Authors: Thomas McGuane
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for Jim Harrison
The best epitaph a man can gain is to have
accomplished daring deeds of valor against the
enmity of fiends during his lifetime.
HIS IS THE FIRST TIME
I've worked without a net. I want to tell the truth. At the same time, I don't want to start a feeding frenzy. You stick your neck out and you know what happens. It's obvious.
The newspaper said that the arrests were made by thirty agents in coordinated raids “early in the a.m.” and that when the suspects were booked, a crowd of three hundred gathered at the Monroe County Courthouse and applauded. The rest of the page had to do with the charges against the men, which were neither here nor there. Most people I heard talking thought it was just too Cuban for words.
I stepped out onto the patio as the city commissioner was taken to the unmarked car in handcuffs. He was in his bathrobe and lottery tickets were blowing all over the place. Last week they picked up my dog and it cost me a five. The phone number was on her collar and they could have called. I knew how badly they had wanted to use the gas. But then, they're tired of everything. The wind blows all winter and gets on your nerves. It just does. They have nothing but their uniforms and the hopes of using the gas.
Out on the patio, I could see the horizon. The dog slept in the wedge of sun. There were no boats, the sea was flat, and from here, there was not a bit of evidence of the coordinated raids, the unmarked cars. The lotteryâthe bolitaâwas silent; it was always silent. And behind the wooden shutters, there was as much cocaine as ever. I had a pile of scandal magazines to see what had hit friends and loved ones. There was not one boat between me and an unemphatic horizon. I was home from the field of agony or whatever you want to call it; I was home from it. I was dead.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I went up to the Casa Marina to see my stepmother. The cats were on the screen above the enclosed pool and the grapefruits were rotting in the little grove. Ruiz the gardener was crawfishing on the Cay Sal bank and the bent grass was thick and spongy and neglected. I was there five minutes when she said, “You were an overnight sensation.” And I said, “Gotta hit it, I left the motor running.” And she said, “You left the motor running?” and I said, “That's it for me, I'm going.” And she tottered after me with the palmetto bugs scattering in the foyer and screamed at me as I pulled out: “You left the motor running! You don't have a car!” I actually don't know how smart she is. What could she have meant by that? I believe that she was attacking my memory.
She is a special case, Roxy; she is related to me three different ways and in some sense collects all that is dreary, sinister, or in any way glorious about my family. Roxy is one of those who have technically died; was in fact pronounced dead, then accidentally discovered still living by an alert nurse. She makes the most of this terrible event. She sometimes has need of tranquilizers half the size of Easter eggs. She drinks brandy and soda with them; and her face hollows out everywhere, her eyes sink, and you think of her earlier death. Sometimes she raises her hand to her face thinking the drink is in it. Roxy can behave with great charm. But then, just at the wrong time, pulls up her dress or throws something. I time my visits with extreme caution. I watch the house or see if her car has been properly parked. I used to spy but then I saw things which I perhaps never should have; and so I stopped that. When she thinks of me as an overnight sensation, she can be quite ruthless, flinging food at me or, without justification, calling the police and making false reports. I tolerate that because, under certain circumstances, I myself will stop at nothing. Fundamentally though, my stepmother is a problem because she is disgusting.
I guess it came to me, or maybe I just knew, that I have not been remembering things as clearly as I could have. For instance, Roxy is right, I don't have a car. I have a memory problem. The first questionâlook, you can ask me thisâis exactly how much evasive editing is part of my loss of memory. I've been up against that one before. My position with respect to anyone else's claims for actuality has always been: it's you against me and may the best man win.
I'm not as stupid as I look. Are you? For instance, I'm no golfer. I did have a burst, and this is the ghastly thing which awaits each of us, of creating the world in my own image. I removed all resistance until I floated in my own invention. I creamed the opposition. Who in the history of ideas has prepared us for creaming the opposition? This has to be understood because otherwiseÂ â¦ well, there is no otherwise; it really doesn't matter.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The first time I ran into Catherine, coming from the new wing of the county library, I watched from across the street noting that her Rhonda Fleming, shall we say,
had not diminished. It seemed a little early in the present voyage to reveal myself. I sat on the wall under the beauty parlor, just a tenant in my self, or a bystander, eyes flooded, pushing my fingers into my sleeves like a nun. I thought,
When I find the right crooked doctor, I'm going to laugh in your face.
I followed her for two blocks and watched her turn up the blind lane off Caroline where the sapodilla tree towers up from the interior of the block as though a piece of the original forest were imprisoned there. This spring they dug up the parking lot behind some clip joint on lower Duval and found an Indian grave, the huge skull of a Calusa seagoing Indian staring up through four inches of blacktop at the whores, junkies, and Southern lawyers.
So I sent her flowers without a note and two days later a note without flowers; and got this in return, addressed “Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy, General Delivery”: “Yes Chet I know you're home. But don't call me now, you flop you. âCatherine.” I went into the garden and opened the toolshed, bug life running out among the rake tines. I got the big English stainless-steel pruning shears and came, you take it from me,
close to sending Catherine the finger I'd lost in her darkness so many thousands of times. The palmetto bugs are translucent as spar varnish and run over your feet in the shed. The sea has hollowed the patio into resonant chambers and when the wind has piped up like today you hear its moiling, even standing in the shed with the rakes and rust and bugs.
I felt better and lost all interest in mutilating myself, even for Catherine. Tobacco doves settled in the crown-of-thorns and some remote airplane changed harmonics overhead with a soft pop like champagne, leaving a pure white seam on the sky. I was feeling better and better and better. On stationery from my uncle's shipyard, I wrote, “There is no call for that. I'm just here with respect of healing certain injuries. Catherine, you only hurt hurt hurt when you lash out like that. I don't believe you try to picture what harm you do. âChet.” I traced my finger on the back of the sheet with a dotted line where the shears would have gone through. I said nothing as to the dotted line. It seemed to me with some embarrassment that it might have looked like a request for a ring.
I dialed Information and asked for Catherine Clay. The operator said it was unpublished. I told her it was a matter of life or death; and the operator said, I know who you are, and clicked off. They wouldn't treat Jesse James like that.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
When they build a shopping center over an old salt marsh, the seabirds sometimes circle the same place for a year or more, coming back to check daily, to see if there isn't some little chance those department stores and pharmacies and cinemas won't go as quickly as they'd come. Similarly, I come back and keep looking into myself, and it's always steel, concrete, fan magazines, machinery, bubble gum; nothing as sweet as the original marsh. Catherine knows this without looking, knows that the loving child who seems lost behind the reflector Ray-Bans, perhaps or probably really is lost. And the teeth that were broken in schoolyards or spoiled with Cuban ice cream have been resurrected and I am in all respects the replica of an effective bright-mouthed coastal omnivore, as happy with spinach salads as human flesh; and who snoozing in the sun of his patio, inert as any rummy, Rolex Oyster Chronometer imbedding slightly in softened flesh, teeth glittering with ocean light like minerals, could be dead; could be the kind of corpse that is sometimes described as “fresh.”
“I am a congestion of storage batteries. I'm wired in series. I've left some fundamental components on the beach, and await recharging, bombardment, implanting,
shall we say, very close to the bone. I do want to go on; but having given up, I can't be expected to be very sympathetic.”
“That's all very pretty,” Catherine Clay said. “But I don't care. Now may I go?”
“I don't care. And above all, I don't want you stalking me like this in the supermarket. I can't have you lurking in the aisles.”
“It's still the same.”
“It's not, you liar, you flop!”
Slapping me, crying, yelling, oh God, clerks peering. I said, “You're prettiest like this.” She chunks a good one into my jaw. The groceries were on the floor. Someone was saying, “Ma'am? Ma'am?” My tortoiseshell glasses from Optique Boutique were askew and some blood was in evidence. My lust for escape was complete. Palm fronds beat against the air-conditioned thermopane windows like my own hands.
Two clerks were helping Catherine to the door. I think they knew. Mrs. Fernandez, the store manager, stood by me.
“Can I use the crapper?” I asked.
She stared at me coolly and said, “First aisle past poultry.”
I stood on the toilet and looked out at my nation through the ventilator fan. Any minute now, and Catherine Clay, the beautiful South Carolina wild child, would appear shortcutting her way home with her groceries.
I heard her before I could see her. She wasn't breathing right. That scene in the aisles had been too much for her and her esophagus was constricted. She came into my view and in a very deep and penetrating voice I told her that I still loved her, terrifying myself that it might not be a sham, that quite apart from my ability to abandon myself to any given moment, I might in fact still be in love with this crafty, amazing woman who looked up in astonishment. I let her catch no more than a glimpse of me in the ventilator hole before pulling the bead chain so that I vanished behind the dusty accelerating blades, a very effective slow dissolve.
I put my sunglasses back on and stood in front of the sink, staring at my blank reflection, scrutinizing it futilely for any expression at all and committing self-abuse. The sunglasses looked silvery and pure in the mirror, showing twins of me, and I watched them until everything was silvery and I turned off the fan, tidied up with a paper towel, and went back out through poultry toward the electric doors. Mrs. Fernandez, the store manager, smiled weakly and I said, “Bigger even than I had feared.” The heat hit me in the street and I startedÂ â¦ I think I started home. It was to feed the dog but I was thinking of Catherine and I had heartaches by the million.