The Last Train Ride
By Rick Leslie
I was standing in his kitchen having a beer when he walked over and put his arm around my shoulder, like he was my best buddy.
“Hey, I like you,” he said.
He leaned in for a kiss. I froze. I knew immediately I had had a serious lapse in judgment—though I didn’t know how serious until years later.
* * *
My story starts in October 1967 on a train—the Illinois Central Panama Limited with a stop in Champaign, Illinois. If I were Alfred Hitchcock, I might call it Strangers On A Train.
But since I am not prone to creating suspense beyond the suspense of the moment, I will simply tell my story as it happened, in as much detail as I can recall, which is a great deal of detail, because you don’t forget moments like this. They stick with you forever, forcing you to question yourself—your judgment, your ability to see the world as it really is. A world of unexpected circumstances and undeniable consequences for all the actions you choose—or do not choose—to take.
I boarded the train and took a seat by the window, hoping some attractive girl on her way back to school would sit down next to me. But like always, that didn’t happen. It seems the law of averages never applies to seatmates.
Instead some man who appeared to be middle-aged, but in actuality was maybe only five or six years older than me, took the seat. The difference between the way he looked in his pressed slacks, buttoned-down shirt, striped tie and parted-hair brushed up and over the top… and the way I looked in my jeans, T-shirt and afro belied our true ages, but could easily be chalked up to the generational differences between someone born during the war and someone born post war. As a result he came across more man than kid in my eyes, an affable looking fellow with a big smile and an even bigger handshake.
“Hi, I’m John,” he said upon taking his seat.
I returned his handshake with a firm grip, like my father had taught me.
And that was that. Nothing more than an acknowledgment by one person that they would be sitting next to another, without any sign of aggression or intrusion that might force someone to retreat into his or her self. In other words, the seduction of 19 year-old Rick Leslie had begun—and it was going to be very subtle.
* * *
I threw his arm off me and backed away. “Sorry, I’m not like that,” I said—hoping that would be the end of it.
But it wasn’t.
He eyed me mischievously. “You know, I’m not a homo. I just thought we could have some fun.”
I swallowed hard. How could I have been so stupid? But the words that actually came out of me were the words of the little boy I was at that moment:
“I want to go home.”
* * *
Now you have to know something about me before I go any further. When I went off to the University of Illinois the year before, I was still rather innocent, and had not yet developed any of the critical thinking skills educators all talk about these days. As a result I wasn’t good at connecting dots—often remaining oblivious to the obvious.
I offer this little story up as an example.
My second day as a freshman at the University of Illinois, I got fixed up with a girl. Her name was Judy Chin. When she walked down the stairs of her dorm to greet me, I was stunned. Not because she was a knockout. But because I had absolutely no idea she was going to be Chinese. The connection between the name Chin and Chinese had never even entered my mind. Neither had the idea that John might not be as friendly as he seemed to be.
* * *
His living room phone rang. He didn’t move to answer it. His full attention was on me.
“I can make it worth your while,” he said.
“I can pay you.”
The fact that he wouldn’t stop began to scare me. And, for the first time, I saw a craziness in him I hadn’t noticed before.
The phone stopped ringing.
* * *
I turned in my seat as the train pulled out of the station—and sat back in silence as the soft reverberations of the tracks below created a rhythm—a clickety-clack beat that had to have been creative inspiration for all the songwriters who ever glorified the romance of the rails. But all it created in me was a slight monotonous bump—ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum—slowly lulling me into my customary sleep.
“Next stop Kaank-uhh-keee. Kankakee, Illinois, next stop.”
I awoke with a start.
“You heading back to school, John asked?”
That little exchange was the start of an hour-long conversation that began with small talk about college and slowly turned to more engaging topics like sports, music and politics. We talked for a good hour. He seemed to be a great guy. He told me he was temporarily living in Urbana for a construction project he had contracted. I remember thinking that I might get a good part time job out of this.
* * *
“What about pornography?” He asked. “You like pornography? I have a great collection. We could watch some together.”
“Take me home right now,” I demanded, hurrying into his living room. He followed me in, but didn’t stop—walking past me to the front door where he stood as sentry.
“I need you,” he said.
It wasn’t a request. It was a demand.
* * *
Need I remind you that danger is all around us? It could be an air conditioner loosened from its window mooring just as you walk by below. Or an evening stroll in the direction of muggers.
Or it could even be a stranger on a train.
The thing about danger is it often darts into your life out of the blue, catching you off guard, leaving you with split second choices to make:
Turn left and a bus hits you at the next intersection; take a right and you get to live another day.
The man sitting next to me on the train was going to present me with one such choice, as we whisked past acre after acre of corn bathed in the shadows of an early fall dusk.
* * *
He took one slow step toward me. 'Oh, god, please, no' were the words throbbing in my head. But nothing came out. I had no idea who this guy was and what he was capable of doing. All I knew was that he outweighed me by a good 30 pounds, and he was standing between me and the door. I felt like a woman about to scream at the top of her lungs. He moved in closer and whispered.
“I want you to…”
* * *
I’m sorry, I can’t say the actual words, but you probably have a pretty good idea of what he wanted.
* * *
“Next stop, Chaamp-aaaign. Champaign, Illinois, next stop.”
The train soon rolled into the station and John and I said our pleasantries—goodbye and nice meeting you and all.
I got off the train and headed to the baggage area, grabbed my suitcase, and headed off to catch a cab back to campus. And that is what would have happened if not for the honk of a horn off to my right. I turned to see John pulling up next to me in a big lavender convertible with top down.
“Hey, you want a ride back to campus?” He shouted.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Please don’t get into that car. It’s LAVENDER! But you weren’t with me back then to warn me.
“Sure,” I said.
* * *
In my best tough guy imitation, I puffed up my chest and glowered at him.
“No, no, no, no way I’m going to do that,” I said. “You’re going to have to let me out of here. NOW!”
He didn’t step aside.
* * *
John popped open the trunk of his car. I threw in my suitcase and hopped into the front. We pulled out of the parking turnaround, heading south towards campus, with the radio blasting and the crisp fall wind in our faces. A minute later John turned to me.
“Hey, interested in some beers and a steak? My treat.”
I admit that a little voice inside me was telling me to say no, but I said yes anyways. And with a quick spin of the wheel, we headed off to what I thought would be one of the affordable steak houses near campus. But instead we drove somewhere I didn’t recognize and pulled up 10 minutes later into a mid-rise apartment complex.
“I have some great steaks in the freezer and lots of cold beer,” he said.
You know those scenes in horror movies when the character enters the house and the audience is thinking: Are you crazy? Something bad is going to happen in there. Well, you know how you also think that doesn’t happen in real life.
* * *
John blocked my path to the door.
I began to tremble.
Now the thing about trembling is that it’s not just a sign of fear. It’s also a sign that adrenaline is being pumped into the body’s system.
John didn’t know that. So when he gritted his teeth with a sickening lick of his chops, he didn’t understand that his expression was not only pissing me off. It was turning me into a wild animal.
In a split-second I charged him with a strength I didn’t know I had. I drove him back into the door and tossed him aside, pulled open the door and ran out. My instincts were to keep running. Problem was, my suitcase was still in his trunk—and it had my name, address and phone number on the tag. No way I could leave it behind. I stopped past his car and looked back. John stood slumped in the doorway, his parted hair now disheveled.
“Give me my suitcase now or I’m going to call the police,” I called out.
“No, no, no, no police,” he shot back.
* * *
And so in the night, I trudged home with suitcase in hand, turning every few seconds to make sure he wasn’t following, playing my little nightmare over and over again in my mind. Rehashing every mistake I had made along the way. Wondering what signals I might have given off that could have made me his target.
When I finally got to my apartment, I popped open a beer, sat back on the sofa and dozed off to the sound of a train in the distance, praying it would carry my memory far, far, away.
And for a good while it had.
But remember how I mentioned earlier it would be years before I learned how serious my lapse in judgment was? It was 12 years later to be exact. In 1979. That’s when I saw John again. This time on TV. It was a mug shot. He was accused of being a serial killer.
By all news accounts, John Wayne Gacy hadn’t started killing when I met him. They say his first was in 1972—five years after I stopped taking trains.