My Ivy League Education, An Autobiography: 1967-71

by Wayne Taylor

I was seven years old, leaving what I thought was Eden for the north-eastern United States. The jungle , our backyard, a tangled and mysterious playground filled with loud birds, lizards, and an occasional snake, fell away in the noise and rush of Managua and the scream of propellers. Nicaragua slipped into memory: hunting iguana on hot Sunday afternoons, the warm chatter of rain on our tin roof, and volcanoes to the south and west, smoking redly through the nights. Left behind was the string hammock woven with bright red and green designs in which my sister and I had taken our afternoon naps, kicking and pushing each other to get better position while Mother read us Black Beauty, Tom Sawyer, or Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and where I often fell asleep, staring out screen windows at the smoking mountains, the vanguards of the Ring of Fire. Behind lay the Central American mining town where I had learned the rudiments of survival for a six-year-old boy-braggadocio or, failing that, singular accuracy with a rock-ahead were the echelons of the East, the Ivy League.

I arrived at Dartmouth, in the fall of 1967, an innocent. I did not know that Santa Claus was an illusion, where exactly babies came from, nor that the dramatic epigraph ” Live Free or Die!” emblazoned on the state’s license plates was the handiwork of New Hampshire’s convicted. In my eyes, the Apollo missions were fiery five-minute spectacles that faded into Walter Cronkite pontificating about this thing or that; Vietnam and Martin Luther King were only names on the nightly news. Of ivy I was skeptical, wondering how a plant could account for any academic prestige. If anything, I was disgruntled that the ivy was growing all over a college, not a university. And frankly, I thought my father could do better. But despite my misgivings (and probably ignoring them all together), he entered Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Sciences as a teaching fellow, master’s candidate, and father of three.

I entered the second grade.

School, up until then, had consisted of my mother trying to teach me to read on our back porch in Nicaragua. Somehow, between digging my bare feet into my sister’s back, while trying to get comfortable in the hammock or simply staring out the window, I had learned to read and-I think-to add. But because of my lack of formal schooling, the county required that I be tested before allowing me to enter the public school system. The Stanford-University-developed test did not overtax me; I don’t believe anyone would have been when the hardest question on the test was, “A ball rolls because it is-round, heavy, flat, moving?” After some deliberation, they put me in the second grade.

At school there were still windows to stare out of and things to fight with the other kids over while the teacher did her best to educate us from the front of the room. But in the afternoon, when she assigned us individual projects, I would finish as quickly as I could and then go to the school library. It was nothing more than a scrap of carpet, five or six pillows covered with something like burlap, and four half-filled shelves of books set against the back wall of the cafeteria. But I had never seen so many books in my life and, in a state of ecstacy, I would lie on a pillow in a pool oflndian Summer sun that shone through the window, reading a book until school let out. My first autumn in New Hampshire was an unparallelled event. It brought Halloween, Thanksgiving, and orange and red leaves that made the mountains look as if they had been draped with a large colorful quilt. It put the crew back on the Connecticut River, sweating themselves into shape; the lacrosse team back on the field, enthusiastically clubbing one another over the head for the possession of a hard rubber ball; and the incomparable excitement of a rugby game thirty yards from my back door.

The stadium on campus was exclusively reserved for that most sacred cowhide sport-football. But the rugby playing population of the student body was accommodated by the construction of a special playing field just behind the married-student housing. This grassy battlefield behind our house was the neighborhood playground during the week, but on Saturdays we would be chased off by men marking lines for the big home game. Half an hour before game time the students would begin arriving, laying down their blankets, setting up their kegs of beer, and generally preparing themselves for the serious business of having a good time . By half time there would be as much jostling off the field as on, and my friends and I could usually slip away with one or two unwatched boxes of doughnuts and an occasional plate of cookies; it was so easy that I sometimes wondered why the students bothered to come. By halftime there were at best only a dozen people who could even see the field , let alone cheer on the fifteen men in Dartmouth green who were out on the field, battling for the school’s fine athletic reputation. (Today I am convinced that this same dozen were the only ones there who understood the rules.) As for the rest, I wondered if they enjoyed the game; it seemed they came for a social respite , an intermission in their program of academics: every home-game Saturday, they would raise the banner of school spirit and take up the cause of rugby , shouting their unfailing support to the men who were out on the field taking the physical beating that the game exacts.

Eventually winter rolled in, covering the playing fields with snow and dropping the mercury down to single and oftentimes negative digits; an unpleasant change for me, especially because I had spent the last two years in Nicaragua eleven degrees below the tropic of Cancer-barefoot. My tennis shoes came off, and boots and a parka went on to protect me from the cold New England winter.

It was during this first biting chill of December that I discovered the Hanover Public Library and Dartmouth’s nine-story Holy of Holies, Baker Library. They were quiet, warm buildings, filled with dust and the smell of paper, comfonable worlds whose walls were insulated from floor to ceiling with stack after stack of books. Here I was delivered out of the dead-zero temperatures of winter and into the life and fire of reading. These libraries were the midwives to my first ideas, sentinels that allowed me to return and enter the untroubled garden of imagination that flourished in spite of the cold outside . And there I would sit, immersed in a book, until the librarians closed up.

Occasionally I would walk across the campus, past the old buildings tangled in leafless ivy, to my father’s office on the third floor of Silsby Hall, the classroom/warehouse/offices of the Geology Department. Silsby was an old brick building that smelled of a thousand rocks that, piled on desks and stacked in hallways, fathered dust with every half-tick of the atomic clock, and everywhere students pried the entrails of their prisoners from the earth.

Outside my father’s office sat a seismograph, a large, metal machine whose sole function seemed restricted to scratching random zig-zags between two narrow squares of unrolling graph paper. Supposedly, when the stalemate between straining tectonic plates broke, and the earth slipped and buckled in some faraway place, the machine would pick up the vibrations and send the needle scrambling across the paper. Doubting anything could be that sensitive , I was completely unimpressed.

But I was hypnotized by the machine that sat down the hall in a convened broom closet, a machine that would seduce me for my next four under-graduate years. In 1967 the dream of the “popular computer” was being realized as Dartmouth engineers knocked the last bugs out of a prototype time-sharing system. With the right password (oftentimes stolen) I could make a telephone call and turn the gray, oversized electric typewriter into a writhing tentacle of the electronic leviathan housed across the street in the Kewitt Computer Building. A savant-mathematico I never became, being too absorbed in the intricacies of HRACE, CRAPS, and FTBALL to worry about the mathematics of the thing, and I spent euphoric hours playing these simulated games on the clattering, plastic-encased, TIY-33 until some angry graduate student kicked me off. Then I would sulk back to my father’s office, carrying my reams of printout.

My remaining studies at Dartmouth were spent in the embrace of these nourishing mothers: the library, the computer, and the monotonous seismo- graph. Consequently, I left Hanover nearsighted and slightly hard of hearing; my father left with his Ph.D.

It rained on the day he graduated, a drizzling spring day that left everything cold and soggy. The weather dampened my father’s enthusiasm, and he went back to his office. Unfortunately, I was with my mother, who, not knowing my father was truant and being more into the spirit of the occasion, sat us through two hours of uneventful formality before adjourning to the fieldhouse for the rest of the ceremonies.

Somewhere during that interminable business, I remember a man getting up to speak. As he stood and walked toward the microphone, several students rose and turned their backs on him. I sat up and paid attention. There was a moment of embarrassed silence before the man began to speak. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember looking at the faces of fifteen angry graduates who were glaring at the back wall. Years later I found out that the man speaking was Nelson Rockefeller.

Afterwards, my mother took us up to my father’s office. There he showed us a strip of graph paper from the seismograph. The night before, a volcano had erupted in Central America, and the needle had jumped several times across the page. As I looked at the lines that represented the colossal pressures and forces that boiled within the earth, the thought that this machine could be sensitive enough to pick up those tremors startled me. The proportions of a volcanic blast that could be recorded so graphically 3,000 miles away were beyond comprehension, and even more frightening, beyond control.

If a culminating moment must be assigned to my studies at Dartmouth, a commencement of sorts, it would undoubtedly be this moment-unat- tended though it was with any of the pomp and circumstance that had marked my father’s graduation. I like to think this moment was the keynote of my ivy league experience, although I didn’t come to that decision until much later.

The computer, I have come to realize, is nothing more than a random access sliver of silicon that turns on and off a thousand times each millisecond at the command of the programmer. And yet my exposure to the computer, housed as it was in the basement of Kewitt like an untamed animal, continues to prove itself one of the most valuable aspects of my education to date. Likewise, my hours spent in the libraries still prove to be my happiest, providing me with entertainment as well as a wide exposure to a variety of subjects.

But the seismograph on the fourth floor of Silsby Hall still haunts me , and frustrates my attempts to impose unity upon the past, as if it were somehow impossible to combine the three separate buildings-the three aspects of my ivy league education- into the same edifice. It is even more disturbing to see these three subjects becoming even more disparate, defined almost invariably as separate disciplines and requiring vastly different courses of study. They have always seemed to belong together: the building that houses a valuable repository of knowledge and wisdom, the machine that has proven itself to be an invaluable extension of the human intellect, and the slowly unrolling machine of terrific sensitivity. And they are fated, it seems, to remain apart.

Years later I wondered again about that day, about the men who stood defiantly at their graduation . I wondered how many of them were later absorbed into the system that they had resented, how many of them went on to program the chips of silicon that lubricate the clattering wheels of the establishment they protested against. And I wondered, in the after-shock of that irony, if the ivy on the walls isn’t there to hide decaying, dirty brick.

The Curve of the River

by Pauline Mortensen

My father stored his dynamite here in this barn-dynamite he used to change the course of the river. A decade after he died, my brothers Ed and Jerry got rid of the dynamite. I can imagine how they got rid of it. I can see them throwing a stick at a time down some canyon; a stick a time after urging the old fuses to burn, first slow then fast, until the leaking, seamy stuff had been ”gotten rid of.’ ‘ No matter what they did with it, I suppose that it all went off, and no half box of unexploded dynamite lies strewn down a bank waiting to surprise someone in the hot distant future . But dynamite is not here anymore in the hay-littered barn where rats gnawed away for generations; I am here in carpeted comfort, in the barn at Magee, unbuttoning my pajamas in the night’s heat, putting my feet on the cold rafters above the loft.

I am here as an initiate-my first snowcat ride into the ranch in the dead of winter. I am the novice and the dunce . Can I help it if the snowcat keeps getting stuck? Ed complains he is not here to work, not here to pull me out of the powder when in my confusion I let up on the gas to avoid a mere abyss-and land in the powder; or when I gun the snowmobile and jump the abyss and land-in the powder. The idiot thing is not supposed to sink down to the windshield. But it does, and I get yelled at, and we come back to the barn to cool off and warm up.

So my father stored his dynamite here in this barn while he tried to change the course of the river. He blasted away a mile of rock to dig a new channel closer to the mountain , so that the river would run smooth and straight there, and leave the family alone where they were trying to plant a garden and raise chickens in the middle of the meadow. It was a precarious situation then, as it is now, trying to share with a wandering river the narrow space between two mountain ridges.

We sit here in the barn, which is now Ed’s cabin , and play pinochle with Carolea, his wife, and Elaine, our sister. Between Ed’s complaints about having to wait on three helpless women, we shuffle the cards and talk about old times.

Someone says, “Wouldn’t the old man have loved this?” referring to our father and how easy it is to get up here now, with the spring-cushioned, ignition-start snowmobiles sitting on the porch. And someone adds, “Yes, this is the life . He was just born thirty years too soon.”

Our father’s snowshoes hang crossed above the window like sabers, the curling cracked leather now varnished hard . These were the snowshoes he used when he wintered up here-that he used to check his beaver traps up Callus Creek and wore when he made emergency trips to Coeur d ‘Alene, where he walked full-bearded to see his family down the unplowed road out to Dalton.

This was my father before I was born. And I had always heard it said that, rather than thirty years too soon, he was born a hundred years too late.

I pull my feet off the cold rafters and slide them back under the blankets. This is my thermostat. The rest of me cooks in the compounding heat that rises to the loft, burdening the breathing air that sometimes condenses on the rafters and drops on my face . This is the thing about Ed’s barn. All the heat rises to the top, and Ed sleeps downstairs stoking the fire in a draft.

But I’m not complaining. I could be over at the house where Elaine and I tried to ” rough it” last night. Chop our own wood, dig our own snow-that sort of thing. She did not tell me that the stove was temperamental, that if you opened the door for more than five seconds to do something superfluous like stick in another log, the idiot thing would belch smoke out at you . It would stop drawing up the chimney the normal way and start pouring smoke out through the forty or fifty rust holes around the sides and fill the old homestead house inside of ten minutes. She did not tell me this. I was just supposed to know. So we lay there in bed in our knitted ski masks and our snowmobile suits, the doors and windows wide open so we could breath.

I try to remember what it was I came up here for. After all, I could be home going through the dumpsters behind McDonald’s looking for packing boxes. I should be doing that, because after the sheriff’s auction next month, my husband and I will have to move . They will be selling our home, not because we lost our jobs and couldn’t make the payments, but because the escrow man decided to take our downpayment and borrow on our equity and invest it all in a gold mine in Nevada.

So we are in transit, after having thought that we were settled. We thought this because we spent almost a year changing the landscape . As a sure sign of our intention to stay, we began scraping madly down to bedrock. We began with the fruit trees. I’d always had the misconception that the Orem bench was a soft alluvial hump, the sediment of a million-years inland sea. I was wrong. It is an alluvial rock pile dumped forcibly from the mouth of Provo Canyon and then cemented together by the clay sediment of a million-years inland sea. We chipped and dug for three days to plant those fruit trees. It was a warning we didn’t heed.

For the rest of the summer, as we watched our limp semi-dwarf fruit trees struggle for survival in their individually carved saucers of water, we worked on the rest of the yard. We heaped up rock and pushed it aside for the vegetable garden; we wedged it up and pressed it flat for the lawn; we groomed and cornered it into rocky but incredibly neat flower beds. We did all this in the summer, and in the fall the escrow man , who had embezzled our future, scraped together a few thousand dollars of someone else’s money and left town for places unknown .

This has been our experience with buying a house. Our lawyer has since shown us where we went wrong . He shows us in retrospect. My brother says, “You have a college education. You should have known better.” But I majored in literary theory. How am I supposed to know about real estate investment? All we wanted was a place to settle, to have one place to pile all our junk so we didn ‘t have to move it for the next thousand years.

I roll to the side to let my back cool. I didn’t come here to prove anything, to show Elaine and Ed that I’m still tough, still an Erickson, and that I haven’t become some educated fool who doesn’t know how to make it in the real world . I dido’ t come here for that. I came here to see the snow, to see the house in winter, to see the river and what it’s done to my father’s place . I came here because I am in transit.

There is something about this place that invigorates and depresses. It draws us frantically on like a burning fuse, hissing and fizzling under our stomping feet. It may be the river. Behind the house the frozen river flows idly under the ice. It is a mere trickle and a river only by definition. There is no hint of the torrent that rages every spring, the carnivorous beast that has already gnawed its way through a chicken coop , a bunkhouse, a half mile of board fence, a garbage dump, and a clothesline. Last year it took a bite from under the corner of the woodshed not twenty yards from the house . It is a geologic inevitability-the meandering stream in process, leveling our valley and our ranch to a peneplain.

We have tried with dozers and backhoes to pile rock, with shovels and axes to place toothpicks against the spring thaw. We need the Army Corps of Engineers. By ourselves we have only been rearranging rock.

Our father bought this place during the war, after a long line of spurious enterprises. Before. this he tried farming without seed and equipment, dude ranching without horses, and wool raising without sheep. He was going to make his fortune in Karakul sheep , selling the precious black wool to make coats, until he discovered that it took hundreds more sheep than his dozen and that he had to kill the young lambs just after they were born to take their curly black hides.

Before the ranch, the family was always moving-packing quilts and dishes and kitchen chairs for a new start. They moved from Rexburg to Bayview, to Rexburg, to Rose Lake , to Linfore , to Pritchard, to Dalton, always looking for an occupation that would not tax Dad’s weak heart. But he bought the ranch and made a living in the woods. It was one sustained rush to make his fortune before the dynamite in his chest exploded.

I remove my feet from the covers and try the rafters again. The cold moves down my legs, and I throw back my arms for air.

I had not been born yet, through all of these false starts; I’ve only heard about them around the card table on trips like this one, and most of what I know of this place is largely secondhand. Sometimes when we come up here, we sit around on the beds that line the living room of the house and bring out all the ‘ ‘blackmail” we can think of. Some of us are better at this than others. I can still remember the time my sister made me ride old Coalie against my will. I told her it wasn’t a good idea with all those other horses running up and down along the outside of that fence. But she made me do it. And when he bucked me off and I passed out, she carried me into the house screaming, “Speak to me, speak to me!” I don’t know why she doesn’t remember this like I do . I remember very distinctly her crying over my limp , battered body. The fact that I was unconscious at one point has nothing to do with it. She asks, ifl was knocked out, how could I remember what happened? She says I’m lying through my teeth to make her feel guilty about the bad back I’ve had ever since . But that’s got nothing to do with it. I like to tell the story because she’s forgotten it and gets so mad when I tell it and because it is just one of those things that happened here.

So we sit around telling such stories: about daddy and his exploits with the Fish and Game Department, about the poached deer he would always have in the cellar, about the time he spent in the Kellogg jail for poaching deer, and about the tame fawn that came bounding in the front door and skidded across the linoleum between daddy and the game warden, and the game warden jumping up and saying, “What on earth was that?” and daddy laughing, “Oh hell, they do that all the time .”

I was not even here when these things happened, but I can tell them as well as anyone. There are stories of other places, of Linfore , Bayview, Rose Lake . But there is a difference between those stories and the ones we tell about the ranch , about Magee. Here there is affection, good feeling. It is the pull of gravity and time, the settling place, the inside curve of the river.

So we sit around and tell game-warden stories, tell about the people who used to inhabit that world of a generation ago. And when we run out of stories about the past, stories about the dead, we disparage living relatives.

Most of us recognize the pull of gravity . We have our family reunion here every summer, and Elaine and I take the new generation up the face of Deer Hill across from the house , so we can pull the weeds out of rocks before we paint the great letter ”E” that stands for Erickson. Most of us come to the reunion , but there are some who refuse because of hard feelings-because the great bulk of the ranch, which we loved and hated while we were growing up here, was left to mother when daddy died, and during the sixties she sold it to our brother Glen , and he in turn sold it back to the government from whence it came-all but these ten acres. We’ve all regretted it ever since. But some fail to recognize our common loss and dally in tributaries, refusing to come back to the main stream.

Basically there are two contending factions in the family, two ways of explaining what has happened . Some of the family explain it this way. “You can’t live in the past. You have to support your present family . One way to do this is to invest in real estate . This is a very profitable way . But in order to invest your money, you must divest yourself of emotional attachment. You sit on the property a few years and then , taking advantage of the inflationary trend, you unload .” There are several who think this way . They are our rich relatives.

Our poor relatives argue thus: “The ranch is my heritage . It is my ancestral home . Someone has sold my ancestral home for a mess of pottage . The ten acres given back to the family is to appease a guilty conscience. I will not be party to appeasement.”

These are our left and our right. The rest of us take the middle ground and make snowcat trips here so we can sit and talk about everybody that doesn’t think like us.

Then too, we speculate . Where will my husband and I want to build our cabin? Which acre of the ten do we want? What about one big lodge which all ten of the brothers and sisters could build together? Some will never be able to afford their own cabin. And if they do, what will happen if all ten families and their children’s families decide to build their own private shack up here-digging backhouses wherever they please and polluting everybody else’s water supply. It could happen. So I am here in transit speculating on my one solid, snow-covered acre.

It goes on and on. We build phantom A-frames and log lean-to’s, while the very snow we are sitting on could melt suddenly with one good chinook and wash it all away . We are all poised on the powder of the inevitable. It’s all only a great “what-if”; someone building a retaining wall here, someone tearing it down there, the river surging and wiping clean the scrapings of a former, industrious generation, the river merely taking a wider swing and making an oxbow of where I live. Is that what I came here to find out, to rest my feet on a cold log and be cooked and smoked to death when I could be home packing my kitchen chairs?

Perhaps. But this is the view of the river through binoculars. I am standing on the ground, ground I thought was solid. Where do I go from here? I see my own ignorance, my own misguided judgment in real estate-and my husband’s. Let’s not leave him out of this. I see this and feel the sand dissolving beneath my feet. So I ask: Where do I insert the dynamite to change the course of the river, or how high of a retaining wall must I build? But these are rhetorical questions. I see more than this. I see the layered rock of ancient peneplains. Yet I see my own incredible need for place in the midst of all this change; I am neither a mover or a shaker of massive fortunes. I am a settler. And although the face of the land must change, I am still a river-running novice who has the gall to demand a place to pull in from the water-a shoal, a settling place, a sandbar, on the long inside curve of the river.

Where the Mormons Go

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.

“Steve.”

“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.”

”Overnight?”

“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.

You Want to Know about This One Here?

by Curtis Wade Bentley

The mortuary seemed to keep the town alive. Always stately and freshly painted. It looked like one of those plantation houses from Gone with the Wind. Like a place where lots of well-off men come on a Saturday afternoon to hold tall, cold glasses and toast tall, cold women in white. It even had a gazebo-type thing out in the middle of a lot of grass where a band ought to play something lively. Of course it wasn’t that kind of place. The mortuary was a kind of mirage that way. But then, I didn’t know anyone who would have looked quite right sitting in one of the high-backed wicker chairs on the porch, because the rest of the town was old and declining. When the chalk factory shut down, so did everything else. Far West Office Tower downtown had stoppped three stories short of a tower and stood there squatly while the steel girders rusted out. But the mortuary business hadn’t slacked. People still liked to die right.

You could only see through the mortuary’s dark, mirrored windows from the inside. They were tinted so the long lawns in front looked cool and inviting. I had worked at Maxwell’s Mortuary for two years-ever since I got out of high school-and even on the hottest afternoons I imagined I could run out and roll on all that grass, pick one blade down to the white roots, then chew it and spit it down the breeze.

People came there all the time whether they knew anyone who had died or not. Mather Wilson was an old fuzzy-headed guy who came down about every week like he was checking out the place where he was going to die pretty soon. Two things he always asked me. “Chucky, you say it,” he’d always say, ” them oak ones really better like I tell you , or that fiberglass over there?” Then I’d take him around the showing room where the coffins had their lids popped open and the price tags propped up on pillows. He’d knock on the fiberglass ones and shake all over like his bones were having a reaction, then smooth his hand along the dark sides of the oak ones till I knew some day he was going to die right there just so he wouldn’t have to leave. That usually contented him except to ask me if I was still working the graveyard shift. Then he’d poke me hard in the ribs and laugh his fuzzy head off all the way down the long walk out to the street.

I worked really whenever Mr. Maxwell said, “Chuck, why don’t you come on over; there’s two today and another one set for tomorrow.” Sometimes we’d go a week with no bodies, so no funerals, and then we’d hit a busy stretch where there must have been something in the air to cause everyone to die at once. So while Mr. Maxwell and his two sons drove hearses and directed various solemn ”and yet, somehow joyous occasions,” I hung No-Pest strips in the bathrooms and made sure the bodies set to go in for viewings kept their mouths closed.

Sometimes the family wouldn’t have enough pallbearers, so I’d dress up in one of the Maxwell son ‘s old suits and sit through the funerals until it was time to carry the casket out. The funerals were all pretty much the same . Mostly there were two kinds. You could tell it was going to be one of the grievous type if the old maid second-cousin started into hysterics at the family viewing. Then you could count on sad songs and dry sobs, lots of flowers and quiet speeches. On the other hand, there was a “Well, I’m sure old Pete wouldn’t want us crying over him-he’d have a beer in his hand and tell a few jokes” jolly type, while the widow sat there with empty eyes and things moved quickly to the after-funeral dinner. When it was time to carry the casket out to the grave site, I did
my best to copy Mr. Maxwell’s graveside manner and wondered all the while if the rugged-looking brother of the deceased knew that the old maid second-cousin was making eyes at him over the top of her handkerchief.

The first couple of months I wasn’t so callous about all of the dying. I remember sitting on the matted grass of the new grave site long after all the people and cars had gone , and I’d finished the clean-up details around the grave . It’s hard to say what it’s like out there, the only living body in a park full of monuments marking dead ones. Bodies that meant something once. Bodies that never meant a damn thing to me. The feeling is not like Memorial Day when the place is alive with plastic flowers and people, grandpas trimming around grandmas’ graves, and little dogs urinating down the sides of marble crosses. Things are not really dead then . But when it’s just me and a little wind that rubs past the granite, and the pink plastic poppies turned white in the sun, and dried rose petals rattling around in the vases, then they all are dead and I don’t know enough to bring them back to life . They could lie there for centuries and I could never summon up even one summer vacation when maybe Grandma got sick at Disneyland and threw up all over the little boy with Mickey Mouse ears, or maybe one summer evening counting crickets. They lay there needing something, and I could only feel God turning to dirt in hard clods and the grass growing over.

Once I knew God was buried there too , I stopped waiting around after and just tramped down the sod and left.

I used to stay around the mortuary nights sometimes though, when Spiro the janitor cleaned up and closed things down. Spiro was a shapeless black man with buckteeth so widely spaced his talk was more of a whistle. And he talked all the time. I think he talked even when I wasn’t there, to keep back the ghosts and make himself feel alive. I always heard his whistle first when he came around the corner, like a little black teakettle, shaking and whistling. When we’d polished all the benches in the chapel and mopped the long hallways, Spiro always took me to the back room where the bodies were and told jokes to start things off. “Oh Mary,” he’d say, with his hands on his hips, “he looks so goood! They’ve done really wonderful things with him . . . considering. ” And he really was good, so we laughed at that for a while.

But then he’d get serious and say, “You want to know about this one here?” I always nodded. “This one here ” -and he ‘d thump it right in the chest-“was a philosopher-type. He liked to think a lot about every sort of thing. Nukular war, for instance . He used to say, ‘Folks, nukular war will re-duce this planet to an ash heap. And the ashes will swirl’ (here his hands got dramatic) ‘and twist around the earth, and they will be my ashes and your ashes trying like anything to jigsaw themselves back together for a resurrection ; and just when you think you ‘ve got your ankle bone connected to your foot bone, the devil will sit back and blow your thoughts away to the four corners.’ And then all the grandchildren would stare and the great-grandchildren would chase the cat around the couch and and he’d call for his pipe and start to think some more.

Then it was as if the body would settle back and die again , and Spiro would turn to someone else: a tomato jelly blue-ribbon winner in a state fair or an animal hater who sets cats on fire.

It was after college some years later and I was eating breakfast in a Chinese-American cafe in San Francisco. Sometime before then I started to go schizophrenic. It starts like a buzz behind your right ear, and the buzz opens up your skull for a time and leaves you with a little burr hole , and the buzz goes on knocking the footing out from under the partitions in the brain and eats away at categories until you see everything in fragments-not connected to you or to each other by a single, blessed thing. And everything is slowed down or hurried up so that the process of entropy , which is always really there but not so important, becomes the only thing.

And I concentrated on fragments-any fragment-to try and hold my mind together. Like the hair on the lip of that lady in the next booth: black and limp, glistening and wet. Get it out of your mouth, stupid, get out. And then it was O .K. I was out, following the strand of sidewalk back to where maybe I could find some safe things like old books and toilet paper.

They tried some therapy to make me sure it wasn’t better to be schizophrenic. Yes, they said, every schizophrenic thinks his perversion is reality and everyone else is crazy . To make me sure they showed me family albums. People I was connected to . My great-aunt’s teeth going black. A wrinkle in the photo up through Grandpa Barlett’s crotch . And that Cheshire boy there , hanging from the barn-he looks just like you! They were all yellow and brown except for their wide , white eyes staring brightly through the years. And that damn black and white dog, looking for all the world like any dog today . Those kinds of connections I didn’t need . I could feel myself turning yellow, too . The pictures were never finished . They were waiting for me to pose.

It was further therapy to go back to the old hometown for a while. Even to the same house where I grew up and where Mom still lived and was almost too senile to recognize me but let me sleep in my old room for a few days. I lay one night on the top bunk where I used to watch the distant freeway and let the streaking cars speed me to sleep . This time I stared at the choo-choo trains on the ceiling, fading and showing pink lilacs underneath . And just outside my door Mother watched television, yelling for Kojak to kill the dirty swine. When the moonlight came through my window I could see down the street and over the tops of trees to where the light glinted whitely on the pillars of the mortuary . The mortuary where I’ cl left God those years ago. For lack of whom, they said, I had opted to lose my mind. I got out of bed and into clothes and a sweater. Mom was busy eating Twinkies so I yelled something to her and let the screen door swing shut as I ran out.

I was out for a walk. A walk with the wind in the trees and bright stars over the mortuary. But I knew the way without them. Knew the way by heart. And when I jumped the iron fence I waltzed once through the gazebo and then watched myself in the window, sitting idly in the chair. And I was just right for it.

I knew the back way in the building for those times without a key, and didn’t need Spiro’s whistling to lead me back to where the bodies lay dressed and waiting for the day. The Maxwell sons came running from their houses when they saw the mortuary lights come on. Found me holding an old man’s dead hand, with tears dripping off my chin, and often told later how I’d said right out, “You want to know about this one here? ” and thumped it right in the chest.