by Linda Sillitoe
[p.213]Roger climbed into the cab of the truck, glimpsing his drawn face in the rear view mirror. He didn’t know how many nights had passed since he’d slept decently. Night after night he lay staring out the trailer’s window at the dark, overcast sky, finding no place to rest his mind. Finally he’d sleep for a couple of hours, then wake again with a jerk, his heart thudding.
Out of what now seemed habit, he worried about Robyn and the children. Yet his loneliness also turned his thoughts toward Boyd. He’d picked up a book on homosexuality in Vernal while his colleagues were down the street at a bar, and he hid it in his backpack until he got back. Reading it evenings in his trailer had helped, yet in some ways it made him feel worse. Boyd’s loneliness stained every page. Roger was both relieved and aghast to read that recent studies suggested that homosexuality was innate, biological. Boyd hadn’t had a prayer of ever being acknowledged for who he was within the family, within the church, within his circle of friends. Mormons didn’t believe in that kind of predestined doom, and Roger couldn’t accept it.
Alone now in this world of forest, snowy soil, trucks, and hard-drinking foresters and scientists, Roger had come to understand isolation. He ached for his brother, even though Boyd had [p.214]always lived among people who loved and praised him. He had been the first son in every sense of the word. Roger wondered whether times had changed, even given his brother’s death. He suspected that his family still would refuse to see what Roger felt he should tell them.
As Boyd’s mission neared and he faced living with a male companion twenty-four hours a day, fur from home, and faced that intensive training for a lifetime of priesthood leadership, Boyd must have known it was impossible.
By the time he reached that juncture in his thoughts, Roger was twisting in the bed covers, torn between his own worldview and beliefs and what he now sensed as his brother’s. Serving a mission was theoretically Boyd’s own choice, Roger reasoned; but, realistically, he had to go on a mission.
Roger’s own mission had been a great experience, a true coming-of-age rite in Mexico. Roger nursed warm memories of living in tiny stucco apartments with Joe Knowles, the jock from Idaho, and then Bix Thorson, the original thinker from Oregon. Their mission president had stressed that no missionary should ever be completely alone, and it was wise to leave the bathroom door open a crack. No lonely hanky panky and certainly none in tandem, these stem talks implied, turning their thoughts toward sex even more. Joe followed the rules without mentioning them, and Bix did an ironic running monologue, making fun of the restrictions. Roger had gotten along with each companion, learning to feed Bix the straight lines. How would Boyd have managed that kind of intimacy, which could only seem like hypocrisy?
Still, Boyd needed to serve a mission to continue being who he was; then he would have had to come home and get married and have children. That was it. That was the plan. Roger had chosen to do just that. Yet maybe, Roger thought one winter [p.215]dawn with a clarity that had robbed him of sleep, maybe what killed Boyd had later begun to smother Roger. At least he had known at some gut level he still couldn’t articulate that he could no longer stay enshrouded in the cocoon of habit and security spun by threads of not seeing.
Maybe that’s why he had taken off. Leaving so stupidly without a word to anyone was his own conundrum, Roger concluded, sitting on the side of his cot. It represented his own incident of being caught with his pants down. His face burned with shame every time he thought of his parents, of Robyn, their children, his sisters. Damn.
As he shaved and dressed, the interior of his house rose up in his thoughts, surprising him with odd details. He saw in retrospect the little changes Robyn made in the decor—a new plant above the sink, a doormat with a daisy and their name. Robyn, little Kerry, Danny still a baby—those three people he thought he would give his life for, give his life to at least—abandoned without a backward look. Maybe, he’d thought, the razor stilling in his hand, that’s how Boyd had found the impetus to abandon his family.
In Roger’s mind, nothing excused his own cowardice. Three times he had stopped at pay telephones and dialed his home number, just to hear Robyn’s voice. But each time, guilt clogged his throat and he could say nothing. The last time he called, her “Hello? Hello?” had sounded so frightened, he had resolved not to call again.
Slamming the trailer door, driving to work, he thought about his job in the mountains, about the waitress at the cafe in Manila. Her hair was a brassy auburn and she was too friendly for Roger’s tastes, but her hazel eyes seemed innocent enough. Just nowhere to go in Manila, he guessed, no one to meet since she’d graduated from high school. She was divorced after a six-month marriage [p.216]to some creep. “He wants me back,” she’d said, tossing her hair and looking deeply into his eyes. “But I can do better.”
Why did he keep thinking about her? He couldn’t remember her name, just the swing of her short uniform as she walked away from his table toward the kitchen. She was petite like Robyn, looked young.
By now most days appeared as uninterrupted and white as his loneliness. Clouds knelt on the mountains and floated like cotton in the air. Some days snow fell; more often it drifted as fog. Today he saw only cotton through his windshield. The clouds cut off the view of the mountains, and snow hid the red sandstone and black earth. The evergreens, bursting suddenly through the mist, reminded him how close Christmas was. Kerry would be excited about Santa Claus; Danny, too, this year.
Tears stung his eyes. He pulled up a little distance from the lodge, swung open the cab door, and walked blindly down a narrow trail away from the lodge, away from the motel and the few visitors. His footsteps sounded loud on the cold earth. If he stepped in one of the deep cracks in the ground and broke a leg, how long would it be before someone came looking? How long could he live, with only snow for sustenance? This part of Earth seemed newly made, still unfinished, with crevices large enough to fall into. He wondered if a child had ever died in one.
He walked. Silence all around him now. No one else was out. He veered around a giant pine and, half by accident, slid down a low bank to a plateau overlooking Flaming Gorge Darn and the river. The clouds were so close that even the river looked dull, rocking indifferently against the concrete. He walked a few feet down the wide side of the plateau and came to a long crevice that seemed miles deep. He stopped there, breathing surprisingly hard, and finally sat down on the edge dangling his boots. The [p.217]low sky leaned on his head and shoulders. He couldn’t go on. He felt he could sit there forever. No one would ever know.
Roger’s chin and cheeks were numb by the time it occurred to him that the crevice resembled a grave. No phony green stuff like the carpet that had decked Boyd’s grave the day they took his casket from the ward chapel to the cemetery. The adolescent Roger had bent to look into that green opening and found dirt, cut by blades. Then his father grasped his shoulder and pulled him into the front row of mourners, as if it was indecent to stare into his brother’s destination.
He had a quick flash of himself then, raw-boned, big-handed, his ridiculous adam’s apple bobbing below his shaking chin. He had stood alone crying, furious and desperate, as his parents and sisters embraced the mourners afterward. God, what a wretched kid he had been. Hadn’t anyone seen that misery?—or were they all blinded by their own?
Here red stone plunged deep into blackness. Roger dropped a pebble and waited for the tiny rattle below him. “Long way down,” he muttered, gasped; and then he began to cry.
Sobs tore out of his guts, ugly, hurtful, hopeless, and he was too tired to stop them. He let them come. The brute noises battered his tight throat; tears thawed his face and poured off his jaw into the grave, Boyd’s grave. Maybe in a minute he would slide off the edge and join his brother. He had lost—left—everything that mattered. He was alone now, as alone as Boyd had been.
Then, behind his wet eyelids, Roger saw his brother’s bluish ankles again, the rumpled pantlegs; gasping and squeaking with pain, he let himself see the distorted face, Boyd’s half-closed eyes with the lower part of the whites showing, his mouth open in a silent cry. “Goddammit, Boyd!” he screamed violently. The words echoed. Roger bent double and groaned.
[p.218]If Marly hadn’t grabbed his collar hard at the same time she held a red bandana in front of his face, he might have toppled into the crevice—he was that startled by her presence. “All yours,” she murmured, offering the bandanna again. She sat down beside him at the crevice edge. He blew his nose hard, wiped his face, but the tears kept coming. “It’s Boyd,” he gasped, still awash.
“I know,” Marly said, her voice trembling as if she did. After a while, he managed, “Poor Mom and Dad.” He sniffed hard and shook off tears.
“Poor you,” Marly said, and took his hand. The whole leaning sky fell then on him, and Roger cried until he felt hollow. He knew Marly cried too. Finally there was silence.
They sat side by side, their jeans and hiking boots dangling over the sharp edge. Finally, Marly picked up a small handful of earth and tossed it into the crevice. “Goodbye, Boyd,” she whispered, her voice tight.
“It’s not that easy,” Roger said raggedly. “We didn’t know him. We wouldn’t know him. Nobody would.”
“True,” Marly said, looking into the fog as if she could see through it, “but it still might have been an accident.”
“Some accident,” Roger gasped.
“An angry accident,” Marly amended. “An accident of angry compensation.”
She wiped her eyes, then dropped in another handful of dirt. Roger dropped in a handful of dirt also, but couldn’t think of anything to say that seemed adequate. “I should have known,” he told Marly, his tears running again.
“How? You were just a kid.” A pause, then she said, “We need a headstone.”
“It’s not that easy,” he said again. ‘‘I’m going to have to do something.”
Carefully, Marly got up and walked away from the edge a few [p.219]feet. As Roger watched, her reddened hands began loosening a boulder about the size of her head. He almost said, I didn’t mean do something here, but she was so intent. “Let me help,” he said instead, and rose stiffly, pulling his leather gloves from his pocket. How long had he sat there?
Roger carried the boulder to the far end of the grave and set it firmly against the earth. Instinctively, he raised one arm and found words again. He bowed his head, arm still raised, and consecrated the earth to his brother’s peace.
He lowered his arm. “Goodbye, Boydo,” he said. He cleared his throat raggedly, tried again. “Someone should have told you it didn’t matter—” His voice broke.
Marly lifted her bowed head. She stooped, licked her right index finger, and wrote “l-o-v-e” on the boulder, wetting her finger for each letter. The wind lifted the word as soon as it was formed, and Marly turned her face toward the obscured sun, her eyes closed.
Roger breathed deeply through his mouth, the cold air filling him with something fresh. The trees behind them rustled, and for a second Roger thought he felt Boyd approaching. Involuntarily, his heart lifted in anticipation of Boyd’s whoop and heavy clasp on his shoulder. He smiled. “Geez,” Roger would say, turning, “we thought you were dead. Listen man, we’ve missed you.” The sense of Boyd’s grin warmed him, then faded. Roger opened his eyes cautiously, glanced at Marly. She was smiling faintly, eyes still closed. When Roger wheeled around, no one was there.
Marly turned, too, and looked at him. Roger found a smile. “Well, hi, Marly. Fancy meeting you here.”
“Just in the neighborhood.”
“I’ll bet.” He took Marly’s roughened hand, held it tight, [p.220]and they walked back to the lodge. “Hey, that’s my Tempo,” he said.
“Robyn loaned it to me. It’s time to go home, Roger.”
He took a deep breath. “Sure is,” he said. “How did you know?” A snatch of auburn hair had escaped her braid and kept blowing across her eyes. He smoothed it behind her ear. “Let me go quit my job,” he said. “It won’t take a minute to pack. On the way home you can tell me everything.” She smiled delightedly. “Everyone’s okay?” he asked anxiously, as they fell into step.
“Everyone’s fine and about to be better. Let’s go!”
But Roger stopped short. “This isn’t going to be simple,” he said. “I mean, I’m taking Boyd back with us in a sense—who he really was. I have to.”
Marly nodded. “Aren’t you worried about going back yourself?”
He looked at her a minute. “Cops after me?”
“No, not really.”
“Robyn.” He sighed, shook his head. “Well, let’s go.”
He drove the truck back to the camp to return it, watching Marly following him in the rear view mirror. He felt empty but free. Questions crackled in his mind like popcorn. How had Marly found him? How had she known about Boyd? Who had she told? Why hadn’t Robyn come with her? Could he really just go home? Did he need a lawyer? How were his kids? Would his parents ever forgive him?
He could question her as they drove down the switchbacks. He felt a surge of joy, anticipating his hands on the wheel of the Tempo again, headed toward home. How had Marly found him?