My father's prediction about media attention proves prescient. Within forty-eight hours of my arrival, calls about interviews join the ceaseless ringing of patients calling my father. My mother has taken messages from the local newspaper publisher, radio talk-show hosts, even the TV station in Jackson, the state capital, two hours away. I decide to grant an interview to Caitlin Masters, the publisher of the Natchez Examiner, on two conditions: that she not ask questions about Arthur Lee Hanratty's execution, and that she print that I will be vacationing in New Orleans until after the execution has taken place. Leaving Annie with my mother-which delights them both-I drive Mom's Nissan downtown in search of Biscuits and Blues, a new restaurant owned by a friend of mine but which I have never seen.
It was once said of American cities that you could judge their character by their tallest buildings: were they offices or churches? At a mere seven stories, the Eola Hotel is the tallest commercial structure in Natchez. Its verdigris-encrusted roof peaks well below the graceful, copper-clad spire of St. Mary Minor Basilica. Natchez's "skyline" barely rises out of a green canopy of oak leaves: the silver dome of the synagogue, the steeple of the Presbyterian church, the roofs of antebellum mansions and stately public buildings. Below the canopy, a soft and filtered sunlight gives the sense of an enormous glassed-in garden.
Biscuits and Blues is a three-story building on Main, with a large second-floor balcony overlooking the street. A young woman stands talking on a cell phone just inside the door-where Caitlin Masters promised to meet me-but I don't think she's the newspaper publisher. She looks more like a French tourist. She's wearing a tailored black suit, cream silk blouse, and black sandals, and she is clearly on the sunny side of thirty. But as I check my watch, she turns face on to me and I spot a hardcover copy of False Witness cradled in her left arm. I also see that she's wearing nothing under the blouse, which is distractingly sheer. She smiles and signals that she'll be off the phone in a second, her eyes flashing with quick intelligence.
I acknowledge her wave and wait beside the door. I'm accustomed to young executives in book publishing, but I expected something more conventional in the newspaper business, especially in the South. Caitlin Masters stands with her head cocked slightly, her eyes focused in the middle distance, the edge of her lower lip pinned by a pointed canine. Her skin is as white as bone china and without blemish, shockingly white against her hair, which is black as her silk suit and lies against her neck like a gleaming veil. Her face is a study in planes and angles: high cheekbones, strong jawline, arched brows, and a straight nose, all uniting with almost architectural precision, yet somehow escaping hardness. She wears no makeup that I can see, but her green eyes provide all the accent she needs. They seem incongruous in a face that almost cries out for blue ones, making her striking and memorable rather than merely beautiful.
As she ends her call, she speaks three or four consecutive sentences, and a strange chill runs through me. Ivy League Boston alloyed with something softer, a Brahmin who spent her summers far away. On the telephone this morning I didn't catch it, but coupled with her face, that voice transforms my suspicion to certainty. Caitlin Masters is the woman I spoke to on the flight to Baton Rouge. Kate… Caitlin.
She holds out her hand to shake mine, and I step back. "You're the woman from the plane. Kate."
Her smile disappears, replaced by embarrassment. "I'm surprised you recognize me, dressed like I was that day."
"You lied to me. You told me you were a lawyer. Was that some kind of setup or what?"
"I didn't tell you I was a lawyer. You assumed I was. I told you I was a First Amendment specialist, and I am."
"You knew what I thought, and you let me think it. You lied, Ms. Masters. This interview is over."
As I turn to go, she takes hold of my arm. "Our meeting on that plane was a complete accident. I want an interview with you, but it wouldn't be worth that kind of trouble. I was flying from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, and I happened to be sitting across the aisle from you. End of story."
"And you happened to be reading one of my novels?"
"No. I've been trying to get your number from your parents for a couple of months. A lot of people in Mississippi are interested in you. When the Hanratty story broke, I picked up one of your books in the airport. It's that simple."
I step away from the door to let a pair of middle-aged women through. "Then why not tell me who you were?"
"Because when I was waiting to board, I was sitting by the pay phones. I heard you tell someone you didn't want to talk to reporters for any reason. I knew if I told you I was a newspaper publisher, you wouldn't talk to me."
"Well, I guess you got your inside scoop on how I killed Hanratty's brother."
She draws herself erect, offended now. "I haven't printed a word of what you told me, and I don't plan to. Despite appearances to the contrary, my journalistic ethics are beyond reproach."
"Why were you dressed so differently on the plane?"
She actually laughs at this. "I'd just given a seminar to a group of editors in Atlanta. My father was there, and I try to be a bit more conventional when he's around."
I can see her point. Not many fathers would approve of the blouse she's wearing today.
"Look," she says, "I could have had that story on the wire an hour after you told it to me. I didn't tell a soul. What better proof of trustworthiness could anyone give you?"
"Maybe you're saving it for one big article."
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. In fact, we could just eat lunch, and you can decide if you want to do the interview another time or not."
Her candid manner strikes a chord in me. Perhaps she's manipulating me, but I don't think so. "We came to do an interview. Let's do it. The airplane thing threw me, that's all."
"Me too," she says with a smile. "I liked Annie, by the way."
"Thanks. She liked you too."
As we step into the main dining space of the restaurant, a smattering of applause starts, then fills the room. I look around to see whose birthday it is, then realize that the applause is for me. A little celebrity goes a long way in Mississippi. I recognize familiar faces in the crowd. Some belong to guys I went to school with, now carrying twenty or thirty extra pounds-as I did until Sarah's illness-others to friends of my parents or simply well-wishers. I smile awkwardly and give a little wave to cover the room.
"I told you," says Caitlin. "There's a lot of interest."
"It'll wear off. As soon as they realize I'm the same guy who left, they'll be yawning in my face."
When we arrive at our table, she stands stiffly behind her chair, her eyes twinkling with humor. "You're not going to pull my chair out for me?"
"You didn't look the type."
She laughs and takes her seat. "I wasn't before I got here. Pampering corrupts you fast."
While we study the menus, a collection of classic Cajun dishes, I try to fathom how Caitlin Masters wound up in the job she has. The Examiner has always been a conservative paper, owned when I was a boy by a family that printed nothing that reflected negatively upon city worthies. Later it was sold to a family-owned newspaper chain which continued the tradition of offending as few citizens as possible, especially those who bought advertising space. In Natchez the gossip mills have always been a lot more accurate than anything you could find in the Examiner. Caitlin seems an improbable match, to say the least.
She closes her menu and smiles engagingly. "I'm younger than you thought I'd be, aren't I?"
"A little," I reply, trying not to look at her chest. In Mississippi, wearing a blouse that sheer without a bra is practically a request to be arrested.
"My father owns the chain. I'm doing a tour of duty down here to learn the ropes."
"Ah." One mystery cleared up.
"Okay if we go on the record now?"
"You have a tape recorder?"
"I never use them."
I take out a Sony microcassette recorder borrowed from my father. "The bitter fruit of experience."
Our waitress appears and takes our orders (crawfish beignets and iced tea for us both), then stands awkwardly beside the table as though waiting for something. She looks about twenty and, though not quite in Caitlin Masters's league, is quite lovely. Where Masters is angles and light, the waitress is round and brown and sultry, with the guarded look of the Cajun in her eyes.
"Yes?" Caitlin says, looking up at her.
"Um, I was wondering if Mr. Cage would sign a book for me."
"Sure," I tell her. "Do you have one with you?"
"Well-I live over the restaurant." Her voice is hesitant and terribly self-conscious. "Just temporarily, you know. I have all your books up there."
"Really? I'd be glad to sign them for you."
"Thanks a lot. Um, I'll get your iced tea now."
As she walks away, Caitlin gives me a wry smile. "What does a few years of that do for your ego?"
"Water off a duck's back. Let's start."
She gives me a look that says, Yeah, right, then picks up her notebook. "So, are you here for a visit, or is this something more permanent?"
"I honestly have no idea. Call it a visit."
"You've obviously been living a life of emotional extremes this past year. Your last book riding high on the best-seller list, your wife dying. How-"
"That subject's off limits," I say curtly, feeling a door slam somewhere in my soul.
"I'm sorry." Her eyes narrow like those of a surgeon judging the pain of a probe. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"Wait a minute. You asked on the plane if my wife was traveling with me. Did you know then that she was dead?"
Caitlin looks at the table. "I knew your wife had died. I didn't know how recently. I saw the ring…" She folds her hands on the table, then looks up, her eyes vulnerable. "I didn't ask that question as a reporter. I asked it as a woman. If that makes me a terrible person, I apologize."
I find myself more intrigued than angered by this confession. This woman asked about my wife to try to read how badly I miss her by my reaction. And I believe she asked out of her own curiosity, not for a story. "I'm not sure what that makes you. Are you going to focus on that sort of thing in your article?"
"Let's go on, then."
"What made you stop practicing law and take up writing novels? The Hanratty case?"
I navigate this part of the interview on autopilot, probably learning more about Caitlin Masters than she learns about me. I guessed right about her education: Radcliffe as an undergrad, Columbia School of Journalism for her master's. Top of the line, all the way. She is well read and articulate, but her questions reveal that she knows next to nothing about the modern South. Like most transplants to Natchez, she is an outsider and always will be. It's a shame she holds a job that needs an insider's perspective. The lunch crowd thins as we talk, and our waitress gives such excellent service that our concentration never wavers. By the time we finish our crawfish, the restaurant is nearly empty and a busboy is setting the tables for dinner.
"Where did you get your ideas about the South?" I ask gently.
At last Caitlin adjusts the lapels of her black silk jacket, covering the shadowy edge of aureole that has been visible throughout lunch. "I was born in Virginia," she says with a hint of defensiveness. "My parents divorced when I was five, though. Mother got custody and spirited me back to Massachusetts. For the next twelve years, all I heard about the South was her trashing it."
"So the first chance you got, you headed south to see for yourself whether we were the cloven-hoofed, misogynistic degenerates your mother warned you about."
"Something like that."
"I'm reserving my judgment."
"That's kind of you. Do you like Natchez?"
"I do. It's not sterilized or Disneyfied like Williamsburg. It's still funky. Gossip, sex, whisky, and eccentricity, all behind a gossamer veil of Southern gentility."
I chuckle. "A woman I grew up with decided to move back here after working ten years as a film producer in Los Angeles. When I asked why, she told me she was worried that she was losing her mind, and knew that if she did it in Natchez, no one would notice."
Caitlin laughs. "That's exactly it! What about you? Do you like it?"
"That's like asking someone if they like their mother. I've been away for years, but no one who grows up here ever really leaves this town behind."
She makes a note on her pad. "I was surprised it's such a haven for gays. But the contrasts are disturbing. You've got a real race problem here."
"So does Los Angeles."
"But this is a purely white-black race problem."
"And your paper contributes to it."
She reddens. "Would you care to elaborate on that?"
"Sure. The Examiner has never dug beneath the surface, never urged people toward their better natures. It was always too afraid to upset the white elite."
"You think I don't know that?"
"You talk like you don't."
"Trust me, I do. Let me ask you something. I've been following local politics pretty closely, and there's something funny going on."
"You'd think Shad Johnson, the black candidate, would be making race a major issue, trying to mobilize every black vote."
"How's he playing it?"
"He's not even mentioning race. He's in the former money capital of the slaveholding South, thirty percent of the black population receives some form of public assistance, and he acts like he's running for mayor of Utopia. Everything is New South, Brotherhood of Man. He's running as a Republican, for Christ's sake."
"Sounds like a shrewd guy."
"Will African Americans vote for him if he sucks up to the white vote like that?"
I can't help but laugh. "If Johnson is the only black man in the race, local blacks will vote for him if he buggers a mule at high noon on the courthouse lawn."
Two pink moons appear high on Caitlin's cheeks. "I can't believe you said that. And I can't believe Johnson would stand for the way things are. The things I hear around here… sitting in restaurants, riding in cars with people. I've heard the N-word a thousand times since I've been here."
"You'd hear it in Manhattan if you rode in the right cars. Look, I'd really rather not get into this. I spent eight years in the Houston courts listening to more bullshit about race than I ever want to hear."
She shakes her head with apparent disgust. "That's such a cop-out. Racism is the most important problem in America today."
"Caitlin, you are a very rich, very white girl preaching about black problems. You're not the first. Sometimes you have to let people save themselves."
"And you're a very white guy putting black men on death row for state-sanctioned murder."
"Only when they kill people."
"Only when they kill white people, you mean."
A surge of anger runs through me, but I force myself to stay silent. There's nothing to be gained by pointing out that Arthur Lee Hanratty is a white supremacist, or that I once freed a black man who had been mistakenly put on death row by a colleague of mine. You can't win an argument like this. We stare at each other like two fighters after a flurry of punches, deciding whether to wade in again or rest on the ropes.
"Hanratty's an exception," Caitlin says, as though reading my mind.
This lady is dangerous. It may be a cliche, but her anger has brought color to her cheeks and fire into her eyes, and I am suddenly sure that a string of broken hearts lie in the wake of this self-assured young woman.
"I want to understand this, Penn," she says with utter sincerity. "I need to. I've read a hundred books by Southern writers, Southern journalists, everything. And I still don't get it."
"That's because it's not a Southern problem."
"Don't you think the answer must be wrapped up in the South somehow?"
"No. Not the way you think, anyway. It's been thirty years since the last vestiges of segregation were remedied under the law. And there's a growing feeling that blacks have done damn little to take advantage of that. That they've been given special breaks and blown it every time. That they don't want an even playing field but their turn on top. White America looks at the Vietnamese, the Irish, the Jews, and they say, 'What's the problem with the blacks?' The resentment you hear around this town is based on that, not on old ideas of superiority."
"Do you feel that way?"
"I used to. I don't anymore."
"Indians? You mean Native Americans?"
"Think about it. Indians are the only minority that's had as much trouble as blacks. Why? Both races had their cultures shattered by the white man. All the other groups-Irish, Italians, Vietnamese, whatever-may have come here destitute, but they brought one thing with them. Their national identities. Their sense of self. They congregated together in the cities and on the plains, like with like. They maintained their cultural identities-religions, customs, names-until they were secure enough to assimilate. Blacks had no chance to do that. They were stolen from their country, brought here in chains, sold as property. Their families were split, their religion beaten out of them, their names changed. Nothing was left. No identity. And they've never recovered."
"And you parallel that with Native Americans?"
"It's the same experience, only in reverse. The Indians weren't stolen from their land, their land was stolen from them. And their culture was systematically destroyed. They've never recovered either, despite a host of government programs to help them."
Caitlin stops writing. "That's an interesting analogy."
"If you don't know who you are, you can't find your way. There are exceptions, of course. Bright spots. But my point is that whites don't look at blacks with the right perspective. We look at them like an immigrant group that can't get its shit together."
She takes a sip of tea as she processes this perspective. "Does Shad Johnson have the right idea, then? Should Natchez simply sweep its past under the rug and push ahead?"
"For Johnson, it's the smart line to take. For the town… I don't know."
"Please try to answer. I think it's important."
"If I do, we go off the record."
She doesn't look happy, but she wants her answer. "Okay."
"Faulkner thought the land itself had been cursed by slavery. I don't agree." I pause, feeling the writer's special frustration at trying to embody moral complexities in words. "Have you ever read Karl Jung?"
"A little, in college. Synchronicity, all that?"
"Jung didn't try to separate good and evil. He knew that both exist in every human heart. He called the propensity to evil the Shadow. And he believed that trying to deny or repress the Shadow is dangerous. Because it can't be done. He believed you have to recognize your Shadow, come to grips with it, accept it, and integrate it."
"Make friends with the evil in yourself?"
"Basically. And the South has never done that. We've never truly acknowledged the crime of slavery-not in our collective soul. It's a bit like Germany and the Holocaust, only slavery is much further in the past. Modern generations feel no guilt over it, and it's easy to see why. There's no tangible connection. Slave owners were a tiny minority, and most Southerners see no larger complicity."
"How does the white South acknowledge the crime?"
"It'll never happen. That's what's scary about what Shad Johnson is doing. Because the day of reckoning always comes, when everything you've tried to repress rears up in the road to meet you. Whatever you bury deepest is always waiting for the moment of greatest stress to explode to the surface."
"You're the only white person in this town who's said anything like this to me. How did you turn out so different?"
"That's a story for another day. But I want you to be clear that I think the North is as guilty as the South when it comes to blacks."
"You don't really believe that."
"You're damn right I do. I may criticize the South when I'm in it, but when I'm in the North, I defend Mississippi to the point of blows. Prejudice in the North isn't as open, but it's just as destructive. Most Yankees have no concept of living in a town-I mean in a town-that is fifty percent black. No idea of the warmth that can exist between black and white on a daily basis, and has here for years."
"Oh, come on."
"What happened in Boston when they tried busing?"
"That's a different issue."
"Watts. Detroit. Skokie. Rodney King. O.J."
She sighs. "Are we going to refight the Civil War here?"
"How long have you lived here, Caitlin?"
"You could live here sixteen years and you'd still be on the outside. And you can't understand this place until you see it from the inside."
"You're talking about the social cliques?"
"Not exactly. Society is different here. It's not just tiers of wealth. Old money may run out, but the power lingers. Blood still means something down here. Not to me, but to a lot of people."
"Sounds like Boston."
"I imagine it is. The structure is concentric circles, and as you move toward the center, the levels of knowledge increase."
"Were your parents born here?"
"No, but my father's a doctor, and doctors get a backstage pass. Probably because their profession puts them in a position to learn secrets anyway. And there are a thousand secrets in this town."
"Well… what about the Del Payton case?"
"Who's Del Payton?"
"Delano Payton was a black factory worker who got blown up in his car outside the Triton Battery plant in 1968. It was a race murder, like a dozen others in Mississippi, only it was never solved. I'm not sure anybody really tried to solve it. Payton was a decorated combat veteran of the Korean War. And I'll bet you a thousand dollars we're sitting within five miles of his murderers right now."
Excitement and awe fill her eyes. "Are you serious? Did the Examiner cover the murder?"
"I don't know. I was eight years old then. I do know Dan Rather came down with a half dozen network correspondents. The FBI was up in arms, and two of their agents were shot at on the road between here and Jackson."
"Why was Payton murdered?"
"He was about to be hired for a job that until then had been held exclusively by whites."
"The police must have had some idea who did it."
"Everybody knew who did it. Racist cowards motivated by the tacit encouragement of white leaders who knew better. A year before, they bombed another black guy at the same plant, but he survived. My father treated him. This guy was on the hospital phone with Bobby Kennedy every day, had guards all around his room, the works."
"This is great stuff. My aunt went to school with Bobby."
Her self-centered dilettantism finally puts me over the edge. "Caitlin, you're so transparent. You want to hear the same thing every other Northern journalist wants to hear: that the Klan is alive and well, that the South is as Gothic and demonic as it ever was. Terrible things did happen here in the sixties, and people who knew better turned a blind eye. As a boy I watched the Klan march robed on horseback right out there on Main Street. City police directed traffic for them. But that has nothing to do with Natchez as it is today."
"How can you say that?"
"You want to assign guilt? The Examiner printed the time of that Klan march but refused to print the time or location of a single civil rights meeting. Is the Examiner the same newspaper it was then?"
She ignores the question. "Why haven't I heard people talking about the Payton case before? Even the African Americans don't talk about it."
"Because if you live here, you want to make the best life you can. Stirring up the past doesn't help anybody."
"But cases like this are being reopened every day, right here in Mississippi. The Byron de la Beckwith case. The retrial of Sam Bowers, the Klan Wizard from Laurel. You must know that the state recently opened the secret files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission?"
"The Sovereignty Commission was like a racist KGB. They kept files not only on African Americans but on hundreds of whites suspected of liberal sympathies."
Caitlin looks at me in bewilderment. "So? Newsweek just ran a big piece on it, and Peter Jennings's people have been calling around the state, trolling for stories. The Payton case could be reopened at any time."
"Glad to hear it. Justice should be better served than it was in Natchez in 1968. But this isn't some old trial with an all-white hung jury. This is an unsolved murder. A capital murder. No defendant. No suspects, as far as I know. No crime scene. Old or dead witnesses-"
"Nobody said winning a Pulitzer is easy."
A light clicks on in my head. "Ah. That's the plan? Winning a Pulitzer before you're thirty?"
She gives me a sly smile. "Before I'm twenty-nine. That's the plan."
"God help this town."
Her laugh is full and throaty, one I'd expect from an older woman. "Did you know that some of the Sovereignty Commission files are going to remain sealed?"
"Forty-two of them. Some of them on major politicians. I heard Trent Lott's was one of them, but that turned out to be wrong."
"That's no surprise. A lot of the most sensitive files were destroyed years ago."
"Why haven't you explored any of this in your novels?"
"A sense of loyalty to the place that bore me, I suppose. A lot of people would have to die before I could write a book like that."
"So, until then you write fluff and take the easy money?"
"I don't write fluff."
She holds up her hands in contrition. "I know. I did a Nexis search on you. Publishers Weekly named False Witness the fourth-best legal thriller ever written."
"Anatomy of a Murder, The Caine Mutiny, and Presumed Innocent."
"That's pretty good company," I murmur, painfully aware that False Witness was four books ago.
"Yes, but it just seems so obvious that you should be writing about all this. Write what you know! You know?"
Caitlin picks up the check and walks over to the cash register, her movements fluid and graceful despite the phenomenal energy that animates her. The restaurant is empty now but for the cashier and our waitress, who chooses this moment to come forward with her copy of False Witness. I take the book, open it to the flyleaf, and accept the pen she offers.
"Would you like me to personalize it?"
"Wow, that would be great. Um, to Jenny. That's me."
"No last name?"
"Just Jenny would be cool."
I write: Jenny, I enjoyed meeting you. Penn Cage.
She blushes as she takes back the book, then glances at Caitlin, who stands waiting for me. "I'd love to talk to you sometime," she says in a quavering voice. "Ask you some questions, maybe."
I recognize the nervous tones of an aspiring writer. "I'll be in again. A friend of mine owns the place."
"Wow, okay. Thanks."
I join Caitlin as she walks out onto the brightly lit street.
"Did you get enough for your piece?"
"More than enough." She tucks her copy of False Witness under one arm and buttons her jacket. "AP will probably pick it up, and it'll be reprinted all over the South. They like fluff as much as anybody."
I sigh wearily.
"I'm joking, Penn. God, take it easy, would you?"
"I guess I'm a little tense."
"A little?" She takes False Witness in both hands, then bends at the waist and touches the book flat against the sidewalk, displaying a limberness that makes my back hurt and draws looks from several passersby. "Mmm, I needed that."
"If I tried that, they'd hear tendons popping across the river."
She smiles. "Not if you practiced. We should do this again. You can be deep background on Southern crime and psychology."
I start to decline, then surprise myself by saying, "I might be able to help you with that."
Her eyes sparkle with pleasure. "I'll call you. And I'm sorry again about the airplane. Tell Annie I said hello."
She holds out her hand and I take it, not thinking anything of it and so being all the more surprised by the shock I feel. When our eyes meet, we recognize something in each other that neither expects and both quickly look away from.
"The story will probably run Wednesday in the Southern Life section," she says in a flustered voice, and awkwardly releases my hand. "I'll mail some copies to your parents. I'm sure your mom still clips everything about you."
Caitlin Masters looks at me once more, then turns and walks quickly to a green Miata parked across the street with its top down. I am acutely aware of her physical presence, even across the street, and inexplicably glad that she suggested another lunch. With that gladness comes a rush of guilt so strong that it nauseates me. Seven months ago I was standing at my wife's deathbed, then her coffin. Seven seconds ago I felt something for another woman. This small and natural response causes me more guilt than sleeping with a woman out of physical necessity-which I have not yet done. Because what I felt was more than physical. A glacier consumes whole forests by inches. As small as it is, that glimmer of feeling is absolute proof that someone else will one day occupy the place Sarah held in my life.
I feel like a traitor.