Beep-beep-beep-beep. An arm emerged from under the blankets and began slapping the bedside table, struggling to stop the unwelcome noise. Finally, it made contact with the phone and smashed a button, bringing sudden silence to the dark room. A deep sigh came from somewhere beneath the blankets and for a moment there was only the sound of calm, measured breathing.
“Hey Scott?” The door opened and a lanky young man walked in. “Scott?” His smile was nearly as bright as the light spilling in from the hall. “Hey man, sorry to crash in here, but you told me to make sure you were up for your meeting.”
A deep groan emerged from the beneath the blankets, followed by a head of tousled brown hair.
“Yeah, Ken,” he croaked. “Thanks.” He pulled the phone close to his face and squinted at the display.
Ken laughed and said, “Good morning, Merry Sunshine. You look chipper this fine day.”
Scott grunted. “It is unnatural and wrong that you are so cheerful at this indecent hour.” Scott noticed he was wearing his running clothes and rolled his eyes. “6:30 in the morning and you’ve already exercised and probably studied the scriptures.”
“Retire to thy bed early….” Ken laughed.
“The sun’s not even out yet!” Scott rolled over on his stomach and buried his head beneath a pillow. He mumbled something about mornings.
“How on earth did you get through your mission?” Ken asked.
Scott lifted a corner of the pillow and muttered sleepily, “It was a huge sacrifice. But I did it and it’s over now and I don’t have to wake up early ever again.”
“Well, except today. What’s this meeting all about anyway?”
Scott groaned once more then rolled over and sat up. “Please don’t say anything to any one. It’s not something I want people knowing.”
“You know that play I directed last week?” His voice was still thick with sleep.
“Yeah, the weird one?” Ken smiled. He was always smiling. “Waiting for…whoever?”
“Waiting for Godot,” Scott said with a sigh.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Well, it didn’t go over too well.”
“Sorry, man. But isn’t that sort of the thing with plays and movies—you win some, you lose some? Remember Troy or whatever that was with Brad Pitt? Like millions of dollars down the drain.”
“Yeah, well, everyone has a flop sometimes, but this was my MFA project. It’s like my thesis. No one liked it. I got a letter from the Graduate Committee— they want to meet today to ‘assess my contributions to the program and the progress I’m making in light of recent developments.’ In English, I’m going to be kicked out of my program.”
“Wow,” Ken’s smile faded. “Sorry man. If it helps, I liked your play. I didn’t understand it—but it seemed like it was well-done.”
“Thanks. Unfortunately, the faculty, the critics, the actors, and pretty much everyone else in the world thought it was awful.”
“Are you sure they’ll kick you out of the program? Can’t you re-do your project or something? In normal departments when professors don’t like a thesis or dissertation they make you re-write it, but they don’t just kick you out.”
Scott shrugged. “Best case scenario is that I get probation and try another project. But my track record in the last year hasn’t been all that good. My work in my classes has been pretty spotty. I’ve just lost my touch, my inspiration,” Scott said bleakly. And I wonder why? His inner voice grew caustic. Well, let’s see, maybe because I’m a filthy sinner and the Spirit can’t be with me and I’m going to be cast off forever? Oh yeah, that might have something to do with it.
“Well, good luck, man,” Ken said with genuine feeling.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Scott got out of bed and walked down to the bathroom. He undressed, turned the water on, stepped in, and began to wash.
What I really need is a way to clean my spirit and get rid of all the filth there. He felt the too-familiar ache, the pang from the taint of his soul. Dear Father, I know I’m not worthy and I don’t deserve any help. I’m a sinner and I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to stop. I’m about to get kicked out of my program, and I deserve what I get. I can’t ask you to help me because I deserve it. I’ve wasted my gift.
He thought of his parents. They had been so proud of him—going from their little town to a famous university.
He remembered the conversation at the dinner table the night he had received his acceptance letter. “Scott, your mother and I are so proud of you. The Lord’s given you a lot of talents and you need to magnify them. Go and learn everything they’ve got to teach you. Don’t worry about the money. The Lord will provide. Just don’t waste that gift.” A week later, the home was mortgaged again. That thought brought a round of sobs.
He remembered his parents at the airport, a little teary, but bursting with pride. His dad gripping his shoulders and smiling broadly. “Scott, I don’t want you trying to hold down a job. You just work hard in school and we’ll take care of the rest. Your mother and I’ll send you some money each month.”
“If you need more, you just ask. We don’t want you going hungry, honey,” his mom added with a big smile. “Remember who you are, Scott,” his mother said as she hugged him. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, Scott.”
He learned later that the money his mother sent every month with letters and care packages came from the cashier job she took at Smith’s, and from his father’s additional job cleaning the seminary building.
Dear Father, I know I don’t deserve it, but if there’s any way, any way at all, Mom and Dad have worked so hard—they’ll be so disappointed. Not for me, but for their sake, please can you help me not get kicked out?
As far as my… problem goes, I’m sorry. I don’t want to do it. I know it’s wrong. I know I’m endangering my spirit. But, I can’t stop. I just can’t stop. Dear Father, please, please help me. Give me another chance. I’ll try harder this time. I know I’ve said that before, but I really mean it. Please, please, please!
He continued his frenzy of desperate pleading until he realized he was in danger of being late. He got out, dressed, shaved, ate some breakfast, and brushed his teeth. He walked to the performing arts building and then went to the conference room in the theatre wing. He sat down against the wall outside and lost himself in a maze of unpleasant thoughts.
“Good morning, Scott.”
He started at the deep voice and looked up. There was a tall man, impeccably dressed, and crowned with a mane of white hair. He was the great-nephew or some other relation, of President David O. McKay, and there was a strong resemblance.
“Good morning Dr. McKay.” He stood up and a fresh wave of shame washed over him. He always felt his uncleanness even more keenly around Dr. McKay.
“Scott, I very much regret that this meeting is necessary.” He spoke in a gentle, even loving voice. “However, before we begin, I should like you to understand my position. Everyone here knows that I am a member of the church and that you are my co-religionist. I have worked exceedingly hard for many, many years to create a positive image of the Church here. While my colleagues embrace neither the Church nor the gospel, I have managed, I think, to earn their respect, grudging though it may be.
“Unfair as it may seem, our colleagues conflate everything about us with the Church. If I am a poor teacher, they believe that Mormons are poor teachers. If my artistic work is shoddy, then Mormons are shoddy artists.” Dr. McKay frowned and his voice grew softer.
“Because of this, I have been extremely reluctant—possibly too much so—for students from BYU, or LDS students from other undergraduate institutions, to attend this program. I have felt that it is better that my colleagues not be exposed to any Latter-day Saints than that they be exposed to those who are deficient in character, artistry, or scholarship.
“I made an exception in your case, Scott. An exception based on the creativity and excellence of the student production I saw you direct at BYU. But more than that, there was something in your countenance. I felt that you were one of a very, very few I have known over my career who combined real artistic excellence—no, brilliance—with true, sincere discipleship.
“For the first year, you met and even exceeded my expectations. Your class work and projects were outstanding and the faculty was universally impressed. Spiritually, you were also most impressive. Your countenance glowed, a phenomenon noticed by faculty and students alike.” Scott was surprised to see some real pride reflected in the smile that crept across Dr. McKays face.
“I do not know what has happened since then. But this past year, your work has been noticeably flat and uninspired. Personally, from a spiritual perspective, I have not understood why you chose to work with some of the pieces you have directed in your classes and practicum courses. The content seemed to conflict with your character and what we believe. In all candor, other faculty members were also surprised by some of the choices you made. Even they knew that you were not living up to your standards.
“But that is neither here nor there. While it disappointed me on a personal level, as a professor I could have overlooked what I felt was questionable material, had your work been artistically sound.” Dr. McKays’ voice had crescendoed in intensity, if not volume, and Scott was surprised again to see how concerned Dr. McKay was.
“For your final project, Godot was a reasonable, if perhaps not terribly innovative, choice. However, I had no objections to the play itself. Indeed, I was intrigued to see what you would do with the piece. Scott, I do not wish to hurt you any more than you have been hurt, but your production was simply not up to the standards of this department.”
Scott looked at the floor while Dr. McKay took a breath. “Even worse, it was not up to your standards. It was not your best work. It was not even your average work. The work you did your first year in class was better. Scott, it appears that you have regressed—you seem to have lost knowledge and talent.
“Now, as the only other Latter-day Saint in this department, and as department chair, I find myself in a difficult position. The integrity of the program, and my own integrity demand that I treat you no differently than I would any other student in the same position.” Dr. McKay paused and looked away for a moment. “And yet, I feel a great deal of affection for you. I brought you to this department and expended some capital in seeing that you were accepted. I want to see you succeed. On the other hand, the entire department is aware of this and they will be watching what happens. If I appear to show any degree of favoritism, it will be seen as ‘the Mormons sticking together.’ I will have injured my own reputation, but worse, I believe I will have injured that of the Church.”
He paused and frowned slightly. He seemed more uncomfortable now. “Scott, as I said, I have a great deal of affection for you. Sister McKay and I have enjoyed having you in our home. I do not know precisely what has happened, and it is none of my business, but your countenance has dimmed perceptibly over the past year. Something is wrong. I do not wish to pry or intrude myself into your private life, but I urge you to resolve whatever is amiss.” Dr. McKay now looked distinctly uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and continued.
“When this meeting begins, I do not know what will happen. I have purposely avoided any discussion of this matter with my colleagues. My hope is that based on your past work, you will be given another chance. My own suggestion is that you repeat a few classes, then, try again. That I can encourage in good conscience, as I would do the same for any other student with your potential. However, if a majority of the other members of the graduate committee disagree, I will have to allow the majority to rule. Moreover, I would not feel comfortable breaking a tie. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Dr. McKay. I’m sorry to have let you down.”
The professor smiled kindly. “Well, let’s focus on the future. We all have nadirs in our careers.” He paused and then spoke with reticence bordering sheepishness. “Sister McKay and I are fasting for you today, and we would enjoy your company at dinner this evening.”
Dr. McKay was old school and didn’t like public displays of emotion, so Scott tried very hard to hide his trembling lip.
“Thank you,” he whispered huskily.
“Well, how are everybody’s favorite Mormons today!” A large man with a graying beard, tan sport-coat and denim jeans walked around the corner. “What are you two conspiring about? Scheming to baptize us all, Joe?” He nudged Dr. McKay in a friendly, familiar manner.
“Larry, I’m not sure there’s enough water around here to wash away all of your sins,” Dr. McKay answered with a wry grin.
The big man laughed. “Yeah, you’d need that whole Great Salt Lake of yours for that.” He chuckled until another man and two women turned the corner. Then, he opened the door to the conference room and held out an arm, gesturing to Scott. “After you, Scott.”
Scott walked into the room feeling nervous, but strangely peaceful.
The McKays are fasting for me. They’re so righteous, they’ve got to have a direct line to heaven. Maybe things will be ok after all. And, perhaps, even more, the love and concern it demonstrated were deeply soothing.
That feeling led to a tiny, quiet glimmer of an idea, the whisper of a thought.
If the McKays love you that much, how much more does your Father in Heaven love you? That thought started to warm him, until another, louder thought shouted it down.
The McKays only love you because they don’t know the truth about you. If they did, they’d be appalled. The Lord knows about you and your disgusting secret and he’s very, very angry with you.
Larry dropped himself into the chair next to Scott. As Scott’s advisor, he was the faculty member responsible for supervising and helping him through his coursework and project. Across the table, Dr. McKay sat with the three other professors, members of the department’s Graduate Student Committee.
There was a tense, heavy silence.
“Well, Scott, if you ever play a prisoner facing a firing squad, this will give you great material for emotional recall,” Larry said loudly. The joke wasn’t very funny, but there was some nervous laughter and Scott appreciated Larry’s attempt to lighten the mood.
“Why don’t we get started,” a woman with closely-cropped gray hair said in a rich, authoritative tone. It was a statement, not a question. “Scott, you are here today because your MFA project was sub-standard. We certainly cannot award you a degree on the basis of what you did. Moreover, the production was so poor that it called into question your competence to be in this program.”
On her left side, a tall skinny man with sandy hair spoke up. “Scott, you’re a good kid and I like you. You’ve done some great work, but to be honest, at this point, I’m not really comfortable with you going out, working in the profession, with people knowing you came from this institution. It only takes one incompetent director and everyone starts to look at this program askance. In fairness to the others who have come here on the assumption that a diploma from this program means something, I’m not sure we can let you stay. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how we can do it.”
“Excuse me, Ellen, Max,” Larry interrupted. “Let’s save some time and cut to the chase here. Scott’s production was awful and he knows it.”
“Yes, I do,” Scott said quietly.
“But who here hasn’t had a flop or two? My Henry V has to have been the worst production of that play ever. Max, you were ready to slit your wrists after Marat/Sade, and Ellen, your concept for Machinal was great, but let’s face it, the play just didn’t work. Kimara,” he looked over at an African-American woman next to Professor McKay, “Colored Girls was definitely not your finest moment. And, Joe,” he looked at Dr. McKay with a mischievous gleam in his eye, “one word: Dracula.” Dr. McKay winced slightly as Larry continued. “You think you have a great idea, strong cast, solid script—and then the show falls flat.
“But we all know that’s when you really learn. Ellen, you always talk about how you’ve learned more about directing from watching bad plays than from good ones. We strive for professional standards, but this is an educational institution. We’re about learning. Scott had a painful experience, but it was a learning experience. Look at it this way: he made some mistakes that he will not make again when he’s out there working professionally.”
“Yes, but how do we know, really know, he’s learned from this experience and can fix everything that went wrong?” Max asked. “This wasn’t just a term project in a class, Larry, this was his MFA production!”
“You know, Larry has a point,” Kimara spoke up. “Max, Ellen, I understand what you’re saying about protecting the institution, but that cuts the other way, too. Let’s be frank, Scott is not just any student. A year ago, he blew us all away. Remember our conversations, then? We were sure he’d be the next Peter Brooks. Last year, at any rate, he showed more promise than any student we’ve had here in quite some time. Yeah, he screwed up pretty big, but Scott’s incredibly talented and he’s going to succeed some day in a spectacular way. At that point, he’ll be a credit and real asset to our program.”
“That’s a lovely thought, Kimara,” Ellen said, “but we don’t know that for sure. His first year was very good, but this year has been one disappointment after another.”
“I’m telling you, Scott’s learned some important things,” Larry said loudly. There was silence for a moment.
“Scott, do you have anything to say for yourself?” Kimara asked.
“Well, I’m sorry I disappointed you. I know my project was bad. I know I can do better.” Can I really? “I’d like another chance, but I understand where you’re coming from,” he looked at Max and Ellen.
“Thank you,” Ellen said brusquely. “I think the five of us need to meet alone now.”
Scott stood up and walked out of the room, trying not to look as pathetic as he felt. As the door shut he heard Ellen say, “For starters, the blocking was absolutely awful—turgid, heavy….”
“So, for penance let’s flog him with a first edition Dean and Carra!” Larry’s irate voice was loud enough to be heard through the door. “We all agree it was bad! Let’s move on!”
Ellen said something and then Scott heard Dr. McKay’s rich baritone—which elicited a sharp retort from Max.
I’m toast. He grabbed his backpack and walked slowly over to the library where he tried to distract himself by browsing through periodicals. After an hour he gave up and wandered back to the conference room. He was worried to hear that they were still meeting. The voices were raised and he could tell that tempers were raw. He heard Larry yell at Ellen, and then the door slammed open. Larry stormed over to the drinking fountain across the hall. He took a long drink and a deep breath. As he turned to go back into the room he saw Scott.
“You still here?” He walked up to Scott. “Well, yeah, I guess you’re probably curious.”
“Just a little,” Scott replied.
Larry sighed deeply. “Kimara and I are on your side. Ellen’s being difficult. Max likes you but he’s got this thing about protecting the school. Joe, well, you know him, doesn’t want to show favoritism or anything. I’m sure he’s on your side. Just playing his cards close to his vest. Look, this could take a while. Why don’t you take off—I’ll call you later and let you know what’s happening.”
They heard Ellen raise her voice loudly. Larry shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Better get back in there and reinforce Kimara.”
Scott went back to his apartment and waited for Larry to call, but no call came. He forced himself to read the scriptures, but he had a difficult time concentrating and gave up after half-an-hour.
With nothing to do, he was relieved when Ken walked in late that afternoon. “Scott, you wanna go to the YSA family home evening thing? We’re meeting for dinner and games at the Williams’”
“Sure, I’d like that.” Scott surprised both himself and Ken. “I’m going to dinner at McKays, but they don’t eat until late.”
That evening during a break in the games, Brother Williams approached him. “Excuse me, Scott?”
Scott turned around, startled.
“Can I speak with you for a moment?”
Scott’s stomach grew taut and he started to feel hot and flustered.
Oh no. The bishopric found out. I’m in for it now.
“Why don’t we just duck into the kitchen?” Brother Williams led the way in from the family room. “Come on in. Have a seat.”
“How are you doing?”
“Fine,” Scott said. Except that my MFA project was a huge flop and I’ll probably be kicked out of my program. Oh, and I’m a despicable sinner, but other than that, everything is just great.
“Good, good. Well, I’ll end the suspense. Brother Jenson, you’ve been called as the ward road show specialist. Would you accept that calling?”
What? The road show?! The greatest fear of all Mormon theatre artists. The curse of anyone who does theatre. No, no, no! This isn’t happening. The road show! What can I do? I can’t do this! This is like asking Mack Wilberg to lead the ward choir or Danny Ainge to coach church basketball. Oh no, no, no! I can’t believe this is happening.
“Sure,” Scott found himself answering quietly.
“Thank you, thank you so much. Here’s a memo explaining some of the details. We’re a little behind—the Stake wants a script for approval as soon as possible.”
What? This memo is dated nearly a month ago! The performance is in just six weeks!
“Do you have any questions?”
Scott looked at Brother Williams in stunned silence. Where do I even start?
“There’s a lot of great talent in this ward.”
Sure, if you count Brother Florentine’s impersonations of old moviestars and General Authorities.
“I know you’ll be blessed as you fulfill this calling, Brother Jenson.”
I think that cursed is the appropriate word, here. Should I tell him about my problem? It’s not like he asked—and he’s just the counselor. I don’t think you’re supposed to tell them anyway.
Out in the family room, the group started a new round of fruit basket. “We’d better get back in there,” Brother Williams said and left the room. Scott sagged in his chair. I can’t believe I am directing the road show! I hate road shows.
He brooded about the road show for the next two days. Every time he thought about it, he was filled with dread. He was also worried about his status in the program. He still hadn’t heard anything. Finally, on Wednesday night, Larry sent him a short email:
still working on it—hang tight—these things must be done delicately.
His cell phone rang and he picked it up absently. He was ready to answer it, when he noticed that it was his mother. He froze.
He knew she would ask him how he was doing. Then, he would either have to lie or tell the truth. He’d never lied to her, but the second choice was also unpalatable. There’s no sense in worrying her yet. Things are still up in the air. I’ll talk to her when I know more.
There was another reason he didn’t want to talk. He felt deeply unclean, which made him uncomfortable around pure people—and his mother was the epitome of pure. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of talking with her in his degraded state.
He silenced the phone and ignored the call. I’ll call her soon, he promised himself.
He opened a word processing document and stared at it blankly. After a few minutes, he typed, “Our Savior’s Love” at the top. Then he paused again. He sat and stared for a full ten minutes. Still nothing. He sighed heavily, feeling guilty about his mother. I’ll send her an email. He opened his email program and dashed off a quick note.
“Hi Mom, sorry I missed your call. Things are crazy here. How’s Dad? Guess what, I just got put in charge of the road show. Don’t laugh. Hope all is well. Love you! Scott.”
He hit “send” and stared at the blank script for a few more minutes, then opened his web browser and started looking through the theatre section of the New York Times online. He saw a photograph of a recent musical that had opened, featuring several chorus members in revealing costumes. At first, he tried to focus on the accompanying review. But, his eyes were drawn back to the picture, which brought a rush of old thoughts and feelings like a torrent of sewage. Without thinking, he started to type the address of a website he had visited and then sworn he would never visit again.
I shouldn’t do this. I really shouldn’t. I need to stop.
One more time. I’ll stop after this. This will be the last time.
The desire to look raged like a fever. Resisting even a little raised a boiling-hot sweat and made him feel shaky. He had never smoked or taken drugs, but he imagined that this was what addiction felt like.
Just once, just for a second. I’ll just look around for a minute or two. I won’t stay on long. He looked at the clock at the bottom of his laptop. 8:00 pm. I’ll stop in fifteen minutes.
After a little while he started to feel tired and his eyes were bleary and heavy. He looked at the clock. 12:00 a.m. He closed his eyes. Four hours. It’s been four hours! Four more wasted hours of my pathetic life. He wanted to cry, but he was numb inside. Past feeling. No tears would come. The fevered, frenzied excitement was gone. Now, he felt exhausted, dirty, and hopelessly, irreparably polluted.
He laughed bitterly. I’m going to be kicked out of my program. I’ve never needed the Lord’s help more and I can’t even stay away from porn for a few days.
Quickly, he closed the browser window, revealing the open word processing document, still blank except for the title: “Our Savior’s Love.”
If you'd like to read more, you can see the second chapter here, or read the prologue here.
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