On occasion, when I write a story I don’t plan to submit, I’ll post it here for your reading pleasure (or otherwise). I particularly welcome comments and criticism on these posts – I mean it about the criticism, because I’m always looking to improve my craft. I’ll respond to any comment on a story posted here.
Anyway, this story takes place in South Carolina, but not our South Carolina: it’s the South Carolina of this world. The story stands alone, and you should be able to tell some of what makes its world different from ours – if not, I’m not doing my job.
Caroline began cooking at three, and she put up the flag at five thirty.
The first car pulled up outside at a quarter to six and a couple of tourists got out. Caroline sized them up as they climbed the steps to the veranda: forties or fifties, office job somewhere, Northeastern from the look of them. She opened the door a minute before they would have rung the bell, and said “Come on in, I’m Caroline.”
“I’m Fred and this is Nora,” the man said – definitely New York or New Jersey. “Dinner’s on?”
“Sure is.” The flag was up, and that had meant one thing ever since tourists started coming this way by automobile: that anyone who cared to stop by and pay could have a seat at the table.
“Your family here?” asked Nora, handing over a five-dollar bill.
“No, just you and me. Dining room’s that way.” Caroline led them in to where the table was already set: a sweetgrass basket in the center with napkins and utensils; peanut stew with chicken and okra; fish fry with rice; cornbread and greens; a salad from the kitchen garden. There was no menu – people who came to house restaurants ate what the family ate – but she liked to make more than one thing so no one would get up hungry.
“Let me get you something to drink. Lemonade? Sweet tea? Beer?”
“Lemonade for me, beer for him.”
Caroline went to the kitchen, brought back the pitchers and poured, and then she took a helping of stew herself and sat down at the table. “What’s bringing y’all here?”
“The festival.” Fred looked surprised that it could be anything else, and in truth it was the answer Caroline had expected. St. Helena Island always threw a party to celebrate the Sea Island Republic’s declaration of independence back in the Civil War, and with the hundredth anniversary this year, they were doing something special. The Sea Islands’ independence had been brief, but it was heroic, and here in Gullah country, people still felt it.
“You’ll have a good time, trust me. Make sure you try…” But the doorbell cut the conversation short, and Caroline got up to bring two more tourists to the table.
More people drifted in over the next hour: the next-door neighbors and the widower from up the street, a lone tourist all the way from Wisconsin, a family from Virginia. Caroline sat and chatted when she could and got up and served when she had to. It was a good mix and they all seemed to get along: once they got talking about the festival, she hardly needed to put a word in to keep the conversation going.
At seven, when the Virginians came in, she thought about taking the flag down. Twelve people was all that would fit in the dining room. It was a nice night and she could sit a few more on the veranda, but she’d have to cook more and she liked to have everyone in one place when she brought out the pecan pie and the banjo.
She considered a bit – another few dollars wouldn’t hurt – but it didn’t take long to decide. She got up to take the flag down, or at least she was about to get up when she heard a man’s voice in the door, saying “I’ll have the roast loblolly, please.”
Caroline knew that voice, and when she looked up, she knew that face.
“King of Mali, Sam, what the hell are you doing here?” She gave the guests an embarrassed smile – she never cussed in front of other people if she could help it – but then she turned back to the man standing in the door, and her look would have left him for dead if he’d had any shame.
“The flag’s up, ain’t it?”
“It’s up for everyone but you, Sam. Beaufort’s about twelve miles that way – someone there’ll feed you.”
“Can’t use some more company?”
“I could have used your company a lot of times the past seventeen years,” said Caroline, but suddenly, the heat of anger turned to something cooler. “Tell you what, Sam, I cooked dinner for you that day you never came home, so I reckon you’ve got one meal waiting. I don’t want to make a scene in company, so if you sit in the kitchen I’ll serve it to you. And then you get gone.”
For a second, Sam looked like he wanted to say something else, but then he shut up and let Caroline lead him to the kitchen. She sat him under the militia rifle and Arabic calligraphy and across from the Freedmen’s Circle calendar, dished him out some stew and rice, and went back to take care of the customers.
She was in the kitchen a couple more times before the guests left, and each time, Sam didn’t say a word and paid attention to his meal. She hurried the guests out faster than she’d planned – pie, yes, but no banjo playing tonight – and when the last one was gone, she walked in again and found him still there.
She stood for a moment, hands on her hips, and finally sighed. “All right, Sam,” she said, “if you won’t leave like a decent soul, you can at least help do the dishes.”
“At your command, ma’am,” said Sam, and he disappeared into the dining room to clear the table. After, he scraped off the dishes, washed them in the sink, and handed them to Caroline to dry: it became a rhythm, and after a while it was almost like old times.
“The kids gone?” he asked a few minutes later.
“You’d know if you’d stayed,” Caroline answered. “But Yusuf married that Camara girl and he’s working at the drugstore, and Sharon’s in college in Freetown.”
“Yes, studying to be a teacher. These days, she calls the speech Afro-Atlantic instead of Gullah.”
“They do get ideas over there, don’t they? And you, Carol? You doing all right? Cookin’ for money…”
“Oh, I’m fine, Sam. I just do this weekends. I like cooking for a crowd, that’s all, and with the children grown, this way I have someone at the table.” She gave him a very pointed look. “Tell me. Why the hell did you come back? What did you think you’d find?”
“I came for the festival, like everyone else.”
“You know exactly what I mean. Why’d you come here? Plenty of hotels in Beaufort where you could have stayed, if all you wanted was to join the party on St. Helena.”
Sam started to answer, then stopped, then started again. He was holding a dish, and he put it back into the suds. He stood there, and Caroline looked deep into his face: it was older now, with both of them in their forties, but it was still the one she remembered, with dark expressive eyes and the Rice Coast written on its features.
“I don’t know, Carol,” he said at last. “I really don’t know. Just that I drove up here from Mobile, and all the way, I kept seeing your face. I haven’t been back to South Carolina all this time, and I still can’t think of it without remembering you. No place is ever home like the first home, I guess.”
“There was a time when you were happy enough to take off to a second one,” answered Caroline, but her voice had gone from harsh to resigned. “Khadija – that was her name, wasn’t it? You still with her?”
Sam shook his head and laughed – it was painful laughter, but a laugh all the same. “That lasted about five years, and one night I came home and she wasn’t there. After, there was a woman or two, but never for very long.” He handed Caroline the last spoon and sank into a chair beside the recipe books. “You?”
“For a while, I was too busy raising the kids alone. But after… same thing. A man here, a man there. I thought about getting married again once, but it didn’t happen.”
“Aren’t we supposed to get better at this when we grow up?”
Caroline couldn’t help it – she laughed. “That’s what I keep telling Sharon.” She took a chair across from his. “Beer?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He got up and found the beer himself. “You going to the festival too?”
“I already been. I’ll go again, but not tomorrow – I’ve got things to do.”
“That’s what the plans were. I was supposed to teach a French class down at the Circle hall. But that’s canceled now that there’s gonna be a shout for Anne Marie.”
A shock came over Sam’s face. “Anne Marie’s dead?”
“She’s been fighting Congo fever for years. It’s been coming for a long time.”
“I can’t believe it. Anne Marie.”
“I know what you mean,” said Caroline – Anne Marie had been the life of the Lobeco Circle even when they were in school, and she’d seemed indestructible. “I don’t know who’ll keep things together now – I’m surprised the shout got arranged without her to organize it.” They both laughed again, the laughter of two people who’d grown up and who knew that life sometimes tasted bitter.
Sam got up suddenly and disappeared down the hall – Caroline knew what for. She started putting the cups and utensils away, and with her mind on the task, it came as a surprise to see him standing in the doorway again. He was smiling, and it looked like he’d been there a while.
“You still can stop a clock, Carol,” he said.
“The hell,” she began, but she never got the words out of her mouth. She wasn’t sure if she should be angry, especially since she’d been thinking that Sam didn’t look half-bad himself for forty-two.
“Don’t think you can buy my forgiveness with lies,” she finally said.
“It’s no lie, Carol, but I do wish you’d forgive me anyway. I did wrong.”
“I forgave you long ago. We all make our mistakes.”
“No, Carol, that’s not it. You weren’t a mistake for me. You were the one right decision I made. But we were what – eighteen, nineteen when we got married? Everyone says to get married young so the Congo fever won’t get you, and the Circle practically marched us to the altar when they saw we were together, but I wasn’t man enough yet to handle being married to anyone. Then there was Yusuf and Sharon, and…”
“I know. Not like I handled things much better. But like you said, we’re supposed to get better at this when we grow up – I wish you’d given it that chance.”
Sam sat down again and the silence lengthened, but it had become a companionable rather than a hostile silence. “I’d like to go to Anne Marie’s shout tomorrow,” he said.
“You’ll be welcome, I’m sure.”
“Allah carry her soul up high,” he said. It was the first line of a spiritual, and he sang the second: Caroline took her banjo down as she’d been planning to do hours before and finished it with him. She couldn’t sing worth a damn, so she played a harmony to his voice: her fingers found the strings naturally as they’d done at Circle dances a long time ago.
“If you’re staying for the shout,” she said, “you shouldn’t go to Beaufort this late. I’ll get you a blanket and pillow and you can sleep downstairs. Downstairs, mind you – if you come knocking at my door, out on the street you go.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and saluted. She laughed again and showed him where the linens were.
“We’ll go to the shout together?” he said.
Her lips started to form a no, but she turned around instead and was halfway up the stairs before she looked down.
“Ask me tomorrow.”