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Authors: Lee Smith

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The Last Girls

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LEE SMITH

The Last Girls

A NOVEL

A S
HANNON
R
AVENEL
B
OOK
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

This book is for my beloved husband, Hal—
pilot, shipmate, and running buddy on the
continuing journey . . . and for Jane and
Vereen Bell, who went down the river with us
in the summer of 1999.

T
HE
M
ISSISSIPPI
is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. . . . It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. . . .

It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening toward its mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and deeper. From the junction of the Ohio to a point half way down to the sea, the width averages a mile in high water: thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes, until, at the “Passes,” above the mouth, it is but little over a half a mile. At the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi's depth is eighty-seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hundred and twenty-nine just above the mouth.

—Mark Twain,
Life on the Mississippi

Sometimes life is more like a river than a book.

—Cort Conley

Contents

June 10, 1965. It's Girls A-Go-Go Down the Mississippi

Mile 736. Memphis, Tennessee. Friday, 5/7/99. 1645 hours

Mile 736. Memphis, Tennessee. Friday, 5/7/99. 1900 hours

Mile 736. Memphis, Tennessee. Friday, 5/7/99. 2210 hours

Mile 736. Memphis, Tennessee. Saturday, 5/8/99. 1400 hours

Mile 730. West Memphis, Arkansas. Saturday, 5/8/99. 1800 hours

Mile 674.5. Harbert Point Light. Sunday, 5/9/99. 0710 hours

Mile 664. Prairie Point Towhead. Sunday, 5/9/99. 0800 hours

Mile 597.4. Montgomery Point. Sunday, 5/9/99. 1600 hours

Mile 585. Rosedale Bend. Sunday, 5/9/99. 1700 hours

Mile 516. Fanny Bullit Towhead. Sunday, 5/9/99. 2200 hours

Mile 437.2. Vicksburg, Mississippi. Monday, 5/10/99. 0500 hours

Mile 437.2. Vicksburg, Mississippi. Monday, 5/10/99. 0900 hours

Mile 437.2. Vicksburg, Mississippi. Monday, 5/10/99. 1015 hours

Mile 437.2. Vicksburg, Mississippi. Monday, 5/10/99. 1600 hours

Mile 435.7. I-20 Highway Bridge. Monday, 5/10/99. 1920 hours

Mile 364.2. Natchez, Mississippi. Tuesday, 5/11/99. 0600 hours

Mile 364.2. Natchez, Mississippi. Tuesday, 5/11/99. 1335 hours

Mile 364.2. Natchez, Mississippi. Tuesday, 5/11/99. 1205 hours

Mile 364.2. Natchez, Mississippi. Tuesday, 5/11/99. 1810 hours

Mile 229.4. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Wednesday, 5/12/99. 1035 hours

Mile 229.4. Baton Rogue, Louisiana. Wednesday, 5/12/99. 2300 hours

Mile 265.5. St. Francisville, Louisiana. Thursday, 5/13/99. 0842 hours

Mile 265.5. St. Francisville, Louisiana. Thursday, 5/13/99. 1015 hours

Mile 155.1. Vacherie, Louisiana. Friday, 5/14/99. 1200 hours

Mile 139.2. Dutch Bayou, Louisiana. Friday, 5/14/99. 1400 hours

Mile 128.0. Bonnet Carre, Louisiana. Friday, 5/14/99. 1640 hours

Mile 130.2. Killona Landing. Friday, 5/14/99. 1700 hours

Mile 109.0. Waggaman Light. Friday, 5/14/99. 2100 hours

In All Ways Remarkable, the Rest of the Girls—

Acknowledgments

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.

Mile 736
Memphis, Tennessee
Friday 5/7/99
1645 hours

H
ARRIET 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.

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