Malibu, California Five rings and Renny finally answered her cell phone. I could just picture her standing in the barn of her horse ranch in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Springing to action. Reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, expecting an emergency on the line. Renny leads her life on call. Always ready for something. “Hey,” I said. “You busy?” “Never too busy for you,” she returned. I could hear voices in the background, a gate latching, metal jangling. “We have to talk about Ava,” I said. “Can you talk now, or do you want to call me back?” It’s a two-hour time difference between California and Mississippi— just after eleven Renny’s time, all but the middle of her day. “I swear I was gonna call you,” Renny said. “Hang on, let me walk outside. Luna, come,” she ordered, and I knew the black-and-tan German shepherd she’d sent me pictures of stopped on a dime and circled to Renny’s heels. Renny has a tone of voice that doesn’t mean maybe. Her voice is authoritative, commanding, the kind that would bring anyone to heel. “All right, go ahead,” she told me. “So, what? Now Ava wants to move back to Memphis? Should we be worried about this?” “I tell ya, Celia,” Renny began, because she talks this way now. She never used to, but the past twenty years of working with horses in Mississippi has beaten the cultured notes of the lyrical accent we were born to right out of her diction. Her speaking voice is flat and direct now, robbed of its singing gentility, clipped to a hardened edge. “I’m just gonna support her,” she stated. “Ava’s unhappy; she’s been unhappy. She’s stuck in a Podunk town out in the sticks of Columbia, and I’m telling ya, there’s nothing happening. You know their claim to fame is that they’re the mule capital of the world, right? Not Tennessee. I’m talkin’ the whole world. I told you I was gonna drive up and see her. I was gonna stay for the weekend. But I couldn’t even take that. Let’s just say the biggest thing going on in town was a bake sale. It was depressing. We ended up watching a basketball game on television. You know I love Ava, but I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I made an excuse about having to get back to the barn and left the next morning. Now what’s that tell ya?” “I thought Ava’s new job was going to change everything,” I said when Renny took a breath. “I mean, she’s running that social services clinic, right? This is what she’s been hoping for.” “Yeah, but there’s a bigger picture going on. I think she’s ashamed to tell you everything because she’s so damn confused. Celia, I know it’s a long way to go and a lot to ask, but if there’s any way you could come down here, I’ll take some time off and the three of us can go to the lake. because, right now, that’s all I can figure.” I’ve had more friendships than I care to list come and go over the years. People I thought would be in my life forever fell by the wayside for one reason or another, some leaving me baffled and bruised and second-guessing. But Renny Thornton and Ava Cameron have remained. The progression of years and disparate locations has not altered our bond one iota. We became friends when we were thirteen, and now that we’re “a little older,” each of us realizes we’re in it for life. Our dogged loyalty to each other is partially based on longevity. We’ve invested too much time in each other to turn back now. We overlook the fact that we’re as different as night and day in what our lives have become, because we began at the same starting point. Born to a certain sect of the South so staid in its ways few people ever leave. But the truth is, I had to. “When do you want me to come?” I asked, my mind tripping through one resistance after another: my husband; my work; the safety zone I’d cultivated so far from Memphis.
“This weekend?” Renny suggested. “I know it’s short notice, but for God’s sake, there’s never gonna be a good time. If we don’t make this happen, it never will.” The things that stop me in life are mostly self-created. I’ve never been the spontaneous sort, unless push comes to shove, which it has at a couple of junctures during my search for identity and what should be mine. But this was a rare request from Renny. She never takes time off from her veterinarian practice and is not one to delegate responsibility. She’s completely cognizant of the fact that nobody on the planet is more qualified than she to take charge. I happen to agree with her. In a world where many are trying to find themselves, Renny Thornton was born to this world knowing exactly who she is. “I’ll call you back,” I said by way of answer, then hung up and went in search of my husband. David—eight years my senior—is nothing at all like me, and very little of what I do surprises him. He attributes much of my actions to my Southern eccentricities—he’s from Chicago, and I’m his only Southern frame of reference. I don’t mind when he tells me he thinks Southerners are offbeat. Truth is, I’m proud to be a Southerner. We’re a queer breed of cat, products of a social milieu that defines us as people within it but doesn’t translate well anywhere else. Being Southern has everything to do with regional mentality because Southerners grow up in packs. We aid and abet each other in upholding an endemic way of living passed down in families, which is bright, well-mannered, and tacitly nonnegotiable. I can’t simply say I come from Memphis inasmuch as I come from her ways and means. It’s a consciousness, really. A source of identity. A way of being in the world with all its attendant explanations and apologies. I love almost everything about my contradictory home city, which has been trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps since I was in my teens. When the outside world tried to creep into Memphis, my parents’ generation fought it tooth and nail, which, for me, had far-reaching repercussions.
“I just got off the phone with Renny,” I said, when I found my husband. He was out back in his recording studio, separate from our house. David’s a “sound guy,” which is another way of saying he’s an audio engineer, working as a composer for movies and television. When he’s in his studio, he’s happy as a pig in mud. Sometimes I think California is wasted on David completely. He can stay in his cave of a studio all day and not even know the sun is shining or the Pacific tide is rolling in. “Renny wants to know if I can go to the lake,” I announced, as though he knew what I was talking about. As though he’d been sitting there all morning thinking about Greer’s Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas. David turned in his swivel chair to face me. “The lake? What lake? When?” He pushed errant graying hair from his forehead to expose gray-green eyes that had an unsettling way of looking through me instead of at me and always made me feel one tenuous step away from being called out. “Renny has a house in Heber Springs, Arkansas,” I clarified with a cursory shrug, as though what I was considering were the most reasonable idea in the world. “It’s about three hours outside of Memphis. Ava’s going. They want me to come down there too.” In a movement that told me I had his full attention, David reached over and pressed stop on his workstation and leaned back. “Do you think that’s wise?” he asked, all cautionary business now. “I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t, but seriously, after all this time—what’s it been, ten years? Why now?” “It does seem a little impulsive, but Renny can be persuasive. To tell you the truth, I’m thinking if I don’t go down there this way, I’ll come up with a million reasons not to. I don’t like the idea of that,” I said, giving him what I hoped was a confident smile. “Maybe this time I can create a good memory.” David’s eyes studied my face in a lengthy pause. “That’s one way of looking at it,” he said. “I’m just looking out for you. You know that.” My heart warmed, and I stood straight, the picture of decisiveness. “I know, and I appreciate it,” I said. “It’ll be fine.”
I’ve never entered an airport in all my life without feeling I’ve entered a time machine. I walk in shouldering my current caseload: hopes, fears, worries, concerns, all the things that keep me myopically focused in the bubble of my life. But somewhere around 33,000 feet up, I manage to switch the channel en route to my destination. I park the past and disembark ready for adventure. Except when I’m going to Memphis. There, the past comes hurtling full throttle to meet me. If it’s not at the gate, it’s waiting in the parking lot, smiling sardonically and holding the form-fitting coat of my childhood. Ava waited in one of the black leather chairs at the bottom of the escalator as I descended. “I saw your shoes coming down first and just knew the rest was you,” she said, when I rushed into her arms. She wore a knee-length, cotton floral print dress and matronly cardigan. On anyone else the ensemble would have looked frumpy, but on Ava’s willowy frame it looked bohemian cool. Her wavy, red-blond hair floated just above her collarbone, held back by a tortoiseshell headband. She looked somewhat polished and put together, until I scrolled down to her flip-flops and discovered her personal flair. I hadn’t seen Ava in ten years, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Some people are so much a part of your day-to-day psyche that their physical absence means very little. “Well done on the flip-flops,” I said, watching her smile crease her straight, aristocratic nose. Even at our age and with not a single strand of gray in her hair, Ava impressed me the way she impresses most: fairylike, fragile, will-o-the-wisp. But I happened to be privy to her real strength. Ava glanced at her feet then back at me. “You like them? I wore them for you. Doesn’t everyone wear flip-flops in California?” “They do,” I confirmed. “Where I live, they’re considered fancy. People in Malibu barely get dressed.”
“Really?” She sounded incredulous. “I thought you were surrounded by the fashion trendsetters.” “Well, kind of,” I said. “It’s just that there’s a certain angle brought to the idea of surfside chic. I’ve seen people at the grocery store in the middle of the day wearing pajamas. Nobody thinks twice.” “Well, everyone out there is either rich or famous. You can do whatever in the Sam Hill you want, if that’s the case,” Ava lilted. “True,” I said, thinking of Ava’s use of the words “out there.” To a Southerner, any place outside of the South is “out there.” There’s the South, and then there’s everywhere else. “Have you seen Renny?” I asked. “Not yet, but I did three weeks ago, when I came home to see Mama. I drove straight from Columbia to get you. It’s only about three and a half hours away. Renny said to call her when we got close to Olive Branch.” Ava squeezed my hand and took a step back to assess me. “You haven’t changed a bit,” she enthused. “I’m so glad to see you haven’t cut your hair. Here, let me get your bag.” “Thanks, but I’ve got it,” I said, following behind as she headed for the sliding glass doors. “You haven’t changed a bit, either.” “Oh, come on. I’ve changed a lot, and you know it,” Ava laughed. “Don’t you get off the plane and start lying to me. I’m surprised you haven’t said I look rode hard and put up wet.” “Actually, I was going to mention you look like the hind axle of hard times,” I said, and we both reeled with what I always considered our secret laughter, born of and part and parcel to the history of our friendship. Ava and I have a surfeit of Southern expressions we’ve used since high school. They were funny then but funnier now that they’re inside jokes. We take rapturous joy in using them. We get on a roll and try to top each other with the creative use of backwoods Southern parlance, lobbying colloquialisms at each other by getting into character and spinning them in an exaggerated accent. Many of them have a history, like the time when we were sixteen and Ava had recently acquired autonomy by driver’s license.
We were lost, driving around downtown Memphis, desperately needing directions. Ava pulled into a gas station and rolled down her window. An overweight attendant wearing a “How Bout Them Vols?” baseball cap leaned in and gave directions by drawling out, “Well, yer best bet is to go up to the first red light and take yer left.” “What do we do if the light isn’t red?” I’d asked as we pulled out of the filling station. We’re still not over that one. Even after all these years, there are times I’ll ask Ava a question, and she’ll begin her answer by drawling out, “Well, yer best bet…” I wheeled my bag to the automatic doors. When they swished apart a humid inferno slammed against me and held on all the way to the car. I lifted my hair off my neck and said, “Good God, how does anyone live here?” “Welcome to Memphis in the summertime,” Ava said. I’ll always have a homing instinct that pulls me to Central Gardens from Memphis International Airport. My heart will always leap at touchdown to a rolling, manicured lawn, where a series of magnolias shade the front of a Southern Colonial house. There, my past lies waiting: my mother in the kitchen, my brother, Hayward, in the living room playing the piano. My eldest brother, John, of course, will be nowhere around, but my father will arrive home from work any minute. In my mind, my blueand-white uniforms from Immaculate Conception High School—white short-sleeved blouses and blue button-back popovers vests to match the blue tartan skirts—hang in the front of my closet. Nostalgia has selective memory; it softens the heart and strips the details to leave you with what should have been instead of what was. Ten minutes into the twenty-five it takes to drive to Olive Branch from Memphis International Airport, Ava pulled curbside. “Wait a minute. I better check my GPS. We need to get on I-78. I don’t want to call Renny and tell her we’re lost. We’ll never hear the end of it.” I didn’t bother to offer rebuttal, for the thing of it was, Ava was right. I have a relationship with Ava that’s different than the one I have with Renny. I understand them both but have always wondered if they understand each other. I’m the friend in the middle, the interpreter, the neutral ground. I can’t say how this happened, other than to say Ava and Renny are at opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Ava is light and airy. She has a deep internal life she doesn’t easily reveal and there’s something about her that is not of this world. Renny, on the other hand, is earthy and practical, born with a take-charge ability that gets anything done. Both tell me I’m aloof and introspective but that’s only because I experience the world from the outside looking in and am not given to extremes. I know now, since I’m well into my adulthood, that there’s a side to the unions made in high school that has perpetual resonance, a side that remains in arrested development that will never let you forget who you essentially are.
There’s a damp, verdant feel to Olive Branch, Mississippi, in the summertime. From the side of the road, everything is a chiaroscuro of overgrown, tangled green. Moss drips sultry from kudzu-covered oaks, shading twists of the road in canopies of diamond-dappled sunlight. The world there is flat, expansive, and quiet, evoking a mood both eerie and somber. One step outside Ava’s car and I knew I was out of sync with the environment. I figured I’d need to slow down, ease into the heat, try it on for a spell. Renny couldn’t have known Ava and I were out in her driveway. In the summertime, people down South live in air-conditioned wind tunnels that drown out all sound. I rounded the car and walked to the side of Renny’s quarter-mile driveway. With my hand on the weathered, wooden plank fence, I stood gazing around. Before me, five paddocks stretched in a blanket so green it cast a blue, shimmering edge in the menagerie of clover and lespedeza. Horses sauntered slow and lazy in the distance, dipping their heads rhythmically with each rise of their bended knee. All around, rural, earth-toned colors hung in chestnut and agate, ivory and hunter green. Through the flatwoods behind the barn, buttonbush, red buckeye, and tag alder spread beneath red and
white oaks rambling down to the lake. Renny’s farm was dedicated to her horse clinic, a purposeful, synergistic society in all ways that matter, a testament to harmonious efficiency, and the conglomerate of her life’s work. At one time Renny had a husband, and although the marriage was over in less than three years, it graced her with a daughter, now seven years old, whom I’d never met. “Celia, what are you doing over there, waiting on Christmas?” Ava called. I turned and started toward the house just as Renny burst through the garage door. “Y’all are here? I thought you were going to call first,” Renny said, sounding more surprised than annoyed. She swept me into a two-step hug, the kind that dances and jumps and won’t hold steady. “I’m so sorry you just missed Sammie. She’ll be at her father’s this weekend while we’re at the lake. Y’all go on inside and put your stuff down then come back outside. I have to run out to the barn.” “Okay,” I said. “Ava, let’s go.” Back outside, the oppressive humidity tugged at my emotional heartstrings, reeling me back to a time when I was a part of this sultry, Spanish moss-dripping environment and knew very little outside it. Once inside the barn, Renny’s German shepherd sidled up beside her as she walked to an area at the right of her office’s glass door where two technicians were ministering fluid intravenously to a majestic, tethered horse. As Renny settled onto a three-legged wooden stool by the horse, I walked into the middle of the cavernous barn and looked up. The wood beams of the pitched ceiling were coal black and dense, supporting a lattice pattern roof where sunlight seeped in and bathed the twelve stalls below. The brass-hammered tack fixture nailed to the left of each stall’s half-wood, half-steel bar door was draped with lead ropes and sinuous, leather bridles. Sober black eyes loomed steady and unblinking from most of the stalls. In the middle of the scattered sawdust sat a Ford FX4 the size of the great outdoors. I motioned for Ava to join me. “Have you seen this before?” I asked her. “It’s the size of a football field. Who in
the world would take the risk of driving this thing? It’d be like driving a mountain.” “Me,” Renny fired over her shoulder. “I drive the heck out of that truck.” One look between Ava and me, and we broke out laughing, not quitting until we’d gone a few rounds mimicking that line in our best country accents. “Yes ma’am, umm-hmmm, gonna drive me the heck outta this here truck.” “Hey, that baby’s got six-speed transmission and tow-haul mode,” Renny said with reproach, and Ava and I couldn’t help but start in again. “Corinna Thornton, your mama didn’t raise you to drive a truck with tow-haul mode,” I said. “That’s it, keep laughing,” Renny said. “I paid a fortune for that truck. We take it to every horse show.” Because Ava’s eyes were now watering, she ran the back of her hand over one eye and said, “Celia, cut it out, I can’t take it.” “Oh, I promise you, I won’t be through with this one until I go home. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t be funny anywhere else, so I’ll be milking it,” I said. Ava, in her endless pursuit of trying to top me, came back with the perfectly delivered, “I heard that.” Renny dusted her hands off and walked toward us. “All right, if y’all’ve had enough, I want to take Celia down to the lake before the sun sets.” Ava started walking to the barn’s entrance, but Renny redirected her. “It’s out back, Ava. We can take the Mule.” The Mule was an all-terrain utility cruiser parked beneath a slated roof. Handing me a single key, Renny said, “Celia, get in and pull forward, I’m gonna open the gate.” It took three attempts for me to start the cart. It lurched and stalled until I put my foot on the brake and told Renny I was more qualified to handle the gate. “This thing’s bucking,” I said, “no wonder they call it a mule.”
“You’re doing fine,” Renny said, but she came to the driver’s side and took the wheel, and the three of us jostled side by side on the single seat, down to the water’s edge. “I have to tee-tee,” Ava announced. “All this jumping around tickles my bladder.” “Ava, your bladder was born tickled,” Renny said, which wasn’t entirely inaccurate. “I can’t help it. We don’t have to go back to the house. I can go in the woods,” Ava offered. “You sure? I don’t mind driving you back, Ava.” Renny looked over at me. “She can tee-tee in the woods,” I said. “It’s not like this is anything new. We spent half our youth waiting on Ava to tee-tee.” “Go on ahead,” Renny said to Ava, and Ava bounded off, fleet of foot, a woodland creature traipsing spritely into parts unseen. Renny parked the Mule and turned to me. “She seem all right to you?” “Yeah,” I answered. “She seems fine.” “Has she said anything to you about moving to Memphis?” Renny pressed, her eyes on mine, level and steady. “No. We didn’t discuss any of that on the way here. What is it I’m waiting for her to say? I know they’re exploring their options, but what’s weird to me is they haven’t been living in Columbia for even a year. Just seems like a lot of moving around these last few years.” “Well, the ‘they’ isn’t necessarily part of the equation. That’s what I wanted to tell you—wait, here she comes. We’ll talk about this later.” Once Ava was settled in the Mule again, we rolled forward toward the dock while Renny’s dog ran beside us, darting through a jungle of tall grass mixed with Bermuda and fescue, St. Augustine and zoysia, bending and rippling in a concert of beige, blending in a vista like Cream of Wheat. In the air, a vibrato of cicadas pulsed so discordantly as to be concordant, like one wall of sound that tricked the ear until I could feel its heartbeat.
All manner of movement stirred the deceptive stillness in dragonflies and mosquitos, mayflies and moths. Ankle-deep, I knew there were no-seeums, chiggers, and anybody’s guess, creeping and crawling, waiting to inflict the kind of scratching misery that keeps a person up at night. Ava leaped out of the Mule and sprinted to the dock’s edge. She stood on her toes, hands wide apart on the battered wood rail, and leaned over the placid, gray water looking for her reflection. “If I were Renny, I’d be out here all the time,” she mused over the water. “It’s so peaceful here, it’s a wonderful place to dream.” “I’d dream if I had the time,” Renny snorted. “There’s always some life emergency happening around here. So I’ll dream when I’m dead.” I admired Renny’s purposeful life. I was two years out of college before I focused on my future. While I was floating around taking life as it came to me, Renny adhered to a paradigm gifted to her in childhood by her parents, who lived in Memphis and owned inherited land in the Delta that reached back pre-Civil War. Renny’s childhood was played out on the regional horse circuit stage. It was a way of life foreign to me, but I don’t recall it impinging on our friendship. But then the passage of time can blur a friendship’s edges to the point where you feel its essence but forget the logistics. Twenty-two years on, and the facts don’t matter to me now. It’s enough for me to retain the spirit of our friendship, the anchoring way Renny and Ava were beside me in my coming of age. Combined, we were a girl complete. Separately, we were inchoate and in need of each other, like solitary pieces of a clock that were useless until assembled, but once assembled, kept perfect time. Renny returned to the Mule ahead of us, a sense of urgency in her stride. Taking the wheel, she called out to her dog, “Luna, come. Y’all, we need to get a move on. I’m gonna take us back the short way. I’ve got us some pork tenderloin in the oven.” At the mention of pork tenderloin, I met Ava’s narrowed eyes, and although no words were necessary, she whispered, “Should I remind Renny I’m a vegetarian?” I bumped against Ava’s shoulder; a let’s get going gesture. “Ava, you’re not a vegetarian, and neither am I, not technically. It’s just that neither of us likes meat. I’m not going to say anything to Renny. There’s nothing
more insufferable than a house guest who tells you what they will and will not eat. I’m going to tell Renny I can’t wait until I get my hands on that tenderloin. Come on, let’s go.” Ava spun into tinkling laughter as we walked up the dock. “Gimme some of that pork butt,” she said. “Remember Fred Sanford on Sanford and Son? Remember how he was always talking about pork butt?” “Why are y’all laughing?” Renny asked when we got in the Mule. “You know how to cook, and we don’t,” I deflected.
Nine o’clock the next morning, Renny stretched up from the driver’s seat and pivoted to see behind her, guiding the white Ford Escalade in a smooth reversed arc as we set out for the Heber Springs. “Does this baby have tow-haul mode?” I asked from the wide, leather back seat. I could see Renny arch her eyebrows in her rearview mirror. “Gonna keep that one up forever, Celia?” “Probably,” I said, as we scratched the serpentine gravel driveway between hushed morning fields glistening in spiderweb dew. We drove down Center Hill Road then through the outskirts of Memphis. When I heard the Escalade wheels hit the first chords of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, I looked up halfway over the Mississippi river to the steel-suspended sign that read Welcome to Arkansas. Touching down in the town of West Memphis, we veered right at the fork to BlythevilleJonesboro, and the land flattened to soybean fields on either side of the road. Renny and Ava sang at the top of their lungs to a song on a country radio station that had something to do with buying a boat while I looked out the back-seat window, watching sodden fields click by as though someone had divided their boundaries with a straight-edge ruler. I thought about David in California and the strange alignment of dominos that unwittingly build a life and considered the difference between random chance and
unescapable fate. Never was the lens more explicitly focused on my life’s evolution than being back home in this telling moment. I watched Renny and Ava dance in their seats, acting out that country song with head tilts and hand gestures, using the kind of energy we had in high school when we interpreted the world through music because it spoke for us and it was enough to be together singing. I cracked the window to the right of me, shivering as the air hit my skin and couldn’t discern if I shivered from the cool morning air, or if it was the kind of shiver that spontaneously rises, when you suddenly realize the life you inexplicably missed.
Renny’s lake house was in an area of Heber Springs called Tannenbaum, where the waterfront houses on Greer’s Ferry Lake are large, wooden, intentionally rustic, and chalet-chic. Hers was a two-story, six-bedroom house nestled in a grove of mature maples and oaks with two lake-view porches: the one on top, railed and open, the one below, brick-floored and screened. We unloaded the car in multiple trips up the wood-slat stairs to the kitchen, where a breakfast bar partitioned the kitchen from a living room so spacious you could have landed a plane in its middle. The glass wall of the pitch-ceiling living room faced the lake with an elevated, unobstructed view. Framed family photographs decorated an earth-tone, rolled-rock fireplace, and the seating area before it was classic, cabin-comfortable, sprawled in an arrangement of a four-seat couch, a low wooden coffee table, and multiple mismatched upholstered chairs. “Y’all pick a room,” Renny called, marching through the kitchen. “I’m going to take the one down this hall. There are five others. One of y’all is welcome to take the suite downstairs. Doesn’t matter to me. Just make yourselves comfortable.” I looked at Ava, not knowing which way to move until she said, “I’ll take the one downstairs.” I walked down the green-carpeted hall opposite from Renny, opening one creaking wood door after another and decided on the end room facing the lake. I scrolled up the ivory Venetian blinds hoping to replace the dimness of the room with sunlight. The high afternoon beams vaulted from the upstairs deck, flooding the serene bedroom wall to wall. Renny entered carrying an oversized pillowcase, whose stuffed contents provided everything to make the queen-size bed. “This is how we do it at the lake,” she said, handing me the bundle. “Here, let me show you your bathroom.” She led me back down the hall, then opened an unfinished wood door and stepped onto the brown-andwhite-checked tile. “Whatever you need, you’ll find in here,” she directed, opening the double-door closet. “Towels, washcloths, shampoo, whatever you need. Go on and change into your bathing suit. I’ll set Ava up, then let’s get the boat and go out on the lake.”
I’ve never seen anyone handle anything with the facile agility and finesse with which Renny commandeered her red-and-white Cobalt 220 Bowrider. She took full charge of the sleek, white craft, painted down the center with a racy red strip. The red canvas awning rippled over two swivel chairs in front, where the two of them sat. I took the white backseat cushion, knowing there was nothing to do but become one with the battering wind and spraying water as the boat bounced up and slammed down, ripple upon wave, from the speed Renny assumed, spinning us around Greers Ferry’s three hundred and forty miles of rock-shored lake. Ava was having the time of her life, ebullient in her Docksiders, screaming, “Yay, go faster” over the whirr of the engine. We spent three hours on the rocking lake, floating on rubber rafts, bobbing on Day-Glo-orange Styrofoam noodles, holding on to waxed lines to keep from floating away from the boat. Now that the thrill of reunion and the logistics of travel were behind us, it was our first opportunity to ease into idle banter. There was nothing here but wind and heat and the glare of water. Nothing to do but slather sunblock, then lean back and float. “All right, Ava,” Renny prompted, her right hand dangling in the water as she lay stretched out on her raft. “Go on and tell Celia.” “Tell me what?” I said.
Lying on her back, Ava removed her sunglasses, pulled her straw hat low, and fixed me with her gaze. “I’m thinking about leaving Stan,” she said flatly. “You can’t leave Stan,” I fired automatically. “Y’all’ve been together since you were twenty-two.” Ava adjusted her sunglasses and pointed her nose skyward. “Celia, you don’t know how it’s been. I’m sick of moving all over. In twenty-three years, we’ve lived in five different places because of Stan. And every time we settle somewhere, he’s dissatisfied. I keep quitting my job and rearranging my life to accommodate him, and this time, I don’t want to do it. I told him Columbia was going to be our last move, but now I realize I can’t stay there. I hate it. Stan’s already looking at another job that involves traveling, which would leave me isolated in a small town with no friends. I’m just sick of this. I’m well approaching middle age—or maybe I’m already in it—and have never lived my own life. I’ve been living Stan’s.” I rolled off my unwieldy raft and struggled to stabilize myself, my elbows on the spongy rubber as I treaded water. “Ava, that’s what married people do, isn’t it? There’s always going to be a certain amount of compromise. If Stan’s dissatisfied, can’t you just ask him to get a job somewhere you want to be? If you could be anywhere, where would that be?” Ava took her time answering with a deflating sigh. “Maybe Memphis. At least I know people, and Mama’s there. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing.” “Remember, Celia,” Renny clarified. “Ava married Stan when he was a Memphis insurance man, but he upped and became a concert promoter without even telling her. It’s not the lifestyle she thought she was going to live.” “I get that. But, Ava, you’re in it now. I mean, come on … you’re right; we’re all closing in on fifty. We no longer have the bloom of our youth to recommend us. I say be satisfied with what you’ve got.” Renny sat up laughing. “Where do you get this stuff, Celia? You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m only kind of kidding, but you get the point. Seriously, Ava, why do you want to bail now? We should be switching to glide here.” “I knew you were going to say that, Celia.” Ava sprang up, her feet stroking water on either side of her raft. “You need everything to be a safe bet. But not everybody’s living large in California. I’m scratching around in a one-horse town, and it’s different for me. And I don’t even know if I love Stan anymore. Now that Jessica’s away at school, we’re just stuck in a routine and don’t know how to relate to each other anymore.” I paused for a moment to let the sting out of her erroneous suppositions of my lifestyle on the West Coast. I busied myself with navigating my raft while I considered what I knew about Ava and Stan. Because the thing is, when it comes to marriage, people rarely give you the gritty minutia; what you get are the highlights, the bullet points—we went, we saw, we did, whatever is worth telling, whatever creates the general impression that they, of course, have it all sussed. Rarely will anyone mention when they’re off the grid of marital harmony. The intermittent bouts with doubt or second-guessing that are bound to happen when negotiating a protracted union are a big problem once you’re fully entrenched. What’s more, one’s struggle with equilibrium is too glaring a character confession. Best not to go there, unless it’s a crisis. Best not to confess unless you’re willing to concede defeat. “You did tell me y’all are trying to quit drinking,” I finally said. “Once you take the alcohol out of a relationship, it takes a while to recalibrate. What’s it been now, Ava, six months?” “Yes,” Ava said, then hesitated, her eyes flickering. “Well, kind of. I can’t seem to stick with it. It’s no fun. I want to have fun.” Now I was worried. I knew too well what could happen to a person unwilling to consider the facts, which in Ava’s case were genetic. When we were fifteen, many was the Friday afternoon I’d go home from school with Ava to spend the night. Sometimes I’d spend two, and my mother would come get me on Sunday. Our youth was neat and streamlined. We spent the summer weekends in the Camerons’ backyard pool and loved every minute of it. But there was a darkness to Ava’s house we never talked about, and I look back now and think I know why. Tiptoeing through the Camerons’ living room, where her drunken father brooded in his armchair before the TV, was familiar terrain to me; my father was also an isolationist though his dark tendencies manifested in another form. We both had a mother born and loyal to old Southern ways, which is to say the less you talked about something, the less real it became. And because our individual family dynamics remained unnamed, Ava and I didn’t think to compare notes until decades later, when the strong arm of fate met the weak link of genetics, and Ava found herself holding the wrong end of the stick. I was concerned over what I knew about Ava’s struggle with alcohol. I started to say something, but she rounded on me from her raft as though intuiting my thoughts. “Celia, this isn’t about alcohol, I just want to live my life. I feel like I’m standing still. I look at Stan sometimes and think I’m stuck for the rest of my life. I mean, I swear, is this it?” Renny reeled the wax rope to the boat toward her. “You got married so young, Ava,” she said. “You basically moved out of your mother’s house straight into Stan’s. You only knew Mark Clayton before that.” Ava jumped in the water and started swimming toward the boat, pulling her raft behind her. Flipping the unwieldy rubber before her, she stood in the boat and said, “Do y’all mind if I don’t want to talk about this anymore? I just want to sit with all this while I’m here.” She looked out over the horizon. “It’s getting late. Let’s go back to the house. I want to take a shower.” Renny shot me a wide-eyed look, paddled to the boat, and climbed in to take the wheel.
Twilight crept through the woods in varying shades of green. Here hunter, there absinthe, and before me, incandescent chartreuse haloed the tops of trees. The sun made its descent above the road where I walked, while Renny and Ava took showers. The shady road through Tannenbaum didn’t have a divider and didn’t need one because there were no cars to be found. It seemed I was the only one out while the first respite of breeze sliced the late afternoon humidity. I thought it unusual that none of the houses on the lake appeared occupied. For the end of July, and what should have been the height of tourist season, it could have been any off-season time of the year. But Tannenbaum is unincorporated, primarily exclusive to vacation homes, and there’s no reason to be on this side of Greers Ferry Lake unless you’re a homeowner. For whatever reason, we seemed to have the entire neighborhood to ourselves, and as I walked along, content in my solitude, I started thinking enough time had passed and I’d better turn back to help with dinner. One step through the kitchen door, and it was clear I’d stepped into the middle of something. “Ava, if you make one more crack about pork butt, I’m gonna come over there and snatch you bald-headed,” Renny said, her tone not kidding. She set out placemats and cutlery on the counter between the kitchen and living room, walking back and forth arranging salt, pepper, and linen napkins while medallions of pork tenderloin warmed in the oven. Ava focused intently on her cell phone, presumably texting. She looked up as Renny reprimanded and gave me a conspiratorial wink. For some reason, Ava seemed jumpy throughout dinner. Her eyes were focused on her cell phone, her head bobbing like a bird on a wire toward the clock, toward her phone, toward the door. After we’d cleaned up the kitchen, Ava drifted outside to the deck and lit a cigarette. Through the window, I watched tendrils of smoke reach in gray spindled fingers as though clutching the damp mellow air. In the night’s liquid amplification, a cacophony of crickets, cicadas, and katydids pulsed in a code only they understood, rioting at a pitch so overwhelming I could barely think of anything else. The new moon was symbolic of this three-day reunion. Amidst a backdrop of stars, it waxed over the lake with no other pursuit beyond its reflection. I walked out to join Ava; Renny followed. She pulled a canvas chair forward and positioned it beside two others facing the lake. Side by side, we sat with our feet on the deck rail. Stretching her arms overhead, Renny asked Ava for a cigarette. Watching Ava lean across me to hand one to Renny, I said, “If y’all are going to smoke, I might as well have one too.” Renny sat back, studying me. She lit her cigarette with a stick match then held it to the right and lit mine. “Thank God you have a vice,” she said. “I was beginning to wonder.” “Yeah, well, I gave serious consideration to applying for sainthood,” I said. “But I decided it wouldn’t suit me.” Renny turned to Ava, who sat at my right. “Ava, let me ask you something, and you don’t have to answer, if you don’t want to. Are you still taking antidepressants?” Ava settled deeply into her chair as though wanting to duck the question. “Yes. Well … no.” She leaned forward to look at me. “I was, Celia, but I don’t think I’m going to take them anymore. I quit taking them five days ago.” “Ava, it’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t know. Whatever you need to do.” “It’s just that life is so messy, is all,” she said. “Everything’s upside down.” Renny took a drag from her cigarette then turned sharply to Ava. “Ava, life is messy in spite of what we do, not because of what we do,” she said, and just then a knock sounded on the kitchen door. I was taken aback by the accusatory tone of Renny’s voice, and it occurred to me there was much more I didn’t know about Ava. Renny’s eyebrows raised as she cut her eyes toward the kitchen. Glaring at Ava, she said, “Oh God. Please tell me no.” “I’ll get it,” Ava said, rising and skipping into the living room. Renny scratched her chair back and stood looking down at me. “Sorry, Celia, I didn’t see this coming. I swear to you, I didn’t know.” For a minute, I had no idea to what Renny referred, but then I looked through the living room at the kitchen’s open door. There under the deck’s hazy spotlight, like a ghost from the past, stood Mark Clayton. Mark stepped onto the kitchen’s linoleum floor, and already I could see little had changed between him and Ava. They swayed together like reeds in a stream, tall and lithe and fluid, complementing each other in telepathic, synchronistic gestures of action and reaction, making me feel like an interloper in their private moment. Every group of high school friends has its dynamic center. Ava and Mark Clayton were that sparkling couple that magnetized the filaments of our group by sheer force of charisma. They were breathtaking together, in their polar opposites. In high school, they coexisted so hypnotically they seemed mythological figures borne on the wings of decree. Where Ava was light bearing and compelling—a Celtic goddess crowned with a life force of red-gold hair, Mark was dark and reflective, a mysterious black-haired, blue-eyed poetic sort, who joined our group in the tenth grade after moving from Kentucky to Memphis. We were all coupled at the time, except for Ava, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she were. Like can spend an eternity trying to find its likeness, then one fateful day it rises and meets its own match. It had been ten years since I’d seen Mark Clayton, but in no way did it lessen his impact. I assessed the physical changes time had wrought against the image I’d held of him all these years and found their subtleties inconsequential. His thick hair was short and gray at his temples yet still carried the impression of cobalt darkness. The slow, dimpled smile I remembered raised the right corner of his mouth, making his sly, awe-shucks manner all the more attractive, but then much of Mark’s beauty came from the complete unawareness of his appeal. “Celia,” Mark said, coming forward to hug me. Stepping back, he gave me the once-over. “California’s obviously treating you well. How you doing out there?” “Fine,” I said. “It’s great. I have no complaints. I see you’ve changed a little. I never thought I’d see the day you’d be sporting conservative hair.” Mark ran his hand through his hair as though checking to see I was right. He swept his eyes over us, and with a slight blush, shook his head and said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here with the three of y’all.” “Well, you and I both,” Renny intruded, but of course, that was typical of Renny, who had a knack for reaching into the potential of a moment and slamming it to solid ground. “Are all y’all staying at the lake?” she asked. “You bring your kids?”
Mark and Ava exchanged a look that told me Ava already had the facts. “No, not this time,” Mark said. “They’re in Memphis with their mom.” “So you’re here alone?” Renny, the mistress of inquisition. “For now,” Mark said, then he glanced at me and rerouted the scene. “Tate’s coming out here tomorrow.” I needed to secure my footing. The sound of Tate’s name hit me in my middle, as though there’d been no forward progress, since the time I wrote his name over and over in my ninth-grade composition book, crafting it in curlicues and hearing it in a melody that tickled my stomach. I looked at Renny and saw her head tilt as though trying to get a better view. She narrowed her blue eyes during a pause so loaded all movement stopped in the room. “Celia, can you come with me?” she directed, and without thinking, I followed her down the hall to my bedroom. “All right, I don’t believe this,” Renny said, closing the door behind her. “This wasn’t the plan.” “You don’t have to tell me,” I whispered. “I didn’t fly down here from California for this.” “Let me just say it: we’ve been ambushed. Let’s leave Mark and Ava alone for now, but I swear to you, we’re gonna talk about this later.” In the distance, I heard the kitchen door squeak on its spring hinges. It bounced a few times before all fell silent, save for the cicada chorus riding the wave of the night’s gentle breeze. Renny and I walked back to the kitchen, looked out the window to see Mark and Ava walking away. “So this is the way it’s going to be,” Renny summarized, as though she were finished with the subject. She leaned down to the swivel cabinet beneath the sink then rose holding an aluminum coffee percolator. Assembling its basket and cord, she spoke in a tone that sounded distracted. “This thing may look old because it is, but it makes the best coffee you’ve ever had in your life. Y’all won’t have to run out to the store in the morning—not that there’s a store to run out to, the nearest one is thirty-three miles away.” I continued to stare out of the window. “Where do you think Mark and Ava went off to?” I couldn’t help but get back on the subject.
“Away from us,” Renny stated. “That’s the point. They’ve been communicating with each other for a while, did you know that?” “No,” I said. “I’ve talked to Ava a lot lately. She’s been revisiting her childhood, asking me what I remember. Seems to me she’s in a lot of unresolved pain over her family. I know she’s been seeing a therapist in Columbia. I don’t know if you know this, but this is common when someone tries to quit drinking. They’re all over the place. It’s like they’re coming out of a haze. Everything they’ve been anesthetizing themselves against comes home to roost, so to speak. In her case, it’s her family.” “Adult children of alcoholics, I assume. Then why has she fallen into the trap herself? You’d think it’d be the opposite.” “I don’t know all the facts, but I think it’s a combination of genetics and what you experience in the family.” “This is the kind of thing Ava doesn’t talk to me about.” Renny looked at me, her eyes devising a plan. “Let’s make some tea, get the smokes, and go sit in the screened porch downstairs. There are too many bugs out.” From my position on the porch’s canvas couch, I watched Renny settle into a matching slider. She kicked off her shoes, reached both hands to her ash-blond hair, and twisted it into a knot. Through the screens of the three-sided porch, an outline of pin oaks sloped down to the water, and I caught flashes of silver-edged fluid obsidian in the moonlight rippling through a menagerie of trees. It was a different vantage point from the deck up top. In this porch, we were sequestered, all but water level, tucked in a cocoon of intimacy. It had always been my policy, with either Renny or Ava, not to talk about the other in their absence. The prospect of doing so went against my values, and I always thought one minor breach of this policy would give license to a traitorous habit without end. But on this night, I would make an exception. After all, my concern for Ava was the reason I was here. Renny had such an economic, unambiguous way of examining everything, I thought if we discussed Ava’s plight, we’d jointly arrive at a sensible plan.
Renny was the one to broach the subject. “Ava’s really screwed up,” she began. “She’s half in and half out of her marriage, and it may or may not be because of Mark. I just think she got married too young. All this moving around is Stan Thiel’s fault. He’s always centering his life on some band. It’s not the life Ava signed up for. And I don’t think they have any money either.” Renny paused looking for my reaction. “Ava doesn’t come from what you and I do, Celia. She hasn’t had an easy life.” I wanted to say neither have I, but instead I deflected. “I still say she’s in an adjustment phase.” I settled back, cradled the ceramic mug in my hands, and thought about how to articulate my thoughts to the analytical Renny, who had no frame of reference when it came to life’s usurping tragedies. But this is precisely why I counted on her to relegate the most layered of circumstances into black or white. She had the luxury of an unemotional view. She’d never known loss or death or betrayal. She didn’t know that some turns of fate are so upending they leave part of your damaged spirit walking through life on automatic pilot. And Renny didn’t know what I’d been through with Ava. I’d never mentioned our series of long-distance phone calls, when Ava was drunk and despondent. Even in protracted friendships like ours, you wonder how deep you should go. We were Southerners after all, and this inculcated us with a side that was uncomfortable with too personal of a revelation. Our tendency was to keep things light and pleasant, no matter what. “But, Celia, you’re different; you’re stronger than Ava,” Renny said, a foregone conclusion heavy in her voice. She reached for the Marlborough pack, lit one, then waved out the match’s flame. “Stronger meaning what?” I asked. “If you mean I’ve been roughed up and it’s a marvel I’m still walking around, then okay.” Renny scoffed. “You’ve always been different. Even though you appear a little shy and cautious, we both know from your history that you’re resilient. It’s just that Ava’s always been fragile.” She took a drag, then blew the smoke into a thin line. “Besides, Celia … there’s a big difference between shy and fragile.”