The Quiet War

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    He was all alone in a strange city. What would it hurt? Only the computer would know …

    The Quiet War

    Troy knocked on the door of room 803.

    Mrs. Palmerton, his high school teacher, opened the door, but only a crack because of the chain lock.

    “Yes?” she asked, her voice weak.

    “I got the Alka-Seltzer you wanted.”

    She opened the door wide enough to take the package. Troy could see beads of sweat on her forehead.

    “Are you still throwing up?” he asked.

    “Twice since you left for the medicine. Maybe it’s the flu—or food poisoning. Except we both ate the same thing on the plane, didn’t we?”

    “Yeah, whatever it was.”

    “Troy,” she said, her voice momentarily resuming the authority of a teacher, “be sure to practice your presentation tonight. Remember you give it tomorrow morning at 11:00. If I get to bed now and rest, I’ll be okay by then. Now here’s 20 dollars for supper. You can eat downstairs in the hotel restaurant. But don’t go outside by yourself tonight, will you? New York isn’t a place you can just walk around in. There are pickpockets and gangs and who knows what else waiting out there to prey on tourists like us. So just stay in your room tonight. But tomorrow, after your presentation, we’ll take one of those nice bus tours where you don’t actually have to get out …”

    She would have continued but got sick again and had to leave him.

    His room was next to hers. All expenses were paid for by the school board back home in Idaho as a reward for winning the state competition.

    He entered his room and chained it the way Mrs. Palmerton had told him. Then he walked to the window and looked out. Across the street was a building with cubicle offices stacked in endless rows and columns. There were people in the offices. He wondered what they did all day.

    Half a block away stood a huge billboard of a girl wearing designer jeans. She was winking at him.

    Farther away, down a side street, he could see a flashing neon sign outlining a woman’s form. It flashed consecutively in oranges, reds, and pinks.

    On the street, January winds swooped through the concrete canyons, giving momentary life to the cardboard and plastic litter. Taxis and buses and black limousines driven by men in dark suits honked and intimidated their way home.

    It was 4:30 New York time, but only 2:30 on his watch, which was still set to Mountain standard time.

    He took one last disapproving glance then turned from the window.

    At least I can always watch TV, he thought.

    On top of the TV he discovered a small metallic black box. In front there was a white button and, below that, three black buttons marked “A,” “B,” and “C.”

    A poster on the box told about full-length uncut movies available to hotel guests. All you had to do was to push the white button then one of the lower buttons to make a selection. The cost was only five dollars and was automatically added to the bill.

    A booklet described which movies were being shown that day. Two of them, the ones designated by “A” and “B,” he had seen, but not the third one. Movie “C” was X-rated.

    The booklet said that by turning to channel 3 he could see a preview of the three movies available that night.

    He decided it wouldn’t hurt to see the preview.

    When the preview was over, he realized he was in trouble.

    He wanted to watch movie “C.”

    He watched the preview one more time, then became ashamed for even watching that, and then turned the TV off and began to pace the floor.

    The white button and then the “C” button, he thought. That’s all there is to it. It’s all done with a computer. Nobody even knows.

    Mrs. Palmerton will know when she pays the bill, he thought.

    No she won’t. The bill will just say I saw one of the three. I can tell her I saw the “A” movie. There’s nothing wrong with the “A” movie. She doesn’t need to know. Besides, it’s her fault I’m trapped in this room tonight anyway.

    In his hometown there was a theater that only showed X-rated movies. People had tried to close it down but had never succeeded.

    One time in priesthood meeting, the priests’ adviser asked if they had ever thought about going to any of the movies at that theater.

    “Troy, how about you?”

    “I guess I’ve thought about it, but I’d never go.”

    “Why not?”

    “It’s just my luck you’d drive by just as I was going into it,” he said, only half joking.

    “Is that the only reason you don’t go?”

    “No. I don’t go because I know it’s not good to have that stuff in your mind.”

    He stood before the black box, touching its smooth surface. Nobody would know, he thought. It’s all done with a computer. Nobody knows what you watch.

    He turned the TV on to see what was on the network channels. News and reruns and a cooking show with a lady plucking a goose.

    Nothing good on, he thought, turning it off again.

    He returned to the window. The girl in jeans was still winking at him.

    But she winks at everybody, he thought. Millions of people a day.

    He went back to the TV and looked up the movie schedule. The next showing of movie “C” was at 5:30, just 15 minutes away.

    It’s just a movie, he thought. It’s not going to kill me to see a movie.

    He looked outside and thought how dirty everything looked.

    Finally he took some hotel stationery from the desk and sat down and drew a long line through the middle of the page. On the left he put a heading, “Why I should,” and on the right another heading, “Why I shouldn’t.”

    Quickly he wrote down the reasons why he should watch movie “C”: (1) Because I want to. (2) I don’t have anything else to do. (3) Nobody will know. (4) How do I know it’s bad unless I see for myself?

    Then he listed the reasons why he shouldn’t watch it.

    The first reason he listed was: Karen.

    Karen was a girl in his ward. They had dated for the last few months.

    “Do you know when I like you most?” she had asked a few weeks ago.

    “When I wear my aftershave and my sweater and get to use my dad’s car,” he answered.

    “No, not then,” she smiled. “It’s in sacrament meeting when I watch you break the bread and bless the sacrament. You look so, well, clean.”

    He grinned at her. “After all the money I’ve sunk for aftershave, you tell me that.”

    “It must be neat to hold the priesthood, to realize that the Savior was the first one to give that prayer and that in a way you’re standing in for him.”

    “I’ve never thought about it like that before,” he said quietly.

    Another time he had driven her home from church. They sat in the car while she told him about her lesson that day. The bishop’s wife had come to talk to the Laurels.

    “She said one thing that really impressed me,” Karen said. “‘You never know but that the guy you’re dating may some day turn out to be your bishop. It happened to me, didn’t it? You treat him like a future bishop.’ So that’s what I’m going to do, Troy.”

    He wasn’t sure if he really wanted that or not, but it turned out okay. She still let him kiss her, but now only on the steps to her house, not in a parked car.

    The second reason he listed was: The bishop would find out.

    He’d find out because I’d end up telling him, he thought.

    It was only a month ago since he had had an interview with the bishop.

    “Are you morally clean?”

    “I think so.”

    The bishop didn’t leave it at that. “What does it mean to you to be morally clean?”

    “Well, you know,” he stammered, “keeping your body clean, and things like that.”

    “Okay—what kinds of things?”

    Bit by bit Troy told what he understood. With each new addition to the definition, the bishop had asked, “And are you free from that problem?”

    At that time the bishop was satisfied. But if he pushed the “C” button, the next interview would be different, because he knew he wouldn’t lie to the bishop.

    The bishop would be disappointed in me, he thought, staring again at the “C” button.

    The third reason on the list was: Dad.

    It was just over a year since his father had ordained him a priest. He still remembered part of the ordination. “Always remember the priesthood isn’t like clothing you can take off when you enter a room. The priesthood goes wherever you go. Don’t take it into places or situations where it doesn’t belong.”

    The fourth reason was: It won’t tell the truth about love.

    Three years ago his mother had brought home from the hospital her sixth baby, a girl named Becky. He had held her that first day she was home and touched her tiny fingers and toes. She was beautiful to him.

    His mother nursed Becky, and Troy sensed that experience was good for the baby, to have the time and closeness with her mother.

    Troy knew his mother and father loved each other very much, even more than they loved any of the children in the family. They kissed and hugged in front of the children and held hands sometimes in church.

    That was love, he thought, not like movie “C.”

    The fifth reason was: God would know.

    Even though I am alone in the room, He would know what I do. I can’t hide anything from Him.

    The last reason: I would know.

    He finished the list and stood up. It was 6:00. He had missed the time for the 5:30 showing of movie “C.”

    I’ve won, he thought. I am strong. Nothing can weaken me.

    He decided to go down to the lobby and look around. There was a store in the lobby, and he decided to buy some gum.

    At eye level, there were magazines with pictures on the covers like none he’d ever seen in the small grocery store in his hometown.

    I could buy one of those, he thought.

    No, I’d be too embarrassed to buy one. The lady at the cash register would wonder what kind of person I am to buy something like that.

    It doesn’t matter. I’ll never see her again.

    I’ve got to get out of this rotten place, he thought, leaving suddenly.

    He walked around the lobby and watched people and tried to imagine what they were doing in the hotel. Some had French or German accents.

    A few minutes later he returned to his room.

    He turned on the TV to see what was on the regular channel. More news and a mayor telling people to fix the drips in their faucets.

    I’m strong, he thought. I could watch the preview again and still not push the “C” button. Nothing can weaken me.

    He watched the preview again, and the same battle erupted all over again.

    The next showing was at 7:30—just 45 minutes away.

    Then after that, he thought, there’s one at 9:30, then 11:30. I’m going to give in sometime—it might as well be now.

    He glanced at his list on the desk, read it again, then crumpled it up and threw it away.

    Looking outside, he saw the flashing lights blinking on and off outlining a woman’s form in harsh reds, oranges, and pinks.

    Then he watched the preview again.

    Finally he turned it off. Except for the noise from honking taxis, the room was quiet, but inside his head a battle raged on, and he knew he was losing.

    He walked to the set and glared at the buttons as if they were the enemy. The white button and then the “C” button. That’s all there is to it.

    The TV was off, and he knew it didn’t count, but he pushed the white button and then the “C” button.

    Now just turn it on and do that, he thought. It’s so easy. Nobody will ever know. lt’s done by a computer, and computers don’t care what you do.

    “No!” he said loudly.

    He turned and sunk to his knees by the bed.

    “Father in Heaven, I need help, and I need it now.”

    He pleaded with the Lord for help and, when it was over, he decided he had to leave the room until 7:30 had passed.

    He put on his jacket and went downstairs.

    I should eat sometime, he thought, walking aimlessly around the hotel lobby. lt’s 5:30 in Idaho—Mom is fixing supper.

    On his third lap around the lobby he noticed a list of churches on a bulletin board. He decided to see if the Mormon Church was listed. It was.

    If I skip supper, I can go there and see what it’s like.

    In his pocket he felt the 20 dollar bill Mrs. Palmerton had given him for supper. He remembered she advised him not to go out because of the bad things that lurked outside, but they didn’t seem as threatening as what lurked in his own room.

    He walked outside. A man in a red uniform asked, “You want a taxi?”

    He nodded his head.

    The man put a whistle to his lips and blew hard. A taxi, one of a long line, pulled up. The man in the uniform opened the door and Troy got in.

    “2 Lincoln Square,” he said, faking confidence.

    They drove very fast through the streets. He enjoyed looking at the passing buildings.

    In a few minutes they were there. The ride only cost three dollars.

    He stepped out and looked around and wondered where the church was.

    There he saw two girls, talking quickly in Spanish. They entered a door of a building on the corner.

    They look like Mormons, he thought, following them inside. The first thing he saw was a display case telling about the gold plates. A nice lady sat at a desk and smiled at him.

    “May I help you?” she asked.

    “I’m a Mormon from Idaho.”

    “How nice. My husband and I are serving a mission here, but we’re from Pocatello.”

    When her husband came down, she let him take over while she showed Troy the visitor’s center. There was a lifelike scene of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the grove.

    When they finished the tour, he asked about the two girls he had seen.

    “They belong to the Spanish-speaking ward that meets here also. They have activity night tonight. If you’d like to look in, we can get on the elevator and I’ll show you where to go.”

    When he stepped out of the elevator, it was just like any Mormon meetinghouse. They were having a dance in the cultural hall. He walked inside and sat down to watch.

    A lady was teaching the group how to dance the rhumba.

    Their only problem was a lack of guys.

    A girl walked up to him, and in a machine-gun-like stream of Spanish, asked him something.

    “What?” he grinned.

    She started to laugh.

    “I’m from Idaho,” he said.

    She didn’t seem to understand, so he tried another word she might know. He pointed to himself. “Cowboy.”

    “Cowboy?” she asked in awe.

    “Cowboy.”

    She called one of the guys over and pointed to Troy and said, “Cowboy.”

    “Cowboy?” the guy smiled. He knelt down, challenging Troy to an arm wrestling contest.

    Before long they all gathered around and watched. The two were evenly matched, but finally Troy’s arm began to ache, and he lost.

    His opponent laughed and began slapping him on the back.

    A minute later, the girl grabbed his arm and took him out on the dance floor.

    He didn’t understand the words of the dance instructor, but he could watch and learn. Before long he had it down.

    Then it was time for refreshments. He and the girl ate and giggled.

    The bishop came over and introduced himself. He spoke English too. The girl’s name was Maria, and the guy he’d arm wrestled was her brother. They’d come to the states only a few months ago. Maria and her brother had been members of the Church only three weeks.

    Maria began talking very seriously, and although he couldn’t understand the words, he knew she was bearing her testimony.

    They danced for half an hour more; then they had a closing prayer.

    Before they left the cultural hall, Maria gave him a huge crepe paper flower used as a decoration for the refreshment table.

    They went down to the first floor. When the bishop came, Troy asked him how he could get a taxi.

    “Easy,” the bishop smiled. He walked a little ways into the street and stuck his arm straight up. A few seconds later, a taxi pulled up and stopped.

    Troy got in the taxi, waved at them, and said with a cheerful confidence, “Take me to the New York Hilton.”

    A few minutes later he entered his room. It was 10:00.

    The phone rang. “Troy, is that you?” Mrs. Palmerton said. “I’ve been calling for the past hour. I was so worried. Where have you been?”

    “I took a taxi down by Lincoln Center and went to a dance. I learned to do the rhumba and the bossa nova.”

    She gasped. “You went outside?”

    “I took a taxi.”

    “But who were you dancing with?”

    “Friends.”

    “You have friends in this town?” He smiled and thought about the Church. “I have friends in every town.”

    She gave him a parting list of instructions, then hung up.

    He placed the crepe paper flower on the TV. It was so big it covered up the black box.

    A few minutes later, his teeth brushed, pajamas on, he took one last look outside.

    Nice town, he thought to himself.

    [photos] Photos by Jed Clark