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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (10 page)

BOOK: Panama
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“I don't speak Spyanish,” he said. She said in broken English that it was English. He said, “I don't speak
your
English.” The coffee drinkers glanced over. “I can't understand
that,
” he said to them. Then he called down the line, “Any motel owners?” Two signaled. They came forward and he collected the take.

A heavy man in a plumber's shirt said, “What's going on?”

The teller said,
“Banking.”

A short while later, I was at the cage.

“You don't have an account,” he said. “We've been through this before.”

Catherine said, “We're together. I'd like a current balance on my checking account.”

The teller said, “Well, which one of you is it?”

“You've just explained that he has no account,” said Catherine. “You answered that question. Here is my number. Get the account balance now and don't be a tired old bag for another minute.”

“Oh, Miss California, are we?”

“No, you are.”

“How would you like this in your face?” He picked up a calculator tentatively and Catherine started screaming that she was being attacked. The manager came to the door of his office and curtly summoned the teller.

Catherine checked her account with the next teller and withdrew some money. We went back out in the street. She was already thinking of other things. “I'd like you to meet your birthday present,” she said and led me back to the La Concha Hotel. We went to the fifth floor and knocked on an unnumbered door.

“Come in.”

“We can't.”

“Why?”

“It's locked.”

“That's why you can't come in!”

“Where are these people coming from?” I asked.

The door opened and a young man in a kind of shiny suit you scarcely see any more stood there and said, “Oh.” And then said, “Come in.” He reached out, his arm angled up and his hand angled down, and said, “How do you do. Don Hathaway.” I shook hands. I would describe the contents of Don's room but none of it's of any interest. I know many people who would describe it anyway.

Don said, “I've been following your career for years and now I'm following you.”

“What's this mean, Catherine.”

“Don is a private detective,” said Catherine. “I've hired him to follow you.”

“To what end?”

“He is going to report to you every day everything you did the day before. As time goes by, he will report every two days and so on until you can remember on your own. Happy birthday.”

“Your birthday was on Wednesday,” said Don.

“How old am I?”

“I don't know…”

“Well, find out.”

*   *   *

Because I hadn't spoken to the interviewer, they wild-tracked a lot of stuff from my old performances and played it over my frozen countenance, all with a mind to making me seem in bigger trouble than I really am. This had the effect of bringing idlers to the front of my house in hopes of seeing what was being peddled as the most sleazed-out man in America.

There was a kind of concrete fountain in front of the place with an iron egret rusting on a length of welding rod. I hung a sign on it that said:

DEPRAVED PERVERT WISHING WELL

and the money began to come in. It was clear that before the kids got on to the coins, I'd have enough to put on my party at the Casa Marina. Late at night, while I slept, I could hear the change plopping in the fountain and I felt happy. Still, I suspected that the law of averages would soon bring a justice-hungry citizen, some shitsucker, creeping into my place to avenge decency. Here though, I was confident my silent-running dog would have such a one by the leg. So I slept.

The next day, Don stopped by to tell me about my wishing well. He also told me that I was cavorting in the sand at Rest Beach at three in the morning. I told him he'd made this up. He said, “You cut your foot on a Doctor Pepper bottle. You'd better put something on it.” I'd been limping all day. Don left. I got some mercurochrome.

*   *   *

Catherine and I lay in the sand. I was on my back feeling the sun form its evanescent oval on my belly, the hot retinal images that come through the lids. The sea was breathing at our feet and I considered how trying it can be to be crazy, with a Band-Aid on your arch, if you accept that you are that, crazy, which I had not, any more than I had dismissed it. I rolled over and rested my hand on Catherine.

“Cut.”

“What?”

“Cut it out.”

“Okay. What's wrong with that?”

“It's not wrong.”

“Then what's this?”

“I just don't want any.”

“God why are you shouting? It was recently my birthday.”

“I want some sun. And I'm thinking.”

“About what?”

“About simply making a living. The cans are nearly empty. It's a photo finish every month, getting everything paid. And I have to admit, this private detective is just about all I can handle.”

“Catherine, I didn't ask you to hire this private detective”.

“He's the only legitimate expense I have. Don't start diminishing
that.

“He's useless.”
I was shouting.

“I don't believe that.”

“He's absolutely useless.”

“I bet he's already told you something you didn't know.”

That kiboshed my replies good.

Catherine said, “Oh, please, I'm sorry. Why do I attack you? You haven't got a chance.”

And then she slept dreamlessly while I watched her. I got up quietly and slipped into the house to dress. I walked down to Juan Maeg's store and bought a handful of tin rings with plastic jewels; and I bought a few dozen washable tattoos. I went back to the house, fished almost three dollars out of the wishing well under the disapproving gaze of fat Mrs. Dean next door, and walked around to the beach. Catherine was sound asleep. I haven't got a chance? I slipped the rings over each finger, licking them so they'd slide on without waking her. Then I got a dish of water and began tattooing her: Donald Duck, Spider Man, anchors, hearts, Dodge, Chevrolet, a nice Virgin of Guadalupe, the Fonz, an American eagle, the Silver Streak, Bruce Lee. I covered her and went inside.

When she came in a while later, I was conscious of what a spectacle she was; the tattoos were startling. I smiled a question and she said, “Let's eat.” Then she started toward the door. The tide was turning.

“Don't you want to scrub up?”

“No, I'm fine.”

She insisted on eating at the Pier House, which is a nice place, full at lunch, a professional clientele. We asked for a table, me in my huaraches and housepainter's baggy pants, Catherine in a bathing suit, twelve paste rings, and twenty-five loud tattoos. It was the last month of hurricane season.

Catherine wanted to discuss local Cuban politics. She didn't know anything about them and I couldn't get past how peculiar she looked. I asked her, “How can you do this to me?” The whole god damned restaurant was gaping. I felt like a fool.

We went back to my place and Don the detective was waiting for me. I found this distressing, since I'd already picked some songs to play for her on the mandolin. But then, it seemed she was waiting for a reason to slip off; and suddenly she was gone. Don got out his notes. I said, “I don't want to know.”

“Don't waste her money. She works hard for it.”

“No she doesn't. It's all in a can. What does she pay you?”

“Classified.”

“You're not supposed to be here now.”

“I won't be regular. That would only start your memory loping. I'll just pop up.”

“I hate popping up. That's against everything I've ever fought for. Don't you fucking pop up on
me.

Then he recited each thing I had done from bandaging my foot to tattooing Catherine. There were no surprises; but I didn't like the feeling I was getting. I didn't like it at all. I looked at Don. Today he was wearing mesh shoes and a banlon sport shirt. I could not fail to notice that he had moved his part from one side of his head to the other since the morning.

“I'm going to give you a little extra time,” he said, “let you get in a little trouble with your memory. —See ya.”

As he darted off, I sensed the air pouring into the tops of his shoes, his purely professional curiosity, the shifting part of his hair, and the utter menace of being up against someone who had a real memory he'd use on you.

*   *   *

It wasn't long before I began having a problem retrieving funds from the depraved pervert wishing well. As you know, I have been beset by impostors. Years ago numerous elephants lost their lives in Western Europe at the hands of people who had no idea what a batting practice machine was. An enterprising Frenchman emerged in Brazilian soccer clothes; but that wasn't the point. That odd young fellow, Chris Burden, who shoots himself, was closer to me and my elephant than these deluded Europeans. The main thing is that impostors have been my cross. The worst of them was at the well today.

I emerged from my home by the sea in shorts and drugstore flipflops. I was not anxious to run into anyone, as I had been making notes to myself that morning on my stomach with a ballpoint while I drank my coffee and greeted the new day. I hadn't had a chance for a shower; and I knew that from a stranger's point of view, I did look a bit like something from the
National Geographic.
At any rate, there was a stranger at the well. In human history, one of the most terrifying appearances is that of the stranger at the well. The truth is, if I had still been in the same business of my recent years, I would have included this in my repertoire. He peered at the upside-down map of the Lesser Antilles on my stomach, the word “Antigua” scrawled across my belly button. I really shouldn't have come out.

He was dressed in clean white ducks stylishly unpressed. A chambray shirt and a handsome old blazer. He wore deck shoes on brown sockless ankles. He was a well-groomed man in his fifties and he carried a small, heavy satchel that said “Racquetball” on its side. When I appeared, he reached inside and began throwing handfuls of silver dollars into the well.

“Now will you talk to me?” he said. “I am your father.”

“This is a cruel ploy to take with an orphan,” I told him. I wondered if he would ever find his son. He kept showering the silver dollars into the well, as if to say I would not talk to him otherwise. The pathos of this empty gesture is absolutely all that kept me there.

“You touch me with your desperation,” I said. “And I advise you to roll up your pants and get your money back. You've got the wrong Joe.” With this he angrily emptied the whole satchel into the water. I would never touch that haunted money.

“Now listen you sonofabitch. I haven't got all day. I'm going to find out if you're compos mentis before I go back to Ohio or know the reason why. I'm trying to have a well-earned rest on my yacht, which I have maintained at the dock for five years unused in anticipation of this holiday, and I'm pissing the entire deal away running down my birdbrain, notorious son who refuses to admit I exist.”

It was quiet for a long time.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it's all I want!” he said, and his voice caught. He turned away. He hurled the racquetball bag into the well and walked off to a waiting car.

So, you see?

8

I
DECIDED
that if I was to break out of my present pattern of impoverishment, sorrows, and anger, and stop waiting for everything with Catherine to repair itself, then I would have to fly in the face of my instincts and perhaps discipline myself and do things I didn't want to do and make friends with Peavey even though he was robbing my stepmother of what was rightfully hers and ensconcing himself in her Florida room with his associates and his bimbo secretary. This was not going to be easy. This was going to be a bitch. But if I succeeded, I might begin to make sense to other people too.

I got there rather early in the morning. Mary, the housekeeper, was sitting on the front stoop, drunk. I said good morning and she attempted a reply but could only make a bubble, though it was a good-sized one. I stepped past her and went into the house. I saw Peavey immediately. He looked up at me without acknowledgment, crossed to the Florida room, and closed the door behind him. He was dressed rather simply: a grimy pair of Fruit of the Loom underdrawers. When he opened the door, I caught a glimpse of his secretary rolled up in a sleeping bag and idly returning the empties to a six-pack carton.

Roxy was in the living room, legs crossed at her writing desk, looking smart in an off-pink Chanel suit. This set piece of normalcy was not going to take me in.

“Sit down, Chet, I'll be with you in a moment.”

“Take your time.”

“Bills, obligations, God.”

“What's Counselor Peavey doing running around in his underwear?”

“Just got up. What's seven times nine?”

“Sixty-three. Was that his secretary in the sleeping bag?”

“Sometimes she's a secretary. She's kind of a late riser. Works late. If that little gal gets wind of the Equal Rights Amendment, Peavey'll have his hands full. —I thought so! The aqueduct commission has robbed me to the tune of two dollars and nineteen cents. Did you see Ruiz when you came in?”

“No.”

“Well, he's selling my grapefruits. I'm going to skin that chiseler.”

We could hear Peavey making not-quite-human noises through the door to the Florida room.

“What's he charging?” Roxy asked.

“Who?”

“Ruiz. For the grapefruits.”

“God, Roxy, I've never seen him selling your grapefruits.”

Mary walked through the room with a thin row of bubbles on her lips.

BOOK: Panama
2.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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