An air of old hotel about him: bitters and rye,
pornographers in penguin suits, glaucous Dover sole.
Derringer words—doff, peruse—
which he hardly needs to use, to use.
Morals as involved as baklava.
He brushes crumbs from his lapel as if he had one.
Death? Who knew the rube’s recessive treasures
better than he, who knew himself?
So he folded, a paragon of suave
aced at the end by galumphing luck.
Ignoring the cabbage, the melon and cucumber
—no disrespect meant—I concentrate
on the quince Juan Sánchez Cotán painted
in Naples Yellow, poisonous stuff, mixed with white
judging by the postcard someone sent me
years ago. It hangs on a string, a world to itself,
a quintessence, a quiddity of quince
caught between a jaundiced mortal pallor
and golden life, a hair’s breadth, a breath apart.
To eat this thing raw it must be blotched and bletted,
so best boil it down to dulce de membrillo,
making red jelly out of that hard yellow
—even this size, you feel its density and weight
forged from the steel sunlight of Toledo.
The bistro was tucked into an obscure corner of the West Village, on one of the narrow cobbled streets where tourists always had to stop and look at their maps. Laurel supposed she ought to have heard of it; from her seat next to the window she could see a growing cluster of hopeful patrons shivering outside. Max explained that it had been written up in a magazine, and poured more red wine into her squat short-stemmed glass.
The place was so small, everything had been downsized to fit. Patrons settled on wooden stools at little round tables where tea lights flickered in miniature votives, and cut into their food with slender, weightless forks and knives. With the low ceiling and dark wood beams, it was like being inside a wine cask. At the table in front of Laurel’s, two girls with the angular look of models sat narrowly on their stools, like Egyptian cats. To her right, a pair of white-haired men in tweed jackets sat so close she could smell the bitter vapors rising from their tiny shots of espresso. Even the food was small. That was because it was French.
Though Laurel was herself petite, she felt oversize, clumsy on her wooden stool. This was her second date with Max—“short for Makoto,” according to their online exchange—and she was drastically out of practice.
Between them, their first course waited coldly on a little porcelain saucer. Apparently it was the restaurant’s signature dish. “The article said barely any places in the U.S. serve it,” Max was saying. He was Laurel’s age, late thirties, with dark, adeptly tousled hair that made him look rakish. Online, he had written in all lowercase, giving him a busy, no-time-for capitalization air. Laurel liked him so far. Enough that she had agreed to a second date, and to the oeuf en gelée.
She tapped at it with her fork, dimpling the gelatin. The dark yolk stared up, little green peas hovering in the aspic along with a strip of ham, some parsley leaves, and a truly diminutive cornichon. The ocher tinge of the aspic made these elements seem ancient, like insects fixed in amber.
“Wait.” Max slipped his phone out. “Don’t think less of me for doing this.”
He snapped a photo.
“One of us had to do it,” Laurel said. “Though, to be honest, I don’t understand how the cosmos hasn’t imploded from all our food photos.”
“Right, for all we know they mate and replicate.”
“There should be a collective graveyard or something.” She didn’t mean to sound morbid.
Max lifted his fork. His fingertips were slender, his nails pale and square. He scooped the fork sideways through the gelatin, into the egg. Laurel watched the velvet yolk begin to seep out. There was also a leaf of something green. Max took a bite with a crust of baguette.
“Is it good?” one of the white-haired men asked.
It was as if they were all on one collective date. “Mmm-hmm,” Max said, still chewing. He didn’t seem to mind these strangers observing their courtship ritual. Probably Laurel was the strange one, from having been out of the ring for so long. When she’d first signed up on the dating app, she had tried to explain: I was caring for a sick friend. Though it was the truth, the words looked wrong, cloying, and she had deleted them. If she’d been a widow, she could have said, “My husband died,” and it wouldn’t have sounded odd. But there wasn’t a word for who she had become. And although a full year had somehow managed to pass without Viv in it, Laurel still felt like a teacup someone had smashed and then glued back together.
“Your turn,” Max said.
Beside her, the white-haired men spoke in murmurs. Laurel lifted her nearly weightless fork, the tines clinking against the edge of the plate, and a wisp of thought blew through her, gone before she could catch it. An uneasy feeling—she shook it away, cut into her half of the egg. Her bite tasted of peppercorn. One of the cat girls said, “It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s that I’m morally opposed to him.”
With a disc of baguette, Laurel dabbed at the yolk. “It’s good,” she said.
Max’s eyes brightened. He must still like her, then, to care what she thought of the food. Even so, it seemed to her somehow incredible that they could ever become closer than they were right now, eating from opposite sides of an oeuf en gelée. That people could somehow go from being strangers atop separate stools to couples exchanging quiet, easy murmurings.
Max helped himself to another wedge of baguette. Maybe he, too, searched, sometimes, for a missing friend in crowded streets. Maybe he, too, held conversations in his head with a dead person.
“I knew an artist,” she told him, “who, when everyone was starving in South Sudan, started doing these paintings of food. She had an office job during the day, and she’d come home in the evening and, instead of making dinner, she’d do a watercolor of a fruit bowl or, you know, a loaf of bread.”
The first painting was a single McIntosh apple; Viv said she had been about to eat one but had instead made herself paint it for an hour while her stomach twinged. After that, every evening, she would take some item of food from the fridge and sketch or paint it for as long as she could bear.
“Aren’t they still starving in Sudan?”
“You’re probably right.” Laurel took a gulp of the dark red wine. “It’s like time compresses. I don’t know what’s from last week or five years ago.”
“But, I mean, go on—your friend’s paintings.”
“She’d always donated to causes like that, even though she didn’t have much money. But it made her feel guilty to just make a donation and then look away. Doing the paintings was different. Although, of course, she knew her hunger wasn’t anything like actual starvation.”
“It was an act of solidarity.”
“Except she realized she wasn’t doing it right. It took a few days, but she realized she couldn’t have the actual food in front of her while she painted. She needed to have to imagine it.”
Max was nodding. “Was she right? Did being hungry affect how she pictured the food?”
“I guess really you’d have to see ones from when she wasn’t hungry. To compare.” Most of the paintings had gone to Viv’s parents, but Laurel had kept three: one of the McIntosh apples, a bowl of red peppers so curvaceous they were nearly pornographic, and a hard-boiled egg lying pristinely next to a thick slice of bread. Sometimes, panicked that she was already forgetting, she made herself picture the others, too. Though perhaps longing had warped her memory of them. “But, yes, that was the idea. That absence would become tangible.”
“A presence,” Max said, and grinned. “You can write the exhibition notes.” Laurel took another forkful of egg. Even though she had never believed in ghosts or an afterlife, for some reason she had expected to feel Viv near her in some way. She kept waiting to sense some whiff of her. But Viv had been an atheist and refused to make an appearance. Only when Laurel managed to forget to miss her—sometimes for hours, or even, lately, almost entire days—did she think she could sense, like glowing coals, Viv’s hot fury at being ignored.
“How long did she do that for?” Max asked. “Painting while hungry.”
“I don’t remember exactly.” Viv had kept drawing and painting until there were no more treatments to try, not even hideous experimental ones. But Laurel didn’t want to talk about that. Either there would be time for that later or there wouldn’t be.
At the next table, the morally opposed girl was asking for the check. Her face looked impossibly smooth. Max said, “Here, have some more before I finish the whole thing.”
Laurel reached with the stunted fork. Again she felt a hint of something barely there.
A tiny platter of ceramic food. A miniature balsawood table built from a kit. Her dollhouse—she hadn’t thought of it in ages, not since she’d given it away to a girl she babysat. There was a cat that was really a little black pom-pom with glued-on plastic eyeballs and whiskers of white thread, and a bedside table that was really a wooden spool with a circle of fabric secured over it, and little rubber-limbed dolls with painted-on shoes.
Something in her relaxed, now that she knew what the feeling was. That it was a memory, and not Viv’s hot fury. She mopped up more egg with the baguette while one of the men at the next table reached to wipe some crumbs from the other’s mouth. An automatic gesture, of which neither seemed aware. Max had made more progress on his side of the egg, and Laurel quickly took another bite to catch up with him before the main course arrived. By now the aspic had been reduced to a thin gelatinous border.
“You finish it,” Max said.
“No, you. Really. I don’t mind.”
“You can say if you didn’t like it. Oh, God—did you hate it?”
“No, no.” To prove it, she took another scoop, and what was left of the gelatin crumbled.
Using a scrap of bread to draw a theatrical swoosh through the air, Max swiped up what little remained on the plate. “Gone.”
On the sidewalk, waiting patrons huddled in clusters, monitoring the diners’ progress. Through the warbled glass of the windows, the room was a dim chamber of light and shade. A waitress twisted her way between tables, ferrying a check along. Seated so close, stooped over their meals, everyone seemed to be confiding something. Candle tips winked like caught fireflies.Continue reading
Once again, the Taylor sisters were late. While we waited, Brother Michaels and I busied ourselves with exercise in the church parking lot. I did lunges in my white shirt and tie, then fell to the asphalt and fought my way through push-ups until tiny rocks dug indentations into my palms. A decade earlier, Brother Michaels had been a defensive tackle at Brigham Young, and he claimed that working up a good sweat was the secret to earning your way into God’s inner circle. He often reminded us of all the prophets—Moses, Christ, Nephi, even Joseph Smith—who’d gone fasting in the wilderness or hiking up mountains in search of answers. Brother Michaels claimed it wasn’t just distance and solitude they needed, but old-fashioned exhaustion, which led to the clarity the prophets had longed for. Most mornings, our seminary class worked our bodies for a good half-hour, fighting through squats and planks in the yard outside church before heading inside the chapel, where Brother Michaels and his wife, Sister Michaels, taught us about scripture, eternal marriage, and missionary work. First we’d split ourselves open, and then the truth could slip into the cracks.
“A good missionary has to keep in shape,” Brother Michaels said as I popped to my feet. “You can’t expect God to take care of you if you don’t take care of yourself.”
The morning was cool—early October, with a layer of dew on the grass. I stood on the edge of the sidewalk while Brother Michaels droned on about the miracles he’d experienced on his mission to Peru. He’d climbed the Andes, made lifelong friends, and baptized dozens in the rivers, forever changing their lives.
“And the food,” he said. “Best ceviche in the world.”
While he talked, I watched Sister Michaels sun herself atop the picnic table in the yard. She extended her long and bony legs over the edge of the tabletop, then rolled onto her back, away from the clouds.
“I talked to your father about finances,” Brother Michaels said. “He agreed to match what you save. What do you have so far?”
I reached into the pockets of my dress pants and pulled out the insides, pointing at the specks of lint. “He can definitely match that.”
“Max,” Brother Michaels said. “Between you and me, you’re a smart-ass.”
“God hates sarcasm. It’s a sign you’re influenced by the Adversary.”
I winced and fumbled an apology. The Adversary was the name we gave Satan, since his job was to be adversarial, to make you drop your keys or stub your toe, to second-guess yourself.
Brother Michaels looked at his watch, let out a deep breath, and walked behind the church to fire off push-ups. It was the first Saturday of the month, which meant we were going on a field trip. Today we were headed to the Mormon temple in Washington, D.C., a colossal six-spired building where Brother Michaels said blue spirits roamed the hallways. We planned to leave our tiny town, nestled in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, at nine, make our way into southern Maryland around noon, and spend the rest of the day discovering the temple’s secrets. Our souls would fill with light as we entered a large font of water, where we would offer our bodies to the dead in a ceremony of proxy baptisms.
While I waited, Sister Michaels got up from the picnic table. She preferred we call her Debbie, since she said being addressed as Sister made her feel wrinkled and humorless, like one of the old ladies at church who wore flowing dresses and too much perfume. She and Brother Michaels had moved to Waynesburg from Utah just six months before, and in that time Debbie had managed to stick her nose into the business of each and every church member, flashing her long eyelashes and asking questions none of us wanted to answer.
“If he’s being too hard on you, it’s because he believes in you,” she said, putting her tiny hand on my shoulder. “You’re broadening. I can see it.”
Debbie wasn’t old, though she looked it. She couldn’t have been much more than thirty, exercised three times a day, and ate like a bird. She was always fasting— always asking God to gift her and her husband with a child—and now her skin looked thin and crisped, like paper yellowed in an oven. Sometimes I wanted her to be beautiful just so I wouldn’t feel so guilty for looking away.
“Thanks,” I said.
Debbie smiled, showing her tall, square teeth. “Today will be a great day.”
As if on cue, the Taylors’ battered station wagon rumbled into the parking lot. Megan and Jayne Taylor stumbled out—Megan sixteen and Jayne fourteen, a pair of blond girls raised on a farm on the edge of the county. Side by side, in their long sundresses, they stood straight in preparation for morning exercises.
“Tell you what,” Debbie said. “Let’s just get in the van and say you’ve already done your workout.”
A few seconds later, Brother Michaels sprinted out from behind the church, arms pumping and eyes squinting, like a lion on the prairie. He climbed into the minivan, an immaculate vehicle that he and Debbie had bought in anticipation of the children that had never come. The Michaels sat in the front, the Taylor sisters in the back, and I took the bench seat in the wayback. Before we’d even put on our seat belts, Brother Michaels had already turned over the engine. He started to pray, eyes open, white-knuckling the wheel, breathing heavily from all the push-ups. I closed my eyes, and for a moment it felt like we might be traveling not just to a different state but to a different world entirely, some other, better world where miracles happened, where kids like me could walk in and come out utterly changed.
Decent Mormon teens everywhere attended seminary, but until the Michaels moved to Waynesburg, we’d never had anyone capable or willing to teach us. Now we met six mornings a week at the chapel, where we exercised and delved into the arcane doctrine of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, trying our best to ring something that resembled sense out of their meandering philosophies on polygamy, race, and eternity. In its early years, Mormonism was all about memorization, about cataloging the bits of your faith like an endless vocabulary quiz. This was something I had always managed, but now things had changed. In seminary class, the Michaels would pace the room and ask us startlingly difficult questions: “Why did God allow Joseph Smith to be killed by the Carthage mob?” or “If a killer repents on his deathbed, will God forgive him?”
We had long discussions, arguing over God’s will, might, and motivations. We went on monthly field trips to the historic Mormon sites that covered the East Coast. One of our first was to the Sacred Grove, in upstate New York, where God first appeared in the forest to a fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith. The Taylor sisters quaked with belief, and Jayne came away with plans to be the first female scholar of Mormonism. Megan found her way later, at the church dances we attended in Pittsburgh. God, she said, had gifted her with beauty, and she planned to use her high cheekbones and green eyes to shepherd His flock. At the dances, she handed out wallet-size photos of herself and led the boys to the center of the floor, where they could press themselves into her soft, rounded figure, hidden by the other swaying couples from the roving eyes of the chaperones. Now she traded letters with missionaries in Germany, Korea, and Australia, promising to wait for each of them, dangling herself like a reward upon their return.
So far, I was the only one who hadn’t settled on a future. Brother Michaels claimed I would make an excellent missionary. Often he reminded me that fifteen was the right age to begin the paperwork. Years of taking the path of least resistance had bred the right temperament in me. I was good company, agreeable. I made the right facial expressions—vigorous nods or slow head shakes of sympathy—and I knew how to lighten heavy moods with jokes.
One morning, while Brother Michaels and I were waiting for the Taylor sisters and Debbie was sunning herself in the yard, I’d confessed my reservations about going on a mission. “It sounds terrible,” I said. I’d just done a few dozen squats, working myself into a truthful froth. “Like maybe worse than just dropping dead.”
For a second, I thought Brother Michaels’ enormous head might split in half. His eyes twitched and, rather than flatten my nose with his giant fist, he asked me to fall to my knees so he could sprinkle anointing oil on my head and bless me. Afterwards, he told me to fast and exercise, to starve my body and torture my muscles until my vision blurred and the world around me refocused.
“Remember, what doesn’t kill you,” he said, “will build toward a testimony.”
Later that day, the Michaels suggested that our next field trip be to the temple in Washington, D.C. There were dozens of temples spread across the world, and each was a holy place that only good, tithe-paying Mormons fourteen or older could enter. Though I’d never been, I’d often seen my parents return from weekend temple trips glassy-eyed and vacant, speaking in slow tones and refusing for at least a day to watch TV. The Michaels claimed we were ready, and at the same time they warned us that the temples were such holy places of concentrated wisdom that we’d be overwhelmed.
“It’s like a triathlon for your spirit,” Debbie had said.
That, at least, had intrigued me. The Taylor sisters screamed in anticipation when they heard the news. And I held out hope that whatever tiny bit—whatever sprocket or vein—of faith happened to be missing inside of me, it might be found someplace, somewhere in the bowels of God’s great temple, that maybe I’d walk in a heathen, a cynic, and come out something else.
Years of crammed schedules—of study sessions, football practice, part-time jobs, and law school—had endowed Brother Michaels with a lead foot. We screamed down the interstate, past pickup trucks pulling horse trailers and sedans out for a joyride. Along the way, we sang hymns and traded scripture, screwing up our faith to a great fervor of song and wisdom. Our voices got louder. We were stretching our vocal cords the way we had our hamstrings. Despite her size, Debbie had a sonorous voice, decent pitch, and surprising range, and she guided our tone-deaf ears through “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” and “Search, Ponder, and Pray.”
While we sang, I stretched my legs over the bench seat in the wayback, hiked my pants up to my knees, and rubbed at my calves. After our talk, I’d taken Brother Michaels’ advice to heart, skipping meals and often subsisting on oatmeal and wheat bread. Every morning, I’d run to seminary with a weighted backpack, changing outside or in the church lobby. In the evenings, I’d run ten or more miles, heading out of town and into the country, up the dirt roads, pushing myself until my legs burned and my arms grew heavy. More than once, the pink flesh of my nipples bled against my shirt. But I didn’t stop, not until my vision began to blur, and then I’d lean against a rusty mailbox or tree, staring up at the farmhouse or country shack set up the hillside, wondering if, had I managed to run just a couple of yards farther, the clarity I’d always missed would have presented itself to me.
I was working hard at a knot when Jayne turned around in her seat.
“Gross,” she said. My legs were all black and blue, one long bruise from knee to ankle. “You can’t do something like that before you go to the temple.”
She rolled her eyes, as if the very question meant I didn’t belong. “It’s not something you do,” she said. “I bet you didn’t even wash your hair this morning.”
“My hair, yes,” I said. “But only my hair.”
At this her sister Megan turned around, too. “I keep wondering what it’ll feel like,” she said. “Getting baptized for all those spirits.”
“Like being dunked in water,” I said.
She shook her head. “No, something different. Something more.”
Until now, none of the three of us had ever set foot in a temple, ever even seen the inside of one. Pictures of their interiors were strictly forbidden, and even our parents were cagey about the details. What little we knew we’d learned from stories in church magazines, in which members wrote of going down the hallway into the temple and finding a blue spirit kneeling in the amber light.
Now Jayne told us about the verses she’d read from the Book of Abraham, one of Joseph Smith’s final translations of Egyptian papyrus. It was minor gospel, a thin book full of anachronisms and abstruse esoteric doctrine, stuff even the most devout Mormons tended to ignore. According to the Michaels, even the most vigilant workout had been insufficient to snap these verses into focus. Jayne had taken that as a challenge, and dived into the book every night, reciting pieces of it aloud and waiting for a glimmer of understanding that never came.
“The scriptures say the priest will turn our bodies into vessels,” she said. “That we’ll pretty much just be tools to do God’s work.”
For a moment I considered this idea, which I’d never really thought about before: these ten strangers, all of them dead men who could have been anything, taking over my body like pirates storming a ship. Their sabers rattled as they boarded my bones, and my stomach growled. Megan gave me a dirty look. Jayne shook her head. I thought, then, of the Adversary. I worried that he was down there now, twisting my intestines into knots as I entered the house of the Lord.
“Are you OK?” Megan asked.
“Just hungry,” I said.
“There’s a cafeteria at the temple,” Jayne said. “I bet you didn’t know that.”
From the Beltway, the temple loomed like a crystal oasis, like a castle from another galaxy that had fallen through space and landed upright in a forest of red-and-yellow-leaved trees. I pressed my head against the window to get a better look.
“Like a billboard for God,” Debbie said. “Pretty good marketing, huh?”
We parked in the long shadow of the temple, in a lot that was mostly empty. Flower gardens of dahlias and peonies ran for acres, broken by narrow walkways. We hurried to the entrance, past an enormous fountain, and stopped at the double doors to take deep breaths. I worried I’d combust the moment I set foot inside the temple, that the pristine and finely coiffed staff would be forced to clean up my moldy bits and ship them back to my parents in a box.
Brother Michaels opened the double doors, and we entered a large lobby where a man stood behind a long desk. He whistled something old and cheerful, then stopped when he saw us.
“Welcome to the temple of the Lord,” he said, and smiled, as if this were an amusement park. We formed a line and handed over our temple recommends, these little booklets that serve as a kind of Mormon passport. The man craned his head this way and that, checking our names and addresses, then ran his finger down a long sheet of paper until his eyes brightened. “You’re here for baptisms for the dead,” he said. “God bless you. We’re receiving so many names for baptism from all over the world.” I watched his eyes linger a moment too long on Debbie. “If you hurry, you’ll make the two o’clock baptisms.”
He pointed us through a set of glass doors, and we walked like a group of lost desperadoes, our eyes darting this way and that, anticipating an ambush from the angels. As we walked, the Michaels talked about the other temples they’d visited— more than a dozen in Utah and a few in Idaho and Arizona, too. They were all special, Debbie said, each beautiful in its own way. I looked around. The long hallway was windowless, lit only by overhead fluorescent lights humming like a cloud of bees. With no natural light, no stained glass or candles, it had the quiet, antiseptic feel of a hospital. I’d expected gold walls adorned with rubies, marble busts of prophets, oil paintings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I’d wanted a mash-up of the White House and the Sistine Chapel, but behind its crystal-like facade, the temple was nondescript, as if the best way to pay homage to God was to build a bigger DMV. The walls were plaster, the molding wood, the floors covered in thick beige carpet. Even the doorjambs were clean and boring, just function with no hint of splendor.
Above the doors, signs pointed to various services: FAMILY SEALINGS, WEDDINGS, ENDOWMENTS. We came to BAPTISMS, and the Michaels stopped.
“We’ll meet you when you’ve finished,” Brother Michaels said. “At the cafeteria.” He shook my hand. Debbie hugged me, crushing my spine in her sinewy arms. The Taylor sisters and I walked through the door and looked around for blue spirits, for miracles in progress, but instead saw only a cinder-block wall with two entry points, one for men and one for women.
Inside the men’s locker room, a dozen teenagers stripped and stood naked in the house of the Lord, with their protruding bellies and curly body hair. The room was thick with teenage funk. I grabbed a set of white garments from a cubby by the door, found a spot on the bench, and began to undress. The garments were solid white, just a polyester shirt and pants, freshly starched and cold to the touch. Next to me, a boy folded his clothes, then placed them in his locker with the sort of crisp attention Boy Scouts show when taking in the flag. A little farther away, a wide and chubby boy with a Band-Aid on his cheek was pressing his forehead into a locker and muttering prayer. I felt suddenly aware of my own emaciated frame, the knobs of my bones tight against my skin, my concave stomach and spindly fingers, and put on the garments as quickly as I could while others joked and laughed.
“Done changing?” the boy with the Band-Aid asked. He’d finished his prayer and was now jumping up and down like a sprinter before a race.
“Are there shoes?” I asked.
He shook his head. “First time, I guess. Didn’t you come here with a group?”
“Just our seminary teachers and a couple girls,” I said.
“Girls?” he said. “Cute?”
I shrugged. It didn’t seem like something we should talk about in the temple.
“You know, some of the garments are old. I mean, probably been washed about a hundred times. Once I saw a girl come out of the baptismal font and she had on these old garments. Real thin ones. It was like you could see everything. I mean everything. And we all just looked up and thanked God for the view.”
“That’s pretty gross.”
“I mean, what were we supposed to do? Not look?”
The kid rolled his eyes. “You’ll figure some things out,” he said.
Most of the boys had lined up and walked out a side door. Above the doorway was a sign for the baptismal font.
“They’re just going to wait,” the boy said. “The priest never shows up on time.”
“How many times have you done this?” I asked.
He smiled, showing off his tiny teeth and long, pink gums. “About fifteen.”
We waited a few minutes, and the kid told me about all the baptisms, how he knew someone who’d been baptized for Eisenhower, another for Napoleon. There were war generals out there, emperors and despots, swirling around waiting to infiltrate us.
Overhead, a speaker dinged, and the boy smacked my knee with the back of his hand. We stood and headed out the side door, down a dark hallway, and into a high-ceilinged chapel bathed in amber light. The floor was tile, and my bare feet turned cold as we walked to the center. Already, most of the group was there.
Teenagers sat in a circle around an indentation in the floor, a large font of water still as glass. I spotted Jayne and Megan, heads bowed, and I wondered what it was a person prayed for in the temple—if you still had to pray for miracles in a place where they happened every moment of every day.
I squeezed in next to the Taylors. Megan reached over and took my hand.
“We’re here,” she said, and I lowered my head as my stomach rumbled, and I thought not of redemption or miracles, of giving my body to spirits, but of a sandwich, of thick slices of bread and meat dripping with mustard, sliding down my throat and straight into my crying gut.
We waited, prayed, and sniffled in the cold air. Someone yawned and it caught. We covered our mouths and fought off boredom, hoped God was looking elsewhere. After a few minutes, something whirred to life, and I looked around for a sign of spirits, of translucent figures floating down from the ceiling, but it was only the central air. Next to me, the Taylors rocked in prayer as I rubbed at my legs, felt my stomach churn and beg for food.
A man dressed in white walked into the room. He was maybe fifty, with slicked-back white hair and big eyes: the handsome, nondescript looks of an aging television anchor. He smiled and introduced himself with a stagey wave.
“I’m Elder Bartlett,” he said. “Last week, I baptized someone for Judy Garland. So rest assured, Dorothy will be with us in the Celestial Kingdom.”
A few people giggled, and he nodded.
“It’s OK to be happy in the temple,” he said. “The angels aren’t offended by laughter.”
In the sort of calm, lilting voice that children adore, Elder Bartlett told us about the miracles he’d personally witnessed, the white footprints of angels he’d seen left in the hallway. He explained that we were just part of the great process of the restoration of the gospel, that months, maybe even years ago, some kindhearted person had submitted the names of the dead to the temple, the people for whom, today, we were to be baptized. Already, he said, the spirits were here. They’d been here the whole time, swirling around us, getting to know our bodies.
When he’d finished, Elder Bartlett descended a short set of stairs, entering the water with a splash that sounded immense in the big room. The water reached his waist, so that he looked like a man who’d been partially buried, a man whom the temple of the Lord had pushed into its mouth but decided not to swallow. The intercom buzzed, a voice called a name, and the boy I’d talked with earlier stood and peeled the Band-Aid off his cheek and dropped it to the floor. When he entered the water, Elder Bartlett held up the boy’s hand before calling the names of the dead: Walter Martin Simpson, Javier Nunez Rodriguez…He named ten people in all, dunking the boy backward after each one, immersing him in the water, and pulling him out again. I watched the faces around the circle turn solemn and intense, as if their souls were taking a standardized test. This is an important moment, I told myself, the kind that might be a hinge for my life, changing its trajectory if I knew the right way to process it, yet somehow the feeling I was waiting for, the stirring, the moment when the gravity of the situation would press me to the tile floor, never
came. I couldn’t manage it. I could only watch the water drain from the boy’s nostrils when he unplugged his nose, his feet slip when he climbed up the stairs, grabbed the railing, and banged his knee against the step.
“Shit,” he said, the word echoing through the chapel.
We all looked at one another, then at Elder Bartlett, whose face was suddenly as blank as I imagined my own being when I sprinted down the country roads seeking oblivion. For a moment, there was a flicker of recognition of the word, a narrowing of the eyebrows, a buzz like a circuit trying to connect, before it finally detached again. Like that it was forgotten, and the assembled teenagers resumed their enraptured, prayerful expressions. The boy walked back to the locker room, and another name came over the intercom.
After that, the baptisms came quickly. One girl cried as she emerged from the font. Boys gave damp and softened high fives. Megan hugged Elder Bartlett, and Jayne looked up at the ceiling as if she expected God’s hand to slide off the top of the temple as He stared down at her with His giant eye. Everyone else felt something, maybe even saw something, but I felt alone—the heathen who could only see the flaw, only notice the stained grout where the font met the floor, the cracked tile, the too open garments of the girl across from me, the imperfections, the reasons not to believe.
The chapel emptied out until there were just two of us left: Elder Bartlett and me. My name came over the speaker, and he held out his hand to me.
“You must be Max,” he said.
A better kid would have refused, but I stood and went down the stairs and let Elder Bartlett hold up my right hand. We assumed the posture I’d seen in portraits of Joseph Smith held by the spirit of John the Baptist, and I couldn’t help myself. I laughed, right there in the temple. Irreverent, hyena laughter, the kind that had gotten me yanked by a collar all my life.
“Something funny?” he asked.
I shook my head and willed myself not to open my mouth again.
“Fine,” he said. His smile was gone. Neither of us were pretending now, and he called out the first name and tipped me back into the water.
In the locker room, I changed back into my shirt and tie, then milled around the halls before making my way back to the lobby, where the Michaels and the Taylor sisters waited. We hugged like reunited relatives, the sisters talking in fast, hushed voices as we walked up a set of stairs to the cafeteria, describing the pang they’d felt when the spirits entered them, the calm that came over them when they’d transformed into vessels. They picked out chicken salad sandwiches and rewarded themselves with oatmeal cookies. I grabbed a salad and a bottle of water and felt my
We sat at a tiny table. The cafeteria, like the chapel, was high-ceilinged and bland, with long curtains hanging against the windowless walls.
The Michaels were cagey about the details of the family sealings they’d done while we were being dunked in the baptismal font, which made the Taylor sisters fold their arms like reprimanded children.
“One day, you’ll find out,” Brother Michaels said.
After lunch, we walked the grounds outside the temple, then went to the visitor center and the gift shop, where Megan bought an expensive frame and asked me to take a picture of her with Jayne in front of the temple.
“How do we look?” she asked as I handed back her camera.
“Good,” I said.
She peered into the viewfinder at the image. “We look tired,” she said.
“We are tired,” I said.
On the drive home, we didn’t have the energy to sing, so Debbie turned on the radio. The farther north we went, the fewer the stations we could tune into, until we had no choice but to listen to the sliding steel guitar and twang of old country, of men and women who’d known nothing but loss. At least that was the story their songs told. Brother Michaels joked that if you played a country song in reverse, it would become a story of great success—of a man getting his trailer, his dog, and his wife. The Taylor sisters howled with laughter, but I just stared out the window at the dark world. We were all cynics, but at least I chose to poke fun at the people who deserved it, the ones who’d built a perch to stand on.
We’d all dozed off by the time Brother Michaels pulled into a rest stop in West Virginia.
“We need gas,” he said, and handed us each a dollar. “Get snacks. You’ve earned it.”
The sun had set, and we walked the lawn of the rest stop, stretching our legs. I fought the urge to drop and do push-ups, to make my arms ache like the rest of me. A few sleepy families stood around sedans and minivans. Inside the rest stop, a pair of boys stared at their reflections in the glass of the vending machines. They couldn’t have been older than seven or eight, and I walked over and handed one of them my dollar.
“Really?” he said while his brother stuck his chin to his chest.
“Get whatever you want,” I said.
Outside, the Michaels were sitting on the low cement wall, passing a bottle of Coke back and forth. Unlike coffee, soda wasn’t technically contraband—there was no specific rule against it—but Brother Michaels said most decent Mormons tried to avoid it.
“I had to wake myself up,” Brother Michaels said. He took a long swallow and handed the bottle to Debbie, who sipped at it, turned her head, and belched.
“Pardon me,” she said.
The Taylor sisters walked out of the rest stop and approached the car with chips and sodas.
“You haven’t said much,” Debbie said to me. “How was it?”
“I didn’t feel anything,” I said.
“You will next time,” Brother Michaels said. He turned and dumped the bottle of Coke into the mulch behind him, so that the soda itself dripped to the edge of the concrete, then down the half wall. “You’re just not working hard enough.”
In the car, I dozed off, awakening only when we’d arrived back at church. The Taylor sisters wobbled to their station wagon. I grabbed my backpack and got out, standing in the cold and looking up at the stars, far off and endless, each of them making its little twinkling promises. The whole universe, I figured, was chock-full of empty promises.
“We’ll give you a ride,” Debbie said.
I shook my head. “I ran here,” I said. “I’ve got to run back.”
“That’s the spirit,” Brother Michaels said. “What doesn’t kill you…”
“What doesn’t kill me,” I said.
The Michaels pulled out of the lot, and I watched the red taillights of their van shrink until they turned out of sight. When they’d gone, I changed around the side of the church, pulling on my running clothes, still cold and damp from my morning run, and stuffed my slacks, button-up, and dress shoes in my backpack. Already the temple seemed far off and distant, like some remnant of a waking dream. Maybe, I thought, I’d missed things. Maybe I hadn’t been working hard enough. I jumped in the grass, took a deep breath, then sprinted out of the lot and down the hill, letting my legs unwind and the pain shoot up my shins. Cinching my eyes closed, I took in the purple haze and turned down the main road, where I could run on the berm for a half-mile before I reached the outer limits of town, the farmland where the roads were gravel, the homes were lonely, and the autumn leaves hid the sky.Continue reading
We’re relieved to see our boys’ matching L.L.Bean backpacks sitting side by side in the kitchen the Friday afternoon the snowstorm sends us home early from work. Neither answers when we holler We’re home, but we figure they’re deafened by earbuds. We go to our bedroom and change into sweatpants and weekend T-shirts. The walls are thin, the house is quiet as snow falls on and around it, and we hear moaning from our older boy’s room. Never before have we heard either of our sons make these kinds of noises—and then we hear a woman. We tiptoe down the hall and find the younger boy’s room empty. No one’s in the family room, living room, dining room. Two backpacks in the kitchen, sounds of sex, brothers aged fifteen and seventeen, Wi-Fi, new Christmas laptops: they’re watching internet pornography, we’re sure—but then our younger son opens the back door and greets us loudly and happily, his shoulders and the brim of his Braves cap frosted with snow. When he drops his backpack, there are three in a row. He heads for the basement to hunt for the sled. Shortly thereafter our older boy comes into the kitchen wild-eyed and followed by a pretty girl we know but not by name. Their clothes are carefully buttoned. We make hot chocolate and sit sipping it in the breakfast nook and study our boy and his friend while we chat about the storm and watch his brother climb the short hill behind the house and slide down, climb and slide, climb and slide. We cut our boy’s fingernails until he was eleven. This girl’s parents probably trimmed hers until she was that old. He’ll walk her home soon, he says, he’ll make sure she gets through the blizzard OK. She smiles but doesn’t look at him. They’re trying to keep a chaste distance between themselves, but the distance grows smaller each time we check the falling snow.Continue reading
А смерть — это средство передвижения.
Потому что всюду жизнь,
и стоит только дёрнуть за шнур на шубе,
как из рукава спустится лесенка,
поднявшись по которой, можно выйти на свет,
не делимый на тот и этот,
потому что Мышильда бежала,
хвостиком махнула —
Берлинская стена упала и разбилась.
И все увидали, что её нет.
Как нет мёртвых.
Есть только живые,
и можно ездить друг к другу в гости.
И я, вся в белом,
отправляюсь к своему жениху
и перевязываю ему раны.
А потом он, в новенькой форме,
приезжает с ответным визитом
и привозит мне хлеб и вино.
А потом мы вместе садимся в золотую карету
и я, выглянув из окошка,
машу белым носовым платком
всем, кто остаётся,
что значит «я уезжаю».
И они не плачут.
Потому что кругом
в сущности, очень малая
и просто невозможно уехать далеко.
*Я умераю (нем.), в частности, последние слова Чехова
So death—it’s a means of transport.
Because life’s everywhere,
and all we have to do is tug at the cord of a fur coat
for a stepladder to descend from the sleeve
and, climbing up, we can enter a place
not divisible into this world and that,
because the Mouse Queen ran away,
waving her tail—
the Berlin Wall fell and shattered to bits.
And everyone saw that it didn’t exist.
Just as the dead don’t exist.
There are just the living,
and we can visit one another back and forth.
And I, all in white,
set out toward my groom
and bind up his wounds.
Then he, in a brand-new uniform,
arrives to return the visit
and brings me bread and wine.
Then we sit together in a golden carriage
and set off,
and I, peering out the window,
wave my white handkerchief
to everyone who remains,
which means, “I’m leaving.”
And they don’t cry.
Because in essence,
is a tiny, entire
and it’s simply impossible to go very far.
*“I am dying” (German), Chekhov’s last words.