Materfamilias

I don’t know if it was woman’s intuition or a mother’s sixth sense but Dorothy Calvert seemed to have arrived with some foreknowledge of my bad behavior.  Now that she’d gotten the summary report it became clear she intended to follow me around until things were straightened out.

I was standing now in her bedroom—Cathy’s room.  At her mother’s insistence Cathy had relinquished her bed for a few days, opting to sleep on the couch.

‘Are you ready to tell me what has been going on?’  There was an airy quality to the question, disguising its intent.

‘What do you mean?’ I said, doing a bad job at playing dumb.

‘Your father—what happened?’

‘I think…I think Gabe had something to do with it.’

‘Why would you think that?’  I remembered who I was talking to—the only attentive audience I’d ever had.

‘He was acting strange before, saying about how I should kill dad.  He said if I didn’t want to that he would.’

‘Why would he say that?’

‘He was just always so creepy—I’m sure it was him.  He…there’s something wrong with him.  Nobody will say what but he’s just…off.  I went to the Capital a few weeks ago and he followed me there and kept following me around, and Helen too.  He took a bunch of pictures of Helen on the sly.’

My mother frowned but didn’t criticize my police work.  Not yet.

‘I think your father had deeper trouble than Gabe,’ she said, looking out the window in prologue.  I didn’t speak but felt a quickening in anticipation.  She looked down at the floor, sat back on her bed.  ‘I never told you…’  Of course it would start that way.  The missing link.  My mother had sworn full disclosure as I was growing up.  There wasn’t supposed to be anything she’d never told me.  ‘I never told you all the reasons I left him,’ she said.  ‘He was involved in some things that just wouldn’t do—not with a child in the house.’

‘What do you mean?’  The fact that I hadn’t heard this before seemed like a major deceit.

‘It was his father,’ she said.  ‘Johnson never could stand up to the man.  I am sure none of it would have even happened without Jefferson pulling strings in the background.  Him and…and, that snake.’  The word was like a cast skin, left behind, promising at the serpent somewhere ahead.  A face came to mind.  ‘Your father may have taken after your grandfather, but nothing like Peter.’  She shook her head, her mouth curled in disgust.  ‘When you were but a few months old Peter came to stay with us.  I’m sure you don’t remember.’  I didn’t.  But this fact gave substance to Peter’s claim as Godfather.

‘An awful man.’  She grasped the bedspread with one hand.  This would have been a logical time to say something about my knowledge of Peter, but there was too much explaining involved.  ‘Every day it was the same routine: wake early, leave the house in a suit, with a briefcase, and back home by noon.  He spent the afternoons on the telephone.  Sometimes he’d go prowling about the house, like a thief.  This went on for several weeks.  The telephone would ring and he would go scrambling for it.  He once snatched it from my hand.  At night he would take Johnson away, bring him back stinking of whiskey.  Finally I confronted your father about this stranger in our house.  Johnson told Peter he had to leave—I insisted.  After he was gone I found a stack of money sitting on the kitchen counter.  I never touched it and made Johnson get rid of it.’  My thoughts wandered to the Cannabis Trust.

‘Did Dad ever say what Peter was doing?’

‘Of course not.’  Dorothy Calvert shook her head in pity.  ‘I doubt the poor fool even knew.  Peter was the emissary of Jefferson Calvert, sent to do the kind of dirty work Johnson was incapable of.’

‘But what do you think Peter was doing?’

She looked at me and her eyes were wet and soft and sad—filled with the kind of remorse rarely reserved for anything concerning my father.

‘Laundering money,’ she spat.  ‘Some plot on Jefferson Calvert’s behalf.  Weeks after he left we continued to receive phone calls.  Banks, lenders, portfolio managers.  They had different names for him—anything but Peter Bingham.’

The name hung in the humid air.  Peter Bingham.  He was the key.  He knew.

‘I would guess,’ my mother said.  ‘That your father’s dark associations finally caught up to him.  Thank Goodness I got you clear of it.’

I wanted to laugh.  If only she knew.  Dorothy Calvert would find out soon enough.  In the meantime I needed to locate Peter Bingham. He had told Kingston he was going away, using Kingston as an unwitting messenger.   But where had he gone?  Peter was without roots.  He had no friends or associates, nothing tying him to anyone or anyplace.  Not once had he mentioned a family—except to discuss Faye and Gabe.

‘Who is this guy?’ I said, assuming the guise of innocence.

‘As far as I can tell every time your father ever found trouble, from back in his college days, Peter was behind it.  Although Peter was never the one to get caught.  Your father never noticed the pattern.’

‘How did they know one another?’  I feared my mother would see through my flimsy deceit.

‘Peter was entrenched long before I met your father.  It often seemed Jefferson would have traded Peter for Johnson if given the opportunity.’

I thought of my father, my poor pathetic father: a failed husband, failed father.  Failed salesman, failed thief, and now I saw even a failed son.

‘Jackson,’ she said, returning her intensity to me.  ‘What are you thinking?’

‘Nothing,’ I said.  ‘Only that it all seems strange.’

‘What do you mean?’

It was one of those open-ended questions that can be dangerous.

‘I just don’t understand,’ I said.

‘I’m sure it must be quite worrisome.’  She reached out to me and ran her hand through my hair.  Her slight touch was so familiar and I hadn’t felt it in so long.  It cut through my defenses.

‘I feel…I’m not sure…’  My mother’s attentive gaze prompted me to speak my mind.  ‘I feel like it’s my fault.’

My mother pulled her hand back from my hair, like she’d been touched by static electricity.  My defense snapped back in place.

‘Why on earth would you feel that?’  She said it with the usual maternal concern but I sensed her underlying dread.  She looked at me with a dawning recognition and I saw something from her I had never seen before: suspicion.

‘What haven’t you told me?’ she demanded.

I had no choice but to tell her.  I went light on the details.  She was bound to get the story at some point anyway—if not from Faye then from Helen.  Better that I control the content.  I left out all mention of Peter Bingham or the Cannabis Fund, sticking instead to my father’s part of the story: the initial phone call, five months before; the digging; the State Archive; Eleanor King; my trip to Mud City; Mitchell’s investigation.  She seemed to take it pretty well, only interrupting when her sensibilities were most offended.

‘….So as it now stands we’re not sure where Dad is, or who’s behind it.’

My mother sat in silence on the edge of the bed, looking at the wall.  She shook her head.

‘This is all so unlike you,’ she said, pained.

I couldn’t respond.

‘I’m not sure what can be done about your father,’ she said.  ‘But I do know you’re going back to San Jose  State.  To finish up.’  My entire body seized up.  I wanted to say something, to protest, but then I couldn’t think of a legitimate excuse.  I was beginning to think anything was better than Poscataw.  I went to my room and looked out the window.  I saw the woods behind the house and nestled back a ways I saw Gabe’s shack.  For so long his shack had seemed so menacing and dire, like Dracula’s mansion, but looking at it now all I could think of was pity—pity for that poor miserable creature.  Pity for my father, who got wrapped up in something he never intended.  His plight seemed larger and more relevant than Helen and my squabble.

I was so close to an answer—one man away.  If I could just get out from under the weight of Helen’s needling and find Peter Bingham—I could find the answers.  If Helen would let me go.

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