“Lick the Sherbet Sky: Reflections of a Writer’s Residency” by Robert Gwaltney

“You are overweight,” Tonya, the Delta Airlines desk attendant tells me. “It’ll be an additional two hundred dollars.”

Judgement seeps from Tonya’s guinea hen eyes, slips from the corners of her mouth in spittle. How dare you, I think to myself, looking down at Miss Audrey Hepburn, my suitcase. (I call my suitcase Miss Audrey Hepburn.) Tonya is judge and jury, and I dislike her from the get-go. I vow vengeance, swear to hate the name Tonya from that moment forward, even though she states the obvious—tells the truth. I over-packed; I always do.

Many things I might tell Tonya. That the years of COVID living have taken a toll. Confess I never learned to parallel park growing up in Cairo, Georgia. That sometimes I am lonesome in rooms full-up with folk. That I am a middle-aged debut novelist suffering from imposter syndrome. Beware, Tonya. I am a huckster carpetbagging my way to Beaufort, South Carolina, where I bamboozled the fine folks at the Pat Conroy Literary Center into naming me Writer in Residence. Ain’t that something, Tonya? Ain’t that a sorry shame?

I reach out to console my bloated Miss Audrey Hepburn, touching the pink satin bow tied to her handle, her zipper-teeth clenched and silently screaming. Black and pink remind me of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Do not judge me. It is a comfort.

Robert Gwaltney at Pat Conroy’s desk.

At baggage claim in Savannah, I spot Miss Audrey Hepburn. Her pink ribbons are a glorious beacon upon the conveyor belt of drab luggage. Hear this. Tonya has gone and strapped a vulgar red tag around her handle. Heavy, it reads, warning the baggage wranglers to approach and lift with caution—for the other skinny luggage to keep a safe distance. I hate you, Tonya. But the woman speaks the truth, slapped an indictment on it for the world to see. I am heavy. I should suffer the humiliation. I should wrap the tag around my own neck.

In darkness, Miss Audrey Hepburn and I arrive at the cottage, my home on the marsh for the duration of my weeklong stay. On the screened porch, my auburn-haired host, Mary Ellen, and I assemble to discuss the week ahead. I admire the curl and wave of her hair, the shade of creamsicle it turns when she turns this way or that. It soothes me, and I do not think she notices me staring.

Before our final goodnights and sweet dreams, she points out into the great expanse of murk. There is a pause, a hint of instruction. Pay attention, please.

“The marsh,” she says. “Listen to it. Open yourself up. This place possesses healing powers. But you have to listen. You have to see.”

I wonder if she sees me for what and who I am. A fraud. A sham. A man who needs fixing. Swaddled in the soft nest of her voice, there is a tinge of foreboding, as if laying down tarot cards, then suggesting I proceed with caution. I take a sip of wine. I smile politely, swirling my hopes for healing in the glass of Pinot I hold. Lovely lady, I will drink the marsh tomorrow.

Babylon, the hussy deer.

My bedroom faces the water, and I awaken the first morning to a vista of marsh and a deer outside the window stealing a look at me. The deer looks like trouble, as if she wonders if I wear boxers or briefs.

The sun has not yet made its way to the horizon, but the sky is colored-up a fine shade of pumpkin glow by the time I find my way to the dock. I amble the boards. I sip my coffee trying to catch my breath. These last few years I have grown anxious. It seems I am always near breathless, a few beats from panic, the irrational urge blossoming to take off running to any place other than where I stand. Perhaps age has done this to me. Age and the grapple of my own existence, and the fear of its sugar-spun fragility.

I am off kilter; I have been for a while. The whole of nature is governed by rhythm: circadian and seasonal, and I have given myself over to an ever-growing, unpredictable cadence of dread—the sense of time passing too swiftly. The possibility I might never be the writer I aim to be. That I set off trying far too late. The clock ticks. There are things to be done, a place that needs going—only I do not know where or why.

The tide, I contemplate how high it might rise. How low it can go. Wonder how deep into the pluff mud a body can sink and hide—if it is more weightless down there than up here. Croaker fish gurgle the water’s surface. A marsh wren sings. That damn deer watches me still. And I begin to weep.

Copies of “The Cicada Tree” at the Residency Cocktail Party.

The days that follow, I zip and unzip Miss Audrey Hepburn—pull from my bag of tricks, assemble myself into the something I assume people think me to be—what my carefully curated social media has assured them I am. Confident. Accomplished. A fella who can breathe.

At panel discussions and cocktail parties, I am on the grift. I pretend to belong. I enter rooms. I search for escape routes. I try to blend—skim beneath the surface gurgling like a croaker fish. I try to stand still. I try not to run. There is some place that needs going. There is something that must be done.

In the between hours, I set myself adrift in the new novel I aim to write. I chat with my characters; I take them on dates. But even here in the world I build, I cannot expunge worry. I have written one novel. Can I do it again? From outside my window that damn deer waits, and I sense she wonders the same. We have grown close, the deer and me. So close—by now, she has caught me in my briefs, has spied from the window I am fitful in my sleep. Knows I administer Crest Strips on the sly to brighten my smile. I feel a fondness and have given the deer a name. Get on away from that window. Do not look at me Babylon, you hussy deer. I need to write in peace.

Across the room, Miss Audrey Hepburn waits. She wonders as I do where the time has gone, if I will be able to cram back into her all the things I took. If I should keep the red tag or cut the thing loose. The cadence of dread quickens. I want to go home. No, I want to stay. Is there some other place I should be?

On PBS set of “By the River.”

Those summer camp, last-day blues creep, and I want to cry again. I have made friends: Mary Ellen of the auburn hair, and Babylon the nosey deer. The afternoon ticks, and I have not begun to pack. Mary Ellen texts: Don’t forget to watch the sunset. I am embarrassed. I have been so busy, so distracted, I have not watched a single one. Looking up is a chore when I must keep glancing side to side—looking for places to run. I text back an emoji of a heart.

Later, Mary Ellen knocks at the door. “Don’t forget to watch the sunset,” she says. “It’s going to be a good one.” How can she know such a thing? Do her muscles ache? Does the message throb rhapsodic in her hip bones?

Like the night of my arrival, there is a lilt of urgency in her words. The light shifts. Those creamsicle highlights run rampant through her hair, and I wonder why she cares if I pay a bit of mind to the falling sun.

“The sunsets are so pretty here,” I say.

Mary Ellen smiles her kindly smile. Speaks her soft speak. She looks at me as if she sees the lie. As if ever I witnessed her sunset, I would appear to her in a different way—changed. The truth cross-stitched upon my skin.

I want to tell her I tried my best to listen to the marsh, to turn myself over, to decant it in a wine glass and slurp it down with a straw. I wrestle the urge to confess she and the others have wasted the precious week on me. Other writers would have better fit the bill. Perhaps I will spell it out later in palmetto fronds laid gentle on the sand or carve it into a live oak tree. Maybe I will write it in cursive into the marsh muck with a stick. Let this be a lesson. Next time be more mindful of grifters on the make. Yours truly—the hopeless, unrepentant, and unhealed.

“I’ll watch the sunset,” I tell her, unsure if it is a lie. I linger on the porch watching her through the screen until the orange sherbet streamers melt from her hair. Until she cannot be seen, until she cannot see me. I ponder if I should stay and watch until the sun is gone. It is the least I can do, an easy promise to keep, an insignificant gratuity.

From around the corner, Babylon peeps. She stomps her hoof, hikes her tail—stares out into the marsh. I join her, gazing across the water into the horizon. Light paints a looking glass across the marsh, and I wonder if this is the beginning of sunset, the oddity Mary Ellen insists I must see, the wonderous happening troubling deep in her bones.

Sherbet-hued sunset.

Clouds unstitch. Celestial continents form and drift glacial. There is some place I should go. A thing to be done. Cloud-countries catch fire quick, burn to embers—color to shades of pumpkin. Babylon stomps, and I take off running for the dock.

The marsh is a magic mirror, turning to sky. I stand topsy turvy, smack in the middle of the dock—firmament drifting above and below. In this center place, I float—orange clouds dissolving delicious to sherbet hues. I want to live here in the in-between where there is only up and down. I want to lick the sky. Stay long enough for Mary Ellen’s creamsicle to set in—to tint my eyebrows and tattoo forever-patterns on my skin. A testament I have beheld the sunset. Proof I have not lied. That I fit the bill and time has not been wasted on the likes of me.

Moments pass. The mirror fades, and I am left standing alone in the dark upon a dock above the marsh. Croaker fish gurgle. The marsh wrens go hush. Babylon, my friend, comes close. And off in the cottage, Miss Audrey Hepburn waits, yawning wide for me to put back the things I took.

I am off kilter; I have been for a while. The whole of nature is governed by rhythm: circadian and seasonal, and I have given myself over to an ever-growing, unpredictable cadence of dread.



  1. I love this piece, Robert. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. This creative and entertaining piece absolutely floored me! Wow!

  3. Jerry Cohagan says

    Lush writing to match your surroundings. You, too, have reflected nature’s sunset.

  4. Even better the second time around. Out of this world writing. ?

  5. So-o-o good! Love this!

  6. Such rich detail! You’ve managed to write a piece that is both whimsical and tragic. I imagine every writer can relate to your feeling of dread and your fear of being caught impersonating someone with talent. I know I can relate. Beautifully written!

  7. Thank you, everyone!

  8. I know writers shouldn’t use adverbs, but just saying this is beautiful isn’t enough. It is exquisitely, breathtakingly, beautiful beyond any words I can conjure, adverbs or not. Envious and empathetic, I believe many many writers suffer from the imposter syndrome, especially those of us who come to it later in life. Write on and right on Robert. You’ve done it once and you can do it again.

  9. Janet McCauley says

    Thanks Robert – I laughed and I was sad and I wanted to argue with you because I know how talented and creative you are! We were so blessed to meet you and thrilled that you were chosen for the Pat Conroy Center Residency. I look forward to many more of your stories and appreciate your humbleness and aren’t we all in these places, especially in the past two years? I have complete confidence in your skills and abilities and I hope our paths cross many more times.

  10. Kaye Wilkinson Barley says

    Oh, my goodness, how much do I love this piece?! Thank you! So much of what you’ve shared is exactly how I’m feeling as I try to believe the news that I’ll be following you as Writer in Residence staying at MarshSong. But Robert? You did not bamboozle anyone! You are a powerhouse of writerly talent. For real.

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