First, Lilo Creighton arrived, about ten years before the famous guest.

Lilo was white-blonde, bronzed and German, and quite athletic. She was often seen sprinting around town like she was trying to outrun her clothing. She wore wide legged, flapping pants and looked glamorous. She spoke with an accent like dust on modern furniture. She bought the Gold Eagle Tavern, the old place at the far end of the bayfront shops. It had opened for business after the Civil War, following two centuries of serving as the rambling home of the Hamaspuir, Schmetterling, Currer, and Stackton families.

The tavern was surrounded by water on two sides, bedazzled with courtyards and balconies and verandas and joggling boards and swings and the craggly, swooping branches of oak trees. The old place was perfect for weddings and escapes and liaisons, and for watching everything that flowed into the town in the fresh water pushed by the mountains in one direction and the saltwater controlled by a puppetmaster moon in the other.

A river can’t help but flow, with so much depending on it. An inn can’t help but have a doorway, with so many people craving its comforts.

Lilo’s advantage was electricity—in her time, the supply came on, the bulbs glowed, and Nature was still something to enjoy. The Carolina Parakeet could still be spotted: but wearing colorful bird feathers in hats was stylish. The land around the town was mined— messily, how else?— for phosphates, and oil derricks proliferated and spewed worldwide wider and wider.

Nature is a playground, insist upon it.

Lilo had spent her career developing her talent for drama. As a child she sang everything, which lead to, when she was fourteen, running away to the Teatro Amazonas in Brazil.

Fun takes conniving, earning takes scheming, song requires funding.

Lilo’s second advantage was Pennington Collins, she who motored to Beaufort this town of gold eagles and oyster shells, under the wisteria dangling from the arching trees, pulling up next to barefoot children and doling out candy until her  paper sack, consisting mainly of Squirrel Nut Zippers and Mary Janes, was empty.

Pennington parked the car at her aunt and uncle’s house. Her cousin Rupert asked, “Any accidents this time cous’?” to which she gave no reply. She walked along the bayfront shops, swinging her handbag and looking around with approval at the busy wharves, feeling and looking like a benevolent shrimping goddess. Pink and salty and dee-lish. She came upon the Gold Eagle Tavern and there she found Lilo, who was walking around the dilapidated place, poking at walls and steps with a skinny black cane. Dilapidated but lovely— it was a maze back to the 1700s, a labyrinth for the desires of its inhabitants.

Pennington and Lilo spoke, and Pennington began her new job that week— at this point it was to do everything, just like Lilo— and three months and heavy renovations later the grand opening was the next day.

Gold Eagle Rules—

1) Be merry at all costs.

3) The administration refrains from any decision-making from Christmas Eve to Thanksgiving Day.

4) Do not laugh at the Monkeys. Sensitive.

5) Using silverfish as bookmarks discouraged.

6) Do not find the fifth bedroom on the third floor. Don’t ask why!

7) Any swizzle sticks, handkerchiefs, kazoos and underthings left behind upon your departure will be donated to the Pie Brother’s Animal Sanctuary & Jelly Fish Rescue.

8) Door frames subject to lowerage.

9) Protective Forehead-bumpers ran out years ago.

10) No matter how sharp they are, do not snip off the ends of the musket palms.

11) No spills. No combustions. No Disruptions of anything.

By October 1933, the Gold Eagle Tavern had never looked so good. The painters had covered everything inside and out in a sleek, pale gold tone. The garden-jungle was improved by the strategic placement of blooming ginger and geranium; the old, wild growth was touchy-feely and lush, thick and vigorous. Creaking with squirrels and lizards. This was the climactically perfect time of year in the subtropics for wearing layers of finery and baubles.

The guest list was both accessible and illustrious. Lilo sent invitations worldwide to just about everyone she knew. She had worked in Hollywood ten years earlier as a designer—she’d helped build and decorate sets, contributed to costuming and styling; she abetted the parties, amped the nightlife, caught and passed along chlamydia. Her people’s (the Germans, that is) penchant for nudity is what helped, to a great degree, appall certain prudes and eventually empower the Hays Commission’s censorship.

She didn’t have a hard time, though, keeping her mouth zipped about her guest list. The locals didn’t know what to expect, and the VIPs didn’t care. Lilo looked forward to seeing her old friends who’d gotten so famous, and to awing her neighbors.  She didn’t even warn Pennington, by then one of her main confidants, other than what she told everyone—

“Expect a crowd, wear your best.”

The phone rang, the kitchen prepped, the dining room decked, and guests settled into their rooms. The bell hops hopped to it. As Social Chieftess, Pennington was okra-like, her arms firm, her voice tendriling around—she thickened the plot the way okra does broth. For the grand opening she had a new dress, a gold sheath encased in a pink modern lace like ink blot toile.

As the final touches were applied to the Gold Eagle, Lilo stayed in her rooms in the house behind the main building. The old kitchen and servants quarters was now her retreat. She rested to gather her strength to commandeer the evenings.

“My rest is a requisite,” is how she put it, with sharpened-pencil words. She loved to lay in bed with the windows wide open and listen to the commotion of her commerce and the presence of the river. Clanking versus the murmur of bigness, the mouse squeaks of details versus the doppler effect of the cosmos. What did I just miss?, she often thought to her drowsy self.

Pennington had established a no-knocking approach so the day of the grand opening party she walked right in. Whatever the conversation, prone Lilo would conclude every other sentence with ‘My tongue is so dry,’ until a refreshment was fetched. Pennington had a tall glass in hand.

“When are you getting up today?” asked Pennington.

“The same time I get up every day,” she said.

“Where’d you go last night, after Melonie left?”

“I don’t even remember,’ she said. ‘Does it matter somehow?”

“I’m just asking.”

“I’m just sleeping.”

“I slept,” Pennington mentioned.

“Well I’m sure you did!’ Lilo bounced to roll over on the bed to look at her. “What do you want?”

“Just wonderin’ what you’ve been dreaming about. Everything’s ready,” she shrugged. “Freddy’s getting more candles.”

“Dreams don’t mean anything,” Lilo explained, “because no one else gets to see them but you,” Lilo laid back on her pillows. “It’s not the same when you tell someone about it.”

Pennington moved over to an overstuffed chair where she could put up her feet.

She watched Lilo dream until she woke again, exclaiming about her full bladder. By then it was time to get dressed. Cars were already parked along the long driveway to the street.

It began genteel.

Lilo had the patience, early in the evening, to entertain her tradition-inclined neighbors with a combination of the comforts they always wanted and the exotica for which they occasionally yearned. She wanted to lead their imaginations the way the halls wandered throughout the inn. She wore a white silk jumpsuit so thin it made some guests blush, especially at the way the large, rhinestoned belt buckle pendanted towards her shaved pudenda, and the way she had glittered her skin and nipples, and the way her thin, silver sandals were more important than a crown. The way her long fingers tweaked their bows and waists, like she was checking the bathwater for them.

The guests roved the salons and rooms and courtyards, the women in crêpe dresses and the men in tuxedos and tails (Willms Barnwell wore the tails and waistcoat worn by his grandfather to the Secession Ball of 1860 at the Maxcy-Rhett house five blocks away.) The dining rooms and the bar and the verandas spilled over and the music played. Victrola, guitar and piano tunes carried across the river. Skirts swaying and trousers ruffling.

Pennington roved along with the crowd, helping elderly neighbors to chairs, pointing the way to the main dining room, interrupting the awkwardness of a few couples by inserting herself between them and taking their arms to help them make an entrance. The late evening sun was rutilant, the electric lights amplified the gold paint tones.

Children ran around and nobody yelled at them because the old dilapidated tavern now looked so invincible.

The salt scent from the river turned to butter aroma as it mingled with the spoonbread vapors pouring out of the kitchen from women with their heads wrapped in knotted cloth, sweating over pots and pans. They made a commotion with their work. Clanging and calling out, “This oil’s ready!” and “Watch out!” and “Get that dog outta here! Skat!” Dog claws scrabbled at the floor, a chair fell over, and the cook screeched, “He got a sweet potato! He got a hot one!” The dog ran into the living room howling. He ran directly out to the porch and leaped straight out an open window and into the river to gulp brackish water in great bites. The woman who had chased the dog out of the kitchen— cleaver in hand— laughed and slapped her knees.

“That dog ate a sweet potato hot out of the oven!” She explained. “He swallowed it whole outta the oven!” People laughed at the poor thing, writhing in the flooded sand, dragging its tongue in the current.

“Go give that dog some fresh water,” Pennington instructed a young man, who sprang to action as if she had asked him to unbutton her blouse.

Lilo was enjoying her gracious hostess role. She wove herself through the crowd, congratulating her guests as they congratulated her as if thousand dollar bills were folded upon their dinner plates instead of cloth napkins. The bell dinged at the reception desk, the windchimes on the second floor balconies sang out, the crystal drop lamps jangled like they were getting their backs scratched.

A group of young men began a game of polite “No, after you,” and then fought to be first around a table with a tower of pickled shrimp.

“Those boys are just so much,” matrons gasped.

Platters brimmed with saffron yellow, fluffs of white, onion green and steamy crab-red. The wait your turn theory was abandoned, and everyone pecked around each other. Twenty banana cream pies with browned meringue cooled on the sideboard.

No time to sit, Pennington flitted from table to table, ensuring good conversations, listening in—

I was there to paint, the people and the doorways and the shop windows. Everything was beautiful. I stayed in the attic room of a hotel on a hill. There were more artists and drunks living there than there are shrimp in the water here.

Have you ever had brioche?

Pass me a biscuit please.

She’s a tease, a real day-tripper.

I like something hidden, the way rivers cut into hills

That’s so manmade it’s imaginary.

 Tant pis, said one guest with an impressive shrug of pretension to    adjust a rolling boa on her shoulders.

“But it’s much more mysterious,” Pennington put forth at one table, “that we can’t read each other’s minds than if we could.”

“But if we could, getting things done would be so much more easier,” her cousin Rupert said.

“What is it that you need to get done so much that you need mind waves?” Pennington asked.

“None of us would be here if we could read each other’s minds,” someone pointed out.

Rupert stuck out his face, and pushed his chin forward more, like a mind-speaker’s grunt.

Then Pennington noticed Wade Woodprice standing in the doorway across the room, in his white tuxedo. They had gone on a few dates over the past two years, and she’d had a good time, at the movies in Charleston, at the Indian place in Savannah. But in between, Wade just really didn’t stick to her ribs. He was tall and narrow, veiny and well dressed, his flop-straight hair blond as hers.

“Wade’s behavior is like a heavy bearskin robe,” Pennington had told her friends when she tried, quite a few times, to explain her feelings for him. “And who needs a bearskin robe in these parts?”

He started towards her, she whisked past the twenty pies into the kitchen.

And as the postprandial tobacco smoke filled the air, and a comfortable quantity of seats were emptied by guests concerned with late hours, bedtimes, and the all-powerful and righteous Should, Lilo’s old friends arrived.

Party hardy.

Grand entrance after grand entrance: a football team, women in bejeweled turbans, publishers and writers and artists, Lilo’s banker from Atlanta, statesman and plantation owners. Wallflowers settled into comfortable seats to enjoy the show, and Pennington continued to elude Wade Woodprice.

In the front salon that looked onto the foyer, three local women were being interviewed by a reporter from the Beaufort Gazette, when they noticed— 



“No. He can’t be—“

He was. Clark Gable had arrived.

How Clark Gable arrived: the magic carpet of his fame, certainly, but logistically the man— famous that year for ‘Hold Your Man’ with Jean Harlowe— arrived by Bentley. They’d motored down from New York, he and his entourage, astounding waitresses at diners and a myriad of roadkill.

How indeed: the actor was adorned in a high-waisted, three piece tuxedo and a smidgen of a bow tie. He found Lilo immediately, she was the spotlight, standing there with martini glass in hand at the bar, with Dickey (her not-legally married husband.) Mr. Gable embraced her.

How for sure: a caress of her silky length, a hand on her hip, the fondness and knowingness between them like a cut-glass bottle of perfume shattered on the floor.

With that, the early party ended, and fun grew like a gong being pounded by a relay race team of musicians.

How the party went: people were singing

Mairsey doats

and doasey doats

and little lamsey divey

with their arms on each other’s shoulders

purposefully slurred lyrics like another mixed drink gulped back

dancing on the verandas

testing all the doors upstairs

splash in the fountain, splash in the river, splash some water on your face and head back out to the swings

pump the ropes in your hand and ascend

let go because there’s a crowd of strong arms never mind the communal state of serious balance-impairment

people sitting around the mossy fountain

fireflies are funny are beautiful are catchable are smearable

a circle of people around a fire

grass stains don’t show on a black tux

in the kitchen staff passing a bottle and cold fried chicken

breaking a joggling board

night sky soooooo blue! a blue sooooo perfect!

“Pennington my dear,” Wade said a little loud to get her attention. An hour earlier he’d turned his attention to Melonie Talbird, she of the arm-clinging, but the tight path between the azaleas had taken them from the dock right to Pennington, who was applauding a chorus of men holding aloft her second cousin Mabel who had somehow acquired three boas and a passable soprano voice.

“Wade,” she said turning to the couple, “how good to see you— and Melonie, don’t you two look darling together! Fabulous party, don’t you think?”

“Marvelous,” Melonie agreed, “and so brave of you to work here, Pennington.” Melonie knew that Wade wanted Pennington, that Pennington was having fun at a job, that her green dress wasn’t really as nice as Pennington’s even though it had cost more. She tightened her grip on Wade’s arm.

Lilo and Clark appeared on the veranda, five wide stairs above them all. Music from the victrola inside followed them like a train on a coronation gown. Mabel was set on her feet (she rocked in her heels and gathered the boas up to her chin as if to smell them like a bouquet of roses) and the illustrious couple descended, and stopped and shook hands with everyone.

“And this is Pennington, my lieutenant— my social chieftess, my delectable thunderbird…” Lilo trailed off to laugh and pet the young men around her.

“Mr. Gable, it’s a pleasure to have you here at the new Gold Eagle. What do you think of our operation?”

“I think you’re about to put me under,” Clark replied, kissing her hand.

Though quite a-quiver, Pennington kept steady and used that same kissed hand to introduce Wade and Melonie. Melonie who was speechless, Wade who was near-drunk and now-disgruntled in the light of Clark’s suavity. He wanted to grab Pennington and clutch her to him to—and then he did, he grabbed Pennington’s bare arm, his long bony fingers sinking into her peachiness, and in yanking her to him, he elbowed Melonie to the ground.

Clark Gable, of course, fixed it all upon the instant of seeing the white pain in Pennington’s flesh, where his eyes had been stuck anyway on that splendorous curve of her upper arm. He stepped between Pennington and Wade, forcing him back into the big leaved fatsia and spiderwebs, ran his warm hand over Pennington’s arm, and easily scooped up Melonie by the shoulders. Turning back to Pennington he blocked Wade from rejoining the circle of merrymakers (and really from ever being quite happy again,) slipped an arm around her waist, and moved forward. Easy like he’d rehearsed.

“Show me around some more, “ he said quietly, right into her ear.  The Social Chieftess had the Leading Man by the hand.

But, the demanding public and adoring fans soon separated them.

Double But, Wade Woodprice wasn’t giving up. His unfulfilling time with Melonie only fueled his desire for Pennington. So unfair. He spotted her in the west garden, she got away by going up the fire escape— which went right into the room reserved by the Lieutenant Governor; two people were already busy in that bed.

Later, he caught a glimpse of her ankles as she neared the top of the curved staircase and bolted up behind her, but by then she was gone.

Pennington escaped to the Hunting Lodge, as the top floor of the turret was called.

The room was the highest point of the Gold Eagle and in it Lilo had recreated a hunting lodge spliced with a museum archive. A round elephant hide table stood in the middle surrounded by comfy chairs, and few old chests painted with German folk patterns were placed along the wall. This minimum of furniture exposed more wall space, lower wall space, and on the walls hung her husband’s collection.

The objects he’d collected, “For twenty years,” Dickey often crooned, were nailed or wired or propped against the walls; in addition to the mounted buffalo head over the fireplace, tusks and antlers hung from the rafters, bows and arrows formed giant God’s eyes. No labels explained the ancient shark teeth and fossilized trilobites and loggerhead turtle skulls and hand-blown glass bottles and rust-grown flintlocks he had found. The jumble was evidence of the sort of human knowledge not given to careful science and persnickety classification. Instead, it was Ownership. Possession. Dominance, a variety of stewardship that embraced vivisection, a conservationism that entailed devouring.

Rust ruffled like feathers on the manmade objects, which looked like if you cracked them open, like a coconut, you would find the usefulness still inside. Coins were tacked up in rows and columns. Medallions and belt buckles filled gaps between plates of pottery and pewter. It has all been dumped into the ocean by men, pick any year.

The expansive room was lit with one lamp. Pennington poured herself a drink and sat, listening to the revelry. She was about to doze off when the door creaked open.

I have always taken cause and effect seriously Pennington thought to herself, preparing for Wade or some tedious work request.

One man walked in. Light from the hallway fell across Pennington who then thought, why that looks like Clark Gable. When she was in his arms, she knew he was.

results are pre-ordained, totally out of my hands

Standing up to kiss worked for only so long.

but causes I do like to dabble in them

One trunk contained a down comforter.
a little weighing of the options that I like

The traces of the party— make up, cigarette smoke, the clothing— evaporated.

this is altogether something else unlike anything but its own overwhelming fleeting self

There was an hour or so left in the morning between the final partier and the earliest staffer swinging a broom when the bats dipped up and down on their way to their roosts. At sunrise, gulls, ospreys, pelicans, and black birds flew. Nobody yet in sight, just a few windows suddenly lit from within. Pennington was dreaming about the wind pulling her hair behind her, or it might have been the river flowing through her from toes to tip. Sparrows ganged up on a hawk. In this hour nature ascended. Not together like a school, but unconcerted but still in tune: wing flaps made a soft sound, and the marsh joined in, and the frogs sang, and down the length of the swash where it disappeared in the taller, red grasses inland, a man slogged through the stream. He held a wide-pronged gig clogged with long-legged frogs.

A few hours later, in the sunshine-lit dining room—“Waffles are just pancakes with little squares on them,” Pennington explained to a complaining customer.

“But I prefer—“

Just then, a football landed in the dining room, through the French doors. A young man vaulted in and right back out. A game had already started—the playing field wrapped around so any window and balcony could behold a play. Pennington stepped out on the patio in time to see Clark Gable throw his cap into the air to block a pass. The ball fell straight down into his arms, and the cap fell on the ground behind him. He waved to her and ran off down the path to the dock with his interception.

Responses are not always the planned tactic, which in a way is the proper defense against the unknown: a few hours later Clark Gable was leaving, a bumble of guests trailing him, there was no lover’s parting, just the good bye! good bye! good bye! of a crowded happiness.

“Where’s Lilo?” Pennington asked as Clark as his companions climbed into the car.

“I saw her earlier this morning,” he said vaguely. He kissed her on the mouth, tipped his hat to the crowd and got into the car too. Just as it started down the long driveway, an arrow hit the spare tire high on the rear of their car.

The crowd gasped, Clark and his friends looked out the rear window, and another arrow sank into the tire. Pennington looked up to the turret, and there was Lilo in a slip that didn’t cover much, leaning dangerously far out, and pulling back on the bow.

Another, fast, another another.

Another, all in the tire until the car was off her property, but not before one more wave from Clark.

The arrows looked like a show of elaborate tail feathers bristling up in the air, balancing the long car, giving something of a rude gesture as it traveled the highways.

What happened to—

Lilo enjoyed running the tavern for nearly three years, then she and Dickey sailed off, barely packing anything to take with them. They were boarded by pirates in the Arabian Sea but sweet-talked them with hot food and dollar bills. They settled on Santorini Island, in a 12th Century castle tower that attracted musicians, ensuring all day long tsoubanas, flutes and lyres and men murmuring ancient Greek lyrics and long naps on the whitewashed terraces in the dry breeze.

to Pennington

She went through her unicycle phase (men on unicycles, that is) and would often dance with a little boy standing on a chair. She gave a talk to the Junior League of Beaufort entitled ‘Gimme Dat Sweetgrass Basket: Talking Dirty in Gullah’; she was overhead saying You have a lot to learn, and I hope you never learn it; a young man apologized to her, ‘I always keep a fork in my pocket” and she finally decided that the difference between candlelight and electricity is in the shadows.

to the Gold Eagle Tavern

Ella Stackton (a great-great-whatever-grandaughter of one of the early occupants of the tavern back when it was a family home) obtained management then ownership of the property after Lilo departed, but by the 1960s business and conditions had declined, and she sold to an investor— a job title like a bullet proof vest on a movie set (fake-o)— who neglected the structures as if he planned to cut them loose like balloons. Ella’s granddaughter Sandra then reclaimed it; before her grand opening party, toxic waste from a new offshore drilling operation bubbled up through a disused well in the basement. Sandra died in her sleep from the fumes, and the thick tar— crudely— ruined everything.

Further Reading:

About The Author

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Lisa Annelouise Rentz is an arts columnist for the Beaufort Gazette and Hilton Head Island Packet. She has work forthcoming in Health Affairs and greatly admires the physicians and scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.