Copyright is held by the author.
“FOR SUGARCANE’S sake, just try it,” Addison offered up a half-lemon, sucking on its counterpart and sprawling her cinnamon stick legs across the wicker settee.
We were sitting on the porch of the Elliot Estate, where white pillars framed our view of the lawn like toy soldiers. The air was dense as caramel cake.
“All right,” I agreed.
My elementary years consisted of this routine; her navy eyes eager, the twist of her cherry pout daring me to refuse. If I was made to be second, she was first. The town’s conversation thrived off the flutter of her lashes, the flip of her hair. All was brilliant in the presence of her white, white teeth.
When I was young and beautiful, she’d been a Georgia debutante with a sugar cube habit and a set of conceited morals. From her father, whom she’d always called Senator, she’d inherited a quick wit and surname of prominence; from her mother, a boyish figure and a voice like amber syrup. She was what you’d call a thoroughbred, raised in a house of brick and fed an almost unhealthy dose of patriotism.
Decades ago, our families had bought the grandest homes in Madison, and in that cut-glass and silver-spoon manner of the wealthy, came together on the pretense of politeness, each attempting to better themselves at the other’s expense. It was called good-breeding, and it made for stretches of silence between preliminaries and champagne. Marriages had been arranged between older generations, so that our pedigrees hadn’t become carelessly tied, but rather, bound together in an inseparable glue, like sugar coating to candied pecans.
We’d grown up together, on peaches and cream, and as we liked to say, we both had the minds of great men. Her father had read her Twain as a child, and somewhere between the first and 320th page of Huck’s adventures, she’d developed a sentimental, if not sacred, reverence for the good old days down south. Provinciality ran red in her veins; trying to remove such would’ve been to stop the beat of her precocious heart.
Madison, Georgia is one of those towns you might stop at on your way to Atlanta in order to suffice some trivial whim such as buying lemonade or peppermint candies. You might stop to admire the rows of cotton, or the oak trees, or the homes which witnessed the Confederacy’s so-called heroics. You might stop to do a number of things, but more likely, you wouldn’t. It remained relatively unchanged, reminded of the passing years only through the initiation of a new younger-set and the recession of the previous.
We’d been raised in a way which can only be called wholesome; surrounded by cerulean eyes and plantation estates with flags and honorary marches, within the historical America found only in the sugary depths below the Mason Dixon line. They’d quit slavery decades ago, but we had deferential live-in help, who, as I can fairly say, were well paid and cared for. They had fostered me, for, as was customary then, Mother was absent in my young years; she was solely a paragon of class present for church and family dinners.
Mother’s primary stand-in was a maid named Ginny. She had pie crust crinkles at her eyes and skin like Daddy’s mahogany desk. Her eyes were black from afar but brown if you came close, and wet-looking like those of a racehorse. People called her African, but she was born in Alabama. She combed my hair one hundred strokes every night.
When it was done, Mother would walk in and excuse her. She’d sit behind my vanity mirror, placing the tortoise comb back and petting my buttery hair. “My darling, my darling” she’d repeat habitually, watching her reflection speak, my face beside hers, maintaining the portrait of mother-and-child she’d hung in her head.
She left then, to this party or that dinner, or whatever other occasion called for the attention of an ex-debutante. The familiar sounds of her entertaining came up through the floor boards; clinking glassware and lively conversation. I knew her laugh better than anything; that “O” of her thin lips revealing just the edge of her teeth, the leaning inward and the slight head tilt backward, the sound of the dinner-bell trill looping like ribbon.
There were goose-down nights and satin pajama sets with lavender bows. Ginny used to soothe me to sleep in her African-rooted tones, with lullabies sung to the bedside fan. After finding the cooler side of the pillow, I’d lay my curls down and drift off to the night’s song; noise from downstairs swirled with her gravelly voice, Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy’s rich and you momma’s good lookin’, so hush little baby, don’t you cry . . .
My hair warmed from ice blonde to a sunny yellow, and my legs grew long and danced shades of caramel in July. As I hadn’t any siblin’s, Addison was always at my house and I at hers. People said we looked alike; it worked out right well. Together, we spent halcyon nights in the lawn, donning crisp gingham and tan skin, trapping lightning bugs in kitchen jars. In the morning we’d wake to find ‘em dead on the bottom of the jar, and cry fast hot tears. Ginny assured us “’dem firecrackers is sleeping girls.”
We snuck to town for Coca-Cola and returned home to the familiar smell of rising biscuits and greetings from the help, who addressed us as Pretties and Corn-haired Dolls. On Beat Britain Day, we listened to radio-renditions of The Star Spangled Banner and Ginny’d let us have spoonfuls of brownie batter with the understanding that, “Missus Rowland shan’t know.”
The years ran hastily through the heat, and restless, we ran along with ‘em. Weekends were whirls of tennis rackets and golf links, our successes knit in the fabric of prize-ribbons. Cotillions were many and often. Our heels were engraved with the marks of party-shoes. Must’ve given our mothers heart ‘tacks from all the antics. Ginny used to cluck to herself, “Girls will be boys.” As can be guessed, it originated with Addison.
She’d been an avid reader since she could hold a book, and could finish one before sundown. By 16 she’d read anyone worth reading twice over. Irving, Alcott, Emerson, Twain, all of ‘em, and this new fellow, Fitzgerald, who had stories in the Smart Set. Gathered all these ideas from ‘em too, climbing roofs and jumping off boats, stealing character traits, had some notion about living in a novel.
With a mind like ice and will to power an engine, she’d grown to be known for more than her looks, though her sky-rivaling eyes remained her most widely admired asset. She’d had a mass of tag-a-longs, college boys and officers alike, men who came confidently in and out of her life; off to school, off to war, bound for the world outside her summer evening of an existence. These statues of men were to Addison a constant whole; an interchangeable mix of hands to hold and a steady flow of letters and telegrams.
That autumn, the sleepy lull of August opened its lids to September’s amber eyes. I accepted the persistent advances of Duncan Perry, the cream of my following at Yale. Grown from the green and gold trusts of old-money Connecticut, he was sustained on funds which had been earned decades ago; the tops, right and good.
Addison had neglected the pile of invitations on her bureau, some of which were postmarked as far back as April. In characteristic spontaneity, just a week before the event, she wired her pick of the tag-a-longs, asking him to meet her at Union Station. He happily obliged. The following Saturday, we boarded the train, my trunk filled with perfume, tortoise combs, and pajama sets. Addison was wearing a coat and carrying a box of sugar cubes she’d bought for our trip. The cars took off, and we went speeding northward to the arctic America we’d long ago dubbed Winterland.
The window fogged at our breath as we pulled up to the snow-laden station. When our patent shoes met the platform, Kenneth Hoffman, a clean-cut Princeton sophomore, took Addison’s bag.
“Everyone’s ‘gonna be mighty glad to see you. The boys,” he pointed abstractly in the direction of campus, “have been talking themselves sick.”
Addison, ever the narcissist, spoke assuredly, “I know.”
Duncan was handsome in the wool coat I’d picked for him at Brook’s.
“Mabel, aren’t you a picture?” he treated me to his ice-box smile, and I gave him a “Thank you kindly” with my lips on his.
Addison faced Kenneth, her skin aglow in the unfamiliar cold.
“I love you,” he cried in a fit of fascination, “I love you.”
They kissed then, her youth pressed up against his solidity; his classic features those of marble, her lips a drop of rouge.
“I’m glad,” she said, for no reason ‘sides certain people have the liberty to commit such depravities. She knew her advantages.
After the Pre-Mixer Social in the dorms, we took a hotel room close to campus. There wasn’t a vanity, but a mirror over a drawer chest, so we poured our cosmetic cases onto it. I snatched a handful of sugar cubes. Addison found her newest record and placed it on the phonograph. The jazzy tune played as we dressed. Candy, candy lips, sweet bubblegum, we’re a-drivin’ ‘round town tonight. Candy, candy lips, sweet bubblegum, moon’s a-high ‘an we’re all right . . .
Yale’s Fall Mixer shined like a coastline beacon. The ballroom was lit from inside, windows outlined in crisp contrast to the evening’s languid air. It had been September for three weeks then, and autumn had arrived with the crinkled kiss of changing leaves and the embrace of cold clean wind. The promise of snow brought an anticipatory excitement; calendars counting the weeks to Christmas Eve and allowances spent on new furs.
I’d finished a champagne when the room awoke to the tune of clicking heels and interscholastic gossip. Addison and Kenneth stepped into the ballroom. Eyes turned by some previously unestablished magnetic field or questionable act of God, and a younger girl remarked that Addison was “Oh, just dripping in gold.” It struck me as semi-sweet, her great beauty that night, for she’d never be so attractive again. She’d reached the crest of her youth; it was an anticlimactic parade of brunches and sun hats from there.
Kenneth went to get them drinks, so I walked towards her. Unfortunately, a man beat me to it. I recognized Lawrence Campbell, whom The Daily had recently named “THE HERO OF ’23” after the grassy, dirt-caked chaos which had won him victory in the Yale-Princeton game. He’d been one of her primary tag-a-longs for a decade it seemed, she’d once toyed with the idea of marrying him, but nowadays, she let the phone ring when he called.
“Addison.” He pulled her aside.
“Don’t tell me you’re in love with me,” she said.
This routine line clarified his demoted standing; but one in the ranks of many. His face fell at the realization.
“Call me your doll,” the twist of her cherry pout dared him to refuse.
“I love you,” the hero said.
Egotism wavered on her tongue, “I know.”
She turned her face upward, and he reached for her, needing to know her lips in their veracity, mean and sweet and brilliant all at once; needing to know the great shades of pinks and reds outside the bounds of his own illusions.
She allowed it. She knew her advantages.
“Addison?” Kenneth approached her in the hallway.
“Kenneth,” she stammered, “it wasn’t what —”
“Of course not,” he laughed that freezing Northern laugh; one backed by harsh Atlantic waves and the thunderous battle calls of long-dead Union soldiers.
They knew each other by ill-timed run-ins on the Elliot’s front porch.
A stiff silence came between the three, so she took the glass out of Kenneth’s hand and smoothly excused herself.
She found me by the bar.
“You see that?” her navy gaze flicked across mine.
“Elliot,” I looked at her, “you’re definitely a character.”
These situations were familiar as vanilla.
“You’s much as me, Rowland,” the character said, and then repeated, “Definitely a character,” to herself, turning it over.
Such appeared to suit her, for she laughed easily, the syllables of her joy dripping like syrup. I joined with my own laugh. It sounded foreign, no longer the rowdy noise of a child. It was higher toned, more of a ringing, almost like my mother’s. Before I could anatomize it, Addison grabbed my hand. She sprinted through the room’s sea of silks and satins, pulling me dangerously close to full-glasses and cookie-topped saucers. She pushed past the double doors into the crisp cool night.
Ten o’clock wove cream-coloured moonlight through the licorice sky and the pool gleamed an antiseptic blue. We stood at the water’s edge, catching our reflections in the bright rectangle.
“Let’s go in!” Addison said.
“Go in?” I spoke to her white, white teeth.
“For sugarcane’s sake, it’s a pool, not a tiger trap. You can see right through it.” She dipped her fingers in for effect, flicking them through the liquid’s transparency.
A crowd accumulated by the door and eyed us skeptically. She walked towards the deeper side, and the mass multiplied. What’re they doing?
She stepped onto the board while I stood shyly at the foot of it, envying her bravery. She walked boldly towards the edge, and threw her satin shoes to the deck. I recognized the dress-up scars on her heels, and feeling my own shoes cutting into the same spot, was proud of my connection to the night’s starlet. I heard murmured whispers and then, That’s Addison Elliot, ‘course she’s gonna do it.
She pushed her toes off the edge and leaped heroically upward. In a flash of lavender she was airborne, and the crowd gaped in astonishment as her lean body flew soundlessly through the night, meeting the water in a decisive dive. She swam a few feet underwater, and resurfaced grinning, hair sleekly matted against her neck. The new silk of her dress spread out around her, and appeared to swim itself in the blinding blue.
I smiled. It had to be something she’d read in a book.
Not allowing my mind the time to register my body’s actions, I ran up to the board and framing my head in my arms, threw myself into an arc through the September air. Chiffon crisp against my skin, I glided into the pool. When my head bobbed out from under the water, I faced the board, and saw a line behind its rails. Let’s go!
Eleven o’clock was a panoply of scalloped hems and gold cufflinks; ties were loosened and heels strewn till the pool was full. Wet jewels flirted with the moon and a group of rowdy New Haveners sipped champagne in the shallow end. The jazz band, while rolling their eyes halfway ‘round their skulls and complaining about our “misguided” generation, still seemed to enjoy our company, for they moved outside to play and shake their heads good naturedly at our disobedience.
The following January, Addison and I tried the same stunt at Cambridge, but, as the pneumonia paranoia was at its height, we found no one eager to shed their furs. New Englanders are like peanut brittle; stiff and prone to snapping at the slightest provocation.
One dark haired girl scoffed, “This ain’t Alabama, dollies.”
Defeated, we danced in Harvard’s heated hall, longing for Yale’s eager crowd and the medicinal-colored pool. We drenched our disappointment in champagne, and waltzed until our feet were sore. We were both cut in on many times by good looking men, and, as we’d grown accustomed to admiration, found it right tiresome.
Back at the hotel room, we put a disk on the phonograph and threw our shoes across the room, punishing ‘em for the evening’s pain. Addison slipped out of her dress and into a pajama set. I pulled on a pair of lavender night clothes. She grabbed my hands and we bounced around to the record, toes spinning in the plush carpet. It was the one from our last trip. Candy, candy lips, sweet bubblegum, we’re a-drivin’ ‘round town tonight. Candy, candy lips, sweet bubblegum, moon’s a-high ‘an we’re all right . . .
Addison went to find her book so I sat at the vanity — thank Heavens this room had one — and fell to combing and counting the strokes. From across the room, Addison held her feet up, displaying the dress-up scars on her heels.
“Badges of honour,” she quipped.
There it was, that laugh I knew better than anything; that “O” of her thin lips revealing just the edge of her teeth, the leaning inward and the slight head tilt backward, the sound of the dinner-bell trill looping like ribbon.
Unnerved, I slapped the comb down and walked to Addison, who was cross-ankled in the arm chair. I tore the book from her hands, This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and threw it onto the carpet. Guess this magazine slick had published a novel.
“Hey!” she picked it up, running her fingers down the spine.
“Don’t you see?” I attempted to shake a reaction from her carefully aligned features. A nod, a grin, even the twist of her familiar pout. “Don’t you see what’s happening?”
She furrowed her brow at me and returned to the book, sprawling her cinnamon stick legs across the chair’s arm.
“The laugh?” I continued, watching my reflection.
“Don’t be morbid Rowland.” She popped a sugar cube in her mouth. “You’re much to pretty for that.”
“But I —”
“Oh, go write your memoirs. I always thought I’d do well as a protagonist.”