My hair fell in fine strands down the center of my back, in winter months it was a rich brown with hints of gold, a stark contrast to my ballet-pink skin and soft blue eyes. I was a thin and rather small five-year old little girl with deep dimples and a petite, freckled nose. I was pretty and I knew it, and I used it to my advantage. I was well liked and well adjusted.
I instinctively knew that in order to survive I needed to please others and to behave more like a doll, moving wherever I was placed by other’s emotions and temperament.
I spent a lot of time alone exploring and roaming, always in a dress, and whenever possible, barefoot, or in boots. I talked to animals, insects and plant life; many private conversations were had on the nature of things I didn’t understand about adults and my inner-life. I touched and smelled and was curious about almost anything I could get my hands on, I lived in wonder about the natural world around me, and used it as a way to escape reality. My mother often described me as being, “So good and independent,” and “happy-go-lucky,” but in my private moments I was anxious and afraid, I used my charm and sweet-looking face as a mask to hide my nagging fears. The thing I was most afraid of was being unwanted.
Angie lived across the street from us and babysat for me once. She was around thirteen and had feathered light brown hair slicked to her head, hazel eyes, like a mixture of dirt and water, and dotted, smudged looking skin. She was average in all ways, but to me, her body spoke of experience: the small dip of cleavage, the elongation of her backside, the width of her hips and thick torso.
She had an oval face and small teeth, light colored lips and poor posture. There was a teenage-shrill to her laugh, a discomfort that made me nervous and excited all at once. Her nails were chewed down to the ends. Her eyes often darted from side to side, but in focus they were dull. Looking back I would describe them as having a pointed sadness, the emptiness of what I imagine was taken from her.
She was involved with a church, the kind with a white van and cornflower blue-vinyl, bench seats, and a thick, white man sitting behind the wheel–with sparse strands of hair on his head; and body hairs spilling out from under his shirt. The type of church with a youth director that drove kids around town to various events in the Church van with blue lettering on the side that read, “First Messiah Baptist Church.”
I could see Angie’s house from my living room window, their pastel yellow dilapidated bungalow–before bungalows were stylish–in our low-income neighborhood that hadn’t yet undergone restoration, and gentrification, before the wealth of educated, upper-middle class white folks moved in and turned it into an urban craftsman’s wet dream, a centerfold of bungalow-curb appeal.
Eager, and on my knees, deep in worn tan shag-carpet, I watched as the van pulled in the driveway, Angie stepping up on the side-runner, entering the slide-door with her hushpuppy shoes and a thin-strapped pocket book, crotch-cutting, tight jeans, and corduroy jacket. I wanted in the van.
I was obsessed with everything Angie. The way she moved her head, the pooch of her waistline, and the goings on at her house. I would play outside, poking at doodlebugs in the yard, ever watchful for her, hoping to get noticed, dying for a smile or an invite.
And it happened. One day she came out and asked, “Hey Shannon, want to go to a Halloween Carnival with me at my church? There will be a haunted house and candied apples.”
I was delighted and honored, a chance to hang with my idol, an older girl, the mystery and intrigue, to be part of her sanctum, to be accepted by someone I revered. “Yes!” Clapping my hands together, “Yeah! I gotta go see if my momma will let me.”
This was the fall of 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, a time when children started disappearing earlier that year. Along with the rumors and speculation there were reports of a white van and candy-lure possibly being used to snatch up the missing kids. Atlanta’s citizens became suspicious of vans of all colors, shapes and sizes, myself included.
I blame my mother. She was twenty-four at the time, garter snake-green eyes lined in black liquid, layers of dark Maybelline, and high on everything, including caffeine, uppers, downers, alcohol, sugar and nicotine. She was five-two, and a well-shaped, maybe ninety pounds, curves, yet anorexic; coffee and boiled egg for breakfast, sardines and tab for lunch, M&M’s for snack, and a light picking of some sort of dinner. Her hair was like touchable lust, gorgeous, long, hot-rolled, soft and sensual, the perfect shade of Farah Faucet-blonde. She was good looking, and disturbed, a tiny, sexy package of insanity, a decorated trap door.
My Mother was not only superstitious, she was also suspicious of anything possible-rapist, child molester, flasher, or sexual pervert-related, and she was very vocal about it. She warned me about men with dogs or candy, she told me, “Shannon, don’t ever help a man look for his lost dog, and don’t ever, ever accept candy from a stranger. It’s just a ploy to get you alone so that he can touch your private’s. And she would tell me things like, “Shannon-Banana, a man will break-in and put his hand over your mouth if you don’t lock the door.” We lived in fear of the old man who lived alone and ate chopped steak at the local Piccadilly cafeteria. She told me, “ That’s the type of man that will show you his penis. Look away when you hear them whistling. They’re always whistling trying to act innocent, just keep walking.”
She taught me what the “type” looked like, and what to do if a stranger asked for my underwear: “Run and yell fire!” And she told me about the missing kids spotted near a white van. “Shannon, those kids were probably jerked up into the van by an old man who wanted to cut their private’s. If you get pulled in the van you’re a goner. They’ll throw your body in the woods. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone take you. Run, fight, yell, scratch, hit, and kick them in the balls. Be smart. I don’t mean to scare you, baby, but this is real. You are not to go near a van of any sorts.”
She scared the fuck out of me; at five I was prepared for the child molestation-apocalypse.
To Be Continued, thanks for reading.
Love to all of ya out there,