Jody Hobbs Hesler
It’s hot outside and her father is driving too fast. On the radio, Do the Hustle switches to a report of a missing child. Eight years old, just like her. Lost walking home from a friend’s house in the middle of a neighborhood nearby. The ash on her father’s cigarette grows long and breaks. The AC vent spews it in her direction. Dana flicks the flakes from her sunburned thigh and goes back to looking out the window.
“You can’t spend every minute with your friend, Dana,” her father says, continuing the argument she lost before she got into his car to go to this grown-up party to begin with. “You’re supposed to be here to visit me.”
Being dragged to a party of strangers counts as visiting him? Why wouldn’t she want to stay back and play with Corrie instead? They only get to see each other on her dad’s weekends. Regular friends get lots more time together.
Shake Your Booty fades in. In the back seat her older brother thwacks his new boomerang against his palm. Every now and then the plastic blade swings up between the inside of the car door and the edge of the front seat, skimming the back of her arm. She swats after it like it’s a bug.
At Corrie’s, they play stuffed animals and sing along with the radio. Corrie’s mom makes bread from scratch and sometimes rubs their shoulders at bedtime when Dana sleeps over. Nobody pokes at her with anything or punishes her for wanting to play with her friend. It’s always quiet at their house and calm. For that matter, it’s always calm and quiet back at her own house with her own mother, and there she and Alec can go to the neighborhood pool every day, except for Mondays when it’s closed, and she’s allowed to bring library books wherever they go. Her mom knows she won’t lose them.
Her dad side-eyes his own reflection in the corner of the rearview mirror and pats a hand against his wavy hair. Dana slinks closer to the passenger door, rests her face against the vinyl. Alec pops the boomerang into her arm again.
“Quit it.” If she twists her neck and strains her gaze around the edge of her seat, she can see a sliver of his googly expression. He sticks out his tongue. Three years older and he acts like a baby.
Their father pulls into a parking space on a street of townhouses. These are taller and more modern looking than the brick ones where they live with their mother, two hours away. Her father plants his feet on the pavement and his keys jangle in his hands, clicking against his lighter. He sparks his next brown cigarette into action. Ash speckles his mustache.
Alec tumbles out of the car and rushes to walk beside their father, edging Dana out of the way. She’s caught her brother peeking into the bathroom mirror at home. He tiptoes so he can lean around the sink and scrunch his face up close to the glass, then he tucks his upper lip tight to his front teeth to show the spot under his nose better. Checking for a moustache, even though he’s only eleven. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem to mind going to a party with a bunch of grownups they don’t know. Maybe she is being a baby for wanting to play with her friend instead.
Their father stops them on the sidewalk. “Alec, Dana.” Whenever he stares down at them, his face seems very far away and Dana feels tiny and invisible. “Remember to behave.” He uses his stern voice and glowers at them over his cigarette like a smokestack on his face. On the way to his house from their mother’s, they pass a factory with smokestacks churning out white clouds that stink like old eggs for at least a mile.
They enter through the kitchen where white platters of raw hamburger and pink hot dogs wait for the cookout later, and trays of carrots and celery with Cheez Whiz and plastic bowls of ridged potato chips and Fritos crowd the countertops for right now. Beyond the kitchen, more cigarettes and another smoky smell, thicker and sweeter. On every surface, ashtrays overflow with nubs and soot. A radio plays in the background here, too. Something about riding a horse through the desert.
Dana pokes through magazines on the coffee table. A couple of news ones. Ones with pictures of the insides and outsides of houses. Boring. Her dad said she’d lose a library book and wouldn’t let her bring one. Said he didn’t care what her mother let her do, she could let them run wild in the street if she wanted but at his house it was his rules. Now he leans his back against a wall and laughs while smoke snakes out of his nostrils and up toward the ceiling. The woman he talks to wears a one-piece jumpsuit, the same green as Dana’s pencils from school, with a neckline that cuts a vee all the way to her waist.
Beside her Alec says, “Awww, Daaaana,” in his telling-on-you voice before she focuses on the next magazine from the stack in her lap. It’s like one of the nasty ones her father gets. She can’t look away at first. A naked man, holding his private part. A naked woman, her mouth wide, kneeling in front of him. Dana’s entire insides turn greasy. She chucks the magazine back onto the coffee table, but not before Alec reaches their father, tugs his sleeve, points at her. The boomerang wags behind him like a rigid tail.
Their father follows Alec to the coffee table. Ice clacks in the glass in his hand. Alec grabs a corner of the magazine and says, “This is the one.” The woman their father was talking to lopes along beside him. Her body is one long ripple. Up close, Dana can see bare skin all the way down to her bellybutton.
“I see you found the Penthouse,” the woman says. “Nice choice.” Her smile shows all her teeth and her bright pink gums. “It’s okay with me if you want to look at it, as long as your dad doesn’t mind.”
“Sure, yeah, do what you like,” he says. Alec, the tattler, looks disappointed.
Dana’s stomach fizzes. She remembers when she believed no one could see her when she closed her own eyes, and she wishes that could be true now, or at least that she could still believe it. “I don’t want to look.”
“It’s okay for girls to look, too,” the woman says.
“I said I don’t want to,” Dana says, louder this time.
“Okay,” the woman says. But Dana can tell by her voice she doesn’t believe her, that she’s making a joke of her answer with her father. He laughs. He looks at the bare flesh of the woman’s chest.
Alec plops the boomerang onto the sofa and sits down, then slides the magazine into his own lap. Dana would like to be with Corrie, playing with Basil the rabbit and Dorinda the elephant. She would like to do anything but sit here with grownups talking about nasty magazines. Alec’s face reddens, but he keeps looking, turning one slow page at a time. The paper sticks to his fingers.
In front of them the woman laughs at something their father said that Dana couldn’t hear. She leans her whole head backward. Her hair is so long it reaches the backs of her knees. Her father stretches a finger from the rim of the drink he holds and touches her belly button. It activates her like a toy. She lurches forward again, her laugh a shriek. She almost swipes their father with the cigarette in her hand.
Then she bends low to square a look at Dana. “You’re lucky to grow up in this day and age.” Dana can smell her cigarette breath. The woman takes a puff and rights herself again, then lets a snail of smoke out of her mouth. “Our parents were impossible about sex, weren’t they, Ricky?” She hangs a finger from her father’s belt loop. “It’s like they figured if they kept it secret enough we’d never be curious on our own.” Then back to Dana, “You’re lucky your dad’s so open.” When she says the word open, Dana can tell it means things she doesn’t know about yet. The woman brushes her hand down the button front of her father’s shirt.
“Wide open,” her father says, but not to her.
Dana wants a piece of paper. Some crayons. She could draw with a pencil on a grocery bag. Anything. She taps her father’s wrist so he lowers his head to hear her. “How much longer?”
“A lot longer. We just got here.” He and the woman cross the room again, joining a couple of other people with their cigarettes and drinks.
“You don’t have to look at it anymore,” she says to her brother. “They’re gone.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he says. “I like it.”
She grabs at his boomerang, but he whacks her hand away then shoves the magazine toward her, centerfold first. When Dana knocks it away, it rips. “Oooh.” Alec revs up his tell-on-you voice again.
People spill out of the house and onto the patch of grass out front, talking, smoking, holding drinks. Dana slips outside with them. Rows of ferns line the front of the house. June bugs dive bomb Dana from the bushes that frame the porch. Gnats plink against her face.
Across the street a man in sunglasses leans against his car. If he’s coming to the party, he’s not in any hurry. He’s wearing a silky disco shirt like from Soul Train and faded blue jeans, smoking a cigarette and facing down the street, away from the house. That’s where Dana would like to go. Away from the house.
Dana kicks along the sidewalk. A line of ants marches through a crack in the cement. They’re carrying bits of something. One of These Nights plays as loud out here as it does inside.
When she looks back toward the front of the house again, she sees her father outside now, too, sitting on the lawn beyond the porch. The woman in the green jumpsuit lies in the grass, her head in his lap. They say something to each other in voices she can’t hear. Then her father calls, “Dana, come here.”
He’s still taller than she is when he’s sitting down. “How old are you?” he says, the way parents of little kids ask them what a cow says.
“Flo here wants to know if you’ve ever lit a match?” Flo pokes his thigh. It’s a joke again.
“I’m not allowed.”
“You’re allowed here.” He jostles in his pockets, bouncing Flo’s head about in his lap, making her laugh her terrible shriek over and over. He fishes out a matchbook. “Here. Try it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Aw, don’t be scared,” Flo says.
“I don’t want to. Mom says not to.”
“I keep telling you,” her father says, “you don’t have to do what she says when you’re with me.” Dana thinks about her library books. She’d rather do what her mother says. “Anyway, I don’t want to raise you up to be a scaredy cat like her.” The woman and her father smile big goofy smiles that have nothing to do with her. She wants them to leave her alone. “Go ahead.” Her father presses the book into her hands. “I bet you can’t.” He says it like a dare.
She wants to throw the matchbook in his face, but she knows she’s too little and he’d either laugh at her or get lightning storm mad the way he does sometimes. Her brother shows up at her elbow. “Give it here,” he says and grabs the matches and lights one, then another.
“That’s not nice,” Flo says, “yanking something out of your sister’s hand.” She pries the book from Alec’s fingers and gives it back to Dana. Even though she doesn’t want it. “Here you go, Dina.” Dana doesn’t correct her.
Alec gives her a sour look and jams his hands into his pockets. The woman stuck up for her, so now Dana feels like she has to try the match. “You can do it. It’s no big thing,” she says, keeping her eyes locked on Dana’s. It doesn’t seem like a joke anymore. It seems like something the woman really wants to teach her. Something grown-up.
Dana tries. Nothing happens. She tries again, the match bends. She tries a new match and it catches. She’s holding too close to the tip and it singes her finger. The flame jumps to the matchbook and flares. She hurls it away from herself. It lands on her father’s wrist.
“Goddammit!” He jolts forward and Dana jumps back. Flo tumbles out of his lap. He stamps the flaming matchbook and waves his hand, shouting, “Jesus, Dana! What the hell?” As if it had been her idea. As if she meant to hurt him.
She spins and huffs away toward the street. “Run it under cold water, Ricky,” Flo says behind her. Her father’s and Flo’s voices back away into the house.
Dana walks the entire length of the sidewalk. Any farther and she’ll be lost. All these townhouses look exactly the same, row upon row upon row. She ambles back closer to the party again and sits on the curb across from where they parked. Near where the sunglasses man still leans against his car, puffing smoke rings into the air.
A breeze kicks up and blows pollen around the street. Long reeds of some kind of bushes scissor in the air behind her. A flyer claps against a light post beside her and she watches the image of the missing girl wave in the wind.
“Not having any fun?” It’s the sunglasses man.
“I bet you don’t want to be here at all.”
He’s right. But she doesn’t want to say. She hugs her knees to herself. She’s tired of grownups thinking they know what she wants.
All the same, he comes closer. He sits down near her on the curb. “I don’t like to smoke near kids,” he says, “sorry,” and grinds the butt into the cement. He blows the last of his smoke away from her and flaps his hand to make it disappear faster. “I saw what they did about the match. That was a pretty dumb thing to do with a kid.” A June bug buzzes between them, bumps into the man’s arm. He brushes after it. “I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry they made you do something you didn’t want to do.” The bug darts into the bushes.
Dana scrapes a stone against the street under her feet. She shrugs at the man. She doesn’t have words for “it happens all the time,” or “this is what it’s like when I’m with my dad.”
“Geez, I’d never do that with a kid.” The man’s sunglasses are dark black so Dana can’t tell what his eyes are doing, but his head tips off toward the street away from her, even farther away from the party, as if he’s all the time thinking of being someplace else.
Dana tightens her hold on her knees, makes herself into a ball. The noise of the party is not as loud from here, but voices rise up on a breeze, people sing-shouting along with the radio.
“Yeah, no way you want to be here,” the sunglasses man says again.
“Where would you rather be?” He tips his sunglasses out of the way to look at her, and his eyes are as blue as lakewater at night. “If you could pick?”
It’s the first grownup all day to ask her what she wants instead of telling her. She looks closer at him. Scrubby sideburns. Fluffy brown hair. Crooked yellow teeth. It’s really hot outside, but he’s not sweating. “Anywhere,” she says and gives a sly smile. It’s her own joke.
He laughs. “No, really. Where?”
She thinks of Corrie’s house, but what she really wants is home. “I’d rather be at my mom’s. But I have to wait until Sunday night for my dad to take me back.”
He nods. “That must feel like a long time sometimes.”
“A really long time.”
“What if I could snap my fingers and send you back there this second? Would you want me to?”
Dana laughs. “You can’t do that. You’re not magic.”
“No, but it’s sort of a game, to think of things happening the way you want.”
Down at the party, a whoop goes up, then a burst of laughter. People clap their hands and shout, like they’re egging someone on. The sound drowns out the music.
“So, let’s say I could snap my fingers. Say I am magic. Would you want me to?”
“And then I’d be home? No long car ride? No more waiting?”
The sunglasses man nods.
“Sure. I’d like that.”
Sunglasses man hmms to himself, like he’s mulling something over. “What’s your name?”
She tells him.
“Well, Dana, you’re right that I’m not magic. But know what? I do really like to drive, and I could take you home. To your mom.”
“It’s a long way.” All the water dries up in her mouth, but she doesn’t know why. She can hear the music from the party again, but it seems to warp a little. She doesn’t know this song.
“That’s okay. I like driving.”
“You don’t even know the way.” Dana laughs again. He’s just joking. Her brother always tells her she takes things too seriously. Her dad says so, too.
“I bet you know the address,” he says. “Smart girl like you.”
A shrill yee-haw peals across the strip of yards from the party. Her father. He pumps a fist, now on the top step of the porch with a group of them pouring something into tiny glasses and gulping them down. She doesn’t know where her brother is.
“Yeah, I know my address,” she says. When he flicks his head toward his car across the street and stands, she follows.
The crowd of partiers shouts and shimmies on the lawn. Dana takes a backward glance, and they look ridiculous, like something out of a cartoon, all bright colors and shapes shifting around, not like anything real.
The man opens her door for her and gestures for her to get in. Everything inside goes hot and she thinks she might throw up. Then a sound whips past her ear and she ducks out of the way. When she looks up, the man is slapping Alec’s boomerang to the ground. Then he wipes the air in front of his clothes, like he’s dusting something off himself. Alec bursts out of some bushes right beside where the car is parked.
“Almost got you!” he shouts at Dana. Alec doesn’t pay any attention to the man, who slams the door meant for Dana and skirts around the front of the car to his own side. He trips as he steps off the curb again, rights himself with a hand against the hood of his car. Alec scoops the boomerang from the ground and waves it in Dana’s face.
The man ducks into his car now, kicks up the engine, and squeals backward and away. Alec and Dana both watch the car fishtail onto the next street and disappear. The heat of the day rises up from the ground and creeps up her legs. Her knees wobble and she almost falls.
“Walk much?” her brother sneers.
Her body stiffens, every muscle, then she reels toward him, punches him in the face, plunges her fists into his shoulder, his stomach. He topples to the ground beside the bushes, half-laughing, grabbing at her hands. She drops on top of him, hands still flailing, and hits him sometimes, sometimes the earth beside them. Finally he grasps both her wrists and stills her. She struggles to free herself. His breath comes fast, and he sniffs a trickle of blood back up into his nose, pretending it’s not there.
“It didn’t hurt,” he says. “I could hardly tell you were there.” He rolls aside and stands, sloughing her off himself, letting go of her wrists last of all and leaving her behind in the dirt.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, book reviews, and other writing appear in The Rumpus, Gargoyle, Raleigh Review, The Georgia Review, [PANK], Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, and other publications. She holds an MFA from Lesley University and teaches at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia.