Angel Falling Softly

Chapter 25

The bishop's always the last to know

Rachel closed the book and placed it on the stand next to the hospital bed. Most times when she came to see her daughter, she read aloud to her. It was Veralee’s suggestion. The book she’d just finished was Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst by Lois Lowry. It was a funny book, and funny was a prerequisite. Everybody lived at the end. She wasn’t about to read Charlotte’s Web or Bridge to Terabithia any time soon, thank you very much.

In Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, Anastasia acquires a pair of gerbils for a science project. In no time at all, the two gerbils become eleven and then are set free from their cage by her little brother’s classmate. Making matters worse, Anastasia’s mother has a phobia of the vermin. Frankly, Rachel had never been keen on the whole rodents-as-pets concept herself, not since Carl’s lab rat breeding project back in high school, when pretty much the same thing happened.

Carl’s rats met a more gruesome fate when his project turned into an experiment in building the better mousetrap—the ones who didn’t escape into the Logan Valley countryside, that was. Being at the age at which she could easily imagine her own personal actions holding sway over the fate of the universe, Rachel fretted that loosing lab rats upon the world was going to tip some delicate ecological balance.

Uncle Warren, the herpetologist—it had been his idea in the first place—scoffed at her concerns. “Naw. Snake and coyote food like the rest of them. And pretty bland fare at that. I imagine your typical free-range rodent provides a more succulent meal.”

Her mother’s reaction: “You can sure see what side of the family Carl gets it from.” It being whatever made Carl do the things Carl did.

There was a lot of it in her too, Rachel thought. She just did a better job of hiding it. She worked and played well with others. She always tried to walk a mile in another person’s shoes before criticizing them. And then when she did criticize them, she was a mile away and had their shoes—the old Steven Wright joke.

On the other hand, maybe this was all a façade: denial and repression, the two big self-help/feel good/psycho-crap no-nos. Maybe she was that close to taping aluminum foil to her head and hauling her daughter off to Mexico and cramming her full of apricot pits and snake venom.

Snake venom. A cold knot tightened in her stomach. Like when she cracked a joke in class and the teacher glared at her and said, “That wasn’t funny, Miss Cameron.”

Why wasn’t it funny? This was the same feeling she’d had the night Andy got stung by the yellow jackets and she couldn’t remember what happened. She still couldn’t. That wasn’t funny either.

“Do you think I’d be mature enough not to mind?” Anastasia asks her mother at the end of the book. “Why don’t you ask your analyst?” her mother replies, meaning her daughter’s bust of Sigmund Freud.

Rachel never considered going to an analyst. She’d never thought of herself as depressed. Having bad things happen to her didn’t mean she was depressed. Job wasn’t depressed. He was grouchy and ill-tempered and put out about being covered with open sores and having everybody in his family bumped off and then constantly lectured by a bunch of self-righteous know-it-alls.

And who wouldn’t be? Even if she was depressed, taking antidepressants struck her as cheating. How profound would the old patriarch’s tribulations be if the scripture read: And it came to pass that Job went to his shrink and got a prescription for Prozac, and the old man really mellowed out after that.

When Joseph Smith was locked up in Liberty Jail, God didn’t get him a lawyer. God told him, “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

Rachel wasn’t so sure about the good part. But all this experience had better add up to something meaningful pretty soon.

“Oh, I see you’re reading Lois Lowry. The children do enjoy her books so much.” Veralee bustled into the room to record Jennifer’s vitals. “Keeping the box scores,” was how David described it. Veralee and Rachel had gotten to know each other well over the last six months—too well. Veralee said, “And how are you today, Sister Forsythe?” Not waiting for an answer, she directed the sum of her attention to Jennifer.

Veralee believed that the comatose were aware of their surroundings and kept up a constant chatter with her charge. Reading aloud was only the half of it. “It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it, Jenny? Too bad you’ve had to stay out of school so long. You’d be in second grade, this year, isn’t that right? I bet your classmates all miss you. They’ll be so glad when you’re all better.”

Veralee believed in showing a positive mental attitude. She put Jennifer’s charts down on the bedside table and bustled about checking IV lines, oxygen tubes, the electrodes that measured heartbeat and blood pressure.

Rachel glanced at the chart, more of a reflex action. Her attention was drawn to a bright yellow Post-It note stuck to the cover of the folder. Remember, the note said. The word was underlined twice.

Remember what?

More writing was visible beneath the double lines. Rachel craned her neck to read it, a jumble of numbers and letters, a filing number of some sort.

“I think she’s doing just fine, Sister Forsythe!”

Rachel’s attention snapped away from the folder.

Veralee beamed at her. “She’s such a brave little girl.”

Rachel nodded mutely.

Veralee said, “Bye, Jenny.” She picked up the folder. “If you need anything, just let me know,” she said, patting Rachel on the shoulder.

I need a well child, was Rachel’s silent response.

Sharon Sundwall called shortly after Rachel arrived home. Sharon asked if the bishop was home. It was the middle of the day—what did she think? Calling now was an excuse to bend Rachel’s ear, the bishop’s wife possessing a certain authority by proximity.

The subject was Derek, the eldest male child in the Sundwall clan. Now well into his thirteenth year, Derek was not well on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. Derek was a good kid, but he was setting a bad example in the Boy Scout department, what with three younger brothers coming up behind him.

“Tammy says she won’t let her boys get their driver licenses until they’ve earned their Eagle rank. But I don’t see how that helps in Derek’s case.”

So Sharon was seeking second opinions.

Rachel didn’t see how either. She also didn’t see how these creative forms of bribery and blackmail aligned with the ideals of Scouting. Then again, she didn’t come from a Scouting family. Scouting was way, way up on Carl’s don’t-get-me-started list. David had been an Eagle Scout. But even for David it was more a matter of duty than devotion, something good Mormon boys did.

Besides, questioning the righteousness of the BSA in this church was something akin to heresy, way, way up on Rachel’s if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice list. So she mostly listened, interrupting with the occasional “Yes, of course,” and “Uh, huh,” and “Really?” which, as she paced from room to room collecting laundry, was interpreted by Sharon as deep empathy with the nature of her plight.

Laundry was not for Rachel a disagreeable activity, once the children were potty-trained. She found something sacramental about it, a restoring of the environment to a higher state of purity. Besides, it gave her a good excuse to go through her daughter’s room without a search warrant. She limited her examinations to the honest pursuit of dirty clothing. She didn’t pry, though she did make the occasional mental note. She figured Laura could start doing her own laundry if she didn’t want her mother peeking into her closets.

Rachel hauled the laundry basket down to the basement and loaded the whites into the washing machine. Back up in the family room, she collapsed on the couch. Sharon finally hung up, off to get a third or fourth opinion, no doubt. Rachel relaxed to the rhythmic drone of the washing machine. She listened for sounds of an unbalanced load in the spin cycle. She felt the cat jump up onto the couch, the soft pad of paws on the cushions, the animal turn around and nestle next to her thigh.

Remember, the note had said. The note on Jenny’s chart.

She remembered standing on the street in front of her house after Relief Society, David coming up behind her. Where had she been? He hadn’t seen her at church. She was coming home. Home from where?

She’d been to see Milada. About—about the outfit? Maybe. No. About—

Rachel heard a faint buzzing, the washing machine timer going off. She opened her eyes. The cat stirred and yawned, ivory canines flashing against its pink mouth.

An electric shock shot through Rachel’s chest, her mind lighting up with the flashbulb illumination of a memory, suddenly before her eyes and then gone. She sprang to her feet as if to pursue it. Or to escape it. She didn’t know which. She was frightened but without anything to be frightened of. Her heart thumped in her chest. The cat gave her an annoyed look, an expression that said, Stupid human, now I’m going to have to find someplace else to sleep. It jumped down from the cushions and pranced up the short flight of stairs to the living room.

Rachel stood still, breathing hard, not moving, trying to let the dull reality of her life settle back around her. She went downstairs and took the wet laundry out of the washing machine and put it into the dryer and returned to the family room. She unlatched the sliding glass doors, stepped onto the warm patio, and walked across the lawn to the property line. The furrow was still there in the grass where she and Milada and Laura had trod out to the lone apple tree in search of Andy. Almost without thinking, she began to retrace her steps.

Late in the afternoon, the work site was winding down. Men were loading up pickups and parking the backhoes. The screech of a circular saw biting into particle board rang out like the cry of a raptor, interrupted by the rhythmic thumping of a solitary air hammer pinning shingles to tarpaper and plywood.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. It’s plenty dead.”

Rachel started, and then she saw both the man and the snake at the same time, the man’s sweat-stained tank top and bright yellow Caterpillar hard hat, his muscled arms streaked with grease—

The rattlesnake draped over the low limb of the tree, hanging limply, swaying in an unfelt breeze.

She recoiled. But at once she knew that the man was right. The snake was quite dead. She leaned toward it. She’d handled dead rattlers before, bigger ones than this. Its head was crushed, probably with a shovel, its jaws frozen open at the moment of anger and death, fangs extended, biting into empty air.

With a jolt of recognition that struck her with the force of a physical blow, the raw images rushed into her brain like a surging flood tide. She almost staggered. The Caterpillar operator held out his hand as if to steady her. “You okay, ma’am?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Like I said, dead as a doornail. Ain’t gonna bite nothing no more.”

She smiled gamely. “Yes, thank you.” She mustered about herself a sense of resoluteness and headed back to her own property, her own house, her own life.

Her own secrets. When David was first made bishop, it killed her with curiosity not knowing what he knew about people they had known for years. “The thing is,” he told her, “as long as I’m the only one who knows, even if the whole rest of the congregation could make a good guess and figure it out, they aren’t committed to the fact of it. But when they confess it to somebody else, that’s when it becomes official. That’s when there’s no going back.”

He had a point. Last April she was driving back from the Relief Society session of general conference with Amber Boyce when Amber told her, “I’m divorcing Randal.” Just like that. Rachel already knew from the ward gossip. And she’d seen the referrals to LDS Social Services on David’s desk. But once Amber told her, once Amber went public, Rachel knew it was a done deal. There wasn’t going to be a reconciliation.

So now she knew. Rachel sat down at the picnic table and stared out into space. Is this what Jennifer wanted? What God wanted? Was there a difference? Did God take a neutral stance on inspiration, on miracles? Maybe Milada had done her a favor by making her forget. Maybe this was one of those things she wasn’t supposed to remember. The same reason human beings forgot about their premortal lives when they were born into this world. The veil of forgetfulness. Mormons didn’t believe in original sin. Everyone started life with a clean slate.

Laura’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Earth to Mom—” Her daughter was standing at the sliding glass doors. “The dryer’s done.”

“Thanks.”

Laura glanced around the yard. “What are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

Laura shrugged. Being a teenager meant that the odd behavior of her parents did not demand exhaustive explanation as long as it didn’t personally involve her. “I’m going to Heidi’s.”

“Be home by five.”

“Yeah.”

In the basement, Rachel emptied the contents of the dryer into the hamper. The clothing was fluffy with static and smelled of fabric softener. She folded the clothes, a simple, repetitive chore that left her mind open to a storm of thoughts. So what do you do when you know? When you know, you act. That was the whole point of an evangelical church: acting upon the word. But to what end? What was the grand design in her life that dictated her next move? Where was the instruction manual?

Nowhere, Carl would have told her. Believe enough in a grand design and she’d find one. If necessary she’d make one up and then find that. Life was God’s cosmic Rorschach test: here’s a blob, now find the pattern. If she had the will, she could make it so. Anyway, who didn’t want to be Jean-Luc Picard at the helm of the Enterprise, captains of their own souls, as William Ernest Henley put it?

Even if Carl was right, Rachel was not above holding firmly onto two contradictory beliefs at the same time. She had carved out of her personal philosophy plenty of room for the special cases, the exceptions to the rules. There was—there had to be—a cause, a reason for it all.

The reason it pointed to—and the result that would follow—were crystal clear in her mind.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.