Too Late [story] by Dani Sandal

Oh it had all been so tragic. The way they sat there in the pews with their grandparents, patient and lady-like. Their fannies going numb. Olive in her 3-D glasses and blown-out overalls; Prue in her short skirt and glossy white Go-Go boots. Goobers melting in their pockets. Olive, touching Prue’s boots every chance she got because they reminded her of toasted marshmallows. Prue, absently swiping Olive’s hand away—and then, just as absently, holding it tight. How could the very last picture show of summer be playing without them? But it was, because the church meeting went on forever and ever. The reel would not stop for Prudence and Olivia.

At last it was over. Amen!

They hustled their grandparents out into the church parking lot only to discover the sky had already darkened to a deep shade of purple. Twilight? Well, crap. Normally it was a color they wanted to swallow or roll in like some dog that had been bathed clean of the scent it loves. Chase fireflies with Mason jars and meow at the rising moon. But tonight, well. Tonight those stars up there were so bright it looked as if God had tossed a handful of diamonds down onto heaven’s floor and the girls felt lost in it all as their grandfather gently loaded them into the back of his Caddy.

Once settled, Prue resurrected a tape from her red vinyl purse and solemnly handed it over to her grandfather. After fixing the shawl across Nana’s legs, he stuffed cotton into his large furry ears and plugged the gospel of James Brown into the eight-track and cranked it way up, as promised. A conciliation. They lit out toward a split moon which spilled cerulean light across the cracked blacktop so it seemed slick as obsidian, something you could skate across on fine steel blades. The pearl-pink convertible floated through the warm evening with Granpop navigating, one wrist atop the wheel, the other arm slung across the seat behind Nana’s slight shoulders. His good straw hat, blue as a robin egg, flapping in the wind.

This summer visit for the girls had been so hot you could smell blackberries, not yet ripe in the briar, already burnt in the thicket on backyard fences. You could smell sweet rancid wine and heated earth on the wind. Granpop inhaled deeply while fingering the yellow scarf that his wife had wrapped around her loose silver bun. She sat shotgun doing a bob-n-weave like a feinting boxer, shadowing Mr. Brown’s groans about You Mother this and You Mother that. Owww! Get ready, you Mother and so on. She raised her left hand high into the air and threw out the occasional off beat, Oww and, Hallelujah! It’s so nasty. Her right side had been paralyzed by the stroke and she was not exactly in her right mind. But she was right enough to know that Mr. Brown had something to say.

When Olive wanted to know, What’s nasty about it? and Prue said, Yeah? She told them, It’s just a feeling, babies.

The girls groaned, What else is there, Nana? and she had pointed out: Death.

Granpop concurred, Damn straight, Mama.

Oh, Death. Big whoop. It put a spin on everything.

But as they approached the Drive-in, they’d forgotten all about Death. Just being so near was wonderfully torturous.They made Granpop promise to pass by—real slow. The last picture show of summer (a collective sigh escaped from the backseat). When they spotted the movie screen, Olive reached across the cracked white leather for her sister’s hand. Oh, its the late show! They had never even seen the late show. And now, they never would. The earlier show was long gone. Forever. The wind tossed Prue’s hair around so much she couldn’t see straight and had to pull up her sweatshirt hood and tuck her red braids in to get a good look. Leaning against the side of the Caddy, hang-dogged and blinking back the wind as they went by, she cried, Hey, you promised, Granpop! Hurry up and slow it down! Let’s see what’s playing.

To Granpop, this request sounded backwards. How can you hurry up to slow it all down? He patted Nana’s knee. If possibly, he’d like to corner the market on that one. He eased off the metal and let her coast by slow and easy.

Olive opened her mouth wide, attempting to taste the smell of popcorn, and peered out her 3-D glasses. She loved the drive-in more than anything because it was a big dream pasted against the sky that everybody could share. She’d found the glasses at Curbside Store for five cents and wore them everywhere that summer. Even on her seasonal paper route. You waiting on Godzilla? folks would yell as they bent low for their morning news. Or, You’ll blind yourself, girl! Then where will our papers end up? Who were they kidding? Olive had a solid throw. Better than any ten year boy. Though she had to admit the glasses were a hindrance at times. At times all angles is nothing but confusing.

Many folks spread blankets on the grass and watched the movie with the sound echoing from nearby pickups and wagons and this is what the girls had done every Saturday evening that summer. After Grandpop dropped them off with a zillion instructions on Stranger Danger, they hustled to sit front and center. Prue had just recently developed a new appreciation for Drive-in ethics. She was fourteen. She had discovered that if she turned around during the darker parts of the show she could practically see couples drowning on each other’s tongues. And, to her delight, witnessing such a display no longer made her ill. It made her feel strange in another, secret way. Of course Olive would not loan her the glasses so she could really get a look, but even at a distance it was beyond fascinating.

Come on, she’d whine to Olive for her shades. Ill loan you my new roller skates? But Olive withheld. Big whoop. For Prue had begun to contemplate the whole scene in her daydreams, hitting the pause and rewind at will.

Now, driving slowly by, the girls craned their necks just in time to catch a glimpse of someone’s breast—nearly four-foot huge—hovering on the grainy screen! It was the biggest boob Olive had ever seen and this frightened her. She closed her eyes, whip-lashed straight ahead and started to sweat while Prue stayed twisted around long enough to see a large hairy-knuckled hand cover the breast and squeeze or honk or something of this nature.

Before she could figure out exactly what was going on, their grandfather said, For shit sake, and laid it down to speed them away as best he could in an eight-cylinder car running on six. But, it was too late.

It was too late because that very evening Olive would have nightmares about the mad dog she had encountered earlier that day on her paper route. The beast had ripped her Tough Skins and in this dream the dog would have in its mouth — The Breast. For some odd reason she would believe it to be hers. Even though she did not own one. Not really.

And it was too late because already there launched in Prue’s own breast (deep down beyond that new annoying soreness) an unknown ache which made her heart simply race. Though she could not name its exact source just then, this sorrow’s spring would carry her to secret, troublous quests. Adolescence is pure hell on greased vinyl skates. Now, she merely let go of Olive’s hand, almost threw it away really, and tossed her head back against the seat, letting her long arms go slack, palms opened supine toward the dark sky in resignation. I, she said in her husky voice that may as well belong to an adolescent boy, am absolutely crucified! She had missed just everything!

I’ve had enough Christ talk for one evening, Granpop said. He was still unnerved about the outcome of the church meeting; he wanted that dog shot. Who gave a rat’s ass if it was minister’s? It bit his grandbaby! He was supposed to be watching out for his son’s girls over summer break. Now the added shock of exposing his granddaughters to—hell, he didn’t know what—caused him to grip the wheel and look over at his wife for support.

He received an unsatisfying shrug and wink.

Not the end of the worl, Daddy, she said, slurring slightly the way she did now when she was beat. Jush a boob.

She had not seen the hand. The hand made all the difference. It changed everything! He had seen the hand in the rear-view.

Is it too much to ask, he reasoned, that a man be able to drive down the street with his family without seeing a woman’s breast, bared?

Again a shrug. Those college boys are running the late show this summer. Hormones. Besides, I believe it was Fay Dunaway’s.

What?

The boob.

So?

You like Fay Dunaway.

He laughed. I like you, Mama.

Prue said, What college boys?

Olive moaned, I feel sick.

Its all a feeling, Nana said. Love it. Remember it. It will be gawn,before you know it, babies.

Grandpop shook his head and navigated his girls homeward, to safety. He reached over and adjusted his love’s silk scarf; its ends furled and snapped back in the slipstream like fading yellow eels. Olive batted them away fiercely, while Prudence gathered them up, closing her eyes tight and holding their soft underbellies against her face.

 Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of Jill Klein’s poem “Eating Seedless Watermelon.”]

Lately (2012 or forthcoming), you can read Dani Sandal’s work in the Raleigh Review, Adirondack Review, New Orleans Review, Puerto del Sol, Monkeybicycle, Camroc Press, Mad Hatter’s Review, PANK, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Deep South Magazine, and Stirring: Sundress Publications. She is also included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 shorts for 2013. Dani holds an MFA from George Mason University, and has the continuous pleasure of raising the coolest kid ever, Holden.

Image by dave_7