Epidemic Insanity

Divine responsibility.  I couldn’t lay claim to a larger people or to all of Mississippi, but I could at least take responsibility for my own family.  If I had a role in any of this it was to clean up the wrongs of my Calvert forebears.  That afternoon Helen and I headed south, and as we crossed into Poscataw County I felt a newfound purpose.  I would undo what they had done, and I would begin by finishing my investigation, finding out what had happened with Clyde King.  As we drew closer to my aunt’s house I felt a growing righteousness.  I was the only one who could fix this—that was why I had come to Mississippi.

Then I saw the banner and was immediately distracted.  It hung over the road with galling orange letters.  ‘Fuco the Magnificent!  July 4, 7:00 p.m.  Come see the Circus!’

‘The show must go on,’ I said.  ‘I wonder where they’re staying.’  Helen smiled but kept quiet.

We got home and in disbelief I beheld the burnt-out shell of my mother’s Chrysler LeBaron convertible.  There was someone sitting in the driver’s seat—charred and blackened.  I jumped from the truck without quitting the engine and ran toward the car.  When I got close I saw it was not a person but Tito the mannequin, synthetic flesh melted.  Plastic scabs clung to the metal skeleton.  The car was destroyed, the body warped and scarred.  I kicked at the fender and my foot went clean through.  The upholstery had melted; the tires were rubber goop.  My mother’s car was dead.

There was no question in my mind how this could have happened.  I stormed through the front door, letting the screen bang behind me.  Helen was still rounding the perimeter of the devastated convertible.

‘Where the hell are they?’ I demanded as I banged through the door.  Aunt Faye intercepted me on my way to the kitchen.

‘I want them out, Jackson,’ she said.  ‘Both of them.  I want them out before the end of the day.  I don’t care how good a friends they are.’  I’d never seen her so agitated.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said.  ‘They’re not going to get away with this one.  What the hell happened?’  Faye shook her head.

‘You can ask my daughter.  She’ll tell you.’

I left Aunt Faye fuming in the front entry.  Cathy sat on her bed looking at the wall.  I knocked.  Cathy looked up and made a half-hearted attempt at a smile.

‘You’re back.’

‘Yeah.  What the hell happened to the LeBaron?  Your mom said I should talk to you.’

‘Oh, Jackson—it was awful.  Marty and Monty burned it up.’

‘Care to elaborate?’

‘They kind of went crazy.  They’ve been living out in Gabe’s shack and I think it’s gotten to them.  Marty started talking about how he was seeing ghosts at night.  He said they’d come and whisper to him in his sleep, and then when he woke up they’d encircle him and tempt him to do things—awful things.  He said it was the ghost of Grandpa Wesley.’

‘How does Marty even know about that?’  I’d never told Marty about Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Calvert, our great great great grandfather, gut-shot at the battle of Brice’s Crossroads.

‘I haven’t a clue.  That’s the weird part.’

‘Anyway—go on.  What happened?’

‘Well none of us listened to Marty at first—not even Monty.  We figured he was high.  But he kept at it.  Then one morning Monty woke up saying he’d heard the whispers too.  They started saying they needed to exorcise Grandpa Wesley from the woods.  We thought they were kidding around.  They were high, you know.  Last night they woke us up with all this shouting.  I went outside and Marty had a torch.  He said Grandpa Wesley had possessed Tito.  He said the thing to do was to burn Tito alive.  Monty put Tito in the front seat and Marty set fire to the car.  They must have covered it in something, gasoline or something, because it went up real fast.’

‘This is ridiculous.  What about the cops?  The fire department?’

‘Mom called Mitchell and he came out with one of the fire trucks and they put it out.’

Perfect: now Mitchell had another excuse to get on my case.

‘Where are they now?’ I said.

‘Out back.  They shut themselves up in Gabe’s shack and won’t come out and won’t let anyone come near.  They’ve got a slingshot and they’ve been using it.  They broke one of the windows this morning.’

If I hadn’t already seen the burnt-out remains—empirical proof—I wouldn’t have believed Cathy’s story.  I turned to go, steeling myself to confront Marty and Monty.

‘And Jackson,’ Cathy said; her voice quivered.

‘Yes?’

‘I saw someone else outside, just after they set fire to the car.’

I tensed.  ‘Who?’

‘I don’t know, but I think it was…’

‘Who was it?’  I knew the answer.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Was it Gabe?’

‘I can’t say,’ Cathy said, although something about the way she said it made me believe she thought it was her brother.  I told Cathy about seeing Gabe at the archive, leaving out the part about the photographs.

‘Has he ever shown any interest in family history?’ I said.

Cathy seemed shaken.  ‘Mitchell used to kid him about how he wasn’t really our brother.  Mitchell said Gabe came from under a rock.  He was just kidding but Gabe took it real serious.  Gabe used to ask grandpa lots of questions.’

I walked outside and examined the remains of my mother’s prize possession.  I cursed and walked off, leaving Helen to bring in the bags.  As I came around the side of the house I noted the absence of Fuco’s circus truck.  I slowed when I came round the back.  As advertised, Marty and Monty had set up bulwarks in Gabe’s shack.  I saw a face peek through a window as I drew near.

‘Who goes there?!’ Monty shouted.  I didn’t answer, walking straight for the shack.  Who do they think they are? I was into the trees and within ten feet of the shack when I heard a rock go whistling by my head.  They were reloading as I walked in the door.

‘What the fuck are you doing,’ I demanded.  Both of them sat on the floor.  Monty wore a grimy t-shirt and blue jeans and held the slingshot.  Marty was covered by a blanket that left only his head exposed.  They were both filthy, and so was the shack.  A bong and several candles sat in one corner and a small tin box (for dope, various accoutrements) sat in another.  The mirror Marty had stolen from Cathy sat on the floor beside a nest of dirty clothes; garbage littered the rest of the room.  ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

‘There’s g-g-g-ghosts out there,’ Monty said. That did it.  I lunged for him.  We went rolling to the floor in an incoherent struggle.  I caught an elbow in the cheek and felt him biting my arm.  But Monty was no match for me—I had rage on my side.  I began wailing on him, not caring anymore if I hurt him.  I got him in a headlock and he yelped like an oversized St. Bernard puppy.  I figured I’d won.  I let him free.  He bled from his nose and he couldn’t stand up straight because I’d kneed him in the groin.  His right eye already showed the beginning of a nice shiner.

‘Fuck you, Jack.’  Monty covered his bloody nose with his hand.

‘No, fuck you guys.’  Marty still cuddled in his blanket.  I gave him a kick.  ‘Get up, you fucking stoner.  Get up.’  I kicked him again, this time in the ribs.  ‘Get up, goddammit.’  Marty threw off the blanket.  He was naked underneath.  ‘Put on some clothes.’  Marty scrambled to his feet and stood naked at five foot seven.  He began to retrieve clothes from the nest and came away wearing a pair of purple shorts and a Jim Beam t-shirt.  The shirt was wrinkled and the shorts were caked in mud.

‘I want to know what happened,’ I said.  ‘I want to know what all this bullshit is about the ghosts and I want to know why you burnt up my mother’s car.  I want to know why you’re holed up here like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I want you to clean up this shithole and then I’m going to drive you to the airport and you’re going home.’

‘No!’ Monty said.  ‘I can’t leave now!’  No doubt he was already feeling separation anxiety over the prospect of leaving Cathy.

‘Yes, I’m sick of this shit.’  I panned across the shack at the red and white graffiti.  ‘I’m kicking you out.’

‘Noooo,’ Marty whined.  ‘We have to find the ghost!’

‘There’s no ghost,’ I said.  ‘But I do want to know what Gabe had to do with this.’

Marty tilted his head.

‘Gabe?’

Monty piped in.

‘We’ve never even met Gabe.’

‘Cathy said Gabe was here when you set fire to the LeBaron.’

Monty: ‘That was Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Calvert.’

Marty: ‘It was his ghost.’

Me: ‘Bullshit.  Now tell me what happened.’

Monty: ‘Seriously, Jackson.  It was him.  He made us do it.’

Marty: ‘He kept waking me up at night.  I haven’t slept in five days, and it’s all because of him. He told me, if I burned Tito, he’d leave me be.  And then he painted blood all over the walls.’

Me: ‘Bullshit he painted the walls—you painted the walls.’

Marty: ‘So much blood!’

Me: ‘Pack your things.’  I looked around their Augean stable.  ‘And clean this place up.  I’m taking you to the airport.’

Thirty miles northwest of Poscataw City Monty packed a bowl and handed it to me.

‘Sorry to cause so much trouble.’  He offered me the peace pipe by the stem.  I used my knee to steer and took a hit.  I moved to hand it to Marty, who sat next to me.

‘Take another hit,’ Marty said.  ‘I insist.’

Three hits later I was blazing, and that’s when Monty started trying to talk me into letting them stay.

‘We’ll just get our own place in town,’ Monty quipped.  ‘I don’t want to leave Cathy yet.  And we don’t have anywhere else to go.’

‘You and Cathy just met,’ I said.  ‘I doubt she even likes you.’

‘I know she does,’ Monty said.  ‘I’m working my magic.’

I tried to hold back a laugh but it came out anyway.

‘Don’t laugh!’ Monty said, feigning injury.  ‘I think we may be in love.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘Jack, I’m serious Jack.  Really.’

‘I think he does love her,’ Marty offered.

‘I don’t even understand what this has to do with anything!’ I said.  ‘It’s irrelevant.’

‘Please Jack,’ Marty said.  ‘The circus.  We want to see the circus so bad.’

‘Bullshit.  You need to get out of here.’

‘But there’s still a month left of summer vacation,’ Marty said.  ‘We won’t even set foot at your Aunt’s—not ever again.’

‘We want to see the circus,’ Marty whined.

‘Yeah, the circus!’

‘You’ll have more fun with us here,’ Monty said.  ‘We drove all this way.  You want us around, Jack.  You know you do.’

I knew he was right.  With Meg and Cathy still on the scene I had more jealousy on my hands than I knew how to deal with.  Marty and Monty were a mindless distraction.  Besides, driving all the way back to Jackson after just coming from there was a pain in the ass.  I announced my decision and Marty and Monty demanded a celebration.

‘Let’s go to Denny’s,’ Monty said.  We were approaching an exit and needed to turn around anyway.  I agreed to stop for lunch.

‘Our treat,’ Marty said.

We sat in the smoking section—Marty and Monty insisted.  They didn’t usually smoke tobacco but Denny’s was an exception; they never turned down an opportunity to French inhale over a plate of chicken-fried steak.  We sat in the back corner.  Marty unleashed a pack of Camel Lights.  I declined.  Marty and Monty began the chain, following one cigarette with another in rapid succession.  I was eating my bacon and my fingertips were greasy, deep in smoker’s kingdom, when Marty pulled a glass vial from his breast pocket.  He unscrewed the top and tipped the white powder onto the counter.  He picked up his knife and had begun to line the powder in neat rows when I saw what it was he was doing.

‘Can’t that wait?’

‘No one cares,’ Monty said, answering for his friend.  Indeed, no one seemed to notice.  ‘Hey Jack, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.’

‘Yeah, Monty?’

‘Do you think your aunt would mind if I asked Cathy to marry me?’

‘Yeah, Monty.  I think she would.  She just kicked you out of her house.  Besides, I think she has some doubts about you two as a couple.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Cathy is seventeen and she’s going to college next year.’

‘I’m in college.’

‘But you’re twenty-four.’

‘So?’

‘So it’s not even legal yet.’

‘What about Ted Nugent,’ Marty offered.  ‘He married a fourteen-year-old?’

‘Yeah,’ Monty said.  ‘If Ted Nugent can get away with it then so can I.’

‘There are a lot of things Ted Nugent gets away with that you can’t.’

‘C’mon, Jack,’ Monty pleaded.  ‘Back me up on this. I need your support.’

‘I don’t think it’s a case of me backing you up.  I’m not going to change Faye’s mind.  You’re not even dating Cathy for chrissakes.’

‘C’mon, man.  Be a pal.’

‘Forget it.’

I dropped them off in downtown Poscataw, leaving each of them with one hundred dollars from the Cannabis Trust.

‘This will last you a couple days,’ I said.  ‘After that, you’re on your own.’  I was sure the money wouldn’t last the afternoon. Marty and Monty would no doubt visit Jeff the dealer, putting the money toward a debauched evening that would end up with them racing motorcycles down the hallway of an expensive hotel.

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