What’s Funny and What’s True

by Krista Halverson

            There isn’t much you can do for a true believer. Says Grandpa, anyway. I don’t believe him so much. Grandpa says if you get to thinking you can feel everything on the inside, then when you finally come out of yourself, you’re holding onto nothing. He doesn’t believe in angels or dreams, or even the pygmies I showed him in National Geographic—but that’s just for spite. I got a garden-in-a-box this year for my fifteenth birthday and he says, now that’s something you can put some faith into, Lia. Not some six-year-old’s fairy tale. He’s referring to the recent “spiritual experience” of my little brother Randy, who’s the youngest person I know to have had one. For my part—all questions included—I believe it happened the way Randy said it did, two months ago, when he fell out of a tree.

            None of us saw Randy fall, but we were all supposed to be watching him. Darren was the closest, weeding by the side of the house. And he’s the oldest, so he should have known. Good grief, I was in the backyard with Matt picking rocks out of the dirt and chucking them in a bucket. But it wasn’t Darren’s fault. Mom and Dad were due home and we’d been playing basketball next door instead of getting the lawn ready for re-seeding. If we didn’t finish, I knew we wouldn’t get any of the donuts they’d bring home.

            I thought me and Matt could clear all the rocks out of the lawn in a few minutes if we turned up the music loud and got cracking, as Mom would say. There were a lot more rocks than I thought. We were on our hands and knees, arms splayed out, hands groping for rocks in all those mounds of tilled dust. Then I heard Darren yell and throw his trowel. He ran to the front yard and got on his knees, grabbing Randy’s shoulders in his big hands.

            “What happened Randy?”

            “Whoa. I fell off that one.” Randy pointed vaguely to where his jump rope was hanging on a narrow branch near the top of our willow.

            No way that was possible. The willow tree is our lawn’s major piece. The branch he pointed to was higher than our roof. In fact, it’s the tallest thing in our whole neighborhood, which is why every kid wants to climb it and why none of our parents will let us. The roots roll out a good three feet before they go under. When I lie underneath, looking up, the highest branches are almost too far away to focus on. An acorn couldn’t fall that far without shattering.

            Darren told Randy to sit still. He kept yelling back to us as he went to the house to call an ambulance.

            “Randy, hold still. He shouldn’t be moving his arms! Get him to cut that out!” We couldn’t keep Randy still. I don’t know how he even stood up, but he did. I heard a sudden, shrill sound like a screen door opening. Only the sound was coming out of a woman, and she was coming across the street toward us. I recognized her as a new lady who d moved into the ward and onto our block. If you live in our part of Arizona you’re more likely Mormon than not. They seem to know where to come.

            The woman was crying and I saw Matt make a face and turn away. He made the same face in testimony meeting and whenever Dad put his arm around him. I hoped this lady wouldn’t notice. Judging by the quantity of tears she was gushing, I doubted she’d notice if she fell into an open manhole.

            “I saw it,” she wailed in a high voice. Every time she drew in a breath I could hear a screen door opening. “I saw him fall.” She had to get by on one syllable at a time.

            “He fell from there. He fell so slow.” She heaved and her hands fluttered. “He fell right there.” She pointed to the sidewalk pavement.

***

            My parents got home and within minutes the neighbors were swarmed on our lawn. It looked like a barbecue, without the food. The ambulance wasn’t even close enough yet to hear but everyone somehow knew there was trouble at our house.

            My mom went through every explanation of how a six-year-old can fall so far without getting hurt. Her friend next door and our bishop, who lives at the end of the block, started telling stories about kids he knew whose bones would bend before they’d break. Bishop Lloyd even used me as an example, the time I’d flown over the handlebars of my bike into his driveway. He said my skid marks were still there. This did not convince my mother. Randy’s just wasn’t the kind of story I could see her putting in her Relief Society lesson.

            By then there were women all over Randy. The men were all there, too—I imagine they’d all left their lawnmowers in the middle of the job. They stood circling the tree, patting the bark, squinting up into its branches. The women made an opening around my brother wide enough for my dad to pass through. Dad sat down next to Randy and with his arm around him asked what happened. Randy grinned, real shy. He picked at the ground and mumbled something.

            “Say that again, son,” Dad said. “I didn’t hear you, honey.”

            Nobody’s dad calls his sons honey except mine. I think he’s spent too much time in the Primary. Randy smiled. He put his lips in Dad’s ear and whispered something that made my dad look pale.

            “Randy,” he said, “how about you come inside with me.”

            Dad put his arm on the back of Randy’s neck so his thumb was touching Randy’s ear. I love it when he holds my face like that. Randy did, too. I could tell by the way he leaned his face into Dad’s hand. He let Dad pick him up and take him inside the house.

            Everybody stopped talking but you could tell no one wanted to go home. Most of the adults came into our house when they got tired of looking at the tree. When the ambulance finally came Dad brought Randy out of his room. The paramedics wanted to take him to the hospital, but Dad said it was alright. Randy was walking normally and Dad promised to bring him in the next day for x-rays. My mom didn’t look too happy about keeping him at home all night. What if one of his arms puffed up in the night, she said, or he started bleeding on the inside? But my dad said they just needed to leave him alone for a little bit. He’d be okay, he said, and he rubbed Randy’s ear with his thumb. Randy’s whole head fit in Dad’s palm. He took Randy back into his room and came out a few minutes later.

            That’s when everybody sat around the kitchen table and talked about the accident. Mom talked the most; she kept saying how it couldn’t just happen like that–he’s small for his age and things like this just don’t happen. He should be dead. He should have a concussion or a branch through his side or a broken foot, at least. She said these things over and over again.

            Dad just sat there looking at nothing. I couldn’t say what he looked like, tired or shocked or anxious. Only it wasn’t a bad look at all. It just seemed like he had some big exhausting secret and he wished Mom would ask him about it so he could tell her.

            Mom wanted me to get the Merck manual off the bookshelf so she could look up stuff about concussions and fractures. It was hard to find because we have a lot of books. Most of them are hers, and a lot of those are about the Civil War. Mom worked as a researcher for a long time when we lived in Virginia. That was before Randy was born.

            Sister Givven was there at the table, so of course we heard a lot of stories. Anyone old enough to be let in on the ward business knows that Sister Givven doesn’t need an excuse to start talking, and the topic doesn’t really matter. We started talking about Randy, but she told us about her whole family. Sister Givven’s stories—like the one about her cousin who lost one of his front teeth and kept it in his mouth, rubber-banded to the other front—are a little incredible, if you know what I mean. But I could listen to her forever. Apparently last year one of her daughters had a fever so bad that Moroni himself visited her bedside to heal her. But Sister Givven always says she doesn’t like to talk about sacred things, so I still don’t know if Moroni said anything to Marnie.

            Brother Sessions said some things about modern-day revelation. I think he was quoting from a talk he gave last week, which both my parents had liked and talked about on the drive home from church. Dad had tried to describe to us how it feels to get personal revelation. Like a shock to the heart, even when you know it’s coming. It makes you want to cry and laugh out loud. Mom says, it’s peace. I asked her if that was all she felt. Yes, she said, just peace, and that was enough.

***

            Randy came back out of his room just as people were getting up to leave. They sat right back down. He was dressed in pajamas even though it was two o’clock on a Saturday. He walked up between my parents and put his hands on the table. Doing that made him look so grown up—it made my nose sting and for a minute I was afraid I’d cry. “An angel caught me.” He looked around and said, more quietly, ‘And put me down.” No one spoke. I looked at Randy’s tiny hands, so childlike they still had dimples across the knuckles.

            So then Matt started to laugh. He laughed so hard he almost choked. Randy got a surprised look on his face and turned red. He looked at my dad. Matt stopped because that new lady was crying again, harder than ever. I think she might have been scared, because Randy might have got brain damage or something. But I felt bad right away for thinking that. She was probably just “real tender about the Spirit,” as Dad would say. People are always crying at baptisms and testimony meetings. Anyway, if this new lady could believe Randy, you can bet I could too.

***

            What I’d call a miracle on top of a miracle is that he got up there in the first place, by himself, without anyone knowing it. The Relief Society president lives across the street from us and she’s always calling my mom to say we’re on the roof or we’re getting into the trailer or something. So everyone at the table wanted to know what Randy meant by an angel. Someone who stood in the sky, Randy said. He was old, like Dad, only he had white hair, not black. You know, Randy said, an angel. Like he wanted to say, where have all you guys been when they talk about this stuff in church? I could tell you what an angel looks like. The walls of the seminary building are covered with pictures of them. We have pictures—how can you not know what an angel looks like?

            So then they wanted to know what the angel did. Brother Adams wanted to know which angel it was, specifically, and Sister Adams told him not to be silly. Randy rubbed his face into Dad’s shirt and grinned a little bit. Why was he getting so shy today? I thought. These were the same people whose houses he’d gone to just a few days ago asking if they had any money they didn’t want. Totally and completely embarrassing.

            “Did you bump your head, sweetheart?” my mom said. She was moving her fingers very gently through Randy’s hair, like she does when we have a fever.

            Randy shook his head.

            “Are you sure you don’t hurt anywhere?”

            It was like she actually wanted for something to be wrong.

            I stood there by her side and had the sudden uneasy feeling that Grandpa was standing over both of us, but of course he was thirty miles north at his ranch. Thank goodness. When my grandfather explains something he feels particularly sure of, he always takes his papa bear stance, leaning back into his heels and tugging upward on his belt. When he’s not around that’s the way I picture him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mom did, too.

            Randy just grinned and rubbed his face into Dad again. He d told his story and Mom just wasn’t listening. He said he reached out to touch the jump rope and it started swinging, so he tried to jump out and catch it. He couldn’t catch it fast enough and he fell a little bit. No, the angel didn’t say anything. He just picked him—picked him right out of the air. Wow. I wished I could have seen that. Dad used to read to me out of The Friend when I was little; there were always stories about the prophets when they were little kids and how they saw Heavenly Father, or angels, or dead people they used to know, turned white and shining. Matt said that maybe Randy was going to be a prophet, and then he went outside. I wish he wouldn’t joke about things like that.

            The new lady who’d been crying was alright now. She had a bowl of cherries in front of her on the table and she was spitting the pits into a napkin. I heard the woman tell Randy how special he was and that he must have something very important to do. My mom offered her some more fruit—probably to keep her mouth full.

            Well, the group around the table split every which way when Matt ran in and said the Brady twins were dropping gerbils out of the tree. We all ran outside and, sure enough, Jacob and Jared were riding the lower branches, dropping their gerbils onto the lawn. Their little sister Ruby was crying and trying to pick them all up; she had her little dress up around her waist and she was collecting her pets in it.

            Sister Brady was mad. Jacob said they were doing a science experiment to see if somebody could really fall so far and be okay. Sister Brady said they were grounded and my dad helped them get down. It was all pretty funny but no one was laughing because they were thinking about Randy, who should have been hurt, but wasn’t. It’s kind of like when your parents get mad at you for eating in the living room, when you haven’t even spilled anything.

            That night I could hear my parents in their room. Summer nights are like that. I can tell when summer’s really here because suddenly I can hear everyone’s phones ringing and the conversations they have at barbecues three houses away. Mom always sounds a little louder from another room, but I could sort of hear Dad, too.

            “We’ll talk about it at dinner tomorrow” Mom said.

            “I think we should.”

            “What do you want to say?” Mom’s voice sounded tired.

            “Me? Well, I don’t have much to say. Randy’s had an experience. I think he should talk about it.”

            Mom didn’t say anything for a little while.

            “Randy’s six years old.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “It means that everyone’s a little confused. I’m just afraid,” she stopped. “I’m just afraid that if we put Randy in charge of the explanation it’ll just get worse.”

            “In order for it to get worse it has to be bad in the first place.”

            “Craig, do you think an angel swooped down from the sky and picked up our son?”

            Some drawers opened and closed. I moved up right next to the door. This was a good question—a very good question.

            “…doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” I heard Dad say.

            “I didn’t say funny. I don’t think any of this is funny. Don’t act like I don’t believe just as much as you do.”

            “But you don’t believe this? That’s what you’re saying, right?”

            “Craig.” My mother sighed.

            The door opened and I ducked into the bathroom. Mom made some herbal tea and turned on the television. It was some sitcom that she would never watch if she were really paying attention. Whenever I tried to watch one, she’d change the channel and tell me to read a book.

            There is no explaining my mother. She’s the type who calls herself disorganized and keeps a spotless house. But she’s sincere. Our life isn’t quiet, but you couldn’t call us rowdy, either. Darren is a cellist, for Pete’s sake. In the summer we’ll all play baseball till the sun goes down, but we leave our cleats on the porch—we’re tame. Matt draws. I sing. We get good grades. Still, my mother is convinced that she lives in chaos.

            When she needs a break Mom says she needs to do some “redecorating,” and we all know what she means. I’ve seen the curtains fall behind her eyes. She goes in her room with her scriptures or a tape, but I think she just sleeps. My grandpa says religion spoils a person for practical living. I didn’t realize till Randy’s accident how much arguing goes on inside her, which I would blame on Grandpa if I thought it would make a difference.

            She comes back out sometimes minutes, usually hours, later. Her hair, which hovers like a yellow cloud around her head, is matted, which is how I know she’s been sleeping. And then she’s alright. She cooks something with the television on in the kitchen or she asks me to sing to her while she stirs at the stove. We usually have stir-fry on those nights and Mom cuts all the vegetables herself, into very small pieces.

            When she had that job in Virginia, Mom took the subway to the city every Monday and Wednesday for a long time and Darren watched us. She took fat books with her to read on The Metro and told us all about the Civil War at nights when she got home.

            I remember her showing me pictures of the soldiers. Some of them weren’t much older than I was, she said—nine, at the time. They carried the drums and the flags and if they had sad eyes, like I said they did, it was because they’d seen a lot of people die—probably their own families or friends who they loved very much. She even read me some of the letters they sent home to their mothers. I told her they sounded cheesy. Well, she said, people believed in things more easily back then. It was a very sentimental time. That was the same word she used to describe the women in our ward who always cry at church. I don’t know why she’s never called my dad sentimental; he still cries all the time when we do something good or when he reads out of the scriptures in family home evening.

            Mom doesn’t say as much as Dad about what she feels. She thinks she does, but when she explains things, she always leaves parts out. Sometimes I think she spends so much time redecorating that she forgets what she’s said and what she’s thought. She had wrinkles on her forehead, between her blond brows, a long time before she got them around her mouth. I’ve heard Dad tell her that she thinks too hard and fights too hard. He’d never tell her that she doesn’t smile enough, but I wish she did more often.

            I think Mom would be more inclined to believe if she thought that was alright. Alright with who, I don’t know. Her dad, I guess. Maybe she just wanted approval before she could admit to believing something as big as Randy’s story. She used to argue with Grandpa all the time. When she married my dad, the bishop’s son, Grandpa almost wouldn’t come to the reception. He wore his cowboy boots—the messy ones.

            So I asked her, but she didn’t hear me. I stood between her and the television screen and she looked up, sipping her tea.

            I was embarrassed to ask.

            “Is it true?”

            “Is what true, Lia?”

            “You know, did Randy fall—I mean, was there, you know—” She wasn’t helping me out at all. My mother’s not a cold person, so this was awkward. I felt like I was talking to someone I didn’t really know, like I was seeing a picture of her up close and noticing for the first time that she had green eyes. She looked very young to me, looking up from the couch like that, not sure what she was supposed to say.

            “I think there was, Mom. I believe him.” I stepped in and stroked her forehead. She seemed soothed by my voice so I kept talking.

            “Randy wouldn’t just make it up, Mom. He’s only six. He wouldn’t even know how. I’m almost two times that old and I couldn’t make up a story like that. Somebody has to believe him so he doesn’t feel bad, you know? I told him I believe him and I think Dad does, too. I was thinking, what if Joseph Smith’s family didn’t believe him? And he didn’t even have the Church yet.”

            I tried a different approach, prompting her with obvious questions, like I was teaching a Primary lesson or something. “How does it feel to believe?” I asked her, hoping she’d say something about peace. “I mean, how do you feel when you know?”

            Mom bowed her head over the tea, letting the steam moisten her face; I waited quietly for a minute and then I could actually feel our roles shift back. An authority moved out of me and back into Mom as she stood up and, without really pushing me out of the way, moved past me. She walked to the back of the hall and entered Randy’s room, closing the door behind her. I’m old enough to know better than to eavesdrop, but I’m also old enough to know how it’s done. I lay on the floor next to the air vent that goes between Randy’s room and mine.

            Through the vent, voices have a metal sound, but they’re clear. I set myself up with a pillow and blanket. For nearly an hour I could hear my mother weeping.

            Then I heard sort of a cooing noise, and I knew it wasn’t Mom because she still sniffled a little. Randy must be doing it, trying to comfort her. I wished he would say something and finally he did.

            “I promise, Mom. I promise.”

            Mom didn’t say anything for six minutes—I kept track by the red numbers on my alarm clock. When she spoke I could tell she’d been crying again.

            “I know, love. Mom’s just a little bit slow, okay?” Her voice was thick. “I believe you.”

            “Yes.” Randy’s voice was bright, like Mom finally said what he had known all along. “That’s why you came home yesterday and didn’t get us any donuts.”

            I went right away to Dad’s room, where he was reading something under his lamp. He looked disappointed when I asked him where the donuts were. He and Mom always got donuts on the weekend when we did yard work.

            “We didn’t have time, Lia. Mom said she wanted to get home right away to make sure you guys were okay.” Dad smiled what Matt calls his hokey smile. “I would have got your maple bar, but she was in a hurry.”

            So then I was pretty sure about everything and I still am. Mom came home because something told her to. I went back to the vent, but I couldn’t lie still. I felt like I ought to be writing in my journal or bearing my testimony or something. Finally, when all the noises stopped, I peeked into Randy’s room. Mom was asleep with Randy in her arms. Randy was asleep, too, his sweaty head tucked under her chin.

***

            My parents dropped us off at Sunday School the next morning and took Randy to the hospital. Matt asked them if they were going to tell the doctor about the angel.

            “I don’t know, son.” He looked at Randy. “What do you think?”

            Randy looked at my mom and shook his head, but I couldn’t tell if it was yes or no. I don’t think he knew either.

            That day was hot. Randy came home from the hospital with a stuffed rabbit and a rubber ball. He wanted me to play with him, as usual. Dad said he could go outside with his new things but not to bounce the ball. I think that was supposed to keep him from breaking the Sabbath.

            Matt and I spread out a blanket on the grass in the front yard—it was so green it hurt my eyes. Randy hopped his bunny through the grass a little bit but it was too hot to move much. All the flowers my parents had bought on Saturday were wilted in their pots. Matt lay on his back and threw the ball into the air, checking now and then to see if anyone was watching. It was so hot.

            I closed my eyes and thought about an angel with no wings, standing on a block of air. When I turned and opened my eyes, Randy was asleep with the rabbit in his arms, one flushed cheek raised toward the sun.