The Tall Man

I hadn’t called ahead, nor did I want to.  I didn’t know whether I’d find Peter Bingham at home, but when I knocked on the door I heard a rustling from inside.  The door swung open.

‘Calvert,’ he said, floating an ambiguous smile.  He wore shorts and I noticed his long bony legs.

‘Can I come in?’  He stepped back and ushered me in, shutting and locking the door behind me.  I sat rigid in one of his chairs; Peter sat opposite me on the couch, crossing long legs.

‘How goes the digging?’ Peter said.

‘Good enough,’ I said with an air of the casual.  ‘I dug up the last chest a couple weeks ago.’

‘What did you find?’

‘Not much.’ I recalled the Cannabis Fund and wondered if Peter had known beforehand that I might unearth eighty-grand.

‘What brings you by so early in the day?’  Peter stood.  ‘Care for a glass of water?  I was about to get myself something to drink.’

‘Sure.’  Peter walked to his kitchen and I heard the freezer come open and the sound of an ice cube tray cracking.

‘How’s your aunt?’ Peter said from the kitchen.  The pipes in the wall shuddered as the faucet came on.

‘I think she’s tired of me,’ I said truthfully.  Peter returned baring the two glasses, handing me one.  I felt the cool of the glass in my hand and realized my temperature was up.  Sweat began to form along my hairline and I had the impression of color rising in my face.  I jumped into my first question, rushing it a bit more than I wanted to.  ‘Say, I was trying to figure something out.’

‘What was that?’  Peter flopped back on his couch and stretched out his legs across the couch, resting his glass of water on the arm of the couch.

‘On that first day we met you were saying you didn’t much agree with some of my grandpa’s opinions.  Political opinions, I mean.’

‘Right.’  Peter seemed to sink deeper into the couch.  I envied his comfort, sure that my ears were burning red by now.

‘I was just wondering about some of my grandfather’s opinions, that’s all.  I couldn’t learn all that much from the digging.’  Peter looked to the ceiling, contemplating how to respond.

‘Your grandfather…’  His eyes remained on the ceiling for a moment before falling to meet mine.  ‘…He was pretty conservative, shall we say.’

‘Can you give me an example?’  Peter reached for his glass and drank before speaking.

‘You ever hear of James Silver?’

I shook my head.

‘Silver was an Ole Miss professor.  He wrote a book—The Closed Society—all about Mississippi.  Angered a lot of people in these parts, your grandfather in particular.  He…’  Peter began to laugh—an endeared chortle reserved for one’s own toddler.   ‘…After the book came out Jefferson wrote a series of letters to the Poscataw Press.  He made it clear that if Silver ever set foot in Poscataw he’d be arrested and prosecuted as a communist.’

Any other time and I would have found this anecdote interesting, but now I was too intent on my next question to pay it much heed.

‘What about you?’ I said.  ‘What were your politics back then?’

‘Mine?’  Somehow I’d finished my water but still my throat burned dry.

‘Yeah.  Public affairs, right.’

‘Right.’  Bemused, Peter glanced out his window.  ‘Well I would have handled it differently.  I’ve never been too keen on public displays of outrage.’  He turned back to me and I had the impression the comment was directed at me.  ‘Are you feeling warm?  You’re red as a turnip.’

‘Did you ever work for Jefferson?’ I tried to carry on as if Peter hadn’t noticed my color.

‘Sure, sometimes he hired me to clean up around the yard.’  The way he said yard, I had the impression he meant a parcel of land much larger than the Calvert homestead.  ‘What was it you really came to ask me, Jackson?’

The question levitated before my eyes, obscuring my view of Peter’s face.  I labored to breath normally.

‘Were you there?’ I said, pushing out the syllables one at a time.  ‘Did you visit Clyde King?’  I expected a defensive posture but instead Peter’s mouth curled into a smirk.

‘Do the letters mention me by name?’

This I hadn’t expected.  I stammered a response.

‘N-no names.’

How could Peter know about the letters?

‘Well I’d like to thank you for retrieving those for me.’

Somehow I was on my feet.  ‘You won’t get them,’ I said, spittle flying.  ‘I’m going to see that everyone sees what you’ve been up to.’  Peter began to laugh and slowly gained his feet.  He looked down on me with eyes oozing pity.

‘You’ll do nothing of the sort.  I have something for you.’  He strode into his bedroom and returned with a manila envelope.  He opened the envelope and withdrew a black and white photo.  At first I didn’t recognize it—the image was a bit blurry, capturing a shadow, a dark figure framed by a window.  The photo had been shot at night.  As I looked closer I recognized the shadows: a man on top of a woman.  Helen lay on her back with her knees up, my back to the camera.  You could make out our faces if you looked in the right spot.  Helen’s breasts were bare and you could see one nipple, the other obscured by my looming figure.

‘Where did you get this,’ I hissed.

‘I have a friend who’s an amateur photographer.  Here’s another that I like.’  This photo showed Cathy and me sitting together on a bench; our body language wasn’t cousinly.  ‘I’ve built quite a file on you and all your antics.’

‘Why?’  All I could do was scowl.

‘You read the letters.  I saw the start of it and I wanted to see it through to the end.’

‘Watkins,’ I spat.  ‘You’re in with Watkins.’

‘Naw.  Too complicated.  Self-interest, Calvert—the oldest motivation there is.’  He began to laugh.

‘So…what?  Are you threatening me then?  This Gestapo shit—black and white photos, whatever—this doesn’t scare me.’

Peter donned a whimsical smile.  ‘I’ve always had my eye out for someone like you, Calvert.  When I heard you were coming I made sure we bumped into one another.  From there it was easy.  I learned from the best.  Your grandfather.  He and Alex Vanderbilt used to have strategy sessions—figure out how to deal with certain, shall we say, problems.’  He laughed again.  ‘Did you ever work for my grandfather—damn right I did.  I was practically attached at the hip.’

‘You were a stooge for the Commission.  You’re a fool.’

‘I’m no one’s stooge.  I’ve suspected that Eleanor King might have something—something naming me, the Commission bedamned.  I’m sure your father had the same thought I did when he heard about the archive opening up.  Better you find them than some crank like David Drysdale.  You, I can corral.  I wasn’t going to get the letters from her.  But you could.’

‘I’ll take them public.’  I’d decided on the contrary the night before, but now, confronted with Peter’s mockery, my better judgment slid away and I saw only the abject certainty of making Peter pay for what he’d done, for tricking me.

Peter stuffed the photos back in their envelope.

‘You can have them.’  I took the envelope and held it numbly in my left hand.

‘This isn’t over,’ I said.

‘It’s never over.  It will go on long after you’re gone.’

‘Wrong.’  My hands were in fists.  ‘I’m going to end it.’  I broke for the door.  Peter began to laugh again, thick with insolence.  I slammed the door behind me. 

I was fuming.  I didn’t care what damage it might do—I was going to make Peter pay.  When I got home I darted inside, avoiding Helen, and snatched up the box of letters and headed back to town.  I found a Xerox at the drug store and made a set of duplicates.  I folded the duplicates so they would fit in an envelope, and on the back of one sheet I wrote three simple equations.

I stuffed the duplicates in an envelope and anonymously addressed it to David Drysdale.  I walked to the corner of Main and Cedar and stood for a moment with the envelope in hand, contemplating the deep blue mailbox.  I steeled myself and stepped to the mailbox, pulling open the metal door and shoving the loaded package in deep.

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