We were somewhere on Henry Ridge Mountainway when the car finally broke down. It wheezed to a stop right in the middle of an already narrow part of the road. Stuart slammed his fists on the steering wheel and screamed.
“Don’t hit the car,” Hal said. It was his car. He bought it sophomore year of high school with 1300 one dollar bills he’d saved up for months. To say it was his pride and joy would be a bit much since he barely knew how to check the oil, never mind change it. But it was his car and he didn’t like Stuart pounding on it.
“What?” Stuart finally asked after staring at Hal for a bit. “What did you just say?”
“Don’t hit the car. It’s not going to fix anything.”
“Shut up, Hal. You’re an idiot.”
That was how we generally talked to Hal back then and he generally took it. I doubt any of us are proud of that fact now but it’s what you do when you’re 20 years old and there’s someone who will take that kind of abuse. You abuse them.
Alan was still asleep in the back seat. His head was wrapped in a dark blue sweatshirt to block out the California sun that was now starting to hit us all with a dull, flat heat.
“We’re putting the top up,” Hal said starting to get out of the car.
“Shut up, sit down,” Stuart shot. “We’re not putting up the top when we’re in the middle of God damned California. That’s the whole point of having a convertible.”
Hal sat back down on the white vinyl seat. He shifted slightly over what must have been a hot spot but then sat still. He just stared forward down the hood of the car and down the road.
“We should probably get out of the road,” I finally said.
Leonard Cohen‘s “Last Year’s Man” blasted from the cheap speakers. We were on the umpteenth listen to a mix tape I’d made for the occasion. It was called Topanga Canyon and made up of the songs I imagined wafting out of the houses that lined and crawled up the sides of this fabled canyon. It was the final destination of a three-week cross-country trip. The canyon was where so many of our favorite records came to be. In our minds it was frozen in 1971, the year most of us were born. Crosby still held court and Joni Mitchell still played coffee houses. Not really, but that was the vibe we expected.
“Can we listen to something else? I am a bit tired of this tape,” Hal moaned.
“Jesus, are you retarded? No.” Stuart turned up the volume.
“Seriously, let’s get the car out of the middle of the road,” I said and hopped over the back door, which Hal hated.
“Watch the seats,” he begged.
I went around to the back of the car and positioned myself to push it to the side.
“Are you guys going to help?” I asked.
“Should I wake up Alan?”
“No, Hal. Do you really want to deal with that? If he’s asleep he’s not causing trouble.”
“Dude, I can hear you.” Alan was awake under the sweatshirt. “You think I cause trouble? Is that what you think? Am I just a burden for you?”
“Oh Christ,” Stuart said in mock desperation. “Nobody thinks you’re a burden, Alan.”
“I kind of do,” I said.
“Very funny,” Alan said without looking over his shoulder.
“I mean, right now you’re definitely a burden. You’re like six feet five and I’m the one pushing the car?”
“Will you help me push the car?”
Alan leaned over the front seat and turned the stereo up. CSNY‘s “Ohio” took on an even sharper edge when pushed through cheap speakers at maximum volume.
“Hey, you’re going to wreck the radio,” Hal yelled over Neil Young‘s ha la lalala la la la la.
“Dude, you do NOT turn this song down. I told you.”
He had. It was the first night of the trip and we were somewhere outside of Des Moines. It was maybe the fourth time we’d listened to both sides of the tape and Hal was getting tired. He was in the passenger seat, as usual, and tried to turn the stereo down. We were eight hours into a two-day drive. Hal’s already fragile nerves were beginning to fray. But Alan was right; you really don’t turn that song down. Not ever. To put a fine point on the matter he punched Hal hard in the shoulder. Not a friendly kind of Slug Bug punch. a savage punch right in the meat of Hal’s upper arm. He had a hard time lifting his arm up high enough to put a shirt on.
“Man, this car sure is heavy,” I cried from the back.
“I’m coming, Nancy,” Alan said and jumped out the same way I had.
“Seriously, watch the seats!”
We pushed the car to the side of the road and stood in the gravel trying to decide what to do. There were no cell phones back then and we didn’t have Ben’s number anyway. He was who we were going to see and we weren’t exactly sure where he even lived. We couldn’t be sure he even knew where he lived. Such was Ben’s life in 1991.
The Beach Boys‘ “Disney Girls” cried from the speakers.
Ben was a genuine vagabond. He worked for a national restaurant chain that had a program where you could travel the country working in different stores. Ben was 14 months into his Passport program that was supposed to be a year maximum. He had a way with milking the system and this was no different. He’d somehow made his way to Topanga and was waiting for our arrival anytime that week. It was as precise as we could be then, especially when Alan was traveling with us.
“I guess we should walk into town,” I said.
“Who knows how far that is?” Stuart asked.
“We have a map right there.”
“Oh yeah? Tell me how many miles it is into town, Lafayette.”
“Well, don’t you measure it inches to miles? So you just measure the first knuckle of your finger and that’s supposed to be a mile?”
“What are you talking about?”
“No, I think that’s right,” Hal joined in.
“What the fuck do you know?” I asked even though he was on my side of the debate. I couldn’t help it. What the fuck did he know?
“Wasn’t Ian an Eagle Scout?” Alan asked.
“No, I got my Life badge,” I answered.
“What is that? What is a ‘Life’ badge?” Alan made the finger quotes as if I had made up the Life badge.
“It’s the last badge before Eagle Scout.”
“So you’re not an Eagle Scout?”
“You were one badge away and you didn’t finish?”
“Well, it takes a lot of work for the last badge.”
“But you were one away?”
“Two of Us” from The Beatles‘ Let it Be played as the sun cooled slightly.
Without a word more we started walking down the road. Hal initially stayed with the car but eventually followed way behind us. The sun was starting to set and the bugs began to hover around our heads. It was Tuesday but we started singing “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” We eventually found a diner and went in to eat and try to call Ben.
“Can you just order me a grilled cheese and fries?” I asked.
“You sure you don’t want to save your money for a gas station tuna sandwich?” Alan teased. I had developed a reputation for eating those spongy bread tuna sandwiches you get at convenience stores and truck stops. I don’t know why—because the description makes me a little sick to my stomach—but I loved those nasty things. It was a weakness.
“I am trying to save my money; just a grilled cheese.”
I went to the bathroom and passed a thin man standing at the sink combing his greasy hair. He stared into the mirror and just combed his hair, stopping only to occasionally run his comb under the water. It went on like this while I peed and as I washed my hands. He just kept combing…over and over and over again.
“Hey,” I said to him. He just looked at me through the mirror and grinned, not stopping his work.
I found the guys at a booth and the waitress was already there.
“Did you order me a grilled cheese and fries?”
“Dude, she just got here. Order it yourself,” Alan said.
“You want a grilled cheese, hon?” the waitress asked.
“Yes, please.” I answered and then turned to the guys. “There is this dude in the bathroom.”
“What kinda bread?”
“What kinda bread on your grilled cheese?”
‘Wait, I want to hear about your boyfriend in the bathroom,” Alan laughed.
“I’ll take white bread, I guess.”
“White bread on that?”
“This dude was so weird.”
“White bread?” she asked again.
“Yeah, white bread,” I said. “Anyways, this dude is so weird. He just standing there…”
“You want regular or curly fries?”
“He’s just standing there,” I paused. “I guess I want curly fries, right?”
“Yes, of course you want curly fries,” Stuart said. “Why would you get anything else? It’s like being offered Winona Ryder or the sister on Different Strokes.”
“Kimberly?” Alan asked.
“Dude, I would totally nail Kimberly.”
“Over Winona? You’re nuts.”
“No, she’s freaky. I can tell.”
“So you want curly fries?” the waitress confirmed.
“Yes, please,” I said. “Anyways this dude is just combing his hair in there. Just staring into the mirror and combing it.”
“So what, people comb their hair,” Hal said.
“I know that, idiot. But this guy was combing his hair when I walked in, while I peed, and as I left. He’s probably still in there combing his hair.”
“That’s the Groomer,” the waitress finally said.
“The Groomer. It’s what we call him.”
“It’s what he is. I’ll have your orders in a few.”
The waitress walked away and we all laughed and joked a bit about The Groomer. How do you end up like that? What we didn’t know then was that The Groomer was once a pretty well known singer-songwriter and drug supplier for the entire canyon area. That is until he started getting high on his own supply and lost his mind. Now he spends his days endlessly combing his hair in a poorly lit bathroom.
“Let’s call Ben,” Stuart said. “I want to get to his place as soon as possible and start smoking.” Weed had become a recent obsession for Stuart and Ben was always holding. Always.
“I saw a pay phone by the bathroom. I’ll go with you,” I said.
“You sure?” Stuart shot a look at Alan.
“It’ll be fine, let’s go.”
We walked over to the pay phone and each dug out enough change for the 20 cent call. Stuart dug through his backpack until he found Ben’s last known phone number. We’d talked to him a week ago and told him when we thought we’d be in town.
“That’s cool,” Ben said then. “I’ll smoke you down big time when you get here. We’ll hit some crazy parties too, I know some hotties out here.”
Stuart unfolded the piece of paper and started to dial. The phone rang and rang and rang.
“He knows we’re coming, right?” Stuart asked.
“Well, he knows we’re coming sometime this week, yeah.”
“Where is he?”
“It’s Ben, who knows where he is?”
The phone kept ringing. I could see over Stuart’s shoulder that our food had arrived.
“Let’s call him after we eat, I’m starving…”
“Hold on, give it seven more rings.”
On the fourth of the seven rings someone picked up.
“Hello?” Stuart asked. “Is Ben there?”
Stuart furrowed his brow as he listened to the girl on the other end.
I eyeballed the table to make sure nobody ate my pickles and that Alan didn’t do something that would land us all in jail.
“Did he say where?” Stuart asked the girl.
“Is he there?” I asked. Stuart turned and put a finger in his ear as if it were too loud to hear the girl on the other line otherwise.
“I’m going to the table,” I said, but Stuart grabbed my sleeve.
“Ok, thanks,” he said and then hung up. “Ben’s not here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s gone. He moved onto the next city on his Passport.”
“Is that what she told you?”
“Yeah, and she doesn’t know where he went next.”
“Don’t tell Alan until we get out of here.”
We looked over at the table where Alan and Hal sat. Alan was eating his patty melt and stealing fries from Hal’s plate.
“Fuck it,” Stuart said and he walked toward the table.
Over the restaurant’s speakers came Amy Grant‘s “Baby Baby” as we walked back to the table.