You think you know what a case of “the willies” feels like? You touched a snake once, or saw a big spider outside your house, or thought some wild animal was following you during a hike through the woods? That was nothing. Let me tell you about a real case of the willies.
So there I was, minding my own business…
One night I was on patrol with my then-partner, a young female officer with extra training on how to handle psychiatric patients. I was older and had more years as a cop than she did. But this was right after I came home from the UN Police Mission in Kosovo, and I had to go back through the hiring process, field training and probation to get my job back. So I was this younger, less-experienced officer’s rookie. We got along well, and still do.
Anyway, we got dispatched to a call. Someone reported a problem with a family member who had psychiatric problems. This sounded like a job for SuperPsychOfficer Woman, so away we went.
We arrived at a small apartment and were invited inside. The complex was typical for the neighborhood we worked in. Small, shabby, run-down, full of trash and broken down cars, gang graffiti, the works. The apartment itself was in pretty rough condition, with rotting wood, food-caked bowls and plates strewn around, and furniture falling apart. It had worn out grey carpet and faded white walls. One light bulb barely illuminated the front room. I suspected parts of the apartment we couldn’t see were in worse shape. But I’d been in homes way dirtier than that, even some that had maggots all over the kitchen counters. My impression of this apartment was that it belonged to a poor family struggling to keep it livable.
An extended family, mostly adult women and one young man, lived in this apartment. One of the women brought the young man out and explained the problem: he wasn’t violent or threatening, nothing like that. But gosh darn it, he wouldn’t stop fondling himself in front of everyone.
No, this wasn’t what gave me the willies.
By this time in my career, I had been a cop for about eight years. I had handled a few odd situations involving people who had, I suppose, odd sexual habits. One memorable night I listened to a guy frantically explain to me about the collection of Barbie dolls he used for stimulation. Another guy would drive his prostitute wife around to meet her Johns. So I understood that people do unusual stuff. Besides, who am I to judge some guy on his weird urges? My wife accuses me of being a pervert every time I ask her to. . . well, nevermind. The point is, I’m no angel myself. And hey, everyone needs a hobby. Once you find something you’re good at, you should stick with it. So my gut reaction was to tell the guy to shut the bedroom door, then feel free to abuse himself until he had 3rd degree burns.
But still, this call was a new one for me. So I stepped back and let my partner work her magic. My partner and the young man, who I’ll call Steve, began one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever heard.
“Steve, you can’t masturbate in front of everyone.”
“Why not? Sometimes I just got to.”
“Well. . . if you need to, that’s fine. But it’s inappropriate to do it in front of everyone.”
“That ain’t my fault. If they don’t want to see, they need to leave the room.”
As this went back and forth, I stood behind my partner checking out the apartment, watching the other family members, and thought about the Flintstones or something to get my mind off what I was hearing. The situation was very calm and there wasn’t a threat to me or my partner, so I had time to check out the details of the apartment. Stained, torn curtains, bent and broken Venetian blinds. Soiled clothes in the hall. A scent of decay in the air.
As I looked over the apartment, I caught a detail I hadn’t noticed when we first walked in. One of the white walls, the one I was standing closest to, was painted with something like white glitter paint. It didn’t look bad, just odd, something you don’t expect in an apartment like that. I was a few feet away from the wall, and stepped in for a closer look.
The wall was painted with tiny brownish-gold flecks. Had the kids done that? No, little kids wouldn’t paint the entire wall with glitter paint. But glitter just didn’t fit with the rest of the apartment. The walls were old and faded. Glitter paint was, at least in my mind, something new. If the walls had been painted with glitter, they wouldn’t look so old.
Behind me, my partner made a desperate attempt to convince a grown man to change his masturbation habits. He dug his heels in and refused. I half expected him to do it right there in front of her, just to prove a point. But their problems didn’t concern me much. I was busy trying to figure out this glitter paint thing. I moved closer, until my nose was about two inches from the wall, and squinted at the glitter.
I still couldn’t make it out well, the room was too dark. But by this time I was committed to uncovering the truth. So I took out my flashlight and lit up the wall.
In the circle of high-intensity light, I saw a cluster of dull gold specks. The glitter in this paint was just a tiny bit bigger than the average glitter flake. It seemed thicker too. I moved my head back to get a wider view. And that’s when I realized the glitter flecks were moving.
They were little tiny roaches. I jerked back. My circle of light expanded, and I saw that there were dozens of them per square foot. I stepped away from the wall. The entire wall was covered with them. I turned around and lit up the other walls. Rip the Jacker, his family members and my partner were too engrossed in the anti-masturbation campaign to notice what I was doing. Or I was too engrossed in what I had just seen to notice them staring at me.
Every wall was covered with tiny roaches, from top to bottom, left side to right side. I backed up toward the middle of the room, as far from the walls as I could get.
I still didn’t freak out. I had just seen something perturbing, but I was in control. My concerns at that time were to one, keep the roaches off me, and two, tell my partner about this. I waited for a break in the conversation so I could tell her.
Then a thought struck me. This rogue thought told me to check a certain direction for a threat. I’m going to blame a science fiction movie I saw back in the 80’s for it. You may realize which movie I’m referring to in a few seconds. If you don’t figure it out, my hint is that it’s got Aliens in it.
Ensuring I didn’t make any sudden movements that would draw the roach colony’s attention, I pointed my flashlight upward. Then I slowly tilted my head back and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling. When my eyes and light were facing the same direction, I turned the light on. The ceiling was covered with thousands of tiny roaches. At any moment, countless roaches could have dropped from the ceiling onto us. They were probably all over me already.
I didn’t say a word to my partner. She was busy saving a young man from mortal sin. I turned around and walked out the open apartment door. Outside, I had a bona fide, no joke, for real, weak knees and fluttering stomach, heart in your throat attack of the willies.
From the courtyard, where to my relief the only danger was being shot by a gangster instead of eaten by roaches, I turned around to make sure my partner was in no danger. She wasn’t only safe, she was oblivious, and probably better off that way.
I remember a lot of details about that incident, but I don’t think I ever told her about the roaches. I do recall her giving me a strange look when we were back in the car. That was probably because I looked like I had just had an aneurysm and wasn’t running my mouth like I normally did.
And the moral of this story? There is none. I bet Steve’s fists were proudly flying before we left the parking lot.
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