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“Child Star,” by Scott Hales

The call comes as Bishop Jonathan Parker prepares a funeral sermon for Gerald Thorkelsen, whose service is in two hours. He doesn’t recognize the number on the caller ID. When he answers the phone, the voice—a woman’s voice—is unfamiliar.

“Is this Jackie Parker?”

#

In 1986, when he was fifteen years old, Jonathan was on the front page of every tabloid in the country. Back then, to anybody with a television set, he was child star Jackie Parker, darling of the hit sitcom Stop That Kid! For seven seasons, America watched him grow from a lovable eight-year-old to a wise-cracking teen idol. If he hadn’t stolen his agent’s car and taken it for a drunken romp through south Hollywood, he would’ve carried the show through one more season. That was TV Guide’s opinion, at least.

But America forgives its reckless celebrities only as long as they’re over eighteen and nobody gets hurt. Jonathan learned that the hard way. His night of drunk driving ended when he sideswiped a Mercedes and crushed the body of a seventeen-year-old who had the bad luck of getting between him and the Benz. She survived, paralyzed from the waist down. Jonathan walked away without a scratch.

Life became messy after that. By noon the next day, production on Stop That Kid! had ceased and Jonathan’s drunken, smirking face had become the symbol of everything wrong with Hollywood and American teenagers. Nancy Reagan and Donahue condemned him. Johnny Carson and David Letterman turned him into a late-night punch-line. Sleazy journalists camped outside the gates of his mansion, begged sensational news off his staff. Lawsuits followed lawsuits. Money, once so ubiquitous, vanished in a late-eighties haze. By decade’s end, his parents had divorced, sued each other, and sued him.

When the missionaries shared a first discussion with him in 1993, Jonathan was alcoholic, broke, and angry. He was living in the townhouse of a lapsed Mormon friend in Las Vegas. The missionaries were on a reactivation kick, making their rounds through the neighborhoods where Mormons with flat-lining testimonies go to hide out. Jonathan liked their message, read the Book of Mormon, and committed to living the Word of Wisdom. After three months of rehab—paid for out-of-pocket by a Mormon bishop—Jonathan was baptized, confirmed, and given the Aaronic Priesthood. He moved into the basement apartment of an older couple in his ward, got a day job, and enrolled in night classes at the College of Southern Nevada. In 1998, Jonathan—now a husband and a father of two sons—graduated from UNLV with a degree in history. Four months later, he was drilling eighth graders in Nashville about the causes of the Revolutionary War.

#

“This is Jonathan Parker,” he says into his cellphone. “I don’t go by ‘Jackie’ anymore.”

“Right, right,” says the woman on the other end of the line. “I loved you in Stop That Kid! You know, ‘You’re killin’ me, mom!’” She speaks this last phrase with evident gusto, an eerie imitation of the way Jonathan used to say it at the end of every episode.

“Look, ma’am,” Jonathan says, touching the edge of his open scriptures, “this isn’t a good time. I’m about to speak…”

“Hear me out,” she says. “I’m a producer for a new show called ‘80s Has-been Haven. We’re going to strand twelve celebrities from the eighties on an island and put them through exciting challenges…like Survivor!”

“Ma’am…”

“We’ve got Ralph Macchio, Tina Yothers from Family Ties, Chunk from Goonies…”

Jonathan feels the rage coming. In rehab, he learned to control anger by imagining himself apart from the situation causing the bad feelings. The cliché was to find a “happy place,” a world where problems and annoyances existed, but didn’t matter. Jonathan’s “happy place” was Alma 36, a chapter the missionaries read with him. As the woman prattles on about shadows from his past, Jonathan thinks of Alma’s joy, his marvelous light. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he says slowly, “but I really need…”

“Danny Bonaduce has agreed to host! Danny! Bonaduce!”

Bonaduce does it. The happy place disintegrates. “Listen,” Jonathan barks, “I don’t have time for this has-been crap! I don’t care about your stupid show. It makes me sick to think about it. You make me sick.”

Without hesitation, as if planned and rehearsed, the woman says, “At least I didn’t cripple a teenage girl. At least I’m not some washout nobody teaching—what is it?—junior high?”

Guilt claws Jonathan’s heart. It digs into his stomach. “I’m sorry,” he says. The line goes dead.

Last year, when the stake president called him to be a bishop, Jonathan told him about Jackie Parker, the drinking, the paralyzed girl. The stake president knew the details, remembered them from Entertainment Tonight. “What ever happened to the young woman?” he asked Jonathan.

“I know we paid her a lot of money,” Jonathan said. “I know she’s taken care of financially.”

“But that doesn’t make you feel any better?”

“No.”

“Do you want her forgiveness?”

He did. After the interview, using an address he found on the internet, he wrote a long apology to the young woman his carelessness had crippled twenty-five years earlier. He explained about his conversion, his family. Five months later he received an email from her mother. “She’s been dead six years,” the email said. “It was suicide.”

#

Jonathan steps out of his office. The church is empty and quiet except for the tumbling of the air conditioner. In a little more than an hour, Gerald’s friends and family will tear the silence in half with memories and sorrows. Jonathan will stand at the pulpit and talk about how this life is a probationary state, a time to prepare to meet God. He will bear testimony of Christ’s atonement, of Heavenly Father’s love. When he speaks of the final judgment—that terrible, sublime reunion when every knee shall bow and tongue confess—he will find his happy place. He will grin and bear it.

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