A Strange, True, Terrifying Tale

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That’s about right. Photo: Wikipedia.



Talking to Nick today over bagel sandwiches, I recalled something frightening that happened to me when I was in high school.

Two things before I tell the story: The first is that while the ending of this story is eerie, our heroine (me) ultimately emerges unharmed. The other thing is that this is a story about a grown man preying on a young girl. So it’s not light reading and it might not be anything you want to read at all for a host of reasons that make sense, so please feel free to skip this one if you need to.

So I’m about 15 years old. Sophomore at Winterset High School. And because I’m a weird, creative, more-than-slightly-awkward teen, I was excited to get out of town whenever I could. This mostly meant going to Java Joe’s coffeehouse in Des Moines with a friend who could drive. My friends and I went to Java Joe’s because there were poetry slams and open mics and, because they didn’t serve booze (see: coffeehouse), me and my friends could hang out there.

loved Java Joes. I loved going up to the mic. I loved writing poems in study hall knowing I’d be delivering them the following Wednesday — and yeah, I still remember that the open mic at Java Joes was on Wednesdays because it was church. The place was cool, so we felt cool, and my friends and I needed to feel that way. The lights were low, there were neon signs on the walls. The place smelled amazing, like fresh roasted beans and clove cigarettes … not that I would know about that part.

The frightening thing that happened didn’t happen at Java Joe’s, though. You’d think so, right? “Funky” coffeehouse. Adults. Open-mic poetry nights. No, Java Joe’s was great. What happened happened at a brightly lit, parents-everywhere Barnes & Noble bookstore — which also held an open-mic poetry night. (You just never know, is my point.)

My friends and I heard about the new monthly event and of course we added it to our social calendar. More space to practice poems, more chances to get out of town, etc. One night, I got up and read a poem and it turned out the Des Moines Register was there, and they put my picture in the paper in the Metro section. I was really on my way.

The second or third time I was at the event, a man came up to me during the break. He was in his 50’s, I’d say. Tall. Barrel-chested, I recall, or maybe he was overweight. I recall that he was not handsome, but then, I was 15, so I’m not sure what … There’s a lot I don’t remember. What I do remember is that the man said to me:

“Well, my goodness. You are incredibly talented. Mary, I have a publishing company. I’d like to talk to you about your poetry.”

I was speechless. I was over the moon. I don’t know what I said, but I’m sure his words had the intended effect: I was a 15-year-old girl who wanted to be a famous poet more than anything in the world. Why, my needs and goals and hopes and wishes must have been obvious to everyone — or at least to him.


I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly how it transpired, but I know that we set up a meeting to talk about making me a famous writer, essentially. I knew enough to not go with him anywhere; I knew enough not to meet him somewhere random, so we agreed to meet at that same Barnes & Noble. But that this meeting would take place at all without my mother involved …?

We met at the bookstore. Was it a week later? Was it after the open-mic the following month? I forget that, but I will never forget what he said to me when we were sitting at that cafe table.

“Mary,” he said, a strange twinkle in his eye, “what would you say if I told you I have a boat. And I’d like to take you sailing around the world. What would you say to that? We could leave tomorrow.”

I heard once that when we die, we go to a movie theater and we watch the movie of our life from start to finish. If that happens, I’ll be very curious to see how I reacted to that man when he said that to me. I’m pretty sure I was flustered in the extreme and said something like, “I’d have to ask … my mom.” But what could I do? This publisher? A boat? Sailing around the world? High school was lame most of the time … But … No, no. I knew there was something wrong with the twinkle in his eye and I didn’t feel right. I told him I had to go, but he got my phone number — and then he called a couple times. One day there was message on the answering machine.

“Mary?” my mother asked. “Who was that? A person from the bookstore?”

I was terrified. My sisters and I could tell Mom anything. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why was I terrified?

“I don’t know him,” I said. “You can erase it.”

The story ends in an eerie way — so eerie that even now, knowing what happened, having lived through it, I can only shiver and shake my head.

The fall play was about to open. (And close; school plays only ran one weekend.) I had mentioned to the man that I was in the play; I probably told the newspaper, too. The point is: He knew about me being in The Miracle Worker that weekend.

On Saturday night, the last night of the play, I was rehearsing my lines in the band rehearsal room located off the brand-new auditorium — the new auditorium, which featured new seats, new curtains, brand new light and sound boards. There was a monstrous rainstorm predicted that night; the thunderheads were closing in on Winterset by the hour; there was a green cast to the sky, the kind of heavy, still green that comes when Iowa thunderstorms are about to get real.

I looked out the window at the sky and then my eyes moved to the parking lot.

The man. He was there. He was getting out of his car and coming toward the high school. He had driven to Winterset from Des Moines, he had come to the play. He was going to be in the audience, watching me, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.  My heart rose in my throat. No, I thought, no this isn’t —

And then, with a clap of thunder so loud I jumped a foot, the rain came. I ducked down under the window and listened to the thunder. The lightening flashed, the wind blew.

And the power went out.

There was a blackout. The storm took out the new, defective light and sound boards in the brand-new auditorium, and the play was cancelled. The fall play was never cancelled. That night, it was. My castmates, eager to do the big final show, were inconsolable, but they found strength in me, who was gushing with consolations. It’s going to be fine, I chirped; how could we have had a better show than last night?? Better to go out on a high note, guys! They cried and thanked me for being so optimistic; the rain lashed at the windows and I stole glances when I could, praying I’d see the man running with his umbrella back to his car. I never did.

I don’t remember if he called again. But I didn’t go back to the open-mic at Barnes & Noble. And I never saw or spoke to him again. I told my mom this story at one point, years later. No, he didn’t put his hands on me. But he put his brain on mine, and it stayed there.


16 Responses

  1. Beth Ann
    | Reply

    Oh, Mary. My heart breaks for 15 year old you.

    And for every 15 year old in a situation like that.

  2. Mary Ann
    | Reply

    Someone was watching over you. I remember the first time I realized the man next store was looking at me differently. I stopped going over to hang with daughter unless I knew his wife was there. To this day the daughter thinks I just dropped her as a friend. But coming to your play, that’s really creepy!

  3. Marcia Hicks
    | Reply

    I’ve been sitting here just thinking about what to say to you after reading your story and I can’t seem to come up with the right words. It must have been extremely difficult for you to write about this experience, but I’m glad you did, and I’m glad that you shared it with Nick before you shared it with us. Sharing these experiences can be extremely cathartic.
    I’m so glad that you were spared by “an act of God” and didn’t have to face the man from the bookstore ever again! I’m sorry that he remains in your brain……

  4. Kez
    | Reply

    I know how you feel. I had the same with a teacher that I had to work with and was having to do another year with younger girls. It was a triple lesson, but the younger girls only had a double, so I was on my own. He called to me to go into the back room. I didn’t. So he came out and held my hand and said I was too tense and needed to relax. I didn’t – I wanted to run – he stroked my hand and I relaxed my hand but everywhere else (and probably my stomach and chest) were as tense as anything! He was delighted with the floppy wrist and then asked personal questions but could also be construed as something else (clever – but so was I, or so I thought) so he first asked why I was so happy – fine, easy answer. Second was referring to distance that I would be willing to go – so I said Australia and then nervously yapped about being a marine biologist and rescuing the Great Barrier Reef. I know he twigged that I knew what he was up to – whatever question was asked I picked the alternative and safe route. It had never happened to me before (or since) and I was scared to death. School bell went – that was the longest half hour ever. His parting shot was that he supposed I’d tell my friends. I didn’t – and to this day I feel so guilty I didn’t tell my year head teacher (convent school). His wife was expecting their second child – they depended on him. I have always hoped that he took that as a near miss and never did that to any other girl. I did look up once and he was still at the school, but by then it had merged with a boy’s school and he was still there. He must be in his 80s now! That made me very wary of men for an awful long time – in fact my husband is younger than me. Now that’s a nicer story.
    I wonder how many of us had near misses like that – but sadder still, how many didn’t and kept it locked in. I was only just 17 at the time and quite naive.

  5. Jane Sanders
    | Reply

    Somehow by the time I read the second sentence in your blog, I knew your story and mine had a common theme. I have never, ever told anyone this story. Like you, I was unharmed but others might not want to read this because it is creepy and Mary, you can delete this if you want. This memory returns every few years usually in response to a new story but with the Me Too movement has popped into my mind more frequently.
    It was the early 70s in a small town in southern Ontario, Canada. My story starts with an article in the local paper. I received an award from a local community group in recognition of my community volunteer work and academic success. The article included my photo and my parents name so anyone could get my address and phone number. Remember the white pages in the phone book?
    Nerd is probably a word that would have described me back then. Good academics, always the first to volunteer for something and my hand in the air to answer a teacher’s question. Not many close friends except when someone needed a ride to or from a dance/event (oh how I wish I could thank my Dad for putting up with all those teenage girls in our station wagon and driving them home late at night because no other father would do that). And I knew I wasn’t pretty. In fact, one of my mother’s friends once said to me “My you have lovely calves.” Who would say that to a teenager? Fifty years later and that is the compliment I remember from my teenage years.
    But it was a phone call, from a man who I did not know that is the memory that I want to erase. He congratulated me on my award and asked me lots of questions. He was interested in me! It was attention that I had never received from anyone. It made me feel … special. He wanted to meet and take my picture, I can’t remember for what, but it was something that made sense to me. I could come to his place, an apartment building in the good part of town. I could take the bus after school on Monday.
    I am not sure why I knew that this wasn’t a good thing, probably my lack of self-confidence and the thought of “who would want a photo of me?” running through my head. There weren’t many apartment buildings where I lived and I think my Nana described them as places where only ‘ne’re do wells’ lived. All I knew at the time was that nothing about this felt comfortable. But I also was pretty sure that if I told anyone, I would be the one in trouble, probably grounded for months and assigned more chores. I didn’t go and I know now that I wouldn’t have been the one in trouble.
    So until today, I kept silent but I am glad I wrote this. Thanks.

  6. Catherine
    | Reply

    Help. I don’t get these emails anymore. Not sure what happened. Can this be changed please. Many thanks!

  7. Tami Von Zalez
    | Reply

    I remember more than one instance of being approached by older men. It is one of many things to look out for as a woman. That primal instinct usually kicks in that something isn’t “right.”

  8. Helen Marie
    | Reply

    Same. Nerd. I turned 16 that summer. He was lifeguard in his 20’s and had been BMOC at a local university. At first we (pool desk clerks, lifeguards, concession employees, all high school kids but Bob) got together after hours for impromptu swim parties. Then he asked me out. The other girls were so envious. He tried…I only knew I wanted to get out of that car! And I had to go back to work the next day. He tried to drown me, but two other lifeguards showed up in time. No one ever said anything but I know they knew something had happened. He got fired that weekend and I never saw him again.

  9. Colleen
    | Reply

    Mary what a scary good story. Mine is not so close but I was younger. my family lived in a very nice tract housing development there was an ice cream truck that came around with music and a man was the driver /server
    All the neighborhood children would run to Moms to ask for money to get a treat of ice cream
    Not me i wanted the ice cream but I didn’t want to talk to the man or be near him
    Nothing ever happened I just missed out on ice cream because I was told if you don’t go to the truck to bad for you.
    That was the first that I remember getting a feeling that something was off well not right. I go with that feeling when I get it it’s not often 3-4 times in my long life (I am old) and I don’t know what I have missed out on other than ice cream. I do know I am alive and still willing to go with the gut
    Also glad you were able to live through your tense situation
    I also hope that creep remained unsuccessful

  10. Barbara
    | Reply

    Mary, I’m glad you had the good sense to both let this get any further, and yes, thankfully the storm thought the same.

  11. Marianne Fons
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    Mary, this is your mom. I have only vague memories about this myself and am not sure I even knew the whole story until now. I am so proud that even at a young age you had such good sense and good instincts. I was in college and so naive when my roommate’s parents came to town (Houston) and took us out to dinner at a fancy hotel. For some reason I was waiting alone at the entrance, maybe waiting for Susan and her parents to arrive, and a man said something to me I didn’t understand. It’s different from your experience, but it still lives in my brain. I also remember an obscene phone call when I was even younger. I didn’t understand that, either, but I still remember.

  12. Judy Forkner
    | Reply

    Wow, Mary that is weird & eerie! The creep must have gotten back in his car & returned to Des Moines–hopefully to never darken a door in Winterset, again! You had really good instincts & good sense, just as your mother says.

    Mary Fons & Marianne Fons ROCK!

  13. Li
    | Reply

    I wish there were a way to teach growing boys and girls how to listen to their instincts at all times. I think talking about such circumstances is a good first step. The French teacher in high school, anyone who wants you alone at a different location, that creepy feeling you get sometimes when in a “friend of the family’s” presence. We also need to listen to a younger person or child when they seem uncomfortable or do not want to do something. Children know.

  14. Ginny
    | Reply

    Mary – I am very proud of you for sharing your story. You have helped others realized they weren’t weird or thinking bad thoughts when something seemed off to them. They may have been afraid they would have gotten into trouble but, something told them not to do it at all. Your guardian angel worked overtime to keep you safe and I am very happy for that. Thank you for sharing. A California girl living in an Iowa world (for 40 + years).

  15. Janice
    | Reply

    Sadly, too many of us have similar stories. That creepy feeling never leaves us.

  16. Sue
    | Reply

    Hi Mary, thank you so much for sharing your story so that I and others can know to follow their “creepy feeling” instinct. I’m so glad we’re equipped with that!

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