Conspirators

I got this typewriter from a man named Busby, at an everything-must-go sale back home. He was old and his magazine had failed years ago and now even the office building had gone under, so he was getting rid of it all, down to the New Year letterhead 1958. Everything lay on folding tables in the first floor of this decrepit building. I’d noticed the handwritten, cardboard “GARAGE SALE” signs next to the leasing posters in the windows outside. I’d tried a shut door and found myself inhaled into this dim, mildewy old hulk. Setting sunlight through the western panes of glass made everything even more insufferably nostalgic.

He caught me eyeing the typewriter and called out, “You know, Hunter S. Thompson used this typewriter.”

“Did he?” I asked, considering the total lack of heft and its blue, feminine paint job. “I thought he used a Selectric.”

“Well, he did, when he could. But this is what he used to write that piece on Dallas.”

“Yeah?” I asked, but I must have tipped my disbelieving hand somehow. I felt I had no choice but to walk closer.

“You never read it? It’s the best one he ever wrote. About the Kennedy assassination?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, it’s where he proves – definitively – that Richard M. Nixon killed John F. Kennedy for revenge; about the election, you know.” And then, whispering for effect, “Oswald wasn’t the lone gunman.”

I squinted at him. “Tricky Dick?”

He made a gun with his hand, cocked his thumb, and shot me in the head.

When the sale was over I’d bought Thompson’s typewriter, a stack of the aforementioned letterhead, and a champagne glass once used by Jimmy Stewart. I helped Busby cart the unsold merchandise to his U-Haul. Standing on the street with the loading bay open, hands on his hips, he asked me, “Listen. You want a beer?”

Because I found his schizophrenia – or senility, or whatever you’d like to call it – oddly charming, I said yes. Knowing I could never take him to the places I drank, and guessing he hadn’t been out drinking since Nixon pulled the trigger, we ended up in an Olive Garden at the bar, pounding Coronas.

“I want to tell you a story,” Busby said, leaning closer so I could feel his breath. “I started that goddamned thing back in 1959, and it might not ever have really been much, but goddamn. We worked hard. I always wanted to say the things nobody else would say, because by Christ, they needed to be said. But people don’t talk to folks like that. And if people won’t talk to you, how are you supposed to edit a paper?”

I hadn’t told him yet I was a journalist myself, still reaching around all this soft fat for a spine of some sort. “I guess you couldn’t stay in one place too long.”

“If the people who are supposed to be most honest, in the whole nation, can’t be honest…”

“…what hope is there for the rest of us?”

He clapped me on the back. “Spoken like a true pessimist!”

“Card-carrying,” I said, and ordered us both another round.

“It was about that time – when the thing went up to 60 pages – that I first met Hunter S. Thompson. He was in town, this was about 1967 I think, trying to find some work and, uh, how’d he put it, ‘explore the Texas character’. I could see right away we had a game-changer here. Shaking it up wasn’t a strong enough term for this guy. He asked me if I’d think about buying a couple of his articles, and I said sure, I’d think about it. If they were good.”

The bullshit meter was needling into red, but he seemed utterly sincere; it’s not really lying, after all, if somebody believes it themselves.

He looked at me in disbelief. “Were they good? Hell, yeah, they were great! But they were absolutely unprintable. He dragged the character of every Texan from LBJ to Buddy Holly through the mud. He called us a bunch of cow-tipping, pig-fucking fascists!” I looked around, afraid someone had heard him, but the crowd of blasé, middle-class drinkers carried on in a fog I took for their detachment. “And you know what? He was right. We were. I hated myself after I read it. I paid him for the articles and burned them all in my trash can. It was like being a lifelong Catholic and then reading some article about how the Pope’s a Nazi, with pictures of him saluting a swastika.”

“It’s thirty years later,” I said, mashing a desiccated lime wedge into my bottle, “and I still feel that way.”

“It was never the same after that. I started getting phone calls from the government, harassing me for printing the truth about the nerve gas tests at UT that caused Charles Whitman to go crazy and start sniping folks. I could hear the FBI clicking in on my phone line. They’d always start listening when the IRS was hassling me. All of them, every last goddamned one of them, were laughing at me. I mean, I hadn’t filed in a few years, I’ll admit that – I was busy, I was running a goddamned publication – but my brother hadn’t filed since 1945. That’s harassment, because of my political views. By 1975 they were auditing me, trying to shut me up, and I’d run out of money anyway. I had to shut the Times down. I tried writing letters to the editor, but finally…well, I guess they did shut me up. I converted the old headquarters to office space and moved out into Keller. It paid the bills, and it let me work on my project.”

Now after three beers and this delicious litany, I had to take the bait. “Your project?”

“Yessir, every day since July 4th, 1976 I have been working on a complete history of the United States Shadow Government.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Most people don’t,” he said, grinning the way you do when you have a secret to tell. “But they’ve been in continual operation since 1945, when Harry S. Truman was made aware of the K Document.”

A strange shiver went up my backbone, and the flesh along my arms and thighs raised sheets of gooseflesh. Call it journalist’s instinct, or maybe paranoia, but any time I hear a lie so outrageous it must be a half-truth, I have this reaction. Now here was a spine, just not the one I’d been expecting.

“This cadre of thinkers, you know deep thinkers, wrote it in Europe just after the First World War. People disagree about who exactly worked on it – some folks say Trotsky was there, maybe Madame Blavatsky, definitely Aleister Crowley and Milton Keynes. They wrote the definitive recipe for world domination. Not just political, or by warfare, but through religion, mysticism, mass hallucination and worldwide deception.”

“And it worked?”

“Well, aside from obvious early hiccups in the political machinations, like the Berlin airlift, it went off without a goddamn hitch.” He looked up at me from the beer bottle’s mouth, still managing that self-satisfied little smile, and asked, “You know the first, real step in the worldwide dream?”

I shook my head, feeling dumb.

“Killing Kennedy. The sacrifice of the king, end of innocence, so forth and so on. Everybody had to lose their faith for it to work.”

The bartender gave us a look, obviously mistaking us for crazed grandfather and indulgent grandson, and smiled. He brought another pair of beers without being asked.

“Well, what’s to gain?” I asked, laying the stone that usually derails a conspiracy theorist. “Look around you, man, who’s profiting from it all?”

He gave me the undeniable answer of every paranoiac. “The fact that you’re asking proves it worked exactly like they wanted.”

I was just about to ask for details – how does one create a worldwide hallucination? – when we were interrupted by a caroming waitress who delivered a plateful of spaghetti marinara into Busby’s lap. I thought this deserved a comped beer or three, but let’s be honest – we were nearing the point of no return anyway. He disappeared into the bathroom for a while, presumably scrubbing off the grease, and I was left to my thoughts. They ran along a boozy course, veering between fascination and the sudden disgust of realizing time’s been wasted.

When he came back, his spirit had gone out of it. He felt, I think, deeply offended. I gave him a ride back to his car and we exchanged numbers. I found I was no longer amused but a little disturbed, and feeling the first pangs of what I’d later recognize as irresponsible mercy. I did not pity him, though I felt like mercy could be a cool cloth on his obviously fevered brow, and so I promised to see him again soon – though I had no intention of ever seeing him again.

I didn’t hear from Busby for over a month. Sometimes, sitting half-drunk on my bed’s edge, I’d wonder at the odds of a phone call actually coming through. But then I’d remember those FBI clicks on the line. I thought, one night, of reverse-searching his phone number and driving out to find him, to see what could be made of the whole thing. But I forgot quickly enough: I was assigned a major interview with the lame duck governor and spent three weeks in Austin.

The night I walked back into my apartment the phone was ringing.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s Busby.”

“No shit,” I said.

“Normally I wouldn’t even ask, but those bastards have paid off all my neighbors and they won’t help. I’ve gotta get a cord of firewood up into the house before winter and my back’s gone to shit on me. I’m old.”

So the next day I drove up into the boonies with a thermos of martinis and a notebook. The usual highway view north out of the city: cows, and old broken fences, and hills dotted with lightning-cracked oak trees. Only a reformed redneck is capable of feeling both nostalgia and loathing at this sight. His property lay a mile up an old road that turned, halfway, to dirt. I found him outside, standing stiff in blue jeans and a lumberjack shirt, glaring up at the sun. We worked for a while, and he gamely took a few stout quarters of fuel, but most of the heavy lifting fell to me. About halfway through we sat down on his front porch steps and he produced a pair of brown ceramic mugs. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I could use a drink.”

I poured us both decent slugs and we became absorbed, for a while, in the alcohol.

“Were you ever married?” I asked him.

“For a little while, back in the ’60s,” he said. “When the Times was doing pretty well. But it started turning to shit the same time the country did. By ’70 she’d left, and I don’t blame her. Last thing in my life those bastards didn’t fuck up.”

“She left on her own?”

“Yessir, she did. She’d said if I didn’t let it all go, she’d have to go.” He shrugged and finished the last of his drink in one long sip. “I didn’t know how to make that decision and that was my decision, I guess.”

I looked out across his green property, terminating in the distance at a regular line of oak trees.

“Any kids?”

“Not a one. I never knew if it was me or her, that couldn’t.”

I poured him another and topped mine off. “I’m sorry about that.”

“Not as sorry as me.” He looked down into the bottomless sea of vodka and vermouth, then looked up smiling. “But hey, what was it Dostoyevsky said about women? ‘Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em’?”

I laughed. “Yeah, Notes from the Underground.”

By mid-afternoon we’d finished the job and he offered me lunch. The house wasn’t big but I’d say it was cozy, like a farmhouse from some Norman Rockwell painting hung on a dentist’s office wall. Inside his cool steel kitchen he fried a couple of catfish and made potato salad. He was slow in there, almost painful to watch, but there was an assurance about him. It put me at ease. We ate at the table in the corner and polished off another martini.

“You know about John Wayne?” he asked, with a mouthful of fish. “Died of cancer, right? A lot of people say it was because he worked on this Genghis Khan picture, out in the desert, where they’d done some atomic testing.” He laughed, swallowed, squinted in bewildered amusement. “The Duke as a Mongol! I don’t know what the fuck they were thinking. But listen, you wanna know what really got him?”

“What?” I asked.

“Years of chain smoking.” He grinned and touched my arm. “You thought I’d say the radiation, right?”

In the months that followed Busby didn’t call me often, and when he did, it was usually to ask for help. He always framed the situation some other way, as though the real event were his fried catfish and not cleaning the attic, but I always said yes. I was past expecting a story; I’d come to like him, and I’ll blame my own lifestyle in those days for my willingness to help: Busby passed for family. The thermos of drink got to be a tradition, and I brought something new every time. Mint juleps, Tequila Sunrises, Brandy Alexanders, lethally strong margaritas. By the weekend of the Alexanders we drank on deep into the night, and I started sleeping on his couch and leaving Sunday morning. The conspiracies always came up, of course, but mostly he talked about the failed paper and I got off on his stale gossip and old stories.

We were deep in winter by the weekend of the Irish coffee. He’d asked me to help sort some files – presumably the empirical basis of his Shadow History – but we ended up just junking a bunch of dusty, ancient newspapers which I feared might truly be the bedrock of his life’s work.

“I’ve been thinking about selling this place off,” he said, as I heaved the five hundred and fifty-first bale of newspapers into the back of his truck. “What do I need with all this space? Sometimes you just feel like a ghost walking around your own house.”

I considered this. There would be nowhere else for him, of course, but I preferred the thought of him defiantly alone to the end. “But would you want to lose this view? I mean, just look,” and I did, out at the distant curve of a nearby hill and further into the distance, where someone’s cattle was munching on grass.

“It’s nice, no doubt about it.” He shot me a smile I’d have to describe as brave. “Probably the only thing that’s kept me sane all these years, though I imagine the point’s debatable.”

I laughed, despite myself, and nodded. “Why get rid of it, then?”

“Oh, you reach an age,” he said, shrugging. “Feels like it’s time to start getting rid of shit. First step in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I think. Get rid of all your shit.”

We went inside, him to the kitchen to brew unspiked coffee and me to the couch, to rest my back. I reached to turn on the TV, but…there it was, right out on the table: the Big Deal.

It was a thick plastic binder swelled with papers so it no longer closed. Had he meant for me to see it, or was he finally slipping into the pit of true dementia? I heard him puttering in the kitchen – the gurgle of the coffee pot – and dared to flip through. Some portions were typed, others handwritten, and near the back he’d begun to use a gallery of Word fonts. He’d left attached a number of newspaper clippings, magazine articles, photographs expanded until they were mostly pixels. I flipped anxiously to the end, gripping it like one my putative spines. The final paragraph, written in 16 Courier New, went:

‘…so if as we’ve seen the conspiracy reaches its tendrils into politics, war, business, religion and mysticism, back through history beyond the writing of the K Document itself, into events of such epic scope and unknowable magnitude, from the coincidences of Lincoln’s daily life to the astrological conjunctions of the moon landing, who could we say is the author of this truly awesome conspiracy?’

Then he appeared from the kitchen bearing coffee, the self-evident answer to his own question.

“Did you see the part where I showed all the occult symbols? Buried in the photos at Princess Di’s crash site?”

“No,” I said. “I missed that part.”

“It probably needs some editing. I went through and did some deletions back in ’82, with everything I had up to that point, but it’s just momentum, you know? I never want to go back because there’s so much left to say.”

“You’re not done?”

“Close,” he said. “I’ve just got this one goddamned question I can’t seem to answer.” He sipped his coffee, still steaming, and grimaced. “I’m tired, you know? I want to finish it. Leave the fixes to the editors.”

“There’ll be an audience for it,” I said, not lying.

“Well, that’s part of why I wanted you to see it.” He looked right at me, almost through me. “I’ve always known you worked for them. I mean, why else did you start talking to me that day at the sale? But I know you’re not a team player. I know you’re a rogue agent, playing all the sides against the middle. Did you always know it was this big?”

“I had some ideas,” I said, not sure what else there was to say, deciding on improvisation in the face of true madness.

“So I kinda hoped maybe you could fill in the blank. Connect the last couple of dots.”

“I’m a rogue agent,” I said, staring at the binder. “They don’t tell me everything.”

We watched the news together, and he criticized the obvious lies told by the anchors, but most of the old poetry was gone. I felt like he was leading me to say things I could never say. We got drunk that night, and for the first time I noticed the rusted machinery of his drunken body, creaking off upstairs to pass out into blinkered dreams. I stayed up until dawn in the halo of my buzz, then went home.

I spent a lot of time in the next few days trying to make up my mind: either set him straight, or never see him again. I couldn’t quite decide which was more merciful, which was better for him. In the end, it didn’t matter.

The next week I got the phone call I’d always half-expected. He’d burned the house down, presumably with everything in it, and started off on a hike across his property with the smoke rising behind him. He’d made it two miles into his neighbor’s pasture when his heart gave out. They found him stiff, cold, right hand clutching his left arm that must have flared like fire.

A rainy day in the winding, final days of winter; a cold breeze turned light rain to mist against us on the cemetery’s hillside. There were four people at the funeral, counting myself. A neighbor, an old friend from the Times days, and a pious young woman who worked at the local grocery store and had taken a merciful shine to him. She sensed something about me, some similarity between us, and smiled at me above her big glittering cross necklace. The preacher said nice, standard things, and I threw the first fistful of dirt onto his grave. We all stood under the cold skies for a little longer than propriety required.

“How did you know him?” the preacher asked me.

“I’m a journalist. We mostly just talked shop.”

“Well, everyone says he was a very nice, very good man.” The preacher smiled and placed a conciliatory hand on my arm. “I’m very sorry.”

“He’s better off now,” I said, and meant it, but not in the way the preacher thought.

The forced smile hung on his face a second too long. “Do you know what Mister Busby believed?” he asked me, and I misunderstood. He was seeking obliquely after the state of my friend’s soul, but for a moment, it seemed he was asking what Busby had known and when he’d known it, on behalf of the ultimate conspirator.

Wade Lipham is an author from Dallas, Texas. His work has previously appeared in Pindeldyboz, The Harrow and 3:AM Magazine. He is currently at work on his first novel.

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