The Girl Who Smelled of Sarsaparilla

Shelstad FT14

From The Feathertale Review #14.

It began during a power outage. The TV went out one Sunday night and my dad decided to tell us a story to pick up the slack. Mom lit candles. My sister Kat and I sat on the rug. I was ten years old, my sister eleven.

Dad improvised the whole thing. It was a Western tale about a nameless girl who had her own six-shooter. She rode a horse called Poncho and went on adventures. Dad said she drank twenty bottles of sarsaparilla a day and people could smell it on her — you’d know right away when she walked into the room. Some of the strangers she’d run into out on the trail would laugh at her. Who was this strange little cowgirl? Shouldn’t she be with her dolls? But those who knew her by reputation would let her pass wordlessly, frightened of what she might do if they upset her in any way. This girl didn’t play with any dolls — she played with bullets, throwing knives, and broken sarsaparilla bottles.

Kat and I were sold. When the TV and lights came back on, we begged our father to turn everything off again and continue his tale. So he did. After that, Sunday evenings were story night, when Dad would continue his serialization of the Girl Who Smelled of Sarsaparilla.

We loved hearing of the Girl’s adventures out on the range. She was always getting into trouble. Dad would put his brave protagonist into horrifying situations — like when she fell into a snake pit, or the fire pit, or the one pit that had snakes and fire and the snakes were somehow immune to the fire — but he’d always pull her out of there before Kat and I got too nervous. Dad would pace around the room while he talked. He did voices and made gestures. When the Girl spit, Dad would spit too — right onto the carpet.

A few months later — mid-February, I think — Dad was laid off. The auto plant he worked for shut down and he quickly found he had a lot of free time. In the mornings, he’d check the paper for jobs, but come afternoon he occupied himself with research. He wanted to make the stories he told us better, more accurate, he said. He wanted to nail down all the historical details of the American Old West, so he’d walk down to the library and come home with an armload of books. He’d plunk them down on the kitchen table and sit there, flipping pages and jotting notes until midnight or later. Sometimes he’d stay up until morning.

The stories changed after that. Less and less, dad concerned himself with narrative. It was more about the details, the historical details he’d found in his books. One Sunday, Dad sat us down in the kitchen for story time and taped a nineteenth-century map of American states and territories to the wall. He’d copied it from one of his books. It was covered with his own little sketches and notations, which he explained. It was more of a history lesson than a story.

“Now this road here was originally a postal route, but was taken over by the town of Challis when it sprang up in 1850,” he’d say. “But the interesting thing is that, in 1866, Challis burned down and the road fell into disrepair. It was forgotten for decade, until a new town — St. Rose, I think — came into being. They fixed it up and now it’s part of the Texas Highway system. You can still drive down that route, kids.”

Where was the Girl? Kat and I wondered. What happened to the adventures? But we couldn’t say anything. The job market was scarce at the time and these American history lectures were all he cared for. So I began to dread Sunday evenings.

For a month or so, all of his stories began with the Girl heading off to the schoolhouse, and then Dad would spend a few hours describing the “history” lessons she was taught that day. It didn’t even make sense. If the Girl lived in the Old West, why would her teacher spend the entire class going on about what it was like living in the Old West? Couldn’t the students just look out the window?

Dad finally found work. He had to take a counter job at Wendy’s. It wasn’t his first choice, but it was a paycheque. He continued to serialize the Girl Who Smelled of Sarsaparilla on Sunday nights, but thankfully he dropped the historical stuff. He got back to the story.

During her wanderings, the Girl stopped in the town of Grayhorse and found work as a barmaid in the local saloon. She was only ten years old, but the other barmaids were even younger — seven, six years old. They were tykes with no worldly knowledge, never having travelled the range, but they had seniority since they’d been working at the saloon for longer. “Hurry up with them sours, slowpoke,” the precocious little brats would say. “Better grab the mop, lazybones. Old Wesley done chucked up again.”

And the saloon’s patrons — Dad could spend a whole evening describing their exploits. “One night,” he’d say, “this big butterball of a man came rolling into the Girl’s saloon. He ordered five cheeseburg— He ordered five rabbit stews, all to himself. Ate them right there in the restaurant. Left a huge mess too. The Girl had to stand there and watch this from behind the bar. Or she couldn’t look away, on account of she couldn’t believe it. And then this big boy finishes his five stews, walks back up, and demands another two!”

Our hero had stopped riding Poncho around and ceased to find herself in duels. No more dangerous pits. Nothing fun. It was just work stories. Dad was using the Girl and her saloon to complain about Wendy’s. Kat and I saw right through his disguise: The saloon’s “trot-through” was really the drive-thru; the oversized pink stetson the Girl was made to wear stood for the ball cap and headset Dad was so embarrassed of; and the outlaws pushing moonshine by the stables were clearly the teenagers who sold OxyContin in the parking lot. Dad’s imagination only stretched so far, I suppose.

It was around this time that my parents started getting into these huge fights. I guess Mom felt like Dad resented her for making more money than he did. She worked at the bank. And, in turn, Dad felt like Mom resented him for making less money than she did. They’d have these complicated arguments and Mom would drive off to meet her friends in a huff, leaving Dad with us. He’d continue his Western tales on these nights, even if it wasn’t a Sunday.

So Poncho the horse came to represent our mother in Dad’s stories. When the Girl finished her saloon shifts, she’d come outside to find Poncho untied from the hitching post and nowhere to be seen. Poncho left vague notes for the Girl, written in the dirt with his hoof: HORSEY NIGHT, DON’T WAIT UP or OFF HORSIN’ AROUND, MYRA GOT A NEW SALT LICK. Sometimes Poncho would come into the saloon with her horse friends — at this point, Dad was happy to explore any ridiculous idea that popped into his head — and pretend she didn’t know the Girl. Poncho would hide in a booth near the back, muttering that they never should’ve come there. If one of her horse friends recognized the Girl behind the bar, Poncho would just change the subject. Dad’s tales were tense, told with a serious expression, and made me and my sister extremely uncomfortable. Often we’d pretend to fall asleep so Dad would have to take us up to bed, though there were times he wouldn’t even acknowledge our fake snores. He would get so caught up he probably wouldn’t have noticed if we left the room.

That summer, things took a turn for the worse. Mom left. We weren’t aware of this at the time, but later learned that Mom had had an affair and Dad found out. Mom moved into her own apartment and we stayed in the house with Dad. The saga of the Girl Who Smelled of Sarsaparilla became a nightly event. And things got dark.

“One morning,” Dad said, staring into his beer glass, “the Girl didn’t feel like going into the saloon. So she didn’t. She stayed in bed. She stayed in bed and she drank sarsaparillas like she always did, except they tasted like puddle water and bad breath. She drank them anyway. And she didn’t sleep, even though she was in bed. She just laid there and wondered what Poncho was doing. Maybe Poncho was dead. How would she know? She looked up at her ceiling and saw shapes, and all the shapes looked like Poncho trampling little girls. She put the covers over her head and cried. She only got up to use the latrine, and once she was done she’d get right back in bed. If only I could do this every day, she’d think. But some days she had to go to the saloon and it was hard to see why exactly, but she did. She’d rather just stay in bed and look at the terrible shapes in the ceiling, because even though those days were no good, they were better than the days she went to the saloon. Christ.”

He told us these stories before bed, and then Kat and I would go and have nightmares. We begged our father to stop, to get back to the adventures with Poncho, but he wouldn’t listen. He had this glaze over his eyes. It was like he couldn’t hear anything beyond his own gloomy thoughts.

By the end of the summer, Dad had lost his job at Wendy’s. He’d skipped out on too many shifts and that was it. Mom moved in with Steve, the man she’d been having the affair with. And then Dad got bit by a baby racoon while he was cleaning out the garage — not a happy time for our father. The Girl Who Smelled of Sarsaparilla stopped lying around in bed, however; Dad had her head out onto the range again. The stories became increasingly more violent, with the Girl shooting and stabbing her way through the Old West. If anyone looked at her funny, she’d pluck out their eyeballs and throw them into a creek. If a beggar asked for scraps, she’d force-feed him dirt until he choked. She’d burn herself with cigars to pass the time and put rocks in her shoes for some unexplained reason. And then she met Reverend Hoss.

Hoss was a doomsday preacher who would travel from town to town, set up a crate on the main drag, and then climb up and tell passersby about the coming Apocalypse. The Girl would follow him around and help the reverend carry his crate, until Dad stopped mentioning the Girl altogether. He just went on about Hoss and recreated his ominous speeches.

“The frontier is a black abyss,” Dad would say in a deep drawl, arms gesturing wildly above his head. “As civilization creeps westward, we are walking right into the great jaws of Lucifer. And there’s no turning back. We’re on a slope and you’d better believe we’re sliding. No man can escape this slide. I’m talking brimstone. I’m talking heavy chains and black smoke and sharp rocks. I’m talking flames so hot it’s beyond our comprehension. Think of that: beyond comprehension. These are end days, people, and that is a truism.”

For weeks, our father was obsessed with hell. He’d describe the underworld over dinner, using his Hoss voice. It was horrifying, of course, but the most disturbing thing was that the details didn’t come from intense research, as with his earlier Old West tales — they all came from his own imagination. He’d go on about fountains of blood, red clouds that rained children’s shoes, and sentient rivers that cried out in pain through the night. Kat and I didn’t get much sleep that summer.

Word of Dad’s behaviour made it to Mom, and she eventually convinced him to seek therapy. He’d go in for weekly sessions and they put him on antidepressants and tranquilizers. He slept a lot. He was calm. Kat and I moved in with our mother and Steve so Dad could rest, but we’d go over to his place on weekends. He’d continue the tale of the Girl Who Smelled of Sarsaparilla on Sundays before Mom would pick us up. The tone of the stories changed again.

“The Girl got on her horsey,” Dad would tell us. “The horsey was named Poncho. They were friends. They went on an adventure. They rode to a canyon. They found nice flowers and smelled the flowers. Then they were tired. They had naps in the flowers. It was a good adventure.” That sort of thing.

It took some time, but our father made it through this difficult period. The therapy sessions were productive, and after about a year he weaned himself off the medication. He found work at a call centre and worked his way up to a management position. He also met a woman there whom he eventually married. Kat and I still saw him on weekends, but he discontinued the story of the Girl. My sister and I were fine with this.

He didn’t speak of the Old West until much later, when I was in college. I was having a rough time — the girl I was seeing left me for a mutual friend, my grades were slipping, and I injured my back falling into a ditch while drunk — and Dad came to visit me in my dorm. He was sitting by my bed, listening to my complaints, and then he just interrupted me. He started back in on the Girl as if a decade hadn’t passed by since the previous chapter.

“Poncho was having a bad day, and so the Girl boxed his ears and looked right into his eyes,” Dad said. I guess Poncho was me now. “And she told him to quit bellyaching, because there was sarsaparilla to drink and adventures to have and goddammit if there wasn’t but one cloud in that big blue sky.” Easy for her to say, I thought.

Anyway, that’s when I learned: a story is just a story. Hearing about a little cowgirl running around drinking sarsaparilla can be a nice diversion while the power’s out, but it won’t solve your real problems. Pills do. Antidepressants, tranquilizers, whatever. There’s your moral. Pills. Pills are good. My father taught me that.

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