Sullivans Island: A Lowcountry Tale | Chapter 7 of 12

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do my assignments, show up for class on time and study for tests

and stuff.”

“As you should,” he said and added,“and as you always have.”

“Right, Dad.”

“And as you always will.”

“Yes, Daddy, as I always will, unless I want to go to college

with America Online and wind up on welfare.”

“That’s my Beth! No member of the Hayes family ever

accepted public assistance. Do your homework every day like a

good girl.”

Tom breathed a clandestine sigh of relief and the sides of my

mouth turned up.This was rich. In a mere six months, Beth had

gracefully transformed herself from little girl to young woman.

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167

He had missed it all. I had hoped reward would taste sweeter

than it did. I felt sorry for Tom for what he had lost.

“It’s like this all the time,” I said to him.

“Like what, Mom? What does that mean?”

Uh-oh. I had mistakenly pressed the wrong button. I had

forgotten not to refer to her in a way that required clairvoyance

for her full participation.

“Beth, my angel of perfection, each day you surprise me

with how truly wonderful you are. Just when I decide I’m fail-

ing you as a parent over something or other, you do something

to remind me how responsible you are. It’s a surprise to your

daddy too.That’s all. Part of us has you fixed in our mind as a lit-

tle girl and you’re a young lady now.”

The awkward moment passed.

“And that makes you feel really old and decrepit, huh? Any-

body want some sour cream? Metamucil, maybe?”

“Old? Decrepit?”Tom was horrified at the thought.

“Not too decrepit to wash your mouth out with soap, young

lady!” I said.

“Like Livvie did to you and your brothers?”

“Honey, she scrubbed our mouths until we spit bubbles.

God, I’ll never use Ivory soap again. I can still taste it when I

think about it.”

“Oh, Mommy! Tell us that story!”

“It was the day I called Aunt Carol a bitch. She had done

something, O Lord, I don’t even remember. Probably told me to

correct my posture or something.Well, I was hanging clothes on

the line with Livvie and I said the evil word under my breath.

Livvie grabbed me by the hand and had me up the steps in two

seconds and my head in the kitchen sink. She turned on the

water, grabbed the soap and with my ponytail in one hand and

the soap in the other, I got religion!

“She said, ‘Ain’t no chile—I don’t care who—ain’t no chile

gone use that kind of talk in this house while I’m here!’

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“God, I cried and spit and cried, but I never said ‘bitch’ in

front of her again.”

“She gave it to everyone, didn’t she?”

“Yep, Uncle Henry ate soap, Uncle Timmy ate soap. Yep,

when she nailed us, here came the suds!”

Beth and Tom were laughing. We were all enjoying our-

selves so much it made me wish for a moment that the dinner

could last forever.Tom refilled my glass with the theatrical flour-

ish of a French sommelier in drag. I toasted him and looked

around the table at the faces before me. We had been a great

family once. A perfect family. Had Tom’s one indiscreet episode

really destroyed that?

Beth insisted on doing the dishes. She filled the sink with

suds while Tom and I cleared the table.

“She’s really great, Susan. I owe all that to you. You’ve

given me a truly magnificent daughter. How can I ever thank

you?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A sack of fifties would help. Here, give

me the napkins.They need to soak. Seriously, you’ve always been

pretty solid behind me in whatever I did with her. I’ll share the

credit with you.”

It was the truth, in all fairness to him. I blew out the candles

and the smoke from the wicks traveled, spiraling through the

darkened room. Now what? I took an arm filled with plates,

flatware and soiled linen to the kitchen.

“How’s it going? Is the spark still there?” Beth whispered to

me over the din of the running water and the ruckus of the storm.

“What kind of spark? Let’s just clean up and we’ll see what

tomorrow brings.”

I dropped the plates into the water, then turned to take the

linens to soak in a tub in the laundry room and to check Tom’s

clothes. She followed me, hissing like the snake tempting Eve.

“Mom! You’re always so impossibly philosophical!”

“No, I’m not. I’m realistic.”

“No, you aren’t! You’re blind! Can’t you see that you have

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

169

a perfect opportunity here to snag Dad? Look, I’m going upstairs

after the dishes are done.Whatever, okay? I’m not coming down-

stairs unless the roof does. Got the message?”

“Yeah, I got it. Look, let your father and me try to work

things out. I don’t want you to get your hopes up, Beth.Things

aren’t always as simple as they appear on the surface.”

“There you go again. Just try, Mom.Try for me. For us.”

She gave me a hug and hurried back to the dishes. I needed

to talk to Maggie and fast. I couldn’t trust my reserve and judg-

ment after half a bottle of red wine. I picked up the cordless wall

phone in the kitchen and dialed her number. Then I buried

myself in the laundry room, pulling the louvered door tight.

“Maggie?” I whispered.

“Who’s this?”

“It’s me. Susan.”

“What’s wrong? Why are you talking like this? Are y’all all

right?”

“Yes! No! I mean, yes, we’re fine! I don’t want to be overheard.

Listen, I need your advice.” I remembered I was calling her in the

middle of a hurricane.“Y’all okay? The storm, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah, we’re fine.The lights flickered a little while ago

but the power’s still holding.What’s going on?”

“Good, good.Tom’s here.”

“What? How did he get in?”

“Beth let him in. I come home, after another episode with

that good-for-nothing cur Mitchell, and find him ’eah, waiting

on me, in my own house.”

“Have you had anything to drink? You sound a little tipsy.”

“Yeah, Gawd. Been nursing a bottle of grapes with that

man. Listen up, now. First he shows up ’eah with a bag of fulla

filet mignon from Harris Teeter and an ’82 merlot.”

“Go on! Tom? Tom Hayes? That cheap sumbitch? You lie.”

“I swear on Saint Peter’s holy ring.Then he close up all the

shutters to the south side of the house, up on a ladder in the

pouring rain.”

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“Better check he head for scarlet fever.”

“Oh, do chile, that ain’t de only fever he got. He hot for ya

sister now! Red hot! I got Don Juan ’eah.Tell me what!”

“I can’t be telling you nothing. You is grown! But, iffin I

was you, I’d be mighty careful.”

“What you mean, careful? He out there in my pink bathrobe,

strutting like the NBC peacock!”

“What you say? Bathrobe? Oh, Lord, my sister done lose she

mind! Y’all? Mind done left she head.”

I started giggling and couldn’t stop.

“I thinking you be taking a little nip of Oh Be Joyful you-

self, ’eah?”

“What you gone do in a storm, ’eah? Jack Daniel be on the

front porch, rocking with my husband and Maybelline, but I’m

in ’eah talking fool with you! What you gone do? Give ’im back

he pant or put him in the bed?”

“I ain’t be for know.”

“Then don’t be asking me,” she said. She paused and I heard

the ice tinkle against her crystal glass.“Iffin that man was mine,

first, I beat he behind good. Then when he real sorry, I mean,

sorry for true, I might let him, you know, get he wish.”

“Oh, do chile, you is bad and you ain’t no help, ’eah? I gots

to hang up.Y’all all right?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I was sitting on the floor at this point. I pushed the discon-

nect button and sighed in complete confusion. Suddenly,Tom’s

hand opened the door, and there I was. Busted. He was biting

his hand to keep from laughing. He’d heard every word.

“My pants dry yet?”

“Do you want them right now?” I was thoroughly

embarrassed.

“Well, actually, maybe not. Maybe never. I like this robe.

New image, all that. How’s Maggie?”

“Fine. Great. Fine.”

He offered me a hand and helped me up. It was the first time

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171

we had touched in months. It felt like the hand of a friend, which

made it impossible to resist him when he pulled me against his

chest.Then, he kissed me. In the midst of this reunion, we heard a

thunderous crash, and the lights went out.

“What the hell was that?” I mumbled.

“Who cares? Did you feel the house move?”

“I’m not sure. Better check Beth.”

“Right.”

We dropped our arms from around each other and took a

breath. It was as black as pitch and we couldn’t see a thing.

“Flashlight?”

“Yeah, right here in this drawer.”

“Pants?”

“Hold on a minute.” I reached in the dryer for his damp clothes

and he put them on in a hurry. I handed him a flashlight and took

another for myself.We hurried down the dark hall to the steps.

“Beth?” I yelled up the stairs.

“What was that?” she called back.“Did you hear that?”

“Dunno. Stay there, I’ll bring you a flashlight!” Tom called

up to her.“You all right?”

“I’m fine.”

He took my light and gave it to her.

“Come on down, honey, until we can see what that was,” I

said.

“Y’all go sit in the living room,” Tom said, “and I’ll have a

look around.”

“Tom?”

“Yeah?”

I reached out for his arm.“Be careful.”

“Don’t worry. I think the damage has already been done.”

The understatement of the night.

A few minutes passed. By then I realized the house had

been hit by something and I began guessing how much damage

there was while at the same time thanking God that none of us

were hurt. Beth sat close to me on the couch. We could see

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flashes of lightning through the shutters and the thunder con-

tinued to boom all around.

At last we heard Tom coming down the stairs.

“We’ve got company on the third floor. I need a mop, some

towels and some big garbage bags.”

“What happened?”

“Branch came through a window into the guest room.

There’s a helluva mess up there, but it’s too dark to clean it all

up. I’m gonna run for the saw and cut the limb, then just cover

the window with plastic so the rain won’t keep coming in. It’s

not fatal.”

“You were right, we should’ve closed the third-floor shutters.”

“Who knew? I’ll be right back.”

I held the flashlight and Beth followed me upstairs with the

mop, towels and bags. When I opened the door to the room I

couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A live oak branch, six feet

long, complete with Spanish moss, had invaded our house. The

curtains, their swag and the rod were ripped from the wall and

hanging from the branch. The window and its frame were

destroyed. It would be tomorrow before I could assess the dam-

age, but under my feet I felt pieces of bark, small twigs and soak-

ing wet carpet.The wind and rain just kept coming through the

hole in the wall.

“Some mess, huh?”Tom was behind me now.

“I never imagined one branch could cause so much dam-

age,” I said quietly.

“That’s not the half of it; the rest of the tree is lying against

the house. Too much rain this summer, probably loosened the

roots. Better have the foundation checked and the support

beams. Here, you hold the light and I’ll saw the branches away.

Beth, try to pick up what you can, I know it’s dark, but let’s try,

okay?”

“But, Daddy, this is terrible! We could’ve been killed if we’d

been in here!” She began to cry. I put my arm around her for a

moment. I had to admit I felt like crying myself.

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173

“Beth, this is no time to start crying. Buck up, baby. Let’s

help Daddy, okay? Later we can all have a good cry together.”

When silence came we knew the eye of the storm had

arrived. We stopped our work for a moment to go outside and

look at Queen Street.The three of us—the Wise Men, the Holy

Family, the Three Stooges, the Ricardos—to think “the three of

us” made me giddy with pleasure. The three of us opened the

front door and held our breath. Our front yard was covered with

limbs.To the left we saw the top of the oak tree peeking around

the edge of our house. Clouds swept across the new moon,

which would surely bring flooding.Tom and I stepped out onto

the walkway.

“Stay there for a moment, Beth. Let us just see that it’s safe

to come out.”

She nodded her head and rubbed her arms as though

chilled. In a flash I wondered if she was dramatizing to make

Tom see that she needed him. But, admitting the fallen tree had

frightened me as well, I linked my arm through Tom’s and cau-

tiously, in the light rain, we went to do a quick investigation

before the back side of the storm arrived.

The street was littered with every kind of article you could

imagine, from garbage cans smashed into windshields, to a rock-

ing chair hanging precariously from a tree. Palmettos lay across

the flooded roads. Wires hung down from every building in

sight.The silence was eerie.

Carefully, we made our way around the house to see the

tree.There it was—huge, uprooted and lying on the side of our

house. I could only guess what the cost of repairs would be.

“Good thing I closed the shutters. Can you imagine if I

hadn’t done anything?”

“Next time use duct tape instead.” Gallows humor.

“Very funny. Like it would’ve made a difference. Let’s go

finish up.”

Tom finally cut away enough of the branch so that we could

cover the window with garbage bags to keep the rain out. I took

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the spreads off the twin beds and pulled the curtains all into bags

to take to the cleaners in the morning. Beth had disappeared

downstairs. It seemed that the strength of the storm was finally

dissipating.

“I’ve gotta wash my hands,” Tom said. “Think there’s any-

thing else around here for me to put on besides your bathrobe?

I’m soaked again.”

“Yeah, me too. I think I’ve got some old sweats that might

do the trick. I’ll bring them to you.”

We were curiously quiet, the two of us. As we changed this

time I didn’t think about what I was putting on. We made our

way downstairs to find the living room lit with twenty candles,

using every candleholder I owned. A bottle of white wine was

on a tray with two glasses and a bowl of salted nuts.

“I’m going to bed,” Beth said, kissing me on the cheek and

then Tom.“Call me if the house falls down.”

We watched her follow the light of her flashlight up the

stairs, not saying a word. It was a powerful demonstration of her

love for both of us.

“Now what?” I said.

“Would you like a glass of wine?”

“Sure.”

He poured the wine and handed me the glass, looking into

my face. His eyes told me everything I wanted to know but still

I needed to hear the words.

“It appears that our daughter has plans for us,” he said.

“Yes. Apparently she does.”

“You’re nervous, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, so am I.”

We were still standing, not knowing what to do, where to

sit, whether to launch the long overdue discussion, or to let the

past slide and just come together again. “Tom, we have to talk,”

I began.

“I know we do. I’m a no-good bastard.”

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175

I was the injured party and the injuries still stung. “That’s

good for openers, but that’s not really what I want to hear.”

“I’ve done a lot of thinking, Susan. I was a fool, a complete

fool to leave you. I got swept away with a young woman and I

made the biggest mistake of my life.”

“It’s common.”

“So they tell me. But now I see what an idiot I was and I’m

begging you to forgive me and take me back. I want to come

home.”

“Oh, God,” I said and immediately choked up.

He put his glass down and took mine, placing it next to his on

the coffee table. He took my arms and draped them around his

neck, putting his arms around my waist. I didn’t know what to say.

Tears began to slide down my face.Then he was kissing me, wip-

ing my face with his fingers, pushing back my hair. I needed to be

kissed. I realized how much desire I had and how many eons it

had been since I’d been held. I returned every kiss, gesture, and

touch with a surprising, growing passion. I began to grow hot,

perspiring a little. He pulled me to the couch and I did not resist.

Who was this? It wasn’t the Tom I remembered, the one

who groped for me in the dark and then before I could spell my

last name was in the bathroom washing up. No, this man, this

slow, tender Casanova, was all new to me.

We began the slow waltz of serious lovemaking. He undressed

me and took a long look at me, saying I was beautiful. He was

beautiful too. But unfamiliar. We were new partners, breathing

together, moving together, following the lead of the other’s

pleasure. I could feel the quickened beat of his heart against my

chest as he held me tighter. Over and over, he said he loved me

in a pleading whisper that begged me to love him too. I could

feel it. He thrilled me, as I never had been thrilled in all our

years of marriage. He had obviously learned more than a thing

or two in his absence, and while that was a stunning reminder of

his infidelity, he made me want him like I never had. At last, we

rested. We were too tired to move.

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“Damn!” he said.“So I really do love you, you know.”

“Really, really?” I said, feeling more than a little wicked.

“Yeah, really really. A lot.” I could feel him smiling against

my shoulder.

“I love you too,” I whispered into his neck and kissed him

there, ever so softly, branding him with a kind of tenderness that

I hoped he’d never forget.

Nine

The Aftermath

}

1963

HE Lowcountry had been trampled. I knew it even

before I opened my eyes. My father’s cries from the

T yard and the cries of our neighbors reached up

through our bedroom windows.“Oh, my God! Look at this! . . .

You got power? Lights went out last night about seven and that

was all she wrote, bubba! In all my days . . . How’d this boat get

in my yard? . . . Can’t find my dog! . . . Where’d the porch go?”

I listened to them as sleep dissolved into morning light. I

squeezed my eyes tight. I remembered the night before as if it

were a terrifying nightmare. I wasn’t getting out of bed. I never

wanted to see my father or my aunt again. I thought about my

mother lying in the maternity ward and wondered if she had any

inkling of what my father was up to. My heart was splitting for

her. She deserved a parade in her honor for delivering twins, but

I knew that she would return home to more lies and deception.

Momma would be in the hospital for a week and I was glad

of that. She needed the rest. In the meantime, I would organize

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my brothers, Maggie and myself to help her.When we were in

school, Livvie would be in charge of the twins. When we got

home, we would rotate their care.Then Momma could rest, lose

some weight, regain her sense of humor, make herself pretty and

Daddy would fall in love with her all over again.

I rolled over to my night table and picked up the photo-

graph of Momma and Daddy taken on the day of their engage-

ment. My mother had been a beautiful woman when she was

young. Her chestnut hair was carefully curled, her lips full,

turned up in a smile of mischief, and those fabulous Bermuda

blue eyes were filled with a love for anything life would throw

her way. She was fine-boned and graceful, like a Dresden fig-

urine, but quick and lively, like a sprite.

I ran my finger around the photograph, staring at her young

face. She had wanted to go to college, but it was right after the

Depression and there was only enough money to educate Uncle

Louis.To this very day my grandparents thought it was a waste of

money to educate women.That was not what women did.They

made a good marriage and had a pack of children and settled

down. As God intended they should, Grandpa Tipa would say, like

the refrain of an old song. It was obvious to me that they had dis-

couraged my mother from college because she might have left

them, moved to Philadelphia or someplace, and married a Yan-

kee. She had become their caretaker, and they were not grateful

in the least. They were entitled to her servitude, or so they

thought.

That would never happen to me. Somehow I would get to

college. But, before that, I would try to help her dig her way

back to life.

From my bed I could hear Daddy moving planks of wood. I

couldn’t imagine why but at that moment I didn’t care. The

sounds of dragging branches across the yard, interspersed with

my father’s obscenities, drifted up to my window. Finally, I heard

the brakes of Livvie’s bus. I heard her voice from the yard and I

jumped up, ran to the window and had a look down.

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179

The boards I had heard were laid across concrete cinder

blocks to form a bridge over the small lake in our yard. Daddy

was wearing waders and he sloshed through the water to help

Livvie.We would have frogs in the millions. Normally I would’ve

run to Timmy and Henry’s room, dragged them out of bed, gone

and jumped in the water. No doubt Daddy would’ve lost his

temper and screamed at us to quit goofing off, get into dry

clothes and help him. But today everything that had been nor-

mal was falling away by what I had seen the night before. I won-

dered if Daddy knew that I knew. Maybe I would use it against

him. No, I wasn’t that brave.There would be nothing on my face

that he would be able to identify or trace. I felt sick inside, faint.

I had to gather myself and go downstairs to face everyone.

I dressed and went to the kitchen. Livvie was there, pouring

out cereal for everyone.Aunt Carol was having a glass of juice. She

had spent the night in our house because the storm had started to

kick up something terrible and Uncle Louis had thought it would

be better for her to be with us, Momma being gone and all.

“So I said to Louis, I said, ‘Louis? Don’t forget to feed the

babies,’ that’s what I call my dogs,‘and let them in the bed with

you because they’re gonna miss their momma.’ Do you know

what he said?”

“No’m,” Livvie said. Livvie was staring at her so funny that

I thought for a moment that she knew.

“Morning,” I said.

“Morning, Susan. Well, he said, ‘Carol, honey? Your babies

can stand one night away from you, but what am I gonna do?’

Isn’t that just like a man? Can’t live without us! I swear, he loves

me so! Well, I guess I’d better end this tea party and get on home

to my Louis.”

“Yes’m, you do that. I imagine he’s missing you something

terrible.”

Then Aunt Carol picked up her pocketbook to leave and

turned to us to say good-bye, and there was Livvie drinking a

Coke from Momma’s best crystal goblet. No one was allowed to

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use her crystal, especially a colored woman. Momma saved that

crystal in case President Kennedy decided to come for dinner.

Aunt Carol turned purple, puffed up like a blowfish and stormed

out of the back door. I was stunned, but I didn’t say a word.

The morning gathering of our tribe was getting under way at

the same moment of Aunt Carol’s departure. First came Maggie

in shorts and a T-shirt and her hair up in a ponytail. She looked

more like she was going out to a beach party than getting ready to

clean a yard. She always looked like that. Perfect.

One by one, they swung into action, doing their parts to

help. Maggie stirred powdered juice into a pitcher and the boys

set the table with paper plates. I kept my face straight, hiding

under the mask of just waking up. They expected me to be

crabby in the morning. But I was just plain shocked and, I

thought, hiding it pretty well.

“Can’t be wasting no water washing dishes, y’all ’eah me?”

Livvie was giving orders and handing out paper cups. “Yemoja

done dump all the water in the sky on us yesterday.”

“Who?” I said.

“Yemoja, Obatala and Oya.Yes, sir, they done they worst to

Charleston. Nearly blow us all to kingdom come.”

She was talking about her African gods again. I decided they

must have something to do with storms. We knew that when

there was a big storm we had to wait a day or two to be sure the

water came back on and was all right to drink.We’d fill the sinks

and tubs before a storm to drink, wash dishes or flush the toilets.

Naturally, my brothers and my father would use the occasion as

an excuse to use the yard as a toilet. Maggie and I would hold it

until we turned blue. On Sullivan’s Island, we were proud to

have our own water supply—a combination of deep wells from

which blended water was pumped by electricity. But when the

lights went out, drinking water went with it. Truth told, the

water reeked of sulfur but made the creamiest grits.Anyway, in a

day or so we would have water and lights again. In the mean-

while we would put orange juice on cereal and laugh about it.

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181

We were professionals in the aftermath business. At least no one

would have to fight about taking baths tonight. Until the power

came back on we had a holiday from all that.

“No electricity. Sophie’s going to have a fit that she can’t

have her toast and egg,” Grandpa Tipa said, coming in the

kitchen.“Can’t you children say good morning?”

We were busy stuffing our mouths with Frosted Flakes and

Tang at this point.

“Good morning, Grandpa,” I said.“Did you sleep okay?”

“Of course I did. Said the rosary, you know. It’s what good

Catholics do when we need protection,” he said.“Mrs. Singleton,

I nearly ran myself ragged protecting my property yesterday!

Thank you for clearing the porch for us.We certainly have a lot of

electrical plugs in this house. I must’ve unplugged one hundred

things.”

“Think his Hail Marys saved the Island?” I whispered to

Maggie.

“No, it was the plugs,” she replied.

“Well, I’d better go deal with Sophie,” he said. “Oh!

Mrs. Singleton! I forgot to ask, how did you and all the Africans

make out last night?”

“Me and the Africans made out just fine, thank you, sir. Just

fine,” Livvie said, narrowing her eyes at him.

I could see she wasn’t pleased but she decided to let the

remark pass. He had to let her know that she came from a tribal

world of dark skin. He was such a big pain in the butt. He

embarrassed me all the time when he said things like that.

Tipa fixed a plate of bread and a bowl of cereal and carried it

off to Sophie’s room.A few minutes later we heard a plate crash.

Everybody stopped moving, waiting for the screaming to start.

Either it was dropped by accident, or old Sophie had thrown it

against the wall. I darn well knew it was the latter and I was glad

Daddy was still in the yard. He didn’t support Grandma Sophie’s

theatrics.

“Usually she only eats one piece of toast, no crust, light

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butter, not margarine, and a poached egg for breakfast,” I offered

as an explanation, meeting the surprised look on Livvie’s face.

“Same thing every day and only Tipa can fix it. If I fix it, she

knows if somebody else fixed it and don’t ask me how. Then

she pitches a huge fit. Lunch is tomato soup, with one piece of

toast cut in nine squares floating in it, and plain tea. It’s because

she’s a genius.”

“What kind of fool you talking, girl?” Livvie said.

“Momma says Grandma Sophie is a genius and geniuses

have weird little habits. Grandma Sophie has more than her

share, if you ask me,” I said, thinking that if she could tell Aunt

Carol to kiss off by drinking out of Momma’s best glass, then I

could throw a little dirt on old Sophie and Tipa.

“A genius? How is she a genius?” Livvie stood now drying

her hands on a dish towel.

“She does trigonometry in her head while she sleeps,” Maggie

said.

“I heard tell of that, but do y’all think she threw that plate?”

Livvie asked.

“Yep,” said Timmy.

“She does it all the time,” said Henry. “I’d get my butt

whipped for sure if I did that.”

“It’s how it is around here, Livvie,” Maggie said. “It’s so

embarrassing I don’t ever bring my friends here. Excuse me, I’m

going to get busy putting the porch back together.”

“I’ll come and help you in a minute,” I said to Maggie and

turned back to Livvie. “Yep, and she eats only Cream of Wheat

for supper. Same bowl, same spoon and if you switch it she can

tell.”

“Think she’s peculiar?”Timmy asked.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Henry, “I’d like to have pancakes

every day and spaghetti every night.”

“Yeah, sure, squirt, so would I but I don’t have a temper

tantrum if I don’t get it!”Timmy said.

“Don’t call me squirt or I’ll sock you one,” Henry said.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

183

Maggie got up and left the room.We were all quiet. Livvie

just kept standing there looking at us like we were a bunch of

escapees from the nuthouse. Finally she said, “Humph,” and

began fixing some food. She handed Timmy a banana and a

sandwich of bread and butter, then reached in the dark refriger-

ator for a Coke and gave it to Henry.

“Go on, now, take this to y’all’s Daddy. See iffin y’all can

help him clean up the yard,” Livvie said.“Don’t be opening the

refrigerator and especially the freezer until the power comes

back on!”

“Okay! Okay!” they said, slamming the back screen door

nearly off the hinges. A few seconds later we heard, “Sorry!”

Then a lot of giggling as they ran down the back steps.

“Them boys,” Livvie said.

She sat down at the table next to me. It was unusual for a

Negro housekeeper to sit next to anyone in the family, except a

baby. I didn’t mind a bit but at the same time I hoped no one

would catch us.

“You all right, Susan?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Humph.You’s a terrible liar.You ain’t fine. That’s all right.

Iffin you want to talk to Livvie, I’m ’eah. I just want to know

one thing and it ain’t about your aunt.”

“What’s that?”

“You think your grandmomma be right in the head?”

“I think she thinks she can do whatever she wants. I mean,

Daddy raises the devil about her sometimes, but then Momma

cries and Tipa gets mad and says it’s still his house and have some

respect for your elders and all that junk.Then Daddy goes over

to Uncle Louis’s, they drink a bunch of beer and Daddy comes

home and it’s okay for a while.”

“Humph,” she said.“Got a bad spirit in her. I gone fix it too.

All right, enough of this long talk. I got to go clean up Mrs.Asalit’s

floor. I gone talk to her, don’t you worry.”

I didn’t tell her about how Daddy would give Momma the

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back of his hand and I didn’t tell her how Uncle Louis never did

anything to help Momma with Grandmomma. I watched her

take the paper towels, a grocery bag for the broken dish and the

container of salt. She probably already knew everything about

us anyway.

“What do you need salt for?” I asked.

“Humph,” she said, “buckra children don’t know nothing.

Come on, Livvie will show you.”

I went with her out of curiosity. Their room was empty.

Grandpa Tipa had taken Grandma out to the front porch to

calm her down. We could hear their voices through the open

French doors of their bedroom.Their bed was unmade only on

one side. Tipa had slept on top of the covers, probably dressed.

Sure enough, broken china covered the floor by the closet door.

Livvie began to pick it up and I helped her.

“Watch your feet, child.Why don’t you go put on shoes?”

I had a sudden thought that it had been ages since anybody

had cared whether or not I got hurt. The tears came rolling

down my cheeks and Livvie stood up and pulled me into her

arms.

“There, there now. It’s all right, chile, just cry it all out,” she

said softly to me.

I could feel my chest heaving with sobs but no noise came

out, just great sighs.

“I know,” she said quietly.

“How?” I said.

“Honey chile, when you’re an old woman like me, you’ll be

amazed at what you can know just by looking at someone, espe-

cially when they don’t want you to! Why don’t we pray together

about this a little bit?”

“Pray? Are you kidding me? I’d pray that they both go right

to hell,” I said.

“Susan, iffin you don’t want to pray, that’s all right, but

sooner or later, you got to give it over to the Lawd. It’s His busi-

ness to punish, not our business. And, honey, listen up to Livvie,

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185

I gone tell you something. It don’t pay to hate nobody, ’cause

the only person who gets hurt is you.The person you hate, half

the time don’t know about it and the other half they don’t care.

So don’t hate them, just know they is stupid. Grown-up don’t

mean you can’t be stupid.”

“Boy, that’s for sure.”

“Ain’t got nothing to do with you. Don’t mean because

they is bad that you is bad. Just means they is stupid.They make

a crazy decision and didn’t expect to get caught.”

“How did you know?”

“Chile, all I had to do was look at your Aunt Carol and she

start to run her mouth a mile a minute, looking every which

way except at me. And your daddy? Normally he’d be cussing

up a blue streak. But he’s out there smiling and cleaning up he

yard. How did you get in their business anyway?”

“Went out to the shed to get a flashlight. Got locked out

and had to go to the front door. First, I heard them.Then I saw

Mrs. Simpson on her porch watching them and laughing. I had

to peek. I wish I hadn’t.”

“Yeah, I expect you do, but it’s natural to peek. That don’t

make you bad, just normal. Too bad that woman saw them. Har-

riet say she something terrible.”

“Yeah, you know she’ll tell the immediate world and then

Momma’s gonna die from the shame of it.”

“She ain’t gone tell a living soul nothing. I see to that.”

“What are you gonna do? Cut off her tongue?”

She giggled like I loved to hear.

“Yeah, Gawd. I gone to her house with your momma’s big

scissors hid in my apron and when she start yapping, I gone grab

it and snip!”

“That would be great! You’d be famous! Gosh, Livvie, when

I talk to you I feel normal.”

“You are normal. You is all normal. Your brothers is just

boys, that’s all.And Maggie’s a young lady trying to grow up and

dignify herself. Can’t blame her for that, can we? Now, your

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grandmomma and granddaddy, they is old, honey, and old folks

got their ways. Can’t change them. Be a mistake to try. In fact,

it’s a mistake to try and change anybody.”

“Doesn’t work anyhow,” I said.

She looked at me, picked up the remaining pieces of

ceramic and put them in the bag.

“Umm-hmm,” she hummed,“no, we can’t change them, but

we can move they spirit! Yes, sir, we can do that sure enough!”

What was she talking about? The next thing I knew she was

sweeping the floor.Then she stopped and opened the container

of salt, poured some in her hand and started humming “Go Tell

It on the Mountain.” She sprinkled some in each of the four

corners of the room and turned to me.

“What?” she said.

“Nothing,” I said,“nothing at all.”

“Gone clean up the spirits in this room, that’s all.You watch,

you’ll see. Gone cut me some roots and make a little cunja bag

and pin it to they mattress too. They don’t have to know, do

they?”

“Ain’t gonna hear it from me,” I said.

“Good. Humph. All this fool in this house is just that. I

gone take care of it.You watch. Gone fix that mirror too.You

believe me?”

“Yeah, I believe you.”

I did believe her and I didn’t know why. Except that since

she’d been here, things had, in fact, started to change.The house was

a lot cleaner, I always had underwear in my drawer, Sophie didn’t

stink anymore and Daddy hadn’t whipped anybody lately. But it

was more than that and her fried chicken. Her passion for righ-

teousness was stronger than our frenzy.

We went back to the kitchen to clean up the remains of our

makeshift breakfast.

“Where do you get your strength, Livvie?”

“What do you mean? Ain’t you heard nothing I ever say?”

“Yeah, of course, I listen to you, but still . . .”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

187

“Ain’t no but. You wipe off the table and I gone tell you my

story. ’Eah, take this cloth and get busy.”

“Okay.”

She looked out the window remembering, shook her head

and started to talk.

“When I was a little girl we didn’t have nothing. I mean, we

was so poor that my momma lined my shoes in cardboard when

they got holes. I only had one pair and they was my treasure.

She stuffed the walls with newspaper when it got cold, and

Lawd, it got cold. But me and my brother knew we had love

and that was the most important thing to us. And we always had

plenty to eat. Cornbread, milk, field peas . . . something always

on the table.

“My daddy, he was born after the Yankees came, in about

1875, and oh, how he loved to tell the stories about the Yankees.

He was scared to death of them bluebellies because he believed

they would come and kill you or carry you off. Maybe he told

us that so’s we wouldn’t wander off down the road, like we liked

to do.

“His daddy and mammy was still living on the plantation

when he was born, even though they was free to go. His daddy

had been a slave and when Mr. Lincoln freed everybody, he say

where he gone go to? So, they stay and tend they own patch and

work for Mr. Archibald Barnes.

“My family lived in a little cabin on the plantation, the same

one where my daddy was born. All his life, my daddy was a

sharecropper to the same man’s family his daddy had belonged

to.The Barneses they owned a big plantation out on the Wando

River called Oakwood. My brother, Leroy, and me, there wasn’t

no school around there, so they put us in the field to work pick-

ing cotton. But I was a right smart little girl and in fact I can

read a little and do some numbers, but yes, ma’am, I was put out

in the field when I was only nine years old. Makes you grow up

quick. Hard work makes you strong. I work hard every day;

that’s where I get my strength.That and knowing who I am. You

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children think you got it so bad, you wouldn’t know what trou-

ble looked like if he walked right up to you and shook your

hand!”

Livvie sighed and waited for me to say something.

“I know that, I mean, somebody’s always got it worse,” I

said.

“That’s exactly right.”

“I know, I agree, but Livvie, sometimes it’s so crazy around

here I think about running away. I mean, I’d never do it because

where would I go? But it’s too much, you know?”

“Yeah, chile, I know better than you can think I do, but you

belong right ’eah.You is a Hamilton and this is where they call

home. I know something else you ain’t learned yet.”

“You probably know plenty more than I ever will.”

She laughed a little at that and shook her head. “Mm-hm,

chile, these old eyes have seen it all, but what I want to tell you is

this.When folks around you do crazy things, it’s the devil trying

to distract you from your purpose.”

I just stared at her.

“That’s right. Old Beelzebub himself. That’s how the devil

works. He ain’t no fool with a red suit and a tail. No, he works

on your mind. When you let your mind dwell on trouble, you

can’t be doing what you needs to be doing.Then he wins, you

see? He can’t win unless you let him because he ain’t got no

power on his own.”

“So, basically, what you’re saying is that worrying about

Daddy and Aunt Carol or Grandma Sophie diverts my attention

from other things, better things?”

“That’s it! That’s my girl!”

“Yeah, but Livvie, I don’t think I’m ever gonna forget what

I saw.”

“I know that, chile, but listen up, every time that picture

comes back in your head, ask the Lawd to help it go away. He

will.”

“Livvie?”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

189

“Mm-hm?”

“Your grandfather was a slave?”

“Yes, chile, he was. They carried him off from Africa when

he was a young man and he nearly died on the way ’eah. The

old people didn’t like to talk about slavery. It was a terrible

time.”

“It must’ve been horrible.”

“It ain’t over, Susan.We still got our troubles, but I just keep

to myself and don’t get all messed up with all this fool talk about

integration and such. I don’t want to eat at the lunch counter in

Woolworth’s over to the city. I’d rather eat in my own house!”

“Well, I ain’t got the money to eat there. It’s probably greasy

anyway.”

“Yes, but you could eat there. I can’t.You could use the bath-

room there. I can’t. It ain’t ever gone change and iffin it does,

gone be a miracle for sure.Wait till all these old buckra narrow

minds die and find heaven full of colored folks! Won’t that be

the day!”

“I don’t know, Livvie, I’m not gonna even be fourteen until

next month. I don’t know about all this stuff.”

I was embarrassed. I knew what she said was right but there

wasn’t anything I could do about it. Suddenly I was very glad

that Daddy had built the new bathroom. If Livvie had ever been

told to use the outhouse, she would have quit on the spot.

Maggie says that when colored people die and go to

heaven, their skin turns white. I used to believe that when I was

little, but now I knew that it was another dumb lie made up by

white people.

For a long time I had always thought plantation life must’ve

been full of music. Long days and hard work, and somehow in

my mind, all of it was set to music. Slaves singing, ladies dancing,

beautiful carriages and horses bringing people to parties at night

with lanterns all over the yard—that sort of thing. How stupid

and naive could I have been? Their music was born of pain, pain

caused by people of my race.

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“Well, I’m gonna go help Maggie put the porch back

together, okay?”

“Susan, come back ’eah, chile.”

I turned to face her.

“Listen to Livvie, I tell you what’s on my mind, not to make

you feel bad. I want you to think. Gawd got His special purpose

for you, just like He does for every one of us. He done give you a

very good mind.The world you have when you grow up is gonna

be the one you make.You use your mind and make it better.”

“I will, Livvie, I promise.”

By sunday morning it seemed that the entire Island knew that my

momma had twins. Every hour somebody came over with a

gift for my new sisters. Most people brought two pairs of

booties—in fact, we had fifteen sets of two already—and every

last one of them wanted to know what the twins’ names were.

They didn’t have names yet. But, in the tradition of the family

reputation of lying through our teeth,Timmy and I decided to

quit explaining.

“I’ll get it,” I screamed when I heard the knock.

It was Mrs. Wilson, the red-headed schoolteacher from

Sullivan’s Island Elementary School. She was divorced but since

talking to her was only a venial sin, I launched right in.

“Hi!” I said.

“Oh! Susan, I’m so glad I caught y’all at home! I thought

you might be at church.”

“No, ma’am. We went to Mass at eight o’clock this morn-

ing. Timmy and Henry had to serve on the altar, so we all just

got up and went.”

“Well, that’s nice, dear. Listen, this is for your new sisters.”

“Thank you. Booties?”

“Yes, I made them myself! How’s your momma?”

Make that sixteen pairs of two and still counting. The day

was young.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

191

“Good. Coming home Tuesday.We’re going to see her in a

few minutes.”

“Well, please send her my best. Did she name the girls?”

“Yes, ma’am. Posie Sue and Rosie Sue. Momma likes flowers,

you know, and she named them Sue in my honor. Isn’t that nice?”

Her face went blank.“Well, I always say people should name

their babies whatever they want,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am, I think so too.”

By the time we left for Charleston, my sisters had some of

the craziest names you can imagine. Itchy and Scratchy,Timmy

told Mrs. Fisher, because Daddy said the twins were all bumpy

and rashy. Sneezy and Wheezy, I told Mrs. Mosner, because their

noses were runny, but don’t worry, it’s not on the birth certifi-

cate, I told her. Daphne and Delilah,Tara and Scarlet, and Lucy

and Ethel were some of our favorites. We were laughing so

much in the car Daddy started screaming at us.

“Shut the hell up! I’m trying to drive!”

Silence prevailed and we spent the rest of the ride looking

at the damage from the storm. Trees were still down every-

where; the roads were covered in a wash of sand.The water was

still high on the causeway. It was incredible how much damage

could happen in just a few hours. Unfortunately Mount Pleas-

ant had electricity again, which meant school would be open

Monday.

When we reached the parking lot at the hospital, Daddy

gave us a talk on our manners.We gave our word not to behave

like a bunch of banshees. I had avoided talking to him and was

wondering how I could avoid it for the rest of my life.

We took the elevator up to the maternity ward and waited

outside Momma’s room until Daddy said we could go in.

“Momma?” I said.“Hey! You alright?”

“I’m tired but I’m fine! Come give your momma a kiss,” she

said,“and meet your new sisters.”

We bombarded her with homemade cards and signs, crawl-

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ing over her to see the twins.They were in the bed with her and

when I saw them I started crying. So did Maggie.They were so

beautiful. Momma was so moved that she started to cry. Then

Daddy grabbed the Kleenex box and started passing them out.

That made us laugh. He pretended to cry, making fun of us, but

he was so loud he scared the babies and they really started cry-

ing. The more they screamed the redder they got. Maggie

picked up the blond and I picked up the brunette. I couldn’t

believe they calmed down.

“You girls are going to have to help me when I come home,

you know,” Momma said.

“Oh, don’t worry about it, Momma. I love babies,” I said,

thinking of my plan.

“They look like Susan and me,” Maggie said.

“Yeah, that one doesn’t have any eyebrows,” Henry said.

“She’ll get them later, bird brain,” Maggie said.

“Boy, she’s got some grip!” Timmy said. The baby I held

had her tiny hand wrapped around his finger. “Gonna be a

wrestler!”

“I hope not!” Momma said.

“All right, you kids go wait in the waiting area and I’ll be

along soon,” Daddy said. He was so pleasant it made me forgive

him for the moment, making me hope things would be better.

We lined up like good little soldiers, kissed Momma on the

cheek and the twins on their heads and filed out. There was

something magical about the moment. Maybe the twins would

bring us good luck. Maybe Daddy would go back to loving

Momma. Momma looked pretty good, I thought, considering

what she’d been through. Remembering the babies’ names, I

giggled to myself.

T h e g r e at j oy of my sisters’ birth and the plans to tell it all over

school were dwarfed by the terrible news of the following

Monday morning.When my brothers and I arrived at school we

were told by our teachers to go directly to chapel for a special

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

193

Mass. We were told that somebody had bombed a church in

Birmingham,Alabama, killing four little girls. Many others were

seriously hurt. It was a Negro church.We were absolutely stunned.

The nuns were crying and there was a mood of despair that

crept through the pews like poison gas, rising up from a dark

place.The hideous news changed us forever.

Until then, I had no clue whatsoever that the Civil Rights

movement was so dangerous. It had always just seemed so far away,

like Vietnam. And I couldn’t imagine who would kill children

because they were colored. If grown-ups wanted to fight each

other, they would, but what kind of a person bombed a church?

And how deep must be the hatred that drove the person to

commit such an unforgivable crime? Who would kill people

while they prayed? I had a hard time trying to concentrate in

my classes. I kept seeing the grief-stricken faces from the news-

paper that someone was passing around.Visions of children lying

in coffins tormented me all day. For some inexplicable reason, I

didn’t want to face Livvie when I got home. I knew she would

be angry.

She was grieving as though those children had been her

own. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, humming

a church song. I found her ironing when I came in the back

door with Timmy and Henry after school.

The boys each grabbed a cookie from the plate on the table

she had set out for us and ran upstairs.

“Chocolate chip! Thanks, Livvie!”Timmy said.

“My favorite!” Henry squealed.

I put my books on the table and reached for a glass to pour

some milk for myself.

“Want some milk?” I said.

“No, chile, I don’t want nothing today. No, nothing today.”

She looked long at me and went back to her ironing, humming

a little, but her eyes were incredibly sad.

“We had a special Mass in school for those girls in Alabama,”

I said quietly.

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“It just don’t make no sense,” she said.“People killing like this.

Bombing the Lawd’s house. Lucifer got to be stopped! Somebody

got to stop him.”

“You’re right,” I said.“What can we do?”

“Beg Gawd to help,” she said.“Gone take the mighty power of

all His angels to stop this kind of thing. I’m fearing it’s gone come

this way. Hatred is a terrible thing. Like cancer. Eats you up.”

“You’re right,” I repeated, at a loss for words for once in my

stupid life.

“My cousin Harriet come to my house this morning with

the paper.When I see them faces of them mommas and daddies

crying for they children, make me cry.That’s all.”

“Me too.”

She looked at me and realized my eyes were red too, but

she was suspicious of my honesty. Couldn’t she see that I was

frightened by what had happened in Alabama? It meant the

trouble could come here and children here might get blown

up too.

“This ’eah is trouble for my people, not yours, Susan. We

gone fight the fight, because every back is fitted to the burden,”

she said, slamming the iron on the board for emphasis. “We

done carry burden since we come to this country in chains.

Ain’t much different now.”

The last thing I’d let her do was shut me out.

“You’re wrong about that, Livvie. I mean, I don’t usually

disagree with grown-ups and I never thought I’d disagree with

you, and I’m sorry to say so, but you’re wrong.”

“Oh, yeah? Let me ’eah this now. Now they burning babies!”

“I know that, but I didn’t do it! Listen, God made all of us,

right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“And the only difference between you and me is our skin

color, right?”

“Yeah, I reckon so.”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

195

“And kids are kids, right?”

“They sure enough are.” She was patiently watching me bum-

ble my way through this and giving me all the rope I needed to

hang myself.

“Well, if a colored man blew up a white church and killed

some white kids, that wouldn’t mean all colored people are bad,

would it?”

“No, it wouldn’t.”

“It would mean that there was one crazy sumbitch out

there, or maybe a bunch of them, but not every colored person

was crazy, right?”

“You may be right, but please don’t say that curse word.

Ain’t fitting.”

“Okay, so this means that there are a bunch or maybe even a

lot of bad guys in Alabama who don’t want integration, but not

everybody feels like that.”

“I already told you. I don’t care about integration. I just

want peace, that’s all. Just want to live my life in peace and serve

the Lawd.”

“Me too. But, Livvie, a lot of people do care about integration.

I mean, Sister Amelia, my teacher, said plenty today that made a lot

of sense to me. I think that colored kids should have the same

opportunity that white kids do. Then it would be more fair. I

mean, if they have the same schoolbooks and the same chances at

the same tests, then colored kids can grow up and do more. I’m

not talking about you and me, here—after all, you sent all your

kids to college, right?”

“Yes, I certainly did. And it wasn’t easy. I cleaned toilets to

buy textbooks.Think about that.”

“Right, I’m sure you’re right. But I’m talking about kids

that probably aren’t even born yet. And kids from families who

don’t value education.”

“Even iffin they gone let all the colored children in

Charleston in the white schools tomorrow, it ain’t gone bring

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them four little girls back to life, Susan. Four little girls died

yesterday because white people will always hate black people,”

she said.“That’s just how it is.They want to hold us down.”

“It’s true, those little girls are gone.There will always be red-

necks and bad guys. Can’t change that either. But we can change

education, Livvie; it’s a step. Equal education could be a big

step.”

“Maybe, but it ain’t the answer,” she said, and pointed to her

chest.“The answer got to come from ’eah. In the heart.”

I took a big gulp of my milk and nodded at her. She was

right about the solution coming from the heart. I knew that you

could pass all the laws you wanted to but if somebody didn’t

want to obey them, they wouldn’t. She got up from her ironing

board to hang the shirt she had been pressing.“Momma’s com-

ing home tomorrow,” I said.

This made her smile again. We really didn’t want to argue

with each other. “I know. Spent all morning getting they room

fix up. Can’t wait to hold them babies! When I told Harriet I had

two new grand babies, she got so jealous I thought she’d pop!

Oh, Lawd! You should’ve seen her face! Yes, ma’am, thought she

would pop.”

We began to talk about the twins and how I would help her

with them and then, our discussion about integration finished

for the moment, I left her and went out for a bike ride with

Timmy and Henry.

The water had receded somewhat from our yard and

the Island was beginning to dry up from Hurricane Denise.

We rode our bikes all over Sullivan’s Island looking at the

damage. Seemed like every house had something happen to it,

especially those on the oceanfront.We had merely lost shingles

and screens and had some fallen branches plus a lot of beach

sand in our yard.The old Island Gamble had another notch on

her belt.

We came home late in the afternoon to do homework and

have supper. I could smell the okra soup and the sweet corn-

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

197

bread as I climbed the back steps. Livvie was putting her coat on

to catch the five o’clock bus. “See y’all on the morning train!”

she said. She was leaving early and coming in early tomorrow.

She smiled sadly at me and patted my arm before she went out

the back door. Things had changed a little. A tiny line of color

had been drawn. It broke my heart.

Ten

Write Away

}

1999

week had passed since Hurricane Maybelline had

ripped through the Southeast. Damage was in the

Amillions of dollars and everywhere you went you

heard stories, stories and more stories. I ventured out to buy paint

for the guest room. I knew it was all covered by my insurance

policy, but I thought I’d get estimates, do the work myself and save

the money for something else. Everybody does this, don’t they?

I joined the throngs of ersatz interior and exterior decora-

tors on line at the Home Depot. Customers staggered under

their armloads of screening, two-by-fours, boxes of shingles and

cans of house paint. I stood on the shortest checkout line—

twenty people—and while I waited, the comedy hour was free.

“Found a dog in my yard! Tag was from Pawley’s Island!

Dog was fine. Can you believe it?”

“Came home from my mother-in-law’s house and my

curtains were sucked right through the windows! Not a rip in

them! Have you ever?”

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199

“Got drunk, went to bed like usual with my old lady, every-

thing was fine. Never heard a thing all night! Got up and half

my roof was gone!”

I had been dealing all week with claims adjusters, tree sur-

geons, carpenters, window guys, the carpet store. Roger hadn’t

called. Big shock. But he’d probably turn up at some point. And

Mr.Tom hadn’t called once. So much for his passionate concern.

But embittered I’m not. Dumb dates and failed marriages make

you either a boozehound or a philosopher. I was not even par-

ticularly surprised that Tom hadn’t called. Leaving someone is a

process, not just an impulsive decision. It takes a long time to let

go. In some peculiar way, I was relieved that I hadn’t heard from

him.When I finally got home, I called Maggie.

“Hey! You want to go grab some lunch with me? I’m dying

for fried shrimp, haven’t had ’em in months. I’m in the mood to

eat neurotically.”

“Why not? Sounds good as long as you don’t look at my

fingernails. Cleaning up after that hussy Maybelline wrecked my

manicure.”

“Now there’s a tragic story if I ever heard one. I’ll pick you

up in thirty minutes.Wanna go to the Yellow Dog on the Isle of

Palms?”

“I’ll be ready.”

As my car swung around East Bay Street to take the bridge

east of the Cooper, I found my heartbeat slowing down. I was

on my way to the beach—the cure-all for whatever ails me. I

mean, I was feeling philosophical because it was Saturday. Up

until now, I’d been cussing like a sailor every time I passed the

silent phone. And I’d been giving myself lectures ninety ways to

hell and back for sleeping with Tom.

I lowered all my windows to let the air in. The air felt so

good. It was a gorgeous September day and I was going to have

lunch with my sister, the good egg of all times. I sneaked through

Mount Pleasant (a notorious speed trap) like a drug lord with a

trunk full of contraband, vigilant for redneck policemen hiding

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behind billboards with their shaved heads, beady eyes and radar.

It was a game I played. I’d never had a speeding ticket, and I was

determined never to get one. In fact, I thought, the only flawless

thing in my life just might have been my driving record.

The Island looked like a wreck, the same way it always did

after a storm. The million-dollar new houses on the oceanfront

had taken a terrible beating, but the old shacks still stood.The tire

swings in their front yards hadn’t even gotten tangled in the trees.

One thing I had to say for Maybelline, she had taste. And, true to

her history, the Island Gamble was waving the victorious flag of

survival after one more bout with Mother Nature.

“House looks good!” I called out to Maggie, who came

down the back steps with her purse, ready to go. “Where’s my

brother-in-law and my nephews?”

“Gone fishing early this morning—out to the Gulf Stream.”

She got in the car, slammed the door and looked at me with one

of her martyr faces. “Shoot, my house should look good! I

nearly broke my back this week cleaning this yard and then we

power-washed the whole house!”

“You’re a good woman, Maggie. A good woman.” I started

to back out of the yard. “I’m sick of Maybelline and her mess

too. You should see my third floor.”

“Under control now?”

“Yeah, God, but only after eighty million phone calls and

this incessant waiting for a human being to talk to. By the time

they pick up the line, I forget who I called! I hate automated

phone systems.” I started toward the Isle of Palms.“I hate work-

men too. You could spend your whole day waiting and they still

don’t come.”

“How ’bout Tom? Hate him too?”

“Nah, he’s just an asshole who can’t help himself. I could

put him on one of those daytime talk shows and a thousand

angry women could tell him what a jerk he is and it wouldn’t

make a bit of difference.”

“Didn’t call, right?”

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201

“Right. Didn’t call.” We drove past the gas station, Station

22 Restaurant and Dunleavey’s Pub. “Bump him. It’s okay with

me, and it doesn’t matter anyway.” What a liar. “As soon as I’ve

stuffed my face with fried food,” I continued,“I’ve got an idea I

want you to think through with me, okay?”

“I’d be grateful for any excuse to use my mind, and besides,

you know how I love telling you what to do.”

“Well, this time I’m inviting it. Show me no mercy.”

The young waitress showed us to a booth that faced the

ocean.We slid across the leather benches opposite each other and,

driven by some shared genetic compulsion, we wiped the crumbs

from our respective sides of the Formica-topped table.

Knowing the menu by heart, we ordered without it. The

waitress brought us our drinks and we settled in for the next

hour or so, watching the beach and fishing through the mayon-

naise seafood dip with Club crackers, looking for pieces of crab-

meat or anything that resembled seafood.

“Think this is worth the calories?” Maggie asked as I popped

a fat gram–laden cracker into my mouth, washing it down with

Diet Pepsi and lemon.

“Nope, but I’m tired of dieting and today is a day for cele-

brating.”

“It is? Tell me why.”

“Do you know what the total damage was to my house?”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Sixty thousand.”

Maggie let out a low whistle. She couldn’t whistle for

beans.

“The insurance company is only paying fifty thousand. I

had a five-hundred-dollar cap in my policy on landscaping.”

“Bunch of thieves, they are, the whole bunch of them,Yankee

carpetbaggers.”

“Yep, worse than lawyers. But I have a plan.” I drained my

glass and motioned to the tiny waitress in cutoffs, T-shirt and

platform sandals.The waitress teetered over, smiling.

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“Can I he’p you?” She smiled a wide, self-medicated smile.

Prozac, I imagined.

“Just some more Diet Pepsi,” I said,“thanks.”

“Sure ’nough!”

“There but for the grace of God go I,” I whispered to Maggie.

“In a pig’s eye, honey. You and I would’ve dug ditches before

we wound up doing this for a living. Besides, we’re at least two

decades on the back side of cutoffs and platforms.”

“Backside is the operative word.” I giggled.

“Okay, okay.Tell me what the plan is!”

“Remember when I was a kid and I used to keep all those

diaries? I found them in a big trunk in the attic when I was up

there with the workmen checking the support beams.”

“What’s that got to do with the insurance money?”

“Just hang on, I’m gonna tell you.”

The waitress returned with our baskets of fried shrimp,

potatoes, a small plastic tub of coleslaw and hush puppies.

“Kin I git y’all anything else? Ketchup? Some more Pepsi?”

“No, thanks, we’re fine.”

She tottered away and I bit into a hush puppy, burning the skin

on the roof of my mouth. I gulped my drink to put out the fire.

“Hot, huh?”

“Yeah, bu’ good.Whew! So listen, here’s the deal. I’ve figured

out that if I hang the wallpaper myself and do all the repainting

myself, I can save ten thousand dollars out of the insurance set-

tlement. My neighbor, in a fit of guilt, is replacing my shrubs.”

“No kidding? That’s a break. So what are you gonna do with

the money? Run away to Paris and be a writer like you always

said you would?”

“No, no. I wish. But nothing that exotic. I’m buying a

computer for myself. I decided, and tell me what you think

about this, to try to put together some essays with cartoons!”

“What? For who?”

“For the newspaper. A column about being a single mother

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203

in the nineties, about growing up in the sixties, about being

Geechee children, about dealing with a husband with the zipper

problem, you know, about sexual harassment . . .”

“Sweet Mary, Mother of God.You’re serious!”

“Yeah, I’m dead serious. Look, Maggie, I never have two

nickels extra to rub together. Beth wants to shop, and God for-

bid I should ever get my wardrobe together and look like some-

thing attractive to the opposite sex. What kind of money am I

ever gonna make working at the Charleston County Library? I

can write at night; it’s bound to pay something!”

Maggie got very quiet and I waited for her to say some-

thing. She picked up a fried shrimp, squeezed a lemon over it,

ran it around in her tartar sauce and finally bit into the thing. I

watched her chew as she stared at me.

“Well, say something,” I said.“Christmas is coming.”

“Are you doing this for an excuse to get on-line in those

chat rooms and meet some stud muffin?” Her face was serious.

“Gimme a break, will you? I leave the chat rooms to Beth.

Would you believe I caught her talking to some guy, saying she

was a twenty-three-year-old blond aerobics instructor from

Malibu who loved Mexican food?”

“Good Lord, Susan. But, hey, it’s another story you could

write!”

“See what I mean?”

“Susan? Are you going to use your real name?”

“I don’t know, probably not. Because if nobody knows who

I am then I think it would be easier to really say what I think,

you know what I mean?”

“I wouldn’t use anybody’s name in the column either. You’ll

get your butt sued for libel.”

“Yeah, I thought of that, unless it’s a politician.”

“I could help you with lots of stories from when we were

kids.” She liked the idea. I could see it.

“I have a trunk full of them! The journals, remember?”

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“Right! Well, when you run out of stuff to say, let me know.”

“Maggie, people will be spending the weekend on the

moon before I run out of things to say.”

We started to laugh and our laughter grew. Pretty soon, tears

were running down our cheeks as we were remembering all the

crazy things we had done as children.

“Remember that kid Stuart?”

“Oh, God! What a little creep he was!”

That was how it all began. I spent the next two weeks writ-

ing like a maniac. I wrote a piece about going crabbing with an

illustration of kids on the beach attached to it. I wrote a piece

about sibling rivalry with a cartoon of kids choking each other.

I particularly loved the one I wrote about Livvie.That one had

a picture of a little white girl on the lap of a black woman.There

was something to be said about single parenting, a lot, in fact, so

I burned up the keyboard of Beth’s word processor on that. I

wrote about the sexual revolution and how it had passed

Charleston by. They were all very tongue-in-cheek and some of

them were damn funny, if I said so myself. And the cartoons set

the tone. They were eaten alive with cuteness.

Beth thought I’d gone mad. She was letting me use her

computer, because I couldn’t make up my mind which one I

wanted to buy, and she’d sacrificed her privacy. She moved to

the dining room to study, saying that my laughing out loud, not

to mention my pacing and smoking, broke her concentration.

No doubt.

When I had twenty-five essays together, I was ready to try

to sell them. But first somebody had to read them for me. Catch

the goobers, fine-tune the language, gauge the rhythm, veracity

and wit. I called Maggie.

“Whatcha doing?” I lit a cigarette.“Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you. What choice do I have? Where the

heck have you been?”

“I’ve been impersonating Anna Quindlen for the last ten

days. My fingers are worn down to little nubs from spilling my

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205

guts on paper. My thumbs are callused from the space bar. I need

your help.”

“Name it.”

“Do you think you could pretend you don’t know me and

read what I’ve written and then tell me the truth? I need to have

all this stuff proofread.”

“You’re not really seriously asking me if I like to criticize, are

you? Get your bones in the car and come on over. I’ve been dying

to see what you’re up to! I’ll make supper for y’all tonight.”

True to form, my sister helped me once again. She found tons

of errors that the spell-check feature on the word processor didn’t

pick up and had some good suggestions for tightening up some

of the essays. It took another week to get them polished and

another three days to work up my nerve to call the newspaper. I

just kept telling myself that if they didn’t want to run my essays,

I’d try another paper. No big deal. In fact, I expected rejection.

Finally, on Friday, I looked up the number and dialed. The

computerized voice that answered the phone had me so con-

fused, I wasn’t even sure who I wanted to talk to when the

human voice finally came on the line.

“Hello? Can I help you?” The voice, female, sounded

mature and pleasantly professional.

“Um, I hope so. My name is Susan Hayes and I’m in charge

of literacy outreach programs at the county library.”

“Yes, Ms. Hayes, how may I direct your call?”

“Well, I’m not sure. I’ve written some essays about living in

these hard, fast times we’re in and I was hoping I might speak to

someone about buying them for the paper.”

“Ah, so you’re a journalist too?”

“Well, an aspiring one, I mean, I’ve done a lot of writing—”

She cut me off in midsentence.“Just bring them to the front

desk, any weekday between nine and five, and we’ll have a look

at them. Make sure you have your résumé and phone number

attached to your portfolio and we’ll call you.”

“Okay. Fine.Thank you.”

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I wasn’t used to being dismissed and it felt terrible. But then

I realized I was talking to the receptionist and she probably got

fifty calls a week from people who are sure they’re the next

Dave Barry or Molly Ivins. Can’t blame her, I thought, and then

I realized: Portfolio? Don’t have one! Résumé? Haven’t updated

it in years! I spent all Friday evening composing a new résumé

and successfully resisted the urge to include any wisecracks.

Maybe I should send a copy to Roger Dodds too, I thought.

He still hadn’t called either. I could’ve died in the hurricane for

all he knew.

The next morning I bought a black leather portfolio, to

hold my essays, from Huguley’s on Wentworth Street. I prayed

that I’d bought the right kind and that it didn’t look pretentious.

I decided to beat it up a little to make me look experienced, so

I threw it on the asphalt a few times and walked on it. Then I

damp-wiped it and Pledged it. The end result was convincing

enough to me.

On my way to work Monday, I dropped the whole kit and

caboodle off at the Post & Courier, held my breath and began a

novena to the Blessed Mother. O most gracious Virgin Mary, never

was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help

or sought thy intercession was left unaided . . .

It was in the blood. I would be a card-carrying, fish-eating,

bead-pushing, candle-lighting, altar-making, incense-sniffing,

genuflecting, saint-venerating Catholic until the day I died. I

figured the Blessed Mother was my best bet in the Roman

Catholic pantheon of possibilities. After all, she was a woman.

Maybe I would resort to daily Mass in case I’d used up all my

heavenly favors.

Tuesday and Wednesday went by and no one called. Not

Roger, not Tom and not the newspaper. I had indulged in a

thousand fantasies by late Wednesday afternoon. Ones where

crowds roared at my jokes and held their breath while I

spoke.

I was making a meat loaf for supper and had my hands in

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207

the bowl of chopped meat and ketchup when the phone rang. I

was so deep in thought that I jumped at the loud noise.

“Beth! Can you get that? If it’s Oprah, tell her there’s no fee

for me to appear, but I only fly first class!” I had been having a

marvelous time imagining fame and fortune and how cool I’d be.

“It’s for you, Mom!” Beth screamed from upstairs.“It’s some

man, probably wants to sell you something!”

Oh, good Lord, I thought, just when I’m up to my elbows

in gook. I wiped off my hands and picked up the receiver.

“Ms. Hayes?”

“Yes?”

“This is Max Hall calling. I’m the publisher of the Post &

Courier. ” He paused.

“Oh! Yes! How nice of you to call.” My heart was beating

against the wall of my chest.

“I’ve read your essays.” He took a very long pause again. Did

he hate them? Did he love them? Tell me already and stop the

pain!

“And?”

“Well, it happens that one of our writers who does a col-

umn on Thursdays is leaving us and I might be able to use some

of your work. I’d like to meet with you and discuss it.”

“Fine! When?”

“Well, would Friday around four o’clock be all right with

you?”

I would’ve gone at three in the morning if he had wanted

me to.

I m a rc h e d mys e l f into Berlin’s the next afternoon like I shop

there every day. I bought a pair of black Calvin Klein trousers

with a jacket and a black silk T-shirt and paid the full retail price

for it all.Then, full of beans, I walked down to Bob Ellis Shoes

and bought a pair of black Prada pumps to match and a black

knock-off Chanel bag.Thank you, Jesus, and all those good peo-

ple at Metropolitan Insurance! Friday, I picked up the trousers

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from the alteration woman and hurried home to try on my new

image. As I stood in front of the mirror on the back of my door,

I liked what I saw. I was tall, thin and very cool. No, I was digni-

fied. I went to Beth’s room for the ultimate test.

“If I pull my hair back in a clamp, what do you think? Do I

look like a writer or an Italian widow?”

“Groovy, baby. Shagadelic!”

“Thanks, I think.”

All the way to Max Hall’s office I tortured myself. What if

he hated me? This was not a romance, I told myself, it was busi-

ness. What if he laughed at me and thought my work was idi-

otic? What if he bought it, it was published and everybody knew

it was me and they laughed at me?

“Ms. Hayes?”

His door had swung open, and a pimple-faced young man

in shirtsleeves scooted out past me. I marveled that he was old

enough to be a journalist. I was feeling old, but the face on Max

Hall was a lot older than mine. I took a deep breath and jumped

in the deep end.

“Hi!” I shook his hand. Firm grip.That was good.“Mr. Hall?”

“Call me Max.” He closed the door behind us. “Everyone

does.”

His office was exactly what I expected. Behind his old leather-

topped desk was a computer screen on a credenza, flashing news

with a stock tape running across the bottom. His desk was huge

and had several pencil cups and neat piles of paper stacked on both

ends. He took his seat in the leather swivel chair and indicated that

I should sit opposite him.

“Then call me Susan, please.”

“Sure. You want coffee?”

“Sure. Black’s fine.”

He spoke into his intercom, asking the female outside to bring

in two cups of coffee.Then he leaned back and looked at me.

“So, you want to write a column for the Post & Courier, do

you? What kind of experience have you got?”

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209

“Jack,” I said.

“Excuse me? You worked for someone named Jack? Do I

know him?”

I cleared my throat and my face got hot. I should’ve

watched a video on how to interview.

“Um, no, Max, I mean I have a lot of experience, but not in

journalism. But I do a lot of writing for my regular job at the

county library. Grant proposals, brochures, that sort of thing.”

“Ah! I see.” He leaned across the desk and said in a low

voice as his secretary left the office, closing the door behind her,

“What you’re telling me is that you don’t know jack about jour-

nalism, is that right?”

The son of a bitch had no sense of humor.

“Well, yes and no. I mean, everyone tells me I write like a

journalist and that I should write professionally and that I’m

funny. Well, they think so, I’m not so sure.”

“Let me be the judge of that.”

“Ah, Jesus.” I had spilled the coffee down my arm.

“Don’t be so nervous. Here.” He handed me a wad of tissues.

“Right. Max, can I be real straight with you?”

“Please. I’m about as good at mind reading as you are on

interviews.” He smiled and leaned back. This wasn’t going as I

had visualized it.

“Look. If you like the twenty-five stories you’ve seen, I have

more. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was knee-high. Here’s

the thing. I need this job. I’m a single parent, my ex-husband is

so tight he squeaks and I need to prove something.”

“Now you’ve got my attention.What’ve you got to prove?”

“I need to prove to my daughter that the human spirit can

overcome any trial life throws your way. These stories are for

women around my age, the boomers. They’re to remind them

that raising kids today ought to be a breeze next to the issues we

faced during segregation and the Vietnam war and all the stuff

that went on thirty years ago that changed the world forever.”

“You think your generation changed the world?”

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“You bet we did. This planet’s never been safer than it is

today. The air’s cleaner, the water’s cleaner and the risk of nuclear

war is practically nil.” You go, honey, I said to myself. I wondered

if the old codger had a soapbox in the closet I could use.

“So we may assume you have other opinions about other

things?”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”Why was I so out of con-

trol? This was no way to charm a guy, even I knew that.“I tend

to get carried away.”

“Carried away can be a good thing. I have two more writers

to interview and I’ll let you know by Monday. Okay?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. Fair enough?”

“Oh, God, yes, that’s more than fair enough! Thanks, Max,

listen, this is all just draft, you know, I could polish it up—”

“Quit apologizing for your writing. God, all writers are

the same.” He got up from his desk and opened the door for

me to leave.The interview was over. I had spent eight hundred

and fifty dollars on this black widow’s outfit for a five-minute

interview.

“Max?” I extended my hand to him and he took it.“Thanks.

I really mean it.”

“Sure thing, Susan Hayes, with opinions galore! I’ll call you

either way by the end of the weekend.”

I called Maggie as soon as I got home.

“Let’s get drunk,” I said.

“Love to oblige, but I have to take the boys to football prac-

tice tonight. My turn to carpool. How’d it go?”

“Then can I borrow a Valium?” I twisted the phone cord

around my elbow and hand, knotting the whole thing up.

“God, I wish you’d get your own. Ask your doctor.Tell me

how it went.Was it a disaster?”Why was she so cranky? Get my

own Valium?

“No, I don’t think so, I mean, I don’t really know. It was so fast.”

“Has he got your portfolio?”

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211

“Yeah, he had read the stuff already. I guess he just wanted to

see my face. I’m gonna be a wreck until he calls. Can I come

over?”

“Sure.”

I don’t remember driving to the Island, but I came out of

my trance in Maggie’s kitchen as she put a bottle of peach-

flavored Snapple in my hands.

“Peach-flavored tea? How can you drink this stuff ?”

“It’s better for you than all those nitrates you guzzle.”

“Maybe. Maggie? Is something wrong?”

“I haven’t seen my husband in two days.” She leaned back

against the sink and she had the strangest expression on her face.

“Susan, Grant’s having an affair,” she said.

“What in the hell are you telling me?”

“I’m telling you Grant is putting away some little nurse at

the hospital.”

She burst into tears. I knew she sounded funny on the phone!

No wonder she told me to get my own drugs. I put my arms

around her.

“Come on, now. How do you know this is true? I mean, are

you sure?”

“I found a matchbook with a phone number written on it

in his jacket pocket.”

“Call the number?”

“Yeah. Answering machine. ‘Sheila and Debbie aren’t home

right now . . . ’ What would you think?”

“I’d think what you think, but you know what? You should

ask him. Just ask him.”

“Here I am in this perfect life, in my clean house, and my hus-

band is screwing around and I didn’t even suspect it. But, lately,

he’s gone so much, I don’t know, I just started getting this rotten

feeling in the pit of my stomach, you know what I mean?”

“Do I know? Yeah, I know. I just can’t believe Grant would

do that, Maggie. He’s a Eucharistic Minister, for Christ’s sake, no

pun intended. I mean, guys who dispense Communion every

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Sunday are unlikely to have affairs! I think you need more facts.

Just ask him straight out. Say, ‘Grant? Are you having an affair?’

Just as he’s about to bite into dinner, you know, catch him off

guard.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that, Susan, I don’t have the nerve.”

“Yes, you do.Then he’ll say, ‘Why no, honey, whyever in the

world would you think that?’Then you say,‘Because I found these

matches in your pocket from the White Horse Saloon with a

phone number, so I called it and a girl named Debbie answered.

I told her I was your wife and you’re HIV positive and on a mis-

sion to infect all the sluts of the world, that’s all.’That’s what you

say. Then you look at his face to see if he’s choking or turning red

or whatever.”

She cracked up. I cracked up. Humor. It never fails.

“You’re the best, Susan. I’m gonna do it.” She paced around

the kitchen table.“What do you think? Should I wash my hair?”

“Definitely. I don’t want to put pressure on you, but pretend

you’re getting your picture taken for Town & Country, know what

I mean? Put on the dog and when he takes the bait, whammo!”

“Whammo, huh? At this moment, I’d like to whammo him

straight to McAlister’s Funeral Parlor.The son of a bitch.”

“Maggie! Such language! Honey, get the facts first. I have

the feeling this is all a big misunderstanding. I can’t for the life of

me see Grant sneaking around. He loves you, first of all, and sec-

ond, he’s not the type.”

“Livvie used to say all men were the type.”

“Yeah, well, Gawd rest she soul, I’m sure that even she

would’ve been wrong this time.”

I drove back to the city with a heavy heart. Grant was fifty-

one. Prime target for a nurse and an affair. It was true, he hadn’t

been around much, only to take the boys fishing and Sundays

he’d take everyone to church and then to do something else, like

see a movie. I thought about it some more and wondered what

indeed would Maggie do if she were right. I knew I’d better

prepare myself to step in and help her like she had helped me.

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213

The house was quiet that night. I was watching television

and Beth was reading in her room. I had decided to give myself

a break in the writing business that night and just catch up on

sitcoms and paying bills. At eleven o’clock, I turned off the

lights and went upstairs. Beth’s light was still on.

“Night, sweetie!” I blew her a kiss through the door.

“Hey, Mom! Wanna see something outrageous?”

“Why not? Today’s been a day for the outrageous.”

“Look at this catalog! This is what I’m gonna wear on my

wedding night.”

I sat on her side of the bed and she showed me a picture in

a lingerie catalog of an emaciated blond with enormous breasts

and big, pouty, slippery lips, wearing a white, sheer, nylon, poor

excuse for a gown and robe trimmed in feathers. For a moment,

I didn’t know what to say. It was the worst thing I could imag-

ine she would want to wear in front of anyone. It bordered on

pornography.

“Where did you get this catalog?”

“Cool, huh? Jennifer gave it to me.”

“Who’s Jennifer?”

“A girl in my biology class.”

“That figures. Listen, sweetie, throw that in the trash.When

the time comes for you to get married, we’ll go to Atlanta to

shop.”

“You swear?”

“Mother never swears, Beth, you know that.”

Mo n d ay a f t e r wo r k I was coming through the door with gro-

ceries for dinner and Beth was on the phone, as usual, and ani-

mated like a lunatic, waving her arms at me.The kitchen was a

wreck, also as usual, but I was so stressed out that I didn’t even

start yelling at her.

“Sure, she’s right here.” She handed the phone to me. It’s him!

she mouthed, pointing to the phone. The guy from the Post &

Courier!

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

“Hello?”

“Susan? Max Hall here. Nice girl you’ve got, nice girl.”

“Thanks.”

“Well, if you still want the job, it’s yours. I know I shouldn’t say

this, but I saw those other two people and I swear to God, what

some people think passes for entertainment, you wouldn’t believe.”

“Right.Well, I still want the job.Very much!”

“Well then, we need to settle a few things. First, we will use

a number of the essays you’ve given me, but not all of them. So

why don’t you come by and we can talk about them? I have a

list of possible topics for you too.You know, education, the arts,

local sports, that kind of thing.”

“Sure! No problem.”

“Then there’s the ugly business of money.”

“Right, money,” I repeated like a parrot.

“I’m afraid it’s not much, ten cents a word, but it’s something

anyway.”

“That’s fine, I’ll take it!”Tough negotiator, I thought.

“First column runs this Thursday, Living section. I have a

question for you.”

“Sure, what’s that?”

“Do you want to use your name or a nom de plume?”

“Nom de plume, please, too many living relatives.”

“All right. Oh, and one other thing . . .”

“Yes?”

“Tell Jack he’s a helluva guy!”

“Right!” Oh, shit, this beast won’t ever let me forget that one.

“Be in my office tomorrow at four?”

“You bet! Max, thanks, I mean it.”

“Quit thanking me, you deserve a chance, Susan. You’ve

done a lot of living and these stories will give a lot of people

something to think about.”

I hung up the phone and leaned against the wall. Beth

grabbed me and we jumped up and down for a minute, whoop-

ing and hollering.

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

215

“My mom! The famous columnist!”

“Oh, God! I can’t believe he called! He’s a little bit of a stiff,

I think, but who cares?”

“Right!”

Beth opened the refrigerator and found a can of Coke and I

poured myself a glass of Chardonnay.We clinked aluminum and

glass and I toasted myself and her.

“To the future!”

“To the future,” she said and gave me a hug.

“Hey, Mom, not to change the subject, but have you heard

from Dad?”

“No, why?”

“Just wondering.” She sat up straight on her bar stool.

“Okay, here’s the dirt. I saw him with her.

“Oh, so what? Look, Beth, you’re old enough to understand

this. People should live where they want and do what they

want. If he wants to come back and he’s serious, you’ll be the

first person I tell.”

“I guess. I wasn’t gonna tell you but now that you have

some good news, I figured it was okay.”

“Right. Let them have each other. Come on!” I opened the

refrigerator. “Let’s make spaghetti. Tell me what happened in

school today.”

“Jonathan finally started speaking to me again.”

“Tell him not to do you any favors. Don’t we have a bell

pepper?”

“Right. In the bottom drawer. So, Momma?”

I loved when she called me Momma.

“Is it hard to write?”

“Nah, it’s sort of like dancing. You find a rhythm and go to

town with it. Know what I mean?”

“Sort of. I mean, it’s easy to write about good stuff, but what

are you gonna do if they ask you to write about bad stuff ?”

“Let’s hope they ask. Like what?”

“I don’t know, death maybe?”

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

“That may possibly be the toughest question I’ve had to

answer all day, but even death has humor, wakes and funerals

especially. I guess I’d advise people not to take hams to the

bereaved. Did I ever tell you about the mountain of hams we

always got?”

“You’re weird, Mom.”

Eleven

Tipa

}

1963

T was a bright October morning. The last vestige of

Indian summer before the gray months. I was waiting

I outside for the school bus with Maggie, Timmy and

Henry. The twins had been home for about a month. Momma

had named them Allison (after June Allison, the actress) and Sophie

(after her mother) and when we took them down to Stella Maris

to wash the devil out of them, they were baptized Allison Marie

and Sophie Ann.They had screamed all the way through the cere-

mony, but from the minute they came home from the church they

settled into a routine under Livvie’s care.They were good babies,

Livvie said.

Momma didn’t get out of bed to cook breakfast for us any-

more. Somehow we managed. Daddy was leaving earlier than

ever for work. His construction of the county high school was

well under way and there were problems all the time. Just the

day before, someone had hung him in effigy from a tree by the

construction site. I heard him tell Uncle Louis that there was

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

a sign around the dummy’s neck that read hank hamilton loves

niggers. Just last night old Fat Albert and Mr. Struthers came by

to see Daddy.They sat out on the porch talking about the dan-

ger of the threats. I thought they had frightened Daddy. But, no.

They had just made him more determined to finish his project.

But Daddy seemed worried and he was in extremely foul

humor. Needless to say, I was scared by the whole business but

knew better than to bring it up with him.

The next morning, I stood in the driveway looking for the

bus. It was late. Not one of us felt like going to school. The

boys kicked dirt into little clouds that covered the spit shine on

Maggie’s and my Weejuns.We complained in our whiny voices

and they imitated us, irking us to no end.

Finally, the noisy yellow bus rolled to its screechy halt, the

door was opened with the flexed muscles of Miss Fanny’s fore-

arm coming toward us like Popeye’s.The same lady who ran the

Island’s little store was our sainted chauffeur. She leaned her

head sideways to greet us.

“Good morning! Come on now, let’s hurry up.You kids set-

tle down! Hey, Billy and Teddy! If y’all don’t settle down, I’m

gonna tell Father O’Brien!” She was yelling at the boys in the

back of the bus, who were knocking each other with their

lunch bags.“I swear to Gawd, them boys.”

I was the last to get on.

“Hey, Miss Fanny, how’re you?” I said.

“I’ll tell you how I am! Them crazy Blanchard boys gone

make me an old woman before my time!”

“Don’t let them bug you,” I said,“they’re jerks.”

They were still carrying on and one of the boys screamed.

In the next instant Miss Fanny was pissed off in purple.

“All right, that’s it! Teddy, Billy! Up to the front of the bus,

on the double,” Miss Fanny said. “You boys can lead the bus in

the rosary and if you even so much as twitch, you’re going right

to Father O’Brien when we get to school!”

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

219

Taking the bus to school was an exercise in working off years

in purgatory. Every day, Miss Fanny led us in a decade of the rosary

as soon as we got over the Ben Sawyer Bridge. Every decade of the

rosary said is the equivalent of one hundred years off in purgatory.

If you say the Sorrowful Mysteries with the correct fervor, you get

a thousand years off.At least that’s what we thought.

“Let’s be quiet, y’all! Come on, let’s be quiet!” Miss Fanny

hollered.

We kept laughing and carrying on like a bunch of lunatics,

buoyed by the sugar of our morning dosage of Alphabits and

juice. I thought we prayed enough in school. But she was insis-

tent and she got madder and, like always, she started cussing.

“Y’all children! Dammit! If y’all don’t shut the hell up, I’m

gonna tell Father! Teddy! Billy! Y’all stand right there . . . in the

name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the . . .”

The prayers began at the top of her voice, and instantly we

all got quiet and prayed with her, snickering among ourselves

that prayer began with threats and curses.Today we said the Sor-

rowful Mysteries.

“Think about our dear Lawd, His momma at the foot of

His cross. Hail Mary, the Lawd is with thee, blessed art thou

among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Miss Fanny led us, and the Blanchard boys stood there look-

ing pious enough to sprout halos.We knew they were trying to

make us all laugh. But we didn’t need them. All we had to do

was hear the word womb and it caused a surge of giggling. In her

fervor, she ignored us every time and continued.

“Holy Mary, mother of Gawd, pray for us sinners, now and

at the hour of our death. Amen.”

We said the fifty required Hail Marys, the four Glory Be’s

and were putting the serious hurt on a synchronized Apostles’

Creed when the bus rolled into the dirt parking lot under the

big live oak tree, dripping moss—with red bugs—and we scam-

pered out to go pray and study for the day.

220

D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

Maggie was a big-shot tenth grader at Bishop England High

School and the rest of us were still sniveling runts at Stella Maris

Grammar School in Mount Pleasant. Still, she was forced to ride

the grammar school bus and another bus would take her to the

city. Although she was my best friend at home, on the bus she

sat far away from the rest of us, with other high school students,

and spent the ride silently looking out the window, rolling her

eyes and being serious.

It was my last year at Stella Maris and I couldn’t wait to get

out. At about ten o’clock, I had just begun a math test when

Father O’Brien came quietly into my classroom and whispered

to Sister Martha, my teacher.

“Susan Hamilton?”

“Yes, Sister?”

“You’ll go with Father O’Brien.Take your things with you.”

I fumbled around and gathered up my books. Nothing was

worse than being sent to Father O’Brien. He was all business and

had no tolerance for children.Why somebody like him was the

principal of a grammar school was merely another mystery of

the Catholic Church. The scuttlebutt on him was that he had

once studied with the Jesuits.That alone says it all.

“What about my test?” I asked.

“You can take it later.”

“Come along now,” Father O’Brien said.

“Thank you, Sister,” I said.

Every eye in my class watched me leave. What had I done?

Or was it Henry? Timmy? Did Maggie’s bus get in a wreck? I

worried all the way down the hall and to his office, where

Timmy and Henry were seated on a bench in the outer office,

terrified.They got up and we all went inside.We stood in front

of his desk and he sat in his chair.

“Children, I’m afraid I have some very sad news to tell y’all.

Your grandfather Mr. Asalit passed on this morning.”

“You mean he’s dead?” Henry asked.

“Son, only his body is dead; his soul now radiates with the full

S u l l i v a n ’ s I s l a n d

221

glory of the risen Christ. Surely you remember your catechism.”

Timmy and Henry started to cry and I stood stunned, just

staring at Father O’Brien.Then I put my arms around them and

reached for the tissues on Father’s desk.

“This is no time to indulge yourselves with tears. Pray that

his soul makes a swift journey to the Lord’s bosom and save your

strength to support your mother and grandmother. Remember,

this is your momma who’s lost her daddy and your grandmother

has lost her husband.”

Tears rolled down my face without a sound. I didn’t know

what to do, none of us did.We just stood there, time not passing,

waiting for some comfort. Shaking, scared and crying.

“Can I call my momma?” I asked.

“No, let’s not bother her. Your Aunt Carol is on the way

here to bring y’all home. She’s going to pick up Maggie first.

You may make a visit to the chapel to pray for your grandfather

and then you can wait on the bench outside if you’d like.”

“In the school yard?”

“Yes.”

Permission to wait in the school yard unsupervised was a

monumental event. I grabbed a fistful of tissues and led my little

brothers out.

First we peeked in the chapel and no one was there, except

for the light on the altar indicating the presence of the Eucharist

in the tabernacle.As fast as we could, we scampered to the front,

did a bounce genuflect in front of the altar and hurried to the

statue of the Blessed Mother. Her empty plaster eyes stared at

me and her half smile seemed like a smirk. It gave me chills. As

the oldest, I reached under the tray of candles for the matches

and lit three candles, one for each of us. I made the Sign of the

Cross and knocked Timmy and Henry in the ribs, encouraging

them to do the same.

“Dear God,” I said, “please take Grandpa Tipa straight to

heaven and not anyplace else. He was a good grandpa and a good

man. And he had plenty of reasons to be such a grouch. Also,

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D o r o t h e a B e n t o n F r a n k

please help Grandma Sophie and our momma not to go crazy

from this.Amen.”

“Amen,” my little brothers said.

We got up and hightailed it out of there. Empty churches

gave me the creeps.

The ride with Aunt Carol was like a disjointed dream. She

yammered on in a nervous monologue about what we should

wear and who would be coming and that we had to be quiet when

we got home.As we passed people on the street, going about their

lives, I wondered if they could tell our lives had just been blown

open by death. Could they see it on our faces? Henry continued to

cry and all Aunt Carol would say was,“There, there now.”

When we reached the Island Gamble, Livvie was standing

on the back steps in the sunshine waiting for us. She took one

look at us and opened her arms.“Come ’eah to Livvie. He gone

be all right. Everything gone be all right.”

Each one of us hugged her with all our might.The strength

of her arms healed me on the spot.When she saw the fear in our

faces transform from fright to calm, she released us, one by one.

“Go on now and kiss your momma and grandmomma and

then y’all come back ’eah to me. Maggie, see about them twins,

all right, chile?”

“Sure,” Maggie said.

We went inside and left Livvie with Aunt Carol on the back

steps. Aunt Carol was still talking, Livvie was shaking her head.

I found Momma in her bed with old Sophie sitting in a

chair beside her. Momma acted drunk but Grandma Sophie, like

the eighth wonder of the world, spoke.

“The doctor gave her a shot for her nerves,” she said.

Under the circumstances, Grandma Sophie seemed fine, bet-

ter than she had in my whole life. “Go and tell your aunt that I

want to speak with her, child, would you please do that for me?”

Timmy ran off for Aunt Carol and Henry and I followed

Sophie, who walked slowly back to her own room and crawled

up on her bed.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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