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This is the second episode in the series, Spirits of the Fall – True Stories of the season: eerie occurrences, real-life horrors, visits from beyond, ghosts, and second sight.
For this episode, I want to share a story from my own life. It is written in a child’s voice, as I remember it.
Where the Driveway Ends
It was a long way, longer than I would have liked, and farther than I could see in the night. If I turned on the garage lights I could catch a glint of the mailbox but it was all black beyond. The cow corn on old man Coblentz’s land grew higher than I could see. Taller than a man by autumn. The crops grew on three sides of the house with neighbors to the west. Didn’t see them much unless they needed someone to feed the horse and cat when they left. That dark house seemed as lonesome and empty as when they were there. Folks kept to themselves which is how my family liked it.
Lots were big and homes were small. And my brother and I played outside. I wasn’t more than eleven, all arms and legs, flat-chested with buck teeth so bad I kept my lips together when I was around people.
My father wasn’t any kind of farmer. He was an educator who went abroad to teach and joined the foreign service, his generation the first to go to college. He settled in the Middletown Valley for the schools and the solitude he craved after multiple diplomatic tours in Vietnam. He handed me letters to put in the mail one evening. He knew I was scared to walk outside at night and he made me go anyway.
I stepped into the doorway in my slippers, my ankles sticking out of my flannel nightgown, the kind with ruffles on the collar. The clothes lines clinked against the poles and the breeze was cool on my legs and neck. I opened my eyes wide, trying not to blink, hearing the rustle of corn, the crickets a constant chattering. I didn’t want to miss anyone who might be there, beneath the summer sounds, a shadow beyond the driveway’s end. Should I run. Or should I walk, slow and steady, ready for whoever and whatever.
“Go on,” my dad said. Then he shut the door behind me.
I hadn’t noticed that I was frozen. I moved out along the sidewalk, my footfalls soft on the concrete. I reached the asphalt driveway and my shadow stretched in front of me, disappearing as I crept forward into darkness. I could hear my breathing and my heart beat. I blinked and my eyes adjusted, looking left towards the fence, listening to the swish of the corn, looking right, past the neighbor’s horse barn, searching for the familiar cluster of large quartz rocks.
A glance back at the house, the front windows by the porch waned to a thimble of light. I could see the silhouette of the corn fields past the driveway, like a long stretch of darkness on the horizon, the sky above it speckled with stars. I was too far for help and surprised when I reached the driveway’s end, so focused was I on everything else. The road bent beyond the corn, the other side heading away from the house like a black river. The hair on my arms was standing. There wasn’t a shape or sound I missed, aware of the asphalt beneath me, the swaying stalks, the expanse of shadows which during the day had nothing on me, just wood-line or a rutted path in the field or the sweet honeysuckle cluster in the brush. I told myself so and said it out loud, but that didn’t matter.
Seems every scary story, face, and warning rose up in my head and there was no beating them down. I couldn’t cross the street when we lived in the city since there was public housing and all sorts of violence. Didn’t need anyone to tell me that since I had eyes enough, squad cars screeching in and out on a regular basis. My own brother was chased home by some toughs who wanted into his briefcase. My Dad sent us in a taxi a few times but we had to brace up, get to school and stay out of trouble.
There was the man who worked for us at our liquor store, who liked to smile at me. I didn’t like him, or his dull round face, especially when he was smiling. Another guy came into the store and asked my dad to take my brother out, more than a few times. Mr. Big was his name and he was involved with the scouts. My brother had made a car for the pinewood derby and earned badges which he wore on his olive uniform with kerchief. Dad didn’t let him go with Mr. Big. Dad had the kind of grown-up smarts I learned to respect. The Smiling Man robbed us, took the week’s receipts and spent it all. The police caught him eventually but the money was gone. And, my dad sent me the article on Mr. Big years later. He was convicted for doing bad things to children.
These were only two, but there were a lot more stories, like the ones from my mother. She was a sliver of a Vietnamese woman with a temper to match that of three men. She told me all manner of superstitions and tales and family lore. I never knew which were true and for her it didn’t matter, the lesson was served. All the usual stuff, don’t talk to strangers and keep to yourself. And things like: Don’t look into that car, they’ll drive by, then shoot and kill you. Do not make eye contact with those kinds of people. She was feared and admired and I can see her throwing her shoe at a customer who she caught stealing. She’d kick them out for a period of time then she let them back when they apologized.
“Yes, Ms. Linda. I’m sorry and I’ll behave.” That was the least of it and my dad figured he better get us out of the city before she got herself killed.
I was five years old when we lived in Saigon and South Vietnam was free. I have normal memories, different than what many think of in a land long mired in conflict. Things scared me too, though they were not all war kinds of things. The lizards running along the ceiling, the market with fish heads and dead animals hanging in stalls, the legless man on a dolly. It was the raw kind of living I’d recognize in third-world countries as an adult. Women at the market pinched my face, twisting my chubby cheeks between thumb and index finger till it hurt, taken by my mixed-race with fair skin and wavy hair. I still see the faces, looking into squinting eyes, dead-on mine, the black blood-stained teeth from chewing betel nut. The demon grin imprinted so deeply, it never left.
My mother had seen a severed head on a pole as a child and later had escaped as an adult, evacuated before the fall of Saigon, lucky to have an American husband. I suppose those feelings and images haunt her still. I didn’t know much about the war then, but I learned more as I got older and the funny thing about that, is what things were like for me became warped and tainted through the filter of study and reflection. My mother couldn’t help being shaped by conflict, war, and the culture shock of leaving diplomatic life. Expunged from one hell to another kind of hell, living above a liquor store opposite the ghetto, hers was a life of national and cultural and emotional turmoil. If someone wasn’t taking your land, your house or your family, then they wanted them, by God. There was rarely a time with her, she wasn’t advising me on rogue states, bad people, and ill omens.
In fifth grade and living in the rural part of a small town, I had absorbed this fear without knowing it, alert and aware, assessing threats and those who would do me harm. I suppose all kids know fear of some sort, that the senses are heightened from fight-or-flight instincts, which were on full throttle that evening at the driveway’s end.
The mailbox shape was easy to see and I had to walk onto the road to get to it. Something about toeing the street and edging into that dark river shook things loose, my wits untethering. I saw it then, a flicker in the distance. Quick, I hustled to the box, pulled down on the door and the flicker seemed to grow, getting closer. Clear enough now, a pair of distant yellow eyes locked on me.
I dropped the letters inside then slammed the door, lifted the flag, but dared not run. Running meant you were game, open to chase. The road left me exposed, off family land with my backside in the open. It was like playing tag and I was off home-base. I reached the driveway and inhaled, realizing I had stopped breathing. The flicker grew brighter by the neighbor’s house and had I been listening, I’d have heard it.
The engine. Headlights! They were headlights. I didn’t want to be seen, a target in nightclothes. The light was bright, brighter now, the corn caught in its glare. Don’t look into that car, they’ll drive by, then shoot and kill you. As I shuffled down the driveway, I couldn’t stop myself. Do not make eye contact with those kinds of people. I turned and saw him in the field, standing between the stalks, Smiling Man.
I stumbled towards home, minding the car beams, careful to stay beyond their reach. At the other end I could hear her from the rattle of clothesline by the house. She was there in the night breeze, watching and waiting, in the grass beyond the driveway. The betel-tooth demon.
That’s the end of this story.
The betel-tooth demon and the smiling man were ghosts for me, spirits which haunted my subconscious and in certain ways have remained there. But they were drawn from real people. Mr. Big was convicted on child molestation and my father’s judgment very likely spared my brother unspeakable cruelties. All were part of my childhood.
I learned that Betel nut was once commonly used in Vietnam and the blackened teeth were considered beautiful by certain tribes. I don’t suppose the woman was any kind of demon; it had more to do with my own reaction to something foreign at such an impressionable age. The Smiling Man was an actual employee who I interacted with and had robbed us.
The horrors my mother witnessed in central Vietnam shaped her world view and personal interactions. Such images and experiences make an imprint on those who lived them and they pass on that legacy, often through stories, as I have done with you.
*Beautiful Women Vietnam – Blackened Teeth Tradition