The kitchen was quite small and crowded and that's probably why Carl was able to open the cabinet door under the kitchen sink, pull out a half-pint bottle of his Dad's whiskey, and stash it in the back pocket of his jeans without his parents noticing. His mother and sister stood nearby talking, while Dale and I squeezed behind the kitchen table. There must have been six of us in the tiny kitchen. I'm not sure Dale saw the grab, but I did, and I was confused. I thought the three of us were headed for the county fair. We were, just not for the reason I assumed.
Carl was crazy about Ellen. She lived on the opposite side of the next block, across a cornfield that was next to a cemetery. I saw him walk into the cornfield, when the stalks were higher than our heads, and I followed him to see what was up. He walked through the tall corn to the edge near Ellen's backyard and then turned to me and put his index finger to his lips. Her parents were there with her. We waited in that cornfield for her parents to go inside so he could have a chance to speak to her, but they didn't, so he eventually gave up and we left. I knew he had it bad for her.
Unbeknownst to me, they had broken up earlier in the day and Carl's heart was broken. He knew Ellen was going to the county fair that night and that was the motive I had missed.
Carl was two years ahead of me in school and he already had his drivers license. Unable to drive, I had to scramble for a social life, and if I couldn't find a ride, it meant staying home and watching TV on a Friday or Saturday night and imagining that every other teenager in town was out cruising and having the time of their life, at least that's how it always sounded on Monday mornings back at school. When Carl asked if Dale and I wanted to go to the fair with him, I didn't think twice.
Carl drove an old, two-tone green and white 1958 Ford that his Dad had bought him. It was on its last legs, but on this night it successfully delivered us to the fairgrounds outside of our small southern town.
On the way, Carl took large swigs from the clear, half-pint glass bottle of whiskey he held between his thighs as he drove and by the time we completed the fifteen-minute drive to the fairgrounds, the bottle was nearly empty. I was amazed that anyone could swallow that much whiskey that fast. He was a man on a mission.
Sneaking into a county fair to avoid the small admission fee at the gate was de rigueur and never difficult. Instead of turning right onto the gravel road that led to the gates, Carl continued down the highway about fifty yards and parked on the grass shoulder next to a cornfield that had recently been cut and consisted at this point in the season of the stumps of stalks about a foot high. The light of the full moon was all we needed to see our way across the muddy field and onto the midway. He hadn't shown the effects of all that liquor up until now, but he stumbled ever so slightly as he stepped out of the car and his speech began to slur as we entered the fairgrounds, so Dale and I began to watch him closely.
Dale was a fixture in the group of nearly a dozen teenagers in our neighborhood that bordered the city high school grounds. He, too, was older than me and he had a drivers license, but his parents rarely loaned him the car. We all played basketball in my driveway and usually shot marbles in my backyard.
Carl staggered up to a midway game where you toss quarters and get to keep a piece of glassware if the coin lands on it. They nearly always slid off the other side. Dale and I flanked him. Carl took careful aim with a quarter, not a trivial investment for a high school kid in the late sixties, eventually tossed it and missed the entire table of glassware by at least three feet.
Carl tried to engage a carnival worker, just a bit older than us, in conversation. "Where are you from?" he asked. By this point, his intoxication was obvious, though the overabundance of English Leather covered the smell of whiskey on his breath.
"Douche Bag, Montana," came the smart-ass reply.
"Dewsbeck?" Carl asked with an expression of complete bewilderment, struggling to form the words with his now disconnected lips. "Where's that at?"
The carny looked at Carl quizzically. "I said douche bag. You don't know what a douche bag is?"
We didn't, so he went on to explain in graphic terms. Carl slapped his thigh, broke into hysterical laughter and staggered off to the next booth where, unfortunately, he ran into Ellen, as he had hoped he would from the start.
Ellen was mortified by the sloppy drunk who now stood in front of her. Carl tried to talk to her, but his speech was almost unintelligible and he could barely keep his balance. She stood eight feet away with her arms crossed in front of her and held her ground.
"Carl," she said, "you're embarrassing yourself and you're embarrassing me." She kept glancing at me as if I could somehow help her out of the situation and when he was distracted and lost his balance, I saw my chance. Dale and I grabbed his arms to keep him from falling, I caught her eye and mouthed "go" to her, and she disappeared like a puff of smoke. Carl knew she was gone for good, so we convinced him to head back to the car, now fully supported by the two of us.
As we walked back across the same moonlit, muddy cornfield with Carl hanging between the two of us, his head drooping and his feet sometimes dragging, he suddenly told us to stop.
"I gotta piss," he informed us.
Dale gave me a look that said, "how the hell is this going to work?" I quickly decided that, like the atomic bomb tests in Nevada in the fifties, if you absolutely had to watch something like this you damned sure wanted to do it from a distance. We gave him plenty of room as he unzipped his pants and began to urinate.
Shortly, though, he stumbled and, both hands currently occupied and unavailable to help regain his balance, he began falling and then running backwards, trailing a streaming arc high into the moonlit night. It was the most amazing display of athleticism I had ever seen from a shitfaced teenager. He actually ran backwards about six complete steps before falling flat on his back with a loud groan.
Dale and I looked at each other and started laughing. "What are we going to do now?" Dale asked as Carl tried to collect himself and stand up.
"We?", I asked him with all the indignity I could muster. Friendship has its limits, even if that friend has his drivers license.
We eventually dragged Carl back to the car and laid him flat in the backseat. Dale told me he knew some friends of Carl's family that lived nearby. Dale drove Carl's car to Robert Earl and Bonny's house in the outer suburbs of our town. They welcomed us in, laid Carl on the couch and listened to our story.
"He drank an entire half-pint of whiskey in less than a half-hour," I explained.
"Hell, that ain't nuthin'," Robert Earl assured us. "Why, you shoulda' seen Bonny and me drinkin' moonshine at the state fair when we was in high school. Now that was a drunk. He'll be OK, but he'll have a head on him tomorrow. There's nothing we can do, you're just gonna have to take him home so he can sleep it off."
Once again, Dale and I strung Carl like a hammock between the two of us and headed out the front door, his feet dragging now toes-down, down the sidewalk and to the street where we had parked. I noticed a car's headlights approaching us slowly from down the street and, against all odds, in a small suburb without a single car or person on the streets, we stared into the unsmiling face of a state trooper. We froze.
"What's the matter with him that he has to be led?" the trooper asked through his open passenger side window.
"He's sick," Dale responded immediately. "We've been to the fair and he ate too much cotton candy."
This was, of course, precisely the correct thing to say. When it appears that a police officer might be about to cut you a break, it is always wise to insult his intelligence. I tried to jump in for the save.
"Were taking him home," I assured the officer.
"Yeah, were taking him home," Dale immediately repeated, catching on quickly.
Carl lifted his head as best he could. "They're taking me home," he informed the officer for a third time in a drunken slur.
I figured I was about to spend the rest of the night in a police cruiser with my friend, Stupid, and my other friend, Drunk and Stupid, but the trooper just asked me what Carl's name was and where he lived and then he inexplicably drove away. I had come awfully close to needing a change of underwear.
We drove Carl to my house, a few doors down from his, and took him inside to prepare to face his parents. My mother, known for making brutally strong coffee, told him to drink a cup. He took one sip, screwed his face into a grimace, and still slurring his speech terribly, mumbled, "Geez, this is like eating the grounds or somethin'."
Mom's friend, Ray, suggested that walking around the block in the cool air might help sober him a little. Ray and I grabbed Carl's arms, a position I had now been in for much of the evening, and began walking. About halfway around the block, Ray told me to run. The three of us ran about ten steps when Carl yelled, "Hold it! Hold it!", bent over at the waist and held his stomach.
"I think what we all need," he told us sincerely and slowly, "is a rest."
We finally reached Carl's front door and his mother met us there in her pajamas and robe. "I'm not surprised, Carl," she told him, "but I am disappointed." To this day I have no idea what that means.
"I'm sorry, Mom," he mumbled sheepishly and staggered off to his bedroom.
Carl had a job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken that had just opened on West Dixie Avenue and I went to check on him there the next day around noon. I ran into my friend, Jim, and asked how Carl was.
"He works a few minutes and then he goes into the walk-in freezer, closes the door and just sits there. What the hell did you guys do last night?"
The Carl and Ellen relationship was truly over and they both moved on.
The old green Ford blew a head gasket on its last outing later that same week, with Dale and me in the car again. It trailed a cloud of black smoke behind us so thick it would've made James Bond proud. Carl parked it in his driveway for the last time. His Dad and a mechanic friend stood and stared at it for a long while, until his Dad finally said, "Probably blew a head gasket."
"Yep," the mechanic agreed, and they walked inside for another beer. The old, green Ford was over and it moved on, too.
Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.
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