Hilary Wheelan Remley
Northwood Country Club is closing down. The oldest country club in Gwinnett County, Georgia, it has been crowded out by the hutch of apartment complexes that now surround it on all sides. Some might say that it represents the decay of Gwinnett’s genteel aspirations. I would not say that.
The thing never seemed to fit from my side of the fence, anyway. The barbed wire pointed in my direction, drawing its jagged line across the rows of apartments that had been, at one point, when it opened sixty years ago, a patch of idyllic woods, a bed of pine needles, and a small wetland settled into a small dip between hills. The fact of our apartment seemed to be an existential threat to their little fiction of stone work and double decker sandwiches. At least that’s what I imagined, as I never caught a glimpse of the club house or their swimming pool. From my point of view, growing up in the last apartment building in a labyrinth of walk-ups that constituted our complex near a line of woods and butted against the back end of the golf course, I could sometimes glimpse a group of golfers making their way around the course.
I made a game of sitting on the back stairway and watching them at play, a huddle of men hanging back as each one took turns in their swing, willing them to look over at me, to notice me.
I had the thought that since I could see these men standing just a few yards from my back door that they could see me as well. But they never did. They never even looked in my direction.
Avalon rises out of nothing. Like any place in or around Atlanta, it is about to be somewhere, but is not quite somewhere yet, not yet surrounded by the coils of shopping centers that edge along the perimeter, in a clean progression of evolving architectural aesthetics ranging from squat mid-century plazas to sandstone brick provincial facades, all in the spirit of strip mall manifest destiny. Avalon is a mall by any other name, but nicer, and not a mall. It is, according to its website, an experience.
Unlike my childhood mall, if one even gets to claim such a thing, Gwinnett Place, which looks just like any other mall built in the 1980s, with water features in the middle and well placed anchor stores, and not much else but dead end hallways, you can live in the Avalon. You grocery shop at their Whole Foods, buy a Tesla at their dealership, drink champagne under twinkle lights at a wine bar. There are brick inlays and dogs allowed. It is not a mall, but a lifestyle. It is a secret island, set apart from everything but itself, and very appropriately named.
Avalon was the starting point of what would turn out to be a half-hearted combo bachelor(ette) party, an evening marred by cheese induced cramps and a feeling of rejection that settles somewhere at the pit of my stomach whenever I go near the living center of Atlanta. There is something crooked in me that rejects these places. They make me itch. I think it’s because I know that I do not belong there, and they know too. In places like this, outdoor shopping malls with wine bars, upscale makeup and clothing stores, I feel as if I have wriggled out from under a gap in the chain link fence, like I am an intruder.
Of course, places like Avalon have grown beyond the fence model of separation. That would be too impolite. Instead, they place themselves apart by gradient, make themselves inaccessible but available. Atlanta builds out, unfurling new roads and freeway exits always pointing away from an origin, sprawl by means of escape. It’s not polite to ask what from.
My home, folded back into the backside of Northwood Country Club like the pulp of rot at the center of a wood, glimpsed only from a split, is the what from.
I was around ten, but maybe eight and possibly nine, when my brother’s friend, Ben, found the gap, a rolled-up lip of untended chain link fence hidden in the patch of woods near our apartment. Gaps like this had a way of appearing in the mesh of fencing that ran the whole way along our apartment, separating Wesley Place from a peel of other complexes, usually for no other reason than to allow for easier access between neighborhoods. These were ports of entry, ignored by the maintenance crews or, if complaints began to stack up, only ever partially fixed. Just as soon as a new roll of chain link was set up, a hole would open, usually in the same spot. Mainly, these ports were used by neighborhood kids, hoping to cut a quicker course to their friends who lived in a bordering complex.
The gap in the Northwood fence was different. The people at Northwood were nothing short of prompt in tending to their borders. Once, after a tree located on their side of the fence had caught fire and collapsed over to our side, inspiring a rare neighborly gathering to view the spectacle and idly speculate as to whether the fire would spread to our buildings before the fire crew came, a long stretch of their fence was obliterated. It took them less than a day afterwards to put the missing fence back up, leaving the charred remnants of their tree on our back yard.
No one, so far as we knew, had made it over the fence. Not that we tried, really. We knew better. It was one thing to cut into the ligaments of our own or like neighborhoods, squat and shabby apartments that seemed to blur into each other with like-names, like-architecture, like-cabinets, like-popcorn ceiling, and like-oatmeal colored carpets. Crossing those borders was easy, natural, even, and never seen as an intrusion, merely a matter of convenience.
Northwood was different. It was a good twenty years older than any of the apartments which clasped it at every side, its rolling hills of crisp cut grass and sand traps buggied over by small herds of golf carts existed as if in suspension, only to be glimpsed through a warp. It functioned on the precarious notion of our invisibility, blotting us from its line of vision, and relying on us to do the same. The fact that our apartments were primarily occupied by black, latinx, and/or lower income tenants seemed to beg an averted glance. We, in varying degrees, were conditioned to be ignored, to skirt the edges of the place in a quiet, unobtrusive fashion. So, crossing over the boundary seemed more than dangerous. It didn’t seem possible at all.
I, a poor white girl with family lines split between pure Georgia-trash and upper middle-class social aspirants who came from Iowa farm stock, liked to prod at the border. I spent Thanksgiving at my paternal grandparents’ house, which was tucked deep into a series of gated master planned communities in the Houston suburbs, we alternated summer vacations at Callaway Gardens, itself a golfing retreat, and at Gulf Shores, in spread of condos all rented out by my Grandpa Tom. My siblings and I were the outliers of our set of cousins, all tightly packed within a seven-year age range. We were the only cousins to have a set of divorced parents. Our father must’ve done this, in part, on purpose. He grated at every bit of these family gatherings and had used his engineering degree for not much at all except as proof of its own gratuity. He was a welder and an iron-worker. He used his hands, had burns up and down his arms. Our mother was decidedly working class and must have completed his pretty little picture of himself. Their marriage was formed, on both sides, as a means of rebellion and desperation. It did not last five years.
After the divorce, our mom worked at a local grocery store. And then, after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, started pursuing a taut but steady income from disability. The apartment was supposed to be temporary, a step up from her parents’ house and the women’s shelter. The next step would be a house, but we never made it that far. So it became a permanent situation.
The fact was that I wanted into the world that my cousins occupied. I wanted it badly. I liked all of their nice things. And I liked looking into Northwood Country Club. It gave me access to that world, even if it was only through a slat.
An opportunity of this kind, a small curl in the lip of fencing cut deep into a socket of woods, was not to be squandered. We bided our time, checking every few days to make sure that it had not been patched over. There was no plan, per se. We didn’t really know what we were saving it for, only that it should be something special.
I crossed the gap once, and only once. It was a snow-day. Ben had taken the wheels off his skateboard just for the occasion. We’d been waiting for him, all of us Wheelan kids, for most of the morning. We didn’t get up too much outside of our own apartment except for the mischief that he initiated. I had cobbled together a warm outfit to weather the snow, plucked my knit gloves from the mismatch sock bin above the dryer just for the occasion. When he finally came to retrieve us, we followed close behind him. I walked through a long thicket of woods to get to the hole, in a straight line, in complete silence.
There was at least five inches of snow on the ground, which is a lot for Georgia. The whole complex was buried in it, insulated by it. It cushioned all noise. I liked it that way. The snow crunched under my shoes. It fell so deep I couldn’t see the grass underneath.
We got on our knees and crawled through the gap, one by one. The goal was to find a slope high enough for Ben do go down on his board. The whole operation had us feeling like criminals, in a thrilling sort of way. Of course, no one would be at the club that day. More than a dusting of snow and all of the Atlanta metropolitan area would shut down. Still, it was thrilling to intrude.
Once we got out from the woods, we could see the whole scope of the course, which was covered in snow, untouched. Being there felt like being nowhere at all. It was so plush and quiet, the sky was the same color as the snow, giving the effect of a dome. Our footprints were the only mark indicating our presence. Even then, it only felt like we were making ourselves prone, that our next step might land our foot in a bear trap. Visibility was dangerous, even if no one was looking.
I don’t know which one of us turned back first. I’m inclined to say that it was me. I’ve always been the first to retreat. One of us started crying; I’m not sure which but, again, a betting man would put his money on my name. But I know that we turned back prematurely. Ben didn’t get to go down his hill.
After a quick warm up at our apartment, we headed out to the neighboring complex, crawled through an open fence without so much as a blush. The snow was filthy over there, worn to mush by so many children who had woken up to the treat of snow. The open field near the jungle gym was all but empty by the time we got there, the sky domed in gray. All the other neighborhood kids were back in their own homes, microwaving coco and wrapping themselves in towels to warm up.
Wa played a half-hearted gam of snowball, laughed at a few grown up snowmen. Ben found a condom and a Valentines card in the crotch of an old Oak tree and called us over for a laugh. We all sniggered at the tableau, which amounted to fractions of an adult world that we peered through as a joke.
When we left, we made sure to clear our prints.
I forget his name, but it doesn’t matter. We went on a single date, in the middle of the afternoon, on a weekday. There are many reasons that the date went wrong, those reasons among them. We didn’t talk during lunch. Or, rather, he didn’t talk. I couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t stop talking about death. It had to do with my nerves and his chasmic silence. No matter how much I pushed him he would not give, and so I spiraled from favorite colors into the story of the woman who died wrapping Christmas presents in front of the TV and wasn’t found until five years later.
‘She had family, you know, who loved her’ I said, as if that should be some extraordinary fact. Did you know that even if you are loved you can slip through the cracks?
‘How could that happen?’
He shrugged, maybe. I don’t remember. I asked the question more to myself. He let the question float. I asked the waiter for more limes to squeeze into my bowl of pho.
After lunch, I took him to Gwinnett Place Mall. I had a hankering to see it, and he had a car. The preceding years had not been kind to Gwinnett Place. Even before the housing crisis which had halted the construction of so many subdivisions in Lawrenceville, Georgia, the mall had become secondary. Besides, it was in a bad part of town, surrounded by apartment complexes and extended stay motels. The only boon to the area was a pocket of small businesses that had lodged themselves into empty storefronts in the strip malls that surrounded Gwinnett Place. These businesses were mostly Korean owned and operated, catering to a growing population that formed an insular community that thrived in spite of the mall’s decline. Besides these thriving businesses, there were few bright spots in the loop of commerce surrounding the mall. The Applebee’s and Chili’s were decidedly glum.
I hadn’t gone to the mall in years at that point, and I lived only two miles away from the place in one of those very apartment complexes, the kind that seem to wrap around the whole of Gwinnett county. A death grip of vinyl siding.
I’d heard a few morbid little stories about the mall’s decline, that they’d shut down some wings, that the food court was empty, and that they weren’t running the fountains anymore. One of the anchor stores listed on the sign by Pleasant Hill Road was a Claire’s. Never a promising sign.
I gave him the grand tour, pointing out the rivets on a balcony that used to be two sculptures of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck chasing each other on spaceships. It was right in front of the Wet Seal that used to be the WB store. We walked down hallways that were not lit but cut off by a zig zag of felt divider panels. There was no reason for them to be open, all of the storefronts were empty. I took my time. I narrated to him all of the things that were different than how they’d been when I’d known the place, as if he’d care.
We went into the Sears last. It was all but empty. The carpets gunked up and dirty. Most racks were only half full. I pointed to the photo center, which was closed down. I had my picture taken there when I was seven. It was supposed to be the start of a yearly tradition, but we stopped after that year. There was no money. I had, for the occasion, cut my hair into the shape of a coconut. A few days before the picture I’d lost my two front teeth, to my mother’s horror. My mom did my face in pancake makeup and made me wear an itchy blue dress.
After the ordeal, she bought me candy from River Street Sweets and let me get a toy from the Discovery Channel store. I thought of all of this as we passed that dimmed corner of the store. But I didn’t tell him.
Afterwards, he took me home. Neither of us bothered to send a ‘nice to meet you’ text. I shook him off with little effort. It was one of the few dates that I didn’t agonize over. I had shown him an absolute marvel, and he had turned up his nose at it. It was simply confounding.
I, instead turned my mind to the mall, to the fact that the place I had known died, and I couldn’t say for sure when it happened. I wasn’t looking.
Kyle and I come down from our new home in upstate New York about three times a year. When we come down, we stay in one of the spare bedrooms of his parents’ house: a pink stucco number built in a large development on the back end of Ronald Reagan Parkway, stretched far away from Gwinnett Place Mall, away from the parts of Gwinnett that I had known as a child. It is a good neighborhood, but people are getting skittish, moving out and moving on to other parts. The neighborhoods, all fronted with names that include words like plantation or manor, are aging. Houses here are large, with chandeliers peeking from behind larger, arched transoms, reminders of a time when this place was a new, fresh suburb of Atlanta. I bet you could smell the cow pastures, feel relief from the bustle of the city, as it were. It’s still an attractive place, too. The houses are well kept, all still within the desirable Brookwood school district, but things are starting to change. There is talk of things not being the way they used to be. Several speculated apartment complex projects have been squashed, but more are popping up. Complaints of overcrowding are common.
There was some gossip making its rounds through Kyle’s large family while we were down for our wedding. A family who lived in the house bucking the backside of their yard had put their house on the market to move to Athens and put their kids in private school. The stated reason being that the neighborhood had simply gotten too “colorful” for their liking. This information was passed on with a wink and a nod between all of us. These were the worst kind of people, we all agreed. We felt good in our judgement of them, these capital R Racists. But beneath it, at the core of the anecdote’s potency, was the creeping truth that their own neighborhood was built on, that Atlanta, the city too busy to hate, was built on the notion of coiling retreat. Neighborhoods rise and fall based on the ratio of apartment complexes to houses, building themselves up to a peak, and then funneling out to another place, farther off or newly reclaimed. People usually aren’t as blunt as the racist neighbors. Complaints are limited to petitioning against apartment homes being built in their neighborhoods and districts being cut along the lines of desirability. People are too smart to use terms like ‘colorful’ here. That would be too obvious.
I went to high school on the wrong side of so many district lines, and I knew it. It was rumored that everyone in Berkmar had AIDS. We were called Brokemar, not so affectionately or creatively, by ourselves, in jest, and by others, with a serious lump of snide. Our school buses stopped at extended stay motels and a good chunk of the apartment complexes surrounding Gwinnett Place Mall. This sense of inferiority has stuck with me. I hear complaints about the neighborhood getting too crowded and I take it personally. I grew up in a dying place, a part of Gwinnett county that had already tipped past its prime. The complexes that so many people sneered at looked to me like home.
My mom still lives there, in the apartment behind the country club. Kyle and I don’t stay there when we are down. It is too small. But we do visit, bringing her food and helping to do some chores around the house, sometimes assisted by one of Kyle’s siblings or his mom. Sometimes jokes are made about locking the car door. I laugh, but I do lock the car door. Each time we turn the corner into the complex, I feel the distance between myself and this place. I’m not the same as when I lived there. My husband likes to call me spoiled, he says that he is happy that I have such nice things now, and that he can give them to me.
When we met, I had a single pair of jeans and four shirts in rotation, all from clearance at Forever 21. He quotes this figure a lot. Now, I have purses with brand names and more clothes than I can fit in my closet. I have nice things. I live in a loft style apartment with hardwood floors and neighbors who have purebred dogs who wear sweaters in the winter. I am all dressed up as the girl I always wanted to be, someone who would be welcome over at Northwood or at the Avalon. But even in those places I tend to tug at my shirt, sit with my shoulders curled in, and look people in the eye only to apologize for my being there. When I come back to this apartment complex, all dressed up in a new self, I feel a different kind of shame. I feel like a liar.
When we come into the complex, I point out the things I recognize, as if to prove something. I know the structure of it better than almost anyone else. I remember when faux-brick inlay was put all along the driveway. I remember when the buildings were white, and then, briefly, red, yellow, and blue, and then, finally, a subtle brown. I remember when the gazebo by the retention pond had a set of porch swings. I remember when the pine trees dividing our apartment from its neighbors were bloated with gall rusts and had to be cut down. I remember every duck and goose that has come to visit. I remember the great egret too. No one seems to care. Maybe I want to prove that I still belong.
But things have also changed. I have to call my mom to ask her the gate code. And the people have changed, of course. No one ever stayed long except for us. My mom’s apartment unit itself has also worn into a different shape. There is no more couch, no more bunk beds. It is now crowded up with tools and things to help my mom move around better, live in her own self-engineered way. Underneath these differences I can find relics from my childhood, pieces that I recognize but don’t connect with: my chest of drawers with the missing handle, the changing station turned guinea pig cage stand turned bookcase. Sometimes I recall the guinea pig.
The guinea pig, my guinea pig, named Snickers, named Stretch, but called only the guinea pig, died ten minutes before pick up time for my scheduled weekend visits with my dad. Short of time, we put him in a Skechers box and set him in the outdoor closet of our apartment until Sunday. On Sunday, when we got home, we took the box and carried it a quarter of a mile or so down the line of fencing that separated our apartment complex from Northwood Country Club and we buried him.
I did not like the thought of him in his shoebox, tucked in a tight corner of our outdoor closet. I did not like to think of him alone. I did not like the thought of him alone and dead.
And when did the guinea pig die? Sometime after dinner and before his morning lettuce. Only he knows when, exactly. But then again, maybe not even him. Time of death is a funny line to draw, never distinct enough, or else too distinct for good manners to abide. I wonder about it even now.
And I wonder if he is still there by the fence, in his little box, or if maybe, shortly after his funeral, he was dug up by a tom cat and had as a snack, or if maybe a tree has grown out from him. I wonder if his little bones will be scooped up and covered by a walk-up apartment unit.
I always knew this would happen when I left, that things would change, become less immediate and more painful. I would view every alteration as an open wound.
On my last night in Atlanta before moving up to New York to be with Kyle, I had a movie night with my mom and sister. We watched Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a family favorite and didn’t talk much about my flight the next day. I think that I was the one to choose the movie. It seems to me now to be a bit too on the nose. It was one of those movies that, despite its camp value, made me genuinely melancholy. Not just that—it scared me. I had always assumed that one day I would be like Baby Jane, living only in my past, decaying in nostalgia. I never thought, never seriously thought that I would ever leave that small apartment. And if I did, I never thought that I would make it far. It made me sad, as it always does, watching Baby Jane dance around like a child, a woman so caught up in the past that she becomes a living, breathing ghost story.
Coming home now feels something like that, like dressing up in a skin that no longer fits, but which I love in a tender, if not morbid, way.
I always wanted to own this place in its entirety, to tack my memories on to this city, to pin this place down and keep it my own, to wear it like a ragged old dress and do a little dance in it. I could say that it was moving away that has split me away from this place, but it’s not. It’s a simple matter of time. I come back and something is different, things are slightly more tattered. A store has shut down, a new place opened up a few miles down the road.
I want to know when the place that I grew up in died, when everything here was abandoned, turned from new to old. But it hasn’t.
My nephew sleeps in the same bedroom that I did as a child. This place is alive for him, and lovely and terrifying in so many ways that I cannot comprehend. One day, he will look out his window, the same one I looked out of, and see another bedroom window instead of a barbed wire fence. I don’t know what this means, if he will feel more or less invisible than I did, or maybe he will get lost in the labyrinth of these buildings, all with such pretty names, tucked behind main roads, a forgotten part of this city, and he will think that that is where he belongs.
This place is still alive, I know that. And yet, something has died. And where was I?
I am currently an English PhD student at UAlbany. My work focuses on issues of class and regionality. However, rather than approaching these issues from a sociological or journalistic perspective, my work takes a deeply personal point of view.