The Shopkeeper | Part 1 of 2

by Elouise

Some things are just plain wrong. No grand theological framework, no appeal to the Bible, and no wisdom of the church or its elders can ever make them right.

It’s 1953. I’m 9 ½ years old. I’m in the back seat of our old car; my parents are in the front seat. They direct a Christian conference center near Shulls Mills, NC. It’s Friday afternoon, and we’re on our way to Boone to get provisions for the next group of campers arriving Saturday afternoon.

I’m thrilled.  My three younger sisters are back at the conference center.  That means I can sit by either back seat window. Even better, because my parents are talking to each other in the front seat, I have blessed peace and quiet to take in the winding drive through the Appalachians. I love this particular drive as much as I love hiking the trails around the conference center and drinking pure mountain creek water when I get thirsty. No big highways, no sound of trucks and cars racing by. Just flowing water, wild flowers, insects, birds, and gorgeous stands of mountain laurel and rhododendron. A bit like I imagine heaven might be: peaceful, serene, pure, grand, away from it all.

A few miles into our journey my father pulls over at a roadside shop. My mother has a six-pack of empty milk bottles. Would I please take them in, return them to the shopkeeper and bring back the bottle deposit?  I’m happy that she trusts me to do this. I’m also apprehensive. The shop looks old and rickety. More like a roadside shack than a proper store. There are no other cars around, no other customers coming or going. I push open the squeaky screen door.

The shopkeeper is standing directly behind the counter. Immediately behind him I notice an opening into another room. A  dirty, dingy makeshift curtain is hooked back to one side of the opening.  Beyond the curtain I see an unmade bed in what must be his living quarters. He watches me as I come in. No one else is in the store.

I hand the bottles to him. He smiles and asks how I’m doing today. I see the gaps between his dirty teeth and smell his reeking breath and body odor. He keeps smiling, and tells me I’m a pretty little girl. I’m not sure what to say or do. He tries to pass the time of day, but I’m speechless. At last he reaches into the cash register for the bottle deposit. He holds the coins out to me, still smiling. As I reach for the money he asks when I’ll be coming back again. I speak longer than I want to: I don’t know because we don’t live here, and we’ll be going home soon. He says he would really like me to give him a goodbye kiss, and leans over the narrow counter toward me. The stench is dreadful but I comply, holding my breath as my lips touch his scratchy, unshaven face.

In a heartbeat he has his hands on me.  Through my clothing, he feels my young breasts, holding me with one arm so I can’t back off. He keeps watching me intently, smiling. Then he reaches down and begins feeling my private parts. I’m terrified. He asks whether this makes me feel good.  I say No.  The truth: I don’t feel anything at all except scared, increasingly uneasy, and eager to get out of here and back to my parents. He tells me this makes him feel very good. He smiles. He doesn’t stop.

I begin to feel desperate. If I’m not back to that car pronto, one of my parents will come through that screen door just behind me and I’ll be in trouble. I blurt out I need to get back to my parents who are waiting for me outside in the car. Instantly he pulls back, looks beyond me into the parking lot and says this will be our little secret. I make my way back to the car, hand my mother the bottle deposit and get in the back seat not knowing what to do or say next.

We resume our trip to Boone.  Inside, I’m dying to tell my parents what just happened. But they’re talking to each other, and are on their way to do big shopping.  I decide to wait until we get back to the conference center.

Even though I’m looking out the window the entire time, I don’t see any of the lovely scenery on the drive to Boone. When we get to Boone, I don’t enjoy any of the sights, sounds or smells of the city.  I just do what I’m asked to do.

Finally we head back to the conference center. My mind, emotions and gut are in chaos. I feel confused, guilty, scared, dirty, sick to my stomach, relieved that I’m in the car with my parents, and terrified of what might happen to me when I tell them about the shopkeeper.

Immediately after we get back to the conference center I tell my parents I need to talk to them about something. Not now, we’re very busy. It will have to wait for later. My heart sinks. Later arrives, and I ask again. No, not just yet.

The next day I sit on a couch in the lodge living room, waiting for them.  I debate whether I should tell them about this or not. I know my father’s ways of dealing with me. If he finds me guilty of bringing this on myself, I’m going to get punished. Big-time. Even though I don’t have a clue what the shopkeeper was doing, I know he was wrong to treat me like that, and that I had in no way ‘asked for it,’ even though I’d kissed his face. That would be my downfall. Case closed. We have clear family rules about whom we kiss and how.  Never strangers, and never on the mouth.  OK, so I didn’t kiss him on the mouth.  So what.

The longer I ponder this, the more certain I am that though I need to talk with someone, my parents aren’t going to understand or help me. I get up from the sofa and go about my business.

Later my mother asks whether I’d like to talk now.

No, I don’t need to talk with you anymore.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 Feb 2013

For Part 2 of this post, click here.