Chapter 4
Words and Phrases You Must Never Use in Utah

During the third and fourth weeks, things at the workshop started to get out of hand. People grew less cautious in the wording of their critiques. Feelings were hurt. Tempers flared. Cliques began to form. Cruel graffiti appeared on the walls. Pranks, which had always abounded, took on a darker, more mean-spirited edge, and a couple of people flirted with the notion of quitting the workshop and going home.

I was never one of the quitters. Even on the days when I was most convinced that my attempts to produce a golden literary egg were only fouling the nest, I never once wanted to pack my bags and leave. I was where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do, and no matter how hard it was, I was going to do it.

Not that there weren't distractions. First and foremost was the idea, planted in my head by a jealous classmate, that my journey to Michigan had somehow transformed me into a chick magnet.

"God, I hate you," said Joseph to me one evening as we ate a late supper at a nearby Burger King.

I swallowed the bite of Whopper that had suddenly turned to a tasteless lump in my mouth. "Uh, why?" I asked him.

Joseph was a scientific and musical genius, nineteen years old, who looked enough like me that I thought we could have been mistaken for brothers. He let out a short, put-upon sigh. "That really cute blonde at the counter," he said. "You get a big warm smile, sparkly eyes, how are you, what can I do for you, thank you very much, have a wonderful evening, I want to have your babies—and then my turn comes, and she hardly looks at me."

"Joseph, I think you're imagining things," I said, though it secretly thrilled me to think he was right.

"Please. You walk by and panties hit the ground left and right."

"Not that I've noticed."

"Oh, trust me," said Joseph. "Every woman at Clarion wants to jump your bones."

I almost choked. "What?"

"Yeah. Makes me want to puke. And the pisser is, you're a goddamn Mormon and can't even do anything about it!"

Lying in bed that night, I thought long and hard about what Joseph had said. And by the time I was done, boy, was my forearm tired.

 

That conversation changed everything. Every day during our workshop session, I peered surreptitiously around the circle at each of those older women and tried to banish the carnal thoughts that assaulted me. Every evening, huddled under the covers with visions of cheesecake dancing in my head, I performed my nightly exercises, and I tried not to think about the maid whose job it was to change the sheets each morning. I stumbled through my days under a jumbled cloud of fantasy and guilt. I grew surly and snappish, and I started withdrawing from the group.

The dam finally burst one day toward the end of the fourth week. A mixed group of us were easing our way from the Lounge to the men's side of the dorm, moving in that amoebalike way characteristic of crowds of half a dozen or more. I was the last one through the heavy fire door we had labeled with a warning about Y-chromosome poisoning. I was careless. The door closed on my hand. I didn't think. I uttered a short and vicious "Fuck!"

Half a dozen silent faces turned to stare at me. "Pardon me, could you repeat that?" said Bob. "I'm not sure I heard you right."

"Fuck!" I said again, shaking my injured hand like it was a chicken whose neck I was trying to break.

Martha rushed over to me, horrified, eyes wide as moon craters. "Oh, my God!" she said, completely ignoring my hand. "We've corrupted you!"

You'd have thought she'd accidentally shot me. "Judas Proust," I said. "You didn't corrupt me. I swear all the time."

"You don't have to try to make us feel better," said Martha. She fussed over me like a mother hen, as if there were something she could fix—other than my hand, that is. "My God, we've corrupted you, and now you're going to go home talking like us, and your family's never going to let you write science fiction again."

I pulled away with a jerk. "I don't talk like that at home," I said. I knew better. Once my sister Seletha had tattled on me for swearing—she heard about it from my cousin Dougie and saved up for a long time, until a day when she was really mad at me—and my father confronted me in the car on the way to school and he pulled over and screamed at me until he was red in the face: "If I ever hear of you using gutter language again, I'll blister your behind, you hear me? I won't have you growing up to be a gutter slut! Do you hear me? Do you want to be a gutter slut?" Right there at the curb in a quiet neighborhood, big trees all around, and nice little houses, and my father screaming at me in the front seat of a little yellow Toyota.

I didn't even know what a gutter slut was. But I never swore again where anyone in my family could hear about it.

My cheeks blazed. "I bet I've said fuck a hundred times," I told Martha and everyone else. Why was it that my father believed it so readily when someone reported that I'd sworn, and the people here didn't even believe me when they heard it for themselves? Wasn't that more than a little . . . well, fucked up?

"Sorry, Bill," said Bob, "but you're not in the club 'til you get to a thousand."

"Fuck you," I said.

"Keep practicing. You'll get there."

 

It was that same week that Martha and I started hanging out together more and more. Frankly, I'd been half-intentionally avoiding her since the first week. Martha had a husband, and she and Bob were flirting pretty hard, but still I got this strange vibe from her, a vibe that made me inexplicably uncomfortable. So I made like she was a wild horse in a big corral, and I tried to stay on the prudent side of the fence.

But then Martha wandered through the Lounge one afternoon while I was there alone. "Won't-You-Marry-Me Bill!" she said, employing with great relish one of the nicknames our fellow Clarion wags had recently hung 'round my neck. (Another was "Young Henry Fonda." Apparently Joseph wasn't the only observer reaching interesting conclusions watching people watching me.)

"Hey, Martha," I said.

She took a seat across from me. "We haven't really had much chance to talk since that first week. I think that's a shame."

"It is." Warily I set aside the manuscript I'd been reading. The wild horse breaks loose.

"You're one of the more interesting people here, and in this crowd that's really saying something. The Mormon who writes science fiction."

"It's really not that strange."

"You say."

So we chatted, and Martha told me about her theater group in Chicago, about writing and performing her own material, about growing up with her younger twin sisters, about the world of hardcore science fiction fandom, about the eternal optimism of Cubs fans, about her attempts and repeated failures to establish contact with God. And you know what? I discovered I liked her. I did. Another unbeliever turns out to be a genuinely good person. Unbelievable.

Late in the conversation, Martha said, "You remember during the first week, when you and I were walking back from lunch with Geoff, and he kept bugging me about who the other guy was I thought was attractive?"

"Uh, yeah," I said, with a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach.

"Did you figure out why I wasn't telling?"

My eyes shifted to the left, to the right. "I . . . think so."

"If that's what you thought, then I just wanted to let you know that you were right. It was you."

"Gosh," I said.

"Not fuck?"

I laughed.

"I didn't want to make you uncomfortable or anything," said Martha. "I'm sorry if I did. But you are a really great guy. I kind of feel like you could be my kid brother. I never had a brother. I always wanted one."

And that was how I acquired a big sister named Martha.

 

Early in the fifth week of Clarion, I finally turned in the big story I'd been working on for so long—a thorough rewrite of that timeless masterpiece, "Deus ex Machina." Wanda distributed copies in the workshop the next morning. Late that evening, I ran into Bryan in the dim hallway outside my room. "Did you get a chance to read my story yet?" I asked.

"I did," said Bryan.

I had just spent more than three weeks, over half my time at Clarion, working on the damn thing. I was desperate that it go over well. I was desperate not to have wasted that time. I was desperate to be taken seriously.

I was desperate to know what Bryan thought, so I asked him.

"I think you're a genius," said Bryan, nodding his shaggy head. "I think everyone's going to be jealous of you tomorrow."

I sagged with relief. "Thanks," I said.

Still, I slept fitfully that night.

 

Perhaps I couldn't sleep because I had some inkling of what was coming in the morning.

 
Clarion '85 T-shirt

Let's not pussyfoot around here. The criticism was brutal. As we went around the circle, each observation, each opinion, each aspersion hit me like a solid belt to the gut, and my only job was to hold myself upright for receiving the next blow. The story was trash, it was worse than puerile, bloody civil wars had been sparked over lesser affronts, I should be sentenced to a thousand years forced labor for the very thought of inflicting such an execration on an unsuspecting and innocent world. As Wanda Larrier so neatly summed things up in her remarks, "Reading this story, I felt like all of Western civilization was collapsing on my head."

And then it was Bryan's turn—Bryan, who had predicted such showers of praise the night before. Hunched over on the sofa across from me, staring at me in my electric chair through hollow eyes, mournful as a hound keeping watch over his master's dead body, Bryan said, "I told you last night I thought this was a work of genius." He compressed his lips. "I read it as a satire, a brilliant send-up of all the clichés the genre has accreted." He looked at the floor. "Apparently no one else read it that way." He looked at me again. "But it's not a satire. You were sincere, right?"

I nodded, blinking hard.

Bryan nodded as well. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

 

When the workshop session broke up, I walked stiffly toward my room. My organs felt sore inside me, battered by a rising tide of grief.

"Sorry about the critique," said Rob, offering a handshake in the hallway. Rob was like an M & M candy: arch, academic, and brittle on the outside, sweet but dark on the inside. We had shared some searching discussions of his Catholicism in the weeks before, and a lot of tasteless jokes too. "I guess it would have been kinder of me to have passed, instead of rehashing the same drubbing you got from everyone else."

Bob and Martha and a few others were walking by. "I'm not sorry," said Bob. "We still like you, but the story sucked out loud. You had to hear that."

"My love for you is still entirely profane," said Martha.

Bob snorted. "I'm sure that's a comfort to the kid."

"Bob, my love for you is spiritual. You're just jealous."

"Well, I can do something about it."

"No, you can't."

I tuned out all the good-natured bickering, kept my head down and made it to my room without falling to pieces. I stood with my back against the door, eyes closed, breathing hard. It was just a story, just criticism. I could take it. No problem.

Knock.

"Hey, it's Bryan," said Bryan. "You there?"

I opened the door. Bryan filled the frame.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

I nodded. "I'm fine."

His eyes narrowed with concern as he peered down at my face. "Are you sure?"

I only made it halfway through another nod before the grief reached flood tide and spilled out.

Bryan, with the long hair and the walrus mustache—Bryan, with the strangely fragrant smoke that drifted out from his room while he wrote—Bryan, who couldn't walk down the street without muttering, "Nope, too young, nope, jailbait, nope"—Bryan, whose letters in the coming years would be filled with no-nonsense advice I should by God have listened to—Bryan, the godless, the gentile, the heathen, closed the door, put his arms around me, and held me while I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

 

I might not have been able to face the blank page again that week if not for Bryan's compassion and the support of all my other friends. As it was, I set to work within the next couple of days on a brand-new story, this one about a young woman who gets bitten by a mythical beast called a wyvern. When she begins transforming into a wyvern herself, she unwillingly kills her fiancé and disappears into the woods with the beast that bit her. A sweet little love story, really.

I worked feverishly in the dank swampland of my dorm room, where it was so humid that paper left out on the desk would curl up at the edges within a day. Early in the sixth week, when the story was finished, I slapped on the title "Talon Sinister," printed out a copy, and turned it in to Wanda. Then I retired to a bed of pins and needles to wait.

 

The group reacted far more favorably to "Talon Sinister" than they had to my previous submission. Of course, they could have folded paper airplanes from the pages of the manuscript, doused them in gasoline, and sailed them burning into an explosives warehouse, and it still would have been a kinder reception than "Deus ex Machina" got.

Most people liked this story reasonably well, including Kate and Damon, our teachers for the final two weeks of the workshop. When the student's critiques were done, Kate offered a surprising interpretation of what she had read. "This is a very beautiful story about a young girl's sexual awakening," she said. "She's tempted by safety and traditional roles, but the other path is wild, dangerous, irresistible—all-consuming, perhaps uncontrollable. I think this story shows remarkable improvement. In fact, it demonstrates that Bill is the most improved student this year at Clarion."

I guess that means I'd found an acceptable channel into which to redirect my illicit yearnings.

 

That Friday afternoon, we convened in Professor Landrum's back yard for a going-away barbecue. A.J. Budrys returned from his home in Illinois to join us, and between the food and the water fights and the nostalgia, we signed each other's copies of our Clarion anthology—a spiral-bound book containing each student's best story.

In the midst of the festivities, Martha called for silence. "I have a presentation to make," she said, bringing out a sheet of paper—a list of some kind, neatly printed up on the Macintosh computer she had brought with her from Chicago. "Where's Bill? There you are—don't run."

Abashed but pleased, I stepped forward from my hiding place behind Resa, the petite and intensely attractive woman I'd started hanging out with just that week. I suppose you could say that Resa and I were having an affair—she was a married woman, and twelve years my senior. But she was also funny and smart, with a core of sadness that drew me like dust to a static charge, and when we sat together and talked, we held hands shyly and never dared kiss. It was all very clumsy and innocent and inexplicable—a relationship that could never survive outside the atmosphere of Clarion, except in a bubble of fond and protective memory. Her husband probably wouldn't have understood, but I have a feeling Brian Wilson would.

"Young Master Shunn," Martha said as I stood before her, "in light of the terrible corrupting influences you've been exposed to as part of your Clarion experience, I think it's important for you review the following words and phrases you may have picked up from the rest of us, which you must under no circumstances permit to pass your lips after you've returned home to Utah. We'd hate to see you get arrested on our account, or banned from any further involvement with science fiction."

She handed me the list—headed "Words and Phrases You Must Never Use in Utah"—which read in part:

  1. Fuck
  2. Douchebag
  3. Fuckin' douchebag
  4. Shit
  5. Asshole
  6. Darn it
  7. Heilige Scheiße!
  8. Bend over, I'm driving
  9. Any synonym of "penis"
  10. Any synonym of "vagina"
  11. Any synonym of "Bob"
  12. Sucks out loud
  13. My love for you is spiritual (depending on tone of voice)
  14. My love for you is profane (ever)
  15. I want to go home to Clarion

A notice at the bottom of the page read: A PUBLIC SERVICE OF THE MORMON REENTRY DRIVE.

"Shit," I said to Martha. "I think I'm going to cry."

 

Over the next two days, we dribbled away one by one, each of us slipping gently out of the dream that was Clarion and struggling back to consciousness as we entered the real world. Waking to discover that Clarion was over, forever, just like that, before we'd had a chance to make sense of it. Waking to wonder if it could possibly have happened the way we remembered it, or if some fever had clarified ordinary events, prosaic friendships, into something too poignant and perfect to exist outside the pages of a book, like the world viewed through a teardrop.

I left Clarion on Saturday, August 3rd, 1985—eleven days short of my eighteenth birthday. Before I left, I made the rounds of the dorm, where the petty squabbles and deadly enmities of the previous weeks had been summarily suspended. Wanda, all six glorious feet of her, told me I wasn't getting away without a hug, and crushed me to her chest. Joseph wished me a desultory and awkward goodbye, though I think we were both more unhappy to be saying farewell than we let show. I embraced Bob like a brother, Martha like a sister, and Bryan like a father. I embraced Geoff like, well, Geoff, and Resa like my very first prom date, knowing that the magic of our last slow dance together might never be recaptured. When the taxi arrived, I didn't want to get in. I felt like I was leaving the best parts of myself behind (though the truth is that I only misplaced them for a while).

After checking in at the airport and settling down in my seat on the plane, I affixed an I READ BANNED BOOKS button to my shirt and closed my eyes. The house on Westbrook Road loomed large in my mind, taking form in the grainy mental dawnlight, and already I could feel my recall of Clarion growing imperfect, drying and brittling like fall leaves.

Waking up was hard to do.


Featured Book



Use OpenOffice.org