The Man With Yellow Teeth

May 4, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Childhood Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 4 Comments
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First Published in Island Writer Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (Spring 2011), pages 21-23

The car moves slowly.

“Do you have far to go, girls?” the man asks.

We have another mile.  We’ve already walked one mile coming from Sunday School.  Still, I don’t answer the man.  Mommy told me not to talk to strangers.  But Lenora answers him.  “We’re going to Cambridge Street.”

“Hop in,” he says, “and I’ll drive you.”

I whisper to Lenora.  “We’re not supposed to take rides from strangers.”

“It’s okay.  There are two of us.”

I’ve just turned seven.  My friend, Lenora, is a year older and about three inches taller than me.  Mommy says she is tall for her age.

She gets into the car.  I don’t want to walk home by myself, so I follow.  Lenora sits next to the man and I squeeze between her and the door, my arm close to the door handle.

He isn’t a big man so I’m not too scared.  When he speaks I see he has yellow teeth that look icky.

Quickly we drive down Kootenay Street and turn left at Cambridge.  Lenora talks to him; I don’t.

“There’s the house,” I say, reaching for the door handle.

But the car doesn’t stop.  It’s not going fast but I’m afraid to jump out.

“Would you girls like to see the race horses at Hastings Park?” the man asks.  “I’ll bet you like horses.  Would you like to see their stables?”

I love horses and have watched maybe a hundred races at Hastings.  Mommy takes me twice a week during racing season.  Sometimes I see horses close up in the paddock before a race but I’ve never seen their stables.

Lenora has never seen a horse race, so she says “yes” right away.  It won’t take long.  Hastings Park is only three blocks from our houses.

I don’t say anything.  Part of me wants to visit the stables and part of me is worried about this strange man.  I keep my hand near the door handle.

The car moves quickly down Cambridge, turns left at Cassiar, then right onto a muddy road lined with stables.  The road is bumpy so we slow down.  I see horses but no people.  Then we stop.  The man says something to Lenora and puts his hand on her white panties.  I push the door open, jump out and run.

Mud squishes beneath my shiny black shoes.  Run faster!  Watch out for the muck on the path.  Is he following me?

I don’t turn around to see what’s happening to Lenora.  Escape!  That’s all I think about.  Then Lenora catches up to me, breathing hard.  Her long legs move faster than my short ones.  She had wiggled away from him and jumped through the open car door.

We hear horses neigh and snort and thump, then muffled voices in some stalls.  Other people are here!  I slow down, breathe deeper and finally look behind.  The car is gone.

Lenora and I walk swiftly up the mud road, not stopping until we reach Cassiar.  I’ve never crossed Cassiar without holding Mommy’s hand.

We watch the cars speeding by, then Lenora says, “There’s a break.  Let’s run.”

After reaching the other side of Cassiar, we climb three steep blocks.  My shoes and socks are splattered with mud but I’m not worried.  Mommy won’t scold me.  We got away from a bad man.

I’m puffing when we reach the bottom of our lane.  Mommy is standing with her back to us, looking up the lane we are supposed to be coming down.  I call and she turns around.  When we reach our homes, which are in the middle of the block, Daddy and Lenora’s parents have joined Mommy.  We’re almost an hour late.

“Where were you?”

“What happened?”

The questions come in a rush as we tell our story.  Mommy takes me inside and gives me milk and cookies until the police arrive.

I tell my story as clearly as I can, but when the police ask about the man, all I can remember is that he has yellow teeth.  I don’t know much about cars, so I can only tell them it was dark blue.

Mommy says Daddy has a special way about him, that he makes friends easy and can always find out what he wants to know.  I know that he’s smart and it’s hard to keep secrets from him.  When the police leave, Daddy says, “They think they know who it is and where he lives.”  And Daddy knows too.  I don’t think the police were supposed to tell him where the man lives, but they did.

Later, after supper, Daddy takes me out to the car.

“No Torgy, don’t,” Mommy pleads.  “Let the police handle it,”

But Daddy doesn’t stop.  He is going to beat up the bad man.  Daddy needs me to make sure it is the right man.  All I have to say is “yes, that’s him” or “no, that’s not him.”

I’m happy to go.  I want to see the bad man get beat up.

We drive to the end of Kootenay, then down a road overlooking the railway tracks.  Although only a few blocks from our house, this street seems so different from ours.  It’s narrow, with cracked pavement and no sidewalks.  We stop in front of a small house.  Unpainted.  Tiny windows.  Daddy walks to the door and knocks, but no one answers.  No car in the driveway.

Over the next two weeks, we return to the house four times.  No one answers.  On the last visit, Daddy looks in a window and when he comes back to our car, he says, “It looks empty.”

Too bad.  I was so hoping to see Daddy beat up the man with yellow teeth.

***

For the rest of the summer, Mommy walks me to Sunday School.  One evening, while helping me put on my pyjamas, she says, “I guess you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Yes, Mommy.”

She means that I have learned not to accept rides from strangers.  But I knew this before we got in the car.  The lesson I got from this adventure is “don’t be a follower.”  Walk alone.  Someone may be older and bigger and still be wrong.  That’s what I learned.

Shannon Moeser

The Locket

March 5, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Childhood Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | 1 Comment
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A revised version of “The Locket,” which was first published in Island Writer Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 1, Summer 2010.

The heart-shaped locket lies in my hand, its chain dangling through my fingers.  Hidden in my jewellery box for years, its gold sheen tarnished with age, the locket must be packed or thrown away.

Moving is a time to sift through belongings and discard those no longer needed.  I received the locket as a gift sixty years ago.  Engraved with my initial, it opens to reveal storage space for two pictures, space never filled.  I cannot untie the rusted knots in its brass chain, knots made by my mother because the chain was too long for the neck of a five-year-old girl.

The locket escaped the discard pile in the past because it was my first piece of jewellery.  Once I thought it might be given to a daughter or granddaughter, but now I realize this trinket will never be handed down to another generation.

Should it be kept?  Does it still possess sentimental value?

***

Uncle Joe gave me the locket.  He wasn’t my real uncle, but a family friend given the honorific “uncle” because, as a child, I called all family friends “uncle” or “aunt.”

My other honorific uncles and aunts were Mom’s long-term acquaintances from Saskatchewan, where my parents lived until 1936, when they, along with thousands of other prairie residents, left the depression-poor province for work in British Columbia.  Uncle Joe became a family friend after he told my sociable father that he could not find a boarding place, housing being tight after the war ended.  Dad drove him home for a meal and my kind-hearted mother offered him accommodation as a boarder.

Our narrow 1½ story house was too small for a boarder.  The main floor held a kitchen, living room and bathroom, while a bedroom and open sleeping area were tucked under the second-floor eaves.  My parents slept in the bedroom and I slept in the upstairs open section.  Uncle Joe had only a fold-out bed in the living room.

When he first moved into our house, I enjoyed Uncle Joe’s attention.  My father, a construction foreman, worked long hours.  He left early in the morning and arrived home about eight in the evening, eating dinner while I got ready for bed.  In contrast, Uncle Joe worked in an office and arrived home at six to eat dinner with Mom and me.

After riding the Hastings streetcar to its last stop, Uncle Joe walked north to our home on Eton Street, stopping each day at a corner store to buy penny candy that he gave me as an after-dinner treat.  While Mom washed dishes and prepared dinner for Dad, Uncle Joe encouraged me to sit on his lap and describe my day’s activities.  At first, I responded to these friendly gestures, but soon began to reject him, giving monosyllable answers to his questions or not answering at all.  I started leaving the room when he entered and adamantly refused to sit on his lap.  I remember my mother saying, “He is so good to you.  Why aren’t you nicer to him?”

My parents related to Uncle Joe because they had been alone in a new province with no relatives or friends; they had been poor.  Generous people who liked to help others, they viewed Uncle Joe as a lonely man, a man who was good-hearted like them.

But I could see that Uncle Joe did not resemble my father.

Although only five eleven, my father dominated any room he inhabited, laughing, mingling, telling jokes, always good-natured, though his brow was furrowed with deep worry lines, his hands and face rough from working outdoors.  Dad’s life revolved around his job where his leadership elicited respect and loyalty.

Uncle Joe was almost as tall as my father, but seemed much smaller.  His pale face was unlined and his laughter unnaturally high.  Quiet in the company of men, he never talked about his job.  “He cozies up too much to Mom,” I remember thinking, because he seemed too eager to help, too anxious to please.  Today, at 65, I can still hear the nasal tone of his voice, not a flat prairie accent nor a lilting Maritimes one; maybe he came from Ontario.  Not a war veteran, he said little about his past; nor did he seek attention or cause trouble.

When Dad was home, I would sit on his lap as we read newspaper comics together.  Dad was an easy touch when asked for spare change from his pocket and, with his pennies, I could buy my own candy, walking four blocks to the corner store with children living nearby, picking out our favourite treats.  Mine were the marshmallow strawberries.

When not working, Dad’s main activities were drinking beer, socializing and listening to radio newscasts.  Self-educated, having completed only Grade 2, he was alert and intelligent even after a few beers.  When he was there, Uncle Joe didn’t ask me to sit on his lap.  My father was not naïve like my mother.

After living with us for two months, Uncle Joe left our home and our lives, saying that he found a more suitable boarding house.  The locket was a good-bye present.  A pleasant surprise, I wanted to wear it immediately.  Because the chain was too long, Mom opened the clasp and tied six knots before fastening the locket around my neck.  I wore it all day, then, as she helped me get ready for bed, Mom removed the locket from my neck and said, “Let’s save this until you get older so it won’t get lost.”  The locket disappeared into Mom’s treasure box and I never wore it again.

I met Uncle Joe once more, at age nine, when Mom talked me into visiting him and his new wife at their house in Central Burnaby after we had moved to the same area.  Uncle Joe’s new wife appeared at the door to greet us.  She was a plain, mousy woman about 50 years old, a former spinster who inherited the house.  We walked into the living room where Uncle Joe huddled in a large chair.  Although no more than 40, he looked older, his body shrivelled and face lined.  He asked me to sit beside him but I stood back.  Negative emotions surged over me.  At nine I could still access some memories from four years earlier.  Once I saw him, I realized that my earlier apprehensions about Uncle Joe had sexual overtones.

“He smells musty,” I remember thinking, an irrational observation, since I didn’t get close to him.  It must have been an emotional memory, verbalized using a five-year-old’s limited knowledge.

I wondered why he’d aged so rapidly and why his formerly smooth face was now covered with fine lines.

Wise beyond my years in understanding nuances of human interaction, I watched carefully.  Uncle Joe’s wife didn’t come near him.  I witnessed no attraction between them, no touching, none of the warmth usually associated with newlyweds.  Why did they marry?  She sat on a sofa, across the room from her husband; my mother joined her and I sat next to Mom.  I felt smug observing Uncle Joe alone in the corner, isolated from his wife, my mother and me.

Mom kept in touch with them for a while but I refused to visit again.  I never told my mother how I felt about Uncle Joe because I knew he never had touched my private parts, of that I was sure.  But although I couldn’t identify a specific experience, whatever he had done made me cringe.

A few months later we moved and Uncle Joe disappeared from my world.  Busy with new discoveries, I no longer thought about him.

***

I never thought much about the locket either, until now, holding it in my hand, debating whether to keep it.  With a flash, I gasp, “What an inappropriate present for a man to give a five-year-old girl!”

Memories flood back.  I remember how Uncle Joe regularly gave me candy, wanted me to sit on his lap and how I adamantly refused to do so.  I remember how he used to look at me, saying he “loved me.”  The heart-shaped locket was another way of saying “I love you.”

My parents warned me about “bad men” but they always assumed bad men would be strangers.  Now we know they are more likely to be family friends who draw victims into a web of secrets using presents and a “special friendship.”

Uncle Joe’s meekness deceived my mother.  But though only five, I instinctively rejected him.  I was lucky.  My parents provided a warm, loving home where I felt secure, received plenty of attention and was encouraged to be independent.  I was not easy prey for such men.

I glance once more at the tarnished locket, realizing the danger I narrowly escaped, then toss it away.

Shannon Moeser

Me about age 6 in front of our Eton Street home.

Portrait of a Lie

February 19, 2011 at 10:20 am | Posted in Childhood Stories, Memoir -- Non-fiction Stories | Leave a comment
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First published in Island Writer Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2 (Winter 2010), pages 52-54.

On my fifth birthday, I received scissors.  I’ve forgotten what else I got, but I remember cutting paper with blunt-nosed safety scissors, small enough to fit my hand.  And I remember preparing to snip a strand of my hair, until Mom stopped me by saying, “Don’t cut your hair.”

“I won’t.  I promise,” I replied.

Later, my mother left the room while I lay sprawled on the floor, cutting paper.  Beside me played my puppy, a short-haired, black-and-white terrier named “Sparky.”

A section of hair slipped from its ribbon tie, falling over my right eye and obscuring my view.  Without thinking, I grabbed the loose piece and cut it off, then recalled my promise.  “Oh,” I thought, “Mommy won’t notice.”  My mother was easy going, so I got away with lots of mischief.

But she did notice.  Hair that previously flowed down the side of my face now formed a jagged bang.  Mom frowned—she seldom frowned—and said I broke my promise.

“But I didn’t cut my hair, Mommy.  Sparky chewed it off.”

Mom looked into my eyes.  I lowered mine.  Suddenly I clutched a piece of my hair, waved it in front of Sparky.  He grabbed it, as puppies often do when things are waved in front of them, but he simply tugged, didn’t chew.  Nonetheless, Mom was convinced that the dog chewed off my hair.

I don’t know why I lied.  My punishment would only have been a mild scolding.  My lie, made up on the spur of the moment, wouldn’t be accepted by most adults, but my trusting, uncomplicated mother wanted to believe me.

Two days after the hair-cutting incident, a photographer knocked on the door.  He was taking portraits of children.  Mom said she wasn’t interested.

“Her hair,” she added as way of explanation.

“You don’t have to pay if you don’t like it, ma’am,” the man countered.

Mom looked at me and I beamed, conveying my desire without words.

While the photographer set up his equipment in the living room, Mom whisked me upstairs to change into my best dress, quickly brushed my shoulder-length, wavy hair and tied one side with a big pink ribbon to match my dress.

I sat as the photographer requested—left arm on a table, chin resting on my right hand—and smiled.

A few days later, he returned with a hand-colored photograph.  Background shades were muted but face details were carefully rendered and brightly tinted.  My off-center smile hinted at playfulness, my eyes shined with impish glee, and the jagged wisps of hair I cut softened my broad forehead.

Shannon Moeser: “Mom’s Favorite Picture of Me”

Mom loved the portrait.  For the rest of her life, it was prominently displayed: on a piano, fireplace mantle or cabinet, depending on the home.  Often, she would show it to visitors, invariably adding, “You can see where the dog chewed off her hair.”  Sometimes she elaborated on the dog, saying what a terror he had been.  Poor Sparky.  Blamed for something he didn’t do.  And each time she told the story, I remembered the truth.

I probably would have forgotten the incident if not for the photograph.  It refreshed my memory and guilt kept me from telling the true story to anyone.  But I never told Mom a lie again.  Sometimes I avoided mentioning activities I preferred to keep secret.  Sometimes I exaggerated my “tummy ache” to miss school.  But I never again told her a lie when asked a direct question.

During my rebellious teens and early twenties, I broke social conventions, but owned up to my transgressions and Mom always supported me.  She was the buoy that kept me from drowning while I splashed in forbidden waters.  When, in my late twenties, I became a successful scholar, she reveled in the reflected glow of my accomplishments.

In Mother’s 80th year (and my 40th), we were discussing the pictures and souvenirs cluttering up her small apartment.  She picked up “the portrait” with her wrinkled, arthritic hands and once again said how much she loved it, even though “the dog had chewed my hair off.”

I couldn’t stand it any longer.  I said, “The dog didn’t do it.  I cut it off with my little scissors.”

Mother no longer remembered the original incident, didn’t even remember Sparky who was killed chasing a car when I was seven.  The phrase “the dog chewed it off” was now something she said each time she referred to the picture, a remark of habit rather than recall.

So I described the incident that occurred 35 years earlier.  Mother remained silent for several seconds until she understood, then said “Oh.”  She paused, and added, “Why?”  I didn’t reply. The “why” was to escape a scolding, but it seemed trivial now.  I shrugged and Mother started talking about something else.  My childhood lie didn’t bother her.  I can laugh at it now, see it as she did—just a childish prank.  But, for many years, the memory evoked by this portrait stopped me from lying to my mother and helped forge our honest, open relationship.

Shannon Moeser

NOTE:

Hand-painted pictures involved manually adding color to a black-and-white photograph.   They were popular until color film became readily available in the mid-1940s.  Hand-colored portraits in the 1940s had a softer tone than color film.


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