Sullivan's Island: A Lowcountry Tale (Lowcountry Tales)

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9781590860137: Sullivan's Island: A Lowcountry Tale (Lowcountry Tales)
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Born and raised in idyllic Sullivan's Island, Susan Hayes navigated through her turbulent childhood with humor, spunk, and characteristic Southern sass. But years later, she is a conflicted woman with an unfaithful husband, a sometimes resentful teenage daughter, and a heart that aches with painful, poignant memories. And as Susan faces her uncertain future, she realizes that she must go back to her past. To the beachfront house where her sister welcomes her with open arms. To a place haunted by long-held secrets and devastating betrayals. To the only place she can truly call home.

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About the Author:

Dorothea Benton Frank is from Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. The New York Times bestselling author of Sullivan’s Island, Plantation, Isle of Palms, and Shem Creek divides her time between the New York area and the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1999

I began putting my life back together at the feet of my older sister and her family. She lived in Momma's house--the family shrine--on the front beach of Sullivan's Island. Every time I went over to the Island--which was frequent in the first months after Tom left--I tried to leave the harsh realities of my new life behind me.

My old station wagon rolled slowly across the causeway, liberating my daughter and me from the starched life of the peninsula to the tiny dream kingdom of Sullivan's Island. Black magic and cunja powder swirled invisibly in the air. The sheer mist became the milky fog of my past.

From within the pink and white branches of the overgrown oleanders, which lined both sides of the road, floated the spirits of decades long gone. The haints were still there, just waiting for us in the tall grasses and bushes. Suffice it to say that everything in the Lowcountry was just a-wiggling with life and it wasn't always a warm body.

The spirits urged me to roll down my windows and breathe in the musk-laden drug of the marsh. The scents of plough mud and rotting marsh life filled my senses like a warm shower of rare perfume. Then the sirens sounded their cue and the drawbridge lifted up before us to allow passage for a tall-masted sailboat. We would be detained on the Charleston side for fifteen minutes. I left my car to stand outside and feel the air. Beth stayed in the car listening to the radio.

I walked to the edge of the marsh. The full force of the salty air washed my face and, in an instant, I was a young girl again.

I was hurrying home to my momma and Livvie, my heart already there. The sweet steam of Livvie's simmering okra soup beckoned in a long finger all the way from the back porch. In my mind I heard the voices of my brothers and my sister as we converged on the supper table, all of us bickering in Gullah over the largest piece of cornbread. Livvie ran interference, telling us to hush, warning us that Daddy was coming.

It was odd what I remembered about growing up. My first associations were tied into the smells of the marsh and the aromas of the kitchen. Maybe I should have done fragrance research instead of planning literacy programs at the county library, but I was always more inclined toward saving the world. One thing was for sure, I needed a job that would let me offer my opinions because, according to everybody I knew, that was one area where I excelled.

Livvie. God, not a day passed that I didn't remember her. She raised me--all of us, actually. Here was an old Gullah woman who put her own five children through college working as a housekeeper. Just when she should have been thinking retirement, she took on the notorious clan of Hamilton hardheaded ignoramuses. She was the captain of our destiny, redirecting our course as often as needed. With every snap of her fingers we woke up to the truths of life and our own potential a little more. It was because of her that we all loved to read. She'd shake her head and lecture. "Feast your hungry brain with a good book," she'd say. "Quit wasting time! Life's short. Humph!" Humph, indeed. Who was I kidding? It was because of her that we were not all in some treatment program. She had taught us how to think--no small feat.

She'd probably have had plenty to say if she could have seen Beth and me right now, playing instead of working. I'd told my boss I had a doctor's appointment. A tiny lie. But I had an excellent excuse for playing hooky on this particular weekday afternoon. Heat. Over one hundred degrees every day since last week. We were having a heat wave, Lowcountry style. It felt as if old-fashioned southern cooks were deep-frying us in bubbling oil like a bunch of breaded chickens. One flip of the wrist and the whole of Charleston and its barrier islands sizzled in a cast-iron skillet. We're talking hot, Bubba. Take it from an old Geechee girl. Geechee? That would be someone born in the Lowcountry, which extends from the Ogeechee River down in Georgia clear up to Georgetown, South Carolina. I was raised in the downy bosom of the Gullah culture, as opposed to a Charlestonian reared in the strictures of the Episcopal Church. Big difference. Gullah culture? Ah, Gullah. It's Lowcountry magic. That's all.

Coming to the Island made me feel younger, a little more reckless, and as I finally went back to my car and closed the door--pausing one moment to lower the audio assault of the radio--I realized the Island also made me lighthearted. I was willingly becoming re-addicted. As we arrived on the Island, I pointed out the signs of summer's early arrival to Beth, my fourteen-year-old certified volcano.

"Oh, my Lord, look! There's Mrs. Schroeder!" I said. "I can't believe she's still alive." The old woman was draped over her porch swing in her housecoat.

"Who? I mean, like, who cares, Mom? She's an old goat!"

"Well, honey, when you're an old goat like her, you will. Look at her, poor old thing with that wet rag, trying to cool her neck. Good Lord. What a life."

"Shuh! Dawg life better, iffin you ask me!"

I smiled at her. Beth's Gullah wasn't great, but we were working on it.

"This 'eah life done been plan by Gawd's hand, chile," I said.

It was a small but important blessing how the Gullah language of my youth had become a communication link to her. A budding teenager was a terrible curse for a single parent, especially given the exotic possibilities of our family's gene pool. But speaking Gullah had become a swift ramp to her soul.

Gullah was the Creole language developed by West Africans when they were brought to the Lowcountry as slaves. While it mostly used English words in our lifetime, it had a structure and cadence all its own and most especially it had many unforgettable idiomatic expressions.

It was spoken by Livvie, taught to us, and we passed on the tradition to our own children. We used it to speak endearing words to each other, to end a small disagreement or to ignite memories of the tender time we spent with Livvie. When I was Beth's age every kid on the Island spoke Gullah to some extent, at least those lucky enough to have someone like Livvie.

I stopped at the corner for some gas at Buddy's Gulf Station, the Island institution renowned for price gouging on everything from gasoline to cigarettes. We got out of the car, I to perform the elegant task of pumping the gas and Beth to get a cold Coke. A group of old Island salts were ogling the thermometer in front of Buddy's store. One of the old men called out to Buddy.

"Jesus! If it's this hot in June, what's August gone be like?"

"Gone sell y'all a loada ice, 'eah?" Buddy said.

"Gone be hotter than the hinges on the back door of hell, that's what!" the old man shot back. "Humph!"

I smiled, listening to them. They sounded the same as Islanders had sounded for generations, same accent, same lilt in their speech. Traces of Gullah phrasing. It was my favorite music.

As we drove down the Island I decided to take Atlantic Avenue to check the horizon, watch the shrimp boats and container ships. Today's slow ride did not disappoint us. Boats were everywhere. I pointed them out to Beth. It was the whole world, these container ships, coming and going from our busy port as they had done for centuries. She nodded with me in agreement. First, that it was beautiful, second, that we were lucky to be there.

Along our drive by the water, we passed ten or so young mothers pulling their offspring home in wagons from the sweltering beaches, hopping from one bare foot to the other on the blistering asphalt roads.

"How stupid is that?" Beth said.

"What?"

"Shoot, Momma, even I know not to go to the beach without flip-flops or sandals! God, they must be dying!"

"Please. Don't use the Lord's name, unless you're in prayer. It's a hundred years in purgatory."

"You do."

"I'm an adult and personally responsible for my own immortal soul."

"Whatever." She made one of those sounds of disgust, the kind that could be confused with indigestion, used for running defense against parental dominance.

Beth. This child got the cream of our genetic smorgasbord. She inherited the Asalit blue eyes, a shade of chestnut hair with more red and wave than mine, my brains and grapefruits (bosoms), Maggie's tiny waist and when she finally stops growing she could be five feet, nine inches. She was a colt, all legs and a shiny coat, looking for a place to run. She was really beautiful to watch and she worked it too, pulling all her poor momma's chains.

"Two hundred years of Catholicism coursing in your veins is gonna make a lady out of you if it's the last thing I do," I said.

"Well, at least you're not trying to make me a nun," she said with some relief.

"Honey, I wouldn't encourage my worst enemy to the doors of a convent."

"Come on, Momma, step on it. I'm dying to go to the beach! It's so hot I could scream!"

I was just cruising along, enjoying the scene before me and looking around to see if I knew anyone. The Island had changed so much from when I was a child, but thankfully all the attempts to make it slick like Hilton Head or Kiawah had failed. Part of me depended on that. If it stayed the same I still owned it, even though my sister, Maggie, got the Island Gamble.

Maggie had laid claim to our ancestral home when our mother closed her eyes for the last time. I got the haunted mirror and that seemed like a fair trade to me. The rest of us had always known Maggie would walk those floors in adulthood. She would raise her children within the same rooms. Tradition was as much a part of her makeup as rebellion was of ours.

Digging roots off the Island had been essential to my sanity. I would have tied that house up in a bow and given it to her rather than live there. There were too many ghosts in the paneling, too many tears in the pipes. I had too much energy to stay and back then I had no desire to reconcile the issues. No, there was no argument from me on who should get the house. If Maggie wanted it--and I would never understand why until I was well into my thirties--it was just fine with me. I had run an entire seven miles away from home to Charleston. But seven miles from this Island was another world.

At last, I pulled up in the backyard next to Maggie and Grant's boat and tooted the horn to announce our arrival. The back door swung open and Maggie called down to us from the back porch.

"Susan! Beth! Where have y'all been?" She waved, smiling to see us.

She looked frighteningly like a nineties version of June Cleaver, Beaver's mom, only with frosted blond hair. I hated to admit it, but she was beautiful and always had been. She had Bermuda blue eyes like all the Asalits. A natural blond toned to a perfect size six, she was pleased to no end with her life. Maggie was hopelessly lost in a Talbot's world of flowered skirts and hand-knitted sweaters. She was the president of the Garden Club and active with the Junior League. Even though we disagreed on everything from politics to the merits of duck decoy collecting, when her blue eyes met mine, we were family.

"Getting gas at Buddy's and smelling the marsh," I said, gathering up all the towels and tote bags. "Got caught by the bridge again."

"That awful old bridge! Y'all come on in! Beth, the boys are waiting. You want to go crabbing? Tide's perfect!"

"Ab! I brought my bathing suit." Beth grabbed her straw beach bag and pushed past us to find her cousins.

"In the parlance of today's young people, ab is short for absolutely ," I said. "God, is it hot or what? Thanks for letting us invade your afternoon. I thought I was gone die in Charleston. It's so hot in the city the blacktop sinks under your feet."

"Y'all moving in? Let me help you with some of that."

"Thanks," I said.

I followed her up the steep steps into the kitchen; my eyes struggled to adjust to the low light inside.

"I hate the heat too. Well, this summer's gonna be a scorcher, I guess. You want something cold to drink?" Maggie opened the door of the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of iced tea.

"Please." I reached for two glasses from the cabinet and handed them to her. "No Diet Pepsi?"

"Picky, picky. No, I have to go to the store."

"Tea's fine. I'm gonna change into some shorts and hit the porch."

"Okay. Wanna go for a swim?"

"Maybe later. First I have to calm down and cool off."

"Tom?" Maggie cleared her throat with a knowing "ahem." I hated that little "ahem" thing she did.

"Who else?" I leaned against the counter as she poured, feeling embarrassed that my whole life had spun clean out of control.

"What's happened now?"

"Maggie, you should've been a shrink. I can't keep dumping stories on you about him. I'm gonna drive you crazy. Let's just say that he's still a son of a bitch." I took a long drink of the tea. "Thanks. I'll meet you on the porch. Can you sit awhile?"

"You bet. Let me just start the dishwasher and marinate the steaks for tonight. Grant got a new grill for Father's Day and wants to break it in."

"I wish he'd break it in by putting Tom Hayes's behind on a spit," I said, thinking that I'd been muttering a lot lately. "See you on the porch."

I sprawled out in her Pawley's Island hammock, using my heel to kick off from the porch banister. The hammock, a testimony to the practical application of macrame, was like all the ones that have hung on the western end of this porch since I was a child. Hammocks were generally undervalued, except in the South and probably the Amazon. There was nothing like crawling in, stretching out and swinging away your troubles.

I closed my eyes and began daydreaming about the porch. If this porch were hanging on the side of my house in the city, it would be a veranda. But over here on the Island, it was a porch. That general lack of pretension was one more feature that made the Island so appealing.

I could be blinded and still find everything here. If I hopped out of the hammock, I could take three steps and sink into one of the two old metal frame chairs, the kind that bounced a little. There was an ancient coffee table between the chairs and the glider. If I wanted to perch in the bench swing that hangs from the other end, or park myself in a rocker, I would only have to stretch out my right arm and follow the ferns that Maggie had hung in perfect intervals above the banister.

The only differences between the porch of today and the one of forty years ago were the ceiling fans that moved the air around, making the suffocating heat bearable, and the fresh coat of paint on the furniture and the floor. In my day, nothing much was shiny. Whatever Maggie didn't decorate, Grant painted. The porch used to be entirely screened in with doors to the outside, but Grant and Maggie took them off. The house looked wonderful without them and nobody seemed to mind an occasional yellow jacket. Even the most persnickety old-timers on the Island agreed that Maggie and Grant had done a great job with the house. You have to understand that the old Islanders were highly suspicious of any sort of change. Bu...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780425193945: Sullivan's Island (Lowcountry Tales)

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ISBN 10:  0425193942 ISBN 13:  9780425193945
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