Lyle’s mother had to drive her to work, a universe of suck, because her dad’s car had been stolen from the driveway and he’d had to borrow Lyle’s Renault, which despite having the words “Le Car” stenciled on the door in bubble letters was infinitely less embarrassing than riding with her mom. They drove through the hills of Herradura Estates, slow as a hearse. An anemic-looking cyclist overtook them on John’s Canyon Road. Lyle slid down in her seat. There were several things that embarrassed her about her mother’s Volvo: 1.) It had her mother in it; 2.) There was a Post-it note on the steering wheel that said “recycle bottles”; 3.) The stereo was typically playing something called “Come, Ye Makers of Song”; 4.) They were often mistaken for people with special needs, because her mom insisted on signaling before pulling into a parking space. Worst of all were the slogans plastered all over the back bumper: “No Apartheid,” “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” “Good Planets Are Hard To Find,” and the more bluntly confessional “I Brake For Spotted Owls.” (Dustin wanted to replace it with “I Don’t Need To Brake, Because I’m Barely Moving.”) Last week her mom had added “Commit Random Acts Of Kindness,” which to Lyle perfectly summed up her psychotic brand of cheerfulness.
There was someone jogging on the wood-chipped trail that ran along the road. Jennifer Boone, a senior at Palos Verdes High who lived down the street. Lyle slid even lower in her seat. Her mother honked as they passed, which caused Jennifer to startle like a deer and veer dangerously toward the bushes.
“I can’t believe Dad’s car got stolen,” Lyle said sullenly, hoping her mom was unrecognizable in tennis clothes. She was wearing a pink Izod, a skirt fringed with Lilliputian pom-poms, and a see-through visor that made her look like a bank teller from “Bonanza.” “Isn’t that why we live in a gated community? To prevent theft?”
“This isn’t a gated community, honey. It’s an equestrian village.”
“There are gates, right? They go up and down?”
“That’s for the horses,” her mother said. “Otherwise people would drive through all day and scare them.”
Lyle squinted at her mom, wondering if she really believed they lived on a dude ranch in the suburban hills of L.A. An intriguing theory, since it might explain the visor. Lyle would not have been surprised if the horseback riders who occasionally ambled by their house were stooges brought in by Herradura Estates. She couldn’t help being impressed by the marketing genius involved — just paint some horse crossings on the street, call yourself an “equestrian village,” and rich people came running.
“This is all Dad’s fault for moving us out here,” she said. “The car getting stolen.”
“In Nashotah, you always complained about how boring it was. I seem to remember you saying you couldn’t wait to leave.”
“Anyway, the guards don’t do jack. They’re rent-a-cops. All you have to do is give the name of a resident.”
Her mom sighed, checking the rearview mirror. “Do you really have to be so negative? As long as people believe it, what does it matter?”
It mattered deeply. Lyle’s mother, of course, was one of the deceived. She read books with “healing” or “mindfulness” in the title. She went on check-writing sprees to save various birds of prey. Once she’d bought a newborn calf for a poor farmer in Mali and was shocked to receive a picture in the mail one day, a wordless thank-you, showing the meat drying in lurid strips from the farmer’s roof. She’d rushed to the bathroom in tears. He’s starving to death! Lyle wanted to shout. Of course he’s going to eat it! Most infuriating of all was her mother’s optimism: whenever Lyle said she disliked someone, her mom looked at her with her eyebrows pinched into a V, head cocked to one side as if she were draining an ear. “You don’t really hate that person,” she’d say. “You just have different values.”
But Lyle did hate people. Hating people was one of her biggest hobbies. Just last night, in fact, she’d started a list of things she despised:
1. People who call old women “cute”
2. People who talk about dead relatives as if they’re happier now
3. Anyone who refers to herself as a “chocoholic”
4. DBCs (Dumbshits in Baseball Caps)
5. The adjective “hot” for anything except weather
6. People who use the term “110%”
7. Song titles with numbers in place of words
8. People who own Smiths records and don’t know the lead singer is gay
11. Bob Marley
12. Anyone who uses the word “ganja”
13. Dogs small enough that they shiver when they take a dump
14. People who look at you funny when you use the word “ingratiate”
15. People who order in Spanish at Mexican restaurants (Mom)
16. People who say “Decisions, decisions” when looking at a menu
17. Bathroom graffiti that rhymes (“Wine me, dine me, 69 me”)
18. The Beach Boys
19. People who check their car for scratches before getting in
20. People who refer to little boys as “boss” or “chief”
21. Anyone who says the sentence: “And WHO do we have here?”
22. Volleyball (x2)
This last one she’d written in big letters and retraced again and again until the letters engraved several pages of her journal, fading gradually like a wound. She detested it, this land of Jeeps and joggers. The Golden State. What kind of stupid nickname was that? Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to describe the place itself so much as a fascist condition. If you weren’t golden, you had no right to exist. Lyle used to go to the beach when they first moved here, hoping she might get a tan like the Audras and Stephanies in her class, her skin turning brown and luscious. She lay in a deserted corner of the beach, sweating and miserable, terrified someone from school would see her and notice how pale she was. A circus freak: the Whitest Girl in California. She was determined to stay until she looked like the other girls, the ones with butterflies of sand stuck to their asses, running into the waves and twirling around with a squeal. Instead she burned herself so miserably she couldn’t sleep. Her skin blistered and peeled off like Saran Wrap, leaving her whiter than before. After a month of suffering, she realized it was hopeless and gave up completely.
She’d been bored in Wisconsin, bored living on the same puny lake her whole life, but at least she hadn’t felt like a freak of nature. She hadn’t cried herself to sleep because some DBC had called her Vampira at school.
On their way out of Herradura Estates, Lyle’s mother pulled up to the guardhouse and its red-striped gate, which lifted magically as they approached. She brought the car to a stop in order to say hello to Hector, the new gatekeeper. Lyle waited with mounting dread as her mother rolled down the window. Please don’t speak Spanish, she thought. Please don’t please don’t please don’t please don’t please don’t.
“Hola,” her mother said in a cheerful voice. “Cómo estas?”
“Bien, bien,” Hector said, smiling through his mustache. He looked vaguely amused, as though doing his best to conceal the fact that he spoke perfect English. “Y usted?”
“Nosotros estamos yendo a la shopping mall.” Her mother actually said “shopping mall” in a Spanish accent.
Hector cupped his ear. “A donde?”
“The mall,” Lyle’s mother said. “The Perfect Scoop. For my daughter’s job. Ella vende helado.”
Hector ducked down and smiled at Lyle in the passenger seat, as though she were six years old. She felt like flashing him her tits. “Que bueno.”
“Le gustan los libros. Siempre. How do you say it? A worm.”
Lyle’s mother stuck her finger out the window and began to wiggle it around. Hector squinted at it from the guardhouse.
“She still goes to work?” he said finally, looking concerned.
“Claro que si!” her mother said, smiling.
She said good-bye and Hector relaxed back into his chair, believing no doubt that Lyle had worms. Lyle wanted to murder her mother. She would strangle her slowly and then dump her out of the car and drive to New York, where she’d never have to wear shorts and where it was okay — sophisticated even — not to be tan. She’d never actually been to New York, but she was sure that paleness was a sign of cachet. Certainly there was no volleyball. If you tried to play volleyball in New York, people would throw things at you from the street. They would stone you with cigarettes and umbrellas.
At the mall, Lyle’s mother dropped her off at The Perfect Scoop Ice Cream Parlor and then drove off to commit more random acts of Spanish. Lyle was surprised to find Shannon Jarrell already inside the store, sitting with her legs crossed by the tower of plastic tables and reading a People magazine. Shannon’s being there on time was a miracle of Newtonian physics, but she lifted her eyes casually, as if it were an everyday occurrence. “Hey.”
“How did you get in?” Lyle asked.
Shannon looked back at her magazine. “Jared. He gave me the keys.”
Jared was the manager, who had a crush on Shannon and was always staring at her ass. Today she was wearing cutoff jeans to show off her tan, a direct violation of the company dress code. Her legs were long and slender and glowed like hot dogs. She’d rolled the sleeves of her Perfect Scoop T-shirt over her shoulders, which had the same Oscar Mayer tan. A flip-flop dangled insolently from one foot.
“Did you cash in the register?” Lyle asked.
“No. I was waiting for you.”
She shrugged. “You always do it.”
Lyle swore under her breath and went into the back to get the cash drawer. She had to do everything. If the tubs were empty, Shannon would just tell the customers they were out of chocolate or vanilla chip or pralines-and-cream rather than get a new tub from the freezer. Not that Lyle gave two shits about the people who came in — but she couldn’t afford to slack off like Shannon, because nothing would get done. And whose well-concealed ass would Jared fire?
She spun through the combination on the safe and retrieved the drawer of money. The back room was small and cozy, a home away from home, stocked for some reason with a shelf of cheap liqueurs. On slow afternoons, when she was working by herself, Lyle would sit back here with her feet up and sip Kahlúa from a mug, lost in whatever novel she was reading, so wrapped up in the vicissitudes of beauty and despair that she wouldn’t notice the bee-bong of the door as a customer walked in. Hello? the customer would yell into the void. Are you alive back there? Not exactly, Lyle would yell back. Sometimes, if it was a good enough book, she’d put it down in a daze and wobble out to the front, greeted by a world — faces, movement, squares of sunlight on the floor — that seemed less real than the one she’d been reading about. It was as if God had decided to phone it in.
Locking the safe again, Lyle glanced at the corner of the room and noticed a sleeping bag rolled into a strudel, propped beside a pillow. A flash of proprietary anger went through her. She carried the cash drawer out to the register.
“Christ. You didn’t sleep here.”
Shannon smirked. “Me and Charlie.”
Shannon nodded, pleased with herself.
“We were playing Yahtzee.” She laughed. “What do you think? His parents are cool, but not that cool.”
So that’s why she’d enticed Jared into giving her the key. Lyle started to refill the syrup dispensers, watching from the corner of her eye as Shannon unstacked the tables and dragged them to their places. How did she make screwing on the floor of an ice cream shop seem glamorous? If Lyle had done the same thing, it would have swept PV High that she was a miserable slut. It wasn’t fair or just or randomly kind. Lyle watched the boys who came in for ice cream, how their faces changed when they saw Shannon: a wide-eyed slackening, as though they’d been conked in the head. It made Lyle want to tip them over like a row of bikes.
“You should give Jared the keys back,” she said now, snipping open a bag of caramel topping.
“Otherwise we’ll have to start charging by the hour.”
A flash of outrage crossed Shannon’s face before dissolving into a smile. As an object of male worship she could afford not to be angry, which drove Lyle crazy. Shannon picked the People off the windowsill and started to flip through it nonchalantly.
“You’re a virgin, aren’t you?”
“None of your business.”
She narrowed her eyes, smiling. “You are, aren’t you? I knew it.”
Lyle ignored her, carrying the pillow-sized bag of caramel back to the fridge. For the rest of the morning, she tended to customers while Shannon inspected her nails or browsed through magazines or whispered to friends on the phone as if she were selling nuclear secrets. (I work with a virgin! Lyle imagined her saying.) Once two people came in at the same time and Shannon made no move to get off the phone, letting the second customer wait until Lyle was available. It was the sort of thing Lyle would have had fun complaining about to Bethany, her best friend, mocking Shannon’s urgent whispering. Besides herself, Bethany was the only Californian she knew who didn’t like the beach. It was Bethany’s idea to make T-shirts with fake slogans on them, thinking up the brilliantly inspired “Please Buy This Sentence.” Now that she’d moved to France for eight months, because of her dad’s business, Lyle had no one to complain to but herself. She’d failed to anticipate the depth of her loneliness. Her old friends in Wisconsin had betrayed her after she left, falling in love with football players or pimple-faced tenth graders; they’d stopped writing very much, and then altogether. Now the same thing was happening with Bethany. Only a month and a half had passed, but already her letters had grown shorter: last week she’d sent a single paragraph and a picture of her “sort-of petit ami,” a boy with large ears and Dickensian teeth.
Eventually, when she’d exhausted all sources of leisure, Shannon went out to get something from her car. Lyle knew she’d be gone for thirty minutes but didn’t care. It was a relief. She sneaked into the back room and picked up where she’d left off in “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” She felt a certain affinity for Tess. Actually, she couldn’t help being a little attracted to Alec d’Urberville’s “black mustache with curled points.” Just as Tess was baptizing her dying son by candlelight, the door chimed; Lyle slipped the book back in the drawer, pained that she was too embarrassed to read it in front of Shannon.
It was the gatekeeper. Hector. He looked startling outside of his little guardhouse: a real person, rigid and wiry, his uniform ironed to a crisp. He looked like the inside of a closet. She smiled at him uncertainly, and he lifted his finger and wiggled it like a worm. She laughed.
“I was wondering if I could get some ice cream.”
“Sorry. We only sell corn dogs.”
He seemed flustered. “I mean, I’d like to get an ice cream cone.”
“Never mind. A joke.” She frowned. “What flavor do you want?”
He looked at her closely, studying her face instead of the tubs of ice cream displayed in front of him. His mustache, impossible to describe, reminded her why she only liked them in books. The word that popped into her head was “illegitimate.” If mustaches had parents, this was definitely an orphan. “I don’t know. What’s your favorite?”
Lyle shrugged. “Pistachio?”
“I’ve never tried it.”
“Here. Have a taster.”
She grabbed a spoon and handed him a fluorescent green smudge of ice cream. His face fell. He eyed the smudge suspiciously and then sucked it from the little spoon, wincing for a second before he could recover.
“I’ll have that,” he said. “A sugar cone.”
Lyle bent over the tub with her scoop, curling the ice cream from the sides and then packing it into a green snowball. By the end of the day, her arm would ache so badly she’d have trouble sleeping. She glanced up and was surprised to discover Hector looking at her breasts. She stood up straight, pressing the snowball into a cone. For the first time, it occurred to her that he hadn’t just wandered into the store by accident.
He didn’t leave, which surprised her as well. He sat at one of the plastic tables in the corner, eating his cone. He hunched on his elbows, closing his eyes to swallow. It was like watching someone eat his own shoe. Lyle took a weird delight in watching him suffer. Heroically, he licked the scoop down to an eroded-looking dune and then crunched through the cone, finishing the last bite without looking up. Lyle walked over.
“You’ve got green in your mustache,” she said, offering him a napkin.
Hector blushed. He was younger than she’d thought: nineteen or twenty, though it was hard to tell with the hair on his lip. While he wiped his face, dabbing the ice cream from his mustache, Lyle stood patiently in the sunlight from the window. It was a feeling like being onstage. She knew that if she waited long enough, something would happen. The air was filled with glittering specks, like snow. Gravely, he asked if he could have her phone number.
“Yours,” Lyle said, surprising herself.
She wrote his number on her hand and then went to hide in the back. Her heart was pounding — not from nerves but from a cold rush of power. He was still there; the door hadn’t chimed. Lyle retraced the number in darker pen. She wanted Shannon to see it, but also wanted Hector to take off before she saw who it belonged to.
From “Model Home: A Novel” by Eric Puchner. Copyright 2010 by Eric Puchner. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.