Several years ago, I wrote a childhood memory for a writing competition. My daughter suggested that I write an explanation for the piece—that times were different in small town America in 1943. That my parents were not risking my safety by permitting a teenage employee to take me to a movie—that the anxiety on my part was nothing short of bad manners—at least, in my parents’ view.
I did not write a disclaimer. The piece stood as I remembered it—and as I wrote it. The Picture Show won first place in the contest.
My Mother and Dad were loving parents. They would never have permitted me to be in harm’s way. Yet, delving back in memory, I do not think they ever thought that I had a particular feeling or idea—beyond what they were thinking and feeling. I hope I did not do the same to my children as they tested the waters of their worlds.
Some of my readers may relate to the era in which I spent my childhood—a time when war raged across Europe, eventually entangling our own America. Most of the young men who worked for my dad in a service station went over the ocean to that war. Tom, the teenager in my remembrance, was one of them. Others of my readers are younger. You grew up in the 1950s—and later. Your perspective of childhood—and the world—is different. But as a four-year-old, this was how I viewed that particular winter evening….
“Tom Fisher wants to take you to the picture show tonight,” Mother said. “I think that’s cute. Tom’s a good kid.”
I loved picture shows. But why did Tom Fisher want to take me? Big Tom Fisher worked for Daddy at the service station. I remembered his greasy fingers. Dirt streaked on his face. Scuffed brown shoes that had never been shined.
Before I could think about why Mother said it was “cute,” she answered a light knock on our door. “Come in, Tom,” she said.
A man, probably not older than nineteen and bulky as a barn, stepped into our living room along with a huff of December wind. In the early 1940s, I was accustomed to young men who worked for my dad coming in and out of our house, laughing, talking, and eating my mother’s chocolate pie. Some waited to be drafted for World War II. Others even came by when on leave from the Army. But none had ever asked to take me to a picture show.
I scrunched in an armchair, shyness creeping over me like a damp shadow. Tom grinned and shifted from one foot to the other, crushing a knitted cap in his huge hands. I stared at the black that outlined his fingernails like crayon wax.
Mother asked if he’d like to hear me read ‘The Night Before Christmas. Tom kept grinning and nodded. Mother put the large-paged colorful book in my lap and placed her hands on her hips. Daddy came in from the kitchen and crossed his arms over his chest. Slowly, I started reciting the words to the famous Christmas poem.
“My, what a big girl!” Tom exclaimed. “Reading before you’ve been to school!”
Mother and Daddy looked pleased as punch. They both said I was smart. I looked at them through lowered eyelashes. Surely, they knew I was only reciting memorized words of the familiar book they had read to me.
“Look how she turns the pages when she reads,” Mother pointed out.
I repeated the words even slower. If I finished the book, I would have to put on my little red coat and go with Tom to the picture show. My four-year-old head wanted to see the show. That’s what everyone I knew called movies…“the show.” Mother’s face beamed approval. Daddy eyed me with that “you’re cute” look. I wanted to please them. But my heart thumped. My cheeks flushed. When I looked up at Tom, that creepy feeling like a spider web in our dark cellar covered my face and arms.
Oh, Big Tom acted nice enough at my dad’s service station. When another man—closer to Daddy’s age—teased about my hero Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, young Tom never laughed. Mr. Beasley called Trigger a “broom-tailed mare,” which made me hopping mad. I would stomp my foot and yell, “Trigger is not a broom-tail mare!”
I sputtered more silly retorts, which was exactly the reaction Mr. Beasley meant to provoke. The other workers in the service station laughed as I spun on my heel and charged through a doorway.
I closed The Night Before Christmas. The moment had come. I looked into the faces of three grown ups as Daddy held my coat so I could push my arms through the sleeves. Mother gave me a kiss and said, “Have a good time!”
A good time? I remembered walking home from the midnight picture show, giggling and swinging between the arms of my mother’s younger sister and my big girl cousin. Now that was a good time! Mother would not know because she was sick and I promised to not tell they took me to a show after my bedtime.
I stepped from our living room warmed by a crackling fire into the dark night. Big Tom grasped my hand tightly and I wanted to pull away and scurry back inside to the safe embrace of my Mother. He opened the door of his rattletrap truck and lifted me into the seat. As we drove to the Gem Theater on Main Street in our small town, he talked nonstop, stealing sideways glances at me.
“We’ll see Roy Rogers and Trigger. Won’t that be great? We’ll get popcorn. Do you like popcorn? When I get married, I want a little girl just like you—smart and cute—with blonde curls.”
His truck had no heater and I shivered inside my coat, but kept my eyes on his big, rough hands on the steering wheel. My short legs stuck straight out from the seat. Yes, I liked Roy Rogers and popcorn. But my stomach flip-flopped and my insides felt icky. My tongue tied in knots.
My Great Aunt Lucy Dial sat on a stool behind the glass in the ticket booth. For as long as I could remember—which was only four years—she had sold tickets and more or less monitored who came and went to the movie theater. When he paid for his ticket, she acted as though I came every day to the picture show with Tom Fisher. Times were innocent and trusting in our small town during the early years of the War. Everyone in our town knew everyone. But I wished I was invisible and could just hang on the theater wall and watch the picture show. I could see Roy Rogers and Trigger, but no one could see me.
Inside the theater’s lobby, the ticket-taker said, “Oh, what a lovely date you have tonight, Tom!” I hated that! My cheeks flushed again, and I looked at the toes of my Mary Janes. I did not want to be there with Tom Fisher.
Popcorn exploded and tumbled from the shiny popper into the glass bin. Its buttery smell made my mouth water. Tom handed me a warm bag of the crunchy treat. He took another bag for himself, and we made our way to seats in the theater.
Big Tom sat next to me, his grizzly bear shape wedged into the seat. He took off his jacket and his thick forearms took up both arm rests. I scooted to the opposite side of my chair, trying to melt into the seat’s soft cushion as I nibbled salty popcorn. I could hear his breathing…smell his scent…a mixture of dirty socks and Old Spice.
A black and white movie played across the screen. Cowboys with black hats robbed a bank. One reached down from his horse, grabbed a little girl on the wooden boardwalk, and thrust her in the saddle before him. From the corner of my eye, I looked at Big Tom. Was he going to slam me into the back of his truck after the picture show and drive off into darkness? Of course not! Mother and Daddy would not let me go to a picture show with a kidnapper. Still, my childish imagination soared.
Roy Rogers, astride Trigger, chased after the man in the black hat, and snatched the little girl from his horse. She was safe. If only Roy Rogers would ride out of the screen, hoist me in front of him on Trigger’s saddle, and gallop back to my home.
“Do you want to take off your coat?” Big Tom whispered.
I shook my head. I was warm, but I didn’t even unbutton the front. Big Tom might hold the sleeves as I tugged out my arms. And then, he would have to help me get back into the wrap.
At last, Roy Rogers sang “Happy Trails to you…,” and “The End” appeared in bold letters. Theater lights came on and I leaped from my seat. Big Tom led the way up the aisle of the theater and out into the dim December night. He opened his truck door and again, lifted me into the seat.
“Did you like the picture show?” he asked. “How about that Roy Rogers cleaning out all those bad guys?” I kept my eyes straight ahead, saying over and over inside my head, Make him turn toward home. Make him turn toward home. And he did. In a few minutes, he pulled up on the street in front of my house. He came around and opened the passenger door and lifted me to the ground. I bounded ahead to our front porch, my heart suddenly light. Under the soft outside lamp, Tom Fisher looked smaller—more like a big brother. Daddy opened the door and we stepped inside.
“The picture show was fun,” I said even before my Mother asked the question.
She replied, “Now, what do you tell Tom?” I turned and said, “Thank you.” And ran to the safety of the big arm chair and, still wearing my buttoned-up coat, hid my face behind The Night Before Christmas.