Falling toward Heaven
by John Bennion
[p.216] After the funeral and the prayer at the grave, Allison stood with Howard at the cemetery. She watched him climb over the fence and pick some lupine which he placed on his father’s grave. “He would’ve wanted real flowers,” Howard said. “He wouldn’t have liked all these greenhouse plants.” Howard placed the lupine in water in a tin can, and they stood next to the mound of dirt and looked out over the valley. A tractor crawled across a field below them. The fields stretched west from where they stood; the soil was muddy and green, every field verdant. A sheen of grass covered the foothills. A plume of smoke rose from the edge of someone’s field.
“He’s in heaven dragging burning rags soaked in diesel along a weedy ditch.”
“Diesel in heaven?” said Allison. “He’s probably burning whiskey and champagne. They’d have no other use for it in Mormon heaven.”
“I guess in heaven there might not be weeds.”
“That fits him. He was a spiritual weed.” He looked at her. “They’re going to ask me to take over the ranch. No one else can do it. I’m going to have to do it.”
She grabbed him by the throat. “What am I going to do with you?” Time like a spiral bringing her back to the same dilemma. “I’m [p.217] becoming more a pagan, but it isn’t three old women, it’s a bunch of hag-like old men weaving my life. They’ve decided to force me through the same experience again and again until I’m broken.” She felt suddenly dizzy; she wished another skunk would spray her across the face to distract her.
About all she remembered from the funeral was how weary Emily looked, standing with her seven children and their spouses around her greeting Walter’s friends. “What will I do without him to push against?” Emily had said. “I’ll hurtle off into space.” So Allison and Nancy held their arms around her from opposite sides until she seemed steadier. The funeral was long, speakers and singers, more speakers and singers. Some old ladies warbled a sweet song which began, “The West, a nest, and you, Dear, Oh, what a dream ‘twould be,” and ended with “A cradle and a baby, The west, a nest, and you.” They announced that it was Walter’s favorite song, but Allison decided it must be Howard’s manifesto. Then Walter’s cousin, a man everyone called Uncle Edgar, told an interminable story about a time when he and Walter had gathered pine nuts which they, out of the goodness of their boyish hearts, gave to a widow. Howard whispered to Allison that the two boys had actually stolen the nuts, but Walter’s mother, Ellen, made them give them back. Uncle Edgar ended with a warning to the living about improper use of the priesthood, which, because of the way Emily frowned as he said it, must have been directed at her. When the procession arrived at the cemetery, Allison saw Bishop Hansen talking to Uncle Edgar under a tree, shaking a finger in his face. “He’s my guardian angel,” Emily had said. “He’s making sure I have today to mourn my husband.”
So now they stood in the cemetery, while Howard worked toward telling her that he would never leave Utah again. Damn, she thought, he’s lost in spite of all my care.
“On the plane I watched you work on your laptop,” he said. “You could do that here.”
“Not without clients. How could I keep a freelance operation going out here?”
[p.218] “Drive to Salt Lake or Provo. Computers are booming in Utah. Second Silicon Valley.”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve thought of that. But I like mingling with people, banging against them. Even Lisa. I like watching the faces of people when I fix easily something they’ve struggled with for weeks. I know it’s the worst kind of vanity and aggression, but I love it. Sitting in front of the computer in Rockwood? Horrible isolation.”
“This is what they call being at an impasse.”
“Compromise,” she said. “You spend the winter in Alaska, when you can’t farm. I’ll spend spring and summer down here.”
“Would Lisa agree to that?”
“She’ll agree to whatever I ask,” she said. “She needs me.”
“Won’t work. The cattle have to be fed. A million things to do on a farm in the winter. A farm is all or nothing.”
“I’m going to miss you,” she said. “We should never have married.” She turned and walked down toward the house.
Watching her back, Howard thought of twelve hundred acres of land and three hundred cattle with no Rockwood to manage them. Why couldn’t she understand?
That evening Bishop Hansen asked a sister to answer the phone and tend to the door, so that the family could be alone. The older grandchildren played with the little ones in the backyard.
Crowded into the living room, the fifteen adults avoided looking at each other. Nancy turned the pages of a photograph album—the only sound other than the whisper of Karl’s hands rubbing together. Their mother shifted her gaze from one to another of her children. Howard sat on the floor, his back against the brown coal-burning heater. He looked up at the chandelier, installed by Great-grandpa Solomon when he had the house wired for electricity. He traced his finger in the dust under the stove, feeling that they were all in a coffin, trapped with the dead air.
Allison leaned back on the couch, her eyes closed, but Howard knew she wasn’t asleep.
“Remember our trip to Denver?” said Nancy suddenly, her voice [p.219] too loud. She held up a page of pictures—their trip to buy five new bulls from a Colorado ranch.
“Dad thought it would make our fortune, if we got those good bulls,” Karl said.
Nancy turned to their mother. “I remember that you had a doubled piece of cardboard which you unfolded to make sandwiches.”
“It’s funny we didn’t think to stop,” his mother said. “All that beautiful country and we drove straight through it.”
Nancy passed around the photograph book. One picture was of the guest house at the Angus ranch, where they had stayed overnight. Howard remembered walking with his father and brothers to the pens filled with square black bulls—shiny, vigorous purebreds. His father had climbed the fence, striding through them. Proud animals, unafraid, they had barely moved to let him pass as he examined them, carefully choosing five heavy yearling bulls. Nancy lifted the album to show more pictures, holding them toward the family and talking about each one, as if she were the teacher of a children’s Sunday school class— Walter, Karl, Nancy, and Howard starting toward the mountain on their horses; the Pioneer Day picnic at the stone church; their father, Evan, and Stuart laying shingles on the roof of the church.
Howard looked at the others, who smiled with nostalgia. The pictures were like vortexes, swirling them back. He wanted to distance himself from the memories, to clarify his vision of what had actually happened in order to gain a non-eulogizing sight. Suddenly he imagined his father, a sinner, falling through the limitless void of space, clawing the vacuum as he fell.
Everyone jumped as the phone rang, and then Sister Delbert’s voice, low, explained.
“Remember when we went to that family reunion in Salt Lake?” said Emily.
“Dad had a fight with Uncle Edgar about whether Solomon drank coffee or not.”
“Uncle Edgar said that it wasn’t in Solomon’s character to break the Word of Wisdom.”
“He was an apostate polygamist,” said Howard, “rationalizing [p.220] how he cheated on his wives, and Uncle Ed was worried about whether he tipped a cup at the sheep camp.”
“Now that puts a harsh light on it,” said his mother.
Simon laughed and shook his head. Nancy looked at Karl and gave a snort of laughter.
Emily said, “I couldn’t believe it today when he told the story of the pine nuts. ‘Poor Widow Stukey doesn’t have any.’” She started giggling, and Howard didn’t want to look at her. The tears rolled out of their mother’s eyes. She sobbed with laughter. Howard sat back, holding his mouth stiff, then he burst out, bleating like a goat.
Sherrie laughed with them, but Allison and the other in-laws glanced at each other, their faces worried. To Howard, that was even funnier; he wrapped his arms around his sides and tried to stop. He could only think of Uncle Edgar, so self-possessed, worrying about the purity of Solomon Rockwood’s eating habits and missing the most obvious facts.
Finally he wiped his eyes: “What will Sister Dilbert think of us?” That sent them into another fit. Then his mother stopped, but the tears continued to run down her face. Suddenly Howard couldn’t remember what was funny either. Nancy shut the picture album.
“We shouldn’t have left him alone,” Karl said. “I should have come out more.”
“I shouldn’t have left at all,” Howard said.
“When he was in the hospital,” said Karl, “you know, when you and Allison were here last November, I drove over and blessed him to recover. I felt inspired. Now he’s dead.”
“He couldn’t bear not to be active,” said Evan.
“Mom and I have been talking,” said Karl.
“Karl,” said Emily.
“Let me have my say,” said Karl. Emily folded her arms, pressed her lips together. “Mom sold the windmill property, but I’ve talked to her about developing the piece south of there, up in the foothills. It’s a better piece anyway. I thought she was in favor of it, but now she’s changed her mind. I wanted to find out what you thought.”
[p.221] “Whatever she wants,” said Evan. “It’s hers to do whatever she wants.”
“I want to run it for a year,” said Howard. “I want to try it. At the end of the year I promise it will be worth more than it is now. Then we can either sell it or I’ll buy it myself.”
“Well,” said Allison. “Who wanted to be bound by marriage?”
“Let me know when you’re finished discussing what you want to do with Walter’s and my property,” said Emily. Evan nodded his head but kept his mouth shut.
“None of us wants a cut,” said Nancy. “It was meant to be ranched by Rockwoods.”
“A year?” said Stuart. “We can wait that long. I’m sure all of us can. I know that Dad hoped one of us would work it.”
“I’m going to develop the foothill property,” said Karl. “I’m going to pay myself a commission and then each of us will get part of the profit above that.”
“Do any of you have any problems with me taking it over for a year?” asked Howard. They all looked at each other and shook their heads.
“It’s sold already,” said Emily. “I sold all of it to Brother Jenkins.”
The room was silent.
“Thank God,” said Nancy.
“Thank Emily,” said Allison.
“How much?” asked Simon.
“Three hundred and seventy-five thousand,” said Emily.
“We can give it back to him, can’t we?” asked Howard.
“I don’t want to get into a fight with any of you,” said Emily, “but as soon as you could every one of you left this ranch and Rockwood.”
“Not me,” said Howard. “I’ve longed to come back.”
“Howard, longing and doing are two different things,” said Emily. “You could have come home and worked it with your father, but before that could happen you aligned yourself with a woman who will never live here.”
Allison opened her mouth and shut it. Howard looked from her to his mother. He shook his head to try to clear it.
[p.222] His mother turned to Karl. “I’ve sold all of it, including the foothill property. Frank wanted that piece as part of the whole. I had nothing against you playing around with it, Karl, but he wouldn’t go for it.”
“We could have all paid off our mortgages,” said Karl.
“We still can pay off our mortgages, you idiot,” said Simon. “Leave her alone.”
“The money will be for women,” said Emily. “I’ve decided to establish a house for battered women.”
“You’d give it to someone else before you’d give it to us?” said Simon.
Emily looked at her son. “Every one of you left as soon as you could. If I could give it to you and to them both, I’d do it in a second.”
“Mother,” said Stuart. “You didn’t trust us enough to talk it over with us.”
“What would you have said? Imagine what would happen if we tried to discuss it. We’re half a minute from shouting at each other right now. Can any of you imagine us talking civilly about it? Walter and his brother came to blows over it and they’re as Christian-minded as you are. The money goes to me. You may feel you have a right to an inheritance, but you all left. Be mad at me forever if you want. You can twist your lives into bitterness or you can accept it and go on with your lives. I decided it was better to do it and talk later than to argue forever about whether it should be done.”
“You’re going to keep it all?” said Simon.
“Without being cruel to you, I need to say something. Your father didn’t think about dying. He left no will; he set nothing up to protect the ranch. As soon as I try to transfer it to you, the government takes thirty-three percent, a hundred and twenty-five thousand. Two hundred and fifty thousand is left. That would be just over thirty thousand for each of us—not enough to pay off your mortgages.” She held her hand out toward Evan and Simon. “Of course, there would be enough to do you some good. I think it would completely pay off Evan’s mortgage because it’s so small, but it would hardly help spread out over everyone’s mortgages. And it would be gone.”
[p.223] “You could give it to us a little each year,” said Karl. “You can give a two thousand-dollar gift and nobody pays taxes.”
“But I’m not going to do that. None of you are so destitute that you can’t survive without the money. Walter taught you how to work, and that’s your best inheritance. I don’t know yet everything I’m going to do with the money. Maybe I’ll travel around the world ten times. Maybe I’ll change it to gold and sit on it. Maybe I’ll have enough to do some good for people who can’t take care of themselves. I’m just glad to finally have some options.”
“You can’t do this,” said Simon.
“It’s already done,” said Emily.
Howard dragged Allison west, “to feed the cattle one last time,” he said. Over the pass they dropped onto the flat, where green short grass covered the hills. The flat dropped away from them in all directions but the south, where a gray craggy mountain lay. From far away she saw the same black ridge, then, at length, the cabin set back in its shadow.
“Here’s where he fell,” said Howard, stopping at the stack. Allison heard a cow bellow; that raucous siren would have enticed Howard away from her. She had always found getting men easy, had never loved a man she didn’t get. But she would have been unable, except for Emily, mother-in-law and friend, to bind this one.
“Brother Jenkins told me to feed them away from the stack,” Howard said. “I guess some broke in the other day.” Howard started the tractor and drove it into the stack yard. He threw the bales down. “Don’t fall,” said Allison. “You’re standing too close to the edge.”
He lifted the bales outward and dropped them. They shook the wagon as they hit. She stood to one side. Finally he climbed down and showed her how to drag them into place on the wagon. “You’ll drop one on my head,” she said.
“I’m aiming,” he said. “Not at your head.”
Yes, she thought, like your father aimed.
Standing on the wagon, she looked toward the haystack. She imagined Walter lying crumpled on the frozen ground, Max lying on the [p.224] black ridge with coyotes chewing on his available parts. “Your mother is an angel,” she said. “She’s saved you.”
His face turned angry. “Don’t say she saved me. I didn’t want to be saved.”
Then Allison drove the tractor out of the stack yard and down toward the cattle. Howard stood behind her on the wagon tongue. “Cooome and get it,” he shouted. “Cooome, coome, come and get it.”
“They’re still trained.” Allison watched the cattle trail toward them across the flat.
Howard looked at her. “They come for the sound of the tractor. The voice is superfluous. I thought you’d notice that.”
“Not superfluous,” she said. “It’s like singing. The tractor is the rhythm, you the melody.” She felt like Perky Polly, cheerful in the face of his doubled sorrow. She didn’t know what else to say, so she kept her mouth shut.
When they came to the cattle, he climbed onto the wagon and threw the bales off while she drove in a huge circle. The tractor roared and stank, but driving across the greening desert was pleasant. Afterward they walked up through the herd. Howard pulled the wires off the bales, making a croissant of hay; she lifted the thick sections away from the mouths of the cattle and tossed them in a larger semi-circle.
When they finished and the tractor was parked, he led her to the top of the volcanic ridge. Black rocks lay in a jagged fall down the hillside. Sitting on a sharp-edged boulder, Howard pointed to a flat rock as large as a bed. “They found Grandpa Max there,” he said. “My father down there.” He pointed to the stack. “They found my great-grandfather Solomon dead on the toilet in the Rockwood house.”
“The best part of you is not underground.” She stood on the rock, paced the place where his grandfather died. “You’d have frozen too in the winter, except for your mother. Shameless man—you’d have run up here after an imaginary woman.”
Then finally his face softened. He said, “I would have fried my face in the summer. My ears would be tipped with melanoma by the time I was sixty.”
“Starved in the spring,” she said. “Frozen in the winter.”
[p.225] “No one to talk to. No stores, movie theaters, libraries, museums, restaurants.”
“No bars,” she said.
“None of the pleasures of civilized life. Just a pool where dead Indians once floated.”
Allison looked down at the pit of water. “When you put it that way, it sounds almost appealing.” She put her hand on his leg. “So how will our story end? He slowly grew bitter and left the woman he loved?”
“The woman gave up and lived with him in a cabin on the shore of the ocean.”
“In stories,” she said, “you’re stuck with win and loss. In life you’re not.”
“The man rode off into the west to ranch with his woman. Win, win.”
“Win for him, not for her. Translates into loss, loss, because they’d both be unhappy.”
“But isn’t it beautiful here?” he asked.
“I have to admit that it is. Marginally. But I still wouldn’t want to live here. The woman, cooped up in a cabin, turned real bitchy. She took to taxidermy for recreation. One day she mistook her husband for a coyote.”
“Outside of stories, it’s lose, lose.”
“No,” she said. “We’re not leaving this country forever. It’s not exclusively this or that.”
“But it’s not mine.”
“That’s right,” she said. “That’s what you lose. You lose mine, mine, mine.”
“You’re as bad a capitalist as they come and you accuse me of being possessive.”
“No. Money falls like dust through my fingers.”
“I’d like to leave quickly,” he said.
“Right now,” she said. “I can get the tickets changed.”
“You’re made of money,” he said. “I’m being bought off.”
“The man started feeling kept. That fantasy ruined his life.”
[p.226] “Right,” he said. “Money is irrelevant, all this is irrelevant.” He flung his arm out as if he were trying to hit a bothersome fly. The good feeling was gone.
You better pull out of this, you son of a bitch, she thought. I’ll not live with a morose and whining man.
Back in Rockwood, they threw their things into a suitcase and slung them into the rental car. They each hugged Emily twice and then drove north toward the airport. What now, Howard? she thought. What will you dream of now?