Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
III. Anchorage, Alaska
[p.135] “But, the Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north,
and from all the lands whither he had driven them:
and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.”
[p.137] To get his bearings, Howard ran the coastal trail in Earthquake Park. The mountains were high and bare-topped, their flanks and foothills covered with evergreen mixed with deciduous trees. Next to him a dirt cliff fell to acres of mud flats. His travel book said that the flats were created when the 1964 earthquake dropped a subdivision into the inlet. Behind him Anchorage spread across a wider ledge between inlet and mountain. Across the inlet to the north stretched a jagged line of peaks, white tipped. The book had a picture of McKinley/Denali, but from this angle he couldn’t be sure which it was. To his left lay Turnagain Arm. Somewhere nearby, the Rockwood outcast, his great-grandmother’s sister, had settled alone to prospect. He imagined her working the streams, dressed as a man, panning for gold. Out of sight to the west lay Siberia; south stretched the long and jagged coast, the mass of North America.
He squatted on the edge of the dirt bluff. Below, the waves came in cross directions, making the gray water churn. The next question—after the heretical questions of how to have faith when the universe felt like unstable fluid and how to be a Rockwood without a ranch—was simply how to live with Allison. The only pattern he knew, his parents’ marriage, wouldn’t work. Her philosophy was to gulp life like beer, to be open to caprice. His own habit of thought had been trying to be [p.138] invisible to an authoritarian God. That had been the lie for much longer than the past two years.
Allison woke and dozed, languid as a reptile in her sleeping bag laid on the green shag carpet. The night before (was it Saturday?) she had ridden her Mustang like a descending rocket down the Matanuska valley. Howard had slept as they flashed through Palmer at one in the morning. Soon after Palmer they crossed a narrow flat where the mountains came almost down to the inlet. Her lights had flashed on cliffs to their left and, to their right, on misted bogs and dwarf evergreens with black, clumped branches. She drove through a tunnel of trees, and then they were on the outskirts of the city. Suddenly the freeway disappeared and she drove a street as rambling and haphazard as any trunk street in Houston—strip joints, travel agencies, a small-craft airport, tourist shops. She cut left, driving toward Northern Lights Boulevard along Spenard. They passed a ten-story building, a block-long strip mall. Few people wandered the cold sidewalks, but every fifth business was a bar—yuppie, strip joint, Alaskan rustic, or neon punk. The windows and doors pulsed with colored light and muted sound. She was so weary that her vision twitched, but she still wanted to roll Howard out of the car into the carnival of faces, smells, tastes, and sounds. She postponed that pleasure—they would have at least six months of running the Alaskan night together. She finally found the apartment. She and Howard had flung out their sleeping bags before sinking into unconscious sleep.
When Howard returned from his run, he slipped in next to her. She wrapped her arms and legs around him, feeling like the snake that had tempted Adam out of Eden—no, like Eve, who, according to Howard, had led Adam to a new world. She decided that Western culture had grafted together the figure of snake and Eve—creating a rapacious, tempting woman. Then she wondered how a Freudian would misread her impulse toward snakiness.
“Have you figured where you are?”
“Inside a dog-ugly apartment,” he said.
The apartment complex was stained wood—a deep russet with [p.139] black streaks. A black shingled roof fringed the flat top, looking like the toupee on the mean Stooge, Moe. Inside were dark walnut wall paneling, green shag carpet, and startling orange kitchen counters and sinks. It smelled like a bear’s den. She regretted trusting an agent.
Suddenly the building shook and thunder sounded. Her first thought was another earthquake, but then she remembered seeing the airport on a map. “Must have been designed in the seventies,” she said. “That agent ripped me off.”
Soon he was up again, dressing in his missionary suit. “I’m going to look for a church.”
“There’s a Mormon church up here?” she said. “Are they everywhere?”
The closest chapel was a red brick building, ten blocks south of the apartment. Inside, Howard found a mix of people. One tall Asian man walked up to him and shook his hand. “Welcome, Brother, are you visit or to stay?”
“Visiting. I’m from Utah.”
“That is no problem. We forgive even state of origin.” He grinned. “Brother Yamamoto.”
They sat together on the bench. The passing of the sacrament was such an odd combination of familiar and new that tears formed. He passed the tray of bread on quickly when it came to him. The first speaker was a deacon-aged boy, who read a story about a woman who found the Book of Mormon in a locker room. The woman stole and read the book, transforming her life. “I know that God lives,” the boy said. “I prayed to him this week and he spoke that truth to my heart.”
Howard felt like a foreigner, seeing the meeting with new eyes. He wondered at the simple faith. His own was so tangled that it hardly existed. Instead of a stern and unforgiving patriarchal father, he tried to imagine a distant and pure god, one who didn’t traffic in any kind of power. Could such a dispassionate god understand his greedy children?
The second speaker, a woman in her mid-twenties, stood behind the podium. “As many of you know, my trailer burned this week. But I am grateful me and my two children are alive. The trailer burned in five [p.140] minutes and started at the furnace near the doorway. How is it that we lived? I know only that I woke. `Get out,’ a voice shouted inside my head. So I got out. I grabbed my baby and my little girl and I ran. The door exploded behind me. I’m grateful to God and to the Parkers for taking me in. I know that God loves me because I am alive.” Howard thought, In some other city a family burned in their trailer because no voice woke the mother. Who can penetrate the mysteries of God?
A dusky-skinned girl across the aisle held a sleeping baby, while a toddler whined and clutched at her knees. She glared at the stand where the bishopric sat. He imagined that the young man who stared at the ceiling and smiled vaguely was her husband. Howard considered holding the crying child, but both mother and child would certainly misunderstand his action. A woman excused herself past Howard and lifted the sleeper out of the mother’s arms and returned to her seat. The younger woman pulled her unhappy child onto her lap.
Howard had quashed the impulse to help, the impulse that his mission president’s wife preached was native to all daughters of Eve. She said that women’s birthright was compassion; motherhood was commensurate with the priesthood. Was it also in Allison’s nature, just buried so deep he couldn’t discover it? He was more the mothering type than she was. What was Eve like? Grandmother God, whose voice Howard had imagined, seemed unlike any of these women.
He smiled at the coincidence of the closing hymn—“Oh, My Father”:
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Eve’s other quality, one shared by his mother, was adaptability. Eyes closed, Howard pictured again the geographical masses around him, tried to feel Anchorage as home, this city he would wander like the Rockwood prospector. She had left behind her woman’s clothing, her polygamous husband. He had left behind the subtlety of the desert; Alaska was starkly green, dramatic mountains and water. He had also [p.141] temporarily left the work of ranching, which he would have left anyway to go to school. He imagined his father out west clearing third crop hay, then standing on the wagon and facing north, the direction of Alaska, one hand on his sore back. Howard shook his head. Behind him in their apartment lay the woman he had followed; he would leave her for no father or field in earth or heaven.
Monday Allison drove to work in the dark. She had believed that workday Anchorage would bustle, a city on the edge, unlike post-boom Houston, where the program for oil people was to retreat, retrench, and slip their money underneath a different shell. But here traffic seemed light, and not many people walked the sidewalks.
She found the small square building, a defunct bank, which housed Allied Word, the tech-writing and software company that would contract out her services. Lisa Orden—Allison’s supervisor— marched across her office, with the height and bearing of Napoleon, but with a coiled braid on her crown.
“We’re scavengers,” she said. “We feed on the carcass. The North Slope is dying. Oh, there’s still oil up there, but the major players are moving to Vietnam or Indonesia, where they can pay nothing for wages and have no environmental laws to work around. So we scavenge and take the place of company employees. We take their jobs because we’re quicker and better than they are. And because the companies don’t have to marry us—we’re just a one-night stand.”
Lisa walked past the cubicles of her “team,” introducing Allison to Mary, Nick, Ben, Francine, and Yoko, from Georgia, Oregon, Mexico, Nebraska, and Japan. They glanced at her briefly, measuring her as if she were the competition, then turned back to their work. The team had a secretary, Mark from Alberta, large as Howard’s former companion Peterson, but with sculpted features, graceful and handsome as Cary Grant. “We’re a diverse group,” said Lisa.
“So I filled the Texas slot,” said Allison.
“Mark,” said Lisa. “Take her to her battle station.”
“Right,” said Mark. “Follow me.” He showed Allison her cubicle which was about the size of a large closet. “No view,” he said. [p.142] “Bummer.” Allison saw that Mark’s was the other cube in the middle. On her monitor was a yellow sticky note with two filenames on it. Mark said, “Lead Dog asked me to copy these to your hard drive. They need to be debugged.”
“Never to her face,” he said.
She sat at the monitor. “What are these for?”
“Read them and find out,” he said.
“Is this a test?” said Allison. “I’ve already been to school.”
Mark smiled as he left. Allison brought up the first program and read it once. It was an accounting and inventory program and one section contained category names such as Seldovia Princess, Anne Marie, Northern Lite, and Aleutian Maid—names of either boats or whores. The program included none of the complex simulation programs that Lisa had told her she’d be working with. The second received input from an unnamed source and sent reject or accept messages forward. She finally figured that it was designed to check specifications for some kind of pipe. She quickly fixed several simple problems in the two routines and almost pressed the return key to send them back to Mark’s terminal. She jerked her finger away from the key. Was this the role she wanted to create for herself, editor of other programmers’ mistakes?
Allison walked to the bathroom and then went back to her little box to eat the sandwich she’d brought. She wanted to call Howard, but there was no phone in the apartment yet. Chewing, she stared at her screen and wondered who had written the programs in the first place. They were a mess. And their execution times were laughably slow. Allison didn’t know how open Lisa would be to advice. Anyone who was into power games—trying to make a newcomer crumble—probably wouldn’t listen. She shrugged and spent the next six hours, minus another bathroom break, pounding the keyboard and talking to herself. There was occasional traffic outside her cubicle, but she didn’t look up. When she was finished, the only original elements left in the programs were the names of the mystery women.
She sent the programs directly to Lisa’s computer. Two minutes [p.143] later, Lisa appeared and said, “That’s some pretty good stuff. I give all my software hires those stupid programs—then I give the debuggers three weeks’ pay and show them the door. Nothing in the contract says I can’t do that. Now we’ve got to figure out what to do with you. The great little project I was going to give you was canceled last week.”
“So I’m going to have to offer you something that’s pretty damned ugly,” Lisa said. “It’s ruined two or three careers, already. So if you take it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Well?” said Allison.
“It’s called CES—Corrosion and Erosion System. Most people just call it the cesspool. It’s had more hands on it than a New York hooker, but we’ve never been able to get it to work right. The users are always mad.”
Mark, dressed to leave the office, walked past, shaking his head. “On her first day.”
“Go home,” said Allison.
“Anyway,” said Lisa, “the client is out of patience. We’ve got to fix CES or we’ll probably lose all their business. And that would mean a lot less work around here.”
“I’ll do it,” Allison said. Three hours later she realized that Lisa had manipulated her, had made her want to give a twelve-hour day. She shook her head and went back to work. On her first day, she couldn’t afford nostalgia for her free-lance ways.
By Friday night it was time to howl. She pulled Howard out of the apartment. On Spenard Street she saw a sign, Chilkoot Charlie’s, and she coasted into the parking lot. The building was covered with split logs, the bark still on, and looked like the movie set of a western fort. She turned off the key and felt the thrum of bass guitar, the thump of drum and dancers. For a moment she felt odd, as if the earth had twisted suddenly on its axis and she sat outside the Cajun Queen in Houston—a tremor of perspective. Then she knelt on the seat and kissed him, her arms around his neck. “I’m going to love this city. Everything I could want is here.”
Inside was a smoke-filled hallway leading to a confusion of rooms, [p.144] crowded with people. Howard held back at the doorway, but she pulled him into the smoky maze—split log and black vinyl, bartenders flinging down foaming glasses, sawdust on the floor, a tangle of hallways, three or four bars, people sitting at tables or dancing in every space and corner. No one person had designed the building, she was sure. Whoever was in charge at the time had just flung up another wall every time business got better. Like the city itself, the joint was tumbled-together, raucous, and diverse—probably something like hell for a Mormon. She watched Howard’s bewildered face. “You’re frightened.” He seemed not to see or hear her. A band played country near the entrance, but as she led Howard farther into the tangle of walls and rooms, she heard a cross-jangle of straight-up rock and roll.
She laid down money, grabbed a glass, guzzled it, and then she and Howard danced. She rubbed her chin against his goatee of tan stubble. He looked unhappy, bumping against the other dancers. So she kissed him, slipped her tongue between his teeth. She danced away from him, whooping and straight-stepping, shaking her shoulders. She had stolen him away from Utah, her Mormon boy: bright like a comet but as unstable as a black hole.
Later she drove the margin between dark mountain and gray inlet. Moving southward through the curves, she felt that she and Howard were like Captain Cook floating up the inlet on the brink of new discoveries. She sang old Beatles songs into the chill wind coming through her open window. The heater was on full blast. “You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we don’t want to change the world.” They were children of Aquarius, decades too late.
She stopped next to a mud flat, which glistened in the moonlight. She stood on the front bumper of her car; he sat in the passenger seat. Her fine light high made the starry night seem like black velvet. Tacky and unreal. Gauche like a Mormon missionary. She shouted through the glass. “I’ll try to translate my feelings into terms you can understand.” She tipped forward like a pushup, nose against the glass. “I feel like we are the first man and first woman.”
He opened the door and looked up at the mountains. “Trapped in the garden.”
[p.145] She couldn’t think of an answer but knew he had it wrong—Utah was the trap. She swung her feet to the ground. The brighter glint of water lay farther out. She walked down onto the muddy shore—canyons, crags, and flats of mud—unlike anything she had seen before. It was plastic, like putty. Suddenly she dropped thigh-deep into a hole. The mud gripped her feet and legs; she couldn’t pull herself out. “Howard,” she called. She rolled, finally wrenching her legs free. Her shoes were two feet down. She crawled quickly to higher ground.
Howard wiped her off with newspapers he found in the trunk. “Damn shoes cost me a hundred bucks.” Howard laid newspapers across the seat. Shivering, she turned the heat on high. As they pulled away, a silver curve of tide swept slowly up the inlet.
Wrapped in their sleeping bag on the floor of their apartment, she said. “If I had died, swallowed up by that mud, what would you do?”
“Is this a trick question? I guess I’d go back to Utah.”
“Whatever else you do,” she said, “don’t do those Mormon things to me.”
“What are you talking about? Work for the dead?”
“Yes,” she said.
“In the temple?”
“I don’t even want to hear about it.”
“What’s the big deal?” He stared at her. “No bodies involved. Just names on slips of paper.”
“I knew that.”
“Vicarious ordinance work. First is baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost,” he said. “Then endowment and sealing. It’s all so they can progress—” he showed his teeth, “—change out of themselves, like Eve.”
“None of it,” she said. “Swear to me. I want none of it done to me. It’s a lie. You shouldn’t give hope to anybody when there is no hope. Especially not to yourself.”
Lying in their new bed while Allison slept, he thought about her repugnance and anger at work for the dead. Seen from her eyes it did seem peculiar—baptizing a child dead for a century or joining a man [p.146] and woman whose bodies lay decomposing in the ground. He had never considered the idea that someone might see it as a dishonest manipulation of hope. What would he do if she died? He doubted that her vicarious baptism would make him feel he would see her again. If he found a way of getting his temple privileges back, it was unlikely that he, an unrepentant sinner, could be bound to a woman who would probably be a heretic in the afterlife. He had been so frightened of losing her that he had followed her to Alaska, but what if the recent motions of spirit were just his fearful imagination? If there was no following, life here was a lonely terror. He wrapped his arms around Allison; she moaned and shifted slightly away. “I would despair,” he whispered. “That’s what I’d do.” Then he wondered if she was right, that his fresh desire for faith was merely a retreat from a fear he could not endure.
The next morning they drove south along the inlet. “Boor tide,” said a service station attendant after they described the curve of water sweeping over the mud. “You were lucky to see it.” The summer before, he said, a couple had gone three-wheeling out onto the mud at low tide. Their vehicle became mired, and when they climbed off, the mud fastened around the woman’s ankles like a vice. After trying uselessly to free her, the man finally went for help, but the tide rose eight feet during the hour and a half he was gone. Allison imagined her own feet bound, like the Goshute woman, her arms and hair floating free. When they were back on the road, she told Howard what she had pictured, and he laughed. “Cosmic. Another sister in death.”
Allison shivered, “It reminded me of my brother, when I climbed out to the roof, and he was trapped inside. I get paranoid when I think about it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t remember.”
“How could you have remembered?”
“I thought there was nothing irrational about you. What you just described is like my dream of falling through darkness.”
“Fearing death is not irrational. It’s a biological reaction. Every [p.147] organism fears its own end. Hearing the voices of God and dead ancestors—that’s another story.”
“I don’t physically hear voices. But I do fear death.” The highway left the inlet and entered tangled forest. “I do fear death.” Then off to their right emerged a massive snow-covered peak with a river of white glacier flowing down its side toward them. Suddenly something swelled inside, the crest of an emotional wave which had no apparent origin or cause. He opened his mouth to tell her but no words came.
They stopped the car and jogged together up a trail. To her, Howard seemed perpetually wide-eyed—at the moose they jumped, at the expanse of mountain above them, the white-topped peaks distant across the inlet, but especially he appeared to be surprised at her. She constantly found him watching her, his mouth working.
They found a mossy bank, where the branches of a pine curved around, and she kissed him and removed his clothing.
“I’m a biological mechanism,” he said. “You touch me and drugs flow into my veins.”
“You want to be unaffected? You worried it’s not spiritual? Not spiritual sex? Isn’t that a contradiction even for you? My crazy religious aunt said the flesh is an enemy to God.”
“Spirit and body are one thing. Not separate. No hormones without spirit. The reach of electricity across synapses is spiritual.”
“Not for me,” she said. “This kind of talk is a real downer for me.” She looked down. “For you too,” she said. “Your flight of abstraction distracted you.”
“No,” he said, “it’s those hikers coming up the trail.” She wrestled into her clothing, but, for no reason she could figure, he bolted, bounding through the bushes like a buck deer. “The spirit is not an abstraction,” he called back to her, his white butt flashing.
Making love against the shower wall, water running warm down his back and thighs, Howard imagined someone in the next apartment with his ear against a water glass. As if Howard was the person listening, he heard the fast breathing, the soft thumping, the animal noises [p.148] which fell from both their mouths. “She is mine,” Howard said to the committee of gods and ancestors eavesdropping, the clamor of voices he knew was just imagination. “I will not give her up.” His skin slipped across her skin, one flesh, infinitely precious. Then came the uncertain voice of Grandmother God, “Who wants you to give her up? Why do you cling to sin, when you can embrace joy?”
Afterward they ate supper together, smiling at each other across the small table. He felt pleasantly spent and believed that they might stay together, building toward marriage, creating a unity of flesh and spirit, one being, out of such moments. He could feel it happening, the construction of something out of touch and talk. He wondered if he could do the same with his faith, reconstruct faith out of the flashes of light he had felt since meeting Allison. Could he embrace hope by choice, giving it priority over fear? Because they weren’t married, he would be cast out of the Community of Saints. His healing required a paradox, that he view Allison as a foreigner, or there would be no converting, and as a fellow citizen with the Saints, or there could be no true marriage. No shaking of his head could clear the confusion. The City of God must be like no city on earth. On earth obedience and love constantly battle.