Transcript

318:

With Great Power
Transcript

Originally aired 10.06.2006

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Back when the movie Schindler's List came out, I was friends with these two missionaries. They worked with Chicago gang kids who they would meet in prison and try to bring to God. Anyway, one day I got a call from them. They just had seen Schindler's List, and they wanted to talk about it because, you know, call your Jewish friend. They'd seen Schindler's List, and I was their Jewish friend.

Anyway, so we got together. And what they said was, first of all, "We think we understand you better now thanks to Schindler's List.." And I think what that was about was they knew about the Holocaust, of course, before this. But it was more of a kind of a historical fact like you read about in a book. The reality of what happened in the Holocaust I don't think ever had really hit them. The emotional reality of it just hadn't hit them in the gut-- all those people dying.

So we got together, and we talked about it. And they said the scene that touched them most was at the end of the film. And if you've seen Schindler's List, it's the scene after the war. And it's this rich guy, Schindler, who had been using his money during the war to save Jews from dying in concentration camps. And he realizes that now that the war is over, he could have saved so many more people. He still had money he hadn't used. He could have saved more people. And there's a scene where he goes from person to person saying stuff like, "I could have sold this pin and saved two more Jews. It's gold. Or this car."

(SUBJECT) OSKAR SCHINDLER: This car. What good would have bought this car? Why did I keep the car? 10 people right there.

So we're talking about this scene, and my friends, Jane and Glen, the missionaries, say this thing that totally surprised me. They said, "That's us. That's our daily life, that scene. That's our life." This Saturday, for example, Glen says, he wanted to stay home and watch the ballgame on TV. But he thought to himself, "No, no. I've got to go out there, and I've got to save another kid. I've got to try to save another kid. I gotta go to the jail. I gotta go to juvie."

And they both said that at the end of their lives, it's going to be just like that scene in Schindler's List. They're going to go to heaven, and they're going to be called into account. And it's going to be, "You took this day off, and you pretended to be doing paperwork. And you could have been out there saving another kid. Or you watched the doubleheader with Cincinnati, and there was a teenager who was ready to hear your message and come to God." And they were going to be held to account.

I think before this conversation, my understanding of Jane and Glen's life was pretty much exactly like their understanding of the Holocaust. I understood in my head. I understood intellectually that they had given their lives over to serving God. I understood that as a fact. But what it actually meant had not totally penetrated me.

Jane and Glen, my friends, they were like superheroes. They had this incredible power, the power to save somebody, to bring them to God, to turn somebody's life around. And I've got to say, I met kids whose lives were completely straightened out because of them. They did a really nice job. They did save kids. And with their great power came great responsibility, a responsibility they tried really, really hard to live up to.

Well, today on our radio show, we have other people who feel that same sense of power and responsibility in their daily lives. And I'm not just talking here about judges and doctors and four-star generals and people you would expect and hope would feel the burden that comes with that amount of power. I'm talking about normal people, people you might not suspect.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, "With Great Power," are shown in three acts. Act One, Objects in Side View Mirror Are Truer Than They Appear. Act Two, Unwelcome Wagon. Act Three, Waiting for Joe. In that act, Shalom Auslander has a tale of the being with more power than any other and more responsibility. Stay with us.

Act One. Objects In Side View Mirror Are Truer Than They Appear.

Ira Glass

Act One, Objects in Side View Mirror Are Truer Than They Appear. Well, the woman in the heart of this next story has the power to change two people's lives. And the thing is, at the height of her power, she doesn't even know she has it. Alex Kotlowitz tells the story.

Alex Kotlowitz

On this one August day in 1979, Carla Dimkoff learned something which shaped the rest of her life and the life of a complete stranger. And the thing about it is it took 26 years for her to realize that.

At the time, Carla was 19 years old. She was living in a trailer home in the small town of White Cloud, Michigan, when her father, James Keller, who lived in Tennessee, showed up unannounced driving a motor home. Her father was a bit of a vagabond, someone who lived on the edge. So this surprise visit wasn't all that unusual.

Carla Dimkoff

He did this all the time. He would basically abandon my mom, and he would just take off for days at a time. And he would end up wherever he wanted in several different states. And this time, he ended back up in Michigan.

Alex Kotlowitz

Carla was kind of at loose ends herself. She'd been raising a daughter alone, and the day her father arrived, Carla had gotten married to a man she'd met just a week before. Her father gave them $20 as a wedding gift and wished them well. Then they went their separate ways for the evening. Carla and her new husband got home around 2:00 AM. But her father was still out. He stayed out most of the night.

Carla Dimkoff

When I got up the next morning-- it was fairly early. I want to say between 7:00 and 9:00, 10:00 AM. He was in the driveway. I walked outside, and I said, "Hi, where you been?" And at some point, he told me he'd been at the Lamp Lite Bar for a little while. And I was kind of puzzled because the bar is closed at 2:15 or 2:30. And I wondered where he had been the rest of the evening. And I really never got an answer to that.

Alex Kotlowitz

Even stranger was what he was doing in the driveway. He was repairing the side view mirror on his motor home.

Carla Dimkoff

It had actually been broken off, and he was putting a whole new mirror on it. And he was just doing it in such a hurry and throwing parts into his vehicle, which I thought was strange. Why throw all the junk when you're 10 feet from a dumpster into the motor home? And he was in just such a hurry about it. It just struck me odd for a minute. And the next thing I know he said, "Well, I am out of here." And he left. And I didn't speak to him probably for several months to a year.

Alex Kotlowitz

It wasn't just that Carla's was father was a drifter. That makes him seem benign. He was, by Carla's recollection, a violent man. Carla remembers once she was slurping while eating spaghetti, and he hurled the table on its side.

But it was much worse than that. When Carla turned 11, her mother told her that her father had molested a young girl. Carla tried to protect others in the family, and that brought her into direct conflict with her dad. Like one of the times he went after her mother.

Carla Dimkoff

I stepped into the middle of it, and he punched me in the jaw. And I ended up in the emergency room later that evening.

Alex Kotlowitz

And how old were you?

Carla Dimkoff

Around 16. At that point, I became afraid physically of my father and emotionally of him. And I was afraid to be alone with them after that.

Alex Kotlowitz

This is all important to know in order to understand what happened next. Shortly after Carla's dad drove out of town, Carla picked up The Times Indicator, their local newspaper, and read that on the very same night her dad didn't come home, just hours before she found him in the driveway fixing his busted side view mirror, a 19-year-old woman had been killed on a nearby road, a deep gash in her head. In the article, the sheriff said, and I quote, "We assume she was hit by an unknown vehicle, maybe by a mirror or some projection."

Carla Dimkoff

I just thought, "Oh my God." I had an overwhelming feeling that my father had killed someone, and I just needed to tell what I knew.

Alex Kotlowitz

At first, she went to her minister who urged her to go to the police, which she did the very next day. She had a friend driver her to the police station in town where she learned that the detective in charge of the case wasn't in. So she left him a note.

Carla Dimkoff

This is the letter I wrote to Detective Foster. And it says, "Mr. Foster, I would like to speak with you concerning the death of Kristy Ringler. I do not have a car. If you could possibly stop out to my house after 3:00 PM today, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Mrs. [? Terrel." ?]

That evening, there were two detectives that actually came out. They were dressed in plain clothes. They knocked on the door. They came in. I told them the whole story about my dad had been here, he had been gone all night. Gave them just a little bit of a history of my dad-- not a whole lot of history. And they were like, "OK. Well, we have this information. Thank you."

I had the feeling when they came in the door that they thought they were wasting their time. I don't even think they sat down. They stood there just kind of towering over me. And I was clearly intimidated by the whole situation, not really ever dealing with anything like this. And maybe I just made myself sound unsure.

Alex Kotlowitz

You see, Carla laid out two possible scenarios for the detectives. One, that her father accidentally struck this girl while driving home from the Lamp Lite Bar. That seemed likely given his shattered side view mirror and his eagerness to get out of town. The other? Well, she thought it was possible that her father killed Kristy Ringler on purpose. That knowing her dad, maybe he tried to flirt with Kristy at the Lamp Lite, that maybe she'd repelled his advances, and that maybe on the way home he saw her on the road and rammed her with his side view mirror. Carla now believes, though, that this speculative scenario didn't sit too well with the detectives.

Carla Dimkoff

They made me feel like a fool, like I had a grudge to grind when I was trying to get my father in trouble or something. And just this poor trailer park person.

Alex Kotlowitz

And were you conscious about living in a trailer, about being poor?

Carla Dimkoff

Very, very. I knew that wasn't the thing to do. I knew that's not where I wanted to be.

Alex Kotlowitz

So the detectives leave, and you know in your heart of hearts that your dad was somehow involved in the death of this girl. What do you do with that knowledge?

Carla Dimkoff

I bury it.

Alex Kotlowitz

When she looks back on it, this was the moment of truth. This was her opportunity to act, and she feels like she just gave up without any kind of fight. Carla ordinarily didn't back down easily, but she'd been dismissed often before. In seventh grade, she went to a guidance counselor about her dad's alleged abuse, and all the counselor did was go tell her parents. Then remember the time she ended up in the emergency room? Well, she told a doctor there that are father had punched her. Nothing came of that either. So when the detectives disregarded what she had to say, it felt familiar, like this was how it was always going to be. Her dad would elude any responsibility for what he'd done. She wasn't about to confront her father, who she feared would physically hurt her if she did. And as for the authorities--

Carla Dimkoff

The thought never occurred to me to go back to the police. I didn't want to feel that feeling again of intimidation, of just being dismissed. And that's really a selfish thought now that I think about it.

Alex Kotlowitz

The thing was though, she couldn't keep it buried, at least emotionally. She thought about it all the time-- that her father in all likelihood, accidentally or purposefully, had killed someone and that she hadn't done enough about it.

Carla Dimkoff

I had these horrible nightmares that this dead girl was walking down the street trying to chase after me. Her body's all dismembered. And I got the feeling in my dream-- God, I sound like a nut-- that she was chasing me. And I couldn't ever figure out, why are you chasing me? There's been times where I could not think about it or I would be a wreck.

Alex Kotlowitz

Can you remember a particular moment?

Carla Dimkoff

Yeah, I can remember one time driving in the car and just thinking about my life in general and all the things I had going on. And it always ends up with Kristy. And I often thought, "Oh, I could just stop thinking if I just hit that tree." Just tortured.

Detective

Taping this interview with Larry Pat Souter taking place in Newaygo County Sheriff's Department. Present at this interview is Larry Pat Souter, Deputy John Sutton, and Detective Charles Foster. Today's date is 8/27/79. The time is 15:00.

Alex Kotlowitz

Carla wasn't the only person damaged by Kristy Ringler's death. There was the Ringler family, of course. But there was also someone else, this 27-year-old truck driver named Larry Souter. The tape you just heard is a taped police interview with Larry, a wiry built man with a charming smile who liked to party. And while he didn't live in White Cloud, the night of Ringler's death he had been visiting a friend there.

Larry Souter

I don't think we drank at his house, if I remember correctly. But we went down to what they call the Lamp Lite Bar, which would have been south of town. And we'd sat there and drank maybe three hours in the bar.

Alex Kotlowitz

Larry met a woman at the Lamp Lite. It was Kristy Ringler. They caught each other's eye, and when Larry and his friend went to party down the road, there was Kristy as well.

Detective

When you got to the house, what happened?

Larry Souter

When we got to the out I went in. Joe went in. And I think I sat around for about 15 minutes. [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

She was all of a sudden on the front steps, and I went out and sat on the front steps. When I went out into the front of yard there was a tree out there. Kinda sitting set up by the tree and stuff and kind of kissing a little bit and this and that. And then she got up. And she walked off and started walking towards town, which would be back north towards White Cloud.

Alex Kotlowitz

Larry, who had a good deal to drink, says he offered to try to find her a ride. But she insisted she'd be all right. The last time Larry saw her, she was walking down the dark, two-lane road by herself. Two days after Ringler's death, the police asked Larry come down to the station for this questioning. The interview lasted an hour and 15 minutes. Larry didn't bring a lawyer. He didn't feel he had anything to hide.

Larry Souter

I've got nothing to hide.

Detective

All right, this tape's going to be terminated at 16:15 on 8/27/79.

Larry Souter

And I don't think I heard anything from them for probably 12 and 1/2 years.

Alex Kotlowitz

Larry returned to his life, driving a truck and laying gas pipes. He got married to a woman named Melody, and they thought about starting a family together. Then one day--

Larry Souter

One day I went to work-- which was November 14. And it's easy to remember because it was the day before deer season. And they came to work and they that you're under arrest for an open murder. [UNINTELLIGIBLE], that's what it was.

Alex Kotlowitz

Did you know what they were talking about?

Larry Souter

I had no clue.

Alex Kotlowitz

This was in 1992-- like Larry said, 12 and 1/2 years after Kristy Ringler's death. A new sheriff had reopened the case, and it quickly got a lot of publicity. Larry, who's quiet and reserved, felt deeply embarrassed.

Larry Souter

My name was in the paper. My face was in the paper. It's like, "Oh, my God." I mean, this is humiliation.

Alex Kotlowitz

Had you ever been arrested before?

Larry Souter

No, sir.

Alex Kotlowitz

But Larry assumed that justice would just find its way. This is Melody, his wife.

Melody Souter

They offered him a plea bargain for two to five years if he would admit he did it. And he refused to because he didn't.

Alex Kotlowitz

And did he come to you for advice?

Melody Souter

We were there together.

Alex Kotlowitz

What did you tell him?

Melody Souter

I told him, "You can't plead guilty to something you didn't do."

Alex Kotlowitz

The prosecutors argued that Larry had bludgeoned Kristy Ringler with a pint-sized bottle of Canadian club whiskey. Their key piece of evidence was the testimony by pathologists that the bottom ridge of the bottle matched Ringler's injuries. At the trial, no mention was made of Carla's note and her subsequent interview with the detectives. The Souters believe the prosecution buried it. Larry was convicted and sentenced to 20 to 60 years.

Larry Souter

My world just came right out from underneath me, in total shock. It was a nightmare, a straight up nightmare.

Alex Kotlowitz

There is, I suspect, nothing more confounding and debilitating than being sent to prison for something you didn't do. And the years behind bars had their effect on Larry as well as on his wife, Melody.

Melody had a car accident after visiting Larry in prison and lost her factory job. She had to move back home with their parents where she spent most of her time going over and over trial transcripts and police reports. She gave up the idea of ever having children.

Melody Souter

I had a hysterectomy while he was in prison.

Alex Kotlowitz

So you gave that up as well?

Melody Souter

Yep.

Alex Kotlowitz

And in the years Larry was in prison, he struggled to sustain himself, too. One of the ways he did that was to build these meticulously constructed Western scenes out of toothpicks-- log cabins, churches, saloons, covered bridges. He trimmed the toothpicks-- sometimes 2,500 of them for one model-- with a nail clipper so that they fit together with glue like cut logs. The hours upon hours spent constructing them helped keep his mind off his case.

Larry Souter

But over the years, Alex, I'll tell you what, yes, I was very, very bitter in there. But I'd just try to say to myself, just let it go. Take one day at a time.

Alex Kotlowitz

Larry and Melody believed there had to be someone out there with some knowledge about what happened that night. And so Melody, along with Larry's sister, searched and searched and searched.

Melody Souter

We made trips to look for people. We went to Newaygo County when people told us we were crazy. We could get killed. And we interviewed people, we talked to people, we did everything we could to try to find out what really happened to this girl.

Alex Kotlowitz

Of course, the person they were looking for was Carla. But they didn't know she even existed. And Carla was completely unaware of them as well. In the 26 years since Kristy Ringerl's death, Carla had gotten divorced and remarried to a college professor. She now lived a comfortable life outside Grand Rapids in a spacious A-frame home on five acres of land. Her father had died in 1999, and all she could think about afterwards was he'd gotten away with it completely. And that tore at her.

And then one day in January of last year, she picked up a newspaper and read for the very first time about Larry Souter. Melody, Larry's wife, had convinced John Smietanka, former prosecutor, to take Larry's case. A medical examiner, who had testified at Larry's trial, now believed it was unlikely Ringler's wounds were caused by a whiskey bottle.

Carla Dimkoff

I was sitting in here in this living room, and my husband was in the TV room. And I read this article about Kristy Ringler. And I'm like, "Oh, my God. Someone has been convicted of this." I'm telling you, I literally just about fell on the floor.

Alex Kotlowitz

At that moment, it hit Carla because she had held onto this knowledge about her father's probable involvement in Kristy Ringler's death, someone had been sent to prison. The very next morning she called Larry's lawyer and spoke with his associate.

Carla Dimkoff

I said to her, "You might think I'm a crazy woman or something because I'm sure you don't get these phone calls all the time. But I know this Larry Souter story that you're working on, and I reported that my dad killed that girl."

Alex Kotlowitz

They did, in fact, worry she might be a crazy person. No one had ever seen anything from the police indicating that they'd interviewed Carla. So the attorneys quickly filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and in a stack of police reports they received, they found the very note that Carla had left for Detector Foster as well as half a page of nearly indecipherable notes the detectives took from an apparent phone interview with her father.

One thing led to another, and within two months, Larry Souter got word that the authorities finally believed him. His conviction was vacated. And after 13 years and 18 days in prison, on April 1 of last year he walked out a free man. Carla at first asked the attorneys to keep her identity hidden, though that was impossible because it was such a public case. Mostly, she felt she completely failed this man, this stranger, Larry Souter.

Carla Dimkoff

I cried for a long time-- weeks.

Alex Kotlowitz

About two months after being released from prison, Larry told his lawyer that he wanted to meet Carla. So they agree to have lunch at a local Applebee's, and Carla prepared herself for Larry's fury.

Carla Dimkoff

My husband literally had to help me out of car I was trembling so much. And I knew who he was right away when he walked in. And we just both kind of collapsed in tears. I wasn't sure why he was crying, but I was just so overwhelmed with guilt that I could hardly look at him.

Alex Kotlowitz

On a recent afternoon, Larry came by to see Carla. Somewhat surprisingly, they've become friends. And in an odd twist of fate, they're both battling cancer and have helped each other out during their respective treatments. On this rainy afternoon, the two stood in the kitchen in a tight embrace. And as they held each other, Carla became overwhelmed with guilt and began to cry.

Larry Souter

It's gonna be all right.

Carla Dimkoff

I'm sorry. Sorry. I'm so sorry.

Alex Kotlowitz

Carla can't help herself. Whenever she sees Larry, she breaks down and apologizes. There was even a period of two months when Carla wouldn't return Larry's phone calls.

Carla Dimkoff

Because you can only apologize so many times, and I felt the need to do it all the time.

Alex Kotlowitz

It just seems like you're awfully hard on yourself. You've righted something, you gave somebody his freedom.

Carla Dimkoff

I didn't give Larry his freedom. What he didn't do gave him his freedom. If I was going to give him his freedom, I would have given it to him 13 years ago. And I didn't do that, and that's where I failed.

Alex Kotlowitz

But I think you're being so hard on yourself. You didn't know he was there.

Carla Dimkoff

No, but I knew what the right thing at the moment was. In my heart of hearts I knew what was happening, and I just let it go. And I don't understand a person that can do that.

Alex Kotlowitz

Here's the strange thing about all this. In certain ways, all of this has been harder for Carla to handle than for Larry. Sometimes you happen upon a moment. You'll witness something on the street. Let's say a man's threatening a woman or a parent's hitting a child, and the fate of a complete stranger rests on how you handle things. And you feel powerless to do anything. So you turn your head. You walk away. Or as in Carla's case, you try to do something but not forcefully enough. And then you resume your life though those moment stay with you.

Well, imagine if you got a second chance. Carla did, and she paid a price for getting a second shot at it. Now she's even more tormented because it really has sunk in, the kind of power she held 26 years earlier. And so she feels ashamed. Larry, though, sees it all quite differently.

Larry Souter

She's my angel.

Carla Dimkoff

That's what he calls me, his angel. Matter of fact, he brought me a gift a couple weeks ago. It's a lawn ornament, and it has--

Larry Souter

Couple angels on it.

Carla Dimkoff

Couple angels on it. And it lights up at night. I want you to know I go out in the middle of the night when I can't sleep, and I look at it.

Alex Kotlowitz

While Carla spends sleepless nights staring at her angels, remembering the past, Larry's trying to forget. Right after he got released, he and Melody built a bonfire to burn all the clothes and letters associated with his time in prison.

Not long ago as a gift, Larry gave one of his toothpick constructions to Carla. She has it displayed in her living room. It's a log cabin with a chimney, built with pebbles Larry collected from the prison yard. This, of course, is what Larry did to forget. But now Carla has it as a constant reminder.

Ira Glass

Alex Kotlowitz is the author of several books, most recently, Never a City So Real. We first broadcast this story two years ago.

Coming up, a family wishes for years for the power to defend themselves against a dangerous neighbor. And then they get it. And they have to decide if they want to use that power. Back in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Unwelcome Wagon.

Ira Glass

This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're new to this program, of course, we choose a theme, ranging from a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "With Great Power," stories about ordinary people who find themselves with these superheroes' dilemmas. With great power comes great responsibility. We've arrived at Act Two of our show.

Act Two, Unwelcome Wagon. There's a kind of a power that only means something if you don't use it. Like for example, threatening to use a nuclear weapon. This story's is about something like that. Except instead of taking place in the desolate borders of rival nations who hate to fear each other, it occurs entirely in a quiet street in the suburbs between next-door neighbors. We've changed the names of everybody you're going to hear from in the story. As we go along you'll see why.

It begins years ago with a woman, who we're going to call Betty, and her husband when they decided to move from the inner city to a quiet, suburban neighborhood. Their kids were young. At first it was great. But then their next-door neighbor decided he was going to build a fence on what he thought was the property line.

Betty

And he kept saying, "I know where the property line is. I've lived here 12 years, and I'm putting my fence on it." And my husband said, "Well, we should get a survey because our deed doesn't show it there." So we asked him to do a survey, and he refused.

Ira Glass

Here's Betty's daughter, who's now all grown up, who we'll call Julia.

Julia

So we had a survey done anyway.

Ira Glass

Of all things, the survey gave even more land to the neighbor than he thought he had, which you would think would have made him happy. But in fact, Betty and Julia say, it just made him mad because he had not waited for the survey to start building his fence. And now, thanks to the survey that he had not wanted, his yard was actually bigger. And he had to move the fence.

Betty

He was very angry. And he was going to sue us because he said we made him put his fence in the wrong place. It all started from that.

Ira Glass

And so how much of this fight was actually about the property and how much was it that he just didn't like the look of you?

Betty

I'm guessing about 10% about the property, 90% didn't like us. The word that they used often about us-- and he very often-- was, "You people ain't from here." We were just different, I guess, than--

Julia

We were liberals.

Betty

Yes.

Julia

We were liberals.

Betty

We looked different. We acted different.

Ira Glass

After that, things started happening. And they started small. One day Betty was on the phone, and she looked out the window towards the neighbor's yard. Each of the two houses had a long driveway coming back from the road, and the two driveways were nearly side by side. The neighbor's truck was in his driveway near the two houses.

Betty

I could see cigarettes being relit out in his vehicle, and I realized that he sat in his vehicle and watched us.

Julia

So he watched us for hours into our living room, which had these big picture windows.

Betty

And I can't think of anything more boring than watching us, but he did.

Julia

Especially after we got cable.

Betty

That was the beginning.

Ira Glass

Wait, so he would just sit there for hours. You guys are like, coming in and out of the family room with a bowl of popcorn. You sit in front of the TV, and you're like, that's what he--

Betty

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Betty

And we didn't go to anybody, because he can sit out in his truck if he wants to. It's a little strange.

Ira Glass

At first they figured he would just lose interest and stop. But he didn't stop. Other things started happening. They got prank calls. For a while, every time they sat down to dinner they got a call. Their license plate disappeared. The lights outside their house were shot out with a BB gun. They called the cops, only to be told that if they wanted to go to case, they needed to capture the crimes on videotape, which they tried to do. And more interesting than anything else, every time they left the house it seemed like the neighbor was waiting for them.

Julia

We could not go outside without some interaction, without him yelling or insulting us in some way.

Ira Glass

And what would he yell?

Betty

Oh, well, to me, it was always the same.

Ira Glass

OK, wait just a minute. Stop the tape right there. A real quick warning to listeners, a nice Southern lady is about to get a little salty.

Betty

Oh, well, to me it was always the same. "Get your ugly old ass out here. You ugly old bitch. You old bitch shouldn't be on this earth." To my husband it would be, "You ain't no man. There's nothing to you. You're worthless. You let your wife wear the pants in the family."

Julia

And he sat there with popcorn, watching us and mocking us and saying, "All y'all are putting on a big show. Y'all want some popcorn?" And offered it to my dad.

Ira Glass

Wait, and what were you all doing?

Julia

Just going into the garage, maybe to get a bike or to get some old furniture out from storage.

Ira Glass

It's such a commitment to messing with you.

Betty

Yes, it was his life.

Ira Glass

One morning they woke up to find this neighborly greeting-- the words bitch and whore literally carved into the lawn in giant block letters. One set was up by the house, the other set, down by the curb.

Betty

And they were done with some type of very strong weed killer.

Julia

That would last year.

Betty

Yeah, we would either have to have them dug out and dig down like two feet or they were going to be there for a year. They were there for a year.

Ira Glass

And so people would drive by your house for a year, and the word whore would be down on the lawn?

Julia

The bus would pick me up for school in eighth grade, and it would be there. No one would say anything, though.

Betty

There was also a picture we interpreted to be a dog doing an obscene act with a woman.

Ira Glass

You mean he drew it on the lawn?

Betty

With the weed killer, yes.

Ira Glass

A dog and a woman?

Betty

Uh-huh. It was good enough that neighbors knew what it was.

Ira Glass

And did you have the feeling that the entire neighborhood was against you?

Julia

Yes.

Betty

Yes.

Ira Glass

Really, like everybody sided with him?

Betty

I don't know that I would go so far to say they sided with him, but more the feeling that "You've stirred up something in the neighborhood that we didn't want stirred up."

Julia

That we set him off somehow, and that it was our fault.

Ira Glass

They have other stories. The neighbor would play chicken with their car. He'd point his headlights into their house for hours, flash them on and off. When they went away on vacation, he would drive onto their lawn, spin the tires. When Julia's little brother went out on his bike, the neighbor would get on a bike himself sometimes and circle the little brother, lunge at him so he'd fall off. He was only eight. It was strange, they say, that somebody hated them so much.

Ira Glass

At some point, he started going after your pets?

Julia

Yeah.

Betty

This was a very emotional thing for me. We didn't tell Julia about it until this past year.

Julia

Not all the details. I was an animal lover as a kid.

Betty

She was.

Julia

I always took home the cat on the side of the road. And I had a little black cat named Phoenix, and he killed it.

Ira Glass

He killed it?

Betty

One day we found Phoenix beside the fence, but just pushed through the bottom of the fence on our property. And if you looked across his driveway at the end of this house, there was a big metal baseball bat leaning against the house. Well, by that time we had attorneys. And they said, "Take the cat and have it autopsied." And we did, and it had been killed by two blows to it. But that was a part of him. He not only killed the cat, but he wanted you to know how he did it. And by leaving the bat, we knew what happened.

Julia

He had left it out by the driveway for me to find while I waited for the school bus, but it was a snow day that day. So my parents were the ones who found it.

Ira Glass

And so did you not find out about it for years later?

Julia

I just knew he died.

Betty

We just couldn't tell her.

Ira Glass

They thought about moving. They even put their house on the market after the words bitch and whore had grown back in the lawn, of course. But the economy wasn't so great. The house didn't sell. So they stayed, vowing not to let the neighbor get to them, which wasn't easy. By now they were in the middle of basically an all-out war. There were restraining orders and counter-restraining orders and court charges and counter charges. By this time, both sides are videotaping each other, Betty and her husband trying over and over to get some proof that would finally incriminate the neighbor and stop him and never getting it. So that's how it went for over two years.

And then, a fateful pile of garbage dumped onto their lawn, a pile of garbage that was actually able to change the balance of power, giving Julia and Betty and their family both great power and great responsibility. The neighbor had thrown trash on their property before. Mostly little things-- cans, cigarette butts-- nothing interesting, nothing useful.

Betty

But one day we went out, and there was a whole lot of stuff. It was papers, letters, bank statements, a mortgage. They had everything about them. That series of numbers that makes us the person we are in America.

Ira Glass

You mean the social security number?

Betty

His social security number, yes. He and his wife's. I always suspected it was maybe the wife got mad at him or one of the daughters, because they were adult, young women. And actually in that pile of stuff were letters from the daughters saying, "Oh, Mom, Daddy's terrible and you're good." And personal things as well as business-type things.

Ira Glass

You photocopied a few of these and sent them to us. That's them, I have them here. They are so unbelievably personal you feel embarrassed to read them.

Betty

You do, you do.

Ira Glass

One of them starts with a sort of caveat, "I hope you never read this letter because if you do, it means that things are just very bad between us." And another one, one of the daughters sort of says, "Well, I'm writing this letter while you and Dad are fighting over some silly stuff." And it's so heartbreaking.

Betty

It is. He was so mean, and that showed what his family thought of him, how he had raised them to be, what his wife thought of him. We were a family that loved each other. We had dinner together, and we still laughed and had fun.

Ira Glass

So suddenly, you guys had his social security number and all these bank numbers and all that. And you saved it?

Betty

Yes, we have.

Julia

We have a briefcase, and it's our little treasure chest.

Ira Glass

So really, suddenly you had a tremendous leverage over him. You can really do some damage.

Betty

Right.

Ira Glass

Did you think about it?

Betty

Oh, yes. We talked about it.

Ira Glass

What did you think about doing?

Betty

Oh, closing up his business and bank account.

Julia

And posting all his information in some truck stop or in many truck stops across the Southeast so that somebody could steal it.

Ira Glass

Just like posting his social security number.

Julia

Right.

Betty

Yeah, making him a child porn person so he could never live anywhere comfortable again.

Julia

Put him on a sex offender list and attribute it to Hezbollah. He could join NAMBLA.

Betty

Any of those type things would be good.

Ira Glass

There's the joy in your voice as your saying these things.

Julia

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So now they had a great power to mess with their neighbor, to punish their neighbor-- he would never know what hit him. He would have no idea it was them. And despite what were I have to say clearly hours and hours that they spent talking about their revenge fantasies, they held their fire. They showed restraint.

Betty

We had the thoughts, but we never did anything.

Ira Glass

So it was just nice to hold onto them in the special briefcase as a sort of secret weapon.

Julia

Yes, like we have a little piece of him in this briefcase.

Betty

And at any time we could do something with it.

Ira Glass

Well, in a way then the main thing that finding all these papers that it gives you, it's like a gift because it helps with the one thing you've got which is being able to fantasize about revenge.

Betty

Right.

Julia

Right.

Betty

That's true. And if we ever used it, that would be gone. If we put it out in the truck stop or did something on the internet, that would be gone. We would have done our thing. And we still can fantasize.

Julia

But it would be different if we didn't have these things because saying if you have no power then not using power means nothing. But we have the power to do something, but we choose not to. It gives us control over him and control over him in a way we never had when he was tormenting us.

Ira Glass

Eventually the neighbor moved away, stopping back to harass them only occasionally. Julia and Betty and their family moved later. But after all these years, they've kept that briefcase full of papers. You never know when it is that you're going to need your secret super power.

[MUSIC - "I GOT TO GET AWAY" BY DAVE BARKER]

Act Three. Waiting For Joe.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Waiting for Joe. Well, in this act we make little shift. Now, this is going to be a story about somebody with great power, but the story is going to be told from the point of view of the powerless. When you're powerless, you spend a lot of time speculating about those above you, much more than the other way around, I think. The people above us, they do not care. They don't notice you and me, not in the same way.

But we think a lot about them-- our parents, our bosses, our bosses' bosses. "What is going through their heads?" we think. "Why are they treating us this way, especially when they don't seem to be living up to their responsibilities?" And there is one figure like this more than any other. Shalom Auslander has the story.

Shalom Auslander

In the beginning, he was always on time. But it had been a long time since the beginning, longer than either Doughnut or Danish could remember. "I don't get it," complained Danish. "Isn't it time?" "It's time," answered Doughnut. "It feels like it's time. It's time."

Danish paced anxiously back and forth. Of course it was time. He knew it was time. He didn't need Doughnut to tell him that it was time. "So where is he, then?" asked Danish.

Doughnut sat curled up inside their cold, empty feeding bowl, focused intently on the doorknob of the apartment front door, believing with all of his heart that at any moment the doorknob would turn, the door would open, and Joe would appear.

"We cannot pretend to think that we know what Joe knows and what Joe doesn't know," pronounced Doughnut with a sharp twitch of his nose, "we must only believe with all of our heart that Joe knows."

"I bet he doesn't know!" said Danish. He rose up on his hind legs and flailed uselessly at the glass walls until he became exhausted. Breathing heavily, he lumbered over to the water bottle that hung in the far corner and drew a few drops into his mouth.

"You nonbelievers are all the same," scoffed Doughnut. He pushed some dry cedar chips into a small, comfortable mound and settled down upon it. "As if you were the first hamster to ever doubt him!" he said. "Joe knows who believes, Danish, and Joe knows who doesn't. Joe is here, Joe is there, Joe is simply everywhere. You look around at all your plastic tube highways, and your fabulous Habitrail and think you are special. But do ants not build anthills? Do bees not build hives? It is not what we build that makes us unique, it is what we believe; it is that we believe at all! Doubt, my dear Danish, is no great achievement; it is faith that sets us apart. Besides," added Doughnut, "he left his wallet on the front table. He's got to come back."

"He did?" asked Danish. He stood up on his back legs and squinted through the glass. "Where?"

Doughnut walked over and stood beside Danish.

"There, on the table."

"Where?"

"There!"

"That?"

"Yes!"

"That's not a wallet, you idiot."

"Of course it's a wallet."

"It's a book," said Danish.

"It's not a book."

"Sure it is," said Danish, "I can read the spine. Along Came a Spider by James Patterson."

He dropped down and shook his head. Oh no, he does not! Doughnut squinted a moment longer. "Damn. It was a paperback." Why would Joe abandon them? Why would he leave a sign for them right there on the foyer table and then make it not a sign? And why James Patterson? What did it all mean?

"He does not read James freaking Patterson!" cried Danish. "Our salvation, our provider! We must be out of our minds!"

"It's a test," Doughnut said as he crawled back up in his bed. "He's testing our faith." Danish stood on his hind legs and flailed uselessly at the glass wall until he became exhausted. He took a drink of water, climbed up into the plastic tree house, and curled into a tight, angry ball.

"I happen to find Patterson thought provoking and suspenseful," Doughnut said after a moment.

"You what?" asked Danish. "Did you just say you find James Patterson thought provoking and suspenseful? Jesus Christ! Open your eyes, Doughnut. Don't you see what he's doing to us, holding our food over our heads like this, dangling our fate before us like a banana raisin nut bar tied to the end of the stick? Look at you, Doughnut, are you so desperate to believe that you're actually defending James Patterson?"

"I thought Cat & Mouse was a taut, psychological thriller," said Doughnut.

Doughnut closed his eyes. Hunger stabbed sharply in his stomach, but he would never admit it to Danish. Where the hell was Joe? Danish rummaged frantically through the seed shells and shavings that covered the floor of their transparent little world. "He isn't coming," he said, looking for even a sliver of a husk of a shell of a seed. "He isn't coming." Doughnut nestled deeper into his bed, eyes shut tight in fervent concentration.

"May he who has fed us yesterday," he prayed, "feed us again today and tomorrow and forever. Amen."

"Yes!" Danish suddenly shouted, "Yahah!" He pulled a brown chunk of apple from beneath a small mound at the back of the cage and raised it victoriously overhead. Without even stopping to knock off the stray bits of cedar and pine needle that stuck to its sides, Danish opened his mouth wide and dropped in. He made quite a show of chewing it, mmm-ing and oh-ing and ah-ing, finally swallowing it with a loud, dramatic gulp. He smiled, patted his stomach, and burped a deep, long belch of satisfaction. He washed it down with a few drops of water and slid down to the floor with a contented sigh.

Doughnut watched Danish, a sour mix of jealousy and disdain on his face. His stomach groaned. Where the hell was Joe? Doughnut stood up and stomped over to Danish, who looked up at him lazily.

"Well?" demanded Doughnut.

"Well what?"

"Well maybe you could give a little thanks," said Doughnut.

"Thanks?" asked Danish. "To who?"

"To Joe, Danish, to Joe."

"For what?"

"For the apple he gave you."

"The apple he gave me?" asked Danish. "I found that apple myself."

"Do you think the apple just grew there?" Doughnut shouted. "How did the apple get there, Danish? We searched this cage 1,000 times and never found a thing. That apple was a miracle, a gift. Joe heard my prayers, and he brought forth upon this cage a holy apple." His stomach grumbled.

Danish belched again and rubbed his belly with pride. "Except, Doughnut, that you didn't get any food. You asked, I received. Seems like a strange system to me." He sucked a piece of apple rind out from between his teeth. "Not that I'm complaining. You know what? Next time why don't you ask him for a carrot? I simply must start getting more fiber."

"Joe grants food to those who need it most," replied Doughnut bitterly.

Danish tired quickly of Doughnut's lectures, particularly when he was hungry, which he certainly was again. He got back up and began searching again through the rough cedar chips that covered the floor. Doughnut dragged himself wearily back to bed. The miracle of the apple had made him ravenous. Doughnut would never admitted it, he was ashamed to even think it, but lately he'd begun to doubt. Lately, Joe and his mysterious ways were beginning to tick him off. It was the same thing with him every damn day, begging, thanks, begging, verse, chorus, verse.

"Why me?" wondered Doughnut. It must have been his own fault. He must have sinned. He must have angered Joe. Just last week he had questioned why their litter wasn't changed more frequently.

"Perhaps there's a cedar shortage?" he'd asked Danish sarcastically. "It is a hardwood, you know." He'd even complained aloud that their cage was too small. The chutzpah! Some hamsters didn't even have a cage, let alone a Habitrail and an exercise wheel. How could he have been so ungrateful? He barely even used the blessed exercise wheel, a beautiful exercise wheel that any hamster would love, and Doughnut had only ever used it once.

He was ashamed of himself. No wonder there wasn't any food. Why should Joe give him anything more if he couldn't appreciate what he had already been given? Doughnut closed his eyes and silently thanked Joe for starving him in order to show him the error of his ways.

"Forgive me," he prayed. And with that, Doughnut hurried out of bed and climbed onto the exercise wheel. He ran as fast as he could, huffing and puffing, regret and retribution nipping at his heels.

Danish, meanwhile, was going mad. He'd been tricked, tricked by Joe. He was even hungrier now than he'd been before he'd eaten Joe's cursed apple.

"Oh, yes. Very good, Joe. Yes, quite witty!" shouted Danish. "Well done, old boy. Touche!"

Back on the exercise wheel, Doughnut could run no more. He stumbled back to bed. Danish stood on his hind legs and flailed uselessly at the glass walls until he became exhausted. Doughnut prayed.

And behold, suddenly, the doorknob did turn. The apartment door did open, and Joe did appear. Danish peed in excitement. Doughnut crapped in fear. Joe was thin and pale, and he wore a rumpled brown suit. The badge hanging from his chest pocket read, "Mail room." There was a woman with him, too, a woman Danish and Doughnut had never seen before. She had thin hair and thick glasses, and she and Joe wrestled their way through the doorway as one, groping and feeling and rubbing each other, as if each had somehow lost the keys in the other's pants pockets. Joe groaned and tore open her blouse.

Danish and Doughnut pressed their noses to the glass.

"There'd better be apples in there," said Danish.

"Forgive me, Joe, for doubting you," prayed Doughnut.

Joe lifted the woman into his arms. She threw her head back and laughed. And as they headed down the hallway toward his bedroom, Joe switched the living room lights off with his elbow.

Darkness.

Doughnut look at Danish.

Danish looked a Doughnut.

"We have brought this upon ourselves," said Doughnut.

Danish stood on his hind legs and flailed uselessly at the glass walls until he became exhausted.

Doughnut prayed.

Ira Glass

Shalom Auslander. His story, "Waiting for Joe," is from his collection, Beware of God. He is also the author most recently of Foreskin's Lament.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Speigel and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Amy O'Leary, Lisa Pollak, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind, [? Kathy Hahn, ?] and [? Emily Josef. ?] Music up today from Jessica Hopper.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS].

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS].

WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who wanders into the studio while we are on the air, hands full of snacks.

Julia

All y'all are putting on a big show. Y'all want some popcorn?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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