A Nod to the Gnawed

It happened either in 1974 or 1975 when I was living in Oxnard. I can’t remember the exact year. I do know I was in the 7th grade so that would have made me 12 years old. My birthday is in August so I was always the same age throughout the school year.

It’s a good time of year to have a birthday except when you’re a kid and you meet some adult in early summer. The two questions I invariably got asked were how old is was and what grade I was in. I would then prepend each answer with “going to be,” which I didn’t like saying because it made me sound desperate and insecure and I knew I was both those things. Also, why would anybody ask what grade you’re in when it’s July? Do they not know how school years work? My contempt for the grown-up world began at an early age.

Anyway, what I’m going to tell you happened in the 7th grade for sure because of what was said the next day in gym class. I had no gym class in the 6th grade or prior and had moved to Santa Barbara by the time 8th grade rolled around. So I was definitely 12 years old. Many of the other details are hazy so I’ll have to lie my ass off to fill in the gaps in the story.

It was late afternoon or early evening and I was playing over at a friend’s house. I’ll call this friend “Todd” instead of his real name because I’m going to say terrible things about his parents.

So Todd and I and some other kids are playing tag, hide and seek, or some other game I was borderline too old for. Todd was 10 or 11 at the time, as  were the other kids. I was either chasing somebody or being chased (I don’t recall which), and I managed to trip and fall face first into some bushes growing along the side of Todd’s house. I’ve always been a klutz so this event wouldn’t be noteworthy except that one of the branches poked me a good one in the eye.

I howled in pain because eye injuries hurt like hell and I was a wimp (still am). Todd came running over to see what was wrong. I think he was genuinely concerned even though he looked like he was smiling. Todd had large teeth so his mouth didn’t always close all the way. They weren’t Gary Busey big, more akin to Jake Busey or George Thorogood, but large enough to affect his facial expressions.

The perceived smile made me cry even more, but I did trust Todd enough to heed his suggestion that we go in his house and let his mom have a look at me.

I remember Todd’s mother as being a lovely woman who had all of her beauty on the inside.  Todd got his teeth from her side of the family though hers were bigger and her Scottish upbringing had given her the sort of dental hygiene one usually associated with the British Isles. Her teeth were formidable things, unlikely to fall out anytime soon, but they did look like she flossed with baling wire. Despite all logic to the contrary, it was difficult for me to feel completely comfortable around someone with teeth like that.

She saw me bawling with my hand over my eye and asked me what was wrong. I told her and took my hand away from my face so she would know that I could be blind, dead, or both very soon.

“Oh dear, you did  do yourself a mischief, didn’t you,” she said. “Roy, come have a look at David, could you?”

Roy was Todd’s father, whom I called Mr. Wilford to his face and Fatso behind his back. Unlike Todd’s mother, he was American. He was roughly the same height as his wife and weighed twice as much. Hot weather could make him lose his temper over almost anything. It was cool and breezy that day so he seemed only vaguely menacing. The cigar and can of Schlitz he had in his hands helped to soothe his mood.

“So what happened here?” he asked Todd.

“David fell in the bushes,” Todd said.

“All right then,” his father said and sat down at the kitchen table. Todd’s explanation was satisfactory to him. Apparently, so was my injury. I didn’t like Todd’s father so I didn’t mind him not wanting to get involved, but I kind of wished someone did.

Todd’s mother came back into the kitchen and poured me a glass of fruit punch, the kind from concentrate that gives you a red mustache when you drink it.

“Here you go, David. Maybe this’ll help,” she said and walked out of the room.

I was feeling a little panicked. I was pretty sure I needed medical attention, not a glass of Kool Aid. Was this how they treated kids who got injured around them? How many brothers and sisters did Todd have before his parents started culling the herd?

I needn’t have worried. What Todd’s mother had failed to mention was that she called my parents to pick me up when she was in the other room.

My folks arrived with my brother Gordon. While the grown-ups were off talking amongst themselves, Gordon backhanded my shoulder to get my attention and pointed at the cigar in the ashtray on the kitchen table. Rather, he pointed at the chewed end of the cigar.

It was horrifying. If it were just a mass of mulched tobacco and spit, that would have one thing, but mixed in was something beige and lumpy. It was no doubt bits of Todd’s father’s latest snack, or perhaps the last few. I couldn’t make out what it was exactly. It looked a little like the fat cut away from raw chicken and also a bit like American cheese. I was disgusted, but just like seeing a deformed person on the bus, I couldn’t look away.

My parents came back in and took me home with them. My father checked out my eye and when he found it could see through it just fine, he decided I didn’t need to go to the emergency room.  I trusted his judgment because he was a smart man who knew fancy words like “hematoma.”

The next day, I woke up  with a huge shiner and my eyelid swollen half shut. I got dressed and went to school looking like someone had beaten the shit out of me. Fortunately, this was the mid 1970s so there was little risk of anyone assuming the worst and calling CPS without bothering to find out what happened.

Dad never hit me so the thought of that hadn’t crossed my mind. However, other kids had plenty of times over the years because I was both scrawny and mouthy. I didn’t want anyone to think it happened again so I made it a point to tell everyone at school the real story.

Everyone seemed to believe me except for my PE teacher, who balled his meaty fist and said, “It looks like you ran into one of these.” The other kids laughed when he said it. They probably still believed me, but his version was more fun.

I wanted to argue the point, but didn’t have it in me. My brain couldn’t shake the visual of the chewed end of that cigar. The image stayed with me, periodically grossing me out for a long time afterward. Decades later, I can still remember it in far greater detail than I would like.

So that was my take away, not that I was being a crybaby, not that I shouldn’t judge people based on how funny looking their teeth are. It’s hard to learn life lessons when some bright, shiny object distracts you. Or if nothing bright or shiny presents itself, chewed up and disgusting will do in a pinch.

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