THURSDAY: The Blue Swiss Dot


Copyright is held by the author.

IT WAS August 15, 1933, my 10th birthday. It began much like every other morning. At 5:45 Nob, our black and tan hound of dubious heritage, snuffled his cold nose into my face, reminding me every day was an adventure and if I wanted to be a part of it, I’d better get up. Then he raced out to the kitchen and I listened as he gulped, chomped and slurped his breakfast; then scratched at the screen door to get out. “Mind your business,” ma said as she closed the door behind him.

In the mornings my father was Nob’s business. And never one to do things in half measures, he launched himself to his self-appointed task as if his life depended on it. In a loud, baying, houndish fashion he announced his intentions to the world every morning. Nose to the ground, he loped along ditches, meandered through gardens, and onto front porches. He sniffed and dug, peed and poohed at his leisure.

In spite of the havoc left in his wake, Nob was always outside the mill just as the whistle blew and the tired men stumbled into the early morning light. Then Nob and my father walked home side by side, in companionable silence. Perhaps he understood that Pa was not the sociable, adventure-loving sort, but more like he knew that Pa wouldn’t stand for any of his nonsense ‘cause it was the only time of day he was well-behaved.

If there were those in the neighbourhood who didn’t appreciate Nob’s early morning forays, they kept their feelings to themselves, as Pa didn’t hold with others poking into his business. So Nob had free reign, unchallenged, until the Muncys moved in down the street. 

Mrs. Muncy and her adult son Oscar were marked as odd from the get go. They kept themselves to themselves in a town where everyone’s business was everyone’s business. They rarely spoke and smiled even less. Oscar spent his time sitting on the porch swing, while his mother tended to her rose garden.  But for a quiet woman she made no secret what she thought about our dog’s behaviour. Almost daily, from behind her picket fence, she brandished her pruning shears and told Pa to shut Nob up and keep him on his own property. Pa would look down at the well-behaved dog beside him tell her to mind her own godamned business. From the porch swing Oscar Muncy seemed unconcerned about Nob’s behaviours or anything else for that matter. He watched poker-faced the daily exchange between his mother and my father and never said a word. Eventually my father wore Mrs. Muncy down and she stopped talking to us entirely.

I felt glad and proud that Pa hadn’t taken any of nosey Mrs. Muncy’s guff. Sometimes though, I suspected that from under her broad-rimed straw hat, Mrs. Muncy was giving us the stink eye. Once I saw her curse and pitch stones at Nob when she thought no one was looking. I ran to Ma to complain.  She just shrugged and told me “Nobody likes a tattle-tale.” Angered by her lack of outrage, I decided to argue my point.

“You know, Pa says they’re queer as Paddy’s pigs. And Idabell Stinson told me her mother got it from Mrs. Linstrom that Oscar spent time in the looney bin in Regina; says he’s nuttier than a fruitcake.” Ma turned on me real quick and grabbed my shoulders.

“Idabell Stinson doesn’t have the sense God gave her and neither does her mother, and Mabel Linstrom is a woman with too much time on her hands.”

“Yeah, but,” Ma’s grip on my shoulders tightened and her voice rose.

“You leave Mrs. Muncy and her son alone, you hear me?” She gave me a little shake. “All families got problems and I suspect the Muncys are no different. So I’m telling you to let them be. Got it?”

“Well Pa says,” I started. But Ma cut me short.

“I know you love your pa, but sometimes he’s as big a fool as that dog, and if Nob keeps going over there getting hit by rocks, he’s dumber than I thought.”

My haughty defiance died a quick death, choked off by the lump forming in my throat. Ma could be real unsympathetic at times, and her words had a knack of cutting deep.

“Now get out to the garden; those potatoes need weeding.” She gave me a little push. At the back door I turned and asked, “Does our family have problems Ma?” She kept her back to me, but lowered her voice. “And pick some beans for supper while you’re out there.”

After Nobs departure that morning I lay in bed contemplating my birthday. I did not expect birthday gifts. That wasn’t our way since the bank stole Pa’s farm along with the twinkle in his eye. I’d been practicing my devil-may-care look when they told me there were no presents, and I had rehearsed, “Oh that’s alright,” over and over until I was sure my parents would be convinced and not feel bad for being poor.  But Ma had been acting real mysterious lately so I guess a part of me still had hope. It was my birthday after all and something memorable might happen. Leastways, it always did in stories.

From the kitchen Ma’s off-key voice crooned along with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians while the coffee boiled and the Red-River cereal thickened and stuck to the bottom of the pan. I reached for my glasses and hooked the wire arms behind my ears. When I looked up there it was, hanging from the nail on the back of the closet door. A dress. No, not just any dress, a magical vision wrought by fairies while I slept. Or, if not the work of sprites, then almost certainly Aunt Lulu and my mother were responsible.

Aunt Lulu, who, according to Ma had married well and was rolling in dough, sent a box once a year filled with clothes she and her daughters had outgrown or were no longer stylish. “She spoils those girls rotten,” and “more money than brains”, Ma would mutter as we rifled through the box like a pair of marauding pirates, oohing and aahing and sometimes laughing at the treasures buried within.

I scrambled out of bed and with trembling hands, pulled the dress from the hanger. No doubt it had come from the hand-me-down box, but remade to fit me by my mother’s talented hands. Was there ever such a beautiful dress? Not in my eyes. I ran my fingers over the fabric feeling the texture of the small white tufts and the soft blue cotton. It was as if a piece of prairie sky had been lassoed, tamed into delicate folds, and anchored to earth by the softest blue satin ribbon tied in a perfect bow at the back.  It was crowned with a small collar embroidered with dainty pink flowers that sat like a band of jewels around the neck.  It had my ma’s handiwork written all over it.

 I ran out to the kitchen clutching the dress to me. “Oh Ma.”

“Do you like it, honey?” She was grinning, hands on hips.

I could only nod.

“Well don’t just stand there gawking. Let’s put it on and see if it fits.”

It slipped over my head like silk.

“The fabric’s called Blue Swiss Dot,” she said, smiling wide, eyes sparkling. “I saw a picture of it in the Eaton’s catalogue. Trez newvo, don’t you know.” Ma always tossed in a bit of French when she got excited about fashion. Her hands brushed across my shoulders and stopped to pick an imaginary loose thread from the skirt. “Fits you real good. I was a bit afraid; you’ve grown.” She stood back, satisfied with her work. “Give me a twirl honey.”

Oh, I twirled, hopped, and danced, watching the azure skirt balloon out from my body. “Oh Ma, look at me. I’m pretty.”

“Course you’re pretty. You’re always pretty. Now take that dress off before breakfast or sure as God made little apples, your porridge will end up down the front. It’s for church and special occasions only.”

“Please Ma can’t I wear it a little longer? Just let me go and meet Pa, then I promise I’ll take it off as soon as we get home.”

Ma’s lips pulled in to a thin line like they always did when she was thinking.

“Oh, all right. But that’s all. We got laundry today and now that you’re ten you’ll be helping more around here.”

I didn’t wait for her to change her mind. The crisp cotton brushed my legs as I skipped out onto the porch, and let the screen door slam behind me. Surely all our neighbours would be peering out from behind their curtains to see me in my trez newvo Blue Swiss Dot dress. I pirouetted just for the heck of it.

Beyond the shelter of our veranda, the sun was already hot. Cicadas had started whining and grasshoppers leaped with high hopes only to fall back to earth with undignified plops. The red petunias my mother planted at the front of the porch filled the air with their sweet, heavy perfume. Down the road Mrs. Muncy hovered over her flower beds.

Beyond our gray picket fence I joined the parade of dust devils swirling along King George Avenue. It was a regal name for a narrow dirt road boarded by small, frame houses, most in need of repair. Pa hated living in town and daily lamented the loss of the farm. Ma, on the other hand, claimed it was fine for us, and told Pa to quit grippin’ and be grateful for what he had.

I stopped skipping and set a more ladylike pace, giving the neighbours a chance to appreciate the finer details of my dress. I would wait with Nob by the mill gate and present myself in my newfound glory to my father. I pictured his dusty face lighting up at the sight of me. We’d walk home together; perhaps we’d chat and share a laugh. Maybe he’d hold my hand, proud of his beautiful daughter. Folks on the street would smile and wave, in awe of the two of us.

The sound of a screen door slamming interrupted my daydream. I looked up to see Oscar Muncy step out onto his front porch, With Ma’s reproach still fresh in my mind, I waved and called out, “Mornin’ Oscar,” Perhaps he’d smile and comment on how beautiful I looked. Maybe we’d even be friends. Oscar turned and stared in my direction. “Good mornin’ Oscar,” I called again. No answer, at which time I decided the Muncys were just plain rude.

I was distracted by the sound of Nob running hell-bent up the street toward me. He skidded to a stop a few yards from me. “Hey,” I hollered at him, “Where’s Pa? You’re supposed to be at the mill.”

Nob didn’t move. Hounds can be stubborn and Nob was no exception.

“Nobbie, we gotta go. Gotta show Pa my dress.” I spun around so my dog could get a better view. “What do you think, Nob? Don’t I just take the cake?”

Oscar had stepped off the porch into the dirt. A tiny cloud of dust billowed around his bare feet. I decided to give him one last chance to redeem himself. I waved. He raised his arm and I grinned. Not even sourpuss Oscar Muncy could resist me in my Blue Swiss Dot. But he didn’t wave, he just pointed at me. There was something black in his hand. I dropped my arm, suddenly unsure. Was Oscar Muncy pointing a gun? At me? I squinted into the sun and cursed my stupid glasses.

Nob moved with soft, precise steps until he stood between me and Oscar, then he crouched low. I watched his lip curl and heard a throaty growl. “C’mon Nobbie, let’s go.” I started a smile but didn’t get a chance to finish it. Nob lunged into the air toward Oscar. I suppose there must have been a shot but I didn’t hear one. But I do remember Nob stumbling a bit then falling to the dirt.

My knees hit gravel as I landed beside my dog. There was a small, dark hole in the centre of his forehead; his eyes were open and staring. I looked up, dazed, not comprehending. That was when I watched Oscar Muncy put the pistol into his mouth and pull the trigger. Something white and red flew from the back of his head and landed in his mother’s roses. 

Then Mrs. Muncy was on her knees in the dirt too. Her eyes bulged, and her jaw hung open making a giant black hole in her face. Most of her back teeth were missing. For an instant our eyes met in shared bewilderment. Sucking sounds came from her throat as she took in the sight of her son lying in the dirt. She inhaled a ragged breath, like she’d been under water too long, and slapped his pasty face hard, and called him a stupid fool. Then she turned toward me.

“You and your fuckin’ dog.” She was screaming now, using words I’d never heard and beating me with clenched fists. I tasted blood as her blows found their mark. I couldn’t move. “Why couldn’t you just control your goddamned dog?” Her words synchronized with her punching. Then she paused in her frenzy and turned to Nob. With renewed energy she began to beat Nob. Poor Nob. He didn’t move. He just let the pounding go on and on. What’s wrong with him, I wondered? “Get up Nob! Get up!” Now my screaming matched hers.

I don’t remember getting to my feet or launching myself at Mrs. Muncy with arms and legs flailing. “You stupid bitch,” I sobbed. “Nobody hits my dog.” Mostly I hit air, but Dr. Rains told me later when he came to the house, that my efforts had not been totally without success.

Then my mother was there, and dragging me from the melee and into her arms. I smelled sunlight soap and fresh bread as she pulled me tight to her bosom and carried me into our house.  Her rough hands shook as she pulled the Blue Swiss Dot dress over my head and dropped it in a bloody heap on the floor. I never saw it again.

She wrapped a quilt around my shivering body and carried me to her rocking chair. It was so noisy. Who was screaming and crying? I tried to cover my ears and begged Ma to tell Mrs. Muncy to shut up. But she held me firm and after a time soft shushing sounds found their way to my ears, and it all faded to nothingness.

How long ma sat there holding and rocking me, crooning gentle baby words I believed I’d long outgrown, I have no idea. Sleep came eventually and I woke to the soft voices adults use when they don’t want children to hear. I listened as words of confusion and incomprehension descended into harsh recriminations, old hurts, accusations and pent-up anger; then the sound of adults weeping. It was a sound I couldn’t bear. I stuffed the pillow to my face and wept. 

Afterward, the Reverend Smithers came to the house and preached forgiveness and mercy to my parents. I could have told him he was wasting his breath. Pa claimed he’d take poison before that ever happened, while Ma said it would be a frosty day in Hell before she’d be inclined to forgive anyone including the good reverend. It made no difference as Mrs. Muncy left town before Oscar had a chance to get comfortable in his grave. Idabell Stinson told me she heard it from her mother that there was a big clan of Muncys in St. Boniface so that’s where she was most likely headed.

Poor pa was never the same and nothing I could do would fix him. His silences grew longer and deeper, his steps slowed and he gave up smiling altogether. I knew in my heart my birthday and the Blue Swiss Dot had somehow robbed him in a way the bank never could.  Six months later they brought his body home from the mill wrapped in a dirty tarpaulin.

After Pa’s death Ma seemed to grow bigger and stronger while I grew smaller and weaker. She sold up and moved us to Toronto where she opened a dress making business with her sister. Toronto was dirty, crowded and noisy, but she thrived on the hustle and bustle. I cried a lot and ma was sympathetic for a while. Then one day she told me that I was getting too big for such nonsense so I stopped.

I’ve had many years to ponder the events of that day and I still count the two black eyes Mrs. Muncy wore to her son’s funeral to be among my greatest achievements. And sometimes, when the moon is bright and the warm summer breeze skips across the prairies, Nob’s cold nose tickles my cheek and the crisp trez newvo Blue Swiss Dot brushes against my legs as we dash off the porch for a new adventure.

  1. Wow. I am so taken with this. The craftsmanship is superb, the story exciting, the buildup of the relationships done so deftly, and the characterizations perfect. Congratulations. I tried to find something I could find that might be done better and just maybe there’s a misplaced comma or something like that in there, but probably not.

  2. This is one of the most moving stories I’ve read in a long while. I wish it was part of a book so I could read it all – when they lived on the farm, and what it was like when they moved to Toronto. Absolutely brilliant writing!

  3. I loved the description and felt like I was watching a movie in my mind. I could imagine it all happening. Thank you for sharing this with us!!

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