By Lee Smith
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Thirty-five years later, four of those “girls” reunite to cruise the river again. This time it’s on the luxury steamboat, The Belle of Natchez, and there’s no publicity. This time, when they reach New Orleans, they’ll give the river the ashes of a fifth rafter-beautiful Margaret (“Baby”) Ballou.
Revered for her powerful female characters, here Lee Smith tells a brilliantly authoritative story of how college pals who grew up in an era when they were still called “girls” have negotiated life as “women.” Harriet Holding is a hesitant teacher who has never married (she can’t explain why, even to herself). Courtney Gray struggles to step away from her Southern Living-style life. Catherine Wilson, a sculptor, is suffocating in her happy third marriage. Anna Todd is a world-famous romance novelist escaping her own tragedies through her fiction. And finally there is Baby, the girl they come to bury-along with their memories of her rebellions and betrayals.
THE LAST GIRLS is wonderful reading. It’s also wonderfully revealing of women’s lives-of the idea of romance, of the relevance of past to present, of memory and desire.
June 10, 1965
It's Girls A-Go-Go Down the Mississippi
PADUCAH, Ky. (AP)—"We can't believe we're finally going to do it!" were the parting words of 12 excited Mary Scott College students about to begin their "Huck Finn" journey down the Mississippi River on a raft.
The adventuresome misses weighed anchor at 1:15 p.m. today, bound for New Orleans, 950 miles south. Their departure was delayed when one of the "crew" threw an anchor into the river with no rope attached, necessitating a bikini-clad recovery operation, to the crowd's delight. "Hey, New Orleans is thataway!" shouted local wags as the ramshackle craft finally left land, hours later than planned.
Their skipper, 74-year-old retired river-boat captain Gordon S. Cartwright, answered an ad that the girls had run in a riverboat magazine, writing them that he would pilot their raft down the river for nothing. He plans to make eight or nine miles an hour during daylight, tie up at night, and reach New Orleans in 10 or 12 days.
"I've carried more tonnage, but never a more valuable cargo," said the captain.
The girls include Ruth d'Agostino of New York, N.Y.; Margaret Burns Ballou of Demopolis, Ala.; Lauren DuPree of Mobile, Ala.; Courtney Gray of Raleigh, N.C.; Jane Gillespie of Richmond, Va.; Susan Alexis Hill of Atlanta, Ga.; Harriet Holding of Staunton, Va.; Bowen Montague of Nashville, Tenn.; Suzanne St. John of New Orleans, La.; Anna Todd of Ivy, W.Va.; Catherine Wilson of Birmingham, Ala.; and Mimi West of Silver Spring, Md.
The raft, named the Daisy Pickett, was built by a Paducah construction company under Captain Cartwright's supervision. Resembling a floating porch, the Daisy Pickett is a 40-by-16-foot wooden platform with plyboard sides, built on 52 oil drums and powered by two 40-horsepower motors. It cost $1,800 to build. The raft has a superstructure of two-by-fours with a tarpaulin top that the "sailors" can pull up over it, mosquito netting that they can hang up, and a shower consisting of a bucket overhead with a long rope attached to it.
Living provisions are piled in corners of the raft, with army cots around the walls for sleeping. Some girls will have to sleep on the floor each night, or on land. A roughly lettered sign spelling "Galley" leads into a two-by-four-foot plywood enclosure with canned goods, hot dog buns, and other odds and ends of food supplies. The girls will take turns on "KP duty" and have a small wood-burning stove in one corner.
The Daisy Pickett left flying two flags, an American flag and a hand-painted flag sporting a huge yellow daisy.
HARRIET THINKS IT WAS William Faulkner who said that Mississippi begins in the lobby of the Peabody hotel. Waiting to check in at the ornate desk, she can well believe it. Vast and exotic as another country, the hushed lobby stretches away forever with its giant chandeliers, its marble floors, its palms, Oriental rugs and central fountain, its islands of big comfortable furniture where gorgeous blond heiresses lean forward toward each other telling secrets Harriet will never know and could not even imagine. Oh she has no business being here in Memphis at all, no business in this exclusive lobby, no business going on this trip down the river again with these women she doesn't even know any longer and has nothing in common with, nothing at all. As if she ever did. As if it were not all entirely a coincidence—proximity, timing, the luck of the draw, whatever. Harriet has read that they assign roommates now strictly by height, a system that works as well as any other. And in fact she and Baby were exactly the same height (five feet six inches) and exactly the same weight (125 pounds)—though Lord knows it was distributed differently—when they were paired as roommates at Mary Scott College in 1963. They could wear each other's clothes perfectly. Harriet remembers pulling on that little gray cashmere sweater set the minute Baby took it off, Baby coming in drunk from an afternoon date as Harriet rushed out for the evening; she remembers how warm and soft the cashmere felt slipping down over her breasts which no boy had ever seen. That was freshman year.
Oh this is all a dreadful mistake, Harriet realizes now as her heart starts to pound and she tries to breathe slowly and deeply in the freezing fragrant air of the Peabody hotel. She anchors herself by looking up the nearest column, so massive, so polished, really she is quite insignificant here beside it. Insignificant, all her unseemly heaving and gasping and emotional display. Harriet gazes up and up and up the slick veined column stretching out of sight into the dark Southern air of the mezzanine at the top of the marble staircase that leads to all those rooms where even now, cotton deals and pork-belly futures are being determined and illicit lunchtime affairs are still in steamy progress. Oh, stop! What is wrong with her? Everything Harriet has worked so hard to get away from comes flooding back and she has to sit down on a pretty little bench upholstered in a flame stitch. She really can't breathe. She's still getting over her hysterectomy anyway. She gasps and looks around. The walls are deep rose, a color Harriet has always thought of as Italian, though she has never been to Italy. The lighting, too, is rosy and muted, as if to say, "Calm down, dear. Hush. Everything will be taken care of. Don't worry your pretty little head . . ."
A black waiter appears before her with a silver tray and a big grin (Doesn't he know how politically incorrect he is?) and asks if he can bring her anything and Harriet says, "Yes, please, some water," and then he says, "My pleasure," and disappears like magic to get it. The big corporation that runs this hotel now must have taught them all to say "My pleasure" like that, Harriet is sure of it. No normal black boy from Memphis would say "My pleasure" on his own.
But was it William Faulkner who said, "Mississippi begins in the lobby of the Peabody hotel"? Or did somebody else say it? Or did she, Harriet Holding, just make that up? At fifty-three, Harriet can't remember anything, sometimes of course it's a blessing. But for instance she can't remember the names of her students five minutes after the term is over, and she can't remember the names of her colleagues at the community college if she runs into them someplace unexpected such as the Pizza Hut or Home Depot, as opposed to the faculty lounge or the library where she has seen them daily for thirty years.
Yet suddenly, as if it were only yesterday, Harriet can remember Baby Ballou's beautiful face when she married Charlie Mahan in the biggest wedding Harriet has ever seen, to this day, and they were all bridesmaids: Harriet and Anna and Courtney, suitemates forever, and now they're all gathering again. Oh, it's too much! Just because Harriet took care of Baby Ballou in college does not mean she has an obligation to do so for the rest of her life.
Harriet can't remember why she ever consented to do this anyway, why she ever called Charlie Mahan back when he left that message on her voice mail, considering it was probably all his fault anyway. Yet Charlie Mahan is still charming, clearly, that deep throaty drawl that always reminds Harriet of driving down a gravel road, the way she and Baby used to do when she went down to Alabama visiting. Joyriding, Baby called it. Harriet has never been joyriding since. Just driving aimlessly out into the country in Baby's convertible, down any road they felt like, past kudzu-covered barns and cotton fields and little kids who stood in the yard and silently watched them pass and would not wave. Just drinking beer and listening to Wilson Pickett on the radio while bugs died on the windshield and weeds reached in at them on either side, towering goldenrod and bee balm, joe-pye weed as tall as a man. Like everything else in the Deep South, those weeds were too big, too tangled, too jungly. They'd grow up all around you and strangle you in a heartbeat, Harriet felt. A Virginian, Harriet had always thought she was Southern herself until she went to Alabama with Baby Ballou. And now here she is again, poised on the lush dark verge of the Deep South one more time.
Harriet thinks of the present the bridemaids gave Baby the night before her wedding, sort of a joke present but not really, not really a joke at all, as things have turned out: a fancy evening bag, apricot watered silk, it had belonged to somebody's grandmother. "Everything you need to live in the Delta," they had printed on the accompanying card. Inside the purse was a black silk slip and a half-pint of gin. Harriet could use a drink of gin herself just thinking about Baby's thin flushed face with those cheekbones like wings and her huge pale startled blue eyes and the long dark hair that fell into her face and how she kept pushing it back in the same obsessive way she bit her nails and smoked cigarettes and did everything else.
"Here you are, ma'am," the waiter says, coming back with a beaded crystal goblet of ice water, but when Harriet fishes in her purse for a tip, he waves his hand grandly and glides off singing out "My pleasure!" in a ringing gospel voice. Harriet fights back an urge to laugh because she knows that if she does, she will never, ever, stop.
A scholarship student all through school, Harriet often identified more with the blacks she worked alongside in the college dining room than with some of her classmates who had never worked one day in their privileged lives. A black person will tell you the truth. As opposed to rich white Southerners who will tell you whatever they think you'd like to hear. They will tell themselves this, too, before they go ahead and do whatever it was that they wanted to do in the first place.
A beautiful coffee-colored nurse presided over the examination that decided Harriet's recent hysterectomy, shining a flashlight thing around inside Harriet while three white male doctors stood in a row and said "Hmmm" and "Humn" gravely and professionally. One of them, apparently her primary doctor, looked like he was twelve years old. The doctors were looking at her reproductive tract on a television screen set up right there in the examining room. Harriet, feet up in the stirrups and a sheet wrapped primly around the rest of herself, was watching this television, too. It was truly amazing to see her own uterus and ovaries and Fallopian tubes and everything thrown up on the screen like a map. It was a miracle of modern medicine and so, oddly enough, it was not personally embarrassing to Harriet at all. In fact, it was like she wasn't even there. The doctors discussed the mass on her ovaries, which they couldn't actually see, due to the fibroid tumors in her uterus. "Hmmmmm," they opined significantly. Then the doctors withdrew, walking in a straight white line out the door to consult privately among themselves.
The nurse, who had said not a word during the entire examination, turned to Harriet. She cocked her head and raised one elegant eyebrow. "Listen here, honey," she announced, "in my line of work, I've seen about a million of these, and I want to tell you something. If I was you, I'd get the whole fucking thing took out."
Harriet did just that. She'd been bleeding too much for years anyway. (Somehow the phrase "bleeding heart liberal" comes into her mind.) But a person can get used to anything and so she had gotten used to it, used to feeling that tired and never having much energy and having those hot flashes at the most inopportune times.
"Didn't all these symptoms interfere with your sex life?" the young doctor had asked her at one point.
"I don't have a sex life," Harriet told him, realizing as she spoke that this was true. It has been true for years. The phrase "use it or lose it" comes into her mind.
Well, the truth is, she didn't mind losing it. In many ways, it has been a relief, though Harriet always thought she'd have children eventually. She always thought she'd marry. Harriet is still surprised, vaguely, that these things have not happened to her. It's just that she's been so busy taking care of everybody—first Jill, then Mama, then starting the COMEBACK! program at her school, sponsoring the newspaper and the yearbook; and, of course, her students have been her children in a way. She sees them now, sprinkled all across the Shenandoah Valley, everywhere she goes. "Hello, Miss Holding! Hello, Miss Holding!" their bright voices cry from their strangely old faces. She can't remember a one of them. Time has picked up somehow, roaring along like a furious current out of control . . .
If she hadn't had the hysterectomy, would she ever have agreed to Charlie Mahan's request, would she have gone along with this crazy scheme? Somehow she doesn't think so. But it's true that things started seriously slipping over a year ago, even before she consulted the gynecologist. She just didn't feel like herself. Her mind started wandering, for one thing. For instance, she might arrive in Charlottesville for a meeting without even the faintest memory of having driven all the way over there, what route she took, and so forth. She might walk from her living room into her kitchen and then just stand there, wondering what she'd come for, what she'd had in mind. Her friend Phyllis called it the Change. A big, bossy woman who teaches accounting at the college with Harriet, Phyllis has already gone through the Change all by herself, pooh-poohing doctors and eating huge handfuls of ginkgo baloba and ginseng from the health food store in Roanoke.
"You've got to go with the flow, change with the change," she advised Harriet. "Try some zinc."
"Or maybe a man," Harriet surprised herself by saying. The words flew right out of her mouth.
"Why, Harriet!" Phyllis was as surprised as she was. Phyllis herself doesn't want a man, she has announced, because if she got one now, she'd probably just end up taking care of him, and then he'd die on her. Men are like mayflies, Phyllis says.
But Harriet had found herself thinking about them anyway. Sometimes she woke up at night with her body on fire, thinking about them. She did not tell Phyllis about this. Harriet always liked men; she used to have dates with them, too, mostly decorous dates that stopped when they got too demanding. Or, to be accurate, that's when Harriet stopped seeing them. And they were nice men: the new minister at the First Methodist Church, a widower; the academic dean of her college, whose wife ran off with her yoga instructor; and, once, her own dentist, who asked her out for dinner while he was in the middle of performing a root canal on her upper left canine. Of course, she nodded yes, leaning way back in the chair like that. Why, he could have drilled right straight on up into her brain. Not that he would have, Henry Jessup—he turned out to be a very sweet man, actually—a dreamy, poetic sort of man, for a dentist, who had moved back here from Cleveland to take care of his aging parents. He really liked Harriet, too. For some reason he thought she was very funny; he really "got a kick out of her," or so he said. He took her on hikes, to picnics and outdoor bluegrass festivals. But anytime Henry Jessup tried to say anything serious, Harriet's mind flew right straight up in the air and perched in a tree like a bird. Finally he gave up. His parents died, and he returned to Cleveland.
But that was years and years back.
More recently, just three weeks ago, Harriet practically accosted a strange man on a Saturday morning at the farmers market in her own hometown. Well, that's an exaggeration. She didn't accost him. But she spoke to him first, which is not like her, to be sure. She still can't believe she did it. It was one of her first trips out of the house following her hysterectomy. He was a man she'd never seen before, a stocky, rumpled, pleasant-looking man about her own age with a bald head on top and one of those little gray ponytails Harriet has always liked. He was examining tomatoes.
"That's a German Johnson," she blurted out. "They're real good. You probably think it's not ripe, but it is, it's just pink instead of red. They're pink tomatoes, German Johnsons."
He turned around, smiling, to see who had so much to say about tomatoes. "Thanks," he said to Harriet. "I'll take two," he said to the tomato lady, old Mrs. Irons, still looking at Harriet. "Hey," he said, right out of the blue, "let's go get a cup of coffee, what do you say?" But he didn't give her time to say anything. "Just a minute, let me pay for these tomatoes, okay?"
While his back was turned, Harriet made her escape, ducking behind the quilt lady's booth, past the Girl Scout lemonade stand, around the corner and into her waiting car. Safe at last, Harriet burst into tears. She cried all the way home, and not only because her stitches hurt but out of some deep, sad longing she didn't know she felt. Now she's sorry, or almost sorry, that she ran away. She wonders who he was. And sometimes she finds herself—if she's stopped for a light downtown for instance—scanning the streets, looking for that blue denim shirt. Which is perfectly ridiculous. As is her continued crying, which continues to happen at the strangest times . . . this hysterectomy has given her too much time to think.
Harriet always thought she'd get her Ph.D. and publish papers in learned journals while writing brilliant novels on the side. Why, even Dr. Tompkins wrote "Brilliant" across the top of her term paper once—now whatever was it about? "The Concept of Courtly Love in . . ." something. So why didn't she ever get her Ph.D.? Why didn't she ever marry? Why didn't she have that cup of coffee? These things strike Harriet now as a simple failure of nerve. Of course, she's always been a bit shy, a bit passive, though certainly she's a good person, and loyal . . . oh dear! These things could be said of a dog. She's never been as focused as other people somehow. She's never had as much energy, and energy is fate, finally. Maybe she'll have more energy now, since she's had this hysterectomy. Maybe all that progestin was just confusing her, messing things up. Now she's on estrogen—"unopposed estrogen," her young doctor called it—writing out the prescription in his illegible script. "Go out and have some fun," he said.
Instead, Harriet is experiencing another failure of nerve here at the desk in the lobby of the Peabody hotel, the entrance to Mississippi. She writes her name on the line, she hands over her Visa card and her driver's license. She takes the massive gold room key which pleases her somehow; she's glad they haven't gone over to those little electric card things.
"Oh yes, a package arrived for you this morning, Federal Express," the frail clerk says in an apparent afterthought. He plucks the orange-and-purple cardboard box from the shelf of packages behind him and pushes it across the counter toward Harriet, who steps back from the desk involuntarily. She knows what it is. "El Destino, Sweet Springs, Mississippi," reads the return address. The clerk hesitates, watching her, watery-eyed. Has he been weeping? He slides the package a little farther across the counter.
"Shall I take that for you, ma'am?" the bellboy asks at her elbow with her luggage already on his cart. Dumbly Harriet nods. Then it's over and done, it's all decided, and it is with a certain sense of relief that she follows the back of his red-and-gold uniform through the lobby toward the elevator, past more ladies drinking in high fragile chairs at the mirrored mahogany bar. Baby should be here, too; she was raised to be a lady though she didn't give a damn about it. Sometimes Harriet actually hates Baby. To have everything given to you on a silver platter, then to just throw it all away. . . . If anything is immoral, Harriet believes, then that is immoral. Waste. Harriet follows the bellboy past the fountain where the famous ducks swim round and round.
Soon, she knows, the ducks will waddle out of the fountain and shake their feathers and walk in a line across the lobby and get into an elevator and ride upstairs to wherever they're kept. The ducks do this every day. What would happen, Harriet wonders, if somebody shooed them out the door and down the street and into the river? This is what's going to happen to Harriet.
For here is the great river itself, filling up the whole picture window of her eleventh-floor room. Unable to take her eyes off it, Harriet absentmindedly gives the bellboy a ten-dollar bill. (Oh well, that's too much but she's got a lot of luggage; she couldn't decide what to bring, so she just brought it all.) The bellboy puts the FedEx package down on the glass coffee table next to a potted plant and a local tourist magazine with Elvis on the cover. VISIT THE KING, the headline reads. Harriet moves over toward the window, staring at the river. She does not answer when the bellboy tells her to have a good day; she does not turn around when he leaves. Across the lower rooftops, past the Memphis Business Journal building and the Cotton Exchange and the big NBC building blocking her view to the right, across the street and the trolley tracks, there's Mud Island where the steamboats dock.
Improbable as something out of a dream, two of them sit placidly at anchor like dressed-up ladies in church, flags flying, smokestacks gleaming, decks lined with people tiny as ants. While Harriet watches, one of the paddle wheelers detaches itself from Mud Island and steams gaily out into the channel, heading upriver. The ants wave. The whistle toots and the calliope is playing, Harriet knows, though she can't really hear it, it's too far, and you can't open these hotel windows. But she imagines it is playing "Dixie." Now the steamboat looks like a floating wedding cake, its wake spread out in a glistening V behind it. Can this be the Belle of Natchez herself, the boat Harriet will board in the morning? Probably not. Probably this is just one of the day cruisers, maybe the sunset cruise or the evening dinner cruise already leaving. Harriet certainly doesn't have much time to get herself together before she is supposed to meet Courtney in the dining room. Now why did she ever say she'd do that? Married, organized, and rich, Courtney is everything Harriet is not. Each year she sends Harriet a Christmas card with a picture of herself and her family posed in front of an enormous stone house. Two sons, two daughters, a cheery husband in a red vest. Tall. All of them very tall.
The river is brown and glossy, shining in the sun like the brown glass of old bottles. Here at Memphis it is almost a mile wide; you can barely see across it. The Hernando de Soto bridge arches into Arkansas, into oblivion, carrying lines of brightly colored cars like so many little beetles. Light glints off them in thousands of tiny arrows. The sun hangs like a white-hot plate burning a hole in the sky all around, its sunbeams leaping back from the steamboat's brown wake and off the shiny motorboats flashing by. Harriet is getting dizzy. She's glad to be here, up so high in the Peabody hotel, behind this frosty glass. Across the river, along the low dreamy horizon, clouds stack themselves like pillows into the sky. A thunderstorm in the making? Too much is happening too fast. At her window, behind the glass, Harriet feels insignificant before this big river, this big sky. Surely it won't matter if she leaves now, quickly and inconspicuously, before Courtney finds out she's here. Oh she should lie down, she should hang up her dress, she should go back home.
The river . . . it all started with the river. How amazing that they ever did it, twelve girls, ever went down this river on that raft, how amazing that they ever thought of it in the first place.
WELL, THEY WERE YOUNG. Young enough to think why not when Baby said it, and then to do it: just like that. Just like Huck Finn and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which they were reading in Mr. Gaines's Great Authors class at Mary Scott, sophomore year.
Tom Gaines was the closest thing to a hippie on the faculty at Mary Scott, the closest thing to a hippie that most of them had ever seen in 1965, since the sixties had not yet come to girls' schools in Virginia. So far, the sixties had only happened in Time magazine and on television. Life at the fairy-tale Blue Ridge campus was proceeding much as it had for decades past, with only an occasional emissary from the changing world beyond, such as somebody's longhaired folk-singing cousin from up north incongruously flailing his twelve-string guitar on the steps of the white-columned administration building. And Professor Tom Gaines, who wore jeans and work boots to class (along with the required tie and tweed sports jacket), bushy beard hiding half his face, curly reddish-brown hair falling down past his collar. Harriet was sure he'd been hired by mistake. But here he was anyway, big as life and right here on their own ancient campus among the pink brick buildings and giant oaks and long green lawns and little stone benches and urns. Girls stood in line to sign up for his classes. He is so cute, ran the consensus.
But it was more than that, Harriet realized later. Mr. Gaines was passionate. He wept in class, reading "The Dead" aloud. He clenched his fist in fury over Invisible Man, he practically acted out Absalom, Absalom, trying to make them understand it. Unfortunately for all the students, Mr. Gaines was already married to a dark, frizzy-haired Jewish beauty who wore long tie-dyed skirts and no bra. They carried their little hippie baby, Maeve, with them everywhere in something like a knapsack except when Harriet, widely known as the most responsible English major, came to baby-sit. Now people take babies everywhere, but nobody did it then. You were supposed to stay home with your baby, but Sheila Gaines did not. She had even been seen breast-feeding Maeve publicly in Dana Auditorium, watching her husband act in a Chekov drama. He played Uncle Vanya and wore a waistcoat. They had powdered his hair and put him in little gold spectacles but nothing could obscure the fact that he was really young and actually gorgeous, a young hippie professor playing an old Russian man. Due to the extreme shortage of men at Mary Scott, Mr. Gaines was in all the plays. He was Hamlet and Stanley Kowalski. His wife breast-fed Maeve until she could talk, to everyone's revulsion.
But Mr. Gaines's dramatic streak was what made his classes so wonderful. For Huck Finn, he adopted a sort of Mark Twain persona as he read aloud from the book, striding around the old high-ceilinged room with his thumbs hooked under imaginary galluses. Even this jovial approach failed to charm Harriet, who had read the famous novel once before, in childhood, but now found it disturbing not only in the questions it raised about race but also in Huck's loneliness, which Harriet had overlooked the first time through, caught up as she was in the adventure. In Mr. Gaines's class, Harriet got goose-bumps all over when he read aloud:
- On Sale
- Aug 12, 2002
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Algonquin Books