When I was nine, I would go to bed with my arms folded neatly on my chest in case I died in my sleep. I thought it would make things easier for my family. They could just lift me from my bed and put me directly in my coffin. I didn’t know about embalming, evidently. But I did consider rigor mortis. I wondered if it would be acceptable to just lay the rosary across my knuckles instead of weaving it between my clasped hands, because I didn’t know if they would be able to pull my stiff little corpse fingers apart.
When I graduated from baths to showers, I refused to be fully exposed when facing the showerhead. I was convinced the devil had a camera in there and he was studying my body. And when he had every last detail perfect, he would create a clone to replace me. So I covered my junk and pretended that I didn’t know he was watching.
When I was 11, I thought I was going to be beheaded. I have no idea where the clasped hands or devil-in-the-showerhead thing came from, but I do know where my fun fear of having my head removed originated: my mom.
In October of ’83, NBC aired Adam, the true story of the abduction and murder of Adam Walsh. I didn’t see the movie, but my mom did. And it scared the living hell out of her. Which is why I might as well have seen it, because she relayed every bit of it to me—you know, like the head-chopping-off part. I’m assuming she regurgitated those details because she wanted me to be aware that there were bad people in the world. People I would need to keep an eye out for. She was trying to make damn sure it didn’t happen to me. But all it did was make me believe that it was inevitable. That the world was getting crazier, and my decapitation was a given. Probably better to just make an appointment with a professional and be done with it. Otherwise, I’d be left to the whims of the Otis Tooles of the world.
This new fear didn’t seem like any big deal. But one day it almost killed me.
I was 11. I had $4. And I was going to spend the living hell out of it. So I rode my bike to the edge of the world where Woolworth’s was located. If you don’t remember Woolworth’s, it was what we called a “dime store.” I have no idea why. It was like a department store for the working class, I guess. They sold a little of everything. A prefect place for a terrified boy to waste a sunny summer afternoon and many dimes.
I don’t remember exactly when I noticed the man following me. It seemed like he was on me seconds after I walked into the air conditioning. Everywhere I went, he was one aisle over. From toys to hardware to school supplies, always keeping pace with my steps. His head just visible over the top of the shelf. Like a shark fin.
I thought this is how it begins. I wondered was this how it was for Adam? Did Adam know he was being tracked? Did he have moments of terror, knowing that he was being hunted?
When I saw the man peering at me through a tiny hole in the pegboard between the aisles, I headed quickly to the checkout.
Somewhere along the line, I had picked up a small lock that I intended to buy. Even with this stranger following me.
I was almost at the cashier when I saw him heading right for me. All pretense dropped. He was moving in.
I tossed the lock aside and broke for the door. I remember running balls out for my bike and getting on as fast as I could and cutting across two lanes of traffic on 111th Street without looking. But I don’t remember unlocking the bike; that remains the only fuzzy detail in all of this.
As real to me as the day it happened were the cars slamming on their brakes as a terrified boy pedaled from between parked cars into the middle of traffic. I hear their locked tires shrieking in surprise and see how their hoods bow down from the unexpected decrease in momentum. I listen to my scream for help begin as I make it onto Troy Ave, safely off the busy street but still being pursued by the stranger. He is walking across 111th in the opening I cleared for him in my panic. I feel my legs burning as I shove down with all my power onto the pedals of my trusted bike, the chain rattling against the chain guard. I’m screaming “HELP ME! HE’S TRYING TO TAKE ME!” as I pass my neighbor, a father of two bullies but also a Chicago cop. I know him and trust him. But I ignore him when he says, “What’s the matter, Jeff? Stop, let me help! It’ll be ok!” I scream past. I see he means it, but the terror is too much. I still don’t feel safe as I turn the corner into my father’s open garage. It’s always open in the summer on Saturdays. He’s always in there on the weekends with tools in his hands and contentment on his face.
He asks, “What’s wrong?”
I only say, “Someone wants to take me,” on my way past him, throwing my bike down, heading through the yard and into the house. Where I’m hoping the panic and terror and man won’t follow.
I’m 11 and I’m sobbing and hating myself for being this afraid. Hating myself for still being so little. 11 shouldn’t be this little.
My dad went for a walk while I was in the house. He brought a hammer with. Around the corner and halfway down the block, he met the man who pursued me out of the store. The man was talking to my neighbor, Charlie the Chicago cop. I’m glad Charlie was there. Because I’m not sure I know what my dad would have done.
The stranger was just some overzealous asshole working store security, that’s why he was following me. He showed some sort of ID to Charlie. Years later I would work in that same Woolworth’s and learn that this incident may have gotten the guy fired.
That day, standing there facing my dad holding the hammer, he accused me of stealing. My dad told him that I didn’t take anything. The shitty store detective told him to go home and bring me back so we could all talk about it. I’d like to believe my dad told him to “Fuck off.”
After that, my dad came back, normal was restored and my fear was firmly rooted.
It’s that fear that I’ve been trying to keep to myself. I want to educate my kids about the dangers of the world they’re inheriting. But I don’t want to scare them away from it. I don’t want to cause them to flee blindly into traffic whenever they feel threatened.
I want them to have the confidence to turn and confront the threat, to let the world know that they refuse to be an easy target. And to have inside them a fight greater than their fear.