We crossed the deserts of Georgia at night, which was the only way we could have endured the heat.
At the edge of the dunes, my partner and I found the sand-blasted ruins of what used to be Atlanta. Most of it was half buried in the sand, but there was one place where the wind had uncovered a pavillion surrounded by broken concrete columns.
We stopped there to rest and drink our water and study the moon. It was reddish-orange from all the dust in the air, but you could clearly see where the latest comet had hit it.
My partner finished drinking his ration and handed the waterskin to me. I drank mine more slowly and looked at the broken columns in between sips.
The columns appeared to be all that was left of a once palatial building. Glass tile was still embedded in the surface of the concrete in places, but the wind had etched most of it away. What little was left only seemed to mock the long-vanished opulence of the place.
Suddenly an apropo line of poetry occured to me, and I said it aloud, “two vast and trunkless legs of stone…”
My partner looked puzzled at me and said, “Is that Book of Mormon or Old Testament?”
I couldn’t help laughing.
“I meant to say New Testament!” he said.
I laughed even harder, and my partner blushed at his own ignorance. “Book of Revelations, maybe?” he asked timidly.
“Percy Shelley, you blockhead. It’s poetry.”
“Awe crap, that’s right,” my partner said and laughed with me.
* * *
That’s how I once imagined life might be like for me once I turned nineteen.
My late childhood and teens were dominated by the knowledge that I would be expected to serve a two-year mission for the Mormon Church once I turned nineteen.
In the fifth grade, I imagined going on an LDS mission would be half like having to pretend I was gay and half like I was a gunslinger of the Line of Eld in Steven King’s “The Dark Tower” series.
Of course I wouldn’t have known to describe it in terms of the Dark Tower books at the time. I would probably have described it almost like having comic-book super powers. For instance, I believed that no one would be able to hurt us because we would be doing God’s work urgently at the end of the world.
Seriously. That was how far away nineteen sounded when I was in the fifth grade. It was literally my apocalypse. My life as I knew it would abruptly end, and suddenly I would be doing church stuff all the time with other Mormons instead of being the only Mormon at school.
But the thought of being emersed in church for two years didn’t bother me when I was in the fifth grade, and it wasn’t just because church was the only place I had friends back then. I was fairly sure that the Apocalypse itself would have already happened by the time I turned nineteen, and the LDS Church might be the only thing left.
Nineteen was that far away. The end of time itself. I half expected I might serve my mission in a world that had moved on and left a desert landscape that had been emptied out by nuclear war or some new epidemic.
And it would also be like I had to pretend I was gay.
I mean gay not only in terms of stigma but also the experience itself: always riding around on a bike with a guy doing church stuff and never talking about girls, and the whole experience making you gay if not warped sexually. The idea began to sound more insane to me each year.
But well after it started sounding insane, I still felt obligated to go on the mission. Strongly and with great emotion. Too many people who were close to me spoke about it constantly, like it was as important as life itself.
Thank God my father would always weigh in when the subject came up at home.
“Boy, you ain’t doin that mess. You gone be down at Miss’ippi State getting a goddamned engineering degree when yo ass turns nineteen. That’s all I’mown say about it.”
What used to sound like blasphemy began to sound like pure salvation. Especially once puberty kicked in good and strong.