All afternoon, in the slow burn of a February sunset, with the wind slamming against the big plate-glass windows of her apartment in Prince George's County, Katherine Anne Porter flaunted her own death, flirted with it, name-dropped it, dared it and generally waved it around her like the veils Isadora Duncan danced with.
"Can you keep a secret?" she asked me when I met her that day, six years ago. "Gentlemen's agreement? You won't say a word? Well, you can hang your coat in there, then."
In there, leaning against the coat-closet wall like a bridge table in anyone else's house, was her coffin. It had long brass hinges, and joints sanded smooth. It was six feet of pine box, ready to be painted up Mexican style, she said.
"I bought it by mail from Arizona for $160, which is far less than they would try to make you pay in these funeral homes. I deeply resent this ghastly show and expense. When I die, I have told my executors that I will have the coffin and a linen sheet ready for them. I brought the linen back from Liege. I forbid the undertaker to touch me. Simply take me to the crematory, then scatter my ashes anywhere at all."
That's how our afternoon began.
Miss Porter died yesterday at 90, after one of the most luminous careers in 20th-century American letters. She was one of our great short-story writers and possibly our greatest novella writer: "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," "Noon Wine," "Flowering Judas," "Rope," and her novel, "Ship of Fools."
Having already seen both heaven and hell at least half a century before she let me in to visit, she had no fears whatsoever of either the right- or the left-handed terrors of eternity.
She was fierce and tiny, that day, with violet eyes that didn't miss a word I wrote in my reporter's notebook. She wore an aqua hostess gown with a half a dozen buttons open at the throat. A small emerald linked two strands of pearls. A big emerald floated on her left hand. Her hair was the pure white it turned on the day when she was 28 and a victim of the great influenza epidemic of 1918, "the plague" as she referred to it that day in a tone that suggested she would not like to have survived 83 years, three marriages and divorces, a Pulitizer Prize, the depreviations of reality suffered in a Southern and Victorian girlhood, the deprivations of luxuries suffered ina bohemian womanhood, untold loves and despairs, two administerings of the last rites during two of the more severe of her many and varied illnesses, a revolution in Mexico, the vagaries of critics and literati . . . she would not want to have survived all this without a plague thrown in there too.
That was when she saw heaven, too.
As she wrote in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider": "Why of course, of course, said Miranda, without surprise but with serene rapture as if some promise made to her had been kept long after she had ceased to hope for it. She rose from her narrow ledge and ran lightly through the hall portals of the great bow that arched in its splendor over the burning blue of the sea and the cool green of the meadow on either hand."
"I told my nephew I've seen everything," she said to me in her terrific, lilty rush of southern accent. "The things I see happening now I saw happening 60 years ago. You can't surprise me. I have nothing to complain of in my life. It was hell on earth, earlier, but I am glad I lived it."
How she went on, talking about revolution, about "grotesque dislocations in a whole society when the whole world was heaving in the sickness of millennial change"; about Hemingway, Hitler, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
"Can you imagine that I held my own?" she asked, referring to them. My answer, tacit or no, was yes, having read her description of Gertrude Stein as "extremely like a handsome old Jewish patriarch who had backslid and shaved off his beard."
Frail as she seemed physically, she had a spirit that was adamant, nearly tangible, something she described in "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" as "a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live."
She told me she was happiest wandering around the long white hallways and shiny parquet floors of her apartment.
"At night, the place is quiet, quiet, quiet. I ramble around, making notes. I read. I am absolutely happy alone, working."
She had beautiful furniture -- an old rolltop desk, a gilt ormolu mirror with two gilt cherubs flying up the wall toward it, a spinet and an oriental rug, but it all looked as if she might have rented it for the occasion, and after it left, she'd have it taken away so she could wander around in the purity and infinite possiblity of emptiness.
As a friend once said: "Every now and then she stops being what she is and becomes something else. She leaves her old life . . . dry and forgotten and dead, something she has put forever behind her."
She had made a career of deaths of one kind or another. Certainly it kept coming up in conversation which was a blithe meander of talk that one moment would have her saying that when she wanted to die she'd shoot herself, she was a very good shot. . . through later she spoke of her friend Ford Madox Ford "who had a heart condition and took these digitalis tablets I take." One day, his wife came running, she said, but she was too late to give him his tablet "and all she could do was hold him while he died. Thank God . . . hthank God he did not die alone."
She did not mind contradicting herself on either fact or philosophy, but, as she once said: "No man can be explained by his personal history, least of all a poet."
Anyhow, on my way out, she asked me again not to talk about her coffin, then changed her mind -- not only changed it but brushed past me into the closet to open it.
"And that's the Belgian linen I told you about, that I bought in Liege."
There was a tangy morbidity about the whole thing, an electricity she generated with fine ease. With dancing-school grace she executed a little turn and stepped back into the coffin, two white mesh slippers perched on the linen.
"You see, it's a bit big for me," she said, floating a measuring hand above her head. "Would you like to take my picture in it?"
She laughed a very big laugh.
"No," she said. "That would be too much."