By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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In the summer of 1979, I fell ruinously in love with a coltish, athletically robust Greek girl of fifteen named Nicole Liarkos. When I think of her now (which isn’t very often), I always imagine her poolside, her creamy caramel skin twice bisected by the triple triangles of her buttercup yellow bikini, her left arm blocking the sun from her eyes. We met in July of that year, on a church youth retreat in Panama City, Florida, and, as fate would have it, I fell for her the exact same week that Bob Dylan accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. I was thirteen years old. I knew next to nothing about sex, death, or God and absolutely everything about rock music.
I was a happy boy, perhaps the last happy boy on earth. Before going on that trip, I never imagined I could love anything as fervently as I did my record albums, my science-fiction novels, and my paper route. Thanks to the latter — which I inherited from my best friend, who, like so much else that year, would leave me for good at the end of the summer — I had enough disposable income to buy all the records I wanted. I had collected more than a hundred in all, the whole collection prominently displayed in my locked bedroom in alphabetical order: Aerosmith through ZZ Top.
My best friend was named Mark Luthardt. Like Nicole, he was two years my senior; unlike Nicole, he was my emotional equal — or perhaps even a year or two behind me: hard to say. He lived across the street. We took care of each other’s dogs, split lawn duties, shared the paper route. Mark was an angelically gentle boy, with perfectly straight brown hair cut into a Dutch-boy bowl, a narrow Scandinavian jaw (on which facial hair had already started to sprout), and crooked wire-framed glasses, the left temple screw replaced by a pink bobby pin. In the name of a tighter, safer fit, he wore his glasses outside his hair, thus producing a comical burlesque of sideburns.
Every morning during our final summer together, I trotted across the street to Mark’s house and sat, bored to oblivion, in his kitchen while he pored over the silver-and-gold-price index in the morning paper, his pathetic glasses perched on his forehead and his nose pressed against the tiny numbers. At the age of fifteen, he’d amassed more than ten thousand dollars in South African gold Krugerrands. I was the one person in the world to whom he had chosen to reveal the full extent of his wealth. Just before he left that August, Mark had declared himself a full-fledged libertarian, a complete set of heavily annotated Ayn Rand novels carefully sealed in their very own Mayflower box and insured against damages, his weathered briefcase packed to the clasp with multiple copies of Howard J. Ruff’s How to Prosper during the Coming Bad Years — sort of a cross between The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Late, Great Planet Earth — which he had begun handing out to people who weren’t aware of the financial apocalypse just around the corner.
Mark had the paper route first — an afternoon route, as it happened, one of the last of its kind before cable television obliterated evening newspapers — and since he was my best friend (in truth, my only friend), I started helping him out. Because the route covered ten miles of winding suburbia, we both developed Herculean thighs, not to mention a never-ending tolerance for ten-speed-bicycle seats. When we weren’t out delivering papers, we were riding our bikes downtown to hobby shops, bookstores, record emporiums, and anywhere else we could think of to spend our hard-earned income.
Little in my subsequent life has compared to the bliss of walking out of a Peaches record store on a hot summer day — my thighs wobbly with fatigue, a twenty-mile ride home still ahead of me — and withdrawing from its thin brown paper bag a new Who or Bruce Springsteen album. With Mark looking on and sharing my contagious excitement, I would stroke the cellophane wrapper, admire the jacket art, and read the song titles, putting off for just a little while longer the moment of truth. In the world of vinyl records, there were many possible extras inside the album. Was this a gatefold cover? Would there be a lyric sheet, or specially designed labels on the record itself? Would the packaging include a poster, decals, order forms for T-shirts and Velcro wallets? Next came the thrilling slide of the thumbnail down the cover’s right side, a delicate moment that released, like a genie from a bottle, the faint but unforgettable smell of virgin vinyl. Finally, there was that unrepeatable first look at the smooth, unblemished inner sleeve (lyrics!), at the shiny disc within (specialty labels!), and at the perfectly cut grooves glistening in the sun, in which lurked a very real genie indeed.
Mark granted me my music, as I granted him his financial obsession. Though I admired Mark’s genius, I also understood that I was almost totally alone in recognizing it. Mark had no other friends. Somehow, he had managed the transition from middle school to high school without changing a single thing about his wardrobe (loose-fitting, sans-a-belt slacks, T-shirt or untucked oxford button-down, black soccer sneakers), his grooming habits (wet comb, shave), or his daily schedule. I knew that in high school there were people called seniors who drove automobiles and smoked marijuana, and I knew there were fragrant women with big, billowing hair who cradled their spiral notebooks against their bosoms while they talked to you. Mark was unmoved by all of this. He came straight home every afternoon from school, helped me fold papers, did his half of the route, and spent the remainder of the evening shooting baskets with me or reading his coin magazines while I listened to my albums. Mark never once referred to a single classmate in casual conversation with me. I was it for him: I was his Chosen One.
All of which might explain why Mark was so hostile to my decision — forced upon me by my mother — to spend a week in Panama City with my church youth group.
“The whole thing sounds totally gay to me,” he complained, folding a newspaper and shaking his head in disappointment, glasses wobbling down his nose. “I don’t believe you can’t worm out of it.”
Actually, I could have, but for some reason, I chose not to. Before that summer, I had gone to only a few of the Sunday-night meetings, and hadn’t enjoyed myself at all: pizza, singing, group activity, a Talk. In our arguments about the trip, Mark was quick to remind me how much I hated the whole concept of Methodist Youth Fellowship, or MYF, for short. “They’re going to brainwash you,” he’d say, waving his fingers over my head and intoning in an ominous voice, “Repent. Date nice girls. Drink more Kool-Aid.” He also cited the fact that my going away would occupy a full week of summer, and not just any summer but, averting his gaze, “our very last summer before I move away.” Pause. “Forever.” And he grumbled about having to do the paper route alone.
All of this was true: I granted him the whole list, no caveats. Yet I still decided to go. For a year, my mother had been pestering me to get more involved with the youth group, to ask home some “nice boys” from school, to start dating girls — in short, to do all the things I was resolutely not doing so long as I spent all my time with Mark Luthardt. And I resisted her every step of the way, partly because, like Mark, I harbored a boiling contempt for my peers, most of whom cared only about being popular, and partly because I felt she was trying to come between Mark and me. I didn’t want to be part of a group. I had Mark and my albums and my paper route: that was enough. I resisted her out of solidarity with Mark and in direct defiance of her shallow, bourgeois hopes for me. And then one day, I stopped resisting.
The bus left the church parking lot on Sunday evening. By driving straight through the night, we would arrive at our cottages, refreshed and ready, early Monday morning, thereby maximizing our allotted time on the beach. I saw an additional, and purely personal, advantage to this arrangement: sleeping on the bus would allow me to put off for a good twelve hours — the length of the drive from Memphis to Florida — all full-scale interaction with my bus-mates. I planned to hunker down in the back and snooze the entire drive, and that is precisely what I tried to do — for about three hours. Then I gave up. The bus was in pandemonium. The cabin lights stayed on, the aisles remained packed with shrieking teenagers, and fifteen different tape players competed for airspace. To top it off, all these smiling, helpful kids kept plopping down beside me and introducing themselves: “Hi, I’m Jenna-Jeff-Holly-Hal-Matt-Michelle-Doug-Donna-Patti-Pat. Whatcha listening to? Whatcha doing? Welcome. Praise Jesus.” There was no place to go, no way to escape their kindness.
Then came the first of the trip’s veritable miracles. At around 2 A.M., while feigning sleep beneath my down sleeping bag, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. I looked up. Sitting primly beside me and extending her hand in greeting was a smiling high-school girl, her perfectly straight teeth brilliant in the murky bus light and her cheeks punctured by two pretty little dimples. “I’m Nicole,” she said, and tilted her head.
“Paul Darby,” I replied, gently squeezing her hand. She was the most spectacular creature I had ever seen. As I would later learn, she had been spending her summer working as an assistant coach for her country club’s swim team, so she was already radiantly tan, which only served to enhance her intrinsic air of calcium-enriched good health. Her glistening black hair, with its metallic blue highlights, was fashioned into an ingenious shag with stylish feathered bangs, the perfect sort of haircut to highlight the perky particulars of her face — the aristocratic cheekbones, the arched eyebrows, the long lashes, those dimples. The one odd note was her mouth, specifically her lips, which were less pink than a pale tan. In 1979, however, this oddity was an advantage, as it made her look as if she’d been born wearing glistening lip gloss.
She waited for me to say something else. When I failed to speak, she said, “I’ve never seen you at MYF, so I thought you’d be a good person to meet. You’re my third.”
“Your third what?”
“Third new person. Of course, it’s easier for me, since I’ve only gone about six times. My mom wanted me to come on this trip, which is fine. How about you? Is this your first time with the group?”
“No,” I told her, my voice quavering, “I’ve been a couple of times.”
“Right. So you shouldn’t have any trouble getting five people. You can count me as one if you’d like.”
She studied me for a moment. Her eyes were a cool ice green, with a thin black border around the irises; set against the dark Mediterranean glow of her skin, they made her seem positively lit from within. “You know, the Meet ’n’ Greet thing?” she said. “On the itinerary sheet? The one we had to sign?”
Actually, I had signed a stapled document before boarding the bus, but I hadn’t read it. Since my mom was the one writing the checks and buying the supplies, I’d let her handle the fine print.
“You can look at mine,” Nicole said, and scooted forward in the seat, her knee brushing my thigh. From her back pocket she withdrew a stapled document folded lengthwise. I took the pages in my hand; they were still warm. “Page four,” she explained.
And there it was, just below the supply list: “Group Activity #1: Meet ’n’ Greet! On the bus ride down, introduce yourself to at least five (5) new people you don’t already know. Ask ’em where they go to school, what their hobbies are, and where they are in their walk with Christ! We’ll all compare notes on Monday night, and the one with the most names and info just might win a prize!”
No wonder all those people had been so eager to introduce themselves to me. “I guess I missed that,” I told her.
“It’s kind of geeky, huh?” She took the sheet back, folded it once, and slid it into her pocket. “But it’s not so bad. I’m almost done. Like I said, you can count me as one.”
I needed four more, so, wearily, I got to work. And that is how I met Laine Blevins, the one figure from the trip whose friendship and influence would outlive the summer. Thin and soft featured, with longish brown hair so straight you could see the lines left in it by the teeth of his comb, Laine had entered his early adolescence in full command of a style best described as “seventies mellow”: Whatever, man. It’s cool. The nation would soon shift from mellow to uptight in one Presidential election, and Laine would be expelled from the mainstream and into the school parking lot, where the stoners huddled together beside the open doors of jacked-up Trans Ams and rusty Pintos. But that summer he was still very much a part of the zeitgeist.
“What’s up,” Laine murmured in response to my half-hearted introduction. After giving me a limp handshake, he ran his hand through his hair (perfunctory middle part), which fell back into place as smoothly as a shuffled deck of cards. An expensive pair of Bose headphones wreathed his narrow neck, the coiling cord affixed to a Panasonic portable eight-track player.
“Nice equipment,” I commented, gesturing toward the headphones, to which Laine responded with a faint and dreamy smile, the seventies-mellow gesture of thanks. Then I asked the decisive question: “What’re you listening to?”
Laine looked me over, sizing me up. I knew what he was thinking: I was very likely just another MYF geek; on the other hand, I’d had the good taste to acknowledge his headphones; at the same time, I might just be buttering him up for a Bible assault. “Floyd,” he finally said.
“Pre or post Dark Side?”
“Syd Barrett or Roger Waters?”
“Post Syd, definitely, but still pretty cool.”
“I hear you,” I said. And, despite myself, I smiled, as did Laine. We were both stunned. Verily, there was a God.
For the rest of that bus ride, from Mississippi all the way to the northwestern tip of Florida, which we penetrated in the pale pink of early Monday morning, Laine and I talked music. I learned that he, too, had been pressured to come on this trip by his mother, which put us both in the same boat as Nicole, whose whereabouts on the bus I did not for a single minute cease monitoring. (Three seats back, now two seats ahead, moved to the front of the bus, here she comes again.) In short, life was good. In the space of one hour, I had made a new friend and contracted a voluptuous virus called Nicole Liarkos. For the first time in several years, I completely forgot about Mark Luthardt.
Nicole Liarkos was totally out of my league. I ascertained this little fact early Monday afternoon, sometime after our first group meeting, which was held in the cafeteria, postlunch. (Grilled cheese sandwiches, grape Kool-Aid.) I was in back with Laine. Sitting Indian-style on a table in front of us was a tall blond boy in blue swim trunks who, between singalong numbers, kept extending his long leg in front of him and inserting his big toe into the belt loop of Nicole’s cut-off jeans. Without turning around, she would slap his foot away and resume singing. Laine would then turn to me with a smirk and shake his head in disapproval. Pansy, he seemed to be saying. Playing grab-ass with a bunch of girls. I nodded, though, in truth, I kind of envied the blond boy. I’d never played grab-ass with girls. I’d never even played patty-cake with girls.
Group meetings were run by Josh McVray, the head counselor and MYF director, a stupefyingly intense twenty-four-year-old divinity student, amateur marathon runner, and all-around motivational life force who, I later learned, had talked my mother into talking me into going on this trip. He weighed about 145 pounds, all of it dense muscle, and had a shaggy beard and thinning brown hair, which fell behind his ears and down his long neck. When he talked (which was often), and particularly when he grew ardent about his subject (which was every time he talked), he would stare at his auditors with great intensity and never blink. A tiny but tenacious deposit of saliva would palpitate in the corner of his mouth, staining his beard and producing a slight lisp.
“So here we are,” Josh was saying from the front of the room, saliva spraying his beard, his acoustic guitar hanging like a vendor’s tray against his chest, “in Panama City, Florida, a paradise if I’ve ever seen one. Sunshine, palm trees, the ocean. And no school, no studies — who doesn’t think that’s paradise?” Gentle laughter. “But before we all race out to the beach, I want us to turn our thoughts, just for a moment, to our Lord and Savior, Emmanuel. In the fall, we’ll all go back to school and worship at the altar of fact and reason, but for now I want us to try something different. This week, I want you to change your thinking just a little bit. While we’re all here in paradise, on vacation from school, I want us all to turn off that reasoning part of our brains and try to embrace —” dramatic pause — “unreason. That’s right. You heard me. Now, what do I mean by unreason? Well, God says in I Corinthians . . .”
“You’re Paul, aren’t you?” someone said in my ear. It was the blond boy. Without my noticing it, he had somehow transported himself from his table to mine and was now sitting just above my shoulder. “I’m Caleb,” he whispered. “I meant to introduce myself on the bus, but I was, you know, sorta busy.” He ran the moist tip of his tongue along his top lip. “Anyway, I was talking with Shelley over there, and she says she really wants to meet you. Catholic girl, if you know what I mean.”
He inclined his head forward and winked. Two tables up, the Shelley in question was looking back at me, smiling without a hint of self-consciousness, despite her headgear and braces. Beside her, oblivious, sat Nicole Liarkos, in a T-shirt that bore the wet imprint of her bikini bra.
In response to Shelley’s smile, I did nothing. Not one thing. Girls didn’t normally look at me, not even girls in headgear. Although I thought about girls incessantly — in the abstract, anyway — I rarely talked about them. Mark, to my knowledge, recognized only two female human beings in the world: his sister and his mother, both of whom he dismissed as minor irritants.
Josh continued to talk ardently about unreason. Laine coughed, “Bullshit,” into his fist. Shelley was still smiling in my direction. Caleb poked me in the rib cage. After a tense moment of indecision, I waved.
“Forget about Nicole,” Caleb told me later that afternoon, in the ocean. “I already got the scoop from Shelley, who goes to her school. Basically, Nicole only dates older guys — seniors and shit. So she’s a lost cause. You’ll get nowhere. Trust me, I’ve tried. On a trip like this, Paul, what you need to look for is willingness.” He made a squirt gun of his cupped hands and nailed me in the cheek. “That’s the cardinal virtue here: all other things are secondary. You’ve only got one week, after all.” He squirted me again. “And for willingness above and beyond the call of duty, I give you Shelley Broward.”
For Caleb, Methodist Youth Fellowship was first and foremost about nookie. His particular genius lay in the fact that he flirted with every girl on the trip, including the homeliest of the homely. By being so indiscriminate and generous in his affections, he came off to the counselors as a thoughtful paragon of Christian goodwill. Meanwhile, he was scoring like an NBA all-star.
“So you struck out with Nicole?” I tried squirting him back but couldn’t figure out how to cup my hands correctly.
“That’s right, little man, and so will you. Now, about the headgear: it comes off, I’m pretty sure. And it might work to your advantage. Who’d think to fool around with Shelley Broward? No one, probably. Which means she’s that much more willing.”
Willing or not, Shelley Broward didn’t interest me. I blithely ignored Caleb’s advice and directed all my energies that week to the foolhardy pursuit of the nimble Nicole. I still kept Caleb around, though, because he was my ticket to Nicole. With Laine, I was in a purely male space, a boyish land of record albums and esoterica and displaced affection. It was Mark Luthardt all over again: not altogether a bad thing. The problem was, there was no room in this friendship for girls. Caleb, on the other hand, had no room for anything else. At group meetings, he always plopped himself down among the girls; on the beach, he lounged among them like a sun-tanned sultan in his harem. Without Caleb to hide behind, I don’t know if I ever would have approached Nicole; with Caleb, I found the courage, or at least a good enough pretext, to settle down beside her at group meetings, fetch her Frescas from the soda machine, and sit with her on the bus whenever we went out as a group. She accepted my presence without complaint, but also without much enthusiasm. Since no one else was pursuing her — which is to say, since no one else was foolish enough to pursue her — she had no reason to reject my advances, such as they were. I wasn’t hurting anything.
Oh, but I was hurting. I was in exquisite, delicious pain. Sitting beside her on the bus, I would experience debilitating paralysis of the tongue. Out on the beach, as she made a delectable sky-offering of her skin, I would run sand through my fingers and sulk at the hopelessness of my plight. All the other kids knew I was in love with her and pitied me accordingly. It was finally Shelley Broward, of all people, who stopped me outside the dining hall and, squinting against the sun, asked, “How you doing? You gonna be OK?” Meanwhile, no one seemed to fault Nicole for her relative disinterest in me; just the opposite, in fact. By suffering my presence so gladly, she was, in their view (and mine, as well), practicing a rare form of Christian kindness. Which probably hurt more than anything else.
Still, I was not the only one striking out with Nicole Liarkos. In his own way, Josh was failing, too. Despite the trip’s narrow focus on frolicsome good fun — the endless days at the beach, the afternoons at Putt-Putt golf, the harmless pranks (stolen underwear, shaving-cream fights) — there remained a serious component to it all, a complex message of salvation and sin that Josh disclosed to us gradually, day by day, with all the desperate good humor of a substitute teacher slowly gaining control of a rambunctious class. He continued to develop his theme of unreason with each passing meal or progressively cozy group meeting. By midweek, even Laine, the biggest skeptic of us all, had stopped sneering, and it was safe to say that nearly every member of the group was growing ever more serious in his or her commitment to Christ. Everyone, that is, except Nicole. The serious message of the trip, which everyone else was now openly discussing, slid off her like water. She listened during Talks, sang all the folk songs, and participated in activities, but each morning she was back on her lounger, working on her tan and serenely thumbing through her fashion magazines.
Everything took a decisive turn on Friday afternoon. After lunch (hot dogs, Kool-Aid), Josh stood up at the front of the hall and, clutching his acoustic guitar, lowered his head as if in meditation. He stayed this way — motionless, deep in thought — for at least three or four minutes, during which time the room slowly quieted down. Soon the only person in the entire room still moving was Nicole, who, sitting indifferently beside me, was busy adjusting her baseball cap. I looked at her with disapproval as she settled the cap on her head and pulled her hair through the back opening. She looked spectacular, a regal, untouchable Diana in a damp T-shirt and khaki shorts.
“Something incredible has occurred,” Josh began, lifting his head slowly and scanning the room. “There are people — good, devout people — who will tell you that God is no longer at work in the world, but I’m here to tell you they are wrong. I am here to give you clear evidence of a miracle.” He paused. “Does everybody know who Bob Dylan is? The famous rock musician?”
Stunned, I turned to Laine, who was looking with rapt intensity at the front of the room. Dylan and the Doors were two of his fiercest obsessions.
“Well,” Josh went on, “about twenty minutes ago, I learned that Bob Dylan, the most influential rock musician of the last twenty years, has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Think about that for a moment, people. Bob Dylan has found the Lord.”
Josh waited for this news to settle in, and when no discernible response escaped from his bewildered audience, he forcefully led everyone in a round of applause. We all joined in, though, in fact, no one was really sure what we were applauding. For most of the world, Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity was an intriguing tidbit, nothing more; for Josh McVray, a child of the sixties and a fervent evangelical, it was an Event, a genuine turning point in his life, on par with Nixon’s resignation.
“All week, I’ve been listening to your rock music,” he continued. “The tape players and the radios have been going nonstop for five days now. And I understand why this is so. I was once just like you. I once owned hundreds of rock albums. I went to countless rock concerts. It got so that I couldn’t wake up in the morning without first putting on an album, and I couldn’t fall asleep unless I had music going. Then one day, I realized something that changed my life forever.” With impeccable stagecraft, he unstrapped his guitar and set it aside; he now stood naked before us, without a prop. “My love of music was getting in the way of my walk with Christ. I was enslaved to my records. My head was filled with secular music when it should have been filled with my love of God. How much of that music glorified God? None of it. In fact, most of it glorified Satan. You know what music I’m talking about. You know the groups I mean. So what did I do?” He looked around the room, making eye contact with nearly every person assembled there.
My scalp prickled with trepidation. I, too, fell asleep to music; I, too, could not begin my day without first putting on a record. My head was stuffed with song lyrics and rock-music trivia: I was enslaved to it, just like Josh. Beside me, Nicole applied nail polish to her left big toe.
“I’ll tell you what I did,” Josh continued. “I burned all my albums, every last one of them. Hundreds and hundreds of albums, all up in smoke. And why? Why on earth did I do this extraordinary thing? Because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was the right thing to do. What does not bring me closer to God takes me away from Him. It’s that simple. And now, this miracle. Now we learn that Bob Dylan has accepted the Lord. His days of secular music are over. Do you people realize how important this is to the community of God? Do you understand the significance of what has just happened?”
Suddenly, I remembered a kid in my sixth-grade class who, upon returning home from a Baptist-youth-group retreat, ceremoniously burned all his Aerosmith albums. I remembered his curious explanation for this rash act — something about secular versus sacred music — and I vividly recalled thinking how easy it would have been for him simply to have given me the fucking albums. Afterward, this same boy began listening exclusively to Christian rock, and since I was the most respected music critic in our class, he loaned me a few of these albums, to gauge my opinion. After giving the records a cursory listen, I remained unimpressed: the songs certainly sounded like rock music, and the lyrics were cunningly devised to seem, at first blush, like standard love songs, revealing themselves only on closer inspection to be love songs to Christ. But, all in all, this was tepid, unconvincing music, somewhat like a television producer’s faulty but well-meaning idea of rock-and-roll. (Think the Partridge Family; think the Monkees.) Now, however, I understood what this boy had been trying to tell me. He had heard the same message that I had just heard, and he had heeded its stern and obdurate logic.
Later that evening, I asked Laine, “What did you think of group meeting today?” We were standing in line for a ride at the Miracle Mile, a local Panama City amusement park. In lieu of the standard postdinner Talk, Josh had informed us that he had a wonderful surprise in store, in honor of our last night in Florida. Then he’d herded us onto the bus. Miracle Mile was the surprise.
“You mean the Dylan thing?”
“More or less.” We shuffled forward. Though I wasn’t exactly pleased by the fact, Nicole and Shelley and Caleb were in the haunted house just around the corner. Everyone had agreed that the house looked like a gyp, but Caleb had taken the ironic position that it would be fun for that very reason. Laine and I had opted for the Rockin’ Toboggan, an unspectacular, high-speed merry-go-round set to deafening rock music. “I mean, it got me thinking, you know? That’s me, if you think about it. I’m just like that. I mean, I’m not saying I agree with everything he said, but it just . . . I don’t know. It got me thinking.”
“It was pretty heavy, all right.” Laine tore off a tuft of cotton candy, offered me some, then craned his neck to see the front of the line. “That’s weird about Dylan.”
“Yeah, isn’t it? But it’s also good, don’t you think?” I realized I was treading on dangerous turf here. Was he with me, or was he holding something back? I wasn’t sure which I wanted; I was waiting for Laine to tell me where I was heading.
“Depends on his next album,” he replied. Then he wadded up the now-bare cardboard cone, positioned himself at an imaginary free-throw line, and sank the wad in a wire trash basket some fifteen feet away. Several people in line applauded. “You done talking about this?”
My heart dropped. “Sure. Whatever. Sorry.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, if you’re not done, that’s cool. We can keep talking about it. But if you are done, I need to ask you something.”
“About you and Shelley . . . I guess I’m asking if there’s anything going on between you guys.”
“Where’d you get that idea?” I was stunned: I thought everyone had been charting my doomed pursuit of Nicole.
“Just checking. What I’m saying is, you won’t get uptight if I try my luck?”
“Of course not,” I laughed. “Be my guest.”
“ ’Cause I don’t want something like that coming between us.”
And for the rest of the night, Laine was my ticket to Nicole. After the Rockin’ Toboggan, we met up with the girls again, and within the half-hour, Laine was sharing one Ferris-wheel car with Shelley while I shared another with Nicole. In a moment of exultation inspired by the upward swing of the wheel, I suddenly realized my boyish universe had turned coed.
“I hate these things,” Nicole remarked, looking down at the glittering tableau below us. She was dressed in white jeans, a pink Izod golf shirt, and a baseball cap. Her painted toes poked from the leather straps of a brand-new pair of Pappagallo sandals.
“What do you hate about them?”
“The way they stop.”
We began moving again, our little car tilting back and forth. We passed the frightening carny in charge, then the rumbling engine, then began our ascent back up to the top.
“I just wish it would go around and around,” Nicole said.
“But they have to let other people on.”
“Not necessarily. They don’t stop roller coasters.”
I wasn’t prepared to argue this point. As we moved inexorably toward the moon, I began to pray that we would stop at the top, whereupon I suddenly realized that this was the whole point of Ferris wheels: to get stuck on top with your girl. Lo and behold, that is precisely what happened next.
“Oh, God,” Nicole cried, and she squeezed my hand hard enough to grind my knuckles together.
I tried to think of a snappy line but came up blank. In point of fact, I never knew what to say to Nicole. I had no idea what interested her, no clue what her opinions were, no inkling of what subjects spurred her to action. After a full week of tireless devotion, I had not bothered to learn the slightest thing about the way her mind worked. She had neither helped nor hindered me in this process; I simply hadn’t known what the hell I was doing. I knew nothing about girls. Painfully aware of my failure, cognizant that time was running out, desperate to make this moment on top of the Ferris wheel mean something to both of us, I suddenly asked, “What did you think of the Bob Dylan story?”
Gently, she withdrew her hand. Peering over the railing, her eyes somehow illuminated by the bright moon overhead, she replied, “What songs does he sing?”
“Who? Bob Dylan?”
“Yeah. Like, what songs of his would I know? On the radio, I mean.”
“Gosh, Nicole, I guess I . . . This is Bob Dylan we’re talking about. You know who Bob Dylan is, don’t you?”
“I think so.”
“ ‘Like a Rolling Stone’?”
“Oh, sure, I know the Rolling Stones.”
“No, that’s the title of a song by Bob Dylan.”
“Hey, look, there’s Caleb.” She pointed down at the pavement: sure enough, there he was, leaning against a rail and talking to a group of girls, all of them plucking and chewing on billowing puffs of cotton candy. The Ferris wheel began moving again, at which point Nicole did a spectacular, if also perhaps unintentional, thing: she pressed her thigh against mine. When I looked down, I saw that her hand was resting palm up along this very same thigh. It was mine for the taking, this hand. I needed simply to reach for it, and that would be that. Instead I asked, “Can I kiss you?”
The great wheel continued to surge forward, thrusting us out into the sky and then tugging us down to the pavement, where Caleb was still regaling his girls. Nicole’s hand stayed right where it was. With a great crunch, the wheel came to another stop, this time for us, and just as the cigarette-smoking carny unlocked our safety rail, she said, “Maybe.”
© Roger Pfingston
At midnight that same evening, I was standing, blindfolded, in a line that was slowly moving off the bus and across what I took to be the cottage compound. Nicole was in front of me, Shelley in back, and Laine behind her. After we’d donned our blindfolds, Josh had commanded us to hold hands, forming, to use his term, a “human chain of Christian fellowship.” So now we walked in staggered single file, giggling and whispering, tickling and copping feels. Josh tried to quiet us as he led us into an air-conditioned room that I took to be the dining hall. Once we were all assembled, he asked us to sit down on the floor and remove our blindfolds.
The lights in the dining hall were out. I could tell we’d been arranged in a circle, but it was difficult to see who was sitting beside whom. Still, I knew that Nicole was beside me, since I had been holding her hand all this time. A couple of coughs escaped into the darkness. After a moment or two, a black, silhouetted figure crawled into the middle of the circle and lit a candle on the floor. Eerily, Josh’s bearded face appeared out of the gloom, the candle’s flickering light casting macabre shadows across his severe facial features. A hush enveloped the room.
In a near whisper, he began: “We’ve been having a wonderful time this weekend, but now we need to turn our thoughts to Jesus.”
The first thing I noticed was Nicole Liarkos clear across the room, sitting cross-legged next to Shelley Broward and trying unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle. Was she laughing at the clever way she’d ditched me? When had we been separated? My heart pounded with dread; truly, miracles were afoot.
“Tonight,” Josh was saying, “I want to share with you one word. It is the word of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” He got comfortable in the middle of our circle, brought his knees to his chest, and continued: “The word I want to share with you guys is joy — the joy you can receive when you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Now, what is the meaning of joy? I’ll tell you. Joy is three things.” He brought his clenched fist to his face and began counting off with his fingers: “Joy is Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. Jesus, Others, and Yourself. J-O-Y. That is what true Joy is.
“Tomorrow we’re going to leave this wonderful place. We’ll get on that bus and return to our everyday lives. But how many of us are going to go right back to the same old way of living? How many of us are going to act like this week never happened? How many of us are going to put our needs before those of our loved ones? How many of us are going to forget all about Jesus?”
With the back of his wrist, he wiped a dollop of saliva from his beard and paused long enough to let his words sink in. Was Nicole Liarkos listening to this? Did she feel Jesus in that room? Did I? I squinted to catch her expression, but she had her head down. I think she was adjusting her sandal straps. Beside her, in full orthodontic headgear, Shelley yawned.
“I think we can all feel Jesus in this room right now,” Josh continued. “I can feel Him; you can feel Him; we can all feel Him. Yet how many of us are going to put Jesus first, others second, and ourselves last?”
Several people murmured their assent. Josh nodded, collected his thoughts, and resumed:
“In John 3:16, Jesus tells us that because God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son, and that whosoever believes in Him shall never perish, but shall have eternal life. He also tells us that there is no way to the Father but through Him. There is no middle ground. Either you’re with Jesus, or you’re against Him. So. Now I want to ask each and every one of you a simple question: Are you prepared to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Are you ready to give your life over to Him, placing all things in His hands? Are you prepared to choose eternal life over eternal damnation in the fires of hell?”
Shelley broke the silence by saying, in a tiny voice, “I’m prepared.”
“That’s wonderful, Shelley,” Josh whispered, and in the murky candlelight, I saw his mouth spread into a sinister Cheshire-cat grin. “That’s just great. Praise the Lord. Who else?”
No one said a word. Unable to sit still any longer, I stretched out my leg and began to steady my breathing. I felt a slight quiver in my throat, as if something down there were prompting me to speak.
“OK,” Josh finally said, “some of us are shy. I can understand that. But there’s really nothing to be shy about. This is a wonderful thing we’re all about to do. If you’re ready to accept the Lord, all you have to do is say so. And once you do accept Him, all you have to do is tell five people. That’s all: five people. And from that moment on, from that second on, you will have eternal life. So, if you’re ready to let Jesus into your life, simply repeat after me: ‘I accept.’ ”
I held my breath. As I sat there in the mounting silence, I thought bitterly about Mark Luthardt, who would be abandoning me at the end of the summer. I thought about his adherence to the egoistic principles espoused by Ayn Rand and the way these principles were directly opposed to the tenets of Christianity. According to Mark, three things stood in the way of true egoism, which was the chief virtue of capitalism: the demand for self-sacrifice, the elevation of society over the individual, and the worship of unreason. These were the very values, he once explained, that lay at the root of Nazi Germany, and they were now poised to destroy the very core of America itself. But perhaps Ayn Rand was wrong. Even worse, perhaps Mark Luthardt was wrong.
Then I thought about Nicole, who was apparently equating me with the evangelical component of the trip and passing on us both. And I thought about the evangelical component of the trip, of which I had suddenly grown very possessive, the same way I sometimes felt about underrated rock bands. I was helpless to explain how I had arrived at this moment, in this circle, with Josh sitting before his candle and so on, but I knew I was there, and I knew — or, at least, I felt — that it all added up to something.
“I accept,” Josh repeated, prompting us along.
Someone said something — a female voice, I couldn’t tell whose. The word “I” broke the silence, and I felt a renewed surge of conviction. There in the dark, my stomach fluttering, I opened my mouth, and the words came out.
When I got back home, I was sullen, secretive, and terminally lovesick. Aside from Josh, I had told no one that I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, so I knew I still had to make my admission of faith to four more people, the burden of which weighed on me like a cross. I had also made a promise to myself, in the white heat of my new conviction, to burn all my albums as soon as I returned home, a duty I was dreading more than anything else in my life up till then.
“That’s how you know it’s the right thing to do,” Josh had assured me on the bus, when I’d told him about my misgivings. “Listen to your heart. Use unreason.”
When I walked into my room and dropped my sleeping bag on the floor, the first thing I saw was my albums. They leapt into the light like beloved friends applauding my return. My beautiful albums! How much time and energy I had spent collecting them all. How rich in memory and association they were. Each one evoked a specific, poignant recollection: I could recite the exact circumstances surrounding the purchase of all 125 discs, the whole collection forming a private transcription of my long, rich, and now doomed friendship with Mark Luthardt. Flipping through them, my hands trembling, I suddenly resolved to burn only the ones that seemed especially sinister and secular. I pulled out all the kiss records, since there was a rumor that the group’s name was an acronym for Kids In Service to Satan. I withdrew every record that contained a song with the word hell in the title. After about an hour, I had some twenty records ready for the match. I gathered up the whole lot, tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen for a box of matches, and walked out into the humid summer night. In my backyard, I entered a cluster of trees that surrounded our property and set the records in the dirt and struck a match.
I really did mean to burn them all — or at least the twenty or so discs I had pulled out of the stack. To this day, I firmly believe I would have burned them all had they been in my immediate possession the night of the candlelight vigil. But, in the end, I burned only the kiss albums. I had outgrown kiss, after all. I may have been willing to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, but there was no way I could accept a lifetime of listening exclusively to Christian rock.
The next day, I walked across the street to see Mark Luthardt. I had been dreading this encounter almost as much as the album burning. In a dim way, I felt that I had betrayed him that final night; in fact, the whole trip felt like a betrayal of our friendship.
Mark was sitting at his kitchen table reading the stock quotes. When he saw me, he simply smiled and said, “You’re back. Nice tan.”
I sat down. We neither hugged nor shook hands; such displays of affection were not part of our relationship vocabulary. Setting aside the newspaper, he lowered his glasses and regarded me for a moment. “So, how was it?”
“Not bad,” I said.
Apparently satisfied with this answer, Mark then launched into a long and fervid account of his latest discovery. While I was away, Mark had learned about someone named Lyndon H. LaRouche, who had recently gone public with “some very disturbing accusations about the United States government.” Mark told me all about LaRouche’s newsletter, the Executive Intelligence Review, to which he had recently subscribed, and about LaRouche’s shocking revelations regarding the World Bank (really a front for a New World Order government) and the queen of England (actually a cia operative engaged in the Colombian drug trade). As he relayed this extraordinary news to me, I sat there trying to decide what to tell him about my recent trip. Should I tell him that I had found a new way to make friends? That I was sick in love with a girl who would never love me back? That I didn’t really care about Lyndon H. LaRouche, whoever he was? That I had outgrown our friendship? Because it was true. More than anything else, that trip to Florida had irrevocably changed my attitude about Mark. It had torn me from his gravitational pull and given my limping soul a chance to leap prematurely into the afterlife, which for me meant my life post–Mark Luthardt. Like a skillful pediatrician, Fate had distracted me while inserting her needle, and I realized I was already starting to heal from the wound of his leaving.
When Mark stopped talking about LaRouche and the New World Order, I cleared my throat and said, “I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” I wanted to tell him about Bob Dylan, and about secular versus sacred music, and about how I had promised to tell five people about my recent good news, but first I waited for Mark’s reaction. It would determine how I would proceed.
Mark looked at me incredulously for a moment. “What the fuck did you just say?”
“Nothing,” I muttered. “Forget it. I was just kidding.”
And that was the end of that. Although Mark and I finished out the summer under a cloud of discomfort, we continued to do all the things we’d always done and said our shy goodbyes in August.
That September, I went back to school a changed person, though changed in what way I couldn’t decide. I hovered around myf for another year or so, then dropped out. All told, I’d say my conversion to Christianity lasted about as long as Bob Dylan’s.
Nicole Liarkos never again returned to myf. Sometime after my graduation from college, I finally got over her. Sort of.
I went to visit Mark a couple of times during high school. He was pleased to have scored the biggest bedroom in his parents’ new house. As the years rolled on, his cavernous room became a bunker of sorts, the broad hardwood floor buried beneath massive stacks of the Executive Intelligence Review newsletter, which Mark had started stockpiling in anticipation of the impending New World Order. The last time I visited him was just before my freshman year in college, in the summer of 1984, Orwell’s famous year. We corresponded for a while after that. Mark continued to drift further and further into the frightening fringes of the far right. Then, midway through the Iran-Contra hearings of 1986, he experienced a major breakdown. When he returned from the hospital a month or two later, he formally accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.