The Paterfamilias

Helen stood over the stove.  Sizzling ground beef filled the room with crackle and the promise of hamburger.

‘You were telling me about Mitchell,’ Helen said.

‘Right.  So I didn’t hear it from him but from Cathy.  I guess Drysdale’s been kicking the Hattiesburg PD’s ass for months, ever since Bowers went to trial.’

‘And Mitchell figures he’s next.’

‘Yeah, only it’s twice as bad for him.  Kind of hard for the sheriff if everyone thinks his grandpa and missing uncle are criminals.’

Helen stirred the beef.  ‘I bet you wish you’d never sent those letters.’

I shrugged.  ‘Whatever.  It’s the truth, right?’

‘In a manner of speaking.’  Helen lifted the lid from a deep stainless-steel pot and dropped eight ears of corn into the boiling water.  She paused, lifting a finger to her lips.  ‘Is Cathy eating with us tonight?’

‘I haven’t seen her.  But I’d imagine so, if Monty is going to be here.’

‘That dumb bitch.  Doesn’t she see Monty has a one-track mind?’

‘Everybody’s dealing with this in their own way,’ I said vaguely.

‘Kingston called for you again.’

‘Right.’

Maybe everbody was dealing in their own way—so what was my way?  Late at night I’d lie awake, wrapped in the notion that maybe my father had done the best he could.  Maybe he’d done all he knew how to do, all he was capable of doing, more than his own father did for him.  In the objective assembly of fathers—whatever that means—he may have been deficient, but in the context of himself, maybe he gave me what he had.  The mere possibility eroded my sense of righteousness and undermined the case I’d spent the last few months building.

I retreated to my bedroom, sinking back onto the bed.  My mind began to wander again over what little information I had.  The important letters were missing.  The simplest explanation was that whoever had abducted my father had taken the letters with him, and the easy inference from there was that it must have been someone who stood to lose something if the letters ever got out.  The obvious choices were Peter Bingham and Earl Watkins.  But why not take the whole box?  The box was the smoking gun, even without any ammunition.  Something wasn’t adding up.

I heard a shout from the living room as Marty made an entrance.

‘It’s time to drink some schnapps!’ he announced to the entire house.  I jumped up from the bed and made for the living room in socked feet.  I could smell the shrimp and the seasoned butter.  I looked beyond Monty to the kitchen and saw Marty bantering at Helen.  I couldn’t hear what was being said but Marty’s mouth wouldn’t stop running and Helen was growing agitated, slicing squash with growing violence.   She set down the knife and turned to diminutive Marty, freezing his motor mouth.

‘If you’re going to just stand there you can at least be helpful,’ she said loud enough for me to hear.  ‘Here, chop the onion.’  She handed him a large white onion.  He accepted it and began to examine it with the disdain he might have given an impaled head, holding it away from him at arm’s length.

‘So how’s it going?’ I said to Monty, off to one side.  ‘How’s Cathy?’

‘Oh man she’s flirting with me all the time now!’ Monty said, animated.  ‘Where is she, anyway?’

‘She’s around here somewhere.’

‘Man I’ve got to tell you I haven’t found anything this promising—Cathy, I mean—not in a long time.’

‘You have my blessing,’ I said facetiously.

Making her debut for the evening, Cathy emerged from out of her room.  She moved to Monty’s side and latched onto his arm like she never planned to let go.  She noticed me looking at her and smiled, snuggling closer to Monty.

Dinner was served over a candlelit table. Shrimp piled high, rich with butter.  Corncobs stacked eight-strong in a wicker basket.  Some sort of soufflé chocked full of veggies and cheese.  A bowl of homemade rolls and a variety of other fixings.  Marty and Monty had mixed everyone purple cocktails—champagne, vodka, and raspberry schnapps—and these ringed the table.  The table was set for six and when most everyone had sat down Helen walked down the hallway and knocked on Faye’s door.  Helen returned, and with her came Faye, still in her blue bathrobe, like some sort of mental patient.  I felt a little guilty for driving her to it.

‘Oh how nice,’ Faye said.  It was the first time I’d seen her smile since my return to Poscataw.  She sat down at the end of the table.  Responding to a starter pistol, everyone grabbed for helpings.  I sat beside Helen, although we didn’t talk much.  We spoke with the people around us, sometimes encountering one other in the same conversation.

Marty poured me another drink.  Helen wasn’t drinking.  We’d all gorged ourselves and dinner was winding down.

‘How’s the hotel?’ Helen said to Marty and Monty.

‘We moved out of the hotel a couple weeks ago,’ Monty said.  ‘Too expensive.  We found someone to crash with.’

‘Who?’ Helen said.

‘Jeff the Dealer,’ Marty said.  Corn jutted out from between his teeth.

‘Not much room in his dorm,’ I said.

‘Sometimes we get passed around the dorm,’ Monty explained.  I wondered if Marty and Monty would still be occupying a Southern University dorm by the time Cathy’s fall term started up.

‘When are you getting back to the Bay?’ Helen said.

‘Sooner or later,’ Monty said, very nonchalant.  ‘Classes start next week.  We may miss the first quarter.’  Across the table, Faye blanched at this notion.  I’m sure she wanted nothing less than to have Marty and Monty around for another three months, even if they were off-premises.  Monty seemed to have done a good job of luring Cathy away from her mother and I’m sure that Faye saw through his intentions.

‘When are you guys going back?’ Monty said to Helen.

‘We’re not sure,’ I said, jumping in to answer for Helen.  ‘We’ll leave before too long, once things get cleared up.’  I made a point of avoiding Helen’s eyes.  ‘Can’t stay here forever.’  I put on a fake grin, speared several shrimp with my fork, deposited them in my mouth, and began to chew.

‘Not with a baby on the way,’ Helen said.  I almost choked on the shrimp.  The table went silent.  I saw my Aunt Faye at the end of the table with her shot of schnapps.  She looked down as she swirled the purple elixir in her glass.  Monty squinted to discern something at a great distance.  Marty wasn’t at all phased.  He sat placid, his eyes wandering the wallpaper.

‘Congratulations,’ Cathy said, breaking the silence.  ‘I’m so happy for you.’  It was evident she said it more as a nicety.  No one else said a word.  Was I supposed to make some sort of general announcement, agree, voice my buy-in?

‘Didn’t much see this coming,’ I said and immediately wished I’d kept my mouth shut.  Helen idly shifted in my direction, too disgusted to bother looking my way

Monty saved me: ‘You planning on moving in together or something?’

‘Maybe,’ Helen said, ‘if Jackson gets his act together.’  My aunt shot what remained of her schnapps.

‘You’ll have to live together,’ Monty said.  ‘You can’t even afford to live in the city, I bet.’

Again, I let these plans go uncontested.

Now Marty, too stoned to get a temperature reading on the room, broke out in song.

‘Are you going to San…Fran…Cisco.’

‘I think we’ll live in the city,’ Helen said.

‘Be sure to wear… some flowers in your hair.’

‘Time for dessert,’ Helen said, springing from her chair.  Strawberry shortcake with vanilla ice cream.  My aunt stood, excusing herself.  I was relieved to see her blue bathrobe disappearing down the hall, and then to hear the click of her bedroom door closing behind her.  With my aunt gone, Monty produced a leather pouch, from which he pulled a thin glass pipe, a lighter, and a zip-locked baggie.  He packed the pipe.  Helen returned with the first serving of shortcake, which she placed in front of Monty, who offered her the pipe.  Helen passed it to Marty.  Too bad; I’d been hoping the dope might sedate her.  Yet again I’d overlooked her newfound pious abstinence.

Marty drew a quick, thorough hit and passed the pipe to Cathy.  I was surprised to see her accept it.  She handled the pipe with virginal awkwardness, at first unsure of the carb.  When she went to exhale she fell into a cough.  She passed the pipe to me.

‘I didn’t realize you’d started smoking,’ I said.

‘Just a few times,’ she said, still fending off the coughing.

I wicked a flame and felt the gentle Pavlovian burning on my throat.  Helen’s immediacy melted away

‘It may be cashed’ I said, passing the pipe back to Monty.

It was in fact cashed, so Monty packed another.

‘What are we going to do now?’ I said.

Marty jumped in.  ‘Let’s go up to the tower, the tower downtown.’

Monty shook his head.  ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘Middle of town,’ Marty said.  ‘Or outside of town.’

‘I don’t know any tower,’ Cathy said, confused.  Her mouth hung open as she contemplated something profound.

‘I don’t know that Marty is with us tonight,’ Helen said.  ‘You should have heard him before dinner.’  I recalled Marty with the onion.

‘What are you on, Marty?’ Monty said.  Marty began to laugh with broad toucan calls.  ‘Where’d you get it?’

‘Jeff the Dealer,’ Marty said, squeezing the words out between laughs.  ‘Where else.’

‘What is it?’ I said.

‘Mescaline,’ Marty said, teeth chattering in his laughter.  Not the unconcentrated stuff we had last spring, but the real deal.

Helen retrieved another two plates of shortcake from the kitchen, one for Cathy and one for Marty.  Then she got one for herself.  I was expected to serve myself.

Marty’s laughing had abated now.

‘What’s it like?’ I said.

‘It’s like the moment before you wake up,’ Marty said.

Monty shook his head.  ‘He’s faded.’  Monty was clearly envious.  He turned to Helen.

‘Why aren’t you smoking,’ he said.  Helen shook her head—wasn’t it obvious?—before answering.

‘Think about it.’  Think he did, to no effect.  Cathy piped in as his surrogate brain.

‘She’s pregnant, Monty.’

‘Oh yeah,’ Monty said.  ‘So are you not going to be able to smoke any weed for nine months?’

‘I suppose not,’ Helen said.  ‘Speaking of which.’  Helen got up from the dope-head table and walked away.  Marty began to laugh again.

‘Man, hope I never get pregnant.’  Monty said, laughing.  Cathy looked on, unimpressed.

I heard rustling from the back of the house.  Faye.  I felt the Stoners Paranoia setting in.  Marty on mescaline; Monty dragging Cathy into our inebriated game; Helen pissed and pregnant; and all because Jackson Calvert, suspected kidnapper and known manipulator, had invaded the Calvert home.

‘Maybe we should keep it down,’ I said.  But there was no keeping Marty down.  His laughter had built into a robust cackle.  I realized Helen had left the room. Marty resumed his singing:

‘Aquarius!….Aa-Quar-E-Usssss’

I got up and crept down the hallway to our bedroom.  The door was shut.  When I twisted the handle I met resistance.

‘Helen,’ I said, hoping my voice wasn’t carrying down the hallway to my aunt’s room.

No answer.  I tapped the door, speaking her name again.

‘Fuck off.’  I didn’t feel like pleading my way inside.  I return to the table.  Marty was still singing, this time random Bob Dylan lyrics.  Monty and Cathy sat enraptured by his arrangement.  This scene was no better than what was going on in my bedroom, so I went outside.  I walked down the driveway till I was out of sight of the house and stood looking out into the woods.  What the hell was I doing?  This was more of a mess than I could bear.  I didn’t want to be a father.  I knew this with all the conviction I had left.  I felt trapped, without volition over my own life.  I was twenty-four and going nowhere.  For all my father’s ineptitude, at least he had a trade when I was born.  At least he had cash flow.  I had nothing to show for the last six years of my life and nothing that would qualify me to bring a child into the world.  Did Helen realize how ill-suited I was for this?  What if it was a boy?  Another Calvert Sire.  She must have understood that Jackson Calverts don’t just happen.  They’re raised.  They’re a product of indifference and weakness and poor decisions.  Did she want to commit the rest of her life to a son who would be no better than his father, whom she was coming to hate?  It wasn’t enough that she thought herself capable; she had to pick the right guy to go along with this plan, and I wasn’t it.  Hell, my mother was the most capable woman I ever knew, and she hadn’t been able to save me.  No one can save a boy from his father, just as no one can save a father from his son.  My father was missing, maybe dead, and it was all my fault.  I’d led the criminals to his home; I’d necessitated the crime.  I wondered what had come of the antique pistol.  It was probably in Mud City, moldering in some evidence room: a curious item to a few intrepid collectors, testament to the fallacy of impatient crusades.  Would my own son go seeking that relic one day, pursuing his father’s dark secret?

I heard voices and started back to the house and saw that Marty and Monty were out on the porch, with Cathy lingering in the open doorway.  I stepped up onto the porch.

‘What you gonna name him?’ Monty asked me.

‘Well I wasn’t planning on going through with it, to be honest.’

‘You should name it Jackson,’ Marty said.

‘I don’t want to name it anything,’ I said. ‘I don’t want it.’

‘You should name it Queenie if it’s a girl,’ Marty said.  ‘And Princy if it’s a boy.’  Marty laughed at his own suggestion.

‘No, Falcon if it’s a boy,’ Monty said, ‘and Sparrow if it’s a girl.’

‘My parents thought about naming me Gingko Biloba,’ Marty admitted.

‘Wish they had,’ I said, although I had to admit Marty and Monty sounded better than Ginkgo and Monty.

‘You should name it Tito,’ said Marty, eulogizing the mannequin.  He and Monty lowered their heads in deference to their burnt plastic friend.  I tried to ignore them.

‘You could name it Party,’ Monty said.  ‘If it was a boy or a girl—that wouldn’t matter.  I wish my name was Party.’  They both began to laugh.

‘You’ve got to try this mescaline,’ Marty said to no one in particular.  Without saying anything else he brushed past me and wandered off the porch and into the night.  He stopped before a tree, looking more diminutive than ever beside the wealthy oak.  He stood for a moment and looked up at the tree with his arms crossed and his hands hidden in his armpits.

‘Doesn’t get much better than this,’ he said as he pressed into the dark and down the driveway.

I regarded Monty, who had also been watching Marty and the tree.

‘Why didn’t you tell us,’ Monty said.  ‘About the baby.’

‘I didn’t think we were having the baby,’ I said.  ‘We haven’t decided to have it yet.’

Monty shrugged.

‘You’ll figure it out.’  He gestured in the direction Marty had gone.  ‘I’d better make sure he’s ok.  See ya, man.’  Monty bounded off the porch and into the darkness.

Cathy lingered behind.

‘Congratulations,’ she said, moving to hug me in a familial way.

‘Are you staying here tonight?’  Cathy stepped back from the hug.

‘Do you want me to?’  The question was loaded with suggestion, and I saw that maybe she and Monty weren’t as far along as I’d hoped.

‘I think it would be good,’ I said, trying to remain neutral.  ‘For your mother, I mean.’  Cathy looked out into the dark in the direction Marty and Monty had headed.

‘We still need to find that quiet time,’ Cathy said, looking back to me.  She stepped close and hugged me again.  ‘I can’t wait to be with you.  Even if you are having a baby with someone else.’

‘Right.’  My arms hung limp at my sides.  Helen was so pissed at me by now that any more bad news—the kind Cathy threatened to deliver—would be the end of me.  I weaseled out of the hug and slipped back in the front door.  Cathy followed me.

‘We keep putting it off,’ she said, closing the front door behind her.  She spoke with more volume than she needed to.  Voices traveled far in this house.

I sat down on the couch.  Cathy came and sat beside me, rather close.  She turned toward me and put one hand on the back of my head.

‘All we need to do is seize the moment.’  Cathy wet her lips.

I stood, leaving her hand floating in the air where my head had been.

‘I’m going to go to bed.’

I retreated to the bathroom to brush my teeth.  When I emerged I stood pensively by my bedroom door, contemplating whether or not I should enter.  A crack of light shined underneath.   I considered potential courses of action and ramifications: either she lets me in and we argue, or she makes me sleep on the couch and maybe I get off without having to get into a row.  I returned to the living room, felt a wave of relief when I saw Cathy was no longer there.  I found a blanket, switched off a few lights, and laid back on the couch.  I shifted to my side and watched the front door, imagining what lay beyond.  Outside I heard the cicadas burring lullabies.  Five seconds and I could be out that door.  I filed away an escape plan for future reference.

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