Monster At The Picnic Table
In one of the small towns where I spent many of my growing up years, there were two major US highways that cris-crossed through a town of less than 2,000 people. There was one elementary school, one junior high school, one high school. Everyone knew everyone. We walked all around town, to the park and the pool and the square. No one ever thought about anyone abducting you and doing something to you, no matter how little you were. It just didn’t happen. This was way before the days of Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator.
So, in the summers my brother and I would usually spend every day all day at the pool. We would walk by ourselves for a long stretch of one of these highways. One of my first hints that I was starting to develop as a young woman was when the truckers started honking to my back as we were coming back from the pool in the afternoons.
My brother and I used to spend a lot of time standing on the corner and pantomiming the motion of yanking the pulley to honk the horn of a semi-truck, so that the truckers would respond with giving us a honk. When I started getting the honks unsolicited, I knew that I was getting hips and breasts, and that they were noticeable. There’s still no excuse for honking for that reason at a little girl who’s only nine or ten, but that is what happened.
And not much changes now. I find that honking is one signal in the neighborhood in which I live for johns to let hookers know that they’re interested. And I have been honked at on occasion when I was just out walking and minding my own business, even with my dog on a leash beside me. Why, yes, I am the only hooker in town who solicits with my dog. Two for one special. Some men are so stupid.
Around the time I was nine, my dad issued the edict that I was to have a training bra and that I was never again to be allowed to leave the house in a white shirt without one. That was the summer I met Fred.
I had a little girlfriend named Kristin who was a year younger than me. Because she was a year younger than me, and my brother was two years younger, she was the perfect little playmate for both of us. We hung out with her a lot that summer. Kristin’s mom was a single mother who worked at a convenience store within walking distance of my parent’s business.
We had an invitation to go over to Kristin’s house and play on the Slip ‘n Slide. That was pretty awesome: a Slip ‘n Slide. We certainly didn’t have anything like that. I went over with my brother, and the three of us ate watermelon and played on the Slip ‘n Slide in Kristin’s backyard. I wore a white cotton tank top and shorts. I forgot the training bra. For a long time, I blamed myself because I forgot to wear the training bra.
Kristin had a next door neighbor named Fred. He was in his sixties or seventies, a retired Mopac railroad worker. He reminded me of my grandfather because he always wore flannel shirts and overalls. He even kind of smelled like my grandfather, a combination of Old Spice and snuff. He sat down at the picnic table with us.
Later, when Kristin and my brother went to play tag, he kept me company at the table. I hated playing tag almost as much as I hated dodge ball, growing up. I wasn’t much inclined to run for the fun of it. Running gave me side stitches, still does. Poor Fred couldn’t run. He was much too old and burdened with a cane. It made sense that we would sit and talk.
I was sitting on the opposite side of the picnic table from him, and when Fred asked me to sit next to him, I dutifully obliged. He told me that I was a very pretty little girl, and I thanked him. I didn’t see anything weird about that. People frequently told me I was a pretty little girl when I was growing up. I wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor, and I went through an ugly duckling phase, but I WAS a pretty little girl. I thought nothing of it.
Child molesters have modus operandi. They aren’t very subtle about it, and there’s not a lot of variation. They don’t have to be subtle or original; they are dealing with children who don’t know any better. Fred was doing something called grooming, which is the seduction phase of an exploitative relationship between a child and an adult. Then they get down to business. And afterwards come the threats. If you tell, I will hurt your family or your parents will go to jail or no one will believe you.
“You have very pretty arms,” he said. “May I touch them?”
This was a strange request. Even though I felt a little uncomfortable, it never occurred to me to see anything sinister about a request to touch my arms. I was raised to be very trusting and respectful of adults. I wasn’t sure why he was asking to touch my arms, but I didn’t see where it could do any harm. So, I let him stroke my arms. I was a little nervous.
“You have very pretty legs,” he said. “May I touch them?”
Again, this was strange. But it wasn’t one of the private parts that my parents had told me belonged to me alone. So, I thought it couldn’t hurt to let him touch my legs. Now I was a lot nervous, but I still didn’t want to question an adult, especially not a nice old man like Fred.
Now this time around he was slow about it, and he questioned me. He started out around the ankle, and every few inches or so, he would ask if he could keep touching. I would nod, not because I was getting any enjoyment out of it but because my mind was already sort of starting to go to a dark place. I was sure that something was not normal. Something was wrong with this, but I couldn’t tell what made it wrong. And because I couldn’t put a name to what made it wrong, and because he was the adult, then that must mean that I was wrong that it was wrong.
And then came the moment of dawning horror when Fred’s hand was right at the apex of my thigh, and he asked if he could keep on touching, and I looked him right in the eye and said, “No.” I stood up from the picnic table.
I was shaking like a leaf, and my whole body felt flushed, like I had a fever. I yelled for my brother and Kristin, and then I told Kristin’s mother that I had to go home right away. She drove us home, with me continuing to shake in the back seat. She knew something was wrong. I just wouldn’t tell her what it was. I could feel my heartbeat pounding in my ears, rushing my brain with blood.
When we got home, I ran into the house and started to tell my mother what had happened. I’m pretty sure my dad was there, too. It just tumbled out of me, and I’m not sure if I even got it all out coherently, I was sobbing so badly. My mother helped me change, like she hadn’t since I was a very tiny girl, and shoved me into a swimsuit. I was told that they were sorry and that they believed me, but that I should never speak of this outside our home. I could say nothing to Kristin, nothing to Kristin’s mother. Kristin’s mother was waiting outside to take us to the pool, so I figure the whole exchange couldn’t have taken more than fifteen minutes. I was told to go to the pool now and have fun.
So, I went to the pool, and I had fun. Turns out that Fred was a retired Mopac railroad worker, and we made our living almost exclusively off of a contract with Mopac. My parents were afraid that contract would be jeopardized if I came forward with an accusation that couldn’t be proven.
I wonder if my parents would have decided to prosecute if he had actually been successful in being sexual with me. Would they still have decided to sweep it all under the rug if Fred had forced himself on me? I like to think they would have come forward, but I’m inclined to think that coming forward, even though he didn’t actually molest me, still would have been the right thing to do. There was Kristin to consider. What if he had tried to touch her? Didn’t her mother deserve to know? Instead, we weren’t allowed to play at Kristin’s house anymore, and that friendship eventually starved for lack of oxygen.
From that day until the day my parents sold that business and moved, Fred used to drive by slow and creepy and wave at me when I was playing outside. I never waved back, which was unlike me. I always behaved respectfully towards adults. But then I guess I thought I had discovered at least one adult who wasn’t worthy of my respect.