Thursday afternoon found me picking my way down what Adeline had charitably described as a “long badly-paved road out in the middle of nowhere.” “Pothole with residual random traces of asphalt” would have been more accurate. I had one of those baby U-Haul trailers clamped to the back of J-Lo, my dark green, seen-better-days Mustang (I owned a Mustang because my hero Mickey O’Hara, a cool cop-friendly reporter in W.E.B Griffin’s Badge of Honor series, drove one. Mickey was probably why I’d become a reporter in the first place). J-Lo was already aging when Mr. Foster disappeared and can be a temperamental bitch in the best of times. And although she had plenty of power to handle the light load strapped to her rear end, she who was indignant at being asked to tow a trailer.
And yes, prodded along by Mr. Lust, I now thought of Ms. Foster as Adeline, although I certainly hadn’t called her that to her face.
I was officially homeless—I’d cleaned out my apartment and turned in my key—but I was taking it on faith that there’d be a place to lay my head when I finally got to the end of this miserable excuse for a road. Adeline had advised me that while the place was “completely furnished,” she couldn’t vouch for the state of the furnishings. And so in addition to clothes and personal items I was hauling the three things necessary to a life well-lived: a firm mattress, a comfortable recliner, and a good TV. Anything less would be camping out, and while I don’t mind roughing it for a weekend, I wasn’t sleeping on a sagging mattress or watching a 26” screen for “a period not to exceed six months without prior approval.”
While J-Lo and I inched our way along, I spent the fallow part of my brain imagining what White Sands was going to be like when we got there. A quaint little village on the coast, the name suggested. Clapboard cottages on stilts peeking out between palm trees and over sand dunes toward sparkling white beaches littered with sea shells brought in by the gently rolling waves. During the season, a bright collection of colorful beach towels, each holding a sun-worshipping hard-body in a bikini, half of them lying on their bellies with their tops unhooked. But those would all be gone now, replaced by boats face down on the beach beyond the high tide mark, cottages closed for the winter.
I could hardly have been more wrong.
First of all, it wasn’t quaint, if by quaint you mean charmingly old-fashioned. Charleston is an old-fashioned city considered quaint, suffering its new buildings and commercial areas in dignified silence while clinging desperately to its essential antebellum nature. But White Sands wasn’t old-fashioned, it was just old. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was stuck in another time. The long-suffering road turned a corner and became Main Street with nothing more than a green sign, “White Sands, Population 643” to mark the transition. A mile later I came to the first building, an old Mobil Pegasus gas station, pumps abandoned but the red winged horse still flying proudly. There were several battered wooden tables and two shacks scattered about the pavement—perhaps a farmer’s market during the season but devoid of life now. And then a little further along came a few occupied buildings: a handful of squat wooden houses, a gas station that appeared to actually sell gasoline, a general store of indeterminate age.
Secondly, it wasn’t on the coast, if by coast you mean touching an ocean. Main Street finally dead-ended into a parking lot with a dock and a boat ramp that disappeared into a body of muddy water that was definitely not the ocean.
And last but not least, there was no trace of white sand anywhere.
This was to be my home base for the next not to exceed six months? And to get to civilization I had to brave the asphalt pothole both ways? There certainly wouldn’t be any drinking and then driving home. “Not to exceed” was clearly understating the situation; I was already highly incentivized to complete my investigation expeditiously.
I didn’t bother to stop in town, but turned left just before the dead end and headed toward my new home.
And promptly got lost. I’m notoriously bad at directions, which is why I’d outfitted J-Lo with a GPS soon after I got my first job with a regular paycheck. But Maison de Foster didn’t have an address, just a mailbox number. Adeline had drawn the intersection at the end of the road from hell and annotated it with the helpful information, “about 2 miles?” But two miles down the road there was only pastureland on the left and ancient oaks weighed down with some serious moss on the right.
Well, nothing to do but keep going until I ran out of road, ran out of daylight (I wasn’t wandering around out here after dark in the land that streetlights forgot), ran out of gas, or ran out of patience. I had half a tank of gas and 2 hours of daylight left and I’m not the impatient sort, so I was betting on running out of road.
But I didn’t. At 3.1 miles I found two mailboxes next to a dirt road turnoff, one with the number “328” on it. Since I was looking for 407, and numbers generally get higher the further from town you go, I was encouraged.
At 3.4 miles the road took a serious curve and the oak trees thinned out enough to give an occasional view of marsh and mud off to the right.
At 4.2 miles I found #407, and shortly thereafter my new home. Hey, I’m not complaining. In woman-speak, 4.2 qualifies as “about 2.”
Unlike “White Sands,” George Foster’s cottage turned out exactly as advertised. The front door opened into a living room sparsely furnished with a Naugahyde recliner and a matching couch, a TV much smaller than mine, and a pint-sized table holding an obsolete computer. Across the way was a tidy kitchen next to an eating area with a wood table and three straight-back chairs. Down a short hall to the right were two bedrooms, the smaller of which had been turned into a studio. Washer and dryer, bathroom with all the essential plumbing, enough closet space for what clothes I’d brought. Central heat, along with two window air conditioning units which hopefully I wouldn’t ever need to run.
Everything I needed to live in Spartan comfort, once I’d installed the essential furnishings that I’d brought. Except that when I went to plug in the cable box, there wasn’t one, just a wire leading to what turned out to be an ancient satellite dish that didn’t work. Great. From cozy one-star housing to camping out in one fell swoop. I started a list of things that needed attending to, putting that right at the top.
Adeline had told me to just get rid of anything I didn’t want, so I hauled Mr. Foster’s bed, recliner, and television out to the U-Haul. In the process I checked out the garage, which turned out to be a well-equipped workshop with no hope of ever housing an automobile without hauling in a dumpster. But that was OK: J-Lo hadn’t been in a garage since I’d owned her. She’d develop some serious attitude if she couldn’t see the stars while she was sleeping.
Unpacking took up what was left of the afternoon. Everything other than the TV—hot water, stove, refrigerator, internet connection—all worked fine. The clean-up crew had done a nice job on the place. There was even a bottle of the same chardonnay I’d shared with Adeline on Tuesday in the fridge, along with two freshly filled ice trays—hadn’t seen one of those in a while. Basic condiments and some spices. And not a damned thing to eat. I figured that out around 6:00, followed in close order by the realization that what little White Sands had in retail offerings had probably closed up for the day. Ah, shit.
I dropped the U-haul and raced back to town, covering the 4.2 miles in about a third of the time that it took the first time.
Hurrying turned out to be an utter waste of energy. White Sands had indeed rolled up the sidewalks, except they didn’t have any sidewalks to start with. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Guess I could go back and drink the wine and watch static on my big screen.
Down at the boat ramp, a big light up on a pole—White Sands’ only streetlight that I’d seen so far—provided just enough illumination, along with the last bit of fading daylight, that I could make out a couple of guys pulling their boat out of the water. Fishermen, judging by the half dozen fishing rods sticking up from holders along either side of the boat. Hell, maybe they’d sell me a fish. I might’ve given the impression that I’m a hopeless city boy, but you can’t grow up in South Carolina and not know how to clean a fish. So I parked and moseyed on down to where they were cranking the trailer winch. Discovering along the way that moseying is like riding a bicycle: once you learn how, you don’t ever forget. Or maybe it’s in our Southern genes.
“Y’all do any good?”
The two men checked me out pretty thoroughly before answering. Both appeared to be in their fifties, lean and weathered.
“Pretty slow with all this silt in the water. Couple a’ nice reds and a little founder’s ‘bout it. Don’t think I recall ever seeing you before.”
“Rick Whittaker. I’m down here from Charleston for a bit.” Apparently conversing in backwater lingo was like bicycling as well.
“I’m Joe Saunders, this here’s Ollie.” Joe stuck out his hand, which I shook with a firm, manly grip. “Where y’all staying?”
“Adeline Foster gave me the use of her cottage while I’m in the area.”
“George’s place?” This from Ollie, who had gotten the boat nestled into the trailer and was putting seat cushions on the floor and tucking away things that might blow out on the way home. He was chewing on an unlit cigar, which made his words a little hard to make out. “He was a strange duck. Never met a man who’d rather paint than fish. Then just up and disappeared like that.” He spit bits of tobacco, inspected the cigar, then stuck it back in his mouth. “Had to’ve been a woman involved, if you ask me. After living alone all that time, I guess he finally found some pussy he couldn’t live without.” He let out a short, harsh burst of noise that might be considered a laugh if you stretched the point.
“Nobody ever heard from him again?”
“Not far’s I know. Course he could be living over to Will’s Creek and word not made it down that damned road yet.”
I laughed with the two of them. “Yeah, I met your road this afternoon. So how come you can’t get it paved?”
“Not enough votes, man.” Joe slapped the fiberglass gunwale, making a sound like a shot that echoed across the water. “And nobody rich enough that anybody listens when they bitch.”
“Sucks.” I briefly thought about revealing that I was a newspaper man and might be able to bring the power of the press to bear until I remembered that I wasn’t actually a newspaper man at the moment.
“Say, is there anywhere to get any food at this time of night?”
“Sure. Peckerwood’s is open. Hope you like it, ‘cause that’s all there is.”
“Hungry as I am, I’m sure I’ll like it. How far away is it?”
Ollie squinted his eyes and looked at Joe. “Well, I’m not exactly sure about that. What d’ya think, Joe? Hunnert’n thirty, maybe hunnert’n forty yards, would you say?” He pointed over my shoulder, and when I turned I could see the sign. Hadn’t noticed it before, either because I’d been looking the wrong way or because my head was too far up my ass to see it. At least everybody got a good laugh at my expense.
I thanked them and headed out, not bothering to offer to buy the flounder as I’d been prepared to do.