In this stunning debut, Shawn Vestal transports us to the afterlife, the rugged northwest, and the early days of Mormonism. From “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” an absurd, profound vision of a hellish heaven, to “Winter Elders,” in which missionaries calmly and relentlessly pursue a man who has left the fold, these nine stories illuminate the articles of faith that make us human.

The concluding triptych tackles the legends and legacy of Mormonism head-on, culminating in “Diviner,” a seriocomic portrait of the young Joseph Smith, back when he was not yet the founder of a religion but a man hired to find buried treasure. 

Shawn Vestal is a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction.


About as Fast as This Car Will Go

I never wanted to be a criminal until I was one. And then, for a while, I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anything else.

I was seventeen when Dad got out of prison for the second time. Aunt Fay didn’t want me to go back to him. “Stay,” she told me, fanning out community college brochures on the Formica table. “Finish your school.”

For two years, she and Uncle Mitch had been great — everything open-door, come and go, free access to the fridge, a place of my own in the basement. Mitch worked at the seed company, and Fay baked bread and fried doughnuts at Safeway. They liked to drink beer on the couch or head down to The Mirage to play pool and listen to the same songs on the jukebox.

Then Fay woke up New Year’s Day with a huge bruise on her hip that she couldn’t remember how she got. It was spectacular — a saddle around her side, back, and stomach, purple-blue and wavy at the edges, yellow and red in the middle.

Mitch said, “Search me.”

That morning I’d woken up before everybody else, gotten a box of Count Chocula, and sat on the couch with the TV on, eating by the handful in my underwear and T-shirt. Fay came out at noon, dream-logged and slow. She was poking at her side and wincing when she saw me. She stood in the frame of the hall, and her guilty look made me ashamed.

After that, Fay always wanted to know where I was going and how I was doing in school. She quit drinking. She cut her hair short. When Dad’s release date started getting close, she talked to me about staying put and finishing school, about stability, the importance of education.

“Look at this, Zach,” she said one night, turning the glossy pages on the community college brochures. “You can train for all kinds of good jobs.”

She wore her Safeway smock and smelled of fryer grease. She flipped pages on programs to become a diesel mechanic, a licensed practical nurse, a computer programmer. I looked at the brochures, with the smiling students taking a temperature or probing a truck engine, and tried to picture myself in that world, getting smarter and earning money, falling in love and living in a house like a real person. Fay was so hung with expectation that I told her OK, but I never thought we were talking about anything real. I figured her for two or three months on the straight and narrow until something glassy showed in her eyes again.

Dad wore the same thing coming out he wore going in: jeans, snap-button shirt, cowboy boots. His clothes seemed hangy and big, like he’d shrunk inside them, and his sideburns were turning gray.

We drove to Boise to pick him up in his own car, the slouching, soft-shocked Pontiac. Mitch drove, guiding us in and out of the passing lane, and Fay talked and talked. I stretched my legs out on the back seat, sick with nerves, but then we saw him and he was just Dad, and he hugged me and joked around and called me kiddo.

“You’re getting huge,” he said, like he hadn’t seen me two months before. He and Fay and Mitch all laughed at this, my unbelievable growth. Fay had us stand back-to-back and said I had him by an inch. “Stop it already,” he said.

In the car Fay talked about where to go for lunch. Dad said he’d heard about a good Basque place from one of the guys in his anger-management sessions.

“Embezzler,” he said, and laughed. “Angry embezzler.”

We ate lamb stew and chorizo and spicy potatoes and thick soup, drinking it all down with red wine. Dad ate two of everything, wiped his bread around the curve of his bowl and smiled while he chewed. Mitch rambled on about Y2K, the upcoming computer apocalypse, and Dad pretended to listen. Afterward we went to the park by the river and Dad kneeled and ran his hands over the cold grass, put his face down and breathed it in, and then he lay on it, face down. He turned over on his back, eyes closed, smiling.

On the way home he sprawled on the seat beside me, so relaxed he seemed ready to come apart completely.

“Must be great to be out,” I said.

“It’s all right,” he said, opening his eyes and looking away.

Months later we picked up the man in the tan suit at the diner. We drove him into the desert. He was trying to get home to see his daughter in Boise. He’d left her and her mother years ago, left and never went back. He was afraid she’d never forgive him.

“Nothing more important than family,” Dad said. “She’s got to realize that.”

I had no friends then. Not one. I knew people, and I’d had friendships here and there, but something always broke them up. Mostly we’d just gradually stop being friends, the way we’d gradually started. When my seventeenth birthday came, a couple months before Dad got out, Mitch, Fay, and I went to Cafe Ole in Twin Falls, where the waiters come out and sing and put a sombrero on you and take a Polaroid. Fay told me I could bring a friend, but I couldn’t think of anyone. We’d lived in Gooding all our lives.

In the picture, Fay is poised, arm around my shoulder. Mitch gazes out of the frame. My face is hidden by the shadow of the sombrero. If you saw it, you’d think: mother, father, son.

On the way home from Boise that first day, Fay worked herself up and turned around and told Dad she thought I should stay with her and Mitch, at least until I finished school.

Dad tipped his head — like, maybe — and chewed the inside of his lip.

Fay said it would just be for stability, so I could get through classes without disruption. I was three months from graduation. Class of Double Zero. She told him about the community college, the mechanics program, the bright future, and common sense.

“Well,” he said finally, “I guess I just figured I’d have my boy with me.”

My blood raced. Nobody spoke for the longest time.

“You’re not exactly set up to be a parent right now, Reed,” Fay said. “Forgive my saying.”

Mitch said, “Fay.”

Dad didn’t say anything. I held my breath, afraid I’d be asked to decide.

The man in the tan suit said he was trying to get to Boise to see his daughter. He hadn’t seen her in twelve years. She was flying in from Oregon. He smelled like the front part of a department store, glass cases and glass bottles, chemical sweet. He’d moved to Idaho and taken another job and bought a house and met another woman.

“Like that other life hadn’t ever been,” he said.

Dad drove us down the freeway. He kept smiling at the man, tapping his hands on the steering wheel. I sat with my legs out on the back seat. We’d put our last seven dollars into the gas tank.

The man told us bits at a time. He had been driving to Boise from Twin Falls, going to pick up his daughter at the airport, when his car broke down. The mechanic needed a day to get the part, but that airplane from Oregon was on its way.

There was something utterly unbelievable about him, and yet I felt he was telling us the truth.

My father kept looking at me, his icy green eyes framed in the rearview mirror. He might have been mad at me, still. Or trying to communicate something. But there was nothing that perfect between us, no secret eye language of family.

The muscle beneath his left eye quivered, and he placed a finger on it, held it in place until it stopped.

When I was eleven, I watched Dad drag a teenager from his car in the parking lot at the swimming pool, shouting so loud a lifeguard came out to break it up.

“I’m going to kick your ass up between your shoulder blades,” Dad shouted as he backed away. “You’ll have to take off your shirt to take a shit.”

The guy had been taunting me and Bucky Torr, a neighbor kid who’d come swimming with me. We were standing in our wet suits, wrapped in towels, on the lawn outside the pool. He’d called us pussies, dared us to grab the tits of the girls nearby. Bucky was about to cry, and when Dad pulled up and asked him what was wrong, he told him.

Watching my father, I could see it all happening, even though I couldn’t tell you what it was. Something widened in his pupils and his nostrils. His face filled with blood. Then the door was swinging open, and we jumped out of the way.

Dad rented us an apartment downtown, above the Lincoln Inn. He got a job milking and lost it three days later, when the owner found out he’d been in prison. The guy said if Dad had only been honest, he might have kept him on.

“No way,” Dad told me.

He started working the swing shift at Quik Mart, coming home afterward and telling me to go to bed. He asked about school, tried to keep the fridge full. He seemed nervous and dry-mouthed all the time. It was almost two weeks before they let him go.

He went to visit his parole officer in Twin Falls, and came back agitated.

“Like I haven’t already had two jobs,” he said. “Like I’m just sitting here.”

He started staying out later, and then he vanished for two days. I stayed home, skipping school and waiting. I thought maybe I was already alone and just didn’t know it yet, like he’d crashed that Pontiac and died but nobody knew to find me and tell me. I thought if that was true maybe I’d just stay still forever, inside the gray bubble of those days, and stop pretending there were other people for me.

He came back with a little money, said he’d found work roofing in Idaho Falls and meant to call, etc. We went downstairs for burgers. He had three beers with dinner, and he stayed in the bar when I came up and went to bed.

The next morning, a Thursday, I walked down the hall and saw Dad sprawled out on his bed, on top of the covers in his clothes. Everything was gray-lit and quiet. I walked back down the hall and climbed into bed. And that was it for school.

The day we met the man in the tan suit, we were out of money, angry, quiet. In a diner with vinyl seats, looking out a plate-glass window onto the Snake River. The man came in, looked around, walked over and offered to pay us for a ride to Boise.

“What do you think — twenty bucks?” he asked. “Thirty?”

He wore a tie, neat as a banker. He carried a deep maroon briefcase. He smelled nicer than the men I knew, and his eyes seemed loose and watery on his face. I could probably remember his name if I had to. It was just him and us in there, not counting the waitress and the cook.

“We’re going that way,” Dad said. “Buy our coffee, and we’ll call it good.”

I scooted over and the man sat down.

“I’ve got money,” he said. He took a worn envelope from his briefcase, thick with bills, and slid out a twenty.

Dad wouldn’t hear of it. He never looked at the money, but it seemed he was smelling it or tasting it. A blush high on his cheeks, and a spasm under one eye.

When Dad’s parole officer knocked, announcing himself from the hallway — “Reed? It’s Barrett Rudman. Open up”— I was both surprised and not, because some part of fearing is expecting. Dad motioned me into the bedroom and closed the door behind me.

I heard the man say he’d had a report that Dad had been drinking in a bar.

Dad asked who’d said that, and the man said it didn’t matter, was it true, and Dad said no.

“If it is, I don’t have to tell you what that means,” the man said.

Dad said he hadn’t been in a bar since his parole. He said he’d been working construction jobs, day work, and gave the name of a contractor to check with. He said he spent a lot of time with his boy, Zach, who lived with his aunt Fay and uncle Mitch.

He was an excellent liar. Really good. But it sounded like the parole officer didn’t believe him. He told Dad to be careful. He said, “I’ll be stopping by again.”

Dad said fine, good, look forward to it. After the man left, Dad said, “That fucking Fay,” and he went into the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, slamming things, and then again, “That goddamned fucking Fay.”

Dad disappeared again. For two days I went back to thinking he’d died without me knowing, or some other bad thing, but by the third day, when the food ran out, I knew he’d just left and wouldn’t ever be back, and that Fay had been right all along.

That afternoon I walked to her house. She and Mitch were both at work. I walked through the back door and went right to the box of Quaker Oats in the cupboard where Fay hid her spending money. Thirty-four bucks. I went through the cupboards and the drawers. In the hallway closet, I grabbed Mitch’s binoculars. In the bedroom, I took Fay’s Walkman and some jewelry that wasn’t worth a thing. I found sixty bucks hidden under some socks in Mitch’s drawer.

I walked around. I wondered what other valuables there were, but everything seemed too cheap or too big or too worn out. On the fridge Fay had the picture of us at Cafe Ole, and another one of her and me, hung by magnets. I wanted to do more, something to show I’d been there, to say hello and fuck you, to say none of you get me now, but I couldn’t think of a single thing.

At the grocery store I bought eggs, ham, and bread. I ate the same kind of sandwich four meals straight. Dusk drifted through the apartment. It felt like I might never see another person. I kept the blinds down. I looked over the jobs in the Gooding County Leader and wondered how you tried to get one.

It was noon and Dad was drunk when he came back, wobbly and smiling to himself. “Hey, kiddo,” he said when he walked in.

I didn’t answer.

“Come on, now,” he said, slumping onto the couch and throwing an arm around me. “Don’t be like that. I found a little work.”

I watched the TV.

“In Boise. Hanging drywall.”

When I didn’t answer, his smile fell. He took his arm back and went into the kitchen, banging around until he came back with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a glass. He poured himself about six fingers. He watched me steadily between gulps.

I fixed my eyes on the TV screen.

“Fine,” he said, and carried his glass back into the kitchen. When he came back, he said, “Hey,” and threw his car keys at me.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re driving.”

I drove us to the outskirts of town, and he had me park on the shoulder, across the street from a gravel cul-de-sac rimmed with Boise Cascade homes stamped from the same blueprint. A blue one, a brown one, a yellow one. Windows all dark. People out living. He shushed me when I started to speak, and we sat there for twenty minutes.

Then Dad rubbed his hands on his jeans like he was trying to get feeling back in his fingers. He said, “I want you to promise you’ll never tell anyone about this.” He said, “You’ve got to listen to everything. Listen, listen, listen. Ask yourself what every sound is.” He said, “We run at the first sign of trouble. There’s plenty of time if you don’t wait for things to get worse.”

We walked down the lane, swishing through ditch weeds to avoid the noisy gravel, and came to a small house with a big fence toward the only neighbor. No dog barked. We circled behind and watched the back door.

He said, “Usually, the back door’s best. I bet you a hundred bucks that back door’s open, and if it’s not, the next twenty-five will be.” He said, “When you get in, stand absolutely still for twenty or thirty seconds. Listen.”

We were going in there. I never had a doubt. I was high on it.

The man in the tan suit kept thanking us. I watched Dad’s eyes in the mirror and wondered what we were doing. The money radiated through the car.

“A lot of people wouldn’t just help a stranger like this,” the man said. “Not like they used to.”

“Don’t give it another thought,” Dad said.

We’d have to work for days to fill an envelope like that.

“For all you know, I could be a dangerous man. On the lam.”

“You don’t seem the type,” Dad said, eyes in the mirror.

“Some kind of scumbag,” the man said.

The color climbed Dad’s neck.

Inside that first house, Dad motioned for me to stand still in the kitchen. He walked to drawers and opened them slowly. In one, he found a checkbook, which he lifted and pointed to, nodding and smiling. He put it back. He walked into the living room, looking back at me every so often, lifting objects and replacing them, opening doors, nudging things on the tables, showing me how silently he could move through absent lives. He put everything back, that time. He’d never steal anything that close to home.

Except, as we left, he picked up a cookie jar from the counter and tucked it under his arm. It was a ceramic French pig. You took off its beret to get at the cookies. We ate some in the car on the way back home. Store-bought.

Dad put the pig in the center of the kitchen table, and we ate all the cookies in two days. That jar sat there for three months, though it never held another cookie. It was where we kept the money. We’d take off in the Pontiac for a week to the podunk Mormon towns around Salt Lake, come back with checkbooks and new clothes and rolls of cash. We’d head to Helena and come back with a trunk load of shotguns to pawn.

The cookie jar was always full. Dad would buy us beer and we’d get drunk. He’d coach me on the finer points. We played cards and ate steak four times a week. I never got up in the morning, and never worried about getting to bed. I never had a moral qualm, I’m sorry to say. It was too much damn fun. Too much adrenaline and freedom. Me and my dad, money in the pig, nowhere to be.

We were sitting on the couch after dusting off a twelve pack one night when he told me my hairline was receding. I reached up to feel it.

“No,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “It’s starting.”

Dad had a widow’s peak, an isthmus of hair with deep recessions at the temples. I began checking my forehead carefully in the mirror, and some days I thought he was right and some days wrong. I liked the thought at first, the idea that there might be some physical evidence connecting us. Then it started seeming like the start of something unstoppable.

At some point Dad went to the pig and found six dollars. He crashed into my bedroom and started shoving things around on my dresser.

“What happened to all the money?” he said.

I was in bed, waking up. He opened drawers, clawed through my clothes. “You took some out,” he said.

“Knock it off,” I said. “There’s no money in there. I might have a few bucks in my pants pocket, but that’s it.”

He picked up my pants and pulled out three crumpled ones. His eyes slid around in his twitchy face.

“Dad, come on.”

He left for the rest of the day. That night he sat next to me on the couch and slapped me on the knee a couple times. He said we’d take off for Boise in the morning to fill up the pig.

“Hey, kiddo, I’m sorry about earlier. I was just surprised, is all.”

I kept looking at the TV.

“Come on, Zach. You know I love you.”

The next day we met the man in the tan suit and gave him a ride and learned all about his failed first life and his happy second life, and how he planned to make things right and how he hoped his daughter could forgive him. She was nineteen. Someone had cut out her wedding announcement and mailed it to him. When he saw it, he tracked her down and called her. Bought her a plane ticket.

“I left them in my dark days,” he said. “I left them all alone. I’m afraid she’ll never forgive me.” We were driving on the freeway to Boise, windows down, the sweet dusty odor of hay on the rushing air. We turned off at Mountain Home. Dad told the man he had to swing by a friend’s place, and then he drove deep into the desert, following county roads until they turned to gravel. He found a place beside a stand of trees.

“Got to see a man about a horse,” he said, and then he yawned big, stretched his arms wide, and while the man looked outside, unafraid, Dad dropped his right arm, looked at me in the back seat like he was sending a message, and pointed at the bag sitting on the floor beside me.

I thought it was a big mistake, but I had no language for that. I reached into the bag.

Dad said, “Look for cash. Things that are small and valuable. Jewelry. Some kinds of knives. Binoculars.” He said, “Don’t shit where you eat. My rule is nothing closer than a hundred miles from home.” He said, “Sometimes I think this is a mistake, what we’re doing.” He said, “Now you try it.” He said, “Just squeeze.” He said, “Sometimes I think this is the best life ever. I think of those people sound asleep right now, alarm clocks and ties and shit, and I think if you can just keep this going, it’s the luckiest thing ever.” He said, “If your mother could see this, God rest her, I’d catch hell.” He said, “You know I love you, kiddo.” He said, “Sir, we’re gonna have to take that briefcase.” He said, “All right now, sir, hand over that case or my boy will shoot you.” He said, “We won’t have any choice.” He said, “Jesus Christ, Zach. Hold it like you mean it.”


Excerpted from the collection Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal. Copyright © 2013 by Shawn Vestal. Published by Little A/New Harvest April 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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