In the early summer of 1970, some ten years before she died, the famous writer tripped over a pink cat, fell down the stairs, and broke her hip so badly that when she was released from the hospital she had to spend some months in a nursing home out in the Maryland suburbs. In July Mr. Holden called Laura and asked if she were free to spend tomorrow afternoon with him; they could have lunch and then visit an old friend of his who was currently confined to a nursing home in Silver Spring. He went on to describe the friend, mentioning the pink cat as a special inducement. And Laura assured him that she had, of course, read her a long time ago (and, failed to add, forgotten her shortly thereafter), and, yes, she was perfectly free. She didn’t mention that she was just sitting around trying to decide what to do next; she’d worked at a neighborhood newspaper for the past five years and she didn’t see how she could go on. Whoever had convinced her she wanted to be a writer, maybe her favorite college English teacher, hadn’t known her very well; but of course she hadn’t known herself very well either so she couldn’t hold a grudge. Nor did she tell Mr. Holden that her husband of several years standing was busy living in exciting times, working against the war and pretty sure the CIA had broken into his office and bugged the phones. Nor did she mention that she had unwisely wondered out loud what in the world the CIA thought they’d hear and then suggested that they had better things to listen to. Nor did she explain how her husband had found her skepticism hard to understand although he did find in her lack of perception another compelling example of her inadequacy. And so, she thought, but did not explain to Mr. Holden, I continue to fulfill his utmost need, which is to despise the world around him, most intimately, me: What—she could all but hear her husband say—had made Laura seem so possible just a few short years ago? Yes, Laura—given this silent meditation—concluded that she was perfectly free to spend the afternoon with Mr. Holden out in Silver Spring visiting the famous old lady writer who’d fallen downstairs and broken her hip. And even though Mr. Holden was at least twenty years her senior, it could not be said that Laura was unaware he had things in mind besides lunch and the nursing home. She and her husband had lived in Mr. Holden’s Chevy Chase house for the first few months of their sojourn in Washington, taking over one of the many rooms made available by the moving on of this particular Mrs. Holden, and Mr. Holden had always seemed an eager mentor, although of what Laura wasn’t exactly sure, even though he was officially employed on the law faculty of a local university. Not the law. And so she would not go unwarily to lunch with him and, even if uncertain of the outcome, planned to attire herself in her favorite yellow knit mini dress and her new purple heels as well as her purple-and-lavender Pucci-print underwear, all thoughtfully acquired some months earlier for a long-hoped-for rendezvous with Buck, who had called from Atlanta at the very last minute to cancel.
In this tentative fashion Laura was contemplating lunch with Mr. Holden when Mindy Slattery called from Alabama to say she was arriving in Washington the next day and would love to catch up. Married to a Methodist minister and the mother of two small boys, Mindy was coming up to take part in an anti-war protest or maybe an anti-anti-war protest, Mindy not being awfully clear about that, and so Laura invited her to come over around noon. She hadn’t seen her for some eight years now, but she figured she might as well ask her to come along for lunch as a sort of bodyguard. “Bodyguard,” she said to herself, meaning “foil.”
Laura was mildly surprised to hear from Mindy because they’d hardly known each other during the four years they’d spent at the small women’s college where their only point of contact had been a creative-writing class sophomore year. It had been a tenuous point for Laura, in love with the instructor and so with very little attention left over for the other nine girls in the class. The only Mindy she could bring to mind was small, mousy, whiney, and the writer of awful stories about the South, sappy tales lacking both believability and charm. She’d hailed from Alabama and was—like Laura herself, who’d hailed from slightly farther north—the recipient of an academic scholarship that distinguished them from the rich majority. Laura seemed to remember that Mindy was devoutly Christian.
The next morning, dressed carefully in her purple heels, yellow mini, and Pucci underwear, Laura opened the door to a Mindy who was perfectly recognizable. She was wearing a strange rectangular garment that could easily signify Mennonite or Amish affiliation except for its bright red color. She did not wear a doily on her head, merely an improbable straw hat. Her accent was unchanged, and she announced without preliminaries that she wanted to talk with Laura about getting an agent, how you went about that, and why they’d never taught them anything about agents in college. Laura said she thought it was probably because back then they’d still thought of student writing as Literature, something exactingly produced and never sold for cash, only fame—and hurried on to explain that they were going to lunch with Mr. Allen Briton Haddon Holden, who was probably trying to seduce her and so was offering up a special treat Laura knew Mindy would enjoy, a visit to a nursing home where the famous—
Just then, the phone rang and Laura ran off to answer it.
Mindy didn’t know what she’d expected to find in Laura, who was still the superficial creature she’d been in college, wearing a shamefully short and clinging dress along with preposterous purple shoes and suggesting some trip to a nursing home, obviously so they could avoid talking about their work and how Laura had failed to live up to Mr. Lilly’s expectations. He had obviously been in love with her, the only reason he’d thought her stories were so good, and it crossed her mind that maybe Laura hadn’t even written any more stories after that ridiculous class in which she’d garnered all the praise but, like the rest of them, no useful information about publishing. She was apparently married, but Elizabeth, who wrote the class notes and from whom Mindy had gotten Laura’s phone number, didn’t know anything about the husband. A fat lot of good all that praise had done her. Just gone to her empty head. Mindy gazed with scorn at a couch covered with a flamboyant Indian bedspread.
A few minutes later Laura was back, visibly distraught, her blonde hair flying and a flush on what Mindy had to admit was still a pretty face. “You’re not going to believe this,” Laura said, “but I can’t go to lunch. You’ve got to go alone. Mr. Holden is very nice, a real gentleman, and besides you’ll get to go on to the nursing home. I mean, imagine getting to meet—” At this point the doorbell rang, and Laura ran to the door and stepped outside, closing the door behind her, although not so closely that Mindy couldn’t hear the prolonged high-pitched hysterical yammering of Laura, interrupted by a low drone, undoubtedly the protests of Mr. Holden, who really was a gentleman as Mindy could immediately see when he entered the next moment, equally embarrassed by Laura’s demands and downcast at her rejection of him. “I’m so, so sorry,” Laura kept saying, as she pushed Mindy down the front walk to Mr. Holden’s car, shoved her inside, and all but fastened the seatbelt, slamming the door shut seconds before Mr. Holden gunned the engine, depriving Mindy of her chance to tell Laura what a prideful person she was, just as self-centered and untalented as she’d been in college.
During the drive to the restaurant Mr. Holden successfully mollified Mindy with words that she would fail to bring to mind over the next forty years, he managing to say nothing bad about Laura, instead absurdly describing her beauty and fecklessness as qualities that in themselves brought forgiveness for as well as an explanation of such minor indiscretions as accepting his invitation and then dragging along a fellow student from an inadequate creative-writing class where she’d been unfairly praised to accompany her like a lady-in-waiting to a lunch with a man obviously enamored of her and then skipping out for a reason not so much as vaguely articulated to either of the victims of her bad manners. And yet since all of this was exactly what Mindy expected of life in the Nation’s Capital, it could not be said that she was unhappy, settling like a brooding hen into foreknowledge, justification, and voluble explanation by the time Mr. Holden arrived at what she presumed was a fancy restaurant, parked the car, escorted her to a secluded table, and set about ordering lunch, Mindy herself ordering a hamburger with fries and explaining that she did not drink alcohol, by which time Mr. Holden had resorted to a silver pocket flask and then downed several glasses of wine while launching into his personal history, the gist of which was that he’d been named for the guy who’d invented the witty shorthand lingo of modern journalism, Briton Haddon, the best friend of the famous publisher of Time magazine who’d been in Mr. Holden’s father’s year in Skull and Bones. Mr. Holden wasn’t sure that he’d ever recovered from his name even though he’d gone into the law instead of journalism and had three wives and one important clandestine relationship that had resulted in a secret child, secret in as far as the husband of the woman he’d had the affair with seemed to believe it was his; a crucial point in his narration of this relationship was that they were Ethiopians in Washington on some diplomatic mission. Mr. Holden was a freckled graying blue-eyed redhead in a beautiful worn tweed jacket and a faded-yellow shrunken un-removed hat that let everyone know he’d been somehow mistreated, and Mindy, shocked by adultery but quite at home with miscegenation, felt compelled to explain that one of her strong points was recognizing racial mixtures, she having seen almost all of them in Alabama. Mr. Holden paid her no mind, his rambling account to Mindy’s confused ears now punctuated by assaults on her baffled eyes in the form of four worn black-and-white snapshots, each edged with little holes, dog-eared, and stained with amber spots of something. Mr. Holden pulled them from his wallet one at a time and slid them proudly across the table accompanied by self-exculpatory explanations that Mindy failed to absorb. Yes, Mr. Lilly’s one persistent comment on her stories in that unsatisfactory creative writing class was that she failed to pay attention to the way people spoke in addition to ignoring all nuance of what they said as well as all the little details about place and time and manners that distinguish the first-rate student writer of short stories (like Laura) from the mediocre (like Mindy), faults she recognized and had earnestly tried to correct so that she felt she might now find favor in the marketplace could she only find an agent. MARTHA’S VINEYARD was embroidered meaninglessly across the front of Mr. Holden’s hat, and, a good person under trying circumstances, Mindy decided to concentrate on the snapshots: first wife, smiling for all she was worth while precariously perched on the deck of a small sailboat; second wife, a tall brunette in a skimpy little bikini, her feet in the water, confronting the camera with a scornful squint; third wife, dumpy, gentle, devoted, worn out; and the Love of Mr. Holden’s Life, an insectlike creature who looked awfully white for an Ethiopian. It was she who was somehow related to the husband of one of the cousins who’d lived in Kentucky before the family moved to Texas around 1880 or so, nonsense to Mindy, who figured she’d missed something even though she was trying her best to look and listen and evaluate, all at the same time, when Mr. Holden suddenly asked—and these words were to stick forever in her otherwise distracted mind—”Of course you’ve read her. Laura said you had to read her in that creative writing class you took to no avail!” For all his being a gentleman Mr. Holden, Mindy recognized, had a nasty edge. And so she said, “Of course we read her,” excused herself, went to the ladies’ room, and, on her return, uneasily emerged into an awareness that she had in fact told a lie, a sort of lie, because even though she knew she’d read as much as Laura (for all that praise lavished upon her by their fat gaily dressed ironically scornful teacher, since unlike Laura she’d been a dutiful student) and so if Laura claimed to have read the famous writer in Mr. Lilly’s deficient creative-writing class, then she herself must undoubtedly have done so; the problem was that she had not exactly caught the name, and now, after stating that of course she’d read her, it was impossible to ask Mr. Holden who she was.
The nursing home was only a few blocks from the restaurant, a tan brick building like the three back home in Birmingham that Mindy regularly visited in the course of fulfilling the obligations of an assistant minister’s wife. Old women: she’d met and chatted with and consoled scores of them, and this one looked not completely unlike the Alabama version, frail, wrinkled, white haired, with a defiant glare in her eyes and a warped twist to her lips, strapped, Mindy was pretty sure, safely strapped into a hospital bed in the tan and light-blue room, designed to be efficiently vacated, quickly cleaned, and expeditiously refilled over and over and over again.
Presenting the old lady with a floppy bouquet of yellowing white roses that he had extricated from the trunk, Mr. Holden, although undoubtedly a gentleman, did not bother with introductions, simply pointing to Mindy and identifying her as a friend of Laura’s, the talented young woman he’d told her so much about. Not a word about why she wasn’t with them. Still, Mindy was undaunted. “We went to college together. We were in the same creative-writing seminar. We haven’t published a lot—nothing really—because nobody ever bothered to teach us anything useful, like how to get an agent,” information that seemed to float over the head of the old woman, who now trained her large gray eyes on Mindy’s midsection and began uttering commands in a low yet raucous voice with an accent so affected that even someone with as keen an ear as Mindy’s could not hope to discover its precise geographical origin. It struck Mindy as odd that the old lady was wearing a long string of pink beads over the light-green hospital gown, an affectation unavailable to the old members of First Methodist. “I’m from Alabama,” Mindy explained matter-of-factly, as if that explained everything.
“And I, my dear, am from Texas.” Or words to that effect, uttered in tones of thorough and complete dismissal as the old lady turned her attention to Mr. Holden, who seated himself familiarly on the edge of the bed and engaged in a muttered discussion that was incomprehensible to Mindy, who salvaged her pride by moving to the window and staring out intently at the parking lot while she went over a list in her head—Eudora Welty? No. Mississippi. Harper Lee? No. Alabama. Carson McCullers? No. Georgia. Flannery O’Connor. Wasn’t she dead? Truman Capote? For Mindy was not without a sense of humor, and so she continued paging through her memory until she was abruptly summoned by the drawling caw of the old woman: “Go on over there to that closet, honey, and I’ll show you a little sompin you can tell your granchillun about. I reckon you fancy purty dresses. Yes, indeedy, that lit’l ole red dress tells me you’re as partial to finery as I am.”
Or words to that effect. Mindy didn’t quite catch them although she could tell she was being made fun of. Even so, she did her Christian duty and obediently, although seething inside, slid open the flimsy doors opposite the old lady’s bed to reveal a closet packed with dresses hanging from a wooden pole, each on a hanger padded with white satin that fleetingly reminded Mindy of her wedding dress.
“Take out that pink one,” the old lady commanded, and Mindy obeyed, untangling it from the others. It was long and filmy, pink if a little grayish, maybe a nightgown, maybe a fancy dress: “Now, I wore that the first time the Johnsons invited me to the White House. Of course I had on my pink pearls and my diamond spray and my emerald ring because I wear them everyplace I go.” Not her exact words, although Mindy did perceive that the accent had almost disappeared.
Mindy could see no pin or ring, but figured maybe they were too valuable for the nursing home. “Pink,” she politely countered, “has always been one of my favorite colors.”
The old woman turned a shade warmer and explained that she was here because she’d tripped over her pink cat and fallen down the stairs: “Yes, indeedy, he’s a pink cat if ever there was one.”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” Mindy was genuinely amused. “There’s that kind of gray cat who always looks a little pink, maybe because his skin shows through.” The color of blood coming up through the color of fur.
The old lady did not acknowledge this perceptive observation but merely told Mindy to take out the next dress, a short blue number Mindy would not have recognized as Geoffrey Beane because that was not the sort of thing she cared about but which the old lady identified as such and then went on to relate how she had worn it to Harvard the night she received an award from an undergraduate literary society made up of all-male pigs. All light pink, Mindy figured, like every pig you ever met at Harvard. By the next dress, a long flowing green gown the old lady had worn to her will-signing party, Mindy got into the rhythm of things, untangling each dress from its fellows, pulling it from the closet, fluffing it out to full length, and then holding it up to her chest so that the old lady could see how ridiculous Mindy looked in it. Oh, yes, that was obviously what the old lady wanted: to see her little red-neck Christian face peering out over the trappings of sophisticated luxury. Pathetic old biddy. The next few dresses were from Twelfth Night parties from the years 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969, whatever Twelfth Night was. Then a gold brocade thing she’d worn when the university awarded her a Doctor of Humane Letters (hard as that was to believe), and even though they’d had to bring it to her home because she wasn’t feeling well she’d dressed for the occasion. The old lady also told Mindy where she’d gotten each dress, I. Magnin’s or Bergdorf’s or Neiman’s or a lot of other names that Mindy didn’t catch. Although she heard the general message: I have brought all these lovely, lovely dresses to the nursing home because they tell something important about important lit’l ole me. And so it was now or never. “Do you think you could ask your agent to take a look at my novel?” Mindy inquired, and Mr. Holden buried his face in his hands. “Good God!” he said, and speechlessly the old lady indicated that the visit had lasted long enough so that within minutes Mr. Holden had hustled Mindy out of the room and into the car for a long silent slightly wavering drive down to the White House, where he dropped her off, after handing over her hat and thoughtfully explaining, gentleman that he was, how she could probably get in for a tour before the doors closed. Mindy waved goodbye and decided to skip the White House, happy to think that in just a few short days she could leave Washington, D.C., and return to the real South, a wonderful, generous place that was all the better for the famous, vain, and arrogant Southern writers who had abandoned it to its own devices in their fatuous search for sophisticated luxury and empty fame.
Meanwhile, Laura ran from the house, hailed a taxi on Connecticut Avenue, and spent the afternoon in bed with Buck at the Hay-Adams Hotel across Lafayette Square from the White House. He certainly seemed to appreciate her Pucci-print bra and panties and her yellow knit mini-dress, especially when they ended up in a pile at the end of the bed on top of her utterly fabulous purple shoes, and she arrived home late that evening in a daze of sexual fulfillment. Mindy Slattery and Mr. Holden had slipped from her mind altogether and indeed did not re-surface until forty years later when she ran into her beautiful classmate Elizabeth on Fifth Avenue and amidst the gossip learned from Elizabeth—product of Boston, Nantucket, and Farmington—that Mindy had indeed become a real book-writer, publishing seventeen (so far) books in her Sho’nuf Southern series of Christian mysteries, which featured as their heroine Faith “Lit’l Bunch” Sheridan, who hails from Charity, Alabama, and is downright pert and feisty, although of good family, all wool and a yard wide, never biggety, full of gumption and spizzerinctum, the spittin image of her ole Gramma Sheridan and plum fizzled out after spendin the whole endurin day fixin to solve a murder committed by one of her raft of dad-gum no-count neighbors, who all got the big lazies and spec the world from Sandy Claws and go hogwild when they shouldn’t ought to and ain’t got a lick of sense, piddlin around and playin possum and all set to hornswoggle the Devil and endin up smack-dab in the middle of trouble and sayin well I’ll be and yassum this and nome that and dagnabit, yes, fizzled out and standin in need of a cocola and a big dose of Jesus . . . in short, the sort of book no doubt widely read by all sorts of women they didn’t know. There were even lists of questions in the back of the books centering on issues of grace and salvation, sin and damnation.
Nohownoway. Laura laughed at Elizabeth’s lively mimicry, undoubtedly perfected in long sessions in front of the mirror, mimicry enhanced by a screeching drawl and unintimidated by the baffled sideways glances of Fifth Avenue passers-by. And her laughter carried her back forty years, coming home from her fuck with Buck, a lover long ago forgotten, and climbing up the stairs to her bedroom and remembering that red dress and that straw hat and murmuring “Fiddle-dee-dee, fiddle-dee-dee,” just throwing herself on the bed, bunching up the spread in both hands, and vowing, “As God is my Witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”
It had proved a prophetic proclamation, the first appearance of a mysterious spirit who invaded Laura’s previously circumspect brain over the years and outrageously suggested, whenever tedium threatened, that Laura fill up her credit cards with the purchase of elaborate French food and fancy European furniture and not-quite-designer dresses and jewelry of one sort or another, or travel to all the cities of the world, or get married to someone else with more money, while nevertheless continuing to explore on the side a stream of steadily younger men in any number and shades, Negroes, Hispanics, East Indians, and Native Americans, or drink to excess, or stage fights with lovers on the public street and at important parties (only important parties), or lie about her family background and her age and her conquests, and love cat after cat after cat with a passion she could never quite muster for all the men, and even though she lived with all those cats for forty years she never tripped over a single one of them, although she did fall downstairs any number of times, more or less drunk, on one occasion breaking several ribs. And her absolutely favorite anecdote was how the CIA caught her first husband on a wiretap inviting Daniel Ellsworth out for a pizza.
In 2010, shortly after experiencing Elizabeth’s Fifth Avenue performance, Laura was visiting Beijing with her fourth husband, staying in an elegant Indonesian bed-and-breakfast that had been magically created from the remnants of several courtyard houses in a hutong near the lakes at the northern end of the city. They were visiting his son, who had set up an architectural practice with a college chum and a girlfriend, both of whom—to Laura’s experienced eye—seemed to be vying for his sexual attention. The three were living on nothing, looking for commissions in the overheated Beijing economy, very ambitious and confident, knowing—as far as Laura could detect—absolutely nothing about the Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries and the Three Anti campaign of 1951, the Five Anti Campaign of 1952, the Hundred Flowers of 1957, the Great Leap Forward, the famine of 1959–1962, the Socialist Education Campaign and Four Cleanups of 1963, the Campaign to Purify Class Ranks of 1967–1969, the May Seventh Cadre Schools, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, or even the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. But then, who did? History had evaporated from the Beijing of 2010 to be replaced by historic buildings, beautifully reconstructed by the current regime and flooded with Chinese tourists herded along by hectoring ladies with little red flags, solid evidence that all those old darknesses had slipped from China’s mind, only maintaining a presence in Laura’s due to a pre-trip reading of Jonathan Spence.
Every day Laura, her husband, the son, the friend, and the girlfriend traveled to famous tourist destinations, ate well, and fully enjoyed walking around the few remaining hovels in the filthy crumbling hutong, which were about to be gentrified into little shops, each sporting a VISA sign and filled with Chinese souvenirs made in Bangladesh, their inhabitants moving to the towers that ringed the city. Still, a few residents remained, perhaps retained on purpose to provide local color, old ladies and gentlemen placidly sitting in front of their hovels and groups of young men, inexplicably idle during the day, clustered around a twanging radio.
There were also lots of feral cats, seldom seen but regularly heard at night, howling their passion and scrambling about on the chic tin roof of the Indonesian bed-and-breakfast. One afternoon, Laura was strolling alone though a narrow curving alley in the hutong when she actually saw one, a cat hunched like an empty casserole at the side of a dilapidating gray concrete wall across from a group of cheerful young men who were eating and chatting and listening to the radio, three of them seated on globally-ubiquitous white plastic chairs, two straddling bicycles and on the lookout for something. Laura stopped to look at the cat, bone thin, obviously out in the daytime only because it was starving, attracted now by the smell of something being eaten by the young men, stealthy hunters perched on their bikes, waiting patiently and alertly for their prey. The cat watched the young men and the young men watched the cat. A bony cat, light gray with stripes of a slightly lighter gray, although now Laura noticed that it wasn’t gray at all. It was pink, pinkish gray, but definitely pink, as it hunched in the sunshine, full pink jowls on a long thin neck stretched out from a pink body, and it darted across the alleyway toward the smell of something. Too slow. One boy jumped on the pedals of his bicycle and rode straight over the cat, who managed to get up and twist away while the group howled with laughter.
The pink cat limped off to die alone in great pain, sometime later, somewhere else, and Laura was twisted into a half-memory of lost opportunity and squandered possibility, a half-memory that she tried to attach to the sins of modern China but which stuck relentlessly to her own unuttered voice.
Jane Gillette has published short fiction in The Hopkins Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review, The Antigonish Review, and elsewhere. She has won a Laurence Prize and an O. Henry Prize. (updated 1/2012)