Sullivans Island: A Lowcountry Tale | Chapter 11 of 12

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except to drop off work. Everyone was smiling and I got a few

good ogles from the older men. I smiled back at them, feeling

pretty darn good.

“I saw that old man!” Kim said.“He positively leered at you!

Shall I take him outside and challenge him to a duel?”

“Let’s eat first. I’m starving,” I said, smiling at Kim.

“Such a sensible girl you are,” he said.

Everything was so beautiful that I didn’t know where to

look first. Julia Hall had placed full white poinsettias wrapped in

gold foil on each step of her curved staircase in the center hall.

Her dining room table had an exquisite centerpiece of white

French tulips, long-stemmed white roses and corkscrew willow

branches that had been spray-painted gold.The flowers were in

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a Chinese Export blue-and-white porcelain wine cooler that

was probably worth a fortune.

At one end of the table, a chef was slicing filet mignon.

Another chef sliced cold salmon at the other end. In between

them were a pyramid of steaming baby lamb chops with a mint

sauce for dipping, a platter of tiny pastrami sandwiches on rye

bread and sliced turkey breast sandwiches in soft rolls.

“Try the lamb chops,” I said to Kim,“they’re yummy.”

I was beginning to feel like an intruder since no one had

greeted us, just as Max looked up and saw me.

“Susan! Hi! You made it!” he said, coming over to me.

“Max! I want you to meet someone,” I said, and turned to

Kim, who had his mouth filled with food.“This is Jack.”

Kim narrowed his eyes at me, chewing madly and wiping

his hands on a napkin.

“Jack, ’eah? Well, I’ve heard all about you!” He laughed like

an old bear and shook Kim’s hand up and down until I thought

his arm would fly out of his shoulder socket. “Let me go find

Julia! She’ll want to meet you right away! I think she’s in the

kitchen fighting with the caterer. Some damn fool waiter was

rude to a guest or something like that. Be right back!”

“Nice meeting you,” Kim said to Max’s back as he turned

away. Then, turning to me, he said,“And who is Jack, may I ask?”

“Forget it. It wasn’t that funny the first time. Have some

pastrami.”

We walked around the table to the seafood. Oysters on the

half shell were in the center on a bed of ice with lobster claws

on one side and a cascade of shrimp on the other. A silver chaf-

ing dish of hot crab dip and another of curried scallops flanked

the whole affair.

“Lord,” Kim said,“this could be a Park Avenue soiree!”

“What are you talking about? We had a million parties like

this when I was growing up. This is how we do it in the Holy

City, honey chile.”

“You’re a terrible little liar,” he said, “and don’t expect this

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389

when you come to Tara. Our finger food sits on a Ritz until we

replace the roof. And why do they call Charleston the Holy

City anyway?”

“Well, about a billion years ago, when Charleston was a new-

born baby, they called her the Holy City because so many differ-

ent religions were practiced by the original settlers. Religious

persecution brought them here from Europe.”

“Ah! And all this time I thought it was the potato famine,”

he said.

“That was later,” I said, thinking that Kim might be eye

candy but no Einstein.“Here comes Max.”

“Here we are at last! Susan, this is Julia!” Max said, elbowing

his way to us.

I shook her hand and thought, so this is Mrs. Max Hall! I

should look so good when I’m her age. Her hair was swept up

in a twist and her beautiful pearl earrings were surrounded by

glittering diamonds. Real ones.

“Hello, Susan, welcome! I have just enjoyed your column so

much!”

“Thank you,” I said. “Your home is so beautiful and this is

such a lovely party.” How inane could I be? “I’d like you to meet

my friend Kim.”

“Hello,” she said,“do I know you?”

“Now we know each other, Mrs. Hall,” Kim said, taking her

hand into both of his and holding them. “And what do you

mean? What column?”

“Kim, dear man, don’t you know who you’re with?” Julia

said.

“Well, I thought I did,” he said.

“She’s the Geechee Girl, son,” Max said. “Yep, that column

has brought us more mail than any other column in ten years.

Going into syndication too. Didn’t she tell you?”

“‘Geechee Girl Remembers’ ?” Kim said.“That’s you?

“Guilty,” I said.

“Oh, my God! Wait until my Jeremy hears this! He reads

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every syllable to me on Thursdays at our breakfast table! It’s cap-

puccino, granola and Geechee! Every Thursday!”

Julia was a very nice lady and her friends flattered me to no

end. Before the night was over, Kim had won the heart and hair

of every woman there. Most importantly, Max knew a man wasn’t

keeping me and that I still needed my job.All things considered, it

was a successful night.

When we got home, Kim walked me to my door.

“Well, Susan, thanks for a wonderful night,” he said.“Gorgeous

house, gorgeous party.”

“You are a character, do you know that?”

“I haven’t had so much fun in eons,” he said. “Old ladies

love me. I can’t wait to get the plaster out of their hair.”

I was going to invite him in, but I’d had enough drama for

one night.

“See ya, sweet cakes, thanks for coming with me,” I said.

Through the window, I watched the grace with which he

moved, as he opened the door to his Jaguar and slid behind the

wheel. He made me feel glamorous.

I a r r i v e d at the Sheraton Hotel for the party Grant and Maggie

had invited me to and scanned the crowd for Roger Dodds. I saw

him across the ballroom at the bar. I felt like starting trouble.

“Roger, Roger, Roger! How are you?” I said, looking very

smart in my brown V-neck cashmere sweater and short skirt.

Nude stockings, don’t forget the nude stockings, and high heels.

He was deceivingly conservative in his dark suit, white shirt and

red foulard bow tie.

“Susan! What a nice surprise!”

He gave me a light kiss on the cheek and looked me up and

down.Thank God my shoes have closed toes, I thought.

“Are you here with someone?” I said.

“No, I’m alone. God, you have great legs.”

“Yes, I do.Thank you.”The Rivieras were playing “Double

Shot of My Baby’s Love.”

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391

“Can I get you a drink?” he asked.

“Sure, a cock-tail would be great,” I said.

“Feeling naughty, are we? White wine?”

“Thanks,” I said, taking the glass.

“God, you’re driving me crazy already,” he said.

“Oh! There’s Maggie and Grant! I have to go, Roger. Sorry.

See you!”

“What, you’re leaving me? Why?”

“I have a date,” I lied, “and I have to go home.The truth is

that I had a pedicure this afternoon.They scraped my feet just a

little too close for these pumps.Then they massaged them with

some oil that smells like coconut and fruit and they sting a little.

They’re very tender, Roger. Very pink, soft and tender.”

“Come on, Susan, don’t tell me this,” he said.

“Yeah, I came with this guy who’s a podiatrist. He says I

need to get off my feet.”

“Sounds like he wants to take you to bed and screw you.”

“Gosh? Think so? Gee. That would be nice. Well, Merry

Christmas, Roger.”

I smiled at him and walked over to Grant and Maggie.

“Mission accomplished,” I whispered to Maggie. “Great

party, Grant, thanks for inviting me.”

“You leaving already?” Grant said.

“Yeah, got a hot date with a young one,” I said.

At home, my hot young one, Beth, and I curled up like two old

friends on the couch and watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the zil-

lionth time.We shared popcorn, Cokes and tissues, saying the dia-

logue in perfect sync with the actors.We were perfectly content.

A t t h e l i b r a ry party Mitchell Fremont told me with great sad-

ness that he was taking a job in Spartanburg.

“When?” I said.

“In two weeks,” he said.“I guess that’s it for the two of us.”

“Yeah, guess so, Mitchell.”

There was no end to his arrogance. After he walked away I

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realized that his departure put me in line for his job, which if it

happened would mean a substantial raise. I knew they’d have to

interview other candidates but I put my name in the hat right

away. It was a pretty boring party, but I used the time to lobby

for Mitchell’s position.

I called Maggie the next day to tell her the news.

“God, I hope you get his job,” she said.

“Yeah, me too.”

“By the way, what on earth did you say to Roger Dodds?”

“Nothing.Why?”

“He came over to Grant all befuddled and said you made

him crazy.”

“I can’t imagine why,” I said.

“You won’t believe what Grant said.”

“What?”

“Grant said to him, ‘Well, Roger, my sister-in-law is the

kind of gal that keeps you on your toes, isn’t she?’ I almost

choked trying not to laugh.”

“Good Lord.”

O n m o n d ay, i woke up earlier than usual. I couldn’t sleep. At six

o’clock, I finally pulled on a bathrobe and went downstairs to

make coffee. I had had the strangest dream the night before. I

was alone in the backyard of the Island Gamble with Livvie.

Livvie and I were hanging laundry on the clothesline. We had

baskets of sheets, all of them white. She kept saying, “Look at

these, Miss Susan! So many white sheets!”We just kept hanging

them and hanging them and there was no end to them. They

stretched the length of our yard and I knew that they would

cover the entire length of the Island by the time we were done.

The more I hung, the more there seemed to be.We used the old-

fashioned wooden clothespins to attach them. “Keep hanging!”

she called out to me. I was so tired in my dream—I just wanted

to stop and rest for a while. But Livvie was so determined to

hang them all that I kept working.

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393

Sipping my mug of hot coffee I kept going over the dream

in my head.What did it mean? Was it about work? Certainly it

seemed like my work never ended. I knew that dreams had sym-

bols but I didn’t know much about them. What was all the

white about? Peace? Purity? Who would use all those sheets? A

hospital? Then it came to me.The Klan. Bingo!

I left my coffee mug on the counter and ran up the stairs as

fast as I could. Beth was still sleeping and was out of school for

the Christmas break. I opened her door.

“Beth? I’m going to the office; if you need me call me, okay?”

“Okay, Momma.What time is it?”

“Early. Go back to sleep.”

By t h e t i m e I showered and dressed and drove to the library, it

was almost quarter of eight. Mitchell usually came in at eight. I

waited, smoking and pacing, for his car to pull up in the parking

lot. Finally he arrived.

“Good morning, Susan,” he said,“early bird for a reason?”

“Yeah, I have something I want to look up.”

He turned the keys, unlocking the door, and rattled the key

chain at me.

“I understand you’re interested in my job,” he said.

“So is half of the world,” I said.

“Well, good luck,” he said,“I’ll put a good word in for you.”

“Thanks,” I said, wondering what the price for that would be

and then reprimanding myself for being so cynical and suspicious.

He went off to his office and I went right to the microfilm.

I looked up Ku Klux Klan and found quite a few references. I

went all through the newspaper clippings from 1963 and

couldn’t find what I was looking for and just as I was about to

quit, I struck pay dirt. It was from the Columbia paper, a report

about a Klan convention in some little town outside of Colum-

bia. It showed a photograph of a group of white-robed Klan

members. It was highly unusual to have a picture of them, as

most of their meetings were held in secret. But there it was. Plain

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as the nose on my face. I wondered if the photographer was

attacked by some of their goons. In the picture the Klan mem-

bers’ heads were covered in hoods. I printed it and took it to the

scanner copier to blow it up. I held my breath as I scanned the

picture.The Grand Dragon was wearing sandals and the guy next

to him wore highly polished police-issue black shoes. There was no

mistaking their beer guts and there was no mistake about their

identity. Marvin Struthers and Fat Albert. It was they who had

done my daddy in. I knew I had finally found the truth.

I bit my fist and tears streamed down my face. The dark

thoughts I had always carried regarding my feelings about Daddy

began to reassemble after decades of anger. My heart broke; I was

filled with regret—regret that I couldn’t reconcile how a man

who was such a bastard to the ones who loved and needed him

most gave his very life for the Civil Rights movement. While I

hated the way he had treated us, he had possessed strength in his

character I’d never considered. He was a fighter. Like me. I was

like him. He had never acknowledged that. Neither had I.

For years and years I had said in anger that I was glad he was

dead. For the first time in my entire life I missed him. I felt the

weight of sorrow in a way I had never known I could. I wanted to

wail like a child. I wanted someone to tell me they would make it

all right.There was no one who could have done that. I wanted to

lie down on the floor and sleep. But I just stood there, my

thoughts racing as I tried to sort out the pangs of despair I felt.

Maybe if he had lived he would have been proud of us. He

would have seen me become a woman, a mother, a single parent.

He would have seen how capable we had all become. How suc-

cessful, how strong. Maybe we would have found peace with him.

I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame him anymore. I just

wished I had known him better. I wished he had known me.

Maybe somehow through my recognition of his heroics he could

feel that now. I prayed that wherever his spirit was, he knew

I forgave him. And missed him. And, finally, that I was proud

of him.

Nineteen

School

}

1963

T home, I lived in diaper land. I could see myself

raising my own sisters and eventually becoming

AMomma’s nurse as she had been to her mother. It

was the southern way. It was what was expected of girls. I

guessed they thought Maggie could make a good marriage and

I was so homely, I’d never find a husband.

My only hope was to somehow get to college, which

seemed less and less likely. I’d probably wind up teaching public

school, the plain girl’s other option. I’d wear a big bun on my

head, pencils sticking out of it, and kids would tape kick me

notes to the back of my moth-eaten cardigan sweater. Just the

thought of it was depressing. No, I’d figure another way out of

my mother’s prison.

I was very happy to go back to school after the holidays.

School was the only routine in my life that made real sense to me,

and it was time off from the house. Most people loved summer,

but winter was my favorite time of year. The summer tourists

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were long gone and not due back for months. The silence of a

walk along the shore with the spray of the ocean in my hair, on

my face, let my mind travel. I could imagine myself to be Cather-

ine searching for Heathcliff on the moors or, better yet, I could

search for Simon in a place where I could be alone with him. I

wanted to get past the silly banter and teasing that defined our

conversations. I spent a lot of time thinking about him and his

lips.The rest of my daydreaming involved refining various escape

plans. At one point I considered taking a bus to Atlanta, pretend-

ing to have amnesia and throwing myself at the mercy of the

biggest Catholic church I could find. But I knew my accent

would betray me as a Lowcountry girl. One call to the bishop of

Charleston and I’d be back home in no time. I was too young for

enlisting in the army and not holy enough for early entrance to a

convent—that was my most desperate plan. So I filled my days

with school.

One morning in January, I was in class when Father O’Brien

appeared again.We all jumped up from our desks and called out,

“Good morning, Father,” as good children with nice manners

did. He wanted me to come to his office. I hope nobody died was

my first thought, then I realized there weren’t that many people

left to die in my family, so it must be another reason. I immedi-

ately left my class, with all my classmates staring at me.

“How’s your momma?” he said, closing the door and ges-

turing for me to sit in the big oak chair opposite his.

“Fine,” I said,“everybody’s fine.”

“Good, good. I see they finished the investigation into your

daddy’s accident.That must be a relief to have that behind y’all.”

“Yeah, it is, Father.”

In fact, we were sick and tired of seeing Daddy’s name in the

paper and answering questions about his death. Fat Albert and

the police department in Charleston had decided Daddy’s death

was not a conspiracy.They finally decided he had a heart attack

and ran off the road. Because of all the trouble Daddy had when

he was building the black school, they probably thought the

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397

Klan might have had something to do with it. So they poked

around, asking the same dumb questions over and over again.

Stuff like, Did he have any enemies? Excuse me, but my daddy

was building a heated school for colored kids smack dab in the

middle of the Civil Rights movement. He had more enemies

than the Japs after Pearl Harbor. Starting with his own family

and every bigot who ever heard of him.

Not that it would bring Daddy back to life, but I kept

thinking they weren’t exactly wearing themselves out with the

investigation. Seemed like the newspaper articles asked more

intelligent questions than the police did. It had been the biggest

story the newspapers had had since the polio epidemic. I was

just glad that Marvin Struthers hadn’t blamed us for giving

Daddy a heart attack.

“Well, that’s not the reason I called you in here,” Father

O’Brien continued. “I wanted to talk to you about your school

record.”

“What did I do? Oh, my library books! I know they’re

overdue! Am I in trouble?”

“Heavens, no, child. In fact, you’re doing surprisingly well,

amazingly well. Bring the books back as soon as you can.” He

cleared his throat with a grown-up ahem. “Susan, every year

the archdiocese of Charleston sends a student on scholarship

to St. Anne’s Academy in Columbia. Are you aware of that?”

“No, Father.”

“Are you familiar with St. Anne’s?”

“I thought it was a home for unwed mothers.”

“No, honey, that’s the Florence Crittenton Home. Not the

same thing at all. St. Anne’s is a privately funded Catholic girls’

boarding school. Over ninety-five percent of their graduates

finish college and go on to have careers, teaching or nursing or

some other appropriate line of work for ladies.”

“Oh.”

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t want to be a teacher or a nurse.”

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“Well, then, do you know what you’d like to do?”

“Yeah, I mean, yes.” I was twisting in my seat.“I want to be

a writer and live in Paris.”

“I see.Well, there’s no harm in having a dream, I always say.”

“Right. So did the Brontë sisters and George Sand.”

This caused a major clearing of his throat. “In any case,

every year we hold a sort of competition for that scholarship to

St.Anne’s, and I’d like to submit your name as a candidate. Have

you ever thought about going away to school?”

“No, Father. I mean, yes, I have, but I thought about going

away to college, not high school.”

“Of course, and you should’ve been thinking about that.

Well, I suppose what I’m asking you is if you’re interested? If

you are, I can talk to your mother about it for you, if you’d like.”

“Um, Father O’Brien, what are my chances of winning it?”

“Oh, I don’t know, probably pretty good.”

“Well, if it’s all the same to you, why don’t we see if I can

win it and then we can talk to Momma about it. I mean, there’s

no point in putting another burden on her, you know, ’cause if I

lose, then she’s gonna feel bad and all.”

“And she’s been through enough?”

“Exactly. I mean, I’d also like to think about it a little. Like

what would happen to the twins if I left? Can Momma handle

it without me? I don’t really know.”

“I see.” He reached into a folder and pulled out a

brochure, handing it to me. “Have a look at this. It tells you all

about the school. You have to wear uniforms, but they are

included in the scholarship, as are all your books. Plus a stipend

of fifty dollars a month goes to the winner for spending

money. All medical bills are covered, in case you’re ill or need

glasses or something. All you have to do is maintain a B-plus

average and you can stay for four years. It’s an excellent pro-

gram, Susan. I think you should give it serious thought.”

“Oh, I will! Of course I will!”

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399

“And, if you’re worried about getting homesick, you can

come home on weekends and, obviously, all the holidays.”

“Right. I mean, thank you for thinking of me and every-

thing. I really appreciate it. I’m sorry, it’s just that I never thought

about anything like this before and I’m not sure about Momma

and all.You know?”

“Of course I do. But, I think let’s try for it and if you win,

let me handle your momma, all right?”

“Okay.”

“Fine.”

“Father? Thank you.Thanks a lot. I really mean it.”

“I know you do.”

Something like this could change my life forever, I thought,

it could be my ticket out.

I sat on the back steps that afternoon, tossing a stick for

Rascal. I scratched him behind the ears every time he brought it

back to me. I’d miss this little dog if I left, I thought. He was so

eager to please and so grateful for attention. White seagulls

swirled all around, squawking at each other.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to leave the Island

and live in a dormitory with a bunch of girls.What if they were

mean? What if they were all rich and stuck up? I could always

come home if I hated it.What if it was a really hard school? What

if I couldn’t do the work there? Going to school in Columbia

wasn’t like school in Mount Pleasant, after all. Columbia was the

capital of the state.

I heard the door close behind me.

“What are you doing, chile? Sitting ’eah playing with Rascal?”

I turned away from the afternoon sun and stared up at

Livvie.“Oh, just thinking.”

“Mm-hm. I thought I smell wood burning!”

“Yeah, that’s me. Burning wood like a furnace out here.”

“What’s in your head, ’eah? Tell Livvie.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Livvie. Life is so confusing.”

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“Ain’t that the truth!”

She folded her dress under herself and sat down next to me.

Rascal came bounding up the steps, jumped in her lap and

started licking her all over her face.

“Get down, boy!” I said.

“Oh, that’s all right. I don’t mind him none. Better than get-

ting bit.”

“Yeah, that’s for sure.” I looked out across the yard to the sky

and her eyes followed mine.

“So, you gone tell me what or do I have to sit ’eah till the

supper done all burn up?”

“Livvie, if you had a chance to do something really big,

would you do it?”

“Chile, I am doing something really big. I’m praising Gawd

every day! Iffin that ain’t big enough, then tell me what I should

do!”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“Then spit it out, chile.”

“Okay, Father O’Brien wants to enter me in a competition

to win a scholarship to St. Anne’s boarding school for girls in

Columbia.”

“Oh! Lawd have mercy! Your momma gone take a fit iffin

you get it too, ’eah?”

“Exactly.”

She thought for a minute.“This is a good school, I expect?”

“Yeah, look at this.” I pulled the brochure from my pocket,

unfolded it and showed it to her. It had pictures of smiling nuns

and serious students working in a biology lab over microscopes,

a picture of the dormitory rooms, a classroom photograph and a

picture of the campus. She whistled through her teeth.

“Humph.All right now. Tell me how you feel in your heart.”

“I’d love to go to a school like this.Who wouldn’t? But I’m

a little scared too.”

“What you scared of ?”

“Leaving everybody.”

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401

“They don’t let you come home none?”

“Oh, sure, you can come home every weekend if you want

to. But what if I don’t fit in?”

“You raise your head up high, ’eah?”

“Yeah, you’re right. I mean, this could be my only chance to

get out of ’eah.”

“Then, that’s all she wrote.You ain’t got no choice.”

“What about Momma and the twins and Timmy and

Henry?”

“Honey, don’t fret none over y’all’s momma. She gone do

fine. Timmy and Henry gone get to go to college anyhow,

’cause your uncle gone see to that. Them twins is mine. Don’t

you worry none about them twins.”

“Well, I gotta tell Father O’Brien something by tomorrow.”

“Honey, Gawd’s got a plan for you and it ain’t about raising

your momma’s children for her. You needs to be in the world and

maybe this is His way of helping you. Iffin it’s Gawd’s will, gone

come to pass. Iffin it ain’t, nothing you can do about him nohow.”

“Well, we’ll see. I might not even win it, you know. So don’t

say anything, okay?”

“Chile, my lips are sealed.”

It was a beautiful Sullivan’s Island afternoon and the sunset

was beginning. Gosh, I thought, this morning I didn’t even

know St. Anne’s existed, now I thought I might die if I didn’t

win the scholarship. How royally screwed up was that?

“Look at that sky,” Livvie said.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Ain’t it marvelous?”

“Yeah, it’s marvelous.”

“No, chile o’ mine, you ain’t understanding what I’m telling

you.”

Her voice was so soft and loving, it was hard to keep my

worries on my mind.“What do ya mean?”

“See them stars starting to twinkle? They’s Gawd’s diamonds.

You ’eah me? And the night sky turning so blue? That’s He

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sapphires for us. And see that streak of red across the horizon?

They’s a field of rubies.Whenever you feel troubled and poor in

the spirit, just go look at the sunset and all Gawd’s riches just be

a-waiting for you.”

“Yeah, sure, Livvie,” I said.

“I ain’t lying to you, chile. I is telling you for true.”

I looked at the sky and it was full of riches, all you could

want or spend. She put her arm around my shoulder, gave me a

squeeze and then dropped it, taking my hand into her lap. My

small white fingers were enfolded by her sturdy dark skin, her

palms rosy, her nails deep ivory and thick. Her capable hands,

roughened by years of hard work, her loving hands whose

warmth radiated and soothed. She spoke to me as though deep

sounds could penetrate my thick skull.

“Gone be all right, Susan. Everything gone be all right.Y’all

gone see, by and by. You growing up, Maggie growing up, all

y’all gone grow up. Trouble can’t stop that, no sir. Gawd gone

send help. He always does.”

We g l i d e d towa r d Easter, me holding my tongue—I had given

up swearing for Lent—and Timmy and Henry trying to behave.

Livvie and Momma were doing spring-cleaning. I don’t know

what had come over Momma lately, but she had lost a lot of

weight and the red glass was nowhere to be seen. She looked

pretty good for someone her age, and as near as I could tell that

was around forty-something. Momma never told how old she

was. She said ladies never revealed their age. Well, if you were

living right in the town where you grew up, didn’t everybody

know anyway?

One day Simon got a letter. It sat on the table by the stairs,

waiting for him. I smelled it first to see if it was from a girl but

the handwriting was a man’s and I assumed it was from his

father. It was.

Simon’s father was coming to Charleston for a visit. Simon

asked Momma if he could stay upstairs with him and Momma

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

403

said, “Sure, why not?” He showed her a picture of his father, I

guess to show her that he was normal or something.Apparently,

he was divorced, which Simon said was for the best.

That was when the fun started. The life force flowed back

into my momma. She started manicuring her nails again and

wearing a girdle, even though she finally didn’t need one. She

got out her old Singer sewing machine and took her dresses in

so they fit right, then, to our surprise, she hemmed them up to

the top of her knees. She spent a lot of time in front of the big

old mirror looking at herself. I’d never seen her act this way and

it made me nervous.

She got on the phone to Aunt Carol and invited her and

Uncle Louis to come for Easter dinner and then she invited the

Strutherses and a bunch of people who had cooked for her in

our family’s time of bereavement. Of course, she invited Simon

and his father.

Simon’s father was the head of surgery at the biggest hospi-

tal in Detroit. Bucks, honey. Lots of ’em. I knew my momma

didn’t want to be Mrs. Rooms for Rent for the rest of her life.

Finally, Good Friday rolled around. We were all going to

Stations of the Cross that afternoon from twelve to three. Simon

was bringing his father out to the beach later.

Momma had taken charge and she was formidable. The

house was the cleanest it had ever been in my life. Momma had

on a cornflower blue linen dress and jacket, one she had chosen

deliberately because it matched her eyes. Her hair was all teased

up and she smelled like perfume. She looked really pretty.

I just hoped it would all go all right because if it didn’t she

might die from embarrassment at having tried to snag him

when she hadn’t even laid eyes on him yet. I didn’t think the

fact that he was Jewish and divorced meant anything to her at

all. She had somehow overlooked that.

Well, Simon’s father didn’t go home to Michigan until

Tuesday—that is, the Tuesday of the second week after Easter.

He promised to write to old MC every day. Seems the doctor

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caught a bad case of Magnolia fever. I even saw them kissing on

the porch.

Things got dull mighty quick. Simon was studying all the

time, Maggie was working all the time and the rest of us had

gone back to our old routines, except me. I’d been nursing a bad

throat all week and had stayed home from school.

There was no question that Momma was mooning over

Dr. Lips. She was walking around the house humming all the

time and just waiting for Timmy or Henry to bring home the

mail. When there was a love letter from Stan, she ran to her

room with it and closed the door. I guess I couldn’t blame her, it

was just that she seemed a little desperate to me. Okay, that was

not nice to say, but it was the truth.

When I finally felt well enough, I decided to catch up on

my schoolwork. Being out of class for this long had given me

terrible anxiety over all the assignments I had to do. I was look-

ing for a pen to write a book report and every pen in the house

either leaked globs of ink or was dry. I knew Momma had one

in her stationery box and thought she wouldn’t mind if I bor-

rowed it, as long as I put it back.

The twins were napping, Livvie was ironing and the boys were

I didn’t know where. Momma was gone off someplace. I went into

her room and opened her closet. I started digging around on her

shelf above her dress rack, where she had all this stuff stacked up,

and the whole blessed mountain came down on my head.

I started gathering everything up, her letters from Stanley

and other thank-you notes she had received from the Easter

dinner, and a long envelope caught my eye. For a minute it

didn’t register, but it was from St. Anne’s school for girls. It was

addressed to Momma. Okay, I shouldn’t have opened it but my

fate was right here in my hands and the next thing I knew I was

reading it. Dear Mrs. Hamilton, It is a great pleasure to advise you

that your daughter, Susan Asalit Hamilton, has been accepted for the fall

term with a full scholarship and all that entails.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

405

“Oh, my God!” I said. “I won the scholarship! I can’t

believe it!”

A flood of warmth came over me and in the next breath I

looked at the date of the letter. It was a week old.Why hadn’t she

told me? Why hadn’t Father O’Brien called me? Then my heart

sank. She didn’t want me to go. I knew it. Now what? I knew I

had to confront her. I couldn’t go without her permission.

I thought for a minute, trying to calm myself down enough

to think my way through this while my brain was going a mil-

lion miles an hour. First of all, did I really want to fight this bat-

tle? Yes, I did. I had to go. If I stayed here I’d never get to college.

The only road to Paris went through Columbia. I had decided

weeks ago that even if this school was overflowing with snobs I

didn’t care. I’d ignore them, get my diploma and get out. Four

years was nothing. After what I’d endured in the last fourteen

years, a bunch of bitchy schoolgirls looked like Cream of

Wheat.

Okay, I said to myself, when she gets home, just ask her. Be

calm and just ask her.

I was in the kitchen with Livvie setting the table for supper.

I could hear Aunt Carol calling good-bye to her and Momma

coming up the back stairs.

“Lawd, I’m so tired, I’ve got to go put my feet up!” She saw

me and kissed me on the top of my head. “Hey, honey, how’re

you feeling? Throat still sore?”

“No, ma’am, I gargled with warm salt water all day.” I was

furious and she didn’t even notice.

“That’s a good girl. Hey, Livvie! What’s for supper? Anybody

call? Mail here?”

“Meat loaf and mashed potato and the mail on the hall

table. Ain’t nobody call.”

“Nobody called, Momma.”

“All right then, wake me in thirty minutes, will you? I just

want to close my eyes for a few minutes.”

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“Sure,” I said.

Livvie just went about her work, knowing I was stewing over

something. She was waiting for me to tell her. Chop, chop, chop.

The onions and bell pepper hit the bacon grease with a sizzle.

“Best to cook ’em a little before they go in the mix,” she said.

“You need some saltines?”

“Yeah, crush up ’bout fifteen for me, ’eah?”

“Sure.”

She put her knife down on the counter and turned to me.

“All right, now.What’s on that mind of yours? You gone tell me

what’s cooking or do I have to drag it out of you?”

“Livvie, you won’t believe what happened.” And I told her

the story.

“Listen ’eah, Miss Susan,” she said,“don’t be gone on raising

the devil about she not showing you this. Be real sweet.You gots

to know your momma gone worry ’bout letting you go, ’eah?

Take her some of this tea I just make, with a cookie, and then

you tell her.Then we see what.”

“God, you are so smart, Livvie! You’re right.”

She handed me a glass of tea and two Oreos in a paper napkin.

My mother had been resting for only a few minutes, so maybe she

wouldn’t be asleep yet. I knocked on her door.

“Come in,” she said. She wasn’t in her bed, but in the closet.

“Hi, Momma, I brought you some tea and a couple of

cookies.”

“Susan, have you been in my closet?”

“Yes, ma’am. I needed to borrow a pen for my homework . . .”

The look on her face was terrifying to me. I’d never seen

her angry like this. I’d seen her upset and crying and depressed

and drunk, but never angry. She stood outside the closet door

and I was frozen to the floor by her bed.

“How many times do I have to tell you children not to go

into my personal things?”

“Momma, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry, I just wanted a

pen . . .”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

407

“And I suppose you found the letter from St. Anne’s?”

“Yes’m.”

“And I guess you think you’ll just be picking up and leaving

me just like that?”

“I don’t know, Momma, but . . .”

“But what? Do you realize how impossible it would be for

me to get along without you?”

“That’s not my problem,” I whispered.

“What did you say?”

That’s when I lost control of myself. I knew this would hap-

pen, I just knew it. Everybody else could say that they’d step in

to help me, or that surely she wouldn’t hold me back, but here

was the truth. I was on my own and, even if I lost, a few things

needed to be said around here.

“I said that it’s not my problem, that’s what!”

“How dare you!”

“Because it’s the truth! Instead of you being proud of me

and getting excited for me, you hid this from me! How could

you do that?”

“I wanted to think about it!”

“Look, Momma, it’s not my job to raise your babies! It’s not

my fault you have so damn many kids! I’m going away to school

this fall and you can’t stop me!”

She got so frightened and she was so angry that she moved

across the room before I could think of what was coming. She

slapped me across the face with all her might. I stood there and

said not one word more.

I ran from her room, out the front door, slamming it almost

off the hinges. I went over the sand dunes to the beach. I needed

to walk for a while, calm down and think things through.

It was low tide and there were football fields upon football

fields of empty beach before me. It was warm enough to kick

off my loafers and walk the water’s edge. Tiny shells collapsed

beneath my feet, breaking apart into millions of pieces. It felt

good to break something.

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An old palmetto log was up on the high ground in the

white sand, near the dunes. I sat down on it and ran my fingers

through my hair. The white sand was as fine as the kind in an

hourglass. I let it sift through my fingers. Grains of sand, hours of

my life, chances not taken, opportunities lost, lives finished,

dreams never coming to life. Would Momma eventually come

to her senses? Did she think she owned me?

My face stung where she had slapped me. I was so mad I

didn’t care if I ever saw her again. My head ached and my throat

was raw. I should’ve taken a sweatshirt or a jacket, but I had had

to escape and didn’t think of that.

Pelicans and seagulls swooped all around, some of them

walking near the water. Marsh hens dug their sharp beaks into

the soft mud. The water was alive with dance and spirit, little

waves swelling up, rolling in, layer on layer of them, stacked like

steps, dissolving as the tide crept by inches toward me.The east

wind was chilling.

I was so lost in thought, my head down in my hands, I never

heard him or saw him coming, but I looked up and saw Simon

standing before me.

“Hey, Suz, what’s up?”

“Don’t call me Suz.”

“Okay, whatcha doing?”

“Thinking about life.”

“Yeah? What about it?”

“It sucks.”

“Yeah. Sometimes it does.” His hair was blowing in the

wind and while his humor was present in his teasing, the look

on his face wasn’t funny. He was serious. And he was the most

beautiful man I’d ever seen. I realized that his being here was no

coincidence. He sat down next to me.

“So, you know?” I asked.

“Yeah, Livvie told me. I figured I’d find you on the beach.”

“How come?”

“ ’Cause that’s where Geechee girls go when they need to

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

409

think. Sailors put their boat out, mountaineers climb, jocks throw

a ball around, but Geechee girls, they have to go on down to the

beach and stick their feet in the sand.”

“How’d you get so smart?”

“Yankee schooling and just paying attention to what goes

on around me. I thought you were sick.”

“I’m better, almost.”

“Good.Want to hear a story?”

“Sure.”

“When I was about, oh, I don’t know, fifteen or so, I came

home and found my mother in the sack with another man just

getting it on.”

“What?”

“Yeah, and she made me swear not to tell my dad. I hated

her for that, but I knew that if my father found out it would

blow us apart. She bought me a car my next birthday. Soon after,

I came home and found her in bed with somebody else. She

apologized and all to me and tried to explain that she was just

bored to tears with Dad. I didn’t know that being bored made it

okay to screw somebody else.”

“So what did you do?”

“I told my dad.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Hold on, let me finish. My mother called me a traitor,

packed her bags and left.”

“Good Lord, Simon.You weren’t the traitor, she was!”

“Exactly.” He looked at me, his brown eyes searching my

blue ones. His face was so close to mine I thought I’d faint. I

knew what he was telling me. I wasn’t the only one in the world

who’d ever been used by their parents.

“God, how could your mother do that to you?”

“Just because somebody’s grown up doesn’t mean that they

can’t be wrong.”

“Boy, is that ever the truth!”

“Yeah.” His breath smelled good. I looked at the outline of

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his lips. His top lip was almost a straight line, but his bottom lip

was fuller and not as dark as the top one, or maybe it was

shadow.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

I was thinking about reaching out and tracing the lines of

his lips with my fingers, but I’d eat chopped glass before I’d

admit it. So I lied.

“Your dad. Do you think your dad is boring?”

“Probably. My father is one hell of a surgeon, but he always

feels a little stiff to me.”

“Yeah, me too. My mother’s crazy about him.”

“Yeah, he’s nuts about her too.”

“My mother’s really not a bad person, I guess. If I leave it is

gonna make it harder for her. She slapped the hell out of me.

Did Livvie tell you that?”

“She probably feels terrible about it.”

“I know I do. It hurts like the devil.” My voice cracked

because my throat was so raw and then I coughed.

“I think she’ll come to her senses. Here, you want my

sweater? It’s getting kind of chilly.”

“Sure, thanks.”

He pulled his navy crewneck over his head and handed it to

me inside out. He had on this light blue shirt underneath. I

stood up to pull it over my head. I was having a terrible time

getting the thing on gracefully.The arms were too long and the

neck opening wrecked my ponytail. I turned into the wind to

gather up my hair and he watched me.

“What the hell are you looking at?” I said.

“You, you little witch. How is it that you’re only fourteen?”

“Can’t help it. How is it you’re so damn ancient?”

“I’m not that old. I’m also not your brother, not yet anyway.”

I started getting nervous now. Was he gonna try something?

Holy smokes!

“What do you mean not yet?

“Listen, you don’t know old Stanley. He set his cap on your

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

411

momma the minute he laid eyes on her. Actually, come to think

of it, they’re perfect for each other. He needs to be needed after

what my mom did to him and, boy, does she have needs! I

mean, he just wants to have a family. He probably did spend too

much time at the hospital, but his whole life is dedicated to

helping people. Amazing, huh?”

“Well, practically Momma’s whole life has been devoted to

producing a population. It might be good for Timmy and

Henry to have a man around here. With any luck, they won’t

have me come September.”

“Do you really want to go to Columbia?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll get Stanley to call your momma. Don’t worry about it

anymore. I’ll get him to call her tonight.”

“Thanks.You’re great, Simon, you know that?”

“Thanks, Suz.”

Please! Don’t call me that,” I whined.

He was smiling now. I felt this funny feeling in the pit of

my stomach. I knew he wanted to kiss me and I wished he’d

just do it and get it over with so I wouldn’t have to worry

about it anymore.

“Simon?”

“Yeah?” he said.“You have great hair, do you know that?”

“My hair? Wait a minute, I was gonna ask you something. . . .”

He stood up.“The back of my sweater is all bunched up on

you, lemme fix it.”

“I forgot what I was gonna say. . . .”

“It doesn’t matter. . . .” He put his arm around me to pull

down the sweater, and his hand rested on my back, down by my

waist. He looked in my eyes, probably realizing from the sheer

terror on my face that nobody had ever kissed me before. I just

looked at him, not sure of what to do, feeling pretty stupid with

my arms hanging there like two loaves of Italian bread.

Finally, he decided to be the big winner of my virgin lips.

He put his other hand on my face and over my ear and then

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around through my hair and sort of pulled me up to him. I

thought, Oh, God, this is it! When his lips touched mine I just

didn’t know what to do. It was a little tiny kiss, I think, if you

go by what’s in the movies, and definitely not a sin, except

that he was the wrong religion and a lot older than me. It felt

wonderful.

Then he just put his arms around me and hugged me and we

stood there on the empty beach, feeling the wind and watching

the sky get dim.The tide washed around our feet. It was time to

go home. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to stay here with

him forever.

“Simon?”

“Hmm?”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?”

“She broke up with me. Got a letter yesterday.”

“Gee. That’s too bad. Do you think we could do that

again?”

“Yes. A lot.”

The next kiss wasn’t so innocent. He seemed a little more

excited and I know I was. Given the choice of being on a deserted

beach and kissing the man of my dreams or going home, changing

diapers and dealing with my lunatic mother, there was no choice

to make. I had every intention of standing right there and kissing

that man till I wore out his lips. Kissing him felt so good, I couldn’t

believe it.

“God, Simon,” I said, in between what began to be of con-

cern to my virtue.

“I could drink you,” he whispered into my neck.

Me n h a d p ow e r , girls didn’t. I could have dug a hole, jumped in

and buried myself alive and still not have accomplished what

Stanley and Simon did in two phone calls. My momma was so

stupid over Stanley Rifkin she would’ve jumped off the Cooper

River Bridge if he’d asked her to. In this case, she agreed to let

me go to St. Anne’s and, in fact, became happy about it.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

413

By May, she was bragging about my scholarship all over the

Island like it was her idea in the first place. Like she had won it.

I didn’t care. People were like that.

I had another fish to fry. Simon. Simon and I would meet

down the beach with some beer and potato chips and make out

like two fools. We had gotten to the point of lying down

together in the sand and I was about out of my mind from it.

One day, we were down by the end of the Island where no

one ever goes. I walked down there on the beach and Simon

took his car. We thought we were so smart. I was waiting for

him.

“Hi!” I called.

“Hi!” he called back.

We weren’t exactly the most poetic lovers in the world, but

what we lacked in iambic pentameter we made up for in enthusi-

asm. I helped him unload his trunk. Simon had brought a six-pack

of Budweiser and some Fritos. He pulled a blanket out of his car.

Holding hands, we crossed the dunes and then spread his blanket

to get a perfect view of the harbor.The tide was coming in.

“Want a beer?” He opened one and handed it to me before

I could answer.

As usual, we drank about half of the can, sitting on the blan-

ket, and then he turned to me.

The next thing I knew, we were kissing.We had graduated

to him putting his hand under my shirt. I wondered if this

would be the day that he felt my breasts. I was having a hard

time deciding if I would let him, because it was supposed to be

a sin, or I thought it was. The hotter the kissing got the more

difficult it became to remember what I was allowed to do

within the boundaries of impure acts.

We were kissing deeply now. He was lying on top of me,

sort of pressing into my hips with a regular rhythm. I had a

pretty good idea that this made him happy. And as long as he

was happy he kept kissing me, so I let him rock and roll. He put

his hand up my shirt and rubbed my back. The next thing

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I knew, he had unhooked my bra and his hands were all over

me. I knew I should have stopped him and discussed this, but I

just let him. It felt incredibly good and I couldn’t think of a rea-

son in the world to stop.

“Susan,” he said in a voice like syrup.

“What?” I said.

“I love you, Susan, you know I do.”

“I love you too, Simon.”

I looked at him and his eyes were half closed. He was in

another world and I wanted to go with him, wherever he was

headed. He unbuttoned my blouse and started kissing my breasts.

I felt a tingling so far down inside of me it took my breath away.

He was scrambling all over me now and I began to feel this

intensity for some kind of completion. I was breathing like a

marathon runner after a race.

Slap! Slap! Slap!

“All right, you two, let’s knock it off! Come on, son. Let the

girl breathe.”

I looked up right into the spit shine of police shoes. It was

Fat Albert, the Island policeman, slapping his nightstick in the

palm of his hand. We scrambled to make some order of our-

selves, knowing we were in very deep shit.

“Miss Susan? How old are you now?” Fat Albert asked.

“Sixteen,” I said, lying through my teeth.

“Mm-hm,” Fat Albert said, adjusting his belt over his stom-

ach.“And how about you, son? Got any identification?”

“Yes, sir, in my glove compartment,” Simon said.

He and Fat Albert went over the sand dunes, and, after what

seemed like an hour, Simon came back alone.

“What happened?”

“Well, he made a long list of our offenses. Drinking in public,

drinking under age, corruption of a minor, you name it, we did it.”

“And?”

Simon was folding up the blanket. I gathered the beer cans

and put them back in the bag.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

415

“And he said that if he ever caught us on his beach again,

he’d arrest us.”

“That’s all?”

“Yep, we’re two fools, free to go.”

“Well, there’s always the Isle of Palms,” I said.

“That’s what I love about you.You’re out of your mind!”

And that’s exactly what we were. Out of our minds and two

fools. I mean, he couldn’t even take me to the movies. I was too

young to date! Well, maybe I wasn’t really, but nobody in my

class dated, and in my family you didn’t date until everyone was

sure you weren’t convent material.

Simon was my first and only love. But I admitted to myself

that Fat Albert showing up had probably been a blessing in dis-

guise. I understood now why Maggie was so hot for Lucius.This

make-out stuff was pretty fabulous fun, but dangerous too. I

could just see both of us winding up pregnant. Good Lord.

May came and Dr. Send Her to School was coming for a

weekend. When Momma and he weren’t writing each other,

they were calling each other. Momma may have been crazy but

she was different, stronger. Suddenly she had opinions and she

talked about things like a happy person, instead of one who lived

on the edge of Armageddon. Love did that to you, I thought. She

was sitting in the kitchen with Aunt Carol, talking about him. I

was snapping five pounds of green beans on the back steps with

Livvie. I guess they forgot we were there, like usual.

“What’s wrong, Carol?” my momma asked.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that ever since Easter a person can’t

talk to you about anything except Stan. It’s getting kind of bor-

ing to be around you, MC. I’m sorry to say that to you, but it’s

the truth.”

Livvie and I looked at each other, smelling trouble.

“Jealous,” I whispered to Livvie.

“Humph,” she whispered back.

“Well, you don’t have to be around me if you don’t want to,

Carol Asalit.”

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“What? Well, I never! Fine. That’s fine with me! I’m going

home to my husband, who appreciates me.”

“My husband appreciated you too, I hear.”

“Well! I never!” Silence for a moment, except for my aunt’s

gasping and clucking noises. “I don’t need to stay here and be

insulted and falsely accused this way!”

“If you don’t behave—if you look so much as sideways at

Stan—I’ll tell my brother everything I know!”

“You! You think you’re such a saint!”

“Ha! And you think you’re the only woman in the world!

You’re getting old, Carol! Your varicose veins are showing and

when you get angry all the little lines around your lips show.”

“I am never stepping foot in this house again!”

“Fine!” my mother said.“Then I don’t have to worry where

your feet are during dinner!”

Holy moly, I thought, how did Momma know all this? And,

more importantly, was that my momma talking like that?

I looked up at Livvie. She was a little sheepish. “I only told

her about the feet after she tell me Miss Simpson tell she about

the storm!”

Alice Simpson had spilled the beans on Aunt Carol and

Daddy in their episode of “The Secret Storm.” And Livvie had

iced the cake! Good!

Aunt Carol slammed out the door and raced down the steps

to her car, face red as a beet. Our dog ran barking behind her.

She reached her foot out to kick him and he jumped away and

then lunged at her. She tore out of the yard in reverse, the dust

kicking up under her car. Rascal chased her, barking his brains

out, until his voice tapered off in the distance. The back door

opened again and Momma came out and stood on the steps.

She looked down at us and smiled.

“Do Lawd, Miss MC, what bee got in your bonnet?” Livvie

was grinning from ear to ear. So was I.

“No bee, Livvie, I’m just not afraid of her anymore. In fact,

I’ve never felt quite so good. Lord! What a beautiful afternoon!”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

417

“If it makes any difference to anybody around here,” I said,

“I never really liked her much and I ain’t gone miss her!”

Momma looked at me as if she were surprised all at once to

see me so much older.We started to laugh.

“Did you see her swishing her butt down the steps?” I said

to Livvie and Momma.

“You should’ve seen her face when I told her I knew!”

Momma said. “She makes me so mad, that woman! I hope she

does tell Louis and then I can tell him what I know!”

“Yeah, Momma! You were great!”

“You know, I’ve been wanting to give that you-know-what

a piece of my mind for twenty years!”

“Well, ya done good, Momma,” I said. “Come on, let’s take

the twins for a walk.”

And we did.

L i v v i e a n d i

were sweeping the porch together. Dr.

Divorced, Rich and Jewish was coming in soon to spend the

Memorial Day weekend, and Momma wanted everything

just so. The twins were in the playpen, gurgling like babies

do. They played so well and hardly ever fussed unless they

were tired or hungry. Of course, with all of us to play with

them, they never lacked attention. They would have their

first birthday soon.

Dr. Stanley Rifkin arrived in a red convertible rental car and

parked in front of the house. I heard Simon coming down the

steps to greet him. Stanley got out and waved hello to us.

“Hi!” I said.“How was your flight?”

“Oh, just fine, Susan! Thank you for asking! Such a nice girl

you are!”

“Jeesch,” I said under my breath and Livvie giggled, knowing

that this man got on my nerves. He wasn’t like Simon, who was

a wise guy like me. No, Simon’s father was slow and deliberate,

his manners from another time. Everything about his demeanor

spoke of his intelligence. I just couldn’t believe that a powerful,

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educated man like him would want to get mixed up with a crazy

widow and her six children.

Livvie went to the door and held it open for him so he

could put his luggage inside on the porch. It had L s and V s all

over it. If he was supposed to have so much money, couldn’t he

have afforded his own initials?

“I’m glad you’re both here,” he said. “Oh. Simon, my boy!

Come here, all of you. Got something I want to show you.”

“Hey, Dad!” Simon kissed his father on the cheek.

Stanley was clearly nervous and excited. He dug around in

his jacket pockets for something, eventually producing a little

velvet box. He opened it for all of us to see. It was a beautiful,

big, and I mean big, door knocker of a round white diamond

ring. It could’ve been the night lights at the ball field. It had

smaller, round rubies on either side. My jaw dropped. Simon’s

jaw dropped and Livvie started to laugh.

“Oh, Lawd have mercy! Lawd have mercy!” She was slap-

ping her thighs and doing a little dance.

“Is this good?” Stanley asked, smiling widely. He pointed to

Livvie.“Does this mean she approves?”

“Mr. Doctor? You don’t need me to say it’s okay, but I tell

you what, you just what this family need! Yes, sir! You just the

medicine they all need! Yeah, Gawd! That’s the biggest diamond

I ever did see! Wait till I tell Harriet ’bout this!”

“My brother!” I said and hugged Simon.

“My sister!” He laughed and hugged me back.

“Well, Miss Susan, I want to tell you this,” Stanley said.

“First, I’m going around to see Louis and ask for your mother’s

hand.With his approval and, of course, MC’s, I’d like to marry

your mother in the fall. Now, I want you to understand that I

know I can’t replace your father, you’re too old for that. But, I

would like to be your friend. If you ever need anything, you

come to me, all right? And call me Stan. I always wanted a

daughter, now I could have four! If Marie Catherine says yes, I

swear I’ll be the happiest man in the world!”

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419

“Oh, Stan,” I said, giving the old goat a good hug, “I’m so

happy for both of you. I really mean it. Please make sure Aunt

Carol gets a good look at the ring, okay?”

“I understand completely,” he said and winked at me.

I h a d k i s s e d the twins and everybody else twice or three times.

Even though Momma was engaged and they could now afford

Livvie, I was still very nervous about leaving. Everything would

be different for Timmy, Henry and Maggie when Momma mar-

ried Stanley Rifkin. But at least they would all have each other.

I would be alone.

Maggie and I had had long talks, late at night, all summer

long. I would miss her so much. She was considering breaking

up with Lucius for the same reasons I had cooled things with

Simon. Even though she was older than I was, she was begin-

ning to realize that Lucius would never marry her. His mother

and her Virginia Tidewater family would never accept a girl

from Sullivan’s Island, even though our family had fought in

every war in America for the past two hundred years.

Simon and I were just friends by that point. Momma and

Stanley getting engaged made our love feel too weird. Anyway,

Simon had promised to write me and he was going to drive me

to St. Anne’s. I had given him a picture of myself that I had had

taken at Furchgott’ s Studio in Charleston. I looked pretty good

in the white cotton lace drape. I signed the back before I put it in

a frame. To the only man I’ll ever really love, Susan. I was counting

on him never opening the frame and seeing it.

Timmy started to cry when he saw my bags all packed.

Then Henry started to cry. I took care of that by kicking them

in the shins as hard as I could.

“Remember that this is how life here can be,” I said, “and

write to me every week, okay? Look after Maggie and the twins

and if they get into trouble, call me. Swear it.”

We made pinky oaths and then we hugged.They would be

all right and I would be home in three weeks for the wedding.

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They weren’t getting rid of me quite yet. I scratched Rascal

behind the ears.

The hardest person to leave was Livvie. She was waiting for

me in the kitchen.

“So now what?” I said.“If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be

going to jail instead of boarding school.”

“That’s true enough,” she said.

“I can’t tell you good-bye, Livvie.”

“You never have to, Susan.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“The mirror. Even when I gone to glory and my Nelson, I

still come to you.”

“Yeah, but Livvie, I can’t see anything in that mirror.”

“Someday you will. And don’t you ever forget, this old col-

ored woman loves this Geechee girl so.”

“Oh, God, Livvie, and how I love you. I always will.”

Twenty

Lowcountry Magic

}

1999

AGGIE?” I was on the phone with my sister.

“Guess what I found?”

M I told her about the pictures of Fat Albert’s

and Marvin Struthers’s feet in the photo at the Klan rally. She

was stunned.

“Well, I’ll be darned. It wasn’t enough for old Marvin to be

mayor? He had to be the Grand Dragon too?”

“I know. I mean, Maggie, it makes perfect sense. Albert

probably ran Daddy off the road and Marvin Struthers and him

probably pushed Daddy’s car into the marsh. I have to think this

all through and I’m sure if I kept digging I could find the evi-

dence, but I swear I am so relieved just to know. No wonder

Marvin headed up the investigation with Albert! No wonder no

one was blamed! Pity that old Marvin and Albert have been fer-

tilizer for years.”

“You’re right. I mean, what would you do with the proof

anyway? Can’t put a dead man in jail.”

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“Exactly. And it wouldn’t be worth embarrassing their

families.”

“Yeah, but at the same time, it’s good that you can finally

put your mind to rest.”

“Yeah. Maggie, did you ever think of Daddy as a hero?” We

were quiet for a moment, numbed by the news and the sugges-

tion that he was.

“Never even considered it. Until now, that is.”

“God almighty. Life is so weird.”

I t wa s t h e Wednesday before Christmas. I had been working late

at the library every day and at the same time trying to prepare for

the holiday.We had been blessed with perfect springlike weather

all week, which made gathering greens from the yard a very

pleasant task. I had finally put the last of our decorations on the

tree and around our house. I arranged some of the smaller

branches of magnolia in a glass bowl in the middle of the dining

room table, and put red glass balls on florist’s sticks in between

them. I polished the magnolia leaves with Wesson Oil—a trick

Maggie taught me—and I thought you could part your hair in

their reflection. Speaking of hair, I was pleased that I remem-

bered to send a card to Kim. He was turning out to be a good

friend and I was grateful to have him in my life. I needed some-

one besides Maggie and Beth.

I had hardly heard from Tom since he had left my house

after his surgery except to discuss money and visitation, which

led me to believe that Karen was firmly in his life. Occasionally,

we’d discuss the treatments he was having and he seemed to be

hanging on. I was relieved not to have him full-time to con-

tend with. And speaking of money, by the grace of God, I was

appointed as interim director of the library. The board planned

to conduct the requisite search, but the board chairman and the

search committee had assured me, privately, that they preferred

to give Mitchell Fremont’s job to me. They had cited the old

Gullah maxim, Keep the evil that you know. That wasn’t

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

423

exactly the high praise I wanted to hear, but the raise in salary

compensated for any personal slight I may have felt.

When I got home, Beth was bringing presents to the

kitchen to wrap, having a wonderful time decorating packages

that looked too pretty to open. She had used brown paper,

twine twisted with gold metallic cord, and had sponged on stars

with gold-toned paint.Thank God she has the Maggie gene for

this, I thought.

“God, honey, don’t you hate to give them away?” I said.

“The wrapping is a present all on its own!”

“Yeah, it sort of is, huh? Well, you know, I have like a reeleey

good feeling about this holiday, I don’t know why. I guess it’s

because I totally love my aunts and uncles and when they’re

here I finally get some girl cousins almost my age to talk to.

Bucky and Mickey drive me up the wall.”

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

“Whatever. So what did you get Dad for Christmas?”

“What?”

“Are y’all still gonna exchange gifts, or what?”

“Um, I don’t think so.” I popped open a Diet Pepsi and took

a long drink.

“Oh.Well, I think he got you something.”

“Like what? A gift certificate to the root canal doctor? Want

a sip?”

“Nope, no thanks. You’ll see. He’s stopping by in a few

minutes.”

“Like when were you gonna tell me this? I look totally dis-

gusting!” I ran upstairs and brushed my hair, changed my shirt,

put on some cologne. I was just brushing my teeth when he

knocked at the door.

“Merry Christmas, Daddy!”

“Merry Christmas, princess! Where’s your momma?”

“I’ll be right down!” I called and thought, oh great, what if

he wants to come to Maggie’s with us for Christmas Eve?

But as soon as I said hello to him he made his announcement.

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“I can only stay for a few minutes. Karen and I are going to

Myrtle Beach to meet her parents and spend the holiday.”

I saw Beth’s face fall and so I stabbed him on her behalf.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll have a lot in common with them.

After all, they’re your age and . . .”

“You don’t have to say it, Susan, I get the drift,” he said.

“Look, I didn’t come over here to discuss Karen’s age. I came to

bring you something for Christmas. I know you think I’m a jerk

and that I don’t care about you.This is to let you know that I do

care and how proud I am of you.”

He pointed to an enormous box and a smaller one.

“Gosh, thanks. Are they household appliances? Plugs aren’t

gifts,Tom.”

We had always joked about our friends who would give each

other lawnmowers and blenders and toasters for Christmas and

other important occasions. One sorry fellow we knew had a

chainlink–fenced dog pen installed for his wife’s fortieth birthday

to hold his hunting dogs.

Anyway, it was the season of giving and I was caught empty-

handed. Especially, given what he was going through with his

cancer, I probably should’ve bought him something.

“It’s got a plug, but, believe me, it’s a gift. In fact, it’s more

than that. This is for your new side career or whatever you call

it. I thought I’d try to do something to encourage you. You

know, let you know that I really am in your corner.”

“Holy smokes,Tom. I mean, thanks. I really mean that. Gosh.”

I didn’t know what to say. I sat down on the sofa and

opened the smaller box first. It was a notebook computer. I

almost fainted.“Tom! This is so fabulous! Honey, thank you! My

God! Beth, look at this!”

“Daddy! It’s awesome! Can I use it too, Mom?”

“You’re welcome!” he said. “The other box has a color

printer and all the cables and gadgets you need to recharge

batteries and all that technical stuff that gives me a headache.

But I’m sure you’ll figure it out!”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

425

I ignored Beth’s question and realized that this was the final

kiss from Tom. I no longer had to think about him wanting to

come back. He didn’t want to anymore, but he wanted to be

friends and, given all we had been through, that was a minor

miracle. I’d take it and be graceful about it.

“Daddy, I have something for you. I made it.”

“Oh, princess, I almost forgot.This is for you. It’s a Visa card

for your clothes and whatever you want.You can charge up to

three hundred dollars a month on it and I’ll pay the bill. How’s

that?”

Beth started squealing and screaming. She threw her arms

around Tom and I didn’t blame her. I should do the same,

I thought, these two gifts were unbelievable—one made my

life easier and the other would keep me solvent. When Beth

reached under the tree to search for Tom’s gift, I patted the couch

beside me.

“Come on, sit by me.”

Like a good dog, he sat, obviously pleased with himself, as

he should’ve been.

“Tom, thank you.This was so nice of you. I mean, this will

make a lot of things easier for us and you knew that.Tom, really,

I can’t thank you enough.”

“Susan, you and I have been through the wars together. I

really want to try to make up for some of the colossally stupid

things I’ve done.”

I squeezed his hand and started choking up a little when I

saw Beth’s gift to him. She handed him a large, flat package. It

had more gold and glitter than any of the others she had

wrapped. It was, after all, for her daddy.

“Here, Daddy, this is for you. Merry Christmas,” she said

quietly.

Tom opened it slowly, remarking on the paper and how

artistic she was. He made her laugh by asking her if it was a

sports car or a stereo.We saw it was a scrapbook. She had made

a title card for the front that read the good old days. As we

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turned each page, we saw it was filled with photographs that

chronicled our lives, all of them smiling and happy. Under each

one, she had made a remark on a strip of paper to remind him

what the event was.There was one from her first birthday party,

me holding her, smiling, her face and dress covered in frosting.

The caption read: You and Momma didn’t even mind that I made

such a mess of things.

That was just a little too close for comfort. I got confused

and thought that she blamed herself for our divorce as I had

blamed myself for my daddy’s death. But we were the ones who

had made the mess, not her. We were doing our best for her

sake, and, in some way, for ourselves too.

Tom just pointed to the picture and said to her,“Remember

how afraid you were of Big Bird?”

She said, “I remember you picking me up and putting me

on your shoulders.”

“Anybody want something to drink?” No one answered.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

In the kitchen, I poured a glass of water. Get a hold of your-

self, Susan, I told myself, it’s Christmas. People always get emo-

tional during the holidays. You’ve had a tough year. A lot of

changes, but good things too.

This was the relationship I wanted to fight for. This friend-

ship.This relationship of Beth’s with Tom. I could make it better

for them. I realized that money had been one of the things that

caused so much pain over the past months. Now that I would

earn enough to provide a cushion, and now that Tom was

stepping up to help a little more, we didn’t have to fight about

that anymore.

In an odd way, even though we were getting divorced, we

were still a family. Always would be. We had too much shared

history to ever give each other up completely. Somehow, I’d

make Beth see that and understand it. If Tom and I didn’t fight

about anything, she’d have nothing to blame herself for.

I was leaning against the sink, my arms around myself, my

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

427

jaw set square as it does when I’m deep in thought, when Tom

appeared in the doorway.

“I gotta go, Susan. Merry Christmas. Give my best to Maggie

and Grant and the boys, okay?”

“Tom! Of course I will. Hey, thanks again. I really mean it. I

feel like things are working out better, don’t you?”

“Yeah, if we want them to, they will.”

“Well, they have to for Beth’s sake. She loves us both so

much.”

“Susan, we all love each other so much.”

“You feeling okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay. The catheter’s out and, well, I’ll see what

the future brings. Susan, well, I’ll call you after the holiday and

we’ll talk.”

“What? Is something wrong?”

“No. I swear. Everything’s fine.A little tired and a lot nause-

ated, that’s all. Now, you and Beth have a fabulous Christmas,

okay? Give my best to Grant and Maggie and their boys.”

“Okay, lover boy, your jail bait is probably wondering where

you are.Tell her I send my greetings and don’t drive like a maniac,

okay? Be careful, you still have us to live for. Now get on outta

here, before I insist on a conjugal visit.”

“God, Susan, you are so great.”

“That’s true,” I said as I opened the door for him. “So are

you. Hey, Tom, thanks, huh? For everything.”

“You’re welcome.You know, you could’ve bought me a bottle

of aftershave.”

“Oh, God, sorry,Tom. I was really insane that day.”

“Well, it was a tough day.” He smiled at me and we took a

long look at each other. He gave me a peck on the cheek and

turned to go. “Merry Christmas, Susan Hayes,” he said over his

shoulder.

“Merry Christmas to you, too,Tom Hayes.”

Standing in the doorway, I watched him pull away in the

twilight. I caught a burst of pine scent from our wreath, and the

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little white lights on our topiaries all came on with the timer. I

wondered if he really was all right and what he had started to

tell me that could wait until after Christmas. I decided not to

dwell on it, thinking that he must be all right or he wouldn’t be

back with Karen. But he didn’t look good.

I t wa s a l m o st Christmas and I couldn’t wait to get to Maggie’s

house, out to the beach, to the Island Gamble, where we all

belonged.

The next morning I cleaned up the kitchen, listening to

the morning news, making a mental list of all we had to cram

in the car to take to the beach.Timmy, Henry and their families

were coming Christmas Day and staying for the whole week.

The twins had sent their regrets again with some sorry-ass

excuse. Beth had run out for a bag of coconut, marshmallows, a

bottle of cherries and two cans of fruit cocktail. She was mak-

ing ambrosia for her little cousins.They’d probably love it.

Now that I was a big-shot columnist and had this flood of

money from my promotion, I decided to march myself into

Berlin’s and see what the chic were buying for the season.This

beautiful and elegant woman, Nancee Rubin, took one look at

me and said, “Want to see the most incredible sweater in the

world?” Now, who could say no to that? She was right.Triple-ply

cashmere, rust-colored, deep V-neck, long-sleeved tunic with slit

sides.Then she pulled out a pair of rust velvet pants, narrow legs,

flat front, side zip. When she held one on top of the other I

knew they had my name all over them.

“You can get suede Gucci loafers in the same color at Bob

Ellis,” she said and laughed, knowing I was going to beg for

“drive-thru” alterations.

They hemmed the pants while I bought the shoes. Gucci?

I must have been losing my mind! Two pieces of clothes and I

felt like a new woman.Wasn’t that ridiculous? Merry Christmas

to me, I said six hundred dollars later.

Finally, the car was packed to the hilt with gifts and our

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

429

clothes for our Island holiday. Beth was taking out the last arm-

load of gifts for my nieces and nephews and I was turning off all

the lights. In the warmth of the Christmas tree’s twinkling

white lights, I took a good look at myself in my momma’s big

mirror. I look good in this color, I thought. I was older, yes, but

still, I looked relieved, rested and happy. I was; that was all true.

My head was in good shape.

Tom going back to Karen hadn’t really bothered me all

that much. I didn’t care who he was with—I just wanted him

to stay alive. No, I was doing just fine, but I wondered what my

brothers would have to say about me helping Tom through his

illness. Oh well, I thought, I could deal with them. It was a

wiser woman who stared back at me, half-smiling, pleased

with herself.

By the time we got to Maggie’s, I was so far back in my

memory that I half expected Rascal to come bounding up,

barking and wagging his tail, to greet us. Instead, as I pulled in

the driveway, I saw a yard filled with cars. North Carolina plates.

That was Timmy! Georgia plates.That was Henry! All the lights

were on. My brothers had come early and we were going to

have a wonderful time. I could feel it.

Beth and I got out to raise the tailgate and unload the car.

Beth went on ahead of me.Typically, I tried to carry too much

and stumbled, packages going everywhere on the ground. I

could hear shrieks of laughter and greetings as Beth entered the

kitchen.The screen door slammed.

“Is this my sister? I can’t believe my eyes! You look like one

million. Net!” It was Henry, the tycoon of the family, coming

down the stairs to greet me.

“Yeah, it’s me, Brother Bucks! Gimme a kiss! They didn’t get

you for insider trading yet?”

“Why, you! I’m as pure as the driven snow, and damn grateful

my office isn’t wired!” He swung me around in the air in a huge

circle.

“Put me down!” I screamed.“Help!”

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The door swung open again. It was Timmy, the family psy-

chologist (and boy, did we need one) coming down the steps.

“Unhand her, you brute!” he yelled.

Finally, Henry put me down and the world was spinning.

“You’re nuts! Oh! My head!”

Timmy was picking up my packages and Henry helped too.

Henry, laughing to himself, went up the stairs with his arms filled.

“He’s crazy,” I said.

“Still crazy, to be accurate.You’re nice to indulge his repressed

childhood,” Timmy said, in shrink-speak.

“Whatever! So how are you? God, it’s good to see you,

Timmy.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek.“How’s my sister-in-law

and my nieces and nephews?”

“They’re responding to treatment well,” he said, deadpan.

“Very funny,” I said. “Come on, there are a multitude of

cocktails to be drunk!”

“Right! Think of all the poor sober people in China!”

I slammed the door of the car and, with a suitcase in each

hand, struggled up the back steps.

The kitchen was crowded with my family, shrieking, pour-

ing drinks and eating. I could hear Maggie in the dining room,

shouting to Grant.

“Put on that Shannon Gibbons CD! For Lord’s sake, Grant, if

I hear Kenny Rogers one more time, I don’t know what I’ll do!”

A wave of pleasure swept through me. I was so happy to be

here, with my brothers and my sister and all our offspring. I

wandered into the living room and the Christmas tree stopped

me dead in my tracks. Maggie had done it again. The tree was

covered in varnished shells from the beach, popcorn and cran-

berry chains, red plaid satin bows and white lights. I was alone

in the room and stood there for a few moments thinking about

how everything Maggie touched became beautiful and glori-

fied. I turned to see her standing beside me. Suddenly, I felt

emotional.

“It’s a beautiful tree,” I said.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

431

She threw her arm around my shoulder and squeezed me.

“It’s disposable. Just pull off the lights, that is, if they’re still

working by New Year’s.”

“How is it that you’re so clever and I’m not?”

“But you are. This has been a rough year, Susan, but it’s almost

over.You know, you’re surrounded by people who love you.You

should always surround yourself with people who love you. Life’s

hard enough without fighting every battle all alone.” She handed

me a tissue from her pocket.

“I surrender,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I’m fighting no one

from this day forward.”

“Okay, let’s go have us a Geechee Christmas and to hell

with the outside world.”

And we did. We ate our traditional seafood dinner with

riotous gusto, the noise level of the house at such a roar, I could

almost see Fat Albert, dead for twenty years, coming to the

house to arrest us all for disturbing the peace.We drank the six

bottles of rare sauvignon blanc that Henry had brought from his

cellar and we were cruising.We told Alice Simpson stories, Stan-

ley Rifkin stories, Livvie stories.We teased each other to death.

We made the pilgrimage to Stella Maris together for Mid-

night Mass. The night was clear and crisp. The tide was out, so

the sound of the ocean was like gentle background music.

Later, we had decaffeinated Irish coffee or nightcaps, and hot

chocolate with whipped cream for the children.We put the cups

and glasses in the dishwasher and turned out all the lights. I went

out for a look at the ocean. I just stood there thinking how lucky

I was to have such a great family, how different from each other

we all were but how we loved each other in spite of, and because

of, our differences. Finally, I went inside and locked the front

door. Grant and Maggie were long gone to bed and the boys and

their families had turned in as well.The Island Gamble grew still

and my head rested next to Beth’s in an old double bed, under a

quilt and two blankets.

“Hey, Beth? You sleeping?”

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“What?”

“Hey, did Chris call you for Christmas?”

“He’s a jerk,” she said and began to snore softly. Beth’s cold

feet touched my legs and we curled up like two spoons. Mother

and daughter. I prayed silently for us, for all my family, for

Livvie, her Nelson, my momma and daddy, Tom and everyone

else I could think of who crossed my mind. I prayed that Beth

would learn how to handle men, but not too soon. I had not

spent the night before Christmas at the Island Gamble in de-

cades. I was astonished at how restful it was. The old Island

Gamble had begun a new life with Maggie and Grant’s family—a

happy one. She had left the past behind and begun again wel-

coming us all home.

Christmas Day came and went, the morning spent making

mountains of pancakes and many pots of coffee, opening pres-

ents and clearing away the wrapping paper and tissue. For the

next few days, we simply enjoyed each other, taking long walks

on the beach, cheating at cards and exaggerating family history.

The thirty-first of December dawned. Maggie and I were in

the kitchen preparing for the picnic we’d planned for the eve of

the new millennium. Even my macho brothers and their lazy

wives helped to pack the coolers. One held shrimp, crab claws,

turkey salad and ham salad sandwiches and the other was filled

with wine, beer and sodas for the kids. We had bags filled with

corn chips and salsa, cheese and crackers, grapes and apples, and

the traditional chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers for

s’mores.

It was going to be spectacular. Special permits had been

issued for bonfires to burn every hundred feet on every beach in

Charleston County. It would be low tide at ten o’clock and the

weather was clear and perfect.

Two huge barges had been anchored in the middle of the

harbor for a massive fireworks display. And another two barges

were positioned in the Ashley River for the other side of the

peninsula.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

433

Stella Maris had a special Mass planned for ten-thirty, giv-

ing us all enough time to attend Mass and not miss the fire-

works.Then Stella Maris would join every Christian church in

the world by ringing her bells for three hours. I showered and

put on my rust pants and sweater, spraying myself liberally

with Maggie’s bottle of Allure. Maggie came in the room, all

dressed for the festivities in black velvet pants and a red sweater

embroidered with firecrackers, martini glasses and champagne

bottles.

“Hey, you about ready? Grant’s got the bonfire going on the

beach and he wants us to watch it so he can change clothes,” she

said.“You look great!”

“Thanks! Sure, I’ll be right there. Uh, Maggie, one thing.”

“Sure, what?”

“Where on God’s earth did you find that sweater?”

“Catalog. Like it?”

I just shook my head and said,“Yeah, I love it.”

We walked to Stella Maris as we had done as children, the

Hamilton parade of Island veterans, past the dark looming forts

to our beautiful little church. Even my heathen brothers had

decided to come.

“Who’s on the altar?” Henry asked as we walked.

“You won’t believe it,” Maggie said. “Remember Ben

Michaels?”

“The guy who ate thirty hot dogs on the Fourth of July?

The pinball wizard? The shag king of the Isle of Palms?”

“Yep, same one. Went to Catholic University, became a

priest, did ten years in the Amazon as a missionary and then the

bishop gave him our parish,” Maggie said.

“Holy shit,” Henry said.

“ ‘Holy shit’ is your uncle’s idea of prayer,” Timmy said to

Beth.

“Don’t make jokes,” I said,“the guy’s a brilliant priest. Stella

Maris has over seven hundred families.”

“Hold on, Susan,” Henry said.“You still going to Mass?”

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

“Yeah, and lightning’s gonna fry your bongee butt when

you walk in the door,” I said. Bongee is the Gullah term for the

ridiculous or the stupid.

At ten-thirty we filed into Stella Maris and it took three

pews to hold all of us. Over one hundred people couldn’t even

get in and had to watch the Mass on a TV monitor in the church

hall next door. There were people in church whom I had no

idea were even remotely religious.

Henry and Timmy probably hadn’t even been to Mass since

their children were baptized. The idea of voluntary attendance

to church was beyond them now. Henry was so “of the world”

and Timmy was so “out of the world”—searching for clarity of

man’s psyche. But, once we were gathered together as a family

going to church together, we all got into it.

Father Michaels watched us file in and rolled his eyes at

our numbers. He shook each family member’s hand soundly,

welcoming us. He was a tall man in his early fifties. His salt-

and-pepper hair was beautiful and his paunch was an indication

that the widows on Sullivan’s Island saw to it that he never

missed a meal. Every member of his flock knew he loved a good

dinner. It was a small earthly indulgence for the man who

guided the spiritual lives of so many.

We sang with the choir, off-key of course. Our ungodly

sounds sent ripples of giggles through the children. There was

the predictable snoring from some of the men who had been

overserved at dinner and the occasional wail of a child.

Father Michaels’s sermon was mercifully short. He had a rep-

utation for three-minute homilies, tightly written, provocative

and insightful. His words centered on the true meaning of

Christianity.That it was all about love. Love of God, love of self,

love of family, love of community. Love was a gift. He talked for

a minute about compassion, and what constituted a gift, coming

back again to his theme of love. In closing he wished us a future

filled with hope and love. My heart began to ache for Tom and

I prayed harder than I ever had for his recovery.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

435

Father Michaels turned back to the altar to begin the sec-

ond part of the Mass.

“Look!” an old man cried out. “The Virgin Mother is

smiling!”

“Hush! Look!” an old woman called. “She’s smiling at all

of us!”

I looked up to the painted plaster statue of Mary, the

Mother of Christ, over the altar. I had been in the midst of try-

ing to cut a deal with my maker on Tom’s behalf. I couldn’t see

anything unusual in the statue at all.

A small group of dazed old people began to make their way

to the center aisle of the church. Their arms were raised and

tears streamed down their faces.They appeared to be in a trance.

As they approached the altar, Father Michaels, who was bewil-

dered by the whole scene, stopped them short of coming on the

altar. The church was so silent his whispering voice could be

heard in the choir loft.

“Tell me what you see,” Father Michaels said to the group.

“She’s beautiful,” the old man said. “She’s smiling at me, at

all of us.”

Father Michaels turned again to face the statue. The altar

boys shrugged their shoulders and looked too. I saw nothing. I

looked at Beth, Maggie, Henry, Timmy and Grant. They shook

their heads. Did we really expect the Blessed Mother to show

herself to us? The notorious Hamilton clan? No way.

“Mother of God, pray for us!”

Father Michaels fell to his knees and began to say the Prayer

Before the Rosary.There was a lot of rustling as women dug in

their purses and men in their pockets for their rosaries. The

entire church—including the Hamilton clan, rosary-less, slightly

terrified and sinful—prayed with him.

We began the Joyful Mysteries, following Father Michaels’s

lead.

“Concentrate on the Annunciation,” he said, “consider the

humility with which Mary accepted the visitation of the Angel

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

Gabriel and the role he told her she would play as the Mother

of God.”

Humility, I thought, there’s precious little of that in me. O

Lord, I prayed, please teach me to be humble. I held Beth’s hand and

we prayed together with the congregation.

“Hail Mary, full of grace.”

We prayed the ten Hail Marys, one Lord’s Prayer and one

Glory Be.Then Father Michaels added another prayer.

“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of

hell, take all souls to heaven, and help especially those most in

need of your mercy,” he said.

“Let’s pray for Daddy, Beth,” I whispered. “He’s most in

need of mercy right now.”

She squeezed her eyes tight but the tears escaped anyway. I

put my arm around her and choked back my own sobs. Please,

God, please make Tom better. Please. I don’t want my daughter to lose

her father as I lost mine. It just always hurt so much, not having my

daddy.We never had a chance to make it right between us.

Father Michaels began the second decade.

“Think of the visitation and concentrate on charity. The

Blessed Mother visited her cousin Elizabeth before Jesus was

born.Think of your charity toward your neighbors.”

We began another string of ten Hail Marys. Our prayers

were so devout you could feel an electric pulse in the crowd.

Suddenly, Stella Maris was filled with bright white light and the

unmistakable scent of roses. No one, not even I, could deny that

that much had absolutely happened. It was a miracle, proof that

God existed, at least it was enough for me. I held Beth’s hand

and we prayed together. As the rosary ended, Father Michaels

began to distribute Communion. Every single person in the

church lined up to receive it.

Finally, the Mass was ended.

“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” Father Michaels

said.

“Thanks be to God,” the congregation roared.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

437

The bright light faded and the smell of roses gradually dissi-

pated into the thick musk smell of incense. Outside, people

were crying tears of joy, exclaiming renewed faith.We gathered

together, puzzled, sobered and confused. The church bells began

to ring.

We began the walk home to see the fireworks, stunned by

what we had witnessed.

“I don’t know. Mass hallucination,”Timmy said.“But I can’t

say I didn’t see the change in light.”

“Me either,” Henry said. “Damn. I guess I’d better go to

confession.”

“I need a drink,” Grant said. “That was the strangest thing

I’ve ever seen.”

“What do y’all expect?” I said. “This is the Lowcountry,

after all.”

“I brought a beautiful bottle of Corton Charlemagne,”

Henry said.

“Hey, Henry,” Grant said, “no offense, bubba, but I don’t

think any chicken shit wine spodie odie is gonna do it. I need a

real drink.”

“Me too,” Henry said,“the wine will keep.”

“Me three,” Timmy said.

It was near midnight. We decided to walk home along the

beach.The sky was filled with stars and the moon hung over our

shoulders.We passed bonfire after bonfire, wishing everyone well.

The beach was filled with people and music played from portable

stereos. I held Beth’s hand, noting silently that it was now the same

size as mine. I couldn’t help but remember when it had been so

tiny. How she had grown. I was filled with memories.

“I’m nearly a grown-up, Momma,” Beth said. She seemed to

be reading my mind.

“You’ll always be my little girl,” I said.

“Even when I’m old and you’re old too?”

“You bet. I expect you to sit on my lap once a day for the

rest of your life.”

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

“Momma, what are we gonna do if Daddy doesn’t make

it?” she asked.

I looked out at the ocean. I could feel her fear. I knew she

worried that if she could lose him, she could lose me. She wasn’t

nearly grown and what was grown anyway?

There were things I needed to say to Beth and now was as

good a time as any. I led her over to a sand dune and we climbed

together to the top. A cold December breeze came up from

nowhere and blew our hair back away from our faces.We looked

at each other in the blue light of darkness. I put my hands on her

shoulders and held them tight.

“Beth, listen to me.This is a night to remember. It’s a turn-

ing point for you, and for everyone.You will remember what

we did, who was here and everything that happened, like it was

yesterday. For all of your life you’ll remember.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m gonna tell you something about your daddy. First of

all, I think he’s gonna make it. But if he doesn’t, he’s never gonna

leave you, Beth. The people you love never leave you and as

long as you love him, he’ll live. I know this is true, as sure as you

and I are here.”

“Yeah, I know, but he won’t really be here. He’ll be gone.

Your daddy left you, Livvie left you, your momma left. Momma,

face it, when people die, they leave.”

“No, they don’t. It’s that simple, Beth. If you want them,

they come. I swear it.”

She was quiet while her eyes searched my face. She saw me

smiling and I knew she was reading my mind again. “The mir-

ror, right?” she said.

“How did you know?”

“Momma, I’ve been talking to that mirror since forever!”

We burst out laughing, slapped high and low fives, and then

hugged like a mother and child octopus. Laughing. Laughing.

Laughter of hope, laughter of love.

“Beth, that weird old mirror is only one of many ways,”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

439

I said. “I think prayer works, meditation works. Hell, honey, in

fifty years they’ll invent a telephone or something.”

I hugged her with all my might.“You love your daddy and

he’ll never leave you. Of course, you’ll have to find out a lot

of things for yourself. Just don’t wait too long to start. Life’s

precious.”

“Yes. It is.” There was no beebop in her tone now. “I’m

gonna make you proud, Momma. Daddy too.”

“You already do, baby. God, I love you so much.”

From down the beach I saw Maggie and Henry coming

toward us. There was a loud boom and the first fountain of

fireworks burst against the sky. It was midnight and the dawn

of the new millennium.

“Coming!” I grabbed Beth and we ran down the dune to

them.“Hey! Who’s watching our fire?”

“Oh, an old friend,” Henry said.

We were about a hundred feet away from home when I saw

the figure of a man throwing logs on our fire. He turned to face us.

“Hey, Suz!”

I’d have known that voice anywhere.

“Simon?” I said to Maggie, who nodded her head at me,

smiling.“Simon!”

“Susan!” he called back.

I ran to him. He held out his arms and hugged me so hard I

thought I’d break. His gorgeous curls were close-cropped and

shot with silver. I was positively giddy.

“Just where have you been?” I said.

“Been busy. I heard you needed a friend.” He was laughing

at me.

“Boy, do I ever! Hey, you look pretty good for an octoge-

narian,” I mumbled.

“I’m not an octogenarian.”

I wiggled and pretended to resist his arms around me, but I

was grinning from ear to ear. He burst out laughing again and

then so did I. I didn’t know how I’d missed him until I saw him

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

again. He looked at me and I knew his lips were headed for

mine, and then he kissed me.

“You make me feel like boneless chicken, boy,” I said.

“You make me feel carbonated, girl,” he said.

“You’re one romantic son of a gun. Still got all your hair?

Lemme see! Is this a rug?”

He swatted me on the backside and I jumped away.

I looked up and saw Maggie there with Grant, Beth and

everyone.

“Happy New Year,” we called out as we hugged and kissed

each other.

“You have to be the one and only Simon,” Beth said.

“My God, she’s a screaming beauty,” Simon said, winning

Beth in one swoop.

“Just like my momma,” she said.

“Yep, just like your momma.”

If they thought so, it was fine with me.

The fireworks went on for over an hour, and the church

bells continued ringing. The sky was filled with explosions of

white, red, green—every color I could name. I couldn’t stop

looking at Simon. He held my hand and looked over at me

every few minutes. My skin crawled with goose bumps.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he said, finally.

“Hey! Wait for me!” Beth said.

We reached out for her and held hands as we walked toward

the end of the Island. It took no effort to fall in love all over

again. As the fireworks boomed and burst we squealed and

yelled together. When they finally ended, we rejoined the oth-

ers, put out our bonfire and gave everyone something to carry

inside.

“I have to get my suitcase out of the car,” Simon said.

“I’ll give you a hand,” I said.

“By the way, how was church?”

“We got our money’s worth,” I said, thinking that when he

heard the story, he’d say we were all a bunch of crackpots.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

441

Beth went ahead of us with her cousins, but not before

turning to me and giving me a wink.

“Great girl,” Simon said.

“Yeah, thanks.” I took a deep breath and walked around the

side of the house with him. His car, with Georgia tags, was a new

white Lexus.

“Cool car,” I said.

“The seats fold down,” he said.

“You, suh, are a lecherous pig,” I said.

“Yeah, I am. Come here to me.”

“What?”

He kissed me again, and I felt that old feeling in the pit of

my stomach like I was going to sink. Livvie always said that

when you met the man of your dreams, you would know. This

was a bit like getting clobbered on the head. He pushed me

against the car and leaned against me.When he kissed me for the

third time, I knew he meant business.

“You still want me, don’t you?” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, and this time I’m going to have you.”

“Don’t you think you should at least send a girl flowers first,

Mister Big Shot Infectious Disease Doctor?”

“You’re right. It was a most insensitive thing to say. I’ll have

to buy you a diamond bigger than the one old Stanley gave your

mother,” he said. “Susan, one way or another, Tom or no Tom,

you’re mine. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, as long as that’s settled, let’s get a beer,” he said.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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