Please God, Lila thought, if you let me get away with this, I promise I’ll never do it again. The tangle of her long, dark hair blew behind her, woven into a bulky mass like the sleeve of a sweater or a winter scarf. Her arms encircled Neil’s waist, and although riding on the back of his motorcycle had been thrilling twenty minutes ago, it was an annoyance now. The noise, the dirt, the way her tearing eyes were making her mascara run—all of it was getting on her nerves.
What the hell had Norbert Bell been doing out here on this road anyhow? It was practically abandoned except for the old farmers who drove their tractors and other pieces of hulking equipment down it to get from one end of their fields to the other. Why wasn’t Norbert on the new four-lane? Lila was certain he had seen her as he passed. Christ, if he’s heading back to the store and he tells my father, Lila thought, I’m dead.
Neil swung the big bike into the driveway of the old Brightbach place, slowing as they bounced over the rutted gravel. When he saw his brother Brian’s Mustang nestled into the parking spot behind the two oak trees next to the back door, Neil swore and turned to Lila with a wounded look on his face. “That dick,” Neil said as he slid his hand up Lila’s plaid uniform skirt and squeezed her thigh. Lila breathed a sigh of relief. Their hideaway inside the abandoned farmhouse was occupied.
“I’ve got to get back anyway. That blue Ford Falcon was Norbert Bell,” Lila said. “Why don’t you just come over to my house tonight after dinner? My parents will be out.” In her head, she was already in a race with Norbert as she moved her hands along Neil’s rib cage. Neil spun the bike around and headed for town.
Neil dropped Lila at the far end of the park near the swimming pool. It was closed for the season, and the alcove of the small cement-block building that housed the snack bar and the dressing rooms provided good cover. Lila swung herself off the bike, but lost her balance just long enough for her calf to graze the hot metal of the motorcycle’s exhaust pipe. “Tonight,” Lila said, stifling a flinch. Neil kissed her hard on the mouth, then roared away.
Please—son of a bitch—please, God. Lila alternated between desperation and a true hope for divine intervention. Stepping over the sagging fence next to the Little League diamond that bordered her subdivision, her leg felt like it had been stung by a million wasps. She hobbled across three neighbors’ backyards to avoid the elaborately curving streets. Stupid, Lila thought, like the board from Candy Land or some other game she’d played as a kid.
“Mom?” Lila called as she opened the door. She knew her mother was at a Lilly Belle sales meeting, but she wanted to be sure. The only answer was the gurgle of the aquarium. Lila raced to the bathroom and began flinging things onto the counter. Ointment for her leg, her hairbrush, the tube of shiny hair-grooming cream her father used to slick back his hair each morning. Lila squeezed a dab of the cream into her palm and rubbed her hands together the way he did, then smoothed her hair into a ponytail. She peeled off her short socks, tossed them into the hamper, and winced as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
* * *
“Hi, Dad,” Lila said as she flung open the door to Carpet Town. She was breathing evenly now, after she’d transformed her half-mile limping run into a walk for the final block. Her father was on the phone behind the counter, discussing the merits of shag.
“We sell the rake attachments for most vacuum cleaners right here in the store,” he was saying. “You’ll love the stuff. Stylish. Great for a growing family, hides a lot of problems.” He smiled at Lila and held up one finger. Lila sat in one of the upholstered easy chairs across from the counter and worked the toes of her loafers into the square of cinnamon-colored shag beneath a sparkling glass-topped coffee table. The wall behind the counter was emblazoned with the store’s slogan, which her dad had thought of himself: Carpet Town—Where the Streets are Paved with Fine Carpeting. The letters were all cut from carpet remnants, and if that wasn’t enough, there was the meager skyline of a little town in the background, with a wide road carved out of deep gray pile curving up to meet it.
“I’m supposed to work today, right?” Lila asked as her father set the receiver back in its cradle.
“Lila, it’s Tuesday,” he said, his tone of voice letting her know that nothing was more exasperating than a teenage daughter. “Tonight’s your night to cook supper.” The bell on the back door jingled as Norbert entered with the afternoon sun streaming behind him, his blond Beatle haircut like a halo as he glided up the aisle with a stack of sample books.
“Right,” Lila groaned. “I forgot. Darn—I hurried here right from school.” Norbert Bell was at the counter now, shelving the samples, and Lila wished she could catch his eye. Norbert’s face was pink, his shirt rumpled, and his tie had flipped up and stuck to his shoulder. Lila wondered if he had stopped somewhere for what her father referred to as a “nip.” Maybe her father would smell alcohol on his breath and fire him, since he didn’t like Norbert Bell anyway. He called him “Tinker Bell” or “the town fairy” behind his back, and only tolerated him because he was such a good salesman. Lila heard him say more than once that he’d like to run Norbert and his kind out of town. Drinking on the job would be the last straw.
“Hi, Mr. Bell,” Lila said when Norbert looked up. He was only a couple of years older than Neil, and she had to stifle a giggle to call him “Mr.” With the blond bangs that drooped into his wide blue eyes, he looked like a high school classmate. Norbert raised one eyebrow, and Lila held his gaze before turning back to her father. “I’ll get that meat loaf in the oven, Dad,” she said. Standing up, it felt as though all the blood in her leg rushed to the raw spot on her calf. She gritted her teeth and straightened her blazer. As she passed the plate-glass window, Norbert waved and made a zipping motion across his lips with his fingers. Lila gave him her best smile.
* * *
Lila watched the clock as she cleared the supper dishes. She hoped there wouldn’t be any confusion. Neil would see that her father’s car was still in the driveway and realize there’d been a change in plans, wouldn’t he? Her fingers twitched around the dishrag as her ears tuned themselves to the sound of Neil’s motorcycle. She stacked the clean dishes delicately, not wanting to disturb her father, already asleep in his easy chair with the newspaper on his chest. The gruff rhythm of his snores reminded her of a bear, and she pictured her father ripping Neil in two. Neil was the last person her father would want her to date. He rode a motorcycle, and he was almost twenty-one.
It was 7:08 when the motorcycle purred slowly past as Lila rinsed the greasy soap bubbles from the meat-loaf pan. The thought of Neil created a familiar melting sensation in the pit of her stomach, but her mother’s voice yanked her back to reality. “Have you taken out the trash, Lila?” she called from the bottom of the basement steps, where she’d been organizing her sample case of Lilly Belle makeup. The sales meeting had previewed the new colors for spring, which meant that she would spend an hour or two staring into her plug-in makeup mirror, her eyelids dusted in Fern Green or Sky-High Blue.
“I’ll do it right now.” Lila could barely keep from stammering as she heard Neil’s bike make another pass. She wrung out the dishrag as if she intended to squeeze every last drop of moisture out of it, and spread it over the faucet. If she timed it just right, she could make it to the alley and catch Neil as he rode around the block the next time.
“You look tired, Lila,” her mother said, startling Lila as she reached for the bag of trash. “I’ve got it,” her mother said. “Just go take your shower and get to bed early tonight.”
“Nice colors, Mom.”
“‘Plum Luscious,’” her mother said, touching her tongue to her lip. “And ‘Lilac Love.’” She paused at the kitchen door to bat her eyes. As her mother closed the door behind her, Lila heard Neil rev the engine before he sped away.
* * *
Lila’s leg woke her whenever she moved, and at 2:00 a.m. she could have sworn she heard the hum of Neil’s motorcycle until she realized she’d been dreaming. In the dream, Neil raced back and forth in front of her house until her father ran outside with a rolled-up newspaper and threatened to swat him with it.
A searing rush of pins and needles attacked the burn on her leg when she got out of bed in the morning. It was a good thing she wasn’t due to meet Neil for a trip to the farmhouse until next Tuesday. Her leg would surely feel better by then. But God only knew what Neil might attempt before that. They hadn’t gotten together yesterday, and he might try something crazy like the last time they’d missed their Tuesday date and he’d stood outside her bedroom window pitching pennies against her screen at one in the morning.
Lila seemed to have that effect on boys in general, and she wasn’t entirely sure why. Maybe it was her hair, the way it reached to her waist, the color of night in a town full of blondes. The blond girls were tall and thin, as a rule, like that English model Twiggy. Their legs reminded Lila of horses’ legs, while her own legs reminded her of the Easter hams on display at Gerthner’s Meat Market. She hoped that the burn on her calf wouldn’t leave a scar.
* * *
By the time Tuesday arrived, Lila was giddy at the prospect of seeing Neil. When she got to their meeting place in the park, Neil had already rolled his motorcycle into the alcove. “Brian’s out at Brightbach’s again today,” he said as he unbuttoned the top three buttons of Lila’s white blouse and nuzzled her collarbone. “He told me he’d kick my ass if we showed up out there again.” Neil’s brother Brian was as mean as Neil was sweet. Only nine and a half months older than Neil, Brian was, unmistakably, the boss. “That bastard McDermott and his Irish twins,” was how her father referred to them after he’d bought his new Oldsmobile at McDermott’s dealership, and then McDermott recarpeted his house through a big chain store twenty-five miles down the four-lane.
Lila felt certain Neil was a good salesman, and she knew exactly what he was trying to sell her. Now, as he pressed against her, the coolness emanating from the cement-block wall was a relief as she maneuvered the burned spot on her leg against it. At least here, Lila knew they wouldn’t go all the way. Not like at the Brightbach house, where there was a mattress on one of the bedroom floors and anything could happen.
The Brightbach farm had been bought by Neil’s father after old Mr. Brightbach had died of cancer, and he planned to make a fortune selling off the acreage next to it for a subdivision. Meanwhile, the old farmhouse sat empty, its windows boarded, a tall chain-link fence protecting it from weekend beer busts. Neil and Brian had made themselves keys.
The first time Neil had taken Lila to the Brightbach place, he’d shown her the little shiny-wrapped packet he kept in his wallet, but she’d told him no. He laughed and took his ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket before he pulled her to him. Try something new! Buy an Olds! the slogan on the pen said. Lila preferred the old to the new. Old was interesting—for boyfriends and houses. The house was the sort of place that her parents would think of as outdated, but Lila loved the dark woodwork of the curving staircase and the colored light fixtures that hung like dusty jewels from the tall ceilings. She had a good feeling about the place from the very first moment she’d followed Neil through the back door. The kitchen smelled vaguely of oatmeal cookies, and she wished that she and Neil could spend time there with some sort of understanding about what Lila would and wouldn’t do. Maybe she needed some sort of slogan to explain herself. Something catchy that would get caught in Neil’s head and make everything simple. I’ve got a lot to live, but not so much to give. A little dabbling will do ya. Only you can prevent…
Lila liked kissing. Neil kissed like he knew what he was doing—like he was kissing her right now—and he smelled better than anything. Like chocolate. No. Hot cocoa with a hint of marshmallow, warming her from the inside out. Lila peeled herself away from Neil, and a blast of cool spring air hit her throat. “Tuesday,” Lila said. “I’ve got to start supper.” He kissed her again and worked his way from her lips to behind her ear.
“I wish I could eat whatever you’re cooking,” Neil said.
* * *
The meat loaf was underdone when her mother tested it at a few minutes past six that evening. “Lila, what time did you put this in the oven?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, Lila’s mother sawed into the meat loaf, its pink insides oozing blood, and slapped the pieces onto the broiler pan. “Make the salad while I watch this, or it’ll go up in flames.” Lila hated it when her mother got into a tizzy in the kitchen. If she wasn’t careful, her mother would be slamming cupboard doors, and the platter of meat loaf would be slammed onto the table. Life was so much easier when her mother spent her time in the basement working on her Lilly Belle business. It was too bad her father didn’t really appreciate her mother’s business abilities or how young and stylish she looked. “Kissin’ don’t last,” he’d say whenever he forked up something especially delicious that Lila’s mother had managed to create. Then he’d pat his paunch and make a series of little smacks and grunts and finish the line: “But cookin’do.” Lila would bet a year’s allowance that her mother believed just the opposite.
* * *
When Lila walked into the kitchen after school the next day, her mother was standing on the step stool with a sponge in her hand. She was barefoot and wore an old housedress that had belonged to Lila’s grandmother.
“Bake a cake?” Lila asked.
“Spring-cleaning,” her mother said.
“I thought I smelled chocolate,” Lila said.
“Charismatic Cocoa-Bunny body lotion from the spring collection.” Lila’s mother’s voice was muffled as she spoke with her head deep inside a corner cupboard.
Lila needed only a moment to recognize the scent rising from her mother’s body. It wasn’t necessary to see Neil again or press her face against his neck. Lila knew what was what the moment she noticed the mark on her mother’s bare leg. Petal-shaped and pink, it was only a shade or two lighter than the fading burn on Lila’s own leg.
“I forgot something from my locker,” Lila said. “I have to run back to school.”
Lila took her time walking to the phone booth outside Hap’s House of Spirits on the edge of town. In Hap’s parking lot, she shut the phone booth door, settled herself on the metal stool, and then lit a cigarette from the pack Hap had sold her without any questions. She almost laughed the cigarette right out of her mouth when she closed the cover of the book of matches. Get HAPpy! Get spirited! it said. Lila admired the purplish outline of her mouth on the butt before she ground it into the phone booth floor, then pulled the tube of Plum Luscious out of her pocket and recoated her lips before she smoked the next one. When she was finished, she lit the book of matches on fire and dropped it. She watched the matchbook burn itself out, and checked her reflection in the glass as she dialed Neil’s house. How convenient that Brian answered.
It was a two-mile walk to the old Brightbach place, and Lila savored the delicacy of the spring evening. There were tiny buds on the trees, but there was a bite of cold in the air. If it snowed again, as it sometimes did in March, all of that sweetness would be ruined. Lila walked slowly. She knew Brian would be by in his Mustang to pick her up before long. “Just look for me on the road,” she’d told him.
There wasn’t a single thing Lila liked about Brian, but she decided she was just going to close her eyes and let him do it. His wavy reddish hair would probably feel the same as Neil’s. And his lips…well, she didn’t care if he kissed like Neil or not. She never wanted to see Neil again. After Brian was finished with her, she’d ask him to drive her back to Hap’s. The Greyhound bus stopped there for its nighttime run to Chicago, and Lila had over four hundred dollars she’d stolen from the Lilly Belle cashbox—far more than she needed for a one-way ticket. But Lila surprised herself as she heard the Mustang climbing the rise behind her. She dropped into the ditch and lay flat among the weeds. Brian drove by twice more, but she stayed still.
The road was deserted when she stood up and brushed off her clothes and hair. She could see the lights from Hap’s place in the distance, and she walked toward them. When she got there, she’d look up Norbert Bell’s number in the phone book. She’d tell him what her father said about him. She’d tell him about her mother and Neil. She’d tell him about the money she’d stolen from her mother, and that she knew the combination to the safe in her father’s store. Something would happen next. Something big. Lila didn’t know what, but she smoked cigarette after cigarette, preparing herself for the next surprise.
Denise Emanuel Clemen
Denise Emanuel Clemen
Denise Emanuel Clemen has worked as an art model, a merchant of her own blood plasma, and an assembly-line worker in a factory where she became an expert at assembling toy manure spreaders. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in theGeorgetown Review (including an honorable mention for their prize), Two Hawks Quarterly, Literary Mama, The Rattling Wall, Fiction Fix, Knee-Jerk, and the Delmarva Review. She’s received fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, the Ragdale Foundation, and was an Auvillar fellow at Moulin à Nef in France in 2009. Denise received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska in 2010. Her memoir will soon be available at http://shebooks.net. Denise blogs at http://leavingdivorceville.blogspot.com and http://deniseemanuelclemen.com.