Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I suppose I could have had a wild party the weekend that my parents went away and left me home alone. Most teenagers who have an empty house to themselves would do that. Wild parties, however, weren’t my style. My idea of the most outrageously fun thing to do? I decided to cook a gourmet dinner for a couple of friends. Little did I suspect that alcohol and murder were afoot.
As for the virginity part of this title, let’s clear that up right now. Yes, I was, and so were my guests, but our dearth of sexual experience had absolutely nothing to do with the ensuing story. The virgin in question was not even a person. It was an appliance. A brand-new stove had been delivered to our house shortly after my parents’ departure. Nobody had ever cooked on it before. 
The stove was a virgin.
(Keep reading. I promise that this isn’t a cooking blog, and eventually you will get to the alcohol and murder bits.)
My father was a minister, my upbringing was strict, and my girlhood had been sheltered and na├»ve—well, up until the weekend in question, anyway. I was a senior in high school, and I loved to cook! I couldn’t wait to break in the untouched stove; thus my decision to create an elegant feast.
The two friends I invited to join me for this splendid dinner were juniors in high school who were a year younger than me: clean-cut Janet, and even cleaner-cut Fred (not their real names). (Since those are not their real names, you know that trouble lurks ahead!) Fred, an excellent musician, was one of my piano students, for I was an accomplished pianist even in high school. This will be important later on in the story.

We planned to feast by candlelight. I felt incredibly sophisticated. The April night air hinted at romance, a perfect setting for our elegant dinner. Roast beef was the main course, for I was not a vegetarian in those days. It was the first roast I had ever baked.
As I removed the baking pan from the new oven, Janet lit the candles, and I carved the meat in the flickering candlelight. The meal was a superb, if cholesterol-laden, experience, and the three of us agreed that it was the best roast beef any of us had ever eaten.
Much later, when I turned on the lights in the kitchen, I saw to my astonishment that the roast was nearly raw. To say that I had cooked it would be a gross misstatement. We hadn’t known the meat was raw when we ate it in the dim light of the candles, however, and it had tasted fantastic.
Who knows? Perhaps our wicked scheme was provoked by the pagan stimulus of the bloody meat…or maybe it came about simply because we were three high school kids enjoying a rare evening without adult supervision.
We decided (hold onto your hats) to hike down the road so that I could buy some beer for us to drink.

I’d never had even a taste of beer in my life. My mother and father (the minister, remember?) were vehement teetotalers who believed that drinking alcohol was sinful. A lot of their prejudices are still imprinted on my hard drive. To this day, walking into a bar or a liquor store makes me feel slightly squalid and icky, the way most people feel about strolling into a porno movie or a so-called “adult” store.
I had just turned 18, and we lived in New York state where, in those days, it was legal for an 18-year-old to purchase and drink alcohol. Fred and Janet encouraged this scheme joyously, as they both had some experience with beer and were eager to imbibe.
The nearest place I could buy the beer was a little country store about two miles down the road. Fred, Janet and I would have to walk there. The store was located right next door to my father’s church office. After I purchased the beer, we planned to drink it along the side of the highway as we walked back home. The thought of doing this made me feel deliciously dangerous and wild.

It was not an uncommon sight in the 60s to see certain teenaged types walking along the roadside, swilling down alcohol. Very few of us had cars back then, so we walked on foot a lot more than kids today. The teens who drank on the sides of highways were not the nice kids. They were not part of my crowd. They were the tough kids. We called the tough kids hoods.
This is a "hood."
There were clear demarcations dividing the “nice” kids from the hoods. You could easily tell who belonged to which group by their appearance.
Take the guys. While nice guys had regular haircuts, hood boys wore their hair in a highly-greased and distinct style: on the tops of their heads they either hosted stiff flattops, like little spiky patches of newly mown grass, or exaggerated pompadours, while the sides of their hair were longer and were slicked back to form what we called a DA. The initials DA stood for duck’s ass, which in more polite circles was called a ducktail
The uniform of the hood guys consisted of very tight black pants, button-down dress shirts, and white socks with loafers.
Actually, okay, that was the uniform of the nice guys, too. Except nice guys tended to wear more plaid and V-neck sweaters and mock turtlenecks, along with pocket protectors so that their ballpoint pens wouldn’t leak ink through their shirt pockets. Also, their pants weren’t as tight.
Jeans were against the school dress code. Nobody wore them unless they were washing a car. And since practically nobody had a car, jeans were hardly ever seen.
Here’s what the hood girls wore: tight blouses or sweaters, and tight straight skirts that were so short they almost revealed the girls’ knees! Showing one’s knees was a pretty racy thing to do, but the hood girls were always shoving up against the boundaries of good taste. It would be another year or two before the mini-skirt burst onto the fashion scene, and even longer before girls were allowed to wear slacks to school.
Most teenaged girls of my generation, including nice girls, liked to line their eyes with black eyeliner, a-la Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Cleopatra. We really liked our eye-liner in the 1960s! Even I did that! Hood girls did, too, but of course they overdid it and applied their eyeliner far too heavily. Their faces were plastered with globs of pancake makeup in pinkish-orange tones that rarely matched their skin tone (or anyone’s skin tone), topped off with smears of nearly white, ghoulish lipstick.

We liked our eyeliner in the 1960s!

While many of us sported some variation of a hairdo called the beehive, hood girls once again overdid it. They spent hours in the girls’ bathroom at school ratting their hair obsessively into massive, ludicrous beehives reminiscent of the wigs worn in the court of Louis XVI (but without the social status, of course); they possessed special long-tailed plastic combs for the task.

Now, that's a beehive!
School bathrooms were the domain of the hoods. All hoods, male and female, smoked in the school bathrooms. And, of course, they walked down the sides of the highways at night drinking beer, as Fred and Janet and I were planning to do on our exhilarating spree.
Only a few scattered houses sat along the stretch of highway we traversed, and there were no streetlights or sidewalks, so we had to fend our way through the scrabbly weeds on the side of the dark road. We were exhausted and cranky by the time we arrived at the store, for it had become a depressingly damp and chilly night, the way spring nights can sometimes get, and our destination turned out to be a lot further away than we had thought. The store was housed in a run-down, dismal wooden building, the closest thing to a convenience store that we had in the 1960s.
My spirits, however, were slightly boosted by the scenario to follow. Janet and Fred, being younger, decided that it would be best if they waited for me outside the store, lurking in the shadows, while I sauntered in ever so casually to buy a six-pack of beer. A six-pack! Wow, did that ever sound tough to me! I was excited. This was a big deal.
“Just go and buy the beer, please,” said Fred. “Hurry. I’m cold.”
I entered the store as nonchalantly as I could, but the moment I stepped over the threshold, I was seized with a self-conscious panic. Maybe you have to grow up in a strict, religious family that prides itself on its abstention from alcohol to understand the extent of my panic. It was one of those panics that builds on itself: the more panicked I realized I was, the more panicked I became. The grumpy owner, sitting behind a counter, shifted his attention from his newspaper and squinted at me with what was clearly a disgusted look as I trod, footstep by noisy footstep, over the wooden-plank floors.
Where did they keep the beer? Could he see how nervous I was? Would my hands shake when I paid for the evil brew?
My mind began to spin more anxiously. When it came time to purchase the beer, the guy would undoubtedly ask to see my driver’s license. Naturally, he would notice that my last name was the same as my father’s. The minister. Whose office was next door! Oh dear, why hadn’t I thought of this before! The next time he saw my father, the surly shopkeeper would doubtlessly say, “Hello there, Reverend. I saw your daughter this weekend. She bought a six-pack of beer.”
What would I say to my father when he confronted me with this information? How could I explain? Why hadn’t this thought occurred to me before we set out on our quest? Like many other people of my generation, I was more terrified of my father’s wrath than just about anything. Fathers could be more wrathful in the 60s than they are allowed to be today.
My heart began to pound in horror at this imagined confrontation, as though it were banging frantically on the inside of my chest, begging to be let out. Trapped in a mounting state of self-consciousness, I found it curiously difficult to move, not unlike a cornered rabbit. My legs felt as though they were partially paralyzed.
‘C'mon. Get a hold of yourself,’ I thought. ‘Act like you’re just looking around.’
Breathing deeply, I shuffled stiffly over to the shampoo section, where I stood pretending to survey the various products as I composed myself. The store owner continued to watch me with a taut frown.
What was wrong with that man? Hadn’t he ever had anybody else in his store who was intensely interested in hair products?
And where, oh where, did they keep the beer? As I fingered the bottles of Breck and Prell shampoo, I glanced covertly around at the shelves and aisles. I didn’t spot any beer. Meanwhile, the store owner’s x-ray eyes were peering critically at me, watching every move I made.
Finally I snatched a bottle of cream rinse from the shelf. (Cream rinse was the name we used for what is now called conditioner.) Like a criminal hoping to appear normal, I felt that I would appear more innocent if I bought something unrelated to booze. I strolled toward the counter.
“Is that it?” the man demanded loudly. His voice made me jump. He sounded like he was yelling at me.
“No,” I gulped, flushing. “Do you have…um…any…um…”
Looking around frantically, I suddenly spotted something miraculous. I was saved! Right next to me, within arm’s reach even, stood a gleaming bottle of daiquiris! The sight made me giddier than a nun spotting a portrait of Jesus in her scrambled eggs!
I’d heard of daiquiris. They had alcohol in them. They drank daiquiris in the movies. There was a frosty picture on the label of the bottle showing an elegant cocktail glass brimming with the heady, tempting, frothy drink! How elegant it looked!

I made a fast decision. I would buy the daiquiris instead of beer. Surely Janet and Fred would rather sip on daiquiris than cans of beer! I knew that I would. Daiquiris were much more romantic. What a lucky find!
Rejoicing, I snatched up the bottle, steeled my nerves and turned back to the counter. To my delighted surprise, the guy never even asked to see my license. As soon as he had taken my money and put the cream rinse and daiquiri bottle into a brown paper sack, he returned to reading his newspaper. My luck was changing, and fast!
I emerged from the store triumphantly. As the screen door banged shut behind me, Fred stepped out of the shadows.
“My god, it took you long enough,” he exclaimed, his voice curdling with annoyance. Janet just huddled against the cold.
Triumphantly, I thrust the bag at her and watched as she uncrossed her arms and took it from me. First she pulled out the bottle of cream rinse. She held it up, staring at it blankly. It was pink.
“Cream rinse?” she said finally, her voice expressionless. “You got us cream rinse?”
“No, no, no,” I giggled, “that was just a decoy.”
Janet and Fred looked at me, not understanding. Both of them came from families who drank.
“So where’s the six-pack?” asked Fred.
“I got us something much better!” I crowed. “It’s in the bag. See for yourself.”
As Janet pulled out the bottle of daiquiris, I chortled with satisfaction.
Fred gazed at the bottle, dumbfounded. “I thought you were going to buy beer,” he said.
“But wouldn’t you rather have a daiquiri?” I replied gleefully. Sticking out my pinky, I pantomimed sipping from an imaginary cocktail glass.
Fred looked at me with astonishment, and then stepped closer. My piano student wasn’t smiling, and he was not making me feel comfortable. Carefully enunciating each word as though I were a very young child, he said, “You bought a bottle of daiquiri mix.”
“Yes,” I grinned, jiggling my feet around in a little happy dance. “Cocktails!” I pantomimed sipping again.
“No. Cocktail mix,” he repeated. “You got cocktail mix. Didn’t you know there’s no alcohol in cocktail mix? It’s just juice! You bought us juice.”
It took a minute for this to register. My happy dance stopped. All that effort had been for nothing. I couldn’t even mumble an apology.
With a disgusted tsk, Fred turned on his heel and stomped towards the store.
“Hey, where’re you going?” I called meekly.
He didn’t answer, and disappeared behind the screen door. Janet handed me back the cream rinse and stood there miserably, banging her arms across her body in an effort to get warm. She avoided eye contact with me.
Moments later Fred returned. He was holding a six-pack of Schlitz beer.
“Can we please go now?” sighed Janet. “It’s a long way back. I’m tired.”
“You’re only 17. How did you buy beer?” I asked Fred as we began heading back down the highway.
“They don’t care,” he said. “Don’t make such a big production out of it. It’s just beer, for god’s sake.”
I ignored their churlishness. It had been an awkward quest, but at last we were finally there! We were walking down the highway, being tough. Acting like hoods! I wished I had thought to put on a little more eyeliner.
The Schlitz beer had a brand-new device on it called a pull tab so that you could drink from the can without using a can opener. I had never used a pull tab before and didn’t know how. Fred had to open mine for me. Taking my newly opened can of beer from him eagerly, I took a quick swallow…and immediately winced. It tasted horrible! It was sour and bitter and sharp, like carbonated old dishwater with a tin-can pungency thrown in for good measure. This was what beer tasted like?
Maybe I was wrong. I took another sip. It was even worse than the first.
I couldn’t drink any more, and handed my can over to Fred. We continued our walk, shivering and kicking at weeds. Janet and Fred swigged on their beers in silence. There was nothing even remotely romantic about this.
“Damn,” I said, hoping that maybe swearing would help make me feel tough. It didn’t work.
Janet finished her beer only a short distance from my home, and handed me the empty can. Rather than carry it back, I tossed it onto the edge of the road. Like something a hood would do.

Aside: At that exact moment we were walking past the house of a high-school friend of mine from band who had a younger brother. 

Me in H.S. band with, yes, my bassoon, not looking especially cheerful.
This younger brother of hers was cute, but he was just a kid, so I never bothered to get to know him.
I think my friend became a psychiatrist. I’m not sure. I am sure about what happened to her brother, though. He became the head of a major film studio and for years was considered to be one of The Most Important People in the movie industry. As the author of several unproduced screenplays, I have more than once regretted the fact that I did not cultivate a relationship with this little brother person when I had the opportunity…but hey, who ever pays attention to their friends’ kid brothers, cute or not? Sigh.

So I tossed away the beer can. In those days littering was not illegal. There were not yet any national campaigns to clean up litter, and few people saw much of anything wrong with throwing an empty can onto the side of the road—few, that is, except for my parents, who were outspoken opponents of the sad stretches of garbage which used to line our nation’s highways and parks and campgrounds. Our family took pride in cleaning up litter. They even had a motto! “Always leave a place better than you found it,” they would say as they cheerfully went about cleaning up debris from picnic sites, and national monuments, and…well, you get it.
Throwing that beer can into the bushes was a supreme act of rebellion. I expected to get a little buzz from it. I didn’t. As soon as I threw the beer can away, I felt lousy about it. I feel lousy about it to this day…that, and not getting to know the little brother occupying the house behind the bushes where I threw it.

Our party was deflated, and as soon as we got back to the parsonage, Fred and Janet left. Wearily, I brought the leftovers of my elegant dinner back into the kitchen and turned on the overhead fluorescent light. It was then that I saw that that the roast which we had eaten so rapaciously was bright red, with trickles of scarlet blood still oozing out of its sides.
As a vegetarian, I am shy about admitting this sordid aspect of my past, but thanks to that night, I developed a taste for very rare beef that stayed with me for the remainder of my meat-eating years. Sometimes I would even consume raw beef in the form of beef tartar...and I liked it.
I have, however, never acquired a taste for beer.

A year after our failed attempt to be hoods, when I was a college freshman, feeling much older and wiser (and no longer a virgin), I returned to my home town and visited Fred. Fred borrowed his father’s car and drove me to the beach, where we parked and talked and watched the ocean until it was past-due time for him to get the car back home.
Just before turning the key in the ignition, for some odd reason he kissed me. It took me by surprise. He looked at his watch, then at me, and kissed me again. And again. And again. We both liked it very much.
“Wow,” he exclaimed with regret as we drove back. “I never realized you were like this!
That was the last time I saw him. We said goodbye in a lusty daze, and I returned to college.
The next time I heard from Fred, I was in my 20s. He wrote me a letter. In it, he said that because of the musical coaching and encouragement I had given him, he was now traveling across the country on a nation-wide concert tour. He enclosed a program together with the glowing, ecstatic letter, in which he stated,  “Everything I am today I owe to you.”
Not long afterwards, so I am told, he got married. And murdered his wife. He shot her during an argument, and ended up in prison. I always hoped it wasn’t our spree of drinking beer on the highway that night that corrupted him.

© 2010 by M. E. Raines
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  1. I think this is your best post yet!


  2. You are sooo adorable. I want to bottle you and sell you for millions!

    Love you, and Happy BDay!

  3. Joseph, Thoreau once commented that if they could, people would wrap up God and sell him in the marketplace! Not that I'm making any comparisons, of course...


Thanks for your comments!