ISBN 978-0-393-06262-5

Brady Udall (Author)

The Lonely Polygamist

A Novel

Overview | Editions | Formats | Inside the Book



To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist

who has an affair. But there is much more to it than that, of course; the life of any polygamist, even when not complicated by lies and secrets and infidelity, is anything but simple. Take, for example, the Friday night in early spring when Golden Richards returned to Big House—one of three houses he called home—after a week away on the job. It should have been the sweetest, most wholesome of domestic scenes: a father arrives home to the loving attentions of his wives and children. But what was about to happen inside that house, Golden realized as he pulled up into the long gravel drive, would not be wholesome or sweet, or anything close to it.

The place was lit up like a carnival tent—yellow light burned in every one of the house’s two dozen windows—and the sound coming from inside was as loud as he’d ever heard it: a whooping clamor that occasionally broke up into individual shouts and wails and thumps before gathering into a rising howl that rattled the front door on its hinges and made the windows buzz. Golden hadn’t heard it like this in years, but he knew exactly what it was. It was the sound of recrimination and chaos. It was the sound of trouble.

“Oh crud,” Golden said.

Even though he’d just driven over two hundred miles without so much as a pit stop, it was not easy to convince himself to turn off the ignition, to let go of the steering wheel. A need to pee that bordered on spiritual torment was what finally made him pry his long body out of the cab of the GMC. He stood bewildered in the dead hollyhocks, his hair full of sawdust, squinting and rubbing his aching behind with both hands. He was a large, wide-shouldered man with knobby hands and a slight overbite that he tried to hide by pursing his lips in the manner of somebody preparing to whistle. He pursed his lips now, and surveyed the front yard, which, in the watery moonlight, had taken on the look of a recently abandoned battlefield: mittens and scarves and jump ropes hanging in the bushes, parkas and broken toys and heaven knows what scattered all the way up to the road as if left there by a receding tide. On the propane tank, in blue crayon, was scrawled the word booger.

“Nice,” Golden said. “Would you take a look at this.”

Not only was his bladder set to give out at any moment, but his bad leg had fallen asleep on the drive home. When he tried to cut across the lawn and mount the front steps it was as if he had been afflicted with a sudden palsy. His leg buckled and bowed as he hopped across the grass and up the steps, grimacing and pivoting on his good leg in an effort to stay upright, tripping on toys as he went, until he had to make a blind grab at the rail to keep from going sideways off the porch. He limped up to the front door, a feeling of doom settling on the back of his neck. His leg tingled painfully and he could feel the noise of the house in the vibration of the boards beneath his feet.

A hand-lettered sign next to the front door commanded:


and Golden obediently scuffed the soles of his boots on the rubber welcome mat. He took a few deep motivational nose-breaths, put his hand on the doorknob, but couldn’t find the will to give it a turn.

There was no getting around it: he was afraid. Afraid that, fi nally, the truth had been discovered, that he had been exposed as a sneak, a cheat, a liar. Look at him: a man afraid to walk into his own house.

Once he’d thumbed his shirttail into his pants, knocked some of the sawdust out of his hair, dug a breath mint from his shirt pocket, and taken a couple toots of Afrin nasal spray, he felt a bit more sure of himself. He put his hand back on the doorknob and closed his eyes.

“Come on,” he whispered, “come on, you sissy.”

Like a man gathering to jump into an icy pond, he pushed open the door. A wave of heat hit him—the house was as hot as a bakery. The tiled entry was dim and empty, and the rich, sugary smell of something in the oven—hopefully Beverly’s pineapple upside-down cake—made his mouth water. He took one stealthy heel-to-toe step, another, stopped to listen. Over the sounds of hollering and pounding feet he could hear the radio and the sound of water chuckling through overhead pipes. Normally there would have been a crush of children waiting at the door, all of them shouting at once, pulling at his clothes and asking him what he’d brought them, the little ones standing on their heads or displaying some new bruise or scab—Look at me! Look at me!—and the wives hanging back, waiting for their chance to lay their claims on him, each one of them a burning spotlight of attention and need.

But for the first time in his memory there was no one there to greet him. He was all alone and it unnerved him.

He listened, trying to get a sense of what he might be facing. A door slammed. Muffled voices echoed down the stairway. He willed himself to step forward, out of the dark hallway and into the light of the family room, but Golden kept imagining slipping back out the door, skulking away like a burglar, maybe heading out to the highway and getting a room at the Apache Acres Motor Inn, where he could take a long serious leak, call home to claim engine trouble, and then order some of that good country-fried steak from the all-night diner and watch Starsky and Hutch on a color television—but his little fantasy didn’t last long because at that moment the children attacked.

Somebody yelled, “Kill the zombie!” and he was grabbed from behind by his belt, from both sides around the calves. They came from behind the couches and the top of the stairs, ten, twelve of them, ramming him with their small heads, clawing at his legs, hooking their fingers in the pockets of his jeans, trying to drag him down. Herschel, Fig Newton, Ferris, Darling, Jame-o, Louise, Teague. There were the second twins: Sybil and Deeanne. And the Three Stooges, yipping like mariachis. They were all sweaty and wild and for a moment it felt like the sheer weight of them might tear him apart.

On another night, Golden might have gone along, moaning like a cartoon mummy, flailing his arms in mock undead rage, falling with them onto the carpet of the living room floor, wrestling and tickling and kissing—but not tonight. No way. He locked his knees and went stiff, hoping to outlast them, but they hung on, screaming with laughter, egging each other on. Eleven-year-old Rusty, who was, as his mother called him, “hefty” and getting too old for this kind of thing, slipped from his hiding place behind the curtains and leapt off the piano bench onto Golden’s back, nearly bringing the whole pile down.

“Okay now!” Golden grunted. “Let’s try not to overdo it!” He was whacked across the shins with a plastic samurai sword and it felt like someone was trying to take a bite out of his kneecap.

At first he offered no resistance, did little more than stand there and take the punishment as his due. But then Teague, who had developed the habit of trying to slug Golden in the crotch whenever there was an opening, did exactly that and Golden decided he’d had enough. He shrugged off Rusty and started the work of peeling them away, one by one. Several resisted, thinking it was still a game. Two or three were still at his legs and someone had climbed up his back and grabbed hold of his shirt collar. Pet, her silver-pink hair in braids, stood on her tiptoes and squeezed him fervently around the middle, putting a strain on his kidneys.

“Okay, hey, watch it, careful now.” Golden hoisted Pet out of the way and several more jumped in to try and take her place. “That’s it, oh—ow! Hey, ha, all right, there. Stop. Oh boy. Ouch! Get off! Now!

They fell back, blinking, their faces slack with surprise. Fig New

ton was so stunned that tears sprang from her eyes as if she had been struck. Only Louise, who was partially deaf and rarely wore her hearing aid, kept on, gnawing on Golden’s boot and growling like a dog.

“Okay, everybody,” Golden rasped, pulling his pants back up to their original position. He shook off Louise and pulled Fig Newton, still weeping bitterly, close against his hip. “I’m real sorry, kids, I don’t got much of a zombie in me tonight. Another time, that’s a promise.” He stuck his hand in his hair and sighed, tried to put on a relaxed smile. “Hoo-wee. Now, where are your mothers?”

This question brightened them up instantly. Some shrugged, others shouted, “We don’t know!” In twos and threes they scattered, already whooping it up again, most of them off to resume their laps around the racetrack.

When Golden built Big House eleven years before, he had made two mistakes: not enough bathrooms, and the racetrack. The racetrack was a mistake in planning, pure and simple. The house had been built according to a standard floor plan: kitchen at the center, surrounded by the living room, family room, dining room and rec room, each of which opened into the room next to it. How could he have foreseen that such a configuration would create a kind of European-style roundabout, a perfect racetrack oval that would allow the kids to tear through the house in endless, uninterrupted procession? Big House became the scene of an ongoing stampede: kids sprinting through the rooms after each other, banking around corners and accelerating on the straightaways, careening and skidding and bouncing off walls, always, for some reason, in a counterclockwise flow. Sometimes just being in the house made Golden dizzy. There he’d be at his place in the kitchen having a mug of Postum or looking over some blueprints, not paying too much attention to the daily mob circling by, and the next thing he knew he’d get so light-headed he’d have to grab the counter to keep from tipping sideways off his stool.

After only a year and a half, a foot-wide track had been worn in the carpet, down to the matting, and Golden tried to ban all running in the house. He might as well have asked the planets to pause in their orbits. He tried placing a love seat in the dining room entryway to disrupt the fl ow even threatened to seal off the dining room completely if that’s what it took, but Nola and Rose-of-Sharon—the two wives and sisters who shared this house—convinced him that all the running, despite the noise and carpet damage, was actually a blessing; it was a good release of enthusiasm and kept them out of trouble.

“Enthusiasm?” Golden had asked. “Couldn’t they run around the house, outside, where kids are supposed to release their enthusiasm? I’m worried about the floor joists in here.”

Nola sighed, as she often did when explaining things to Golden. “You know they run out there too, but at least in here they’re contained,” she said. Rose-of-Sharon, working with her sister on a birthing quilt, had nodded her agreement. “In here we can keep track of them. At least in here we know they’re not running out into the road, getting mowed down by cattle trucks or stolen by criminals.”

And that was that. From then on, Big House would be known as a place where running indoors was not only allowed, but encouraged.

It would also be known as a place where it was difficult to fi nd an available bathroom. Golden first tried the one off the back hallway, but found it occupied (it boasted a padded toilet seat and a library of Sears and Roebuck catalogs, which meant it was pretty much always in use, even in the dead of night). The seven-thousand-square-foot house struck him as a bit overdone when he’d built it, but now, as he tried to make his way to the only other fi rst-floor bathroom, way off in the far corner, he found it downright appalling.

He paused near the grandfather clock to get his bearings. When you lived in three separate houses, as Golden did, it wasn’t too hard to get confused about little things like where the spare lightbulbs were kept or how to work the alarm clocks, or where, exactly, the bathrooms were located. A few weeks before, he awoke in the middle of the night and, thinking he was in Old House, walked out to what he thought was the kitchen to get a glass of water, only to end up taking a little spill down the stairs and straining something in his groin.

He was finally able to sketch a picture of the bathroom in his mind—it was at the end of the hall near the garage—and he pushed on with his trek: through the rec room, where a few of the older boys were scaling the rock fireplace all the way up to the ten-foot ceilings, while below the Three Stooges—Martin, Boo, and Wayne—practiced kung fu combinations and beat each other with cardboard wrapping-paper tubes; past the living room, where Pauline and Novella sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, whispering secrets and shrieking about something written on a sheet of notebook paper; and on to the dining room, where a tinfoil-covered plate was positioned carefully all by itself at the head of the expansive three-sectioned table. One of the overhead track lights was trained on it so that it had the look of an artifact displayed in a museum.

The plate, Golden knew, was a sign, a message. You are late, it said. Dinner is over and, once again, we’ve eaten without you.

This was the kind of reprimand he’d been getting a lot lately. His construction business had been going south for more than two years now, and he had to start taking jobs farther and farther out, which meant even less time with the family. Now that he was on a job site two hundred miles away in Nye County, Nevada, he was gone for days at a time, sometimes a full week, and whenever he walked into one of his houses he felt more than ever like a stranger, an outlander unfamiliar with the customs of the place.

By showing up late tonight he’d made a particularly serious error. It was Family Home Evening, the one night of the week when the entire family gathered at Big House (the only one that could accommodate all thirty-two of them), to have dinner and a family meeting consisting of scripture reading, songs, games and maybe lemon bars or chocolate chip ice cream if everybody behaved themselves. No doubt they had cooked an elaborate dinner, cleaned the house and prepared something special for Home Evening, and waited. Waited for a husband and father who was almost never around, who had made a habit out of keeping them waiting. Then, as they had been doing more and more lately, they ate without him.

Just then little Ferris ran by, nude from the waist down, apparently recovered from his father’s outburst in the entryway. One of his sisters shouted after him, “Ferris has his pants off again!” and Ferris, as if to confirm this declaration, did a joyous, hip-rolling dance that seemed vaguely suggestive, especially for a four-year-old.

“La la la,” he sang. “Do do do.”

Too busy enjoying his own nudity to notice Golden, the boy rubbed his butt luxuriously along the pine wainscoting and then shimmied to the other side of the room, where he pressed himself into a potted plant. Only when Novella appeared, threatening to tell his mother, did he gallop off around the racetrack, slapping his haunches as he went.

Alone again, Golden regarded the plate on the table. Despite everything—he could not help himself—he lifted the foil and carefully extracted a barbecued chicken wing, which he slurped at guiltily as he took mincing, sidelong steps down the hall. He turned the corner to find chubby and ever-sweating Clifton at the locked bathroom door, kicking it in rhythm with a kind of plaintive boot-camp chant: “Open up, open up, right now, right now, open up, open up, hey-hey, right now.”

When he saw Golden he wailed, “Are we gonna do something about the girls in this place? What are they doing in there all the time? Huh? I hate ’em!”

Golden slumped against the wall, defeated. The boy was right— the girls were bathroom hogs. Even the preadolescents could take half an hour to straighten their clothes and check their hair and perform other cryptic ministrations the boys could only guess at. And when a bathroom did become available they always seemed to get there fi rst, as if they were trading insider information to which the boys—who saw using the bathroom as nothing more than a nuisance—were not party. Golden should have had some genuine sympathy for Clifton, but at this point all he felt was annoyed that the boy had beat him to the punch.

Under the cracking thunder of kids jumping off the bunk beds in

the room directly above him, he could hear the ratcheting of a sewing machine and turned to see a sight that made his blood turn to water: Beverly, the fi rst wife, in the all-purpose room across the hall, working intently on a length of sheer fabric. In excruciating slow motion Golden tried to step backward out of sight, but just as he was about to clear the doorway she glanced up at him, stopping him cold. She went back to her sewing without a word.

Until now he had been sure the wives were assembled in an upstairs room deciding his fate, grimly analyzing the evidence against him, united in their desire to see him pay for his lies and transgressions. But here was Beverly, alone, and Golden couldn’t decide whether this was bad news or a positive development. Maybe the scheming was already over and they had retired to separate quarters of the house, or maybe there had been no scheming at all and there was something else brewing which he could only guess at. Golden was in no state of mind to be making guesses; he felt fortunate just to have been able to locate the bathroom.

He tried to read something into Beverly’s posture, but there was nothing to read; she always kept her back straight, her elbows close to her ribs. Even in her most distracted or carefree moments she never slumped or loafed or dragged, never allowed herself to sit back and take it easy. When she slept she lay with her head just so on the pillow, her hands clasped across her chest on top of the blankets, as if posing for a mattress commercial.

Pressing his thighs together so he wouldn’t wet his pants, Golden hobbled across the hall and leaned against the doorjamb in a desperate attempt to look casual. He realized he was holding the half-eaten chicken wing right out in the open and in a moment of panic stuffed it into his pocket.

“Ah, hey, hello.” He gave a little wave as if he were talking to her through a pane of glass. He raised his voice so she could hear him above the sewing machine and a round of sustained caterwauling that had started out in the family room. “Sorry I’m late! That darn concrete guy didn’t show until four o’clock!”

There was the tiniest rise and fall of her shoulders, but she kept feeding the fabric through the machine. He stepped closer to her and felt a drop in temperature; Beverly was a woman whose moods held sway over the immediate atmosphere, who seemed to be in control of everything, including the weather. She had kinky iron-gray hair she kept in check with an assortment of clips, barrettes, clasps and stickpins. Tonight, as usual, she had her hair up in a barely contained bun, which bristled with what looked like an arsenal of miniature weaponry.

Only after she had hemmed the entire length of the fabric did she get up to deliver a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and tell him that there was dinner waiting for him at the table. She then sat back down and checked her hem under the light of a jeweler’s lamp.

“Your drive?” she said.

“Long like always!” he said. “I’m thinking maybe I should trade my pickup for Elwin’s old crop duster and do belly rolls all the way home. Least that way I could stay awake.”

Out in the hall Clifton gave the closed bathroom door a good kick and sang, “I’m dying out here! I’m dy-ing!”

Beverly nodded, didn’t look up. Normally he would have waited her out, but Clifton wasn’t the only one on the brink of a serious accident.

“I, uh, is there—is there something going on?”

“There’s a lot going on, Golden, there always is.”

“Everything seems a bit, you know, crazy.”

“Well, that’s how it is around here, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Not the normal crazy, that’s not what I’m talking about. Something seems, I don’t know . . .”

Beverly looked squarely at him for the first time, and his mouth moved silently as he searched for the word he wanted. Words: they were difficult for Golden in the best of times, and nearly impossible when he was under the gun like this.

“. . . awry,” he said, fi nally.

Awry.” She took special care with the pronunciation. She held his gaze for a second more and went back to her work. “Okay, awry. Awry it is. And you’re right, there’s a lot that is awry tonight. For example, your dog, who has found it necessary, for the third time in two weeks, to piddle in my shoes.”

“Cooter?” Golden said.

“Unless you keep another dog I don’t know about. I locked him in the utility closet, and if he’s piddled on something in there I’m going to let the neighbors use him for target practice.”

For a second or two, Golden felt a twinge of optimism. Could this be what it was all about, Cooter doing a number on Beverly’s shoes? Beverly and Cooter had been carrying on a feud for years, but the other wives tolerated the little dog, even had shown a fondness for him, which was probably why he had never piddled in their shoes. No, the other wives had no reason to be upset by Cooter’s misdeeds, and even mighty Beverly did not have the power, by herself, to make things go this awry.

“By the way,” Beverly said as she tied off a length of thread, “you’ve got something on your lip.”