One Hour

Johnson Calvert put an arm over my shoulder and we started toward the Royal Flush.  I looked up the road, the only escape route left.

‘Dad?’ I said tentatively.

‘What is it, son?’  I took a deep breath.

‘I don’t want to get married.’

‘Why not?’  He seemed surprised.  I realized he knew very little about Helen and me—I’d told him almost nothing over the years, leaving him subject to the momentum Helen had created.

‘I’m not ready.  Not even close.’  We climbed the creaky wooden stairs to the Royal Flush and stepped inside.  The shutters were drawn, reinforcing the gloom from the night before.  The bar was empty, with the same quiet bartender inhabiting the shadows.

‘Well that’s a natural feeling,’ my father said.  ‘Everybody feels it on their wedding day.’  We took seats at two adjacent stools.  My father held up his pointer finger.  ‘One pitcher of Abita, please.’  The bartender began to pour.

‘It’s more complicated than that,’ I said.  ‘I never agreed to this.  I didn’t even propose.’  The bartender set down the pitcher and two schooner glasses.  My dad filled my glass, then his.  For a fleeting moment I pondered the significance of this event—Johnson Calvert and I had never shared a beer, just the two of us.

‘You know,’ my father said, ‘I never told you about how your mother and me got hitched.’

‘She told me you agreed to marry after she got pregnant.’  My father began to laugh.

‘That’s one version,’ he said.  ‘She didn’t tell you about a few of the details.’  In any other setting I would have felt odd talking with my father this way.  He and I had never discussed his relationship with my mother—hell, we never talked about much of anything with any particular depth.  But after the last few days there was no returning to our old way of being.

‘She blackmailed me into it,’ my dad said with some humor.  ‘She went to my Daddy and told him she was pregnant.  They never much got along after that, but for one day in their lives they saw eye-to-eye.  My Daddy wouldn’t stand for a bastard Calvert, and once he got his mind set on something he had a real knack for helping you see things his way.’

I’d hoped for something enlightening but felt deflated by his explanation.  This was too much like the Johnson Calvert I knew, the one without his own will or direction—his father’s stooge.

‘That’s really an inspiring story, dad,’ I said sarcastically.

‘I wasn’t finished,’ my father said with an edge.  ‘I got married for all the wrong reasons, and that’s why it never worked out between us.  What I’m saying, son, is that I’d never make you do anything.  I’m not like my Daddy.  As much as you seem to think I am.’  I looked at my father in surprise.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean,’ he said, climbing down from the stool to his feet, ‘that you should walk out that door if that’s what you want to do.’  He pointed to the bar’s dilapidated wooden door.  ‘I won’t make you do this, and I won’t be a witness to something you don’t want.’

My ass remained fixed to the worn barstool.  Now that the option was there, mine to snatch, I wasn’t so sure.  It wasn’t that I was being noble or anything like that—it was just that I didn’t want to expose my father to my own abject fear.  He had stuck around with my mother, toughed it out, even if it had been under duress.  I wasn’t ready to show him that I couldn’t even measure up to his standards, not after years of criticizing his parental deficiencies.

My father stood for a moment and when he saw I wasn’t going anywhere he resumed his seat.

‘I’m not your mother, son,’ he said.  ‘And I’m not Helen.  I’ve never wanted to make you do anything.  I’ve done what I wanted with my life—seen lots of places, met lots of people.  I made plenty a mistakes but after your mother and I divorced, and I saw it was hurting you—I swore then any mistake I made would be mine, my own, with nobody else to blame.  I may not have been the greatest of men, and definitely not the greatest of fathers, but at least I’ve become my own man.  That’s all anyone could ever ask for, and that’s what you are. You are your own man.’

I didn’t feel much like my own man just then.  I felt like a fool and silently wished that we could have shared this beer back in April.

‘Tell me about Clyde King,’ I said.  I stood on the edge of an emotional precipice and wanted to change the subject, to return to the familiar cloister of my holy crusade.  My father took a long sip of Abita.

‘You blindsided me with those letters, Jackson.  I’m not saying I blame you, but I never expected to hear anything about Clyde King ever again, especially not from you.  Then I panicked.  We ruined that boy’s life, son.  We destroyed it every way you can.  When it was done, after he died and they took his farm from his family, I saw what a fool I was.  I always went along with everything my Daddy wanted, and I always respected Pappy Watkins and wanted his approval.  After Clyde King I told my father, I told him I thought we’d been wrong.  I don’t really believe there’s any such thing as good and evil, but if I did I’d say what we did was evil.  My dad told me I was dumb, told me I should keep my mouth shut, told me he was disappointed and saw now I’d never be a sheriff.  That’s when I left Poscataw.  Didn’t even finish at Southern—I just left, started moving around.  When you came to me with those letters I panicked because I figured you thought me and my Daddy were the same.  My mistakes with Clyde King ruined things with me and my father, and I figured they’d do the same with you and me.  Those letters,’ he shook his head, ‘they’re all true.  I read ‘em back and forth after you left and wished I could call them lies, call you up and tell you they were nothing but lies.  But I did those things.  I did my part to ruin that boy’s life.  Not many days have gone by that I haven’t woken up and known it, deep in my gut.’

‘So what happened, Dad,’ I said.  ‘Where’d you disappear to?’

‘Peter Bingham showed up about an hour after you left,’ he said.  ‘Hadn’t seen that man since he came to California more than twenty years ago, but I recognized him right away and I knew right away he was up to no good.  I suppose he expected to walk in and get whatever it was he wanted, but as soon as I saw him I got angry—I mean I was in a rage.  I don’t know if I’ve ever been that angry.  I didn’t even give him time to talk—I just took him.’

‘Took him?’

‘We’re getting to be old men,’ he said, smiling with some mischief, ‘but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to brawl.’

‘You fought Peter?’

‘We wailed on each other for a bit.  Used to be he could always whip me on account of having the longer reach but this time he didn’t have my rage.  After we beat on each other for a while we both got tired.  Like I said, we’re getting old.  Peter wanted the two of us to up and leave.  He said we owed it to my father to see that things stayed under wraps.  He knew all about Drysdale and he feared him, I think.  I told him I’d sooner be dead.  Then he said that could be arranged.  I didn’t know what to think until these two big fellas showed up.’

‘The Wilsons,’ I said to myself.  My father registered clear surprise

‘How’d you know about them?’

‘They were with Peter.  They’re the ones who brought me to him.’

‘Yeah they work for him.  You see when my Daddy died he left the whole operation to Peter, with access to all the accounts and so on.  Don’t get me wrong, son—it’s not like they had some mafia running down here or anything.  Much smaller scale.  Pappy Watkins ran the operation out of the governor’s mansion, and my Daddy was the point man.  All told there were a few million in assets.  They absorbed all kinds of properties around Poscataw and southern Mississippi.  When Daddy saw I wasn’t up to following in his footsteps, he started to groom Peter to do the job, but the operation had dried up by the time my Daddy passed Peter the reigns.  The Sovereignty Commission had been dissolved.  All that was left were those bank accounts.  Once Peter saw his nest-egg threatened he must of hired those two goons to help him clean things up.  He was always good at cleaning things up.’

‘They left on the boat with Peter,’ I said.  ‘Gabe too.’

‘Poor Gabe.’ My father shook his head.  ‘It’s no lie that Peter’s Gabe’s daddy, but Gabe would of been better off staying with my sister.’  I contemplated Gabe’s parting words: I’ve told you what I do to my fathers. Something told me we shouldn’t waste too much time pitying Peter.

‘You know Gabe offered to kill you.’

‘He’s got his father’s dramatics.’

‘Did you know about Gabe?  About Peter and Faye?’

‘I’ve known for years,’ he said.  ‘I knew when it happened.  Peter and I, we’d stopped communicating by then, but Faye told me.  She was so ashamed.’

‘What about…’  I wasn’t sure how to phrase this question.  ‘Gabe said he killed Cathy and Mitchell’s dad.’  My father shook his head.

‘Gabe sure is Peter’s boy.’  He slumped forward over the bar.  ‘James drowned, there’s no question.  Gabe wasn’t even there that day.’

I had so many questions, and yet with each questions the hour was slipping away.  For some reason Peter Bingham had felt compelled to build a compelling fantasy, to trick me as a kind of parting shot.  The vestiges of Jefferson Calvert’s operation were vicious but no longer lethal.

‘So you were telling me about the Wilsons,’ I said.

‘Right.  So they came after me and with all three of ‘em there was no fighting it.  They tied me up and blindfolded me and took me out to some van.  Let me tell you, son, I was scared.  I was at these men’s mercy.  But I also knew Peter never killed anybody.   I knew he was a ruthless man but he also was my friend once, and no matter how bad things might get I knew he wasn’t gonna kill me.  I knew that up to the very end, when he let me go.’

‘He let you go?’

‘They held me for a time.  Knew I’d go to the cops if they let me go.  So they held me until they could get away.   I spent more than a week locked in some cabin down here at the end of the river.  Downriver,’ he said, pointing south.  ‘There are islands out there—Peter and I used to explore some of ‘em.  You could never find anybody down here, and nobody’d think to look.  Peter needed some time, I suppose, to put his books in order, get ready to leave for good.  I suppose he didn’t want to be rushed.  For the first week or so it was just me and the Wilsons in that cabin.’

‘Did they—they didn’t hurt you, did they?’

‘Nah they didn’t do anything.  We just played cards to pass the time.  Then Peter showed up and he sent the Wilsons away and we spent a few days just the two of us in that cabin.  I wasn’t sure why we were sticking around at first—didn’t make any sense.  But after a while Peter and I talked about some things.  We had some things to clear the air about, so to speak.  That’s when I heard about what you‘ve been up to.’  My dad didn’t elaborate, burying his upper lip in his schooner.

‘Yesterday morning,’ he said, setting down the empty glass, ‘Peter tells me it’s time for me to go.  He has the Wilsons drive me up to Poscataw and drop me off outside town.  I had to walk.  I went straight to Mitchell’s office and told him what was about—all about Clyde King and everything.  We went out to the house after that to find you but you’d just left.  I guess Peter was holding onto me just long enough to get you down the river.’

‘Peter told me you were dead.’  I began to unwind the story of everything that had happened since I left Poscataw the day before.  My father’s attention never wavered.

‘Peter’s always been that way,’ he said.  ‘He used to create these elaborate hoaxes.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know.  But to listen to him everything was always under his control.’

‘Do you think you’ll ever see him again?’

‘He’s gone,’ my dad said.  ‘He won’t be coming back.  I’ve made sure of it.  I’ve told David Drysdale everything.  He’s going to run the article in the Sunday paper.’  I contemplated the significance of my father’s revelation.  Peter Bingham wouldn’t be able to come back to Poscataw, not once the news got out.  My father had monkey wrenched the man, forced him to retreat, but at the expense of the Calvert name.  I realized how much I’d misjudged Johnson Calvert: he was quite capable of decisive action.

‘What’s he doing down here?’ I said.  ‘Drysdale—why’s he here?’

‘Well like he said, we all needed to talk.  But he also wanted to talk to you as soon as he could.  He’s on a deadline, you know.’

‘What does he want to talk to me about?’

‘I couldn’t say, but I made it clear your name was to be left out of the article.  That was one of my conditions.’

‘But what does that mean for you?’ I said.  ‘You won’t be in any trouble or anything…’

‘I don’t know, son,’ he said as a matter-of-fact.  ‘Time will tell.’

‘I never would have expected you do to that,’ I confessed.  ‘If I were in your shoes I wouldn’t have had the balls for it.’  My father smiled.

‘You sell yourself short, son.  You can do anything you want.  Speaking of which…’  He looked at his watch, then at the door.  ‘You’ve still got twenty minutes.’

‘Let’s finish the pitcher.  I’ll need it.’

We reached the bottom of the Abita with ten minutes to spare and walked down the road to the red barn to check on the preparations.  It quickly became apparent that I hadn’t had enough to drink.  Helen presided over the event with dictatorial authority, barking orders to anyone who got within shouting distance.  Marty and Monty had found a hiding place behind the circus truck, clear of Helen’s purview, and were smoking a joint.  Both of them wore dress shirts and black slacks.

‘What’s going on?’ I said.

‘Preparations,’ Monty said, exhaling.  I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the joint in his hand or to Helen’s shouting.

‘Do you guys know anything about, well, anything that’s about to happen,’ I said.

‘Not much,’ Marty said, ‘but I’m telling you—no creature’s going to have me for lunch.  No way.’  I frowned.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I said.

‘I’m talking about this,’ Marty said.  He untucked his white shirt and lifted his undershirt and I saw the butt of a pistol sticking out of his slacks.

‘Jesus where’d you get that?’ I said.

‘I borrowed it from Jeff the Dealer.  Just in case.’

‘In case of what?’

‘In case one of the animals gets loose.’  Marty pointed to the modified horse trailer.

‘Why would you worry about that?’ Monty stepped between Marty and I to translate.

‘Helen’s gone a little off the deep end, Jack.’

‘What are you talking about?’ After a few drinks I’d managed to curb my panic, but now it was back with a vengeance.

‘The ceremony,’ Monty said, ‘or at least the one she has planned, it’s….well, it’s strange.’  I knew I was in trouble if even Monty thought it strange, but before I could get any details Helen appeared from around the corner of the truck.

‘Jackson!’ she barked.  ‘Why aren’t you dressed?’  Her eyes narrowed as she saw the joint in Marty’s hand.  ‘You’d better not be smoking that thing,’ she said to me.

‘Don’t worry, Helen,’ my father said, stepping between Helen and me.  ‘I’ll get him ready to go.’

‘Good,’ she said.  ‘Have him set up in the back of the barn in five minutes.  And you two—‘  She jabbed her finger into Monty’s chest.  ‘Time for you to get ready as well.’

My father ushered me away.

‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘what she has planned, but I’m sure it will be fine.  Now let’s find you someplace to get into your suit.’

Advertisements

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

*
*

%d bloggers like this: