Lucy had found the screwdriver on a windowsill. Elinore was used to her impulsive behavior—stripteases at dusk in the quarry, shoplifting and crying her way out of it—and so Elinore had forgotten all about the obscenities etched in tiny stars on the new construction, until her father had asked to speak to her after dinner one night. He began by pointedly looking across the table at her mother and then nodding at Becky, her younger sister. He explained that he needed Becky to excuse them for a few minutes. Becky openly stared at Elinore. She knew she couldn’t mock Elinore outright or she’d be asked to return to the table afterward for her own talking to. Instead, she canted her small chin in triumph as she made a show of pushing her chair from the table. Elinore shunted aside the humiliating dread that was reserved for confrontations with her parents, and pretended interest at watching Becky turn her back to them and walk down the railroad-style hall to her room, where she’d stand still and hardly breathe, the better to hear what Elinore had done.
“We got a call from Mrs. Mangione,” her father began.
Mrs. Mangoine was the president of the neighborhood watch committee, a tall blond with deeply tanned skin and freckled cleavage. She was one of the only women in Kings Grant who had grown up children, out of college already and living elsewhere.
Swipes of mashed potatoes and gravy clung to the surface of the deep brown plates with a yellowish filigree pattern along their lips. Roast beef blood pooled at their edges, disgustingly. Elinore hated dinner with her parents, hated meat and potatoes and the four of them sitting there, chewing like cows, only cows didn’t eat meat.
“There’s been some damage to one of the new homes,” her father began.
Looking across the table at her mother again, he paused.
“Joey and Tony Pasquerella said that you and Lucy play in the houses. Is that true?”
Elinore stared at her half-empty milk glass. Put off by thoughts of cloying bacteria, she never could finish her milk once it had warmed to room temperature.
“Everyone goes in them,” she said, shrugging. “All the time.”
This was true, actually, but Elinore couldn’t decide if all the parents, neighborhood-wide, were sitting down with their children to have this talk or if her parents knew something in particular, and flat out denial would mean getting caught in a lie. It was possible that Lucy had bragged to Joey and Tony, or had confessed already. It was possible that someone had seen her pounding away at the front door with the screwdriver, too. Since Elinore wasn’t the perpetrator, she considered that she still had some latitude as to how frank she needed to be.
“What happened, anyway,” Elinore asked.
It was then that her mother started in, perhaps hoping to spare her, or them, of her deceit.
“We know that Lucy ruined the front door of one of the homes. It’ll cost them thousands of dollars to replace it,” her mother said. She twisted her amethyst ring shaped like a flower as she spoke, looking down and to her right, at the red brick linoleum floor.
“Were you with her? Did you see her do it?” her father asked.
His voice rose and she knew that if she looked at him, two tiny threads of spittle would frame his lips—milk-colored parenthesis.
“No,” she said indignantly. She wondered if replacing a door would really cost that much. Despite herself, Elinore was impressed if that was the case. For the first time since the discussion had begun, she looked at her father and mother. The both of them hesitated. She could tell that if there weren’t so many other people involved, her parents might choose to leave it at this, let her off with a warning about how important it was to know what the people you were with were doing, that sort of thing. But other adults were involved, ones they knew and went to barbecues with. She understood that they would feel obligated to press on under these circumstances, to wrestle the truth from her somehow. Plus, telling them what had really happened began to seem preferable to spending another minute yoked between the two of them—their child.
“I knew she did it, but I didn’t help her or anything,” Elinore said.
At this, she looked above the plates, out through the sliding glass doors, and into the gathering dark. Her father’s chair scraped against the floor as he pushed himself from the table.
They were relieved at her admission, and they believed her. Elinore understood that her parents—most adults, actually—sensed in Lucy an obvious damage, announcing itself in acts just like this one.
Her mother placed both hands on the table, her ring catching the light. Elinore stared at the raised, sparkling stones. “The better to punch a mugger with,” she had once heard her mother say. Unlike Elinore, she had long, graceful hands.
Her father went over the terms of her restitution, careful to add that while she wasn’t responsible first-hand, her being complicit, not having stopped Lucy or told on her, was just as bad. Of course.
Lucy and Elinore had waited a few weeks for the hubbub to die down before returning to the new houses. Then, they chose the newest one. Elinore thought it looked forlorn, tentatively standing on a plot of mud with heavy tire tracks crisscrossing what would someday be the front lawn. There was an industrial-sized garbage can next to the front door. Hardees biscuit wrappers and smashed Big Gulp cups, along with spent construction materials, had been tamped down to make room for the next day’s rubbish.
Elinore liked the smell of the sawdust as they climbed the stairs to the second story. She admired the smoothness of the unfinished floors, the extreme emptiness of the hallways. In a small blue bathroom next to the master bedroom she and Lucy leafed through a Playboy magazine that Lucy’s father had thrown away. Lucy held the magazine up so that the centerfold descended, its three panels revealing a young woman in a western style vest without a shirt, her breasts bursting from the tooled leather. Turning slightly, the woman leaned into a haystack so that you could see some of her pubic hair and part of her bare ass, neatly outlined by the ornate riding chaps she wore.
Two years ago, just after Lucy had moved next door, at the beginning of another summer vacation, they’d found a stash of porno in a parcel of woods behind Kings Grant, bits of wet leaves and pine needles stuck on successive pages of women hungrily touching themselves down there. The pictures had made Lucy and Elinore flush with excitement, and had forged a tawdry bond between them and their fathers and brothers and the anonymous owner of the warped and wavy vagina shots. On their second or third visit to the grubby Playboy magazines, Lucy had started the game where she pretended to be the Playboy photographer, Elinore the model.
Lucy told Elinore to remove her clothes and Elinore silently obeyed. Before they touched, Elinore heard nothing but her own breath. She felt nothing but the intensity of the anticipation between them. Lucy posed her in the various styles of the women in the photographs, watchful and provocative. Naked, Elinore stood in the bathtub, looking into the camera lens that was Lucy’s eye, gently arching her back. It was fun, pretending to be a sexy model.
After a few minutes, Lucy climbed into the tub, motioning for her to lie down. Farting noises emanated from Elinore’s bare skin as she slid against the cold ceramic tile. Lucy held her wrists as she climbed on top of her, pinning her. Elinore kept repositioning her head so that it wouldn’t bang against the faucet as Lucy began to thrust, forward and backward. A part of her hated how they moved in such familiar ways, laboring to produce the momentary rush of warmth between her legs. Always, she was ashamed afterward. But her promises to never let Lucy touch her again were unkept. Elinore liked the heat, and they way her nipples rose to the touch.
“Do you want to come over?” Lucy asked afterward. She steadied herself on the tub’s ledge as she rose. Unlike Elinore who had small breasts, curves, and abdominal muscles elegantly faming her concave stomach, Lucy was completely flat-chested and her belly ballooned like a little child’s.
Elinore wanted to go home, but she nodded her head. If she said no, she would feel guilty. Lucy didn’t have other friends. Not that Elinore had loads of friends like some girls, but a couple of times a week she was invited for dinner or to go swimming or to the mall with the Langlois sisters, and she’d gone to the Van Daren twins’ lake house a number of times this summer already, three pairs of legs dangling off the pier, tanned and skinny, indistinguishable from the one another.
Reaching for her clothes, Elinore imagined leaving behind the people in the tub, the house, that particular neighborhood. She wanted to have never known Lucy.
No one was home at Lucy’s house, which was usually the case in the afternoons. Her mother worked part time at a craft supply store in town, and her brother often had band practice. Her father worked in the city, like Elinore’s dad, commuting over an hour each way. He never got home until after six or seven.
In the kitchen Lucy tore into a bag of Doritos and slugged Diet Coke from a liter bottle. She burped, making it sound like a frog ribbit. As she laughed, coke sprayed from her nostrils and her eyes smiled up at Elinore. She felt distinctly uncomfortable as she watched the coke dribbling onto the floor, at Lucy doubled over in laughter. In the last year, her mother had begun to call her a snob. Vaguely, she wondered if this feeling was what a snob would feel: tightness lassoed her chest, and she was embarrassed, for Lucy, for herself. It was like someone else was watching them, judging Lucy to be stupid, and by association, Elinore.
“You wanna watch TV?” Lucy asked. Trailing the oversize bag of chips behind her, she landed with a cushioned thud on the brown leather couch.
“Yeah, I guess. I’ll be right back, I gotta use the bathroom,” Elinore said.
Upstairs, she looked through the medicine cabinet above the sink. Inside, she picked up a couple of prescription bottles of tetracycline and a leaf of Benadryl that was still new-looking if you glanced only at the front of the package. Underneath, a chalky lick of goo had oozed from each of the bubble wraps, like they’d gotten wet. Returning the forgotten pills to the wobbly second shelf, she picked up a bottle of Sweet Honesty perfume. Squirting some behind her ears and on both wrists, she admired herself in her cuts-offs in the oversize mirrors above the twin mock-granite sinks. At Princess Anne Plaza last weekend, a man in a suit had called her beautiful. Until then Elinore’s vanity had been wondered over privately, in bathrooms like this. Now the gaze she directed at herself carried a different sort of appraisal, of someone or something—a different man or a camera—meeting her eyes and admiring the way the fringe from her shorts grazed her tanned legs, and how her long hair fell all around her, so that she constantly had to flip it back over her shoulders.
As Elinore came down the stairs, her bare feet sunk into the soft, white carpet and she felt such heaviness in her heart. She had the urge to run from the sound of the television—blaring in the empty house in the middle of the afternoon—without saying goodbye and without looking back or caring.
But Lucy barely glanced up from a repeat of All in the Family as she stood in the doorway.
“I’m going to get going,” Elinore said, not looking at her, either. It wasn’t like with other girls she knew, where they said they’d call one another later or meet at the mailboxes after dinnertime. They weren’t close like that. They weren’t actually friends, she told herself as she took the footpath between their houses. They lived next door to each other was all.
The first time they’d had sex, Lucy had asked if she could come up and sleep with her on the top bunk. It was their first sleepover at Lucy’s house. Lucy’s surprising nakedness, and the hot flood of sensation between Elinore’s legs was thrilling. They both climaxed quickly, and afterward Lucy climbed down the ladder to the bottom bunk. Within a few minutes Elinore heard a soft whistle-snore. An orange plug-in shaped like street lamp emitted a fuzzy halo of light from the wall opposite the bunk bed. Elinore’s gaze was drawn there as she turned on her side, bringing her knees to her chin, and wondered if anyone had heard or seen them or guess at what had happened. The thought of someone finding out filled her head with a new and sharp humiliation. Later, she was never sure why she let their relationship start or continue, graduating from sleepovers to the old bathhouses at the Crystal Lake Motel, and finally to the new homes under construction; these isolated, out-of-the-way places made her feel so removed from anyone or anything that was normal.
Elinore went down to the basement when she got home. The dark veneer wood panelling was streaked blond in places to simulate natural grain. Unsuccessfully, Elinore thought. The large, dung-colored room was nearly empty, furniture-wise, and almost always empty, people-wise, so even though Elinore hated the basement, she gravitated toward it—a make-do refuge from the peopled, talky upstairs level.
A desk that her father sometimes used was in one corner, a phone and a dictionary stranded together on its top, sometimes nearer or farther away from each other, depending. Two wicker chairs with high backs and orate designs that reminded Elinore of peacock sprays, sat in front of the sliding glass doors, looking out onto the patio. They sat there pretty much by themselves, year after year, as no one ever used them. In another corner, there was a cabinet-style record player her grandparents had been throwing out since last Christmas; its stumpy legs and fabric speaker seemed like something out of the dark ages. It was ugly, but still worked. She situated the record on the pistil, listening for it to drop. Cher’s “Dark Lady” pounded through the tweed speaker material. Expertly, she mimicked the singer’s highly coveted (at least by Elinore) personal signatures in the placement of her hands and the way she moved her lips. Elinore forgot herself until mother yelled down at her.
“Would you please turn that racket down?”
Sweat beaded on Elinore’s lower back and at her hairline. Her breath labored. Back in the brown-gray room trapped beneath their house, she pushed the “off” button, so that the needle screeched to a stop. She felt like she might cry.
The phone rang. Her mother’s footsteps pounded on the ceiling like fists.
“It’s for you,” she said.
“Okay,” Elinore said picking up, thinking that it must be Shelby Langlois, who often called around this time to ask if she wanted to play kickball or visit her boyfriend’s baby brother, who’d been born blue a couple of weeks earlier and who all their friends wanted to see because he’d come so close to dying.
“I got it,” Elinore yelled up to her mother. The sounds of the dishwasher and the TV faded as her mother hung up the kitchen phone.
“Would you go out with Joey Mellon?” A male voice asked.
Joey had curly brown hair and long lashes. Green or blue eyes, she thought. He was tall, with an Adam’s apple. At thirteen, he’d already had two girlfriends. Popular girls who weren’t only pretty, but rich.
Elinore was about to answer when she heard laughter. A number of boys, it sounded like.
“Or maybe you’re a lessie?” The voice said. There was more laughter at this. And then he hung up.
In her palm, the dial tone buzzed. Elinore realized how cold she was now that she’d stopped moving. Air conditioning blew against her skin, now pebbling in small, unattractive bumps. She hung up the phone. Elinore would have said “no” anyway. She wasn’t that gullible, would never fall for an out-of-the-blue phone call like that. But of course it wasn’t that Joey Mellon would never really ask her out that concerned her. Elinore wasn’t even sure how she knew what they boy meant by the word “lessie,” but she did. School was about to begin. She would see the laughing boys and not even know who they were. They would tell others. It felt so much like she’d just been struck that Elinore found it hard to place herself. For a few seconds, it seemed possible that she might not be able to move.
“I’m going to pick Becky up,” her mother called down to her, on her way out, “Do you want to come?”
“No,” Elinore called out.
It would take a little under an hour for her mother to drive to D.C. and back to pick up Becky from her play rehearsal, and her father wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours. Normally, Elinore would have played more records. With the house to herself, she would have danced and sung, even, gyrating to “Lady Marmalade” and proclaiming convincingly to “Delta Dawn.”
The nail brush was small, and its bristles were stiff and yellow with disuse. Elinore found it in the back of the cabinet, where she’d seen it a million times in among old toothpaste tubes and hair brushes and pill bottles, all looking like they’d been tossed in, landing any which way.
As the bath filled, Elinore sat on top of the toilet, holding the brush in her hand. She looked at the ugly pink tiles, at the thread of hair, nails, and skin that was embedded in the grout for eternity. She knew from experience that bleach and soap only made the scum soupy and totally disgusting.
After another few minutes Elinore lowered herself into the water. She grit her teeth, and her skin turned bright red. The sting of the heat traveled through the many different layers of her skin, the largest organ of all, until the sensation crossed from pain to a certain kind of numbness that still managed to be painful, but not as painful.
When she trusted herself to keep still and not jump from the tub, Elinore took the small, dry brush and scrubbed her labia, her ass, her nipples and breasts, until the water became a dirty gray color, and cold.