Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sacrament of the Damned, or, Folgers in the Sacrament Cup, or, Gone Fishing

I was nine years old when I became a hardened sinner.

Grandpa wanted to teach me to fly fish, so we planned a weekend trip – just the two of us. I loved him, of course, but this particular grandparent was more intimidating than the mean-old-lady-substitute-Primary-teacher.

We rode up in Grandpa’s ancient diesel VW Vanagon – a vehicle never known for its stealth. Add to that the fact that, due to a childhood illness, Grandpa was deaf in his right ear, and it becomes clear why all our conversations sounded like a shouting match. But though these barriers to communication were high, they did not stop Grandpa from hollering a few jokes at me as we puttered north from Salt Lake. Jokes I would never repeat to my mother.

“What was the last thing to go through that bug’s brain?” he barked, pointing at a particularly large red-green splotch on his windshield.

“I don’t know,” I shouted. “What?”

“His anus.”

We got to the fishing hole before dark, time enough to pull in a few rainbows. Gramps did not have a pair of waders small enough for me. So I got to “cowboy up, kid.” Even in mid-summer, the water was icy, and numbed my skinny legs quickly. Grandpa had attached a billy club to his waders. He used it to crush the fish’s head as he pulled it out of the water. As for me, billy clubless, I was just supposed to break the fish’s back with my bare hands.

Fishing was rapidly losing its allure.

Finally, the sun sank below the horizon and I gratefully followed Grandpa to the van, shivering the whole way. We drove to a parking lot, warmed up a nice dinner of pork and beans, and retired for the night. I knew that a full day of fishing awaited us tomorrow. A day full of fire and brimstone, damnation and hellfire, because God had me in his scope, and was about to pull the trigger.

I woke as Gramps fried up some of the previous night’s catch. I still have no concept of his actual skill at cooking trout –I’ve never been able to bring myself to try one again. I picked at my fish for some time while he worked at the stove, fiddling with a strange, tall pot that had a transparent bubble on top. The clear bubble flashed brown occasionally, letting off strange gurgling noises, too. After a few minutes, Gramps finally poured me a mug of whatever it was. Pushing the mug across the breakfast table he muttered, “Here’s some sugar, if you want it.”

I was nine. Of course I wanted sugar! I wanted even more after I tried Grandpa’s new drink. Could he make nothing that tasted decent? A liberal dousing of sugar was the only thing that made the drink passable. I stopped pretending to eat the fish, and nursed this new breakfast drink instead. It soon became clear, however, that I had scrimped on the sugar. So I added more after every few sips and quickly found the point of diminishing returns: the sugar stopped helping. The drink became cold.

There I sat, longing for the pork and beans of the night before, picking at a mauled trout fillet, playing with a half-cup of brown swill swimming over a bed of undissolved sugar, when Grandpa’s harsh voice scolded me:

“What, you’re gunna be a damn Mormon brat and not drink your coffee, either?”

Suddenly the reality of Grandpa’s bitter brown liquid became horribly clear. I sat dumbstruck; my mouth suddenly glued shut. A flood of Primary lessons came rushing back to me. “The Lord has given us these bodies. They are holy temples. And cursed is he who defiles a Temple of the Lord,” I could hear Sister Purplehair declaring, “How would you feel if someone spray-painted graffiti all over the Salt Lake Temple? Well, that’s how Heavenly Father feels when we don’t respect our bodies!”

And here I was pouring filth straight into my temple!

My mind was racing. “Coffee! How could you be so blind, Bryce? Maybe you wanted to be blind. You wanted to be led away in sin. You wanted to walk close to the edge. Well, you’ve done it now. You’ve walked up to the edge and jumped right off. I sure hope Hell is nice this time of year. Hello, Brother Lucifer, long time no see.”

Plainly, I had become one of the vilest of sinners. But I did not want anyone else to know my shameful secret. The seriousness of my sin swirled in my mind as the water lapped around my legs that Saturday in the fishing hole. That my fallen, sinful, and horrifying state should be kept from my family, and especially my parents, was painfully clear to me. The first few years of my deception turned out to be easier than I had feared. I was not due for my next bishop’s interview until I was 12; and not having the priesthood meant no monthly PPI’s questioning my worthiness.

The Sacrament, however, was a challenge. My education in this area had been quite complete. You were NOT supposed to partake of the Sacrament if you were not worthy, unless you wanted to ensure your own damnation, of course. Woe unto him who eateth unworthily and what-not. I knew that I had already bought my ticket to the underworld, but I did not need any more flight insurance.

So I developed a strategy to hide my shameful status as a Sacrament non-partaker. When passed to me, I would pinch the bread between thumb and forefinger (right hand, of course!), bring it toward my mouth, and deftly palm the piece of bread. It could then be slipped inconspicuously into a pocket while a bit of artful misdirection on my part – pretending to chew and swallow – completed the illusion. That was the easy part. Smooth sailing to this point. I was a David Copperfield in training. I could make anything disappear. Until the next tray arrived.

Water. It was just an ounce or so, but it was a liquid ounce. I could not simply palm and pocket this. Nor could I merely pass the tray untouched. The whole ward would obviously see that. Neither could I just press the cup to my lips, as Pops would surely notice. I had no choice but to actually allow the water to enter into my mouth. Only then could I evade detection as the whited sepulcher that I had become. But once in my mouth, it was imperative that it not proceed down my throat to water the seed of damnation inside me.

I was a skinny, limber child and could easily double over on the pew. It seems only obvious that I would assume this reverent, contemplative pose after taking the water. Letting the water trickle out from my mouth onto my knee thus became child’s play. My father, who could detect whether or not water had been sipped from the small paper cup, would never notice the four inch wet spot on my knee. Or, if all else failed, I could wait until the Sacrament was over, go out into the foyer, run the drinking fountain, and place my lips into the stream of clean water . Only then would I allow the damning water to dribble out of my mouth and down the drain.

This continued for three years.

As I neared my twelfth birthday, I became aware of an upcoming event that could bring my house of cards crashing down around me: the required interview with the Bishop prior to my ordination to the Priesthood. I had the Articles of Faith down pat, but I had no idea what questions the Bishop would ask me or what the consequences would be for failing to answer one correctly. Public humiliation? Denial of the priesthood? I did not know, but my conscience was not completely seared by my wicked past. I resolved that I would not tell a lie to the Bishop. I knew I was already in deep enough.

The bulk of the interview passed without note—my worries were for naught—until that damning last question. The one designed to catch sinners like me.

Yes, there were things in my life that would keep me from receiving the Priesthood.

Lower-lip quivering, my mouth opened. And though the powers of hell conspired against me, making the walls close in around me, my throat dry up, and my stomach clench, I confessed.

I can still hear the Bishop laughing.


Anonymous said...

Bryce, this is a terrific piece of prose!

Sayaka said...

lovely and refreshing.

Ann-Marie said...

FANTASTIC. Poor Grandpa. Okay, really poor you, but poor Grandpa now. He still scares me. You're lucky you got over that! :)

Scott & Natalie said...

You're a great writer Bryce. I thoroughly enjoyed that...with a smile on my face. :)
Maybe you should tell the story of when we were 16 and you drenched Zippo all over the bottom of my green Samba shoe, lit it on fire and through it out into the street! Haha! Those were the days...oh boy.

peetie said...

Man, I wish I remembered that. Maybe the fumes from the lighter fluid did something. I did play with fire a lot back then, didn't I? Just thinking about that makes me want to go find a lighter . . .

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you all enjoyed it.

The Playin' Lakins said...

Such a sweet, touching story. I shed a tear for that boy and his agony. :)

The Patrona said...

Oh Bryce, i'm still laughing with the Bishop! That's the most precious story i've every heard. You should publish it. In the Ensign. (Let me know how that works out!) I'll look forward to your next piece of work with much anticipation.