by N. Andrew Spackman The full third moon of passing winter rears up against an x-ray white orchard. There are tree skeletons. And puddles like black eye sockets. My naked feet sink in snow. They break through the crust like a skull. Underneath, mud swallows my toes. Bruised eyes open where I step.
by Brian Jackson
Let me ramble what I remember: me and Casey are up there in the field, dirty knees and Star Wars t-shirts, flaming up grasshoppers with Daddy’s Zippo lighter in a dry, cloudless August. Mom is a distant, hollering, echoing voice from down in the ghost summer suburb and we ignore her, busy burning. Says she’s made us grilled cheese sandwiches and red Kool-Aid if we’d only quit playing and come down from the milkweed and cactus and ant piles and get the good earth out from underneath our fingernails. Casey is hopping and jumping after a sandpaper grasshopper and kicking up dirt into his blue Velcro shoe straps; me, I’m hungry and red-skinned, absently flicking flames out the top of the lighter with a shaggy head of dirty blond dancing in the wind.
“Aren’t you hungry, Case?” I ask in the tone of the younger brother, the beggar, the sissy, wanting to go home to those sandwiches and leave the grasshoppers to chew the wheat staffs and jump at each other. Casey has that little brown guy by his two great legs, all spread apart like a wishbone; it wiggles and helplessly flails its curled arms, and its wings twitch.
“Bring the lighter over here,” he says, eyes wild and curious, blue, like the neighbor’s kiddy pool I can see from the top of the field. The forever backyards stretch out to the city far off by the mountains, with fences and swing sets and neat little gardens in rows of bushy green, and I can hear the rumble-hum of a lawnmower tearing up grass and sticks and sucking up scrambling grasshoppers in somebody’s backyard. They jump in thousands like springs out of the dry wheat staffs of the field and into thick green diagonally cut grass of yards, where concerned, pink-headed business men in Saturday’s jeans lumber out with hoses to spray seeds of death at them, or sour-faced teenagers suck them up into the helicopter blades of the Toro. Me and Casey burning them in the field and Saturday’s sweaty bald hardware businessmen poisoning them in the yard. The great grasshopper holocaust of summer suburbia.
Up in the field, General Casey is shouting, “You’re an enemy spy! We caught you behind enemy lines spying on us!” He shouts using his best deep television voice at the brown grasshopper (who offers no certain reply but struggling). “Do you know what the penalty is for spying in this country? Do you? Torture by fire!” And he laughs a jagged and sinister laugh that chills my bones; that laugh, the same as when he sat on my chest pinning my arms under his legs and stuck tickly-itch grass into my nose until floodgates opened and I cried out for my momma. And now there is something in that voice, that mock military dictator voice so sadistic and wrong, so evil. The grasshopper hears the evil in Casey’s voice and twitches and twists violently to get out of those fingers that pinch his long jumping legs. I question my loyalty to the dictator.
“Bring the lighter over here,” he says without looking up and I can’t move; the wind whips my Darth Vader iron-on. I grip the lighter, hidden in my hand behind my back.
“Bring it here, Dickey,” he says now, scowling right at me in impatience. His bald forehead gets all wrinkled up with displeasure and the almost gray stubble on his shaved head shifts forward like it will slide off into the dirt. “I wanna do this one.”
“That’s not my name.” I take a helpless look at the ground and watch a few red ants, so busy, all scrambling around, crawling up over my black Chuck Taylors. It’s like looking over all those stained wood, chain link, barbed wire fences down there and watching summer children run in and out of the houses throwing water balloons and flying out into the streets on BMX bikes or running over to the sandbox to bury GI Joe men; a thousand moms chasing naked kids down the sidewalk. It’s like God’s up on that gold throne, the one Momma told me about, looking straight down into buzzing suburbia, the pools and lawns, taking notes and laughing.
And here is the devil up in the wasteland holding a grasshopper he wants to deliver to the flames and listen to the crackle-snap and watch it go black and crispy. “Okay, Dickey! Dickey Doo!” He’s walking over to me but his total burning concentration rests on the helpless hopper.
“My name is Richard.”
“Okay, Dickey Doo-Doo!” And now he’s standing in front of me with his brown corduroy legs spread out and flapping around in the wind and weeds, and there’s Yoda with wise and sympathetic eyes all faded on his shirt. Casey has the grasshopper right in front of my face, scrambling, pleading. “Take the spy and gimmee the lighter or I’ll hit ya.”
“You hit me and I’ll scream real loud, Case.”
“You scream real loud and I’ll burn you up too, Dickey Doo.”
There is this lonely dog bellowing far off and down in the valley, a deep and foreboding sound to accompany my fear. Fear like dirt clods collecting in my belly. Like that irrepressible choking feeling of fear when me and Case walk home in post-dusk after piano lessons, feet slapping on cracked sidewalks in front of all the abandoned wood-rotted houses slouching over like forgotten tombs in the neighborhood. Fear intensified by that smile, that terrifying smile splitting Casey’s mouth as he tells me of phantoms moaning and shrieking in those dark dumpy and echoing houses of our world, our summer suburbia. Yes, fear . . . do I believe him? Believe he’ll burn me?
“You can’t burn me—I’ll tell.” The lighter is cradled in shaking hands behind my back. I look at the grasshopper, his struggles getting less intense as determination (hope? fear?) ebbs into hopelessness. My mind in an instant thinks back to our unfinished basement where I found a lifeless mouse caught in a trap behind the grumbling water heater. I had wondered where the mouse’s mom was and why she hadn’t told him to stay away, to go somewhere else, to crawl into the sheet rock walls of my bedroom upstairs where I could hear the scratching, where there was no trap. A cold steel trap, a mouse almost bent in the middle, a crying boy who can’t look away. I lay in my bed that night hoping to hear the scratching when I couldn’t sleep, hoping for an impossible resurrection in the walls. I had half dreams of the cold steel on my own back, and I struggled to breathe.
Casey lets go of one stretched leg and the grasshopper violently springs back to struggling, the other bent leg pinched in dirty fingers. He steps closer, arm out and hand open to receive the lighter. “C’mon, girlie. Last one.”
Details get foggy, translucent here when my mind goes back, way back up in that dusty field among the tall swaying staffs of dry wheat. I know I don’t want a last one. My eyes fog up with stinging tears of shame, of foolish compassion. My heart is deep in my chest thumping up my throat in rapid bawumps. Suddenly Casey’s outstretched hand grabs my shoulder and twirls me around. His hand, so much stronger than both of mine, snatches for the lighter and smashes all my fingers, and I pipe out in surprise pain and begin to cry. He yanks Dad’s lighter out of my hands and pushes me down into the dirt. Hot dust stings my eyes, clings to the tears on my face, and goes down my throat. Through the haze of my watery eyes I see an anthill underneath my chin where millions of red ants run everywhere and nowhere, enraged at the giant face that has crushed their home. I see one bright red ant crawl up my arm and into my shirt but I don’t care, I’m bawling out in fear and pain, my hands scraped up in hot dirt and rocks.
I slowly sit up and turn to look at my older brother Casey with his lighter and his victim. I suck long, lip-quivering breaths and gasps with a dirty face as he resumes that demonic dictator voice, so menacing, so sadistic. I hate him.
“Now we shall put you to death,” says General Casey, holding the grasshopper in his left hand and Dad’s Zippo lighter in his right hand, and he flicks and flicks at the scratchy wheels making little white sparks shoot out the top. It reminds me of Fourth of July sparklers in happy times, not like this. “We shall execute you like we did to all your other friend spies.”
“Case, ay . . . ain’t . . . you . . . hu . . . hungry?” I’m sputtering out gibberish now, can’t talk and sob at the same time, just muttering.
“Shut up, Dickey Doo-Doo, crybaby girl,” says Casey. “Watch this.”
He gets a soft, wavy flame out of the top of the lighter and holds it to the grasshopper’s face. The tiny arms flail around frantic ally as the face and the body turn brown, then sickly black. There is a light crackling sound as the wings catch fire and shrink into blackness, and Casey is laughing. The crackling and the struggling stop as the grasshopper’s body is consumed in Casey’s flame until it becomes a flame itself and licks at Casey’s pink fingers.
“Oow! Ey!” And he drops the flaming grasshopper into the dried-up wheat, shaking his hand and doing a silly dance. Before I get any satisfaction from Casey’s injury, I see fire climbing up the wheat and the dry weeds where he has dropped the burning spy. A humble streak of smoke snakes into the sky above where Casey does his “o’w’“ dance. I rub my damp eyes and watch, mouth agape, as the field, the world, begins to catch fire and I sit on the dirt terrified, saying nothing. Casey turns to the heat with an open-eyed look of fear and guilt and begins to panic.
“Oh no!” he shouts to the flames, shaking his head at the growing fire that spreads with the hot wind of summer. “Run, Richard! RUN!” And me and Casey begin to run frantically down the rocky hill to our home in peaceful, unknowing suburbia of dreary August. Before we get too far away from the flames, I see Casey trip into the dirt, poofing out a ghostly cloud of dust all around him. A rusty wire has entangled his legs and dragged him down onto the dirt on his belly. I can hear him cry as I run past him, little legs pumping and a heart pounding in my ears. As I slip and stumble down the hill and into our backyard, into Momma’s spine rows of carrots and tomato cages, I can hear a cry for help somewhere up in the field and it sounds like wind or a distant bellowing dog in another neighborhood. I run into the yard and pull open the slide door of the aluminum tool shed and it screeches and shrieks. I jump into the pitch dark shed and struggle the door shut, closing out all the noise out there in the world.
And I sit in silence, in a musty darkness, with the smells of grass clippings and mower gasoline and rusty garden tools, sobbing as the world burns burns burns right down to the ground. I sit on the aluminum floor, clasp my knees to my chest, and rock back and forth, back and forth.
by Shannon Murdock
Arriving in Alaska is like sinking into the ocean: deep, gray and alien. There is too much water. It whirlpools around me as the plane descends, squeezing my lungs and deafening my ears. I can’t survive forty days here. I resist a churning at the base of my stomach that begs me to stand and scream out a mutiny call to the passengers around me. Two seats away, through the round window of the plane, the sun rises over a flat horizon. I suck in my breath and blow it slowly out into the dim air of the cabin. No, I should not scream, although I’m almost sure the plane is approaching the edge of the world . . . almost sure I’m traveling past the worst nightmares of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
My Alaskan room is painted gray and smells of freezer burned fish. The sign on the door reads, Attention all fishermen and cannery workers: We are experiencing extreme drought conditions. Please conserve as much water as possible. If there is no water, there are no fish. If there are no fish, there is no work.
They have an entire ocean here and they think this is a drought? I drop the door’s padlock on the tree trunk that serves aptly as furniture for the crude plywood living compartment. Draping my jacket over the wire hanger that rocks beneath my solitary shelf, I curl up in the brown-blanketed hollow of my concave mattress. Just thirty-nine more days until I can go home, I tell myself. I shut my eyes and imagine I am there, embraced again by the gentle curve of the canal bank and the heady fragrance of Russian Olives in bloom.
I am my father’s dark-haired girl, running barefoot across irrigated pastures, laughing at the screams of outraged killdeer. Dad smiles, watching the water sink into his land, watching me. Water rushes past him, black and mysterious in the channel carved by four generations of his farming ancestors. It flows west into the setting sun—to places Dad has never been and will never see. He leans against his shovel and watches it go. Dad is a shadow in the red splendor of the western sky, looking and breathing, solid as the land.
On my first day of work, fifteen earplugged women are with me in the can-inspection loft. In the middle of the room, heavy green machines roar like mythic demons. Feeding them is our job. We wear thick leather gloves as we roll stacks of empty tin cans back and forth along white plastic tables, looking for flaws in the metal that might cause improper sealing. My eyes have to move very quickly to catch the defects. But I can’t complain; this work is easier than any I’ve ever been paid for.
The smell of fish wanders up from the factory floor as I wipe a grease mark from the edge of a can. Although I tell myself that I came here for money, I think I’m lying. I have stood too long on the dry earth of my canal bank and watched enviously as the water flowed past me. It rolled benignly through cattail stands and under clouds of mayfly lovers toward a “world out there” that existed on television but never breached the surface of my own reality. The water was smooth and quick, full of lights that danced on my eyelashes. But those fires scattered like a school of minnows when I tried to touch them. My flesh was of Idahoan clay, fertilizer for potatoes destined for Relief Society casseroles.
The can loft overlooks the patching line, where Filipino women snatch defective cans off conveyor belts. They must inspect three cans per second, flipping them over and back to check for defects that might compromise the steaming and sealing process. The women wear blue plastic aprons and cotton liners beneath their rubber gloves to keep their fingers warm. Their noses and smiles are wide beneath their hairnets as I watch them sip hot chocolate in the break room. My roommate says working on the patching line will destroy the women’s wrists within four years.
To the left of the patching line is the slime line, where the fish are prepared for canning. Wearing yellow rain gear and rubber boots, Filipino and Mexican men stand on either side of a conveyor belt. Knives in hand, they wait for the fish. The men see to it that the fins are cut off and membranes are scraped from the inner cavity. Another conveyor belt drops the fish into a ponderous cast-iron monster to be cubed and packed into cans.
The safest, easiest, driest jobs are in the can loft. I feel lucky to have been placed up here. As the days go by, however, I grow more nauseated to hear the patching line thunder on below me. With some sense of disgust, I look around the warm can loft with its clean orange floors and walls lined with pallets of cans waiting to be inspected. Nearly all of my co-workers are young white women. I look down at the Filipinos standing on either side of the machines and brace my white wrists against the banister. I hate my hands for being white. I hate them for being small and soft and healthy. I hate standing up here, warm and dry . . . but I don’t want to live the rest of my life with injured wrists or missing fingers, so I don’t say anything.
I watch the men here. They are short and have laugh-lined faces. Before dinner last night, a white-haired Filipino opened the door of the cafeteria for me and quietly murmured, “Ladies first.” On my way back from dinner, I stopped unseen beneath a staircase to listen to a Mexican man sing slow Spanish love songs into the gray, sunless sky.
Lee is the Union Steward for the Filipino women. He is also one of the two men who are privileged enough to work up here in the can loft. I am directed to join his inspection line, and within a few minutes of my arrival he introduces himself and touches the curve of my back as he explains “how this place works.” His eyes are small dark marbles sunk into the flesh of his forehead. A Harley-Davidson shirt stretches over the bulge of his stomach like a hot-air balloon before it disappears into the elastic of his gray sweatpants. Lee rubs the palm of his hand over his stubbled chin as he stares at the man who has just walked through the door. “Now that’s Pete,” he says in his heavy Wisconsin accent. “He’s a good guy. Been my friend for ten years. But you can’t trust him! He’s one of the bosses, and he’ll always be on the side of Management.” Lee punctuates his language with irrational profanity. Every now and then he yells something like “Pardon my French,” laughs, and then goes on.
I don’t respond to him much over the deafening roar of the machines because I am convinced he could carry on his idea of a conversation with me if I were a railroad tie roughly hewn into the shape of a woman. In the week and a half that I’ve worked beside him, he’s asked me to live with him in Alaska this winter and informed me that if he were to convert to my religion, he’d never want to have more than two wives at once. He yells all of this into my plugged ear, his breath hot and wet on my neck.
Despite the repulsion I feel toward Lee, I can’t help asking him, as the days of layoffs and delays go by, when he thinks the major runs of salmon will come. “Oh, they’re usually here by now” he says. “It may be the drought that keeping them away. But you don’t need to start worrying your pretty little head until the Fourth of July. By then you should see what real work is like. Eighteen hour days! All of us here, working together . .”
This Fourth of July is the first I’ve spent away from my family. The entire cannery has been laid off for lack of fish, and I have passed the day reading my Book of Mormon and making predictions with my friends on the arrival of the salmon. The fishermen say that the fish would come if there were more water in the river. The lack of work exhausts me, and I put on eyeliner and mascara to make myself feel better.
My roommate, Katy, says one of the lakes nearby would be great for a beach parry tonight. She and Tiffany make plans: Who is going to pick up the alcohol? Will they buy the more economical hard liquor or splurge on a $40 pack of beer? Tiffany asks me what I think as I’m lying on my bed reading scriptures. Recognizing the awkward moment, Katy tells Tiffany that I’m a Mormon. She clarifies that I don’t drink or smoke or swear but will someday be a “kick-butt religion teacher.” Tiffany bobs her head open-mindedly and says, “That’s cool, that’s cool.” It’s the first time anyone has tried to reassure me that being LDS isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I’ve never been to a drinking parry before and am still trying to decide whether or not it’s against my religion to attend when Alyssa opens the door and aims a grin between my eyes. She’s here to inform me that Eric will be at the party tonight, following up her speech with, “So will you be coming too, Shannon?” She grins devilishly. Alyssa knows I have fallen for Eric over hot chocolate in the break room. After a brief moment of thought, I slap my scriptures closed, gather up my towel and shampoo and makeup, and am off to the shower . . . still hoping this isn’t against my religion.
Eric and I sit side by side on the shore of the shallow lake. He says that he doesn’t like to drink very much. The declaration makes the muscles in my back relax because now I know I’ll have a sober companion to talk with this evening. Removing my shoes, I dig my toes into the sand. The gritty contact reminds me of home. Eric speaks softly, telling me what Los Angeles is like. His eyes are blue, rimmed with the color of midnight, but I cannot look at them because it’s nearly 11:00 and the sun is beginning to set. The lake ripples in golds and reds and pinks. Clouds above the small trees in the west gleam more enthusiastically than the water itself. They float across the sky like a silent autumnal exclamation. On the far side of the lake a family is camped out with coolers and hotdogs. Their laughter sprints over the crests and troughs of waves like pistachio shells blown along a sidewalk in a stiff breeze. Someone lights a firework and a cheer is let up at the fiery colors. I laugh at the puny display. Why aren’t they watching the sunset?
I am going to tell Eric that I’m LDS even though Katy has warned me against it. “The general perception people here have about Christians,” she had said, “is that they’re closed-minded hypocrites. Some people may even hate you just for being Mormon.” Will Eric be one of those who hates me if I tell him I’m Mormon?
“So tell me about yourself,” he says, interrupting my thoughts.
I close my eyes and swallow hard. My diaphragm tenses against my filled lungs, preparing to push the words past my vocal cords: “Well, I’m Mormon.” And then it’d done. I’ve said it.
“What’s ‘Mormon’?” he asks, and I let out a sigh like a prayer.
I can’t stop smiling as I walk back to my bunkhouse after having left the parry at midnight. In my mind I replay all of Eric’s words to me. “Do you want to go watch a movie tomorrow if we don’t have work?” he asked. Before tonight, I never understood why some people carve their names in wet sidewalks or benches or tree trunks. But at this moment my fingers are aching to press the shape of a heart into wood or stone, outlining the words “Shannon + Eric.”
When Tesla, Natalie, Eric and I walk in, a television is set up in one corner of the library. Two men who look like they were born in black leather and chains are watching a movie in stiff library chairs, blond biker braids trailing halfway down their backs. Eric and I sit at a table behind them. The one on the left leans over and says, “The animation of the characters is fantastic!” The other replies, “Yeah, I expected it to be professional, but what I’m seeing now is just marvelous . . . better by far than what I had envisioned.” They are watching The Lion King.
The movie ends and the leathered men make squeaking noises as they stand up, check out some books, and exit the one-roomed library. Eric wants to watch Braveheart. I don’t watch R-rated movies but Eric sits on one of the couches and invites me to sit next to him. Hating myself a little bit, I walk around the couch, past the door, past the PG-rated movies, past all of the other chairs in the room and take a seat next to Eric. When the sex scene comes on, I tell him I’m going to go see if Tesla is still outside or if she has gone back to the bunkhouse.
I feel as though I can breathe again as I step out into the sunshine. I know Tesla has gone back to the cannery, but I pretend that I think she’s next door in the furrier shop so that I’ll have to go look for her there. “Would you like me to get one of the hats down off the wall for you to see?” the man on the other side of the oily black counter asks. I look at the $200 price-tag on the hat nearest to me and say, “No thanks, I’m just looking.”
He presses me with, “It’s no problem, really,” and I wonder if the sex scene in the library is over yet.
“No, thanks,” I say again, and am out the door.
The air in the library is thick, and all eyes turn on me when I open the door. The newlywed couple on the screen pull their clothes back on while I’m getting comfortable again next to Eric. The movie is long and all of the battle scenes make me want to cry. I bury my head into Eric’s shoulder and say, “Tell me when it’s over. “
Tesla is reading in her room when I get back from the library. She asks me what movie we watched. “ Braveheart,” I answer sullenly.
“Oh, I hate movies like that,” she says. “It bugs me to watch violence against women.” Why didn’t I follow Tesla out the door when she left the library? She looks up from her book again. “Hey, I thought Mormons didn’t watch R-rated movies.”
I have found extra work this evening on the cleanup crew. I’m afraid that the salmon simply aren’t going to return this year and I’m not going to have enough money to pay for my plane ticket home. Right now, I am standing beneath a cascade of waste water singing “There is Sunshine in My Soul” and trying to sweep fish guts between two poles with a broken broom. Hair is sticking to my face and my skin itches beneath my yellow raingear. Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn to see Eric jump away from the stream of water shaking an intestine off his hand as he runs back to Carlos, the cleanup foreman. Carlos, in yellow overalls with thickly folded arms stares at me, shaking his head incredulously. “Follow us!” Eric yells over the noise of the factory floor. I lean my broom against a pole and run after him toward the door. He and Carlos are talking in the pale sunshine of the evening. Eric glances at me, smiles, and turns to leave, having just taken an order from Carlos.
“What’s going on?” I ask, pulling my hat off and shaking the ponytail out of my damp hair.
Carlos takes off his sunglasses and his eyes are dancing as he says, “What the hell were you doing in there?” I laugh at the way the curse sounds in his heavy Brazilian accent.
“Sweeping,” I answer on the crest of fading mirth.
“No, no, no,” he chides, staring at my loosened hair as we begin walking. “You don’t have to do that dirty work. From now on, you work for me.”
I am easily persuaded on this point and laugh lightly as we approach the group of people Carlos has assembled to clean the Egg House. Eric is among them with a tank of sanitizing chemicals and a sprayer strapped to his back like a Ghostbuster. Both of us blush when we make eye contact, and I feel like slapping myself for wondering if I’m in love.
“What are you doing?” I ask Katy as she struggles through the narrow doorway of our room with a mattress. She grins excitedly.
“We’re having a slumber parry tonight, remember? Don’t tell him I told you this, but Eric said that he’s really looking forward to it. And Alyssa just happened to mention that she saw him drawing ‘Eric + Shannon’ hearts in the blood and guts of the egg-sorting table this morning.”
I smile, amazed at the thought that he could be interested in me at the same time I’m interested in him. Then I feel my eyebrows gather. “Wait,” I say, “is this a co-ed sleepover?” Katy throws me a “Where-have-you-been?” look, and I fall back down on my pillow. I’m pretty sure co-ed sleepovers are against my religion.
Truth or Dare is the game of choice for tonight’s party. Everyone is laughing except for me. I am watching Eric’s eyelids wrinkle above his straight white grin. He seems too beautiful to be my type.
I snap my eyes up, hoping no one caught that dream-struck Marsha Brady expression I’m pretty sure I was wearing. “What?”
“Truth or Dare?’ I hate this game. “Truth,” I say. That can’t get me into too much trouble.
“What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done on a school bus?”
I relate the story of the time I changed out of my dress behind a friend’s coat one night on the way home from a choir trip. The crowd groans. My story isn’t nearly as thrilling as the previous ones. After a few more excursions into truths I never wanted to know, I decide that it’s time for me to find somewhere to sleep. In the hallway Tesla offers me her room if I want it. I call her an angel and walk back to the party to say good-night. Alyssa’s expression brightens when she sees me appear in the doorway. I think she is about to say something to me when she suddenly rolls her head to the side and bursts out, “Eric! Truth or Dare?”
Eric groans. “Truth.”
Alyssa glances up at me briefly before pressing on with her pedagogical voice. “To whom are you most attracted out of all the people in this room?” Oh, I want to die. Eric’s face reddens and he turns his eyes to the blanket-littered floor. I turn away so that I won’t have to watch the awkward moment.
“That would have to be Shannon,” I hear him say. When I turn back he is watching me. Questions slip off his eyebrows and have time to flutter to the mattress before I remember to respond. I grin into his face and the party lets up a collective “Awe,” interspersed with one or two variations of “Aren’t they cute?” The game continues, and after considering Eric’s enlivened face for a few more moments, I quietly turn away from the laughter and walk into Tesla’s room.
Easing down onto Tesla’s tightly made bed, I think about my first kiss at four years old. The Calderas were migrant workers. That morning my sister Audrey and I made the long walk across the field to their house. Audrey was playing dolls with Obdulia when the oldest boy asked me if I wanted to go out and play tag with him. Juan led me behind a tree on the canal bank and threatened, “If you don’t kiss me, I’m gonna pull down your pants and spank your bare bottom by the side of the road so that all of the passing cars can see what you look like naked.” I started crying before I was able to make a reply, and the teenage boy bent down and kissed my teary lips. Several times more he kissed me before I could squirm out of his grip. I cried all the way home, wiping Juan’s saliva off my cheek and mouth as my feet plodded into the soft dirt of the newly plowed field.
My triceps are burning as I push water and bloody debris toward the open drains in the floor. My broom breaks. It occurs to me that working up a sweat like this kind of defeats the purpose of wearing waterproof rain gear. I reach down to retrieve a flounder from the slimy waste spread over the concrete floor. What a strange fish this is: both eyes squished together on one side of its head, its underside white and flat like an undercooked pancake. I carry it with my whole hand as I walk toward the grinder, feeling the smoothness of its skin and thinking it a tragedy that it happened to be among the meager population of salmon when the fishermen’s net came by. I lift the grinder’s heavy metal lid from the floor and pause for a moment, listening to the sound of the black expansiveness below. It’s a wide sound punctuated by the dripping of water and far-off waves lapping against the shore beneath the dock. A putrid breeze like the breath of Hades wraps itself around my head. I drop the flounder and don’t pause to hear its body hit the blades before I let the lid slam back down into place.
“Hey Shannon!” Eric says as he bursts into my room. “Wanna come play cards?”
I groan as I turn over in my narrow bed. “What time is it? Eleven-thirty? I don’t know how to play poker,” I say, glad that I don’t have to lie. I don’t say that I don’t believe in playing cards.
“That’s okay! ‘We’re playing B.S.”
Eric’s voice is animated and I love the way it sounds when he talks to me. He holds my name tenderly, a newborn infant cradled in his words. “I am so weak,” I silently murmur as I pull myself into a sitting position.
Set up outside the bunkhouse door in the cool evening breeze, the card table consists of a newly painted picnic table and an extension of several boards laid across three logs. I sit down beside Katy. She lays her cigarette aside, and her stale breath curls around me as she welcomes me with a friendly greeting. I wait to cough until she has turned back to her cards. The game begins. It doesn’t take long to realize that B.S. isn’t as tame here as it was with my brothers and sisters. Our protests had been more along the lines of “Nuh-uh,” or “No sir,” or “I don’t believe you,” to call a bluff. These players, however, fly past substitute curses into a realm of profanity I never imagined existed. In drunken joy they float out, spit out, scream out sharp expletives into the air with the ease of professional smoke-blowers. One mouths the shape for a hazy blue doughnut while another sends an arrow through its center. They laugh like hyenas upon one another’s shoulders, teasing and swearing and shouting. Junior leans over the table and pulls his black Raiders jacket closer around his neck against the ocean breeze. “Whose turn is it?” he asks. Jenna is just ending a hard bout of laughter and cannot answer that it’s her turn. She sighs weakly onto Mike’s shoulder and passes him the can of beer they are sharing.
On the other side of Katy, Dave, the Tennessean, laughs easily and drawls, “I think it’s Jenna’s turn.” I cough again as clouds of smoke continue to condense from all directions to a five-inch area around my nose. Mike helps Jenna take her turn. Eric throws down two cards, claiming that they are queens. Junior goes. I think he is bluffing. Using my old standby I say, “Nuh-uh,” and turn over his cards. I’m wrong. Tucking them into my hand with the others, I look up to see if anyone noticed my lack of expletives in calling the bluff. Eric’s eyes scintillate with amusement as he watches me across the table. My cheeks feel hot and I look away.
I’m losing terribly; cards are piling up and no one believes me when I try to lie. A guy reeking of marijuana sits down next to me, his shoulder and thigh hot against mine. Leaning over, he says, “I think you’re gonna win,” as if it were the most wonderful compliment he’s ever given anyone. He stares at me nakedly, hungrily, possessively. My chest hollows a little. His pupils bleed into his irises, flat and dead-looking. The whites of his eyes are yellowed with red veins furrowing across them like a river delta.
When Eric walks me back to my room, he tells me I am the worst liar he has ever seen.
I watch my arms push the door shut behind Eric. In the dimness of the room I can still see some of the scars that crosshatch my skin: sandbagging wounds. I close my eyes as I think of that exhausting day in the sun almost one month ago. Ten hours of work on the decaying bank of the Snake River smeared my arms with sand and blood. Even my brain had numbed from examining the terrible irony that, although we had been praying for this water since I was in Primary, our earnest pleas were now that the water would stop coming. Our cup was running over, drowning our crops, crumbling our bridges, eroding our roads, and ruining our homes. And here we finally were: an army of farmers and farmers’ children, throwing and catching sandbags with our backs toward the diked river, our faces to the sun and our feet sunk into the dark mud of our home. Water is a destroyer.
Eric is with us when we decide to walk down to the bay for the last time to watch the sunset. On the rocky beach we are careful to sidestep the tight-skinned bodies of rotting salmon and flounder that are scattered about. Wind howls in from the sea. “Jeez, my hands are cold,” Eric says.
“Oh, I’ll warm them up for you,” I say, and grab the hand he’s about the put into his pocket. Suddenly, I find myself walking along the beach holding hands with this gorgeous guy. His fingers are cold. Is this the way holding hands is supposed to be? I thought there was supposed to be some kind of tingling up and down the arm . . . or at least interlocking fingers. Why do I feel like he’s holding my hand the way he would a suitcase? Is this normal?
“Shannon,” Eric says, “Do you think you’ll ever leave the Mormon community?”
“No,” I reply, surprised that I don’t even hesitate for the sake of etiquette. “It’s in my heart. It’s part of me.”
Eric looks off toward Russia. His fingers are still cold, so I rub them rapidly between both of my hands and place all five back into his pocket. I am coming to realize that I will leave Eric forever when I go home. I won’t ask for his address or his telephone number. I will leave him like a river that has found another course.
I have been in Alaska forty days and forty nights, but the salmon have not come. Sitting on the dock outside the cannery, I am wearing yellow raingear, rubber work boots, my favorite gray T-shirt, and my grungy old baseball cap. I feel like a farmer surveying his harvested field. The sun is glinting off the slate-colored bay. Seagulls, with the gray and black of the sea in their wings, are as thick as snow on Christmas Eve as they dive toward the water to snatch up the waste particles of fish meat the cannery pumps out now at the end of the day. The water that laps against the shore still seems like a flood to me; the natives won’t stop calling it a drought. Whatever the reason, I’m glad the salmon have stayed away this year. I’m glad I’ve been left to wonder why they haven’t fought their way upstream. I believe I’ve never struggled so much in forty days. And I believe I’ve never traveled so far from home.
by Alma Christl Call This baby could be a Christmas sausage, swaddled in red, by the round weight, the two grandmothers hungry for me to pee the thick plastic wrapper, slice and serve on ritz with cheese. A cocktail parry in this birthing room. Friends and family mingling, dressed nicely, only the hostess is naked and bleeding. Everyone loves the hors d'oevre. They suck on its fingers, say, "I could eat you up!" And "Please pass the baby." This baby, consumed so quickly, seven minutes old. What to serve as the main course? Perhaps placenta or me. There's plenty.
by Spencer Dunford I take blackberry tea with biscuits and read the world's news. Beyond the train's misty panes, a school bus, saltired in red and white halts unscathed, and children's screams rend the air like coarse cutters through tin. A van painted with "Revolution till Victory" detonates, like sodium in water, leaving ashes and a stripped, stained wheel. With tumbling intrusion, a military jeep fumbles, flings passengers like paper-pelted spiders, then burns— reminding me of my unwieldy juniper in Ohio.
by Jared Pearce At home after the last doctor's visit we eat dinner in small leaps; careful with everything as if we were stacking china after an earthquake. Toes down, it scratches on folds and ruffles without a hold, without friction; the arms faithless to swim in the black vertigo—no somersaults for aerodynamics but birth as the foot slips—the innocent child pulled down into light. After dinner, I look through my biology textbook. There's a picture of an autumnal tree in transparent earth, and I can’t make out the branches from the roots. It makes me think of how a tree grows through black earth with water—the seed always knows the way to light; is always conscious of its correct ways. The trunk groans against clods and stones, and stands huge—its green arms tangle in the wind—always strong, poking at the sun. And the roots, woven into soil, are only ripped by machines and the contraction of plate tectonics.
by Q. Woodward Press your ear to the track so hard it makes a seal, locking out the shouts of the fearful. Wrap your palm around the rail until the rhythm shakes your hand as you try to steady the long beam. Place your body between the blades, stretching your narrow frame across three tar-soaked ties. There is a secret in your smallness. Push your eyes to the bottom of their sockets until you see the tracks marry at the horizon. Squeeze a rock in each fist so that the pain distracts you from the growing tremor. Once the smoke appears, hold your head flat against the wood; do as I say— the metal axles will glide over you, but only if you bury yourself low enough. Clench your teeth when you know you are about to be swallowed—if you scream, it will know you are afraid. Ignore the sparks that fall onto your face and clothing. The stinging will not last long. Move slowly when the chaos has ended. Wait until it has disappeared to touch the track—still hot enough to burn your hand. The scar will remind you that miracles have nor ceased. Do not leave the trainyard until your heart stills. I am telling you, child, this moment will leave you sanctified. When it returns, bring your evidence: a pocketful of pennies pressed into soup spoons. The train will remember you.
by Spencer Dunford See our case in a different light? On the contrary, we have time enough for pleasantries. We need not fear advance of war. Their armaments shall not prove our yoke—nay our British friends give good wine, and that is no phantom nor illusion. But you, you disbelieve my designs. If, as you say, they do come with injurious intentions, thus we shall tell our colonies: Secure yourselves in steel walls, mountained each with mortar, for brightly shall the battles come, the cannon lash in fury. Keep closed the crusted cask. Forbid all forms curiosity might allow. Shield, seal, fortify, and brace—silence will again be ours.
by Stephen Craig
My husband and I lived in a duplex. Actually, it was just a small house with a basement that our landlord pretended was a duplex. Another couple lived downstairs, and we lived on the top, pretending not to hear them. I was always so upset that the landlord never put a washer and dryer in the upstairs portion of the house; I was surprised by that, too, because the landlord actually used to live in that part of the house. But there weren’t even hookups. The couple downstairs had a washer and dryer, and I think the owners used to work it out so they had access downstairs. My husband and I always felt like we were intruding when we asked. We weren’t the owners. So after a few months we just quit asking and went to the coin laundry down the street.
The other day I came home from running some errands and discovered our two-and-a-half year old, Brian, shivering in the bathtub. I’d left him in bed with a cold—I know I shouldn’t have; he’s very mischievous, but he was sound asleep, and I needed to run to Food 4 Less. Fifteen minutes later I came back and found him in the bathtub, just quaking. My husband and I always keep the bathtub full of water; he served a mission in Japan, and the people there keep their bathtubs full of water in case there’s an earthquake and the taps stop working. But anyway, I came home and found Brian soaking in the bathtub, shivering, just wearing his diaper. He loves water. I shrieked to find him in there, but he just looked at me, shivering, and didn’t say anything.
I ran him downstairs and frantically knocked on the door. Rebecca saw us through the glass and immediately felt the gravity of the situation.
“The dryer!” I cried. “Can we use the dryer?”
She nodded her head in the shock of the moment and pushed open the door, “Uh-huh.”
I made it to the dryer in two steps, tore the door open, and threw the clothes onto the floor. That had been the biggest problem with using their dryer before; they always had something in it, and we were imposing. But this was an emergency. I pitched him in, leaving one towel in there (they say a dry towel helps soak up the moisture). I shut the door and set the timer.
“Oh, I left him home sick in bed for just fifteen minutes, and I came home and found him shivering in the bathtub.”
“You should have told me to keep an ear out for him.”
“Yes, next time.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“It’s the cold I’m worried about. He alreadv had a cold. I can’t believe I left him alone.”
The dryer was the glass window kind. I think they bought it second-hand from the very laundromat my husband and I go to. We could see him tumbling around in there. During one turn he sat perfectly on the spinning cylinder, and his head stayed in the same spot, right in the center of the window. He looked at us through the glass for that moment with just the expression on his face you would expect from a kid in the dryer.
Rebecca’s little boy, Steele, came up to the dryer and watched Brian go round.
“Don’t stick your nose up to the glass, honey. It’s hot.”
“Maybe I should have left some more of these clothes in there for padding. I just didn’t want him to suffocate on any of them.”
Her little Steele put both hands up to the glass and bobbed his head around, following Brian’s head.
“Honey!” She pulled him away. “It’s hot!”
He let out his shrill whine. He used to keep us up sometimes at night when he was teething. Here he was, almost a year-and-a-half old, but I had never heard him say a word. He just let out shrieks and whines and laughter.
He got up to the glass, as close as his mother’s foot would let him Bet, and bobbed his head around again. He looked up at us and laughed, showing his boxy, white teeth.
“I think he’s about there, Jen.”
“Just a moment more; he did have a cold.”
But his hair was starting to stick up. I opened the dryer (that’s how you stop it) and caught him before he hit the bottom of the cylinder for the last time. It wasn’t a very graceful catch because there wasn’t much room to maneuver. His diaper was still a little wet, so I stripped it off him and wrapped him in the towel.
“Is it okay if I just bring this towel back down later?”
We looked at him, and his bottom lip began quivering with the sob on the way out.
“There, there. You’re just a little bit startled.”
The sob erupted.
I pulled him close. “It’ll be okay, honey.”
“Thank you so much. We’ll bring this towel down later.”
Steele laughed with those twinkle eyes and boxy teeth as we walked to the door. I was hoping Rebecca would mention that we hadn’t been down to use their washer and dryer and offer to let us use it anytime and say that it was no trouble. But she didn’t. I just left the clothes on the floor.
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.