Child abuse takes many ghostly forms and has a multiplicity of fathers. I can still remember, decades later, the one time I was enticed by an older man and how the awful hauntings of that dungeon-like experience still threaten me today.
The older man was a popular entertainer in my hometown. He was probably 40 years older than me at the time and he’d always been a supporter of mine as I worked as a stage actor and a television performer. I’d known him for five years.
One day, he invited me over to his house for “thinly sliced ham, croissants and strawberries with rough sugar.” As a Midwestern boy, the idea of thinly sliced anything was a curiosity in itself because bigger was always considered better. I accepted his invitation.
The guy came over to my house early one Saturday morning — I was too young to drive — and we drove over to his sophisticated house in the right neighborhood. His backyard was the country club golf course.
The plan was, as I understood it, to eat breakfast together and “go over my resume” to try to better position my talent in the marketplace for future employment.
When we arrived at his home, I was surprised his wife wasn’t there. She was “out running errands.” He then excused himself and returned dressed in a red satin robe and choking down two fingers of whiskey in a beveled glass.
We sat down, ate our thin breakfast — I didn’t make eye contact with him wearing that ridiculous robe — and he took a cursory look at my resume and then invited me downstairs to his basement to look at some older resumes of his he had on file.
As we descended the staircase together, the pit of my stomach turned a bit — I blamed it on the rough sugar and thin ham I’d just eaten — and I saw that I couldn’t see very well. His basement was dungeon-like and musty and dark.
We sat down on the couch and I yelped as something wet and furry brushed my naked leg.
“That’s the dog,” he said. “She’s blind. Don’t worry if she bumps into you. She’s looking for the stairs to go outside.”
The faint smell of wet animal permeated the room and encircled me as I began to wonder what I was doing there.
“You want some pot?” He looked at me with dripping, earnest, eyes.
“Uh, sure.” I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t want to seem like a bad guest even though I’d never smoked anything a day in my life. “But aren’t we here to look at your resumes?”
He nodded and pulled a pipe and a bag of weed out of the folds of his satin robe. He began packing sticky greens into the pipe bowl. He struck a match on the coffee table and took deep breaths of the sweet smoke.
Then he handed me the smoky monstrosity.
I didn’t know how to use a pipe so, as I watched his eyes close and his body go limp, I pretended to inhale. I imitated holding my breath as he had.
After a few minutes of me sitting there on one end of the couch, I handed the pipe back to him.
He smiled at me, spread his legs a big and revealed a growing erection that was starting to lift the folds of his satin robe.
Alarms were going off in my head. I was instantly sickened and scared — but I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I wondered how I’d get home. It was too far to walk.
Everything became a blur as I decided to stay within myself. If he touched me, I vowed to myself, I would clobber him and run up the stairs and out the door and never go home again.
For now, I reasoned at that time, he was in his own world, and as long as he stayed there, I would be fine. I felt like I was in a dream. I imagined various scenarios for my escape.
He asked me questions. His breath was tinged with whiskey and the smoky sweetness of that swirling weed.
I refused to answer. I would not look at him. I was relying purely on twitch reflex and sensory perception, and if he “violated” the bubble of my private space, I would attack him.
I used that extrasensory ability to track the movement of his blind dog in the dark — she was still roaming in circles looking for the stairs. I wanted to make sure if I had to make a quick exit that I would not stumble over her.
The next thing I knew, we were walking back up the stairs. Behind me, he said, “See? I didn’t touch your dick.”
It was then I was snapped out of my protective haze and the fury began to build. I hadn’t imagining anything, even though I sort of convinced myself I had. Every awful thing I’d been thinking about him was true. I re-named him “Dungeon Man” to never forget the experience.
He changed back into street clothes and drove me home. We sat in complete silence. I leapt from his car and ran inside the house. I never saw him again. I didn’t tell anyone what happened because, I reasoned, nothing had really happened.
I also knew if I told anyone — including my family — I would be ostracized and not believed because that man was famous and “important” and a “member of society” and to question his morality, even privately, was just not done. You just avoided future interaction and you let the past rest in the past.
Several years later, a childhood friend of mine — who was older and living in Los Angeles — and I, happened to have a discussion about our shared local roots and common entertainment interests, and the topic of “Dungeon Man” came up.
I told my friend what happened that day in the basement.
He sat there and stared at me in disbelief.
I told him it really happened.
He gathered his thoughts and said, “The same thing happened to me.”
It was my turn to stare in disbelief. “Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m going to confront him.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “I still have to live here with him in town. You got out. You’re safe in Los Angeles. I have to live with the reaction of your confrontation. Don’t do it.”
“I’m doing it.” My friend was getting upset. “We can’t let him do this to anyone else.”
“He doesn’t do anything, right? He just hopes for something to happen.” I didn’t sound very convincing. I relented, “If you do it, fine, just don’t use my name.”
“He needs to be stopped. Yes, I’m using your name, or there’s no point.”
“Don’t use my name! Confront him on your own.” I was yelling. “How will you stop him? Call him on the phone and tell him… what?”
“I’ll tell him I know what he is. I’ll tell him there are no more secrets. I have to use your name to make it more than just me.”
“Better not use my name.” I was getting uncomfortable because — in our town, at that time — the accuser was guilty by default and the accused was always presumed innocent in the court of public opinion unless proven otherwise with undeniable photographic proof.
“There’s no point to it,” I said, calmer now. “He’s untouchable.” I pulled on my coat and went home to prepare for the worst. My friend and I stayed in touch, but we never again discussed the matter.
Several months passed and I didn’t get a phone call from “Dungeon Man” and nothing appeared in the newspaper or in rumors on the street. It seemed as though my friend had decided to not confront the man because if he had, I would’ve known about it, even if he didn’t use my name.
A couple of years passed and I happened to read a small article in the local newspaper that “Dungeon Man” had been arrested in a local pornography store for exposing himself to other customers.
I picked up the phone and read the entire story to my friend’s answering machine in Los Angeles.
Five minutes later, my friend called me back hollering with joy and we celebrated together that the old man was finished and he would no longer be able to prey on anyone else again.
He was finished in society. He was through in the community.
My friend told me he decided not to confront the guy because he understood that the blame and all the ramifications of his actions would be put on me because I was the one left behind.
I thanked him for that consideration, and together we selfishly prayed that no one else had been touched between his getting caught with his pants down in public and our decision to not confront him.
A couple of years later, “Dungeon Man” died — and while I felt incredibly happy that his evil life was finished — I was still residually angry that he had stolen some of my childhood joy and the evidence of that suffocating, secretive, blasphemy against the purity of the innocent human spirit is proven right here before your eyes decades after the fact.
The old man is still with me. He’s right there — still suffocating me with a sickly, sweet, smokiness — and a blind dog still looking for a way out.