He was the quiet one, the one we found tucked in the back corner of The Pit Stop, just home for our first Christmas break. He’d cut off all his hair. We hardly knew him, and when we said, “Hello, Carter Vaughn, guess who?” he threw up his hand at us but not a word. Just his eyes on that portable chess set we were told he carried with him every night to the bar. Tricia said she’d heard that he played for money, which we thought had to be a joke, since Carter was the last person who needed more.
Then the next weekend, the Friday before Christmas, we were at The Pit Stop again. So was Carter. So was Sammy Drawers. Sammy graduated high school the same year as us, and after graduation, he started a three-member Japanese racing bike group called Hell’s Acres. Sam’s a big guy—big everywhere!—and that night he was tanked and stumbled into Carter’s table. The chess set fell to the floor, and black and white royalty went flying. You would have thought a bomb had gone off, the way we all looked at one another, feeling the realignment that had taken place. Carter pushed over his table and grabbed Sammy by the collar, telling him he was going to pick up every last chess piece. Those of us nearby bent down to help Sam, we felt so bad, and Carter saying, “There’s still a rook missing motherfucker!” Carter folded up his chess set and went home, and we never saw that little chess set again.
You’re probably thinking that none of us girls was old enough to be there at The Pit Stop being it converts from pizza shop to cocktail lounge after 10:00 p.m. You’re right. It was our fault being there, and we know it. So please don’t punish anyone else, please.
Before the Vaughns moved to our town from the nation’s capital, their house appeared in the middle of what had been the Pratts’ field of corn only a few weeks before. Like a lot of families in Sinking Springs, the Pratts fell on hard times. Dr. Vaughn bought a section of their land, persuading them to sell him two more acres than they’d been intending to sell. He had the field plowed under and truckloads of soil hauled in to create a hill on top of which the Vaughns’ house and in-ground pool were to be built. We watched the skeleton of the house go up, stretched along the crest of the hill, and we could hardly believe when its third and then fourth floors appeared. Before the walls were plastered, we sneaked up there after the builders had gone. We’d take beer and/or boyfriends and pretend we were the ones moving in. “Oh, the china cabinet goes over there!” or “Please bring the davenport to this lovely spot by the window!” We left cigarette butts and empty beer bottles to let the Vaughns know we’d been there first. (Ms. Dolly, our coach, would have killed us if she knew we were drinking and/or smoking in season!) When the foundation was poured, we dipped our fingers into the cement and made a long crack from one side of the house to the other. Then, the next day, horrible black and orange signs went up: Keep Out, Private Property, Violators Will Be Prosecuted. We found a magic marker and some masking tape in Jenny’s car and changed that last one to Violators Will Be Prostituted.
The Vaughns finally moved into their house on the hill when we were juniors in high school, which meant Carter was a sophomore and his older brother Kennedy was our year. Eleanor, the youngest Vaughn, attended the middle school. Dr. Vaughn set up a dentistry office overnight. Mrs. Vaughn fought for a seat on the school board. Most of our parents hadn’t gone to college, and Mrs. Vaughn had a way of making them feel guilty for that. “What do you all know about education?” she laughed. “I was a social studies teacher for nine years!” Our mothers didn’t like Mrs. Vaughn, but they felt they needed to include her. Otherwise, they were convinced they’d become the know-nothing dimwits she assumed them to be. When Mrs. Vaughn talked about her life before coming to Sinking Springs, she always referred to her home as “the Nation’s Capital,” not “Washington,” not “D.C.,” always “the Nation’s Capital,” as if she wanted everyone to think she’d had some part in its founding.
All of the Vaughns had thick hair, nearly black, but Carter Vaughn had blond hair, which drew us to him immediately. How it must have been for him living in that family of blackheads! Carter’s blond hair fell from his head like an unhinged dream, the wheat color we all wanted ourselves, the thickness, the length. Until Carter we had thought boys with long hair wanted to be girls, but Carter changed our minds. We understood him immediately, everything about him, how it must have been living in that family. In high school, we loved Carter Vaughn for eight other reasons: 1.) He owned a Pogues sweatshirt, 2.) He quoted Nietzsche, 3.) He drank grape soda, 4.) He could burp the word “Hello” after drinking grape soda, 5.) He took his class notes on graph paper, 6.) He listened to cassette tapes, 7.) He had a dimple in his chin, and most importantly 8.) He was a phenomenal tennis player. Both Vaughn brothers were. Carter didn’t hit as hard as his brother Kennedy, but he played smarter, and when you watched him, his shots made you laugh, while Kennedy’s shots made you oh. Carter used drop shots and spins to make his opponents look ridiculous. It was his way. He refused to play against his older brother, however, and because of that, he couldn’t be ranked on the singles team, although the Vaughn brothers played unstoppable doubles and took the state championships our senior year. They understood each other’s game so well.
So this is how we came to be friends with Carter Vaughn. The thing was, we wanted to learn, so was it our fault, girls’ varsity tennis of the Sinking Springs Mavericks, that we grew up in a crappy town that only knew football and basketball and wrestling? We wanted to learn. Carter told us that girls should always hit against boys since boys were stronger partners. That way, when we actually played against other girls, we’d wipe them off the court. We believed him. We wanted to wipe the courts with the other schools’ girls. “It’s not just about hitting the ball,” he said. “It’s about paying attention to what’s happening on the other side of the net. If you see your opponent tiring, move her around. If she starts to get mad, keep the ball in play and give her time to make more mistakes. Exploit your opponent’s weaknesses. Pay attention.”
So we practiced, and Carter practiced with us. And Kennedy Vaughn, so unlike his blond brother, only played against other boys. He only cared about his getting stronger and better, nothing about us.
It makes sense to us now how everything began with that house on the hill. Even after we became friends with Carter Vaughn, we would drive past that house to see Mr. Vaughn teeing up golf balls that he’d hit into the field or Mrs. Vaughn pointing out to one of our mothers in the plant nursery where to place a peony bush, and we’d swear we could see a giant crack coming down the center of that house, ready to split it in two.
Carter had us over just a couple of times, and only then when the rest of his family wasn’t home. “My family’s all tools,” he told us, “except for Eleanor. God, they’re all so lame.”
Eleanor, the sister, never said a word, although you could tell she would have a lot to say if the time finally came. A few times we would think nobody else was in the room and suddenly we’d look up to find Eleanor standing in the doorway, staring at us as she squirted Hershey’s Syrup into the palm of her hand, licking her fingers as if they were spoons. “No wonder you’re so fat, Eleanor,” Carter would say. “Look at you!”
Once in that house we decided to all play hide-and-seek. Carter said he’d be “it,” so we all went running room to room, climbing into the Vaughns’ closets, under their beds, some of us in Kennedy Vaughn’s bedroom on purpose to go through his drawers. Everything in that house was so clean and/or soft and/or new. We held our breaths tightly in our chests so that Carter wouldn’t hear. And then we waited and waited until we couldn’t wait anymore. When we finally tiptoed from our hiding places, we found Carter stretched out on the couch in the den, watching Apocalypse Now on DVD. “What gives?” we said.
“Fooled you,” he said. “You thought I was going to find you.”
“You’re stupid, Carter,” we said.
“Not as stupid as you.”
Our mothers would ask us what it was like in that house, and we couldn’t tell them the truth. We’d tell them how dusty Mrs. Vaughn kept things and made up stories about pet stains on a new beige rug. We invented unclean dishes in the kitchen sink, the smell of some horrible foreign spice that would not leave the air even when windows were kept open. We’d tell our mothers what a shame it was, everything that they had that they let go to waste.
All the while, we were improving. Anyone could see that. With just this little attention from Carter Vaughn, we were no longer afraid to rush the net, Tricia could finally get her serve to stay in the box, and we all suddenly acquired backhands where there’d been none before. Ms. Dolly was glad to have Carter’s help. (She was the drama teacher after all and had only agreed to be the tennis coach to get her teaching job.) “How good you girls are getting,” Ms. Dolly said. She was so proud.
When you hit a tennis ball just right, it makes a beautiful sound, almost like a kiss, something delicate and still so powerful that it makes you tingle, and how beautiful it was that fall season senior year, all those kissing sounds on the Mavericks’ tennis courts, while just beyond the court fences heifers pulled up grass by the roots, munching, as if to remind us of where we came from, watching our transformations with their watery brown eyes.
Finally we were in love with ourselves. We were in love with ourselves and with everything we could be, so much more than anyone ever expected. Boys who’d shown no interest in us before would sprawl out on the lawn to cheer. After practice, in the girls’ shower room and so filled with love, we would touch each other and giggle and then tell each other how gross we were for being such sluts. Finally we had something of our very own.
It’s true that Kennedy Vaughn was the unreachable one of the brothers, too much like his father and mother and not at all interested in getting to know us. He ran for student government and won vice president only months after coming to our town; he scored the highest of anyone (ever) from our school on the SATs; he was varsity on tennis, soccer, and wrestling, with legs thick as tree trunks, and we went to winter meets just to see him in his red leotard.
One night after a Mavericks’ team victory and a quick pin by Kennedy Vaughn wrestling 171, we rushed him by the locker room door. We could barely stop laughing. “Do you like any of us?” we said, thinking, Did we really just say that? God, did we really?
Kennedy Vaughn looked at us as if he’d never seen any of us ever before, as if our votes hadn’t helped to get him elected class vice president. He turned to Joey Mitchell, the heavyweight following him, saying, “Let’s bounce,” and we thought for a second whether we should follow them, but then we could see our own sadness in one another’s eyes and the black anger behind that sadness like the sadness’s shadow.
We never told Carter. Not even about going to the wrestling matches that he refused to attend just as he refused to attend anything that further hyped Kennedy Vaughn. We knew how he would feel, and just once we desperately wanted to see Kennedy Vaughn fail. How it must have been for poor Carter and maybe even fat little Eleanor, having to be compared against someone who was now and forever better than they could ever hope to be.