Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.205] Allison knew Howard would pine for Utah, but at first he seemed satisfied to be with her again. He had lost his job at the dairy, so he spent a couple of days asking for work at every business within walking distance of their apartment. He was hired at a Chinese restaurant, where he washed dishes and swept.
His first Sunday back, he came home from church and told her that the bishop had asked him to work in the church library, a job which involved handing out pictures, chalk, pencils, and paper to the teachers. He told the bishop he couldn’t because he had been disfellowshipped. “He knew already,” Howard said to Allison. “The stake president had talked to him. He told me that he wants to fellowship the disfellowshipped. He wants to meet you.”
At home he prepared exotic dishes, abstracted from what he saw the cooks make at the restaurant—water chestnuts and sliced avocado on rye toast; rice, tomatoes, and ground pork stuffed in the shells of onions; salmon fillets wrapped in spinach leaves and steamed; potatoes and sliced zucchini boiled with canned meat. He read books about people who crashed their planes in remote wilderness and survived through ingenuity and cannibalism. He read romances about the imaginary West when the roles of men and women were clearly defined. Cowboys herded cattle, robbed banks, and out-fought bears, Indians, [p.206] and sheep-herders, while protecting their soft and voluptuous women. She told him that his longing for the ranch made reading these books like viewing pornography.
One day he bought a fluorescent plant light and hung it in a corner of the main room of their apartment. He bought black potting soil, which he smelled and rolled in his fingers as he filled brown, decomposable cups. He planted tomatoes, squash, and green peppers.
“What are you going to do when they get too big?” Allison asked.
“I’ll find a place,” he said. “If we plant them in five-gallon buckets, we’ll eat ripe tomatoes all winter. Imagine it, we’re making dinner and we want a salad. We just walk across the room and pick them off the plant. It’ll smell like a garden in here.”
“This takes the place of the ranch?” she said. He turned his back to her and she knew that she’d somehow offended him. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“I’m trying to make Anchorage my home, at least for now,” he said. “I get desperate when you won’t even talk about moving.”
She left for work without speaking. I get desperate too, she thought. She pictured herself as Emily, waving as Howard drove to the west ranch. She’d sit inside that enormous decaying house and stare at the walls, wait for the sisters to drop by and try to convert her. Howard thought of the town as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood—orderly, productive, congenial. Most of what she knew about Rockwood was interpolated from watching Emily. It was as if Emily wore one of those animal collars that kept her inside an electronic fence.
“He’s treading water,” Allison said to Mark, who was taller than she but wide as a barn, kind as her father. “He thinks if he thrashes hard enough he can walk on it. But I’m not going to give up my job for him.”
Mark nodded and smiled.
“Even when he’s not talking about going back, he’s thinking it, willing me to want to be in Utah, to be a Mormon woman. Maybe he talks to me in my sleep, hypnotizes me. Tell me I’m crazy, but I saw this baby at the grocery store the other day. My insides melted. I wanted one bad. Dammit, can you imagine me as a mother?”
[p.207] “You should tell Howard,” Mark said—the hint of a smile.
“His vision for me is barefoot and pregnant on that ranch.”
“Silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Mark. “Why would he want that?” Then she remembered that Mark had been raised on a farm on the plains of Canada.
She grimaced. “I dreamed the wolf dream again.” Mark knew she dreamed about running down caribou, slashing at their hindquarters, howling into the night wind. “This time there was a den of pups. I felt a pull down my whole body, as if there were a hook in my belly.”
“Biological clock,” he said. “Happened to my sister. She found a man and then broke up with him as soon as she was pregnant. She and her kid live in Calgary.” He smiled. “I can imagine you as a she-wolf, you have the spirit of a wild thing. I—you—” He leaned toward her. “Are you happy with this Howard?”
She watched his face, seeing an affection for her she hadn’t noticed before. “What’s in your head, Mark?” she said. “Are you treading water?”
“His whine will become unbearable. I’m giving you room to reconsider your error.”
“A small room,” she said, “a closet. You’re breathing down my neck.”
Later she remembered her words, and her skin woke to the possibility.
“Math is hell,” Emily wrote. “I wish you two were here to translate this gibberish. Besides math I’m taking two women’s studies classes— Women and Christianity and Feminist History. The women here are wonderful. All of them are younger than I am but familiar to me, like recognizing someone’s voice and face I’d forgotten I knew. Even those classes are hard. I’ve forgotten how to study and write. What a gift you’ve given me, Allison. Some of the Mormon women in my classes have started a reading group. We read and talk, read and talk. We each have our pet peeves: the power structure of the church or the ways men think they own women’s bodies. Other women’s peeve is authority. Mine is patriarchal attitudes toward land and work. Who’d have [p.208] thought I’d love talking politics. I feel so strange. The earth’s never seen a less political animal than I am. I meet with the bishop weekly. So far I’ve kept my mouth shut, referred women with problems to him, and given up excessive speculation. But I sit in church and someone’s droning on about genealogy or staying home with your children, and I know I could wake the audience up. Then I am swallowed up by the injustice of my punishment. I know that kind of thinking is my enemy. Soon Gerald will give me another calling. I’m not going to leave this life with what I have to say unsaid, with the blessings dammed up that could flow through me. I’m meeting with him and swallowing my anger. You say it’s unhealthy, Allison, but I’m doing it.”
Allison said, “It’s sad. Your mother’s made to be a preacher, a healer, and she’s born into one of the only churches in the country that won’t let her do either. You’re born to be a rancher and you’ve set yourself up with a woman who won’t live on a damned ranch.”
She saw him set his face to argue and held up her hand.
“Not now,” she said. “I don’t have the energy to start into it right now.”
After Christmas Howard started school. None of the classes would help him graduate, even if the U accepted them, so he registered for whatever seemed interesting: Taxonomy of Animals Native to the Alaskan Tidewater, Botany of the Tundra, History of the Northwest Territories, and Arctic Wildlife. He enjoyed exploring the herbarium, examining the plants laid between sheets of thick paper. The smell of the dried plants reminded him of haying, he said. One Saturday he went ice fishing with one of the graduate assistants, a Tlingit. They drove to a small lake on the Kenai Peninsula and augured a hole in the ice. He caught ten trout in one hour.
The wind blew white clouds, heavy with snow, across the inlet and over Anchorage; usually these clouds dumped on the city before lifting over the mountains behind. Ahead was the hope of spring, when it would be light for more than a few hours every day and the spirits of everyone in Anchorage would rise. Howard planned to take a tidewater field class.
[p.209] He loved his work at the restaurant, cutting up exotic vegetables and small sea animals. Even cleaning the stoves and floor gave him satisfaction. “Too clean,” said the cook. “Food tastes different now. You drive all my customer away.” The aromas from the cooking food pleased him, as did the knock and whistle of the old steam heater, the taste of the various dishes, the voice of the cook and the waitress arguing in Chinese. The restaurant closed at eleven, so he came home about midnight, after cleaning up. Each night when he came in, Allison rose from her computer and they fell into bed, holding each other until they fell asleep. “If it weren’t for the ranch and Rockwood,” he said to her. “I could live here forever.”
Then in mid-April when Anchorage began to accelerate toward summer, Allison watched his soul settle into a dead calm. He was apathetic about school, church, cooking, or even her, when she was home. She gave him the present of a night away from Anchorage. They drove down Turnagain Arm of the inlet to Alyeska and ate dinner at the resort. They took a late night tram to the top of Mount Alyeska and watched the northern lights, sheets of curling, whipping light, and the white mountain and dark water of the inlet below.
Back in their room, she drank a little wine while she took a long bath, just enough to give herself a pleasant glow, like sunrise at midnight. When she came out of the bedroom, his face stopped her, mournful as the face of a hound dog. “What?” she said.
“I’m stuck in that crappy apartment alone every night,” he said. “All winter it was dark.”
“Not now, Howard. I’ve been planning this for weeks.” His words seemed adolescent, melodramatic, rehearsed. She had read one of his western romances; the woman in a cabin on the frontier had said almost the same words to her cowboy husband when he came back from building a fence one day. Allison laughed out loud and his face turned angry. “Sorry,” she said. “Right now you’re trapped in an expensive resort hotel. Ruins some of the effect.” She wrapped the towel more tightly around herself and sat on the couch. He joined her there and lay his head on her shoulder. The cowboy had told his woman that she had [p.210] garden and children to divert her. You have everything you could want, the cowboy had told her. Then she ran off with a gambler. Howard wanted to run off with a cow. She felt moisture trickle down her back.
“I thought you’d be compensation for any loss.” Another rehearsed line. His voice had a liquid quality, uncontrolled. “Maybe we need to change something.”
She snorted a laugh, and he moved away from her on the couch. “Listen to you,” she said, tipping her face up to look at the underside of his chin. “I thought you were making it okay.”
“So did I,” he said.
She thought, You’re a junkie kicking a fatal habit. A snake splitting a five-generation skin. Eve—but that was cliché now.
“You turn hard as stone whenever we talk about going back,” he said.
“Back? Scares me. Scares me that somehow you’ll brainwash me, drug me, or hit me on the head and drag me comatose out there.” To that sagging house and barren desert.
“Right,” he said, sarcastic. “People who are married—”
“Don’t give me that people who are married crap. I’ve never wanted it.” She watched his face. “So tell me straight, convince me. None of this whining.”
He stood and walked to the window and looked out on the side of the snow-packed mountain. She lay back on the couch, wishing they were tuned to each other enough for love-making without all his talk. Soon he turned to face her. “You’ve been there,” he said. “Everything is dry and you bring water out of the ground or out of the mountain and grow a crop that needs twenty-four inches of water to grow. Like magic.” He sat on the arm of the couch. She lifted herself and he slid over, cradling her head on his lap. “Then the cattle—their long heavy bodies, bulls with good thick loins and hindquarters. Right now, fields are greening, farmers plowing.”
Thrusting their plows into the furrows with all their might. Or was it sickles? Some metaphor which coupled farming and sex. Despite herself, she grinned, pushing her face into his stomach. His language was ardent, excessive even for him. She suspected a trick.
[p.211] He said, “Alfalfa coming up smooth as cloth in the fields in the spring.” He touched her head, worked his fingers through her hair, and massaged the base of her neck.
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes. That feels so good. Just stop talking for a minute.” With his hands working her neck, she felt her body become languid. Fifteen minutes later she was relaxed enough for sex. She turned and lifted her lips to his.
“I want a child,” he said against her mouth.
She sat back from him, bewildered. “A child?” Could fertility of woman and land be identical in his weasel brain? Or was he using the ranch as a bartering chip? She twisted from under him and left the bedroom. “Damn you,” she said. “Damn your twisted brain.”
“What? What did I do? I want the ranch and I want a child. I can’t have both.”
But she knew that they were connected for him. He wanted to shackle her with child, bind her down, make her a real woman. He’d say, Somebody has to provide for you while you’re with the baby; ranching’s all I know.
She forced her voice level. “I don’t think that’s a good solution to your isolation here. Your mind is as tangled as a thorny hedge,” she continued. “A woman is not a field.”
“You’re drunk,” he said. “You’re not making sense.”
“Not drunk enough. You want to become the new hero patriarch of the Rockwood clan. You want to do to me what every Rockwood, what every Mormon male, does to his woman. I’ll have none of this conniving. Talk to me straight about having the ranch or talk to me straight about having a child, but none of this whining, conniving manipulation.”
“My desire for a child is biological,” he said. “You’ve taught me that. I want a child.”
“It isn’t biological in a man,” she said. “Sex is biological in a man.”
“It’s replenishing the race. Pure biological impulse.”
“You have a filthy heart,” she said.
“What?” he said.
“You want that old Rockwood house filled with babies and a [p.212] woman there producing them. He pumps them in, she pumps them out. It’s your idea of dynasty.”
“Simon made his wife commit to a dozen children before he’d marry her.”
“You’re proud of it. Mormons must have an extra gene, keeps you focused on reproduction. Babies raining from heaven. Splat, splat. What do you want from me—thirteen babies, so you can strut in front of Simon? Why stop there? Twenty-one, so your great-great grandfather can look out of the fourteenth dimension, or wherever you think he is, and shower blessings on you?”
“One,” he said. “I want one.”
“One for now. You’ll try to wear me down, I know it.”
“Maybe two,” he said. “Three. No more than three.”
Never, she thought, never tell him you think about it too. “I bought wine to put us in the mood,” she said. “I guess you won’t take a little to relax you.”
He lay in bed, eyes on the ceiling, working himself farther into lethargy. She proceeded to seduce him. But that was the wrong word, she decided; seduction implied some resistance, some play. Howard simply didn’t care. She felt whirled back to her last days with Eliot— drunk and straining to love. Finally Howard gripped her, his eyes closed. She was hopeful, believing that he allowed his body to carry him to a territory deeper than manipulation and loss. She composed a mental letter to Emily. “Not math, but Howard is hell.”
Then his father died.
Hearing the news, Howard slumped forward against the table. They had been eating and Allison looked up at him from her plate of food, seeing only the phone dangling from his hand.
“Walter or Emily?” she asked. “Tell me what’s happened.”
“Heart attack?” Howard lifted the receiver and asked his mother.
“He’s back in the hospital?” asked Allison.
“No,” said Emily. “Not a heart attack. He fell off the top of the stack.”
[p.213] “He was feeding the cows and slipped.”
“Tell me what happened,” said Allison.
“The sheriff said he fell twenty-five feet,” said Emily. “He landed on an old oil barrel and broke a rib. It punctured a lung. Brother Jenkins found him the next day.” Howard stood without speaking. He saw a bale tip outward; his father clawed the side of the stack as he fell.
“Howard?” Emily said.
“Howard?” Allison said.
“He fell off the stack. He’s dead.” He spoke to his mother again. “When? When did he die?”
“Sheriff said it was certainly the fall that killed him.”
“He felt no pain,” Howard said to Allison. He swallowed. “His body was out all night?”
“Oh, no,” said Allison.
“Yes,” said Emily, “but the cows were all around the stack through the night trying to get in. It was a miracle they didn’t break the fence down. They were milling around him all night.”
Howard looked at Allison. “Cows kept the coyotes away.”
“They did what?” asked Allison.
“The funeral’s day after tomorrow,” said Emily.
“I’ll get the first flight I can,” he said.
“I’m coming, too,” said Allison.
“We’ll be there tomorrow,” said Howard.
“Everybody else will be here,” said Emily.
“We can go tonight,” said Allison. “I can take my work with me.”
“Evan and June are coming,” said Emily. “Darlene and Roger. Everybody.”
“How are you holding up?” asked Howard.
“Another attack would have put him in the hospital or a rest home,” said Emily. “He died feeding his cattle. I can’t imagine how he’d rather have gone.”
“Did the cattle step on him?” asked Allison.
“I heard that,” said Emily. “Tell her, Howard. Don’t leave her in suspense. Somehow the cows didn’t break in.”
[p.214] “Maybe he had a heart attack,” said Howard. “Maybe that caused him to fall.”
“I don’t want to know about it,” said Emily.
“What did she say?” said Allison.
“He was in the stack yard,” said Howard. “Cows couldn’t get in to step on him.”
“He’s gone,” said Emily. “He was gone from me before he died. But all spring I’ve imagined him out there working, walking through his herd like a king.” She made a noise as if someone hit her in the stomach. “We both did what we wanted.”
“Can Brother Jenkins feed the cattle?”
“He’s been helping every day anyway,” Emily said. “Now you’ll want to take it over. You know, sometimes you can see something coming but you can’t put your hand out to stop it?”
“I did see it coming,” said Howard. “I imagined him climbing the stack and falling off.”
“That isn’t what I meant. I meant that this will make trouble for you and Allison. I didn’t want that to happen.”
“But it’s happened.”
“What’s she saying?” asked Allison. “I want to talk to her.” Howard handed her the phone. “Emily. I’m sorry it happened this way.”
“He died happy,” said Emily. “More than will happen to you or me or Howard.”
“You know I’m flying with Howard?”
“I’ll be glad to see you,” said Emily. “It’s been too many months.”
After she hung up, Allison found Howard in the bedroom, stuffing clothing into his suitcase. He had cleaned out his drawer. “How long should I pack for?” she asked.
“What?” he said. He seemed dazed. “Three or four days.”
“You’re not coming back.”
“I could have stopped him. If I’d stayed with him, this wouldn’t have happened.”
She folded sweat shirt and Levis into her duffel. “He could have slipped with you right below him, watching.”
[p.215] “I could have done something.” He looked at her. “What if he was alive for a while? I could have taken him to town, to the hospital.”
“Your mother said he died happy.”
“Yes,” said Howard. “He died happy. Would that console you?”
“No,” she said. “It was a stupid thing to say.” She put her arms around his head and hugged it to her chest. “Howard, my love, I don’t know what to say.”
“He’s with the others. Max and Ellen, Solomon and Sophia, James Darren and Mary, Eliza, Amy, and Lucy.”
She listened to Howard recite the names. He seemed comforted by the crowd of men and women. She pictured Walter lying on his back in the middle of an icy flat. Cattle, their heads held low, marched in a circle around the body as it grew stiff and cold.
“If he’s with them,” Howard said, “why does it hurt so much?” He laid his head against Allison’s shoulder and closed his eyes. She stood and pulled him to the couch where she sat with him draped across her lap.
Staring out the jet window at the jagged coast, Howard thought, about the shock of his father’s passing. They said that knowledge of the afterlife takes away the sting of death. Without closing his eyes or bowing his head, Howard tried to pray. Father in Heaven, he thought Grandfather, Grandmother, Jesus, I can’t bear this loss. Allison got up to go to the bathroom, and he closed his eyes and tried to sleep; he and his brothers and sisters would probably stay up all night talking. He imagined himself walking down through the herd, breaking bales for the cattle that crowded around. The snow was ankle deep and a bitter wind blew. His father walked on his left, scattering hay; his grandfather Max was on his right. He didn’t have gloves or chaps; wires cut into his fingers and sharp stems of hay lacerated his knee as he lifted each bale. He felt something like a hand on the back of his head, light as air.