by Marion Smith
[p.143]I’m passing the exits to San Bernardino. There’s an emergency phone on the shoulder of the freeway. I pull over and brake to a stop.
You don’t need money for this phone if you push zero. A recorded voice says, “Push one for highway patrol assistance. Push two now for road service or towing. Push three for all other—” Which damn number calls the police?
Duncan has his hand on the receiver. “You don’t want to do that,” he says quietly. He hangs up and pulls me gently back to the car. “I’ll drive,” he says.
I climb in, lean my head on the headrest, and close my eyes. “Are you mad?” I ask as he pulls back into the traffic.
“It’s all right,” he says calmly. “You’re doing fine. We’ll be there soon.” We both stare vacantly ahead for a while.
I break the silence. “I’m glad you stopped me. Usually you let me do whatever I want. But I’m always trying to change you or get you to look at something. You must get tired of it.”
He shrugs. “Maybe I should change, but I can’t.”
“You know the story of the baby elephant tied to a slender vine? When it grows up, it can snap a steel chain, but it’ll never break the vine it’s tied to. That’s how I feel about you.”
Duncan cracks the knuckles of his right hand. “The vine’s all I have to hold onto. Without it, I’d be floating around with [p.144]nothing to keep me from going on a rampage and trampling all the orchards.”
“You think that’s what I’ve done? All I wanted was to stop Clint from crushing everything in sight. I had to redefine what it means to say ‘stop.’ It’s too soon to know what that’s cost me.”
“Think you can ever be happy now?” Duncan wonders.
“Yes,” I nod, “even with the horror there’s something in me that feels real and alive.”
“Sorry I hadn’t noticed,” Duncan smirks.
I can’t speak. I can’t believe he said that.
I want to get out of this car. I’m trapped in a new silence that neither of us will break. Panic crawls from my stomach into my throat. I have to hear my voice to know I can still speak.
“At least I don’t have eczema or back pain or a neck that kills me.”
“Do you think I choose them?” he asks in a voice trying to be patient.
Does he understand what he said a moment ago?
Do I know this person?
“Partly, yes. Same way I choose to have migraines. I think what I’ve done has violated you in some awful way and you’re choosing right now to be a jerk, and now I wish I was alone in this mess. So why don’t you just get out and take a bus back to Utah.” I’m yelling. It feels wonderful.
Duncan drives into the right hand lane, then onto the shoulder. He stops but doesn’t shift into park or turn the key. He speaks into the front window.
“What have I done, Laurel? I’ve been with you all the way; I’m just as implicated as you. I just can’t change my basic beliefs for your convenience. I know the pressure’s unbearable, but I’m doing everything I can. Are you angry that I didn’t do it for you?”
He stares into the windshield.
[p.145]Now I’m sobbing. I can scarcely speak.
“You haven’t done anything,” I gasp. “You’re supporting me enormously. But you never go deep enough—to the core of your beliefs—so it leaves me alone.”
Duncan turns the key off. He half-way faces me. He doesn’t touch me.
“I guess I believe in enduring to the end.”
“But why hold onto beliefs that keep you unhappy? Who makes these rules that you can never change? God?” I can’t get through. How can he be so rigid? I continue: “Say you get a debilitating disease, or your only son is killed by a drunk driver, or you’re a handicapped Vietnam veteran, or the person dearest to you betrays you in some terrible way, or your career comes crashing down and you lose your reputation and your retirement—a million things that’re the psychic equivalent of an atom bomb. Suddenly everything’s different; the world is no longer a good and rewarding place and you no longer have control over your destiny, if you ever did. Everything you’ve believed in is challenged.”
“Right,” he answers.
“You can blame yourself, so the world outside can stay the same for you.”
“You can’t say that’s my choice.”
“Yes I can. Sometimes I think that’s exactly it.”
He doesn’t say anything; I go on.
“Or you can be like Katherine and decide there’s no life beyond the now. You only have one time around, and if you live without any pie-in-the-sky illusions, you can be freer and happier. Atheism needn’t alter your ethical values. It may even improve them, because you don’t have all eternity to become good. You have to take responsibility now.”
“There’s no way cynicism doesn’t taint your moral view.” [p.146]Finally he’s angry. I’m glad. “Especially if you’ve never learned religious concepts when you were little. Children need black and white and reward and punishment.”
“Maybe. But my point is there are choices.” I’m hoping he’ll say, “Like what?” but he doesn’t. Instead he starts the car and drives back onto the freeway.
“You can choose to find something new,” I say. “Or add something to your old world view that makes it seem new.”
“Like your new age stuff? I don’t comprehend the mind of God, or innocent suffering,” he explains. “But I don’t see how ‘new science’ solves your religious questions.”
We’re safe now. We’ll have an intellectual discussion. No more questions about what either of us really feels. No more questions about the murder.
“My ‘new age stuff’ as you put it has spiritual import because material reality isn’t what it appears to be, or what we’ve assumed it to be,” I begin.
“So it’s like somebody in the Middle Ages deciding the sun doesn’t move across the sky-it changes everything?” Duncan is relieved too. We won’t deal with what matters yet.
“Just like that. It’s a wonder we haven’t threatened or punished a new Galileo. Seems like in Newtonian science it’s hard to think we matter. Everything’s mechanistic. Something or someone beyond ourselves created a system we can’t impact. How can anyone claim freedom then?”
“But Mormonism and most other religions don’t go along with that. Moral agency is at the core.”
“But that freedom never squared with Newton’s science nor Darwin’s random evolution. Now maybe it can.” I want him to understand why I care about this. “I believed Christ loved me and he wouldn’t lie about eternal life or my importance, and that’s where I found spiritual meaning. But I never liked Mormon [p.147]heaven all divided into hierarchical kingdoms like some feudal estate. The ‘kingdom of god is within you’ seemed right to me.”
Duncan sighs. “It works for me, that physical heaven. When you get away from the golden streets and an anthropomorphic god, all you have are fuzzy platitudes. What good is a god who doesn’t answer prayers? You might as well have people sitting around playing harps in front of golden thrones as have some nebulous, indefinable Spirit Actually, I like the imps and demons in the Bosch paintings. They’re concrete. Maybe they’re having a tweak at Clint right now.”
“That’s not funny!”
Duncan smiles. “Why not? Thomas Aquinas said if we’re righteous, God will let us look down at our enemies enduring the torments of the damned … Maybe you’d have liked it better in the early days of Mormonism when people were having visions and miracles? Talking in tongues? Being healed by Joseph Smith’s handkerchief?”
“Maybe,” I sigh. “I don’t know. I just know that when I found there was the possibility of a new mysticism based on science, I liked it.”
“What do you mean?”
“That there’s more to the universe than matter and energy. They call the ‘big bang’ a singularity, but they might just as well say miracle. A miracle outside space and time and nature.”
“What about us? Are we miracles too, God’s special creations?”
“I don’t know about special, but if gravity or nuclear forces had been a tiny fraction different, we wouldn’t have a universe. One chance in a hundred million and we get a planet with carbon and water, capable of evolving life.”
“So you think a god planned us?”
[p.148]“I think something did. And I don’t think it’s all pre-determined, or what’s the point—where’s the fun?”
“The development of the individual soul,” Duncan says softly, almost to himself.
“Of course, I like that. I want that to be the way it is!”
“Well, I don’t think science has supported that view much,” Duncan shakes his head wearily.
“But that’s my whole point! That’s exactly what some scientists are saying! That there may be chance and unpredictability in the world. Maybe actual freedom. Instead of the cosmos as a wound-up clock running down, you get a roulette wheel with the ball itself influencing where it lands. Or the person who’s betting affecting where it goes. Human consciousness seems to create reality at the quantum level. Observation seems to determine if electrons manifest as wave or particles. And everything’s connected— a butterfly’s wing in Manilla contributes to a hurricane in San Juan. That doesn’t prove freedom, but at least there’s enough complexity that absolute predictability becomes impossible, even theoretically. Small events matter. Maybe what we do or think matters.”
“So you’re saying quantum theory may make people more significant?”
“In Mormon terms, they could be God-like. What if consciousness is of supreme significance and connects to everything in the universe? Connects across space and time? What if ultimately we’re cosmic energy reaching to every particle and event that ever has or ever will happen—like the Eastern religions have always claimed? What if we really are free to choose, even to a small degree, and we matter in some objective, eternal way?”
“I say yes to both those things without your new age physics.”
“That’s what I mean—maybe science and religion connect in [p.149]whole new ways. I can’t understand why orthodox theologies aren’t dealing with this stuff more.”
“And God? What happens to him?”
“It’s like a metaphor for a bigger creative purpose. That doesn’t mean you can’t relate or pray to God or that he doesn’t answer. It doesn’t mean he isn’t real.”
“It’s not the same,” Duncan says. “A metaphor can’t love you or give you hope.”
“Nor punish you and make you miserably guilty! That’s why I had to act—to be free! I care even more about that than about the people I love. I go over and over in my mind asking how could I judge Clint? But if we’re free to make choices, then I have to judge him. If there’s no freedom, there’s no guilt—no guilt for Clint or me!”
“I’m guilty too,” Duncan says bleakly. “In fact, the shedding of innocent blood is unforgivable. So when the LDS heavenly correlation committee assigns parking places, mine’ll be at the bottom of the ramp somewhere below pedophiles, rapists, and unbelievers. Unless the blood that’s shed wasn’t innocent—then maybe a great defense attorney can get me through the pearly gates anyhow.”
We drive in silence. We’re back to where we were, almost, but I can’t stay angry. Why would any god require Duncan to suffer so? I can’t believe in such a god. It’s getting bright outside. It’ll be hot today.
“Remember when Jeanne held onto the chain of the swing?” Duncan asks suddenly. “It’s like that for me.”
Jeanne and the swing. What a perfect day that had been. Jared had gone to California, Katherine was in Colorado, and Tina was at a swim meet. We had the whole weekend in the mountains for just Jeanne and Jasmine.
I made Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries and whipped [p.150]cream for breakfast, hot chocolate with four marshmallows for Jeanne, fresh orange juice for Duncan, and Jasmine had seven pieces of bacon. She never got that many when her siblings were there to compete. While I worked on the dishes, Duncan went outside to split logs and Jeanne and Jasmine went to their hut. The air was sharp with cut wood when I stepped out, the back door.
“We’re walking out to the beaver ponds,” I called to the girls as we left. “Stay near the cabin. We won’t be long.” Squeals and giggles were my answer.
The trail was still boggy from a late spring, and wildflowers and moss were everywhere. When we reached the beaver ponds, no beaver were in sight, only an occasional squirrel and dragonflies circling the pond. We stripped and made a bed of our clothes. It was hasty and uncomfortable, but rich with nature’s intimacy. As the hot sun stroked our shoulders, far off I could hear Hilda frantically yapping at a chipmunk she must have treed.
When we came back, the girls had almost finished their hut on the hill behind the cabin. Old boards, a piece of bunk room carpet, log benches, a row of pickle and mayonnaise jars holding treasures and notes, a basket I’d donated with some dress-up clothes from our costume box, a four-inch flag stuck in the earth left over from the 4th of July, Jeanne’s weapons stacked in a corner, even wild geraniums in a glass buried halfway in the earth—it was a perfect little hut. “You can’t tell anyone where it is,” Jasmine solemnly made us promise.
We packed tuna sandwiches, oranges, and Oreos for a picnic to the frog pond. Jasmine rode in front of Duncan on Rosy who was getting old, but Jeanne at eight could manage Patches very well. “Make Hilda stay home,” Jeanne said. “She’s going to be kicked.” But of course she came, constantly darting at the horses’ heels.
There were thousands of tadpoles at the frog pond. Wading [p.151]in the water was almost like walking in jelly. Tiny frogs were everywhere. Jasmine wanted to take some back in a cup full of grass and pond water, but Jeanne’s authority prevailed and we left them. We rode up to the crest of the forest road where we saw meadows and a small lake and a thread of the East Fork of the Bear River below us.
At 5:00 we lit the fire for the hot dog roast. Hot dogs, fresh corn, watermelon, chocolate chip cookies. A feast. It wasn’t dark yet, but we pretended and sang “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Tell Me Why the Ivy Twines.” While I carried left overs inside and poured water on the fire, Duncan took the girls up to the old tire swing and pushed them. I could hear their shrieks of “Higher, Daddy!” and “It’s my turn now!” I climbed the hill to watch.
Every time Jeanne swung high above the slope of the hill, the chains of the swing would squeak loudly. She was standing on the swing flying way out when the chain on her left side broke. There was no time for anything. I couldn’t even scream. “Hang on to the chain, Jeanne!” Duncan yelled. “Don’t let go of the chain. I’ll get you!” He ran in front of the swing, stopped its force with his body, and landed in a sprawl. But Jeanne was safe, still hanging onto the chain.
While I hugged her and told her how good she was to do what Daddy said, she seemed excited. Jasmine was the one crying. “Of course, I hung on,” Jeanne panted. “Daddy said to.”
That became the parable of Jeanne and the swing. Keep holding on and Heavenly Father will always land you safely. Can Duncan still believe that? He must, if he can bring it up now. Maybe his guilt is worth it. Maybe he believes he’ll eventually land safely.
Still, I can’t resist asking, “How do you think Jeanne feels about the swing story now? Her landings haven’t been too good lately.”
[p.152]Duncan doesn’t answer. He nearly takes the Riverside exit but swings back into the center lane. Finally he asks, “How do you deal with evil? I have Satan, but what do you have? Is evil an illusion?”
Here we go again, I say to myself..
“It’s the hardest question, don’t you think? If we acted out of ignorance or a genetic foul-up, that would be one thing, but the scale of human evil is too huge. I guess we’re screwed-up when we’re children and the patterns repeat over and over. I don’t think we’re innately evil. It’s people making choices; cultures facilitating those choices; the universe permitting them because it has to.”
“Satan makes better sense. A Satan with real power and a real struggle for victory.”
“You’re right,” I admit. “Satan’s better logically. Satan or karma; then we get what we deserve, no matter what.”
We’re passing the bingo parlor on the Morengo Indian reservation. There are rows of cars in the parking lot even at 5:00 a.m. We ought to explain to these Indians that karma gave them this rotten dry desert. I hate this deathly desert littered with scorpions, all-night neon, and beer bottles in the gully off the freeway. I hate this drive and this conversation.
“I want a goddess!” I blurt out.
“I want to rewrite the whole script—and worship those wonderful androgynous Buddhist sculptures staring down at nothing.”
“I, for one, would gladly turn the whole thing over to you ladies anytime. You couldn’t do any worse.”
“See, you think it’s all about power, so you ridicule or condescend, then think you’ve won. It’s all about winning for men.”
“That’s not fair. I meant that women could do better than men.”
[p.153]“I’m talking about something deeper than political rights or even slavery. Most of the human race can’t imagine social systems based on anything but hierarchical power. Divine systems, too.”
“You’re on a roll.”
He’s right. I sound a bit hysterical.
I don’t know why I’m so angry. What are we talking about? At least it isn’t Clint or what I’ve done.
Duncan frowns, then says, “I don’t see what difference any of this makes. If faith’s your motivating principle, it’s not based on anything rational anyhow. You believe what you believe, and evidence isn’t going to matter one way or another.”
He’s probably right. But I want to finish my argument.
“All I come back to is, if religion is making you jump off a bridge, change direction.’”
“You make it sound too easy,” Duncan shrugs. “I couldn’t have killed Clint. Not after the fact, at least. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ You can’t fix God’s law by breaking it. Life is too sacred. Protecting my loved ones is the only reason I could kill.”
That’s it. The bottom line. Why did he help me if that’s how he feels?
We pass the last exits to the discount stores and are finally almost to Palm Springs.
Has my act made a mockery of everything I believe? How did I ever think I could put it together, the horror of what I’ve done and my beliefs? I wish Clint had shot me. Then they could’ve tried him for murder. I couldn’t live with Clint alive working his evil; now I can’t live with him dead. Like trying to find center on a tightrope wire.
I’ve never told Duncan that if I had my life to do over, I wouldn’t raise my children in the church. It’s too punishing and can make parents treat their children in ways that are destructive. Even with all the good it can do, I wouldn’t do it again. It seems [p.154]too cruel to tell Duncan what I sometimes wonder—that the abuse might not have happened, or we might have been able to see it sooner, if we hadn’t been Mormon. I certainly have my share of responsibility, and he’s right, Clint did drop like a bomb from the sky; but Duncan’s rigidity is absurd. We love each other, Duncan and I. We respect and appreciate each other. But there are too many times when our minds don’t meet.
I’m alone. Maybe that’s why I killed him.
I used to go to Jasmine when I was lonely. I miss her. Maybe I can call Jeanne and talk to her in code.
In an hour we’ll be in Palm Springs.
“Duncan,” I break the quiet. “I want to know your real thoughts about how responsible you think we are.”
“For Clint’s death?”
“No, no. I take responsibility for that. I mean for denying the abuse.”
“You never quit,” his voice starts to rise. “I’ve told you and told you. You think you’re guilty for every transgression, including Eve’s!”
“Well, if I’m overly responsible, you’re underly. You think Clint struck like a thunderbolt and there was no reason or connection to us. That everything bad that’s happened to us is entirely because of Clint.”
“You’re right. I think a video camera planted in our home would reveal it like I remember. I think you feel so awful about Jeanne and Jasmine you’ve become anxious about everything and it skews your perspective. We weren’t perfect, but we never deserved Clint.”
“I know that. But there were ways we enabled him. And it isn’t only since the abuse I’ve been neurotically anxious; it’s just worse now.” I hope he’ll contradict me; he doesn’t. “I wish I could hold onto outrage better. It always gets diluted.”
[p.155]“I’d say you’re quite capable of holding onto your outrage.” His words penetrate me like a laser beam. Will he ever forgive me?
“So how can you manage your anxiety now?” Duncan asks.
“I don’t suppose I can,” I answer, “but I don’t see how it can be any worse than when I’ve called Jasmine late at night and not known if she was alive or dead. Nothing could be worse than that.”
We drive in another long silence as the morning sky becomes less violet and more pinkish and the hills darken against the light.
“Your anxiety is an awful way to live,” Duncan says.
“I learned it from Mother. She thought if you love someone then you do everything in your power to protect them. Somewhere in my head, anxiety became the measure of love. I know how sick that is. I worry that I gave the kids the message, ‘If you want my love, make me anxious. Be sick, and I’ll worry. Be unhappy, and I’ll hold you. Be bad, and I’ll forgive you.’ Do you think I’ve really conveyed that crap to our kids?”
“Not the way you’re putting it now, but maybe. A little. I think you’re right that you get attention in our family if you’re in need.”
“It must’ve been confusing, to be our kids. I was saying, ‘Be needy,’ while you were saying, ‘Be perfect.’”
“You think so? I never meant to say that.”
“Come on. We both expect perfection—you had to be at the top of your field and I had to be the world’s perfect mother. Why wouldn’t we expect the same thing of our kids? If you already feel dirty and shamed by abuse, it’s a double whammy to have to be perfect.”
Duncan switches lanes and nearly sideswipes a blue jeep. It’s getting brighter. I wonder if the restaurant will be open when we get there? There’ll be time for a shower. There’s guck on my teeth. I’m sticky.
[p.156]How much have I damaged them with my anxiety and over-protection? I’m sick of being too anxious. I have to let go so I can claim my life. If I get away with this, I’m never going to be anxious again. Maybe it wasn’t rage or moral duty or loneliness that drove me to murder. Maybe it was anxiety. My need to have control. Could that be true?
I can change; I’ve done it before. Especially if survival is at stake—theirs and mine. I can let go of yesterday. But changing is the hardest work I know and I’m tired. Tired and scared. And lonely.
What can help me? Talking? The beauty of the morning? The wonder in Jared’s baby’s eyes? Lying in the sun with Duncan on a beach? No. I have to find a new way to connect to my children without this pain.
Give up my octopus tentacles. Become a mother lioness. Let them claim their own pain as they must and will. Cubs grow up and leave. Assent to their pain. Set them free. Tell your mother she was wrong to teach that worry equals love. Assent. Be a lioness. Assent.
Night shadows linger on this desert. It’s still and lonely. There’s no one here. No other lions on this plain. Somehow, you do what you must.