By David Meischen
Winner of the 2012 Talking Writing Prize for Short Fiction
Candace loved the muted sheen of the old bridge beneath a full moon. It was like the gauzy lighting that fell on the faces of beautiful women while a projector whirred in the dark. Harlow, Garbo, Hayward, Monroe—they looked lit from within, breezes gentle in their hair, like the stir she felt at her nape, the night air cool on shoulders left bare by the sundress she’d hidden just for this.
When Buddy’s headlights appeared, she stepped to the edge of the bridge, the planks solid beneath her and the creek below dry as drifting sand, a waterless dark roiling from under the trees that lined the banks. A rustle as the air shifted, a whisper.
The lights on Buddy’s car followed the property line of a neighboring farm, turning and then up a rise toward the cattle guard—its moonlit grid—another turn and down the road toward Candace and the creek, the lights ever closer and brighter, blinding. He drove quietly, a ’58 Bel Air his parents had given him two years back on the evening of his graduation from high school. Candace had just arrived for the ceremony, in tow behind her parents, when Buddy got out of his shining new Chevy, combed and suited and dapper. She’d decided on the spot that when her last night came and she needed to get this step behind her, Buddy Grant would be the one.
Other girls lost it with Riley Clark or someone like him, all swagger, bruising what he touched. Other girls might bleed the first time—but not Candace. She’d have Buddy. He would kiss her through the pain and after. Except for his name, it might’ve been perfect. Thank God for the luck of her own. She loved the sound of Candace, the look of the letters together, as she imagined them, with her photograph on magazine covers. Her mother’s name was Winnie. Rhymed with ninny. How could she be anything but old—doilies everywhere—with a name like that? If only Buddy were a nickname or he had a middle name worth the bother. But no. Buddy Grant was the whole of it.
Candace felt no hurry tonight as he drove toward her, a deep-throated purr emanating from the Bel Air’s big engine, the quiet where she stood amplified by the muffled crunch of tires on crushed rock. The Chevy eased to a stop—headlights going dark, engine stilled—and Buddy stepped out, moonlight casting his silhouette across the hood of the car, its polished surface glowing white against the bar ditch, the fence line, the pastureland beyond.
She hadn’t expected the shaking—tremors running along the inside of her ribcage, pinging like the after-current of an electric fence. And cold—a cold let loose in her, so cold her teeth rattled. There was something in her that wanted out.
Buddy ambled from the car to the bridge and stopped. He stood as if the road were his territory, the bridge hers, as if she must cross the line between. As best she could, she held the shaking and stepped off the bridge.
“Hey, babe,” he said when she reached him, and that growl went all over her. They grabbed each other, his body hard against her, the close-shaved stubble of his jaw rubbing rough against her cheek. She pulled his face down along her neck, onto her chest above the bodice of her sundress, and then it was too much. She tried to pull away.
Buddy took his hands from her and fumbled at his belt, his zipper. “No,” she said, backing away, the Chevy bumper a cool band against the backs of her legs. She felt hands at her waist, lifting, and she was on the hood of the car. His hands were everywhere.
“No!” she said and pushed him away.
“But you wanted me— You wanted us—” His voice was husky, raw.
“Is this what you did with the others? Here?”
Buddy tucked his shirttails; he zipped and buttoned and buckled himself at the waist.
“I know you’ve had girls,” Candace said.
“I’m twenty years old.” His words gave an edge to the silence that followed.
When Buddy spoke again, his voice was tinged with regret. “I shouldn’t have told you.”
I made you. She couldn’t say that, though it was true. She hadn’t wanted names, didn’t care about gossip. What she’d wanted was to know that Buddy would know how to do what she wanted done. She would get tonight behind her, then get out. She’d chosen Buddy but not this. Not on the hood of his car.
“I thought you were different,” she said.
“All of them,” she said. “Riley Clark.”
At the sound of Riley’s name, Buddy grinned, his teeth glistening like one of the mouth-breathing grease monkeys who leered at her when she walked by the Magnolia station, the Pegasus overhead flying places she would go without them. The moon would light her way.
“Look,” she said, pointing. “Can you see her?”
“The woman in the moon.”
“Looks like ink splotches to me.”
“There’s a woman,” she told him. “Her hair is up—all feathery. She’s sitting at her dresser. Holding a powder puff.”
Buddy’s grin flashed again. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“Better behave yourself. She watches out for me.”
Let him stand there looking amused. She had six years’ worth of egg money stashed with a wad of earnings from babysitting. She had a schedule of buses between here and the West Coast. She had by heart the location of the YMCA in downtown Los Angeles. Come this time tomorrow, she’d be crossing West Texas—with Nopalito far behind her. She knew where she was going.
The night darkened, the pale, powdery surface of the road dissolving into thickening gloom. When the moon came back, she moved to Buddy, leaned up on tiptoe and kissed his ear.
“Come,” she whispered. “Let’s walk down the creek.”
Buddy pulled off his loafers, walked to the car, and tossed them through an open window. He reached behind the front seat and grabbed a picnic blanket. Candace walked to the bridge and stepped out of her fancy summer flats. She set them on the protruding end of a plank—a pair of jeweled slippers that might be ruined by the drifting silt below, moonlight glimmering in the cut glass pieces, the silver prongs that held them. Together, then, they descended into the Agua Dulce, the creek bed loose and cool and fine, like grained silk, with patches of paleness where the branching canopy thinned.
“I know a place,” she said, and led him to a wide, shallow bend where the moon poured in, the silt drifting in dunes like sand on the beaches in her magazines. Avila, Hermosa, Isla Vista. Capistrano, Corona del Mar. She would live by the ocean on a beach called Crown of the Sea.
When she had pictured what they would do, Candace hadn’t thought about dirt. But there it was, sifting through the picnic blanket’s thin fabric. She kissed him anyway. She let him put his hands on her, but then, just when it was feeling right—when she knew what was coming—Buddy pulled away and sat up. He dug around in a pocket on his jeans and produced a little square foil packet. She knew what he had. It was clear enough by the moon.
Three years ago—she would have been thirteen, thereabout—she’d found a used one in her locker, oozing onto a book cover. She didn’t know what it was, hadn’t seen one before, but the odor impressed her. Hearing a snicker, she turned to find Riley Clark studying her, his band of tagalongs in a slouch behind him. With a cupped hand, Riley shifted the equipment at his crotch. He wasn’t smart enough to have groped himself as a hint about the smell spilling out of her locker. But she’d heard enough talk—school bus whisperings, drugstore gossip—to suspect that something squirted out of boys when they used their peckers for pleasure. Right there, facing Riley, she knew.
“What you got there?” he asked.
Candace turned to her locker and took the item in question between thumb and forefinger. Turning back, she let it dangle. “Looks like a sausage casing. You can have it.” She draped the wilted mess across the shoulder of Riley’s letter jacket. Afterwards, she washed her hands—and told herself that, whatever it was she’d touched, she wouldn’t have one near her again.
“Put that nasty thing away,” she told Buddy. “But, but,” was all he could say. She had her way, though. Always did. “Just pull out before you’re done,” she said. “I don’t want a baby in me.”
She whispered she was ready then, but Buddy said no, not really, using his hands, a few awkward directives, to indicate that before he could proceed she would have to spread her legs. There was a tickle in his voice, as if he might sit up again, giggling this time, and forget all about why she’d asked him here.
She’d thought of what they would do as making love. In those words. Buddy would make love to her, and then later, when she was gone away from here, she would know how it was done. The act itself she had pictured in soft lighting—graceful, veiled in shadow. In the instant when she comprehended Buddy’s request, though, she knew sex would be anything but love.
There was pain when she complied—when their bodies came together as she had thought she wanted—though she hadn’t thought the hurt would take her breath away. Buddy kept whispering things. What he was doing. What it felt like. What he wanted to do next. She didn’t mind him doing what he said, any of it—if he would just shut up and do it, shut up and put his lips on her, his tongue. There. There. Yes. Then it was over, and he was still inside her. He shouldn’t be, but he was.
He was apologizing, words tumbling around her in that little-boy tone he took when he knew she was mad and he didn’t want her to be. What anger she felt was distant, though, as if it weren’t even part of her. A voice calling, a warning—but for someone else. Listen. And she could barely hear it. Sleep was in her, lovely and heavy, humming. She’d be fine in the morning. She would get away.
Buddy woke her. She cracked one eye to a sliver of early light, then squeezed it shut and turned away. She didn’t want to see what he looked like rumpled with sleep, with dirt in his hair. She didn’t want to see him seeing her.
“I been trying to wake you.” He sounded flustered. “Tried to keep you from sleeping. Wanted to get you home.”
The early morning cool was lovely. If she could get him to leave her alone, she’d sleep some more.
“What about your momma and daddy?” Buddy asked.
“They get up at five. They’ll know I’m gone.”
“There’ll be hell to pay.”
From somewhere in the trees, a mockingbird erupted, its call harsh and scolding.
“You got to think now,” Buddy said. “How’re you gonna patch it up with them?”
“What do you care?”
“You’re my girl now.”
No point in setting him straight. She’d be gone before he could lay a claim on her.
The mockingbird started up again, a series of wild variations swirling in the treetops.
Buddy stood. “You don’t show up in time for the bus, all kinds of talk will get started.”
“I’ll stay home. I’ll say I was sick.”
“What about your folks? What are they gonna think, seeing you like this?”
“I’ll handle them,” Candace said.
“We ought to get going.” Buddy bent and kissed her cheek.
“Go then,” she said. “I’ll be along.”
“You’re gonna mess this up.” Buddy sounded peeved. “Guess I’ll see what I can do.”
He walked off down the creek, leaving her response unspoken. What could he do? She could take care of herself.
Candace curled to sleep again. Just a few minutes, that’s all she needed.
In the moment of dozing, between waking and dreaming, something stirred in her, a tiny something, so small she almost didn’t notice—like a comma shifting in the middle of a closed book. The briefest flutter, almost imperceptible. Then nothing.
Sparrow chatter roused her, a patch of sun on her face through the trees. She remembered that Buddy was gone and sat up, heavy with sleep. There was silt inside her bra, beneath the waistband of her dress, everywhere. She ached inside, but almost pleasantly, a muted tenderness.
Except for the birds, it was quiet at this bend. Schoolchildren had come here once for picnics—forty, fifty years ago. Her father, her mother, too—if they could be believed, if ever they had been children—had spent days here with their classmates. Poppa tossed horseshoes on the outer bank with the boys. On the inner bank, a flat treeless space rounded by the Agua Dulce’s lazy curve, Momma skipped rope with her girlfriends. At lunch, they spread tablecloths on the creek bed, opened tins of sardines, pulled wild onions where they grew each spring along the banks. They had molasses cookies for dessert. Naps, even, or so her parents said, before trekking back to their one-room schoolhouse and the mules that carried them home. To furrows they’d never get out of. Old as grandparents they’d been when she arrived—their only child.
Rising, Candace shook out the picnic blanket and began to fold it. But she would not see Buddy again, and there was no need trying to explain the blanket to her parents. She tossed the flimsy thing aside and walked toward the bridge, sparrows quieting as if to mark her way with silence. The creek curved and curved again, the banks on either side a tangle of underbrush, with oaks and hackberries and pecans blotting out the sky.
Minutes later, as she rounded the last curve hiding the bridge from her path along the creek bottom, Candace heard a rumble from beyond the rise and knew the school bus was coming for her. Mr. Jamieson would pull over when he got to the mailbox. Old fool would crank the door open and sit there gaping—as if she might materialize out of sunlight and road dust. He’d wonder aloud at her absence and then drive on while her parents fretted behind Momma’s ancient, ugly curtains, that dumbstruck look on their faces, not knowing where she was.
She’d locked her door from the inside and climbed out the window. She wondered if they had tired, yet, of knocking, of calling her name. What would they say when they saw her—shoulders bared to the world, the flesh of her breasts visible along the line of her bodice? They couldn’t stop her now.
The bridge appeared in a band of sunlight beyond the trees, then a flash of yellow-orange as the bus clattered across. Candace heard shouts from within, and by the time she came out from under the oaks and up the bank to the road, Mr. Jamieson had stopped the bus. A gaggle of seventh- and eighth-grade boys hung out the windows, a thin film of dust behind them, drifting over the ragged edges of the bridge and into the shadows that pooled below. When the air cleared, the bridge was empty, except for her jeweled flats, their facets catching sunlight and scattering it back.
She heard gears grind, and the bus started backing toward her, a chorus of shouts erupting from the boys in the windows.
“Hey, Candy, where yuh goin’?”
“Bet it’s a beach party.”
A lone girl stuck her head out a window. “Look at the dress, stupid. Candace Lambert’s goin’ someplace ritzy.”
“Hope there’s martinis,” shouted one of the boys.
“Thinks she’s better than us,” the girl announced, her voice sharp as broken glass. “Thinks she’s Kim Novak.”
“Hey, Candy Kim,” one of the younger boys called out, “will you dance with me?”
A boy her own age, from a window in the last row, let loose a nasty chuckle. “Looks like she’ll do more than dance.”
Candace put a hand to her hair and made smoothing motions. She wished for her compact mirror, her brush and comb. They were on her dresser at home—inside a little patent-leather bag that looked lovely with her sundress. She’d decided against it, though, hadn’t been able to picture herself holding a clutch when Buddy got out of his car at the bridge, hadn’t been able to think how she might gracefully dispose of it when their moment arrived.
A fist rapping on window glass drew her attention. Beside the boy who’d insulted her, face framed in a back-facing window, Riley Clark winked at her, and then, wetting thick lips with the tip of his tongue, he kissed the air at her.
The bus stopped backing, and the door cranked open. “All aboard!” shouted the boys.
Candace waved them on.
Mr. Jamieson appeared on the road beside the door.
“Young lady,” he said, “do you need an engraved invitation?”
Candace stepped back until she felt the planks of the bridge beneath her feet. She stooped, reaching, where her shoes sparkled, set them in front of her, and stepped into them. She folded her arms and waited for it to be over.
Mr. Jamieson was no match for her. He shook his head and got back on the bus. The door closed, and the calling boys retracted their heads. The engine revved, and the bus moved off, its plume of dust drifting, expanding, until Candace was enclosed in a cloud of powdery light.
The house she lived in needed paint. The walls were the same color as the hard-packed dirt of the yard, flowerbeds dead and empty in the aftermath of the recent drought, the cenizo hedge out front indistinguishable from the color of dust. Seen from afar as Candace came over the rise— walking homeward after her encounter with the bus—the house, the yard, and hedge that framed it looked like a backdrop for a movie, something about poor folk and hard times. Just one thing was out of place this morning—Buddy’s Chevy at the side of the house, Buddy’s beautiful Bel Air, white as a wedding dress filmed under brightest light, a band of red, shiny as lipstick, flashing from fender to fender. Candace kept walking. There was nowhere else to go.
Turning in at the gate, she could see her parents on the front porch in the swing they sat in Sunday mornings between breakfast and church. Before them—speaking, gesticulating—stood Buddy Grant, his voice a sound she intuited before she was close enough to hear it, his tone something she could interpret from the rise and fall of the words. This was Buddy in sincere mode—calling forth a calm over disturbed waters.
As she neared the house, her mother turned and, seeing Candace, pointed. Buddy looked in her direction—the conciliatory gesture of his hands frozen for a moment—and, turning back to her parents, went on with what he was saying as if he’d known them all his life. As for her parents—their faces gave evidence they were listening, that whatever petition Buddy Grant was casting before them, his words fell on receptive ground.
As she approached the cenizo hedge, Buddy ran out of words. The sudden quiet unnerved Candace. She stopped. Buddy turned from her parents and, crossing, came midway down the porch steps. He paused there, his hand on the wrought iron railing. Sunlight fell harshly in the space between them, the shadow of a scissortail crossing the yard at an oblique angle.
Buddy stood there as if appointed to save her. Behind him, attentive, sat her parents, silent in their unmoving swing. Inside the house, behind her locked bedroom door—hidden—lay a packed suitcase, a Trailways bus schedule, a roll of bills to feed her where she fled. Between here and there, an alliance she would have to breach—Buddy, his face happy, confident as he waited; her father, his brow stern but approving as he looked at Buddy; and her mother, eyes shining with hope as she faced Candace. A tableau, the three of them, welcoming her into the fold.
David Meischen has short stories in or forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Bellingham Review, and other journals. His first published story, “Yellow Jackets,” appeared in Talking Writing, and he won the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest in Mainstream Fiction in 2011. Learn more about David at his website, Meischen Ink.
"Agua Dulce" is the winner of the 2012 Talking Writing Prize for Short Fiction.