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.
I 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.