My aunt knew something—I was sure of that. But what did she know? I was only ten, and I knew very little. She lived a train and bus ride from Grand Central Station, in Lake Peekskill, New York. Getting to her house was so difficult—the trip ended in a long walk from the bus station—that it made the goal, her home on Tanglewylde Road, seem that much more precious.
My aunt, whom I called Moster Malin—in Swedish moster means mother’s sister—lived with Uncle Otto in that home, surrounded by gardens and woods, until his sad death. He was fifty when, while sitting in the armchair in front of the living-room fireplace, he died of a heart attack.
After Otto died so suddenly, Malin went on a long trip to Texas to see her brother, and then fled to Mexico, a distraction from her grief. When she returned to New York, she took me to her home in Lake Peekskill, so that she could have a companion. I spent many days with her during that time.
While Moster Malin worked in the house or the gardens or tended to her chickens, ducks, and geese, I liked to wander around the rock garden in front of her house, look at the goldfish swimming in the pond Uncle Otto had constructed, and sit on a large rock that overlooked the road. That summer, when I was ten, I made friends with Jerome. I do not remember his real name.
Jerome lived somewhere on Tanglewylde Road. A handsome man (I could tell even in those early years), he stopped to talk to me one day. This is how I remember it.
“Hi, little girl. What’s your name? I’m Jerome.”
I told him my name.
“Do you like to read?”
“Yes.” I pointed to the book open on my lap.
“So do I. One of my favorite books when I was your age was The Wind in the Willows. I liked the Badger and the Mole and, of course, Mr. Toad.”
“I like that book. Mr. Toad is so funny. It must be great to drive around like Mr. Toad, going very fast.”
“It is. I have a car. I could take you for a ride someday.”
“I’d have to ask my aunt. I’m only ten. How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. I live up the hill. You are a sweet little girl.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Jerome turned around and went back up the hill. I read some more, and then walked to where Jimmy, the Angora cat, was sunning himself. Jimmy wore a harness and was tied to a tree. Moster Malin didn’t want him to run away. She didn’t seem to care so much about Mickey, a striped grey cat who lived outside almost all the time. Mickey was the outside cat, in charge of killing mice. Jimmy was the inside cat, a prince, larger than Mickey, with beautiful white fur, in charge of nothing at all.
The next afternoon, I was back on the rock overlooking the road. What a coincidence. Jerome was walking down the road.
“Hello, Anita. What are you reading today?”
“Alice in Wonderland.”
“Another great book. Do you like it?”
“Yes, but it’s kind of strange. Sometimes it’s a little scary, like when Alice gets smaller or bigger or when the queen wants people’s heads chopped off.”
“Do you know anything about the author?”
“His name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.”
I looked at the cover of my book. “It says here that his name was Lewis Carroll.”
“That was his pen name. Dodgson was his real name. Did you know that Dodgson had a real little friend named Alice?”
“No. Was she like the Alice in the book?”
“A little. But in the book Dodgson was able to let his imagination take over. He liked taking photographs of Alice and of other children. Sometimes they weren’t wearing much. Great pictures.” He stopped talking for a minute. I felt strange looking at him. “I’d like to take a photograph of you. Would that be OK?”
“Yes. I guess so.” I was flattered at Jerome’s attention, since at the age of ten, I was already feeling awkward and chubby and unattractive.
“Good. Next time I’ll have my camera.”
I didn’t tell my aunt about Jerome, and I’m not sure why. Did I somehow sense that a normal adult man would not be talking to a ten-year-old girl? I liked his attention, and I wanted him to continue to be attentive.
And then the next day came. I was back on the rock. By this time, I had finished reading Alice in Wonderland and had started Through the Looking-Glass. Stranger and stranger the story seemed to me. And the illustrations in my book were kind of scary. I was so busy reading that I didn’t see Jerome standing there. How had he crept up so quietly? He was holding a camera.
“May I take your picture, Anita? Just look natural.”
“OK.” I tried to look natural, whatever that was.
“Why don’t you lie down on the rock while I take another photo?”
I did as I was told.
“Now stand up and put your pretty hands at your waist. Give me a big smile.” Click, click. “Now tilt your head a bit. That’s it.” Click, click.
I began imagining what he would do with the photos. Would I become a model? A child actress? Would I become the star of a magazine ad?
Suddenly I heard my aunt calling to me. “Anita! Anita! Where are you?”
I told my new friend I had to go inside.
“OK, maybe I’ll talk to you again, and we can take that ride.”
“Sure.” I picked up my book and walked up the steps of the rock garden, past the goldfish pond, to the side of the house where Jimmy, the proud and beautiful Angora cat, lay in his harness, tied to a dogwood tree. I walked around to the back door and entered the kitchen, almost upsetting the little dishes Moster Malin always left for Mickey, the outside cat.
My aunt was in the kitchen, baking bullar, the Swedish cinnamon buns I loved so well.
“Who were you talking to, Anita?”
“Jerome. He lives up the road somewhere.”
“What did he say to you?”
“We talked about books. He said he would take me for a ride in his car. He took some pictures of me. I met him the other day, and he came back twice to visit me.”
Moster Malin stopped kneading the bullar dough and looked at me. Her eyes were blazing. She raised her voice. “You are not going in a car with any man. You are only ten. You are not to talk to him again. He is not a nice man. He can’t be, or he wouldn’t be talking to little girls like that. Taking pictures! Herre Gud i Himmel! Do not ever talk to him again, you hear? I know what he’s up to. Up to no good.”
I had imagined a nice ride with Jerome. We would talk about the Badger and the Rat and how the animals in The Wind in the Willows messed about in boats. He would be nice to me, just like my Uncle Otto had been. Maybe he would buy me ice cream. Why was that so bad? I had no one to play with, and Jerome could play with me.
My aunt said she knew what he was up to, but I didn’t know. I only knew that I would never talk to Jerome again.
The next day I read my book, not on the big rock by the road, but near the house, sitting on the ground next to Jimmy, the prince of cats.