We called it the Summerhouse. Folks used to drive out from town to while away lazy Sunday afternoons with us. We all trailed from the main house as Daddy led us across lawns, past sun-blissed marigolds and zinnias and purple petunias, and beyond the scuppernong grape arbor buzzing with bees. Alice and I helped Mother carry linen cutwork cloths and trays laden with pound cake and lemonade and, sometimes, little glass dishes ice cream with fruit cocktail spooned over the top. The ladies giggled, “Oh, dear,” as their heels of town shoes sank into the St. Augustine grass.
One afternoon an assortment of cousins from Apalachicola—a Southern writer visiting from New York, her rather taciturn husband, and two little girls, Jeremy and Cambia—dropped by to visit Mama Nedley, as they were passing through the Florida panhandle. They brought an elderly aunt in a black lacy dress hanging to her ankles. Among such gentility, I felt gawky in my shorts, halter stop and sandals, all adolescent arms and legs. While Mama entertained her guests, Mother sent me back to the main house—for more iced tea, I think—and one of the little girls asked, “Where did the high-up girl go?”
That story got told over and over long after I outgrew the old square table where my sister and I frittered away long summer hours. We carried out sandwiches of cream cheese and green olives for lunches we made ourselves. We played endless rounds of Old Maids and Checkers, read books borrowed from the downtown library, and counted red convertibles swishing past on the highway beyond. We listened to Perry Como and Eddie Fisher on a little transistor radio borrowed from Mama until, one hot day, it smoked itself dead, smelling like burnt rubber. Alice and I shrieked, then laughed and laughed until Mother stormed out from the main house, flapping her apron. The back screen door slapped behind her.
“Hooligans!” she hollered. “What will the neighbors think?” Never mind that the nearest neighbor was at least a couple hundred yards beyond the pine woods.
During the previous winter months, Daddy designed this little screened gazebo. Many evenings he and Mr. Chavers from down our red clay road hunched over the blueprints they laid out on our dining room table. They discussed siting the gazebo under the massive old oak trees where my sister, Alice, and I would scramble like tomboys until Mr. Chavers’s workmen arrived.
I don’t really remember the weeks—months?—of construction, only the finished project. Built-in benches ran along the inside perimeter. The floor was polished green cement, not painted on the surface but swirled within the cement itself—quite an innovative idea back in the 1950s. Daddy built a square table from Mama Nedley’s old cedar chest and six tall Adirondack chairs from cured lumber milled from some of our own pines. My favorite purple Formosa azaleas, from the Southern Indica family, eventually surrounded the eight walls of screens.
One afternoon, a long black Cadillac with shark fins nosed itself through the highway gates that somebody had left open. Tires scrunched over dried twigs on the ground until the car stopped right by the summerhouse. Alice and I sat stock still and watched two swarthy men looking back at us. They murmured to each other, nodded their heads, glanced over at us again. By and by, they swung open the car doors, unfolded their bodies suited in pin-stripes, pointed wingtip shoes toward the ground and rolled out. They stretched, as though stiff from a road trip, then sauntered over to the summerhouse. I rushed to latch the screen door.
“Howdy. You folks live around here?” the stocky one asked.
They pushed back their Fedoras from sweaty black curls, leaned their heads forward and looked all around under the rafters. Merciful heavens! What were they thinking?
“That’s awright. We jesswanna see the house. Nice place you got here.”
They murmured to each other, ignoring us, then turned back to the car. Hinges squawked as they opened the car doors. One man came back and set two oranges on the doorstep, then sprang back into the car and slammed the door. Tires scrunched and spun out onto the highway, back toward town.
Mother, who had been watching from the back porch of the main house, ran out and shrieked, “Don’t you dare eat those oranges! You hear me?”
As it turned out, those men were Greek businessmen, owners of the B & B restaurant downtown. Later, after supper, Daddy told us he had invited them to drive out and look at his Folly. They planned to build one, too.
He was the “somebody” who had left the gates open to the highway.