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Porch Lights(11)
Dorothea Benton Frank

To be frank, it wasn’t like Steve was knocking down my door. And I wasn’t knocking down his. We merely enjoyed coincidental meetings by the mailbox, the occasional glass of wine on my porch, and discussions of what was being done right or wrong by the town fathers. From his deck to my porch, we would call out to each other, remarking on sunsets, agreeing that they were the singularly most spectacular ones on the earth. He waved to me as I watched him jog the beach with his goofy spaniels. When we ran into each other at High Thyme and Poe’s Tavern, we exchanged hellos like old friends. It was enough for me. If it was meant to evolve into anything more, it would. I still believed I could handle Dr. Love. That’s why the good Lord invented dimmer switches. There comes a time when we’re all better off in the dark.

Chapter 3

“Ah, if I had only known you were here!” said Legrand, “but it’s so long since I saw you; and how could I foresee that you would pay me a visit this very night of all others? . . . I lent him the bug. . . . Stay here to-night, and I will send Jup down for it at sunrise. It is the loveliest thing in creation!”

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Gold-Bug”


“Charlie? Don’t—”


“—slam the car door.”

“Sorry, Mom. Wow, I feel like I’m still moving.”

We got out of the car. I put my hands behind my waist, arched my back in a stretch toward the sky, and yawned.

“There’s a name for that sensation, but I’m so tired I can’t think of it. It’s worse with boats. Wait! Sea legs. That’s it.” I unlocked and raised the back of my SUV and thought, Ugh. We could unload the car later. I wanted to say hello to my mother and have a look at the ocean.

“More like I-95 legs. Huh?” Charlie said.

“Yep. You’re right. Come on. Let’s go find Glam-ma.”

I heard a thwack, and I looked up toward the house. There she stood on the top step of the Salty Dog, positioned in the bright sunlight looking not like a middle-aged woman on the high end of that scale but like someone mythical who could sprout gossamer wings any second. My mother was still a beautiful woman, as pretty as she had ever been in my entire life. How she maintained her looks was another mystery. Just the sight of her, the house, the smells, and music of the ocean just beyond the dunes, I swear, it made me literally weak in the knees. I was twelve years old again, all my troubles thrown out somewhere into the future where I couldn’t see them yet or even know about them. I was home. And safe. At least for that moment.

What was it about this crazy little island? Why did it always feel so far away from the rest of the world? How did that work? Was there some invisible wall at the foot of the Ben Sawyer Bridge built from the magic bricks of a pied piper? But it was true enough that once we crossed that causeway and that funny little bridge, the whole world shifted and we sighed in a gush to be back on Sullivans Island. It happened every single time.

In the moments that followed, I was swept into my mother’s arms, fully appraised with a smile of deep love and relief. We had arrived safely, and she didn’t have to say any more novenas to protect us from that sleep-deprived maniac who would plow us down with his runaway eighteen-wheeler. A kiss was planted on top of my head. Then Charlie was eaten alive in one huge bite by my mother’s blue-gray eyes, brimming with tears of happiness. This visit was so horribly emotional for me. So many things had happened in such a short period. In addition to losing Jimmy, I was waiting for my discharge papers because reenlisting had become impossible. What was I going to do with myself? What about money? I had Jimmy’s benefits, but would that be enough in eight years to put Charlie through college? I had no idea.

I knew Charlie thought of this trip as a summer vacation because that was how I had framed it to him. But it was no vacation for me. I was exhausted. From life. From death. I wanted to collapse on the ground and weep, but I would do no such thing. I had made a vow to myself that once I arrived here there would be no more tears. Crying wouldn’t bring Jimmy McMullen back to us. Crying wouldn’t fix the problems of any of the women and children in Afghanistan. No, I could cry buckets of tears and they wouldn’t change a single thing.

We stepped into the house, and I could smell my childhood—the good parts. My mother had been cooking.

“Okra soup?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said. “And rice and corn bread. I made brownies for dessert. Y’all hungry?”

“I’m starving!” Charlie said.

“Boys are always starving,” I said, happy that he had an appetite. “Go wash your hands, sweetie.” I gave him a love swat on his backside, and he hurried from the room. “Can I do anything to help, Mom?”

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