In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
Beyond a Certain Point
David Brandt Cooper
[p.101]The game was played when the party, held once a year, had thinned out. Those who remained beyond a certain point—beyond, usually, about one o’clock-knew that something was coming and in fact stayed for that reason. They stayed and watched Brother Parkins, after the grandfather clock had struck, move genially yet methodically about his house, examining the remainder, separating the wheat from the tares.
“Up late, aren’t we? Spirit goes to bed at midnight,” he might suggest, smiling, to someone like the Memmots, which would serve as a signal for one of the remaining couples, a couple who had played the game before, to feign departure and in going sweep the Memmots out the door.
For reasons Polly Hacker still did not fully understand, a year past she and her husband Milton had survived Brother Parkins’s scrutiny and had been allowed to stay past one. She had watched the Memmots driven to the door by the Thompsons, the Quinns hustle out the Walls, the Peters led out by the Garrisons. Chatting idly with John Crescent near the front window, she heard the cars start, saw the red flare of tail-lights, watched cars depart.
[p.102]”Everybody’s leaving at once,” she noted aloud. “I suppose Milton and I should be going as well.”
“They’re not leaving,” John said. “Not all of them.”
It struck her as a slightly odd thing to say. Yet, not knowing what he meant, she hadn’t known how to respond. The conversation turned to other topics—the drama class their daughters shared, the teachers at the middle school. Indeed, she forgot about the departing couples until, a few minutes later, she saw some of the cars return.
“Why are they back?” she asked.
John smiled. “The party’s not over after all.”
He kept smiling at her until, instinctively, she excused herself and went looking for her husband. She found him speaking animatedly to Crescent’s wife, Joan. Their conversation stopped abruptly as she approached.
“Aren’t you exhausted?” she asked. “Aren’t you ready to go home?”
“You should stay, Milt,” said Joan. “Things are just starting to get interesting. ”
Milton held to his glass of apple juice, trying to look relaxed and at ease. Brother Parkins was striding about, affable and eager. Polly sensed a sort of current in the room that a moment before had been absent. Looking about, Polly counted sixteen people. She saw Fred Thompson reach into his back pocket and remove his wallet and transfer something from it into his breast pocket. She couldn’t quite see what it was. Joan sauntered away, moving towards her husband.
“What do you know about this?” she asked Milton.
“About what?” Milton asked.
The other men were opening their wallets now too, and she saw what they were removing were temple recommends. The couples were clotting together now, Brother Parkins pushing through them with an old black flannel hat into which the men abandoned their recommends one by one.
She looked at her husband, found him looking at Brother Parkins, the muscle in his jaw pulsing. She couldn’t read his expression. Did he want to stay? She didn’t know what she wanted, didn’t know what it would mean to stay. Soon they would be expected to join in or to leave. Some of the others were already glancing their way.
Milton neither moved forward nor took out his wallet.
“Milton,” she said. “What should we do?”
[p.103]She had to ask a second time before he shrugged.
“It’s time to leave,” she said firmly.
He turned and regarded her, his eyes steady. “Aren’t you curious?” he asked.
Then Brother Parkins was beside them, holding out the felt hat.
“Care to join in?” he asked. He shook the hat, the plastic sleeves of the recommends clicking.
“Join in on what?” Milton asked.
“Nothing serious,” Brother Parkins said. “Just a little game.”
“We were just leaving,” Polly said. Milton opened his mouth, closed it again. She took his arm, tugged, and in a moment they had shaken a series of hands and found themselves outside.
It was a relief at first to get out into the open air, but soon she was shivering. Her husband opened the car door for her, stood slightly aside as she climbed in, then walked around and got in himself. He turned the ignition, set the heater to low. She rubbed her arms then reached out and turned it up a notch. They drove in silence, the streetlights stretching and rolling shadows across the dashboard. They passed the church with its free-standing spire, then the high school. Then the mall. They turned off University and onto Singer. Dalton Thompson’s house still had its Christmas lights up, she saw. They turned onto Oak.
“Who is driving the babysitter home?” he asked as they pulled into the driveway.
“I don’t care.”
He nodded, put the car in park. They just sat for a moment.
“Did you want to stay?” she asked.
“I at least wanted to know what it was,” he said, staring through the windshield.
She didn’t want to know what it was, she thought. She couldn’t share his curiosity. That was one of the few things, she thought, they didn’t share.
“I mean, how bad could it be?” he was asking. “They’re all good Mormons, aren’t they?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose so.”
At church the following Sunday, she noticed, or thought she noticed, a certain giddiness among the couples who had remained late at the party. They clumped together between meetings and struck her [p.104]as slightly indiscreet, less in what they were saying than in their tone and general manner. They spoke too loudly for the church. Brother Parkins, she saw, seemed to pay special attention to them, greeting them more effusively and warmly than those who had not stayed. Though she was, on reflection, unsure of this. Perhaps she had wanted to see it, so had.
In Relief Society Joan Crescent sat beside her and smiled. Polly smiled back, looked up to the front of the room, to the table with the lace cloth and the porcelain kneeling Jesus. Sister Parkins was teaching. It was a lesson about reaching out, sharing yourself with others, taking the time to show you care. There was a blush to her face as she spoke, a certain brightness.
Midway through the lesson Joan leaned over.
“I hope I didn’t make a complete fool of myself to your husband,” she whispered.
“At the party?” Polly said. “He hasn’t said anything to me.”
Joan nodded, smiled, straightened up again. At the front of the room, Sister Parkins rooted frantically through a paper bag hidden behind the table, eventually came up with a laminated spider’s web on the end of the Popscicle stick. Smiling, she held it up, began to speak.
“Whatever you’re thinking,” whispered Joan to Polly, “it was just a game. Completely innocent. Nothing serious to it.”
Polly didn’t say anything.
“In any case,” Joan said. “However you feel about it, I hope you didn’t get the wrong impression.”
Polly hesitated, tipped her head slightly.
”I’m glad that’s settled,” said Joan. She crossed her legs closely, smoothing her skirt over her knees. “You should have stayed, dear,” she said. “You really don’t know what you missed.”
It had been partly for that, for what she’d almost seen but hadn’t, for what she’d almost been told afterward, that Polly found herself reluctant to attend the party the following year. Yet Milton insisted. The party was only once a year, he argued, and was Brother Parkins’s only party; everybody who was anybody in the congregation was invited. It would seem a slight if they didn’t go, he told her, especially considering how they had left the year before. In the end, she gave in.
She stood before her mirror in her high-collared white dress,[p.105] pushing the golden posts of her grandmother’s earrings through her ears. She could see him in the glass, in the closet behind her, rooting about for a clean shirt. She sprayed perfume on her wrists, rubbed them together and then against her neck.
“I don’t care to stay long,” she said.
“We probably won’t be allowed to stay late,” he said, “considering last year.”
She stepped back, tugged at her hose. “That’s just fine,” she said.
“We’re lucky to be invited at all.”
She didn’t respond. He savagely buttoned his shirt and left the room.
She powdered her face again, lined her lips, pushed at her hair. When she was satisfied with her appearance, she came out to find him downstairs, leaning against the counter, staring at one of the children’s TV dinners as it turned slowly inside the microwave.
“It’s dangerous to stand so close to the microwave,” she said.
“I told you that.”
“So you should know better.”
“Leave me alone.”
She realized that her two children, Matthew and Janelle, were in the doorway watching them. She went to them, herded them out to sit them at the table. She gave them each a piece of bread and butter, sat down with them until Milton carried both of the frozen dinners in, one still bubbling, the other gone cool.
“Do you want to get the babysitter?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I wasn’t the one who wanted to attend this party,” she said.
“Fine,” he said. “If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”
“That’s the way it is,” she said.
She listened to the door slam. When the children were done and gone from the table, she threw the plastic trays away and went to sit in the front room. She started reading the Herald. After a while she put it down and wandered the house. Upstairs, Matt was in his room, constructing a fort with a blanket and two chairs, using two piles of books as weights. Jan was in the guest room, on the futon, reading a book about insects.
Going into her bedroom, she looked at herself in the mirror. She stood with her feet together, then moved them slightly apart. She still looked young, she thought. Attractive. She liked the way she looked[p.106] in the dress, though she worried that it bleached her out too much, called attention to her own paleness. She went to the closet, began pushing through hangers. By the time Milton arrived with the babysitter, she had changed twice before returning to her original dress. She went downstairs, greeted the babysitter, barraged her with a series of unnecessary instructions, grabbed her purse, and left the house.
Brother Parkins greeted them at the door, pumping their hands enthusiastically and then leading them into the living room before abandoning them. They made their way to the punch bowl. Milton took a glass of apple juice, while she took a handful of mixed nuts.
“Absolutely everyone is here,” he said. “It would have been a huge mistake—”
“—I don’t want to discuss it,” Polly said.
Betty Johnson saw her, waved from across the room, managed to push through the crowd to her.
“Polly,” she said. “I’ve been meaning to call you all day.”
“Oh,” said Polly. “Have you?”
“About whether you were coming,” Betty said. “Margaret Jordan said you wouldn’t show up, but I told her that if that was what she thought, well, she didn’t know the same Polly Hacker I know.”
“Of course we came,” said Milton, offering a broad, false grin. “Why shouldn’t we?”
“That’s what I said,” said Betty. “You’ll stay the whole time of course? To the bitter end this time? That’s the spirit, Milt.”
“Milt?” said Polly.
“So I was going to call,” said Betty. She leaned forward, gave a staged whisper. “But things just got a little out of hand at soccer practice … ”
It was a moment more before Polly realized that Milton was no longer beside her. She turned in the middle of Betty Johnson’s recitation, watched her husband thread himself slowly through the crowd. Betty kept speaking, patting her on the arm.
“His name is Milton,” Polly said. “Not Milt.”
“Dear,” said Betty. “What’s wrong? Not marital problems, I hope?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” said Polly. “If you want to talk,” said Betty, “I’m here for you. I’m good with advice.”
[p.107]Advice? It all seemed strange, she thought, returning for another handful of nuts. She tried to remember if Betty Johnson had stayed late last year, thought she had. Advice. It was as if everybody was different the night of the party, she thought. What they were saying was not really what they meant, as if there were another language hidden beneath the skin of the language they used every day.
She looked about her. It was just like last year. There were the Memmots again, the Clarks, John Sorensen, Sorensen’s wife Sally on the other side of the room speaking to Daniel Ihte and putting her hand to his face. She could not see her own husband, and then she saw him over in the corner, his hand against the wall and supporting him, just above Joan Crescent’s head.
She looked at the roasted almonds in the crease of her palm, ate them one after another, brushed the salt off her hands. She smiled at Jesi Thacker who, from the other side of the refreshment table, had opened up a paper napkin and was filling it with nuts. She tasted the salt on her lips.
Taking a cup from the table, she filled it with apple juice, took a sip.
It smelled a little funny. It was tingly, burning slightly in her throat. There was something wrong with it.
She leaned against the table. “Have you tried the apple juice, Jesi?” she asked.
“I think it might have turned,” she said.
“Nonsense,” said Jesi. “It’s supposed to taste like that.”
She tightened her lips and nodded politely. She took another sip, grimaced. There was something wrong, she was sure of it.
Turning away from the table she saw her husband still talking to Joan Crescent. Carrying the cup, she threaded her way through the crowd, stopping to speak to Fred Jackson, Davis Crawford, Brother and Sister Henson. She was bumped, the apple juice sloshing over her fingers and trickling down them. She switched the cup to the other hand.
“You should mingle a little more,” she said to her husband’s back.
He started, then turned to greet her with a smile she did not know how to classify.
“Darling,” he said, smiling. “I’ve just been speaking to Joan.”
Polly held the glass of apple juice out, pushed it into his chest.
[p.108]”Taste this,” she said.
“I already had a glass,” he said.
“Nonsense,” said Joan.
“It’s become alcoholic,” said Polly. “Nobody here should be drinking it.”
“It’s supposed to taste that way,” Joan said.
“You’re overreacting,” said Milton, taking Polly’s arm.
“It’s just seltzer or some sort of pop mixed in,” said Joan.
“It’s not soda pop,” Polly said. “Don’t treat me like a child.”
“Please,” whispered her husband. “This isn’t a high-school dance. Who’d spike it?”
“I’m not saying anyone spiked it. I’m saying it turned.”
Joan was looking at her levelly. Milton, Polly found, had her by the arm and was tugging her towards a deserted corner.
“What was that all about?” he asked, as she came with him.
“All what?” she asked.
“If you don’t like the apple juice, don’t drink it.”
“No one should drink it,” she said. “It’s alcoholic. No Mormon should even touch it.”
He had his hands on his hips now. One hand anyway, the other still holding the glass. “Why are you jealous of Joan?” he asked.
“What?” she asked.
“Aren’t you?” he said.
“Should I be?” she asked.
He blinked once, looked away. “Of course not,” he said.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
“Of course not,” he said. “What would people think?” “You love me?” “Of course I love you.”
“Then take me home.”
“I’m not going to prove my love to you by letting you make a fool of yourself,” he said, leading her to a chair. “Sit down a moment. Compose yourself. Mingle. Have a handful of peanuts. Put on your best face.”
“I don’t want to stay late,” she said, standing up, her voice rising. “I want to be home well before one.”
“Darling,” he whispered, taking her by the shoulders. “Relax a little. We’ll discuss it later.”
She watched his back move away from her, into the crowd.
[p.109]She spent the remainder of the party waiting for one o’clock to near so her husband would let her leave. In the meantime she shuttled about the fringes. She tried not to think. She stayed behind the refreshment table, made her way into the kitchen, onto the back porch as long as she could, passed hurriedly and half-aware through conversations she could not avoid, doing what she could to put on her best face. It was hard not to hate everyone, she thought. She began to hum a hymn in her mind, to blot the thought out.
Eventually, she stepped over the dog gate blocking the stairway and made her way upstairs to have some time alone. She met a series of closed doors, each of them marked with a pink Post-it with a number written on it. She wondered which rooms contained the Parkins children, which were empty, decided to take her chances. She tried a doorknob, found it unlocked. It opened onto a darkened room. Stepping in, she stood a moment in the light cast from the hall, waiting for her eyes to adjust.
There was a bed there, a large bed. As her eyes adjusted, she saw it was smooth and unslept in. Turning on the light, she shut the door behind her. The room was sparse, empty except for the bed and, against one wall, a tall wardrobe. She could tell it wasn’t Brother and Sister Parkins’s room, though it didn’t seem to belong to one of their children either. It was too simple, too impersonal. She sat down on the edge of the bed, smoothed the sheet with her hand.
Taking off her shoes, she rubbed her feet through her nylons, then slipped into her shoes again. She opened the top button of her dress, massaged her neck, then lay back on the bed, closed her eyes.
After a while she could feel the light from the ceiling burning too insistently against her closed eyes. Standing up, she made her way to the door, back out into the hall.
The hall itself was as empty as when she had entered the room. She made her way nearer to the stairs where she could hear the sounds of the party below, a certain insistence of noise. Backing away from it, she made her way down the hall to another room.
She opened the door, flicked on the light. The room was identical to the first: a tall wardrobe, a large bed, little else to give the room any sort of marking or identity. It was unsettling somehow, like wandering through a deserted hotel. She went out again, looked at the number[p.110] on the Post-it note. Three. The door she had been at before, she saw, backtracking, was one, the door directly across the hall from it two. She opened two, found it identical to one and three. She went on to four, found it the same as well.
She stood in the doorway of four, staring in. Going to the wardrobe, she turned the key and opened it. Hanging inside were two temple robes, neatly pressed, the accompanying aprons and hats and sashes bundled on the shelf above. She took the bundles down, looked at them. Why did the Parkinses kept their temple clothing here instead of in their own bedroom? And why this room instead of one of the others? On an impulse she put them away and went into three, opened the wardrobe there as well. Inside were two temple robes, two bundles on the shelf above. Two was the same. One as well.
She took one bundle down and sat on the bed, stroking the lace surface lightly with one hand, considering. She was unsure what to think. The rooms weren’t like this all year round, were they? She could think of no reason for it. There was no reason to have spare temple robes since if your own got dirty or ruined you easily could rent another one at the temple. There certainly was no reason to keep the robes in separate rooms, no reason at all.
She was unsure how long she sat on the bed, stroking the bundle; she might have sat there longer, thinking without thinking, except that the door was opened quickly and she saw Levon Peterson and Shirley Quinn peer in briefly, and then, apologizing, step out again.
Standing, Polly put the bundle away. They had seemed to be holding one another when they came in. It was probably a trick of the light, she told herself. She could hear lowered voices in the hall. She knew the Quinns had stayed late last year, tried to remember if the Petersons had. She waited, inside the door, listening to the indecipherable hum of their voices, until they stopped.
Opening the door slowly, she went out into the hall. Shirley was standing there, looking at her door. She could see the top of Levon’s head as he made his way down the stairs.
“We didn’t mean to startle you,” said Shirley.
“You didn’t startle me,” said Polly.
“I suppose we shouldn’t have come up yet,” said Shirley, as if she hadn’t heard. “The dog gate was still up.”
Polly passed by her quickly, made her way down the stairs. She [p.111]could hear the sounds of the party, but less now, and when she approached the bottom of the stairs, she noted that the dog gate had been set to one side. Levon made no effort to replace it as he passed.
She came down onto the floor and saw that the party had thinned out substantially. A few couples were being hustled out the door by other couples, and Brother Parkins was moving about the remainder now, shaking hands, making conversation. She came close to the window and saw the flare of taillights, cars starting up and moving away.
She looked around for her husband, couldn’t see him. She went down again, went to the refreshment table. She was picking at the remaining nuts, stirring the watery punch when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up to see Brother Parkins’s smiling face, felt his warm hand take hers.
“Sister Hacker,” he said, shaking her hand warmly. “Polly. I’m so glad to hear you’re staying.”
“But,” she said.
He raised his free hand. “No need to explain,” he said. “Last year is already forgotten.” Then he was off and moving again, shaking hands. The door was opening and shutting, people coming and going and the cold rushing in. She took two steps, steadied herself on the edge of the table, looked around at the couples already bunching and clustering. She took another step, found John Crescent beside her, taking her arm.
“I’ve been meaning to tell your husband,” he said. “Joan wanted me to, but I haven’t seen him.”
She turned to look at him, found him wavering and smiling beside her.
“My recommend,” he said. “I’ve notched the cover, both long edges. He should be able to feel it.”
She was by the window, she saw, and a car was pulling in again. Brother Parkins had the old hat in his hands now and was smiling, putting it on his head and taking it off again, the men rustling in their pockets now.
“Just curious,” he said to her. “Has he marked his in any way?
She felt her legs going, felt John’s hand tighten on her arm.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Milton,” she said.
I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Shall I look for him?”
[p.112]She nodded. He hesitated a moment, called his wife’s name, and Polly felt someone else take her hand, guide her to a chair. There was Sister Parkins’s face, wavering like a mirror’s reflection beside her. A glass was put near her mouth and she pushed it away.
“It’s turned,” Polly said.
Sister Parkins looked perplexed. “Whatever you say, dear.”
“I don’t want to stay,” Polly said.
“You’re a little nervous, dear,” said Sister Parkins. “Try to relax.”
She tried to say something more but could not. She felt Joan stroking her hair.
“Just take a deep breath,” said Sister Parkins. “Breathe. You’ll be fine.”
Milton was tight-lipped, white-knuckled at the wheel. She could feel the crunch of the tires through the brittle snow, the slight slip of them. There was no moon, the light of the street lamps glittering off the snow. “‘
She kneaded her hands together. Reaching over, she turned up the heat. Just as quickly, he turned it back down.
“I’m freezing,” she said.
“Sometimes I wish to God I’d never married you,” he said.
She pulled her hands back into her sleeves. They passed the church, the free-standing spire frost-ridden and sparkling. They passed the high school. Everything was as it had always been, she told herself. She was fine. They passed the mall, a snowplow moving back and forth through its parking lot.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He didn’t say anything.
“I can’t help it if 1didn’t feel well.”
“You seem well enough now,” he said. “We’ll never be invited back.”
She thought she might start to cry but then felt too worn through to bother. They turned off University and onto Singer. Dalton Thompson’s house still had about half of its Christmas lights up, with the other half heaped in a pile next to the door.
“I thought we had agreed not to stay,” she said.
He didn’t say anything.
“I thought we agreed to leave early.”
[p.113]He turned savagely onto Oak, the back tires skidded, thumping against the curb.
“Please slow down,” she said.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
“You’re not sorry.”
“Do you want me to drive the babysitter home?” she asked as they pulled into the driveway. ‘
‘I’ll drive her,” he said without looking at her. “You’re sick, remember?”
She got out and slammed the door.
In the living room the babysitter turned off the TV, stretched and yawned, then stood and put on her coat.
“Were the children good?” asked Polly.
The babysitter nodded, yawned again. Polly gave her a check, saw her to the door.
When the babysitter was gone, she poured herself a glass of milk, heated it in the microwave. Carrying it by the rim with one hand and supporting it underneath with the nails of the other, she climbed the stairs. She looked in on Matthew, then on Janelle. They were both asleep, sprawled on their beds, the blankets kicked down near the foot of the bed.
She went into her own bedroom, drank down the milk, took off her clothes. Turning off the light, she got into bed.
She was fine, she told herself. Everything was just fine. There was nothing to regret, she told herself. She knew enough about the game to know she was right to leave. She stayed in bed, unable to sleep, considering despite herself the pieces of it, trying to make sense of it. It was something the bishop should be told about, she was sure, even if there was nothing to it after all. Milton, she told herself, would understand if she told him about the temple robes, the room upstairs. Maybe he had seen or heard things as well. She turned on the light. She would wait up for him, tell him, and he would be able to piece it all together and tell her what was going on. She looked at her hands lying still on the blanket, clasped together. She imagined one hand was Milton’s, squeezed it with the other. They were married for time and all eternity; together they would figure it out and then decide what should be said to the bishop. She was so busy thinking it all through [p.114]that it was some time before she began to wonder about Milton, still longer before she understood where he must be.
She picked up the telephone, dialed the Parkinses’ number. She was breathing fast. She listened to the line ring over and over again, for what seemed like hours, unsure what she would say if anyone picked up. Hanging the phone back, she put the pillow over her head, tried to sleep.
DAVID BRANDT COOPER is a nom de plume.