Fiction · 10/17/2018

Utopia Falls

In the summertime, I have heard, Utopia Falls lives up to its name. The hillside cabins are full of families. Kids play dodgeball and red light, green light in the field. Every night in Reverend James B. Swanson Hall guests sit down to dinner side-by-side at the long tables in the late light, and help staff clean the kitchen when it’s through. Chapel services at night are so crowded that they spill out onto the lawn. People stand and sing the closing hymns among the fireflies. For a minister it’s a dream job, so it’s a hard gig to get. Which is why I joined the staff in the offseason, after the last minivan had pulled out of the parking lot, after the charismatic summer minister had said his last benediction, after the leaves had begun to change from green to rust, and the wind to pick up.

Our few offseason boarders were mournful solitary people, committed to their isolation, resistant to talk. An elderly crank, recently widowed. A recovering addict. A dying man. Because the cabins would be shuttered until springtime, they lived and ate with us in the insulated main building at the bottom of the hill. We staff were few as well. The young seasonal workers — chipper summer waiters, launderers, groundskeepers — were traveling or back at school, and many of the year-round administrative staff left at five to go home to families in town. Only half a dozen of us lonelies remained here night and day. Each of us had our reasons for not wanting to be at home.

My own were banal. My girlfriend of six years kicked me out. It was a messy breakup. Our friends took sides. I was up for a job at One Love, the LGBTQ center in our small college town, but her vindictive talk about me got around. I was manipulative, she said, emotionally abusive. It stung. It more than stung. It was a sucker punch. The hiring manager at One Love was a friend of hers. Who would hire an inexperienced woman just a year out of divinity school whom they’d heard such awful things about? Not he.

When I found the job listing for offseason minister at Utopia Falls, I thought it would be the perfect escape. A stopgap in my life, a time to meditate, look inward, reevaluate. And when I arrived I had a vision. The previous offseason minister was traditional, I’d heard, a humorless old white guy with outdated notions. More than a couple people complained to me in confidence that he recycled sermons. He leaned heavily on the text. No wonder no one shows up to chapel, I thought. He’s not engaging people. He’s not creating conversation. So I asked people personally what they were looking for. I took it upon myself to make the chapel a community. It was October and the mountain air was cold and clean. I advertised daytime activities: yoga classes, meditation, knitting. There was some initial buzz, but as the days got darker, interest waned. My colleagues and the boarders alike, I realized, wanted to be left alone.

Winter was hard. I was dealing with a lot of resentment toward my ex, and that manifested, I think, in some resentment toward my colleagues. My first reaction was to blame myself but, self-loathing being poisonous in my line of work, I tried to stifle it. Maybe a ministry was just not what was needed.

And yet offseason minister was a funded position. Since no generous trustee was paying me to sit around and read the Bible in my socks and hat, I found useful things to do. I helped Joanne salt the drive. I chopped thawed vegetables for Mark. I installed a new operating system on Shelly’s old PC and took trips to the Kinko’s in town for Joe.

Then, after a quiet dinner Christmas night, Pete Pei, the longtime work-stay, mumbled — as he did — that he was off to the Blind Lion for a beer. Pete Pei had been on my radar. He was a stocky guy, built as if out of brick, with a mournful expression. He kept to himself. Made furtive eye contact, if any. Seemed like a deeply lonely man. It occurred to me he wouldn’t announce where he was going if he didn’t want company. I thought, gosh, how stupid I have been! Here I’ve been hoping for my congregation to come to me when the very member who might be most in need has been, however subtly, inviting me in! The others murmured excuses or cleared their throats and got up to clear their plates, but I joined Pete for the icy drive down the mountain.

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The Blind Lion smelled of stale cigarette smoke, vomit, and peanuts, but a festive atmosphere prevailed. Christmas lights bedecked the bar. A rowdy crew of locals played darts and ragged on each other. Carols played over the tinny sound system. The bartender, a fat pretty woman in her forties, commiserated cheerfully with the patrons about their shitty holidays. How is this not a congregation? I thought. According to the Jews, it takes just ten to make a minyan. Pete ordered a beer and a shot, and I said I’d have what he was having. The beer was Miller Lite and the shot was well. The whiskey tasted as if it had been cut with water. I guess I used that to rationalize joining him in another round, and then another.

I asked Pete Pei about himself, and he told me his story with surprising frankness. He was married, he said. His wife lived in Boston with their kids, but they had been estranged eleven months. Sounded like their relationship was in shambles. They had disagreements about parenting. She let the eldest go out with boys and gave her no curfew. She’d put their youngest on medication, which Pete vehemently opposed. As he drank, he became more animated, his complaints more paranoid. He told me he believed his wife was sleeping around, possibly with his former boss. Diplomatically, I hoped, I pointed out that eleven months was a long time. Women have needs too, I said. With considerable spite he told me that, as a dyke, I wouldn’t understand.

I stopped drinking then and turned my attention to the bartender. Business was slow and she seemed to welcome the chance to chat. Her name was Denise, it turned out. She was a mother of four and took care of her mother, too, who had diabetes and was going blind. Pete sat there stewing, drinking, listening to our conversation. I hoped my sympathy for Denise would help diffuse his aggressiveness. Pete ordered a fourth round, but his timing was off. Denise’s back was turned. She didn’t hear him, didn’t respond. He yelled: Hey, bitch! You deaf? At which point she informed him it was time to leave. I took his keys — he gave them up without argument — and in brooding silence took us both back up the mountain. It was a ten minute drive but it felt like ages. When we got back to Utopia Falls’s mostly empty employee lot, he slammed the passenger side door and trudged back to the main building without a word, his bare head steaming in the cold.

When I saw him in the morning, though, he was the same Pete Pei as ever. He made no eye contact with me over meals. Neither of us acknowledged our colorful Christmas night. A few days later, after dinner, I looked up to find him standing there with his keys and coat, nodding in my direction, expecting me to join him.

We spent many dark winter nights after that drinking together at the Lion. Sometimes other staff would join us. I was glad to get to know them better. When I talked to them, or to the locals, when I listened to their stories, I felt that, albeit in a small unexpected way, I was fulfilling the ministerial vow I’d made. And yet often when I struck up other conversations, Pete Pei seemed a little jealous. It’s true that he was my primary focus. We were not friends, but our relationship was symbiotic. Pete needed someone to listen; I needed someone to listen to. There was a certain shape to his resentment that I recognized. Whether or not our colleagues joined us, our pattern was always the same. As he drank to excess he’d pour out his heart. Eventually he’d insult me. I would tell him it was time to go and bring us back up the mountain, sitting with him and his fury all the way. The next day neither of us would acknowledge what had happened. If the pattern never changed, still I believed I was doing him some good.

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In February Denise hung paper hearts around the bar and offered a special drink she called the Whiskey Dick. It was bright red: whiskey, soda, maraschino syrup, and something else. What’s the secret ingredient? I asked.

She cranked up the volume on her country love songs. I love Valentine’s Day, she said. It’s so stupid. Who doesn’t like flowers and goofy cards? It’s all just a bunch of junk, but it’s the best. Besides, I make bank. Busiest night of the year.

Pete Pei surprised us by getting into the spirit. Instead of his usual beers and shots he ordered Whiskey Dicks. We talked about his wife, and I felt we were making progress on his resentment. When I suggested that his wife might be as hurt as he was, he seemed almost ready to see things from her perspective. Maybe he was just being agreeable to shut me up. Maybe he had fond memories of the holiday. Innocently, I asked, How have you and your wife celebrated Valentine’s Day, in happier times?

Turned out that was not the right thing to say. The question set him off. That fucking bitch, he blurted —

Pete, I said, you have got to stop calling women —

The fuck do you know? he said to me, slamming his drink on the bar. Listen to what I’m telling you! He launched into an unhinged story about quote-unquote that cheating slut so contradictory and convoluted it couldn’t possibly have been all true.

The bar had begun to fill up with people who had just come from dates. Many of them were tipsy, carrying the drugstore teddy bears and chocolates that brought Denise so much joy. She cranked up the heat. Coats and sweaters piled up on all the bar stools. The floor was wet with melted snow. As I sat and listened to Pete rant, the Blind Lion became more crowded than I’d ever seen. Couples made out in corners. Men in half-unbuttoned flannels laughed and yelled. Women danced in tank tops and snow boots. A guy whose breath smelled of cheap chocolate put his hand on my ass and told me his girlfriend thought I was cute. We want to bring you home with us, he said. We want to play with you. I balked and bolted through the damp crowd to the ladies’ room. I had to leave but I couldn’t, not without Pete Pei. For one thing I was afraid of what he might do if I left him there. For another I didn’t have a car.

When I came back out I couldn’t find Pete. His coat was in its usual spot, but he wasn’t at the bar. I looked for Denise to ask if he’d left, but another bartender had taken over for her. I went outside to see if he’d started the car, as I sometimes did, to let it warm up before we drove back to Utopia Falls.

It was snowing lightly. Pete was out there in nothing but his tee shirt, and he had Denise pinned against the wall. His bare hands were pressed to the cold brick, his arms like a brace on either side of her neck. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I could hear her. Come on, Pete, quit it, she was saying. I gotta get back to work, Pete, come on.

I hurried over. Let her go, Pete, I said, you’ve had enough. He swiveled around toward me and released Denise briefly enough to bring one arm down hard against her chest. He stuck a finger in my face. Fuck you, he said. I put a hand on his bicep, kindly as I could. To my surprise he unpinned Denise, who hurried back inside, and raised his hand. I flinched. He laughed. I half turned to follow Denise, calling out to ask if she was okay, and he took the opportunity to punch me in the stomach.

I suppose I believed that my role as minister made me immune somehow to Pete Pei’s rage. I suppose I thought he trusted me, that we were unlikely allies. But reeling doubled over in the parking lot, the wind knocked out of me, snow melting in my hair, I knew I was no safer than any other woman. Pete Pei walked with upright posture back inside. When eventually I followed him in, Denise was chatting with him as warmly as before. I bundled up in silence. I left without saying goodbye. I walked back to Utopia Falls alone that night, my scarf wrapped around my face, breathing in the smell of my own breath. Maybe I am not ready for this job, I thought. Maybe I cannot save everyone. Maybe some men are beyond saving.

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In March the hiring manager from One Love called and told me the woman he’d hired hadn’t worked out. I refrained from asking why. Later I would learn they had political differences. He asked me if I was still interested in the job. I told him I was and inquired, delicately as I could, as to whether my ex’s poor opinion of me had been a factor in his initial decision. I try to consider every candidate as a whole person, he replied.

I went in for what he called an informal chat and, six months after my initial interview, landed the job. Word gets around in town; my ex called me shortly after to congratulate me. What started as a cool but cordial exchange became a four-hour conversation. I told her I couldn’t abide her shit talking. She told me she had to vent. I told her I wanted her to vent to me. She said I was always trying to fix her, that she was sick of my holier-than-thou bullshit. I told her that between the two of us she was the holy one, that when I looked at her shining with pain and beauty I saw the face of God. Through audible tears she demanded why I hadn’t worked harder to repair our broken life. I said, Why did we ever break up? She said, Baby, come home.

I put in my notice at Utopia Falls. The day before I was to leave there was a blizzard. By noon the sky was shadow and the snow was falling thick and silent, dumping out of the trees in clots. Meanwhile the heat in the main building was on the fritz. Morale was low among the staff. Without consulting one another we all ended up taking the day off. Mark made popcorn. Joanne made a fire. Pete Pei brought a substantial bottle of whiskey down to the common room, and without much conversation we all sat around and got drunk — except the recovering addict, who drank Mountain Dew and worked with vigor on his knitting. By four or five, Shelly and Joe were passed out on a pile of couch cushions. The dying man was laughing to himself in the men’s room with the door open. I was thinking I should either put another log on the fire or go up to my room to nap when Pete Pei struggled up and began to take his clothes off. Those of us who were still awake watched him with curiosity. He stripped off his sweater and shirt, undid his belt, and let his pants drop, revealing thin plaid underwear. Realizing he’d forgotten to take off his shoes, clumsily he dropped to the floor and pulled them off one by one. Then he pulled off his pants and, in his socks and boxers, struggled up again and made his way to the door.

A freezing wind blew in, rousing Joe and Shelly, summoning the dying man. Pete Pei stepped out barefoot into the snow. He was visibly shivering, but his expression was grave and resolute. He closed the door behind him and stepped into the snow bank that had collected by the door. We watched him in reverential silence. I thought: is this what repentance looks like? I thought: does it mean anything at all? The dying man looked around at all of us, at Pete Pei’s stocky silhouette disappearing into the snow, and back at all our somber faces. Then he collapsed onto an ottoman in wheezing laughter.

After a few minutes — after we had all joined in his laughing, after we’d hurried up to our rooms to retrieve our boots and jackets — we tumbled outside into the storm and called Pete’s name. We waded through the twilit snow and shouted for him. Eventually we found him, chattering among the bare elms by the driveway. We bundled him up in wool blankets and thick socks, and sat him down with a mug of hot coffee in front of the fire. We told him he was an idiot. We massaged his fingers to get the blood flowing. After a few minutes had passed, we knew we’d saved him.

But it’s the moment before then that sticks with me years later: the moment when Pete stepped outside alone. How the snow fell in heavy veils while, barefoot, he receded. How I sat there silent by the fire and watched him disappear.

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Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel Self-Portrait with Boy (Scribner 2018), which was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her shorter work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, Iowa Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other publications. Rachel teaches for Sackett Street Writers Workshop, Catapult, Slice, and elsewhere, and sends out a weekly writing/thinking prompts newsletter at tinyletter.com/rachellyon. Visit her IRL at the reading series she cohosts in Brooklyn, Ditmas Lit, or online at www.rachellyon.work.