Isle of Palmsby Dorothea Benton Frank
Set off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, Anna Lutz Abbot thinks she has her independence, and therefore her happiness, intact. She is a capable woman, a sensible woman, not someone given to risky living. This all seems true enough until her lovely daughter returns from college for the summer a very different person, her wild and wonderful ex-husband arrives,… See more details below
Set off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, Anna Lutz Abbot thinks she has her independence, and therefore her happiness, intact. She is a capable woman, a sensible woman, not someone given to risky living. This all seems true enough until her lovely daughter returns from college for the summer a very different person, her wild and wonderful ex-husband arrives, and her flamboyant new best friend takes up with her daddy, turning a hot summer into a steaming one. All the action unfolds under the watchful eyes of Miss Mavis and Miss Angel, her next-door neighbors of a certain age, who have plenty to say about Anna's past, present, and future.
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Isle of Palms
By Dorothea Benton Frank
Berkley Publishing GroupCopyright © 2005 Dorothea Benton Frank
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHearts of Fire
This is what I remember. That day, all I could think about was getting home and riding my bicycle. In my ten-year-old opinion, I had wasted the best hours of my day as a prisoner of the Sullivan's Island Elementary School, in a hot stuffy classroom, on the receiving end of an education that I was absolutely sure was entirely unnecessary. It was late May and the temperature was already up there in the stratosphere.
Teenagers with surfboards and suntans crossed every intersection of the islands coming to and from the beach. Summer residents were already arriving in hordes and my vacation was overdue. I could barely concentrate on anything except going barefoot.
I climbed up on the school bus at two forty-five and rushed for a seat by a window, that is, a window that would open. It's funny what the mind remembers and what it forgets. Like most girls would, I remember exactly what I wore. It was my pale yellow sundress, hand-smocked with green thread. I had on green sandals that matched. I was a major hot tamale in that dress. It was true. In the pecking order of my peers, I had the best clothes. Not the best hair (blond and thin) and not the best face (too pale-invisible eyebrows and lashes), but definitely the best clothes. I remember thinking that even though I had on my favorite dress that day, the humid weather and the proximity of summer vacation were making me cranky.
As I struggled to push the window open, I began to perspire. It just annoyed me that the adults in charge of our lives gave so little consideration to the comfort of children. Our desks were so hard on our bony little backsides, it was no wonder we squirmed around like our britches were spray-starched with itching powder. Weighted down by books, we were positive we would grow up with warped bones. The steaming cafeteria could clean your pores. Everything about life seemed worrisome and inconvenient. Even the paper towels in the girls' bathroom had a chemical smell and were so stiff that you were better off just to dry your hands on your clothes, if you washed your hands at all, which of course, I always did. Germs.
Worst of all, by May, the voices of our teachers were like unending white noise-just some droning yammer in the background. I'd had enough of the fifth grade and I knew one thing for sure. When I grew up, I was determined to change a few things about the slipshod way children were treated by the authorities.
That day, I was just all a-twitter recounting my juvenile list of complaints as I boarded the ancient yellow rattletrap to go home. The only good thing about the bus ride was Lovely Leon, the driver. He was so cute and he flirted with all of us girls. His longish straight brown hair was always in his eyes, which I found irresistible. We loved him and our little hearts danced when he winked at us. Leon was a senior in high school, but he finished classes at two o'clock and was hired to drive us home. Because I lived at the end of the Isle of Palms, I got to ride with him longer, as most of the others got off the bus sooner. Sometimes he would start with the furthest stop and work his way back. And that was what he did that day.
In the back of the bus, Eddie Williams (the first stop on his route) was giving Patty Grisillo (the third stop on his route) an Indian burn of Olympic quality. She was biting him on the arm. Hard. They were both screaming. Patty's friends were whacking Eddie with their backpacks and Eddie's friends were laughing and telling him to cut it out.
"Y'all are acting like a bunch of idiots!" Leon said. "Eddie? Get your butt up here and work the door! I'm going to the Isle of Palms first!"
The bus lumbered up Middle Street toward Breach Inlet at twenty-five miles an hour, moaning and complaining with every shift of the gears. Restless drivers passed us and we swore they would get tickets for passing a school bus. We made faces through the windows and hollered at the top of our little lungs at the disrespectful criminals who zoomed around us. They were merely further proof of the overall disregard adults had for children.
We crossed the bridge and headed for Forty-first Avenue, way up at the end of the island. Everybody was carrying on, despite Leon's pleas to Please y'all! Shut the hell up!
Somebody, Sparky Witte, I think, said, "Look at all the police cars!"
All at once, the bus became quiet. There was a huge commotion where I lived. Fire engines appeared behind us and Leon pulled over to let them roar past. They were from the Sullivan's Island Fire and Rescue Squad. Must be huge, I thought. We followed them, going a little faster than before.
When we got to Forty-first Avenue, the police had blocked off the road. People were all over the streets. Leon didn't know what to do, so he stopped and waited for a moment. I started to shake, afraid that whatever the trouble was, that it was happening at my house.
Leon got off and told us to stay put and be quiet. He walked over to a police officer and must have explained his predicament. He had a kid on the bus who lived on that street and what should he do? The police officer walked over to the bus with Leon, boarded the bus, and called my name.
"Yes, sir?" I felt numb.
"Come with me, honey."
I looked at this uniformed stranger with the gun on his hip and knew something terrible had happened. Lillian, my best friend, wanted to come with me, but he said, No, just Anna. It wasn't a good idea, he said. Lillian started to cry and so did I. I still remember her crying and everyone saying, Oh, no! What happened? Call us, Anna, okay? You okay?
I wasn't okay. Not one bit. How could I be anything but scared to death? I walked with the policeman who introduced himself as Beau. He held my sweaty hand and carried my backpack for me. I knew something horrific was waiting for me. As we rounded the corner, I saw it all.
My house was surrounded by police cars. It frightened me so badly I wanted to run. I just stood there with this Beau person, waiting for someone to explain this to me. What did it all mean? Had my house been robbed? Did they get away? Did they steal all our stuff? Were there a bunch of bad guys still inside-was that why so many police cars were there?
Our neighbors were like statues in their yards, rooted by the spectacle before them. The Emergency Medical Service ambulances and attendants waited with a stretcher. When I saw Daddy's car, I panicked. Was he in there? Oh! My God! What about Momma? Where was she? Where were they? Where were they?
Out of nowhere my daddy appeared by my side and lifted me up. He was breathing so hard I started getting hysterical. I couldn't understand what was happening but I knew it was a catastrophe.
"Momma is ... Momma's had a terrible heart attack," he said. "I'm so sorry, Anna." Did that mean she was dead? He shook and gulped while he held on to me. Then he coughed, pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose, hard. "Oh! Dear God! Why? How could I let this happen?"
I couldn't talk; I could scarcely breathe. Did he have something to do with it? I could only watch. Momma was dead? It just didn't seem possible to me. The rescue workers had disappeared inside the house. Shortly, they came back out with a body on a stretcher. It was Momma. She was covered in a sheet. The ambulance attendants zipped a bag around her. A few minutes later, the police reappeared with a man. His shirt was unbuttoned. From where I stood he seemed to be in handcuffs. Was he? I started screaming. What did he do to my momma?
The hush came from our neighbor, Miss Mavis, who broke through the crowd and grabbed me by the arm. It seemed she wanted to take me to her house on the next block.
"This child doesn't need to see all of this, Douglas! Have you lost your mind? Someone should have brought her to me right away. Come on, baby!"
She started to lead me away with Daddy bringing up the rear. My mother had not spoken to Miss Mavis for a long time. They'd had an argument about something so I thought it was a little peculiar for her to jump into the middle of this. Momma said she had a tongue as long as a telephone wire and that she was going to hell for gossiping. But since Daddy was coming along with me and Miss Mavis, I went without arguing. It was no time to resist adult decisions.
Miss Mavis had a house worthy of a full-scale investigation, but I would not have wanted to live there. I think because she had multitudinous cats, she thought it was necessary to stick one of those deodorant frogs or shells on every table and potpourri in bowls all over the place. It smelled seriously sickening to me. On the occasions I would stop by for a cookie with some kids from the neighborhood, we would always hold our noses. The minute we got out of there we hollered Phew! and laughed about it, making gagging noises for the rest of the afternoon.
Her house was divided in two, upstairs and downstairs. She lived on top and could see the ocean, and Miss Angel, who worked for her, lived downstairs. Miss Angel was much more interesting than Miss Mavis. She could trace her ancestors back to slavery. She was also a master basket weaver. She had so many stories, her stories had stories.
We would always see Miss Angel sitting in the backyard, weaving sweetgrass, sewing it around and around with a strip of palmetto, or on other days shucking corn or stringing beans. If we were too tired or hot to run around anymore, we would wander into her shadow, asking her what she was doing.
"Ain' you chillrun have nothing better to do than come around 'eah bothering Angel?"
She would stare us up and down, one by one.
"No, ma'am," we would say.
"Well, then I expect y'all want something to drink?"
She would sigh, put down whatever she was doing, and, like ducks, we would follow her into her kitchen. Then the storytelling would start.
"When I was a girl, we had to pump our water ..."
When she got warmed up she would go on and on.
"Tha's right! My daddy, he say to me, 'Angel?-be my angel and go fill this 'eah bucket like a good girl. Lawd! That girl is strong like two bull ox!' Tha's fuh true, 'eah? You chillrun don't know what hard times is! I hope y'all helps your momma when she call. Do you?"
"Oh! Yes, ma'am!" we would all say, lying through our teeth.
"All right, then. Angel gone give y'all fresh lemonade she make this morning. Just this morning I say, Angel? -gone be hot like de Debbil's breath today! Better have something fuh dem bad chillrun when they come 'round, and come 'round y'all surely did. Drink up and gwine leave me be!"
Homemade lemonade! Wonderful! She thrilled us all the time.
Miss Mavis was the exact opposite of Miss Angel. Momma said she was always putting on airs, whatever that meant. Miss Mavis had a daughter who was away at college and a son who was married, living way off in California trying to be a movie star. She would show me his publicity pictures and tell me that he was up for a commercial or a part in a movie. Daddy always said her son was a damn fool because he had changed his name from Thurmond to Fritz. I didn't know which name was more stupid.
Miss Mavis and Miss Angel were the neighborhood's official but revered old biddies. They had taught us plenty, and contrary to what Miss Angel thought about us being just a bunch of spoiled Geechee brats, I was to learn what hard times were.
We climbed the steps up to Miss Mavis's part of the house and the minute we stepped inside you couldn't smell anything except dried flowers and pine. I sat on the couch, crying and hiccuping. Miss Mavis handed me a box of Kleenex, covered in needlepoint with magnolia flowers on a red background. She was one of those craft people.
"I don't understand," I said. "Who was that man? Was Momma murdered? Was he a robber?"
"No, baby, I'm sure he didn't murder her. Good gracious! Too much television!"
I started to wail. What a mean thing to say! I wasn't crying because of some television program! My momma was dead! Daddy was rubbing a hole in my back. He was in shock himself and I guess he couldn't begin to think of what to do with me.
"Come on now, Anna," Miss Mavis said, "let's blow our nose, all right? I'm gonna go over to your house with your daddy and see what we can find out. You just stay put and we'll be right back, okay?"
"Okay," I said, and thought for a second about why grown-ups said stupid things like let's blow our nose. Miss Mavis was nice, but she was making me mad.
When they closed the door behind them I felt very alone, confused and out of place. I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing while they were gone. I mean, watching television seemed inappropriate. Calling Lillian didn't seem right either. I guess I was sort of stupefied because the only thing I seemed capable of doing was looking around the room and wondering how something so awful could happen to me. I could feel a terrible weariness in my chest and for a moment I worried that there was something wrong with my heart too. What if Momma and I died on the same day? I didn't want to die. I tried to relax.
Miss Mavis's coffee table was covered with magazines and her end tables were jammed with framed photographs. I wasn't interested in any of it, but then my eye caught a picture of her in her wedding dress that must have been a million years old. She looked pretty in that picture and really young. Momma always said that her husband ran around on her like his pants were in flames, and he turned his liver into a rock. When he died, Miss Mavis went around telling the immediate world that he was a saint. He wasn't any saint. Even I knew that.
Daddy, who had as many stories as Angel, used to tell me a story about this pirate named Major Stede Bonnet. People said he became a pirate to get away from his nagging wife. Well, he wound up with his neck in a rope. I never understood how somebody could do something so mean to his family and his liver and then get to be a saint. I wasn't absolutely positive what running around meant, but I figured it had to do with other women. Stede Bonnet would've told him he'd be better off to just stay home and behave himself. Anyway, this slew of happy family pictures was pitiful because Momma told me Miss Mavis and all her people were all a bunch of screwballs.
Momma. I was so tired then that I just wished I could lie down and sleep. I hadn't realized I wasn't alone until Miss Angel appeared to see what I was doing.
"Come on, honey," she said, "Angel fixed you something to eat."
Angel hardly ever said I. Maybe she thought I couldn't remember her name. I followed her to the kitchen to find a slice of homemade peach pie on a flowered plate and a glass of milk. Angel was the only person I knew who could really cook. The pie was so delicious I ate it in huge bites and then threw it up all over the floor and all down the front of my favorite dress.
Excerpted from Isle of Palms by Dorothea Benton Frank Copyright © 2005 by Dorothea Benton Frank. Excerpted by permission.
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