by Joseph A. Gross
After we rode the Tilt-a-Whirl, I bought curly fries while he waited in line for the porta john. “Meet you at the Spider,” he said as we separated. That’s the last time I saw him. That’s the last time anyone saw him except for the witness in the porta john line. “It looked like an argument,” anonymous reported, “They forcefully walked him away.”
They. Two Caucasian men with tattoos in their late twenties or early thirties. One wearing a red bandana around his neck and a long feather earing in his right ear. The other, missing a few teeth and wearing sunglasses at night.
The police sketches appear in the paper every October. The front page for the first three. As the case grew cold, most assumed he was dead or never coming back, so the sketches and story became smaller, buried in the back of the local section. This year, it’s front-page news again,
“New Tips,” the headline screams.
I scanned the crowed for any sign of him while the Spider spun its fourth or fifth cycle, its riders screaming behind my back. Gina passed by with Leah and Melanie and they stopped to chat. “Can I have one?”, Melanie asked while taking from my fries. I kept my eyes on the passing fairgoers as Gina impersonated Leah screaming on the Avalanche. “I thought I was falling out!”, Leah cried, enjoying the attention. Melanie grabbed more fries, this time dropping ketchup on my black Depeche Mode shirt. “Sorry,” she said, handing me a folded Mr. Witch’s Deli napkin from her purse as they left. I rubbed my shirt with the napkin until the blob of ketchup became a dark circle three times its size. Better, I guess.
When I looked up, I saw a Metallica shirt and a puff of blond hair in the distance headed my way. Finally. He approached and I took a few steps toward him holding out the paper-cone of curly fries. Why that look on his face? He shook his head and quickly turned right, muttering, “Wrong guy, dude,” with a laugh. One of the other fifteen-year-old boys in a Metallica shirt. My cheeks became warm. Kill ‘em All, I thought, his is Kill ‘em All. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I circled the porta-johns while calling his name, the rowdy laughter from the nearby beer tent muffling my raised voice. Nothing.
“Have you seen the movie?” he asked, sitting down next to me, and motioning toward my paperback copy of Salem’s Lot displayed prominently on my desk. He was the new kid, just moved from Christmas, a quaint town about an hour south that he said was “nothing like the holiday.” Turned out we lived in the same middle-class subdivision, a twisting path of ranch style homes with manicured yards, some with porches or pools or both. We began spending every day together, skateboarding down steep driveways, watching Three’s Company reruns, pretending to be contestants on Supermarket Sweep. Then high school came. We remained best friends, but I often ditched him for newer cooler friends, knocking on his window after coming home drunk.
He and I counted down to the church Oktoberfest every year. Speculating what the big rides might be. Hoping they’d bring back the Himalaya and the Gravitron. We’d go on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Everyone from school went on Friday, and as teens, the midway became a backdrop for carousing. That year I had an invite to “party” in the woods behind the church with Gina and some others. Because the fair was our tradition, I had to invite him.
We sat on our sweatshirts, silhouettes drinking 40s of Olde English. They liked him just fine, but I felt compelled to pull him into conversations, to laugh a little bit louder at his jokes. When the joint came around, he looked at me for guidance. I slowly inhaled, held the smoke in my lungs, and smiled at him as it escaped through my nose and mouth. He’d smoked with me several times before, but usually he coughed and averted his eyes. This time he didn’t.
I had a second bottle of malt liquor for myself, and I opened it just as everyone stood up to return to the midway. It was just him and me now in the woods. We passed the bottle back and forth. Once it was empty, he began blowing across the rim, causing it to hum. I patted his blond head. Ran my hand down his back. That’s usually how it began. Afterward, we held hands until we reached the edge of the woods, releasing them just as we stepped into the floodlights behind the church.
I didn’t find him at the porta johns, so I walked the entire midway twice, weaving my way through the slow-moving crowd, passing the buzzing game shacks that enticed players with oversized stuffed giraffes and bananas, small mirrors emblazoned with heavy metal band logos, goldfish trapped in water-filled plastic bags. Everyone was him and no one was him. Finally, I approached one of the cops near the garbage cans at the midway entrance. He wore glasses and stood a distance away from the others, so I thought he’d be nice. “It’s been at least an hour,” I said. “If he’s not back tomorrow, have his parents file a missing person report,” he suggested.
Across Nova Road at the Pick N Save, I stood underneath the tall parking lot lights, each bulb encased in a small cloud of no-see-ums. Tethered to a lone pay phone by its coiled metal cord, I strained to look over my shoulder. On the second ring, his father answered. “I don’t know what to do,” I said with a squeak. If I said anything else, I might have cried, but boys don’t cry.
The cops combed the midway after his father arrived. The one with the glasses patted me on my head and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll find your friend.” They brought me to the station and called my mother. I waited alone in the small interrogation room and refused to sip from the sweating can of RC Cola. When the detectives finally returned, I walked them through the night, but I didn’t mention the woods. They asked if we had been drinking, doing drugs. I said, “No.” They asked me if we were with anyone else. I said, “Gina.”
I didn’t try to sleep that night because I knew I wouldn’t. I hoped he’d knock on my window. “Everything’s ok,” he’d say before lying next to me in bed and wrapping his arms around me. Then, like always, we’d talk about our plans for college where we could hold hands without worry.
By Monday, the tattooed men were people of interest, and everyone knew I was the last person to speak to him. People whispered in the hallway at school and treated me like a bad-luck tiki. No one said, “I’m sorry about your friend.” Ms. Engels, the guidance counselor who always
wore colorful leg warmers and teased her orange hair, called me to her office and stared at me. Finally, she asked me how I felt. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sad, I guess.”
It didn’t take long before others began telling me what happened. Brett, a country boy in my math class, said, “You owed them guys money for drugs,” with a smirk. Suzanne, sitting behind him, chimed in, “What were you two doing in the woods?” moving her eyebrows up and down. Although no one said it explicitly, I knew what it all meant.
People like the theory about the tattooed men selling him to sex traffickers, it leaves room for hope I guess, but the most popular is payback for a drug debt. It doesn’t matter that no evidence of heavy drug use or debts exist. At fifteen-years-old, what could they expect? This theory is often accentuated with sex acts in the woods, strangulation, and feeding his remains to pigs out near the Cabbage Patch bar. The cops dug there after a “credible” tip but found nothing.
Three decades later, and they still print my name and publish my yearbook photo next to his. Although never officially a suspect, it’s always been believed I know something about the men. The cops questioned me more than once back then. “Why did you lie about the woods?”, they always asked. “Who are those men? You can tell us. We’re your friends. We only want to help.”
Now, someone who “partied” with us that night came forward with “new information.” Something happened in the woods, they said. I let the men take him, they said. This isn’t true. I was a scared fifteen-year-old just like him, hoping not to be seen.
I scroll through the comments about the case on the true crime blogs often, some nights for hours at a time. Because of the “new information,” the internet sleuths are abuzz. “He just looks guilty,” is one person’s justification of my guilt. “Scorned f****t,” someone else thoughtfully calls me. “This is my favorite case,” many add.
A more eloquent sleuth claims to be writing a book and includes a link to her blog and Kickstarter page. She points out similarities to other cases in the late 80s and early 90s. Several male teens disappeared from carnivals, often, according to anonymous witnesses at the time, last seen with men similar in appearance to those in the Oktoberfest sketches. The cases form a trail from Texas to Florida. Seven missing teenage boys between 1986 and 1992. He was the last one.
While investigating the cases, she explains, most of the cops spent more time with the missing teens’ friends than they did the carnival workers or local adults. Many of the workers matched the descriptions of the suspects, and in each case, investigators ruled them out, usually favoring stories of teen drug use and satanism.
Coming out of the woods that night, we caught the attention of a group of men huddled in puffs of smoke at the corner of the church. “What are y’all gay?”, one shouted. They laughed, continuing to taunt us with limp wrists and high-pitched speech. “Did they see?” I whispered. “Probably. This way,” he said, leading us away from them and onto the longer return route to the midway. I lit a cigarette. Heard a stampede of boots hitting dirt behind us. Felt the ground shaking. “Are they coming?”, I asked, too scared to look myself. “Run,” he said, and we did. I relaxed once we absorbed back into the bright cacophony of the midway and joined the line for the Tilt-A-Whirl. We’re safe now, I thought while looking over my shoulder, here we look like all the other fifteen-year-old boys.
About the Author
Joseph A. Gross is a Brooklyn based performer curator, and writer.