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From my former house on the third street back from the ocean, I used to watch my oceanward neighbors stand under their old fig tree,
scoop the honey-flesh out of the fruit with their front teeth, and fling the rubbery fig skins to the ground, where no new fig trees sprouted. At least, not while I observed and not while their house still stood.
Their’s was an old family beach house, and they were a family of adults who showed up only a few times a year, never in the winter or for hurricane preparations. The fig-hungry people seemed to be in decline, as far as enjoying the beach went. Without the warning of a real estate sign, one day a long-limbed backhoe arrived and ripped the two-story house to the ground.
I was glad I got to watch the demolition. The backhoe approached through the backyard, giving me a view of the first swipe. It tore off the outer wall like it was drawing aside a game show curtain. The furnishings (the avocado refrigerator, the presswood table, pictures pinned to the walls, dishes that soon cascaded out of cupboards) still sat inside, in classic utilitarian placement. Then the house became a pile that was as quickly hauled off. The developer put in a landscaped parking lot for the new condo half a block away, and I noted, with a deep breath of salt air, my distant ocean view doubled in width. So I put my own house on the market.
I sold to a semi-retired couple who was excited about the opportunities of beach development. I moved five long beaches south, where the houses could be torn down only the old-fashioned way, by hurricane. In my new neighborhood, the houses were older and shabbier and more expensive than what the beaches immediately north offered; they were built just as closely together to corral the ocean view. This second house, which I named “Pink-O,” for the faded pink attic bedroom that I reserved for my own use, has been my favorite of all habitations I’ve ever entered, including the Le Havre house in Charleston, the old wing of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville where F. Scott Fitzgerald may have tried to shoot himself, Margaret Mitchell’s house in Atlanta, and the general hallowedness of Monticello.
Like the house I saw torn apart and the house I subsequently sold, Pink-O came furnished. By moving, I traded an old armoire for a knife-scarred hunt board. I traded white, crackled tableware for yellow. I traded two heavily painted dressers for three, and it seemed as if my old flattened mattresses had decided to follow me south like faithful dogs who know. Unlike my sell-out neighbors, I had many guests, who I encouraged to stay longer than expected, even before I was able to replace the mattresses.
I liked Pink-O best of all houses because it’s made entirely of wood, because of the closet within a closet that I eventually found on the second floor, and because so many people have passed through and autographed the pine planked rooms. You have to lay still to read the graffiti, which, penciled into the wood, sometimes looked like it had been scripted by the sharp abdomens of lazy, wandering beetles.
“Betty Lou was here.”
“Dinah Loves Hunter Collins.”
I was thrilled one day to find, in the first-floor bathroom, a cross-reference: Hunter Nathaniel Collins Jr., written in a growing child’s hand close to the baseboard, as if he’d had to sit, stinging-still, while the calamine lotion soaked in.
Pink-O, like its hidden but mainly empty closet, feels endless with suggestion. The local mayor, who ran the bait and tackle shop on the mainland, mentioned he’d stayed there often when he was young and always had a good time. My guests napped and stretched and mmmmm’d endlessly. Eventually, I found a box that documented this vibe.
The box was a wooden munitions cratelette with rope handles that had, at some time unknown to, and long before, me, been placed in the hinter-closet that I found only when I became curious about the plumbing of the adjacent bathroom. In the box was an old camera in its metal and leather sheath, four rolls of undeveloped film, and, as I learned later, a roll of film still inside the camera. The film and the camera were wrapped in vintage fabric that appeared to be as old as the tin film canisters. I shipped the whole box off to a photographer friend’s studio in Columbia, and he returned the munitions box to me with the camera, identifying it as a 1924 model, five packets of pictures, the fabric rolled neatly to be a bolster, and a request to keep duplicate prints of three of the pictures he’d made, for his own enjoyment and for a 20 percent discount to me.
I understood his request. Photographs fascinate by putting so much evidence on one piece of paper. As I stared at the pile of 48 photographs, fanned out on a table as if by a psychic advisor, I wondered how he had limited himself to those three. He had chosen, predictably yet still sweetly enough, the most risqué of the bunch, a series of girls in their sheath-like bathing suits showing off their kneecaps, where they’d drawn, with some skill, butterflies. He must have wanted his request to seem meager and had limited himself to the butterflies.
I owned all the pictures though. I did feel greedy about them, glad that I had the entire set. The black-and-white pictures, printed with a white border that improved the chemical process of printing, made me feel like I’d recovered an ancestral photographic memory. These were memories I hadn’t been able to see all along but now could. It was a grounding vision.
Men and women were the subject matter. They looked like friends who grew up together every summer at Pink-O, a natural assumption to make in a beach town. The obvious romantic couples had a nearly visible connection to each other. Throughout the photos, their arms were often close together, forming one reach or another. The women had that stripe of fullness from shoulder to elbow that Marilyn Monroe made so famous. The couples looked like they were about to kiss, even as they glanced at each other from across a room. Just a certain, almost smirky way they had about themselves, like they wanted to exclude everyone else, at least at some point in the very near future. I was glad to note this vintage, sexual mood. It brought up the longstanding motivations of togetherness, and I came to associate it with a memory of my own, of the time I had kissed a boy I had just met, in the old Charleston Museum, the wooden one that burned, and how we both gazed at the suspended whale skeleton at the intervals when we caught our breaths.
As I stared at the array of pictures and mulled and planned the framing, a message became clear to me. The message was not some certain profound phrase by which I could live the rest of my life: clearness became clear to me. It was the allure of connections between people, evident even in the pictures that were blurry or framed all wrong. The pictures imparted. The pictures belonged at Pink-O, more than I did. I fell away from ownership and into caretaker status. Any old historic house might do that to a person, but a house with so many faces requires it. They saw every angle, before I had.
“Come get a last glimpse,” I’d tell my guests in order to stand them in front of the photographs, which I’d finally hung in a big scattered group on the two-story wall that backed the stairwell. I’d lead them to the pictures after a few days of their visit had gone by, when something more needed to be added to our conversation. Too many guests in flip-flops ran past the display, which they presumed to be of my family, on the way out to the beach. Sometimes the notion of physicality had to be introduced, despite the bathing suit maximums of our wardrobes.
“Last?” someone would ask.
“This is what’s left of these people. This is it,” I was proud of their remnants, cleaner and more revealing than DNA samples, and I told my guests how the pictures came to be on this wall. “They were here before us, see the same front door. And the neighborhood is the same,” I said, pointing to a photograph with my neighbor’s house, just reroofed, in it.
“This is a vacation timeline,” one of my most frequent guests commented. She was a lithe woman, who fit the style of the 1920s. It was the romantically embroiled of my guests, like her, who related best to these pictures, who arose from the worn mattresses in the middle of the night to survey the pictures again. Plenty was exposed.
Seventy years ago, the houses were already weather-beaten, everything already faded by the sun. After I identified neighbors’ houses, I recognized the shots and perspectives: northward on the same dirt road, the identical glimpses of shoreline via the paths between houses, women standing on the beach shading their eyes, the endless popularity of polka-dots at the beach. The glistens of sweat in each picture, constant like the stars. The five rolls of film captured a lot of the lives of these men and women, both posing and hair-brushed, and sweating and in what looked to be trouble. It seemed that the photographer had quickly learned the maxim Always Have Your Camera On Hand.
“What is--” a guest would always ask about a certain few that were troubling on content. These were the scenes that called for stepping up a stair tread and leaning in, maybe pushing eyeglasses atop head.
“A death bed, don’t you think?”
“That’s a lot of sweat.”
“Who could take a picture like that?”
That was a question I had thought a lot about. The response was a test, I felt. Who would take a picture of a woman writhing in pain? The woman was laying on a bed in a tangle of sheets in a plain room. Chances are she was trying to give birth or was coughing up her lungs from the flu epidemics of that time. There were no clues beyond plain bed linens, the sweat, the obvious pain. There was no one else present at her side but the photographer, no suggestion of another’s shadow coming through the doorway to check in.
“Someone who couldn’t do any more to help,” was the reply I eventually formed for that one. It was a hopeful reply, based on the connection of how little anyone could offer the woman so far gone in her own struggle.
The photographer offered only a paper-printed memory. What I had was the easiest part of their existence.
Once we’d taken in these old images together, I felt like my house guests understood that they were there to balance out, if not represent, everyone now dead who used to sleep and eat and commune at Pink-O. We weren’t reenacting like some costume-happy people do; we were forwarding: photographs of ourselves would end up on other walls and hard drives. The people in these pictures looked as if they lived the ’20s the same way we do the newest century: in love, bearing their family resemblances, forming ready words, their thoughts sometimes obvious (“not another picture now”) and sometimes not. What would a young couple be thinking in the back of a zooming car, accompanied by an unseen camera person and, we can assume, a driver? They look happy, and more, with something that they have and we don’t. But now we have something they didn’t—pictures to fathom, glimpses of how we got here, of who has left behind all these houses, paths, and views.
“That boy is cute,” a guests will say.
“Look at her hat,” they comment, thinking to shop history.
Stare, and come back again later to stare.
Between hurricanes and guests, when I have a drink poured together just right and I can hear the folk music played by the landscapers working down the street, it’s these images from the crate, simple and flat, that keep me from floating away into my Atlantic Ocean front yard.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives in Beaufort with her husband Irby Rentz and works as the editor of ArtNews, the print magazine of the Arts Council of Beaufort County. “Pink-O” is the epilogue to a longer story called “Amazing Purpose,” which encompasses a few more old and not-air-conditioned beach houses.