Some Secret Place

Some Secret Place charcoal drawing
Some Secret Place short story illustration. Charcoal drawing by author.

Some Secret Place

The first thing to come out of my mouth was “God dammit.” The words were pure blasphemy, but I said them in a strange way, almost like a prayer.

They say that men shot on the battlefield will sometimes cry out for their mothers like lost little boys.  When it gets down to life or death, we all revert to some secret place.  This secret place is inside ourselves, and usually it is a place we have been going to since our childhood.

The place I go to is a little unusual, but the rational part of my mind knows this is only because how I grew up was a little unusual.  My place isn’t religious, not in the usual sense, but it does involve church in a way that most religious people might find troubling or doubtful.

Church was about the only time I wasn’t harassed growing up.  It would take too long to list all the reasons here, but the fifth grade was so damn miserable for me that I didn’t survive the year without becoming convinced that the Lord was preparing me for some sort of secret mission.  I had no ideas of the particulars other than it involved that I write some sort of book to tell people things.

What the contents of the book were supposed to be wasn’t clear, but I knew it wasn’t supposed to be like scripture or look like scripture.  It was supposed explain to people how not to behave so stupidly, but I didn’t know if that meant science or the book was supposed to be some sort of encyclopedia.

I often thought it would be a book on how to explain things in general. In hindsight, I can see some reasons why I might have thought this.  My parents constantly yelled at each other, and nearly every night at the dinner table ended in complete hysterics.

My mother had been kidnapped and as a little girl and was emotionally unstable.  She also worshipped and longed for her semi-estranged alcoholic father, the man who had done the  kidnapping. All the emotional stress caused my mother to have poor judgment and continually make disastrous decisions.  For starters, she had married my father, an alcoholic man with absolutely no patience at all, a man who had always shown all the classic symptoms of “functional” autism.

My father’s condition made it difficult for him to every hear what my mother was trying to say.  There was something different with his brain that made it impossible for him to focus on what the other person was saying if he had to talk.  He could listen to people for hours, and could learn things and say intelligent things, but not if he had to be in the conversation. It was as if forming his own thoughts into words took too much effort, or maybe it was too hard to stop the internal voice inside his head once he got it rolling.

My father never heard what my mother or anyone else was saying other than in random pieces. Conversations were reduced to arguments within minutes of starting, all because he was discussing what he thought my mother had said.

Actually, thought is probably too strong a word.  Imagined is better, because my father constructed what he heard from only the few random pieces he’d actually caught, and these pieces were so few and far between that what my father “heard” usually had very little to do with what my mother had said or needed to discuss.

Of course, all these problems were made much worse by alcohol, so by dinner time a fight was inevitable.  Once started, these hysterical arguments often ran on and on for several hours without any particular focus or purpose.  There was no place in our house where you could not hear it, and most of the worst usually happened while my sister and I were still at the table anyway.

School was also pretty stark.  For some reason I didn’t understand, people weren’t supposed to talk to me.  I just walked around by myself at lunch and recess.  There were no friends after school either.  We lived out of town, and my father always brought me and my sister straight home after school, except to stop off and buy a six pack or two.

At home, nothing ever happened except the endless shouting between my parents at dinner.  There was nearly always a fight, and the fights nearly always ended with my mother crying and saying she might as well go jump off the bridge and making me promise that I would never grow up to be like my father.

The bleaker and more screwed up things got, the more it seemed true. Everyone and everything was against me because the Lord was preparing me for a special mission.

Church definitely helped reinforce the notion.  At Sunday School and Primary on Wednesdays, I was taught stories about the early history of the Church and how the Prophet Joseph Smith faced all sorts of persecution to translate the Book of Mormon and restore the priesthood to the Earth.

Like all the other boys, I was told that the Lord had a special plan for me, and this plan involved my being ordained into the priesthood and could be as important as the mission the Lord had for the Prophet Joseph Smith.  More importantly, I was told that it was reasonable to expect that the Lord’s plan for me be as important as that of the prophet, because these were the Last Days, and there was going to be much ugliness and persecution and the world coming to an end.

That last part definitely jived with life as I was experiencing it in the Mississippi Delta.

In hindsight, I understand how everything fed into the notion, especially the alcoholism and mental instability of my parents, the snotty school, the recently-converted mother, the theology of the LDS Church, the right-next-door-to-the-sewage-plant social status.  I understand these things rationally, but that does not change the fact that the irrational part of my mind still worries that I might be on some sort of mission from God.

But that isn’t describing the situation correctly.  I know better now from experience.  There is an irrational part of me that is still quite certain that I am on a mission from God, no matter what my rational mind might think it knows.  In times of crisis when the world becomes irrational, this is the part of my mind that is in control, just as is the case with any other human being.

By the time 911 happened, I was far from the Mississippi Delta, both in mind and body.  I was working for a French Internet company in San Francisco, and I had even escaped the mental devastation of the Delta through anti-depressants.  I was a yuppie hell-bent on enjoying a typical American life with no apologies.  I was a survivor.

Then one morning I get the call waking me.  It is my fiance.  She is crying uncontrollably.  I can barely understand her.  She is saying too many things at once, and she is hysterical.  Her sister Larraine is still in the City, and she can’t reach her.  That is all I can make out, but there is obviously more.

I can’t understand her and tell her so.  She only repeats herself but louder and more frantically.  She can’t stop crying, and what she is trying to say is even less intelligible than before. I lose my patience and shout at her, “What the hell is going on?”

She cannot believe I don’t know what is going on.  She has forgotten about the three-hour time difference between San Francisco and the east coast.  There is no time to explain.  She has to take a call from her mother.  She shouts “turn on your TV” and hangs up.

I go to the TV next door, and suddenly I see why my fiance is in hysterics and crying.  There are buildings falling and the world is ending, and there is that old voice at the back of my mind again, the one from when I was a boy.  The voice is saying terrifying things, things like “Don’t be afraid.  I have prepared thee in thy youth…”

short story by Joe Riverson Smith