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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (11 page)

BOOK: Panama
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“What's the matter with her?” I asked.

“Get that fly,”
shouted Roxy.

“Roxy, what fly?”

“What fly? The fly walking through my addition practically into your face.”

“I want to give you away.”

“I think your father should do that.”

“But I'm having a party at the Casa Marina,” I said.

“Who's the orchestra?”

“Jorge Cruz.”

“That's very nice. Jorge is very good indeed. Plays some attractive sambas—” Roxy got to her feet and began to samba. I could see her starting to get peculiar and I returned her to her chair.

“Don't start shoving
around,” she snarled. “Not with
obligations you don't.”

“I just wanted you to sit and talk to me for a moment.”

“I've got a thieving gardener, a stack of bills like
and a drunken attorney with an outside line consorting in my Florida room with some women's libber in a sleeping bag.”

“Well, why are you marrying him!”

Peavey peeked out of the door.

“Who asked for your two cents?” he demanded.

“I just I…”


He withdrew.

*   *   *

The usual pattern of mayhem in the morning paper was altered in the edition of
The Key West Citizen
I bought to forget the situation at Roxy's (where I had got no reply to my offer to give away my stepmother, in matrimony). A young couple living on Big Coppitt, having fun with morphine and Quaaludes, beat up their three-year-old son and threw him through the window; the little boy took seventeen hours to die. Page 2: “Hints for Shell Collectors.”

I walked to my place with tinned dog food, stepped into the patio, and said, “Deirdre” to my dog. I had named her, after seven years. I held out my arms and she leapt about, running on her hind legs. “Deirdre,” I said, “Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre.” And for a moment, page one's hint that the human race was in line for a fiery death, vanished.

I looked out at the ocean, past the ruined pier where nothing was visible except Don smoking in the shadows. I called out, “Aren't you hot in that suit?” and opened a can of dog food. Weird guy, Don; he smokes Virginia Slims and carries his car and office keys hanging on a split ring from the belt loop of his gleaming suit. I have to study him as a means of keeping him at arm's length. A less patient man than me would pull all his teeth or something. When I looked out again, Don was gone, but his cigarette smoke was still in the air, quite visible against the quiet blue sea.

Beyond the wall, I could hear sunbathers talking and I eavesdropped on their senseless conversations. Deirdre stood beside me.

“Scarred for life…”

“Not excited…”

“… nothing personal between us.”

“Girl is getting me down. (I spoke to her of) … Rasputin, the Kalahari, the telegraphy of souls and ocean. All she wants to do is sixty-nine.”

*   *   *

Then I went straight back to Roxy's, blood in my eye. I went to the outside window on the west side of the house, stood among the raped grapefruit trees, adjusting the garden hose. Peavey was dictating a memo to the bimbo and I let that shitsucker have it, squirting everything and shorting out the typewriter. Peavey said I wouldn't be able to say I didn't ask for it. His hair spread in vertical lines behind his glasses. There were puddles.

*   *   *

The morning mail made a terrific difference. Paramount had released
Chronicles of a Depraved Pervert,
which was good for a deferment of just about a half a million dollars. I wrote out a deposit, knowing I'd cover the check before it went through. Oh, boy. I went back to the same teller, endorsed and presented the check. “Call me when this clears.”

“I shall.”

“Break your balls?”

“It's only money.”

When I got to the house again, the phone was ringing. I answered it and had a long, tormenting conversation with someone close to me, which confused me very much as it was someone I had long believed to be dead. My own unstoried dead are an important phase of my current balance and having them pop up like this produces unusual stress and an urge for mayhem. The living are skeletons in livery anyway. I'm not going for this. My first impulse was to wonder if they ever found Jesse James's body.

*   *   *

I bought a Land-Rover, and an attractive home for Catherine. She refused to look at the house on her own. I didn't feel I had the time; I had bought the place by phone and didn't want to be disappointed. She was tending to Marcelline again; Marcelline's fiancé—I didn't know she'd had one—was arrested in New Orleans for grave robbery. I thought this was a ghastly crime but Marcelline assured Catherine that many young musicians in that city survive by robbing the Creole cemeteries.

“I thought she hated the Cornstalks Hotel because it was full of musicians.”

“One was right for her.”

“One was right for her? What does he play?”


“What instrument?”


This left me with an undeservedly bad impression of Catherine; and I called again and asked her if she would go up the keys with me in my new Land-Rover. We could go to No Name and see all the way to Little Knock Em Down. This touched her craving for actuality and she said, “Yes, oh yes.”

I made crab-salad sandwiches and iced two quarts of piña coladas. I got a blanket and some bug repellent. I loaded everything into the Land-Rover and glanced across the street. For just an instant I thought I spotted Jesse James on the broken sidewalk.

*   *   *

I had some trouble with the Land-Rover in the beginning. While not a Road Ace, I am a good driver with illegal left-hand turns as my only moving violations. But the Land-Rover had a number of shift levers, high range, low range, transfer case; and when I looked in the manual, I found only the instructions for attaching sheep shears to the power takeoff. None of the gears were synchronized, and by the time I got to Catherine's, I had crashed the gearbox good. I slurped insistently on the piña coladas and peered about behind the divided windshield, idling with the controls.

Catherine climbed up and in, Marcelline waving from a curtain. All along the street, people had piled their dead palm leaves for pickup and the Spanish limes were dropping steadily on the tin roofs. We were on a gloomy side street with traffic flickering at either end and the sky high and oceanic.

I said, “It takes a rhino to turn one of these over.”

“What is this?”

“A Buick.”

“They're supposed to be good.”

“Why won't you look at your new house?”

“What's the meaning of this house?”

“This is a little present, this house.”

“In honor of what?”


“Oh, God, Panama. I found your suitcase from the wedding trip. We never unpacked it.”

“What was in it?”




“Anything else?”

Burke's Peerage.
Linen. A beer.”

We crossed Stock Island and on Big Coppitt I studied the slow, wind-moving electric lights on a one-man used-car lot. The hospital sat to our left in the marl and mangroves. We were drinking fast to avoid the queer noise of eternity in the air.

The Land-Rover was all wound up at fifty. It bumped over channels on hidden bridges and at Boca Chica warplanes lifted into the distance. Then we had some good old-time darkness unrelinquished to the age. Through the window, warm, wet Florida smells and the unyielding kiss of tires on moist pavement.

“What else did we leave in Panama.”

“Don't ask me.”


“Well, don't.”

“Why shouldn't I?”

“We left everything.”

“I don't believe that. Come on.”

“We left it all.”

At lower Sugarloaf, I pulled over. I got out and shone my flashlight in the tidal slough. It was still; the stars and planets shone on the surface.

“Used to be crabs here.”

“What kind of crabs?”

“Blue crabs.”

“Is that eating crabs?”

“The best. Sometimes they were soft-shelled. They looked the same as hard-shelled but I couldn't be sure enough to pick them up. I knew I'd get the misfit who'd kept his shell and he'd do a number on my hand.”

Danny and the Juniors were on the radio, quiet and remote. The pavement stretched in front of the windshield. I turned to Miami Cuban radio and listened to Celia Cruz and watched the incursions of water glint along the road.

“Is the nation at war?” I asked.

“Not for some time. Don't you watch Walter Cronkite?”

“I don't go to the movies.”

“Well, there's no war. There's an election.”

“How're they doing?”


That made me feel good. I felt good all the way to the Chat-and-Chew on Summerland; and by Big Pine, it was time to turn out toward No Name. It became darker and the pines were tall and reaching and didn't look like they feared falling in the ocean or getting blown over. They were pines that dared to suggest that islands are misery where brave horsemen run off the earth and topple into the unknown.

There was darkness but there was still shade and we flashed by an old man in a white shirt standing by the road watching the stark, queer trees. Then the sky bent into the road and we were at the No Name Bridge. Catherine looked at the old man and then at me. Was it Jesse? I couldn't very well ask her.

I pulled over. You could see the stars in the water and the tide gathered against the pilings. I carried the sandwiches and Catherine closed her hands in front of her, as if something was happening. I dropped a pebble from the rail and it plunked like in a well, though it was sea water passing between islands.

“Going where?” Catherine asked.


“The sea water.”

“Was I talking out loud?”


“I don't know, from the Gulf to the Atlantic. From Gulf Shores to Atlantic View. From Gulf Rest to Atlantic-Aire.” This was me, side-slipping. Catherine busted me.

“Why do you need to add those things? Whatever poetry is in you, you hate like everything.”

“That's where the sea water was going.”

“No it wasn't.”

We walked to the middle of the bridge and found what little moving air there was. When I looked down at the water, it was the darkest part of the night. It showed silver against the abutments or you couldn't have seen it; it could have been the drop-off, the edge of the world.

“You know he's back.”


“You must talk to him. You must settle that with yourself.”

“He's dead.”

“Do you believe that? You talked to him on the phone.”

Oh, God, Oh ghosts, all on threads in the dark, not to be spoken to. Catherine, don't make me see this. There are stains, seeps, things you do not see. I had to look into the night; and sure enough, I was provided a skimmer bird, opening a brilliant seam in the water.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

“Yes, lovely.”



The old man in the white shirt was upon us before we heard him coming; we couldn't speak until he had passed on. Catherine stared at him again. I was afraid.

“You can't make everything up,” Catherine said gently.

“Like what?”

“You can't make up that they're dead. And the others,” she said, “they'll all turn up too.”

“There's only one I want to see.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “Jesse James.”

*   *   *

An outboard went under the bridge on a long white V and disappeared. Beyond the channel a light moved on the highway. The wake slapped under the bridge. Catherine peered at me and said, “I wonder who that old man was?”

“No way of knowing.”

“He seemed to stare at everything. He was staring at me. He knew everything and he was staring.”

She climbed up on the railing, teetering over the water, and I knew she was loaded from the piña coladas. I ate a crab-salad sandwich.

“You're going to fall off that and drown,” I said.

“So what.”

“Then where will you be?”

Catherine jumped. At first I saw her in the air, then she was gone in the blackness, and then she lit up in her silver splash and disappeared.

I ran across the bridge to the shore. I couldn't see anything and I broke my way along the mangroves down tide from the bridge and listened. The light through the leaves was like candle flames. I couldn't see anything but I could hear voices. I was all caught up inside my chest and I felt everything sweeping toward something where there was no light.

I kept going, watching the water, toward the voices. The mangroves stood up black on their roots, hermit crabs clinging underneath and rattling to the ground as I pushed through. Then there was a muddy indentation of the shore where the tide whispered past.

Catherine was lying there and the old man in the white shirt was arranging her hair like a sunburst in the mud. When he saw me, he stood up and moved away until his shirt smeared the dark. I bent over Catherine, her face pale between the black arrows of hair.

She said, “Are we alive?”


at her home. She never spoke again that night. Then I drove across the island to my place. There was something going on inside. I walked around very carefully, listening to mayhem in my house. I opened the door through the wall cautiously.

Inside, my dog cowered by the stack of plant pots, one eye swollen shut from a blow; and just beyond, Nylon Pinder was tipping over the furniture and flinging drawers across the room, kicking the bottoms out from under standing lamps and tearing up anything that would tear.

BOOK: Panama
11.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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