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The Smiling Man
She read him like a question mark. Her face, subtle in its dealings, twisted ever so slightly; her pale expression darkened.
His suit was dirty and thin like newsprint. His smile was crooked and really in no way meant to give you the warmth of a smile. His face was cold; a coin.
Each walked away from this accidental catching of glances a little shaken; his cold, mocking smile lessened and a thought grew inside his head. Her usual calm self was invaded with a sudden dizziness from becoming so lost in thought.
Curiosity killed the cat.
It began with a plaid scarf and a damp morning and two train tickets. It tugged between the door, its absence was immediately caught, and the woman turned around. Coincidence.
He put on his smile; so she could remember. She swallowed and before she had the chance the man opened the door and pushed the bundle of scarf into her palm. Hands in lint-filled pockets he passed by, slow, so she had time to thank him.
The thanks was delayed.
He played along.
“Are you taking the train as well?”
“I’d like to thank you,”
He caught her off guard; he gauged her reaction. Her adjusted face unmeshed. Her voice fell.
“Yes; I’ll give you something as thanks on the train,”
“That sounds fine.”
Another excuse. He gave her a grin and relished in her expression.
She handed him the cheap cigar and it fit thick and sweet between his yellowed teeth. A cheap gentleman. He fit the image.
She fit herself on the seat next to him, her back rigid and her face calm. She had learned to turn stiff in his presence; once again she came off as calm, cool, and untouchable. He smirked most of the ride; ignoring the personnel when it came to smoking in the train. The woman watched the smoke snake around her and its sweet smell filled her nostrils.
“Could you open the window?”
The cheap, smiling gentleman let the window down a notch.
“So, do you have bussiness in Philly?”
The man was surprised that she bothered to strike up conversation. She was noticeably uncomfortable in his presence, but was a proper lady and had offered him the cigar and the thank you already. She now had only to deal with it. Thus, she struck up conversation.
“As a matter of fact, I do. But not behind-the-desk conducting.” He answered vaguely, and he pushed his cigar out the window. Her face caught his attention.
“Oh, do forgive me madam; it was quite relaxing. I only saw the train personnel coming down the aisle again, is all.” The woman shook her head and inspected the aisle; she was about to assume he was lying, and that she was more uncomfortable than ever, when, almost out of nowhere, she saw two black shoes. And the uniform pant legs of the train personnel. And then the man eyed the two suspiciously before continuing on to the next cabin.
She turned back and digested the fabric of the seat in front of her, clasping her gloved fingers together like a gate. She squeezed them till she had composure once more. She only had a half-hour, and then sh--
“And what bussiness do you have in Philly?” the man asked suddenly.
“None.” It was too abrupt; she bit her peach-glossed lips.
“I’m meeting my husband.” she almost hesitated, surprised at her believable lie. She then turned pale when she realized that she had no ring upon her finger. She hoped the man would assume it was under her glove.
“Ah, I see. Then this must be very uncomfortable for you. I regret having insisted on sitting next you. I only thought you were a single woman and I deplore upon leaving them be on public transportation. Nasty places, they tend to be. Shall I try for another seat and avoid this scandal?” He twitched and kept his smile at bay. The woman blushed; and it so perfectly complimented her mint-green dress and peach-hued lips.
“Oh, sir, it is my fault for not explaining sooner. My husband--John, he’ll understand. I married him for his understanding, you know. And besides, I’m sure that personnel is already upset with us and the train is already full.” This was awful--now her understanding, faulty husband had a name!
Silence bred between the two passengers.
“Tell me more of your husband.” He was being daring now; and he wasn’t sure how she’d react.
She wasn’t sure how to act either. So she took the bait.
“He works at a banking firm,”
“What a coincidence, that’s my line of work!” The woman’s pale neck turned a shade whiter.
“You said you did not work behind a desk; what do you do in the law firm?”
“Banking firm, you mean?’
“Oh, y-yes, of course.”
The man shifted to a more comfortable position, buying time.
“Well, this will sound very scandalous, but my friend is giving me a job at his banking firm in Philly; and he’s been sketchy with the details. I only know it is an unorthodox position, and not ’behind-the-desk.’ I’m not made to sort through papers and spill ink, madam.” He gave her a smirk; pulling his chilling smile to the side as a needle pulls a thread.
“What banking firm does your husband work for exactly, ma‘am?” He dared her again, and she was sure if the train did not stop soon she’d run out of air.
“Oh, an awfully small one. I’m sure you haven’t heard of it,” she said quickly, and she averted her eyes from his gaze; biting her lips again, a small stretch of white teeth barely poking through.
“Oh, try me; I know almost all there is to Philly, even the littlest establishments.” He wondered if he was pushing her too far; her kindness could only cover so many lies.
She turned her head, rather slowly, back to him.
“Richelieu and Company.”
And there it was. He almost smiled; he hadn’t expected her to actually tell the truth.
“Ah yes; that is not too small. Its rather well-known in my line of work.” He couldn’t believe his luck! “In fact, I once had a good friend work there. Charming young fellow; had a cleft in his chin, we called him Bobby.” The woman’s eyes became calm orbs; and she thought the worst had passed.
“It didn’t really fit him, though, the nickname,” The man continued, hiding his growing smile, “His real name was Jack Ursuline.”
The woman’s blue eyes widened and she turned to the man.
“Last I heard,” the man continued, as if not all phased, “He was going to marry that doll of his he always gushed about. Good and faithful Ursula. Can you imagine, Ursula Ursuline? He thought about changing his last name, ya know? I always said he should go by Bobby Jack.”
He wondered if the woman would faint; she was completely bloodless in the face, her peach lips had lost their luster, and her eyes were wide in horror.
“Ma’am, are you quite all right?” And his face was so perfectly concerned.
“Jack,” she whispered, her voice breaking.
“You know him?” The man asked, in a perfectly surprised pitch. The woman brought her gloved hand to her face, pressing her fingers into her white forehead.
“My name is Ursula Lane,” she whispered weakly, “And yes, I knew Mr. Ursuline. Jack, he was my fiancée. Almost, I should say.” She pressed her lips together and her eyes closed; her composure falling in a fine
heap at her lap. “…There was a fire. At Richelieu and Company. April 15th, 1925, only a year ago. Jack was caught; tried to use the fire escape. It collapsed on him, they said.”
Her words had slowly been retreating into themselves, quiet…quieter…quietest.
“Blessed Mary--” He said, and his face fell to match hers, “I’m deeply sorry. He was a truly honorable fellow.”
“Yes, I know.” She brought out her kerchief and pressed it to her eyes.
“Attention all passengers! We’ll be reaching Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in under 10 minutes!”
“Is there anything I can do?” the man asked. He placed his hand on the crook of her elbow; and he couldn’t believe how beautiful it all was, how perfectly it could all work out. He had to play his cards right, though.
“If you could call a cab when we stop,” she asked, sitting straight once more. Slowly she peeled her handkerchief from her eyes.
“Of course, Mrs. Lane.” An etch of surprise graced her features, then she let out a sigh. Exhausted, she cared no more for keeping up with her lies.
Like the gentleman he was, he held out his hand for her. They left the train, and she weakly leaned on his weight before she sat down on a bench outside the train station. All around her, the buzz of people helped to calm her mind; no longer was she lost in deafening silence.
“I’ve called the cab, madam.” the smiling man returned, “And once again, I offer my deepest condolences.”
“Thank you, sir,” A normal apology. No delays. No cigars.
“My pleasure,” and his smile returned; he tipped his hat.
The woman wrapped the plaid scarf about her neck; the stupid thing that had caused all this mess. She straightened her gloves, and picked up her small satchel; the only parcel she’d carried with her.
And they both nodded their heads, and the woman, Ursula Lane, entered the cab.
She took one last look. The look he’d planned for. The look he’d hoped for.
He reached up his arm to wave farewell, his coat sleeve stretching.
Mapping his entire flesh, a fire-wound was burned, large and scarlet, into the man’s glowing skin.
Maybe it was a coincidence.
their catching of glances,
the lost scarf,
the delaying of thanks, and
the fact that there was no friend with a job waiting for the man in Philly.