Pro Libertate

by Kent Wallace

The pub where I was drinking with a group of Brits and Egyptians one foggy autumn evening in 1991 in Aberdeen, Scotland, used to be a church. The ornately carved wooden preacher’s pulpit still stood high on the right side of the nave. But now the pulpit contained a mixing board, three spinning record turntables, and a grinning black Rastafarian D. J. with long dreadlocks and a large Jamaican hat. Bob Marley was pounding out of the speakers and reverberating off of the grey granite walls. The music became a cacophony. No one seemed to mind. The pews had been removed to make space for tables, chairs, and a dance floor. The bar stood in place of the altar. Where the crucifix of Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, should have been hanging, there was, instead, a huge mirrored sign advertising “Budweiser—King of Beers.” Despite the high vaulted ceiling, cigarette smoke was thick. It was crowded. The women there were all typically Scottish-ugly, with bad teeth and short, stocky legs. 

lan, Kieran, and I were sitting at a table where the first row of pews should have been. We were ignoring the Egyptians. A barmaid came over and asked us what we wanted, She looked at my elephant skin cowboy boots and Wrangler shirt and asked me if I wanted a Budweiser, and tried to pronounce “Budweiser” with an American accent. I ordered an Irn-Bru, an orange-colored but rusty-tasting Scottish soda pop, lan and Kieran, my two friends, ordered Glenfiddich neat.

We were all taking a three-week course to familiarize ourselves with a new drilling tool our company had developed. Our company, a large American oilfield service company, had its eastern hemisphere office in Aberdeen, and engineers from all over the hemisphere were sent here to train on the new equipment. This new tool was used for measuring the angle and direction of the drill bit, and it gave the data while drilling. It was cutting-edge technology. Some of the components were the same as those used in the Cruise Missile. I had learned more about the inclinometers and magnetometers than I
had really wanted to know, but it really was an interesting course. 

I had become good friends with Ian and Kieran. Kieran was an Irishman who was based in Saudi Arabia, lan was the instructor, and today was his last day at the school. He would be leaving for the Far East the next morning. 

“I’ll miss you two,” Ian said, “but it’s good riddance to our tea-towel-headed friends. Present company excepted, of course, but this was the thickest bunch of engineers I’ve ever taught. I can understand that there might have been some language problems, but we used Arabic numerals in the equations.You’d think they would have understood that part, at least. What a lot of gits.” Ian glared over at the Egyptians’ table.

The Egyptians would all be going back to Egypt and were trying to drink as much as they could before returning to a country where Allah could keep an eye on them. I shared Ian’s dislike of the Egyptians. When we ate lunch, the Egyptians would paw through the food hamper and cast aside all the BLT’s and the ham and cheese sandwiches. They were all married, but they still tried to hit on the secretaries and any other females they saw. At night they drank like fish. These Egyptians were all officers in their army and were as conceited as any group of people I had ever met. They were also incompetent, and the class had dragged along slowly because of them. Until I had met them, I had always wondered how a numerically superior Egyptian army could get its butt kicked consistently by the Israelis. After a few weeks with these guys, I was convinced the pyramids must have been designed and built by aliens. 

Kieran, like the Egyptians, was headed for a Muslim country and seemed to feel a need to get particularly blasted now that the course was over, Ian had been in a black mood all day, Like me, lan was recently divorced. His ex-wife was destroying him financially, so he was going to leave the country. I would be returning to Norway the next day, and I really wasn’t looking forward to going back.

I had been concentrating so much on successfully completing my course work that I had managed to block out all thoughts of anything after this course. I should have been sending out my Christmas cards. For each of the past six years I’d written a cheerful letter full of good news—job promotions, interesting family vacations, the births of my three children, the purchase of a lovely new house with a great view of the ocean. And each Christmas letter had a picture included of my happy family, two proud parents and three lovely blonde children. My ex-wife was a typical Scandinavian beauty. Unfortunately, I thought of her, and the image that came to my mind was of her naked. She had a great body with perfect, full breasts, fine feminine curves, and flawless skin. Even after giving birth to our three children, she still didn’t have a single stretch mark, And I could smell her perfume. 

“Kent,” Ian said as he punched me in the shoulder, “Hey, mate. You still with us. You look like you could use a drink.” I shook my head. 

“You know what sober means?” Kieran asked, He was pretty drunk and slurred the words, I shook my head again. Kieran counted each letter off on his fingers. “Son of a bitch, everything’s real.” I laughed, but Kieran had hit too close to home. Everything was real and it was rotten. I wanted my old life back, but there was nothing I could do about it. I kept drinking my soda pop. Ian was pretty drunk when a uniformed woman police constable came up to him and told him he was under arrest. The woman read (or attempted to read; she was unable to pronounce many of the words) from a typewritten sheet detailing crimes from drunk driving to lewd conduct. Then she took off her blouse. A circle formed, and I found myself with no way to escape and with an unobstructed view as the stripper removed clothing until she was completely nude except for high stockings and a garter belt. She had stretch marks on her belly and thighs. Probably in her mid-thirties and a bottle blonde-not a woman I wanted to see naked. 

The fattest of the Egyptians had gotten so excited about this stripper that he had climbed onto a tiny pedestal table in order to get a better view. The crowd pressed in on me until I was so close to the stripper that I could smell her and see every blemish on her skin. I felt claustrophobic and frantic. I pushed back hard against the crowd to keep as much distance from her as possible. 

She hugged Ian and he grabbed for her breasts. She pushed him away. I saw fear in her eyes. She was trapped by a drunken crowd of men, and she was naked. Before anything else could happen she quickly hugged Ian again and kissed him on the cheek. Then she gathered her clothes and began dressing. Once she was mostly clothed, the crowd broke up. I was disappointed that the Arab’s table hadn’t collapsed underneath him. 

Everyone ignored the stripper as she left. People from the office came over and shook Ian’s hand or pounded him on his shoulder. Ian was in a good mood now. The cigarette smoke hurt my eyes and gave me a headache. Kieran launched into another of his Irish history lessons and told us of the outrageous things the English had done to his people starting hundreds of years ago and continuing right upto the present. 

“What’s it like to be from a country with no history?” Kieran asked me in a break during the Irish history lesson.

“It’s not too bad,” I replied, “What’s it like to be from a country with no future?” I asked flatly. I’d been playing the ugly American with them before, but now nothing seemed funny. On other nights, when they were as drunk as they were now, they’d get serious and start to ask questions about my religion. I’d always make a couple of jokes and let the topic slide. I had learned as a missionary that it was futile to teach religion to someone who was under the influence of alcohol. But, now, I wanted to tell them about my great-grandfather and his baby daughter who was born in a dank dugout in Winter Quarters. This little girl survived the long trip across the plains and died as my great-grandfather’s wagon train entered the Salt Lake Valley. She had the dubious honor of being the first person to be buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery. The mob had forced my people out of the United States while the government stood by and did nothing to protect their rights.

I wanted to tell them about another ancestor who was a scout on the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition in southern Utah, where a group of Mormon pioneers had taken a wagon train through an area so impassable and barren that the area still has few roads and hasn’t been settled. The wrongs my people had suffered were in the last century, but we had gotten over it and pushed our way back into American society. We remembered our past, but, unlike Kieran’s people, we didn’t need to use bombs to punctuate our struggle as a minority group. I wanted that little Irishman to know that my people had a history and that I knew my heritage. Kieran leaned over to me with his whiskey breath and said something else about America that I didn’t catch.

“Do you know what an American is?” I asked. They both shook their heads, “We’re just Europeans who had intelligent ancestors.” They smiled, but I was feeling really angry. Everything suddenly felt so very wrong. I told Ian and Kieran that I needed some fresh air and would be back in an hour.

I stepped outside but I still felt dirty. My clothes smelled like cigarettes and beer from where the barmaid had spilled on me. But the feeling of dirtiness went much deeper. The stripper made me sad. That woman was obviously uneducated and was exploited and demeaned in order to earn money, and I felt like I had been part of it. After all, I had looked. There was more to it than that. A stripper and a bar in a church. It was blasphemous.

A grey fog had rolled into Aberdeen, a grey city built of granite. Everything was monochrome. Grey people wearing grey coats scurried along grey sidewalks. I was wearing an oilskin duster and Tony Lama boots. I was sure I looked as out of place as I felt. I hated Scotland, hated living for three weeks in a constant overcast drizzle. I was glad my ancestors had been bright enough to hightail it off to America. The chieftain of the Clan Wallace now lives in Bermuda. Bright boy. l could hardly wait to leave too, except that I really had nothing to go back to. In the morning I would fly back to a town I used to call home and take another load of my things from what used to be my house to my basement bachelor’s apartment, all under the cold, watchful eye of the woman I had been married to for seven years. We had three children together, but now she would recoil from my touch as I had from the stripper.

I moved off Union Street and followed a street I had never been on before. It felt good to be away from the smoke and the noise. I had learned the appeal of pubs. They were clean, well-lighted places that surrounded a person with sound and a kind of warmth. As long as you had money, you could feel part of something larger in a pub. The loud music prevented serious discussion or thought, which was also probably part of the appeal. Outside it was numbingly cold. The dank fog from the North Sea seemed to go right through to my bones, but the fog also seemed to soften things. I could see no farther than ten meters, Away from the noise of the pub, I could think clearly again. 

I had been divorced now for three months. The four MormonsI had known who worked with me in the oil business had, within a two-year period, all gotten divorced. In each case it was the wife who had wanted out. I was the only one who still managed to remain active, and I was only barely hanging on.

I came to an intersection where there were churches on each corner. Two of them were, in fact, no longer churches but an architectural firm and an insurance building. The third one was being remodeled and had a “For Sale” sign on it. Stained glass windows were being replaced with double-glazed ones.

The one that was still a church looked shabby. Its exterior was darker than the others. Moss grew a few feet up the sides. The massive wooden door was old and scratched and battered. It had a key-hole that would fit a giant skeleton key, and I felt that a good kick could put my foot right through the rotten wood of the door. The times of the services were stapled to the door in a plastic sheet. Scotland seemed in a hurry to join the rest of Europe in its post-Christian splendor. I wished the door was open and that there was a priest inside to talk to. I felt like I was badly in need of absolution. 

I thought about Provo, Utah, my hometown. Churches were still being built there, and they were filled to capacity each week. But Utah seemed so far away to me that I almost doubted its existence.

Maybe I needed to get back to Utah where my Mormon God could keep an eye on me. I was thousands of miles from where I wanted to be and light years away from being who I wanted to be. I could feel the drag of the world working against me, and I knew that if I stayed in the oil business I would eventually turn out like Ian. Or, worse, I might find myself perched on a wobbly bar table like a fat bird straining for a glimpse of an ugly stripper. The money I was earning, however, was too good to leave. Oil is an exploitative business, reaping where it hasn’t sown. It exists for quick profits and leaves town the moment the wells run dry.

I felt like just quitting and taking the next plane to Utah, but I knew that I couldn’t. I was shackled to my job by a golden chain that I didn’t have the will to break. After all, if I left its employ, what would become of me? 

Ian had said that the stripper had been the first naked woman he’d seen after his divorce. I couldn’t have said the same, I hadn’t slept with any of them yet, but it seemed like it would just be a matter of time before I did. Women have always been my weakness,
I thought marriage would have been the cure, and, in a way, it was. I had never been unfaithful to my wife. I also hadn’t ever been totally happy with her, or, for that matter, any other woman I had ever known,.

Hugh Nibley, a notable Mormon scholar, and I once talked about the nature of man. He said that he felt that men belonged in one of three classes-celibates, monogamists, and polygamists. He felt that he was, by nature, a celibate, but he had been married for nearly fifty years and had a fine family. I guess that I have always been inclined more toward polygamy. I was working in the North Sea region and had girls in Bergen, Stavanger, Oslo, Copenhagen, Esbjerg, Aberdeen, Cheltenham, and London. lt was nice that I could get into nearly every town I worked in and have someone to spend time with. I never liked being alone for too long. The girl in Bergen was tall, blonde, and had been a model. The girl in Aberdeen was short, dark, and (by Scottish standards) a beauty. None of the them, however, seemed like someone I wanted to marry. 

A couple in long coats came toward me, gliding like chess pieces through the knee-deep fog. They were the only people I had seen in sometime. Almost everyone was inside on a night like this. As I went further, a man came out of an alley with a glowing cigarette in his mouth. My company had warned all of us engineers about walking alone in Aberdeen, since a Dutch engineer had gotten beaten up and robbed a few weeks previously, I laced my keys through my fingers. I let the big key to my company BMW stick out between the second and third fingers on my left hand. With my right hand, I released the snap on the sheath of my Buck hunting knife. I really wasn’t very worried. Standing six-feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, I felt like a giant in Scotland. The man was a good six inches shorter than me. He ducked backdown the alley. I could see the glow of three cigarettes as I passed by. No one came out, I was almost disappointed. Getting into a fight would have let me release some of the anger that I was holding in. I am, by nature, a very violent person, but I always keep my anger under control. I did, however, find myself regretting my good behavior and often wished that I had beat up some people who seemed to deserve it.

A few weeks before I left for Scotland, I had gone to a party at an American couple’s home in Stavanger. It was a theme party, and we were all supposed to come dressed as a song. I couldn’t think of anything for a costume. When I got there, one man was dressed as Puff, the Magic Dragon. One very confident woman wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka dot bikini.  And one guy was wearing a cheap, shiny blue suit with a tie that had the narrow part hanging below the wide part. He had on white socks and scuffed brown shoes. None of us could guess what song he was. “I came,” he said, “dressed as a ‘Norwegian Wood.”‘

A few days after the party I found myself in front of a Norwegian judge who was dressed just like the guy at the party, and I stood there meekly while he gave my car, my children, and the house I had built to my ex-wife. 

The fog was getting more dense. It swirled around me as  Iwalked. I could no longer see the ground. I began to be afraid, silly fears like my next step would be into a manhole missing its cover. I was sliding my foot along the ground and making sure I was stepping onto firm ground before putting my weight down. The streetlights and autumn trees played tricks on my eyes. I would think I could see someone, but no one was there. My visibility was reduced to a couple of meters, but a thick patch of fog would occasionally drift past and reduce my visibility to nothing. As the fog boiled and swirled around me, I thought I could see faces in the fog.

I became disoriented and terrified, And I was angry at myself for being so afraid. As I walked along, I noticed that the newly painted, black wrought-iron fence by the sidewalk now had painted metal crests between some of the bars. The painted crests were bright colors—red, blue, and gold—the only colors I could see. As I looked closely at one of the crests, I recognized it as the crest of my clan—the same crest that was on the key fob I still had clenched in my fist. Ahead of me loomed a large, lighted statue. The statue was on a little island in the street where the road made a T-intersection. I crossed the road to the statue which stood higher than the fog. The statue was of Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s national hero. A wreath of fresh flowers had been placed at the base of the statue. William Wallace had been dead for nearly seven hundred years, and yet someone was still placing flowers on his statue.

According to legend, William Wallace was six-foot-five-inches tall, brave, fearless, and loved by everyone-except the English. Standing there at the base of the statue, I drew my right hand out of my coat pocket. The blade of my hunting knife looked ridiculously tiny compared with the claymore in the hand of the statue.

I didn’t know where to go, so I sat down on a park bench, the toes of my cowboy boots pointing upwards, my arm along the top of the bench, the knife still held in my hand. I took stock of my life. Nothing was going right, and I had lost everything that mattered to me. I couldn’t think of a single reason for carrying on. I wasn’t suicidal. I just didn’t want to continue to exist. I wished that I could just disappear into the fog. 

William Wallace’s life had never been easy. His father had been killed when he was young. The English had drowned his wife. He had fought against oppression his whole life, and he never compromised. Pro Libertate. For Liberty, the motto of the Clan Wallace, William Wallace wasn’t the type of man who would have allowed himself to be ruined by a badly dressed judge and some lopsided laws. He would have gotten out his claymore and fought for his rights. Of course, he got hung, drawn, and quartered for his efforts. I just had to move into a basement apartment. 

My life had been good for so long. I had always succeeded at anything I’d ever tried, and I usually hadn’t even needed to try very hard. And now it was all unraveling. I just wanted to go back to the pub and get drunk. It seemed too much to have to face the tail end of this century stone cold sober. On the other hand, I’d seen enough of the world to know that it didn’t have much to offer. 

I sat there a long time. After resting for several minutes, I got up and circumambulated the monument. There were inscriptions on each side. One of the inscriptions was some advice that William’s uncle and guardian, Argyle Wallace, allegedly gave to William that had inspired him to fight for Scotland’s freedom. “l tell you the truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live under any slavish bond.” 

The fog started to lift as I sat there. I looked up into the autumn sky and watched the familiar stars. I was no longer as world weary as I had been. Wallace’s statue was luminescent in the starlight. I have never considered myself a mystical person, but something had happened to me. I felt a real connection with my legendary clansman, William Wallace had changed me, had given me some hope. 

Orion was directly above me, I hitched up my own belt and put my knife back into its sheath, I felt some new strength and was ready to go on. Ian, Kieran, and the others would be waiting for me to drive them back from the pub. I remembered the words from Ecclesiastes and decided that I would discover if being a living dog really was better than being a dead lion.

 

Soupe de Poisson

by Eric Freeze

The bench was cold. Red carnations sprouted from a worn stone pot on one end, and I slouched against my pack at the other. It was nine-thirty, about the time my friends the Houdins were supposed to get home from church activities in Montpellier a college town in the south of France. They didn’t know I was coming. 

At the front of the house was a wrought-iron gate. I jumped it after a hitch from a guy going directly to Castlenau-le-les. He said that I was the first Mormon he had ever met, though he had often seen them on T.V. And the fact that I was Canadian, not American, added to a general awe which I admittedly enjoyed. He had a round face and bright eyes, and I really felt that picking up strangers wasn’t something he did everyday. At least that’s the only way that it made sense to me.

I had been lying propped against my pack for twenty minutes when the gate opened the first time. I wasn’t expecting the branch president to come walking up. I was half-asleep, and I know he recognized me, I served as a missionary in the Montpellier branch for five months a year before. It was my last area. He couldn’t remember my name, and he covered his hands when he talked. He came to drop off some items left from a camping trip in Ardeche that the youngest of the Houdins, Augustin, had forgotten. I was talking to him when the gate opened the second time. It was the Houdins. I remember they were happy to see me.

As a missionary, I first met the Houdins at church one Sunday in March. I had just been transferred to Montpellier and was introduced to them by my companion—a missionary whom I had known since the MTC. Specifically, I remember meeting Mathilde Houdin, She was light complexioned and had bleached blonde hair and would playfully hit people when she talked. I remember her because she didn’t hit me, just asked me how I was doing. She had four children: Roman, Samuel, Gisèle, and Augustin. Roman was not living at home and was to be married in a month, Samuel was on a mission, Gisèle had just graduated from the “fac” similar to high school, and would eventually go to Utah the following year to learn English—the same time that I would be going to BYU. Augustin, the youngest, was obnoxiously funny and often went tracting with the missionaries.

I don’t know exactly how my companion and I ended up getting to know them better. I know they invited us over to eat every Sunday. She would make soupe de poisson, and we would eat cheese. They had a nice apartment in a small town not far from Montpellier called Carnot-les-plages, where they had moved after their father died. Their father had been a physician, and they had lived comfortably in a large villa in Bordeaux. Their new apartment reflected the furnishings of this larger villa—their lavish meuble a façade of a less austere life when they lived in Bordeaux, had two cars, and didn’t worry about money. 

We started teaching Sister Houdin’s parents after the long Sunday dinners we had in their home. While the rest of the children went out to play volleyball on the beach, we lingered to teach them both about the gospel. Sister Houdin was excited to see her parents discussing religion so openly; it had been a source of friction ever since the missionaries frist started coming to their home when she was a teenager. Though her parents were never baptized, we found they enjoyed learning about the Church—to know why their daughter was baptized (wasn’t a Catholic baptism enough?) and why she was happy even after her husband died. We also loved coming over to teach because it gave us more time to be with the Houdins. Often after teaching, we would join the children on the beach and play mock games of soccer or volleyball. Sometimes, those Sunday afternoons would turn into evenings or nights; the Houdins would also invite us over during the week for special occasions: a birthday, holidays, Sometimes just to spend time when they wanted company. By the time I finished my mission, my companion and I considered them our family—or we told ourselves they were. That was the only way we could see things clearly—we had both been away from home for almost two years, and this was the first time either of us felt so readily accepted by a family. Her soup, the cheese, grandparents, gospel, and the beach all became part of a familial collage we had been searching for during our missions. We were close and had already started planning time together for the next year, when we would all return for the summer and Bastille Day—not as missionaries, just as her kids.

The first bise was uncomfortable. Mathilde hadn’t seen me for a year, and we hadn’t really written much; I always assumed that since I was coming back, it didn’t matter I hadn’t written. We could cover the whole year when I got there, and I always felt it was better in person. I called them at Christmas and for birthdays—wasn’t that enough? Her daughter was at school with me—I saw her almost every week, so I didn’t think anything was wrong when Mathilde scolded me for not writing. Everything that had happened over the last year, for me, was everything that had happened with them. I still felt so necessarily connected with their lives, and the memory of the apartment, the meals, and the discussions were a part of me. But it was uncomfortable when she bised me. The way she formed her lips and kissed the air—and her cold cheek when she asked me why I hadn’t shaved in the last few days. “l’ve been travelling,” I said, then told them how I met a nice man in the neighborhood who had given me a ride and knew where avenue de trident was because he lived a couple blocks away, and was going there anyway, how it was blessedly coincidental, and weren’t they glad to see me anyway? She still thought I could’ve shaved. 

When the branch president left, closing the wrought-iron gate behind him, Mathilde shooed me inside along with Augustin. They were in a house now. She had found a job and was finally able to pay for something that could accommodate friends and relatives. It was not far from her other house, still near Montpellier, but in a more residential area. Most of what was in the house I still recognized. The meuble was the same-large, dark finished cabinets, and armoirs. They were beautiful, but not perfect. Pock marks from termites a few years ago scarred their surface, but just on the bottom, under the finish. She had bought a new kitchen table, larger than the first, and she had a set of chairs that I thought was new, but they were actually her older chairs, recovered with red cloth and brass studs. I walked on the Turkish throw rug they had had in their living room in Castlenau. I took off my shoes, gripped it through my socks. I spread my feet a shoulder widths apart and started talking to Mathilde. 

“Comme tu es mince! You’re thinner now. Haven’t you been eating anything?” she said. 

“I just haven’t had anyone stuffing soup de poisson down me every time I turn around,” I said. She gave me a curious glance—looking first at my backpack, then at the frayed cuffs of the coat I had bought when we were in centreville in spring a year ago. She looked at my boots, then my face. 

“It’s funny, I still want to call you Elder.” 

I stayed with the Houdins for about a week. Two of those days she took off work, and three Augustin skipped school to stay with me. I felt that they felt obligated to spend time with me , and I was never entirely comfortable with that. Mathilde had worked hard to acquire what she could, to provide a place, things, and room for her children. We talked often about the “Celebration of Music” holiday when my companion would show up as well, and we would all leave for Montpellier to watch different groups perform in cramped cobblestone streets, playing music with instruments, hands, and voices. But my stay there wasn’t summed up in anticipatory events—it was the reality of being a stranger in a strange country among people who claimed to be family to me. I realized that even though we both claimed this bond openly, I was still being looked at, questioned, watched. 

That weekend, the Houdins invited the missionaries over for dinner. We didn’t have soupe de poisson like when I was on my mission, but an easier hamburger and pasta dish. I asked Sister Houdin why, to which she replied,”Je n’ai plus le temps.” With her job and church responsibilities she didn’t have time to make it anymore, In fact, she hadn’t made soupe de poisson since we left over a year ago. It was also the first time in a year that the Houdins had invited the missionaries over. I knew one of the missionaries fairly well—he was in my zone before I finished my mission and was always a good missionary: hardworking, jovial, and open. While they were there, I felt different than I had during the past week. I was comfortable, relaxed. The house and the family were again a part of me, flowing through me. The summer table on the patio where we sat was white and sturdy, nicked on the edges from being so long folded up in the corner of an apartment. It had been left out the same way the missionaries had—put aside for the right occasion, We talked. One of the elders asked me what it was like to come back and visit people in areas where I had served. 

“It’s great,” I replied.

“l’m hoping to do the same thing next summer,” one said. 

“It’s worth it,” I said. 

I looked at Mathilde. She was smiling. If she had been wearing a hat, it would have been white, broad-brimmed.

“It’s hard to see people leave,” she said.

“That’s why I came back.”

“Sometimes I wonder, though, if it’s really good to get close to people. I mean really close. Because then when they leave you start playing like they’re still there, and then when they’re not . . . well, it’s just confusing.” 

“What do you mean?” I said. Getting close to people seemed to me to be exactly what life was about.Wasn’t that why I was here, why I was dipping my straw in my glass of ice water on this white table on the patio? Now, today, with these people? 

“l don’t know, I mean, when you two left, it was hard. Too hard. Maybe if we hadn’t got so close, it wouldn’t be so difficult. If I had distanced myself a bit, or if we had distanced ourselves a bit, then maybe none of that anxiety would’ve really had to happen—whether or not I would ever see you again, or if you would come back, whether or not it would be the same.” 

She was still smiling, but not coyly or without looking at me. The missionaries were also looking at me. They had heard the story before: how when we left, she was depressed and wanted her “children” back. She always said we were like her children. To me that was endearing, meaningful: belonging to someone else in another country like I had been born there, crawled on their furniture and sat at their table, put my clothes neatly in an armoir on grey wire hangers in my room down the hall. She said that we were like that to her, and I felt it. I had reached a point where I felt our lives were completely in common, where we had become family. Now I couldn’t see how someone would rather it hadn’t happened. 

“Do you really think it would’ve been better if . . .”

“If what?”

“Well, if we hadn’t ever met each other, helped your grandparents and everything.”

“No, it just would’ve been easier.”

At this point, one of the missionaries broke in, talking quickly.

“I think that’s why many of the missionary rules are there—so separation is easier. I know in my last area, since the members knew that we couldn’t write after we left, and since we weren’t allowed to call or anything, it made it easier to get to know other missionaries.” 

“We didn’t break mission rules, though,” I said.

“Well, I guess separation is always difficult,” he said.

My hands were cold. I had been playing with my glass of ice water, not thinking. The patio was still white with the sun, and we had finished our meal. I wiped my plate clean with a snub of bread, then carried it over to the sink inside where I washed it and my solitary fork and knife, then left them gleaming to dry. That night, I decided that I needed to see some of my other friends. 

I left the following afternoon, and promised to return before next week for the “Celebration of Music.” My old companion had not yet called or told anyone anything, but we knew he was still planning on coming. It didn’t take me long to gather my things—most of them stayed deep in my backpack. As a guest, I had tried to be meticulous, not leaving anything out for fear I would infringe on their hospitality. That morning, I cleaned the kitchen and bathroom. 

When I left, I didn’t expect the trip to be as long as it was. I took the bus to the train station, then waited for my train, only to find out that the trains were on strike. I was rerouted on a regional train leaving in a couple hours. When I eventually got to Marseille, I was tired, bought a box of french pattiseries at a station bakery, and ate all three of them sitting in a corner between a magazine store and some restrooms. 

I saw three good friends in Marseille—one of whom I had helped teach. Every one of them was happy and flattered I would see them. 

I called, dropped in, and left feeling good, like I had reminded them of something. But I wasn’t as close to any of them as I had been with the Houdin family. 

I returned to see the Houdins the following week. I admit I hadn’t called ahead of time—I mean, I did say when I would be there, but I didn’t give them a day’s notice—just called them before I got on my train. I had used up my phone card the day before trying to figure out how to call home to Canada to let my parents know I was O.K., and I didn’t immediately have any other money. I wasn’t at all prepared for what I heard. 

“Well, I’m not really sure we have any room for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Roman and Valerie are coming tonight, and I think they’ll be staying in the room you were in. Plus Augustin might have some friends over. Sorry.” 

“O,K.,” I said, “l’ll try to work something else out.” 

This initial rejection started a long series of phone calls and curt, very polite conversations—all refusing my company. Mathilde never gave any explanation for her rejections—to her, there just wasn’t any room for me: not on a bed, or the floor, or even outside. 

I was on a bench the next day, eating. I bought a baguette and cheese from a small corner store that wrapped everything in brown paper, then found a bench near a fountain and took off my boots. There was a market that day—a weekly event which always generated crowds of interesting people. I watched the yellow stands of fruit, dark nuts, and olives, and the man selling mushrooms who always wore a brown cardigan, even when it was warm enough that most other people were in shorts. All of the scents and scenes reminded me so much of my mission: the way we would go whizzing by on our mountain bikes, having just enough time to catch a whiff of garlic or chestnuts roasted by a street vendor. 

Through the surging marketplace, a man walked up to me. He carried a boxy tape recorder with myriads of black, white-lined knobs along the side. 

“Could you tell us about the first time you fell in love?” he asked. My green hiking boots were also set up against the bench, and my feet were naked, ready to jump into my open-toed sandals I had retrieved from the depths of my pack. 

“The first time I fell in love?” 

“Yes,” he said. “What was it like? Where was it? Were you immediately attracted to her?” 

The man’s tie dangled near my face, and he held the mike up under my chin. I wondered why his top button was undone. He had hairy arms and his shirt was tucked ruthlessly into his pants, making his tweed slacks seem bigger than they really were, He wore them high, over a modest belly.

“l don’t know what to tell,” I said, “I mean, I have been in love before.” 

The man started recording. I suddenly wanted to slam my feet into my sandals, and walk somewhere-just do something. But it was sunny, and in the park there was a fountain, and I had found an unoccupied bench. I was alone under a tree in the sun which sat like a bright Buddha on a cloud. The man nodded at me to keep talking. 

“Well, I met her during school in the United States,” I said. “It was a private school, and I met her during a Hula exposition from the Polynesian club. I remember her because she didn’t like pizza. They had pizza at the Hula thing, and she wouldn’t eat any of it,.I didn’t ask her out until the second semester, because I didn’t feel that we knew each other well enough.” 

“So it wasn’t love at first sight?” 

“Not exactly. I think I was immediately attracted to her, but I don’t remember actually thinking I was in love. No, I suppose it wasn’t.” 

“So what did it feel like being in love? Were you instantly filled with passion? Did you do anything drastically romantic for her? Did you ever write her a love poem or sing to her?” He was staring at me now, and he talked fast.

“l don’t know,” I said. “We were really good friends. I felt more of a comfort than any passionate fire sort of feeling. I suppose I did romantic things for her, but I don’t think that they were really outlandish. I wanted to write her a poem once, but she was too much of a friend, and I don’t think I’ve ever sung anything that didn’t scare anyone. It wasn’t very mushy, does that make sense?” 

“Yes,” he said, then lowered the microphone and adjusted a knob on the recorder. “Thanks for you time.” 

When he left, I was expecting to feel relief, but instead I felt cheated. The man had not wanted a description of platonic love, but something more deeply passionate, drastic. I began to question whether or not I had been in love, or whether or not I even really knew what the concept of real caring, real basic love for a neighbor or for a good friend would entail. My behavior made it apparent that my perception of the whole relationship with the Houdins had been inherently one-sided; I would only care for people as I wanted to be cared for. I didn’t want outlandish displays of affection because they made me feel uncomfortable—probably because I wasn’t willing to do the same for others. I didn’t think I needed to love with everything that I had, regardless of whether or not it was reciprocated, regardless of hatred, scorn, or negative feelings.

The marketplace was now vibrant. People were bright slashes of reds and oranges, surrounding stands of fruit, bending down like they were bowing, praying. They existed to me only as I existed to them—watching them watching me. I had come to the marketplace and found a bench and sat so it was all mine—so no one could sit next to me, bother me. My father told me once that life was an exercise in empathy. What he said now made sense—love people completely, the way they would be loved, a way they understood. I reworked the conversation that I had had with Mathilde and the missionaries. “Would it had been better if . . .” I heard myself saying, “No, it just would’ve been easier.” Mathilde thought it would’ve been easier because I wouldn’t love her and her family back in the same unconditional way she cared about me. She was experiencing sorrow—I was only willing to do as much as I would require from someone who I thought cared about me. It would’ve been easier—not because she didn’t care, or thought that people shouldn’t get to know each other, but because people don’t always love back unconditionally. People leave, forget, stop sending letters because they think those left behind will understand. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” I stuffed my feet in my sandals, strapped on my backpack and headed to a telephone. 

The next week was interesting. Mathilde eventually accepted my apologies and invited me over for dinner. I called well in advance to let her know when I was coming, and reevaluated my criticisms, my feelings I had the first time. 

When I got there, the table was already set, and it was sunny, reflecting from silverware like wind chimes. We had soupe de poisson— made fresh.
The next day we sat again on the patio, this time near a small fountain in the yard. Augustin and Gisèle had gone shopping and Mathilde had been complaining about the branch, how she wanted to meet someone, remarry, but how it was so hard to find a good member of the Church like her husband. 

“l know you’ll find someone,” I teased.

“But when? I’m already fifty, I don’t like being alone.”

“What do your kids feel about you getting remarried?”

“Well, I know it would be hard for some of them. Gisèle—well, she was always attached to her father. She takes more after him than me, you know.” 

“Why, what was he like?” 

“Oh–he was a good man. Sporty, hardworking, and caring when he wanted to be. But I never really felt that he was the right person for me. I don’t know why, but after I married him, I felt I might’ve made a mistake. Does that bother you?” 

“Not really, but I guess it seems strange.You have a wonderful family.” 

“I know. Yes, I know.” She paused and looked at the fountain and threw a franc she had kept in hidden in her lap. She tossed one to me. “Don’t ever tell my children, though. It’s not like I didn’t love him. I mean—I really did love him—I still do. Sometimes I wonder if he was right, though, I do love him,” 

“Of course you do,” I said, then threw my franc into the fountain. It was hard for me to understand the amount of sorrow this woman was willing to experience, and how she could be the way she was—loving, but wondering always if others shared that love as completely as she was willing to share it. I watched my franc sink like a bright Star of David to the bottom of the fountain. I remember wishing only one thing: that she would be happy. 

East of the River of Birds

by Patrick Madden

 

l'll See if I Can Make It 
Paysandú/Solomon/Feb.94

Not everyone Elder Solomon and I taught had a spiritual experience. After several failed attempts at a second visit to teach the baptismal charla, we were finally able to sit down and talk with Veronica Dos Santos about her reading in 3 Nephi and Moroni’s promise. We arrived at the gate of the house where she lived and I clapped my hands loudly to call the attention of the people we saw sitting quietly in the shade, but who were making an effort to ignore us. After some silent mumbling, which I guess was their debate to elect a representative to talk with us, they didn’t tell us she wasn’t there, like they usually did, but instead motioned for us to enter and a rough, middle-aged man called out “Pasen, come in.” Soon Veronica came through the plastic beads hanging in place of a door, book in hand, and invited us to sit with her a few meters from the others. We sat in frayed folding chairs under the strands of a sort of willow tree. The ground was worn down to hard dirt by the women in sandals who hung clothes on the line over head and by the patchy dogs who kept us with our hands always in the air and our books protected in our laps. They got their licks in every now and then anyway. The sun was hanging low in the sky as we said our opening prayer; then we leaned forward, elbows on knees, with that look that meant we were getting down to business, and we were sincere about it. I guess at the time Solomon was feeling a combination of laziness and inspiration, because he had me start out the discussion, which meant I’d be making the baptismal invitation in principle seven. 

Things went as well as they could with a daydreaming investigator whose answers to our memorized questions were seldom more than a few words of agreement. I was straining to send the Spirit her way. In fact, I was straining to send the Spirit Elder Solomon’s way too, but maybe he just realized what I was naively unwilling to accept: that Veronica, with her wandering eyes and startled looks whenever we talked directly to her, just wasn’t very interested in our message. When it came near to my time to invite Veronica to be baptized, I started fidgeting with my shoes, standing one foot on its side and landing the other on top of it, molding the instep curve in one sole with the forefoot of the other like Africa to South America in Pangaean days (and wondering about the time long ago when I could have walked, of swam, from Montevideo to West Africa, and why, until 1978, had these formerly neighboring peoples been so different in the eyes of the Church). I started paying more attention to the dogs chasing each other than to what Solomon was saying about the gift of the Holy Ghost. 

Then Elder Solomon’s voice broke my lethargic trance. “Elder Madden va a explicarle como estos principios y ordenanzas deben hacer uno diferencia en su vida, Elder Madden is going to explain to you how these principles and ordinances should make a difference in your life.” I looked intently at Elder Solomon, who nodded his approval or his encouragement or maybe his relief at being done; I always had trouble reading him. I shifted to Veronica, flipped the page in my discussion booklet, took a quick glance at the page, and began to repeat, with all the emotion and accent I could muster, the words to the last principle. By the time I was on page two, I was really on a roll, so that I didn’t even flinch when I got to the powerful baptismal invitation. My MTC practice was coming through for me, and I could feel the emotion of this important moment. I asked Veronica, in good commitment pattern form, “Will you be baptized on Sunday, the twenty-seventh, at one o’clock in the afternoon, by someone having the proper authority?” Then I looked up with a slight tight-lipped smile and bright encouraging eyes.

She paused briefly to look at her dogs, who by now were rolling in the dirt, then at Elder Solomon with a puzzled look in her eyes as if to say,”what is he saying?” But she didn’t say that, She asked him “When is it?” 

He glanced at me with an l-told-you-so smirk and answered her, “Sunday, the twenty-seventh, at one o’clock in the afternoon,” 

“Oh, Okay,” she said. “l’ll see if I can make it.” 

Gimme the Goats
Belloni/Haynie&Davis/Feb.95

One night, two missionaries, Elders Haynie and Davis, were riding home through El Boro, one of the toughest parts of town. This is the same area where Elder Gray and his companion waited hours for a re-routed bus that never came and saw the local mob flip and burn a car whose driver wouldn’t pay at their makeshift toll booth. Minutes later a police car drove up a hill, turned a corner, then immediately came flying out, wheels screaming, amidst gunshots and threatening shouts. “The Boro” borders on our area, just west of Avenida Belloni. As for Haynie and Davis, they were riding home one night on Casavalle, probably the second worst street in Montevideo. It was past time to be home in bed, but either their need for numbers or a true desire to save souls made them stop when a scraggly man without a shirt appeared from out of the shadows and waved them down yelling,”Stop! I want to talk to you.” 

They put on the brakes and straddled their bikes in order to take a look around, but before they could even present themselves, the man slammed a gun into Elder Haynie’s neck, I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you exactly how it went from there, but I can tell you what eventually got out, when missionaries bragged about the incident afterward. When the thief yelled “dame la chiva!”—slang for “give me the bike!” (chiva really means “goat,” and I don’t know why it came to mean bike)—they, unfamiliar with street-tough lingo, shyly took off and offered their backpacks, their “mochilas.” From there I can only imagine the hood’s astonishment and nervous doubt: had they misunderstood? were they trying to be funny? And I can picture him and his loose band of hyenic accomplices almost worrying enough to take the backpacks and leave without the bikes. But eventually, with the help of signs and more high-pitched, frantic yelling, he made his point clear (l doubt they got a language lesson and an explanation, “No, actually I wanted your bicicletas. Chiva is only a slang term we use here in the ghetto.”) and made off with their bikes and their backpacks full of scriptures and color pictures of Joseph Smith and Jesus.

We always talked optimistically about how even a stolen Book of Mormon might change a thief’s heart and do some good. And I believe Elder Gene R. Cook, who also served his mission in Uruguay, even tells a story where that did actually happen. But I never heard that story come true for the scriptures Haynie and Davis mistakenly gave away to the thieves that night.

The Willow Tree Gang
Danubio/Hubble/ Feb.95 

One day, I was carrying Elder Kalu's video camera in my backpack as Elder Hubble and I rode from one visit to another, filming Danubio scenes, very near the Batlle encampment. We passed a group of shirtless youths sitting under a sickly willow tree in the shade, and one of them motioned and called for us to stop. After reading about Haynie and Davis's misfortune, you might expect I would think twice about stopping, but it was daytime and I wasn't thinking about being robbed. Still, I could have known from all the other fabled robberies that it wasn't a good idea.

I told Hubble, “Here, let’s stop and see what they want. That’s a lot of charlas.” This was shortly after the weekly required number of street-contact “discussions” was changed to include every person who listened, whereas before that, a street meeting with hundreds of people present would have counted as only one charla, And you had to get at least thirty per week. We were always getting our goals and this opportunity was too good to pass up. We slowed down and cautiously stayed with our bikes. I made a quick pass with my eyes to count our good fortune. There were fourteen young men. I smiled as I asked the apparent leader, the one who had flagged us down, “How are you doing? How can we help you?” 

“You guys are from the religion, right?” he asked. His question was as awkward in Spanish as it seems in English. He was a twenty-year-old vagabond with no shirt and torn blue jeans that were faded on the thighs. Here he was loitering with his friends, playing jokes and cursing, but his interest seemed sincere. 

“Yes,” I answered, “We’re missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” I paused and looked at Hubble, who smiled and said, “We have a message about Jesus Christ. Could we share it with you?” He was getting much better with the language and his boldness was always a great asset, He stared them down hard from behind his wire-rimmed glasses when he asked. 

The leader turned for a second as if to consult with his gang, but they only shrugged, a few of them, and he didn’t say a word. When he turned back to look at us, he answered, “Sit down.” 

His invitation seemed friendly enough, so we kicked back our pedals to stand our bikes against the curb and had a seat at one end of the crowd. All eyes were on us, and I suddenly remembered the stories about thieves in Maroñas and the fact that I had an expensive video camera in my backpack. I made myself think hard so that I would remember, don’t open your backpack no matter what.

Cars and lawnmowers nowadays have this problem worked out, but it’s still difficult to start a conversation right up without some sort of primer. Especially when the conversation is so one-sided and directed as are the charlas. I started off with the standard questions to determine the depth of the water we were wading in, First the harmless questions to get to know them, “Are you from around here?” Yes. “How old are you all?” Ranging from seventeen to twenty-five. “l’m twenty-three, and he’s nineteen.” I figured that was probably enough, so I continued on to the ubicating questions, “Have you ever talked to missionaries before?” No, “Have you heard anything about our Church?” Not much. Okay, simpler, “Do you believe in God?” Some yes, some unsure, some no and looking the other way or rolling their eyes. It’s difficult to cover all the bases, so I went with the right answer, which is, “yes, I do believe in God.” That makes it much easier. I nodded to Hubble and he began, “We also believe in God. He is our Father. He is all powerful, knows everything . . .” 

The discussion continued more or less along the lines prescribed in the booklet. Hubble taught the first principle about God the Father, then asked, “What do you think about God?” The leader answered that he pretty much agreed with what Hubble said, and some of the others nodded in agreement. Others got up and left. Still others made sly comments about the Virgin and why they’d like to meet her more than they’d like to meet God. Those who were attentive shouted back threats at the hecklers, threatening to shoot them in the face and in other sensitive areas, Ignoring the opposition, I plunged forward with a brief description of our Heavenly Father’s plan, and as it became obvious that we were planning to preach and not just chat, the camp became more divided into those who listened, those who left, and those who jeered. One bold detractor shouted out from the back, “You come from the United States, all rich and handsome. What’s God’s plan for me, living in this hellhole?” I told him, “He wants you to be happy and to return to live with him.” He mumbled something to a friend and they laughed. I thought about my answer and felt disappointed in myself.

Because of that realization, and because Hubble was excitedly varying his memorized message in a sincere attempt to actually teach and converse instead of preaching, I began to talk more freely. I let the group’s misguided and sarcastic questions slip by with a chuckle, but when one of them asked, “Where do you think we go after we die?” I let it turn into a discussion. His friends did as much to answer him as we did, and we all considered the possibility of mere wishing and Pascal’s wager for belief in God’s existence as a way of convincing him to believe in the afterlife. Pascal’s argument is all but forgotten nowadays, and he never had universal success with it anyway, but here, at least, was one kid who got it. 

On the one side, things were going well. The leader kept up with a barrage of questions and somewhat managed to keep things settled down otherwise. I didn’t notice exactly when they came back, but the crowd eventually grew back to its original size. I looked at their faces, some interested and looking back at me, and some smiling and whispering things to their companions. For a second, I worried how we could count the charla. We began with fourteen guys there, then it went down to ten, and now it was back up again. But as soon as the thought turned to me and my need to satisfy the number goal, I squelched it, The thought was immediately replaced by a memory of the old stories of how missionaries used to work—how the power of the Spirit worked miracles through missionaries’ words and whole congregations and whole towns were baptized. I never really thought it was possible, but if it happened with entire towns, I imagined it might work out with just fourteen young men. My questions took on a new urgency, and I lit up with a smile whenever they seemed to be getting closer to belief. When it came time to show them a copy of the Book of Mormon, I even almost forgot and opened my backpack to get it. Just in time, I remembered, then felt silly worrying about the video camera, but asked Hubble to get a book out of his pack anyway. As we were showing the pictures and explaining the history of the book I noticed a group in the back passing a shiny black object from hand to hand and laughing. When one of them, a dark young man with long curly hair tied back in a bandana, made a disparaging remark, a skinny, stubble-faced weaselly boy jumped up with a small black revolver in his hand and threatened, “Shut up or I’ll put a bullet in your face.” He had his finger on the trigger, and the gun aimed at the bandana kid, and his friends laughed like it was the regular routine.

I thought suddenly of the improbability of it all. The vision of our fourteen friends clean shaven and dressed in white faded with the crash of reality and the realization of the frailty of the human will to change or to get out of a self-spiting, self-destroying situation. We don’t praise and honor great men because they do what everyone else can do. Their achievements are superior acts of will, made from conscious decisions and a directing force that comes from within. The fact that it’s precious comes from its rarity. Ever since I was young and began paying a good deal of attention to the lyrics in Rush songs, my philosophy has been shaped by rational Ayn Rand objectivism. The reason her heroes shine and her ideal of man is so appealing is that nobody reaches the level of constancy and discipline demanded by it. But we all wish we could and it’s easier to see the motes in others’ eyes than the beam in our own, So a book like The Fountainhead is still a best seller among the very people it condemns. Peter Keating himself probably bought the book. 

Later, though it still happened during the brief time the weasel boy held the gun to his friend’s head, I worried about what they might do to us with the gun. In that moment of disheartening realization and fear, I lost my faith. Not all of it, but the child-like faith that our message could really get through, and these young men would make the difficult decision to better their lives—that faith was gone. I guess that’s the problem with logic and rationality in the face of religion. And a nagging part of me wonders if it was me who caused our message to fail. 

From then, my mind was only focused on leaving. I finished what I had to say, offered them a copy of the book, and Hubble invited them to church on Sunday. We didn’t close with a prayer in the open air, nor did we make an appointment to come back and see them. We didn’t even ask if they wanted to hear more. I had been watching and thought I knew who had the gun, and I could almost be sure that half of the gang would protect us if anything erupted, but I didn’t want to take the chance I glanced back several times as we quickly rode away after hand shakes and good-byes. They sat down again together and leaned on a nearby wall and the interested leader and others who listened were once again lumped into one big group with their friends—discarded by the side of the road, under a scrawny willow tree, in the shade.

The Bidet Towel 
Colon/Gray/Mar.95 

One afternoon after our lunch break, Elder Gray and I were rushing to get out of the house, and for the first time, we shared the bathroom for teeth brushing and hand washing. The bathroom was typical of its kind in Uruguay. It was a small, dark, neglected room at the back of the house with a chipped and worn blue wooden door that hung askew on its hinges and stuck against its frame when it was closed. The room was lit from a small cantilever window high on the back wall and a naked light bulb, whose switch was placed temptingly outside the door in the hallway. The bulb shone dimly from above the stained mirror on the left wall. 

I haven’t yet been able to tap into the logic behind much of the architecture in the country, though I suspect bathrooms may be designed according to a money-saving refusal-to-advance mentality. Gray tile lined the floor and walls up to a height of about two meters as a protective barrier against the outbursts from the bent pipe sticking out of the wall which we used to bathe ourselves every morning. The shower drain was built directly into the floor but it didn’t get any help from the floor’s slant, and there was a long-handled squeegee at hand to nudge the water on its way down the drain and out to the street. The low-rider toilet sat directly in front of the shower pipe and if it weren’t for the plastic electric water heater that capped the pipe and slowed down the water’s flow to a peaceful cascade of drips while it heated, you could probably sit on the “water” (that’s what they called the toilet in Uruguay; imagine it pronounced “wah-tear”) and do your thing while you were washing your hair. I always wondered when I heard the Uruguayan word for “toilet” where it might have come from. Somebody once told me it was a shortening of “water closet,” from the English who developed much of Montevideo and whose railroad’s black-and-yellow bee colors still adorn the uniforms of half of Uruguay’s favorite professional futból team, Peñarol. I’m actually not even sure if “water closet” is a real British term, but it sounds like something I might have heard, and I can imagine the word in a British accent. Still, if the word for the john was somewhat of a mystery, its friend and companion, the bidet—same word in Spanish, English, and, of course, French—had obvious origins. 

Where the bidet might suggest good hygiene and a high-class standard of living, most homes I checked out for this sort of thing had a bidet, but not many were very hygienic or luxurious. Their popularity, though, obviously had an adverse effect on the toilet paper industry in the country, and all we could usually find was raspy greenish-brown rolls that, we joked, must have been made from tree bark. I rarely used the bidet in the homes I lived in, preferring a good chafing to the unfamiliar. Mostly I had fiddled around with them just to see what it was like, and ended up using the toilet paper to dry my rear end after that anyway. I never questioned how other people might dry themselves off and never imagined they might not use the toilet paper, 

When Elder Gray was done spitting his toothpaste lather into the sink, he graciously stepped aside and I began to wash my hands. Another of the architectural annoyances of Uruguay is that, possibly to save money on materials, all bathroom sink faucets are extremely short and barely extend past the sink’s edge, affording no room for your hands under the water. But by now, I had learned to contort my fingers and direct the stream outward from the edge, and I could wash quickly and enjoyably. I lathered up as best I could with the cold water and hard soap and decided to wash my face too.The soap nearly disappeared as my hands rubbed across my brow and cheeks, but the water was cool and refreshing, and at least it rinsed away some of the morning’s sweat. Then I threw meager handsful of water on my face with my right hand while I held my tie in my left to keep it from slipping into the sink. When whatever soap I had gotten on me was rinsed off, I made a habitual grab for the landlady’s old green towel that was always hanging across the room on a rack. I perfunctorily dried my hands and as I lifted the towel to my face I heard a gasp and a surprised, “No way!” I continued my motion and swept the towel quickly from forehead to chin then looked up to see what was the matter. Some delinquent water gathered on the tip of my nose and I tried to blow it off. Before I could ask “What?” Elder Gray mused, “You use that towel to dry your face?” with such an emphasis on the word “face” that I knew something was up. “Yeah,” I answered casually, I couldn’t guess what was wrong with me using the towel. He continued, with a tone of disbelief, “That’s the towel for the bidet!” 

I can’t tell if most people figure that sort of thing out for themselves, or if somebody else tells them earlier on, but I froze and stared at the towel for a second, and for the first time noticed its grungy discolorations and its position right next to the bidet, and suddenly it all made sense. Elder Gray was telling the truth, and I felt so stupid for never having realized it before. My mind flew back to every house I had yet lived in in Uruguay. In every home the story was the same. There was a landlady, a traditional, old Uruguayan woman who I never saw buy toilet paper; there was a bidet next to the toilet in the bathroom; and there was only one towel hanging constantly in there-situated right next to the bidet. I cringed to think of all the times I had washed my face and dried it off.

But at the same time, I realized that this was another case of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Before the unfortunate realization, I never noticed any problems in my complexion and was never able to smell my own face. The knowledge of the towel’s purpose had somehow worked retroactively and turned my stomach for all those times I had unwittingly contaminated my face. But I never knew it then. So, while I certainly stopped drying my face with the towel that was meant for my butt, I felt a little, in a petty way, like Bob Seger, running against the wind and singing “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” 

Odds and Ends

by Dana Anderson

I’ve always been my father’s son. In both physique and temperament, with the exception of his broad shoulders and love of mathematics, I am a bona fide genetic duplicate. Even my grandmother gets us confused from behind, and to this day I can convince my mom over the phone from 3,000 miles away that I’m the middle-aged once-economics professor, now marketing manager for some conglomerate gauge company, toiling in the same closet-cum-office for the past ten years, complaining about the paperwork he delegates to the secretary he’ll never have. He designs and sells those little counters on gasoline pumps. I think about him when I fill up, those clicking spools of numbers, their sums filling the columns of some strange existential ledger. I always try to stop on an even fraction of a gallon, thinking that somehow he appreciates this discrete precision, listless behind that ochre metal desk, calibrating his micrometer for the third or fourth time that afternoon.

My father is the man for whom Franklin planners and pocket calculators were invented. It seemed to me, growing up in our borrowed Pittsburgh flat, that his whole life was an attempt to formulate some algebraic control over our futures, to deduce some Newtonian comprehension of the vectors of our lives and then steer them to the vanishing point of material and spiritual well-being. Newton, however, couldn’t envision the havoc Einstein would wreck on his theories; nor could my father presage the five-year string of relocations, layoffs, and unemployment that would reduce his optimism and careful planning to debt and uncertainty.

However, my conservative father provided for his family no matter what, and he accepted whatever odd job or favor he could. Once he even took a job selling plaster casting material door-to-door to private medical clinics. It was supposed to be some revolutionary new one-step cast-on-a-roll, so easy it would sell itself. Dad practiced at home the evening before his first and last big presentation pretending I had fallen down the stairs, then deftly setting the fractured leg I kept elevated on the arm of our plaid hide-a-bed. He wrote on it in big letters with his Cross mechanical pencil when it dried:

Hey Lucky,

Those are the breaks. Love.

By afternoon the next day he was again walking downtown in his pressed shirt, the want ads from the city daily under his arm.

My father never lost his composure, never left to chance anything that he could pry away. Every position available he applied for, every palmful of coinage he methodically deposited in the small black tin at the back of his sock drawer. It was as if these were the last two variables he could control in his elusive theorem of happiness – his temper and his spare change. At least he had these two sure things. Let the fickle forces of supply and demand push him into and out of every job from here to Harrisburg: he would never crack the scowl of the discomfited, and he would always have a tin full of quarters.

The reliable tedium of meter marketing eventually found my father that year, uprooding us from our uncle’s attic and planting us 200 miles away with the welcome compensation of a steady salary. It was half what he made teaching economics – ten times what he gleaned pushing instant-cast. But the money was a feeble salve for the frustration of his metaphysical impasse. He had given up theorizing about the grand equation. Life was a numbers game not even Descartes’s command of probabilities could call. There was no formula to be divined, no functions by which ambition and effort would yield certain success.

I shared my father’s abhorrence of unpredictability. My life was also a composite of lists – meticulously ordered sequences of things to do, things to plan for; each check mark in the margins was my own attempt at forging absolutes form the abject relativity of every day. But Dad, unlike me, never articulated his disillusionment. He never moaned that the higher math had beat him. He simply fell into the deadpan recitation of maxims that encapsulated his frank acceptance:

“Sometimes your best isn’t good enough.”

“You can’t lose what you never had.”

“C’est la vie.”

Behind the small certainties of his Franklin schedules and regular pay loomed the pall of an indisputable truism – life was not a closed system.

A week-long petroleum convention in Atlantic City, however, somehow kindled in my father that year the subtle, yet unmistakable ardor of a man possessed. As usual, he brought us souvenirs. For Mom, a paperweight. A man stood in the middle of its glassy sphere, his arms outstretched against the city’s skyline in silhouette behind him. Shake it, and hundreds of dollar bill flecks swirled around him, occasionally perching on his palms and shoulders. For me, a deck of cards from the Tropicana Resort with a pencil-sized hole punched through them.

“These cards were actually used in the table games,” he explained. “They punch the hole in the middle so that people can’t sneak them back into the casino and cheat. These could have won somebody a fortune.”

He spoke like the same man unwittingly emulated – the man who pretended that his contribution to the proliferation of gauges made a difference, who invented anecdotes about his insipid days to tell over dinner, who gave thanks in our family prayers for a job I know he hated. But in his stoic composure flickered some hint of hidden knowledge, some trace of revelation. He strode pensively down to his basement study like a prophet descending a mountain.

Mom wasn’t sure what to make of his strange, vatic air. Even our dogs noticed: at the command of his pointed finger they exited the house, urinated, and returned in record time, as if by Olympian decree. We interrogated him nightly. Was it a promotion was it a raise? Did he somehow acquire the secretary they told him he’d never have? He denied all of these, and his usual late hours and we’ll-make-it-to-next-Friday paychecks validated this. I would have wondered forever, if not for the happenstance that made me the sole sharer in the secret of his transfiguration.

 

I had only gone down to the basement to borrow his scissors. It was late evening. Through the crack in the study doorway I saw him leaning over a dilapidated folding table, a glass of chocolate milk for his ulcer on a napkin, a small book open on his lap. His left arm hing at his side. His splayed fingers forming seemingly random configurations, while his right hand manipulated something on the table top. I poked my head quietly through the doorway. He was dealing cards.

Before I could withdraw he turned, holding aloft a queen he had just pulled from the top of the deck.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I just needed to borrow…”

“I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing down here,” he interrupted.

“No. Grandpa taught me how to play solitaire years ago.”

“It’s blackjack,” he corrected, his eyes focused on the queen of spades sandwiched between his index and middle fingers.

The word was almost an invocation, deep in his throat – three incantatory syllables: Bl-ack-jack. Without invitation I straddled a metal folding chair and watched him deal out the four hands he was playing. He leaned to gather the cards and the book closed on his right thigh, revealing its title: Avery Cardoza’s Beat the House Companion (over 500,000 copies in print). Noting my glance, he set the book on the floor, jugged the cards into a crisp rectangle and slid them in front of me.

“52” he said, like some fragment of a combination.

“What, cards in a deck?”

“No,” he uttered, exuding the wisdom of the oracles, “52 percent.”

Somewhere in that Tropicana gift shop, along with our cursory souvenirs, dad had discovered the magic of card counting.

“Roulette. Craps, Baccarat. You name it,” he elaborated. “Like every other game, the odds are against you. You can’t out-play them. But not blackjack.”

He leaned toward me. I sensed a sermon.

“Not blackjack. The secret is to watch the cards. Not just yours – all of them. Low cards are worth plus one, high cards minus one. Just keep up with the addition. If you run a tight count the whole game, you can predict if you’re gonna get. High or low card.”

“Every time?” I puzzled, struggling to grasp his method.

“No, but just enough. Enough to give you a two percent edge over the house. Two whole points!”

This was beyond math. This was karma.

He dealt us each a hand. Solemnly he turned the cards from the top of the deck, awaiting my response of “plus one” or “minus one” before taking another. I fumbled with the summations, holding out with two hands a total he marked on only two fingers.

“That’ll never do,” he chided. “If they know you’re on to the math they’ll cheat you or show you a quick way back to the street. Either get it together up here,” he advised, tapping his right temple, “or keep your hand in your pocket.”

He paused to let the lesson settle.

“The count is seventeen,” he exclaimed, extending his pinky and middle finger.

With a coy grin he explained the reason for his recent late nights in the dank study.

He was learning binary notation – he could count to nearly a hundred effortlessly on one hand. He finished the remaining half of the deck in silence, his knuckles ticking like those spools that indexed the sum of his daily drudgery in gallons. He was a five-fingered abacus.

“Two whole points!” he intoned like a mantra, his eyes surveying the panoply of numbers and suits on the table top. “You won’t get better odds than that, son. Don’t look for them.”

Selling gauges occasionally takes my dad near Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City – a few of the places he can practice his statistical legerdemain. When I pick him up at the airport he confides in me how the tables have treated him – pilfering a few dollars he wouldn’t cry over, or forfeiting ten, sometimes twenty dollars from some ethereal vault he’s paid into all his life. Those night he’ll take Mom and me to dinner, and at home I hear him drop the change from the bill in the black tin at the back of his sock drawer. My dad’s no gambler. He’s just looking for the loopholes of probability – for the calm smile in the face of indifference, for the nickel on the sidewalk – for any small, sure thing.

Gaman

by Derek Otsuji

My grandfather was a man known to me more by his silences than his words. His presence – it did not matter whether he was at the heart of a busy family gathering or seated by himself in his favorite leather chair – seemed to take possession of solitude as if it were something he owned and always carried with him, like his pocketknife. More than just few and far between, his words were foreign, strange. Somewhere between his generation and mine the marrow of that language had dried, its words broken into syllables – crumbled fragments of sound whose meaning had been pulverized to a dust. Without words there was nothing but an occasional gesture or frown to carry messages between his generation and mine. I was raised American, a convert to McDonald’s and GI Joe; and he was trapped somewhere in a distant and forgotten country, seventy years and a half and half an ocean away. Though I could not speak a word to my grandfather in his own tongue, and though I seldom heard a word of it directly from his own lips, I knew of his language from old World War II movies. It was a rapid, machine-gun stuttering of infuriated nonsense, and I was happy to leave it far behind.

My grandfather never got the pronunciation of my name right. The middle “R” he always slurred into an “L” and he had a habit of kicking the final “K” out from the back of his throat like a cough. His clumsy, rough handling of my name grated on my ears, but I never dreamed of showing my displeasure. When he called, I responded promptly––always wary, always trying to read his expression or his gestures or determine the exact direction of his pointing. During these face-to-face encounters of ours, I was vaguely afraid of him. Not that there was anything about him to suggest meanness. But rather that everything about him was unyielding and impenetrable. His face was dark, his complexion wrinkled and leathery. It was hard to see directly into his eyes shielded behind the glare of his horn-rimmed glasses. He was extremely gaunt, which accented the sharpness of his high cheeckbones. His forehead was square and deeply furrowed. His one expression seemed almost plastered on his face, fixed and inscrutable as it was.

One summer, playing tag with my brothers, I fell and scraped my knee. My grandfather, who was working in his garden nearby, picked me up and carried me to the house. Held there in his arms, I stiffened and stopped crying. His hands were like tree bark. My face was so closed to his I could smell his breath, which was dense and sour, clouded by the lingering smell of sake; the peppered stubble of his chin scraped against my cheeks like iron filings. He carried me up the porch steps and yelled something to my grandma inside. I could hear her slippered feet scuttling across the wooden floor. When grandma opened the door my grandmother set me down before her and, without saying a word, promptly turned around and went back to his yard work. The moment he was gone my body, suddenly remembering its pain, began convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. With Grandfather gone and Grandma there looking at me with her soft eyes, patting and stroking my hair, it was safe to cry again. Choking on the sharp in-heavings of my own breath, I explained to Grandma as best I could what had happened as she cleaned and bandaged my wound.

 

For all the years that I knew him, my grandfather worked alongside my dad on a small farm which they had purchased together. They grew a variety of oriental vegetables––daikon, choi sum, mizuna––in addition to their main crop of Manoa lettuce for which they became famous among local produce markets. As a child, I loved going to the farm and helping in the small ways that I could. I pulled weeds, always careful to get the roots, and carried heads of lettuce harvested by my father and stacked them neatly in wooden crates placed at the end of each furrow. The heads of lettuce were like green wrinkled roses, large enough to be held with two hands. A milky substance oozed from their cut stems that dried clear and sticky on my skin. Best of all I liked driving the tractor. Seated on my father’s lap I would steer as he managed the gas and brakes.

Of course, when the work grew tedious I was always free to do other things like climb the fig tree and search for fruit, hunt for skinks among the dry fronds in the banana patch, or grab my insect net and chase after swallowtails and dragonflies. And no matter how long or hard I played, I could always search the field and find my grandfather working––driving the tractor plow, pushing a seeder across a furrow, turning the sprinkler system on or off, thinning out the rows of lettuce. Watching him from a distance working in his slow, methodical way, I was no longer afraid of him. Strangely, I felt safe with my grandfather there working in the fields. He was one of the fixed constants in life by which I oriented myself in the world. In those moments when there was nothing but open field and silence between us, I felt a profound sense of contentment in my grandfather––a feeling that in the rhythm of his work he was happy.

One summer, I was running about the farm chasing dragonflies when my grandfather called my name and summoned me with a quick wave of his hand. He was harvesting lettuce, seated on one of the miniature benchlike stools designed specifically for that kind of work. My grandfather made these small benches so they fit neatly between the furrows where they lettuce grew and allowed one to sit and not have to squat and crouch all day cutting lettuce. As I approached him, he pulled the miniature bench from under his seat and motioned for me to sit on it; then, in a gesture that surprised and pleased me, placed the knife he had been using to harvest the lettuce in my hand. I had never been permitted to handle these knives before and relished the weight of the blade in my palm, the feel of the grain of its wooden handle crusted with scabs of caked-on dirt. Guiding my hands with his own, he took me through the motions of cutting a head of lettuce from its stem. His movements were quick, deliberate, and sure. As we worked together I could feel the strength of his hands, firmly gripped around mine, and saw how the earth they worked embedded itself in thin crescents beneath his nails and ran in shallow rivulets through the creases in his skin. His hands guiding mine, we cut five or so heads of lettuce together until I caught the rhythm of the work. Then he let go and watched my hands work on their own. Satisfied, he stood up and, without a word, walked to another part of the field. I shielded my eyes to watch his figure recede and darken against the weary orange flare of the late afternoon sky, marveling at what had just passed between us, and, after a moment’s pause, continued in the rhythm of work he had set for me.

I understood that for my Grandfather the richness of the soil was his lifeblood and as long as his hands were connected with the earth, vigor flowed through his veins. Work wasn’t a means to make a living, it was part of living––the essential part that could, over the course of years, transform the tedium of the daily struggle for subsistence into the raw life-substance of meaning. Watching him, I could sense it: rising to work in the fields wasn’t a task imposed upon him by necessity, but a natural cycle of life. He had no need to measure his day in hours and minutes, to anticipate the coming of the weekend, or count down the years to the leisure of a retirement. He simply rose at dawn, broke for lunch at high noon, and retired at sunset. And the mere sight of morning light breaking over the field, the satisfaction of watching the labor of his hands bring forth crops from the dark earth, was sufficient to renew his strength day by day. He could imagine no other life. He had no taste for refined pleasures, no sensibility for spiritual mystery. Truth was to plant a seed, to grip his hands around a hoe, to eat a fresh mango from the tree. Truth was a warm bowl of miso soup in the morning, a hot bath in the evening, freshly steamed rice and okazu, a bottle of sake, and a song remembered from the old country sung deep into the night.

 

The September following that summer, I entered the third grade at a private school. Homework and after-school activities took me away from the fields where my grandfather worked, and my hands grew more accustomed to the grip of a pencil than a harvesting knife. In December of that year, my grandfather was hospitalized. Because of my age, hospital policy prevented me from seeing him in person, so I just sat in the waiting room with my two brothers, chilled by the air-conditioner. After what seemed like hours, my younger brother started whining, saying he wanted to go home. I was just about to lose patience with him when my parents walked into the waiting room. My uncle and aunt were with them and they talked in low whispers. They were saying something about the doctor and how he couldn’t understand why my grandfather had not come in earlier. Surely there were signs. Hadn’t he complained of any pain?

I remember seeing my grandfather on his first day home after a long stay at the hospital. His short cropped hair was grayer than I remembered it, and there were shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. My father ushered me to the side of his bed. My grandfather turned his eyes to me. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, and for the first time I saw the soft warmth of his deep brown eyes. Without saying a word he took up my hand in his and squeezed it gently. His strength was gone, but there was still a firmness in his grip. As he looked at me, I could see his eyes brimming with intent. There was a brief wordless pause between us. Then, his eyes turned from me, his grip loosened and his hand slipped slowly from mine. My father took me by the shoulders, turned me about, and nudged me gently to the door. I looked back over my shoulder once and saw my grandfather waving to me weakly, scarcely able to lift his head from his pillow. Three days later, my grandfather passed away.

There is a word in my grandfather’s language which I have only come to understand years after his death––gaman. Translated roughly it means to endure uncomplainingly. Perhaps I will never understand the spirit of that word, since I have come to believe the insistence on silence as a symbol of strength to be an unhealthy and outdated cultural myth. What reason could there be behind my grandfather’s refusal to tell anyone of his pain until the cancer had spread too far to be treated? Stubborn male pride––that archetypal idea of manhood, fierce and insistent in its reticence and solitude? Or was it something not nearly so heroic, but rather a childish shame that drove my grandfather to hide his pain the way I once hid a garment I had accidentally soiled? Suffering turns us all into children, turns the body against itself until we realize that we are no longer in possession or control of the body we thought was ours. And once the body is no longer ours, is it a wonder that the tenuous claim of words on ourselves, our world, and our loved ones should suddenly be dissolved? Perhaps it was a sense of fate that condemned my grandfather to a silence that deepened as his illness progressed, a realization that in his suffering he was alone and that all comforts must ultimately fail him. In this sense there could be nothing more heroic or brave or manly about his silence. And yet in those moments when he struggled most fiercely against the inexorable confession of pain, there was something tender about him, as that silence, like a feminine presence, seemed to embrace and envelope even as it threatened to overwhelm and consume. Perhaps this is the spirit of the word gaman, that in our words is a heart of silence that threatens to overwhelm all our utterances at the very moment they are spoken. I am left wrestling against my own faceless angel, that enigma of my grandfather, knowing that in the silence between us there are things that pass deeper than words, and knowing that in a word’s absence there are things irretrievably lost.

Dear Oscar, There Are No Free Helicopter Rides

by Ohio Faulkner

I still remember the wide smile on your face. The inflection in your voice revealed your excitement. Mom had dragged the whole family together for another tooth-pulling Family Home Evening. Sunshine and green grass. No school. And yet Mom imprisoned us to the dining table. Except for you, the family was as impatient as a don on its first night at obedience school. Mom was the master and we were the dogs, but you were smiling. You held that Book of Mormon in your hand as if it were one of your fingers. Someone said a prayer. Then the time belonged to you to give the lesson. “Open your books to Alma 17. I read this earlier this morning,” you said. “This is the chapter where Ammon defends King Lamoni’s flocks from being stolen.” Anxiously, you told of how you though it was “so cool” that the Lord gave Ammon the strength to defend Lamoni’s flocs. We laughed as you recounted how Ammon smote off the arms of the attackers. You said, “It think it would be pretty funny if you were King Lamoni, and your servants brought you a pile of slain arms.” I laughed but I wondered why Ammon mattered. I often think of that Family Home Evening. I often think of that Family Home Evening when I pray that you will soften your heart and return to God.

As you know, going to church was pretty much a forced issue in our family. And yet, our religion believes in freedom of choice. We claim that every man has the right to choose good from evil. As a kid, I didn’t know any of that. I just put on a warm white shirt ironed by Mom and got in the station wagon like the rest of the family. I didn’t rebel. We’d go to testimony meetings and listen to our friends say, “I know Jesus Christ is our Savior. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” I remember saying those things in Primary.

When I was too young to offer my own testimony, the Primary president whispered those sentiments in my ear and I, frozen in anguish, repeated them to a rowdy class. Why do we have to “bear testimonies,” I wondered. With each uttered phrase, I hoped the Primary president would whisper, “In the name of Jesus Christ, amen” so I could sit down. I watched my friends as I repeated the words verbatim. They weren’t paying attention. They played with their clip-ons and mad cool noises with their Velcro-strapped shoes. Their distractions looked like a lot more fun than my testimony bearing. I wasn’t saying the things I said because I knew they were true. I said them so I could sit down.

The Primary president instituted a “reverence Award.” Each Sunday, five or so kids were selected as being the most reverent. The weekly Reverence Award winners received a treat and got a star sticker placed by their name on a cupboard chart in the front of the room. At the end of the year, the kid with the most star stickers would be given a Bible and a triple combination and I was presently winning. My amount of star stickers doubled or tripled all the other kids’ totals. No one was more reverent than me.

I remember a Primary lesson at Easter time. The Primary president wanted someone to play Jesus as he lay dead in the tomb. I volunteered. I was an easy pick since I was such a reverence All-Star so the Primary president selected me. She laid me across three of those orange topographically fabricated chairs that smell like dried applesauce. Someone spread a white sheet over me. As I lay there, I started thinking I could probably make my friends laugh. I had a white sheet and could play a ghost Thought of the Reverence Award raced through my mind and delayed my entrance as a funny ghost. Then I thought, “Ah, I’m so far ahead. I can take a Sunday off from being reverent. I’ll just be really reverent again next week and I’ll still have enough star stickers to win the scriptures.” So I propelled my body upward, and with arms stretched in front of me like a mummy, I yelled “Boo!”

Hopes of a spiritual lesson died as all the kids spit laughter. I was a hit with everyone except the Primary President. She frowned while saying that I had been irreverent and hand mad fun of Jesus. That made me feel bad even though I hardly knew who Jesus was. How could I make fun of someone whom I didn’t really know? Besides, everybody had more fun when I played the ghost.

Our family’s religious activity differed from that of our friends. As a kid, I didn’t know that until I waited in the lunch line with my best friend, Scott Geckel. He told me, “Your religion stinks.” He didn’t have to give talks or play Jesus under a white sheet. He didn’t compete for Reverence Awards. The Geckels just sat in a pew for an hour and then went home. A three hour block of church boggle his mind.

Whether being LDS stunk or not, I didn’t really know. Now, I figure when you were eleven, you didn’t know either. We just went to church because our family when to church. As the youngest of five boys, I aggressively watched what you did. You went to church with no visible complaints, so I did too. I wasn’t a childhood prodigy of spiritual things, only a follower. Your excitement about Ammon told me the Book of Mormon was a thing to check out even though I didn’t know it to be true. I didn’t read the Book of Mormon except with the family, but your vigor about Ammon caused me to have faith in something I knew virtually nothing about.

When you gave the Ammon lesson, I was ten. My religious views were apathetic at best. When Scott Geckel said “Your religion stinks,” I responded, “I know.’ I didn’t care. I never wondered whether the Church was the only way to go or not. I played second base for the green baseball team and forward for the blue soccer team. I wanted glowing grass stains that had to be lathered with soap and scratched by scouring fingernails to come clean. I wanted diving catches, header goals, and double plays. I wanted dried mud to crack off my knees as I left the field that soiled me. I wanted the drain to be full of dead grass and dirt clumps when I emptied the tub. I wanted to smell my name in newsprint for scoring goals. I wanted fame. I didn’t lie awake in bed pondering a blood atonement. And I definitely didn’t whistle “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” during recess. I didn’t care. And yet, I knew who Ammon was because of you.

The years passed. You went to church as did I. You went to youth conferences, and Mom forced you to tell me about them. You graduated from high school and joined Jerry at BYU. Jerry turned nineteen and went to Japan on a mission. You turned nineteen. You turned twenty. I wondered why you hadn’t gone on a mission. Jay was turning nineteen soon and anxiously awaited the time when he could turn in his mission papers. People went on missions at nineteen, didn’t they? The boys in our family were all going to go on missions, weren’t they? Were you?

I remember the tension in your face. I did not know then what it meant. I just watched. I though the choice should have been easy for you. You were nineteen. Mormon boys go on missions when they are nineteen. I flexed my silent jaw and mentally urged, “Just go, Oscar!” Shortly after the twentieth birthday, you submitted your mission papers. You were going on a mission.

Roger and I were lying in front of the TV when Mom came in and asked if she could turn the TV off. “Sure Mom.” Maybe we didn’t answer so willingly. I don’t remember. “Oscar’s mission call came in the mail today,” she announced. My food-full mouth tripped curiously over the words, “Where’s he going?” I erected my body up from our carpet that was as dusty as it was brown to learn of your news. Mom explained how she had read your call to you over the phone since you were at BYU. “Yeah, yeah. Where’s he going? Germany?” She looked so disheartened. I wondered why. We were all smiles and laughs when Jerry got his call to Japan. The tears Mom had then had dried long before this moment. Mom cried at stuff like this. Why not now? “Where’s he going?” As if testifying at court, she stated, “He got called to the Utah Ogden Mission and he’s a little disappointed about that.” We couldn’t believe it. Utah! Of all places, you got called to Utah! Maybe our religion did stink. You had studied German for a couple years with hopes of being called there. You had no such luck. That must have been an insult. I thought it was, and your solemnity would later tell me that you also thought so. I learned not to tell people about you mission call unless I was trying to make them laugh.

As a young deacon, I didn’t doubt that your mission call had come from the Lord. At the same time, I didn’t boldly claim that it had. I didn’t know and didn’t rally care. To me, mission calls were bragging rights. Young boys go to far off lands. The bishop proudly reads letters from him to the ward during sacrament meeting. Mothers with boys out at the same time hug and weep, telling each other they know how hard it is to watch the belly of a plane swallow their boys. What a clique! These mothers tell younger mothers, “Someday, you’ll know the pain of being a missionary’s mother.” I’ve often thought to myself, “What a strange hierarchy.”

No one from our Greensburg Ward had ever gone to Japan, so when Jerry got called there, it was cool. His letters home were wrapped in those thread-thin brown envelopes. “He uses those to save postage,” Mom would say. Jerry sent pictures of himself standing by Buddhist temples and one with a frog-like fish that could kill a person if it wasn’t cooked right. I wonder how people learned that! Mom slipped those pictures between the glass and the wooden pane of our hutch. For my birthday, Jerry sent me Japanese chocolate and bubble-gum. Cool! I couldn’t decipher the labels, but hey tasted good. Long after the candy was eaten I still smelt the wrappers. Japanese gum smelled like American doughnuts. The sweet lingering of the smells satisfied me almost as much as the candy itself. You got called to Ogden. I wondered what you could possibly send me from Ogden.

The night before Dad drove you cross-country to the MTC, we traded temple pictures. You busily crammed two year’s worth of possessions into your coffin sized suitcase. You wanted to take a picture of the temple, but you had no room for your D.C. temple picture with the blood-red sky. My smaller D.C. temple picture had a rigid cold-blue sky and easily fit into your luggage. I happily traded for the big picture, thinking it had more possibilities.

Two months into your mission, we moved to Idaho. No one in Idaho believe us when we told them you were in Ogden. Your mission boundaries were only two hours away by car. My recollections of your mission are few. Nothing you wrote in a letter sticks out. If you sent pictures, I can’t remember them. I do remember you called home a lot. I knew your frequent calls violated mission rules because Jerry only called on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Mom and Dad always fussily anticipated Jerry’s calls.

Of course I remember when Roger drove to Willard to spend P-day with you and didn’t return. Mom and Dad traded worry for sleep that night. I didn’t care. I slept. Mom woke me up. She squeezed her head into the bottom of the bunk bed saying, “We need to go to Willard, so you’re going to miss school today.” I had no qualms about that.

On the drive down, Mom and Dad told me what had happened. Some members in Willard knew that Roger, you, and your companion set out to climb Mt. Willard. They grew concerned when night came and your mission car still sat in their driveway. They called the mission president and he called Dad, suggesting that we come to Willard that morning. The drive to Willard wasn’t pleasant. Mom feared the worst.

Upon arriving in Willard, we were instructed to drive to the base of the mountain. The chaotic scene reminded me of scurrying ants trying to salvage a piece of abandoned picnic cheese. Two news helicopters patrolled the sky. Reporters and cameramen tripped over their cords. The clouds eclipsed the sun. The smell of storm accompanied the darkened day. Supposedly, you guys were alive on that mountain. When missionaries get lost, it’s big news in Utah.

Hungry clouds rolled slinkily toward Mt. Willard. They already swallowed the neighboring peaks. In only a few minutes, the clouds would engulf Mt. Willard too. The helicopters would have to land leaving you helpless under the storm.

But just in time, the helicopters spotted you and carried you to safety. With wet eyes, Dad later told me and Mom of your rescue’s timing. His emotion trembled, “Those clouds were moving quick. If the helicopters didn’t see them soon, they would have been stranded. President Wayne told me that he went to pray; he told the Lord, ‘A storm is moving in. We need to get those missionaries off that mountain now!’ He came out from where he was praying. Almost immediately we got word that one of the helicopters had spotted them.”

You’ve always been glad about that helicopter ride, figuring it would be your only free one. After your interview with Channel 5 News we returned to your mission apartment. The light on the answering machine beat like a runner’s hear. Your district leader had left five or six different messages. Each message sounded more urgent. Laughing at his repeated messages of concern, you told of the peril you faced on your return journey from Mt. Willard’s peak. You came down a different path than you had climbed. The new path led you to a succession of three waterfalls. An attempt to climb down the waterfalls in the March weather would have been fatal You had to return to your original path. The snow was as deep as your waist so the going was slow. You went so far on the wrong path that night came before you could return to the path that led home. Sleep would have to be on the mountain, far from the warmth of home. You still claim that you knew exactly where you were, that you were never lost. Looking around your apartment, I couldn’t find my picture of the D.C. temple with the cold-blue sky.

I was fifteen years old and in ninth grade when you came back form your mission. I found my first year of experiences in seminary enlightening. We studied the Book of Mormon that year and I didn’t come any where close to achieving the ideal of daily scripture study. However, I did find one significant scripture, Mosiah 2:33. I am still strengthened by it. Some nights I’d be about ready to jump in bed when I would realize I hadn’t read my scriptures. I’d often read Mosiah 2:33 and call it good. From my first reading, the line “he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge” stuck with me. I’ve often wondered how much of our misdirected behavior God will dismiss because we knew no better. I’ve often wondered if you stopped going to church because you didn’t know such action was contrary to the will of God.

I believe my knowledge of God took root in ninth grade. My trust in God became mine and not my trust in Mom and Dad’s trust in God. A peace had overcome me when Dad explained how President Wayne’s prayer for your escape from Mt. Willard was so promptly answered. I remember that feeling. It is like someone washed my soul with a scrub brush. The feeling is unhurried and not anxious. My soul felt white without any threat of stain. I felt that same peace several times during ninth grade. I cared now. Scott Geckel was wrong; it didn’t stink to be LDS. I wondered if my actions toward God went against my knowledge of Him. I wondered if yours did.

Your immediate inactivity in church after coming home bewildered me. I asked Mom about it. My questions ignited tender emotions and sometimes tears. I learned not to ask those questions anymore because I didn’t know how to comfort Mom. I just quietly observed you. If your name and the Church came up in the same sentence, all heads nodded with a determined frown. It seemed that our family had passed policy on you: everyone in the family needed to be sorry that you didn’t go to church but needed to be relatively silent about it. I wondered why, so I just watched you.

I remember an afternoon a few days after you came home from Ogden. Mom came down the stairs. She hugged you and began to cry. Your hesitant arms crawled around her waist. Mom couldn’t see me because I stood facing you. As Mom embraced you, your eyes rolled. Your head shook back and forth in disgust. I wondered why.

You delivered your homecoming address. The sentiments were pure cynicism. You said, “Maybe some of you are wondering why I went on a mission. My younger brother Jay was getting ready to send in his mission papers, so I figured I should too.” I sat in the pew wondering why you’d say that.

Jerry got married in Manti. Since Roger was on his mission, he was the only member of the family who didn’t make the trek. Being the only unendowed Faulkner, I prepared myself for a long wait in the temple’s lobby, but Mom said you’d wait with me. I wondered why, so final I asked. Mom said, “Oscar doesn’t really feel worthy to go through the temple.” Later, as we ate lunch alone at probably the only diner in Manti, I quoted Mom’s explanation. It was nerve-racking for me to tell you that. I wasn’t only questioning the level of your faith. I was telling you that the level of your faith bothered me. You laughed and said, “Worthy? No. It’s not that.”

My freshman year at BYU seemed to revolve around mission calls. Would I choose to go? Some of the guys I knew at Deseret Towers shamelessly voiced their choice not to go. Others proudly said they would go. Certainly Mom and Dad expected me to go. They never said so directly to my face, but I could feel their urgings. But it was my choice. I needed to go I wanted to go. I went.

As I prepared for a mission, I wondered how you felt before your mission. Did you want to go on a mission? Did you feel you had a choice? One night, we battled a snowstorm on our return to Provo from Logan. There had been accidents the whole way. Our progress moved slowly. We had a lot of time to talk.

We talked off and on, but I kept avoiding what I really wanted to talk about: missions. It seemed to me that our family looked at your life as a fragile vase. If we handled the vase too much by talking, we’d break it. You never began religious talks so I was intimidated to do so now. But I felt justified since I would be on a mission in a few months. You knew I was leaving. You’d been on one and I hadn’t. Finally, I interrupted the silence. “Are you glad you went on a mission?”

“The mission wasn’t good for me. I never should have gone,” you said.

“Why not?”

“I just don’t believe in the religion.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Some of it, like Joseph Smith’s vision, seem pretty spectacular.”

“You’re telling me.”

“Did you ever believe in it?”

“Yeah when I was a little kid”

“I believe in it,” I declared.

“I know. I’m the only one in the whole family who doesn’t.”

“So why did you go on a mission?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t believe in Joseph Smith and all that when I left. I told the stake president and he just told me to go anyway. He said a testimony would come. I prayed and all that stuff, but I never felt anything and I never told anyone on my mission that I had.”

I wanted to defend the church I wanted to share a testimony that would convert you right there. If you never felt the spirit, I wanted you to now. I wanted something I could write up for the Ensign. But I had no clue what to say, so I was silent.

I left on my mission and figured it may be easier to convert you from a distance I fasted and prayed for you. I sent you those evangelical letters full of stream-of-conscious testimony that I am sure you remember so well. It all must have sounded the same to you. When I called on Mother’s Day, Mom paused awkwardly and told me I didn’t need to write those letters to you anymore. I felt embarrassed. Had I failed in writing you those letters? If you had gone back to church I would have been a family hero. But now I felt like I’d been punished. Mom said you didn’t like the letters. “Just tell him about your mission experiences and that you love him,” she directed. I stopped writing you those proselytizing letters.

Now I realize that maybe the purpose of those letters was to rob you of what you may feel has been robbed from you your whole life: your choice. Mosiah 2:33 says we receive an everlasting punishment if we transgress the law of God contrary to our own knowledge of God. As I think about you, I think about going to church as kids without really understanding why. I think about nineteen-year-old Mormon boys going on missions. As I think about these things I realize there are no free helicopter rides. I realize that a Reverence Award misrepresents the daily struggle of the gospel. A person can’t do good for a while and then coast and still come off the winner. I realize that when we get off of the path we often have to walk in waist-deep snow to return. The snow makes the return-trip slow, but teaches us not to go down that path again. We know the danger.

I wonder what caused us to go to church as young boys. Were we there for more reasons than Mom and Dad? Were we more than puppets? I wonder what caused you to be excited about Ammon. I wonder what caused you to go to youth conferences. I wonder what caused you to attend BYU your freshman year. I wonder what caused you to delay a mission and eventually go almost as much as I wonder what caused you to hate it. I consider many of your actions to be sinful. I would even claim to know that they are sins. I wonder why I consider many of your actions sinful and perhaps you don’t. At the same time, I wonder whether your transgressions of God have been contrary to your knowledge of God. I wonder. I wonder.

In my mind there are two ways to make a choice. We can choose to act against Go contrary to our own knowledge of him or we can make choices without knowing God. You made choices to go to church. You made a choice to be excited about Ammon. You made a choice to go on a mission. Did you make those choices knowing that God wanted you to make them? I’ve wondered.

After your rescue form Mt. Willard you claimed, “We were never lost; we knew exactly where we were the whole time.” Could you say you feel the same way in your relation to God—that you’re not lost, but know exactly where you are?

Where were you when you came home from your mission? Where are you now? Are you not lost as the family silently believes? Do you know exactly where you are? I’d like to know because I pray you will return to where the family waits. I pray and pray that you will find the true path home, but more importantly, I pray you will know it’s the true path home. The family loves you, Oscar. Although it would be comforting for Mom and me and everyone else, no helicopter ride is going to give you a free ride this time.

 

Love,

Your brother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To my mother, and all the others

By Ashley Mae Christensen

I couldn’t have been more than four years old when I asked my little brother to come into my parents closet and asked that he pull down his pants and show me what was underneath. I didn’t touch, didn’t even think much of it, just wanted to see what made us different. My dad, a quiet, kind, good-night-book-reader, must have heard us and pulled back the sliding mirrored door. He found his two kids squatting on polished Sunday shoes, our heads brushing the bottoms of hanging flannel shirts. I was startled, scolded and sent to my room to think about what I’d done. 


II.

In second grade, after moving to a newer and fancier school, where everyone already knew cursive and whose parents didn’t shop at Mervyns, I finally made a friend. She was from the Philippines. She was loud and wore bright blue pants. I don’t remember her name, but I remember so clearly the day she asked me to pull my baggy shirt tight across my chest and pronounced loudly on the playground, “yep, you’re going to have big boobs.” I had never thought about boobs before, but for the next four years I wore too big shirts and was sure to lean over, letting the fabric billow, when I sat at my desk to write, so that no one would know the way my body was slowly growing.


III.

That same year we lived in the house with a corner garden, and a cherry tree, and a sandbox. My brother and I spent every Sunday afternoon attempting to build a tree house. Poorly nailed wooden steps lined the trunk of the tree below our bedroom window. I remember spinning for a long time around in circles in the front yard, like a human pinwheel, the day my mom got the phone call that our godparents had been killed by drunk drivers. The godparents who never imagined us growing up, but taught us to sew doll blankets and brought donuts on Saturday morning. The day my mom hung up the phone and told me, I remember the leaves whirling lime, yellow, green, and the bits of blue-sky kaleidescoped in between. I spun in circles because I didn’t know what else to do, I had never known about grief and loss. That same week I went into my parent’s tiny white bathroom and discovered the toilet was filled with shades of dark red and maroon floating in the water. I called my brother in and we were both very worried. We called out to our mom that something had happened, that she should come see. In an annoyed tone that surprised us both she called out, “I just forgot to flush the toilet, okay.” My mother who perhaps knew too much about grief and loss.


IV.

One afternoon all fifth grade girls were ushered from classroom desks and into the library. Our bony knees and squeamish calves propped up by growing, sweaty feet fidgeted on the wooden library chairs. My best friend hadn’t told her mother about the meeting, and I suddenly wished I hadn’t invited mine as a gloating and delighted volunteer mother held two ripe and reddened grapefruit in her carefully lotioned hands. She held them out for us, then up to her chest. I sat through the presentation and took my mom’s hand dutifully when she offered hers in my lap. My mother seemed proud of me. I was horrified. The boys began to appear at the windows of the library. They suddenly seemed so childish and sweaty. 


V.

In the following weeks, the girls who shopped at the Gap, gloated in their smooth legs and training bras, they talked with an air of pride that both disgusted and infatuated the boys. I overhead one girl talk about how her older sister and her friends practiced French kissing with saran wrap on their tongues. I, on the other hand still wore a baggy peach T-shirt with a big, black peace sign on the front, a valued hand-me-down from my California cousin. I took off the ratty, graying sports bra I had inherited from another cousin as soon as I walked in the door from school. I was now acutely aware of the brown hair grazing on my legs. I felt sure my parents loved each other, but I had never seen them kiss, and never thought twice about it. 


VI.

I spent the entirety of the sixth grade praying fervently every night that my period would not come. I held it as a test to see if God really listened. A true inquiry as to whether the things they told us in church about God caring about the things that were important to us was actually true. I prayed to God that if he would just spare me from a growing chest, the hair, the blood, I bargained a whole number of things. I would dedicate my firstborn like Sariah, I promised to do well in school, to be kinder to my brother and sister. Near the end of sixth grade, it came. A small reddish spot on my underwear. My stomach sank and I pretended it would go away. We went to my cousin’s house that night and I wore the purple and blue tie-dye outfit I’d sewn in my sewing class, I considered it good luck. I lay on the floor, we were watching Gulliver’s Travels and I’d just learned about the word Lilliputian, meaning very small, even insignificant. I was so worried everyone was watching when I had to stand up and go home.


VII.

The next morning it did not go away. I was so mad at God, disillusioned at His lack of concern for me. I sat in the bathroom fighting back tears. I hated the stupid lady at the maturation program who told us with her idiot-beaming smile that being a woman was so wonderful, that all these changes were exciting. I pulled up my jeans and walked into my mom’s room. I sat on the edge of her cedar chest and cried until she got out of the shower. When she opened the door, a billow of steam escaped and she came and sat next to me in her towel. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I was crying too hard to tell her. She stroked my hair and I let her, as she guessed what the problem could be. A fight with a friend, a bad grade, the shirt I’d wanted to buy at the mall. Finally she guessed right and I nodded my head in defeat. I despised the words of comfort, about it being a beautiful thing, but I sat there with my swollen eyes and my arm around my mom’s wet waist.


VIII.

Soon after, I started junior high. My jeans were too big, I had a walkman with a UB40 tape, and no older sisters to tell me how to do my hair. The first time I had my period that year my mom packed me a pastel bag full of supplies. I remember the feeling of that cushioned bag. I buried it at the bottom of my backpack and worried all through class that someone would hear the crinkle and recognize the contents, or that any moment some obnoxious boy would tear it open and pour the awkward pads onto my desk. I was a straight-A student, and never late to class, but that week I lingered after the second bell had rung and slunk into the most obscure bathroom, standing in the stall, so careful to unzip the bag an inch at a time so that my shame wouldn’t interrupt the echoing silence. 



IX.

My mom taught me that to keep track of every month I could put a little heart around the day on a calendar, then I would know what it meant, but no one else would. I remember the nine months before my littlest sister was born, when those ballpoint penned hearts were absent from the kitchen calendar. It seemed exciting then. I purposely never kept track, couldn’t imagine why I would, was too worried that a friend, a friend that was a boy would come over and crack the code. In a strange way, later in life, after my mom had no need to draw any more hearts ever again, I felt a strange longing to see them, a desire to know that in ways, my mom and I were just alike, that still we understood each other, even if I refused to acknowledge the facts.

Wrestling Esau

by Jonathon Penny

-Read this one. The June entry-

June, 1995. I’m being devoured. Digested. It means to have me, totally and gluttonously. It whispers to me of freedom, unencumbered by family and church. It tells me not to waste my time. It makes me angry. It makes me rate: “I want to sleep! Be quiet, son! Shut up! Shut UP! Go to SLEEP!!” I alternate lonely, wakeful nights between the infant child of my love and that other motherless, gnashing thing that calls me father, leering in lewd bastardy. I weep and rant, with my son whimpering in my arms as I curse and shout.

When my calmer mind prevails, he lies quiet and sweet across my knees and I recite desperate, penitent litanies toward heaven and sob apologies to my poor child, punctuated by kisses and promises of improvement.

But heaven is a solid, and oppressive. I feel everything turning in me as I pray, souring. I grow old. I grow fetid.

-When did it begin? Do you remember?-

A long time ago—two years, maybe more—I don’t’ know.

This is the first time I’ve been able to stop and think about it clearly. I noticed it first when Riley was born. It followed close behind him at his birth, grasping his heel like a late-born Esau (that’s what I call it now—The Esau), wrestling for my attentions, gnashing my patience in its teeth. Long nights have passed like that one in June, lonely days deep down inside myself with no way out. Perhaps it isn’t over yet. Perhaps this is only the eye of the storm—but oh Dear God, I hope not!

When did it start? When Heaven went mute. Before Riley was born, when I think of it. Bu that’s when I first noticed some nights are better than others. Like tonight. We are both quiet, and I study his face. He is a knowing child, a loving child, and the Esau is lurking somewhere far away and nearly forgotten. I think about the times when I can’t think straight, when I can’t do right. I see my own haughty faults n t those moments. Thinking about them reconjures the darkness.

-Keep reading.-

Is this one alright?

October, 1995. I’m okay when I teach seminary, or lay on hands. Then I am huge, deliciously swollen, and I ache with joy; march, race exult, weep, and trumpet “God loves you! And so do I!” And I actually mean it. I am drunk with spirit, an evangelist praising and testifying. My students look back at me with the beginnings of eternal hope in their eyes. The room is full of light.

And then I go to class.

The loneliness there steals every precious thing that all who know me think I am—that I think I am—and leaves me a black longing.

“I AM SICK TO DEATH OF PEOPLE WHO HIDE BEHIND THEIR ANTHROPOPMORPHIC GOD!” bellows Professor Blackburn, snarling and maniacal in front of the class. He prowls toward me, glares at me with fiercely intoxicated eyes from under a black, unkempt mane and hairy brow. His teeth are yellow, his finger tips stained by rich tobacco from his cigars They wag secretly at me from beneath the tattered wool of his jacket cuffs. His body is darkly upholstered. He had bee to China. He knows more, is more powerful than me, and I shrink before him, equally offended and embarrassed by the challenge. Every one in the room turns and sees. The moment has passed too quickly, and I am too late. That evening my prayers go nowhere, as usual. It is on no consequence that I meekly (worm!) approach him days later, whispering out a trembling Christian apology.

I am alone in God’s universe. I wish it were Godless. Maybe I wouldn’t care.

-No. You aren’t alone. Remember a better time.-

Like when I proposed to Wendy? I was commanded to propose, really. Not that I didn’t want to eventually. But God removed all of my excuses by making it a commandment.

I’d not been home from Italy long, and the old, tentative friendship had been renewed, dissolved, and replaced gloriously the day we went to report our missions together—our first uncomfortable date. I still remember her dress, a simple affair, was regal on her body—not tight, but an accentuation of her beauties. She was tall and splendid. Pure. I hardly breathed. I tapped the steering wheel. I hummed. I bounced my knee on the inside of the car door. I looked straight ahead. I didn’t say anything silly. I didn’t say anything at all. I breathed her in. Sometimes I even breathed out. In. Out. All day. Breathed her greedily in, breathed her reluctantly out . . . here it is:

August, 1993. I awoke today already in prayer.

“. . . and Lord, it seems that thou has arranged all of this, and if so—” There was no need to go on The familiar calor spread sweetly in my chest.

“Thank you, Father,” I whispered, through tears and nervous laughter.

Later, mowing her father’s lawn, the second undeniable communique startle out of a stupor.

-Ask her.-

I saw my hands, still soft and fresh from the mission gripping the handle of the mower. I saw the front of the machine. I saw a browning weed stand obstinate on the green. I felt God breathing down my neck.

“I will! When the time is right,” I replied parenthetically, ignoring the immediate stiffness in my back. Twenty minutes passed.

-Ask her today!-

“WHAT!?”

-ASK HER TODAY! –

“Too soon,” I protested, “We need more time, more common ground. More time!”

-Are you finished?-

“Yes,” (meekly now).

-Ask her today—or else.- 

For the first time in my life I was allowed to glimpse, or rather sense Eternity, my Eternity, but without Wendy. Without her there was only sempiternal Annihilation, the Cartesian plain denuded of all its philosophic effrontery, a sensory mewithout any of me in it, a ‘Je ne serai plus.’ She would complete me. That was the promise. And without her I could not be happy, could not be anything more than I was at that moment. Could not be.

Ask her today, or you will lose her forever. –

So I asked her.

I long for that again, that God that was once so immediate, so reliable. But He won’t speak to me! He won’t magnify me anymore! I feel like crying out to him; “Where art thou?” But the question ends, unarticulated, ground between my jaws. Hah! I don’t even have myself to talk to, usually. Is that screwed up, or what?

It’s okay. Be still. Read another good one. Here. This one. April.-

April, 1993. It is sometime during the early mountain tempests of spring. This morning my companion knocked on the first door of the second apartment building on the crest of a long, steep, broad boulevard in Teramo. The building was leprous against the digesting clouds at its roof, shedding patches of stucco and growing mottled, cancerous molds in preparation for future decrepitude. It stood by itself in the universe, shrinking strangely as we approached. We went inside and climbed the stairs our chattering hushed by the darkness.

Hélène opened that first door of the second building on the crest of that boulevard, beautiful and dark and French in an Italian mountain, in simple blouse and jeans, auburn hair falling across her face.

We loved her immediately, with the pure love of servants and the innocent love of boys. The conversation began as so many others had, but with a new intensity.

“We are missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (“Hélène,” we urged silently, “the gospel was made for such as you. Listen to us.”)

“I am not interested. Je suis athée. I am an atheist.”

“Are you really? I have always wanted to speak to a devout atheist. Are you devout?” Parry, thrust, retreat, reprise, rebuttal, rebuild. (This is getting nowhere. Something’s missing. But what?)

“Oh, you’re married? Have you any children, Signora Hélène?”

And suddenly there was a hurricane in her marvelous face. We didn’t know whether she shrieked or whispered. We didn’t know which would have been more terrible.

“Non ho dei bambini! I don’t have any children! Your God takes them from me before they are born!”

For half a moment we were permitted to enter the storm, to see into her soul, to flounder, drowning in her pain and solitude, in her self-imposed exile from the love of God. It was pitch—painfully, horribly black and endless. We wept there in her godless infinity. We held out our hands, stigmatized and scarred with small sacrifices, miniatures of the Hands that led us to her, that pulled us from her soul before we, too, were overcome Like His, our bowels were filled with mercy. Like Him, we were moved to compassion.

-My child suffers. Bring her unto me.-

“Tell Him, Hélène! Pray to him in your anger!” we cried in residual despair and spiritual alarm. “Pray in your sorrow! He must hear you speak! Oh, Hélène, you must ask for healing! You believe he is! That is the beginning! Now let him teach you how he is! Let him show you that he is your Father! Learn to love him!”

We were still shaking hours later—weak, weary, and weeping. I remember that.

Last Sunday, I told my gospel doctrine class about Hélène as part of the lesson. I realized that I am now as Hélène was then. I am angry and I am alone. Am I also in self-imposed exile?

He spoke to me once, you know—the Esau—sneering through mannequin teachers and peers in a theory seminar:

“Beware false prophets!”

But not all prophets are false, I replied.

“God is dead!” he proclaimed.

I know he’s not. I have too many witnesses, too many clear memories of Him (see how faded they are. I hadn’t realized. Still memories, though. Still clear).

“FREEDOM IS TO BE FOUND IN THE REJECTION OF A GOD OF COVENANT AND LAW! DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE?” (He was shrieking, now. Like Hélène. The old argument. But in malice, not pain.)

Preposterous. I have always known the proponents of such illiberal education to be sophists in the clothing of the sagacious. “These are the Hollow Men,” I remind myself.

“YOU HAVE NO SUPPORTING EVIDENCE! Ahem. Does that not suggest . . .”

Suggest what? I have never put much stock in evidence. You make inferences, I can do the same! These are matters of the soul, and the soul includes both spirit and body. Truth is more profound than supposition and conjecture—it is buried deep in the marrow of the bones!

“But do you care if it is true?”

I fear it is true. I fear it so that I cannot let go of it.

“Do you want it to be true?”

I—don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps there isn’t one.

Perhaps I . . .

“DO YOU WHAT IT TO BE TRUE?!”

I DON’T KNOW! ALRIGHT?

Oh, God. I don’t know.

Ah. There it is. Unearthed at last.

Remember.-

June, 1993. Emilio knelt with us in his music room, his holy of holies, a shrine adorned by his jeweler’s skill. A blinding ivory piano stood behind me in antiseptic slumber. My companion’s suit pants were dark and offensive against the pristine white of the rug. A glass menagerie peered over Emilio’s shoulder. Here he would finally pray to know Truth as he knew us.

We waited silently, willing an effort from this man whose eyes shone with tears whenever we talked, who sensed an affinity with us that grew beyond mortal encounters and cognisances, too deep for cheap, inflated talk of premortal friendships and promise. We know infinite brother- and son- hood together, and an infinite choice lay before him.

Nostro Padre che sei in Cielo, he began. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.”

(Father, help him know. Help him see. He is such a good man.)

Caro padre, io . . .”

(For his sake, Father, answer his poor prayer. Tell him that thou art with him, and with us. Tell him that we are thine.)

“. . . non sono un brav’uomo. I am not a good man. These young men tell me to pray to you for knowledge . . .”

(Oh, Father! Please, please, please PLEASEPLEASAEPLEASE—”)

An hour passed, and we heard only the silent pleading of our hearts and minds, felt the ache in our souls, and then in our knees. It was too much, and he surrendered.

(Father? Is it enough?)

-He does not want me sufficiently yet, my son, and you will abide. Leave him in my hands, wham Am his Father.-

Two years is a long time. I have pretended, have wondered covertly through High Council talks, seminary lessons, and the birth of a second child what was wrong with me, and if this thing would ever leave me peace. The truth has come out, finally, the truthful question and the naked answer, in those dreary, dumb prayers I have repeated for twenty-four months: Heaven is not mute; I am deaf. I am deaf on purpose.

Sometimes, when I come home exhausted, I cling weeping and helpless to my dear wife. I look at my children and long that they be given a father, one worthy of them in my place. I ache for them, and the old me. On longer days, when I have had no respite from the secular, I push my wife away, despising my life, despising her goodness and her forgiving heart that make my charade so obvious and vacuous. I wish to be free of the bonds of family and of church. I sit in the car listening to harsh, desperate music. I wish to be free of theology. I wish to be free of belief. I almost drive away. Other times I see the Esau standing greedy and threatening beside my wife and children in photographs and mirrors, his face where mine should be, His arm around them.

I hate him.

-What else?-

Well, I was my old self again when Hollywood perpetrated sacrilege on The Scarlet Letter in ’96. I wrote a paper called “The Psychology of Repentance,” asserting that Hawthorne was actually standing in merciful judgement over Hester and Arthur, that they never fully repented but that they longed to. “He was talking about hell,” I preached, “about separation from God.” It was incredible to write that paper, to smuggle truth into it.

Later that year, I wrote a poem censuring Wallace Stevens for misunderstanding his own questions, his own problems. I insisted that it was man’s idea of God that offended Stevens. The truth of it stood on them heavily, and whispered to them things beyond their expectation, beyond their comprehension. It stood more heavily on me. It was my idea of God that turned me from Him, for He would be shaped by me, but would rather do the shaping, and I had be an unwieldy subject, an arrogant patient.

Like Darren.

January, 1997. Darren, another seminary teacher, just left his wife. The coordinator told him that they weren’t going to hire him, so he left her. I guess there was no longer a reason to pretend righteousness. We were in a class together last semester. I knew he was struggling, but I had no idea how much. More and more, the things coming out of his mouth sounded hollow and “liberated,” and I had been alarmed.

He must have given in. I saw him tonight at the theatre. He was with a girl. They stood too close to each other, vacant and giggling at nothing, denying the world and its consequences. They are lovers. I wanted to smack him. Thank heaven I am not that far gone! I annon live without the commandments, covenants and relationships I have been conditioned t0 keep, accept and engender. I need them.

I need God.

-You must call me Father.- (The exhortation is disturbing and soothing all at once as I pace the floor on another sleepless night, this time without Riley, who sleeps quietly and obediently now.)

I wish I could. There is an aggravation, an incontinence of spirit that menaces when I close my eyes. I see you, Father, looking at me, the Oldest Man, penetrating, challenging, glaring.

But it is emotionally and spiritually taxing to defend an ideology against a jealous world. It is painful to deny the seduction of books, of learning, of knowledge over and over again, to read and not revert, to think and not regress. I long for hypothermic numbness. To lie down. TO be without feeling.

I won’t walk away from you, but will I ever walk with you again? Do I really want to give myself completely over to you, to accept what reason and fashion and learning (motley triplets!) tell me I cannot?

June, 1992. I called Irene yesterday before I left Italy finally behind.

“Penny!” she answered, “You called! I didn’t think you would!”

“Of course I called. How are you?”

“Oh, Penny. Have the others told you?”

“Told me what?”

“Yesterday my brother died in a car accident.”

Irene, cara Irene. Mi dispiace tanto. I am so sorry. What will you do?”

I remembered she wouldn’t accept resurrection She said she wanted some sort of Zen-consciousness thing to happen to her at death; wanted to become a faceless, formless part of some huge, spiritual organism that concerted the dead in vast anonymity. We argued, we testified, we begged. She just didn’t want resurrection. It had been the only thing that held her back.

“Oh, Penny,” she wept shamelessly into the receive, “Ci credo! Ci credo tutto. I believe it all I need to believe it all.”

“What will you do then, Irene?”

Lo so, Penny. So che devo fare. I will do what must be done.”

That’s it, then. I am faced not, at graduation, with unemployment and feeding wife and two children, and I must do what must be done. I must do it for my wife, and for my children, I must do it because it is expected of me. I must do it because you have commanded it.

-And now, my son?-

I hope this is no the eye of the storm, Father. But if it is I a m no stranger to its strength anymore, nor to thine. I’ll see it coming next time, I think, see it rising up against a clear ideology, forceful and pointless and overwhelming, and when it lays its dark pitiless bulk across my vision to suffocate me with its pressure, memory, better than terror, will be ready, and whisper stolidly that the darkness in finite, that it will end.

And I will try to remember better times.

June, 1993. My companion and I were standing at the mouth of the piazza on the eve of my retirement among the smells and jocular warmth of a tobacco shop, of an open bakery, of a pizzeria and a cobbler’s workroom. It was a delightful, final baptism; a happy moment in worn clothes, ruined shoes and tired bodies, with the music of traffic and voices all around us. We saw Hélène, three months a stranger to us. “How are you?” we asked.

Sto meglio.I am better. Thank you . . .

I am better, too.

It is a dim morning at the end of another sleepless night, I put Christopher gently in his crib and look at my two sons, helpless and dependent on me, peaceful, perhaps aware somehow of what has happened in their father tonight. They will bring me peace now, peace that I’ve tasted the last few hours, will bring humility and healthy, helpless dependence on my own Father not always, perhaps, but more often.

I turn and close the door, return to bed for a moment to hold Wendy and to enjoy silent tears, then prepare myself quietly for the day. When I am ready, I step out into the half-light of the cold dawn of another winter, intent today on a reconciliation, hoping to embrace that other child, the Esau, with the strength of growing humanity and wisdom of accompanying Divinity, and win him to me. Despite the cold, my face is smooth, my shoulders relaxed and broad under an open heaven.

At least for now.

 

 

Chestnut Eyes

by Richard John Hawkins

 

I don’t remember which woke me first, the blinding sunlight or the colossal figure hovering over the sofa. Both made me feel tremendously uncomfortable. My grandfather’s presence always diminished my own, and from this angle, gazing up at two enormous, hair-filled nostrils, I felt especially small and vulnerable.
“You shouldn’t sleep past six. It’s time for breakfast.” His musty breath stole away my sleepiness.
I quickly folded the Pendleton blanket, wrapped the pillow between the thick folds, and replaced the cushions on the sofa where I would spend each night of our family’s summer vacation. After we arrived the night before, Grandma carefully embraced each of us, evaluating haircuts and growth spurts before directing the unloading of coolers, the placement of luggage, and the assignment of rooms. She directed me and my few belongings toward the sofa⸺as I was only twelve years old and least likely to put up a stink. That’s where Grandpa found me.
Somewhat disoriented and still startled by my encounter, I nervously approached the breakfast table. Greeting Grandpa always presented a considerable dilemma because he didn’t like people touching him. Usually a firm handshake followed by an awkward pat of some sort did the job, but hugs were unthinkable. I was relieved to see him already seated at the table with overalls and bald head, eating a raw onion sprinkled with salt. The situation required no greeting.
We both waited in silence for the family to come to breakfast. Over poached eggs, toast, and gnat-speckled butter, Grandpa asked my older siblings about each of their doings, laughing and commenting with selective charm. To me, however, he said nothing, directing his attention my way only when my elbows rested on the table.
From a very young age, I knew Grandpa didn’t like me. Stern glances accompanied by curt rebuffs provided evidence enough. I didn’t take it personally, however, and rather appreciated the fact that he didn’t like my cousins Annalise or Robert either. Simply put, he just didn’t like little kids. Each summer, my older siblings and cousins accompanied Grandpa to bail hay, fix fences, brand cattle, and drive tractors; but we “kids” stayed with Grandma, relegated to picking currents, collecting eggs, and watering ferns. It was demeaning. It was degrading. \We longed to labor, sweat, and commiserate with Grandpa,, to be covered in dirt and burrs, to be free from the housework and the gross injustice. Despite our sincere desires, Annalise, Robert, and I knew that on the farm, children ranked far below small, domesticated mammals in importance. Sniff, the half-breed sheepdog, carried more clout than the three of us combined.
I once asked Grandma why it was that Grandpa hated children.
“He doesn’t hate you. He’s just worried that you’ll get hurt in the farm equipment.”
Her answer satisfied me, but later that night Grandpa sat across from me in the living room, reading a magazine, never speaking a word to me. Then it occurred to me that, with no farm equipment in the living room, I posed no liability. I would just have to grow up before Grandpa would ever like me.
After breakfast, the family scattered. Some wore rubber boots and overalls, prepared to help Grandpa repair an irrigation ditch, and the rest went shopping in Pendleton and La Grande. They abandoned me with Grandma; I was miserable. While sweeping out the mudroom and cleaning the blinds, I stirred dust and dissatisfaction.
I longed to bail hay and showed my disgust with twelve-year-old indignation. Grandma, sensing my frustration, hurried me through my chores and told me to follow her out to the tack room. As we marched through the barn, hair and dust spiraled in the dim sunlight that crossed our path. With saddle, blanket, and bridle in hand, she introduced me to the farm’s newest arrival: Cricket.
“We just got her from your uncle Sherman. She’s a good horse, but she hasn’t been ridden much. Grandpa has been busy since we’re short one farmhand and my back’s been acting up. She’s temperamental, but I think you can handle her, although she hasn’t been around kids much,” Grandma said.
She saddled Cricket and led her out through the heavy boxcar doors into the corral. Backlit by the midday sun, Cricket towered over me with a presence more threatening than farm equipment. She intimidated me much more than Tory the Pony, whom I had grown accustomed to riding over the years. Tony met his end at the glue factory earlier that year; old age and bloated feet rendered him useless even as a riding horse for grandchildren. Approaching Cricket, I could see the reigns tighten as she backed away from me. Apparently our apprehension was mutual.
Grandma steadied her and encouraged me to mount Cricket. As I placed my foot into the stirrup, Cricket began to shift her weight before backing up again, reigns taut. Each avoidance further shook my confidence in het, and looking into her large, chestnut eye, I could see that Cricket lacked faith in me. I sensed that she despised runny noses, giggling, and moon boots. Cricket hated children too.
After several attempts at mounting the moving horse, Grandma and I succeeded with joint effort. Under Grandma’s advice, I headed towards the Robinson Place. Grandma, on the other hand, headed for the house. Just as Cricket turned towards the gate, she caught eye of the stable, turned, and bolted for the open boxcar door. Recognizing her act of defiance, I clung to her back, wrapped my arms around her thick neck, and wondered how much closer the manure floor had grown toward the top of the door frame. Cricket’s hoofbeats sounded my funeral march. As I contemplated a quick death, Grandma spotted the situation and began a gallop of her own, yelling inaudible last-minute emergency instructions. Grandpa heard the commotion while working on a tractor in the shop and began a hurried investigation. We all met in the dark stable as the horse came to a jarring stop. Grandma⸺relieved. Grandpa⸺perturbed. Cricket⸺indifferent. Me⸺mortified. Not only was I a child, but I was a child who couldn’t even ride a horse.
That night at the dinner table,
Grandpa asked me, “Why would Cricket trust you if you don’t trust her?”
I didn’t reply.
Later that week, and after much deliberation, I asked Grandma if I could ride Cricket again. My resilience surprised her. I preferred to think of it as persistence, an unwillingness to accept defeat and humiliation, not from a horse, and certainly not from Grandpa.
After another difficult mount, I directed Cricket towards the hills that gradually matured into the Blue Mountains. With destination in mind, we headed towards the windbreak, making sure that no turn exposed the open stable door. Behind the house stood two perfectly aligned rows of trees, and, passing through them, a dirt road led to the intersection of field, mountain, and Union Pacific railroad track.
Between the road and on either side of the orderly row lay a tetenal hot zone of juvenile adventure. A 1960 blue Chevy with rat-infested interior rested in knee-high thistle on the left. Two refrigerators, several tractors, and a screenless television littered the corridor’s right. I was proud of Cricket for coming this far without incident, and my seemingly innate horsemanship impressed me even more. As we approached the first refrigerator, Cricket froze. I kicked her several times, but she refused to move.
“Come on, Cricket. . . . Stubborn.”
More kicks and a slap on the rear still produced no results. I tried to direct her around the perimeter, approaching from a different angle, but again she refused. I began to think of other ways that we could access the hills, but no other roads came to mind. In frustration, dismounted and attempted to manually move the belligerent beast through the corridor, but my hundred-pound shadow couldn’t match her half-ton bulk. Exhausted, I cautiously rode her back to the stable, having made no headway.
At the dinner table, I recounted the episode to the family, making sure to note the marked improvement over my earlier attempt. After describing Cricket’s apprehension, I asked why she didn’t move. “She probably saw something she didn’t like,” my father suggested.
I shrugged.
“Treat her like you would a person. Let her trust you and respect you,” Grandpa added from across the table. He rolled bread crumbs between his rusty finger and the plastic tablecloth as he spoke, never looking up.
Each day, I found myself hurrying to sweep, straighten, gather, and pick so I could spend as much time with Cricket as possible. With Grandma’s consent, Cricket and I practiced riding in the corral for the remaining hours before dinner. She answered my erroneous reign gestures with correspondingly awkward movements. I gradually learned, adapted, applied. From the corral, we ventured into the front pasture, and from the pasture to the nearby Robinson Place. Soon, we explored the furthest corners of the sun-blanketed farm and the shadow-lit countryside. With each expedition, our problems grew fewer while our mutual respect grew stronger.
The day before my family left the farm, I planned to ride Cricket through the windbreak corridor, across the corrugated fields, to the hills that overlooked La Grande Valley, just as I had planned to do earlier. At breakfast, Grandpa” suggested that I take a shovel along and look for Indian and pioneer artifacts in the newly plowed Jenkins property, an odd request that inspired confused silence at the table. He led me out to the barn, selected a square-headed shovel, and turned on the belt grinder. Already mesmerized by the showering sparks, I froze when Grandpa handed me the shovel, telling me to finish the job myself,
‘Are you sure, Grandpa?” I asked from a safe distance.
“Of course I am. Are you?” he countered. “Flip this switch when you’re done. I’ll be working on the combine.”
That afternoon, I took my shovel and rode Cricket at a trot toward the littered windbreak, confident she would pass through the obstacle without hesitation. Beyond the open corridor, miles of field lay in wait, anticipating my exploration. The sun reached its height as we arrived at the Jenkins property, and as I squinted, my head began to ache. Riding this far had already caused me to break a sweat, and I had yet to begin the tedious act of scavenging. I tied Cricket to a fence post and began to dig, conversing with her all the while. Hour after hour, I dug, adamant that I would not return home empty handed.
“Thousands of rocks, but not a single arrowhead. A field full of rocks,” I grumbled.
By four o’clock, blistered and broiled, I contemplated accepting defeat. However, with one final toss of the square head, I struck gold as my shovel made a high-pitched clink. Scrambling to unearth my discovery, I knelt, and with the care of a trained archaeologist, I slowly unearthed a rust-eaten horseshoe. Initially disappointed, I cleaned the “artifact” rather carelessly by thumping it against the post multiple times. It wasn’t Indian, but I had certainly dug it up.
Eventually content with my find, I mounted Cricket, and together we cantered toward the hills, our original destination. Overlooking the valley, sixteen-year-old pride filled my twelve-year-old psyche. Not only had Cricket and I ridden to the foothills of the Blue Mountains, a feat that had seemed so impossible three weeks ago, but I had also accomplished something much greater. I had completed Grandpas task, perhaps a trivial, meaningless, and totally useless task, but a task accomplished nonetheless.
At the dinner table, I unveiled my find. “Tell your mother that it’s an ancient Chinese artifact, a good-luck symbol,” Grandpa said, “and tell her to hang it in the living room!” We all laughed, except Mom, who rolled her eyes. He then led me into his study, a strictly off-limits sanctum even to Grandma, and showed me a black-and-white photograph with foxed edges of a twelve-horse team pulling a pioneer plow. I then knew the source of my good-luck symbol. I placed my horseshoe on the nightstand before climbing into bed exhausted.
The next morning I awoke a few minutes before six o’clock and found Grandpa sitting at the table, awaiting the final breakfast of our family’s vacation.
After eating, Grandma directed the reloading of coolers, the replacement of luggage, and the straightening of rooms. I shirked my role in the assembly line and slipped into the concealed recesses of the barn. Cricket shuddered and her tail flipped as I extended my hand to touch the soft depression beneath her chewing jaw.
Suddenly a cumbersome weight fell on my shoulder. Cricket and I both jumped as I made out Grandpa’s massive figure, a silo at twilight.
“Will you miss her?” he asked.
“Yeah”
“You know, she’s not a kid’s horse. Cricket’s no Tony.”
“I like her better than Tony,” I replied.
Then in a moment of inexplicable inconsistency, Grandpa reached his arms around me, bringing me close to his overalls and onion breath.
“You didn’t give up. She respects that,” he whispered.
As we walked back to the car, Grandpa took my father aside where they talked in solemn tones, my name being the only word that I understood with any clarity. As the loading of the cars continued, my sisters jockeyed intensely for window seats. I used the bathroom one more time, finished watering the last of the ferns, and retrieved my horseshoe from Grandpa’s study. Beneath the pine-covered walkway, I gave Grandma a h*g and Grandpa a strangely comfortable handshake and pat on the back. As I pulled away from Grandpa’s clutch, he winked one large, chestnut eye at me, and I knew that next year I, too, would drive tractors and bail hay.

What Matters

by Stephanie Christensen

 

The doctor slaps the large black-and-white images onto the illuminated X-ray reading panel, and my mind travels back to the time I sat holding the sedated body of my son, then three years old, in the hospital’s waiting room. As I fought back tears, I wondered at the strangeness of embracing the still small form that normally squirmed with life. Soon the nurse came, lifted him from my arms, and placed his tiny body inside the oppressive white machine that enabled the doctors to see inside his head in order to discover just what lay behind the deformed ear, and whether anything could be done about it.

My mind travels further back, to the long nine-month time frame when I speculated, after two sons, if my baby was a girl this time and, more importantly, if it was healthy. Sometime during the first trimester of pregnancy, the doctors offered me a fetal test to determine whether my baby would have problems. I understood that there were some parents who feel that a ‘less than perfect child” is better off not being born. At the time, I decided the test wasn’t for me. I felt that whether my baby came “defective” or not, impeding its birth was not my decision. My decision was to raise and love the child in whatever condition it came.

Now, sitting next to the audiologist in the dimly lit soundproof booth, I watch Ben, my eleven-year-old son, through the double-paned window where he alternately fails and triumphs at deciphering the sounds coming to him through the earphones placed askew on his head as the doctor switches the sound back and forth between his left and right ears. Not much has changed in the even years that have passed since I sat and watched a younger Ben through the very same window. Though he is almost completely deaf in his right ear, his left ear still compensates wonderfully for the difference.

The audiologist asks me how Ben is doing in school. I remember worrying before he started kindergarten that he might not be able to do anything children his age do. Would his functioning ear fully compensate for his hearing loss? How would he handle the attention that would inevitably be drawn by the deformity? After all, kids can be so cruel. Most distressing, however, was the fact that external abnormalities often indicate internal complications. The doctors warned us that kidney problems often accompany auditory conditions. In addition, they did an angiogram to check the blood vessels in his brain for abnormalities. Their reports revealed things like “no evidence of intracranial mass, hemorrhage, or extra-axial fluid collection,” but I worried about the things we didn’t know about, things-psychological things-that we couldn’t see. The doctors examined him as thoroughly as possible but informed us we would just have to wait and watch closely for future complications.

I wonder if Ben can see me through the booth’s windows. Can he see the mixture of love and anxiety on my face as I watch the blank expressions that cross his features when the sound is switched to his right ear? I think about how, really, his inadequacy can’t count for much because at home we don’t focus on his deficiencies. Instead, we focus on the things he can do.

Day after day, I sit on the couch and watch his body sway to the music he creates as he deftly draws the horsehair bow across the strings of his violin. Ben has an ear for music, and within a year’s time he’s sailed past other students, mastering movements from Bach to Boccherini. As I listen to the struggles other mothers face with getting their children to practice, I marvel how his self-motivated, seven-days-a-week week dedication to practicing has earned him the glowing approval of Mrs. Brown: “Every teacher dreams of having a student like you,” she beams and then adds, “and I got you!”

I reflect upon how grateful I am for those who see the good in others. To most, Ben’s friendly, sunny disposition hides the fact that his features are a bit unlike their own. “I’ve never even noticed a difference!” is something I often hear when someone discovers the visibly smaller, deformed ear. Now, as Ben and I listen to the doctor and consider the pros and cons of the reconstructive surgery required to rebuild the eardrum, I reflect upon all that the past eleven years has brought us and seriously consider if the difficulties are worth it.

One early morning I noticed the bathroom light on. I walked down the hallway to see which of my four sons was there. Eight-year-old Ben stood gazing at his reflection in contemplative consideration.
“I don’t like my ear, Mom. It’s so different from my normal ear. It makes my face look weird,” I stood behind him and studied the noticeable contrast between his right and left ears. For a moment, my heart ached over the trials that had come and that would come because of Ben’s difference. And then I remembered that good had come and would still come because of the difference.
“Why did I have to be like this?” he asked.
“You are beautiful, Ben,” I responded, “And I love you, everything about you.” I wondered if I could even begin to express the joy that he’d already brought into my life.
“It’s really what’s in here that matters,” I counseled and I laid my hand against my chest, knowing that words couldn’t possibly take away the hurt he felt. I gently kissed his cheek and hoped he would feel my sincerity.

In so many ways, I am reminded that it’s not about the ear or his outward appearance. I am reminded of the things that really matter. On Saturday’s, it’s a time-honored tradition for the brothers to go with Dad to get treats after the soccer games that have nearly become an obsession for our family. Dad, the-coach, had to be there early one Saturday, and I had come over separately in the van. As his three brothers, without second thought, piled eagerly into the truck in anticipation of the post-game goods, Ben hesitated, turned around, and started towards the van.

“Do you want me to come with you?” he tenderly asked. I knew full well the sacrifice he was making.
“You go on ahead with your dad and have fun,” I replied.
“Are you sure, Mom? I don’t have to go.”
“You go on with your dad,” I smiled, touched by his concern. “I’m just fine.”

Last month, our family was assigned to speak at sacrament meeting.
“Now which one is the third one?” a friend asked following the meeting.
“Oh, that’s Ben,” I replied.
“Ir was so cute the way he would speak and then look up to smile at everyone,” she commented, noting the difference between Ben and his more somber siblings.
“He’s always smiling,” I had to admit.
One day, after his brother Chad had had a particularly rough morning getting ready for school, I demanded angrily, “Turn around and leave Chad alone. NOW, Ben!” as we drove to piano lessons.
“I’m just trying to make him happy again, Mom.”
Humbled, I glanced in the rear view mirror to see Chad’s tear-stained face brighten as they played the hand-over-hand game in the back seat.

Almost halfway through third grade, Ben arrived home from school each day and seemed out of sorts. Uncharacteristically grumpy, he complained about practicing and snapped at our family over trivial issues. I wondered what was going on with him. Then one day as he rummaged through the kitchen cabinets for an after-school snack, the truth came out.

“Some of the kids at school were making fun of my ear. They asked what’s wrong with me.”
“What did you tell them?” I asked.
“Oh, just that I was born that way. . . . Mom, I really don’t like them talking like that about me.”
“Maybe we should talk to Mr. Oyler about it.”

“I don’t know.” he hesitated.
“Mr. Oyler is a good teacher, Ben; I think he’d want to know.”
The following week, Ben explained that Mr. Oyler had asked a quadriplegic man to visit the classroom. The children talked about differences and about seeing the good in others.

My pre-kindergarten concerns about his ability to compare academically faded entirely as Ben’s yearly straight-A report cards and predominantly positive social experiences repeatedly reflected his capacity for excellence. Were the deafness and deformity really cause for concern?

On our trip to Texas one summer, I noticed that as our flight descended into Austin, Ben didn’t look so well. He’d had a cold for a week; and now his skin was turning a pasty gray, and he was complaining of a sick stomach.

“My ear feels funny, Mom.”
“Open your mouth like this,” I advised, stretching my jaw open as far as it would go. He tried.
“Nothing’s happening. ”
“Plug your nose and try to make the air go out through your ears.”
His face turned a slight shade of pink with the effort.
“Nothing. Mom, I feel so dizzy.”
As the color quickly drained from his face, I reached instinctively for the airsick bag in the seat pocket.

At my sister’s house, Ben seemed to be feeling better. As he and his cousins played in the family room, I wondered how he was and called out to him. No response. Thinking he was just doing the usual tune-Mom-out-because-I’m-busy thing, I called again, a little louder. When he still didn’t even glance my way, I walked to stand behind him and, in a normal tone of voice, tried to get his attention.
“Ben, do you hear me?”
A look of confusion clouded his expression as he turned to face me.
“Did you say something, Mom?”
Becoming concerned, Nicole and I tested his hearing. We whispered to him, and I became alarmed as he struggled to read our lips in order to help him decide what we were saying.

Dr. Donahoe informed us that his “good” eardrum was highly inflamed, filled with fluid and dangerously close to rupturing. He explained that the decrease in cabin pressure on the flight had affected Ben’s equilibrium because of infection and could have caused the drum to burst. Over the next week, I faithfully administered the antibiotics and nasal spray the doctor had given us and we practiced the nose-plugging technique we’d need to survive the return trip. As we flew uneventfully back to Utah, I contemplated the seriousness of the situation⸺Ben might have been left totally deaf.

After carefully contemplating the X-ray images, Dr. Park informs us that the surgery to restore hearing is possible, but not risk-free. My heart pounds at the prospect of Ben hearing in surround sound. I imagine what it will be like for him to hear Bach and Boccherini with both ears. I watch Ben’s body stiffen slightly as the doctor removes the wax buildup from the tiny blind pouch that should be his ear canal. Dr. Park describes the surgery as “delicate.” He will have to drill through bone and graft skin from Ben’s arm in order to create a new canal. Because the structures of the outer and middle ear are so misshapen, there is a slight risk of damage to the facial nerve during surgery, not to mention the risks⸺from paralysis of the vocal chords to even death⸺associated with general anesthesia.

It’s not an easy decision. As I weigh the pros and cons I realize that it’s not about the ear really. Ben’s rich, happy life testifies to that. I will continue to focus on raising and loving him, and maybe, someday, when he is ready, he will know for himself if it’s worth the risks to hear with two ears.