Appears in Other Voices #46
Bill stayed in bed that morning, watching as Roxanne dressed. Then he invited her to the party. They’d been out the night before and she’d stayed at his condo in the Marina. He wasn’t sure why he invited her, but here she was now, in his car again, in the same short black skirt and sleeveless purple top of the night before, her perfume still clinging.
She shifted in the seat beside him then pushed a button that locked the doors, then another button that rolled up her window. Bill had put the top down despite her protests. Every few miles the air smelled of horse manure, though there wasn’t a horse in sight.
“This place is a firetrap,” Roxanne said, more to the window than to Bill.
They were stopped at a red light. The air was still and dry. Calabasas. Bill couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this drive—usually Marty came to him.
From the shower Bill had explained that Marty was his oldest friend and a single father. And to keep Roxanne from asking after her, he explained how Marty’s wife, Lorrie, had taken off when their daughter was only nine.
When Lorrie left, Marty—always lacking in imagination—had been stunned. But Bill had to stop himself from saying, “good for her!” He asked, instead, if there was a note. No, no note, but she’d taken the car and she’d already been gone two days and three hundred dollars had been withdrawn from their account at a branch in Arizona. Arizona! She really was gone. Gone and with no intention of coming to Bill. Bill was full of imagination.
The party was for their daughter, Lorrie and Marty’s daughter, Vivian. It was her sixteenth birthday.
“You don’t have to come,” Bill said again, though they were nearly there. He’d been uneasy all morning.
“Oh, no,” Roxanne said, laying a hand near the crotch of his pants, “I want to meet your friends.”
The party was in the backyard, and Vivian’s friends were standing around the kidney-shaped pool, wet and shiny, their parents perched on the edge of lawn chairs, a few mingling in the shade of an overgrown magnolia tree. It had to be ninety degrees. The house looked more run down then ever: the stucco was cracked open near the back door, the back porch leaned away from the house and the pool was a touch more green than blue. Marty and Lorrie had lived in the house together, but Marty refused to move after she left. The rent was too good, he said, and Vivian loved the pool.
Bill pulled his jacket off—linen, but he didn’t want it getting musty. They stood at the edge of the driveway until Marty spotted them and came over, his hands full with plates: one of raw burger patties, the other draped with wilted lettuce.
“Bill! Of course,” Marty said. “An hour late is only fashionable.”
“That’s me.” Bill took the plate of lettuce. “This is Roxanne,” he said, motioning to her bare arm, realizing just how low-cut her shirt was.
Marty went to offer his empty hand, but Roxanne leaned in and kissed him on the mouth; this was how she was.
Marty, Bill knew, was still the more handsome of the two of them: his features stronger, his shoulders broader. But he was graying more rapidly and the boyish shyness women once read as charming now suggested weakness. Bill had tried to fix him up, but he always had some excuse to stay home.
Roxanne slipped off heals and moved barefoot onto the grass. They followed Marty over to the grill, which was smoking heavily, the smell of hickory sweet on the air. Bill was happy just to hang around with Marty and help, but Roxanne’s nails were digging into his arm. She didn’t want to be standing there. Bill shook free and asked if she’d see to fixing them drinks.
“I don’t know where anything is,” she whined.
Marty winced through the smoke and pointed the tongs at the kitchen door, “The good stuff’s inside,” he said, “Wouldn’t put the good stuff out for just these folks.” He waved the tongs along the huddle of parents drinking beers and watching their kids.
Roxanne moved off, not toward the house, but toward the crowd. Bill knew she’d be flirting with mothers and fathers alike soon enough, looking back for his reaction, thinking that this would make him jealous or maybe excite him. He hated this stage in a relationship—as much as he hated all the other stages.
“Good looking girl,” Marty said.
Bill shrugged, “She’s all right.”
“Guy like you,” Marty motioned to Bill’s hands, “gets all the girls. Why bother settling down?”
Marty would never cease to be impressed with Bill’s hands. There was nothing really that impressive about them. But Bill was a hand model, so his hands were what people marveled at. It was the money, really, that impressed Marty, even if they both knew it was bullshit work. Bill was the one who’d been “discovered.” Marty had still wanted to be an actor when Lorrie took off.
Marty gave Bill the basting brush and Bill swept sauce over the burgers as Marty laid them on the grill. It was a smoky and disorderly process, but Bill didn’t want to criticize.
“Which one’s Vivian?” he asked.
Marty looked around, wiping at his eyes with the shoulder of his shirt, “She’s on the diving board.” She saw them looking at her and waved. Bill felt she recognized him and he imagined he hadn’t changed so much in the last few years. Still waving back, Marty said, “She’s interested in modeling now. I told her to talk to you.”
“I don’t know about that kind of modeling,” Bill said.
Vivian was beautiful. Long red-brown hair like her mother’s and the same muscled body of a dancer. Her face was pink with cold and she clasped her hands in front of her chest, pinching her breasts together, before she trotted to the end of the board and dove back in. She came up gulping, her eyes fluttering as though she hadn’t meant to open them underwater.
“Listen—” Marty’s tone changed, he was stern. “Don’t say anything about the car. I mean, I know you wouldn’t, but—”
“Marty, I know. It’s a surprise.”
“Don’t bother her now anyway,” Bill said. “I’m going to go fix us those drinks.”
Marty was starting to take the burgers off and put them onto a plate. As the kitchen door closed behind Bill, he heard Marty yell out, “Feedin’ time. Line up!”
The car, Bill thought. They’d been on his boat, he and Marty, when he’d offered to pay for the car. Sometimes he just grew tired of Marty complaining about money. And he’d been feeling good that day, his first day off after two weeks of solid work: a Pizza Hut commercial, a new Burger King sandwich, two different soda pours—one an international campaign for Coca-Cola. It was a beautiful day to be out on the boat. It had rained the week before, cutting through the smog, and the horizon was clear blue, two clean lines of ocean and sky forever spread out before them and here was Marty going on about what to do for Vivian’s sixteenth, what a tough thing for a girl to become a woman and have no mother around—on and on. “Let’s buy her a car,” Bill said, pulling in the jib, feeling like anything was possible, the wind a solid offshore gust. Marty refused. He was never quick to accept Bill’s offers. Bill had given Marty some money when Lorrie left and around a few holidays when he sensed things were tight. “But when something can be done, when there’s a solution,” Bill argued, “why not use it.” “A car won’t change much,” Marty had said. But then, a few weeks later, he called. “Viv’s a real good girl, Bill. She’s been through a lot, ya know? And I just—well, I would like to do something special for her.”
They met at a car lot. Marty had already picked out a used ‘84 Honda with a rip in one of the leather seats and a dent over a front headlight. “If we’re gonna do this,” Bill insisted, “let’s do it right.” They test drove a few new models, all the while Marty thanking him from the backseat, and the chubby little salesman with his scraggly hair in the passenger seat, seeming confused by Bill and Marty’s relationship. Marty wouldn’t take the red one with the full package—another five thousand more than the teal green Civic with the tape deck, beige fabric seats, and manual windows that they ended up with. Bill understood that if it were any nicer Marty worried Vivian would be suspicious.
The kitchen had a familiar smell, a mix of mildew and disinfectant. The linoleum was bubbled at the base of the sink; the faucet dripped, always had. The cupboards were flaking paint, like dead skin, and one of the doors had been removed from its hinges, exposing the drinking glasses and the shelf of cooking spices and a bag of sugar and one of flour. The liquor was still in the same place, in a lower cabinet next to the refrigerator. There was an old Polaroid, yellowed and crisp, of Lorrie and Vivian held to the freezer door by a fish-shaped magnet. Vivian looked to be about seven, her face pudgy, her head leaned against her mother’s stomach. Lorrie had her arms wrapped around the girl, but her face was in profile—the tip of her nose catching and splintering the light of the sun.
Lorrie had finally sent a letter from Texas a few weeks after she’d gone; Marty had shown it to Bill. It was a chatty and spirited letter, Lorrie’s excitement at driving around the country was palpable. She’d talked about the food in Santa Fe and a female gas station attendant she’d met in a small town north of Austin—the woman had no teeth, but smiled all the same. The letter made no mention of why she’d gone, but it seemed she was glad she had. She hadn’t asked about Vivian or suggested that she was coming back, but she signed, Love Always. Bill thought, reading it, that he understood, that he got Lorrie, that she’d done the only thing she could do and that there was no reason to apologize for that. But he couldn’t explain it to Marty, he couldn’t help him—Marty who was sure she’d lost her mind and muttered that it was good that she was gone, though they both knew he didn’t mean it.
The three of them used to get dressed up as though they were off to a Hollywood event, then fix dinner together and drink cheap liquor. Vivian would watch and coo from her high chair and then, in later years, she was running around with friends or up in her room brooding over something. Marty and Bill would sit long after the food was gone and talk about college or the girls that Bill was dating or if Marty had an audition coming up. Lorrie stayed busy grading papers or following after Vivian, then Bill would watch her come and sit next to Marty. She’d run her fingers through his hair, reassuring him—“I’ll love you famous or not,” he heard her whisper—but mostly she seemed to float around them as if they were the daydream, the daydream she could connect with and then snap back from with a shake of her head.
Bill fixed himself a shot of whiskey and drank it looking out at the party. Roxanne was talking with two women who looked an awful lot alike, wearing the same cropped beige pants and bright patterened shirts. Roxanne nodded, tossing her long ponytail back and forth, as if she were in deep communion with them. She touched the shorter woman on the arm as some consolation. Bill thought he better not call Roxanne for a few weeks after this party was over—let things cool off, maybe altogether.
He poured himself another whiskey and went to fix Marty a vodka and cranberry juice. There was a clamor outside the door, a rush of laughter, and three girls slid through the kitchen, slipping on their wet feet, arms flailing and grabbing onto one another. One of them was Vivian.
“No, I have to pee way worse!”
“It’s my birthday!” Vivian screeched and pushed past the other two. The black-haired one tottered, her pudgy arm grazing Bill as he turned around, the red of Marty’s cocktail sloshing out of the glass and onto the floor. The bathroom door slammed, Vivian inside, the other two dancing back and forth on their toes, dripping water all around them.
“Let us in, Viv!”
“Like you didn’t already piss in the pool!”
Bill looked for a towel. The door opened and the other girls slipped inside, Vivian striding out, more composed. Bill bent and wiped at the floor.
“Hey, Mr. Morse.” She did remember him.
“Happy Birthday, Vivian,” Bill said to her bare legs, as she stepped through the backdoor and out onto the lawn.
Bill had seen Lorrie naked once. Marty had gotten a bit part as a teacher on Different Strokes. They had people over that night to celebrate, sending Vivian off to sleep at a friend’s. The party was a small group that got drunk too fast and bored easily. They’d started playing cards, which inevitably turned to strip poker. Bill was glad when Marty passed out bare-chested, his pants and shoes intact, on the living room rug. Rather intoxicated, Bill had been having to stop himself from staring at Lorrie. Lorrie sat as straight and proper as an Englishwoman, her breasts propped in the crook of her arms, her cards fanned out in front of her. Bill was winning. He still had his shorts and socks.
Lorrie’s underwear were the last to go, and everyone scurried out back to go swimming, to feel the slip of each other’s skin in the dark water of the pool. Lorrie pushed back from the table and started to gather empty bottles from around the room. “What do I win?” Bill had asked. “Oh, Bill,” she said, “don’t be common.” She wasn’t proper at all, but completely comfortable in her skin. “At least ask me to dance,” she said, not turning to him, but spinning around from one end of the counter to the next, her hair twisting around her like red ribbons. Bill couldn’t move. He was too drunk, his erection too obvious. He stayed at the booth, concealing himself. She stopped at the sink, setting a glass down, and stared out at the yard, at the bobbing heads in the pool, her back to him, her body suddenly melancholy. There was a small diamond of down at the base of her back, a shimmer of fine blonde hair. Bill watched her foot arch up and down, the indent of her ankle flex thin. She came toward him, gathering the cards that lay scattered across the table. Bill felt himself reaching up to touch her breast, but again jerked awake, lay his hand on top of hers. “I love you,” he said, his words more steady and sure than he had anticipated. “And I you,” she said back, only friendly. “No,” Bill said, letting his eyes meet hers. “I love you,” he said again, wanting it to reassure her. She was angered. “Let go, Bill,” she said, and turned, letting the screen door smack shut as she left.
A haphazard line snaked out from the barbeque, mostly parents with a few of the heavier, hungrier kids tucked into towels and snorting amongst themselves. Marty was forking burgers and shaking them onto people’s plates. Roxanne stood talking to him with one long-nailed hand on his shoulder, the other at her hip as if she were a model at a trade show trying to sell him the grill. She was actually an aid to an entertainment lawyer who, Bill suspected, she slept with occasionally. After all, Bill and she were not exclusive and it had been plainly stated that she had started seeing Bill to spite a former girlfriend of his who had once spited her. Bill appreciated this honesty, even thinking it could be a healthy starting point. He handed Marty his drink and Roxanne gave him a pouty look, as if to say, Where’s mine? He pulled a beer from the cooler under the table and handed it to her.
“Why don’t you show them how the pros do it?” Roxanne said, motioning to the condiments.
“Yeah,” Marty chimed in, “Show us how it’s done.”
Bill snorted—they couldn’t be serious—and knocked back his whiskey.
“I know who you are,” a short wiry-haired woman, two-parents deep into the line, said. “You’re the hand model.” She’d been fanning her empty plate at her face, warding off the flies that had begun to gather. She handed the plate to Bill.
Bill offered his hand to introduce himself, “Bill Morse,” he said. But the woman shook her head and made a shooing motion. Once people knew what Bill did for a living they were strange about his hands, as if they were on fire or broken.
Bill realized everyone must know his profession with Marty always using it as fodder for conversation.
“Lemme get a look at those,” the balding father at the front of the line said. Bill spread his fingers, hovering his hand over the pile of buns. “Nothing special, are they?”
“Insured for a million dollars,” Roxanne offered. One woman gasped.
“Well, a half-million,” Bill clarified, feeling stupid, as if that made it any less ridiculous. His agent had talked him into it a year ago, after he’d been over booked, having to reschedule a noodle job in Japan. “That,” his agent had said, “means you’ve really made it, big guy.”
“They’re kinda feminine, aren’t they?” one of the father’s quipped.
“He did a Palmolive commercial once, didn’t you Bill?” This wasn’t true, but Roxanne knew he wasn’t going to argue, that he’d play along.
“I don’t do full hand. Mostly you’ll see just the tips of my fingers in the frame. Never the palm or wrist.” People bunched around closer, as if it were a museum tour. Bill set a bun onto the plate, open-faced, and added the crispest piece of lettuce he could find, setting two tomatoes slices onto that.
“Shall I burger you?” Marty asked, forking a graying slab.
Bill waved him off and took up a spatula. He slid the burger patty down without moving the tomato, saying, “It’s mostly manual dexterity.” A few hums of understanding came from the women. “It’s a matter of being able to pull the piece of pizza from the pie at the same speed and with the same tension of cheese each time.”
“Or pouring a soda without all that foam,” the wiry-haired mother said.
“That’s right.” Bill placed the cheese square before picking open the caked hole in the top of the squeezable ketchup bottle.
“No onion?” Roxanne asked, in mock alarm.
“Onion, my dear, is polarizing. You won’t see onion in sandwich advertising—it sets some people off.” He set the plate down and swirled a masterful curve of ketchup and mustard—showing off, both at once—and capped the bun.
“Artwork,” Roxanne said. “I don’t know,” the wiry-haired woman said, “It doesn’t look that good.”
Bill shrugged and fisted chips from the bowl. “It takes a food stylist to make it look good. I’m just the timing.”
“I met a food stylist once,” the bald man said. “They spray shit on the food.”
“Something like that,” Marty said, smiling at Bill as if in cahoots.
Bill had tried to teach Marty about lighting after Lorrie left, bringing him to his jobs, introducing him to the grip and gaffer, hoping to get him work as a best boy or operating the dimmer board, at least. But he didn’t seem to have an appreciation for the technicalities, always marveling at the end product, never remembering what kind of light they’d used or how one differed from the other. But demand for Bill’s hands was good enough that he could guarantee Marty a few days of work as a production assistant on most of his jobs. Driving a truck around, picking up equipment and dropping it off when they were done—it was the bottom rung, but Marty didn’t seem to mind, always sounding a little surprised when he got the call and more than excited about the craft service spread of free food. He had gone a little soft around the middle, Bill noticed. It was Bill who felt ashamed for him; it was Bill who still pictured him as the star in their college plays, as the bounding voice of a monologue, as the guy who’d talked them all into moving to L.A. in the first place. Handsome Marty. Talented and charming Marty. Maybe it was Marty who should feel owed.
They all gathered on the leaning back porch, a small group breaking off to balance on the raised roots of the magnolia tree. Bill sat on the railing and Roxanne folded her legs beneath her and leaned against him, picking at a pile of pickle slices. She didn’t eat meat. Aren’t we cozy, Bill thought.
“Do they use real cheese on the pizzas?” A father asked, breaking a feeding silence.
“It’s the law,” Roxanne said, “They have to use the same ingredients they use at the restaurant.”
People nodded and chewed.
“Aren’t you gonna eat?” the father yelled over to the pool where a few kids were still splashing.
Bill turned around to see Vivian, still in only her bikini, hunched at the end of a lawn chair, a group of boys and girls at her feet. A tall blonde boy with the beginnings of a mustache sat down behind her. He put his plate on the ground and began kneeding Vivian’s shoulders.
Marty must have seen Bill’s eyebrows lift; “That’s Raymond,” he said. “We don’t know if he’s trouble or not yet.”
“He’s cute,” Roxanne said.
“Are his parents here?” Bill asked.
The woman who’d pulled her glasses from her purse to inspect Bill’s hands responded, mouth full, “He lives with his dad. He’s a drunk.”
“The kid or the dad?” Bill asked, genuinely confused.
Roxanne nudged his thigh, “The dad, silly.” She was acting like she was one of them. She made Bill think of the color shifting lizards.
“Vivian doesn’t seem all that interested,” someone attested.
“She’s a good kid,” Marty said. Everyone mumbled agreement.
The balding father raised his empty bottle of beer toward Marty. Marty asked Bill if he’d help carry the cooler back to the porch.
“How do you think it’s going?” Marty asked, as they passed the pool.
“Plenty of food, the kids are having fun and the parents seem comfortably drunk,” Bill told him.
Marty pulled on the cooler, dragging it out from under the table to get a better grip. “They’ve all helped me out in some way or another over the years. It’s nice to have them at the house.”
They bent and lifted.
“Sure,” Bill said. He caught Vivian out of the corner of his eye: a backlit silhouette, her arms raised above her head in a playful pose, one leg bent out. A ballerina, Bill thought. Raymond jogged up behind her and pushed. She screamed, a high excited scream, and her hair whipped up before she broke through the surface of the water. Bill saw Marty smile, watching.
“Not like you, Bill,” Marty said, “Nobody has helped like you have.”
“Stop.” Bill shook his head and adjusted his grip on the cooler. “It’s not necessary.”
They set the cooler down on the porch step. Marty swung the lid open and tossed the balding father a beer, “Heads up, Dirk.” Dirk knocked the cap off on the edge of his chair. Marty passed beers around, handing off the bottle opener.
“We’ll do cake soon. It’ll be dark. That’s best for the candles. I’m excited about the car. Are you excited about the car?” Marty was talking out of the side of his mouth, a half-whisper directed at Bill.
The car? Was he excited about it? No, Bill realized, he was not. He pictured Vivian wrapping her arms around Marty, and Marty winking at him over her shoulder.
“It’ll be great,” he said to Marty. “She’ll love it.”
Marty handed him a beer and Bill forced it into his back pocket, the moisture seeping through his jeans. Roxanne was flirting with Dirk, her legs crossed, her ankle grazing his.
Marty looked at Bill, “Guy’s going through a divorce. His wife was here earlier. That didn’t work out.” Dirk uncapped Roxanne’s beer. “I can tell him to cool it.”
“I find it amusing,” Bill said.
“You’re a stronger man than I.”
“Something like that.”
Bill started to gather up people’s plates, but a few resisted, suggesting that would be bad for his hands. Roxanne consoled them, telling them about his manicurist, the bottles of lotion he kept in the car, and the fucking knuckle waxer; clarifying that Bill should pitch in because his job was for assholes.
“Thanks, Roxanne. Thanks for explaining that,” Bill smirked. He’d had enough. It was his own fault for inviting her.
Bill balanced the plates over to the garage, losing one balled-up napkin along the way. The sky was washed pink and orange and the temperature had dropped to a tolerable level. Bill dumped the armful into the lidless utility can, thinking it looked like something Marty might have fingered from a production set. The folding table with the food on it looked familiar too, Bill thought. Marty did have the opportunity, being the one to close up the sets and drive things back to their rightful homes—the rental centers and production houses. No big deal, Bill decided. We all take a little something here and there.
Bill pulled the beer from his pocket and leaned against the garage, thinking he’d take a minute and drink it by himself.
“Can I get a sip of that?” It was Vivian.
She’d put a T-shirt—several sizes too big—over her bikini, leaving a wet imprint in the fabric. Bill looked at the bottle then past her; the parents, Marty, and Roxanne were still on the porch, blocked from view by the magnolia.
“Sure,” he said, shrugging. “Consider it my birthday present.” He handed her the beer and she opened it on her teeth. “Nice trick,” Bill said.
“Thanks. Cecile taught it to me. She’s the fat one.” She motioned toward the house, suggesting their meeting in the kitchen. She gulped at the beer and it fizzed and popped around her lips.
Bill leaned back again and crossed his arms. She had more freckles than Lorrie and her hair was a darker red.
“Do you remember what you told me at Christmas?” she asked. Bill hadn’t been to their house for Christmas since she was eleven or twelve—the last time he was at the house at all. He thought, a little disappointed, that she might think he was someone else. “You told me,” she went on, “that some day I was going to be more beautiful than my mother.”
“I said that?” Bill remembered it now. He had said that. He’d been drunk. It was two years after Lorrie left. He looked at the ground, at Vivian’s feet, at her toes kneading back and forth at the dirt edge of the lawn. He wanted to laugh; he was almost always drunk in Calabasas.
“And,” she fingered the lip of the bottle, “now I am.” She smiled a thin, devious smile; her eyes narrowed at Bill, “Do you want to see my car?”
Bill was startled, his hands going out, but she took him by the arm and pulled him to the garage’s side door. What an idiot, Bill thought, thinking of Marty. Why wouldn’t you lock the door?
“Voila!” she sung, with a sweep of her arm.
She opened the driver-side door and motioned for Bill to sit down, bending in a curtsy.
“This was supposed to be a surprise,” he said.
“My dad’s horrible with surprises. He showed me days ago. He told me to act surprised. Like it’s some big deal.”
“Having a car is a big deal.” Bill said, surprised by his own sudden fatherly tone. She slid into the passenger seat, and he pulled the beer from her hand and took a swig. She’d nearly finished it.
“Hey,” she said, grabbing it back, “I thought that was my birthday present.”
Bill let her take it. He felt bad for not having brought anything for her to unwrap. She was a more awkward version of Lorrie, with Marty’s sharp nose. He wished he had another beer, for himself—a prop.
“Maybe sometime we can go for a drive,” she said.
“Maybe,” Bill said, gripping the bottom of the wheel.
“How about right now?” She opened the glove box and pulled out the keys.
“No,” Bill said, his voice breathy, a near-shout. She was making him nervous.
She tugged at her T-shirt, pulling it lower on her thighs.
“Did you know my mom took the car when she left?”
This was true. They had shared a car, and she took off in it, leaving them stranded, Marty having to ask people to pick Vivian up for school. Bill remembered then that he’d given Marty the money for the replacement car. “On loan,” Marty had said. That’s two cars, Bill thought. Two.
“What if I told you that I paid for this car?”
She finished off the beer and covered her mouth, concealing a burp. “I’d say you were a liar.” She turned toward him, meeting his eyes. “And that you were trying to get in my pants.”
“Am not!” he shrieked. Like a fucking boy. What a brat, Bill thought, what a little brat. Lorrie was never so abrasive. She did make him think of Lorrie.
“Let me see your hands,” she said, pulling his right hand from the wheel, fanning and studying the fingers against her thigh.
“You remember me?” Bill asked, flashing on what she looked like four years ago, that kid in overalls.
“My dad talks about you all the time. You’re like his big movie star friend. He’s always pointing out your hands on TV” He felt the tips of her nails running along the lines of his palm.
“Does he ever talk about your mom?”
“Sometimes.” She folded his fingers inward and stroked his knuckles. “Why?”
“Just curious,” he said, gazing off at the garage wall, at the rack of wrenches, a loop of rope, the lawn mower hung awkwardly up on one rusted hook.
“Don’t you want to kiss me?” she whispered.
“Does Raymond kiss you?”
“No way,” she said, “He’s just a boy.” She leaned over and brushed her mouth against Bill’s neck. “You like that,” she said, her words puffs of air in his ear.
“I did pay for this car.”
She sat back and let go of his hand, her body suddenly rigid, “You mean because you get my dad work? I know that. I know that you do that. Is that what you mean? Like that?”
“No,” Bill said, “I paid for it.”
“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “I mean with all the money you make.”
“Your Dad makes good money,” Bill said. He pulled the bottle from between her legs and let the last slide of fuzzy beer drop into his mouth. “He does well.”
“Please. He talks like he does.” She turned the dial on the radio, clicking it back and forth, absentmindedly, no power, the car off. “He cuts coupons. All of his clothes are used.” She put her feet up on the dash—small, thin, lovely feet, the toes edged with dirt. “My mother had to wear used clothes. They always had some else’s stink, like she was walking around as two different people.”
“Your mother was a beautiful woman.”
She shifted toward him, her whole body, her knee on his thigh, her ankle curved against the parking break. He thought she was going to crawl into his lap. He looked at her. Her eyes were filling with tears, her lashes damp and gathering together.
“You’re beautiful too,” he told her, his voice once again unsteady.
“Why’d you say that?” She wiped at her cheeks and swallowed.
“I don’t know,” Bill said. He didn’t know if she was talking about Lorrie or about the car. “I wanted you to know I’d gotten you something, I guess.”
She shook her head, “I’m not as beautiful as her. I know it.”
Bill touched her arm. “You are,” he said.
Outside there was laughter, a boy’s voice called out “Marco” followed by a girl’s calling “Polo.” He kissed her forehead; her skin smelled of chlorine. And magnolias. Bill thought of the first job he’d helped Marty get. A Pop Tarts commercial. When the shoot was over and Bill was getting ready to go, Marty got the whole crew—Bill would never understand why they’d gone along with it—to sing to him, “He’s got the whole world in his hands. He’s got the whole wide world—” For the briefest moment Bill had felt he was watching Marty in one of the college productions, all those people standing under the lights, singing, as Marty led them through. Then they stopped and Marty came toward Bill, his arms open, begging an embrace. Bill pushed him away, pushed him flat in the chest, letting him stumble backward. “Don’t ever do that to me,” Bill told him. “Don’t ever,” and got in his car, never thinking what Marty might have felt turning back around to face the crew.
“I know you loved her, too,” Marty said once. “Of course I did,” Bill said back. They’d let it go at that.
Bill looked at Vivian’s thighs, the strong tan curve of her muscle against the fabric seats. He put his hand back on her leg and squeezed gently. She’d been quietly crying against his shoulder, her face splotched with red now as she looked up into his face.
“You are more beautiful,” he whispered.
She wiped her eyes with the hem of her shirt, then put her hand on top of his, holding him to her thigh. Her breath steadied.
“I was looking at one of those fake magazines yesterday, with the really outrageous stories—”
“A tabloid?” Bill interrupted, adjusting himself in the seat.
“Yes, a tabloid,” she said, looking at him as if to say, don’t interrupt me again. “The front cover had this enormous woman. Big and fat. Rolls and rolls of flesh,” she said.
“Uh-huh.” There were fine, soft hairs at her thigh. She let go of his hand, straightened in the seat, and began braiding the wet strands of her hair. Bill kept his hand on her, his palm still and solid, only allowing his fingers to sweep back and forth over her skin.
“The headline said, ‘Woman Eats Entire Home.’”
“Wow,” Bill mumbled, watching her mouth, the lower lip more prominent.
“It said she ate her kids and husband first, and then she ate the furniture and then the house.”
“Hungry lady,” Bill said stupidly. Freckles dotted the arch of her cheeks; her hair was now slicked away from her face. And her legs—the skin soft and warm as bread.
“It made me think of your commercials,” she said, touching his knee. “How the food looks all big and perfect. How it’s larger than life and it makes people really want it. They’re really hungry watching. Craving it, you know?” she was talking eagerly, her eyes wider, more placid.
“That’s the idea,” Bill nodded.
“And then your hand comes in.” She lifted his hand up off her leg and looked at it. She began moving it up and down through the air. “You’re dipping a sandwich or pulling up a fry, and all of a sudden the food isn’t larger than life. It’s just a regular burger in this regular hand. It’s just Bill’s hand.”
He pulled away and shifted the bottle he’d wedged between his thighs. He could feel her staring at the side of his face, her hands twisting the braid at her neck, round and round. He was aroused. He didn’t want to be aroused. He pictured the fat woman, saw her stuffing an entire door into her mouth, wiping the crumb of a chewed up window from her chin, a child’s foot from her lips. And then he saw himself driving, with Vivian, busting through the garage door and driving off in this teal-green Honda. Then he was with Lorrie, maybe somewhere in Mexico, watching her fill in a postcard, her long cursive script, Lorrie’s long perfect fingers writing in, “Woman eats entire home. Love Always.”
Outside someone called for Vivian. She turned toward the door, then back to Bill, her body a flux of nervous energy.
“It made you think all that?” Bill said, touching her thigh again.
“That,” she said, her hand on the car door, “and how much I hate my mother.”
She paused, then leaned over him and kissed him—wet and open-mouthed—before tugging at the handle of the door.
“Vivian?” people hollered, their voices near panicked.
Bill took her by the waist, hooking her in his arms, and pulled her onto him. He held on.
“Again,” he said, and kept kissing her.
He thought he felt her kiss back and his body relaxed. He focused on his hands: the necessary grip, the measure of pull in his forearms, the tension of holding on, sensing his knuckles going white against the sound of the garage door opening, the thrust and clack-clack of it, and the pink light of evening falling in on them.
“Let go,” she said, hands flying at his face, legs kicking away from him, the car’s interior light coming on, her body falling free from the car, over him and out the door.
“Bill?” Marty’s voice. There was the crash of a platter onto concrete and then the fidgety silence, the din of a gathered crowd, before he heard Roxanne begin to laugh.