I sat on the strip of lawn between the sidewalk in front of my family’s house and the street, pulling weeds. The solstice-time sun soaked my hair in sweat. I didn’t mind. I was happy tenth grade was behind me, with its asymptotes in Algebra-Trig and Latin’s subjunctive mood.
Hydrangea flowers big as babies’ heads. The dreamy scent of privet blossoms. Drunken-seeming bumblebees, and movement in my peripheral vision: someone was walking in my direction, along the shaded sidewalk across the street. It was Pamela Mannix, who lived in the last house before the commuter train station on that side of Corlies Avenue. Pamela had just finished tenth grade too, though we’d never taken a class together. She wasn’t smart enough for Honors courses. But Pamela was foxy: tawny-skinned, with light eyes and straight brown hair that bent inward under her chin, somehow. Small-boned also, with narrow shoulders. Today Pam wore a halterish top made of something stretchy. It hugged her breasts and bared her cinnamon back. She padded along the opposite sidewalk, shoeless.
“Hey, Pam!” I called, perhaps too loudly. No one was out on the street but us.
“Heyyy,” she said, twinkling. “Yardwork?” The soles of her feet slap-slapped the segmented concrete. The fabric of her Army pants whistled in rhythm. Pamela was practically racewalking past me, though I didn’t take it personally. This was how Pamela Mannix walked. She walked fast. I liked that about her.
I held aloft an unearthed dandelion, dirt raining from its roots.
“Weeds,” I said. I nodded. I tossed the flower clownishly toward the bushel basket a few feet away, and missed. I was experimenting with a new persona: Funny Guy.
“Good luck!” Pam cried, already past but smiling warmly.
I wondered what she meant.
My family left town the last weekend of June and spent the next month on the Rhode Island shore. We’d always stayed on Cape Cod in July. But the Cape had grown more crowded than ever, and it had always been too far from our home in the suburbs of New York City. Rhode Island was closer by a few hours. A couple of other Pelham families vacationed there, was how my parents had heard about the place. I didn’t want to go.
On the landward side of the narrow road that wound along the Weekapaug shore, verandah-belted “cottages” (houses, really, the size of Pelham Heights houses) sat regally on scrubby seaside lawns. The wind whipped flags on whitewashed poles, the flagpoles’ halyards dinking. The sea-breeze smelled of beach roses. As you moved inland, the houses became truly cottage-like. Sometimes they looked modern, with soap-bubble skylights interrupting their roofs, and board-and-batten siding rather than shakes made gray by salt air. And plant life ruled, voraciously: not the hardy trees and beach grass you’d expect, but black-green groundcover and towering shrubs that had to be beaten back from the road by orange-vested work crews riding cherry-pickers. Walking the village’s narrow lanes, you could swoon from the scent of honeysuckle. Eventually the summer places, some of them invisible behind house-high hedges, thinned out, to be replaced by the TV-antenna’d homes of year-round residents, birdbaths on their lawns near tool sheds built from hardware-store kits. A farm, even, on one of the roads that led north, toward Route 1.
I brought a pile of paperbacks on vacation, which I read in the evening when I wasn’t walking the quiet streets with my father or by myself: a paperback edition of The Great Gatsby with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow on its Deco-ish silver cover. A comedy by Shakespeare and The Deep by Peter Benchley. The house had no television. Summer houses didn’t in those days. Not the ones we rented. I listened to the radio while I did sit-ups in my moldy bedroom, and when I lay on the deck in the back of the house in gym-shorts. Working on my tan. Like Gatsby with his boyhood self-betterment schedule, I was improving myself, for Pamela Mannix. I didn’t mind being alone since I had a project. The Pamela Project. Anyway, I was accustomed to aloneness.
The Pamela Project lasted three weeks. On the night of our second-to-last Rhode Island Friday, I sat with my parents in the cottage’s small living room, the three of us on matching cushioned furniture of rattan painted white, the room’s dim double in the sliding glass doors that opened onto the back deck. I was reading The Deep. I had already seen the movie, at the Twin Cinema out on Route 1—had bummed a ride from my dad and walked home afterwards. So I knew how it ended. In an early scene, though, Jacqueline Bisset went scuba-diving in a bikini bottom and a man’s white undershirt, and I wanted to prolong the feeling of watching her underwater, on a screen as high as a house. It was like being drunk—okay, I thought it was like being drunk, had never actually been drunk myself. Jacqueline Bisset’s dark nipples, their areolas big as silver-dollar pancakes, had been plainly visible through the shirt’s wet fabric. A diving mask obscured her face, as did the chunky scuba mouthpiece that forced Jacqueline Bisset’s lips apart. It all happened, dreamlike, in sub-marine slow motion.
Somebody was knocking on the front door, out of sight beyond the kitchen. My father put down the New York Times to see who it was.
A moment later he reappeared.
“We have visitors,” he said to my mother and me.
It was Dana Rogers and Cynthia Handwerk, from Pelham. I knew the Rogers family rented a house in Weekapaug, but I had seen only Dana’s mother in town. As in a fairytale, there were three Rogers girls: One sister’s hair was blond, one sister’s black. Dana, the youngest, was the redhead. There was no Mr. Rogers—was he dead?
A year ahead of me, Dana had just finished eleventh grade. Had we ever said hi to each other—in the hallways of school, in the Band Room? (Dana played First Chair flute in Senior Band. I played trombone.) I didn’t think so. I’m not sure I had ever seen her alone. She traveled, always, with other girls, in a ragged scrum exuding perfume and hilarity. Inevitably someone would snatch a Dr. Scholl’s sandal and toss it to someone else while the sandal owner shrieked “Give that back!” and the gang laughed. Yuck. Dana flirted with practically everyone, I’d observed: football jersey-wearing seniors, trumpeters just out of junior high. She flirted with teachers, I’d seen it! Not that I cared.
High forehead; big, light eyes under penciled-on brows. The nose of a cartoon rabbit, and an upturned upper lip revealing bunny teeth. Dana was pretty. But in every other respect she was the opposite of Pamela Mannix, the Anti-Pam: sunburned and big-boned, expansive, while tiny, tawny Pamela seemed intriguingly contained, a taut package of potential energy. The Mystery of Pamela cried out to be solved. Dana was all there on the surface, take it or leave it.
“Hey!” she said to me jovially.
“Hi,” her friend Cynthia said. Cynthia looked uncannily like David Bowie, but in shoulder-length brown hair, crimped.
“What’s up?” I felt violated by the presence of these two older girls from the high school halls in my summer house, a hundred and fifty miles from home. Was my hair clean? I wondered.
“Stand up,” my mother commanded, from an amber cone of reading-lamp light.
“Would either of you like a glass of water?” my father asked the pretty girls, smiling.
“No thanks, Mr. Hall!”
Cynthia shook her head.
They sat in rattan chairs. Were they planning to stay? I wondered, my discomfort extreme. My parents now sat across the room. My father rattled a section of the Times. My mother, curled up on a couch, read someone’s biography.
“So how long have you been up here?” Dana brightly asked me. Her interest seemed genuine, though I doubted that. She was a junior and I was a sophomore. Okay a senior- and a junior-to-be, same difference.
“Since the start of July, basically.” I nodded.
“We just got here. We were at Cynthia’s family’s house in the Adirondacks for three weeks.”
That must have been where the sunburn came from.
“How long are you guys around for?” I asked.
“I’m here nine days,” Dana said. “Cynthia’s only here ‘til Monday. Wanna go sailing tomorrow? We have a Sunfish.”
Terror’s icy fingers seized me. What if I… messed up somehow? Not only would I be embarrassed in the short term; in two months everyone at school would know about the Thing That Happened Last Summer in Rhode Island.
“I… have something.” Something I had to do, I meant. Though I didn’t.
“What do you have?” my mother wanted to know, from behind her book in the corner of the room.
“Don’t we?” I asked her. Nothing. I turned to Dana. “I guess I could go.” The prospect of fun never crossed my mind.
We did have fun, though, on the salt pond behind the Yacht Club, on a day that turned the water dark blue with its brilliance. The Weekapaug Yacht Club was little more than a row of cabanas, a modest clubhouse beyond them for Yacht Club dances. Most of the “yachts” were AMC Sunfish, like Dana’s. They lay in a long line, beetle-bellies up, on the salt pond’s sandy shore. I masked my self-consciousness about Sunfish mechanics—attaching the mast, and the centerboard business—behind a Funny Guy façade, and the girls laughed obligingly, eager for a good time. Cynthia went home to Pelham on Tuesday.
The house my parents rented was a ten- or twelve-minute walk from the water. Across the street a chain-link backstop embraced a baseball diamond. Next to the field was the Tennis Club: ten hard-courts, a backboard made of poured concrete, some Volkl Racquets and a shack about the size of a tollbooth on the Interstate.
Strawberry-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Dana wore a white tennis dress when we played, and Tretorns, also white, and a bright green hooded sweatshirt. She wore something green nearly every day, explaining “I’m a redhead.” Whatever that meant. One day we bicycled to Watch Hill, where children rode an antique carousel with an actual brass ring for grabbing.
“Thus the expression,” I said, and Dana laughed. Which astonished me, though I was getting used to it.
We sailed the Sunfish again, packing a mini-picnic of Dannon yogurts and some fruit. On a sandbar at the salt pond’s far end we ate beside the sailboat, its centerboard across the bow. The boat’s striped sail luffed above us.
As gently as I could, as empathetically, I asked, “Is your father… Did he die?”
“Oh no,” Dana said. She scraped the last of her blueberry yogurt from the bottom of its plastic cup. “He left when I was a baby.”
“Where does he live now?”
“I don’t know.”
Parents got divorced in Pelham—Elizabeth Hansen’s parents years before. The Mendelssohns. My lovely, ethereal Sunday school teacher had left her husband for the Superintendent of Schools. This sounded different.
“Does your mother know?” I asked, I thought rhetorically. I bit into a plum. “Where he is.”
Dana shrugged. “I’m not allowed to bring it up. We’re not allowed to talk about him.”
Feeling my brow furrow, I laughed. “Really?”
She nodded. “Do you need a napkin for that?”
“Mm. Thanks.” I wiped my mouth. “Your sisters must remember your father.”
Dana’s green eyes blazed. “He’s in the Foreign Service. You know I was born in the Philippines, right? So was Robin.” The black-haired sister. “Tracy was born in Rome. Neither of them has much to say about him. They’re not into it, into him. Not like me.”
“Do you know his name?”
“William. Bill Rogers.”
I thought aloud: “So your mom kept his name, let you guys keep it. She won’t allow you to talk about him, but in a way—in a way you talk about him all the time. Every time you say your name, or hers.”
This didn’t interest Dana. “I got my grandmother to open up about him once. She told me about this one time when he and my mom were coming back from food-shopping. At the A & P, downtown? My mom was pushing me in a baby carriage and Robin and Tracy were walking beside her and there were bags of groceries everywhere.” Dana pronounced the word “groash-rees.” “In the baby carriage, in her arms. And my father was like ten feet behind them, just strolling along without a care in the world.”
“He sounds like a dick.”
“Also I’ve seen pictures. They’re hidden in the attic, but I found them. My mother’s wedding photos, and some snapshots of him holding Tracy and Robin. He was very handsome.” I pictured someone with Robin’s dark looks, her black hair and olive skin. Tracy, and Dana’s mom, were freckly-fair like her.
Irritated, I tried again: “It sucks that he abandoned you guys.”
“Who says he abandoned us?” she asked. “Maybe my mom kicked him out. I’m definitely going to find him someday.”
Afterwards we walked by the Yacht Club. From the kitchen some dishwasher’s radio played “Undercover Angel,” the part just before the key change near the end, and Dana sang along. She looked at me significantly and sang
Loveme loveme love
and I laughed. I thought, Did that mean something? Then I thought: You idiot.
At the western end of the Weekapaug shoreline, near a shabby little store called Lamb’s that sold the Sunday Times, grew a tidy marsh bisected by a path of asphalt: the Fenway. It led to a beach called Fenway Beach. Young mothers took their babies there, attracted by its flat sand and tentative wavelets. Toward the village’s east end stretched Inn Beach, a mile of shore named for the seaside hotel that had stood there until the hurricane of ’39 swept it away, people said. Between the two beaches, the shoreline was rocks, and silent men with fishing rods and buckets. Waves patty-caked the beach but didn’t pound it, except when storms approached. Then everyone stood on the sand in windbreakers, watching the surf curl and crash. And across the water, like a finger along the horizon, lay the sandy bluffs and green hills of Block Island. If you looked all the way to the right on the clearest of days, you could see Montauk. You had to pin an orange “W” button to your swimsuit at the beach. On sunny weekend days a junior cop lurched along the sand in hard shoes checking beach buttons.
We must have gone to the beach together that week, Dana and I. We must have flip-flopped down Weekapaug’s honeysuckled lanes side by side, toward the water, beach towels scrolled and tucked beneath our arms. Dana would have worn a long-sleeved shirt, a redhead’s obligatory sun-hat. We brought a radio with us, I think. It never rained once. That I know.
Following dinner on our final Rhode Island Friday, I stood by the kitchen faucet with my mother. She washed the dishes. Drowsy from a day in the sun, I dried. Above us, a fluorescent light blinked bluely.
“Sweetie,” she began, “you and Dana have had fun together up here, but.”
“Uh huh,” I said, awake at once. I swabbed a plastic vacation-house plate with a soggy tea-towel that had starfish printed on it. Fishing boats.
“You’ve been her only friend here since that other girl left, but you aren’t her only friend back home in Pelham. She has other friends there. She’ll go back to them in the Fall.”
“Uh huh,” I said again.
My mother was wrong.
The following June, Dana would borrow her own mother’s car one Thursday afternoon—to visit the New Rochelle Library, she’d say. She would have the money required, from babysitting. I would offer to drive, as it seemed like the thing to do.
“You’re not allowed,” she’d tell me through the open window on the driver’s side of her mother’s Torino, idling in my parents’ driveway.
“What do you mean?” I would tug on the handle and open the door. “Slide over.”
“The office is in the Bronx, remember? With your Learner’s Permit you can only drive in the City if there’s a parent or guardian present.”
The scent of privet hedges, of hydrangea.
I wouldn’t have a Junior License yet, just my Permit. So my high school girlfriend would drive herself there, drive me. With the afternoon sun still high in a hot white sky, we would pass under the Hutchinson River Parkway. We would cruise through a gantlet of service stations. We would pass the drive-through bank on one margin of the vast, motor oil-reticulated parking lot outside of Caldor’s. Planned Parenthood occupied a strip-mall storefront on the opposite side of the road, between the International House of Pancakes and the bowling alley where I had gone for a birthday party in second grade.
In a corner of the air-conditioned waiting room, I would do my Latin homework while the procedure took place down a hallway. Afterward I would break New York State Law by driving Dana back to the Westchester line, and from there back to her house in Pelham Heights. Then I would walk home. When I stepped through the open front door, my mother would be putting dinner on the table.
After dinner on the night before the last day of July, Dana and I batted a ball back and forth at the deserted Tennis Club, the sky painted pink and yellow, the clouds shaded purple, before the sun went down and the world went gray and the Weekapaug streetlamps switched on. Crickets chirped in the baseball field’s shaggy grass. The pop of the ball off the strings of our racquets resounded in the twilit emptiness. The squeak of our sneakers on the court resounded too, as did our laughter.
excerpted from Reel Around the Fountain, a novel in progress.
Adam Reid Sexton is the author of Master Class in Fiction Writing. He has inhabited the Empire, Keystone, Pelican, Garden, and Nutmeg States and regrets that none flies a flag as bold and festive as that of Maryland. He teaches writing at Yale.