We Are Afraid

“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited….It is a climate closing in; it is like the fog in San Francisco….It is a mood which one carries around with himself, distilled from the acrid conflict with which his days are surrounded.”    —  Howard Thurman Jesus and the Disinherited

“I was afraid of him. I knew he’d kill me. So I left him, changed my name, went to a totally different city. He found me a month later and buried me alive. I don’t know how long —” Peggy says, her tone matter-of-fact.

“Like in a box? Underground?” I interrupt to check my ears.

“In a box underground,” she replies, pausing to wipe her eyes. “By the time that he finally started digging me up, and asked me before he opened the box if I was going to obey him, I had scratches all over my neck and arms, trying to get my veins out to end it.”

Peggy and I are sitting outside the local food co-op in Bloomington, Indiana, drinking coffee on a warm September morning. We’re quite familiar with one another, but I’m not sure you could call us friends. Peggy moved into the guest room in my family’s house about a month ago. So while we live together we still don’t know each other very well. It is normal for us — me, my husband and our two young children — to live with someone who would otherwise be homeless. It’s part of what we do as members of the Bloomington Catholic Worker community (BCW). But it is not normal for me to spend an hour listening to a guest talk about her fears. I’m thinking now that it should be.

Peggy was raised by her grandparents on a farm in southern Indiana. She was a scrawny girl who was frequently picked on. “They put gum in my hair,” she recalls. “Just mean kids. My sister always took up after me, but we were always molested until I was sixteen.”

At fifty-one, Peggy is petite but muscular, assertive and sweet. She calls the cashier at the co-op, “youngin’” and me, “honey.” Her long, curly hair has been dyed the red of fallen leaves, but the roots show the gray of stress. I’m envious of her energy: though she comes home after a full day of volunteering at the day shelter and weeding the garden at the Peer Recovery Center, she will still take up a broom and whisk away the dirt from our living room floor. Staying busy and helping people is one of the ways she copes.

“What’s your biggest fear?” I ask as I glance around at the other tables, aware that her voice carries. Peggy doesn’t seem to notice. She keeps her gaze on me.

“My biggest fear is Kent getting out of prison in a little under six months. I still have my nightmares, where I can smell the dirt. Thank goodness I haven’t woke up screaming in your house yet! That’s one of my biggest fears because that’s something I can’t get out of. So now I’m carrying a flashlight, a lighter, a knife on me at all times because honestly if that ever happens to me again, I will probably slit my throat.”

“How do you build back up after something like that?” I ask.

“A lot of prayer. A lot of faith. A lot of talking to caseworkers, psychiatrists,” Peggy says. She puts her hands around her coffee cup. Her pale blue eyes are wide, and she grins. “That’s why I’ve always watched scary movies, like Criminal Minds. Believe it or not, you can watch someone be in a situation and watch that show and try to figure out how to get out of it before you get in it.”

Peggy’s imagined, again and again, what might happen if Kent gets paroled and comes looking for her. She’s contemplated carrying around a small shovel, to dig herself up, and a gun for protection. “After everything I’ve been through, I will go down fighting before I give up.”

Yes you will, I think. I’m right there with her: I imagine myself pummeling her ex. But the truth is I have not been formed by fear the way Peggy has. I know I’d just collapse into a heap on the floor.

I know this because just the other night, a stranger paced the sidewalk outside our house screaming obscenities. When I pulled back the shade, he saw me and started to approach the house. My heart quickened. I locked the doors and windows and went to Peggy’s room.

“Peggy,” I asked, “do you know that guy?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said.

“Is that your ex?” I asked.

“No way. He’s still in prison. I was hoping you knew him.”

“Nope,” I said, peeking out the window again. The guy was gone.

“I’ll see if I can find him,” Peggy said, pulling on her hoodie.

“You sure?” I asked. I was not about to chase down an angry stranger.

“Yeah. I’m not afraid.” She slipped out into the night and walked the block, but we never found out who he was.

By Laura Lasuertmer for The Poplar Grove Muse, excerpted from a piece originally published in Geez Magazine #48.

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