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.
Looking for Scythians, we crossed a black field and found a slick of rock,
only the rock, unimportant, smooth to touch. Sergei swung his limbs in the sun,
like a very large, muscular baby. Barrows dot the south of Ukraine, he said, the
buried with horse bones, with griffins wrought in iron tearing each other’s throats.
Asthmatic, monolingual, I struggled to keep up like the trip’s distracted
whom I was meant to amuse and teach some English. The three girls always lagged,
brushing reams of gold hair wasted on the little group’s boys, oblivious as cats.
Only sweet, fat Vanya trailed at my heels, asking in his Little Lord Fauntleroy
“What is your favorite flower?” Meanwhile, Sergei portioned fields groaning with my
sunflowers, into which battle or German bomb made them notable. Once, in the
he woke with a start from a dream of his wife. We stretched out, not touching,
side by side like broken boats. He called me sonishka—little sun, or sweetie—but
when I tottered under my knapsack (“Be careful, you must have children one day”)
personal, merely fear of race suicide. So I didn’t know for whose benefit he
if not for mine or Vanya’s, like an apoplectic dad. He scolded the boy’s dawdling,
or his trembling at the pond’s edge, as the others splashed, in his body still like a
part girl. Sergei tossed him into the dirty water, then told me, “He’s got to be a man,”
stripping in the reeds, illustrating his point with ruddy muscles. He washed, talked
“If civil war’s coming, I’m ready, even to die.” He spoke with a passionate
that longs to be amplified. I kept quiet, but such public and quotable voices, like a
adorned for a warrior and long buried, seek no reply. He wore camo like a soldier
A few years later, at home, I scrolled through photos of winter boots and naked
peeping, almost shyly, from plastic tarp on the concrete of Maidan Nezalezhnosti,
dead men barely out of adolescence, where I used to sulk in beer gardens. Under
another reader posted: “I put on the Les Mis soundtrack, ‘Do You Hear the People
So inspiring!!” If that was Sergei’s healthy, lusty chest smashed on the ground, I
I last saw him in 2012 at a battle reenactment. In a crowd of drooping mustaches
knives tucked into sashes, he modeled Cossack pants, his second wife in a peasant
They stood on a bridge, and I took a photo for them on the bank: their fresh start,
tossing their parents’ house keys to the river. They grinned as cannon smoke blew
in their faces.
In the beginning, the earth was born. Then God gave light to the heavens and raised the earth from the water and formed the firmament that vaulted above Springfield, Missouri. And he threw all manner of fowl into the air and all manner of beast onto the earth and blew breath into the dirt to create Adam and carved Eve from the dusty rib.
Many begats later, cars were born. But God must have foreseen this, because he made the dinosaurs, whose decomposed bodies gave us oil. Therefore, oil is good, as are oil companies, as is burning the bodies of all the beasts that came before us, so we can get to Bible study on time without having to catch a bus as big as the dinosaurs that were never mentioned in the beginning.
2. Noah’s Ark
In Sunday school we raised our hands. “What about marsupials?” we said, and yes, we were told, Noah collected two of everything, including marsupials.
“All manner of creature,” our Sunday school teacher said, a little exasperated at our efforts to unman the good book.
“Yes, rhinoceri,” she said. “And yes, opossums. And yes killer bees. And wasps. And yellow jackets. And salamanders and tadpoles and scorpions.”
This made God more a crazy man than a wise leader, and Noah his fool, we thought. “Who would bring scorpions?” we said, and were told that God loves all his creatures, which made us wonder if he loved scorpions more than he loved us. He must have, because we didn’t have stingers and scorpions did, and the presence of stingers is better and more lovely than the absence of stingers. So runs a child’s mind.
But the story of Noah may be more believable now, since there are fewer species, due to extinction. Fewer pairs of animals, considering all those that have died out in the past five thousand years. The passenger pigeon. The Tasmanian tiger. The Pyrenean ibex. The golden toad. All gone.
And, of course, due to global warming, the polar caps are melting, and the sea rising—we might need a ship after all.
So, Noah’s Ark 2017:
And Noah loaded the few remaining animals, including snakes and scorpions and killer bees, which all thrive in the newly heated world, and he sailed the rising seas for forty thousand days and nights, until such time as all the animals had eaten one another, and Noah had thrown himself overboard to be away from the constant rocking of the waves, the loneliness of being the last mammal alive in all the watery world.
Job receives a foreclosure notice from Bank of America. He fell behind on his payments after his crops died because his well dried up as a result of global warming and irresponsible water policies by major corporations. During the foreclosure process, his foreign wife is deported. Sleeping in the streets, he contracts the Zika virus from mosquitoes whose population range is bolstered by their warming environment. Later, after he has scraped together enough capital to wager on the stock market, a successful margin call allows him to recoup a small part of his losses, but immigration laws prevent his extended family from joining him in the United States, and there is no amnesty offered because his last name is Middle-Eastern-y.
“Why, oh Lord, why?” Job cries, and is arrested by the police for disturbing the peace.
4. The Walls of Jericho
Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred. And the Lord said to Joshua, “Take this thing and do this thing,” this thing being the Ark of the Covenant, and this thing being march around the city. And so they marched for six days in silence except for the trumpets of the priests. No one knows what the people inside the city were doing while the priests marched around the outer walls blowing their horns and kicking up dust, because the Bible doesn’t mention any of them except Rahab the prostitute, who was supposed to be spared because she harbored spies, her profession obviously not being much of a big deal in God’s eyes.
And on the seventh day the priests all shouted, and the walls fell. And Joshua’s army went straight into the city and murdered every living thing inside (except the prostitute) with the sword—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys. Murdered. Killed. Destroyed is the word more modern versions of the Bible use, so destroyed. Sliced. Hacked. Chopped apart. And the army ransacked the city, taking all the gold and silver for the glory of the Lord, which seems strange, because since when does God need gold? And after the sacking there was the burning, and after the burning some lesson we are supposed to have learned about opposing any who have God on their side.*
5. Samson and Delilah
Samson was forced to cut his hair and buy a suit and go to interviews under rows of fluorescent lighting. He was hired by Jefferson Pilot Insurance Company, and in his cubicle on the fourteenth floor he would occasionally, between calls, reach up to touch his hair before remembering it was all gone. In the mornings, when he woke with Delilah beside him breathing softly, he would wonder what might happen if he did not go to work, not sure he could handle another day looking out the mirrored windows at the big buildings rising all around, wondering where his animal strength had gone, if he could manage to grow his hair out again in spite of Jefferson Pilot Insurance Company’s dress code.
Then with such thoughts a darkness began to fall over him at the prospect of the days to come. He was not sure he could bear up under the weight of this new world. He longed for the feats of strength he had once known, to slay the lion with his own hands, to murder the thirty men for the cloth they wore, to murder more of the Philistines for making him angry.
And each day, usually late in the afternoon, he wondered whether he might pull down the pillars of the building on top of himself and all the others who sat staring at their screens. But he had cut his hair and clothed himself in soft suits. So he wondered, there beneath the darkness of the artificial light, whether he had the strength to throw his office chair through the window so that he might walk out into nothingness.
6. The Good Samaritan
A man was driving down from Denver to Dallas when his car died. He sat on the side of the road in the West Texas flatlands while the shadows of the passing cars stretched out in front of him. His cell phone had no bars, so he just sat on the side of the road watching the cars whiz by, the semis rocking him with the wind of their passage. He counted more than two hundred cars before he grew tired of counting. He held out his thumb for a time, but when he did this, women sitting in the passenger seats of the cars reached to lock the doors, even though they were traveling by him at seventy-five miles an hour. No one even slowed but a state trooper, who waved to indicate that he could not park there.
When night fell, he slept in the back seat but grew so cold he had to get out and walk around. In the scrub brush to the sides of the interstate he could hear the coyotes calling to one another. The stars above him looked like holes shot in the night through which he could see heaven.
In the late hours, two men pulled over and beat him and took his wallet and cell phone, and though a few cars slowed while the beating was going on, none stopped. When he woke from the beating, the man walked fifteen miles to the nearest phone, which was located in a gas station. The night manager, who was just about to go home, told him he had to buy something before he could use the restroom to wipe the blood off his body, but since he’s the only one who spoke to the man, he gets to be the Good Samaritan.
7. Jesus Walks on Water
Jesus walked on water, and Lake Cuyahoga once caught fire. Neither of these things seems plausible, and yet one happened for sure. If one happened, perhaps the other did, too. Let’s say the Sea of Galilee was so polluted that Jesus was able to step on the steel tailings, the airplane parts, the oil sludge, the acid runoff, the iron ores, the tractor tires, the hulls of abandoned boats, the bricks from fallen factories, the corpses slowly decaying, the bloated bodies of dead fish, the missiles and the makings of bombs, the bullets, the martyrs and madness of all the Middle Eastern wars, the cries and discomfiture of those who live there under the arc of exhaust from approaching drones.
And when his disciples saw him walking on water, they were sore afraid.
8. Jesus Refuses to Feed Five Thousand
As evening approached, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. They need only pee in this cup, and also to prove that they have been looking for work.”
In the end, all were fed, but Jesus watched them with a wary eye to make sure none were freeloading. He had his disciples destroy all the food that was left over, because feeding them again would only make them dependent on him, and what they needed was self-reliance.
9. Lazarus, Saul, Suffering
Lazarus must have been only borne back from the brink, not reborn. Then blinked his newly opened eyes at the world around him and asked if he could go back.
Saul’s eyes were also opened, and what he saw was that it was easier to be kind. With this kindness he could become more Christlike, but we tend to forget Saul’s story.
On the cross, Jesus lamented the suffering to come. He asked why he was to be forsaken, and if we apply his last words to the world which we now inhabit, we’ll find the same silence for an answer that God gave his only begotten son.
And they slaughtered the fatted calf because red meat, and it was good. The bush caught fire because of global warming, whence came the drought in the desert from which the refugees are fleeing by the hundred thousand. Moses thought he heard God because of the Klonopin, which he had to be careful with because it conflicted with his diabetes meds. Moses, too, came from the desert and wandered for forty years without water somewhere near Syria, but now has put on too much weight.
Abraham claims he was never going to kill his son, but Isaac brings it up every Thanksgiving during the Cowboys game. Now Abraham’s sons study law at Georgetown, and each calls the other an interloper. They never come home for Christmas. Sarah drinks too much wine, wonders what happened to the time, and remembers when her sons were young, in the years after she was barren.
Daniel shot the lion with a crossbow on safari. He sold the head to a dentist for a trophy. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not so much for their people’s wicked ways but because they lay in the path of a proposed oil pipeline. The mountains quaked not in the presence of the Lord but because of hydraulic fracking. Their tops had already been removed by the mining of coal. The rivers ran red with rust. The sun turned black as sackcloth from the smoke of the factory fires.
Onan spilled his seed in the desert and set the curriculum for abstinence-only. Jonah rode in the first submarine before we filled the seas with them. At one time, men came together to build a tower, but God caused them to not understand one another, and the tower came down.
In the valley of the shadow of death there are still waters that restore souls. All a man has to do is sit by them, if he believes in that sort of thing.
11. And God Gave Man Dominion Over Every Living Thing that Moveth upon the Earth
Just add the words “did not” to this verse. The words can be placed after “God” or after “Earth.” Either way works, depending on your interpretation. You’ll have to change some words and some verb tenses to make the new verse make sense, but we’ve been doing that since before it was written.
12. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, who come down out of the skies in the end of days, when man has turned against everything God has said.**
* For revision, simply replace Joshua’s name with the name of any modern army. Replace the Ark of the
Covenant with bombs and bullets, the trumpets with the treading of booted feet or the vapor trails of
drones. Burn still the city. Carry away the spoils. Still claim it’s all done in God’s name.
** Actually, this one is still pretty accurate.Continue reading