In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
[p.271]Two chartered buses idled outside the church, surrounded by thirty or forty kids in shorts. Adults with clipboards were giving out seating assignments. Elder Tinsdale, our leader, spoke my name and I stepped forward, carrying a suitcase.
“Stow your stuff and climb on,” he said. “Bus Two.”
“I’d like to ride in back, if possible.”
“The seating arrangements are fixed, Justin. They’re the result of careful prayer. I’m sorry.”
I climbed the steps of the air-conditioned bus and moved down the aisle, looking for my nametag. Boys were on one side, girls on the other. The chaperons sat up front, behind the driver. He was the only non-Mormon on the bus—a black man in a white shirt with silver epaulets. In his hand was a plastic no-spill coffee cup and in his shirt pocket I saw a pack of Camels. I wondered how far from the bus he’d have to go when he wanted to smoke one.
My seat was an aisle seat halfway down the bus. I was grateful to whoever had chosen it: an aisle seat made it easy to reach the bathroom. Lately, I’d been peeing more than usual—at least twice an hour. I blamed my medication. That spring, when word had reached the school psychiatrist that I’d been disrupting teachers’ lectures and flubbing easy quizzes, he’d given me a prescription to help me focus.
[p.272]I stood up to let in my seatmate, Orrin Cord. He seemed preoccupied and didn’t speak to me, just turned his face to the tinted window and laced his fingers together on his lap. Orrin was our youth group’s leading skeptic, perpetually in crisis about his faith. His four older brothers had all been missionaries, in countries from Japan to Guatemala, and the stories they’d brought back of foreign cultures had bred in Orrin a bitter sophistication. It was an open secret that he drank tea, and he sometimes wore a beret to sacrament meeting. He’d warned me that he knew more about church history than anyone else on the tour, including the chaperons, and he swore he’d speak out if he caught them teaching lies.
The trip hadn’t started but already I had to go. The bathroom was narrow, like an upright coffin. A deodorant pine tree dangled above the sink. I aimed, released, shook off, and zipped back up, aware that I had a long three days ahead of me. Part of me wished I could quit the Ritalin, but I feared the withdrawal symptoms I’d heard about: headache, irritability, mood swings, lethargy. The only time I’d missed my daily dose, I’d slept for twelve hours and awakened in a rage, shaking so hard I could barely brush my teeth.
The girl who had taken the seat across the aisle from mine smiled when I sat down. I smiled back. Opal Singer was Mormon aristocracy. According to Orrin, whose hobby was genealogy, she was a direct descendant of Brigham Young and his second-youngest wife. The blood of prophets ran in Opal’s veins. For her, our tour of Mormon sacred sites would be a kind of homecoming, a pilgrimage, while for me it would be an introduction.
“Excited?” I asked her.
“I am. I couldn’t sleep.”
“What place do you want to see most?”
“I can’t decide. What about you?”
“Missouri. The Garden of Eden.”
“You’re sure it’s in Missouri, not in Kansas?”
We both looked at Orrin for help.
“Missouri,” he said. “The Garden of Eden is definitely in Missouri.”
When my family converted to Mormonism, spurred by my father’s desire to put his life together after his second arrest for drunken driving and a brief separation from my mother, all I saw were restrictions and [p.273]impositions: no smoking or drinking, no “hard” rock, endless services, monthly fasts. I imagined that my life would turn dry and boring and that I’d drop out within a month or two. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was the novelty of a religion whose sacred places—the farm in upstate New York where God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith, the trail of exile across Nebraska’s plains, the Promised Land of the Utah desert—were in America, close by, where a person could actually see them for himself.
Ever since spring, when the trip had been announced, I’d been looking forward to this weekend. Our goal was to tour the Middle Western holy sites, beginning with Nauvoo, Illinois, an early settlement, and ending at Independence, Missouri, where Joseph Smith had prophesied that Jesus would come back to earth and summon all faithful Mormons to build a glorious temple.
The bus crossed from Minnesota into Iowa, and I for one had no sense of gathering history. At noon I swallowed another pill, washing it down with flat black-cherry soda. I imagined the pill dissolving in my esophagus, a tiny white bomb of sunburst energy. The belief among kids who weren’t actually hyperactive was that the medication made you drowsy, but in fact it made you more alert. My thoughts took on such clarity and sharpness that concentration was easy. I only looked calm.
“What’s wrong? Is something wrong? You feeling sick?” Apparently, Opal had seen me take the pills.
“Yes.” It was always easier to say yes.
“Maybe you need a blessing. You could ask Elder Tinsdale to bless you next time the bus stops.”
I gave her a nod that said I would consider this. In truth, such hands-on healings didn’t work for me. A year ago, after my family’s baptism, I’d come down with a terrible earache and my father had approached the bishop for help. Two elders sat me in a folding chair, settled their palms on my skull, and started muttering. After requesting Heavenly Father’s aid, they went on to predict my future. They foresaw a life of shining promise: important work, wide influence, a loving wife who would bear me many children.
My earache subsided over the next few hours, but when I woke up the next morning my head was throbbing. Afraid that the relapse might harm my parents’ new faith, I tried to ignore the pain. It didn’t work. After lunch my mother gave in and phoned a specialist. My father [p.274]seemed disappointed, let down. Part of what had attracted him to Mormonism, besides his desire to keep our family together and free himself from a lifetime of bad habits, was the prospect of miraculous good health.
In central Iowa the landscape flattened, and Opal drifted off to sleep. A silver stream of drool ran down her chin. Her left arm hung over the aisle, charm bracelet jingling. I’d never known a girl with so much jewelry. Her abundance of tinny lockets, fake-gold chains, clip-on earrings, and cut-glass rings gave her an ancient, almost Persian, appearance, as if some sultan had weighed her down with gifts.
Orrin elbowed me. “Got the Holy Ghost yet?” His joke referred to Elder Tinsdale’s promise that we would feel a warm stirring in our stomachs as we approached the tour’s first stop.
“Not yet.” I stood up from my seat. I had to pee again.
“Where are you going?” asked Orrin. He knew full well. I’d made the mistake of confiding in him once about my condition.
“Shut up,” I said.
Orrin looked at his watch. “One minute—I’m timing you. Anything over a minute, I’ll break the door down.” I flushed with embarrassment as I walked away. The time limit was an anti-masturbation trick promoted in booklets distributed by our bishop. Other recommendations included sleeping with your hands outside the blankets and wearing a jockstrap inside your underwear. Apparently, the church believed that convenience was a big part of masturbation and that the slightest delay in getting going would cause a young man to give up.
Unfortunately, Orrin’s warning had got me thinking, and once I was in the bathroom with the door locked I wanted to linger there. The image of Opal’s wet chin was getting the best of me. To control myself, I tried another technique—one that Bishop Ericsson had taught me during our monthly moral-fitness talks. “When you feel like you’re going to touch yourself,” he’d said, “imagine your fantasy woman has a wound. A deep, bleeding cut. You’ll snap right out of it.”
My medication made the picture vivid. The oozing wound in Opal’s side—a slash of luscious red beneath her rib cage—succeeded only in heightening my excitement.
“You went overtime,” Orrin said when I returned. He’d put on his [p.275]brown beret and mirrored sunglasses. A notepad lay on his lap, its top page headed “Distortion and Misinformation Checklist.”
“If I was right next to Opal,” Orrin said, “I’d go overtime, too. It’s no coincidence.”
“That they sat you two so close.”
“The powers that be. The bishopric. They must be afraid you’re going to leave the church. Lots of converts do. So they sat her there as bait.”
Orrin enlarged on this theory as we rode. The church, he believed—and he cited several examples—perpetuated itself through sex and romance. The lure of marrying pretty Mormon women was, finally, what kept Mormon men in line. My own observations supported Orrin’s notion. Mormon girls, unlike the girls at school, were precociously poised and seductive, strangely lush. They pitched their voices low and used mascara. They rarely wore sneakers, preferring shoes with heels, and were always smoothing lotions on their hands.
“The church is against premarital sex—it says but in fact it promotes it. It has to, to survive. It’s been that way since the beginning, since pioneer days. And, believe me, the girls know their duty. They do their duty.”
“The moment she saw you next to her, she knew she had an assignment. She blushed beet-red.”
“You’re lying. You’re making fun of me again.”
“It’s bred in a Mormon girl’s bones. She has an instinct. She sees a straying sheep, she herds it back. But fine, don’t believe me.”
“Smart attitude. Don’t take statements on faith—hold out for proof.” Orrin gazed back out the window at the highway. “You feeling the Spirit yet?”
“Me, neither,” he said. “I’ll let you in on a secret: there’s no such thing.”
“Before the Saints trekked west to Utah, driven out by hate and ignorance, they built this city, the largest in the state. They raised a militia. They built a splendid temple. The Prophet, Joseph Smith, [p.276]campaigned for President. Nauvoo, Illinois, was a nation within a nation, thriving and vibrant, the envy of its neighbors.”
Elder Tinsdale finished speaking and asked for questions. Orrin raised his hand. “What about plural marriage? You left that out. That’s the real reason the Mormons were driven west.”
Elder Tinsdale turned to Sister Helms, the oldest and sternest of our chaperons. “Practicing polygamy,” she said, “is not church doctrine.”
“It used to be,” Orrin said.
“What’s past is past. The church moves on. It changes.”
“I thought the idea of this trip was learning history.”
The group formed a line and we followed the chaperons into the church-run Visitors’ Center. We passed a painting of a farmer at prayer and another of Jesus Christ in Central America, where Mormons believed he’d walked among the natives following his death and resurrection. In a diorama of Joseph Smith at home, life-size mannequins sat in antique chairs around a fireplace. Elder Tinsdale flipped a switch that lowered the lights and caused movies of human faces to shine on the mannequins’ featureless heads. The plastic figures came to life, their “voices” filtering out from hidden speakers.
Polygamy wasn’t spoken of again, and Orrin moved along with shuffling feet. “What a whitewash,” he kept whispering. My eyes were fixed on Opal, in front of us. Her skin was the glossy brown of caramel apples, plumped by the thinnest layer of baby fat. Her lashes were so long that they looked false. She asked no questions and seemed annoyed when others did. I envied the simple faith she seemed to radiate, her willingness to be guided and instructed. It impressed me almost as much as Orrin’s jaded wit.
Lunch was a buffet picnic on the lawn. The chaperons sat together under a tree, drinking grape Kool-Aid and gnawing chicken drumsticks. They were all women except for Elder Tinsdale. Ever since his divorce, six months ago—a split that the church considered honorable because Sister Tinsdale had joined the Scientologists—he’d been surrounded by helpful older women who cleaned his house and bought his groceries for him. Now they leaned forward slightly and watched him eat. Whenever he spoke they nodded, sighed, or laughed, and when his glass was empty, they refilled it.
[p.277]”I talked to Opal,” Orrin said, snatching the uneaten drumstick off my plate.
“She thinks you’re a fox. She loves your hair. She thinks you could maybe wear it shorter, though.”
“When do you think she’ll make her move?”
“Don’t know. I just wish I was a convert,” Orrin said. “Layer by layer, you get to go inside. Uncover the mysteries. Find the buried treasure. Me, I was born inside. It’s all so stale now.”
After lunch we toured Nauvoo on foot. The Mississippi lent the town a fishy smell and drew my attention to the western horizon. In the house where Joseph Smith had lived, we stood behind velvet ropes and viewed a kitchen where mannequin women were canning beans and corn. I stood back to accommodate the shorter kids and found myself next to Opal. Our elbows knocked.
“I hear you’re related to Brigham Young,” I said.
“Who isn’t?” Opal joked. It made me like her more. “A hundred years ago, out in St. George, Utah, there was a man with over a thousand grandkids.”
“I’ll bet he was tired.”
“Tired of what? You pervert!”
Next we admired the prophet’s study. Opal turned her bracelet on her wrist. She examined the back of one hand, as if for flaws. “My skin’s getting wrinkly,” she said. “I’m only sixteen. A hundred years ago, I’d be married by now. I wouldn’t have to worry about my looks.”
“I like your looks.”
“Thank you. That helps. I like yours, too.”
Elder Tinsdale sidled in between us and Opal edged away. He rested his broad, hairy hand on my shoulder. His knack for “getting down on kids’ level” was famed throughout the ward, though all it consisted of was lots of touching.
“Spectacular trip,” he said. “What a way to learn.”
“Where are we going tomorrow?”
“Carthage Jail. That’s where the mob shot Joseph Smith, the bastards. ”
I looked at him.
“I swear, too.”
[p.278]”I take the prophet’s death personally. I shouldn’t. It all worked out exactly according to plan.”
A silence fell. Elder Tinsdale’s stomach rumbled. I was starting to wish I’d eaten lunch.
“Opal’s a special young woman,” said Elder Tinsdale. “Heavenly Father gave her singular gifts.”
“I know,” I said softly.
“How’s your family doing?”
“Better. Much better. Happier.” It was true. Church life had eased the tension level at home and there were fewer slammed doors and broken dishes.
“Sounds like you found us just in time. I’m glad. Listen, you enjoy this trip, O.K.?”
“Yes. I promise.” I glanced at Opal’s shoulders.
Elder Tinsdale squeezed my arm. “Spectacular.”
We slept that night on the cold linoleum floor of a church gymnasium. I woke after midnight with an urgent bladder and quietly peeled off my sleeping bag. I tiptoed between the rows of snoring Mormons, feeling pleasantly guarded and surrounded. Before the conversion I’d belonged to nothing, nothing but my family and my school, but now I was part of a movement, a community. I had comrades all over the country, all over the world. Coming out of the bathroom, I heard a sound. I turned to see Opal in shorts and T-shirt, barefoot. There was a crust in the corners of her lips and one of her cheeks was red and grooved from lying against the zipper of her sleeping bag.
“I can’t fall asleep away from home,” she said. “I miss my ferrets.”
“Do ferrets make nice pets?”
“Until they grow up and get fat. They start to smell then. Let’s go outside—I’m smothering in here.”
From the church’s back lawn we could see the Mississippi, its surface slick and luminous and vast. The stars were so near they appeared to have volume. A blinking satellite arced across the sky. Opal shivered and took my hand and squeezed it.
“It’s up there, I know it,” she said. “In all its glory.”
I took her to mean the Celestial Kingdom, the highest realm in the three-tiered Mormon Heaven. The two lower realms, the Terrestrial and the Telestial, were nice enough places, but not truly exalted. Only [p.279]in the Celestial Kingdom could a faithful Mormon husband summon his wife by calling the secret name divulged to him in the temple wedding ceremony. The couple, once reunited in the afterlife, could then go on to reproduce eternally, populating new planets with their offspring and ruling over these worlds as God rules ours.
“I feel sorry for kids who don’t have our beliefs. They look at the sky and all they see is … sky.” Opal moved my hand onto her knee. “Is it selfish to want other people to have what I have?”
“No. I think it’s the opposite of selfish.”
“Scoot closer. I’m cold.”
I put my arm around her.
“I’m a happy person,” Opal announced. “I know that’s uncool to admit these days, especially if you’re young. Tough luck—I’m happy. I know where I’m going, I know where I’ll end up. It shows in my eyes, people say. In my expression. It used to embarrass me, looking so contented, but now I don’t care. I’ve decided to let my light shine.”
At this, Opal rested her head on my right shoulder. My nose filled with the smell of Prell shampoo. She shifted around and blew air against my earlobe, a series of delicate, regulated puffs.
“Did you take drugs?” she said. “Before you converted, I mean.”
“I took a lot of drugs.”
“What were they like?”
Opal yawned and opened my hand. She traced an index finger along the branched lines in my palm. She licked my neck. Her strokes started short and gradually grew longer, until she was licking me from ear to collarbone. I felt my artery pulsing against her tongue tip. I felt my chest warm up inside my shirt. Opal slid a hand between the buttons and did something technical to one of my nipples.
“Unbuckle your belt,” she said. “I want to touch you there.”
I hesitated, and Opal said, “You need me. It’s fine that you need me. Unbuckle.”
I did as she said. Cool air blew through my zipper, followed by the warm grip of Opal’s fist. My skin was numb and rubbery at first, but soon I began to respond. My shoulders relaxed. Opal worked her [p.280]cheeks to juice her mouth up, then lowered her head. She pushed her hair aside. The last thing I saw before I shut my eyes was Opal’s hand slipping under her own waistband.
Her efficiency charmed me. The act was tidy, polished. It left me feeling shiny, spiffied up. Afterward, Opal said, “No more drugs—you promise? I tasted them in my mouth. They taste like chemicals.”
I kissed her hair, her forehead. “That felt perfect. I want to do more with you. When can we do more?”
Suddenly Opal seemed shy. She hid her face from me. She plucked a handful of grass and let it fall. “Maybe never. I don’t know. It’s tricky.”
“Why?” I said. “We can switch around next time.”
“I’d like that. I’m sorry. I just don’t know,” she said.
“The drug thing?”
Opal shook her head and sighed.
“Because other people need me, too.”
The stairs at Carthage Jail were narrow, and Elder Tinsdale divided us into groups before we went inside. He lowered one hand like a railway crossing arm between my chest and Opal’s back, and she went on ahead. She didn’t look back. She’d been friendly to me that morning but not quite warm, and I wondered if she was testing me somehow, or if I seemed different to her in the light. As requested, I’d thrown out my Ritalin at breakfast and now I was in a state of nervous self-monitoring, waiting to see if my symptoms would return: the toe-tapping, the yakking, the antsiness.
Opal’s group, which included Orrin, filed out of the jail as mine filed in. Orrin was shaking his head. He looked disgusted. “Smith was a Mason,” I heard him telling Opal. “When they shot him, he gave the Masonic cry for help. Why does the church have to keep things such a secret?”
“I’m sure they have their reasons,” Opal said.
Upstairs, in the jail cell, Elder Tinsdale dramatized the prophet’s martyrdom. “The mob burst in here,” he said. “Joseph Smith was here. They chased him to this window over here.” He invited us to gather at the window and gaze at an old stone well some distance below, where the assassins had propped the prophet’s body. “Allow me to give a personal testimony. Standing here, on this spot of blood [p.281]and horror, I know the gospel is true. I feel its power. I ask you to quiet your minds and share this knowledge.”
Someone sneezed, and then the group fell silent.
“That warmth in the pit of your stomach—do you feel it?”
“Yes,” a girl said.
“Do you feel it, Justin? Justin?”
I looked up, startled. “Not yet,” I answered truthfully.
“Give it time. Be still and concentrate.”
I feared that my foot might start tapping, but it didn’t. Nor did I feel irritable. Amazingly, I managed to clear my mind, and for me this was a miracle in itself. Slowly I grew aware of a low tingling that might have been the Holy Ghost, withdrawal, or a feeling left over from my night with Opal. I chose for it to be the Holy Ghost.
“What’s happening?” Elder Tinsdale said.
“I feel it.”
“You don’t sound very convinced.”
“I am. I feel it.”
My testimony, despite its hesitancy, made me an instant hero. I’d scored big. On the way downstairs the group congratulated me. Girls hugged me and boys slapped my back. “Good work,” one said. I’d attracted a fan club, a cheering section. When someone thrust a stick of gum at me and I bit down on it, the taste transported me. It was the taste of feeling that I belonged.
The buses revved their engines and opened their doors. Elder Tinsdale called us to attention. “You’ll notice we’ve changed the seating, so check for nametags. Kids who didn’t have windows should have windows now. What’s more, this should give you a chance to make new friends.”
As I made my way down the aisle, my spirits fell. I didn’t see my nametag anywhere. A kid named Tim Kriss had taken Orrin’s old seat, and Orrin was in mine, across from Opal. She hadn’t moved. When I passed her, she looked down and turned a page in her Book of Mormon. I felt a spike of anger. My forehead tensed. The headache that I’d been waiting for materialized.
Finally, I found my place—in the very last row, a three-seater by the bathroom. I sat down. Beside me was Sister Helms, the chaperon.
“We thought you might be more comfortable back here. We noticed you had to go a lot,” she said.
“That was my medication. I’m off it now.”
[p.282]”Medication for what?” said Sister Helms.
The headache intensified, spreading down my neck. My breathing sped up, but it seemed to yield less oxygen. I was falling apart. I couldn’t concentrate.
“You’re grinding your teeth,” Sister Helms said. “Settle down.”
“I am settled down. I’m completely calm.”
Sister Helms nodded and moved over a seat.
We parked in the Garden of Eden’s parking lot, next to the outdoor toilets and the garbage cans. We’d stopped at a Burger King that afternoon and everyone had trash to throw away. Kids stretched and yawned and took deep breaths, then walked in circles, working out their leg cramps. It was evening, and cool, with a breeze that riffled my hair and sent me back to the bus for a jacket. I spied the bus driver’s Camels on the dashboard and snatched the whole pack, as well as his matches. What I really needed was some aspirin, but Mormons viewed pills with suspicion, no matter what kind, and even if I found the courage to ask for some I doubted that anyone would admit to having any.
The youth group formed a circle in the parking lot to listen to Elder Tinsdale’s lecture. Orrin and Opal seemed to be avoiding me. They stood at Elder Tinsdale’s side, shoulders identically hunched against the chill, and gazed intently at his moving lips. Orrin’s face had lost its pinched expression. He’d pushed his sunglasses up into his hair and there was a bright smudge of mustard on his chin. Opal licked a finger and wiped it off for him.
I felt a hot twitch of betrayal. My hands made fists. I couldn’t believe how quickly she’d moved on, how easily she’d shifted her devotion. To forget her, I trained my attention on Elder Tinsdale, but I found what he was saying hard to swallow. I had ideas about the Garden of Eden, particularly concerning its location. I pictured it in the Middle East somewhere, covered in sand, unmarked, a windswept ruin. I pictured dry riverbeds, mountainous horizons—not an ordinary Missouri valley covered in brush and grass and hardwoods. Still, Elder Tinsdale assured us that it was true: God had breathed life into Adam on this spot, and it was here that Jesus Christ himself would some day return and gather the elect—faithful saints who would follow him, carrying tools, to Independence, and break the ground for his everlasting temple.
[p.283]Elder Tinsdale concluded his talk with yet another personal testimony. Next to me, Tim Kriss had started shaking. Sister Helms reached over and patted his hand. Even more palpably than in the jail cell, deep waves of feeling were surging through the group—though not, this time, through me. A boy cried, “Father!” A girl began to bawl. Our basketball team’s star center hugged himself and slowly rocked from side to side. Even Orrin seemed moderately uplifted; he tilted his face back to catch the setting sun while Opal, serene as ever, stood by him, smiling.
Elder Tinsdale brought order to the group by instructing us to wander as we saw fit along the footpaths leading from the parking lot into the surrounding woods and fields. “Find somewhere peaceful to sit and pray and meditate. In forty-five minutes the drivers will honk their horns.”
My plan was to go off alone to smoke a cigarette, but when I saw Opal and Orrin leave the group and sneak off together through a stand of sumac I decided to follow them. They held hands as they walked. Their steps were light and synchronized. I hung back, downwind, and lit a Camel, toying with the idea of tossing the match into the dry brush along the path. To burn down the Garden of Eden would be a feat, and I was surprised it hadn’t been tried already.
Orrin and Opal were out of sight by now. I had an idea about what they planned to do together, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed to see it.
I dropped the match on the ground and stamped it out, crediting myself with a good deed simply for having avoided an evil one. My thoughts had grown scattered, and when I closed my eyes and tried to pray I forgot what I was saying halfway through. “Heavenly Father, preserve my family. Heal my antsiness.” I opened my eyes and started down the path again, following Orrin and Opal in spite of myself.
I heard them before I saw them. Someone was sobbing—great snuffling, rattling sobs. Opal’s voice said, “O.K., calm down, I’m stopping.” I stepped around a bush and looked below me. Orrin was sitting on his spread-out jacket with his Levi’s pushed down around his knees. Opal was beside him, kneeling, her open shirt revealing a shiny pink bra. Orrin kept slapping his hands against his cheeks, the way men do when applying aftershave. He muttered the antisex incantation over and over.
“She’s cut, she’s hurt, she’s bleeding … ”
[p.284]The scene made me angry and a little sick, but I couldn’t stop looking. Opal grabbed Orrin’s wrists, but he resisted. “Off me. Let me be. Get off,” he said. Opal relented and started buttoning her shirt.
“She’s bleeding, she has a wound … ”
“Shut up with that.”
Orrin worked his pants up over his legs and fiddled with his belt. He’d held the line against something, he’d beaten temptation, but instead of respecting him for it, I felt contempt. He was everything he pretended not to be: programmed, afraid, intimidated, weak. His skepticism, which I’d admired, was fake, and that made me suspect his goodness was also fake. And though Opal’s idea of saintliness disturbed me, at least she had the courage to see it through. Orrin’s faith in God embarrassed him, while Opal’s, which seemed more real to me, confused her.
I respected confusion. Confusion I understood.
I crouched in the weeds and waited for them to go. Opal stood up and stepped into her sandals while Orrin sat on his jacket and hung his head. I could see his white underpants through his open zipper. My headache, which had receded for a moment, returned with new strength. I noticed my knees were trembling.
Orrin raised his face. “Come back. Don’t go. Maybe I did the wrong thing.”
“Of course you didn’t. You never do the wrong thing.”
“I’ll pray for you.”
Opal gave Orrin the finger and walked away. I waited, then followed her. I rehearsed my innocent face. I took a side path that cut across the path Opal was on. I got ahead of her. I tried to look pleased and surprised when she approached me.
“Hi. I was meditating.”
“Good for you,” said Opal. She tried to step past me, but I kept up with her.
“Incredible place. Inspiring. I felt the Spirit again.” My words ran together.
Opal walked faster. “Go away. Stop bugging me.”
“I miss you. I want to talk. Let’s talk. Wait up. Isn’t this place incredible? What’s wrong?”
Opal halted and spun around and faced me. The wings of her nostrils were pink and flared and moist. “I mean it, back off. I’m tired of you guys. I’m tired of being taken advantage of.”
[p.285]I couldn’t stand still. I nodded. I jiggled one foot. “Right,” I said. “Right. O.K. I see. O.K.”
“You’re vibrating,” Opal said. “You’re scaring me.”
“Get a blessing, O.K.? You need a blessing.”
“I tried once. It didn’t work.”
“So try again.”
On the trip’s final day we drove to Independence and stood around the empty field in the town where Mormons believed the great temple would some day stand. Everyone seemed cranky and underslept. A virus had broken out inside the bus, recirculating through the ducts and ventilators, and every other person had caught the flu.
Even Elder Tinsdale had fallen ill. As he lectured us about the temple, he shifted a cough drop around inside his mouth, and some of his words were hard to understand.
“The summons to build might come soon. Tomorrow, perhaps. Some of you kids might even join the effort. Imagine the thrill of wielding spade and chisel with Jesus as your foreman. What a feeling.”
I gazed around at the dirt and rocks and weeds, at the restaurant and parking garage across the street, at the cars and trucks and traffic lights, but I couldn’t picture the spires and buttresses Elder Tinsdale was describing.
As usual, Orrin gave me the straight dope. “The Mormons don’t even own the temple lot. Another religion does. Pretty ironic, don’t you think?” he said.
“I’m tired of thinking. I’m trying faith.”
“In what? A bunch of fairy tales?”
“In some of them.”
On the long ride home the seating system collapsed. People sat down wherever they wanted to and tended to their colds with wads of tissues. Elder Tinsdale, exhausted, fell asleep and didn’t wake to eat the boxed Whopper that Sister Helms set kindly on his lap. At sundown the driver dimmed the overhead lights and someone put on the Osmonds’ greatest hits. I walked to the back, where Opal was sitting alone, the Book of Mormon open on her knee. She slid over to make room.
“I caught the bug,” she said as I sat down.
[p.286]”It’s fine if you’re mad at me,” she said.
“I’m just run down.”
“That’s the bug.”
“It’s not the bug,” I said.
The Osmonds tape played as we crossed a long steel bridge back into Illinois. It felt odd to be leaving the Holy Land so suddenly, not knowing when, if ever, I’d be back. I let my eyes close as Opal told me stories about the part of her family that lived in Utah. “I’ve been thinking about my grandpa. He had four wives. He lived in the desert—big tall man, with a beard. I visited him with my mom when I was nine. His fourth wife, June, was nursing a baby—my uncle. I watched my own uncle breast-feed. That must seem weird to you.”
“What?” I said. ”I’m sorry. I’m not all here tonight.”
“Those pills you take.”
I shook my head. “I quit them.”
“I don’t know. They were in the way of something.”
The tape switched sides. The bus was dark and cold. Opal put away her Book of Mormon and I fetched a blanket from the overhead rack. We kicked off our shoes and huddled closer together and spread the thin blue blanket across our laps. Beneath it our hands moved, quietly, like spirits.
WALTER KIRN grew up in rural Minnesota. He converted to Mormonism at age twelve and was active in the LDS church until age seventeen. He has published two books: My Hard Bargain, a collection of short stories, and She Needed Me, a novel. He lives in Montana.