I was born with complete hearing loss; something that once saved my life.
It was 1958; I was twelve years old living with my family in an upper class neighborhood outside of a borough in New Jersey. My father was a successful entrepreneur who seemed to perpetually be on extended business trips, and my mother was a doctor at the local clinic always working long hours. When their schedules were open long enough to spend time with their kids, they preferred to find upscale parties to flaunt their earnings with all of their other wealthy friends.
As much as they would try and deny it, my sister was the one who raised me.
Carla was sixteen at the time but had the equivalent workload of a stay-at-home mom. She was in the popular crowd at her high school, but because of my parent’s schedules, she was forced to spend more time taking care of me. Most kids her age would loathe that, but she never complained. My hearing loss never felt like an inconvenience around her and from the moment my family found out about it, she started spending countless hours learning sign language. Despite all she did for me, I realize now how much I treated her like shit.
On one particular day, Carla was making breakfast when she got a phone call from her boyfriend. I walked into the kitchen half asleep and sat down at our kitchen table quickly burying my head in my arms. Carla tapped my shoulder while holding the phone at its full extension from the receiver.
I pretended not to notice as I clung to the hope she would give up and let me fall back asleep. She tapped my shoulder once more.
“Jesus, Carla. What?”
“Would you want to go to Bendix with Paul and I tonight?”
She had tucked the phone under her cheek and was signing while she spoke; I paid little attention to her hand movements as I was trying to get more proficient at reading lips.
“I’m in. It beats your cooking.”
My comment didn’t upset her as much as I expected and she instead played it off as if I were joking.
“Paul, Joe said he’s reluctant to have anything other than one of my gourmet meals, but that he would join.”
I tucked my head back in my arms and fell asleep.
Bendix was our favorite place in town, bar none. It checked all of the boxes of what a great diner should have: great food, great service, and a jukebox. Granted, the music itself meant little to me, it was clear how much of a difference on everyone’s mood having a jukebox made.
The place was always electric and that night was no exception. Carla, Paul, and I pulled into the final parking spot in the lot and took a second before getting out of the car. Our parents had bought her a brand new red 58’ Impala for her birthday a couple weeks back and she liked it when people walked up admiring it.
A guy from her high school wasted little time to do exactly that.
“Paul, I didn’t realize you had enough money sitting around to buy her a car like this.”
“I don’t. Joe back there won it for her in a game of poker.”
“No shit? This kid?”
I had managed to interpret their interaction but also was quickly reminded via everyone’s stares and smiles just how shy of a person I was. Paul looked happily surprised the guy was buying into his bullshit. The temperature in my cheeks rose dramatically.
“Yeah… I, uh… got a royal house.”
Paul immediately turned around and careened his neck toward the sky. He had one of those laughs that forced his body to accommodate its intensity. It was on my list of things I wish I could have heard even just one time, but his body heaves provided a quality amount of humor nevertheless.
Carla was trying not to laugh at his ridiculous movements as she turned back towards the guy outside the car.
“It was a gift from my dad.”
“Well he’s got good taste. You might want to check yours though and dump the shuck in your passenger seat.”
He jokingly flipped Paul off and walked back toward his group of people outside the diner. Paul was still in hysterics.
“He believed me… a goddamn royal house…”
Carla shook her head and laughed as we all got out of the car.
Whatever the maximum occupancy of the diner was, I’m sure the place wasn’t far off from meeting it. The large crowd of mostly energetic teenagers filled nearly every table and seat at the bar. Carla took point for our group and quickly pointed out a lone empty table in the far right corner of the diner. We rushed back there as if our lives were at stake and sat down with a level of relief that suggested we escaped a war zone.
Paul scooted closer to Carla and put his arm around her.
“I can’t think of the last time we’ve gotten to an open table that quickly.”
Carla motioned for a waitress and then turned back resting her elbows on the table.
“It’s a good thing too. I’m starving guys.”
The music playing over the jukebox must’ve changed to a more interesting track because Carla’s face immediately lit up. It didn’t take long for her to start dancing in her seat. Paul, who had vastly different tastes in music, also seemed to be enjoying the tune. In a matter of seconds, I was the only one at the table not dancing and Carla quickly noticed.
“Trust me, Joe, I’m sure you’d love this song!”
My unwarranted cranky mood had carried over from the morning, so I just rolled my eyes and diverted my attention elsewhere.
The waitress, having noticed Carla and Paul’s energy, walked over smiling with some glasses of water.
“Can I get you all started on some coffee?”
Carla was still rhythmically bobbing her head.
“Yes, please! By the way, what song is this?”
“It’s a new one! We swapped out some songs in the jukebox yesterday. You’ll have to go check them out.” The waitress walked away and Carla turned towards Paul.
“Go see if they have Peggy Sue?”
She was fiercely tugging the sleeve of his shirt as he tried to stand up to accommodate her request. I rolled my eyes once more.
“Why do you care that much to hear it again? You’ve heard the song a million times.”
Carla smiled as she turned back towards me.
“It’s so good though! If you could hear it …”
“But I can’t! It doesn’t matter if I would love it. Maybe ask your boyfriend what he wants to listen to. It’s not always about what you want.”
I wasn’t that frustrated, but I could tell I had crossed a line and hurt Carla’s feelings. Paul made a face at me that indicated he also knew I had said too much. She was trying to hold back her emotions as she sat still in her seat. Realizing what I had done, I sighed and got up to go find the song for her.
The jukebox was on the opposite end of the diner, but it stuck out like a bright blue sore thumb. The neon tubes that ran down both of its sides casted a glow on everything within a five feet radius; it was always a dream of mine to have one in my room.
Approaching the machine, every part of my figure was suddenly enveloped in blue. Within the machine, various records lay stacked on top of one another with their corresponding names laid out right in front of me. In a time before iPods and the internet, having even just fifteen songs to choose from was overwhelming.
Peggy Sue wasn’t one of the choices, though many of Carla’s other favorite songs from artists like Elvis and Little Richard were represented. There were fifteen buttons to signify fifteen choices, but I noticed only fourteen of them were labeled. I counted the stack of records inside the dome-shaped window and sure enough, it looked like they had just forgot to add the last label.
I was intrigued at the uncertainty; maybe Peggy Sue was in the machine after all. I had nothing to go on other than my curiosity, but I decided to take a shot in the dark. I put a couple nickels in the coin slot and selected mystery number fifteen. The jukebox began preparing the song as I started walking back to our table.
Paul had temporarily moved over to a stool at the bar. One of the employees was a good friend of his and they liked to talk baseball every time they met up.
I must’ve sat back down at our table moments after the jukebox started playing my selection.
Carla was sitting perfectly still where she was when I got up. I picked up on the upset expression she was sporting immediately.
“This isn’t Peggy Sue is it?”
She didn’t answer. Her body was motionless.
I was snapping my fingers in front of her face. Nothing.
“Carla, I’m sorry about what I said. You’re one of the most selfless people I…”
The severity of the situation became clear the second I took my eyes off my sister. Everyone else in the diner had halted their conversations as well. Most looked confused, but not a single person was moving. Actual silence was something I was used to, but the visual silence in the room unsettled me deeply.
Not ten seconds had passed before everyone started talking and moving again. I hadn’t realized until then, but my heart was pounding.
Carla was now looking down at her lap. I could tell she was still upset.
“… Are you okay?”
She slowly raised her head looking straight at me. Her frustration with either my question or something else seemed worse than I was expecting.
“Is that what you think, Joe?”
It was my turn to freeze in place. Her stare wasn’t just intense, it was menacing.
“I… I’m confused…”
A couple tables down from us, two teenage guys suddenly stood up yelling at each other. Whatever was said between them quickly devolved into an aggressive fist fight.
The guy closest to us took a vicious hit and immediately crumpled to the floor. He was clearly unconscious, but that didn’t stop the attacker from continuing to throw punch after punch into his already broken face. I looked at Carla in horror, but she hadn’t taken her fierce gaze off of me.
“Joe. Answer me.”
I had never felt this way before, but I was scared of my sister. Her cold stare, her disregard for the brutality behind her, everything about her current state of mind was terrifying.
“Why do you seem mad…”
Out of the corner of my eye, Paul was now arguing with his employee friend. I couldn’t tell what they were saying from that distance, but it only appeared to be getting worse with each passing second.
Suddenly, Paul smashed his drink on the counter. Soda spilled out all over the floor as he pointed what remained of the jagged bottle at his friend. Then, almost as quickly as Paul reacted, the friend pulled out a shotgun from behind the counter. Paul attempted to connect his newly created weapon with the side of his opponent’s neck, but instead took a shotgun blast to the chest. His now lifeless body flew back a good two feet before connecting with the ground; his blood was suddenly all over our table.
I jumped back as far in our booth as I could go. In a matter of thirty seconds, two extreme acts of violence had taken place right in front of me. I started crying heavily as I looked over at Carla. The side of her face was coated in her boyfriend’s blood, but she was still staring at me as intense as ever.
“You better answer me, Joe.”
Behind her, the once picturesque, friendly diner had devolved into an all out brawl. Whatever anyone could get their hands on was thrown or used to bash someone over the head.
Paul’s employee friend must’ve realized he fired off his only shotgun shell, so he instead hopped the counter and started ceaselessly beating a stranger with the butt of his gun.
Whatever was going on, I knew Carla and I could end up severely injured or dead if we didn’t leave to get the police. I put my hand on the table and slid out of the booth as fast as I—
A sharp, debilitating pain shot up my arm. I screamed at a decibel level I swear I could almost hear and fell backward onto the bench clutching my hand. A fork was sticking out of the top of it. Carla got up from her seat and was now looming over me.
“Fucking answer me!”
I continued screaming, both in pain and in absolute fear of my sister. She jumped on top of me and wrapped her hands around my throat.
“Do you have any idea how much I hate taking care of you? Do you even have a fucking clue?”
Nothing I did loosened her grip on me. She was determined to see her aggression through to my end.
“You think your broken ears give you the right to be an asshole all the time? All I ever do is take care of you because mom and dad are too shitty to do it themselves!”
Carla continued to drill me with all of her anger but at that point I had shifted most of my focus from reading her lips to finding my next breath. My vision began to blur as I used every last drop of adrenaline I had left in me fighting her off, but before the battle was lost, I found her weakness.
Without realizing, I had clasped both of my hands around her ears. Her strength slowly began to fade as her eyes rolled back in her skull. I was able to start gasping for air around the same time she collapsed to the floor. Without warning, blood began to pool from her ears in a steady stream.
I lay there for a moment trying to process what just happened and how severe her bleeding was becoming. Most of the chaos in the diner was still focused in other areas and hadn’t migrated towards our booth.
I needed to get to a phone to call for an ambulance. Carla was clearly ill and whatever had caused her ears to start—
My mind suddenly made a connection.
With tears still streaming down my face, I got up and rushed for the other side of the diner. Most of those still standing weren’t interested in my sprint as much as the person they were midway through killing.
The small light on the front of the jukebox indicated track number fifteen was still playing. Despite all that had just happened, I realized then that only about three minutes had passed since the start of the massacre.
Whatever was playing through the jukebox speaker started playing the same time the violence began.
I was too petrified of my surroundings to think to pull the cable from the wall, so I instead grabbed the nearest bar stool. The fork was still sticking out of the back of my hand and the pain that came from squeezing the stool was immense; nevertheless, I pushed through.
I ran at the jukebox with all of my remaining strength and speared the stool through the front glass of the machine. The metal leg smashed into the stack of records and broke the mechanism that controlled playback. Everything including the exterior neon lights shut off.
Those still standing immediately froze what they were doing. Weapons and bodies alike dropped to the floor in unison. Much like Carla’s situation, blood spilled out of everyone’s ears adding to the already drenched tile that was the diner floor.
After leaving the diner to frantically call for help, I had no idea what the death toll was. I knew almost everyone that had a chance at being alive was in severe condition, but I was hoping at least Carla would be able to pull through.
I ended up being the only survivor.
The police and EMS workers pronounced everyone dead at the scene. Those who weren’t beaten or shot in the chest lost too much blood hemorrhaging from the ear canal. The medical examiners were understandably baffled for a number of reasons, but something stuck out from the rest.
Their eardrums had not only ruptured, they burst like mini grenades; vital veins near the ear canal broke open as a result causing severe internal bleeding.
I’m the closest thing the police had to a suspect, though that never amounted to much. I was brought in a few times to try and explain what I had seen, but I could never explain why it all happened. Even if I tried to provide my theory, all that would have done is put me in the mental asylum.
I miss Carla dearly; I never forgot the things she said to me. I’d like to think she didn’t actually harbor all of those frustrations, but I have reason to believe the unfortunate alternative.
I returned to the scene of the crime a week later. The owner of the diner answered a lot of questions regarding the deaths, but was understandably puzzled when I showed up asking about the jukebox. He was even more confused when I asked what was assigned to number fifteen.
“Well, it shouldn’t be anything. I changed out the tracks myself.”
He went into the back room of the diner where I assume he had put the remains of the jukebox. He came back a couple of minutes later holding a single record.
“I’ve never seen this one before… I know I didn’t put it in the machine.”
I took it from him to inspect it closer. It wasn’t labeled on the top side of it, but flipping it over revealed a piece of masking tape with a few words written on it:
GROUP TEST 023: Aggression – Bendix Diner
Credit: The Forgotten Pear