“Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” by Margaret Hawkins
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her taut and witty story “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian,” Margaret Hawkins sketches the evolving friendship between a very elderly former English teacher and her former student. Along the way, we discover that both women have surprising pasts and long-held secrets.
Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian
by Margaret Hawkins
Joan stood behind the circulation desk, checking out books to a middle-aged man with a shaved head. The man was wearing flip-flops and a stained sweat suit that looked like it doubled as pajamas.
The library, in the small Illinois town where Joan had grown up and to which she’d recently returned alone and without a plan, was full of hairless men on weekdays now. Shaving was cheaper than a haircut.
The man slid his books sideways across the counter to make way for the elderly woman behind him. They were chatting, holding up the line. The woman thumped the man on the chest and said something that made him laugh and blush.
Now the woman stood in front of Joan. Or rather, she leaned, bent so far over her walker that the belt of her trench coat trailed on the floor. She pushed a little pile of audiobooks across the desk. “Do you know Donnie?” She gestured stiffly with her head toward the pajamaed man who was now making his way toward the exit. She didn’t wait for an answer. “What a promising boy he was. Excellent speller.”
Joan smiled. They weren’t supposed to gossip. She picked up an audiobook and passed it under the scanner. Poetry—that was unusual. Kay Ryan. Underneath were two more, Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. She took the woman’s card.
“I find myself gravitating to the lesbian poetesses these days,” the woman said, as if she were making a public announcement and wanted to be sure to reach the hard-of-hearing in the back row. She made the lez in lesbian last for three beats. “They go for the gut,” she added, spitting out the t. “Don’t you think?”
Joan looked up from her screen. “Miss Cates?” She hadn’t seen her high school English teacher in over thirty years.
Which of them had changed more? Joan wondered, sitting at Miss Cates’s kitchen table two days later. Her former teacher was making tuna salad. Joan kept offering to help, but Miss Cates insisted that Joan remain seated, clanking her walker against the cupboards so she could lean her elbows on the sink.
She’d torn open a foil pouch. Dumped the tuna in a bowl. Slopped in a forkful of mayonnaise, some pre-cut celery. Squeezed lemon over the bowl without removing the seeds. Shaken some grayish flakes out of an ancient-looking jar. Dill, possibly, Joan thought. Whatever it was had long ago lost its nature.
“Family recipe,” Miss Cates said, dealing a few broken potato chips onto paper plates. She eased herself into the vinyl seat of her walker. To drink, there was tap water, with a generous glug of gin. “We call this a Presbyterian martini,” she said, not explaining the “we”. She clamped her glass with two hands and took a gulp. “A Presby, for short.”
At the library, Joan had had to tell her who she was. “Well, well,” Miss Cates had said, peering over her glasses. “Little Miss Joan of Arc arises, like the Phoenix I always suspected you were.” Thirty years earlier, there had been an incident involving a quasi-accidental brushfire behind the garage of a quasi-boyfriend named Robert that had garnered Joan unwelcome notice as an arsonist. Joan had hoped it was forgotten.
Me, Joan thought now, watching Miss Cates scoop a glob of tuna salad with a potato chip and ferry it shakily toward her mouth. I’ve changed more. Though Miss Cates looked different, that was true. Her queenly posture was a mere memory. She’d shrunk a foot, at least. She wore big white gym shoes now instead of those staccato-sounding spectator pumps. Her hair was a fuzzy, thinning mat, no longer the elaborately teased and frosted nest Joan remembered.
Miss Cates had descended from the wide, arid plateau of late middle age, where she’d dwelled when Joan had last seen her and which seemed from the outside to have no antecedent or borders, into the mysterious, frankly decrepit valley of end times. The body she inhabited now called to mind one of her beloved ruins, the very stones of which had crumbled. She had to be over ninety. Still, she, the essential Miss Cates, was exactly the same.
After Joan had gone for lunch three times at the tiny apartment—the menu was always the same—she got Miss Cates to agree to let her bring the food next time. Joan packed a picnic. Actually, she already had packed it, had in fact been driving around with the slightly obscene collection of imperishable delicacies in her trunk for over a month, waiting for the right moment to spring it on Robert. A pretty basket held a tin of smoked oysters, a bar of the darkest chocolate, a bottle of champagne. Linen napkins, a tablecloth. She’d pictured herself spreading the cloth on a motel bed or, if need be, across the seat of his reclining dental chair. She’d tucked bungee cords in the basket, imagined affixing Robert to a stationary object and force-feeding him, or lighting a match.
On her way to Miss Cates that day she drove out of her way to buy bread, soft cheeses, raspberries, a pot of liver mousse, one ripe quince, a lemon tea cake. Joan wondered if it was too much, or too obviously a lunch intended for a different sort of rendezvous. But food was food, she reasoned. Miss Cates would never notice.
“A meal fit for a king,” Miss Cates proclaimed, sitting up as straight as she could on her walker seat, smoothing a bright napkin over her lap. “Or fit for a concubine, I should say.” She patted her stiff, sparse hair.
“Though if you’re planning to seduce me with this sumptuous repast”—she smeared a huge glob of Roquefort on a water cracker—“you’ll have to produce a time machine from that cunning basket of yours.”
Joan poured fizzing wine into two juice glasses and held hers aloft. “To Cass,” she said.
Miss Cates had insisted that Joan call her by her given name, though Joan would have preferred to continue calling her Miss Cates. “All my friends call me Cass,” she’d said. “Or did. They’re all dead now.” She’d plucked a crumb off her blouse, flicked it on the rug. “Except for Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite was an enormous white cat whose strangely loud purr could be heard through closed doors. The cat’s fur was everywhere in the small apartment, especially in the sinks, which were coated. Aphrodite liked wet places, Miss Cates said. Often the cat lounged under the kitchen faucet, staring at the drain, expecting, it seemed, something to rise from it.
Miss Cates adored Aphrodite, despite her louche ways, perhaps because of them. For a while there’d been two cats, Miss Cates said, stroking a little metal tool through Aphrodite’s thick coat. Littermates. The other cat, Athena, had died of leukemia seven years before. Athena had been quieter, better behaved.
“You notice which one survived.” Aphrodite, spread possessively across Miss Cates’s lap, emitted a loud, somewhat threatening purr. “Miss brainy was brittle. Didn’t know what to do with herself once she’d proved she was right. But love—that’s you, my crumpet,” she said to the old cat. “Little miss love and beauty here is a tough cookie. Fickle. Gets what she wants and moves on. Don’t you?” She massaged the cat’s head. “You selfish hussy.”
Aphrodite sprang from repose to land a quick bite, then dropped to the floor. Departing the room, she raised her tail. The small, dark eye of her anus winked at them.
A month later, in the fading light of an October afternoon, they ate cheese cubes and sipped the gin Miss Cates had splashed in their glasses, not bothering with water. (“When you drink it neat, it’s a Methodist.”) Aphrodite lay heavily in Miss Cates’s lap, pinning her to the seat of her walker.
“I’d freshen your drink,” Miss Cates said, during a lull in which Joan thought she’d fallen asleep. “But, as you can see, I am a prisoner of love.”
Robert notified Joan he would be spending Thanksgiving with his family and that she was not to call him. Joan roasted a turkey breast and drove it to Miss Cates. There, she mashed potatoes at the tiny stove. Later Miss Cates talked her through a brandied cranberry compote, inexactly. (“How much brandy?” “Gobs.”)
“What should we call this?” Joan was sloshing the glistening red jumble into chipped punch cups. She wanted to be inducted into whatever society owned this joke. “A Mennonite?”
Miss Cates looked thoughtful. “A Sufi,” she said.
Late Christmas afternoon, after waiting all day for a sign from Robert, Joan took the coffee cake and peppermint ice cream to Miss Cates. She presented her with a wool shawl, a CD player, an assortment of recorded books. Miss Cates gave Joan a shot of bitters over ice (a Cold Catholic), and her father’s Aeolian harp, wrapped in two stale-smelling pillowcases tied with the sash of her bathrobe. She’d kept it under her bed for forty years, she said.
“Named after Aeolus, Greek god of the wind.”
“I know,” Joan whispered. She was trying not to weep.
“It suits you,” Miss Cates said. “Passive instrument that it is. Put it in an open window. Aeolus will strum it for you.”
In January, Miss Cates stopped going out. Joan made regular deliveries of tuna in pouches, lemons, jars of Nutella, cat food in assorted flavors, extra-strength aspirin, jumbo flagons of Tanqueray. One day, after Joan had opened the cat food cans and stacked them in the refrigerator, then loosened the caps on the gin and the aspirin, while they were having what Miss Cates called tea—pound cake with their usual Presbyterians–Miss Cates told Joan about Francie Jane.
“Who’s this?” Joan had said when she noticed the photo on the bureau. She’d been folding Miss Cates’s laundry and seen the tarnished silver picture frame behind a stack of unpaid bills. There were other photos—Miss Cates as a lanky child straddling a horse, a studio portrait of what must be her parents, unsmiling long-jawed Yankees in Victorian wedding regalia—but here was a face that bore no family resemblance.
Miss Cates took the photo from Joan and held it in her lap. The picture showed a square-faced young woman in a jacket with military epaulets holding two koala bears.
“My WAVE.” Miss Cates drew out the vowel. “Frances Jane Harper Hunt. Served in the South Pacific, before I knew her.” Miss Cates clicked her yellow fingernail on the glass. Francie was older, she said. The photo was from her frisky youth.
“Gone many years. Cancer of the womb.” Miss Cates fluttered her fingers as if to rid herself of something. Turned to Joan. “Do you recognize her?” She had that look she’d got sometimes in class, posing a tricky question.
“Think, now.” Her voice had gone teacherish. “Mrs. Hunt.”
Joan did remember someone, but Miss Cates couldn’t mean that Mrs. Hunt. Could she? The art teacher, that small plump angry woman with the tight gray curls who wore too-snug plaid skirts with sweater sets and shiny nylons and little high-heeled shoes that pitched her whole body forward? The frowsy one whose slip always showed, who threw temper tantrums and gave detentions, and smelled of stale sanitary napkins, whom Gail Pastorius called Mrs. Cunt? Joan tried to sneak another look, but Miss Cates’s big hand covered the picture.
“We were great friends for many years,” Miss Cates said. After a while, she added, “Once we took my Aunt Cecelia to lunch at the Walnut Room.” She chortled at the memory but didn’t explain.
“Francie’s fellow—husband I should say, though I hate the word—had a position with some financial outfit. Something like what you used to do, I suppose.” Miss Cates sniffed. “Nice fellow, in his way. Good provider.” She chucked the photo toward a chair and missed, then stuck her spoon in the Nutella and spread an undainty dollop on her cake.
“Tell me about your fellow,” she said, another afternoon. When Joan hesitated, Miss Cates prompted her, as if to jog her memory. “Your hubby?”
Joan slogged in, trying to simulate the impression of an answer while saying as little as she could, not mentioning Robert and coming up with a garbled nonstatement about two possible, sort of, fellows, if you counted almost-exes, then gave up. “Really, probably there’s none.”
“Good girl. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end.” Miss Cates had taken to quoting The Elements of Style in a pinch, without citation. Her bible, she said—comfort to the old.
Now she indicated that Joan should pour more gin into her glass and not bother with water. “When you top it up like that it’s called an Episcopalian.” Recently she’d told Joan the drink names had been a private joke between her and Mrs. Hunt.
On Valentine’s Day, arriving with the heart-shaped cheesecake she’d made the night before, Joan found Miss Cates unable to get out of bed, impatient to talk about the time she’d given Francie a kitten. “I made her promise to keep his name. Gleipnir.” She caught Joan’s eye. “Rhymes with sneer.”
Joan knew she was supposed to get this reference, but she drew a blank. Miss Cates waved her hand. “Never mind. Never liked the Norse much, except for that bit.”
Gleipnir, she reminded Joan, was the name of the magic chain, made of the noise of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of stones, the breath of fish, and the spittle of birds. She gave Joan a look. “Impossible things, you see, to do an impossible job.”
Joan took a sip of her Episcopalian.
“Little Gleipnir was supposed to be our magic chain. But he ran into the street and was hit by a car. A Rambler, Francie thought. That boy of hers left the door open. The little thing got out.”
On the Ides of March, Joan broached the subject of vengeance. She didn’t mention Robert. Had she ever felt spiteful, toward Francie?
Miss Cates hooted. Oh, all the time, she said. All the time. The night Francie dropped by after returning from a three-week trip with her husband, she’d thought about poisoning her. They’d gone to Paris. She wasn’t even sorry.
“But how would I have disposed of that chubby little corpse?” Miss Cates said she’d settled for beating Francie with an umbrella.
“Did it help?”
Miss Cates closed her eyes. “A little,” she said. After a while she added, “I regret nothing.”
She took a long swallow from her drink and set her glass in the air a few inches beyond the edge of the table. By the time Joan finished sweeping up the shards, Miss Cates was gone. Soon, Aphrodite appeared at Joan’s feet and demanded supper.
Margaret Hawkins writes fiction, essays, and arts journalism. Her work appears regularly in Visual Art Source and the Democracy Chain. Her third novel (fourth book), Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, ARTnews, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Art & Antiques, The Perch (Yale), Fabrik, and many other publications. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University.