Don't judge me: when I was a senior in high school, I was a compulsive litterer. I got the biggest kick out of throwing the biggest items out the window. Hitting drivers of convertibles or Jeeps with small pieces of rubbish was particularly rewarding. So was hitting street lights, stop signs, or cop cars. Parked ones. Mind you, I would never litter in the woods. But if we were in an already-polluted urban setting, and if there was a highway adoption sign up for some company I didn't really love, and if there were an eggshell carton or a Blockbuster receipt or a refrigerator box (yeah, I totally hit the Channel 7 News van with one of THOSE) in the car, I just couldn't help myself. Creating jobs, I would say. If the government is going to pay farmers to not grow corn, they can pay those lazy jerks to come out here and pick up my trash. Of course, this was mostly the result of my strict Mormon upbringing. I felt, with every toss of a Twinkie wrapper, that same shameful glee that normal kids must have felt when sneaking a cigarette, looking at a Playboy, or stealing pogs from the Pog Store in the mall. I could feel exhilarated and guilty, and I didn't even have to commit an actual sin! Breaking laws and still getting into heaven! The perfect Mormon teenage rebellion is one that would piss your mother off if she knew, but that you haven't ever heard them speak specifically about in church.
Anyway, the littering comes back later.
One weekend, I went camping with some Foof's (Friends Of Other Faiths), or "gentiles," as Brigham Young would have called them. There was Justin, the giant, whom we derisively called "Wheels," just so he would think we only kept him around for his car, which I'm not sure wasn't really the case. At any rate, it worked, because he always volunteered to drive us places in his huge beat-up Station Wagon, which we lovingly referred to as "Ecto 1," though it was not nearly as cool as the Ghostbusters' car, as this one had wood paneling on the outside and carpet that smelled like fat-roll sweat and cracked leather that revealed yellowing foam on the inside. Justin was actually a giant, at least in our minds. He was tall and fat and had a voice that rumbled around in his bowels, and he would later be able to hold a LOT of liquor. We also had Brad, my best friend, who gesticulated wildly with his massive Italian hands and was practicing a new smile for cameras that weekend where he would stick his tongue into the gap in his teeth so he would look less like a "gay zombie" in pictures. And there was Jeffie, who, when everyone was lighting their hands on fire using lighter fuel, decided to spray some on his crotch, caught his jeans on fire, and had to run into the frigid lake to keep the scorching zipper from doing further damage to his genitals. There was Peter, who would not use the latrine at night, because Brad had convinced him there was a monster living down in the poop, and whom we'd all agreed would be the first to die if this ended up being a horror movie, because he was likable but banal. And finally, there was Derek, who would wear a jock strap on the outside of his green jeans, and whom I think I never saw without a top hat on. He was the only one of us with facial hair, but Brad referred to it as "pubes growing from his chin." So, I never want to see Brad naked, because Derek's beard was GROSS. I'm not sure where I found these guys. They were somehow connected with the drama department at school, though they weren't really in the plays. They were sort of the "rafter people," if that means anything to you.
They packed along an energy drink appropriately called "Red Devil." It was Caffeinosaurus Rex, basically. Now, I don't ever drink caffeine. In fact, at that point in my life, I never had imbibed so much as a Pepsi. Not even diet. My friends thought this peculiarity about me was hilarious. These friends had once come across a video that the church had produced to teach us teenagers about the dangers of peer pressure. They also had a keen understanding of something that we Mormons don't always like to admit about our mindset, which is that without some level of persecution, we never really feel fully Mormon. Being mocked and scorned is in our heritage, and we somehow feel we are letting down our pioneer forbears if living our religion is easy and nobody is picking on us. So my kind friends obliged me by acting out the stereotypical "non-members tempting the Mormon with beer" routine they had learned in that video, only with this caffeine drink. All weekend, it was, "Come on, Robbie, all the cool kids are drinking these," and, "I bet he's just too chicken," and, "are you going to let you bishop and your parents run your life?" I played into their little scenarios like a good Peter Priesthood should. "You guys, you are my friends, but I respect my body too much to be putting harmful substances into it." This went on sporadically for the whole weekend.
The final day, we were packing up to leave, and I was mostly just hovering around the table, trying to pretend I was helping by stuffing whatever food was left over into my mouth so we wouldn't have to pack it up again. Jeffie came over and opened the cooler, and there was one lone Red Devil left. He reached for it, but before he could grasp it, I reached out, popped the top, and didn't stop 'til I'd slopped the last drop. In one single breath, I had committed what might have been my worst sin since sixth grade when I lied to the principal and told him I hadn't been playing chicken fight in the jungle gym when I broke my arm. My friends were instantly flabbergasted, but then highly amused. Mormon 0, Devil 1, by their count. By the time they had stopped laughing, I was beginning to learn that a caffeine buzz is completely indistinguishable from the feeling of the Holy Ghost leaving one's body. We piled up into the car and began the tortuous journey home.
As I'm perpetually ravenous, I soon began to bug the other guys about stopping for some grub. We drove-thru a Taco Bell, and I ate a ton and drank a large root beer. Soon the effects of the Red Devil, the windy road, and the "Mexican" food combined, and I knew I was going to retch. So, I totally blew chunks in the plastic Taco Bell bag. It was unpleasant, but as a point of reference, it was not as bad as ralphing Kenticky Fried Chicken (which is the worst I have experienced), but still slightly worse than just eating at a Long John Silver's. And since Taco Bell, and all Mexican food, really, only uses four or five ingredients to create the entire menu, it didn't look all that different from how it had moments before I had eaten it. A fun fact about root beer: its main coloring agent, caramel coloring, acts as an acid/base indicator, like red cabbage juice that you get to play with in elementary school science classes, and when it hits the acids in your stomach, it turns into a bright pink, frothy liquid that the masticated tortillas and ground beef kind of float around in if that's what you've been eating, which is really neat to look at, but smells terrible. So now we were driving down the freeway with a bag of vomit in the car, and Justin was displeased with this new piece of cargo in Ecto 1. You don't want to see an angry giant, even if he isn't quite as big as I recall. And remember, gentle reader, my propensity toward littering....
Without a second thought, I chucked the upchucked muck out the open window. The bag spun straight to the windshield of the car behind us, smearing throw-up everywhere. The driver of that car turned on the windshield wipers, but the bag was stuck to one, and the vomit spread everywhere. There were napkins and wrappers and things, too, creating a tarring-and-feathering effect as they stuck to the beans and cheese and stomach acid on the clear glass; it was terrible. After the bag o' barf dislodged itself and flew off, the victimized vehicle caught up to us in the next lane over. I was yelling at Justin to outrun it, but we were in his big ol' honkin' station wagon, "Ecto 1," and we had a giant on board, and it just wasn't going to happen. I looked nervously over, and who do you think I saw?
It was a gypsy woman (Brad maintains it was a Mobu priestess, but he is also the guy who made up the Poop Snorkeller). This lady had a silk cloth around her head, and baubles, bangles, and beads on her wrists. In her swarthy hand she clutched what looked like (and we very well could have been imagining things) some sort of bone with feathers tied to it. She was shaking it at me. At ME. And she was shouting something that we couldn't hear because her window was rolled up, but we just KNEW it was in some crazy foreign language. My friends recognized the signs immediately: "Dude, she just put a curse on you!" yelped Peter from where he was hiding at the foot of the passenger seat.
Could it be? Could the woman really have put a curse on me? I'm not so sure. However, from that moment on, nothing has gone right for me until it has gone wrong a hundred times. Mere months later, I broke my spine and was stuck in a wheelchair. When I served a mission after that, they called me "Elder Maldecido," or "cursed elder." Everywhere I went, chaos followed. When my little Chilean town started flooding, and we got evicted, and robbed, and we were starving to death, and our members lost their houses in the flood and we had to go help them find them, and everything was going wrong, I thought back to that bag I'd hurled into and out of the car on the freeway, and I wondered.
One day we were down by the train tracks near the gypsy encampment (gypsies are more normal in South America than they are here). It was a rainy day (actually, the only moments it didn't rain during those three months were the moments it was hailing). As we reached the top of the berm near the tracks, we came face-to-face with an old gypsy woman. She looked me in the eye, and said, "Tu eres maldecido. Sal de aqui! Dejanos tranquilos!" You are cursed. Leave here. Leave us alone. My companion thought it was funny that the lady thought I was cursed. I would half-heartedly laugh along with him later as he would tell the other missionaries about that encounter, but secretly I was wondering if there didn't exist some sort of Priesthood blessing I could give myself to have that crazy curse removed. I hear the sun came out in that village the very day I was transferred.
A few months and a different mission later (I had come down with some mysterious disease of the autonomic nervous system that was never identified, and I'd been transferred to Knoxville, Tennessee), I was in the mission office on my way home (sick again). The office had an elderly couple who handled all the mission affairs. At that time, we had two elderly couples; one was training the other, as it was just about time for the first to go home. As I sat there, looking forlornly out the window at the overcast sky, waiting for the mission van to pick me up and take me to the airport, I heard the old old guy say to the new old guy,
"Everything will go fine until your last eight weeks here. Then everything that can go wrong will. You'll have more sick missionaries, robberies, evictions, car accidents, bike accidents, lost credit cards, and hospitalizations during that time than you had the whole rest of your mission."
Eight weeks. The exact amount of time, to the day, that I had been in the Knoxville mission. And every single item on that list had happened to ME during those eight weeks. I just sighed and kept my burning eyes focused on the stratus clouds out the window, trying not to think about a certain gypsy woman (or maybe Mobu priestess) and a particular ballistic bag of beans, beef, and bile that I had so carelessly tossed out the window years before.
I don't litter any more. I've never drunk caffeine since then, either. But still, my life is a circus: entertaining and chaotic. And still, whenever I go back home, I have one eye out for a dusty, beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit with a mystical, scarf-headed woman inside, so I can find her and somehow make amends. Like take her to Seven Flags Car Wash, where it's a two-for-one special on Tuesdays. But until that distant expiatory day, at least I have better stories to tell. Right?