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Thomas Wictor

A gift from the boogeyman

A gift from the boogeyman

One of the scariest people I ever knew was a man I’ll call “Miguel,” who lived across the street from us. He was a former gang member who looked and sounded exactly like the actor Danny Trejo. Miguel was married and had three children. He was a mechanic and truck driver, and he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, probably paranoid schizophrenia. An alcoholic, he’d also been a regular PCP smoker during his gangbanging days.

When Miguel’s children were small, they regularly came across the street to see my grandmother Carolina. They loved her house—the Rat Palace of which Tim would eventually become custodian— because it was tranquil and comforting. That was how we got to know Miguel and his clan. We’d visit Grandma as teenagers, and the three “Melendez” kids would want to hang out with us. They liked us because we didn’t yell at them. Also, we were from a weird place, Europe. Miguel’s children didn’t know where it was, since they were unaware of oceans and continents.

One day Miguel himself came over and asked me for a ride to the hardware store. I obliged, despite my trembling legs. We talked about his job and the problems he was having with his car. He asked me a lot of intelligent questions about Norway; it was clear that the entire concept of a foreign country intrigued him. They didn’t use dollars or speak English, facts he found amazing.

After my parents moved into the house two doors down from the Rat Palace, Miguel somehow became convinced that my mother was in league with his wife, with whom he had daily fights. When Mom came outside, he’d shout at her.

“Fuck you, CeeCee! Mind your own fuckin’ business! Stickin’ your nose where it don’t belong gonna get it cut off! You hear me?”

I was terrified, but the third time this happened, Mom marched right up to Miguel in his front yard and asked him what was going on. She didn’t want any of us boys to go with her, probably a good idea, though the thought of her confronting him alone was appalling. Miguel sputtered and bloviated at top volume; Mom stayed calm and convinced him that she had nothing to do with Miguel’s wife, so he eventually backed off and apologized.

The family came to a terrible but predictable end. Miguel’s older son was the wheel man in a fatal drive-by shooting. He was caught and spent ten years in state prison. Then the middle son was shot at the gas station where he worked and became permanently disabled. The daughter got pregnant at fifteen and gained two hundred pounds. Miguel’s wife developed heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. She divorced Miguel and went on welfare.

For a long time Miguel lived alone in his house. He’d play videos of horror movies so loudly it sounded like actual murders taking place. As soon as it got dark, bloodcurdling screams would go on all night. He came over several times to ask for a lift to the hardware store. On one such trip, he was completely covered in motor oil, as though he’d gone swimming in a lake of it. I was so afraid that I let him ruin the front passenger seat of my car, which I had to get reupholstered.

Then he sold the house and disappeared. We discovered years later that Miguel’s wife, middle son, and daughter all sponged off my mother. They’d come over and tell her of their latest disasters, and she’d write them checks. Dad watched this happen over and over before he told us. Tim and I put a stop to it. We both confronted the middle son, who wasn’t disabled from his shooting after all. After we told him he couldn’t come back, we explained to Mom that the Melendezes were taking advantage of her, enmeshing her ever more into their chaotic lives.

She seemed relieved that we finally knew. I think she was embarrassed that she was such a soft touch. After she died we found in her canceled checks that about twenty people regularly hit her up. They have no shame. But now Tim and I know who they are and how much they got. Most of them never visited her in the hospital or even called her.

I saw Miguel at a crosswalk a month ago, for the first time in fifteen years. He looked just the same, though he must be pushing seventy by now. Thankfully, he didn’t see me.

A gift from the boogeyman

In the fall of 1985, Miguel called me at the Rat Palace and asked me to come over. He said he wanted to give me something. I reluctantly went across the street, where he stood in the driveway.

“Sit down, Tom,” he said, gesturing to the curb. I sat; he joined me.

“I heard you’re going to Japan soon,” he said.

“That’s right. In just a few days.”

“Well, I wanna give you this.”

It was a Bible, a battered and stained paperback.

“I’m worried about you, going all the way over to the other side of the world,” he said. “I want you to take my Bible. God will protect you.”

I thanked him, and he shook my hand.

“Be careful, Tom. Come back safely.”

When I was packing for the trip, I saw Miguel’s Bible on the shelf. After much thought I put it in the backpack. I didn’t take it to Japan for protection; I felt I had to honor such a heartfelt gesture from this frightening, catastrophic failure of a man. To not do as he asked would’ve been to reject one of the few unselfish, humane acts of his life.

What’s interesting is that he didn’t prosthelytize. All he did was give me the book. It stayed with me for five years in Japan, two years in San Francisco, and twenty-one years in Los Angeles. I still have it.


It’s poignant to see which passages he marked as especially important, given his licentious, boozy, violent, self-destructive lifestyle.


As his family fell apart, he tried to reassure himself that it didn’t matter, as long as he was right with the Lord.


He knew that he was a terrible father.


As one of the countless sons who did indeed receive snakes and scorpions, I feel compelled to keep alive Miguel’s rare gesture of paternal concern.

Despise not any man, and do not spurn anything; for there is no man who has not had his hour, nor is there anything that has not its place.

—Rabbi Ben Azai

I won’t get there in this lifetime, but it’s a worthy goal.