When P and I got married, we moved to his family’s dairy farm near tiny Lewisburg, WV. It was a major culture shock for me. I’d been living in alone St. Louis, not far from The Hill, a working class part of the city where I felt relatively safe out walking during the day. But at night, I locked my apartment up tight. I was friendly with neighbors–never strangers. You might say I was fearful.

Our house on the farm was a hundred years old and had never had locks on the doors (though there were locks on the windows, oddly enough). Of course, I had a locksmith in within a week of our arrival. Those first few months saw P often wandering the house at night in his, um, pajamas, carrying his grandmother’s old Harrington and Richardson revolver because I kept hearing noises. He thought it was pretty funny. I didn’t at the time, but now I understand that it was a whole list of fears that kept me awake, worried and listening for every little sound, that had me anticipating home invasions every night. We were in the country and I knew what had happened at the Clutter house. But I was also in unfamiliar territory. People do funny things when they’re out of their element.

It took me a long, long time to adjust, even though only a handful of violent crimes that took place during the six years we lived there. The most spectacular attack involved an erstwhile beauty queen from Virginia, and a hiker or two had suspicious falls from mountainsides. I would say now that it was a very safe place to live. But I never dropped my paranoia completely.

One afternoon, I took Pomegranate to the mall to buy some shoes (yes! a mall! it had six or seven stores and was attached to the KMart. not a KMart–THE KMart). I won’t post her picture, but I will tell you that she was a winsome little thing, all of three years old, with a head full of blond curls and enormous blue eyes and eyelashes as long as her Daddy’s (I’m eyelash challenged). On entering the mall, an old man approached us. He wore a farmer’s work jacket and brown pants and he was carrying his hat. I greeted him and tried to move Pomegranate on, but he obviously wanted to talk to us.

He smiled and bent down to Pomegranate, but addressed me. “Would the little girl like a shiny dollar?” he said. He held a silver dollar not far from Pom’s face.

I was flummoxed. I didn’t know what to think. I was raised to be polite to strangers. At that moment my fear overcame my politeness. Mostly. If I said yes, or let her take the dollar, she might think it was okay to take things from strangers. That would be bad! And what kind of person approached little girls and their mothers at the mall waving money at them?

You can see what’s coming, of course. He looked puzzled and disappointed when I said–as politely as I knew how–that I was sure she would like it, but that I couldn’t let her have it. Even as I said it I felt like a bitch. I was glad not to see him again when we left the mall.

When I told P about it, he didn’t criticize me, but gently made it clear that older people in the area were often friendly like that, that the man sincerely meant to give her a treat. It was a kind of compliment. He simply thought that she was a sweet little girl.

I’ve always looked back on that episode with regret. Of course caution is never really a bad thing–but I could have been more confident, more generous.

I was reminded of that memory today when I saw this story on the Fox News website: It seems a man in Harlan County, KY (near where my daddy’s people are from) approached a woman with two girls at a grocery store.

“The ordeal began last week when [Otis “Bullman”] Hensley’s wife sent him to a local grocery store to buy ground beef. While there, Hensley encountered a woman with her two nieces, ages 11 and 13. “I offered to trade her a fattening hog for those girls,” Hensley said. “I meant it as a joke. I’ve said it a million times. Most people get a kick out of it.”

The woman didn’t laugh. Instead, the family obtained a warrant for Hensley’s arrest from the local prosecutor, claiming the comment was intended to entice the children into illegal sexual activity.

On Tuesday, the girls’ father accepted an apology from Hensley and shook hands with him in a Harlan County courtroom. The man declined to discuss the case with reporters afterward.”

Now I don’t think that even I’m paranoid enough to think someone would actually try to make some kind of creepy deal at a grocery store using the offer of livestock as bait. But I understand what was going through that woman’s mind because it might have occurred to me, too, once upon a time. Still, it made me sad. I hate that we live in a world where so many of our initial thoughts on meeting people are suspicious.

And I find it more than a little ironic that I make my living telling stories that are full of characters who are rarely on their best behavior.

One thought on “Strangers”

  1. Hey lovely Laura,

    This is a great set of scenes! I know what you mean about being nervous about sounds, strangers, etc. I can see P and Pom in both scenes! And I have seen the Clutter house years ago (an old boyfriend thought this would be a good Valentine’s treat — driving to Kansas and ignoring the no trespassing signs on the land, ah, young love — he was 44, but still). I too wish we lived in a world where I’m not constantly thinking thoughts like, Yeah, but Ted Bundy had a girlfriend who had no idea what he was doing and so on.

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