River of Fire

The letter came that afternoon, packaged in a battered envelope that looked as though it had ascended from the underworld.  Only three days old, the postmark read Louisiana.  Venice, Louisiana.  It was addressed to me in penmenship I recognized as my father’s.

I obliterated the envelope in my frenzy to get to the letter within. Johnson Calvert had needed only a page of yellow legal-sized lined paper to convey his point.  I held the letter inches from my eyes.

Jackson,

I don’t expect you to understand.  I made a mistake long ago that I have never lived down.  I thought I had moved on years ago but through your actions you have forced my hand.  I know I have not always been the greatest of fathers to you.  I hope you will forgive me, for what I have done and what I must do now.

I am going away so that this secret can die with me.  I would like to say I will see you some day but you have shown through your actions that you are your mother’s child.  I wish you had asked for my side of the story before passing judgment.  But then regret never got me anywhere in life, so there’s no point in dwelling on what could have been.

With love,

Your father

I examined the remains of the envelope. The postmark caught my eye.

Venice, Louisiana.

I went looking for the atlas, and even as I flipped through it I remembered something Peter Bingham once said to me, on the day we first met.  He’d been talking about the area downriver from New Orleans, at the end of the Mississippi just before the delta gave way to the gulf, and how he and Johnson used to go carousing at the end of the river.

A man could disappear for a long time down there, Jackson.

I looked again at the postmark.  Either my father was as dumb as I always figured or he’d just sent me a homing beacon.

I set the atlas on the dining room table and leaned over it.  The map of Louisiana shared a page with the map of Mississippi.  The river was a sky blue ribbon winding down the center of the page.  I followed it south, past Baton Rouge and Lake Ponchatrain and New Orleans down to Port Sulphur, were the land began to narrow to a single crooked finger, with a single blue vein.  The next town downriver from Port Sulphur was Empire, a small and indistinct gray circle.  Downriver came Burns and Venice, and after that a mystery fingernail of land between Venice and the sea.  I saw a road, Highway 23, poking south as far as Venice.  Just looking at the map I could tell how right Peter had been: a man could hide forever in that untamed country.  But he couldn’t run, not for long.  He would run out of land.

The house was quiet that afternoon—not even a sign of my mother or Helen.  I imagined them off somewhere in some woman’s council deciding my fate.  Helen would lead the prosecution.  The thought of it made me want to spit.  I imagined their reaction when they learned I wanted to leave town in search of some answer, this time at the end of the river.

Helen: Oh great.  Run off again and leave me here, alone and pregnant and unmarried.

My mother: Your father’s not worth the effort, Jackson.  He never did care for you.  Stop wasting your time.

My aunt in her blue bathrobe: You still haven’t replanted my rose bush.

Even Cathy would have something to say.  You told me we were going to go trysting.

There was no reason to wait for them to tell me not to go.  It was easier this way.  I could leave before anyone knew, duck the heat for a few days, find my father and bring him back to Poscataw.  Then all would be forgiven.

I threw some clothes in a bag, along with my toothbrush, deodorant, a wad of cash, a pipe and supplies—and then I zipped up my bag and slung it on a shoulder.  I found a pen and jotted something quick.

Helen, Mother:

I’m chasing the final clue.  Will be back in three days.  Sorry for the rush but this one is close to getting away. I will call to explain.

Love,

Jackson

I started for the door.  I reached for the doorknob and heard the jingle of keys on the other side.  I froze.  I heard a key hit the lock and the door swung open.  I had to step back to keep from colliding with it.

‘Where are you going?’ Helen said.  She was doing her best to balance two bags of groceries.  On instinct I snatched one of them from her.

‘Nowhere,’ I said.  I took the bag into the kitchen and set it down on the counter on top of the note I’d just written.  Helen set her bag down next to mine.

‘Something wrong?’ she said.

‘Oh no,’ I said, too quick to respond.

‘What are you up to?’  She began to unpack the bag I’d set on top of the note.

‘I was just going to go down to the library.’  I stuck my thumb over my shoulder.  ‘That’s all.’

‘Hold on a sec.’  Helen lifted a quart of milk from the bag and put it in the fridge.  ‘I’ll go with you.’

I stood watching in growing dread as she finished unpacking the bag; like anticipating a head-on collision between two gas tankers.  When she’d emptied the paper bag she lifted it and began to fold it, which is when she saw the note.  Her eyes flipped down to the counter.  When she looked up at me I took a step back.

‘What the FUCK is this!’ she demanded.

‘I need to go,’ I said and began to shrink toward the door.  ‘I have a lead on where my dad is, but I have to go.’

‘No fucking way.’  Helen threw the folded paper bag at me like a Frisbee; it glanced off my hip.  ‘You’re not leaving now on another of your damn schemes.  I’m pregnant for chrissakes.  Admit it—you’re leaving because of me.  You’re trying to run away again.’

‘I’m not-‘

‘DON’T LIE TO ME!  That’s all this has ever been!  This damn fool quest, since the moment you left California—it was all to spite me.’  I felt like one of those gerbils running on a wire treadmill.  It was going to take something beyond my capacity to give if I wanted to spring this cage and escape Helen’s tirade.  In most situations I would have taken my lumps and compromised my way out the door, but now I needed a stout olive branch—the whole trunk, to be exact.  I paused for a moment, foreseeing the dire consequences, and decided to go for it.

‘I know you’re pregnant,’ I said, the words falling from my mouth faster than I could consider them.  ‘I’ve decided I want to have the baby.  And I’ve decided…I’ve decided I want to marry you first, if you’ll have me.’

‘You’re feeding me a line of horseshit.’  She slapped her hand down on the kitchen counter.  ‘Don’t you dare throw that talk around.’

‘I’m not, I swear.  I mean it.  Just as soon as I get to the bottom of this, I’ll marry you.  I swear to you, Helen.’

‘Are you serious?’  Helen set her jaw and put her fists on her hips and I could hear her tapping her foot.

‘Yes,’ I said.  ‘I’m dead serious.’  I stepped toward her and held out my hand.  She looked at it for a moment before limply shaking to seal the deal.

‘I swear I’ll marry you,’ I said, already cursing myself for abject stupidity. ‘Just as soon as I find out what happened.  I think I’m close.  The answer’s down the river, in a town called Venice.’

‘Venice, Mississippi?’

‘Venice, Louisiana.  I swear—I’m close.’

Helen’s jaw had loosened and her foot had stopped tapping.

‘Alright,’ she said.  ‘Go.  Get out of my sight.  But when you come back you had better have solved this thing, and you’d better be ready.  If I find out you were feeding me a spoonful of shit I’ll-‘

‘You won’t,’ I said, offering my palms in a gesture of peace.  ‘You won’t.’

‘Get out of here.’  She set her hand on the kitchen counter as though to steady herself.

I left without any more delay, kicking up gravel on my way up the driveway.  I didn’t want anyone else catching me.  I’d already made one deal I couldn’t pay for.  I wheeled onto the road, headed for Poscataw and beyond.  As I drove southwest, toward New Orleans, I tried not to dwell too long on the fact that I’d just sold my soul.

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