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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (12 page)

BOOK: Panama
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He turned when I came in and moved wide as his smile toward me and sent my teeth spinning through lamplight. It seemed an obvious extension of my beef with Peavey. But I asked him why he had hit the dog. This only reminded him and the grin became one of discovery. He headed for the dog and I headed for a tipped-over lamp. I picked up a piece of milk glass about the time he got to the dog and hit him in the side of the face with it.

He turned in astonishment and what there was was very much like the earlier smile; but it went back to his ear on one side and you could see teeth all the way.

“Run,” I said. “You're bleeding to death.”

*   *   *

The morning
Citizen
said that Nylon Pinder had taken a tumble and was in satisfactory condition in Memorial Hospital. Next, I would have to begin on Peavey before he began on me.

I was feeling somber. I was the subject of assaults and menaces, told that the dead were alive; and I was in love with a woman who didn't seem to care for anything except an evasion of the light that I understood but knew, as she did not know, to be poison. One false move and we'd all go under together.

I walked down to Duval Street and spent a quarter on a machine that analyzed my handwriting. I learned that I was given to emotional crescendos. I must have made some audible response because the proprietor of the arcade, a man so bald and so bearded as to suggest that his hair was on upside down, came up to me and glanced at my analysis card and asked me what I did. I told him I was a regimental musician at Vera Cruz. He asked what I was doing in Key West and I told him that my patent attorney, my allergy specialist, and the vicissitudes of my root canals urged a move.

There was a door at the back of the arcade that said “Adult Material.” I passed through and played a dirty-movie machine with a fifty-cent piece. A fat girl came on the screen, undressed, and hit the deck. She retracted her legs as a naked man trotted toward her. Her bum was like a turret. The gentleman penetrated this valved protrusion with martial address until the fifty cents ran out. I sighed.

I said to the proprietor, “This is a perfect town for a quiet killing.” There was no emotional crescendo in sight.

“I've got a few choice words for people like you,” he said and I passed into the street with a peaceful smile. I walked to the Southernmost Point. A very old man and a very old woman were arguing.

She said, “I never
saw
so many oddballs. I want to get us out from under all these filthy people.”

“I don't care about this,” he said. “Did Robert fix the wind-up on the mower like I told him?”

“He best had!” she said with just as much vituperation as she'd displayed against the oddballs.

What I was doing was thinking and slowly circling back to Roxy's. I was nervous. I knew Peavey would be there. I didn't know whether to bring up Nylon Pinder; but I decided against it when I thought how cute Peavey was and how little chance there would be of his admitting such a connection.

Peavey behaved cordially. He was with Roxy among the grapefruits, trying to knock down a loner high in the tree with a bamboo pole. I was very slightly moved because the grapefruits were all Roxy owned up to caring about. Seeing Peavey try to get one down for her reconciled me to him a little.

Roxy said, “That Ruiz. I'm going to get a colored man, I swear I am.”

“No,” said Peavey, “you don't want one of those.”

“I want a smart boogie.”

He shook his head again. “If the colored people had any imagination … but they don't, do they? I mean, every urban area in the country is filled with pigeons—the Eurasian rock dove, that's what a pigeon
is.
And they could go out and gather all the pigeons they could eat, take them home, clean them,
pluck
them, and pop them in the rotisserie. Baste them liberally with butter and a bouquet of white wine and
herbes simple
 … brown them to a turn!… and serve with a cold bottle of Montrachet. Mwah!” He kissed his fingers. “But they won't do this. There's a lack of imagination. I don't know what it is, protein deficiency, the gene pool, I just don't know. But I do fear this guy is little more than a monkey. I fear this very deeply. I fear monkey shows in the inner cities as well as right here in Key West. We already have to watch out for our lives with many of these apes owning Coupe De Villes, Smith and Wessons, and Godknowswhat. These are powerful devices and they have them.”

Then Peavey looked right at me.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Fine,” I retorted.

“Don't overdo a good thing,” he said.

“You smell upset,” I said.

“I'm not,” he said.

“Good,” I said. “But you don't smell right.”

*   *   *

Catherine, my ballad to you goes like this. You can replace me but I can't let you go because I can't let you go I can't that's all I just can't. The night you sat on my Gibson Hummingbird I forgave you even though it was the last thing Johnny Horton ever touched I didn't care because it was you. That writer has a girlfriend too. She used to be Joe Cain's widow. He said she used to ride a train called the Hummingbird from Mobile to New Orleans. When he goes home, he's going to take her with him. I think she'll go. And how come you and me are always in pieces?

That night I dreamed again and again of the old man arranging Catherine's hair on the mud while the tide whispered past. Two dreams out of three he was faceless; in the third, he was my father.

*   *   *

“Hello—”

“This Nylon Pinder.”

“Hello, Nylon.”

“I'm home from the hospital.”

“Right…”

“And feelin real good.”

“Yes, Nylon.”

“And you should think about that.”

“Thank you, Nylon, I will.”

I got off and reflected upon Nylon. I supposed he was dangerous but he seemed merely pitiful, manipulating his voice and announcing his ominous return as per some TV show he'd seen. It is very very hard in this life to be a nincompoop. I called him back.

“Say, I'm having a party at the Casa Marina Saturday. Can you make it?”

“Oh,” said Nylon, “I already
was
going to make it.”

Nylon is very close, save for certain root, unpremeditated instincts, to what I spent a number of years enacting. I was a simple occupant, the man the anonymous senders of junk mail have in mind when they buy the stamp. And it was only my ability to see something in the accretion of toothpaste on unscrubbed counters, the signaling stain from plugged eaves troughs, the smell of myself in fear, as unattractive and profound as the funk of unloaded clothes hampers, that propelled me into the public nerve net with the ability to terrify with a smile or merely missing teeth. My affection for the ordinary, for Joe Blow in all his wonder, has deprived me of the power. But if the recoil doesn't kill me, if my affections don't kill me, I may laugh all the way to the bank; and without ever becoming The Occupant again, I could be happy. Not happy with a grin and the days flying by, but picking up the hours like shining stones. Meanwhile, it is sea level, incidents of torpor, and I know that I have been preceded in death. But if Catherine and I find a way to be happy together, we'll step aside when desolation roars past.

When I met my grandfather for the last time, he was riding an old singlefoot horse and carried his cane in a saddle scabbard. He looked at me for a long time, standing before him in my corduroys, T-shirt, and red tennis shoes; and said,
“Oh, what's the use?”

*   *   *

Marcelline popped in.

“Two dudes outside want to know if you'll back them in the far-out tie-tack business.”

“No.”

She stepped outside and called, “No.”

Then she came back in and rubbed up against me.

“Got time to feed it in?” she asked.

“No.”

“Want to rob a crypt with my honey and me?”

“No, sir.”

“He had to leave New Orleans. They used smear tactics against him.”

“The term ‘grave robber' doesn't sit well with people.”

“They could of said ‘breaking and entering.' If a person busts into a store front, they say ‘B and E,' not store-front robbery. They called him a grave robber so it would go harder on him. He had to jump bail, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

“I see your point,” I said wanly.

“Anyhow, we located this crypt has this lieutenant from the pirate squadron in it, hundreds of years old. It could be damn near anything in there. We'll be in the cemetery tonight.”

She darted through the wall into the blinding light.

I felt I had got used to Marcelline. She seemed like a moron. I'm sure she's not. At this point, time had had that effect. I don't like anything time does, so I'm not sure why I'm buying this. But she did seem quite the little moron.

I waited until Marcelline was clear, then I went outside and got almost nine dollars from the wishing well. I don't know who got the impostor's silver dollars. I pushed my hands into my pockets and looked up the street at the cars under the palms, the lawns against the shattered sidewalk.

When Jesse James rode the trolley in St. Joseph, they could smell gunpowder in his clothing. I started crying again for the first time since the monkey bars.

*   *   *

On January 13, 1975, I got up from dinner at a small private bistro, popular with the professional psychodrama folks, called Fuck You. I am absolutely sure that I had a wonderful meal but ten minutes after I got up from the table I couldn't remember what I ate.

I had been dining with Jean-Luc Godard, who was a little down on his heels and looking for a new slant, in other words, me. He said, “It is simple, Chet. We return to Fuck You and ask the maitre d'.” He couldn't remember what I ate either.

I said, “Nuts to that, Jean. I will just have to eat again. And in case you remember what I ate, I'd rather you didn't say.”

“But aren't you full?”

“That's going to have to be my tough luck.”

I had another large and this time disgusting meal at Luchow's, including a ghastly platter of Black Forest mushrooms. All the while a hideous Bavarian orchestra in lederhosen blared at my table. Imagine my discomfort!

But:
it kept happening for years to come, sometimes three meals in a row. Eventually it culminated in a very unfortunate episode with the mayor of New York.

*   *   *

Catherine said, “This business about Jesse James, I wish you'd stop. It makes my skin crawl.”

“Why?”

“He's deader than a doornail.”

“Wait a minute.”

“Dead. And you know something? Nobody else has these troubles we do. I don't like this. I don't believe we ever needed your fame. I don't think I ever had to leave South Carolina—”

“We sought to be illustrious.”

“I want to be happy.”

“You said that.”

“I want to be happy.”

“Catherine—”

“I want to be happy.”

“Jesse James was happy.”

“He was trigger-happy.”

“That's happy.”

“I just want to be happy.”

“Catherine, come on now.”

“Make me happy.” She was starting to sob.

“How?”

“Do it. Stay out of Panama. Please let us be happy.”

“Happiness is just a guy named Joe,” I said to lighten the atmosphere.

“Well then,” she said through her teeth. “You and Joe stay the fuck out of Panama.”

I stole a look at her through my terror of her authority, and through this vivid teeth-clenched fury, her face, lit by street lamps shining through the leaves of dead palms, seemed transcendent and fine, like the face of a legendary princess killed by lightning. I was lucky to have been in her life.

“Do I have to listen to this,” I said gingerly and she slapped my face, one ringing blow, then idly stirred yet another piña colada while watching a little sloop look for a place to anchor. For all I knew, she could have been Jesse, a token of his power to inhabit my loved ones at will.

10

I
HAD JUST RUN
a lemon rind around the inside of my coffee cup, and I was staring at the awakening rummies on the icehouse loading dock, when Don sat down.

I said, “Beat it, Peewee.”

“Just doing my job.”

He was dressed in a suit this time, with the kind of three-button jacket and ill-fitting pants that used to be high with academics from nice families, so that a college kid could look up and say to himself,
That's
no smart-ass big-city Jew, that's
people.

“I want my breakfast,” I said. “I don't want to hear I molested an infant in Spokane at 3 a.m. when I thought I was sleeping.”

“No, but you refused to speak to your father when he called.”

“How would you know that if it were true?”

“Lineman's phone. Got alligator clips and I just plug into your wire.”

“Uh huh.”

“You told your father he had a wrong number.”

“Shut up! He's dead!”

The fry cook turned around and stared but kept on scraping.

“And you bounced a check for five hundred thousand dollars.”

I got up. “I don't need this.”

“You wrote a sixty-thousand-dollar check for a conch house on Caroline. That bounced.”

“Check please.”

The waitress quickly reached me a ticket. I slapped my empty pockets in panic. She couldn't keep her eyes off me.

“I got it,” said Don and tossed the thirty cents onto the counter. “And
that
might be the last I can do for your memory. —I'm heading for the pay window.”

*   *   *

Running on Dey Street, I slide on casuarina seeds and lose a shoe and bang my head and make blood where the cobbles come from under the tar. An old lady leans out from the balcony of the octagonal house, glances at the welding shop, jets snuff into the trees, and says, “You all right?”

BOOK: Panama
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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