Southern Legitimacy Statement: I came to Savannah, GA in 2003 by way of Miami Florida, and I have since been teaching creative writing at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga.
The couple had flown to Tybee Island in the middle of February. For weeks, Duke had tried to get Ellie excited about the trip, coming out of the shower with wet hair, flapping his arms up and booming, “Winter is coming.”
Ellie had looked up from her laptop with a tentative smile, gazing at Duke above her purple glasses at the end of her nose. Duke would try to plant a kiss on her neck, but Ellie kept right on typing.
“You’re dripping,” she said, moving her laptop closer.
“Winter is coming,” Duke boomed, pumping his fist. With his eyes he followed Ellie into the bedroom until she shut the door behind her.
Duke had been dry for eight years, but since the men from the government had delivered the letter, he had begun to collect miniature liquor shots from the gas station on his way back from work. When he heard the soft clicking of Ellie’s fingers on her laptop, he went to the bathroom and from the toilet tank, he selected one from a collection of Bourbon, Gin and Vodka, which he pulled dry with one gulp and then discarded in the garbage without Ellie ever stopping her clicking or her shouting into her cellphone.
When the car pulled up to the cottage in Tybee, Duke had been without drink for hours. The rental agent stood on the doorsteps to greet them, “Hey, y’all. Welcome to Tybee.” Behind her, the cottage, painted in pastels and sunlight, cheered them with its shrimp décor and island kitsch hanging from the door and roof.
They both smiled at the rental agent, but Ellie was on her cellphone as soon as she stepped in, dropping her bag in the living room on the denim couch, letting Duke nod to Arlene as she gave him the rundown on the island, the distance to the beach (four blocks through the park), the nearest grocery store (off Jones at the streetlight) and some nice restaurants in the area. All through it, Duke smiled his Viagra ad smile, looking at the arrow hanging near the door that had the word beach carved in it.
“Well, well,” he said as he inspected the property. “Isn’t this cute, Ellie?”
Ellie yelled into her phone: “Tell them to hold off on sending the galley. Tell them to wait until I get back.”
Duke shrugged. “Work,” he told Arlene.
“This cottage here’s one of my favorites,” said Arlene. “Y’all got the right idea coming down in winter. Let’s hope that ice storm doesn’t spoil everything. The tv said we might get some weather down here.”
Arlene was a tallish woman, thick-boned, big breasted, and pretty like the women in Duke’s family. The moment Duke detected the twang in her voice he slipped inside his North Carolina skin. The tightness around his neck that had followed him from their cramped waiting at the gates, delayed in New York by snow, and then again in Atlanta by ice, began to melt and warm with the first words Arlene had spoken.
“Kind of cold for these parts, ain’t it?” he observed.
“Oh, it’ll warm up,” said Arlene. “You give it a couple of days.”
Ellie, who had sat on the queen’s bed in the living room opened her laptop and began to type.
“It’ll warm up,” Arlene said, louder, looking through the door at Ellie. “This ice storm’s just a fluke.” She slapped Duke twice on his arm. “We’ll find ways for y’all to get warm, don’t worry.” She broke into a big, open-mouthed laugh that put Duke in mind of a rum toddie.
“You got any booze stacked into one of those cabinets, Arlene?” he said in a voice that matched hers in bigness. “Listen to that, Ellie,” he called out. “Arlene’s got the cure for the cold.”
“This is not what it’s usually like,” Arlene said. “It’s that artic spell from the north. Did you bring us the cold, Duke? Did you do that?” Arlene leaned towards him, her warm hand on his arm.
He laughed, and wanted a drink very badly. He could feel his eyes getting into a squint.
“Did you hear that Ellie? Arlene’s blaming us for the cold.”
Ellie was typing away on her computer. “Internet’s slow,” she said.
When Arlene left a little later, Duke inspected the cabinets in the kitchen, half hoping that the previous residents had forgotten a bottle. He opened the cabinets under the sink, then lifted the lid off of each of the treasure chests in each of the two bedrooms in the cottage.
Ellie didn’t stop typing. She call out, “Duke? What are you doing?”
“Look at this place, Ellie,” said Duke, hearing himself slide into the southern drawl that had softened his speech in the earlier years of his life.
The cabinets under the sink in the bathroom had no booze either. Everything was clean and well organized. There was a bucket on a stool near the sink with neatly folded towels. The sink itself was painted with fishes. Duke looked at the fish in the sink and listened to Ellie’s typing. He closed his eyes, and the clicking of her fingers on the keys were like a bees’ buzz, or worse, like the hum of an air conditioner or the hum of artificial lights, the sound of loneliness. He left the bathroom and went out to the living room, where he looked into every cabinet to find only well-kept dishes and clean cups.
The second bedroom with two twin beds had large pink plastic shrimps hanging from a coat hanger. A straw chair painted moss green leaned against the window and sunshine streamed in and filled the room in spite of the cool.
Duke stood before the twin beds, his fists popped on his hips. Two bright orange blankets had been folded at the base of each of the twin beds. The quilts that covered them bloomed with swirls of red, yellow and blue polka dots. Duke stood beside the coat hanger with the shrimp and stared at the bed and at the sunlight that streamed through the window. He had stopped drinking eight years ago after a stroke. The last sip of vodka he’d had today was hours ago, when the flight delay had stranded them another two hours at JFK, and he’d managed to sneak a shot at the bar while Ellie went to the ladies’ room.
That was why he could not understand.
He was sober when he saw the two pre-adolescent girls wearing socks jumping on the mattresses, one atop each of the twin beds, their ponytails swinging up behind them and dropping down after them. Their giggles filled the room, the mattresses squeaked and the headboards banged weakly against the wall.
Duke wasn’t dreaming this. He wasn’t even hallucinating it. His mind had conjured the image out of a wish, or a memory, and projected it through his eyes into this room. The girls wore shorts and tight t-shirts, one with a snapping turtle, the other a simple white t-shirt with no logos.
“Hey Ellie, take a look at this place,” he called out, watching the girls jump. Ellie padded up behind him.
“Fascinating,” Ellie said, laptop in hand. “Internet’s weak.”
Ellie’s presence had made the girls seem fainter now, only the sound of the mattress squeaking under their weight echoing in Duke’s mind.
Duke watched the girls jump quietly, their smiles beckoning him to step away from the cool February day, from the unheated cottage, from Ellie, into their promise of summer and sand.
There was a guestbook on the credenza near the twin bedroom. In the guestbook, Duke found the scribble of a child under the date August 8, 2013. The pen had made a hard trench onto the lined paper, and someone had drawn in errors to point to fainter initials under the same page, saying “Nana” and “Mama.”
August of last year had been when Ellie and Duke had gotten the letter. Men in uniform had delivered it, with Jessie’s name typed in with the rest of the news, and the condolences, and the praise for the sacrifice that Jessie had made for her country.
Duke closed the guestbook. He walked out of the cottage and into the chill street without a word to Ellie. It was cold for February for Georgia, but the cold made it real for Duke to be walking these oak-draped streets, to smell the sea even four blocks away, to pass cottage after cottage with boats in the yard and trees decorated with shrimp and fish signs, to the convenience store on the corner, where he picked up shampoo, ketchup, mayonnaise, and a tube of toothpaste before he hovered over the cooler. He chose a couple of six-packs, and at the last minute, he picked up two frozen bean burritos. At the cash register, he watched a round-faced, dimpled girl ring up his toothpaste and mayonnaise.
“Say,” he said to the girl at the cash register, “Are there ghosts on the island? I know Savannah’s famous for it, but here?” He waited for the girl to look up, which she did, slowly, processing the question.
“I think so.” Her ponytail bobbed as she nodded. She slid the mayonnaise into a plastic bag. “There’s some ghost tours on the island you could check out.”
“We’re from New York,” Duke explained leaning with his elbow on the counter. “My wife’s a ghost junkie,” he felt the need to amend. “She watches Ghost Hunters, all the shows.”
In fact, Ellie never watched tv. Duke tried to conjure in his mind a recent memory of Ellie doing anything other than shouting into a cell phone or typing into her laptop, but the only memory that came was the one on the day of the letter.
The girl hummed low. “Oh, she’ll love Savannah. Savannah’s one of the most haunted towns in America.” She crossed her arms over the counter, and Duke knew they were going to be chatting a while.
By the time he got home, it was dark, and Ellie was sprawled on the couch, wrapped in a green blanket and watching television. Duke had drunk the six-pack sitting outside the convenience store, sucking down each can and slam-dunking it into the garbage can. From time to time, the cashier girl, Billy, came out to smoke a cigarette, bouncing on her toes and wrapping her sweater closer to her body.
“Cold.” She looked out into the livid cumulus and sucked her cigarette. “It ain’t like this, usually. Swear it’s the perfect day for ghosts.”
She had a small chin but a heart-shaped face that Duke thought some men might think beautiful.
Duke downed another beer. In this way, he finished the first six pack, and put away half of a second one.
By the time he stumbled back inside the cottage, he was more than a little drunk.
“Hey Ellie,” he waved big when he walked in, as if she couldn’t see him.
“Heat’s not working,” she said.
“You’re not working.” He dropped what was left of the six-pack, along with the mayonnaise and the ketchup and the toothpaste and the bean burritos on the floor next to the couch and straddled Ellie.
Ellie tried to poke her head to see through his arms at the Olympics. “This girl,” she said, looking at the television. “Look at her. She’s so young. Reminds me of our girls. How do they make them do that?”
Duke turned to the television just in time to see the Russian skater perform her final spin. The girl had small eyes, short neck, and a muscular body. She kicked her leg up above her head and held on to her ankle and spun, her leg slightly arched inward, looking like something mechanical, impossible, a music box wound too tight.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Duke. He stood up. He went into the bathroom and turned on the shower hot. The room began to steam almost immediately. Duke went to the sink and clutched it with both hands. He looked down at the swirl of painted fishes, and at a cluster of seashells that Ellie had balanced near the faucet. He picked one up and then another. Each and everyone of the seashells had an opalescent surface.
“Ellie?” he called out. “Hey Ellie.”
Within moments, Ellie appeared by the door, wearing her thick terrycloth robe. Duke hadn’t imagined she would bring that ratty ole thing from New York.
He waved at the sink. “What’s all this?”
She shrugged. She looked more fragile in her robe, older. “Thought I’d make something nice. A mosaic, I don’t know.”
“You went to the beach?”
“You were gone so long,” Ellie spread her arms open and lifted them.
“You mean you put down your laptop and phone and went to the beach?”
“I had the phone,” Ellie said, turning her back on him.
Duke looked up into the mirror.
“Reminds me of our girls,” he said in Ellie’s voice.
Right before he’d had his heart attack, Duke had seen his grandfather standing by his bed. Paw was wearing his overall and nothing underneath, his freckled chest covered with hair. He sat on a stool, with his foot straight out from under him and a hand planted on his bent knee, and said, “What does it all add up to?”
And Duke couldn’t remember what he’d said, a pain in his chest like a wrench twisting his heart tighter and tighter. He could barely speak. It was lucky that Ellie had still been in the bedroom. It was lucky that she had been running late that day. Jessie was still alive, then. She’d been deployed to Iraq barely two weeks before. She had called him, long distance, while he was still in the hospital.
“Dad! What’s got into you!”
“I’m helping,” she said. “I’ve got to be here, you know that. Someone’s got to.”
Her voice broke up over static and echoed along the relay of satellites. It made him feel good now to think of Jessie’s voice bouncing from satellite to satellite in outer space, floating across the stars, a vibration breaking up the black void.
“Promise me you’ll stop drinking,” Jessie had said on the phone.
Duke came out of the steaming bathroom with his hair wet and a towel wrapped around his girth. He looked at the guest book in the living room and flipped it back to August 2013. He touched the heavy lines of the girl’s scribble on the pad, and then with his finger he traced the word, Nana, and then Mama.
Duke had come from a military family. Each of his two older brothers had gone to war. Mike had returned from ‘Nam with only one arm, and Paul had his stint in Korea, and later with doctors and nightmares and pills, but both of them came back, and Duke remembered his mother in those days, lifting her arms up to God, singing at the revivals, screaming Praise Jesus. Praise Jesus. Back then her prayers had made him feel light inside, tingling with the magic of God, warmed by the mercy and the Grace of his brothers coming home alive.
But when his little girl, Santa, had reclined in the hospital bed with tubes coming out her arms, his mother had been sobbing Jesus into a tissue she’d pressed to her nose, and Duke then forgot all the light and music of God and could only associate from then on the smell of medicine and Santa’s vomit to the words his mother muttered into the tissue, all through the chemo, all through the periods of remissions, all through the silence of Santa’s hospice stay, and finally, all through the wake and funeral. Then there had been that black day, so soon after losing Santa, when he and Ellie had watched the twin towers engulfed in black smoke and collapse into a rubble. They had watched the plane fly into the building maybe half a dozen time, but each time the film replayed, it made less sense to Duke than the time before.
It took about a month for Jessie to drop out of college, and then another month for her to say that she was leaving.
“I just had to do it, Dad,” she said. “For Santa.”
“How dare you bring Santa into this,” Ellie had hissed into the phone. “How dare you do this to your father and I?”
“What does this have to do with Santa,” Duke had tried to reason. “She had nothing to do with 9/11. It’s insane, and you know it.”
“I know it,” Jessie said.
And then she was silent, all through Ellie’s sobbing recriminations, all through Duke’s asking, “Can you at least try to explain? Please, Jessie, can you just try? Your mother and I have been through this thing, and now…”
Jessie had always been the sullen one. While Santa would stand on a stool in her Sunday dress to announce she was going to play at being television, Jessie could spend hours circling the same flower with her crayons.
“You know what? Never mind,” Jessie said on the phone, before she hung up.
But she didn’t change her mind. Not through Afghanistan, nor through Iraq. She was rising in rank. She had medals. She called once per month from the desert, regardless what else may have been going on. Their conversations were always brief, to the point, lacking of details because of all that the army would not let her say, but before she hung up she always said, “I love you, Dad.”
But Ellie never answered the telephone. Sometimes she listened in, and hung up without a word when Jessie said, “I love you, Dad.”
And then the black car had pulled up into the driveway on an icy winter afternoon, and two men in uniform and one in civilian clothes came knocking. Ellie saw them from the living room window. Duke heard Ellie say, “God,” once as she rushed to the door, then again into her hands a second time. She bolted the lock, just as the men in uniform knocked.
“Don’t,” Ellie said, with her back pressed to the door, her arms splayed open.
She shook her head and ran to the bedroom and shut the door. “Good God, don’t open that door, Duke” she sobbed. “Good God, good God.”
It had been years since Duke had thought about God and goodness. Now he padded with his wet feet to the kitchen, saying, “I’m hungry,” to an Ellie whose fingers were always clicking on a keyboard, whose eyes were always trained on a screen, and saying “I’m about ready to go,” to the two burritos and the mayonnaise and the ketchup in the fridge. He looked out the kitchen door into the screened porch, on to the hammock and the wicker chair and the blue and green pastel pillows and sand buckets waiting for someone to take them to the beach.
There he saw the girls again. Clearer than the last time. The younger one hopped on one foot, while the other read a book on the hammock, a foot dangling and kicking the hammock to a slow swing.
“Couldn’t be older than twelve,” he said under his breath.
“What, Duke?” Ellie called from the living room. He could hear her typing on the laptop.
“The girls,” Duke said, not expecting to be understood.
Ellie closed the laptop with a click. Duke was pleased to see she was dressed, already. She watched a run of snowboarders while Duke slipped into his khakis and shoes. When Duke came out, an American boy was on the tv, with shaggy hair, and a grin slashing his face in two, and he held onto his head as his score was tallied through a loud speaker. The boy looked stoned to Duke: he had that blissed out stare. He moaned and groaned with the happiness of his scores.
Duke turned off the tv and together they drove to the restaurant where Arlene had said they would find good food. It was cheerfully lit from the outside, an old Victorian with white pillars and a huge screened half-wrap porch. A blast of blues welcomed them and a waitress directed them with her hands towards a table near the front. Ellie went to the bathroom, and Duke sat at the bar where deer heads were pinned to the paneled wall, and lanterns in the old fashioned iron-wrought style hung above the liquor racks. Duke ordered a beer and a shot of bourbon. He looked up at a man-sized marlin pinned to the top of the stairs that announced new fish tacos. The music and the marlin and the girls in heels and sweaters dancing with each other by the stage made him happy.
Among the girls he recognized a familiar ponytail of blondish hair. He waved. Billy looked directly at him, but she was moving, and the music was loud, and Duke couldn’t be sure what she was thinking, or if she’d even seen him. He took the beer to a table near the dance floor just as Ellie came back from the ladies’ room. She eyed the beer and sat with her back to the band. She picked up the one sheet of menu and held it with two fingers and stared at him as he took a long sip.
“Vacation,” he shrugged. “Just for tonight,” he said.
He waved towards the girls in sweaters and boots who were dancing together. One of them swapped her knees like in the fifties. “Look at that,” Duke said, lifting his beer. “We could teach ‘em something, old girl.”
Ellie looked but she said, “Why are you drinking?”
Billy was heading to their table. Duke felt that tug in his belly like when he used to drive fast as a young man, driving the off road tracks all full of dust, the people coming out under the stars to see the cars racing. He got that feeling, now, looking at Billy.
“Are you listening to me?”
Ellie reached out to him and touched his arm. He pulled back just as the waitress came to the table and his abrupt gesture made him knock down his beer. The beer sprayed his pants and trickled down to the floor. He stood up, and just as the band had stopped playing, he said, “Jesus Christ, Ellie.” His voice had come out to compensate for the noise of the band, and when the music stopped all that everyone could hear was Duke, crying Jesus Christ.
“I’ll bring you another,” said the waitress.
“He doesn’t need another,” said Ellie. “One is one too many.”
Billy waved, said, “Hey Duke.”
Duke said, “Sweetie, go on ahead and bring me another beer. With a shot of bourbon.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ellie said. Billy smiled with her teeth, and bounced a little as if cold, or needing to pee. She said, “Hey y’all. Hey Duke.” She looked at Ellie and said, “Y’all enjoying Tybee so far?”
“So far,” Ellie said, mopping up the beer with her napkin, “it’s been cold as hell.”
“Ellie, that’s rude,” Duke said.
“Duke was interested in ghost stories,” Billy said to Ellie. The singer in the band struck a chord that reverberated throughout the restaurant, and Billy had to strain her voice to finish telling Ellie, “I told him about the house Robert Downey Jr. rented, with that grandmother who kept saying ‘bout shutting the screendoor?” She nodded as if Ellie would understand.
Ellie had piled the wet beer napkins. The waitress had returned with another beer and a rug and she was mopping off the table, telling Ellie, “Oh, I’ll take care of that, dear. You just worry about having fun.” And Ellie had pushed off the beer and said, “Please take that back. This man’s had a stroke. He doesn’t need to be drinking that.”
Billy pointed to her friends on the dance floor, said, “Well, I’m going to…” The rest of her words were drowned out by the opening measures of a fast blues song. Duke swiped the beer off the table before the waitress could take it back, and he took a long drought. He slammed the already half empty mug on the table and pushing his voice to boom above the bass and guitar, he said, “You just mind your own business, Ellie. All you do is type on that keyboard all day. Is like being married to a ghost, it’s what it is.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Oh, Duke. Stop embarrassing yourself.”
Duke nodded at her, stuffing his hands in his pocket. He nodded at her because fury would not let him find the right words to respond.
“Y’all just about ready to order?” the waitress asked.
The rage propelled Duke away from that table, away from Ellie and her clicking, which seemed to follow her even when she wasn’t typing. He was furious as he padded after Billy with his hands up in the air and bending his knees to the rhythm of the music. He shook his tail and kicked out his feet and Billy laughed and danced with him, and Duke was furious. He stole a glance at Ellie, sitting alone at the table, with the stuffed moose head nailed to the wall hovering above her. Even the moose seemed happier than Ellie.
Billy sauntered up to him in a sexy shake of her bust and Duke felt that ball of fury in his chest turn into something else, something like that feeling of speed he got when riding in the truck on those speedways in Carolina, the dust and the noise of the motors revving, and the perfect stars poking holes into that black canvas of a sky. It seemed to him that Ellie had robbed him blind. Or maybe it wasn’t Ellie, but life. Life had taken the cars, the speedway, even North Carolina. It had taken his girls, both of his girls, and now it had taken Ellie, too.
Duke bumped hips with Billy and thought to himself, well, screw it! Screw it! He moved his hands over his knees and showing the other girls how to do it. He stepped on a chair and then on a table, and he waved at Ellie from the table. He put his hands on his hips and thrust up and forward and then to the side, tilting his head this way and back. He was being robbed by life, breath by breath, even now. It was as though he could feel death going through his pockets, rifling for spare change, going through Ellie’s purse, too, as Ellie took the check from the waitress and looked for her wallet.
When the music stopped, the bandleader called him up on stage. Ellie lifted her face to look at him, and Duke tried to look for signs of life on her, for sings that she, too, was ready to say no to death, to stop it from sending an ice storm on their vacation. The band leader asked the patrons to give a hand to Duke who had come here from New York, probably bringing the ice storm with him ‘n all, and Duke said he was from North Carolina, originally. New York was just a job, really, and he was glad to be back in the south.
God bless you, said the band leader.
Billy yapped and whoohooed, and he was buzzed, and he was hard of breath, and he was sweating, and Billy was laughing, and Ellie glowered at him, her arms folded over her breasts. Another song came on, and the girl touched his elbow and said, “What’s the matter, Duke?”
“Nothing’s the matter, honey,” he shouted into her ear. Life’s the matter, he wanted to say. Ellie’s the matter. The matter is that everything dies, everything slips through your fingers and never comes back. Even when you try to come back, you never can, because you step out of time, and in stepping out of time you lose the things you had with you: what remains when you look back is just the shells, and they’re broken. The building of that old school, the gym where he and Ellie met after school, the car they drove to the drive in movie theater: maybe if he looked hard enough he could find it, but he’d only find the shells. Time sucked away the rest. Time took everything.
But he hadn’t said any of this. He’d only said something trite. Billy opened her mouth and made a funny face, squinting her eyes and dropping her jaw open as though she were laughing without sound. One of Billy’s friends whispered into her ear. The two of them laughed as they looked at him.
The rhythm drained out of Duke all at once. He stood stiffly between the girls who were now bumping each other’s hips. He scanned the bar for Ellie, who was dropping dollar bills on the table. He was cold, suddenly. He looked through the windows into the darkness, and then back at Ellie, who pulled her handbag strap over her shoulder and headed for the door. Billy sashayed her way to him and shouted, “Get down, Duke! Get down.”
And Duke got down.
He got down on his knees.
His stomach was a stone. His heart seemed to grow out of his chest. His pulse felt faint, and yet, blood throbbed in his neck and at his temples. He was cold and his palms were sweating.
“Oh, my God!” Billy cried. “Duke are you alright? Talk to us, Duke.”
The band stopped playing. A waitress and the band singer rushed to him, their hands holding him up. Duke leaned slowly backwards to the floor. He was faintly aware of Ellie kneeling over him, Ellie pleading with him, “Oh no, oh please, not you.” He felt her cold hands on his temple.
“They robbed us blind, Ellie dear.” He was sure he’d said those words, spoken them loud and clear, but he could not hear his voice, nor could Ellie, who shouted, “Someone, please, call 911.”
What he had wanted to say, at the hospital, was that he was sorry. About Billy, about his drinking again, about leaving Ellie alone to her grief, about the ice storm. What he’d wanted to say was a stream of words made of songs he’d sang as a young man, promises he’d made, to himself, to Ellie and his girls, some sunk like stones in a river, others dispersed in a breeze like the heads of dandelions.
There was no music anymore, just a rush of sounds buzzing his head: the clicking of Ellie’s hands on the keyboard. The beeping heart-monitor. The giggles of little girls chiming all around him. Girls in socks and t-shirts. Girls with red pales and green rakes. Girls in large beach hats, padding with purpose across the floor, saying, “Come on, daddy, let’s go to the beach.”
Cool sand gathered under his toes as he watched Ellie scout the shoreline plucking shells and throwing them in a bucket, shells striated pink and blue, opalescent. Ellie was picking shells for a mosaic. She had been good with crafts, once, back when the girls were still living at home. She saw him looking at her and waved her arm in a wide arc, her wet reflection in the sand stretching long behind her.
The girls held hands together, chasing the tide and laughing when the water lapped their feet. Ellie couldn’t see them of course: they were just dreams in Duke’s mind. Their giggles tinkled above the sweet whisper of a breeze, their young bodies light as air, as they hugged and kissed him, then running away again into the sea.