FIREWORKS OVER TOCCOA
Jeffrey Stepakoff There are no ordinary lives.
- Ken Burns A moment in the sky, forever in the heart.
- Ernesto Russo
Toccoa, Georgia, 2007
The two boys road their mountain bikes along the soft uncovered lakebed between the Bartam’s Field subdivision and the old Holly Hills property.
In 1955, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Savannah River, creating Lake Hartwell and flooding nearly 56,000 acres, pretty much everything for miles along the Georgia-South Carolina border. There were stories of people refusing to give up their land – some reportedly met work crews with shotguns – but in the end, the government won out. The low-lying pine forests were cut down and any outbuildings in the floodplains hastily bulldozed. Where creeks once rambled through quiet woods to the northeast of Toccoa, gated golfing communities now rimmed the wide fingers of the massive artificial reservoir.
This history was lost on the two boys. To them the lake was simply a backyard, a place for waterskiing and motorboating, a selling point for the area’s multitudinous new developments spiraling out from the waterfront. But the record drought which had plagued Georgia since mid-2006 now made watersports, and even swimming in some areas, potentially hazardous. Rotting sorrel stumps jutted through the water. Mud-covered rocks lay exposed.
So on this day, because playing in the water was not an option, the two ten year-olds rode their bikes along the dirt of the lakebed which had just a few months ago been submerged. It was sludgy and uneven and though their knobby tires were designed for such things, riding was difficult. The muddy moonscape was peppered with granites and decayed roots and the occasional beer can oxidized through with rust.
As they were navigating and trying to maintain enough speed to stay upright, something caught their eyes. A glint of metal. A shiny sparkle off glass.
They fishtailed their bikes to a stop. Both looking intently, they saw sunlight reflecting off something wedged under a stack of large smooth riverstones. The low waterline lapped at the stones, the sort the boys had seen imbedded in chimneys in multimillion dollar faux-rustic cabins.
They dismounted their bikes, dropped them and headed towards the riverstone pile, following the glistening light which shone off something that looked very much out of place here. It was something that no one had seen for over six decades – something that, if not for this record drought, may never had been seen again, as the cabin and its bulldozed riverstone chimney had been underwater since the summer of 1955.
A PERFECT HOUSE
Buckhead district of Atlanta, Six Months Later
“And I think we should get pregnant right away,” Drew Candler said, turning off of Peachtree onto a tree-lined side street.
“We?” Colleen turned in the leather bucket passenger seat and playfully raised an eyebrow at him.
“Well, I’m a participant in this process too.”
“So you’ll be carrying a bowling ball in your belly?
“I’ll be rubbing your back.”
“Will you be changing diapers?”
“Every chance I get.”
“Wouldn’t miss ‘em.”
“And what happens when you’re on call?”
She couldn’t help but laugh. He always had the right answer to everything. “See, this is why my friends’ husbands hate you.”
“Because I’m the sensitive type.”
“You’re raising the bar too high for these poor guys.”
He feigned a worried expression. “Oh man, you didn’t tell anyone about the little love notes, did you?”
“I’m gonna get whacked,” he joked. “They’re gonna invite me out for a beer and beat me. I can see this coming.”
Drew drove up to the front gates of an elegant new housing development, punched a code into the callbox, and drove in as the gates opened.
“Hey I’ve told them about your affinity for lying around all Sunday in your boxers watching football and eating nachos, but I get no sympathy.”
“I can be more of a jerk. Really, I know I can.”
“I know, my dear. You can do anything you set your mind to. That’s one of the things I love about you. But I’m good with the football and the nachos.”
He broke into a broad smile and turned his eyes towards Colleen for a moment, taking her in as he had from the first day he saw her. She was so beautiful, he thought, as he always thought. Even with her black hair pulled back in a casual ponytail away from her dark eyes as she had it today. How could anyone look at her and not think the same thing? Somehow this notion was reassuring to him.
They pulled up in front of an expansive new house, a little too big for its lot, but stunning nonetheless. Where once a single ranch-style home sat on two wooded acres, there were now nine estate homes. Hundreds of containers of azaleas and dogwoods and Cherokee roses, ubiquitous in these kinds of North Atlanta communities, were lined up along the curb, ready to be planted in the modest yards.
“What do you think?”
“Wow.” She just stared at the residence, at a loss to articulate any kind of detailed response.
“Wow is right. Come on.”
Drew hopped out, jogged over to Colleen’s side of the newly leased luxury sedan, and opened the door for her. With a boyish glee that belied his tall build, he grabbed her arm, marched her up the front walkway and into the open front door. They were hit with the intoxicating scent of fresh paint, new appliances and sawdust.
He watched as she took in the house.
“Five bedrooms up. One below. And the master suite is off the main, around that way,” he said, pointing. “Oh, and just off the kitchen, over there, they call it a family studio.”
Colleen peered into a large room with washer-dryer hookups, a worktable, a message center desk with cellphone docks, and three built-in childsize lockers with coathangers and space for boots and books.
“There’s room for more than three lockers. You know, just in case one ever wanted to expand.” Drew couldn’t be happier.
Colleen continued looking around at the house for a long time. It was as though Drew had extrapolated everything she had ever mentioned in passing about the future and what he had seen on the dogeared pages of the house and style magazines she’d recently been perusing and what he heard discussed at dinner parties and golf outings and silent auction cocktail events by those who had their names on wings of buildings vital to the community and then put it all together and came up with this house. Her friends would most likely describe this house in the same terms they talked about Drew. It was an ideal house.
However, to stand awake in the middle of such a thing, to hear the wraithlike echoes of children to be born and days to be lived and nights to be pondered among these planked halls was to stand in the future, to see it and know it plainly. No more hazy morning daydreams about what life might be. No more giddy talk over lattes or margaritas. This was it.
It was a gorgeously plated meal that was ordered for her, one she was reluctant to disturb with immutable matters rendered by the fork, but even more loath to send back untouched. What Drew happily took for overwhelming excitement was in fact apprehension over the sudden reality set before her.
She hadn’t known him for very long, but what she did know seemed very right. Whatever doubts or questions she might have had about the future and what she wanted out of it were always allayed by his certainty. He was always so sure about everything, about a life that would be very much like that of the most senior partners in his practice, and about how she fit seamlessly into that. Along with his other attributes, Drew possessed a kind of confidence that could sweep a girl off her feet. But there was something about standing here in this house that made her realize how quickly the future was happening, and just how little thought, of her own, she’d really given it.
His blackberry rang and involuntarily he snapped it off his belt and answered it. “Yes. How many centimeters? Yes, that’s fine, page the anesthesiologist. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” He hung up and snapped the phone back on its belt cradle.
“I have to get to Northside. I’ll drop you on the way.”
“You go ahead. I’ll call the office and have someone pick me up. I want to stay here for a little while.”
“You know, it might be time to give them your notice.
“We’ll talk about that.”
“Whatever you want. I just hate seeing you working at a job you don’t need or love.”
He gave her a kiss.
“When I saw this place and thought about us here,” he said. “I felt like all the pieces are just snapping into place. So what do you think?”
“What do I think?”
“About the house! Do you like it?”
“Come on, Colleen. This is your fiancée you’re talking to. What’s wrong with the house?”
“Honestly…” she said, looking around, searching for words to describe her complicated feelings. She settled on simple truth. “Absolutely nothing. It’s perfect. It’s a perfect house.”
“Good. Because I put an offer in last night.” He gave her a broad smile and then walked out, his footsteps echoing as she stood alone in the enormous empty house.
Watching him hurry down the walkway and hop in his new car, Colleen wondered what was wrong with her. She never had a problem committing to things. She made plans weeks in advance, bought multi-year magazine subscriptions, she was someone who turned in term papers early. She knew how to make choices and act on them. Then again, this house, she wasn’t really being asked to make much of a choice about it.
But how much did that matter?
Lifting her head, she rotated it around again. Yes, it was like looking at a model home picked out for a magazine shoot. So what was the problem? What else was there beyond perfect? What was there to think about?
Toccoa, a Few Days Later
What could you say to a young woman who thought she was in love when you thought she might be making the biggest mistake of her life? Lily chewed on this as she waited for her granddaughter.
Lily sat in a comfortable chair on her wraparound porch, looked out at the Blue Ridge foothills and drank her morning Coke. It was in the traditional curved glass bottle, upon which the tiny words “Hecho en Mexico” were affixed. Every month since July of 1988, when the Georgia bottlers started using corn syrup, Lily drove to a small Hispanic-owned shop in Gainesville and bought her stash of Mexican-bottled Coca-Cola which was still made with cane sugar.
Lily liked living alone. She missed her husband, of course. But since his passing four years ago, an odd kind of restfulness had made its way into her days. She often told herself that this was simply the opportunity provided by more time on her hands. But deep down, she knew it was something more. It was as though the seams of her life had been let out just a bit.
Eighty-four years old, living alone in her big house, Lily was lonely at times. But this was a feeling, an exquisite bittersweetness, which she didn’t entirely mind. Simply put, Lily was at peace.
Her residence, a white Queen Anne-style classical revival, was built in 1901 on a hill just north of town. It was initially used as a “summer house” for well-to-do boarders escaping the heat in Atlanta. In July, during the day, they would sit out on this sprawling porch in high-backed white rocking chairs, sipping sweet peach tea and enjoying the cool Appalachian breezes. And at night they would drink gin and tonic and marvel at the wonder of a billion stars over Toccoa. Since then, everything had changed, and not much had changed. The world was such a different place, but there were the same stars, same kinds of yearnings beneath them.
Lily watched as a large car pulled up the hill and parked in front of her house. Stretching her legs after the hour and a half drive up from the city, Colleen got out of the shiny new sedan, which Lily thought was way too big and stuffy for her granddaughter. But these kinds of vehicles were apparently one of the enviable perks of working in sales for a huge pharmaceutical company.
“Grandma, the kudzu is nearly up to your front porch!” Colleen said as she bounded up the walkway in front of the house.
“It’s fine. I just trimmed it back this week.” The broad-leafed vine made its way out of the woods behind the house but was cut before it could invade the lawn.
“Why don’t you just have the gardeners get rid of it once and for all?” Colleen scooped up the newspaper resting on one of the stone steps leading to the porch. “You’ll wake up one morning and you won’t be able to get out your front door.”
“You leave my kudzu alone. We have an understanding.” Lily grabbed her granddaughter hugged her quickly and then held her back for examination.
“How’s life in the fast lane?” said Lily.
“Fast. In fact, I can’t stay too late. One of Drew’s partners bought a table at this silent auction blacktie thing at the Grand Hyatt tonight.”
Lily noticed that Colleen made very little effort to hide her lack of enthusiasm for the event. A million things rushed through Lily’s mind, but she just smiled.
“You ready to see it?” Lily said.
Colleen took a deep breath and nodded.
Lily had been cooking earlier in the day and the inside of the house smelled of something wonderful, risotto with summer vegetables, Colleen guessed. Lily was a famously good cook and Colleen always came here hungry, knowing she would be fed something simple but sublime.
Colleen loved the inside of this house as much as she loved the porches outside. In fact, with its massive quarter-sawn paneling, heavy oak pocket doors, lacquered walnut flooring, fine dentil molding, grandly carved staircase and the various fireplaces with their immense hardwood mantels, there was something about being surrounded by all this natural wood that made one feel right in the middle of nature, connected to it, even though it was all inside. They simply didn’t make houses like this anymore and being here always transported Colleen from where she was in her life to a place where she could reflect on it. Along with the house, its connectedness to nature and history, her grandmother’s steadiness and the smalltown ease of Toccoa all contributed to make this a place of peace and perspective for Colleen.
Lily set the long rectangular box down on a knit rug in the center of the living room floor. Box cutter in hand, she slowly knelt down beside it. Colleen just sat quietly, letting her grandmother tend to this long-awaited task. Colleen looked around the room, all the times over the years she had heard reference to the contents of this box rushing over her.
Along with framed photographs of a life well-lived, the living room was filled with art. Colleen had been in this room so often since she was a little girl, but she never ceased being amazed by the fascinating pieces collected by Lily over the years. These were not the cold “fine art” paintings and objects that wealthy collectors mounted in their homes as evidence of business conquests and participation in the lineage of old money. Lily’s house was filled with what could best be described as folk art: vibrantly painted religious-visions by Rev. Howard Finster, colorful wood-relief carvings by Eddie Owens Martin, strange and beautiful pottery by Lanier Meaders. These self-taught rural artisans who Lily met and befriended were overlooked by the society matrons of high art, until recently. Today some of the work was just as valuable as the Picassos that hung in Buckhead mansions, not that their financial value mattered much to Lily. Each piece was a cherished story to her, one which she was always ready to share.
Except for one piece. Perhaps the most magnificent of all. A mosaic made from broken and brightly-colored pieces of glass depicting exploding blue fireworks on a starry sky. Colleen’s favorite, the piece hung prominently on the wall, but Lily had very little to say about it.
With the box-cutter blade on its lowest setting, protruding barely a quarter inch from its metal casing, Lily cut the heavy cardboard container open lengthwise. With the care and certainty of a surgeon opening a rib cage, Lily inserted her weathered fingers into the incision and broke the box open.
“It’s beautiful,” Colleen said.
Inside the box was a wedding gown, its satin bodice lifelike and full, bursting with acid-free tissue paper. Colleen knelt down on the other side of the box and ran her hand down the side of the dress. She inspected the pale silk lace. Caressed several pearl beads. Then, she pulled the dress out of the box, standing to reveal its full length, the soft fabric rising from the cardboard like mist over a creek at dawn.
For a long moment, Colleen just stood there, dress in hand hanging before her, feeling quite unsettled. For as stunning as the dress was, there was something ghostly, cadaverous, about it.
Sensing this, Lily said, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you don’t like it.”
“No, no, the dress is gorgeous. It’s just… suddenly all so real. I mean, I’m really doing this.”
“Yes, dear. You’re really doing this.” Lily said. “Unless you really don’t want to.”
“Of course I want to. I’m just a bit nervous about it all. That’s normal.”
Offered no rising inflection, but a statement of fact to which retort was not welcome, Lily just looked long and hard at Colleen. There was something left unspoken between the two women – which both knew, but neither needed to articulate.
“Drew is perfect, Grandma. Perfect.”
Perfect. That could be the greatest flaw in the choice of a husband. Lily knew this quite well. For of course there was no such thing as perfection in marriage. Only a checklist of certain standards and attributes which, even when found in a man, are all rendered meaningless by the trials of a life together. No, joy came from somewhere that wasn’t on those premarital checklists. But this was not an easy thing to explain, particularly to someone who was not asking for an explanation.
“It’s your decision, dear. You can try it on. And we can get it tailored for you. Or I can take it back to the drycleaners, have it repacked and put it back in the closet. Whatever you want to do is fine, but it’s your decision, do you understand? About this, listen only to yourself.”
Allowing her granddaughter to absorb this, Lily picked up the pieces of the cardboard box and headed for the kitchen where the recycling bins and cases of empty coke bottles were kept. On her way, she also picked up the newspaper that Colleen had brought in from the porch.
In the kitchen, Lily dropped the cardboard on top of a green bin near the back door. Then she dropped the newspaper on top of the pile as well. But before she turned, something caught her eye. She picked up the still folded Toccoa Record and started reading. Without taking her eye off the paper, she opened it and placed it on the table.
Resting both hands on either side of the paper, she steadied herself. Slowly, she leaned over the paper, reading even more intently. An expression somewhere between disbelief and amazement began to sweep over her face. Her mouth fell open. As she finished the article, she looked up, off, as though she were someplace else, and as this information took hold, it set into her knees which could no longer sustain her.
“Grandma?” Colleen walked into the kitchen just as Lily stumbled back and slumped into a chair, visibly transfixed by what she had read.
Concerned, Colleen went to the table, seeing the headline of the story in front of Lily: Museum Displays New Finds.
“Grandma, what is it?” Colleen said.
Lily pointed to a picture in the paper. “This is mine.”