It is so hot this July that we move slowly and only eat cold things. The best cold thing is the red, white and blue popsicle shaped like a missile that comes out of the back of the ice cream truck that rolls down our street in the late afternoon, broadcasting scratchy carnival tunes from a bullhorn. We are usually sunbathing in uncomfortable bikinis, directing the sun’s rays onto our faces with reflectors made of cardboard album covers wrapped in aluminum foil. When we hear the tinkle of the ice cream truck we adjust our tops, tiptoe fast across the blazing driveway to the street, and wave dollars at the shy ice cream man. The red, white and blue rocket pop beckons, but we’re going out tonight and don’t want our teeth and lips to turn blue so we have Creamsicles instead.
The days are long and empty the summer following 9th grade when we anticipate, with fear and stomach-sinking excitement, tenth grade. In this small Tennessee town, tenth grade is a make it or break it year. Tenth grade girls are being sized up for Little Sister by the high school fraternities that dominate the town’s teenage social life, an honor that reflects mostly good looks, an influential boyfriend or a family that ranks high in our town’s limited social hierarchy. The summer before tenth grade, girls are rushed by high school sororities, a wild popularity contest that appeals to those of us who don’t have claims to fame or infamy, intellectual or athletic prowess, or disqualifying eccentricities. Our task is to get to know popular high school kids before we go to Jackson High and become big nothings.
My best friend and I are newcomers to this social scene and the formula that drives it, and more than anything we want to be part of the in-crowd. So this summer we are in training, browning our bodies and dressing like Barbie dolls in color-coordinated hot pants and tank tops, our lips frosted and our hair teased. We alternate spending evenings playing with the neighborhood kids — kick-the-can on darkened streets while bats zip and dive overhead — and going downtown when we can snag a ride.
We rendezvous at the Dairy Queen, a central location on the town’s main drag. At the DQ cars cruise, necks crane and eyes cast sideways glances at the newest arrivals. On Dairy Queen nights we tell our mothers we’re going out with girlfriends, and are picked up by older girls who school us in being cool.
This July night, an older girl driving a big station wagon drops us off in the DQ parking lot and we are planning to share a cherry slushie when a red low-slung convertible pulls up in front of us. Its driver, sun-tanned in aviator sunglasses, is the notorious doctor’s son we’ve heard about. We’ve heard about the doctor’s second wife, young and sexy, and the toddler who drowned in the swimming pool behind their house. We’ve heard about car races on the Old Medina Road and the unflinching nerve of this boy. When he tells us to jump in, we do it.
He revs the engine loud enough to turn heads and as he pulls onto the street, our hands fly up to our hair and clutch the door handles. Friends our age point at us from the DQ parking lot and give us thumbs up. We don’t know where we’re going.
A drink in a Dairy Queen cup sloshes in the front seat console smelling sickly sweet. We learn that our driver is drinking Southern Comfort when he pulls out a bottle and offers us some. We shake our heads no and give each other bug-eyes. Our driver smirks and jerks the wheel with one hand, weaves through traffic, turns onto a side street then onto the Old Medina Road. We know we’re in trouble when he hurtles the red car down the country road.
“Where you want to go?” he yells. I look at my friend and she looks at him coldly. “Home,” she says.
Forty-five years later, out here in the middle distance, I think of the 14-year old girl in my life and know she’s smarter than I was. My parents would have killed me if they had known, but they didn’t ask. When my daughter was 14, did I ask?
He drops us off at the end of our street and roars off into the night. By the time we come inside, we are covered with sweat from playing kick-the-can. We let the little kids win. It seemed like the right thing to do.