Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons
Anne Rivers Siddons
For Larry Ashmead—
save the last dance for me.
Even in the middle of it, I knew that it…
I met Lewis Aiken when I was thirty-five and resigned…
Monday was always a slow day in our office; I…
The next weekend Lewis took me to the beach house…
Later, people came to call Hugo the most destructive hurricane…
On a smoke-gray afternoon in late October 1998, we sat…
Just before Christmas 1999, with one millennium sliding inexorably into…
The next morning, New Year’s Eve, 1999, I got up…
The new house or houses, rather—sat on a small…
I did not go to Fairlie’s memorial service. I woke…
August on the marshes and creeks of the Low Country…
Her name was
Miss Charity Snow,
after the wife of…
The week before Gaynelle came was the worst week I…
“You’ve gone completely native,” Lila said on a Sunday afternoon…
The weather held, and we slid into February on its…
Britney would not come back to the creek. No matter…
I awoke to a wash of coral light on the…
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes…
After the first death there is no other.
VEN IN THE MIDDLE OF IT
, I knew that it was a dream, but that did not spoil the sweet reality of it. Reality is often more vivid in that kind of dream because the dreamer knows he must soon leave it whether or not it is a happy dream. This was a very happy one.
I was in the beach house. Not the one we’ve rented in the past few years, but the one we all owned together, the big, old, rambling 1920s cottage on stilts down at the un-chic western end of the island. It was the first one that I knew; Lewis brought me there the summer we were married, and I loved it as much in that first instant as I did in all the years we went there. I never said that to the others, because it sounded somehow presumptuous, as if an outlander were laying claim to something he had not yet earned. And even though they enfolded me and took me in as one of them from the first, I knew that I was indeed an outlander. It was Lewis they loved, at least then.
In the dream it was winter, and there was a cold wind howling down the beach and scouring the gray-tan sand into stinging swirls. I knew how they would feel on my skin if I went out on the beach: like particles of diamonds, almost bringing blood. I usually did not mind that, but this time I was glad to be inside the big living room. It was warm and lit and almost tossing in the wind, like the cabin of a ship. All the old lopsided lamps were yellow with light, and a fire burned in the fireplace at one end, spitting because the shed out back never quite kept the wood dry. At the other end where the staircase angled up over the junk closet, the big old space heater whispered and glowed deep red. The air in the room smelled of woodsmoke and kerosene and damp rugs and salt. In my dream it seemed the palpable breath of the house to me, and I breathed in deep draughts. It gave life.
“I know this is a dream, but I don’t have to wake up yet, do I?” I said to Fairlie McKenzie, who lay on the couch under a salt-stiff old blanket by the fire, reading. Her bright hair spilled over the tattered sofa pillow in a cascade as red as the embers. Fairlie always seemed to me a creature of light and fire: she shimmered with it, even lying still.
“No, not yet,” she said, smiling at me. “There’s no hurry. The guys won’t be back for hours. Sit down. In a minute I’ll make some tea.”
“I’ll make it,” Camilla Curry said from her card table beside the space heater at the other end of the room. She was copying something from a big book onto a yellow legal pad, her face and hands in a pool of light from the bridge lamp. I seldom saw Camilla without a pad and pen. She always had projects that seemed to engross her utterly, and the rest of us never quite knew what they were.
“This and that,” she would say in her soft drawl. “I’ll let you see when I’m done.” But her projects were always works in progress, because we never saw one.
“Let me,” I said, grateful to be a useful part of the tapestry of the dream. Camilla, even in the dream, was bowed with osteoporosis, as she had been for a long time. Somehow it did not distort her fragile, fine-boned handsomeness: I always thought of her as ramrod-straight. Lewis said she always had been, until the cruel disease began to eat her bones. We never spoke of it, but we all tried to spare Camilla undue physical stress when we could. She always saw through us, and always hated it.
“You girls stay still. You get so little time out here, and I’m here most of all,” she said. “I like to fiddle around in the kitchen.”
Fairlie and I smiled at each other at the “girls.” I was nearly fifty and Fairlie was only a few years younger than Camilla. But Camilla was mother to the group. She always had been the one to whom you went to find something, learn something, confess something, receive something. We all knew her role was self-chosen. Even the men followed the unspoken rule. Camilla made you want to give her the most you could of what her heart needed.
She got up and floated straight as a hummingbird into the kitchen. Her shoulders were erect and her step light as a girl’s. She sang a little song as she walked:
“Maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I’m weak and maybe I’m strong, but nevertheless I’m in love with you….”
“Charles says it’s a sappy song, but I love it,” she called back over her beautiful shoulder. She had on a sheer blouse and a flowered skirt, and wore high-heeled sandals. Because it was a dream, it made perfect sense for her to walk like a girl, to be dressed in the clothes of her girlhood, for Charles to be alive. All of this made me even happier.
“Camilla, even if it’s a dream, I want to stay,” I called back after her. “I don’t want to go back.”
“You can stay, Anny,” her plummy voice called from the kitchen. “Lewis isn’t coming for you yet.”
I curled up on the rug in front of the fire beside Fairlie on the sofa, pulling soft old cushions down to make a nest. I wrapped myself in the faded sofa quilt. The fire burned blue with damp, but gave a steady heat. Outside the wind gusted and rattled the winter-dried palms and peppered the windows with staccato sand. The panes were crusted with salt. I stretched out my arms and legs to their furthest length and felt my joints pop, and the heat seep into them. I looked over at Fairlie to watch the firelight playing on her face. Twilight was falling fast; the men would come stamping in soon, letting cold, wet wind eddy in with them, rubbing their hands.
“Don’t bring those smelly fish in here,” Fairlie would say from the sofa. “I’m not cleaning fish today or any other day.”
And because it was a dream, Lewis would be there along with Henry, as he always had been, and would say, as he always said when he came back from an expedition on which I had not accompanied him, “How’s my lazy girl?”
I closed my eyes and slid toward dream-sleep before the dying logs, happiness prickling like lights behind my lids. In the kitchen the teakettle began to whistle.
“There’s plenty of time,” I murmured.
“Yes,” Fairlie said.
We were quiet.
The fire came then….
when I was thirty-five and resigned to the fact that I would not marry for love, only, perhaps, for convenience, and he was fifty and had long been married, until fairly recently, for no reason other than love. For a long time after our relationship began, I thought we had turned ourselves about; that I was the one who loved, clumsily and foolishly, with the passion of one who has never really felt passion before, and Lewis was the one who found in me comfort and convenience. By that time I did not care. He could name the terms. I would be whatever he wanted and needed me to be.
We met on an afternoon in April, humid and punishing as spring can often be in the Carolina Low Country, when the air felt like thick, wet steam and the smell of the pluff mud from the marshes around Charleston stung in nostrils and permeated clothes and hair. I was bringing a frightened, clubfooted child to the free clinic Lewis operated on Saturdays, and we were running late. My old Toyota was coughing and gagging in the heat, and I had turned off the air conditioner to spare its strength, and was running sweat. In the backseat, buckled into her car seat, the child howled steadily and dismally.
I did not blame her. I wanted to howl myself. Her feckless mother had dropped her off in my office the afternoon before and faded away for the second time running, leaving me to scramble around for a place for her daughter to spend Friday night and then pick her up the next day and take her to the clinic myself. Back in my office the paperwork that was the effluvia of desperate need mounted steadily.
“Sweetie, please stop crying,” I said desperately, over my shoulder. “We’re going to see the nice man who’s going to help get your foot fixed, and then you can run around and jump and…oh, play soccer.” I had no idea what movement would tempt a five-year-old, but it obviously was not soccer. The howls mounted.
I pulled into the lot next to the beautiful old house on Rutledge Avenue that housed Dr. Lewis Aiken’s Low Country Pediatric Orthopedic Clinic. I knew that Dr. Aiken had long done free diagnostic and referral work with handicapped—physically challenged, I could not keep up—children from all around the region. He was regarded in my agency as one of the city’s greatest child resources, one of our constant angels. The agency I managed was a part federally, part privately funded sort of clearinghouse for services for needy children and adolescents, and by that time I knew where all the angels were located.
I had come to work at the agency just out of the College of Charleston when I was twenty-two, when my duties consisted of manning telephones and running out for emergency meals and diapers for our clients, and somehow had never left. I was head now, and my duties were more often those of an administrator and fund-raiser and public relations director, but I had not lost my primary passion for the children we served; indeed, I had come to think that that was where all my scant supply of passion went. I had not yet met Dr. Aiken or many of our other care providers, though I knew all their office people on the phone. My small staff of cynically idealistic young men and women did most of the hands-on work now. But it was Saturday, and when the child’s silly mother did not appear at the foster home that had taken in her daughter, the foster parents called me and I had no recourse but to go. Oh, well, I had no plans except the stack of books that had been piling up beside my bed and maybe a Sunday-afternoon movie with Marcy, my deputy.
Marcy and I spent some time together on weekends, not so much out of deep friendship, but more out of simple expediency. We liked each other, and it was nice to have someone else to go places with, but we came nowhere near being best friends, and certainly not the settled lesbian couple that I knew some of the junior staff thought us to be. Marcy had a sometimes-boyfriend in Columbia who came over every third weekend, whom she assumed, rather lackadaisically, I thought, that she would eventually marry. I had some men friends, all from the ranks of the vast medical complex that bloomed like kudzu in the center of Charleston, though none were doctors. I seemed to attract the administrator type. My mother could have told me so, and had: I could hear her voice as I struggled with the straps of the wriggling child’s car seat: “If you don’t fix yourself up some and get your nose out of those books, no interesting kind of man will have you. You don’t know anything about anything but wiping noses and doing wash. How sexy do you think that is?”
And whose fault is that? I would think, but it would have been futile to say it aloud. She was usually drunk when she started in on me—she was usually drunk, period—and would not have remembered. I could never quite fathom what kind of man my mother thought was interesting; it seemed to me that all of them filled the bill. She’d certainly had a diverse stable. By the time alcohol became her constant lover, I was regularly taking care of my two younger sisters and brother, and overseeing housework and meals, too. Oddly enough, I rather liked it. It made me feel important, needed, and I had a talent for nurturing that was perhaps my strongest gift. And I did and do love my sisters and brother. My mother has been dead for many years now.
“Okay, toots, here we go,” I said to little white-blond Shawna Sperry, who was mucus streaked and fretful but had stopped crying. I picked her up in my arms—with the steel brace she was heavy, but I could not bear to see her lurching walk—and carried her into the lobby of the center. There was no one about. The receptionist’s desk was empty and tidy in a way that meant no one had been working there, and there was a stillness and silence in which ambient sounds rang. An air conditioner thumped fretfully in the window. Dust motes stood in the slant of sickly light from the windows. It was a greenish, thin light that I knew meant a storm. You didn’t have to live long in the Low Country to be able to read the skies and seas and marshes. Perfect. I would have the inestimable joy of trying to get a steel-ballasted child through a rainstorm and into my moribund car. The windshield wiper on the driver’s side had died a couple of weeks before, and I had not gotten around to having it fixed.
We sat down in the lobby and I smoothed Shawna’s wispy hair and dabbed at her nose with a tissue. I ran my hands over my own hair; curly at its best, humidity and heat sent it into an aboriginal tangle of near-black frizz. With my dark eyes and olive skin, I often thought I looked at least partly African American. This had not pleased my mother either; in high school she had tried to get me to have my mop straightened and lightened, but by that time my unadorned appearance had become my one rebellion, and I was halfway through college before I even bought a lipstick. I chewed at my lower lip. It felt grainy and papery; I knew that the color I had swiped on that morning was long gone, leaving only a ragged outline on my mouth. Sticky underarms and sweat-dampened legs completed the effect. I hoped that Dr. Lewis Aiken was seventy-five and uncompromisingly unattractive.
The silence spun out. Shawna leaned against my arm and napped. The air-conditioned air began to chill me in my sweaty clothes. Finally I called out, “Hello? Is there anybody here? I’m Anny Butler from Outreach. I’m here with the little girl who was to get an evaluation this afternoon?”
There was more silence, and then a man’s voice from somewhere beyond the reception area said, “Oh, shit. Excuse me. What time is it? I’m sorry. How did it get so late? I’m Lewis Aiken.”
He came into the reception area and we looked at each other, and I laughed, helplessly. He was short and compact and, somehow, red all over, and his ginger hair was so wildly disheveled that it looked as if he had had his finger in a light socket. His steel-rimmed eyeglasses were mended with tape. He had a heavy growth of orange beard through which his white teeth flashed piratically, and he wore the most scurrilous scrubs I have ever seen. He was barefoot. If I had not known who he was, I would have picked up Shawna and run. As it was, she stared at him and began to wail again.
He shuffled over and picked her up and slung her expertly on one hip, and looked into her face.
“I don’t blame you,” he said solemnly. “If I had just met me, I’d yell, too. I bet I look like Ronald McDonald, don’t I? All my lady patients say that.”
And miraculously, Shawna stopped howling and looked at him and smiled, an enchanting, three-cornered kitten’s smile. I had never seen it before. She put her finger on his nose and pushed.
“Not Ronald,” she said, and giggled.
“Right,” he said. “I don’t have my big red nose, do I? Well, I forgot I was having company. Come on back and I’ll see if I can find it.”
He scooped up a folder from the desk on his way back, and looked at it, still holding Shawna on his hip. She was pulling his hair and laughing. He looked up from the file. “Mmm-hmm. Clubfoot referral. Shawna Sperry. And you would be Mrs. Sperry?” he said, looking over his shoulder at me.
“No,” I said irritably. Had he not heard me, then? “I’m Anny Butler. I run Outreach. You’ve done some work for us before. We had an appointment…”
“So you did,” he said, reading from the chart. “Though it says here that the child’s mother would be bringing her. Well, I’m glad to meet you, Anny Butler. You folks do good work.”
“The child’s mother has done a flit,” I said, wondering from where on earth I had dredged up that expression. It sounded like one of those flip, cloying English murder mysteries that I particularly loathed. Murder should not be funny. “She may never be seen again. You do good work, too. Thanks for working us in on your Saturday afternoon. What am I keeping you from? Golf?”
I was babbling, which did not please me, and besides, it was patently obvious that this man had never played golf in his life. He would have been forcibly removed from the course at the country club.
“As a matter of fact,” he said, not looking back this time, “I was cutting my toenails.”
“Yuck,” said Shawna, and we all laughed. There was nothing else for it.
The office he took us into was small and clean and white and untidy. He sat Shawna down on the table and began to unlatch her brace and remove her buckle-up shoe.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here, sweetheart,” he said. I stood awkwardly in the corner, because there was no chair, and busied myself with studying the diplomas and photographs on the walls. Duke, Johns Hopkins, certified by several boards, licensed to practice medicine in the state of South Carolina, fellow of several colleges of this and that. I assumed from the dates on the diplomas that he would be about fifty, though he looked a Mickey-Rooneyish thirty or so, with the turned-up nose and the blur of freckles on his face and arms.
One of the photographs was of a stunningly beautiful dark-haired woman and two equally beautiful young girls, daughters almost certainly, from the resemblance, on a beach that could be any beach anywhere. They wore sun hats and smiled into the camera. Teeth flashed. A movie family. Another photo was of the woman, in white pants and a striped T-shirt, and a much younger Lewis Aiken, on the deck of a sleek, low sailboat. I recognized the low pile of Fort Sumter behind it; the Charleston harbor, then. A third photo was of a tall, narrow, pink stucco house, with round white columns and sheltering palm trees. It was placed end to end on its walled lot, with matching up- and downstairs verandas and an iridescent tin roof. A Charleston single house, it was called, because it would be a single room wide and no telling how many rooms deep. I had heard that the earliest denizens of the city turned their houses with their ends to the street to catch the stray breezes from the harbor, and also that they did it because the early houses were taxed on the number of windows visible from the street. I supposed that, Charleston being Charleston, either or both explanations were correct. From its air of floating in space, I thought that the house was almost certainly on the sea-fronted Battery.
Lewis Aiken got the child’s massive shoe off, and her sock, and began gently to rotate her foot. Shawna frowned and jerked her foot back, and then screwed up her face preparatory to more weeping, and reached out for me. I moved to go to her, but he said, “It’s maybe better that you’re not in the room. I’ve found that they settle down quicker if the parent or guardian or whatever isn’t here. Would you mind too much waiting in the office out there? This shouldn’t take long.”
Feeling ridiculously rejected, I went back into the silent outer office. He shut the door between us, so that I could not hear them. Sudden visions of child molestation bloomed in my mind, but they did not last long. Somehow it was impossible that this smiling, tousled man would harm a child. And we’d worked with him so often before….
I wandered restlessly around the little anteroom. More photographs hung on the walls, and I bent to examine them in the purpling cloud-light.
A big studio portrait of the dark woman, in her wedding dress, dominated the wall behind the receptionist’s desk. Close up, she was even more stunning than in the smaller photos: there was spirit and a sort of imperious pride in the tilt of her head, and her smile teased. Her groom had apparently not made it into the photo.
“We did it! Love, Sissy,” a sloping backhand said across the bottom corner of the photograph. It was dated twenty years before. So, the girls were teenagers, probably. He did not look old enough for teenage daughters, but there was no doubt that they were his and the dark woman’s; they flanked the big portrait, and there were photos of them at all ages, from grave, beautiful toddlers through graceful preadolescents on horseback to the ones I took to be the most recent, clustered about. Always they smiled identical white smiles; always they were photographed together.
Twins, I thought. They’re twins. This is a magical family. Dr. Lewis Aiken and his beautiful wife, Sissy, and his twin daughters—I leaned closer—Lila and Phoebe. I’ll bet they’ve been in every magazine and Sunday supplement in the Low Country. Why does the man who has everything spend his Saturdays struggling with leg braces and crying children, not to mention mothers like Tiffany Sperry?