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In Black and White: Shortbread's Light Bites
Published 3 years ago
Sometimes there’s nothing better than reading a short story during your lunch break and being transported away to another time and place. So today let’s travel with Anna Day to the dusty highways between Franklin and Manhattan…
Dead animals littered the side of the highway, marking the empty miles between Franklin and Manhattan. Racoons, rabbits, squirrel, sometimes a doe and once, a cat.
The pick-up truck window was wide open, letting the wind blow in and stopping my make-up from running. I’d had it done, my make-up, that morning along with my hair, by Mary-Anne from Cut'n'Go, the best that Franklin had to offer. There are two beauty shops in town, as well as a gun shop, a post office and a bank, three bars and a diner. Pretty much the same set up as in Holcomb, the place I grew up, but just a few hundred people more. Several churches, of course, but I didn't attend any of them anymore, which is frowned upon by others, but they haven't lived my life so they can't judge. Some of them don’t, not always. I’ve heard them, saying to one another in the shop when I was in the cookie aisle and they didn't see me, "It ain't no surprise her faith has fallen, way her family was taken."
I knew the other people going to the party tonight wouldn't have had their hair styled by a middle-aged woman, assisted by a girl who's barely a teenager with a baby on one hip, surrounded by pink walls and disorganised piles of wildly patterned towels. Tonight I'd stand next to women who'd had their hair styled by a man with slip hips, who'd booked out every spot in a high-class hairdressing salon in midtown Manhattan. The mirrors they'd looked into were polished, hung on crisp white paint walls. The salons had windows on to the street so the crowds walking past could stare in at the theatrical production, almost touch the glamour that was being combed gently into each of the hairstyles.
The rolling hills were turning into suburban scapes now. Shopping malls became more frequent than motels and the petrol stations were attached to hulking great concrete supermarkets instead of tin roofed diners with two booths and a coffee machine. It was getting dark as I crossed the bridge into Manhattan, but by the time I drove into the underground car park, three blocks down from the Plaza Hotel, night had truly descended. I’d taken an age to find it, despite the three trial trips I'd conducted earlier in the month. Each time, I'd told my sister I was going to a car sale in the next county and she believed me when I said I hadn't found a vehicle to my liking, returning in the same ten-year-old pick up I'd waved at her from that morning. I was known to be fussy.
To stay as unremarkable as possible, I'd gone simple. I'd made my dress myself, with material bought in Manhattan during one of those trial trips. It was black crepe with white shoulder straps and, though I do say so myself, quite striking. I'd always been slender, and approaching thirty hadn't added more than a few pounds to my waist. My mask was black with tiny little plastic jewels that might just look semi-precious if you just lighted your eyes on it for a second. I'd found it in a dressing-up shop near Franklin, when I was buying Halloween costumes for the kids.
I hadn't been invited, of course, to the party of the year - the Black and White ball, hosted by Mr Truman Capote. The guest list, it is said, had been fought about and tears had been spilt and many important types were leaving town rather than admit they hadn’t been invited, but I still have friends in Holcomb and they were asked along as special guests of Mr Truman Capote. I used their guilt about the words they'd spilt to request that one of them, I didn't care who, stayed home tonight and I would take their place. The guilt also bought their silence. They knew that tonight’s party, held by Mr Truman Capote, supposedly in honour of a square-looking woman, a newspaper owner that nobody knew, was being paid for with blood money, a black and white ball that should have stipulated on the invite for the dress code to be red, red, red.
My family had been dead for six years when the book came out. The passage of time had numbed the pain of their murders, but not long enough for us, my sister and I, to have the horror thrown back in our face again, day after day after day.
There was the story, the book itself, which was talked about for months before it appeared on bookshelves. But there was also Mr Truman Capote. He was everywhere, every time I turned on the television, every time I opened a newspaper, every time I caught an interview on the wireless, there he was yabber yabber yabber. He used our parents' names as if he knew them, as if he had met them and been their friends, as if he'd mourned when they were taken. He never stopped to think about us, the girls left behind who loved them. Every time we saw their picture, often with us in the portrait by the fireplace, it was as if we'd heard the news for the first time.
He slept with the killer, so they say, but I don't care about that. I don't care about the private actions of a man who has no morals, but I do care that my children were followed by newspapermen and women, trying to get a reaction from me, but I wouldn't do it.
Capote declared that he'd spent too long on the book, it had affected him, upset him. So he'd throw a party to break free of the shackles of the horror story of the Clutter family murders. He'd pay for a grand ball with the money he'd made from the book, money he'd made from my misery which he'd taken in his hands and shaken until it was welling up and fuller than it had ever been before.
I took a cab from the car park to the hotel. I had to make the driver circle the middle of town more than once so that I wasn't early and to make sure that enough smooth black limos were pulled up in front of the steps so that my yellow cab would be forgotten. I arrived at the stairs as the newspaper men were shouting at a blonde woman, asking her to turn her head, to give them a smile. She had on a mask made of white feathers, crafted into the shape of a swan with diamonds for eyes, sitting on her nest of hair. Her dress shimmered in the lights of the cameras.
The men all looked the same. They'd got black masks that cost between a thousand dollars and thirty nine cents, not a shot of difference between the two. Some had gone for jewels or lace or feathers, but not many. Most had ordinary black tie suits and a cigarette in their hands. It was the women who turned the dark, rainy night into a spectacular cacophony of wealth. Many had taken liberties with the prescribed palate, with slashes of midnight blue instead of black, inky in the orange glow of the photographer’s bulb. Everywhere your eyes feasted upon diamonds - on hands, heads, necks, toes and arms.
The noise was ferocious, names being called across the staircase as ladies took the arm of their partners (rarely a husband) with one hand and delicately swept up the tails of their gowns with the other. Music was seeping from the ballroom, and ahead of me, a butler announced each guest with a flourish before they moved nervously, excitedly towards the front of the line where Mr Truman Capote stood, grandly welcoming them. All were willing to take his red-stained hand into theirs, let his cold blue lips touch their cheek, laugh into his white,white gaze, willing to look the other way when it counts. To be seen in the right place with the right people mattered so much more than the public torture of the survivors.
As I approached the line I lit a cigarette, quickly putting my matches back in my bag before somebody nearby, perhaps in the crowd of photographers, noticed the flipped-over cardboard advertised 'Della's', the diner in town, rather than the Ivy or a London hotel. I took a deep draw as my feet kept me walking towards the butler. I handed him the card and placed my mask over my eyes, never allowing myself to stop and think - or just stop.
Close up he looked older than I'd thought, worn. Perhaps the tale of my tragedy had taken its toll. I hoped it had, I hoped it always would. His eyes were smaller and his pupils too alert. He was boasting to the glorious creature in front of me that his party was a hit. The champagne was divine and Frank and Mia had already arrived. As my name, not my real one, was announced, he turned to me. His eyes danced for just a second, thinking I was another of his swans, gracing his world with my groomed lashes and my clever way of saying nothing. But something gave me away, not my dress or my cheap perfume, but a glance, a waver in my mouth. I leant in to him, perhaps he thought, to say something, but my hand brought the cigarette slowly to the lapel of his jacket and I pressed down hard, melting a hole into the fabric, on and on until it began to smoke and I was afraid I'd never pull back. He didn't move a muscle, but he must have felt the heat, his hand still pressing lightly on my back. When I moved away he didn't stop me, just met my eyes with his and watched as I backed away.
The hole was perfectly round, still smouldering at the edges, protruding like an open sore on his perfect exterior. I turned and walked back down the stairs and out of the hotel towards the car park.
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