I came across a few written bits of story that happened when I was a teen. I’ve italicized those bits I wrote at other times, and then wrote around the pieces. It’s the first time I’ve written and assembled the whole version.
I’ve spent a good amount of time “on the road” in Canada with my family. My father had been a salesman for American Bar Directory and his territory was Canada and the Northeastern United States. Dad had fashioned a bed out of Plywood that took up the back of our rust colored Dodge van. Suitcases went underneath. My sister and I spent many hours reading in the bed, as we whiled away the miles, the hours, the Provinces. Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, and Antonio Carlos Jobim played on the eight track. Over and over. I still know all the words to Killing Me Softly and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by heart, and always will.
One time we smuggled a tiny Newfie puppy back to the States. Another time we dropped in on a family’s dinner in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t understand why they seemed so uncomfortable, I thought they were old friends of my parents. Years later I found out that those people were complete strangers that we had dropped in on. We were cold and hungry and Dad offered them my mother’s help in the kitchen in exchange for dinner. They likely only took a chance and let us in because my sister and I were kids.
Dad was particularly fond of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. In those days, we could drive for days and see no other human life, which I believe was my father’s dream come true. I was a teenager, so it was not my dream come true, but so what. Like most kids, I didn’t have a whole lot of voting power.
One trip, Dad announced that we were going to meet a friend of his. We stopped at a house, across the road was a bay, and then the ocean. The wind, as much a character in my memories of Canada as the rocky coasts, the careening green hills and steely skies, never stopped pulling at hair, blowing off hats, and lifting skirts. I hated the wind, and still become distressed when the wind would blow in my later years in California and New York.
We had driven quite a ways without seeing much in the way of houses or towns, and my sister Lauren and I were ready to get out of the car and stretch our legs. Jon A., my father’s friend appeared almost instantly. My father’s name is also Jon.
“Jon,” he hollered!! He burst into tears, obviously very excited to have company. He grabbed my mother, sobbing. And then me and hung on. I patted him. It was like being hugged by coat hanger, all sharp corners and he had fingers like an eagle trying to split open a mussel. The guy was maybe eighty years old, or maybe sixty. What did I know, I was a teenager. Everyone was old. But he was stronger than he looked. I couldn’t understand a word he said, especially since he was bawling.
“Jon, you need to put in your teeth so we can understand you,” my father said and laughed.
Jon A’s eyes got wide as he felt for his teeth and realized my father was right, they were not in. He laughed and carried our bags inside. All of them. At once.
“He’s speaks Gaelic, it’ll be easier to understand in a while,” Dad explained. “He’s also been alone a long time. He’s glad for the company.”
Oh my God! I have searched every nook and cranny of this house and it’s true, there is no electricity! There is not even a TV! The old guy who lives here doesn’t own anything with a plug. It’s so weird. He’s like some dried up prehistoric mummy man who cries (really) about being lonely all the time. I mean, get a dog, or adopt one of the frickin’ moose! He cooks on a wood stove, he chops wood, he washes his clothes in the bucket and board thingie, and he only eats like fish from the bay and crap from his garden. Mom and Dad of course think this is amazing. They’re leaving tomorrow on one of their road trips and when I told them I was not, no way, going with them to sleep in the van one more night they told me I could stay at the old man’s house. At least he smokes, he rolls his own and they look like joints. It’s a crack up.
It creeps me out that he stares at me all the time. Mom says that’s because he’s lonely and not used to having people around. He told me he was going to show me how to make mackerel stew tonight. I don’t know what a mackerel is but, whatever.
Yes, Mom and Dad used to leave my sister and I often, whether we were at home on Woodstock or on the road. It was a different time. We could pretend we were like Laura and Mary in Little house on the prairie, no electricity, no phones. Just us and the wind, the ocean, and this old man.
There was one other house, across the street. Jon A. told us that was Mrs. Tingly, and I wondered if I detected a lack of love in his voice for his neighbor. My sister and I went over to introduce ourselves. She was old like Jon. A, but she had electricity, and a phone. Mrs. Tingly invited us in for tea and biscuits. It was Red Rose tea. They used to include little porcelain animals nestled in the tea bags. They were glazed tea brown and periwinkle blue and she had many of them lined up next to her tea cups. She let us each pick two to keep. There wasn’t much conversation that I can remember, or maybe we just couldn’t understand her brogue.
The next day Mom and Dad packed the van. I had been desperate for them to go so I could light a cigarette. Finally, the Dodge pulled away from the house. I was mere seconds away from a true nicotine fit.
Jon A. burst into my room without knocking. He stared at me, the weepy old man face he’d worn since we’d arrived was wiped away completely, and he suddenly looked a whole lot different.
Why was he in my bedroom?
It took him two steps to close the distance across the floor to me. He grabbed the back of my head with one gnarly hand and planted the other one under my chin and bulldogged me down on the bed. Then he put a bony forearm across my chest, and pressed me into the mattress. I listened to my heart pound and wondered just how long it would take an average fifteen year old girl to die from fright. I turned my face away from his fishy, ragged breath.
“You’re going to marry me, Girl. That’s a fact. You’ll not leave here when your father returns.”
“You’re nuts!” I managed, and tried to wriggle out from underneath him.
He stood up and pulled me up from the bed with his fisherman fingers wrapped around my wrist. Damn, he sure kept surprising me with how strong he was.
I tried to twist out of his grip but I couldn’t get the crazy bastard to let go. He dragged me into the kitchen, skinning my knees on the floor until I could find my feet.”
In the kitchen, he tossed me into a chair. I rubbed my knees. He promised me his house and everything he had. I imagined mackerels to the moon and back.
I don’t know how I could finally make sense of the Gaelic, but maybe it was because I my ear had gotten use to the brogue, or maybe it was a survival mechanism.
I reminded him that I was only fifteen, but that didn’t seem to be a problem for him.
I looked past him though a homemade glass window. The glass was thick and uneven. He followed my gaze to a small row boat floating in the bay.
“That bay, it’s full of eels. The boats full of holes. You’ll sink and the eels’ll eat you up. You ever seen an eel crawl into the gut of a drowned girl?”
Enough said. A bay full of roiling hungry eels I did not need. An eel in my drowned gut I need not need. I was pretty sure I was going to throw up.
“You’ll be my wife. That’s sure.” No I would not, that was sure. I had a boyfriend at home. I could not wait to fling myself into his arms and tell him my horrible story, and have him kiss my forehead. I hoped I lived long enough to do it.
Jon. A turned and went outside. Then I heard him chopping wood. With an Ax. I looked through the little glass window. He looked back, and then swung the ax over his shoulder. CHOP! And then again. CHOP! Damn, that old guy was strong. CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! I needed to figure out a way for us to escape.
I ran upstairs to find my sister, which I did, in her room hiding under her blankets. She wanted no part of this, and had taken her leave of it until my parents returned. I was on my own.
In my bedroom, I chain-smoked Marlboros I had stolen from my parents while I tried to figure out what to do.
It had become dark. There was a heating vent in the wooden floor of my room. It was meant to let the heat travel from the kitchen downstairs up into the bedrooms. I watched him light the kerosine lanterns, and walk back and forth underneath me. Occasionally, he would turn and gaze up through the grate, and I would pull back away out of sight. Finally, his footsteps stopped. I sat, jumping occasionally as the wind outside slammed the side of the house.
I crept downstairs and found Jon. A. dozing on the couch. His false teeth rested on his chest. His bald head and slack mouth made me think of the painting, “The Scream.” I ran outside and across the street.
I didn’t know how long I had until the old man woke up. After a few hard raps on the Mrs. Tingle’s door, the porch light came on. She appeared, her bathrobe clutched at her throat against the screeching wind that pulled at it.
“He’s crazy, “ I cried at her, waving my hands. Her eyebrows made a surprised little tipi on her forehead, but she remained silent. Then she pursed her lips, and nodded slowly.
“Can I please come in?”
I bounced on the balls of my feet. Panic was building, I imagined his old steel talons yanking me backwards into the darkness.
She opened the door just wide enough for me to slide by her. I caught her give the darkness a once over before she closed the door behind us.
I started for the warm little kitchen.
“Dearie, “ she said in her heavy Gaelic accent as the old man as she wrapped her fingers into the fabric of my shirt, stopping me in my tracks. I’ll say one thing for Nova Scotia, the old geezers were strong! “You’ll stay right here and tell me what you want from me.”
It all burst out, “He says he’s going to marry me! I need to call my parents!” It occurred to me that I had no idea how or where to reach my parents.
“Oh, yes, he’s not right. Never has been. Why your people left you with a complete stranger in the middle of nowhere I’m sure I don’t know. He built that house many years ago for a girl that didn’t even look at him twice. He nearly died from disappointment when she married her sweetheart from school. He’s as nutty as they come.”
“We have to stay here! I’ll get my sister!”
“Aw, no, girl. You’ll be going home to the United States and then it’s me and the old man over there, and no one else for miles. I’ll not cross him, or he’ll make a hobby of filling his days with making me pay for betraying him. You have to go home. Right now, shoo.”
And she pushed me past the shelf of little Red Rose animals, right towards the door.
“What? You can’t just send me back there! “ I glanced at a cross on her wall just before she pushed me out, “it’s not Christian!”
I heard her lock the door, and then she turned out the lights.
I didn’t sleep of course, I couldn’t. I sat up and tried to turn down the sound of the wind so I’d be able to hear his step on the stair if he decided to come back to my room. I imagined him breaking down the door with his ax, and then what?! I thought about hiding in my sister’s room, but thought it would be better to keep his attention on me rather than her.
Morning came, and so did my parents van. I ran past my mother and punched my father in the arm. “Let’s go!”
I planted myself in the van, and was joined shortly by my sister. Neither one of us spoke. We just waited.
Eventually my parents joined us, and we left. I was furious, but maybe because it was a different time, the whole event was not given much attention.
Some years later, while I was home from college, I was shocked to find Jon A. sitting at our kitchen table in Woodstock. My mother was the only one home besides myself. I was apoplectic with rage, and sat in my bedroom with the door locked. I furiously ate a whole box of Cheerios and then threw up. I could not believe this person was in our kitchen.
He then vanished as quickly as he had appeared. My parents explained that he must have taken my father’s off hand “come see us sometime,” seriously and had made the trek from Nova Scotia to Woodstock. He called my parents house from the Kingston bus station, and demanded a ride. Mom picked him up, unsure of what else to do with him. Dad returned him the the bus station with a one way ticket and a firm, “it’s been nice knowing you, it’s been real, now get lost.”
I never saw him again, and I still do not like eels.
Photo Credit: Nova Scotia Canning Company