Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion

Chapter Ten

[p.149] During Allison’s first week of work, Howard took the bus to the University of Alaska in Anchorage— smaller than the University of Utah, where he had planned to go before the water of his life overflowed its ditch. He found himself full of hope at the possibilities before him: school in a new place, a woman to love who loved him, and a culture outside of missionary and Utah culture. It would be a time of freedom to re-create himself in an image closer to his nature than what others had imagined for him.

He found the administration building and walked up to a window with a young woman behind it; her hair was a startling green. Even the late deadline for adding classes had passed, she told him. It would take another week to get admitted, the best he could hope for was starting classes after Christmas. “I can catch up,” he said, but she simply called, “Next!”

He ate lunch in the cafeteria and strolled down the glass-enclosed walkway that led from building to building. When Alaskan blizzards came, students would walk to their classes encased in glass. The experience would be extraordinary, as if the classes were open to the caprice and beauty of the spruce forest which surrounded each building. But for now he was only a tourist. Another problem: even after he was admitted, he could only take classes in general biology, nothing more spe-[p.150]cialized. They didn’t have range management. He thought about sitting in the apartment all fall and then trying to get excited about material he’d already covered at the University of Utah. A year of life wasted.

He walked the mile to Alaska Pacific University, and found the same situation, with a degree less suited to his needs—Environmental Science—and tuition twice as high as that at the nearby UAA.

Frustrated, he decided to explore his new city. He took a bus downtown toward the Alaskan Museum of Natural History. Inside, he found small models of the people who had lived in Anchorage anciently—miniature Eskimos dragging a tiny whale onto an icy shore, small fishermen with a wooden salmon trap shaped like a funnel, Aleuts who lived in houses which were mostly underground. He wondered about the origin of those ancient peoples. Scientists believed that they had traveled from Siberia across the Bering Strait. Mormons taught that Eden had been in what is now Missouri and that Noah’s Ark had moved humanity to the Old World.

In the next room he found life-sized dwellings of more modern peoples—the Eskimo, the Aleutian Islander, the modern prospector. The designers of the display had modeled large figures with Atha­paskan features, but with skin, eyes, and hair uniformly gray, the same dead gray as the water in the inlet. The native dwellings were rounded, not the square walls of modern peoples. Inside each were a man and a woman, various children. He imagined surviving through the howling winter with Allison in a round underground home, far from the city.

Inside the prospector’s cabin, a gray-faced man weighed gold. Had Howard’s ancestor returned daily to such a cabin with her gold dust and nuggets? Like Howard, she must have felt excited, but also lonely and displaced. Perhaps she had married or found a companion. She must have thought about Utah and her family, two thousand miles away.

Outside, he wandered closer to the inlet, the edge of the city— houses, streets and yards—suddenly dropped fifteen feet, marking the edge of the earthquake fault. Grass had grown over the long wound in [p.151] the landscape; roads were re-paved. Out in the inlet, a freighter moved toward open sea. He jogged along the coastal trail, running for an hour before he came to the bluff above the inlet where he had stood on his first morning in Anchorage. From this new vantage, the whole city seemed to be sliding, certainly not a place brimming with possibility. He turned and ran along Northern Lights Boulevard until he saw the black brow of their apartment building.

He was bone tired, but after his shower he walked east until he found a convenience store where he bought a newspaper. He spent the rest of the afternoon looking through the want ads. Most of the tourists had fled, and the prime salmon run was finished in Bristol Bay. Work is nearly impossible to find here in winter, they said, when he called the employment office.

Mid-week he found a job, which he kept for ten hours. He had borrowed Allison’s car and driven past the Portage Glacier and across to Seward, nearly a two-hour drive. At the pier he saw a sign for crew to clean oil from the shore of an island ten miles out. Back in Anchorage he phoned the number and discovered that the boat left daily at six.

When Howard rose at three-thirty, he knew he had been a fool to take the job. Arriving at the dock, he was the ninth man to crowd into the boat, which was hardly larger than his father’s truck. While the craft was moving out of the bay and onto the ocean, Howard was queasy but able to control his nausea by looking out at the water. Then, so that one of the men could take water samples, the boat slowed, crawling up one side of a mountain of water, sliding down the other, rising and sliding. Howard clung to the edge of the cabin, his eyes on the distant coast. Then he smelled the stench of fish and looked down, where a dead salmon floated. Even after his stomach was empty, he continued dry retching. He found a bucket and cleaned the side of the boat. Crossing back to the mainland that evening, the whole world rocked and heaved. Howard lay down in the sleeping compartment under the bow, but that didn’t help. He had to get up several times to vomit, bent over the side of the boat.

“I quit,” he said as soon as they touched shore.

[p.152] “Why didn’t you tell me you’d never been on the ocean before?” said the foreman.

He phoned the city soccer association, but the leagues were over for the year. On several evenings he and Allison jogged to a park and kicked her ball around, but the pleasure for both of them was the dynamics of running with a team. He hiked the foothills and mountains, wary of bears and moose. Once he nearly jogged into the side of a bull, antlered, tough, and rangy. The bull stared at him with the gaze of the wild-eyed cow his father called “the Sunday School Bitch.” She had regularly put them both on the fence. Howard turned and raced down the trail; he climbed a tree, waiting for the beast to come thundering after him. The bull never came.

One day, while Allison was at work, he used the last of his money to rent a seat on a small plane which took him on a half-day tour of Denali. Peering through the windows at the gigantic mountain, he imagined himself in the middle of a movie. Every second he expected to hear the engine sputter, the first sign of another great adventure.

The next day he borrowed three hundred dollars from Allison and bought a backpack, a pair of boots, a prospector’s pan, and a guide to prospecting. Dropping Allison at work, he drove toward Palmer on the Old Glenn Highway. The streams that fed the inlet were ice-rimmed and broad like most rivers in Utah. He smelled spruce, fresh water, and a musky plant that didn’t grow in Utah. Even under the growing snowpack up high, the mountains were verdant, unlike the desert where all life is marginal. He squatted until he couldn’t feel his frozen fingers or his cramped legs. After three days of work he had about half a teaspoon of color. He had no idea whether it was really gold. He put the gold pan in a closet in their apartment.

He had mixed emotions about his first week. Given the time and space to wander the city and surrounding mountains, he could step out of the definitions of his previous life. He had always driven himself toward goals created for him by others. His teachers and mother had expected him to become a biologist, and he had thought that his goal as he pushed himself through high school and the first two years of college. Then his whole culture from the prophet to Belinda had expected [p.153] him to go on a mission. That experience had not been the unfolding of his true self before God. Even now, he occasionally felt like a kept man, living on Allison’s wages in her apartment, captured to service her needs, when really any man would do.

Howard’s mother sent them ironic postcards from Utah. “Having a great time,” said the caption, “wish you were here.” Howard stared at the picture—a man in woolly chaps riding a giant, antlered jackrabbit. Allison grinned, wondering how the image could make him homesick.

Emily wrote a letter too, which Howard read out loud. “Walter drove the cattle out west. Most nights, he stays in Max’s cabin. To be closer to the cows, he says. Beware Allison, I think the longing to be a hermit is genetic. He comes back for Sunday dinner. We talk some, usually ending up arguing. You’d think land is land, money is money, but we view them so differently.”

“She’d go to school if she had money,” said Allison.

“They’re changing too fast,” said Howard.

“Good for them,” she said. “Stirs up the murky waters.”

“You preach change for others, but not for yourself.”

“What? I left Houston. I’m living with a visionary fanatic. Huge changes.”

Howard read on. “The new Relief Society president, Sister ­Nebekar, is very timid and by-the-book. The bishop said in church that righteous women submit to their husbands. I think righteous men submit to their wives. Women still visit me with their troubles. I tell them, God loves you. Sin is not the cause of your unhappiness. God loves you. I say it until it’s a chant. We pray when we’re finished talking, but I don’t lay my hands on their heads. I hope I can get my calling back or get a new one. Love, Mom.”

Allison stood behind Howard and rubbed his shoulders. “We could send her a check.”

“We couldn’t. I would like to give my mother money to go to school, but I can’t. Why don’t you ever call your own parents?”

She shrugged. “I don’t want to be your mother’s daughter. I just [p.154] like her. I’d like to help her out.” Then she realized that she didn’t call her parents because they didn’t need her.

“Patronage is not dead. The grease of money solves all problems.”

“Matronage,” she said. “It doesn’t condescend or demand repayment.”

“Pffft. You bought me, now you want her. How’s your job going? Are you happy?” His voice was harsh.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s very satisfying.”

After the first snow, Allison bought them both cross-country skis. Howard spent his mornings falling down, scraping the skis across rocks because the snow wasn’t deep enough. One Saturday they drove above Anchorage to where the snow was deeper. A trail led along the timberline toward a bare ridge. He watched the other skiers thrusting forward with their arms and legs, and he tried to imitate. Allison caught on fairly quickly, but Howard still felt awkward.

“I thought everybody skied in Utah,” said Allison.

“Ranchers don’t ski,” he said.

“You’re not a rancher now,” she said.

“How could I not know that?” he said, and heard the bitterness in his own voice. “Scares me I’ll never get back home. Skiing my life away. My grandfather’s uncle was an old bachelor rancher, had a place just west of Rockwood, up against the mountains. He went to Salt Lake City for church conference one weekend.”

“Cowboy loose in town on a Saturday night.”

“He met a woman. Monday he met her family and Tuesday he married her. They moved into her mother’s house, he thought for a short honeymoon. But the old woman was sick; his wife didn’t want to leave her alone. He never came home again. His cattle mixed with his brother’s herds. Finally someone filed on the water and the land was useless.”

“You talk about him as if he lost his soul.”

“He lost his land,” Howard said.

“Howard, you can never slide back inside your old skin.”

“How can you say that? How can you keep saying that I haven’t [p.155] changed enough?” He knew that she thought his losses superficial—home and land and church. Even if he still hoped to return to all three, she refused to try to understand his longing. He pushed off on his skis. As he topped the ridge, his arms and legs were shaking from the effort, but she was only twenty-five yards behind him. When she came up, she didn’t try to talk. The forest sloped toward the water. Anchorage sprawled below them on the margin between mountain and inlet. Then he swooped down off the ridge toward the car, falling only twice.

That night she said, “I’m sorry.” Then: “But—” She frowned and turned away, for which he was grateful. He couldn’t think what to say to her that hadn’t already been said.

The next week he found work at Salmon, Inc. But the ticket to Naknek on Bristol Bay was six hundred dollars, as much as a ticket to Utah. He would get his money back if he stayed to the end of the ­contract.

“You don’t need to do this,” Allison said when he asked her for a loan.

He told her about the job, showed her the pamphlets of fishing boats and beautiful shoreline. “Pay is low at first, but there’s overtime.”

“You’d fly back on the weekends?”

He told her it would be too expensive but that the job would only last another month or so, until the season was over.

“Why not just fly to Utah then, work there for a month?”

He stared. “I hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t thought of just going home for a month.”

“You won’t come back if you go home.” She took his face in her hands. “You’re holding your breath till you get back to Utah? Like your mission?”

Naknek was a harbor and rows of wooden, ramshackle barracks, mostly empty. During the winter it shrank to about the size of Rockwood, two or three hundred people in a small village near the barracks—a grocery, a trading post/hardware store, and six bars. How­ard’s job title was slimer; for twelve hours a day he stood at a long, [p.156] wooden table, ankle deep in muck, blood and mud mingled, and lined up sub-grade salmon for the header—$5.90 an hour for the first eight hours, $7.90 after that. The slimer opposite was from Sand Point, Idaho, and talked constantly about the Nez Perce girls he’d had back home.

A hamburger was $9, a glass of milk two-and-a-half bucks. Howard slept in a bunk, on a mattress that seemed as old as his grandfather’s in the cabin. He woke with red marks all over him—the descendants of the bugs that had plagued the original gold rushers. After a week he gave it up and flew back, losing his $600 because he reneged on his contract. His check for the week was $316, net.

He cashed his check, laid the money on Allison’s laptop, and slept for a day. When he woke, he found a newspaper ad for a worker in a dairy, an hour by car from Anchorage on the far side of Palmer. Allison bought a bike to ride to work; he could use her Mustang.

Mornings and evenings, he attached the milkers to the cows’ teats, the air heavy with the familiar effluvium of manure and milk. He named the cow that always shouldered her way to the front of the line Lead Dog, after Alison’s tyrannical boss; the last cow he named Dwight, just so he could write and tell the old fart about it. The main drama was when a cow entered out of place, and the milkers, most of them natives, knew that a new order had been established. The cows’ udders were so painfully tight that milk leaked on the ground in streams. Through the middle of the day he mixed feed, moved half-­frozen manure with a front end loader, and cleaned the stainless steel equipment. He felt as though he were in heaven.

One day at the dairy he had heard on the radio that an aging bull moose, disoriented and enraged, wandered the streets of Anchorage. He imagined Allison trampled under his hooves and battered by his antlers. Because they had no phone, he nearly drove back to check on her. He knew his imaginings were unreasonable. But still he was anxious being away from her. After his fifteen-hour day, he generally drove too fast through the darkness, hardly looking at the snowy road, the dark mountains close above. Every night he was relieved to find her alive, warm in their bed or frowning down at her laptop.

[p.157] Weekends he cooked for Allison and then after dinner they made love. Listening to the changes in her breathing as she drifted deeper toward sleep, he imagined her dead. If blood stopped in her veins, if electricity no longer enlivened her brain, she would be gone from him forever. He was frightened that she might lose interest in him and drift away, but imagining her death terrified him. They had never married, never pronounced covenants in the temple, never been sealed by the power of the priesthood. The bishop wrote him that he and Allison might remain separate throughout the eternities. What did God think? Howard knew he had proceeded foolishly, but still, it didn’t feel like sin to love Allison. Sin, in this case, might be only disobedience, a principle he believed was evoked easily by his mission president, his teachers at church and school, and even his parents to force him to adopt their own vision for him. When he wrote his thoughts to his mother, she wrote back that it might be time for him to move beyond adolescent rebelliousness and join the adult world. If a man and a woman lived on an island with no other beings in the universe, they might not be sinning to join physically without a contract with God and other people. She wrote that the most frustrating and also most important part of her life had been negotiating with his father for four decades. If coupling were impulsive and temporary, that would be lost. That made sense to him, but didn’t seem exactly positive. One night he told Allison that she was being naive to think that society was extraneous to a true marriage. “We have a contract,” she told him. “We are in a testing period, a courtship for six months. After that, we’ll see.” Part of him liked the idea of a courtship with sex, but at the same time he was frightened that God would give him no concessions if one of them died. If their love was earthbound, they might never find each other in the next life.

One night he had his dream again; actually no one fell, but the feeling of terror was the same. He was sinking slowly into mud; then it was Allison going down into water and mud until darkness filled her mouth. He crouched on the side of the highway, clinging to her body. He tipped her head up; gray water ran from between her blue lips and she was lost forever.

[p.158] After three weeks Allison decided that heaven was the wrong word for Anchorage. One day she stared at her computer screen while the compiler worked. Thirteen-hour days, as arduous as forced marches, had transformed her first impression, and she thought with longing of her free-lancing days when she’d had weeks of little work. Lisa Lead-­Dog Orden had given Allison a glacier of programs to rewrite or debug. “I’ve never even had a boss before,” she told Howard during one of their rare talks. Reality for her had become oil and code, code and oil.

Worse than that—Howard was unraveling. He’d become as clingy as a lost child. Her first week and a half of work, he had cooked for her every night, waiting inside their apartment, amorous as a new bride. At first it was sweet. Then he asked for money to outfit the kitchen, he tried cooking with unusual spices, he was sad when a dish didn’t work out well. He was so odd—clutching at her, false and happy. Once he smiled across the table at her, a sappy, puppy dog-­friendly smile. “More?” he said, holding out the plate of skewered shrimp and vegetables. Eliot’s pale white houseman in the flesh, trite as a revelation.

She laid down her fork. “Dammit, Howard,” she said. “What the hell is going on? What is this—some asinine scene from Leave It to ­Beaver?”

He still held the plate. She thought he’d turn and dump it in the sink. “I don’t know who I am,” he finally said. That night in bed he had turned his back to her, face to the wall. The next morning he decided to go to work at Naknek, the job that had lasted half a week. Even after getting the job at the dairy, he was an emotional black hole. She stared at her computer screen and chewed the sandwich she’d bought from a machine. Throughout history women had abandoned their former identities and gone with their men. Men were not so resilient.

Anchorage perched on a ledge between the Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet. She and Howard had walked at the north end of the city where the streets dead-ended, starting up again ten feet below, more evidence of the big earthquake, when a section of the city had slid toward the ocean. Howard had asked her, “Has it ever stopped sliding?”

Now the snow became permanent; night seemed to stretch longer [p.159] every time she went home. During the days Houstonians moved indoors, out of the heat, but at night the edges of the city became alive with bright motion. She used to roll down Westheimer toward the Cadillac Bar, driving with the top of her Mustang down—the warm and humid wind blowing into her face. Streams of cars passed her, mostly kids ranging the night, hanging out the windows of cars, faces flashing past. One night high school boys driving a white Mercedes called to her, “Nice car. Take us for a ride.” From a jet once she had seen the streets and freeways of Houston as a huge wheel of white and amber light. The jet had banked and the wheel had turned, spinning her off to Chicago, where she had lived with Eliot through a bitter cold winter. She felt ready to jump again.

The next week she convinced Lisa that long-distance troubleshooting was silly; on-site work would be more efficient. With software managing interaction between a computer and something else, a massive drill rig for instance, anything could be wrong—software, hardware, the equipment itself. “Fly me to the people who are having the problem. It will save days. Send me up to Prudhoe Bay.” Early in October Allison flew to the North Slope. She’d be there for two weeks, then she’d have two weeks off. She solved the problems quickly; the operators on the job looked at her afterward as if to say, “That was simple. Why didn’t I think of it?”

She didn’t like the North Slope, a thousand miles of howling wasteland, flat as Houston, barren as Howard’s desert. But she liked flying back and forth, floating above the jagged mountains, the lakes and forests. It seemed to her to be an imaginary land. Once, when the jet banked to descend into Fairbanks, she saw a small pack of wolves sunning themselves on a hillside. She pointed them out to the grizzled well rigger who sat next to her. “Wolves mate for life,” Allison said to the rigger. “Mormons for eternity.”

“I wouldn’t mate with neither one,” said the rigger.

On Allison’s first week back from the North Slope, clouds blew in from the northwest, across the gray water of the inlet. The city was swathed in snow. That night Allison answered the phone—Emily. “I [p.160] start school after Christmas. I can have a degree in accounting in three years.” She paused. “He still won’t sell. It has me beside myself. Some day I’ll pay you back.”

“Don’t think about paying me back,” said Allison.

“I’ve thought about getting Walter declared mentally incompetent.”

“Is he?”

“Has been for years. Now what’s left of his mind has gone west. He’s taken up prospecting.”

She lifted the receiver from her mouth. “Howard, your mother thinks that prospecting is grounds for getting someone committed.”

“It is in Utah,” said Howard.

“Not committed,” said Emily. “Declared. Being declared wouldn’t affect him at all. And when he’s in town he skulks about.”

“She says your father skulks about. Another sign. Your average skulker is mentally unstable and can’t hold property. That means you, Howard.” She talked into the receiver. “Your son already shows an inclination to skulk. I suppose it’s genetic on the Y chromosome.”

“But unfortunately prospecting and skulking aren’t enough to keep someone from owning property. What gripes me is that I’ve found another buyer who will pay even more for that bench property. She’s a rich masseuse from Salt Lake.”


“She wants to build a big lodge up in the pines on the ridge.”

“Where she would give tired ranchers a rubdown? That’d go over big in Rockwood.”

“I don’t think ranchers are her clientele or she wouldn’t be rich. Anyway the money was right: $40,000.”

“$40,000,” said Allison to Howard. “She wants to sell the bench land to a masseuse.”

“Might be worth selling. Let me talk to her.” Allison held the phone away from him.

“He and a partner,” said Emily, “have been poking around in the desert buttes. This guy wants half share in the ranch before he’ll tell Walter where the mother lode is.”

[p.161] “That’ll thrill Howard,” said Allison, grinning. “The farm slipping away to a stranger.”

“What in hell is happening down there?” said Howard. Suddenly his voice had no good humor in it. He grabbed the phone, and she dropped it, her hands held wide to show her displeasure. He talked to his mother for half an hour—gesturing, pacing, pleading. The rest of the evening he was in a black funk, once again counting his losses.

The next Sunday Howard bolted awake. His body was clenched so tight that he was sure veins in his neck and the backs of his hands would burst. He lay on the bed and waited for the hand of God to slap him from life in an instant. Finally the panic left, and he found himself hungry. Without waking Allison, he ate four eggs and eight pieces of toast. He was bewildered because he thought he had worked past his terror of God.

That day he walked from street to street. He decided that his own fear of God was unreliable, but that he needed to discover a basis for trust. Near the ocean was a Catholic church, which was empty. He walked to the front and examined the stylized statue of Christ, smelled the perfume of candles and incense. He imagined the chant of the priest in Latin. The Catholic God was abstract, perfect, distant; sitting on his throne, he calculated the mathematics of symphonies, sunsets, repentance, and the food chain of the Alaskan tundra. Certainly this God was unlike either the malevolent Old Testament patriarch of his felt experience or the kindly grandfather described in Mormon Sunday school. On his mission Howard had gone to a Pentecostal revival. People sang and shouted and danced around; God was like a fever in the believers’ veins.

Perhaps God was androgynous. Not like the cruel Old Testament God, not like the grandfather of his childhood, or the businessman of his mission, a God who delegated to men first. When Howard prayed to any of these patriarchal images, he had no feeling for himself or what he had done, nothing but guilt and fear. Even the Grandmother God had given him scant comfort; she smiled and he felt that everything would work out. But she seemed to lie; it wasn’t working out. [p.162] Allison’s claim that they needed time to test each other and that the only true bond was directly between the man and the woman made sense, but at the same time he felt that in his life sin and love mingled. He couldn’t separate them. If God was neither male nor female, God might not be embroiled in sexuality, confused and debilitated by conflict and division. But he also knew that this picture of God made no sense biologically. The Mormon idea of God as a complex family of beings made more sense.

From the Catholic church, he walked to a Christian Scientist reading room, where he talked to the attendant. “Suppose a man commits a terrible sin, but committing it he finds that it was also the most beautiful thing in his life. What should he do?”

The woman stared at him. “Rephrase the question,” she said. Then she turned back to her reading, shutting him out. Walking home, he decided she wasn’t just putting him off, but still it didn’t help to know he was asking the wrong questions. He wanted answers, not more questions. Grandmother God giggled, one hand to her mouth as she rocked. “Silly lamb,” she said. “You think this world is full of magic?”

Toward the end of October, Howard received notice by certified letter that the high council in Hamblin was taking disciplinary action against him.

“You wanted this,” Allison said, feeling sudden panic. “I can see the relief in your face. You want men who know nothing about your situation to pass judgment on your morality.”

“I’ll take three days off at the dairy.”

“I should tie you up and lock you in the closet.”

“This could put me right with God,” he said.

“Shut up! How does getting kicked out of a church make you right with God?”

He shrugged, unable to explain. Submitting himself to the charity of God’s representatives might help him requite his image of God as cruel and vindictive.

[p.163] “I’ll loan you the money for the ticket,” she said. “I’ll give you the money.”

“I owe you too much already,” he said.

“What? You don’t want to be dependent? You don’t want to use my money?” After she wrote out the check, he drove to the agency to pick up his ticket. She flicked on her computer and stared at the screen, figuring what she’d do when he didn’t come back from the desert.

So before he left, she married him. He said, “If I were a foreigner who needed asylum, would you give me a technical marriage, make it possible for me to stay in the States?” She recognized it as a Howardish ploy. “If I’m married, they may not excommunicate me.”

“Will this make your virtuous? Will your piety return? Can you understand how offensive this is to me—to be lusted after and then married out of religious scruples, not love?”

He opened his mouth and shut it. She stomped out and drove her Mustang up past Chickaloon. His motives were distasteful to her. She thought wryly that most of her anger had to do with his refusal to abandon his religion, which had been her plan for him. Driving nearly eighty and watching for policemen, she thought that if all religion were cut out of his being, he would no longer be Howard, no longer be the man she was choosing to have with her.

When she returned, he said, “It terrifies me that you might leave me. It makes me so I can’t speak rationally. But I want you. I want to be bound to you.”

“But I want to be have free commitment, not marriage, which distorts the relationship.”

“I know you want that,” he said. “I just don’t understand the ­difference.”

“Our one month of trial has not been an overwhelming success. I wanted two years.” She turned to him. “Being married will help you with them? Help you stay in your church?”

“I think it will.”

She considered. While she could see nothing positive in his church, it was something essential to him. “No common property.”

[p.164] “What if we buy a house?”

“We don’t want a house,” she said. “No joint management of money. You work until you pay back what you owe me. Then we each pay our own bills.”

“I can’t pay half of this apartment and half of food.”

“One fourth. Until you get your degree.”

“Fine,” he said.

“No one has assumed priority in terms of where we live.”

“You mean we stay in Anchorage,” he said. “You mean you have priority.”

“I’m saying you’re not dragging me away from a good job back to Utah when your father can’t run the ranch anymore.” She looked at him, waiting. “It’s the best compromise I can give.”

“Very vague.” he said.

“You want it definite?”

When he shook his head, she said, “No children.”

“No children! Why get married?”

“Good question.”

He deliberated. “No children until you’re ready.”

“Yes. No damn sneaky rhetoric about procreation and bringing little spirits to earth.”

“Okay,” he said.

“And,” she said, grabbing his shirt-front, “never, never, never call me wife. I’m not wife. Not possession, servant, breeder of children, not any of that.” Her face was alive with anger.

He nodded.

“All this in writing.”

“You don’t trust me.”

“You got that right.”

“I can’t believe you changed your mind. Gave up your one moral principle.”

“My one moral principle! Hell, you’re blind to my morality. Anyway, I’m already married to you. I’ve been prayed over by your mother and insulted by your brothers. That’s marriage, isn’t it?”

The next day they stood before a justice of the peace with two [p.165] street people he dragged in as witnesses. After the brief ceremony, they went out to dinner, Texas style ribs and baked potato. Then they found a bar with a country band, and Allison taught Howard the Texas two-step. She bought a bottle of champagne, guzzled some without a glass, poured a little on his head. He smiled and went into the men’s room to wash. When it was half gone, she dragged him out to the parking lot and broke the bottle against the front bumper of the Mustang. “I christen you Howard II, the Alaska Rover.” Howard picked up the pieces of glass and threw them in a dumpster.

“You what?” Allison’s mother said on the phone. “I saw it in his eyes. Like a pit bull. Now he’ll get you pregnant. Are you ready for that?”

“I’m on the pill.”

“His determined semen will find a way. He’ll call it a miracle. Why did you do it?”

Allison explained about the disciplinary action.

“I want to talk to him.”

She motioned Howard over, and he placed his cheek next to her cheek, so they could both hear and talk. He explained why, even though he was married, he would still have to go to Utah. “It’s a matter of timing,” he said. “I’ll either be excommunicated or disfellowship­ped.”

“Disfellowshipped,” said Allison’s mother. “What an ungodly term. Sounds like some kind of castration.”

“It means I’m kicked out but not kicked out,” said Howard.

“I don’t understand that kind of thinking,” said Allison’s father.

“Every religious group discriminates,” said her mother. “If someone breaks the rules, they are a pollutant to the group. It’s a particularly Christian tradition. Mormons aren’t unusual. By the way, a month ago two Mormons came to see us. A huge one and a small nervous one. I told them that instead of flying home, you rode up with Allison. They were impressed.”

“Impressed?” said Allison’s father. “They were damned excited.”

“It’s against the rules for a missionary to be alone with a woman,” Howard said. “You’ve made me a legend in the mission.”

“I was worried that’s what I’d done,” said Allison’s mother.