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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (4 page)

BOOK: Panama
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“I'll tell you what,” she said—and by this time, she's walking around slamming drawers and assembling her duds to get the hell out, having behaved, by her lights, deplorably, having whipped it out—“you've gotten to where people can't even talk to you.”


“They know they're gonna get hustled and left high and dry while you cruise into this five-and-dime sunset.”

“Oh, Catherine.”

“It's true.”

“I know it's true. But catch me when there are a few things I don't regret, would you?”

“I don't know what that means.”

“Catch me when there's something I'm proud of. At the moment, I feel shit out of luck. I have some questions—”

“Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up!”

Items in the air. Why throw things now? I must be completely safe. I detest being injured.

“I can go. My hand's not that sore.”

“I won't have your hand on my conscience! Now I'm feeling guilty! Can you beat that? Oh God, I want a restraining order!”

I got out of bed and snatched on my trousers. Boy oh boy was I in love. I started racing around for my belongings, trying to act like a cowboy but knowing full well what a duck I appeared. Something or other ricocheted from my head into the bathroom. A wooden coat hanger, I think it was. From the Sherry-Netherland. I was at Southard and Simonton before I knew it. There was a terrible squabble behind the wall opposite the police station. When I looked, I saw an older gentleman of the Cuban persuasion flogging an osprey out of his fighting cock runs. He had a gun.

Something about our republic makes us go armed. I myself am happier having a piece within reach, knowing if some goblin jumps into the path, it's away with him. Here in Key West, we take our guns to parties. My pedal steel player had one on a clip under his instrument; it said “Death To Traitors” on the backstrap and was stolen by a fan in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on New Year's Day.

Why won't Catherine even try to see eye to eye with me about our future? I could see I stood a really good chance of not getting her back. I wonder if she actually has any right to make me feel this way. God, I want her back.

Back at my place, the ocean made a simpering reedy wash under the eroded patio and my dog remembered my having failed to feed her last night. Mrs. Dean, who lived next door and who weighed much too much, felt her way across the crushed coral to the ponderosa lemon tree and laid on it with a flit gun until nothing could live there. I rattled nourishing kibble into a tin plate and felt my nail hole while the dog ate. My homecomings are always this heartwarming, full of the familiars of our day-to-day life, like radium watch dials, particle board, novelty pills, or dental floss.

Catherine's yielding deprived me of a half-foreseen rape, something aesthetic to me, stooping over her sunken form, pre-owned gabardine trousers stretched across the piquant tendons behind my knees. And her flippancy of course left me nothing in terms of leverage, the way careless love leaves you empty-handed. No tug, no give and take. Where were the good old days?

I decided to throw a party, something nice, something with an orchestra, by the sea with food, the tradewinds in the sea grapes, the movements of ocean at least as loud as the baseball or the drunks on White Street. I would bring my dog and wind her chain around the forearm of my linen jacket. I would lean this way and that among the guests and say any god damn thing I pleased because it was my fucking party. I would order the guests about as whim provided. The servants would be little hippies with their hair tied back and clean shirts. They will have left the literature of revolutionary consciousness behind in their pads. They would be made to hop to on the highballs and party snacks. I would tell them Krishna is the sound of petits fours in the teeth, the little shitsuckers.

*   *   *

By the time I had fed the dog, my two uncles, Pat and Jack, were in the patio. Pat used to throw the ball for my dead brother Jim and me up onto the amazing bevels of my father's roof and we would run around guessing wildly which way the ball would come down. Pat had all the time in the world for us, no matter that he was shell-shocked and having a time of it with his flagging law practice. Pat had a houseful of books, good cooking utensils, and a telescope in his attic. The rest of the family disapproved of him because he was a drunken queer.

Jack had all the family attention because he was a shipwright and kept the light of history burning. No one was building ships in Key West any more; but that didn't matter. We were all proud of him for whiling away his life in the shipyard, listening to bubble-gum music on AM radio, flipping his pocketknife into the wall; and each year turning over the woodpile, catching the scorpions, and varnishing them on a piece of plywood over his desk. All Pat's years of struggling in his law office with his twitching shell-shocked face would never really supplant his behaving like a terrible fruit fly. When I was ten, my father ordered Pat to stay away from Jim and me.

Jack said, “Some place you got here.”

“Just a seaside bide-a-wee.”

Pat found the old tiles in the walls, old Havana tiles with maidens and tobacco leaves blasted into the porcelain and no socialist realism in sight.

“Really quite a little place,” Jack said.

“Are you retired or something?” Pat inquired.

Jack said, “Where's all your money? This place is okay for the dog. You were on Johnny Carson. Where's the simoleons, kiddo. This is no way to live.”

“God,” said Pat, “they could never make tiles like that again.”

“It's in a numbered Swiss account,” I said. “That way I could forget the number. It gives me humility, and humility is what I could stand a little of.”

“You can say that again,” said Jack.

Pat said, “I like everything you've done.” Pat was the one who threw the ball over and over again for Jim and me.

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

“The Casa Marina is abandoned. Besides, why don't you hold off for a while. Your father's supposed to be down soon on his boat.”

“My father's dead,” I said.

“That's a good one,” said Jack.

“I know what he means,” said Pat.

“There will be an orchestra and dancing in the weeds. Moonlight and whores in the old manner. Fireflies, bullbats, and phantom ships.” I wanted to focus on the party.

“C'mon,” Jack said. “We're just your uncles. We don't pay you to talk like that. They do.”

Jack had me there. Here at home I wasn't being paid to sum up civilization or to act it out in a glimmer. Once again, I was Joe Blow and I wasn't sure I was crazy about it.

“The main thing,” Jack said, “and I think Pat will agree. Whyn't you go on and stay the hell out of Roxy's business. She doesn't like it to start with. And also, we aren't situated on this island like we once were. Peavey could make it nasty. He's connected every which way and some of it's not too savory.”

“He's dangerous,” Pat said.

“I'll invite him to the party,” I said.

“Come on, Chet.”

“Yeah Chet gee.”

I let some quiet fall and added, “Otherwise I'd have to go ahead and shoot him.”

“Don't even talk like that!”

“It doesn't matter anyway. A little dancing by the sea and Peavey will be eating out of my hand.”

*   *   *

I talked to Catherine from a pay phone at the Wynn Dixie store. She was worried about Marcelline. I said, not Marcelline. She said yeah, she's having trouble about this guy. I said Marcelline is indiscriminate. I said the sexually indiscriminate have lost the ability to convey a sense of privilege. I said they're always having trouble with the guy. Don't lay that shit on me, Catherine shouted. I'm not shouting, I shouted and customers looked at me in the chest-high booth where I stared into the soundproofing perforations and at the chained directory in false concentration. Trouble with the guy? Catherine said. Let me tell you trouble with the guy. Marcelline, it seems, had read some French novel and wanted to give herself in the form of a pagan rite, some form of utter consent. Sadly, she picked a vacationing agent from the firm of International Famous and he insisted on peeing in her face. Marcelline was in seclusion, in disgust with the human race.

“Has she had a chance to scrub up?” I asked.

“Hey, go fuck yourself.”

The line was dead. I wasn't making the best of the conversations. I don't quite know why, except insofar as it was part of this trajectory of declining hope which had gone so far in depriving me of what I formerly considered worth working for. For instance, I will soon be broke. Already, on the occasion of massive overdrafts, where once an obsequious vice-president would appear at the door, I now got an ill-tempered trainee with a pencil behind his ear who menaced my dog.

Then I thought, I could make Marcelline feel better about all this, about this terrible agent doing this to her face, with his thing, that agent. And by so doing, apart from placating my own humanity, I could wend my way back into Catherine's affections, even to the extent of her withdrawing her remark about my fucking myself.


there is a florist's shop in a building made of the kind of cinderblock that is bulged to look like rocks. The window is always fogged from the cool interior and it is run like a dry cleaner's, with a counter and cash register jutting into its greenery like a dock in the Everglades.

“I want something nice,” I said, watching across the street as a pallid rock-and-roll band loaded equipment behind a franchised fun bin called Big Daddy's Lounge. “For a friend. A whole plant.” I could smell cold flowers.

“Is this a special occasion, I mean something for which we might have a price arrangement or any of them good things?” An eighty-year-old woman ought not to talk that way.

“A friend,” I said, “who's had an accident.”

“Oh dear, what?”

“Peed on.”


“She got peed on.”

I settled for a plant with blue flowers in a terracotta turtle; not settled, really. I liked the plant and felt good marching through the cemetery toward Elizabeth Street toward Marcelline's, a Christian soldier. I spotted Peavey ward-heeling in front of the library and waved without eliciting one in return. I felt uplifted in some way, taking a little something to a friend who had gotten it as we all have, though seldom so directly. Then I remembered Marcelline wasn't precisely a friend; and in fact, I didn't know her very well. Maybe I don't know why I felt good, beyond that the obligation of being a screaming misfit was gone, the onus of dirty money was about to lift off, and the simple motifs of poverty and Christian vengeance were starting to back-fill their absence.

Vengeance? It's so intricate, maybe no one else would call it that. I don't question it any more; anyone's sources are as mysterious as spring water.

Marcelline's house is on the dead end of William Street, what was the dead end until the fire department opened it on through for access to the wooden tinderbox houses of this old quarter, on through past the empty stables in the overgrown palm-shrouded field; so that what was once still as countryside now carried the tin murmur of Truman Avenue.

Marcelline came to the door just as my finger touched it. She had painted bright red circles on her face and was wearing fifteen or twenty rings. I could hear the radio and a teakettle at once. She said, “Hi you!”

I told her, “Fine,” then I said, “Marcelline, you look just, just—”

She said, “Go ahead.”

I said, “It's not that, it's—”

And she said, “I know.
I'm indescribable.

I can't quite recall; I believe, though, she told me to come in. I did go. We bumped in the woody smell of the hallway, her bright circled cheeks in that light and the teakettle screaming now over a Spanish-language broadcast out of Miami, Havana, I don't know. Machine-gun music.

She cried, “Is that for me!” And ran the plant into the little sitting room. She had a coffee can with a soldered spigot and babied the vegetable while I tried to figure out what I was doing there. I believed that it had to do with Catherine. The room was dim and the windows drained everything; the lines in the wooden floor ran off into the glare and you could hardly decide what was what.

“We had a plant with blue flowers in Oklahoma once. My mother took it into the cellar with us during a tornado. I had a
Peter and the Wolf
record and my mother had a handbag. There was this big groan and the house was gone. The plant was okay but I forgot the record when we moved to Tampa. This was on a Wednesday.”

“What was?”

“When we moved to Tampa. My mother worked for a pirate-type-atmosphere restaurant. Then she was a target for a knife thrower, and ran an addressograph. Jack-of-all-trades kind of deal I guess.”

When she sat down finally, she said, “What brought this on?”

“Thought I'd you know come on over see how things were.”

“Well, they're not too neat.”

“I heard about your accident.”

“That's just the end of it. The trip to New Orleans was also ratshit. I stayed out at the Cornstalks and it was full of musicians. So, I spent the whole time taking cabs into the Quarter, where you can't get nothin any more, not even a beignet you'd want to eat. You're better off down on Canal watching traffic. I tell you, bad luck and trouble is getting to be my middle name.”

“Well, that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee in any town in America.”

“I just want to fix up my place and kick back for about a year. I want them to be able to put the story of my life on a Wheaties box. I'm sick of junkies and dancers and triggermen.”

BOOK: Panama
2.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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