Thursday, January 28, 2016

Desperation

This is a story I wrote fashioned around an experience I had when I was a child. I had to enhance it a little because real life is often not quite as interesting as fiction...



Sometimes, people will credit another person with the admirable quality of tenacity not realizing that their real motivation is desperation. Although they are quite similar qualities in the end, tenacity starts with determination while desperation starts with fear. One such case in point is this story told by a young girl, only nine years old, sent off to walk to school one morning…

We moved into our new home - a two-story colonial at the end of a street in a middle-class development in Portland. When my story started, I had no friends, not even the acquaintance of a neighbor or a nearby relative. My family had just moved two thousand miles across the states so my dad could start a new teaching position. It was the seventies and the economy was rough making gas prices high, jobs scarce and giving a general sense of unrest to the news. As kids, we didn’t worry too much about the economy, or how our parents’ finances evolved, but when they put us in a new school - it mattered immensely. The pressure to conform to a completely new set of values as dictated by the kids in the new school was almost insurmountable for me for the first few weeks. Dialects and common language usages would be the fodder for cruel jokes by the rougher kids.

As you can tell, this wasn’t my first time experiencing the new school routine. I was only in the fourth grade but had already attended four schools. My parents were loving, but poor and could not afford to buy me new clothes for school; in fact, my normal clothes were often hand-me-downs from my older brother. I didn’t mind wearing them at home, but sometimes the embarrassment of wearing the odd clothes to school was humiliating.

I knew that the first day of school would be the worst - they always were. This time I had to walk to school since the district decided that kids over third grade could walk. My father drove me to the school the weekend before classes were to start so that I would be familiar with the route I needed to walk. I don’t think the entire length was more than a mile long, but it seemed very long to me back then. Fearful that I might get lost and in hopes of calming my apprehensions, I asked my dad to draw me a map so I would be sure to find my way. He was so pleased that I asked, and took great effort to make a neat little map on an index card. The lines were straight and each street was marked in a clear print. He even went so far as to color the roads I needed to take with a green highlighter. There shouldn’t have been any problems.

I don’t remember too much about that first morning except that I was afraid - sick to my stomach afraid. I am not sure if I was more afraid of the lonely long walk or the actual walking through the school doors for the first time. Timing was against me, as my father had to leave for work before I would be ready for school. My mother didn’t have her own car; besides, she had my two younger brothers still at home, so she couldn’t help me. 

I am sure I had breakfast, was dressed in something appropriate and took a sack lunch as normal, but I don’t remember the details. The only thing I do remember was that it was cool and sunny when I stepped out the front door of our new house. There was no ride or bus waiting for me - just a tar road between me and the new school. 

I did have my map and I started following it. I was quite pleased with myself as I found my way out of our housing development and I think the walking calmed my nerves. The sidewalk meandered down a nice tree-lined street with old homes, much older than my home. Life didn’t seem so terrible after all and I let my guard down a little early. All of a sudden, a huge black dog came running down a driveway, barking his head off at me as though I was going to inflict damage on his home. My heart about stopped as he came close to me and I saw he didn’t have a leash.

Bits of wisdom were flying through my brain - Never let a dog know you are afraid. Dogs can smell fear. Don’t run away from a dog or he might bite you. Stand up to a barking dog to show you are not afraid. All nice thoughts until you actually have a dog facing you and he is almost eye level with you. I think I was the very image of fear defined - trembling, frozen in place, unable to act initially, with cold fear running through my veins. The prospect of staying with the dog for one more second forced me to keep moving, one step at a time. I kept my hands on my heart so he wouldn’t bite my fingers. If I thought screaming would help I might have tried, but I felt totally alone on the street. If anything, I wanted to cry and go home. The tree-lined street now looked dark and dangerous and I walked cautiously, watching for more stray barking dogs that might bite me at every driveway. I found myself looking at the trees along the sidewalks wondering if I could climb them fast enough to get out of the reach of such dogs.  

A few minutes later, I found myself in a development that didn’t look familiar. I retraced my steps after inspecting my map and not finding any clues. Something wasn’t quite right - my map didn’t match the streets exactly. I admit that I might have forgotten to pay close attention to my map when I was walking away from the obnoxious dog. Somehow, I was able to deduce that I was supposed to stay on the straight main road and then follow some turns.

I was not the type of child that even considered being frightened of heights but when I started crossing the bridge over a highway, I felt my knees turn to jelly. I had to grip the guardrail and try to ignore the panic I felt, as cars seemingly roared past me while the highway traffic was passing under me. All my years as a child hearing my parents’ constant instruction to stay off the street made me feel even more uneasy and not ready for this challenge. I could picture myself making one wrong step, tripping and rolling under the wheels of the cars. Was it tenacity that pushed me to cross the bridge or desperation? I think it was pure desperation fueled by fears shouting in my imagination. I can tell you that the desperation evaporated into wonderful relief as I reached the other side of the bridge where the side of the road gave room to a sidewalk. 

Relief is so sweet after fear loses its grip on you. My walk was calm again as I made the turns to follow the roads that led to the school. I was almost at the stage of feeling proud of myself for getting past the dog and crossing the bridge on my own. Unfortunately, my relief was short. I looked at my map and the street names did not match up with what I was seeing. I stayed calm, hoping that soon the road I was on would cross over another street marked on my map. My luck just didn’t pan out that day. My wanderings took me away from the scope of my father’s map and then nothing was familiar. Since I had no way of finding my school, I decided my best option was to find my way back home.

If only it was that easy to become un-lost. I wandered the streets for over an hour heading in a direction that I thought would bring me back into familiar territory. I was in a state of limbo - not quite afraid but not confident, either. I stopped to take stock of my situation. Clearly, my sense of direction wasn’t working, but my feet were fine and it was still a nice sunny morning. Asking someone for directions was my only recourse, in spite of the fact that my parents were very strict about teaching us not to talk to strangers. So I took up the walking again, but now I was looking for someone to help me. 

Three kids on bikes came up from behind me. They looked about my age, maybe a little older, so I tried to act nonchalant and ask them for directions to my street. All three boys said they hadn’t heard of it. Just asking them was terrifying to me and took all the gumption I could muster, so I walked on again, waiting for my fears to subside. Since there was no one else on the street to ask, I collected myself, took a few deep breaths and walked up to a house to knock on the door. I knew I was totally disobeying my parents’ and teachers’ instructions, but I had no choice.

An older gentleman answered my knock. His face was chubby around the cheeks and the top of his head was bald. He didn’t look like a grandfather - more like an old uncle. He looked rather surprised to see me but asked me how he could help me. I told him I was looking for my street and gave him the name.

“Oh, you are nowhere near there!” he exclaimed, not realizing how painful the words were to my drained nervous system. “That’s way over on the other side of the highway.” 

I stood on the concrete step, not knowing what to do. I had just forced myself to disobey my parents and now this adult couldn’t help me. What was I supposed to do? I felt like I needed to get away from him, just run down the steps and back down the sidewalk. Being lost was better than facing this aging man that smelled of cigarettes and stale air.

“Come in, and let me call your parents for you,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if I should run or step into the house. I stepped in hoping that he would help me and not be some bad guy.

“Have a seat,” he motioned to the kitchen chairs around a table filled with newspapers, ashtrays and coffee mugs. 

“No, thanks. I’ll stand right here,” I said as I clung to the side of the doorframe with my shoulder.

“How about some cookies?”

“No, thanks. I think I better get going.”

“But you don’t know the way. I’ll just make the call quick.”

“Thanks, anyway,” I said as I turned to walk out of the kitchen, praying to God that he wouldn’t follow me.

He did. “I know. I will give you a ride.” He picked up some keys from under some newspapers and was right behind me.

I opened the door to leave when I felt his hand on my shoulder. I pulled away immediately but he grabbed my arm. His fingernails were painful on my arms and I wasn’t sure if I should fight or pretend to go along with him. My mind was racing, looking for ways out of the creepy man’s grip. He was at least three times larger than I was, so I knew I had to outwit him. 

The walk from the front step to the car was torture - so much worse than facing the dog or crossing the bridge. The old man with his fuzzy sideburns pulled me along to the passenger side of his old blue car sitting in the driveway. 

“Thank you very much,” I said as I pretended to be grateful to him, but inwardly writhing from the touch of his clammy hand on my skin. I sat in the seat and pretended to reach for the seat belt. I watched him carefully out of the corner of my eye until I saw that he had gone around the front of the car. As fast as I could, I twisted around, opened the door and ran. I ran wildly across lawns, driveways, across intersections and between houses, until I could hardly breathe. I crawled behind a thick bush next to a brick house and tried to catch my breath while I watched the road. I stayed curled up in a ball waiting for the blue car to go by. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I felt comfortable that the car was not coming and ventured out of my hiding place. I wanted to sneak from house to house, but I was afraid that some house owner might come out and yell at me, so I stuck with the sidewalk. Somehow, the idea came to me to listen. I could hear the sounds of the highway and then used them as a compass in finding my way towards home. My heart never slowed down much and I was cautious with every sound and every car that passed by me. 

About the time I saw the main road that led to the bridge over the highway, I turned around and saw the blue car about a block away, coming up behind me. I was fighting mad by now. I ran but this time, I was not going to run wild. I ran towards the main road and then made the right hand turn towards the bridge. There was a small country store off the road with a gravel parking lot and I knew it was my only hope to get away from the old man. I burst in the door and hollered for help. 

“What’s wrong, young lady?” a middle-aged woman in a brown sweater asked me.

“Please, I need to call the police. There’s a crazy man that’s trying to get me,” I gasped while I searched for a phone.

“What man?” she asked as she walked towards the front door.

“He’s coming in an old blue car. He’s been following me.” I really hoped she would believe me.

“Oh, yes. I see the blue car. Well, he’s not going to hurt you with me here.” She proceeded to lock the store door even as the old man approached.

“I am sorry sir, we are closed,” she called out to him. 

“Use my phone behind the counter and call the police,” she said to me.

“That’s my granddaughter you have in there. Let me in,” he shouted.

“Are you?” she looked at me.

“He’s crazy! I have never seen him before today. I just asked him for directions to school,” I said.

“Go home, sir. There’s no granddaughter here.”

I dialed zero for the operator and told her to get me the police. 

In just a couple of seconds, I heard, “This is Lieutenant Daniels. How may I help you?”

“I need some police to come. There is a crazy man chasing me,” I told him.

The store lady was watching me and constantly looking out the window. We could see him moving along the front of the store looking in the windows.

“Where are you right now?” the policeman asked me.

I looked at the lady and asked her where I was. 

“Here, let me talk to him,” she said walking over to me with an outstretched arm. 

“Yes, sir. This is Mrs. Fields at the Country Shop on Bellevue Ave just south of the bridge over Route 1. We need someone to come here quickly. There is an elderly gentleman that claims he is looking for his granddaughter. I have locked the doors but he is still looking in the windows. What’s that? Oh, yes. Very good, thank you very much.” She hung up the phone and looked at me. “They are sending out a car right away.”

“Thank you for helping me. I didn’t know what to do,” I said.

“Now, what’s this about getting lost on your way to school?”

“This is my first day of school and I was trying to follow this map my father made for me and I got turned around and so I stopped to ask that man for directions and he wouldn’t let me leave so I had to run and hide behind a bush and then he found me again so I ran into here,” I said in one long breath.

“I am so sorry,” she said as she gave me a hug. “What did you say your name was?

“Lindsay. Lindsay McNair.”

“Well, Lindsay, I am sorry about the old man. If you ever have problems on your way to school, you can always come in here.”

We could hear the sirens and then the sound of the tires on the gravel. We both went over to the window to watch as the cop got out of his car, leaving the lights flashing. He walked over to the crazy man and talked with him for a second. The man was waving his arms and pointing to the store. After just a few seconds, the policeman took the old man by his elbow and directed him towards the car. He settled him in the back seat and shut the door before walking over to the store door. Mrs. Fields already had the door unlocked and swung it open to him.

“Good morning, ma’am. I am going to take the gentleman down to the station. He seems to be bewildered, claiming his daughter was in the store, and then later he said it was his granddaughter. So, he is definitely off his rocker. You okay in here?” He looked at me as he asked the last question.

“Oh, sure, we are fine,” she said with a smile. “I will take care of Lindsay, right?” She shook her head in agreement, and I smiled at her.

The policeman closed the door behind him, went out to his car and then drove off slowly, leaving his lights flashing.

“So where do you live? Should I take you home?” Mrs. Fields asked me.

I told her my address and pulled out my little map from my sweater pocket to show her. 

“Oh, good. That’s just a short walk. I am sure you will be fine. Just come back here if you have any problems. Here have a little treat,” she said as she handed me a piece of bubblegum wrapped in red paper.

I was so grateful to have made my first friend in Mrs. Fields. I thanked her and left the shop, happy that I didn’t have to look back for the blue car. I faced the bridge with determination and made it almost halfway across before a rather loud truck passed me and turned my knees to jelly again.

No dogs attacked me as I retraced my map, now turned in the right direction. My house was right where I left it and as I approached it from the street, the front door looked so unfamiliar and yet wonderfully mine, at the same time. It was the entrance closest to the street so I took it, but normally, we used the back door.

I remember Mom’s consternation when I walked into the living room over three hours after I had left for school.

“What have you been doing and why aren’t you in school?” she asked, as if I had been out playing.

I wanted to cry again with relief this time, but instead I told her that I had been lost and trying to find my way home.

“But what about the map?” she asked.

She was still unconvinced, but I explained that I had turned it in the wrong direction and had to stop and as an old man for directions. I didn’t tell her about the chase and the police or the bubblegum - I didn’t want her to worry. Maybe I should have, I don’t know.