Skip to main content



The Lonely Polygamist

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

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

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,
finally, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

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

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

“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

Excerpted from THE LONELY POLYGAMIST © Copyright 2010 by
Brady Udall. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton &
Company. All rights reserved.

The Lonely Polygamist
by by Brady Udall

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 602 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393062627
  • ISBN-13: 9780393062625