The Charleston Lake
by Judith Turner-Yamamoto
This was not the Charleston Nina expected, not the Charleston George had held out like a gift. The industrial district sprawled in either direction, its bridges spanning the Ashley River. High-rise hotels, like this one, cropped out of an otherwise flat, uneventful landscape.
In her mind she saw her husband filing into the ballroom downstairs with hundreds of other accountants, all casually dressed as the conference bulletin suggested. Table after table of them in jeans with polo shirts, khakis and oxford button downs.
Through the wall came the sound of a women laughing deep in her throat, and the rhythmic squeaking of a bed. Lovemaking in the middle of the day. This was what she had imagined, the city seducing her with its unfamiliar magic.
She flipped on the TV. Women in antebellum dress floated down garden paths, hoop skirts swaying, brushing against brilliant drifts of azaleas. “We should have come in March when the azaleas bloom,” she had said to George.
“Middleton Place,” the narrator began, “a showpiece plantation for over two hundred years. Survivor of revolution, Civil War, and earthquake. Take time to explore the country’s oldest landscaped gardens” Rolling terraces led to the river-front lawn, a preternatural green. An aerial view took in butterfly lakes on either side of the terraces. Nina imagined herself wandering down to the water, greeting guests arriving from Charleston.
A sharp rap on the door broke the television’s hold. Nina scrambled for her purse. She retreated to the doorway while the bellhop wheeled their luggage into the room.
“Middleton,” she said, handing him his tip, “can you please tell me how to get to Middleton Place?”
He pulled at the sleeves of his formal braided jacket. “That be way out 61.”
Her eye caught the TV. A horse-drawn surrey ambled down a cobblestone side street. “What about that?” she asked, pointing at the screen.
The bellhop edged his way back into the room, craned his neck at the screen. “That’s the old part of town.”
“Can I walk there?”
“You can, but you going to run out of sidewalk. They tore it out working on the new bridge.”
“Is it dangerous?”
The bellhop smiled, brushed his hand across his mouth to regain his composure. “Depend on how big a hurry they in, or maybe, how big a hurry you in.”
The interior of St. Michael’s Church smelled of musty books, old leather, and furniture polish. “The windows are Tiffanies,” the tour guide began, “made by the master himself. The tour group—retirees and women whose husbands were probably in conferences like George, or playing golf—talked among themselves in restless elevated whispers.
“A church without air conditioning.” The older woman beside Nina edged close, her upper arm slack and moist. “In this heat, can you imagine such a thing?”
Nina stepped aside, pretended interest in the hymnals displayed on the back of a nearby pew.
“Everybody out to the graveyard,” the tour guide said. Colliding, the group turned, worked its way out the doors.
Nina sank into a pew just inside the cordoned off area at the front of the church, grateful to escape the humidity, the press of unfamiliar flesh. Above her the organ burst into a hymn. She closed her eyes, let the music overtake her. She hadn’t come to Charleston to hurry, to dash from one historic site to another, and yet all morning she had done just that.
“Ma’am, you can’t sit there, you can’t go on the other side of the rope.” An elderly man stood by the altar, an assortment of rags hanging from his pockets.
Nina stumbled out of her pew and into the large stomach of a passing worshipper. The man righted Nina, and despite his bulk, managed a bow of apology. “Arthur,” he called out to the custodian, “where are your manners?”
“I can’t help it. I got a church to clean and the rope mean stay out.”
“Don’t take offense, my dear,” Mr. Russell murmured, leaning into Nina. His rumpled linen jacket smelled faintly of saffron, coriander. He was a man comfortably into his fifties, his size redolent of decades of pleasurable meals. He strode down the aisle, nearly filling it with his bulk. “I’ve brought you some of that marvelous brass polish.”
Arthur shoved his rag in his shirt pocket, tramped over to Mr. Russell.
But first you’ll let Mrs. … ” Mr. Russell turned to Nina, one gray eyebrow cocked.
“Wagner,” Nina offered.
“You’ll let Mrs. Wagner see the windows.”
“I don’t really … ” Nina began.
“Of course, she does. And, as a congregation member, I’ll accept responsibility.” Mr. Russell perched the fingertips of one hand over his heart, handed Arthur the polish with the other.
Arthur accepted the polish, opened the rope across the center aisle just wide enough for Mr. Russell to squeeze through. Smiling, Mr. Russell waved her ahead of him.
“Brass polishing is a reliable Charleston obsession. It doesn’t matter whether you do it or you send the maid out to attend to it, the important thing is to keep one’s brass polished. Financial misfortune can befall anyone, but to let one’s brass tarnish is inexcusable.”
“You’re British, Mr. Russell?”
“Yes, I suppose I still am. The accent comes in handy when thumbing my nose at Charleston blue bloods. It’s not enough that I’m the end of the Russell line, related to Charleston’s first indigo planters, and heir to my maiden cousin’s estate. I decided long ago that if they were determined to keep me a foreigner, I’d be a bloody good one.” He stopped in front of a window depicting a young Mary and an angel.
“The annunciation?” Nina asked.
Mr. Russell shrugged a near imperceptible shrug, a gesture that seemed born of years of enduring unreasonable heat. “They all depict moments of revelation, I don’t trouble myself with specifics. Strange, isn’t it? We spend the greater part of our lives just muddling through.”
“Maybe that’s the point, to make us feel inadequate.” Nina smiled to herself, pleased by her insight. It was the kind of thing she remembered saying in art school.
Mr. Russell nodded, reached up, ran his finger down the glass. “Personally, I’m interested in this keen yellow light illuminating the folds of Mary’s blue robe, the ribs of glass that add to the illusion of depth, the colors rendering the forms as open and receptive as Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers. I am, in short, Madam, a non-reformed sensualist.”
Nina stared at the glass. “The colors, they’re so sudden, so unexpected.”
“Ah, one who not only looks but sees.” He pointed to her camera case. “You’re a photographer?”
Nina hesitated. George referred to her work as her hobby, an assessment that chafed. “Yes,” she said. “Actually, I am.”
Mr. Russell reminded her of the narrators of public television specials who led viewers through castles, across continents, weaving connections and insights. He rambled on, words spiraling, like the lacy ironwork of the gates in the wrought iron fences surrounding Charleston’s eighteenth-century mansions.
He wandered over to the chancel window. “Have a look here, Mrs. Wagner, have you ever noticed how one indulgence demands another? This window, like the other Tiffanys, dates from 1893.” He stepped back slightly, drawing her attention upward. “A mere dozen years later the good congregation went further, renovating the dome to near-Byzantine glory.” Mr. Russell paused, wagging his finger. “Never mind that gold leaf and stenciling, like the Victorian stained glass, are totally inappropriate to an eighteenth-century building.” His finger rested on his chin; a slow smile of recognition tugged at his thin lips. “Yes, at some point the simplicity, the severity must have become unbearable. Few have the imagination to evoke God’s radiance without assistance. Have you seen it? I refer not to God’s radiance, of course, but to, say, Constantinople, Istanbul, if you will, although radiance and the city are nearly synonymous. No? I imagine you’d like to. The dome of Hagia Sofia has forty windows at its base, giving the illusion that the dome rests upon light, or is, as one sixth century observer put it, ‘suspended by a gold chain from heaven.’ The poet Paulus observed the vaulting ‘is covered over with many little squares of gold, from which the rays stream down and strike the eyes so that men can scarcely bear to look.’” Mr. Russell mopped his face with the silk handkerchief he pulled from his breast pocket. “I’m running on, I apologize.”
“Oh, no.” Nina touched his arm. “I didn’t interrupt for fear you might stop.”
“Forgive my boldness, but might I offer you my services as guide, and to your husband, of course, if he’s available and so inclined.”
“Oh, I … ” Nina paused. George would say she was being reckless, taking unnecessary chances. But Mr. Russell was a real Charlestonian. The restaurants he must know, things she’d never get from a brochure. He waited, left eyebrow raised slightly in anticipation. She took a deep breath and smiled. “My husband’s unavailable, but I’d love that.”
“Splendid. You’ll join me for lunch, of course, but first let’s take a turn around the graveyard. It lost a good many old trees to Hurricane Hugo. Without them the heat is too much once the sun settles into its afternoon course. In Charleston,” Mr. Russell paused, dipping the corner of his handkerchief in the baptismal font, dabbing at his face and neck, “everything and everyone yields to the heat. Most colonists came to Charleston via Barbados. Dampness, heat, and flood, they knew what they were up against. They brought with them the necessary adaptations, shutters, masonry stucco construction, piazzas, those spacious porches gracing each level of the house.”
Nina sidestepped a broken gravestone propped against the wall of the church. “What happened to these grave markers?” She took out her camera, stepped back to include the stones in the frame.
Mr. Russell smiled a wide smile, showing surprisingly small teeth. “That devil Hugo again. He displaced several souls. They know who’s buried here, they just don’t know where.”
Nina read aloud, “Sacred to the memory of Margaret Mercer, consort of John Mercer. Exemplary wife, tender and affectionate mother, kind mistress, sincere friend. Her happiness consisted in promoting the happiness of others. All the tender charities of life mingled together in her bosom.”
“Is this what men want from their wives?” Nina was surprised to hear herself ask.
“I wouldn’t have the faintest idea. I haven’t got one. She was only eighteen. She hadn’t much time to disappoint him, had she?” Mr. Russell laughed a high-pitched giggle at odds with his girth.
He settled his hand on the small of Nina’s back, eased her down a path of uneven bricks. “Enough of the maladies of the dead. Could I interest you in fried alligator?
“Alligator? Now you must be joking.”
“Not at all. Wipe that worried look off your face, Mrs. Wagner. I assure you these are what we call nuisance gator, strictly golf course variety.”
Dish after dish appeared, deftly orchestrated by Mr. Russell and his accomplice, a wiry young waiter in white jeans. “You’ve never had grits?” The waiter removed her barely touched bowl of she-crab soup, his tanned face reddening with excitement. He ran off to the kitchen, the sun-bleached ends of his brown hair flying behind him. He returned with the alligator, bringing along a plate of grits surrounded by tasso gravy. Nina insisted on photographing each course as it arrived.
Mr. Russell knew just the right moment to retire a dish. Nothing stayed on the table after novelty turned to familiarity and Nina began to eat for the sake of satisfying hunger. Chivalrous, the waiter or Mr. Russell continually topped off her glass. Such a pleasant careless numbness settled over her that she requested the key lime pie before it was offered.
“I love the way the tartness of limes pulls at your lips,” she said, savoring her first bite. “It’s like a kiss.”
The acerbity of the pie had stirred some silly sliver of a memory she’d already lost. She glanced at Mr. Russell, anticipating his discomfort. Instead, she saw he was laughing, a big soundless laugh that rocked his large frame. She began to laugh herself, loud enough for the both of them. “Brilliant,” Mr. Russell managed to get out. “Absolutely fresh.”
The heat had intensified, just as he predicted. They ambled toward the breezy comfort of the Battery. Nina felt dull from the heat, the shared bottle of wine. She slowed her step, lifted her hair from the back of her neck. “This heat is unrelenting, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid I’ve led you out at siesta time.” Mr. Russell puffed a little with the effort of his words. Unbidden, the image of him breathing heavily, laboring over her, came to her mind. Nina stared through into the garden of a stately antebellum home where a black dog lay sleeping on his back, legs sprawled, lips relaxed and drawn away from his teeth. She had been thinking of sensual pleasure all day—the couple in the next room, the marital relations of the deceased, the provocative tastes and textures of the meal. And Mr. Russell himself, his light touch, his seductively dense soliloquies. She could just hear him, going on about the slaves who fashioned the tips of the iron fences after the spears of their respective African tribes. She thought of the polite conversations she had with the husbands of her friends. The last man she had talked to at length was the dishwasher repairman who lectured her on the importance of rinsing plates.
“Your color, I’m afraid, is a trifle pallid.” Mr. Russell held out his arm. “Mightn’t I offer you something? I’m just around this corner here.”
Nina took a weaving step backward. “I should really be getting back. You’ve been too kind.”
“Do come along. No sense in trudging off to your hotel through this heat on a full stomach. I understand my late cousin offered tea in our family home to Charleston visitors. I’ll look on it as a continuation of that tradition.”
He stopped at a garden gate covered in musk roses and jasmine on the verge of blooming. The baskets of flowers fashioned in the ironwork reminded Nina of the lace of her wedding veil. Packed in a special box, she had last seen it while putting away the Christmas ornaments. She ran her hand over the hard flowers, the iron biting her fingers.
She peered down the narrow passageway at the pointed brick walls overcome by heady ligustrum bushes; massive pots of white hydrangea flanked the brick path. At the end of the walk, she could just see a brilliant blue corner of a swimming pool, what locals called a Charleston Lake. Somewhere was the delicate tinkling of a fountain.
“It’s not just our brass, but our gardens, and, as you’ll soon find out, our mint juleps that fuel our self-regard,” Mr. Russell said, following her in off the street.
“Oh, Mr. Russell, I couldn’t … ” Nina began.
“This is exactly why you should. The mint julep happens to be the perfect antidote to a sweltering day.”
Mr. Russell settled Nina at a glass table beneath a wisteria-covered pergola, hurried up the steps to the first-floor piazza. A white-haired black maid watched Nina from underneath her eyebrows as she perfunctorily pushed a string mop across the floor. “Crush some ice, if you would please, Harriet,” he called out, “and get the silver cups while I gather my julep supplies. And some ham biscuits, if you please.”
The foamy heads of white astilbe waved in the hot breeze; white roses and an espaliered magnolia climbed the wall of the brick kitchen house. From the raised parterre came the recalcitrant smell of boxwood. Greenery, fashioned into contained hedges, cones, and spheres was further ordered by crushed oyster-shell paths centered on a stone obelisk.
“You’re no doubt enjoying what Oliver Wendell Homes called ‘the fragrance of eternity.'” Mr. Russell set down a silver tray bearing a bottle of Tennessee sour mash, a small pitcher of water, a wooden spoon, a small bowl containing powdered sugar, and the ham biscuits. “To be fully appreciated, a parterre needs to be seen from the upper floors. That was the design intent.”
He had shed his jacket. There were no wrinkles, no sign of perspiration on his shirt. Had he gone upstairs to change? She felt herself tighten at the thought of him making himself presentable for her, watching her below in his garden.
Harriet arrived, bearing two silver cups filled with crushed ice and monogrammed with curlicued R’s. “The wood’s essential,” Mr. Russell said when he saw Nina eyeing the second tray, “as is the silver. We’re in pursuit of the perpetually frosty cup. That’s all for today, Harriet, thank you.”
Harriet returned to the house, exited with her purse and shopping bag. A ripple of panic traveled through Nina as she watched her hurry down the garden walk. She rose to go, her head reeling. She recovered her seat; thankful Mr. Russell’s back was to her.
He dropped the mint leaves in the bowl with the sugar, added a small amount of water, and mashed the leaves with a wooden spoon.
The smell of the herb came to her, astringent and head clearing. Watching Mr. Russell divide the mixture between the silver cups, fill them with whiskey, stir them, she found herself overpowered by an enormous thirst. She turned up the cup, the sugary liquid speaking to some deep craving set in motion by her surroundings.
“Careful.” He edged the plate of biscuits toward her. “Best have one of these. Their saltiness cuts the sweetness of the drink but I dare say their true mission is to slow alcohol absorption.”
The biscuit crumbled in her mouth; the salt of the ham competed with the velvet syrupiness of the julep. “It’s so pleasant here.”
Mr. Russell nibbled a biscuit, took a healthy swig of his drink.
The warmth of the julep brought the teasing memory of limes whole. A party, a sweltering summer afternoon. The host passed a bottle of tequila, a plate of quartered limes, a box of salt. Nina held the lime between her thumb and forefinger, licked the crotch of her hand, sprinkled salt on her skin, licked again, turned up the bottle, bit into the lime. She passed the tequila to George, her date, closed her eyes. The tequila sent George into a series of confused, convulsive retches. “It’s like kissing,” she said, turning to their host, “the limes taste like kissing.” Later the host followed her into the bathroom. Both of them up on their toes, against the wall, a knee trembler he called it, and she laughed at the words that fit the excitement that had her throbbing all over. She ignored George the rest of the evening, drunk with possibility. Surprised when he continued to phone and the host never did, George became someone to fall back on, someone to make her safe from herself. Had that impelled her to go on, to the next date, the next, all the way to the altar?
“So many smells,” she murmured, her eyes still closed, her head spinning pleasantly.
She felt him lean in her direction, sniff. “That’s ligustrum. Very accommodating, you can make them into topiary, or leave them to sprawl.” She heard him get up, disturb the surface of the water. “The lake’s a nuisance, really. I ought to fill it in. But I can’t bring myself to do it.”
Nina reluctantly opened her eyes.
“It’s the iridescent surface. Plaster laid on six inches thick. Every few years I drain the pool, sand it, bring back that glow. It has the patina of healthy flesh, don’t you think? How could I bury something so beautiful?”
His choice of words startled her even though his smile and expression were unchanged. He returned to his chair. Eyes closed, he shook his head, inhaled deeply. “Nicotiana. I do believe I smell the tobacco blossoms. Their jasmine-like scent is strongest after dark. As a famous perfumer once said ‘Our lives are quiet. We like to be disturbed by delight.”
Under the table his leg settled against her knee. All day he had been initiating her to his touch. She reached for her julep. Through the marbled glass, she could just make out his hand resting on his thigh, the skin blurred, the edges dissolving into the synaptic cleft between them.
He talked on about the Middletons, their passions and problems now memorialized in the rehearsed speeches of plantation guides, tidy little white-haired ladies in lace-trimmed blouses with patches of melanoma cut away from their faces.
Nina inhaled the coming perfume of the tobacco blooms and listened to him recount the earthquake of 1886 that ravaged the garden terraces, sucked dry the Butterfly Lakes, reshaping in seconds what took scores of slaves decades to build. Shook the stubborn gutted brick walls until they finally fell.
This is one of our “Slowing Down” accepted submissions. Read the rest from this theme here.
Judith Turner-Yamamoto was born and raised in Asheboro, North Carolina, and is a Guilford College alumna. Her debut novel, Loving the Dead and Gone, was a 2020 Petrichor Prize finalist and released September 6, 2022, from Regal House Publishing, Sour Mash Southern Literature Series. Reviews and interviews have or will appear in Publishers Weekly, The Southern Review of Books, The Southern Literary Review, Foreword Reviews, Cincinnati Magazine, LA Review of Books, Bloom, AuthorLink and North Carolina Literary Review.