Issue 2:1 | Fiction | Jennifer Manske Fenske
In the Okefenokee
By Jennifer Manske Fenske
“While the Okefenokee will eventually succumb and evolve into a cypress forest, for the present it has an unlikely ally that allows it to retain its open water prairies.”
--From an exhibit installation at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta, Georgia.
So far I have seen a giant sloth’s matted belly and the delicately crossed paws of a fox. If the fox had a say in the matter, my guess is he would rather be running through a damp forest glade instead of crouching stuffed and perpetually foppish-looking in an air-conditioned museum exhibit. I have also had two lattes from the museum coffee shop. The shop is helpfully tucked next to the museum store.
My boss Maurice is running this way and that, measuring the Great Hall. We’re supposed to toss a bride here next week, and there’s something the matter with the width of the hall. Maurice—that’s heavy on the “ice,” like “eeeeece”—is threatening to pull the whole shindig from the museum. But we all know he won’t do that. He’s simply high-strung.
Tossing brides, which is Maurice’s lingo for getting a bride married off and the hell out of his hair, is something I do almost every week. Especially this balmy time of year when every gal in Atlanta gets it into her head that she must be married. If I could ever drag Avery to the altar, let me tell you, I would do it in the dead of winter. There would be no doves, no clinging jasmine, and no powder-blue skies.
I leave Maurice and wander through the museum. If he notices I am gone, he will take a guess that I am inspecting the fire exits and valet parking options. If the devil’s in the details, then I am the right there in Satan’s harem. I love to organize, make lists, and cross them off. I carry folders, three under my arm right now, in three different colors. I have a combination calendar, watch, and phone wristwatch that Avery brought me back from Japan. It’s the latest thing, and Maurice drags my wrist out at all times of day to show it off to clients. “Look,” he’ll coo, “Call her. It really works!” The client usually declines. They could care less about my phone. It’s Maurice they want.
With the Great Hall to my back, I climb the white stairs, heading for the entry level. A spooky dinosaur leers over the entire hall. I noticed earlier that the dinosaur’s head is glaringly small for the rest of its body. This makes me think of the dinosaur’s prey options. I wonder what it was like to see that tremendous body coming on fast and then see a teeny-weeny little head coming bobbing down to chomp you in two. I’ll bet a few furry mammals had a good laugh or two before the lights went out.
I enter the exhibit area that details the various areas of Georgia. I’ve lived here all my life, but I couldn’t tell you where these places are. The Piedmont. Springer Mountain. The Cumberland Valley. I didn’t much pay attention in school. Mostly, I had boyfriends and we had a good time. Now, not in the way you’re thinking. It was more like a fun season when I didn’t have to do anything but brush my hair and pick out a cute pair of sandals. Now that I’m twenty-eight, I see that there was probably more I could have done with my life.
Avery is one of those things I could have done more with or less of. For five years, I have allowed myself to be picked up, taken by convertible to a house bigger than God’s pocketbook, and then generally left to my own devices. We play pool. His mother cooks for me. His father talks about the stock market. And Avery looks at all of us with a gin and tonic in his hand like he just did eight hours of work someplace, somewhere. But really, Avery’s just waiting. On something.
Sometimes we check out a new painting Avery’s father bought. Last week it was an Albert Bierstadt, and it was tiny. I know Mr. Thigpen paid a ton of money for it. I just know. But it makes him happy and no one sees anything wrong with that. I’ve learned that in the Thigpen household, the happier the men are, then the less frazzled the women will be for life. It’s the way things work. I don’t knock it. It’s not the way I was raised, but I don’t complain.
Lest you think Avery has a problem, let me set things straight. Try to imagine a Saturday morning, with rain. You’re in bed, the lights are out, and the gray wash of morning comes up and around the windows. Without looking, it’s safe to say it’s the same time of day that you would already be at your desk with a pile of work. But since it’s Saturday, and it’s raining, there’s no place to go. No tennis game. No garden work. Nothing but bed, you slug. That’s Avery.
I pass another dinosaur, this one with an eager college student standing under it. He’s a museum worker, holding a bone in one hand and his fist in the other. He looks nervous, poor guy, like he knows he should approach the small knots of parents and kids wandering through the room and give them some sort of dinosaur bone demonstration. Maybe wave the pitted bones around, giving the kinder a mouthful of facts. But the poor kid looks scared, totally whipped and nervous. I half-think about going over to him and asking a lame question about the dinosaur whose crotch he’s standing under. You know, give him a boost.
Instead, I realize I am tired. I have spent all day keeping up with Maurice and his demands. He’s all right, but sometimes, blast it, I grow tired of helping other women get married. I’d like to toss the whole lot of them out of the window, to tell the truth. I sigh, thinking then I would have to go back waiting tables or gift wrapping at Luck’s department store. That’s where Avery met me. I gift-wrapped two crystal bowls for him and we started talking. He noticed the neat way I tucked my corners under the silver Luck’s box. I noticed the way he sprung for the more expensive wedding toile paper instead of the cheapy complementary wrap.
Thinking too much about Avery makes me clench my jaw, so I duck out of the dinosaur room and head into the Okeefenokee Swamp. The exhibit is set up, like all of them, to imitate a place. It’s a hard thing to do, and I think the museum pulls it off as best as it can. But the birds aren’t moving and the water is stiff Plexiglas, and all of a sudden, I am deep down sad. The swamp’s birds were real once and now they are stuck on sticks that jut up out of cattails. Really, it’s no life that I can appreciate.
I pause in the swamp boardwalk that snakes through the exhibit. A red-shouldered hawk hangs above me, frozen on a wire with a snake it its talons. Herons and other birds I think I should know are crammed into the space to my right. A bullfrog pulses a deep-throated warning. It’s nice in here. It’s not so bad. Then I read a little about the swamp. I learn that the swamp’s cypress trees will eventually take over because that’s what cypress trees do. They’ll make a thick, knitted space where earth can form and then the swamp will be out of business. Just like that, it will be gone.
While I’m standing there, the bullfrog music gets louder. And the lights start fade. At first the lights dim slightly, then in a freefall of color and darkness that tells me night is on. I almost feel the rush of a night wind in the wet swamp. A mosquito hums near my ear. In the other room, the dinosaur is forgotten by bored children. Then, without a skip, the lights turn up and it’s morning in the swamp. More birds join the looped audiotape. It’s bright and pink, the way a sunrise always is when you’re looking right in to it.
A group of tourists enter the room. They have noisy children. I read the rest of the swamp information. It seems the only way the poor Okefenokee can get out of its predicament is to have a good ole fire. Seems when the fire destroys the cypress trees, then the spaces of earth collapse and all of the water is free to be swampy again. The lights start to dim again and I realize I’m in for my second night in the swamp. A kid steps on my foot. I decide to leave.
It’s not that Avery wouldn’t marry me. Or that I haven’t, well, you know, hinted. Looked at rings. Threatened in my own way. But Avery, he’s working on some other level. Like the battle of the swamp bottom back there. There’s stuff working down in the depths that no one knows about. And you might think it’s sad and sorry to get hung up on marrying someone. But when you’re not twenty-one anymore and working for a man named Maurice who paid more for his imported dog than you made last year, then sad and sorry starts to work itself over pretty good.
I think about that swamp as I drive to Maurice’s favorite jewelry stores. The bride we’re tossing next month is named Darby and she wants to give all her bridesmaids platinum “D” pendants. Subtle nudges that perhaps they might want to receive pendants with their own first initials have gone unheeded. So, here and I am, in Barrclere inspecting and then ordering fifteen “D’s” in gothic script. They will be ready in ten days. Darby will be thrilled, I tell Maurice into my wristwatch.
“Are you using it?” he screams to me. He thinks the volume is low because the watch is so small.
“Yes,” I reply. The saleslady at Barrclere is pointing to me. The other salesgirls stop to look. I feel like Judy Jetson.
“So Euro. See you tomorrow.”
I nod and sign off. The time flashes at me: 5:25. It’s almost time to meet Avery. We’re playing tennis before dinner. He likes to work up an appetite. Before I go to meet his convertible, I order a pendant for myself. I’m in luck; the “A’s” are in stock. I wear my purchase outside into the spring air.
Tennis is no simple affair at the Thigpens. For one thing, Avery’s father might join us. That’s always tricky because Mrs. Thigpen told us that Mr. Thigpen feels he is losing his youth and winning at tennis is one way for him to “pull back the hands of the time-clock,” as she puts it. Mrs. Thigpen never joins us in this endeavor, even though she played college-level tennis at Vandy and a few trophies up in Nashville have her name on them. Then there’s Avery, a really decent player, and me.
I learned to play the game on our first date. Never having picked up a racquet before, I was sort of a blank slate, but Avery was very patient. I liked the way he spent time with me, even when we were starting out and neither of us knew where we were going with this. He hired a coach for me, and before my Saturday morning stint at Luck’s, I would meet Del at the Thigpen’s for an hour lesson. I did that for a whole year until Avery’s mom hooked me up with the Maurice job.
Avery and I start with a few groundstrokes. I enjoy warming up. It’s something about the rhythm of the new, yellow ball bouncing toward me, and then away. Occasionally, the rhythm stops and starts when I toss one into the net. Avery rarely makes mistakes. Unless his mind is on something big, he can hit winners by me all day long.
This is a source of tension between us. “Avery,” I’ll say when he hits a particularly evil shot to my backhand when he knows full well I am recovering from diving for his previous return, “Avery, give me a break. That’s not fair.”
“Fair? What’s fair?” he’ll reply without breathing hard.
This is where I pout and refuse to play anymore. In my mind, an opponent who picked up a racquet for the first time five years ago is not to be tortured with a constant volley of winners. Especially when said opponent is the girlfriend.
But Avery, of the summer tennis camps in some European country and custom-made leather tennis shoes, does not subscribe to my way of thinking. I am reminded of this when a wicked slice drops in front of me and thuds out of my reach. The warm-up is over.
We play hard for thirty minutes, and then relax for a bit at the net. Avery leans over the webbing and flicks a piece of dirt off of my forehead.
“You seem distracted today. What’s going on?”
“Oh, well, you know, it’s the job. I just live for those bridal gals,” I say.
Avery laughs, showing his pink tongue and white teeth. I smile back, showing off my newly straightened teeth. Avery got me in to see his orthodontist last year, and for the past ten months, my mouth has been prodded and warped into toothy perfection. I was always self-conscious about my crooked front teeth. Now I wear a full-tilt smile, even for brides.
“I’m thinking about telling the next bride who asks for those tiny autumnal flowers they saw last month in Atlanta Wedding to jump off Stone Mountain.”
“Because that magazine is printed months in advance, so, those flowers were available, like, eight months ago. I cannot get them for a June wedding,” I say, starting to get worked up.
“Okay, easy. I was just asking.” Avery flips his racquet over in his hands, examining the strings. He’s ready to play again. But I’m not. I go on.
“And you’d think that one of these perfectly intelligent and rich women would take the time to notice that flowers called “Autumnal Joy” would not be sitting around their chi-chi florist in early May. It’s just not going to happen!”
Backing away from the net, Avery stops turning his racquet over. He glances toward the veranda where his father is reading The New Yorker. But he can’t hear us because he’s a good quarter of a mile away from the courts. I can make him out, just barely. He’s a tiny speck wearing a V-neck sweater.
“So, that’s what I get worked up about. Everyday. And Maurice has ‘absolute confidence’ in me because I can alphabetize folders while wearing a telephone watch. Believe me, when I get married, I will not be wearing this watch and I will not order flowers that don’t exist naturally!”
A trickle of sweat runs down my chest and lodges in the band of my sports bra. Without looking at Avery, I know that I’ve gone too far. Avery hates conflict and I don’t really like it too much either. My parents don’t fight, and neither do his.
“Ah,” Avery starts to say.
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take out my day on you.”
“Well, that’s okay. I guess.” Avery’s face is stretched tight with some sort of decision. I figure he wants to get to the safety of a gin and tonic or at the very least, away from me.
We walk toward the veranda, Mr. Thigpen and some sort of awaiting cold plate. I’ll find out later that it will be salmon. A dish I never had until I started dating Avery. I wonder, if we ever break up, will I like the taste of salmon again or will it just be a fish I knew once, a long time ago?
Maurice calls me in early on Saturday. Our bride, the one with the natural history museum reception, is having cold feet. Maurice tells me loudly over the phone that she isn’t sure she wants to be Mrs. So-and-So for the rest of her life. The parents of the bride are pressuring her to go through with it. The creamy engraved invitations alone set them back eight thousand dollars. The wedding is in seven hours.
I arrive at the museum where the tables and candle globe centerpieces are being set up. Museumgoers are wandering along the perimeter of the Great Hall, looping around to tour an exhibit about ancient Syria. I try to mentally place the country on a map but I draw a blank. I was never that great with geography.
“There she is,” Maurice pants to me as I skirt a caterer’s helper laden with white wooden chairs. “You’ve got to get this on, and I mean fast.”
Maurice is worked up and I understand why. It’s his job to toss a bride and then to bask in the referrals for years to come. If this bride bails—and from the look in her dazed and sobbed-out face, I think she’s close—Maurice will be damaged. I’m usually sent in to save the day. I’m supposed to talk about babies and white wedding dresses. If that doesn’t work, then I’m to go for the you’ll-be-lonely-until-you-die jugular. The sad thing is, I kind of believe in it all. The white dress, the honeymoon in Belize, the parade of infants in short pants. Standing in the Great Hall, with that tiny-headed dinosaur towering over the entire show, I’m not sure how anyone can escape what’s coming at us.
The bride, who is named Anna Kate, agrees to go for a walk with me. I know immediately where to take her. We go to the Okefenokee Swamp. On the boardwalk, I point to the frozen thrushes and plastic water. Her blond hair, recently done up in a cascade of curls and twirly French knots, has become a bit unhinged. I touch one sprung curl and tuck it back into the rest. As the pink lights of morning come up on the swamp, Anna Kate lets me put one arm around her shoulder as she cries.
She tells me that her fiancé is really, well, she says apologetically, there’s no other word for it, an ass. He works all day and then expects her to put on a black dress and entertain clients. He likes wrestling and drinks beer with every meal. She can envision a parade of expense account dinners and weekend lowbrow sports that never ends. And she can’t think of life going forward unless she marries him in six hours.
Anna Kate and I stand in the swamp for about a week of up and down lights, cooing birdcalls, and mating deep-voiced frogs. She cries a little bit and I explain the wonders of the swamp I had never seen before last week even though it’s in my home state. I tell her about the trees knitting together and the sorry chance the swamp has to make it out alive.
She stops crying and lifts her head just slightly all the while working her two-karat ring off her left hand. When I get to the part about fire helping the swamp get back to what it’s supposed to be, Anna Kate has the beginnings of a smile that no cypress tree, giant-headed dinosaur, or ass-faced fiancé can take away.
And so we leave the swamp at sundown, but not before Anna Kate takes that ring and drops it into the water. Of course, it bounces right off the Plexiglas and rolls over to rest beside a dusty white heron. And her father will retrieve it later because he is mad and wants to cash it in to make his daughter pay for her treachery.
But for now, the only one wearing white is the heron and as we leave the swamp, Anna Kate turns to blow her a kiss. I would have put the ring on the dead bird’s beak, but I can tell that Anna Kate is the type of person who respects the DO NOT TOUCH signs posted here and there. My wristwatch rings and I know it is Maurice begging me to save the day. I know I did not.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I look down and see that the caller is Avery. I will find out later he is in the lobby of the museum and has packed me a bag filled with two cotton sundresses and two pairs of cute sandals. He will take me to an island off the coast of Georgia where he will ask me to be his wife. Avery doesn’t know it yet, but before I say yes, I will visit the nearby Okefenokee and beg the water, that deep black water with the power to conjure a swamp-saving fire, what it is in the world I should do.