By Larry Menlove
Larry Menlove’s work has appeared in Irreantum, Dialogue, Torrey House Press, and other venues. He writes from Utah and chases the shade from one tree to the next. He is trying to shake a novel out of the maple he’s currently under.
The day it began, I ate the bran muffin, plain yogurt, and apple slices my wife had graciously put out for my breakfast, kissed her cheek, and left for work. I got in my Toyota Corolla and drove into the office. It was a day like all the others. Maybe the church suit hanging on the dry cleaning hook over my shoulder was a detail out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t too atypical. I am the bishop of the Spanish Fork Pinion Ward—have been for six long years. I was meeting Sister Mecham at the church directly after work. I would not have time to go all the way home and change and still make the meeting with her on time, so I would change at the office.
By vocation I am a CPA. My office is in the bowels of the third tallest building in Provo, Utah. I crunch the numbers for my company and make the bottom line for the investors look as black as possible. That day, the numbers were decidedly deep in the red, and this had not pleased my immediate supervisor. Later he pointed out my “mistake,” and I corrected it. Then I changed into my church suit, turned off the light in my office, and left the building in an itchy state of unease.
When I arrived at the church, Sister Mecham sat alone in her husband’s tall truck in the vacant parking lot directly in front of the church doors. I parked two spaces away from the truck. She looked up and smiled from inside the cab, gave me a shy wave that I shyly returned.
I sat there in my little car, busying myself with nothing in particular—nothing but thoughts and fears meant to delay this. My meeting with Sister Mecham was not the first.
I glanced over at the truck. She sat there as well, her head down as though absorbed with something in her lap. The truck was absurd, really. So tall.
I recalled what her husband had confessed to me just two weeks before: He was attracted to men. He had said that he could not resist the temptation to drive to the park on his lunch breaks and pull up next to the other men alone in their vehicles. He said he’d hang his elbow out and smile at them. Most times the men would smile back. Brother Mecham had wanted to tell me—confess, he said—to the actions that he and “three, maybe five” of these random men had engaged in.
I had listened.
I have also listened to Sister Mecham in my office. I have listened to her on the phone. At the service station and the post office. And one time last summer at the swimming pool, when she was wearing a dark-blue, one-piece suit, cut very high and very low. Since then, I haven’t needed to work very hard to imagine the finer curves and contours of Sister Mecham’s figure. Right down to her red-painted toenails.
I do not care to admit the fact that Sister Mecham has a crush on me, but, since I am detailing the facts as I see them, that disclosure must be made. And I suppose it is only fair, and obvious, to admit that I, too, have an unhealthy desire for Sister Mecham.
So the day it began was maybe not this day, this warm spring day in May. I may not speak for Sister Mecham, though I believe she would agree. It really began two years ago when the Mechams moved into our ward and I shook her small hand in the front of the chapel. It was the look she gave me then: a coquettish tilt of her chin, and the dimpled cheeks of her nervous, charming smile. It was unmistakable. And mutual.
Above and well beyond my calling as bishop of the Pinion Ward, I am a man. There is no getting around that. Some things cannot be explained, but I know when lightning strikes, be it ever so humble as the telling twinkle in a pretty woman’s eye.
She climbed down from the truck when I got out of the Corolla and we met on the sidewalk. I should have said that I was sorry, that we couldn’t conduct this meeting tonight. I should have told her that my clerk could not be there, and we were not adhering to guidelines set forth to protect both her and me. But I didn’t.
We went up the stairs, I unlocked the church doors, and we went in. In silence we walked down the short hall to my office. I closed the door behind us, and she sat down in one of the two straight-backed but quite comfortable chairs in front of my desk. I sat down in an even more comfortable chair behind the desk. I believe we were both uncomfortable.
“Sister Mecham,” I said.
She sat there in her tight shirt, her bosom, so . . . so lovely. She stood up. I stood up. She turned away and strode to the closed office door. I looked at her bottom clad in tight jeans with a flourish of flower on the hip pockets. I thought she was leaving, unnerved. I slid from behind my desk—to what? Stop her?
She sighed and turned to face me. “When was the last time you and your wife made love?”
We had talked about this before.
“Months,” I said.
She slid her bare arms beneath her breasts and clutched her elbows in her hands.
I had no answer for that. There was only the overpowering longing for this woman, her question hanging there unanswerable between her lips and mine.
“I know if you were my husband . . .” She moved closer to the desk, to me. “I would.”
So it happened. Her arms were around my neck, and she pushed me back against my desk, the edge pressing against the back of my thighs. With her slight mass against my frame, she quickly proved the point that, above and well beyond my calling as bishop of the Spanish Fork Pinion Ward, I am a man. She began to sway and ever so humbly thrust her hips against me. And her lips were on my chin, her tongue on the five o’clock shadow of my neck, teeth at my four-in-hand-knotted blue tie. I placed my hands on her hips, and she moaned with such carnal pleasure at my touch I felt like a god. Her mouth was on mine, her tongue snaking in between my teeth, probing for what I knew not, and I pushed past her teeth with my own. Never had I kissed like this. Our hands and bodies were everywhere, clutching, squeezing, caressing, and I slowly began to hear my own groans: low guttural oh’s and en’s, rhythmical sounds coming from someone not me. Not me. Not me until, like waking from a dream, it was me, and I somehow transformed those moans into no’s, no’s, no, no, no, no.
Sister Mecham backed away. I stood there amazed, breathless. “I think we should pray.”
She did not look at me. But she sat down and bowed her head.
I shuffled back to my chair and I prayed out loud. I cannot in faith recall what my prayer was. I stood; she stood; we shook hands, and she left the ward house. After a time of reflection behind my desk, I locked the office door, the front doors, and left the church as well.
A half-mile from home on an empty stretch of road, in a desperate state of need, I unzipped my trousers, could not get at it, unbuckled my seatbelt, hit a chuckhole, and drove my automobile off the pavement, through a barbed wire fence and into a ditch. My forehead smacked smartly into the windshield, leaving a spider web of cracked safety glass to the left of the rearview mirror. Though my head throbbed, I was otherwise uninjured. I zipped up my pants, opened the car door, and stepped into the brackish water meandering along in the ditch.
I came up out of the water and stood to look at my disabled and stuck Corolla, trunk lid popped, rear wheel lifted and still rotating slowly in the tall weeds. I looked down at my crotch and my diminished need and shook my head. I felt so far from home.
I began to walk in my squelching, squeaking shoes. The robins perching above me on the power lines mocked me with their bright chirps. I was in no mood for this or them, and I threw a rock at the birds and swore. Away they flew.
Just as I was about to curse my luck that there was no one driving on this road to help me, I came across a ten-speed bike propped against a fencepost. I looked around, strained my sight over the fallow field and vacant lots to the south and west, to the subdivision where I lived, the roofs poking up over the slight hill. I looked across another empty field to Highway 6 and watched cars go by in a mad rush of fluid sound—semis and campers, commuters. I looked up and down this little old farm road I was on and saw no one.
So I mounted the bike and pedaled on.
As I rode, I thought of my wife and Sister Mecham. Myself. My family’s salvation. And I could not go straight home. I pressed the brakes on the bicycle around the bend from my house and got off. My wet shoes still gurgling, I wheeled the bike into the abandoned yard of Brother and Sister Gallegos. I walked around to the overgrown backyard and wedged the bike between a large bush and the foundation. Over my shoulder, the sun set on a beautiful early-May evening, though I did not care.
Such an injustice the state had perpetrated on the Gallegos. Life-long residents of this piece of property, they’d always been set off from the subdivision where most of the ward lived. And then the declaration of eminent domain to widen Highway 6 had pitched them off their land and settled them in a two-bedroom condo in a new development across town. I saw them at the grocery store a while back. Old Brother Gallegos had gone through a treatment of teeth whitening. He smiled more than I thought prudent for having been forced off his land and moved out of the Pinion Ward.
The state hadn’t begun construction yet on the new highway, so the Gallegos house stood abandoned. The lawn was tall, and weeds had taken up squatter’s rights. Raucous starlings flew from the roof to the ash tree off the south corner. A sturdy, roofless tree hut sat in the ash’s lower branches. The Gallegos children must have pounded the structure together decades ago.
Intent on finding an abandoned towel to at least dry my feet, I tried the back door of the house. Locked. I tried the front door. Locked. I slipped through a broken basement window and stood on green shag carpeting in an empty, dim room. I explored the basement rooms and found very little other than a half-dozen wrinkled yellow condoms scattered in a corner. I crept up the stairs and came to the kitchen. The light coming through the slightly parted curtains in the front room window was fading fast. I went from room to room, and then I returned to the front room window with its floor-length curtain. Balanced on one foot, I wrapped the drapery around my wet shoe and squeezed.
That’s when I heard the first siren.
I unlocked the front door and went out onto the porch. Through the darkening night, I saw flashes of police lights across the fields. I do believe the siren squawked off right in the vicinity of my car. I felt a jump of fright in my chest. Of course my fear was that I had become a common criminal of the sort who would delight in pre-adulterous shenanigans, leave the scene of an accident, and steal a ten-speed bicycle.
There was a slight rise and, atop it, a row of bramble bushes blocking my view from the porch, so I climbed up to the tree hut. Six secure boards were nailed into the trunk of the ash tree. The bark had grown around these ladder rungs. The last board was broken and hanging by one nail, so I had to hitch myself up the last bit to the floor of the hut. I stooped there, listening to the fading wheeze of my squishy shoes. I peered over the hut wall and could clearly see the police cruiser’s rotating lights. The trunk lid of the Corolla was lit up in spotlight. Three people stood in the lights gawking at my car. The officer, his gun belt shining, casually walked along the ditch, playing the beam of his long flashlight through the weeds, presumably searching for the driver of this abandoned car who was, in fact, hunkered down in a tree hut a half mile away, stricken with an odd and sudden sense of calm.
I could simply fall from my own life like a sunset, couldn’t I? Let this night of discontent hide me whole? I was just a fixture in my home, an underutilized body to make meals for, a paycheck that could be easily circumvented if Nelly, my wife, took the full-time work that the firm in Orem had been offering her. Our only daughter, Michelle, would graduate from high school in a week, and she had a boyfriend returning from a mission in the fall. They had plans to marry. The two boys, Mike and Jacob, were grown, starting families of their own. My job did not matter. CPAs could fall from the sky.
And what of the ward? I obviously was not fit for ecclesiastical leadership anymore. I was supposed to be helping Sister Mecham see her way through a tough time in her life, not spurring her on to pelvic thrusts against her spiritual leader.
Couldn’t I just run away into the night like a scolded child?
I stared at the trifling commotion going on across the field—where the Corolla sat, trunk up, jammed in a ditch—thinking of logistics: Where would I go? How would I live? Would a change of identity be in order? All these things I would have to take the time to ponder.
Then my cell phone buzzed in the breast pocket of my suit jacket. In the glow of the cheap Korean device, I saw that it was Nelly calling, and, with the pull of something like a compass in my heart, I looked across the stretch of vacant lots to the street I lived on. I could see my house clearly over the back fence and see that the kitchen light was on and the blinds were not pulled down. The house was only about half a football field away, and I was shocked at the clear view. We never pulled that kitchen blind down. Did the Gallegos family watch us? Of course, nothing beyond cooking and praying and eating ever happened in the kitchen. Or any other room of the house, for that matter. But then, as I stood there feeling the buzz of my phone in my palm and watching the yellow glow of the kitchen in my house, Nelly stepped into view through the window.
She was so far away, this tiny figure in the night. I let the phone buzz, and I watched Nelly pace in the kitchen light. I knew what she smelled: the peppered chicken in the crock-pot with diced carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic, and the zucchini she’d most likely just added about the time the Corolla veered off into the ditch. It was the usual Thursday night dinner. Nelly worked at the Benson, Benson, and Crawley law firm on Thursday afternoons, had been doing their books for three straight years. The crock-pot dinner on Thursday nights was like Sunday’s roast and potatoes: unerring, constant, like some religious tenet—an act of faithful commitment. I was suddenly starving for more than just nourishment there in the Gallegos’ tree hut. So close to home. But I didn’t answer Nelly’s call, and the phone stopped buzzing.
Then I watched Nelly standing at the kitchen window across the way, talking into her phone, her free-hand lifting, dropping, lifting again. Soon there came a single extended buzz from my own phone, signifying a voicemail message.
I never listened to that message, never punched in the PIN to listen. I knew what she had said, and I didn’t need to hear it in a message that had been recorded and sent out over wires and satellites and routers miles from here. She was just across that vacant lot, and I knew what she had said: Those three words, or some variation that I did not deserve. Not now. She knew my car was in the ditch. She knew I was not at home. She knew I had an appointment with Sister Mecham that night. She knew I would never do anything to hurt her. She knew.
She knew nothing.
The search parties came—three or four in the weeks after I piled the Toyota into the ditch. They searched the Gallegos’ erstwhile home inside and out. Not once, however, did anyone consider checking the tree hut. I took this as a testament of my miserable adulthood. Why would a man go up a tree?
And so I took up residence in the Gallegos’ abandoned house. There were no basic amenities: electricity, water, food. I had a piece of cardboard and a strip of wall insulation I found in the weeds for a bed. I went back and forth between house and tree hut: my lookout post. I even ventured off the site. Most of my reconnaissance movements were confined to soldier-stumped creeping through weeds and rabbitbrush to the fence of my backyard.
When I observed from the tree hut that both Nelly and Michelle were out of the house, I would enter my home and eat small bits of everything, a grape here, a slice of sandwich meat, a piece of bread from deep in a loaf. I would snake a single peach wedge from an opened bottle of preserves. I was like a field mouse, taking imperceptible amounts of sustenance. I showered rarely, drip drying my thinning frame or using paper towels I could throw away. I shat, and I shaved using my razor that I carefully cleaned and returned to its rightful place, a place that did not change until the end of August when the razor was just gone.
But that was a long way off yet. That first night, in the Gallegos’ old tree hut, the odd siren and concerned voices in the neighborhood drifted across the vacant lot to my ears, and I slept fitfully on improvised bedding that left me itching and stiff come the dawn of a new, unknown day.
One might think that the wife of a man who has gone missing might act hysterically—run up and down the streets tearing at her hair, pulling at her clothing, crying out. I suppose that was really something I wished to see, something I was waiting to see, something that kept me in that tree hut. But Nelly, from my vantage point, did not change in the least. Not even that first night. I saw no sign of horrible duress or alarm, no passion whatsoever. In a couple of weeks, she must have accepted that job at the Orem firm, because with the regularity of the sun and moon she began to rise and leave in the morning and return in the afternoon just as I had done. She even drove the Corolla, which had been pulled from the ditch and, after a windshield and bumper replacement, parked in the driveway. I watched her leave from the front window of the Gallegos’ home. I watched her come home. I watched her in the kitchen window across the way from the tree hut. I watched her. I watched Michelle. I watched my grown boys drop in with their families. I became a faithful observer of my own life, free of me.
Michelle took a summer job with unpredictable hours. Judging from the odor clinging to her clothes in the hamper, she was a waitress. I could detect food—pedestrian food—grease, coffee, perhaps beer? These clothes were always black or white, depending on the shift she worked. I sniffed Nelly’s clothes too.
Michelle nearly caught me at home one day; must’ve been around mid-June because the Russian olive trees were done blossoming. My church suit was in tatters, knees worn through from crawling, white shirt gone hoary, shoes overrun with ecosystems of putrid bacteria. I decided to risk finding an outfit in the back of my closet somewhere, something that would go unnoticed. As far as I could observe, nothing that was mine had even been touched. All my temple garments were still folded and lying next to Nelly’s in the underwear drawer. My extra suits still hung under dry-cleaner paper. And that is what I did finally: I took a suit and hung the hanger back up, empty beneath its paper shroud. I found a pair of old tennis shoes forgotten in the deep back corner of the closet. From my drawer, I took an old T-shirt, a pair of socks and some jockey-shorts that I had used for sports. All this I rolled into a handy cache under my arm and started down the upstairs hall feeling like a giddy burglar.
I heard the back door open. I froze in the hall, a dirty vagabond with long, greasy hair, standing in a church suit that was stained with the muck and wear of a month’s hard living. I heard Michelle speaking on her cell phone as she walked into the kitchen, her heels clacking on the linoleum.
“My dad? No, nothing new.” This spurred me into movement, and I slipped back down the hall and into my bedroom. I lay prone beside the far side of the bed, clutching my clean clothes, squirming under the dust ruffle. I lay there, listening to Michelle talk. She paced back and forth in the hallway outside my room. I caught fragments that meant nothing: “He’s coming in the . . . Oh . . . whatever you call those . . . in that case, I was thinking . . . “ She listened, then laughed, full and true, and my heart ached. “We can only hope . . . yeah, he’s been calling her a lot . . . “ Her heels stopped clacking on the floor, and she sighed. “I don’t know. She’s confused. We all are. I just want her to be happy.”
While my daughter spoke on the phone, I opened my eyes and looked into the half-light underneath the bed. There was a small dark lump under there. I reached out and put my hand around it. My tie. The green and blue one I had used to blindfold Nelly during the last Christmas holidays. I felt a flutter of blood in my pitiable manhood. Was that the last time? The last time we had lain as man and wife? I had blindfolded her and led her to the bedroom, where I told her to stand at the footboard. I took off all my clothes and lay on the coverlet with nothing but a rose between my teeth. She had been surprised and almost, I think, turned on by the mild monkey business I had wrangled her into. She had dropped the blindfold to the floor, and somehow it had been pushed under the bed. We had made perfectly acceptable love that afternoon, and then I had left for a bishop’s meeting wearing my red Christmas tie.
Michelle eventually wandered into her own room, giving me the chance to slink out of my home with my clothes and the tie. I hurried across the backyard, over the fence, through the tall weeds of the vacant lot, and crawled in the basement bedroom window of the Gallegos house. I went out into the hallway and strolled to the staircase, where I came upon two high-school teenagers from my ward, lying at the top of the steps, locked in a tight battle of sexual congress.
For the second time in less than fifteen minutes, I froze, a dirty man standing in a hall with a clean church suit rolled under his arm—a tragic, filthy thieving hobo.
The two, in their shockingly eager ministrations upon one another, did not notice me, and I slipped into an open room near the stairway, whereupon I noticed the young man and young woman’s clothing in a heap on the floor next to the woeful crumpled condoms. I peeked out around the doorway, was assailed by moans and oaths, quick-stepped across the basement and climbed back out the broken window.
I hid in the tree hut fighting off the image of these two young souls. Their flesh. Their need and desire. The boy’s taut, pistoning bottom between the girl’s long thin legs, toes circling, pointed fervently toward heaven. I peeked through the wood slats at them when they emerged through the window like spelunkers from a cave, blinking in the sunshine of the real world. They were again the young man and young woman I knew and had counseled, as their bishop, to abstain from sexual relationship, to think only pure, uplifting thoughts that facilitate the Spirit in their lives.
The boards beneath me shifted and creaked. I froze as the boy looked up at me through the hole in the wall. Our eyes met and held, and I saw the appreciation of our shared but separate predicaments cultivate in his eyes, on his cheeks, and in the slight upturn at the corners of his mouth. He held my gaze for a few steps, and then he winked at me, turned to the girl and kissed her hard. He grabbed her breast and then took up her hand and walked with her down the Gallegos drive. He did not look back.
So I was no longer alone in my self-imposed exile. I had an accomplice of sorts. So it should be. What great harm in that? A trust that could hold. His great sin was merely fornication.
That word. I despised it more than ever, sitting there in the hut, clutching my dry-cleaned suit. What a word for that act. At least it was tangible, what they were doing, their young admiration, that touch between palms as they walked away from me. But my sin? Abandonment. Now there was a word I had not fully understood until now. At this moment, it was a world apart from any expression of love. I felt our pact—the boy’s and mine—was weighted much in his favor. But it would hold for a while, the summer at least. Maybe even for ten years or more, until he became a man and would someday tell his buddy or his wife a story about a bishop lost in a tree. He would keep that contract—the one he signed with a wink.
And the summer skulked along with me and my self-imposed affliction. I watched fireworks from the hut on the Fourth of July. Huge manifestations of light and noise filled the sky over the roof of my house. I thought I would starve that night. I had no food reserves built up, and Nelly and Michelle never left the house. Mike and Jacob brought their wives and my grandkids home for a backyard barbecue in the late afternoon. Such good boys, my sons. I knew that one or the other had taken over my duties at the grill. I heard their voices. They were grown, and I wondered: When did that happen? I sat in the heat of the tree hut as the meat roasted, giving off tantalizing smoke that came to my downwind nose. I heard laughter over the fence; saw a baby, Jake Jr., my grandson, fly straight up and back down with a giggle; saw Nelly in the kitchen window making a pitcher of ice-water. I wanted it all back, and I felt I was in danger of drifting like dander in a breeze. I had to lie down flat with my back against the wood floor and my arms spread, fingernails in the grain, looking up through the tree branches at the spots of blue that jangled there between the leaves.
When the fireworks began, I knew I had a chance. My family would be in the front yard watching the show. I came down from the hut, ran across the lot, leaped the fence, and plopped into my yard, crouching like a suburban ninja. It was dark with the occasional glow of phosphorescent red, blue, and gold. I walked to the barbecue and lifted the lid on its squeaky hinges. I inserted the first hot dog into my mouth and chomped my way through it in three bites. I stuffed two more cold ones in my front pants pocket, lifted a hamburger from the grill and dropped it into a half-empty sack of tortilla chips from the picnic table. Then I bolted for the fence, but I stopped and looked back. The pitcher of water sat there on the table, ice cubes skimming the surface. I had a water jug that I kept filled at the Gallegos’, but it was always warm. Maybe I was being careless, but I went back and lifted the pitcher to my lips and drank until rivulets flowed down both sides of my mouth and off my chin.
I crept into the breezeway of the carport and looked at my family sitting there in the driveway watching fireworks. I drank from the pitcher again and wiped my face with my sleeve. Then I belched. It came between firework mortar blasts, and its deep resonance seemed to silence the oohs and ahs at the front of the house. I heard Michelle—or was it Nelly?—say, “What was that?” I fled under the flash and horrible crash above me.
My hair was growing. I had lost twenty pounds. I looked like one of the more liberal kids in the ward. I tried to find some sense in all this. I spoke out loud in the Gallegos house as if someone else were there. As if there were a hundred people there. I preached up and down the stairs. I stood at the front room window, reciting poetry and scripture to the setting sun. I chanted strange mantras in the cool mornings as the sun rose in the east. I shrank into the back corners of rooms looking at paint, trying to raise words from the brush strokes, the dust, and the spider webs. I prayed. I spoke to the Lord. I was quiet. I listened.
Is it a surprise what finally made me walk through the front door of my house one dry August night and say, “Nelly, I’m home”? I have examined the narrow path I wore between the Gallegos’ old house, the tree hut, and my own home that summer, and there is no illumination, no revelatory lesson. There was my long unkempt hair, the lost twenty pounds of body fat. There were two suits, one navy, the other gray pinstripe, each rendered shabby shadows of their original cut. There were those two young people with their promising love that I would grow to covet and hunger for. There was the reminiscence of dear sweet Sister Mecham, vulnerable and alone in her need. Her embrace. Her tears. There was no holy place here for me day after day while I lurked on the edge of my life, my family. A season in the wilderness. Though I fasted, though I suffered, there was no great redemption given unto me.
There was simply Nelly in the kitchen window that Saturday night, her hair done up nice, makeup—a new blouse? She stood there looking out at the space, the dusk, my tree hut. I thought she was praying in some open-eyed way. On her lips there were the words I could not hear, but craved like warm bread. And then a man I did not know appeared in the kitchen behind her.
I would have wanted to be unsoiled, to have shaved, but my razor was gone, and I stank like the beggar I was. Even so, I came down those barked-over slats to the ground, and with my green and blue tie tucked in my back-pocket, I extracted the ten-speed bike from behind the bush and rode to my street. I got off the bike and dropped it on the lawn next to the strange car in the driveway. I stood tall for the first time in years, in an eternity, walked to my front door and put my hand on the knob to take my place. To show that above and well beyond all in this life I have wronged and all I may right, in this home at least, I am a man.