The subject line is just for Emily M. M., who I don't think even knows this blog exists, but it's for her all the same.
So...yes! Big changes. Changes that will be, I think, for the best. Changes I believe I cannot discuss with the world at large yet, but about which I'm feeling positive.
I am back at work on Baptism for the Dead and will remain at work on Baptism for the Dead until it's finished. A skeptic like me doesn't see signs and/or portents anywhere, but if I weren't a skeptic, I'd be seeing them. The universe appears to have made several alignments so that working on and finishing this book will be easier or at least more fun. Of course, I'm a skeptic, so that's just confirmation bias talking. But it's still fun to have an occasional tongue-in-cheek fantasy that the universe gives two shits about my piddly little novel.
One funny portent: my friend Tim showed up at work to say hello, and informed me that I must have Baptism finished by January 30th. It was a totally arbitrary date, chosen for no reason at all, and Tim admits he has no way of enforcing the deadline. But I have a deadline, so a deadline I shall meet. There will be a few distractions along the way -- the Holidays are coming up and I expect to get writing time in on lunch breaks only just before Christmas -- and I've got to finish all the presents I'm making for my loved ones. But January 30th should still be feasible. I write fast, the book is already outlined, and I've got about 25,000 words done already. January 30th will be cake.
I've got an important phone meeting this week and I've got a fire crackling under my butt and I am SO HAPPY TO BE WORKING ON BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD AGAIN!
Who wants to read the first chapter? It's below the fold!
The first thing is the setting.
None of this will make any sense to you at all if you don’t understand where. A place is a hammer and an anvil, and a forge fire that heats the steel. And this where, this place, is what shaped me. Rexburg shaped all of us. James, me, our families, our friends. We are imprinted by this die. In my flesh, the curve of the yellow earth against a changing Idaho sky. In my heart, long wide roads between prim houses and every six blocks a church in yellow brick. In my palms, cuts from the steeples that are like swords. The scabs break open now and then. The place shaped all of us, but not X, of course. The only claim Rexburg laid on him was through me. I marked X, and I am marked by the setting.
So it’s important that you understand the setting.
The setting is the first thing.
The roads in Rexburg are too wide. Four lanes through the heart of town, with lines of pale-barked trees orderly in their precise square holes in the sidewalks. The sidewalks level and straight, empty but hopeful, running neatly in front of the shop fronts that sit like abandoned cardboard boxes, dull-colored with faded signs. This Space For Lease in white shoe paint flaking off a window. A kid has scratched his initials into the opaque streaked L. Now and then a car passes, a neat, polished, obedient beast of burden probably belonging to a chiropractor or a professor, too bright against the speechless dun of old brick facades and cinder-block walls. The few cars on the road move like prairie schooners, brave against the vastness of all that open space, the optimistic four-lane trail split by a turn lane.
Big warm-hued houses cling to the sides of the roads and hold hands, red rover, red rover, and out beyond them it’s isolation, picked last for the team. But the roads are the thing. The too-wide roads like flood rivers in a badland, macadam currents, lifeblood of the cottonwood stands of homes and a force deep and strong enough to sweep those stands away.
We are driving down one of those roads, X and I. The Thirty-Tree, which draws out to Sugar City and the mysterious places where the rivers and streams – the real ones, I mean, the water ones – sink into the golden sighing earth and reappear where you do not expect them. The Thirty-Three, and after Sugar City, on and on and away from this place. Ghost cars with fender fins and wood paneling join us on the highway. Their wheels are a slow-motion blur. The cars are full of obedient children and moms who forgot to take their aprons off, seen through a dissolving, particulate haze, the dreams of the pioneers who plowed these roads into the ground. Dads with neat haircuts and tidy fedoras. All transparent and color-reversed, like film. Photo negatives. Dreams dissolving into final bursts of scent and sound and golden flares of light, scattering, just before the dreamer wakes.
X squeezes my leg and accelerates past them onto flat, giddy road.
They are gone.
The setting is the first thing, but I’m not doing such a good job of this, am I? I should stick to just the facts.
Rexburg, Idaho. Population 18,647. College campus on the hill. Golden brick hospital with state-of-the-art maternity center. Business establishments in order of economic importance: retail, health, real estate. Ethnicity: white. Religion: Latter-Day Saint. Sex: male. Five-point-five children per household. White picket fence, dog in yard, pot roast with carrots and potatoes on Sundays. Approved housing for young ladies just off West Fourth Street.
It’s the best place in America to raise a family. No one knows who first declared this, but everybody in Rexburg believes it with the wide-eyed, breathless sensation of unbelievable good fortune that settles like a mantle over those who have won lotteries, cake walks, school raffle baskets containing expense-paid vacations to Hawaii. Virtually no crime or Democrats. I grew up here, dropped out of college here, was married and sealed to my husband here in the new temple on the hill that lights up at night like a pillar of fire. Oh, lucky me. Fortunate Lauren of Rexburg, The Best Place in America to Raise a Family.
The house I grew up in was dark red brick, two stories though only one showed above ground, and held hands on one side with a wooden rambler surrounded by crab apples and immature birches, on the other with a mustard-yellow home with mustard-yellow glass set into the front door, and in the summer mustard-yellow dandelions would bloom on its sloped bosom of lawn. Saturday mornings, my six brothers and sisters and I would eat artificially dyed cereal in our footie pajamas and watch cartoons while my parents slept in. And I don’t know what came over me one day. A premonition of my future, perhaps, and this was the only resistance a five-year-old girl could show. There was a huge heavy inelegant moss-green glazed cookie jar in the kitchen, stowed away where we couldn’t reach it by conventional means, on a white built-in shelf above the countertops. And I just couldn’t take any of this anymore. The no-skid plastic soles of my pajamas made sticking sounds and parting hisses as I left the TV room and made for the kitchen. While my brothers and sisters stayed in their cartoon world, I pulled drawers open until they formed a staircase and climbed up to the counter. I pulled the cookie jar against my chest. It was cool and pressed the metal snaps of my pajamas into my skin. I held it a moment, wondered why I had never done this before. Then I threw it out into the cinnamon air of my mother’s kitchen. There was in the TV room the sound of oversize hammers hitting cartoon cats and my siblings’ wide-eyed, green-glazed, slack complacency. Then with a roar gravity seized the jar and it hit the linoleum, the cookies and shards of pottery skittering outward in a ring, arresting in a fantastic pattern of chaos a second before my father arrived.
I was paddled, of course, but as I hung over his knee, my breath pressed out of my lungs, choking on my sobs, I became aware very slowly that my tears were less for the pain of the punishment than for the thought of all those cookies my mother had baked, ruined, inedible with shivering bits of pottery hiding among their chocolate chips and walnuts, waiting to cut up my tongue should I take a bite.
Most of the time since that morning I’ve been a good girl. I’ve done what I am supposed to do. I’ve subjected myself to the rites. I’ve observed the forms. But sometimes, in a deep and secret blue-violet inner world, the knowledge of what I really am blows like a scouring wind, strips away the hot heavy flesh of Rexburg until all my pottery bones ache with the joy of their frank, stark, dangerous form.
When I was fourteen, I was in love. It was the only time I felt myself in love at all during the twilight-sleep that was my life before X. I didn’t even love my husband – not like I loved that boy.
His name was, and still is, I suppose, Adam. He was fourteen, too. It was the summer before eighth grade and very windy. His family belonged to a different church ward from mine, and so he was a virtual stranger to me.
We met by wrecking our bikes. School had just let out for the last time and I was pedaling hard for home down a long quiet street where shade from very old dry-barked trees alternated with pools of white sunlight on the sidewalk. I didn’t slow as I came to the corner and the front wheels of our bikes smashed together. Adam and I both flew to the pavement. I was stunned and stinging, picked myself up carefully, brushed grit from my scraped palms. Adam said “Sh—it,” drawing out the sibilant with an accelerating warp, the sharp end of the word bursting from this mouth in a shower of sparkling spit.
He swore, so I adored him immediately.
Neither of us was badly hurt, and we walked our bikes together, talking. He was completely unapologetic about his vulgar language, either unaware or uncaring that he’d used such a foul word. I was glad. The mood would have been ruined if he’d repented.
Let me describe him for you, if I can. The memory of my childhood is all dark rust, and even he can slip away from me if I’m not careful. The way he looked is important to the story – Adam is to be resurrected not too long from now -- although it wasn’t his appearance that captivated me. He was only a little taller than me, and just as thin. His skin was as pale as mine. His hair was dark rich brown like damp earth and very straight, and I noticed right away that it was longer than other boys’ hair. That’s not to say it was actually long, of course. Male Mormons are well-groomed. A sign at the college’s dance hall: Thank you for observing the grooming and hygiene standards. He wore things Mormon boys never wear: a very tired old black t-shirt. Faded denim shorts with a rat-cuffed hem. A plaid shirt, the kind farmers wore, was lying on the sidewalk; he picked it up, shook it out, and tied it around his waist while I righted my bike. He wore glasses with crackled blue-black rims. The lenses were thick and magnified his eyes just slightly, so that they stood out with a kind of compelling intensity, each individual black lash larger and thicker than it should have been. The irises were a darker blue than was usual, and the whites of his eyes were not white, but diffuse pink, redder around the edges. The intense color of his eyes and their prominence behind his glasses made him seem all eyes, so that everything in my field of vision was cokebottle lenses and the downward mope of his gaze. When he pushed his bike beside mine and said, “I skipped school today; let’s go up onto the Bench,” my heart burst and reformed itself in one quick beat. Reassembled, with Adam at its center, it went on pumping as if nothing had happened. But I liked the sound our bicycle wheels made rolling together, and I liked the look of our two pairs of shoes stepping in unconscious unison over the cracks in the sidewalk.
The Bench is the hill, a long, high promontory that lumbers above the town, wandering meekly up from the south. It slopes easily into the white and buff homes at the northeast edge of town, its gentle grade holding the temple and university up like pennants in the sun. It’s a place for dry farming: here the avid consumer of fries and chips and mashed and baked will find the most famous of Idaho’s famous potatoes. When the spring rains come the Bench flashes briefly into glorious lime-green life, then settles back to its dry-smelling, dun-smelling slumber in mid-May, until the autumn snows set in. Aside from the potato farmers, there is no one on the Bench but the wealthiest families, and at the start of the summer when Adam and I were fourteen, the ranks of wealthy families were growing.
Construction sites pocked the spaces between clean lawns with their crab apple trees in glossy foliage. Valley-view lots were subdivided and allowed to tangle with weeds, dreaming of the backhoes that would soon dig the foundations that would hold the future rumpus rooms of return missionaries, who would come back to town to marry the girls who had waited for them. The cycle of life.
Adam and I climbed steadily up the Bench (I stopped at a gas station, called Mother to tell her I was going to pizza party at friend’s house, would not be home for dinner, don’t look for me until after sunset, would get ride home from friend’s dad). When the road leveled out, we got back on our bikes and coasted slowly, gear chains ratcheting, skinned knuckles grasping handlebars, wobbling. Startled grasshoppers clicked and glided along the road’s shoulder. We rode all the way out to the blue and white water tower that reminded us in bent block script, REXBURG, the letters like scripture engraved on a plate, held up by steel spider webs.
In the grass behind the reservoir’s cool cement wall, under the dark shadow of that water tower, Adam and I sat on the ground, ate granola bars and half a cheese sandwich from his backpack, and very nervously I held his warm soft young hand. I rested my head on his shoulder. I sighed because I felt good, better than I’d ever felt before. And as the sun dipped and darkened and the shadow of the tower passed off our faces to stretch out across the potato fields forever, I lifted his glasses off his face, looked into his sleepy dark blue eyes with all the sincere fragility of a teen-age girl, and kissed him.
Do not do anything to arouse the powerful emotions that must be expressed only in marriage.
Do not participate in passionate kissing, lie atop another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body. Do not allow anyone to do that to you.
Do not arouse those feelings in your own body.
Oh, Adam, your hand was so kind and eager, and your tongue in my mouth….
The prophet Alma taught that sexual sins are more serious than any other sins except murder or denying the Holy Ghost.
Why? I loved you, Adam, and God made you. God made us both, like he made the grasshoppers and the Bench, like he made the colors of spring that grade into summer dull, that stifle under the thick snows of winter, temple-white.
In spite of all my honesty and sincerity and best efforts, I still feel I’ve failed to show you what Rexburg really is. Never mind all that about Adam and the cookie jar. It’s meaningless outside the context of the setting. X loses all of his significance, too, if you take him out of the sterile pseudo-habitat where he found me. You must understand the town in order to understand the story.
Monday evenings the parks are deserted. Every family is at home, gathered around a game board. Dad is the banker and keeps the pink and yellow undersize dollar notes in neat little stacks. His mind is on the computer where he’s hidden all his pictures of barely-eighteen girls in a folder called “Presentation for Client Meeting.” The girls are tanned. Their breasts are sharply pointed, like precious stones cut into brilliant facets. Their eyes are brilliantly dull, their mouths half-open in expressions of lust or maybe disappointment. Mom plays the iron piece. Her hair lost all its luster years ago; it’s soft and rounded; she’ll put it in curlers tonight, like every night, and recall when she was first married, how it thrilled her to brush her hair in front of her husband, how he’d watch her do it and then come stand at her side and touch her shoulder and lead her to their bed. And she’d think, Predetermined. For all of eternity I waited for you. And now she feels guilty because she thinks about her friend’s husband with the smile lines that curve outward from his eyes across his cheeks, his bold laugh and his live eyes. Each child -- the dog, the shoe, the racecar -- they build up their fortunes and collect their cards and they think, When I grow up, I want to have a family just like this one. Just like my own.
At a Relief Society meeting, the most recently married girl shows off her two-carat diamond and hides behind her hair. Everyone has brought a dish to share; the casseroles with lids are all labeled with strips of masking tape because they all look and taste the same. The initiate samples every dish and compliments each woman on her cooking. She is thinking of her new husband waiting at home, his neat hands cradling a 7-Up in a sweating glass with ice. They were predestined. This was all arranged ahead of time. Their children wait beyond the Veil to be called forth from her body, from her beautiful young body that was made by her Heavenly Father to be a vessel for life, a gift for her husband. His feet are up on the coffee table – she can see him -- his black trouser socks are still on, just the way he looked in the pre-existence.
No – I’m not hitting the mark. You don’t see it yet.
Let me try again.
The red gem of the Gem State. I can tell you that the streets are planted with shade trees, and every summer afternoon brings a gentle thunder shower. I can tell you that all the high school boys work in the potato fields all summer, moving pipe, saving up a tithe to pay their preselected wives when they return from their requisite routine missions. I can say that the houses on the hill have open floor plans with plenty of sunlight. And all this is true. This is Rexburg, on the surface. The surface is the tense bland unwholesome skin on boiled milk.
When I was a little girl, there was a pool in the biggest park, and a bright and decrepit carousel with calliope music spun endlessly beside the pool. I swam there almost every day of every summer with my brothers and sisters. A booth in the park sold snow cones – my favorite flavor was tiger’s blood, which was all the flavors mixed together with a distinct artificial note of coconut. My mouth would stain red as I ate it, wandering the straight paths through the park, looking at the boles of paper birches where teen-agers had written their initials on the peeling bark in blue ballpoint pen. Each successive summer the old names were gone, and new names appeared in their places, same identical hearts pierced by same featureless arrows. They filled in the pool the year I turned eight, moved the carousel across the grounds to house it in a forbidding dark wood fortress that choked the music in. Where there was pale turquoise water and horseplay and summer, now there is a flat uniformity of grass, and the snow cone booth was torn down. The trees peel off their unmarked coconut bark. Every other week a few Spanish-speaking men mow the grass and rake up the stray birch leaves, and the park is all green quiet, except for the breeze that leads in the brief routine storm.
Go out from the edge of town, past the shirtless boys laboring in the fields, earning money for the wives they haven’t met yet. Go beyond the cemetery and the lush line of the creek dark with cottonwoods. Go to where the soil is still fertile but too rocky to tame, where the ground splits into fissures, then heaves, then craters. A moonscape. Lava fields. Shining college and pure white temple spire and Relief Society and Family Home Evening, shattered cookie jar, predestiny in the pre-existence: all of it sits fitfully on the dome of a shield volcano.
The planet is asleep.
But one day it will wake to the shout of a golden trumpet, and when it stirs, the town will be a vault of fire. American Pompeii: women frozen smiling identical smiles at identical electric ranges; dogs curled up in resigned arcs; men with their socks petrified on their feet.
The children, who will be the first to know that ruin has come, will leave their homes and run for the potato fields, and when the blast of heat reaches them they will be mannequins of ash, ash-blonde hair and great leaping strides, arrested in their individual patterns of chaos, a V of birds shot down in flight.