Chapter 3
The Rocky Mormon Picture Show

This was East Lansing, early on a summer Sunday morning: brown, brown, everywhere grainy brown, like the dust from an old sepia photograph risen into the air, floating like sandpapery motes in the smoky brown sunlight. Houses and trees all around, viewed through a hazy screen of brown. An asphalt street, rendered soft and brown as a dirt road by this peculiar filter of my memory. I could almost smell the brown.

This is me as part of that scene: a study in brown. And lost.

 

A few days earlier, I had looked up the local Mormon meetinghouse in the Yellow Pages, called it, and asked for directions and service times. I set out on foot first thing Sunday morning, wearing a tie and jacket, scriptures in a zippered case under my arm. Directions notwithstanding, I was thoroughly lost in a prewar residential neighborhood within twenty minutes. The day cannot possibly have been as brown as I recall, but for some reason that's how it looks and smells in my memory.

I topped a hill, certain the church had to be somewhere nearby. A neatly bearded stranger, dressed in white shirt, tie, and tweed jacket, was approaching. One of the few people out and about, he carried a leather-bound book and seemed to have an important but not urgent destination. As he drew near, I could see the clear outline of a scoop-necked undergarment beneath his white shirt.

Celestial smile, I thought to myself. Bingo.

"Pardon me," I said to him, pleased with my powers of observation and my clever deduction. "Are you by any chance Mormon?"

The man recoiled, wary. "Not a bit," he said with distaste.

 

At some point in their lives, usually before a mission or marriage, worthy Mormon men and women undergo a special ritual called the endowment ceremony. I didn't know much about the endowment at that time, only that it took place in special sacred buildings called temples and that you weren't supposed to talk about the ceremony outside the temple. Oh, yes—and that after your endowment you had to wear special underwear called garments for the rest of your life.

I had seen garments, of course. My parents wore them, so it wasn't unusual to see my father slouching around the house in nothing but. Garments looked like normal white underwear, at least for the men, except that the briefs reached to your knees and the top had a scoop neck so they wouldn't show if your collar was open. They came in both one- and two-piece varieties. They also had arcane marks stitched into the fabric right over the nipples. I knew the marks symbolized something or other, but I had no idea what.

Garments for women were similar, if a little more frilly, but the really strange thing was that you were required to wear your garments next to your skin, with nothing between. That meant that the garment had to go on first, with the bra, panty hose, and whatever else going on over it. I can't imagine a more uncomfortable Christian dress code, unless you want to join the Amish and throw a floor-length skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, and a bonnet on over the top of that.

The scoop neck of the men's garment does leave a fairly visible signature, particularly if you have on a white dress shirt over it. Less reverent Mormons call that distinctive arc the "celestial smile," since you can't get into the Celestial Kingdom without it.

Thus my embarrassing mistake.

 

A further note on garment detection:

Because church leaders strongly urge young Mormon women to marry only returned missionaries in good standing, it becomes important for them to determine just how good that standing is. What I'm about to report is an unconfirmed urban legend, but I'm telling you anyway because it illustrates the sheer stature of the garment as an element of Mormon life, not to mention that it sheds some light on the preoccupations of Mormon youth. Besides, it's funny.

If a young man has returned from a mission and remains in good standing with the Church—in other words, has not confessed to any grievous sin of a carnal nature—then he will wear his garments beneath his clothing at all times, except when bathing or engaging in strenuous sporting activities. Thus, if a young man claiming to be a returned missionary should ask a young woman out on a date, she can determine the truth of his claim and the status of his membership by placing her hand on his leg just above the knee and feeling for the hem of his garment. If she finds the hem, then she can feel confident enough about the young man's intentions that she might just let him make out with her, or even go a little farther than that. Rumor would have it that some of the young ladies at Brigham Young University do just that.

Rumor would also have it that certain unscrupulous young men at Brigham Young University, hoping to get to first or second base but lacking the requisite underclothes, will wrap masking tape several times around their legs just above the knees, to simulate that magic hemline.

Honest to God, that's what I've heard.

 

It turned out that the stranger with the fake celestial smile did have a vague notion of where I needed to go. "I think the Mormons are down that street a few blocks," he said with an indeterminate little wave. I thanked him and continued on my way.

I found the meetinghouse a few minutes later. If it were standing in a police lineup with other neighborhood churches, I could have picked it out as a Mormon structure with no problem. In my experience, only the Catholics and the Scientologists retain as much centralized control over church affairs as the Mormons do, and that extends even to the architectural plans for their buildings. The basic look and feel of Mormon meetinghouses has evolved only slightly over my lifetime, and it would appear that only a handful of different blueprints are used in the construction of new chapels around the globe at any one time.

In fact, the Mormon church employs men with the title "church architect" to design all its buildings and monuments. This position seems to occupy a nebulous territory somewhere between job and holy calling. The goal, of the architecture as well as of the curricular materials of the church, seems to be that a Mormon can walk into any meetinghouse anywhere in the world and feel instantly at home, with similar lessons being taught in similar surroundings. It's the religious equivalent of McDonald's.

I sat quietly near the back of the chapel during sacrament meeting. There must have been three or four hundred people present—good attendance even so far from Utah—and, like at any Mormon service, the numerous babies and small children in the congregation made quite a racket. After an opening prayer and hymn, the bishop made a series of announcements. Another hymn followed, after which the young priests blessed bread and water for the sacrament ordinance, and the even younger deacons lined up to distribute the small morsels to the congregation on stainless steel trays.

After that came two or three sermons, delivered by regular ward members. Officially the Mormons have no paid clergy—although the higher you rise in the hierarchy the larger your expense allowance grows, and the greater your participation as a shareholder in the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But for all practical purposes, a bishop receives no compensation for the time he devotes to church business, and he continues to hold down a regular job during his term of service, which is normally three to five years. It is neither practical nor desirable for him to offer a long sermon every Sunday, so he or his counselors assign random folks from the ward every week to prepare and deliver talks on gospel topics over the pulpit. Not only does this relieve the bishop of an onerous duty, it also gives all the members of the ward the opportunity to hone their public-speaking skills—invaluable experience for those who will go on to become leaders themselves . . . and for those who will go on to serve missions.

When sacrament meeting ended and everyone was filing out of the chapel, the ward clerk—who had spotted me as a visitor while taking attendance notes—introduced himself and placed me in the care of two young blonde women a little older than I. He asked them to show me to the Sunday school class for young adults.

I have long forgotten these girls' real names. From the moment I met them, I thought of them as Laurel and Hardy, and those designations have replaced all other labels in the files of my memory. Both girls were students at Michigan State. The first was just a bit too tall, thin, and horse-faced for me to find attractive, and the second just a bit too short, round, and moon-faced. Besides that, they giggled all the time. They seemed far more interested in my Utah background and future mission plans than in my Clarion studies, but they were pleasant enough company. The tall one came from Utah herself, a city called Logan, up north near the Idaho border. I believe she was studying something along the lines of agriculture.

I sat next to them during Sunday school, and they put their heads together and giggled softly during the lesson. After class, the tall one said, "Why don't you come over to the Institute with us sometime this week?"

"Yes," said the short one. "They have Foosball and a pool table. Do you play?"

I did shoot pool. I gave the girls the phone number for the dorm, and told them they could find me at Phillips Hall.

How unexpected. Only two hours at church, and it seemed I had a date already. Two, actually. Joseph Smith would have been proud.

 

During our second week of Clarion, a popular novelist named Joe joined us as writer-in-residence. That was a week of colorful lectures and odd writing exercises, such as the day we each drew a slip of paper with a scientific concept on it from one hat and one with a verse scheme from another and had to compose a poem that blended the two—say, a Petrarchan sonnet on the subject of entropy.

I turned in a rather a silly short story that week, told from the point of view of the apple that fell on Isaac Newton's head. I was cheating—this was a gag story, science fiction at its most hackneyed and trivial, and it received only a lukewarm response from the workshop. But it also relieved me of the pressure to submit something for critiquing while I worked on my magnum opus, the story that would blow everyone away and demonstrate what a prodigy I was.

Every afternoon I sat down to write—and every afternoon something seemed to come up that not only distracted me but seemed designed to test my Mormon ideals.

 

That was the week Bob and I became friends. As brash and charismatic as he was funny, Bob was the only one in a wide field of challengers who could talk over Martha. They were destined either to love or hate each other, and maybe both. A 27-year-old Irish-Italian New Yorker, Bob came across as well-read, well-traveled, and supremely self-confident. The only way to consistently get a rise out of him was to make fun of his Brooklyn accent. On the subject of his accent, Bob had no "sensayuma."

On our afternoon food expeditions, our group tried to sample a different restaurant every day. I don't recall many of the meals we ate, but I do remember a startling fact: every restaurant contained a prominent and well-stocked bar. If I needed any reminder that I was a tourist in a hostile and alien land, that was it. That a tender young 17-year-old like myself could be admitted to an establishment that so blatantly purveyed alcoholic beverages came as a shock to my rather sheltered sensibilities. Nothing of the kind was permitted in Utah, where the liquor laws are as incomprehensible and arcane as Middle English—and largely dictated by the Mormon church, which exerts an discomfiting influence over most arms of state government. I'd had no reason to suspect until now that other states might view the sale of alcohol differently. It reminded me how fortunate I was to grow up where I did, and how inured people had become to the casual evils that ruled so thoroughly everywhere else.

Bob made a habit of ordering beer from a different country at every meal, and he would always pass the day's selection around the table for the benefit of those interested in joining him on his world brewery tour. I always declined, of course, which turned into a joke after the first few times, albeit a good-natured one. I was not just Mormon but underage too. No one seriously expected me to have a drink of beer, even if it did give Bob the perfect chance to tease me about my heartland values.

I took it in stride. I even enjoyed the attention. So far I was setting a pretty good example as an ambassador for my faith. But then again, I hadn't really been tested yet.

 

To attend Clarion, Bob had abandoned a job as an emergency-room security guard at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. He had also served in the Merchant Marine and the Coast Guard, and he did talk like the proverbial sailor. (I had never heard the word "douchebag" used in any context until I met Bob.) He once told me that no word I could utter could possibly offend him, and I never did succeed in proving him wrong. "There are definitely crude and offensive concepts out there," he told me, "but that's rarely a function of the words themselves."

Bob did succeed in offending me, however, one day in the men's corridor. A small group of us, comprising both men and women, had congregated there for casual talk, and the topic had somehow turned to masturbation. Bob was relating to us, in rather broad terms, his shipboard masturbatory habits, when he noticed the look of horror on my face. "Look," he said to me, "when you don't see a single solitary woman for six months at a time, you got two choices. You can either jerk off or go crazy."

It was the first time in my life I'd heard someone speak approvingly of masturbation. My friends back home brought it up all the time, of course, but it was always derisive and deprecatory talk, a big show meant to hide the fact that they were jerking off for all they were worth every night of the week. The guilt from my own forearm-strengthening exercises was heavy enough to crush a tank, which meant, strangely enough, that Bob's blasé take on the subject really rattled me.

So did his discursion on homosexuality. "You know, Bill," he said one day when he and I were talking alone, "you're a smart guy. How can you believe in a god that would make a person homosexual and then tell him it's a sin to follow his feelings? Send him to hell for doing what he was made to do?"

I wasn't sure where that had come from, but I wasn't exactly happy that Bob had launched another of his salvos against my faith. "What are you talking about?" I said. "God doesn't make people homosexual."

"If you believe that God makes people, then you have to believe He makes homosexuals too. And your church is going to kick them out just for being the way they are? Doesn't that strike you as rather un-Christlike?"

"I'm not the one kicking them out. They're kicking themselves out by the way they behave. A church isn't a democracy. It's got rules of behavior."

"If you support an organization like that with your money and your membership, then you're saying it's right and good to discriminate against homosexuals. Bill, have you ever thought about this, or are you just repeating things you've heard other people say?"

"I've thought about it."

"You've got to do more than that. You've got to study these kinds of issues, read up on the science, listen to both sides. Then you can decide what you believe in and what you stand for, and not let someone else do it for you."

I walked away from talks like this feeling uncertain and unsettled, like a tiny capsule of certitude buffeted by an ocean of immoral philosophy. I didn't really comprehend what Bob was up to until he told me a remarkable thing in the course of one of our gossip sessions. He and I were speculating on the various couplings, adulterous and otherwise, that might be going on amongst the other students, when he said, "I'll tell you, it's been my experience that the more promiscuous a person is, the more unhappy he tends to be."

As I was mulling over this strange statement later that night—strange coming from a fornicating gentile, anyway—it suddenly occurred to me that Bob lived by an ethical code every bit as strict as mine, and that, wittingly or not, when we weren't ambushing people with water pistols he was teaching it to me. It also occurred to me, for a heretical moment, that Bob's idea of moral responsibility was higher than any I'd heard in church, because it was founded in a profound respect for fellow humanity and not in any fear of punishment or hope for reward.

I shook off the thought almost immediately. No doubt Bob means well, I told myself, but I won't fall for it. If it sounds reasonable and pretty, that's because Satan dolls his lies up in fine clothes and sends them out to tickle the ears and excite the intellect. He's a master of deception.

But I know what's right. I can think for myself. I won't be fooled.

 

Late that week, Laurel and Hardy stopped by the dorm to pick me up for our pool date. I introduced the girls to two or three of the other students who were lounging about, but instead of enthusiasm my guests were greeted with standoffishness and even a little unfriendliness. It didn't occur to me until later that we had been creating a secure little unified world at Clarion, and that the girls were outsiders. By swooping down and spiriting me away, they threatened that world, reminded the others that I still had one foot on a plane completely separate from theirs.

The girls drove me to the LDS Institute of Religion, a huge old converted house off-campus that in an alternate universe might have made some sorority a fine home. The Mormon church maintains these religious schools near more than 1,200 college campuses in the United States and Canada. Each offers a slate of classes on a variety of doctrinal topics, easily meshed into a student's regular college schedule. Instructors, at least at the larger Institutes, are paid employees of the Church Educational System.

The East Lansing Institute was nowhere near as large or elaborate as the one at the University of Utah—which is, in fact, the largest Institute in existence, housed in a complex of immaculate beige brick buildings, and servicing as much as half the university's student body. (Of course, the only reason the U has the largest is because there is no Institute at Brigham Young University. Religion classes are part of the required curriculum there, so there's really no need.)

The church strongly encourages its college students to take at least one Institute class every term, not only for the sake of religious instruction but also for the fellowship and company of other Mormons—and, not to mention, as a nostrum for the godless philosophies being proclaimed on-campus. I had sampled a couple of Institute classes myself. My first quarter in college, I took the basic Religion 121, first in a full-year series covering the entire Book of Mormon. But the Institute was a long walk across campus, and I lost interest by the third or fourth week and stopped going.

The next quarter, determined to make a better showing, I signed up for something that sounded more intriguing, a 300-level course on the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. I even volunteered to play the piano accompaniment for the hymn at the beginning of class—every classroom had an upright—just so I'd be obligated to keep attending. But that didn't work either. My attendance tailed off again around the third week, and by midterm I had stopped going entirely.

My parents hoped I would take enough classes during college to earn an Institute diploma, but even that first year I knew it wasn't going to happen. I had reached saturation. Going to church every Sunday was about all I could do—after four years of seminary, I'd had more than enough religion classes for a lifetime.

Seminary is another program of the Church Educational System; it is the high school equivalent of Institute. The main difference is that it's much more difficult to avoid signing up for and attending seminary. Your parents pressure you to go. Your bishop pressures you to go. Your classmates pressure you to go. And if you don't go, everyone can tell that your priorities have slipped out of whack.

In parts of the U.S. and Canada where the Mormon population is relatively insignificant, students from ninth grade on attend seminary classes in the morning before school. Early in the morning, as in six-thirty or seven. Every day of the week. Kids in Utah have things a little easier thanks to the "released-time" law, which permits public school students to be released from normal educational obligations for one class period every day—a class period of your own choosing—expressly to receive religious instruction. For this reason, you will find a seminary building adjacent to nearly every high school in the state, just over the property line, and hordes of teenagers streaming into and out of it on every class break.

After a year of Old Testament, a year of New Testament, a year of Book of Mormon, and a year of Church History, I earned a diploma from the Kaysville Seminary. So did ninety percent of the kids I knew. And what did that mean?

As far as I was concerned, it meant I had put in my time. With that two-year full-time mission looming, I wanted to maximize the time left for my own pursuits. Institute classes could go hang.

 

One side effect of the released-time law is, of course, that non-Mormon students can use the same loophole. I had a few friends who attended classes at the Catholic seminary every day, but the trickle back and forth to that building was so thin that you couldn't guess its endpoint unless you already knew. (Actually, I never did learn where the Catholic seminary is located, sad to report.)

I've always wondered if an atheist student could exploit the law to get out of class for instruction in godlessness. I would find that splendidly entertaining. If anyone ever tries, they'll have my support.

 

After a few games of eight-ball in the Institute's student lounge, plus some cold root beer and pleasant enough conversation, the girls brought me back to my dorm. I didn't invite them in again. What would have been the point? Utah was overflowing with Mormon girls, and that vast selection would still be waiting when I got home from Clarion. Laurel and Hardy had done nothing to distinguish themselves from that teeming mass, besides being familiar and available in a distant land. For now, I was living among people who shared a different set of my beliefs, and I wouldn't have that again after I returned to Utah.

I don't think I made this decision consciously, but from then on I confined my social activities to my new circle of science fiction friends. I wanted to maximize the short time I would have to spend with them.

One thing this meant was seeing a lot of movies I might not otherwise have attended—most of them (with the notable exception of the Disneyfied version of Lloyd Alexander's young adult novel The Black Cauldron) rated R. Attending R-rated movies was still a bit of a novelty for me. I believe it was the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball who instructed church members never to view R-rated material, and my parents had always strictly enforced that guideline with me. They didn't even take my sisters and me to see our first PG-rated movie, The Bad News Bears, until I was eight or nine. I didn't even believe my sister Seletha when she tried to tell me the movie was rated PG. "Mom and Dad don't take us to PG movies," I told her.

"Then why was there all that swearing?" she said.

She had me there.

My first R-rated movie was The Star Chamber, which I attended at the age of fifteen with my friend Chad Willis and his parents. Chad's mother also happened to teach elementary school, and with one of my sisters in her class she warned me not to tell my parents that she had gotten me into an R-rated movie.

But I broke. Racked with guilt, I confessed to my mother later that week.

Oddly enough, she didn't punish me. Mrs. Willis got off easy too, as far as I know.

 

That was 1983, and we'd had to go to Layton, the next town over, to see the show. Kaysville had only one theater, and it never even showed an R-rated movie until late in 1984, when profits were low and ownership changed hands. Beverly Hills Cop was the first, and you should have seen all the ladies with nothing better to do who turned out to picket!

I turned out, too—to see movie, along with half the kids I knew from school. This was a historic occasion for our little town. No way were we going to miss out.

 

Gradually I came to realize that a movie's rating has little or nothing to do with its quality or morality, and the power of the prophet's pronouncement evaporated for me. I still tended to avoid the edgier fare at the Blue Mouse, however, so I had never witnessed for myself the campy spectacle of The Rocky Horror Picture Show when the invitation to go see it came from Martha.

Rocky Horror played at the Blue Mouse in Salt Lake at midnight every Friday and Saturday, so I had of course heard about the costumes, the flying toast, the squirt bottles, the comic lines and the playacting—and that was just the audience part, all timed to mesh with the action on the big screen! But my friends and I had never quite dared to attend and see what all the fuss was about. Now here was Martha, offering a foray in the company of half a dozen or more of my Clarion compatriots. What could be safer?

"What's it like?" I asked nervously. "I've heard a lot about it, but . . . you know . . ."

"It's a sad, beautiful movie about loneliness and alienation," said Martha. "Try to ignore what's going on in the audience. None of them really understand it."

Sometime after eleven that night, eight or nine of us piled into two cars—a few of the students had driven to Clarion, hundreds if not thousands of miles—and headed over to a huge barn of a movie theater on the edge of Lansing proper, with a parking lot the size of Rhode Island. The theater could probably have seated eight hundred people; for the midnight movie, it was lucky to have gotten forty. Those of us from Clarion spread out in clumps. I ended up sitting with Bob, who was also a first-timer.

A group of teenagers in costumes milled at the front of the theater, beneath the giant blind eye of the screen. Two of them, a boy and a girl, had dressed themselves like a bridal couple, him in black tuxedo, her in lace and white veil. As midnight approached, the couple made their way up the aisle from the front, stopping to talk to various audience members. When I saw them say something to Geoff, whom surely they didn't know, I said to Bob, "What's going on?"

"Beats me."

We found out a few moments later, when the two kids reached our fellow student Kim, sitting a couple of rows ahead of us. Kim was twenty-two, a painfully shy South Dakotan girl with an almost inaudible voice who wrote gripping, blood-curdling horror stories. Kim was sitting alone. Bob and I leaned forward to hear what the couple said to her.

The boy spoke. "Hi there. We were just wondering if you'd ever been to see this movie before."

Face lowered, Kim looked up at them with her haunted eyes and shook her head a little—just the merest vibration, really.

The couple backed away a step, made a great show of pointing their fingers at her, and shouted at the tops of their lungs: "Virgin! Virgin!"

Kim's face blazed red, and she hunched down so far in her seat she seemed to be trying to become one with the gum and spilled soda on the theater floor.

Greatly pleased with themselves, the teenagers continued up the aisle. The next stop was our row.

They were a couple of years younger than me, and I was so appalled at their behavior I could barely look at them. But they trained their attention on Bob, who had the aisle seat. "Hey there," said the boy. "Just wondering if you've ever seen the movie before."

Bob sat completely relaxed in his chair, slouched like a lazy snake. He cocked an eyebrow at the boy without really looking at him, then said with dead seriousness in his best Brooklyn accent: "You call me a virgin, I'll rip your fucking lungs out."

The boy's face turned white beneath his rouged cheeks. His mouth chewed a moment on empty air. He looked at me, seemed to think better of his question, then tugged the girl on past us without another word.

 

The movie and all its attendant foofaraw got underway a few minutes later. The musical numbers were fun, I enjoyed the way the audience's lines turned the on-screen dialogue into self-deprecating parody, and I derived some cruel satisfaction from the scene where Tim Curry serves Meat Loaf for supper. But overall the movie's cheerful subversion of conventional sexuality disturbed me, despite Bob's lessons in open-mindedness. Frank, a fellow from Washington who could be flamboyantly provocative one moment and inscrutably prudish the next, declared the movie the most pornographic piece of filth he had ever seen.

"You need to see it without the audience," said Martha, plodding dejectedly through the warm night air to where our cars were parked. "You just can't get the point with all that distraction around."

That was a Friday night. Two days later was church. As I was making my way through the crowded hallway before sacrament meeting, I spotted the young groom from the movie theater walking toward me. Our eyes met, and for a brief moment his terrified expression returned. Then he looked down at the floor and hurried past me.

In the service that followed, he helped the other members of the Aaronic Priesthood prepare the sacrament for blessing and distribution.

Where I come from, we call that "ironic priesthood."

 

It didn't really have anything to do with that incident, but that also turned out to be the last Sunday during my Clarion tenure that I attended church.

It's not that I had anything against church, really—not then. It's just that there were so many other interesting things for me to do, I didn't want to waste the time.

Already, the summer days seemed slippery and fleeting.


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