By Eric Freeze
Eric Freeze is author of the short story collection Dominant Traits (2012) and a collection of creative nonfiction Hemingway on a Bike (2014). He has published stories, essays, and translations in numerous periodicals. He teaches creative writing at Wabash College and lives in Crawfordsville, Indiana and Nice, France.
Sandra had a room full of men to choose from.
The temple worker had just escorted her from the celestial room where she had told him her name—her new name—and then led her through the veil.
“I assume you’ve chosen a proxy?” he said.
Somehow it had never come up during her temple preparation class or in her numerous meetings with the bishop and stake president. The temple worker said he could be the proxy, but if she’d rather, she could choose from any of the men in attendance. Many of her ward were here, their annual temple trip numbers boosted by her sealing to her much-beloved dead husband Joey. She was back in the church—active, they called it—like a sleeper cell or some infectious disease. How baffled Joey would be, only giving him his happiness after he’d been four years in the ground.
Now she was at the altar and the temple sealer who would officiate the ceremony was waiting for her to make her choice and the room was like a windless lake.
Four men sat in two rows of cream velvet-tufted chairs: Harvey, the regional church facilities manager; Steve, the probably gay ward organist; Pete, the droll lawyer who always seemed to be flirting with her; and Carson, the timorous school teacher who never would look directly at her. Other temple workers filled the empty seats: women in billowy white gowns; men in white suits, white shoes, and white ties. But she didn’t know any of those men and wasn’t about to choose one as a proxy for her dead husband. Not because she wouldn’t be happy with the anonymity of it (it would be a relief, really, not to have to ever see the proxy again) but because she wondered what Joey would think. He had known all the men from the ward before he passed and she saw here an opportunity—no, an obligation—to find someone of whom Joey would approve. It was a chance to get closer to her dead husband, to send him a message. Picking the right man would be like finding an emissary of their love to reach beyond the grave.
The sealing room was too quiet, like everyone could hear her thoughts. Opposite facing mirrors dominated the walls, causing reflected images to repeat in perpetuity. It always surprised her to see how she had aged, the lines from her nostrils down to the corners of her mouth deepening like someone had carved into her skin with a knife. Her forehead was pronounced and clear but crow’s feet from her eyes cut back to her hairline and even dyeing her hair to the sandy blonde of her youth couldn’t restore its luster. Her nose looked best like this, though: head on, the crested bridge hidden from view. Each reflected image blurred a little as it appeared further and further away, like she was looking through weathered glass. Back five or seven or ten reflections she imagined her face smoothening, returning her to her twenties—the image of herself she always expected to see in the mirror every morning.
The plush altar rose up in the middle of the room like a waist-high narrow bed just long enough for a small child. She knelt and rested her arms on it, alleviating the stab she sometimes got in her lower back. She had performed vicarious sealings once before, even though she’d never been temple married herself. Soon she would hold the proxy’s hand across the altar and recite the words: for and in behalf of Joey, who is dead. She would feel Joey around her, maybe see his spirit behind the proxy she had chosen. Once, her friend Ellen, a widow of some years, had told her about a night she was alone and prayed for comfort. She closed her eyes and felt her husband’s fingers slide into her own. She had slept soundly and knew then that God would never leave her and that she would see her husband again someday.
When Sandra’s bishop suggested getting sealed to Joey, she thought he was joking.
“But I’ve remarried now,” she said.
“Brandon’s an atheist, Sandra. He’s a good man but the marriage will end when either of you die.”
“He won’t like it.”
“You haven’t asked him. If he doesn’t believe in it why should it matter? He’s always been very supportive.”
“Won’t that make me a bigamist?”
The bishop nodded his head for a moment. Was he agreeing with her? Making fun? He had one of those placid expressions with the corners of his mouth slightly upturned like he was perpetually amused.
“Brandon’s your husband now here on Earth. But Joey can be your husband through eternity. You won’t be sealed to both men. If Brandon somehow miraculously converts, you can choose between the two. All I’m asking is that you consider it.”
And now here she was, sweating, staring at her solo reflection warping through eternity. She had to choose. Oh, why hadn’t she thought of this earlier? Of course she had known that she would need a proxy but the decision had seemed so complicated. For example, the wives. All four men had wives who were present. Would they attribute some feeling to her choice? Would they be flattered? Jealous? Every Sunday she would see these women. She would shake their hands, hug them in moments of duress. Choosing their husband could signal a shift in their attitude toward her, could reveal that she fancied one of them or saw in their choice of eternal companion certain qualities that she envied or desired.
When she asked Brandon, he laughed.
“I thought you’d be mad,” she said.
Brandon sat in their leather club chair, his open laptop suffusing his face with a white glow. She perched forward on the matching couch, her arms on her knees. He snapped the laptop shut. “Why would I be mad? Joey was your best friend for twenty years. If it brings you some comfort, then go for it.”
“I just don’t want you to think that I don’t care for you. Or that I love him more than I love you.”
Brandon slipped the laptop under the chair and crossed his legs, elbows on the arms. His fingers formed a triangle that he brought to his lips. “You want me to be jealous of a dead guy?”
“That’s not what I want.”
“What do you want?”
“I want your blessing.”
He laughed again. His good humor was unnerving, as if he wasn’t really considering what she was asking. But then she saw that for him sealing herself to Joey was insignificant, sentimental. They had talked about it before: not allowing the afterlife to encroach on enjoying the moment. She was here with him, present—comfortably integrated into his quotidian routine. What more could he possibly need?
The decision still loomed. What kind of life would Sandra have with any of these proxies? With Harvey, a manicured lawn, the kind you see in home magazines. He would scarify, reseed, feed the turf nitrogen-rich fertilizer and probably use every weed-killer imaginable. Appearance would be more valuable to him than being environmentally friendly. With Steve, hours and hours of music at home, the passion and energy he put into the notes substituting for the lack of passion in their bed. Pete would be fun for the first few months, a year maybe, until the games and adventure of a new relationship began to bore him. Carson was the wild card, someone who kept distant for a reason. He was the man who could love her the most, or the one who could break her heart.
He and Joey had been friends, had both worked with the Scouts, going camping, building fires, tying knots, or whatever it was they did when they were out in the Midwestern woods. Maybe his reticence, his unwillingness to look at her—really look—was out of respect for his dead friend.
She would ask him.
At home, Brandon surprised her by bringing up the sealing.
“I thought you didn’t care. It was all a big joke.”
“You’re right. We don’t need to talk about it. I wish you and Joey all the happiness in the afterlife.”
Brandon frowned. “I don’t like hypothetical competition.”
Sandra knelt in front of him. He loved his leather cigar chair, how he disappeared inside it like a baseball in a glove. His laptop sat open between them, the weak light brightening his untucked grey button-up. She snapped the laptop shut and laid it on the floor. She put her hands on his knees, slid them forward along his thighs. She wanted to laugh. “There you are, Brandon,” she said.
In bed, Sandra lay on her side with her arm looped over Brandon’s chest. She had held his hand till his grip loosened and his ribcage expanded in deep cycles with the onset of sleep. It had been her turn to surprise him. If her upcoming temple sealing had diminished what she felt for him now, she wasn’t about to show it.
Besides one adolescent fling, she had only been with these two men, and it was hard not to make comparisons. With Joey, she often felt dirty because she wanted sex more frequently than he did. She’d come to see her desire as aberrant or bizarre. Joey was shy. “Just a sec,” he’d say, and turn the bedroom light off so only a lick of moonlight sliced through top of their mini blinds. Brandon’s appetites were more expansive. He liked trying new things: playing games, reading erotica, and helping Sandra realize the potentials of her body. With Brandon, initiating sex didn’t make her feel like a slut.
Carson got up from his seat and squeezed past the others.
Sandra had heard anecdotal stories about the thinness of the veil in the temple. The temple was God’s house, a portal to the spirit world where ghosts and angels wandered freely. Once, a temple worker had talked about the dead as if she were mentioning neighborhood acquaintances. “I thought, wow! The temple is packed today,” she had said. “Then I realized that I was seeing the relatives of the couple who was finally performing ordinances for them.” Maybe Joey was similarly present too, visible to those with eyes to see him. She imagined him in work overalls bleached white, his hair combed back so it stood up like a halo.
Soon Carson was kneeling across from her—one knee, then the next—making his body waddle back and forth like a penguin before coming to rest. He had vaguely Irish features: a skirt of reddish-blonde hair beneath a bald crown, small squinty eyes, and the teeth of a thoroughbred. He took her hand across the altar, fingers slipping a little, then interlocking as they got the grip right. Joey, she thought, Joey. She needed a memory to obliterate everything around her: Joey in the garden planting potatoes. Joey cooking fish wrapped in tinfoil. Joey pressing coins into collection books, then eying them through a magnifying glass. Joey lying supine in a hospital bed, his hand wrapped in gauze as the cancer took over his body.
The sealer stood at the head of the altar. He was talking now, describing the blessings that a celestial marriage would grant them. They would grow together after this life; have kingdoms and principalities of their own. Though they didn’t have any kids now, in eternity they would raise a multitude of spirit children, enough to populate worlds without number.
The day before the ward temple trip, Brandon pulled a chair up next to her at the kitchen table. She’d been entering receipts into Quicken, each entry registering a tinny “cha-ching” when it tabulated. Just a couple more minutes and she’d be caught up. Nothing hanging over her. Peace of mind.
“I’ve been thinking,” Brandon said.
“Just a sec.”
“I don’t want you to go through with it.”
It took her a moment to figure out what Brandon was talking about. Go through with the taxes? Then she knew. She hadn’t mentioned the sealing for weeks. It was funny to see him so agitated, like he was a lowly serf consenting to his young bride’s first night with the king. No—more squirmy than agitated: a wallflower at one of those church dances being led out onto the floor by a more audacious girl.
“The temple trip is tomorrow,” she said.
“It’s not that I care about whatever it is you’ll do when you go. The whole thing seems quaintly parochial to me. It’s more that I’m worried about the effect it will have on you afterward.”
“Brandon.” She snapped her laptop closed and shuffled the receipts together. “I can’t cancel now.”
He bent over at the waist, his elbows on his knees and his hands out in front of him like he was explaining a sports play. “We live with our ghosts, Sandra. I get that. Every minute is an echo of the past. I just don’t want you stuck somewhere that doesn’t have room for me.”
Sandra accepted the terms or her marriage to Joey for time and all eternity with a nod of her head. The temple worker didn’t say anything at first and Sandra wondered if the silence was deliberate, giving her time to think of the seriousness of what she’d agreed to, her future self finally linked to Joey’s in a cosmic dance. But then he said, “Please answer the question.” “Oh, yes,” she said. “Of course.” People giggled softly. It was something that they could talk about later, her one faux pas making the sealing memorable, destined to become congregational lore for years to come. It would be like the baptism of Gordon’s daughter, her foot refusing to stay immersed while he plunged the rest of her under water. Gordon had to say the baptismal prayer three times and his daughter was shivering by the end of it.
What had she been thinking in that moment of silence? Joey, to be sure—her companion of choice after death. She had loved this solemn man the way you love a dependable car. He would always be there, a future barometer for all the happiness she could manage now. So she had nodded. Yes, yes, it will be better this way. In the mirror Carson’s head eclipsed her own so her hair looked like a wig to cover his baldness. They clasped hands over the altar, his scrunched eyes opening to witness her sealing.
Brandon was tilling the garden when she got home, something Sandra had been asking him to do for weeks. He grunted, lifting the rototiller into the last of the raised beds. Slashes of mud crisscrossed his torso and shorts. Brown clumps of peat moss and mica-like chips of vermiculite covered the grey dirt. He blended them together, churning the soil till it matched the textured loam of the other beds.
She sat down at the kitchen table with a glass of water, the lights off. She would be invisible to him, the porch screen and window like the mirrored surface of uni-directional glass. She fought the urge to change into jeans, get out the terry cotton gloves, and pitch in. Instead, she watched the rototiller blades slice through the earth, Brandon gripping the handles, steady, as if he were ready to do dips to strengthen his lats. She lifted the glass of water to her lips.
Later, Sandra opened her legs and held Brandon’s head as he kissed her, sliding his fingers gently inside her till her whole body was flush and warm. She coached him: there, no there. Yes. Not too much. Then they folded into each other in as many ways as felt good and right, until their lumpy bodies were slick with sweat. Afterward, she lay on her side while Brandon held her to his chest.
“Are you thinking about him?” Brandon asked.
On Sunday, Carson and Betty sat with their grown daughter Penelope, visiting from byu. Another son was already married, grandkids out west in Phoenix. A dentist, Sandra remembered him saying. Ten years ago, Joey and Carson had worked with the son to get him on a mission. Now rumor was Penelope was going to serve one too.
After the service, Sandra said, “I never got to properly thank you.”
Carson wore a cartoon tie and brown, closed-toe Birkenstocks. Red suspenders held up his pants so the waistband cupped his belly. He looked down at the pew between them, “No trouble.”
“I know you and Joey were friends.”
Carson cleared his throat. “Pen’s back from BYU.”
“Just taking a little break,” Penelope said.
“Boy trouble,” he said.
“I just got married in the temple,” Sandra said. “To your father. He was the proxy.”
“Oh,” Pen said. “Congratulations.”
Carson rotated the green hymnals so that their spines lay flat on the pew’s wooden racks. His wife was ignoring her, talking with a woman in her 70s who was insisting that the heady perfume in sacrament meeting almost sent her into anaphylactic shock. Soon both Pen and Carson were talking with her too: Was she feeling better now? Maybe she should go out into the lobby. If you’ll excuse us, they said.
It was too happenstance to be coordinated, but Sandra still felt that somehow they’d orchestrated this early departure.
The pews were empty now. Young men folded the linen covering the sacrament table and shuffled trays of bread scraps and plastic thimbles of water out of the chapel. How could a bigamist feel so alone? Last night, Brandon’s question had hung in the air till she had fallen asleep. She was thinking of Joey. And of Brandon. And of Carson. Of all the men who’d had any impact on her life. But mostly, she was thinking of herself: Sandra Colridge: widow, wife, now married again but this time for eternity. Was her sealing a signal to Brandon that the present would never be enough? She was tired of worrying what other people thought. So she had made Carson’s family uncomfortable. Big deal. Maybe this is what spurned women felt like, the mistresses or prostitutes who made the mistake of loving the men who bedded them, stepping into the light for the world to see.