Chapter One: Beth
Her plane circled the Lowcountry. Acres upon acres of live oaks stood beneath them, guardians festooned in sheets of breezy Spanish moss. They passed over the powerful waters of the Wando, Cooper and Ashley Rivers and hundreds of tiny rippling tributaries that sluiced their way in tendrils toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was so beautiful, all the shimmering blue water, that seemed to be scattered with shards of crystals and diamonds. Beth's heart tightened. Every last passenger stared out through their windows at the landscape below. Whether you were away from the Lowcountry for a week or for years, it was impossible to remember how gorgeous it was. It never changed and everyone depended on that. Seeing it again was like seeing it for the first time – hypnotic.
The small jet finally touched down on the steaming tarmac at Charleston's airport and after a few braking lurches it rolled to a stop at the terminal. When the flight attendant opened the cabin door humidity poured in, blanketing the cabin in a great whoosh like an invisible gas. The air was heavy, weighted by the stench of jet fuel diluted with salt.
"Hold on, baby."
Beth's miniature Yorkshire terrier, Lola seemed to understand everything she said. If she spoke to her in Swahili she would look at her with those licorice eyes of hers, raise her eyebrows and smile. Yes, her dog smiled but not just then. Lola whimpered and began to squirm. Beth stretched her finger through the netting of her dog's carrier to console her with a tiny massage. All five pounds of Lola settled against her as they slowly made their way with the restless passengers, across the muggy jet way and into the sorrowful, weak air conditioning of the terminal. She hoped Lola wasn't going to start wheezing. Could a mother love a child more than Beth Hayes loved her dog? She doubted it.
The climate had changed over the years. Global warming was obvious and in Charleston, the weather was practically tropical. Beth had decided that it was too uncomfortable to consider anything except escape into the jungle or a total surrender to the ruling party.
Beth had chosen surrender and was there to begin serving her one-year sentence in the Lowcountry, house sitting the family's grand dame on Sullivans Island. The Island Gamble. The family's chateau stood in defiance of her age and history and she reigned over them like Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Beth could not envision England's history without Elizabeth I any more than she could dream of Sullivans Island without that particular house as center stage for the disjointed hauntings of her sleeping hours. All of her dreams were acted out on Sullivans Island and at the Island Gamble. In the rooms. On the porch. In the yard looking back. Always, always there.
They used the term "chateau" loosely even humorously, but during the days and nights of their lives, the Island Gamble was where any and everything of significance for generations had been told around her tables or had been revealed in the confessional of her front porch. Lives were dissected and discussed deep into the night until aunts, uncles, and especially children, exhausted from the heat and laughter, nodded off in their rockers or hammocks. Their aspirations, broken hearts, and victories were all recorded for posterity in the family's collective memory, the details rearranged and embellished as time went on to make for better storytelling. The house knew everything about them and being there made them believe that they were safe from the outside world. In their case, telling family tales was what they seemed to do best. They would laugh and say that if there had been an Olympic event for working a jaw, the walls of the Island Gamble would have buckled from the burden of gold medals. Truly, the family was a very sentimental lot and their point of view was that the ability to poke fun at their own foibles was what saved them from despair on many a day.
That's how it was. The aging sometimes shaking ramparts of the Hamilton fortress were stockpiled with invisible weapons of remember when...we never...and we always...as though they existed in their own great saline bubble, with a sacred family crest to live up to.
Sometimes the family wore Beth out with what she saw as excessive self-importance and righteousness. One day her aunts, uncles and cousins would all be the stuffings of novels, even memoirs perhaps, if she could find the courage to put it all on paper. But not just yet. Today Beth was on another mission. The Dutiful Daughter was back.
Beth gathered her luggage, walked Lola on the grassy median outside and found a place in the short taxi line. Part of her was excited and the other part was simply miserable. She loved Sullivans Island because it was her personal time warp. Even though it was 2009, when you were there you would believe that Eisenhower was still in office, even though that was well before her time. But in her heart she felt the island really belonged to her mother's generation and those before her. The last four years had prepared her to live her own life, independent of her tribe. Isn't that why she went to college a thousand miles away in the first place? Further, this assignment, decided upon with the cavalier flick of her mother and aunt's royal wrists, blocked her from pursuing her own dream but enabled her mother to live hers. It wasn't a fair trade but she wasn't exactly given an option. If asked she would say dryly, "My mom and my Aunt Maggie could benefit from even one session of sensitivity training. Seriously."
She climbed in the next available rattletrap and soon she was on her way. At least she had Lola to console her.
"Could you turn up the air conditioning, please?" she asked. Beth's upper lip was covered in little beads of moisture and the roots of her hair were damp.
"Sure." The driver said. "Today's a hot one, 'eah?"
"Yep. It sure is."
The old van complained with each pothole and strained against the slightest rise in the road. Its ancient driver, an old man whose white hair was as thick and coarse as a broom, was crouched over the steering wheel. The intensity of his focus on the road was nerve wracking. He drove like a lumbering walrus in the middle lane as hundreds of cars zoomed by them. She actually considered offering to drive thinking she preferred death by her own hand.
Memorabilia was strung across the old man's dashboard, photographs attached with bits of curling tape and lopsided magnets from Niagara Falls and in Beth's opinion, other painfully boring vacation spots. Judging from their faded condition, the people of those pictures, his children she guessed, were grown and had been gone from his home for a long time. His taxi license read Mr. George Brown. He sighed loudly and cleared his throat as the van's transmission struggled and jerked with each changing gear. She wondered if they would ever reach the causeway. Mr. Brown did not know that he was delivering her, her little dog, two large suitcases and a duffle bag, bulging with university memories, soggy farewells and a poor attitude to one very bittersweet destination.
"You want to take 526 or the new bridge?"
"Whatever you think," she said.
She had told her mother, Susan that she would take a cab from the airport to the beach. She was in no hurry to see anyone. Besides, she had just seen her mother and family at graduation a month ago so the usual sense of urgency she felt to be with her, the excitement of those initial moments of grabbing each other's eyes, had been satisfied. She was home before the longing could begin again. As all mothers do, Susan frequently drove her daughter to the edge of what she could endure but the truth was Beth loved her mother no matter what and more than anyone in the world.
Like most mothers and daughters, their relationship was naturally complicated by simply living and lately by the many small acts of letting each other go. But theirs was different in that it was scarred by the pain of tragic loss. To be completely honest, the loss was epic to Beth but she felt it was less so to her mother. That single fact marked the beginning of a worrisome divide between them. Beth was not exactly sure of all the reasons why she felt so burdened but she sometimes staggered under the weight of the sea of emptiness she carried. She felt like her mother had tossed aside her share and left her to flounder for herself. It wasn't fair or noble.
Then there was the matter of expectations, ones Beth would never meet much less surmount. It was impossible to be the oldest girl in the next generation of Hamiltons/Hayes and ever expect raving accolades from the lips of her elders. She might have looked for some measure of satisfaction from them but she would never expect a parade in her honor. There was no excessive flattery to be found.
Her aunts and uncles owned the past and they still thought the future was theirs as well. Beth begged to differ. She felt they were wrong about so many things that she was embarrassed for them, one more reason she had planned to continue to build her life elsewhere.
The distance between Beth's college and Sullivans Island had allowed the rest of her relatives to revel in their shared hallucinations of perfect family. College had spared her four years of their self-congratulations and she thanked everything holy that she had not been there. If she had been on that porch or around that table peeling shrimp with them, she would have said that what they actually were was very far from perfect. They would not have valued her observations. In college, she had developed a tongue.
It didn't matter now. She was not going to be the one to point out that their conservative ideas had never advanced their family's name one inch. She was going to try to be the good daughter, the responsible niece, the one who came and did her duty. Why? Because even though they all practically bored her to death, Beth loved them with a fierce passion she doubted she could ever duplicate in another relationship. But that's how they were, the Hamiltons and the Hayes, bonded by loyalty and an unseen force.
Beth suspected what everyone else already knew. That unseen force, that Lowcountry Force, the Goddess of the Island Gamble, if you like, was waiting for her. That's why surrender was the only choice. She guessed that any other course could be met with some strange but actual version of Universal Mockery until she gave in and became a willing player in the game. Welcome back to the chessboard! Get in position! Let's see, that would make Beth a pawn.
But, she thought, in spite of everything, it would be very interesting to see how the year would unfold. A year was a long time. Her intention was to avoid any and all controversy and every kind of chaos.
Beth laughed to herself realizing she had almost no real hand in the whole scenario anyway. She knew better. With the beckoning curl of their fingers, Aunt Maggie and her mother, Susan Hamilton Hayes, had coaxed her to the edge of their ancestral frying pan and she was crawling in like a lean slice of bacon. It wouldn't take long to cook her.
The taxi crossed over the Cooper River on the new bridge and next thing she knew, they were cruising down Coleman Boulevard, Mr. Brown's van straining to meet thirty miles an hour.
Stylistically, that is, if you wanted to impress anyone, his vehicle, that great hulking Chariot of Smoke and Fire, was not the optimal way to arrive in your hometown. Not that anyone beyond the gene pool was expecting her. But Beth thought it would have been awesome to be driving in some hot convertible wearing oversized sunglasses listening to some new music, something she knew all the words to so that she could sing at the top of her lungs. It would have been very, very awesome, she thought, if someone in another convertible, someone of the opposite sex who resembled a movie star perhaps, like Hugh Jackman, turned his head and the question of her true identity stopped him dead, all he could do was grin and follow her home, promising to rescue her from her dreary existence. Starting now. Lasting forever. Why not? A girl could dream, right?
But she wasn't of that ilk – the rescued damsel type. She was well, sort of the pathetically serious one, the one sporting the inexpensive copy of Tina Fey's eyeglasses, without the benefit of her jaw line or innate sense of style. Not to mention Tina Fey was really smart and funny while Beth was smart, her humor was dry and sometimes she was marginally dour. Okay, so she knew her eyeglasses were an infinitesimal attempt at stardom chic, but it was a start.
Beth left Charleston four years ago dressed like a Lowcountry princess in training and somehow fell into the student life, adopting a Beacon Hill slash Jack Kerouac kind of look that wasn't exactly Lilly Pulitzer. Lately, people knitted their eyebrows together at the sight of her and completely unsolicited, they offered her rubber bands to restrain her hair. She was the first one chosen as a lab partner and the last one invited on the conga line. Oh sure, she drank her share of beer in college and once she actually got completely toasted on tequila shots and had to spend two days in bed drinking Maalox and nibbling little bites of bananas dipped in peanut butter. But that was the exception, not the rule. Perhaps she had overdone the brainiac study thing in college and didn't look like a Carolina girl on her way to the Windjammer to shag all night―and that's a dance, not a sexual act―and well, so what? Beth was still a smart cookie who simply had yet to latch onto a lasting personal style.
Beth knew very early on that if she wanted to go to graduate school she was going to need a scholarship. So when all her girlfriends were out raising hell, dressed in bed sheets and acting like boozerellas, she was in her dorm memorizing biology spellings and studying finance. Unlike her friends and roommates who all seemed happy to have predestined futures, she viewed college as a ticket out of a life on that great southern hamster wheel. One generation hopped off and went to heaven and the next one hopped on, picking up where the others left off, running like idiots in Ray Bans and Top Siders until they dropped dead too. Not that she really had anything super serious against her family or that life, it was just that she wanted to see the world and think about things, be somebody different, do something great, like write the great American novel or at least have her blog picked up for publication before she was thirty. Was that too much to hope for? She was thinking now that maybe it was. At least, so far. Because if she was so Albert Einstein smart and destined for such global literary greatness, what was she doing with a deferred scholarship, sweating like a pig in the back of a clanking van, headed for a funky old haunted house on a sandbar? She already knew the answer but to reinforce her own commitment, she would breathe the words again. She was Beth Hayes, The Obedient One.
They crossed the Ben Sawyer Bridge and for the billionth time she wondered who Ben Sawyer was. It would have made sense if the bridge was named for Edgar Allen Poe, who actually lived on Sullivans Island for a while. But Ben Sawyer? She had never heard of any Sawyers on Sullivans Island. Like her mother always said, who were his people? But there you had one more small but significant enigma of Sullivans Island, a land washed in mystery and populated with the kind of characters Tennessee Williams would have loved to have known.
They were on the island then, and Beth was straining her neck to read the leash laws that were posted on the huge sign on the right. She didn't want Lola to get busted by the dog police for dropping her carte du visite in the wrong spot.
She rubbed her eyes. What was this? Oz? Perhaps it was the time of day but the houses seemed brighter, more well-defined and the palmettos and oleanders seemed greener, their branches and the edges of their fronds were sharper. The sky seemed to be a more vibrant shade of blue than she could recall. She took a deep breath and even with the van's air conditioning running full blast she could still smell plough mud, which was an acquired taste and dangerously addictive. In her dreams she actually smelled plough mud.
Despite the economy, there was gentrification everywhere but the kind that pleased her. Most of the old migrant worker cottages that flanked the road onto the island had been resurrected and transformed into million dollar futures with colorful lush window boxes of fuchsia geraniums, hot pink petunias and bushy asparagus ferns to prove it. It was amazing, she thought, what you could accomplish with the combination of elbow grease, a little money and a clear vision.
They came to the corner and she noticed that the gas station was under new ownership, gouging its customers an extra twenty cents per gallon for the privilege of convenience. That would never change no matter who owned it. The patrons of Dunleavys Pub, noisy families and happy dogs, spilled out onto the sidewalk picnic tables, laughing, talking and having lunch. Her stomach began to growl when she thought about their quesadillas. Judging from the parking lot, Durst Family Medicine appeared to be doing a brisk business. Probably legions of poison ivy and sunburn victims, she thought. People were walking to the beach pulling wagons loaded with gear, toddlers and iced water in their coolers and Beth thought she might like a walk on the beach that day to introduce Lola to the ocean.
The dependable rolling panorama of robust life gave her some relief. For as much as Beth embraced the twenty first century, like all true Charlestonians, she hated change of almost any kind. Commercial development made her suspicious and she generally ignored its creeping advance, hoping it might go away. If she had lived there full time she would have fought it with all her might. They could build all the Starbucks and Sonics in the world on Mount Pleasant and the adjoining island of Isle of Palms but something deep inside of her depended on the peninsula of Charleston and the entire length and breadth of Sullivans Island to remain the same. So far it was reasonably so
They turned right on Middle Street, the Champs Elysse of the island, and began to head toward her house. In the time it might take to swallow a pill, she would be back, perched on the threshold of her childhood. Her stomach began to flutter.
Memories flooded her mind all at once―all of them together, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them. She could see herself and the others as children, running around in their pajamas, spinning like helicopters in the silver dusk, fall down dizzy, chasing lightning bugs, scooping them into mayonnaise jars with holes punched in the top. The holes were made by her Uncle Grant's ice pick that they were forbidden to touch.
"Don't you children even think about laying a hand on that thing," he would say in a very stern voice to his boys. Then he would turn to Beth with a wink and she knew he wasn't so very mean as all that.
Summers! Searching the thicket for wild blackberries in the full sun of the day, filling coffee cans with them, and later, sunburned and freckled, how they feasted on hot sugary blackberry dumplings that her Aunt Maggie whipped up in her copper pots. There were literally hundreds of days when her boys, Mickey and Bucky and Beth caught crabs down by the rocks with Uncle Grant. They used chicken necks for bait, tied up in knots on weighted ends of cord. They caught blue crabs by the score, shrieking as they moved them ever so carefully from the line to the net to the basket, trying not to get pinched―The Revenge of the Ill Fated Crab. They shrieked again with excitement when one escaped the basket in the kitchen or on the porch, clicking its claws as it hurried sideways, looking for salvation. There was no salvation for those guys, no ma'am. They wound up steamed and dumped right from the colander on newspapers that were spread over the porch table, cracked apart and dipped in cocktail sauce. It made her laugh to remember. She realized then that she had not been crabbing in years. And she remembered how she had completely embraced her closely-knit family when she was young and how important it had been to her.
"Maybe I should take up crabbing again, Lola. Do you want to come and help?"
"What's that?" Mr. Brown said.
"Nothing. I was just talking to my dog."
"No reason why not."
They passed the hill fort then and Beth sighed with relief as it had not changed one lick, except for the children's park built in front of it that had sprung up some years ago. In her mind's eye, she could see herself, her cousins and a gang of island kids, sliding down it on flattened cardboard boxes and catching the devil from the town fathers for trespassing and sledding on the patchy grass. They had been very young, not quite ten, when Mickey had his first brush with the law.
"What do you think you're doing, son?"
Mickey looked up into the face of the Chief of Police and everyone thought he was going to wet his pants, right there in front of the whole world.
"You children get on out of here now, before I have to lock you all up! You hear me?"
Beth giggled to remember how they had abandoned their cardboard and ran in every direction to escape incarceration.
She remembered flying kites on the beach in the winter and all those stories they told and retold...you see, as long as things looked about the same and they told and retold the same stories, the past was still alive. They could all stay young and live forever. In that moment, that was what she wanted―for her life to be as it had been before her father died and to live forever in that corner of her childhood world.
"Turn left here?" Mr. Brown said, snapping her out of her daydream.
"Yes, left here and then right to that driveway on the left. Yes. Left here."
"Welcome home," Mr. Brown said and put the car in park, leaving the engine to continue its rumbling. "Always good to be home, ain't it?"
She simply said, "Yeah, it is." What she wanted to say was something else entirely. She wanted to say, you don't know how complicated this is. I might be swallowed alive in the next year. Get me out of here. But she didn't.
She only said, "yeah, it is."
Beth leaned forward in her seat to size up the Island Gamble. She thought she had known exactly what to expect. The house would loom large, spooky and scare the daylights out of her with its enormity. But it didn't. She was ship shape. Her shutters were straight, her white clapboards glistened from a recent paint job and her silver tin roof mirrored the enormous clouds overhead like the compact mirror of a dowager. The Island Gamble seemed sweet, grandmotherly, and nostalgic, as safe a haven as one could ever want. At the sight of it she became emotional and suddenly she wanted to cry. There was her mother's old Volvo wagon and her Aunt Maggie's car too. They were there, waiting for her.
She got out and liberated Lola from her crate, hooking her leash to her collar. She paid Mr. Brown and he deposited her luggage at the foot of the steps, meaning she would have the pleasure of hauling it all up the steps and into the house and then up another two flights to the second floor.
"Thanks," she said and gave him five dollars instead of the ten she would have given him if he had taken her bags inside.
Mr. Brown shrugged his shoulders, got back into his van, put it in reverse and backed out of her life.
Lola was nosing around, sniffing the Lantana and the Pittosporum when a screen door slammed against its frame. Thwack! Beth looked up to see her mother and Aunt Maggie hurrying down the steps to greet her.
"He-ey!" Aunt Maggie called out in a singsong. "Come on and give your auntie a kiss, you bad girl!"
"I'm not bad," she said and smiled.
"Yes, she is!" Mom said, "Come here, Lola baby!"
"What about kissing your daughter?" She said.
"After I scratch my granddog," she said, gave Beth a slap on her bottom and scooped up Lola from the grass. "Look at my precious widdle baby!" Lola proceeded to wash Susan's face, one slurp at a time. "Come see, Maggie! Our Lola's got your nose and my chin!"
"Well, look at that! Would y'all look at this little bit of a fur ball? Hey, darlin'." Aunt Maggie allowed Lola to lick her hand, much like you might kiss the Pope's ring, and then she turned her attention to Beth, narrowing her famous blue eyes. "All right now, Missy. Want to tell your aunt what in the world you did to your hair?"
"I merely enhanced the red."
"I'll say! Whew! Well, hon', it's just hair, isn't it?" She sighed so large Beth caught the fragrance of her toothpaste.
Aunt Maggie, the self-proclaimed matriarch of the family did not like Beth's hair. Apparently. Beth did not give a rip what she thought. She was there to do them a favor, not to get a makeover. She was immediately annoyed but hiding it pretty well. She deemed it unwise to arrive and start bickering right away.
"Don't you pick on my child," Mom said to Maggie and gave Beth a dramatic hug, fingering her ringlets. "I happen to love red hair!"
Beth took Lola back from her. As usual, her mother had read her mind.
"Let me help you with the bags, kiddo." Aunt Maggie said groaning under the weight of her duffle bag. "Lawsa mercy, chile! What you got in here? Bricks?"
"Books," she said, "and more books. Sorry. This one's worse."
Everyone took a bag and they grumbled their way up the stairs, across the small back porch and into the kitchen.
"Where do y'all want me to sleep?"
"Take your old room for now but when we leave you can rotate bedrooms if you want." Aunt Maggie said. "You must be starving. I made lunch so why don't you go wash airplane and dog off your hands and we can eat?"
Airplane and dog? She was almost twenty-three years old. Did she really need someone to tell her to wash her hands?
"Sure," she said, kicked off her flip-flops and took two of her bags up the steps to her old room that had never really been hers.
The bedroom where Beth had spent so many nights, housed her parent's four-poster bed which had come into their hands when her grandparents went to their great reward. When her mother and stepfather sold the house on Queen Street and moved in with her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Grant just as they were moving to California, her mother had sold most of their belongings in an undistinguished yard sale and brought only the most important pieces of furniture and some other things with her. Those things that mattered to her and those she thought mattered to Beth and yes, that was another issue Beth had with her. How could someone else decide what was important to you?
The big mirror was the first artifact to arrive, followed by an old grandfather clock that chimed when it was in the mood. But the mirror was the thing. The Mirror, the curious and well- used doorway for those no longer of the flesh, was firmly installed in her Aunt Maggie's living room the week before her mother married Simon Rifkin. So her mother's exodus back to the island had actually begun before Beth realized what was going on. Maggie had always wanted the mirror back, saying it was original to the house. She had whined about that thing like it was made out of the skin of her children. But that's how Beth's Aunt Maggie was―acquisitive to the tenth power. Her mom didn't mind returning it saying she didn't need the deceased walking around her house at all hours anyway. This made her mom happy and Aunt Maggie happy and Beth well, not so much if she had recognized its departure as a sign of the times.
So, in addition to house arrest, Beth would have the company of every dead person the family had ever known, if you believed in that stuff, which she did, because she knew it to be so from first hand experience.
This was the moment of Beth's return and moving into the house required considerable energy. After twisting her spine in every conceivable direction, Beth finally managed to get her luggage upstairs and opened her bags. She took Lola's dishes and a Ziploc bag of her food downstairs―after she washed her hands―and placed it on the kitchen floor in a spot that was out of the way. Lola began to drink, lapping the water in such an anxious way that everyone remarked she was just adorable. Maggie had produced a spread of tuna salad sandwiches with no crusts, pickles, celery and olives, iced tea and sliced watermelon. This was the hallmark hot weather lunch of their childhood.
"This looks great," Beth said, determined to be pleasant.
"Good honey, why don't we say grace?" Maggie said and sat in her usual spot at the head of the table. She snapped her linen napkin in the air and pulled it across her lap, bowing her head, mumbling some words in a voice she never used except for serious prayer and holiday toasts.
"Amen," they all said.
"My sister can make tuna salad like nobody's business," Susan said, taking three sandwich wedges, a load of pickles, celery and olives. She passed the platter to Beth. "Salt shaker?"
"Hungry?" Maggie said, pushing the salt toward Susan and winked at Beth.
Beth took three wedges and more pickles, celery and olives to support her mother's healthy appetite and passed the platter to her aunt.
"Don't we have any potato chips?" Beth said. She couldn't stop her inner-devil from having a word.
It was well-known within the family that Maggie thought everyone should act like an anorexic at meals. In her mind, it was unladylike to fill your plate, even if you had been stranded out in the ocean for ten days, eating nothing but raw sea gull and just came home from the hospital blistered and starving, barely recovered from life threatening dehydration.
"No, darlin'. Sorry. I don't keep that kind of thing in this house."
Maggie scanned everyone's plates, corrected her posture and gingerly took two wedges for herself, two slices of Mrs. Fannings Bread & Butter pickles and one small stick of celery. Then she smiled her smug little smile of superiority, the one that had irked Beth all her life.
It was sweltering. Beth was wearing a pink, lightweight, long scarf made of cotton gauze, twisted and double looped around her neck but now the room seemed warmer and even more humid, despite the ocean breeze and the ceiling fan but mostly because of her Aunt Maggie's opinions. So she unwound it, pulled it off and horrified them with her cleavage.
Maggie inhaled with a great gasp. Maggie and Susan were markedly less endowed.
Her mother giggled and said, "She got those from Tom's side of the family, I guess.
"Gee za ree, honey! What's happened to you?" Beth thought her aunt's eyes were going to burst forth and join the olives. "You know, this is Sullivans Island and you just can't go around like that!"
"Like what?" Susan said.
"Like, like...you know! With your tatas almost showing!"
"My what? Did you say my tatas?" Beth started to laugh but stopped when she saw how serious her aunt was. "Um, Aunt Maggie, this is how everyone dresses these days. Little tanks layered up, long scarves, tight jeans . . . it's how we dress. It's okay. Really. I can show you on Facebook."
Beth looked around. Her mother's face was confused. She had always trusted Beth's sense of propriety in matters of clothes and so forth. It wasn't as though she had come home tattooed all up and down her arms. Or with twenty little rings pierced through her lips and nose. But Beth decided her mother had bowed to Aunt Maggie's judgment too. They should see what goes on in the world, Beth thought. And even though Beth thought Maggie could be an old fashioned, out of touch, world-class prude, her face and neck got hot. She was pretty sure her skin matched her hair.
"I'm sure you're right, Beth, honey." Maggie said. "I just don't want people to get the wrong impression of you, that's all."
"What? Did Sullivans Island suddenly become some kind of Islamic fundamentalist country or something?"
"No, sweetheart," Maggie said and Beth loathed Maggie calling her sweetheart like you cannot imagine. "But you know, ahem," Maggie cleared her throat and Susan and Beth hated that gesture of hers because it was always the precursor to her reminding you that you were a big stupid idiot, "your Uncle Grant always says that the bait you use determines the kind of fish you catch, right? That's all."
Now Beth's anger was on the rise.
"Well, I didn't come here to fish. I put my life on hold and came here to watch this house so you two can go do your thing. How about instead of insulting me someone says thank you, Beth, for giving up a year of your life?"
There was complete silence at the table then. The only sound was the clicking of the ceiling fan, which seemed to grow louder by the second. Beth had been rude and knew she had better quickly make amends.
"Look, Aunt Maggie, I'm sorry but here's how it is. My hair is a little crazy, I know it, but it's only color, for Pete's sake. And humidity doesn't help. And my top? I dress like everyone else my age. Believe me! You all are like a lot older than me and maybe, just maybe, a little conservative? No one in Boston ever looked at me funny. Well, not anyone I knew anyway. I swear. Anyway, thanks for lunch. I'm gonna go unpack now and walk Lola on the beach."
She left the table and put her plate in the dishwasher. Silence.
"Awesome tuna salad, Aunt Maggie. I'll see y'all in about half an hour?"
"Just a minute, miss," Mom said. "Sit down."
Whenever Susan said just a minute, miss, Beth knew the ice on which she was skating had grown thin. So she sat and Lola settled back down at her feet.
"Your Aunt Maggie and I thought long and hard about who to ask to watch the house and you were the only candidate who made sense to us. Above all your cousins and everyone we could think of, you are the most responsible and you have good common sense."
"Your momma is right," Maggie said.
"And, we are a family, which means we come to each other in our hour of need. I won't have you coming in here with a chip on your shoulder like you are so put upon to do this for me and for your aunt. It isn't nice. So let's drop the martyr attitude right now. I mean, I have done everything for you I ever possibly could, so let's be fair. It's one year, not the rest of your life."
"Fine. Look, I know all this and I appreciate how you feel but I don't feel like getting pecked to death the minute I get here either. I mean, I'm almost twenty-three, right? Can I please have some respect as an adult?"
"If you want us to treat you like an adult, then perhaps..."
"Hold on, Maggie," Susan said and it was a good thing she did or Beth might have grabbed a sharp object and done her worst. "Beth's right. You know. She is. Maybe we were a little harsh?"
Maggie sighed as only their mother, according to legend, had ever been able to do and looked from her sister's face to Beth's.
"I'm sorry, Beth. I don't know what's the matter with me. I am so glad you're here. I am. And I know everything's going to be fine. You go on and unpack and walk that precious dog of yours. She is housebroken, isn't she?"
"Yes. She's housebroken." Beth accidentally made a guttural sound, picked up Lola and left the room.
The fact was that Lola was not entirely housebroken and there would be hell to pay if Maggie's rugs got ruined. Beth made a mental note to double up on Lola's outside schedule wondering again how she got suckered into this.
Upstairs, Beth dropped Lola on the bed and Lola settled down to watch her. She hung up her clothes, arranged her ten pairs of flip-flops and four pairs of shoes on the racks in the closet, stacked her books on the floor and made a pile of laundry to wash later on. It was remarkable to her that she could unpack almost four years of her life in under an hour.
"Want to go see the Atlantic Ocean?" she said to Lola.
Lola lifted her tiny head from the bed and then plopped down again, staring at Beth through the fringes of her long eyebrows. Lola, having had enough action for one day, was bone tired from her trip and needed a long nap.
"Okay," she said, "you rest right there, don't move and I'll be right back."
It was just like having a baby, Beth thought, but a very hairy one that would never give her any sass. She changed into a T-shirt with a high neck to calm her aunt's nerves. Downstairs she found them in the kitchen, lunch cleared away and everything tidy as could be. They had moved on to the next item on their agenda. Maggie was painting Eiffel Towers on plastic wine glasses, but Eiffel Towers that appeared to be dancing.
"Isn't it unbelievable that you went from writing that Geechee Girl Remembers column to teaching in Paris?"
They stopped talking when Beth came in.
"All unpacked? Do you need anything?" Maggie said.
"No, everything is fine. Lola is zonked out. What are y'all doing?"
"Planning your momma's bon voyage soiree. Want to help?"
"Sure," she said and sat at the table. "What can I do?" "Here," Maggie said, "stamp these napkins. Ink pad is in there."
She handed Beth a small shopping bag with several packages of white paper cocktail napkins, an Eiffel Tower stamp and a flat tin of black ink on a blotter pad. She opened everything, lined it up in front of her and stared at it.
"Now what?" she asked. "When's the party?"
"Next Saturday. Okay, let's try one on an angle and one straight, in the corner there and then we can decide which one we like best. What do you think?"
"Sure," she said and stamped two napkins, holding them up for judgment. "And the verdict is?"
"On an angle," Mom said.
"I agree," Maggie said
"On an angle it is then," Beth said and proceeded to stamp away, thinking this was the most ridiculous job in the world. "So, who's coming to the party?"
"Our whole clan," Susan said. "Kids too."
"Excuse my groan," Beth said.
"Who makes you groan, darlin'?" Maggie said. "Doesn't this look so good?" She held out a wineglass for us to observe her creation and what could you say? She was right.
Beth had to give the devil her due. Maggie was one of those people who could duplicate the colors inside an abalone shell in bedroom paint and it would make you feel like a goddess when you woke up in the morning. She could spot a piece of driftwood on the beach, bring it home, redesign the living room around it and have it featured in Charleston Magazine. She was the family wizard in all things artistic and culinary while Beth and her mother were, well, not.
"Looks amazing." Beth said and continued to stretch her creative muscle by stamping napkins. "Uncle Henry's boys are a pain in the neck. They're coming too?"
"Yep. But it's Uncle Henry who's the colossal pain in the neck of all times," Susan said, "not to mention our sister-in-law, Teensy, right Maggie?"
"It is poor taste to speak badly of one's own family," Maggie said. "And Henry is our patriarch, so he says."
Beth giggled to herself. "Who doesn't talk about their relatives?"
"You're both right, of course," Susan said, looking at them in false innocence. "I just think it's a shame Henry can't think of anything to talk about besides his wallet."
"And too bad that Teensy can't find clothes to fit her size zero cadaver," Maggie said. "But maybe if she didn't spend so much time in the loo?"
"She wouldn't be so skinny," Susan said, finishing Maggie's sentence.
"Yeah, and it's a pity Uncle Timmy's charming boys got kicked out of Sewanee for plagiarizing term papers from the Internet," Beth said. "If they hadn't been caught with that case of liquor and all those files, they'd still be in college."
"Now, now," Aunt Maggie said. "Let's be charitable. Phil's going to finish up at Athens this fall and Blake is going to be a sophomore at Georgia State. They've learned their lessons."
Beth and Susan just looked at each other and shook their heads.
"Yeah, sure," Beth said. "And what about the rest of Uncle Timmy's crew?"
"Uncle Timmy and his slightly less exciting family will be here Friday morning." Susan said. "Crazy or not, I can't wait to see every last one of them. I mean it, y'all."
"Me too but you have to say that Aunt Mary Jo is a little bit of a mouse," Beth said. "At least their daughters are somewhere in the range of normal. Boring but normal."
"Hush now," Maggie said. "They cannot wait to see you! They told me so three times. Timmy said his girls said the only way they were coming was if you were here."
"See?" Susan said, smiling like they had all just won the state lottery.
"See what?" Beth said. "If they are all staying here, this place is gonna be a crazy house! Where's everyone gonna sleep? Do we have help to clean up and all?"
"What for?" Maggie said with her quiet smile. "We don't need help. Why, we're all healthy and you're all young...if everyone pitches in, it won't be a burden to anyone."
Beth began to stamp napkins with a vengeance. She had been brought home in shackles to watch a house that would be watching her and to cook and clean for a bunch of ingrates. Her cheeks and neck were scarlet and she knew it.
"Have you heard from the twins?" Susan asked Maggie.
"Sophie's coming for sure. I think. But Allison? Who knows about Miss Hoity Toity? She's too important to return phone calls." Maggie said.
"She's a pain in the A." Susan said.
"Aunt Sophie's coming?" Beth perked up then because Aunt Sophie was her favorite and she rarely saw her.
"As far as I know," Maggie said. "She's got a new cell number if you want it."
"Definitely," Beth said.
"Yeah, so big house party next weekend and then I'm off to Paris," Susan said. "Incredible."
"It's what you always wanted," Maggie said. "Remember when you used to say you were going to run away to Paris and live in a garret and smoke French cigarettes?"
"I was thirteen."
"Well, now you're post menopausal and isn't Simon good to let you go?"
"Thanks for reminding me not to pack tampons..."
"Hush! Your! Mouth!" Maggie said, in horror. "We're in the kitchen!"
"Whatever. You think the milk will go sour? Anyway, I did not need his permission. Like he asked me if he could go to California for a year to work with Grant?"
"Like he could do anything about it anyway?" Beth said, trying to catch her breath from laughing so hard. "When my mom wants something that badly, I wouldn't want to tangle with her!"
"Seriously, Maggie. I didn't need my husband's permission. That's ridiculous!"
"Well, I'll keep an eye on him," Maggie said. "All those cute young nurses! Whoo hoo!"
"Oh, thanks a lot," Susan said.
Maggie took some measure of delight in making her sister insecure but Susan knew it and after all these years, she had learned to take it in stride.
Beth had finished all the napkins and suddenly couldn't hold her eyes open.
"I'm going to catch a nap for a few minutes," Beth said.
"You go on, darlin'," Maggie said, "thanks for all your help."
Susan followed her to the foot of the steps and then gave her a hug.
"I'm glad you're home, baby," she said. "I always miss you."
"Me too, Momma. Call me if I sleep more than an hour, okay?"
"Sure," she said and kissed her on her forehead.
Beth climbed the stairs envisioning the laughing faces of her relatives. Her mind had time traveled to the next week and she could already feel them there. She became giddy thinking of the endless teasing that would go on, the advice that would be freely dispensed from their generation to hers. She knew how it would be. Their voices would be a continuous hum like a swarm of honeybees around a hive. White breezes from the Atlantic would drench the rooms in something sweet and delicious. Thousands of memories would be whispered to them from inside the weathered boards of pine. And they would move around each other like tiny planets in their own elliptically shaped orbits, revolving and revolving.
She was so tired. Her legs seemed to weigh a thousand pounds. She reached her room and could barely open the door. Beth did not remember having turned down her bed or that she had put Lola in her crate where she snored in tiny puffs. But there were the facts. She could not recall lowering the blinds and positioning the slats just so, so that the air could sweep in and around the room cooling everything off, with the rising tide playing its age-old lullaby. It was all a welcome mystery, typical of the things that happened there. She pulled off her jeans, dropped them to the floor and slipped between the crisp white sheets. Pale fragrances of mint and jasmine escaped from the pillows, lulling her into dreams of what? She did not know. Someone was there; she could feel them, there in the room with her. A faint presence. She was too tired to open her eyes or to ask who it was. It did not matter. She did not care. She smiled to herself knowing she had already been sized up, the rules of engagement were being laid forth and the games were about to begin.
For more on Dorthea Benton Frank and her novels visit dotfrank.com.