map A Memory of Miss Clara

by L.Shapley Bassen

Published in Issue No. 252 ~ May, 2018

Mark Antony was wrong, I believe, when he said that the evil that men do lives after them and that the good is oft interred with their bones. Or maybe it is that way for men. It is not for women, for Miss Clara. I am afraid we may forget her if we remember only what was good. I learned first from Miss Clara that what made a lasting image was contrast. And although she created in words and I in photographs, I learned that lesson best from her. I saw how she looked through the camera’s eye to see what surrounded every object as clearly as the object itself. This is the way creators see; foreground and background are a trompe d’oeil of time. Space is a matter of shapes that curve about each other, of light and dark. Time provides the dimension of depth. Miss Clara talked about these things with me.

Well, now that Miss Clara is fully in the Spirit at last, I have been asked to speak about her before all of you. When I was called to this honor, I at first felt the sadness we all share and then I thought to myself, they have called me because of what they believe was the special bond between Miss Clara and me, between her people and my people. Because we came from the same small town in Mississippi where she lived for nearly this century. But you know, I’ve lived most of my nearly half-century up North and around the world, taking pictures. Miss Clara was a creature of place — her place — and I am not. Then I thought of all we have had in common, and I hit upon what I want to remember about Miss Clara with you today. I want to remember with you this good woman, this gentle and strong spirit, and the best way to do this is to tell you about the meanest thing she ever did in her life. Yes, it is the sort of story Miss Clara would have liked to tell you herself, and of course she would have done it better than I can. But I think if we all recall her voice, and keep the images sharply in focus, you will be able to imagine it is she telling a last story to all her friends and admirers.

All of us in that small town possess at least one Miss Clara story and we recognized them when she retold them in her books that made her famous — that made us famous. In later years, many of us who lived in that town had fun teasing the graduate students who came to do research for their very important doctorates. How many ladies pretended to be Miss Clara or her sister or her cousin? Yes, we had some fun!

But we all knew that no one was Miss Clara but herself. When I was young, she was briefly taller than I, but very quickly it seemed she became that rumpled, wrinkled, blue-eyed face surrounded by untamable white curls. She gave my family as she did many other black folks the only photographs of themselves they ever had. It was my Grandfather Aaron’s most precious possession, his picture by Miss Clara. And she gave me my first camera as a going-away present when I left for college in 1963. I never did know why Wellesley accepted me in those days, whether it was because I was a Miss Black Mississippi or because of the essay I’d written about Miss Clara. But I went up there with her blessing and her Eastman Kodak.

And my freshman year roommate was the other person in this tale of the meanest thing Miss Clara ever did. Her name was Kathleen C. before she married a very rich New York man. Kathleen wasn’t my roommate for very long, of course. She explained her moving out the first week as a matter of the room being too small, but we both understood it wasn’t the real reason. I don’t remember resenting the prejudice of Kathleen C. Everything up north at Wellesley was strange to me except that. So it made me feel more at home.

It was possible to become friendly only at a distance with Kathleen. Over four years’ time, I saw this was how it was with her with everyone else. She could not keep a friend of any color. Perhaps it was because I had met her first, I was only of the very few still speaking to her Kathleen at the last. By that time, I knew many things about her. I knew about her friendliness. I knew that her mother, a woman who looked like a Pekinese dog, was in and out of a New York mental hospital. I knew that both Kathleen and her mother, wealthy though they were, often shoplifted in New York department stores. I also knew that Kathleen C. wanted to be a writer; she had typed up all sorts of little notes to herself that she scotch-taped to the wall above her desk. Things like, “Character arises from plot.” I knew Kathleen could never understand anything she read. In our freshman year, it was I to whom she brought every poem or short story assigned in English for me to explain so that she could write her essay. Once she discovered that I had grown up in the same town as Miss Clara and indeed knew the great Southern writer, Kathleen treated the information as if it were somehow a personal directive to her. That was how Kathleen C. was; the world was her oyster to steal the pearl from.

Almost two decades go by in which Miss Clara writes more of her wonderful stories about us. They are made into plays sometimes and sometimes into movies. But most of all, they are books people like to read slowly to remind themselves about how time really moves. I traveled around the world taking pictures of wars, elections, ‘movements’ — and Miss Clara still managed to win more awards than I did.

It was at one of these award ceremonies last year that our three paths intersected, Miss Clara, Kathleen C., and I. It was in New York City where Kathleen and I lived, very differently. The Algonquin Hotel, an illustrious literary landmark, hosted the affair. Although Miss Clara had known the Algonquin literati, she had never been a member of their cynical set. Nevertheless, she was receiving a lifetime award at the charity dinner. She was seated at a long raised dais covered with a bright white cloth and many bouquets of flowers like these here today. The people who had come to support the charity — it was a $300 plate dinner, more than annual income some places in the world — sat at round tables before us in a large, oak-paneled dining room. Miss Clara had asked that I be seated beside her so I was up at the dais as well. We shared a view of the room, and she asked me what did I — professionally — see? I looked out at the floor-length gowns and tuxedos and saw some were worn by people of my color. She nodded her white curly head at me. What else, she asked. I saw waiters balancing heavy trays. I saw the musicians arrange themselves in their intimate, superior way. And then I saw Kathleen C., seated at a table across the room. She was there without her tall husband. She was staring straight at me. As our eyes met, she sat up very straight and waved a small wave.

Miss Clara, you see, had noticed her staring at me, and Miss Clara’s curiosity was piqued. I explained quickly what I currently knew about Kathleen, who had left a message on my phone machine which I had unfortunately answered. I told Miss Clara that Kathleen, still now, after nearly twenty years of busy failure was yet again involved in her pursuit of personal money and fame.

“But she is rich,” Miss Clara said.

“That’s her husband’s wealth. It’s separate in her mind. Kathleen once said, ‘I don’t keep a cook, I make my husband a hot gourmet meal at whatever time he arrives home from the office, a trip, or the squash court because I know there are plenty of women who would be happy to make his meals for him.’ Another time, she told me, while she was basting a turkey, I recall, that she had not become famous while I had because my childhood had been so awful and hers so wonderful.”

“We were poor,” Miss Clara said, reciting the wellworn Southern phrase, “but we didn’t know we were poor.”

I explained to Miss Clara that Kathleen was not exactly motivated by charity to attend this dinner that honored her. That Kathleen, true to form, had not written a story of her own whose blessing she wished to secure from Miss Clara, but that as Kathleen had told me, she had ‘adapted’ a novel of Miss Clara’s into a stage play — a libretto, in fact — and that she was working with a second composer and a third lyricist who were writing the songs. She was no better at keeping colleagues than she had been at keeping friends. Kathleen had run into legal problems when her agent — whose office was in one of the buildings owned by Kathleen’s husband — told her that Miss Clara had to approve the use of her novel in this way. Miss Clara knew none of this, having been shielded from Kathleen, as from eager others, by her own lawyer, Mr. Marshall Burdett, who remembers with us here today.

Across the dining room, Kathleen C. motioned — lifted and shook slightly — a white box. Miss Clara looked at me. The musicians began to play. Several couples rose to dance. Kathleen approached us with the white box. I apologized to Miss Clara for my part in Kathleen’s plot. I had suggested that Kathleen give her flowers, and I knew Miss Clara’s favorites as you all see here — as a means of approaching the great lady with at least apparent generosity.

“Why?” Miss Clara said.

“Because Kathleen can never come up with an idea of her own. And I felt sorry for her.”

“Why?” Miss Clara persisted.

Cornered, I revealed the details of something that Kathleen had confided in me.

So Miss Clara accepted the gardenias and black-eyed susans from Kathleen and told her to send on her script home to Mississippi so she could read it. Kathleen, slim and elegant in a black gown and diamonds, thanked Miss Clara too many times.

But Kathleen never pushed when she could shove. Though her script was a dismal washwater version of Miss Clara’s novel, Miss Clara hardly had the heart to write this in her first letter to Kathleen, nor to add that the novel in question had already been successfully adapted in the 50’s into a Broadway play which enjoyed regular revivals around the country. Poor Kathleen was an embarrassment to a Wellesley education; she didn’t even know that she should or how to research prior publication and production. I was at home in Mississippi visiting Miss Clara for the last time because it was my cousin’s child’s graduation last June. I might as well have followed Miss Clara’s letter back up to New York because Kathleen called me right away yet again, and I learned she had hired all sorts of expensive lawyers, whose offices were in buildings her husband owned, to secure the rights to Miss Clara’s book despite Miss Clara’s polite refusal. Miss Clara had a fight on her hands. It took a long Sunday to get Miss Clara — “tired out” — as she’d say, but Kathleen C. finally tired Miss Clara out.

And she wrote the second letter.

Kathleen sent me a copy of it because she couldn’t understand it.

It was cruel.

It was very well written.

It was as unforgiving as it was unforgivable.

Miss Clara told Kathleen that she had absolutely no talent. She told her to quit writing, to quit writing to her, to quit bothering Mr. Marshall Burdett, and to quit stealing other people’s stories if she wanted to get rich and famous on her own. Miss Clara added some choice remarks about the contrast between art and theft, indicating that Kathleen must have sorely misunderstood T.S. Eliot’s remark that amateur poets borrow while professional poets steal. She wrote, “Tell the story of how you mother put a gun in her mouth and shot off the back of her head in a closet in an expensive condominium in Miami, Florida, on your birthday — and try to find someone you can work with long enough to set that to music.”

That, I believe, is the meanest thing that Miss Clara ever did in her long, generous, good life. Maybe she knew it wouldn’t stop Kathleen who was poor and didn’t know she was poor. Kathleen is writing yet another libretto of a still unsuspecting novelist’s chief work. Fortunately, I am not acquainted with him.

It is difficult to say goodbye to Miss Clara. It is painful for me. Maybe that is the real reason I have told you this particular story. I didn’t like what she did — but I didn’t like what Kathleen did, either. It came down to a choice. At least it was a clear contrast, a picture you could keep sharply in focus. Miss Clara gave me my first camera, her own. I pass along this final photo to you. I hope we all can now remember her well.

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L. Shapley Bassen's "Portrait of a Giant Squid" was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. She was Fiction Editor for till cessation of publication after 6 yrs], 2014 author of Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), Lives of Crime & Other Stories (Texture Press), and 2017novella/story collection, Showfolk & Stories [Inkception Books]. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, was a 1st reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize and a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and others.