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Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story

“She’s back. She's after me.”

Those were the first words Nelle had heard from him in--God, twenty years? However many years it had been, it was so long ago she couldn’t remember. She just knew that it had been another time, another place.

She also knew, even with the call coming in the middle of the night, immediately who it was. Even a deaf and nearly dead old person--which she wasn’t, but getting there--could tell who was on the other end of the line, the high-pitched, nasal whine as unmistakable at age fifty-nine as it had been fifty years earlier.


“I’m in trouble. Terrible, terrible, terrible trouble.”

Truman. Good Lord Above, I can't believe..."

“Trouble like you won't believe. Oh, Nelle, Nellynellynelly, I’ve messed up, you’ve gotta help me."

"I believe all the trouble I hear about you, but let’s start with how dare you call me outta the blue when you haven’t called in...”

He cut her off, unrepentant, nothing like a little “I'm sorry we haven’t talked in twenty years” to stand in his way.

He was in trouble and he needed help now.

"You’re the only one I can trust. I’ve written a book, my masterpiece, all my secrets, all their secrets, and now she’s trying to steal it, take it from me ‘fore it’s ready...”

“Who? Where are you?”

“In Palm Springs. In Cold Blood,” he added, a giggle, a postscript. “Oh, Nelle..."

Now he was crying.

"First it was all those bitches in New York, the ones I wrote about, who practically drummed me out of town. Now it’s her. I can't get her to leave. I don't want her here."

Who are you talkin’ about?”

“Nancy. I told you.”

No he didn't and Nancy who? She didn’t know any Nancy.

“She’s come here every night in a row now, and I’m scared.”

Who has been comin'?”

An exasperated sigh. “Nancy. Nancy Clutter. Remember?”

“You idiot,” he might as well have said.

Nancy Clutter.

From "In Cold Blood."

The dead teen-aged girl who loved horses.

Jesus H. Christ.

His coming couldn't have been any more surprising.

“She’s here. In this very room, over in the corner. Just staring at me. And I'm scared witless. Shitless,” he said, giggled again, then cried. Again. "She’s just staring at me--ohsweetJesusLord--now she's at the foot of the bed. How'dshegethereshit.”

“Throw a bottle at her. Sounds like you've got a few lyin’ around.”

Nelle was not having any of this, no matter how drunk or scared or famous he was. Not a word of explanation for disappearing on her--blaspheming her--years ago. She was not a retiring woman, about to roll over and accept table scraps. Just read her book--she had one too, you know--and find out. She’d been a tomboy, tough as nails, able to punch out anybody on the playground, and she still had it in her. It was old, and tired, and arthritic, but it was still there. Tough. It took being tough to deal with all the requests and questions and letters that came her way.

But this--from a man half her size, half her strength, a voice way higher than her's, one call--and she caved.

“Now she's jabbering...”

"What? What's she saying?"

Like the dead Nancy Clutter was actually talking to Truman. Nelle could not believe herself. What indeed.

"She’s blaming me. And you too..."


"...You were there too, Miss Don't Think You're Gonna Get Outta This So Easy.”

“Blamin’ us? For what?” (Indignant at a ghost that wasn't there. Nelle was losing her mind, same as Truman.)

Finally, a pause on the other end, as if Truman couldn't quite believe what Nancy had just said, and was trying to process her words before he repeated them to Nelle.

"Blaming us because...I made her famous. We made her famous. She says she never wanted to be famous. Would you wanna be famous for getting killed?”


Mad at being famous--the only thing Truman had ever wanted to be.

The only thing Nelle had never wanted to be.

That shut all three of them up.

For a second.

“What the fuck do I do now?” he hissed, more angry than scared at the ghost of the young girl whose murder had made him a household name, and destroyed his life.

“Truman, it’s the middle of the night. Go to sleep, call me tomorrow..."

“Go to sleep? I might not be here tomorrow! I'm about to get murdered in my sleep and you're worried about missing out on some dreams, which if they’re anything like mine are terrifying enough to begin with without some specter intruding…”

There was a pause; Truman was shifting around, moving the receiver.

“Here, you talk to her. You’ll know what to say. You always did. You’re the one who sweet-talked those Kansas hicks in the first place. She's just another Kansas hick, even if she's dead. Do it again.”

For one second, Nelle thought how insensitive could he be, calling Nancy Clutter a Kansas hick to her face--her dead face--then she remembered you couldn't offend someone WHO WASN'T THERE.

Nelle heard the receiver on the other end get shuffled around; Truman was holding it out to Nancy.

Nancy Clutter, back for him.

He deserved it.

They both deserved it.

Then, another voice; it was muffled, but it was there, and Nelle almost dropped the phone.

It WAS Nancy Clutter, speaking from the grave.

No--how STUPID could Nelle be--just Truman's maid; a black woman’s voice, Nelle heard that clearly enough. You didn’t grow up in the South without being able to hear that.

“This Myrtle Bennett, Mr. Truman’s girl?"

“Girl my ass,” Nelle heard Truman snort in the background; he wasn't too drunk or terrified for sarcasm. “You’re old! And you’re fat! Just like me! Now GO AWAY!" That was Truman, yelling not at his maid, but at Nancy, followed by the sound of a bottle crashing into a wall.

"He's sick, awful sick, drinkin' to beat the band...”

“I have just had a few drinks, no more than normal, and you would too if a ghost...”

“...and you’re all he’s been talkin' 'bout for hours so I dug through his things and found your number and..."

The phone went dead, just like Nancy Clutter.

Nelle wasn’t going back to sleep now; there were ghosts everywhere she turned.

And they were coming for her as well.


She'd been having her own night visitors lately, and not just Truman, with his tales of Nancy Clutter. For a Southern girl, with the swampy, hazy bayou at her feet, it was strange that she hadn't believed in ghosts before now, but she hadn't. She’d gone to law school, for God’s sake. Ghosts played no part in the practice of the law. It was only as she became older--hell, got old--that she had come to believe so fervently in them. They haunted her sleep now, what little sleep came: ghosts of her mother and father and brother Ed, who had died so suddenly and unexpectedly, the one she missed most of all, even after all these years. People kept asking if she still wrote; that's almost all they ever asked. It would amaze them to know she’d been writing every day and night for the past forty years--one long, unbroken letter to her brother Ed, every single day.


A call in the middle of the night.

This isn’t how she wanted it to be.

Her first words from Truman in years--this “pocket-sized Merlin,” as she'd anointed him in The Book--and he was drunk and hallucinating. No apology, no catching up, no explanation, just save me...


She was old, and couldn't move that fast anymore. She wanted, she needed, time to reflect, time to drift into a reverie about their shared childhoods, about barefoot summers and feet so calloused by the hot earth nothing could hurt them, about lemonade and cake and talcum powder smells and starched white linen, which he always wore, even on the hottest days, but...


She was too old for this, an unwelcome voice from the past.

Anybody's voice, dead or alive, or just dead to her.

A flat dial tone came from the phone she still gripped in her hand. An old person's hand, she thought, drifting into writer’s mode: blood veins ridged like highways that dropped off on both sides, liver spots melding into a tan, turkey skin that wouldn't fall back into place after you pinched it up.

She replaced the receiver on its cradle--no clue how to get Truman back, no clue if she wanted to get Truman back--and sat up straighter in bed, her face rising into view in her bureau mirror, against the wall.

She was in her late fifties, but looked older because of all the time she spent out in the Alabama sun: wrinkled, leathery skin as dry as those hot summers when she first met Truman. No amount of fancy moisturizer or suntan lotion her sister Alice tried to force on her would change all that, a trophy from Nelle's days on her beloved golf course.

Nelle often saw Truman’s photograph, and knew the years had been as unkind to him, even with all his reported nips and tucks: his skin was just as leathery and parched and thirsty as hers, no amount of surgery could make up for that. A sad homecoming for someone who had been the most beautiful, flawless child she’d ever seen. Strange, she knew, a child, especially a tomboy like her, knowing another child was beautiful, but she did. Everyone knew that about Truman, who had the most perfect skin anyone had ever seen, an ageless alien in their midst. But then you moved past his perfect skin and cellophane-clear hair to his eyes, and saw that all the worry and age had gone into them. They were ancient, primordial. He was an old soul, always had been; it was clear he knew things, had seen things, even at seven years old.

He had lived next door to her, at least for three months out of the year, for most of her childhood. Every summer when he came to Monroeville--deposited with relatives there by his socialite mother who lived in New York and had Better Things To Do, and no time or use for her lone (and lonely) child--they would fall back into their familiar pattern of cub reporter and recording secretary; he had the words, she had the typing skill (learned on the old Underwood typewriter her father kept at home.) And, as befitting the tomboy daughter of a lawyer father, and a little boy whose most loyal companion was his imagination, their favorite stories were crimes, the gorier the better. Truman, puffing out his lower lip and blowing upward to get his spider web-fine hair out of his eyes, would write them down in a little notebook he always carried; Nelle would do the legwork.

When they didn't have a real mystery to solve--which was most of the time, even though everything was a mystery to a lonely and sensitive Southern child--they'd make one up, each adding gruesome twist after twist to the plot, the better to out-spook the other. One particular summer's story had repulsed, and thus fascinated them, even more: a man's body, puffed up and bloated, had been found in the river, the unfortunate victim of a cottonmouth snake. They decided the bloating was in equal parts from being waterlogged and from the snake's deadly toxin. They couldn't decide which was worse or, in their lexicon, better.

What ghoulish children they had been, salivating over the details of how some poor soul had met his Maker.

And now, they had come full circle: Nancy Clutter-- who had met her Maker in a spectacularly horrible and public way--was back for them.


She wasn't alone.

Truman called Nelle the next night as well.

This time, the ghost belonged to Kenyon, Nancy’s fifteen-year-old brother. At first, Nelle wanted to laugh: so that’s how Truman was going to play this, have the whole Clutter family haunt him, one by one, but he was so terrified she knew it was real, if only to him.

Kenyon, as described by an hysterical Truman, was different than Nancy. He didn't say a word--no blame for fame, at least--just silently threatened Truman with the glowing tip of a cigarette, no doubt an invitation to remember the scene Truman had invented where Kenyon's father Herb caught him smoking in the basement, the basement where they would spend the last few moments of their lives. (Truman invented a lot of scenes; not many people knew that. Maybe that's why Kenyon was so smoldering.)

When Truman called a third night in a row, Nelle wasn’t surprised. She'd been expecting, even looking forward, to the voice that sounded more Southern with each successive call, forcing herself to stay awake even though her pills had begun to kick in and draw her to sleep. By now, Truman’s ghosts were becoming hers as well; she was afraid of sleep for almost the first time in her life, afraid those same phantoms might be on the other side of her closed eyelids. She had been with Truman in Kansas after all, had seen and heard the same things he had. Why should she be exempt from a ghost or two?

She was only surprised at who Truman's phantom was this time.

"Perry," he said.

That was a switch.

Perry Smith.

No longer one of the Clutters, part of the family, but one of their killers.

Truman sounded even more drunk than he had been the first two nights.

“Son 'bitch is right here, rubbing his crotch in my face. Says I should'a saved him, got my big city friends to save him, but I didn’t, and now I'm going down just like him...he's calling me a little faggot."

Now Truman was crying.

Nelle had heard it all before. She had heard it--and said it--during the endless, agonizing years when Truman was trying to finish his masterwork, delayed by the unfortunate slowness of reality, and the legal system, when appeal after appeal kept the killers from the gallows, and he didn’t have an ending. She’d nursed Truman with her words then; she would nurse him with the same words, now.

“Nothing could have saved him, Truman. You know it and I know it and he knows it. (‘He does NOT know it, because he's not THERE,’ she thought to herself, even in the midst of talking to Truman.) He confessed.”

The tears were flowing.

“I'm dreaming of the Clutters’ house--WHEN THEY FUCKIN' LEAVE ME ALONE, THAT IS, AND I CAN ACTUALLY SLEEP FOR TWO GODDAMN SECONDS--and of poor little Nancy and Kenyon, Perry killing them, their parents too, all for money he thought was in the house but wasn’t, and I just get sick, physically sick, I wake up covered with vomit, the thought of him putting the pillow under Nancy’s little head, making her more comfortable for...makes me wanna puke. ('AND I DO,' he yells at the ghost.) I wanna give him all my money and say, ‘Here, Perry, take it, just leave them alone. Leave ME alone.’”

Nelle barely knew what to say, even in the dark of night, when truth was easiest. But she didn't have to say anything, because Truman rambled on, trying to come up with a too-late remedy for his own salvation or, at the very least, sleep.

"And I would, too. Give him every last penny of mine. Every last penny of ill-gotten gain..."

Perry was Truman's, not hers, and always had been; trying to get between the two of them would be like trying to come between two lovers. Even worse: two lovers who knew they shouldn’t be together, but couldn’t break apart. Truman had tried to argue that Perry was a victim himself, in his own right--of a miserable childhood. "Victim?" Nelle had argued right back, having predicted that Truman would fall in love with Perry the moment he laid eyes on him. "He's a killer. In Cold Blood. It’s your title, can't say it any plainer than that. Victim my ass." There was nothing Nelle could say or do about Perry and there never had been, so she let Truman ramble on, as her gaze went once again to her face in the mirror.

Instead of the craggy old thing she usually saw there--looking back at her as if asking, "What do YOU want?"--she saw the bright, hopeful young woman she had been in her twenties, when she had been alert and eager to please. It had been a forthright, friendly face, hadn't it, one people liked, before she'd taught herself to be so Goddamn scary? Before she’d turned herself, intentionally or not, into Boo Radley, her Frankenstein, made up of bits and pieces? What were the bits and pieces that had made her up, and brought her to this place, where people were afraid of her--but she was even more afraid of them? That was Boo’s secret of secrets: he was even more afraid of them.

Nelle saw, as her mind traveled back, her young face looking into Truman's even-younger face; if she looked to be in her early thirties, which she was when their true haunting began, he looked to be about twelve.

Twelve with a bad French accent.

It was almost twenty five years ago.


“I’d like to purchase two round trip tickets to Kansas, s'il vous plait.”

France, by way of the deep South.

Truman’s delicate little hands--Nelle could swear he'd had a manicure, his fingernails were so shiny and pink--plunked down two wads of money on the counter of the airline reservations desk where she worked in New York.

“Truman, what are you doing here?” And then, under her breath, "I'm busy. I'm working." Her emphasis on the word made it clear it was something he should be doing as well, but as he was already the published author of several novels and short stories, she didn’t really know what his work now entailed.

"I AM working, for your information, just like everyone else here...even though I’m NOT like everyone else. Here or elsewhere.”

With a scarf wrapped around his neck and trailing Isadore Duncan-like at least three feet behind him--fluttering magically when there was no breeze, as if he had his own wind machine--that was abundantly clear: he WASN'T like anyone else.

“I’ll see you after I get off. At five.”

“I’m serious. I’m here for the purpose of commerce. I want to buy two tickets to Kansas.”

“It's flat. You won't like it. I've seen the brochures.”

“Two tickets. One for me, one for you. We're going there, to look into the heart of darkness.”

That got her attention, in a way even his bizarreness couldn't. She'd known him since childhood. She was used to his bizarreness.

“A murder...a murder has been perpetrated, four members of the same family gunned down, knifed, in cold blood. Mr. William Shawn of the esteemed New Yorker magazine is sending me there to write about it, and you're going to help.”

“Excuse me?”

“I need an assistant.”

“An assistant.”

“A consort,” he amended, afraid his choice of words would anger her and queer the deal, because the whole plan was contingent on her going. He conveniently forgot to tell her someone else had already passed on the assignment; that she was, literally, sloppy seconds. He reached over the counter and picked some remnant from her lunch break off her collar. The task at hand was scary enough--a murderer on the loose on the fruited plains--but it would be impossible without Nelle by his side, greasing the wheels, using her particular small town charm to get people to open up to him, and, when push came to shove, using her sheer size to scare the interviews out of the good folks of Holcombe, Kansas.

“I’ve got a job, in case you haven’t noticed; it might not be the one of my dreams, but for now...”

"A ridiculous job, in an equally ridiculous uniform."

“I’ll tell the president of the company you think so, next time he’s in town.”

She hated to admit Truman was right: it was a ridiculous job, a ridiculous uniform, and she hated it. But since her long-in-the-works book might never amount to anything, it was a ridiculous job she needed.

Truman continued. "It'll take your mind off things, while you're waiting for your bird book to come out. And it'll be like old times, us solving a mystery together. Besides, I think we're still engaged. We should put in an appearance together, just for propriety's sake. People are beginning to talk."

Their engagement, enacted when she was six and he was an older man of eight years old--will you marry me?, yeah, I guess, a quick peck on the cheek, forgotten until he returned to town the next summer--was the stuff of local legend, back in the town from which they had both escaped.

“I’ve already written your letter, asking for a leave of absence. I’ll even autograph it, if you like. We leave in three days.”

“Three days,” she said, appalled, but intrigued. His siren song of murder was the deep calling the deep. She wanted to quit right there on the spot, but she couldn't let him win.

Truman always won.

Three days later, she was on her way to Kansas with him, on a train instead of a plane, even though she could have gotten them her employee discount.


"Get the fuck away."

"What?" The words made Nelle furrow her eyes in the mirror, as she saw she wasn’t a girl of thirty anymore, but an old woman, talking to a man who had abandoned her long ago.

Truman was still going on about Perry.

"He won't go. He's got a noose burn around his neck, and an erection. I can see it through the fabric of his pants. It happens when they’re hung.” He laughed at his own joke, then started choking. “Why am I joking? They’re expecting a book, but it’s not done. What am I gonna do?"

Nelle was about to say “Quit drinking” in her no-nonsense way, but out of the blue--as out of the blue as Truman’s call had been--he had switched subjects, to the thing he was really afraid of.

The real reason for these calls late at night, when the cover of darkness could camouflage the truth.

It was the truth of a little boy who was all alone, who knew he was different, who knew his mother hadn’t loved him, no matter how hard he tried to not let on to anybody else.

Who knew he couldn’t write anymore.

"I try, I try so hard, I wake up and my hands hurt so much from all the writing I do...these beautiful hands, there's a blood blister the size of one of your golf balls on the finger where my pen scrapes against it all day long and comes up with nothing...”

A call, a call for help, late at night, when the world was at rest and he was too drunk to tell anything but the truth: "I’ve burned page after page. They're just no good. The burning's the only thing that has any juice left in it.”

There, in the middle of the night, her sister asleep in the next room, Nelle revealed her truth as well: “Me too.”

"I can't write anymore, Nelly. There’s no drama left. Just the drama of my life. But I can’t get that down on the page anymore."

That was the scariest thing in Truman's life--not Nancy Clutter or Kenyon Clutter or Perry Smith, who had killed four people in cold blood.

This was a whole other kind of ghost story.

"You’ve gotta help me. Be my...consort, just like in Kansas. Don’t let them take my book. Don’t let them find me out.” A pause, then, “Remember Kansas?”

“Of course I do. What else have we been talkin’ about?”

“I need that, I need the past right now, just hold me over the phone and tell me a bedtime story about Kansas... tell me about the past, Nelle, tell me about the last good time. Tell me about our childhood, when we weren’t scary or scared and we’d hide in the graveyard...”

And then the phone slipped from his fingers.

After a pause--"Truman? Tru? You still there?

Don't go, it's okay, give me your number"--someone gently hung up the receiver on his end.

Whether it was Myrtle, Truman's maid, or Perry Smith, back from the dead, or one of the Clutter children, Nelle couldn't even begin to guess.

Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story
by by Kim Powers

  • hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf
  • ISBN-10: 0786720336
  • ISBN-13: 9780786720330