Jack Harrell’s Short Story “Calling and Election”
The very first story in the most recent issue of Irreantum is the 1st place winner of the 2007 Irreantum fiction contest, “Calling and Election” by Jack Harrell. The story is insightful and strange and beautiful and complex and challenging–and utterly Mormon. Not only does the piece exemplify good writing (lovely prose, striking imagery, strong storytelling), but it is an artistic and imaginative rendering of a doctrine particular to our people. It’s also a piece that is likely to stir up a variety of interpretations and opinions. All this makes “Calling and Election” the kind of story we at Irreantum love to publish.
If you have a subscription to Irreantum, you can read the story while you’re all cozied up on the couch or in the car while you’re waiting for your son to be done with basketball practice (which is why I recommend actually subscribing to magazines–they’re more portable than a computer, easier to handle, more intimate, smell better). But for those of you who haven’t subscribed (yet!) I’m posting the story here. It’s long . . . but it’s worth it. I have asked Jack if he’d be willing to answer some of your questions about the piece or about the writing process in general, and he’s happily obliged. So read the story, post your questions in the comments section, and I will get the questions to Jack this weekend. His answers will appear next Wednesday, here at the Red Brick Store. Cool, no?
CALLING AND ELECTION
by Jack Harrell
JERRY SANGOOD STEPPED out of his car and into the darkness of the church parking lot. The sky above was black, without a moon. A thick cloud cover hid the stars from view, and Jerry felt the darkness like a hardened pit growing inside his brain. He shut the car door and stood for a moment in the far corner of the parking lot, near a row of Lombardy poplars as old as the town itself. The Mormon pioneers who had founded this part of Idaho had favored these narrow trees that grew tall and hearty in the sandy soil. They planted hundreds of them in long rows to break the relentless winds. Standing against the darkness of the trees, Jerry watched Bishop Gordon of the Third Ward switch off the lights inside the church. The bishop walked out through the darkened entryway and locked the glass doors, stopping a moment to look behind him into the stillness of the building before he turned and went toward his pickup.
As Bishop Gordon started his truck and pulled away, Jerry Sangood knew he had a choice. He could shake off this moment. He could go home and pray for the safe return of his good wife, who had flown to California to help their daughter and her new baby. He could pray for a way to tell his wife what the doctor had found that afternoon in the X-ray. But even if he did, even if he turned and went home to pray in his secret chambers, God would still be waiting, patient as the Wasatch Mountains, for Jerry to return to this moment. In a week or a month or a year, God would send someone to ask Jerry to put his hand to the plow without looking back.
As the taillights of the bishop’s pickup disappeared in the darkness, a dull pain coursed its way up the back of Jerry’s neck. At least now it made sense—the headaches, the mood swings, the memory lapses. For weeks he had thought he was losing his mind. Hiding the pain had only made him more irritable, had only made his behavior more erratic. Now he walked toward the building’s double doors, pushing back the pain by sheer will.
“Don’t be late,” the man on the phone had said.
“This shouldn’t be hard,” he told himself as he looked at his watch; he was right on time. “What shall it profit a man,” he thought, “if he shall gain the whole world?”
Waiting in the church parking lot with a tumor in his brain, Jerry knew that God had given him so much. He and Camille had paid off the house. They had money in the bank, enough for a mission and more. They had Jerry’s job as a seminary teacher. They had their daughter, Gwen, and her husband and children. They had their friends and their good reputations. Above all, they had the gospel, which had taught them to work hard and save and steer clear of the world’s counterfeit joys. And still God desired to give them more, always more. Even this knot growing in his brain was an invitation, Jerry believed.
“God dwells in eternal burnings,” the Prophet Joseph Smith had taught. The burnings were glories that mortals could not yet endure. Everything that had happened was part of God’s plan. Their daughter and her baby in the hospital—it was a test. Jerry’s headaches, and now this invitation to meet a representative of the prophet—it was all part of his own inching closer to redemption.
Jerry paused at the church doors. He had been passing through these doors for thirty years, since the day of the building’s dedication. The plainness of the dark, empty ward house impressed him anew. The structure and design were both functional and austere—brick and metal and glass and carpet. Jerry was like this building, he realized: practical, artless, a means to an end. The scripture said, “There is no beauty that we should desire him.”
He had watched Bishop Gordon lock the door a few moments ago, but with a believing heart, with the same heart that had moved him to act all his life in the face of doubt, Jerry reached out. When the tips of his fingers touched the metal door handle, the hallway lights came on. An elderly man appeared in the hall, next to the stake president’s office, his hand on the light switch. He wore a black, three-piece suit and carried a small silver briefcase. When he waved Jerry inside, Jerry pulled on the door handle. It opened with ease.
Jerry stepped inside, and the man approached him. He had wire-rimmed glasses and a stony smile that showed a row of crooked teeth. He was bald and his eyebrows were bare. “I’m Brother Lucy,” he said, shaking Jerry’s hand. His grip was bony and firm. “Thank you for coming.”
Jerry sensed that they were the only two in the building.
“I apologize for making an appointment so late,” Brother Lucy said, leading him toward the stake president’s office. “This will only take a few minutes.”
Jerry didn’t recognize Brother Lucy from the pictures in the church magazines. “Did you travel alone?” he asked. “I thought the Brethren always traveled in pairs.”
“The Brethren often do,” Brother Lucy said. “Please,” he added, offering Jerry a seat. They both sat down at the desk, opposite the stake president’s empty chair. Brother Lucy opened his briefcase. “I’m not one of the Brethren.” He looked at Jerry with bright eyes that appeared younger than the rest of his face. “I’m just a messenger. I do a lot of traveling for the Brethren, though. ‘Going to and fro in the earth,’ as the saying goes. Shall we begin?” he asked.
Jerry nodded, shuddering a bit at the pain in his neck.
“Are you all right?” Brother Lucy asked.
“Just a headache,” Jerry said. “I’ll be fine.”
Brother Lucy considered him for a moment. “Well, let’s get right to business,” he said. “Get you home so you can rest.” He took two sheets of paper from his briefcase. Then, speaking in a scripted voice, he said. “Brother Jerry Sangood, we are here at the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Our Heavenly Father knows your faithfulness. He has heard your secret prayers and whispered counsel to you in your extremities. You have magnified yourself according to the oath and covenant of the priesthood. Your life has been one of exemplary service, and your brethren in the priesthood have confirmed your worthiness.”
The man stopped for a moment, adjusting his glasses. “Brother Sangood, I have here two letters. One is from the prophet, electing you to the higher blessings of the priesthood. The second letter is addressed to the prophet. In order to receive this election, you must sign the second letter, which states that you accept the weighty charge that comes with this high and holy calling. If you sign the second letter, I will then deliver it to the prophet. Brother Sangood, do you understand the calling and election I am extending to you?
“It’s the Second Anointing,” Jerry said.
“That’s right,” Brother Lucy said. “This is the Second Comforter.” Then he paused for a moment, leveling his gaze on Jerry. “Brother Sangood,” he said, “a new dispensation awaits you, if you are willing to receive it.”
“A new dispensation,” Jerry repeated, thinking about the tumor growing in his brain.
“A literal pouring out upon your head,” the man said.
Jerry winced as a sharp pain erupted and subsided in the back of his neck.
The man put the letters on the desk before Jerry. “Read them carefully,” he said, “before you sign.”
Jerry recognized the letterhead, the prophet’s signature, the familiar and reserved tone of church correspondence. “Dear Brother Sangood,” the first letter read, “The Lord has looked upon your heart and desires now to magnify your inheritance.”
The pain in Jerry’s head reasserted itself. Earlier that day, Jerry had gone to see Dr. Slater, complaining of headaches and mood swings, loss of memory. When the doctor came into the examination room with the X-ray, he put it on the screen and said, “There’s the culprit.” He circled the air above the image with a silver pen. In the black and gray figure of Jerry’s skull was a small white stone the size of a quarter. Jerry stared at it for a long time, like a man having a revelation. Dr. Slater scheduled a biopsy for Monday, in Pocatello. He said they wouldn’t know anything until then.
A few minutes after leaving the doctor’s office, Jerry came home to an empty house. He picked up the cordless phone and sat on the couch. Camille had been in California for nearly a week, having left the day before their daughter Gwen was scheduled to deliver. Camille had been on the plane when Gwen’s uterine wall broke. When she called Gwen’s cell phone from the airport, Neal, their son-in-law, answered: Gwen and the baby were in intensive care. The doctors had performed an emergency C-section. They found the baby’s leg outside the womb, pressing against Gwen’s internal organs.
Jerry didn’t know when Camille would be coming back, and Dr. Slater had said they wouldn’t know anything until after the biopsy on Monday. Jerry put the cordless back on its cradle. He wouldn’t worry her until he knew more, until after the biopsy. A moment later, Brother Lucy had called. Now Jerry was looking at two letters—and a new dispensation.
On the second letter, which was addressed to the prophet, there was a space at the bottom for Jerry’s signature. Jerry read the words “Second Comforter” and “serve with all my heart, might, mind, and strength.” He looked at Brother Lucy. “What happens if I sign?”
“Each case is different,” Brother Lucy answered, taking a pen from his coat pocket and handing it to Jerry.
Jerry took the pen. He would hold back nothing from the Lord. When he taught his students in seminary, he often quoted the Primary song: “Keep the commandments! In this there is safety; in this there is peace.” He signed the letter and handed it back to Brother Lucy, trusting in the hand of God.
Standing in the parking lot with the man a few minutes later, Jerry asked, “Will there be an ordination? Will my wife be called?”
“Each case is different,” Brother Lucy said once again. Then, he lowered his head for a moment, scowling, like a man arguing with himself.
“What is it?” Jerry asked.
Brother Lucy looked out at the darkness of the parking lot. “I feel impressed to tell you something, Brother Sangood,” he said. “I feel impressed to caution you.”
Jerry felt an odd tingling in the back of his head.
“A lot of people have lived on this earth.” Brother Lucy looked up in contemplation at the dark sky. “And a lot of people will yet live on this earth.”
In the black and overcast sky above them, three stars had become visible: Vega, the falling eagle; Cassiopeia, placed in the sky to learn humility; and Aldebaran, the follower.
“Not all of God’s premortal children were faithful,” Brother Lucy said.
“There was war in heaven.” Jerry said, inspired.
Brother Lucy smiled wryly. “Billions of people have lived on this earth,” he said. “Billions will yet be sent. But a third of the hosts were cast down to earth for rebellion—unembodied spirits roaming the earth, seeking their brothers’ and sisters’ destruction.”
In Jerry’s eyes, Brother Lucy suddenly looked like a small, needle-toothed mammal, like a predator. “How many of them are there?” he asked. “How many spirits roam the earth, combined against each one of us?”
Jerry felt a gloom that seemed to emerge from the hardened pit in the back of his own skull. He felt it in the air around him, in his ears, in his nose and mouth, like a living, cancerous smoke. He clenched his eyes shut, unable to resist the vision of dozens of devilish fiends encircling him, entering his thoughts, taunting and tempting, blaspheming his faith. He fell to his knees, the sound of Brother Lucy’s voice swirling amid the devilish air. Writhing on the pavement of the LDS church parking lot, Jerry struggled against the hosts that beset him. He felt the cold blacktop against his face and teeth as they tugged at his soul, as the very pavement seemed to heave a pitch beneath him, becoming a hard, black sea of evil, ready to swallow him whole.
WHEN JERRY PULLED into the parking lot of the LDS seminary the next morning, he felt tired and agitated, barely himself. He got out of his car and walked stiffly toward the building, his muscles aching. He remembered meeting with Brother Lucy the night before and signing the letter. He remembered Brother Lucy talking about the hosts who fell from heaven. Then he remembered waking up in his own backyard, soaking wet, in a morning rainstorm. Cold and confused, he had ducked through the basement door, which stood open, the knees of his suit pants shredded and soiled, one sleeve of his suit coat torn, his tie gone, his hands and shirt filthy.
He put his ruined suit in a trash bag and took it out to the garbage. Whatever had beset him the night before, he knew he must faithfully accept God’s vision of his own future. He showered and put on another suit. He had just enough time to open the seminary building for the students who would soon be coming in for their first classes.
Reaching the seminary building, his limbs stiff and aching, he remembered the predatory look on Brother Lucy’s face, like a small, menacing animal. He remembered the words, “Each case is different.” He put his key to the lock. Then he saw that the door stood open, just an inch. Perhaps Brother Severe, the director, had already arrived, he thought. But the lights were off, and no one responded when he stepped inside and called out a greeting. He walked down the hall, switching on lights and checking rooms. Everything seemed to be in order, until he got to his own classroom.
He sensed the darkness even before he switched on the light, even before he saw the pictures, hundreds of them, printed on ordinary computer printer paper. Images from the Internet—grainy, explicit, hardcore—covered the walls and cabinets of his classroom. More pictures were scattered on the floor and on the students’ desks. For an instant Jerry stood paralyzed, confounded in his acknowledgment of God’s hand in all things.
A frantic, irrational spirit burst upon him as he realized that the students would be coming in at any moment. Fearing all that he had to lose, he began tearing pictures from the walls, gathering them in a flurry. Despite the ache in his limbs, despite the sharp pains in the back of his skull, he tore images of women and men from the walls, grabbed them up from the floor, peeled them off the cabinets. Like a madman he stuffed pictures in the crook of one arm as he moved through the room. For every picture he tore at, others fell from his grasp, crumpled and torn in his wake. Dozens of other pictures still hung on the walls, untouched. He rushed to his desk, vainly believing he could stuff the obscene pictures in the drawers and hide this unreasonable, unbelievable thing that had happened. But the drawers of his desk already had pictures in them, dozens of pictures, neatly stacked—Christ at the well, knocking at the door, showing himself to the Nephites; Joseph Smith, Noah, and Isaiah; family prayer and baptism. Jerry thought then that he must be losing his mind. These pictures had been on the walls just the day before, which now seemed a lifetime away. Throwing open the last desk drawer, he saw a picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The image of the couple holding hands in Eden seemed more real than ever as Jerry stood in his seminary classroom, an armload of torn and crumpled pornographic images clutched to his chest.
His goodness stripped naked and mocked, Jerry saw three ninth-grade girls standing in the doorway. They stood frozen in their innocence, holding their books and backpacks, their eyes wide and their mouths agape. Jerry knew these girls. He knew their parents. He’d attended their brothers’ mission farewells and homecomings. An uncharacteristic curse fell from his lips as he lunged toward the girls, the pictures still clutched in his arms. The girls fled into the hallway, crying out in shock to the other students. Just as Jerry reached the doorway, calling incoherently to the girls, Adam Birch and Greg Hill appeared. The two boys, strong, tall seniors raised on potato farms, looked past Jerry and into the room, their faces drawn with astonishment.
Jerry tried to move beyond the boys. “Girls, girls!” he called out in a vulgar cough, his legs nearly giving way beneath him. “Please!” he cried, reaching after them. Several students had gathered in the doorway now, having heard the commotion. As Jerry fell forward, Adam Birch caught him by the arm. “Go get Brother Severe,” Adam said to someone behind him.
Jerry tried to slough off Adam Birch’s hold on his arm. He called the girls’ names: “Terra, Isabel.” But they were already out of sight, lost behind the crowd of students straining to see inside the classroom. Jerry tried to push through, but he was too weak. The boys drove him back into the room, wrestled him to the floor.
“No,” Jerry managed to say as he reached out, trying to cover the eyes of the boys holding him down.
“You frickin’ pervert,” Adam Birch said, holding down Jerry’s arms. “You’re not getting to those girls.”
The weight of five or six boys was on him now. The gathered students spun on their heels, eyes wide with dread as they saw the pictures on the wall, as they saw their teacher being held to the floor by their friends.
“Brother Lucy! God, Brother Lucy!” Jerry called out. He was trying to break free of the boys’ grasp, trying to cover their eyes. He felt so weak. He wanted to get the students out of this room. He wanted to wake up and find that he was out of his mind, that he wasn’t in this room at all.
When his seminary brethren burst into the room, they stopped short, as though they’d hit an invisible wall. Brother Severe came through the doorway first, followed by Brothers Blaine and Parker. The room fell silent as the three men took in the scene—their fellow teacher held to the floor, the classroom covered with pornography. The students looked at the three men expectantly. Resting for a moment, Jerry uttered a single pathetic moan as he let out his breath.
Brother Parker groaned, “Dear Father.” Brother Blaine turned absently, eyes down, as if he might simply walk away, until Brother Severe touched his sleeve, halting his exit.
“Okay, everybody,” Brother Severe said, “Okay.” He reached down, touching each of the boys on the shoulder or sleeve. One by one, the boys released Jerry and wordlessly moved aside. Brother Severe glanced up at the walls only once, as if to make sure it was still real. He lifted Jerry to his feet. Jerry stepped toward the wall, toward a row of pictures hanging there. He looked at the pictures, seeing the eyes and faces of women and men, the room so silent that he might have been alone. He turned, and then, as if there had been some kind of explosion, the boys were on Jerry again. Jerry hurled himself toward the wall, sobbing now, pulling down a dozen or more pictures at a handful. Imbued with indignation, the boys pinned Jerry to the wall. Coughing, sobbing, Jerry barked out an incoherent curse: “Hell if I ever!” he shouted, swinging random fists full of pornography. “Hell on you all!” he spat.
Brother Severe moved toward Jerry, but Jerry tackled him, pushing a fistful of pornography at his face. When Brother Severe fell against Blaine and Parker, the three men toppled into a wall of students as Jerry rushed past them and darted down the hall. The stunned students cowered and gave way as Jerry raced down the hall, shouting and cursing, until he finally burst from the building like a madman.
THE COUNTY JAIL was housed in a new annex of the historic, sandstone-faced courthouse building on Main Street. The interior of the new jail was hard and smooth—concrete floors and walls painted white, metal cell doors a deep blue. The cells were small concrete boxes with bunk beds, stainless steel toilet/sink units, and small, barred windows. Outside the six cells was a sky-lit enclosed area with two steel picnic tables, the legs embedded in the concrete floor. As the sheriff led Jerry into the enclosure in handcuffs, Jerry showed signs of recognition. He had been there before, as a stake officer conducting Sunday services for the prisoners. When the sheriff took off the handcuffs, Jerry held up his hands lamely, showing his palms. He bowed his head, and in a whispered chant, said “Amen, amen.”
The sheriff had found Jerry in a sheep shed on Glade Raines’s farm on the edge of town. Glade had called saying Jerry was wandering his property, chasing sheep and shouting questions about the prophets. Raines held Jerry at bay with a shovel until the sheriff got there, saying he’d only hit Jerry a couple of times, and only when he tried to get away. During the ride to the jailhouse, Jerry had sat in the back seat, handcuffed, muttering the lyrics to Elvis songs, mingled with scripture.
Sheriff Fisher sat Jerry down at one of the tables. He snapped his fingers in front of Jerry’s face to get his attention. Then, pointing to an open cell door, he said, “That’s your cell, Brother Sangood. There’s a bunk and a toilet. If you don’t cause any trouble, you can sit out here as long as you want.” He put his hand on Jerry’s shoulder. “Understand?”
Jerry bowed his head. “O, God, the Eternal Father,” he said, nodding.
“I’ve got a couple of deputies cleaning up your classroom,” Sheriff Fisher said. “We’re looking at property damage charges for sure, and probably a public decency violation. I’ll have you arraigned before Judge Hill in the morning.”
Jerry stared at the metal table. Something was stuck there in front of him—an old sticker from a banana.
“You know Judge Hill, don’t you?” Sheriff Fisher asked.
Jerry picked at the sticker, pulling part of it away, leaving behind an outline in dirt. “Don Hill,” Jerry said without looking up.
The sheriff squatted on one knee to catch Jerry’s eye. “There’s something else,” he said. He paused a moment. “A couple of the girls said you sexually harassed them.”
Jerry stared hard at the metal table. If he raised his eyes too long, he might see those combined against him. Like mincing shadows with claws for eyes, they’d assailed him in the parking lot with Brother Lucy, buffeted him as he wandered Glade Raines’s sheepfold.
“One of the Peterson girls says you made sexual comments,” the sheriff said.
Jerry nodded. The Peterson girl had talked to him after school and told him her boyfriend had dumped her for someone prettier. “She was crying,” Jerry said, still picking at the banana sticker. “Such a beautiful girl.” He remembered telling her how pretty she was and promising her the other boys would see that, too. “Yes,” Jerry said to the sheriff, nodding, smiling a little.
“And the Compton girl,” the sheriff said. “She claims you got out of line with her, too.”
Jerry looked up at the sheriff. He shook his head back and forth, saying, “No, no.” He started to get up, as if he might walk away. The sheriff simply sat him back down.
“The Compton girl,” the sheriff repeated.
Jerry counted on his fingers, grasping for something like logic. “The revealing tops, the short skirts, the high heels.” He’d prayed for the girl and her parents, recently divorced. He’d cautioned her about her appearance. Jerry looked at the sheriff pleadingly. “Her body’s a temple,” he said. He returned his attention to the sticker, picking at it studiously.
“Do you realize what’s happening here?” the sheriff asked. “You’re in pretty deep.”
Jerry looked up, abruptly confident. He smiled and patted the sheriff’s arm. “I was in prison and ye came unto me.”
“I’ll call your wife,” Sheriff Fisher said.
Jerry looked back at the table. The ache from the blows of Glade Raines’s shovel spoke to him like an old regret. Jerry had grown up a long time ago, it seemed, in a small house near the railroad tracks in Pocatello. An old man lived down the street when he was a boy. The man had a knife and he said he could cut off Jerry’s ear. A sunny afternoon, and Jerry’s father was there. The man showed his knife. Jerry didn’t understand that the man was teasing him. Then Jerry remembered something else. He’d been a young husband. He and Camille drove a Thunderbird convertible he’d borrowed from his friend Raymond Hayes. They’d driven to Las Vegas to see Elvis. He remembered the feeling of Camille’s beautiful, delicate hand on his arm as he drove. And he remembered standing in front of his students, the familiar sensation of his leather-bound Book of Mormon in his hand, testifying in one of those rare moments when all of the students were silent, truly listening, listening not just to him, but to the Spirit testifying. He remembered that morning, carrying his tattered, soiled suit to the garbage, like a man hiding a shameful sin.
When Sheriff Fisher came in next, leaving the door open to the office, the outside light from the small, barred window was growing dim. The sheriff sat down across from Jerry at the metal table, looking at him for a long time before he spoke. “We’ve been to your house,” he said. “The pictures you put up in the classroom were probable cause. The back door to the house was wide open. All those pictures—they were printed from your computer. All we had to do was check the computer history. It was all right there.”
Jerry remembered seeing Sheriff Fisher as a boy, riding a silver bicycle all over town. He could ride with no hands from one end of town to the other next, his arms folded over his chest. As the sheriff spoke, Jerry reached out and patted his sleeve.
“We found something else,” Sheriff Fisher said. “When we sat down at your computer, it was already on. It was open to your bank’s website. All your accounts have been zeroed out, all the funds were transferred. We talked to the bank. Did you plan on skipping town, Jerry? Is that why you empted the accounts? Is that why you did it while Camille was gone?”
“Who needs money?” Jerry said, quoting an Elvis tune.
The telephone rang, and Sheriff Fisher stood up, heading for the office. “If that little trick down at the seminary was your way of getting back at this town for something,” he said, “then it was a hell of a way to go.”
Jerry sat at the metal table, his hands before him, his fingers outstretched. Too many things were happening, too many things to think about at once. The sheriff had told him there was a room with a bunk. He realized that now. He could go to sleep. He looked up at the cell, the door standing open. The sheriff had found his house that way, with the door standing open. He could go to sleep. He had awakened in the rain that morning, in the backyard, with the door of the house standing open. He got up and went to the open door of the cell. He stepped into the cell, thinking he might shut the door behind him, but he didn’t want to disturb the evidence. He lay on the bed, facing the wall. He was glad it wasn’t raining. He didn’t know if those combined against him were in the cell with him, though he knew they were in prison. He didn’t want to turn and see. He heard the sheriff talking on the phone in the office. He heard the sheriff say the words, “That’s what it looks like.”
Then the sheriff was in the cell, tapping him on the shoulder. “It’s your wife,” he said, handing him a cordless phone. “She doesn’t sound too good.”
Jerry sat on the edge of the bed and took the phone.
“The baby isn’t breathing right,” Camille said, her voice like light.
Jerry opened his eyes, emerging from a spell. “Camille,” he said.
“I can’t talk long. They put Gwen back in Intensive Care. She’s bleeding again.”
“We can say a prayer,” Jerry said. “We can give her a blessing.”
“What’s happening to us?” Camille asked.
“Heavenly Father . . .” Jerry said, unable to finish.
A long silence stretched between them. Jerry could hear her muffled sobs. He knew the rhythm of her breathing, like the pulse of his own blood. He imagined being with her, kissing the tears on her cheek, smelling her soft skin. He closed his eyes, hoping it might simply come true.
Then he heard her voice. “Jerry,” she said.
He opened his eyes. He was still in the jail cell.
“This is my fault,” she said. “You don’t understand what’s happening. This is a test. We just have to get through it.”
“I’m in trouble,” Jerry said. “I’m in jail.” He looked up at the walls of the cell, at the metal tables outside the cells where he had given the sacrament to the prisoners when he had served here as a stake officer. The words came to his lips: “Bless and sanctify,” he whispered.
“I’ll try to come home,” Camille said. “I have to see to Gwen, too, and the baby—she’s so precious,” Camille said. “This is a test, Jerry,” she said. “Heavenly Father,” she said, her own voice trailing off.
A moment later, when she said goodbye, Jerry didn’t switch off the phone. He lay there with the receiver to his ear until the sheriff came in and held out his hand. “I need the line free,” Sheriff Fisher said.
THAT EVENING Jerry Sangood had three visitors who came to him like messengers in a dream. Brother Severe asked Jerry about his headaches.
“Dr. Slater found something in my head,” Jerry said.
“I bet he did,” Brother Severe answered, talking there in the darkness of the cell, sitting on a metal folding chair. “Maybe that thing in your head drove you crazy,” he added.
But Jerry knew it was more than that. He knew God was standing above them all, greater even than the earth upon which all their lives rested. Despite the rattle and thrash of all their ambitions for exaltation, despite the hiss of all the devils combined against them, despite the cars and the songs and the empty hearts, God moved through their lives like a giant flaming sun rolling through space, quiet and sure, like the very blood coursing through their veins.
“I contacted Salt Lake,” Brother Severe said. “You’re through teaching, of course. The sheriff said there’s no question, the evidence is all there.” He stared at his clasped hands in the darkness. “Maybe if they decide you’re crazy, no one will judge you. I don’t know,” he said, letting out a halted laughed. “I guess I was crazy there for a while, too. Do you remember that, that first year we worked together? You saved my life, Jerry.” He paused for a moment, putting his face in his hands. “I’d never had that kind of attention from a girl,” he said, looking up at Jerry,” especially one who looked like that.” He laughed a small desperate laugh, shaking his head. “I thought I was beyond temptation. I would have lost everything, Jerry, if you hadn’t been there that night. I hope they decide you’re crazy, for your own sake.”
Brent Blaine came next. “I was standing in the doorway,” he said. “I had the tithing deposit in my hand, over twenty thousand dollars. I could just borrow a little, I thought, pay it back. I knew no one was supposed to be alone with the money. You saw me, and it was like you knew. ‘Headed to the bank?’ you asked. ‘I’ll go along.’ You had to know. And now it’s you. I don’t get it.”
Then it was David Parker, who was still in his twenties, with a wife and two small children. He sat in the folding chair, just as others had, talking into the darkness. “Except for my bishop back home,” he said, “and that therapist in Utah, you’re the only one who knows. What am I supposed to do, tell Brother Severe? Mr. Righteous? ‘Oh, by the way, I used to have an eating disorder. But it’s okay. I force myself to eat and I stuff my anxieties. No one suspects it because I’m a man.’” He choked a laugh. “You have to be crazy, Jerry, to do what you did. Who am I going to talk to now?”
Jerry didn’t speak. Unseen others clamored in the air, some combined against Jerry, some against Brother Parker. Jerry reached out across the darkness, taking the young man’s hand.
“I’m sorry it had to be you,” Brother Parker said.
AT DAWN, Brother Lucy came. He stood over Jerry, shaking him awake.
“It’s time to go,” he said. “Get up.” Jerry put on his shoes, his head cloudy and thick. Brother Lucy took him by the arm, standing him up. Then Brother Lucy simply walked Jerry past the only deputy on duty, who was sitting with his back to the door, watching TV. They walked out of the building like two angels stepping away from a fallen prison. Outside it was a chilly, overcast morning as they walked north on Main Street, past Heritage Mortgage and Belknap Chiropractic, past the empty storefront where JCPenney’s had once been. The stores were closed and the only cars on the road were still driving with their lights on.
When the dryness in Jerry’s throat cleared enough that he could speak, Jerry simply asked, “Why did they let me go?”
“Just walk,” Brother Lucy said.
Jerry could feel the tumor in his head, could feel it growing. He could taste it like metal in his mouth. Maybe the spirits who had attacked him in the church parking lot had grown out of the pit in his head. Or maybe they were waiting to enter in through it, like a portal. “Whatever God wants,” Jerry said, “he can have.”
“Keep walking,” Brother Lucy said, taking him by the arm and walking faster.
They turned the corner and went down Heath Street, heading east. Jerry looked ahead, staring into the sun. He stared at the white-hot ball on the horizon as long as he could stand it, burning his eyes with the sight of it. Everything began to burn in on him—the life he was losing. He looked at the sun for a long while and then looked down, unable to see for a moment. “Why do I need my eyes?” he said.
When he looked away from the sun, he only saw a pink whiteness. He walked ahead, blind for a moment, until the vision returned. He saw his necktie hanging loosely from his neck. “I don’t need this,” he said, taking it off and dropping it to the ground. He took off his suit coat and absently let it fall to the sidewalk as well.
“You’re littering,” Brother Lucy said. “The sheriff will get you.”
“What’s happening to my daughter?” Jerry asked. “Why does she have to be a part of this? And the baby—why isn’t the baby breathing right? What did he do wrong?”
“He was born,” Brother Lucy said. “That’s enough.”
“It’s not right. God can have him, but it’s not right.”
They continued down Heath Street, walking out of town toward the grain fields and the purple mountains in the distance. At the edge of town, where the sidewalk ended, they took to the blacktop street, walking parallel with the railroad tracks and East Canal, headed toward the old sugar factory.
“Where are we going?” Jerry asked.
“When you drained your bank account,” Brother Lucy said, “that account number I gave you was for the Catholic Relief Fund. They’ll be very grateful, I’m sure.”
“Why did I do it?” Jerry asked.
“The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,” Brother Lucy said, quoting scripture.
Jerry looked at the sun again, walking into it. He didn’t want to see anymore.
“We author our own hell,” Brother Lucy said.
They were walking the middle of the blacktop road, along the canal, a row of litter and gangly weeds beside them. “I’ve lost my life,” Jerry said.
“You’ve lost nothing that matters.”
“Then nothing matters,” Jerry said.
They were at the old sugar factory now, a building that hadn’t been used in years. The windows were broken out, a moat of high weeds grew up around the walls. The stories of hard-working Mormon farmers carrying in loads of sugar beets in big, horse-drawn wagons were all gone, too. East Canal, a major artery of the local irrigation system, ran between the dilapidated building and the blacktop road where Jerry and Brother Lucy stood. In the distance, beyond acres of potato and grain fields, the Wasatch mountain range lay between them and the distant sunrise.
“Certain people in Salt Lake City were up all night talking about you, Jerry,” Brother Lucy said. “You’re going to be on the news this morning, all over Utah and Idaho. Someone took pictures of your classroom. They have pictures of you, too. It was good of you to leave the house unlocked. One of the General Authorities wants you excommunicated. He’ll probably get his way.”
Jerry looked up at the old abandoned building. He had played here as a boy, riding his bike around the place at night, throwing rocks into the canal. “Take me home,” he said absently. “I want to go home.”
“Your old life is gone, Jerry. You signed the letter. Besides that, you just escaped from the county jail. You’re a fugitive. Add that to the other charges against you.”
“Why are we here?” Jerry asked. The pain in the back of his head was growing warm, like something seductive and wicked.
Brother Lucy took Jerry’s arm and walked him a few feet down the road. They stood at the edge of the canal. “Look,” he said, pointing to a dirt and gravel parking lot behind the sugar factory. Camille was there, standing a hundred yards away, pacing in front of her car. She wore blue slacks and a white blouse, the same clothes she had on when she flew out to California. Spotting them, she began walking in their direction, head down, arms folded over her chest.
“She loves you, Jerry,” Brother Lucy said, “more than her whole life in this town. More than her grandchild, more than her daughter. More than she loves herself.”
Jerry fell to his knees. The pain in his head was blinding. It was too much to think that he had brought her to all this, their lives shattered. He tried to stand. He stumbled, moving toward Camille, toward the canal. Looking only at his wife as she made her way toward them, he stepped into the canal, the water deeper than he expected. His feet slipped on the muddy bottom. He went completely under the cold mountain water before coming up out of the current, coughing and splashing.
Brother Lucy eased down the incline and stepped carefully into the water. “Take my hand,” he said.
Jerry reached for Brother Lucy’s hand, and in a moment he landed on his back, prostrate in the water, thrashing and gasping in a panic as Brother Lucy held him under, his knee on Jerry’s chest, his hand shoving Jerry deeper and deeper under the current. The pain in his head, like a black cloud of devils, disoriented him. Then, just as quickly as he had pushed him under, Brother Lucy pulled Jerry to his feet and shouted, “Are you giving up? If you’re going to give up, spare us all and do it now.”
“No,” Jerry said, gasping and spitting water. “No, I’m not giving up.” He was struggling to stand on his own, grasping at Brother Lucy’s body to steady himself.
Camille stood at the edge of the canal now, reaching for her husband. “Let go of him!” she demanded. “Get away from him! Let him go!”
Jerry wiped at his eyes and looked up at her, standing on the bank. Her hair was disheveled and her clothes were wrinkled. Her face was red and her eyes were puffy from crying. She was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen.
Taking courage from the sight of his wife, Jerry pushed Brother Lucy away and stood back a pace, toward the bank where Camille stood. “I’m not giving up my life,” Jerry said. “I didn’t give it up. You took it from me, from both of us.”
“I didn’t take anything,” Brother Lucy answered. “God holds your life in his hands. He always did.”
“If he wants my life,” Jerry said, “he can have it. He’s already put a tumor in my head.”
“You don’t understand,” Camille said to Jerry. She stepped down the embankment and into the water behind Jerry. “This is all my fault,” she said. “He came to me with a paper.” She pointed to Brother Lucy. “I signed it, and that’s why Gwen and the baby are in the hospital. That’s why all these things are happening.”
Jerry looked at Brother Lucy, enraged, the pain in his head like an angry stinger. He was ready to move toward him, angry enough to kill him.
“Don’t, Jerry,” Camille begged, clutching at him. “Please don’t.”
Jerry roared at Brother Lucy, his fists hitting the water. “I didn’t want this!”
“Your life is gone,” Brother Lucy said. “Don’t you see that? You can’t have it back. Right now, someone in Salt Lake is calling your priesthood leaders in Idaho. There’s going to be a church court. You won’t even have your church membership!”
“It’s not right,” Jerry said in a low, angry voice. He swayed, chest deep in the water, ready to explode. His white shirt clung to his chest. His face twisted with pain and anger. “Nothing about this is right!” he roared as he sprung at Brother Lucy, putting his hands around the old man’s neck. “I worked all my life,” he said, shaking the man. “All my life!”
Brother Lucy gripped Jerry’s hands, attempting to pull them from his neck. Camille pulled at Jerry’s arms, crying out, calling Jerry’s name and begging him to let go.
“I’ve kept the commandments,” Jerry cried.
The three thrashed in the water, struggling to stay upright on the muddy bottom of the canal. Brother Lucy managed to get his own hands between Jerry’s grip and his neck. Camille had managed to get herself partly between the men.
“I’ve cared for my neighbors,” Jerry said in self-defense. “I put up with them, and with their children’s silliness and all of their blind obedience to this stupid, stupid world.” Then, giving up his hold on Brother Lucy’s neck, he said, “And I’ve loved them too!” He stopped fighting for a moment. “I have loved them! Doesn’t that count for anything? I’ve spent hours and hours on my knees, begging God to teach me how to love them. Good God,” he said, “I built a reputation in this town as a good man!” Jerry shouted. “And now I’ve lost everything!”
He turned away, stumbling back a pace, his energy spent. The three of them stood there in the water.
After a moment, Brother Lucy spoke. “What have you lost?” he asked.
“Everything!” Jerry said in a broken voice.
“You’ve lost your reputation?” Brother Lucy asked.
“The collective opinion of fools?”
“I’ve lost my good name!” Jerry said.
“There is none good but God!”
“What about our money? The money’s gone!”
“Filthy lucre,” Brother Lucy answered.
“We could lose our daughter,” Camille said.
Brother Lucy turned to her. “Dear Mother, you know that child’s soul. In all the eternities, you’ll never lose her. How could you doubt it?”
Camille dropped her face into her hands and began to weep.
Jerry went to her, put his arms around her. Her clothes and her skin felt so cold. She cried into his chest, embracing him. He didn’t care about himself. She was the only one on this earth that mattered. He’d exhausted all his words, all his defenses. He had nothing but her, nothing but his life and hers.
Brother Lucy stood off a pace. His face softened into a smile as he looked at Jerry standing there, holding his wife. “Brother,” he said, his hands outstretched. He stepped toward them, reaching out, smiling assuredly. “Let go, Brother,” he said, touching Jerry’s sleeve. “Just let go.”
Jerry shook his head. “No,” he whispered, rocking Camille gently in his arms, moving from side to side as she wiped her tears and composed herself.
“Your Heavenly Father loves you,” Brother Lucy said. He put his hand at the base of Jerry’s neck. “Just let go of this world,” he said. “You’ll see his love, just like the scripture says: ‘Stronger than the cords of death.’”
Jerry looked into the old man’s fading blue eyes, as light and blue as a summer sky. Jerry knew his own heart. He was ready to believe, ready to accept. He couldn’t do anything else, even if it damned him. He trusted in his Father’s love. He trusted in the goodness of the earth, the goodness of his wife, the goodness of most of God’s children. He knew that God had his blessings in store. He knew his daughter Gwen would be just fine, even if there was trouble for a little season. He was ready to let go of whatever it was that he held back from God.
Brother Lucy stood beside them, his soft hand, his touch tender at the base of Jerry’s neck, just below the spot where a stone was growing in Jerry’s skull. Then Jerry saw a change in Brother Lucy’s face. The menacing look of a predator returned.
“Dear Brother,” the old man said in a voice, strong and hollow, “let go.”
Jerry felt himself slipping under the water, being pushed under the water as easily as a child might dip a toy in the bathtub. He still held on to Camille, too shocked to let her go. The water was murky and cold. Camille, still in his arms, didn’t struggle. She only held on to Jerry as Brother Lucy pushed them both down, one hand on Jerry’s neck, the other hand and one knee on their bodies.
Hungry for breath, for the light of day, for life itself, Jerry resisted the force of Brother Lucy’s body on theirs. He pushed at the old man’s limbs, kicked until his feet slipped on the muddy canal bottom. He thrashed until he felt his back hit the mucky bottom. He needed a breath. He needed to save Camille. He needed to save them both.
Then he felt it. Camille reached around his body, embracing him fully. She was not resisting. She was holding on to him, holding him closer, like a lover in bed, holding fast to her love. Beneath the water, in the blackness, at the end of his life, he returned his love to her. He held her close, and finding her face under the murky water, he put his lips to her. He stopped fighting.
He let go.
THEY DROVE ALL DAY and all night, unable to speak. They simply got in the car in their wet clothes and drove until the car’s engine died on the edge of a rural two-lane highway in North Dakota, near the Canadian boarder. After looking under the hood for a moment and not recognizing anything there, they walked toward the nearest town. At the city limits of Wicapiwakan, North Dakota, Pop. 8271, a sign read, “Where Hell Freezes Over.” They rented a kitchenette in a rundown motel and soon got jobs—Camille as a lunch lady at the junior high, and Jerry as a janitor in the town’s only nursing home. Jerry didn’t say anything about the pain in his head, though it rang in his skull like a hammer. For weeks they only worked and slept, barely talking, both of them fighting a profound sense of loss.
“It’s the buffetings of Satan,” Jerry said one night as they lay awake, their darkened faces red in the glow of the vacancy sign outside their window.
After cashing her first check from the school district, Camille called Gwen. She stood at a pay phone outside a convenience store, next to the ice machine at the side of the building. The noisy car and truck traffic passed on the highway just a few yards away.
Gwen said she was fine. She said the baby was fine. She wanted to know where they were, why they hadn’t called. She asked Camille if Jerry was holding her hostage.
Camille refused to tell her where they were. “Your dad and I can take care of ourselves,” she said. She watched the highway as a semi-truck pulling a load of logs passed. She heard the truck move through its gears as it slowed to enter the city limits.
“I understand about Dad,” Gwen said on the phone. “Some men can keep that sort of thing a secret for years.”
Camille stood there, her hand on the cold metal phone cord, while a short, dirty man in a cowboy hat eyed her as he got into his pickup. “You don’t understand what’s happened,” Camille said to her daughter.
“Its okay, Mom,” Gwen said. “It doesn’t mean the Church isn’t true. Some of those people Dad taught, they’re blogging about leaving the Church. I bet they never had testimonies in the first place. And half the stuff they’re saying isn’t even true,” she added.
“I need to go, Sweetie,” Camille said. She felt sick inside.
Gwen’s voice came back in a maternal tone. “Mom, if you need to leave him, you can stay with me and Neil. We’ll pay for the plane flight. I can come and get you. Whatever you need.”
Camille stood there in silence for a moment. “I’ll call in a few days,” she finally said, and hung up the phone.
A small branch of the LDS church met on the other side of town. When Jerry and Camille’s church records came in from Salt Lake, they listed Jerry as excommunicated. But with only twenty-five members in regular attendance, President Lewis gladly gave Jerry a job as the branch janitor.
EVERY MONDAY AFTERNOON, after he got off work at the nursing home, Jerry let himself into the building to clean. He vacuumed the carpet in the entryway and the four classrooms. He moved the folding chairs in the room where sacrament meeting and Sunday School were held and vacuumed the carpet there. In the offices of the branch president and the clerk, he vacuumed the carpets and dusted the desks. He washed all the windows, and he swept the floor in the little kitchen, where priesthood meeting was held on Sunday. After that, he cleaned the bathrooms.
One winter afternoon, while on his hands and knees wiping the floor around the urinal, a simple thought came to him: he was cleaning bathrooms for Jesus, wiping up urine for God’s true church. Someone had to do it. Jerry paused for a moment, wringing out his cleaning rag in a bucket of soapy water. If God’s kingdom was destined to fill the whole earth, someone would have to wipe up the piss. Kneeling there in the small bathroom in the empty building, Jerry felt as whole and happy as a child. Only then did he realize what he had lost and why it didn’t matter. Only then did he realize that the pain in his head had left him.
That weekend, the Relief Society president asked Camille and Jerry to go down to Bismarck to pick up the welfare order at the bishop’s storehouse. It was a two-hour trip down Highway 83, through a light snow and haze. After the back seat and the trunk of their car was filled with canned goods, dry cereals, and boxed dinners, they stopped at the Bismarck Temple to walk the snowy grounds in the evening light. The temple itself was small compared to the other temples they’d seen, oblong and blockish with only one level above the ground. It was beautiful, though, with the lights illuminating the walls and the Angel Moroni statue, and the plaque above the door that said THE HOUSE OF THE LORD in gold letters on white marble.
As Jerry and Camille walked the grounds, a few patrons came and went, carrying their small suitcases of temple clothes and walking briskly in the light snowfall and the chilly winds. Jerry and Camille walked until they reached the back corner of the building, past a white brick fence, and beyond that, to a driveway that led alongside the air-conditioning units and the garbage dumpster. They stopped at the edge of the driveway, seeing three aged men a dozen or so yards away, standing next to the loading dock, talking and laughing. The man standing closest to the service door was dressed in a white temple suit. The other two men were wearing dark suits, white shirts, and ties.
One of them was Brother Lucy.
Upon seeing Jerry and Camille, the men’s laughter subsided. The other man in the dark suit dropped a cigarette to the pavement and crushed it out. Then the man in the white suit handed Brother Lucy an envelope before disappearing into the temple, through the metal door. Brother Lucy nodded to his companion, who got inside a black Chrysler parked near the loading dock.
“I’ve been wondering when you’d turn up,” Brother Lucy said. “Still having those headaches?”
Jerry looked at him narrowly. “Let’s go,” he said to Camille.
“You’ll be back, you know,” Brother Lucy said, holding his attention, “inside of a year, I predict. I’ve seen it before: excommunicated from the Lord’s church, and sweeping his floors.” Then, taking the envelope in his hand and touching it dramatically to his forehead, he said, “I prophesy! In a year from now you’ll be in this temple, doing ordinances and serving potatoes in the cafeteria.”
Jerry took Camille’s arm. They turned and began to walk away.
“Just one thing,” Brother Lucy said, calling after them.
Jerry and Camille stopped, their backs to the bald man in his dark suit. Looking down at the sidewalk brushed with snow, Jerry imagined Brother Lucy staring at the back of his neck, seeing into his skull where a stone the size of a quarter slept, would continue to sleep, for at least a year. Jerry stood motionless, braced for whatever icy truth waited in Brother Lucy’s words.
“Remember this,” Brother Lucy said. “Think on this,” he said. “Even your goodness is your enemy.”
It was the truth, and Jerry knew it.
“Remember that,” Brother Lucy said, calling after them as they walked away. “And tell all your friends.”
Jerry and Camille went to the car. They got on Highway 83 and drove north through the snow. The truth of Brother Lucy’s words waited like a cancer with them in the car. It was in the snow and in the icy pavement on the road. It was in the very sky. But Jerry didn’t mind it. He could already feel himself in the temple, dressed in white, wearing a hairnet and a paper apron, dishing potatoes and feeling the Spirit of God.