Gail Louise Siegel
Bret And Billie

1. Beasts

During Bret's fourth summer working the ice cream tubs at the re-named Heartland Creamery, a pretty girl strode in reeking of horses. Her long sleeves and polished black boots defied the 90 degree heat.
        She was indignant at the counter, “Didn't this use to be a 31 Flavors?”
        Her eyes flashed green as a traffic signal, so he grinned at her impudence. He shouted above the humming milkshake machine, “Don't worry, we still have dozens.”
        She sat in the back booth a half hour, licking at a triple cone of pistachio, French silk and lemon meringue, and watching him scoop. Bret caught her go-light stare between sticky families ordering bubble gum or chocolate chip, and dates sharing banana splits. At closing time she sucked the final drips from the bottom of the cone, and they spilled out together in the thickening heat.
        On the fourth night that she, Billie, ordered a triple scoop, he visited her apartment above the Chinese laundry. A floral skirt hung on the wall like a painting or a punchline. “It's my only one,” she said. “You don't wear skirts to break stallions.”
        Billie's body was a battle-field with commemorative markers: a steel-tipped finger from one failed jump, a jutting collar bone from another. This, too: scars criss-crossing her arms from long, bleak nights — trying to bleed out her rage with a razor.
        Bret caressed the crooked bone and asked, “Taming beasts?” She nodded, her eyes half-shut, her breath in soft, quick bursts. He kissed the crook of her arm and she groaned at the beast within.

2. Beach Detour

It was a hot June. Bret took the long way home from Billie's horse show, driving down old country highways through farmland, then suburbs, to Chicago's lakefront. Midway, they stopped at a farm stand, stuffing brown bags with fresh corn and tomatoes, Chinese cabbages and plums. Each vegetable — red, yellow and purple —was taut and succulent, without a worm or a dent.
        Even with the a/c blasting, the car was warm. Bret fell quiet, concocting recipes for cabbages and plums, while Billie dozed. Bret slipped his long toes out of his flip flops, and the soles of his feet felt tacky against the clutch and gas pedal.
        When they neared the lake, he powered down the windows, starting Billie awake. “I can smell the water.” She smiled a sleepy smile.
        He took the Lighthouse beach turnoff, nudged into the last spot in a sun-baked row of cars. “Want to cool off?”
        They picked their way past orange plastic buckets and inflatable rafts to a clearing at the edge of the water. He studied her as she peeled off her boots and jeans, stripping down to candy-striped panties — close enough to swimwear. She folded each item and placed it in a pile before letting Bret drag her, splashing, into the waves.
        They surveyed the beach from a sandbar, the people scattered like colorful toys. “Do you feel like God?” she asked. “I baptize thee,” he said, pushing her into the lake. She came up screaming, hair drenched and clinging to her cheeks, like a mermaid wearing seaweed. She spit a stream of water between her teeth, caught him in the nose and laughed. “Your eternal reward,” she said.
        Without towels, they sat on the sand and let the sun and wind cook them dry before shaking out their pants. The horsey smells wafted away. When they gathered up their clothes, they left nothing but wet indentations on the beach.
        By then, the parking lot was empty. The car smelled suspicious. “The vegetables died,” Bret said. “That was stupid, stupid, stupid.” He whacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. “We killed them. They're like dogs. You can't lock them in a hot car.”
        “I hope they went to heaven.” Billie opened the bag of plums, dark skins split open, revealing moist, pink flesh; fruit juice soaking her hands.