the girls'll be here soon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of family tragedy.

THE GIRLS’LL BE HERE SOON

by J.C. Black

 

The old man backed the big car out of the school driveway, reversing too fast and bottoming it out with a thud.He wasn’t supposed to park there in the first place, but I guess it was okay because nobody came and hollered at him about it.  I sat in the back and dangled my legs off of the bench seat.  I watched the shadows of the leaves in the trees overhead make shapes on my legs in the white pants.  They were my school pants and I wasn’t allowed to wear them otherwise.

I’d never seen him at my school before.  It surprised me when the call came over the loudspeaker in my classroom telling me to come to the main office because he was there waiting for me.  The other kids oohed and aahed as I got up from my desk and headed to door.  Knowing that nine-year-olds can be brutal, Mrs. Donellon gave me a kind look.  “It’s okay, Matthew.  You can go by yourself.”

My mom was the only one at home that morning.  She called the old man at his office and he left before he could even hang up the phone.  He came to get me and she went to get my sisters from the high school.  As we drove away from the school I caught his eyes reflected in the rearview.  They looked different.  Still clear blue, like mine, but rimmed with red and puffy.  It scared me to see him like that.

I asked where we were going and he said that we had to get ready for Jackie to come home.  His voice didn’t sound happy but I figured that had to be good news.  He lit a cigarette and rolled down his window.I shifted in the slippery seat and looked out at the familiar houses that lined the neighborhood streets.  We weren’t heading home though.

“Dad, this is the wrong way.”

“It’s fine Matty.  We need to go this way.”

After a minute, “Okay.”  Then the old man guided the car up the on ramp to the interstate. 

We drove in silence for a while.  I turned around in the seat, hanging my head back into the place where the feet go.  My legs were up on the ledge under the back window.  If I arched my back, I could see through the crack where the arm rest was in the front seat and look through the windshield.  Upside down cars raced under the sky.

I sat like that for a while and imagined what it meant that Jackie was coming home.  He only came home once or twice a year since he went to college.  I got to visit him there once and he took me to have a pizza and a Coke at a place near his dorm.  Some of his friends were there, including a pretty girl who played with my hair and told me I was just as handsome as my big brother.  Since he went into the Army, we hadn’t seen him at all.  That was before the school year.  It was almost Halloween.  Would we have a party for him?

Now we had been on the road for some time and I was getting hungry.  I’d forgotten my lunch at school.  Probably because I’d been in a hurry to get to the office.  “Dad, are we going to have lunch?”  He was deep in thought and didn’t seem to hear me.

I shifted out of my upside down position and leaned forward over the seat back.  My arm was touching his shoulder.  He noticed me in the rearview and turned. 

“What’s up, sport?”  His voice didn’t sound normal; it was a bit out of tune.

“Dad, I’m hungry.”

“I guess I am too.”  He looked down at the dashboard.

“Plus we need gas.  We should stop at Gus’s.  How’s that sound?”

I liked Gus’s.  We always stopped there on our way to our place at the beach. Were we going to the beach?

I leaned forward and looked at his face in the mirror. “Yes!  Sounds great!”

I sat back against the seat and started to think about what I’d order.  Usually I got grilled cheese and a root beer at Gus’s.  The old man always got a burger with limburger cheese and a cup of coffee.  I tried that cheese once but to me it tasted like a dirty old shoe.

He acted different now that we’d made the plan to stop.  He sat more upright and put both hands on the wheel.  He lit another cigarette.  Camel unfiltered.  I liked the way it smelled as the car lighter hit the end and it caught fire.  Then he shoved a cartridge in the tape player.  Glen Campbell “Wichita Lineman.”

As the song played he started to sing along.  I joined him at the part I knew, “I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain…”  He kept singing after I stopped, louder as the end came.

“And I need you more than want you…  And I want you all the time...  And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line…”  I liked to hear him sing.  It helped his voice sound normal again.

He shifted into the right lane as he saw the exit for Gus’s.  The indicator made a loud clicking noise.  I clicked along with my tongue.  Click clack, click clack.  I lay down across the seat, enjoying sliding around on the vinyl upholstery as the car went around the curve of the off ramp.  As the car stopped where the ramp ended, I almost fell off the seat.

Sitting up, I watched the traffic flowing by as we waited to cross the intersection.  Once it was clear, the old man gunned the accelerator, spinning the back wheels a bit in the sand and gravel that accumulated on the shoulder.  We wheeled into the gas station and pulled to the pump.  The attendant came out in his all-white uniform and the old man told him to fill it up with high test and check the levels. 

We got out of the car and the old man noticed he was still in his suit and tie from work.  “Hey sport, hold up a second.”  He took the jacket off and, opening the back door, hung it from the hook on the handle above the window.  Then he loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves.

“There, that’s better.”  And we headed across the parking lot to Gus’s, entering and taking a seat on the stools at the counter.  The lady behind the counter smiled at us, recognizing the old man. 

“Mr. Price – what brings you out here on a Tuesday in October?”  She was grinning pretty wide, so much that you could see the chewing gum clenched in her back teeth.  Her eye makeup was thick and she had long eyelashes.  My mother never let any of the girls wear their faces like that.

“Just traveling through.  Hungry though.”

“Say no more.  What can I get you?”  The old man looked down at me and I whispered my order to him.  He acted like he didn’t hear me.

“It’s okay, sport, you can tell Arlene what you want.  She’s nice.”  Arlene was already looking at me.  She waited.

Embarrassed, I caught myself and looked up at her. “A grilled cheese and a root beer please ma’am.”

The old man ordered his usual, then spun around on the stool.  As he got up, he looked over his shoulder at Arlene.

“Can you make that to go?” 

He put a five dollar bill on the counter to pay for the food. Then he bent down and turned me around.

“Okay, Matty, I’m going over to the package store to get a few things for the rest of the drive.  You hang tight here and I will be back before you can count to 100.”

He knew this was one of my favorite games, so before he even was out the door I started to count as fast as I could.

“oneoothreefourivesix…”

“Hey, no fair!  Mississippi counting!”

So I slowed down and started over.  I watched him cross to the package store.  At thirteen Mississippi he disappeared inside.

When I got to thirty-three Mississippi, Arlene put a root beer in front of me.  I kept the count going in my head and tried to take a drink.  I had to chase the paper straw around the bottle neck with my lips a few times before I finally got a decent sip.

At seventy-eight Mississippi, the food was in a bag in front of me.  She put the change next to it.  I put it in my pocket.

“Sweetie, when your pop gets back, tell him I put something special in there for you two.”

I was counting into the high eighties now and looking across the parking lot at the door where the old man had gone in.  At ninety-two Mississippi, he came out carrying a couple of heavy-looking brown paper bags.

I grabbed the food from the counter and jumped down off the stool.  The bell on the door tinkled as he came in, and I shouted “One hundred Mississippi!” 

“Sounds like a tie to me, sport!”

We went back to the big car and the old man paid for the gas.  I watched the attendant walk away and stared at the green dinosaur on the back of his shirt.  Not sure my mother would like that he was wearing all white to pump gas.

“Why don’t you sit up front with me?  We’re going to go the back way, stay off the interstate.”

“So are we going to the beach?”

“Yup.  Didn’t you know that?”  Right.  I’d known it since we got on the interstate.

I only ever got to sit in the front for short trips when it was just my mom and I, so I thought that was a pretty neat idea.  As I opened the door and slid in, he placed the brown paper bags on the floor of the backseat.  He handed me the food, then bent over the bag in back and pulled something out of it.  A can of beer, Miller.  I heard the “crack” of the pull tab as he opened it and a little fluff of foam bubbled up on top.  He dropped the tab into the hole, then handed the can over the seat back to me as he got in to drive.  As he pulled back onto the road, I was balancing the root beer on one knee, his beer on the other, and the food on my lap. 

Reaching over, he took the can from my hand.  “What do you say we eat?”

The last time we’d made this drive was for our summer vacation.  The old man said he preferred to drive the back way, through the citrus groves and around the swamps.  He said it was faster than the highway, and it was more respectful, too.  “You get to see the people who live here, and learn a little bit about their lives, not just blow by them like they don’t even exist.”

Once we’d finished our sandwiches, I remembered what Arlene told me.  I reached back into the food bag and pulled out two chocolate brownies wrapped in wax paper.  I grinned at the old man and he grinned back.

“That Arlene sure is a nice lady.”

He asked for another beer.  I climbed up over the seat back and got him one, placing my empty root beer bottle and that first beer can in the paper bag.  I noticed a big brown bottle in the bag, too.  The other bag held a quart of milk, loaf of bread, stack of bologna, some eggs, stick of butter, and a can of coffee.

He let me open the beer and I tried to imitate the way he put the tab back into the can.  My mom always told him he shouldn’t do that.  “One day you’ll choke on the tab.”  He’d always grin a silly grin and then take an exaggerated sip when she said that.  Then he’d fake like he was choking and we’d all laugh.

Smoking a Camel, drinking that beer, and listening to music on low volume, the old man got quiet again.  I leaned out my window and moved my arm through the on-rushing wind.  Weaving it up and down, I pretended I was flying alongside the car.  The warm sun felt good on the top of my head.

It was time for another beer, but now he asked for the brown bottle, too.  I helped out just like before.  He took a long sip from the beer, then unscrewed the top of the bottle and poured some of the liquid into the can.  I caught a whiff of a strong scent that smelled like the whisky he drank from the fancy crystal bottle at home.  He usually only had that on special occasions though, like when his boss and his wife came over for dinner.

The sun was well behind us now and it was starting to look like dusk.  We hadn’t talked for a while, and it seemed like the sadness was back.  He drove slower, taking sips from the brown bottle every few minutes.

Now we came to the big intersection where we would turn left and head up the coast.  When the traffic was clear, instead of pulling out as expected, we just sat there.

“Dad?”

He didn’t respond.  Now another car pulled behind us, but we had missed our chance because traffic had resumed.

“Dad?”  This time he turned to me.  Crooked smile, droopy eyelids.

“Matty boy, we’re almost there.”  His voice sounded out of tune again, but different from before. 

The oncoming traffic died down once more, and this time he was ready.  I leaned in anticipation of making a left turn, but instead he drove into a parking lot across from us.  Stopping the car, he got out. 

“Just be a second.”  He was holding the brown bottle.

I listened to the engine as it ticked from the heat and watched him walk into a phone booth at the edge of the parking lot.Picking up the receiver, he looked normal at first, but then after listening for what seemed like forever, he started to wave his arms around like he was angry.  He pointed his finger, stabbing at the glass that encircled him.  He slammed the phone back onto the cradle and came back toward the car, stopping to heave the bottle into the mangrove that bordered the lot. I felt the car shift under his weight as he sat on the back bumper.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just sat there, listening to the ticking. 

An eternity passed.  Then he stood and opened the door to get in.  His shirt was un-tucked and it looked like he’d spilled something on his tie.  He didn’t make eye contact as he got in behind the wheel.  But even looking at him from the side I could tell that his eyes looked like they had when he picked me up from the school.

The old man pulled back onto the road, heading the right way now.  He hadn’t notice that it had gotten dark and we were driving without our headlights.  An oncoming car flashed its high beams at us. 

“Dad – the headlights?”

“Oh yeah.”  He pulled the knob on the left side of the steering wheel and the dashboard lit up.

We drove on and he turned up the music.  This time it was a Johnny Cash song that I’d heard before.  “Ring of Fire.”  And again he sang along, but he didn’t really know any of the main words, just the “ooh ooh oooh ring of fire…ring of fire” part.  Everybody knew that part.

When we got to the beach, the big parking lot was nearly empty.  The streetlights cast shapes like four-leaf clovers onto the blacktop.  I had never seen that before, because usually the spots were taken.  Since we were owners, we had a reserved spot.  Now, in late October, that didn’t matter at all.

As I got out I could hear the waves crashing on the beach nearby.  The salt air on my face was a bit chillier than I was used to.  The old man got the stuff from the back seat and handed me the bag with the food.  We went to the door to our place.  He fumbled for the keys, dropping them, then had to steady himself against the wall.  I bent down to get the keys and put them into the lock. 

He placed his hand on top of mine on the doorknob.  Looking at me in the light from the streetlamps, he smiled and turned the key in the lock.

I looked at him expectantly.  He caught my look, but at first didn’t recognize the cue.  I shifted my feet and looked a little harder.  He mouthed “Oh” then launched into it.

“Matthew Spencer Price, my dear sir, I am pleased to welcome you to the happiest place on earth.”  Then, as was the custom, he bowed to usher me inside.  Only he didn’t sound happy when he said it, his voice still out of tune like earlier.

Once we’d gotten the stuff inside and the lights turned on, the old man started looking for something.  Opening drawers and cabinets, he kept up a steady stream of “where-is- it- not-here-maybe-here-no-where- is- that-damn- thing.”

Not giving up, he disappeared into the bedroom that Jackie and I shared.  I followed him, and entered just in time to see him slamming open the closet and rifling through the clothes hanging there.  They were mostly Jackie’s old things, a few sweaters and jackets and stuff. 

“Dad, what is it?  What are you looking for?”

He was hard to understand, and I could smell the combination of beer, whisky, limburger, and cigarettes on his breath.  “C’mon Matty, you know.  The whistle!  Help me find it.  It’s got to be here.”

The whistle.Both the old man and Jackie had been lifeguards on the beach here, and he had passed on his whistle to my brother.  So I joined in the hunt, not sure where it might be but trying to help as much as I could.I wasn’t helping, though, and the longer he couldn’t find it, the more frantic the old man became.

The search moved to the girls’ room, but we didn’t make out any better.  Then to the storage closet.  Then the room he and my mother stayed in.  Still nothing.

Exhausted, he sat down on the sofa in the living room.It was late now, bedtime late, and I was hungry.  Remembering the bag with the food, I went to the kitchen and broke out the bread and bologna.  I slapped together two sandwiches and put them on some plates from the cupboard.

I came back into the living room carrying the sandwiches.  Proud of myself for taking initiative, I looked at the old man, expecting an “Attaboy, Matty.”  Instead, his head lay back against the sofa cushion and he looked like he was asleep.  I shook his shoulder, trying to wake him, partly so that he could eat, but mostly so that he could see I had done something , been helpful. 

“Dad?”

He woke slightly.  His eyelids opened halfway, but I don’t think he saw me.  So I sat down next to him and ate my sandwich.

A few moments later, he shifted, again waking a bit.

“It’s okay.”  His voice sounded back in tune.  “We’ll find it.  The girls’ll be here soon.”

 

 

 


Submitted: March 30, 2016

© Copyright 2022 J.C. Black. All rights reserved.

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