By Philip Keith
The car is on blocks in the vacant lot. Two boys stand on their toes, eager to see through its hazy windows. They stretch against the passenger side where the taller boy thinks the haze is like frosting and wonders if it might taste sweet. He is eight. His name is Will. He doesn’t know the frosting is an amalgam of sap and dust deposited by the dark pines swaying nearby. He doesn’t know the car is a Buick. He daydreams about licking its windows.
The shorter boy is Joel. Joel is six. He pokes a stick through a rusty hole in the car’s fender. He watches Will press a thumbnail into the sap, casting a series of frowns around the tacky glass.
Across the lot, a woman washes dishes. Her name is Marion. Last night was burnt meatloaf, and now she chisels at the crusted pan. She blames the burnt meatloaf on her friend Janice, who distracted her on the telephone. Janice thinks the man she’s sleeping with is cheating.
Marion thinks about her own husband, Burt. He’s worked late the past three nights rebuilding a pigheaded transmission. He arrives home each evening with raw knuckles. Most times, there’s a line of grease streaked across his forehead. Marion calls the grease war paint. Burt laughs and doesn’t complain about the smell of burnt meatloaf or the transmission. He deserves a decent meal, she thinks.
Marion dips the pan in soapy water then rinses it clean, places it atop a towel, and stares at her hot, fleshy palms. She thinks about what to cook for Burt, maybe a steak.
The pine needles are slick beneath Joel’s feet. He wants to be the first to drive. He believes the car will fly like a Rocketship. He imagines maneuvering across the sky. Will tells him to be patient. He tells Joel it will be fun for him to be a passenger first. Joel widens the rusty hole. He doesn’t want to be a passenger.
Will works the Buick’s handle. Joel pries the seam. They huff and grunt until the latch pops free. The hinges moan as the heavy door swings wide. The boys hop around with dingy feet. Will slides into the seat and breathes the pungent air. He steadies himself behind the wheel.
On the east end of the park sits a rundown trailer where a cur is chained in the grassless yard. The dog bays frantically through the stagnant summer air. Its thin flesh clings to slender ribs.
Sometimes, when his mother sleeps, Joel untethers the dog and giggles as the beast zigzags across the park in a frenetic sprint, its leathery pads kicking up flecks of feculence and dust. He marvels at how the dog glides across the grass, how its limbs articulate smoothly against its tawny coat.
Once, the dog disappeared for days. The boy imagined it was off to live with the wolves.
Marion cools her hands beneath the tap. She’ll buy corn and potatoes, she thinks. Maybe asparagus. She’ll make amends for the burnt meatloaf. She folds her towel and watches through a small window, imagines an ocean view instead of the grassy lot. She watches Joel slide into the car.
Marion steps across the grass. She recalls a story she’s read recently in the newspaper. A boy went missing in a neighboring town for a week before they found him dead in an abandoned refrigerator.
She doesn’t know Will or Joel all that well. There are rumors about their mother. Marion will tell them it’s not safe to play in the car. She will coax them from danger with the promise of cookies in her kitchen. Maybe she will mention the car to the mother, tell her it is best to keep the boys away. She wonders who abandons a car or loses track of children. She daydreams about sand between her toes. She imagines finding small skeletons on the front seat.
Red lights flash through the park. There’s always something happening. What could it be now? A week ago, it was the cops swarming Mr. Littmer’s house, just three doors down. Marion watched from her bedroom window as they tasered his son on the front lawn, as the man thrashed wildly in the buffalo grass.
She glances back at the car and resolves she will demand the landlord have it towed.
Will works the steering wheel. Joel bounces upon the seat. They’re convinced they feel the engine purr.
Joel watches through the hazy glass. The vacant lot is out of view. The car soars above the trees. He wonders when he’ll see the stars. He tries to lower the frosted window, but the handle doesn’t budge. He doesn’t like being a passenger. He wants a turn behind the wheel.