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Low Country


ISSUE:  Summer 1998

One place grows the men you love, another the men who are good for you. Irenie adored low-country men; she married a man who claimed the entire southern half of this country was benighted past redemption. She’s divorced now, and her most-beloved Charlestonian is dead. At the moment she’s waiting on another Charleston figure from her past.

They’re to meet for lunch. She’s on a bench at the Charleston Battery—cannons are pointed at her back though at her front the bay greys out to haze. She watches seagulls perched on the sea-wall posts, each beak aimed identically, each angled off to the south—until one seagull after the other in sure clockwork rhythm glides off over the water with a muffled mewling cry. One cry after the other.

If you were born and raised in this city (which blessing never lighted on her), the essence of things was instilled by way of genes: what mattered was voice. What mattered was style. She, regrettably, was fashioned up-country manner. So she was slow to take it in when Ham Porcher from Charleston—tall and slouching and sleepy-eyed— concluded she looked interesting. She was 16. It happened in the mountains, at Kanuga, where she and everybody else hung out on the porch and watched Hamilton Porcher play bridge. Back then they all played bridge when they weren’t trying out games in the mattress room. And every girl, at either game, craved Ham Porcher on their own side.

But then one night on the pavilion porch Ham stretched his long self out on the bench, laid his head down in her lap, and blew smoke up in her face. He employed his decidedly sleepy-eyed manner. Her lap was hardly cozy at the moment because she had her arms folded over each other and on the rail behind the bench. That way she could lean her chin on her arms and watch water. The water was close enough to smell and a wavering moon skittered over its back but now the smell came up from Ham—warm and strong and a little like roasted nuts. She wanted to stick her nose in Ham’s shoulder and suck his sweet smell in.

She must have provided some lap that pavilion evening, since it inspired Ham Porcher to make a date with her at 6 a.m. next morning—Ham was normally a bit hung over at six o’clock in the morning. But he was up, and in the creaking grayish light they padded through wet grass and then over the dam and then along the leaf-thick path where they climbed over roots and logs and through the woods and through the patches of reeds and made it all the way around the lake, her hand caught in his. Later, on the pavilion bench, she asked him who he liked in Charleston, He talked about a girl named Ria. She didn’t like his tone when he talked about Ria. She started punching at him with her fists—it was a satisfying pastime she happened on because normally having to think up things to say was out of purgatory in her newness at all this. That night her fist struck a spot on Ham so sensitive he stumbled off doubled in pain, moaning she would never understand what she had done.

The summer was agitated disbelief. But it was also—when she managed to push away Ria who kept springing up in her nightmares—a silly kind of laughing over nothing when she watched Ham fast-shuffle cards, sometimes in the mattress room, or caught him slouching up to a game out on the pier—him with his greasy-blond ducktail and his low-slung belt, his trousers puffing at the hips and cutting in tight like on a string where they drooped down over his shoes—he always wore his grey suede raftlike shoes.

In the fall Ham showed up in Columbia, and on a weekday morning—Charlestonians weren’t highly committed to rigid institutions like school. There he was, strutting breezily through the second-floor hall of prosaic Columbia High, somehow happening in Miss Pitts’ French class and slinking by that door to catch Irenie’s eye—which meant she felt a jolt run down her middle.

Still it was hard to think up talk with Ham—Ham didn’t read and she never fathomed the workings of boats and hardly was better on types of beer and it didn’t seem always appropriate merely boxing him. She kept slipping back—when she didn’t at all mean to—to ask about this Ria. So he said Yes he did love Ria. Flat out he said it. Said she beat him at bridge but he forgave her for it. He said he would always love his Ria (Yes, he said “My Ria”) and so what, he said—she wasn’t his girlfriend anymore. She broke up with him months ago. He’d thought he’d drown himself, but then Ria kept right on being his friend. He took whatever she offered and by the time he figured out she’d hooked up with his own friend Tim he was happy to bum around with both of them, and that was the way it was.

It was at her house he was telling her this. She could not abide it. She hopped up to play her 45s—he’d sometimes sing along with Nat King Cole and shut up about his Ria.

“Stranger in Paradise,” “Unforgettable”—she tried those. He got the rhythm best on “Give Me (and a two-beat pause) a Kiss To Build a Dream On” but always she came back to the ones she liked—”If I loved you . . .words wouldn’t come in an easy way,” “They . . .asked me how I knew . . .my true love was true,” “You there . . .you with the stars in your eyes”—any of those she could croon out slow and drawn-out as she liked while she cried over them in the bathtub. Ham tended to switch these off for “Sixty Minute Man.”

Ham turned up drunk down at the Maxcy Gregg Teen Canteen one time. That condition meant he danced—or shagged—with his ultra-sexy manner and in the middle of everybody clapping and egging him on, him scarcely giving her a glance all night, him controlling the place and her in a self-conscious puddle of pride and shame at once. Always when she fell in love (so far it had been, each time, one-sided adoration) she assumed everybody else was in love with that same person—they had to see what it was she saw in him. With Ham they might hate everything he did—like showing up drunk and taking over the whole canteen—but all he had to do was say his “gay-et” instead of “gate” and glance at you sideways in that slanty-eyed low-country way and you were in love with Ham for the rest of your existence.

In Charleston she stayed at his rambling house on Savage Street with its layers of porches. A narrow outside staircase ran up from the bottom porch to the heavy-tilting upstairs porch—what he called a piazza. He’d asked her down for a dance. She wore her scoop-necked red taffeta dress that stood straight out when she twirled—she felt sexy in it, the way the dress sloped down from her falsies to her sucked-in waist. At the dance Ham pulled her out on the balcony, in that dress and in that dark, and he kissed her so abruptly and so wetly and so long that she had to clutch at him to keep from falling and in her spinning, she only heard one sound—the shout of a Negro woman from somewhere off in the streets. The sound was very thin. It didn’t prepare her for the band surging out with the speeded-up last-dance shag—”Oh when the saints” and a two-beat pause, “go marching in” and a two-beat pause, “Oh when the saints go marching in. . . .”

Once on a Sunday afternoon they parked on the Battery. The seagulls sat on the sea-wall posts and took off over the water. They were in Ham’s parents’ Studebaker, and they did not watch the seagulls. She stuck her nose in his sweater and breathed warm roasted nuts and then they tussled over which body parts were allowed and how far hands and tongues could go. She wanted to act like Ria but she didn’t know how to act like Ria. She was afraid of things. She watched helpless when Ham flopped his arms, abruptly, around the steering wheel, banged his head and muttered “Why— you tell me—why is it every single Columbia girl is a blooming snow-white virgin?”

It was the “every single Columbia girl” that made her go wide-eyed. But then, as abruptly as he’d dropped, he twisted his head around at her and twinkled his slit-eyed off-beat wonderfully low-country charm and said “And what the hell is this that keeps me running after you?” While he leaned toward her, and rubbed his nose all around her cheek just like a nuzzling puppy. Sweetly. And deliciously. And oh so astonishingly gently. Leaving her panting her topsy-turvy bewilderment—over how to ever be with Hamilton Porcher.

Back in slow up-country Columbia, her homeroom class was being assailed with its own lesson in sex. Tardily. It came in the form of a pregnant Charleston girl who called herself Mariah—she pronounced it Mar-EYE-ah, low-country style. Mariah showed up in her homeroom and sat silent in the back. But no back-of-the room stoniness would make this Mariah inconspicuous—the girl’s Charleston voice (when Miss Pearlstein demanded she speak up), her cool arrogance, the way she moved her head and hands and even the lazy way she walked. To Irenie it was Ham all over—in unanticipated female form. As if all the things she savored in Ham and all the things that scared her in Ham had turned up in this girl. Even the feeling—that too came over her—as if she were mimicking Ham when she caught sight of this girl. And she had a hard time prying her eyes off this Mariah.

For one thing Mariah didn’t curl her hair like all the rest of them did. She didn’t wear barrettes like they all did. Mariah had her hair cut pixie fashion and let her blond bangs hang in her face—she must have got her style from Gigi. And even if you managed to overlook her stomach, everything about the girl was round. And sexy. Her lips were full and her eyes were huge and she must have had to practice hard to get their sleepiness. This girl stared out the window, and that was very sexy. She leaned her chin on her hand, and that was very sexy. She pushed her bangs back out of her eyes and that was more than sexy—and it all came with an absolute indifference. Unless— unless it was that Mariah didn’t care to test the waters here. That Mariah couldn’t let herself be human in this cold up-country school where she was being forced to parade herself in front of sniggering children.

That first edgy morning the room was momentously silent. This particular homeroom class was the snobbiest of the college-stream heap, and they hadn’t yet coped with anybody pregnant, not that they knew of. And this was the one they’d got. Like a straight-out injection of hormones. You could feel the class reeling and floundering. You could hear fantasies cavorting, shrieking headlong into one another. Boys jiggled pencils nervously—what else was there to do when the girl wore loose angora sweaters but you never could squeeze this girl. The girl disappeared when the bell rang. She barely glanced at a one of them. If you tried to speak, forget it. Mariah answered in a word and hauled her blinds back down.

Irenie didn’t think too long about attempting to speak to Mariah. It was easier watching Mariah undercover. But it meant the physical distance around this girl got set like quick-drying glue. Mariah burned through the halls, but she burned through the halls alone.

Maybe Mariah overheard the jingle—”Mariah the pariah”—which was of course a nervous lie by some skinny undercooked five-foot geek. Still, it was mostly eyes—not out-loud words—that kept on battering Mariah. And Irenie picked up envy in girls’ eyes. Though nobody’s insides, she had to assume, went queazy the way hers did around this girl. And the feeling was mutual—she began to suppose this slowly—because she caught Mariah watching her sometimes. They even belatedly began to speak. It was pretty brief, but still it was Irenie that Mariah asked when she had to find out about homework.

Irenie wasn’t part of the school’s cute bunch, the girls with personality. She played around their outskirts, more or less; and though sometimes she made like she looked down on them, basically she felt a bit left out. So when they did pull her into their talk she played along if she could manage it.

The girls with personality were mean about Mariah, which meant wildly curious. They blew up any tidbit they could catch about Mariah. This day—it was Friday—they were ganged outside the auditorium. A girl called Jill was telling how the boys discovered Mariah smelled like sex in the morning—as if any of them knew what that smelled like, Irenie undercut Jill in her mind but kept it to herself. So, says Jill, in the first-period chemistry class a line of boys comes up and each drops something near Mariah so each of them can stoop and get a whiff. Jill makes an absurdly acrobatic gesture and the girls all laugh—Irenie too. Only it happened at that very moment Mariah came out around the door not one foot away from Irenie. The girls went abruptly quiet. One gasped. One slapped her hand to her mouth. Irenie let her own artificial laugh hang in the air as if power had shut down. And of course it was Irenie that Mariah’s brief glance shot up at. Freezing Irenie. Pushing Irenie inside herself, in a bottomless black shell. Where she stayed, ignoring where she was going and ignoring what she was doing from that moment out.

Until next day. Saturday. And an unexpected call from Ham that night. Ham was in Columbia. Unpredictably as always. He was sleeping at friends and would she get herself over there right now because they needed a fourth.

She would get herself to whatever spot it was that Ham Porcher turned up.

It was in the old-people’s section of Columbia, the part of town with tall frame houses and the gingerbread curly-q porches that now had a shoddy left-over look. Ham said it was the house next to the squat new smooth-brick building with a sign saying IBM. Not hard to find: she heard Elvis from the house. But it was hard to get out of the car and go in there to no telling what kind of strangers Ham had taken up with, when she was not at all at ease. She never fit with Ham’s friends. She couldn’t pretend their easy slouch. She stared a while at the sign stuck there in the grass. Its red and yellow glared in the streetlight and made the whole street shabby.

Inside she started up the staircase. “Hound Dog” was coming from the cracked-open door at the top. She could hear muffled Charleston voices, but maybe they couldn’t hear the stairs creak with her steps when the music was blaring out. Through the crack in the door she could see that the floor was linoleum like the upstairs hall, and something was burning in there. It took her minutes before she made herself knock, before a man’s voice said Come in. She felt heavy steps shake the whole house. She pushed the door open herself.

The room was smoky and dim and cluttered and the burning smell sweeter and stronger. She had no trouble seeing Ham across the room on the sofa. And Mariah. And feeling the blood rise up her neck. Feel Ham try to get on his feet, catch himself on the shoulder of Mariah. Feel Mariah rounded down in the corner of the sofa in her rolled-up jeans and a Persian cat lapped across her stomach. Mariah not moving at all. Mariah smoking, watching her, barely smiling at all. Mariah saying calmly “Hello Irenie.” As if Mariah had known. As if all along Mariah had known and now could bask with a serene triumphant look. A look longer than Mariah looked at a person. And not an outright hostile look. More complicatedly hostile. As if Mariah here, in her own place, with two good men as slaves, as if this Mariah was so high up she could look as directly as she liked, and for this moment she liked. The gossiping, back-biting school vampires—like her, like Irenie, it turned out—couldn’t get their teeth in here.

Ham made it across the room, bumped into the card table they seemed to have forgotten—all his long and boneless body with his pants so low it made his groin his waist. He hugged one arm around her shoulder and rocked her a minute back and forth and she could smell him just enough to make her insides soft. Ham said thickly, “This is Tim and you know Ria already.”

“Ria?” She said it incoherently. Hazily she caught them laughing and felt the floor drop under her and grasped she was defeated. She was buried for good. Ham was happy with his Ria, who was pregnant by his Tim—and was this baby Tim’s or not and how the hell could they ever know this baby had to be Tim’s when it hardly looked like that. Ria was happy with her Ham and with her Tim stuck on somehow. And there was not one person she could blame. Any person would love Ham. Any person whatsoever was bound to love Mariah. It was elementary that they’d love each other. They could be so sure about themselves that they could bring in anybody else who decided he’d join up—like Tim joined up. Like she had no intention of joining up. Like she, with her un-joiny notions, was being tipped quickly off the world that she still hankered for.

She managed to sit instead of run back down the steps. Ham dropped on the sofa, close to Mariah. Like he’d been snuggled close to Mariah. All day long no doubt.

She said to Ham, “Did you know I knew her?”

“I discovered.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“How do that? I learned when I called you—Ria heard your name and had a fit.”

Jealousy? Mariah was jealous of her? That did not made sense. Mariah would never be jealous. Certainly Mariah would never be jealous of her.

Out loud she said, “A fit?”

He said, “A fit over some calamity at school.”

Mariah was still smiling like a Buddha, merely listening to this. Not contributing one thing.

But Mariah had had a fit. She began figuring how to say it. How to get it out—that it was not her laughing at school yesterday. IT WAS NOT HER AT ALL. She had never REALLY laughed and didn’t Mariah have the sense to see she’d never meant to laugh?

It would not work. Nothing she could say would work.

Tim was handing her a can of Budweiser. They were clutched around a coffee table, minuscule, jammed already with empty cans of beer.

She said what she could manage. “Did you change your name up here?”

“I’m Mariah.”

“Ria too?”

“Nicknames aren’t so strange where I come from.”

“You never told us your nickname.”

“Should I? Does somebody want to know me?”

Irenie nodded yes, and Mariah laughed. The laugh was like a snort. And Irenie was dumb and thinking, This is Ria. This is Ham’s Ria and Ham would know by now about the school and Ham would despise her now.

Mariah curled her feet down off the sofa—her socks were blackish on the bottom and they dragged along Ham’s thighs. Ham was studying Mariah’s backside while Mariah picked up something off the floor and left the room. The cat was crying and rubbing Ham’s pants’ leg and Irenie was coming to a mad idea—was this baby his? Was this baby Ham Porcher’s and not Tim’s at all? And how could anybody know?

Lamely she said, “I didn’t know your Ria was in Columbia.”

Her tone sounded like a victim’s. She did not intend to sound so like a victim.

Ham made a stab. He meant to get her straight, but he was not coherent. He kept mumbling “These are my two best friends in the whole wide world” in an ultra sticky manner. He didn’t sound like he was accusing her, but now Tim tried to elucidate. Tim was short and plumpish with a too-round face, but he had a Charleston voice and he had black hair and clear green eyes and that was all that mattered. Irenie saw how he could end up with Mariah. Tim said they were new up here. Said he had to leave the Citadel when Ria came up pregnant. He switched to Carolina. Ria had to finish high school. Bad timing on their part.

Mariah sauntered back in the room. She carried a tupperware bowl full of potato chips. She pushed the beer cans to the side and set it down and turned back to the record player. Nat King Cole. The voice vibrating way low through your body. “The evening breeze . . . caress the trees. . . .”

Ham mumbled, “Let’s dance.” He was grinding out his cigarette, not looking at a person. Who was it Ham was talking to? Irenie went cold with her humiliating fear. But Ham reached for her hand and not Marian’s hand. She took off her saddle oxfords—his huge grey suede clodhoppers were worn smooth already from his dancing. He held her close and folded her arm up between them, all the way up to his chin. They clung, barely moving, on the cold linoleum. He started crooning with the Nat King Cole, but very very low. Irenie closed her eyes and breathed his smell and hoped this could go on and on and she wouldn’t even care whose baby this was if this went on and on.

It didn’t. Mariah disappeared again, and she could feel Ham stirring up about what his Ria was up to. But he said, “Ria liked you a lot—she told me she liked you a lot.”

“Liked. Not like.”

“Something happened—she won’t tell me what.”

“A mistake. I can’t explain.”

They made a stab at bridge when Tim got Mariah back out—with a splotchy made-over face. They gave it up. Ham wasn’t up to it. Instead they sat and went sleepy with drink. No, not her. But Ham and Tim, and even Mariah. Sometimes she sensed Mariah studying her, but not attempting talk. Instead Mariah kept the music on loud—”I’m all shook up.” “Cold, cold heart.” Ham’s “Rock ‘em, roll ‘em all night long. . . .” With no words required.

Irenie felt herself perched upright in her little-school-girl collar. Her chair was isolated. She couldn’t even seem to get it rocking. She went stiffer and stiffer while the three of them went looser and looser. She was stranded up somewhere where none of them would reach her, and none of them thought about trying. A glance or two was it—like they wondered at her still being in the room with them.

It was not—this rigor-mortis mood—just because of Mariah, or just because of the drinking. It wasn’t even her guilt over laughing at school. It was the way Ham touched Mariah, kept his feet underneath Marian’s thighs. Made almost wordless jokes with Mariah about the things Irenie couldn’t know. Once Ham laid his forehead on Mariah’s shoulder, and then let his face slip low down Mariah’s front. Tim accepted. Tim didn’t seem to mind at all—as if okay, Ham and Ria weren’t sleeping together after all so what was there to mind, he might be saying to Irenie. Even she knew that. But here she was. So morose and sick and cut-away from anybody living that it was now her turn to run—to the bathroom, with its pinned-up photo of James Dean—who looked shockingly like Ham. And when she had to force herself back out she could feel them shrink away—Mariah, and Ham, and who knew—even Tim.

She said she had to get home. They assumed she had to get home.

Monday Mariah was not at school. Not on Tuesday either. Or Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or ever. It took a while for Irenie to take this in—that Mariah had no intention of setting foot in any up-country school of hicks and vipers.

Worse, that night had been it for Irenie. She wouldn’t let herself know that at once. Or not all the way. But she knew. She knew the way she’d always known that she’d been building up a fiction—that she could manage in Ham’s world. When she would never ever manage in Ham’s world.

There’s nothing in this sweet-sour tale most teenaged girls don’t know. Still, it sometimes seems to Irenie—if she’d learned to see these tangles of attractions as the way things are, as the way life plays itself, she might have cottoned on to living a little bit more sweetly. She might have looked straight on the bunched-up clutter out there, not tried so hopelessly to yank and jerk and keep things classified. She might have absorbed that hard closed secret thing, that thing you’re not informed about straight out—that you’ll never draw a circle around the swarming things inside. And Charlestonians seemed born into that knowing.

Not everything has changed. The gulls still glide off posts with a muffled mewling cry. One gull after the other. She’s still humming “You there . . .you with the stars in your eyes. . . .” Though not in the bathtub at the moment. Only waiting for Mariah to show up.

She happened on Mariah last year. Came on a gallery tucked away on Anson Street—MARIAH’S in wood block letters over a bloodred door.

It’s no sideline work for Mariah. She’d always been a painter— more like a German expressionist than a dabbler in piazzas and slate roofs—but who knew Mariah in high school? A body and a voice and a style are enough to blind you in high school. And assume what you want—Mariah’s still married to Tim. Though her arrangements are peculiar even for Charleston. She lives in the back of her studio-gallery, alone, and shrugs if you bring up what she’s done with Tim. Her children have fled west. And yes the oldest is Ham’s daughter but by the time she decided to let them know—let both of her men know—she could never have abandoned Tim. And Tim wouldn’t let that baby go no matter whose it was. Besides, Ham had started drinking.(A kooky use of “started” was Irenie’s thought.) In any case Ham drowned in a sailing accident about ten years ago. In shabby circumstances, as in—he drowned with somebody else’s wife.

So. So if Irenie’s ruminations on living—and on the all-embracing low-country style of sidling up to good living—if those don’t hold one grain of truth it does not matter in the least. Because still she senses a knowingness when she gets back down to this place and sits here smelling salt air. She even smells it in the mud, mixed somehow with a diphthong slide and a heavy-lidded manner. Or perhaps—it’s possible—that her illusion comes from having once—for one evanescent moment—been young as springtime in this watery city. In the reach of crying seagulls. In an undermining land of glowing antique light.

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