— for Kristyn Brown
I sit on the curb in the shade of the bay laurel, head and arms piled on my knees, and admire Dolores Wilde in her green bikini across the street. She is a slim girl with gold hair and large, hazy green eyes. Dipping a sponge into a bucket, she slops on figure eights of suds, then rinses and rubs till her stepdaddy’s turquoise Buick gleams like the abdomen of a bluebottle fly. Even though she’s not old enough to drive, she takes good care of that car. Maybe she thinks it will be hers someday. Or maybe she is thinking about stealing it and driving it to Florida to join up with her oldest brother, who left home two days after they put Stepdaddy away. Or maybe, in some peculiar way, she is still trying to please him.
I’ve known Dolores Wilde since she was five and I was eight. Now she is fifteen, and my constant thoughts about her are in danger of putting me in the same category as Stepdaddy. She wears sunglasses and ignores me, except that, just as she finishes, she turns her head in my direction, and the sun catches on the rims of her shades, producing a defiant flash.
That evening I go over to see her.
Tanya, one of Stepdaddy’s two biological offspring, answers the door.
“Mitchell home?” I say, asking for her older stepbrother, who I know is working at the 76 station and will be until past midnight.
Twelve-year-old Tanya clanks her spiky lashes at me, shoves out her chest, and says in a husky voice, “No, he ain’t.”
“Is Dolores here?”
Tanya smiles. She’s seen it all. “Do you want to come in?”
I step up into the house, with its soothing jungle anarchy, Asian war souvenirs, Amazonian parrots, and giant golden Buddha. Both the TV and the stereo are on. The blender would be on too if there were anything to mix a drink with. Birds squawk and skreel at me from three different cages. Dolores is sitting on the love seat, skinny legs crossed, a can of Coors in her fingers. The Wilde house is ruled by children: Peter Pan meets Oliver Twist. Dolores’s mother, a booze automaton with a concave scar on her temple left by a blow from a baseball bat, lives and works as a maid in the motel across from the penitentiary where her husband has been sentenced to four years. She calls every week or so to say that she will be coming home this weekend. She never does.
A wide-eyed Dolores turns to look at me as cats from windows do: a sort of dazed, blurred-out disbelief. “You want a beer?” she says. She is barefoot and wears yellow terry shorts and a thin top that reveals the lean brown hourglass of her midriff. She is the prettiest of the six children — the toughest too, it would appear. Her older siblings don’t seem to have weathered the long-term violent assaults and events of the trial as well as she. As they turned into adults and realized what had happened to them, the others behaved as if bombs with rusted timers had gone off in their heads: one minute you saw them giggling or roughhousing naughtily; the next they were staring blankly into space, curls of cartoon smoke lifting from their ears. When it happened to Dobb, the oldest, he left for Florida, and he hasn’t called home since. When it happened to Sharilee, she buttoned up her trembling frame into the uniform of the United States Marine Corps. Mitchell, who’s my age, now has that ticking-bomb-in-his-head look too, which may be why he works so much. It hasn’t happened to Dolores yet. Maybe it won’t; she’s so good at scrambling incoming signals.
The refrigerator is jammed with tall cans of Schlitz and Coors, all courtesy of Mitchell. I crack open a beer and sit next to Dolores, who blows the hair out of her face and regards me the way a ham might a sharp knife. Tanya and Waymann, the other bio-child of Stepdaddy, like me because I am nice to them and, who knows, maybe I will marry Dolores one day.
We all watch the TV with the sound off. The picture tube is worn out, so even when Waymann changes the channel, it’s all pretty much the same.
The phone rings, and there’s a rush to answer it. Waymann is quicker, but Dolores wrestles the receiver away from him. “I’m the boss here!” she shouts. Placing the phone against her ear, she speaks in a monotone: “Hello? . . . Nothing. . . . I don’t know.” Dolores scrapes the polish from her toenails with her thumb as she listens, phone clamped between shoulder and ear. At one point she sets the phone down on the table to go change the record on the stereo. “What?” she shouts back into the phone. “If you want. . . . I don’t care. . . . Yeah, OK. G’bye.”
“Who was it?” the children demand.
“Mom. She says she’s coming home this weekend.”
“Yeah, right,” says Tanya.
I get another beer and wander down the hall to peek into the disheveled bedrooms. Dolores is in charge of housekeeping, cooking, and watching the youngsters. In between she fitfully attends school, urged on by an overtaxed social worker. I poke my head into her room, which used to be Stepdaddy’s — another peculiar turn of events: after what he did to her, why would she want to sleep in his room?
Dolores drinks her tall Coors and squints at me now and again. I sit down as close as I can to her. At the commercial breaks she begins to exhort Tanya and Waymann to go to bed, but they are clearly accustomed to not listening to her. Even before Stepdaddy got locked up, the kids did whatever they pleased in this house; why should it be any different with the parents gone?
Dolores, resigned to the fact that she has no effect on the outcome of anything, lights a Marlboro.
Tanya, down on the floor, blond head propped on one hand, asks me, “Are you going to marry Dolores?”
Dolores blushes and throws a pillow at Tanya. “Go to bed.”
“No, you go to bed,” Tanya retorts.
“We’ll just have to wait them out,” I whisper in her ear. “Even those kids in Peter Pan had to sleep eventually.”
She frowns at me, but it comes off fuzzy and cute.
Waymann — who at ten has already burglarized a home, tried to pawn some of his father’s guns, cashed in half of the old man’s coin collection, and been implicated in an arson — bangs open one of the bird-cage doors. The green-and-yellow parrot comes flapping out with a cackle, tours the room twice, and perches on the shoulder of the giant golden Buddha on the hearth.
“Now look what you did,” Dolores says.
“Dolores already has a boyfriend,” Tanya tells me.
“Do you already have a boyfriend, Dolores?” I ask.
“Rollo is her boyfriend,” says Tanya.
Rollo is a drug dealer, a thirty-something, porcine, divorced swinger with permed hair who lives down the block. Dolores baby-sits Rollo’s kids weekly. Last year he nailed my sixteen-year-old girlfriend, who’d gone over to buy some drugs. My parents think the world of Rollo because he can fix just about anything and keeps his lawn neat.
“Dolores is my girl now,” I say.
“She’s my sister,” drawls Waymann, sneaking up on the parrot.
The parrot bolts and slams into the sliding glass door. Waymann picks it up and strokes its feathers downward from the head, as if to reshape it, then gently returns it to its perch, where it shivers once, lifts a claw, and splats the newspaper below.
“I’ll trade you my car for your sister,” I say, dangling my car keys at him.
He stares at the keys as he drops the latch on the cage door. “Deal,” he says.
“Can you drive a stick?”
He snatches the keys from my hand. “Sure.” He’s only ten, but I imagine he can.
“We’ll take it for a spin later,” I say.
Waymann goes across the street to look at “his” new car. I put my arm around his sister. “You’re legally mine now,” I tell her. She regards me with her all-purpose blur.
Waymann is back shortly, swelling with pride.
“OK,” announces Dolores. “It’s time to go to bed.”
“I’m going to drive my car,” says Waymann.
“It’s time to go to bed,” Dolores insists. “Go to bed, go to bed, go to bed.”
“Won’t, won’t, won’t, won’t.”
“I’ll kick your little asses.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I’ll kick your little asses,” I say.
Delighted, they scurry off down the hall. They don’t go to bed, of course, but at least they are out of the room, and my car keys are on the kitchen table.
“Now we should go to bed,” I say to Dolores.
She looks at me as if I have said it will be partly cloudy tomorrow with variable winds out of the southwest.
“I’m breaking up with my girlfriend,” I tell her.
Waymann and Tanya are down the hallway, titter-whispering and popping their heads out.
“Go to bed!” Dolores orders. I kiss her damp gold hair and slip my hand under her blouse. I feel the curves of her stomach, the hard points of her small breasts. I recite the lyrics of a top-forty song in her ear. She grabs my hand and tows me down the hall to her room and closes the door firmly behind us.
Stepdaddy’s old abode still has the camphor-wool-blanket-bacon-machine-oil smell of the hunter. There are at least a dozen rifles behind glass and a variety of handguns as well, including one Old West–looking pistol with a preposterously long barrel. The stuffed heads of a moose and a mountain lion gaze glassily down. Framed photos cover the walls, all showing a smiling Stepdaddy with a dead deer or elk or marlin hanging upside down. Dolores’s unmade bed, with its pink-flowered counterpane, floats incongruously in the middle of it all.
Dolores takes off her clothes, her thin arms heavy with down. The silver chain around her neck glitters on her throat. Her eyes are big green blurs. She lies under me without response while a glow like moonlight pours over us through the screens, though it is only the porch light of a neighbor. On the nightstand a little pink radio plays one sticky pop tune after another.
I stay with her until I hear her brother’s car pull up in the driveway, his heavy boots on the floor, the squeak of a water tap, his cough. It’s already 6 A.M., the creep and flood of dawn. I wait for Mitchell to close the door to his room; then I sneak out and step down into the morning puddle of vapor that smells of orange trees and asphalt, carrying Dolores’s young animal scent on me like a trophy. My parents look up from their breakfast plates as if I were late for a funeral.
I’m back again the next night, and the next. Hang the consequences and the moral complications. Soon I will be off to college, sold out with a yoke around my neck, and my youth will be gone. To claim Dolores from the rest of the hungry predators I begin to take her for long drives through the city and to the cliffs, the beach, the mountain. Picture her in a short red plaid dress or powder blue jeans, the scent of sage in her hair, the cling of her panties, the grip of her young cinnamon flesh. She is so peacefully acquiescent, so delectably indistinct, it seems to my teenage mind as if she might have materialized from another world for my pleasure.
Toward the end of the summer I take her to a party at Bobby Swift’s house in a rural valley community fifteen miles north. When we walk in together, the looks from all my friends say, Who is this secret creature? Fifteen years old? She can’t be your girlfriend. It isn’t love; that’s fairly obvious. Ask her who she loves, and she’ll tell you Rollo, the disco-coiffed drug pusher, the affectionate father she never had.
My friends are kind to her, try to make her feel at ease. Dolores looks almost star-struck in these new surroundings. She holds her head high, flares her nostrils, twitches, shrugs, blinks her eyes, answers all questions with Yes or I don’t know. We move from the kitchen to the living room, where we sit on the couch and listen to music, her hand on my wrist. Outside we smoke a cigarette, and I point out the spiral of Andromeda — another galaxy — and for once she is filled with wonder.
Around ten I steer her down the hall into one of the back bedrooms.
She balks. “Why are we going in here?”
“I want to show you Bobby’s room.”
“I want to stay at the party.” This is something new: her saying what she wants.
“We’re coming back,” I say, shutting the door. I show her Bobby’s motocross trophies and some of his framed racing and stunt photos. In the best one he’s midair on his 400 Husqvarna, about to hit the ramp after clearing three oil drums. Dolores studies the photographs as if she were nearsighted and had forgotten her specs. I flip off the lights, slip my arms around her. She grows taut, resists, registers indignity, but she never says no.
While we’re putting our clothes back on, Bobby, whom I’ve known since second grade, bursts in and turns on the lights. “Hey, hey, hey. Sorry there, kids.”
“Don’t you ever knock?”
“On my own door?”
Dolores finishes dressing hastily, ashamed in front of our host. “I need to get home,” she says.
It’s a hot night. We snake our way along the gorge and out of the valley. Dolores is quieter than usual, smoking and staring out the window. It was cruel of me, I think, to drag her off like that when she was having fun and pretending we were a real couple who would perhaps one day take home movies of our children or get an FHA loan. At her door she gives me a wooden good-night kiss. Waymann and Tanya are asleep in front of the television set.
Summer ends, and I’m off to college. I’ve always been told I will do well there. My mother especially has stressed the importance of an education if I don’t want to end up like [insert name of shiftless neighbor here]. I don’t bother to say goodbye to Dolores; I’ll see her again soon enough at the break. I’m a little bored with her anyway, and she’s got plenty of suitors in the wings. I spot her holding hands with a kid named Mark the day before I leave.
When I return at Christmas, Dolores’s mother is home. The kitchen is clean, and the smells of butter beans and ham hocks fill the air. Mrs. Wilde likes me. I’m not one of those rough chop-lickers lined up outside the house whom she has to beat back with a broom every few hours; I’m a college boy, the well-behaved son of Mr. and Mrs. Call the Police across the street. My parents are Democrats, and once the Democrats are back in office, they’ll pass a law against mammals’ killing their own young.
Dolores and I go on a proper date to the drive-in. She doesn’t ask me how school is, what classes I’m taking, what girls I’m going out with. I pour drinks out of the glove compartment while we watch the first movie. At intermission I lean over and trip the latch on her reclining bucket seat. She is almost automatic in her reception, eyes fixed on the ceiling. She kisses differently, however, and she closes her eyes and puts her fingers very delicately on my shoulders, as if this were a ballroom dance. After the dance is done, we talk about nothing; we have so little to share. She does not “converse.” She is a Yes and I don’t know girl who blinks and titters and smokes her cigarettes. But we do have one running joke: “You steamed up all the windows.”
The following summer I come home from school just in time to hear the disconcerting news that Stepdaddy has been released from the pen. Already? Didn’t they just put him away? There’s a birds-bolting-from-the-brush panic as everyone clears out of the Wilde home. Mitchell gets an apartment downtown. The court, in its wisdom, provides Dolores, Tanya, Waymann, and their mother a papa-free motel room for a few months as a buffer zone. A social worker checks in daily to make sure the lock on the henhouse has not been disturbed. Now, when I sit on the curb, instead of watching Dolores in her green bikini, I see her Number One Violator stretching and yawning and getting the feel of his old freedom again. Robert Wilde — or “Bob,” as he’s known to most — has not changed as far as I can tell, except he’s lost a little weight and seems rested. I don’t suppose he’s had much to drink for a while. He waves at me. I wave back.
“Come on over, man,” he shouts. “Have a beer.”
I’ve always gotten along with Bob fine. Unlike some of my neighbors, he doesn’t care that because of my college degree I will soon occupy a higher social class. He doesn’t appear to hold it against me either that my mother was a witness against him in the long and scandalous trial. And somehow (he has done his time) I don’t hold it against him that he was convicted of molesting his stepdaughter.
As congenial as can be, Bob goes into the house and returns with two cans of beer, the cheapest you can buy, the same kind my father has in his fridge. We sit across from each other in redwood patio furniture under the fleshy-leafed moonflower tree, whose blue bulbs burst into heavy-scented bloom only in the evening. Bob’s an easy conversationalist, not a stupid man by any means. There’s a faint Southern twang in his voice. I know little of his background other than the photos of him as a hunter and leaning back on a Harley as a young man. I imagine that, like many people in this city, he was in the navy at one point.
Bob tells me he’s got the “black ass,” which I take to mean he is down in the dumps. “Imagine that,” he says. “They release you early for good behavior and then take your family away. I know what I did was wrong.” His small, washed-out blue eyes fix me with an imploring look, and he works his mouth in a way that suggests he is repressing strong emotion — though I know he doesn’t really care.
“What’s it like up there?” I ask.
“Oh, it wasn’t so bad.” He stretches his legs, drains his beer, and hunts for his smokes. “They had me working on a goddamn vegetable farm, is all. I never have liked vegetables.” His teeth show in his shiny, red, scarred face. “But they did teach me some geology. Lookit here.” He pulls out some rocks that he’s cut and polished and classifies them — one igneous, two metamorphic — and assigns them their hardness numbers. He seems proud of his knowledge. “Here, go ahead and take one. ’Nother beer?”
Rollo lumbers over after a while. We make quite the mangy trio — all of us defilers of the same teenage beauty, though I don’t equate what they do to Dolores and what I, her contemporary, do with her. Rollo and I are probably the only ones in the neighborhood with a disdainful enough view of society to be seen with Stepdaddy so fresh from his release. Rollo’s all kiss-ass and grins. If Stepdaddy knew that Rollo was not only peddling drugs but collecting the honey from Stepdaddy’s hive, it might add up to a bad day for Rollo. No doubt Rollo remembers the time Stepdaddy kicked the whimpering piss out of old man Govack for no good reason. I’ll bet he hasn’t forgotten either the time Stepdaddy brought out one of his rifles after an altercation with the Swenbergs down the street. And who doesn’t recall the night he beat his pleading stepson Dobb into near unconsciousness against the garage door. The boy screamed and begged for mercy, but old Stepdad kept laying into him, bellowing lusty buccaneer chants all the while. You might say that Rollo is scared to death of Stepdaddy. We all are, though when it comes to sleeping with his stepdaughter, I feel curiously immune, perhaps because I am her boyfriend — or, at least, the closest she’s ever had to one.
Rollo slaps me on the back. “So, how’s that college pussy?”
“It’s all right,” I say. I don’t like Rollo.
“I bet you get plenty.”
I light a cigarette and stare at him awhile.
“I had me some college pussy once.” He waves his left hand in front of his face. “Smelled like enchiladas.”
“Well, God damn it,” says Stepdaddy, plainly aroused by the subject. “Everywhere I go these days, they got me fenced off. Got this whole house to myself. You don’t know where they’ve got my wife and those kids sequestered?”
“No, I don’t,” I lie.
Rollo shakes his head.
“You boys need another beer?”
“No, just need to borrow your mower, if that’s all right,” says Rollo. “Mine took a shit. I’ll bring it back tonight.”
My mother’s glaring visage appears in the kitchen window. Stepdaddy sees her and smiles.
Because I am “dating” Dolores, and because I’m a polite young SOB with a bright future, I’m one of the few entrusted with the address of the motel where she and her mother and her half siblings are staying, a cheap, gray-carpeted, sixteen-unit complex not far from the basketball arena. I can’t wait to see Dolores, my no-frills, green-eyed cutie pie, but when I do, I find her more subdued and remote than ever. We attend a Pink Floyd concert, which she sits quietly through without moving her head.
On the way home I look unsuccessfully for a place to pull off and park. She huddles in the corner of my car, the diluted strips of streetlight flashing solemnly over her solemn face. She has said no more than five or six words the whole night. I can almost hear the bomb ticking inside her head, just like the ones that blew to smithereens her older brothers and sister. Her sorrow and frustration are so palpable that I find myself pulling up in front of her room and leaving her with nothing more than a good-night kiss. As I drive away, I look in my rearview mirror and see her standing in the dreary corridor with the hulking, round-shouldered Coca-Cola machine and the brown moths tapping around the blaze of the bare light bulbs. She is just standing, not looking at anything. See you soon, my sad little princess, I think. But I do not see her soon. I do not see Dolores again for ten years.
College is easy, but it’s really not for me. I’d rather travel than study maps, and I feel more at ease among the working class. Now that I’ve rejected the opportunity that’s been handed me, squandered the money my parents set aside, and disappointed just about everyone I know, I’m on my own and have to take jobs no one else wants just to get by, living in places no one else wants to live. I’m no different in this respect than 100 million others. It’s about time I shed that presumption of privilege and superiority.
Every year or two I return home to visit my fine, upstanding parents, who remain convinced I will make them proud someday. It must be hard to write each year in the Christmas letter that their son is still wandering the country, fulfilling some beatnik notion of freedom. What can I tell them? At least it’s more honest than politics, Gestalt therapy, or advertising.
Each time I come back, I hope to find Dolores across the street, but she’s never around. Her brothers I see. Stepdaddy, like the world, is always there, eternally hammered in his redwood chair, bats flitting overhead among the glowing blossoms of the moonflower tree. I mosey on over for a beer and chat with the moth-eaten old bastard and his poor, muddled wife. My mother has never despised a man more than she does Robert Wilde, but our mutual respect (or should I say “collusion”?) has only grown.
“How’s the writing going?” he asks.
“Haven’t published a thing yet,” I admit, “but I have learned how to peel potatoes and dig a neat, square ditch.”
“Oh, that’s good. Let me get you another beer.”
Eventually, casually, disinterestedly, I’ll ask about Dolores. “Oh, she was here two months ago,” they’ll say, or, “You just missed her,” or, “She called from Dallas last night,” and I’ll always ask how she is, and they’ll always say she’s just fine.
As the years pass and it starts to sink in that I will never lead any kind of “normal” life, my recollections of Dolores become more sentimental. I discern, within the Dolores of my memory, a hidden depth, a subtle secret connection. Could it have been love? And to think that I participated in her destruction! But I was single-minded and immature, and every other jackal in the desert was ripping at her carcass. My actions could not have made any essential difference, and I treated her well — better than most, anyway. Think of all my kind words and tender caresses. My gauzy recollections make me out to be a decent chap, her protector and teacher. We go to parties and stay in the kitchen and laugh with sparkling white teeth. Out in the backyard I point to a star and say, “That’s such-and-such,” and her dark brown eyebrows arch, and I don’t take her into one of the back bedrooms and rape her. Even now (if she would just show up) I dream of putting her in my car and driving her far away to a small cottage in a misty town with giant oak trees, where we will age gently together with a little booze, a TV set, a rainy green window, and finally someone to love.
One day I return home after being gone for nearly three years. The bus gets in late. No one knows I’m here. I decide to walk the two miles home from the terminal. It is a soft, warm violet evening. Strolling through the old neighborhood, suitcase in hand, I notice that the trees have gotten shaggy and tall, their tops nearly touching from one side of the street to the other. It never seemed possible that this could be an “old” neighborhood. I run my fingers over an initialed heart carved in bark, linger over the castor berries squashed along the walk by the Swenbergs’ house, look up at the fishing line and one-ounce lead weight I wrapped around a telephone wire on a practice cast twenty years ago.
As I come up to my parents’ little yard with the split-rail fence, I stop for a minute and stare across the way at the home of the Wildes. The place is improved: molding around the garage window, a striped canvas awning, a red-maple sapling in the middle of the yard. Mr. and Mrs. Wilde have convened out front under the moonflower tree. What a stroke of luck it would be to see Dolores again! I have heard that she is married and living in Kentucky, but it’s not going well for her. I don’t doubt that it is a bad arrangement. She will become the image of her mother, making beds in a motel across from the penitentiary where her old man sits for bashing in her head. I consider what she might look like at twenty-six: still young, still not too late.
When her face appears in the living-room window, my heart stalls. I hold my breath as she comes outside and takes a seat.
Suitcase in hand, I move slowly up the Wildes’ driveway through the melting twilight. Stepdaddy creaks forward and greets me warmly, rising to his feet to fetch me a beer. The missus pushes pudgy fingers through her hair and manufactures a smile. I set my suitcase down and take a seat. Dolores, curled up barefoot in her wooden chair, hardly acknowledges me. She looks smaller than I remember, with the same muzzy, famished look in her eyes. I smile effortfully. She appears not the least bit interested.
Stepdaddy and I make small talk: the weather, the war, Rollo the drug dealer’s new car. Night slides down, and the blue pendent blossoms overhead begin to pop like crumpling crepe, giving off a heavy, numbing fragrance like a chest poultice in the depth of a childhood fever. After a while the mother and stepfather shuffle up, say good night, and take their leave. Ah, yes. They understand. They want us to be alone too. Even among the mutilated there is acknowledgement of the sanctity of young love.
Dolores and I sit awkwardly. I study her, trying to determine the secret that will bring her to life. Her face appears in the same moment to express puzzlement, joy, apathy, and despair. One minute I think she will cry; the next, giggle. I drop the formal tone of old friends (who were never really friends) who have become strangers.
“How are you doing?” I say.
Her eyes flick wide. She twitches and shrugs.
“I hear you’re married.”
“Yes.” Her voice is little more than a whisper.
Her head twitches again. “Fine.” I have the feeling she is freezing to death, that I have just found her buried in the snow, and she does not want to be revived. She licks her lips. They were always dry when I made love to her as a teenager.
“What’s it like?” I ask. “Kentucky?”
She answers with a roving of the head, a quick shrug.
“How’s married life?”
She turns around and holds me in a gaze that is suddenly unequivocal. It is a look of contemptuous incredulity that says: What do you think married life is like?
“Your husband treat you all right?” I pursue, still clinging to the hopes I have nursed all these years.
“Where is he?”
“Dolores, . . . you want to go someplace . . . for a drink?”
“You want to go for a walk?” I picture myself apologizing, holding her, making amends, finally setting things right.
“No,” she says, getting up. “I have to go in now.” The door closes behind her.
The next day Dolores returns to Kentucky. Two years later I hear she has divorced and remarried, and then one day, just before her thirty-fifth birthday, she takes her life. I don’t know what else I expected to happen, or why I would be shocked. Eighteen years later I still can’t forgive myself.