Off Market

My father had been the one to light the fuse on the evening, calling me out of nowhere to invite me out to some restaurant down on Market Street.  I hadn’t even known he was in town.  It had been more than 15 years since Johnson Calvert moved out on my mom and me and headed east, intent on making his fortune.  He’d started in New York City but hadn’t lasted long.  Since leaving the Empire State he’d wandered from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron to this Podunk town called Pastor’s Creek outside of Sioux Falls, and then he shot south for a spell to live near Gum Creek, Georgia so he could be closer to his roots.  There were countless stops between Gum Creek and his final visit to San Francisco in the spring of 1992.

The restaurant was all atmosphere and short on substance.  Once inside it took me a moment to get my bearings.  Private candles lit every table and the glow of track lighting from the kitchen cast islands of light, but beyond those pale halos the room swirled blue with darkness and wafting cigar smoke from the bar.  Black curtains draped the walls.  Muzak crept from unseen speakers.

I heard a holler and saw him waving from a back table.  I also saw he wasn’t alone.  She was young and blond and wore a red dress.  She was pretty and probably in her late-twenties.  At the time my father was fifty-seven.

Johnson Calvert stood to greet me.  He wore a brown suit that didn’t fit as well as it once had.

(‘He looks best when he is out of his work clothes,’ my mother used to say, ‘because then he can hide that he’s actually a traveling salesman.’ My parents were a perverse combination.  Think Harriet Beecher Stowe meets Archie Bunker and you’re starting to get the picture.)

When I reached the table Johnson Calvert opted for a handshake.

‘How you doing, Son?’

‘Fine Dad.  I didn’t know we’d have company.’

‘Jackson, this is Grace.  Grace, my son Jackson.’  My father introduced us like it was a business transaction.

Grace didn’t stand but extended a dainty hand.

‘A pleasure.’  Her pink lipstick smile was crooked and rehearsed.

‘What are you up to, Dad?’  I took the seat opposite him and Grace.

‘Well Grace and I were out for a night on the town and I thought I’d give you a call.’

‘You in the city on business?’

‘Yep….a conference.  Just in for a few days.’

‘Well we should hang out some more, before you leave.  I’ve got a track meet tomorrow, too—District Finals.’

‘District Finals!  Standup job, son.’  He slapped me on the shoulder and laughed, his mouth gaping.  At that moment I recognized he was already drunk.

‘I’m running the sixteen-hundred.’

Track was one of the few areas where my father and I could relate.  There was something tangible about a finish line that was easy to grasp. I wasn’t actually all that good. I had some basic ability but didn’t work hard. Maybe I could have been in the State Finals instead of the District Finals if I’d wanted to put it all together.

My father sighed, shook his head.  ‘My plane leaves tomorrow morning. But the Finals!’  The transition was marked with his usual over-the-top energy.  ‘You’ve got your granddaddy’s lungs, son.  That man could work all day.  He was a regular mule!  A product of the Mississippi heat.’

‘I’ve never been to Mississippi,’ I said.

‘Haven’t ya?  Well we’d best do something about that.’  Grace giggled, a noise as red as her dress.  I turned to her, overwhelmed by my father.

‘Are you here for the conference too?’

‘No, I’m-’’

‘Yes, Jackson,’ Johnson Calvert broke in.  ‘She’s here for the conference.’  He nudged Grace with an elbow and shot her a semi-concealed grin, which she returned.  It was the kind of thing parents do around a six-year-old when they’re trying to hide a secret.  ‘Grace is a very accomplished saleswoman.’

Grace leaned toward me and patted my hand.

‘Very accomplished.’  She gave a wink and puckered her lips.  I could see down the front of her red dress.  I wondered what she was doing with my father.  (A little naïve at the time, you see.)

‘A manhattan for the boy,’ my father. The waiter frowned as he considered my baby face.

‘Just get the boy a drink and I’ll make it worth your while,’ my father said.  The waiter scrunched up his face and left.  His exit seemed to remind my father of something important.

‘So I hope you don’t mind, Grace, but I’ve got a gift here for Jackson.  A belated birthday present for ya.’

Grace yawned.  I had the impression she would prefer not to talk with my father and me.

‘I want to give you something, buddy,’ my dad said, looking from Grace back to me.  I saw him reach for the pocket inside his suit jacket.  His hand trembled and I wondered why.

He pulled out the badge.  The candlelight reflected off the silver face.  Of course I’d seen it before.  For years the badge had sat on his desk in a frame.  He mounted it there because he had no occasion to wear it.  He was the first in a line of disappointing, Non-Sheriff Calverts. (A line I may end up interrupting if I don’t get busy popping-out progeny sometime soon.)

‘I want you to have this, Jackson.  My Daddy, he gave it to me when I turned eighteen.  I used to polish it every day after school till it would shine and I could see my face in it.’  His arm swung like a crane across the table.  I opened my right hand and he set the badge in my palm.  I felt its weight for the first time, the cool slice of the clasp.

‘Thanks, Dad.’

I knew I would have to hide the badge from my mother.  She wouldn’t approve.  You see, long before I ever got the notion in my head, my mother always feared I’d grow up to be my father.

‘So where’s that drink of yours?’ my father said.  He was confused by the significance of the moment and it was easier just to pretend it never happened.  I sank the badge into my right pocket.

‘There goes our waiter,’ Grace said. I couldn’t tell if she was bored.  She kept her distance from my father.

‘So how’s the old battle ax, Son?  The old ball-in-chain?  How’s Dorothy?  How’s your mother?’  He laughed at his own joke. Grace offered a routine cackle.

‘She’s fine,’ I said, my gut constricting.

‘She’s always fine.  And how are you, Son?’  He laughed again.

‘I’m fine.’

‘Everybody’s fine!’  He slapped his palms on the table.  ‘Everybody’s fine….I’m fine too, Son.  I’m better than fine.  I’m….I’m great, Son.  I’m doing great.’  Grace giggled again.

‘Is Dorothy your mother’s name?’ Grace said in the voice of a Siamese cat.

‘Yes.’

‘Dorothy Calvert!’ my father toasted, lifting his neat whiskey high in the air and gazing off at the rafters.

‘He’s been shouting her name for the last 45 minutes,’ Grace confided.

‘Dorothy Calvert,’ he said again, ‘she was a real ballbuster I tell ya.’

I dug my hands into my pockets and pulled out the Calvert badge.  Holding it reminded me Johnson Calvert was sometimes capable of more than drunken idiocy.

‘Did she ever tell you,’ my dad said with a jabbing finger.  ‘Did she ever tell you how it worked out with us?  How it ended?  That woman had some nerve.’

‘No.’  (Lying.)

‘Dorothy!’ he spat.  I noted Grace had slumped over in indifference.  ‘She was sleeping with a PE teacher!’ he cursed.  ‘Damn jerk-off seemed like some sort of fruity gymnast, but that was just his plot to get in the girls’ pants!’

‘That’s the shits dad,’ I said without emotion.

‘Your parents been divorced for long?’ Grace asked with an offhand wave.

‘Fifteen years.’  I was unsure why I’d been forced to answer the questions of a woman I was starting to believe was some sort of escort.

‘Tell me, son.  And you gotta be honest with me here.’  Johnson leaned over the table and I could smell the whiskey on his breath.  His pupils wouldn’t quite fix on mine.  ‘She seeing anybody?’  I wrapped bitter fingers around the badge, feeling the sharp starpoints on my flesh.

‘Is she?’

When I said nothing he slammed a fist down on the table, bouncing Grace out of her doldrums.  A couple at the next table had interrupted their conversation to gawk.

‘Dammit!’  Johnson Calvert picked up his highball glass, swirled the amber contents, and shot the rest of the whiskey.  He brought his glass down hard on the table and glared over the table with ire that wasn’t meant for me.  I looked to Grace for help but she was busy digging in her purse.

The waiter brought me a manhattan—my first ever—along with another Jack for my dad.  I stuck the badge back in my pocket and lifted the glass.  The first sip burned down my throat and I started to cough.  My father and Grace began laughing.  Johnson Calvert leaned over to pat my knee.

‘Give it time, Son.  You’ll like it with time.’

‘It tastes like gasoline.’

‘Everybody’s drinking them these days.  They’re the rage in places like this all across the country.’   He held out his arms and panned the room with a smile of adled simplicity.

‘What are you selling these days, Dad?’

‘Mainly insurance this year, Son.  There’s big money in insurance, let me tell you!  Just ask Gracie, here.  What you say, Gracie?’  He nudged her with the hand that held his drink; a splash lapped over the lip of the glass and onto Grace’s arm.  The whiskey marred the front of her red dress.

‘Watch your drink will ya.’

‘Sorry, Gracie,’ my dad purred, using his other hand to rub her arm.  ‘Sorry, Sweetie.’

I laughed outloud at my father’s ridiculous cooing.  I’ve always preferred comedy over genuine emotion.

‘What you laughing at son,’ my father said, snapping away from Grace and flinging all his attention at me.

‘Just a joke someone told me.  No big deal.’

My dad loosened his tie.

‘So you’re going to go to San Jose State, huh Son?’

‘Yeah, just got accepted.  I’m pretty stoked.’

‘Chip off the ole block, eh?’  He leaned across the table to pat me on the shoulder.  ‘Just like your ole Dad!  Going to the Big State U!  Got the Calvert Smarts.’  He was smiling so I smiled back.  ‘And the Calvert Looks, too!’  Johnson Calvert sat back in his chair and crossed his arms and looked me up and down like he was appraising a side of beef.

‘He sure does,’ Grace said.  She grinned at my father.  I tried another sip of the manhattan, doing the best I could to conceal my reaction.

‘That’s more like it, Son!’  My father patted me again on the shoulder.  ‘Right at it.  Say, Jackson?’

‘Yeah Dad?’  I forced myself to take another sip.

‘I ever tell you how you got your name?’

‘I don’t remember.’

This wasn’t true.  My father loved to tell this story and I found the familiar tale comforting.

‘You see my father, he was Jefferson Calvert, after Jefferson Davis, who was president of the confederacy.  And I’m Johnson Calvert, after Edward Johnson, who was a big civil war general.  I didn’t know what to call you and then the day came and we waited but you never came out.  We waited and we waited and you wouldn’t come out, till the doctor had to go in and get you.  Made me think you were like ol’ Stonewall Jackson, best general in the whole south.  Couldn’t get Stonewall to budge one bit.  So that’s why we called you Jackson.’

The Calvert Legacy.  My family was as Deep South as they come.  Johnson Calvert, my father, always aligned behind these roots.  Or he had until the age of forty when he had some unspecified falling out with the family and fell in with a woman named Dorothy who was half his age, hailing from out west.  From their union came me: the first Calvert in six generations born outside Mississippi.  Jackson Calvert, King of the Mississipifornians.

“When do I get to see you again, Dad?’

‘Oh, soon enough.  I’m moving—did I tell you that?  I’m thinking about a job outside San Diego.  Figure I’ll get a place down on the beach.  You can come down—we’ll have Grace come down too—and we can swim and surf and have fires out on the beach.’

‘Sounds great, Dad.  Really great.’

‘It does, doesn’t it?’  He was so pleased. I took another sip on the manhattan and it still didn’t taste any better.  When the waiter came I ordered water.  Using the water to wash it down, I consumed the manhattan in large, gluttonous gulps—just trying to get to the bottom of the glass.

‘Another one!’ my father ordered from across the room.  ‘Another round!’ He said it to the ether, expecting the order to find some imaginary airwaves and transmit to the nearest waiter.

‘Have you been thinking about what I told you, Jackson?’

I had not.  The last time I’d seen him he’d tried to persuade me to move to Poscataw County and live with his sister.  He referred to it as getting in touch with the family holdings.  I’m sure he had some delusion of me one day wearing that damn badge around the county in some official capacity.  On some level that was my father’s only ambition—to become Sheriff of Poscataw County.  The fact that he was now a traveling salesman who never set foot in Poscataw County except to visit indicated the depth of his failure.

‘I hadn’t really thought about it,’ I said.

‘You think about it, son.  You could live with my sister.  She told me you’ve got an open-ended offer to come down whenever you want to.  She’s got three kids—your cousins!—and they’re just your age.  Now you might have to help her around the house a bit since she doesn’t get around well anymore, but that’s no trouble to ya. Heck, you could at least visit.  Maybe I could meet you down there and show you the place.  Why I haven’t been to Poscataw in quite a bit.  I could introduce you to the folk, you know.  They got the finest people in the world down there.  Why, you have to go visit Old Man River.  The grandest river on the whole continent!

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