Cemetery Road runs through the old black section of town, past the Little Theater and up along the two-hundred-foot bluff that stretches along the Mississippi River north of town. The road is narrow, bordered on the right by a low stone wall and on the left by a tangle of kudzu that festoons the bluff from top to bottom. As I pass the second wrought-iron gate in the cemetery wall, I realize that my plan to photograph the mourners at Kate’s interment is impractical. The turnout for burials is usually much smaller than that for funeral services, but the faded green tent over Kate’s open grave is surrounded by more than a hundred people.
I drive past the third gate in the wall, pass a row of shacks on my left, then turn right into the fourth gate, which lets me drive up the back side of Jewish Hill, the highest point in the cemetery. Jewish Hill holds the remains of Natchez’s second-generation Jewish settlers, and it has the best view of the Mississippi River anywhere in the nation. I take my camera and walk past the stones of the Rothstein and Schwarz families, then stop behind a wall in the Cohen plot. From here I can see the whole sweep of the ninety-acre cemetery.
This ground was consecrated in 1822, but some of the coffins were moved here from an even older graveyard, where Natchez settlers were buried in the early 1700s. Kate Townsend’s grave has been dug in an area near the bluff called the Zurhellen Addition. It lies between the steep rise of Jewish Hill and the long row of majestic oak trees that borders the next section of graves to the south. About forty yards in front of Kate’s grave, near the stone wall at the edge of the cemetery, stands the most famous monument in this city of the dead: the Turning Angel. Erected in 1932 to commemorate five girls who died in a fire, this marble statue has become an object of both legend and ritual in Natchez. The life-size angel stands on its pedestal in an attitude of purposeful repose, writing names into the Book of Life. The angel possesses a face of Madonna-like serenity, but its musculature and powerful wings make it appear almost masculine. When you drive down Cemetery Road, the angel appears to be looking directly at you. Yet once you pass the monument and look back over your shoulder, the angel is still looking at you. Thus the appellation: the Turning Angel. For me, the effect is much more dramatic at night, and it’s probably caused by a trick of light as the beams of headlights create ever-changing shadows on the monument. In daylight-from up close-you can clearly see the angel standing with its back to the bluff and the river. Yet so famous is this legend that every Natchez teenager at some point in his life drives or is driven down the dark stretch of road to watch the angel turn. Thus has legend spawned a rite of passage for all the children in the town.
The faded green tent at the center of the funeral crowd reads, ”McDonough’s Funeral Home,“ and it’s been the centerpiece of almost every white funeral in town for as long as I can remember. The crowd is pressing so close to the tent that I have no hope of photographing anyone. My only hope is to walk down and join the throng.
A concrete staircase leads down Jewish Hill to the flat rectangle of the Zurhellen Addition. As I walk down it, I hear the chime of an acoustic guitar. Then a young male voice floats over the tops of the mourners’ heads, cracking with grief but also communicating defiance. It’s singing about unpredictability and fate and the brevity of youth.
I guess Kate Townsend was a Green Day fan.
Very slowly, I weave my way through the crowd, nodding to those mourners who meet my eye. I know most of the people here, but some I don’t. As I near the tent, the crowd becomes too thick for me to negotiate further. Thanks to my height, though, I can survey the gathering from here.
Jenny Townsend is sitting beneath the burial tent with her ex-husband, the Englishman. Reverend Herrick is performing the graveside service, a much more traditional one than he gave in the school gymnasium. There are other people beneath the tent, but they don’t interest me. The people gathered around the tent do. I see most of the St. Stephen’s school board, with Holden Smith at their head. Jan Chancellor is wearing a silk pants suit. Steve Sayers stands in the front row to my right, one eye swollen and purple. Not far down the line from him stands Mia Burke with her mother, a paralegal for the city’s largest law firm. To my surprise, Mia is wearing a black dress and makeup; with her dark hair pulled up in a bun, she looks twenty-five. She catches my eye and vouchsafes a demure smile. Coach Wade Anders is standing with his back to me, but I recognize his head and shoulders, even in a suit. I have to do a double-take to confirm that one of the women on the far side of the tent is Ellen Elliot, but I’m right. I guess Ellen felt she needed to show the town that she mourns Kate as much as anyone, despite whatever her soon-to-be-ex-husband might have done to her.
As Reverend Herrick prays, I turn my head and scan the gravestones on Jewish Hill, then the mausoleums on the high ground above the superintendent’s office. I have a feeling that someone else is here today. But who? Cyrus White, maybe? Marko Bakic? Or could Drew be here? Some part of me can’t quite accept that Drew will not see his paramour lowered into the ground. How difficult would it be for him to slip out of the fence behind the city jail and make his way here? Prisoners with half his intelligence and strength have done it. But I see no one hiding among the stones. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no one there.
Reverend Herrick is reminiscing about Kate. As I look around the cemetery, I recall many memories of this place: sneaking into it as a twelve-year-old with friends to ride madly through the dark lanes on our banana bikes; walking through the stones in the heat of summer with a lovely girl, then lying on the soft grass beneath a wall to explore each other; meeting the love of my life on Jewish Hill in the dead of night, twenty years after I lost her, hoping to learn the secret truth of our lost lives-
A woman I don’t know brushes past me. The crowd is dispersing. Car engines start in the lanes and idle softly, while figures in black recede from my vision. I recede with them. I see Mia looking for me, but I turn away and walk toward the concrete steps in the wake of some people who parked where they could avoid the long funeral cortege.
Breaking away, I climb to the top of Jewish Hill and turn back toward the river, watching the last of the living depart. Kate’s gleaming casket lies suspended above her open grave. Soon all evidence that she lived will be buried forever. Jenny Townsend still stands beside the tent, alone with Reverend Herrick. The minister reaches out and lays a comforting arm on her shoulder. As they speak, a lone figure appears from beneath the tent. Ellen Elliott. Reverend Herrick hesitates, then moves away from the two women. What can Ellen be saying? And how is Jenny responding? Jenny knew about the affair between her daughter and Drew for some time, yet she didn’t try to stop it, nor did she inform Ellen about it. Thank God, Ellen doesn’t know any of that.
Watching Ellen offer her condolences, I realize that she’s adhering to a code of Southern womanhood that demands precisely what she is doing now: maintaining composure and grace through all trials, however difficult. The women do not embrace, but they do shake hands. Then Ellen walks toward the last two cars in the lane with quiet dignity.
”You fucked up, Drew,“ I say softly. ”You couldn’t see what you had.“
Of course, I’ve never known Ellen as a wife. The gracious figure that gave her sympathy to Jenny Townsend is a far cry from the drug-crazed addict Drew has probably faced more nights than I would have been able to endure. Conjuring that image, it’s not hard to see how appealing Kate Townsend must have looked to him.
Christ, what do I really think about Drew? Quentin Avery is willing to believe that he committed brutal rape and murder. But the mother of the victim is not. Of course, Jenny doesn’t have all the facts of the case. I do. Most of them, anyway. Is there a dark corner of my heart where I admit that Drew might have blown a gasket and murdered the teenager he’d fallen in love with? That he got her pregnant, panicked, and then-terrified of losing the family he’d worked so hard to build and sustain-erased her from the world?
No. The boy I grew up with, had he committed such a heinous act, would have owned up to it and taken his punishment like a man, as the archaic phrase goes. That may be a quaint and sexist notion these days, but some of what is best about the South is archaic. The tragedy is that it should be so.
If Drew didn’t kill her,says a voice in my head, then why didn’t he call for help when he found Kate’s body?
”He’s a doctor,“ I say aloud. ”He knew she was already dead. All he would have accomplished by reporting the body was the destruction of his family.“
But what if he didn’t mean to kill her? What if they were playing a sex game, and it simply got out of hand?
”He would have told me that,“ I mutter. ”He would have.“
When you start talking to yourself in a graveyard, it’s time to go home.
As I turn toward my car, my cell phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s Caitlin, calling from the newspaper. I haven’t spoken to her since last night. My phone showed a missed call from her when I woke up this morning, but she’d called from the paper and hadn’t left a message, so I didn’t call her back. She must be desperate to question me about all the murders, but she’s trying hard to preserve the illusion that she won’t exploit our relationship in order to write a better story.
”Hey,“ I answer, looking down the hill toward Jenny Townsend and Reverend Herrick.
”Where are you?“ Caitlin asks.
”Oh. Can you talk?“
”Yeah. Go ahead.“
”I’ve got bad news and bad news.“
No mention of last night, just straight into our old banter. ”Give me the bad first.“
”The cops just located the spot where Kate Townsend died. The actual crime scene.“
”Where?“ I ask, almost afraid to hear the answer.
”They’ve been searching St. Catherine’s Creek ever since they found Kate’s cell phone. About two hours ago, they found human blood and hair on the edge of a wheel rim that was half buried in the sand. They say it’s where the edge of the creek would have been on the day she was killed. It was flooded, apparently.“
”Yes. I think the rain slacked up about an hour before Kate died.“
”The blood they found is the same type as Kate’s. They’re going to send it for a DNA test, of course. But the hair is a perfect match.“
My shoulders sag. ”Was this anywhere close to where they found Kate’s cell phone?“
”About fifty yards away. Right between Pinehaven and Sherwood Estates.“
Right between Drew’s house and Kate’s house, and exactly where he told me he discovered her body. If Kate bled heavily there, she probably died there-which means she didnot die far upstream at Brightside Manor. Cyrus White suddenly looks a lot less guilty than he did thirty seconds ago. And the chances that the police will tie Drew to the actual murder scene with physical evidence just went up astronomically.
”I know that’s bad for Drew,“ Caitlin says in a careful tone.
”He’ll be okay. Who found the blood? The sheriff’s department or the police?“
Thank God for small favors.”Hm.“
”The FBI is in town now, though. DEA, too. They’re setting up a multi-jurisdictional task force in the old Sears store at Tracetown Shopping Center.“
”So maybe all the evidence will be shared from now on.“
”I wouldn’t assume that.“
Caitlin is silent. She wants more information about Drew, but she’s not going to push for it.
”What’s the other bad news?“ I ask.
”Ten minutes ago, Mayor Jones officially resigned. He’s no longer the mayor of Natchez.“
I close my eyes and reach behind me for somewhere to sit down.
”Jones issued his statement to me personally. The Wilson murders were the last straw. This poor guy was trying to do chemotherapy and run the city at the same time. It might have been possible during normal times, but now…it’s sad, really.“
I can’t quite get my mind around this. A decision I’d thought I had at least a month to ponder will now have to be made within days, and maybe within hours.
”Are you there, Penn?“
”Are you picking up Annie today?“
”Mia’s bringing her home.“
”Oh.“ A little coldness in the voice? ”Penn, now that Jones has stepped down, there’s going to be a special election in less than forty-five days. That’s the law.“
”Well, you’ve made some oblique comments about pursuing that job yourself in the past month.“
”Well…if you’re going to run, you’ll have to announce in a matter of days.“
”I know that, too, Caitlin.“
I hear her breathing, slow and steady. ”Are you going to do that?“
This isn’t the time or place to reveal anything, but I can’t deceive her. ”I’m not sure. But right now, I’m leaning in that direction.“
More silence. Then she speaks in a falsely chipper voice. ”If Mia’s keeping Annie after school, let’s try to get some early dinner. We can spend some time with Annie later at your house.“
”That sounds good.“
”Good. Planet Thailand?“
”Ah…no privacy. How about the Castle?“
”Okay. Call me.“
I put the phone back in my pocket, then turn and sit on the brick wall behind me. I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road. I began my adult life as a private practice lawyer. Then I became a prosecutor. When I could tolerate that life no longer, I started writing about it instead of living it. That career has been good to me. But has the time come to leave it behind and take up yet another profession? Or would I necessarily have to leave writing behind? Would running this city require every waking hour of my days and nights? Of course it would, says my inner censor. You’re not talking about taking on a new job. You’re talking about a cause, a mission, a crusade-trying to save the town that bore you, to lift it out of a paralysis caused by economic stagnation and persistent racism. And no one’s going to thank you for the effort. You’re going to pay a price, and losing Caitlin may be part of it. And the biggest joke of all? You could spend every ounce of time and energy you have and not make a bit of difference-
A slamming car door snaps me back to reality. Down in the Zurhellen Addition, Jenny Townsend and Reverend Herrick are finally leaving. It’s time for me to go, too. But something holds me here. For the first time, Kate Townsend and I are completely alone. I wish she could speak to me. If she could describe her last minutes, a lot of people’s lives would be simplified, and justice might actually be served. But she can’t speak, and in her muteness she will become the center of a political storm that will be a trial only in name.
After a silent prayer for Kate, I jog down the hill to my car, then pull onto Cemetery Road. An overloaded log truck is rumbling toward me. Last week I might have tried to squeeze around it, but after Chief Logan’s tale of drivers who drink beer in the cab all day, I pull onto the grass beside the cemetery wall to let it pass. The ground shudders as the big truck roars by me, but after it does, I pull back onto the road and head toward town.
On my right, the Mississippi River cuts inexorably through the continent, rolling down toward Baton Rouge and New Orleans like Time Incarnate. As I clear the steep slope of Jewish Hill on my left, the Turning Angel comes into sight. The serene face watches my approach, as though waiting only for me. Of course, the angel only seems to be watching me; I know it’s actually facing away from the road and the river. Nevertheless, I drive slowly as I pass the monument, trying absurdly to catch the angel in the act of turning.
I can’t do it. Only when I pass and look back over my shoulder do I see the ageless visage staring after me again. Stepping on the brake, I make a three-point turn and pull alongside the cemetery wall. The Turning Angel is trying to tell me something. Not with words, perhaps, but there’s a message here. What? What is the message of the marble angel? What you see isn’t always the reality. We look at one thing but see another. Why? With a marble statue, because of a change in perspective or a trick of light. But with human beings, the reasons are more complex. People project only what they want others to see, or at least they try to. And even when unintended clues to the being behind the mask are exposed, we often refuse to see them. Our perception of others is always distorted by our own prejudices, hopes, and fears. And sometimes, as Quentin Avery suggested, we look at others and see ourselves.
”Appearance versus reality,“ I say softly. That sounds like the title of an essay I was forced to write in high school English class.
As I stare over the gravestones at the angel’s androgynous features, several faces seem to project themselves onto the white stone, slowly morphing from one into another like the faces in the classic Sin'ead O’Connor video. Mia first. The angel most resembles her, with its oval face and Madonna-like serenity. Yet as I stare, Mia somehow becomes Drew-not Drew as I know him now, but as the beautiful boy he was when he scorched across the firmament at St. Stephen’s more than twenty years ago. I blink my eyes and Drew becomes Ellen, and then Ellen, Kate, until I lose my sense of balance though I’m sitting in my own car on terra firma. Throwing the Saab into gear, I spin onto Cemetery Road and race toward town. But one glance in the rearview mirror tells me what I already know: the Turning Angel is watching me go.