by Curtis Wade Bentley
Something of St. George was definitely rotting. Well, the whole afternoon had left me in a foul mood. The fat, German lady had ended her follow-through in the net and sat there with her wide, white bloomers glaring in the sun and then blubbered for help in extricating herself. Her husband, who was all moustache, stood back of his serving line, alternately tossing up the ball and pacing the baseline muttering ”Ach. Ach. ” Then, evidently, becoming aware that his wife was making no effort to continue the match, he began yelling, “Zumvun! Zumvun! Zumvun!” until I realized I was the only “Zumvun” around who could help, and dropped my broom.
The net was ruined, of course. The fat lady finally came free and limped to the locker room rubbing the creases in her wrists left by the nylon net. So all of the appointments for that court had to be rescheduled and shifted to other courts, which is what I had to tell all of the huge, tanned boyfriends who came to curse because their net was sagging nearly to the ground.
And I was left to sweep up after them . The locker rooms were empty in the dinnertime lull before the lights were turned on and the night crowds came. I pushed before me their discarded white socks, their Hershey wrappers and paraphernalia. The air was humid still. One of the showers had been left on; steam filled the room and beaded on my face . Or dropped from ceiling and spit thickly on the cement floor. And it made me feel rotten when it seeped down my back, so where it itched I scratched until it itched everywhere.
I rode my bike on the long, level stretch from the country club back into town. The red and white of the condominiums shimmered in the evening sun, then wavered behind me until the desert snuffed them up like so much mirage.
I began to feel better coasting onto Main Street, with the breeze coming coolly from the purple cliffs and drying the sweat through my shirt.
I was one that could sweat. And did sweat, often and abundantly. By the end of the day, I could tell I was alive or had recently been alive, if in no other way, by the smell of my own body. In the morning I would shower myself acceptably clean, but for the cool night between the sheets, I generally slept well, to windward of myself.
The condo people didn’t know how to sweat though. For them, sweating was a tourist sport-something to be quickly worked up in a steam room and then doused in the pool. It wasn’t that they were tourists. Anyone knows that without tourists St. George wouldn’t amount to much. St. George had been a watering hole for years-a place to go to the bathroom on the way to Vegas. And the kids in the cars said, “Mama, what’s that?” as they squinted from the window in the freeway wind. And Mama, but usually Daddy, who liked knowing about maps and landmarks and things, would say, “The temple, dear. The Mormon temple. It’s where Mormons go. Pretty, isn’t it.” And that would be all, as they climbed the freeway back into the desert and slept while they waited for Vegas at night.
But some of us were born here . Atomic fallout ran in my blood and somewhere on my mother’s side were pioneers or polygamists or other historical dead people who hadn’t been on their way anywhere when they stopped here.
Somehow this street, Main Street, belonged here . This gaudy string of motels, gas stations and fast-food stops was real, almost native , St. George. It was like a makeshift town thrown up to house and humor miners when a new lode opened up. You can see the desert through it. And you know that someday it will make a great ghost town, with tumbleweeds and everything. Already there is red sand in everything. The motel beds have red sand in the sheets, the water tastes earthy, and in the 100 percent pure beef hamburgers at McDonald’s are tiny flecks of red sand. The sand is filtering through, eroding. And when it’s done it will be just the natives again, huddled between the temple and the tabernacle.
Except for the condos. There’s something malignant about that growth on the outskirts of town. Something warped, doing something to the desert. Embarrassing it. All the swimming pools, whirlpools and hot tubs are a slap in the face of aridity. But the people are clean and lush.
I remembered then, that it was Grandma’s birthday and I was to go straight to her house for the party. Grandma was 87 and not sharp at all. In fact, she really didn’t know a whole lot about what was going on. Mom always said how wonderful it was that Grandma just seemed to keep going. But she wasn’t really going anywhere and it was more than a little unnerving to watch her sit in her chair and blink at you through her glasses. And when she smiled her dentured smile there was nothing wonderful left. It was like she was already empty on the inside and was simply waiting for her flesh to drop away so we could see she was dead. Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear of a nursing home after all the talks in church about that. Dad said she had a right to their care as long as God saw fit to keep her there. God must have a use for afghans, then. Her house was covered, carpeted and papered in afghans of amazing colors. It was hard to tell if there was anything underneath it all.
When I got there and stood my bike in the tall grass by the porch, the party had already started. The Bishop was there and Myrna Lord, the Relief Society President. And, except for the children and grandchildren, there were the old people from the ward and the Golden Center. The Smiths and the Richards and all the half-brothers and second cousins.
“Steven, come here . Come over here. Your grandma’s blowing out the candles. You might have to help .” Yes, somebody would certainly need to help her. The yellow frosted cake was on her lap, a blaze of candles, the wax melting and shining then drying hard and white in little callouses down the three layers.
Grandma didn’t notice. She’d forgotten what it meant to blow out candles. She trailed her finger around the base of the cake , scooping up frosting and rolling it around in her mouth. That’s when she’d smile a broad, empty son ofleer and blink up at us and say, “Chocolate. It’s chocolate isn’t it? Chocolate was always my favorite and now it’s my birthday, chocolate cake. ” Then she’d laugh.
The Bishop could be counted on for a good belly laugh in these situations. And he didn’t let us down, though his heart certainly couldn’t have been in it, since he was watching the cake deteriorate into something fit to be placed on the nightstand in the guest room.
And Mom just said, “Well … ” Much as she did when one-year-old Timothy ground his birthday cake into the deep-pile carpeting. Because Mom was very charitable. She’d taken to this lady, old now and senile, like she was her own mother and had even called her Mother for thirty years now. And now that Grandma was old , Mom had taken her under her wing where she was to live out the remainder of days. She was good and we all knew it. Because just then she said, ” We’ve got games. Let’s start the games now. Refill your punch glasses and then choose a partner. ” Then she patted Grandma and took the ruined cake out to the kitchen without a word.
Dad, on the other hand, was showing Myrna, the Relief Society President, his stuffed fish over the fireplace. And of course Myrna didn’t stop him.
“Steven, get some punch anyway and say hello to your grandmother for goodness’ sake,’ ‘ said Mom, who had seen Dad and was irritated.
“Stuart, old boy!” said the Bishop, who had been slapping me on the back and calling me by my older brother’s name for as long as I could remember.
“So when do you go on that mission, Stuart? Wait. Steven, isn’t it? Sorry.”
“Anytime now, Bishop. Anytime. ”
“It’s down to South America they’re sending them,” he said.
“They’re coming in like flies. I guess it’s Lamanites blossoming, eh? But that’s where you’ll go.”
He laughed and allowed me to walk away smiling. It hasn’t hit me this hard since the ninth grade. Something in the world is rotten . The games were starting up. It was Dad and Myrna against Mom and the Bishop in licorice eating while the grandkids pulled the porcelain dogs off the stereo. The old folks sat around on the afghans and sucked on an end of licorice except for Grandma who sat rocking to the party music and looked for all the world like she was a wind-up toy and winding down. She was alone and moving her mouth.
Then the home teachers came, not because it was Grandma’s birthday but because yesterday was the last day of the month. Mom called them in and turned down the music and was sitting everyone down to ” listen to the message these priesthood men have brought.” I asked Dad if I could take the Honda.
“I’ll be back tomorrow sometime, Dad. I think I’ll just run around Snow Canyon. Stay overnight.” Snow Canyon was the camp-out spot. There were summers when we almost lived there .
Dad was good about these things. About letting teenagers find themselves. He always became solemn and put his arm around me and said, “Fine, son. Get some thinking done . I used to need the same thing sometimes. But take plenty of gear and keep warm. And take your brother. He could use it too.”
It was just a little Honda that Dad used to ride to work. James, who was twelve, was riding it around the yard and spinning the tires in the garden. I yelled at him and he did one more turn around the yard and skidded to a stop in front of me .
“Where are you going? ” he said.
‘ ‘Snow Canyon.”
“Probably,” I said.
“Can I come?”
“I don’t care .” I did, but he was almost a teenager too and certainly hadn’t found himself. Besides, I didn’t feel like the hassle I knew I’d get if I said no. He could use something.
We’d reached top speed of thirty-five and were halfway to the dunes before James tapped me on the shoulder.
” What about sleeping bags? And food. We can’t stay over like this.”
”We’ll be O.K.,” I yelled over my shoulder and didn’t hear what he said back.
The sands were bloody in the evening light, laying open the sagebrush in a rippling gash. And it was cooling. The motorcycle was laboring less now and the wind blew through my shirt, cooling the sweat. We passed probably the last R.V. heading out, turned off the road and into the sands.
The Honda choked to a stop . “Brilliant, ” said James. “Start it and get us out of here.”
It didn ‘t start and didn’t sound well at all. “I guess we ‘ll walk,” I said and started to walk and didn’t hear what Jimmy said back.
I took off my shoes and let the sand push through my toes. James walked behind me some, his head down, breathing heavily . I probably shouldn’t have brought him.
“Steve! Where are we going?” He’d already lost his arrogance, his confidence , and was even starting to be afraid, though he wouldn’t have said so for the world.
“Just to the cliffs up ahead there ,Jimmy. I want to be up there tonight.”
Then he didn’t talk any more. He stayed a little closer to me. The shadows from the cliff stretched from evening to night and then it was deep into a moonless night before we reached the walls and the end of the sand .
“Are snakes sunning in the day and sleeping in holes at night or sleeping during the day and hunting at night?” asked James.
“Yes.” I started up a narrow rock canyon, the smooth canyon walls edged in silver and lighting a narrow path between huge sandstone boulders. The path became steeper and indistinct. Jimmy and I stopped often to rest, turned to look back the dark way we had come, and then started off again without a word, working a sweat back up.
We sweated until a sandstone foothold would give way, and then, feeling the sweat dry all at once and resting until our joints felt solid again, we could climb some more. And then there were stars in front of us as the cliff wall ended and we walked out on top of the ridge.
We walked along the white spine of the narrow ridge to its highest point and Jimmy dropped to the ground . The ridge was perhaps twenty-five yards wide, dropping sharply on both sides and falling in darkness to the desert floor somewhere below. I felt held up to the stars for inspection, pinned through the thorax like a moth-still pretty to look at but fairly useless.
Jimmy had rolled up his jacket for a pillow and lay curled tightly, sleeping
like a baby.
I felt like a stranger here, sitting uneasily on the solid rock like oil on water, watching the nothing of the desert below. All of that night I sat awake, gripping the long upthrust arm of rock, and found nothing of myself. Nothing in myself that could not be pounded by the rock into a drop of moisture and evaporated quickly in the next day’s sun.
So when the desen began to gray with the threat of morning, I lay spread-eagled on the rock and searched for something to tell me I was alive and that my ability to think rationally placed me above all this. But when the sun came to pink the world I lay joined at the hips to the earth, my bones reaching like roots to her very center.
It was Jimmy who saved me from turning to stone .
”I’m hungry. We need to go home.”
I was tired now. Exhausted . The sun was up and would soon be hot enough to snuff me up in a hiss.
“Yeah. Let’s go home .” I walked the sands lightly now. Sure enough,
the sun had come from the east and the feet of the cliffs were the first to
see it, and then the entire wall of rock behind us was transfigured and rose
to meet the sun.
I wanted water like I never had.
We reached the Honda by mid-morning. From a distance it looked like a scrap of pottery unearthed by the shifting sands. Jimmy walked it to the road and cleaned it enough to get it started.
“Hey, Steve! Hop on and I’ll show you how to drive this thing.” Apparently James had found himself again.
We rounded the long turn above town . The red desert rock stretched into a shimmering distance before and beyond and through the heart of St. George . About all we could make out at first was the temple, jutting up like a ragged bone, bleached in the sun.
“It’s the temple, Jimmy. The Mormon temple . It’s where Mormons go. Pretty isn’t it?”
If he answered I couldn’t hear him and just hung on for the ride.