28 Apr The opening pages of Six Girl Smile
People have been sharing work to help us pass the time during the pandemic lock down, so here are the opening pages to Six Girl Smile, (aka Mister Madame), my current WIP.
Six Girl Smile
By John C. Foster
“Go to Hell, Wrecker,” the old man said. The truck lurched away, exhaust pipe farting smoke.
I dropped my pack and placed my hands on my knees, catching my breath as the truck vanished. I thought I wouldn’t be recognized, but predictions have never been my strong suit.
The pack found its way onto my back and I resumed trekking along the snowy shoulder. I squinted to make out a distant road sign, but my eyes were watering from the chill and it scattered into prisms. I blinked and tried concentrate on the blue sky overhead and the clarity of the sunlight, but I felt hemmed in by the towering wall of pines pressing in on either side of the blacktop.
The straps were cutting into my shoulders and my cheeks were raw from the cold. My old Navy coat wasn’t thick enough for a New Hampshire winter and as soon as I stopped moving, I started shivering. My knees were stiff and feet dead numb. Running in place for five years hadn’t prepared me for the long hike, but it didn’t matter.
When I paused to pluck a crumpled pack of Winston’s from inside my coat, the sign was closer. I lipped a cigarette and lit it with a paper match, reading the words I was expecting through a splatter of frozen mud.
FLINTLOCK 10 MILES.
I spit at the sign and missed.
I knew pop was dead before I pulled down the yellow police tape and broke into the house, where it was no warmer than the winterscape outside.
It stank of scorched insulation and burnt dinner inside the small living room. I remembered the floor of uneven boards beneath rotting carpet and the single window through which sunlight always seemed to ooze, painting the cluttered space in shades of mud.
But the chair was missing. A shade of brown and green that existed beyond any color spectrum, the chair had been imbued with pop’s smells of beer and sweat and tobacco. Pop’s throne, the one I was never allowed to sit on. It commanded the cluttered living room like a captain’s chair on the bridge of a warship. Pop sat in it fall and winter, spring and summer and refused to age. It was a time machine that stopped the ticking of the clock.
Except it didn’t, because pop was dead.
The kitchen junk drawer was were I remembered it and I rummaged through pieces of metal, rolls of tape and pencils until I found a penlight, my breath steaming from my mouth because the heat was off. Had been off long enough for water in the sink to freeze into ice.
I played the penlight over the space where pop’s chair had lurked. The cheap carpet beneath was burned away and the faux wood paneling of the wall was black with soot. It didn’t take a forensic genius to picture the old man falling asleep with a cigar in his mouth and a bottle of Cutty Sark in his lap before burning himself like a Salem witch.
I knew the stink of a man set afire from another place and another time. It was distinct. The reek of pork ribs charring in open flames. Bubbling fat. The eye watering tang of chemicals reduced to gases by the heat as clothes and plastic and whatever else was rendered to ash.
The fridge was old, white and still loud, but it worked and pop had beer inside. I was almost shocked when the interior light flashed to life and reminded me of the darkness in which I stood, but it didn’t move me to turn on the lights. The bottle opener was still screwed into the wood of the doorframe and I popped the cap and tossed it into the sink, where it cracked the thin scrim of ice inside.
Beer burned my throat and I belched my gratitude, tempted to rummage for harder stuff and get drunk in the dark.
A Red Sox calendar on the wall had the date of my release circled in marker and I was surprised that pop kept track. Probably worried I’d show up asking for money.
I took my beer into pop’s bedroom, ignoring the expected disarray and kicking aside clothes on the floor, accidentally knocking over a stack of books beside the bed. The moth eaten shades were pulled and the air was musky like a fox’s den.
The closet door was off the rails so I set my beer on the floor and moved it aside with both hands, seeing the steel box on a shelf that had always carried his Army Colt .45. Risking a descent to the floor, I looked under the bed and aimed the light this way and that until I was pretty sure I saw the hard plastic length of a rifle case.
I sat on the floor and smoked and sipped and wondered where they keys for the weapons were, but the calendar nagged at me. Even such miserly sentiment wasn’t like pop.
There’s only one fatherly thing I ever remember him saying to me. He said, “Bein’ a person’s like bein’ a leaf on a river. Might be you wash into a pool and even reach shore. Might be you hit rapids and get torn to bits. You think on that when you’re talking about plans for your life.”
I decided to head outside and check the shed where the old man used to hide his poker winnings. I wasn’t looking for the money—I’d take it, but it wasn’t my goal. I was looking for his diaries, curious about why he marked the day of my release and without a plan upon finding him (and his chair) gone.
The storm door begged in a squealing voice for oil on its hinges, but I ignored it and pushed through the heavy wooden portal that led to the driveway. Fluttering tentacles of police tape tried to catch at my pants when I stepped outside and the cop in the driveway said, “Oh boy, I bet this is a parole violation.”