Mormon Jeopardy

1 May

Mormon Jeopardy

I originally read this essay at Shelf Life Books’ Happy Endings reading series, which, if you live in Calgary, you should go to because it is the best.

I’ve tagged it as nonfiction. And while I’d never suggest it would hold up to any kind of journalistic standard, I would say it’s “true enough.” I changed the names of everyone but my girlfriend and myself.



The first time I met my girlfriend Kendra’s father, a Mormon lawyer, it did not go well. He left thinking I was a smug know-it-all, and I thought he was sanctimonious douche. And in hindsight, I believe we were both absolutely correct.

We sat across from each other and held uneasy eye contact while he asked me a battery of questions about “my prospects,” like we were two characters in a Jane Austen novel. A super boring Jane Austen novel, set in a suburban Second Cup.

“So Kyle, my daughter informs me you aspire to be a writer. Well, I suppose one may call that an aspiration. No doubt much in the same way my nephew aspires to be a fire truck.”

“Oh John, how very droll. What’s that old aphorism? ‘Our parents were tailors and cobblers so that we could be doctors and lawyers so our children can be writers and emergency vehicles?’ Also, it sounds like your nephew may have a learning disability. So, you know, get that shit checked out.”

Still, I had been in plenty of uncomfortable situations before, and I had found that a good joke can help everyone relax. I had also found that a bad joke can make everyone angry and tense. But I’m an optimist, so I said:

“Hey John… it’s not exactly an express-o, is it?”

And what he said was: “No. It’s a hot chocolate,” followed by a long, tension-filled pause. “I don’t drink coffee anymore.”

Fast forward five years. Kendra and I were living together, which annoyed John; Kendra and he were still related, which annoyed me; and John and I still didn’t care for one another, which annoyed Kendra so much that she took John up on his invitation for the two of us to come spend Christmas with him and his wife, in order to punish he and I with each other’s company. My family’s Jewish and I’m an atheist, so she knew I had nowhere to hide — this was the relationship equivalent of locking two squabbling children in a room and not opening the door until they’re friends, or one of them is dead.

Y’know, that super-common thing you do with squabbling children?



John and his wife Beth — Kendra’s step mother — live in McGrath, Alberta, Canada. Which, I found out, is just what you do when you’re Mormon in Alberta. McGrath is like Salt Lake City, minus the city and the salt lake, plus a bunch of grain elevators and gravel roads.

A lifelong atheist until his third marriage to Beth, John decided to “try out” religion the way some people “try out” mainlining heroin. For example, some religions frown on drug use, but The Book of Mormon won’t even let you drink coffee. When I asked why, John said he didn’t follow the rules because of some compelling scriptural argument — he followed the rules to show obedience to God. Which is Bible Speak for: “because fuck you, that’s why.”

This was a way of reasoning John was fond of. When we arrived, I learned that I had to sleep on a lumpy pullout two flights of stairs and a locked door away from my girlfriend of five years, whom I had lived with for two, because we had not yet been wed under the eyes of his whimsical Lord. Spoiler alert, Johnny: I have hit that like a punchclock.

“We’re letting Beth’s kids stay together because they’re married,” he explained, unprompted, as we stopped at the room where Kendra would stay. “I mean, you two haven’t even signed an A.P.E agreement yet , so obviously you understand.”

“I understand entirely,” I said, not understanding at all. “But if a simian is the only issue, I know a guy who can hook you up.”

“Oh,” he said, pausing for one beat too long. “Um. Well, okay then.”

And then he showed me to my room, far away from where I could infect his daughter’s womb with my unfunny genes.

We dropped off our bags at John and Beth’s, and then immediately headed to her brother’s remote cottage on the American border, where we would meet about fifteen more of her relatives. In other words — the only place in the country with more Mormons per square foot than McGrath.

“Cottage” was a misleading description. This place was more like five cottages bolted together in the shape of a castle. Inside, the skins of many bears hung on the lacquered walls, their button-eyed faces frozen in what seemed like surprise. Either surprise at being stuffed and used as a cliche, or just residual surprise at being killed by Beth’s younger brother Luke, the cabin-castle’s owner, who was so big he looked like he probably killed them with his bare hands. Or a hard look from his steel-blue eyes. Or maybe just his moustache, which was so fulsome and manly it probably had power over the lives of beasts.

I was jealous, because the only power my moustaches have granted me is the power of looking like a teenage sex offender.

As soon as we walked in, Luke’s son — a skinny guy named TJ — came over and, with a friendly fist bump and a “s’up dawg,” asked if I would help him peel some potatoes. I was happy to have something to do besides attempt small talk without the usual aide of liquor, so I told him I would skin those potatoes like they were a bear, and I was his father.

TJ laughed–which was great, because I was forgetting what that sounded like–and told me that maybe later his dad would let me shoot his Barett .50 cal, which is, apparently, a gun that could kill a brontosaurus. I told TJ that I would like that very much, because fuck a brontosaurus.

As TJ’s cousins and siblings swirled through the kitchen to chat with us as we peeled, I learned that he had been attending Bringham Young University in Salt Lake City — which is named for the guy who popularized the whole Big Love thing — but TJ had decided to switch because it was too Mormon for him. It turns out, the kind of people who want to go to a school named after a famous bigamist are like triple-distilled-casket-strength Mormons, whereas TJ and his family were more like O’Douls Mormons. There’s still a little booze in there, but you can drink it all night and never wake up as anyone’s third wife.

One person at the dinner did not think any of this was as funny as I did. He was the eldest brother of the family, and if Luke got all the genes for height and natural muscle, then this guy got all the genes for smallness and looking exactly like Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi and his wife, Mrs. Steve Buscemi, were visiting from Salt Lake City.  And in Salt Lake City, they told us, they would sometimes relax after a family meal with a game of Jeopardy. I agreed to play because, not to brag, but if I had actually been on a few episodes of Jeopardy and not in front of the television with no pants and box of double-cheese cheese nips, I would probably be, literally, hundreds of dollars richer.

Mitt Romney


Steve Buscemi and his wife, Mrs. Steve Buscemi, decided to play the role of a two-headed, multi-sexual Alex Trebeck, and started scrivening the game categories on a white board, and the answers on a stack of cue cards. The rest of us would play the contestants, and the live studio audience would be played by the dead bears.

The Buscemi’s split us into two teams. The first consisted of of his own daughter, Beth and her mother, and the second of myself, Kendra and John. Luke, TJ and his cousins decided they would rather go icefishing than play Jeopardy, and they invited me to come. I wanted to — because fuck an ice fish — but I didn’t want to abandon Kendra.

But I wished that I had as soon as she picked her first category.

“Things in December for four hundred.”

“On this date, the prophet Joseph Smith was born.”

Kendra and I gawped for a second before Beth buzzed in with the steal.

“What is December 23rd, 1805?”

Me next. But now that I was aware of the biblical land mines, I knew that all I had to do was pick the ones that didn’t look dangerous. Which, I realize now, is exactly what landmine makers expect you to do.

“American history for two hundred.”

“One of the four original tribes of American settlers who were destroyed by the Lamanites.”

“The what?” I asked.

“The Lamanites.”

“Huh,” I said. “Were they, like, Spanish or –”

“The Nephites,” said lady Steve Buscemi the younger.

At this point, I realized winning was off the table. But I figured that John could keep us on the board, and in the meantime maybe I’d learn something. And then he took the next question.

“Ancient history for four hundred”

“You should get this one, John,” said Steve Buscemi, pausing for maximum portent. “This Modern Moses built the Logan Temples.”

“John Taylor,” John stammered. “Sorry. Who is John Taylor?”

“Who is Bringham Young?” Beth stole, tsking playfully–but not harmlessly. He shriveled under her look, and squirmed a little. I wanted to enjoy his discomfort, but I couldn’t. It made me like him too much.

He wasn’t as disadvantaged for a game of Mormon Jeopardy as heathens like Kendra or me, but his late-life conversion meant that he had less time to learn everything his in-laws had been quizzing each other on since they could draw crude Jeopardy grids on white boards. If John came off as sanctimonious it wasn’t because finding God had made him self righteous–it had just made him overcompensate. And goodness knows I could relate to that.

After a few thousand more points went to the other team, TJ and his cousins came back fishless. He joined our team at Beth’s urging, though Steve Buscemi’s protested. TJ took “Music,” for 600.

“This hymn’s accompanying melody, Chatterley, was written by John –”

TJ shot early, like Han Solo: “What is far, far away on the plains of Judea?”

And then he took ancient history, shooting first again: “Who were the Jaredites?”

And then American history, from the holster: “Who was John Taylor?”

It took everything I had not to yell out my own answer-in-the-form-of-a-question: “Who looks stupid now, Buscemi?”

TJ didn’t win us the game, but between him and the few John eventually managed, we didn’t end up looking like the godless mudmen Steve Buscemi would have made us out as. That might have described me pretty well, but John had welcomed a relative stranger into his home for holidays. Even if he a was late convert, he was at least picking up on the central principles of Christianity — which seems like the important part. Otherwise, all you’re doing is memorizing a bunch of pointless trivia.

The next morning, we woke up to Beth making everyone an elaborate breakfast. She offered us some danishes while we waited, but everyone declined.

“This box of danishes has been around for eight days,” she sighed. “No one’s eating them.”

“That was the original story of Hanukkah,” I quietly said to John. “They found a box of danishes in the temple that should have only lasted for one night, but they lasted for eight.”

He chuckled.

“Heh. That’s pretty good.”


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