Jackson, Mississippi

I’d left Marty and Monty behind. They would not be helpful with archival research.

The State Archive was nestled in one corner of the old state capital, which had been converted into a museum.  Six massive pillars supported a peaked roof, and as I approached the building I could see the rotunda peaking down at me.  I climbed the worn steps and pushed through glass doors to the foyer, which was paved with red marble and flanked by Greek Revival columns leading up to double glass doors.  A white-haired archivist greeted me at the door. 

‘Kinda mookie,’ she said.

‘What was that?’

‘Oh, you never hear that before?  Means soggy.  Humid.’

I scanned the room.  Bookshelves lined the walls, many of them stacked with heavy binders of genealogical records.  Neat rows of rectangular tables included several white men in casual attire bent over their family histories.  Off to one side of the room a set of dinosaur PC’s formed a semi-circle.  A young man with brown hair sat at one of these machines with his back to me.  His slinking posture made me think of a snake.

‘I’m here to look at the Sovereignty Commission papers.’

‘You’re not the only one,’ she said.  She pointed to the PC’s.  ‘Not really papers anymore.  We had ‘em put on them computers for easy access.  Been a bunch of people in to see the Sovereignty Commission papers, although it’s slow today.  We’ll need you to get a researcher card, so if you’ll fill out this form here…’ 

She issued a card and gave me a brief tour of the one-room archive. 

‘We got all kinds of things to look at,’ she said.  ‘Got some genealogies over here.  Find out about anybody who lived in Mississippi and see who’s related to who.  Bet you’d be surprised.  Congressional records over here.  This is a very historic site.  State Capital of Mississippi until 1908.  And here’s what you were looking for.  The Sovereignty Commission files.’ 

The sandy-haired man turned to face us.  His gaunt face coiled into a grin as he bared his teeth at me.

‘Cousin Jackson.’  Gabe sneered over his shoulder.  ‘So good to see you.  I was wondering when you would arrive.’ 

‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘Research, Cousin Jackson.  Just like you.’  His lips pursed in insolence.

‘So you know each other,’ the archivist said.  ‘I’ll just leave you to it.  Your friend can show you the drill.’  She abandoned me with my cousin before I could object.

‘Here, Cousin Jackson.  Let me show you the drill.’ 

The drill was simple enough.  The archive contained hardcopies of the Commission’s index.  Topics ranged from people (Medgar Evers, Samuel Bowers, Jim Madison) to themes (School Segregation, Civil Rights Agitators, Mississippi Freedom Summer).  Using the index you could type in an ID number and the computer would pull up a set of files.  When you found what you were looking for you printed the file at a cost of twenty-bits a page.  It was almost too easy: the sum total of human experience, distilled by impassionate eyes onto a memo that had gone into a file forty years before, only to be categorized and digitized and distilled onto a hard drive in the late nineties.  I had the impression that, were I too drop one of these computers on the floor and kick out its innards, I might purge these stories from recorded history. 

I started with the name index, running my finger down an endless row of C’s.  I had my back to him but I could still feel Gabe watching me. 

‘You’ll find but one Calvert,’ he said over my shoulder.  ‘No relation.’  Sure enough, there was a lone Calvert.  I tried the file.  The computer churned before producing a fuzzy-typed memo.  The name ‘Preston Calvert’ topped the second paragraph and was underlined. 

‘I followed suspect to a store owned by Preston Calvert of Cleveland, Mississippi.  The suspect spoke with Calvert for five minutes before leaving.  Calvert’s license plate is G45-URP.’ 

The memo came from a commission agent named Alex Vanderbilt. 

‘Is this all there is?’  Gabe leaned toward me so his face was close to mine.  He spoke in a whisper. 

‘Oh, there’s more.  But you’ll have to do some digging.’  Gabe began to hum to himself, some kind of uninspired improvisation.  I couldn’t resist.

‘Are you humming?’  Gabe swiveled his head toward me.

‘Yes, Cousin.  A song I made up.’

‘You make up songs?’

‘I am quite musical.  Regional pieces.’

‘That’s funny—I had you pegged for Gothic chamber music or vampire movie soundtracks.’  I tried to return to the files.  I’d been sidetracked from my search by a collection of reports on Medgar Evers that had captured my intellectual curiosity.  I lost track of time. 

‘Any luck, Cousin?’ Gabe said.  He couldn’t last long without heckling me.

‘Nope,’ I said, trying to make it clear I didn’t want to talk.

‘Perhaps you need my help.’

‘No thank you,’ I said, eyes on the screen.

‘You’ll never find it the way you’re looking—it’s buried much deeper.’

‘Would you please leave me be?’  I glanced at my watch and saw it was almost noon.  I stood. 

‘Where to now, Cousin?’


‘Perhaps I’ll join you.’  But I was outside already and headed for the hotel.  My shirt pitted and my forehead pocked with sweat.  I walked fast.  The Capital was inland and warmer than Poscataw.

Downtown Jackson, Mississippi buzzed with no semblance of political intrigue.  White men in suits courted white women in corporate casual.  This close to the capital building you could be sure everyone had something to do with politics.  I saw very little flavor other than a curious black man, standing kitty-corner to the archive.  He was older and he seemed to be picketing.  I couldn’t see his sign but he was not bashful with it, offering it to oncoming traffic and passersby.  Drivers honked and waved, flipped him the finger. I navigated the five blocks to my hotel, somehow managing to keep my shirt collar dry.


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