Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.166] “Keep your mouth shut,” his mother said as they started across the flat toward Rockwood, “and they won’t excommunicate you. Try to defend yourself, and they’ll think you’re rebellious and unrepentant. Tell them that you’re married and then keep quiet. Let them talk themselves into forgiving you.”
“So you know all about high council courts?”
“I know how it goes in meetings with the priesthood. You plant a seed, it grows, and the brethren claim it as their own. Works every time. And it’s not called court now. It’s a disciplinary council. No assumption of innocence. It’s downright un-American.”
“It’s still a court of love,” said Howard. “And it will put all this behind me.”
“Oh, Howard, you’ve always been so worldly and yet so innocent.” She laid her hand on his arm. “Even if they do the worst and excommunicate you, you can work your way back in. They’ll let you be re-baptized in a year.”
“I’ve started thinking of God as a grandmother and a grandfather, patriarch and matriarch of a clan, all of them working out the affairs of the earth, sometimes playing tricks, sometimes blessing, sometimes cruel. Maybe I don’t belong.”
“I recommend you start with that,” she said sarcastically. “How-[p.167]ard, they’re disciplining you for fornication, not apostasy. If you get close enough to people, so they open up, you find that they believe a wide range of things about God.”
He felt space opening around him—the wide bowl of the desert, the violet peaks. The knife-blade shape of the Goshute range rose toward them, as familiar as his mother’s voice, both stroking him calm. Still, after Alaska, the colors seemed washed-out—dusty green cedars, gray sagebrush, yellow cheat grass. The highway led straight as a ruler-edge toward the black-green trees of Rockwood. The sky was deeper blue than in Alaska, the air drier, less misty.
His mother frowned. “How does it happen that a man has no more use for human companionship?”
“You mean Dad? It’s just the work. He tells himself that being with the cattle is a sacrifice he has to make.”
“Why not come home?”
“Long drive when he’s tired. He starts a game of cribbage with his partner and then it’s too late. Some of my best memories are playing cribbage with Grandpa and him. Maybe it’s a male thing—a male community.”
“His partner’s quit.” She gave him a half grin. “Male bonding. Over cribbage? If it could be a coyote or a rattler sitting across the table from him, or a computer, your grandfather would have been just as happy. You, his own grandson. Did he tell you any stories? Talk to you at all about what was going on in your head?”
“He told me stories. He told about Marilyn Monroe living on top of the ridge.”
“I should have guessed he’d tell you that one. Did sharing that fantasy make the two of you closer? That man was completely sunk into himself. I’m frightened that Walter will soon be lost to me.”
At the house Howard quickly changed his clothing, hoping to get to the cabin before nightfall. When he came down, his mother was in the kitchen making up a food box. “I’m going out with you. About time I delivered another load of food.” She dropped in four cans of tuna. “While he seems to no longer need people, I need even more to be in the middle of them.”
[p.168] “Has the bishop given you a new calling?”
“No,” she said. “So I bear my testimony on Fast Sunday.” She sat in the driver’s seat; he climbed in the other side. “A few women still come to me for advice. They’re filled with guilt for the most petty things—can’t get the washing done, husband doesn’t like the food they cook, can’t handle their children. I don’t mean that their problems are really petty, but they have a load of guilt big enough to encompass adultery, murder, and treason and all they’ve done is make mistakes with their children or refuse their husband sex.”
They topped the pass and westward spread the even drier desert of Goshute Hell. He looked past the oddly shaped bluffs, at Haystack Peak crouched pale against the sky, a hundred miles away on the border of Nevada.
“I tell them to set some limits with their husbands, something I wished I’d done. Their husbands say, ‘I thought you liked being with the children all the time’ or ‘I didn’t know you wanted to take an evening class.’ Then they talk, these women say. Their lives aren’t changed dramatically but their husbands respond differently to them. They stay home with the kids while their wives go out places or they help with the housework when their wives work. I wish I’d had more than six months as their leader.” She paused, furrowing her brow. “I guess I’ve seemed too much a feminist, angry with men. Plenty of non-feminist women are angrier than I am. Mary Fieldsen believes that God invented polygamy because so few men make it to the celestial kingdom. Cynthia Peterson believes that the only chance men have is that at the judgment seat Christ weighs every married man and woman as if they are one creature. Augusta Jensen believes that God gave men the priesthood to temper their incarnate evil natures. I think there’s nothing incarnate about it. Allison told me that any delicate spirit watered and fertilized with testosterone for nine months is going to turn aggressive.”
“I hardly know you anymore,” he said.
“You sound like Simon.” Her face became tired. “He doesn’t want me to change either.”
They topped the last low hill before the ranch. “Look,” Howard [p.169] said, pointing toward a dark mass around the haystack—cattle. Closer he saw them shoving each other against the fence, stretching their long necks to scratch on the top wire. They found Howard’s father sitting in the cabin. The fire had gone out and he had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders; he hadn’t lit a lamp. The cabin smelled of old wood smoke, propane, and unwashed Rockwood male, the exact aroma of memory. He could have been walking in on his grandfather. Howard’s father had a geological survey map laid out on the table in front of him. It was marked with red lines and yellow circles. He looked up, disoriented.
“Howard,” he said. “Last week Albert told me they’d convened a court for you.” Howard had never seen him so forlorn and old. “I sent a letter back with him, telling President Robinson what I know about your character. Did it help?”
Howard looked at him. “The court is tonight. Who is Albert?”
“A crooked snake,” said Emily. “His former partner. Still slithering around.”
“He’s no crookeder than I am,” said Walter. He faced Howard. “I wondered if you’d even bother to come. I thought it might be a good idea to stay away.”
“Dad,” Howard said, “Allison and I are married.”
Walter stood and clasped him on the arms. “I’ll write another letter. They should certainly take that into account. I mean, isn’t marriage a form of repentance?”
“Some might say it’s embracing your sin,” said Emily—a slow smile.
“The cattle are about to break into the stack,” said Howard.
“I was just going out. Look at this. These circles mark formations which could have gold or silver in them. You know that this whole area was booming early in this century. There’s still a lot of ore left.”
Howard moved the maps to one side; his father looked up. “We haven’t fed the cattle together since the winter before my mission.”
While his father pulled on his overshoes and coat, Howard cut some pitchy pinion kindling and lit a fire in the cook stove. The inside of the stove was thick with black, shiny creosote, which could burst [p.170] into flames if the stove became too hot. Stuart Eastman’s deer hunting cabin had burned five or six years earlier because, year by year, the creosote had built up. Howard’s mother lit the lantern and started peeling potatoes. He walked to the gate of the stackyard. His father started the tractor and pulled it up to the gate. Howard climbed through the fence, threw one bale back over, and carried it a hundred yards away from the stack into the field. Most of the cattle followed, enough that he could open the gate while his father pulled the tractor inside. Three animals went in on the opposite side, but he and his father drove them back out. Howard shut the gate against the rest of the herd.
He climbed to the top of the stack and kicked a bale from the edge down onto the wagon. At his next kick, the corner of the stack fell, a tangle of bales tumbling down. “Are you all right?” he shouted, scooting himself back to a more secure place.
“I wasn’t on the wagon,” said his father from below. “Don’t you fall. You might injure your dignity.” Howard threw bales down while his father stacked them. From the stack he saw that the blue tarp was gone from the pool where the Goshutes had been buried; the only evidence of a dig was the disturbed mud at one edge of the pool. Low, soft clouds appeared overhead and then floated across the flat. He examined the faint lines of fences, borders of the Rockwood land.
When Howard was small, his grandfather had homesteaded the farm. It was not a part of the land which came to the family from James Darren; Howard had always felt that it was more like wilderness than the settled Rockwood fields and pastures. He loved the low gray shadscale brush, tall rugged greasewood, even the white alkali flat. The tall black ridge, standing like a wall behind them, was a form from myth, a pattern for his dreams.
Howard and his father loaded fifty bales. Then his father drove slowly out of the stack yard toward the cattle, while Howard kicked the bales off the back. He tried to imagine Allison with him, driving the wagon. It would be a frosty August in Houston before that happened. The first cows ran behind, extending their noses high, reaching toward the hay with their long, thick tongues. Together he and his [p.171] father walked back through the herd, cutting the wires and spreading out the sections. It felt good to be working with his father.
They ate and Howard got ready to go back to Rockwood. His mother said she was staying the night with Walter. “My presence won’t help you at the court.”
His father didn’t want to be there either. “I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “I’d sooner watch you strapped to a table and cut open by half-wit surgeons.” As Howard drove away, the two of them stood together in the doorway of the cabin, framed in light from the lantern.
Sixteen men dressed in dark suits sat around the oval table: Brothers Sorenson, Allen, Jacobs, Richards, Dakin; his father’s uncle, Edgar Rockwood; others he only recognized; three people he didn’t know at all. President Robinson smiled from the head of the table. Howard had played soccer with his son and knew him as a fair and compassionate man. “You’ve never been formally released from your mission, so you needed to come before this body to report. Do you have anything to say?”
Howard let his breath out—a long sigh. “I had a good mission. I was happy with the people I converted.” He told them about Sister Valdez and Sister Montoya. Brother Allen frowned deeper as Howard talked.
“Bishop Hansen informed me that something irregular happened at the end. Could you share what that was?”
“You know already,” said Howard.
President Robinson looked down at his hands. No one spoke.
Howard said, “I had sex with my wife before we were married.” He remembered his mother’s advice and said nothing else.
“You said wife?” said Brother Jacobs, whose hair had thinned since Howard last saw him. “You’ve since married the woman?” Several of the men smiled and nodded.
“Yes,” said Howard. “We’re married now.”
“They live in Anchorage,” said Uncle Edgar. “His—wife—has a job up there.”
“Down there,” said Howard.
[p.172] The men all stared at him.
“It’s at sea level.” Damn, he thought, keep it shut.
“When did you marry?” said one of the men Howard didn’t know. His head was bald, rimmed with white hair.
“How is that relevant?” asked Brother Jacobs.
“The timing might indicate how repentant he is.”
They all looked at Howard. “Last week,” he said. “Actually, the beginning of this week.”
The bald man frowned, considering.
“Repentance is repentance in my mind,” said Brother Jacobs.
“Or was it an act of desperation?”
“Desperation?” said Brother Jacobs. “She wasn’t pregnant, was she?”
“No,” said Howard.
“So there was nothing constraining him to marry her. How is it an act of desperation?”
“What do you think about the covenants you made as a missionary?” said Brother Allen.
“I thought of them as important, but obviously—” He shut his mouth and waited.
One of the other strangers leaned forward; he wore a bright red tie and a cream-colored suit. “Has this woman converted?”
“No. She was never converted to marriage either. She thinks it causes hypocrisy and entraps women. I finally talked her into it. That’s the only reason she married me.”
“How many times did you sin?” asked Brother Small.
“Again,” said Brother Jacobs. “What possible difference does that make?”
“The difference between a stumble and a head-long fall,” said the president.
“They’ve lived together in Anchorage since the beginning of September,” said Uncle Edgar. “They were married last week. It’s not as if it’s a mystery what was happening.”
Three of the men folded their hands in front of them. When they realized the simultaneity of motion, they all pulled their hands back.
[p.173] “But she was the woman you wanted to marry,” said the man with the red tie. “The woman you love.”
“Yes,” said Howard. “I love her.”
“You said you talked her into marriage. How did you persuade her?”
Howard considered how to answer. “I told her it was important to me that we have a legal and moral commitment.”
“Do you think you could have used that logic before you sinned?” asked Brother Allen.
“I knew it wouldn’t work then,” Howard said. “I knew she’d just leave me.”
Brother Allen nodded.
“We’re here to help you get on with your life,” said the man in the red tie.
“Have you done anything to reconcile yourself to God?”
Howard thought about his prayer-like conversations with the roomful of gods. “After it happened I felt cut off from everything I was. I have prayed. I’ve been attending church in Anchorage.” He wanted to say more, but he shut his mouth.
“Have you thought of the effect on other missionaries?” asked Brother Allen.
“I’ve thought that I’ve made my parents unhappy, God unhappy, my companion Peterson unhappy, the people in Rockwood.” He nearly opened his mouth to say that like Joseph Smith he would, if necessary, go to hell to retrieve the woman he loved. “My mission president unhappy.”
“Do you have anything else to say?” asked President Robinson.
“This may not make sense to you,” Howard said. “I started wrestling with my faith in God. I’m still wrestling. I feel like I’m finding myself. I didn’t expect—I mean, the church has become very important to me.”
“Thank you,” said the stake president. “Please wait outside.”
“Disfellowshipped,” Allison said on the phone. “That’s like limbo.” After the high council informed him, Howard had driven too [p.174] fast to Rockwood, grinning the whole distance; he had not been kicked out and the way was clear back to full fellowship. He was to keep attending church, and report to the stake president in Anchorage once a month.
“They said they didn’t want to lose me,” he said. “I didn’t know I’d care so much.”
The stake president had put his arm around Howard, saying, “We cannot allow this kind of behavior in the church. We have obligations to God to keep pure the community of the faithful. You have married and show sorrow for your act, now bury yourself in the gospel. Put yourself in the middle of the Saints in Anchorage.” Howard had wept.
“I care because you care,” she said. “When will you come home?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“I’ll believe it when I see your wandering face.” She hung up.
Smiling, Howard switched on lights as he moved through the house toward the kitchen. His soul still brimmed with light—married and now straight with the church. He felt vital, self-connected, new. He filled a frypan with his mother’s scanty leftovers. The attic creaked in the wind. Every time he was alone in the old house it seemed that the ancient Rockwoods stirred and shifted, but on this night, joy not melancholy rose from the creaking boards. As he used a fork to shift the piece of chicken, the cold potato, and bottled beans around the frypan, he imagined Allison there with him, requiting the ghosts with vigor and hard-headedness.
After rinsing his plate and scrubbing the frying pan, he moved up to his old bedroom and looked out the window. The yard lights were burning at the Hansen and Jenkins houses. Brigham’s Peak was a dark mass above town. Navajos, he had read, believe that the gods required them to live between four sacred peaks. When he was in the shadow of his own mountain, his soul settled into itself. Anchorage might never feel like home. In this house five generations of Rockwoods had talked, eaten, slept, and made love.
He dreamed that he struggled upward through a conduit, inching toward the visible sky. A rope dragged from his leg; he was to pull it through to the other side. The pipe was so narrow that he could only [p.175] crawl with his arms above his head. His muscles ached from pushing himself forward on his toes and elbows. The heavy earth pressed on the flimsy pipe. Toads croaked in front of him; the faint light reflected off their eyes. The thud of their leaping bodies echoed.
Waking, he looked at the moon reflecting off the snowy field, at the dark line of willows along the old canal. Forty miles westward, his mother and father slept in the old cabin. Would she reclaim the old man from vagueness and solitude? Could she reclaim herself from apostasy? Howard turned on lights as he walked back through the house, where his father and his father’s father, and that son’s father had rubbed sweaty fingers across every wallboard, tracked barn and field dirt across every inch of floorboard for so long that no number of mothers and sisters could wash out the marks. Part of what he wrestled with was his belief that God’s family was only an extension of his earthly ancestors, that the same culture existed on heaven and earth. Living with Allison, he had started speculating on the differences between God’s way and man’s.
Rockwood men were native princes; women merely transplants. Howard’s mother grew up in Bountiful, daughter of a banker there. Howard’s grandmother was the daughter of a Salt Lake orchard grower, who became rich selling bench land to developers. As a girl, Howard’s grandmother had played where rich people now lived in their mansions on the eastern foothills. His great-grandmother was from Virginia; his great-great-grandmothers were from southern England and Wales, lush as a dream. They must have been mystified by their husbands’ need to possess barren desert and wear themselves out making it blossom.
He walked down to the room where his mother kept her sewing machine, her scraps of material, her books, journal, the file containing articles about household and garden. The small room had been her only private space; after living with Allison, he knew that kitchen and bedroom were communal. He sat where his mother had sat. A ghost hand lay on his shoulder, and he had the illusion for a moment that he was two people, boy and mother. He closed his eyes and remembered her guiding the cloth under the rapid, nearly invisible needle. She [p.176] reached for her thimble, bit the thread off, rewound a bobbin. She had hunched over the stitches, glancing sideways at him, smiling, her foot on the treadle of the clattering machine.
Often, late at night, his mother had read in her sewing room. “Aren’t you coming to bed?” Howard remembered his father calling. “In a minute, Walter, I’m just at the end of a chapter.” For thirty years she had held her own in her husband’s house and town. His father’s voice calling her to bed must have seemed light years away.
Once she had complained to his father, “You leave me here sixteen hours a day, tending the babies, but as soon as they’re old enough to work you take them from me. I’m left waiting for you all to come home. Always waiting.” Howard said to her, “I won’t leave you, Mother. I’ll stay with you.” She had smiled and hugged him; later he proved her right by following his father across the fields and mountain pastures—imbibing patriarchy and the romance of land.
When he was eleven or twelve, his mother decided to remodel the front room. Someone at a lumber store in Salt Lake advised her to strip off all the old paint and wall paper, strip it to the old lath, and then use screws to attach sheet rock. She had picked a spot behind the bookcase to begin, using chisels and drywall tools to clear a patch a foot square, digging through yellow, blue, and orange paint; through violet, flowered, and velvet wallpaper. Finally she uncovered some rusty chicken wire and dry lath, the spaces packed with crumbly plaster. She said she was tempted to use dynamite, start over from scratch. Instead she gave up, spread putty in the hole and put up yet another layer of wallpaper. Sitting in the old house alone, Howard found it impossible not to turn symbolic about his spiritual inheritance; you never did get to the bottom, no matter how much you scraped away.
He imagined his mother leaving to attend the university. “I’m finished with house and garden,” she would say. “I’m finished with wife.” Allison rejected all wifeliness; her pills, which he wanted to flush down the toilet, kept her from motherhood. He thought of holding their unlikely child in his arms, as his brother-in-law Sam held his child, smiling down. The longing passed through his arms into his body, a physical ache. He tried to imagine Allison cradling a baby, cooing at it, but he [p.177] couldn’t. He had nearly left the church for this aggressive, careless, independent, powerful woman. He shook his head, bewildered. For her he had clambered early out of Eden, had followed to Anchorage, where the air was thick and cold, the horizon foreign, where he had not even a sewing room for his own space.
What brought men and women together besides sex? He’d read that after long marriages people found it difficult to imagine being with anyone else. His mother and father had struggled against each other for decades, an absolutely transforming experience. His father had once said, “I didn’t need to go to the university, I had your mother.” Howard had thought he meant that Emily was better educated; now he wondered.
He walked down to his parents’ bedroom and sat on the brass bed where they had probably conceived him. His grandparents’ first summer bed had been a quilt spread across wheat in the granary just outside the window, a building his father now used as a tack room. The old double house was so full of wives and younger children that they had slept in the shed until Max could build a newlywed house, the adobe down the road where Bishop Hansen now lived.
Howard lifted from the shelf above his parents’ bed his father’s memory box. On top was a bound genealogical record. His father’s aunt had traced the Rockwood line back to England, back to a royal family, through record, legend, and wishful thinking, to a biblical family, to Adam. Temple ordinances bound son and wife and daughter to father, a phalanx of Rockwoods marching into the Millennium. “That which you seal on earth will be sealed in heaven.” When he told Allison about it, she’d said, “You want to be connected to all your relatives?” Underneath the genealogy was a copy of J. D.’s diary—a record of his stewardship over pastures and range, holdings that extended synchronously through the landscapes of earth and heaven.
James Darren had grown up the son of a peasant farmer on a rocky estate on the border of Wales and England. Once he was accused of poaching a rabbit. Rather than face his own father, who was stern and unforgiving, he ran away to Liverpool, where he met the Mormon missionaries. He came to America and settled in Nauvoo, Illinois. When [p.178] the Saints were driven westward, he selected land to the west of the River Jordan, where he began building his sheep and cattle herds. When his animals depleted the grazing, he explored southwest. In 1864 he wrote about leaving the Salt Lake Valley and coming to the desert: “We drov acros a gravel bar & down into the valley near the creek the grass was shoulder high to a man on a horse.” Spreading his herds across this new land, J. D. established an inheritance—becoming greater than any British lord, a king in this life and the next. “My children grow up strong & are better than the children around them the best bodied and best minded children on the face of this earth I found good land & married good women & set about building the Lords kingdom on earth.” The lesser wives of James Darren had claimed land for him, surviving alone in isolated valleys, helping to colonize nearly seven sections of land. The patriarch traveled the circuit between his farms, houses, and wives, plowing each field in turn.
Howard came through the second wife, Eliza—a dark-haired, solemn-faced woman. She had been a servant first; J. D. had paid her way from Liverpool in return for a year of work; then later she became wife. How had the transition felt, under his heaving body? Was she quickened to pleasure or fear as through her he claimed dominion in earth and heaven?
Howard could describe to Allison or his mother his father’s desperation at the thought of selling land, the bishop’s fear of losing control in the ward, Howard’s own lust to return, to raise up cattle and children in the desert, but it would be like describing color to the blind, or sickness to the healthy. Strange ideas about women, men, land, sex, power, and God intermingled in every Rockwood male.
He dug in his father’s box for pictures, some garish in color, his smiling family standing before a photographer’s backdrop—an impossibly green landscape with a water wheel on a river, a scene as unlike Rockwood as could be found. Simon had shoulder-length hair; Nancy a dress hardly longer than a shirt. Karl, Stuart, Stuart’s wife Ellen, and Howard’s older sister Darlene—all smiled out of bliss and innocence; he was a baby on his mother’s lap. He found a picture of his parents, newly married, posed on the stairway, the only background the jointed [p.179] wood boards of the wall. His mother and father looked up into the camera as his mother served him their first breakfast in the old polygamous house. Howard had always wondered who held the camera, how it would be to begin marriage in a house already filled with relatives, alive and dead, all focused on building the kingdom through having children and gathering land. From deeper in the box, he pulled up a dark picture, faded around the edges. It could have been Howard or his father because of the hawk nose and lean face but was labeled his grandfather as a boy. He leaned against the stone porch which was ten steps from where Howard looked into the past through the frame of the picture. He wondered if the waves of light still oscillated, faint as the molecules of a scent, where Max had stood six decades earlier. In the box were worn copies of faded pictures of James Darren wearing his striped prison uniform, another of Mary, the first wife, posing in the front room, twenty feet from him in space, eighty years in time. All his ancestors’ spirits on death had simply slipped into another dimension, parallel to this one. Other images might still quiver on the air in the dark and musty house, which was a Book of Life, recording every motion, every secret act of submission or domination.
Great-grandfather Solomon, who lived with his children when he was old, died on the toilet down the hall. Howard’s father, Walter, had found the body when he got up in the night to relieve himself. Walter was seven; maybe that’s what made him so distant, the shock of that early morning vision. When Howard was small, at night he had turned corners slowly, fearful of meeting his great-great-grandmother, the stern patriarch, or his pale great-grandfather, shuffling with his drawers around his ankles.
Howard’s grandfather, Max, who had frozen to death and had been gnawed on by coyotes, wore a plaster nose in the coffin. Howard and Karl, nine and eleven, had wanted to lift the temple robe and determine whether the mortician had reconstructed the old man’s privates. Howard had wondered how Christ would restore these parts to his grandfather when the molecules and cells had been digested, transmuted into bestial cells and molecules. Those particles would be as [p.180] hard to gather as waves of reflected light, both dispersed by the passage of time.
During the funeral Howard’s aunt had started forward. “He’s here, I can feel his presence. The old man is here.” She meant the spirit of James Darren, but when Howard looked around the room, he saw nothing. His flesh crawled with the thought of the savage pioneer still walking the earth. Who could bear his scrutiny? Maybe the female prospector had felt the same way, had dressed like a man and ridden north, a renegade. Inside the dark house Howard felt a kinship with that nameless woman. She must have been like Allison, respecter of no person.
Allison had disturbed the ghosts with her open, confident, and expansive motions—laughing in their faces. In the room just above his head, she had ridden his shuddering, unconsecrated body. Suddenly the Rockwood house seemed to him a mausoleum, where princes and queens were buried, where stiff and obscene ghosts still twitched.
He stuffed one sleeping bag inside another. It had started snowing so he wrapped the doubled bag in canvas and laid it on the haystack where he and Allison had slept. Snow powdered the canvas, swirled above him. “Let the old coots go,” Grandmother God said to him. “Make your own way.” The flakes fell and melted on his face. Forgetting the past was impossible; he could only continue to transform it by his changed perspective.
While he was eating breakfast, his mother telephoned. “Where are you?” he asked. He pictured her standing next to an impossible pay phone in the middle of the desert.
“I’m in Hamblin,” she said, “at the hospital. I drove through before dawn and couldn’t find you. Your father had another heart attack.”
“I’ll be there in a half an hour.”
“They’ve given him more medicine to thin his blood out. Soon it will be like water. I was so frightened when I couldn’t find you. I thought they’d excommunicated you and you’d done something to yourself.”
When Howard arrived, the nurse said his mother was downtown shopping for groceries; his father would be released when she came [p.181] back. Howard found him asleep with the blinds drawn. He sat next to the bed. His father’s face was in shadow. He was old and pale, worn out. Howard had never watched him sleeping before, had hardly seen him lying down. Always his father balanced a sprinkler pipe, wrestled a calf down with a knife between his teeth, tamped the dirt around a post with a shovel handle.
Soon his father’s eyes opened. “Howard,” he said. “Your mother said you were coming.”
“How did it happen?” said Howard.
“Too much ranch food, I guess. I’m all clogged up with roast beef and gravy.”
“Feeling all right?”
“Damn tired. Not worth a nickel.”
“You need a long rest. I’ll stay in Utah as long as I need to.”
“Stay here forever. Get that woman down here. We’ve got no other options.”
“She loves her job, flies all around Alaska, tells all those oil drillers how to run their computers. And she makes more money than you can imagine.”
“I can imagine a lot of money.”
“Just double what you’re imagining,” said Howard. He would lose his job in the dairy.
“Maybe if you had a baby you could convince her.”
When Howard’s mother returned, the nurse wheeled him downstairs and they crowded into the small truck. Neither his father nor his mother spoke until they were half way home.
“So sell it,” his father said. “Just don’t talk to me anymore about it.”
“That’s gracious of you, Walter.”
Neither one showed any indication of opening their mouths again, so Howard finally started talking. As they crossed the gray flat, he told them about the fishing boats fanning out as they left the Naknek harbor, about snow swirling above the Cook Inlet, about a yearling grizzly which had walked through their neighborhood, staring in the windows, disturbing the residents.
[p.182] He phoned Allison with the news. “He’s all right, but I need to help him a week or two.”
“Call me a prophet,” said Allison. She hung up without saying good-bye.
He drove west, an hour-long trip, to feed the cattle. Sitting on the tractor, he pushed the button to warm the engine and looked over the fields, spread below the long black volcanic ridge. Steam rose from the mineral pool and from the breaths of cows walking toward him, lured by the sound of the starting tractor. After loading the wagon, he tied the steering wheel so that tractor and wagon followed a great arc while he stood on the back and threw down the bales. Then he walked the same path carrying pliers, scattering the hay. That evening he sat in the cabin, with canned stew heating on the wood stove, and thought about his grandfather, father, and about Allison, who had said that she never wanted to live in Utah.
When he returned to Rockwood at the end of the week, he found that his father was well enough to ride out with him. “You need me to drive,” his father said. Before they left, Howard tried to call Allison. After the phone rang seven times, he remembered her schedule. He and his father drove the snowy gravel road over the western mountains into deep desert. Allison, raised in semi-tropical Houston, couldn’t see that Rockwood was a garden compared to the west desert.
On the ranch, Howard climbed to the top of the stack. He inched forward and lifted bales off the edge. The hundred-pound bales fell without turning; they shook the wagon when they hit. After he had a pile of bales, he climbed down and laid them in compact rows on the wagon. Just as he finished, his father returned from chopping ice on the watering pond.
Howard stood behind the tractor on the tongue, while his father drove down toward the cattle. Walter shouted, “Come, co-o-ome and get it, come and get it.” Howard walked the tongue back to the wagon and climbed up the stack, kicking the bales off one at a time. After the last bale hit the ground, he jumped from the wagon and began pulling the wires and spreading out the hay. His father tried to lift a bale, dropped it, and sat. “I can’t even open a single damn bale,” he said. “I [p.183] don’t know what I’m going to do.” Howard held a tangle of wire in his left hand, pliers in his right. He pushed his way through the hungry, fat cattle.
On Sunday, Howard built a fire in the old cabin and made sure his father had enough wood. He was worried about leaving him alone, but what was life worth if you couldn’t do what you want? It’s life, Howard thought. I can’t live here with Allison.
He waited in the house in Rockwood all evening for Allison to call. His mother was out visiting women. Finally the phone rang. Allison complained about the cold, about being alone. “I’m thinking of taking up serious drinking again. All I do is work and sleep.”
“Soon,” he said to her. “Soon as I can.”
“I want to see the flash of your bright eyes now that you’re right with your church. They’ve gotten dimmer and dimmer since we played soccer in Houston. I should sue you for false advertising.”
“Go ahead,” he said. “We’ll settle out of court. It’ll take years to work out the details.”
“Empty threat,” she said. “Come home, you wandering fool. I really miss you, Howard.”
“I love you,” he said, and realized it was the first time since Houston he’d said it.
“Thank you,” she said.
Next to the barn was a low building with a caved-in roof. The walls had been made from two-by-fours nailed flat against each other. Howard spent the evening and the next morning tearing it down. That afternoon he hauled most of the boards west in the pickup. He began work on a manger with wide uprights, between which the cattle could feed. He lined bales of straw to create a trough. His father was not strong enough to load and unload the wagon, but he could roll bales off the stack into the trough. Two days later Howard finished.
Walter complained. “It spreads diseases when they always eat in the same place. That whole fence row will turn to muck.”
“Saves hay leaves,” said Howard. “They won’t tromp on what they eat.”
[p.184] “You watch. They’ll pull their heads out to chew and all the leaves will fall in the muck.”
“I have to go home,” Howard said. “This way you can feed them.”
“This is your home.”
“I talked to Brother Jenkins,” said Howard. “He can help you too.”
“Damn,” said Walter. “I want you here with me. I need you.”
When Howard slept in the cabin, the cold breathed through the walls; he felt it even under a pile of greasy quilts. The wind whined in the rocks, almost a human sound. “Hear that?” said his father. “That’s what drove your grandfather over the edge.”
Everybody is on the edge, he thought. That’s why we shore ourselves against impulses that seem irrational. He pondered the being (imagined whisper, impulse, psychological force?) which he had named Grandmother God. Nothing like the destructive voice his grandfather had followed up the ridge. “You’re in charge,” he had felt the silent Grandmother saying. “You can create good out of the bad in your life.” Her voice was nothing like the voice of guilt which he could only name patriarchal, after his stern male ancestors. But both were imagined voices, he knew. He hoped that the sporadic gifts of spirit which had swept uninvited through him would some day add up to a truer voice. But whether imagined or somehow connected to God, this feminine voice (his own neurons sending messages of healing?) again and again had calmed him. He recognized it as the voice of his mother made larger. Whatever the origin of the imagined being, Grandmother God had taught him that church was not a room of answers, but a pathway of questions. Answers fell like sloughed-off skin behind him. He hoped that he could next learn that Grandfather God was not an impossible mix of modern businessman and Old Testament patriarch. Howard knew that prayer was a form of eternal calculus, a way of making closer and closer estimates of God’s person-ness. But for the first time since he was a child, he had faith in the process. The wind blew against the cabin, his father snored. He couldn’t see the stars, but he knew that limitless universe opened above him, an incomprehensible mystery.
[p.185] He helped his father feed for three more days. Each morning they finished earlier. His father seemed more energetic, didn’t talk about prospecting as much. On the third morning, Howard drove to Rockwood for Sunday and found that Allison had called, saying she would fly down that afternoon. He felt his heart soar with hope. He would have another chance at convincing her that Utah was beautiful, Edenic, or at least habitable.