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V , N ()

Editor Angela Hallstrom
Fiction Editor Lisa Torcasso Downing
Poetry Editor Jim Richards
Creative Nonfiction Editor Brittney Carman
Critical Essay Editor Karen Marguerite Moloney
Lead Copyeditor Elizabeth Petty Bentley
Copyediting Staff Lotte Willian and Liz Jensen
Design Eric Lyman
Layout Marny K. Parkin

President Margaret Blair Young
President-elect Scott Bronson
Past President Boyd Petersen
Board Members Dennis Clark, Jonathan Langford, Eric Samuelsen, Philip Snyder,
Charles Swift
Secretary Darlene Young
Membership Secretary Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury
Treasurer Lynn Bronson
Webmaster Jacob Proffitt
AML-List Moderator Stephen Carter

Front cover: untitled, Justin Hackworth

Irreantum (ISSN -) is published twice a year by the Association for Mormon Letters (AML), PO Box , Orem, UT -;
Irreantum vol. , no. () by the Association for Mormon Letters. All
rights reserved. Membership and subscription information can be found at the end of
this issue; single issues cost (postpaid); double issues, . Advertising rates begin
at for a full page. The AML is a nonprofit (c)() organization, so contributions
of any amount are tax-deductible and gratefully accepted.
Views expressed in Irreantum do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or
of AML board members. This publication has no official connection with or endorsement by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Irreantum is supported by a
grant from the Utah Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC. Irreantum is indexed in the MLA International Bibliography.
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Critical Essays

Creative Nonfiction


R S Bing
D T The Locker Room
S T Maybe the Kids Maybe
E W J Facts About Angels
H H Abominations

D T About Serious Mormon Fiction

J A Propaganda, Art, and the Desire to Testify
S C We Think We Know the World When
We Divide
W H Sparrows and Boys; Lost Creek; Red Shift
M B Piet; House for Rent; Bottled Fruit
L O F The Blue Jacket
E G Adjusting; God as Intern
A S R Reluctant Saints
S C Blue
C C Garden of Dead
A H From Deseret to Dystopia:
An Interview with Ally Condie
S M The New Mormon Brotherhood
Todd Robert Petersons Rift and Jonathan Langfords
No Going Back
E W J Aint No Such Thing: Moving Beyond the
First Series of The Lonely Polygamist Reviews
Brady Udalls The Lonely Polygamist
M S N God Will Pour Out His Spirit
Upon All Flesh
Jack Harrells A Sense of Order and Other Stories
E M Three Whitney Winners: Seeking the Best
Books, Finding Ourselves
David Farlands In the Company of Angels, Dan Wellss I Am
Not a Serial Killer, and Carol Lynch Williamss The Chosen One
V , N ()

And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum,
which, being interpreted, is many waters.
Nephi :

I journal published twice annually (Fall/

Winter, Spring/Summer) by the Association for Mormon Letters.
We seek to define the parameters of Mormon literature broadly,
acknowledging a growing body of diverse work that reflects the
increasing diversity of Mormon experience. We wish to publish the
highest quality of writing, both creative and critical.
We welcome unsolicited submissions of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and plays that address the Mormon experience either directly
or by implication. We also welcome submissions of critical essays that
address such works, in addition to popular and nonprint media (such
as film, folklore, theater, juvenile fiction, science fiction, letters, diaries,
sermons). Critical essays may also address Mormon literature in more
general terms, especially in its regional, ethnic, religious, thematic, and
genre-related configurations. We also seek submissions of photos that
can be printed in black and white. We welcome letters and comments.
Please visit for submission instructions. Only electronic submissions will be considered.

From the Editor

I important part of my life for over six years.

I joined the staff in , after Chris Bigelow turned over editorial
duties to Laraine Wilkins, and I have spent time as features editor,
fiction editor, assistant editor, and co-editor. This issue marks the end
of my tenure as co-editor, and my feelings about stepping away are
bittersweet. I look forward to having more time to spend on my own
writing and with my family, but I will miss the day-to-day involvement with a journal that has become more than a satisfying outlet for
my creative energies. Irreantum, for me, has been the ultimate volunteer gig.
Over the years, a few friends and family members have expressed
a kindly confusion over my decision to spend so much free time on
a relatively unknown literary magazine. Do they pay you? some ask.
(Ican hear the maniacal laughter of so many AML volunteers ringing in my ears as I type this.) I try to explain my choice by comparing it to more well-known forms of volunteerism. Some feel called to
spend their energies organizing fundraising carnivals at the elementary schooland, oh, how I appreciate those people, and am grateful
that I dont have to be one of them! Others feel compelled to spend
evening upon evening in November dialing up random neighbors
with a special political message. (I must admit I dont appreciate
these volunteer efforts quite as much as those offered by the PTA,
especially when the calls arrive during dinner, but I do understand
the impetus.) But from the moment I became acquainted with the
Association for Mormon Letters I felt a very real desire to take part in
its mission. I knew Id found a cause worth championing: encouragingand preserving for future generationsthe very best writing by,
for, and about Mormons.

In this issue, a great deal of that very best writing is on display.

Not only will you find an excellent, thought-provoking essay by the
great advocate of Mormon literature, Doug Thayer, but were pleased
to present a new Thayer short story as well. Thayers The Locker
Room is a coming-of-age piece exploring a nave Mormon boys loss
of innocence, a common and important theme in LDS literature. In
fact, Iwas struck by the uncanny thematic similarity between Thayers
story and our Irreantum fiction contest winner, Bing, by Ryan
Shoemaker. In matters of setting and style, these two stories are worlds
apartone story written by a Mormon literature veteran whose first
published piece appeared in the Improvement Era in , another
written by an up-and-coming young writer in the early stages of what
is sure to be an impressive literary career. But both stories represent
a fascinating individual take on a common theme: the shattering of
a sheltered Mormon kids illusions. Both stories also illustrate why
good literature about LDS experience must continue to be written,
published, and discussed. Without organizations like the AML and
magazines like Irreantum, however, I believe such stories have little
chance of entering into our cultures conversation, now or in the future.
So, as I step away from my editorial duties at the magazine, my
plea to this readership is to contribute to the Association for Mormon Letters cause of promoting and preserving Mormon literature
in whatever way you can. If youre a writer? Write. Submit. If youre a
reader? Read. Subscribe. If you find you have the time and inclination
to offer your services to the AML? Volunteer. The AML is always in
need of enthusiastic volunteers and we appreciate any service you can
offer. If you feel so moved, e-mail us at and
well gratefully put you to work. Monetary contributions are always
deeply appreciated as well.
After this issue, I hand the editorial reins to Irreantums new coeditor, Josh Allen. Joshs background in creative writing and publishing makes him an excellent fit for the magazine, and his essay in this
issue, Propaganda, Art, and the Desire to Testify, leaves me certain
that the journal is in great hands. Josh will join co-editor Jack Harrella man it has been my sincere pleasure to work with over the

From the Editor

last year, and whose considerable talents have made Irreantum even
better. I am pleased that I will have the opportunity to continue to
work with Jack and Josh, and other members of Irreantums staff, since
I couldnt leave the journal behind entirely. I plan to stay on as contest
coordinator, overseeing our annual fiction, creative nonfiction, and
brand new poetry contests. (See the notice in this magazine, or visit for more information about submitting.) I look forward to continuing to be surprised,
delighted, and moved by the excellent literature produced by our
Mormon community.
Angela Hallstrom


T B and I were seventeen, before Auburn had

the Supermall and the amphitheater, when the Muckleshoot Indian
Casino was just a big smoky tent in the middle of a parking lot that
went on for a mile. It was our senior year, and everyone listened to
Nirvana, and everyone wanted to be in a band, and everyone could
play at least three guitar chords and the first part of Stairway to
Heaven. And for a while that year we hung out with Bingham.
Bing most people called him, or Asshole when he wasnt around. He
moved from Bellevue at the beginning of our junior year. His parents
bought the biggest house in Highland Meadows, a palace with a racquetball court and an indoor swimming pool, and from its glass sunroom peering out on the Green Valley, I could see my house through a
stand of cedars, the mossy roof and faded paint, so far away, no bigger
than a dollhouse.
Before Bellevue, Bing had lived in Hong Kong. And before that in
Abu Dhabi. Hed been other places too. Rome, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro.
He told us hed once seen a man stabbed in a Cairo market. Thered
been the flash of the knife right before it went into the chest, the
sound of it, something like cutting into a cantaloupe, and then the
wild spread of blood. We were eating when he told us this. Maybe we
were at Taco Bell or Herfys. I dont remember. But what I do remember is the quick jolt I felt in my stomach and how Burger looked green.
Like us, Bing wrote for the school newspaper, but unlike us, he thought
of himself as subversive. He wanted to shock or piss off as many people
as possible. There was what happened with Coach Sanders at the end of
our junior year. Supposedly Sanders had taken Bing aside and told him
First place, Irreantum Fiction Contest

he needed to change his attitude, to come down from his high horse and
let Christ into his life, and then hed prayed for Bings soul, right there in
his classroom. Im sure Bing was sitting there, fingers clasped together,
head bowed, smiling maniacally while Sanders droned on, because this
would be his story, his next big expos for the school newspaper.
Later Bing found six other students whod also had to endure
Sanders preaching and prayers and religious strong-arming. It came
out that he was proselytizing for the small church in Sumner where
he was assistant pastor. Sanders didnt come back our senior year, and
Burger and I really didnt mind because we were in his geometry class,
and he knew we were Mormon and never let us forget, with his veiled
biblical references and long sighs that we were going to hell.
But it wasnt just what Bing wrote that pissed people off. In class,
he always had to disagree with his teachers on some small point. Our
honors American lit teacher, Mrs. Kirby, hated him. I could see it in
the way her jaw clenched and the crepe flesh under her chin quivered
and turned pink every time Bing raised his hand. Mr. Steinburner
and Mrs. McNiven wouldnt let him in their classrooms. Bing did
most of his work in the conference room above the principals office.
That was his punishment. Burger and I would see him there through
the large windows, head bowed over whatever he was doing, maybe
some article that would get another teacher fired. Maybe Mrs. Kirby.
On weekend nights, we cruised through Auburn in Fords or Buicks
with more horsepower than we needed, looking for a whiff of something
profound and timeless in that subterranean night, or at least something
puerile and memorable. Wed drive Lake Holm Road at eighty miles an
hour and feel the car lift off the ground when we topped a rise. Wed
stare at each other, grinning stupidly, and know we were close to an
edge we didnt want to crossbut one we, at least, wanted to see up
close. The windows were down those nights, and wed scream into the
darkness, turn the car around and do it again. And later wed settle into
a corner booth at Dennys to eat onion rings and drink Dr Pepper. Bing
talked. Burger and I listened.
That summer, hed spent a weekend in Seattle, living on the streets.
Research for a story on what its like to be young and homeless, he

Shoemaker: Bing

said. Burger and I listened raptly. We covered sports for the school
newspaperbaseball, football, swimming, and gymnastics. Flag line
if we had to. To venture off into the unknown for a story, to go undercover and risk life and limb, well, this was beyond us.
Seattle, he told us, was no place for the inexpert. And we knew he
wasnt talking about Pike Street or the Space Needle. He was talking
about those grimy alleys and dark concrete crevices wed seen for years
from the safety of a yellow school bus zipping over the Alaska Way
Viaduct toward the Pacific Science Center. Bing paused for like five
minutes after he said this, examined the thin lines on his knuckles,
and then looked up to see if we understood him.
Bing was shorter than us. Bigger around the chest and belly. He
had these blue eyes, like the color of propane set alight, and you could
see a ferociousness swimming in them. A gun ready to fire or a man
standing over a pile of stacked boards with his arm poised above his
headthats the impression Bing gave us. He did karate at the Goju
Center in Kent and had even won a few tournaments. He had the trophies on a shelf above his bed to prove it, and sometimes Burger and I
would stare at them, at Bings name engraved in the wooden bases or
at the faceless plastic men, gold and shining, caught in the middle of a
flying kick or an upward jab, and wed look at each other and say, Its
not too late for us. We still have time.
He panhandled on the streets, Bing told us, because thats what
homeless teenagers do when they reach the bottom, when their parents
die and leave them nothing or kick them out. You should have seen the
sad looks these people gave me, Bing said. These women almost cried.
I was leaning forward until the edge of the table felt like a machete
pressed across my sternum. Burgers hand covered his mouth. With
Bing, we didnt want to miss a word. They were giving me five and ten
dollar bills, Bing said. Fifty bucks an hour. Burger and I believed him.
And then he went on, head tipped back, eyes closed, like a traveler
whod just returned to the place he started from.
Bing stayed in a shelter off First Avenue, slept on the lower bunk,
and endured a pair of blackened, sockless feet hanging above his head
and the deathly smell they threw out, and sometime in the night he

made his way to the drinking fountain through the fifteen-watt murk
and found it overflowing with vomit. Bing asked us if we thought it
could get any worse. His eyes snapped open. Burger and I flinched.
How could it get any worse?
But it did.
So the next morning Bings eating his little bowl of oatmeal and a
banana the Salvation Army gave him before opening the shelter doors
and throwing everyone out, and then this middle-aged man in a green
corduroy suit and black shoes comes walking down the street, a little
bounce in his step, whistling, and he stops for Bing and asks him a lot
of questions, and Bing, in character of course, gives him a sob story
about how his parents died in fiery car crash on Highway , and how
he had to go live with his aunt, but ran away because she didnt feed
him and made him sleep on a mattress in the garage. And this man
smiles, puts a hand on Bings shoulder, and tells him that hes in the
business of helping people and Bing can stay with him at his house
near Capitol Hill. They could work out a way for Bing to pay his
rent and maybe make a little money. You understand, this guy asked,
and winked. And Bing told him he understood pretty well, and then
grabbed this guy by the collar and pushed him into a brick wall, and
this guy starts to snivel and tells Bing there must be some kind of
misunderstanding and that they should just forget the whole thing.
And the guy takes out his wallet and offers Bing twenty dollars, and
Burger and I cant believe it. Were sitting there with greasy fingers
and we cant believe it. And Bing tells the guy no. Not twenty, not forty,
he wants fiftyjust to teach this guy a lesson. And this guy hands it
over and hurries off.
Burger had gone pale. His mouth hung open and a big shard of
onion ring balanced on his tongue. Burger and I would never have
done this. Our parents would never let us. Theyd already cultivated
in us an abiding fear of the unknown.
I looked out the window at the traffic on Auburn Way. It was one
of those warm Octobers that comes once every four or five years. The
leaves had fallen from the trees, but we were still wearing shorts, still
in the tattered T-shirts wed worn all summer. The air was light to

Shoemaker: Bing

the touch, like a caress, and in the air you could smell smoke and fermentation. Any day it might start raining, and it wouldnt stop for five
months. But it was all right that year, because we were seniors, and all
of us were popular, and all of us were going places, and all of us had
some crazy dream that was out there just on the horizon, and all we
had to do was grab it. And on those nights Bing would stare across
the table, head thrown back, eyes aimed just over our heads and out
the window, out beyond Auburns wide streets and quaint homes, and
we knew that Bing would be the first of us to reach that horizon.
I year, our last year before adulthood and that unfamiliar world wed been apprenticing for all our lives, and we felt most
alive when we were out with Bing or sitting with him in the halogen
glare of the stadium lights on a Saturday night, watching the football
team mercilessly charge down the turf as the cheerleaders kicked their
tan legs high in the air, waved their gold pom-poms, and shouted things
like, Go, Donny, go. Brook Barbasolo, Kendra Sweeney, Shannon Palfrey, Cindy Conn, Heidi Sederberg, Hailey McGinnis. We slowly went
down the cheerleading line, mentally cataloging the aesthetic strengths
and weakness of each. Kendra was my and Burgers favorite, and often
we talked about what it would be like to kiss her, to run a hand through
her honey-colored hair, to feel her tongue in our mouths. Burger and I
spoke in the hypothetical. Wed never kissed a girl.
Bing was more experienced in these matters. He said he and Brook
had been seeing each other for months, meeting every couple weeks at
Game Farm Park to make out in her car in a dark corner of the parking lot, but the whole thing was secret because she was dating Brian
Schwartz, our second-string quarterback, and if Brian ever found out
about it, there might be trouble. Of course, Bing assured us hed take
care of it if that happened. He also assured us that Brook was planning to break things off with Brian when the football season ended.
Bing claimed to have touched her breasts. Burger and I shivered at the
thought. He told us this one day in the locker room, and Burger and I
sat on the wooden benches a few extra minutes that day, tying and retying our Nikes before we could go out on the basketball courts.

And on those nights Donny Goodin would break through the line
and run the ball into the end zone, and then the band would strike
up with something timeless and inspiring like Iron Man or Smoke
on the Water, and Kendra would kick her left leg above her head,
and if I looked closely enough I might see a flash of green bloomers
beneath her pleated white skirt. Wed be on our feet, pumping our
arms in the air. Wed look over at Bing and hed be standing, too, with
his arms crossed over his chest, looking down at Brook, his mouth
slightly open, and then wed look at Brook, her ponytail bouncing, her
teeth so white, and we believed she was looking up at him. Wed clap
and make strange hooting noises because Bing was making out with
Brook and because we were in love with Kendra and because we were
on our way to an undefeated season, and we knew that this was meant
to be because no one can have a losing team their senior year.
Bings parents were up in the stands. Larry and Barbarathats
what they wanted us to call them. Together they seemed to be orbiting in a space closer to the gods, and we looked up at them with awe,
too, and it seemed there was always a light shining around them, and
then we saw our parents up there and got depressed. They were fortysomething going on fifty-five, bland and pale, our mothers with their
bobbed hair and stone-washed jeans and that roll of fat on their bellies, and our fathers, with their fleshy jowls and billowing sweat pants
hiked up until the waistband practically covered their nipples. They
chased numbers around spread sheets all day at Boeing and always
feared they might lose their jobs.
Larry was tan and smelled like the ocean and had a sailboat and a
speedboat and a cabin on San Juan Island he promised to take us to
and was a partner in some big Seattle law firm. And Barbara, tall and
blond, a former actress who Bing said had once been offered the lead
role in The Graduate but turned it down because she wouldnt sleep
with the producer. And Barbaras friend was always there, too. Lydia.
Shed been a model at one time, but now she and Barbara owned a
clothes boutique in Bellevue, and she was tall and blond and beautiful,
too, and when she stood with the crowd and tipped her head back
and gave it a little shake that whipped her hair around, I would elbow

Shoemaker: Bing

Burger and we would look around and see all the fathers with their
eyes riveted on her, their mouths slightly open, and for a moment wed
stop watching the game and be troubled by this. All these married
men lusting after this woman.
But then down on the field Donny Goodin would score or Greg
Debolt would kick a forty-yard field goal, and wed be on our feet
shouting and the band would strike up with one of those timeless
songs, and Shannon and Hailey would throw Kendra into the air
and she would spin three times before they caught her. And Burger
and I felt on those nights that the whole world had condensed into a
momentthe lights and the cheering and the madness, and we knew
in a year wed be out there beyond the lights, in a world we couldnt
imagine, wearing the white shirts and dark suits wed been raised to
wear. Elder Anderson and Elder Burger. Mormon missionaries. We
wanted adventure. Dear God, we prayed, send us to Ghana. Send
us to Manila. Not Boise. Not Indianapolis.
And after those two years thered be school and marriage and children and the eternities. But we wouldnt do it like our parents. Burger
and I vowed that. We wouldnt shrivel up into the tired, upright shells
of ourselves and hope for the world beyond. Wed do it like Bings
parents. We promised to never get old.
And after the game we drove around Auburn and threw things at
people, or we sprayed them with the fire extinguisher Bing stole from
the gym, the old kind you filled with water and pressurized with an
air hose at the BP station until the gauge almost touched the red. And
it was all right because everyone was in on the fun.
Thats how it was on those nights after the games, the scream of victory still ringing our ears, Burger driving his dads Ford Taurus station
wagon and Bing in the back seat laughing hysterically and me hanging
out the window, the engine roaring and warm air pulling at my lips,
and I couldnt stop laughing either.
These were the stories wed tell someday.
I , Bing told us one night when we were
huddled in a booth at Dennys. Maybe a billionaire. I dont know yet.

He drank coffee and stared at the spot just above us where the ceiling
met the wall. He had a wild look and spoke in a voice so low Burger
and I had to lean in to hear. Maybe I shouldnt even tell you this, he
said. You have to promise not to tell anyone. Of course we promised.
We licked our lips and felt our eyeballs go dry. Bing straightened up.
This was back in the s, he said. My dad was just out of law
school, doing some pro bono work for this Indian tribe in the Peruvian lowlands, one of these tribes where everyones naked and runs
around with a spear. They lived in grass huts. They didnt even have
radios. Well, this big American oil company tried to take their land.
They wanted to drill there. My dad sued the company and won. It was
all over the papers back then.
We held our forks, but had forgotten the food in front of us. We
forgot to blink, forgot to swallow.
They thought he was a god, Bing said. Built a statue of him in the
middle of the village. They wanted to give him something, a reward
for saving their village, so a couple days before he was flying home, the
chief wakes him up early and they start walking. And they walk all day,
and this guy doesnt say anything. He wont even look my dad in the
eyes because he thinks hell melt or something. And finally they stop
in front of this cave and this little Indian chief lights this torch and
they go in, and my dad says the walls were pure gold from the floor
to ceiling and all he had to do was throw a rock against the wall and
enough gold would flake off to buy a Mercedes. And then the chief
tells my dad that he can have the gold and that theyd guard it until he
can come back for it.
Burger sat there in a trance. And whyhis voice cracked; he
pantedand why didnt they want the gold? Burgers dad was an
accountant, a practical man who searched his grocery receipts for
errors and saved old shoes in a box in the garage with the idea that
someday he might find a use for the leather.
Bing was patient, he spoke slowly. He knew we didnt understand
much outside Auburn. These people live in dirt, he said. They eat
worms and think a bracelet made from crocodile teeth is high fashion.
What would they do with gold?

Shoemaker: Bing

And then Bing told us his dad said he could have it all, every ounce
of that gold, and then he said there was a map in a locked metal box
under his bed. His dad gave it to him years ago. Bing looked at me, and
then he looked at Burger. Itll be backbreaking work, he said. Well
have to buy donkeys and shovels, and we cant tell anyone. Theyd slit
your throats. Bing, of course, wasnt worried about himself. He knew
karate. He was worried about us, and that was touching to hear. Hed
pay us a million apiece to help him, maybe more. He wanted to know
if we were up for it, if we could stand the jungle heat and eating bugs
and fighting off anyone who wanted the gold. Of course we could. It
was decided: wed save and go the week after graduation, stay a year
and then come back so Burger and I could go on missions.
I started running the track after school and doing fifty push-ups
every night before bed. I bought a set of dumbbells and did curls until
my arms burned. Burger loaded a backpack with river rock and hiked
the narrow trails around Flaming Geyser Park and then did wind
sprints on the lawn until he puked. We rented Bruce Lee movies and
practiced kicks and commando rolls in my front yard. We stripped
the couch of its cushions and punched and kicked at them until my
mom told us wed ruin the leather. We poured over a Spanish phrase
book I found at Goodwill. Much gusto. Dnde est el bao? Necesito
un medico!
Two weeks into our training, Burger called. Hed just done thirty
minutes of wind sprints at Flaming Geyser. Do you think Bings dad
is telling the truth? he asked. There was a thickness in his voice. He
gulped for air. I mean, do you think theres really gold down there?
Theres a map, I said. Bing told us. We just follow the map. How
could there not be if theres a map?
O S early November we were out in the Taurus wagon. We had the fire extinguisher, two Super Soakers, and a
five gallon bucket filled with water balloons. We were ready to drench
anyone we happened upon. Man, woman, child, dog. My fingers were
sticky. Id just eaten three Hostess fruit pies and felt a dizzying clarity
from all the sugar. Burger was driving, seat reclined, hand looped over

the steering wheel. Bing was up front with the extinguisher. I was
inthe back.
We were at the stoplight at Second and Auburn Way and right
there in front of the Korean dry cleaner we saw this woman standing
on the sidewalk, talking to a guy in a blue Ford F-. This would be
hilarious. We knew it. All we had to do was call her over. And then
wed drench her.
So Burger pulled up across the street and then Bing was half out
the window, butt planted on the car door, rapping his knuckles against
the roof and whistling to get the womans attention. The guy in the
Ford looked pissed. I could see his thin blond mustache and freckled
face. He was telling the woman to get in, but then she was looking at
us, and then the guy looked at us, spit out the window, and sped away.
And it was just the woman there.
Bing told us to watch. He told us this would be hilarious.
So she walked over, this woman, slowly, stumbling across the street
as if it werent asphalt at all but thick mud she was navigating through.
She wasnt a little thing, not at all, but kind of full-figured, Boticellis
Venus emerging from the sea, round cheeks and a pile of red curly
hair falling into her face. She wore bleached jeans and a thick maroon
sweater and had no shoes on, and when she passed in front of the car
she stopped and squinted into the bright lights before walking around
to the passenger side.
By this time Bing was back in his seat, passing the extinguisher
nozzle from one hand to the other as if he were doing some kind of
The woman leaned over and looked at us for about thirty seconds
before she said anything. There was a tattoo on her left hand, just
above the thumb, no bigger than a dime, a red heart with the letters PF written underneath. You wont hurt me? she asked, and the
words dragged out of her mouth, almost incomprehensible, each word
a trembling thing.
Bing told her we wouldnt hurt her, and then he looked over at us
and told the woman that Burger and I were Mormon, which was as
good as being a pacifist, and that wed never hurt anyone in our lives

Shoemaker: Bing

and were actually accustomed to being persecuted. In fact, he said

we welcomed persecution. And the woman leaned in a little closer,
squinted some more, and told us that if we were Mormon then wed
better give her a ride to Tacoma because that would be the Christian
thing to do. Her upper lip caught on a crooked tooth, and a burst of
wind blew wisps of that thick red hair in her face and she brushed
them behind her ears and went on about some guy she met at a bar
on Main Street and how hed stolen her shoes and purse and left her
in the gravel parking lot of a junkyard on C Street and how now she
needed a ride to Tacoma and how she didnt have any money but she
was sure some kind of arrangement could be made. And as she went
on, Bing kept looking at Burger and me, kept smiling and winking and
nodding his head and mouthing words I couldnt quite make out. But
I understood that this was hilarious, the funniest thing in the world,
and how later wed laugh about this at Dennys and pound the table
with our fists and recount our various perspectives on what had happened. I could see Bing gripping the silver nozzle, his knuckles white.
Bing cut the woman off. Were not going that way, he said, but Ill
give you ten dollars if you take off your shirt. He opened his wallet,
took the money out, and waved it in the womans face. Her green eyes
followed the bill. She swallowed. Bit her lower lip.
And then so quickly, like a jerky splice in a film, she was standing theretopless: breast, nipples, pale white skinand I knew I
should be feeling it in the deepest regions of my reproductive tract,
the exposed female form, the endorphins, the quickening of the breath,
heart pounding against my shirtbut I felt nothing like that, only a
dull ache in my stomach. There were pale stretch marks, like the tiny
cracks in porcelain, that spread across her stomach, and looking at
them, I couldnt help thinking of my mother, how so many years ago
we took baths together and how she washed my small toes and fingers
and sang silly songs I could still remember, and I remembered staring
at her body, at the curve of her stomach and breasts, and the pale lines
there. I assumed, at that age, they were from some kind of injury.
Bing, throwing out a booming cackle that filled the car, doubled over
with laughter from the sheer hilarity of this, and the woman just stood

there, her eyes rolling back in her head, eyelids closing and then popping
open again, and then Bing reached for the maroon cable-knit sweater
the woman held and began pulling at it, and the woman, suddenly lucid,
pulled back with both hands. Bing raised the nozzle and shot a thick
stream of water into her face, and as if by magic two black streams ran
from her eyes, down her cheeks, and between her breasts. She screamed
and stumbled backward, dropping the sweater, and Bing was shouting
at Burger to go, and the car jumped forward and the tires screamed,
and there was a momentary sensation of moving sideways, and then
I looked back and saw the woman collapsed on the curb, rocking back
and forth, red in the glow of the taillights. Bing didnt look back.
We were moving quickly up D Street, and Bing was still laughing,
still holding the nozzle. He pointed it at two figures that materialized
in the glow of the headlights, two men, heads shaved to the skull, thick
black boots, and jeans rolled up to their boot tops. They didnt turn
until the first stream of water lashed across their backs, and when they
did turn, Bing hit them in the face with another volley. There was a
muffled curse and then the beat of those heavy black boots, and we
were off again, vanishing into the night.
W Les Gove Park. The parking lot was empty, not a
soul for miles it seemed.
It was late, past eleven, and I was done for the night, and Burger
was done, too. He slouched in the drivers seat and rested his head
against the steering wheel, and for a moment I thought he was praying.
I couldnt stop thinking about that woman, so tired and wasted,
those eyes, that hair, the paleness of her skinand no shoes. I thought
if someone gave her a bed she might sleep for days, maybe weeks, and
I wondered who shed be when she woke up.
Who do you think she was? I asked, and Bing, still in the front
seat, his face in shadows, said, Who knows? And then he added
quickly, Who cares?
A song played on the radio, something deliciously catchy from that
summer we would never hear again without thinking of that night.
Bing laughed as he replayed the scene with the woman, giving particular

Shoemaker: Bing

attention to her ringing falsetto and the cold shock of the water, as he
pulled at the sweater and sprayed her in the eyes. The windows were
down and a sharp breeze pulled at the leafless alders overhanging the
parking lot, and I smelled something in the air, something wet and
earthy that made me shiver. It came from far away, from the north, and
I knew it would be there soon enough.
It was in that moment that I heard the quick movement of thick
rubber soles on asphalt and then saw a shadow move across the car.
Ilooked up. They were there, the two characters Bing had hosed, their
T-shirts and jeans still wet from the assault. In the weak light, I could
see enough to notice the swell of pectorals pushing at the thin cotton
fabric and the hard veins that ran up their arms. They were breathing
heavily, just staring down at us, and one said, These the dicks, Mickey?
There was no response, only a quick forward movement and then
hands reaching through the open windows grabbing for us. Burger
reached for the keys still in the ignition, a futile effort. The bad character had him by the hair and was pushing his face into the steering wheel.
I had my own problems in the back seat, fending off a pair of thick
hands grabbing at my pant legs. I lay on my back and kicked ferociously,
and then I felt those hands cinch around my ankles and pull.
I was going through the window, my shirt pilling up around my nipples, the small knob that locks the door gouging my right kidney and
then the tender spaces between each rib. I was on the ground, knees
curled up to my chest, hands covering my head, looking under the car at
the shocks, at the muffler, at all the grime impacted there. There was no
pleading, no quick apology or cry for mercy. The fall had knocked the
air out of me. I could barely breathe. But then I had a feeling there was
no pleading with these guys. They were men of action, wronged and
here to teach a lesson. They spat out a string of repeated profanities as
they wailed on us. It sounded like a chant, like a war cry.
The passenger door opened and I saw Bings Adidas on the other
side of the car. Steel-toed kicks to the ribs, fists as hard as stones pounding at my back, and seeing Bings shoes planted there on the asphalt,
Ifelt relief was only moments away. I waited for something spectacular,

for Bing to vault the hood and lay out the bad characters with a fierce
roundhouse. Instead, those black Adidas beat a quick retreat into the
It went on only a minute more before it stopped, but we were
already numb to it. My nose dripped blood. I could taste it thick and
coppery in my mouth. I thought one of my teeth might be chipped.
Burger, too, was dripping blood from his nose. There was a cut across
his forehead, and the bridge of his nose looked swollen. Seeing him
banged up like that, I felt such pity for him in, such brotherly love. We
both lay there panting. The bad characters stood over us, panting too,
blood on their knuckles and pant legs. They turned their attention to
the Taurus.
I barely looked. I didnt want to attract attention, but I heard it, the
dull thump of boot-toes against the cars metal body, the sharp snap
of the windshield wipers. One guy was jumping up and down on the
car roof and the other had found a metal garbage can somewhere and
was throwing it against the rear window. They were grinning wildly,
hooting and cheering as the car shed glass. And then they were gone.
We stood on shaky limbs, wiped at our bloody noses and mouths,
and surveyed the afflicted car. The mirror on the drivers side door
hung loosely by two thin, yellow wires. Bits of safety glass twinkled
against the deep black of the parking lot. Burger, his eyes large dark
pools, had his hand over his mouth, and a muffled profanity squeezed
through, and that was all right because if there was a time for profanity, if it was ever justified, this was the moment. We circled the car,
ran our palms over the cratered body, and said nothing. The shock of
what we would tell Burgers parents, the lie wed have to invent, had
distracted us from our bruised ribs and aching heads.
We opened the doors, brushed the sprinkling of glass from the
seats and into the parking lot, and eased in, feeling the scream and
complaint of every muscle and bone in our bodies. Burger started the
car and put it in reverse, whimpering a little as he turned to look out
the rear window, half of which was scattered over the back seat. It was
at that moment that Bing emerged from the darkness. Wed almost

Shoemaker: Bing

forgotten him. His sudden return had a bodily affect on me. Seeing
him loping toward the car, I felt my teeth grinding together, felt my
right eyelid tremble.
Bing ducked into the back seat with a sheepish grin on his face.
I was gonna jump in, he said. The right moment. He stammered,
gaped at the blood on our faces. It happened so fast.
I didnt say anything. Burger didnt say anything.
I was looking for a phone, to call the police. His head swiveled
between us, his hands beat the air. Hey, my dad knows some people
at the police department, he said. He made a fist and ground it into
his palm. Theyll find these guys. Theyll go to jail. And the car. Youll
have enough money in a year to buy three new Cadillacs.
Burger laughed, a new kind of laughter, deep and bitter and savage,
and he said, wiping at his eyes and fighting for composure, Youre full
of shit. And your dad is, too.
Bings lips moved spasmodically, but no sound came out. And then
Burger turned and looked at Bing. Burger wasnt laughing anymore.
His cheeks and eyes were dark with shadows, and when he spoke
Ididnt recognize his voice. Your Dads a cheater. I saw him and Lydia
at Flaming Geyser. They were in his car. She was touching his face.
And then Burger smiled, just sat there and smiled at Bing. I could
see it in Burgers face, the pure thrill of those words as they found
their target, more forceful and painful than a fist to the jaw. I felt the
thrill, too. I wanted them to be true. I wanted to hurt Bing, and that,
even now, is what shocks me most, not the insincerity and paradox of
Larrys infidelity, but that I wanted to hurt Bing.
Bing made a little puffing noise. Something caught in his throat
and then he was crying, his cheeks wet and shining. Its not true, he
said. He kept repeating the phrase over and over. His eyes were sloppy
and pleading and fixed on Burger as if all Burger had to do was take it
back and everything would be fine.
We drove back to the school where Bing was parked, and he whimpered all the way and wiped at his nose, and when we pulled up to
his car, Burger stopped and we sat there listening to the hum of the

engine. Bings eyes bounced between us like he wanted us to say something, but we didnt, not until Burger looked in the rearview mirror
and told Bing to get out of the car.
He stood there in the road and watched us drive away, and we
watched him recede, red in the glow of the taillights, and we marveled
at his transformation, at the belly overhanging his belt and the flabby
skin under his chin, we marveled that wed ever believed him.
This was back when Auburn had one high school and two junior
highs, the year before Wal-Mart and Lowes erected their fortresses off
the , before Main Street was a row of empty storefronts with dirty
windows. Back then you could ditch your bike anywhere along Lake
Holm Road and hike through the woods without having to worry
about getting knocked in the skull by a golf ball. The football team
was undefeated that year and so was the basketball team, and all of us
laughed when that lunatic from Enumclaw dive-bombed our graduation ceremony in a Cessna, and we couldnt understand then why our
parents were so uptight about it or why the police arrested him.
Maybe we were too hard on Bing. This was before Burger and I
were missionaries, before we were young husbands and young fathers,
employees and breadwinners, before we understood that most of our
lives would be spent living in the dim glow of some distant victory,
pretending we were something we werent and knowing that out there
beyond the rich glow of the stadium lights there was, and always would
be, a shadow hunting us down.

We Think We Know the World When We Divide


We think we know the world when we divide

raven from dove, the evening from its end,
but truth is not static; it collides.
Prying osprey from flight, we struggle to decide
how the wind differs from things it bends.
We think we know the world when we divide.
Each year in March the run-off has defined
a ruptured path as stone and stream contend
to name the edge where rock and doubt collide.
In hollow June, the month my sister died,
I hope to see forget-me-nots and death as friends;
their fragile blue from her I cant divide.
Beneath the August stars I try to hide
in roots and grass my heavy wish to rend
rebirth from God, to see spirit collide
with earth. But even Gods omniscience cried
when he watched his son like snow descend.
We think we know the world when we divide,
but like Jacob and the angelwe collide.

About Serious Mormon Fiction


I I the Eugene England Memorial Lecture at Utah Valley

University, a series sponsored by their Religious Studies Center. Iwas
complimented to be asked. Gene and I were friends. More than that,
he was a brilliant teacher and writer who, all his adult life, sought to
promote Mormon literature and an understanding of Mormon culture.
After I gave the lecture, Irreantum asked to publish it, and I agreed
but said it needed polishing. What follows is a revision of that lecture,
Does Anyone Need a Realistic Serious Mormon Fiction? The revision contains most of what was in the original, with a few things added.
I decided I couldnt adequately answer the question I ask in the title
and wanted to go in a somewhat different direction.
First, some background to somehow certify myself. I majored in
English at BYU and went on to Stanford to earn a doctorate, but
decided I didnt like research and dropped out, creeping off with an
MA (students who drop out are sometimes given the lesser degree
as a sop of sorts). Three years later I started a doctorate in American
studies at the University of Maryland, but dropped out again, and
for the same reason, and, finally knowing what I wanted to do, went
off to work on an MFA in fiction writing at the University of Iowa.
I decided on Iowa because I kept getting and writing down ideas for
stories, even novels, and decided that when I gave up the ghost, or
whatever it is one gives up, if I hadnt written my stories and novels
that Id regret it. I sensed a kind of obligation to write, as if that were
the thing I was somehow meant to do, however presumptuous that
may sound. Of course, I also wanted to write, enjoyed it, found that it
helped to give my life meaning.
I published my first short story in the Improvement Era (now the
Ensign) in , something called The Brain, about a Boy Scout who

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

rescues his Scoutmaster trapped in a tent by a rattlesnake. I published my first serious story in BYU Studies five years later. I recall
a colleagues comment that he was surprised Id published anything
because the stories Id shown him were so bad. Since then Ive published individual short stories in journals, two collections of short stories, three novels, and a memoir. I have another collection submitted
and have a YA novel with an agent. Five books arent much of an effort
for fifty years, even for a writer whose main responsibility is teaching,
but I have hopes for two or three more, which cheers me somewhat.
Ive published most of my stuff in Mormon journals or with Mormon
or regional presses.
I write mostly what I call Mormon fiction. Why? Well, because
Im Mormon and because I want to find out about myself, my culture,
my religion, and because Mormon life is the life I know, particularly
Provo Mormon life, and I want to say things about it. I also write
because writing is part of my university job, because it pleases me,
and because I felt Id regret not doing it. And I write Mormon fiction
because I dont want my published stuff to vanish too quickly. Given
the dearth of good Mormon fiction, I figured that my good pieces
will last somewhat longer than other fictions; at least my novels and
stories will serve as a kind of encouragement for other Mormon writers and be added to the canon, if there is such a thing. Ive also taught
fiction writing for forty years at BYU, although Im not sure either
activity qualifies me to give this lecture, but perhaps they both do.
Although Im reasonably sure that my BYU deans and chairs down
through the years would have preferred that I forget the Mormon
stuff and write for a national audience and publish with national publishers, they never said so. In fact, the powers that be have never criticized me for anything Ive published, and have in fact been supportive.
I will also not talk much about the history and criticism of Mormon literature. Im a writer, not a literary or cultural historian, as
Gene was. I will also not discuss specific writers, their fiction, Mormon journals, or publishers, their faults and virtues. I will talk about
writing serious, realistic Mormon fiction in the early twenty-first century and about those who might be expected to read it, or want to.

Serious means probing, unflinching, important, above all not sentimental (emotion excessive to the occasion). If you wish you could
substitute thematic or literary, but I prefer serious because I think
it suggests the authors intention somewhat better than the other two.
I could be wrong. Realistic means writing honestly about the center
of Mormon life in the real world. Contemporary means now, pretty
much early twenty-first century. Mormon means Mormon characters, values, beliefs, setting, themes, conflicts, plots, resolutions. Those
not Mormon are welcome to read this fiction, but its primary audience is Mormon: the author doesnt try to figure out how to please
the not-Mormons, intrigue them, cleverly explain things necessary to
their gentile understanding. Fiction includes short stories, novellas,
and novels, with the emphasis on novels because novels have more
punch, can say morebut collections of stories and books of three or
four novellas work too.
Now, obviously, solid, realistic, serious Mormon fiction is being
written and read, but how many novelists or short story writers (say,
somebody as good as Willa Cather, Flannery OConnor, or Alice
Munro) do we have writing at the center of Mormon life who have
published a series of Mormon novels or collections of short stories or
a mix of the two, over the past twenty-five or thirty years, hopefully
a book every three or four years? I dont know of any, although there
are some fairly productive short story writers. We should have at least
two or three Cathers, OConnors, or Munroes by this time, given the
plentiful richness of Mormon material to write about and the potential readership. But more of that later.
So how does Mormon fiction work? What does it do? And Im
talking here about Mormon fiction as described, not fantasy or science fiction or historical fiction, all of which can be serious, depending on your definition. I dont write these fictions, or read them much,
so Im not qualified to talk about them. Also, I think that realistic
fiction is usually more useful, insightful, and more entertaining than
the other three, although I wont undertake to argue that here, and I
know that vast numbers of writers and readers would disagree with
me heartily, probably even vehemently.

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

Although not historical, the contemporary realistic fiction Im

describing would certainly reflect and use the Mormon past, would be
enriched and deepened by it. How could it notpioneers, polygamy,
escape from Babylon, the mountain empire, missionary work, Mountain Meadows Massacre, use and abuse of the land, multigenerational
families, the gathering, temple building, the international church, and
all the rest of Mormon life that has come down to us, all that helps to
make us what we are. Lacking a decade, we have two hundred years
of history, so we cant plead, as we have in the past, that Mormonism
isnt matured enough to have a serious literature.
Serious Mormon fiction takes as its subject the complexity and difficulty of life. It goes deep, it uncovers, it puts things together. Above
all it creates an imagined life for readers to enter. As Joseph Conrad
said, My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the
written word, to make you hear, to make you feelit is before all, to
make you see (Preface to Nigger of the Narcissus). Make you hear,
feel, and see what? Why, life of course, Mormon life. In other words,
experience emotions, places, lives, situations, people, and conflicts that
readers could otherwise not experience or not experience so intently.
To read good fiction is one way (travel, conversation, theater, film,
and skillful work being some other ways) to become educated. By
educated I mean to be able to sit alone in an empty room and not
perish, to be someone on whom little is lost, to have a mind filled
with information and be able to use it, and to not easily be made a
fool ofto be able to lead a comprehensive life, to understand and
feel deeply. Obviously, this kind of education comes from a lifetime
habit of reading serious fiction (and other books, too, of course, books
of every kind), from which the readers have gathered meaning and
on which they have honed their sensibilities and perceptionstheir
understanding of their existence.
Im not talking about great Mormon literature, the great Mormon
novel. I dont believe in great Mormon literature, and particularly not
in the great Mormon novel. (Yet, Im fully aware that Orson F. Whitney promised us our Shakespeares and our Miltons.) I do believe in
skillful fiction written by skillful writers, honest fiction, good fiction,

serious fiction, whatever adjective you want to use, as long as you dont
use great. We Mormons are far too preoccupied with being great;
modesty, circumspection, and humility should temper the use of
great when referring to ourselves as a group. We might also consider
the very limited use of special, although peculiar, depending on the
meaning intended, isnt as presumptuous as the other two. Let others
praise us if they will, tell us of our virtues, for otherwise we embarrass
and cheapen ourselves somewhat.
In the final sense a serious fiction teaches (Chekhov to the contrary), but not in a didactic, moralistic sense of course, a brand of literature we produce in abundance. Good fiction teaches because reading
a short story, novella, or novel is an experience, and experience teaches.
That is, readers understand things they never understood before, feel
things, imagine things. Fiction takes readers out of themselves and, at
the same time, somewhat paradoxically, down into themselves in ways
theyd never thought possible. Obviously, good fiction also comforts
and entertains.
Serious Mormon fiction will probably in some useful way offend
Mormon readers, add or take away something, make the readers see or
feel something differently, something they had refused to feel or understand before, or knew they could feel or understand, their experience
deepened. Perhaps, for example, a reader of serious Mormon fiction
discovers eventually that he or she, although religious, is essentially
afraid, despairing, immature, lonely, and senses how this despair might
be overcome, or at least endured. Its interesting how lonely Mormons
can be, particularly men. Amidst all the ward activities, the callings,
the caring for others, the families, the home and visiting teaching, the
hope of the next life and exaltation, the daily spirituality, the insistence
on works with virtually no mention or need of grace, there is a lot of
loneliness. Keeping the commandments, striving for perfection, and
the required repenting bring a kind of inevitable loneliness because
it is somehow forbidden for Mormons to reveal the true self, but only
the good self, the anticipated self, to others and even to themselves.
Or perhaps the reader comes to learn something of the true nature
of evil, compassion, love, selfishness, as he or she vicariously lives the

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

characters lives. Brigham Young said we must learn of both good

and evil. And this learning is one of the primary reasons for scriptures, to teach the difference between the two and the need for faith.
For example, the Book of Mormon is one long chronicle of failure,
unrighteousness, war, and finally genocide, and yet its primary and
ultimate concern is the necessity of hope and faith. And in its own
way good serious fiction can do this too. Happy endings arent necessary for hope and faith. What is needed are novels and stories that
show cause-effect honestly, show that failure and despair can be an
expected part of religious life, and can be endured, even understood
as a blessing, however ironic the situation. Good film and theater
show this same experience, but not in so comprehensive, detailed, and
varied a way as in fiction.
But does this mean that the typical Mormon needs the fiction Ive
been describing? No, if we mean by need that it is absolutely necessary to life itself, that he or she couldnt live without it. But, on the
other hand, we do need this fiction simply because we need and want
experience, to go beyond ourselves, to live a variety of vicarious lives,
want to understand. Want to have emotions, feelings, understanding,
and pleasure we cant have in any other way. Think of the experience
of reading first-rate novels like Melvilles Moby Dick, Faulkners As I
Lay Dying, Fitzgeralds The Great Gatsby, Austens Pride and Prejudice,
Dickens Great Expectations, Cathers My Antonia, or a collection of
stories like Flannery OConnors A Good Man Is Hard to Find.
Which brings us to the question of the reading Mormons who
would perhaps read this Mormon fiction. There doesnt seem to be
much of a national audience for such a fiction, except possibly if its
critical or even satiric and humorous. As preoccupied as we may be
with ourselves as a beacon on Mount Zion, a voice of warning to the
nations of the earth, as a moral minority, no national audience is clamoring for our fiction, serous, realistic, historical, sentimental, or otherwise; they just arent that interested. But there is a Mormon audience.
Not a huge audience as yet, but a good one, one that would perhaps
buy , copies of a strong novel or perhaps fewer of a collection
of stories, if that audience can be reached. All the Mormon blogs,

publishers (thirty-eight of them, most small), journals, the Association for Mormon Letters, web sites such as Mormon Literature and
Creative Arts, and the online magazine Mormon Artist suggest that
the audience is in fact there.
Im particularly impressed by the neighborhood and Relief Society
book clubs Ive read for. Its astonishing how selective they are and
how widely they read, and they are critical. Not much gets past them.
If you assume that every American ward has a group of women who
would read a serious Mormon novel or collection of short stories,
thats a lot of readers. I heard of one bishop who wanted approval
rights on all books his Relief Society club read. Didnt work. The sisters simply made it a neighborhood club, which suggests the caliber of
the women in these clubs.
The readers looking for the kind of Mormon fiction I have described
would be serious, reasonably intelligent people. I dont mean elite.
And I certainly dont mean college graduates, which condition too
often has little to do with being educated in any real sense of the word.
These readers are simply people who want to experience religious life
deeply. Such readers cant, and dont, expect that life always turns out
well; they know it isnt fair. They accept tragedy in human life, suffering, stupidity, and the consequent need for grace, in addition to good
works; they even agree, as the scriptures mention, that life often has
to be endured to the end. But they want to understand and feel life as
faithful, and perhaps not faithful, Mormons lead it. They want to be
connected to Mormon lives outside of their own, want to understand
the lives of people in their ward, their cul de sac. They want insight, to
live mature lives, to see lifes larger purposes.
These readers do not respond particularly well to sentimental or
romantic fiction. These are fine; my readers have no argument with
those who enjoy this fiction. Readers of sentimental fiction, fiction
where the emotion is urged, excessive to the occasion, where everything works out splendidly, may be strengthened by such fiction. Such
fiction may even help to make life bearable for them, a picture of what
they feel life should be. As far as romantic fiction is concerned, to
read daily of wonderful requited love, sexual love, however discretely

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

described in the Mormon Harlequin romance, as the ultimate human

experience, doesnt please serious readers either. They want realistic
sex with all its complications, responsibilities, nuances, and pleasures.
Superficial Mormon fiction just doesnt serve. The growing seriousness and difficulty of life, local, national, and worldwide, require a fiction that tells about reality, life as it is and how it can be endured if
lived in faith.
Given the benefit and pleasure of serious Mormon fiction, as
described, why doesnt it thrive, flourish, with press runs of ten thousand rather than two thousand or often fewer? (Ten thousand copies
of a novel is quite respectable, even for a national publisher selling to
a national readership.) And this apparent dearth of readers has to be
admitted up front, and there are reasons, the most important being
probably the lack of the necessary advertising and distribution. In
other words, the readers are there; they just need to be better informed
about the new good fiction available. Deseret Book, after acquiring
Bookcraft, Seagull Books, and Covenant, the three other popular
Mormon presses, pretty well controls the access to the mass Mormon
market. If a writer doesnt publish with them, he or she at present has
little chance of large press runs. The small Mormon presses help keep
Mormon literature alive, but they have limited budgets for advertising
or large press runs. However, with online publishing, either digitally or
in book form, large runs are no longer necessary (order a hundred or a
thousand books from your printer and have them in a week).
Reviews of serious fiction in Dialogue, Irreantum, BYU Studies, Sunstone, and BYU Magazine help spread the word, as do online reviews
and those in newspapers serving large Mormon populations. There
are numerous author blogs and small web sites that cater to Mormon
literature, but what is really needed is a major popular web site for
serious Mormon literature, not just fiction but also poetry, personal
essay, and drama, a web site that readers would trust and use, one
that carried reviews, both previously published and those written
for the web site. The web site might develop some kind of rating system and also publish articles about writers and the whole concern of
Mormon literature. The site could also have an e-mail list to send out

announcements of new books and literary events. One of the Mormon literary journals or a publisher might take responsibility for the
site, or, perhaps best, some kind of nonprofit corporate entity.
Another way to encourage the writing and publishing of serious
Mormon fiction would be an endowed prize of ,, or maybe
even ,, for the best book of Mormon fiction published in, say,
a five year period. Better still would be an annual prize when merited.
There are crowds of wealthy faithful Mormons, and some even less
than faithful, who might be persuaded to come up with endowment
money. What better way to rid oneself of ,? Whats needed
is leadership and organization.
There are other reasons why serious Mormon fiction doesnt flourish as it might be expected to. There are, of course, Mormon readers,
and writers, who say no to reality, who say we simply have to keep
ourselves untainted from the world, live protected lives, and all will be
well with us. We only need fiction that certifies us and doesnt cause
us to think about or feel anything that isnt obviously encouraging and
uplifting. But serious believers know, because they are serious and
experienced, that you cant live a religious life in retreat and still somehow mature, change, grow. They also know that all will not be well
anyway because, as mentioned earlier, life isnt fair and is often tragic
and unexplainable, and needs religious faith and a belief in grace if is
to be enduredall of which being the concern of serious Mormon
Another reason for this lack of readers and writers might possibly
be the feeling among us, perhaps apprehension is a better word, that
we are under attack, always have been and always will be; because Mormonism is true, the forces of evil are united against it. Because of this
there can be no criticism within. All must stand together against any
threat; loyalty and faith demand this. And a serious, realistic fiction,
because it would inevitably show that Mormons are human, not flawless, is thought to be such an attack or criticism. Part of this has to do
with the image we have painted for ourselves and the world, perhaps our
PR imageloving families, honesty, abundant health, industry, true
spirituality, humanitarian service, patriotism, lawful neighborhoods

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

and communities, tens of thousands of splendid young missionaries,

and two hundred years of almost flawless history. Obviously there
is criticism of the Church, including an abundance of irrational and
unprincipled attacks, which the Church works hard to counter. Yet, an
exaggerated under-attack mentality is neither healthy nor productive,
but stifling, and serious fiction could help both members and others to
see us for who we really are.
One more reason for this lack of readers and writers is, to my mind,
the fear of intellectualism, and fiction and readers of fiction inevitably
fall under this category, intellectualism considered a fast track out of
the faith, and thus to be feared, discouraged, and avoided. Intellectualism, as far as Ive been able to figure it out, means that one has some
sense of history and ideas, has been trained to think (or learned how,
inadvertently perhaps), enjoys thinking, knows its a spiritual activity,
finds it necessary to any kind of intelligent life, is not easily persuaded,
is even a little skeptical, and asks too many questions to be considered truly faithful. Connected to this fear of intellectualism is the fear
of irony and ambiguity, always a part of serious fiction, because for
most Mormons things have to be what they seem and not otherwise
because there has to be consensus or we are lost. I assume this is the
reason why Church publications dont do fiction (they used to): it
cant be trusted or quoted; you never know exactly what the story
means, unless it borders on propaganda, and the print space is needed
for more important matters, which, given the purpose of these publications, would seem a reasonably fair policy. But on the other hand
intellectualism is often simply a handy label for those who dont like
brainy members. From what Ive been able to see, there are a lot of
intellectual faithful Mormons about.
The general answer to these objections against Mormon fiction, if
an answer is possible, is that the serious fiction, at least the kind Im
describing here, is honest, comprehensive; it doesnt attack, demean,
destroy, is not on the outside looking in, taking pot shots, ridiculing
the faith and the faithful. Thats not its intention. It is deep in the
inside of Mormonism trying to understand and portray it, to hold up
the mirror. Its interest is mostly faithful Mormon life as it is livedto

show how the religious life works or doesnt work, or is mostly somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Good fiction is based on
conflict, trouble, which the writer tries somehow to resolve or at least
to study, analyze, showing cause-effect. Gene wanted us to look at
each other realistically, to understand and appreciate each other, and
be charitable, compassionate even, in spite of all of our faults and failings. He also believed that the personal essay perhaps came closest to
being the Mormon genre, but thats another discussion.
And of course the Internet is revealing us Mormons, our Mormonism, particularly our history, our beliefs, our doctrine to ourselves and
to the world, and although some of this reporting is vicious, dishonest, not all of it is; its simply information. And there are increasing
numbers of books and articles about us, too. We cant hide; we never
could, and we finally are beginning to understand this. Honest fiction would help to show us who we are. Im not talking here about
fiction, particularly novels, as propaganda, PR, nor about the fiction
as describing a whole institution, nor fiction as an attack. Im talking
about it as an art form that reveals, shows ordinary life as it is lived,
good and bad, but mostly somewhere in the middle, where most life
is lived. This fiction, again particularly novels, would not be funeral
dirges, cynical, despairing, but balanced, honestly examining, revealing how religious life is enriching, protecting, satisfying, although not
without cost. Our Mormon metaphors of life as a school, a contest, a
battle, if not a war, certainly suggest this.
However devout, however simple and uncomplicated a view one
takes of Mormon religious life in the early twenty-first century, however obedient we are, we cant avoid trouble, conflict, tragedy, disappointment, despair, failure, although one certainly hopes for the good
things toohealth, reasonable children, useful work, solid families,
the blessings of faith, friends, a comfortable home, enjoyment of art, a
bearable old age, hope of salvation, even exaltation. Readers of serious
Mormon fiction dont put on religious blinders because they know
they dont work. They also know that a life without religious faith
is not probable; because faith makes life possible when there are no
answers except faith and a hope for grace.

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

Im assuming that the Mormon novelists and short story writers

writing for this Mormon readership are going to be writing about
Mormons living more or less righteous lives, or at least working on
it. The writers are going to work in the rich center of the faith. These
lives, families, communities will fail in various ways, and in other ways
they will not. But whatever happens the writers will bring them to
life on the page. We have a legacy of fiction, both present and past, by
and about those who left the congregation, found Mormonism stifling, superficial, or in some way unfulfilling, and this fiction is often
skillful, honest, and realistic. But Im hoping for a fiction that stays
in the center of Mormon life because thats where the possibility of a
continuous literature lies and where the truth is.
What are some of the possible themes, conflicts, and plots for
these Mormon novelists? First of all, it isnt easy to make religious
experience realistic, or, if you wish, to somehow make it make sense,
believable. Or, referring back to Conrad, make it seen, felt, and heard.
Flannery OConnor, the Catholic short story writer writing in the last
half of the twentieth century, managed to do this brilliantly and to
wide popularity. She insisted that her whole life and work focused
on the Atonement and the need for grace, proving the possibility of
such fiction. So how do Mormon novelists make the Atonement work
(Christ paying for or taking upon himself all the sins and the suffering), make it realistic, believable, in a novel in which a despairing missionary in the MTC has a conversion experience; or a faithful mother
of seven young children is dying of an inoperable brain tumor; or a
wonderfully successful father and member of a stake high council is
discovered to be an embezzler; or a young returned missionary husband and father of two children finally knows hes gay, but he and his
wife decide to keep the marriage going somehow; or a mother of six,
temple married, a perfectionist, and wife to the bishop, decides, slipping into depression, she cant go on; or a young drug addict experiences the Holy Ghost that leads to some kind of a conversion?
The above are possible ideas for Mormon novels, but what about
Mormon belief, doctrine, situationsmaterial that can be worked
again and again by a first-rate writer? After all, writers need rich

material to write about, one novel opening up new ground for the
next. Well, Mormonism is loaded. Fiction writers have the whole pioneer heritage as it impacts modern life, perfection in a secular world,
spirituality, religious family life with all of its expectations and disappointments, the Wasatch Front mentality, work for the dead, missionary life, Mormon materialism, escape from Babylon, an international
faith, spirituality of the natural world, life in a ward, loss of faith, conversion, regal church families, to name some possibilities.
Personally, a novel, or perhaps a series of novels, Ive always wanted
to read would be written by a novelist who grew up in one of those
Salt Lake families that has produced an apostle virtually every generation since Nauvoo, or before. An early polygamous family whose
ancestral great-great-grandfather knew Joseph Smith, crossed the
frozen Mississippi, traveled the plains, faced Johnstons army, was
ready at Brighams word to torch its beautiful Salt Lake home filled
with straw and flee into the desert, and who later prospered, blessed
by the Lord for its faithfulness, the family patriarchs often serving in
the Churchs governing hierarchy, the descendants numbering in the
thousands and thousands. How does such a family operate in todays
world? What are the rules, requirements, conflicts, troubles, personalities, the mode of spiritual life? How are the kids taught to believe,
and do they still, all of them? Are these families really any different
from others on the block?
Another novel Id like to read would be about a model Mormon
protagonist of say thirty-seven or thirty-eight (Eagle Scout, Duty to
God award, mission AP, temple marriage, six children, Harvard MBA,
CEO, counselor to the stake president) who slowly begins to see himself as weak, fallible, even hollow, finally understanding himself for
what he really is. We often praise our youth so inordinately, telling
them how wonderful they are, too often without the accompanying
understanding of their fallibility and need for forgiveness and grace in
its various forms, some carrying this wrong image of themselves into
adult life. And then they discover later, typically because of some crisis
they cant handle, that they arent particularly wonderful or deeply religious, but filled with a false pride and an unacknowledged hypocrisy.

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

The novel would be reflective in part, our protagonist looking back to

see where things went wrong, trying to understand how all his effort
has led to a sense of despair, loneliness, and then we would follow his
attempt to rebuild his life, create the human being he thought he was.
Or perhaps, worse case scenario, he cant find the courage to repent,
change, and so continues his hollow life, a kind of supreme hypocrite.
Contemporary Mormon life itself helps to create this need for a
serious fiction. A faith that believes in perfection, a life filled with
attainable goals, large beautiful families, the near Second Coming,
personal revelation, daily guidance from the Holy Ghost, eternal life
with an eternal family, righteousness materially rewarded in this life,
and degrees of glory invites interpretation, explanation. In short, is
a faith that invites novelists. Because we as faithful, intelligent Mormons want help to understand it all, to see how it works, or might
work. And this is often best done in the privacy of a novel that the
reader enters into imaginatively to experience vicariously with the protagonist all that he or she experiences, understands, and learns in the
For example, what is spiritual experience? We Mormons talk a lot
today about the spiritfeeling the spirit, being guided by the spirit,
following the spirit, seeking the spirit, losing the spirit, being filled
with the spirit, leading a spiritual life. We dont talk much about living
a religious life, but living a spiritual life. So what is a spiritual life, to
follow the spirit? Are we really talking about experiencing the Holy
Ghost, and therefore should write spirit with a capital S? If so, what
does it feel like? How do you know if youre leading such a life? Is it
only feeling, emotion, impressions? Is the intellect, the mind, objectivity, reason, a part of spirituality? In what ways are our spiritual lives
powerful, compelling, directing, satisfying, divine? As Conrad said,
the novelists task is to make experience concrete, sensory, including
spiritual experience because it is experience, something to be tasted,
seen, heard, felt, and smelled. A realistic serious novel could create
characters, images, situations that would help readers experience spirituality, help them hear, feel, and see it, know what it is and is not.
And, speaking of the Atonement, how does it really work in

concrete detail? How does one experience the Atonement? Today we

teach and say that Christs Atonement not only makes repentance
possible, but that it is infinite, that it swallows up all human pain, suffering, despair, disappointment, that Christ pays for all this. Yes. But
how do we Mormons feel the Atonement? How does it work in our
lives realistically, practically? How does it swallow up pain on a daily
basis? How does it make a difference in our lives? A good novelist
should be able to show that in a realistic way. If any one person I ever
knew believed in the absolute need and purpose of the Atonement, it
was Eugene England.
A final example of the possibility of a rich thematic Mormon fiction: we believe that everything living in this world was created spiritually. That everything is spiritual down to the tomatoes in your garden
box, that there is no final or eternal difference between spiritual and
material, secular and religious. Given the grossly secular world as it is
today, how do the Mormon faithful live in that secular world when
they know it is really a spiritual world, or should be, could be? How
does that knowledge affect them? What insight does it give? Does it
make their lives more or less difficult? How does it affect their choice
of profession, ownership of house, car, furniture, cabin, boat, their
gathering wealth into their bank and stock accounts?
Should anyone think its easy to make spiritual (religious) experience or any other experience believable, real, compelling, in the early
twenty-first centuryit isnt. But it can be done, is possible to do, and,
as Conrad says, that is the fiction writers task and obligation.
So, weve covered themes, publication and distribution, possible
novels, and readers, but who is going to write these realistic, serious
Mormon novels? Of course, some are being written now, but certainly
not many, and, as I mentioned earlier, Im not aware of any Mormon
fiction writer, on a par with say Alice Munro (if you havent read her
shes wonderful, particularly her early collections, the later stories too
long and swampy), publishing a first-rate novel or collection of stories
every three or four years, or however long it takes. But I think it is
possible, will happen. Not only because there are readers and incredibly rich Mormon material, but also because the writers really cant do

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

anything else and feel whole, useful, fulfilled. I want to describe the
kind of person I think might write a string of such novels, say what I
think it would take, or is taking, for that matter. And Im describing
here a type, not just one novelist who will suddenly come on the scene.
There will be more than a few. We Mormons may even develop, like
the Jews, a literature culture. Its possible.
I know my novelists probably wont be the students in my creative
writing classes. They seem not much interested. At least, very few of
them ever write a Mormon story or want to start a novel. They dont
write Mormon novels and collections of stories for their MFA theses
either. They are interested in being certified with an MFA stamped on
the foreheads and writing creative-nonfiction, young adult fiction, or
fantasy, particularly young adult fantasy where young women fall helplessly and somewhat luridly in love with vampires and werewolves. And
some of them have been very successful publishing for the national market. From what I can gather, they dont write serious Mormon novels
because there is no big money in it, they dont believe Mormon life is
thematically interesting, rich; and they think their novels would inevitably be taken as criticism of the Church; and there are undoubtedly
other causes.
My novelist will be skilled. Writing good fiction is a craft that has
to be learned by being practiced. A novelist has to put in the years,
earn the rejection slips, get better, masterful. I dont read for Mormon
novel contests, but I do sometimes read for short story contests, and
out of twenty stories, I might find one or two that show skill, are
publishable. I assume the other writers believe in native talent or perhaps inspiration, or are just nave or lazy. Whatever the case, a writer
has to learn the craft. And that doesnt necessarily require an MFA.
Its astonishing how many would-be writers feel they have to have an
MFA in order to be able to write, an idea that has gained increasing
popularity in the last sixty years, as if the degree certifies competence,
industry, and talent, which it most obviously does not.
My Mormon novelist wont be someone who needs to make a living writing, because thats very unlikely, although , to ,
a year is a possibility. Of course, if the writer could publish a popular

realistic, serious novel every two or three years and get it successfully marketed, the writer might make a modest living. Given the fact
theres little money in the proposition, at least to begin with, I think
our typical novelist will probably be a married woman whose kids are
pretty well gone and she doesnt need to have a salaried job.
The novelist will probably be a woman because a good Mormon
novel requires a womans sensibilities and experience. Women know
the heart of the family, the ward. They talk to each other; they have
women friends; they know the real role women play in the faith. They
feel intensely, and want intensely, and are far too often tragically disappointed. And they are religious by nature and are nurturing and healing. Mormon men, although there are exceptions, Gene England for
example, have always seemed to me somewhat outside the intense center of contemporary Mormon life women know. Of course, my novelist
could be a man, perhaps a dentist who earned an MFA before seeing
the light and hurrying off to dental school, only to realize at forty-five
that writing Mormon fiction gives his life a necessary meaning.
My novelist may not have really thought of herself as a novelist,
except perhaps earlier, unmarried, when she started a major in English, took two or three creative writing classes, and then dropped out
of school because, married, she was got with child or had to drop out
to support her student husband, or perhaps both of these. Shes got
the kids mostly raised and on their way, and perhaps seeks additional
fulfillment. Now, she will probably come to her trade at maybe forty,
maybe even fifty, but that isnt late for a novelist, although it is for
poets, who tend to blossom and fade early. She may not think of herself as a writer, but she is. She writes family history, keeps an honest
introspective journal, writes long letters (e-mails) to her numerous
offspring, and probably writes a family newsletter.
And she reads a lot, everythingfiction, poetry, biography, history,
mysteries, psychology, and theology. She is, in fact, highly intelligent,
although her husband and children may not be fully aware of this.
Shes raised the six kids, been a good wife, a faithful member of the
Church, and shes enjoyed her life pretty much, found it fulfilling, even
rich at times, yet not without struggles, pain, failure, disappointment.

Thayer: About Serious Mormon Fiction

But through it all shes always been a thinker. Her family and the whole
ward know this; in fact, they consider her a bit odd in this regard.
Shes probably been a Relief Society president, maybe Young Womens president, and her husband has served his five or six years as a
bishop, maybe is now second counselor in the stake presidency. So
she knows what goes on in the ward and stake. In fact, shes steeped in
Mormonism, doctrine, history, everything. Shes managed to live her
life with no more than the required number of illusions.
Then one day she begins to write a novel. She may be writing the
family newsletter, and suddenly understands shes really starting the
first chapter of a novel shes had in her head for years. She hadnt
intended to, but shes read a lot of novels, and a lot of other books;
shes filled herself with things to say and show, she feels things deeply,
and shes impassioned. And she knows the doctrine and the history,
is even passionate about them. She knows that somehow she has to
make more sense out of her life. She has to understand it but doesnt
quite. And a novel is a good way to do that; it may in fact be the only
way for a writer. She has to find more meaning than shes found so
far. And she knows that writing a novel will make her do that. She
may just be writing the novel for herself with no plans to offer it for
So she finishes that fairly short first novel, knows its hopeless, and
starts another. And then she understands shes writing not just for herself, but for other women, too, her mother, sisters, the divorced friend
with eight children living next door whose jerk husband decided that
finding fulfillment in this life required marrying his twenty-three-yearold voluptuous secretary. And then my novelist realizes shes writing for
everybody, even men, and that shes pretty good and shes getting better,
and she finds there are serious readers out there when she passes her
manuscript aroundand other writers like herself.
At first she probably wont tell anybody what shes doing. As far as
the family knows shes just at the computer writing, probably putting
together a recipe book, or something for the grandkids, until they, and
she, realize they have a novelist on their hands. She certainly wont be
a Shakespeare or a Milton (thats going to take another five hundred

years, at the rate were going, unless the millennium slips in and makes
their appearance redundant), and she may not be quite as good as
Jane Austen, but hopefully someday maybe as good as Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Flannery OConnor, or Alice Munro. And if so, her
realistic novels will be a little heartrending, passionate, honest, wonderfully insightful, skillful, healing, entertaining. And shell be read
reasonably widely in Mormon lands, unless I miss my guess, which is,
of course, always a possibility, but a circumstance that Gene England
devoutly hoped for and fostered his whole adult life.
So, given the above, or at least some of it, what are the possibilities of
and the need for a serious, realistic Mormon fiction in this early twentyfirst century? Well, for myself, I think its inevitable, or almost so; one
never knows of course. We have the maturing culture now after almost
two hundred years, the rich, complex human Mormon life to interpret,
dramatize, discover. And with the internet and the possibility of a central website for the criticism of serious Mormon fiction, it is possible
to reach readers, to advertise, to tell them whats going on, what new
fiction is worth and not worth reading (as well as poetry, essay, biography, autobiography, and memoir). And with online publishing, either
digitally or in book form, publishing costs are no longer prohibitive.
And we have, or can haveonce they know there is access to readers
honest, capable novelists and short story writers who want to write at
the center of Mormon life. And, finally, there is a need for this fiction,
at least for those who want to know and understand themselves and
their culture deeply and well, and with some pleasure, as Mormons, as
human beings. Perhaps these readers cannot be counted as yet in their
hundreds of thousands, but ten thousand or maybe twenty thousand
or so will do, at least for now.

The Locker Room


W I I was a good kid, innocent, but then something

happened that changed all that pretty much.
Fifteen is a wonderful age to be. Youre not fourteen, but youre
not sixteen either, with all being sixteen means. Youre free. You live
in the present; youre at the edge of things. You have that incredible
beginning sense of who you are. Youre curious. You expect only good
things in your life. I was an Eagle Scout; I took the Boy Scout oath
and law seriously, made it the code I lived by, so idealism and confidence in myself werent difficult. I felt somewhat heroic, had begun
to believe in something I knew I had to be. I certainly wasnt concerned about being saved, redeemed, because there was nothing to be
redeemed from. My body was beginning to become wonderful to me,
a mystery, and then of course there were girls. It was a brief, beautiful
time in my life.
But, too, it was like I was beginning to wear a mask, had to be
the person everybody thought I was, perfect, special, at least good,
because thats what adults wanted and needed me to be to help convince themselves the gospel was true, a boy beyond pride, jealousy,
selfishness, lust, and guilt. What they told us boys in priesthood, to
always be clean and pure, whatever that was supposed to mean to a
pubescent boy, was of little help. For, however hopeful I was of my
life, I already had the beginning sense of my fallen nature, although I
didnt know thats what it was.
What happened was that I got my first job as the janitor for Jefferson Machine and Fabrication in south Provo. Id cut lawns and
done yard work, but that was in the neighborhood. After he hired
me, Mr. Jefferson took me into the noisy, oily-smelling back shop
to explain my duties. He told the men in the shop I was the new

Thayer: Locker Room

clean-up boy. They turned from their lathes and other machines, the
suspended light globes over the work stations silhouetting each man,
and nodded, except the foreman, Bliss, a tall, heavy balding man with
pale skin and bulging eyes.
Not taking the cigarette out of his mouth, blinking against the
smoke, he turned to the man at the next machine.
Well, its nice to have such a clean-cut young man working in the
shop. We appreciate it, dont we Rob?
We sure do.
I was a clean-cut young man; Id worn a long-sleeved shirt and a tie
for the job interview.
I took what Bliss said as a compliment. Adults often complimented
me on my appearance and behavior. I thanked him.
Oh, youre welcome, sonny boy.
I started the job the next day. Mr. Jefferson told me to start at five
but to clean the front office first to give the shop more time to shut
Son, you want to be careful around these machines when theyre
running. Its easy for a boy to catch a sleeve in a belt or wheel and lose
two or three fingers or a hand or fall against a cutting blade.
Ill be careful.
See that you are.
That first afternoon I came out of the locker room wearing my
new coveralls and pushing the cart with the cleaning equipment and
the suspended canvas bag for trash. Mr. Jefferson had assigned me
a locker and told me to wear coveralls so I wouldnt get grease, oil,
and other kinds of dirt on my good clothes. My mother bought me
new coveralls at Sears where she worked. Bliss and Rob were the only
machinists left in the shop. I had to push the cart down the aisle past
them to get to the front office.
Well, heres Alice, all new and shiny and ready to go to work, Rob.
Looks like it.
No adult had ever called me by a girls name before. Being called
Alice was insulting. I was smart enough to know that was what Bliss
intended. I didnt know what to say or do. I just pushed the cart past

them. I knew that for some reason Bliss didnt like me. I didnt know
why. I couldnt figure it out. I thought maybe it was just some kind of
joke I didnt understand.
The office manager Mrs. Cartwell was still in the front office, and I
asked her how long Bliss had been foreman.
Oh, a long time. Hes a wonderful foreman. I dont know what
Mr.Jefferson would do without him.
And then, a gossip, enjoying talking about Bliss, she told me that
theyd grown up in the Third Ward together, that his mother was a
gentle soul, but his father was not a good man, not a Mormon. Bliss
had been a deacon, teacher, and priest, but she didnt think hed ever
been ordained an elder. He hadnt gone on a mission. In high school
hed boxed and the girls were crazy about him. Hed been drafted and
fought in Korea and earned medals, but when he came home he was
already drinking and didnt go to church.
The phone rang. Mrs. Cartwell answered it. No, Im sorry. Mr. Jeffersons gone home for the day. Hell be in at eight in the morning.
Thank you. She put the phone back in the cradle.
Bliss has been divorced twice. But he stopped drinking so much
when he married his third wife. She wont stand for his drunkenness,
and he knows it. He cant smoke in the house either. She was a widow,
and the house is hers. She has the one boy, Ralph. Bliss doesnt have
any children of his own, and hes taken to Ralph, which is nice to see.
Mrs. Hendricks is a wonderful cook and housekeeper.
Mrs. Cartwell took her purse out of her desk and stood up.Bliss
is a lucky man to finally find a good wife. He keeps a nice yard. Of
course, hes never been back to church in all those years since he came
home from the army, but Mrs. Hendricks and Ralph go. As I said,
hes a wonderful foreman. Hes got a heart problem, though, and has
to be careful about that. He should certainly quit that smoking. It
cant be doing him any good, thats for sure.
I didnt understand how Bliss could have been a Boy Scout and a
priest and blessed the sacrament and then later a soldier and awarded
medals and still be divorced twice and smoke and drink. Later I met
Mrs. Hendricks when she came into the shop with Ralph, a tall, thin

Thayer: Locker Room

kid about twelve. She seemed very nice. I couldnt understand why
shed want to marry somebody like Bliss.
After the first week, if Bliss and Rob were in the locker room, I finished up all my other work before I went in, because I didnt want to
have to listen to Blisss stories and jokes and be there while they were
drinking. I had to clean the sinks, toilets, the shower room, and mop
down the floor. And had to get home to supper, so I had to go in and
get started, whether I wanted to or not.
Bliss kept a bottle in his locker, and he and Rob would have a drink,
but just one or two, and he had something for his breath. Blisss wife
probably knew Bliss still took a drink, but it must have been okay as
long as he didnt get drunk and go off the deep end. He was careful
that way. I dont suppose he wanted another divorce.
When I was in the locker room cleaning up, Bliss told Rob dirty
jokes or sometimes obscene stories about himself and the boys he
grew up with, what they did with girls, cursing when he spoke, taking
the Lords name in vain a lot. Hed always say, What about it, kid?,
implying that my friends and I did those things too, that all boys did,
and that I had similar stories I could tell, and should tell. Bliss told
not just stories about sex, but about how corrupt, selfish, and dishonest everybody wasbusinessmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians, army
officers, church leaders. He was incredibly cynical. He told stories
about terrible things that happened in KoreaAmericans torturing
and shooting prisoners, cutting off fingers and ears for souvenirs, having group sex with the village women, things Id never heard of at
fifteen, never even thought about. The stories were all for my benefit;
I was smart enough to know that. This had been going on since the
first day I started work.
You heard any stories like that, Sweet and Pure?
Its a big bad world out there, Jane. Isnt that right, Rob?
You bet.
Bliss called me Alice, Jane, Sweet and Pure, Boy Scout, and a few
other names, and was always cursing. At first I tried to play along,
then I tried to ignore him, tolerate him. Slowly I began to hate him,

but I didnt know thats what it was, the tight, deep, heavy feeling in
my chest. Id never really hated anyone before, not like that.
Bliss told stories about his father, who used to get drunk and beat
him and his younger brother with a leather belt. Bliss laughed about
that, cursed his father. Bliss himself wore a wide, heavy leather belt,
changing it between his work pants and his good pants. One evening
in the locker room when he was telling a story about his dad beating
him and his brothers and had just pulled his belt out of his work
pants, he lashed the small table with it.
Like that, Boy Scout. The old man used the buckle end sometimes.
Couldnt tell the difference when he was drunk.
Standing in his underwear, Bliss laughed when he said that, cursed.
Bliss was pale. He always had a cigarette in his mouth, the smoke
drifting up past his large milky eyes, the cigarette jiggling when he
Working with just Bliss in the shop, the machines all off, I started
humming Primary songs softly, sometimes singing a few words or a
verse. I wanted to show Bliss he couldnt get to me. Also, I thought
hearing the familiar tunes, he might feel guilty and change, because
hed learned the songs when he was a little boy in Primary. But it
didnt help. He didnt say anything, just kept filling out work orders
for the next day, didnt even pause or look up, as if he were deaf.
That fall three other boys and I in the Sixth Ward earned our Eagle
badges, and the Herald ran an article with a picture. Mrs. Cartwell cut
it out, underlined my name, and pinned it to the shop bulletin board.
She liked me. Thats when Bliss started calling me Boy Scout. Whenever Id walk though the shop, Bliss asked, Have you done your good
turn for the day? Are you prepared? You need to be prepared all the
time, Boy Scout.
Or hed stand at attention and give the Scout salute, or raise his
arm and make the sign, Rob laughing when he did that. I couldnt
understand how Bliss could be so vile if hed grown up in the Church
and been a Scout once, how he could ridicule me for earning my Eagle,
how he could be that way at work and then go home and be a different
person. There was something in me he couldnt stand. I guess it was

Thayer: Locker Room

because I was young, happy, and decent. I suppose decent might be

the right word. My mother thought so. Shed stop me sometimes, run
her hand through my hair, kiss me on the cheek.
Oh, son, I do appreciate all you do. Youre a wonderful boy. I dont
know what Id do without you. Youre a blessing in my life. Everybody
in the ward says what a fine boy you are.
Although she never said so, I knew she was disappointed in my father.
He had accomplished so little in his life. When he and my mother got
married, he was at BYU studying to be a civil engineer, but then he
became sick with diabetes and kidney disease and had to drop out. He
hadnt worked the past five years; hed never held a steady job. He did
some of the housework and took care of the yard; he grew lovely flowers.
My mothers life had not been easy, certainly not the life shed planned
as the wife of an engineer. I know my father regretted his life, which
made it impossible for me to talk to him about how I really felt, that I
wasnt always a wonderful son. I couldnt disappoint him, or my mother
A couple of times a summer, if he was feeling up to it, he had me
put my faded red wagon in the back of his old pickup, load in a couple
of tubs of his flowers and tin cans hed saved, and wed go to the cemetery to decorate graves, me pulling the wagonnot just our familys,
but his friends graves, too, all the way back to grade school. For every
grave there was a story, what the dead persons life had been like, families, children, the good and the bad, how he or she died, as if my father,
without intending to, were trying to connect me to all those dead Id
never known.
Well, theyre all at rest now, my father would say. They lived their
lives as best they could, like the rest of us, I suppose. We all have to
endure to the end, one way or the other, have faith somehow.
Sitting in sacrament meeting, I began that year I was fifteen to turn
and look at all the faces, began to wonder about the lives of all the
ward members I knew and who knew me, wondering if their lives
were like mine, like the lives of those buried dead in the Provo Cemetery. Had they, too, been told they were a chosen generation? In Sunday School and priesthood our teachers were always pumping us kids

up, telling us we were a chosen generation, the blood of Israel, the

Lords anointed saved to come to earth to do great works, go on missions, and help prepare the world for the Second Coming. We were
supposed to be an example to the whole world, perfect ourselves, particularly by keeping the Word of Wisdom, not swearing, telling lies, or
stealing, always filled with faith like the pioneers, the sons of Helaman,
as if we knew what faith was and why it was so necessary. They didnt
teach how fallible we were, how much we needed the Atonement,
grace. No one ever talked about grace; it was always works, goals, moving from perfection to perfection until you were perfect. Of course we
do the same thing with the kids today, as if each older generation has
to believe the younger is better than they were, thus fostering in the
young the inevitable hypocrisy and guilt.
I didnt tell my mother or father about Bliss, didnt tell anybody. It
was as if I lived in a secret world nobody else knew anything about, that
Bliss was the only person like him in Provo, and I couldnt ask or tell
anybody because it would be too embarrassing, or else that everybody
knew but kept it a secret. I looked forward to being ordained a priest and
kneeling to bless the sacrament in front of the whole ward when I was
sixteen, speaking into the microphone, hearing my echoing voice saying
the prayer. I paid my tithing, obeyed the Word of Wisdom, earned my
Eagle, planned to go on a mission, although I wasnt sure why. But I certainly didnt think about Jesus being perfect and my becoming like him,
didnt kneel by my bed night and morning, didnt read my scriptures
daily. I liked my life, liked myself. Butter wouldnt melt in my mouth. I
wanted to get my drivers license and start dating girls.
I liked my job, liked to keep the office and shop clean, but things
with Bliss got worse. I wanted to quit, but I needed the money. The
only peace I got was when Bliss was sometimes out for two or three
days with heart problems. I began to wish hed have a heart attack and
die. He made my life miserable. My hatred for him deepened. I didnt
like to go to work because of him. He was always the last one to leave
the shop, so hed talk to me as I was sweeping up the waste metal and
dumping it in the salvage bin. Finally I told him I didnt want to hear
any more of his stories. He just laughed.

Thayer: Locker Room

Kid, Im just trying to educate you. You got to know whats out
there waiting for you.
I dont want to be educated.
He laughed.
You got to be prepared. He raised his hand to make the Scout
Then one evening about five months after Id started my job, Rob
had gone home early, and I was in the locker room with Bliss alone.
Pulling on his pants, he told a filthy story about some Scouts out camping with their Scoutmaster. I got mad. I had a wonderful Scoutmaster;
I wore my Eagle Scout ring. I was the only boy in my whole sophomore
class to wear his Scout uniform to high school during Scout Week.
Filled with righteous indignation, I was rising up against evil, being
brave, even heroic, just like Id been taught in Sunday School and priesthood classes. I even thought I was calling Bliss to repentance, although
I wasnt quite sure how that worked. Maybe Id raise my arm to the
square, making the Scout sign, and repeating the Scout oath. I expected
that Bliss would then apologize because hed remember what it meant
to be a Scout. Bad timing. Hed had a couple of drinks with Rob earlier.
I turned from cleaning out the sinks. Bliss was just threading his
belt through the loops in his pants.
You know, Bliss, youve really got a filthy mouth. I dont want to
hear any more of your filthy stories or about you or your friends when
you were my age; I dont want to hear about your dad or Korea. Just
leave me alone. If you want to tell stories why dont you tell them
to Ralph when you get home, maybe at supper, so Mrs. Hendricks
can hear too? You can include some of those wonderful war stories.
Maybe they need to be prepared too. Or maybe when theyre in the
shop next time I could tell some of the stories about your life that
youve told me, if you dont want to.
I can hear myself even today. Id actually thought of phoning Mrs.
Hendricks or writing a letter and telling her what kind of a person
Bliss really was.
Bliss was heavy and had heart problems, but he was fast on his
feet, something left over from his boxing days I guess. Spitting out

his cigarette, cursing, he backhanded me across the side of the head

and knocked me against the wall, and then yelling hed teach me, he
pulled his belt out of his pants and began to whip me. Id never been
whipped, not even slapped, never cursed. Dazed, I didnt know how
many times he hit me before he came to his senses. I just curled into
myself against the wall, sliding down to the floor, my hands up, trying
to protect myself. The pain was like nothing Id ever known before.
No, no. Stop, stop, stop, please stop, please.
I didnt yell, scream; I said those words, more to myself than to
Bliss. I didnt fight back. Bliss stopped.
Now you know what it feels like, dont you, you sniveling, selfrighteous little bastard? Its about time somebody taught you. Hell,
you wouldnt have lasted five minutes in the house with my old man.
I was too stunned, in too much pain, to do anything except crouch
against that wall, eyes closed, my arms still up, protecting myself.
I heard Bliss leave. I opened my eyes. Hunched against the pain, I
crawled on my hands and knees to the bench and sat down, pleading
for the pain to stop, please, please, dazed, sobbing. Nobody had ever
hurt me before.
At fifteen your body is who you really are, a kind of perfection.
Walking down the street with my friends, wed sometimes just start
to run, leaping in the air, run for blocks. Or at night wed ride our
bikes, shirts off, though the dark summer streets. We wanted a lake or
a deep river pool to go swimming in at night, to float, just to feel the
water touching our bodies in the dark. Wed hike to the top of mountains to raise our arms and shout our names over and over. Wearing Keds, no socks, no T-shirts, just shorts, we liked to find girls to
talk to. Stopped, straddling our bikes, we leaned forward across the
handlebars, to watch their eyes, glistening lips, shining hair, breathing
chestshoping to catch a whiff of perfume on the warm summer air.
My mother had a full-length mirror in her bedroom, and sometimes Id just stand there staring at my face, wondering who I was. Id
begun to admire myself I suppose, not just my face, but who I was, or
thought I was, combing my hair over and over until I got it right. One
new pimple on my face would ruin my whole day.

Thayer: Locker Room

Sitting in the locker room bent forward, my back and the side
of my face on fire, the pain deep in my muscles and bones, I finally
understood how much I hated Bliss. I hadnt known I could hate like
that, didnt know such hate was possible. It was totally physical, more
intense in its way than the pain from the beating, nothing meaning
anything except the hate. The only thing I could think of was that I
wanted to kill Bliss for what hed done to me. It didnt matter how;
just kill him and see his body so Id know he really was dead. I wanted
to get my dads deer rifle and go to Blisss house, knock on the door,
and when he came, shoot him. I could see myself doing it, feeling the
I hated him because hed whipped me. I understood that first. But
it took me a while to understand that I hated him because he insisted
I was just like other boys, wasnt special or perfect. I hated Bliss most
because he made me hate him and want to kill him. Id never known
I was capable of that. And I hated him finally because I hadnt been
brave, hadnt fought back. Id always thought I would be brave. I just
sat there on the bench sobbing.
I sat curled against the pain, eyes closed, sniffing, wiping away the
tears with the back of my hand, not believing what had happened,
scared, hurting, hating Bliss. Later I stood up and looked in the mirror at a welt below my right ear and across my cheek. I touched it,
turned my head to see it better. Bliss had caught me with the end of
his belt across my face. I took off my shirt and T-shirt and looked at
the welts on my back. The skin wasnt broken. Id expected to see the
blood dripping down my back, like in the movies when a hundred
years ago a British sailor received a hundred lashes. I wanted the proof
of how much Id endured, the blood soaked through my shirt by the
time I got home. But it was a wide leather belt, not a cat-o-nine-tails.
I felt sorry for myself. I wanted all my family and friends to know
how badly Id been hurt, to feel sorry for me. But I had brains enough
to understand that I didnt want anybody to know Id taken such a
whipping, hadnt fought back, hadnt been brave, had only pleaded for
it to stop, had sobbed. It was as if Bliss was right and I deserved the
beating. I had to decide what was the best thing to do. But I couldnt

leave and go home just yet. I still had to sweep out the front office,
to empty the wastepaper baskets, and to water the plants in Mr. Jeffersons office. I couldnt leave the job half done. I was a very dutiful
clean-up boy.
Later, sweeping the office floor, I heard someone unlocking the
front glass door. Bliss stood looking at me. I didnt know what he was
going to do. I stood there holding the push broom, my heart pounding in my head, still hunched over trying to keep my shirt from rubbing against my back. Holding the door open, Bliss stood looking at
me, his face expressionless, no cigarette in his mouth. And then he
walked in and put something on the counter. He stood looking at
me again the same way. He didnt speak. He turned and left, locking
the door behind him. Standing by his red pickup, he looked at me
through the big front office window. I watched him get in his pickup,
turn on the lights, back out, and drive off. I walked over to the counter.
It was money, two twenties, a ten, two fives, and three onessixtythree dollars, probably every cent he could put his hands on.
Take that and keep your mouth shut. Thats what the money
Bliss was scared. I hadnt thought that Bliss could be scared. Id
thought only about myself, of course, the terrible pain, and how Id
been such a coward, not wanting anybody ever to know. Looking at
that money, I understood that Bliss knew if I went to Mr. Jefferson
he would fire him. And if I went to the police, or my dad did, hed
be arrested for assault on a minor, perhaps even go to jail. And if
that happened, Mrs. Hendricks would probably divorce him because,
although he hadnt really been drunk at the time, hed been drinking.
Hed lose everything.
Standing there holding that broom, I knew I could ruin Blisss life,
understood that clearly; I could bring everything crashing down. And
then I understood that even if nobody ever knew about the whipping,
I could still pay Bliss back for what hed done to me, and for all the
stories and the filth. I took the money, walked out to the shop and the
locker room and put it in Blisss work-pants pocket. But I didnt think
of it as revenge. It was just the hatred spilling out. Id pretend that

Thayer: Locker Room

nothing had happened. Every day, every hour, hed worry that I would
tell, be scared hed lose his job, lose his family, the house he lived in,
the well-kept yard. I wanted Bliss to know that he couldnt buy me off
and that I could report him anytime. That I was tougher than he was
and that I didnt snivel.
But it didnt all quite work out that way in the end.
This all happened on Friday evening. Lying in bed that night on
my stomach, still feeling the burning, reliving it all, but fighting back,
knocking Bliss down with a hard right to the jaw, standing over him,
Iknew that Bliss would be awake, wondering if I took the money, waiting for Mr. Jeffersons phone call or the police ringing the doorbell. All
weekend, even in church passing the sacrament or, eyes closed, listening
to the prayers, Id catch myself thinking about Bliss at home worrying.
Id actually imagine Mrs. Hendricks and Ralph standing on the porch
watching as they put him, handcuffed, into the police car, and Mrs.
Hendricks coming down to the jail to tell him she was divorcing him.
Lying there thinking about what Bliss had said to me, I got up,
turned on my desk lamp, and looked up self-righteous in the dictionary. I turned off the lamp and got back in bed, lay there on my stomach,
and then I got up and read the definition again. I fell asleep thinking
about what the dictionary said. No one had ever called me that.
When my mother asked me about the welt on the side of my face,
Ilied to her. It didnt matter. I knew Id lie to Coach Crowlton, too, on
Monday, tell him Id sprained my ankle or something, so I wouldnt
have to take gym and shower afterwards, but that didnt matter either.
Mom put salve on my face. I didnt think about the Scout oath and
law, being an Eagle, holding the priesthood, or becoming a priest and
blessing the sacrament in front of the whole ward. Those things didnt
make any difference at that moment.
Monday afternoon when I got to the shop, I started sweeping floors
as if nothing had happened. When Id look up Id see Bliss standing
at his lathe watching me. I knew hed found the money in his pants
pocket and that he saw the welt on my face, which I wore like a visible
wound or a badge. Mrs. Cartwell asked me about that. Bliss didnt do
any of the Scout stuff, tell any stories, call me Sweet and Pure or any

of his other names. He didnt curse. I knew he was worried, had to

be. And that was how it was every day, and that pleased me. I actually
looked forward to going to work. Sitting in class Id think about Bliss.
I liked the power I had over him. I even thought of telling him that
just to see the look on his face. I wondered how much more hed try to
pay me to keep quiet. I still hummed Primary songs.
Three weeks later I got the flu, which turned to pneumonia. I was
in the hospital; I didnt go to school or work for a month. Mrs. Cartwell came to visit me and told me that Mr. Jefferson didnt have to hire
a temporary clean-up boy because Bliss was sweeping the floors, emptying the trash, and cleaning the sinks and toilets in the locker room.
Isnt that just wonderful? Bliss wont let anybody help him. We all
think hes such a fine person. Dont you think so? Such a nice thing
to do.
I wanted Mrs. Cartwell to leave. I didnt answer. I didnt know what
to say. I pushed my hands under the white covers. I wanted to pull
the covers up over my head, smother myself with the pillow. I knew
that Bliss believed I had put the money in his pants pocket and hadnt
told on him and gotten him arrested because I was such a decent kid.
He was trying to pay me back. That possibility had never crossed my
mind. Filled with sudden guilt, I didnt know what to do. Everything
seemed changed, like I was a different person, and didnt really understand the meaning of right and wrong anymore, or there wasnt any
right and wrong, no Boy Scout oath and law. And life was going to be
much more difficult than Id ever believed.
When I went back to work I was afraid Bliss might come up to me
in the shop, hold out his hand, and apologize.
Kid, Im really sorry for what I did to you. I was wrong. Youre a
great kid for letting me off the hook, saving my job and everything,
areal Eagle Scout. I cant tell you how much I appreciate what youve
done. Can we shake on it?
What could I have said to him? I couldnt have taken his hand, felt
his tighten on mine, have to look him in the eyes.
I didnt thank Bliss for cleaning up for me. I couldnt. What could
I say? Thanks, Bliss, for what you did. I was too ashamed, too guilty.

Thayer: Locker Room

So neither one of us said anything. Wed just look at each other,

and not-speaking became normal. I stopped humming Primary songs.
And then early that spring Bliss was in the hospital with a heart attack,
and he came back to work for two weeks, his lips bluer than theyd
ever been before. And then Provo had a heavy late snowstorm, and
Bliss had another heart attack and died out shoveling off his walks.
I felt a little responsible for Blisss death. Of course, hed been sick a
long time. Still, I was lucky he didnt have a heart attack in the locker
room that evening. How could I have possibly lived with that?
Mrs. Cartwell put Blisss obituary up on the shop bulletin board.
It said what a wonderful husband and father he was, what a fine
machinist, and that hed fought in Korea and earned a Purple Heart
for being wounded and a Silver Star for bravery. It didnt say anything
about his previous two divorces or his drinking, smoking, and swearing, or about killing and torturing war prisoners. Rob and the other
men in the shop said what a great foreman Bliss was. Mr. Jefferson
said hed never get another foreman like Bliss.
I had enough sense to know that people were being kind. But it
made me wonder what truth really was and how important finally.
The obituary picture was of a smiling Bliss in his army uniform. He
looked young. Id never thought of Bliss as being young. My father
read his obituary aloud at supper.
I didnt go to the funeral. After reading Blisss obituary, I didnt
want to hear all the good things people would say about him. Knowing what I knew about myself, I couldnt do it. My mother did make
me go to the viewing at the Berg Mortuary, although I didnt want to
do that either. Remembering Id wanted to kill Bliss, I had no desire to
see him in his casket dead. But my mother said it wouldnt be respectful not to go with her and my father. My father went to the funeral
and out to the cemetery for the dedication of the grave. My mother
had to work.
I wore my Sunday suit. Standing behind my mother and father in
the moving line of mourners, I saw at the end of the long room the
wreaths and bouquets of flowers. Turning, I saw in the smaller viewing room to the right the top end of the open casket, and Blisss wife

and his stepson standing by it talking to the people in the front of the
line. Coming closer with the line, I saw the American flag draping the
bottom half of the casket. On the flag I saw Blisss medals in velvetlined cases and his army picture. Mourners blocked my view of Bliss.
My father introduced me to members of Blisss family. My mother
said I had worked with Bliss. I shook hands with Blisss two brothers
and their wives and his sister and her husband. Id never thought of
Bliss as having relatives. My father said how sorry we were that Bliss
had died. Blisss wife stood next to the casket; Ralph, his eyes full of
tears, stood by her side. He reached out to shake my hand.
Blisss wife held my hand in both of hers. Youre that nice clean-up
boy. Just a few months ago, my Bliss told us what a fine young man
you are. He was very impressed by you.
Thank you . . . I mean youre welcome.
I looked down at Bliss. Id never seen him dressed in a suit and
tie. Ididnt know what I was supposed to feel. I didnt feel anything.
Ididnt feel sorrow, regret, or guilt. I didnt cry; I didnt even feel like
crying. Bliss didnt look like he was asleep. He looked dead. He needed
a cigarette in his mouth. His head rested on a small white silk pillow. I
saw the keyhole in the side of the casket. I wondered why they needed
to lock the lid. I turned away.
Late that summer, pulling my red wagon, I went one evening with
my father to the cemetery to decorate graves. Walking back toward
the truck, I thought we were finished putting out flowers, when my
father stopped by a gray double headstone near the edge of the path.
This is your friend, Mr. Hendricks grave, son. He thought so
highly of you. I felt you might want to remember him.
I looked at my father. Doctor Clark had told my mother that my
fathers kidneys and diabetes were worse and he had not long to live.
Shed told me but not him; she didnt want to worry him. Hed grown
thinner, weaker, and used a cane wherever he went. He still sometimes mentioned how much hed wanted to be an engineer and how
much he regretted my mother having to work at Sears all their married life to support the family. Shed been made a department manager
the month before.

Thayer: Locker Room

I looked down at Blisss stone. In addition to his name, birth and

death dates, it said hed fought in Korea, and listed his army unit, his
two medals carved below that. His wifes name was on the other half
of the stone, but with only her birth and not her death date. Across
the top, connecting their two names was a wreath with a wedding ring
and the words Beloved Husband.
Would you like to do that, son?
Yes, I think so.
I put the flowers in a foil-wrapped can, filled it with water, and
bent to set it on the cement edge holding the stone. But the can tipped,
and I knelt to rearrange the flowers and set the can up straight. Then,
still kneeling, I looked up. The evening sun slanted in under the dark
trees, the headstones shining in that light, thousands and thousands
of stones, all those lives lived, their stories told. I knew that the legends on Mormon stones often showed temples, hands clasped; told of
love, loss, grief, faith, eternal marriage, eternal life, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, forgiveness, grace; the stones sometimes
clustered in families back five generations to the partially erased, soft,
yellowing stones of pioneers.
Time to go home, son. Your mother will be waiting supper for us.
We dont want her to worry.
Yes, wed better go. Standing up, I brushed off my knees.
Pulling the red wagon with my left hand, I gripped my fathers thin
upper arm with my right hand, steadying him as we walked along the
gravel path toward the truck.

Sparrows and Boys


Those giant ditchbank cottonwoods in our front yards,

a Spring storm rolling across the lake and salt marshes,
breaking in the groaning, brittle trees. Thunderous.
We awoke to front yards thicketed in branches,
splintered ends sap-scented. We climbed
and wiggled until we stood in arbors
of dappled light
And the bird nests.
Those little birds in your hand,
all that unfledged life. You cant keep it. Its wild. Itll die,
Jay Anderson said. He wore an eye patch
from a jackknife-on-a-swingset encounter
like a mothers cautionary folktale that no boy ever fears.
Except in our neighborhood.
Jay said, If you touch it, the parents wont have it.
One-eyed, and older, and rightbut I couldnt not touch it.
The birds craned and gaped. Featherless. All mouth and stomach.
So the Williams boys got the idea to stuff Blackcat firecrackers
down the birds throats and light them. Kind of a dare.
And when that first fledgling sparrow blew apart,
those pieces still twitching with life
right in front of you and your buddies,
you had to say, Wow. Cool. You gotta work
to get that.
I climbed out of the arbor.
Jay Anderson, sitting on the ditchbank.
So I jumped across and sat. And we waited,
our unfolding lives minus what we had just left.
How to redeem that thumbsmudge of viscera?
I didnt know, I said.
I know, he said.

Hatch: Poems

Lo Creek
From behind, hes all pack,
hide lashed to frame,
filled with butchered deer,
blaze-orange vest flopping on top.
Early afternoon, rattlesnake sun.
We scramble and slip along
between canyon bottom and cliff.
Rattlers buzz, coil, slip under talus.
Canyon mouth blown out by storm,
uprooted juniper and scrub oak, a nightmare.
For hundreds of yards, you cant touch ground.
The talus slope pinches away, the cliff pushes us low,
and were swimming through that gray boneyard
maze of blown down trees.
He wedges the pack
into the white root crotch of a downed spruce,
hands on knees, blowing, sweat-soaked.
I balance the deer head across my shoulders,
Grandpas saddle carbine across the antlers.
That Roman-nose buck still seems alive
the way his antlers have tangled in deadfall
these last hours.
Three bald eagles
pirouette above the canyon, disappear
behind cliff rim, reappear, sun
sifting between arched feathers.
Augury, he says.
What? Up canyon,
crows and coyotes have found the bucks carcass.
Studying spilled, shimmering guts. His breathing slows,
Lets just work this problem.
So. Twenty-five yards at a time.

Red Shift
I take the chess board in my lap
and dust it off with my shirt tails,
and I set it out between us.
His eyes narrow.
The dumped chessmen clattering
across board and table,
Lets sort this out.
After ninety years
hes started to see red shifting time,
how it bends his mind like spreading taffy
between the crowding dendritic advance of shadows.
So find deep roots, and hold on. We rebuild
nearly everything among shadows of what was.
He remembers pawn, rook, bishop,
but not altogether their moves.
We hunch in the sloping afternoon light,
and I hold my breath over his surprises
like, a pawn should move straight ahead one square
but attack diagonally, although if the pawn wishes,
his first move may be two squares. Quixotic.
I probe his memory of the en passant.
He says, Look, jabs at my chest.
We both watch his hand wither into a fist.
His face softens, and he settles back
to stoop over the board.
He knows
the knights dog-legged permutations.
I try the Sicilian defense, such old shared things,
maybe hell remember. But he hasnt just forgotten.
He remembers differently, the gravity of soul
bending beyond his grasp, maybe bending
the far walls of the universe.

Hatch: Poems

Hes still relentless,

like we played evening after evening back then.
So I stand up and my son sits, and they play on.
And the next son. Gentle boys
knowing how to act, hour after hour.
Shit, he says softly, Son of a bitch,
trying to work it out. Sometimes they giggle.
The late news comes on. He draws the rocker up
to the fire, stares into it. A lot of company
in a fire, he says.

The Association for Mormon Letters and Irreantum Magazine

are pleased to announce our annual literary contests:

The Charlotte and Eugene England

Personal Essay Contest,
the Irreantum Fiction Contest,
and, new in 2011,
the Irreantum Poetry Contest
Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest
Unpublished personal essays up to 5,000 words
1st place, $300; 2nd place, $200; 3rd place, $100
This contest is funded by a grant from the Eugene England Foundation
Irreantum Fiction Contest
Unpublished fiction (short stories or excerpts from novels) up to
8,500 words
1st place, $300, 2nd place, $200; 3rd place, $100
This contest is funded by a grant from the Eugene England Foundation
Irreantum Poetry Contest
Unpublished group of 35 poems; 100 line limit per poem. A series
of 35 interconnected poems as well as a group of 35 independent
poems are both acceptable.
1st place, $200; 2nd place, $150; 3rd place, $100
This contest is funded by a grant from Mary Ann Taylor

Contest Rules
Individuals may submit a maximum of three entries total to all three
contests (e.g. a person may submit one entry in each genre, or a person may submit three entries to the fiction contest). Winners are not
guaranteed publication but agree to give Irreantum first publication
rights. Irreantum staff and members of the AML board are not eligible.
Because Irreantum is a literary journal dedicated to exploring Mormon
culture, entries that relate to the Mormon experience in some way will
be given preference in judging. Authors need not be LDS.
Submission Instructions
Only electronic submissions will be accepted. Please email your
entry as an MS Word, WordPerfect, or RTF file attachment to the
following addresses:
Essay contest:;
2011 Essay Contest in the e-mail subject line
Fiction contest:;
2011 Fiction Contest in the subject line
Poetry contest:;
2011 Poetry Contest in the subject line

Include your name, the title of your submission (poetry submissions

may be identified by the title of the first poem), and your contact
information, including address and phone number, in the body of
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manuscript, which should appear as a header on each page.

Submission Window
January 1, 2011, through May 31, 2011. Winners will be announced
on the AMLs website,, on August 31, 2011.
Irreantums annual literary contests have no official connection to the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Reluctant Saints

I breasts. Symbolic, disembodied breasts, but breasts

nonetheless. I sat in a hard, straight-backed chair pushed up against
the wall of an exhibition room in the Scottish National Gallery in
Edinburgh, focusing my attention on a strange painting. It showed a
young woman standing by a window, holding a palm frond and a glass
dish with two breasts resting on it like fruits. As I gazed at the painting, I couldnt help noticing how the other museum visitors reacted
to the unusual tableau. They would walk by casually, stop after a few
steps, and return to look again. They would whisper to their companions about it or drag their spouses across the room to see it. Once, two
women stopped in front of the painting. They were speaking to each
other in Chinese, so I didnt understand a word, but I could sense the
puzzlement in their voices, their slightly embarrassed fascination.
From the explanatory plaque on the wall, I learned that the painting was called Portrait of a Young Woman as Saint Agatha and was
painted by Cariani in . Saint Agatha was a third-century Christian martyr, a beautiful Sicilian woman who took a vow of celibacy to
show her devotion to God. The Roman governor, one of many suitors
she rejected, was angry and ordered her to deny her faith and her vow.
When she refused, he punished her by cutting off her breasts. She
is often painted holding her severed breasts or (perhaps even more
gruesomely) a pair of shears or pliers. But this painting, even with its
requisite symbolic imagery, is not really a picture of a saintly, suffering
martyrto me, it looked more like a girl playing dress-up. The plaque
suggested that the young woman in the painting, who doesnt appear
to be missing any significant portions of her anatomy, is not supposed
Second place, Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest

to be the real Saint Agatha. Instead she was an actual girl named
Agatha, posing as her namesake for an idealized, symbolic portrait.
The picture is really a portrait of two Agathas. Theres the original, the
real saint, a woman whose zeal I cannot fathom. And then theres the sixteenth-century century Italian girl who came home one day to find that
her parents had arranged a rather unique portrait sitting. This Agatha is
a striking young woman with an expressive face and a voluptuous figure.
Her clothing is artfully arranged, but her hair is just a little unruly near
her temples. I try to imagine the living, breathing, feeling person behind
the symbolism. Her parentswealthy, dotinghire a well-known artist
to paint her portrait. They explain to her what its going to look like. Ill
be holding a dish of what? the girl asks, incredulous. When its time for
the sitting, she dresses up as a model of Christian chastity. Her parents
approve; they hope this picture will remind her to be as virtuous as her
namesake. But Agatha has different ideas: virgin martyr is not really on
her list of lifes goals. She has admirers already, maybe even a lover. Perhaps she thinks of him as she poses. Whatever thoughts are in her mind,
they arent exactly pious. She has the look of a rebellious teenager, with
a sly and saucy expression. Her sidelong glance might even be a little
provocative, as she gently curves her fingers around one of the breasts on
the tray. And the painter, Cariani? He reads the knowing in her eyes and
paints the irony right into her portrait.
The painting is finished; her parents hang it on the wall in their
villa. If they notice anything strange about their daughters expression,
they never mention it. Every day, Agatha walks past this holy twin.
However unsaintly she felt while posing for the portrait, she cant help
but see the comparison her parents intended. She, Agatha, following
in the footsteps of her namesake, a model of steadfast purity. And no
matter what she does in the meantime, in this image she is forever a
saint, holding the emblems of her sacrifice.
As I looked at the painting, the museum guard watched me, perhaps wondering why Id been hanging around that one room so long.
He didnt know that I was having a little conversation with Saint
Agatha. See, Im a saint too, or at least Im supposed to be. I belong to
a church whose official name brands me as one, although Ive never

Roberg: Reluctant Saints

been entirely comfortable with the terminology. When I meet people,

I dont tell them Im a Latter-day Saint. It sounds too presumptuous,
like I should be walking around with a plastic halo on, sticking out my
fingers to bless the passers-by. If forced, Id rather just mumble, Im a
Mormon, hoping no one hears or wants to ask questions. Although
maybe Im just reluctant to call myself a saint because the title feels
like a costume, an apron that doesnt quite mask the fact that underneath I am naked, and fleshly. So I asked Agatha, who seemed oddly
comfortable with the whole situation: Is it possible to become holy
while still remaining a human being? Can sainthood and sensuality
A my encounter with Agatha in Edinburgh, I found
myself in a youth hostel on the shores of Loch Lomond. It was late,
and I had stayed up to chat with a few friends in the lounge, a comfortable space full of mismatched chairs. I was traveling with a study
abroad group of twenty single women; it had been only a week so far,
but that week felt more like forty days of fasting in the desert, and
here was our break-the-fast feast: Christopher, a university student
from Glasgow, handsome, with dark hair and a Glaswegian accent
that sounded so foreign I almost couldnt tell he was speaking English.
Christopher was traveling with a running club and was planning to
run ninety-six miles over the next three dayshence the lean, muscular physique I couldnt help but appreciate. He also had a seven a.m.
wake-up call the next morning, but was sacrificing his sleep to stay up
with us until well past midnight. Christopher knew a lot about America, despite his erroneous belief that all Americans carried guns; when
we told him where we were from, he knew what Utah was famous for.
So youre Mormons? Dont you have a lot of rules? Yes, we did. Later,
he asked us, incredulous, You mean you cant have sex, at all? and we
giggled nervously. He continued, But, what aboutwell, you know,
sometimes youre drunk and youre horny . . . No, we assured him, we
didnt know. (Not about being drunk anyway. In my minds eye, I pictured Christopher getting smashed in a pub in Glasgow. Iwas conveniently there as well . . . )

Finally he asked, point-blank, Why do you do it? What do you

get out of it? One of my friends answered his question, and someone else chimed in. I cant remember exactly what they said, but Im
sure it was sincere and appropriate. The Church, with all its attendant
rules, made their lives better. It made them happy. Simple. I didnt
say anythingsomehow, I couldnt think of answers to questions that
should have been the most basic and fundamental. My mind just kept
hopping around, trying and failing to come up with something that
wouldnt sound ridiculous to this skeptical young man. Why should
I care? I would never see him or his gorgeous accent again. Soon the
conversation was over. Some of Christophers fellow runners came
and persuaded him to go to bed, and we decided to do the same. The
other girls went to sleep peacefully; they had defended the faith. But
I couldnt stop thinking about Christopher, and my mixed emotions
kept me awake; I was a little excited, a little guilty, a lot troubled.
What if he and I had been alone in that commons room? I replayed
the conversation in my head, but it always ended at Why do you do
it? Why, indeed.
Despite my reluctance to publicly proclaim my faith, Ive always considered myself a faithful churchgoer and a committed Latter-day Saint,
or at least a saint-in-training. But what does sainthood really require?
I consider Saint Agatha (the original one) and her almost superhuman
denial of her body, how she renounced first the pleasures of the flesh
and then even the flesh itself in her quest for a mystical union with
God. Is the body, with its desires and demands, just an obstacle to be
overcome? But then I think of Job, perhaps not technically a saint but
certainly a saintly figure. In the midst of his tremendous physical and
emotional afflictions, Job had compelling reasons to have lost all faith
in his body and to be willing to abandon it. But instead, he offered up a
statement that is both graphic and glorious: And though after my skin
worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. In my flesh.
This is difficult for me to understand, since it seems that my flesh, my
body, is what keeps me farthest from Him.
I can easily recite a catalog of my frailties. The little lies that formed
a flimsy canopy over my middle-school boyfriend and me on the

Roberg: Reluctant Saints

afternoon of my first kiss. The desire that suffused each page as I read
the Book of Mormon with my high school boyfriend; he later joined
the church, whether because of our intense scripture-reading sessions
or the equally intense make-out sessions that followed, Im not sure.
The gleeful sense of trespassing as I rolled around on the grass in various locations across campus in the middle of the night with my first
college boyfriend; he was never officially my boyfriend because, well,
we were too busy to talk.
The irresistible thing about men is that they are right there, right
beside you with their strong biceps and soft earlobes and broad shoulders. Emily Dickinson wrote that God is a distant, stately lover, which
may be all right if you are a middle-aged woman living in your parents house or could be considered stately yourself. But given a choice
between a faraway, invisible benefactor and a close, warm body with
hands and lips to match, it seems only natural to hold on to what is
tangible. Thats why I can only dimly imagine the resolve of the mythical Saint Agatha and why I feel the way I do about the young woman
in the painting. I look at the fine, rich fabrics of her dress, her artfully disheveled hair, even the way she holds her propsand I know
that this is someone who loves things she can touch, someone likely to
choose the nearby temptation over the remote virtue. But her image
gives me hope, because even she can somehow strike a balance, however uneasy. She can be a symbol of purity with a plate of naked breasts.
She can be a saint with a saucy smile and a challenge in her eye.
A S, my study abroad group was in southern England. On a glorious May day, we hiked through forests and
across green and flowering fields. My body felt strong, limber, and
vibrantly alive. We reveled in the sunlight and warmth of the air, made
ourselves crowns of flowers, and skipped through the grass like earthworshipping pagans. Cresting a hill, we saw our destination below:
a medieval monastery that had been converted into a private boys
school. We were headed to the abbey church, but we chose a path
that took us down among the school buildings. Some of the highschool-aged students, dressed in matching plaid oxford shirts and

khaki green trousers, were milling about on a break from classes. They
stared unabashedly at us, their faces showing a uniquely adolescent
combination of fear and bravado. We were trespassers, in spirit if not
in fact, and I irreverently imagined our group wreaking havoc on this
isolated, all-male campus.
But when we reached the church and stepped inside, our demeanor
changed. Hushed, we walked around reading the inscriptions on
the walls and touching the old stones. Then several of us sat in the
wooden choir stalls at the front of the church. We sang hymns, softly
at first and then louder, our voices rising up into the vaulted ceiling.
A swallow had flown through the open door and was flying dizzily in
the vault and through the archways as we sang. I half wondered if the
bird might perhaps be mistaking the crown of the vault for heaven,
taking literally the builders intention. Was it trapped and confused,
a prisoner even in this most sublime structure? Or did it find in its
earthbound state some kind of exultation, the glory of fragile but
powerful wings and a swiftly beating heart?
A couple of workmen inside the church stopped what they were
doing and just listened as we sang. Our voices might have sounded
angelic and otherworldly, but our very human bodies were what produced the sound: our lungs, vocal chords, tongue, lips. Teach me some
melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above. And after we sang,
every one of us walked back outside into the world. We carried with
us our temptations, our desires, our sacrificeseverything that made
us human, everything that made us saints.

Maybe the Kids Maybe


A up and then down their street in a gray sweat suit

and striped headband. The husband laughs because its funny, he says,
the way the fat man runs, like hes pushing up against some impossible force, his weight too much for his strength. The wife says how
strange it is, that this man has kept it up, that his running has gone on
longer than expected, that it has been weeks when she, for one, was
sure he would quit after days. The wife says that the fat mans efforts
have made him seem stronger and more determined, or at least more
persistent, than she gave him credit for. The husband says it is only a
matter of perception, and that this man is still only a fat man, sweating through a threadbare sweat suit, looking ridiculous.

T ends of the same couch and watch one of

their favorite cooking shows. The episode is dedicated to desserts
from around the worldwhat the host calls international gluttony.
They see cream and sugar and chocolate in a dozen shapes and combined with the most unusual things: fruits they have never heard of,
for example, and something that looks like ash or charcoal. But most
of all they see obscene amounts of butter, and they see a host who is
unapologetic. He gets very serious, this host, and explains that there
is no substitute for butter, that margarine or shortening or lower-fat
oils are all guarantees of lost flavor. And the husband and the wife
look at each other like they didnt see this coming, like they never
thought, after so many years of being told to avoid fatty foods, that

they would ever hear butter praised so highly. So there they are, enjoying themselves well enough, getting ideas for some exotic Sunday dessert, when the show cuts to a commercial for weight-loss pills. The
commercial is one they have seen a dozen times, but now it seems
strange. The host of the cooking show tells them to eat more butter,
and then this commercial promises weight loss and lower body fat on
one pill a day and minimal exercise. Its strange, the husband says. Yes,
the wife says, it is.

T he sometimes wonders what it means to

be fat, what it feels like. He knows enough about spare tires and double chins, about holiday weight and winter layers, but he doesnt really
know enough about obesity. He sees this man running past his house
and he wonders what that much weight will do to a mans knees. He
wonders how the fat man manages to do it, putting that much weight
in motion. He sees him, he says, as a cautionary tale, as a word to
the wise, as proof that ones health is not something to be taken for
granted. But he also sees him as an example of what his sister said
when she called last week, when she mentioned a new study shed
just read. She said that no one over the age of thirty should ever run
for exercise. She said that this study had it all right there in clinical
research, that running did irreparable damage to joints and muscles.
She said that runners were increasingly at risk as they grew older.
Running, she said, is a young mans game.

F , , were once a sign of wealth. They have seen

the paintings in museums and in history books. They have seen them,
in fact, in the very history books their children bring home from school.
So many pages dedicated to enormous monarchs. The wife wonders
about the relationship between obesity and wealth, thinness and poverty. The commercials on television, she says, always trouble her. She

Tuttle: Maybe the Kids Maybe

cant help but turn away, she says, from those images of starving children in Africa and South America, their arms and legs as thin as twigs,
their bellies distended by something other than food and wine and
indulgence. She cant bear them, she says, because the guilt gets to her,
but also because she refuses to be manipulated by the false sincerity
of Hollywood stars. She knows that the suffering is real but she also
knows that someone other than those poor children would profit from
her dollar a day. And she knows that starvation will continue with or
without her contribution. She changes the channel and finds coverage
of strong men yoked to train cars, pulling those loads like so many
oxen. Just look at that, she says. That is really something else.

T up the street every day and they expect to see

him thinning. But he doesnt thin at all. He goes on sweating, goes
on with his labored breathing, and doesnt seem to benefit one bit
from his efforts. They have heard somewhere that weight is built into
human genes. The evidence suggests that a fat man will always be a
fat man unless he starves himself and maintains a state of starvation,
and a thin man must gorge himself to put on significant weight. They
have heard that a person is predisposed to a narrow weight range and
that his or her body will increase and decrease its metabolism to stay
within that range. They have heard that adopted children mimic their
biological parents weight patterns more than those of their adopted
parents. You see, the husband says to the wife. Isnt this proof that
nature trumps nurture? Isnt this proof that this fat man may work
and work and never really get anywhere, that all his running is pointless, all his sweating in vain? What it means, says the wife, is that we
have half a gallon of ice cream in the freezer. Ill get the bowls, she says.

W , say things they have always said and hardly

notice the metaphors they use. Their language is drawn toward a

glorification of weight. They say, for example, that people who matter are heavyweights and those who dont are lightweights. To be a
lightweight is to be useless. They talk about heavy hitters who have
enacted change or who have made consequential decisions. They talk
about the heavies who occupy the television screen: mafia thugs and
arch villains. And if weight is also something to lamentas when they
criticize those who are heavy-handedthey still spend much of their
attention on those misuses of power and influence. To be weighty is to
be of value, to be worth their time and attention. They admire bigwigs
and ignore small fries. And as they look through their kitchen window
and watch a fat man running by, they wonder how they feel about that
man. They wonder if they ought to respect him.

A , one of their daughters talks about compressed

stars called white dwarfs, and says that a spoonful of one would weigh
several thousand pounds in our gravity. The husband says he wonders
what they might do with a spoonful of anything that weighed as much
as a car. He wonders how something so dense and heavy could be put
to use by the strong men on television, or how one might use such a
spoonful in a practical joke. The daughters laugh at this and imagine
what fun it would be to slip some white dwarf into a friends backpack
or into someones shoe. Yes, says the wife. If we had just one teaspoon
of white dwarf imagine the fun we could have in the kitchen.

T their daughters, gathered at the kitchen

table as they often are, notice the fat man running up and down the
street. Its not only that they see him, because the girls might also see
a moral in that man, but that they might have other ideas creeping
around inside their heads. They are concerned for their daughters who
are just now coming into their young adulthood. What must they think
when they see this man working so hard to accomplish so little? They

Tuttle: Maybe the Kids Maybe

have heard about anorexia and bulimia and wonder if such disorders
are already at work on these girls of theirs. They fear that their thin
waists and narrow shoulders are things they ought to have outgrown
by this point. They are still very young, they have to remind themselves
of that, but they worry about those things they cant fully control. They
have heard, as well, that some girls and young women actually choose
to starve themselves, actually opt for anorexia as a means of keeping
the pounds off. Every time they see the fat man struggling up the street
their daughters seem a sliver more narrow than they were before.

T , , time at the kitchen window as the fat man

goes by. He is only twelve years old, and they know that his life has
been dominated by a houseful of sisters. He resists their efforts to get
him outside where the other boys are always playing ball of one sort
or another. He spends too much time in his room, too much time
ordering and reordering the various objects he has collected: ribbons
for academic excellence, books that have survived the girls and books
of his own, action figures representing mythological beasts, seashells
and sand dollars collected on one of their many vacations to the coast.
He comes out of his room less and less, and when he does they sometimes catch their breath at the sight of him. He, like his sisters, seems
to be losing weight. But unlike his sisters, he seems to be getting
weaker as well, complaining about exhaustion. For the longest time,
they thought his growth was simply outpacing his appetite, but now
they have to wonder about that. The husband asks what they should
do. The wife says she doesnt know. The husband says that it might be
time to say something. He says it probably wouldnt hurt to sit down
and talk about it. Sure, says the wife, sure.

T on television in which an obese man consults

with doctors about how best to control his life-threatening condition.

The doctors, they notice, say nothing about eating well or exercising,
but just skip all that and get straight to the surgical options. They are
bothered and fascinated by this approach. The doctors tell the man
about his condition, a condition in which the body does not trigger
the brain that it has had enough food, a condition in which a man
could literally eat himself to death and never feel satisfied. They tell
him that a medication would help with the condition, but that they
have to get his weight down and fast, that his body is a bomb waiting
to explode. The husband and the wife are amazed by the crudity of
these doctors and wonder if they are doctors at all. This is television,
after all, and they tend to be skeptical of what they see there. If these
doctors arent selling anything, they have, at least, allowed cameras
access to their offices, and they must know that their advice is making its way into homes around the nation. The husband says that its
wrong for the doctors to frighten this man the way they do, alarming
him with this language of explosions. The wife says that worse yet
is the lack of willpower they assume in their patient. Wouldnt this
operation they had proposed, this stapling or pinching off a portion
of the stomach, virtually force the man to lose weight? What he needs,
she says, is a sense of empowerment and a sense of accomplishment.
What this man needs, she says, is some emotional support and some
carefully worded encouragement.

T can do to ensure the kids will respect rules

or take advice. The husband and the wife have read books on parenting and most of them agree that teenagers cannot help but see their
parents as backward and unenlightened, that at a certain age children
believe their parents are incapable of anything but failure. Some of
the books say that early adolescence is something to be navigated cautiously and that hard rules should be avoided, that teenage children
need broad moral landscapes. The husband says he isnt entirely sure
what that means, but he thinks he disagrees with it fundamentally. At
the same time, however, they have noticed that no literature universally

Tuttle: Maybe the Kids Maybe

praises the parenting techniques of the generations before this one.

A book will praise the familiar parenting styles of a half-century ago
when chicken soup was used to cure most ailments, but then it will
insist that the disciplinary approaches of the same period, the physical punishments, should be avoided at all costs. The wife says that she
knows that books are only published when they say something that
other books dont say, and she knows that the experts behind these
titles cant mean to confuse parents, but she finds the inconsistencies in their approaches baffling. It doesnt help, she says, that each of
these books identifies itself as the only book they will ever need or the
advice of the nations foremost experts.

T standing at the kitchen window and see that

he is seeing the fat man running. The boy is too thin and the man is
too fat and the husband whispers that now is as good a time as any.
But the wife says no, and pulls the husband into another room. Shes
been thinking, she says, about something she heard just last week on a
news editorial about how parents plan too much for their children and
burden them with responsibility. The editorial was given by a mother
who encouraged parents to reconsider the value of average and said
that children reading at their own grade level are not failures, as some
parents seem to think, but successes, that they are doing exactly as
well as they should be doing. The mother argued that soccer practices
and play rehearsals and music classes and after-school programs of a
dozen varieties were not preparing children for success, but were assuring early failure. She said that children need more of what she called
unstructured time. She also said that parents need to spend more time
with their children and less time driving their children. There was a
pun in there: driving and driving, but it was more true than it was
funny. It made the wife wonder, she said, just how often they had
insisted that their kids do one thing or stop another. The husband
stands there, uncertain, trying to decide what his first impulse is and
wondering whether first impulses are to be trusted. They both stand

there, the husband and the wife, and they watch their son who doesnt
know hes being watched while he watches the fat man, and they know
they can leave him alone and avoid any interference. But the husband
says they really should say something after all, that he wants to follow
his gut which is telling him to say something, anything. Dialogue, he
says, is better than silence. But before the wife can open her mouth to
remind the husband that this isnt his decision alone to make, their son
moves from the window, disappears down the hallway, slips silently
into his bedroom.

T heard about this man last week, this man

who, at , had run marathons. It was one of those news stories, he
says, that they save for the last minutes of the hour, the kind of news
that isnt news as much as antidote for all that precedes it. But this
man was the picture of health, the reporters said, absolutely sound in
mind and body. The husband says he hadnt paid much attention to
the story at the time and that he would have forgotten about the old
marathon runner soon enough if he hadnt seen him in the news again
so soon. As it turns out, the husband says, the man never made it to
his one-hundredth marathon. He had a heart attack while jogging
near his hometraining, so they said. The husband read of the death
in the paper where they told the story like it was still good news, as
though this man had shown everyone something by his example. But,
the husband says, couldnt we make the argument that his running
is what killed him? Couldnt I make a fairly sound case, he says, that
this man, while he may have lived a long life, didnt live long enough to
prove anything definitively? These reporters, he says, would have us
believe that this man lived longer and more fully for all his running,
that his focus on health made him a better, happier person. But we
dont know. Whos to say that all that running didnt put undue strain
on his heart? Maybe the heart has only so many beats in it, he says,
and elevating its rate is just a way of expediting our own deaths.

Tuttle: Maybe the Kids Maybe

T he plans to begin a diet. Doing their best to

appear unfazed and unalarmed by this news, the husband and the wife
ask what their son means. He isnt really sure, he says, but he wants something that will cleanse him. This is the word he uses, cleanse, and it sounds
funny, the wife will later say, coming from a boy this age. They tell him
that a focus on diet is a great idea, but that he needs to remember that
diet is a word to suggest all we eat, and that every diet should be designed
around nutritious foods and exercise. They tell him that he needs to be
careful to get sufficient calories and that he cant simply remove certain
foods from his plate, that he must eat better, smarter, more conscientiously. They hear themselves lecturing at this point and stop, but its too
late. Their tone has already ended the conversation; it has sealed their son
off from them and made further conversation impossible for the moment.
They are scared to imagine what their son means to do with this diet of
his. He doesnt go outside nearly enough, refuses to exercise in any meaningful way, and now wants to eat less. And they feel guilty about their
reaction. Perhaps we acted too soon, the husband says. Perhaps we spoke
when we should have listened, gave advice when we should have held our
tongues. The wife nods her head but says nothing in return.

T the kitchen. When they come to investigate, the husband and the wife find these girls of theirs pointing out
the window and laughing even louder than before. When they ask
what has inspired such delight, the daughters point at the fat man who
is running by again and they say they are having a great time imagining
what he does for work. One of the daughters says that the fat man is an
elephant trainer and another says hes a steamroller operator or maybe
a hot-air balloonist and another says hes an elevator man. They roar
at this and stand up to mime what it must be like to share an elevator
with this enormous man. They imagine the way he must look in his illfitting hotel uniform, his gold buttons bursting, his little hat balancing

precariously above his too-large head. By this point the fat man has
moved beyond the house and their field of vision. He cant know what
the daughters have been saying about him, but it bothers the wife all
the same. And what bothers her more, she says, is the way the girls so
casually abuse this man right in front of their parents, how entirely
comfortable they are belittling a man while their father and she are in
the room. Oh, ease up, says the husband. We would have acted this
way once. We would have done the same thing in front of our own
parents. No, says the wife, not me.

O a documentary about paragliders, these men

and women flying on parachutes. They see them and are amazed by
what they can do. They have no propulsion, no engine to help them gain
altitude, and still, even though they should be falling, they find ways to
climb and stay aloft. The narrator explains that these paragliders are
practiced at finding ridge lift, gaining altitude on air currents that are
coming up and over outcroppings of rock and soil. But the best paragliders, she says, know how to find thermals, pockets of warm air created when the sun heats the earth. She says that a good glider will use
thermals like an elevator and might ride them for hours. Doesnt it seem
strange? says the husband. Doesnt it seem like some long-forgotten
means of travel that ought to have disappeared as scientific advances
made it unnecessary? Doesnt it seem odd that in the age of airplanes
and skyscrapers and satellites people should still embrace this particular
hobby? The wife says that she cant help but wonder what it feels like to
rise up in a column of warm air, to be lighter than the forces around her,
to have a kind of negative weight that will not be pulled to the earth. Its
so strange, says the husband. Its beautiful, says the wife.

T . They have watched them as they

seem to be discovering their bodies, wearing clothing that accentuates

Tuttle: Maybe the Kids Maybe

their femininity and their burgeoning adulthood: their shoulders bare,

their stomachs too often exposed. The husband and the wife have
gathered up the fashion magazines and makeup and piles of clutter
their daughters have left everywhere. Just a couple of years ago it was
all secret clubhouse meetings and whispers between girlfriends. But
now they hear their daughters talk about parties and who will be
there and whether parents are in or out of town. Its probably time,
the husband says, to return to the topics of alcohol and drugs, boys
and sex. Its high time for these follow-up conversations, he says. We
were their friends before, and maybe their confidantes, but we need
a firmer tone now. Not advice from friends, but rules from authority figures. He feels confident, he says, that the girls havent yet done
anything they will regret, and he is sure the girls will benefit from
some parental intervention. Absolutely, the wife says. It sounds like
the right idea. But why doesnt he leave it to her? She might pull them
aside at a convenient moment. She can ask how things are at school
and with their friends. She can ask the right questions, mother to
daughter. Okay, says the husband. Fine.

T so slowly that the husband hesitates to even call

it by that name. It is running, though, he assures the wife, because
there are moments between steps when both his feet are off the
ground. Is that right? the wife says. Is that the definition of running?
Yes, says the husband. How do you know that? says the wife. How did
you come to learn that definition? The husband doesnt know why he
knows it or where he learned it, but he is certain of the distinction,
that walking requires one foot or the other to be in contact with the
ground at any given moment. Its fascinating, the wife says. I never
would have thought it through myself. Well, says the husband, there
has to be some distinction, doesnt there? I guess, says the wife. The
husband keeps his eyes on the fat man and moves his head up and
down slightly, following the movement as though counting steps. If
you think about it, he says, running is like a series of battles with

gravity. We push up and gravity pushes down, we push up and it

pushes down, over and over and over again. The husband cranes his
neck to follow the fat man up the street. He keeps bobbing his head
up and down, up and down in a perfectly rhythmic pattern.

T on the kitchen table belongs to their son.

Its open to a chapter on light and heat, and the wife sees that her son
has underlined some information about thermal convection. Look,
she says to the husband, look at this. As he reads, she says that they
should tell their son about paragliding and give him a chance to talk
about what he knows, to put his knowledge to use. She suspects, she
says, that he feels what she felt at his age, that his public education is
largely inconsequential, that too little of what he studies can ever be
necessary in real life. She says she wonders how the next years will
change their son. Who knows, says the husband.

T television lift enormous stone spheres, moving

them from one place to another. They can hardly get their enormous
arms around the things. The commentators say that each sphere weighs
close to pounds and that most people would find it impossible to
even roll one of them more than a few feet. The commentators say that
these men are practiced and cautious in their lifting techniques and
that no one should attempt this at home. Youll need a good chiropractor, they say, and they dont come cheap. The commentators laugh and
the strong men turn red in the face, breathing like women giving birth,
and the wife says she thinks the guy in the blue tank top is probably
going to win. The husband says, hey champ, and the wife turns to see
that their son has entered the room. He stands there and looks at the
television like hes deciding whether or not to join them. The husband
asks him to pull up a chair and see how amazing these strong men are,
but the son just stands there silently. When the husband stands and

Tuttle: Maybe the Kids Maybe

offers his own chair, the son says no, thanks, that he has some reading
to get to, and then hes gone.

T about trains and the host explains just how

massive a locomotive engine really is. To demonstrate he takes a coin
and places it on the tracks. After the train has passed the coin is still
there, but its paper-thin now, perfectly smooth and stretched out
asymmetrically. The host says that people shouldnt try what hes just
demonstrated because it can cause major problems, and might potentially derail a train. And besides, he says, what good is a flattened coin?
Its also illegal to deface U.S. currency, he says, which is why he used
a coin of another sort. The husband mentions to the wife that their
son collects coins, or used to anyway, and that he must have a small
fortune stashed away. Its been a few years, he says, but its not like currency loses value so quickly as that. Must be a small fortune, he says
again. Yes, the wife says, probably is.

T fat man running and wonders out loud

what will give first: his will or his body. This cant go on, he says. Hell
have to see the futility of it all before too long. He says that he imagines that the fat mans doctor told him to get some weight off, or that
he set some kind of resolution and is temporarily committed to it. But
he says he wants to tell the fat man to go back to whatever it was he
was doing before he became this carnival attraction on their street. He
wants to tell him that he is doing more harm than good. He wants to
tell him what he has heard: that too much of anything is bad for you,
even if that thing is wholesome and good and something you ought to
seek out, even if that thing is something you dont usually get enough
of. He wants to tell him that too much fiber will strain the digestive tracts, or that citric acid erodes tooth enamel, or that its possible,
however unlikely, to die by water intoxication. He wants to tell him

about the damage he is doing to his knees. He wants to tell him what
his daughters have been saying. He wants to tell him to stop it already,
to go home, to quit, to give it up. The husband turns to his wife, but
she isnt there. He calls for her, saying that she should come and see
what hes seeing. When the wife doesnt reply, the husband calls again.
The husband waits for the wife and then he turns to find the fat man.
But the fat man is gone, already vanished down the street.


I G, means son of fire. In Hawaiian, he is toward

the sea.
Fire and water. These are the sirens; the oracles. And between them,
drawn in strange orbits by their conflicting gravities, flies our son.

H . T around his neck, a plum umbilical cord
gleams. His torso slips out and puppet arms drop open. The palms
are balled into secrecy; eyes still theoretical; lips pursed; face quiet.
Body a closed circuit.
But the midwife is fast, pulling the cord over his face. Lips part,
lungs expand, eyes blink. The organs of admittance open and the
world flows in.
His body, still womb-warm, shivers at the bright air. We wrap a
blanket around him, but his arms and legs spring open again and
again, rejecting the embrace
We bring home a silent child. A child whose eyes are patient pools,
turning soft leather brown like his moms. But what flows into these
wells? What images can plumb the Abyssal trenches of his forming
memory? Our faces? Which are, after all, constantly pressed into his
vision, trying to catch his attention. No, there is something else in the
universe ever drawing his gaze. Its hovering right here in this room.
Just above our left shoulder. Always.
We try to read the blankness of our boy. Decipher the code of his
silence. Perceive a shade of communication in his beauty, or a cumulus
Honorable mention, Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest

of recognition in his breath. We never let him leave our side. Not even
in sleep. What if he just folded into his own stillness and vanished?
T sleep in my hands. Flesh of my flesh. Blood
of my blood. Soul of my soul. Son.
Standing in the front of the chapel, brothers, parents, and friends
gather round. I have come seeking triangulation: me, son, God. I want
to see my boy charted. I want to plot his course. Set him sail. So I cast
upon the great waters a strand of my soul, a filament of prayer. And
wait for a tug. For the hum of Gods mind to emerge through the
static of my breath.
The waters are galactic. They rock me as I rock my son. But no star
flares with promise. No blind fish rises with prophesy on its lips. Any
points of light at which I set my sextant, any movement in the deep I
spy, wink out: mere flecks of imagination.
I panic. Where is my sons blessing? What stars will watch him?
Which voices guide? The concentric circles dilating from the stab of
my prayer bloom to the horizon and vanish.

W son. But what does love mean when the body
craves no touch; when the eyes burn so bright that they carve right through
us; when the soul, as if still enwombed, dwells discrete from all else?
Our son is a flame. Arms quench him. Kisses steal his heat. He is a
light flickering in the wilderness, a will-o-the-wisp dancing to silence.
Who can gather him? Who can hold? Even approach?
Sometimes, just as he is waking, eyelids clamp, hands crush ears.
Exchange between head and world are severed. No wax or wane of
breath; no flow of sound or wash of light until his face turns blue.
We rub his arms and hold him to us. Just open your eyes, little
boy. Open your eyes and see who is around you: the first faces your
miracle eyes beheld. Listen to the voices, the heartbeats, the breaths
that dwelt with you from the beginning.
But a dark storm rages inside his unbearably transparent barriers,

Carter: Blue

insinuating itself into the smallest fissures, prying them open: mere
ears, mere eyes, mere skin. We can only stand outside, waiting, until
finally the pressure becomes too much. His mouth snaps open.
And fire gains a voice.
A , he swears he does not sleep. And, indeed, in the
late of night, he grasps the last web of light in the sky and spins it onto
paper. In the morning, we find beside him a pile of Deadalic labyrinths,
gothic machinery, and bold, long-legged letters galloping across the
pages. The darkness of night had somehow formed a space, had hollowed a calm in his guarding maelstroms, and his vision had lanced
out, engraving his unmistakable fingerprints upon the world. We collect these signs and wonderssquinting at the blaze of his mind
studying them, searching.
Do angels require love: the Cherubim who lay coals upon the lips
of prophets, who careen through the smoke of Gods house, who
wield flaming swords? Or, like our son, do they feast only on their
own spontaneous fire?

I out of the car, pushed him into a white jumpsuit.
Now he refuses to leave the changing room. The whole family waits
in a nearby classroom, hymnals cocked, anxious ambassadors knocking on the door every few minutes. But after eight years of living with
this seraph, I know that the efforts of mere mortals will do nothing
to part his wings.
The waters of blessing dwell in a font on the other side of the
changing room wall; the fire of spirit in my hands and bones. But I
wonder if I will findas I did when first I tried to bless himthat
my son and I dont share the same boat, or even the same ocean. That
his constellations are not mine.
Inching into the University of Alaska swimming pool has never worked.
We must undergo an icy baptism by immersion. But, oddly enough, my

son wills it: fitting scuba mask, hiking up shorts, installing snorkel. Suddenly amphibious, we dive.
I track his position by the jut of the snorkel as it bobs through the water.
It draws him: the silence beneath the surface. There, fewer voices assail
him. The mask closes his nose. The frigid water, as it buoys, also numbs.
Each adds a mite of freedom, relieves, layer by layer, the chaos of body and
world. He can finally stretch into a slower time, a softer physics, a weightless balance.
How many times have we gone through this? How many times have I
warned him? While wending his paths, he drifts again toward the deep
endthe area I have forbidden. Hes never understood my reasoning, why
the depths should be frightening. Water is his skin. How does skin fail?
He ventures farther and farther, pressing into deeper blue. This flame
that loves the water: eternities could be passing below his feet, but they
would be supports, not weights.
Taking a deep breath, I swim out after him.
Another rap on the door. I open it. The ambassador wears a suit
and a heavy golden watch.
Start without us, I say.
He purses his lips. Its my sons baptism; surely he should be there.
But I shake my head. Were not coming.
I close the door, and something shifts. This cold, tiled room is the
only place in the universe. The world is locked outside. I sit next to my
son, and we are quiet.
I tap him on the back and his head pops up. He peers at me through his
mask, queries through his snorkel. I should be angry. But Im not.
Hold onto my pockets, OK? Well go together.
I fit goggles to my face and lean into the water, feeling my sons tug. The
floor falls away, and we swim into blue.
My little fire contemplates the font. He dips a toe. Then feet. Legs.
The delicious attraction of opposites. Their joyful synthesis. Without

Carter: Blue

flame, the waters would freeze. Without water, the fire would consume itself.
I follow him in. Weve practiced this many times. He knows the
hold; he knows to bend his knees.
We stand, waiting for the curtain to open.


Toth was his name, Laszlo Toth: the death man

who one midmorning charged Saint Peters sanctum
lunged with frenzied hammer at the polished Madonna
frothing at the mouth
shouting he wanted Him as his own
cracking with mallet swing the curves of submission
breaking her soft hold on the dead Son.
The camera crowd gaped then contracted
wrestled him to the stone floor sentenced him
deported him declared him deranged.
Have pity on him.
Hard it is, to insanity hard, to behold a sons graceful bow
in the hold of another (doctor, technician, nurse, mortician)
to glimpse quite by mistake through the sanctum doorway
as another cradles the warm form wilting, folding under deaths weight
as the gurney sheets must be removed from this side
and the tubes extracted from that side
and the limbs placed neatly at his sides
and machines are rolled away into shadows
as the muscles melt
twisting the stone sturdy man in the
ultimate capitulation:
deference to death.

Dalton-Bradford: Poems

Hard it is, to derangement hard,

to not swing a mallet or hammer, to not fling oneself
onto the stone floor,
to not break into sharp marbled shards.
Have pity on me.

House for Rent:

(Response to MacDonalds living house allegory,
as quoted by Lewis in Mere Christianity)
Imagine, they suggest.
Imagine yourself as a living house
and God comes in (here comes the allegory)
God comes in to rebuild that house
and to rebuild, He destroys you.
Splits you wide open.
Knocks you down to shape you up.
Blows you away to bring you forth
as mansion,
His dwelling.
Imagine: a structure well beyond any apt literary construct.
Imagine the literal natal invasion,
factual inhabitation, indwelling,
the magnifying internment;
this alive thing with its lush, essential interior,
nautilus of distended tension,
gourd-like terrarium, loamy abode,
an incubation for cumulus nimbus,
spirit under the ribs
or cosmos
in the veiled universe of the belly.
What, kindest sirs, might you imagine about a living house
but what woman need never imagine?
Tell: can you conceive of it?

Dalton-Bradford: Poems

I am the aquarium,
have known (four times) the thrumming oceanic drag,
fulsome tidepool slosh in pelvis
sweetest ferocious confined Leviathan
stomping inner tympani
boom-boom-blooming to omega,
Four times nine moons
(a moon myself, pneumatic) holding that glowing orb
or the finest delicacy:
shrimp-on-wafer hors doeuvre in salty brine burrowing
into our shared cell.
Most intimate inmate.
I am the accommodation, the occupied real estate
(most real of all states)
a fleshly floorplan, walls torn down for the guest wing thrown up,
placental planting, deluxe plumbing,
organic annexing for the increase.
I am that natural habitat for humanity,
an address for razing and raising,
strung taut with that sturdy umbilical pull until (and after)
Now, thats some moving day:
nude little lord, prodigious squatter, long since incorporated, moves out
trailing furnishings, clutching soul (whose? my own?)
in bloody wash, the old self eviscerated, inverted,
and that humanangel image past imagining
multiplying upon itself forever
ever . . .

To be such a sanctuary of conception,

to be asylum for small gods and sovereigns, who swell, crown,
rise to rule and risk life!
At such risk. At such risk as one can never . . .
Can one imagine those same living quarters drawn and quartered
when son-brother-cell mate
(the one who moved within
then out of
you, your heart still raw in his hold)
when that oblation grown lustrous, thunderous, launch-ready,
is ripped (with
Hard, benevolent wounding
whose frayed fibers hang,
sodden shreds post-rupture
and you, true house, are rent
cloven enclave
rent in two, or into
two billion splinters:
tattered scraps of loves sabotage.
Imagine yourself as this living house, haunted
in its boney scaffolds where memory whistles its blue wind
and you are apart-ment
living house split leveled:
he there,
you here,
fetal-curled in your own basin;
or a bunker: hunkered in poetry;
or a ranch: speck on the shadowless prairie, barren and boundless;
or a lean-to: whole halved to make a whole, now wholly halved.
Imagine now.

Dalton-Bradford: Poems

Now God moves in

though there is no palace for Him here
only rubble round the crater,
wreckage ringing the hollow.
But He, soft-handed, (the hands, gored)
comes inside (the side, gashed)
to silently
recreate from laceration Lazarus
and is at home.

Bottled Fruit
For Donna Charlene Glazier Dalton
(and T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes)
There are museums alive under my mothers house, quiet
life-giving mausoleums, loden and loaded with their chilled secrets,
cement-walled vaults with jugs of holy jewels,
amber pendants round as halos lining the walls.
Crystal caskets crowded with dense-fleshed
soldiers, salute!
Cheek-to-topaz-cheek they nearly breathe
in their neat ranks, awaiting orders.
No withered raisins in the sun here,
no, but muscled suns afire in blackness: promising,
pulsing practically,
still half alive,
still life.
Let us go then, you and I, to visit those cellars
of all my mothers and their mothers and mothers,
who considered shelf life over self life, who
frankly shelved their life to bear and bind themselves with
that fleshy, sinewy fruit of the womb.
Let us see them at the kitchen sink which heaves with sultry harvest,
let us watch them ply their mothers genes, cradling fruit
like a bronze planet in each palm, slicing its dense flesh at equator,
making two hemispheres with silk-slick skin
taut against engorged roundness.
Plump little breasts.
These, they slip two-and-two down the throats of jars
until they cannot fit a single other,
and baptize them en masse:
a ladle of sweet, pectiny waters.

Dalton-Bradford: Poems

In such rooms the women come and go, talking of Mason jars, Ball
and Kerr.
And none dares eat a peach. But to satisfy her hunger, postpones it,
puts up for the eventual quelling of a someday craving,
saves, replants the pit, stocks this immediate abundance,
preserving it, holding on to life.
Man, with his wristwatch, might claim there will be time,
there will be time, indeed there will be time
for all the works and days of hands,
time to know and gather enough
the tender seasonal berries of our fragile human yield.
But the mothers are unconvinced.
They weep and fast and weep and pray
against the measured minutes left together
while all the late afternoon long they hear the voices dying
and the music from a farther room.
Gone too soon from their slippery hold, these dazzling passion fruits
with their ever pungent plushness and immediate delice,
these pears with their translucent skin the color of liquid bone
and veins of laced filigree.
Firmest fruit like buffed and bottled riverstones:
these are their proving rocks
touchstone testaments of existence,
their innermost fruits
which fill deepest chambers against the time
when they might nourishor might outlive
the mothers.

From Deseret to Dystopia:

An Interview with Ally Condie

A C former high school English teacher who lives in

Orem, Utah, with her husband and three sons. She published five
young adult novels with Deseret Book before turning to dystopian YA
fiction for the mainstream market. Her newest novel, Matched, is the
first in a planned trilogy. After a heated auction between several publishing houses, Penguin/Dutton snapped up the trilogy, and movie
rights were obtained by Disney soon thereafter.
Matched, published on November , , imagines a highly regimented future society where freedom of choice is exchanged for health
and safety. In starred reviews, Publishers Weekly calls the novel gripping
and satisfying with a twisty dystopian plot well served by [Condies]
intriguing characters and fine writing, and Kirkus Reviews says the
book is a fierce, unforgettable page-turner.
The following interview with Ally Condie was conducted via e-mail
in October :

H: You started your career writing realistic contemporary YA

fiction for the Mormon market, publishing five books with Deseret Book.
What initially drew you to writing for LDS teens?
C: I sort of blundered into writing for LDS teens. My first novel,
Yearbook, was one with a theme that I felt worked for either a national
market or an LDS audience, so I sent it to everyonenational agents,
Deseret Book, Covenant. Everyone soundly rejected it (as they should
havethe book was not ready for prime time) with the exception of
Deseret Book. Lisa Mangum, the acquisitions editor at the time, also

Hallstrom: Interview with Ally Condie

rejected mebut invited me to make some changes and resubmit. I

was thrilled. Someone thought I could do this! I made the changes
and she asked me to revise and resubmit again. Eventually, Deseret
Book did accept the novel and publish it. After that, I kept writing for
LDS teens because I found I enjoyed it very much. I loved being able to
write about LDS topics and subjects without apology or explanation.
H: Your newest novel, Matched, is a dystopian YA novel for
a mainstream audience and the first book in a trilogy. What made you
decide to shift gears as far as genre and audience were concerned?
C: I didnt really decide to shift gears consciously. I was happy
writing for Deseret Book and might have done it foreverbut then I
had the idea for Matched. I always have to write the book that I find
the most exciting, and at the time, Matched was it.
H: The story of Matcheds path to publication is pretty amazing. Can you let our readers know how you went from an idea and no
agent in to a bidding war in and a Disney movie deal in ?
How has this whirlwind of change and opportunity affected you?
C: When I had the idea for Matched, I knew automatically that
it wasnt going to be a good fit for Deseret Book. They dont publish much dystopian fiction! I talked about it with my product director at Deseret Book and he agreed. That meant I was free to shop
it elsewhere, which was scary and exciting. I had no connections in
the industry and no agent. So, I went online to and
did some homework. I researched agents who I thought would be a
good fit, and then I queried them. I had many rejections, but I also
ended up with several offers of representation, one of which was from
Jodi Reamer. Jodi is an incredible agent as well as a fantastic person.
After Jodi offered representation, things went very quickly. She sent
the book out, and we ended up going with Penguin/Dutton as the
publisher ( Julie Strauss-Gabel is the editor). Thanks to Jodi and
Julies expertise and vision for Matched, and all the wonderful things
Penguin has done to back the book, the movie option rights and also
foreign rights (twenty-six countries so far) have sold as well. It has

been a whirlwind, and I think the way it has affected me the most is
that I live in this constant state of surprise. Surprise that this happened to me, surprise at all the things that keep happening. It is really
gratifying to think that people are going to be able to read this book,
when two years ago it was still just an idea and a draft on the page. I
have been writing daily since , and though I took it seriously and
worked hard, I never really thought this kind of thing would happen
to me.
H: The best dystopian novels (and I count Matched among
them) are able to create worlds that are both jarringly different from and
eerily similar to our own. How did the idea for Matched take root in your
imagination? What aspects of todays society informed your portrayal of
the controlled, authoritarian Society depicted in Matched?
C: The idea for Matched came from several different experiences: specific ones, like a conversation with my husband and chaperoning a high school prom, and general ones, like falling in love and
becoming a parent. When I wrote about the Society, it was not as
much a response to todays society as to my own personal wonderings
about choice and government. I thought about how much choice I
would be willing to give up to have a healthy, happy life with no illness,
no old-age issues, no wondering if I would be alone at the end of my
life. And the answer washaving watched loved ones experiencing
debilitating illness, etc.that I would give up a lot for that security.
H: Im interested in the question of how God is involved (or
not involved) in fiction that imagines the future of the human race. There
are books like Stephen Kings post-apocalyptic novel, The Stand, where
the influence of a Supreme Being permeates the entire story; then you have
dystopian novels like The Hunger Games trilogy, where God is completely
absent from both the plot and the characters psyches. Where does God
fit into The Society in Matched? Does his role (or characters questions
about his role) evolve as the story progresses from book one to book three?
C: God and religion have no place in the Society in Matched.
However, one of the illicit poems Cassia discovers is Tennysons

Hallstrom: Interview with Ally Condie

Crossing the Bar, which has very strong religious influences. And yes,
the role of God and characters questions about him will evolve in
future books. There will be no mass conversion or anything like that,
but this whole story is about wonder, and Cassia is going to begin to
wonder about greater, larger things in addition to the questions she
has in the first book.
H: Speaking of religion: how does your own Mormonness
show up in the themes and details of this novel? Do you feel that your
LDS background influenced the way you developed agency as a theme?
C: I think my Mormonness shows up the most in the basic
theme of the bookit is a bit of an ode to free agency. I was raised by
an atheist and an agnostic and joined the church when I was eleven,
and I feel that all of those parts of my background influenced the way
I developed that theme of agency. Most of my family may not believe
in God, but they do believe in living productive lives and taking care
of the earth and being kind. I think most of us in this world have that
juxtaposition of the desire for freedom with the sense of accountabilityif not to God, then to ourselves, our families, our world.
H: Theres a lot of poetry in Matched, from your own poetic
writing style to Cassias passionate attachment to the words of Dylan
Thomas. What role has poetry played in your development as a writer?
As a former English teacher, is there a part of you that hopes this novel will
get at least a few teenagers more interested in reading poetry?
C: I love poetry and I read quite a bit of itbut I am by no
means an expert. I just read things I like and Im definitely not a scholar.
I didnt set out planning to have poems in the book, but then, when
I wanted Cassia to have some piece of forbidden writing that wasnt
allowed by the Society, I thought immediately of Dylan Thomas. Do
Not Go Gentle is a poem that instantly grabs you, that everyone can
respond to in some way. It would be a great side benefit if this novel got
a few teenagers to read poetryand to write it! When I was teaching
English, I was always blown away by my students poems. Especially
since I am terrible at writing poetry myself.

H: Did you know from the beginning that Matched would be

the first book in a trilogy? Did you have the basics of the three-book plot
mapped out before you began? How does your writing process differ while
writing a trilogy as compared to your process writing stand-alone novels?
C: I actually thought Matched was a stand-alone (and it had
the same ending then as it does now). I felt that the evolution of the
main character, Cassia, was satisfying (to me, at least). However, the
other characters had unexplored territory, so I had plenty of ideas for a
sequel. And then, as I wrote the sequel, I realized I needed a third and
final book to accomplish what I hoped to accomplish. You can probably tell by this that I did not have the basics of the three-book plot
mapped out before I began! I am a very ineffective outlinereverything always changes!and so I really just have to sit down and write
the books to know what will happen. As far as how the writing process
differsmost of the books Ive written have been part of a series (the
Yearbook trilogy), so that was nice to have that experience. Iknew that
I could still write with freedom and excitement about what might happen nextbut I also knew Id have to tie things together more globally
at the end of a series than at the end of a single book.
H: Although youll be busy with the trilogy for the next few
years, do you have any plans to write novels with explicitly Mormon characters or settings in the future? Under what circumstances do you think
the mainstream YA market would be open to such characters and settings?
C: I dont have any plans to write any books with explicitly
Mormon characters or settings in the future. That said, Im not really
thinking much beyond the trilogy at all! I have a contemporary YA idea
that Ive had for a dozen years that Id like to explore. I dont know if
the characters would be Mormon or not. But I would never rule that
out. Im not sure what circumstances would have to take place for such
characters and settings to be accepted in the mainstream market. There
does seem to be a place in the mainstream market for quirky Mormon
booksbooks that deal with polygamy or the eccentricities of Mormon culture. The characters seem to be defined by their Mormonism

Hallstrom: Interview with Ally Condie

or their reaction to Mormonism. I hope that the day is coming in mainstream fiction where the characters can be Mormon and have that be an
essential part of their storybut not the story in and of itself.
H: Like many LDS writers, you juggle many responsibilities:
marriage and parenthood, work and church. How do you create the time
and space necessary to be creative and productive as a writer while nourishing the relationships that are important to you?
C: Its very hard, but I find that every woman I know is also conducting a balancing act. And so, for that matter, are the men. Everyone
is busy. For me, Ive found that I am a terrible multitasker. I cant write
while the kids are awake (I have three small children). So I write after
they have gone to bed, or during naptime. Im very disciplined about
doing this, but I also am considered to be a slow writer in the YA
genre. I average one book a year. I also have to admit that my house is
never clean and my children have no photo albums.
H: Photo albums are overrated anywayyou can store all the
pictures on your hard drive! All kidding aside, Ally, I thoroughly enjoyed
Matched. Its a beautifully written, exciting novel, and Im looking forward
with great anticipation to its sequels. Congratulations on all your success!

Facts About Angels


. A
Frank walked around the chapel comforting his family, aware yet
unaware that they were mourning him, that he was no longer with
them. He told old jokes to old friends and reached out to wipe his
beloveds tears, his hand passing through her cheek just as his punch
lines had passed through the air unheeded, unheard, unpresent.
Like most of the newly dead, Frank saw only those he was leaving;
his eyes slid off Manuels glory just as they had when inhibited by
mortality. Frank was asking a niece about her new baby when a sudden violent sneeze, born of nothing more than a remembered lifetime
of allergies, flashed him to the home he and his wife had shared for
thirty-four years. Another vestigial sneeze flung him to the baseball
field where Frank had coached six of his seven sons to league championships. Manuel bent the earth, took a step, and joined him there.
Frank stared at the sky, rapt, seeing for the first time the full spectrum of sunlight. Its beautiful.
Manuel reached out and turned the beams. It is.

. A .
The streets in this city are as dirty and diseased as the streets of
Constantinople had been when Servius hid in their shadows as a
starving child. One of the last members of a forgotten branch of
the original cult of Christianity, he grew up fighting rats for scraps

Honorable mention, Irreantum Fiction Contest

and hiding from the men in their long red robes who made children
And so, here, now, again, Servius patrols the streets, no longer afraid,
whispering peace through the veil to the lone and starving children,
blowing away the biting insects in the summer and buttressing the
leeward sides of buildings during the rainy season. He waves his hand
and a bruised and underripe mango falls from a merchants stand and
rolls into the shadows to a ragged young girl. He smiles as she sinks
her tiny teeth into its flesh, enjoying life as only those with very little
can. And when she dies, innocent and pure, he will be there to greet
her and receive her smile, for she, and each of them, will recognize his
face, his voice, his love. He is the only one they trust to take them home.

. T
Will and Parley had grown up Texan, just one small town apart from
each other, and had met once on the high school gridiron when Will
sacked Parley for a loss of six yards. They had entered basic training
three weeks apart and died in the same war, the same hour, two dozen
miles apart. Since then, both their sisters had married the same cheating, good-for-nothing bigamist who kept them in separate cities. He
was the father of their nine children. When those wives finally met
in a long check-out line at the local Walmart, they found it hilarious
that their oldest four were both coincidentally named Carrie, Charles,
. The taken children did not share a single fate. Some became household
slaves, living lives that seemed to them luxurious. Some were sold to brothels
or to ships and learned the world was worse than even their miserable experiences had suggested.
. And fourteen bastard children in three additional states: Oklahoma,
New Mexico, and Colorado.
. At this time it was still spelled Wal-Mart and had only recently begun
its march out of Arkansas. So recently that the small businesses in their
respective towns were still in business.

Jepson: Facts About Angels

Benny and Ted. They exchanged numbers, thinking it would be amusing to get their families together, and soon began to talk on the phone,
cracking jokes about their salesman husbands and visiting each others
homes once or twice a month. Six months later, at the county fair, the
two women stood together by the rabbit cage, doling out dimes to their
children. Thats when he showed up, happily calling one by name, and
then, seeing the other, running away.
Will and Parley watched and wished they had been ordained to the
priesthood of justice.
Their sisters did not speak to one another for three years, but who
else could understand what they had been through? And so, at last,
the one picked up her telephone, and the other cried to hear her voice.
Twenty-five years laterhaving shared a tornado, a religious conversion, and hundreds of glasses of lemonadethey sat in the temple
twice each week, holding hands. And here their brothers could help.
Corralling redeemed souls to witness their work being done, helping
veil workers with pronunciationthat sort of thing. And while these
actions sometimes seemed trivial, Will and Parley had learned, as angels,
from their sisters, to look forward, believe, serve, hope, do.

. T
Late. Always late. Because, he said, she can never decide which dress
to wear. Or rather, she counterclaimed, because he cant drive a decent
speed whenever it sprinkles.
Then a figure, all in white, appeared out of the rain, standing calmly
in the middle of the road. Larry yanked the wheel to the left, Marilyns
sudden scream interrupted by their sedans impact into an old oak.
. This was the birth order of Wills sisters children. Parleys sisters were
ordered Charles, Bennie, Ted and Carrie. She also had given birth to the
ninth child, Betty, short for Elizabeth.
. It wasnt sprinkling. Theyd received two inches in the last ninety minutes and would get that much again in the next thirty.

After the car bounced off a second tree and spun back onto the
road, blocking both lanes, the wheels unable to turn, they sat silently
for a moment, the radio dead, their headlights shining onto the enemy
trees, airbags relaxed on their laps. Their injuries were neither slight
nor serious, and as soon as they called , their complaints returned
and broadened.
Two hours passed and cars piled up behind them, but neither ambulance nor tow truck arrived. The other drivers exited their vehicles and
walked past Larry and Marilyn and their mangled car to stand a few
feet past Larrys door, the rain pelting their half-invisible forms as they
stared into the darkness.
Angry they missed dinner, angry he wouldnt get to meet his bosss
new father-in-lawangry to be stuck with no one but his wifeLarry
forced his door open and stumbled into the void to join the other drivers, to see what they saw.
He caught himself at the edge, next to a young man in a worn
leather coat. At their feet lay a sudden, new ravine, filled with rushing waters. Born of the rainstorm, it cut across the highway, inviting
passersby to fall in and be swept away. Larry frowned and looked at
his neighbors, water pouring off their noses. Which of them, he wondered, was worth the life of his Lexus?

. A .
Dorrie was no fool. She knew what all the new toys being sent to her
room meant: Mommy was dying. The more people told her everything
was fine, the more time she spent under her bed crying and fitfully
. Complaints about (among other things) not replacing the Lincoln with
a Mercedes like she wanted, replacing the Lincoln with the Lexus as he had
wanted, taking the old two-lane highway instead of paying the toll, their
daughters college tuition, the tree theyd hit, trees in general, not buying special tires for the rain, the color of their new kitchen set, why their GE stock
had dropped an eighth of a point that day, and whether or not anyone was
actually standing in the road.

Jepson: Facts About Angels

sleepingleaving her awake for long hours at night in the darkness,

listening to Mommys raspy breath. And so it was that Dorrie was
awake and alone with scrapings of air when the sound faded and she
saw a light under her door. She crawled out from under her bed and
crept down the hallway, pushed open the door to Mommys sickroom
and entered.
Hello, Dorothy.
Hi, Gramma.
Gramma was holding Mommys head in her lap and stroking her
Is she dead?
No, honey. Shes alive.
Dorrie bit her lip, gnawing the same raw spot she always did.Whens
she going to die?
Not today. Not for a long time.
Dont lie.
Gramma smiled but it felt sad. Im not. Shes going to get better.
No, shes not.
Gramma looked at Dorrie and shook her head. No, honey. The
doctors are wrong. Someday, when youre a mommy, your mommy
will still be here with you.
Dorrie looked at Mommys face and gnawed. If Gramma said it . . . .
Thats a good girl. Why dont you get back to bed.
And Dorothy?
Dorrie turned back.
Get under the covers tonight, okay?
Okay, Gramma.
. Dorries reasoning here is accurate. Gramma (Elizabeth Virtue Helm
Campbell) had always been careful to be truthful and accurate; these traits
have remained with her and shall remain with her. To paraphrase the prophet,
this is what the word restoration meaneth.

Back in the hallway, she bumped into her father, who was carrying
the platter of pills, his eyes half closed.
Oh! Dorrie. What are you doing up?
Well, go back to bed.
But she didnt move and her father stood there watching her.
What is it?
Mommys going to get better.
He turned his face away from her. Oh, Dorrie
No! Its true! Gramma told me!
He paused. What?
Gramma told me. She held Mommys head and told me she would
get all better and help me when Im a mommy someday.
Her father stood silent, still, until he dropped the drugs, fell to his
knees, and held his daughter and wept.
I believe you, I believe you.
She patted his back and kissed the top of his head. I dont lie.

. A
Halua has been at sea for centuries. He spends most of his time in
meditation, surrounded by waters emptied of shipsat minimum a
weeks sail from any land. The oceangoing mortals Halua meets are
generally souls like his, happier alone, and thus more willing to accept
his specific help. And while he is often assigned urgent and righteous
tasks on land, he loves it best when he is sent back to the sea, to watch
and to wait, for the next lonely soul headed his way, over the wandering gray rolls of the mindful sea.
. This was, of course, a lie. She was five years old at the time.
. Though he had never been there when alive, his absolute favorite point
has become two and one-half leagues south-southeast of the Pacifics socalled pole of inaccessibility (.'S .'W).

Jepson: Facts About Angels

. A
At age sixteen Jeffrey Snider rebelled against the teachings of his parents, smoking two cigarettes, taking one sip of beer and (the habit that
stuck) masturbating.
The angel watching over him was named, of all things, Salma.
She was charged with helping him survive his bad driving and general
teenage stupidity so he could accomplish a great and important work
in his mid-twenties. No longer embodied herself, having died over fifteen centuries before, Salma saw only the symbolism of Jeffreys habit
and not its hormonal impetus.
One Saturday night, as Jeffrey indulged his habit in the shower,
Salma reached out and touched his mind with her hand, and he
slowed and stopped and rinsed and stepped out of the shower. But his
adolescent body, still powered by urgency and angst, reacted against
the terry cloth as he dried himself. As Jerry considered the mess he
had made, he thought of worlds without number, seed greater than
the sands of the sea.

. T
The young mother was tired and worn and sometimes lost sight of
her love for her children, but Jane knew her heart. The young mother
sacrificed her sleep and her meals and her beauty, and her children
looked as if they had stolen these things directly from her. Their black
eyes shone and their smiles were wide and their blond hair seemed an
explosion of happiness, and they laughed and chased, breaking the
few nice things left, as their mother watched them and wondered why
she had ever had them.

. I say of all things because images of Salma Hayek in a sex scene Jeffrey had found online featured regularly and prominently in his fantasies.

And as she sits in a neighbors abandoned armchair, her fingers not

quite reaching the ground, her hair collapsed into wet streaks down
her face, and her body unable to imagine ever standing againthen
Jane will rest her ethereal hands upon this young mother, will rest her
ethereal check upon her sweaty crown, will whisper that this too shall
pass and be remembered with joy. And the mother will know it to be so.

. A
Timmy felt young at the door of this house. Anyone could tell its
paint was older than he was. But he knocked and finally there were
footsteps and the door opened. In the crack appeared first a shadow,
then a pocked nose, then that noses face, and the face said, Ugck? or
something much like that.
SirBrother Roberts?Im here to, for, to collectto get your
fast offering?
For the Church? For poor people?
Yes, sir.
Brother Robertss face did not change, but it moved back into shadow
and the door began to close, but did not finish. The face appeared again
and scowled at Timmy but the door failed to shut again. Brother Roberts looked through the four-inch gap from his side and Timmy looked
through it from his side. Brother Roberts slammed the door and it
caught againfour inches from the jambthe width of a foot. The old
man looked at Timmy, and Timmy swallowed and squared his shoulders, proud he had not cried.
Fer . . . thpr?
Yes, sir.
Brother Roberts gave a hundred dollars that month. And twenty
every month for the next six years, until his heart gave instead. And at
. /!" x/, to be precise.

Jepson: Facts About Angels

Brother Robertss funeral, newly ordained elder Timothy Jones stood

at the podium in the chapel of the Carlsburg First Ward and spoke of
the Miracle of the Stuck Doorand of the joy he and Brother Roberts had shared only last month as they received their endowments
together, sharing a hug in a beautiful room, a young man and an old,
in the presence of their God. And their angel.

. A .
The night was filled with tracer bullets and PFC Regan could feel
impacts behind the mud wall he leaned against. Somehow alone on
this desert night, he held his breath and considered the possibility
that this could be the night he died.
A moment of silence, then the bullets redirected to the west. He
froze, then a blast of adrenaline hit him like a linebacker, lifted him to
his feet and threw him across the open space towards the hill forty feet
away. He was just over the rise when the bullets returned, flying first
feet, then yards, then far above his head as he rushed down the hill
and back toward safety, exhausted, laughing, amazed, grateful,alive.

. A
Lightning arced from the ground three hundred feet into the sky,
through Osvers feet and out his eyes and hair and fingers into the
clouds, filling them with white and blue fire. While the rain may fall
. b. in Lakewood, Cuyahoga, Ohio, United States.
. The angel Fahmi who executed this task was careful not to injure him.
He had dislocated the shoulder of a local man earlier that day while saving
him from, in fact, PFC Regan, whose job it had been to kill him. During
this period Fahmi would sometimes save dozens of soldiers a day. And he
watched many more than that die. He had once been a soldier himself, but
now he understands something new about warsomething that can only be
articulated with the language of God.

upon the just and unjust alike, sometimes one watershed receives more
than another, and sometimes the faith of one family will be rewarded.
Grasping the bolts passing through his palms, Osver commanded
the attached cloud and pulled it to him, praising God and his mercy as
the cloud fed the dirt, responding to one worthy familys simple hope.

. A .
The man pushed back into his chair, its high, faux-leather arms preventing him from rolling off the chair and running awayall he could
do was push into the patched leather.
Whowho are you?
My name is Nathaniel.
What are you doing here?
Ive a message for you.
Me? ButbutI. How. Canshall weshall we shake hands?
I cannot.
Oh. Oh. Okay. He relaxed and looked at the angel. His features
were without color or form, yet he felt he recognized him. How is
ithow is it you are so bright? Yet youre not, I dont know, white.
Youre not seeing me with your mortal eyes. The veil has been
parted. I am white only in the sense / that I am all colors. / But few of
these colors / have you seen before.
. God is great, but God is mysterious. This family had been praying in
faith for sufficient rain for six years and every year their crops perished from
want. This year they would battle a rain-borne fungal infection and finally
be forced to sell their farmthe last family-owned farm in the countyto
Monsanto. But those final prayer-borne rains made that separation less painful. Free of the stress of trying to inherit the land, the familys oldest son will
get a PhD in agricultural science and take a position in an African university
helping to develop drought-resistant variants of cassava and sorghum. His
work will ultimately save upwards of , lives a year.
. This is not a mistake. The arms were upholstered in a fake red leather and
the body in an Italian black leather. The effect was about what you might expect.

Jepson: Facts About Angels

The angel paused long enough for him to recognize the lines.
Midi-chlorians for Angels.
The Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh
unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.
The man visibly relaxed. Having an angel quote his own poetry was
calming. As was hearing a familiar scripture, one he wished to use as
an epigraph someday. What is your message?
You are to prepare yourself. God has need of your voice.
My voice?
You are unwilling to recognize the greatness God has placed in you.
I am?
You are willfully unskilled. God has given you the full measure of
five talents. What will you do with them?
Much is given . . . ?
And much will be required. Prepare.
And then he was alone.
He took his notebook from the floor, tore out the twelve-page palindrome that almost made sense, and wondered at the newly baptized
whiteness of the remaining pages before him.

. A .
The toddler screamed and cried and would not be comforted, his
spirit too freshly naked to be free of the pain that broke his body.
Edna held him, wept with him. She rocked his struggling spirit as,
together, they watched his parents sitting on the curb, pressed against
each other, their childs bloodied Dodgers cap grasped by both, their
fingers touching. The child held out his arms and cried, and Edna
walked nearer that she might see their faces.

. It may be worth mentioning that at this point in his career, all his titles
were similarly awful.
. Nephi :

Then all four turned away as his small, covered shell was lifted into
an ambulance and taken away.

. A .
The dead flung themselves about the subway tunnel, their shrieks
inaudible to the corpse-sniffing dogs or their handlers or the men
carrying gurney after gurney through the rubble. But to the unseen
rescuers and comforters waiting to collect these souls, the screams
caused a pain untempered by time or space, as personal as if it were
their own. But they are patient, and so they stand and wait, ethereal
arms open, understanding what it is to die suddenly and without
warningempathetic with both the suffering and their Savior.

. T .
Mary wept.
Six weeks later and she could still feel his hands on heron her
breast, at her throat. She could still feel the tree pressed into her back
when his kisses had turned angry and dangerous. And now she had
missed her period and sat in her parents bathroom at the back of the
house, holding three bottles: her mothers antidepressants, her fathers
sleeping pills, and the ancient childs pain pills she had received when
recovering from emergency surgery after her bike accident in the second grade. There were more to choose from, but these seemed the

. The death of a child is not initially easier for the child than its parents.
Even in paradiseblessed with caretakers who always know the best thing
to say (even when that thing is nothing)even then, they miss their mothers and their fathers, and they long to see them again. Children feel intensely,
whether alive or dead, and they love completely. And even when comfort
comes, they do not forget.
. The notion that dogs can sense the spirits of the dead is simply incorrect.
Dogs can, however, sense the resurrected when the humidity is high enough.

Jepson: Facts About Angels

friendliestthe most symmetrical. The right number and she could

lose the baby. Too many and
What Mary didnt see was the darkness encircling her. The voices
whispering to her mind how much better it would be to take just
one more than was strictly necessary. Too few, after all, and her problems would grow only more intense with everyone watching her and
knowing. Too many? What is too many? Too many and her problems
would be over. Simply over. And she would be at peace, peace, peace.
All this would be forgotten. Nothing would matter anymore. Nothing.
She would be nothing. And no one would remember. No one.
Mary asked herself which was worse: her parents finding her dead,
or pregnant. And she leaned over her knees and wept, dark tear-lines
slipping down her jeans. The bottles in her hands shook as sobs
wracked her body, their plastic wind chime friendliness asking her
what was wrong, what was wrong, no need for anything to be wrong.
He hadnt loved her. How could he? How could anyone. No one
would, not now, not ever. And the darkness tightened upon her, whispering. Its voices so reasonable. So certain. So . . . correct.
Oh, God, she said, there being no one else, oh please oh God oh
And though she could not see it, a light entered the room. And a
sword. A swath through the room. The darkness dissolved, crying in
anger and fear and frustration, and with the light came a warmth like
hands, a holy touch, removing the residues from her breast, her throat,
and Mary wept, this time in peace, as she dropped the pills to the floor,
their voices lost in the shag bathmat upon the floor.

. A .
Marla had spent the past thirty years growing her garden and so she
was less surprised than gratified when she felt her heart tighten and
her arms weaken, and she fell into her black mud, its rich color the
result of decades of work. She smiled as she died.
. Or, in worm hours, millennia.

Youve a beautiful garden.

Thank you.
Ive often rested here.
You have!
Yes. He spread his arms, taking in all now growing and the essence
of those that had grown before, to the first iceberg rose in the northeast corner, gone now these ten years. Ive never missed the blooming
of your hydrangea. Thank you.
And he took her to the arms of her Father and her Mother, who
are gardeners too.

. A .
As the family knelt and prayed upon their worn wooden floor, asking to know if it were true, for a moment they thought they heard
heavenly hosts singing of glory and praising their God.
When the prayer was over and they returned to the couch, nothing
needed to be said. They knew. They all knew. They sat silently, looked
into each others faces, into each others matching eyes, and knew.

. This should not be interpreted to mean this family (two adults, two
teenagers) was compelled to be humble. In fact, they took a perverse pride
in their homes crummy original floor. And how their six thousand-dollar
couch scraped that floor when they dragged it through the front door.

The Blue Jacket


That day the vein burst

in your head
you wore blue,
periwinkle crisp
as snow
glazed by wind,
while damp sheets tossed in the dryer,
children quarreled in the car,
You, glittering in blue,
reached out a slim hand
that had the day before
shaped loaves, applied lipstick,
reached for the right piano key
but now grasped the honor,
the applause, the coming together
of dreams kneaded into bread,
the everyday warmth of all that is real
and sharp
as your jewelry
handed to me in an envelope,
the suit wadded in a plastic bag.
You asked as life slipped out of you
whether they cut the jacket off,
whether Id seen the
the way it caught the light
as you burst through the door.

Propaganda, Art, and the Desire to Testify


I .
I want to tell the world, This is what I know, and I want that
knowledge to mean something. No matter how cynical and proud I
sometimes get, I continue to believe in the simple power that comes
when pure seekers of truth publicly declare what they know to be true.
This is one reason I writeto proclaim what I know, to give witness to what Ive seen.
But Ive found that creating works of art that testify isnt easy. In
fact, its hardridiculously hardbecause critical thinkers and aspiring artists will marry their desire to testify to a host of difficult questions. These are questions like What do I really know? and How do
I know it? and they include How should my testimony appear in my
writing? and, perhaps most importantly, What are the most artistic
and most authentic ways for me to profess truth?
These are weighty questions, and when we answer them correctly,
our testimonies (and our writing) will take on their fullest power.
When we answer them incorrectly, however, by giving in to the temptations to profess more than we truly know, or by contriving a storys
events to effect a desired outcome, or by giving in to cultural pressure
to write works that are stereotypically uplifting, the result is propaganda. And when we propagandize, our testimonies become less sincere. Our writing becomes flat.
Heres an example, a summary of a story written by one of my students. I relay it with permission and a very real respect for the students
A young woman is driving home from work. She is weeping uncontrollably, occasionally crying out and gasping for breath. We do not
know what has her so upset.

When she arrives home, instead of entering her apartment, she
runs to the roof of her building, where she continues to cry. The world
below takes no notice. For hours, she sobs and trembles. Eventually,
she can stand no more of her emotional pain, and she collapses onto
the roof, exhausted.
Then, when all she can hear is her own heavy breathing, a single
purple butterfly appears. It lands for just a second on the womans
hand. As it does, she raises her head and sees dozens more butterflies
floating around her. In time, the butterflies number grows to hundreds. They swirl and swarm. They huddle and begin to interlace their
wings. As they do, they form the shape of a man.
This man, the woman realizes, is Jesus. He looks at the woman. He
says, I love you, and then with the sound of rushing wind, the butterflies disperse.
The woman is in shock, but her pain, she realizes, is completely
gone. She smiles, and the story ends.

Clearly, this story has its flaws. Its main character is passive and flat.
Its setting is indeterminate. The appearance of Christ is a textbook
deus ex machina. And yet, none of this seems to get at whats really
wrong with the story. Each of these flaws is merely a symptom of a
much bigger problem.
The bigger problem is this:
This author, like me and probably like you, wanted to use her writing to testify of Christs mercy, power, and love. Its a noble desire
one that I share. But in fulfilling that desire, the author chose to value
simplicity over complexity. She chose to see tidiness and ignore mess.
She chose to celebrate easy answers and ignore difficult questions.
She chose her theme, a culturally acceptable one about Christs mercy
and grace, before she even began writing, and she contrived her story
to further that theme. In short, in attempting to testify, the author of
this story created propaganda. And heres the real tragedyin doing
so, the author did not imbue her story with more truth and power. In
fact, just the opposite. The moment this writer chose to create religious propaganda, her story became less true and less powerful.
Consider these symptoms of religious propaganda, all of which
we can see in The Butterfly Story. It communicates a heavy-handed,

Allen: Propoganda, Art, and Desire to Testify

one-dimensional moral. It leaves no room for ambiguities. It poses no

questions but provides only answers (and it often professes to have all
of them). Its characters are wholly good or wholly evil, and they transition between evil and good (or tragedy and peace) almost effortlessly.
So religious propaganda is shallow. It waves away complexity with
triteness, or it ignores complexity altogether. It promotes superficial
thinkingnot only about literature, but worse, about God. It suggests, as The Butterfly Story does, that we can take our most difficult
problems to God, and when we make ourselves worthy, He will wipe
them away for us with little more than cross-stitch wisdom.
Triteness, shallowness, superficiality. These things are bad. But propagandas real vice is something far worsefaithlessness. Propaganda
does not trust that the world, messy and broken as it is, can testify of
God and His grace. So it edits the world. It assumes that the world
must be seen through rose-colored glasses before it can testify of God.
In this, propaganda suggests that God is weakso weak, in fact, that
He, the creator of all, must be buttressed up with the aid of bad writing, that His teachings must be propagandized to be powerful.
I do not believe this.
I believe that real faith lies in our ability to see the world accurately,
to know of its hardships and cracks, and to recognize Gods grace
I also believe what John Gardner says is his book On Moral Fiction:
In the long run, of course, cornball morality leads to rebellion and
loss of faith (). So ultimately, propaganda does not increase faith. It
diminishes it. Literature that ignores complexity is no more valuable
than literature that lies about complexity.
How then should Mormon writers respond to our inevitable and
noble desires to testify? The answers are not simple, but they include at
least thisan exploration of moral complexity. Consider, for example,
the scriptural commandment, Thou shalt not kill. Now contrast that
commandment with one given to the ancient Israelites: You shall annihilate themthe Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the
Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusitesjust as the Lord your God
has commanded (Deut. .). Here the Lord seems to command the

Isrealites to kill not just one evil man (as was the case with Nephi and
Laban), but thousands of men, women, and children.
This disturbs me, and I find the contradiction in these scriptures
immensely troubling. By no means, though, are inconsistencies in
scripture and religion limited to this example or even this one commandment. Further contradictions abound, and you can probably
think of dozens of others right now. So what are writers and believers
of scripture to do with such troubling contradictions and complexities? I see many options.
One is that we could see such contradictions as evidence that scripture is flawed and could discard it entirely. Such thinking might result
in abandoning our desire to testify of God in literature.
A second option is that we could ignore such contradictions altogether, dismissing them as Old Testament weirdness and move forward wearing blinders, ignoring any hard questions or difficult realities
in an attempt to shelter our faith. Such thinking would encourage us
to write literature like The Butterfly Storyliterature that editorializes the world to create a message about it.
A third and, for me, the most satisfying option is to acknowledge
such complexities, study them, and find ways to maintain faith despite
them. After all, if I assume scripture is Gods word, and if such inconsistencies and complexities exist in scripture, doesnt this suggest that
God wants me to explore difficult questions? Surely He knows a scripture that commands the deaths of thousands will be troubling. Could
it be, then, that scripture exists not to present a world of black and
white, but to expose us to a disturbing and chaotic world of graysa
world very much like our own? Could it be that God entertains moral
complexities propagandists choose to ignore? Could it be that good
religious literature should do the same?
In contrast to The Butterfly Story, consider the work of Flannery OConnor, Yann Martel, Leif Enger, or even Cormac McCarthy.
In studying the works of these authors, Ive been moved to a higher
awareness of Gods goodness and grace. Yet the worlds these authors
create are troubling onesfull of violence and sin and loneliness. The
faith that manifests itself in these authors works comes not after the

Allen: Propoganda, Art, and Desire to Testify

world is made perfect, but despite its imperfection. This makes the
testimonies of these writers honest, artistic, and noble. After all, faith
in the face of a perfect world is easy. How easy it would be for the
young woman in The Butterfly Story to maintain her faith, having
received a miraculous divine witness. Most of us, however, will receive
no such witness. We must choose faith despite the absence of such a
Finally, entertaining moral complexity is not faithless. Real faith
confronts the troubling head on, confident that answers lie ahead. Bad
literature (religious or otherwise) avoids the hard questions and ignores
the difficult realities. Brigham Young once said, If I were to go into the
bowels of hell to find out what is there, that does not make it necessary
that I should commit one evil, or blaspheme in any way the name of my
Maker (Journal of Discourses .). If what Brigham Young says here
is true, then nothing (not even the contents of hell itself ) need be off
limits to the Mormon writerno topics, no questions, no complexities
need to be spurned. Faith doesnt stop us from exploring the hard questions. Rather, faith gives us the courage to ask them.
Mormon writers must be courageous. We must not allow poor
instruction, trite Sunday School lessons with stock characters, to pass
as art. We must shun propaganda and celebrate honest storytelling.
Of course, in our religious community, this may not always be easy.
Yet I know this: the Mormon writer does not testify of God by editorializing His truths or the world He has created, but by discovering
His truths in all their complexity.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, . Print.
Young, Brigham. Organization and Development of Man. Journal of
Discourses . Liverpool, . !.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, .


And all that have not fins and scales in the seas,
and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters,
and of any living thing which is in the waters,
they shall be an abomination unto you.
Leviticus :
S you stepped into the middle of Utah Lake,
you would sink only to the knees and you could walk across, just like
Jesus and Peter and all those other fishermen.
For underneath the shallow skim of the lake lay the sludge in the
tub drained from the Pleistocene era. And if someone were to step
out, he would be sucked into the slow mud and pulled down until his
bones settled. A new fossil created.
It was not always this way. Utah Lake was a deep Sea of Galilee,
which fed the Great Salt Lake, preventing it from becoming a dried
salt lick. But farmers turned their irrigation ditches, like spidery capillaries, into the lake. The ditches were laced with silt, and the lake filled
with a layer that was neither earth nor water. And a stench arose from
the lake, as if it were being buried alive and slowly rotting.
The lake had already choked two of Samuels engines, so he used
oars when he went fishing. Most people didnt like fishing Utah Lake.
Full of crap carp, they said. But for Samuel, the fishing was not for the
slippery bullets of trout that anglers usually sought in rivers. Samuel
thought that trout looked so small in photos of posed fisherman with

Second place, Irreantum Fiction Contest

Halcrow: Abominations

their catch. But carpthere was something about the aged brokenbackness of the lakes carp, the stubby Chinese barbels, the greened
copper scales. And the size of them. Fifteen, twenty pounds; a heft
you could embrace. Samuel liked the idea that every time he went out,
he was fishing for monsters.
I you eat it, said his wife, Leah at dinner, cutting
into a chicken breast that she had fried up. Carp is such a dirty fish.
You can taste the mud in the meat. She stole quick little glances at
Samuels plate of carp and dragged her own plate closer to herself as
if to protect it.
Its not so bad, said Samuel, his mouth half full. I like the taste.
Obviously, Leah said. You eat enough of it.
The clatter of knives and fork against the plastic plates filled the
silence between them.
Leah stared at the wall behind Samuels head and chewed slowly.
Finally, Leah put down her fork.
You know, she said. I saw Mom today. I dont think shes happy
at her new place.
Hmm, Samuel said, noticing she didnt say new home. He paused
for a minute. Why do you say that?
She just stared out the window. Wouldnt even talk to me. Just sat
there with her knitting in her lap. Leah pushed away from the dinette
table. The chair made a raspy squeak against the linoleum.
Samuel startled at the sound and stopped chewing for a moment.
Holding her plate of half-eaten chicken, Leah circled the table,
moving toward the garbage can. She brushed against the cupboards
and avoided looking at the sink where Samuel had cleaned the fish.
Ihad to help her with her water when the nurse came by with her
pills, she said. She couldnt even hold the cup, her hands were shaking so badly. And shes so thin. I feel guilty, like I had just left her there
to waste away.
Probably still adjusting, said Samuel. These things take time.
Leah scraped the chicken into the can and sighed. I just wish that
you had come with me.

She waved the empty plate at the carp remains resting in the sink.
Fat scales had stuck to the curved enamel of the sink like wet birch
leaves. The bones were piled up in chalky splinters.
And please, Leah asked. Cant you bag up that mess and take it
to the outside garbage can? I dont want the stink in my kitchen. Her
plea had a hard edge to it.
U L the color of a worn quarter when Samuel
went out on Saturday. The water was still. The remains of an abandoned steel mill sat on the far shore of the lake. It punctured the skyline
with its corrugated steel rooftops. A blackened coal conveyor car was
hoisted into the air, the boxed end framing a square of darkness. Round
concrete towers were caged by a lattice of ladders. There was a decayed
beauty about the mill that contrasted with the expanse of the lake.
The treadle-like slap of the water against the boat was the only
sound that Samuel could hear. Samuel opened the tackle box, and the
snap of the latch echoed. He did not need to look at the contents of
the tackle box, for he knew what each square compartment contained.
The hooks were not jumbled, but nestled, barbs touching. He held up
the jar of salmon eggs. The light shone through the red globes, making them glow as they pressed against the side of the jar, sticky. Some
of the eggs had already burst, and the skins of the empty eggs curled
and shriveled from disuse.
This space, this empty, was something that Samuel lived in. Sometimes, before unloading at the boat ramp, he would walk along the
shore and watch the tributary empty into the lake. There the carp
would cluster and tumble as if they were a pack of puppies, each saying: catch me, catch me, catch me. Samuel was tempted to reach out
and grab one, but was afraid to break up that bubble of rushing and
churning fish.
No fish bit on the curved slack of the line. Time to switch bait.
Samuel reeled in his line and pulled off the bit of worm which hung
in wrinkles on the hook. He dug into an old cottage cheese container
that held a homemade paste of corn syrup and corn meal. He scooped
up two fingers full of the mash and shaped it into a round ball that

Halcrow: Abominations

bore the whorls of his fingerprints. Without thinking, Samuel licked

the extra mash from his fingers and dunked the line into the water to
wet the bait before casting. Samuel cast the bait, and it hit the water
with a satisfying plonk! He leaned back, wiped the sweat from his
forehead, and laid the pole against his leg.
The tip of the pole dipped with a slight curve.
Samuel spun the reel and jerked upward to catch the hook. He
landed the fish in the boat and looked at it.
It was not carp or pike or walleye or bass or any lake swimmer that
Samuel had seen before. Like a flat, gray, bloated oval, the fish shuddered and swung on the line as it fought to free itself.
Its dark eyes were set low, in line with the blunted jaw, its belly
streaked red, as if bloodied. Samuel grasped his strange catch by the
gills to release the hook in its mouth. The fishs mouth was clamped
shut, so Samuel forced the plastic hook remover into its mouth. And
then Samuel saw it. The fish had a mouthful of human teeth.
Samuel dropped the fish and it flopped on the deck. Teeth . . .
human teeth? How could this be? He stepped back suddenly, and the
boat rocked, sloshing water into the hull. Samuel slipped. He grabbed
the railing before he could fall, and caused the boat to rock harder.
He crouched unsteadily, arms spread for balance, and waited for
the rocking to settle. The monster fishs flopping subsided to a soft
patter, and Samuel stepped cautiously toward the fish. He snatched
up the pole and held it away from his body. The fish dangled and
twisted on the line. Still holding the fish at arms length, Samuel bent
over and popped the lid off his cooler. Slowly, Samuel held the twisting fish above it. He reached into his pocket for his knife, and he cut
the line with a sharp stroke.
The fish fell into the cooler. Samuel grabbed the lid and slammed
it down with an explosive whoosh. Then Samuel exhaled, but he could
not hear his breath over the pounding in his ears.
W, of these before, said the clerk at the pet
store. He wore a scratched name tag that read, Randy - Fish-n-Fin
Expert. Least not in real life. Just pictures on the Internet, he said.

Randy shifted the fish in his hands as if he were handling a water

balloon. Samuel leaned against the empty cooler sitting on the counter. Well, what is it? said Samuel.
Its a pacu, Randy said. Somebody sell it to you and call it a
Uh, no, Samuel stuttered. I . . . uh . . .
You know, said Randy, people see the big teeth and freak out.
Blegh! Randy shoved the fish into Samuels face with a sudden jerk.
Samuel flinched.
But, see? Randy flipped the fish so he was face to face with it.
Then he pried open the fishs mouth with an index finger, and rubbed
the finger across the top of the teeth. Flat. Its vegetarian. The only
thing this guys chomping on is lake grass. Isnt that right, Mr. Fish?
Randy crooned.
Samuel pushed the cooler toward Randy. Cmon, he said. Just
give it to me, okay?
Randy lowered the fish. Theyre illegal, you know, he said. Both
pacus and piranhas. You can do what you want, but Im just saying . . .
A line full of customers clutching plastic bags of water, alive with
darting fish, had formed behind Samuel. The back of Samuels neck
grew red. I caught it in Utah Lake, Samuel said.
Oh, okay. Betcha it got too big for someones tank, and someone
dumped it in the lake. If you hadnt caught it, it would have died come
winter anyway. Randy laid the fish into the cooler and gave it a final
slap. This is a pretty big one. If you want, Ill buy it from you.
No, said Samuel. Thats okay. Really.
Randy shrugged. Whatever. But Ill bet itll look sweet stuffed.
L phone when Samuel walked in the front door,
cooler with pacu in hand. She glanced at him and then leaned on the
door frame to the kitchen, writing furiously on a notepad. Well be
by at three to take a look. Thank you.
Samuels arm slackened, and he held the cooler behind his right leg,
trying desperately not to look like he was hiding something.
Leah hung up the phone. Where have you been? she asked.

Halcrow: Abominations

I stopped at Phils. He had a question about his deck.

She grimaced. You should have called first. She turned and
walked into the kitchen, calling over her shoulder. I saw Mom today.
Do you know what happened?
He heard a cupboard close, but before he could open his mouth,
she rambled on.
I was helping her out of the chair, and right there: Bruises all up
and down her arm.
A paper bag crumpled.
Mom said it was one of the staff.
Samuel went to the door frame, wondering how he could cross the
flighty path of his wife as she put away groceries. Wondered how to
place the cooler up on the counter without her noticing. Weve got to
move her to another place, said Leah, not breaking the conversation
as she opened the refrigerator. I told the director off. I told him he
was running a shoddy operation, but he denied everything. Blamed it
on Moms condition.
Samuel leaned against the jamb and drew a deep breath. Okay, he
said, what do you want to do?
Ive got appointments to see a few homes on Thursday. Youll be
there, right?
Sure, said Samuel. He lifted the cooler and slid it onto the counter.
Leah turned to look at Samuel, and her eyes darted to the cooler
on the cupboard.
Did you catch anything today? she asked.
Not a bite.
Good, said Leah. I ordered pizza.
H, L , rigid on the edge of the hospital bed,
which was wedged in the corner of her new room. Her apartment at
the Bella Via was smaller than her last residence, and it had an upholstered feel to it. Samuel sank into one of the overstuffed chairs in the
corner and watched Leah fuss with the knick-knacks on a wroughtiron wall shelf.

This is a nice room, Mom, Leah said.

She moved each figurine on the shelf by millimeters to get exact
spacing: the postcard-sized framed picture of Jesus, the porcelain rabbit glazed with a spider-work of cracks, the bronze reproduction of
the Little Mermaid statue, forlorn and quite human in her nakedness.
So cozy and comfy, isnt it, Mom? said Leah. She glanced over her
shoulder to her mother, then turned her attention back to the items
on the shelf.
Helen stared unfocused. Leah plunged forward through the silence.
Isnt this a nice room, Samuel?
Samuel shifted in his chair. Oh, yes, nice.
There wasnt enough light cast from the one lamp, so Samuel sat
in the gloaming. The door to the room was open, and the bright
light of the hallway changed passing residents into shadows. Their
arthritic gait, so slow, was broken only by a pause as they stopped and
peered into the room. One man, clutching a walker, turned his head.
The light caught his glasses with a silvered glare, and Samuel got the
uneasy impression of a blind cave fish creeping by touch along a hidden, watery channel.
Samuel turned and pretended to pay attention to Leahs running
conversation with her silent mother.
Do you know, Mom? Leah asked. I saw that they had pasta carbonara on the menu today. Imagine that! Pasta carbonara. No cafeteria meatloaf and mashed potatoes for you. Oh no. Not even plain
old spaghetti. Im telling you, Mom, they really spoil you here. Leah
paused. Although, I suppose bacon wouldnt be the best for people
here with cholesterol issues . . .
Leah, Samuel said. I think your mom needs something.
Leah glanced back at her mother. Helen had stood up. She took two
tiny bird steps. Samuel started from the chair in a half ready crouch.
Helen wobbled for a moment on her thin legs. Samuel reached out to
grab his mother-in-law and caught her in the net of his arms as she
collapsed. He braced for a great weight, but Helen dropped soft into
his arms, and he could feel her bones shift underneath her skin. He
laid her back down on the bed and said, Its okay, its okay, almost in

Halcrow: Abominations

a chant, in a prayer, as if the words could fix the moment. But she lay
against the pillow, eyes blank, her mouth agape, gasping for breath.
S in a dark corner of the freezer, not able to
bring himself to toss the fish. Sometimes he would pull it out and stare
into its mouth. Those yellowed teethblunt, denture-like. Samuel
would touch them and shudder. Its only an aquarium fish, he said
to himself. Nothing unusual about that. Two weeks passed before he
dared take the boat out.
When he launched his boat that Saturday afternoon, he kept close
to the earth berm, which hemmed in the harbor. In the milky water
that edged the shoreline, a school of Utah suckers writhed. They
knotted in twisted shapes, their yellow rubber bands of mouths gulping at the air. Their backs, like a shoal of jagged rocks, broke the surface of the water. Samuel steered away from the fish and paused in the
narrow channel which widened into the lake. He was hesitant to enter
the open water. Samuel might have floated there for several minutes,
but a motor boat sounded her horn, and he rowed out of the channel. Keeping close to the reeded shore, Samuel cast with a weak flick
of his wrist, and reeled in his line before the bait could soften in the
water. He watched the red floater with a nervous eye. If it bobbed, he
reeled in the line with a fury, making his wrist ache. But only a clump
of pondweed clung to the hook. He added more bait, and cast again,
fighting the urge to reel in the line. With each cast, he allowed his
shoulders to release. He became more sure of the cast, and he gained
a cadence with it.
But when the line went tight, he held his breath, exhaling only after
he brought in an ordinary carp, one that was even on the small side.
His fingers traced the line of the spine, the fork of the tail, the bellowed fins, and the gasping mouth. Samuel removed the hook and
held the carp by the gills, letting the weight settle. Then he placed his
catch on a chain and let the fish trail behind the boat.
With his next cast, he aimed too far eastward, and his hook caught
in a clump of reeds by the shore. Samuel tugged, but the line was taut,
and the tip of the pole dipped so sharply that the pole was sure to

snap. Samuel laid the pole down and paddled toward shore, following
the line. As he grew closer to the reeds, Samuel heard a large splash, as
if someone in hip waders had stepped into the water.
Hello? Samuel waited for an answer, or at least the sound of the
other foot. But all he could hear was the whistling croak of a blackbird
perched on the top of one of the reeds. Samuel reeled up the slack of
the line, and when it grew tight again, pulled hard.
He saw a dark snake-like shape slice through the mat of broken
reeds floating on top of the water. And when Samuel pulled it out of
the water, it dangled at the end of the line, limp and sodden.
Snake? Snakes dont take bait. Perhaps it was an eel. Or even a
bike inner tube. Samuel grasped it and felt rough skin underneath the
slime and a set of tiny dorsal fins behind the gills. In its mouth, the
fish seemed to hold a piece of white flesh, nearly translucent.
He tugged at the hook, and the thick white flesh began to tear with
a wet pop. The creature shuddered and convulsed, as if vomiting the
flesh from its gullet. Samuel held the snakefish up to the last rays
of the sun and saw what appeared to be a small fish head, not fully
formed, almost embryonic, protruding like a swollen tongue from the
snakefishs mouth, the eyes silvery and dead.
Samuel pried open the snakefishs mouth to sweep the jellied head
out of the way. But as Samuel reached in, his finger caught on a membrane, and the fish head held fast. The membrane stretched, and Samuel saw that it was attached to the wall of the snakefishs throat. The
white fish head was not a separate fish, but grew like a tumor from the
mouth of the snakefish.
I when Samuel brought the boat to the slip
and docked it. Across the lake, the lights from the town began to glitter
and flicker. Samuel remembered when this was still wild country, when
you could hike down the shore with gun in hand and tramp through
the sagebrush. You could shoot at targets, let the shots echo unanswered and let yourself be swallowed up by sky and water and mountain. When they were first dating, Samuel would take Leah down to
the lake. So were watching the submarine races? Leah would say with

Halcrow: Abominations

a knowing giggle. Maybe, Samuel whispered. But after a flurry of kissing and caressing in the car, Samuel would roll down the windows of
the car and stare out at the lake, while Leah laid her head in the hollow
of his shoulder. Now the lap of the water against the shoreline brought
him back to those moments.
Samuel walked along the top of the berm, Igloo in his hand, until he
reached the very edge. There were slabs of broken concrete scattered
along the bank, and he dragged some of them over the ground, stacking them in a loose ring. He gathered what wind-loosened brush he
could and crouched, starting a meager fire in the middle of the circle.
As the fire flickered, he glanced at the cooler. In the firelight, Samuel
could see every scratch in the plastic, see where the rough surface had
been scraped smooth. He stood up, approached the Igloo, and flipped
the lid off. Still not wanting to get close, he kicked the container over.
Two fish slid out as one and landed, motionless, on a slab of cement.
The snakefish, still glistening black, had curled around the carp before
dying. Its eyes were sticky, and the jellied head that it held in its
mouth now lay at an awkward angle, as if its neck had been snapped
while inside the cooler. Samuel picked up a stick and pried the oddity away from the carp. He leaned forward. He closed his eyes, and
then opened them. His breath grew shallow, and he leaned in closer.
Samuel thought that he could see the gills moving. Reaching out his
hand, he stroked the firelit skin with one finger.
L cupboard and bent over to pick up a piece of
fluff on the carpet, anything to fill the quiet of the house with her
movements. The quiet reminded Leah too much of that morning back
when they were first married. That morning so long ago when she sat
on the toilet in the bathroom, her body rocking in spasms, and pulpy
clots of blood dropped into the toilet bowl. When Leah stopped
shuddering and turned to look, she saw that they looked like dark
anemones, drifting in the water.
Leah told Samuel.
We can try for another one, he said. But another one never seemed
to take.

That was a long time ago. Leah turned on the vacuum and vacuumed deep grooves into the carpet, but the roar of the machine did
not fill the room and did not fill her thoughts.
E S , he brought up monstrosities: eyeless
fish with soft flesh covering eye sockets, fish with splayed fins that
looked like finger bones when held up to the sun. Conjoined fish. Eellike fish with forked tails. Fish with suckered streamers of flesh that
trailed behind them like seaweed. Samuel kept these fish in a separate
cooler, ungutted, and hid them in the basement freezer in plastic bags.
When Leah went out, he opened the freezer. Underneath the freezers
overhead light, he pushed aside cascading bags of peas and clattering
pork chops, pulling out an emptied five gallon ice cream pail. This was
where he kept his frozen menagerie. He lifted a fish from the freezer,
unwrapped it from its truss of foil and stared at it. The hoarfrost on
the fish would melt under his fingers, and the flesh would sink a little
and give way. Samuel could feel a puff of cold waft from the fish and
hit his lips. He would inhale sharply, and quickly wrap the fish up
again. Then he would put the fish back into the pail, and place the
pail back into the freezer and cover it up again. He would lock the
freezer and half run back upstairs, turning off the basement light with
his elbow, not touching the light switch or knob with his fishy hands.
Lastly, he would douse his hands in lemon juice and scrub to get rid
of the smell.
Samuel kept the key to the basement freezer on his key chain in
his pocket. And if Leah wanted something from the freezer for dinner,
Samuel volunteered to get it, and he ran down the stairs, grabbed the
item, and cast a quick glance at the corner of the freezer where the
cooler was buried.
But the frozen fish seemed artificial, grafted with rubber parts, a
prop in a production. There was no strange life in them, like when
they had wiggled in Samuels hands. He wished he hadnt needed to
kill them to keep them.
Samuel thought about getting the fish stuffed at a taxidermist.
But the idea was too disturbing: the organs scraped out and the fish

Halcrow: Abominations

hollowed and blown to a tight slipper of flesh over ribs, crammed with
cotton, their eyes poked out and replaced with glazed glass, the skin
S fishing. Sundays were for going to church,
where Samuel would sit, cloistered in a stiff shirt and tie. He sat, hands
clasped, leaning forward in his seat. Sometimes he rested the temple
of his forehead against his thumbs and thought of other things. But
Samuel was practiced enough that when a phrase or key word from
the teacher broke his stilled thoughts, he raised his hand and delivered
a sentence of wisdom or scripture attached by the wisp of a tangent to
the topic at hand. It was enough to convince the others in the room
that he was not asleep, unlike Brother McCaffey, whose head would
drop forward and jerk upward while he snored. Those who sat next
to Brother McCaffey knew enough to jostle him in the ribs when his
head bobbing began.
Lately Samuel began to resent even putting up with the pretense
of paying attention in church. He resented the coughs, the shifting
in seats, the whispering between partners, the pointed glances. He
resented the Sunday School teacher who had to speak loudly over
the strains of singing from the other side of the pleated divider. He
resented Brother Coombs, who could spin each discussion into a diatribe about how the evils of the U.S. president were ushering in the
Second Coming. Samuel kept his manual on his lap and scriptures
at his side, unopened. Once, Samuels Book of Mormon slid off the
folding chair and hit the floor, tearing a tissue page and scuffing the
gilt edge of the book. Samuel picked up the book, closing it quickly
without straightening the crumpled pages.
Sunday should be a day of rest, Samuel thought, and he envied the
worlds notion of the weekend. You could mow your lawn, fish, barbecue, stretch out and unbutton your pants. But Samuel had to shoehorn that all into a Saturdayif and only if Leahs to-do list was met.
During meetings, Samuels spirit would go back to the lake, and he
would imagine the sun covering his head with a cap of heat, imagine
that the only thing he could hear was the lap of the water against the

boat, the silence broken only by the sound of a distant jet. Really, he
was closer to God there than in this room where the teacher droned
on too loudly and the congregants nodded off instead of nodding in
agreement. There was no God here for Samuel.
O S, month after Samuel added the snakefish to
the freezer collection, Leah grabbed her keys and purse. Im going to
try to see Mom before church, she said. Could you come? Her question was deflated, as if she knew the answer, but felt obligated to ask.
Cant, Samuel said. Got a meeting before sacrament.
Why do you have to have so many meetings? Leah asked.
Its what I was called to do, said Samuel. Ill just meet you in the
chapel, okay?
Leah sighed. Im skipping today. I dont know if I could take it
after being with Mom. She drains me so much.
Leah backed her car out of the driveway and gave a tentative wave
to Samuel as he stood watching her. When her car had turned the
corner, Samuel closed the garage door and loaded his tackle box into
the truck.
It was this sense of sneaking out that sent a slight zing through
Samuel. Course Im a grown man, he mused, and can do what I want.
But giving himself permission was not exciting. It was better that no
one knew where he was. This is why people grow old, Samuel thought.
There was less and less to rebel against as you got older.
Hoping not to break the still in the air, Samuel launched his boat.
He rowed toward a cove that he liked to fish, the pull of the water
against the oars leaving a familiar ache in his arms. When he entered
the cove, he allowed the boat to coast, rested the oars on the gunwale,
and cast his line.
The line bent with a sudden twitch, and as Samuel drew the fish
toward the boat, he saw that a trout had taken the bait. He was surprised, for he didnt think that a trout would strike at this time of day,
with the sun almost overhead and the stubby shadows making his eyes
smart. Wrong place, wrong bait. The hooked trout skittered across
the surface of the lake, breaking the water in quick thrusts. With one

Halcrow: Abominations

arm holding the pole, Samuel reached for the net. He jerked the line
and pulled the fish out of the water, then dropped the fish into the
net. The fish thrashed, causing the net to swing. Whoa, said Samuel.
He reached into the net to release the hook, but the trout fought with
so much force that Samuel had to lay the net onto the deck and grip
the fish with both hands. His thumb almost punctured through the
flesh of the fish.
Hey buddy, just sit still while I get that hook out, he shushed. Samuel reached for the hook with a set of pliers and saw that the hook had
caught through the gills. The fish continued to thrash, which caused
the line to pull the trouts head to an awkward angle, making the gills
look like bloody knife slashes. Samuel thought the fishs head would
yank off, and the decapitated body would still flail on the deck.
Stop that! he cried, and struck the fish against the side of the boat
to stun it into submission.
The fish stopped twitching for a moment, then began to thrash
again. Samuel raised the fish above his head, then smashed down
with it, beating its head against the hull again and again until a stream
of pink water rolled down the fiberglass. Samuel tightened his grip as
the fish flopped in his hands. When he felt the flesh of the tail give
way to his fingers, Samuel stopped and twisted his wrists so he could
see if the gills still moved.
In the fight, the trout had lost an eye. Samuel couldnt turn away
from the red of the empty eye socket. He let go of the fish and grabbed
the fishing line, so that the fishing pole hit the deck with a scuttled
clatter. The dead trout spun listlessly from the line. The fish was pulpy
where Samuel had squeezed it, the once streamlined back bent at an
odd angle, and the empty eye socket dribbled fluid. Samuel reached
in his pocket for his knife, cut the line, and dropped the fish over the
side of the boat.
The trout shone like a silver marker in the murk, until it sank into
the clouded green water.
Samuel pushed aside his pole and took up his oars. He rowed without pause, breaking a rushed path through the water, each stroke pulling him farther away from the trout. It was only when his arms started

to burn and he could taste the sweat dripping from his forehead that
he stopped rowing. He laid the oars down and sat, staring out at the
lake before him. The boat rocked with the echo of the rowing.
Fishing with a pole and hook, mumbled Samuel. Its unnatural.
He opened up a bottle of water and rinsed his shaking hands, washing the fish slime and flaked scales from them. Then he kicked aside his
fishing pole and picked up his net. It was still dry, for Samuel had not
reached for it in the fight with the trout. Samuel grasped the handle of
the net, his knuckles whitening, and knelt. He clutched the side of boat,
as he leaned over and peered into the water. Samuel stood so long, net
poised, that the particles in the water slowed their swirling and hung
in a slow drift. A monster carp, with a misshapen skull, rose from the
depth and broke the surface of the water to gulp at a mosquito.
Almost by reflex, Samuel sliced through the water and scooped
up the carp. He held the net high and watched the beast struggle. It
splashed lake water over Samuels shirt. Samuel tipped the net, and the
carp slid onto the deck. He watched it squirm, marking muddy whorls
on the deck, until it exhausted itself. It lay there, gasping with its red
gills. Occasionally, it lurched forward in a spasm, trying to escape. But
it soon became spent. Samuel reached down and picked up the carp,
careful not to hook the gills. He laid it on his lap and began stroking it.
L what was worse, visiting her mother alone or
having Samuel there, impatient in his discomfort. I mean, she thought,
this is where he should be, helping me with Mom. This is where I
should be.
But her mothers strokes had taken her bit by bit, until most traces
of her were erased, leaving behind a husk of Leahs mother. There
were days where Helen seemed present, and those were the days Leah
welcomed, even if it meant enduring Helens rants on how the staff
ignored her and how Leah should have married better. Lately, however, Helen seemed to recede, as if she were wading into a deep pool,
her body dragging through the water. Each day, she drifted farther
away, leaving Leah alone on shore. Duty was such a tenuous string on
which to anchor a relationship.

Halcrow: Abominations

Lying in bed, her eyes clear for once, Helen looked at Leah. Sometimes I just feel like Im sleeping my life away, Helen said.
Oh Mom, dont say that, said Leah, wishing to temper the truth
of her mothers words.
That morning, Leah had helped her mother sit up and guided her
through the motions of getting ready for the day. Wouldnt it be nice
to go into the main room today? Leah asked, as she brushed Helens
hair. Helen stared at the wall. You could see your . . . friends. Leah
paused at that word. Leah wanted to believe that her mother socialized with the other residents, but she knew that her mother lay here
most days with the TV on at a low buzz.
There was a quick rap on the door frame, and Leah looked up.
A teen boy, red-faced in his tight shirt collar, held a sacrament tray.
There was one torn crust of bread left on it.
I didnt know Sister Ballinger had visitors, he said. If you want,
I could bless another piece of bread, so that there would be enough.
Dont worry about it, said Leah.
The kid shifted the tray to his other hand. Really, he said, it
wouldnt be any trouble.
I took sacrament this morning at my ward, she lied.
Okay, then. He approached the bed, and held the tray out in the
space between Leah and Helen. Helen did not move.
Leah picked up the piece of bread. Here, Mom, she said, and
touched Helens lips with the crust. Helen opened her mouth automatically, and Leah placed the bread in. It lay thick and white against
the worn-flat cusps of her mothers yellowed teeth. Helen closed her
mouth, but stared ahead, not moving her jaw to chew the bread.
Leah dared not tell her mother to chew, in case the old woman
would bite herself. Perhaps the bread would dissolve on its own.
After a minute, Helen started to work her jaw, as if the bread had
triggered the mouths memory of the many sacraments she had partaken. She swallowed just as the elder came with the water tray, bearing one plastic cup. Leah touched the rim of the cup to Helens lips,
but most of it dribbled out the side of her mouth.

Leahs tongue swept the inside of her own mouth like a finger, feeling the emptiness there.
S a jerk. The morning light, still gray and featureless, filtered through scratches of hoarfrost on the window. Samuels pajama shirt was damp, and he sat and puzzled over the fragment
of a dream that had awakened him. But as he tried to recall it, the
images slid away from him. All he could remember was a vague emptiness of wanting . . . something. Samuel watched his wife sleep for a
few measured breaths. Then, without turning on the light, he pulled
on his jeans and got into the car.
It was November, and the edge of Utah Lake had frozen, broken
intermittently by jagged bulls-eyes. But the middle of the lake was ice
free, and Samuel felt that he could navigate his boat over the concretecolored water, avoiding the occasional stray ice chunk that might float
by the hull.
Samuel tossed only the net in the boat with him, and he rowed and
rowed until he reached the very heart of the lake. From where he sat,
the shoreline appeared indistinct and smudged. A light, most likely
from someones front porch, winked out. The morning wind had blown
in from the canyon and created choppy little waves that splashed into
the boat. But Samuel ignored the cold water seeping into his boots. He
leaned over the hull. Samuel wondered what it would be like to tumble
into the water, letting the cold seep into every part of you. How your
lungs would fight to keep air in them, but with a sudden burst of pressure, exhale and let the water swallow you up.
And when the large dark shape broke from the murk of the lake and
swam underneath the boat, Samuel knew that this was the one. This
was what had called to him from his sleep, what had tread through
the waters of his subconscious and lodged itself in the place beyond
words, beyond names, beyond knowing.
He stood up, arms held wide. The boat rocked, but Samuels legs
were steady. He bent over, fingers almost brushing the water, ready
for the catch.

The Garden of Dead


And though after my skin worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.
Job :

S I drawn to the cemetery. I could be playing the

piano or reading a book in my room or driving in the car, and with
the first twitch of loneliness I start moving in that direction. Its left
at Wasatch Lawn Memorial, up the road between the duck pond and
the Monument Sales building, around the first left, and my car stops
on the patch of dirt just past the Veterans Wall. In the summer, wild
sunflowers grow here.
I am usually the only person in sight, and I prefer it that way. Icome
here to be in the company of the dead, not the living. I move across
the grass, weaving through headstones, until I arrive at the one whose
engraving punches me like Im reading my own name: J C
Cblessed wife and mother. I sit hugging my knees, a few feet
above my mothers body, and wait for the sun to go down.
I cemetery to think more than to grieve: I go there to
sort through the life Im stuck living, because there, in the garden of
a thousand stilled heartbeats, I feel what separates me from them;
what it means to be up here instead of down there, to be moving writing struggling thinking singing screaming fumbling praying weeping
thrashing through time and space, to navigate my body in a sphere so
big it leaves me flat on my back and cross-eyed.
Third place, Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest

Curtis: Garden of Dead

Of course, I do not know what it means to be down there.

I go to the cemetery because its the only place on earth Im sure my
mother still inhabits. No; Im not at all sure that my mother inhabits
her grave, which is why Im writing this two and a half years after
her death, but a slab of brass framed with granite anchors her body
thereit anchors me there.
The last time I saw her body, taut and colorless, it was laid out on a
table in the funeral home, hardly resembling my mother at all. Spirit
had left body behind. The funeral home felt as cold as her hands, and
as loveless. My sisters and I dressed her in white, maneuvering her
limbs as though she were a doll and we were children again. Except
dolls can be made to stand and open their eyes; dolls submit to the life
in my hands and conform to my imagination. We cut Moms clothes
to make them fit because she was too unwieldy. I think I expected
to feel more than I did as we prepared her body, either in sorrow or
in peace, but my own motion was routine, distant, professional. As
though I had touched a million dead bodies before. As though this
was not skin under my fingertips. I tried to be gentle and to infuse
twenty-two years of meaning into my touch, but her body was a deadend, a dial-tone, a wall.
I wonder if my mother felt the splitting of her soul; if her spirit
felt relief at laying the mortal weight down; or if moving apart felt
like loss, like her death feels to mesuddenly incomplete. I know
my mother worried that earth would not miss herthat the world
to which she gave her heart would give her dust in return. I take for
granted my generally coherent existence: I worry about moving my
body and assume my spirit will follow, if not in desire at least in space.
I bend my knees to pray and beg my spirit to show equal submission.
For me, the flesh is willing and the spirit is weak. But how do you
manage two of yourself? How does it feel to look down on your body,
to be outside of yourself, outside of mortality, but necessarily linked?
I before it happened that my mother would
die. She told our family over huckleberry cobbler and cream that she
was letting goof medicine, of fear, of her resistance to cancer, of life.

She welcomed hospice into our home and we each held our breath.
Before my eyes, she transformed. She became serene and holy. Her
body faded and slowed, but her eyes were grace. Waiting for death
was tracking the approach of a shadow, feeling it brush over my body
and leave me shivering, and watching it land on her. It sounds paradoxicala radiant shadowbut resurrection is paradox too.
I dont know how to find Moms spirit now, though Ive tried tracking it across mountains and canyons; and through the songs she sang
to me, mixes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel. When
life has gone, where does it go? I wonder this as I stare across grass
pockmarked with headstones. Does it set out for a home, new and
improved, like the hermit crab? Does it stick around, bound to its body
with a leash of limited radius? Does it rush back to heaven to receive its
report card; or slink back, depending on its anticipated grade?
Ive heard people say that the spirit world is right here, among us,
but of a different matter so that we cannot see it. I dont know what
to do with such a comforting and disturbing thought. Friends and
neighbors promised me that Id feel my mother near, that Id know
she was watching over me, that the gap between physical and spiritual would pinch together to near transparency. Actually, its hard to
remember if this is what they promised, or if this is what I seek in
daylight dreams. It seemed like every other person in the viewing line
offered me a miracle of their own, a haze of voices or visions from
another realm. In the year after Mom died, Id run into people at the
grocery store or the mall and theyd ask reverently if Id had any experiences, to which I mumbled responses that she was likely in Brazil
with my youngest brother who was serving a mission for our church.
I tried to hide my disappointment.
I want to know how it happens, death; I want to know the physics behind the moment my mother became physically unreachable;
Iwant to know what science enables such a cosmic divorce. I want
to know because all my faith is tied up in whats done being undone.
W burial, my parents argued about where, not if. In
typical style, my mother insisted that she be buried on a plot with a

Curtis: Garden of Dead

view (for her peace of mind, not for the pleasure of her mourners),
which meant next to her parents under a beautiful oak rather than
with my dad just past the Veterans Wall. Had my mother been around
to direct her own post-funeral proceedings, Id be sitting under the
oak now. She did not see the location of her grave as a matter of loyalty, though my father did. I understand his sentiment in a way I dont
think my mother could, she being the leaving and not the soon-to-beleft-behind. Like my father, I need more than the hope that body and
spirit are together in life and will find each other again after death
Im sending pleas to heaven that the physical and spiritual world run
parallel; that what happens in one matters in the other. Cemeteries
arrange my longing in a tangible way, and answer my hand grasping
after spirit with steady earth.
We bury our dead in communities, not in isolation. We mark their
graves with pride as monuments to memory. We praise what they did
even as we do it ourselves the best we can. Until we die, we live
smelling autumn mulch burning, watching the sun go down, and
strolling in cemeteriesunsure of what to do with the transience we
wade through. This is faith, to live.
I drawn to a grave in a garden, propelled
by grief or duty or the hope that the permanence of stone might help
her understand that hes really gone. She walks with her head down to
stop stares at tears she cant turn off, and shes on the steps of his tomb
before she dares to look up. Finding it empty she stops, maybe even
drops the bundle in her arms, and for a blissful second believes it was
all a bad dream: he must be kicking up dust around town. Her immediate smile breaks up a face stiff with dried tears, and she remembers
the pain is real and he is dead. She questions anyone around, suddenly
frantic to find his body, sure that its been carelessly moved. Until this
day bodies that were put in the ground stayed in the ground. Until
this day, dead meant no, no, no, no life.
But this was a man with a flair for doing things differently, a mystery in flesh who trailed hope and promises and stories and virtue. If
someone were to challenge the strength of deaths grip, it would be him.

I dont blame her for not recognizing him. She probably found the
likeness uncanny but impossible, the result of exhausted emotions and
earnest longing. How can a spirit encased in the finite take in immortality? Beginnings and endings, depreciation, the incessant whip of
timethis is our story. Someday well live forever, the empty tomb
promises, but . . . patience. Not now, not yet.
O S my mother died, a woman stood up in
church to say that heaven becomes dearer as those we love go there.
This woman is soft like my mothers hands on my face when shed kiss
me goodnight. The wrinkles on her face swirl like rings on a tree, and
I wonderhow many people dearer is heaven to her? And how many
people does it take until heaven is dearer than earth?
Sitting in the cemetery, with evening dew seeping into my jeans
and the smell of burning harvest abundance filling my nose, I know I
belong to the living. I tremble at the chill of dusk and wonder again
how it is done, that momentary alteration. I rub my arms, wishing it
were summer: I would place a sunflower on my mothers grave when
I go.


Somewhere in the pile of plastic wrap, stacks

of yellow bowls, blue-lidded Pyrex, the metal-slick clink
of gifts we hope will last for years and several children,
is the woman you married, the girl you loved
before she became Woman of the House, Your
House, the garage too crowded
for two cars. Her arm stretches across your bed like Iowa
before she touches flesh. And you reach out
with closed eyes, hold her bone warmth, not knowing
she is still outside, trying to think of words
to name it all. Remembering: it was Adam
who got the naming power, made Eve
Mother before she could be Girl. How long
would it take for her to turn
toward that sound? Did she sense the girl
inside, the muted memory, the leaves
in her periphery, twitching? Or just
hunger, a stomach growling
for self, a woman with all things given to her
who wanted. And when she ate the fruit,

Garcia: Poems

she devoured the Memory in its flesh

her elusive Daughter-ness
sucked her History from its pit,
licked clean her sticky palms,
her living fingertips, stretched them out behind her
to touch Gods hand.

God As Intern
Twilight: a great scab
crusted over the land,
a red line
seething, an end
of oozing, deceptive
stillness. We itch
to make it palpable,
this waiting, caught
between end and beginning.
Did the first of these
bring nostalgia, a yearning
more for past worlds
or the next? We think always
of endings in this half
light, of loss, forgetting
that evening came first,
darkness before
the light, the morning
wrapping up the great
project, Gods gray head
napping on a crooked elbow,
dreaming of formulas.

Garcia: Poems

Before declaring
it was good, eons before
there was a before,
how many scraps did it take
to learn measure twice,
cut once?
And what paternal tips given:
Water down the marble
to cool the spinning blade.
(We dont want explosions.)
How many crooked bookshelves
of redwood, grooves that fit
in only one combination,
one leaning post that needed
propping, how many drafts
of diagram to dissect, recalculate,
the paper rubbed transparent
from erasures, and how much forgiveness
before mastering perpetual motion of rivers,
the great slow pendulum of moon rock?

The New Mormon Brotherhood

A Review of Todd Robert Petersens Rift (Zarahemla Books, ) and
Jonathan Langfords No Going Back (Zarahemla Books, )

F century, Frank Windham has been lonely.

The main character of Levi Petersons The Backslider, hes been Mormon fictions Ahab, our Huck Finn, our Holden Caulfield. Hes been
one of the few interesting, flawed, endearing and complicated characters at the heart of a novel written about Mormon experience. But
no more: in the last year Jens Thorsen, from Todd Robert Petersons
Rift, and Paul Flitkin, from Jonathan Langfords No Going Back, join
Frank Windham, creating a brotherhood of Mormon male characters.
Todd Robert Petersens novel, Rift, takes place in the fictional town
of Sanpete, Utah, a place ringed on all sides by mountains. It had no
interstate and no quick way to get to one. Other towns in the valley
had junior colleges or BLM offices, but the town of Sanpete was frozen somewhere between and (). Its a town where the lone
sheriff s deputy addresses people by name when he turns on the lights
in his patrol car to pull them over, where the three-chair barbershop
is the local hangout for the retired set, and where the buck stops with
Bishop Darrell Bunker.
Jens Thorsen, Rifts crotchety-but-endearing hero, has been engaged
in a decades-long feud with Bunker; the feud apparently began when
Bunker returned Thorsens drill broken. The strife escalates from petty
annoyances like tracking mud across kitchen floors and borrowing
heavy equipment, to the arena of the heart when Bunkers daughter
Angie returns from Salt Lake City. Bunker wants his congregants to
see Angie as a prodigal returned to the fold, and Angie isnt sure she
wants to be counted among her fathers flock, so she turns to Thorsen
for help.

Miner: New Mormon Brotherhood

Rift won the Marilyn Brown Novel Award in ; Brown has said
that the purpose of starting the award was to encourage [Mormon]
writers to write about themselves in the best language and artistic
structure possible. Petersens novel is worthy of the award, with great
descriptive writing:
Only a day had passed since Thorsens showdown with Bunker, but in
that time, talk volleyed furiously across back fences and shopping carts
and checkout counters. It had come into restaurant tables on serving
trays, and it left the hardware store in bags of concrete and roofing
nails . . . . By sundown the valley had been slathered in gossip. ()

While Petersen excels at giving readers a sense of place in this small

Utah town, hes also skillful at characterizing the novels major players.
Jens Thorsen is one of my favorite characters in Mormon fiction. On
the one hand, he manages to hold a grudge for decades, grumbles at
his wife, evades the police and buys cigarettes for a ward member, but
on the other hand, he spends his days engaged in good works for the
Jewish gentile doctor, for an elderly nonmember couple, and for others who have been cast off from Sanpete society. When Lila Thorsen,
Jenss wife, dies unexpectedly, Peterson adds further dimension to
Jenss character as he grapples with grief and guilt.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Rift is that its a book about
close male friendships and men engaged in good works. There are
plenty of novels about women in small towns banding together to
fight ignorance (like the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett)
and women in religious communities fighting gossip and small-mindedness (like Tova Mirviss The Ladies Auxiliary), but I havent seen
the same kind of sense of community, of union of purpose, in many
male-centered novels.
While Petersen focuses on friendships among Mormon men,
another book published by Zarahemla Books in , No Going Back
by Jonathan Langford, deals with a Mormon young man who realizes
he wants to be more than just friends with other males. Paul Flitkin is
fifteen, working toward his Eagle Scout award, a good kid, a seminary
attendee, a faithful member of his teachers quorum, a normal kind

ofguy who likes chips and salsa and Super Smash Bros Melee. Hes also
gay. Just before the beginning of his sophomore year, he comes out to
his best friend, Chad, his bishops son. Chad is surprised and freaked
out by the revelation, and Paul reacts to his friends surprise by trying to reconcile his desire to be a good member of the Churchto
be a boy who wants to go on a mission and raise a familywith the
undeniable fact that hell always be attracted to guys instead of girls.
Its a hard year for Paul as he finds prejudice and gossip and opposition within both the church community and the gay community at
his high school.
The way that Paul sees the world around him understandably
changes during this pivotal year of his life, and we also see a paradigm
shift in the viewpoint of Richard, Pauls bishop and Chads dad. When
Paul tells Richard that hes gay, Richard seems unsure of how to handle
the news, hesitant about whether hes being too hard-line or going too
soft. I liked the dialogue between Richard and Paul, and their relationship, especially as it related to Chad. But theres a whole side story
going on in the book concerning Sandy, Richards wife, who has a hard
time accepting Richards calling and accepting the time hes required
to be gone from the family. While I always tend to roll my eyes at the
and she never complained attitude thats often attributed to the wives
of our leaders, and I appreciated that Langford showed that Sandy felt
resentful of the calling, it almost felt like Langford should have given
that aspect of the novel its own place instead of being lumped in with
the main narrative. It didnt add to Pauls story at all and felt distracting.
Furthermore, the book is set in ! in Oregon, during which
time a referendum about gay marriage was taking place in the state.
For all of the intentional setting during that time period (instead of
making the book just in the more nebulous present time), it feels like
Langford doesnt do enough to establish the effect of the campaigning
and the voting on Pauls experience. I kept expecting something to happen between Paul and Sandy after Sandy decides to work on getting
people to sign petitions against gay marriage, but it never happens.
Despite these minor criticisms, I still really liked the book. In so
many novels written for an LDS audience, Mormon characters seem

Miner: New Mormon Brotherhood

sanitized, as if theyve undergone a good, hot scrubbing before being

sent off from central casting. But Langfords Mormons are the Mormons I know: theyre crusty, they complain about their husbands
callings, they swear, they get depressed, they gossip. These characters
dont try to make a statement about who Mormons are or should be;
they just are. Im sure some people will start reading the book and, if
theyre not put off by the idea of reading about a faithful gay Mormon
teenager, then theyll be uncomfortable with the narrow-mindedness
of some of the other LDS characters. But I thought that the way the
narrative forces LDS readers to deal with uncomfortable truths was
the best part of the book. I also think that Langford wrote the book
with an audience beyond traditional LDS readers in mind: while
Pauls experience is made more difficult because of his culture, its
often difficult for gay teenagers from all sorts of backgrounds to come
to terms with their sexuality.
When I read No Going Back, I worried a little bit about how nonMormon readers might perceive the Mormons in the book (especially
since the book has gained a readership among LGBT audiences).
I cringed when Richard talked to his father-in-law, Charles, about
Paul, because I was embarrassed to be associated with the religiously
packaged homophobia Charles spouted. I also wondered about the
staying power of Langfords story, knowing that No Going Back will
eventually be seen as a product of a time. Its a book thats relevant
today, but Im not sure how relevant it will be in ten or twenty or
Langford doesnt shrink from showing the potentially embarrassing and damaging things Mormons do and say to each other as a
result of our churchs stand on homosexuality. No Going Back touched
a nerve with me, and Im sure it will touch a nerve with all of its readers, no matter where they fall in their relationship to homosexuality
and church policy. But sometimes touching a nerve is a good thing, as
I think it is in the case of this novel.
As I think of what it means to be a Mormon writer, the thing I keep
coming back to is writing about religion and culture in a meaningful
way. Yes, of course there can be writers who are Mormons who write

about things other than their religious experiences, but I relish reading books by Mormon writers, writing about Mormon experiences.
Im delighted to see Paul Flitkin and Jens Thorsen as strong central
male characters in our body of Mormon fiction, characters who complicate our cultural views on what it means to be a Mormon and what
it means to be a Saint. I only hope that equally interesting and complicated female characters will join them.

Aint No Such Thing:

Moving Beyond the First Series
of The Lonely Polygamist Reviews
A Review of Brady Udalls The Lonely Polygami (New York: W. W.
Norton & Co., )

S Maysince before its release in May!Brady

Udalls The Lonely Polygamist has been s most reviewed Mormon
book. Besides the predictable notices in Salt Lake and Boise and New
York, it has also, for starters, been reviewed in Chicago, Boston, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Denver and Portland (at least one of them). Its
been the buzz across the bloggernacle with reviews and commentaries popping up everywherealthough, curiously, most of the larger
Mormon blogs barely touched on it. I myself reviewed the book for A
Motley Vision and followed that up with a post on the cultural aspects
of its marketing, which post was, in turn, cited in New York Times
Book Review (all life is one great round). Udalls been interviewed
about the book in dailies and altweeklies and onlinelies and, just last
issue, here in Irreantum. The AML has already posted online four
reviews of the book, two of which were solicited by the AML from
Russell Y. Anderson and DeWayne Hafen, specifically for their experiences with or knowledge of modern polygamy. Which brings us to
this review and its innate desire to be redundant or reactionary.

. A Great Mormon Novelist: An Interview with Brady Udall by Angela

Hallstrom, Irreantum . ( June ), .
. Andersons review is available at
Review.aspx?id=; Hafens at

I could, for instance, take up arguments over whether (a) the book
is so good (or not), (b) what the main character does is so adultery (or
not), (c) the lifestyle the book depicts is so what modern polygamy
looks like (or not), or (d) the H-bomb tests that occur in the story
are so how things went down (or not). But that wont do any of us any
good. Either you have already read the book or you have not. If you
have, youve likely already made up your mind on the more popular
arguments, broad or petty, and would rather think about something
new. If you have not read the book, you clearly need another reason
to pick it up.
My solution to this problem is to discuss the two solicited AML
reviews and then return to the book and share one single scene
almost as if it were a short storyand from that slice, explain exactly
why The Lonely Polygamist deserves its collective praise. Collective
praise is a bit misleading, though, as Andersons and Hafens reviews
are among the least exuberant to date.
One item that weighed on me as I first approached this book was
empathetic in nature: Just as Im sensitive to inaccurate portrayals of
Mormons in literature, I figured polygamists would have the same
wariness with Udalls book. Yes, he did spend years researching (as
opposed to, say, Andy Greenwald, whose research on Mormons for
his novel Miss Misery, I am convinced, consisted of skimming a Salt
Lake City tour book), but many of the issues Anderson and Hafen
raise still have to do with Udalls verisimilitude in representing s
polygamy in Southern Utah. Anderson, who had recently read nonfiction about modern polygamy, says the book seemed to be written
as a caricature of polygamist life without making it believable and
Hafena polygamist himselfdiscovered that he was the worst
candidate to write a fair review of the book as [t]oo many facts [got]
in the way. They each have other issues with the novel, but primarily
their complaints are over accuracy.
Im sympathetic because accuracy is an issue I have to navigate
when reading books about my fellow (nonpolygamous) Mormons.
When, on the page, Im confronted with A Mormon Not Like Me,
I have often decided that the book itself was simply an inaccurate

Jepson: Aint No Such Thing

description of Mormonism. Ive been angry at fiction with Mormon

characters who drink coffee just when theyre driving, or who preach
from the pulpit that is a more righteous tithing, or who slip
away from their missionary companion to feel up prostitutes, or who
believe that watching movies is of the devil. Because I would never do
any of those things and since I, Eric, am the proto-Mormon (arent we
all?), this book is Wrong.
But thats me being myopic again. While my Mormonism is an
integral part of Being Me, Being Me is not an integral part to being
Mormon; and as one purpose of literature may well be to develop charity for People Not Like Me, maybe I can start by cutting Mormons
Not Like Me some slack. So while I wont doubt Anderson when he
says that polygamists dont build brothels, or Hafen proclaiming they
dont use condoms, I do disagree that this alone is a reason to discount
the books accuracy as representative of one individual polygamist,
if not polygamists generally. Protagonist Golden Richards is racked
with guilt from page one for building a brothel (but how else does
one feed two dozen children during an economic downturn?) and the
complex and highly personal reasons he decides to use a condom at
the end of the book are developed carefully and believably.
Anderson argues against these aberrations from polygamys common reality because fiction has to be believable, but I argue that
believability is not found in meeting cultural norms, but in providing sufficient access to the characters souls that their decisions make
sense within the constraints of their own fictional lives.
However, that said, I am still not a polygamist and I do not wish to
be seen as discounting the validity of their reactions to a book about
themselves. Which is why, in arguing for the merits of the book in
general, I havent selected a scene that requires alignment with my or
your or Udalls notions of polygamous life. Instead, we will look at a
scene that depends only tangentially on Goldens polygamy: his reaction to the death of a beloved daughter.
If you have already decided to read The Lonely Polygamist but
havent yet, and if you are thus concerned about this review giving
away too much information, stop reading now and come back upon

finishing. For the rest of us, know that when I said a beloved daughter
I was engaged in gross understatement. From the beginning of her life,
Grace is different. She is born severely handicapped, and Golden is
afraid to love her. But when he opens his heart to her, it opens wider
than it ever had before. She is unlike his other children, to whom he
must appear to be fair at all times (a stick of gum for one means a stick
of gum for each). No one complains or gets jealous of the time and
special attention he heaps upon Grace, and as a result, his fathers
love, sealed off for so long by his own insecurities and weaknesses,
gushe[s] out of him ().
The one-on-one time Golden devotes to Grace results in her progressing beyond her doctors expectations. She even learns to stand
and take tottering steps on crutches. But this miracle, in a moment
of Goldens inattention, leads to her falling into the river adjacent to
their home and being swept away. Goldens subsequent raging grief is
a necessary outcome; Udall has set up his pain so well that moments
like his attacking an ostrich or stealing an empty coffin can retain
their inherent comedy while deepening the pathos we feel. Goldens
rampage ends in the cemetery as he punishes his body with a shovel
and soil as he digs his daughters grave, the physical repetitions blanking his mind and delivering his first respite from grief and guiltthe
relief that comes with pulling a splinter from under a fingernail ().
As he labors, the sheriff pulls up and walks over to him:
Got a call, the sheriff said, holding his creased face to the sun. Grave
robbery in progress. After the mischief youve been up to these past
twenty-four hours, I figured it might be you. ()

Although Golden doesnt want to talk to the sheriff, hes glad for
the break (). The sheriff watches Golden, talks with him. This
sheriff is a man who, a decade and a half ago, had lost his entire
family to a car accident, succumbed to alcoholism, and then, [w]ith
nothing left to lose . . . ran for sheriff . . . [with] pathetic hand-lettered
signs (). To the communitys surprise, he won and threw himself into his new job. His drinking lessened and he dedicated every
sober moment to serving and protecting the communityspending

Jepson: Aint No Such Thing

the night outside a nervous womans home, refurbishing the rodeo

grandstands with prison labor, pulling over hot-rodders.
Golden accepts the sheriff s offer of orange juice, then asks if he
has come to arrest himfor attempted ostrichcide, perhaps. Maybe
later . . . . Right now, Id like you to tell me where I might find an extra
spade (). The sheriff, like Golden, had found solace in his labor,
and now, together, they stand back to back and dig a hole for another
lost child, the sheriff telling casual stories and passing the time as,
shovelful after shovelful, they sink into the ground.
The story of these two men digging Graces grave lasts five pages.
It is simple and lyrical, slipping from its primary setting into the past
(both the sheriff s gossip and the guilt-ridden family histories they do
not speak of ) and the future (the funeral to be held later that day). Its
good writing. The sort of thing you expect from a lauded book. But
where Udall proves his excellence is at scenes end. Theyre nearly six
feet down when the sheriff decides to leave and let Golden finish alone.
He tossed his shovel out and turned to face Golden. Their eyes met
and they stood like that for a moment, two men in a hole. Golden felt
his throat thicken, the backs of his eyes sting with tears, and the old
sheriff stepped forward and gave him a quick hard squeeze on the
forearm to prevent any unnecessary blubbering. Youre gonna make it
bud, I know you will. ()

A nice bit of sentiment, as two men approach what they have not
yet directly addressed, but in a manner vague and manly and nonspecific. It allows them both to maintain their masculine characters while
letting the reader feel that yes, its true, everything will be all right,
time heals all wounds, and so on.
But: A girl has died. A beautiful innocent little girl. A girl who
loved her father as much as he loved her. And youre gonna make it
mattereth not one whit to her soggy corpse or her mourning father or,
by proxy, to the reader.
The sheriff, through experience, understands this lack, and so the
scene does not end with that sentiment, though it certainly could
haveperhaps eight out of ten good writers would have smiled with

their skill at crafting emotion and moved on. But the sheriff knows
that his words are hollow and unimportant, as nice and suitable as
they might sound. And so as he stands outside the grave, strapping
his gun back on, he recalls the words of another polygamist whod
extolled the virtues of the Principal. Safety in numbers, that father
had said. But now the sheriff looks around the cemetery, sighs, and
adds, Aint no such thing ().
This excerpt is representative of the excellence that runs throughout The Lonely Polygamist and why this novel demands our serious
attention: It does not stop pushing its characters when they find a first
solution; it does not satisfy itself with the answer weve heard before;
it does not stick to either the caricatures or the reality of polygamy.
The Lonely Polygamist asks more of its characters than that. Just as they,
on the final page, [hope] to convince themselves, once and for all, that
they are that most wondrous and impossible of things: one big happy
family (), so are we asked to broaden our concepts of that most
wondrous and impossible of things. Udalls unerring realism, even in
the face of the seeming ridiculous, makes the wondrous and impossible seem everyday and plausible. While arguments over his success in
accurately capturing s polygamy may matter, as a fiction, Udalls
novel is a real and beautiful and big happy accomplishment.

God Will Pour Out His Spirit upon All Flesh

A critical review of Jack Harrells collection of short ories,
A Sense of Order and Other Stories (Signature Books, )

I A :, is written that God will pour out His Spirit upon

all flesh. To those who seek to do the Lords will in these latter days,
this promise may come as a sweet reminder of what is in store for
the righteous. But do we really understand the meaning of such a
prophecy? What does it mean to feel the Lords Spirit? Doctrine
and Covenants : states, But behold, I say unto you, that you must
study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it
is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore,
you shall feel that it is right. This scripture gives insight into what one
might feel after seeking the Lord. Is this also the confirming Spirit
that is felt when one has done as the Lord commands? Is this feeling
evidence that one has received knowledge of divine truth as well? In
A Sense of Order and Other Stories, Jack Harrells short fiction tackles
questions such as these, and suggests that the Savior does not have a
one size fits all policy when communicating with His children. The
Lord has the power to reach us in the precise way that He sees fit, no
matter how simple or elaborate that connection may be.
In Harrells collection, we meet several characters who are trying
to understand new truths. Whether it be the principle of agency, the
spirit of revelation, or the concept of having ones calling and election
made sure, new truth causes these vivid characters to question their
reality and the existence they once knew.
Harrells characters are average people, the proverbial others who
surround us every day. But these characters, for all their seeming
ordinariness, experience the extraordinary. Harrells stories remind
us how easy it is to fail to see others the way the Savior does, and

Nelson: God Will Pour Out His Spirit

bring to mind C. S. Lewiss thoughts on the power of the individual.

Lewis writes:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,
to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk
to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be
strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such
as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in
some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe
and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all
our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere
mortal. ()

Harrells Tregans Mettle thematically underscores the idea of

an individuals worth. In the story, we are introduced to Tregan, a
high school student from Rexburg, Idaho. Tregans interests lie outside those of his peers in a predominately LDS community. He is
described as having hair that was fine and straight, reaching halfway
down his back. He kept it clean and combed, dyed jet black, with a
few strands of red and blond showing through (Harrell ). Needless
to say, Tregan does not fit in with his classmates with their varsity
jackets and all-American looks. And yet, to Tregans (and the readers)
surprise, this offbeat and somewhat renegade protagonist is visited by
Jesus Christ himself, although this image of Jesus is different from the
portraits of the Savior sold in Deseret Book. Tregan notices this Jesus
waiting for him on the side of the road and says, He looked like him.
I mean, he wasnt like in the pictures. He had his hair in a ponytail
and he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. But it was him. I know it was
him (Harrell ).
In this story, Harrell writes of a world where the Lord is acutely
aware of His childrens potential and divine nature and is clearly not
a respecter of persons. Jesus Christs physical appearance is a true testament of Harrells understanding of the personal relationship each
individual may have with his or her Savior. Jesus does not present

himself bathed in light and heralded by angels. Instead, he is dressed

in a T-shirt and jeans, waiting patiently on the side of the road.
Jesuss casual, friendly interaction with Tregan called to mind my
personal relationship with Christ. There have been many times in my
life when Ive felt His presencefelt Him supporting me in my infirmities. But for meas for mostthat is the extent of the interaction.
There are times when we might wish that He could sit with us. We
might long to see Him for the being that He is, of flesh and blood,
not just some ideal, but as a thinking, breathing, physical friend. As a
reader, I can identify with Tregan. I am far from having it all figured
out. I am imperfect. I am fallen. But I take solace in my personal relationship with Christ. And just as He is there for Tregan, He is there
for me when no one else is.
In A Sense of Order and Other Stories, Harrell asks us to step out of
our comfort zones and to question our relationships with our loved
ones, our Savior, and our society. He understands the nature of these
relationships and seamlessly integrates tension, complexity, pain, and
beauty into this collection. He lends his hand to the reader and gently
asks him or her to follow himmaking no promises about where this
path will lead. In this sense, Harrell is like the trickster characters in
this collection. Additionally, Harrell has an acute understanding of
human nature, specifically the power and potential of the individual.
This understanding has served and will serve as a testament of Harrells credibility as a writer and effective storyteller. Consequently, his
readers may identify with these carefully crafted and very real characters and with the unique situations that they face. But most importantly, Harrell truly understands that humans are imperfect beings.
They are sometimes weak, sometimes the epitome of strength. But
they are all children of the Most High God, seeking to know who
they are and what the Lord has in store for them.

Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York:
Harper Collins, .

The Whitney Awards:

Seeking the Best Books, Finding Ourselves
Reviews of Whitney Award Winners:
David Farlands In the Company of Angels (DFE, )
Dan Wellss I Am Not A Serial Killer (Tor, )
Carol Lynch Williamss The Chosen One (St. Martins Griffin, )

T W A, for Orson F. Whitney, honor novels

written by LDS authors. Each year the Whitney Academy recognizes
authors in Romance, Speculative Fiction, Mystery/Suspense, Historical Fiction, Youth Fiction, and General Fiction categories, in addition
to awarding a Best Novel and a Best Novel by a New Author. The
process begins with reader nominations. Any reader may nominate
any book published by a Mormon author in a given year. The nominations may include books from national publishing houses, books designated specifically for the LDS market, or even self-published books.
When a book receives five nominations, a panel of judges reads it and
then determines, from all books so nominated, which will continue
as finalists to be voted on by industry professionals in the Whitney
Academy. As a Whitney Academy member for the past two years,
Ihave read each finalist, voted on my favorites, and blogged about the
process on It has been enlightening.
The Whitney Awards celebrate the best writing by Mormon authors,
but not just for the sake of self-congratulation. Rather, Robison Wells
founded them to both raise the profile of popular LDS fiction and to
encourage LDS authors to write to a higher standard. As he explains
in the online magazine Mormon Artist: There are lots of great books
available, but its hard to sift through the mediocre and find the amazing.
That was the ultimate genesis of the Whitney AwardsI was looking
for a way for LDS fiction to gain more respect (Chesley and Dillard).

Defenders of LDS fiction claim that the writing is much, much better
than people say, and that not enough readers give LDS fiction a fair
shake. Critics roll their eyes and mention the often shallow portrayal of
Mormonism; flat, stereotypical characters; and weak editing.
I had not read much LDS fiction prior to participating in the Whitney Academy, and I came to the experience biased against it, but with
little actual knowledge. I suspect that others may share this general
bias, based on one or two past reading experiences rather than familiarity with the current LDS market. As I read for myself to determine
my own opinions, an activity Mormons can take to heart with texts
besides the scriptures, I have been surprised and delighted by some
great finds (s Counting the Cost, s Waiting for the Light to
Change). I have also found a couple of books (they shall remain nameless) whose pages I could barely stand to turn. And I confess that
my favorite Mormon-authored books are usually published nationally,
not locally, but that is not always the case. Two of my favorites last year
were Josi Kilpacks Lemon Tart (Deseret Book) and Michelle Paige
Holmess All the Stars in Heaven (Covenant). Kudos to the Whitneys
for not making these awards into a Covenant!Deseret Book!Cedar
Fort lovefest, but really including all relevant authors. Of s nine
award winners, two are self-published, four are published by national
houses, and three are published locallya wide range that shows the
diversity of the LDS writing community.
Among the winners, three in particular tackle questions of
history and doctrine important to Mormons, and its these three
novels Ill focus on in this review. In the Company of Angels wrestles
with the paradoxes inherent in the Mormon mandate to follow the
prophet, even when we are commanded to do something foolhardy or
. The Whitney Awards top winners include In the Company of Angels (Best
Novel; self-published), Gravity vs. the Girl (tie for Best Novel by a New Author; selfpublished), I Am Not a Serial Killer (tie for Best Novel by a New Author; Tor), Servant
of a Dark God (Speculative Fiction; Tor), The Last Waltz (Historical Fiction; Shadow
Mountain), Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (General Fiction; Ballantine), The
Chosen One (Youth Fiction; St. Martins Griffin), Methods of Madness (Mystery/
Suspense; Covenant), and Counting the Cost (Romance; Inglestone).

Milner: Whitney Awards

dangerous. I Am Not a Serial Killer analyzes the question of extreme

agency: how do we choose good in the face of our fallenor, in this
case, sociopathicnatures? And The Chosen One tells the story of
a young girl escaping a polygamous marriage to her uncle; as Brady
Udall says in Irreantums previous issue (Spring/Summer ), stories of modern-day polygamy are a mirror of ourselves and our own
lives as they were, and as they might have been.

In the Company of Angels is New York Times best-selling author David
Farlands account of the Willie Handcart Company, a tale well known
to Mormons. Farland makes the story fresh and original by telling it
through the eyes of Eliza Gadd, a nonmember traveling with her husband; Captain Willie, the companys well-meaning, dogmatic leader;
and Bodil Mortenson, a Danish girl journeying to Utah without her
family. The three characters and unique voices add interest to the story,
but they do more than that: each seems to represent a certain attitude
toward the paradox of obedience to unwise counsel. Elizas skeptical
and cynical obedience, Captain Willies dogmatism, and Bodils faithful attempts to serve everyone: each point of view highlights a different way to approach this story, the most tragic and martyr filled of the
Mormon pioneer journey. Farlands skillful storytelling gives an effective, non-contrived epiphany for these pioneers. The dogmatic Captain Willie realizes that the warnings of Levi Savage for his company
to wait a season were not apostasy, but wise counsel. Eliza understands that, in spite of coming on a journey that everyone warned
them against, God helped and sustained them as much as divinely
possible along the way. Bodils love for others and capacity to serve
increase until, dying, she discovers the lights of Zion (). She does
not worry as the adults do about whether or not she should be on this
journey, or why God isnt helping her more. She focuses on serving
others as much as she can, so that her journey is less about her own
pain and more about easing her fellow travelers burdens. Bodil epitomizes the pioneer ethic we honor each July, an ideal that can come

across as unattainably good. Perhaps she is, but Farlands writing gives
Bodil a voice with authentic, and therefore inspirational, simplicity.
Farland, to his credit, unflinchingly tells the whole complicated
story of the Willie handcart company, a story which places FranklinD. Richards in an unflattering light. Richards met with the company on his way home from a mission, but rather than stay to assist
them, chose to hurry on home to Utah, promising them that they
would be kept safe if they had enough faith. The resulting catastrophe showed the selfishness of Richardss actions, and Brigham Young
publicly chastised him for not doing more to help the handcart companies. I appreciated very much Farlands willingness to face head-on
Richardss problematic behavior. Orson Scott Card, writing for the
Mormon Times, explains it this way:
Unfortunately, Farlands excellent research brought him face-to-face
with the fact that my own great-great-grandfather, Apostle Franklin
D. Richards, behaved rather badly.
So badly, in fact, that President Brigham Young himself accused
Richards of being proud and not listening to the Spirit, while publicly
saying that Levi Savage had been in the right to warn the Martin and
Willie companies not to cross the plains so late in the season.
We descendants of Franklin D. Richards, who ended his life as
president of the Quorum of the Twelve, are rightfully proud of his
lifes work. But there is no denying that on this occasion he behaved
unwisely and, in the view of most of the witnesses, proudly, making
false promises and coercive statements that clearly did not turn out to
have come from the Lord.
However loyal Richards descendants might wish to be, we cannot
fault Farland for depicting him in his novel exactly the way his own
contemporaries saw him!

Farlands honest portrayal of the flaws of both Richards and Willie

strengthens this book, adding depth and resonance. At some point
in their membership, many members of the Church will encounter
leaders with whom they disagree, and they may suffer as they attempt
to follow such leaders counsel. The Willie handcart pioneers, as
depicted in Farlands book, show both the tragedy and the grace that

Milner: Whitney Awards

result from following well-meaning, sometimes misguided men. In the

Company of Angels is a powerful novel, and Farlands honesty, combined with his use of multiple viewpoints, allows us to see this classic
and significant incident in a new, clear light.

Dan Wells, in his Whitney acceptance speech, stated that horror is
the most moral genre, and while I am not enough of a horror fan to
gauge the truth of this statement, I Am Not a Serial Killer is indeed
a book filled with delicious moral dilemmas. Delicious may be an
unfortunate word choice, as Wellss sociopathic protagonist frequently
uses food imagery when describing deaththe row of embalming
fluids looks like the syrup containers at a sno-cone stand ()but
delicious describes well the impossible decisions with which John
Wayne Cleaver wrestles. Cleaver does not blame his condition as a
sociopath for his actions, though. As Elder Robert D. Hales points
out in the October conference, agency, or the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for [ourselves] and not to be
acted upon is central to our doctrine. I Am Not a Serial Killer is all
about agency, as John Wayne Cleaver, destined by pathology and by
his very name to be a serial killer, fights against his darker tendencies.
In one exchange with his therapist, he explains the rules that keep his
serial killer instincts at bay: I have rules to keep myself from doing
anything . . . wrong. . . . I specifically want to avoid becoming a serial
killer. I just dont know how much chance I have ().
Cleaver explains his rules: no contact with animals. Compliment
people he wants to hurt. Ignore people he wants to watch, so he wont
become obsessed with them. He has set up an elaborate system, a
kind of artificial conscience, to guide him away from his sociopathic
nature. And then his therapist tells him this: You have a lot of predictors for serial-killer behaviorin fact, I think you have more predictors than I have ever seen in one person. But you have to remember
that predictors are just thatthey predict what might happen, they
dont prophesy what will happen (). When John Wayne Cleaver

deliberately overrides his rules in pursuit of a higher good, the ensuing wrestle with himself isyesa delicious combination of nobility
and creepiness, and raises questions of when it is all right to indulge
the natural man. The novel works as an exploration of agency, as a
horror/suspense novel, as a mystery, and as a portrait of the isolation
and otherness of teenage angst at its most extreme.

Carol Lynch Williamss The Chosen One has the most beautiful, elegant writing of all the Whitney finalists. But its not just about
the writing; its also a compelling portrait of a girl facing the worst
implications of obedience to what she has been taught. Im weirdly
fascinated by fundamentalist polygamy, like anyone who wants to
know what might have happened if they had chosen A instead of B.
The LDS Church opted against polygamy, but Fundamentalist Mormons chose to stay with it. So any modern polygamy book reads, for
me, like a kind of alternate reality.
And it is a frightening reality indeed, with Kira, the novels thirteen-year-old protagonist, fantasizing about killing the authoritarian
leader of their community, the Prophet; hiding clandestine books
from her family; and facing marriage to her own uncle. In spite of the
grim details of polygamous life, Williams takes care to make most
of the polygamists themselves sympathetic, with the exception of the
Prophet and Kiras leering uncle. Kira loves her mother, her father,
and her siblings. She cares for them enough that love for family nearly
prevents her from escaping her impending marriage.
Kiras voice is young and innocent and wise all at the same time.
Williamss story makes the polygamists seem human, not people to
be stared at, as in a freak show, but people to be understood. Though
the ending is a bit melodramatic and over the top, it does not detract
too much from the overall power and empathy of Williamss writing.
If Latter-day Saints see polygamists as ourselves distorted, looking
through a funhouse mirror, Williams takes away the distortion and
brings clarity.

Milner: Whitney Awards

In the Company of Angels, I Am Not a Serial Killer, and The Chosen

One are all excellent examples of combining LDS history or doctrine
with deft storytelling. The Whitney Academy, in my biased opinion,
chose well, and this years other winners are also compelling. Does
this mean that Wellss vision, of raising the profile and literary standards of LDS writers, has succeeded? I think the Whitneys are young
enough that an answer to that question would be premature; however,
I do believe that for me, the Whitneys have increased my respect for
LDS fiction and LDS authors. I have been introduced to works that
force me to think about the LDS faith, doctrine, and history, in new
and enlightening ways. The Whitneys may or may not help Mormons
discover the next Milton or Shakespeare, but these awards are a wonderful way to celebrate writing that both honors who we are and helps
us see ourselves more clearly.

Card, Orson Scott. Nothing to Fear from the Truth, Mormon
Times July
Chesley, Amelia and Davey Morrison Dillard.Robison Wells. Mormon
Artist Jan :
Hales, Robert D. Agency, Essential to the Plan of Life, Ensign Nov
: .

About the Artist

J H nationally recognized photographer based

in Utah, working throughout the United States for a variety of wedding, portrait, corporate and editorial clients.
His photographs have shown in the Finch Lane Gallery, Art Access
Gallery, the Central Utah Art Center, the Kimball Art Center, the
Springville Art Museum, the Millennium Art Center, Photo District
News, Photographers Forum, and American Photo. Selected pieces
have been acquired by the Utah Arts Council and the Millennium
Art Center for their permanent collections.
He lives in Provo with his wife and two boys. He is happy.

W I kid, Id get out boxes of old photographs. Id stare at
those pictures of my parents when they were younger and thinner
and Id try to learn something that I didnt already know from those
pictures. I tried to peer into the images and wanted desperately for
them to reveal some hidden truth and my folks and about my life.
Theres a picture of me and Brad Edwards, sitting in the dirt, playing with a couple of trucks. I cant be entirely certain if I can actually
remember that day, or just remember looking at a picture of that day.
Another image: my father standing by a motorcycle he no longer has.
He was skinny and his hair was dark brown, not gray. He must have
been about . I was a little baby and sat on the seat of the bike. My
sister, just a couple years older than me, sat there, too.
Sometimes I hear people say they dont want to be photographed.
They dont like how they look, they tell me. They want to wait until
they loose a few pounds, they say. That always makes me sad. Dont


they see, the pictures arent for them. They are for their children, for
their families, who will look at those pictures and be so glad someone
had the foresight to take them.


J A holds an MFA in creative writing from Old Dominion

University and a BA in English from BYU. He taught composition at
the American University in Cairo from , and he currently
teaches American literature, creative writing, and professional writing
at BYUIdaho. He has four children and is currently at work on his
first novel.
M D-B resides in Singapore with her husband, Randall, and the two youngest of their four children, Dalton and
Luc. (Their daughter, Claire, studies at BYUProvo.) This is the sixth
international address she has called home, having lived in Hong Kong,
Vienna, Olso, Paris, and Munich. She took a BA in German and an
MA in comparative literature from BYU, and taught German, humanities, English, and writing at the university level. In addition to serving
actively in local Church congregations, Melissa is expanding her poetry
portfolio, compiling a grief anthology, and completing a memoir of her
firstborn, Parker.
S C, an inveterate comma splicer, is the editor of Sunstone Magazine, and author of the personal essay collection What of
the Night? (Zarahemla Books). He loves swimming, but isnt very
good at it.
S C C lives in Rexburg, Idaho with his wife,
Hilary, and the wonderful chaos of four young children, who have
made poetry writing time scarce, but the poetry that comes out of
it better. Two of his poems received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg
Poetry Prize in .


A C grew up in Cedar City, Utah, and attended BYU, where

she received a degree in English Teaching and met her husband Scott.
They decided to exchange topography for vegetation and moved to
Ithaca, New York, where they lived for five years before returning
toUtah to live in Orem. She is a former high school English teacher
who writes after her three sons are in bed. She loves reading, running,
eating, and listening to her husband play guitar.
C C grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and she is a
creative writing graduate student at Brigham Young University. If she
finds something she likes, shell listen/read/eat/play it over and over
until she (and everyone in proximity) doesnt like it anymore. She
hasnt yet tired of chocolate-chocolate donuts, snow skiing, or yoga,
and it will be a dark day when she does.
L O F lives in Heber, Utah with her sculptor husband, Peter. She has published poetry in Irreantum and Exponent II
and most recently an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly.
E C G lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her
husband (having finally completed her long stint in the LDS singles
program). She taught English full time at a community college for
the past six years, until recently deciding to take an indefinite break
to start a family and spend more time on what she really loves
writing poetrythis publication being one of the fruits. Her work
has appeared in Segullah and Eudaimonia Poetry Review, and she
serves as the Assistant Editor for the Georgia Poetry Societys Reach
of Song.
H H lives in Utah, where she is a PR writer for a
software firm. She graduated from Utah Valley University with a BS
in English. Heather was a finalist in Writers Digest annual writing
contest, and was awarded the Edna Meudt Memorial Award for her
chapbook, Floodplain. Her work has appeared in The New Era and

W H is the author of Mapping the Bones of the World

(Signature). He teaches technical communication, editing, and writing natural history at UVU.
E W J has published fiction in Dialogue, Arkham Tales and
many less reputable outlets. He was the lead editor of The Fob Bible,
guest-edited the recent all-comics issue of Sunstone, and is co-editor
with William Morris of the upcoming Mormons & Monsters anthology. He blogs on the Mormon arts at A Motley Vision and runs the
Thmazing suite of websites.
E M lives in Utah and enjoys reading. Her nine overflowing bookshelves reflect this. She served a mission to Ecuador and
graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature. She is a member of
the Whitney Academy and the editorial board of Segullah.
S M M has a BA in English Teaching from Brigham
Young University, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and is currently working on an MFA in
Creative Writing at BYU. She writes for Feminist Mormon Housewives and the Mormon Women Project and keeps a book review blog
at Shelah Books It. She lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and
four children.
M S N is a graduate of Brigham Young University
Idaho. She is currently working toward completing an online master's
degree from the University of Southern California. She and her husband, Jeff, live in Rexburg, Idaho.
A S R holds a BA in English from Brigham Young
University and is working on an MA. She lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband and their two toy poodles.
R Ss fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the
Salt Lake City Weekly, The MacGuffin, Dialogue, where he won the


Best in Fiction Award, Grist, and Santa Monica Review. Recently,

Ryan received Second Prize in the USC Edward W. Moses
Graduate Creative Writing Competition. A PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California,
Ryan lives in Burbank with his wife and two children. He once shared
a plate of bacon with George Saunders at a caf in Athens, Ohio.
D T writes mostly Mormon fiction. He graduated
from BYU in English, took an MA at Stanford, and an MFA at Iowa.
He teaches fiction writing at BYU. Doug has published three novels:
Summer Fire, The Conversion of Jeff Williams, The Tree House; two
collections of short stories: Under the Cottonwoods, Mr. Wahlquist in
Yellowstone; and a memoir: Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood. Prizes and
awards for his work include an AML Novel Prize, a Utah Fine Arts
Award for a Collection of Short Stories, a Dialogue Prize for the Short
Story and for the Personal Essay, and the Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters given
by AML. He is currently finishing up a new collection of Mormon
stories and a YA novel. Doug is married to editor-writer-attorney
Donlu DeWitt. They have six children and an increasing number of
S Ts stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review,
Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, Haydens Ferry Review, The Normal
School and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing at Brigham Young
University, and lives in Provo, Utah with his wife and two sons.

Thanks to Our Donors

T A M L gratefully acknowledges
the following members who have made an extra contribution by paying AML dues at the Lifetime, Sustaining, or Contributing levels. In
addition, we have listed those who have received an honorary lifetime
membership in recognition of their influence and achievements in
Mormon literature.
L M ( )


Marilyn Brown
LaVerna Bringhurst Johnson
The Eugene England Foundation

Lavina Fielding Anderson

Elouise Bell
Wayne Booth*
Mary L. Bradford
Richard Cracroft
James DArc
Terryl L. Givens
John S. Harris
Edward Hart
Bruce Jorgensen
Gerald Lund
William Mulder
Hugh Nibley*
Levi Peterson
Thomas F. Rogers
Steven P. Sondrup
Douglas Thayer
Emma Lou Thayne
Laurel T. Ulrich
Terry Tempest Williams
William A. Wilson

S M ( )
Merilyn Alexander
Elouise Bell
Signature Books
Marny Ann Taylor
C M ()
R. Don Oscarson
Cherry & Barnard Silver
Bruce Smith
Farrell M. Smith


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