Excerpt

Daredevils

Shawn Vestal

April 20, 2016 
The following is from Shawn Vestal’s novel, Daredevils. Shawn Vestal made his literary debut with Godforsaken Idaho, a story collection that won the 2014 PEN Robert W. Bingham Prize and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. A graduate of the Eastern Washington University MFA program, his stories have appeared in Tin House, Ecotone, McSweeney’s, The Southern Review and other journals. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.

Loretta slides open her bedroom window and waits, listening to the house. She pops out the screen and slowly pulls it inside. The summer night is blue and black, filled with plump, spiny stars and the floral waft of alfalfa and irrigated fields. She swings one leg out, then the other, and sits on the sill. A tiny, muffled creak sounds, and she can’t tell if it comes from the house or the night or inside her jangled mind. She spends every day now thinking about the night, and this moment is always the same—the exhilarating passage from here to there. To the brief, momentary future. To Bradshaw.

She drops to the ground and sets off across the lawn, hunched as if trying to stay below the searching beam of a powerful light. She is wearing her jeans, the one pair her father lets her keep for chores, and her clogs. Her Gentile clothes. The mountains, red by day, stand black and craggy against the rich ink of night. Their home is on the edge out here, on the edge of the Short Creek community just as she and her family are on the edge of it—half outsiders, not yet inside the prophet’s full embrace—but that makes it easier to sneak away without being spotted by the prophet’s men. The God Squad, Bradshaw calls them. If she sees car lights, she crouches in the ditch grass until they pass, but tonight she sees no car. She walks the barrow pit for a quarter mile, grass cool on her bare ankles, to where the dirt lane runs into county road and she sees Bradshaw’s Nova on the wide roadside, pale luster along the fender, signal lights glowing like the hot eyes of a new beast coiled against the earth.

As she comes to the car, the passenger door opens, as if on its own, and the interior light blares, and there he is, Bradshaw, smile cocked on his hard, happy face. She feels it again, the sense that she doesn’t know if she loves him, or even if she likes him, because sometimes she yearns for a glimpse of him and sometimes she feels desperate to get away from him—Bradshaw, sitting there with his wrist draped on the steering wheel like a king—but what is certain is that she cannot resist his gravity. She falls toward him at a speed beyond her control.

There she is,” he says as she slides in. “Holy hell, Lori, you are a vision.”

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He leans over and presses his chapped lips against her mouth. He tastes of beer, yeasty and sour. He pulls away and looks at her searchingly, ghostly eyes somehow alight, head tilted, one curly sideburn grazed by the green dashboard glow.

“Did you miss me, sweet Lori?”

“I missed you.”

“Did you think about me a whole bunch?”

“I thought about you all the time.”

She loves how much he seems to love her. He kisses her again, cupping the back of her head with a hand. She puts her hands on his back, feels the knots of muscle there. Sometimes she thinks he is trying to press his face through hers. To consume her. She wants this, always—this sin—but when it arrives she does not enjoy it, because he loses himself. He spreads a palm on her rib cage, thumb an inch from her breast. Then closer.

They part. He breathes as if he’s been sprinting.

“Did you think any more about it?” he says.

He wants her to leave with him. To take off for good and put The Crick in the rearview mirror. To be together, he says. Together together.

“I did,” she says. “I want to. But I don’t think yet. I don’t think now.”

“Aww, Lori,” he says. “Don’t say that. Don’t you say that to me.”

She wants to go. She wants to fly into her future, but she feelsshe must be very careful, must be precise and exact, or she will miss it. She is sure that her future is a specific place, a destination she will either reach or miss, and it awaits her out there somewhere away from all that is here. Away from the long cotton dresses. Away from the tedious days in church school, studying the same scriptures they study all day on Sundays. Away from her father’s stern but halfhearted righteousness and her mother’s constant acquiescence. And, mostly, away from the looming reality that no one ever says a word about: she is fifteen, she is eligible, she is a means now for her father to pursue his own righteousness. He cannot take another wife himself, but he can still serve the Principle—the principle of plural marriage. Celestial marriage. They have been welcoming certain brothers for dinners in their home. The men are always bright with questions for Loretta.

* * * *

Bradshaw wrestles her to the seat for a while, and then they drive and talk. He loves to be listened to. He loves to tell her about the way he has handled something, the way he has put someone in their place. He is talking about his new boss, the turf farmer outside St. George.

“So he keeps handing me the eleven-sixteenths, and I keep asking for the thirteen-sixteenths, and then he does it again,” he says, slapping a hand on the dash. “I say, bud, you got your glasses on?”

His laugh is like a chugging motor. Why does he think she wants to hear this? The strange thing is, she does. She loves listening to him talk, to his strange locutions, his crudeness. So hungry I could eat the ass out of a cow, he’ll say. Shit oh dear. That smarmy bastard. He never utters a righteous word. It wasn’t all that long ago that Loretta thought he was her savior, the one who’d rescue her. She has been heading out into the night since she was thirteen, she and her friend Tonaya, meeting up with the Hurricane boys, the St. George boys, the boys the prophet had exiled. They were the crowd Loretta and Tonaya chased around whenever they could, sneaking out at night, joyriding on dirt roads, drinking beer, building bonfires in the desert, shoplifting at the grocery store, riding in the backseat as the boys bashed mailboxes or keyed cars, coming home before dawn, climbing back in that bedroom window, back into the world where no one watched television, where they prayed constantly, or sat over scripture, or sang hymns, or walked to the neighbors to weed a garden. Out there, into the worldly world, and then back home, to reverence and boredom.

The night she met Bradshaw, she and Tonaya were wedged in the backseat of an old Rambler station wagon owned by one of the boys, parked outside the 7-Eleven in Hurricane looking for someone to buy them something—a six-pack, a bottle of sweet wine. That night, it was Bradshaw. Almost immediately, when he came around the side of the store and handed the bag into the car, he looked into the back and found Loretta’s eyes. He was older than the boys she was hanging around with, but younger than the men in Short Creek, the men whose eyes she felt on Sundays at church, the men who blushed if she returned their gaze. Bradshaw didn’t blush, ever. Everything about him announced that he did not harbor a doubt—his quick, bowlegged walk, eyes of washed-out blue and angular face, and the way he was always doing something handsome and prominent with his jaw, cocking it this way or that. Soon she was meeting him alone, and every time she climbed into his car he looked thrilled and he said, “There she is,” like he was announcing something the world had long awaited.

Now, tonight, Bradshaw turns onto a dirt road and guns it, fishtailing the Nova into the desert. They drive up into a bump of low hills where he will find a reason to stop again. It’s past midnight, almost one, Loretta guesses, and she remembers that tomorrow is Fast Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, and she has forgotten to stash something to eat.

“There’s probably nothing open now, is there?” she asks.

“Open for what?”

“Some food. Anything. Tomorrow’s Fast Sunday.”

“Tomorrow’s what Sunday?”

Does Bradshaw not know what Fast Sunday is? The day of fasting? He’s lived down here all his life.

“Fast Sunday. No eating. I get headaches if I don’t sneak something.” Bradshaw brays laughter. “A day of no eating. You Mormons. I swear.”

* * * *

You Mormons. Loretta doesn’t think of herself—of her family, of Short Creek—as Mormon, exactly, although everyone here thinks of themselves as the only true Mormons. In her mind, Mormons were what they were before they came here seven years ago. Mormons were what they were when they lived in Cedar City, went to the church on Main Street, the tan-brick wardhouse on a street with ordinary homes and a grocery store and a gas station. Mormons, she thinks, live in the real world, or at least closer to it. They had a television back then, and a radio in the kitchen. Her mother listened to country music. They dressed like real people, like worldly people—though, she knows, they were farmier and more country than Salt Lake City Mormons, the rich, blond Mormons, the ones you can barely tell are even Mormons at all. Mormons, she thinks, marry one person at a time.

They came here when she turned eight—the age for her baptism. Her father had grown up in Short Creek, on the desert border between Utah and Arizona, among the polygamists and fundamentalists, but he had left as a teenager, a rebellious boy encouraged by the prophet to leave. They had lived in Cedar and Loretta’s parents raised eight children, and he worked fixing cars at the town’s auto dealership. Loretta came late and unexpected, as her father had begun turning back toward the faith he had departed and hardening against the soft ways of the mainstream church. When it came time to baptize Loretta, he found he could not do so. They moved back to The Crick—where his brothers lived, where his parents had died. You cannot exactly join this church, Loretta knows; you cannot simply show up and convert to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but because of his family and his history and his willingness to submit, her father was allowed to return, half-caste. Still, all these years later, they are not yet fully in the United Order—the inner circle of the most righteous, those living in the Principle of plural marriage—and yet are allowed to hope, to strive, probationary.

She remembers the spring night her father told them they were returning. They sat around the small kitchen table, the smell of cut grass pungent through the screen door. A Pyrex dish of hamburger casserole, a meaty stew run through with ribbons of noodle and brownish clumps of tomato, sat before them. Her mother wore an ankle-length dress, nothing like she would usually wear. An exhausted pall shadowed her face, and she did not say one word. Loretta’s father, stout and slow, spoke in the deliberate voice that made him seem dumb; his hands were flat on the table beside his plate, grooved in engine black. He answered all of her questions in a tone that made it clear the decision had been made.

“It is for your eternal soul, Loretta, that we do this,” he said. “Even if you can’t see that.”

Loretta’s mother sat twisting her hands, galaxies of red dots spreading across her face and neck. They were both so old, Loretta knew even then—like grandparents. Her father was always wearily heaving himself up and around, always groaning toward the next task, and her mother moved with slow, weary resignation. And now there she was, dressed like a sister wife, dressed the way you would see the Short Creek women dressed when they came to town. Loretta wanted her mother to say something then, to say anything at all.

Loretta has never felt right here. She hates to braid her hair. She hates to sit quietly while the boys run and shout. She does not want to live in one of these strange, huge families, the men orbited by constellations of wives and children. She imagines her future as something like the ads in magazines she has glimpsed in stores, in the hair salon in St. George, those times her mother has let her go. Modern clothing and fast cars and makeup and shining tall buildings that glow at night and cigarettes and cocktails and every forbidden thing. She loved the lipstick ad with the beautiful girl in black jeans lying on the hood of a pink Mustang and smirking into the camera. The name of the lipstick like a password: Tussy.

* * * *

Bradshaw’s hand is inside her blouse, crawling over her back. Her mouth is sore, her neck is tired. He puts his hand on the inside of her thigh and squeezes. He takes the skin of her neck in his teeth and bites gently, but not gently enough. “Some night I won’t be able to stop myself,” he says, breath like a furnace. “I can’t be responsible.”

Sometimes he holds her wrists so hard he leaves small bruises. He says he can’t help it, and she believes him because he acts like he can’t help it. She wants to do it, too, although she’s also scared it will create something unstoppable in Bradshaw, and she resents the way he pressures her. Still, she spends her days thinking about coming out into the night with Bradshaw and so she wonders if he is not a savior after all but a demon, since she will keep coming to him even as she wants it less and less.

Finally, they stop. He begins to ask her again about leaving.

“Not yet, baby,” she says. “Not now.” She calls him baby because she wants to calm him, like a baby, and because she knows that this is how people talk to each other out in the world where her future lies.

“Well, holy shit, Lori, what are we waiting for?”

“Money,” she says. “A plan or something.”

“I got your plan right here,” he says, taking her hand and placing it on the stiffening in his jeans.

She yanks it back and says, “I’m serious.”

If they leave now, all she’ll have is him.

* * * *

Pink light is etching the hilltops when she returns. It is the coolest time of the day, the very early morning, and she yearns for sleep, wondering how she will steal slumber today. She crosses the lumpy, wormholed backyard and comes to her window. The house, the small Boise Cascade rancher in light blue and navy blue, is silent. Stepping between her mother’s paper flower bushes, she uses a finger to open the slider, hoists herself into the bedroom, and takes up the screen and replaces it. When she turns at last she leaps and gasps, startled by the sight of her father sitting on her bed.

“I had not guessed you to be such a rebellious harlot,” he whispers.

Loretta is frozen, her mind a storm.

“Can you say nothing? Can you not invent some lie?”

She is somehow not terrified, though she can’t think what to say or do. Her father stands. He comes toward her slowly, his sore-hipped walk, rage purpling his face. Her mother watches from the doorway. Loretta could outrun them, overpower them, probably, but she does not. He seizes her ponytail and slaps her on the side of the head. A slow-motion slap. It hurts less than she expects. He is large bellied and top-heavy, ready to tip, and it is this that she seizes on as he swings his arm slowly again and again, each strike hurting less than she expects, each blow breaking through whatever is happening now and making a path forward, she thinks, toward her future. He is speaking to her, growling, grunting, but she doesn’t hear him, and soon she can’t feel his blows. The flesh on the side of her face fills and puffs, rising like dough. He is old, he is old, and she is on her way to somewhere else.

The day follows, still and silent. It is unspoken that she will remain in her room. Awaiting what, she does not know. Her father does not go to his brother’s ranch, to care for the livestock they raise for the United Order. They do not go to church. Her father comes to put a lock on her bedroom door, a toolbox in his left hand and the lock in the other. He doesn’t look at her, canting his head away as if from light of punishing brightness. He mutters and fumbles. Her mother comes in with toast and eggs on a tray, red eyed and pale in her housecoat. Loretta wonders if they have forgotten it is Fast Sunday.

She should have gone with Bradshaw. Should she have gone with Bradshaw? Which unknown path should she choose, and how should she choose it? All she knows is that while she waited for an answer, the paths closed down. Bradshaw won’t even know why she will stop showing up.

Her father finishes and leaves. Then she hears him outside her bedroom window, doing something to the slider. Hours pass. Loretta, still clothed in her jeans and work blouse, lies on the bed. Everything has a thickened feel, as if all of life will be reduced now to this: a room, some food, and time. She falls asleep hard, and when she awakens to the clicking of the lock on her door, she is groggy and disoriented. She sits up to see her mother entering.

As she sits on the bed, Loretta notes that she is still in her housecoat, the pilled flannel plaid. Loretta doesn’t speak. She has not said one word to them since climbing back in that window. She wonders if she will ever say another word to them. Her mother’s face looks older than Loretta has ever seen it, collapsing like fruit that’s turned. She speaks tentatively, tearfully.

“Your father has made a decision,” she says.

The words come at Loretta as if through water.

“What you’ve done—” Her mother stops. “He feels—”

She smooths her trembling hands outward along her legs, as though brushing crumbs to the floor.

“We feel that you are in peril. That your soul is in peril.”

Neither she nor her mother has anything to do with this. Neither has any part in it but to obey. Her father has agreed to place her with Brother Harder, with Dean Harder, the man who runs Zion’s Harvest, the food supply, a righteous man, a faithful member of the Order, who is ready to add to his heavenly family.

“Place me?” Loretta asks.

“You know,” her mother says, so quietly that Loretta can barely hear her over the sound of a sprinkler fanning the lawn outside. “You’ve known.”

 

 

From DAREDEVILS by Shawn Vestal. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Shawn Vestal, 2016.




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