Authors: Pat Conroy
“I never get mad at you. My job is to adore you. I find it easy.”
“Go on with the story. Tell me about you and Mama falling in love. Get to the good part, to the beach party. Get to Mama, Capers Middleton, Mike, and Jordan.”
As I spoke, my voice crossing the years and the Atlantic, Leah would always look at the photograph of her lovely, wide-eyed mother that rested on the bedside table. I knew that the story made her love her mother more deeply, feel closer to her in a way nothing else could, and it was just what I intended.
“I first fell in love with Shyla Fox, a girl I had known my whole life, on St. George’s Island.”
“It was St. Michael’s Island,” Leah corrected. “It’s the island just before the Isle of Orion, where your mama lives now.”
“That’s right,” I said, always pleased by her attention to detail. “A friend of mine was throwing a party at his father’s house.”
“It was Capers Middleton. His father owned the Coca-Cola bottling company in Waterford. He lived in the nicest mansion on Bay Street.”
“Good girl. His father owned the beach house …”
“And Mama had dated Capers and a lot of other boys. She was real popular in high school, the sweetheart of Waterford High School. But Capers had brought her to the party.”
“You gonna tell this story or you gonna let me?” I asked.
“You. I love the way you tell it,” Leah said, her eyes resting again on her mother’s picture.
Then I would begin in earnest, going back to St. Michael’s Island during that storm-tossed year of northeast winds when the erosion along the barrier islands reached dangerous levels. On the shifting, undermined beach where part of an ancient forest was newly underwater to the north, the baseball team of Waterford High was throwing a party at high tide. It was the night it was predicted the Middleton house would begin to break up and fall into the sea. Four houses, a mile to the south, had been lost during the last spring tides. Though the house was condemned and abandoned, we were giving it a going-away party. Already it had begun to shift seaward, to lean toward the chased silver of the incoming breakers. The surf kept time to our dancing and counted out loud the slipping away of those last hours we would ever be teenagers. All of us had been there at the birth of rock and roll and we had done our part in putting rhythm and desire to music as we danced our way in both wildness and innocence through high school. The authorities had declared the house off-limits and we had broken through the sheriff’s lock and liberated the house for one last party at flood tide.
I was almost eighteen and still in possession of that crazy edge of a teenager. Full of bravado and Maker’s Mark, I had boasted that I was going to be in that house when it set sail from its anchorage on the old Seaside Road. Ledare Ansley, my date, had too much horse sense to stay in that tilted house illuminated only by the headlights of cars my teammates had driven to the party. On the way to the island, Ledare had told me sweetly that it was time we began seeing other people, that her parents were insisting that we break up soon after graduation. I nodded my head, not in agreement, but because I
had not yet found my voice, which lay hidden under a hormonal frenzy that struck me nearly dumb. She also confided in me that she was going to ask Capers Middleton to accompany her to her debut at Charleston’s St. Cecelia Society’s Ball. My origins were iffy and much rougher than Ledare’s, and my mother had warned me for years that this night was coming, but she’d never told me it would hurt as badly as it did.
The whole team and their dates had begun the night dancing to the music of transistor radios; the local station, WBEU, playing all the songs that had accompanied our class through four years of high school. The sea rose invisibly beneath us and the moon shone smooth and bright. A glossy flute of light, like velvet down a bridal aisle, lit the marlin scales and the backs of whales migrating a hundred miles at sea. The tides surged through the marsh and each wave that hit the beach came light-struck and broad-shouldered, with all the raw power the moon could bestow. Magically, an hour passed and we, ocean dancers and tide challengers, found ourselves listening to the sea directly beneath us as the waves began to crash in earnest against the house. Previous tides had already loosened the pilings and foundations pressing the house into the sands. When the noise of the surge and the breakup of concrete and wood grew too loud, many of my teammates and their dates broke prudently and ran for the line of cars and safety, as the water continued to rise beyond all believing. This great tide would eventually rise just over eight feet and it looked as though it meant to overwhelm the whole island. More and more of the dancers broke and ran laughing as the sea began to take the house apart from below. The salt-rusted nails were moaning like cellos in the grain of endangered wood. I was in the middle of doing the shag to “Annie Had a Baby” when a wave tore off the banister of the front porch and I lost my partner, Ledare Ansley, who fled outside with most of the others, squealing with fear and wearing my letterman’s jacket.
Left alone, I took my pint of Maker’s Mark up to the top floor and went out onto the deck just off the master bedroom. I stood face to face with the moon and the ocean and the future that spread out with all its bewildering immensity before me. It was a time in my life when many things bored me deeply and I hungered for
beauty and those realms of pure elation granted to those who had the imagination to know what to look for and how to find it. It was one of the reasons I loved playing right field for the baseball team during that long season as we sparred on the immaculate fields in the sheer beauty of the game’s discipline, a law unto itself. Right field was a home place for thinkers if you had the arm to keep the swift boys from going from first to third on a double. I had the arm and the mineral patience of the daydreamer and I roamed the outfield green, lamb happy and nervous when southpaws came to the plate.
A door opened behind me.
“Mama!” Leah squealed.
I looked around to see Shyla Fox in the moonlight. She looked as though she had dressed for this moment with the help of the moon. Bowing deeply, Shyla asked me if she could have the pleasure of this dance.
So we danced toward the central motion of our lives. The winds roared and a strange love rose like a tide between us and rested in the crown of waves that was loosening the frame of the house. Alone we danced beneath the full moon and the battery-powered light of cars as the team and their dates cheered each time they saw the giant shift taking place in the water-damaged foundation. As the Atlantic waters rose in a sanctioned dance of wave and tide, the house began to sway like the first terrible lifting of Noah’s Ark. We could hear the other five remaining couples as they screamed with pleasure and terror in that room directly beneath us. I held Shyla closely, dancing with the girl who had taught me how to dance on the veranda of my house. Outside, the players and their dates were begging us to abandon the foundering house and join them at the driftwood fires. They screamed out of worry and honked their car horns out of pure admiration for our daring.
Then the house shuddered as a large wave struck against its cinder-block foundation. Though I felt that same chilling fear that had sent the others running out of the house, Shyla’s eyes held me as we listened to the hammering of the waves beneath us. The cries of our friends now turned to pleas each time a wave washed down over the broken-up road, the salt spray exploding off the beaten-down tarmac that had eroded over time like a cookie half-eaten by a child.
A deck piling snapped outside, loud as a rifle shot. On the radio the Drifters began to sing “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Together, as though this scene had long been choreographed in some zodiacal prophecy, we said together and with no hesitation, “My favorite song.”
From first note to last, we danced the song that became ours at that very moment. We were silent above the lapping waters as I spun her into the changed shape of a girl who looked at me as none other had. Before her eyes, I felt like a prince fresh-born on the crests of the light-driven waves. She granted me a beauty I did not have and my soul turned proud in the fury of her centered wanting of me. Watching, I felt her ardor creating something glittering and good from my heart. It was then that she led me into the bedroom and I found myself on the torn carpet with Shyla’s lips pressed against mine, her tongue against my tongue, and I heard the fierceness and urgency of her whisper: “Fall in love with me, Jack, I dare you to fall in love with me.”
Before I could answer, I heard the house shudder once again and push off as it took its first primal step toward the sea. The house tilted, then fell forward as though it were prostrating itself before the power of this once-in-a-lifetime tidal surge. It felt as though a mountain were trying to rise up beneath us.
We left the rug and went out to the newly imbalanced balcony, holding hands to steady ourselves. The moon lit the sea in a freeway of papery light and we watched the boiling white caps feeding on the broken cement scattered beneath the house. We continued to dance while the house kept its appointment with the long tide and I blazed with the love of this young girl.
Our love began and ended with seawater. Later, I would often wish that Shyla and I had entered into a lovers’ pact that night and remained in that water-damaged house, enclosed in each other’s arms, and had let the ocean pour through the open windows until we rose in some invisible withdrawal and allowed the sea to pull us in a death clench out toward the Gulf Stream and beyond all hurt of history.
When I saw Shyla last I identified her broken body at the city morgue with the Charleston coroner in attendance. He was a man
of great compassion and he left me alone as I wept over her all but unrecognizable form. I prayed out Catholic prayers over her because they were the only ones I knew and they came as easily as tears, if only half-remembered. She was bloated from her time in the water, leaving all signs of her prettiness in the shallows of the harbor, and the crabs had done their work. Something caught my eye as I rose to leave her and I bent down and turned her arm. On her left forearm was tattooed the number 36 364 04.
“It was recently done,” the coroner said quietly. “Any idea why?”
“Her father was at Auschwitz,” I said. “It’s his number.”
“That’s a first,” he said. “You think you’ve seen everything here. But that’s certainly a first. Odd. Was she very close to her father?”
“Not at all. They barely spoke.”
“You going to tell the daddy about the tattoo?”
“No. It’d kill him,” I said, looking at Shyla’s body for the last time.
y name is Jack McCall and I fled to Rome to raise my daughter in peace. Now, in 1985, as I went up the spiral staircase that led to my terrace and a rooftop view of Rome, I took a music box that Shyla had given me as a present on our fifth wedding anniversary. Winding it, I looked over the Roman night. Far off, a bell struck, sounding much like a lost angel, and a breeze came off the Tiber. The music box played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, one of my favorite pieces of music in the world. The air was heavy with the dinner smells rising from Er Giggetto’s restaurant below: grilled lamb, mint leaves, and sage. I closed my eyes and saw Shyla’s face again.
From inside the music box I took the letter she had mailed to me on the day of her death and looked at how she had written my name. Her handwriting was pretty and she took special care whenever she put my name on paper. I thought about reading it again but instead I listened to the traffic moving past the Tiber and lifted the gold necklace from the music box. It had been a gift from her mother received at her sweet sixteen party and she had never taken it
off until that final day. The necklace had become part of my memory of our lovemaking. In her will, Shyla made it clear she wanted Leah to wear it when “she was old enough to understand the nature of the gift.” Shyla’s parents had asked for the return of the necklace when they sued me for custody of my child. Because it seemed like such a talisman of evil and bad luck to me, I had often thought of mailing it to them with no note or return address. It was only a necklace to me that night and I put it back in the music box.
Though I did not know it as I scanned the passersby moving down below, I was in the middle of a year that would change my life forever.
am usually up when the Piazza Farnese awakens. In darkness I brew my coffee and take a cup up to the terrace where I watch first light come over the deer-colored city.
At six in the morning, the man at the newspaper stand arrives and begins arranging magazines beneath his canopy. Then a truck enters the piazza from the west carrying bales of
and other morning papers. The two carabinieri who guard the entrance to the French Embassy switch on the lights of their jeep to begin their slow perfunctory circling of the Palazzo Farnese. Wearing the same expressions, like face cards in a disfigured deck, the carabinieri seem bored and usually you can see the pale glow of their cigarettes against the dashboards as they sit in their cars during the long Roman night. A van carrying fragrant bags of coffee then arrives in front of the Bon Caffè at the same time the owner of the café rolls up the steel shutters. His first cup of coffee always goes to the driver of the truck, the second to the owner of the newspaper stand. A small boy, the son of the owner, then takes two cups of black coffee to the carabinieri across the piazza just as the nuns in Santa Brigida begin to stir in the convent across from my building.