Uptown Poscataw

Earl Watkins didn’t get to me until a half hour after our three o’clock meeting time.  I waited in the alcove outside his office, lounging on a dinosaur-hide loveseat and watching Watkins cheerful secretary go about her business.  I examined the walls, which were ornamented with photographs of Earl Watkins and his famous grandfather, Pappy Watkins.  I looked hard at the black and white images of the former Mississippi governor.  Pappy was gray and gaunt, unlike his stout grandson.  Pappy stood tall and straight but you could tell he was neither as tall nor as straight as he’d once been; he carried the weight of power like a heavy pendant around the neck.

I could hear voices from inside Earl Watkins’ office, and now that I focused on them I realized someone was shouting, although I couldn’t make out the words.

‘Who’s he in there with?’ I said to the secretary.

‘Some newspaperman,’ she said, chattier than she should have been.  ‘David Drysdale.  He’s the one covering the Bower’s case.’  I perked up at the prospect of seeing, maybe even meeting, the man charged with bringing the story of the Grand Wizard of the KKK to the public.  Twenty minutes later the door to the office flung open and a bald sparkplug of a man with a firm jaw stormed out, not slowing to look at me or at the secretary. A moment later Earl Watkins waddled out wearing a light suit with an inoffensive tie.  He applied a casual air.  If I hadn’t know they were arguing I would have guessed he and Drysdale had been in different meetings.  Watkins’ bulbous head was dotted with perspiration that he patted away with a personalized handkerchief.  I stood to shake his hand

‘Sorry to make you wait,’ he said cordially, more than I expected from someone who’d threatened me the last time I saw him.

‘Who was that?’

‘Somebody from the Clarion Ledger. Glad you could come out today.  Didn’t like the way our meeting went the other day.  Like I said on the phone—I’m an old family friend.’  His high voice was gravel on a sunburn.

‘Thanks,’ I said.  ‘Too kind of you.’ 

Watkins didn’t look at his secretary but made a gesture in her general direction. 

‘Hold all calls, will ya?’  He led me into his office. 

‘Have a seat.’  Watkins gestured at an oak chair that faced his large desk.  ‘Can I get you a drink, Jackson?’

‘Scotch.’ 

Watkins tisked. 

‘Scotch is an old man’s drink, my boy.  Not for somebody so young.’ 

‘I’m hanging out with old men.  On the rocks.’  This drew a laugh.  He poured me a dark single-malt from a crystal decanter.

‘Quick with the tongue, like your grandfather.’  He handed me the drink.  ‘And a scotch drinker, like your grandfather.’ 

I sipped my scotch and trained my eyes elsewhere.  I expected Watkins to explain what it was he wanted but when he didn’t I grew impatient.

‘So what gives, Earl.’  

‘What gives, Jackson….’  He took a seat behind his mammoth desk.  ‘….What gives is that my grandfather was a good friend of your grandfather.  I wanted to meet his long-lost grandson.’

I took another sip. 

‘I wasn’t lost, Earl.  Long-gone, yes.  Long-lost, no.’            

Watkins shuffled papers on his desk, rearranging several piles before picking up something that had been in front of him the entire time.  It was a simple envelope, which he threw in my direction.  It fell at my feet. 

‘It’s yours,’ he said.  I snatched it up and massaged the contents between thumb and finger and felt a wad of cash, thick and tight-packed.  I’d felt plenty of similar wads in the past week—any time I reached under my mattress.

‘Well,’ he said.  ‘Open it, son.’

‘I’m not your son,’ I said.  I was on my feet.  ‘What is this?  Yesterday you were threatening me.  Now this.  What is this, some kind of bribe?’  I waved the envelope in his face.

‘I just hope we can help each other out.’  He nodded to the envelope.  ‘I thought you might like what I had to offer.’ 

I had to fight to keep from laughing at his audacity.  ‘What are you so worried about?  What do you think I’ll find?’

‘Nothin’.  What you think this is?  This aint 1932.  We don’t do things that way no more.  Just trying to do a favor for an old family friend.’  Earl had a tough air that wasn’t convincing. 

‘Look, I don’t need any favors, ok?’  I stood and threw the envelope back on the desk.  ‘Just leave me alone.’  I was out the door before thinking about it.  I still couldn’t see the fire but could smell the smoke.

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