Roly poly or "pillbug." (Google Images)
The recent, tragic murder of a 7-year-old Georgia girl has me remembering another case from the 1960s that has haunted me for decades, and the day I trusted a stranger.
We called it a raspberry tree, but I still don’t know its botanical classification or its common name.
I remember the tree’s blue-black berries, and how my brother Jay and I squished them between our toes, and how the stains on our feet would linger for days. We couldn't know this then, but that tree and the ink of its fruit would imprint memories on our hearts and minds forever.
Jay and I climbed into the tree’s branches in spring to sniff its sweet blossoms while batting away bees, and gather the rippened berries in summer for our mother, who would enfold them into a sugary pie crust she had poked artfully with a fork to let off steam.
When we weren’t stuffing the bitter berries into our mouths until we were sick, my brother and I were digging up roly polies from the soil around the tree’s roots, or slapping together pungent, earthy mud pies. We’d poke at the roly polies with sticks until the bugs rolled their bristly feet into their armadillo-like shells, and played dead. From those hard little balls we learned survival tactics we’d rely on in the days and years ahead.
I was 7 years old and standing alone under the leafy branches of our raspberry tree when Frankie* called my name. He was our neighbor’s son, a big, hulking teenager with feet as large as concrete blocks. He had shiny, slicked-back black hair, and on that day wore a jacket like postmen wear when they are delivering good news and bad news, and his paunchy belly, draped with a dingy white T-shirt, protruded from the unzipped opening.
“Come here!” he said in conspiratorial tones as he waved a beefy, brown hand at me. “I gotta show you something.”
He was standing next to a wooden shed in his backyard. I still remember how quiet it was, which was odd for our working-class, Mexican-American neighborhood. On any given day, kids ran wild, swinging from branches like howler monkeys, and roving around in packs armed with BB guns they used to shoot conical holes through windshields and picture windows. That, or they gathered around domed, concrete incinerators to tell lascivious stories about their parents’ real or imagined sex lives.
My mom was in the house, and my instincts were telling me no, but that didn’t stop me from walking up to the chainlink fence that separated Frankie and me. Curiosity drove me that day, and overrode any caution I might have developed by that age. Frankie lifted me up, bruising my ribs, and set me down in his backyard. Then he brought a finger to his pursed, purple lips, and aspirated a long, low "shhhhhh" before he took be by the hand and led me down some damp cement stairs and into his family's dank cellar.
I looked around quietly at my ramshackle surroundings, straining my eyes in the half light, searching for whatever it was Frankie wanted me to see. There were piles of lumber and boxes stacked to the low ceiling. My eyes still had not adjusted to the dark when my captor ducked in fear and motioned for me to lie down quietly on a stack of boards.
I don’t know why, but I obeyed his order. He lay down on top of me and whispered in my ear to be quiet so no one would hear us. I lay paralyzed in fear and uncertainty at my decision to follow him into the cellar. I gasped for breath as the man-sized boy rubbed his stubbly cheek on my soft, little-girl skin. After all these years, I can still feel his weight, smell his greasy hair, and hear his lying, snakelike whisper.
I heard footsteps in the house, rolled my knees to my chest, and pushed him away before anything terrible happened. Unlike the roly polies, I didn't play dead. I ran home, knowing, even at that tender age, that I had been duped, despite my mother’s warnings and cautionary tales about little girls who trusted strangers.
I was mad at myself for trusting someone I hardly knew. Sure, his family lived next to us, but, really, what did I know about them? His mother seemed nice. She waved and smiled at me when she walked out of her back door with a bag of trash. His beautiful, exotic sisters braided my hair and talked to me about the boys they were dating. Frankie's father, Frank Sr., was another story, though. Not long before Frankie took me into his basement, my brother and I watched as Frank Sr. picked up a tiny, ginger kitten and booted it into the air like a football. We watched the kitten flailing and mewing as it flew through the branches of our elm trees. I don’t remember the kitten landing, but that day, my brother and I learned about cruelty.
Not long after that incident, my mother told me a story I will never forget. Like other memorable moments in my life, this one was marked forever by a song playing on the radio. Mom kept a transistor on top of the fridge that was permanently tuned to a radio station that played Top-40 pop and rock tunes of the 1960s. Mom used to latch onto the fridge’s handle and dance with the squat, frosty fridge as my brother and I sipped on hot chocolate and laughed at the joy she brought to our tiny kitchen.
That day, Tommy Roe’s smash, bubble-gum hit “Sweet Pea” played on the radio as mom told me about a little girl who had been raped and murdered, and whose body had been stuffed under a shed. I knew there was a lesson for me somewhere, that she was warning me to stay away from strangers, and to let her know anytime someone tried to “bother” me. I remember wondering if the little murdered girl lived in Colorado, or maybe even my hometown. It's been more than 40 years, and I never found out what really happened. I’ve searched the Web for archived news stories about that little girl to no avail.
But, this past week I remembered Frankie, his cellar, the shed and the 1960s girl after Georgia police announced the arrest of a 20-year-old man in the rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl. The accused murderer had abducted the girl from a playground at her apartment complex, and had allegedly stuffed her body in a Dumpster.
When I heard the horrific story, I wondered how her captor had duped her into following him, and I cried for all the little girls and boys who never learned from roly polies, and trusted strangers.
*Name changed to protect the innocent.
©Story by Deborah Méndez Wilson 2012. All rights reserved.