Afterparty

We gathered at the Royal Flush, a crappy bar in what amounted to downtown Venice, LA.  The silent bartender pulled us up a table and the eight of us that were left—Helen, my mother and father, Faye, Drysdale, Monty, Cathy, and myself—gathered for what amounted to my wedding reception.  The pitchers of Abita began to flow.  I think we all wanted to drink this day away.  Soon I was locked in a candid conversation with David Drysdale at the far end of the table.

‘How long were you tracking the Bowers thing?’ I asked, my tongue loosened by several schooners.

‘For years,’ he said.  ‘I first heard about him while I was working for a small paper in Tucson.’

‘Tucson?’  I’d figured Drysdale was a native Mississippian.

‘I’m west coast originally,’ he explained.  ‘Born and raised in Orange County.  Tucson was my first job.  I’d never even thought of Mississippi until ’94, when Byron de la Beckwith went on trial.  I did some research and learned about Bowers and about how there was this movement to bring some of these old Klan leaders to justice.  That’s how I got started at the Clarion-Ledger.  Needless to say I jumped on the Bowers story when they opened the Sovereignty Commission files.’

‘What about Clyde King—had you heard of him before.’

‘I had, but it’s one of those stories—nobody had anything new to say.  Not until your letters showed up.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Monty draped all over Cathy.  Faye listened idly as my father extemporized his account of the wedding, but she seemed more interested in what was going on between her daughter and Monty.  To my right I saw Helen and my mother talking intently.  Helen caught me looking and shot me a sly glance.  I saw her lift a schooner of Abita and drain it in one gulp as if she were shooting tequila.  I smiled slightly—Helen was more fun when she partied—before it dawned on me that she shouldn’t be drinking.  What about the baby… I had no time to dwell on this thought, though, with David Drysdale pressing me.

‘So Jackson,’ Drysdale said in a hushed voice—hushed because he didn’t want anyone else at the table to hear.  ‘I’ve heard your father’s side of the story, but I’m having a hard time reconciling that story with what you sent me.  You made it sound like, well…’  His eyes went to the floor as he searched for words.  ‘It sounded like you were out to get your father, is what it sounded like.  Like you were trying to ruin him.’

‘This is off the record, right?’ Drysdale smiled and I took that for a yes.  ‘I suppose I was after him.  It was all pretty dumb, really.  I kind of wish I’d just stayed in California.  But you know what they say about hindsight.’

‘So where’d you start?  The Sovereignty Commission files?  What was that conversation you cited in your first letter—you said you were one conversation away from finding the truth.’

‘Right.  Eleanor King is her name.  She’s Clyde King’s sister.  That’s where I got those letters.’

‘OK, yeah, the letters were addressed to her.’  Drysdale was going through a mental checklist.  ‘And Earl Watkins—he was somehow involved?’

‘Well you know about Pappy Watkins—I’m sure dad told you about him.’  Drysdale nodded.  ‘Earl Watkins approached me twice.  The first time he came out to our place and threatened me.’  I saw Faye looking my way and lowered my voice.  ‘The second time he invited me to his office.  That’s where I first saw you.  You seemed, well, you seemed angry.’

‘Right,’ Drysdale said, squinting to discern the memory.  ‘He called me in to talk about this whole Bowers thing.  He didn’t quite ask me to stay out of his business but that was the feeling I got.’

‘I guess we had similar conversations.  He wasn’t specific about anything—he just gave me this envelope that I think was some sort of bribe.’

‘Right.  Now there was something about some money being buried in your aunt’s rose garden?’  Drysdale was getting careless with his volume, and again I saw Faye watching us. I tried to pretend those eyes weren’t there.  I leaned toward Drysdale and spoke just loud enough for him to hear.

‘I don’t know anything about that.’

‘Ok….’  Drysdale and I locked eyes and I knew he didn’t believe me.  ‘Now Peter Bingham…how was he involved?’

‘Um…’  I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question—I now knew that almost everything Peter had told me had been a lie.  ‘Well I think my father covered that.’

Drysdale wouldn’t let me off that easy.

‘Now Peter had a son, did you say?’

I hadn’t said so, and I wondered where Drysdale had heard this.  He seemed pretty well informed.

‘I’m not sure what you’re talking about,’ I said in a rush, ‘and regardless I don’t see how any of it is relevant.’

‘Right right,’ Drysdale nodded, smiled, looked down at his hands.  ‘Well that’s about all my questions.’  He smiled, a wide shit-eating smile, and I had the distinct impression of having been slimed.  This guy was going to make a farce of my off-the-record confessional.  No doubt I’d be reading about all of it—my plot against my father, my dysfunctional family, my wedding—in the Sunday paper.  I excused myself and went up to the bar to get another pitcher.  As I waited for the Abita to pour I felt someone beside me.

‘What were you talking to the newspaperman about?’ Faye insisted.

I leaned forward over the bar so I wouldn’t have to look at her.

‘Nothing.  He just had a few questions.’

‘I overheard you—you were talking about Gabe.’

‘He asked.’  I threw up my hands in mock innocence.  ‘I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.’

‘I see.’  My aunt turned away from the bar and looked to our table, to Cathy.

‘You haven’t told her, have you.’

‘No.  But I suppose I should before she reads it in the newspaper.  I already spoke with Mitchell about it.’

‘He told me.’  The pitcher was full now.  The bartender set it down heavy on the bar and I laid down a five dollar bill.  I picked up the pitcher and started back toward the table, anxious to get away from Faye.

‘Oh Jackson?’

‘Yes.’  I stopped long enough to hear her out.

‘You will be leaving, right?’  Faye shot me a disgusted sneer.  ‘I don’t really want you around my house anymore.’

‘Soon as we get packed.  It’s time to go.’

‘Good.’  My aunt nodded, satisfied.  ‘I thought this day might never come.’  With that she walked over to where her daughter sat.  Monty had one hand high on Cathy’s leg but when he saw Faye coming he pulled it into his lap.  My aunt leaned forward over her daughter’s shoulder and whispered something through a cupped hand, and then the two of them got up and walked outside.

I carried the precarious pitcher to the table and took the seat next to Monty.  Mitchell soon joined us.

‘No sign of the animals,’ he announced.  ‘We’ll never find them down here in this swamp.’

‘They’re happier that way,’ Monty said.  ‘Let them run free.’

I noticed Helen trying to catch my attention from the other side of the table.  Her dark eyes were black in the shadows of the Royal Flush, while her white dress seemed to glow.  She tilted her head toward the door, and I knew that was my cue.  I stood.

‘I think we’ll be going,’ I said.  Helen was already on her feet.  My father had enlisted David Drysdale in a game of darts and the competition was now heated.  I drifted toward the dart board on the far wall.

‘Dad, I’m taking off.’

My father turned, smiling with a dart balanced in one hand.  ‘Hey, the groom’s outta here!’  He started in my direction and I waved him off.

‘Don’t let me interrupt your game.  I’ll see you tomorrow back in Poscataw.’

‘Right-o, kid.’  He kept shuffling toward me and when he reached me we shared a long hug.

‘I’m proud of you kid,’ he said with his mouth close to my ear so that no one else could hear.  ‘We’ll figure all this out—don’t you worry.’  I stepped back and we shared a sheepish grin.

David Drysdale interrupted the moment, stepping between.  I wasn’t sure what to make of Drysdale’s slight smile.

‘Guess I’ll be reading about Clyde King in the paper,’ I said.

‘Look in the Sunday Clarion-Ledger.  Front page.’  He said it with an air of smugness; he had his story now.  I tried to convince myself I was just being paranoid and returned to the table where farewells were being said.

‘Where’s Monty?’ I said.

‘He ran off somewhere,’ Mitchell said.  ‘Here, I’ll walk you out.’  I saw my mother had cornered Helen again and they’d be a few minutes more.

‘Right,’ I said.  ‘Let’s go.’

The dark had risen from the shadows of dropping trees to overcome the sky.  A stray streetlight cast a circle of light over the LeBaron—the only light in the entire delta.  I saw that someone—no doubt a wayward Monty—had used toothpaste to write ‘Just Married’ on the hood.

‘That makes it official,’ Mitchell said, pointing to the baby blue Crest letters.

‘Maybe I should wash it off,’ I said.  Mitchell scowled.

‘You’re the most ungracious newlywed I’ve ever met.  Where’s the honeymoon?’

‘I think it will be enough for Helen if we just go home.  But tonight, I figured we’ll get a hotel somewhere.  I’ve still got some of that cash, you know.’

‘Spend it,’ Mitchell said while looking away.  ‘Just don’t let me know about it.’

‘Hey Mitchell.’  I dug my hand into my pocket and felt the edge of great-grandpa’s sheriff badge.  I pulled it from my pocket.  Mitchell’s eyes locked on the silver flash in the palm of my hand.  ‘You should have this.’  Mitchell looked up at me, hesitant, but I could see that he wanted it.  ‘You know what it is—it’s better for it to stay in Poscataw.’  Mitchell reached out his hand and slowly lifted the badge from my palm.  When he had it in his hand he turned it over several times, admiring its gleam in the moonlight.

‘I’ll take good care of it,’ he said reverently.

I saw Helen—billowing in her white dress—and my mother walking toward the car.

‘Do you know any good motels anywhere?’ I asked my cousin.

‘New Orleans—there are plenty.’

‘I don’t know if I want to drive that far,’ I said.  ‘I’m exhausted, to tell you the truth.’

‘There’s a place in Port Jackson,’ he said.  ‘I saw it on the way in.  We’re talking backwoods, though.’

‘Hey Helen?’ I shouted.

‘Yes?’ she piped back.

‘Where do you want to stay tonight.’  Helen was closing the gap between us and waited until she arrived to answer.

‘Some place close,’ she said, and agreed on Port Jackson.

‘You guys take care,’ Mitchell said.  ‘Don’t get eaten by any lions or anything.’

‘Judging by our luck so far we’ll get ambushed on our way north,’ I said, opening the passenger door for Helen.  She lifted the hem of her dress and graciously stepped down to her seat.  I paid special attention so as not to shut the wedding dress in the door.

‘Thanks for everything, Mitchell,’ I said, coming around to my side of the car.  I moved to shake his hand but he ignored it, instead grabbing me in a fraternal hug.

‘Congratulations,’ he said with a squeeze.

‘I’m sorry about the mess I caused.  I’m done making your life difficult.’

‘I’m not so sure about that,’ he said, grinning.

I rolled out of that hug and into another with my mother.

‘I still can’t believe I missed the vows,’ she said.

‘I missed them too,’ I confessed.

‘You watch out for this guy,’ my mother said to Helen, pointing an accusatory finger in my direction.

‘Don’t worry,’ Helen said, beaming.  ‘He’s mine now.’

‘And you watch out for her,’ my mother said under her breath.  ‘There’s something fishy about all this.’

‘Tell me about it.’

I jumped into the driver’s seat and whipped the car in a sweeping u-turn.  With a wave I steered the convertible north toward Port Jackson, putting Venice behind us.  As we wound upriver it seemed we had escaped just in time.  The dry road was holding on just long enough for us to get north before sinking into the river.

We reached Port Jackson without encountering any lions or primates.  The two-story hotel was easy to spot: crowding the road, it was the most substantial building in town, marked by a flickering red ‘Vacancy’.  I booked a room.

‘Did you want me to carry you through the threshold or anything?’ I said as I put the key to the lock.

‘I don’t think that’s necessary,’ Helen said, smiling.

I pushed open the door and got my first view of our bridal suite.  The room was on the top floor with a single window looking out on an alley that ran down to the river.  There was a ceiling fan and a table fan but no air conditioning.  The room was white-walled and without decoration and featured a full-length mirror on the bathroom door.  The two-poster bed was the only color in the room, with a heavy blanket the color of rust.

‘So are we really married now?’ I said.  I set the room key on the table by the door.

‘I didn’t realize it was still in question,’ Helen said.  She fell back on the bed in her white dress, bouncing lightly.

‘What particular church was that,’ I said.  ‘Yugoslavian Zoologist Orthodox, right?’

‘Hey, they’re your friends.’   Helen rolled over on her side to face me.  ‘I should have left that bitch to get eaten by the lion.’

‘I feel so safe with you.’  I unknotted my tie and slipped out of my black shoes and jumped onto the bed.  ‘By the way, was there some sort of orthodox sheet we’re supposed to use this evening?’

‘Stop talking orthodox,’ she said, moving in close.  ‘It’s not an orthodox wedding when one of the groomsmen contracts a bacterial infection from a reptile bite.’

‘I wonder if they’ll ever find Tristan.’

‘He’ll kill a few locals first.’

‘Gallows humor on our wedding night.’  I noticed a suggestive light in her eyes.  ‘Maybe you should get out of your wedding dress; it must be very uncomfortable lying in that.’  Helen raised a mischievous black eyebrow.  Still wearing her flowing white dress, she rolled over on top of me and grabbed me.

‘Some people conceive their first child on their wedding night,’ she said with dark eyes just inches from mine.

‘I guess we don’t have that luxury.’

‘Maybe we do,’ she said without a hint of humor.

‘I don’t follow.’  I felt cautiously optimistic as I waited for the punchline.  Helen had what she wanted and now things with us could settle down into a sustainable hum.

‘I’m not really pregnant,’ she said with a straight face.

‘That’s not very funny.’

‘I know.  That’s why I didn’t tell you until just now.’  She unwound her fingers from my flesh, hovering for a moment—a bridal apparition poised to consume my soul—and climbed off.  With a smile and a toss of her black hair she turned toward the full length mirror and took off her dress.

Advertisements

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

*
*

%d bloggers like this: