farmers in Rockwood don’t know diddly-squat about how to manage their taxes. Walter sure doesn’t.”
Surprised, Allison couldn’t think what to say.
When they crossed the barnyard, Howard joined them. She took Howard’s hand, partly because she was glad to see him back, partly to establish domain. Walter was waiting on the back porch, and they all sat on two ancient sofas. Allison worried that they were full of rodents.
There was an awkward silence.
[p.92] “One of us needs to make some money,” Emily said.
“You think I won’t take care of you?” said Walter.
“We have no retirement savings, no savings of any kind. We’ve only got the farm, which requires the kind of labor we can’t give when we’re old.”
“We just talk Howard and Allison into getting married and staying here,” said Walter. “Howard can help me get this place back into shape.”
Allison opened her mouth, shut it again.
“You can’t take two gallons of water out of a quart bottle,” said Emily. “This farm can’t support two families. You know that windmill property?”
“Here we go again,” said Walter. “I guess I’ve got to get to bed.” But it was a vain threat.
“We have a buyer, but Walter here thinks cheat grass is worth more than twenty thousand dollars.”
“When people start selling off their land,” said Walter, “they’re finished as ranchers.”
“It is worth more than twenty thousand, isn’t it?” said Howard. “We shouldn’t sell.”
“We!” said Emily. “We can’t sell land that James Darren claimed. That would be sacrilege. Walter, you have withdrawal shakes when you see a cheat grass patch which doesn’t have a herd of cattle starving on it.” She laughed suddenly. “We’ve done nothing but work since we were married, but we’re no farther along than when we started.”
Keep talking, Allison thought. You’ll talk him away from the farm and right to me.
“What would you do with all that money?” asked Howard. Allison chewed her lip. Howard, apparently like his father, didn’t have an ear for good sense.
“All that money?” She tapped one finger on the arm of her chair. “It would give me enough to go to school for a while.”
“You don’t need to go to school,” said Walter. He looked away.
“Walter, do you realize that I have run our house on two hundred [p.93] dollars a month for the past year? You want me to live that way the rest of my life.”
“I didn’t know that,” Howard said. “I spent more than that every month on my mission.”
“I want to do some things before I die—learn tax accounting and sail up a fjord, see a play in London or New York.”
“You’ll have it from me when I die,” said Walter. “But for now I’m not chopping my ranch into pieces so you can fly around the world. That’s the silliest idea I’ve ever heard.”
“Stubborn,” Emily said.
“It’s testosterone,” said Allison. “You don’t know any stubborn women, do you?”
Walter glared at Allison.
“It was a joke,” Allison said uselessly.
“A two-edged joke,” said Emily. “Karl called while you two were riding. Everyone plans on coming next Sunday for your homecoming, not the far ones of course. I told him not to make any plans until you had a chance to talk to the bishop. He thought I was talking about when your homecoming speech will be.”
“Mom, you’re going to have to figure a way to tell people.”
“No. You’re going to have to figure a way to tell people.”
“I can’t face them yet,” said Howard. “And we might be gone by then.”
“I could call and tell them to come tomorrow,” said Emily, watching Howard’s face.
“Yes,” said Allison. “We’ll have a party to celebrate Howard and me getting together.”
Walter snorted and turned away. Emily looked at her. “Might not be a bad idea.”
“I don’t know,” said Howard. “How can I face them?”
“You’re just going to have to go through it,” said Allison.
“Don’t you mother me too,” said Howard.
“Seems to me that five mothers wouldn’t be enough,” said Emily. “Ten might have been able to teach you that you can’t swim a river without getting wet.”
[p.94] Despite Walter’s angry looks, Emily put them in a bedroom upstairs. “You both won’t fit in Howard’s old bed.” Allison followed her into the attic room. Through the one window, she could see the corner of the barn behind the house and the lights of Rockwood. A brass bed stood against one wall. “This was my grandfather’s room,” said Howard. “Just before he died.”
Emily stood in the bedroom door with fresh sheets in her hands, a half smile on her lips.
“I can make it,” said Howard.
“No, let me,” she said, pushing past him and stretching a fitted sheet across the bed. “I want to have it nice for you after fending for yourself for two years.” She whipped out the top sheet and tucked it under, spread a blanket. “There,” she said, holding a pillow with her chin, pulling the cover up, “you two should be comfortable here.”
“I thought you didn’t want us here unmarried,” Allison said.
“I don’t,” she said. “But putting you in different bedrooms now is like shutting the gate after the horse is loose.” She sighed and turned away.
Howard closed the door behind her. Allison laughed. “You should see your face.”
Below them they heard Walter’s shouted words, which echoed through the heat vent. “There’s twenty rooms in this damn house and they’ve got to sleep in the same one. It’s a damn pollution to my ancestral home.”
“Stop swearing, Walter,” Emily said, “It isn’t as if your ancestors were models of chastity. Every one of them was a polygamist.”
“What’s impure about polygamy?” he said. “It was a divine institution.”
There was silence downstairs. “I feel like I should be offended,” said Allison. “Am I the pollution to the ancestral home or are you?”
“We both are.”
“You don’t believe that’s what he thinks. He thinks I’m the slut.”
“He thinks we’ve both failed.” Howard sat on the edge of the bed. “You need to try to understand.”
“Not after I leave here for Anchorage, I don’t.”
[p.95] “I have him inside my head. Him and his father and his father’s father.”
“What happened to the mothers?”
He tapped his forehead.
“You should listen to them.”
“I’m trying to. But they’re hard to hear because the men are always bellowing. The men think you seduced me.”
“What do you think?”
“It was a mutual seduction,” he said. “We each out-flanked the other.”
“Okay, Howard. You pass.” She kissed him lightly. “If this kind of out-flanking happened in battles, fewer people would die.” They heard faint voices again below them. She took his shoulders and pushed him back on the bed, which squeaked like a rusty Ferris wheel. She bounced and the bed shrieked.
He said, “Let me up.” She threw her leg across him; he wrestled free. The voices were silent below. They heard a door slam. Allison bounced again.
“It’s a chastity bed,” she said. “That’s why your mother put us in here.”
“We could be in the other side of the house and they’d still listen for us. When we made love last night, it was as if God and all my ancestors were standing just above us in the air, watching in their robes and white beards.”
“Damn,” she said. “I’m surprised you could get it up.”
“Not a joke.”
“Not a joke for you. I’ve never met anyone so conflicted by sex.”
“This is easy for you. I thought that doing this—with you—I would move beyond fearing God. Prove to myself that there is no divine moral law, only human and naturalistic laws.”
“It didn’t happen. My ancestors are still whispering, ‘Thou hast made thyself unclean with a woman.’”
“Sheesh, Howie. How do you think that makes me feel?” She lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
[p.96] “But then I see that they’re smiling. I know they were all ranchers and polygamists. Virile. And it’s like they’re cheering me on.”
“Now that’s much better.” She turned and looked into his twitching eyes. “You’re not pretending. They’re not a metaphor for you.” She rested her hand flat against his face. “This is real. We are real. Stop talking like a crazy person.”
A door opened and then closed below them. Mormons, according to Howard, believed in sex in heaven, only he wouldn’t call it sex. Procreation. She wondered how long they’d last together. He was so odd—sometimes talking sense, sometimes babbling out of mystic insanity.
She listened to him breathing, felt his chest move slightly under her hand as they waited—for what? The attic shifted and creaked. The low-ceilinged room was musty as a tomb—a visionary patriarchal tomb. She had trouble breathing the dust-dry air. Because he was back in this house, back in his timeless valley, where the air hadn’t moved for a century, patriarchs walked again in his head. If she could get him away to Alaska, she might save him.
She unbuttoned his shirt and ran her hand across his chest. “You’re not wearing your Mormon underwear.”
“Can’t. I’ve violated my covenants.” He pulled away, one hand holding his shirt together.
“Chastity, giving all my goods to God.”
“You have goods? Why didn’t you tell me you have goods?”
“Not funny. I took those covenants seriously.”
“Not all that seriously.” He glared at her. “So how will a covenant breaker fare in Rockwood?”
“I’ll fit right in.” He got out of bed and began undressing, morose again, as he had been at times during the trip up.
“Your parents want us living permanently in the other side of this mausoleum. But where would we go dancing? Where would I go when I need a rousing drunk?” She walked to the window, the floorboards creaking under her feet. She cupped her hands against the glass, looking out on the moonlit valley, Howard’s dream valley. The willows [p.97] were a dark line. Turning back, she took off her clothes and threw them in the corner where he had dropped his.
“That’s one hell of a bruise,” she said. “Let me see.” She gently put her hand on his injured butt. He winced and moved away. She followed. She blew on the back of his neck and touched her hand to the back of his thigh, watching goose bumps spread.
“How does time work?” he said. He moved from under her hand and turned off the light. The bed creaked. “People think time is like a row of dominoes. Each one falling pushes the next instant into being. I think it’s more like my father’s pool of mineral water: the past is shifting under the surface.”
“The past is set. It’s the future that’s shifting.”
She sat down on the bed and studied his moonlit face. “No,” he said. “The past is mobile.”
She crawled on her hands and knees toward him. “Time is the squeaky bed on which the universe makes love.” She settled beside him.
“This isn’t the house I left. Not the parents I left. It’s different because of you.”
“I’ve just changed your perception.”
“No. The past is different. Our being here has changed the nails and floorboards—and the ghosts. The ghosts are not the same ghosts. James Darren Rockwood—the one whose picture is downstairs—is here, different than he was. Mary, here. Josephine, Amy, Lucy, Isaac, Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. All different.”
“You’re talking like a lunatic again.” She remembered Michael— his white, bloated face. “Death means there’s nothing left. Especially no family chatting in Heaven afterward. Now is all we have. You started to realize this in Houston.”
“But I didn’t understand something essential. My ancestors, God himself, I don’t hear them like I hear you. They’re felt. Imagined so strongly that they have presence. No, I mean they have presence without my imagination, but I have no other way to get at them than imagination.”
“You’re just confused,” she said. “So much has changed in the past couple of days.”
[p.98] “Don’t condescend,” he said. “Driving toward Utah, I felt again what I haven’t felt for years—a comfort, tangible as a hand stroking me. Felt as if it was beyond imagination.”
“It’s called going home.”
“No,” he said.
“It’s called having sex. Woke you up to yourself.”
He shook his head. “It was a free gift.”
“Same way I thought when I was thirteen,” she said. “Egotistical. Every impulse was true because I felt it. Like a kid thinking other people can’t see her when she shuts her eyes.”
“No,” he said. “I can tell when it’s storytelling, when it’s metaphor or imagination, and when it comes from outside my body. My cells vibrate with intelligence.”
“That’s your impression,” she said. “It’s also the impression of schizophrenics.”
“I’m not schizophrenic. But sometimes I wish I could ask God what he wants from me.” He spoke in a loud voice, then listened.
“Oh, lordy. You are nuts.”
“Good night, James Darren. Good night, Abigail, Josephine, Amy, and Lucy.”
“If only my mother could see me now,” she said. “In bed with a certifiable lunatic.” She whacked him with a pillow.
“Think of it, that lusty rancher James Darren has no body, unless of course he’s been resurrected already, which I doubt because of his sins against the earth. None of his wives have bodies. Jeopardy. What is sublimation?”
She hit him again and he lunged for the pillow, falling partly across her. The bed shrieked. “We’ve got to be quieter,” he said.
Grinning, she shoved the pillow up at him, and he pushed it back down, covering her face. Her breath caught in her throat. She flung the pillow up and shoved her hands in his face.
“What?” he said.
“Don’t ever—” She couldn’t speak.
“What? I was just playing around.”
“The pillow. I couldn’t breathe.” She had once been to a sleep-[p.99]over with some friends. A girl had forced a folded blanket over her face until her lungs burned and the instinct for air had become a dry retching. And this even before she lay on top of the car in the flood and imagined Michael below her with water covering his face, filling his mouth and nostrils.
“Desdemona,” he said, half-smiling. “Choking on darkness.”
“It’s not a joke,” she said.
“Right. It’s like my falling dream. Now you know.”
She waited in the darkness for her pulse to slow. Finally she turned to touch him. He held her hand. So they had this in common. What holds you and your new lover together? her mother might ask her. Fear of death. Everybody’s fear, just as love is everybody’s consolation.
“Tomorrow is church,” he said.
Not so similar after all. She was sure she had no impulse toward self-flagellation. “Why go?”
“I’m not a coward. It’s still my church. The only way I can keep from leaving my church is to face the bishop. But what will I say?”
“Tell him, ‘I kept trying to run away but she just—well, she just out-flanked me.’”
He flung his head back and laughed like a donkey braying.
After making love on the floor, they climbed into bed, but Howard couldn’t sleep. He slipped out, trying to keep the springs from squeaking. He brushed his fingers across her cheek, then walked to the window. The haystack was hulking and dark, the barn a larger dark shape. The moonlight was white on the sprinklers. His body felt ripe with animal sin. He sat on the floor between the window and the bed where Allison slept. He imagined God stomping back and forth, as if just above in the attic. “The young fool’s squandered his chances,” he said, “polluted his temple.”
Jesus held his hand out in a calming motion. “But, Father.” The Holy Ghost fluttered around the room.
Grandmother God—who reminded Howard of Grace Montoya, arms thin as bones, face translucent, hair like a burning halo—leaned [p.100] back on a dusty couch, “Settle down, all of you,” she said. “Give him space to think.”
Tangle-haired, Allison turned in her sleep, one arm flung above her head. Howard smelled her musky odor on his own flesh.
“Grandmother God,” he prayed, “I’m in a bad way.”
“You are a foolish mouse,” she said. “But you cooked your own frijoles. Now eat them.”