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We are headed down 17 through San Jose, toward a gap in the mountains. It’s not quite summer, but the weather is awfully nice. Which explains the beach traffic crawling through a three-lanes-to-two bottleneck.
“So. My dear Saint Paul. You know I trust you. You know I have faith in you. Hee hee. But I’m not sure if I understand why we’re doing this.”
Paul smiles, just a little, and nudges his spectacles. “Let me first tell you what someone else is doing. Carolyn’s best friend, Yvonne, is a Methodist. She has refused to come to Carolyn’s baptism due to the minuscule differences between Methodist Christianity and Mormon Christianity.”
We pass under a footbridge. A couple of kids wave at us. I flash them a peace sign.
“But you think they’re both garbage.”
“Actually, no. Mormonism holds a special place in my heart. Joseph Smith is one of the filthiest scam artists in theological history. His disappearing golden tablets, so like the missing 18 1/2 minutes on Nixon’s Watergate tapes. ‘Mormon’ should be spelled with only one m.”
“Joke received and registered. So why, then, are we attending a Mormon baptism?”
“Primary reason: I love Carolyn, and Carolyn asked me to. Secondary: as much as I enjoy my atheism, I acknowledge that it takes a certain mental strength to pull it off. Some people are not cut out for it. In the ten years since her parents died, Carolyn has fallen into an aimless drift. A little structure might be just what she needs, and you can’t beat the Mormons for structure.”
“This is just blowing my mind.”
“Good. Oh, and I have a tertiary. The church itself can’t be beat for misogyny, homophobia and a host of other sins, but I have yet to meet an individual Mormon that I didn’t like.”
We finally reach the crest of a hill and come out on a straightaway next to a reservoir. The rains have been kind; the banks are ripe and lakeish. Just as the traffic begins to loosen up, Paul hits an offramp and loops around.
“What the hell!”
Paul smiles. “My point exactly.” He pulls into a turnout that looks over a small annex of the reservoir, tucked against the mountains. He gets out, props a foot on a split-rail fence and looks out over the water. I assume I’m supposed to do the same.
“Oh God, you’ve become one of those enigmatic Buddhist teachers.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps, when the eagle calls, you must follow.”
“So you’re a Navajo.”
“I am not speaking metaphorically.”
An actual bald eagle crosses the water in front of us, long, fluid wings carving the air.
“I’ve seen a few of them in Washington state,” says Paul. “I have never seen one this far south. I sorta figured I was hallucinating.”
Time stretches. The eagle finishes its left-to-right skim, scales high over the traffic and vanishes behind a stand of evergreens. I kiss Paul on the cheek. We return to his truck.
“You know what a religious person would say at this moment?” I ask.
We slide onto the highway. “Well,” says Paul. “Rather than appreciating the moment for what it was – a beautiful creature who has ventured far from its usual range – the religious person would take it as a personal message from God. Because religious people are the most megalomaniacal folks on the planet, and assume that even the flight plans of bald eagles are mapped out with their personal needs in mind. But then, I’m preaching to the choir.”
“You may be preaching to the choir, honey, but the choir really gets off on this shit.”
The Mormon approach to architecture is a little confusing. We pull off Highway One in Watsonville before what looks like a school, then ramble around for ten minutes before we find the small, plain room that serves as a chapel. We enter mid-service, the Marin County heathens dressed in black. It’s beautiful.
I sit next to Paul as an African man delivers a rambling homily, and I fight off the itch. It usually happens at quiet concerts, that sudden impulse to disrupt the proceedings. Here, it’s worse – gray-haired women dressed in spring-colored dresses and encouraging smiles, stiff-suited elders working up their little auras of authority. I want to scream. I want to strip naked, sing the national anthem and take hostages. But I suppose Paul would never take me to another baptism, so I fold my hands and stifle my urges.
His friend Carolyn seems very sweet – bashful and giggly from all the attention. She’s dressed in a white robe, as is the athletic-looking man next to her. From all the discreet touching I begin to get the gist: Carolyn met a nice Mormon boy. After a few more passages of scripture, he guides her to a side room outfitted with a stand-up bath and one of those angled convenience-store mirrors so the rest of us can watch. Mormon Boy says the magic words and dunks her under. She surfaces giggling, looking even cuter with wet hair.
Afterwards, we adjourn to a small gym with a table of refreshments. I find myself talking to the baptisee herself.
“So I guess this is the obvious question, but are you ready to give up the caffeine and booze?”
“Pshh. That’s the easy stuff. It’s the sex. Can’t do that till I’m married.”
“What about the tall drink of water who dunked you?”
She giggles. “Hey! One life-changing event at a time.”
“Here. Have another cookie.”
“Now sugar,” she says. “That’s allowed.”
Paul’s right: the Mormons are likeable. I look around and find him at the far end of the gym, shooting hoops with one of the elders.
We are midway up the Peninsula when my stomach starts to gurgle. Paul pulls into a vista point. You can see a long distance, the lights wrapping the bay in fields of gemstones. I would be enjoying it more if I were not vomiting into a cypress bush. Paul brings me an old towel, and I clean up as best I can.
“Too many Latter-Day desserts?”
“Too much religion.”
“You’re still in the grasp. It creates a lot of tension. But don’t worry – it gets easier. Ready to go?”
“Sure.” We take a slow walk, looking at the lights, the faint spiderwebs of the bridges. “You had a mean bout of basketball going there.”
“Game of HORSE. Ernie said if I lost, I had to get baptized.”
“He kicked my ass.”
“Nice knowin’ ya. Mormon Boy.”
“It’s all right. I’m pretty sure that Mormons aren’t allowed to gamble.”
A little later, we’re climbing the long uphill of 19th Avenue, following the neatly alphabetized cross-streets: Vicente, Ulloa, Taraval. Paul turns on the heater.
“My mentor was a landscape designer. He was the safe harbor, the sounding board for my most radical thoughts. One night, he told me that religion is the thing we must jettison before we can get on with our evolution. That really stuck with me.
“Years later, he told me something else – and perhaps I’m remembering it now due to our eagle encounter. California, you see, has given rise to two distinct species of coyote: one from the south, one from the north. This division derived from the geographical obstacle created by the San Francisco Bay. Recently, however, they found some coyotes in San Francisco. They tested their DNA and concluded that these were northern coyotes. Which means? Class?”
Trying to process a thought right now is like trying to shove a potato through a keyhole.
“I’m… I’m not following.”
“That particular coyote crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. What kind of coyote would you have to be to look at that long, man-smelling, trafficky monstrosity and say, ‘I’m gonna cross that suckah.’”
“Coyote con cojones.”
“You are adorable. Honestly. But see, that’s who I want to be. I want to be the coyote who crosses the bridge.”
Paul is radiating with fascination. I want to jump his bones and drink up all that light. Instead, I smile most sincerely and say, “Okay. Let’s do that.”
We hit the crest of the hill at Noriega, and there it is.
Photo by MJV