It's shimmery hot but I'm afraid to swim Rooster. Sweat drips off my chin and Rooster's coat is matted underneath me. Nancy and Sierra are already deep in the middle of the swimming hole, and I can't see Sierra anymore, except for his face and a few wisps of yellowish-grey tail. I'm certain he and Nancy are both about to drown.
"Come in!" Nancy turns and shouts, but we are not supposed to be here, with these horses, far from the barn.
Nancy ducks underwater, hugging Sierra's neck, and I hold my breath, frightened, till she comes up again. I've never swum a horse before. All I can think of is losing hold of the mane, getting sucked down into that boiling water and kicked, knocked out cold, by four thrashing hooves.
On the other side of the swimming hole, Sierra's feet touch ground. Nancy is flat, stomach down, stretched the length of his back. She pushes up, laughing, looks down at her shirt. She couldn't care less that it's plastered against her chest.
"Come on, Lucy," she calls. "Miss Priss."
I cluck and squeeze and pull on the rope attached to Rooster's halter. He side steps and blows air out of his nostrils, as if there's something in the water he has to avoid. I reach back and give him a slap. For a moment he is still and then suddenly he jumps forward, throwing me off balance. I grab mane like I do when approaching a fence and pull my legs up, feel all his legs moving, all four at once. Suddenly we are in the middle, where the water is black and Rooster sinks to his neck. Before I know it, his feet touch ground and quickly I have to position myself to come down on his back as he pulls up out of the water.
"Nancy, we're going to get in trouble," I say.
Nancy starts to sing, "Every party needs a pooper, that's why we invited you. Party pooper! Party pooper!" She walks a circle around me and sings.
Sometimes I wonder why I've always stood by Nancy, no matter what she does--when she got caught cheating on a geography test, beaten (bloody nose, swollen lip) by her father. When I spend the night at her house, I carefully avoid Dr. Matalin. He's waxed bald with a beard, and most evenings he sits at the edge of his lake, sipping a drink, watching his black swans glide across the water, waiting for (no, it's me, breathlessly anticipating) an alligator to reach up and bite them in half.
"Listen," Nancy says. In the distance hounds are baying. The hunt is closer than we thought. Sierra and Rooster go light on their feet. They are old school horses but they have been on hunts before.
We are out in the open, in the middle of a field. The hunt sounds like it's coming from the trees. I look into the woods and see flashes of red. It's the men--at the head, Mr. Fielding, the master of the hunt, then Frank, our trainer, who specifically told us not to take the horses away from the barn.
We turn and gallop so fast to the barn that I'm weak and laughing, my legs and arms limp. The grooms are all standing around, leaning against the tack room door or sitting on a wooden bench, drinking Cokes and waiting for the hunt to be over. They will have their hands full then. They all stare at Nancy, whose shirt is still wet. She hops off and leads Sierra through the barn to the wash room.
"Shit," she says, discovering a wet pack of Larks in the front pocket of her cut-offs.
"Frank will give us some, or those guys." I point to the grooms. Already one of them is walking over.
Nancy hooks Sierra into the washroom. She turns on the water and picks up the hose. I don't think she's seen the groom, who's now leaning against the wall across from us, but suddenly she straightens up and says, "Do you have a cigarette?"
"Aren't you too young to smoke?" He laughs.
"Humph," she says and turns, holding the hose over Sierra's head. The water runs down his face in a stream. I can't let Rooster stand still so I walk him around in circles in the aisle, waiting for Nancy to soap and rinse her horse.
"How old are you?" the groom asks. He is a greaser--white t-shirt, tan cowboy boots, blonde slicked-back hair. He has that greaser slouch.
"Old enough to know better," says Nancy, repeating a phrase Frank uses about her when she's gotten into trouble.
"Is that so?" The groom comes closer.
Nancy turns off the hose and picks up the scraper, scrapes excess water off Sierra's back. She completely ignores the groom as she scrapes every inch of the horse.
Finally I can't wait any longer. "Okay, Nancy. I need to wash Rooster."
The groom walks right into the washroom with Nancy, unhooks the chains from Sierra's halter. "That's right, Nancy. This horse is clean." He puts his hand on Sierra's chest, between his front legs. "But he's warm. He needs to be walked."
"Leave me alone," she says. She walks Sierra down the side aisle of the barn and out into the sun. The groom follows her, laughing, shaking his head. I wash Rooster with a big wet sponge drizzled with Ivory soap. I wash him with the care I usually don't have time for, because the bus that brings us here every day for our lessons is always waiting to take us home.
Behind the barn a blue-and-white striped tent has been pitched for the buffet breakfast after the hunt. The sound of the hounds is closer. Nancy, holding the end of Sierra's lead rope, is standing in front of the bar, talking to the bartender. She comes away with a glass of orange juice that looks half full of vodka.
The groom watches from the door of the barn, his arms crossed over his chest. I admire Nancy's good judgement--she continues to ignore him--and yet, something tells me that if such a boy were watching me, even a greasy stable hand, I would be watching him back.
By now Rooster is cool and dry. I let him eat some grass. He moves his lips, looking for clover. When he finds some, he jerks his head sideways, uproots the clover with a delicate tearing sound. I run my hand down his shoulder. Maybe over the months he's gotten attached to me. He hears me coming when I run off the bus to his stall with a carrot or an apple, which he eats, core, stem and seeds. Once I asked Frank if Rooster were for sale but he just frowned.
Rooster has wandered too close to the groom.
"What's wrong with your friend?"
I stare at the groom and blink. Rooster discovers a big patch of clover and yanks me closer. I hear the rip, rip of the roots as he pulls. I am close enough to see the dark horse hairs stuck to the groom's white t-shirt, the dark hairs stuck to the sweat on his neck.
"How old is she?"
"Thirteen," I answer.
He closes his eyes and whistles.
A horn blows. I turn and see the hounds, just beyond the fence, being herded into their pen. The master of the hunt is leading his horse into the barn. The groom straightens, hurries over to a lady in a black silk top hat, holds the braided leather reins while she dismounts. She stands close to him and gives him instructions. Her horse has foam between his lips and all over his chest. He is breathing heavily, blowing through his nostrils, and won't stand still.
Frank goes straight to Nancy. He frowns and points to the barn. Nancy sips her orange juice, gives him a grin, takes her time leading Sierra away. I do the same with Rooster, only much more quickly, before Frank can get to me. The barn is chaotic, grooms yelling, horses too close together, squealing and kicking. I lead Rooster around the back way and go into his stall and peek out the back window. The riders are lined up in front of the bar. Frank has his arm around a man whose right thigh is streaked with red clay. But Frank has his eye on Nancy, who is moving through the paddock on her way to Sierra's stall. Frank brought us to the barn on a Sunday, for the hunt, on the condition that we stay out of sight, a rule Nancy has flagrantly broken.
Melanie Stark, a beautiful girl who owns her own horse and trains with Frank, brings Frank a screwdriver and stands talking to him, fiddling with the end of her long dark braid. She has taken off her jacket and her back is wet, the strap of her bra visible down to the little metal clips. Frank's hand goes to her waist. He looks around to see who is watching (he doesn't see me) then slides his hand down slowly over the tight curve of her breeches, ending with a little pinch, which makes her jump. Frank does this to many girls, often.
Nancy comes into Rooster's stall and stands at the window beside me, peeking out. "Oh." She is fuming. "Let's go to the creek. I can't watch this."
She has two Cokes and an unopened pack of Larks. We race out of the barn, through the paddock, hop the fence and scare the grazing horses, who gallop away. On the way through the ring we trot the cavaletti, then canter up and over the two-foot brush. Nancy drops a Coke. "That's yours," she says. I stop and pick it up.
At the creek we smoke ourselves sick and lie on the bank. The palmettos rustle, probably armadillos looking for bugs. Rats with armor, Nancy calls them. Our Cokes are in the water, wedged against stones. Nancy has made sure to separate hers from mine because she knows mine will explode.
She sits up, sings, "Oh, if I had the wings of a buzzard."
"Buzzard," I chime, on cue.
"Off to the woods I would fly."
"Thar to remain as a buzzard."
"Until the day that I die."
"I die, I die," together we finish.
This is a song we sing on the bus. We go through our repertoire, ending with "Bingo," a song that involves a lot of rapid clapping at the end. Occasionally we'll try and sing nicely, but never on the bus, only out here or by the Matalins' lake, where we can let our voices range and try harmonies that sometimes fail and make us laugh.
I end up not drinking my Coke, leaving it in the creek for another day. Maybe by then it won't explode. Instead, I drink the water, squatting down barefooted in the middle of the creek, cupping my hands and holding the water till the flashy bits of dirt settle down and what I drink is mostly clear. Nancy has taken her shirt off to suntan. This is something she's begun doing lately. I don't know where she got the idea, maybe from Robin or Susie, her sisters.
Later in the afternoon, after everybody's left, Frank gives us a ride home. We all three sit in the front seat of his Ford Courier, Nancy in the middle. She sings a few bars of "Norwegian Wood," but I won't sing in front of Frank. He puts his hand on Nancy's bare leg, rubs the inside of her knee, then squeezes, making her scream and jump, pushing me against the door.
"Where did you girls run off to this afternoon?" he asks. He has a Northern accent, talks through his nose.
"We have a secret place," Nancy says.
"Where?" He looks at her, a cigarette between his teeth. She raises her knees and shrugs herself into a ball. He looks at me and I shrug too.
"Where do you girls go?" he teases.
Nancy reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out his Larks and lights two with the car lighter, handing one to me. She has half a pack of her own but I guess she wants to save them.
We're driving through Temple Terrace. "Stop," Nancy says. "Let's get Slurpees."
Frank sighs, turns left and bounces into the Li'l General parking lot, stopping abruptly beside a black pick-up truck with two guns hanging in the rear window rack. "Make it snappy," he says.
"What flavor do you want?" Nancy asks.
He hands her a dollar. "Get me a pack of cigarettes."
Nancy nudges me and I open the door, which squeaks and catches till I push hard. We both run inside. "Ugh," I say. The only flavors are Coke and lime. Nancy happily and expertly mixes the two flavors into a big waxed cup. I get a small cup of lime.
At the counter Nancy says, "And a pack of Larks."
"I can't sell you cigarettes," the clerk says.
"Oh, come on, it's for him." She points to Frank. There are so many love bugs splattered on Frank's windshield that you can hardly see him through the glass.
"Sure," the clerk says.
Nancy begins gesturing toward Frank, shrugging and pointing at the clerk. I can practically hear Frank sigh as he gets out of the car. The clerk looks him up and down. He is still wearing his breeches and his good black boots, though he has changed from his white shirt into a navy polo. A new cigarette is between his teeth.
"Pack of Larks," he says.
"How was I supposed to know they weren't for her?" the clerk says, searching under the counter for Larks.
"She smokes," Frank says, reaching for his wallet. At the last minute Nancy grabs a bag of Sugar Babies and slaps them onto the counter. Frank pays for everything and Nancy keeps the dollar he gave her before.
There are two men, long-haired, drinking cans of Busch beer in the black pick-up. I notice them staring at Nancy. Frank notices too.
"What did I tell you about wearing a bra?" he says as Nancy gets back into the car. "I don't want you bouncing around, do you hear?"
"It's not good for you, especially when you ride. You're going to sag down to here." His right hand cuts to his waist. He turns and backs out of the parking lot and pulls onto the road.
"They're not that big," Nancy says.
Frank looks down at her then back up at the road. "They're damn good for your age."
Somehow it's all right for Frank to talk like this. He's our teacher and the only man we know, other than our fathers, and they don't count.
"And don't tell your mother I said so."
"She'll tell everybody," I say.
Nancy jabs me hard with her elbow. "We were topless sunbathing," she suddenly declares.
"You were," Frank says, "but not Lucy."
I don't contradict her. I'm praying the subject will drop before I get teased. I stare out the window, hoping they don't see me blushing.
"Did you sunbathe topless, Lucy?" Frank asks.
I look over at him. He's got his eye on the road, both hands on the wheel. Nancy is staring hard at me, jutting her jaw, opening her eyes wide, by which she means, Say yes or else.
"No," I answer.
"You're a good girl," Frank says and smiles.
"Lucy is a goody-goody," Nancy says, throwing herself back against the seat.
"Then why are you friends with me?"
"Oh, shut up."
"Girls, girls." Frank's voice is raspy. He reaches behind Nancy and tousles my hair. He laughs, a low smoker's laugh. "Girls, girls," he says softly, shaking his head. Suddenly Nancy pulls off her shirt and there she is, topless, sitting beside Frank.
"Nancy," I shout.
Frank does a double take then keeps on driving. He takes out a cigarette and lights it.
"Don't act as if you haven't seen them before," Nancy says.
"That's enough," Frank says. "Get dressed."
But Nancy just sits there. I am frozen against the door, staring straight ahead. We are coming up to a red light. The street is deserted.
Nancy is holding her t-shirt, balled up, between her knees. At the intersection Frank gently brings the car to a halt and pushes the gear shift up into park. He turns his whole body and leans against his door. He looks at Nancy. I look at him.
He is amused. I can tell by his eyes. He brings the cigarette to his mouth, takes a drag and blows smoke rings, which burst against Nancy's chest. He takes another drag, smiles, squints, takes careful aim, and rings her left nipple, three times in a row.
The whole time Nancy is perfectly still.
"The light is green," I say, pointing. One car has crossed through the intersection. Another, I look back, is almost on top of us.
"Okay," Frank says. "Put your shirt back on. We're going to be late for dinner."
He shifts his weight and puts the car back into gear. Nancy lifts her shirt, looks to make sure the tag will be in back then pops it over her head.
When we pull up to the house, Dr. Matalin comes out and puts his arm around Frank. "Stay for dinner," he says. A few minutes later, Mrs. Matalin calls us. She puts the food on the table, brown rice, squash casserole, and a platter piled with roasted Cornish game hens.
Dr. Matalin is in a good mood. He's been up in his glider. He describes the sight of town from above, the excellent air drafts, how he floated for miles. He looks straight at me and says, "Lucy, I'm going to take you up."
Peter, Nancy's brother, says, "Lucy's the only one in the family who hasn't been up."
My eyes sting with tears but I manage to hold them back. I don't know if I want to be part of this family. I look up at Nancy and she is smiling. She is my only true friend. Of that I am certain.
Later that night, from the study, where I call my mother to come get me, I see Frank and Nancy walking down to the lake. They are shadows from this distance but I am sure it is them, even though Frank said good night and supposedly went home. But he is holding Nancy's hand, leading her to the water. The black swans rise and waddle to the edge of their pen. Nancy reaches up and Frank kisses her. They wade into the lake. I watch them as if it's the last time I'll see them, as if they are about to drown. They drift close to the island where the alligators live and finally their dark shapes fade into the larger darkness, and it doesn't matter how hard I squint or stare, I can't see them anymore, they are gone.
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