By Levi S. Peterson
Levi S. Peterson is a former editor of Dialogue and author of novels The Backslider and Aspen Marooney, short-story collections Canyons of Grace and Night Soil, and autobiography A Rascal by Nature, A Christian by Yearning. He lives in Washington with his wife Althea.
The Phoenix-bound airplane was airborne before I allowed myself to consider the negatives of what I was doing. I told my stepdaughter who lives in Seattle an outright lie about my destination, saying I was flying to Corvallis to visit an old buddy from my Navy days. I knew I would have to expand on that lie when my wife, on a cruise with her sisters, got around to calling me. Even worse, I would have to expand on the lie I had been telling myself for a long time, that there was no resemblance between who I’d become and the fifteen-year-old kid who forced himself on his first cousin in a barn back in 1951.
It was my sister Rosa who phoned me, saying that Uncle Hammond was dead, also that Aunt Sophrina was holding up, but a daughter, who had been taking care of them, had gone to pieces. Not that anybody expected me at the funeral, Rosa said, but it wouldn’t be decent not to let me know. To which I replied that she was right, it was something I ought to know even if I hadn’t been home for over half a century. I appreciated Rosa greatly. She was the only one left who kept me posted on things in Linroth.
Actually, Rosa’s call caught me at a lonesome moment, Patricia having just left on her cruise. I went golfing that first day, and the next day I helped a neighbor put up a cedar fence, but I woke up both nights feeling abandoned, and on the second night the thought hit me like a bullet, Just go! Patricia had been at me for a long time to take her to Linroth. Our friends couldn’t believe we had been married for twenty years without a single visit to my home town. That story had to be a fiction, they said; it just wouldn’t happen in real life to a couple as normal as we were. But it wasn’t fiction. So I woke up that morning and said to myself, this is it, my one and only chance to scout things out in advance and see if Linroth has turned into a Levi’s-and-boots kind of town full of firearm-packing Republicans like the rest of Arizona, because if it has, it isn’t a place to take Patricia, who ran out of patience long ago with ultra-right wing folks and can be counted on to stop and quarrel if she runs into any of them. At least that was the reason I gave myself, though later, as I realized once the jetliner was airborne, the real reason was to test myself and see whether I could keep my composure when the old anxiety—the old self-incrimination—came back to me like delirium tremens to a half-cured drunk.
I lived in Phoenix during the last year and a half of high school, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at how hot it was when I left the air terminal and climbed on a shuttle bus out to the car rental lot. But I was surprised, and, after navigating onto the freeway heading east toward Mesa and Globe, I was equally surprised at how little I recognized of the city I’d once known so well. But all this wonderment proved a beneficial distraction, so for a while the fantods I had been anticipating on the airplane didn’t kick in. When they did kick in, I was eating a hamburger in a fast food place on the east end of Globe. Out a window I could see the junction where the Safford-bound highway split off toward Show Low, and I was struck hard by the fact that the junction looked exactly like it used to fifty years ago, also by the fact that on Thanksgiving Day of the year I turned 17, I stood at that very junction trying to thumb a ride home to Linroth because I had heard that Cassia, my cousin, would probably be there. I stood at the junction all day in a cold wind. What little traffic took the Show Low road didn’t stop for me. I was broken-hearted to say the least. A little before dark, I caught a ride back to Phoenix, and when the school year was out, I joined the Navy and never made another attempt to go back to Linroth.
I threshed all this over while sitting in the fast food place, wondering how I ever figured that, even if I had made it home to Linroth and even if Cassia had actually been there—I later learned she wasn’t—I would have had the nerve to beg her forgiveness, which made me pause for a moment to wonder how, having more or less ruined her life, I could face her at the present if she happened to turn up at Uncle Hammond’s funeral, which—according to my current reasoning—she just might. I sat there after I had finished my hamburger and cola mulling that possibility and, as I say, having the fantods. Then it occurred to me to get Rosa on my cell phone and find out if Cassia was in town, because if she was, I would turn around and go back to Phoenix and catch the first available plane back to Seattle.
Unluckily, Rosa didn’t answer her mobile phone, and when I dialed her house phone, a granddaughter—likely a teenager, I thought—answered and said Rosa was out. When I asked the girl whether she had ever heard of her uncle Rulon Braunhil, which is me, she said, “Sure, you’re grandma’s brother who lives in Seattle.” But when I asked if an elderly cousin named Cassia had come home for the funeral, she said nobody had told her anything about that. “I didn’t even know I had an elderly cousin Cassia,” she said.
My trouble with Cassia—which I didn’t see as trouble for a long time—came about because we were born within six days of each other and our families regarded us as twins and encouraged us to do things together. As a result, we had feelings for each other from early on that first cousins shouldn’t have. Around the time we turned five or six we got into the habit of getting undressed and checking each other out behind a chicken coop. Luckily, we got past that phase without being caught.
The summer we were ten, we wrestled each other on the back lawn of the seminary building, and she pinned me and kissed me long and hard. “That’s the way Betty Grable kisses Victor Mature,” she said and kissed me again.
The year we were twelve and in MIA, we rode in the back seat of my parents’ car to a stake-wide New Year’s Eve party in Holbrook. It was very cold, and Cassia and I huddled under a blanket and we kissed in a way that seemed sinful to me. I put a hand on one of her breasts and she took it off. I felt humiliated. For several months after that I wanted to forego partaking of the sacrament, but doing so would have made me intolerably conspicuous because I was a deacon and had to help pass the bread and water to the Linroth congregation every Sunday. That doubled my worry because I understood people who partook of the sacrament unworthily were eating and drinking damnation unto themselves.
All of that trouble between Cassia and me was nothing compared to the trouble we got into during the summer we were fifteen, and it happened because our fathers owned side-by-side farms on the creek. I had been hoeing corn on a rainy afternoon in June. Near evening, Cassia came down the lane to fetch cows home for evening milking. She wore a dress and scuffed brown and white oxfords with no socks. A squall of rain hit, and she climbed into a barn at the head of the pasture.
“Hey, dummy,” she shouted from a window, “come in out of the rain.”
I dropped my hoe, crawled through a fence, and climbed into the barn. Damp and shivering, we sat side by side in the hay. Our shoulders touched, and I gazed at her askance. She was beautiful—dark brows, an aquiline nose, slightly hollowed cheeks.
“When we were kids,” she said, “you asked me to marry you, here, in this barn.”
I couldn’t remember that.
“You kissed me,” she said. “Don’t you remember that?”
“I remember other places, but not here,” I said.
She placed a stem of hay on my head. I removed it with an irritable gesture. She replaced it, and I let it stay.
“Did you kiss Lori Ann when you took her home from the junior prom last spring?” she went on.
“That’s none of your business.”
“You did, didn’t you?”
“That just isn’t any of your business.”
“Would you kiss me now?” she said.
I stared at her.
She puckered her lips and closed her eyes.
Alarmed, I said, “The rain’s quitting. We better be going.”
She pushed me down and placed a long, lingering kiss on my lips.
To that point I had struggled to maintain an illusion of disinterest. But after that long, lingering kiss, a frantic, furnace-fed flame drove through me and there was no stopping me even though when I tugged up her dress she pleaded for me not to do it and when the deed was done, she wept. I waited til full dark before I went home, long after she had climbed from the barn and gathered her cows and returned along the lane. Lightening arced madly through a distant cloudburst, a portent and testimony, I felt, of the hell I had suddenly entered.
My nighttime terror was of God, who couldn’t overlook a rape, particularly a rape of a first cousin. As weeks passed, I realized God was toying with me, letting me simmer in anxiety, preparing a catastrophic demise for me in the ripeness of his own due time. My daytime terror was that Cassia would tell her parents, who would tell my parents, and who knew what would happen then? Maybe they’d turn me over to the law and I’d end up doing a life sentence down at Florence. In the meantime, Cassia avoided me. One day when I saw her in the store, she turned on her heel and disappeared through the door at the rear that said “Employees Only,” even though she wasn’t an employee. She didn’t come down the lane anymore, either.
When fall approached, the two Braunhil homes were set abuzz by the announcement that Cassia would spend the school year with an aunt on her mother’s side in Salt Lake City. The reason given was that her bright mind merited a challenging high school. Weeks after she left, I overheard a mere fragment of conversation between my sisters Carol and Rosa, who were washing dishes at the kitchen sink. A single phrase—”put it up for adoption”—lingered in my mind as I left the house by the kitchen door, heading for a belated duty in the corral, where unmilked cows lowed impatiently. By the time I returned with a pail brimming with foamy milk, I had figured it out. Cassia had been banished to Utah to have a baby.
Years later, I pressed my mother to open up about Cassia. She admitted the real reason that Cassia went to Utah was that Uncle Hammond, informed by Aunt Sophrina of his daughter’s pregnancy, had exiled her forever from his house. When the family gathered for prayer before supper on the day he found out, Hammond forbade Cassia to join. “You no longer belong to this family,” he said. The next day she left on the afternoon bus. Aunt Sophrina and Dory took her to meet the bus. My mother went too, and so did Carol and Rosa. I imagine those girls already knew the real reason.
The more I thought about the circumstances under which Cassia left Linroth, the more certain I felt that she wouldn’t show up at Uncle Hammond’s funeral. I figured that he’d be the next to last man in the whole world—me being the very last—she would want to show some respect for by attending his funeral. In any event, I had got myself as far as Globe, and I wanted to keep on going. So I did, calming my nerves by working out a little plan in case a tactical retreat proved necessary. With the exception of Rosa, nobody presently alive in Linroth had seen me for fifty years, and if I took a little care not to confront persons near my own age face to face, I could easily remain incognito. I would take a motel in Show Low for the night and turn up in Linroth just in time for the funeral and take a seat at the back of the church. If I saw Cassia filing in among the mourners after the closing of the casket, I’d slip away when the funeral adjourned to the cemetery, leaving town as unannounced as I had entered it.
When I got to Show Low, there was still a lot of daylight left and I kept driving, assuring myself that I would just take a quick look around Linroth and then come back to Show Low for the night. My eyes blurred with tears when I rounded the hill south of Linroth. From that perspective, the little town nestling in a horseshoe-shaped valley looked as familiar as if I had left it the day before. Driving on in, I could see a lot of things had changed. There was a Chevrolet dealership, a modern post office building, and, across the street from the church house, a bank branch and a café. The church house itself, constructed of chiseled yellow stone and topped by a steeple, was unchanged. The doors and window frames must have been painted recently because they looked as fresh and well cared for as when I had last seen the building.
Driving on down the street, I saw a modern small-town version of a supermarket occupying the spot where a mercantile had once stood. Across the street from the supermarket I saw an old red brick home fronted by a white picket fence. Attached to the fence was an ornate sign declaring “Pioneer Bed & Breakfast.” I pulled over and with motor idling sat thinking a while. If I registered with a pseudonym—the name of my Corvallis friend came to mind—there was no need to retreat to Show Low for the night. But then it occurred to me that it was pretty craven of a man to rent a room in a bed-and-breakfast place in a town loaded with relatives who would consider it a high privilege to furnish him with a bed. With that, I decided to call Rosa again, and if Cassia was in town, I’d pretend I was calling from Seattle and beat a hasty retreat, and if she wasn’t, why, heck, I’d abandon this incognito stuff and go stay at Rosa’s house where a brother ought to stay.
However, Rosa didn’t answer either her cell phone or her house phone, so, craven or not, I went into the bed-and-breakfast place. The girl behind the counter, maybe 17, pulled out a registry and asked my name. “Rulon Braunhil,” I blurted, suddenly repulsed by the ploy of a pseudonym.
“Braunhil is a common name here,” she said.
“I grew up here,” I said. “But I’ve been gone a long time.”
Maybe I struck her as incapacitated because she said, “I’m sorry, we only have an upstairs room available.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I do a lot of hiking on hilly trails.”
As she led me up the stairs, I asked her family name. “Burleson,” she said.
“That’s not a name I recognize.”
“No, my parents are newcomers. We aren’t Mormons, but we like it here. I have lots of Mormon friends.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said.
In my room, I heaved my suitcase onto the dresser top and hung my shirts and pants on racks in a closet. I went to a window and looked out. A small, sleek White Mountain Lines bus had stopped at the supermarket across the street. On a Monday evening fifty years ago, Cassia got on another White Mountain Lines bus at that very spot though I wasn’t there to see her do it. I went back to the bed, took off my shoes, and lay down, somehow feeling truncated, cut in half, dismembered.
I graduated from high school in Phoenix because after Cassia left for Utah I acted out the complete outlaw at Linroth Union High. I sauntered down corridors slamming locker doors shut, popped bra straps on unwary girls, and knocked a boy over a bench in the shower room after PE, in consequence of which my parents and I met with the principal one morning.
“I just hope you can influence your son to behave,” the principal said. “The next step is the state industrial school at Fort Grant. If we expel him, that’s where they’ll put him.”
“What’s got into you?” my mother said. “You come home late. You don’t do your chores. You sass your dad. This isn’t like you at all!”
Fortunately, my father had a plan. “Rulon says he can’t take it here anymore. Boys get that way. So I phoned Uncle Trevor,” he said. “That’s my brother who lives in Phoenix,” he explained to the principal. “He says let Rulon come live with him and Sybil.”
Dad looked at me. “Do you want to do that, son? Do you think you could settle down and start getting decent grades again?” I said I would try, and I did, having made up my mind that I really had gone kind of crazy, and Cassia notwithstanding, I had a life to live and needed to get on with it.
My dad was a good man. He wasn’t anywhere near as hidebound and punctilious as Uncle Hammond. Neither was Uncle Trevor, for that matter. He was laid back, too.
I went home to Linroth for brief visits, but as I said, after that failed hitchhike on Thanksgiving Day I never went back. I knew Linroth was like a malaria zone for me. It was as if I had been run through some kind of a magnetizing machine and there was a protective shield around the town that automatically deflected me.
My parents came to my graduation from Camelback High School, and when I told them I wanted to join the Navy, they agreed to sign for me. The Korean War was going full tilt, and like a lot of the other fellows at Camelback, I could see serving in the Navy was ten times smarter than getting drafted into the infantry. I did my basic training at the Great Lakes training station on the shores of Lake Michigan, then was assigned to a logistics unit at the Alameda Naval Air Station across the bay from San Francisco. Although handing out underwear and socks to new arrivals wasn’t my idea of excitement, the bustling activity of the base distracted me, and upon returning to my quarters in the evening I often realized that I had gone for hours without thinking of my private hell. But with evening the fantods returned, and I spent long, wakeful nights until I got some sleeping pills from the base medical center and began to knock myself out every night by taking a couple.
After nearly a year at the base, I started to take evening courses in electronic engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. During the first semester, I met and began to date a young woman from Mexico, Emilia, who was finishing a master’s degree in philosophy. An atheist, she had a long list of proofs for the absence from the universe of a divine personality, and she was eager to convert me. As things stood, I was eager to be converted. I did some superficial reading in Hume, Nietzsche, Russell, and Sartre, declared myself free from Christianity, and threw away my sleeping pills. As for my social life, I went to movies, museums, and operas around the Bay Area with Emilia, usually at her expense because her father owned a big ranch and sent her plenty of money. Eventually, she made it evident that she would welcome something more than philosophical discussions between us. She wasn’t voluptuous, yet with dark braided hair, luminous eyes, and lightly bronzed lips she was far from unattractive. However, my Mormon scruples hadn’t vanished with my Mormon theology. Simply put, I couldn’t make love to a woman without marrying her, and I couldn’t marry Emilia, not only because I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life in Mexico, but even more important, because I judged the rapist of a first cousin to be unworthy of any decent woman. The truth was, I realized, that I couldn’t marry at all. And with that realization, I broke off with Emilia and settled into three decades of celibacy. As for Emilia, she graduated in the spring and went home to Mexico to stay.
I understand sublimation well. It’s what monks, nuns, and maverick laypersons like me practice in order to lead sexless lives. I developed my skills in sublimation chiefly in and around Seattle, where I eventually migrated, having found employment with the Boeing Company after I resigned from active duty in the Navy. Sometimes I dated women I met at Boeing, and my various male friends occasionally recruited me for blind dates. Not wanting to get to the point of having to explain myself, I rarely dated a woman more than once, even if I was attracted to her.
So how is it that after three decades of celibacy I married Patricia?
I met her on a Sunday afternoon. It was nice weather, and I had driven up from Seattle to see the fields of tulips in the Skagit Valley. I stopped at an ice cream shop on a rural road and had a dish of almond fudge at an outdoor table. Patricia and her teen-aged daughters—Koreen and Alisha—came out of the shop looking for a place to sit. My table was the least occupied, and Patricia asked if they could sit with me.
Things went from there. Patricia had a round, cheerful face and abundant, shoulder-length hair, carefully parted in the middle. She engaged me in conversation with the disarming forwardness of an established friend. She had a home in the Cedar Park district of north Seattle. She was five years past the accidental death of her husband and, as the following months proved, was willing to have a gentleman caller. Luckily for me, she more or less took me as is without asking to see under the hood; that is, she didn’t seem perturbed by the blank spaces in my life’s story. I was pleased—and a little astonished—that I could at last permit myself to think of marriage owing to the fancy that with age I had been transformed into a different human being, still named Rulon Braunhil, but otherwise an utter stranger to that fifteen-year-old youth who had raped his first cousin in a barn.
I dozed off for a while on the bed in the bed-and-breakfast place and woke up wondering how I was going to spend the evening. I went downstairs and asked the Burleson girl whether there was still a movie theater in town.
“Yes, but it just runs on Saturday night.”
“What do people do for entertainment during the rest of the week?”
“Friday nights there’s usually a dance somewhere—here or in Saller’s Cove or up at Show Low. Monday night is family night for the Mormons. Everybody stays home. Other nights, a lot of people play softball. There’ll be a game tonight with a team from Holbrook.”
“What about that café up the street?” I said. “Do local people seem to like it?”
“A lot of them seem to. We could have fixed you dinner if I had let my dad know early enough that you wanted it.”
“That’s all right. I’ll check out the café.”
I drove to the café and went in. I took a seat in a booth, and a girl in a lacy apron came from behind a counter and handed me a menu. “We only offer the full menu on Friday and Saturday night,” she said. “Tonight, the entrée is chicken fried steak.”
“No lasagna?” I said. “Too bad.”
“You could have a hamburger or a sandwich.”
“I’ll have the chicken fried steak,” I said, handing back the menu.
“Chicken fried,” she called to the fry cook.
She stood fingering the menu, apparently in no hurry to leave. I looked her over. I wouldn’t have called her pretty, yet I was attracted by her dark, curly hair and reassuring smile, which caused me to consider my own less-than-attractive person—a thin fellow, somewhere between tall and short, somewhat stooped, and possessed of a lined, emaciated face and white, close-cropped hair.
“I was wondering . . . ,” she started to say, then suddenly blurted, “Are you my uncle Rulon?”
I was totally astonished.
“My friend Cindy Burleson phoned me a few minutes ago. I hope you won’t be mad at her for telling me you were in town.”
“No, I won’t be angry.”
“You phoned Grandma at noon, didn’t you?” she went on.
“I’m the one you talked to. I’m Ashley. I’m Lee Ann’s daughter. We live next door to Grandma. Mom asked me to run over and borrow a lemon juicer. But Grandma wasn’t there, and I couldn’t find it.”
A couple of boys of high school age came in and sat at the counter. Ashley served them Cokes and stood behind the counter talking to them. After a while she brought my order. “You wanted to know about Cousin Cassia,” she said. “When Mom brought me to work a while ago, she told me Cassia is arriving by Amtrak and Grandma will pick her up in Winslow early tomorrow morning.”
“I’m glad to know that,” I said—truthfully enough though I realized Ashley would assume my reason to be quite different than it was.
At this point, a man entered the restaurant and looked around uncertainly. His face was broad and pasty, and a shock of graying hair hung almost to his eyes. His long-sleeved shirt was buttoned at the throat. He shuffled to my booth and slid in opposite to me.
“My name is Clemon Haines,” he said, offering me a limp hand.
Ashley set a knife and fork in front of the man and asked, “Is it milk or orange pop tonight?”
“Pop,” he said. Then, as she retreated toward the counter, he leaned confidentially toward me. “The church pays for my supper here every night. I’ve got a bad back. Can’t work.”
My mind was getting error signals from four or five directions. I was dredging up memories from a series of letters from my mother saying a retarded Haines’ boy had assaulted a woman and had been castrated and sent home from the state hospital as no longer being a public menace. Also, since there was no way I could face Cassia the next day, I was trying to process how I was going to manage to leave town without her and Rosa knowing I had been there.
Ashley brought the man a chicken-fried steak and glass of orange soda, and he fell to eating with gusto. “Going to the softball game,” he said with scarcely a pause in his avid chewing. “That Holbrook feller, he’s something else. Can he ever hit!”
I laid a couple of dollar bills on the table and stood up.
“Boy, you’re a real tipper!” the man said, eying the bills closely. “Say, stick around a few minutes and you can go to the game with me. You ought to see that Holbrook feller.”
“Thanks. I’ve got things to do,” I said.
I went to the counter. I glanced back at the man in the booth. “Do you worry about a fellow like that?” I asked Ashley in a low voice.
“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes with something like vexation. “We don’t walk places after dark. Girls, I mean. Not alone, that is. When the café closes, Mom will come get me in the car.”
“What time does it close?”
“Ten-thirty on week nights. But I won’t wait to let Grandma know you’re here. I’ll phone her right now. I know she’ll want you to stay with her.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s no need to let her know tonight.”
“No, really, she’ll want to know you’re in town. I’m sorry I didn’t phone her sooner.”
“Do you mind holding off and letting me surprise her?”
“Well, heck no, if that’s what you want.”
“I mean like tomorrow at the funeral.”
She studied me for a long time.
“It’s important to me,” I said.
“Yes, I promise.”
It was getting toward twilight when I went outside. I saw lights in the church and heard an organ, so I crossed the street and went in, taking a seat in the backmost pew. The church was empty except for me and a woman at the organ, who smiled at me and went on playing. Likely she was practicing for the funeral. The dark wood of the pews glistened, and the scent of furniture wax pervaded the atmosphere. The pasty-faced Haines fellow was on my mind. Men who violate women ought to be castrated. That goes for a man who has his way with his first cousin in a barn. That’s how I felt. That’s how I had been feeling off and on for five decades. Also, sitting in the church, I could see the disadvantages of being a total disbeliever. If I believed in God, I could ask for forgiveness and maybe I could get a feeling that said, “Okay, you’ve done penance enough. Go your way and sin no more.”
However, I knew I had to get my mind off irremediable matters in a hurry. I needed to concentrate on how to leave town without Rosa and Cassia finding out I had been there. Figuratively speaking, I was kicking my own butt over and over for giving the Burleson girl my true name. The key now, of course, was Ashley, who sooner or later would tell her grandmother and Cassia that I had been in town. I had to come up with a reason for her not to tell them—a reason that could at best be only half accurate—and I had to somehow convey it to her before her mother came for her at ten-thirty.
When I went back, the café was empty except for Ashley and the fry cook. Ashley looked surprised when I walked in, of course. “I’d like a cola,” I said and went to the back booth.
When she brought the drink, I said, “I need to talk to you for a minute.”
“About what?” she said, throwing a quick glance toward the pass-through window into the kitchen.
“I’ve changed my mind about going to the funeral. I want to leave town first thing in the morning. I don’t want Rosa and Cassia to know I’ve been here. I wish I hadn’t come in the first place. I need you to promise not to tell them I’ve been here. Just that.”
Shifting uneasily, she glanced again toward the pass-through window. Time passed. Obviously I had put her between a rock and a hard place.
“There’s a reason I have stayed away from Linroth for fifty years,” I added.
“And it involves Grandma?”
I was in a pure panic, speechless, maybe shaking a bit and certainly wondering how it was that a pleasant, innocent-looking teenager of whose existence I had had no inkling until a few hours earlier should turn out to be the one soul to whom I had confided even so much as a remote hint of my reason for not returning to Linroth.
“All right,” she said at last. “I promise. I won’t say a word.”
A short, burly man came into the café and took a seat at the counter. Ashley left me and took his order. Then a chattering couple came in and took a seat in a booth, and she took their order.
I got up and walked to the door. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I saw Ashley had followed me. “Couldn’t you settle things with Cassia?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I ruined her life.”
She looked at me for a long time, then shrugged and went inside.
I woke up around three a.m. from a nightmare about a swarm of frenzied ants running over my feet and up my legs. I turned on the light and got out of bed and sat in a chair. I felt hollow and heartsick, the way I felt when I first understood that first cousins can marry in Europe and nearly half of the states in the Union. Unanswerable questions came back to me. Did our parents know but choose not to let us marry? Would Cassia have had me? Would I, barely sixteen when her pregnancy showed, have manfully shouldered the duties of a husband and father?
What was certain was that I presently lacked the courage for a face-to-face encounter with Cassia. I couldn’t survive looking into her eyes.
It might have been otherwise if I could have construed her life as largely a success. I followed her life through my mother, who followed it through Sophrina, who surreptitiously defied her husband by staying in close touch with her banished daughter. After attending college in Utah, Cassia headed east, where she taught school for twenty years. She was married for four or five years during this period. As far as I knew, she and her husband had no children. After she divorced, she got an Ed.D. and served as the principal of an elementary school for fifteen more years. Judging by appearances, she was among those plucky teen girls who pull out of the tailspin of getting pregnant and giving up a baby for adoption and go on to lead adult lives of considerable achievement.
However, she probably suffered a good deal from loneliness and also from the injustice of her exile. I could well imagine how angry she felt whenever she allowed herself to think about either me or her father. Moreover, the longer I lived—and the more keenly I appreciated the fact that having an unknown son somewhere out there in the big world had put me into a tailspin of sorts—the less certain I became that any woman could pull entirely out of the trauma of giving up a baby. Even if Cassia had abhorred the fetus growing within her at first, considering how it got there, wouldn’t she have bonded with it when it began to stir and kick inside her womb? And even if the boy child it turned out to be was carried away from her unseen at the instant of his birth, her instinct for mothering couldn’t have been disposed of so succinctly. Didn’t an unfed hunger, a thwarted desire, leave her perpetually susceptible to bouts of grief—like my mother, who mourned a seven-month stillborn girl to the end of her days?
That’s why I couldn’t imagine Cassia would want to see me under any circumstance. The least I could do was honor her wish and leave town at dawn as I had originally planned.
I went down to the lobby at daybreak and looked up Seattle-bound flights from Phoenix on the house computer. I decided on a late afternoon departure and secured an online reservation. After a breakfast of sausage gravy and biscuits, I loaded my travel bag into my car and, by way of a final goodbye to Linroth, drove along the back streets. Driving by the cemetery, I saw a man loading a backhoe onto a trailer. I stopped, got out, and—back to playing incognito—said, “There must be a funeral coming up.”
“Yeah. Just dug a grave for a feller named Hammond Braunhil. Old as Methuselah. Damn well time for him to go.” The backhoe operator had red, scaly cheeks. He looked like a man who didn’t worry about washing his face and combing his hair when he got out of bed in the morning.
He scrutinized me closely. “You from around here?”
“I’m just passing through. I’ve lived in Seattle most of my life. I don’t know much about little towns. I get curious sometimes to see what they look like from the back side.” I was surprised how slithery and loathsome I felt, though technically nothing I said was a lie.
The backhoe man, who had been digging close to the cemetery gate, got into his truck and left. I decided to take a look at the grave—that serving as a kind of vicarious attendance at the funeral I had chosen to miss. Both the open grave and the excavated soil were covered by a tarp—nothing to see there. Looking around, I realized I was in Braunhil territory. My Braunhil grandparents were here, as were my own parents and the seven-month stillborn girl they insisted on naming. Suddenly, I was beset by the sense of an unfulfilled duty. It seemed a pity a man should pay his respects to the mortal dust of his parents for the first time at my age.
I could vaguely recall the interment of my stillborn sister. But I attended the funeral of neither of my parents. I was spared the guilt of intentionally missing my father’s funeral because Boeing had sent me to Mulhouse, France, and without informing anyone, I went to Haute Savoie in the Alps for a weekend of skiing, where I was put even more out-of-touch by a four-day blizzard.
When my mother died, Rosa let me know by telephone. “I hope you’ll come for the funeral,” she said.
I was silent.
“It’s time,” she said. “I don’t know what it is with you, but it’s time to get over it. Come home, Rulon.” But I couldn’t. Like a felon, I was reluctant to revisit the scene of my crime, the ruin of Cassia.
Nor did I mention the funeral to Patricia, whom I was dating at the time. After that, I always spoke to Patricia of my mother’s death—and my father’s too—as vaguely in the past. My mother had faithfully written at least one letter a week from the moment of my departure. Needless to say, my knowledge of matters in Linroth fell off drastically with her death.
When I left the cemetery, I decided to drive along the street I had grown up on, which I quickly decided was a bad mistake because I went to pieces when I passed by the two Braunhil houses, mine and Cassia’s, and all of a sudden I wanted to see Cassia—unbeknownst to her, of course, because her gaze would have withered me like an earthworm in the summer sun. So I made up my mind to attend the funeral after all, where I could sit at the back of the church and probably catch a glimpse of Cassia when she filed in with the mourners, and then, as I fervently promised myself, I’d for sure slip away while the first hymn was being sung and get on the road to Phoenix in time to make my plane.
At the church, custodians had opened the sliding doors between the chapel and the recreation hall and filled the latter with folding chairs in anticipation of a crowd as large as a stake conference—a well-founded anticipation, I saw as I took a seat well to the rear of the nearly filled recreation hall. An organist—likely the woman I had seen the evening before, though I couldn’t be sure at that distance—played a soft prelude. Shortly, there was a stir, and the organist shifted to a solemn hymn. The family procession, led by pallbearers and the coffin, came from a side hall and turned into the middle aisle of the chapel. Immediately behind the coffin came a tiny, shrunken woman on the arm of a robust, half-bald man of approximately my age. I recognized the woman as Aunt Sophrina. The robust man had to be Bryant, her eldest son. As for the others—fifty or sixty of them—I could make out only an occasional face with some cast of the familiar to it. I identified my brother Badge and my sisters Carol and Denise and also my cousins Jake, Dory, and Brenda. Among a trailing crowd of teens and children, I recognized Ashley, who seemed intent on marshaling her younger cousins into pairs. Finally, at a distance from all the others—as if there had been some hesitation on their part about joining the mourners’ throng—came two women, whom—with a catch in my throat—I recognized as Rosa and Cassia. The twenty-five years since Rosa had brought Mother to Seattle for my commissioning as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve had been kinder to her than to me. Of sturdy frame, she had a round face, prominent cheeks, and amber-grey hair swept upward to add to her already imposing height. As for Cassia, her slight, slender body was clad in a black dress with a white collar and cuffs. Her hair, once auburn, was silvered—something like light on rippling water. Her forehead was lined, her cheeks seamed, her mouth composed. As she and Rosa passed from my view, I felt apathetic and let down. What had I expected? Perhaps something transcendent, ethereal, other-worldly.
In any event, fragments from the past tumbled through my mind—kaleidoscopic memories of fights, street games, bonfires, and family gatherings. I recalled a day when Bryant intervened in a fight between me and Badge, saving me from a sure beating. I remembered that Rosa tackled me once during a game of football, and I plowed into the gravel with my elbows and knees. I remembered hiding in Uncle Hammond’s granary while Dory and Brenda searched for me during hide-and-seek; I held my breath for fear they would hear me. I loved those kids, all of them; siblings and cousins were one and the same to me. Here they were, most of them, at this funeral, the Braunhil family more or less in its entirety, and I longed to claim a place among them. Sitting at the back of the church, a stranger among strangers, I recognized afresh what a fragile and pitiable creature a human being is without a family. I was lucky, of course, to have married Patricia, but considered objectively, my marriage to her was a grafting onto the trunk of a tree planted by her dead husband, whose last name Patricia kept because Koreen and Alisha wanted her to.
I knew it was time for me to leave, but I could no longer muster any sense of urgency. I hadn’t seen enough of my kin. I knew I’d stay as long as there was a reasonable chance of concealing my presence in the crowd.
The funeral began with a hymn, which—though I hadn’t so much as thought of it in fifty years—returned to me word for word. A son-in-law of Hammond’s, Jasper Cleveland, gave a lengthy invocation, extolling Hammond as a man mighty in the service of the Lord. A daughter, Brenda, read his life story. As a young man, he had served as a missionary in New England. Upon his return, he attended Arizona State University, where he met and married Sophrina. They settled in Linroth, and he became one of the foremost farmers in Navajo County, winning all sorts of prizes for cattle and crops at fairs. He had been on the local school board four or five times. He had been counselor to one bishop and two stake presidents, but had never been a bishop or stake president himself, which, as I conjectured, likely said something about his lack of tact and understanding of human nature. I wondered what Cassia was making of all this. As for myself, I couldn’t quarrel with the facts of his life—the boards and church positions and prizes and all that—but I could quarrel with the lies about what a kind father and devoted husband he had been. I knew from my mother’s letters that he put Sophrina through the wringer on a steady basis, and from when I was a kid I could remember him making Bryant lean over a rabbit pen while he beat him with a belt for forgetting to latch a corral gate. Lies are pretty much the stock in trade of funeral speakers. Somehow it’s blasphemous to admit the ugly side of the dead person’s life.
Following the closing prayer, I stood with the general congregation while the family filed from the church. I went to my car but made no move to leave until most of the other cars had left the church. Sitting there, I observed my divided emotions with a detached curiosity, being fully aware that further delay meant missing my Seattle flight yet knowing that sooner or later I would start the engine and drive to the cemetery.
When I arrived at the cemetery, I parked at the far end of a line of cars, a position from which I could watch the proceedings at the grave without getting out of my car. Needless to say, I despised myself for being a voyeur, a peeker through a keyhole, as it were, into the doings of a family I no longer belonged to.
A considerable crowd stood around the grave. Observing their bowed heads, I surmised that the dedicatory prayer was in progress. Following that, the formalities of the service were at an end, and the crowd began to disperse, filing through the cemetery gate and getting into cars and driving away. Several persons entering cars near mine glanced my way. I sat tight, confident in my anonymity, a stranger among strangers. My siblings Badge, Carol, and Rosa lingered by the grave, also my cousins Bryant, Dory, and Brenda—to say nothing of Cassia and the girl Ashley, who stood beside a woman I couldn’t identify—her mother, Lee Ann, I supposed.
A vague apprehension grew over me when another car parked near the gate and the Burleson girl from the bed-and-breakfast place got out. Before entering the gate, she paused and looked my way. Jolted by a shot of adrenaline, I realized I had missed my chance to escape. Sure enough, an instant later she was conferring with Ashley, and both girls were looking my way.
Ashley left the gravesite, came through the gate, and turned in my direction. She wore half-high heels, a black skirt, and a white blouse, and, despite the frantic thoughts ricocheting off the walls of my mind, I calmly reflected that a girl doesn’t have to be pretty to be attractive if she was as decent and good natured as Ashley.
I lowered my window as she approached. “Cindy told me this was your car,” she said. “So you haven’t left yet.”
“No,” I said, “but I’m leaving now.”
“Don’t do that. Not without seeing Grandma.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“It’ll break Grandma’s heart when I tell her it’s you I’ve been talking to over here.”
“So you’ll tell?”
“They can see I’m talking to somebody. I can’t lie about it, can I?”
“You promised not to tell,” I said.
“You said you were leaving town first thing this morning,” she insisted. “You broke your word, so I can break mine.”
I was surprised by her tenacity. She looked altogether too young, too kind and willing to please, to hold to such a hard line.
“It’s Cassia, isn’t it?” she said. “You are absolutely afraid of her.”
“Well, yes, I am afraid of her.”
“Because I did something very bad to her.”
“What was it?”
“The worst thing a man can do to a woman, short of killing her.”
Her eyes narrowed with perplexity. How odd, I was thinking, that I should be confessing an offense of these dimensions to this epitome of decency, this unblemished soul whose deepest instincts tended toward propriety and duty.
“In any event,” I said, “you can see why I need to leave town unnoticed. I admit it was very foolish of me to come to the cemetery. For that matter, it was very foolish of me to come home to Linroth in the first place.”
Ashley looked toward the group around the grave. “What could I tell them?” she said. “Cindy has probably already told them it’s you I’m talking to.”
“Just tell them you don’t know why I insist on leaving in such a hurry.”
Her perplexity increased. “Couldn’t you ask Cassia to forgive you?”
“Some things can’t be forgiven,” I insisted.
“It happened a long time ago, didn’t it?
“Fifty years ago.”
“You weren’t very old.”
“Well, then, I think she should forgive you. She’s awfully nice. She doesn’t seem like somebody who would hold a grudge for fifty years.”
I was beginning to wonder what Ashley knew about rape. Hadn’t every girl in Linroth, long before she was ten, learned to fear the likes of Clemon Haines, the castrated imbecile who stalked the dark streets of her imagination at all hours of the night? Wasn’t it the curse of Eve that her daughters should perpetually fear the rapist who lurked undiscerned among the sons of Adam? Maybe not. Maybe with girls like Ashley, rape is simply a concept. Maybe it is an eventuality that happens to persons so unconnected to them that it has no meaning.
“Are you aware that at the age of sixteen Cassia was exiled to Utah to have a baby?” I asked in exasperation. “Do you realize that this is her first day in Linroth in fifty years? Do you realize that I am the cause of her exile?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” she said.
“Cassia doesn’t want to see me,” I repeated. “It would embarrass her profoundly. It would make her angry.”
“I could at least ask her if she would like to see you.”
“Don’t even think about that!”
I hadn’t budged her an inch. She looked steadily into my eyes. I began to feel disconcerted and finally looked away. She continued to stand there, her hands on the car door. It dawned on me that she was going to win by default. Just by standing there, just by not giving me permission to leave, she was making my worst nightmare come true. Pretty soon someone else—her mother, for example, or maybe Rosa—would join her. With that thought, I pushed open the door and got out. I felt like a prisoner ready for his execution. “Let’s go,” I muttered.
She turned and led me through the gate. The group around the grave watched us closely.
“It’s Rulon!” Rosa cried, but it was Cassia who came forward. I glanced at her face. Her brow was even more furrowed, her cheeks more seamed, than I had realized from my brief glimpse of her at the church house. Her unadorned, half-pinched lips were ambiguous, perhaps angry, perhaps grieved. The ambiguity depressed me. I lowered my eyes. The hem of her dress came slightly above her knees and her feet were clad in black flats trimmed with golden buckles. There was something measured, something poised, in her step. I felt a flicker of hope. As she neared, she held out her arms, and with a flood of relief I reached for her hands. I fixed my eyes on the base of her throat. Her skin was freckled as if she had been in the sun a good deal. Truly, her silvered hair caught sunlight like rippling water, and her eyes—when at last I dared look into them—brimmed with luminescent tears.
“Forgive me,” I choked.
“I forgave you long ago.”
“How could you?”
“How could I not? Don’t we still love each other? Have we ever stopped?”
She pulled me close and pressed her cheek against mine. I closed my eyes, refusing to countenance the curious stare of our waiting relatives. For those of my generation of the Braunhil family, the unknown father of Cassia’s child must have been a principal mystery, subject to countless quiet discussions in guarded moments. I had clarified the mystery for the girl Ashley. Wouldn’t the others clarify it for themselves now, confronted as they were by the prolonged embrace and the half-whispered words Cassia and I exchanged?
I didn’t care. I was grief-stricken and exultant, benumbed and euphoric, made so by the knowledge that Cassia had relied on my love through the long, empty decades of our exile. As Cassia had said, didn’t we still love each other? Had we ever stopped?