First Frost by Verna Austen

David sat alone in his unheated car in front of his father’s house and stared at the Christmas lights that circled the front windows and wondered if his father knew that this was the day he was going to die. He had wrapped the gun inside a plastic bag and chucked it in the glove compartment beneath the car service manual. The bullets were in a puddle on the seat next to him.The shade of the middle window was only half pulled, and David could just see his father as he puttered around, pudgy and squat. He closed his eyes and saw his father’s face perfectly despite the years between them. The broad forehead shiny with sweat, his fathers’ smallish eyes too close together’same as his own, and the cruel teeth that bit through the words of every mean thing he ever said.

He turned the key in the ignition and drove around into the alley. His father’s yard was third from the corner and held a small shed and a one-car garage. Inside was a big Buick, David knew, the only car his father ever drove. No lights through the back windows, and it was cold and grey.He reached under the dash, pulled out the gun and stared at it in his open palm. It felt heavier than he thought it would. The handle was caramel colored and ridged with lines; the barrel, black like coal and smooth as ice. He put it back inside the grocery bag and locked it behind the little door.

The clock on the dash read 5:54, so he headed for the White Hen Pantry a few blocks away. At 6:00, they put out the fresh sandwiches and new pots of coffee. He was careful when he pulled out of the alley; earlier, he noticed black ice on the roads. . It started to snow again, and he drove slowly as heavy wet flakes clung to the windshield like starfish.

The Pantry’s lot was almost empty. Everyone went straight home after work, David thought, and pulled into the same spot as yesterday. Inside the store was bright and warm. He filled the largest size paper cup with black coffee and grabbed two ham croissant sandwiches from beneath the counter.

The cashier was reading the same romance book, it lay open face down behind her register while she laughed on the phone. He wanted to tell her that would damage the spine, that bookmarks were invented for that very purpose. But she only looked up at him to grab the money, so he took his change and left without saying a word.

***
Back at the house, he turned off the engine to save gas; the coffee kept him warm enough. Through the falling snow, he looked to the colored lights in the window. His father sat in his lazy-boy recliner watching television and ate from a bowl in his lap. David saw him throw something into the air and smile occasionally and wondered what he was doing.After he finished his coffee and sandwiches, he opened the door slowly and closed it behind him without making a sound. He followed the icy pathway that lead to the backyard, and stepped onto the brick ledge that surrounded the side of the house. He reached up to the side window, and balanced himself on his toes, all the while holding the brick rim of the window casing and raising just his eyes above the edge.

His father was feeding a little dog, the kind that Frasier had, what was his name? His sister Rita would know. David strained his back and watched his father throw little crackers to the Frasier dog.

He couldn’t believe it, after all the years as a child that he had begged for a pet to no avail. Do you have money for a vet? His father would say to him and Rita. You both say you’ll take care of it now, but that won’t last. David’s heart wrenched at the thought of his father’s dog.

Toughen up, he heard that gravely voice say in his head, and he was ten years old again. It was the first Christmas after his mother died and his father took them to Kiddie Acre for the day. They bundled themselves into their snowsuits; David tied his scarf the way his mother had.

‘Do mine like that too,’ Rita said to him, ‘like mama did.’ Carefully he tucked her long brown hair into her hood and wrapped around the soft pink scarf. In the backseat together, they were silent during the car trip. David felt sick from the leather smell’his father had the heater turned up too high.

After they finally parked and walked inside the gate, his father was angry that they closed some of the rides because it had started to snow. The park was near empty.

‘But no one comes here on Christmas, Daddy,’ Rita said. ‘Can we go home and play with our toys?’

David winced. He knew they were treading dangerous waters, especially after Rita was slow to finish her pancakes that morning and their father had told them that no toys would be opened until they cleaned their plates.

When his father went to the washroom, David had grabbed the slice of bacon and cut up pancakes from her dish and stuffed them into his own mouth. He felt the too-sweet syrupy mush all the way down and it sat balled like a fist in his stomach.

But to his surprise, his father only said, ‘No, we can’t. You can play with your toys anytime. We’re going to have fun on the rides today.’

David watched Rita’s face turn pink, and he knew that she was about to start whining, so he took her hand and lead her to the bumper cars that started to move. The ride had already begun, and they were too late. Rita grew more antsy and their father pulled them to the crawler and plunked her inside one of the cars.

‘But I want to ride with David,’ she cried, and tried to latch onto her father with her pink mittens.

‘This ride is just for girls,’ he told her, and fastened the bar closed. She began to wail as the ride started to move. David watched his sister on the crawler with her mouth wide open, sobbing for their mother while the sleet plastered her hair flat and wet against her head.

***
Back in the car, David took out his cell phone and dialed his father’s number.’Yeah’lo?’ the gravely voice said. ‘Yeah?’

He snapped his phone shut and wondered if his father had caller-id. No, he was too cheap for that, besides he was sure his father didn’t receive many phone calls anyway.

Next, he punched in Rita’s phone number. She answered on the third ring.

‘Hello?’ she said.

‘Hey sis,’

‘David, where are you? You were supposed to be here hours ago.’ He heard her sigh. ‘You’re out in front of his house again, aren’t you?’

‘I’ll be there soon, I have to do something first.’

‘David, it’s Christmas Eve, there’s nothing to do except be with your family.’

‘What was Frasier’s dog’s name, do you remember?’

‘What? David please go home.’

‘He has a dog Rita, can you believe that? And there’s lights around the front windows. He decorates now.’

‘Eddie,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Frasier’s dog was named Eddie.’

***
He was freezing. He started up the car again and drove to the Pantry for a cup of soup. The streets were empty, the parking lot bare. Inside the store, the young cashier was bundled in her coat and rolled Chapstik across her lips. The lights in the back were turned off.’You closing early?’ David asked her.

‘Yeah dude, it’s Christmas Eve,’ she said.

He opened a package of soup, filled it with water and plopped it in the microwave.

‘One for the road, huh?’ she said.

She was kind of cute, no makeup except for the Chapstik, and her curly brown hair was pulled tight into a pony-tail at the back of her head. Her coat was one of those navy blue parachute ones; it was much too big and probably had been handed down or had come from the Goodwill, David thought. Clipped to her right shoulder was a cheap Christmas pin from the drugstore, a candy cane made of red and white pipe cleaners twisted together.

This time she looked up at him and curled her bottom lip into a smile. He knew she felt sorry for him, warming soup in a gas station on Christmas Eve. He gave her a twenty and told her to keep the change.

‘Thanks, are you sure?’ She said as he walked out the door. He wouldn’t be going back there anyway.

Back in the car, he warmed his gloved hands around the cup, taking small sips. Then he drove back to his father’s house. Behind the lazy boy, the television program his father was watching illuminated the wall like moving figures from a puppet show. David wondered what it was.

When they were children, the only television they were allowed were several cartoons on Saturday mornings. During the week, after school they did chores. Then came homework and supper and after the dishes were washed, dried and put away, it was almost time for bed.

Sometimes they played cards. Their favorite was Rummy 500, it was fun to lay down the spreads and count your points right away. Their father would even let them stay up past 9:00 on a school night and eat potato chips during a good game. David loved to play cards. His father loved to win.

Once David was dealt three spreads in one hand; three ‘8’s,’ a Jack-Queen-King of Hearts, and a 1-2-3 of diamonds! A miracle he never saw happen before. He was so excited when he placed down his cards on the table and discarded the only one left. He had won the hand, and counted up his points in his head.

‘That’s not allowed,’ his father said. ‘Anyway those cards weren’t shuffled enough for you to get a hand like that. Let’s have a do-over.’

‘Why?’ David said.

‘It’s against the rules to discard on the first hand, it’s not fair to the other players. You have to play by the rules.’

Then his father grew quiet and squinted at David over his cards. ‘You’re not a cheater are you?’

‘No!’

‘Well then, reshuffle the deck. Good this time.’

The next day, David stole his father’s gold pen, the one he used to sign off on all his car deals. He stuffed it in the back of his sock drawer and thought he had gotten away with it. He forgot all about it until his father noticed it missing.

‘Has someone been ransacking through my dresser?’ he shouted from his bedroom one night after dinner.

David felt his heart shoot down to his stomach.

‘Not me,’ Rita colored on the kitchen table.

‘No,’ David said.

‘Well unless it grew legs and walked away, one of you took my pen.’

He walked into the kitchen, the arms of his work short unbuttoned and flapping around his wrists.

‘I’ll just search your rooms until I find it,’ he stormed into Rita’s room knocking against her doll house.

‘OK, I just borrowed it, and I forgot to put it back,’ David said.

‘Why didn’t you say anything?’

‘I knew you’d be mad” his father’s open hand slapped the glasses off his face.

He grabbed David by the neck of his t-shirt.

‘Do you know what happens in some countries to people who take things that don’t belong to them?’ As he shouted, he pushed and pulled David back and forth. His t-shirt was balled up against his neck inside his father’s fist.

‘They cut off their hands.’ He shoved David back down into his chair and he fell over, striking his head hard against the wall. He looked up at Rita, who sat quietly with her eyes closed, rocking.

***
He dialed Rita again. When she answered, he held the phone up to his ear and couldn’t say a word. He breathed in large gulps of air.’David? Is that you? Oh David, please, are you still out there? Just let it go.’
He couldn’t let it go. His father didn’t deserve a dog and Christmas lights.

‘He wouldn’t even recognize us, David. Please go home.’

She repeated his name as he snapped the phone shut. He rubbed the rear-view mirror with the fingers of his gloved hand and squinted at his face. His cheeks were waxy and red from the cold. He wished he looked like their mother. Rita did.

Their mother’s family didn’t bother with them much after she died. They had spent a week every summer with an aunt, but she passed away when Rita and David were in high school. Her husband still sent Rita a Christmas card every year.

After he graduated, David moved out and went to Riverview Community College. He didn’t go far until Rita went away to college herself. Then, contact with their father stopped. He sold the house they grew up in and moved to a small apartment near his car lot where he lived until he retired.

Over time, David kept tabs on him. But he lost track for several years until he found a notice of property transfer when his father bought a little bungalow only three blocks away from where they had lived their whole lives. It wasn’t as nice as their childhood home; it wasn’t made of brick and there wasn’t as much room, but it was a smart investment for a retiree who had the cash and could always use the tax break. His father was always smart about money.

The clock read 11:11. Make a wish, Rita would say. He opened the glove compartment. He took the gun from the bag and wrapped his hand around and stuffed it inside his pocket. He breathed in loud gasps, his ears hurt from the cold.

David rang the bell, and his father answered the door, though it took him a while to get there. He was shorter than the father in David’s memories and his hair was peppered yellow-grey and combed straight back from his forehead.

His eyes were the same. He remembered his eyes.

‘Yeah?’ he said.

Standing on the threshold, David saw the plastic summer chairs and small footstool still on his father’s porch, covered with snow. It was obvious his father couldn’t carry them to the garage himself nor did he have anyone to do it for him. The lights had been taped to the inside of the window, and the Christmas tree was only a small one, it sat on a table next to the television.

The small dog barked. It wasn’t like the Frasier dog at all. It was cute though, smaller, a kind of terrier. Through the doorway from the front room it looked up at David with eager and expectant eyes and thumped its tail against the floor. It walked to his father and carried a rawhide chew in its mouth, tail wagging the whole time.

‘There girl,’ his father strained to bend down and pet her.

She dropped the chew at David’s feet.

Then his father straightened up and looked at him again. ‘What do ya want? Hey, wait, wait a second”

‘Nothing, nothing,’ David said and turned around. And, minding the ice, he climbed back down the stairs.

1 Comment

  1. Deanna Northrup

    I love this story!! The tension from knowing about the gun propelled me through it like a speedboat. The juxtaposition of the dark, bleak weather outside, with the Christmas lights and warm glow from the TV inside, along with the father’s kindness to the little dog as contrasted to his cruelty in David’s memories, are vivid and true. I experienced a physical reaction of relief as David returned back down the stairs without having used the gun. Thank you for making this provocative story available online.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *