I began putting my life back together at the feet of my older sister and her family. She lived in Momma's housethe family shrineon the front beach of Sullivan's Island. Every time I went over to the Islandwhich was frequent in the first months after Tom leftI tried to leave the harsh realities of my new life behind me.
My old station wagon rolled slowly across the causeway, liberating my daughter and me from the starched life of the peninsula to the tiny dream kingdom of Sullivan's Island. Black magic and cunja powder swirled invisibly in the air. The sheer mist became the milky fog of my past.
From within the pink and white branches of the overgrown oleanders, which lined both sides of the road, floated the spirits of decades long gone. The haints were still there, just waiting for us in the tall grasses and bushes. Suffice it to say that everything in the Lowcountry was just a-wiggling with life and it wasn't always a warm body.
The spirits urged me to roll down my windows and breathe in the musk-laden drug of the marsh. The scents of plough mud and rotting marsh life filled my senses like a warm shower of rare perfume. Then the sirens sounded their cue and the drawbridge lifted up before us to allow passage for a tall-masted sailboat. We would be detained on the Charleston side for fifteen minutes. I left my car to stand outside and feel the air. Beth stayed in the car listening to the radio.
I walked to the edge of the marsh. The full force of the salty air washed my face and, in an instant, I was a young girl again.
I was hurrying home to my momma and Livvie, my heart already there. The sweet steam of Livvie's simmering okra soup beckoned in a long finger all the way from the back porch. In my mind I heard the voices of my brothers and my sister as we converged on the supper table, all of us bickering in Gullah over the largest piece of cornbread. Livvie ran interference, telling us to hush, warning us that Daddy was coming.
It was odd what I remembered about growing up. My first associations were tied into the smells of the marsh and the aromas of the kitchen. Maybe I should have done fragrance research instead of planning literacy programs at the county library, but I was always more inclined toward saving the world. One thing was for sure, I needed a job that would let me offer my opinions because, according to everybody I knew, that was one area where I excelled.
Livvie. God, not a day passed that I didn't remember her. She raised meall of us, actually. Here was an old Gullah woman who put her own five children through college working as a housekeeper. Just when she should have been thinking retirement, she took on the notorious clan of Hamilton hardheaded ignoramuses. She was the captain of our destiny, redirecting our course as often as needed. With every snap of her fingers we woke up to the truths of life and our own potential a little more. It was because of her that we all loved to read. She'd shake her head and lecture. "Feast your hungry brain with a good book," she'd say. "Quit wasting time! Life's short. Humph!" Humph, indeed. Who was I kidding? It was because of her that we were not all in some treatment program. She had taught us how to thinkno small feat.
She'd probably have had plenty to say if she could have seen Beth and me right now, playing instead of working. I'd told my boss I had a doctor's appointment. A tiny lie. But I had an excellent excuse for playing hooky on this particular weekday afternoon. Heat. Over one hundred degrees every day since last week. We were having a heat wave, Lowcountry style. It felt as if old-fashioned southern cooks were deep-frying us in bubbling oil like a bunch of breaded chickens. One flip of the wrist and the whole of Charleston and its barrier islands sizzled in a cast-iron skillet. We're talking hot, Bubba. Take it from an old Geechee girl. Geechee? That would be someone born in the Lowcountry, which extends from the Ogeechee River down in Georgia clear up to Georgetown, South Carolina. I was raised in the downy bosom of the Gullah culture, as opposed to a Charlestonian reared in the strictures of the Episcopal Church. Big difference. Gullah culture? Ah, Gullah. It's Lowcountry magic. That's all.
Coming to the Island made me feel younger, a little more reckless, and as I finally went back to my car and closed the doorpausing one moment to lower the audio assault of the radioI realized the Island also made me lighthearted. I was willingly becoming re-addicted. As we arrived on the Island, I pointed out the signs of summer's early arrival to Beth, my fourteen-year-old certified volcano.
"Oh, my Lord, look! There's Mrs. Schroeder!" I said. "I can't believe she's still alive." The old woman was draped over her porch swing in her housecoat.
"Who? I mean, like, who cares, Mom? She's an old goat!"
"Well, honey, when you're an old goat like her, you will. Look at her, poor old thing with that wet rag, trying to cool her neck. Good Lord. What a life."
"Shuh! Dawg life better, iffin you ask me!"
I smiled at her. Beth's Gullah wasn't great, but we were working on it.
"This 'eah life done been plan by Gawd's hand, chile," I said.
It was a small but important blessing how the Gullah language of my youth had become a communication link to her. A budding teenager was a terrible curse for a single parent, especially given the exotic possibilities of our family's gene pool. But speaking Gullah had become a swift ramp to her soul.
Gullah was the Creole language developed by West Africans when they were brought to the Lowcountry as slaves. While it mostly used English words in our lifetime, it had a structure and cadence all its own and most especially it had many unforgettable idiomatic expressions.
It was spoken by Livvie, taught to us, and we passed on the tradition to our own children. We used it to speak endearing words to each other, to end a small disagreement or to ignite memories of the tender time we spent with Livvie. When I was Beth's age every kid on the Island spoke Gullah to some extent, at least those lucky enough to have someone like Livvie.
I stopped at the corner for some gas at Buddy's Gulf Station, the Island institution renowned for price gouging on everything from gasoline to cigarettes. We got out of the car, I to perform the elegant task of pumping the gas and Beth to get a cold Coke. A group of old Island salts were ogling the thermometer in front of Buddy's store. One of the old men called out to Buddy.
"Jesus! If it's this hot in June, what's August gone be like?"
"Gone sell y'all a loada ice, 'eah?" Buddy said.
"Gone be hotter than the hinges on the back door of hell, that's what!" the old man shot back. "Humph!"
I smiled, listening to them. They sounded the same as Islanders had sounded for generations, same accent, same lilt in their speech. Traces of Gullah phrasing. It was my favorite music.
As we drove down the Island I decided to take Atlantic Avenue to check the horizon, watch the shrimp boats and container ships. Today's slow ride did not disappoint us. Boats were everywhere. I pointed them out to Beth. It was the whole world, these container ships, coming and going from our busy port as they had done for centuries. She nodded with me in agreement. First, that it was beautiful, second, that we were lucky to be there.
Along our drive by the water, we passed ten or so young mothers pulling their offspring home in wagons from the sweltering beaches, hopping from one bare foot to the other on the blistering asphalt roads.
"How stupid is that?" Beth said.
"Shoot, Momma, even I know not to go to the beach without flip-flops or sandals! God, they must be dying!"
"Please. Don't use the Lord's name, unless you're in prayer. It's a hundred years in purgatory."
"I'm an adult and personally responsible for my own immortal soul."
"Whatever." She made one of those sounds of disgust, the kind that could be confused with indigestion, used for running defense against parental dominance.
Beth. This child got the cream of our genetic smorgasbord. She inherited the Asalit blue eyes, a shade of chestnut hair with more red and wave than mine, my brains and grapefruits (bosoms), Maggie's tiny waist and when she finally stops growing she could be five feet, nine inches. She was a colt, all legs and a shiny coat, looking for a place to run. She was really beautiful to watch and she worked it too, pulling all her poor momma's chains.
"Two hundred years of Catholicism coursing in your veins is gonna make a lady out of you if it's the last thing I do," I said.
"Well, at least you're not trying to make me a nun," she said with some relief.
"Honey, I wouldn't encourage my worst enemy to the doors of a convent."
"Come on, Momma, step on it. I'm dying to go to the beach! It's so hot I could scream!"
I was just cruising along, enjoying the scene before me and looking around to see if I knew anyone. The Island had changed so much from when I was a child, but thankfully all the attempts to make it slick like Hilton Head or Kiawah had failed. Part of me depended on that. If it stayed the same I still owned it, even though my sister, Maggie, got the Island Gamble.
Maggie had laid claim to our ancestral home when our mother closed her eyes for the last time. I got the haunted mirror and that seemed like a fair trade to me. The rest of us had always known Maggie would walk those floors in adulthood. She would raise her children within the same rooms. Tradition was as much a part of her makeup as rebellion was of ours.
Digging roots off the Island had been essential to my sanity. I would have tied that house up in a bow and given it to her rather than live there. There were too many ghosts in the paneling, too many tears in the pipes. I had too much energy to stay and back then I had no desire to reconcile the issues. No, there was no argument from me on who should get the house. If Maggie wanted itand I would never understand why until I was well into my thirtiesit was just fine with me. I had run an entire seven miles away from home to Charleston. But seven miles from this Island was another world.
At last, I pulled up in the backyard next to Maggie and Grant's boat and tooted the horn to announce our arrival. The back door swung open and Maggie called down to us from the back porch.
"Susan! Beth! Where have y'all been?" She waved, smiling to see us.
She looked frighteningly like a nineties version of June Cleaver, Beaver's mom, only with frosted blond hair. I hated to admit it, but she was beautiful and always had been. She had Bermuda blue eyes like all the Asalits. A natural blond toned to a perfect size six, she was pleased to no end with her life. Maggie was hopelessly lost in a Talbot's world of flowered skirts and hand-knitted sweaters. She was the president of the Garden Club and active with the Junior League. Even though we disagreed on everything from politics to the merits of duck decoy collecting, when her blue eyes met mine, we were family.
"Getting gas at Buddy's and smelling the marsh," I said, gathering up all the towels and tote bags. "Got caught by the bridge again."
"That awful old bridge! Y'all come on in! Beth, the boys are waiting. You want to go crabbing? Tide's perfect!"
"Ab! I brought my bathing suit." Beth grabbed her straw beach bag and pushed past us to find her cousins.
"In the parlance of today's young people, ab is short for absolutely ," I said. "God, is it hot or what? Thanks for letting us invade your afternoon. I thought I was gone die in Charleston. It's so hot in the city the blacktop sinks under your feet."
"Y'all moving in? Let me help you with some of that."
"Thanks," I said.
I followed her up the steep steps into the kitchen; my eyes struggled to adjust to the low light inside.
"I hate the heat too. Well, this summer's gonna be a scorcher, I guess. You want something cold to drink?" Maggie opened the door of the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of iced tea.
"Please." I reached for two glasses from the cabinet and handed them to her. "No Diet Pepsi?"
"Picky, picky. No, I have to go to the store."
"Tea's fine. I'm gonna change into some shorts and hit the porch."
"Okay. Wanna go for a swim?"
"Maybe later. First I have to calm down and cool off."
"Tom?" Maggie cleared her throat with a knowing "ahem." I hated that little "ahem" thing she did.
"Who else?" I leaned against the counter as she poured, feeling embarrassed that my whole life had spun clean out of control.
"What's happened now?"
"Maggie, you should've been a shrink. I can't keep dumping stories on you about him. I'm gonna drive you crazy. Let's just say that he's still a son of a bitch." I took a long drink of the tea. "Thanks. I'll meet you on the porch. Can you sit awhile?"
"You bet. Let me just start the dishwasher and marinate the steaks for tonight. Grant got a new grill for Father's Day and wants to break it in."
"I wish he'd break it in by putting Tom Hayes's behind on a spit," I said, thinking that I'd been muttering a lot lately. "See you on the porch."
I sprawled out in her Pawley's Island hammock, using my heel to kick off from the porch banister. The hammock, a testimony to the practical application of macrame, was like all the ones that have hung on the western end of this porch since I was a child. Hammocks were generally undervalued, except in the South and probably the Amazon. There was nothing like crawling in, stretching out and swinging away your troubles.
I closed my eyes and began daydreaming about the porch. If this porch were hanging on the side of my house in the city, it would be a veranda. But over here on the Island, it was a porch. That general lack of pretension was one more feature that made the Island so appealing.
I could be blinded and still find everything here. If I hopped out of the hammock, I could take three steps and sink into one of the two old metal frame chairs, the kind that bounced a little. There was an ancient coffee table between the chairs and the glider. If I wanted to perch in the bench swing that hangs from the other end, or park myself in a rocker, I would only have to stretch out my right arm and follow the ferns that Maggie had hung in perfect intervals above the banister.
The only differences between the porch of today and the one of forty years ago were the ceiling fans that moved the air around, making the suffocating heat bearable, and the fresh coat of paint on the furniture and the floor. In my day, nothing much was shiny. Whatever Maggie didn't decorate, Grant painted. The porch used to be entirely screened in with doors to the outside, but Grant and Maggie took them off. The house looked wonderful without them and nobody seemed to mind an occasional yellow jacket. Even the most persnickety old-timers on the Island agreed that Maggie and Grant had done a great job with the house. You have to understand that the old Islanders were highly suspicious of any sort of change. Busybodies. After all, Grant was from Columbia, and what in the world would he know about historic beach houses? But, they crept around, one by one, with a pound cake or some fresh fish as a house gift, to see what Maggie and Grant were up to. In the end, they all said that Maggie and Grant had done all right.
Like many of the older houses on the Island, this one had its own name: the Island Gamble. Living on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, our house had its own tide that rose, fell, foamed, swirled and, at times, went mad. Everything inside and outside was suffused with the smell of salt water and sea life. The Island Gamble was very nearly a living, breathing thing.
Our mother's parents, Sophie and Tipa Asalit, were its second owners, its first being a lady of dubious background. Legend holds that she entertained a handsome sea captain here for a prolonged period of time while her husband was in Philadelphia on business. It must've been true, because when Tipa and our father renovated the house they found torrid love letters between the floorboards and thousands and thousands of Confederate dollars.
Island Gamble. Our grandmother had always hated the name. She said it made us sound like a bunch of hooligans. The argument was one of the few times that our grandfather ever stood up to her, that I knew of anyway. He insisted that the name not be changed, suggesting it was tampering with history to remove it. Lord knows why he picked that battle to fight, given the number of hissing matches she started, but the name remained and the Island Gamble has belonged to our family for nearly one hundred years. At first it was our family's summer-house, but when Grandma Sophie became frail, Tipa moved her from the city to the beach permanently, believing the salt air would do her some good.
The Island Gamble was a sentinel; she stood tall with a commanding view of Charleston harbor and Fort Sumter. Her white clapboards made up three stories, built in the old Island style that only God could pull asunder. Her wide hips were wraparound porches and her French doors swung open for airflow. The most interesting original details were her cupola and widow's walk on the top of the house. They sat up there like a bonnet on her lovely head. When I was little, I used to climb up there to hide from everyone to write in my journals, privacy being a precious commodity in those days.
In our family, the birth of every new baby was preceded by a building frenzy. Our grandfather, with the help of our father, added rooms to the sides or off the back like a line of freight train cars. Our house was kind of crazy looking, the patchwork quilt of our family's history. She gave the impression she could withstand anything and, indeed, she had weathered scores of hurricanes, sheltered many broken hearts and played host to hundreds of people in her history. Her heart had harbored too many secrets for my blood, but I seemed to be the only one really bothered by that.
"Oh, if these walls could talk..." people would say.
And I'd say, If these walls started talking, the entire Island would be put under quarantine while the government moved in an army of psychiatrists.
But there were marvelous things about this place too. The hammock, for one, was extremely comforting, and Maggie was a great friend to let me come here to nurse my wounded heart. I didn't sleep too well these days with all that I'd had on my mind. I tossed and turned in my bed in the city, but the nightly visualization of this porch and hammock always helped me make headway toward some peace.
Just as I was about to drift off for a little desperately needed shut-eye, the screen door slammed.
"You want me to paint your toenails?" Maggie had arrived to cure me with a cosmetics bag and a tray of food. I looked down at my feet and shrugged in agreement.
"They look bad, 'eah? Whatcha got in that basket? Feed me, I'm starving."
'Eah. Great Gullah word, versatile like anything. It means here, yes, right now, do you hear me, isn't it so, don't you agree and just about anything you want it to.
"You don't look to me like you're starving, although you do look thinner," she said.
"Okay, you can paint my toenails if it makes you feel better."
These days, if anyone told me I looked thinner, I became the most agreeable sort of woman you knew. I got up from the hammock and inspected the snacks.
"Sit 'eah and I'll pour you some more tea."
I took a stalk of celery and dipped it in fat-free ranch dressing. Maggie pointed to the glider for me to sit in and began a replay of our childhood ritual. She wadded up pieces of Kleenex and stuck them between my toes. Then she moaned in disgust about my corns and calluses, while she buffed them away. Next, she lectured me on cuticles while she clipped and finally, thank the Lord, she applied a base coat followed by two layers of some color she got as a gift with purchase from Lancome. She always felt better when she could work on my appearance.
"I've lost twelve pounds," I told her as she applied the top coat.
"I see it in your ankles."
Of course, if she lost twelve pounds, she'd look cadaverous. "Thanks a lot," I said.
"I can see it in your face too," she said, smiling angelically, like a diet counselor from Jenny Craig. "Listen, twelve pounds is a lot, 'eah? Turkeys weigh twelve pounds! How'd you do it?"
"Swell. I've only got a few more turkeys to go. I'm counting fat grams. Can I have a tomato?"
"Well, you're looking much better!" Maggie twisted the top of the nail polish bottle back in place and offered me the Sweetgrass basket filled with raw vegetables. "'Eah, try one. They're fabulous!"
I got up carefully, trying not to wreck my pedicure, chose a deep red one, and hobbled back to the hammock. Twisting off the stem, I chomped through its rosy skin like an apple. The juice escaped at once and ran down my chin, seeds and all. I lifted the hem of my T-shirt, exposing my hadn't-seen-the-sun-in-decades pink stomach, and wiped my face. Maggie watched, just shaking her head. What did she know? I knew I was still a bit of a femme fatale. Okay. Truth. I knew my ability to break hearts was momentarily eclipsed by my unfortunate girth. I ignored her and lost myself in the joyous simplicity of munching on a perfectly vine-ripened tomato.
"Damn! This is so good! Dee-vine! Where'd you get 'em? Are they Better Boys?"
"Yep. Mr. Andregg brought 'em over from his garden as a thank-you for ten pounds of blue mackerel the boys and Grant caught last week."
She reached for a tomato for herself, wrapped it in a napkin, and took a small bite. No drip. I ignored that too.
"Keep those boys in the river! Where's the salt shaker?"
"You don't need salt. Bad for your blood pressure and makes you retain water."
"Right. You're right. So I only have a thousand more pounds to go and I'll look like my old self. Any suggestions? I mean, I'm starving myself on twenty fat grams a day and my butt is shrinking with glacier speed..."
"Forget fat grams...just eat what you want in moderation."
"I can't forget them if I ever want to get laid again," I said under my breath.
I sat up a bit and looked out over the railing toward the ocean. The sight always took my breath away. The dark green velvet of the front yard contrasted with the radiant white of the sand dunes that separated the family's property from the beach. The white mounds cut a wavy line across the deep blue of the Atlantic, like the finger paint of a child in his first attempt to create something beautiful. Feathery sea oats grew in clumps across their tops. The water glistened and the sun danced on the phosphorus. An illusory field of diamonds.
"You know, this must be the most beautiful place on this earth," I said, realizing my voice was barely a whisper.
"I hope you don't talk like that in front of my niece."
"What? That this is gorgeous?"
"No, Susan, your reference to your sex life. Beth doesn't need to 'eah that."
"Maggie, my sex life is nonexistent. Besides, she's barely fourteen! Beth is clueless about that stuff."
"Trust me. She's not clueless. Remember when you were fourteen and had that mad crush on Simon?"
"I need a cigarette. Where'd you hide my purse?"
"It's under the hammock. I wish you wouldn't smoke. It's nasty."
I nearly fell out of the hammock trying to reach my purse and, finally having retrieved it, I dug out my Marlboro Lights and my old Zippo. I lit it and exhaled away from Maggie.
"Give it up, Maggie," I said. "You can't cure me in one day."
"I'm not trying to cure you," she said with all the indignation of an older sister, "but you should try the patch or that gum. Nobody smokes anymore, Susan, in case you haven't noticed."
"Right. Have you heard from Simon lately?"
"Not since Christmas. Let's call him. He's living in Atlanta now, you know. Who knows? Maybe his marriage is on the rocks!"
I had to giggle at the thought of calling Simon. "I've got my cell phone right 'eah! Got his number?" I said with bravado.
"No, but I've got yours. Big talker."
She raised her eyebrows at me. Maggie had been a saint since Tom left me three months ago, but with the single lift of that brow, she let me know she knew I was a chicken.
"You're right. I'm not ready for men yet, even Simon. Men still stink." I drained my glass and flicked my cigarette butt over the rail, regretting it the second I did it, knowing it landed in her roses. "Sorry. I'll get it later."
"Don't worry about it."
"Yeah, Simon. God, he was cute, 'eah? I'd love to see him again. Maybe that little girl he married ran away or something."
"Well, his card didn't say anything about her, just that he was in Atlanta to teach a course on rare viruses and fevers or something at Emory."
"Oh. Do you know that man hasn't written me in over ten years?"
Simon, Simon, I thought. I wondered if he still had all his hair. When he was young he had the almighty head of silky brown hair. God, I loved him, for years and years. He must be fifty by now. I felt the heat surge again. Although the tide was coming in, there wasn't a breath of air to be had.
"Guess who did call?" I said.
"Let me guess..."
"Henry," I said before she could answer.
"Our dahlin' baby brother? What's up with him?"
"Well, bless his mercenary little heart, he just wanted to know if I needed anything. Is that nice, or what?"
"It's out of character, that's what," Maggie said.
"Well, normally I would be highly suspicious, but he was sincere, I think. Maybe Paula doesn't have any more plastic surgery left to do and he doesn't know what to do with his money."
"We're terrible," Maggie said.
"Yeah." The heat was paralyzing. "Maggie, was it this hot when we were kids? I don't remember it ever being this hot."
"I hate to break this to you, but you're getting older. Have you had your estrogen checked?"
I looked over at her stirring her tea like the Queen of England. I took the bait.
"Estrogen? Maggie, I'm barely forty-something."
"The first indication of menopause is a broken thermostat. It's either that or your weight. In any case, if you don't do something, you could be dead by August."
"God, middle age is an unending insult."
I closed my eyes and pretended to nap. It took about two seconds for me to sense her towering over me, her and her "I'm-a-self-help-book-waiting-to-be-published" lips. I opened my weary eyes.
"What is it?" I said rather testily. "What now?"
She just stood there, feigning mild offense, waiting for me to beg her to tell me how to fix my life. Her wheels cranked and turned in her head over the gentle rustling of the palmetto fronds and the incoming waves. She drove me crazy sometimes.
"Nothing," Her Highness said, and heaved a deep sigh. She sighed the same way our mother used to. An unfair advantage.
"Come on, Maggie, spit it out. You're gonna choke if you don't." She sauntered back to the coffee table and poured me another glass of tea. She dropped a lemon in the glass and handed it to me. I pushed it in with my finger, realizing I was being a little difficult. "Okay, I'm sorry," I said. "I admit it. Nobody has ever done more for me than Livvie Singleton and you. So tell me what you're thinking, besides that it would be nice if it were eighty degrees instead of a billion."
"Susan, you have a serious opportunity here."
I just stared at her.
"You do," she said. "Come on, let's rock."
"What do you mean 'opportunity'? What I've got is a daughter with probable simmering hormones, a stack of bills you could lay end on end to Charlotte that Tom won't help me pay, a backside that looks like thunderous Jell-O, no matter how I starve the thing. All I do is worry. Forgive me, but I'm having a hard time finding the opportunity in all this." I was prepared to mount my high horse now and she knew it. I took a seat in the rocker next to her.
Reprinted from Sullivan's Island by Dorothea Frank by permission of Jove Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright ©2000 by Dorothea Frank. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.