By Larry Menlove
I SAT IN an oaken pew, third row from the front, left side, with my mother, the two of us alone as the deacons passed the sacrament. The yeasty air of broken bread hung in the chapel like a veil, and when the tray came to me, I partook of the bread “in remembrance of the Body of thy Son.” Then I held the tray for my mother, her hand trembling over the bread. I bowed my head. I could feel the congregation’s curious eyes on us, wondering if we would partake.
When “the blood of thy Son” was passed, we drank the rusty pipe water from small, clear plastic cups and pondered the sacrifice, the atonement, His commandments, and my father’s words uttered over and over that afternoon among the gambol oak as the cicadas roared:
“Your brother did not do this.”
My mother held the tiny, empty, plastic cup over the castoff slot of the tray, and I passed the tray back to the boy in dingy slacks and white shirt, a plaid snap-tie under his clean chin.
“He is God’s instrument.”
The chapel was quiet then, save for the clink of plastic sacrament cups in plastic sacrament trays and the fussing of a child.
“They were pure.”
SHE ASKS ME, “What does that mean?”
Every Thursday at 5 p.m. I sit in the chair across from Lars, my therapist. Her office is drawn in smoky brown, and lonely afternoon light filters through the curtains. The room smells of Lars, more woman than perfume, and on her desk between us sits a carved piece of wood, a gift her daughter brought back from her mission to Africa. The dark wood with slivers of yellow is long, thin, and smooth. Phallic.
She asks me that question over and over: “What does it mean?” And, “How does that make you feel?” And “Why do you think that is so?” It is her job I guess, but I sometimes think she’s kind of playing with me. What she wants is for me to explain my words, and somehow this is supposed to bring me around. I may have just said something like, “It means she was just baptized, and her mom was forced to confess her sins before them.” So she asks, “What does that mean?”
“That they were pure and would be delivered straight to our Father?”
What, how, and why.
WE SAT STOLID there in the pew with our heads bowed. My mother took my hand. I looked at her. An old, small tear hung at the corner of her eye. So many had been shed before, but she had mastered them such that they might manifest, but not fall. Others were partaking of the sacrament as the young men scuffed their shoes up and down the aisles.
The deacons and priests finished the sacrament ritual and returned to their families in the pews. A shudder went through the congregation as though a collective flock of starlings were startled into flight, or as if the shackles of reverence had been released from all. Coughs, murmuring. The bishop stood at the front of the chapel on the stand and cleared his throat at the pulpit. The microphone squawked.
“Thank you, members of the Aaronic priesthood, for doing your duties today.” He cleared his throat again, looked over the pews to those at the back of the church. “Brothers and sisters, today, we have the great honor to welcome Brother Ballard of the high council to speak to us.” The bishop went on to tribute Brother Ballard with highlights of his life and revered callings in the Church.
The old man stood and hobbled to the pulpit, adjusted the microphone, then turned to the bishop and said, “Bishop Smith, you flatter me with those rumors of my past.” He turned to the congregation. “I assure you, I am but a man whose testimony to the truthfulness of this gospel is tested daily.”
I looked over at my mother. The tear had vanished.
LARS CALLS ME on Monday, checks on me, just like she does every Monday. I work at the box factory part-time, and I take her call during the afternoon break. She knows exactly what time I’ll be in the crowded little concrete break room with its tables and uncomfortable chairs, its vending machine and a dry coffee pot, the HVAC ducts visible in the ceiling. Lars knows all this about me, and when my cell vibrates, I get up from the table and walk out into the empty warehouse.
Her voice is cheerful and caring. I tell her my thoughts have been mostly good over the weekend. Yes, I went to church with my mom. No, I didn’t think of doing that one thing again. My buddy Kiplin walks by me on his way to the restroom and I smile at him. Through my cell phone, Lars says with that silky voice of hers, “Keep it up.” And I think, of course I will, for her. Then she tells me she’s just a call away, always she has it on, even in the night. I picture her curled up with the little piece of metal, glass and electronics in her bed beside her. Her hand on the sleek phone. Maybe she’s drooling.
I tell her thanks for all she does and click off the phone. I linger behind a stack of cardboard, trying not to think about Lars until I can go back in the break room.
I’m sure she sees that I’m attracted to her though she’s twice my age. That’s her job, to recognize things that aren’t normal. She reminds me of a girl, a pretty girl I met on my mission to Florida. Two years there and I didn’t convert a soul. I’m always thinking about Lars in her office and what she does when I’m not there. Don’t even know if she’s married, but I am jealous of the man who fathered her daughter. Sometimes I think of what it would be like if the two of us were married to each other and we lay together in bed. I know it’s wrong to think of those things, and I try not to dwell on them. I know it is probably just a patient/doctor thing, this funny infatuation I have.
I SHOT MY first deer when I was thirteen. It was in the mountains about thirty miles south of our home in Salem. I’d had a cold that October, I remember. The snot froze under my nose and on my lip in the frosty morning. My big brother, Jesse, spotted the buck across the maple brush-choked ravine. The sun was just cresting the ridge to our right. We had left camp before light and hiked forty-five minutes to reach this flat—the Killing Flat, my father and Jesse called it. So far, the hunting trip had been fruitful. Back at camp, two bucks were already dressed out and hanging high from ropes in the pines.
We were hunkered down in the dead cheat grass on the flat, a burned-out juniper tree hulking over us. I had needed to cough all morning, and had cleared my throat once, but was shot lethal looks from both my father and Jesse.
We’d been there about an hour waiting when Jesse leaned over my shoulder, tapped my arm, and pointed across the canyon to the slope on the other side. I followed his arm, his finger, and saw the buck in a clearing in the brush. It wasn’t a very big one, a two-point. I looked up at Jesse. His jaw line was hard, determined, covered in a darkening peach fuzz that would soon give over to a real beard. He had put in his mission papers four weeks before. Two days later he would get his mission call to Japan. He would baptize thirty people into the faith.
Jesse raised his eyebrows and gestured toward the buck with his chin. The look on his face said, “Shoot it, dummy.” I lifted my father’s M70 and lined up the bead.
After the shot, we made our way over the ground to where it lay, and I took off a glove, leaned down, and put my hand around a main beam of the antler. It was smooth, young, like something not yet fully formed. Jesse was there turning the buck over onto its spine. I stepped back. He buried the six-inch blade of his knife to the hilt between the buck’s hind legs.
After he dressed it out, Jesse handed me the heart. I held the organ in my bare hands. It was like a lopsided apple, still warm.
“Take a bite of it,” my brother said.
I looked at my father for assurance. A smirk rose on his face, and his gaze fell from me to the ground.
AFTER CHURCH SERVICES, my mother and I drove the short distance home. The roast was in the oven waiting for us. Mother put some potatoes on to boil and I made gravy from the roast drippings. In father’s absence, I carved the roast, thinner slices than my father would have cut, and mother watched me. I laid the meat on a platter and took it to the table. We both sat down, she at her usual spot to the left of the head, and me where I’ve sat since I was three. We bowed our heads. Mother asked me to bless the food.
“I don’t want to.”
“Cal?” My mother looked up at me with both a plea and panic in her voice. Her hands were in her lap, my name still on her parted lips. Steam rose between us from the potatoes in the cheap bowl centered on the table, within easy reach.
This is the way our Sabbaths are now.
“Our Heavenly Father,” I began and bowed my head.
MY BROTHER JESSE prayed often. When he was in high school, he would disappear to his room and I would stand in the hallway at his door listening. He prayed out loud. He cried. Shouted. He would stay behind the locked door sometimes for hours. He would come out not exalted, but somehow downtrodden, consumed, and morose. From out of these great efforts of prayer, decisions were made: the used Mustang purchased, various girlfriends broken up with, the Mustang sold, Cornpone (his dog) put down with a bullet in the head because he’d stumbled into a porcupine den. Jesse had prayed in this manner about his mission. Prayed before he put in his papers. Prayed over the location he would be called to. He prayed and received divine guidance that young, sweet Sister Cathy was not to wait for him to return; he was prompted to allow there was another for her.
Which there was.
And there was another for him. Julie.
And an only child.
“WHY DO YOU think that?”
Lars wears this black dress that kind of rides up her legs. She wears it quite often. Maybe it’s her Thursday dress. I just told her that I think I’m losing faith in my religion. I stop and think about the things I’ve been studying, take a glance at the space there below her skirt just above her knee. Is she wearing tights? What was it Brigham Young had said? Something about death and sin. Blood.
I found it on a dog-eared page in an old book of the prophets in my father’s study. I’ve been spending a lot of time in my father’s study. I can smell him in there. I sit in his chair behind the little desk, and I read things. I don’t know if mother thinks it healthy I sit in there. Sometimes she walks by and looks in on me. Once she stood on the threshold and said my father’s name, looked at me oddly, and then just turned and walked back down the hall.
She asks me to say a blessing over every meal we take together. I don’t pray. Not really. I say words, but I don’t expect them to be heard. Or answered. I don’t tell this to Lars.
I’m certain now that Lars is wearing tights under her black dress. I knew a girl in high school who used to wear what she called her menstrual tights. I always thought she was saying minstrel tights. But I understand now. I ask Lars, “Do you go to church?” I know she’s Mormon; my bishop is the one who referred me to her. I don’t tell my bishop the wicked thoughts I have about my therapist. I keep all that separate.
“Yes,” she says.
HE CALLS COLLECTabout once a week. I don’t take his calls. Mother does. She weeps, and I have to leave the room. I have it figured out now, don’t even have to wait for the tears and shuddering. Mom says, Hello, and then there’s a pause. It’s always the same pause: five seconds. Seems like an eternity. Then Mom drops her shoulders and says, “Yes.”
But I’m across the floor and out the door before she says the word.
Jesse? He doesn’t call anymore.
I HAD JUST earned my driver’s license around the time Jesse and Julie got married. Julie used to drive with me when I was putting in my hours behind the wheel with my learner’s permit. We’d get on the interstate going south after school, and we’d talk. Mostly it was small talk, getting to know each other. She was twenty years old. She and Jesse met at a singles dance in Provo, were engaged three months later.
I had to put in forty hours behind the wheel with a licensed driver, and Julie had a lot of time on her hands waiting for the wedding date. Somewhere around the thirty-fifth hour, we were on Highway 132 between Nephi and Fountain Green when Julie told me something.
“I know I’m not meant to live long on this earth.”
She went on to put it in the context of how lucky she was to have met Jesse, how unwaveringly true his faith was, and how, through the restoration of the gospel, their lives would be eternal: temple marriage, sealing children and all that—the same stuff that all of us around here are taught and obliged to gain faith in. Only Julie seemed to have been born with it, a steadfast conviction: Her place was not on this earth. This she believed.
She told me to turn off the highway, and we went up a gravel road marked with a green sign: “Log Canyon.” I drove several miles into the pines that loomed on either side of the narrow, water-washed road, and then rounded a tight curve where she said, “This is the place,” and told me to pull over.
We got out and walked into the forest along a game trail. I knew this area like I knew my own backyard, but I let her lead me through the slapping brush into a clearing bordered by a stone cliff and dark pines. A big rock with a top as flat as an altar dominated the middle of the clearing. Julie went to it, climbed up on the rock, and sat down. She looked off into the mysteries of the trees and the darkening sky beyond.
“This is where your brother asked me to marry him.”
“Yes. We’re going to be together forever.”
I said, “This is where we hunt.”
THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY, I walk into the church with mother, and we sit down in our pew near the front corner on the east side. I tuck my chin into the knot of my tie. Others come in and sit down around us. Children protest and cry. The members don’t look at us as much as they did before. I look at them. Organ music wheezes up out of the air that smells of perfume, aftershave, and breakfast cereal. The first counselor walks down the aisle shaking hands to the right, to the left. He shakes my hand. I smile up at him. He smiles at mother.
“Sister Finch,” he says to her.
It is Fast Sunday. But I am not fasting. I ate a green apple off the tree in the backyard before services while I waited for my mother to get ready. The apple was tart and hard as my teeth sunk into its thin flesh. Mother has the roast on low in the oven at home. I hear her stomach growl. It is the sound of something dying inside of her.
“WHAT DO YOU say to her?”
Lars is wearing a green skirt this time. And her brown sweater is tight. It hugs her breasts and the little paunch of her belly. This is a Tuesday. I needed to see her. I’ve been telling her about my mother, telling her about how this is hardest on her, how I’ve started coming to terms with the shock and the insecurities. I don’t cut myself anymore. Lars says this is progress, wants to know if I have found any significance in the blood I felt I needed to spill from my own veins.
I begin to say something about the dirt, something I know she wants to hear, how it was muddy with it, about the way the rope was swinging and creaking over the pine branch above them.
But I stop, and I look at Lars, and I say, “You’re so beautiful.”
I WAS JUST five years old the first time Jesse hit me. We were in the backyard blowing goatsbeard parachute seeds around, trying to keep them from falling back to earth. Mother brought us each out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, asked if we were having fun, and then went back inside. Jesse ate his sandwich fast and demanded what was left of mine. I said no, and he slugged me in the stomach. I doubled over retching and Jesse took the sandwich from my hand and took a big bite. He dropped the sandwich in the grass at my feet and said through mushy-bread mouth, “That’s your tithing. Ten percent.”
The second time Jesse hit me, I was eight, just two weeks after my father had baptized me a member of the Church and blessed me with the Holy Ghost in confirmation. We were in the backyard again when Jesse smacked the back of my head with a big plastic baseball bat. It didn’t hurt so much as surprise me when the blow knocked me to my knees. Jesse stood over me laughing and said, “Where’s your still small voice, huh? I knew it was coming. You got the Holy Ghost yet?”
I stood up and faced him, my little fists clenched. He bumped against me.
“You’re baptized. Anything you do now, you’ll have to repent for. Remember that.”
His fist felt like a brick thrown into my belly. It knocked the breath from me, and I fell to the ground on my side where I watched him walk away through the grass, my skinny arms clutched around my ruined body, certain that I would die unforgiven for the thoughts I had against my brother.
I was ten. Jesse thwacked me on the forehead with a ball peen hammer. It was funny, just joking around. Yeah. Just a little more arm in it and that hammer would have cracked my skull rather than just coax the inch-round goose egg to rise.
Eleven. Wrestled face-down onto the cheap, rough floor of our basement. Carpet burn on my chin. Thump of a knuckle to the top of my brainstem. Fingertips and toes tingling with electrical numbness.
Twelve and I took a swing back at him after an open-handed slam to my chest. He caught my fist and twisted my arm up and around behind my back. His breath smelling of Nacho Cheese Doritos and Sprite. “You haven’t got it in ya. You’re weak. You’ll always do what I say.”
I didn’t bite that buck’s cut-out heart when I was thirteen, and Jesse said, “That deer’s soul goes nowhere now. Its spirit just ends because of you. You shed its blood. You have to partake while it is pure and innocent. But you don’t have the courage to do what’s right.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but his tone tunneled into my middle just like his fist might have done.
HE HIT JULIE a year and a half into their marriage, just six months after their daughter, Glenda, was born. The pregnancy had ruined Julie’s gift to bear more children for Jesse. Her insides had torn and scattered. The strike had come at home after the doctor’s visit. After the prognosis. Before the hysterectomy.
Sunday dinner at home, everyone there, my mother looked first at Jesse on father’s right, his head bowed, then across the table and its spreading bounty at Julie, who held the six-month-old child in her arms, her plate empty in front of her, the bruise like a ripe plum under Julie’s eye.
Father spoke: “No more children? Really?”
Jesse looked up at father and declared: “There are more for me. I know it.”
Julie sniffed, Glenda in her lap, a tiny fist lifted and shook.
AFTER THE SACRAMENT is passed, the bishop encourages the members to come to the pulpit to bear their testimonies. A young girl runs past the pews to be first at the stand. She is maybe six years old. She yanks the microphone down to her lips and wetly says she knows the Church is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of Heavenly Father, that she loves her teachers and her brothers and her mom and her dad and her grandma. She says that she says these things in the name of Jesus Christ. And with amen, she runs away from the stand. People titter. The bishop smiles and bows his head.
LARS WANTS TO know if I still feel like the dirt stains my hands. I think she knows. She’s just changing the subject. I tell her there’s more beauty in this room than I can comprehend, tell her I can almost taste it, her beauty. I tell her everything beyond her office is nothing but ugly and I will never find beauty such as hers. She asks if I still feel as though my brother really had this revelation. I tell her I feel like a piece of fruit, an apple, my faith left out in the cold, gone overripe, sweet sugar shine under thin skin. Ready to burst with decay or some latent fermentation. She asks if I still feel the guilt from running, from not taking part, not believing, not standing beside my father. She asks about my dreams, the squeaking rope, my brother chewing and chewing and swallowing, working them down his throat. My father saying It is of the Lord. It is of the Lord. Lars wants to know if I’ve had my own private revelations.
And though I cannot say for sure, I only whisper, “No.”
I STEPPED FROM the truck back then, back when this happened, into the cool canyon and the cicadas. I locked the doors and stood there a moment in the shadows falling across the narrow dirt road.
I pushed through the overreaching branches of the brush and followed the path along the heft and rise of the warm mountain. The sun was setting behind me, and I carried two jugs of water and a bag of fried chicken in my pack. It had been my mother’s idea to take the chicken to my father and Jesse’s family. They had been camped there for three days, and mother thought they might be hungry. A spooked sage hen burst from the grasses along the path and gave me a rush of blood to my head—that old familiar fear of the unknown quickly changed to joy. I was happy to be here, my job done for the week, with my brother and father, Julie and my niece, Glenda, eight years old now, baptized five days before. I was looking forward to the end of this trail, when all of us would sit around a fire, a family in the wilderness.
In the beauty of that old canyon, I walked the little trail that was marked only by game. I pushed on through the scrub and tall weeds to where it raised some to the south. Season after season, we had come to the secluded flat in the pines to set up our deer camp.
I came across my father first. He was kneeling off the trail in the pale and lifeless weeds, leafless oak branches bowing over him. I’d seen my father in this position a thousand times before. It was the way he prayed morning and night. His camo hat lay in the weeds at his side. I walked slowly so as not to disturb his prayer. I stepped on a branch. He had taught me better.
My father swung his head. I saw the blood on his face. I saw the blood on the ground, on the leaves, the yellow and brittle brown leaves of the fall. I saw the blood on my father’s hands as he lifted them to block the view of me from his eyes.
He fell back into the crimson-stained weeds and leaves as though struck.
I ran along the sparse trail toward him. He rolled onto his belly, clawing at the weeds, the leaves, the dirt. He buried something under the old detritus and the clotted-black dust. My father spun and faced me. The blood on his unshaven cheek, like a backwards seven.
“It wasn’t your brother,” he said over and over. “He is God’s instrument.” Then I heard the creak of the rope and saw Jesse alone across the flat, a thin curl of wood smoke rising from the campfire, his strong back to me, hauling the second, much lighter load up over the pine branch where they turned slowly in the evening gloam.
“It was quick,” my father said. “They were pure.”
I LET GO of Mother’s hand, stood up there in the chapel, and walked past the pews, past the members. I stepped up onto the stand where the bishop and his counselors sat in sudden grave contemplation, their eyes large upon me. I looked at them, these men, clean and shaved and worshipful in this church. I squared myself to the pulpit and looked out over everyone, the old, the young, the newborns. So many faces. So many strong.
And I stood there waiting for the Spirit to charge my bosom with faith, to draw some witness from above, so that I might bear my own testimony of truth and beauty to all and to my faithful mother there in the corner who looked with wonder up at me:
And the brother of their son.