Rosellen sipped her lime rickey and puckered her lips. She wished the drink had gin in it, but here at the pool everybody knew Daddy and would tell.
Rosellen tried to think, but it was difficult in the sun. She liked thinking and planning. It was fun to be pretty and smart, but have everybody think she was just pretty. The last chords of “A Summer Place” crackled through the loudspeakers. When she heard it last month she knew that nineteen and fifty-two was the best year of her life; she knew it was her and Bud’s song and decided she loved this summer more than any other, ever.
Except for one thing.
She shoved the thought away to stop frowning and decided to think of pleasant things instead. She was going to be a senior, she thought, and rolled the idea around inside until it made her breathe hard. And Bud was sure to do real swell in football, everybody said he was a shoo-in for captain. She thought about September, and walking from the parking lot with Bud, and wearing his sweater. The thought of Bud’s sweater made her arms go all goose bumps in the heat. Maybe she could just talk to Bud.
“I don’t understand you,” she said, keeping her eyes closed and speaking directly to the sun.
“Say what?” said Bud. He had finished his push-ups on the grass, all thirty-five, and was now doing the first of his two sets of fifty sit-ups. “What don’t you understand?” He liked to talk while he was pulling himself up real slow, feeling his stomach get tighter and meaner, showing Rosellen and anyone else who was looking that he had breath to spare. He watched his toes arc toward his head and then blur back into the sky. Come September he was going to be in the best shape of his life. He kept at the sit-ups with his eyes closed and, at the same time, ran an imaginary twenty-five yards, darting around two lead-footed tackles.
“Why you even talk to him,” said Rosellen. “That’s what.” She looked over to where Frankie was standing in the shade by the snack bar. He had one hand on his hip; the other was floating around in wide gestures. His pasty white face and baby fat body gleamed in the shade, cut in two by his too tight shiny black bathing suit. Two girls—Rosellen squinted, but she couldn’t see; probably Marie and her stupid friend, Tina—were laughing at something Frankie had said.
Rosellen took another careful sip of lime rickey and settled back against the warm canvas cushions. She could feel the sun through her dark glasses. It was red.
“Just talk,” said Bud. He was up to thirty-eight sit-ups and didn’t want to waste any breath just now.
“But he’s a fairy,” said Rosellen. “Everybody says so.”
“So what,” said Bud.
“So everything,” she said. “Honestly, Bud, don’t you know anything?”
“Well, like what if he touched you or something?”
“So what. It ain’t catching.”
Rosellen thought for a minute. She shifted again. This conversation was definitely not to her liking.
“Well, I still don’t see why you talk to him. Jerry said to me the other day that he thinks the reason you talk to him is because, well, maybe, because ...”
“Because what?” asked Bud. He was only at eighteen on his second set, but he stopped and looked at her. Rosellen was on her back, turned to the sun, one finger twirling a strand of auburn hair.
“Well, I ain’t,” he said finally. “You know that,” he added. He looked at her again, then went back to his sit-ups.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes I do.” She thought about that for a minute. “But reputation is so important.” She turned to watch him. His stomach muscles were so wonderful. She longed to touch them with just one finger while they rippled. But, she thought, it would look silly to reach her hand over; what if someone were watching. Besides, the sun was making it too warm to move.
“Everybody says so,” she said.
“About what?” said Bud. “Forty-seven.”
“Reputation,” said Rosellen. “How important it is.”
“Well,” he said, timing his words as he raised and lowered his torso, “I, ain’t, every, body.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Frankie turn away from the snack bar and begin to walk toward them. How could anyone let themselves walk like that, she wondered. Didn’t he know what he looked like? Did he do it on purpose? How could Bud stand to be around him?
She opened her eyes wide behind her dark glasses and watched the colored sun spots burst around Frankie’s head as he moved across the grass. She looked sideways at Bud, but he had his eyes closed and was counting as he kept at his sit-ups. Rosellen began to breathe deeply, hoping Frankie would believe she was asleep. Maybe she would just go to sleep, since the sun was really quite warm. The strap of her one-piece suit pressed against her left breast. She thought of Bud’s finger tracing a line around her nipple and breathed a little deeper.
“Hi, Bud.” It was Frankie’s voice, swooping along, stretching two words into four syllables.
“Hi, Frankie,” said Bud. Rosellen heard his even breathing and knew he was still doing sit-ups. “What’s up?” he asked on his next breath.
She heard him raise himself up one more time, then fall back exhausted. She knew without looking that he was lying on his back with his forearm across his eyes against the bright sun. Rosellen thought about Bud’s swimsuit and the bulge in his crotch. She shifted slightly in the sun.
Frankie was talking again, all the words just flying out into the air. Why did he have to let his voice go all over the place?
“...Tina Sullivan. She’s so dumb she thinks that Esther Williams really swam the English Channel. I said, ‘Tee-nah, she’s got better things to do with her tits out in Hollywood than over there in England. She don’t need to swim. All she has to do is act.’” He flung his arm skyward, and Rosellen watched through her lashes as his hand seemed to explode off the end of his wrist.
“Then I said as how Esther really couldn’t swim, see, even though I know she can. It’s just, well, not the way old Sonja Henie could ice skate. ‘Member when they showed that old movie on teevee last Christmas? ‘Member those skates? Whooozh!”
Rosellen could hear Frankie’s heels thump on the grass, twisting the blades into knots. “Bud,” she said, “do you suppose Frankie’d like to bring us both a Co’ Cola?”
But Bud was looking at the sky. “Hey, Frankie,” he said. “See that old hawk up there?” Frankie’s arms dropped to his side and he tilted his head back.
“I see it, Bud,” he said, shading his eyes.
“You think that’s that same hawk came round last Fourth of July, just about this time?” asked Bud.
“Naw,” said Frankie. “That’s just a bird in a hot wind. Pretty, though, against the blue. Ain’t it, Rosellen?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I’m too thirsty to look.”
“Aw, honey,” said Bud, “let me get you a Co’ Cola. You want one, Frankie?”
Bud started angling his legs and arms to get upright; Rosellen felt parts of his shadow cross her body.
“No,” she said. “Frankie can get it for us, can’t you, Frankie?” she turned her voice in his direction. “Frankie, I’d just love it if you’d bring me back a nice cold Co’ Cola from the stand. Could you do that for me? You know, with plenty of ice and a nice little wedge of lemon?”
“Why, Rosie Rosellen, I’d be enchanted to provide that service for you.”
Rosellen bit her tongue; Dave Dunbarton and Kate and Ellen were looking at them.
“Now you and Buddy boy stay right here, because…” Rosellen started to blush in the heat. Frankie was twirling around with his arms stretched out. “…because when I get back, I’ve got something real important to talk about.” He stopped twirling and ran to the refreshment stand.
Rosellen buried her head in the canvas pillow and groaned. “I just can’t bear it another minute,” she said.
“Bud.” She turned her brown eyes toward him and shook her hair back over her shoulder. Bud turned to look at her.
“Honey,” she said, “you know I think you’re just the most wonderful person in the whole entire world, I mean, just everything, and you know, I really wouldn’t interfere in any part of your life for anything. But Bud, honey, people…are…talking. And my nerves just can’t stand it, and that’s the truth.”
An awful hoot of laughter came from over by the refreshment stand.
“Well, honey,” said Bud, “My Mama always says that people are going to talk, no matter what, and that’s the truth.” He had hunkered down right next to her and she could smell his skin. Why, she wondered, did he have to have such blue eyes? And his hair in that crew cut stood so straight and glinty in the sun. “…and Fred and Cindy Lee,” he was saying, “everybody said about them, but I don’t think it matters, I think…”
Rosellen waited. Waiting was sometimes good because when people stopped, you could say things back.
“...you have to be careful about friends…”
There. He was coming round to her side. Daddy always said she could talk the whiskers off a cat.
“...because you only get so many and me and Frankie, we’ve been friends since first grade. He was different even back then, but he’s, oh, funny, you know. Besides, he’s smart. And sometimes, like algebra, I need the help.”
Rosellen didn’t show her disappointment. “I’ll help you with your old algebra. I know those a squareds and b squareds backwards and forwards.”
“Honey, you could. You’re smart as three whips.” He sat on the chaise at her feet. “But I can’t study with you. When I’m around you nothing stays in my head. Except you.” He reached for her leg and started to trace circles on her calf while he looked at the pool. Rosellen blinked behind her glasses, trying to separate the tingle from the problem. She pulled up the strap of her suit, hitching up her puppies (well, that was what Bud called them; she thought it was sweet; she thought of his tongue, and her nipples tingled now), shifting a little to make them move for Bud.
“Bud, that’s really sweet, you know, but I think...”
Rosellen was both mad and glad that Frankie came over right then with the Cokes: glad because she couldn’t think just what to say next, but mad because he was the problem.
“Here’s yours and here’s yours,” said Frankie, “and I got mine, so we’re all fine. I’m a poet and I know it cause I got Longfellow’s feet and they show it.” And he sat down cross-legged on the grass, sipped his Coke through a straw, and looked up through his pale lashes at Rosellen and Bud.
“I got this great idea,” he said, looking quickly away. “We all gotta’ eat something today, ‘cause it’s too long ‘til the barbeque tonight ‘cause they said they was going to wait ‘til after the fireworks. So I thought you guys could come over to my house, since my Gramma’s fixed up her fried chicken and some of her potato salad and a special dessert, and since my house is only just around the corner on Tree Street, it’s real close, and it wouldn’t be any problem.”
The noise around the pool and grass rose upward and hung almost motionless, suspended in the shimmering heat: loudspeaker music, splashes of water against arms and legs and breasts and thighs, laughter, screams, the murmur of voices. Frankie looked down at the grass.
“I got some beer, too,” he said. “I asked Gramma to buy us a case ‘cause it’s the Fourth of July and she said ‘Yes’ and she did and it’s there in the refrigerator.”
“Gee, Frankie,” said Bud. “That’s real fine.”
Frankie began to smile, but he couldn’t look up.
“Yes,” said Rosellen, “that’s awfully sweet, and really, you know, we’d love to, but my Aunt Ruth has got us coming over for one of her famous cold suppers—isn’t that right, Bud?—and she’d be just about heartbroken if we didn’t come.”
“I didn’t know...” said Bud.
“Well,” said Rosellen, “I guess you just forgot.”
Bud looked down at Frankie, still looking at the grass.
“Well, Bud, you know we can’t disappoint Aunt Ruth,” said Rosellen. “She’d never forgive us.”
Later, at home, Frankie sat on his bed, naked in his room upstairs, behind the shades, the airless room yellow-orange in the late afternoon heat. The tufted cotton of the bedspread made red welts on his thighs as he sat with something blue across his lap. He rolled the cool beer can across his forehead, carefully punctured the can, then, with the can, cooled the tops of his feet, white with blue veins, bending over, enjoying the blood rushing to his head, pounding in his ears. As he raised up, his too long hair snapped straight back. He paused, then drank the can of beer, draining the cold and the fizz, waiting for it to hit and the feeling to spread, wanting to be higher still. He placed the can on the carpet, lined up neatly with the others, found the bottle of gin, drained that, too. Then, with both hands, he stroked the electric blue one-piece swim suit with molded cups and two straps on his lap. He caressed the fabric, now almost black in the almost orange light through the shade. “What the hell,” he said, and held the suit against his chest, his hands over the cups, pressing the electric blue against his skin. “What the hell.”
The evening air was soft with Chinese lantern light and barbeque. The fireworks were a memory, and couples had stopped licking each other’s fingers and had laid the plates with old white bones aside. Two by two they drifted into the shrubs behind the refreshment stand. One swimmer cut the surface of the pool, another was swimming laps deep under the water, which rippled back the moon.
Rosellen smoothed her circle dress over her two stiff petticoats, then held Bud’s hand, palm up, inside her own and brought, with tender care, the paper napkin over each separate finger, then the palm.
“We could just take a little walk,” she said. “Just around that way and back.”
“Sure,” said Bud. “I guess so. Did you like the big rockets better this year or last?”
“Oh, honey, I don’t know. It just reminds me of when you touch me, rockets like that. Sometimes even when you just look at me.”
“That’s the truth. Oh, I could just look into your eyes until I die. I swear.”
Bud looked at her, then took up his hand and looked it over. “That’s real clean,” he said. “Thank you, Rosellen.”
“Oh, Bud,” she said, and was about to say something more, something special about his hands this time, but then, over Bud’s shoulder, she saw a woman with a diamond tiara on her head over by the pool, so instead she said, “Well, I never did!”
“Do what, honey?” said Bud.
The woman had taken off her bathrobe and now, in her bathing suit, was kneeling on the diving board. Sparks came from something in her hand, probably a cigarette lighter, Rosellen thought, but why would anyone smoke on the diving board?
“Do what, honey?” Bud said again.
“Over there,” she said.
Over there across the dark blue and green water there was a spark of flame. Then another and another. Sparklers. The woman was lighting sparklers. Well, after all, it was the fourth of July.
“That’s nice,” said Bud.
“Hard to see,” said Rosellen. “I wonder who she is.”
The figure now stood holding a bunch of sparklers sprouting from each clenched fist. The light cascaded down the short hair, slicked up into greasy waves behind the tiara, over the full breasts in the electric blue one-piece suit.
“Who is that?” Rosellen squinted harder.
Two by two from the corners and shrubs, from behind the trees and the snack bar, the couples came to the pool, drawn by the light and the quiet, by the sparklers and then by the sounds of their own murmuring voices.
The figure with the sparklers spoke: “Since Esther Williams couldn’t be here in person,” the voice was a clear, fine alto that carried across the water, “she sent me in her place to wish you all a happy Fourth of July.”
“That’s Frankie,” said Bud, in what he thought was a whisper, but his voice carried through the silence.
The figure on the diving board struck a pose—feet together, breasts arched upward, head proud, each hand aloft clutching a makeshift torch of sparklers cascading streams of light into the pool.
Then everyone began to talk and someone switched on the floodlights, illuminating the pool from below. Rosellen said, “Oh, my God!” and one of the swimming boys said, “Oooooh, Frankie” in a high voice while the other swam to the diving board, reached up from the pool, and bounced the board up and down.
“I was going in anyway,” Frankie said down to the boy, trying to keep his balance on the board. He looked out at the crowd as his legs wobbled against the board’s up-and-down. “I am ... the living image of ... Neptune’s Daughter,” he said, trying to balance himself, the sparklers, the tiara, and the stuffing in the bosom of his swim suit. “One of the finest... motion pictures... ever... made.”
“I can’t bear to look,” said Rosellen into Bud’s shoulder. “What’s he got stuffed into that suit?”
“I dunno. Maybe toilet tissue or something,” said Bud, squinting at something white that was drifting up Frankie’s chest.
“Frank-eee, oh, Frank-eee,” the boy under the diving board crooned while he gave the board a good jounce. Then the boy scissor-kicked in the water, shot up, and made a grab for Frankie’s ankle.
“Noooo,” said Frankie, hopping to the other foot. One of the sparklers flew from his hand, beginning a graceful arc. Everyone watched as above the pool the pinpoint stars fizzed and died, flying from a whirling center into the air. Then the sparkler hissed into the pool and everyone looked back again at the figure on the board.
In the quiet, the boy under the diving board tugged again. Frankie lost his balance, said “Oh, Ohhhhh” high and squeaky as the tiara came loose and began to fall. A whole handful of sparklers flew up in a parabola as he missed the tiara. Then he, the sparklers, the tiara, all seemed to fall together, strike the surface of the pool and sink quickly below into the light. Except that one hand, still holding a sparkler torch, bobbed above the surface, throwing stars on the water. Until it suddenly sank.
Someone whistled; a few couples gave sarcastic applause; but most just clumped together, whispering and laughing.
“Frankie’s still at the bottom,” said Bud. “I don’t think he can swim.”
“Of course he can swim,” Rosellen snapped. “Everybody can swim. He’s just staying down there to get some more attention. Come on, Bud, let’s go.”
Bud shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve never seen him swim.” He looked down from the edge of the pool. Under the green stabs of light, Frankie seemed to be waving at him, white arms moving slowly back and forth.
“I gotta get him,” he said urgently to Rosellen.
“Oh, Bud, he’s just funnin’. Let him alone.” Rosellen couldn’t believe her eyes: Bud was actually getting ready to dive in.
“Bud,” she said in a dead whisper without moving her lips. “Everyone is looking at you.”
She could feel her cheeks getting spotty from embarrassment. She tried to pull Bud back from the edge, but he stayed. She couldn’t look across the pool, but she knew everybody was watching.
“I hate you,” she said quietly, smiling sweetly at him for everyone’s benefit. “I’ll never forgive you, ever,” she whispered, still smiling, as she walked past him to the edge of the pool.
“Oh, Bud,” she said suddenly, loudly, “I’m falling.” And she toppled over into the pool, one arm waving while the other tried to hold her dress at her knees. Her dress and two petticoats billowed up around her head as she began to sink noisily, arms flailing.
Bud only stopped to take off his shirt, then dove in cleanly by her side, slipped beneath the surface with a ripple, into the light, felt her dress slip by his legs, then kicked for the bottom. Transparent strands of paper coiled around Frankie’s head. His eyes were open and his mouth seemed to move, seemed to speak without sound. Bud scooped up the body, gave a solid push against the bottom with both feet, and kicked for the top.
He looked up and saw Rosellen’s circle skirt floating like a flower, and Rosellen thrashing in white bubbles. The clean, clear light beyond the surface was bright with voices. He kicked through the water, with Frankie resting heavy in his arms until they broke through and both began to gulp the bright night air.
‘Miss Honeybunch Takes A Dip’ is from Robert Moulthrop’s short story collection, “Elvis’s Dog… and other stories,” available from Amazon. This story was originally published in The Tahoma Literary Review.