Joey Star. That’s all I ever knew him as. You see, back where I come from we didn’t have a close bunch of friends. Sure, we’d hang out on the corner trying not to get into to trouble. Well anyway, not that much trouble. But in the end, after a good day of running we would all go our separate ways. But not Joey, he was different. Different in a cool sort of a way. He was slightly older than all of us. He didn’t act like us, dress like us, or talk like us. We were all descendants of the same people in the same town I guess since time began and Joey only had moved in here with his Aunt a few years ago. So it was like he only “allowed” us to be a “part” of him and only, I might add, on his own terms. Not that Joey was stuck up or high society as my mother would always say he and his Aunt were. The odd thing about it was that even though she didn’t know them or their family name, my Mother thought if you were not visiting neighbors and gossiping, well, she called it “Church sharing”; you were either rich or just plan unsociable. But Joey just wasn’t that way. He was just the opposite. He would do anything for you but he wouldn’t really let you get close to him. In fact, I don’t think Joey allowed anyone to really get know him or get close to him. As far as I know I was his closet friend and I still didn’t know that much about him. I guess that is what I remember the most about him. Well, that and if you just called him Joey, he would politely correct you in his standard fashion and say “my name is “Joey Star”.
Growing up in our neighborhood wasn’t much different than probably growing up in your neighborhood. We had the typical old abandoned train depot every town has that in the past some ole famous person stopped there on their way to success. Success, which wasn’t found or left in this town by the way. Oh no, it was always somewhere else. The same store, same corner, and same ole rich people that wouldn’t let you cut through their well manicured to do yard on the way to the school. Which by the way, is a whole ‘nother story to tell … Oh, and about our store, I do have to tell ya about it. If we weren’t at the train depot throwing rocks, we were at the store. It was called “Haywood’s”. It was located down on the corner of Second and Alvasia. I guess the old man that ran it was the “original and only” Mr. Haywood. because I really don’t know. He never had kids that I heard tell of. But everyone called him that, so out of respect, I did too. He was old, soft spoken and balding. His store, like him, was also as old as he was but it was a good spot for a guaranteed fresh made to order sandwich on rye or wheat bread and a cold bottle of pop. He would meet you at the counter wiping his hands with a white towel he kept in his apron and say, “What can I do you for Ms. Dean?” Mr. Haywood knew everyone’s name. I remember my mother would go in there on Saturdays and get a sandwich before heading out to the rummage sales with her newspaper under her arm and me in tow. Mr. Haywood would always call to the back of the store to his wife, “Ms. Dean wants a turkey on rye no mayo Dear”, or what ever the sandwich would be and then say, “Don’t worry Sugar, I’ll fix it” then cheerfully get out the daily fresh baked bread and carefully slice the turkey just to the right size every time and make the sandwich. I suspected that the Haywood’s were up every morning real early to bake that bread. It was always warm and fresh, not like that other fancy stale store bought bread. He even rang everything up so Mrs. Haywood wouldn’t have to get up and come to the front. That’s not so strange is it? An old man with so much love and devotion for his wife that he didn’t mind making sandwiches and fixing lunches all day long by himself so she wouldn’t have to? As long as I can remember, I never saw her come to the front of the store. I just heard those old records being played in the back. They sounded like those old records from the early forties and fifties. You know the ones with the soft whiny horn sections and the singer sounding like he or she was singing into a tin can. One time I asked mom how come Mrs. Haywood never came out from back of the store to fix sandwiches or help with the many customers that ran in and out all day. I mean surely he could use the extra help. Mom said, “Son, Mrs. Haywood passed away more than fifteen years before you were born and he hasn’t gotten over her yet”. After that I did notice he kept an old photograph of her by the cash register. We never discussed Mrs. Haywood again. Nor did I dare ever ask Mr. Haywood about her.
Now back to Joey Star. Joey, like I said, was “cool”. Well, the epitome of coolness, He reminded me not so much like that Fonzie character from “Happy Days” or of James Dean in “A Rebel without a Cause”, but just some where in between them both. Maybe more like that fella that sung that old hit radio song about “Jack and Diane” … I can never remember his name … But that is the type of guy Joey reminded me of. Well, except Joey’s hair was longer. It hung down over his eyes. Joey Star also acted like he had something important to say and he was waiting for the right moment to say it … And he smoked, but who didn’t back then. I had been known to sneak one or two of my mom’s gold pack of Pall Mall’s when she wasn’t looking. She always left a pack on the kitchen table. But Joey smoked very little, most of the time he just held it in his hand and let it burn away …
And Joey wasn’t the only kid that hung around on the corner with me. There were several of us. We would all meet on the corner and discuss the happenings of the day. Nothing was spoken about the political unrest at the time or how the war was going. That stuff was a million miles away. For us it was about if we were going to play street ball or hook up with some of the local girls or go get into mischief. Most of the time it was the mischief part. Not because the girls wouldn’t have anything to do with us or that it was to hot to be hitting a ball around in the street. It was just a lot funnier causing a little trouble more than doing anything else. It wasn’t that bad of trouble though; we might throw rocks at the trains that passed through town or steal tomatoes from old widow Dester’s garden when they were in season. Silly childhood stuff like that. One of the highlights of the year for us was in the fall when the leaves fell. It was a big deal for us because we would run all over town and tear up the leaf bags that were placed by the curb for pick up. We’d then spread them back on the respected owners’ lawns. Just our little way of sayin’ “thanks” for leaving those leaf bags out for us! The only person we couldn’t get to do any of that was Joey. Oh, he joined in on the planning. We’d always plan what we were doing in case we got caught. We would have to have an escape route and a place where to meet up later before leaving. But when it came time to head out he would wait at the corner for us. It wasn’t that Joey was chicken or scared, he just said it wasn’t his thing … Besides everyone knew when we got back Joey would go into to Haywood’s and steal bottles of pop for us all. That what’s he liked to do, that’s how he got his kicks and he wouldn’t let you go in with him to help. Joey would always say, “if someone is going to get caught stealing I would rather it be me than you guys, I’m not from around here” … so all of us would wait out side around the corner and he would go in … and sure enough, every time he would come out with enough pop and chips to feed all of us … The other guys were always impressed that Joey could pull that off time and time again without getting caught … he would even take orders like if you wanted a certain type of pop and he could get it … I guess all us guys sort of looked up to Joey, not because he was a thief and stealing from Mr. Haywood, we never thought about that, but because he was taking care of us …
You know, I once asked Joey about him and his family. It was at the end of one of those summer days when the sun was almost gone in for the night and everyone else had gone home … We were sitting down on the old concrete steps in front of the store when I decided to ask him. “Joey Star” I said, and then I took a long draw off of one of them ever present stolen Pall Mall’s that I kept in my front left shirt pocket. “Tell me about yourself. I mean we’ve been friends since you moved here and everything but I don’t even know your parents’ names or where you come from or anything …” It seemed like forever in between me asking and his reply … He just sat there looking up at the sky as it was starting to light up with the night time stars. He finally took a long breath and sighed and said … ”My Aunt told me once my Dad was a hero … I guess he was, I don’t know … I’ve never met a hero … or my dad …” “Damn” I thought to myself … both my parents are home right now. Well, my mom and my present step dad are. Probably fighting with each other as we speak …” “What about your mom,” I asked. Almost afraid to go any further in this conversation and hoping for a slightly happier reply. Joey replied, “My Aunt says Mom was just too busy. Just to busy to take care of me. She never calls”. Then there was silence … It seemed like forever. Then he added, “The only memories I have of mom are her saying you’re my Joey, my little Joey Star” … “and I remember it was raining and that I watched her leave” … “she never looked back for… “me” … you know I never saw her again” … We stopped the conversation right there … Not that I really wanted to go on with it anyway but because Joey Star got up and without saying anything, and walked away … Into the night he disappeared among the shadows and the streetlights … I jumped up, took the last draw off the Pall Mall, crushed it on the sidewalk, yelled to Joey that I would catch him later and headed home.
That night, as I lay in bed I thought about Joey Star … What he did do when we all went home. Did he go home? Or did he walk the streets all night? Did he really not know who his Dad was? It seems like the rest of us guys that hung out on that corner had plain old normal lives. Like I said earlier, we all grew up in this town. Most of the families here were still intact. It seems like my family was the only one that had survived a divorce. Well, if it’s called surviving … But what you would expect to happen when your dad came home from a hard day working in a hot sweaty milling factory doing stuff he hated doing and all your mom and he did was fight until bedtime. They didn’t even sleep in the same bed there towards the end. Hell, they wouldn’t even stay in the same room together. I guess that’s why I never had any brothers or sisters. They never hit each other though … well, not much that is. It was mainly verbal. Then Mom finally had enough, and Dad had finally had enough, and they called it quits. That was about five years ago. The funny part about the whole thing is, if it can be labeled funny. It probably should lean more to the ironic side. Is yes they divorced and both of them remarried soon after. The problem is that they carried their old selves right into their new marriages and now instead of one family arguing all the time, we now have three… Mom and her new husband, Dad and his new wife and then when Mom and Dad have to talk about me, they still argue … No winners in this war, just like the war we see on TV everyday. When school is out for the summer to keep from being brought into this mess I usually get up early and stay out late … They never ask where I’ve been. They just made it plain and simple that the police had better never bring me home.
I didn’t see Joey after that conversation that night on the store steps for a couple of weeks. He stopped hanging out on the corner. I thought nothing of it. I figured he just needed some time to himself. What he had laid on me that night was pretty heavy and he probably needed some time to re-bury those bad memories. By that time the air was starting to change, summer was winding down and school was getting ready to start back in session. It was to be our first year of high school.
School, now that is a subject in itself. I enjoyed the social part of it. I could hang with my friends and get a steady meal each day. Can’t beat that. Because of all the fighting and yelling at my house, dinners were as rare as dinosaurs and breakfast was out of the question. That was unless you wanted to fix it yourself. And fix what? Hell I couldn’t cook. Even if I could, there was never anything there to cook anyway. So the school lunches, they where my salvation. I would even sneak back into line to get a second helping. Sometimes I would get caught and sometimes I wouldn’t.
Joey Star and I didn’t have a lot of classes together so we didn’t see each other during the school day except in English class. That was a required class for everyone. English 101, room 223. We both wound up in Mrs. Kason’s class. I hated English. I can’t tell you how to break down a sentence and I probably will never understand why I need to know how to either. The only part about the class I enjoyed was the writing part. And I loved to write. And another thing, Joey Star and I naturally wound up sitting in the front of the class and on the opposite sides of the room before the first week was out. Not because we wanted to, but because she wanted to keep an eye on us. And to be honest with you, we probably deserved to be up there. With us in the back of the class we would have never gotten anything done or anyone else for that matter. We were the black sheep of the classroom!
It was during one of our many writing assignments that I found out what I’m about to tell you about Joey Star. You see, during that class I learned that Joey loved to write too. The things he wouldn’t talk about he would write down. Like letters about himself and his family. Who he really was. I know that sounds strange but stick with me. Like I said earlier, he hung out with us but never let us get to know him. But all this was about to change.
Our last big writing assignment for the first semester was an auto-biography. Meaning you had to write about your self and your ambitions. I guess in hindsight if Joey had of known we were going to share it with the class he might not have written what he did. Or maybe he meant to write it down. Remember, I had always felt like he had something important to say anyway.
We had the entire six weeks to write it. During this time I don’t think I ever heard a peep out of Joey. Every time I looked over to him he had his head down, hair nearly touching the desk as he was writing away. Just like he was on some kind of a mission.
My auto biography was fairly easy to write and not much to talk about. I explained when and where I was born. How long my parents where married before I was born. How long they stayed married after I was born and when they where divorced and such. My ambitions were like everyone else’s. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. Or so I thought and to get to all that freedom that was just waiting for me. I wanted to get a job and have money. I wanted to get married and have kids. Fix them breakfast and have food on the table for them. I vowed to never fight with my wife, whom ever it might be. I wanted everything I didn’t have growing up. I guess what I really wanted was peace.
The six weeks flew by and then came the day we had to turn them in. As Mrs. Kason was picking up the papers, she announced that she wanted to read the best ones out loud in class. I looked and saw Joey look up in a very peculiar way and suddenly he picked up his papers and tucked it back into his folder and …
“More coffee sir?” “Huh”, I asked. “Oh I’m sorry” the waitress said. “Oh no, my apologies Madame” I replied. “I was just … daydreaming”, as I shook off the blank face. I seem to do that a lot when I’m by myself. “Well it is 2 in the morning, so you’re not allowed to daydream, maybe nodding off a little is okay but day dreaming is out of the question this late at night” she joking said as she refilled my cup.
Man I haven’t been back to my home town since high school. Well, except for one time, but I didn’t stay long enough to let the sun go down on me while I was there. I did just what I intended to do when I was old enough. As soon as I got out of high school and got on my feet and I was gone. Gone from those family fights. Later on I met and married a wonderful girl from out west. We’re now on our 20th year of marriage. My kids are almost grown. And oh, I forgot to mention, I’m a traveling salesman. It seems like I’m never home. It reminds me of that joke Bob Hope used to say. “Been married 56 years to the same woman and I’ve only been home three weeks”. It was funny when he said it. I guess it’s not so funny when it really happens that way. . But we get by. Time sure doesn’t wait for anyone. Seems like just yesterday I was throwing rocks at trains, but in reality, I’ve been living out of an old suitcase and wearing cars out for a long time. I just happened to be near my old neck of the woods so I thought I would stop by to see how much, if anything in this old town has changed. I saw the diner was open late and I stopped in for a cup of coffee and I guess to reminisce a little. I thought I would go by and see mom tomorrow before I head back out of town. You know she eventually divorced my step dad too and lived alone the last few years of her life. We talked by phone occasionally but the conversations were never much. I wish she was here now … My dad still lives here, somewhere, but he went on with his life and well … we just don’t talk at all.
I guess I need to finish up about Joey Star. Like I said, Joey didn’t turn his paper in. Looking back I guess it was a defining moment in his life. We all have those times. One moment in time that makes or breaks you. But Joey’s came early. I guess because it just had to. He left class that day in the same way he left that store step that one night. Silent. Later on after school I went looking for Joey. I found him down at the train depot sitting on the edge of the loading dock. He looked like he had been crying. Not like a baby; but just two tears. One from each eye running down his face. And there was the standard cigarette burning away in his left hand.
“Joey, you alright?” I asked. “Ya … I’m alright” he said staring at the ground. I noticed his school folder had been thrown hurriedly up under the loading dock but I didn’t say anything about it. “You want to talk?” I asked. “No, not really, I just want to be left alone” Joey said. Ignoring that reply I jumped up on the loading dock and sat beside him. “Can I tell you something, Joey?” I asked. “I think you and I are a lot alike” I continued. Digging into my shirt pocket for a pall mall. “A lot alike” I said again lighting it up. “Can I tell you a secret?” Joey asked me. “Sure Joey, you can tell me anything” I replied. “I’m going away” Joey said. “Were you headed Joey?” I asked. “I don’t know where yet, just … got to get away, get away from it all, you wouldn’t understand” Joey said. “Away from what?” I added. “Away from here”. And with that Joey slid off the loading dock, turned back and looked up at me and said “I never had many friends, I never wanted any, I just wanted to be left alone … but I always considered you a friend, remember that … my friend.” With that Joey spun around and was gone …“I’ll see you around” was all I could think of so I yelled it back at him.
I waited until he was out of sight before I decided to leave that loading dock. Besides I couldn’t waste that Pall Mall. I figured like always before, I would just catch up with him the next day at the corner of Haywood’s store. Besides that, he said he wanted to be left alone. I slid off the loading dock and took off walking. You know I forgot all about that folder. It some how slipped my mind …
I stayed out late that Friday night. A lot later than usual. I figured my folks wouldn’t miss me much. I walked through the down town part of our little town. Past Duncan’s shoe store and the retail shops. When I got down toward Haywood’s store I noticed a dim light on in the window. I figured Mr. Haywood was probably up baking that famous bread of his. I walked up and peeked in the window. I didn’t see Mr. Haywood, instead I saw Joey Star but he hadn’t noticed me. But what the hell was he doing in there? Surely he wasn’t breaking into the store. Mr. Haywood lived in the back room and he would have heard anyone trying to get in. I looked in again and saw Joey Star sweeping the floor. I watched him for a long time. I watched him stock the shelves and take the trash out. I then watched him slip out the back door; but not before locking it and closing it behind him.
Once again, I let him just disappear into the night without letting him know I saw him. I don’t know if Joey Star wanted anyone to know what he was doing. Maybe it was his way of making up for the things he stole all the time from Mr. Haywood. Maybe Joey was just telling us he was stealing those pops but was really paying for them, maybe that’s why he went in each time alone … But it got me thinking again about Joey’s folder and I remembered seeing under the loading dock. I know it ain’t right to look at other folks’ stuff but I had to. I had to know more about Joey. I took off and ran to the depot to get it. It was dark but I didn’t have any trouble finding it. I used my Mom’s new lighter that I had just swiped off of the table that morning before I went to school. You know she shouldn’t leave that stuff lying around, or maybe she just left it out on purpose knowing that if I couldn’t’ get one from her I would just steal one anyway … I picked up the folder and ran all the way home …
I sat back on my bed, turned the radio on to my favorite am station and stared at the folder.
This was Joey’s paper, not mine I thought to myself …
I slowly opened it … it only had two pages in it. That’s all. And they weren’t filled up …
All that writing for weeks and weeks and it was just a couple pages long … maybe he was rewriting it … I thought to myself … I had to read it though, it was bugging me …
I opened it up and started to read;
My name is Joey. They call me Joey Star but that’s not my real name. My real first name is Joey. I moved here a few years ago with my Aunt Cindy. She takes care of me and gives me a place to stay. Well she lets me live with her and I pretty much get to do what I want to as long as I don’t cause trouble. She gives me that kind of freedom. She says I deserve it and well, she trusts me. We get by, she works whenever she can. Mostly cleaning houses and stuff like that. I help out by working at night at Haywood’s store. He can’t afford to pay anyone so he lets me work for groceries. My aunt is one of the nicest people I know. She is like a mom to me, not like my real mother never was to me. My aunt from time to time tells me stories about my real parents. My real mom and real dad that is. But most times I don’t ask. I already know enough I guess to fill a book about them both. My aunt has always told me that she would tell me the truth, good or bad if I wanted to know. She also said that she would only tell me as much as she thought I could handle at the time I asked. One time when I was a little younger I asked about my mother, and She said “Joey Star you might not like it but you gotta know … and I ain’t the one that’s going to hide it from you” You see your mom had problems. Really we all had problems. She had big dreams but she couldn’t reach her dreams. She was restless and free spirited and very unhappy”. “So to me I guess that means she was free spirited enough not to slow down when I came around” I replied sarcastically … My aunt told me they had a hard life growing up. She said that their dad beat their mom and was an abusive person to anyone who came in contact with him. He was big burly man that pushed his way around to anyone that crossed him. It wasn’t nothing for him to smack you down to prove his point. He whooped on their mom enough that she learned to dare not cross him. She just put up with him and his ways. My aunt said she was too scared to leave him. My aunt said that was why my mom tried to get out early. She met up with my dad when they were both still in high school. He was a little older than her. My dad had an old car and it was her only way out. Her ticket, her one chance … He would pick her up for school and then she wouldn’t come home until way after supper. They would drive down by the river bottoms and sit and talk. Which by the way my Aunt said really pissed off their dad. It was always a shouting match when she came in. He even hit my dad when he found out she got pregnant. He called him a stupid punk … that was one of his favorite sayings, ”your nothing but a stupid punk” … My Aunt went on to say that my mom wanted to outrun her troubles, float past her family flaws, and never stop to smell the roses … But according to my aunt, all that came crashing down after I came along. My dad wasn’t ready to be a dad even though he was ready to do everything else to get me here. He did stay around long enough to name me Joey. Soon after I was born my dad took one more beating from my mom’s dad and he left town. She never heard back from him. He never wrote and never came by … She later found out he moved on and found another girl friend and got her pregnant, so it’s the same story with different players in the play … My mom and dad weren’t married so I didn’t have my dad’s last name. But I didn’t have to worry about that. My mom had to live at home with her dad when I was a baby. I slept in a dresser drawer made out like a bed ‘cause they couldn’t afford a real baby bed” as my aunt Cindy would say. Her dad never stopped abusing, criticizing or belittling everything and anything … he found great pleasure in that …as far as my last name. It’s not Star. My aunt sat me down just a few days ago and told me how I got to be Joey Star. She wanted me to know that she thought the time had come and that I was old enough to accept it. I had asked her many times before why no one else in the family was named Star but up until now she would just put me off or change the subject. So we set down at the kitchen table. She said after my dad left my grandfather would call me “little Joey, the little retarded Bastard”. At first he called me that when my mom wasn’t around but later on he did do it in front of her too. My aunt said he would holler, “That little retarded Joey Bastard is crying again!!” She said they tried to get him to stop but he just kept on saying that. Joey the retarded Bastard!! He’s a Bastard!! Look at him, his own daddy couldn’t stand the little Bastard either!! He must of thought it was making him more of a man by screaming at an innocent baby. My mom would just sit in her room and hold me, cry and shake because of how he treated us. She had no way out with a kid to keep her down. My aunt said that when I first started learning to talk the first thing out of my mouth was Joe B’tard. I couldn’t quite say Bastard but they knew what I was learning. According to my Aunt, my mom would hold me, crying staring out the bedroom window and say to me, “your name was not going to be Joey the Re’tard B’tard” it’s ‘Joey” … it’s “Joey … Star”..thats what it is, “Joey Star” remember that… “Joey Star” … My mom begged my aunt to take care of me and that she would come back for me as soon as she got on her feet. And with that. She was gone.
I’m still waiting for her to get on her feet. Actually, I’m at the point I don’t care anymore, the hell with her …
I closed the notebook.
It’s been a long time since then. I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was a long night and then that following morning Joey was gone. I haven’t seen or heard from him since then. No one has that I know of. Some say he caught a train and headed west. His Aunt Cindy said he had left a note and that it said he had to go and try to find himself. He said something about “Having something important to say one day, ”. He had thanked her for all the help she had given him and told her not to worry. He even addressed the letter to: “To Aunt Cindy, my only real Mom, Thank you for making me a Star”, Love Joey.
“Oh hell, look at the time. I gotta hit the road, sales are waiting.” Dropping my tip on the table … and one last sip of coffee …
Joey, if you’re still out there …
Copyright ©2005, Chuck Gee
All Rights Reserved