I was bouncing off an NPR story about a renegade LDS colony that the authorities have just invaded but now don’t know quite what to do with. What struck me was that they said there were a LOT of these boys just hanging around Salt Lake City, wondering what to do. They don’t have quite enough moxie to organize themselves into a construction company, evidently. Or get overwhelmed anyway. This is only a beginning.
Jem, short for Jeremy, was a well-loved boy. After all, he had five mothers. Only one father. This was one of the non-conforming LDS families you read about. Polygamous. Most men thought that was pretty neat, having sexual access to that many women, but that meant five families to feed, five women to keep happy. You’d think that would mean he was kind of an Alpha Dog, a big strong tough guy, but what outsiders didn’t understand was that the whole community was really run by the only Alpha Dog, the dictator, who had the power to reassign a man’s families if they weren’t happy.
If he wanted to reassign a family — maybe to punish the man or maybe the wife or even the kids, but always to punish — it wouldn’t matter if the family said they didn’t WANT reassignment, that they wanted to work things out, or even if there really was NO problem. He could only do this because religiously they were all part of a fantasy about God being the Ultimate Patriach, the guy in the sky who ran everything through this single earthly representative.
Another part of it was the the complex of families were so tightly woven and so divided from the outside world — no education beyond elementary reading and arithmetic, no media, no contact with outsiders — that they had no way to know they were living in a box. The men, except for the patriarch and his close friends and henchmen, became cowed and even worried that their wives would complain about them. Some wives used that.
Jem knew which mother was his biological mother but he wasn’t as close to her as he was to one of the younger wives and a couple of the daughters who were near his age. When he was little and the others were also little, they sometimes noticed that older boys were missing. The little girls especially would be attached to the kinder boys, since their fathers were far to busy to talk to them or teach them things. It was just part of the order of things.
Then one day a boy came back, quietly, secretly, and briefly. One of his sisters talked to him. He left her a little cheap transistor radio. She and Jem began to rendezvous in the secret places they knew and to listen to that little radio until the batteries died. They had no new batteries nor did they know where to get any. But what they heard was for them the equivalent of taking a rocket into outer space.
They had assumed that they went off to be missionaries or to work at some other colony. Boys were trained in construction, not just framing and roofing, but also plumbing and electrical. They often went on a crew to build either for another group or even to fulfill a construction contract that the patriarch had made. The bids he would make would be far lower than anyone else’s because the labor was so low-cost. The young men were paid only enough to be fed and sheltered, though not in a public way. Maybe by one of the related churches. If any of these young men got notions about the outside world while on one of these excursions, he’d be smart to keep it to himself.
The boy who came back had hidden his great-grandfather’s handmade wood plane, a beautiful but old-fashioned instrument, to keep it from becoming community property and he came back to retrieve it.
Jem was a thoughtful boy. One day he left, not knowing anything except to start walking in the direction the girl said the boy had come from and returned to. It was north. He made it to Salt Lake City. There was the older boy. There were more than a few of the older boys who had gone missing.
They couldn’t fit into the system. They didn’t understand what to do. They spoke English but didn’t mean the same things.
Salt Lake City authorities called them “the Lost Boys.” They didn’t know what to do with them either. The drug cartels knew. The Lost Boys had never been taught what drugs can do to a person or how they would eat their hearts out.
And that’s how Jem became a hollow boy.