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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (6 page)

BOOK: Panama
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About then Catherine walked in.

She said, “I'm just so sorry but I can't help it and I don't know but I'm hurt.” And began to cry. I rolled back. Marcelline stood up, that preening quality gone so that she looked a little gawky with defeated breasts and foolishly decorated cheeks. As for me, I felt elegant. I hadn't forced or even thought about the possibility of this disclosure except when hurt at her handing out permission. Now I was flattered and happy and wanted to take these lovely women to dinner and use my genius, which I have, to make them happy.

“Do you feel betrayed?” Marcelline asked Catherine.

“It's just that this spastic cocksucker was once my old man and I've got some reactions left.”

I said, “I love you.”

“Well, I can't begin to process that.”

Marcelline said, “He's all right to fuck.”

“Yeah,” said Catherine, “I tried it and you shut up about it. There's something inside of him nobody can face.” I wanted to know what that was, though I suspected that my enormous evasions had culminated in some ghastly suck hole. Still, I had faced a lot. The occupational hazard of making a spectacle of yourself, over the long haul, is that at some point you buy a ticket too.

Marcelline looked distressed. She said, “I feel like sewing it shut.”

“I just had to go and spoil it,” said Catherine.

“He's been real wholesome. You could take him anywhere.”

“Ever see him with his teeth out?” Catherine asked.

“Huh-uh.”

“Take your teeth out, champ.”

I did.

Marcelline said, “Jesus Fucking Christ.”

Catherine shouldn't have asked me to do that. I was tempted to get creepy. I feel not the same with my teeth out and I look frightful and as if I had nothing to lose.

Catherine headed for the john and Marcelline sat in front of me and touched my legs. Catherine shouted, “Get your hands off him. If necessary, I'll ball him.”

“Don't say ‘ball'!” said Marcelline.

“Please be friends,” I said.

“We are, in spite of you.”

“I didn't try to make trouble.”

“Cath, we had your blessing,” said Marcelline.

“I know, sweetie, but I wasn't here and my mind was acting up and now the animal knows I'm still carrying this torch.”

“Why shouldn't I know?”

“Because depraved perverts misuse personal information.”

“Would it help if I put my clothes on?” I asked.

“No, think of yourself as an Arab tent boy. Oh, you are a lovely man.”

“He is.”

“But finally you're not good. You don't like people, you like mobs. You're a lovely mob-loving rotter.”

I ruefully watched Marcelline dress. “I'll tell you what,” she said. “I've lost interest. Why don't you all let me be for now. The both of you,
ándale!
Call me from El Paso.”

So then, Catherine and I were walking down the street again like old times and I was happy. Even the bus fumes smelled good. A filling station had become a Cuban sandwich shop overnight and I was vastly charmed by that. And it seemed bracing that Marcelline had thrown us both out, the little whore.

“Well, how did you like it?”

“Whussat?” I asked absently.

“The nooky.”

“Oh, good, great, very nice indeed.” I was running this on savoir faire. Catherine was irate and I was completely happy over it. “You seem displeased. It's a trifle.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Every Thursday this marine biologist and I meet and fuck around the clock. Are you happy for me?”

“I've been murdered.”

Here was one of my vices, but I'm bored without them.

Catherine was strong and smart. I loved her and she was the only thing I couldn't have. I knew that what she claimed to see inside me was actually there. She is not a liar. I am both a liar and a forgetter. Moreover, I feel it in there, a streak of something that's never gotten any satisfaction.

I used to believe that if I really blew my gourd with ladies, such things would be worked out in little-theater form. Somebody called it the twitching of three abdominal nerves. Who knows.

I was carrying her down the street in my arms with my tongue in her ear. She made me put her down. I took out my teeth and gaped at pedestrians. It was all like before and I had a girlfriend.

*   *   *

Question: was Catherine a looker? I think handsome at least. Certainly no traffic stopper. Her upper lip was a little turned back and mildly insolent. But she had silvery eyes, drawn in the corners. She looked self-owned, cheerfully fierce, and ready to rock and roll. In our time together, she was often stern with me. She said I used those old drugs too much. But, given the objective conditions of our lives, how can we avoid taking the drugs? It's our only defense against information.

When I was down and out and ugly, Catherine could hold me when no one else could, and keep on holding me when there was absolutely no one, including me, prepared to claim it was worth it. She left me when two things came together like an eclipse: I was in good health and had behaved unforgivably. When I thought about her wanting to get out, I can only imagine that the combination must have seemed a long time coming.

As for her penchant for telling the bald truth, I'm not sure that it is a virtue. Cooking did not interest her very much; I loved sleeping with her not only for her fanciful approach but for her fucking back. Sadly, the more legendary I became, the more I neglected this and everything else. We ended quickly in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, down the hall from Francis Ford Coppola's majestic quarters, quick because of her power. She left and I who had become, among other things, ruthless, and an absolute cretin, thought at first—I who had ignored her—“I will die of this.” I couldn't have been more of a pig.

Instead, I slobbered, wept, crawled, and from time to time called room service for kiddie plates and gin. I masturbated endlessly and in some instances projected Catherine in humiliating variations on Leda and the Swan in which the featured players were a gruesome wattled turkey, an ostrich; never a swan, just the worst, most terrible birds.

Before she could leave town, I caught her in the Russian Tea Room eating salad behind dark glasses. She was on something and I could tell the waiters had been having a problem. I had never seen her like this. I thought she was ruined and that I had done it.

I took her back to the hotel, walking her through a corner of Central Park where a Puerto Rican folkloric festival was taking place. She kept saying, “Aren't they damned good?” In the morning, she showered and split, apologizing crisply for the trouble, leaving an afterimage of her burnishing her face with a cloth and cold water, organizing her purse, adjusting her stockings out of my sight, and leaving her smell in three out of four rooms like an avenging angel.

I yelled down the corridor, risking annoyance to the ministers and personnel of Francis Ford Coppola,
“Are we finished?”

“You bet your life,” she said and covered her face. Back in the room, I pulled a chair up to the radiator, sat with my knees to the heat, and looked at the asylum city. I began to try to summarize what was happening to me; but I could only think:
This time the pus is everywhere.

*   *   *

We were still walking, taking in the chronicles of street repair from cobble to tar along upper William.

“By letting everything fall apart,” said Catherine, “featuring your career and livelihood, are you attempting to demonstrate that such truck is beneath you?”

“It's not that, Catherine.”

“They are totally beneath you.”

“I disagree. I quit because I felt unpleasant. Demonstrating awfulness breaks down important organs and valuable coupons.”

“You're addressing the multitudes again.”

“Yes, could be so. It's reflexive.”

She smiled, very slightly triumphant, but not unkind.

“You women,” I said.

“Oh, boy.”

“Dragging me down. Pussy, job talk, intrigues. You're not like the fellows, you cunts.”

“Women the only trouble you had?” she inquired.

“No, slapped up a bit by the po-lice. Threats from Counselor Peavey. Other than that, it's pretty nice. Plenty of ozone. Catherine?”

“What.”

“Have I become pathetic?”

“A little, I have to say.”

“The other day there, was that a mercy fuck? I want to know.”

“Yeah, a little mercy. A little auld lang syne and just enough bum's rush to give it an edge.”

This crack got me hot. You watch it, I thought.

“There wasn't any edge for me,” I said. “It was like fucking a horse collar. Fall through, you'd tangle your ankles.”

I thought I was ready but she brought one up from the floor and moused me good under the eye. She had more slick and wicked sucker punches than Fritzie Zivic. We walked on while my face beat like a tomtom.

“Remember that morning we went to get married?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Did we?”

“I don't think so. I can check through my papers if you'd like. But I don't think so.”

We had now cut a pointless zigzag to Whitehead and ducked into the Pigeon Patio and got a table facing the Coast Guard station. We ordered a couple of wine coolers.

“You working Marcelline for tips on me?” she asked.

“Nope.” I bit a thick Cuban cracker and it sucked all the saliva out of my mouth. I pegged the rest of it to a bird who carried it to a sewer grate and dropped it through. That one's going back to Cuba. “But I was on the trail.”

“I can't have it, and if you knew the state I've been in, you wouldn't press.”

“How's your love life?” I, a Catholic, asked.

“The last one is living in the Dominican Republic with his wife. She is a jockey. Every horse's ass should have his own jockey. I was raised to think women did not become jockeys.”

“Why are you here?” I asked.

She said, “Can't buy a thrill. How about you?”

“Will you go for pain?”

“Hell, yes.”

“How about hatred of dead losses and hope of something better.”

“I'll buy it. Any others?”

“Yes, ma'am. I'd like to point out my inability to stand having nothing that began long ago. Also we have sickness in the head and my failure to name my dog. We have no money, enemies at every turn, nuns haunting my house, evaporating lists of friends, the dark, family dead, and dead this and dead that and killing everything and killing time—”

“Shut up you.”

“Yes,” I said, “I will. I want a doctor.”

“So I don't want to hear this.”

“If I had the right tubes I could have a baby. Get me a doctor.”

“Oh fuck you.”

“I just want to start somewhere,” I said.

“So do I,” she said and by now tears were pouring down her face. I was, I guess, choking.

“But do it my way. Admit to yourself that you wasted so much of your life that not enough of it can be saved to matter. Then pull into yourself far enough that you can stand it and hang on until it's over.”

“Oh, shit,”
she said from her tormented face, and got up from the table. I didn't have it to watch her go.

4

A
BEGINNING
I could make, an act of friendship, was to remove this sight, this agent, from the key. First, back to my place to collect my dear, spotted, nameless dog, sobbing and scooping meat mess from a tin upon which a beagle laughed at the world. I drew myself up and felt stern enough to stop this endless crying. I put my arms around the dog and thought, grit down. That's what Catherine does and she knows better than you about all this. I put the empty dog-food can under the sink and headed off to find the agent, that shitsucker.

I could have dialed the five sixes and got a cab across the island but I needed the walk to level off and attempt some alleviation of the sense that I was closing in on absolute zero. I began by congratulating myself on staying out of Roxy's life for a little while; and permitting her to make her own kinds of trouble without my interference. I had indeed elicited signs of life from Catherine. I had cheered Marcelline, I think, and was off now to improve her lot. And I had stayed away from cocaine, which has lacerated me like Swedish steel for longer than I care to recall.

I went in through the front of the Pier House and stopped at the desk, where a boy with a trained voice saw to the registry of guests. I told him that all I knew was the first name of this agent, which was Mory, and that he was a member of the firm called International Famous. I mentioned none of his proclivities. In the trained voice, I hear, “That's not enough for me to go on.”

“I think you're hearing the name Mory as being all I know of this person and I think that you'll find the room number and even remember what he looks like.”

When you are tired in a certain way you can say things like that; a matter of what is the least you'll go through with; and above all, how you are to be avoided if you have a mean streak.

Mory was taking a call at the poolside phone, aggressive in smart trunks, and his eyes bearing forward at the image of the person he was speaking to. I waited for him to finish.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but we have a mutual friend and I'd like a word with you.”

“What kind of a friend,” he said, wandering to his pool chair. I had to follow.

“One who owes you the minimum of a lawsuit. Have you got a minute?”

“That's a very silky opening,” he said, “but I'm always being sued. It's a testimonial to my energy. Every benefactor has his off days and mine make people bring suit. I don't like this heat. When I'm with Double S on the boat, we move offshore when the heat gets this gummy. Then we keep the boat moving. We keep everything moving. You look irritable. This almost makes me forget the heat which is terrific but it's not nice heat. It's like dandruff.” He was very compact and he smiled with a crazy aggressive arc that showed how he saw all he wished for happening already in his mind's eye. He got up. “A cold shower. I gotta get the lead out. You want to talk to me, you're gonna have to yell it through a plastic curtain.”

BOOK: Panama
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