Her plane circled the Lowcountry. Acres upon acres of live oaks stood beneath them,
guardians festooned in sheets of breezy Spanish moss. They passed over the powerful waters of
the Wando, Cooper and Ashley Rivers and hundreds of tiny rippling tributaries that sluiced their
way in tendrils toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was so beautiful, all the shimmering blue water,
that seemed to be scattered with shards of crystals and diamonds. Beth's heart tightened. Every
last passenger stared out through their windows at the landscape below. Whether you were away
from the Lowcountry for a week or for years, it was impossible to remember how gorgeous it
was. It never changed and everyone depended on that. Seeing it again was like seeing it for the
The small jet finally touched down on the steaming tarmac at Charleston's airport and
after a few braking lurches it rolled to a stop at the terminal. When the flight attendant opened
the cabin door humidity poured in, blanketing the cabin in a great whoosh like an invisible gas.
The air was heavy, weighted by the stench of jet fuel diluted with salt.
“Hold on, baby.”
Beth's miniature Yorkshire terrier, Lola seemed to understand everything she said. If she
spoke to her in Swahili she would look at her with those licorice eyes of hers, raise her eyebrows
and smile. Yes, her dog smiled but not just then. Lola whimpered and began to squirm. Beth
stretched her finger through the netting of her dog's carrier to console her with a tiny massage.
All five pounds of Lola settled against her as they slowly made their way with the restless
passengers, across the muggy jet way and into the sorrowful, weak air conditioning of the
terminal. She hoped Lola wasn't going to start wheezing. Could a mother love a child more than
Beth Hayes loved her dog? She doubted it.
The climate had changed over the years. Global warming was obvious and in Charleston,
the weather was practically tropical. Beth had decided that it was too uncomfortable to consider
anything except escape into the jungle or a total surrender to the ruling party.
Beth had chosen surrender and was there to begin serving her one-year sentence in the
Lowcountry, house sitting the family's grand dame on Sullivans Island. The Island Gamble. The
family's chateau stood in defiance of her age and history and she reigned over them like
Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Beth could not envision England's history without Elizabeth I any
more than she could dream of Sullivans Island without that particular house as center stage for
the disjointed hauntings of her sleeping hours. All of her dreams were acted out on Sullivans
Island and at the Island Gamble. In the rooms. On the porch. In the yard looking back. Always,
They used the term “chateau” loosely even humorously, but during the days and nights of
their lives, the Island Gamble was where any and everything of significance for generations had
been told around her tables or had been revealed in the confessional of her front porch. Lives
were dissected and discussed deep into the night until aunts, uncles, and especially children,
exhausted from the heat and laughter, nodded off in their rockers or hammocks. Their
aspirations, broken hearts, and victories were all recorded for posterity in the family's collective
memory, the details rearranged and embellished as time went on to make for better storytelling.
The house knew everything about them and being there made them believe that they were safe
from the outside world. In their case, telling family tales was what they seemed to do best. They
would laugh and say that if there had been an Olympic event for working a jaw, the walls of the
Island Gamble would have buckled from the burden of gold medals. Truly, the family was a very
sentimental lot and their point of view was that the ability to poke fun at their own foibles was
what saved them from despair on many a day.
That's how it was. The aging sometimes shaking ramparts of the Hamilton fortress were
stockpiled with invisible weapons of remember when … we never … and we always … as though
they existed in their own great saline bubble, with a sacred family crest to live up to.
Sometimes the family wore Beth out with what she saw as excessive self-importance and
righteousness. One day her aunts, uncles and cousins would all be the stuffings of novels, even
memoirs perhaps, if she could find the courage to put it all on paper. But not just yet. Today Beth
was on another mission. The Dutiful Daughter was back.
Beth gathered her luggage, walked Lola on the grassy median outside and found a place
in the short taxi line. Part of her was excited and the other part was simply miserable. She loved
Sullivans Island because it was her personal time warp. Even though it was 2009, when you were
there you would believe that Eisenhower was still in office, even though that was well before her
time. But in her heart she felt the island really belonged to her mother's generation and those
before her. The last four years had prepared her to live her own life, independent of her tribe.
Isn't that why she went to college a thousand miles away in the first place? Further, this
assignment, decided upon with the cavalier flick of her mother and aunt's royal wrists, blocked
her from pursuing her own dream but enabled her mother to live hers. It wasn't a fair trade but
she wasn't exactly given an option. If asked she would say dryly, “My mom and my Aunt
Maggie could benefit from even one session of sensitivity training. Seriously.”
She climbed in the next available rattletrap and soon she was on her way. At least she had
Lola to console her.
“Could you turn up the air conditioning, please?” she asked. Beth's upper lip was covered
in little beads of moisture and the roots of her hair were damp.
“Sure.” The driver said. “Today's a hot one, yeah?”
“Yep. It sure is.”
The old van complained with each pothole and strained against the slightest rise in the
road. Its ancient driver, an old man whose white hair was as thick and coarse as a broom, was
crouched over the steering wheel. The intensity of his focus on the road was nerve wracking. He
drove like a lumbering walrus in the middle lane as hundreds of cars zoomed by them. She
actually considered offering to drive thinking she preferred death by her own hand.
Memorabilia was strung across the old man's dashboard, photographs attached with bits
of curling tape and lopsided magnets from Niagara Falls and in Beth's opinion, other painfully
boring vacation spots. Judging from their faded condition, the people of those pictures, his
children she guessed, were grown and had been gone from his home for a long time. His taxi
license read Mr. George Brown. He sighed loudly and cleared his throat as the van's
transmission struggled and jerked with each changing gear. She wondered if they would ever
reach the causeway. Mr. Brown did not know that he was delivering her, her little dog, two large
suitcases and a duffle bag, bulging with university memories, soggy farewells and a poor attitude
to one very bittersweet destination.
“You want to take 526 or the new bridge?”
“Whatever you think,” she said.
She had told her mother, Susan that she would take a cab from the airport to the beach.
She was in no hurry to see anyone. Besides, she had just seen her mother and family at
graduation a month ago so the usual sense of urgency she felt to be with her, the excitement of
those initial moments of grabbing each other's eyes, had been satisfied. She was home before the
longing could begin again. As all mothers do, Susan frequently drove her daughter to the edge of
what she could endure but the truth was Beth loved her mother no matter what and more than
anyone in the world.
Like most mothers and daughters, their relationship was naturally complicated by simply
living and lately by the many small acts of letting each other go. But theirs was different in that it
was scarred by the pain of tragic loss. To be completely honest, the loss was epic to Beth but she
felt it was less so to her mother. That single fact marked the beginning of a worrisome divide
between them. Beth was not exactly sure of all the reasons why she felt so burdened but she
sometimes staggered under the weight of the sea of emptiness she carried. She felt like her
mother had tossed aside her share and left her to flounder for herself. It wasn't fair or noble.
Then there was the matter of expectations, ones Beth would never meet much less
surmount. It was impossible to be the oldest girl in the next generation of Hamiltons/Hayes and
ever expect raving accolades from the lips of her elders. She might have looked for some
measure of satisfaction from them but she would never expect a parade in her honor. There was
no excessive flattery to be found.
Her aunts and uncles owned the past and they still thought the future was theirs as well.
Beth begged to differ. She felt they were wrong about so many things that she was embarrassed
for them, one more reason she had planned to continue to build her life elsewhere.
The distance between Beth's college and Sullivans Island had allowed the rest of her
relatives to revel in their shared hallucinations of perfect family. College had spared her four
years of their self-congratulations and she thanked everything holy that she had not been there. If
she had been on that porch or around that table peeling shrimp with them, she would have said
that what they actually were was very far from perfect. They would not have valued her
observations. In college, she had developed a tongue.
It didn't matter now. She was not going to be the one to point out that their conservative
ideas had never advanced their family's name one inch. She was going to try to be the good
daughter, the responsible niece, the one who came and did her duty. Why? Because even though
they all practically bored her to death, Beth loved them with a fierce passion she doubted she
could ever duplicate in another relationship. But that's how they were, the Hamiltons and the
Hayes, bonded by loyalty and an unseen force.
Beth suspected what everyone else already knew. That unseen force, that Lowcountry
Force, the Goddess of the Island Gamble, if you like, was waiting for her. That's why surrender
was the only choice. She guessed that any other course could be met with some strange but
actual version of Universal Mockery until she gave in and became a willing player in the game.
Welcome back to the chessboard! Get in position! Let's see, that would make Beth a pawn.
But, she thought, in spite of everything, it would be very interesting to see how the year
would unfold. A year was a long time. Her intention was to avoid any and all controversy and
every kind of chaos.
Beth laughed to herself realizing she had almost no real hand in the whole scenario
anyway. She knew better. With the beckoning curl of their fingers, Aunt Maggie and her mother,
Susan Hamilton Hayes, had coaxed her to the edge of their ancestral frying pan and she was
crawling in like a lean slice of bacon. It wouldn't take long to cook her.
The taxi crossed over the Cooper River on the new bridge and next thing she knew, they
were cruising down Coleman Boulevard, Mr. Brown's van straining to meet thirty miles an hour.
Stylistically, that is, if you wanted to impress anyone, his vehicle, that great hulking
Chariot of Smoke and Fire, was not the optimal way to arrive in your hometown. Not that
anyone beyond the gene pool was expecting her. But Beth thought it would have been awesome
to be driving in some hot convertible wearing oversized sunglasses listening to some new music,
something she knew all the words to so that she could sing at the top of her lungs. It would have
been very, very awesome, she thought, if someone in another convertible, someone of the
opposite sex who resembled a movie star perhaps, like Hugh Jackman, turned his head and the
question of her true identity stopped him dead, all he could do was grin and follow her home,
promising to rescue her from her dreary existence. Starting now. Lasting forever. Why not? A
girl could dream, right?
But she wasn't of that ilk—the rescued damsel type. She was well, sort of the pathetically
serious one, the one sporting the inexpensive copy of Tina Fey's eyeglasses, without the benefit
of her jaw line or innate sense of style. Not to mention Tina Fey was really smart and funny
while Beth was smart, her humor was dry and sometimes she was marginally dour. Okay, so she
knew her eyeglasses were an infinitesimal attempt at stardom chic, but it was a start.
Beth left Charleston four years ago dressed like a Lowcountry princess in training and
somehow fell into the student life, adopting a Beacon Hill slash Jack Kerouac kind of look that
wasn't exactly Lilly Pulitzer. Lately, people knitted their eyebrows together at the sight of her
and completely unsolicited, they offered her rubber bands to restrain her hair. She was the first
one chosen as a lab partner and the last one invited on the conga line. Oh sure, she drank her
share of beer in college and once she actually got completely toasted on tequila shots and had to
spend two days in bed drinking Maalox and nibbling little bites of bananas dipped in peanut
butter. But that was the exception, not the rule. Perhaps she had overdone the brainiac study
thing in college and didn't look like a Carolina girl on her way to the Windjammer to shag all
night—and that's a dance, not a sexual act—and well, so what? Beth was still a smart cookie
who simply had yet to latch onto a lasting personal style.
Beth knew very early on that if she wanted to go to graduate school she was going to
need a scholarship. So when all her girlfriends were out raising hell, dressed in bed sheets and
acting like boozerellas, she was in her dorm memorizing biology spellings and studying finance.
Unlike her friends and roommates who all seemed happy to have predestined futures, she viewed
college as a ticket out of a life on that great southern hamster wheel. One generation hopped off
and went to heaven and the next one hopped on, picking up where the others left off, running like
idiots in Ray Bans and Top Siders until they dropped dead too. Not that she really had anything
super serious against her family or that life, it was just that she wanted to see the world and think
about things, be somebody different, do something great, like write the great American novel or
at least have her blog picked up for publication before she was thirty. Was that too much to hope
for? She was thinking now that maybe it was. At least, so far. Because if she was so Albert
Einstein smart and destined for such global literary greatness, what was she doing with a
deferred scholarship, sweating like a pig in the back of a clanking van, headed for a funky old
haunted house on a sandbar? She already knew the answer but to reinforce her own commitment,
she would breathe the words again. She was Beth Hayes, The Obedient One.
They crossed the Ben Sawyer Bridge and for the billionth time she wondered who Ben
Sawyer was. It would have made sense if the bridge was named for Edgar Allen Poe, who
actually lived on Sullivans Island for a while. But Ben Sawyer? She had never heard of any
Sawyers on Sullivans Island. Like her mother always said, who were his people? But there you
had one more small but significant enigma of Sullivans Island, a land washed in mystery and
populated with the kind of characters Tennessee Williams would have loved to have known.
They were on the island then, and Beth was straining her neck to read the leash laws that
were posted on the huge sign on the right. She didn't want Lola to get busted by the dog police
for dropping her carte du visite in the wrong spot.
She rubbed her eyes. What was this? Oz? Perhaps it was the time of day but the houses
seemed brighter, more well-defined and the palmettos and oleanders seemed greener, their
branches and the edges of their fronds were sharper. The sky seemed to be a more vibrant shade
of blue than she could recall. She took a deep breath and even with the van's air conditioning
running full blast she could still smell plough mud, which was an acquired taste and dangerously
addictive. In her dreams she actually smelled plough mud.
Despite the economy, there was gentrification everywhere but the kind that pleased her.
Most of the old migrant worker cottages that flanked the road onto the island had been
resurrected and transformed into million dollar futures with colorful lush window boxes of
fuchsia geraniums, hot pink petunias and bushy asparagus ferns to prove it. It was amazing, she
thought, what you could accomplish with the combination of elbow grease, a little money and a
They came to the corner and she noticed that the gas station was under new ownership,
gouging its customers an extra twenty cents per gallon for the privilege of convenience. That
would never change no matter who owned it. The patrons of Dunleavys Pub, noisy families and
happy dogs, spilled out onto the sidewalk picnic tables, laughing, talking and having lunch. Her
stomach began to growl when she thought about their quesadillas. Judging from the parking lot,
Durst Family Medicine appeared to be doing a brisk business. Probably legions of poison ivy and
sunburn victims, she thought. People were walking to the beach pulling wagons loaded with
gear, toddlers and iced water in their coolers and Beth thought she might like a walk on the
beach that day to introduce Lola to the ocean.
The dependable rolling panorama of robust life gave her some relief. For as much as Beth
embraced the twenty first century, like all true Charlestonians, she hated change of almost any
kind. Commercial development made her suspicious and she generally ignored its creeping
advance, hoping it might go away. If she had lived there full time she would have fought it with
all her might. They could build all the Starbucks and Sonics in the world on Mount Pleasant and
the adjoining island of Isle of Palms but something deep inside of her depended on the peninsula
of Charleston and the entire length and breadth of Sullivans Island to remain the same. So far it
was reasonably so.
They turned right on Middle Street, the Champs Elysse of the island, and began to head
toward her house. In the time it might take to swallow a pill, she would be back, perched on the
threshold of her childhood. Her stomach began to flutter.
Memories flooded her mind all at once—all of them together, cousins, aunts, uncles, all
of them. She could see herself and the others as children, running around in their pajamas,
spinning like helicopters in the silver dusk, fall down dizzy, chasing lightning bugs, scooping
them into mayonnaise jars with holes punched in the top. The holes were made by her Uncle
Grant's ice pick that they were forbidden to touch.
“Don't you children even think about laying a hand on that thing,” he would say in a very
stern voice to his boys. Then he would turn to Beth with a wink and she knew he wasn't so very
mean as all that.
Summers! Searching the thicket for wild blackberries in the full sun of the day, filling
coffee cans with them, and later, sunburned and freckled, how they feasted on hot sugary
blackberry dumplings that her Aunt Maggie whipped up in her copper pots. There were literally
hundreds of days when her boys, Mickey and Bucky and Beth caught crabs down by the rocks
with Uncle Grant. They used chicken necks for bait, tied up in knots on weighted ends of cord.
They caught blue crabs by the score, shrieking as they moved them ever so carefully from the
line to the net to the basket, trying not to get pinched—The Revenge of the Ill Fated Crab. They
shrieked again with excitement when one escaped the basket in the kitchen or on the porch,
clicking its claws as it hurried sideways, looking for salvation. There was no salvation for those
guys, no ma.am. They wound up steamed and dumped right from the colander on newspapers
that were spread over the porch table, cracked apart and dipped in cocktail sauce. It made her
laugh to remember. She realized then that she had not been crabbing in years. And she
remembered how she had completely embraced her closely-knit family when she was young and
how important it had been to her.
“Maybe I should take up crabbing again, Lola. Do you want to come and help?”
“What's that?” Mr. Brown said.
“Nothing. I was just talking to my dog.”
“No reason why not.”
They passed the hill fort then and Beth sighed with relief as it had not changed one lick,
except for the children's park built in front of it that had sprung up some years ago. In her mind's
eye, she could see herself, her cousins and a gang of island kids, sliding down it on flattened
cardboard boxes and catching the devil from the town fathers for trespassing and sledding on the
patchy grass. They had been very young, not quite ten, when Mickey had his first brush with the
“What do you think you.re doing, son?”
Mickey looked up into the face of the Chief of Police and everyone thought he was going
to wet his pants, right there in front of the whole world.
“You children get on out of here now, before I have to lock you all up! You hear me?”
Beth giggled to remember how they had abandoned their cardboard and ran in every
direction to escape incarceration.
She remembered flying kites on the beach in the winter and all those stories they told and
retold … you see, as long as things looked about the same and they told and retold the same
stories, the past was still alive. They could all stay young and live forever. In that moment, that
was what she wanted—for her life to be as it had been before her father died and to live forever
in that corner of her childhood world.
“Turn left here?” Mr. Brown said, snapping her out of her daydream.
“Yes, left here and then right to that driveway on the left. Yes. Left here.”
“Welcome home,” Mr. Brown said and put the car in park, leaving the engine to continue
its rumbling. “Always good to be home, ain't it?”
She simply said, “Yeah, it is.” What she wanted to say was something else entirely. She
wanted to say, you don't know how complicated this is. I might be swallowed alive in the next
year. Get me out of here. But she didn't.
She only said, “yeah, it is.”
Beth leaned forward in her seat to size up the Island Gamble. She thought she had known
exactly what to expect. The house would loom large, spooky and scare the daylights out of her
with its enormity. But it didn't. She was ship shape. Her shutters were straight, her white
clapboards glistened from a recent paint job and her silver tin roof mirrored the enormous clouds
overhead like the compact mirror of a dowager. The Island Gamble seemed sweet,
grandmotherly, and nostalgic, as safe a haven as one could ever want. At the sight of it she
became emotional and suddenly she wanted to cry. There was her mother's old Volvo wagon and
her Aunt Maggie's car too. They were there, waiting for her.
She got out and liberated Lola from her crate, hooking her leash to her collar. She paid
Mr. Brown and he deposited her luggage at the foot of the steps, meaning she would have the
pleasure of hauling it all up the steps and into the house and then up another two flights to the
“Thanks,” she said and gave him five dollars instead of the ten she would have given him
if he had taken her bags inside.
Mr. Brown shrugged his shoulders, got back into his van, put it in reverse and backed out
of her life.
Lola was nosing around, sniffing the Lantana and the Pittosporum when a screen door
slammed against its frame. Thwack! Beth looked up to see her mother and Aunt Maggie hurrying
down the steps to greet her.
“He-ey!” Aunt Maggie called out in a singsong. “Come on and give your auntie a kiss,
you bad girl!”
“I'm not bad,” she said and smiled.
“Yes, she is!” Mom said, “Come here, Lola baby!”
“What about kissing your daughter?” She said.
“After I scratch my granddog,” she said, gave Beth a slap on her bottom and scooped up
Lola from the grass. “Look at my precious widdle baby!” Lola proceeded to wash Susan's face,
one slurp at a time. “Come see, Maggie! Our Lola's got your nose and my chin!”
“Well, look at that! Would y.all look at this little bit of a fur ball? Hey, darlin'.” Aunt
Maggie allowed Lola to lick her hand, much like you might kiss the Pope's ring, and then she
turned her attention to Beth, narrowing her famous blue eyes. “All right now, Missy. Want to tell
your aunt what in the world you did to your hair?”
“I merely enhanced the red.”
“I'll say! Whew! Well, hon, it's just hair, isn't it?” She sighed so large Beth caught the
fragrance of her toothpaste.
Aunt Maggie, the self-proclaimed matriarch of the family did not like Beth's hair.
Apparently. Beth did not give a rip what she thought. She was there to do them a favor, not to get
a makeover. She was immediately annoyed but hiding it pretty well. She deemed it unwise to
arrive and start bickering right away.
“Don't you pick on my child,” Mom said to Maggie and gave Beth a dramatic hug,
fingering her ringlets. “I happen to love red hair!”
Beth took Lola back from her. As usual, her mother had read her mind.
“Let me help you with the bags, kiddo.” Aunt Maggie said groaning under the weight of
her duffle bag. “Lawsa mercy, chile! What you got in here? Bricks?”
“Books,” she said, “and more books. Sorry. This one's worse.”
Everyone took a bag and they grumbled their way up the stairs, across the small back
porch and into the kitchen.
“Where do y'all want me to sleep?”
“Take your old room for now but when we leave you can rotate bedrooms if you want.”
Aunt Maggie said. “You must be starving. I made lunch so why don't you go wash airplane and
dog off your hands and we can eat?”
Airplane and dog? She was almost twenty-three years old. Did she really need someone
to tell her to wash her hands?
“Sure,” she said, kicked off her flip-flops and took two of her bags up the steps to her old
room that had never really been hers.
The bedroom where Beth had spent so many nights, housed her parent's four-poster bed
which had come into their hands when her grandparents went to their great reward. When her
mother and stepfather sold the house on Queen Street and moved in with her Aunt Maggie and
Uncle Grant just as they were moving to California, her mother had sold most of their belongings
in an undistinguished yard sale and brought only the most important pieces of furniture and some
other things with her. Those things that mattered to her and those she thought mattered to Beth
and yes, that was another issue Beth had with her. How could someone else decide what was
important to you?
The big mirror was the first artifact to arrive, followed by an old grandfather clock that
chimed when it was in the mood. But the mirror was the thing. The Mirror, the curious and well-used doorway for those no longer of the flesh, was firmly installed in her Aunt Maggie's living
room the week before her mother married Simon Rifkin. So her mother's exodus back to the
island had actually begun before Beth realized what was going on. Maggie had always wanted
the mirror back, saying it was original to the house. She had whined about that thing like it was
made out of the skin of her children. But that's how Beth's Aunt Maggie was—acquisitive to the
tenth power. Her mom didn't mind returning it saying she didn't need the deceased walking
around her house at all hours anyway. This made her mom happy and Aunt Maggie happy and
Beth well, not so much if she had recognized its departure as a sign of the times.
So, in addition to house arrest, Beth would have the company of every dead person the
family had ever known, if you believed in that stuff, which she did, because she knew it to be so
from first hand experience.