Warm California night at the end of July. I’m not sure what’s up, what’s troubling my father. He paces. Cigarette stuck to his lip. All we've consumed for days—corn chips, bean dip, peanuts, Slim Jims. He doesn’t want to spend money on anything nutritious. He stops pacing, twists my ear, tickles the hollow of my neck. His eyes, a bleached vacancy.
“Come on, come on. I know somewhere we can go. The movies. Yea, we’ll see Cabaret. Ah, don’t fathers love their daughters in a special kind of way? Yea, I don’t betray my girl, not like your mother says. We might be divorced, but don’t have a blind spot.”
Excitement looms large through the teasing. He keeps looking around as if afraid. His right-hand shoots up, fumbles over the top of the refrigerator. Loose change and keys fall with a hard plunk on the linoleum. He gropes as everything slides under the table. He bumps his head, curses.
My father steers with his elbows west to the outskirts of town. The thief in the night, the thief in the night slipping away unnoticed.
We plunge into a little valley, down into the sleeve of early evening. Moths stain the street lights. Weasel eyes glow, looking for roadkill. Ringed raccoons, stupid possums. Rank stench of urine, dumped garbage, old pools of diesel. Heavy combines move across dry fields bringing in wheat. Cars don’t race and roar here, don’t hunt us down like bloodhounds.
The Passion Pit. My father won’t drive-in. Doesn’t want to pay the price of admission, instead grinds the gearshift, parks in a turnout near a pasture of corn and a tall water tower. He turns out the lights, pops a cigar in his mouth, pulls out the little tray, taps in the ash.
The wide screen’s lit up in the semi-darkness. Oaks, pines raked by brambles flank the lane along with dumped old mattresses, gutted sofas, and chairs. A creek winds off in the distance. Several pastures over where the bushes recede, they had found Doreen. Little black pea coat splayed over her half-buried body. Her body strewn like a discarded doll under a new cloak of stars. At dusk they had found her, the deputy sheriff and his small army of green.
Sky’s a smooth bruise. I squint at the large screen. Windows roll down. G.I. spits, chews his lip. Others park nearby. Men and boys in the bed of a truck. Eyes lit like Jack-o-lanterns. A figure of a girl in a Corvette leans over between the wheel and a boy’s chest. He laughs, looks ahead. Ever so often I see the girl’s head, how she raises it up and down rhythmically and glances outside. The boy puts his hand on her head to push it down. He leans back, then straightens himself, and walks out of the car. He shuts the door, zips up his pants, adjusts his jacket.
Footfalls, low talking, whispers. Breathing and coughing. Taut smell of hay, tobacco, wine. Distilled laughter ripples. Orion steadies his pack in the sky. My father clears his throat. Lopsided smile. A dog yowls. Poor-wills call two notes. Chirp of crickets. Burnt summer hills behind the screen once belonged to my grandparents. Almost were my black sheep jailbird father’s, almost were mine. A land of apples, dates, figs; of strawberries, pears, and plums. Spring field of lupines, scrub grass, clover. Little staircase of stream. Harvest air odor in the surfeit of silence. Here I would roll down to the breach in the trail where I could see the open pasture. Whole herd of wild-eyed shaggy ponies gathered hock-deep in mud. Necks, rumps, and withers begrimed with patches of dung near the slab of a barn where the search party had found Doreen. Men of authority with little girls of their own. Here it had happened. What most can’t imagine. Weeks she was missing. Winter, not spring. Doreen was six. Flesh gray-blue as winter mushrooms. Hair knotted. Little butterfly earrings pinned in her ears. One white sock pulled up to her knee. School lunch pail beside her, plaid thermos empty of milk, half-eaten sandwich, half-eaten apple. Someone had snatched her, some bogeyman.
Did they think Doreen was a baby calf birthed and left where the morning glories were pushed aside? Where the earth reseeds? Indifferent earth by a creek of cottonwoods and young willows. Did he pull over to the side of the road when he noticed Doreen walking home from school in her blue checkered dress, a flag of black hair flying in the new autumn wind? Did he? No house for thirty yards in any direction. His voice calling out to her, his male voice breaking against the afternoon sky. “Hey little girl! Do you need a ride home?”
The good shepherd lived on that farm and left his flock to look for the lost Doreen as if for a lost sheep even when others had bedded down for the night. He searched the thickets and gullies while his flock dozed in the dawn, his wool sweater heavy with brambles.
Bellow of my father’s breathing fills the car. He tilts his head to indicate he’s thinking of something, so don’t come too close. He might be friendly but so are most snakes. From his shirt pocket, he takes a box of Milk Duds and pours them into my palm. He fishes out a bottle of Bud from the glove compartment, taps the neck against his chest. Drool collects around his mouth, fingers flutter like dirty moths.
There is no Presley, no Eastwood. No one to fight for, no one to rescue, only a young blonde fingering herself. Eyes black with kohl. I look away. Look. I feel like a gawker. The woman has springy hair-like barbed wire. Her bare legs are splayed, arched apart like a heron’s wings. She leans back on a sheeless mattress.
A shirtless man yanks down his jeans, studies her like a vulture over fresh meat. He removes a rag from his back pocket, swirls it like a cowboy riding a bronco. His forefinger traces circles inside her thighs, then stabs her sex, stabs again. I look away, can't help it, count backwards, look down. The sooner I get out of here, the better. But I am under pressure to be a good girl for my father, my incorrigible father who is easy to anger. Why has he taken me here? He is unemployed and taking on debt. He has told me I can't possibly understand. Thousands of dollars, with interest too. It has been terrifying to witness how quickly this happened, a man coming back from war, a shell of who he once was; terrifying to see that nothing I can say or do has the power to bring him back from the edge of his wilderness. The wilderness, that savage wilderness. I can feel its dark perimeter too as if it’s moving in from the periphery of my being. It's like standing in a vast cornfield and watching a storm gathering strength, its furious clouds whipping themselves into even larger ones, their size and speed doubling suddenly in front of your eyes before they release a lashing rain that races across the field toward you. The darkness inside myself I try to push back, using my will to hold it at bay. This requires mental and emotional control. I'm not numb, but I don't want to cry or look at my father. I am doing my duty. We sit in silence. My spine rigid and straight. I look like a cellist or a soldier. Minutes pass. This feels like an endurance test. I am hanging on the edge of my being. Then my father stares at me, his chin slightly tilted.
“I killed the girl,” he says. “I killed Doreen. Our little secret,” he says. “I cracked, I did. But I won’t hurt you. You’re mine. I promise. How could any father hurt his own daughter.”
I shift in my seat, speechless. I am a rabbit in headlights, frozen.
I imagine my father squatting on a cow trail with a pint of whiskey. He grips the forestock of a rifle in both hands. He rests his chin on his wrists and spits, looks up at the evening sky where the moon carves the dusk like a white kite. He starts back down the trail. His stomach is empty. He hasn’t eaten all day. He has carried the young girl on his shoulder for half a mile. She had thrashed her body from side to side, clawed him with her schoolgirl nails. Her small frame slammed against a boulder, again and again until her head veered backward, and she grew limp. Through the wild grass and wet weeds, he had taken her and thrown her in a muddy ditch and dug and dug again as a dog hides a bone. He covered her with soft lumps of earth. Did he feel something? Anything? Maybe what it was, he didn’t quite know. It surprised even him. It tasted of freedom; a numbing of pain, something grim, wicked, a thorn jabbed in his heart causing it to rot.
My father drapes his arm around my shoulder, mutters something intelligible. Stank of sweat. My scalp shivers.
He did it? My father killed Doreen. My own father! She was six when I was six. We were six-year-olds. Once.
He spins a 180, aims the Impala like a gunboat south.
Thick eucalyptus and pines posted with warning signs: NO FISHING, NO HUNTING, NO CAMPING. Signs shot full of bullet holes. Wild doves whistle. Vermin scatter. Flashlights and lanterns. Men hunch like small-time conspirators around a make-shift arena. Some sit on overturned milk crates; others on hay bales. Coiled orange fire hose and several wire pens next to an old tin shed. Dusty brown Pinto up on blocks. Yellow flames painted on the hood.
Night breathing, laughter scuffled from the sickle backs. Red ends of cigarettes spark, seem to move by themselves. Disembodied cough. The air’s hot, odorous. Gust of feathers float like spinnakers from a dandelion. Her name floats in the air. Doreen.
My father rolls down the window, yells to one of the men, “Gallo azure.” The fellow looks over, picks up his lantern and a small rooster. He’s wearing a Giants baseball cap turned sideways. Beat up old sweatshirt with fading white letters, UCLA. He walks with Levis slung low. Face corded as jerky. My father hands him a wad of bills, asks for a swig of his Budweiser. The fellow’s lips curl back and he hacks next to the car. He winks at me and hands my father the liquor. His fingernails are rimmed with blood. His eyes shine like bright copper coins. He hooks his thumbs in his open fly.
My father takes up the bottle, wipes the rim against his sleeve and guzzles.
The fellow says, “Whoa whoa, Cheap Charlie, hold it there. La cerveza es cara.”
My father tut-tuts, tells me to stay in the car and lock all the doors. He leans over, whispers: “Don’t tell me Daniel Boone don’t like his roosters. That’s something for your history, honey pie.”
He leaps out of the car, nearly trips. Grin like a lizard’s quiver. He takes a leak near a digger pine, trudges through dried stalks. Roosters attack each other. Nervous bandits, they corkscrew away.
An older man drags a big bird back to the far edge of the circle. A younger man pulls the slower one in. Jets of blood, geysers of fury. Blood flows like a flower blown open, skin splayed like petals in that brief moment. A frantic crowing mangles the air. Doreen, Doreen! One cock has been jabbed so hard its head is nearly severed. The head dangles there like a falling wristwatch. Blood pools. Some blood stains the man's shoes purple. A metallic smell fills the air. The stunned animal runs in circles. I see myself like that bird. Stunned. Running in circles. Doreen, Doreen. She was the same age as me when he took her. We were six. Where was I? Walking home from school too?
The men laugh, swig more liquor. I labor to breathe and my heart races. Doreen, Doreen! My stomach spins, but I hold my head straight, acting if I'm not afraid, even though I am. I can't show it because I don't want to seem vulnerable to anyone who might do me harm, especially my father. I have to show I am brave, but in truth, I am scared. I have to protect myself, Doreen, I have no one else to protect me. I am waiting for the next terrible thing to happen.
Leonore Wilson has taught English and creative writing at many colleges and universities in the greater Bay Area. She has published in such magazines as Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Upstreet, Prairie Schooner, English Journal, etc. Recently her historical ranch and home were destroyed in the Hennessy Fire of Napa Valley. "The Lost Doreen" is part of her novel CHUTE.