South of broad, p.1
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       South of Broad, p.1

          
South of Broad


  This book is dedicated to my wife and fellow novelist, Cassandra King, who helped more than anyone in bringing South of Broad to its publication. To me, she is the finest thing ever produced on an Alabama farm.

  PROLOGUE The Mansion on the River

  It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River.

  He was talking about Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets. Charleston was my father’s ministry, his hobbyhorse, his quiet obsession, and the great love of his life. His bloodstream lit up my own with a passion for the city that I’ve never lost nor ever will. I’m Charleston-born, and bred. The city’s two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper, have flooded and shaped all the days of my life on this storied peninsula.

  I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen. The high tides of the city flood my consciousness each day, subject to the whims and harmonies of full moons rising out of the Atlantic. I grow calm when I see the ranks of palmetto trees pulling guard duty on the banks of Colonial Lake or hear the bells of St. Michael’s calling cadence in the cicada-filled trees along Meeting Street. Deep in my bones, I knew early that I was one of those incorrigible creatures known as Charlestonians. It comes to me as a surprising form of knowledge that my time in the city is more vocation than gift; it is my destiny, not my choice. I consider it a high privilege to be a native of one of the loveliest American cities, not a high-kicking, glossy, or lipsticked city, not a city with bells on its fingers or brightly painted toenails, but a ruffled, low-slung city, understated and tolerant of nothing mismade or ostentatious. Though Charleston feels a seersuckered, tuxedoed view of itself, it approves of restraint far more than vainglory.

  As a boy, in my own backyard I could catch a basket of blue crabs, a string of flounder, a dozen redfish, or a net full of white shrimp. All this I could do in a city enchanting enough to charm cobras out of baskets, one so corniced and filigreed and elaborate that it leaves strangers awed and natives self-satisfied. In its shadows you can find metalwork as delicate as lace and spiral staircases as elaborate as yachts. In the secrecy of its gardens you can discover jasmine and camellias and hundreds of other plants that look embroidered and stolen from the Garden of Eden for the sheer love of richness and the joy of stealing from the gods. In its kitchens, the stoves are lit up in happiness as the lamb is marinating in red wine sauce, vinaigrette is prepared for the salad, crabmeat is anointed with sherry, custards are baked in the oven, and buttermilk biscuits cool on the counter.

  Because of its devotional, graceful attraction to food and gardens and architecture, Charleston stands for all the principles that make living well both a civic virtue and a standard. It is a rapturous, defining place to grow up. Everything I reveal to you now will be Charleston-shaped and Charleston-governed, and sometimes even Charleston-ruined. But it is my fault and not the city’s that it came close to destroying me. Not everyone responds to beauty in the same way. Though Charleston can do much, it can’t always improve on the strangeness of human behavior. But Charleston has a high tolerance for eccentricity and bemusement. There is a tastefulness in its gentility that comes from the knowledge that Charleston is a permanent dimple in the understated skyline, while the rest of us are only visitors.

  My father was an immensely gifted science teacher who could make the beach at Sullivan’s Island seem like a laboratory created for his own pleasures and devices. He could pick up a starfish, or describe the last excruciating moments of an oyster’s life on a flat a hundred yards from where we stood. He made Christmas ornaments out of the braceletlike egg casings of whelks. In my mother’s gardens he would show me where the ladybug disguised her eggs beneath the leaves of basil and arugula. In the Congaree Swamp, he discovered a new species of salamander that was named in his honor. There was no butterfly that drifted into our life he could not identify by sight. At night, he would take my brother, Steve, and I out into the boat to the middle of Charleston Harbor and make us memorize the constellations. He treated the stars as though they were love songs written to him by God. With such reverence he would point out Canis Major, the hound of Orion, the Hunter; or Cygnus, the Swan; or Andromeda, the Chained Lady; or Cassiopeia, the Lady in the Chair. My father turned the heavens into a fresh puzzlement of stars: “Ah, look at Jupiter tonight. And red Mars. And isn’t Venus fresh on her throne?” A stargazer of the first order, he squealed with pleasure on the moonless nights when the stars winked at him in some mysterious, soul-stirring graffiti of ballet-footed light. He would clap his hands with irresistible joy on a cloudless night when he made every star in the sky a silver dollar in his pocket.

  He was more North Star than father. His curiosity about the earth ennobled his every waking moment. His earth was billion-footed, with unseen worlds in every drop of water and every seedling and every blade of grass. The earth was so generous. It was this same earth that he prayed to because it was his synonym for God.

  My mother is also a Charlestonian, but her personality strikes far darker harmonies than my father’s did. She is God-haunted and pious in a city with enough church spires to have earned the name of the Holy City. She is a scholar of prodigious gifts, who once wrote a critique of Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce for the New York Review of Books. For most of my life she was a high school principal, and her house felt something like the hallway of a well-run school. Among her students, she could run a fine line between fear and respect. There was not much horseplay or lollygagging about in one of Dr. Lindsay King’s schools. I knew kids who were afraid of me just because she was my mother. She almost never wears makeup other than lipstick. Besides her wedding band, the only jewelry she owns is the string of pearls my father bought her for their honeymoon.

  Singularly, without artifice or guile, my mother’s world seemed disconsolate and tragic before she really knew how tragic life could be. Once she learned that no life could avoid the consequences of tragedy, she softened into an ascetic’s acknowledgment of the illusory nature of life. She became a true believer in the rude awakening.

  My older brother, Steve, was her favorite by far, but that seemed only natural to everyone, including me. Steve was blond and athletic and charismatic, and had a natural way about him that appealed to the higher instincts of adults. He could make my mother howl with laughter by telling her a story of one of his teachers or about something he had read in a book; I could not have made my mother smile if I had exchanged arm farts with the Pope in the Sistine Chapel. Because I hero-worshipped Steve, it never occurred to me to be jealous of him. He was both solicitous and protective of me; my natural shyness brought out an instinctive championing of me. The world of children terrified me, and I found it perilous as soon as I was exposed to it. Steve cleared a path for me until he died.

  Now, looking back, I think the family suffered a collective nervous breakdown after we buried Steve. His sudden, inexplicable death sent me reeling into a downward spiral that would take me many years to fight my way out of and then back into the light. My bashfulness turned to morbidity. My alarm systems all froze up inside me. I went directly from a fearful childhood to a hopeless one without skipping a beat. It was not just the wordless awfulness of losing a brother that unmoored me but the realization that I had never bothered to make any other friends, rather had satisfied myself by being absorbed into that wisecracking circle of girls and boys who found my brother so delicious that his tagalong brother was at least acceptable. After Steve’s death, that circle abandoned me before the flowers at his graveside had withered. Like Steve, they were bright and flashy children, and I always felt something like a toadstool placed outside the watch fires of their mysteries and attractions.

  So I began the Great Drift when Steve left my family forever. I found myself thoroughly unable to fulfill my enhanced duties as an only child. I could not take a step without incurring my mother’s helpless wrath over my raw un-Stephenness, her contempt for my not being blond and acrobatic and a Charleston boy to watch. It never occurred to me that my mother could hold against me my unfitness to transfer myself into the child she had relished and lost. For years, I sank into the unclear depths of myself, and learned with some surprise that their haunted explorations would both thrill and alarm me for the rest of my life. A measurable touch of madness was enough to send my fragile boyhood down the river, and it took some hard labor to get things right again. I could always feel a flinty, unconquerable spirit staring out of the mangroves and the impenetrable rain forests inside me, a spirit who waited with a mineral patience for that day I was to claim myself back because of my own fierce need of survival. In the worst of times, there was something that lived in isolation and commitment that would come at my bidding and stand beside me, shoulder-to-shoulder, when I decided to face the world on my own terms.

  I turned out to be a late bloomer, which I long regretted. My parents suffered needlessly because it took me so long to find my way to a place at their table. But I sighted the early signs of my recovery long before they did. My mother had given up on me at such an early age that a comeback was something she no longer even prayed for in her wildest dreams. Yet in my anonymous and underachieving high school career, I laid the foundation for a strong finish without my mother noticing that I was, at last, up to some good. I had built an impregnable castle of solitude for myself and then set out to bring that castle down, no matter how serious the collateral damage or who might get hurt.

  I was eighteen years old and did not have a friend my own age. There wasn’t a boy in Charleston who would think about inviting me to a party or to come out to spend the weekend at his family’s beach house.

  I planned for all that to change. I had decided to become the most interesting boy to ever grow up in Charleston, and I revealed this secret to my parents.

  Outside my house in the languid summer air of my eighteenth year, I climbed the magnolia tree nearest to the Ashley River with the agility that constant practice had granted me. From its highest branches, I surveyed my city as it lay simmering in the hot-blooded saps of June while the sun began to set, reddening the vest of cirrus clouds that had gathered along the western horizon. In the other direction, I saw the city of rooftops and columns and gables that was my native land. What I had just promised my parents, I wanted very much for them and for myself. Yet I also wanted it for Charleston. I desired to turn myself into a worthy townsman of such a many-storied city.

  Charleston has its own heartbeat and fingerprint, its own mug shots and photo ops and police lineups. It is a city of contrivance, of blueprints; devotion to pattern that is like a bent knee to the nature of beauty itself. I could feel my destiny forming in the leaves high above the city. Like Charleston, I had my alleyways that were dead ends and led to nowhere, but mansions were forming like jewels in my bloodstream. Looking down, I studied the layout of my city, the one that had taught me all the lures of attractiveness, yet made me suspicious of the showy or the makeshift. I turned to the stars and was about to make a bad throw of the dice and try to predict the future, but stopped myself in time.

  A boy stopped in time, in a city of amber-colored life that possessed the glamour forbidden to a lesser angel.

  PART ONE

  CHAPTER 1 June 16, 1969

  Nothing happens by accident. I learned this the hard way, long before I knew that the hard way was the only path to true, certain knowledge. Early in my life, I came to fear the power of strange conveyances. Though I thought I always chose the safest path, I found myself powerless to avoid the small treacheries of fate. Because I was a timid boy, I grew up fearful and knew deep in my heart the world was out to get me. Before the summer of my senior year in high school, the real life I was always meant to lead lay coiled and ready to spring in the hot Charleston days that followed.

  On June 16, 1969, a series of unrelated events occurred: I discovered that my mother once had been a Roman Catholic nun in the Sacred Heart order; an Atlas moving van backed into the driveway of a nineteenth-century Charleston single house across the street from ours; two orphans arrived at the gates of St. Jude’s Orphanage behind the cathedral on Broad Street; and the News and Courier recorded that a drug bust had taken place on East Bay Street at the Rutledge-Bennet house. I was eighteen, with a reputation as a slow starter, so I could not feel the tectonic shift in my fate as my history began to launch of its own volition. It would be many years before I learned that your fate could scuttle up behind you, touch you with its bloody claws, and when you turn to face the worst, you find it disguised in all innocence and camouflaged as a moving van, an orphanage, and a drug bust south of Broad. If I knew then what I have come to learn, I would never have made a batch of cookies for the new family across the street, never uttered a single word to the orphans, and never introduced myself to the two students who were kicked out of Porter-Gaud School and quickly enrolled at my own Peninsula High for their senior year.

  But fate comes at you cat-footed, unavoidable, and bloodthirsty. The moment you are born your death is foretold by your newly minted cells as your mother holds you up, then hands you to your father, who gently tickles the stomach where the cancer will one day form, studies the eyes where melanoma’s dark signature is already written along the optic nerve, touches the back where the liver will one day house the cirrhosis, feels the bloodstream that will sweeten itself into diabetes, admires the shape of the head where the brain will fall to the ax-handle of stroke, or listens to your heart, which, exhausted by the fearful ways and humiliations and indecencies of life, will explode in your chest like a light going out in the world. Death lives in each one of us and begins its countdown on our birthdays and makes its rough entrance at the last hour and the perfect time.

  I awoke at four-thirty that June morning, threw on my clothes, then rode my bike to the northeast corner of Colonial Lake, where a News and Courier truck was idling in the darkness waiting for my arrival. I began folding a huge pile of papers and placing them tightly wrapped with rubber bands into one of two capacious bags that hung from my shoulders. It took fifteen minutes for me to get the bike right for the morning run, but I was fast and efficient at what I did. I had been a newspaper boy for three years. In the light of the truck I watched Eugene Haverford writing down the addresses of new customers or complaints from one of my regulars. Already, he was on his second Swisher Sweets cigar of the morning, and I could smell the Four Roses bourbon on his breath. He thought the cigar smoke masked his early-morning drinking.

  “Hey, Leo, my distinguished Charleston gentleman friend,” Mr. Haverford said, his voice as slow as his movements.

  “Hey, Mr. Haverford.”

  “Got two new subscriptions for you. One on Gibbes Street, one on South Battery.” He handed me two notes printed out in large letters. “One complaint—that lunatic on Legare Street claims she has not gotten her newspaper all week.”

  “I hand-delivered it to her, Mr. Haverford. She’s getting forgetful.”

  “Push her down a flight of stairs for both of us. She’s the only customer to ever complain about you.”

  “She gets afraid, living in that big house,” I said. “She’s going to need some help soon.”

  “How in the hell do you know that, Charleston gentleman?”

  “I pay attention to my customers,” I said. “Part of the job.”

  “We bring the news of the world to their front doors, don’t we, Charleston gentleman?”

  “Every day of the year, sir.”

  “Your parole officer called me again,” he said. “I told her what I always tell her—that you’re the best newspaper boy I’ve seen in my thirty years with the company. I tell her the News and Courier is lucky to have you.”

  “Thanks,” I said. “I go off probation soon. She won’t bother you much longer.”

  “Your old lady made her weekly pain-in-the-ass call too,” he said.

  “Mother’ll probably call you the rest of her life.”

  “Not after what I told her yesterday. You’re eighteen, Leo, a man as far as I’m concerned. Your mother’s a stiff bitch. Not my kind of broad. But she asked me if you were fulfilling your duties properly. Her exact words, by the way. Listen up, Leo. Here’s what I told her: If I ever have a kid, which I won’t, I’d like him to be exactly like Leo King. I wouldn’t change one thing. Not one thing. My exact words, by the way.”

  “That’s so nice of you, Mr. Haverford.”

  “Quit being so naïve, Leo. I keep telling you that. Quit being so open to the world’s shitting all over you.”

  “Yes, sir. My naïve days are over.”

  “You goddamn Charleston gentleman.”

  With a squeaking of wheels, he drove off into the darkness, his cigar glowing like a firefly in his cab, and I pedaled my bicycle forward.

  Heading south on Rutledge Avenue, I lobbed a rolled-up newspaper on the first piazza of every house on the street, except for Burbage Eliot, who was famous as a tightwad even in penny-pinching Charleston. He borrowed his paper from Mrs. Wilson. She read it over her breakfast of soft-boiled egg, stone-ground grits, and chamomile tea, then recycled it to her stingy neighbor by tossing it onto his back porch.

  I could lob a newspaper with either hand. When I turned left on Tradd Street, I looked like an ambitious acrobat hurling papers to my right and left as I made my way toward the Cooper River and the rising sun that began to finger the morning tides of the harbor, to dance along the spillways of palmetto fronds and water oaks until the street itself burst into the first flame of morning. The lawyer Compson Brailsford awaited me in his yard and got down in a wide receiver’s stance as I neared the serene stillness of his family’s mansion. As I passed, he sprinted out in his seersucker suit, elegant as a Swiss Army knife, and ran a quick button-hook pattern in the trimmed grass. On the days when I was good, the paper was already in the air when he turned and made his move back toward the imaginary quarterback at The Citadel; he was an All-Southern Conference end. On this morning his movements were letter-perfect and efficient, and my pass arrived at the precise moment. It was a game that had begun between us by accident, but it continued every day unless he was out of town or the weather too inclement for a well-dressed Charleston lawyer.

 
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