Part 73: The Visitors
Riley refused to smoke outside, and Jan had a choice, fresh air or security. She often left the front door to our unit wide open. Back in second grade, I didn’t know what a “bad neighborhood” was, and even now I think of areas called “bad” or sketchy blocks as disenfranchised in some way; lead paint, thin walls, slumlords, too close to freeways, unsupervised children and creeps that prey on them, schools that get less tax money, over crowded classrooms, places that “white flight” left behind. Neighbors had bottomed out somehow, temporarily perhaps, or kept down by an invisible line. The food is different. Early on, I think I was seven, I noticed that the apples tasted different depending on where we got them, they went from waxy and mealy to crisp and crunchy (Hollywood Farmer's Market) and I tried to explain that to Riley. "There's no difference, you're imagining it," he said. If I could go back and talk to my little girl self I'd say, "You're so right, little girl, the produce sucks in this area. But you have bigger things to worry about."
One summer night, Riley had a friend over to our place— I seem to remember it was Bud Sherman, a guy we knew my entire childhood. Bud was somehow in the music business, but I never figured out how he was connected. He always greeted me with a nickname, “Hello there, Irving,” he’d say. I never knew why he called me Irving, but it made us both laugh.
That evening Jan kept the door open to let the cigar smoke out. Flies got inside and were flying around the middle of the room in a pattern, mixing with the smoke. I called them square dancing flies. My mother gave me a fly swatter and said she’d pay a dime for each fly I killed, but to wait for Bud to go home. We were each in our own world, my mother sitting and sketching, Riley and Bud talking about some song, and me counting the flies, seeing how many dimes I might get.
A man’s booming voice outside brought us all together, snapping into the moment, alert and listening. Riley sat upright, his eyes focusing just outside the door. Bud looked startled. A woman's scream pierced the night air.
Jan rushed to the door to close it, but before she could, a terrified young woman pushed through, screaming for our help. “Please help, he’s going to kill me!”
Jan tried to lock the door behind her, but a man with a knife crashed in. He grabbed the girl by the arm, spinning her around, holding her close, they faced us, we could see her desperation. He slammed his back against our door, the outside world seemed to vanish, our apartment's walls closing in on us. He wore a vest… bare arms… muscles, tattoos, veins bulging in his neck when he shouted.
Jan quickly retreated.
His red, raging face was too scary to look at, but I remember the girl, her straight, long blonde hair and thin frame, her shirt pulled up by his giant arm. I stood motionless near the hallway, frozen with fear.
Mom picked up a lamp, ripping the cord from the wall, she tried to hit him with it, but the man took his blade close to the girl’s neck. Her eyes stretched wide with terror, her hip bones peeked out over low slung jeans, and I could see she was trying to take in tiny, motionless breaths. (For some reason the vision of her small waist and hip bones seared into my brain, I have no idea why. Perhaps I needed to focus on something besides the unfolding scene, like noticing a shade of lipstick at a child's funeral, I feel bad about it.)
“You make a move, and I’ll kill her right here.” The man pulled her in tighter.
Jan stared right at him, pausing for a moment, deciding, the room tense. She slowly set the lamp down at her feet. Riley and Bud sat in their chairs, motionless.
After what felt like an eternity, peppered with manic shouting by the knife wielder, he dragged his victim out the door, her bare feet half lifted off the ground. Jan rushed to the door, locking it behind them before running to the phone.
“What are you doing?” Riley said, looking panicked.
“Calling the police.” She picked up the receiver.
“No. Put that phone down,” Riley moved towards her, “We’re not getting involved with that shit.”
“Are you crazy? He could kill her!” Jan turned her back to him and started to dial.
“Put the fucking phone down.”
Bud stayed quiet, and so did I. We watched them argue like it was a ping pong match.
Jan slammed down the phone. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to my room, shutting the door behind us. She fluffed my pillow before I got under the covers, muttering the whole time how crazy Riley was. She sat on the end of my bed for a while, avoiding the men.
From early on, when Riley told me some major news, or stuff too difficult for a child’s ears, he was strangely calm. Jan’s telling was always loaded with emotion, drama, details and examples.
“He’s nuts. We should’ve called. Maybe he’s done something terrible. It's as if he'd hit someone with his car and drove off, like he’s avoiding the cops.” She stood up and pulled the blanket over my shoulders, adding, “There’s something about you that makes me tell you things.”
After she left and turned out the light, I closed my eyes, but my whole body was tense, a burning sensation crisscrossing inside my ribs. I couldn’t sleep, thinking of the girl being squeezed, dragged away, tormented. At that time, and not until much later, I'd never seen my father drive a car, we still didn't have one. I tried to forget what Jan said--- how Riley's fear of the police might be connected to something terrible, a theory she still suspects might be true.
I asked Jan about the horrible night recently. "Remember when that guy held the girl hostage in our apartment?" She said someone did call 911, thankfully. The police caught up with the kidnapper after he’d driven off with the victim in his van. The newspaper article included the part about how both her arms had been slashed up as she tried to protect herself from him. Was he one of many neighbors we’d never met? Maybe they both were. God, why was she with him? I wonder what happened to her.
We lived in the building for a while longer, but never saw those people again. We stayed in Hollywood but moved out of the apartment a few months later. I started at another school, but I can't be sure where, that part of my life began to blur together early on. Back then, I was glad I didn’t have to go back to Mrs. Henry’s class where I was caught and humiliated, and everyone knew what I'd done.