By Ryan McIlvain
Ryan McIlvain is the author of Elders (2013) and The Radicals (2018). A former Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford, McIlvain has taught writing and literature at Rutgers, Stanford, and USC.
Dad came home that afternoon from a last-minute grocery run, honking the horn from the driveway. I’d just turned thirteen, or maybe fourteen—springtime in any case, the air cool outside, greening.
“Take this to your crazy mother,” Dad said when I came to the car window, handing me a trio of Stop & Shop bags stretched taut with milk and butter and other dinner ingredients—and of course Dad’s soda and candy bars. A boyish sweet tooth into his early middle-age, and a damnable tendency to procrastinate shopping—it was the Sabbath! Dad had skipped church that morning, yet he was dressed for home teaching. He took that seriously. A pair of clip-on ties between us, baggy khakis, white socks, and black dress shoes.
When I got back to the idling car, Dad and I left for the McClintocks. Every month, Dad said, Let’s go hometock the McClinteaches, and he said it again now. His particular brand of Christian duty required him to check up on a family in the ward, in this case the six-spoked McClintock wheel, held together on a high school math teacher’s salary and carried around in a dying station wagon. For my part, I contributed the monthly home teaching lessons: a boy’s exegeses, though really I considered them better than most Mormon homilies—better organized, better phrased. I already thought of myself as something of a writer.
Dad drove us in his rickety gray Taurus, the foot wells flooded with Mountain Dew cans (“Get me another Mormon beer, son!”), the cup holders deep with gum and candy wrappers, a grime-glued collection of coins at the bottom. The car’s scent was sweet, its surfaces sticky. There was the time Dad picked me up from basketball practice and bought us Frosties on the way home, asking about the team and my progress in it, riffing on the Military Hard-Assed Father from The Great Santini (“My children excel at sports!”) and then, in an apparent non sequitur, starting into the scene from Shine where the Old Country Father explodes over the bathwater soiled by his son. You shit in the tub? You disgusting animal! How dare you shit in the tub! Arm flailing ecstatically with the invisible wet towel, until Dad’s wrist caught the Frosty in my hand and sent the cold brown gelid sauce all over my shorts, the seat, the side console. “Oh no, no,” Dad said, but he wasn’t angry. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Did it get on you?” I was laughing. “I’m sorry,” Dad said, “I’ll get you another one. I’m really sorry.”
He turned the car around, still apologizing, filling the air with unexpected tenderness. “I get carried away sometimes,” he was saying. “I hope I didn’t ruin your shorts—you like those ones, don’t you? I’m really sorry, Sean.”
At the McClintocks, Dad and I sat on a low, caved couch, leaning forward to get our postures sufficiently solemn. They’d been dealt a blow, Sister McClintock told us, looking over to her husband who looked at the floor. The two of them sat at either side of the longer couch, bookending their usually fidgety children, three younger boys and then Jill, an uneasy friend of mine with carrot-colored hair, known to lord her year of seniority over me. This afternoon, though, all the lordliness had gone out of her. She looked as drained and chastened as her little pale siblings, her thin, tall mother, her stockier father. A paisley swath of green oak leaves spangled in the window, turning matte-side and shine-side, filtering complicated light into the room. At last Dad spoke up and said he hoped the family knew they could count on us. If there was anything we could do—
“There is,” Sister McClintock said, not unkindly, but first they’d hear the lesson we’d prepared. The family’s eyes shifted over to me; they knew the drill, and so did I.
Perhaps at that point I’d only suspected, feared that my father was an atheist—dark whispers, nighttime intimations—but in any case I was right. This is why it always fell to me to discourse on the doctrine, on questions of belief. No purpose, no pattern, no large-scale plan of salvation marshaled itself in Dad’s mind. A Harvard lab rat, a lowly man of science who complained that all his colleagues were rank nerds—open a liter of Pepsi, there’s your after-work party—yet he drank what they drank. He thought what they thought. I hurried through the gospel message that built on a few brief verses and explications from Genesis, reading from the Nabokovian 3×5 note cards I’d prepared, prematurely studious, prematurely old. When I’d finished, a dull chorus of “Amen” answered back. I studied my Dockered knees.
Sister McClintock cleared her throat, but it was her husband who said, “I have skin cancer. We found out yesterday.” A serious, matter-of-fact stare accompanied this announcement, a sort of preemption in the small blue-green eyes and the unusually round bearded face that made me think of leprechauns.
Dad said, “Oh—,” less a word than a sudden involuntary express of air, as if the news had literally gut-punched him.
“No, look. No, no, no—” Brother McClintock put up his hand and looked down the wide-eyed sweep of his children, his oldest setting her mouth as if to ward off crying. I felt a sudden liquid sympathy for Jill, who after all was much nearer to me than her father and the abstract grown-up world we pretended to fathom.
“No,” her father said again, “really, it’s not as bad as all that. It’s not life-threatening. We’ve caught it early.”
“They found a lesion on his right ear,” Sister McClintock said. “We have an appointment tomorrow morning, but . . . our car is on the fritz—”
“Happily, happily,” Dad said, interrupting. Then he must have heard himself. “No, I mean, not that—not happily. Not happily at all. I just mean—of course, anything.”
Eventually they made the arrangements. Dad would drive him to and from Brigham and Women’s the next morning, taking the day off work. The stricken couple demurred; Dad insisted. The wind moved in the oak leaves outside and sent greenish light crackling along the matted-down carpet. I slid my eyes over to Jill—very subtly—and saw that her face was wet.
When it came time to leave, Dad volunteered me to say the closing prayer. I had folded my arms and bowed my head when Sister McClintock asked Dad if he would give Willem a priesthood blessing instead—a blessing of health. I watched my father from a sort of sideways crouch, and when he said yes—of course he would, only hesitating slightly—I could see what it cost him. He had no consecrated oil to perform the blessing with, but Brother McClintock, smiling gently, a little embarrassed, provided his own.
I’ve tried to recall the exact month and year of that afternoon visit, but it turns out I lack my father’s math-honed memory for dates. What I remember vividly is Dad’s voice as it relaxed away from the formal invocation of godly priesthood power and simply asked—but whom?—that Willem McClintock might be all right. That he might get better soon. This was my father—devout in his way, a dispenser of secular blessings.
I stayed sporadically in touch with the McClintocks after I left home for college—leaving the Church behind too, as it happened, putting away childish things. My “apostasy” did little to dent relations with Brother and Sister McClintock (as I continued to think of and address them); it certainly did nothing to harm the loving bond with my parents: moderate, humane, compassionate people who’d have much sooner tied the God of Abraham to the sacrificial altar—contra Abraham, contra God—than my sister Karen or me.
I knew Brother McClintock had eventually lost the outer cartilage of his left ear to a resurgent melanoma. Let me who has ear (left) to hear hear, he wrote in one of his emails. A jaunty tone had developed in our correspondence, a repartee that vaguely surprised me and sometimes turned vaguely competitive. Did you catch that reference there, Shakespeare, or have you thrown over the Good Book too, for gooder ones? I was at Stanford now, ambitious-precocious like everyone else, writing and publishing my first short stories in small-run literary journals. When one of my more personal efforts, about misbehaving Mormon teens, appeared in a national magazine, Brother McClintock sent me a congratulatory email, telling me how he’d genuinely enjoyed the story, though he’d be damned (“colloquially and literally”) if he let his younger sons read it. The next day came a missive from Sister McClintock.
Get your head out of the gutter! Well, mostly kidding—mostly. We’re very proud of you.
Barbara, Willem, and the brood
More emails like this followed. No matter how small the venue my earliest stories appeared in, I knew my parents and the McClintocks at least were reading them. Barbara’s notes came practically concurrent with publication, humbling, teasing, embarrassing, and flattering me. I assumed my parents were the ones keeping them abreast of everything, but in one note Brother McClintock referenced my bare-bones website, asking if I’d done it myself—did I use Dreamweaver?—or did I happen to know someone who did website work on the cheap. He said he’d been thinking of putting together a sort of legacy math course—benefit-of-humanity stuff, “probably bonkers,” but fun, accessible, “sexy”—tip calculators on one page, Pythagoras and the mysteries of the universe on the next. It was late in my junior year when I agreed to do a little editing on his pixilated work-in-progress—I remember an olive green background. But then a gap intervened in our correspondence, the longest to date, because, well, I’d fallen in love, and then out—thrown out of it, actually—abandoned. My then-girlfriend told me in one of our final arguments that I had the emotional temperament of a Cold War spy, fantastically paranoid, self-obsessed, crouching, begrudging, recriminating, frightened. The litany struck me with its descriptive force, but of course I resisted the diagnosis for myself. When I next called home, Brother McClintock was dead.
“Wait,” I said. “What? I thought they’d contained it. Hadn’t they contained it? When did this happen?”
“We found out today at church,” Mom said. “I think it happened late week. Apparently the cancer had spread to his spinal cord. Dad’s taking it hard.”
“Where is he? Can I talk to him?”
“He isn’t very good at death,” Mom said, a little coldly, as I recall it now. “It’s like he takes it as a personal insult.”
I later understood that Mom’s “we”—the “we” who’d found out about the passing at church—referred to Mom and Karen, a BYU-accepted senior, and not Dad, who’d quit church altogether. He’d left his name on the rolls, for what that was worth, but eventually his absence weighed enough that the McClintocks were reassigned to the care of other home teachers. At the time of Willem’s death, Dad hadn’t spoken to him for months.
I think now of Frost—
And they, since they
Were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.
—and the moody paper I wrote about that poem over the summer (I was staying on again, chipping away at a double major). The sun made dark, cool tunnels of the colonnaded passageways around campus, struck the shearing red-tile roofs as it always had—a little harder in July and August, a little duller in October, January, March. From time to time I thought of the nervous blessing Dad had given Brother McClintock as his wife, oldest daughter, and too-young sons, all sat outside the blessing circle. But then I remembered surreptitiously opening my eyes to see Jill full-staring at me, her mouth hanging a little fishlike, face blank.
Over the years, other dissonances gradually returned to me—breaks, slippages, little dead-key notes like something out of a horror film score—but I didn’t know what to make of them. A few weeks ago it was Brother McClintock’s gentle, embarrassed smile when he learned that Dad wasn’t carrying the consecrated blessing oil—I watched again as that smile stiffened, froze, and resolved itself into a kind of hideous scowl. How I’d mistaken it at the time I don’t know, but I imagine naïveté—my willful innocence—must have had something to do with it. The man’s head obviously shaking, his eyebrows gripping in disapproval.
On the way home from the McClintocks, Dad and I had ridden largely in silence, the late sun strobing through the trees, making Dad squint, making him angry-looking somehow. Finally he said, “I liked your lesson, Sean. I thought it was impressive.”
A swell of pride and relief raised up like a welt on my heart, crowding out the cancer diagnosis.
“Where’d you get all that stuff about the Tower of Babel and confounding all the languages?” Dad said. “Was that from church?”
“Yeah. It’s from the Old Testament.”
“I know it’s from the Old Testament,” Dad muttered, looking pained, churning. “You used that story as a metaphor for pride, but of course the story itself is just a metaphor, right? You see that, don’t you? Maybe it’s what happens when people start to self-vaunt too much, or maybe it’s just how easy it is to lose control. But that’s not really where all the different languages come from. You do know that, right?”
He went on talking, expounding, asking questions he didn’t expect me to answer. I knew enough to keep quiet during these monologues, coming faster and blunter lately. I felt at once touched that Dad should confide his higher beliefs to me, and also unsettled, adrift on dark water—leviathans sweeping underneath the bow, watery ghosts. Or maybe nothing and no one at all. My de-conversion process took years, and it hurt—painful disorder en route to order, a sort of faith-state waiting, a Black Mass of religious hope—but I never did doubt my father’s care or sincerity in pacing me through it, slowly, gradually, or in sudden angry evolutionary jolts, as he later tried to do with Karen.
Dad left the academy only a few years clear of his Ph.D. He got tired, he told Mom, very, very tired. Instead of group-authoring papers that might influence a few wonkish interns at the Department of Defense, he went to work directly for a government contractor—a major pay jump, too, apparently. Mom could now go back for a master’s in public administration, letting her real estate license gather dust. It ought to have been a halcyon time—at the time, naïve, innocent, I thought it was—but here memory sets down for another dissonance: Dad, in a bright-lit red-backed booth at Friendly’s, looking haggard, shadowed, sad. A brimming, clear chalice of hot fudge sundae in front of him.
“What’ll you do next year, do you know?” he said.
He meant my major at Stanford, where I’d just been accepted. I still carried the letter around with me to refresh my sense of destiny, taking visual hits off the thing several times a day.
I said I didn’t quite know yet. Probably something in the humanities.
“Well, and why not?” he said. “Why the hell not? Money’s overrated.”
We were silent for a moment, our spoons clicking at the edges of sundae glasses. Dad said his old colleagues in the sciences had all but excommunicated him now that he consulted for the government—the great Satan, the great proliferator of weapons technologies they said they’d never intended for any but pacific ends.
“They’re pure as the driven snow,” Dad said. “They just draw half their paychecks from government grants is all.”
“Wait, what did they say to you? Have they said something to you?”
“Nothing specific, no—they haven’t had to. I know how to read their phony pleasantries.”
By the end of dessert, Dad’s lids had dropped to three-quarters mast, as they did more and more lately, giving him a Basset Hound look. He looked past my shoulder at one point and said, “We’re over-evolved, if you think about it. We should be happy hunting and gathering, reciting stories by the fire—why not the humanities?”
I laughed a little, without thinking, to take the edge off.
“Huh?” Dad said.
At his funeral last month, I recounted many of these stories—or rather, I’d prepared to recount them. You don’t honor a man like my father by whitewashing him, airbrushing all the edges off him, all the sharp definite lines that helped him hold a shape in the world for sixty-two years. When things finally collapsed, they collapsed swiftly, and with the help of his own hand. Another cancer diagnosis—but this time his own—prostate, stage three, and the deep depression that finally sent him to an out-of-state Walmart to buy the gun. I still balk at the edge of that particular imagining: Dad, life’s glutton, giant sweet-toothed Dad, loading the bullets—
We were in shock at first, then the arguments began. The first round took up the funeral itself: what kind, where, whom to invite, whom to let speak. Dad’s only explicit instructions to us had come on a neighboring subject, and only a few weeks into treatments—much too premature, we’d said. Yet he’d wanted us to listen, please listen: no machines, if it came to that, no end-of-life, holding-pattern, glass-eyed nonsense. In the end, Dad shortcut around our sincerest hesitations. We couldn’t help feeling betrayed.
“I don’t want it at the church,” I told Mom and Karen. “It shouldn’t be a religious funeral.”
“Sean…” Mom began, and I could hear the windy sigh coming on, the coldness in her voice. I couldn’t not hear it now—since Dad’s death, all was clear to me.
“It shouldn’t be flowers on a pulpit,” I continued, “or cheesy hymns, or some bishop up there with his long stupid face and all his piteous bullshit preaching—”
“Hey, hey,” Karen said. “You have to stop this, Sean. Where is this coming from?”
“These people didn’t know Dad. They didn’t love him. He was just an ‘inactive’ to them. He was a project. I don’t want any of them fucking anywhere near the casket!”
“Sean, hey, take a breath, okay?” Karen said, trying to sound calm, sympathetic, but I could hear through that too.
“These are our friends, Sean. These are the people who knew Dad and loved Dad for thirty years,” Mom said. “Where else would we have it?”
I recoursed to the bulleted list I had in front of me, called “Points to Make.” Nora Joyce, James’s wife, had refused repeated requests for a Catholic burial when her husband died. “It would have broken his heart,” she said. When her own time came years later, Nora, never actually married to her lifelong partner, made the “proper” funeral arrangements. “A gross sinner,” the graveside minister called her, repaying her last gesture of faith with cant and insult.
“Sean, I understand where you’re coming from—we’re all hurting here,” Karen said. “Actually, I don’t think I do understand it, but I really want to. It’s just that this really is starting to sound paranoid of you: black is white and white is black. Not everyone is hiding something from you, saying one thing and secretly meaning another. Not everyone is out to get you and Dad. I just really think—”
A keening little-girl voice burst over the three-way call in the background—my little niece Adeline, or maybe Susie—and Karen’s line muffled as she directed the child out of the room. Her husband’s baritone ghosted up too, more distant, low, exhausted.
“I’m sorry about that,” Karen said when she came back on.
“No, it’s good. It’s good for me to hear that,” Mom said, her voice watery now. “How is Addie? Is she over her cold?”
“Should I put one of my illegitimate children on the phone, Mom? Would that help things, do you think?” A little mean of me to say this, I know, but I also knew the score: where I had once only suspected that Karen kindled Mom’s truer affections, I knew it now.
“This is hard for all of us, Sean,” Mom said. “Don’t you know that? Can’t you see that?” She pretended to gather herself, buck up. “The funeral will be at the church on Saturday. You know how much we want you to be there . . .”
The scales had fallen from my eyes at last. People went out of their way to confirm my worst suspicions about them. The bishop stood at the fake-wood pulpit, a plastic-fruit sheen coming off it in the wan pantry lighting of the chapel. My skin prickled and itched—I’d started sweating along my high-tide hairline. A thirtysomething child, a balding child, I had to listen to the sickly sweet soothments of this dark-suited charlatan: pabulum, make-believe, opiate of the people, insult. Our Heavenly Father’s plan, and etc. Redemption, mercy, forgiveness, loving kindness, etc. As if there were something to forgive. What was there? A man lives, a man dies. We ought to be used to this by now. Yet in his windup rhetorical flourishes—a canned heavy pause, a faux-grieved appeal to his “dear brothers and sisters”—Bishop Whoever-he-was (I’ve flushed the name) came back again to “the tender mercies of the Lord,” bearing testimony to the Lord’s atoning grace and love, and so on into more nonsense. Who needed “grace”? Who needed “mercy”? Certainly my father didn’t. I felt a change in the air, a gathering of energy around my head. Who was this man to suggest that my father, good to his very marrow, needed to atone for what he’d done? Were we really back to the ancient canons against “self-slaughter”?
I suddenly couldn’t breathe. The air had emptied around me. The bishop finished his remarks in utter soundlessness—mouth moving, body moving, resuming his seat on the stand but making no noise. I opened my eyes like a drowning man, searching the crowd for a face to share in my sense of wrong, and there she was: Jill, my uneasy former friend, red-haired, slack-jawed, her mouth agape as it had been during her father’s botched blessing. Was this how she’d really felt? Like this? Her eyes open wide, her mouth in a rictus o of disbelief and affront at my father’s doubtful hesitations, his fumblings and false starts, until Brother McClintock had to prompt him with the official language of the blessing, a disgruntled director feeding lines to a last-minute stand-in. Did they really blame us for Brother McClintock’s death? We were supposed to be the Lord’s chosen bulwarks against advancing sickness, age, life’s cruel caprices. We were supposed to buttress up the tower to keep it from falling back on us with the weight of its fiction.
Of course they blamed us. They all did. I carried my batch of careful, measured 3×5 note cards up to the pulpit—all this, part of the family negotiations—but my hands shook too badly to read from them. I have very little memory of what it is I did say. I know I pointed back at the bishop at one point, thrusting my finger and trembling to denounce the arrogance, the cosmic arrogance of such a man. I remember Jill’s eyes on me the whole time, her mouth open, face raw—her pain at the loss of her own father existed in a scorched and eternal present, I now saw, a collapsing gravitational now. She was fourteen again, or maybe fifteen, and I was in the room with her again, my hands heavy-feeling, sweaty on her father’s bowed head. Dad’s voice was hesitating, squeaking, seeking for a way forward, and as I opened my eyes in the middle of this—surreptitiously, guiltily—I saw Jill’s eyes, black and glassy, staring back at me. Her lips moved, and again, mouthing words I only now understood, all these years later: You’ll . . . pay.
After the service let out, a press of half-familiar faces gave me pitying, sad, plastic looks, a few pats on the back, a few noncommittal hugs—insincerity added to injury. The bishop found me and told me how sorry he was for any miscommunication, any hurt he may have caused, but I pushed wordlessly past him. I was headed for the exit, floating, passing through bodies like a ghost of myself—there was Mom falling away behind me, there was Karen—when suddenly Sister McClintock and Jill were in front of me, holding me in place. Up close, the daughter looked distilled from the mother directly, high and thin, long-necked, sharp-cheekboned, with cataracts of long falling hair—only the color was different, the flaming aura around Jill’s face like cherubim and seraphim, like judgment embodied.
“Jill,” I said, a little weakly. “Sister McClintock.” I hadn’t spoken to them in years.
“Barbara,” the older woman said, “I’m Barbara,” and she wrapped me in a long, crushing hug.