Campbell Corner Essay Prize

D'Arcy Fallon: 2nd Place, 2001

Glazed Raised

          When my parents told me they thought I was in a cult, I told them to Get Their Eyes on Jesus. That's how I talked in 1972, when I lived at the Lighthouse Ranch, a Christian commune perched on California's raggedy northern coast. The ranch belonged to a Eureka realtor-turned evangelist, Jim Durkin, who believed a steady dose of scripture, hard work, and self-denial could turn even the most rebellious soul into an obedient child of God. Living at the ranch on five, fog-bound isolated acres overlooking the Pacific, we viewed life as an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil. Jesus was coming back at any moment.
          We believed demons danced in the air and angels flew beside us. The simplest decision was fraught with peril. Should you take a vacation to Disneyland? Fast and pray. Is that hacking cough Satan's way of keeping you home from church? Rebuke it in the name of Jesus! The van won't start? That's no dead battery, sister, but the Lord saying your soul needs jumper cables. Along with 100 other new converts, I tried to follow the Biblical advice to deny myself, pick up my cross, and follow Jesus.
          Oh Jesus.
          My parents, who lived in the San Francisco Bay area, were frantic with worry. What was I doing at the Lighthouse Ranch? When would I come home? Could I come home? All my pious talk about being in God's will and having my soul "trained" and "broken" by the Holy Spirit scared the hell out of them. And when my spiritual love affair with the Lord blossomed into a flesh-and-blood infatuation with a young man at the ranch named Forrest Prince, they figured it was time to pay me a visit.
          Forrest was young and intense, just 18, and filled with a young man's fervor to serve the Lord. Forrest was a prince of sorts, a country teen-ager in overalls and size 13 tennis shoes. Everything about him was oversized: Paul Bunyon shoulders, well-padded thighs, and the beginning of a gut. Forrest grew up in Plumas County, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His parents, he told me, in case I hadn't guessed it, came from pioneer stock. He mustered all that rawboned, ancestral spirit when he sang and played the guitar during Monday night Bible study and praise sessions. He didn't sing or play well, but what he lacked in melody, he made up in volume. Forrest sang full throttle, with all the bellows open. His powerful forearms were something to watch, hard and ropy. I tried to think edifying thoughts while he plucked his strings. Forrest had once confided, partly out of distress and partly to gauge my reaction, that he was a consummate masturbator.
          "I keep offering it up to the Lord, but I haven't claimed the victory yet," he told me one night as we shared a bag of barbeque potato chips in the ranch dining hall.
          "It's hard, isn't it?" I said, patting his hand. "How does that scripture go again? Don't do anything in the dark you wouldn't want people to see you doing in the light?' "
          "Right, it's something like that," Forrest said. "You want a chip?"
          Forrest's weakness of the flesh didn't surprise me; I had a sixth sense for secret sins. I could spot a closet glutton, sneaky nose-picker, hard-core pornographer or jack-off addict a mile away. Me, I knew all about desire, I was as guilty as Forrest. Prayer was the answer. Your body was a temple, a sacred vase, and the Holy Ghost, like a rare orchid plucked from a distant, steaming rain forest, was supposed to dwell within your body. You prayed to keep the container pure, filled up and spilling over with God's living waters. If that didn't work, you prayed that your bunkmates wouldn't hear your quiet thrashing.
          I didn't love Forrest, but I liked the idea of having a boyfriend. I wanted somebody— a guy!— to sit with me on the bus on the way home from church and cradle my hand. I craved having a person I could confide in and discreetly neck with on those nights down at the beach when the fog retreated and God carelessly flung the stars— like a handful of children's jacks— against the indigo sky. Forrest was sweet and devout. His intensity turned me on. Even now I believe that high-octane sincerity— combined with a potent mixture of lust and faith— can propel us out of our sorry selves, if only we can harness it. Forry!
          Forrest worked as a donut brother for Our Father's Bakery, one of several businesses the ministry ran to pay the bills. Every weekday morning, he joined a dozen or so young men from the ranch who hawked cinnamon rolls door-to-door in Eureka. In their white slacks, white shirts, and white paper hats perched rakishly on their heads, the brothers were supposed to be godly witnesses, bright beacons in a dark and craven world. The Glazed Raised were $1 a dozen, but God's love was free and always on special.
          Each donut brother was assigned a route. In the rain, through the fog, they pushed their wooden carts down driveways, past barking dogs, taking care not to get their wheels stuck in mud or dog poop. As they hustled the goods, they whistled, sang songs, and prayed. I imagined them hitching up their pants, adjusting their hats, ringing the doorbell, getting ready to witness to that face at the door. Like Kabuki dancers acting out time-honored roles, the brothers and their customers had their roles down cold. In memory, I envision a housewife staring at the gap-toothed young man with a 1,000-watt smile in the doorway. He grins as he holds out a sweaty package of Maple Bars.
          "No!" she says, shaking her head, tightening the belt of her bathrobe as she starts to close the door.
          Sometimes the tempo changes. When the man in the hat proffers donuts, money changes hands, then his cute butt— high and rounded from so much walking— recedes down the street. Sometimes, invited in for coffee, he steps over the threshold and into the chaotic house. It's a mess. "The Price is Right" blares on TV; the baby in the highchair is covered with dried oatmeal, and sporting a diaper load so potent the brother's eyes tear up. No matter, because he is called to minister to this lost woman. She isn't lonely or bored or, heaven forbid, horny, no, she is being led to hear the Good News. The brother holds her chapped hands as she bows her head and prays the Sinner's Prayer, asking Jesus to come into her heart.
          Salvation, a sugar fix, a curt word, a lunging, hyperactive Airedale: The brothers never knew who or what was on the other side of the door. Those of us left behind at the ranch lifted those men up in prayer. When Forrest returned after a hard day of selling Buttermilk Bars, smelling faintly of cinnamon and lard, he entertained me with stories. I was up for it; I'd been doing the brothers' laundry all day, pairing socks and folding gray, long underwear in the wet, claustrophobic laundry room in the basement.
          "One lady over by the hospital invited me in," Forrest said one fall afternoon after work. It was Indian summer, and the weather, after months of numbing rain, was clear. Forrest sat hunched over a glass of iced tea in the kitchen as I made dinner rolls. Half of his forehead was beet red from the sun, the other half which had been protected by his hat, was pale as flour.
          "She wanted me to pray for her bird."
          "Oh, come on! You're kidding!"
          "I'm not kidding. Bubbles was the bird's name. Lady said her bird was possessed by an evil spirit." Forrest laughed.
          "What was I going to do?" he said. "Rebuke it in the name of Jesus?" In a high falsetto, Forrest yelled: "Satan, come out of Bubbles! I command you. Come...out...of...that...bird!" Forrest leaned over, grabbed a measuring cup, pretended it was Bubbles, and began to pray. "Unleash that bird's vocal cords, oh Prince of Darkness."
          "Careful, you're going to wring its neck," I said.
          Forrest got down on his knees with the cup in his hands. "Bubbles! Honey! Speak to me! Unbutton that beak!"
          We both laughed, a little uneasily, because for all we knew, it wasn't impossible for a bird become possessed by demons.
          "So what did you really do when she wanted you to pray for her, ah, for Bubbles?" I said.
          Forrest looked a little sheepish. "I prayed for the bird."
          "And then what happened?"
          "He bit me."
          "Did he sing?"
          "Well, praise the Lord anyway."
          "Amen," Forrest said.
          "By the way," I said, fishing a letter out of my apron pocket. "You got a letter from your mom today."
          Forrest's mother was a faithful correspondent. Her letters were penned in a neat cursive hand and filled with motherly concern. She was worried about us "going all the way," she confessed to Forrest after he told her the Lord had "introduced" him to a Wonderful Woman of God. I shuddered to think what else he might have told her. Mrs. Prince's letters were honest and direct and filled me with hot embarrassment.
          She wrote: "I know what you two are feeling for each other seems right and natural, I know your bodies must be urging you towards the completion of a beautiful physical act, but it's best to wait. Love, Mom."
          A beautiful physical act. My mother would've sooner turned Republican than write a letter like that.
          Forrest and I. What did we have? If we'd been "in the world," we might've hung out together, either by ourselves or with a group of friends, but we wouldn't have felt the pressure to justify our attraction. In the fishbowl of the ranch, where every relationship was scrutinized and weighed for its godly intentions, Forrest and I needed to hurry up and find out if The Lord was bringing us together or we were just going to be friends.
          And now my parents said they wanted to meet Forrest. They drove up one weekend in October, a few months after Forrest and I started dating. I can only imagine the conversation between them as they made the long drive north through the fog in their white Volkswagen bus. My dad, who had recently retired from the Army, was having a hard time supporting a wife and five kids. My mom, disappointed about losing all the perks they used to have in the military, was tense. She'd been supporting the family through a series of thankless secretarial jobs. Money was tight, the future uncertain.
          My father (lighting up the first of many unfiltered Camels): "So are we going to see the Dali Lama, Jim Durkin? Do you think his excellency will be in residence at the summer palace?"
          My mother: "Hell if I know, honey."
          My father: "What's the boyfriend's name again?"
          My mother: "Forrest Prince."
          My father: "Oh, good Christ."
          When my parents arrived, it was raining. Stepping across the slippery, sodden grass, I showed them around. Even as they made small-talk with Forrest, I knew they were taking it all in: the crude dining hall; the austere, windowless Prayer Room; the rustic "office" filled with bins of dried lentils, millet, whole wheat flour, and granola; the paint-by-numbers depiction of the Last Supper; the telling smell of poverty that swam above the Cloroxed floors.
          My parents took Forrest and me out to a smorgasbord in town famous for its authentic Early American costumed help, picnic-style tables, and homemade bread. At the restaurant, you almost expected to see Betsy Ross toting a kettle of beans or dragging a wagonload of pumpkin pies.
          "How long have you, uh, been at the Lighthouse Ranch?" my dad asked Forrest.
          Forrest, beaming: "Well, sir, it's been about six months."
          "Ah, and what do your parents think about this, Forrest?" My father leaned forward across the table, nose to nose with my boyfriend. Forrest blinked in surprise. He wanted to please my father. I did too, but it was way too late for that. Was there a right answer? Was this a trick question? Forrest smiled uneasily and pulled on his earlobe. I felt sorry for him.
          My father was in his military mode. I knew it well. For years he'd been a front door court martialler, grilling pimply Romeos who rang our doorbell. "And you say you're going to be home ... when?" he'd say to my date, consulting his watch. "You say you're going ... where?" He wasn't overprotective, he just suspected (and rightly so) that we were up to no good. As my date and I hustled down the sidewalk, my father flung last-minute admonitions. "Don't smoke any funny cigarettes!" "Keep a quarter between your knees!"
          "Well," my mother said, glancing around the restaurant, "this is certainly something!" It certainly was. The decor was an astonishing blend of Paul Revere and Herman Melville: pewter mugs, harpoons, tri-cornered hats, and fishing nets.
          "It sure is a festive spot, honey," she said to me. A waitress in a cotton pinafore sidled over. "Can I get you anything from the bar?" she said.
          "Let's have some of your house white," my dad said.
          "Just iced tea for me," Forrest said quickly.
          "Any college plans?" my mother asked, hungrily reaching for the bread basket. It occurred to me that we were starving.
          "It's up to the Lord, Mrs. Fallon," Forrest said. "I'm waiting on Him."
          "How will you know?" she said playfully. "I mean, will He mail you an application?"
          "Ha, ha, Mom," I said.
          We ate, chewing like squirrels stocking up before a blizzard.
          "Tell me, young man," my dad said, "what do your parents think about you living at the Lighthouse Ranch?"
          Forrest had just tucked a big piece of buttered bread into his mouth. His teeth were working hard. "Well, Mr. Fallon -" he began earnestly. I watched him chew. His ears were moving up and down as he chomped. I stared at his Adam's apple, transfixed. Finally he swallowed.
          "My dad isn't happy about me living here, Mr. Fallon, sir. He figures Jim Durkin is full of baloney, no matter how you slice it. My mom, well, she's a Christian. She loves the Lord and all, she's saved, but she just doesn't understand why I can't serve Him at home."
          "Understandable," my dad said. He tapped one end of his cigarette on the table, then reached for his lighter. Oh, brother, I thought. Now he's slipping into his Socratic mode. Ask him what time it is and he'll give you the history of Big Ben.
          "Why can't you?" my father said.
          "Why can't I what, sir?"
          My dad inhaled and regarded the young man in overalls sitting across from him. My dad's face was impassive as he plucked a piece of tobacco from his tongue. He studied it for a second before flicking it away. "Why can't you serve the Lord at home?"
          Forrest closed his eyes for a moment. It was as if he was in the middle of a grueling math exam and trying to recall a complicated formula. Forrest's eyelids snapped open. I gripped the edge of the table.
          "Mr. Fallon, have you met the Lord?"
          "I believe I have," my dad replied, "although I know him by a different name, in fact by many names. Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, Jehovah..."
          "Sir, actually, it's" -- and here Forrest coughed -- "Jesus."
          "Understood, son, understood, and it's also Yahweh and Allah."
          "Sir, Jesus loves you, Mr. Fallon," Forest whispered.
          My father regarded Forrest sadly. "I'm sure he does, young man, I'm sure he does."
          My parents glanced briefly at each other, and in that second, I saw Forrest through my parents' eyes: a beefy hick playing at religion. They didn't see him as a godly Donut Brother saving souls and praising the Lord with his guitar; to them he was a dumpling who needed unleash his imagination, visit museums and read some books. A lot of books, in fact. In the refraction of their gaze, I saw myself as they must've seen Forrest and me: living under a bell jar, believing in ghosts and demons, miracles and prophecies, predicting the end of the world ... and running out of oxygen. In short, we seemed ridiculous.
          I was never going to marry Forrest.
          My parents drove us back to the Lighthouse Ranch. Forrest and I sat in the back seat and held hands. Maybe my mother made small talk; maybe it was painfully silent. What was there to say, really? My dad pulled into the ranch's parking lot, filled with broken down cars and piles of discarded tires. On the double, Forrest sprang out of the car. Hoping for a graceful end to the evening, he opened my mother's car door and leaned over to embrace her. He miscalculated and banged his head on the side mirror, really bonking his forehead. Forrest winced. My dad bit his lip.
          "Are you OK?" my mother cried.
          Forrest staggered against the front of the van. I knew he wanted to shout or swear , but this was his chance to be a witness to my parents. The Lord had deliberately allowed this to happen, just so Forrest could show my parents how a spirit-filled man handles adversity. Sitting inside the car, I watched as Forrest leaned his forehead against the windshield. I saw his lips moving. What was he saying? His eyelids fluttered and an imbecilic smile creased his pale face. He looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost.
          "Thank you, Jesus!" Forrest sputtered, spreading his palms wide and looking heavenward. "Praise you, Lord!" Then he leaned over and kissed my disbelieving mother goodnight.
          That was it. It was curtains for Forrest.
          If Forrest had uttered a "fuck!" or "shit!" or even a mild "damn!" he could've redeemed himself with my parents. They would've forgiven him everything. After all, he was just a kid. But Forrest -- like me and everybody else at the ranch -- had to turn a bump on the head into a sign from God.
          My parents drove home. Several weeks later, Forrest and I broke up. One day a few months later, Forrest told the elders in the ministry he was needed at home for a few days. His parents were going out of town and he needed to babysit his little sister. He left with the elders' blessing and never returned. I stayed on at the Lighthouse Ranch for another year, and married someone older and smoother than Forrest Prince, although not half as sweet. In time, I would disentangle myself from that husband and the ministry. Shedding the husband was far easier than forgetting the person I was at the Lighthouse Ranch. Decades later, my stint as a Bible-quoting Jesus Freak living in a Christian commune has become family lore, a fantastic story about a prodigal daughter who almost went over the edge.
          "Boy, you sure had us worried," my mother says sometimes, lingering over a glass of Bordeaux at dinner. "We thought you were a goner."
          My father, who doesn't smoke anymore, takes a meditative sip of his coffee, and says, "Whatever happened to that kid we met up at the Lighthouse Ranch? What was his name again?"
          "Forrest," I say slowly. "Forrest Prince. Bless his heart."
          "Oh my god, yes," my dad says with delight. "That poor son-of-a-bitch. I sure felt sorry for him. He seemed like a nice enough kid."
          "He was," I say. "A very nice kid."
          "I wonder what happened to him," my mom says. "I wonder how he turned out?"
          It makes me uncomfortable when she says that, as if we've settled into the final version of ourselves. I want to tell her, hey, we're still turning, we're not done yet, don't pass judgement on us yet. But I keep it to myself.
          I live in Colorado now. I'm married for the second time, have a 12-year-old son. Forrest lives near Fresno, and has a son exactly the same age as my son's. Recently divorced, Forrest drives a truck for a living. His new girlfriend's name is Kristi, he told me recently in a letter. Despite our plans, life didn't turn out the way either of us thought it would. I count that as a blessing.