BETWEEN SLEEP AND WHAT FOLLOWS sleep, she pushes against water, gasping for air. It’s not until she wakes—at the edge of daylight—that her mind registers two thoughts simultaneously: that her knees ache, that Albert is still dead.
On this, a Sunday morning, a third thought follows as she begins moving her legs to the edge of the bed to stretch, then bend them, then put her whole weight down to stand up, a weight that will send a sharp burning sensation blasting through her knees: she is going to church today.
She will get her legs moving, she will put on a skirt, she will wiggle into a pair of pantyhose. She will drive herself to church. She will sit in the back, on an end, where she will have a clear view of everyone (and where the seats tend to be less crowded and she can, if need be—and she knows she will—stretch her legs out into the aisle).
She has not been to the Twelfth Ward in more than a year.
Gayle Sanders, Arlene’s visiting teacher, had called Friday with news: Terrance Jensen, a young man in the ward who had moved to Salt Lake from Las Vegas last year—the one with the very pretty, very thin, and very quiet blonde wife; the one who had gone to the temple downtown with the Relief Society this past fall to do baptisms for the dead; the one who sat by Arlene in Caroline Wilkinson’s new SUV that day, talking Arlene’s ear off about municipal bonds, how ridiculous they were—he’s suing us, Gayle said.
Arlene had been on her way to the hairdresser—to get her head put on, as Albert used to say—when Gayle called.
“Not just us,” Gayle said. “The whole church. He’s suing the whole church. Something about his back, which he claims he hurt while lifting us.”
On Friday morning the Salt Lake Tribune had carried a small article about the suit. Terrance Jensen was described as a Las Vegas man; he was suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for medical expenses after he injured his back in November of last year, performing baptisms for the dead.
Gayle did not quote the article, but she had read it. Arlene would read it later that day.
“In a civil suit filed in Third District Court on Wednesday,” the article continued, “Jensen claims he suffered a severe herniated disk in his lumbar spine after performing about two hundred baptisms on November 17. The then-twenty-five-year-old claims some of the ward members he completely immersed in water in the name of the dead weighed as much as 275 pounds.”
The article concluded with information no one in the Garden Park Twelfth Ward needed to read: that the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead, or vicarious baptism as it’s often called, is the religious practice of baptizing a living person on behalf of one who is dead, with the living person acting as the deceased person’s proxy; that members of the Mormon Church believe baptism is indispensable for entering the Kingdom of God, and thus they practice baptism for the dead to allow those who have died without baptism to receive it by proxy if they wish; that baptism for the dead has been practiced since 1840; and that Mormons believe in baptism by immersion, not a sprinkling of water on the head, as people in other Christian faiths do.
By the time Sunday meetings begin—eleven a.m.—not everyone in the Twelfth Ward has read the Tribune article but nearly everyone has heard about it, Sister Hatfield having called Sister Sanders, who called Sister Anderson and Sister Whitney and Sister Timothy and Sister Spafford and Sister Newton all by Friday afternoon, and Sister Spafford on Saturday morning having called Sister Nelson, who proceeded, in her usual way, to tell everyone else, not that there were many left by then.
The parking lot is packed when Arlene arrives. Thankfully it’s a dry February day: the sun is out though it’s not budging the temperature one bit. Still, it’s not snowing, and for that she’s grateful. She can walk the length of the parking lot without worrying, as she does at her age, eighty, about falling. She’s wearing red rubber boots over low-heeled dress shoes, just to be safe, and she does not hurry though she’s eager to get inside.
Inside, everyone is talking about Terrance Jensen, directly or indirectly. Gayle tells Sister Smoot, the bishop’s wife, she had been suspicious of Terrance Jensen from the day he moved in. Bishop Smoot weaves through the foyer outside the Relief Society room with a strained smile.
Arlene overhears the church librarian, Brother Adams, ask his wife, “Is Brother Jensen here?” And Sister Adams whispers to Sister Doxey, who is taking off her coat, “Do you think he’ll come today?”
It had not occurred to Arlene that Brother Terrance Jensen himself might not show up at church. But in the back of her mind, she finds the possibility equally as exhilarating as the possibility that he will, as if not showing up will be an admission he has done something wrong.
She takes off her coat and wipes her forehead of the sweat that now gathers whenever she moves. She positions herself in the lobby on the outskirts of a circle of people she knows. She listens, relishing talk of the scandal, the talk of her congregation, from which she has been absent so long.
It’s a shame, people say.
And it came out of left field! He seemed so sweet before this!
Do you know—did he complain that day?
Will the ward have to pay? Out of what funds, for heaven’s sake?
And what on earth will the church—and Bishop Smoot, the poor thing, and this, right on the heels of news that his wife is expecting a child; it ought to be such a good time for him and now it’s not—what will he do?
This is the first layer of talk. Compassion for the bishop, whose wife, it’s true, is expecting their fourth. (She has a history of difficult pregnancies and spent the last three months of her last pregnancy on bed rest so this is no time to take chances.) But underneath the thin layer of compassion, in smaller whispers, comes something else, a second wave of comments—is Arlene hearing this right?—that expresses not sympathy, exactly, for Brother Jensen but some partial understanding.
This is the part that interests Arlene now.
“It’s true,” Sister Sloane says—and let it be said: Sister Sloane used to be heavy-set before her husband, word was, left her for a real estate agent from California, after which she shed weight quickly as if her body were cleaning house—“We should focus on becoming more healthy, shouldn’t we?”
Arlene holds her breath. She looks around. Gayle is nowhere in sight.
Sister Sloane continues, her voice so low Arlene strains to hear.
“Wasn’t Sister Sanders volunteering that day?”
Arlene’s small body tightens. She looks around again. Gayle is far enough away; she hasn’t heard. She can’t have. She’s at the center of a knot of ward members heading into the chapel, holding forth, her hands flying. The image is a relief: Gayle blissfully unaware, talking with her hands as if conducting an orchestra.
The women around Sister Sloane flush as if their weight might be criticized next. A few nod politely and look the other way when Sister Sloane adds, this time in a fairly audible voice, “She’s no feather, is she?” and then she walks away, a pair of leather gloves in one hand, her purse in the other, a regal, knowing air accompanying her.
Then it’s time for Relief Society and Primary and Priesthood meetings to begin, all held simultaneously, allowing the women, children, and men to retreat to separate quarters as the routines of the Sabbath take over and more members arrive and more coats get peeled off (they can no longer leave them hanging in the coat room as in the old days; there have been too many thefts) and hymns are sung (“Abide With Me” is Arlene’s favorite, the most melancholy, the one that takes her back in time, that reminds her of sitting on a pew as a child, her father smelling of talc, her mother soap, one of her little brothers on Arlene’s lap, skin fresh as grass), prayers are given (a short one, thankfully, by Brother Ostler, who tends toward long-windedness but someone—his wife?—has clearly spoken with him about it), and talks are delivered (on the virtue of keeping your house up, in Relief Society).
And then everyone, men and women and children, floods the chapel for Sacrament meeting, and except for the fact that everyone, nearly in unison, turns each time the chapel door opens—no doubt hoping or fearing that it is Brother Jensen coming in—Sacrament meeting goes as it always does, quietly (except for Sharon Rigsby’s six children, the youngest of whom shrieks when the Ziploc bags of Cheerios runs dry). Uneventfully.
As does Sacrament meeting the following Sunday.
But on the Sunday after that—the third in a row Arlene has returned to church since Albert’s death a year before—toward the end of Fast and Testimony meeting, in the middle of Brother Tigard’s testimony, which is always the same (he’s deeply grateful to the members of the bishopric for their wise counsel and to the stake presidency for their leadership during difficult times; he’s proud to be an American; he knows Jesus Christ to be the son of God), the doors open. Sister Anna Jensen appears. Her husband looks pale and uncharacteristically disheveled in a wrinkled dark blue suit. He’s wearing a neck brace, which squashes his narrow, righteous face. And he’s sitting in a wheelchair.
Sister Jensen guides her young husband’s wheelchair through the length of the chapel, then positions him at the end of the last row, stepping over him to take a seat inside the pew.
From where Arlene sits, about three rows up, it appears that—is she seeing this right?—Brother Jensen lifts his wife’s hand dramatically and kisses it.
Quite the show.
All this while Brother Tigard, oblivious, faces the front of the chapel, microphone in hand. “And I’m grateful to know that the prophet is a prophet of God, that this is the one and only true church, and that our ward is—” Here Brother Tigard stumbles. Someone must have poked him. He looks down, then up, scanning the audience. “—and that our ward is—that our ward is our ward, which I say in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Whispers ripple through the room. You can hear them as the microphone gets passed along to the end of the row, then returned to Brother Harrison, who stands there awkwardly, waiting for someone, anyone, to stand, to provide testimony, to fill up the remaining ten minutes.
No one does.
Is Arlene the only one praying the bishop will stand and end Fast and Testimony early? What is ten minutes to this flock of sheep? If Albert were here, that’s what he would pray for, too, Arlene thinks: an end to the silence, quick relief.
For the Twelfth Ward can cope with many things—Brother and Sister Hornby’s three-year-old daughter getting leukemia; the arrest of Sister Whittier’s grandson on charges of grand theft; Brother Tipton’s bankruptcy and subsequent divorce—so long as those things remain outside its chapel walls. But this, an indictment of its members’ bodies, an embarrassment inflicted so directly on the congregation by one of its own, a challenge to the sanctity of the temple—this has never happened before.
What breaks the silence is this: Gayle Sanders clears her throat and, with the help of the women on either side, stands. It’s like watching one of those balloon creatures from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade come to life. Gayle has not borne her testimony in the Twelfth Ward for many years, longer than most ward members can remember, for the simple reason that bearing her testimony requires standing and Gayle rarely stands when she doesn’t have to. She’s like a Buddha in the back of the church each week: someone to come to and pay homage to, never one to speak, in that particular setting.
“I want to say that I know the church is true and that the Lord loves us, every one,” Gayle says. “And I want to say that I am thankful for the Twelfth Ward.” She pauses. She’s already out of breath. “And I am thankful for my husband, and my children, and our grandchildren. And my house—you all know how much I love my house,” Gayle says, “and I’m thankful for this body, too, even though I realize mine may be—well, a little more to love than most.”
Bishop Smoot, who is up near the podium, facing everyone, smiles, which makes it possible for everyone else to smile as well.
Gayle continues. “My body is a temple and no matter what anyone—anyone—says, I know Heavenly Father loves my temple.” She spits the word “temple.” And then, maybe because she knows there’s something off-putting about saying God loves her temple—Arlene cringes without even knowing why—Gayle abruptly ends. “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen,” she says. Then, as she hands the microphone down the row, as she holds her arms out for her ladies-in-waiting, those thin, patient, younger women, to ease her large self back down into the soft cushion of the pew, she speaks for the whole of the congregation of the Garden Park Twelfth Ward when her body releases one long, bubbly, relieved fart.
In a rush, Sister Warren stands to lead the congregation through a fast rendition of the closing hymn, holding her baton high as the flesh of her underarms sways. Sister Jensen whisks Terrance Jensen out of the chapel, the wheels of his chair leaving a mark in the carpet, as if to remind the members of the Twelfth Ward, once the closing prayer is done and they’ve buttoned up their coats and put on their gloves, that yes, he was here. Brother Terrance Jensen had been here. They had not made him up.
Nor could they make him or his lawsuit disappear.
Conversation buzzes about Brother Jensen after the meeting. No one says a word about Gayle Sanders’s testimony or its postscript. When Arlene looks for her friend, Gayle is nowhere to be seen.
On the Sundays that follow, the Jensens do not return, though rumor has it Sister Jensen is pregnant now for the first time and that it’s twins. That the wife of a man who is suing the church and embarrassing the Twelfth Ward could be so blessed comes as an affront to certain members.
“I hope something happens to those babies,” Gayle says in a sharp-edged whisper to Arlene over the phone.
“Oh, Gayle, you don’t mean it. You don’t.”
“I do, Arlene. I really do. I don’t see why she, of all people, deserves twins.”
Arlene’s in bed when Gayle calls. It’s dark outside. Early spring. The tail end of winter. She has the window to the small back bedroom open and can smell the dark neglected soil of her yard outside. Her legs feel better when she can stretch them out. She has a plastic bag of coupons on her lap, which she hopes to organize. She eyes the ones she already knows she wants to save: a free two-liter bottle of any Coca-Cola product when you buy three two-liter bottles.
When Albert was alive, he wouldn’t buy Coke for Arlene at their local supermarket. Instead, he spent three times as much at an anonymous roadside 7-Eleven in Bonneville, where he would not run into anyone he knew.
Arlene thought it was ridiculous.
“Whose business is it if I drink Coke or not?” she’d said early in their marriage, but Albert, apparently, believed it would be everyone’s business if he bought Coke at the Dan’s down the street, which, it was true, was an outgrowth of the church itself, the place you were sure to run into everyone from the ward, so you’d better make sure you’ve got lipstick on, which is what Arlene always did, or shave and wear a clean shirt, which is what Albert always did, and you had best assume that whatever you bought at Dan’s might be fodder for gossip later.
Once, when Albert had gone to Dan’s on Arlene’s birthday, before he even got home Gayle had called up to ask how was that lemon pie on sale at Dan’s, and Arlene had to say, what lemon pie? Albert was on his way home right then, bringing it as a surprise. She knew after a while not to argue with Albert over the Coke, and over the years she had come to appreciate her husband’s fussiness, which she could see now had protected her.
“I don’t see why they should get twins while people like my poor granddaughter can’t get pregnant to save her life, do you?” Gayle says.
Arlene closes her eyes, rolling over on the mound of flyers and coupons as she listens to Gayle rail against the good fortune of Terrance Jensen and his wife, thinking: who would argue with anyone’s good fortune, seeing how fleeting good fortune always manages to be?
When Albert Anderson was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age seventy-eight, he announced to his three children he was grateful it wasn’t something worse. Prostate cancer, he informed them one by one by phone, in a series of stilted conversations—what child, even in her forties or fifties, wants to hear about a father’s prostate?—tended to be slow moving. And to anyone looking from the outside in, Albert, who had worked steadily as an accountant and retired after forty-two years without fanfare, refusing a party or even a cake, was unflustered by the medical news. He went along as he always had: efficiently taking care of things, perhaps more efficiently now, a new urgency kicking in as he ordered a new furnace and a new roof, two things he did not want Arlene to have to contend with in his absence.
But privately, he rose in the middle of the night. Arlene would find him at the kitchen table, in the dark, sobbing.
“My parents lived to ninety and ninety-two,” he said one night as the two undressed for bed. He was no longer sobbing; now he was furious. He spoke as if old age were his due. Arlene had never seen him like this. He gestured dramatically and knocked over the small music box that their daughter Nan had sent when she was studying abroad in Lucerne. It had sat on their bedroom bureau for more than twenty years. Arlene picked up the music box and reached out to try to comfort Albert, to rub his back, to remind him this wasn’t a death sentence necessarily, that he likely still had plenty of time. The question now was what did he want to do with that time? Should they take a take a trip to Italy as they had once planned—as she had secretly hoped they would—and enjoy themselves? Or take the whole family to Knott’s Berry Farm?
As she talked, the music box, which refused to close now, played a hyped-up version of “Silent Night.”
Albert shook his head. “Italy. What do I care about Italy?” He talked as if he had lemons in his mouth.
He said maybe he would take a bath before bed.
She stood holding the music box as “Silent Night” finally ground to a halt, its last notes further and further apart. Given such a diagnosis, would she react the same way? She didn’t think so—seventy, she felt, was an accomplishment, and anything past that a gift—but then again, who could say? She wasn’t the one with cancer. It was him.
As it happened, the cancer moved so swiftly that Albert was dead within six months, before the roofers, delayed by the weather, had finished laying the new shingles. It was the last day of January when he died, a winter when they got blasted with one storm after another.
He had just turned seventy-nine.
The night before he died, in one of his last moments of lucidity, Albert had apologized to Arlene for not getting their taxes done earlier.
After the burial, after everyone but her children had left the house, Arlene overheard her younger son ask his sister what Mother had said, leaning over the coffin after the prayer.
“She was probably whispering her secret name to Daddy so he wouldn’t forget,” Nan said.
But that wasn’t it.
Arlene wasn’t worried about whether Albert would remember the name she’d been given in the temple on their wedding day. (It was a name she always thought she should appreciate but didn’t. She didn’t think of herself as a Sarah and wanted to keep Arlene in the hereafter as she had always been Arlene.) He was not the type to forget something like that, planning as he did for the future, for beyond the future.
No, it wasn’t that.
Instead, she’d leaned over the coffin, adjusting the collar on his white suit, and felt belief fly out of her body as if belief had been something that all along had belonged to Albert, not her.
“You were a good husband, Albert,” she whispered, willing herself to think of him as he had looked before the illness, robust and capable instead of angry, then shriveling, then vomiting and diminished.
And now he was gone.
On the first night after Albert’s funeral, Arlene slept in the back bedroom, which had been Nan’s. The pale pink-striped wallpaper soothed her and the twin bed seemed less offensive than the queen in the bedroom she and Albert had shared. She moved a television in there the day after that and kept the pink shades down. She nearly forgot that the window faced a row of hedges, and for the rest of that winter she could not see how heavy the hedges grew with each new pile-up of snow.
Surprisingly, she slept soundly. Too soundly.
In the months following Albert’s death, Arlene stayed home and slept more than she had known was possible. It was still winter; she had every reason to stay in, to lie low. She still went out each Friday afternoon to get her hair done, walking gingerly on the snowy sidewalks. And she did her grocery shopping once a week, usually on Sunday mornings, when she knew she wouldn’t run into anyone from the ward. She made chicken potpies for her grown children when they stopped by, which they did, though not as often as she imagined they might. But other than that, she did not go out. She stopped going to church. She did not entertain visitors.
The Relief Society offered to send in meals but Arlene said that would not be necessary. She was in perfectly fine health for a woman her age and she could cook just as well on her own. But grief, it turned out, exhausted her. She stayed in bed most days and watched television, something she had never viewed with much patience before. Albert would have been disgusted.
Before that first winter passed, her daughter said, “You need to get out more. Why don’t you take up ballroom dancing in the spring?” Nan had read in a magazine ballroom dancing was good for the body and the brain, that it increased memory muscles or something.
“That’s sweet of you to suggest,” Arlene told her daughter. But the very thought of dancing made her legs ache and she wondered how her daughter could think her capable of such a thing at her age.
Why, then, after that long empty winter and emptier spring, after the summer during which Arlene cranked up the air conditioning and began sleeping in a ratty green robe of Albert’s to keep warm, and then the long lonely fall—why after all that did she go to the temple to perform those baptisms for the dead?
Gayle Sanders had called to invite her, as Gayle had done for all manner of functions all through those months. Gayle stopped by each month as Arlene’s visiting teacher, dispensing with the lesson, which she must have known Arlene did not want, and instead catching her up on ward news, which is how each woman thought of gossip. But Arlene refused all invitations to go out until one day in late fall. When Gayle asked, she’d said yes.
She surprised herself.
Caroline Wilkinson had just bought a new SUV, one of those RAV Toyotas, and she was tickled pink with it, Arlene remembered, couldn’t wait to show it off.
“It’s great for older people, especially, because it’s higher,” she’d said, looking right at Arlene, which Arlene did not appreciate—but what could she do? Caroline was a good twenty years younger.
Arlene met Brother Terrance Jensen for the first time that day, took a seat next to him in the back. Kay Sloane was on the other side, beaming, perhaps because of her newly slim size. And it’s true, Terrance had annoyed Arlene during the ride down to the temple. His chitchat seemed insincere. His talk of municipal bonds sent a stabbing sensation through Arlene’s upper body, reminding her Albert was never coming back.
Albert who had gone bald so quickly after they’d married. Albert who could multiply large numbers in his head. Albert who had not changed any of their children’s diapers—men did not do such things back in the day—but had provided so well for their family and whose children had, except when Ian fell away from the church, brought him such enormous delight.
Arlene remembered staying up late on Christmas Eve wrapping presents together behind the locked door of their bedroom, Albert struggling to make sure the tape looked just right. She remembered Albert waking at six a.m. nearly every day of their married life, save at the end.
If the body of marriage was, like the body itself, a temple, hers was a temple closed now, locked from within.
After church headquarters goes to the trouble of assigning a lawyer to the case and members of the Twelfth Ward begin dreaming of the extravagant strategies to be employed to do right by their collective beliefs, Brother Terrance Jensen, after two months, drops his lawsuit as if neither it nor the Twelfth Ward ever mattered at all. The congregation is momentarily offended but soon moves on to other topics: Sister Davis’s divorce (and ex-husband’s quick remarriage); how much to spend on two leather chairs to be donated to the Harrison Cancer Center; monochromatic mums or a mix of colors to be planted around the perimeter of the church in the spring. (Brother Davis moves to another ward. Leather chairs, argues Sister Sloane, will be too cold for those going through chemotherapy; also, why bother spending so much? The mums are decreed to look best in a mix of white, yellow, copper, and red.)
But for Arlene Anderson, Terrance Jensen’s brief presence lingers. She will not soon forget that day she rode next to him in the SUV. Once they arrived at the temple, the women went one way, the men another. She undressed, then redressed in her familiar all-white temple clothes. Inside the baptismal font, she lowered herself down the steps into the warm waters waiting.
She’d felt so heavy that day—not a thin, elderly looking woman whose knees were bothering her, but like an elephant lumbering slowly, one step at a time.
Brother Jensen, all in white, waited for her across the pool of water.
Surrounding them were the huge bronze oxen, twelve of them, which Arlene remembered had frightened her the first time she’d seen them as a child, the heft of their bodies a contrast to the smallness of her own. The trip to the temple had been a prize awarded to those children of age who had picked welfare beans all day Saturday. Her twelve-year-old body ached after picking those beans. She remembered that. Now her old body ached as well. Her father complained that those receiving the welfare did not show up to pick the beans. She remembered that. How angry he seemed, uncharacteristically so.
Now Brother Jensen took Arlene’s hand in one of his and raised the other, speaking in the authority of the Melchizedek priesthood, reciting words as familiar as mother’s milk. He lowered her into the water and, with a hand on the small of her aged back, raised her up. He spoke again and lowered her again, reciting a litany of names—the names of the dead, people she would never know or meet. She closed her eyes, bent her knees, and each time, in anticipation, held her breath. She could be eight or eighty now, twelve or 112, a child leaning over the green beans, trying to shield her eyes from the sun, or an old woman, her spine creaking each time she fell back into Brother Jensen’s embrace.
She remembered such funny things: her daughter’s friends coming over to the house for sleepovers when they were young, how they played that game—what was it?—light as a feather, stiff as a board, their hands surrounding a girl who lay flat in the center of the room, pretending to be dead, the others pretending to raise her from the dead, lifting her into the air with concentration and words. What was it the girls said? She couldn’t remember now. A chant of some sort. Brother Terrance’s words wash over Arlene. A litany of the dead. The Lord does not care if it’s fall, winter, summer, or spring. The Lord does not care. And this man holding her now, he could be anyone, couldn’t he? Brother Jensen; the bishop; her father, so long dead now; or Albert, even Albert. Yes, she thought, Albert, he is holding her, returning momentarily as she wished he would—as he believed he might—but she knew, she’d known it all along, really, she understands now, he could not, he would not; the world simply did not work that way, no matter what we want. But now, if she closed her eyes she too could pretend. He was holding her, releasing her, immersing her where grief, finally, could become weightless, could wash away, and now he was lifting her, raising her to where, standing and blinking, the lower half of her body still immersed, the top half upright in the ever-cooling air, she shivered at the thought of it, a miracle really, returning from the land of the dead.