By Jim Landwehr
My wife and I lay naked, sweltering on our bed in the August humidity in 1991. We flipped through the early Saturday edition of the Sunday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We often got the Sunday paper a day early to keep up with the news of the day. She focused on the food and lifestyle sections while I alternated my focus between her curves and the sports and entertainment pages.
We were young newlyweds celebrating the company of one another au naturel as newlyweds are prone to do. We’d married a year earlier in a quaint church in a small town in Upstate New York. My wife grew up there, and I in Minnesota. A job change took me to Milwaukee in 1986. Through a strange series of events we became Pen Pals, and after a year and a half of writing one another, we finally met. It was love at first sight, so we dated long-distance for a time, which led to an engagement and marriage. Anxious to get out of her home state, my new wife and I decided to make Milwaukee our home.
Our apartment was a cute, but small one bedroom place, part of a four apartment building on Milwaukee’s east side. It had a gas stove that required hand lighting and depending on the “catch factor” could singe the hair on your hand if you weren’t quick with the match. The refrigerator was right out of an “I Love Lucy” episode. The building had a secure front entrance and our upper apartment featured a back deck area with a steep stairway leading to the back yard.
We loved the east side, with its eclectic mix of bars, theaters, restaurants and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee student population. Street parking was a pain, especially in the winter months, but it seemed a small price to pay for such a cultural smorgasbord. Crime was a bit of an issue, partly due to its proximity to a transitional, tougher part of town, Riverwest, and even tougher areas further west.
My wife and I had our share of run-ins with the criminal element in our short year and a half in our place. On one occasion, someone stole our laundry from the basement dryer. It was only a load of towels, but, obviously someone needed to dry off worse than we did. Then there was the night we heard a gunshot followed by blood curdling screams and crying. It was a block and a half away but the bone-chilling cries made it seem like it was right next door. We found out the next day that it was an attempted purse snatching/robbery that was resisted. The perpetrators sped off in a car, but not before shooting a woman in the hand.
Even closer to home, a young guy was assaulted and hit on the head with a bottle by a couple of thugs late one Saturday night. They had taken his bike and knocked him out cold right outside our apartment. I ran downstairs to help and ended up holding his head while waiting for the ambulance to show up. It seemed crime was becoming standard fare for life in the happening part of town.
Our apartment didn’t have air conditioning so we were left to run fans throughout the place to try and push the humid mugginess out the windows and over Lake Michigan. The standing floor fan we received as a wedding shower gift oscillated back and forth on our naked skin, offering temporary relief in the form of a weak breeze every few seconds. We were in love though, so the momentary discomfort was all part of the marital road of togetherness and rapture.
As we flicked through the paper, both of us suddenly heard a thump over the whine of the fan. To me it sounded a little like a screen door shutting. It came from the kitchen area which led to the back door. We’d left the back door open to facilitate what little airflow we could muster throughout the apartment. With both of us home and most of the lights on, we assumed that an open back door on a second floor apartment was a perfectly safe thing to do. After all, we did have a screen door. The fact that we were naked and defenseless, well, that was another issue altogether.
My wife looked up at me and whispered, “Did you hear something?”
I put down the newspaper and replied, “Yeah, it almost sounded like a door closing.”
Now, it is funny the thoughts that come into your mind when you are suddenly thrust into a fight-or-flight situation. I mean, there we were, naked and completely vulnerable facing the very real possibility that there was an intruder in our apartment.
I thought to myself: Suppose it was an intruder. What would I do? What would my nearest weapon be?
As I pondered these thoughts, I looked up to see a black man crouched and creeping from our kitchen area toward our living room. He was carrying a bag evidently intent on taking part in an all-you-can-grab shopping spree. He turned and saw me and my wife, more of us than most anyone had ever seen, as was the case. His surprise was only surpassed by my own. Turning to run, he slipped on a throw rug on our hardwood floor causing him to stumble in his dash for the back door. He regained his footing and bolted.
I leapt out of bed in all my glorious nakedness and grabbed the standing floor fan. I ripped the plug out of the wall socket in full pursuit of the villain. I spun around the corner at the doorway and raced through the kitchen to the back door. There I stood, peering into the dark Milwaukee night wearing nothing but my birthday suit and the body armor of an unplugged standing fan. I didn’t even have a whirring blade to attack with. It didn’t matter, as the intruder had vanished down the stairs and was nowhere to be seen.
Breathing heavy from the adrenaline rush, I tried to digest what had just happened. It took me a good long pause before I realized how it might look to passers-by, a six-foot five naked man in a doorway brandishing nothing but a Black and Decker fan. I imagine I was committing a crime of my own just by standing there in full view of the city of Milwaukee.
Like Adam and Eve realizing their nakedness, I quickly shut the back door. My wife came into the kitchen wearing a t-shirt and her underwear, both thrown on in haste after the excitement began.
“Did you see anyone?” She asked.
“No, he’s long gone, whoever he was,” I replied.
Giggling, she said, “You might want to put some clothes on, hon.”
Reminded of my state of undress, I said, “Heh, heh, yeah, I guess so.”
I wandered back to our bedroom to get dressed. Afterward, I called the police. An officer showed up within half an hour and took a statement. He couldn’t help but smirk when I mentioned the circumstances leading up to the intrusion. I can’t say I blame him. It’s hard to make up stories like this. Ultimately no one was ever found or charged and nothing was taken from us with the exceptions of our dignity and sense of security.
The saying goes that truth is stranger than fiction, and I think this event falls under that umbrella. If I didn’t live through the absurdity that was that night, I’d have a hard time believing it. And, while at the time it felt like an incredible near-miss, it has become something we can look back on as a couple, laugh and say, “Remember the floor fan night?”
Jim has two memoirs, Dirty Shirt and The Portland House. He also has five poetry collections: Thoughts From a Line at the DMV, Genetically Speaking, On a Road, Written Life and Reciting From Memory. His nonfiction and poetry has been published in many different journals and anthologies. Jim was the 2018-19 Poet Laureate for the Village of Wales, Wisconsin.