PORTRAIT OF A GIRL AND HER DOG
(A True Story by Terry Edwin Walstrom)
Her name was Cheryl Ann Draper and she was about 11 years old the day she begged her daddy, who worked at a gas station, to let her go with him to work. He hadn’t ever let her come along before, no matter how many times she had pleaded. Her mom didn’t think it was a good idea either, she later told the police.
“Gas stations are dangerous and dirty and there’s nothing for a little girl to do all day except smell fumes and get in the way. So, I always discouraged the idea—but Cheryl Ann was crazy about her daddy and that day was a Saturday. Just that one time I gave in. God help me, it was just that one time.”
I was about 10 years old and lived across the street from the Drapers at 709 E. Baltimore. My house faced hers directly across the always dusty, unpaved road, and I never had the courage to even say “Hi” to her—although I was madly in love.
She had naturally curly hair and a smile that could blind you when she stood in her front yard petting her beloved Collie she had named Trusty. She never spoke either, although I could tell she didn’t suffer from horrible shyness the way I always did. In fact, I’d pretend I didn’t even see her most of the time because I didn’t want to appear rude for not saying anything in the way of a greeting.
The day I sneaked into my grandfather’s room and “borrowed” the Kodak box camera, I checked the little window on the front of the box to make sure there was a number displayed. If there was a number—and there was (8)—it meant you could snap a photograph. If there wasn’t . . . well, I didn’t have to worry about that, this time there was.
My plan was to sneak up behind the broad trunk of the tree in our front yard and wait for Cheryl Ann and Trusty to come out of their house. When she wasn’t paying any attention, I’d leap out from behind the tree and take aim. With a little luck, I’d have a permanent record to keep, perfectly preserving a black and white photo of the most beautiful girl in the whole world!
My grandmother seemed to possess a clairvoyant sensibility about little boys. She had raised one herself, my Uncle Jack. She used to recount stories of his escapades and exploits with a nostalgic sigh. I could sense from the way she cocked her head and gazed off into the middle distance, there was deep emotion attached to her memories of his childhood. He was 40 years old now and I guess I had taken his place in her affections. I’m almost certain of it. For one thing, several times each day she would start to say something to me and call me “J-Terry.” The “Juh” was an abortive “Jack” permanently affixed to the forefront of her thoughts. She quickly corrected and said my name, “Terry.” The story would continue and I’d learn how Jack had hopped freight trains, or walked in sewer pipes, or had climbed into neighbor’s garages through open windows to steal things of no possible use to him. She made it sound vexatious—but she wasn’t fooling anybody. He was her delight. She learned to keep an eye on him and grew highly skilled at pre-emptive intervention.
This particular day, as I was telling you a minute ago, that pre-emptive spirit was highly aroused in her. Her keen eyes had caught sight of me dashing out the front screened door with something partially hidden under my arm like a bank robber with ill-gotten loot on the lam. She had tailed me and observed as I hid behind the tree, up to heaven-knows-what.
I didn’t get a chance to play paparazzi. Cheryl Ann and Trusty emerged from the interior of her house and plopped in the front porch swing. This was in the shade inasmuch as summer in Texas has unfriendly weather with the sun flying near straight up noon. With no air-conditioning in the majority of houses, the shade of a front porch swing was about the only oasis available to escape stifling heat.
I lurked for several minutes until I heard my grandmother’s voice calling behind me, “Terrrry! What are you holding under your arm? Where did you get that?”
This startled and embarrassed me and I must have looked to be the portrait of a murderer from the expression of shame and guilt which flooded my face. I babbled my standard plea of absolute innocence.
“Nothin’—I’m, I’m just playin’. . .”
“Playin’ what? With who?”
“Nothin’ and nobody.”
She’d never fall for such an elaborate excuse as what I’d just offered, no—not with guilt flaming my cheeks with redness. She came down off our front porch in her steel blue cotton dress with the flared sleeves I had watched her create on her Singer sewing machine on the back porch of our house a long time back. She walked up and removed the sweaty Kodak box camera from under my arm.
“Are you hoping to take a photograph of Cheryl Ann?”
Wow! There I was laid naked and ashamed in front of God and the entire neighborhood as though I was made of glass and anybody could see straight through me; intentions and everything!
I sputtered my false protests and attested to all manner of lies. Fact of the matter though—I was somehow relieved to have shared my secret heart; if only by dint of my grandmother’s super powers of insight into the shadows of a boy’s soul.
“Come with me.”
That’s all she said. She took my sleeve between her fingers and tugged me forward. I suddenly panicked! Amazingly, we were headed across the road toward the Draper house! Oh sweet Jeezus!
“Cheryl Ann, honey—could you come out into the sunlight so Terry can take a picture of you, please?”
I died inside, but my heart leaped—an exquisite intoxication of adrenaline galvanized my skin into tiny bumps. I couldn’t breathe and my chest was heaving as though a bronco was kicking the slats out of my chest. One thing though—I was the man for this job! Yes, I could feel it—I was the man for the job.
Cheryl Ann appeared delighted to have her photograph taken by the creepy kid from across the street! Even Trusty pranced a bit into the grassy front lawn and struck a pose. Cheryl Ann stood facing full front as she emblazoned the summer afternoon with a beam of incredible light—it was, of course, her trademark Hollywood smile.
The rush was incredible! I squared off, hunkered over the camera, caught her in the display as evenly framed as humanly possible and clicked the shutter. It was all over in an instant of time. Improbability and possibility fused themselves into memory and photography, exposing to my mind the secrets of the Universe on a Texas summer day.
I look back through the years at this moment, stuck as I am in the eternal “now.” I can vividly revisit that memory and recall the details of it and translate it partially into words for you at this time. I managed to articulate a brisk, “Thank you.” I whirled around, coward that I was, and ran as fast as my legs would carry me back across Baltimore Street into my grandmother’s house. Too many feelings all at once had to be processed, sorted, absorbed and memorized for this world and possibly the one yet to come.
I have no ideas, clues or speculations what any of this ‘meant’ to Cheryl Ann.
Being a friendly and lovely little girl she had likely had her photograph taken hundreds of times. What I can tell you about that amazing moment means to me now is right here on this page for your eyes to read.
Weeks later, the envelope from the Worth Drug Store was ready for pickup—all the Kodak prints from the box camera, spanning however many separate vignettes over however many months had been processed. Among the prints were some silly snapshots of my Aunt Molly with a tiger-striped kitten in the crook of her arm; a posed, squinty-eyed shot of my grandmother in the same house dress standing in our driveway; some shots of my mom wearing pedal-pushers in the front yard; a snap of me in a ridiculous cowboy hat, straddling a stick-horse, and sporting a two-gun holster with my Fanner 50 six-shooter cap pistols. There was one more photograph. . .
This snapshot would be the last photograph anybody ever took of Cheryl Ann alive.
In a way, I am still angry with my grandmother for being so blunt about it—so matter-of-fact; not even trying to prepare me for the shock of discovering how this little girl with the amazing smile had been hit with a bullet in a gas station robbery when her daddy tried to stop the two men who had robbed him of $32.68. An eyewitness to the gas station robbery described to police what had occurred. My grandmother read it out loud to me from the newspaper, the Fort Worth Press.
The only thing I kept turning over and over inside my head for weeks, months and years ever afterward: how little her life was traded for. . . $32.68. Shouldn’t it have been millions?
I can’t tell you what I said or did when my grandmother read the newspaper story out loud to me. I’m not trying to hide anything—I just flat out cannot remember any part of it.
My memory screeches to a complete halt at that point; like the tires on car driven by two thugs with a pistol. I imagine the scene and I get to the stray bullet and everything comes to an end.
Well, not quite.
I have lots of old pictures from down through the years, hoarded and transplanted from house to home and state to state as the calendar has shed many pages. Somewhere in box or album, I still have in my possession the picture I snapped on that one Texas summer day. It is black and white. The sun is extra bright. The girl and her dog are there—forever—happy, young and with a future of endless possibilities ahead. Trusty, the Collie dog, has his tongue lolling out like all dogs do when the temperate shoots past ninety. I can reach for my magnifying glass to try and make out the details of the expression on Cheryl Ann’s face. After all, she is looking at me. Is there some trace of something I’d want to know? If so, it’s my own damn fault I don’t know it and never will. So many moments in our lives are filled with promise if only we had foreknowledge or the intuition to jump in and create happiness out of it.
Now that I’m an old man, there are few things in the past which can break loose and do me any harm. There are tiny shadows of worry, regret and longing. Yes, there remains one small worry.
I worry that when I die this photograph of Cheryl Ann Draper won’t mean anything to anybody, and it will be tossed away as callously as the way she was disposed of in her daddy’s gas station on Highway 80, west of Fort Worth. It was a Texaco station with gravel instead of concrete in front surrounding the gas pumps. There was an old Coca-Cola cooler right in front of the entrance. I’ve driven past it many times. Once I parked and stepped out and walked about, staring at the little pebbles, shells and colored glass in the driveway. I replay the scene inside my head. Am I morbid or just humanly curious? I really don’t know. There is nothing to see but a rusted sign and a ramshackle garage with a sheet metal roof with peeled paint saying, “Draper’s.” It was shut down and abandoned many long years ago after all that happened, happened. I can tell you straight out and truly—the place is desperately sad. It sucks your heart out and you can’t stand there for more than a minute without feeling like there is only darkness in the heart of man.
The photograph remains. I still own it. I’ve never been without it.
You’ve been in Antique Shops haven’t you? You come across old photographs of unidentified people who mean nothing to anybody any longer. They are hardly even a curiosity. Why would anybody want to buy them? Well, this is my little worry—I’m the only person alive today who knows who she is.
I wrote this little story for her—a photograph in words with name attached.
She was Cheryl Ann Draper and she was eleven years old. She was beautiful to me. She loved her daddy and her dog Trusty. I shared a tiny moment on her last day as a silly neighborhood boy who had a crush on her from afar. I dearly hope she was flattered. I truly do.
“I remember you, Cheryl Ann.” In a whisper.
Nobody ever dies as long as there is somebody somewhere who remembers you.
"Well, I remember."