He’s Coming for Me
The year is 1975. No cell phone, no instant messaging, no computer.
The light blue van chugs along slowly, just a mere three feet from me, here, walking here on this sidewalk.
It's hard for the driver to keep the van idling at low speed. The engine sputters and coughs for the few minutes it coasts beside me. Finally the engine is revved and the accelerator is punched so hard it makes the tires squeal. The van's crumbled backend fishtails as it rounds the corner.
I'm good for a minute.
I know this because the van has been tracking me for four blocks.
I won't look at the driver because my attention is focused on a spot straight ahead fifty feet. My instincts tell me not to give this imbecile any play. Any acknowledgement will encourage this odd game. Worse, I don't want to put my active mind into overdrive which will only open the door to anxiety and the next thing you know I'm no longer using the instrument my neck supports every day.
The sound of screeching tires occurs at set intervals as the van makes its way around the block. Right turn, right turn, third right, target locked and loaded, bring van to a crawl.
It's deserted in this pre-season seaside town. Very few people live here year-round and any establishments that were opened have long closed down for the night. It's not late, but it's dark and this stretch of road I'm walking on—the main street in town—D Street—hasn't produced one open store.
Nor for that matter, one other soul.
Odd to think I'm headed to a party.
This is my first time working on the Jersey shore. My sister drove me down this morning, introduced me to her boss, who is now my boss, and left an hour later to make the long trek back to upstate New York. She'll return in a week when she finishes teaching her class of 7th graders.
It was my boss who told me about the party. I was to return to the boardwalk at 7pm so we could all walk over to the party. "All" being my boss and about ten employees. Workers, who like me, are down here pre-season to help open up the shops and literally grease the wheels for the games. We are carneys or barkers, if you prefer.
When I arrived at 7pm there was a note pinned to the small office door behind the "Gift / Smoke Shop" informing me they cut out of work early. Not knowing my phone number, they left a map showing where the party was located. This town is laid out like New York City. Blocks 1,2,3 intersect with streets running A, B, C. It's a nice grid and easy to figure out.
The party is 10 blocks away.
Definitely do-able even on this rain soaked evening.
Did I mention it's raining? A slight drizzle is falling. Enough to splatter my glasses and soak through the medium weight coat I'm wearing. It's been raining all day. Not a raincoat wearer (too stifling, too cumbersome), I'm wearing my spring coat with the hood.
The van coasts alongside causing a slight ripple of water to coat the top edge of the curb. Creeping, inching along, keeping pace. Never going more than five miles an hour, hugging, but never jumping the curb...stealth like.
The van rounds the fifth corner and I put the minute of spare time to good use. Crossing catty-corner I'm now on the opposite side of the street. This isn't a good ruse, but a small stance I'm taking.
I need to stay on D Street because the streetlights are plentiful here. On the side streets, it's a long span from one streetlight to the next. The lights cast an ominous yellow glow, which on a tourist-filled summer evening would be soothing. Tonight. In the dark. In the rain. Casting a cataract cat's eye, the side streets are in abject darkness.
After desperately searching for signs of life on the side streets, it appears the only people on this small peninsula in New Jersey are the party-goers, me and whoever is in the van.
He's coming for me.
Although distant, the screech of tires is unmistakable and I catch a blurry rain-soaked reflection in the plate glass window of Alma's restaurant. The van is trolling the other side of the street. Just as the image in the restaurant window gives way to a neighboring brick building, I see the van careen across four empty lanes to reach the side I'm on. I set my eyes and look straight ahead.
I'm fully alert and straining to hear where the van is so I can gauge its location. How fast is he approaching? A quick glance over my shoulder confirms an empty street. The van is nowhere in sight.
At the corner I look both ways. No van.
Bright lights catch me in the middle of the intersection. The van jerks forward. Once again the engine's death rattle is engaged. I quicken my step to reach the corner. I won't run. In my mind to run means "game on" and right now we're sorting out our artillery. I must admit my side of the board is not looking good.
The van bounces through the intersection, across the four lanes, spraying puddle water three feet high. The back right tire hydroplanes a bit which barely interrupts the vehicle's forward motion as it careens down the opposite side street.
Looking ahead, there are many empty parking lots. A mere half block away Lou's Parking is offering discount parking at $5 a day. I make an immediate decision to go back to the other side of the street. Lou isn't around and wide-open empty spaces may be my undoing. There's too much maneuverability for the van. A parking lot is not where I want him to make his move.
At times even a cat knows to walk alongside the fence line.
On the other side of the street now, I've walked a block without seeing or hearing the van. I have about four blocks to go to reach the party and someone there is going to have to drive me home.
He's coming for me.
An alert sensor has been pressed.
A snake slithers up my neck and coils at the base of my skull.
My predator is nearby.
A noticeable glance back confirmed what my instincts telegraphed.
The van is coasting slowly behind me.
No longer is the van coming up alongside me.
Stalking. This feels more like stalking.
The rain is coming down at a faster clip, masking most sounds but the sound of my soggy footfall and the sputtering engine. I continue to walk straight ahead, keeping my eye on that spot 50 feet in the distance. Every fiber of my being screams "don't !@(&$ with me!"
Coming within three feet of the next corner the van pulls up alongside. I slow down as it chug-a-chug-chugs around the corner. Staring straight ahead it isn't hard to miss the wide-open yawn of the van's side door.
With the door locked in place, the bright interior light remains on, illuminating what awaits me. A filthy brown bench seat yellowed in the middle. The floor is surprisingly free of debris, yet dark and darker splats mottle a once light blue carpet. Up front two wobbly bucket seats swivel a bit due to age, not design. Behind the wheel sits a man with a beer propped between his legs.
As he takes the slow turn around the corner his eyes fix on mine. I hold his stare continuing the mantra in my head "don't !@(&$ with me!" while another part of my brain takes inventory.
He's in his early thirties, dirty blonde stringy hair falls to his shoulders, stubborn jaw, light fuzz on his chin and upper lip. He's thin. The word sinewy comes to mind.
He's wearing a red, dirty t-shirt with some band probably advertised on the front and dirty jeans with no visible signs of holes or tears. His glare communicates that the game board has been set up and like it or not, I've been chosen to play.
He continues to glare at me as he negotiates the turn. There's no need for him to look where he's going. There's no other car on the road. There's no other person. Just me and him on a rain-soaked evening with yellow streetlights casting eerie shadows on a pre-summer night in this ghost town.
I sense something else about him.
Patient with his quarry.
He will take as long as he needs and when he's done, he's done. The only thing left on his checklist will be to wash the bench seat one more time. Use that harsh cleanser that gets out the nastiest of stains. Deepen the yellow of that once brown bench seat.
He's coming for me.
After what seems an interminable time, he finally negotiates the turn yet doesn't speed up as before. Apparently when he was racing around the blocks he was making a decision. With his mind made up he can afford a casual drive down the street. Why hurry when there's nowhere for me to go. Head down a darkened side street? Hide out in a yard or in a little strip of alleyway between buildings? I refuse to be stuck like a rat in a cage.
His casual slow drive down the street gives me more pause than anything else he's done tonight.
Within the next block I combat my fears and shut down the "what ifs". I solidly believe that to react to his "challenge" to run, hide, whimper, or crouch in a corner "don't hurt me boogie man" will be my downfall.
No, I will walk this street as a solid member of the human race.
I will not run from him.
I will not.
Still, a ripple of fear courses up my spine, hits my brain and settles.
There is now a steady ping of rain.
Still uncomfortable with the wide-open parking lots on this side of D Street, I cross back over. Where are the residents? I know there aren't many who stay in this sleepy town year round, but surely there have to be some?
With the exception of streetlights, there is no other light. No kitchen light. No porch light. No headlight. No nothing. No one.
I'm alone in this struggle. The realization is like a wallop to the stomach at the same time the lights are punched out. Alone. Panic seizes. I'm now primal. Watching, calculating, cunning, vigilant, vigilante, if it comes down to it.
I arrive at the next corner at the same time the van pulls up. He's on the opposite corner and to my relief the van's side door only opens on one side—the side farthest away from me. Still, the driver is sitting right there approximately 10 feet from where I'm standing. It's the first time I've stopped. I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. There, right there, on the right hand side, a porch light is on and I see movement. At long last a side street yields an occupant.
Six houses down on the right hand side on blessed 40th Street are people!
I don't hesitate a moment. I purposefully stride to the house, take the stairs one at a time and calmly tell my saviors about the man in the light blue van who has been following me. I tell them how he almost hit me on one corner and another time how he left the van's side door open and glared at me. I'm frightened of what he might do and wonder, if it's not too much trouble, if I can sit on their porch until he's out of the area. I'm sure he'll leave once he sees I'm here with all of you.
Three women and two men stare at me. It takes 20 seconds for one woman to gently place her hand on the forearm of one of the young gentlemen and ask if he wants his beverage refreshed. This breaks the spell as they restart conversations as if this rain-soaked young lady has not descended on their porch. No words, no gestures, no acknowledgement that I had even taken up a moment of their time to explain my appearance. Fine, don't talk to me. I'll be the shadow on your face. Visible, but altogether harmless.
I sit on the second step from the top where the porch overhang shields me from the rain. This is a deferential position. It's a signal to the porch dwellers that I am really not here to intrude on their little get-together. Why if I were to sit on the top step a well turned heel or boot could extricate me quite easily from the premises.
After about 20 minutes I'm feeling uncomfortable. I haven't seen the van and there's every reason to believe he's long gone from the area. I turn to my hosts and explain as such and ever polite, thank them for allowing me to sit on their steps, I really do appreciate it...
No sooner does my right foot land on concrete I hear the now familiar rattle.
With my left foot still on the bottom stair I turn my head to see the van barreling down the street. I slowly back up, dazed. I plant myself again on the second step from the top. Hyperventilating, I turn and ask, "Did you see him?" Gulping for air and trying to swallow the bile caught in my throat, I lay my head between my knees for a few seconds to regain equilibrium.
No one responds.
Oh my, my, my.
This is not happening.
I look and see the front end of the van on C Street. He's rounded the block and is sitting on C Street, perpendicular to 40th Street. The headlights are on, flumes of exhaust create an eerie sense of foreboding and I can just barely make out the outline of the driver.
Turning around to point him out to the others I'm met by a wall of backs and reason if they haven't shown a scintilla of understanding or compassion thus far, they aren't going to start caring now. It's best to remain as quiet as possible.
An hour passes. The van comes down 40th Street and slowly goes by the house.
The driver and I match glares. He hangs a left onto D Street and goes around the block. Again he slowly drives by. There is more challenge in his stare, there is more concrete in mine.
One of the women saunters up to the porch rail, takes a sip of her drink and says, "That's not a light blue van, that's a white van."
Maybe it appears white, but if you've been up close and personal with it as I have you'd see it's a very light blue and what are you talking about bitch. It's a van and if the last hour hasn't proven to you that I'm in some serious trouble here then I don't know what to say.
Of course I don't say any of this. I'm afraid she'll throw me off the porch.
A phone, I ask of her. Do you have a phone? I don't know who I'm going to call. I just met the boss and a couple of other carneys this afternoon. It was hardly the time to exchange phone numbers and recipes. My sister is back in New York by now and well, there's really no one to call.
"We don't have a phone." Deadened eyes stare at me then look away as if I'm disagreeable to even look upon.
Oh, I expected a phone to ring. Willed it to ring and conjured up all the smart remarks I'd throw her way, but I'm in survival mode. There will be no smart remarks, or remarks of any kind. Besides, the van is now on 40th Street. It is on the opposite side of the street with the headlights off. The engine is still running. Pretty bold move to sit right down the street from the house, my arrogant, persistent, creepy, yellow-stained bench seat predator.
After another 20 or so minutes he slowly goes by the house again. He gives me a quick once over, then concentrates on the porch scene. He's sizing things up, making a decision.
One of the men on the porch steps forward and surprisingly sits down on the top step. His legs brush my arm, he's sitting that close. "I've been watching," he starts, "and there's something really strange about that van. Look there he is now."
I look to where he's pointing—the van has gone around the block and is sitting in his favorite spot on C Street...waiting.
"Did you notice he stayed on this street for a while?" he asks. "I think you're in serious trouble, something is just not right."
Grateful that someone is finally sizing up the threat level here, I exhale a "yes" which sounds more like gratitude than confirmation.
The woman's voice cuts through the air. Michael immediately stands up and goes over to her. Apparently he isn't allowed to speak to me.
I look back to C Street and don't see the van anywhere. He's not on 40th or D Street. Has he finally given up? Did that one act of kindness from the man on the porch send a message that the jig is up, go trolling elsewhere?
Five minutes later with still no sign of the van I tentatively walk down the porch steps again with another thank you and wave to my hosts. And again I receive the same response, which would be no response.
Constantly glancing back I see the van turn down 40th Street just as I'm two houses away. I calmly walk back to the porch and take my familiar spot, pointing to the van when one of the women looks at me as if I have some nerve. The van sways down the street. The driver doesn't look over, as I track him with laser eyes.
A slight commotion is heard from behind the screen door and I can see a new man, a third man, a traveling man, gathering up boxes and luggage. He's apparently on his way out of town and there's only one way out—over the bridge—which is three blocks from where my new apartment is located. This is my chance to get off the porch and closer to home.
The five on the porch grab for the handle on the screen door, ask if they can help, pick up suitcases, pillows, small plants, any small item, any item at all to assist "traveling man" so he doesn't have to make an extra trip to the car. They all walk down the porch stairs to a car parked in the stone driveway on the side of the house.
I scoot over so no one trips over me.
Hugs and back pats are offered and received and I can't believe I say it, but bold and desperate has kept me safe this far so I call out, "Excuse me, can you tell me where you're going?" And then, because I'm sure the others haven't filled traveling man in on my predicament, I add, "There's a guy in a light blue van" (I look at "white van" woman) "that is giving me the creeps and I sure would appreciate a ride to a party just a few blocks from here or if you're headed in the other direction you can drop me off near home. I'm only three blocks from the bridge."
He hesitates, and then traveling man lies, "I'm headed over to Toms River. I'm going in another direction."
This is a peninsula and there's only one way in and one way out and that is over the Toms River bridge and there is no other way to get over to Toms River unless you have a boat and that car you're driving doesn't look amphibious and I can't believe you rotten S.O.B. that you're not going to help me out. What is wrong with you people, can't you see there is a van at the end of the street with a psycho waiting for me to leave this porch so he can do whatever he wants with me and and and...
Of course I say none of this.
After waving good-bye to traveling man the five porch dwellers walk back up the stairs.
Bad enough that there's this guy in a van who is truly gunning for me, but this whole group has me flummoxed. What is going on? I'm confused by their reaction. Can't they see I'm in need of help? Where is their humanity? Where is the sympathy?
My concentration has been so focused on the van's favorite spot on C Street I can't believe I've missed a phone booth sitting at the intersection of D and 40. Yes! When he makes his surveillance trip around the block I'll have a good minute to run down to the phone booth. All I have to do is make sure to stay in the shadows which shouldn't be too hard and, let's see, if I make a point of standing on the porch with the porch dwellers, he won't know whether to expect me on the stairs or the porch. That might do it. With three other women on the porch he'd have to search me out. Yes, he needs to see me on the porch talking to the porch dwellers.
Here he comes.
I stand on the top step and turn my back to the street, to the van. I explain to the porch people my plan to run to the phone booth and call a cab and if they would stay out on the porch until I'm able to make the call and return safely, I would certainly appreciate it. It would be very helpful because I don't think he's going to give up and you guys have been so gracious with your time and allowing me to stay on your porch and really I think your presence is the only reason I haven't been attacked yet so...
On and on and on I go until from the corner of my eye I see the van slowly cruise by. No one says a word. Time's wasting, the van has turned the corner.
I stay in the shadows and walk along a thin dirt strip (now mud strip) that runs alongside the brick building on the corner. Coming to the phone booth I slide in and crouch. No sign of the van. Finding two taxicab numbers I punch in the number for the first one. It rings a good ten times before I replace the receiver and dial the next cab number. After the third ring a dispatcher picks up and upon hearing where I am located tells me I need to call the other cab company. I blurt out the short version of the terror-filled hours and ask him if he could please send someone. Please. He apologizes and sympathizes, but can be fined if he's found on this side of the island. He'll come over only if I try the other cab company one more time.
The van reappears at his preferred spot on C Street. The headlights are off and flumes of smoke encase the entire vehicle. The van inches forward. He's trying to get a better look down 40th Street. He's trying to see if I'm on the porch.
The van inches up some more.
I softly click the receiver down, wait a few seconds, slowly release it and then dial "O". The operator comes on the line and in a breathless whisper I tell her the short of the long story. I finish by telling her I don't care if she sends the police or a cab I need someone to get me out of this situation.
The van makes a lazy turn down 40th Street.
He doesn't see me yet, but it's just a matter of time. He's coming for me.
The van picks up speed jockeying from side-to-side as he races down the street. I run past the store and four houses. The van is closing in fast. As I crisscross the lawn of the property next door to the porch dwellers' house, I see the van brake so hard the driver's whole body jerks forward then back. His head hits hard against the seat back. His right hand is already on the steering column as he throws the van into park. His left hand is already on the door as it swings open before the van even has a chance to stop. Just as I turn onto the walkway I see my predator bolt from the van. Racing up the front walkway I feel the trail of three fingers down my back.
I jump onto the first step of the porch, taking the rest two at a time.
The porch dwellers are now house dwellers. As I race up the stairs I can see them through the screen door at the other end of the house in the kitchen.
What if the screen door is locked? My mind screams an alert, "Do not open the screen door. You're dead if you try to open the screen door and it's locked!"
My feet meet the porch with a resounding thump. Everyone in the kitchen turns. I attempt to right myself, but the force in which I've hit the porch is propelling me forward. I bump up against the screen door almost going through it.
The door of the van slams shut.
Tires squeal as it peals away.
I yell to the house dwellers, "Hi, I'm back. I was able to make my call," loud enough so in case he is watching or in hearing distance he'll think the dwellers and I are on friendly terms. I turn to sit on the top step and fume over their inconsideration. Finally, I breathe a sigh of relief that they are here. Even though they are incorrigible, it seems this place is a safety zone.
Five minutes later a police car pulls up.
One of the women from the group walks to the front of the house, looks out the screen door and yells back in an incredulous voice, "Oh for heaven's sake, she called the cops."
I race down to the cruiser.
I tell the officer my tale standing outside in the rain, pointing to the various places the van parked and telling him how the van is probably now parked on C Street.
"Get in the cruiser."
Of course this makes sense. How else to find the guy but to get in the cruiser and look for him. Yes, obviously let's get this show on the road. Besides, the rain is coming in on the officer so it makes sense to have this discussion in the cruiser.
The policeman leans over the seat to open the passenger side door.
"Where you going?" he asks, staring out the window. Thinking this is a standard procedural question to get all the facts straight in the case, I explain how I was headed to a party on 44th Street, but repeat that I'm sure the van is on C Street.
"I'm not driving you to a party." He looks at me sternly.
"Why of course not," I counter, in amazement I might add.
"Where do you live?" he asks as if I'm some dullard.
I tell him.
He starts to drive me home. "Wait," I say. "Aren't we going to look for the van?"
"Yeah, I'll do that later after I drop you off."
There is no report being filed. He hasn't even written down a single word I've said. There is no way he is going to look for the van when he drops me off.
What is going on here?
Does he know the guy in the van?
I've only been in town a half a day so I don't know all the ins and outs of this place. Could this man be a well-known oddball in town? "Oh, you know that Joe, he's always driving up and down the boulevard frightening women. Heh-heh. Ya know one of these days he's really going to scare a young thing, but heck, he's harmless. Just having a little fun."
I plead with the officer to look for the man in the light blue van, but he dismisses me as if I'm an unwelcome child he's been instructed to taxi home safely.
Home, in my new apartment, I pull a large sharp knife from the kitchen drawer and clutch it in my hands while changing out of wet clothes.
Curling up in bed with knees drawn to my chin and arms wrapped around my legs, I can feel the outline of the knife under the pillow. Tomorrow I'm buying a bat. The tears come now and unabashedly I wail. We are animals capable of the barest of emotions. The rawest of feelings.
We are animals capable of the most deviant behavior.
For a long time I lay bare my emotions and hug this precious body of mine.