In which two boys begin an inadvertent journey
A lot of rumors and misconceptions have existed over the years about what happened to me and Joey Barnes on that lost weekend in August of 1976. Lord knows I've told that story hundreds and maybe thousands of times and I don't think I tell it that much differently every time but it still comes back to me with changes that I don't quite comprehend. Anyway, since it's been better than three decades and people still want to talk to me about it, I thought it might be best if I wrote it down as best as I remembered it, though there are a lot of parts I really don't want to remember at all. After that, people can dispute me if they want, even though I was there and they weren't. Well, except Joey Barnes, of course, or whatever he's calling himself these days, and I doubt if you’d ever get him to say anything about the whole ordeal.
First of all, it started with me and Joey, or Toadstool, as we all called him back then, spending Friday night at Davy Matheson's house watching The Dirty Dozen on the late show just because Davy had an argument with Toadstool over how many of the Dirty Dozen was left alive at the end of the movie. Toadstool was right, of course. Toadstool was always right, at least about stuff like that. But Davy was an argumentative little puke back then, way before he shot himself in the face and got stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, so we arranged to spend Friday night over at Davy's house just to finish the fight.
The following day was one of the hottest days we would have that August, which was the weekend before we were going to start our freshman year in high school. Toadstool, who must've been feeling full of himself from the night before, was foolish enough to follow my stupidity and agree to take a trip down to the river to do some fishing. I had already decided I was going to go fishing even before I asked my mom if I could spend the night at Davy’s, so I had brought along my tackle box and a couple of poles.
We left Davy's house at 5 AM, leaving Davy there because there was no way his mom was going to let him trudge the three miles all the way down to the Mississippi. Toadstool's mom certainly wouldn't have let him go if she had known, but as we were over at Davy's house, she wouldn't know anything about it as long as we got back to his house by 10 o’clock. By that time she would be too preoccupied getting ready for work and yelling at Toadstool's dad to “at least help out a little bit” to check whether we were coming back from Davy's or from the river. Anyway, that was the plan, although things didn’t quite work out the way we wanted them to.
It had been somewhat cool in the morning going down there, or at least cool for August in southwestern Illinois, and Toadstool hadn't complained during the trip down there, though he was as round as he was tall even back then and he huffed and puffed the whole way. It was on the way back, when the sun was up pretty far in the sky and the temperature had risen with it, that he pretty much became intolerable. I knew that we could make his house in about an hour if we hurried, which would mean we'd get there about 9:30, more than early enough to keep his mom from getting mad at us. But Toadstool was having none of it. He would’ve had a hard time if all he had was his own weight to drag the three miles but he also had a couple of poles and a tackle box to carry, meaning that he'd have to stop and rest once about every thirty yards or so or he'd pretty much die. At least, that’s what he'd have you think.
I really wanted to get to his place on time, mainly because once Toadstool's mom got done yelling at him she'd be calling my house and telling my mom what a rebellious kid I was and how I needed to be disciplined better and how I needed a grown man in my life, and that was something my mom didn't need. So somehow I had to get Toadstool to keep moving, and to do that I had to get his mind off of his physical discomfort. The one way I thought I could do that was to play a round of "Would You Date Her?" It was a game that me and some of the guys would play where we'd call out a name of a girl at school, usually some chick who'd generally have nothing to do with us, and try to give the pros and cons of what kind of date she'd be. Of course, a couple of years later, when we were well into high school, that game became "Would You Do Her?," but we weren't in high school yet, not really, so we stuck with dating. I liked the game, mostly because I liked girls a lot, but Toadstool was really kind of indifferent to it because he was so socially inept. I always started the game, and he'd hesitate a bit but eventually he'd join in, mainly because he didn't want anybody to think he was queer or anything.
"Jenny Walters," I was saying, naming one of the cheerleaders for our basketball team.
"Too tall," Toadstool said, which was ridiculous, because if she ever even smiled at him he'd be dumbstruck the rest of the day. "Besides, she has an overbite."
"She doesn't have an overbite. Besides which, look at her boobs. You've got to admit, for a tall girl she's got pretty nice boobs."
"Boobs don't matter that much when the looks just aren't there and she does have an overbite," Toadstool said, then stopped for a second, huffing and blowing. I ignored him and kept moving on, which made him yell out, "Hey, hold up, butt-face!"
"No way, fart breath. We've got to make it back or your mom'll kill us."
Toadstool couldn't argue with my logic since he knew his mom's wrath better than I did, but he had to hurry up just to catch up with me. Now his breathing was heavier than it was before but, after taking a couple of minutes to catch his breath, he continued with the game.
"Leslie Menke," he said, naming another of the cheerleaders. We seemed to have a theme going there.
"Dated her," I shot back as quickly as he had said it.
"You did not."
"Did too. Last April, I think it was a week or so before Easter. Me and her went to the movies downtown. We saw Freaky Friday."
"Yeah, and how'd you get that past her mom and dad?"
"Didn't tell them. She told them she was meeting friends at the soda shop."
"I guess you kissed her, right?"
"Had to. It wouldn't have been decent of me to take her out and not give her a kiss afterwards."
"And how come no one's ever heard about it?"
"Because then her mom and dad would've found out, stupid. But I figured I could tell you."
"You're dreamin' again, dreamer."
He was right, I never dated Leslie Menke and up to that point I'd never even talked to her, to be truthful. And before you say so, no, there wasn't any real point to lying about the date, especially since Toadstool saw right through it immediately. I really didn't even do it to impress Toadstool, being that I knew that he'd see through it like he did. It was just something I did. When a story came into my head I told it as if it were the truth, no matter if every person in the room knew for certain what I was saying was an out-and-out lie. That's why they called me the Dreamer, because a lot of the things I said as truth were only actually true in my head. Or, as our buddy Dan Regis used to say, any similarities between anything I said and the actual truth were purely coincidental. I was a pathological liar way before that Tommy Flynn character on Saturday Night Live and most of the guys I hung out with knew immediately when I was lying. Still, I hated it when someone called me on it, I think it was a pride thing or something, and Toadstool had just called me out. So I hit him with the one person I knew would bother him.
"Okay," I said, "but how about Becky McGlothlin?"
Toadstool immediately shut up, and for good reason. You know how every school has its one dream girl, the one chick who every guy would give his left arm to date? Well, Becky was that girl at Garen Junior High. She was the head cheerleader, captain of the volleyball team, starting catcher for the softball team, honor student, but more important from a guy's point of view, she had a smile that any guy in the school would die or kill for. To say the guys liked Becky was an understatement, especially dweebs like Toadstool and me. But even some of the jerkwad jocks like Phil Peterson, who pretty much treated most girls like he was doing them a favor by existing, treated her like she was something special. She was also the reason that Toadstool got his nickname.
Becky's locker was three down from Toadstool's when they were in seventh grade and there was this one day in which, for once, Toadstool was running late. I say "for once" because, even when he was fourteen, he was more organized than anybody should have the right to be. But on this day he was going to be late, which, for him, was unthinkable. So he was grabbing his books from his locker and slammed it shut when, wham, he runs right into Becky. Now Becky was generally the most agreeable person on Earth but even she wasn't immune to showing a little bit of temper when slammed into be a kid who was, even at that point, pushing two hundred pounds. So she yells out, loud enough for everyone in a crowded hall to hear, "Good God, I've just been ran into by a giant, upside-down toadstool!" Everyone in that hallway laughed, and Toadstool, who was feeling bad enough to begin with, kind of just picked his stuff up and went away.
The whole thing is, though, when someone like Becky McGlothlin gives you a name like that, it sticks. By the end of the year everyone was calling him Toadstool. In fact, most of the guys and some of the girls had a good time with that nickname throughout the rest of junior high and into high school. Just about the only person who didn’t call him that was Becky. Understand, Garen had more than its share of stuck up, snooty, nasty girls who felt they were better than everyone else, but despite the fact that she was, without a doubt, the most popular girl in the Garen High Class of 1980, she just wasn't a snob like that. I think it really bugged her how some of the guys used the nickname to torment Toadstool, especially when Jack Rietz and Ben Stegler tortured him with it in what should have been his sophomore year. I think it was partially out of a sense of guilt that she became friends with Toadstool during his last year in school. Well, that and the fact that they were lab partners in advanced biology and she might have used him to get an A in that class. Whatever happened, he eventually forgave her for what she did to him, which was good for her considering where she ended up later in life.
Three things were in place that set everything in motion for what was to happen that weekend. The first was that Toadstool was fat and couldn’t handle heat or exercise, which was and is his lifelong affliction. The second was, of course, the whole idea of mine to take him on that stupid fishing trip. The third was that Gerd Franklin had his dad's 1961 Eldorado Brougham and spotted us walking down the dirt path that led from the river towards Highway 23.
Gerd was someone that my mom would never let me hang out with. He knew Toadstool pretty well because the house that he and his dad were staying at was less than a mile away from Toadstool's. Gerd's dad, Will, was supposed to be a handyman of some sort who'd moved to Garen in the mid-fifties because he had some family there. Somewhere along the line he got this waitress pregnant but she died when she was giving birth to Gerd, otherwise the old man may have walked away from the whole thing and never known Gerd. But as it was he felt guilty for maybe causing the death of the waitress so he took Gerd in. Not so long after got the sweetest deal anyone could get.
Old Joseph Granger, the owner of Granger Pharmaceuticals, had his wife get sick and they had to move out to the east coast in order to get her the medical care she needed. Anyway, old Granger had been in the middle of renovating a gigantic A-frame style house out in the country in a real secluded spot near where Toadstool lived and, instead of putting things on hold, he decided to hire out Will Franklin to finish things up, offering to allow Will to live there until he and his wife returned. Well, his wife never did get better and she eventually died out there on the east coast, but in the meantime the old man ended up opening up two new drug stores out there and kind of lost interest in Garen. He asked Will to fix up the place so he could sell it but he just seemed to lose interest in the whole thing. Will and Gerd stayed on there waiting for someone to come throw them out. In fact, word was that old Granger stopped paying Will some time in the late sixties, which was okay seeing as how Will never really did get anything done except for two rooms on the first floor. That’s where he and Gerd lived.
Word was that old Will Franklin would do nothing but sit in his easy chair and watch TV and drink beer from morning until night, pretty much leaving Gerd to do whatever. I'm not sure what the old man ever did for money or how they could afford that old car, but it couldn't hurt that they hadn't any rent to pay for nearly a decade. For his part, Gerd was an alcoholic by the time he turned fourteen and never did do well in school, so no one was surprised when he dropped out the day after he turned sixteen. He was nineteen when he saw us walking down that dirt road, shirtless and already buzzed from whatever he'd been drinking that morning.
I didn't think much about it when I saw that big old car coming other than to get out of the way because it was taking up pretty much the entire road. Then it stopped, the cloud of dust behind it blowing into our faces and the sound of Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die coming so loudly from inside the car that at first I couldn't hear what Gerd was saying to us. He popped his head out the window and looked towards Toadstool.
"Hey, Joey, what're you doing out here?" he asked, and Toadstool stepped out of the beanfield we were standing in and walked up to the car. I think Toadstool kind of liked Gerd because he was one of the few people outside of his family or teachers who didn't call him Toadstool.
"We went fishing down at the river," Toadstool huffed out. By this time he was sweating so badly that the flannel shirt that he insisted on wearing was drenched.
"Couple of gar, but we threw them back."
"Kind of hot to be walking out here, dontcha think?"
"Yeah, yeah it is."
"Well, where are you guys going to?"
"I've got to get home. My mom'll kill me if I'm not back by ten o'clock."
"I can give you a ride if you need one. I've got to head down to Guardian to get myself some more beer, but I should be back to your place well before ten o'clock."
It was a bad idea all around. Toadstool might have liked Gerd but I didn't. He just didn't sit right with me. His hair was long and uncombed and I'm pretty sure it was unwashed, he had this short light-colored semi-beard, as if he was trying to grow some sort of facial hair but couldn't, and he was almost always shirtless in the summer. Besides that, his chest and stomach were completely hairless, which was creepy. The inside of his car smelled like tobacco and alcohol and maybe a little bit of puke. Despite that Toadstool didn't hesitate to get in it quicker than he'd moved all day, taking shotgun and throwing his gear in the back. That left me to pull open the back door, throw my stuff beside Toadstool's and try to make myself comfortable in those hot vinyl seats.
Guardian was a village that was ten minutes from Garen and the only way into it even in 1976 was a one-lane bridge that passed over a creek. That meant that if you were going in and someone was going out, one person or the other was going to have to wait until the other one was across. The village was built on a steep slope that led down into the Mississippi River valley, and it featured a working mill, something that the people of the village liked to call historic but most of us simply thought of as backwards. '76 was the bicentennial year, of course, and like most small towns and villages, Guardian had gone all-out to decorate the place for the country's birthday. Once it was all over, though, nobody really had the energy to take all that stuff down, so by August all of the bunting and banners were still there, though a little faded and weather-worn. In fact, that stuff would stay there through the winter and the next three winters afterwards. It was in the spring of '79 that some reporter from St. Louis got wind of the village and decided to do a piece on it, naming it the most patriotic little village in America, which was something odd to name a place that was just too lazy to clean up after a party.
For most of the year, other than the mill, Guardian wasn't much to look at. The houses were all on a hillside and you had to drive up some really steep streets to get to most of them. The business area was in the flats on the other side of the bridge, but this only consisted of a restaurant, a service station, a drug store and the Four Corners, the village's one and only bar. The Four Corners was owned by Larry File, whose son Bobby was an old classmate and co-conspirator of Gerd's and who could get Gerd some beer, which was why we were heading down there.
Gerd had both front windows of the car down, and the wind from them was hitting me full in the face so I couldn't hear what Gerd and Toadstool were talking about, but from what I could see Toadstool looked to be fairly relieved. The wind had stopped him from sweating, which was his own fault because he insisted on wearing those flannel shirts instead of being smart like me and wearing a plain cotton t-shirt. I was miserable, though, because Gerd had the radio on full-blast, and the radio station was apparently doing some sort of Beatles weekend as they were now playing John Lennon's Whatever Gets You Through the Night. I could've done without that because I wasn't the biggest Beatles fan in the world, either individually or as a group. What's more, I've never felt comfortable when I couldn't hear what people are saying, and in this case I couldn't hear a peep out of Gerd or Toadstool, although they seemed to be having a pretty good time in the front there.
We finally got to Guardian, and Gerd shut his motor off just as we were about to get to the Four Corners in order to avoid waking up old Larry, whose family lived in the apartment above the bar. Now, the preceding night being a Friday night, Larry would've had the bar open to all hours of the night, hosting all of the drunks who could make their way to the Four Corners and getting fairly well inebriated himself. So he generally would not be awake on a Saturday morning as he wouldn't open the bar until four in the afternoon, but still he wouldn't be happy if he knew Gerd was in the area. Gerd was legal to drink, because you were legal to drink when you were nineteen in Illinois in '76. But Gerd didn't ever want to have to pay for it, so he used his friendship with Bobby, who Gerd could talk into anything, in order to get beer.
Bobby and Gerd had been friends since they'd been in elementary school together, and though Bobby graduated, everyone knew he didn’t need to because Bobby would eventually inherit the bar from Larry anyway. Or so everyone thought. Nobody could foresee Larry getting stinking drunk one night in '81 and setting the bar on fire trying to cook himself up some hamburgers, all of this while the bar was uninsured. I'm not sure what happened to Bobby after that, but it was certain that he was no longer getting beer for Gerd by that point anyway.
The Four Corners was this two-story place that looked more like a box than it did a building. The bar was downstairs and the family lived upstairs as the bar was Larry's life and he wouldn't be separated from it. There were two ways to get up to the family's apartment. One was through the bar, where we darned sure weren't going. The other was a wooden stairway that Larry had built behind the bar. Gerd told me and Toadstool to stay at the bottom of the stairs, then he walked up them as quietly as he could. Now, from what I understood, Larry and his wife slept in a main bedroom in the front of the building and Bobby slept in the bedroom to the rear, which was advantageous for Gerd as he could wake Bobby without waking his parents. Still, Bobby's bedroom window was pretty far over from the landing on top of the stairs and Gerd had to put one leg over the railing and reach over nearly as far as he could in order to knock on the window. Bobby must've been sleeping one off himself, because Gerd had to hang there in that position and knock four times before Bobby came to the window, shirtless himself and with all the hair on his face and chest that the good Lord denied Gerd.
"Jesus Christ, Gerd," he said when he slid his back window open, "do you know what time it is?"
"It's beer time, Bobby," Gerd said in a hushed tone with a crooked smile on his face.
"What? It's not even noon yet, even I don't want a beer now." Bobby was squinting from the morning sun, and his scrunched-up face made him look even more like a caveman.
"That's because you're weak, Bobby. Now, are you gonna help me out or what?"
"C'mon, Gerd, I just took some cases for you on Wednesday. The old man's stupid, but he's eventually going to do some inventory."
"I don't want much, just a case or maybe five."
"Come back tonight, I can get you some for free and the old man'll never know it."
"Tonight ain't now. C'mon, Bobby, you know I'm just going to keep hanging here until you get it for me."
Gerd reached out even further from the dangerous position he was holding his body in and began to sway back and forth, which was scaring Bobby to death because there was no way he wanted to explain to old Larry why Gerd was hanging on his back stairs early on a Saturday morning. Bobby gave this look like he was trying to think, which must've been painful for him, but finally he shook his head and began to pull his head back in the window.
"All right, but we've got to make this quick."
"Don't worry, I brought along some help," and when he said this, Gerd pointed at Toadstool and me.
At this point I'm certain that Toadstool was as uncomfortable with this as I was. I mean, I was a pretty stupid fourteen-year-old, but even I could figure out what we were doing was fairly illegal even if we were just stealing from Bobby’s dad. Not only were we stealing, but Toadstool and I were way under the legal age even back then. I'm not certain if old Larry would've called the cops if he'd have caught us but I'm pretty sure that whatever he did would've been just as unpleasant.
To hurry things up, Gerd got in his car and, as slowly as he could, drove it up to the downstairs back door that led to the cooler. Bobby was already there and waiting for him, not saying a word and mostly ignoring Toadstool and me. Bobby had a key that I'm pretty sure his dad didn't know he had and he opened up the door and walked into the cooler. Gerd stationed Toadstool and me midway between the door and the car and we formed kind of a fire line, with Bobby grabbing the cases out of the cooler and handing them down to me and then Toadstool and finally to Gerd who deposited them in that car's massive trunk. I noticed, while I was standing there scared to death, that Bobby wasn't handing Gerd the good stuff, like the Budweiser or the Pabst, but instead had found the Stag beer. It was a good idea for him because Larry would've certainly missed the good stuff. Gerd didn't seem to care what he drank, though, because for him beer was beer and after all it was free.
In the end, they deposited six cases into that trunk and Gerd closed it as quietly as he could, which wasn't quiet enough for Bobby. "Man, be careful," he whispered as quietly as he could.
"It's all cool," Gerd whispered back with that half-grin on his face. "Thanks, Bobby, I owe you."
"A million times over. You coming down here tonight?"
"I'm probably going to be in a coma by then, but if I'm not I'll be here. Later, Bobby."
The three of us got back in the car, closing the doors as quietly as we could, and Gerd slowly motored the car through the square outside of the Four Corners and over the one-lane bridge before gunning it when he got to the other side, letting out a big whoop when he did so. He looked over at Toadstool, his grin now covering his whole face, and banged his left hand on the top of the car roof a couple of times.
"Now I'm alright, Joey. This is going to be a good day after all because I feel a drunk coming on."
I leaned forward into the area between the two front seats. "Yeah, but we've got to get home soon. Toads. . . I mean, Joey's mom is going to kill us."
"The old bird's on the warpath again?" Gerd asked towards Toadstool, half-ignoring me.
"She's going to be if I'm late getting back," Toadstool said, still looking uncomfortable about what we'd just done.
"All right, all right. We're heading there now. I just had to make my beer stop, that's all. The next place I'm going is your place."
And that's what he said, but the truth is that we'd get nowhere near home on that day.