Upriver

Compliments of the excavations I’d collected a junk pile the size of a Volkswagen Bug.  I couldn’t bring it all with me.  I found an old oil drum behind Gabe’s shack and loaded the barrel with my grandfather’s rambling correspondences.  I doused the yellowed papers with lighter fluid and put fire to the barrel.  I fed the fire slowly, provoking a thick head of black smoke when I threw his rotting clothes on the blaze.  Jefferson Calvert’s caches had yielded only two items of value.  I still carried the picture of Clyde King in my wallet, the address of the King farm scrolled on the back, and of course there was the Cannabis Trust.

I loaded the burn barrel to the top with more mildewed rags and the smoke grew thick and noxious.  I turned my back on the fire and eyed the windows lining the back of my aunt’s house, conscious of the spectacle I had raised.  I saw no one through any of the windows.  I continued feeding the fire.  When it had burned low I turned to the chunk of concrete.  I still suspected it was a symbol—a gift from Eleanor King to the man who introduced Simpson Concrete into her life.  Even if that were the case, I wasn’t willing to carry around an eighty-pound rock.  I hauled it out to the road.  It took all my strength to raise the concrete nugget over my head.  I let gravity do the work from there, dropping the rock on the road.  It broke into three pieces.  I examined the debris, hoping to find there’d been something encased in the concrete—the family jewels—but no dice.  I left the rubble on the road.

I took the depleted Cannabis Trust from under my mattress and loaded it into its original shoebox.  I nestled the box at the bottom of my backpack and loaded clothes on top.  I slung the backpack over my shoulder and picked up Clyde King’s box of letters and secured the box under one arm.  Helen was doing everything she could to hasten our departure.  She saw I was packed and went out to the truck, taking up vigil in the cab so she could blame our lingering on me.  There was no one else home—Cathy and Aunt Faye had gone into town.  Faye had said we could borrow the truck for a few days.  I had something yet to attend to.

I had to search in my aunt’s address book to get the phone number—it changed so often.  Johnson Calvert was living just outside of Memphis, on the Arkansas side of the river, in a town called Mud City.  Time to pay him a visit.

I held the old wooden box of letters under my arm as I dialed.

‘Hello?’  His voice was so familiar but I felt unsteady.

‘Hi Dad.’

‘Hey Son!  How goes it?’  My father’s voice carried obvious excitement, no doubt at the prospect that I had called him on my own volition.  The box under my arm began to grow heavy.

‘Fine, Dad.  How are you?’

‘Great, Son.  Just great.  So my sister said you were down visiting her?’

‘I’m still down here, Dad.’

‘Been there a while, haven’t you?’  I may have been imagining it, but my father’s voice began to edge toward nervous.

‘Yeah, most of the summer.’

‘Been hot, eh?’

‘Yeah, real hot…look, Dad.  There’s something I want to talk to you about.’

He took a moment to respond.

‘What’s that?’

‘Not really a phone conversation, if you get my drift.’

’What do you mean, buddy.’  Johnson was unsure; all the animation had escaped his voice.

‘You’ll see soon enough.’  There came a long silence on the other end.  I decided not to wait for a reply.  ‘I’m on my way up to Memphis to run a few errands and I want to stop by.’

‘Ok son!’  He was suddenly enthusiastic again.  ‘You’re always welcome here!’

It would have been hard to coat a sentence with more sugar.  This was a typical response—my father evading an obvious confrontation on my part.  Johnson Calvert had an ongoing policy of caramelizing his discomfort with grotesque optimism, and then waiting it out.

‘Give me directions,’ I said, and he did.

‘You’ll have no problem finding it.  Mud City is pretty small.’

‘I’ll call if I get lost.’

‘See you later, Son.’

‘See you, Dad.’  I hung up and as I set down the receiver I saw my hand was shaking.  I breathed deep, trying to still my nerves.  I told myself it would all be over soon enough.  I would confront the man with my findings—force him to read Clyde King’s dying words—and from there the onus would shift to Johnson Calvert.  I was merely the deliveryman of a long-lost package.

Helen sat in the cab of the pickup, arms crossed, her lower lip set.  I loaded my things into the back of the truck and climbed into the cab, setting the letter box down beside me on the seat so that I could feel it there.  Helen eyed me with suspicion.

‘Why do we have to move out?’

‘You were there—Faye kicked us out.’

‘Because of your stupid friends.  That bitch.’  I had seen Fuco and Meg off that morning.  They promised not to go far, although I didn’t care anymore if I ever saw either of them again.

‘We’ve got the hotel room next to Marty and Monty,’ I explained.  I didn’t mention I planned on leaving for Mud City that afternoon.  ‘Just for a few days.’

‘While you finish fucking everybody’s life over, is that it?’

‘Helen….’  Sometimes I didn’t know what to say to this woman.  I decided to just drive.  The sooner I got to town the sooner I could escape.

‘What took you so long in there—who was that on the phone?’  I fumbled in my pocket for the key and let that stand for my answer.

‘Who was it!’ she demanded.  I found the key and started the truck and let the engine rumble for a moment.

‘My father.’

I put the truck in gear and we started up the driveway.  I could feel Helen watching, silently prompting me for more detail.  I kept my eyes on the gravel road slicing through the tall, skinny trees.

‘Jackson, what are you doing?’

‘What do you mean?’  I kept my eyes on the driveway and the pines lining either side.  We reached the T of the road and I turned right toward town.

‘What are you hiding from me?’

‘Nothing.’  I doubted she could hear my voice over the sound of the engine.

‘What?’  Helen’s spoke with the volume I lacked.

‘Nothing,’ I said again, no louder than the first.  I heard her snort in disapproval.

‘You’ve been lying to me since I got here, Jackson.  I know it.’

‘Lying about what?’  I saw a mailbox approaching on the left—that witch Cathaway’s—and smiled in spite of the budding argument.
‘Well I don’t know what you’ve been lying about, so I can’t really say.  How about you tell me.’  I could feel the force of Helen’s words as each syllable hit my skin.  I turned and saw her raised hood of jet black hair.

‘Look Helen I didn’t ask for you to come here.  I’ve got some things to figure out, that’s all.’

Things to figure out?…Like what?’  When her mouth formed the word what her face contorted, and something about that face scared the hell out of me.  Helen was on the brink of doing something drastic.  I swallowed hard.

‘My father,’ I said.  I smacked my mouth and it was dry.  ‘He and grandpa—they were up to something, like I thought.’

I figured this admission would chase away that face.  It didn’t.  Instead she balled her fists and jumped into my face and bared her teeth so I couldn’t see the road.

‘You fucking idiot—this thing stinks.  It’s about to start raining shit.  And you dragged me into this fiasco you Sonofabitch!’

I tried to peer past her and see the road.

‘Look, Helen—it’s not going to rain shit.’  I tried not to conjure the image.  I kept one eye on the road; the other couldn’t see past Helen’s fierce grimace.  ‘I’m close to finishing this.  I’ve just got to visit my dad.  Just let me finish up.’

‘Bullshit, you’re gonna finish up.’  I could feel her spittle on my cheek.  ‘You never finished anything in your life.  Like you never finished up with us.  You’re too scared to just break up with me, Jackson, so you drag me down here and feed me all these lies.  You could just say you didn’t want to get married!’

‘I didn’t drag you down here, Helen.  I don’t even know why you came here—this isn’t the way to convince me to get married, that’s for sure.  Now would you let me watch the road?’

Her voice cracked with another motherfucker as she slung her body back into the set.  She didn’t retract the hood, instead sneering across the bench seat.

‘You’re more interested in this little fiasco of yours than you are of me—admit it.’  I didn’t look at her.  ‘Why not be that committed to me?’

‘C’mon, Helen.’  I said it quick.  ‘What are you talking about?’  I was watching the road but out of the corner of my eye I saw Helen cross her arms over her breasts.

‘I’m not staying in some fucking hotel because you got us kicked out of your aunt’s house with your god damn friends.  I talked to your aunt and she says I can stay.’

‘Oh so you can stay with my family and I can’t?’

‘Precisely.  Turn the truck around.’  I kept driving for a quarter mile before a deluge of bastards and motherfuckers sent me heading back in the opposite direction.  I refused to look at her, and as the silence stretched out I could feel her building up steam.  This was the part where I was supposed to argue against staying in separate quarters, show that I really wanted to be with her.  I began to count the scattered mailboxes that advertised our passing from one homestead to another.  I was coming up on the sixth mailbox when Helen erupted.

‘What did you find in New Orleans?’

I breathed deep.

‘Nothing.’

‘What’s in this box!’  She violently picked up the box with Clyde King’s letters.  This got me moving.  I lunged at the box with one hand still on the steering wheel.  We swerved right.  I raised my eye just in time to see a row of mailboxes disappear under the truck with rapid-fire cracks.  I righted myself and tore the wheel left and the momentum sent Helen flying against the driver side door.  I heard the impact as her breath was forced from her lungs.  She dropped the box on the floorboards.  I brought the truck to a stop on the shoulder.

‘Are you ok?’

She’d had her breath knocked out of her, but otherwise she was fine.  She shot me a wounded look.  I saw her chest rise once as she got back her breath, then again.  Once her breathing came back she began to sob.

‘Why are you doing this!’  She quailed in a voice I’d never heard.  She was at the end of her rope.  Her hair was bigger than ever, strands poking up and hanging down over her eyes.  Her arms were rigid with agitation and she came close to shaking.  Her brimming eyes had submerged into her face.

I sat rigid with my mouth slung open.  When Helen saw she’d get no answer from me she looked out the window at a row of pines.  I remembered the mailboxes and wondered if I should try to compensate the neighbors for the carnage, but Helen would have none of that.

‘Just drop me off and then go on your fucking quest—I don’t fucking care anymore.’  Then softly: ‘I’ve had enough of your games, Jackson.  I’m not playing by your rules anymore.’

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