Stephenville Empire-Tribune, April 2018
It’s the weekend. Yay…except it is laundry day, a day that occurs more often than normal for me since I only have three or four semi-cool Christian school-appropriate outfits. My worry this morning is a real one. I have secretly borrowed my mom’s robin’s egg blue mohair sweater to wear to school. A lunchtime food accident leaves me panic-stricken. This is only a big deal because it may be my mom’s only link to her youth and happier days before she had four demanding kids to ignore. I slip out of bed and turn to do a quick cover-straightening on my twin bed before tiptoeing past my sleeping sister, careful not to step on the landmine that is her side of the room.
Stumbling into the bathroom I stare at my face in the toothpaste splattered mirror. Not too bad. Clear skin. Thick long brown hair. Roundish face. I quickly brush my teeth, then my hair, parting it carefully down the center in the style so popular in 1978. I am not trying too hard since I am only going to be in the motel laundry room alone. No one to impress today. The maids won’t even arrive for a few hours.
The Royal House: brings up images of elegance, class, style. Not really the case; however, since the cheapskate owner went so far as to cancel the monthly pest control service to save money, which anyone living in Florida knows is the kiss of death for a business. Nothing worse than turning on the bathroom light at two o’clock in the morning to catch the tail end of a plethora of German cockroaches running for cover. But there are some good things about living with my family of six in the manager’s quarters of a roach-infested motel. At the age of 13 when my two brothers, my sister and I were swimming in the motel pool…located smack-dab in the center of the horseshoe-shaped complex…I met Chubby Checker. He and his band had obviously fallen upon some hard times staying at the Royal House and playing the 1975 Pensacola Interstate Fair venue. He even invited me to tag along, which was both weirdly flattering and sketchy at the same time. I declined of course but only because my dad said no, questioning the integrity of the band.
My thoughts come back to my laundry situation and my mom’s mohair sweater. How do I wash it and sneak it back into her dresser drawer, currently laden with threadbare panties and discolored nursing bras even though her baby is in elementary school? The absence of her prized possession will be glaring. I grab the sweater along with my Christian school appropriate separates and head toward the shabby motel lobby saying “See ya later alligator,” to my dad manning the switchboard. The covered walkway is 100 yards of exterior motel room doors on my way to the laundry room, which is located at the back of the property. Walking quickly, I keep my eyes averted from the guests’ doors. Seeing a beer-bellied nude traveling salesman is not on my bucket list. Not today. Not ever. Still single-mindedly making my way to the refuge of a quiet unoccupied space to get a break from the motel’s crowded living quarters; I hear a door open and then shut behind me. Not a concern. Probably just a guest getting another six-pack out of his car. Continuing on. Almost there. Forgot to get the key but it won’t matter since the doorknob lock is broken anyway. Just a quick jiggle left and right and the lock gives, allowing me to enter.
I immediately head to the back where the hand-wash sink agitator is located and start filling it with hot water and detergent. I think hot water will probably get the stain out of the sweater, especially if I turn the agitator on high and swish the daylights out of it. I leave the mohair to fend for itself, steaming and swishing while I toss the rest of my clothing in the top-load washer. Cool water for this. It isn’t nearly as stained and it makes sense that cotton is way less sturdy than the fur sheared off of a grazing animal. I stand at the sink, my back to the open space that is the drying and folding portion of the laundry room. I pull the precious garment out its hot bath to discover that it is now unstained. That would be exciting except for the fact that it is now toddler-size. Shrunken. Clean and shrunken. Even if I successfully get it back into the dresser drawer undetected, my crime will be discovered eventually. It’s curtains. Goodbye cruel world. Sayonara...
“LOCK THE DOOR!” a voice booms somewhere behind me. Or is it above me? It seems to reverberate from the walls. I drop the sweater and spin; the hair standing up on the back of my neck and goosebumps rising on my arms. Seeing no one, I detect the sound of stealthy footsteps heading my way from outside the double side doors—the unlocked double side doors. Moving quickly, I throw the slat of wood down into the barn-door-style brackets locking it and take a step back. A quick jiggle testing the door is followed by a light knock, then a heavy pound.
Terror-stricken, I dash to the wall phone grabbing it from its resting place and hear the buzz on the other end. “Come on switchboard. Come on switchboard,” thinking that at any minute the intruder will come bursting in through the front door with the broken lock. I hear a subtle “tap-tap-tap” from the window behind me and turn, a sense of dread invading my insides.
A handsome smiling face accompanied by a hand is pointing behind me mouthing, “Open the door.” He sees the phone in my hand…my dad’s voice asking, “What is it now?” on the other end.
“Hurry down here now. Someone is trying to get in here with me and I’m scared,” I breathlessly whisper, while glancing over my shoulder at the man who is no longer there. There is nothing but silence on the other end and I picture my dad trying to decide if he can spare a minute to leave the office unattended while he comes to investigate.
A sigh escapes him and he says, “Be right there.” A few minutes later the broken-lock door opens and my dad is standing there puzzled. “I didn’t see anybody outside. Are you sure?”
I chalk it up to nerves brought on by the sweater disaster. That warning voice, “LOCK THE DOOR!” is still in the back of my mind, but I put it on the back burner and focus on planning my funeral instead. I was going to need it when my mom finally got around to opening that drawer with the seriously jacked up undergarments and the tiny robin’s egg blue mohair sweater.
A few years later—my college years—I see a familiar smiling face on the news in passing. No time to stop and watch on my way to class.
Years after graduation, I am sitting on the flight attendant jump seat reading the first few chapters of a true-crime novel by Ann Rule. Interesting and intriguing, but it is forgotten; left neatly folded up in the seat when my crew and I deplane moving on to the next flight.
It is 1989 and I am watching the news with my sweet two-year-old daughter cuddled up under my arm and thinking of the second little baby now growing inside of me, my mind temporarily wandering from the news story at hand. My eyes widen in surprise as I begin to comprehend what I am seeing in front of me. A reality sets in…one I should have discovered years ago.
A handsome smiling face. A news story of young ladies murdered and Ted Bundy, a serial killer, executed. I am looking into the eyes of a killer. A killer’s face. The reality—a face belonging to the man that was “tap-tap-tapping” on that laundry room window 11 years ago and the BOOMING voice that saved my life.
By Lisa H. Owens