Idaho Fell

Mormon Tabernacle overlooking Idaho FallsBY JEN HIRT

When I moved to Idaho Falls in August 2005, I couldn’t take my new home seriously. It was a 75-unit apartment complex with a name meant to evoke grandeur and respite: Shadow Canyon. Two-story buildings ringed a parking lot and a grassy area, and tall Ponderosa pines provided the aesthetics that vinyl siding couldn’t. It was within walking distance to the mall, one of two Wal-Marts, and a buffet called Chuck-a-Rama. More importantly, it was within walking distance to a technical college. There, my partner in good times and bad, Paul, had taken a part time job teaching English to pre-nursing students. We’d been together ten years, had never done the marriage thing, had no plans for kids, and had followed each other around the country for school and jobs. Idaho Falls was one more destination.

Within moments of discovering the apartments, we elbowed each other about the cheesy slogan: Shadow Canyon, Distinctive Living. We threatened to make each other eat at Chuck-a-Rama. We were hesitant about moving to this new city, where we knew no one, but we took solace in our ability to achieve ironic detachment in record time. Shadow Canyon required only a hundred dollar security deposit and let tenants lease month-to-month. We ponied up the c-note and paid $450 for a month’s rent on a downstairs two-bedroom with a storage unit, a porch, and a covered parking space.

I didn’t exactly have a job yet. I would work Fridays in the tech college’s writing center (at least they had one). In addition, I would substitute for two weeks while one of the instructors in Adult Basic Education toured Europe. I would need a more lucrative job. Paul’s position existed in a category somewhere below part time. Shortly after arriving, he learned his paychecks would come every five or six weeks, a random schedule not even the payroll office could explain. As we unpacked, we discussed a financial strategy: no cable, no high-speed Internet, no cell phones, no restaurants – unless I chanced into an awesome job. We’d already forgone our friends up north at the University of Idaho in Moscow, where we had earned our M.F.A. degrees in 2004, then worked customer service jobs while trying to decide what to do next. The pending year in Idaho Falls seemed like the right time to pare our lives down to the core, to the necessities.

Per my new credo to Get It Together, I applied for whatever Idaho Falls had to offer. It wasn’t much: weekend obituary writer at the newspaper, private tutor, or grant writer for an environmental planning office. I polished my genie’s lamp of a résumé -scholarships and grants, awards and publications, B.A., M.A., M.F.A.

Because I wasn’t a complete fool (sober subtraction had me out of money by November), I also applied for less prestigious jobs. Clerk at a yarn store, clerk at a sign shop, and SOS Staffing. It was one of those places that provided temporary employees. Placeholders. I could be a placeholder. I could sit at the reception desk and tell people that the secretary would be out for two weeks while her broken foot healed.

Because I was a fool in other areas, I applied for those less-prestigious jobs with the prestigious résumé. I knew I was overqualified. It had never mattered before. From the first moment of my existence, people had coached me to stand out in the crowd. As a result, a week was the longest I’d gone without a job.

Only later would it occur to me that Idaho Falls was not like the college towns I’d thrived in for my entire adult life. Employers had different criteria, of unspoken caution and suspicion. Crowds and their comfort were worshipped. Those standing out were odd, possibly dangerous.

That Pioneering Spirit

Most people think Idaho is potatoes, whitewater, and Sun Valley. The lentil fields of the panhandle get ignored, and few know that one of the oldest trees in the world is hidden in Idaho’s St. Joe National Forest. Sun Valley is overrated – visit Craters of the Moon instead. Idaho is where Hemingway killed himself, and where Philo T. Farnsworth invented the television, only to enter a patent battle with a Russian who claimed he invented it. Idaho is bitter ends. It’s the astounding California wealth in the resort towns, and it’s the intellectual poverty of militias and the Aryan Nation. You can live in a shack for virtually nothing, or you can build a mansion on a mountain and clear a strip for your private plane. The 83,500 square miles of terrain gets two time zones over numerous mountain ranges, but there is only one area code, 208, so scattered and thin is the population. Look one direction and it’s spectacular. Look the other way, or just blink your eyes, and it’s vaguely terrifying, a neo-west sublime.

Idaho Falls exists because of mining, Mormon pioneers, and the Snake River, which runs wide and fast through the center of town. Fortune-seekers (of gold or salvation) lined up to cross the Snake at the one bridge, known as Taylor’s Crossing, and later they called it Eagle Rock, and still later they renamed it Idaho Falls. The name shifted as citizens changed their perceptions. When the second wave of miners built more river crossings, the Taylors had to relinquish; when eagles on rocks failed to attract tourists, a state name plus the majesty of tumbling water did the trick – no one minded that the falls were constructed, or that a dam regulated the whole spectacle. Today, current residents half the city’s name to IF, pronounced as initials, as if verbalizing the four syllables of Idaho Falls wastes precious time.

When the cores of mountains had been excavated and the EPA banned smolters, homesteaders farmed the flat Snake River Plain, rich with volcanic ash and the remnants of a prehistoric sea. They latticed canals and seeded vast potato fields. In homage, some Idaho license plates sport an image of a baked Russet, complete with a pat of butter, hovering in the sky like a deity.

When I first arrived, all I could see was the ugly flatness of southeast Idaho, so different from the postcard scenery of northern Idaho. Even with the vast Sawtooth Mountains to the west, and the spectacular Tetons to the east, on most days I saw only the scrubby plains and the rusty arches of endless irrigation systems. This Idaho was different from the college-town Idaho. I saw the sprawl of the city, the endless parking lots and malls and giant retailers. I saw the boarded-up storefronts of the old downtown. And blatant tourist traps, like Yellowstone Bear World, a place that siphoned traffic with its tsk-tsking pamphlets about how the real Yellowstone is no fun now that you couldn’t feed the bears. No bike lanes, either – Hummers and minivans idled everywhere, Bush/Cheney stickers on their bumpers and yellow magnetic ribbons near their gas tanks. I could only see that Idaho Falls had something distasteful at every intersection.

There Are A Lot Of Things That Can Come In Your Windows When You Live On The Ground Floor (Part I)

The boys in the upstairs apartment were thumping something massive down the hallway, and that was why I was awake at 3 a.m., standing in my hallway and watching the light fixtures jiggle. Again. I was confounded over what they were always moving up there. It couldn’t be good, that sound at that hour. Usually I went back to sleep, or Paul banged on their door and told them to cut it out and then we would lie awake, arguing over who should have banged on their door, and then we would fall back to sleep. But tonight would end up being different, because in the sleepy, irritated edge of my vision, I noticed something alive in the bathtub.

I blinked like a fool in the vinyl glare. The thing was a goddamn hobo spider. Poisonous. Arched legs holding a body like a bullet. He was the size of the drain. He was on the drain, on all of it, slinking one scrappy leg through a drop of water, then raising it to what looked like long fangs ending in tiny punching bags.

Hobo spiders are hairy brown brutes, like rawhide spiders. They can hunt prey on foot – the web is optional. Their long legs are feats of angles and joints. The hobo spider got its name because it roams on those long legs. They scout and sprint and pounce. They claim corners for a few days, then move on. They are like bad natives following the herd. They have no patience. They like warm kitchens and bathtub puddles and will kamikaze from one to the other via their favorite highway, the edge where the floor meets the wall. They are three-square-meals-a-day spiders. They drive trucks, own guns, don’t give a damn. They have infested Idaho Falls.

I hated the boys upstairs. I hated the small, cheap apartment with a bleach-stained carpet and rickety screen door and walls so shoddy we’d already knocked a dent in one. I hated that none of my initial job applications have been acknowledged, that my money was dwindling, that Paul’s first paycheck was still weeks away and we were buying groceries with a credit card. Even with all that, I hated the hobo spider in the bathtub in a way that I had not hated anything, because I could do something about it. I would kill him.

I nailed him with a stream of window cleaner and the big spider shuddered. Motherfucker. I soaked him and hoped the force of the spray inflicted further damage. He shrank into a ball of legs, making himself small and maybe dead. Don’t play possum with me. The boys upstairs had dragged whatever it was to the steps, and now they were thumping it down. Because the steps were metal and the apartments were poorly constructed, the sound reverberated through my living room wall. I was reminded of something I was sure I had never heard: falling manhole covers. The spider started uncurling, leg by leg.

Window cleaner wasn’t free; I couldn’t waste it on vermin. So I doused the spider with a cup of hot water. With his mean legs spread wide, he spun in the current, then scrambled to the far end. I began filling the tub. He drowned and it took too long.

I pushed him into a dustpan and threw him outside. The boys from upstairs had disappeared. All was silent. I wished I could go straight back to bed, but I knew I couldn’t. A poisonous spider in my living space had apparently triggered a primeval reaction – my arm hairs stood straight each time I recalled that first glance into the tub, and I couldn’t step replaying it in my head. My jaw was clenched so hard it sent bolts of ache up to my ears. I was on red alert, studying the spider-brown carpet before each step.

I turned on my computer and listened to the dial-up connection crackle its way on to the web. I googled “hobo spiders” and knew it was not a good idea, to further scare myself with enlarged photos and alarming testimonials. Sure enough, their bite could be necrotic, killing a radius of skin and tissue. In rare cases, when the venom reached bone, amputation was necessary. In common cases, you sported a nasty blister, took a regime of antibiotics, and were left with a permanent scar.

I also learned they are native to England and Europe. They made the utmost of roaming by stowing away to America in shipping crates, then on into Idaho via railroad ties. They thrived in the irrigated potato fields and the lush lawns. And this: I learned that their hairy fangs with punching bags at the tips weren’t just fangs – they were the hobo spider version of testicles, hanging off the hobo spider version of a face.

The Things We Did For Money

On Tuesdays, Paul would leave our ground-floor haven for hobo spiders and drive three hours to teach English 101 at the tech college’s outreach center in the Salmon Mountains at the edge of the largest unbroken wilderness in the lower forty-eight. He would stay the night at a motel decorated with elk heads. He’d call to check in and we’d exchange outlandish lies about who really went to Chuck-a-Rama instead of teaching or applying for jobs.

The next morning, he would drive three hours home. He would bring the Salmon newspaper. One issue, we marveled over the Caves For Rent classified. Another issue, we discussed the article about how the wolves were menacing the hunters and must be shot. Both raised in Ohio, we agreed that we would like to see a wolf in the wild. Then he would drive two hours to a high school in Driggs, at the base of the backside of the Grand Tetons, where he taught another evening English 101 class. He would buy a tuna salad sandwich at the gas station and drive home, arriving at midnight. To make good use of the nearly ten hours of driving, he had gone to the public library and borrowed the unabridged audio book version of Moby Dick.

In late September, my August applications all for naught, I applied for six more jobs. Three were somewhat respectable and could even be considered careers: assistant to the director at the natural history museum; copywriter for a mail-order beauty products enterprise; and a marketing office that wasn’t even hiring, but I told them they needed a writer and I was their girl. Three others were worst-case scenarios: a baker, a florist, and Pier 1, but only because it was within walking distance.

While I waited for offers to come pouring in because how could anyone not hire me, I had my two-week substitute gig at the tech college to keep me occupied.

The class was called Workplace Essentials, and it ran like a seminar: seven hours a day for four days of job-finding and job-keeping skills, and then the students received a certificate of achievement, suitable for framing. Then I would do it all over again for the second week’s set of students. The point was to learn how to get hired and learn how to advance, all by improving your customer service skills. Lessons centered on a 70-page self-help workbook titled The New Me, A Success Story. The workbook was like a primer on the American dream, updated for the service-industry job market of the 21st century: If you know your personality type and know how to deal with difficult people, you’re on your way.

I had my doubts, including anxiety over the irony that I had recently and unsuccessfully applied for customer service jobs. However, I needed money to replace the cleaning solvents I was wasting while neutralizing hobo spiders from afar. For $12.50 an hour, I could feign interest and expertise. The three students were adults stuck in dead-end jobs (second-shift at Sam’s Club, second-shift at the ice cream distributor, second-shift dishwasher). They tore into their workbooks with intent and curiosity. They were going to be sincere about this. They filled out surveys about attitudes and assertiveness and self-esteem. They took The Dessert Personality Test, learning that if they liked chocolate cake, they were adventurous, ambitious, and passionate. But if vanilla cake was their thing, they were fun, sassy, and humorous. They peered at each other’s workbooks and vowed to make their families contemplate the dessert aspect of personality. I assured them it was OK to like chocolate cake AND vanilla cake. This is really cool, they told me.

After each test or survey in the workbook, I facilitated discussions about good habits, cooperation, even hygiene. We told stories about horrible jobs, about difficult coworkers, about our goals. At break time, we would congregate outside, share vending machine snacks, and stare at the Wal-Mart across the street. The dishwasher, a tough older woman covered in barbed wire tattoos, would always talk about being a recovering alcoholic; the single mom who worked at the ice cream distribution center would check in with the babysitter and say things like, “Just give her ice cream. She really likes ice cream.” One time, the guy who worked at Sam’s Club said he wished the city would cut down the few scraggly trees between us and Wal-Mart, so he could see it better. He said he felt comforted when he saw the sign, the building, the colors. Every weekend, he took his six kids to Wal-Mart, where they spent his Sam’s Club paycheck. I had no idea what to say to him. In my entire life, I’d made two purchases at Wal-Mart, a purposeful avoidance. After break, after these strange and fascinating and terrifying insights into the lives of my students, we’d head back in for an afternoon self-awareness activity. One day we drew pictures of ourselves as gardens. I drew a giant pine tree with myself hiding under it.

I wanted to tell my students that the soul-sucking bottom line of capitalism would ruin them, would dash their aspirations. I wanted to tell them about Marxism, about workers of the world uniting, about Buy Nothing Day, about subverting the system, about the rationale for shoplifting, about not respecting the system that was dehumanizing them.

On the last day, we looked through the classifieds. My students picked jobs to apply for. So did I.

The Mormons

Idaho Falls and its surrounding regions are so heavily populated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that you could call the region North Utah and be accurate in terms of demographics. The Idaho Falls/Pocatello phone book lists over 500 entries for various regional things associated with the LDS – stakes, wards, genealogy centers, and a slew of businesses collected under Deseret Industries, or DI, because calling something by its initials is a hot trend in ID. You could say about someone, “She’s LDS, works in IF at DI,” and it would make total sense (like the vanity plate that read RULDS2). What makes Idaho Falls a regional draw is the Mormon temple. Virtually every town in Idaho has a Mormon church – but in 2005 there were only three temples, with a fourth under construction. The oldest was in IF.

The temple, which is huge, white, and windowless, is Idaho Falls. That it has a prominent downtown location, in perfect composition with the waterfalls, is no mistake. It’s never not a nice photo – the roiling whitewater, the clear sky, this massive white temple surrounded by irrigated lawn and a black iron fence. Gazillions of photos must exist. The temple looks like a wedding cake, both in tier and color, but the architectural style has a proper name: ziggurat, a pyramid of varying rectangular chunks meant as a symbolic set of steps to the heavens. It has no windows, no stained glass, and even the entrance is not so obvious, obscured on one side by a walled walkway. There is a single spire topped with a golden statue of the angel Moroni. In LDS theology, Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century and told him where to find the buried gold plates that would become the Book of Mormon. As a statue, Moroni looks like a gilded trumpeter in nineteenth century garb.

Prior to moving to Idaho Falls, I’d never seen a Mormon temple, didn’t even know they had temples. What I knew of the religion were the doctrines that made them sound like the cult they insisted they weren’t – the old stain of polygamy; the five-year supply of food in each basement; the retroactive baptisms for the dead; the shunning of alcohol, caffeine, and cussing; and of course their ubiquitous young missionaries, knocking on doors and offering suburban salvation. And I knew that Mormon intellectuals, such as writer Terry Tempest Williams, had been called to the floor and threatened with excommunication.

I quickly assimilated one more doctrine that would come to define my stay in Idaho Falls. Non-Mormons are called gentiles. Even Jews become gentiles. Gentiles are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the temples because the area is sacred, and only Mormons are sacred. They get to enter by special approval only, such as when they’ve fulfilled their tithing duties and get a special “recommend” from their bishop. You pay your way, in one form or another, and I was as broke as they come. The only currency I had was my cynicism and the perpetual pocket change of doubt.

Long-time critics of organized religion, Paul and I dropped the IF temple into the category of Chuck-a-Rama – we dealt with it by creating sarcastic accusations about which of us harbored a secret desire to convert, just so we could get to that guarded inner sanctum. Paul liked the notion that God talks directly to Mormon prophets (only men can become prophets.) He spent entire evenings role-playing as prophet, trying to order me to do dishes, by God’s command. I was not sure what there was for a woman to like about the religion. Mormon women were beholden to marry young, have many children, and obey their husbands.

So, instead of mock-interest, I fantasized about making a documentary about us trying to get into the temple. Paul, who had years of theatre mischief in his blood, would be the star. First, I’d film him entering a Catholic church, and he’d reveal to a Catholic at the door that he was not a Catholic, but was it OK if he entered? And the Catholic would say yes. Repeat as necessary for every denomination in the shadow of the temple. And then to the ziggurat itself, where a polite and superhumanly blond young Mormon might say no, not until you convert and pay a percentage of your income. I’d edit in footage of the door-knocking missionaries who always wanted to come into our living room. They wanted into my living room but I couldn’t enter their temple?

Soon, though, I stopped being amused by biting daydreams. It had to do with all the jobs I wasn’t getting. Initially, I assumed I was vastly overqualified for everything Idaho Falls had to offer. The more I thought about the temple, I realized it was the one thing in town for which I was vastly underqualified. And it was occurring to me that I was not really overqualified for the jobs in the classifieds. I was wrongly-qualified, if there is such a thing. To put it another way, I didn’t have the one right credential, the single affiliation that mattered in a place dominated by one religion.

For a Gen-Xer who had mainlined situational irony her entire life, this irony left me nothing but pissed. There was a good chance that my potential employers were Mormon, because if the phone book had 500 Mormon-related entries, and if the population here supported a temple, then yes, probably all who had scanned my résumé were part of the religion. Was my history of secular accomplishment a red-flag warning to any Latter-Day Saint? Were they all gatekeepers, and this whole town a temple?

I felt peculiar. I couldn’t shake the notion that I was being excluded, passed over, looked down upon. Shunned. I was an outsider in a place I didn’t want to be a part of anyway. But I had to become a small part if I wanted money, and I needed money to get out. And I couldn’t see a way out because I couldn’t see a way in.

I didn’t know how to proceed. Should I give up my job search in the area? Should I stay the course in the land of the enemy? I could tell myself to stop thinking of Mormons as the enemy, but I also couldn’t, a realization that was both appalling and strangely fascinating. Should I self-finance my documentary because it would be awesome and a major indie distributor would pick it up after it premiered at Sundance? Was I delusional?

There Are a Lot of Things That Can Come in Your Windows When You Live on the Ground Floor (Part II)

Shadow Canyon’s property manager, a guy I’ll call Smith, was strange from the beginning. When we first met him and said “Hi,” he said “wish I was!” And what do you say to that? Because you’re never going to smoke up with your property manager, but it’s kind of cool that you could.

Smith was in his mid-forties. He wore old soccer t-shirts. County Soccer Camp, 1992. Kick it! He walked bent at the waist, with short fast steps. He was proud of winning three of four court cases against negligent tenants. He kept a wooden baseball bat under his desk.

One night, a neighbor named Judy knocked at our door. Paul answered, and she asked for the lady of the house. That, we supposed, was me. Judy wanted to know if I had been sexually harassed by Smith. Had he said things that made me uncomfortable, and had I noticed him looking in my windows? Had my underwear drawer been disturbed? When she got home from work, she always checked her panty drawer, and it was always disturbed.

According to Judy, Smith kept porn on his office computer and had peeped in her windows at all hours and was using the master key to gain access to her underwear drawer. She, for one, was no longer going to feel afraid in her own home! She had inquired at a fair housing action office, and they were going to look into the matter. In the meantime, she’d taken the situation into her own hands.

Tonight she was going door to door to find out who else was a victim. She’d written a letter and made copies for each lady of the house, with hopes that we would each write a similar letter and then we’d present them to the fair housing action office, a unified front of self-aware female tenants.

I took a copy. Thanks to nine years of college, I immediately noticed her gratuitous use of quotation marks:

If, “Smithson P Baker,” has made any “Sexual comments,” towards you in “Any way,” or if Smithson P Baker has “Harassed you in any “Sexual form,” Could you please write a “Statement” about “What and if possible when,” it happened.

The letter continued for about 500 words and 74 quotation marks and was peppered with random capitalization. Smith had, in fact, made me uncomfortable. But so had Judy’s writing style. Back when I was a teaching assistant, I’d lectured my students on this very situation: you undermine your argument when your writing adheres to rules only you know about.

Her letter was a wreck. It was not revised, not proofread. Did that mean I couldn’t trust her logic? Anyone who reads a newspaper once a week knows that you don’t use quotation marks and capital letters that way. So she must not read, must not be curious, must not be smart, must be a psycho feminist out to bring down men for being men. I slipped right down that slope.

So I didn’t give Judy what she wanted. I didn’t tell her that a day ago, I had gone to Smith’s office to complain about the noise from the upstairs boys. Smith interrupted to tell me I “sure was pretty,” and that I shouldn’t tell Paul he was hitting on me.

I stared at him and then pressed on with my litany of complaints. Smith leaned forward and pointed to the lower edge of my tattoo, visible below my t-shirt sleeve. “You best keep that covered,” he said. “There’s people in this town who won’t hire you for it. I don’t agree with them, but they’re everywhere. You want a job, you play by their rules.”

The Mormons, again. They believed tattoos made the body permanently impure. I tugged my sleeve down and repeated my concern about the boys upstairs. Smith backed off and said he’d give them a warning. I considered him carefully, trying to decide how to understand him, now. On one hand, he wasn’t a Mormon, so we should stick together. On the other hand, he was a raging sexist, so I should firebomb his office.

So, I could have written a statement for Judy. I had a log for her fire. Instead, I told her I’d call if anything suspicious happened. The problem was, everything in Idaho Falls seemed suspicious. I could see a number of battlefronts. Picking one as a priority seemed pointless.

Idaho Falling (September 29, 2005)

It was better than an episode of Cops.

Just past midnight, and the noise from the upstairs boys was so intense it was winning awards. Loud music, rounds of laughter, squeals from girls, and once again, the threatening thumps that generated a hitherto unknown stress in my gut. I thought they must be wrestling on the kitchen floor, the only action that made sense, given the accompanying racket. Paul dialed the police, and two units were dispatched to Shadow Canyon, Distinctive Living. We hoped the boys would get a noise citation, a reason for eviction. We waited in our dark living room, poured ourselves a single glass of cheap whiskey, and watched two squad cars arrive, in stealth mode, lights off, silent as spiders.

Because all the good building materials were used in the temple, I could hear everything that happened as the two cops trooped up the steps. First, the party fell silent. No one opened the door. There was a rush of movement to their porch, directly above ours. Their glass door slid open. There was a pause. It closed. The cops were banging on the other door, raising their voices. Someone finally let them in.

The usual interrogation ensued. A driver’s license was requested. Wrongdoing was denied. Then we heard a new denomination of thump, distant, yet identifiable. A patter of footsteps on shingles, echoing through crawlspaces and ventilation shafts – kids on the roof. A cop echoed my realization into his radio. Back-up officers materialized within seconds. They trained their spotlights through the Ponderosa pine branches. Cops were yelling come down off the roof. Then cops on the ground directed cops on the roof to fugitive clumps of teenagers. The under-aged were wrangled back into the apartment.

Through this drama, Paul and I had been snickering in mock-teetotaler delight while we sipped whiskey. But when we saw the first boy in handcuffs, we were not sure how to react. Then we saw the second, the third, and a fourth, each cuffed and escorted down the steps, each seated in a separate cruiser. We stared at each other, suddenly aware of what we’d caused, poignantly aware that we were not so different from those kids not too long ago, and speechlessly aware that a young Mormon couple would have made the same phone call.

Then we high-fived and got a great night’s sleep.

Later, I found their arrests in the newspaper’s police log. I made a photocopy, highlighted it, and handed it to the property manager. He evicted them. I dared to tell myself that Idaho Falls wouldn’t be so bad, after all. I hadn’t seen a hobo spider in days, and now the neighbors were history, and surely a job offer was one phone call away.

Idaho Fell (October 2005)

By October, my August and September applications were all for naught. I applied for the manager position at a thrift store run by a non-denominational Christian charity, at UPS, at an appraisal office, then the Nature Conservancy, a camera store, the new Borders Books opening directly across the street from the old Borders Books, the county courthouse as a victim/witness coordinator, and another temp agency. Nothing. With $100 left in my checking account, I had to change my job search strategy.

The time had come to lie.

At the end of October, a medical clinic in a neighboring town was hiring a receptionist. I sat down with my old friend the résumé and I made the appropriate changes.

I deleted my M.F.A. degree and everything associated with it.

In its place, to account for those three years spent teaching at the University of Idaho, I put English Department Assistant. What does a department assistant do? What does a clinic receptionist do? I wagered it was the same set of skills. I had never been an English Department Assistant. The position didn’t even exist. On my résumé I wrote that I had excellent phone skills and knew about conflict resolution skills, which, in total truth, I did know about, thanks to the Workplace Essentials class. I listed some professors as references and hoped the clinic didn’t contact them.

Within a day, I got a call. Could I come for an interview?

Two middle-aged women, also receptionists, interviewed me. I quickly spotted their wedding rings, and in photo on a desk, a bridal party outside the temple. I couldn’t lie and say I was Mormom; they had a vast registry, every name and surname and relation, all the way back to Joseph Smith. So I added this fiction – that I was married and had worked as a department assistant to help put my husband through college. It was sacrilege, and I said it so easily.

Married and husband were the magic words, placeholders for the magic religious affiliation I could never fake. I charmed empathetic smiles out of the women interviewing me. I made sense to them.

They offered me the job the next day. Insurance benefits, retirement package, $9 an hour, vacation hours to start accumulating immediately. I took it.

I thought my spine would dissolve under the irony of it all. A god of ethics was going to rain a plague of hobo spiders for this trespass.

They loved that I had conflict resolution skills. If only they knew that I’d started thinking of southeast Idaho as conflict, and of manipulation as resolution.

Not long after, one solid night of freezing temperatures killed off that year’s spider population, and I prayed a rare and private thank-you to the force of nature. With any luck, I’d be far from Idaho Falls by next summer, when their stashed egg sacks would hatch, renewing the infestation. Elated that all the outside hobos were now dead (I’m glad your hearts froze), I conducted a search and destroy mission with the handheld vacuum. Under the couch, under the dresser, behind the chair, under the oven (their favorite spot, for the residual warmth).

Paul watched my mission with amusement and suggested we buy traps, just in case. We went to the grocery store and stood at the checkout, where bright yellow boxes of specially-designed hobo traps took precedent over candy. The traps were sheets of hobo-scented sticky paper. The spiders would run to the scent and blunder onto the gluey sheets, lost in the lust of pheromones. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy them. I was afraid that even with my thorough cleaning, the traps would be full of hobos within hours. I couldn’t live with the idea that there were many poisonous spiders hiding in my apartment. It would be better not to know how many there really were.

Paul disagreed with my rationalizing. “You’re sympathizing with them,” he said, “because you don’t want to get stuck either.”

Idaho Fallen (in four verses)


One week into my new job as a receptionist at the medical clinic, three of my earlier and honest applications got noticed. The editor at the newspaper left me a downright jolly message, assuring me that I was his top pick for the weekend obituary position, and just when could I come in for an interview? Same with the thrift store. And the mail-order beauty products place left two messages, because obviously someone with a master’s degree in English ought to be interviewed for a copywriter position. I swore at the answering machine the way I had cursed at the hobo spider in the bathtub. I’d just completed a week of intense training at the clinic, and backing out would leave my new coworkers, who were unexpectedly friendly, in an awful spot. They didn’t deserve that. I couldn’t quit, and on a deeper level, I knew I couldn’t go back to the self on those honest applications.


The property manager got fired after the holidays. A fair housing authority had received sufficient complaints about sexual harassment, but they had also found out Smith was charging a pet deposit for service animals. It was a violation of an obscure part of the ADA. This was what ultimately got him canned, according to a memo from the new property manager, an upbeat guy named Jerry who had refunded pet deposits and was promising to throw a community barbecue come summer. Paul and I looked at each other and could only shrug.


After the upstairs boys were evicted, a tiny woman moved in. Paul and I watched her from between the blinds, and we argued about the characteristics of dwarfs versus midgets. She was barely four feet tall, but not disproportioned; we concluded she was a midget. She compensated with high-heeled boots, so the mysterious thumping of the boys was replaced by the hollow clack and rap of her fashion. She drove a bright yellow VW bug whose alarm system activated every time she started the engine. We could have found these noises just as intrusive as the kitchen-wrestling of the boys, but I think we must have found her harmless because she was small.


Paul and I left Idaho Falls the next summer. We’d both been hired at a community college in Pennsylvania. The technical college wanted to rehire him, but only part time, and I got along fine with my coworkers at the clinic, but after half a year it had become a monotonous, dead-end job, and the reality of being a career receptionist with a candy jar and whimsical doo-dads on the desk made me shiver in self-revulsion. Paul liked the technical college well enough, but his Mormon students called paragraphs verses, and it bothered him. A move across the country would be expensive, and the cost of living would increase, but we banked on the benefits of putting 2,500 miles between us and the decisions of Idaho Falls.

On our final day in town, we emptied our Shadow Canyon apartment and cleaned it spotless because we needed every dollar of our security deposit. In the corner of the utility closet, behind the water heater, I found one dead hobo spider, on its back, long legs wrapped over the belly like a ribbon on a present. I considered it for a moment. Spiders who try to over-winter in the house don’t need much food, but they need warmth and water. It had opted for warmth instead of water, for the closet instead of the bathroom, ironically dying within inches of a water tank, which was (ironically) the thing that was providing the warmth.

For a minute, I felt bad for the spider, done in by the illogic of the world. Then I swept it into the dust pan and dropped it in the last bag of trash.


  1. Peggy Nelson on October 28th, 2008 1:48 pm

    Hi Jen – I loved this article! So funny and so true 🙁 I’m sending the link to my daughter in Montana who despises IF (oops, I’m acronomizing) and is currently trying to hone her creative writing skills for application to an MFA program. Anyway, it was delightful!


  2. Jodi on February 19th, 2011 10:10 pm

    I found this piece hilarious. I visit Idaho Falls for work four or five times a year and I can see your insights being true. I was researching, “Why are there so many blonde, Mormons in Idaho Falls?” when I came across it. (My preliminary conclusions are if your not white, light-skinned your a second class citizen, polygamy, and I think some dye their hair just to look a like-but I would love your take on this as well. :0)

    Anyway, thanks for writing it. I giggled my way through it. 🙂