Cover image for The cabal and other stories
The cabal and other stories
Gilchrist, Ellen, 1935-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
Boston : Little, Brown, [2000]

Physical Description:
272 pages ; 24 cm
The cabal -- The sanguine blood of men -- Hearts of Dixie -- The survival of the fittest -- Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang -- The big cleanup.
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A new collection of stories by the author of Victory Over Japan introduces five witty, fun, and passionate new stories. 25,000 first printing.

Author Notes

She is the author of 16 works of fiction, including the story collection Victory Over Japan, which won the National Book Award & most recently, The Cabal & Other Stories. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Ocean Springs, Mississippi & New Orleans, Louisiana.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gilchrist demonstrates in her latest collection of short fiction not only that she is a remarkably adept storyteller but also that the novella, particularly in her hands, is a highly effective literary form--one that offers a more involved and involving plot and more complete character development than one finds in short fiction, while at the same time more tightly structured than most full-length novels. Half of this book is taken up with a novella titled "The Cabal." Brimming with Gilchrist's trademark charming characters, it takes place in Jackson, Mississippi, upon Caroline Jones' arrival in town to begin a college teaching job. It just so happens that Caroline's arrival coincides with the mental breakdown of the psychiatrist who tends to the well-being of the town's artistic elite, a group called "the Cabal," all of whom are subsequently threatened with the public revelation of their deep, dark secrets. In this novella and the short stories that follow, Gilchrist is southern to the core, but she eschews traditional southern grotesqueness in character depictions and avoids gothic overtones in plot situations. Instead--and this is why Gilchrist remains such a popular fiction writer--she glimpses colorful but very realistic people's lives and isolates their search, whether within a familial, cultural, or even sexual arena, for a degree of inner peace. Her variations on this theme are rendered in an unfussy "just folks" style and wrapped in a charming and genuine humor that comes from simply watching people be human. (Reviewed December 1, 1999)0316314919Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Veteran fiction writer Gilchrist (Flights of Angels) is in fine form in another group of short stories that display her distinctive voice and eccentric characters. Featuring the title novella, about a social clique that "runs the town" of Jackson, Miss., this wry and breezy collection touches on all things Southern, from makeovers for aging belles to plantation hijinks, and reverence for ancestors and the Delta itself. When Caroline Jones, a down-on-her-luck poet, accepts a post in the English department of Millsaps College, she also is unwittingly stepping into a social morass. On her first day in town, her old friend Augustus Hailey, the most glamorous gay man in the South, drags her to the funeral of local benefactor Jean Andry Lyles. Then Jim Jaspers, psychiatrist to most of Jackson's elite, suddenly goes mad and reveals publicly the secrets and deceptions of his patients. Some characters in this novella reappear in the five short stories that follow. "The Sanguine Blood of Men" tells of Jones's earlier adventures in San Francisco, where she tries to sell a script to a lecherous old movie mogul. In "Hearts of Dixie," Jean Lyles's typist discovers that her recently deceased employer has left 36 tempting gold Krugerrands in an office safety deposit box. There's a humorous tale about Darwinian theory and people who don't know they're funny, and a happy one about an extended family's get-together. And because no Gilchrist collection would be complete without appearances from Miss Crystal and Traceleen, the author offers a bittersweet reprise of their affectionate relationship. Throughout, there's enjoyment of casual sex, and casual talk about it--and if the talk does often threaten to bury the substance in Gilchrist's fictions, there's giddy pleasure in her characters' endearing antics. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A cabal is a group of people secretly plotting to bring about the overturn of something or someone. In Gilchrist's novella "The Cabal," this is how the characters, all patients of the same psychiatrist, Jim Jaspers, jokingly refer to themselves. For years, they have told their secrets to and put their lives into the hands of Jaspers. Suddenly, Jaspers goes mad, injecting himself with "enlightenment" and becoming God for a few hours. In this state, Jaspers knows he can do anything he wants with no repercussions. His patients, all members of a select circle, go wild. What secrets will he reveal? What havoc will he wreak? He must be stopped! The five short stories accompanying the novella display Gilchrist's (author of 15 previous books, winner of the 1985 National Book Award for Victory Over Japan) fantastic imagination and skill in creating a short story that becomes a world in itself, full of irony and wisdom.--Patricia Gulian, South Portland, ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Cabal CAROLINE JONES was driving her Cabriolet to Mississippi as fast as she dared, watching ahead for cops and passing on the left side. It was Thursday and she had to be there Monday morning. She was going to Millsaps College to fill in for a poet who had died the week before. The poet had been a black woman with an attitude so big no one was surprised when she died and only a few people were sorry. Still, her death had left the English department in a mess. This was lucky for Caroline as it had given her a chance to regain her status in academia. She had ruined her reputation by quitting a job at Yale to go whore for the movies. It was not entirely Caroline's fault that she had been seduced by Hollywood. Her parents had given her bad advice. They had taught her to worship money over all other things. It would be years before Caroline began to recover from the greed they had placed in her heart, but that is another story. For now she was driving to Jackson, and she was in a hurry. When the movie scam fell through, she had been forced to go back to Nashville and live with her parents. She had lived there for seven months while she searched for a job. She had almost given up hope when the call came from an old friend at Millsaps. "There's a job teaching Shakespeare and poetry," her friend said. "You'd have to be here in a week. I'll find you a place to live and in the meantime you can stay with me. I told them you were the best young poet in the South. So the job is yours if you'll take it." "How much?" "You won't like it. Thirty thousand. A third of what they were paying Topeka. They see this as a chance to recoup those losses. But the job is here, if you'll take it." "I'll be there. Anything to get away from here. What do I have to do?" "Start packing. I'm excited. It will be marvelous to have you here. A dream come true." He giggled, then laughed out loud. His name was Augustus Hailey. He was a good-looking, tall blond man who had been her closest friend at Vanderbilt. He had been her confidant and running buddy. He had kept her grounded and made her laugh. He had gone shopping with her and talked her into cutting her hair. Also, he had believed in her poetry, even when she stopped believing in it herself. "If we're both there, something will happen," she said. "I've never been in Mississippi, Augustus. I don't think I've ever crossed the border." "I'll take care of you. You know that. Is there anything you need?" "Start finding me a boyfriend. A house, a boyfriend, a health food store. I've decided that's all anybody needs." "Well, I don't know about the health food store but there's a theater group I think you'll like. Actually, it's a cabal. The people who run this town are in it. They all go to the same psychiatrist. Isn't that a kick? On Monday morning he gets to hear six different versions of the cast party from the weekend before." Augustus was in high gear, his imagination and good humor taking flight at the thought of having his old friend for a colleague. "I didn't know psychiatrists practiced on Mondays. The two I saw never went to the office on Monday." "Well, whatever day they go in. What were you doing at a psychiatrist's office? You're the sanest person I know." "Quitting Yale? Going to Los Angeles? By the time I got home I was a basket case. I was down to size-four Gap jeans." "You must have looked fabulous." "I looked like a refugee. Also, I haven't written a poem in fourteen months. Maybe I'll never write again." "We'll see about that. Well, get off the phone. Start packing. I'll tell the board the good news. The head of the department will call you later. Her name's Gay Wileman. You'll like her. She's a good person, one of us."   Now Caroline was on her way. She had crossed the state line into Mississippi and was coming down the Natchez Trace Parkway, "the old buffalo trail," Eudora Welty called it. Caroline was peopling the woods with Miss Welty's characters as she drove. I'll do a good job for these people, she was thinking. I'll teach as hard as I can. I'll teach the dumb ones and the smart ones. I'll give something to every student if it kills me. Then I'll start writing again. If I'm teaching poetry, it will make me write. Well, who cares if I write or not? Who gives a damn about publishing some crappy little poems in magazines that don't pay? Where did I get the idea that I'm a poet? There're only one or two poets in any generation. That confessional dribble I've been writing isn't poetry. I should be writing plays. Maybe this theater needs a play. If they're rich there would be backing. Well, forget about that. I have a job teaching school and I've got to take that seriously this time. She hunkered down over the wheel of her little green Cabriolet. It had been her graduation present from Vanderbilt. It had two hundred thousand miles on it but it would last until she could afford another. Outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, it began to rain. It was raining so hard the windshield wipers could barely move. The small car began to weave from side to side. Caroline stopped underneath an overpass and watched the rain come down on the kudzu-covered hills. She reached in the backseat and found a sandwich her mother had put in the car. She ate the sandwich. She opened a bag of cookies and ate one. Then she did an unexpected thing. She pulled a notebook out of a side pocket of the car and began to write a poem. It was the first one she had written in more than a year. THE MUSE OF CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES Sugar makes me know the rain As if I were rain and it were me Here at the top of the food chain Burning dinosaurs and trees In my Cabriolet, punching holes In the ozone Ready to rape and pillage Or be pillaged, we shall see. . . . "Oh, God, that's so stupid," she said and kissed the page she had written. She pressed the notepad against her chest. I will write a play, she decided. If Tennessee can make plays out of his family, so can I. I'll write about Granddaddy bossing Daddy around and Momma sweeping the porch three times a day and the money they won't spend and their twin beds and Aunt Lannie across the street smoking herself to death in that decaying house and DeDe and me up in the attic drinking crème de menthe in July. My family's as dysfunctional as anyone else's. Just because they're attractive and don't abuse their children doesn't mean they didn't harm us in other ways. I'll start the play with Mother sweeping the porch. Then Daddy comes out with a water cannon to try to get the squirrels off the roof. Then Teddy comes across the porch with his Boy Scout hatchet to break down the door because I locked him out of the house. Audiences are mine for the taking. They'll be riveted. They'll believe anything I show them.   Caroline ate a second cookie, spilling half the crumbs on the lap of her white pants. The rain was slacking now. She pulled back out onto the highway and drove on into Jackson.   She called Augustus from the car phone when she was on the outskirts of town. He was standing in the driveway when she arrived. The house was perfect, as she had known it would be, a two-story stucco house painted off-white with a lavender door. There was a line of crepe myrtle trees in full bloom beside a brick wall. It was a jewel of a house as he was a jewel of a man. I don't need a boyfriend, Caroline decided. Augustus will be enough for me. "You're just in time, Puss," he said. "There's a funeral this afternoon that you must attend. It's Jean Andry Lyles, the most powerful woman who ever lived on the planet, I'm sure. She founded the theater and ran it for years. Now she's died suddenly at sixty and her family is fighting over the funeral with her twenty-nine-year-old lover. There will be two funerals actually, one on each side of the cathedral. Thank God you're here. I won't have to sit with either faction. We'll sit up in the balcony and watch the fireworks. Oh, it's going to be wonderful. Jean would have loved it. They were fighting over her Rolodex, last I heard. God knows what's transpired by now." "Her Rolodex?" "To get the numbers to call about the death. She knew everyone, of course. Peter Brook, Uta Hagen, the president, senators, scads of movie stars." "How did she die?" "Suddenly. That's how they're dying here this summer. It's so ironic. First Topeka, now Jean. They hated each other. Topeka bowed to no one and Jean had to be queen. Well, now you will meet the cabal. Most of them will be on Jean's family's side. But since she was a civil rights worker in the sixties, that faction will be split." "How much time do I have?" "Several hours. They had to change the time of the funeral because the minister they wanted had another one at two. The lover wanted her cremated because she told him that's what she wanted but he's been overruled by the family. It will be an old-fashioned burial." "How big is her family?" "Five sons and a dozen nieces and nephews. It will be the event of the year. I'm so glad you're here." "Grab some suitcases. I came to stay, as you will notice."   She picked up a cosmetic kit and a suit bag and Augustus followed with two large suitcases. He was so agile and strong, besides being handsome, that it made Caroline sick to think he was gay. Goddamn all the good-looking men being gay, she decided. It isn't fair. It proves there is no God. There might be a Mad Hatter but no God would do this to women. She followed him through the lavender door and down a marble hall, which opened into a long narrow dining room that looked as if it belonged in the Cloisters. Then across a green and white kitchen and up a wide staircase to a tower. "I designed and built this," he said, turning on the stairs. "It's a place to watch stars. What do you think?" The stairs ended in a round room with skylights and a curved wall of windows that looked out upon a garden. In a corner was a bed covered with a dark blue satin comforter. There were roomy dressers. A hall led to a sitting room with a telescope pointing through another skylight. "It's heaven, Augustus. I get to live here?" "As long as you like. I've found you an apartment to look at but it won't be available for a month. I'd adore to have you here if you're comfortable with this." He stood in the doorway smiling. She went to him and put her arms around his waist and held him there. They had met their first day at Vanderbilt, standing in line to sign up to work for the student newspaper. He had been skinnier then but just as handsome, just as self-assured. She had been burning up in a new sweater set. "I love a woman who will wear a sweater set when it's ninety degrees in the shade," he had said. "I'm Augustus Hailey from Oxford, Mississippi. Let's go get a cup of coffee when we finish here." He had smiled a fabulous wide smile, and Caroline had made her first gay friend. There hadn't been any gay men at her prep school and there were none who admitted it in the boys' schools that came to the dances. But Caroline was a reader. She knew about gay men and she guessed Augustus was one before he told her. He told her as soon as they sat down at a table in the student union. "I can't decide what to do about rush," he began. "I don't know if I can get anything done in a house full of wild boys. I'm gay, you know. I'm in love with an older man, the son of a music executive. He's an SAE but he never goes over there unless he's really bored. He wants me to pledge SAE but my uncles were Kappa Alphas here. I'm only going through rush to please my mother. Do you think we should give in to that sort of pressure, or not?" "I don't know. Do they care if you're gay? I mean, the fraternity boys?" "Are you kidding? With my looks and grades, not to mention my family's money, they wouldn't care if I had two heads. They have to have people who study and make good grades. They're always in trouble over their grade point average. My lover, Sam Cook, is practically the king at SAE." "Well, I guess it depends on what you want to do." Caroline was completely entranced. As she continued to be for the four years of their friendship. As she was now, looking around the gorgeous, perfect house Augustus had built and decorated in his spare time. Caroline had lots of interesting and intelligent men in her own family. But she had never met one who could decorate a house.   "The funeral starts at four," Augustus said. "You're doing me a vast favor by going with me. Besides, it will be a wonderful way to see the cabal. They'll be at their best and worst, on common and alien ground, with the body of a queen at stake. It will be interesting to see who talks to whom, who consoles whom, who goes afterward to the son's house and who goes to the lover's. He shared it with Jean and I heard it now belongs to the sons. Jean didn't know she was going to die, of course, but even if she had I wouldn't put it past her to have left the house to her sons, just to make sure there were fireworks." "The sons and the lover hate each other?" "They wouldn't even come to the theater on the same nights, even when Jean was acting or directing. Oh, it's marvelously juicy. You will go with me, won't you?" "I wouldn't miss it. Let me put on a suit." Augustus went back down the stairs and Caroline tore open a suitcase and began to get dressed. She had a new beige suit she had been meaning to save for the first faculty meeting, but she put it on with her new Donna Karan hose and a string of pearls she had borrowed from her mother. She started to add a colored scarf, but already she was under Augustus's spell and decided to stay minimal and chic. She even gave up rolling up the waistband of her skirt and compromised by wearing high-heeled sandals instead of pumps. "What are you doing?" Augustus yelled up the stairs. "Do you need any help?" "I'm almost finished. I'm trying to be perfect so you won't complain." She moved down the stairs holding in her stomach and with her head held regally and high. "Fabulous suit," he said. He was standing at the landing wearing a suit he had ordered from a tailor in London. An off-white shirt, a pale peach-and-orchid-colored tie. He smiled his best smile. "But I'd lose the sandals. Don't you have some pumps?" "I'm wearing these shoes. I've got to find a boyfriend, after all." "One that wants a lady, I would hope." "That won't work. Let's go. I'm wearing the sandals. They're Cole Haan. I spent my last paycheck on them before I quit." "I'm rethinking them. After all, it is hot still."   They went out through the garage and got into Augustus's convertible and drove through Jackson to the Episcopal cathedral. It was downtown on the main street across from the governor's mansion. People were coming from every direction. Dressed-up, elegant-looking men and women converging on the church from north, east, south, and west. A young man in a pinstriped suit was standing at the top of the stairs to the cathedral. Beside him was a coffee-colored nun in her habit. On the other side was a tall woman in a mauve dress. The men and women going up the stairs either stopped and talked to these three or passed them by without turning their heads. "It's started," Augustus exclaimed. "Oh, my God, it's happening before they get inside. See the young man on the stairs? That's Mack Stanford, Jean's lover. Isn't he gorgeous? He puts out so much heat it's unbelievable. He worshiped her. Now he's going to be kicked out of his own house by the sons. He had the Rolodex this morning, but I heard they were going to make him turn it over." "He's twenty-nine?" "Just right for you, you're thinking. Well, he was completely fascinated by her. He won't be ripe for picking this semester." "Who's the nun?" "The mother superior of an order down in Madison County. They come to the plays. They turned out in force for Tiny Alice. We revived it last year. They brought a bus to The Skin of Our Teeth. Jean cultivated them, and I think I heard somewhere Mack was a Roman Catholic. The tall woman is Cindy Milligan. She's a power in the arts, one of the cabal. Her husband owns an outdoor advertising business. They're rolling in dough." They had parked the car and were walking toward the cathedral. They were saved speaking to Mack because he and his coterie went into the church before Augustus and Caroline reached the top of the stairs. The church was packed. There were only a few seats left in the back, so Augustus got his wish and they went up the stairs to the balcony. In old times it had been the place where the slaves sat. An usher led them to seats in the second row. He handed them a small printed sheet. It was an outline of the service and the music, mostly Bach. There was one surprise. A soprano from the Delta was going to sing "Ave Maria" and "The Great Speckled Bird." "Who thought that up?" Augustus whispered, pointing to the paper. "Jean would die." "Well, she did." Caroline giggled, smothered the giggle, and squeezed Augustus's hand. It was already the best funeral she had ever attended. Augustus was the most fun of anyone she had ever known. It was too good to be true that they were in this town together.   Everyone was seated and the organ was playing but no minister approached the pulpit. Mack was talking excitedly with a man seated next to him. The man got up and walked up the aisle and around the coffin and went off into the part of the church from which the minister usually entered. The crowd stirred and whispered, then was quiet. "Oh, God," Augustus said. "You know there were supposed to be people speaking, but at the last minute that was canceled. Mack had asked me to say something. Well, maybe that's going back in. The man who got up is William Harbison, a lawyer who's integral to the theater. He's a friend of Mack's. He's coming back. He's sitting down." The man had returned to Mack's pew. There was much whispering. The organist had finished all the Bach on the program and was playing Pachelbel. Mack and the woman in mauve stood up and moved out into the aisle and went down and around the coffin and over to where Jean's family was sitting. Mack began talking to one of the sons and pointing to the program. The choir director left the organ loft and came down the stairs and joined the group. Two of the sons stood up. One of them took Mack by the arm. Mack pulled his arm away. A tall man wearing a black suit and a black shirt came running down the aisle, tearing down the aisle, sprinting down the aisle. When he got to the men he began to talk and they all listened. "That's Jim Jaspers," Augustus whispered. "The shrink I told you about. What do you think they're doing? I think Mack wants to say something and they won't let him." "Jesus Christ," Caroline whispered back. "In an Episcopal cathedral."   Jim Jaspers had his arm around Mack Stanford. There was much nodding of heads. A baby began to cry, louder and louder. The organist began to play Handel. The people gathered in the aisle went back around the coffin and across the left transept and disappeared through a door. The choir director returned first. He walked to the back of the nave and talked to a woman wearing a green tweed suit. She followed him down the aisle and up onto the sanctuary and across it to the choir. In a few minutes everyone else reappeared and returned to their seats, except for Jim Jaspers. He walked down the aisle to the back of the nave and stood behind the last pew. The baby was crying louder and louder. He was screaming. The mother and father stood up and hurried down the aisle carrying the baby. It was twenty-four minutes after four.   The crowd had been completely quiet for the first fifteen minutes. Now they were beginning to talk among themselves. The coffin stood in a sea of whispering voices. A slant of light from a rose window fell upon the lilies that adorned it. "Just like the mummies," Caroline whispered. "Maybe we had to wait for that light." The minister came back into the church. He bowed his head to the altar, then walked down to the side of the coffin. "Our soprano has developed a problem with her voice," he announced. "We are sorry for this delay but we were waiting to see if she might recover. In her absence, Miss Carlene Hunt from Yazoo City will be singing the ?Ave Maria,' accompanied by our organist, John Zavier Semmes." "Mack got rid of ?The Great Speckled Bird,'" Augustus whispered. "What a coup! I didn't know he had it in him. Oh, this is truly fabulous."   The minister bowed again to the altar, then climbed briskly up to the pulpit and began the Service for the Burial of the Dead. "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. . . ."   Two women came hurrying down the aisle and squeezed into seats next to Mack and his entourage. "The lesbian food editor of the paper and her girlfriend," Augustus whispered. "She worshiped Jean. She waited on her hand and foot. She's always late everywhere she goes. This time she lucked in."   In an effort to pull the funeral back together the minister was reading every prayer in the burial service. With only the "Ave Maria" and two hymns he was worried it would not last long enough to be effective. He was an old friend of Jean Lyles and had played the Cardinal opposite Jean's Alice in the theater's original production of Tiny Alice and also in the revival, which Jean had directed. He had approved of not having people speak at the service, since obviously Jean wouldn't be able to control what they said, but all this changing music at the last minute was upsetting, not to mention all the public displays of animosity. Plus, the young woman from the Delta had left the cathedral in tears. "The days of our age are threescore years and ten," he read. "And though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength then but labor and sorrow; so soon passeth it away and we are gone." He finished the Domine refugium and started in on the Domine illuminatio . The food editor was weeping uncontrollably into a handkerchief. "The Lord is my light and my salvation," he read. "Whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" The air conditioning hummed. The smell of expensive perfume was everywhere. Mack and his entourage faced the front without looking at the family. The family faced the front without looking toward Mack. The minister read on. "Oh, hide not thy face from me," he read. "Nor cast thou servant away in displeasure."   Among her children Jean Lyles had a favorite daughter-in-law. Her name was Lauren Gail and she was the mother of Jean's oldest grandson and granddaughter. Both of them were children who were attractive and kind and did well in school. Jean adored them and adored Lauren Gail for having them and for putting up with their father. Lauren Gail was a true Yankee, raised in New England and educated in experimental schools. She was a sculptor and a painter and the kindest person Jean had ever known. Lauren Gail was completely without guile, having never been given any reason to lie or be on her guard when she was a child. She was an enigma in Jackson, Mississippi, where she wore old clothes, gained weight after her children were born, joined every effort to advance public education or protect the environment, and always had time to talk to Jean on the phone as long as Jean wanted to talk. With Jean's death she had lost her main support in an alien world. She was devastated by the loss. On the family's side of the cathedral she was the only person weeping. It would be late Monday afternoon before she learned that Jean's death had made her wealthy in her own right, so wealthy that she would be able to divorce Jean's adulterous son if she liked, so wealthy she could go anywhere she wanted and live any life she wanted to live. On the cathedral steps Lauren Gail had been the only member of the family to speak to Mack. She had stopped and embraced him and asked him to come and visit her when he was able. Everyone noted the embrace. Everyone watched as the oldest son, Charles, shepherded his children into the cathedral without waiting on his wife. Everyone knew about his mistresses, his weekends in New Orleans and Oxford and on the coast, his almost total neglect of his family, his arguments with his mother, his murderous hatred of Mack. During the service the five brothers sat with their wives and children wondering about how Jean had divided the estate. Her lawyer was not a close friend of theirs. They knew the estate was left to the family, but they didn't know in what portions. The oldest son was thinking, There are five million dollars. If she left me my share it will cover my losses last year in the market. If she tried any funny business I'll contest it. Of course I will. The second oldest son was thinking he should have gone to see her more often and been nicer about Mack. The third son was getting mean. She was undependable. She might not have taken into account all his alimony and child support. She might not have counted in that he had twice as many children as his brothers. The fourth son was spending his. He knew exactly the kind of J series sailboat he would buy as soon as the money was in the bank. The youngest son was simply grieving. Like Lauren Gail, he had lost a mainstay. He had been very young when his mother got rid of his father and the father left Mississippi never to return. He could barely care that the money would pay his gambling debts. He didn't care about the money. He wanted his mother back. The daughters-in-law didn't know what to think. They had loved her too. She had always been kind to them even if she did like Lauren Gail the most and everybody knew it.   The service wore on. The soprano from Yazoo City did an adequate but not brilliant job on the "Ave Maria" but only moved a few people to tears. "Unto God's mercy and protection we commit you," the minister said at last, really meaning it, barely able to hold back his own tears at the memory of Jean's wonderful, powerful face. "The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and evermore, Amen."   The organist began to play "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." The coffin left the church, followed by the sons and daughters-in-law and the grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Mack Stanford and his group stood up but did not follow the procession. They kept on standing while the people around them nervously made their way out into the aisle.   "Let's be late getting outside," Augustus said. "I don't want to get rooked into going to the son's house first. I want you to see Jean's house. She collected primitive and early American art. I heard the sons had already been by to make an inventory. They sent the youngest son and two of the wives. It may all be dismantled by the end of the week." "Aren't we going to the cemetery?" "No one is going but the immediate family. It's a private cemetery lot in Woodland Hills where only three families are buried. Mack isn't going. They arranged this so they could shut him out. Which is another reason to visit them last. They won't be there for another hour." They took their time leaving the cathedral, but it was not time enough. The coffin was loaded on the hearse, but there had been some trouble with the other limousines, and the family was still there waiting. Both factions had gathered followers. Mack's entourage had grown by three actresses, an actor, and the head of the theater department at Tougaloo, a burly black man who looked like a wrestler. The head of the theater department at Millsaps was in the crowd around the sons, but when he saw Augustus coming down the stairs he walked up to them. "Let's go talk to Mack," he suggested. "He's having a rough time of it. Jean was his life, you know." "This is Caroline Jones," Augustus said. "The poet I told you about. She's taking Topeka's place this fall. I expect you to take care of her. Caroline, this is Darley Hitt." "Oh, Caroline," Darley said. "Augustus lent me your book. It's lovely, such sensual poems. I'm delighted to know you. Delighted you're here." He took her hand. He was a darling-looking man. Dark curly hair with gray streaks at the crown. Wearing an old-fashioned seersucker suit and a blue and green patterned tie. If he's gay too, I quit, Caroline decided. Enough is enough. And what about that Mack? What about that action? The three of them proceeded down the remaining stairs, going in the direction of Mack Stanford. Had Augustus said heat, Caroline was thinking. It was heat all right and to the tenth power. Even in his bereavement he exuded sexuality and charisma. "Jean found him playing Stanley in Streetcar ," Augustus whispered. "She brought him here and starred with him in Sweet Bird of Youth . Then she took him home and kept him. But I'm first in line, remember that." "No, you're not," she whispered back. "No dibs on this, old buddy."   "Caroline," Mack said, when they were introduced. "Jean was so excited about your coming here. She was on the committee at Millsaps that brought you here." He was interrupted by Jean's oldest son, Charlie. "I think the cathedral would rather we all just cleared out now," the son said. "They have a wedding tonight and Father Archer asked that we not stay in the way. You can take your friends somewhere else, can't you?" "What in the hell are you up to now, Charlie?" The Tougaloo theater director stepped in the way. "Leave Mack alone, do you hear me? This has gone far enough. This whole thing has been disgraceful." Charlie took the theater director by the arm and pulled him up on the steps and then the theater director hit Charlie in the face and then the fight began. Augustus pushed Caroline out of the way and stepped in to help separate the men. The man in all black, the psychiatrist Jim Jaspers, came racing over. He was very tall, very powerfully built. He pulled the theater director away from the son, and Augustus and two other men held the son. "Get this rabble away from my mother's funeral," the son was yelling. "Get your goddamn queer buddies out of here, Mack. I can't take looking at you anymore today. I can't believe you'd show up here. You killed her, you son of a bitch. You're the one who did it." The middle sons joined the crowd and managed to get their older brother in tow. Augustus and Jim Jaspers had the theater director and were pulling him toward his automobile. A pair of black teenagers on the other side of the street were politely smothering their giggles. Two policemen pulled up in a car and got out and walked up on the steps. Order was restored, but just barely.   "Well, that was wild," Caroline said, when they were in the car and leaving the scene. "I thought that guy from Tougaloo was going to kill Jean's son." "Charlie Lyles is a pain in the butt," Augustus said. "Someone needs to kill him. Well, at least you got to see Jim Jaspers in action. What did you think of him?" "I don't know. He turned me off somehow. What's with all the black clothes? Does he always dress like that or just for funerals?" "He wears black a lot. He was Jean's psychiatrist for many years. She's the one who brought him all his patients. She made his career in Jackson." "Well, it was something to watch. The best was when he came sprinting down the aisle to talk to the sons. I mean, this was a funeral." "He's intense. He's an unusual man. I went to him a few times. Listen, we're lucky to have a real psychotherapist in Jackson, one who's a medical doctor. They are rare. The good ones are rare." "Maybe I was wrong about him. Maybe he's just sad." "He'll be at Mack's. Talk to him there. So you want to take over Jean's lover, do you?" Augustus giggled, the old cruising laugh they had shared so many times, at Vandy, in Florida, in New York City, in San Francisco. "Dibs, dibs, dibs." "I thought there were no dibs." "Well, I take it back. I think he liked me. He was looking me over. Thank God I wore these shoes." "He treats everyone that way. That's the seduction, that's the heat. He makes everyone think they're the most important person in the world." "He should run for president." "He studies Clinton. Jean said he's fascinated by the man." "Where's he from?" "Texas, of course. Irish German probably. It's a common mix down there. God, I'd love to f**k him." "You and me. He'd make up for that lousy thirty thousand if I could snag him. So how much were they paying Topeka? Whose poetry I despise in case I haven't told you." "I don't know exactly." "Yes, you do. Tell me. I may want to ask for a raise. So what did they do with the money? They didn't give it back. I never knew a department to give money back to the administration." "I'm not talking about it. I shouldn't have told you what I did."   They argued about Augustus's telling her Topeka's salary until they turned off a wide highway into a gated subdivision with contemporary houses set on two-acre lots. At the end of a dead-end street was the long, low glass and stone house Jean Lyles had shared with her lover. The entrance was a stone creek that went under wrought iron gates. Ferns grew beside it in a stone wall. Water ran slowly over the stones. Huge golden carp swam lazily among water lilies. The creek continued under windows beside wide double doors. A uniformed butler opened the door and they went past a collection of Native American pottery and down steps into a sunken living room with a wide stone porch on the back. Everywhere there were paintings of great elegance and beauty. On a long table were Native American pots, some large enough to hold a gallon of water, made of pottery so thin it might be from the Ming Dynasty. "Are those real?" Caroline asked. "Yes." "I can't believe they're just sitting there. They could break." "They haven't. They won't." They went down the stairs and into the living room and were served champagne. People came up and were introduced. Mack came across the room and took her arm. "I'm so embarrassed about that scene on the steps," he began. "I seem to keep apologizing to you." "Oh, please don't do that. People are sad. People do strange things when they are grieving." "I have something I want to show you. When I saw you at the funeral I thought, How perfect, as though Jean planned it." "What is it?" "Come with me. It's something you should see." "Of course." He took her hand and led her back across the living room and up the stairs and down a hall into a small, spare bedroom. "This was her reading room," he said. "Your book of poems is on the bedside table. It might be the last thing that she read." "She died in here?" "Yes. I'd gone out to run. It was early in the morning. She'd complained of feeling ill the night before. There's no understanding it. No understanding death. We all pretend we don't know it's coming. Then it's here. Doing this to us, tearing us apart, taking us back to nature. I don't want to stay in this house. It doesn't matter to me to leave it. I couldn't be here without her." Caroline moved to the bedside table and picked up her book of poems. A red ribbon with a medal on the end was in the book. It was between a poem called "Mirage" and one called "Morning." "I forget I can do this," she said. "I have no faith in it anymore. There was Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dante and Wordsworth. Now there are the rest of us. I think we are here too late. I think it's all been said. Still, I learned a lot writing this book. About love at least. I don't know about death. No wonder I can't write worth a damn." "I think you're too hard on yourself." Augustus came hurrying into the room. "I need you, Mack. Jim's gone crazy. He's taking off his clothes." They hurried from the room and down the hall and into the living room and out onto a porch where Jim Jaspers was standing on a stone wall in his boxer shorts with his black shirt tied around his head. "You're all in cages," he was yelling. "You're locked up in cages with bars made of your mother's bones. You can't get out. You can't see where you are. You're in a space?time continuum. You're made of carbon and you're going to die. You're going to die before you ever taste of freedom. You don't have the slightest idea of freedom. You've never been free a day in your lives. I could tell you where you are but you won't listen. You refuse to listen to me." The food editor and her friend were standing beside the wall begging him to come down. Darley Hitt was beside them. Jim Jaspers kept on orating. "I have tried to save your hides. I can't go on telling you forever. You have to take some responsibility. Jean took responsibility. Now she's gone into the red-hot business of the atoms and you're still walking around your cages. You won't learn a goddamn thing from this. I'm sick of the lot of you. Sick and tired of the whole damn thing." "Come down off the wall," Augustus asked. "Come and have a drink, Jim. Come down off the wall." "Where were you when I needed you?" Jim yelled at him. "Off chasing young boys around the bars. Get your hands off me, Augustus. You don't want to make me mad." "Come on, Jim," Mack said. "It's Jean's funeral, for God's sake. Don't do this to us now." "You brought all this on yourself, Mack," Jim said. "This is your karma. You must have been a real shit in your last life to end up being a houseboy for Jean. She was the meanest bitch I ever met and that is why I loved her. At least she was mean, at least she was free." An older man who ran an insurance firm and a middle-aged lawyer both came to help. The older man climbed up on the wall and took Jim's arm. "Come on, Jim," he said. "We'll call your partner if you want. Call Donna," he said to the lawyer. "Go call Donna, for God's sake. Someone call his partner, Donna Divers, and get her over here." "F**k you, William," Jim yelled. "Did I call the Internal Revenue Service when you were making tax shelters out of nursing homes in Pearl? Did I call your wife when you screwed her in the divorce? Get your hands off me. I am enlightened and you are a speck of dust. This is freedom I am showing you. It did no good to tell you about it, so I'm showing you." They managed finally to get him off the wall and out of the house to the front yard. On his way through the living room he knocked a thousand-year-old Pueblo vase off the table and broke it into pieces. When they were in the front yard the lawyer pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and called Jim Jaspers's partner, a child psychologist named Donna Divers whom Jim had trained to help out with his practice. She was not a physician but she was an intelligent woman who took up the slack when Jim's patients wanted help with their small children or grandchildren. Jim did not treat children. He believed the best way to help children was to cure their parents. His patients had kept insisting, however, so he had found Donna and trained her. The lawyer had sent his sons to her to make them stop fighting on car trips and driving his wife crazy. So he knew Donna's phone number and he called it. "Jim's having some sort of problem, Donna," he said when she answered. "Could you come over to Mack Stanford's house and help us out with this? Jean Lyles's house, on Meadowbrook Lane, off Meadowbrook Boulevard. . . . You'd better come see for yourself. . . . He took off his clothes. Okay, thanks. We'll take care of him until you get here." "Donna's coming to help you, Jim," he said. "Joe has your suit. Let's get your clothes back on." "You son of a bitch," Jim said. "One time in my life I do something you don't understand and you call my partner? You call the cops on me? You think you have the right to judge or control me?" He grabbed his suit from the insurance man's hands and stood defiantly in the driveway holding it. His car was on the street and was not blocked in. He backed up in its direction. "Did I call the special prosecutor when you were subpoenaed in the Espy case? Did I, William? All I did was help you and help you and help you. Who's going to help old Jim? That's what I'm asking now. Who's going to help me?" He began searching in the pockets of his pants for his car keys. "Don't lay another hand on me, any of you. I'm leaving. Go back in the house. Go back to your so-called lives." He got into his car and started it. Augustus and Mack started toward the car to stop him but the other two men held them back. "Let him go," William said. "Leave him alone. I'll call Donna and tell her not to come. "I don't know if this is an aberration or some real illness," William said. "But we have to do something about it. We can't have him going around Jackson saying those kinds of things. My God, what do you think is wrong with him?" "It looks like mania to me," Augustus said. "I don't think that was just whiskey." "We aren't competent to know what's wrong with him," Mack put in. "He's our psychiatrist, for God's sake. I can't believe he said those things to all of you." "A psychiatrist doesn't get drunk and yell at his patients," Augustus said. "This doesn't happen." "It just happened," William said. "Maybe we should call the medical board." "We better send him somewhere to get well," the insurance man suggested. "I'll lend him our plane. He can use our plane to go anywhere he needs to go." "Let's all talk in the morning," Augustus said. "Jean was his oldest patient. He might be, God knows, overcome by grief. He might be feeling guilty. How much had he had to drink, Mack?" "Only one drink that I gave him. He was acting funny at the funeral. He was acting funny before he got here." "It couldn't be drugs," William said. "He hated drugs. He'd go crazy if I took Robaxin for a toothache. I never knew anyone who hated drugs as much as he does." "That's right," Mack added. "He used to rail about coffee." They went back into the house. People came up to them and asked for explanations. The men told them what they knew.   Caroline had been helping pick up the pieces of the broken Pueblo vase. The food editor and her companion and Caroline carefully picked up each piece they could find and lined them up on a space on the table. It was very strange to touch pottery that was a thousand years old. "We are very strange," Caroline told the editor. "People are the strangest things in all creation. Two days ago I was in Nashville, Tennessee, about to die of boredom. Now I'm in the middle of all of this." "This is nothing," the editor answered. "You haven't even skimmed the surface of this city. This town has got more secrets and art and talented and troubled people and mystical stuff going on than you could ever imagine in a thousand years. Before you even get to the racial problems." "The mystery rose from the racial problems," her companion said.   Augustus came and found Caroline and helped them pick up the remaining fragments of the vase. Then he and Caroline went out and got into his car and started off toward the home of Jean Lyles's oldest son. "The second wake," Augustus said. "Well, they'll never top the entertainment at the first one." "How did you meet all these people?" Caroline asked. "How did you get involved in all of this?" "I tried out for a role in a Tom Stoppard play. I figured any group that was doing Stoppard would be interesting. I just went down to the theater one evening and there they were. Well, they really are a powerful and interesting bunch of people and fun to know. Maybe this wasn't a good introduction. I sure hadn't planned on Jim Jaspers going crazy while we watched." "How many of these people see him?" "Everyone. I didn't know William, the lawyer who was helping get him off the wall, the one in the corduroy jacket. I didn't know he saw him." "I don't want to stay too long at this second place," Caroline said. "I want to get some sleep tonight and go over to Millsaps tomorrow and meet the people who hired me. I'm starting to get worried about that." "You're meeting the people who hired you. Monday's only registration. There's plenty of time for everything, Caroline. The students here are nice. You'll like them. Besides, you'll be teaching the gifted ones. It's our only real creative writing class. A girl who's the daughter of one of the mainstays of the theater will be in it. She's a wild thing. I want you to take an interest in her, if you can. Well, we'll see." "Who's the girl?" "Her name's Camilia but we call her CeCe. Her mother is Celia Montgomery, who's married to the richest man in the Delta. Celia's one of our actresses. The father used to act too but he's out of it now. He had heart surgery last year." "Are they part of the cabal?" "Founding fathers." "Do they go to Jim Jaspers?" "Celia did and CeCe does. I don't know about Donald. One reason I want you to take an interest in CeCe is this thing with him. This is going to be hard on people who are in the midst of a transference." "What is going to be hard? You don't think getting drunk at one party and taking off your clothes is the end of his seeing his patients, do you?" "He wasn't drunk, Caroline. There are bruises all up and down his arm. Needle tracks, I imagine. I've seen that before." "Jesus Christ. That's always been hard for me to imagine. I can hardly get a shot without going into cardiac arrest. I can't imagine anyone injecting themselves with something." "That's what I love about you, Caroline. I adore the way you can shut out anything you disapprove of. It's a gift. A real blessed gift." They had come to a narrow curving street with huge old pine trees on either side. It was fragrant and dark and still. The road turned into a circle. At the end was a driveway going up a hill to a white house with columns. "It's a copy of Dunleith," Augustus said. "Not a perfect copy, but close enough. Jean used to joke about it." He stopped the car in front of the steps and a servant came out and took the car to park it. They walked inside. There were drawing rooms on either side of a wide hall. Subdued conversation and subdued-looking people were everywhere. This was not a party. This was a funeral, and the sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren were acting like it was one. A waiter came by and took their orders for drinks. Servants were passing small trays of sandwiches and pastries. Men were in groups on the porches. Women were sitting on the sofas. Augustus took Caroline from group to group and introduced her. A frail-looking woman in a billowing blue and white silk dress came up to them and held on to Augustus's arm. "Celia," he said, and introduced her to Caroline and left them to talk. "I have a favor to ask of you," Celia said. "Augustus knows. He said it was all right to ask. Could we find someplace where we can talk?" "I really need to get something to eat first," Caroline began. "I'm starving. I drove all day, then as soon as I arrived we came to the funeral. I really need something to eat and I need to speak to our hosts." "Don't worry about them. You can do that later and we can certainly get you something to eat." Celia commandeered a waiter and ordered him to bring food to the library, then she took Caroline's arm and led her to a book-lined room with huge leather chairs facing a fireplace. Sitting in one of the chairs, she seemed as small and frail as a child. As soon as they were seated, two waiters appeared carrying tray tables and practically bowing. "These are my caterers," she explained. "I lent them to Charles and Lauren Gail. This had to be hastily thrown together, as you can imagine. Is that something you can eat? Is there anything else you need?" There was sliced turkey and ham and little sandwiches on a tray and a second tray of fruits, cheese, and desserts. It was enough food for four people. "It's perfect," Caroline said. "More than I need." She began to eat the sandwiches. Celia watched for a second, then dismissed the waiters and began. "I'm on the board at Millsaps," she said. "So I know all about your wonderful book. We had a special meeting to bring you here to take Topeka's place. We are all thrilled you are here." She paused, then went on. "I have a favor to ask of you. I have a daughter, my only child, who's had a bad time the last few years. It's the times, of course. Everyone is suffering versions of this. Now I have her back in school and I'm hoping you will find time to make friends with her. She dreams of being a writer, so it would mean so much if you would talk to her, be a role model for her. I'm having a house party in the Delta next weekend. I was hoping you might come. You could fly down with us or I'll send a car to get you. It's a two-hour drive. You could see a working plantation. We're going to the blues festival in Greenwood. I think you'd enjoy that. People are coming from Memphis and maybe an actor from New York. He got his training here at Paine Theater. Anyway, please think it over. We would treat you as our honored guest." "I don't know. I can't promise anything. I haven't been to the college yet. I may have to work." Caroline was drawing back. Baby-sitting a recalcitrant girl was not what she had in mind for Jackson. "Please think it over. Come for one night if two is too many. Or stay until Monday afternoon. We will fly you down. There are extra cars at Oak Grove if you need them. It was my grandfather's place." They were joined by a tall, dark-haired man with a handsome, sanguine face. "Jake Rivers," Celia said. "He writes for the Clarion Ledger . He's a sportswriter but he sometimes acts for us. We want him to review the plays but he won't. Jake, this is Caroline Jones. Tell her she can't know Mississippi until she knows the Delta." "I liked your book of poems," he said. "Augustus gave me a copy of it. It's beautiful work. I hope you'll go on doing it." Caroline had not been admired in many months. It was a heady drug and she gave in to it. "I'll come if I can." She laughed. "Tell me what you all know about this psychiatrist, Jim Jaspers." "Why do you ask?" Celia moved in, looking worried. "He took off his clothes and started dancing on top of a wall at Mack Stanford's house. I mean, what a shrink. I might go and see him." "Oh, no." Celia looked completely dismayed. Jake stood back and listened. "Tell me what he did." "He took off his clothes and started dancing on a wall and talking about existential freedom. It was hilarious, to tell the truth. I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have told you about it." "Oh, yes. I mean you should. Jim's diabetic. He may have been taking medication and it didn't mix with alcohol. He's a wonderful man, the best psychiatrist in the South. People come from all over to talk to him." She turned to the reporter. A look passed between them. The reporter took up the refrain. "He's the best psychiatrist around here. I went to him when I was having problems with being paid fairly at the paper. He was so smart, so incisive. He told me exactly what to do and I did it and I won. What happened at Mack's must have been a mistake of some sort. Jim Jaspers wouldn't do anything like that."   Augustus came into the room with one of Jean's younger sons and Celia got up and moved to him. "What happened with Jim?" she asked. "Caroline said he was acting strangely. Was he ill?" "I think he must have been. I'll talk to you about it later, Celia. It's nothing. Don't worry about it now." "I would have been there but Lauren Gail asked me to help with this. He didn't actually take off his clothes, of course. Not Jim." "Don't think about it, Celia. It was a mistake, that's all. Call me tomorrow and we'll talk about it then." "I should have gone to Mack's but how could I? Well, I'll go now." "Stay here and help Lauren Gail. That's what Jean would have wanted. You don't want to go over there now. Just stay here." "He took off his clothes?" "Not exactly. He was trying to make a point and people were drinking too much. Please don't make me talk about it now. I want to finish introducing Caroline to people." Augustus made his escape. He was not in the mood to talk about what he had just seen because he hadn't decided what it meant or what he could do to help.   Augustus took Caroline to speak to the sons. The oldest son, Charlie, was acting as though nothing had happened at the funeral. The other sons were being pleasant. The wives were kind and very well dressed, with the exception of Lauren Gail, who was wearing a long baggy dress and flat shoes and was doing most of the work. "They seem like nice people," Caroline whispered to Augustus. "It's hard to be mean when you're anticipating being left a million dollars apiece," he answered. "Well, the younger ones are nice enough, but boring. She was a great director and actor but she bred badly. I've seen it before. You can breed out charm in one generation if you aren't careful. You can breed out real intelligence, the thing that can't be measured, so easily it's scary. Ephemeral, like all wonderful matter. Oh, well." "You're really grieving for this woman, aren't you?" "Yes, my love, I am." He put his arm around her and held her close to him. "So the universe has sent me you."   The governor arrived with his wife. "We'll go home as soon as we speak to the governor," Augustus said. "I don't support him and he knows it. He's bad on gay issues but we need state money for the theater so I have to be nice." He took Caroline to be introduced to the cool, wary man and his entourage. Then they said goodbye to their hosts and went down the long marble stairs. Their car appeared and they got into it and left. They drove through the residential districts of old Jackson. There were pine trees as tall as skyscrapers and sheltering and fragrant. The stars were very bright in a clear, moonless sky. It was a lot like Nashville, Caroline decided. Except for the marvelous talk, the sultry, sweet accents, the long vowel sounds, the melody of the speech. Seductive, she decided. I'm being seduced. "Celia asked me to come to the Delta and counsel her daughter," she said. "So is this all a big put-on? The reason I'm here is to take care of the patroness's wayward child? I'm beginning to wish you hadn't given all these people my poetry to read. How many books did you buy?" "I ordered ten, but I haven't given all of them away." "The largest order ever received by Star Arrow Publications of Atlanta, Georgia," Caroline sighed. "As for CeCe," Augustus said. "She's an interesting girl. You might like her. It's not her fault she was raised by idiots." Copyright © 2000 Ellen Gilchrist. All rights reserved.