The Grim Sleeper Becomes My Thing

September 11, 2021

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people that you can’t stop writing even though the audience you once had lost interest in you, as did your agent and your editor and seemingly everyone else you’ve ever met.

I had success, some notoriety, and it felt so good after toiling so long in the coal mines of writing. Then the book deals and the book tours and all that ended and it seemed it would be easier for my agent to sell a hot steaming turd than one of my books. But then a gift fell into my lap and suddenly an opportunity for publicity reared its really ugly head.

I was still teaching at Locke High School and I knew I would soon be quitting. After my divorce, I bought a house in Altadena, the only house that I could afford with a backyard. And I really wanted a backyard and a dog. It even had a pool I didn’t want but eventually came to enjoy. My daughters moved in with me and life became livable and even fun. The neighborhood was great and we felt welcome in a diverse community.

Back at school life got weird when one of my Locke High students waited until all the other kids left for lunch before he came up to my desk.

“Hey Tervalon, I got something to tell you.”

I prepared myself for a story of abuse, or to hear that he had run away, or that the police had beat him, or somebody was going to kill him and he needed some cash because he was hungry.

“Don’t say I told you this shit,” the kid said. “But I think my uncle is the Grim Sleeper.”

“What?”

“You know, the dude who be killing them women.”

“Killing women?”

“You don’t know about that fool?”

I shook my head.

“I’m pretty tired when I get home, so I usually just make dinner and grade my papers and watch Star Trek and go to bed.”

The kid just shook his head.

“You a teacher, you should be like watching the news.”

“Ok,” I said, surprised that I was getting schooled by my student.

“I think he might be the fool killing them women and getting away with it. I never did like his cheap ass and he was always wanting to hit somebody.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. He had jogged my memory about this particular lunatic. “So what do you want me to do?”

“You the teacher. You supposed to drop a dime.”

“Me? I don’t know anything.”

“I told you it’s my uncle.”

“Your uncle?” 

“Look, I told you that.”

“Ok, so what’s the story?”

The kid came closer and talked almost in a whisper to me: “I came home late one might and saw his van.”

I nodded to him to move the story along so I could get home, but that just made the kid pause as though he was pulling his thoughts together.

“Sometimes he be having these sprung tack heads in there, doing them on my street so his girlfriend don’t know.”

“Yeah,” I said, then the kid leaned forward.

“My uncle is a dick, so I like to mess with him. I pound on his van and run away and he comes busting out of it looking for whoever is cockblocking him. This time I pounded on it, and instead of him running out, it’s this naked woman — she come running out screaming he’s trying to kill her and she just keeps running naked and all clutching her clothes and he trying to get after her and then he sees me and he just stops. Turns around gets back and in the van and drives away.”

“So you think he was trying to kill her.”

“Yeah, what you think?

“I don’t know.”

“Well you oughta use your brain. That woman was screaming he was killing her.”

I paused. This kid was doing his best to break me down.

“You gotta drop a dime,” he said.

“What?”

“Nark him out. I can’t be narking him out, he’s my uncle.”

The kid turns around and walks out of my class and I’m thinking I need to quit this job quick, fast and in a hurry. Now I’m resentful because I need to decide what the right thing to do is. It’s all just crazy hearsay and I need to put the whole thing out of my mind and think about what I’m going to cook for dinner for my daughters. As I’m driving home I decide to make chicken soup from scratch, but I can’t stop thinking about what the kid said and how I could possibly get some attention for my book Understand This that just got picked up by the UC Press and reprinted. Book promotion is all I could think of. I really didn’t expect anything to come of it but I made a call to the Channel 2 News soon as the chicken soup was cooking. I finally was put through to somebody who sounded young and not that bright. As soon as I mentioned the Grim Sleeper, he asked me not to hang up and put me on hold. When he returned he wanted my address and said a reporter and film crew would be by soon.  

“Soon” turned out to be hours, so I picked up my girls from school and we came home to start in on the chicken noodle soup. Just as we finished eating, I heard a knock at the door. I opened it and there was this anorexic looking blonde woman and a camera man behind her and another guy. They came into our small kitchen and the reporter barely introduced herself before she asked if I knew who the Grim Sleeper was.

I responded by telling my student’s story; every detail he said to me I repeated to her with grim seriousness. When she asked me details about the student who gave me the information, I wouldn’t answer but I did mention that I was writer and that my book Understand This was back in print by the UC Press.

It ended soon after that, and the reporter and her camera men rushed from the house into the night.

I looked at my daughters having their soup and I felt like an idiot, even more so when my mother called and said she saw me on the local news program talking about serial killers with my daughters in the room. “You’ll sell some books now,” she said before hanging up.

She might have been right but I didn’t sleep that night thinking that a serial killing lunatic was still around and knew my face and my weird name and that it wouldn’t be hard to locate where I and my daughters live. It was like I was in my own slasher movie.

The next day I got a call from a detective who wanted to ask me a few things. Soon there was a knock at the door and a baggy faced black detective pulled out a notebook and began asking me questions as we sat down by the pool in the backyard. He was very pleasant and I told him what the kid told me. He wrote some notes and thanked me and stood up to go.

Then I asked him the one question I had.

“You think the kid’s uncle is the Grim Sleeper?”

The detective laughed. “Naw, we’re pretty sure he’s either dead or in Mexico.”

Then he left and I went on with my day feeling relieved enough not to buy that gun I didn’t want to own.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.