(Listen to me recount this strange episode of my life, or read about it below.)
The guy was weird, but I’d seen weirder.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was nothing overt about the vibe he gave off. Average height, average looks, conservatively dressed, no visible piercings or tattoos, which in the mid-nineties weren’t yet as mainstream as nowadays.
I was your stereotypical Gen-X slacker, a journalism school drop-out working retail. I’d worked up in my illustrious career from the service desk at Walmart to the accessories department at a high-end department store. So yeah, I’d definitely seen weirder.
He’d wandered over from the shoe department, next door to where I was stocking and selling purses that cost almost as much as my college tuition. He had a question about shoes. I craned my neck to see where the shoe sales guy had gotten to, and when I couldn’t see him, offered to track him down.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’d like your help.”
That’s probably where the weird vibe started.
Despite my protestations that shoes weren’t my department, he insisted. He was shopping for his niece, he said. He liked the shoes I was wearing, and knew she would like them, too. Since my tastes ran similar to hers, maybe I could help him pick out a pair.
That sounded reasonable. I offered to go with him to the shoe department. But he had more questions about my own shoes. Where did I get them? Were they comfortable? How much did they cost? How well were they made?
Reader, they were from Payless. That store did not pay me enough to actually buy my shoes there.
I patiently explained all of this to him and tried to direct him back to the shoe department, but he didn’t want to go. He stood firmly planted, staring hard at my feet while he grilled me about my $15 faux-leather mary janes. Did I need to wear hosiery with them? What kind? Did we sell that here?
And then he asked me to take off my shoes so he could see how my hose were designed.
“Oh look,” I said, “there’s the shoe salesman. He can take it from here. I need to help this lady at the purse counter.”
Never have I been happier to see a fussy-looking customer walk up to my counter. After a solid half-hour of showing her different handbags, the purported shoe shopper had gone. I shrugged him off as a weird customer, got busy, and forgot all about him.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks. I had rotated from the purse counter to the jewelry counter. I was covering it alone that night, which meant when the phone rang, I answered it.
He said he was a student from the local community college, majoring in fashion design. He was doing a survey on workplace fashion. Did I have time to answer some questions?
It was a slow night. I was bored. I said sure.
He proceeded to ask about my outfit. Not in a creepy, “What are you wearing” kind of way, but questions along the lines of, what’s your style? What brands do you wear? Where do you shop? Nothing that raised alarms. Not even when he asked me to describe my outfit.
That is, until we got to my footwear. Which he spent a lot of time on and had a lot of questions about. Questions that sounded vaguely familiar.
It was only when he asked me to slip off my shoes and describe how my feet looked in my hose that I recognized the voice. I promptly ended the call, and spent the rest of the night thoroughly weirded out.
He called again a week later. Same ruse. I told him I couldn’t help him and asked him not to call me again. He asked if we could meet so he could see my work clothes. I said absolutely not and hung up.
More time passed. There were no more calls. I was back in the purse department.
And there he was.
Same story, except this time it was his grandma he was shopping for. I’d been so helpful last time, maybe I could help him again.
No, I said, I couldn’t. I had customers in my own department who needed help, and the shoe associates were right over there and would be happy to help him out. I walked away.
He did not go to the shoe department. Instead, he left the store.
Weeks passed. I had told my co-workers about the guy. None of them had had similar encounters, and they all thought it was weird but funny enough to give them all a good laugh. “These things only happen to you, Jean,” they said, smiling and shaking their heads.
There had been no more phone calls, and he hadn’t shown up again in the store. I figured he’d moved on.
Things got busy, and I forgot about the guy.
Until, that is, one of my co-workers came up to me with a knowing smile. “Your boyfriend’s here.”
I blinked at her. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Well, that guy sure must want to be your boyfriend, because he hasn’t taken his eyes off of you since he walked in.”
I turned to see where she was pointing.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who she was pointing at.
He saw me see him, ducked his head, and ran to the escalator, disappearing up to the second floor.
“That’s the guy,” I told my co-worker.
“The weird guy who keeps coming in and calling me and asking me to take my shoes off.”
“Really? That’s him?”
Her gaze wandered to the escalator. Just then, the phone rang. She went to answer it. A moment later, she held the phone out. “It’s for you.”
“Who is it?”
“Someone with a hosiery question. They say you’ve helped them before.”
I got on the phone. “May I help you?”
“I need some pantyhose, but I have some questions,” said the caller, in a voice that sounded exactly like a young man doing a bad impression of an old woman.
“Just a moment,” I said. Placing him on hold, I told my co-worker, “It’s him!”
“Are you serious?”
“Go upstairs and see if he’s using the payphone.”
She went. I picked up the phone and kept “her” talking. The questions were the same as before, escalating quickly to asking me to describe in detail what my feet looked like in hosiery. And then the caller abruptly hung up. A moment later, the guy ran down the escalators and out of the store.
My co-worker came right behind him. “It was him! He was on the phone upstairs! He hung up when he saw me.”
It was she who called security, because though I was creeped out, I was too young and naive to be as frightened as I probably should have been, and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.
The security guard was an off-duty cop. He took me in a back room and sat me down and had me tell him everything. He absolutely thought it was a big deal. He ordered me not to leave the store at the end of my shift without calling him to walk me to my car, and told me to call security immediately if the guy showed up or called again.
And as he walked me to my car that evening, he gave me detailed instructions for what to do if I was being followed.
By the time the cop saw me safely off, he had me thoroughly scared. All of this happened not long after the X-Files episode “Irresistible” had aired, the one with Donnie Pfaster. You know, the ultra-creepy serial killer who kept the hair and nails of his victims as trophies. As I drove home that night, fast as I dared, constantly checking my rear-view mirror, visions of my dismembered feet displayed on a trophy shelf swam through my head.
I’m happy to report that my feet are still attached to my ankles, and I never saw or heard from my foot stalker again. I left that job soon after all this happened. That wasn’t the primary reason, but it was certainly a factor.
I have no idea why this guy singled me out, and I don’t want to know. I also have no idea what became of him, or what he got up to after all of that. There was never anything in the news about bodies turning up without their feet, so hopefully he never escalated to anything creepier than attempting to con unsuspecting women into taking their shoes off for him.
As far as I know, at least, he didn’t end up like this guy, who actually did keep the foot of at least one of his victims (language warning; disturbing crimes against women warning):
More info on the shoe fetish killer. (Not a pleasant read.)
And at least I didn’t end up in this kind of situation:
So I guess I’m making inroads into podcasting, after kicking ideas around for well over a year. Besides narrating the above anecdote, last Friday I delivered an audio version of my weekly writing report. Here it is if you missed it.
My Working Writer newsletter is off to a good start. So far we’ve covered ways to monetize your online writing, how to start building your freelance portfolio, and a roadmap to a sustainable writing career. This week we’re going to start a deep dive into pitching and querying to find work that pays well. And speaking of podcasts, I’m getting ready to add a more official podcast to that publication—where the newsletter covers the practical how-to side of building a writing business, the podcast will focus more on the things that hold us back, make us feel stuck, and keep us from pursuing our writing dreams—or from simply getting started.
If you’re not reading my Friday updates, you might be happy to learn that Desolation of the Damned is at the half-way point, and I’m on track to finish it by the end of March. If all goes well, it should hit stores in early July.
By the way, Deliverance of the Damned has not yet had a single review. I don’t have to tell you guys how crucial reviews are to a book’s discoverability. If you’ve read it, could you please take a minute to at least leave a star rating? And if you haven’t reviewed it because you didn’t like it, that’s also helpful information for me to know. Here’s the link for Amazon, and here it is on Goodreads. Thanks for your help!
Here’s a quick round-up of all the Friday links I shared last month:
This introvert anthem sung by a friend’s incredibly talented daughter
BONUS! Here’s an old dog video that never gets old:
Current read: Stone of Fire by J.F. Penn
Welp, that’s all for the March issue, folks! With Daylight Savings Time starting next weekend and the official start of spring only weeks away, I hope you get all the sleep you need and all the sunshine you crave.
Until next time,