Excerpt from Moon Over Edisto

Chapter 1

Julia Bennett

New York

When the bright red delivery truck from Gravy parked halfway on the sidewalk by the doors of the Kent Risen Art Gallery on Prince Street, Etienne winked at Julia and went out to pay the delivery boy.

“Po’boys,” she said as she glided back through the gallery’s thick glass door while lifting the greasy paper bags high. The smell of fried seafood filled the narrow space as Chih-yang put down his wire cutters and rubbed his hands together. “I’m starving.”

“Can’t.” Sanchez removed a nail from between his lips and began to hammer a hole in the black wall where he was planning to hang his 3-D “found objects” portrait of Bill Clinton, whose hair and eyebrows were made out of bubble wrap and crushed Diet Coke cans.

Etienne rolled her dark eyes. Sanchez had ordered them all the macrobiotic platter from Caravan of Dreams the night before, and Etienne had spat out the bland mixture of tofu and sea vegetables before lecturing them on French cuisine and how sad she felt for anyone who didn’t regularly partake of butter or cream or mussels or red meat. Then she’d marched down the block and purchased a burger combo from the Fanelli Café that smelled so good even Sanchez asked for a french fry.

“In honor of our Southern belle,” Etienne said as she unwrapped the shrimp po’ boys piled high with large fried prawns and creamy coleslaw.

Julia winced ever so slightly. “What?” Etienne said. “I’ve read your bio. I know you grew up catching shrimps down in South Carolina.”

“Sorry, Etienne.” Julia pushed her glasses up on her nose. “I just can’t do imported shrimp.”

Chih-yang, who had already taken a heaping bite of a po’ boy, began to chew slowly. Then he shrugged and swallowed. “Mealy Asian prawns with salmonella are my favorite.” He took another bite as Sanchez shook his head and lifted his portrait up. Then Chih- yang hunched over for a rather impressive pec flex. (He was the youngest, fittest artist in the group.) “My body thrives on toxins.”

“Well, how about some fried chicken then?” Etienne opened the second bag, which contained a bucket of wings and legs as well as a basket of biscuits.

Sanchez was trembling as Julia reached for a wing. “Don’t worry, Joseph,” Julia said to her old friend from art school. “Do you think a restaurant this pricey would serve anything other than free range?”

Sanchez fanned himself with one of the gallery’s brochures. “I think I need some fresh air.” Then he slid on his organic hoodie and headed out the door as Julia imagined throwing the cast net off the bow of her father’s old Johnboat. And how, on a good day in late June or early July, their casts yielded nearly half a cooler full of the small, succulent tidal creek shrimp that her mother would boil up and serve with a bowl of melted butter at the end of their rickety dock on Store Creek on the south side of Edisto Island.

“So how often do you go back?” Etienne tore open a biscuit, and Julia was mesmerized by the steam rising from it and the com- forting smell of flour and butter. “To eat the nontoxic shrimps in South Carolina?”

“Rarely,” Julia said. She hadn’t thrown the cast net, hadn’t stepped foot on the old dock, in nearly two decades, and she had no intention of ever doing so again.

Two hours later Julia rounded the corner of Fifth Avenue onto east 92nd. The hall entrance light was on at the bottom of her brownstone, which sat four doors down on the opposite side of the street. Well, it wasn’t actually her brown- stone. It belonged to her old friend Bess, who was married and had four children. There were a psychiatrist and a chiropractor on the first floor. Bess lived with her family on the next three floors. Julia had the fifth floor, the “penthouse,” really just a large studio apartment with a nice-sized rooftop deck. Julia painted and gardened there by day, and by night she stretched out on the old Pawleys Island hammock beneath her potted ficus trees and stared at the sky.

On a clear night she could see the moon. She would have felt like the luckiest woman in the world—a gainfully employed artist with a charming significant other and a rooftop view in the middle of one of the world’s greatest cities—if it weren’t for the forlorn look on the moon’s face. This will not end well, the face seemed to say. Buzz off, she said back to him sometimes.

east 92nd between Fifth and Madison was nearly noiseless this time of night. It was a little after ten and most everyone in this little section of Manhattan was bedded down, sleeping deeply before the predawn wake-up call that catapulted them out of bed and into their designer suits and private school uniforms.

Almost all of her colleagues at the college lived in either Brooklyn or the east Village or Harlem or the Bronx. Sometimes she felt a little silly living in the posh Carnegie Hill neighborhood on the Upper east Side, a stone’s throw from Central Park. Wasn’t an artist supposed to live in the real world? The earthy, gritty one where you were regularly intersecting both depravity and danger? Didn’t pure art spring from facing the grit and gristle head-on, and not only that, but from immersing oneself in it? Ah, well, she had done that. For over a decade she had done that, and it hadn’t proved to be nearly as inspiring or romantic as she’d hoped. In fact, it had left some scars as well as some steep therapist bills.

So when Bess and her husband, Graham, bought the building a couple of years ago and invited Julia to check out the penthouse, she didn’t think twice. She was through with life-on-the-edge. She was a tenured professor in the art department of Hunter College with health insurance and a retirement plan. Within the next year she was slated to become department chair. She had finally entered into a season of balance and security on nearly every level, and she was not going to let anything keep her from her own little piece of Manhattan sky.

Julia crossed the quiet street toward home. As she got closer to her building, she spotted a figure just beyond the glass-paneled street door who had not yet been buzzed into the main entrance. The figure’s back—it appeared to be a woman—was to Julia, and she was leaning against the wall, head and all, as if she had fallen asleep standing up. The woman was slightly hunched over in a thin beige raincoat. Not nearly heavy enough for this crisp March evening.

Probably one of Dr. Hu’s patients, Julia thought as her high- heeled boots steadily clapped the street before she slowed down and took a cautious step onto the sidewalk. She dug through her bag for her cell phone. She’d better wake up Graham, who was surely snoozing in the master bedroom on the fourth floor. She hated to bother him, but she didn’t need to be wrangling with a mental patient on an unpeopled street this time of night. Why a psychiatrist’s office in my building? she thought as she dialed Graham’s number. Why not an optometrist or a dermatologist? Why not two chiropractors? She might have called Simon too, but he was an ocean away in England visiting his sons. She missed him.

As Julia waited for Graham to pick up, the figure slowly turned around. Julia pressed end and dropped her phone in her bag as her heart caught in her throat. Beneath the fluorescent light the familiar face looked as though it had aged twenty years. The last time she had laid eyes on it was at Julia’s father’s funeral four years ago. Her thick mane of rich, brown hair had thinned substantially and was streaked with gray. Her sharp azure eyes, blue like the center of a flame, were now sunken into a thin, weathered face. Her gaze met Julia’s. She looked almost fragile or elderly—like a deflated balloon or a carved-out jack-o’-lantern left out on the stoop too long. She was forty, just one year older than Julia, but she might as well have been in her late fifties.

Julia ground her teeth, willing the familiar symptoms of her panic attacks to subside: sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, con- stricted throat. Once you’d had one panic attack, your greatest fear was having another—it was even greater than the fear of what might trigger it. No, she said to her pounding heart. Stop, stop, stop. Please stop. She breathed deeply and blinked several times, hoping the stars she was seeing would fade away. Lord, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy, she prayed. She had all but abandoned her child- hood faith, but somehow this old prayer her Aunt Dot had taught her (when she was six and afraid to go to sleep because of some vivid nightmares involving Doberman pinschers) helped to stave off a full-blown attack. Christ, have mercy.

When her heart slowed a little, the woman came back into focus. Then the thought crossed Julia’s mind: run, run down the street, hang a right onto Madison, and zip over to Zinnias for a nice glass of pinot noir. And maybe another. Though, truth be told, she hadn’t had a second glass of wine in years.

Against Julia’s better judgment, against every signal from her tense and trembling body, she found herself slowly walking toward the door. This was her house, her life. Had she not learned anything from her therapist? She knew exactly what Dr. Johansen would say: don’t let anyone invade it.

She set her jaw, and the woman shifted her weight and reached to the wall to steady herself. “This ought to be rich,” Julia muttered under her breath. Spite was the second best fuel she’d found to battle the panic attack symptoms, and as she bridled it in her gut, she could already feel her heart slowing down further, her throat muscles relaxing slightly. She took a deep breath and then found her key, shoved it into the hole, and turned it with a flick of her knobby wrist.

As the door slammed behind her, the glass rattling in its pane, the woman slowly cocked her head.

“Julia,” she said. “We need to talk.”

Marney held a handbag that looked as though she had dug it out of some Dumpster in the textile district. She’d never had much taste. Much style. Much sense of fashion whatsoever. And that hadn’t changed. It was the eyes that she had. And at one time, curves in all of the right places and a full face with even fuller lips. Most of all, she had gall. Or maybe it wasn’t so much gall as it was ferocity. (Julia had received years of counseling regarding the subject of Marney.)

They rode the cramped elevator up to the top floor of the small, narrow building together. Julia turned her face away from the anti- septic smell coming from Marney. Like she’d just come from the doctor’s office or a medical supply store. Marney wrung her dry, weathered hands, and Julia noticed that she still wore her wedding band. She wouldn’t have put it past Marney to remarry right away, to have someone waiting in the wings, but it was the same one from before, the simple gold band with the fig vine engraving. Marney’s husband was dead. Deep in the grave. Why did she still feel the need to wear it?

The elevator opened right into Julia’s apartment. There was the tightly made bed in the far right corner, the studio in the far left beside a panel of windows, and around a curve in the wall there was a galley kitchen, which opened up onto the deck where Julia had recently planted tomatoes and lemons in several large terra-cotta pots along the far right edge where the sunlight was best.

The moon was nearly full and the sky was clear. Julia had an eerie feeling. As if the moon were winking at her. Told you, it might have said. She nodded to the little sitting area, two chairs and a small table, in the center of the apartment. “Okay,” she said. “Have a seat. I’ll put on some tea. Then you can tell me how you are going to ruin my life today.”

“I’d rather have water.” The woman’s voice was faint and groggy. She took out a yellowed men’s handkerchief and blew her nose.


Julia poured two glasses of water from the tap. As she carried the glasses toward Marney, she thought of an old Bible verse Aunt Dot used to read to her. Something about loving your enemies. Feeding them a big meal. Maybe something about offering a cup of water. Oh, she’d fallen out of the habit of going to church sometime during college, but that stuff still stuck. It surfaced unexpectedly like a porpoise fin rising out of the dark water.

Julia handed Marney the glass and took the seat opposite her. “How are the kids?”

“Surviving, I guess.” The woman cleared her throat. “I have a son now.”

Julia nodded in as civil a manner as she could muster. She remembered how big Marney had been the day of Julia’s father’s funeral.  Julia’s father was buried in the Bennett family plot at Magnolia Cemetery outside of Charleston on a sweltering hot day in late August, and Aunt Dot was worried Marney might go into labor right there at the graveside service. She’d been having contrac- tions. Her feet and hands were swelling. Her blood pressure was all over the map.

Marney always seemed to be the center of attention. Just by existing. even at a funeral. Her husband had been well one morn- ing, catching and cleaning trout for a late breakfast, and dead by dinnertime. He’d keeled over in a plastic chair on the dock next to his acrylic tubes and easel, the canvas showing the beginnings of an egret hunting at low tide on the far marsh bank of Store Creek. And wouldn’t it have taken the cake for Marney to deliver the dead man’s fifth child, his first son—Julia’s half and only brother—on the day that he was being lowered into the ground?

But Marney didn’t deliver the baby that day. No, Charlie Foster Bennett III was not birthed at the funeral of Charlie Jr., age sixty-six. Julia was on a plane back to New york late that afternoon, and to this day she had no idea how or when the baby actually arrived. It was her own mother who called to invite her home for Thanksgiving, who mentioned the baby’s birth some weeks later. And then she’d received a birth announcement with Aunt Dot’s handwriting and a photograph of the infant in a bouncy seat flanked by his two older sisters on the old Edisto porch of Julia’s childhood summers. Aunt Dot, trying to patch the family together. Trying to be the glue of Julia’s father’s mistakes. Always the big sister, Julia supposed.

Marney was picking at a string on her raincoat. She had picked at things in college too. Julia had been paired up with her for a roommate her freshman year at the University of Georgia, though she had requested a room of her own. It was a cruel twist of fate brought about by the UGA computer system (or whatever demon inhabited it), but Julia didn’t realize it at the time.

In fact, she had adored Marney, who smelled like cloves and was both older and street-savvy, yet very fragile. Marney’s father had left her when she was just a young girl, and her mother had a prescription drug addiction that had landed her in and out of rehab over the course of Marney’s childhood. Marney had seemed so alone. So on her own. Like a compelling protagonist in a young adult novel. Like the character about whom you think, How or why does she go on? And yet you can’t look away because you want her to survive. you want her to thrive. She’d managed to get a scholarship to the university, and she was studying biology. She’d wanted to be a veterinarian.

So Julia had been compelled, compelled to bring Marney home during their college summers because she had no place to go. each year they’d head to Edisto and wait tables at Dockside and spend the days lounging on the beach or taking the Johnboat out into the tidal creeks and waterways. Marney had grown up in a concrete suburb of Atlanta, and Julia showed her porpoises, alligators, foxes, bobcats, and even a copperhead slinking across the orange and dusty dirt road. She taught her to fillet her first fish with a rusty boat knife and how to peel the heads off of a cooler full of shrimp too. Julia’s mama, who was an amazing gardener and cook, would prepare big meals for them. Fresh-caught shrimp with plenty of butter for dunking, fried flounder and trout, tomato pies, okra soup, sweet corn on the cob, fresh-baked biscuits, and lots of creamy grits to go with everything. Julia’s younger sister, Meg, was always there with a friend or two from town, and so was Julia’s father, who took nearly all of the summer off from his law practice to do what he loved best—paint.

The last summer between their junior and senior year, Julia had been invited by her art professor to spend eight weeks touring the art museums of Italy and France. She jumped at the chance. Her parents invited Marney to spend the summer at Edisto, as usual, if she’d like. And she did. At the same time, Julia’s maternal grandfather had a massive stroke, and her mother moved back to Charleston to care for him. Meg went back too. She was seventeen, and she had a crush on a South of Broad boy who taught sailing at the Carolina yacht Club, so she spent the summer taking lessons from him. She would marry him seven years later.

By the time Julia returned to Edisto from Europe mid-August of that summer, she noticed some strange things: Marney taking a sip of her father’s late-afternoon gin and tonic and setting it down beside him, Marney folding her father’s clothes and delivering him a cup of coffee on the dock every morning as he painted, and once, when they must have thought Julia was still asleep, Marney putting her arm around Julia’s father, and him doing the same, pulling her close for whole seconds as they stared out at Store Creek at the rising tide, wide arcs pushing toward the inmost part of their little salt marsh nook.

Now Marney cleared her throat and Julia woke back up from the memory. “I have cancer in my left lung, but my oncologist thinks they’ve caught it early enough.” Marney pulled the beige string out of the lining of her jacket and let it fall onto Julia’s hardwood floor. “I need to have surgery next month to remove it.”

Julia exhaled slowly. She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.” Sorry Marney had torn her family apart, crushed her mother’s heart, exhausted her father with an entirely new second family, and now was battling a wicked disease. Messiness heaped upon messiness. Julia did not like messiness. What she really wanted to say was, So what does this have to do with me?

As if Marney could read her mind, she straightened up, met Julia’s gaze, and said, “I need you to come home in May and take care of the kids. The recovery will take a month or two.”


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