Read an Excerpt!
A MESSAGE FROM COLLIN UTTLEY
A heads up: I don’t exactly come across as a hero in this narrative. But the Tacketts told me I should write it up because the “transparency and vulnerability” would be “powerful and freeing.”
Jack-O said I should share it because it would make people laugh, but he didn’t clarify if that meant with me or at me. And the rest of the Team said it would be kind of inspiring—that is, if it didn’t freak readers out. (My brothers said it would show you what not to do. Thanks, guys.)
So, here you go. Enjoy the ride—even if you don’t believe any of this kind of stuff could actually happen.
I get it.
I was once in your shoes…
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, GIVE OR TAKE
(Names, places, and dates have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the oblivious. And it’s been edited for content so you won’t be offended. Much.)
IT ALL STARTED WITH MY FIRST VISIT TO THE Bread Of Life Church Youth Group, which was not at all what I expected. I’d barely made it through the front door, when a dark girl with a lot of natural beauty and a lot of metal (nose stud, brow ring, and grommets in both ears) practically body slammed me with a hug.
“Hi! Welcome to BOLYG!” She pronounced it boly-gee. “Bread of Life Youth Group. Coffee’s over there and worship starts in a few minutes. I’m Ernestine, who are you? You’re new, right? I like—” She stopped abruptly as her eyes fell to my feet. “What the heck are those?”
The objects in question were the pieces of white fabric covering the insteps of both shoes.
“Spats. They’re vintage.” I hoped I didn’t sound defensive.
Chuckling and shaking her head, she said, “Wow. Spats. Anyway, I like your hair—very Duran Duran.” Her own hair was black and thick with long bangs that almost hid her light brown eyes.
“Uh, make that rockabilly,” I said, lifting up my fedora and pushing back my own long bangs (that Mom kept nagging me to cut).
She laughed. “Got it. Well, Spats, you better hurry up or you’ll miss out on the donut holes. They go fast.” Her voice was throaty and she had two dimples that popped in and out.
Sure, she was attractive in a “full figured” sort of way, but she didn’t have the right style. (And grommets on girls always put me off.)
I wiped her from my mind and moved on.
The hunt continued.
I soon found myself in a huge multipurpose room filled with a hundred singing high school students. Up front, band members in skinny jeans and hoodies led “worship,” which I soon learned meant endless praise songs with endless refrains. I made a beeline over to the coffee station where I scored the last remaining donut hole. I chewed slowly, making it last as long as possible, while I tried not to look like I’d never been in a church before.
I scanned the room for potential girlfriend material, which was tough since almost everyone faced the stage.
I finished the donut hole and debated whether or not to sneak out.
I got a cup of coffee instead.
One song ended and before the next one began, I heard—
The verbal explosion caused me to jerk my hand, slosh my cup, and send a Niagara of coffee cascading down the front of my vintage button-down shirt and jeans. After swabbing myself with handfuls of napkins, I grimly turned to find out who was responsible for the brown stains that would never fully come out. I couldn’t believe a member of the youth group would swear like that—right in front of leaders and all.
It was the girl who welcomed me at the door.
In her torn jeans and 8-eye Doc Martens, she looked like she’d be more at home moshing in a pit than worshipping in a church.
“Jesus!” she exclaimed again, waving her hands in the air, eyes closed.
I turned to a lanky guy with an extra large Adam’s apple and a skateboard tucked under his arm, who was dumping sugar into his coffee. “Last I checked, she was breaking the… the…” I quickly ran through the Ten Commandments I’d memorized the night before in order to blend in. “…the sixth commandment.”
He stared at me blankly.
“You know, the commandment that forbids you—I mean, us—from taking the name of the Lord our God in vain…? You know, swearing?”
“Hear that? I don’t get why no one cares about all the cussing going on around here!”
The skater’s eyes widened in comprehension as he glanced over at the law-breaker.
“Oh, you mean Ernestine Ketchum. She’s cool. That’s just how she worships. You know, charismatic. Lots of energy. Don’t look so freaked, man. She’s all right when you get to know her—she’s got some great testimonies. You’ll get used to her—”
“—eventually,” he finished over his shoulder, as he jumped on his skateboard and rolled away across the linoleum.
I almost ditched BOLYG right then and there—the whole experience was way too whacked. However, I needed social interaction. My family had recently moved from Washington State to Southern California so my dad could join an environmentally conscious architectural firm, and my mom could research her seventh book on (I’m not making this up) Mining California’s Literary Gold in the Twentieth Century. The idea was she’d write when she wasn’t homeschooling me—and my two younger brothers (wait for it) Merrick and Gareth. I didn’t mind since it gave me even more free time. At twelve and thirteen, my brothers took most of her energy.
Mom had decided to homeschool me years ago after teachers kept saying things like: “Collin read a graphic novel during class again today” and “Collin refused to play Sharks and Minnows with the rest of the students” and “Collin keeps augmenting his school uniform.” (Yeah, no one appreciated the fedora or wallet chain.) At school, I was a minnow out of water. But it turned out that the homeschool world was a good fit for me: more freedom, tons of creative outlets, and friends who were interested in the same stuff I was. (Not to mention I could sleep ‘til noon.)
Anyway, the move to California didn’t impact my education, but it sure killed my social life. So far I’d met zero guys to hang out with and zero girls I’d consider asking out—despite the weekly gatherings with the homeschooling community of Arroyo Seco. Most of the guys were in the geek brotherhood and all the girls were either dating someone else or not my type/style. Which is why I was still ticked off at my parents for moving during my junior year of high school. Why couldn’t they have waited until I went away to college?
But luckily, I’d heard through the homeschool grapevine about this “mega youth group,” which translated meant “lots of high schoolers in one place, at one time,” and more specifically: “lots of high school girls in one place, at one time.” The group met regularly for beach trips, citywide scavenger hunts, foosball competitions, Japanese anime movie marathons, and even all night raves with glow sticks. Plenty of opportunities for male-female interaction. I decided to give it a try.
But there was a slight hitch.
I didn’t go to church—didn’t even believe God existed. But I was desperate. To be honest, I’d never had a girlfriend before. And I didn’t want to start college completely inexperienced, if you know what I mean. Sure, I’d had a lot of girls as friends, gone on a bunch of first dates, but when it came to an “official” relationship—no sale. I did come close once with Renata Phrangle—but she dumped me to go to the Homeschool Prom with Sam Whitman instead. (I knew it was because she always hated being two inches taller than me—and he was six feet three. I’ve personally never had an issue with being shorter than most of the girls I date—but for some reason they sure do.)
So, I ended up sticking it out at BOLYG, despite Ernestine Ketchum’s outbursts, and the general awkwardness of being an outsider. I knew it was my best chance of ever getting a real local girlfriend organically—without resorting to online dating and social media hookups. (To play it safe, I left the spats at home. Permanently. Some vintage things are old and forgotten for a reason.)
My tenacity finally paid off. It happened about a month after joining the youth group, when I was waiting for yet another bonding activity to start. (I was hoping it wasn’t blindfold dodge ball again. The cartilage in my nose hadn’t been the same since the last time.) In the large multipurpose room, high schoolers were hanging out, drinking coffee, milling around, and stacking chairs. (Turned out that stacking and unstacking chairs was an activity unto itself.)
I was sitting in a corner rereading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, hoping some hot Goodreads female would get sucked into thinking I was some sort of mysterious literary stud—when something warm and fuzzy leaped onto my lap and a yellow sheet of paper whizzed dangerously close to my retinas.
A black and white spotted dachshund nuzzled my crotch with his wet nose and dropped a saliva-stained paper on my knees.
“Flounce, you were supposed to wait for me!”
And right then, no joke, a golden haired apparition, dressed in a Pepto-Bismol pink vintage dress with a ukulele tucked under her arm—materialized before my eyes.
The sudden close proximity of such a retro prototype catapulted me out of my seat—and my book and Flounce to the floor with a thud and a yip. The yellow flyer wafted onto my brown and tan wingtips—a recent thrift store find.
“Sorry about that. Flounce gets so excited, he just loves helping,” said the apparition.
“No problem,” I said, bending over and tentatively patting the top of the dachshund’s head. “He’s, uh, a… a cute little guy.”
In response, she gave me such a huge smile that her emerald eyes almost disappeared. “He’s a double dappled dachshund.”
I gave Flounce another pat and actually said (which just shows you how hard and fast I was crushing): “Are you double the fun?” In response, he started chewing on my cuff.
“No, Flounce,” she said ineffectually.
I gently but firmly pried his tiny incisors off my sleeve and stood up.
She pointed to my striped vest and silver pocket watch. “You do great vintage.”
“Likewise,” I said, gesturing towards her dress.
“Thanks! I made it myself from a 1954 Butterick pattern.”
“Nice.” This was too good to be true.
“Well, with the help of my best friend Courtney,” she added, “before she moved to Chicago. She had the sewing machine.”
“Gotcha,” I said in a low tone.
That’s right, play it cool.
“Most kids today are so lame when it comes to clothes,” she said with sudden vehemence. “Totally boring and clichéd. So, it’s awesome to finally meet someone who has some individual style for once.”
Meet the soul mate you never knew existed.
She laughed at the fixed grin on my face, the grin that was setting my cheekbones on fire. So much for cool. “You’re Collin, right? Collin Uttley? From Oregon?”
“Close. Washington. What’s your name?”
Shelby Wanderal. Whoa. Even her name has style.
“Flounce! Flounce, stop that!” Shelby clunked the ukulele down on a chair, and extricated her canine from my wingtips, where he was methodically consuming my shoelaces.
While she was occupied, I covertly scanned the features of my vintage soul mate: Shelby’s teeth were so square and tiny they looked like baby teeth. Her nose was “pug” and her golden blond hair was cut in a short bob. Her pale skin was carpeted in a mass of bronze freckles. But the biggest plus—Shelby was 5’4, the perfect fit for my lean and mean 5’6.
My height has always been my Achilles’ heel. A hundred years ago, I’d have been considered average, but nowadays I’m a runt. Which explains the adrenaline rush at finally meeting the mirror image match I’d been searching for my whole life: blond, vintage, and fun-sized.
“Sorry about that,” said Shelby, standing up with Flounce now firmly in her grasp. “For some reason he likes chewing on brown things—”
“Do you swing?” It burst out before I could stop it.
Although taken aback, she smiled. “Swing dance? Yeah, I do. How did you know?”
“Would you… would you wanna go sometime? I heard Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats might be doing a free gig in LA next month. Or… there’s this cover band that does a lot of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy…” I trailed off. Why was I so nervous? After all, I’d asked out girls before.
Shelby tilted her head, then said, “Maybe. You know, there’s a group of us who swing dance on Thursday nights at Pollards, that restaurant on Olive Avenue. No cover charge, you just have to buy a water or a Coke. Why don’t you meet up with us the next time we go?”
Realizing I was staring at her while she waited for my answer, I quickly nodded, “Sure. Yeah, I’d like that. I’d like that a lot.”
For some reason, she seemed to be trying not to laugh. “So, anyway, are you applying for the outreach trip?”
“No, not the TJ trip, the one to Thailand to help the orphans in the refugee camps.” She picked up the yellow flier that had threatened to slice through my eyeballs minutes earlier and handed it to me. “This tells all about it. The Tacketts asked me to lead worship over there since I’ve done the last four TJ trips. It’ll be my first time in Southeast Asia.”
I didn’t know anything about the Tacketts other than they were some boring middle-aged couple who volunteered with the youth group. I glanced at the flier and skimmed the first paragraph:
>> BOLYG Summer Outreach Trip to Thailand <<
Trip Description: A five person Team from the youth group will serve the ethnic Katin people group in Thailand during the month of July under the leadership of Dr. Peter Tackett (Dentist) and Mrs. Marcy Tackett, R.N. (Registered Nurse), who’ve served there eight times before. Together they’ll create summer camp programs for Katin orphans living in the three refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. The Team will also assist the Tacketts as they provide free dental and medical care to any refugees in need. The Team Members will fundraise before the trip in order to purchase clothes, crafts, food, supplies, and medicine to donate. Only those who turn eighteen by the departure date are eligible to apply…
“If you’re interested, you better hurry,” Shelby’s voice cut in. “The application and references and deposit are due next Sunday.”
“Oh, and the Tacketts do a pretty intense interview. You know, to weed out the kids who just want to score a free vacation, instead of serving the less fortunate—”
“Ernestine’s applying,” said Shelby gesturing in the direction of the outburst. “We’ve been on all the TJ trips together.”
I glanced over at Ernestine who was now in a prayer huddle with a bunch of other “exclaimers” of all races and styles: goth, jock, drama club, skater, beard-wearing, and even a lone tech nerd wearing a C++ t-shirt.
However, I refused to let anything distract me from accepting this direct invitation from Shelby Wanderal. Not the girl with Messianic Tourette’s. Not the fact that volunteering in refugee camps was the dead last thing I’d ever want to do on my summer vacation. Not the book my neighbor Vassar Spore in Washington wrote about the squat toilets, centipedes, and perpetual sweat in the jungles of Southeast Asia. (You should check it out: Carpe Diem.)
I looked Shelby straight in the eye—and was almost blinded by the green that dazzled back at me. “There’s nothing I’d rather do this summer than serve orphans and refugees in Thailand with you—” I broke off, barely restraining myself. “With you all. All of you on the Team, I mean. The whole pack of you… all.”
Once again, she chewed the inside of her cheek as if trying not to laugh. “It would be fun to have you on the Team, Collin.”
Flounce yipped in agreement—and then immediately jumped out of her arms and started gnawing on my shoe.
Right then and there, I fell so hard for Shelby Wanderal it felt like someone had thwacked me in the back of the head with a stack of youth group chairs. I immediately began concocting a plan to woo her. Yeah, you heard me, woo. I could tell Shelby wasn’t like other girls, so I needed to be counter-cultural in my approach. Old fashioned. Gentlemanly. And what better way to woo a prospective girlfriend than on a month-long outreach trip! Talk about a captive audience! I mean, come on! What were the odds of ever meeting a girl again shorter than me—who also got me? And who was the epitome of that female vintage style that I found so darn hot? And no wonder I’d never had a girlfriend—I hadn’t met her yet!
If all went according to plan, by summer’s end, my relationship with Shelby Wanderal would have begun.
But, first things first: I had to convince the atheists at home to let me even apply.
UTTLEY FAMILY TRANSCRIPT
(Transcribed by Gareth Uttley, who happened to be practicing his shorthand at the time.)
Uttley Family Dining Room, 7:30 p.m.:
Mrs. Uttley: (peering at Collin through bifocals and sloshing glass of wine) “What??!!”
Mr. Uttley: (blotting red wine on table with yellow Outreach Trip flyer) “You’re telling us that instead of going to the movies on Thursday nights, this whole time you were in fact sneaking off to a—a—” (coughs spasmodically) “—youth group!?”
Collin: (toying with salmon steak) “Actually, yeah, I—”
Mrs. Uttley: “Why did you feel you had to lie? Have we ever punished you for speaking the truth? Have we? Have we?!”
Collin: “Well, no, but I thought that maybe—”
Merrick: (pointing at Collin’s salmon) “Gonna finish that?”
(Collin pushes plate towards Merrick.)
Mr. Uttley: (rubbing bald pate) “Although you know our views on ‘religion,’ haven’t we always given you and your brothers full freedom to explore it openly?”
Collin: “Yes, you have, which is why I—”
Mrs. Uttley: (shaking her head mournfully) “Oh, Collin!”
Merrick: (pointing at Mr. Uttley’s salmon) “Gonna finish that?”
(Approximately fifteen more minutes of similar dialogue, during which Mr. and Mrs. Uttley finish one bottle of wine and uncork a second, and Merrick eats everyone’s salmon, then excuses himself from table to work on industrial themed diorama in adjoining room. Finally, at 7:45 p.m., Collin divulges details and logistics of Outreach Trip.)
Mrs. Uttley: (rereading stained yellow flyer and placing on table with a sigh) “Well, since the Tacketts have made so many trips to the Thai refugee camps, they presumably know what they’re doing. One would presume. But are you certain you want to go through with this, Collin? Are you certain certain?”
Collin: (tilting his head, looking off into distance) “The plight of the Katin Refugees in Burma has broken my heart—”
Merrick: (from adjoining room) “Riiiight!”
Mrs. Uttley: “Tolerance, Merrick! Tolerance!”
(Ten minutes of Collin further waxing poetic on the plight of the aforementioned Katin Refugees.)
Collin: (concluding) “—and so, as you can see, I’ve finally found a cause worth sacrificing for.”
(Mr. and Mrs. Uttley exchange looks. Mrs. Uttley takes off her glasses and wipes her eyes.)
Mr. Uttley: (rubbing bald pate) “We find it odd you want to participate in a church outreach trip of all things, but in the end we must both agree (albeit reluctantly) that if you feel so strongly about the cause of social justice among refugee orphans, who are we to stand in your way?”
Mrs. Uttley: (echoing faintly) “Yeah, who are we? Who are we other than the parents who birthed you, burped you, reared you, and will continue to love you no matter what inane passions stir you into gallivanting halfway across the globe!?”
(Brief and awkward silence as Mrs. Uttley takes sizeable gulp of wine.)
Collin: “Thanks, guys! Because although I don’t legally need your consent since I’ll be turning eighteen the week of the trip—which, as you know, is the age of majority in California— the Tacketts won’t let anyone join the Team whose parents aren’t in full support.”
Mrs. Uttley: “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s full support…”
Mr. Uttley: (leaning towards Collin) “Son?”
Collin: “Yeah, Dad?”
Mr. Uttley: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
(End of partial transcript. Full transcript available from Gareth Uttley for nominal fee).
The Imposter in the Fedora
(aka: Saint Collin the Soup Ladler)
ONCE I’D FINALLY PERSUADED MY PARENTS to let me apply, the real work lay ahead of me. I’d never put more effort into a project in my life than I did in getting on that Outreach Team to Thailand. I wrote an intentionally bland and believable conversion story (“I asked Jesus into my heart at junior high camp…”) so I’d fit in with the rest of the youth group. However, I hit a major roadblock when it came to the three required spiritual references. I had to take a gamble here and hope the Tacketts wouldn’t be too nitpicky and require phone conversations, so I just created fake email addresses that would all end up in my own in-box. (Merrick and Gareth came in handy here—they’re as left brained as I am right brained.)
I invented a certain “Father O’Malley” with whom I volunteered in the Seattle Soup Kitchen: “I robustly recommend Collin Uttley as a member of your Outreach Team. I’ve never seen such compassion for those less fortunate or such an unwavering work ethic in someone this young… Mark my words, future generations will revere him as Saint Collin the Soup Ladler! Ha ha! Although I jest, there is some truth in the statement…”
Then there was “Hunter Davis,” my former youth pastor:
(END OF EXCERPT!)