When you turn twelve years old, the Mormon church will baptize you in the name of the dead. A man, a Bishop, a fifty year-old dough-faced Brent, will decide if you’re pure enough to be baptized for a hundred dead strangers as he sits behind a desk asking questions about your body. Nod and cross your legs. He signs a piece of paper you put inside the scripture case your mother made for you on a 1980 Singer sewing machine. You take the scripture case and the signed piece of paper on a bus ride to the state capital. The bus ride is over two hours long and the possibility of what might happen is vaguely stimulating and arousing in the way the green bus seat sticks to the bottoms of your thighs smacking sounds as you shift cheeks. Outside the corn and wheat fields streak past in a montage of memory and heat.
You remove your nail polish because you cannot wear nail polish in the Temple. You cannot wear colored underwear, scented lotion, scented perfume, rings, bracelets, earrings, hair ties, barrettes. Your earliest inkling of the Temple happened inside the womb of your mother upon which you scratched, endlessly, she says, you scratched endlessly inside of me. Inside the Salt Lake City Temple. You’ll know when the Temple transforms you.
You sit on the bus and wonder if animals get lonely. The bus stops at McDonald’s and everyone orders Egg McMuffins. You want two but order one. The Sisters and Elders chaperoning the trip pull out their wallets to pay for the meal and you feel embarrassed at the sight of their money, their hands, their pockets. You wonder if the girl with the fast food visor has ever been baptized and if she felt the Holy Ghost inside. You take out the piece of paper that the Bishop signed and above his signature, the word, Ordained. The Egg McMuffin is delicious squeezed between your teeth and you could eat a hundred but you don’t want to show up bloated for the dead.
The bus arrives at the Temple. The girls are separated from the boys and led into a room with soft carpet and white walls, the Mormon Tabernacle choir trembling song from speakers inside the ceiling. Elderly men and women dressed in white with their backbones beginning to rot speak softly to one another. They clear their fragile throats and address your group with one sentence:
Please keep in mind that you’ll get very wet.
You’re led past paintings of Jesus walking with Native Americans and camels against a backdrop of a brown blotched America down a corridor as long as a tunnel. You put out your finger and wipe some dust from the wall and a dead fly appears on the pad of your index finger, dark set against the bright, shriveled as a raisin ripened not by the sun but by holy fluorescent. A flick of the finger and it’s swallowed by the carpet. You’re led to another room with lockers and towels and grey-doored bathroom stalls where you’re given a thin white cotton bodysuit called a ‘Teddy’ and told to undress. With the Teddy on, you look in a mirror and see yourself, arms dangling, breath regulated, a weird responsibility. Over the long underwear, a heavy white jumpsuit reminding you of astronauts and cleaning crews. White on white, you give off a big glow. You close your eyes and feel woozy from the aroma of carpet and bodies and power and powder but the coal-black nothing screen of your inner eyelids calms still. The girls line up in a single human mass behind double doors opening to something rare.
Hushed and guided through to the next big room where you sit directly across from the baptismal font that matches the word, Tank. The audience is pewed, each head the same as the others. A tiny television is suspended from the ceiling hanging above the font a big-eyed screen scrolling ghost initials. A man stands up next to the Tank, crosses his arms, and says, Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for this day. Attention is a practice. Twelve stone oxen surround the Tank, representing the tribes of Israel with terrible expressions of excited secrets. Sister Garland, a woman you have known to bite her fingernails down to the quick before eating them, calls the first girl to be baptized. Sister Garland leads the girl to a small ladder descending into the mouth of the Tank and the girl climbs down with her back to the audience, her spinal cord a texture. She wades through the water with shy pride to the Elder standing waist-deep with hands offered and she places one arm in his hand and the other arm poised in mid-air, hand ready to pinch nostrils beneath the waters curdling with the latent humidity of body slop. The girl closes her eyes as the Elder speaks and you dig your toes into the carpet:
Sister Anderson having been commissioned of Jesus Christ I baptize you for Peter Stein, who is dead, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
You’re aware of a tiny animal noise coming from the girl, a whimper before the plunge. The Elder stands in a paradox of wet and dry as he dips the girl underwater, a ballroom dance move leaving the audience suspended with desire to see the girl return wet and confused. She comes up wide-eyed.
Sister Anderson having been commissioned of Jesus Christ I baptize you for Patricia Lawrence, who is dead, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Down again. The television screen scrolling a list of names, each one dead. The air in the room hovers. Your belly aches. Your period, you are getting your period inside the Teddy. You look at one of the rams to see if it notices. You cross your legs and try to squeeze the blood back in.
Sister Anderson having been commissioned of Jesus Christ I baptize you for Henry Gould, who is dead, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
The girl is dunked ten times. You sit and bleed a little on the seat. The bottom of your Teddy will form a wet pad of juice gluing you to the fabric of chairs purchased from a Mormon furniture store. You look around for paper, tissues, napkins, anything dangling from anywhere that you might shove up there before it’s your turn to go under. You’re bleeding all over the sanitation, you’re stinking up the perfumed carpet with rotting fish meat. You think of Joseph Smith and his many wives, his fourteen year-old wives, the girls who bled at breakfast and in wagons rolling across Utah as they wondered what was on God’s mind when choosing a thief for a King. You wonder if Joseph Smith was a good kisser. You feel like kissing one of the rams, wrapping your arms around their cold stone heads and tonguing their jaws. One of the Elders looks at you. You’re fidgeting. You stop fidgeting. His eyes turn red, his hands red, you’re sure he’s been clawing inside your bottoms again. Elders are always doing things like that. You walk across the the plush carpet trying not to drip. The swoosh of heavy doors closing out the next Sister’s dunking inside the Tank, a real theatre back there.
The bathroom light is out. You hear pipes and are disturbed less by the absence of light than the presence of noise. The walls of the bathroom are cold and a relief from the overheated lights and hot padded carpet of the Temple’s inner room. You are caught up to yourself again listening to the pipes working diligently to keep the Temple flowing. You consider a door. You bite a cuticle and roll off the toilet paper, bunching the squares in a packaged diaper that will only dissolve in the water like seaweed for the cleaning crew to mop up after all the dead souls have been saved. Consider all of the dead skin floating in that tank. Flush the toilet. You know where the handle is.
Two Sisters turn to watch you re-enter and they motion for you to come forward. Your turn, one says, gesturing to the rams. You walk past the audience. The song from Flashdance bursts behind your skull too loud to ignore, What a Feeling, and you can’t hear the Elder standing in the water telling you what to do so you’re sort of stuck on the ladder with your diaper and Irene Cara at top volume. You wonder if this is the Holy Ghost speaking to you. There are hands on your arm yanking you from limbo into the dead water with the Elder standing aloof and severe as a gravedigger. He hisses.
Standing lonely as a finger, you wait to go under.
You have more than one death.