One of the girls frowned and lowered her arm. Lettie studied the cluster of tender fawn legs, nubile breasts. "Keep those lips wet, ladies."
Involuntarily, she licked her own upper lip, then rubbed it against the lower as if she were spreading color between them. The teenage gaggle hesitated, their arms around each other's waists and shoulders. She cupped her hands over her mouth to reach them. "You hear me?"
Slowly, with the sullen obedience of the young, her charges wet their lips, then re-struck their poses. Overhead, sea gulls wheeled and screamed. It was not February yet, and the wind along the beach was cold, stinging. Shivering in pastel bikinis, the girls had clearly forgotten the excitement of their first modeling assignment. Spasms traveled through the group like waves, and every few minutes, someone broke formation to massage her calf, unfreeze her smile.
Perspiring under a sweatshirt, a platter-shaped sunhat tied around her neck, Lettie was just getting started. "Don't forget, ladies, our name is going to be right there on the back of the Cara Mia catalog." She worked her way behind the photographer, then stood with a hand on one massive hip. "Models from the Sparks School, that's what it's going to say. Tuck in your tummy, Doreen."
She bore down on the girls until the offending pelvis was tilted, then cocked her head to one side like a slit-eyed sparrow. "The Sparks name means something, you know."
It meant something in Wynette, Tennessee. It meant glamour and opportunity in a muddy town with one stoplight and a five-and-dime that still sold hairnets. It meant enough to keep the hopefuls coming to Lettie's pink storefront between the bank and Sheer Style hair salon. It gave her some standing in the community, a modest income, and the perennial joy of supervising troupe after troupe of awkward adolescents, their long legs, their redoubtable, acned faces all turned toward her like sunflowers facing east.
"This catalog may not be Spiegel's," Lettie told them now, "but it's going to homes all across the country. Carrying the name, Ladies. The Sparks name."
The girls held their poses, but they managed to roll their eyes, to send faint, barely perceptible messages of forbearance to each other. They had heard this speech before.
"Don't forget my sister was Miss Tennessee." Lettie relaxed into the litany, taking her time. "There hasn't been another to match Adelle Sparks since, not in our state or any other." She drew the words out, stretching them like taffy. "Course it was more than looks with Adelle, you know. She had the knack, this way of moving and smiling that just kind of washed over you till you couldn't look at nothing else."
"Time to wrap." The photographer, a dark, wiry man, folded his tripod with a snap, leaving a star-shaped track in the sand. "I've got another shoot," he told Lettie with authority. "Besides," nodding toward the girls, "they're getting too antsy to stand still."
"We haven't done the sports outfits, Phil." Lettie's chin quivered; she fingered a strand of limp hair that had fallen from under the sun hat.
"We'll do them tomorrow," the photographer said, hoisting the strap of one of his equipment cases over his shoulder. He sounded annoyed, and Lettie wondered if she should have called him Mr. Lambert instead of Phil. "But we're doing the cover tomorrow." She sidled up to him, spoke confidentially. "We're only here for two days. I don't want these young ladies to miss any more school than they have to." She shook her head.
"Besides, we booked our trip home in advance." Even out of season, Fort Lauderdale seemed exotic and costly. Mentally, she toted up the rooms, the burgers, the video games, the movie they'd begged for last night.
"No problem." Lambert waved to the girls, then without looking at Lettie, turned and began making his way toward the palm-fringed parking lot and his Toyota. "We'll get it all tomorrow." He pivoted and walked backwards for a minute, staring hard at Lettie. "Just settle them down a bit, okay?" His footprints, she noticed with something like regret, got lighter and lighter as if he were losing substance with each step.
The girls were relieved. Struggling into coverups and sweatshirts, they were no longer mannequins. Laughing, yelling, they had already started to follow the photographer. "Just where do you think you're going?" Lettie stood behind them, arms folded under her breasts. Her voice was strong again, her eyes narrowing to toughness. "We haven't chosen a Sparkette for the cover yet."
The girls stopped. Doreen, with the protruding stomach, turned back toward Lettie. She was thin, with ginger-colored eyes and an indefinite, too-small mouth. "Are we going to do that now?" she asked. "Right here?"
"What we got to do?" A stolid, sallow-skinned girl turned, too, and pushed her way ahead of Doreen. Sharon Watson had a hopeless overbite, limpid, swimmy eyes. "Can I go first?"
Lettie waited until the other two had filed back, until the girls surrounded her with their bare legs, their damp towels. She felt their eagerness, smelled their hope. A jogger and a black dog loped toward them, the first movement on the beach all morning, but no one turned to look. They were all holding their breath, rigid with anticipation.
"You're my best," Lettie told them. There was a fierce, almost threatening edge to her pride. "No better in the whole state of Tennessee. That's why you're here, why your mommas and your daddies have gone and paid your bus fare clear to Florida." Her voice shook with conviction, her half closed eyes took on a messianic shine.
"When you win the Lettie Sparks School of Modeling runway competition, Tara MacNeil, you know you've got something special." Lettie nodded toward a redhead, shorter than the others, who kicked the sand and whinnied with pleasure. "And when you're voted Miss Photogenic Sparkette for 1990, Wanda May Peterson, you can be sure you're going places." Wanda May smiled broadly at the rest, a hard relentless shining.
"Just like my sister, ladies. Why, if Adelle had lived, nobody would've been surprised to see her land that Miss America title. She was a natural winner, just like you all. Wasn't anything she ever tried, she didn't get."
Baby prizes, majorette contests, tap titles Adelle sweeping past her mother and sister, eyes glazed with pride, taffeta skirts rustling against gym floors, crown after crown perched like a sparkling bird on her blond hair. One time their mother had taken Lettie's hand impulsively, as if they were grownup friends. "Look at our baby, will you?" she'd shrieked, frightening Lettie with her intensity, her sudden tears. "Look at our beautiful baby!"
Lettie studied the faces around her, saw the picture at the back of their eyes, the picture of a cover girl, spinning like a tuft of milkweed down the runway, trailing glory. "And you, Doreen, you won that trophy and sported that cute little outfit when you were Miss Zesty for Barkley's Barbecue Sauce." Doreen, lean and calculating, nodded, remembering.
"The point I'm trying to make here is that you're all winners." Lettie paused, let them hear the wind, feel it tug at them like yearning. "But there's winners and there's winners." Her voice turned stern, imperious.
"There can only be one Sparkette on the cover of this here catalog. It's time to see if you got the knack."
"What knack?" Now that the shoot was over, Sharon had somehow found gum. (Was it an old wad retrieved from the pocket of her terry jacket? Was she chewing furiously now on Bubble Yum and cotton strands?)
"The knack Adelle had, of course," Lettie said. "The Sparks spark."
"But exactly how you going to choose?" Doreen was a cheerleader at Warren T. Bosco High. Lettie had seen the way she studied the gold-framed photos on the walls at the modeling school, the way she pored over the shots of Adelle, like she was taking notes. "What we got to do to get picked?"
"Just got to have looks the camera likes," Lettie told her, smiling, keeping the secret to herself. "Just got to look the way Adelle did when that movie producer saw her. Day before the accident, he come up to her, told her she should get tested."
"We going to get tested, then?" Sharon stopped chewing, held Lettie for a second in the sway of her determination. "I'm going first." Sharon always went first.
Lettie shook her off like water. "Walked right up to Adelle in the street, this Hollywood bigwig." She stooped to fumble through the makeup case, took out a jar of Vaseline. "Said he wouldn't be surprised if she wasn't just right for one of his pictures." The flesh under her arms trembled as she rubbed the Vaseline on each girl's face in turn.
"Picture perfect," she said. "That's what he called her. And that's what she was."
The girls stood still again, letting Lettie smear their noses, lips, eyelids. "Now, ladies," she told them, "our cover girl is going to be wet all over, cause everyone looks better wet." She finished the last nose, then started on their forearms. "I want each and every one of you to dunk yourselves in that water there and show me what a good time you're having in your Cara Mia swim suit."
No one wanted to go in. They walked forward, slowly, mechanically toward the waves, but stopped about two feet short as if they'd hit an invisible barrier, some line of common sense they could not cross. Even Sharon hesitated, raking the wet sand with her toes, her greased arms wrapped around her torso. "It's colder than a witch's tit," she said softly.
"Don't want to hear no mouth, either, ladies." Lettie adjusted her hat, the brim of which has turned inside out and was threatening to lift off her head like an inverted umbrella in the wind. "Just got to get in up to your waists, anyway. I don't know what all the fuss is about."
"I'm drowning! I'm drowning!" Sharon had finally plunged ahead of the others. In the water up to her knees, she was not drowning at all. She was holding her nose and dancing, turning in manic circles, her terrier hair turned the color of caramel in the sun.
"Now, see there." Lettie closed the makeup case and sat down beside it in the sand. "Nothing to it. Right, Sharon?" Doreen and Tara waded in reluctantly, then began to squeal with self-conscious delight at their own agony.
"Ooooooh! I can't stand this." "Get me out of here!" "Turn on the hot water, will you?!" Laughing, Tara lifted her wax-coated arms and face to the sun, her russet hair ignited. Doreen scooped the water with her hands, then surrendered suddenly, sitting as if for tea in the middle of a wave. Now all three girls made a game of daring the water, ducking low, then bursting up again, baby Venuses, born over and over.
"Do I have to go in, Miss Sparks? I've got cramps." Wanda May had walked up behind Lettie, was whining in her ear. " 'Sides, I hate the water."
Lettie was annoyed. "Besides nothing. That's the whole story, isn't it?"
She had heard the confidence under Wanda May's whine, the assurance of a spoiled child.
"Pleassssssse." Wanda May pursed her lips, her eyes deep as sapphires.
"Don't make me."
"Make you?" Lettie looked away from the burning eyes, the eyes that always got what they wanted. "I'm not going to make you, child. You're going to make yourself if you want that cover."
She brushed sand from the valley of her lap and turned to watch the rest of her nymphets. They were sitting on each other's shoulders now, wobbling perilously, then collapsing with hysterical yelps back into the sea. "Don't they look great out there?" she asked no one in particular. "Don't they look just great?"
Before she turned back, Wanda May was gone. Her whole body rigid with resentment, Lettie's star pupil marched into the sea. Disdainfully, without stopping, she waded out to her waist, then beyond. "That's far enough!" Lettie called to her and Wanda May stopped. She turned, ducked her head under the water, and when she came up, her blond hair was dark, her skin glistening. She ducked again, reappeared again, this time smiling in triumph. She raised her hands above her head, opened her arms wide.
Wanda May was a magnet now. Lettie watched her and no one else. Even though she knew the girl could not be enjoying herself, could not have metamorphosed so quickly from the sullen, angry teen who one minute ago had stomped down the damp slope of beach, she watched. Wanda May was a water sprite, the sea's avatar. Her smile was liquid, flashing, her body a shining mystery, and her beauty a flag that unfurled and fluttered in the wind.
And then she vanished. It was as if she'd been pulled down by the ankles, sucked under the white-headed wave. Lettie heard her scream, a harsh barking sound, then she saw the others jumping in place, calling to the tiny figure that flapped its arms and whirled in a crazy diagonal toward the dark, toothsome jetty that split the beach and sea.
"Wanda May!" Lettie was on her feet, stumbling, yelling. "Wanda May!" It was too early for lifeguards. There was no one, the whole length of the beach. "Wanda May!"
The other girls were reaching their hands out, waving them like useless lilies toward Wanda May. Tugged and pulled and wrenched, Wanda May screamed and flailed, drawing closer all the time to the crusty logs, the finger of rocks pointing into the sea. Still the girls stood, waving in helpless pantomime.
But then Sharon Watson turned. She looked once at Lettie, her colorless eyes lit with sudden purpose. She waded out until she could no longer touch bottom, then swam with rapid strokes toward Wanda May. Lettie clutched her huge, lineless hands together, ran along the shore. "Ladies, not over your waist. Didn't I say not over your waist?"
The man swam with powerful, even strokes, the dog paddling like a comic sidekick behind him. Until they were all bobbing in the water near the jetty the man, the dog and the two floundering girls bound together like twins. "Didn't I tell you?" Lettie asked no one, tears blowing back against her face.
The man wrapped an arm around Wanda May's neck, forcing her chin up toward the bright sky. Then he swam on his back, dragging Wanda May with him toward shore. Sharon swam beside them, her hand lost in the dog's black fur, riding him like a dolphin. As the four of them dragged themselves out of the water, Lettie saw that the top of Wanda May's bathing suit had fallen off one breast and that her legs had been cut by the fierce edges of barnacles. Sharon could walk, but the man carried Wanda May like a rag doll, laid her down in the sand. He stood over her, water dripping off his big square face, his shoulders heaving. Lettie ran to them, put a towel around Sharon, then knelt beside Wanda May.
Fringed with long, sand-covered lashes, Wanda May's eyes were hollow with fear, her arms and legs streamed blood and her small white breast was a fact so sad and poignant, so perfect that it overwhelmed them all. Lettie reached down and pulled up the strap of her bathing suit and covered her with a second towel. The cuts were scratches, the man said, nothing serious, but when the towel touched them, Wanda May shuddered and pulled back. Like a rosebud in the wind, Lettie thought. Like Adelle's body under the blue sedan.
The Labrador shook himself, sending water and tiny sand rockets toward the girls. They laughed and petted him, talking nervously, watching Wanda May from a distance. The man who had rescued her smiled down at her upturned prettiness. "You gave us a scare there, young lady," he told her, hands on his hips. "Your throat might be sore for a few days from all that salt. But otherwise you should be just fine."
Wanda May pulled into her towel, blinked at him. For a few seconds, she seemed not to know where she was. Then she focused, blinked again, and an incredible, photogenic smile broadened across her face. It was the same smile she had worn in the waves before she fell. It was the same smile she wore in every photo in her portfolio. "I sure am glad you came along," she said.
"So am I." Lettie reached over, touched the man's arm with her hand. "I hate to think what might have happened if you hadn't been here." He stood now, and Lettie stood with him. "These young ladies and I are all by ourselves." Her voice sounded coquettish, tinny. "Why, I can't even do the dead man's float!" She giggled and looked at him, but he looked away, watching the girls and the dog. Then he whistled. "Come on, Archer," he called. "Come on, boy."
When they got back to the Cozee Motel, the sun was high overhead and the day was beginning to warm up. Instead of dancing agitatedly the way the palms at the beach had done, the trees here were rustling like straw, waving to each other without passion across the stucco courtyard. Two little boys by the half-filled pool, were playing with a salamander in a glass jar.
"When will you tell us?" On the ride back, Sharon had gloried in her part of the rescue. The girls were fussing over her, and Lettie saw how giddy she was, how swollen with accomplishment. "Who got the cover, Miss Sparks?"
Lettie was standing by room 108 with her key in her hand, watching the children with the salamander. They were squatting on their heels studying the little lizard's frantic attempts to scale the glass walls of the jar.
"Well," she said, "I guess now's as good a time as any to make the announcement."
Every year, they came to her on the sly. The mothers betting on their daughters. Doreen's mother made Lettie cakes, dark and damp inside their plastic wrap, filled with dried fruit and macadamia nuts; Sylvia MacNeil, a red-head like her daughter, sewed draperies for the school's front window; Flo Watson brought Lettie a diamond-shaped bottle of White Shoulders every Christmas; Cynthia Peterson sent her cards and candy. They wanted their girls to model in the school fashion show, to get their names in the Wynette Whisper. They wanted, finally, a ticket out.
"Get over here, you all," Sharon shrieked. "Miss Sparks has made up her mind!" There was an animal scurrying and shuffling, then they were all around Lettie, waiting. It was suddenly quiet, except for the laughter of the two small boys who had decided to set the salamander's bottle adrift in the pool.
"Now, this wasn't easy, mind you." Lettie looked from one to the other, let her earnestness travel around the ring of bright faces. "I told you before you're all winners and it's not easy to choose between winners." The four girls were tense, bent forward toward her from their waists. Sharon's eyes were closed and she was smiling, as if she were tasting something sweet.
Wanda May's face was set and stiff, empty of feeling. The little boys shrieked, but no one looked up. They focused on Lettie's perspiring, florid face.
"What I looked for today when you all were in the water," she told them, "what I looked for was the knack. And what I saw was that Wanda May here has it." There was a stunned time, the wake of surprise that follows decision. In the silence, the boys dropped the jar against the tile edge of the pool. "Wanda May!" Sharon's plain face turned fierce and wounded, touched on a scar. "But I'm the best swimmer here. I helped save Wanda May."
The rest of the girls were reconciled, congratulating Wanda May half-heartedly, anxious to get out of their wet clothes, thinking of lunch. But Sharon was a fury. Implacable. "Wanda May was the last one in. She can't even swim." Wanda May was already posing for the cover. Her smile, glistening and even, was focused on Lettie. "Thanks, Miss Sparks," she said. "I'll do my best. My very, very best."
"It's not fair!" Savage with the loss of a sure thing, Sharon closed in on Lettie. The others stood back from her now, keeping their distance, while she glared at Lettie, her eyes moist and ripe, spilling over at the edges. "I wanted it more than she did."
Lettie turned away to inspect her cover girl. "We'll keep you right in close to shore, Wanda May. And we'll turn you so those scratches on your arm don't show." Wanda May, remembering her injuries, looked down at her right arm; her lips parted, her mouth sucked into a delicate, indignant O. Just like Adelle, Lettie thought. And for one numb, unbalanced second, it was as if there had been no accident. As if Adelle had never darted, fragile and arrogant, into the path of that car.
"Wanda May doesn't even care!" Sharon was crying openly now, her whole face blotched with fervor, raw and runny like something torn from a shell. "She wins everything." Her voice was husky, outraged. "Oh, I know what you're going to say," she told Lettie and the girls. "You're all going to say, 'That's okay, Sharon, next time, Sharon.' Like you always do."
"And we'll need to wrap some kind of ribbon in your hair." Lettie was studying Wanda May, one chubby hand under her chin. "Turquoise maybe, to pick up that stripe in the swimsuit."
"Next time's no good!" Sharon was sobbing in between the words, choking on them. The others watched her stupefied, as if she were someone in a movie, someone they couldn't help. "I wanted to win," she barked, finding new force, yelling so Lettie had to hear. "I wanted it more than anything!"
Lettie turned to her slowly now, as if it hurt to take her eyes off Wanda May. She saw the new sunburn on Sharon's freckles. She saw a ragged tear track leading down to the girl's mouth, like a river on a map going back to the sea. "Wanting's not enough, Sharon," she said without anger or compassion. "Wanting's not the half."
Louise Hawes is the author of the 1999 novel for young adults Rosey In The Present Tense. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals in the U.S. and Canada. She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999-2000. ISSN: 1527-3075