Back in 1997, I lived in the quiet suburban area of Meadowlark Drive located in Dunn, North Carolina. It was a very peaceful neighborhood, where all the kids would play outside during the summer and jump up and down with excitement whenever the icee trunk man slowly drove his white truck around the cul-de-sac. In all honesty, it was simpler time when TV consisted of old Nickelodeon shows such as Doug and Rugrats.
I remember at the end of the street was an older two-story house that a woman named Leelah Payne lived in. To all the parents in Meadowlark Drive, she seemed like a sweet lady and didn't mind if their children went over to her home. This included my mother, who would occasionally stop by to say hello as Miss Payne watered the flowers in her yard. But as I recall, all the plants in Leelah's yard never seemed to grow. Instead, they were wilted and drooped in despair.
Leelah was in her early sixties, average height, and her colored black hair was a beehive that sat enormous on her head. Her wardrobe consisted of dark clothing that was always conservative: Long skirt, most of the time a shade of charcoal grey, a button top to match, and black slip-on dress shoes. Miss Payne looked as if she had once been young, vibrant and happy, but between chain smoking Salem cigarettes and gravity, her face suggested that she might as well be misery's bride. And Leelah's eyes were large like a praying mantis' that stared straight through the flesh and down to the soul.
One day, as I was walking home from a friend's house, Leelah stood in her yard and said, "Little boy, what's your name?"
I looked down at my pigeon-toed feet and shyly replied, "Chris."
Miss Payne's nicotine-stained teeth smiled and she added, "What a lovely name. Would you like to come inside for something to eat?"
In all honesty, I didn't want to; however, I felt a little guilty for saying no to an old lady. Besides, my mother thought highly of Leelah, so I figured it would be alright.
Upon entering her house, the smell of hundreds of cigarettes made me choke and burned my eyes. The walls in Miss Payne's house appeared to have once been white, but after cartons upon cartons of Salem Golds, they had turned yellow. On the kitchen table was an ashtray full of butts that reminded me of a blooming onion.
She led me to the living room where I felt uncomfortable, because at least twenty porcelain dolls stared at me with huge, blue eyes. Little girls all dressed in white that had also turned yellow like the walls. I sat down on her pea green sofa that was wrapped in plastic and politely smiled. "You have a really nice home," I told her.
Above the couch was a holographic portrait of Jesus that changed every time you looked at it from a different angle. At first glance appeared the Son of God sitting in the countryside with a lamb, and from another perspective he was in agony hanging from the cross.
"Well, aren't you a sweet boy," Leelah replied, flashing me those awful teeth. "Can I ask you a question?"
I nodded my head.
"Do you believe in God?" she asked.
Being raised Christian, I automatically replied yes.
On the far wall across the living room stood a tall and wide bookshelf that was filled with old Bibles. On a door that led to the bathroom hung a crucifix with a wooden, anguished Jesus hanging from it.
"Well, that's wonderful," she replied, "now, here is my next question: Are you a homosexual?"
At age eight, I had no idea what a sexual orientation was, and I didn't exactly know how to respond to her question. After a moment of silence, Miss Payne asked, "You do know what homosexual is, don't you?"
I shook my head.
"A homosexual is a man who likes men. Kind of like how your father likes your mother, only in a dark and twisted way. See, these kind of men choose to fondle other men because they are tainted by the devil. So, now that you're aware of what that is, answer the question: Do you like boys?"
"No," I replied, beginning to grow a little scared.
"Good," she replied, as a distorted smile pulled across her leathery face. "Because I couldn't have any of that in my house, you know, a house that has been blessed by the Lord." She paused for a second and asked, "Do you know what God does to men who like other men's private parts?"
Again, I shook my head.
"In the Bible, it clearly says that if a man is to share the same bed with another man, he is to be cast in the fiery pits of Hell where he will burn for all eternity."
That sentence brought upon anxiety of brimstone, suffering, and the wrath of God.
"Now that we have that established, would you like something to snack on?" Leelah asked.
"Yes," I replied.
As she went to the kitchen to fetch something to eat, a timid voice inside told me to leave. I didn't feel comfortable sitting in Miss Payne's house, even though I thought I should be. When Leelah came back, she brought me a glass of milk and thin slices of bread.
Before giving me the snack, she said in a voice deep as thunder, "Isaiah 33:16 - He will dwell on the heights, his refuge will be the impregnable rock; His bread will be given him, his water will be sure."
Not exactly knowing how to respond, I took the food from her and said, "Thank you."
On the stand beside the sofa sat a picture of a young boy. He seemed as if he were the same age I was and smiled with buck teeth. The photo appeared to have been taken in the early eighties. With childish curiosity, I asked, "Who is that?"
Leelah Payne stared at the picture, and, after a moment of silence, replied, "He was a boy who was once not stained by the sinful flesh of our world."
This didn't exactly answer my question, so I asked, "Was he your son?"
The old woman stared at me and finally, in an irritated tone, said, "Did you not hear what I just said, or are you deaf?" Her face was no longer happy and her eyes cut my spirit.
I gulped and stuttered, "Y-Yes, ma'am."
"Good," she cut sharply. Miss Payne lit a cigarette, sat back down and asked, "Do you know the story of Adam and Eve?"
I told her the story I had learned in Sunday school, about how the snake offered Eve the forbidden fruit, and how Eve convinced Adam to take a bite.
"Not exactly," she told me. "Here is how it actually happened: See, the snake in the Garden of Eden was actually a phallus of Lucifer that called upon Eve's inner-whore. He asked her, "Would you like pleasure?" And, being the slut Eve was, replied, "Yes." After giving herself over to the forbidden pleasures of the flesh, Eve seduced Adam by wanting to touch his phallus." Miss Payne stopped and added, "Oh, I forgot, you don't know what that word means. Well, "phallus" is a grownup word for a ding dong. When you're older, the Devil will tickle you and tempt you the same way Eve tempted Adam. And, being the weak man he was, Adam decided to take a look behind her pink curtains."
After hearing Leelah's take on Genesis, I wanted to go home. I placed the glass of milk on the stand and that's when she sternly growled, "Put. The glass. On. The coaster."
Her words put the fear of God in me and I immediately obeyed.
Suddenly, in the middle of this tense moment, a loud moan could be heard from behind the far wall. The noise startled me, and my heart dropped to my feet. After a short and terrifying silence, a loud bang caused a couple of Bibles to fall from the bookshelf. This caused me to practically jump from the sofa.
Leelah was quiet and then said, "Chris, I think perhaps you should go. It was nice visit. We will have to do it again sometime."
She stood up, put her hand on my shoulder and walked me to the front door. After saying her goodbyes and blessing me with God's word, Miss Payne shut the front door and locked it.
Outside her house I snuck over to the living room window that was blocked by heavy curtains and listened in. Through the glass I could hear the sound of the bookshelf being pushed across the floor and Leelah screaming, "You're supposed to be remain quiet, you ungodly heathen!" Another moan, this time very agonizing, could be heard wailing.
I heard a heavy door open and the cries of pain were louder and more clear. Shortly followed was the sound of Miss Payne's hand slapping someone -- or something -- as she yelled, "You have not the right to speak in a house of God!"
Alarmed, I ran out of her front yard and hurried down the street back to my house. When I got home, my mother asked where I had been. I didn't want to mention my visit with the old lady down the street, so I told her that I been at my friend's house.
For a while I had nightmares of what happened at Leelah Payne's house. The unknown sounds coming from behind the wall, the way she screamed at whatever it was, and her terrifying eyes haunted me. Every time I passed her home and saw her in the front yard, I looked away. Whenever she called me over, I avoided her offer with silence.
In late 1998, around Christmas, Miss Payne suffered a heart attack and was taken by paramedics to Betsy Johnson Regional hospital. While Leelah was incapacitated her neighbor had went in her home to retrieve some clothes for release.
When the neighbor entered the house, he heard the same loud banging from behind the bookshelf and decided to see what it was. Upon investigating, the neighbor discovered a secret door on the other side of the shelf. When opening the entry, he let out a scream and ran from Miss Payne's house.
For what he found was a man that had been shackled and held prisoner. The captive had been starved and could barely speak proper English. On his body was over five hundred cigarette burns and his lips seemed to been melted off.
When the police confronted Leelah Payne in the hospital, she confessed that the man in the room was her son that she had locked up in 1985 after discovering gay pornography in his possession. "When I reported that my son went missing," Miss Payne informed the authorities. "I told them that he ran away and it was presumed that he died." She paused and added, "I played the part of a grieving mother, because God told me that my mission was to purify his perversion."
"And what happened to his lips?" a police officer asked.
After a short silence, Leelah replied, "I burned them off with a hot iron so that no man could kiss my son."
"And his, um..." The police officer couldn't finish his question, but instead pointed down to his own crotch.
She smiled and said, "I removed the sin."
When the town of Dunn learned about what happened to Leelah's son, there seemed to be a black sky of dread that hung over Meadowlark Drive. The life in my neighborhood had vanished. Journalists knocked on everyone's door wanting to know all about "The Woman of Payne." My mother told me, "Don't talk to the press and don't ever, ever talk about that horrible woman."
In 2004, Leelah died of lung cancer in prison. To this day, I sometimes wonder if the world would have been a better place if Miss Payne's secret had never been known.