By Alison Maeser Brimley
Or right-click to download the audio here: You Can Give Him a Kiss
Alison Maeser Brimley is the winner of the 2017 and 2018 Association of Mormon Letters Short Fiction Awards and the 2017 Mountain West Writers Contest. She lives in Utah with her husband and daughter. This story won first place in the 2017 Sunstone Fiction Contest.
It’s just you and Pig at home when they come to the door. You recognize their nametags as soon as you see them on your porch, but behind the tags they’re different: smaller, and wearing skirts.
“What happened to the boys?” you say. When the doorbell used to ring on Thursday evenings, at almost regular three-week intervals, you knew who to expect, though they never called beforehand: the elders on their rotation. But this is Wednesday morning.
They ask to come in and you say “I thought y’all weren’t allowed.”
“That’s just elders,” one says. She has no eyebrows and her top lip hangs over the bottom like an awning. She’s the one that talks first and most. One in every pair.
You serve them plates of leftover cottage-cheese-and-Jell-O salad, which Merrick makes by the bowlful now. Awning-Lip hardly touches it; the other, with brown hair in an arm-thick braid, takes seconds. You show them Pig, 500 pounds of pink-brown flesh piled against the wall, with one tired eye that twitches toward the doorframe whenever someone stands there. Every other pair of missionaries went crazy over him when you let them look in through the big window. They’d take turns posing with him while their partner snapped a picture for home. A real live hog residing in a real live Mississippi double-wide. That’s what the people like to see in Utah, Arizona, Idaho.
The lady missionaries are no different. “You can give him a kiss,” you say, and when they laugh with wide eyes you do it yourself, using the move you’ve mastered: your unbending leg goes high in the air while your face lowers to Pig’s. They snap pictures of that. You rise fast because it kills your hip. How old is he, they ask; how much does he weigh, does he ever go outdoors? They laugh again when you tell them he’s house trained, pointing to the tub in the corner of the room. “That’s the most exercise he gets, walking to and from that tub. It’s why he weighs twice any wild hog you’ll find.”
Back in the kitchen, they ask if you can make it to church on Sunday. In answer you lift up your shirt and prod your extra plastic appendage: “My sack-of-shit,” you say. It makes them shudder and apologize. They ask if there’s anything they can do for you, and when you say no, they look around your trailer, asking again. Really, anything. You look at them in their skirts and don’t want to say what you want, you’d rather ask the boys when they come back, but then you stop yourself—you’d do it yourself if you could, and you’re a woman. Not much older than them. “The storm blew a load of crap into my pigpen,” you say, and they tell you they’ll be back tomorrow at the same time. In jeans.
When Merrick comes over at nine, you tell him you hired some little girls to come clean up the cans. “I told you I’d do that,” he says.
“Yeah, you told me every day for three weeks,” you say.
Four months ago you broke up with your boyfriend and realized you didn’t have any friends. You scrolled through the old numbers saved in your phone. You texted Eric, a high school friend, and in response got, “This isn’t Eric. It’s Merrick.”
You typed, “Ha ha Eric.”
Merrick was a friend of Eric’s, purchaser of Eric’s old phone—someone you must have met before but didn’t remember, though he seemed to know you. “I’ve bulked up since high school,” he explained when you met again, and yes, you think, there is something in the face you recognize. You laid in the grass and watched a movie projected on a sheet he’d hung on the side of his house. During the credits he tried to kiss you but you turned your head the other way and said, “Sorry, man.”
Three months ago your brakes went out around a curve and you went out the window, or partway out the window. You came out with a fractured femur, perforated bowel. “Perforated” insulted you—like what had happened to you was a line of shallow punctures on a notebook page instead of a trip through the shredder. They cut a hole next to your navel and pulled out a pinch of colon, hooked on a bag for you to empty yourself into. You were in the hospital for two weeks, home in bed for three. Through watery eyes you watched every episode of American Ninja Warrior. You liked being able to watch and believe that the only thing keeping you from acrobatics like those were your brace and your colostomy bag. The meds made you crazy, so when you woke up one afternoon to find Merrick in your room, you reached for the bedside table and threw a glass of water at him. You missed by five feet. He bent to pick up every shard.
“What the hell?” you said.
“Came to see how you were doing,” he said. “Your mom asked if I’d stay with you while she ran errands.”
You’d gotten almost used to the smell of your sack-of-shit. But then you sniffed it as if through Merrick’s nose. You put a hand to it like you could block the stink.
“Please get out of here, man.”
But he stepped closer, eyes on your middle. “Let me change that for you.”
“Oh hell no.”
“I worked in an old folks’ home. I’ve smelled it all.”
But to get up and do it yourself you’d have to ask him to bring you your crutches.
He was next to you then. You had no energy to fight. He started unstrapping your bag and you started crying. “I’m not crying,” you said. “It’s the pills.”
He peeled it from your skin. “This is awful,” you said when the smell slipped out.
“I don’t care,” he said.
He came back almost every afternoon and stayed until he had to go to work. He had a gift: so good at distracting you from the pain. He sat on the bed, a pillow-width away from you because with the queen-size mattress on the ground there wasn’t room for a chair. He talked to you over the TV, told you stories from the casino. Stories without as much drama as you would expect from a security guard, mostly laughable encounters with drunks. You’d been in more danger with grumpy old guys at the dialysis clinic.
Your love bloomed in reverse, a flower on a rewound video tape. You started bathing before he came, your stiff leg slung over the edge of the tub. You started brushing your hair, your teeth. When after a month he said “I love you, Ruth,” you said, “This isn’t Ruth. This is Gooth.” Then you said you were sorry, and three days later you said I love you too. By now it’s funny enough to be your joke—any time he says your name, you counter with: Pooth, Sleuth, Vermouth. Sometimes he skips the routine, just calls you Gospel Truth. Fountain of Youth. Baby Ruth, which you tell him doesn’t really count.
By the time the girls come back, in jeans, the whole thing is a joke, so you tell it to them. You can tell from the way they alternately giggle and hang their mouths open that they like it. Do they wish for Merricks of their own? They clean the cans up. When they’re done, it’s lunch time, so you sit them at the table and feed them leftover Popeyes that Merrick brought home yesterday plus cottage-cheese-Jell-O and lemonade in cans. You ask their names.
“I’m Sister Cort,” the one with the lip says, looking insulted, and the other says, “Sister Ziebell.”
“I mean your first names.”
Sister Cort says, “While we’re missionaries, we go by our last names.”
“I know that, man,” you say. “I’m just asking.”
They look at each other, conferring. As if the sound of names could set off some kind of alarm. Then Ziebell says, “I’m Summer.”
Sister Cort draws a sharp breath. “Patricia.”
“What is that, your grandma’s name?” you say. “Never heard of a young Patricia.”
Her lips get small. She says, “Can we share a scripture with you?”
The elders did this all different ways—some would crack open their scriptures there on the porch first thing. Others would stand there listening to you talk two or three hours and never open their backpacks. You have a pile of blue books under your bedside table because for a while, every time a new pair came over they’d ask if you’d been reading your Book of Mormon, then if you had a Book of Mormon, and rather than just saying Yes I never read it you’d say I used to have one around here somewhere, and they’d give you another. They’d never see your collection.
“This is from the book of Ether, chapter twelve,” Patricia says and starts reading. “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.” She keeps going, but you’re looking at the other one now, who’s dropped some slid-across-the-floor thing from her Bible and stepped out of her chair to pick it up.
A photograph. You catch a glimpse before she lifts it. “And who’s that?”
You reach out a hand, and red-faced, she lays the polaroid on your upturned palm.
“Good looking,” you say. The boy in the picture is dark-haired, square-faced, name-tagged. “Was he a missionary here? Elder—?”
“He’s in Taiwan.” She speaks like a shook-up Coke with its cap off. He’s a missionary too, but across the world. They met at school. You make her tell you everything.
When you were eight your dad set up two pens in the woods, fifty feet back from the road. He’d pick you up from third grade in his truck and drive home the long way, by way of the pens, to see if you’d gotten anything. After six days of nothing, you started complaining about going the long way.
You never did trap a hog in either of those pens. But one day while he was slowing up next to them, he braked without warning and leapt from the driver’s seat.
You looked wildly around for your disappeared father. You edged along the bench seat to the driver’s window and stared out at stillness. Then, from between the trees, growing bigger as he barrelled at you, he came cradling something—like a running back delivering a football to the end zone. He flung wide the door and climbed nearly on top of you, and when you wriggled out from under him he tossed a piglet in your lap and slammed on the gas. “Hold that thing!” he said, but not before you heard the devil-possessed snort of a hog from woods and felt the ram of its head into your truck’s door.
You were peeling down the road when he explained: “Angry mama!” You tried to wrangle the hawing, thrashing thing in your arms, and almost too soon it was calm. From there, he was your baby.
In a stroke of eight-year-old genius you named him Piggly Wiggly, shortened eventually to The Pig—like you’d call the store itself. Then just Pig. You and your dad thought you’d keep him indoors, feeding him from the table like a dog, until he got too big. But after a year, after he’d gained a hundred pounds, when you tried to make Pig sleep outside, he’d lie out there and cry. “He’s so lonely,” you’d beg on Pig’s behalf, but your dad refused to bring him back in, on the principle that it would make him soft. Your dad let him cry. When your dad moved out Mom brought Pig in. Pig got his own bedroom.
Your mother loved those first missionaries. When she comes home—she hasn’t returned to the trailer for any real amount of time since Merrick started coming—you’ll have to tell her they have lady missionaries now. For weeks the girls come every Wednesday, and if they miss a Wednesday they come on Thursday. Only a few times they don’t come either day. On your fridge, next to the forgotten illustrations from the physical therapist Medicaid supplied for forty-five days, you have their number on a card—“if you ever need anything.” But you can’t call just to ask when they’re coming.
When they do come, you can get Summer to talk forever about her Taiwan boy. He’ll come home seven months before her, marry her next summer. He studies business, plays soccer. You feed them. Then they get serious and try to make you say you’ll come to church. I told you, you say. Soon as my shitsack’s gone.
They seem to see through this, but also to recognize that only a real zealot could be expected to come to church in your condition. Someday, you’ll be that. For now, you are excused.
So they talk to you about Joseph Smith the Prophet. They give you booklets with his face on them. When they talk about his vision you remember—you were twelve the first time the elders started coming around. You’d go to church then, with your mom. You’ve got the photo somewhere: you and your mom in white, flanked by red-faced elders, all of you ready to get wet and holy. You remember Joseph Smith because when the elders told you about him for the first time, the moral of the story as far as you were concerned was, “You too can see the Lord if you just ask.” You prayed for it three nights in a row and didn’t even mind it when he didn’t come. You figured you were doing it wrong. But maybe you never cared quite enough to figure out how to really do it. It was only an experiment to you. Like what happens when you try to raise a pig in a trailer. It was only ever curiosity.
Now the girls ask you to pray every time, and you do. One time Ziebell surprises you by looking up from your prayer, wet-eyed. “Ruth, I don’t think it’s a coincidence we met you just after you had your accident,” she says.
This isn’t Ruth, you think. It’s Flooth.
“I think Heavenly Father is trying to tell you something. A lot of times it’s when we’re at our lowest points we’re ready to listen to him.”
Your mother told you more than once she hoped having a baby would make her want to get right with the Lord.
“I never wanted to go on a mission,” Ziebell says. “But last fall, David had left, and I didn’t get into the advertising program at school, and my sister’s baby died—I felt like I had nothing left to care about and I didn’t know anything about what really mattered. And that’s when I was ready to hear God telling me to come out here. Leave everything behind. A couple months earlier, though? No way. I was too comfortable.”
Patricia Cort again. “Think about it, Ruth. Maybe he’s just getting you ready to need him.” The trailer creaks with the weight of Pig turning over in the other room. “You know what we would love to do? We’d love to teach you and Merrick both. Together.”
You feel they’re asking you to turn him in for some crime. You can report yourself, but not him. “Merrick’s pretty busy,” you say.
“Will you ask him? Just ask? I know it will bring you so much closer together.”
“He’s seen my intestines, man,” you say. “We can’t get much closer.”
When Merrick comes the next day, he finds a pamphlet where it slipped between the couch cushions. He’s tried and failed already, as usual, to make you do your exercises. You sit before the muted television. “The Plan of Salvation,” he reads ceremoniously. “Get some J-dubs in here?”
“Mormons,” you say, and he chortles. “The ones that picked up my cans.”
“Damn. They’re working on you.”
“You know I used to be Mormon,” you say. “Me and Mom got baptized in their church.”
“Long time ago—before Dad died. Right after he moved out.”
He’s flipping through the pamphlet and stops to read out loud, in a bad British accent, “What is my purpose in life?” Then, in his Mississippi voice: “What was it like?”
“Like a normal church, I guess. Kinda boring. People were nice.”
“But you stopped going.”
“When I moved to Oregon with Dad.”
He’s flipping pages, stops on a greenish picture of suffering Jesus. Before you can think you say, “You believe in Jesus, Merrick?”
He sticks out his lip and puts one finger on the picture, as if to say Who, this guy? Instead he says, “You don’t?”
“Well, I don’t know. I think I lean more toward the Buddhist way of thinking.”
You squint. “Reincarnation?”
“Life. Is. Suffering.” He says it like it’s the slogan for something and looks you deep in the eyes, then walks two fingers up your long scar to the hem of your shorts. “Don’t tell me you don’t believe that, my sweetie sweet tooth.”
You laugh out your nose. “Doesn’t everybody believe that?”
“Carly told me about them. She was becoming a Buddhist.”
Carly dumped him last year when she moved to Florida to try to be a Dolphins cheerleader. He rarely brings her up because of what her name does to your face. You feel it pinching now. “You know I hate the woman,” he said. “But her information seemed pretty much correct. About Buddhists, anyway.”
“Don’t you ever feel like you should, like, go to the Buddhist church? If you believe in it?”
“I don’t know any Buddhist churches.”
“Just pray, then? To Buddha—whoever?”
“I pray, Baby Ruth.” He shifts his weight under him and leans his head on your shoulder, planting little kisses on your neck. “I prayed for you to love me, and look.”
The sisters ask you how you’re feeling—same—and then if you’ve had a chance to talk to Merrick. Of course I’ve had a chance, you say. He comes over every day.
“You love Merrick, don’t you?” Sister Cort says.
It feels like a trick question, but you answer the first thing that comes into your head. “Sure.”
“You want to be with him forever?”
“Ay ay ay don’t know,” you say, rolling your eyes up and around the room.
Their mouths flip into smiles. “Our Heavenly Father has provided a way for us to be with our loved ones forever,” Cort says, and extends a pamphlet.
You feel like taking it is tantamount to signing a contract, so you don’t. Instead you ask Ziebell,
“I guess you want to be with David forever.”
“But you came all the way out here right before he got home.”
“We’ll have eternity together after this.” She winks.
“And you, Patricia? Who’ll you be with forever?”
You expect her to change the subject. Instead she says, “Someone. I don’t know yet. I write a couple of people but I—” She looks at Ziebell. “I don’t have anyone waiting.”
You tell them when you were thirteen you moved out to Oregon to live with your dad in the apartment above Uncle Kip’s office. Kip, the mortician. It seemed like half the bodies they got there wanted to be cremated. He gave you a job: you ran the magnet over the tray of ashes that came out of the basement oven, picking out the stuff that didn’t burn. Silver fillings, medical staples. It thrilled you.
“You know you can take your ashes and make them into diamonds?” you say. “People would come with their dead grandmas to get them made into wedding rings and stuff. You can even get two people’s ashes melted together into a diamond. Grandma and grandpa.”
“No way,” Cort says.
“Memorial diamonds,” you say, remembering the name, and at the same time remembering that this isn’t something your uncle actually did. No—he didn’t have a human-to-diamond machine next to his oven. You must have heard about it later. But you won’t lose your momentum now. “Look ‘em up,” you say. “They’re kind of blue, cheaper than real diamonds. That’s what I call together forever.”
When they burn you down, the little girl running her magnet over you will find a titanium rod the length of your femur. The longest-living part of you. She’ll pull it out and use it as a tap-dancing cane.
“It’s kind of awesome,” Ziebell says.
In Biloxi the doctor x-rays you and tells you the leg’s healing the wrong way. That’s why, eight weeks later, you can’t bend your knee still. They need to re-break it and operate again. They schedule your appointment for the next week.
“Caught it early enough, thank God,” the nurse says afterward.
God’s begun to take shape in your mind: a giant man with a half-face peering over the horizon like a setting sun, shoving miniature you off a cliff with one hand and waiting to catch you with the other. This makes everything make sense.
In the hall, Merrick wheels you around a corner, your leg out like a jousting lance, and almost takes out Sister Cort.
“God—sorry,” he says.
“We wondered if we’d see you here!” Cort says.
You must have looked confused, because Ziebell says, “We came to see another lady we’re teaching.” Like the mention of Carly the Buddhist, this makes your face wrinkle. You hope they don’t notice. “She had a knee replacement.”
You are in a chair, motionless, enclosed by them. You aren’t sure who to be: Merrick’s Ruth or the sisters’ Ruth. Until now you didn’t realize they were different.
The girls are stealing glances at Merrick’s face, then smiling down at you, like they mean to ask if you’re going to introduce them. But in another second Cort seems to get tired of waiting. “You must be Merrick,” she says. They shake, like politicians. “We’ve heard so much about you.”
“From this one?” he says, and puts a grandfathery palm on your head. “Y’all probably think I’m a real creep.”
“We think you take good care of her,” Ziebell says. “Look at you.”
“And you make dang good Jell-O,” Cort says.
“Thank you,” he says, craning to look down on you. “Told you.”
In the silent seconds that follow, while you sit paralyzed below, you see it pass above your head: their card, from Ziebell’s hand to Merrick’s. The same card magneted to your fridge. You see how easily they give it. A hello, a couple compliments, voila—call us anytime.
Merrick will not call. You’re ninety percent sure.
You dream that night of Merrick and Ziebell in your own bed. When you walk in, they stumble naked from the sheets, both glued to colostomy bags. You wake up sweating, and it takes until you’re in the bathroom to remember what happened, then to remember it didn’t really happen.
But the sisters don’t come over that day, or the next. Only Merrick comes, and Thursday when he kisses you hello, you pull him into another kiss, and another, you pull him onto the bed, and you’re thinking yes, you’re ready, you think you want him to take off your clothes. But then he’s running his hand up your side and it’s like his fingers found a hidden switch and shut you off. You peel away from him, lie looking up at the ceiling for as long as it takes your eyes to dry—a year? You think maybe you’ll turn on again. But then he goes to make a sandwich, and brings it back to the bed, and eats half.
You’re about to apologize for something when he says, “Has this always been hard for you? Like with Tyler?”
Around you the room stiffens. You hadn’t thought of Merrick wanting things from you. You have always felt with him as if you had all the time in the world. Now there’s a ticking clock over your bed, a thunderous ticking, and Merrick isn’t Merrick anymore. Just a man.
“I was fine with Tyler. Look at me. Want me to stroke your dick with this?” You pump your hips, jiggling the bag. It hurts everything.
“Okay. I just know it can be harder for women.”
“I like sex. Liked it. I’m just broken.” You run a Vanna White hand over your body.
“We’ve got to re-break you, see,” he says, parodying the doctor. He holds the sandwich to your mouth. You bite.
When he leaves for work, you’re left staring across the hall, into Pig’s eye, where you see the dream replay: Ziebell and Merrick, twisting in the sheets.
So you’re surprised when the girls call you that night and you feel no fury. Not for them. “We thought we’d come over for a lesson next Tuesday. Noon?”
“Sure,” you say. On the phone, you can’t tell which one you’re talking to.
“And Merrick is free Tuesdays?”
They’ve seen him at the hospital. On a Tuesday.
“Ruth, will you invite Merrick to be there too?”
On the table next to you is the temple pamphlet. You fold its corner back and forth, telling yourself that’s all they want—not Merrick, but you and Merrick. Together forever.
“Is this Summer or Patricia I’m speaking to?”
“Sister Cort,” she says.
“Pat, if Merrick gets saved with y’all, he’s not going to have to quit Boomtown, is he? Because that’s the best job he’s ever had.”
You hear her laugh, then pull the phone away from her face to tell someone on the other end, “She asked if Merrick gets baptized will he have to quit at the casino!” For the first time you realize you can’t picture where she is—in a trailer, or a house, or some room lined with cots where hundreds of missionaries sleep all together, like an orphanage. Then she’s back at full volume. “Let’s take one thing at a time,” she says.
“Okay, Tuesday,” you say, remembering you’re getting your leg broken on Tuesday. You’ll explain later. For now you’ll save the bad news and deliver the good: “And I think I can come to church this Sunday. What time again?”
Like a piglet, Sister Cort squeals.
At thirteen you were lonely. Girls hadn’t liked you where you came from—Mississippi—and they didn’t like you in Oregon. Your first kiss was Brandon Tritt, who took an overeager shine to you from the day the divine will of the seating chart stationed you at his table in Art Explorations. He started calling every weekend, inviting you to ice skate or just sit in someone’s basement, and you were grateful. Once you showed up he acted like he owned you, and you considered it worth the trade. Then your dad died, and you came home again, but you maintained the Brandon pattern; since Brandon—half your life ago—the longest you’ve been unboyfriended was nine weeks (a depressing stretch of junior year). You almost broke your record between Tyler and Merrick.
So you’ve had boys before. Boys only follow you through whatever shit you’ve gotten yourself into, then try to pull you through their own. They can’t pull you out.
What you haven’t had is girls, giving you pamphlets and making your mouth say prayers. What you haven’t had is someone you wanted to pray to.
You imagine this is why, limping into the church building on Sunday with its hallways lined in painted Bible scenes and Joseph Smith portraits, you feel something. The sisters said you would. It’s an urge to cut all human ties and float above the world, or else to drive yourself into the ground so deep only the long arm of a god can pull you out. Here, the ache of your knee bending over the pew’s edge feels almost right. Righteous. It could humble you, maybe.
Sister Cort’s at the front of the chapel leading the music, so it’s just you and Ziebell on the pew. You’re trying to follow the song, to sing open an empty place inside yourself for God. Ziebell leans over. “You and Merrick together are so freaking cute,” she says. “It makes me miss David so bad. He gets home this week. And he starts school. With like a million cute girls.”
Forget him, man, you want to say. You don’t want to hear about David anymore. You don’t want to think of her going home to him, and now—something swells in your chest—you don’t want to think of going home to Merrick.
“I love that I can talk to you about him. It’s bad. It’s just he’s all I want to talk about.”
You surprise yourself when you tell her, “I think it’s over with Merrick.”
Ziebell couldn’t have looked more horrified if she’d seen your bowels perforating.
“It’s church,” you say. “He doesn’t want me coming. I just—I can’t be with someone who tries to control me like that.”
You watch a full three-act drama play out across Ziebell’s face. The horror first—shock—then resignation. Then, you think, pride. She squeezes your forearm. You’ve misrepresented Merrick, yes, and you don’t know why, and you’ll apologize later, but you’ve distorted yourself, too. She thinks you are the kind of person already who will choose God over Man. Church over comfort. You’re not, yet. But you will be.
You pray you’ll maintain your resolve when you get home and Merrick calls, wondering where you were when he came by at noon. He’ll fight you, you think, and then he’ll threaten. But your surgery, Tuesday. If I don’t take you—
“Who will?” you’ll finish.
And across the hall, Pig will snort, as if to remind you. You couldn’t be alone if you tried.