Widow’s Walk – By Wendell Wood Collins
Rooftops clutter the horizon, all straight lines and right angles. Beyond, kiteboarders keel backwards like isosceles triangles into the eddies of Sullivan’s Island. Eliza Dunn wants to emulate them, to succumb to the whim and whimsy of the elements. But instead she is crammed into an uncomfortable director’s chair perched at the peak of the widow’s walk on top of their beach house, looking out over the surrounding houses towards the ocean. She sighs heavily. Despite her husband Peter roaming around downstairs, Eliza relates more to the widows who preceded her and took their rightful place of waiting, longing for their long-lost lover to return from the sea.
Maybe it sounds like a fairy tale, could even be a sappy romance novel by that gajillionaire writer Nicholas Sparks from the other “Carolina,” but Eliza knows, deep down in her heart, that there is someone out there, somewhere, for her. Deep deep, down down, deep down in her heart, echoing the song she used to sing at summer camp. Maybe he’s not across the ocean, although she’s always been drawn to men with exotic, unplaceable accents, just not necessarily a Southern drawl. Like that actor who always got the girl, Jeroboam something or other, and that bedroom-eyed Armand Assman guy.
Eliza jumps as a screen door slams somewhere below. Peter, the one with the drawl, has made his nightly grand entrance into the backyard, to grill grouper or snapper or whatever he has picked up that day during his way more than spare time. Eliza bristles to hear him prep for the evening meal, something she is too tired to attempt, having spent 9 hours in her real job. She suddenly gets a chill despite a warm breeze and realizes, pathetically, that any sort of physical sensation stirs her these days. How long has it been since they had sex? she wonders, reaching back into the depths of her increasingly foggy memory. More than five years? She’s lost count since there have been no milestones, no exciting or romantic getaways to recall. “Why go away on vacation when we live in paradise?” Peter would respond when Eliza suggested a new adventure. So after a while she just gave up, but secretly geared up for her own getaway, which would be far more fun anyway. When cruise line mailings show up in their mailbox, she squirrels them away, just in case.
Sitting on the rooftop of their cottage on a shady corner of Ion, on the cusp of Station 22, Eliza tries to piece together, just how did she get here? The Talking Heads’ tune “Once in a Lifetime,” a post-college favorite, reverberates in her head: “And you may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?… And you may ask yourself, am I right? Am I wrong? And you may tell yourself, my God! What have I done?”
She leans back and ponders her dire straits, with nary a romantic possibility to dwell upon, jealously watching a pair of pelicans float by in their synchronized search for supper.
Eliza musters the energy to escape the confines of the director’s chair and tackle the steep, narrow winding steps of the widow’s tower, a trip which always brought to mind Hitchcock’s Spiral Staircase, and then took the broader main stairway of the cottage which deposited her ultimately into the back yard. The chatter wafting up to the roof is almost more annoying from afar than it is in close proximity. Peter is regaling their daughter with tales of that afternoon’s pilgrimage to the Shem Creek Seafood Hut, turning on his good ole boy from Greenville accent that he turns down a notch at the snootier Charleston cocktail parties.
“So ah told ‘em that the fish out here jes’ tastes better, even though ah know they all get it from the same fishmonger, so they gave me the best pieces they had,” Peter boasts, Daphne transfixed as always when her Daddy revved into uber-chef mode. As Eliza joins them on the screen porch she is struck by how much Daf looks like a slightly more petite version of her, pointed chin and blonde bob, but with Peter’s ears and coloring. Or is his flush compliments of the multiple Manhattans he’s downed in the past hour, topped off with a little sun? Eliza wonders. A few blood vessels appear to protrude from the now bulbous tip of his nose, which way back when was one of his good features.
“Hey there, how’s the air up there?” Peter asks, making more of an effort than usual to be friendly to his wife, as he tends to do after a few pops. His doublechin tightens with a grin.
“Lovely, as always, this time of day,” Eliza responds politely but distant, cool, projecting her exhaustion from a real day’s work. She changes the subject.
“Daf, hon, are you all done with your homework?”
Mini-Eliza rolls her eyes, something Eliza would never have dared to do with her own mother when she was 15. “Mom, you know we don’t have any more work for the rest of the year. School’s almost out.”
“I can’t believe it! Aren’t you excited about camp?” Eliza attempts small talk, which was better than the usual non-talk that has filled the air ever since Daphne turned 14.
“Sorta. But I’ll miss cooking with Dad.”
At least once she’s gone, he might get his act together to do more than just cook, Eliza thinks to herself, but again holds her tongue. Peter had been basically unemployed for the past five years, although he informs anyone who asks that he’s an “entrepreneur” (code name for making no money but playing golf anyway, to keep the “deal flow” going). That self-made-man persona was almost appealing when he first wooed Eliza, who 25 years ago was bored with prospects of the same old same old Charleston banker/lawyer types who grew up knowing they would follow in Daddy’s footsteps. In comparison, Peter was a charmer, with big ideas, and a big laugh and smile to help get them across. Plus, he was the first boyfriend to actually propose, even with a real ring, and she was ready to get hitched, so why not? She had liked most of his friends (at least when they were half-sober), and he hailed from good Greenville stock yet with what amounted to the quintessential Charleston dowry – property on Sullivan’s. Somehow they had managed to peacefully coexist these 20 years, building a home in West Ashley, with summers and long weekends spent at his family beach cottage.
Eliza walks to the porch bar in the corner, where maraschino cherry juice has been spilled and bitters and whiskey still sit with tops off, another one of her pet peeves. If he’s sitting around the house all day, the least he can do is clean up after himself, she says under her breath. She hates to be the one wearing the pants, but she is, by default. At least she was lucky enough to have an interesting job at the College of Charleston, her 9 to 5 existence surrounded by youth and beauty, which makes her feel elderly in comparison at “40ish” – the personal ad shorthand for pushing 49.
The bedside clock reads 7:53 a.m. The sun has crept through the crack of their Plantation blinds and roused her, but Eliza doesn’t really mind. While she always sleeps a little later when she’s at the beach, she now has just enough time to escape the cottage before the kids wake and demand breakfast and Peter grumpily emerges from his snore-a-thon. The next man in her life, if there ever is a next, will be a morning person like she is, and hopefully will have had his adenoids removed.
Eliza thrives on the quiet rhythm, the ebb and flow, of days on the island. But her favorite time is first thing in the morning. She makes a cup of coffee and sits on the screen porch to rock a few minutes before the humidity and caffeine kick in. Then she takes off for her morning walk from one end of the island to the other. Donning her morning uniform — gym shorts and yoga shirt, running shoes and hat on head to protect her skin-cancer-prone nose from the sun’s punishing rays — Eliza sets off down Ion, hangs a quick left and is on the beach in less than five minutes. She is secretly pleased that she can still pass for 40 — thanks to Preference by L’Oreal No. 8 (medium blonde) and a fitter body than she had in her Freshman-15 days at Vandy.
Sullivan’s beach is the area’s premiere destination for dog owners who want to go leash-less, as long as they are gone by 10 a.m. and have poop scooper and bag in hand. Having had to put their corgi, Skipper, to sleep, Eliza finds it both joyful and sad to be among the luckier dogs and their people each morning. A speedy walker, she slows her stride occasionally to admire the finer canine specimens and their masters. The men and women are all decked out in “Life is Good” T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with college insignias from across the Confederacy, chasing their dogs or being chased, and in some cases propelling tennis balls and other unidentified objects using a strange wandlike device she has never seen before. She sizes them up, dog by dog, owner by owner.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a dog and his boy. Catch me a catch. Who needs singles bars when she has the beach to herself with little other formidable female competition in her wake? If only she had washed her hair.
Eliza rounds the curve of the island to the north and walks along the edge of a small inlet formed by a sand bar. Suddenly, she comes upon a freckled, country rock star look-alike with a million dollar grin, wearing what looks like some sort of LA team baseball cap, with a hip, reddish pony tail peaking through the back. Eliza likes long hair on men as long as they have the rugged good looks to carry it off. (Back when he was a Red Sock, Johnny Damon looked just fine when he sported a scraggly beard, but as soon as he shaved it off and joined the Yankees he resembled Michael Bolton.) This rocker guy looks rarin’ to go, Eliza observes, watching him tease his German Shepherd with a tennis ball. Something seems different about him from the rest of the beachgoers, and it’s not just the pony tail. She realizes that he is actually throwing the ball with his hand, with no assistance from a wand. Uncharacteristically bold, Eliza decides to approach him.
“I can’t believe you’re actually throwing a ball with your bare hand,” she laughs. “I haven’t seen a single person on the beach this morning actually touch a tennis ball.”
He smiles at her and demonstrates another throw, to his dog’s delight.
“I know just what you mean,” he responds with a slight Southern twang that could hail from Tennessee or Kentucky but not around these parts. “I wish I’d invented that contraption after seeing so many of ‘em out here. I’d be a millionaire by now.”
Eliza is at a loss for words. He’s still smiling but doesn’t introduce himself. Does that mean he isn’t a millionaire? Maybe he isn’t a rock star after all. But close up, he is kind of cute. It’s hard to place his age. He seems a little younger than her, but not 20 years younger, thank heavens.
“What do they call them?” she asks.
A man of few words. But he isn’t walking away. He’s still just standing there, grinning and squinting at her. He’s not wearing sunglasses, so she can see his greenish eyes but he can’t see hers behind by her crows-feet-hiding shades.
“Oh,” she responds.
He chuckles to himself, possibly at her, or maybe about a secret joke.
“What’s so funny?” she asks.
“Dog people can be really weird. I just ran across another wacky new dog invention. Called GoDogGo.”
“Like the Dr. Seuss book?”
“Yeah, same name, but it’s not about dogs and their cars, although that’s probably coming next: dog limos. No, it’s an Automatic Fetching Machine. Set it up in your back yard and your dog can play fetch all day long by themselves, no human intervention necessary.”
“God. That is really sad!” Eliza looks at him, dumbfounded. “Why do people get dogs and then have dog walkers and dog sitters and now, dog fetching machines? They might as well have a dog nanny!”
“A Danny!” he quips.
A man after her own heart.
“I’m Eliza.” She drums up the courage to reach out and shake his dog-drool-covered hand.
“Hey. I’m Jerry,” he grins, reaching out to shake her hand after wiping his own soggy hand on his shorts. “Sorry about the dog spit.”
“No problem. I love dogs. Want to join me on my walk?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind an occasional stop and throw. Cooper will go crazy if he doesn’t have a ball fired at him every 30 seconds. Hey, maybe I should consider GoDogGo ?”
Eliza smiles. Cooper is a good South Carolinian name. Maybe he lives here? Watching Cooper, she recalls Skipper’s peripatetic nature and how her kids used to play nonstop with him. An unexpected tear wells in the corner of her eye, which she attempts to brush away before Jerry notices. But he’s too perceptive.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Oh, no, not at all! It’s just that, um, I… we… our, uh… Skipper, our corgi, died. This spring. He was getting up there in dog years, but still, it was really hard.”
“Oh shit. I mean, pardon my French, I am so sorry to hear that. I had to go through that with my first dog five years ago. It about near killed us.”
“I know. And we’ve been so lucky to not have lost any family members to cancer or something, God forbid,” Eliza says. “I know it sounds so silly to be so pathetic about losing an animal. But Skipper was a member of the family.”
“It doesn’t sound silly at all,” he responds quietly. Jerry stops walking, and stoops down in a squat, peering at something in the sand a few feet away.
“A hermit crab,” he explains a few moments later. “I always imagine little heavenly worlds inside them, tucked away in the curves of the shell, in secret places like this. Who knows? Maybe Skipper is hiding out in there, catching tiny tennis balls.”
Eliza grins wide to think such a thing. Skipper loved the beach and running after balls. He always looked like he was smiling. Too bad most people don’t share that same doglike trait. But she senses, somehow, that Jerry does.
“You said ‘us.’ Is there a Mrs. Jerry?” she asks boldly.
“Hey, but you said ‘our’ too. You sure do cut to the chase!”
“I was only….”
“I’m just kiddin’ ya,” he reassures her. “No there is no Mrs. Jerry, at least not anymore. And how about Mr. Eliza?”
Eliza looks down at her heavy left ring finger and blushes, having momentarily forgotten her real life awaiting her a measly 100 yards away beyond the seagrass-covered sand dunes.
“Believe it or not, I have never met anyone in what must be about a thousand morning walks on this beach. You are the first person I’ve ever gone up to and talked with. Don’t ask me why. And yes, I’m technically married.”
“Is that like technically a virgin?” Jerry asks wide-eyed, genuinely curious.
Eliza cackles. “You don’t know how true that is. But I don’t even know your last name, and I’ve only had one cup of coffee this morning.”
“Well, I guess we’ll have to do something about that. Gilbert.”
“Done, Dunn. Where’s the best coffee spot ‘round here?”
“There’s Scoops, a few blocks over. They have decent coffee, and you can sit on the porch and watch the traffic pass by. Or you can come over to my beach house, but there might be some ‘splainin’ to do between my husband and the kids.”
“That’s one of our favorite pastimes in Kentucky.”
Yes! Once again she nailed the accent. Eliza could have been a Southern linguist in another life.
“Splainin’, or watching traffic?”
“Well both, actually,” he grins.
Eliza smiles. She hasn’t smiled this much in a long time.
Their walk ends at the inlet, where the top of Sullivan’s meets Breech Inlet’s rough currents. Their pace slows as they pause to watch the fishermen at the eddy feeding their lines into the waves.
“Isn’t it funny to watch someone do an about-face on the beach, changing directions randomly, with no rhyme or reason. I always wonder what exactly makes people stop and turn when and where they do.”
“They’re probably wondering the same thing about you: ‘Why is that crazy gorgeous woman with that hunk of a man walking all the way down to the very tip of the island when she could have stopped and plopped down in the sand way earlier and just made out in the dunes with him, and gotten it all out of her system?’”
Eliza yelps, blushing despite her tan. She has no clue if Jerry is totally kidding or is being slightly serious. Her sunglasses are her cover, but his bare eyes are still twinkling.
They walk back, quietly, anticipating real talk back in the real world, when she can drink real coffee, it being before noon. Hell, maybe she’ll even live dangerously and keep going after the clock strikes 12. They finally arrive back at Station 22, and hang a 90-degree turn towards the mainland.
Eliza looks down in the sand and miraculously spots a sand dollar, whole, intact. She picks it up gleefully, like a child, and gives it to Jerry. He gives it back.
“You need this more than I do.”
Her morning take. May the circle, be unbroken, by and by, Lord by and by. . .