A Short Story
My theory is we all want to be one of the chosen people, so don’t get all judgmental about this. I’m guessing you’re the same: You got pledged by the Dekes instead of that vaguely criminal but very cool fraternity, the guys who brought hip flasks and peyote to midterms, the ones who faked their mass death at Spring break, the ones who—this is the truly maddening part—seemed to attract the witty, sweet gentry girls. You knew some of those girls; you remember them credibly lamenting the vulgarity of those guys, before, oh, seeing two of them windsurfing together on the lake; It was so disgusting and predictable, watching that whole tribe form up – the alpha males and their sweethearts. Three of those guys just gave over $50 million, each, to the college-the same guys who snuck a fully automatic machine gun into the quad. They were closer to God than you were, what with their self-deprecating humor and their King David bravado, so don’t give me this crap about not wanting to be in a cult. You wanted to be in a cult too. The right one. We all do.
But this isn’t a story about the Zetes. It’s a story about Brother Tom Mulfield, and I’m asking you to withhold judgment until you get all the facts, because there’s just some odd stuff you’ll have to overlook for a while, before you understand you’re walking down the same highway with him, and not too far apart at that.
His mother was sick that morning, first of all, along with his two children, and his wife demanded her breakfast in bed, because the children’s sickness had that effect on her. She found fevers and diarrhea and the achy laments of children with runny noses powerfully imprisoning. He could tell she wouldn’t be of much use, that she was on the verge of some head-banging lament if he didn’t give her time off for this mess he had gotten her into, so he poured out the last of his mother’s gin and conducted a search of her usual hiding places. He took the kids to his sister’s place before straightening his tie and walking into church as though all the world was a starched white shirt.
In this place, among these people, he was a light–a kind of perky, overgrown explorer scout. The teenage girls loved him. They idealized his marriage, because that’s the picture he happily painted for them, and the one he actually worked very hard to believe himself. His twin children, Abish and Brigham, when they weren’t sick, radiated pastel cheerfulness—as though they had stepped out of a storybook about a cottage bakery. They sought affection, wrapping their baby-flesh arms around the necks of girls who didn’t know they were making up for mom. Among the young men, Brother Mulfield represented a kind of re-centering carpenter’s level of some sort. He was one of those men with no apparent need to channel his learning, which was considerable, into anything particularly lucrative. He could work the boys through calculus and carburetor problems, easily and a little absent-mindedly, the way some people untie knots with their eyes closed. The knowledge of the world wasn’t of much use to him. He seemed to have mastered it. He was far more interested in the glorious plan of salvation and all its attendant miracles: the appearance of the founding fathers to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple, the geography of Southern Utah, where the Gadianton Robbers of ancient times conducted their raids and committed their gruesome rituals, the vast reaches of the universe, where worlds were waiting to be populated by exalted saints. He was a convert, anxious to open up all of the church’s dusty treasure chests, to examine the weird and wonderful jewels out in the light of the sun. This made a few of the long-time members nervous, but not enough to curb his enthusiasm.
They had him teaching Sunday School to the seventeen year olds. That’s where any sane Bishop would have put him, and the truth is the class was becoming a little too popular. Brother Mulfield had an enthusiasm for church history and doctrine that animated his lanky frame in a way that left his wrists protruding out beyond his cuff links in animated, Ichabod-style relief, just for effect. When you saw him picturing a world the young people would someday populate with their spirit children, his arms made a huge, completed circle. The enthusiasm of the thing was both hilarious and exciting. To say he was a cheerleader for exaltation would not have been an exaggeration.
“Picture,” he said, “the smallest little micro-scrap of the night sky. Put your fingers together. Make a whole the size of a pin head. Hold that up to the stars. Look through that little hole. Inside that little hole there are trillions of galaxies. Not just stars but vast constellations of stars, and circling those stars are planets like this one. Virgin worlds waiting for you to populate. Billions of trillions of billions of trillions of them.”
He could hold the circle of his arms for 5 or six seconds, wide-eyed, waiting for the kids to laugh, and then he would flip back his hair, re-center his glasses, and rush to the chalkboard to start scribbling some utterance of Parley P. Pratt or Hugh Nibley or Lorenzo Snow—something he knew by heart. The beating of the chalk on the board sounded martial, a drummer calling the righteous to battle.
These moments of instruction, their purity, and his sense that these high school kids regarded him as a comic beacon of light closed a door, temporarily, on a less heaven-bound side of his life. At home, one roofer after another had come down off their ladders with grim looking faces. He was going to need more than new shingles. There was major water damage to the rafters themselves, and the last contractor—a venerable old member of the church—spotted some serious foundation issues. He backed it up by pointing a flashlight at hairline cracks in the walls and the ceilings. “Those are going to get worse,” the old man said. “I can’t believe this got through inspection.” When Brother Mulfield asked him what might be involved in fixing the foundation issues, the old man sighed and drew his clipboard to his chest. “Depending on your financial condition, you might be better off walking away from it. Maybe talk to President Tanner or—”
“Walking away?” Brother Mulfield asked.
“You know. Bankruptcy. Or letting the bank foreclose. I mean, you could get some quotes, but this might be a tear down.”
He shuddered. The home that was more than they could afford in the first place, when his wife was teaching, had become a monument to bad foundations and shoddy stewardship—something he absolutely detested. He took this spiritually. “Except the Lord build the house,” he told himself, “they labour in vain that build it.” Was there some nurtured sin in his life bringing this on? Had he allowed his alcoholic mother too much mercy? Had they been too lax in their temple or genealogy obligations? His tithe was more than honest. He kept overpaying, looking forward to the day he could brag about the Lord’s financial blessings. He could picture himself doing this in church, or at some solemn assembly of the saints. “And now we will hear from Elder Thomas Mulfield of the First Quorum of the Seventy.” He would humbly walk towards the pulpit of the tabernacle and speak of some monumental financial success he enjoyed after years of sacrificial giving to the church. His Gulfstream would be waiting for him at the Salt Lake City airport, something he let the church borrow to fly general authorities from place to place. Perhaps by then, his first wife might have passed away and a second, lovely–
Snap out of it. He could do this, he told himself. He was handy, engineering savvy. If he studied the various remedies, he could get down under the house, study the soil, jack up the building, shore up the foundation and then go to work on the rafters. They could all move into the granny flat out back while the re-construction proceeded. They could get through this as a family.
Who was he kidding? His wife and mother could barely abide living in the same town, let alone the same two bedroom flat, and he managed three different restaurants for a local Mormon franchise king. He worked ninety hours a week. When would he find time to supervise that kind of project, let alone do most of the work himself? And where would he get the money for materials? And where would he put his wife and children while the house was restored? Every time he walked this path, mentally, it circled back to the tired, wise eyes of that old contractor: “Walk away from it. Foreclose. Declare bankruptcy.”
Impossible. There had to be another way. The idea of admitting financial failure felt something like suicide to him. You couldn’t hide that kind of thing. There would be hushed conversations in church, just as he approached people. “Tom went too Emerald City on that house of his. He got way too much footprint and the mortgage ate him alive.” The idea of being a parable of bad stewardship ate away at him, because, if anything, he was the current bright young man among the Mormon entrepreneurial crowd. Dale Lane, a guy who owned seven Tex-Mex franchises, an ice skating rink, and a cosmetics distributorship had wooed him away from his previous employer, and the man bragged about him all the time, with good reason. All of Tom Mulfield’s restaurants were way above trend.
Because, he told himself, “the church works, damn it.”
The obvious nature of church truths made him giddy: show up to work on time, be kind, serve others, blame yourself first. It all worked. When you walked into one of Tom’s restaurants, you felt something quite like love radiating from the girl with the fresh face and the exquisite western bacon cheeseburger coming towards you.
“I feel sorry for some of these gentiles in business management classes,” he told his Sunday School students. “No gospel in their lives. They don’t even know the simple stuff: sharing, giving, listening. They have to take management seminars to get the kind of stuff you’ve all been taught since you were two years old.”
Brother Mulfield looked at his students. Their bright, well-manicured innocence touched him. They could see the tears in his eyes.
“Sorry,” he told them, grabbing a handkerchief, “but it just occurred to me I’m teaching young gods in training.”
“Ah,” Janie Larsen said, “we love you, Brother Mulfield.”
That really did it. He grabbed an empty chair, sat down, and he began weeping.
The Bishop was over in the gospel doctrine class, trying not to doze, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Kyle Tanner, one of Brother Mulfield’s students, signaling him to step outside.
“What is it, Kyle?” he asked when they were in the hallway.
“It’s Brother Mulfield. I think something’s wrong with him.”
It had been going on for several months now, perhaps even a year. A small piece of plaster had fallen away from the kitchen ceiling, some time after the old contractor had advised him to walk away from his mortgage. It fell into his mother’s hair as she was looking for her iced grapefruit juice and gin in the refrigerator.
“What the hell?” she said, picking it out of her hair.
“Language,” his wife Ginger said, picking up the children. “It’s been happening all week, Tom. You need to get the ceiling painted.” She pointed to a corner of the room, where more plaster had fallen away.
He hadn’t told her about the house problems. His titan mentor, Dale Lane, had drawn him aside one day, with two bonus checks. “Tell your wife about that one there and put the bigger one in the bank. It’s a little secret I’ve learned over the years; you can’t build a castle if Lady MacBeth knows where you keep your wallet.” This secrecy actually gnawed at Tom, because, before the arrival of the children, before the burden of his mother’s presence, he and Ginger had been a deeply confessional couple, but there was something about Dale’s advice that felt fraternal, as though it were a secret he wouldn’t share with a lesser man. Eternal progression, the road to exaltation and Godhood, was delivered line upon line, precept upon precept, and sometimes it was delivered by the Almighty through successful men like Dale Lane. It felt like a spiritual lesson: he had to keep the money, and the problems, to himself.
But the house was still falling down. It could be dropping paint into his children’s cereal; it could be ripe for flattening in the next earthquake. The pornography of disaster worked away at him, complete with images of shattered stair case rails and children falling through holes in the floor, and when he arrived at work that morning, the fat stack of payroll checks almost looked life relief to him, like something that was working. He marked them up absent-mindedly, until he got to the bottom of the stack, where he quickly signed three identical payroll checks to himself and then noticed the mistake. He looked up at his bookkeeper, Connie Ivers. She was new, from the Monrovia Ward, and she had already moved on to accounts payable. She gave no sign of registering the mistake, so he reviewed the check register. Simple enough: she had listed him as an employee at all three locations. He was about to say something when the phone rang.
“Tom, you need to get home right away,” his wife said.
“It’s Brigham. He’s choking. I left him alone with her for two minutes.”
“Call an ambulance,” Tom said.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Call an ambulance. I’ll be right there.” He gathered the payroll checks into his coat pocket. “Ginger. Listen to me. Call an ambulance. Do you understand?”
Two hours later, at the hospital, a tired looking resident approached Tom, as he lifted his head from prayer, surrounded by a few church friends, including Dale Lane, the man who had unknowingly issued him two extra paychecks.
“The good news,” the young doctor began. “Oxygen levels are good. He’s breathing. We don’t think he suffered from Hypoxia. He’s alert. But there might be some complications from the trach they gave him, so we may need to keep him a while.”
“A small hole in his throat, to help him breath. You got lucky on your paramedics. Pretty steady crew. They knew what they were doing.”
Brigham’s sister, Abish, let out a wail at the words “small hole,” as if to express her mother’s horror. The doctor pulled out a plastic baggy with a jawbreaker in it. “A little souvenir,” he said.
As the doctor walked away, an accounting clerk approached Tom and apologized for her timing but insisted on pulling him aside for some billing questions. Dale Lane took the liberty of listening in. The hospital in question had been in the news lately, for financial irregularities and Dale piped up: “Tom’s solid. You don’t have to worry about him. I’m guessing he’s got plenty of savings for this sort of thing.”
The clerk handed Tom a clipboard with an amount circled at the bottom.
“Now,” she said, “he may not be here a week, but that’s the doctor’s preliminary estimate. It’s usually a lot shorter than that.”
The simple fact was he didn’t have it. When Ginger was teaching, the mortgage was bad but not insurmountable. He had been burning the savings account for a few months now, and when he looked at what the hospital wanted, he thought he saw a black spot in his vision for a few seconds.
Dale patted him on the back. “Glad he’s okay. He’s a lucky little man having a dad like you though.”
“If you can just follow me down the hall,” the clerk said. “We can make arrangements.”
So, the next morning, Tom had his new accounts payable lady, Connie Ivers, fill out his personal bank deposit and drop it off in the night deposit, including the two extra paychecks. They would barely cover the check he had written the hospital, and he reasoned that he could sell something in the next few days, cover the extra payment, and then claim his bookkeeper, being new, had made a mistake. Dale Lane encouraged him to use restaurant employees for personal errands, so it would make sense. It was a perk. It was one of the many little blessings Dale conferred on his protégé that made him feel he was being admitted into a club. “Look,” Dale had said, “you can train someone to pick up your dry cleaning – but the real children of Zion, Tom, they don’t come off an assembly line. I’m paying for your soul here.” Dale looked out at the restaurant. “Wait,” he said, “that sounds bad. I don’t mean it like that.”
Tom knew what he meant, and he knew why it couldn’t be spoken out loud, in English. This was a kind of secret, celestial tongue. Dale was talking about the way the chosen men of God campaigned through the world, fusing spirituality and commerce, absorbing the wealth of the heathens, buying new condominiums and franchise opportunities, as though a legion of angels were at their command and supervising the negotiation. Tom was deeply touched to be in this club, and it broke his heart to think he was cheating this man.
“What happened,” he imagined telling Dale, in a breezy, confessional tone that he actually practiced, “is that Connie had me down as an employee in each location. She cut the salary check for each branch and then I told her to make my personal deposit for me and I didn’t even know I was getting overpaid. I had her put that in the Lord MacBeth account, after all.”
That was the way he planned it, but little Brigham was in the hospital for five weeks. A specialist got called in. There was a bad round of infection, and by the time they took him home, Tom had allowed Connie to repeat the deposit mistake another two times. Even then, the hospital bills were too much to even contemplate and the situation at home felt something like the laser security light in a bank vault. It was burning bright, but not yet tripped. Ginger Mulfield would eventually break and start shouting at her mother-in-law for giving a jaw breaker to a two year old, but until that happened, the three adults in this household shuffled past each other, not making eye contact.
“What if,” Tom asked his wife, “I got one of the restaurant girls to come and help watch the kids. Dale encourages that.”
“I bet the ward would love that one,” Ginger said, “The Mulfields and the grandmother on fire with gin.”
“I’m trying to help.”
“If you wanted to help..”
“Have you considered?”
“A home? I have. We can’t afford it.”
“Great. What if she falls on Abi or something; I wonder what another five weeks in the hospital would cost.”
Tom knelt down in front of his wife. He held her knees. “Look, Ginger. All of the restaurants are way ahead. Dale depends on me. We may be talking some sort of equity soon.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Tom couldn’t quite process the look of absolute surrender on his wife’s face. When they were dating, she was always game for new things. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They talked science, the faith, investing, flipping houses. He couldn’t even remember one of those conversations now.
“I’m beat,” she said. “Can I go to bed?”
Her eyes were closing. She bundled up, pulling in all the covers close to her in a way that seemed to indicate Tom should find his own blanket.
And then she opened her eyes, just long enough to say: “there’s a big old crack in the living room wall. You should take a look at it.”
About two months into the world of triple compensation, Tom worked his way down the stack of payroll checks, signed his three, and then looked up to see Connie Ivers looking at him with something that appeared to be close to a smile. He must have registered it, because it broadened out and appeared a little mischievous.
“I guess I have a confession for you,” she said.
“I was rushing to a ward party yesterday, and I was supposed to bring the hamburger, so I borrowed about ten pounds. Let me know what I owe.”
Her continued smile unnerved him. This didn’t look like an apology.
“Don’t sweat it,” he said. “Just do me a favor and don’t let anyone else know, because once that kind of thing starts in a food service operation, well – you would be surprised.”
“I bet,” she said.
She was a tall woman with a sturdy build, and a big mane of deep brown hair–the sort of woman Tom saw underneath the arm of a linebacker or a longshoreman. She was married to a fireman, and they had three children together. That’s about all Tom knew about her, because they were in different wards, and the accidental larceny of the payroll mistake kept him at a distance. He didn’t want to know too much more about her, at least until he had dug himself out of this hole. Perhaps then, he could establish a friendship, based on the notion that – despite some mistakes – he was an honest person. That didn’t seem to be possible now.
Connie leaned over his desk, her smile only slightly reigned back. There was an undeniable intimacy about this that made Tom’s heart race.
“Are you forgetting something?” she asked.
She leaned over and picked up his paychecks.
“See you tomorrow,” she said.
At home, Brigham was healing nicely, and the extra compensation whittled down the hospital bills. For brief moments, Tom almost convinced himself the extra money was really his, but Tom’s mother had taken to talking about cracking plaster and roof leaks over dinner, and this always put him back under water.
“The living room crack is strange,” she said. “It’s not like it’s just the paint. The damn door is hard to open.”
“Language,” Ginger said.
“If we get any rain,” his mother said, “we should just put a 55 gallon drum in the corner of the great room with a downspout or something. You can almost see daylight through that one corner.”
“Mom,” Tom said. “I was wondering if you wanted to join us for family home evening.”
“Down at the church?”
“No. Here, Mom. Just us.”
Ginger scooted her chair out. “I don’t think I’m up for it tonight, Tom.”
“Just as well,” Tom’s mother said. “I think I saw a mouse in the living room. You should have seen Tom when he was little around mice. I’ve never seen a bigger scaredy-cat.”
Sometimes, in the middle of a swelling congregational hymn, you might be tempted to think people wear the same church face at home, that the victory we feel among the faithful is the same victory we feel cleaning up the garage, but when you find wasps have built a nest in your tool cabinet, or your neighbor has borrowed your chain saw, without asking for the seventh time, there are kerosene fires of rage and despair we just don’t allow in church. Moreover, some families have hair-grabbing, knuckle bruising dramas they play out in rage parties you can hear clear out in the driveway; some have silent, hateful paranoia that parades past each other with never a word spoken. Some nurse addictions, others are simmering pots of lust or jealousy or greed.
A few really are content.
Strangely, sadly, Tom was potentially at least among the content. No one would have known that his wife was suffering a depression so severe that even standing in the shower felt like a marathon, that his mother was carving herself down to her twin filaments: despair and escape. No one would know he had to work overtime, emotionally, to convey warmth, and optimism to his toddlers.
No one would have known because the church, for Tom, represented his deep-space escape. In the chapel, in a Sunday School classroom, Tom was one of those Mormons who appear to piloting a spaceship through the grand theological beyond, boldly going where no man has gone before.
“Here’s my theory about eternal child birth,” he said, earnestly, to some of the men in the Elder’s Quorum. “Everyone says we Mormons are cruel to our woman by imaging a world where they give birth to millions of souls. How could that be heaven for them? An eternity of child birth? Here’s what I’m thinking. Now don’t laugh. Promise you won’t laugh? Heavenly child birth is not painful. I think it’s something like an orgasm for them, that each child comes into the heavenly world with a greater orgasm than the one they felt conceiving the child. This then makes them more anxious to make love to their eternal husbands.”
These theories made him popular. He never shared any of the progeny/sexual stuff with the high schoolers, and he plainly presented them all as pure theory, without any blessing by the general authorities, but in some areas, plainly, he knew more church history than many long time members, so he could be a fascinating folk theologian.
“In the last days,” he told his High School class, “the devil owns the surf; the devil owns the water.”
“I’ve heard about this one,” Janie Larsen said, “we’re supposed to stay out of the water in the very last times, or something.”
“Very good, Janie,” Tom said, “very good. But this goes all the way back to 1831 when Elder William W. Phelps saw the destroyer riding in power upon the face of the waters.”
Tom began to paint a detailed image of the Prophet Joseph Smith traveling down the Missouri River in a canoe, along with 10 elders of the early church. He assumed the posture of a man in a canoe, rowing cautiously down the river. Suddenly, his face iced up, as though he had seen a ghost. “The Destroyer,” Tom said, “riding in power.”
Even though Sunday School was held at eleven in the morning on a very bright and cheerful August day, most of those high school kids were left to rub flat the hair rising up on the back of their necks, as they pondered the “Destroyer,” and the possible implications of wearing too immodest clothing to the beach, or taking a swim without a lot of prayer, or taking a dip on Sunday. “One young lady,” Tom said, “and we don’t talk about this incident generally–was attending a beach party in San Diego three summers ago. I’ve met her stake president. Contrary to modesty standards, she wore a bikini to the party and she went body surfing. Some of the young men said they saw a dark presence on the waves right before..” Tom stopped to control the shivering he felt in his shoulders. “..right before she was carried far out to sea, and her death, by a rip tide.”
Brother Tom Mulfield’s lessons could wax so dramatic, so frightening, so comical, and, on some occasions, so sublime, that some of the younger kids, and a few of the college kids would wander into his classroom, making it a standing room only occasion. So when he sat down that Sunday, and found himself unable to stop weeping, at least 40 teenagers and young adults were watching him, unsure what to do, until Kyle stepped out to seek Bishop Larsen, who had seen his share of Sunday drama, to be certain, but never a grown man laying flat down on the floor, his face in the carpet.
Things had just gotten completely out of hand. A friend had volunteered to tarp his roof, and in so doing, broke his ankle; those hospital costs fell to Tom, and little Brigham developed a swallowing complication that required more hospitalization, more bills, and with all of that, no foreseeable way to end the triple compensation scheme. Claiming a mistake would mean Tom credibly maintaining he had no idea how much money was in his account, meaning the money was still there, but of course it was gone, long gone, and he had no way of replenishing it.
The actual ritual of triple compensation day had grown more and more uncomfortable. There was something undeniably playful about the way Connie Ivers made conversation right before reaching over from the far side of his desk, risking a blouse-brush by, and taking his three checks to the bank. Some four months into this disaster, Connie actually sat down on his desk while he was signing payroll checks, and the familiarity of this made him feel like a cat being fed string. He could smell her lotion and hair spray. Did she know? If so, she no longer projected threat. For some reason, she seemed to be celebrating Tom in some strange way. One day she counted the checks and said, “one-two-three; good, good, good.” She seemed downright cheerful about his compensation.
On one frightening occasion Dale Lane even dropped in a few minutes before Tom finished signing the checks, and the thought of Connie mentioning his personal deposit while Dale was there listening left him short of breath. He tried to maneuver Dale out into the restaurant, but Dale insisted he finish up in a way that made Tom think, “They both know. This is it.” But Connie just smiled at Tom and excused herself, mouthing “later” and holding up a deposit slip behind Dale’s back.
“If I didn’t know better,” Dale said, after she walked out of the office, “I’d say you two were up to something.”
Tom blushed. “What—”
“A woman,” Dale said, wistfully, “with an upper story like that.”
“Wait,” Tom said. “You’re not saying—”
“Kidding, Tom, kidding. Still..”
Later, in the men’s room stall, Tom took some deep breaths and grimaced under the annoying weight of the sweat that pasted the shirt to his shoulders. He was not a good liar. This couldn’t go on. He had to find out how much she knew.
And then it all became clear a few nights later. It was near closing time, and Tom swung by the restaurant to check on the cash drop. The kitchen was dark. The night manager turned off the house lights, yelled goodbye, and locked the door. Connie was rubber-banding the twenty dollar bills and locking the vault. They were alone.
“I hope that was okay,” Connie said.
“I didn’t think I should talk about making your personal bank deposit in front of Dale. Some little voice just told me to keep it quiet.”
“Oh, um. I guess so. Yes. Thanks.”
Connie stood up. She had been kneeling near the floor safe.
“I have to tell you,” she said.
Tom braced himself.
“Those three checks,” she said. “The amount of money you make for your family. It’s impressive. It’s inspiring to work around men of the Lord like you and Dale. You’re building something. Not just taking a paycheck.” She giggled. “I mean three paychecks.”
Tom temporarily felt disoriented again. Why did she keep circling back like this?
“I mean Jack and I,” she said. “The idea of Jack being like you, ambitious enough to manage three different restaurants. He could work more too, because he gets whole days off with the fire department, but he’s just not as driven as you are I guess. What you do though. Three whole jobs. It’s just.. so..”
Tom looked embarrassed, and relieved. It was simple. His three paychecks made her as giddy as a school girl. That’s all it was.
He felt a weight leaving him and it made him giggle. Connie smiled.
“Can I give you a hug, Tom Mulfield?”
To say that he felt guilty about what happened next..
(If you would like to read part II of this story, let me know…)