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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WASATCH
by Keith Perkins

 

 

 

The park bench is dry. A grey nylon duffel bag, hastily packed days before, is stowed beneath the chipped, weathered planks. A backpack is snugly positioned on one end of the bench and serves as an imperfect pillow. This suits Layton, the present occupant of this makeshift bed, as it best protects his most coveted items--a final, meager paycheck, a few items of clothing, toiletries, and his favorite book. A blue parka partially protects his chest and upper legs against an early morning chill. As an attenuated morning light steals over the vast, somnolent valley, this nascent arrival to Salt Lake City’s disparate stew of Pioneer Park vagabonds is exhausted, alone and liberated.

He recalls his first night here just a few days ago. A cool, spring rain tormented his slender frame during that long, sleepless night. In this distant place, on this unforgiving bench, he curled up tightly, head firmly embedded in his damp backpack, shivering, scared, and miserable.

Layton sits up groggily and surveys the park’s dawn stillness. A few blocks north, the downtown church’s lofty top mildly glistens amidst the tight cluster of buildings. The snow-dusted Wasatch Mountains rise precipitously to the east above the parched valley floor. He runs his fingers slowly through his thin, disheveled blonde hair and peers across at a vacant bench. His neighbor from the night before is gone.

Before staking his claim to this worn bench, Layton shared a modest home with devoted parents and four sisters on the arid edge of Cedar City. It was a simple place. Subdued, well-manicured, ordered, clean. Not a wrinkle of dissent disturbed their docile, domestic nest. That is, until one evening when Layton sat down at the usual hour, in his usual chair, for his usual family dinner.

“Well Layton, Your mission assignment should be here any day now,” his mother chirped. Her deep reservoir of perpetual mirth countered Layton’s cavernous chasm of jagged cynicism.

His eyes darted to his plate. He skittishly maneuvered the mashed potatoes around his steak, creating an imposing wall resembling a medieval fortress.

His four sisters ate silently, dutifully in fluid unison.

“"Go ye therefore...” his father intoned. His deep baritone voice descended like an impenetrable veil over the table.

“Yea, I know dad, and teach all nations,” Layton interrupted sarcastically, finishing a phrase that so often resonated in their devout house over the years.

His father put his fork down and continued chewing. He cast a furtive glance at his wife Emily before locking his bespectacled eyes on his only son.

“Is everything ok Layton?” his father asked.

He vigorously renewed his campaign to fortify the wall of mashed potatoes.

“I’m ok,” he said curtly.

His parents sniffed recent hints of restlessness, but quickly dismissed them as pre-mission jitters. They were inevitable. Benign. Fleeting.

They knew nothing of Layton’s waning dedication to the church. They knew nothing of the formidable sway that literature and writing held over him. They were blind to the mighty ache he harbored to sever the tethers of the church and wrestle with a creed of his own choosing.

Perhaps that is what drew him to Cedar City’s sole second-hand book storewhere, one desultory afternoon, he encountered Sartre’s dark, sobering tale of existential angst. Intrigued by its title, he lowered to the dusty, creaking wood floors and devoured No Exit before in one sitting.  He felt a surge of empathy for that trifecta of tortured souls confined to wile away endlessly in that well-lit, nondescript room.

The bookstore became his forbidden pleasure. After school. Weekends. Even audacious visits during school lunch. It wasn’t long before he answered an ad affixed to the storefront window and was hired as a part-time associate. It was a rare and rather shocking pardon granted by his pious parents and it came with one inviolable concession--that he donate 10 percent of his meagre weekly earnings to the church.

As if making up for lost time, he consumed Dickens, Emerson, Poe, Chekhov, and Achebe with rabid avidity. He unearthed in the scant Paul Theroux titles in stock a frenzied rush to dream, to reach, to journey with that thirsty curiosity for both peopled and unpeopled places. Layton read at work, on his short walk home. He even excused himself at church, retreating to the bathroom to steal a few clandestine lines from a book tucked away in his loose fitting clothing. His voracious reading appetite. His addiction to caffeine. His elicit romance with his co-worker Sara. The fact that he was no longer a virgin.  All neatly and securely locked away in that cozy bookstore.

His future, as his parents conceived it, included a two-year church mission, a degree from a local college, marriage, followed swiftly by a brood of his own. It was a well-tread, unquestioned trajectory dutifully owned and doggedly pursued by his Cedar City peers.

Layton dismantled the forbidding wall of mashed potatoes around his steak. He reached for his napkin, patted his lips and cast a cursory glance at his four sisters. They sat silently, demurely before empty plates.

On his park bench in the expanding dawn, Layton sits back, unzips his backpack and takes out Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. He grips each side of the front cover and lingers on the image. A faded green train moves through fertile, undulating hills as Indian faces and limbs dangle listlessly through open windows. Some passengers lean precariously out open doors, bearing witness to this speeding, efficient people mover.

As he flips to a random page, he senses the approach of a stranger.

“Hey brother, do you have a minute?”

Layton instantly recognizes the upbeat tone. The unyielding smile. The upright posture.  The thick Book secured in his right hand. He is Layton’s age and his blue suit, black tie and polished shoes contrast sharply with his ragged jeans, dilapidated t-shirt and dirty sneakers.  

“Yea, sure,” Layton says.

The invitation came instinctively, yet once delivered, a tsunami-like wave of regret and frustration overwhelm him. He warily edges his body aside to make room for his impeccably attired guest.

“Well, the Heavenly Father has given us a beautiful day today,” he says, an exuberant smile dominating his fair, unblemished face.  

Layton sighs, positions himself more firmly against the back of the park bench, and turns sheepishly towards his pious visitor.

“Yea...I guess.” he says indifferently, shrugging his shoulders. He is now mere inches from the absolute last person he wants in his company.

The stranger places theBook on his lap, one hand clutching each side.

“Where are you from?”

His voice, bereft of cynicism, still penetrates to Layton’s core like daggers.  

“Cedar City...just here in Salt Lake visiting,” Layton says unassumingly.

 He taps both sides of his Book, studying Layton with sustained earnestness.

“If you’ll allow me, I’d love to share a brief passage.”

Every fiber of Layton’s exhausted body rises in vehement protest.

“Uh...sure.”

He opens the Book and points his right finger at a marked section.

“Whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their…”

“Enough!” Layton interrupts sharply.

“I’ve had premarital sex, I am an utter wretch without my morning coffee, and I know the passage...Chapter 36...The Book of Alma.”

With this jarring salvo, his young visitor recoils sharply, his face reddening. He shuts the Book tepidly and resumes his original, upright posture, clutching and tapping each side.

“My brother, they repented and sought forgiveness...”  

“Spare me the forgiveness!” he interrupts loudly.

“But the Good Lord,” he retorts demurely.

“Stop!”

Years of pent up religious angst and frustration rush out in a raging torrent.

“I’ve left the church,” he says loudly. “I prefer Dante, Theroux and coffee!”

This final fusillade has the added muscle of a firmly outstretched finger directed at his now retreating guest.  

A lady on an opposite bench looks up cautiously from her morning paper. Her wide eyes register alarm as they emerge meekly from behind a wide swath of pages.

“Well, listen, if you ever want to talk,” he says gently.

The young man reaches into his pocket, retrieves a card and offers it to Layton.

“Sorry...I didn’t mean to…”

“Don’t be silly my brother,” he says.

They shake hands before the young man briskly turns and retreats into Pioneer Park, clutching his Book with renewed urgency.

Layton returns to his frayed copy of The Great Railway Bazaar. He then looks up and turns in the direction of the towering Wasatch. The highest peaks still greedily cling to a receding carpet of white. The downtown church continues to glisten in the now mid-morning sunshine.

After a brief walk, Layton finds a spacious, spiritless room at the city’s charity mission where he sips coffee and nibbles listlessly on eggs and toast. A few nearby vagrants own tired eyes and unruly white beards that protect deeply furrowed cheeks. An older man and woman at an adjacent table slowly tremble in their seats. Several people stare beyond their plates and coffee with gaunt, expressionless faces.

Layton distractedly taps the few remaining pieces of eggs. He looks across the table at an empty seat and is beset by powerful images of home. His parents are surely sick with anxiety. Members of the local church have likely mobilized an unprecedented prayer campaign. Abrupt, unexplained disappearances did not happen on the outer fringes of Cedar City. An innocuous absence from church on Sunday was enough to invite curious whispers.

On his return to Pioneer Park, he stops at a payphone.

“Sara...it’s me...Layton.”

“Good God Layton...where the hell are you?” she asks, her voice dripping with exasperation.

No one knew of his brash, pre-dawn departure by bus. Not even Sara, his most trusted bookstore confidante.

“I’m in Salt Lake...I’m ok...”

Sara was Layton’s age and he found in her a needed sounding board for his religious misgivings. He was drawn to her love of books and travel and her shared pangs for a life beyond Cedar City. On their mutual shifts, they seamlessly bantered for hours about many of life’s vagaries. It was Sara who suggested that Layton use the bookstore address for his college applications. In a bid to keep her similarly devout family at bay, she had done the same.

“Your father has been in here asking questions,” she says anxiously.

“Did you tell him anything...I mean...about us?” he asks.

“No...of course not!”

Layton knew it wasn’t in his father’s fiber to pointedly cross-examine Sara. Nor did he really care any more that his connection with her had led organically, one unassuming evening, in the sparsely lit back storage room, to an egregious violation of church doctrine. For most locals, this other bookstore, owned by New Jersey transplants, lacked the literary pedigree of the town’s church-sanctioned establishment.

Layton adjusts his position in the cramped booth and peers up at the snow-tinged Wasatch.

“I’m not coming back Sara...there’s nothing for me there,” he says abruptly.

“Oh...ok,” she says haltingly.

“I mean...well, the church...you know,” he stammers nervously.

“Yea, of course,” she says.

In a plan hatched during that final steak and mashed potato dinner, Layton decided to secure work in Denver, save money, and then continue alone to Boston. He feared a return to Cedar City--and to Sara--might stymie his ultimate goal.  

“And what happens in Boston?”

“Hopefully my studies...a new life…” he says matter-of-factly.

“More or less everything we talked about...” she says with an anxious chuckle.

There is a brief, tense silence.

Sara looks down at a small stack of mail on the counter. She retrieves an oversized, square envelope addressed to Layton. It’s marked with a return address from Lesley University College of Education.

“Well, what about your mail?” she asks.

“I’ll send you a forwarding address from Denver.”

She returns her gaze to the envelope and tenderly caresses the broad, square front with her fingers.

Layton lifts his leg to ease his claustrophobia in the cramped phone booth. He turns slightly, catching a glimpse of the Wasatch through the smudgy window. It’s now resplendently bolder and beaming broadly in the late morning effulgence.

He finds the same park bench empty, and with a midday, weighty fatigue stealing over him, he arranges his bags, and quickly drifts into a deep sleep.

He’s startled by an abrupt slap on his stomach.

His father stands over him, brandishing an oversized, rolled up envelope in his right hand. His stern face is easily betrayed by a swelling paternal empathy.

“You can go to Boston, Layton...” he says.

He unfurls the envelope, hands it to Layton and joins him on the bench.

Layton immediately sees the Boston University College of Education seal stamped in the corner. A barrage of images assail him. Impending deadlines. Rushed applications. Bus station agent. Secrets exposed. Sara.

“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” his father says imploringly.

Layton rips the seam, takes out the cover letter and hurriedly grabs snippets of the opening paragraph.

Congratulations...acceptance...scholarship.

His eyes moisten. He stops reading and looks at his dad.

“I think Sara might have some more mail for you at the bookstore.”

He leans over and fiercely embraces his son.  

“No more Book of Alma wisdom...I promise,” he says over his son’s shoulder.

“Dad...I just,” Layton sighs.

“There’s room for all of us,” his dad interrupts. “Just promise to stay in touch.”

As they separate, Layton sees the same smartly dressed young missionary, Book in his lap, talking intently with an unkempt teenager on a nearby park bench. The listless, disconsolate teen looks dispassionately up past the missionary towards the Wasatch.

Adjacent to Layton, Theroux’s Railway Bazaar peeks timidly from the unzipped top.

Not far away, the pious young man stands resolutely, turns to the downtrodden teen, shakes his hand and offers him a card.



***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Keith Perkins

Keith Perkins is a high school English teacher in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Irish Post, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, hackwriters.com, travelmag.co.uk, and myveronanj.com. A father of twin toddlers, Keith enjoys travelling, writing, reading, hiking, skiing, and naps.

 

 

 

 

     
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