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He's Only a Lad, You Really Can't Blame Him
Sometimes an older relative tries to do you a huge favor, but you really wish they wouldn’t.
This essay is an outtake from an early draft of my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. Names have been changed.
When I was eighteen, my father and I drove from northern Utah to Los Angeles for my cousin Delia’s wedding. I had recently put in my application to become a Mormon missionary, and I had yet to learn where I’d be spending the next two years of my life. It wasn’t for the sake of one last road trip with my father, though, that I agreed to tag along. I was hoping to meet Danny Elfman.
After the wedding—a brief affair in a tiny chapel like a sugar-frosted cake—the entire gathering moved down the road to the Arcadia Women’s Club, a large banquet hall for rent, where a shaggy trio played jazz on a spare proscenium. A dozen long tables were set up in ranks across the room, and we enjoyed an abundant feast of cold cuts, casseroles, and cakes as the music played. “Hey,” I said to my aunt Deborah, who sat across from my father and me, “I thought Oingo Boingo was supposed to play.”
“All Delia and Sammy’s friends are musicians,” she said, “so lots of different people are playing. I don’t think they’re on until later.”
“Oh, okay.” I glanced at my father, deep in conversation with Uncle Carl, and hoped he wouldn’t make me leave too early.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, is that my number-one cousin?” said a rasping voice.
I turned to encounter a beaming apparition in a powder-blue leisure suit. “Markie?”
“That’s me,” said Markie, arms spread. He might have been taking the stage for a Vegas-style lounge act. “Didn’t recognize me with the haircut, did you, Billy?”
The last time I’d seen my cousin Markie, a thicket of curly, light-brown hair had nearly concealed his face. Someone had taken a hacksaw to the tangle in the meantime, chopping it short and (mostly) squaring it off. “It took me a minute,” I said. Even for 1986 the look was smarmy. “You look … great.”
“Thanks. Figured my sister’s wedding, I should clean up a little.”
He grabbed my arm. “Well hey, Billy, come on. I gotta introduce you to the gang.”
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He dragged me first to a knot of shady characters clustered in a dim corner of the room. They had each made a stab at cleaning up for the wedding, but none had gone quite to Markie’s extreme. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I want you all to meet my number-one cousin Billy.”
His friends transferred their beers to their left hands so we could shake, and I tried not to look too uncomfortable. I liked Markie, but his several arrests for drug-dealing were no secret in the family, and I figured I was rubbing shoulders here with a regular underworld convocation of scofflaws.
I glowed bright pink, ducking my head, as Markie gushed on. “He’s the genius in the family. He used to say the alphabet backwards when he was just a little guy, wearing these great big, thick glasses. He plays the piano, and he skipped all these grades, too.”
“Just one,” I said. “First grade.”
“And he’s modest, too!” said Markie, slapping me on the back.
We worked our way around the hall, Markie and I, until finally we ended up in the kitchen among the fragments of turkeys and fruit pies, chatting with a huge dark fellow with a thick black beard, a leather vest, and arms sleeved in colorful tattoos. Markie dragooned him into helping us clean up the kitchen.
A half-dozen plastic garbage bags later, Markie’s friend had made himself scarce. Markie leaned on his broom, lit a cigarette, and asked, “So what’s new in your life, Billy? Girlfriend, anything like that?”
Markie’s attention and his willingness to help with the scutwork behind the scenes at the reception had put me at ease. As we cleaned, he had regaled me with stories of close brushes with the law and of his drunken exploits at parties with Quiet Riot, and I laughed until my sides ached. His friends were nice guys, not at all the way I had pictured drug dealers. My horizons were expanding and I was feeling good. “No girlfriend,” I said, “at least not at the moment.”
“Bummer, man,” he said.
“Well, it’s no big deal. I’m leaving on my mission soon anyway.”
Markie raised his eyebrows, dragging on his cigarette. “Mission? That’s like what Uncle Doug’s kid did. Lauren, right? Where’d she go?”
“Yeah, Iowa. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Hey, you’re smart. They’ll send you someplace like, I don’t know, China or something. Not Iowa.”
A broad open window above the counter in the kitchen looked out at the banquet hall. Markie puffed his cigarette, staring at the crowd. A new band played discordant rock from the stage, almost submerging the murmur of conversation.
“Hey,” I said, “is it true that Boingo’s supposed to play here?”
He nodded. “Yup.”
“I don’t know,” said Markie, distracted. “Party’s supposed to go all night. Midnight they’re on, I think.”
“No way,” I said, my heart sinking. It was only two in the afternoon.
Markie stubbed out his cigarette in the sink, still looking out at the crowd. “Hey, Billy, I see my friend Daisy out there.” He motioned. “C’mon, you gotta meet her.”
He led me through the door back into the banquet hall. “Who’s Daisy?” I asked.
With a little backward glance, he headed down the row between two tables. He leaned toward me so he could speak quietly. “She used to be one of my girls back when I was pimping. She quit all that to get married, but I think I could still get her to do my number-one cousin for free.”
All the breath left my lungs, like a giant rock had crushed my chest.
And suddenly there was Daisy.
She stood up from the table to greet Markie with a warm hug and a kiss, then sat down again. An empty chair waited to either side of her. Markie took the one closer to the stage. I took the other.
“Daize, this is my number-one cousin Billy,” said Markie.
The woman dutifully turned to shake my hand, but without really noticing me. She was thin, around Markie’s age, with skin tanned nearly to the texture of leather. Her hair was long and dirty blond, and she wore a sleeveless dress so short it was barely decent. The dress buttoned up the front, but it was unbuttoned to her sternum. After her perfunctory greeting, she turned back to Markie, and I was forgotten in the minutiae of their small talk.
After several minutes, I grew uncomfortable and restless enough that I decided it was time to excuse myself. But just as I was making my move, Markie leaned past Daisy and said, in a complete non sequitur, “Hey, Billy—are you still a virgin?”
Swallowing, I settled back into my chair. “Yes,” I said, feeling my limbs grow cold.
Daisy’s head swiveled around like a radar dish, locking into place as its target was acquired. Her green eyes fastened hungrily on me, sparkling. “Ree-ally,” she said.
“Look at that,” said Markie. “He’s a real Shunn. He can say that without even blushing.” He stood up and patted both Daisy and me on the shoulder. “Hey, I’ve got someone I need to go talk to. I’ll catch both of you later.”
Then Markie was gone. My lifeboat fled, I bobbed helpless and seasick on an unknown ocean.
Daisy’s shoulders shimmied a little. I could see the play of muscles beneath her skin as she squirmed in her chair. She hunched forward like a confessor or a confidant in her flimsy metal folding chair. Her bare knees nearly touched mine.
“So, you’re a virgin, Billy,” she said.
She was not my idea of attractive, but she exuded confidence and sexuality like a musk. I swallowed. Her eyes held me fast.
“That’s right,” I said.
“So, Goody Two-Shoes, what do you do? Do you mess around a little?” She shifted on her chair, smiling mischievously. “Do you eat pussy?”
My mouth was so dry I nearly choked. The giddy thought went through my brain that if Mormonism were a graduate program, then this was my real oral exam. It took me a moment to find my voice. “Uh, no—no, I don’t.”
Her brow furrowed in question. Her teeth were small and even. “Well, why not?”
The scents of meat and cigarette smoke seemed to thicken in my throat. I looked down, only to realize she was not wearing a bra. Quickly I looked up. “Because of my religion,” I said, somewhat stiffly.
Daisy burst out laughing. My cheeks blazed.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, waving her hand as she tried to get herself under control. “Religion, I’m sorry, I can respect that, I can respect it. You must take it very seriously.”
I nodded, trying to keep the tremor from my hands. I felt humiliated.
“What religion is it?” she asked.
“Mormon,” I said. “I’m going to be missionary pretty soon. I have to … adhere to standards.”
She leaned in close. I could smell the soap she had washed with, and I could see down her dress to her navel. “Look, I didn’t mean to laugh. That’s a great thing, really.” Her voice dropped to a husky, conspiratorial whisper. “But tell me, Billy—have you ever seen the inside of a cathouse?”
“Would you like to? I could give you a personal tour.”
“Well, I’m not sure I … I…”
“Here, I’ll give you a card.” She felt in the pocket of her dress. “Shit, they’re in the truck. And I can’t go get one or my husband will see me.” She compressed her lips in thought. “Here, do you have a pen?”
I patted my jacket. “Sorry, I’m fresh out.”
“Damn,” she said. “I’d give you my number and you could call, but—” She shrugged. “Well, that’s life.”
“C’est la vie,” I agreed.
She rested her chin in her hand, scrutinizing me through quizzical eyes. “Tell me one thing, Billy. Let’s say you wandered into a cathouse somehow, and a woman there tied you up and started to rape you. What would you do?”
I sighed, brows raised. “I don’t suppose there’d be much I could do. As long as I was helpless, I guess I’d have to just relax and try to enjoy it.”
Daisy smiled. She patted my knee and stood up. “You know something, Billy? You’re okay.”
She slung her purse over her brown, brown shoulder and strolled away into the crowd: some wicked, postmodern Mary Poppins hunting children more corruptible to nursemaid. Her image in my mind’s eye didn’t fade so quickly as she did, nor did her touch on my knee.
If only she knew how corruptible I wished I were.
Dazed, I wandered back to where my father was sitting with Aunt Deborah and Uncle Carl. Almost as soon as I sat down, my father wiped his mouth with his napkin, unsuccessfully hiding his scowl. “Well, I think it’s time for us to be leaving,” he said to the relatives. “We’ll see you back at the house.”
I looked at my watch. “But … Boingo…”
“You don’t want to be here until midnight,” said my father. In other words, he didn’t want me there until midnight.
And that was that. I never did get to meet Danny Elfman. But years later, that wasn’t the missed opportunity I was still thinking about. ∅
My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, is available from all the usual sources online, though I would encourage you to order it either from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.