Couple of days in Chuck-Town with a girl named Amber, sometimes Am-brrrrr, and occasionally Am-beer. . .
Amber did her tour guide thing as she drove us to Middleton Place, letting me know the place had been established in 1741–making it the earliest extensive formal gardens in the thirteen colonies–by Henry Middleton, who was later President of the first Continental Congress. “His son was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.”
“What rich guy wasn’t?” I sighed as she pulled in.
She knew the ticket taker, but even with all the smiles I had to pay full price for both of us, and it wasn’t cheap. To the side I spotted a display with an aerial photo of part of the grounds, consisting of two large grassy expanses bisected by a tree-lined path, then what looked to be grassy terraces down to the water.
“I don’t see gardens.”
“They’re there,” she grinned. “Pwomise.”
“Hmmm. . .”
That might have worked better without the baby voice, I grinned. “Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
I reached over for one of the complimentary maps and compared it to the photo, noticing what I’d seen earlier was on the map called butterfly lakes and rice paddies.
“I don’t like butterflies. Let’s check out the reflection pool, so I can get a shot of two Ambers for the price of one.”
“Price of NONE!” she gurgled, then looked surprised. “You don’t like butterflies? They’re so preeeety!”
“Nice, very girly.” Since she’s six-foot-two, I didn’t often get a chance to see her that way, so it was fun. I waited for her to preen, then added, “I think they look like brightly colored pieces of paper trash in the wind, but that’s only from afar. Up close–”
“Never mind, seen it.”
The next few minutes were spent wandering the grounds, chatting about unimportant things, she modeling without comment whenever I asked. At one time I mentioned how strange a part of the landscape looked, and she wondered aloud if it might have been caused by the Great Charleston Earthquake, since–
Dimpling at the chance of lecturing me, for once, she gave the statistics, no doubt memorized in grade school. “On the night of August 31st, 1886, just before ten P.M., a minute-long earthquake hit the area that damaged two thousand buildings and killed at least sixty people. At a time when the buildings in the whole city were worth $24 million, the quake caused $6 million in damages.”
“I’ve been in plenty of earthquakes, but none that lasted that long.”
She shuddered. “I never have. Hurricanes are bad enough.”
“But those last a lot longer.”
“True enough, but at least you know it’s coming! Anyhoo, the quake was so strong it damaged buildings in Ohio, and was felt as far away as Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Cuba!” She shuddered again.
I had my doubts about the “damaged in Ohio” part, but then remembered this was well over a hundred years ago, long before building specs.
“They estimated it was a 7.3 on that scale you’re no doubt familiar with. Weird thing is, there’d never been an earthquake before that!”
“Which could explain why it was so severe,” I mused. “That rubber band stretched forever, and when released. . .”
She caught the analogy and nodded, then made a hammy pose in front of some flowers. Okay, I’d make her regret that by posting it on the internet and letting her coworkers know.
“Do you remember seeing crosses on the sides of buildings? Those are earthquake bolts.”
“Those Maltese crosses on otherwise plain walls?”
“And those are supposed to help the buildings?”
Shrug. “I majored in history, not architecture.”
“You mean engineering.”
Another shrug. “Say hi to the wood nymph.”
First I took a picture, then said, “Hi, wood nymph! Bet your human incarnation here hasn’t visited you in too long.”
“True,” she sighed, “but I’m more of a water nymph.”
“Didn’t prove it in the whirlpool. Now pose behind her so I can get both of you in the shot.”
Well, she had been the one who’d first anthropomorphized the inanimate object, and she was glad to see me play along, so she did. Though she drew the line when I asked her to kiss the statue on the lips.
But that was ok, because my attention was quickly drawn by what was floating in the lake. “Swans! Don’t you love how they look like twos?”
“Indeed! Think you can get a photo of us together?”
“Swans are notoriously unpredictable, like most beautiful creatures.” I let that hang in the air for a moment, then grinned. “I’ll shoot slow, and if the birdie doesn’t move, it should come out well.”
She didn’t bother asking what the hell that meant. “So does this mean you’ve shot swans before?”
“Sure. My dawn photo in Stockholm harbor is relatively famous. And in art circles, my shot of a wild swan painting in Amsterdam. . . that’s wild swan, not wild goose.”
“I was going with wild turkey,” she giggled. “Wanna hear the water buffalo story?”
“Indeed. You make non sequiturs fun.”
She let that go, for once. “At the end of the Civil War this place was burned and looted by Union troops, because the owner signed the Ordinance of Secession.”
“Wow, these boys really like to give autographs!”
“True!” She chortled at the imagined look on an old professor’s face when she told him that. “Anyway, of the water buffalo on the grounds, the soldiers ate five–no report if they tasted like chicken–and another six somehow ended up at the Central Park Zoo, up in Yankee territory. But you wouldn’t know much about the Civil War, being a Californian.”
“I know more than I ever wanted. It’s my least favorite time in history to study. But then, I didn’t have to major in history for that.”
“There’s a dig in there somewhere, but I choose to ignore it.”
“Did you know there was a Civil War battle fought in California?”
Her response was quite similar to mine when she mentioned the Great Charleston Earthquake.
Trying not to look smug, I lectured, “Happened just outside San Jose, though the plaque takes the view of the revisionists who insist it was only a battle against outlaws.”
She grinned. “Either you’re a genius for making this stuff up so quickly, or a genius for remembering all this useless trivia.”
“Both,” I said lightly.
We found ourselves in front of another alabaster statue, this one with long curly hair down the back, as I found out when I went behind it and got them both in the photo. Not noticing, she simply stood there and pondered it quietly, seemingly gone from this world. She stood there for a few minutes before shaking herself out of it, then grabbing my hand and leading me toward what she claimed was her favorite spot.
We stood there next to a lake, looking at the carpet of red flowers on the opposite shore.
“You’re not planning on fishing, are ya?”
“Hell no!” she laughed. “Bo-ring!”
“You’re a Northern girl in disguise.”
“I’ve seen people fish in the North! They cut a whole in the ice–”
“I didn’t mean that far north.”
We walked on in silence for a bit longer, me taking photos and she standing behind me, trying to figure out exactly what I was shooting. But finally we came to a building. “That’s a hotel, or I guess they call it an inn.”
“Maybe I’ll stay there next time. . . unless you’d rather we don’t leave your apartment for three days.”
She smiled, but couldn’t let me get away with it that easily. “Thanks for assuming I’d still be single next time you visited!”
I chuckled and let her have that one, but then she blurted, just to keep the game alive, “And don’t assume I’d have a bunch of kids by then either!”
“Not unless you adopted, not-so-Suthin’ girl. I know you.”
She shuddered. “Damn right! I am never having a baby! I’ll adopt or marry a guy who already has kids.”
“I can’t see you ruining that perfect body,” I agreed, grinning and waiting for another photo op.
She didn’t bite. “You know what I told the doctor when I had my first gyno checkup?”
“I can hardly wait.”
“Shush. ‘I just have one question, doctor: how is the baby really supposed to get out of my body? Really?’”
Chuckle. “I’m gonna check your stomach for scars next time.”
“My stomach is pristine, you whiner.”
“But not other parts?”
“You’ll just have to check more carefully next time you shoot me,” she smirked, then stopped as she saw something that immediately put her in a particularly fine mood. “Don’t suppose you’d be interested in a horseyback ride?” she grinned.
“Would you be willing to spring me a ride?” She almost winced, since I’d paid twenty-five dollars for each of us to get into the garden, but somehow managed to hold back. She didn’t do the pleading face that worked on Daddy either, just kept it pleasantly earnest.
“Sure. That seems to be the only way to get you to stop interrupting.”
She let that go this time, because she really wanted a ride. She even posed willingly on the chocolate mare with the white mane for some shots, then took off, twisting at full gallop to wave bye-bye, then remembering she hadn’t put on her required helmet and quickly doing so.
So I wandered around a little more while she was gone, but basically got bored and simply waited for her, then we left.
That night at the symphony she suddenly blurted, “We forgot to pick up some water buffalo cheese at the gardens!”
I shuddered. “Please don’t ever say that again. . .”
After the symphony came the haunted city tour, which is better left unmentioned. . .
After a bit of discussion we decided to hit another garden, which she promised would be even better than the first. Of course she pretended not to hear when I asked why she didn’t take me there the first time, instead skipping forward to fetch the car.
Magnolia Plantation also had an entrance fee, but much cheaper and, if the brochure was any indication, a lot more stuff to see and do.
To my surprise–such a big city shouldn’t have been this inbred–Amber knew this ticket-taker as well, but I managed to sneak away while the females indulged in some good-natured joshin’. I headed off in the best direction the map could point out while reading the historical portion of the brochures. It contained basically the same kind of bullshit as the other place, though not to the same extent; more flowery prose, though. It had been open to the public since the 1870s, but parts were so much older they were considered the oldest unrestored gardens in America. Had the other place made the same claim? Probably.
“Good thing this family didn’t sign any documents and have the place burned down by Yankees, huh?”
“True,” she chuckled, then gasped. “How’d you know I was right behind you?”
“There are so many examples I can give you,” I sighed. “That we’re telepathically connected, for instance. . .”
“By the heart and not the mind? I’d buy that.”
Grinning at that one, I kept going. “The fact you have a special brand of soap that you use exclusively and my nose has memorized.”
“Oooh, I love that one just as much! What else?”
“There’s this incredibly long yet incredibly thin shadow. . .”
She glanced at the ground, then grimaced. “Had to be that one! Damn!”
“Or all of the above. . .”
Still reading the brochures, I ran down the list of flowers I’d heard of but couldn’t identify. “Camellias, daffodils, azaleas. . .”
“I’ll point them out to you,” she promised.
“Is there no end to your intellect?”
She was about to say there wasn’t, but left it alone instead, since there was nothing she could add to such a truthful admission. So I went back to the paperwork in my hand. “‘The gardens at Magnolia Plantation are of such beauty and variety that they have brought tourists from around the world to view them, with the climax of incredible beauty building towards the spring bloom.’ Go tell them how much you hate them using the word ‘climax’ when you can’t enjoy it. I’ll wait.”
“We’ll do that on the way out,” she promised
“Let’s start slow,” I decided, pointing to the train, which really wasn’t, being pretty much a tractor pulling open trailers with benches, not even as fancy as the ones at Universal Studios. But the ride was smooth and I got a lot of good photos, so I was happy. She helped by pointing out interesting shots.
After that she led me in a certain direction–shoving shoulder to shoulder a more accurate description–till we were at the petting zoo. “This should make you happy. I don’t want you to stop till you’ve maxed out your digital card!”
I didn’t tell her I had extras in the bag, simply shot and shot and shot, making sure to keep the camera on telephoto so none of the kids shrieking around her would come out, just her and whatever animal she was playing with at the time. It was plain to see she was having fun, which made me happy, and the photos I got of her being happy made me all the happier.
Sometime later, simply walking around the grounds, we came across a tour group. Instead of joining them, we sat at a bench close enough to hear without drawing attention.
“The Romantic Garden movement has its roots in the industrial revolution in Europe, and is tied directly to the empowerment of the common man. When he went to work in the factories, he wanted to design gardens that would help him forget the dreary life offered during the workday.”
“Makes sense,” I yawned, though softly.
“I like to say that the definition of a romantic is an ‘Extravagant Liar.’ This is really what a romantic garden is designed to do, to fool you into forgetting the normalcy of everyday life. Romantic Gardens are designed to take the viewer to a place where emotion takes precedent over reason. Surprise awaits around every corner. Form, balance and symmetry are thrown to the wind. These gardens are designed to appeal directly to the soul.”
When we got up and continued to meander, time went away. Neither of us knew how long we wandered the gardens; my only time signatures were that my legs were getting tired and my stomach no longer buzzed. At that moment I saw a gorgeous white bridge over one of the lakes, and I told her to go onto it while I photo’ed her. “Act like you’re waiting for your lover, smiling at the sky, picking at a flower, those kinds of things.”
Trying not to grin, she raced over and went into what passed for actress mode from her, though simply hoping she did well enough to be convincing in the photos.
“C’mon, this is your only chance to act girly.”
She took that to heart and started overdoing it.
A few minutes later I joined her, telling her it was time to go back to the real world for a spell. That was actually what I said, “For a spell.” It took her a while to stop laughing, so she was easy to lead as I moved us back toward the entrance/exit.
Once I saw she had finally mentally returned and could give me some attention, I mentioned, “That’s what the tour guide meant about the gardens being an extravagant liar. While we were inside them, the real world went away.”
“And we could pretend we didn’t have a care in the world. Yeah, that makes sense.” She sighed. “How good would it feel to live like that all the time?”
Grin. “Boring. You need the Bad to remind you how Good is supposed to feel.”
That night, strolling through downtown after dinner, I asked her how Charleston was named, but she didn’t know. She did say that Columbia had been named by Christopher Columbus, which was no big reach, but, wanting to show off her intellectual chops, she added, “You can argue that Columbus made the most important discovery in history.”
Snort. “YOU can argue that. The only thing Columbus ever discovered was that he was lost!”