A writer finds his rhythm by the run of the water
By Scott Gould
My buddy George needed smoke breaks after lunch, so early in the afternoons, we’d walk that stretch of river behind the school where we taught. The Reedy slows down there just after the falls and takes a left turn eastward, toward Cleveland Park and Conestee. Beyond a stair-step of small rapids right below the dorms of the Governor’s School, the floodplain flattens, and you can walk right to the river’s edge. George and I would grab a couple of those free doggie poop bags and fill them with the things the river left us.
I suppose that says a couple of things about the inevitability of being human. First, folks can’t seem to stay away from moving water. Maybe it’s the hypnotic effortlessness of the current. Maybe it’s the knowledge that we can’t live without it, but whatever it is, water attracts us like kids to an ice cream truck. And, second, we’re all born to be scavengers, collectors. Something in us cannot resist the desire to gather. People smarter than me probably have a name for that condition. All I know is, George and I couldn’t help ourselves. Each day the Reedy River deposited new flotsam, and we were there to grab it in the time it took George to smoke down a couple of American Spirits.
I was after glass mostly. Shards and scraps that had been tumbled in the sand and current for God knows how many decades. The pieces I found at the Reedy wouldn’t qualify as authentic sea glass. They weren’t smooth enough. But they had a worn-down history to them, with all of their rough edges tamed. You’d think as much as George and I walked the river bank, I’d eventually run out of glass to find. But it was always there. In half an hour, I could pick up dozens and dozens of pieces. Remnants of old beer and soda bottles, remains of decorative glassware and medicine bottles. The best I ever found was a piece of an old green Kickapoo Joy Juice soda bottle with half of a Li’l Abner character peeking out at me. (I’d forgotten about drinking those when I was a kid.) I’d like to think I was doing something charitable for the environment when I combed the bank for glass, but I must confess: I was picky. I only selected the most worn, most interesting pieces. The rest I left, so they could spend a few more years whirling in the current.
I know that little slice of the Reedy River so well, I don’t have to worry about where to put my feet. They can handle the steps on their own.
George was less particular. He collected anything that caught his eye. The decent glass, he passed to me, but he filled his own plastic bag with interesting pieces of quartz, freshwater clam shells, fragments of pottery. One day he found what he thought was a perfectly round rock, almost too round to be natural. He took it to a woman at a museum up in the mountains and found out he’d picked up an honest-to-goodness Cherokee marble. George said the woman got so excited, she almost lost her breath. She’d read about Cherokee marbles but had never seen a real one. When he told me what he had, he rolled it in his palm and I felt a shiver work its way up my spine, thinking about how long that marble had been waiting in the eddies for somebody to play with it again. That marble still sits on the shelf in George’s writing room, except when he heads up to the casino at Cherokee to play the slot machines. He carries the marble in his pocket for luck. I’m not sure it’s worked yet.
I suppose the most interesting thing George and I ever found was the wallet. I remember it had rained for days, and when the sun finally reappeared and the water receded, we walked through the soggy floodplain to our stretch of river. It was just kind of lying there, still soaked from its ride on the current. For a few seconds, we treated the wallet like a rattlesnake and wouldn’t get too close. Finally, we spread the wet contents out on a flat rock. There were a few dollars’ worth of currency from a Central American country. A couple of paper cards with ink too runny to read. And there were two driver’s licenses. For two different men. We immediately concocted scenarios that involved somebody killing somebody else and dumping the body off a bridge. (Which brings up another human tendency: always think the worst.) We gave the wallet to the security office at school and never heard another word about it. Thinking back, I wish we’d kept it. We could make up stories for days about its history. The wallet deserved a better fate.
And I stayed busy with my glass. I’d take my doggie bags home in the evenings, fill the kitchen sink with bleach-water and let the shards soak overnight. The next morning, I’d spread them out to dry, then finally load them in huge glass pickle jars I’d get for free from the Greek drive-in down the road. I have no earthly reason why jar after jar of scrap glass line the cement window sills in my office. They aren’t all that interesting. They don’t do anything useful. They don’t spark conversation. They just sit there and catch occasional light.
And yet they remind me constantly of the river. They remind me to go to the water and take a walk, to keep my eyes down so I don’t miss anything worth putting in a plastic bag. I know that little slice of the Reedy River so well, I don’t have to worry about where to put my feet. They can handle the steps on their own. George has moved away—new teaching job in a new town—so I go to the river’s edge by myself now. I realize it’s a public place, that little stretch of water, but I sort of think of it as mine. If you happen to find yourself there, take what you feel compelled to gather, but I’d appreciate it if you left the glass, especially the blue pieces. They’re hard to come by.
Scott Gould is the author of the story collection Strangers to Temptation. He is the creative writing chair at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, and his essays have been featured in The Kenyon Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Raleigh Review, and more. For more information, visit scottgouldwriter.com.
Fortress by the Sea
Atalaya, the former home of New York aesthetes Archer and Anna Huntington, is empty but full of the past
By Ashley Warlick
It’s a castle.
It’s a castle built by a sculptor and a poet, so it’s a weird castle: squat and low and stormcloud grey, more of a fortress off the beach access parking lot, past the wet-lands and alligators, birdwatchers and campgrounds in Huntington Beach State Park. There are no spires or turrets, nothing as elaborate as what’s going down with bucket and shovel closer to shore, families on their vacations, toddlers with their toys.
You pay two dollars to enter, the rooms labeled and mapped in a brochure: a studio, a library, an animal pen, a sunroom, a room for shucking oysters, another for drying laundry. They’re all empty now, just whitewashed walls, words on a page. Which means it’s an imaginary castle. It’s a story you make up in your head as you pass through.
It begins like this: in 1927, Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington came down from New York and bought a string of old plantations stitched together across some 9,000 acres near Murrells Inlet for their winter home. Anna was a sculptor of massive, naturalistic animals (an animalier, which is a beautiful, evocative word, like priestess or courtesan). She created the first public monument of a woman by a woman in the United States, a sculpture of Joan of Arc so detailed her armor was historically accurate, so colossal people wondered how she possibly completed it herself. She was one of 12 women earning more than $50,000 a year in the early part of the last century, and, as such, the most successful female artist of her time.
Imagine the cub, led from his pen to pose for her sketches. Imagine the skylight drawn back, the fireplace roaring, the sound of the ocean, the gulls.
But she contracted tuberculosis, and if she wanted to keep working, she needed temperate climate, fresh air, sea breezes. Archer, stepson of a railroad baron and translator of the epic Spanish poem El Cid, designed their house, inspired by the Moorish architecture of southern Spain, to sit in view of the ocean.
He didn’t draw any plans for it; he imagined them.
He bought local brick and timber, hired local men, sons of slaves and foremen, black and white. In the shadow of the new paper mill in Georgetown, the grip of the Great Depression, he paid people to build a castle the way he described it to them.
Low to the ground, Atalaya makes a solid square of grey masonry block, 30 rooms enclosing a palmetto-filled courtyard with a watchtower at the center—which is where the castle gets its name: atalaya in Spanish means “watchtower.” Anna designed the intricate wrought-iron grates that cover the casement windows, painted a bright turquoise green, laced with vines and flowers. The palmettos are the same kind as the state flag, and also tropical, reminiscent of even warmer places, saltier breeze. They cast long dramatic shadows on the grass.
Anna’s studio, the first room you enter, has a skylight running the width of it. So, she could open the room to the weather, or the stars.
She made her sculptures life-size, or life-and-a-quarter, from live models. Bear cubs, deerhounds, a monkey, a macaw, a leopard. She traveled from New York to South Carolina every year with her animals in tow, in a kind of retrofitted Airstream-style trailer that Archer made for her. She kept pens outside her studio, a birdcage in the sunroom. Her father had been an early paleontologist. She grew up around the bones of dinosaurs, animals taking shape.
Imagine the cub, led from his pen to pose for her sketches. Imagine the skylight drawn back, the fireplace roaring, the sound of the ocean, the gulls.
Down the long corridor, past the bedrooms and baths, past the library, sits Archer’s study. Where he translated poems, brokered commissions, made purchases for Brookgreen Gardens, which the couple also conceived on their property and where many examples of Anna’s work still reside today, as well as hundreds of other sculptures from artists working at the time. He managed. He minded. Brookgreen was America’s first public sculpture garden. One day, Archer would propose the endowment that would fund the United States Poet Laureate. Every day, he wrote Anna poems, sometimes on little slips of paper folded like the animals she made.
In my mind, this is how these people begin to take shape. Atalaya is the artifact, the fossil, maybe more so than the poems and sculptures, or the grants and endow-ments that define their legacy. They made this place to live together, fit to their wildly specific needs. Archer’s shower had six showerheads, because he was so tall. Anna sometimes had to work from a ladder, her sculptures were so large. As a writer inspired by history, here is where I imagine the spark of a story. Which is the way it all began.
In the evening, Anna came from her studio, and Archer came from his study. (Did she bring the deerhound with her, the macaw riding her shoulder? Did he have a poem for her, folded like a bird?) They met in the courtyard and watched the bats swarm out of the watchtower to hunt the night.
They’d married March 10, 1923, on both of their respective birthdays—she was 47, he was 53. They were past the point of children, past the need for status or financial security, or any of the things most people married for, then or now.
Instead, together, they built this castle. This strange and giant life.
Ashley Warlick is the author of The Arrangement, and a food writer, teacher, mother, and partner in M. Judson Booksellers. She’s currently at work on a book that features Atalaya. For more information, visit ashleywarlick.com.
Taste of Home
A Greenville barbecue institution closes the gap for this Alabama son
By Terry Barr
It was a cold, rainy Friday in mid-January, 2010. I was home preparing syllabi for another semester at Presbyterian College, teaching young minds about Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy—the Southern Greats—when my phone rang. “Get ready! I found us a barbecue joint. I’ll be by in 15!”
My friend John Neil often finds us new places to eat. Being a realtor with Allen Tate, he scours the land in and around Greenville for his clients, and for us.
We’re Alabama football buddies, and we have reason to celebrate this year. Alabama defeated Texas for the BCS National Championship, Bama’s first title since 1992. John hosted the game-day party, with my family and his all decked out in Crimson jerseys. John actually went to UA, but while Alabama is my home state, I attended a smaller, liberal arts school. Regardless of our backgrounds, Alabama football is in our blood. Perhaps the only thing beyond our families, and John’s faith, that runs as deeply within us is our love for old-fashioned, hickory-smoked barbecue.
John is the creator and purveyor of “In-Laws Barbecue Sauces,” available in gourmet shops across the Upstate. I highly recommend the Bama White sauce. To die for. I make my own sauce on those occasions when I slow-grill St. Louis ribs over a charcoal fire in my Char-Griller. Doing so always evokes places from my Alabama childhood like Bessemer’s Bob Sykes (still cooking over a wood pit today) and the old Super Sandwich Shop where I first learned that barbecue pork sandwiches taste just fine with slaw mixed into the sauce. My mother says, “You eat with your eyes,” and if that’s so, I have been eating barbecue in my mind’s eye all my life.
After John picks me up, we head in a westerly direction, toward the Sans Souci area on Old Buncombe Road.
“Just where are we going?” I can’t help but ask.
“You’ll see,” he says. “Or, rather, you’ll smell!”
I don’t know what happened first as we got closer. Was it seeing the neon pig hanging above an otherwise nondescript structure, or the hickory smoke wafting into our car, conjuring even more memories?
We pull up to “the place,” Mike and Jeff’s Barbecue Diner. John parks right by the screened-in hickory pit.
“Roll down the windows, and leave ’em down!”
“But it’s cold and drizzly.”
“Don’t care. I want to take home some of this smoke.”
We head in and find a table toward the back of the diner. Mike and Jeff’s can seat only twenty or so patrons inside at any given time—that is, if you don’t mind the company of strangers at your table.
Our waitress passes menus to us. We find out that she’s owner Jeff Little’s mother, Kathleen. Some call her “Mama” or “Granny,” and she not only waits tables; she’s been making the banana pudding, available on Thursday through Saturday, since the business opened in 1997.
This is truly a family operation. The “Mike” in the company name is Jeff’s father-in-law, Mike Land, but he passed on a few years back, so Jeff runs the pit, cooking the shoulders and ribs for sixteen slow hours every day, using only hickory wood. Sometimes he mans the cash register, too, when his daughter Ashley, who usually holds down that seat, is away. His other daughter Austin and son Dallas are often in the kitchen, making sure all orders are served correctly.
On this day, Jeff walks in from the pit as we wait and notes our Bama gear (worn throughout the coming year at all occasions) and gives us a “Roll Tide.” He pulls for the Gamecocks but “respects” Alabama, he says. We ask him about the history of the joint, and he tells us that when they started, they served only burgers and dogs.
“I figured, though, that I couldn’t make it with just burgers and dogs. There’s too much competition, so I had to do something different. Making barbecue the old and the slow way’s a dying art, but that’s how we’ve done it all these years, and that’s how we’re gonna do it.”
We each order a combo plate—ribs and pulled pork—with sweet potato casserole, onion rings, and slaw on the side. At the table is a host of sauce flavor: regular red, hot red, mustard. I try them all, but my preference on this day is regular red, mixed with a bit of Texas Pete. Other than the Bama white sauce, which in Alabama is usually the province of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur, most Alabamians enjoy a basic, thick red sauce. Ketchup-based. I know that makes many Carolinians queasy, and I get that. I won’t disparage your way, so please understand mine.
For I have learned to love both mustard and vinegar-based sauce, red and plain.
But right now at Mike and Jeff’s, I am slathering the basic red all over ribs and pulled pork because I think for these minutes that I am a boy again, back in our family’s backyard at a Fourth of July or Labor Day picnic.
Mike and Jeff’s barbecue is the closest thing I have tasted to the barbecue I was born into. In this most fundamental way, tasting this flavorful smoked meat, I think I am the happiest I’ve been since moving to Greenville back in 1987. Sensations of home are like that, as literary great Marcel Proust demonstrated in his Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a. In Search of Lost Time). Closer to home, though, I think William Faulkner said it best, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
Thank God, neither is pit-cooked, hickory-smoked barbecue.
After our visit and over the following years, I take others to Mike and Jeff’s. These friends usually suggest meeting me there if I will tell them the location.
“I can’t tell you,” I say. “I’ll have to take you there.”
I want to guide them in part because I’m always ready to eat, but mainly because I want to see their faces, their noses, when they first take in the hickory aroma. I don’t know how many people I’ve taken there over these eight years, but everyone looks at me as they eat and says, “Why didn’t we know about this place?” or “How did you find it?”
I tell them this story, then, and since 2012, I’ve been able to add these postscripts:
In May of 2012, Mike and Jeff’s catered our daughter’s graduation party. This probably doesn’t sound unusual, except even then, most of our guests had never heard of the place. I’d say there were 75 new fans after that evening.
And, in October 2016, my older daughter Pari got married to a very smart young man. For their wedding reception here in town, Pari insisted (and I cannot emphasize how strongly) that Mike and Jeff’s cater her party. A party of 150 guests in semi-formal attire.
Pari’s mom is Persian, so there was a traditional Persian wedding dish of chicken, rice, slivered almonds, and orange rind, too, but everyone there—my old friends from Alabama, the Persian relatives, and native Greenvillians—all relished the barbecue. By the evening’s end, there was absolutely nothing left.
Pari looked at me after most of the guests had departed, “Everything was perfect, Daddy, especially Mike and Jeff’s!”
All I could tell her then is that this perfection felt like home.
And, of course, though Alabama has never been her home, she understood.
As Jeff said to me once, “We want to be a place that your kids will remember you taking them to when they get old.”
No worries, Jeff. The pit-fire is still blazing.
Terry Barr is the author of the essay collection, We Might As Well Eat: How to survive tornadoes, alabama football, and your southern family, published by Third Lung Press. Barr blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com and teaches creative nonfiction, modern novel, and Southern film at Presbyterian College. He lives in Greenville with his family. For more information, visit terrybarr.com.