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People have secrets. Everyone does. And, at one point or another, many people say they would like to run away and start life over in a place where no one knows their business. I know that I have felt that way. More than once. And I am no stranger to disaster, and most certainly no one would ever call me a coward. Coward or not, sometimes you just want to slip away into the night.
What drives us to that point? Did you do something horrible? Or, did something horrible happen to you?
Maybe you just feel like you need some anonymity. You have endured all the questioning, opinion-giving and gossiping humanity you can bear. It's time to strip away everything, all the clutter and noise, and look at your life, how it got to that point and figure out what you intend to do about it. At least, that's how it was for me.
When my tragedies occurred and getting through the days felt like pulling a wagon of bricks that was missing a back wheel, the only choice was to move back to Pawleys Island and attempt to put everything in perspective. I should have packed a seat belt. First, I met Huey Valentine. Huey, one of the most wonderful men who ever lived, befriended me and eventually gave me the swift kick I needed to put down my golf clubs for a while. That kick came when Rebecca showed up and Armageddoned the pattern of self-indulgent complacency that ordered my shallow and insignificant life, which in all my precious stupidity, I thought I was enjoying. Yeah, I thought it was fabulous-okay, it wasn't fabulous and I knew it. But it was usually better than bearable, and to be frank, until she appeared, I couldn't think of any better way to occupy my time. Golf and tennis. Tennis and golf. A party here, an opening there. Pretty shallow and useless.
I didn't think I had much in common with Rebecca until the divorce was all over, only to discover we had everything in common; we were simply at different stages in our lives. If her parachute hadn't landed on Huey's doorstep, I'd still be treadmilling in my sandy island rut. And if we all weren't there to engage Huey's mind, his life would have been one narrow garden path slowly tiptoeing back to the eighteenth century.
Here's the other lesson I've learned. You only see what you want to see and believe what you want to believe. I'm not talking about the Gray Man or Alice Flagg, Pawleys Island's most famous walking dead residents. No, no. This goes back to my eyes and those of my Pawleys friends. I thought we were all lonely and making the best of it, and we were to some degree. But my vision was warped. I was everyone's mother; Huey was my chaste and antiseptic spouse; Rebecca was our daughter. Huey belonged to me, and Rebecca did too. Wrong!
What we all taught each other was stunning and, honest to God, life altering. But here's the thing. I will never accept that these changes could have come about any place but Pawleys Island. Sure, you've heard about the handmade hammocks and the pristine beaches. You've seen gorgeous pictures of the sunsets and the marsh teeming with wildlife. But you don't know Pawleys until you've been there and experienced its tremendous power. It is only a tiny sandbar south of Myrtle Beach and north of Georgetown. But be warned. It is there that the Almighty Himself would like to engage you in conversation and redirect your soul. Listen to me: for all the jokes I make, this time I'm not kidding.
If you're happy in your misery and determined to remain so, don't ever go to Pawleys. If you do make the trip, be on guard. Truth is coming to get you, and peace isn't far behind. But it all comes at a price. You'll have to be the judge of whether it's worth all the hullabaloo.
This is how it happened to me.
Welcome to Gallery Valentine
Ilooked out across the dunes and up and down the beach. Another gorgeous day. Blue skies, billowing clouds and the sun rising with the mercury. Eastern breezes rustled the palmettos and sea oats. Sun worshippers by the score had accepted early invitations to assume the lizard position. They were scattered and prone, armed with coolers, beach chairs, novels, visors and canvas bags of towels, toys and lotions, littered all along the edges of the Atlantic in both directions. They looked like clusters of human solar batteries recharging themselves in drowsy warmth. The waves rolled in low murmers of hypnotic suggestion, washed the shore and pulled away.
The weather that day seemed without guile, but I knew better. As soon as the hands of time crossed noon, Mother Nature would bellow the flames of hell's furnace, blowing unspeakable heat all over the Lowcountry, and the sensible lizards would retreat to shade and hammocks until later in the day. The others would fry, fooled by the breeze and lulled into a comfortable stupor by the ocean's song.
Let me tell you something, honey. You'd never catch me in a swimsuit smelling like cocoa butter and fruit, sticky with salt and sand, half catatonic and dehydrated from exposure. No. I had better things to do with my time, like feeding Huey. Or playing golf in that same sun. It was the lying around part that was a problem for me. Besides, who needed to see me in a bathing suit? I assure you, no one.
But back to my current priority . . . feeding Huey.
After his call, I picked up sandwiches from The Pita Rolz and drove over to his gallery in the Oak Lea Shops. He had been practically breathless on the phone, but private-audience breathless drama was pretty much Huey's modus operandi.
"Abigail! Darling! Drop everything and come! You must meet Rebecca!"
"Our savior! You'll see!"
"Well, we could use a savior . . ."
"And, would you be a dear and bring us some lunch? Just tuna for me, on rye, but only if it looks fresh, and turkey on white bread with mayonnaise for our darling girl, and of course get something for yourself. My treat."
Huey Valentine had not missed a meal in all his fifty-five years. I had to laugh. When Huey got excited, he thought about food. When he was depressed, he thought about food. What can I say except that Huey was well fed. I imagine the least insulting but most accurate term one might use to describe Huey's appearance would be portly, but in a way portly suited his entire demeanor, which, when in the company of close friends, grew a shade larger than life itself.
Huey was the consummate southern gentleman, an aristocratic Nathan Lane, never rude to anyone's face but felt no remorse about a wicked comment to me about others, especially tourists.
You could set your wristwatch by Huey. He was never late for an appointment or a dinner party. He wrote thank-you notes on his Dempsey & Carroll ecru hand-engraved stationery that was so stiff, folding it cracked it like an egg. And he always used an ornate fountain pen, signing with the flourish of John Hancock. Speaking of John Hancock, Huey Flagg Valentine could probably trace his ancestry back to Charlemagne's grandparents. Evergreen, the plantation where he lived with his mother and houseman, had been in his family's name since fifteen minutes after the land was claimed for King Charles II. I had never seen him dressed in anything but all white, summer and winter, and yes, he wore a hat. But not to affect a grand attitude so much as to save his balding head from the terrors of melanoma. Everything about him was stylish and elegant. He couldn't help it. All those generations of social grace and good taste were imbedded in his DNA. I just adored him. Everyone did.
It was on Huey's arm that I had gladly attended every party, concert, dinner or gallery opening for the past three years, since my return to Pawleys Island. Life was so strange. I thought I was going to move into my family's house and write my memoirs, but I was slightly embarrassed to admit that all I had done was exercise and slide in and out of social commitments with Huey. It wasn't the worst thing, really. I mean, heaven forbid that I had a little fun. Besides, the thought of reliving my past through writing it all down? Well, let's just say that I had yet to arrive at the moment where I felt comfortable enough to play with my inner gorillas. They could wait. In any case, I questioned the real value of an autobiography because it seemed like vanity in the extreme. It wasn't like I abandoned a career as a backup singer for the Rolling Stones and that my writings would become the latest zeitgeist on sex, drugs and rock and roll. Frankly, my therapist recommended that I give writing a whirl, saying it might be good for an exercise in closure. Instead, I had closure with everything else-my frantic law practice, my marginal personal life and my nice expensive therapist. I simply closed up my house in Columbia and came back to Pawleys just to think about things. I imagine you could say I'm a lucky woman, at least in terms of inheritance and assets. My mother died when I was very young, and then Daddy finally gave up the ghost after a short bout with leukemia six years ago. Since I am an only child, the house on Pawleys came right into my hands. The old rockers, the creaking floorboards, the tongue-and-groove walls, the ancient kitchen and the claw-footed bathtubs were all mine. The only changes I made were to add a furnace, a fresh coat of paint, window boxes of flowers and new screens. Oh, and I did update the bathroom and kitchen fixtures but that had to be done-you know how salt corrodes everything in its path.
If you looked twice at my house you would scratch your head wondering why I loved it so much. Anyone with a developer's eye would want to knock it down and replace it with a home with central air-conditioning and heat and, probably, God forbid, wall-to-wall carpet, an in-wall vacuum system, doorbells and every other invention of the twentieth century. No thanks. I still preferred floors I could sweep, friends calling out to announce their arrival over the roar of the ocean, and I could not have cared less what mysterious wonders the damp air performed on my hair. Once I crossed over that causeway, leaving the mainland, the plantations and the Waccamaw River, the world ceased to exist. On very hot nights I used the ceiling fan in my bedroom because I loved to hear the waves at night and the birds in the morning. And I loved the memories. If I closed my eyes, I could hear my mother's gentle voice, negotiating with Philemon, the creek man and an island institution during my childhood. He had a bucket of fresh flounder and another one of shrimp, and from them Momma would buy our dinner.
I could see us at the table, Daddy telling Momma how delicious the meal was. Later I would squeeze in between them on the porch swing, while Momma sang sweetly and I drifted off to my dreams. When you lose a parent at a young age, those few memories you have are more precious than any single ring or necklace left to you. Whenever I was here, even alone as I am now, I could stand where they once stood and somehow in the magical workings of the Pawleys Island salt air, I could bring them back to me. For that and for a thousand other reasons too, I would never sell this house or leave it for too long.
Daddy inherited our home on Myrtle Avenue from his father, and his father inherited it from his mother. Our family's Pawleys Island history went back almost as far as Huey's plantation origins. Somewhere around the time Mr. Lincoln freed the slaves, Daddy's father's mother's husband hauled it in sections (we think) to this parcel of land from Butler Island and put it all back together. If you were inclined to inspect the underside of this great relic, you would still find the mortise-and-tenon joints with pegs. When I was a girl, Daddy and his friends would fix cocktails and go under the house to have a look, reappearing later, amazed by nineteenth-century building skills. It was no doubt that her meticulous construction kept Miss Salt Air from flying to Kingdom Come during Hurricane Hugo, our most foul visitor of 1989. Oh, she got her bonnet blown off (lost the roof) and there was water damage to be sure, but Daddy brought a team of men up from Charleston and raised her from the dunes to new and dignified heights on sturdy pilings of brick.
Anyway, it's the island, really, that spins the spell. The house helped, but the most compelling reason for my return here was to languish in great peace as opposed to despair. For all of my life, any time spent here made everything right. I could stand on the porch and breathe in with all of my lungs, exhale my troubles in a whoosh, and the breezes carried them away. My shoulders dropped back to their natural position. I moved differently, slowly but with deliberateness. I slept soundly remembering all my dreams.
That seemed to be the general consensus of everyone on Pawleys Island. It's a simple retreat for some and a spa for the soul to others. One thing is certain: it's unlike any other place in God's entire creation.
Even Huey agreed with that. As much as the Waccamaw waters flowed through his veins, on many evenings I had seen the look on his face when we shared the end of day, watching the moonrise over the Atlantic. You can't paint this, he would say. And he, who possessed the heart and soul of the artist, was right. With that statement, Huey claimed a corner in my heart, which until then had been under lockdown. So, if Huey said, Drop everything and come meet our new savior, I dropped everything and did as he asked. I bought lunch and drove my old Jaguar sedan right over to him, cursing the entire United Kingdom over their wimpy air-conditioning. I pushed open the door and spotted him right away by the framing table in the rear of the gallery. Huey was the Rosetta stone for body language. His hands were in midair, whirling with excitement, and he shifted from one foot to the other. He turned at the unobtrusive musical sound of the automatic doorbell, saw me and rushed to my side. "There you are! Come! Say hello! Let me help you with that!" He took the bag and cardboard tray of iced tea from me, delivered two air kisses to my cheeks, stood back and smiled. "Did they have decent tuna?"
"Huey, baby? The tuna is life altering. I watched them make it, which is what took me so long." The tiny brunette was waiting patiently with her portfolio opened, and what I guessed to be her work was spread all over the counter. "You must be Rebecca." She extended her hand to shake mine. "And you must be Abigail. But please call me Becca. My friends call me Becca."
"No! No! No!" Huey said, researching the contents of the sack of food. "You must be Re-becca! We cannot defile the great name of Rebecca. I'll get plates."
"Didn't anyone ever call you Abby?" she said to me, looking for some support.
"Over their dead body," I said. "My parents named me for Abigail Adams."
Huey placed three plates on the counter and began unpacking lunch. "Abigail Adams was one of America's first feminists, you know. She was always giving John the business about the inequality of education between men and women."
"Oh," Rebecca said.
"Well, it makes sense today too," I said. "People used to think that education was wasted on women because they wound up staying home with children. Of course, I'm not sure how an education could ever be wasted." What an inane thing for me to say, I thought.
"You can say that again," Rebecca said.
"Anyway, this generation of women works. And not necessarily because they want to." Another pearl of genius from me, but people said vapid things to each other just to put the other at ease.
"You can say that again too!" Rebecca said.
I took the plate from Huey and eyeballed this diminutive Rebecca, thinking that if she agreed to agree with every word I spoke, then surely there was an exalted position available for her in our little tribe.
If that sounds egotistical, let's get something straight right now. The last thing I needed in my life or even in the periphery of my life was someone telling me I was wrong, what was wrong with my politics, what was wrong with the world. I knew what was wrong with the world. Everything. I had seen enough of what people did to each other and I just didn't want to deal with it for the foreseeable future.
"So where are you from?" I said.
"Charleston," she said. "I came up here to see if I could sell some of my work."
"Abigail. Look at this."
Huey had closed her portfolio so that a flying crumb of tuna or a splotch of mayonnaise wouldn't ruin anything, but he reached down and pulled up one of her paintings. He flipped back the parchment paper cover and there it was: the classic watercolor of two children, a boy and a girl, playing by the edge of the shore on a beach. I had seen hundreds of them, and all of them were cures for insomnia. But this one was profoundly different. The sky and the water looked as radiantly alive as the sandpipers pecking the wet sand and then running from the waves. But the children, their backs to the viewer, seemed to be a thousand miles away. And you got the sense that while they were probably siblings, that they didn't want to play together or that they were tremendously unhappy for some inexplicable reason and preferred to live in their misery alone. The scene was haunting and bothersome, but I couldn't stop looking at them. I wanted to rush inside the painting and save them. I turned and looked at Rebecca.
"It's very powerful," I said.
"Children aren't always happy, are they?" she said.
"No, they are not."
"Rebecca, darling? We have a show opening tomorrow and I was just thinking . . ."
"Huey!" I said. "Her work isn't framed, and besides . . ."
"Oh! Gosh!" Rebecca said. "I can make frames if you have the material . . ."
"Rebecca? Sweetheart? You make frames?"
"Yes, in fact, I am told that, well, I'm rather good at it. I mean, well, I don't mean to brag . . ."
"Stop! Humility is unflattering, especially for an artist of your talent! You need some attitude, girl! Seriously!"
We all had a giggle at that, but Huey was right. This mouse had to stop squeaking.
"Huey, I . . ."
I was trying to speak, but when Huey got his engine in gear, there was no stopping him. "Sweetheart. You finish up your sandwich, and then I want you to have a look around in the storage room. There's enough material back there to hang a frame around Georgetown County, including the new waterslide at Myrtle Beach."
Huey sniffed and I knew it was because of the waterslides, putt-putt courses and all manner of NASCAR contraptions that had been erected under the guise of entertainment but reeked of crass commercialism. And that, my friends, was the scathing difference between genteel plantation living, the arrogant shabby of Pawleys Island and the wild consumerism of Myrtle Beach. All that said for the antielitist dart throwers in the crowd, Huey the King Snob liked nothing better than a round of putt-putt followed by a snow cone dripping in tutti-frutti syrup.
"The former framer was recently relieved of his duties," I said, thinking I would speak to him when Rebecca was out of earshot.
"I fired the nitwit," Huey said. "What a pathetic simpleton! He drove me crazy. Didn't he ever hear of measure twice, cut once?"
"Apparently not," I said.
Inside of a minute, Rebecca, who was slightly confused as to why she should inspect the inventory of framing materials when she had come to Huey's gallery to sell her work, balled up the remains of her turkey sandwich and went to the storage room to sniff around like a good dog.
"So what do you think?" Huey said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Huey Flagg Valentine! I think that Sallie Anne Wood will definitely scratch your eyes out! I know I would! You can't promise someone a one-woman show and then just sort of casually have another show going on at the same time! It's unethical!"
The opening, which was the following evening, was a one-woman show for Sallie Anne Wood, an established egomaniacal diva artist from Charleston.
"Listen to me, Abigail Thurmond. Sallie Anne Wood has had a thousand shows. She'll sell enough to make her happy tomorrow night. Right? Look. I cannot resist Rebecca's work! I don't know why, but I sense an urgency in Rebecca and I think she needs us. I mean, you must agree, Rebecca's work is rather astounding."
"It is that."
"God! I wonder what she could do in oil! She'd be biblical! Rebecca at the Well! Great thundering Zeus! I remember that from the show at the Chagall Museum in Nice. Women of the Old Testament! Matriarchs in Search of Motherhood! I wish you had been with me then . . ."
"Me too. Huey? This is still a problem, you know. You cannot possibly expect Sallie Anne to walk in here and be happy to see Rebecca's work hanging in the same gallery on the same night as her opening! And, Huey, I know you would not enjoy the cognizi of Litchfield and Pawleys calling you an opportunist, now would you?"
"I can sell everything Rebecca can paint. Every blessed last piece. And you know it."
"Framed or unframed. But, Huey? Darlin', we hardly know this child! Are you hiring her to be our new framer? She's an artist, for heaven's sake! Don't you think she will be insulted?"
"I'm going to ask her if she'll be the assistant manager of my gallery."
"And who is the manager? You?"
"Okay! I'll make her the manager! Happy?"
"Oh, Huey, Huey, Huey. If you really want this puppy, then I know you'll have this puppy one way or another. Lord help Rebecca! She's falling down the rabbit hole and doesn't even know it."