Caitlin and I are sitting in a small private dining room in the Castle, the finest restaurant in Natchez. The building is a restored carriage house behind Dunleith, the city’s premier antebellum mansion. One of more than eighty such mansions, Dunleith is a colossal Greek Revival palace that dwarfs even the mythic mansions from Gone With the Wind. Sited on forty pristine acres in the middle of the city, Dunleith functions as a high-end bed-and-breakfast, while the Castle, named for two Gothic outbuildings on the grounds, exists to feed the guests and, incidentally, the people of the town.
Caitlin and I didn’t drive over together; we met here. She came from the newspaper office, while I left Annie with Mia at my house. We still haven’t spoken face-to-face since she left my house last night.
I was surprised to find the main room of the restaurant crowded when we arrived, so I asked the ma^itre’d to seat us in the private dining room. The owner of Dunleith is a fan of my novels, so my request was granted.
”Do you get that kind of treatment in New York?“ Caitlin asks with a smile.
”Not a chance. They’d seat me by the bathroom.“
We order crab cakes as an appetizer, then set aside our menus and simply look at each other for a while. Just as they did last night, her luminous green eyes exert a hypnotic effect on me. Set in her pale face framed by night black hair, they seem almost independently alive.
”Small talk or big issues?“ she asks.
”I think we owe it to ourselves and Annie to go ahead and deal with some things.“
Caitlin nods in agreement. ”Annie called me when she got out of school today. She asked if I’d watch a movie with her tonight.“
”She told me you said yes.“
”I’ve missed her.“
Then why haven’t you called her?”Why don’t we lay some ground rules for this conversation?“
Caitlin looks puzzled.
”Absolute honesty,“ I tell her. ”No sugarcoating anything.“
”We’ve always been good at that.“
”I think so.“
The waiter appears and pours two glasses of chilled white wine. I wait for him to depart. ”We’ve been together for five years now,“ I reflect. ”It seems unbelievable, but we have.“
”It seems more like two.“
”I know. It’s easy to let time slip past. Too easy. I guess the question I want to ask you first is, do you still want to spend the rest of your life with me?“
She looks incredulous. ”Of course I do. I can’t imagine being with anyone else.“
”If that’s true, it’s hard for me to understand why you’ve been spending so much time away.“
”Well, you’ve basically been like a mother to Annie for the past five years-when you’re here, at least. But she’s getting older now, Caitlin. She’s nine. She needs more than you’ve been giving her. And I honestly don’t know if you’re ready to give her more.“
I see traces of moisture in Caitlin’s eyes, but she doesn’t speak.
”I’m not saying it’s your duty to give more. I know you want to. But there’s a difference between wanting to do something and actually committing the time and effort to do it.“ God, I sound like my parents. Caitlin is watching me intently, but still she doesn’t speak. ”I mean, you’re actually getting to the age where if you want to have kids of your own, it’s time to get started.“
She closes her eyes, and a tear slides down her left cheek.
”Am I crazy?“ I ask her. ”Tell me. How do you feel about all this?“
She opens her eyes, then reaches across the table and takes my hand. ”I love you, Penn. And I love Annie.“ She looks as though she’s about to continue, but then she stops. I’ve never known Caitlin to be at a loss for words.
”I know you love us,“ I say softly. ”But you’re gone for very long periods. I mean, you’re the publisher of the Examiner, but you’re working as a reporter fifteen hundred miles away. And not even for your father’s chain. I don’t understand it.“
”I’m not sure I do either. I never really thought about it, but maybe it’s because I’m not working for my father that I enjoy these assignments so much.“
The waiter sets an exquisitely browned crab cake before her, and another before me.
Caitlin looks up at him. ”Thank you.“
”Are you ready to order?“ he asks.
We haven’t even glanced at the menus.
”I’ll have the blackened catfish,“ Caitlin says, withdrawing her hand from mine.
”The duck,“ I tell him.
”Very good. Anything special on the side?“
”Surprise us,“ Caitlin says with a smile.
When the waiter leaves, she says, ”Penn, I’m taking these assignments because it’s what I love to do. It’s the rush, it’s where it’s happening. It’s a big story and they want me. And I like it that they want me.“
”I understand that need. When I worked as a prosecutor, even though I was in a big city, only a few people really knew what I did. What I was accomplishing. But after I became an author, I started getting feedback from hundreds of people, then thousands. That kind of affirmation is a powerful thing.“
She nods as though I’m getting it.
”But you won your Pulitzer for a series of stories you wrote right here in Natchez, about events that happened right here.“
”I know. During weeks like this one, Natchez is a great place to do what I do, as cold as that may sound. But fifty weeks out of the year, it’s Little League games and aldermen meetings that are mired in racial crap that got solved elsewhere twenty years ago.“
The resentment in her voice is palpable. ”I don’t think that’s true,“ I reply. ”Race is a problem everywhere. It’s just more in the open here.“
”Let’s don’t even go there,“ Caitlin says with surprising irritation. ”Let’s talk about Annie. You said no sugarcoating, right?“
”The schools here are atrocious, Penn. The public schools, I mean. They have the lowest ACT scores in the nation. And thirty-five percent of their seniors don’t even take the ACT.“
”Actually, the ACTs in Washington, D.C., are lower,“ I correct her. ”The only ones.“
”You want to guess why that is?“
”I know why.“
Caitlin taps the table to emphasize her points. ”This is the most illiterate state in the union. It’s number one in single-mother homes. And Natchez is number two in the state in those rankings. Forget the political implications of that. What does it mean for Annie?“
I start to point out that Annie doesn’t attend a public school-and that she has a single father -but Caitlin pushes ahead before I can say anything. ”St. Stephen’s does a decent job, I know. Smart kids like Mia and Kate still go on to the Ivy League. But for most kids, St. Stephen’s doesn’t compare to what’s available elsewhere.“
She shrugs. ”Sure, Boston. Or New York, or even Wilmington. Any major city, you know that. And I’m not talking about elite private schools. Here you pay through the nose to get an average education. I’m talking about cities where the public school systems actually function, where there’s not racial segregation accomplished by high tuition.“
”And that would be where, exactly?“
She closes her eyes and sighs. ”It’s not just the schools. It’s extracurricular opportunities. And what about diversity? I mean, kids here are either white or black. There’s no other major demographic group. A couple of Indian kids, a few Mexicans. One or two Asians.“
”You want to be honest?“ I ask. ”All right. Is Annie’s education really your main concern here?“
Two pink moons appear high on Caitlin’s cheeks. ”I’m concerned about it, yes. But I have my own issues, too, I’ll admit. I love this town, Penn, but I also see what we’re missing by being here. There are no real art galleries or museums, no-“
”Is that what you spend your time in Boston doing? Going to museums and art galleries? Or are we really talking about restaurants and clubs?“
”That’s not fair,“ she says, looking genuinely hurt. ”But now that you bring it up, there isn’t even an Olive Garden or an Appleby’s here, for God’s sake. Forget truly exotic cuisine. There’s one cineplex with four screens, and I don’t think they’ve ever booked an art film.“
She’s right, but that doesn’t make me glad to hear it. ”Caitlin, you talk about Boston like it’s the best of everything, beyond the reach of people here. Well, Drew Elliott, our murder defendant and small-town doctor, just passed the Massachusetts state medical boards, and he scored in the top five percent. So don’t act like you’re coming down to Hicksville, USA, to preach the gospel of urban enlightenment.“
Caitlin looks stunned. She’s realized that Drew taking those boards means he was planning to move north with Kate when she went to Harvard. But she doesn’t comment on that. ”Drew is an exception,“ she says. ”And so are you.“
”You know you are. You’re not like the other people here. Not anymore, anyway. The irony is, you can do your work here and still stay connected to the larger world. But I can’t. To work at the highest level in my business, I have to be in a city. Not Boston, necessarily, but some major city. Penn, the simple truth is that you don’t have to give up what I would to live here full-time.“
At last we come to the truth. ”You’re right,“ I admit. ”I know that.“
”Do you want me to give up my work?“ There’s a note of challenge in her voice.
”No. Not when I think about it intellectually. But if you ask me what I want in my heart, I want you to be with us more. All the time, actually.“
Caitlin smiles, but I see pain in her eyes. ”I do, too. And that’s the crux of our problem.“
She lays her hands flat on the table and looks deep into my eyes. ”I know you’re seriously considering running for mayor. Penn, if you do that-and you win-you’ll be tying us to this town for a minimum of four years.“
”Tell me how you feel about that possibility.“
She takes a slow sip of wine, her eyes on the candle at the center of the table. ”I’m afraid you’re about to make this town your personal crusade. You may disagree-you may believe you’re simply running for mayor. But what that job really means is playing referee in a race conflict. I’ve covered Natchez for nearly five years. Every single vote by the board of aldermen is decided along racial lines. Every one. And if Shad Johnson gets in, they’ll be decided on the black side, regardless of what’s right, ethical, or even legal.“
”But if I get in, they’ll be decided fairly.“
”Don’t kid yourself. No good deed goes unpunished. What makes you think you can get elected, anyway? You’ll have to get black votes to do it. A lot of them.“
I’ve given this a lot of thought. ”I think my record in Houston speaks for itself. I convicted black murderers, but I also convicted whites. I put away a notorious white supremacist, and I killed his brother myself. When I got here, I solved the murder of Del Payton. I think there’s gratitude in the black community for that.“ I take a quick sip of wine. ”And then there’s my father.“
Caitlin smiles in spite of herself.
”Dad’s treated the black community in this town for forty years-as equals, with kindness and respect. He’s built up a lot of goodwill. I’m my father’s son in most ways, and I think the voters would see that. Finally, the alternative to me is Shad Johnson. I think enough black people in this town have recognized Shad’s true nature to take a gamble on me.“
”What scares me,“ Caitlin murmurs, ”is that I think you’re right. I think if you run, you’ll probably be elected.“
”Would that be such a disaster?“
A soft sigh escapes her lips. ”For the town? Or for us?“
”Caitlin, this city is at the watershed point of its history. That’s saying a lot, when your history stretches back to 1716. The cotton economy is gone. The oil is all but gone. Industry won’t be coming back here until we fix the public school system. That leaves tourism. To make tourism work takes someone with vision, someone who can unify whites and blacks to sell a history in which blacks wereslaves to whites. That’s a tall order, but if someone doesn’t do it, this town will wither from twenty thousand souls to ten. It’ll be another black shell surrounded by a white ring of suburban homes, and it will cease to be a real community. I don’t want that to happen. More than that, I feel an obligation to try to stop it.“
She reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. ”I know you do. You grew up here, and you know what this town once was.“
”And what it can be again,“ I say quietly. ”Natchez has become a place where we have to raise our children to live elsewhere. Our kids can’t come back here and make a living. And that’s a tragedy. A lot of people I went to school with would love to come back here to raise their kids. They just can’t afford to do it. I want to change that.“
Caitlin picks at her crab cake with her fork. ”What does your father think about this idea?“
”He’s not convinced that saving the town is possible. He’s also said that the Del Payton case proved I’m a crusader at heart.“
She smiles at some private thought. ”You’re a romantic, Penn. It’s one thing I’ve always loved about you. But sometimes…“ She shakes her head again. ”Do you want to know what I see?“
”It’s going to shock you.“
”I see a town that doesn’t want to be saved. Black and white both, but mostly black.“
”Absolutely. When I came here five years ago, I lectured you on white racism.“
I laugh softly. ”You sure did.“
”But now that I’ve seen the reality up close, I understand white frustration. Black people here are just different. Not all of them, but so many. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because this was one of the biggest slaveholding cotton counties along the river. I don’t know. I used to think it was ignorance, but I’m starting to see it as willful ignorance, and maybe worse. Their belligerence in public places, their rudeness…there’s almost a pride in ignorance here. Black employees refuse to wait on white customers in stores. They treat incompetence as though it’s some kind of act of civil disobedience. I’m sick of it, Penn. And the black politicians…my God. I’ve watched black aldermen do patently illegal things and then brag about it. They don’t care whether something is legal or not.“
”White politicians abused the system for years, Caitlin. They just did it in a more subtle way.“
”I know that. But is that an excuse for blacks to repeat the abuses of the old system? The system Martin Luther King and Malcolm X died to dismantle?“
”We talked about the schools before. You want to know the hard truth? The public high school here is ninety-eight percent black. Its budget is five times higher than St. Stephen’s- per student-yet it turns out the second-lowest ACT scores in the nation. Most St. Stephen’s graduates score well above the national average, and nearly all of them go on to four-year colleges. The same is true of Immaculate Heart.“
”There are black students in both those schools.“
”Very few, and they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. We talked about the single-mother statistics. You want to guess what color the huge percentage of those mothers are?“
”I know, I know, you’re going to give me your great analogy between African-Americans and the American Indian. Well, I don’t want to hear it. Too much water’s gone under the bridge. I’m tired of hearing about slavery and Reconstruction. Brown v. Board of Education was almost fifty years ago, Penn. What’s wrong with this picture? How obvious does it have to get before people admit the truth?“
”The system is broken! And one of the reasons it’s broken down here is that it’s largely run by and for black people. They simply do not place a high cultural value on education, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise any longer.“
I can’t believe it. Like so many Yankee transplants, Caitlin has had a dramatic change of heart on the issue of race. But though I’ve seen it before, I would never have expected it from her. ”That’s a pretty racist view, Caitlin.“
”I’m not a racist,“ she asserts. ”I’m a realist.“
”If I said those things, I’d be labeled a racist. Does being from Boston make it all right for you to espouse those views?“
Her fork jangles on her plate ”I’m not some spoiled dilettante, okay? That’s what I was five years ago, when I got here. Now I have a personal stake in this issue.“ She takes my hand again and squeezes with urgency. ”Let them have this town, Penn. They want their turn on top? Give it to them. Let Shad Johnson turn this beautiful little city into another Fayette. You can’t stop it anyway. Not even if you’re mayor. Maybe after they run it down to nothing, they’ll learn something about running things.“
”That you have to give a damn. You have to sacrifice. You have to work.“
”This from the child of a multimillionaire?“
Her eyes flash with anger. ”You think my father didn’t work to build what he has? You think I haven’t worked?“
”Calm down. Of course he did. But he did it in a different context. He did it with certain advantages of law, capital, and…frankly, the old-boy network.“
Caitlin shakes her head in exasperation as the waiter delivers our entr'ees. Her blackened catfish smokes on the plate, and my duck looks perfectly seared. The only problem is that I’m no longer hungry. After the waiter leaves, I say, ”Well, at least I know where you stand now.“
She puts her hands together as though praying. ”Don’t do this, Penn. Let us have a life somewhere else. Someplace where this conflict doesn’t have to be at the center of our daily lives.“
I point at her plate. ”Are you going to eat?“
She looks down at her catfish and grimaces. ”I know you hate everything I’ve said. If I were the person I was five years ago, I’d be screaming invective at the person I am now. To someone with no experience of this place, I sound like a native redneck. But there’s no teacher like experience.“
”Why don’t we change the subject while we eat?“
Caitlin nods, then lifts her fork and breaks off a piece of fish.
”We can talk about anything but race, politics, or Drew’s murder case,“ I say.
Her eyes flick up at my last words.
”Don’t,“ I warn her.
”Penn, what’s going on? We worked together all through the Del Payton case. I helped you with your investigation, and you fed me parts of the story.“
”That was a different situation.“
”Was it? Or was it just that in that case you could exploit me in return?“
I hate to admit it, but she might be right.
”Just tell me this,“ she says. ”Is the possibility that you might run for mayor what kept you from representing Drew?“
I sigh heavily. ”Probably so.“
A deep sadness fills her eyes. ”You’re becoming a politician already.“
”No. A realist.“
”I was afraid you didn’t represent him because you thought he’d killed Kate.“
”Good. I’m glad.“ She forks a small piece of catfish into her mouth. ”The seasoning is perfect on this. Wow.“
”You can’t get it like that in Boston.“
Caitlin rolls her eyes.
”What do you think about Drew and Kate?“ I ask. ”Not the case-their relationship.“
She takes a long drink of wine. ”I understand it. They both got something they wanted-maybe even needed-from the relationship.“
”What did Drew get?“
”The adoration of a beautiful and brilliant young girl. He got to break Thomas Wolfe’s rule and go home again. And he got the possibility of a whole new life with a person a lot like himself. That’s probably a more powerful rush than heroin to a guy like Drew.“ Caitlin smiles strangely. ”Can you imagine the ecstasy he must have felt making love to Kate? I mean, that’s like evolutionary nirvana.You know?“
No, I don’t,I think, as an image of Mia flashes behind my eyes. ”What did Kate get out of it?“
”Apart from the obvious? The Freudian thing?“
”You mean Drew as father figure?“
”Sure,“ Caitlin says, laughing. ”Kate’s dad left the family when she was six-something she shares with Mia Burke, by the way. I don’t think Mia ever even knew her father.“
”No. He left when Mia was two.“
”All love is transactional by nature,“ Caitlin says, chewing thoughtfully. ”The boost to Kate’s self-image must have been enormous. Being wanted by Drew didn’t just make her feel loved-it made her feelworth being loved. You can’t overestimate the value of that to an adolescent girl. And of course she got other benefits. Her intimacy with Drew probably gave her a five-year jump on her classmates in real-world relationships.“
”It sounds like you don’t really have a problem with what happened.“
Caitlin shrugs. ”I know people get all bent out of shape about this kind of affair, but what do they expect? Half the models we see in magazines are sixteen or seventeen years old. Ad agencies dress them up like twenty- and thirty-year-olds, but that’s just costume. The truth is, no woman over twenty-three can look like those models. That kind of perfection is the province of late adolescence. So we hold up these perfect little girls to the world as the zenith of desirability, and what happens? Duh. Men desire them, and women get depressed because they can’t attain their perfection. It’s pathetic. It says so much about who we are as a society.“
I finally take my first bite of duck.
”The thing is,“ Caitlin goes on, ”men like Drew-men who are rich or famous or still handsome and charismatic-they can actually possess girls like that. I give Kate credit, too-she wasn’t some bimbo who couldn’t balance a checkbook. She was accepted to Harvard, for God’s sake. But still, she would have paid a price in the end. Even if she wasn’t murdered. And so would Drew.“
”Isn’t there a price to be paid in every relationship?“
She gives me a wry look. ”Point taken.“
”I didn’t mean us.“
”But it’s true.“ Caitlin wags her finger at me. ”No sugarcoating.“
She’s silent for a bit, but I can tell she’s thinking. ”You know,“ she says, ”one thing you might bring up in Drew’s defense is the fact that he had very little choice of partners.“
”What do you mean?“
”I’m talking about his affair with Kate, not the murder. After the economic downturn here, the middle class vanished. There simply aren’t any single women between thirty and forty here. Not the kind Drew would be interested in. The bright women in this town of that age are married or divorced. And if you’re looking for brilliant ones, forget it. To start fresh, he almost had to go with someone as young as Kate, because girls like that leave here at eighteen and never come back.“
Caitlin is right, although her argument would probably offend every woman on the jury.
”I mean,“ she goes on, ”who the hell would you be dating if I hadn’t shown up here?“
I don’t even want to think about that. I put down my fork and look into her eyes. ”Earlier you said that you couldn’t imagine being with anyone else but me.“
” Areyou with anyone else? When you’re away, I mean.“
She looks at me with disbelief. ”Absolutely not. I’d never do that to you.“ She starts to take a sip of wine, then stops with her glass poised in midair. ”Are you?“
”No. Not even close.“
She watches me a little longer, then drinks her wine. After she swallows, she takes a bite of stuffed potato and says, ”Mia’s in love with you, by the way.“
A lump of duck sticks in my throat. ”What?“
”You haven’t realized that yet? I saw it through your window in five minutes. I’m not saying she knows what love is, just that shethinks she’s in love. So, for all practical purposes, she is.“
”And I should do what about this?“
Caitlin looks up at me, her eyes inscrutable. ”Be careful. We were just discussing the lack of available partners. Drew is a handy object lesson.“
”No evolutionary nirvana for you, buster.“
I take her hand and smile. ” You’reevolutionary nirvana for me.“
She smiles with genuine pleasure. ”I am ten years younger than you, old man.“
I laugh so loudly that the waiter sticks his head into the room. I motion for him to leave us alone.
”So, are we sleeping together or not?“ Caitlin asks in a casual voice. ”I miss it.“
Her voice drops in pitch but becomes richer somehow. ”This is the longest I’ve gone without sex in years. So anytime you’re ready, you let me know, okay?“
She gives me one of her feline smiles. ”Couldn’t we declare d'etente and return to hostilities in the morning?“
I reach out and take her hand.
”Finish your duck,“ she says. ”Annie’s waiting for us, and I don’t want the movie to take all night.“
Two hours later, I’m sitting in the glow of the flat-panel television in my home theater, a converted guest room on the first floor. Annie has nestled between Caitlin and me, her eyes glued to the television as Nemo swims brightly across the screen. Above Annie’s head, my fingers are threaded into the soft hair at the base of Caitlin’s neck. The last few minutes of our dinner at the Castle seemed so natural, they could have happened before any of our tensions came into being. But despite the promise of sex in the air, something seems wrong.
It’s been too long since Caitlin and I made love. I miss it at least as much as she, and yet…something is short-circuiting the desire I should feel for her. The pessimism in her dinner speech really hit me wrong, and some of what she said actually offended me. Caitlin truly was a liberal when she arrived in Natchez, and she routinely chastised me for being too conservative. But now it seems that her liberal ”convictions“ weren’t convictions at all, but rather easy opinions based on the lectures of Ivy League professors. After a few years in the South, she’s ready to give up on racial harmony and flee to more ”enlightened“-read homogenous-environs.
As for my sexual desire, that’s been running in overdrive for weeks now. Like Drew, I have consciously turned away from many women willing to ease that tension. Opportunity is always present in a town like this, where wives easily become bored with their limited routines. Every day those women present to the world a perfectly coiffed and manicured lady, but inside they’re like captive panthers pacing their cages. I haven’t yet sought solace there during Caitlin’s absences, but tonight, with Caitlin actually lying beside me in anticipation of sex, I don’t want solace here either. It’s a predicament, but my solution is simple and time tested-though never by me.
I’ll simply fall asleep.
I don’t even think Caitlin will mind that much. She’s checked her cell phone for text messages a half dozen times during the movie. And no matter how understanding I want to be, that irritates me. But these are small issues. My real dilemma is simple, my choice a stark one: love or duty.
A woman or a town?