It was the stretch past Hawaii Drive North and Mindanao along an empty field that made the three mile walk to and from the Majik Market seem, on particularly hot days, hardly worth the effort even for a Coke Icee and a bag full of penny candy. Or that’s what I told myself anyway. Our neighborhood, with its streets named after islands in the Pacific (although we were ten minutes away from the actual Atlantic Ocean) sounded exotic: Enewetak, Majuro, Kuralei, Dulawan. But the landscape was mostly barren with little shade offered up by the scattered loquats and kumquats, the small banana trees that occasionally bore bitter fruit. Scraggly palms dotted the medians and many grew slanted. Kids in the neighborhood axed notches into those trees, creating primitive steps so that one could climb the trunk fairly easily, swing from the fronds and land in the sandy soil without causing serious injury to themselves. The trees, misshaped and misused, were depressing. It wasn’t what they were supposed to look like and didn’t look like in the better neighborhoods. I rarely swung from them, or stopped at the broken down metal playground smoldering in the weedy field on the way to the store. Because, to do so, meant inviting attention from the passing cars or worse, from the tough boys on their BMX bikes who shot insults like poison darts. What they lacked in cleverness they made up for with accuracy, hitting me where it hurt most—Hey Bucky Beaver, Bucky Beaver! Something, something your weird face, something, something you’re ugly. It never lasted long; I was, I suspect, too easy a target. The poison, though, spread throughout my body, made my arms and legs feel heavy, so I’d think of something else to keep moving—my pocket of coins, what I’d buy with them at the store, the way the sun felt on the back of my head as I kept a lookout for broken bottles and bottles that weren’t broken and could be traded in for more coins, for more candy. Most of the time, my trips to the store were made with a friend, but occasionally I’d summon the courage and go alone. It gave me a strange sense of accomplishment and once inside the store I felt safe perusing the pecan twirls and powdered sugar donuts, considering a Royal Palm cola, but never too seriously, before heading to the candy aisle where I would get as much penny candy as I could carry and afford, head to the register, order my Coke Icee. While Mr. Sherman’s back was turned, I quickly scanned the dirty magazines behind the counter, noting whether the latest issue of Oui or Penthouse had come out yet. Once I left the store, heard the bell on the door marking my exit, I was satisfied, smug with my sense of what it meant to move about in the world unfettered. If no one else was around to intimidate me, I’d linger there, enjoying my independence, read the signs posted on the glass—a Boy Scout paper drive, cigarette ads, church revival, lost pets and posters of missing children. The posters caught my attention; the images of the missing held it. They were mostly runaways, kids who, to me, had the same aura of toughness and certainty as the kids who often hung around outside of that Majik Market, smoking, hopping curbs on skateboards, cussing regardless of who was around. These kids I thought of as grown and able to take care of themselves, as though they already knew the someplace better they had to get to. Occasionally, the missing were toddlers or babies, usually family abduction cases, and I reasoned that they were still with someone who loved them and so would be well taken care of. But sometimes there were disappearances. And for a three-month span from July through October of 1974, five girls between the ages of six and twelve went missing in my city of Jacksonville, Florida. Five little girls disappeared. Each time a new poster was put up, I fixated on how they looked. Believing it offered a clue, I measured their attractiveness as best I could in the black-and-white photos, going through a checklist— Was their smile even, bright? Did they have dimples? What was the color of their hair and did it shine? Could their eyes be described as particularly sparkly? It was my nine-year-old understanding, that if a man were going to take a little girl, of course he would desire a pretty one. The glare from the glass obscured what I already knew—with my overbite, stringy black hair, skinny body, glasses and masses of freckles—I wouldn’t be anyone’s first, second or even third choice. I felt safe. And disheartened.
The summer and early fall of 1974 replays like a gritty movie in my head, a 70s era Lumet or Scorsese, elements of cinema verite, but stylized, heightened. The scene opens with George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” playing on the predators’ radios, driving through neighborhoods, seeking, appraising opportunity. Crosscut this with a scene of me flipping through my father’s porn magazines while that same song plays on my portable radio in an otherwise quiet house. Then the jangle of bells are heard over Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” as Jean Marie Schoen, Virginia Helm, and Rebecca Green in split screen each enter a different neighborhood store. The eerie song playing from radios behind the counters, they walk toward the ice cream freezer, the candy aisle, and soft drink cooler, respectively. The screen splits once more at the bottom to show Lillian and Mylette Anderson alone in their home. Lillian making lemonade while Mylette sits on the floor playing with her dolls. And then one by one, Jean, Virginia, Rebecca, their small hands push open the glass door, the bell jangling once again as they walk out with their purchases, towards a glare into which they disappear. It’s only Lillian in the frame then, her small hand turning off the radio on her own counter when she sees a car pull up outside.
The abductions didn’t happen concurrently as they do in my brain’s montage. But the timeline of the girls’ disappearances are close enough that looking back it feels as though they vanished within moments of each other. Time folds in on itself in memory. Or at least in mine. I compress the mundane days of those three months, the endless hours of Watergate hearings that preempted our favorite soap operas and game shows. I compress the same-old-same-old dinners of tuna casserole and corned beef hash, endless bologna sandwich lunches, fighting with my sisters over every little thing. I compress the too many mornings waking up to an oppressive heat that permeated our cinderblock house with no air conditioning. Stagnant as a tomb, the dust motes suspended in shafts of light, unmoving. Those are still shots. But the feature film is composed of songs played and replayed relentlessly on the radio, the discovery of my father’s magazines, walks to the convenience store and those disappearing girls, all of it recalled in a grainy and tungsten hue.
Jean Marie Schoen, aged 9, disappeared on July 21st while walking to a convenience store at the corner of 19th and Pearl, only two blocks away from her grandmother’s house with whom she was visiting at the time. Her mother said she would have never gone willingly; she was too feisty a child. No one saw her leave with or talking to anyone. Or perhaps, as the newspaper pointed out, someone saw something and didn’t know they were seeing anything at all.
Eleven days later, the Anderson sisters, Lillian, 11 and Mylette, 6, went missing from their home in Oceanway, a Northside area of Jacksonville. It was expected they’d be home alone only briefly, their mother and older sister leaving to care for a sick relative, their father, a commercial fisherman, expected to be home not long after they left. But he had engine trouble and arrived much later than expected. When he returned home to an empty house, save their little dog barking from behind a closed door of one of the bedrooms, Mr. Anderson assumed the girls were with their mother. It wasn’t until she called home around 8 p.m. that it was discovered the girls were missing. Neighbors reported seeing a car in their yard, but thought little of it.
Virginia Helms disappeared on September 27th. She was twelve, lived in the Southside of town and went missing walking to or from a convenience store at Beach Boulevard, only ten minutes away from her home on Dean Road. And although there had been reports of young girls in the area “being approached by two or three persons in a car, then threatened and followed home when they didn’t get in the vehicle,” no one recalls seeing anything suspicious surrounding her disappearance. No one recalled seeing anything at all.
Nineteen days after Virginia went missing, Rebecca Ann Greene disappeared from her Fairfield neighborhood. She had missed her bus that morning and her mother allowed her to stay home. She walked to the store six blocks away to buy soft drinks. After she made the purchases, she left through a side door, saying goodbye to the butcher, telling him she’d see him later, and never made it home.
There was a ritual involved. It required that everyone else be gone from the house, which happened somewhat frequently, despite my age. A sister in band, one a candy striper, both in Girl Scouts, my mother running them here and there. My father a shriner, a mason, a deacon at church. So there was time and the ritual went as such:
Sit on the floor next to daddy’s side of the bed, ignore the itchiness of the shag carpet beneath my legs and pull a stack of his porn out from under. Mentally note their order. Then create my own order. Playboy first, an easing in. Admire the woman, fresh-faced, standing in a claw-foot tub, wet suds dripping off her glorious body, and this one on a blanket in a field of purple flowers and then on a fur rug (that looks almost as soft as her skin) in a bedroom that appears as if it belongs to a teenager. Next, thumb quickly through Oui, Gallery, before tentatively reaching for Hustler.
In this regard my father and I had a shared interest. Although, he never knew it. Or at least never behaved as though he did. That his porn had become my porn. We shared other pursuits—or, to put it more accurately, I showed interest in the things he was interested in—poetry, the Bible and religion, the supernatural. Those were a means to engage with him directly, to get his attention. But this, this felt like eavesdropping into a secret part of him, into a secret part of all men.
Open Hustler and look at it with one eye open and one eye closed, as though it were the scary part in a movie. Women, tied up and blindfolded, twins doing things to each other I wouldn’t pause to consider, a trio of pregnant women working around their rounded bellies to get at each other. And the centerfolds. The centerfolds are close-ups of what is between a woman’s legs and what I haven’t yet been given the proper name for. In this magazine they are called beavers and these beavers are sometimes scratch and sniff.
After that, Penthouse feels like compensation. Take a break from the images, read the Penthouse letters, some over and over, believing them to be true, just as I believe any letter in print to be true. Which means that people are doing these things with neighbors and pastors and plumbers and babysitters with surprising regularity, that someone showing up at your door could be an invitation that starts with something like conversation, but quickly veers to skin and breath, licking and thrusting and coming. The letters always end shortly after the coming. And isn’t it strange that the end of the moment is really an arrival? Such confusions lead me to cross reference with a dictionary these words I don’t understand, but that sound official and sometimes medical: jism, masturbation, orgasm, fellatio, cunnilingus. This isn’t information to be shared, but tucked away because there will be a time, I suspect, when it will be useful to be in the know.
Hours and hours spent next to my father’s bed, hunched over those magazines is where I first began to decipher desire. I knew I was a child and the disparities between the hers in the magazines and the me on the carpet was understood exponentially. But I studied their faces and bodies, appreciating and accumulating knowledge that I hoped could somehow influence and transform my own anatomy, my own physiology. I had no wish to grow up quickly and didn’t. What I wanted though, what I craved, was acknowledgment from someone else that a measure of that her-ness lived inside of me when all evidence was proving otherwise.
End with the photos of the women in Penthouse. Here, they are not made to appear as perfect as those in Playboy. But are prettier in a way, like real women I’d see working the makeup counter at May-Cohens or perhaps on the TV news. Like this one, wearing only knee socks and a shirt pulled up to her neck, her legs in the air and spread, the photo has a dreamy blur I like, in Penthouse, they all do. The openly erotic poses softened at the edges.
There came a point that summer when we were reminded to avoid strangers, discouraged to be outside by ourselves, particularly not to go to the Majik Market alone. So we went in small groups, and suddenly what was once a regular part of our existence felt like a risky adventure. Walking with my older sisters and a couple of their friends to the store, I imagine us as brazen, as if daring a passerby to mess with us. Everything heightened—the broken glass more menacing, the palms a bit more wretched, the skies grayer. I could spot a bunny moving in the weeds yards away, a dead armadillo a block ahead. Vigilant, alert, I was on the lookout in case there was anything to report. When men in cars would holler at us, there was a sort of thrill. What if they tried to take us? What if they were perverts? A word that had begun to be thrown around in conversations and in the news. I’d look at cars and their license tags, remembering details just in case someone went missing in our neighborhood and I could say, yes officer, I do remember a suspicious car—a gold Impala, a brown El Camino, a green Charger, license number gr4-hlt. Yes, I remember what he looked like, he had shaggy hair and sideburns, he was smoking a cigarette, his beard was red, he was bald, he flicked his tongue at us like a snake, he said he’d give us a ride, he said we were ripe for the picking, he was wearing an orange shirt, he was wearing no shirt, he was towheaded and wore wire-rimmed glasses, his dashboard was furry, he wore a hat that said, Make Mine Chevy, he was sucking on a tootsie pop, he called us abominations, his van had a dent in the side, his van had wild horses painted on it and blew black exhaust. He looked like that guy on The Rookies, he looked like a man I know from church, he looked like no one I’ve ever seen before. His eyes were blue. They were green. They were bluish-green. His eyes were the darkest brown you could imagine and officer, I swear he looked right at me.
On Sundays after church, my aunt, uncle, and cousin often came to lunch at our house. While my mom and sisters and I were busy putting the leaf in the table, filling the tea glasses with ice, my daddy and uncle exchanged their dirty magazines. They weren’t particularly open about it, but neither did they take great pains to hide what they were doing. The magazines were kept face down, but of course I knew what they were. From the Marlboro Cigarette ads or the Black Velvet whiskey ads with Telly Savales or a slinky blonde nuzzling a glass, I knew. And I would marvel at the fact that just a half hour earlier we’d stood up from the pews singing, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” like we meant it. Like we really meant it. But it wasn’t just my father and my uncle, some of my friend’s fathers had porn also and when those friends would show me where it was hidden or pull out a magazine, I would act surprised as though I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. I’d strive to be appalled and non-judgmental at the same time. Still, it was difficult to not think of those magazines later when sitting across a dinner table from these fathers at sleepovers or when said fathers took us out for ice cream or let us ride around the neighborhood in the back of their truck. I would have never shown my father’s porn to anyone else, because I didn’t want him seen in a bad light. I wanted that part of him to stay secret. I wanted that part of me to stay secret. There was, I’d come to know, a surface life that everyone lived, but there was a second sort of life, another level of existence left hidden, a place where seemingly regular people looked at dirty magazines or maybe even did other things, things that could cause a child to disappear, like a girl who’s just walking along, maybe counting cracks in the sidewalk, trying to remember all the characteristics of mammals for no good reason. Or sisters inside their bedroom, folding their new school clothes, it’s dinnertime and they’re waiting for their father to return from fishing, just like they did every day. But on that day, they weren’t safe, not even in their home.
There was an episode of The Twilight Zone that terrified me most when I was a child—“Little Girl Lost.” In it a very young girl is heard crying, but her parents are unable to find her. She sounds as though she’s behind the interior walls of the house somehow, but they can’t reach her. A neighbor discovers she’s gone through a portal into a fourth dimension. What caused me much anxiety was the fact that a child could be heard, but not found, that a thing as permanent-seeming as a wall could give way to a space in which you could be lost forever. That you could cry and cry and no one could save you. In the show, her father, with the help of their dog is able to pull her out, but the possibility of her not being found seemed just as probable. I’d read my daddy’s books on the paranormal and supernatural, books with lingo that made all of it sound so scientific, crop circles created by aliens, demonic possessions and ghosts driving people from their homes. In them were unexplained disappearances too, people vanishing into thin air just around a bend or within feet of others nearby. It was probable. A little girl could vanish on a street in the middle of the afternoon. Her last good thoughts, her last good feelings, what were they?—before she entered this gap in time, this portal only as wide as an opened car door.
Lester Parmenter and Richard Pruett, both homicide detectives, knelt in the dirt, carefully digging out the body of Virginia Helms. She was found in a shallow grave just four miles and thirty days from where she disappeared. A couple out looking for pinecones in a wooded area near the University of North Florida came upon her body. Wearing only a blouse, she’d been shot through the head with a .22 caliber bullet. The two detectives, both fathers of little girls near the age of Virginia, similar in physicality, didn’t speak aloud what they were thinking, but only looked at each other knowingly as they removed the little girl’s body with as much gentleness as they could from where she was left so carelessly. Somewhere in the world was a person who shot her. A person who removed her clothes, who made a vague attempt at burying her and who perhaps went about their life the next day as though nothing extraordinary had happened. Going to work, buying groceries, eating a meal, sharing small talk with the man at the gas station, maybe even chatting about the little girl gone missing.
After Virginia’s body was removed, the bulldozers and dozens and dozens of volunteers set in looking for more bodies. The search, though futile, heartened Jean Schoen’s mother, who felt that it gave her hope that her daughter was still alive. When no other bodies were found in the mile area, the search for all of the girls ended.
It was nearly three years later when picnickers on Ft. George Island in Jacksonville discovered Rebecca Greene’s skeleton. Identified from a skull x-ray that had been made a few years before she died, her cause of death could not be correctly determined. None of her bones were broken; it’s assumed she was strangled or stabbed.
The bodies of Lillian and Mylette were never found. In October of 1974 a serial killer from Jacksonville, John Paul Knowles, confessed on tape to kidnapping two little girls from the same area the Anderson sisters lived. He believed they saw him ditch a stolen car and since the girls were acquainted with his mother, he felt they might have been able to identify him. He murdered them, he said, and dumped their bodies somewhere off of Commonwealth Avenue. An exhaustive search was made but their bodies were never found; however, law enforcement still believed he was responsible for their deaths.
No trace of Jean Marie Schoen has ever been found.
There were no clues left behind at any of the crime scenes. There were never any real suspects along the way. There was no connection that could be made between any of the disappearances. And so I look elsewhere for answers. I can tell you the movies that played throughout the summer and into the fall of 1974 in our local theaters. I’ve played and replayed the songs popular during those five months. I make note of the TV shows, of the pernicious political climate, as though the culture of that summer could offer up some clue today. It doesn’t. I’ve examined the weather patterns at the time, for reasons I can’t explain, the highs and lows, looking for danger in the atmosphere, in the stifling humidity that turns some people mean. Or perhaps the relentless afternoon storms meant something, the difference between the positive charges above and the negative ones below becoming so great resistance breaks down and lightening, powerful and indiscriminate, jumps that divide, lets loose in the world and then disappears. But that is an analogy and not an answer. What I’m left with is that there were men (I suspect they were men, at least), who did these things and then moved on from our city to do these things again in other places. Or there were men who lived here, perhaps who live here still, who in a moment of weakness and opportunity succumbed to their basest secret selves and then went about their lives, not sorry enough for what they’d done to confess, but perhaps sorry enough to not do it again. But wouldn’t it be better if it were just something in the air that summer? Something beyond the rancid smell of paper mills that billowed noxious smoke into the sky and toxic runoff into the river, something that affected their senses, that hovered over the city for three months and then moved on? But that wasn’t the case, would never be the case. Children continued to disappear occasionally. And abductions were attempted. And are attempted still.
I was told as a child, one should never give voice to their fears, because the devil will hear you and use what you say against you. If that statement could be true in any way, then it’s a good thing Lester Parmenter never voiced to his partner what he was thinking as they dug up Virginia’s body with so much care on that cool October evening in 1974. His own daughter was almost the victim of a kidnapping in early 1978 when a man attempted to pick up the thirteen-year-old as she waited for her brother in the rain at the K-Mart parking lot across from her junior high school. When her brother pulled up and approached the disheveled and incoherent man, he jumped in his white van and drove off. The siblings followed him and wrote down the license tag number. It would later aid in the man’s conviction, but it would be a conviction for the brutal murder of a little girl, Kimberly Leach, who was kidnapped from her junior high school in Lake City the day after this attempt in Jacksonville. The man had already murdered two sorority girls at Florida State University and was suspected of numerous other killings in five other states as well. The man, of course, was Ted Bundy.
Of this I am certain: my bike was yellow and it was a Sears Free Spirit boys’ ten-speed. I liked the look of the boys’ bikes over the girls’. The handlebars and seat were black. I am also certain that the evening I was approached by a man in a van was a school night in 1977. I’d either been at my friend Monica’s house who lived on Java Drive, two streets over, and I was riding home because it was getting close to dinner time, or maybe I was just riding around the neighborhood; regardless, I am certain I was coming down Indies Drive East when he pulled up beside me. I am not certain of the van’s color. In my mind it is white, but the vans are always white, aren’t they, in these scenarios? It was a commercial van, though, not a conversion van, of that I am certain as well. It pulled up beside me and the man inside asked me to stop; he needed directions, he said. I did stop—it would have been unthinkable for me not to, because he was an adult, I was a child, and that fact overrode everything else. It’s just how I was raised. The man asked me to get off my bike. I’m not certain what he looked like. In my mind there is a face, but I suspect it’s a conglomeration of the various creepy characters who proliferated the many detective shows I watched nightly. He needed directions, he told me again, would I come around to his side, he was having trouble hearing me. I got off my bike, wheeled it around to the driver’s side and when I moved toward him, of this I am most certain: I saw his face change. It was as though I took a turn at a game and blundered horribly and suddenly he was winning and knew it. I got scared then and that fear overrode obedience and I jumped on my bike and peddled in front of the van and up on the sidewalk and around the corner until I was on my street and I powered up over the easement, into my yard, and dumped my bike under a cedar tree right by the driveway, not bothering with the kickstand, just letting the front wheel spin there in the air as I ran to the front porch. He stopped for a moment and then drove away as I went inside. I didn’t tell my parents, expecting that either they’d no longer let me ride my bike through the neighborhood alone or worse, tell me I was making more of the situation than it merited, that he probably really was just asking me for directions. I don’t remember details from dinner that night, though it was likely similar to other evenings, all of us sitting in our respective places, my father complaining that the tea was too sweet or not sweet enough, my mother getting up and down to get things he wanted—apple jelly for the biscuits, more gravy, the fork he preferred. He may have been in a good mood and recited sections of “The Killing of Dan McGrew.” Or maybe he was sullen and we watched reruns of Star Trek on the TV that could be easily seen from our small dining room. But on this I’m clear: I was fearful the man would come back for me. I looked out the window of my bedroom that night repeatedly before sleep finally came or my sister, perhaps, finally told me to knock it off with the up and down before she told on me. Another certainty—I left my bike there by the driveway all night and all the next day until my father came home and scolded me for it. I remember standing there while he called me irresponsible, asking me why I cared so little about my possessions. But I wasn’t allowed to answer. This is how it was when he yelled at me; I would stand there, head bowed and take it until he was finished and I was excused to go to my room to cry. But this time while he looked down on me, his dark brown eyes, his whole presence bearing down on me, as he fussed and fussed, I met his gaze. What is wrong with you? Why in God’s name would you leave your bike out there all night long where just anyone could come by and take it and that would be the end of that? I didn’t say anything, would never say anything, but I looked up at him, my small body bearing the weight of his temper, flush with all I knew and him talking to me as though I knew nothing at all.
Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.