By: Tamra Wilson
If we could have chosen anyplace to live, it would’ve been Deanie Fripp’s side of Tampa Bay. The Fripps lived on Davis Islands, a swanky neighborhood connected to the rest of the city by a short concrete bridge. The bridge wasn’t but a few hundred feet long, but it might as well have been a hundred miles compared to our place.
Davis Islands was where doctors and lawyers and architects lived. Deanie’s Dad was an architect which meant he designed houses. The streets were full of fancy Spanish-style homes built around screened-in swimming pools. Over there, life was sunnier, cushier, well-perfumed.
Deanie was named for her father, Dean Fripp as a consolation prize for not having a son. Deanie was the youngest of three girls. There would be no more. Her older sisters, Brenda and Bev, were much too sophisticated for second graders like us.
Deanie’s name suited her. She was louder than most girls and when it came to playing Follow the Leader or Red Rover, she got picked off the bat. And when it came time for Show and Tell, she brought educational stuff such as a hand-painted Kachina doll from New Mexico or shiny Canadian coins from vacation in Quebec. Her mother spoke French as good as Jackie Kennedy, Deanie said.
For Deanie’s birthday, Mrs. Fripp brought cupcakes speared with fancy toothpicks with felt dancing figures. I had seen these at the corner bakery and wanting just one, but Mama had balked at because the dancers turned a twenty-cent cupcake into what she called “a quarter-a-piece propostion.” Amazingly Mrs. Fripp had bought the whole box, costing a full $7.50 plus tax. I had done the math.
That year every girl in our class had been invited to Deanie’s birthday party except for me and, Elena who had escaped Castro’s Cuba. The slight had hurt Elena’s feelings more than mine because her mother was the Fripp’s maid. Every day at school I expected Deanie to announce this uneven fact to the class. I imagined how she would gloat and Elena would blush. I knew I’d stick up for Elena though it would be hopeless to expect sympathy.
Elena’s mother had told her the Fripps’ house was built near a canal and had a cabin cruiser in their backyard. I didn’t want to believe this. All we had in ours was a rusted swing set, fire ant beds and two dented garbage cans.
Every girl in our class had been invited to Deanie’s house party except for me and Elena. Knowing what a snob Deanie was, I was glad I hadn’t been invited. It would have been a waste of precious money to buy her a gift that wouldn’t measure up.
After school that next day, I was helping Mama prepare green beans for supper. She did the stringing, I did the snapping.
“You should give a gift with a cheerful heart. That’s what it says in the Bible,” Mama said. I’d heard all that in Sunday School, but who wanted to be cheerful about wasting money on a classmate I didn’t even like?
“You should like everyone,” Mama reminded me. “Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they’re bad.”
I swished some beans around in the water. “It’s a lot harder for them to be good.”
“That I will agree with,” she said.
I asked Mama why the Fripps hadn’t sent Deanie to Seaborn, the private school for wealthy kids.
Mama held her paring knife in mid-air. “Maybe they want Deanie to be with regular kids.” Meaning that the Fripps weren’t as stuck-up as they could be. I still wasn’t buying it.
It so happened that the next week was Elena’s birthday. That Saturday Mrs. Hernandez’s day off, she allowed Elena and me to ride along to pick up something at the Fripps’ house. I had never been there, so I felt lucky to satisfy my curiosity about actually seeing where Deanie lived.
The clunky old Ford bumped over the concrete seams of the Davis Islands Bridge, past Tampa General Hospital, then turned right. Such large, beautiful homes belonged in the movies. Wild crayon-box colors spilled over concrete planters and lawn edgings. A few blocks down the curvy street, men, sweating in the morning humidity, were unrolling sod like giant strips of green carpet.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“New grass,” Mrs. Hernandez said.
“What’s wrong with the old grass?”
“It not so pretty,” she tried to explain, She talked as if there were dashes in place of verbs.
Rolling out grass? I had never heard of anything so silly. Maybe rich people ran out of things to spend their money on so they came up with excuses.
Mrs. Hernandez steered around the dirty flatbed truck, then pulled into a short driveway.
Waving sprinklers fanned the lawn like giant fishtails. The double front doors were the lacquered red, the very kind that Loretta Young swirled through on TV. I didn’t watch the show much, but Mama liked it. At the beginning of each episode, an orchestra would play glamorous music and Miss Young would sweep through the double doors, careful not to catch her satin train as she closed them behind her. I guessed that the Fripps like the show too, for building a house with double doors like Miss Young’s.
And sure enough, the stories were right. Through a wrought iron gate by the garage, I could see, sure enough, the prow of a white cabin cruiser.
“You girls stay.” Mrs. Hernandez said. “I return pronto.” She hurried to the side entrance.
“Her home is a palace,” Elena said. “We have such houses in Cuba.”
Elena’s eyes grew dark. “Los caballeros. Friends of Castro.”
“You mean Castro has friends?” The idea surprised me. He sure wasn’t our friend and he wasn’t the Hernandezes’ friend, but some fools might think he was nice, especially if he gave them fancy houses to live in.
“Do the Fripps know him?” I said.
Elena frowned. “I don’t think so.”
A girl with wet stringy hair looked down at us through gauzy curtains in French windows on a second-floor balcony. She wore a white bathrobe, as if she had just stepped out of the pool.
“That’s Deanie, isn’t it?”
“Holy Columbo! We’re in trouble now.” Elena shrank down in the seat.
“Mother said for us to stay put.”
A couple of seconds later, Deanie opened those double front doors and bounced over to the car window, the hem of her bathrobe almost touching the wet ground. “What are you doing here?”
Elena looked at me, then I at her.
“Mama brought us along for sundaes,” Elena said. “Yesterday was my birthday.”
Deanie narrowed her eyes. “Where were your cupcakes?”
“My mother…she forgot to bring them. So we’re having a treat instead.”
It was the truth. Mrs. Hernandez was going to take us to the Davis Islands Pharmacy for sundaes because she didn’t have time off to make, buy or bring expensive cupcakes to our class.
Deanie squinted one eye. “Why don’t you come inside?”
“Mother told us to stay in the car.”
“She’s in there talking to my mother. She won’t know any different. You can see my doll collection.”
“I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“You’re just a fraidy cat.”
“We are not,” I said.
And there we went, following Deanie inside, walking over terrazzo floor and thick rugs with twisty designs all over them. We didn’t make a sound as we passed by the dining room. The door was ajar where Mrs. Hernandez rubbing a cloth on silverware at a long polished dining table. I watched her rub the knives and forks with a soft cloth, working more on her day off. Mrs. Fripp was standing beside her, talking about a party she had planned that evening.
“I thought she was picking up something,” I whispered.
Deanie put her finger to her lips and motioned us down a long hallway. The place smelled of marine paint and chlorine. We passed several closed doors before Deanie opened one of them. “Here’s my room,” she whispered.
Elena and I gasped. Flouncy pink gingham covered her canopy bed, the curtains, even the vanity dresser skirt, a sophisticated touch for an eight-year-old. Sleeping Beauty figurines stared blankly from a shelf. Sliding glass doors faced the pool, a large aqua-colored oval, surrounded by feathery potted plants, a red-and-white rope marking the deep end and white lounge furniture. The whole thing was trapped inside a screened porch to keep the bugs out.
My mouth flew open. “You got a pool too?”
“Well yes,” she said, as if it was the dumbest question in the world. “I swim every day if I want to. That’s why I’m so good at it. I was swimming right before you drove up.”
A row of trophies stood at attention on the top shelf. Three Barbies lined up on the shelf beneath them, blonde, brunette, red head and in different outfits you buy at the store: Wedding Day Barbie, Garden Party, Dinner at Eight.
“Are all these yours?” I said.
“Of course. Don’t you have a Barbie?”
“One,” I said, but Elena kept quiet. She didn’t have a Barbie. Her mother couldn’t afford the doll, much less the outfits.
I pointed at the lineup. “What’s their names?”
Deanie looked at me as if I was growing Spanish moss out of my ears. “Barbie.”
“You don’t have your own names for them?” I said.
She tilted her face to one side. “No. That’s babyish.”
“What do you call your Barbie?” she asked Elena.
Elena looked down at her sneakers. Her cheeks flamed.
“Barbie,” I spoke for her. “That’s what you call them, isn’t it?”
Elena was studying the hooked rug spread over the brown terrazzo. It was of a mermaid and looked like it had been drawn with a squiggly crayon.
Elena tugged my arm. “Is that Mother calling?”
“I don’t hear anybody.” Then Deanie showed us how full her closet was and pulled out every built-in drawer to see how her clothes were folded like stock in a department store. I imagined being her, having so many things exactly alike—seersucker shorts, knit tops, dresses in rainbow colors, as if she had picked out a particular style and bought every color available. As Elena oohed and ahhed about the clothes, I noticed someone in the doorway.
“What’s this, a party?” Mrs. Fripp stood there in her white capri slacks. Her blouse had a scrawly print in coordinated colors, small French sailors in red berets. Mrs. Hernandez was standing behind her.
“Elena! I tell you to stay in the car,” Elena’s mother said. “Mrs. Fripp, she knows not to come uninvited.”
“No problem, Celia. The girls know each other from school, don’t you?”
We all three nodded.
“Mom, I was just showing them my stuff,” Deanie said, pointing at Mrs. Hernandez.
“That’s right,” I added. “Deanie invited us inside.”
“No problem at all,” she looked over at Mrs. Hernandez with a swishing motion of her hands. “Not to worry. Now Deanie, did you give Elena her present?”
Deanie shrugged, then disappeared down the hall and returned with a pink-striped package with curly white ribbon. She looked at the floor as she handed it to Elena.
“Thank you,” Elena said.
“You’re welcome,” Deanie mumbled.
We stood there awkwardly.
“Why don’t you open it?” I said.
“Maybe she’d rather wait,” Deanie’s mother said.
“Yes, it is getting late. We don’t want to bother you. We go now,” Mrs. Hernandez said.
Outside, in the car, Elena tore into the box and ruffled the tissue aside to reveal a baby doll in yellow organdy and bonnet, no tags. It was used. Deanie had obviously played with it before and decided she didn’t want it anymore.
“Nice eh?” Mrs. Hernandez said. “They remember your birthday.”
“Yes,” Elena said quietly. She picked the doll out of the box, turned her around. Elena looked up the dress. No panties.
“Why would she give you that?” I asked, but as soon as I spoke, Elena looked hurt. “Mrs. Fripp is nice to give me a present, si?”
I said si, but I didn’t see at all. I wanted to punch myself for not having a gift for Elena. She was my best friend and I didn’t have money to buy her something at the pharmacy. I was sorry that Mom and I had not discussed this and made plans. We weren’t much better than the Fripps trying to make do while flunking miserably.
On the way to the soda fountain I thought hard about what I could give Elena, but I couldn’t come up with anything good except a drawing.
When I got home I drew a picture of a family on a boat. A mother, father and a girl with black hair, just like Elena’s family. I tried to imagine what they looked like with brave faces riding in a rickety boat from Cuba in choppy water. I could imagine Mrs. Hernandez telling her husband to row faster, to watch out for big waves that might turn them over. I imagined Elena, holding on to the edge for dear life, afraid that she might tumble out. I used colored pencils to fill in between the lines just so while I imagined how scared they must have been floating in the ocean with nothing around them but water and sky and a shark fin. I started to cry a little before I was finished.
I thought how Elena would brighten up when she saw my gift because it was made just for her, not some cheesy hand-me-down. She would be happy with my present even though I hadn’t paid money for it. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to give this present because I had taken so much time to give away part of my sorry heart.
Tamra Wilson is a columnist and regular contributor to “WFAEats,” a food blog affiliated with NPR in Charlotte, NC. She is the author of Dining with Robert Redford & Other Stories and has published in such journals as storySouth, The New Guard, Nassau Review and North Carolina Literary Review. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She is a self-described book nerd, eclectic collector, dog person and Sixties music devotee. She spent second grade in Tampa, FL.