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WHEN I WAS A GIRL IN LEWISTON, Idaho, there were two downtown movie theaters, a drive-in that showed second-run films from June through August, a pea-processing plant, and a railroad that ran the perimeter of the town's north side. There were two buildings with elevators to the second floor, and in one sat an elderly man on a chrome-runged stool, his hand on the lever that would take us one flight up and back down. We ate egg salad sandwiches on the mezzanine of Miller's Department Store, where our written receipts were hung by clerks from a wire that turned on its pulleys and carried the paperwork to the accountant upstairs.
Many of the old buildings no longer exist, gutted during a run of summers in the sixties and seventies we all remember as the time of fire, when Main Street seemed destined to burn to the ground, one historic structure after another: the Elks Temple, C.O.D. Laundry, the Hotel Idaho, Kling's, Hughes, The Smoke Shop, but not the store with diamonds and pearls in its windows, whose dividing fire barrier would soon bear a plaque inscribed THE WALL THAT SAVED THE WEST. Had it not been there, the flames might not have been stopped, continuing on to Gibson's Clothing and Aleuridine's Hall of Cards. A few blocks east, a bar advertising karaoke hides the charred remains of Dave's Drug, where a policeman, responding to an attempted burglary, had thrown himself atop a homemade bomb and saved his partner's life. I can still see the newspaper photo-the single, black shoe left strangely upright, its laces still tied, as though the officer had simply evaporated, let his soul leap up and away.
I remember those mornings thick with the dust of harvest and wind, weeks when the blue sky became something oppressive, not pure but hateful, and the clouds that blossomed atop the Blue Mountains and the Seven Devils at first caught our hope and then our resigned disinterest: not rain but another forest burning, another call for volunteers, another plea for food and supplies. Plumes of smoke rose black and oily from the city's four corners: one day it was the National Guard Armory, torched by an arsonist to protest the slaying of students at Kent State. And then Payless Drug, Shell 011, Lewiston Tire and Supply. The heat lay in the valley long past midnight, when the old-timers sat on their porches after their garden suppers of tomato-and-cheese sandwiches, cucumbers and Walla Walla Sweets floated in vinegar, late corn made tough by too little water and not enough night. They watched the tugs push their slow way up the Snake, past the confluence and into the narrower current of the Clearwater. They saw how the flat-bottomed barges wallowed heavy with their loads of grain and lumber, and they remembered before the dams and levies, when the rivers had meant something other than commerce, when the bums had claimed the sloughs as their own and slept beneath the cooling leaves of cottonwood.
IN THE SPRING OF 1976, when I turned eighteen, there was the whisper of another such summer. The promise was there, in the early bloom of lilacs and dogwoods, in the way people left their windows cracked open at night. My grandmother, Nan, planted her tomatoes early, and she forgot to watch the buds of her cherry trees for signs of late frost. "It'll be a hot one," she said, nodding at the surety of her prediction as she leaned on her rake, scooped a fingernail of dirt from the garden and sniffed it for moisture. Although severely crippled by a childhood illness, she worked her large lot in the cool of the morning and evening, hooking the heavy loops of hoses with her hoe, limping across the yard she meant to keep green. Afternoon was her time of rest. Before her nap, she and I would sit at her dinette, deafened into silence by the swamp cooler's roar, drinking tumbler after tumbler of iced tea, eating the backs and legs of fried chicken. I watched as she snapped the bones and sucked out the marrow-the best for last, she said. I knew, even then, that I would never know such hunger, an appetite birthed by childhood poverty and neglect.
I attended my last week of high school that year in rooms gone still with afternoon sun, my teachers and peers nodding drowsily above their books. There was something in the air, some lull, a husbanding of easy days before the intensity of June and July, the long hours of light.
Vietnam was over, our boys all home, and even in the wake of Watergate, there was room to take a breath, room for the eighteen-year-old males to cast their fate against something other than the draft. The war was a memory now, no danger to us and our dreams, not even mentioned in our class on American history.
Across the top of my binder I had inked the words JESUS SAVES. It distressed me to see the sacred message mocked: the next presidential election was approaching, the first since Nixon's resignation, and placards had sprung up in yards around the city announcing JC SAVES. This stays with me now-the way I viewed the banners and buttons with a kind of horrified fascination, my response tied to the teachings of the Pentecostal Church of God, which pronounced such use of the, Savior's name as blasphemy and denounced Jimmy Carter, himself a Southern Baptist, for allowing it. Such sacrilege could bring down the wrath of God upon all our heads and would surely doom the Democrats to defeat.
This was when the world made sense because it had been divided for me into a simple pattern, a perfect plan: on one side, God; on the other side, the Devil. Every man and animal, every celebration and catastrophe, every bloody murder and charitable deed, every bit of food that passed our lips, every drop of liquor that didn't; every fire in every town, every degree of heat and rivulet of water, had been created for one purpose, and that purpose was the glory and magnification of God. What was good in us and the world came from God; that which was evil was allowed by God. Satan had this time on earth to win what souls he could, either through temptation or, as in the case of Job, monstrous injury and pestilence. The Devil could bribe or barter, break us to our knees, but only the failed will of man could allow him a soul.
The fires those years were not simply fires, but periods of testing and purgation. Nixon's betrayal was not simply the act of a power-hungry leader but the manifestation of some deeper rot. Fires and floods, scandal and the failings of men in high places-all were signs of some sin or a need to remember from whom all blessings flow. There was no such thing as luck, good or bad, no such thing as an accidental blaze or an incidental pattern of weather. The rains failed to come for a reason, and the fires began for a reason, and that reason was so that others might come and know the wisdom and worship of God.
Our faith brought with it, as faith will do, a calmness, a patient observation and tallying of signs, for we believed, also, that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that fire and drought and evils unleashed forewarned of the Antichrist and the Beast whose number was 666. The Last Days, we called them, and we looked knowingly and with pity on the marchers in Satan's army: the hippies with their long hair and peace signs; the protesters who burned flags and defamed our country-the chosen country, the USA, born of religious freedom and keeper of the Christian flame but fast losing its way.
I had been waiting all my years of awareness for Christ to sound His trumpet and call me to His side. The clouds would gather, then split apart. The earth would shudder, the graves open, and we who were saved would rise, the quick and the dead, in the wink of an eye caught up, made new. But only the pure and the holy, those whose sins were forgiven, those who had been born again, whose stains had been washed away by the blood of the Lamb.
So I had been taught, and so I believed until that summer, when, amid the country's bicentennial celebrations, amid the fireworks and politicians' chatter and our preacher's dousing reminders of the fall of Rome, I turned my back on it all: my church, my family, my home, my future made bright by good grades and a nation at peace. I did this for reasons I understood then, reasons that today remain clear: my father's authoritarian discipline; the repressive doctrine of our church; my own stubbornly independent nature. This separation seems as necessary and predictable to me now as did my earlier rebellion, when, at the age of thirteen, I had thrown myself into the world for a trial run. Then, I had been a juvenile delinquent a runaway, a minor still watched, protected, and punished by close ken and proper authorities. Not so this time, when I left my father's house as an adult, a young woman still clutching her high school yearbook, on whose pages her classmates had inscribed their names and good wishes.
What path did I believe I might follow outside that door, that gateway into a world from which I'd been protected, isolated, kept hidden? Perhaps even then -1 knew that the road ahead of me would be a hard one, just as my elders had promised. Maybe I realized how little desire I had to be sheltered from any of it, for what I desired more than anything were the simple experiences of a life led outside the confinement of dogma and discipline. I wanted all that I had been denied: to go to movies, listen to rock and roll, dance with others my own age and feel the sweet exhaustion of gaiety and abandon. I wanted to be free of the guilt my every need and movement seemed to bring, the threat of my father's censure, the pall of eternal damnation.
I thought I could slide the yoke from my shoulders, like a woman laying down her pails of water. I thought I might brighten and grow stronger with the feel of freedom in my bones, remember again the child I had once been, raised not in the city but in the woods-that sacred place where my father once had lived the life of the lumberjack, where my family had been happy and whole. I did not understand what he had been running from when he left that life, nor did I see how it was that my father was still questing, and that 1, his daughter, would continue that quest, unaware of the inheritance I carried with me-the innate need I felt to control my own fate, the very trait that would both sear and save me.
In the heart of a town ticking with fever, I made a decision that would change my life in ways I could not then imagine. Over the next three years I would become a woman I hope never to be again. Yet how can I separate myself from that other, that soft girl who hardened in the fire, who came to know of her world far more than any preacher or father had dreamed to warn? She is still with me, and I with her. She is my sybil, my familiar, my reminder of all that I have escaped and come to, who I am when my need is darkest and most true.
Is that child also still with me-that girl who stands beside her mother, leaning against the pew rubbed smooth by chintz dresses and gabardine slacks, raising her hands as her parents raise theirs, praising God in a voice full of first conviction, waiting for the gift of the spirit, the gift of speaking in tongues, the gift that will give to her the language of angels? Is she there in the woods sifting through pine needles for a robin's blue egg, or balancing atop her father's feet as he Texas two-steps her across the floor, singing, "I was dancin', with my darlin' "? I would cling to him in giddy desperation as he waltzed me through the rooms in two-four time no matter the song's rhythm, my head hung back, his arms holding me tight against gravity's dizzying pull.
I want to regain that place I have lost--so much of it now gone, burned by accident or intent. There in the ashes, I might discover some remnant of who I was, some reflection of who I have become, who it is I might yet be.
From the Hardcover edition.