Nell Payton

Danny is driving, one hand on the wheel and the other under the loose-fitting fabric of Lyndon’s dress. The muscles in his forearm flinch and contract and he is moving down her stomach, down farther, in, and then up, pulling at her breasts — her tits, he called them when he first told me that her nipples are the color of plums. I kick the brown leather seat back lightly enough that it could be an accident and slurp on the ice left at the bottom of the Big Gulp until the cold stings my forehead and prickles along my jaw; when the ice is gone I suck sweet lemon-lime air. I don’t think either of them had forgotten I was here.

We are two towns over now, six miles south of Hills Point, the drive-through with its broken neon sign flashing “S OW” instead of slow, and the houses here are smaller, but still nice, all yellow or white painted brick. Lyndon used to live in this neighborhood, I remember, before we really knew her. Our mothers were friends when we were younger and I came here once or twice, tossed into Lyndon’s playhouse in the backyard so we could pick grass and not talk while our mothers took pictures; I didn’t play with girls. Lyndon is looking out the window but she doesn’t say anything now or show any sign of recognition.

The trees and hedges are thick with summer greens, the lawns lush and waterlogged from yesterday’s rain. An abandoned sprinkler leaks a river down the driveway and into the ditches where there is no sidewalk. Even the houses with cracked walks and scuffed doors are crawling with ivy, morning glories, and vines that look thick enough to strangle us. A dogwood tree has shed a circle of petals, half on the curb, half on the parked cars: white, brighter in the trees and I’m getting dizzy turning my head to look as Danny drives. Above the dashboard, the sky is pale, hazy and hazier still through the streaks on the glass. The streets have all been repaved, all over town, the mayor’s initiative paid for by the state, and the asphalt is a slick tar-black with tiny fractures of light reflecting so the road shimmers, brilliant and steaming waves of blurring heat as we go.

There is no one out today, a Monday, just before three, so day camps are still in session and we know that anyone who can afford it is away fishing or at sleep away or in a van headed to the Grand Canyon. The humidity packs the heat around the car, the leather burns our skin but we all carry sweaters because the air conditioning in Danny’s car is warped and spits freezing air with an irregular mechanical tick. We’re almost there, Danny tells us, putting both hands back on the wheel and accelerating with a sense of purpose he hasn’t had all day. He rolls the all windows down. The air from outside hits me like a wall and the French-fry-burger-stale-sweat scent of the car is suddenly unbearable and I’m leaning my head out the window like a dog.

Lyndon readjusts her dress, she isn’t wearing a bra, she rarely does, and her breasts are loose inside the washed-out, red-orange nylon. She flips the mirror down and scoots to the side to find her eyeliner and a studded makeup pack wedged in the crack between the seat back and the cushion. Her hair is stringy, white-blond and she wears it pulled back so tight from her temples that she looks bald when you see her from the front. Her lower lip is full and hangs away from her gums, exposing the tops of her bottom teeth, and her skin never seems to get tanner, just increasingly yellowed. Danny says that her body makes up for her face but I know he thinks she’s pretty.

When he catches me staring at Lyndon I mumble something about Isabel, this junior I’ve told him I like. Danny snarls and throws his soda cup back at me and tells me to grow a pair and get with her. She’s at lacrosse camp, I supply as a weak defense. Danny smirks at me, turning, the red flush across his cheekbones rising, his chapped lips parting on the side to reveal a single canine. He takes his eyes off the road and I strain mine against the rows of parked cars as if I can keep the car on course. Watch, Lyndon says sharply, hitting his shoulder with the back of her hand and Danny straightens the wheel. Danny is still smiling at me in the rearview mirror. There is a rumor that the lacrosse teams, the boys and girls, all just fuck each other at this camp. Lyndon turns to me, her elbow propped next to the headrest: Michael, they are so incestuous. She emphasizes the “so,” and I am trying to decipher her tone. Yeah. Yeah, I agree. Lyndon always speaks this way. In full sentences, with big words. Words that Danny and I never use like incestuous, phallic, temperamental, severe.

All summer, Danny has been sleeping at my house; my mom told him he is welcome in the basement guest room for as long as he needs it. It’s just him and his mom now and she’s a flight attendant on the Southeast routes so she isn’t home much. He’s graduating next year with my oldest sister but they’ve never gotten along; Danny’s always been my friend. Lyndon stays over a couple times a week, leaving in the morning before my dad leaves for the office, her shoes in her hands, her hair wet from the shower and her shirt wet from her hair all clinging to her back. I don’t know if my parents would make Danny leave if they found out about her, maybe they already know but want to keep Danny here, safe, but it’s hard to tell that Lyndon’s been there at all except that there’s a two-inch stain of rust colored blood on the basement couch. I tell Danny to clean it up, get bleach or ask Lyndon what to do or my sister even, but he scratches at the fibers with a long fingernail while we play video games and tells me to shut up about it.

Here is Jesus. Danny has stopped the car in the middle of the road. Look, there, Danny points out Lyndon’s window. And there he is, right before us in the center of a wilting lawn, stout in stone robes, the creases engraved. The statue looks garish and unkind; the nose is worn down at the bridge and the eye sockets, the curved lids closed, are ringed with grime. It stands at least four feet tall and wider than Lyndon and maybe me. Danny puts the car in park and we get out and lean against the hood, the three of us lined up like apostles. Jesus, that’s creepy, I say and Lyndon laughs.

I never went to church much, only on Christmas morning and for baptisms but this Jesus looks shorter and fatter than the one on the cross. Danny walks up to it, wraps his arms around the statue and lifts, he can get it a few inches off the ground without help. He drops it back into the grass and I hear a thud although I’m not sure the Jesus made one. Lyndon looks up and down the street to see if anyone is watching Danny but the lawns are empty, the curtains drawn.

We are stealing it, I know. I saw Danny’s scan the walk, check his watch, flare his nostrils and cock his head like he does when he is hungry for danger. He tells us an old woman lives here; I have no idea how he knew this but it’s not worth asking.

I practice my story on the way to the door; I figured I would have to do the dirty work. A woman opens the door as soon as I let the knocker drop against the wood, Danny was right, she looks old although maybe not that much older than our mom. She keeps the chain strung in the latch. Yes? She asks. I tell her what Danny told me to say: I am doing a project on the neighborhood; I’m trying to get some interviews. She lets me in.

The room is dark and smells stuffy, sour and slightly stale, like someone has been sleeping on the couch for days with all the windows closed. The back of my throat fills with saliva like it does before I puke but I swallow and breathe through my mouth. The overhead light is dim, the brightness filtered through a carpet of dead flies under the bulb. I ask the woman her name and she hands me a pen and a pad of stationary from the hall table with a name and address printed at the top. The name is something Eastern European that looks hard to pronounce; she tells me to call her Jo. The rest of the room is nice and reminds me of a teacher’s house at the end-of-year potluck or the common room of a community center: warm and formal, lived-in but not enough. The furniture is upholstered in fall-browns and orange and even the foot rests and the surfaces are clear except for a glass of water and a book on the end table; the sofa cushions worn and squashed in.

We are still standing in the entryway when she asks me what questions I have for her. I start with how long she has been in the neighborhood. I only remember I’m supposed to be writing down what she says halfway through a story about her husband. I look around for pictures but there are none on the wall and only a small round frame on the coffee table with a girl, her daughter maybe. I can’t tell how old Jo is, there are no wrinkles on her face but her hair is gray and brittle. She asks about me and then smiles to fill the silence when I fail to produce another question. We are still standing and I try to see how long it’s been on the thin gold watch around her wrist. The watch hasn’t been wound and both hands point to the eleven. I ask about Jesus outside and she laughs a hollow laugh that makes the hair on my arms rise; it’s Hosea, the prophet. Hosea; she stops there as if I shouldn’t need further explanation. He was a gift, she tells me. From the church, for her service. She says she doesn’t know anything about him, Hosea, but that it can’t be bad to have a saint out watching. No, I agree, it can’t be bad. We sit down in the living room. Danny told me he needed fifteen minutes but I stay inside for forty-five and don’t leave until I get a text from him that just says “Dude?” After that I wrap things up.

I leave when she goes to the kitchen for two glasses of cranberry juice. Danny has the car running and the lawn looks shrunken without Hosea. I cross the bald patch of dirt on the way to the car, leaving Jo’s door open so she won’t hear the lock click behind me. We are around the corner and speeding down the next street before I have slid across to the middle seat and Danny has his hand on Lyndon’s knee and the music up high. He is relaxed as he drives, as if he has done this a million times before. Lyndon tells me I have a common face, that the old woman won’t be able to describe me to the police. Jesus is snug in the trunk, she says; they had to wedge him in over the spare tire. Some girl band that Lyndon likes is playing. It’s not Jesus, I tell them but Danny’s hand is sliding back under Lyndon’s dress and they don’t hear me; I don’t repeat myself.

We order the two-for-twenty-dollar special at the diner while Lyndon is in the bathroom so the waitress won’t get angry that we have three people ordering a meal for two. Lyndon cuts the steak into equal parts and we pick at everything else together, except for the broccoli, which Danny eats himself, heads first. Our booth is against the window and outside the sky is now obscured by a mass of grey that is striking only because of the sliver of blue that endures just above the rooftops. I pay for dinner and Danny buys the alcohol after; we drink in the car with all the doors open. Lyndon asks Danny what we are going to do with the Jesus statue and he shrugs and says that it’s probably too heavy to throw off of something but that we can probably smash it or put it in front of the school or whatever. His good mood is wearing thin. Lyndon spits out of her door and nods okay. She doesn’t seem anxious and I see why Danny’s so in to her. Before this summer he had never dated anyone for longer than a month. Lyndon has a year left of school but Danny told me that they might drive somewhere together when the summer is over. He said he is thinking north, like Montana because he has an uncle there; my mom still thinks he is going to college.

We should take it back, I say before I know what I’m doing. Shit; I try to backtrack and say yeah to the smashing but the alcohol has made it so my mouth is moving slower than my brain. Danny is nodding and he smacks the steering wheel; Lyndon looks as confused as I feel. That’s better, he tells me, smart, that’s smart, Mike and he tells us to close our doors. He can drive straight when he’s drunk, he can think straight too; I’ve actually never seen him look dumb or out of control or anything. He’s always collected, his eyes brooding and now I worry he is thinking something terrible. At the gas station, he turns and claps my knee and then smacks the back of Lyndon’s head rest; he tells me that this is it, and I don’t know what “it” is but I’m proud anyway.

Danny doesn’t tell us where we’re going but we pull into a parking spot in the back of what turns out to be a hardware store. We are just in time; it closes at six on weekdays. Danny drops four twenties into Lyndon’s lap, telling us to go inside and get flashlights. The man behind the counter points to the back. There are tiny penlights in red and aluminum and heavy duty rubber-coated ones with three-inch faces and foot-wide beams. Lyndon takes two of the big ones off the hooks and stacks them in my arms. I am still high off of the praise and I let my hands linger on hers but she raises her eyebrows at me and takes two more flashlights off the shelf. The narrow shelving behind her is covered with pots of sealant and rubber cement and against my other arm there is a stack of power tools, a drill with a thin layer of dust on the handle and three portable sanders. Lyndon passes me, navigating around the cluttered shelves and leaning into a bin for a roll of duct tape, her dress, already cut low across her the back, lifts up revealing the top of her thighs when she bends forward. I follow, the flashlights in my arms and when she spins around with the duct tape we are face-to-face. She looks over my shoulder but I can feel her breath on my chin. We are almost the same height and I could kiss her right now without having to lower my head much. No one would see and she has just as much of a reason not to tell Danny as I do; I take another step toward her and she pushes past me and tells me to stop.

At the counter, Lyndon motions for me to put the flashlights down and the man stacks them in a paper bag. Lyndon pays and buys herself root beer flavored chewing gum. I take the bag from the counter and Lyndon is already walking toward the door. She pops a piece of gum into her mouth, dropping the wrapper on the ground, her ponytail swinging across the exposed knots of her spine. I follow her, inhaling the root beer-sugar smell, listening to the crack of the gum, the sound of her spit and the door almost slams closed in my face.

Danny has maneuvered Hosea half way out of the trunk himself and we help him strap two of the heavy-duty flashlights onto its back. We’ll do the rest later, Danny says after he scrapes his knuckles on the stone. He sucks on his hand in the front seat while Lyndon and I try to wedge Hosea back in. It takes us close to thirty minutes and I worry that his nose will chip off, or worse, the bump of stone fabric at his crotch. I doubt there is forgiveness for breaking off the junk of a prophet and I almost tell Lyndon this but she looks pissed off so I keep quiet.

Just before midnight, Danny tells me to take a walk but I don’t want to go far so I sit against the back tire and feel the car move to their rhythm. It’s still hot but I use my sweater as a cushion on the cement and resist the impulse to stand up and watch through the window. There is a chewed pen on the cement and I roll it up and down the white parking paint wondering if he pulls her hair. Wondering what her breasts look like hanging down when she’s on top, if they get tube-like, pulled down by gravity like the ones in the porn videos I’ve seen. Danny hasn’t told me if he makes her come and I wonder if he would even know what that looked like, whether he would be able to tell; I don’t know if I would.

I can feel the imprint of the asphalt on my cheek when I wake up and I brush the grit off my jaw with the back of my fingers. There is a faint hum of crickets but the car is quiet when I lean over to the open back door. Danny is stretched out on his stomach in the backseat and Lyndon has curled naked between his shoulder blade and the seat back. He is only wearing boxers, my boxers stolen from the laundry, and his face is oily in the light from the bulb outside of the tiny hardware store. It takes me a second to realize his eyes are open.

“Morning.” He grunts. It’s not really morning. The sky is still dark with no sign of the sun. There are no cars and the clock on the dashboard says 4:25. Danny shakes Lyndon and hands over her underwear, I turn around while she puts them on and then she climbs over the armrest and back into the passenger seat, holding her arms over her chest, but not that carefully. Danny follows her into the front seat and reaches back for his shorts. Let’s do this, he says, adjusting his boxers and zipping up his fly.

We park in front of the neighbors’ driveway, just one house down from Jo’s, and Danny shuts all the lights off in the car. The closest streetlight is a few houses toward the corner and the moon is a dull splinter muted by the clouds. It is dark enough that if Jo comes outside she won’t be able to see us right away and if she goes in to call the police, we bolt. That’s the plan.

We pull Hosea up over the edge of the trunk and put on the final touches. The old radio that Danny keeps in the back of his car with a gospel CD inside is duct taped to Hosea’s robes and Lyndon is laughing, covering her teeth just thinking about it. We wrap more tape around the prophet’s middle to strap the last two flashlights to his back and then Lyndon and I get the base and Danny takes the head so we can angle him out of the trunk.

When it’s planted on the grass Danny whispers that we should flip all the flashlights on first and then hit play and run back to the car and wait. We won’t drive away when Jo comes out, or the neighbors. Danny says they can’t do anything to us. We won’t drive until we see the flashing lights of the police. He walks us through it again.

It takes a while to maneuver Hosea back onto his spot and Danny switches on the flashlights one by one. The crevices in the stone are black against his illuminated face and the eye sockets look empty in the shadows. In the haze, the beams disappear a few inches above Hosea’s head, but he is lit and divine and Danny seems pleased with our handiwork.

Danny turns the music on; his finger lingering on the button for dramatic effect, and then a slow hymn with the barreling tenor of what must be a very fat man in a choir robe builds in the air as he turns the volume knob. Lyndon and I dash back to the sidewalk, but Danny takes his sweet time.

Nobody comes outside, but the music is loud and I know Jo must be awake in there. I picture her sitting up on that couch and flipping on the lights but I see nothing. Danny looks disappointed. The music fills the space in every direction, entombed by the humid air overhead, trapped around us, finding the corners of the yard, the low hanging gutters, and throbbing, the voices savage, in our own ears. Danny lights a cigarette to share with Lyndon; he hands me my own. Hosea’s arm is bathed in light but the hand and opened palm is shaded, invisible and it looks like limb has been sliced off, a clean cut through the stone. The light, positioned from below makes Hosea’s beard look like a jagged smiled and I am starting to get spooked. I toss the cigarette at Hosea and wipe my palms on my shorts.

The embers from the cigarette spark in the dried grass at Hosea’s feet, rising slowly into a thin flame that then cowers, shrinking and burning close to the ground with no breeze to feed on; I’m holding my breath. Lyndon and I walk back to the car and she reaches to turn the key in the ignition, letting the car hum awake to speed Danny along. Her bare feet are up on the dashboard, blue in the glow of the gauges and the clock radio, and mine are perched on the armrest between the front seats. We watch the embers go dark, waiting for sirens, waiting for Danny to get in and drive us away. The air-conditioning stammers on with a choke and soon we are freezing watching Danny through the glass. Lyndon wraps her sweater around her legs and I toss her mine but she lets it fall on her seat beside her. Danny is still, dark against dark, his shoulders back and his hands relaxed at his sides. When he gets back to the car, he doesn’t say anything to us. He seems tense, disappointed, and I ask him if he saw anything, any movement behind the curtains. He didn’t. Danny gets in the back seat with me, stepping on the paper bags and the beer cans, and drops the keys into my lap; he lets his head fall back against the seat. You drive, he says.

I walk around to the front seat and look over at Lyndon, memorizing everything from this angle. Her nose and lips are still swollen with sleep and her head lolls against the window frame leaving a greasy smudge on the glass. We are two towns over, six miles south of Hills Point, the drive-through with its broken neon sign flashing “S OW” instead of slow and I don’t know where to go from here.

NELL PAYTON lives in New York City (which is the greatest — she highly recommends it). Her work was most recently published in Echoes Magazine.


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