Brought together by fate in a small town high in the
majestic Appalachian mountains
Live. Love. Believe.
Beauty is in the lie of the beholder.
Heartbroken and cynical, famed actress Catherine Deen
hides from the world after a horrific accident scars her for
Secluded in her grandmother's North Carolina mountain
home, Cathryn at first resists the friendship of the local
community and the famous biscuits served up by her loyal
cousin, Delta, at The Crossroads Café, until a neighbor,
former New York architect Thomas Mitternich, reaches out to
Thomas lost his wife and son in the World Trade Center.
In the years since he's struggled with alcohol and despair.
He thinks nothing and no can make his life worth living
I love biscuits and western North Carolina. So what more
perfect combination than a book about baking biscuits in the
mountains above Asheville. My husband and I visit that
wonderful mountain city regularly. How to describe that part
of the Carolinas? Magical. They call it the "land of the
sky." The incredibly beautiful mountain scenes in Last of
the Mohicans were filmed in the North Carolina
Appalachians, and also that Patrick Swayze classic ,
1. If you could be any beautiful woman in the world, who
would you be? Why?
2. Do you feel that your looks--good, bad or
ordinary--have played a major part in shaping your life?
3. Our obsession with physical beauty is a focus of the
book. Do you feel that society places unfair expectations
on women in regard to their personal appearance?
4. Even in today's supposedly enlightened world, are
women still judged primarily on their youthfulness and
5. Does it concern you when notable women in business,
academics and politics are critiqued for their appearance?
Do you feel that men receive similar critiques in public?
6. Is it still true that "Men get character lines but
women get wrinkles?"
7. Do you feel that beautiful celebrities, like the
book's Cathryn Deen, represent unrealistic and even
destructive ideals for physical appearance?
8. Studies indicate that men enjoy looking at pretty
young women more than women enjoy looking at pretty young
men. In other words, that men rank physical appearance
higher than women do. Do you agree?
9. Food--and all it represents in terms of family,
comfort and heritage--plays a thematic role in The
Crossroads Café. What part does food play in your own
family memories and reunions?
10. Thomas Mitternich is consumed with grief for his
wife and son even four years after their deaths. At what
point do you think grief becomes self-destructive?
11. Thomas's ability to see past Cathryn's scars is one
of his most endearing traits. Despite Hollywood images of
beauty and perfection, many people in "real life" lead
happy, fulfilling love lives regardless of severe physical
imperfections. Discuss true anecdotes from your own circle
of family and friends.
12. Have you ever made--or seen others make--negative
assumptions about strangers who are physically
unattractive? Studies show that pretty people are assumed
to be smarter, more successful and more likable.
Crossroads, North Carolina
The Blue Ridge Mountains
Before the accident, I never had to seduce a man in the
dark. I dazzled millions in the brutal glare of kliegs on
the red carpets of Hollywood, the flash of cameras at the
Oscars, the sunlight on the piazzas of Cannes. Beautiful
women don't fear the glint of lust and judgment in men's
eyes, or the bitter gleam of envy in women's. Beautiful
women welcome even the brightest light. Once upon a time, I
had been the most beautiful woman in the world.
Now I needed the night, the darkness, the shadows.
"Put the gun down," I ordered, as I let my bra and white
t-shirt fall to the ground. Behind me, a full, white moon
hung in a sky of stars above the summer mountains,
silhouetting Thomas and me. Frogs trilled in the forest.
Beneath my bare feet, the pasture grass was soft and wet
with summer dew, glistening in the moonlight. There were no
bright lights in our world, not the pinpoint of a lamp in
some distant window, not the wink of a jet high overhead.
There might be no other souls in these ancient North
Carolina ridges that night. Only Thomas, and me, and the
darkness inside us both.
"I'm warning you for the last time, Cathryn," he said,
his voice thick but firm. He wasn't a man who slurred his
words, no matter how drunk he was. "Leave."
I unzipped my jeans. My hands trembled. I couldn't stop
staring at the World War II pistol he held so casually, his
right arm bent, the gun pointed skyward. Thomas had been a
preservation architect; he respected fine craftsmanship,
even when choosing a gun with which to kill himself.
Slowly I pushed my jeans down, along with my panties.
The scarred skin along my right thigh prickled at the scrape
of denim. I angled my right side away from the moon, trying
to illuminate only the left half of my body, my face. Half
of me was still perfect. But the other half . . .
I stepped out of my crumpled clothes and stood there
naked, the moonlight safely behind me. The night breeze was
a tongue of embarrassment, licking my scarred flesh. My hand
twitched with the urge to cover my face. How badly I wanted
to hide the awful parts. Thomas watched me without moving,
without speaking, without breathing.
He doesn't want me, I thought. I said quietly,
"Thomas, I know I'm no prize, but would you really rather
kill yourself than touch me?"
Not a word, still, not a flicker of reaction. I could
barely see his expression in the shadows, and wasn't sure I
wanted to. The uglies came over me like a cold tide.
A festering wave of withdrawal – shyness and anger
multiplied times a thousand. Me, who had once preened for
the world without a shred of self-doubt.
I turned my back to him, trying not to shiver with
defeat. "Just put the gun down. Then I'll get dressed, and
we'll forget this ever happened."
I heard quick steps behind me, and before I could turn,
his arms went around me from behind. His hands slid over my
bare skin. I twisted my head to the pretty side but he bent
his lips to the other and roughly kissed the rivulets of
No matter what might happen to us later, I saved his life
that night. And, for that one night, at least, he saved
mine. Hope is in the mirror we keep inside us, love sees
only what it wants to see, and beauty is in the lie of the
Sometimes, that lie is all you need to survive.
The Day of the Accident
16 Months Earlier
The Four Seasons Hotel, Beverly Hills, California
The Face of Flawless, the posters scattered around
the hotel's penthouse suite said, beneath a smoky, film-noir
close-up of my face. I looked both innocent and come-hitherish.
A dark-haired Grace Kelly for the 21st century.
The princess next door who wears thong panties. Timeless
beauty. Ageless perfection. From Cathyrn Deen. Because every
woman deserves to look like a star.
That kind of hype sometimes made me blush a little. Or
pretend to, at least. A southern beauty queen is trained
from birth to be charmingly self-deprecating. But let's be
real, here: I was the most beautiful woman in the
world. People Magazine said so. And Vanity Fair.
And even Rolling Stone and Esquire, those
cynical, sex-obsessed boys.
I had been told I was the most beautiful girl in the room
– any room, anywhere -- since the time I was old enough to
gurgle adorably as my father wheeled me around Atlanta's
finest ballrooms and boardrooms in an emerald-green stroller
custom-designed to match my eyes. I'd be paid twenty-five
million dollars for my next film, a remake of Giant,
co-starring me in the Elizabeth Taylor role, Heath Ledger
in the James Dean part, and Hugh Jackman in the role Rock
I'm the new Liz Taylor, I thought, gazing at
myself happily in a huge, lighted mirror of the Four
Season's penthouse suite while my personal stylists worked
on me as if I were a life-sized Barbie doll. Take that,
Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz.
"We make fifteen-year-old girls look twenty-five and
thirty-five-year-old women look twenty-five," Judi, my hair
girl, was saying to the others as she fluffed a long strand
of my mocha-black mane. "So the pornography culture will
want to fuck us."
"The pornography culture?" I said, smiling as I watched
them primp me. "It's just human nature for girls to flirt
and boys to appreciate it."
Randy, my make-up boy, chuckled wryly. His soft sable
brush flicked across my forehead. His dark-skinned hand
moved like an artist's. A poof of Flawless Ivory Cream
Foundation Powder floated before us. Randy waved his
brush at Judi. "Personally, I've got nothing against looking
pornographic. Or younger."
Judi grunted at him. "You're a guy. It's not the same for
you. Men are still considered desirable even after they turn
into fat, wrinkled prunes with penises. When you're a crusty
old queen you'll still get a lot of action."
"I do hope so!"
"The porno culture?" said Luce, my wardrobe girl. "Let me
tell you about the time I managed wardrobe for a triple-X
producer. It was all leather corsets and high heels. And
that was just for the livestock in the cast." She
hooted as she tugged a silky silver dress over my plunging
silver bra. I slid my arms into lacy shoulder straps and
Luce smoothed the bodice over my boobs, bending down to peer
at them. Checking for nipplage, as we called it.
"Perky nipple on the left, Boss."
I nodded. Even my boobs were proud of themselves. "Get
the Band-Aids. We don't want the press to stare at my
headlights when they're supposed to be listening to my
brilliant and witty thoughts about my new cosmetics empire."
Randy clucked his tongue. "Boss, you could put on a burka
and spray yourself with camel musk, and men would still
stare at your tits."
"Camel musk? Maybe I should add that to my perfume line.
Judi, I'm only thirty-two. What is that in camel years? How
long before camels won't whistle at me on the street? Does
the porno culture include camels?"
"Oh, Boss, you know what I'm saying," Judi went on. "Women are sex objects. After decades of feminism, that's
still all we are. If we're not young and hot, we
have no value."
"I plan to be sexy even when I'm a hundred," Luce
growled. "As long as there's KY and vodka, I can get laid."
I laughed. Sex appeal was just another of life's lucky
gifts, and I'd been gifted more than almost everyone else on
the planet. I couldn't imagine being anything but
beautiful. At least I was gracious about my fortunes.
Don't hate me because I'm perfect. I'm a nice person, too,
My people – I thought of my employees the way old
southerners talk of servants, as if I owned them – my
people always liked me. Daddy and all my southern aunts
– those golf-playing, country-clubbing doyennes of the
Atlanta social scene – had trained me to be a kind and
generous New South plantation mistress. I turned to peer at
Judi from under a lock of my hair, which she held out like a
glossy chocolate rope as she teased the underside. "Judi, is
this discussion going to segue into your ‘witches versus
"Isn't that a new reality show on Fox?" Randy
asked. Luce chortled.
Judi scowled. "Laugh if you want to. But there are jerks
out there who say women are witches – I mean wiccans, not
bitches -- and men are engineers. That women represent
emotion and sex – the dark arts -- versus men representing
logic and intellect – the progressive sciences. That women
have no purpose other than breeding. And thus, that it's
women's job to stay desirable until they hit menopause.
After that, women are supposed to just fade away."
I wagged a finger at her. "Not me. When I'm eighty years
old I plan to plaster my face with Flawless Anti-Aging
Spackle and promenade in public with no shame at all."
Everyone laughed. They gathered around me, their ordinary
faces gazing into the mirror with my extraordinary face in
the middle, like the center of a flower. Judi sighed.
"Boss," she said, "You will never be ugly. I can't even
My gaze fell on the mirror image of an elegant hotel
platter of raw fruit and fat-free yogurt among the make-up
kits, curling irons and other clutter. Suddenly, I saw
instead, a blue-willow china plate filled with my
grandmother's biscuits. Covered in gravy. Cream
gravy. With flecks of pure pork sausage in it.
I don't mean I thought about biscuits and gravy. I
mean I saw biscuits and gravy. Right in the mirror. I
made myself breathe calmly.
Suddenly I remembered every detail of my mountain
grandmother's weathered face, her green eyes almost
frightening in their wisdom, her gray-black hair poking from
beneath a tractor cap that seemed as exotic to me as the
turban of a sultaness. She had died when I was twelve, on
her farm in the wilderness of western North Carolina, a
world as different from my Atlanta life as any foreign
country, and just as lost. Her daughter, my mother, had not
lived to raise me, and Granny Nettie had not lived to see me
"Eat, girl," I could hear Granny say rebelliously.
"Every time life gives you biscuits and gravy, eat and
rejoice." Outside her magical, stained-glass windows,
sunlight and shadows draped smiles on layers of enormous,
blue-green mountains. This is no place for skinny sissies,
they whispered to me. The scent of Crisco, milk, sausage,
flour, and butter filled my senses. Oddly comforting.
Everything will be all right, if you find what you really
A shiver ran up my spine. Sometimes I . . . had visions.
While checking my hair in a make-up booth backstage at
the Oscars, I'd seen Daddy's face. It replaced mine for just
a second. Peaceful, handsome, classic, sternly loving,
silver-haired. The father who had been my biggest fan and
toughest critic. The very-patriarchal southern daddy
I adored. I was so startled by his image in the mirror I
flubbed one of my lines a few minutes later, as I read the
best actress nominees on camera. Millions of people
watching, worldwide, and I saidMerle Step
instead of Meryl Streep. I turned Meryl Streep into a male
When I walked back into the wings, one of my assistants
ran up to me. "There's an emergency call from Atlanta," she
said. "It's about your dad." He had died of a heart attack
during his Oscar-night party at the club. He threw parties
just to watch me give awards to other people.
For months after that, mirrors made me nervous, something
I never confessed to anyone at the time. The irony of a life
spent looking in mirrors was that sometimes they looked
I blinked, feeling dizzy. "Boss, are you all right?" Judi
asked. "Do you want something to eat? You're staring at the
kiwi and broccoli as if they might bite you."
I took a deep breath, laughed, and fluttered a hand to my
heart. "Why, I don't dare eat before a press
conference. If I gain so much as one ounce the porno
culture will revoke my membership card."
More laughter. I took another breath. I'm just hungry,
that's all, I told myself. It means nothing.
Sometimes, a biscuit is just a biscuit.
A pair of double doors burst open. Six-foot-three inches
of elegant California business mogul strode in, dressed in
My husband, Gerald Barnes Merritt (never just ‘Gerald
Merritt,' that was too plain,) was thirteen years older than
me, rugged, brilliant, rich, and yes, wildly sexy in his own
right. We'd been married for less than a year. He had two
ex-wives, three grown children, and several successful
empires in real estate, computer technology, marketing, and
now, me. Thanks to him, I would head my own cosmetics
empire. Flawless, by Cathyrn Deen. Actually, Gerald
ran everything. He was the CEO. But hey, I was the face.
"Ready to announce your new business venture to the
press, my gorgeous girl?" Gerald boomed, scattering my
entourage like a rottweiller in a rabbit pen.
I preened in the mirror and avoided looking toward the
mystical food platter again. A vision of biscuits.
Right. Just my imagination. "Oh, I don't know. Can you see
anything about me that needs a little more
He slid his arms around me from behind, angling his head
to look at me in the mirror, but careful not to muss mounds
of hair and the unblemished masterpiece of my Flawless face.
I felt the ridge of his penis lightly teasing me.
"You couldn't be more beautiful. I am married," he said
softly, "to the girl every man wants."
Another strange little shiver went through me. Beauty
is fleeting, but biscuits are forever. I smiled and
shook off the silly thought.
I was the most beautiful woman in the world. Surely, I
always would be.
That Same Afternoon
Crossroads, North Carolina
Grief steals all the beauty in the world, then gives it
back one piece at a time until you see more hope than sorrow
in your life, if you're lucky. So far, I'd only reclaimed a
shred here, a fragment there, hanging onto those small bits
with my fingernails. My desperate cache of beauty could all
be found in one place: a small cove high in the remote
mountains of western North Carolina, where an old paved road
and an even older, unpaved one intersected in front of a
former farmhouse, a former log cabin, a cluster of
whitewashed sheds, and a pair of gas pumps under a tin
awning. All of it known by one name that summed up the
spirit, the sustenance, and the turning points of the lives
that met there.
The Crossroads Café.
I was not necessarily an upstanding citizen of the
Crossroads, but I had earned the respect of the
people who mattered. Or, at least, their tolerance.
It's never a good thing when you wake up at sunset with a
hangover in a sleeping bag in the rusty bed of a
sixty-year-old pick-up truck you saved from a junkyard,
parked under one of the café's giant oak trees full of
squirrels, who are cheerfully showering you with rotten nut
shells as they do their spring housecleaning, and when you
open your bleary eyes the first thing you see – and smell --
is a small, shaggy, white goat who's hopped up in your rusty
outdoor bedroom and is now eating your new cell phone.
But I was used to it.
"There goes another one," I grunted. I brushed shells out
of my beard. "Tell the concierge I have some complaints
about the wake-up calls in this hotel. Can't a man sleep all
day without being disturbed?"
Crack. Banger, the goat, looked at me with my cell
phone disintegrating between his teeth. Fragments of the
casing dribbled from his hairy white lips. I sighed. "I
didn't want that phone, anyway."
If my brother would just stop sending me replacements,
Banger might switch to something more nutritious, like
hubcaps. John was determined to keep me from becoming a
full-fledged Luddite. As long as I owned a cell phone, he
thought there was a chance I might not end up writing crazed
manifestos by lantern light in my cabin. Or shooting myself.
I was confident it wouldn't be the former.
I stretched slowly, giving every body part plenty of
warning that we were about to move as a team. Sour stomach,
greasy eyes, aching head, stiff back. The rest of me was
only thirty-eight, but after a few hours in the truck my
back always qualified for senior citizen discounts.
While testing my joints, I realized my long, brown beard
was wet. And also my head, and my ponytail, and my face,
and, when I lifted my beard, the front of my vintage New
York Giants jersey. Soaked. Someone had doused the legacy of
hall of famer Lawrence Taylor. Sacrilege.
That's when I noticed the note tied to Banger's collar.
Written in black marker on a piece of torn cardboard with a
Dixie Sugar logo still visible on one edge, it said:
THOMAS MITTERNICH, YOU GET YOUR BEHIND INTO MY KITCHEN BY
6:30. CATHYRN IS DOING A PRESS CONFERENCE ON A CABLE TV SHOW
THEN. YOUR SORE EYES NEED THE SIGHT. DON'T MAKE ME COME BACK
WITH MORE WATER. LOVE, DELTA
Cathryn Deen. I'd never met her, but, of course, I
knew who she was. Everyone knew who she was. Pygmies
in the Amazon and Mongolian yak herders living in straw huts
on the Russian tundra knew who she was. Even in the
Crossroads, one of the most secluded mountain communities on
the eastern seaboard, celebrity culture infected us via
tabloids and satellite pay-per-view.
Wincing, I eased out of the truck and stood up. After a
polite glance in all directions, I stepped between the truck
and the oak, pulled up the water-dampened tail of my jersey,
unzipped my jeans, fetched Little Thomas from his bed, and
peed on the oak's protruding roots. "Take that," I said to
As I re-zipped, Banger dropped my ruined phone and hopped
down from the truck. He affectionately stomped one hard,
cloven hoof on the toe of my running shoe and butted my left
knee, hooking one horn through a hole in the denim and into
the tender center of my kneecap. I saw stars for a minute.
When my head cleared, I scrubbed a hand over his floppy
ears. "If there is a God," I told the goat, "He appointed
you to be my conscience."
Carrying a fresh Giants jersey and clean briefs – when
you regularly wake up in public, it's a good idea to keep a
change of clothes in your truck – I limped from under the
tree. The fine, crusher-run gravel of the parking lot was a
delicate material, as granite goes, yet it still managed to
make ear-splitting sounds.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, bounced off the raw walls
of my skull.
I tried to tiptoe, but it didn't help.
A cathedral of sky and mountain opened over my head. I
took a couple of reviving breaths and looked around. Evening
light cloaked the cove in soft blue shadows; the Ten Sisters
mountains, circling the cove like the thick rim of a bread
bowl, glowed gold and mint-green above filaments of silver
mist. On a damp day the Sisters filled with white fog,
disappearing like islands in a soft, white sea. There was a
reason pioneers named the Appalachians of western North
Carolina the Smokies.
The view could almost clear up a hangover. Almost.
"Thomas! Are you still out here goofing off?"
Delta's squeaky drawl stabbed my eardrums. Wincing, I
pivoted toward it. She leaned over the rail of the café's
front veranda, a motherly, plump, angel of food under the
whitewashed halo of a farmhouse-cum-restaurant porch,
surrounded by an eclectically challenged cluster of
half-barrel flower pots and rump-sprung rocking chairs.
Vintage. She and the café were vintage. As a preservation
architect, I loved that. As a suicidal alcoholic clinging
to every comfort I could find, I loved it even more.
GROCERIES AND MORE, said a weathered aluminum sign
hanging from the café's eaves. The "more" included
everything a modern mercantile in the middle of nowhere
should stock. Need shotgun shells, condoms, and a fine wine
selection from the Biltmore Estate vineyards over in
Asheville? Delta called that "the Valentine's Day package."
You could buy it all at the Crossroads Grocery.
On the café's other side stood a cheerful trio of former
hunting shacks, now reconstituted as prime business
locations with signs and awnings and their own parking
spaces. The one with the American flag hanging from a
wall-mount by the screen door was our combination post
office and Delta's brother, Bubba McKellan's, pottery
studio. Behind the cafe, FEED AND SEED summed up the
retail mission of an old gray barn, and SWAP AND THRIFT
nailed the purpose of the barn's enclosed lean-to.
In the cities, a note on a cash register change cup says,
"Take a penny, leave a penny."
At the Crossroads, a hand-lettered placard on the lean-to
said: "Take a chair, leave a chair."
The entire, fabulously organic café compound was fronted,
on the roadside near the gas pumps, by a big wooden sign
hung from four-by-four posts. The sign alerted strangers to
all the wonders that could be had right there, all in one
At the very bottom of that list, recently nailed into
place, a small sign added, AND WIRELESS INTERNET ACCESS.
"Are you coming inside or do I have to take a hickory
switch to your behind?" Delta called.
"I'm meditating," I called. "Banger and I are working on
the meaning of existence. So far, we think it involves
butting things with your head."
"Spare me your ill-tempered notions. Come on, you're
gonna miss Cathyrn on TV! She's having a press conference
for her make-up company! They're gonna interview her, live!"
Delta clearly believed a glimpse of her movie-star kin
was always good for my jaded soul.
"If I come in, will you give me a hot biscuit?"
"Git! In! Here!" She jabbed a finger at the double front
doors, where a small sign said, The Crossroad's Café.
Good Food And Then Some. "I haven't got time to
sweet-talk you anymore! See all those SUV's and minivans in
the parking lot? I got a restaurant full of family
reunioners from Asheville in here. I'm volunteering you to
work as a busboy!" I gave her a thumbs-up. She went back
"Don't wait up for me, honey," I told Banger, who was
eating a cigar butt I'd dropped.
I walked slowly toward the café, already tired of being
awake and sober. All right, I'd go inside and watch Cathyrn
Deen be beautiful.
I needed the fantasy.
After The Press Conference
Laughing, I led my entourage through one of the Four
Season's highly discreet exits, designed especially for
VIP's. The hotel is one of the most famous celebrity
hideaways in the world. Frank Sinatra sang by the piano in
the main bar on his eightieth birthday. Renee Zellweger was
mistaken for a cocktail waitress there, once, and
good-naturedly took bar orders from a table full of
businessmen. The front-desk staff speak a mysterious dialect
of English, one with vaguely euro-asian accents, as if
imported from some elegant little country especially to
serve celebrities. On any given day you can glimpse a number
of famous bodies being massaged in private cabanas around
the pool. The lobby bars are a swoon-fest of Hollywood
sightings, and also are rumored to be where the most
expensive hookers hang out.
A pair of valets ran to get my car, nearly tripping over
their feet when they saw me. Ah, the power of a clingy,
white angora sweater, black leggings, and knee-high Louis
Vuitton boots with stiletto heels. I looked like a
"You wowed everyone at your press conference today, Ms.
Deen," one of the valets gushed. "You looked great."
"Why, bless your heart."
"Get Ms. Deen's car," a bodyguard ordered. The valet
I was trailed by two private security men, five
publicists, two assistants, and one assistant to an
assistant of my agent. Everyone but me had a phone attached
to his or her ear, and they were all talking, but not to me
or each other. I laughed again as I signed autographs for
the bellmen. My entourage chattered on without me, as perky
as parakeets on cocaine.
Yes, the press conference was huge. Fabulous.
Cathyrn's doing lunch with Vogue next week. Cover photos are
under negotiation. Pencil us in for Tuesday, in New York.
Marty? Book Cathyrn with Larry King for the twelfth.
No, Cathyrn can't do Oprah on that schedule. She'll be
in England to film a couple of last-minute scenes for The
Pirate Bride. Sophia Coppola insists.
Hello, I'm calling for Cathyrn Deen. Ms. Deen wants
you to find her a great, authentic voice coach to work with
her on Giant. Yes, I know she can naturally do a southern
accent, but Ms. Deen says a Texas drawl is very different
from an Atlanta accent. She wants a coach from Dallas. No,
not the old TV show. The city. Ms. Deen requires a
city-southern-Texas-rich accent for the film. She's meeting
with her producers and director this weekend . . .
"Women like you ruin other women's lives, bitch!"
The voice rang out as I was about to step into the open
door of my Trans Am. The car was a mint condition 1977
T-Top, black and gold. I halted with one high-heel on the
door rim. Several scruffy young women darted from behind the
hotel's glorious palms, waving homemade signs.
REAL WOMEN DON'T HAVE TO BE FLAWLESS
CATHYRN DEEN HATES REAL WOMEN
"You're telling women to hate themselves for having
ordinary faces and bodies," one of the protestors yelled. "But you're
the freak, not us!"
My publicists formed a circle around me, like pioneers
trying to ward off a band of angry Sioux. The protestors
bobbed and weaved as the guards chased them. I was
open-mouthed with amazement. "Why didn't anyone tell me
these girls were out here?" I demanded. "I could have
invited them to the press conference. Listened to their
concerns. Offered them a makeover--"
"Never negotiate with terrorists," one of the publicists
"Terrorists? Oh, come on. They're just sorority girls
with bad hair. They're probably sophomores at Berkley. Maybe
I'm their class protest project. " I called to the guards.
"Bring them over here and let me talk to them!"
My publicists did a group pirouette to stare at me in
horror. "Those girls could be carrying mace or pepper
spray," one said.
"Or a hidden bomb," a second added.
I laughed. "Or iPods filled with horrifying Ashley
Simpson songs, or hair brushes with really sharp bristles,
or . . ."
"Please, Cathyrn. The hotel's still full of
photographers. If the press catches wind of this, these
protestors will make the news and that's all people
will remember about the launch of Flawless
That got me. Gerald's put so much work and money into
this venture, I thought. I can't ruin this day for
him. I blew out a breath. "All right, y'all win." They
hustled me into the Trans Am. One of the publicists, a young
man, put a hand to his heart as he shut my door. "Ms. Deen,
I'm so sorry about this. If I ran the world, all the ugly
chicks with big mouths would be sent to an island,
I stared at him. I'd never thought of myself as the
poster girl for men who thought women should keep quiet and
look pretty. As I drove out of the Four Season's elegant,
palm-endowed shadow, the girls glared at me from behind the
phalanx of security people. They raised their hands and
flipped me the bird.
I didn't know how to deal with people who weren't in awe
So in return I gave them a polite, beauty-queen wave.
Just after dark, east coast time.
I took a break from bussing tables at the café and sat
down on a rough oak bench at the edge of the café's parking
lot. I lit another crumpled cigar butt I found in my jeans'
front pocket. In front of me, sandwiched between a section
of split-rail fence and a steep hill planted in gnarled
apple trees, a faded two-lane road meandered past.
Gloriously labeled by its antique name, The Asheville Trace,
it hinted that modern horsepower could get you to Crossroads
and back to civilization without packing a lunch. Coming
from Asheville, the Trace slithered out of the eastern
Sisters along their foothills, bordered the vast expanse of
the grassy cove, yawned past me, then wandered up a
twisting route into the foothills, heading west to the
county seat. During rush hour, we locals might see, oh, a
car on the Trace every ten minutes.
Which suited me just fine.
I tossed the cigar butt, feeling nauseous. Hand-rolled
local tobacco – a North Carolina heritage – was a smooth
smoke but hard on an empty stomach. I sniffed burning hair.
A fleck of tobacco smoldered in my beard. A few quick slaps,
and the beard was saved. I wouldn't have to drop out of the
ZZ Top lookalike contest.
More deep breaths. I inhaled the good smell of wood in
nearby chimneys, the clean, springtime fragrance of earth,
and the wafting aromas of dinner from Delta's kitchen. The
mountains curled a breeze through Delta's cooking and
carried it all over the cove. Even out at my cabin I
sometimes swore I smelled her famous biscuits.
"Hey, Mitternich," Jeb Whittlespoon yelled from the
café's side door. "Poker at nine. Right after the dining
I gave him a thumbs-up.
One winter, when it snowed heavily, I slip-tied an
aluminum rowboat to Jeb's ATV and we did a little motorized
sledding. Jeb, a young Iraq veteran, was still working out
some post-traumatic stress issues at the time, so he was
more than happy to careen the ATV down the Trace's snowy
slide into the cove, towing me and my rowboat behind him. I
jerked the slip-tie free at the precise moment when my
counterweight mass and my projectile mass met in a perfect
orgasm of force and release, and I and the rowboat sailed
over a drop-off on the road's shoulder. We remained airborne
for a good twenty yards before the boat plowed a pre-spring
furrow in the southeast quadrant of the café's vegetable
garden. Ten heads of winter cabbage were collateral damage.
Delta, who is Jeb's mother, forgave me. She was just glad
to see her son laugh, again. I'd promised her I'd coax him
out of his shell, and I did.
She even paid for my stitches.
I got up from the bench and went back to the café.
Poker at nine, drunk by midnight, sleeping with goats by
A typical Saturday night.
I bussed tables covered in red-checkered oil cloth under
old tin ceiling lamps that cast warm pools of light. The
café' was Mayberry, a Norman Rockwell painting, and a
rerun of The Waltons all rolled into one. Ordinarily
the atmosphere soothed me, but that night I felt edgy -- not
just the usual blue-black mood that came on as the sun set,
but something worse.
Around me, happy families visiting from the campgrounds
and the suburbs of Asheville ate plates of the best southern
home cooking anywhere. Delta's daughter-in-law, Becka, and
sister-in-law, Cleo, hustled between the tables. Becka and
Cleo flirted with me harmlessly, tolerated me endlessly,
bossed me around. Cleo prayed for me. Becka told Jeb, her
husband, to keep guns away from me when I was drunk.
I turned around with a pan full of dishes and found a
little boy staring up at me. Gaping, mesmerized. Oh, God,
I thought. He looks like Ethan. Even more than most.
Every boy under five reminded me of Ethan. Every breath I
took reminded me of Ethan. Clouds reminded me. Toys in an ad
reminded me. Spatters of fake blood on an episode of CSI
reminded me. I wondered if I still had half a bottle of
vodka under the truck's front seat.
"Mister, are you a hillbilly?" the boy asked. His voice
trembled. He was afraid of me.
The father rushed over. "He didn't mean any harm."
I could only nod. Words stuck in my throat. A glance
confirmed that everyone in the diner was staring at
me. Six-four, bearded, wrinkled Giants jersey, faded jeans,
old running shoes, blood-shot eyes, topped with a ponytail
and a long, wavy brown beard. Go figure.
Delta stepped between me and the worried customers,
grinning. "Aw, this is no hillbilly," she announced. "This
is just Thomas, a crazy architect from New York City." To me
she whispered, "You know we all love you around here, but
you've got a strange look in your eyes tonight. You're
scaring kids and giving hillbillies a bad name. Take a
I nodded again, my throat aching. I carried the bus pan
to the kitchen, then walked outside. I went to my truck,
climbed in, and pulled a fresh bottle of vodka from under
the front seat. I had my rituals. Open a bottle, pull down
the visor, look at the pictures I'd laminated and taped
there. Sherryl and Ethan on his first birthday, in Central
Park, laughing for me among some flowers. And the other
picture, the one from the archives of the New York Times,
a picture like dozens of pictures that had been studied,
analyzed, and archived.
A picture from the morning of September 11, 2001, when my
wife jumped from the north tower of the World Trade Center
with our son in her arms. I touched both pictures with a
fingertip, then took my first drink of the night.
Ventura Highway Five p.m., west coast time.
"Caaaathyrn!" A car full of teenage boys passed me in an
open Jeep, waving and honking their horn.
I waved back vaguely, still distracted from the incident
at the hotel, I zoomed along the Ventura Highway in heavy
traffic, headed northwest out of L.A. The producers of
Giant, a husband-wife team, owned a fabulous Arabian
horse ranch outside Camarillo, near the coast. I planned to
spend the weekend as their houseguest, discussing the script
and meeting with the director. Gerald had kissed me goodbye
at the hotel on his way to board our Lear Jet. He was headed
to London to meet with some of our Flawless
My right foot cramped as I pressed the Trans Am's
accelerator. High-heeled, skintight ostrich leather boots
are not meant for driving a muscle car. I had a garage
filled with Mercedes and Jaguars, but I loved my classic,
redneck wheels. Clearly, I'd inherited some fast-car genes
from my Grandpa Nettie. He died young – murdered in a fight
at a roadhouse outside Asheville, so I never knew him, but
Granny said he'd been a bootlegger and mountain dirt-track
racer in his youth. I glanced at the Trans Am's speedometer.
Only 80 mph. By California highway standards, I was just
coasting. "Hey, Grandpa, watch this," I said aloud.
I wiggled my foot, pressed harder, and sped up. The wind
curled in through the open T-top, whipping my hair. It was a
perfect spring day, the temperature in the seventies, the
smog just a pretty, lavender-blue mist on the horizon. I
crested a hill and grinned at a vista laced with the
lime-green outlines of large vegetable fields. Some day I
was going to hire someone to plant vegetables at Granny's
farm in North Carolina. And send me pictures.
Other drivers waved and honked at me – mostly men and
boys, smiling, putting hands to their hearts in admiration.
Tractor-trailer drivers blew their deep, diesel horns as I
zoomed past. I waved and smiled in return. I admit it: I
enjoyed being a movie star on the freeway. What a great
stage. I felt immortal.
Lights flashed in my rear-view mirror. I glanced back and
scowled when I discovered a familiar blue mini-van. A hand
came out of the van's passenger window, waved gleefully at
me, disappeared, then returned clutching a large video
camera. A shaggy, gray-blonde guy poked his head out and
fitted the video cam's viewfinder to one eye.
Mason Angston. A jerk, even by the aggressive standards
of showbiz paparazzi. We had a long acquaintance, most of it
annoying to me and profitable to him. He'd videotaped me as
I walked through airports all over the world, trailed me on
the outskirts of movie sets, hopped out of the bushes
around nightclubs and restaurants, and once snapped photos
of me sunning topless in Spain, which the world could still
view for five dollars per download on the Internet.
And now he intended to tape me driving on the Ventura
Highway? It must be a slow week in the celebrity scandals
business. Were InsideEdition and
Entertainment Tonight that desperate for footage?
I wasn't in the mood. Bitch. Bad role model for girls.
Those words kept echoing through my mind.
And biscuits. Granny Nettie's gravy-covered
biscuits. Suddenly I could almost taste them again, just as
I had in the hotel suite, almost hear her ghost whispering
in my ear, Take comfort, now. Rejoice. You'll live.
Strange thoughts. A chill on my skin. I shook it off,
glared at Mason in the rearview mirror, and stomped the
Trans Am's accelerator.
For months afterwards, I would try to remember every
detail of that moment. To remember every nuance, everything
I felt and did, everything I should have done
differently. I would be haunted by everything I did wrong in
that split-second of eternity, when my life changed forever.
The toe of my boot slipped sideways off the pedal. The
boot's long, narrow heel went under the pedal and
jammed there. My foot was trapped for maybe two seconds,
three at the most. Just enough time for the Trans Am to slow
down, just enough time to encourage the clueless driver in
the lane to my left. He whipped his small, aged hatchback in
front of me. I stared in horror at the car's taillights,
which I was about to rear-end at ninety miles per hour.
I jerked my foot free and stomped the brake. The Trans Am
hunched down like a horse trying to slide to a stop from a
full gallop. The tires screamed. I was still closing in on
the hatchback with no hope of not hitting it. I swung into
the emergency lane. The Trans Am began sliding sideways,
and I couldn't straighten it.
The rear right bumper clipped a guard rail. The car spun
full-circle. I couldn't hold onto the steering wheel. The
front bumper slammed into the guard rail, plowed it down,
and the Trans Am went airborne, riding the guard rail at
high-speed, it's underbelly ripping open. The roar and
shriek of metal filled my ears. So did my screams.
The Trans Am shot off the road near a strawberry field. I
didn't see the field's hogwire fence before I plowed through
it. I didn't see the shallow irrigation ditch, either. The
Trans Am hit it at an angle, tilted, and rolled completely
My head slammed into the steering wheel. Thank god for
the wheel's padded leather cover. And thank god I was
wearing a seatbelt. The car flopped to a halt in the ditch,
upright but tilted, with the passenger-side wheels resting
on the slope.
Quiet. Everything suddenly went so quiet, and so still.
My head throbbed, but otherwise, I was unhurt. Dazed, I
managed a few deep, shaky breaths. I heard people yelling,
but for some reason, none of them came over to help me. I
fumbled for the door handle. It wouldn't work. I shoved.
There was no give. The door was jammed. My head began to
clear, and I felt a little panicky. What was that scent?
Smoke. That's smoke. And gasoline. Get out of this
car. Climb out the T-top.
I scrambled to my knees on the bucket seat. My boot heels
snagged on the floor-shift on the center console behind me.
I grabbed the window sill with both hands. The metal was
warm. Acrid smoke flooded my nose and throat. A coughing
fit doubled me over.
"Beautiful," Mason called. "Beautiful, Cathyrn. Work it,
Mason stood a few feet away, videotaping me.
"I need help. Help me, you cretin!"
"Come on, Cathyrn, you can help yourself. You can make
it! You're a star, baby! And star's are always resourceful!"
He crept closer, the camera never wavering. I shoved myself
headfirst out the window and tumbled to the ground. "See
there?" he called, laughing.
I staggered to my feet, but my left boot heel sank into
the soft earth, and I tripped. I landed hard on my right
side. Hair, face, right arm, right hip, right leg. Into the
What was this slick fluid on my hands? This smell? Oh, my
God. Gasoline. The ground was soaked with it. And
now, on my right side, so was I.
"Hurry, Cathyrn!" Mason called. "I think your catalytic
converter's about to catch the weeds on fire! Raise your
head so I can get a good frontal! Work it, baby!"
I scrambled out of the ditch on all fours. At that point,
my deepest desire was to reach Mason, wrap my hands around
his throat and strangle him.
Behind me I heard a soft, sinister whoosh.
A fireball went up my right side.
Some victims of violent accidents say time seems to slow
down. They say they felt disconnected, almost like a
spectator. Not me. Imagine sticking your upper body into a
hot oven. Imagine plunging your hands into the glowing coals
of your backyard grill.
Imagine. That's how it felt.
You're incredible, Cathyrn!" Mason yelled. I would never
forget the thrill in his voice.
I wasn't incredible. I was burning alive.
Roll. Get down on the ground and roll. I threw
myself face down by the Trans Am, flailing, screaming,
rolling. The heat retreated, the flames vanished. I went
limp, gasping, peeing on myself, vomiting bile.
Four or five seconds. I was on fire for no more than
four, maybe five, seconds, witnesses said later.
Shock began taking hold. Now, yes, I felt weirdly calm,
pleasantly detached. It'll take a week of spa treatments
to get this smell off me, I thought.
I heard sirens, I heard people still shouting. Some of
them were even crying. One of them moaned, "Ohmygod, Ohmygod,
look at her. I want to puke." Which struck me as
I managed to lift my head. Mason crouched less than an
arm's length from my face, breathing hard, excited. I could
see him through the smoke, I could hear him gulping for air,
like a man about to come. Was he giving off that
nauseating scent? It smelled like burned hair, and . . .
burned . . . meat. He aimed the wide, black eye of
his lens directly at my face. I looked into the glassy black
mirror of that eye, the world's eye, and saw a
grotesque, charred, sickening reflection.
And then I realized it was me.
That night, some gnawing anxiety drew me beyond the
starlit outline of the high evergreen forests on the ridges,
filled me with even more loneliness. At night, the cove and
the mountains around the Crossroads turn deep-green, almost
black. You can feel the potential for evil in the darkness
then, the surveillance of arrogant trees, the deadly lure of
the cliffs, the subversive hollows, the drowning charm of
the whitewater creeks, the hunger of wild animals slipping
through the shadows, just waiting for you to become their
Steadied by several deep swallows of vodka, I stood by
the Trace, touched only by the faintly lit café sign there,
watching the universe sprinkle its streetlights across the
sky above Ten Sisters.
Bring it on, I told the evil. I know you're out
All those far-away worlds, unknown. But here, in the
light of the Crossroads, the world was safe and familiar, an
old world, an illusion like all safe places, but still. That
night I felt like a hollow column asked to hold up the
weight of the sky without a partner. I needed someone. And
someone needed me. Who?
Come here, where it's safe, in the light. We'll fight
the evil together.
I couldn't understand why those words went through my