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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (5 page)

BOOK: Panama
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“They're not going to put your unnatural conduct with Catherine on Wheaties.”

“It's not unnatural. You ever read this Sappho?”

“Not Sappho again. You get the right Greek and you can really cover the waterfront.”

“I go straight and you see what happens. All over everything. I nail the guy where it does the most good and he starts to whine. Save it for the john, I told him. I don't like it. So, then he tore up my place and split. I'd like to find out whose agent he is and tell his clients.”

“You know what happens when agents die? They go to ten percent heaven.”

“That helps.”

“Can I do anything?” I asked, very much in earnest.

“You're not any more together than I am, as I hear it.”

“I know,” I said, “but I've made a start. Just ask me and I'll help you out.”

“I don't need anything. It'd be nice if you could get that agent off the key. He's drinking at the Full Moon Saloon and that is my bar.”

“Consider it done.”

Marcelline stopped fidgeting around and rearranging and stared at me a moment, absolutely otherworldly in her red cheeks. You'd want her on your arm at some kind of fiendish ball. I resolved to take her to my seaside gala, given that I could succeed in organizing it; that is, if Catherine predictably refused me. Marcelline was a vivid primitive and that was okay with me.

“Catherine is sure that she's a survivor. I'm just a flashy cunt. But I know a thing or two. I know what's what.”

“Such as?”

“I don't know, the street. How to stay up all night by yourself, fry okra without it getting slimy, tell when plantains are ripe. I can test coke more accurate than a lab even if it's ether or acetone base and repair furniture without glue. But I'm not absolutely sure I'm a survivor. I might be gone in the next reel.”

“Well, I'll get the slicker off the key and you'll have the Full Moon back. That'll be a step in the right direction.”

There are people anyone knows who are at times stranger to them than Hottentots.
Peter and the Wolf
in the storm cellar. And for me, these strangers are dangerously simple obsessions, not durable necessarily, but certainly it can get smokey. A topless dancer tells you about her paper route in Indiana. A shrimper shows you his collection of Fred Waring records. But without that, maybe you're all by yourself. I saw an old drunk fall in front of the laundromat at Elizabeth and Fleming. He cracked his head open and made a terrible pool of blood. Someone seemed to know he wouldn't die of it. But I looked down through spinning air filled with frangipani and rock and roll and saw how quickly you are alone, how that can be shown to you in an instant. I think for a long time that it was my business to drive this into relief, that this was what I did for my time, poured blood from my head so that strangers could form a circle. The immaculate dream of touching and holding was shed and I stood, an integer, not touched; for nothing but power. I couldn't even name my dog. But there was something I wanted besides that; something as simple as to ache in the literal heart and chest for all of us who had lost ourselves as parents lose children, to the horizon which is finally only overtaken in remorse and in death.

I talked to a woman who told me nothing larger than the house going off in the wind and the move to Tampa and thought, Let us not try to see beyond these walls where we are taken up into the terrible stream. And then my heart could swoon from the smell of a cold-cream jar left open, a calendar with two pages needing to be turned, a handsome lady looking to get by but holding some hard secrets beautifully lacking in universality.

I thought, I can handicap the track on this whole shit-heel civilization and truck paychecks till doomsday. It's like taking candy from a baby. But I want that cracked thumbnail, the graze of wildly disingenuous eyes upon my own, breasts suspended in the frame of arms, and level thighs drifting toward each other into the dark.

Because then I'm happy. I wanted Marcelline as absolutely as I knew I would do nothing about it. It starts with a gesture you remember from somewhere else: a girl chipping the map of Czechoslovakia into the polish of her fingernail. And in my hope of immaculacy, my Catholic childhood enshrouded within, I brained myself with the thought of her pulling the T-shirt over her head, the skirt unwound, each leg over an arm of the chair. And yes, me, at the business end of where it counted.

*   *   *

I last saw my brother Jim at a mental hospital where he had a small, decent room with a poster of me on the wall and which, don't ask me why, I couldn't bear to see there. It was the famous one of me climbing out of the elephant to sword-fight the pitching machine. He had hospital corners on his neatly made bed, a toothbrush in a glass, paperbacks, and a spiral notebook.

We walked around the grounds and he gazed with happy awe at me and told his ineffable, funny stories about the other patients, stories told with the sense of humor that is the mirror of pain, the perfect mirror, not the trick mirror of satirists. We had a long talk about our mother and father, about Roxy and our uncles. Then I flew to Stockholm to do a show. Jim was due out of the bin in three days. A week later, full of morphine, he smothered to death on a plastic-covered mattress. I came home and the last I saw of him he was lying next to a Lithuanian, who, after eating cat food for three years in a Miami hotel, jumped out of its window. I said Jim was Jim and they filled out his tag.

I thought, they'll fill out mine and Marcelline's and Catherine's too; which thought makes you tolerate every creep on earth. And I considered how Catherine had had enough. Well, hadn't we all. You are always up against those who ask, Why go into it? and the smart set who tell you, musically, That's how it is.

Wondering what I am doing here makes me behave as I have, which is a matter of record. Like Ulysses S. Grant, it was an instance of a village crank being called by his Republic; I found myself in the consciousness traffic, hawking a certain ugliness on a cash-and-carry basis. It took me a little while to get the bugs out; and after that, I was lethal.

See, in Key West, we were an old family that had lost its money … Marcelline was at the window. I want her to open herself for me without this fashionably veterinary innocence. This stuff is wicked and sinful and everyone knows it.

Marcelline,
please.

*   *   *

I buried Jim. The rest of the family did needlepoint of ineffectuality to show how we'd gone broke. Jim was in an open casket, deferring to barbarism that mattered to his friends and our family. There were beaucoup whores and sorry-looking junkies, past masters at turning blue, who marched to the casket and then didn't know what to do with themselves, chins abashedly on chests, and fingers laced over their lower abdomens. As always, I positioned myself among the mourners, third from the left. I saw the body for days without so much as being reminded of Jim, a real effigy. Then when Catherine was with me and the funeral parlor was empty, I saw behind the cosmetics and cold smell of the flowers, the same smell when I'd bought the flowers for Marcelline; well, I saw. I felt something physical rack through and Catherine took hold of me. And I had this thought which was, I guess, a watershed: That's him all right and he's dead.

But once you get the idea finally that what dead means is the end and no one is coming back, once you know that as opposed to having heard about it and having coppered your bet with a few well-chosen coins of stupidity, then you don't care so much about your own any more. I don't anyway.

*   *   *

“I can't see why you brought me flowers.”

“It was an impulse. I think I'm trying to get close to Catherine again. And she cares about you and for example worries about the wrigglers in your cistern as well as her own. But the flowers are just for you too.”

“Are you jealous of us?”

“No.”

“Because it's just this little thing, you know.”

“Okay.”

“I gather that at the end there you just went slap impossible on her.”

“I did that. I believed myself though. I thought if I turned myself into enough of a goblin, everybody would come out and say what they had on their minds. Ha ha ha. What did I know.”

“And gettin paid a lot with all kind of trash goin after you. Which you loved.”

“I didn't hide that.”

“And bringin it back to Catherine until there wasn't any pride left. New York chippies high-siding her.”

“Yes, it was very bad. Is she gay now?”

“We're all just sick of you.”

“You didn't know though how grand it was to go home to somebody who knew you for the asshole you were, that relief.”

“Well,” said Marcelline, “it got old.”

“Sure.”

“For instance you coming in with these flowers to do me up.”

“That isn't true. I came because I felt badly about what that clown did and because I felt guilty that I thought it was funny. And I wanted to surround Catherine.”

“She still loves you but I don't foresee her having a single thing to do with you. She put up with you right up to where you had become a real animal and a national disgrace.”

“That was the height of my career.”

“It was sick. You were a depraved pervert.”

“Everybody calls me that.”

“I wasn't going for originality.”

“Did you ever turn tricks?” I asked her.

“For a little while.”

I said, “How'd you like it? Turning tricks is how I saw
my
job.”

“I dunno. This was out of a steak-and-brew joint in St. Augustine. It was real different, I guess.”

“Strung out?”

“Yup, and sixteen. I was geezing speed. Later, crossroads and quackers. Up and down.”

“Ever happy?”

“Quite often.”

“Ever ask yourself what you are doing here?” I was waiting.

“All the time.”

“How far do you get with the question?”

“Nowhere.”

I started wandering around the place, halfheartedly looking for a spot to take a leak. I was off on a tangent. Marcelline held electrical fingernails to the light and I thought, Jim knew what ailed me but died and never said. And what ailed him? The horizon.

“The thing of it is,” said Marcelline, “is that we want to talk and we want to fuck one another and if we fucked one another we'd talk better but we're not gonna fuck and I wonder how come.”

I replied brilliantly, “We're being faithful to Catherine!” She smiled and then laughed like a valkyrie.

“Now and again,” she said, “I see you looking at me and I can make out what you want and I feel bad about that.”

“I'm not neglected.”

“I mean, I'd do it.”

“I would too,” I said, “only we won't.”

“I'm not even that sore from my trip, but I'm just not going to.”

“It gets curiouser and curiouser.”

“Did Catherine stay on the other day after I left?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but it was kind of nothing, kind of flippant, kind of see-you-next-time.”

“Everybody was confused after you nailed yourself up. I wasn't impressed with that particular lulu by the way.”

I don't know what I cared to do at that moment. I really hadn't come for any but the described reasons. Which was not to say that Marcelline wasn't a leggy, otherworldly beauty, trailing her dubious dreams and pastel whoredom like a pretty kite.

When she picked up the phone, it seemed it could have been for anything. But she called Catherine. I felt immediately embarrassed, as though I had stressed the acquaintanceship with Marcelline into something I hadn't any right to. She told Catherine that I'd come over and been most, even more than, distinctly, a gentleman; but how would it be, now be honest, if she and I did get it on. It was perfectly all right with Catherine and I cannot pretend that that didn't hurt my feelings. I was worrying over things I hadn't cared about in years.

“Having it happen like this,” I said, still staring at the now inert and cradled black phone, “is flat strange.”

“I've got a nice little cunt you're gonna be just crazy about.”

“Fine, if I can. For years, I have to tell you, the only thing that excited me was to have someone fake an orgasm.”

“Do you have a problem?”

“Just with suddenness.”

“How about with guys?”

“I don't with guys.”

“Scares you?”

“It's not there. Or I'd act it out. But I'm glad somebody likes it, so a possibility doesn't go to waste.”

She was sitting in front of me, and put her hand up inside herself thoughtless as she talked. I considered the wonder of the things that befell me, convinced that my life was the best omelet you could make with a chain saw.

Marcelline tugged her top off and really started fooling with my mind. She loved herself and that just does it to me, pride of that kind.

She put some music on—
Tejas
by Z Z Top, I think, something hard—stood up, and slid out of the rest of her duds. I was transfixed, all my general views gone, everything withering to make room for the present, the furious rifle vision which riddles everything, that madhouse of what seems like a good idea at the time.

I had come with the flowers in addition to my usual maladies, been touched, and now found myself just as addled as thrilled. My mental focus left like water for her to swim in; and suddenly we were on the floor and she was slipping away and I'm thinking, I can settle this. And then I thought about Catherine and how it could be when it was with someone you loved. This was the girl from the storm cellar.

She said, “You've got premature ejaculator written all over you.” I glanced into mid-air.

I felt completely there for it; but the feeling of the inside of her ran up spreading through me like swallowing hot soup upside down. I looked down, as I do, and thought, as I am afraid I do, that she couldn't get away. But she had some little movement that ought to be against the law. And I was grateful, wondering where my old vanity had gone, when it was always my benificence that I thought was on the line, not these glorious collisions. The earlier theater between Marcelline and me evaporated and it all grew dead serious; and probably, objectively, maybe even a trifle grotesque, as in knotty and wet and uncoordinated.

BOOK: Panama
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