Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.101] The next morning Allison dropped Howard at the Mormon church, which had walls made from boulders cemented in place. Cleared from the fields, Howard told her. Though he had asked, she refused to go inside with him. For all she knew, he might stand and confess his sin with her sitting there; the women might sew a red A onto the front of his white shirt.
Main street was wide for such a small town. She could see only three businesses—a feed store, a gas station, and a grocery. Houses along the side streets were mostly wooden, painted white or green. The newer houses were of red brick or aluminum siding; the oldest were Victorian in style, with walls made from manila-colored brick. Some lawns were bright green, others had been burned yellow-brown. Two dry years in a row and the town would blow away.
When she came to the main highway, she turned westward. Out of the valley, the ground was even drier—tumbleweeds, gray brush, sparse yellow grass, wire fences with gray posts, dusty air. A giant black raven sat on the crossbar of a power pole, waiting for a car to hit a jackrabbit. Allison drove a few miles and suddenly received a gift from heaven—a bar, Willy’s Wet One. Neon signs, unlit, were in each window.
Inside she found half a dozen round wooden tables, grease stains on the top, and a bar along one wall, with red, padded stools. The five [p.102] men seated inside turned their faces toward her, frowning, and every beer disappeared.
“Hello,” she said. She felt like a character in a movie—Sigourney Weaver as Clint Eastwood. “Can I have a whiskey?” What else could she say? Four of the men were middle-aged; one looked to be Howard’s age. She didn’t know how to read them: were they desert bums drinking away their Sunday or profitable ranchers stopping off for a nip before a hard day at it?
They continued to stare. “No whiskey here,” the man behind the bar said. “We only sell beer. And we don’t sell that on Sunday.” Every man had his hands under his table. “You have to wait until tomorrow and drive to the state liquor store in Hamblin to get whiskey.”
“I should have just stopped at the grocery store,” she said.
“No whiskey there. No beer anywhere in the state on Sunday.” He looked out the window at her car. “This is Utah.”
“You lost?” another man said—Levis, cowboy boots, and a toothpick. He grinned at her, an old flirty guy. “Or just passing through?”
“Passing through to where?” she said. Their laughter came sudden and loud as if the joke had been told before. “I’m visiting Howard Rockwood. He went to church, but my nose led me here.” She sniffed and looked under Cowboy’s table. “Well, what do you know, a beer in Utah on Sunday.”
He lifted his bottle, taking a swig and grinning. “Walter’s Howard?”
“Are there two Howards in this town?” she asked.
“I thought he was on a mission.”
“He just finished,” she said. “I gave him a ride back.”
“I thought he had to come home and get released before he went anywhere with a woman,” said a man who wore suspenders, a white shirt, and had a pot belly.
“You’re one to talk, Vern, about obeying the finer points of the law,” said a man in overalls. “That isn’t a bottle of milk you have clutched between your knees.” Everybody laughed again.
The door opened and Walter walked in. He started when he saw Allison but recovered and sat on the stool next to her. The bartender [p.103] put a coffee in front of him. “Thanks, Willy,” said Walter. He turned to Allison. “Mormons don’t drink coffee. So Emily won’t let me have it in the house. I have to come out here to get a cup.”
“Howard better not try something like that on me,” she said.
Willy took a beer from under the counter and put it in front of her. “We just left Utah,” he said. The other men put their beers back on the tables.
“Unless the mission president released him before he left,” said Vern.
“That’s Vernon Todd,” said Willy. “He’s got only one train of thought and that one’s generally late.” Everyone laughed except Walter and Vern.
“So how’s life at home?” said Cowboy. He grinned at Walter.
“Don’t ask. It’s like my wife has become a different woman.”
“She woke up to herself,” said Allison.
“That’s right,” said Walter. “I’m just having trouble getting used to it.”
“Howard was in Texas, wasn’t he?” said Vern. “He was writing steady to my niece, Belinda. According to her, they was about ready to send out wedding announcements.”
This town is so small it’s nearly incestuous, Allison thought. “Texas is where I met him.”
“You’re a Texan,” said Vern. “You met Howard down there?”
“You’re a curious man,” she said.
“Howard’s a good kid,” said Willy; he was watching Walter, who slowly drank his coffee. “You’re lucky to have met him.”
“Yes, I am.” She took a drink. “I’m on my way to Alaska.”
Willy looked from her to Walter.
“She’s got Howard thinking he wants to go with her,” said Walter.
“And the sons of Israel wanted to take away Benjamin, the light of Israel’s eye.”
“I’m not constraining him,” said Allison softly.
“Not hardly,” said Walter. “It isn’t your will or words that’s constraining him.”
[p.104] One, she thought, two, three, four, five. And she kept her mouth shut.
“Willy’s a frustrated preacher,” said Overalls. “He came here twenty years ago to save all us Mormon heathens. Couldn’t find any takers so he opened up a bar. Been thriving ever since.”
“This is thriving?” said Willy.
“Wet Willy’s Desert Chapel,” said Cowboy. “Last chance at salvation.”
“I was in Alaska one summer,” said the young man. “Beautiful country.”
“You’re going to have to offer Howard a higher salary,” said Willy to Walter. “Give him an incentive to stay and help you run your place.”
“Can’t even pay myself what I’m worth,” said Walter.
“And that’s only two bits a year.” There was more laughter.
“Offer them the honeymoon cottage,” said Cowboy. “Let them move into Max’s old cabin. How can she refuse an offer like that?”
“I have a job in Anchorage,” said Allison. “Writing software.”
“Writing software,” said Willy. “I need to buy a computer to track my finances.”
“Willy, you don’t need a damn computer,” said Overalls. “You could figure your finances on the toes of a one-legged man.”
“Can I get a computer that flashes a red light above the door when a deadbeat comes in?”
“That red light would be flashing all the time,” said Cowboy. “People would think you’ve turned this place into a bawdy house.”
“So two bits and the honeymoon cottage won’t cut it?” Willy asked her.
“Does this cottage open onto the beach?” she said. “Does it have cable TV?”
“Mice and an outhouse,” said Cowboy. “A bucket for drinking water. But it has a beach. Down the valley is a murky hot springs with dead Goshutes floating in it.”
“Just Howard’s style,” she said.
The young man lifted his bottle. “To your success.”
[p.105] “Whose success?” said Walter.
“Her success, Howard’s. He was in my graduating class. May you have a damn good time together in Anchorage.”
“When’s the wedding?” asked Vernon.
Walter looked at his coffee cup. “No wedding,” said Allison.
“Vernon Todd,” said Willy, “put a fist in it.”
“Your train was just derailed,” said Overalls.
“To pleasure, prosperity, and long life,” said Cowboy, lifting a can.
“Some of my sons are scoundrels,” said Walter, staring at his coffee cup. “But Howard has a pure heart.”
Allison raised her beer. “To Howard, the pure of heart. May it always lead him to someone who will care for him.”
Walter lifted his cup high. “To Howard.” Then he turned his stool toward the men sitting at the table. Allison drank another beer, listening to their talk about the drought, the Hunsaker woman whose husband had left her a month before she bore twin boys, the threat that the Forest Service might raise range fees, and the fact that Gerald L. Hansen should never have been called as bishop because his kids were not proper examples.
Howard walked alone into the crowded chapel and saw Belinda across the room. He was surprised by the rush of affection for her. If he hadn’t left the plane, he might now be sitting next to her, planning their wedding in a couple of months. A hundred years earlier, he could have married both women. But he couldn’t imagine Allison and Belinda lasting five minutes in one house: Jeopardy, he thought: What is the definition of critical mass?
His last time inside the church, he had given his farewell talk. His eyes brimming with tears, he had gripped the pulpit and looked down into the faces of the ward members, people who had been as constant as trees to him: old farmers in suits, their wives in dresses, his friends, including Belinda, who had come to wish him well.
“All things are possible to them who believe,” that younger self [p.106] had said. “If I have enough faith, I can baptize hundreds, like Paul or Wilford Woodruff.” He had left town swathed in glory, a soldier in God’s army. Then as now, he smelled the varnish on the oak floor and benches, trailed his fingers across the white plaster walls. Had his testimony, the swelling of emotion which he had felt early in his mission and not again until recently, been only the memory of home? Allison had suggested that was what he’d felt, driving back to Utah.
Brother Harker waved. “Howard,” he called. “I mean, Elder Rockwood. It’s still Elder Rockwood.” People surrounded Howard: Sister Stukey, Brother Anderson, the Petersons. “Good to have you back. You look great. Nothing like seeing a strong returning missionary to give my own testimony a boost. I missed you.” He felt odd that they couldn’t see the change in his face. How would their smiles fade when word of Allison began to spread?
Belinda sat across the room between her parents. She turned when he entered but jerked her head forward again. Brother and Sister Jenkins, his parents’ neighbors to the north, entered from the foyer. They scanned the congregation and hurried to greet him. Brother Jenkins gripped his shoulder. “It’s good to have you home. Talk to you later.” He walked to the stand and sat next to Brian Samuelson, who had returned from his mission as Howard was leaving. Sister Jenkins, who had taught him Sunday school when he was in high school, took his hand in both of hers. “I can hardly wait to hear all about it,” she said. He still felt her touch on his hand as she sat next to him on the bench. Allison said he had come to church out of a desire for self-flagellation. She was partly right, but he realized that another motive was rebellion—the desire to shock the pious. He supposed he should pray for a spirit of contrition, but that would require him to leave Allison, who wouldn’t marry him. He was terrified at the thought of her driving to Alaska without him.
His mother moved through those who stood waiting for the meeting to begin; she saw him, nodded, and turned away again. Women walked across the chapel to talk with her. She laid her hands on their arms, smiling. She glanced at him again, frowning. Then her face became animated, laughing at something one of the women said.
[p.107] Bishop Hansen rushed in and stood behind the pulpit. “I’m pleased to welcome you to sacrament meeting.” He pointed toward the back. “As you can see, Elder Rockwood has returned from his mission.” The people in the congregation turned again and looked at Howard and Sister Jenkins sitting together. The bishop smiled at him then read the announcements.
Howard said, “He’s going to ask me to come up and talk. I can’t do it.”
“You’ll do fine,” Sister Jenkins whispered. “All that practice in the mission field.”
The bishop turned the time over to the chorister who led the congregation in singing “Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded.” Barney Thompson stood to say the invocation. While Barney prayed, Howard watched Belinda from partly closed eyes. She didn’t bow her head; she bit her lip, seeming—what?—frightened, angry, hurt? He wished he had been smart enough to avoid hurting her or anyone else. Was such a pure and insular sin even possible?
After the prayer came the sacrament song, “Behold the Great Redeemer Die.” The deacons, one of them Belinda’s little brother, moved down the rows with trays of broken bread, which was for the members the emblem of Christ’s broken body. The room was quiet except for a few fussing babies. They said that a person ate damnation when he took the sacrament unworthily, but the thought didn’t move Howard to shame. Despite what Allison said about his guilty demeanor, he felt no burning coals, only a dead calm, nothing moving.
A deacon stood in front of him, the tray of bread extended. He passed it on to Sister Jenkins, who stared at him before taking a small piece. On his mission he had told people that Christ could take their sins away if they repented. The second priest flipped his hair back out of his eyes and said the blessing on the sacramental water. After the prayer, before the tray of cups could come to Howard, he left his seat, aware that everyone was watching, and went into the hallway. He paced back and forth. He leaned against the door jamb, just out of sight, until the sacrament was over and the bishop stood again behind the podium. Having been a missionary and having received the Mel-[p.108]chizedek priesthood, he would be excommunicated for his fornication with a woman who might leave him at any time. Around the edge of the door, he saw his mother frown and look back at the bench where Sister Jenkins sat alone. He could walk out through the foyer and across the lawn, never seeing anyone in Rockwood again.
Why had he coupled himself to Allison? The answer, unlike his futile efforts to feel shame, was clear. She rose two-handed before the net and caught the soccer ball. She undressed him in the motel room, quiet hands moving across his skin. She sat on the couch in her apartment, face intent, body inclined forward. She boiled the air with her swearing. She was as sudden as lightning, as crisp as a crack of thunder. He walked back to his seat and the members of the ward turned their faces toward him.
Bishop Hansen was still talking. An excommunication court used to be called a court of love. Now they called it disciplinary action, but the function of both was to flush sin into the open. If he refused to go to Alaska with Allison, if he stayed to help his father, she would leave. He would confess his sin to the stake high council. After a year they might let him rejoin the church. Such a repudiation of sin might allow him to reconnect to his former self.
In 1930 Solomon Rockwood, James Darren’s son, had been excommunicated for taking a fourth wife, a woman twenty years his junior. By then members of the church had adopted the nation’s revulsion to polygamy; he could keep his three legitimate wives, but taking a new one had been an act of apostasy. Kids who went to the cemetery for a thrill said they could still hear him moaning. He was warning others against his mistake, they said. Once Howard had read part of Solomon’s diary. “August 15, 1934. It has been over three years since anyone in Rockwood has spoken to me in friendship.” Death was not the ultimate isolation.
At the pulpit the bishop finally finished his testimony. “We’re going to hear from Elder Rockwood later, I know.” Howard’s mother shook her head slightly. “But I thought he could bear his testimony now.”
I spent two years trying to serve God, thought Howard. Two [p.109] years minus one day. He stood and prepared to speak from his seat. One of the counselors, a man Howard didn’t know, was whispering something in the bishop’s ear. The bishop shook his head vigorously.
“In Navasota, Texas, lives a widow and her three children, the Valdez family. We passed her apartment many times on our bicycles; the kids were always dirty and running wild. We knew later from talking to her neighbors that she saw men in the evening for money.” He looked across the ward. Sister Sorenson, Brothers Jenkins, Hurst, and Wilkins, Belinda, her parents, Sister Jenkins—all the people he had wanted to see again. Not even the babies were making noise. “One day we passed her house and had the feeling we should knock. No one seemed to be home. Then a small child answered.” He took a deep breath and went on. “She was sitting inside on the couch with her boy, bathing his forehead with a damp rag because he had a high fever. We told her who we were, and she didn’t want to talk to us. ‘Go away,’ she said. ‘Can’t you see I have a trouble today?’ We—my companion told her about the power the priesthood has for healing the sick. Then she let us lay our hands on her child’s head. When we passed again the next day, she was waiting in the street. ‘My son is well,’ she said.”
Howard looked over the people, remembering the weeks they had taught Sister Valdez. Her eyes had grown brighter and more clear as she believed. He had been jealous. “She began surprising us. When we came to teach, she would give us the gifts of her sacrifices. ‘I told the men to stay away. They are no longer welcome here,’ she said one night. ‘Today I took my wine and poured it out in the garden. I smashed the bottle.’ One day she said nothing, but her place had been scrubbed, the children bathed.” One by one she had packaged the sins of her life and laid them aside, an arduous labor. Watching from the outside, he knew her steps were firm, steady, as she moved toward her own salvation. She had been a simple and sure woman, believing everything they said. Gripping the back of the bench, Howard let her clear spirit fill him and he spoke to the people of Rockwood from that feeling. “Jesus took her sins away. He can take away my sins and all of yours. Jesus takes away our sins.” As soon as he sat down, the clarity left. Had he lied to them, his friends and neighbors?
[p.110] Sister Jenkins reached to touch his arm. “Very nice,” she said. “Exactly right.”
He breathed the smell of wood varnish. Out the open back window, the cottonwood leaves rustled. All his life he had been taught that the universe was simple and unitary; now he knew it was not. Opposites were true, paradoxes were as commonplace as stars. As an act of faith, he chose the church and Allison both, both light and desire, and finally, impossible sweetness, he felt himself moving toward his true self before God.
Bishop Hansen stared down at one spotted hand laid on his desk. He appeared the same as two years earlier, still a man almost as large as Peterson but with a huge pot belly. He sat so motionless that he seemed only a shell, like the husk of an insect. If Howard jostled him, he’d crumble to dust on his chair. His white, bristled hair was thick as a carpet. He had been Howard’s scoutmaster; they had talked and told stories before dozens of campfires.
“Howard,” he said without looking up, “can you help me understand your misfortune?”
“I fell in love.”
“We send you young men out on missions. We send you out knowing you’ll face discouragement, hardship, and rejection. All soldiers conscripted to the army.”
“I was ready early on. Then I lost faith in what I was doing.”
“You should have come home.” For the first time the bishop’s face was angry. “Your mother said it happened the last day. Couldn’t you wait? Couldn’t you hold yourself back?”
Howard had once seen a jackass go after a mare, so frenzied that it paid no attention to a man beating its head with a shovel. Was he like that? He shook his head, but could say nothing. He knew that Allison thought this picture of their love was insulting.
The bishop looked up. “I hope this woman stands with you. She won’t marry you, your mother says.” Howard nodded. “You know we’ll have to act.” They sat in silence for a moment. “I wish you hadn’t borne your testimony.”
[p.111] Tears came up in Howard’s eyes. He had embarrassed his mother and this man, whom he counted as a friend. “You asked me to speak.”
“I didn’t know. You should have told me.”
“How could I do that?”
“You couldn’t have. By then you couldn’t have. You said you lost faith?”
“I lived the form of it for about a year.”
“What a tremendous waste.”
“At the end I got fed up. A thousand tiny rules.”
“Why didn’t you break one of the tiny ones? Break all thousand of them.” He shook his head. “You bore such a powerful testimony, but you say you don’t believe. Now all the kids in Rockwood will find out what you’ve done. Will confuse them. Confuses me.”
Howard could think of nothing to say.
Bishop Hansen leaned across his desk. “Marry her. You obviously care for her. Don’t throw everything away. Marry her.”
Howard started toward the door. “I was frightened to talk to you.” He didn’t say, because I didn’t know how to tell you that I feel nothing.
“Of course, you were.”
Standing near the door together, Howard patted the bishop’s stomach, which bulged out just above his belt. “You need to go on a few hikes and backpacking trips.”
“Used to be that every summer I’d lose weight. This is the price of a bale wagon.”
“I doubt that the God I feared as a child is really God,” said Howard.
“God hasn’t changed. You have.” The bishop was already returning to his desk. Shutting the door behind him, Howard heard the bishop dial and then speak.
Counting children, nineteen people circled the dinner table. Allison had never eaten with such a clamorous crowd. Two boys snickered over a joke that turned on the similarity between “fat” and “fart.” The small girls were singing a song. “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.” They exploded the word “beam” and then shrieked with laughter.
[p.112] “If you’re not going to stop having kids, then we’re going to have to buy more leaves for the table,” Walter said before the blessing. Howard’s two brothers were somber, as if they were at a funeral. Allison sat between Howard and Nancy, his sister. Nancy’s husband was next, with their baby behind them in a high chair. The child was dark haired, with the Rockwood eyes, his grandmother’s mouth. Allison wanted to close her hand around the tiny hand. Nancy and Sam were younger than Howard’s brothers and hadn’t yet settled into the apathy which marked the older couples. They continually touched fingertips and eyes over their new child as they took turns feeding him. Howard’s two brothers didn’t look at their wives. They interrupted the women to ask for butter or potatoes. One of Karl’s kids shouted that he couldn’t cut his meat. “Help him,” said Karl to Sherrie, his wife. He was just as close to the child as she was.
Allison wondered again what was keeping her in Utah when she could be driving through Montana and British Columbia. Besides wanting Howard, who needed space to decide what to do, she was curious to discover the web of relationships that had created him. Everyone spoke at once—a babble of noise—and Howard glanced at her, embarrassed.
After dinner Sam said he would take the children to play in the orchard and on the haystack. “Have fun,” he said as he left. Everyone watched the children push the swinging door. Then they sat in silence in the ancient living room.
“Sam has a new job,” Nancy said finally. She told them about the private school in Salt Lake where he now taught music. “He’s teaching one less class than before but he’s also making a hundred dollars a month less.”
“Mom said she’s found a buyer for that bench property,” said Karl.
Howard’s father said nothing.
Simon filled the silence: “My son Steven’s gotten surly. He won’t talk to me anymore.”
“He’s a teenager,” said Emily. “What do you expect?”
[p.113] “This is drastic, though. Won’t do his homework. Won’t do jobs. Won’t tell us where he’s going. Won’t come home on time.”
“Sounds like Howard,” said Karl.
Allison laughed; everyone turned to look at her. She said, “Have him tested for drugs.”
“I don’t think he’d take drugs,” said Karen, Simon’s wife. “I don’t think he’d do that.”
“I don’t know,” said Simon. “I wouldn’t even know where to go to have him tested.”
“Try your doctor,” said Emily. “He’d know.”
Then the room fell back into silence. Karl scratched the back of his neck; Simon stared at the floor. Say it, you pompous prudes, Allison thought. Get it over with. “I think I’ll go outside for a walk,” she said, standing.
“Don’t leave,” said Karl. “We’d like to get to know you.”
She gave in and sat down, angry because she didn’t know how to change the mood in the room. Howard stretched, his hands behind his head. “Those kids were sure noisy at dinnertime.”
“They’re just rambunctious,” said Emily.
“They are that,” said Walter.
Simon turned toward Howard. “Don’t worry, Howie. Your time will come.”
“My time for what—deafness?”
“So you’re going to Alaska?” asked Nancy, leaning forward.
“Yes,” said Allison. “You know, mining computers for gold.” She felt foolish, but Nancy smiled.
“I’ll bet you’re good at it,” she said. “You seem like the type who could do anything.”
“We thought you were going to stay and help Dad,” said Simon. “He could use you.” Oh, Allison thought, not morality at all, economics. Why weren’t his brothers like Nancy?
“He should feel no obligation,” said Walter.
“We come out when we can,” said Karl. “But you can’t long-distance farm.”
[p.114] “You think I don’t know that?” said Howard.
“Why are you trying to make him feel obligated?” Allison said.
“You don’t understand,” said Howard. “Every letter I wrote said I could hardly wait to come home to work with Dad. And he does need the help.”
Wrong move, she thought. Blood is thicker than sex.
“Karl, you haven’t been out for nearly a year,” said Emily. “Except to dig potatoes and cut your Christmas tree.”
“That’s the point,” said Simon.
“Why not get married?” said Sherrie. “Why not? If a young couple is going to be together they need to get married.”
“Married?” said Allison. “Hell, no. We’re still just passing acquaintances. We’ve got a ways to go before we’re a ‘young couple.’”
Karl looked at Simon and they both laughed. Simon leaned toward Howard. “Passing acquaintances. When did you pass?” He turned his head and smirked at her; when she didn’t look away, he flushed slightly. Watch out, you bastard, she thought, I’ll eat you alive.
“Without marriage,” said Sherrie, “society falls apart. Look at what’s happening today. Look at the divorce rate.”
“You have to be married to get a divorce,” said Nancy.
“When someone gets married,” said Emily, “it’s a bond between them and God and the world. I commit to this man. It’s what makes families secure.”
“I agree,” said Simon. “I agree that it would be best if they wait to have kids until they’re married. That way their kids won’t be illegitimate.”
“Simon,” said Emily. “You could learn a little tact. It never has been your strong suit.”
“She’s right, Simon,” said Karen. “You aren’t careful with your words.”
“I’m just calling a spade a spade. They need to consider the effect on potential children.”
Walter spread his arms out. “I’m glad all of you could come,” his father said, the emotion breaking his voice. “I love all of you.” He struggled to his feet. “Guess I’d better go move that pipeline back to [p.115] the beginning of the field.” He pressed his lips onto Emily’s cheek, and she touched her hand to the spot.
“Howard,” he said. “Would you like to help me?”
“Me, too,” said Allison. “You’re not leaving me here.”
Escaping the room felt like coming up from under water. She walked to the truck and stood with her hand on the door handle. “Damn them,” she said. “Howard, I’m not good at holding back like this. The sons of bitches.”
“They’ve expended their moral fervor,” said Walter. “They’ll be docile now.”
She and Howard dragged the pipe trailer over and hooked it to the truck. Walter drove to the field where the sprinkler pipes lay. He said to Allison, “Drive slow along the edge.” She slid over into the driver’s seat and he joined Howard at the back of the truck. He placed his hands on Howard’s shoulders. “You’ve found a woman,” he said loud enough that he apparently wanted Allison to hear. “Now love her. That’s the best thing a man can do, the hardest thing a man can do.” His manner had been so abrasive at first. How could she have known he had a tender heart?
When they returned an hour later, Simon and Nancy and their families had gone. Karl waited on the back porch. “Oh, hell,” said Walter, “here it comes.”
“Dad,” said Karl. “We’ve got to hit the road, but I want to talk to you about something. Mom wants to sell the windmill piece; you want to keep it. There’s a way for you to sell it and keep it.” Sherrie and Emily came out of the house and stood together on the edge of the porch.
“Something for everybody,” said Walter. “Sounds like the devil’s plan.”
“Hear him out,” said Emily.
“Over in Sanpete everybody’s buying cabins. Mountain land which used to go for two hundred dollars an acre is worth five or ten thousand now. People pay silly amounts for a useless piece of ground and then more to have someone put up a shack like a chicken coop for them to camp in one week during the summer.”
“People would vacation here?” Allison said.
[p.116] “She’s right,” said Walter. “People want pines and a mountain stream near their cabin. Anyway, I need it for grazing.”
“Sell ten lots—at least fifty thousand. If we pipe the water up ourselves, we can sell the lots for ten thousand. We bulldoze a flat place and the lots are worth fifteen thousand. It’s like picking money off a tree.”
“If only there was a tree,” said Allison. Howard glared at her, and she thought, Damn, I’d better keep it shut.
“All these improvements will cost money.”
“I’ll pay for them,” Karl said.
“He’s made of money,” said Walter.
“You’re thinking of spending our down-payment savings,” said Sherrie.
“It’s a way you could keep the land and get money off it. Those small lots wouldn’t cut down the grazing at all.”
“People don’t want cow manure all over their lot,” said Walter. “Anyway, this is primarily a hay and livestock operation. I start having too many different projects, and I’ll end up broke.”
“Too late,” said Emily.
“You won’t have to do anything,” said Karl. “I’ll take care of it all.”
“Dammit, no. I won’t sell any of it. Don’t talk to me about it again.”
“Right,” said Karl. “Shut your eyes to something which could make me and Mom a little money. When there’s a resource that could benefit someone else, and you sit on it, even though it does you almost no good, then that’s selfishness, pure unadulterated selfishness.” Walter walked out the back door; Karl followed, gesturing. “You’ll end up like Grandpa, sitting alone on it. No good to anybody.” His father shut the door in his face. Karl turned back, surprised. Then he saw the others watching him. “Right,” he said. “We’re going to go home now.” He started out after his kids, who played in the barnyard on the haystack. “Go pack,” he snapped to Sherrie.
“I’ll just help Emily finish.”
“Right, but let’s not take all day.”
[p.117] “We can clean up,” Emily said. “There are plenty of us.”
“Great,” said Sherrie. “I’ll get everything together.”
Soon Karl came up to the porch with his kids, harping at them. The last one, the oldest, stuck his tongue out at Allison. She stuck her fingers in the corners of her mouth and nostrils, distorting her face. Karl turned and looked at her. She smiled at him. “Good bye,” she said.
Karl was surprised, but then he grinned. “Oh, damn,” he said. “That was a disappointment.”
“Don’t swear, Karl,” Emily said. “You knew he wouldn’t go for it.”
“I don’t really care about the land. I just hate seeing you and him angry with each other.”
“So you made Walter mad at you, too,” said Emily. “It’s a step forward.”
He looked at his mother and then grinned. “Pretty dumb, eh? Well, I’ll probably be stupid again. I’m not giving up on a good idea just because he’s too set in his ways to see it.”
Sherrie emerged from the house. “All ready now,” she said, her voice too cheerful.
“Sorry, Sherrie,” Karl said. “I had no reason.”
“Right,” she said. “You had no reason.” Karl followed her out to their car.
After dark, Howard and Allison walked along the edge of the canal.
“A pack of piranhas,” she said. Utah was not for her, and not because it dried her lips.
“Look!” He pointed toward the closest mountain, which was a moonlit shadow on the other side of Rockwood. The fields were bright from the moon. “We could have all this.”
The fields were black below the horizon, the Milky Way a bright swath above.
“I’m cold,” she said. She trotted ahead of him up the lane. She decided to cut through the alfalfa, even though the long stems tangled her [p.118] feet. Then she stepped on something soft. She bent down and suddenly her face was wet, her eyes and face burned as if she’d been sprayed with acid.
“Howard,” she said, but the liquid—acrid as urine, hot as acid— was in her mouth and down her throat. She coughed and sucked for air, knowing she was pulling the acid into her lungs but unable to stop coughing and sucking for air. “Howard!” she rasped. “Help me!”
“Skunk,” Howard said. “Shut your eyes and try not to breathe.” Then his hand was on her hand, pulling her. She jerked away, bending forward, hands on knees, and vomited. She coughed again, choking on the liquid still in her lungs. She couldn’t breathe, as if she were drowning in urine and vomit. Her eyes and lips were on fire. Then she was lifted off her feet and carried, bouncing, across the field. His shoulder was in her stomach and she couldn’t stop coughing, couldn’t get air, couldn’t get her hands up to wipe the acid from her face.
He threw her to the ground; her eyes, mouth, and throat had dissolved, eaten away by the burning acid. Icy water splashed across her face and body, kept coming until it filled her mouth. Coughing and sputtering, she turned to her stomach, trying to get up, but fell back to the ground. A small dog barked in her head, wind roared in her ears. Her body jerked in spasms trying to get air. She knew she would suffocate. The air was thick as water, and she felt light-headed.
“Lie still,” said Howard. “Wait until you can breathe.”
“What’s wrong?” someone called as if from the other end of a pipe. Emily. “Oh, no,” she said, closer. “What’s wrong?”
“Skunk spray,” Howard shouted. “It hit her eyes and she’s breathed it in.”
She felt Emily lift her shoulders; she felt Emily’s legs under her shoulders, Emily’s hands on her face. “Heavenly Father,” Emily said, “let her breathe. In the name of Jesus, let her stop choking.” Then Allison felt her head tipped far back; she allowed herself to become still. With her head far back, she sucked a small breath, one that didn’t burn, then another, and another breath. Opening her eyes, she saw only a blurry film with one bright light.
“Let’s carry her inside,” said Howard.
[p.119] “Not yet,” said Emily. She pushed down Allison’s hands. “Don’t rub your eyes.”
Allison lay still, focusing on breathing. Something touched her face, a warm cloth. “I’m washing your face,” Howard said. Warm soapy water ran across her face dripped into her eyes. Her face and throat burned. She couldn’t quite get enough air.
“She’s breathing better now,” said Emily. “What were you doing down in the field? Why didn’t you stay in bed?” Allison felt Emily’s hand on her forehead. “Let’s move her inside. I think she’s breathing all right now.” Allison felt herself jostled and then lifted. They laid her on the floor on something soft. “Can you see at all?”
“A little,” whispered Allison. “It’s blurry, like underwater, stings like hell.”
“What’s going on?” said another voice. Walter.
“She’s been skunk sprayed,” said Howard. “She seems all right now.”
“My damn throat’s burned off,” she croaked. “Not all right.”
“Don’t talk. I’m cutting your clothing off,” Emily said. “Hold perfectly still.” A door shut. Allison felt the motions of Emily’s hands, then the cloth fell away, and cool air passed across her body. “Let’s lift her into the tub,” said Emily. “Can you feel the edge of the bathtub?” Allison heard the running of water. Someone thrust something against her hands, a bucket. “Pour water across your face,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Allison ran some water and, tipping her head back, poured it into her face. Her eyes still stung, but she could see. Her throat still burned, but she could breathe. She was not going to die in Rockwood, Utah. She opened her eyes under the water to flush the spray out. She blinked and blinked. “I can see better now,” she called. The bathtub was white and the bright ceiling light hurt her eyes. Soon Emily returned with an armful of bottles filled with something red.
“What’s that?” said Allison.
Emily set them on the counter, five quart canning bottles in a row. “Tomato juice,” she said, “Counteracts the smell.” Then she shook a [p.120] bottle and, using the edge of a spoon, opened and handed it to Allison, who poured the juice on her head.
“Damn!” she said. “That’s too cold.”
Emily handed her a rag. “Rub it in.” She shook another bottle and poured it down Allison’s back. Allison arched at the cold thick liquid running down her spine. “I should have warmed it.” Emily rubbed her back with a cloth, dipping it in the puddles of red juice at the bottom of the white tub. Allison sat in the tomato juice, swabbing the heavy cloth across her legs. “I stepped right on it. I hope I broke the little bastard’s back.”
“Pour some on your face,” Emily said. “You need to wash your hair with it.”
Allison drank some into her mouth, swallowed. It burned as bad as the skunk acid. “Damn!” she said. Her eyes still watered. “Tear gas,” she said. “Natural tear gas. I’ll smell like skunk for the rest of my life.”
She felt cold air from the opening door. “Go find her some clothes,” Emily said, pouring another bottle over Allison’s head. She felt Emily’s fingers in her hair, massaging her scalp, rubbing her back with the rag. Allison shivered from the cold juice, but Emily’s hands soothed her, moving in a pleasant motion. “This won’t take all the stink away.” Emily turned on the tap until all the tomato juice ran down the drain. Then Allison showered and sat again while Emily poured three more bottles of juice across her. The door opened and Howard threw in some clothing. Emily shut the door again. Allison showered again and stepped out. Emily lifted a pair of polyester slacks and an old red hunting shirt. “Some of Howard’s old clothes.”
The pant legs were too short and the shirt too big, but Allison dressed and followed Emily out to the porch. “Go change,” Emily said to Howard. “I’m sure some of it got on you, too.”
He went inside, and Emily turned to follow. “Don’t leave me,” Allison said. She sat on the back porch, and Emily sat next to her.
“Don’t talk. Your throat’s had enough damage.”
“When I first met Howard, he saved me from walking in front of a car.” She felt herself shivering. “Now I owe two lives.”
[p.121] “Fiddle,” said Emily. “I don’t know anybody who’s died of skunk.” She went inside.
Howard returned and together they climbed the stack to where Howard said he had spread a pair of sleeping bags. “I don’t want a second night on that squeaky bed.”
The air felt icy and she burrowed into the bag. Soon Howard was inside, his arms around her. “I thought I was dying,” she whispered. She had seemed to float in a pool of fire.
“It just enhanced your natural aroma.”
“Shut up.” She held him tight. Emily’s hands and voice had come to her out of pain and darkness.