Johnson Calvert

The town was aptly named.  After crossing the Mississippi on the Interstate 40 Bridge, I veered north, taking a sub-highway along the Arkansas riverbank.  The ten miles south of town were nothing but mud, heavy with brown waters and deep enough to sink a man up to his neck, bury him forever if he tarried alongside the river.  Mud City was small—just like every place my father had taken his act.  My father could pass for significant in a town like this, tucked into a bend of the Mississippi.  I encountered First Street after passing the ‘Welcome to Mud City’ sign: Population 782; Food, Gas, Lodging.  The downtown had grown up around the highway.  There were three stoplights, a Sav-a-Center, two greasy-spoons, a pharmacy, a Popeye’s Chicken, and an assortment of the usual suspects.  I’d cleared the business district (so to speak) by Eleventh Street and moved into the residential area.  The squat houses slumped with shallow-pitched roofs and small unkempt lawns.  The air looked dirty, as if the mud from the river had become vaporous.

I turned left on Fifteenth, directing my attention to the rotting pumpkin homes on the north side of the street.  I found my father’s house—236—without any trouble: a brown one-bedroom construction with a door and two rectangular windows facing the street, one to either side of the door.  I parked on the street in front of the house.  There was no curb and the yard didn’t have a particular boundary.  Splotches of grass became an unmowed lawn.  My father’s beaten blue Datsun sat loyally in the driveway.

I climbed out of the truck, stretched.  It hadn’t been a long drive and I wasn’t sore; the stretching was more in the way one stretches before an athletic contest.  Reaching into the cab, I pulled out the box of letters, concealing it under my arm as you might a lethal weapon.

I saw a flash of movement through a window.  My father peered out at me.  He waved then disappeared.  The front door opened.

‘Jackson, Son.  Good to see you.’   My father walked out the front door and down the concrete path that cut through the overgrown lawn and came to stop in front of me on the dirt beside my truck.  I stood still for a moment, unsure if I should hug the man with this thing under my arm.  We stood eye to eye; we were both the same height.  He’d once had my sandy hair but at sixty-five he was all gray.  He’d managed to defend his waistline over the years, and even as he grew older he still held a firm constitution.  I looked into his eyes that were like looking into my own and smiled.

‘Hi Dad.’  My father had stood there with an uncertain smile until I spoke.  Then he gave in, grabbing me in an awkward hug.  If this motion were to be captured on film and used in an insurance commercial, you might have the impression that we were quite close.

‘What’s this?’  He pointed to the box.

‘Show you in a minute.’  My father seemed to tense slightly as he looked down at the box, somehow anticipating the contents.  But as he always does he soon veiled his discomfort.  I played along.  I had decided to let the letters speak for themselves.  Then I would hear what my father had to say in his own defense.

He led me inside and I took a seat on a couch that smelled like a wet dog.  My father always had hulking beasts around the house—stinky, ungroomed mongrels.  Even as a boy, I had no affection for these creatures; they’d been neglected and were therefore unfriendly.  I hadn’t understood the cause of their indignity when I was younger, but now I hoped the latest beast might materialize so we could commiserate.

‘Want a drink, Son? You drink manhattans, yes?’  One of the only things my father knew about me: my alcohol preferences.

‘Sure.  Sounds good.’  Johnson Calvert nodded with a smile and made for the kitchen.  He emerged a moment later with an unopened bottle of vermouth.  ‘So, you stay the night in Memphis then?’

‘I did.’

‘Should have come through all the way.  I could‘ve put you up on my couch.’

I nodded, again breathing in the reeking couch, and watched as my father broke the seal on the vermouth.  He again moved into the kitchen and I heard glasses clinking together and the emptying of an ice tray.  He returned balancing two manhattans, setting each down on the coffee table in front of me.  I reached for one, took a sip: stiff but I preferred it that way.

‘You’ll be happy to hear that your sister is doing well,’ I said, even though this wasn’t quite true.  She’s doing a lot better now.  Now that I’m out of her house and am done digging holes in her rose garden.

‘Ol’ Faye?’  My father slapped his knee.  ‘Haven’t seen her forever.  Should make it down there soon.’

‘Sure she’d like that.’  I wondered if, were they to see each other, my aunt would apprise my father of my felonious conduct.  ‘So how long you been living here, Dad?’

‘Oh, five months, maybe six.  Like it a lot.  This could be the one, Son!’  This was his favorite line.  Wherever he happened to be living could be the one, up until the time when his façade broke down. Six months, by the way, was a good stretch for Johnson Calvert.  His average was eight months, although in most incarnations the chinks in the armor showed up around month four.  Johnson Calvert’s primary goal in life was to be perceived in a certain way, and he generally stuck with a community for as long as they bought into his carefully crafted persona.  Vanity isn’t the most condemnable thing there is—he never brained anyone or crashed any oil-tankers.  But it’s a silly thing for a man to aspire to.  Those who participated in the charade were always the first to see through it.

‘Oh, Jackson, let me show you something.’  He got up and pulled a heavy wooden box off of a shelf and placed the box in front of me.  The box was worn, the wood cracked; the latch and hinges had rusted.

‘Open it.’  My father couldn’t control his excitement as he grinned over the box.  I lifted the lid.  The interior was lined with green felt and inside rested an antique pistol.  The handle gleamed black and worn; the chamber was polished silver.

‘That’s a Le Mat revolver.  Double barreled.  Cap and ball design.  This was one of the most famous weapons of the Civil War.’  My father rubbed his hands together in one of his salesman habits.  His palms started to itch whenever he got to talking about the equipment.

‘Where’d you get it?’  I reached into the box and hefted the thing, feeling its weight more out of courtesy than curiosity.

‘Found it up north, in St. Louie.  In an antique shop.  The Missouri Cavalry was issued this kind of gun.  Something, isn’t it?’

‘Sure is.’  I turned it over in my hand.  ‘Does it still work?’

‘I don’t know.  Haven’t tried it.’  I looked down the sight.

‘What good is a gun that doesn’t shoot?’ I set the revolver on its felt bed and closed the lid.  Johnson Calvert didn’t answer, and when I looked at him I saw a tremble behind his eyes.  That familiar pained expression.

‘What’s wrong?’ he said.

‘Nothing.’  I handed him the pistol case; he stood to put it away.

‘So what brings you, Son?’ By the time he’d resumed his seat Johnson Calvert was doing his best to appear jovial again.  I swallowed hard, not sure how to begin.  I didn’t meet his eyes, instead turning to the pencil box housing Clyde King’s letters.  Johnson Calvert saw me looking.  ‘What’s this, then?’  He picked it up off the table, flipping open the lid and pulling out a tattered envelope.  He took one look at the envelope—at the Parchman Prison postmark—before his eyes flashed back to mine.  ‘Where did you get this?’ he demanded.  I found some strength in his reaction.

‘From a woman named Eleanor King.  You may know her.’ My father didn’t answer, instead glaring at the envelope.  He folded back the sleeve and pulled out the thin white paper.  His eyes moved from the page to me and back to the page.  I watched his face shift toward a pain.  When he finished reading he took up another letter, then another.  By the fifth and final letter I could see sweat forming at his temple.  One bead ran down his cheek, disappearing in the stubble of his beard line.  He looked at me with betrayed blue pools, then back at the box—not yet submitting to its reality.  The only sound was the tinkling of ice cubes in my manhattan.

Finally Johnson Calvert sighed in relief.  ‘I’m so glad it was you who found them.  I’ve always been afraid of what that damn woman had on me.  How’d you get it from her, Son!  Standup job, Son.  Standup!  Here, we’ve…we’ve got to do something with them.  Burn them and throw the ashes in the river—something like that.  Here—help your old man out, Jackson.’  He stood, holding the box out in front of him with two hands.  He turned in several directions, uncertain where to start.  He began to babble and set the box down on the coffee table.

‘Standup job, Son.  Standup!’

I was amazed at his reaction.  I’d never expected he would be so blindly trusting, so enamored of his own lie.  He thought I was his ally.  As if blood was really that thick.  I had to stop myself from laughing.

‘Jesus, Dad.  Did you even read them?’  My father stopped babbling, blinked.

‘Wha…what do you mean?’

‘What do I mean?’  I stood up.  I held my glass in my right hand.  The ice-cubes tinkled.  I hadn’t eaten that morning and could feel the bourbon getting to me.  ‘What I mean, father, is that I’m not going to help you burn these letters or throw their ashes in the Mississippi.  Not that I care if you do.  These are the originals but that doesn’t matter anymore.  I’ve got duplicate copies.  I’ve got a bunch of copies.  So does David Drysdale with the Clarion Ledger.  I’d imagine when he’s done with them he’ll make sure a lot of other people get copies too.  Jesus, Dad.  You thought I would help you cover your own ass?  You are blind.’

My father sat down hard on the couch.  He stared at the box on the table.  I could feel color in my face and imagined I was red now. When my father looked up at me I saw the eyes of a man I’d seen only once before, the night I attacked him off Market Street.  The eyes wavered like far-away stars that blink when there’s too much dust in the air.

‘I can’t believe you think I’d help you hide something like this, father.  Something this shameful.  How could you, father?  How could you torture that man?  How could you torment him like that?  You killed him—you and grandpa.  You killed him.’  He was no longer looking at me but I spied his eyes under heavy lashes.  They still flickered as they groveled around the room, searching for something to fix on.  He slumped back in his chair and looked down at the unvacuumed carpet.  I walked into the kitchen and poured myself another drink.  When I returned to the living room my father looked up at me in muted pain, his eyes flooded with vulnerability.  He breathed in deep, seeking the air to speak.

‘Why, Son?  I don’t understand.’  I buried my lips in the manhattan.  The fire went straight to my belly and stoked me toward speech.

‘Of course you don’t, Dad.  You’ve never understood.  You’ve never bothered to look.  If you’d looked you’d of seen it coming.  I’m not like you.  You can see that now—these letters, they prove it.  Christ, Dad, you’ve never looked at anything except maybe at what makes things better for you.  Well everything isn’t hunky-dory, dad.  I’m fucked up and you made me fucked up, Dad.’

‘Jackson, please.  Why are you doing this?’  Johnson Calvert reached up at me with both feeble hands.  I slapped them away.

‘Why did you do it, Dad?  Why’d you let that man die?’

‘I didn’t know he was gonna die.  You think I knew?’  Panic flashed across my father’s face as he wrung his wounded hands.  He believed what he was saying with all the surety he had left.

‘You left him to die.  It served your purpose.’

‘I didn’t know, Son.  My Daddy, he was a hard man.  You never knew him.’

‘You were twenty-one years old.  You could have made your own decision.’

‘Not that easy, Son.  You didn’t know my father.  He was a hard man, Jackson.  A hard man.’  I hated the weakness pooling in the corner of his eyes.

‘And you were soft.  You were weak.  And now everyone will know.’  My father winced again.  I had to breath deep to keep myself under control.

‘Please, Jackson,’ he said, his palms pressed together in a plaintive way.  ‘Stop.  Let’s just forget about it.’

I didn’t want to forget about it.  I wanted him to react.  He should have been pissed at me.  If I’d been in his shoes I would have been outraged, knowing my son had gone to so much trouble just to spite me.  I wanted my father to be angry.  I wanted him to rage, to attack me even.  I remembered the night I punched him on Market Street, clean in the nose, and how he hadn’t hit me back.  How many times had I played back that night and inserted Johnson Calvert enraged, whipping me like he should have, taking me over one knee and beating my ass like any attentive parent should have.  Anything was better than Johnson Calvert, retreating wounded into the night.  Anything was better than the defeat he seemed so willing to embrace, groveling in his own living room.  Anything was better than his vacillating and wounded eyes looking at me, begging forgiveness like one of his vagrant dogs.

‘Why?’ I spat.  ‘Why should we forget about it?  So you can go on living your lie?  So nobody will know what you really are?’  I finished my drink in one final pull.

‘Man’s reputation is the only thing he’s got in this world.  Only thing I got.’

‘What reputation?  You don’t even have any friends.’  I set down the empty glass on the coffee table in punctuation, swayed a bit.

‘But I’ve got kin.  People who knew me since I was tall as a man’s knee.  People who expect things of me.  People who think I’ve done more right than wrong in this life.’  I’m sure just fifteen minutes earlier he’d counted me among this narrow audience.

‘People who bought into all the bullshit, you mean.’

‘Not bullshit, Son.  Just something I tell people so they don’t feel so damn disappointed.  I couldn’t stand to have Faye know about something like this.’

‘Well maybe you aren’t who she thinks you are.  Maybe I’m the only one who knows you.’

‘Don’t talk that way, Son.’  He reached out to touch me.  I stepped back.

‘Don’t touch me.  And don’t call me Son.  I don’t want to be your son anymore.  Here…’  I dug into my pocket and from it I pulled the six-stared sheriff badge and threw it down on the table.  It clattered like a fading top.  ‘Take it—I don’t want it.  I want nothing to do with any of it.’  That was my parting shot.  I was out the door, the screen banging behind me.  I marched down the path and across the uncut grass and into the truck, which started right up.  I looked at the house one final time before putting the truck in drive and saw my father standing at the window looking at me with those same eyes.  I could see his head and stooped shoulders and his broken-down body and thin arms through the window.  He held the box under one arm and it looked heavy.  I put the truck in drive and accelerated down Fifteenth.

I began sobbing when I got to the bridge, leaving Arkansas behind me.  The adrenaline and bourbon had gotten me that far but couldn’t take me any further.  I recalled my father’s shattered resolve and cried in desperate, gasping sobs.  I told myself to turn around so I could see some other expression on his face—anything but those pained eyes.  I resolved to turn.  But the Mississippi is wide, and by the time I reached the other side I was not so resolved.  I took the onramp to Highway 61 and headed south, into the bowels of the delta, trying not to think of my father.  Those were the eyes of a man who has been betrayed, unsuspected, by the very thing he never thought to question.  Those were the eyes of a lifetime of disappointment.  Those were the eyes of a man whose last hope has walked out on him forever.

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