Alice grew up in a house that looks like Tara from the movie Gone With the Wind. Same boxy shape and two story pillars out front. Same white paint and symmetry. Same Spanish moss dripping from the surrounding trees that weep down the bluff to the black water of the Edisto River. Walking in the woods around the house, one can almost hear General Sherman’s men, whispering in the sizzling afternoon breeze. He crossed the river there, one stop on his rampage of burning The South to submission during the Civil War.
When Alice first took me to Denmark, South Carolina to visit her childhood Tara, I felt like I had been invited into the Holy of Holies. Along with Cayleigh, we spent the afternoon picking speckled camellias from the towering bushes surrounding the house and walking the property with Alice’s dad to survey the dilapidated deer stands. Her father set fire to one of his outbuildings and watched the rest of us scramble to extinguish it, an aw-shucks smile on his face. Afterward, he came inside and made us fire-in-the-gullet cocktails, and we decamped to the screened porch that runs the length of the back of the house. Sipping. Rocking. Chattering. And grinning.
The shadows of early evening stretched long across the grass, bringing David, a family friend, rolling up the circling dirt driveway in a haze of dust. Alice’s father puttered off to church to print something on the computer, leaving the rest of us to enjoy another round of cocktails with David. On the surface, he was an average Southern man: white hair, impeccable manners, clothing that encased him in cool even when it was boiling.
He had a way of coaxing things out of a person, of divining what was special in others. One could spend an hour talking with him and feel like life-long friends, realizing much later that he revealed nothing about himself.
I was privy to that talent more than most, because I ended up locked in the bathroom with him.
While we sat on the back porch sipping our second drinks, the sky turned a pulsing shade of green. A howling wind thundered from the heavens, and bullets of ice bounced around the yard.
“This looks like tornado weather.” Alice’s mom studied the boisterousness behind the scant shield of the front door. “Let’s get in the bathroom.”She picked up Cayleigh and started toward that wing of the house before pausing. “Oh, and don’t forget your drinks.”
The five of us – Alice, her mom, Cayleigh, David and me – all cowered in a bathroom the size of a large closet, protection that would’ve been worthless had the tornado knifed through the sky in a direct hit. David told jokes while it crashed all around us, while we listened to its discordant notes, while we sipped our gin and tonics and waited for the sky to either open up and swallow us or turn a peaceful shade of blue.
It has a mythic ability to conjure tight bonds, to swirl with genteel Southern men, to endure blasts from the pits of hell, and to always know the importance of a stiff drink at the proper time.
Some things never happen at the proper time. David died last week. He’s swirling up there somewhere, watching over all of us, a cold drink in his hand.
This post is part of a series that celebrates my friendship with Alice Guess as she moves to Baton Rouge, LA. If this is your first visit, please click here and read forward. Thank you for reading and sharing your stories here.