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Authors: Thomas McGuane

Panama (9 page)

BOOK: Panama
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“So lay off.”

“Okay.” A sigh.

“And I love the sea…”

I went ahead and ordered a drink, big belt of Beam's Choice, and listened. The first thing I heard the woman say was

“Oh boy.”

Then a long silence while they waited for someone to bag their dinners.

“Gawd, I love us!”

“You better believe it!” One of the men.

“I honestly really love all of us.”


“I'm a woman and I love the sea. Which is good.”

 … slices of beef …
English style.
In a bag. It doesn't seem right.”

“The main thing about me
” Everyone but the wife jumped away from the table, holding napkins at the ready. “Miss … oh … miss, uh I've made a mess. God I'm so sorry. Jese what a pig I am.”

I left. Shitsuckers.

*   *   *

There is something to be said for lining up a few cheap thrills ahead of time. As I grow older the cheapness is easier to come by; but the thrill is always the same twitching of half-shot nerves. My father is dead and he wasn't any help to me anyway; but he was the only one I had and so at night I walk around and think I'm talking to him because he came from some place and was born in a certain year and he was my old man and he died in a certain year, as always, while there were still things to be said. And really, all I wanted to say was, So long, Pappy, I know it's a lot of shit too. And whatever I might say about you as a father, you're the only one I got. Still, you didn't treat me like you should have.

But what I line up ahead of time is an imaginary stroll with him through some unsuspecting neighborhood, the old man's face suspiciously Indian, blunted with vodka, turning to every detail in the street, nothing missed, no gaiety lost for knowing that it all ended badly.

Sometimes the stroll is down in the Casa Marina with the plywood gothic facades and the terrible sigh of air conditioning in the jasmine. Yet at the end of a street, the ocean will roll toward you hauling its thousand miles with a phosphorescent pull. I note an odd detail here and there, but my old man would be the one to spot the banker's wife staring in an upstairs mirror, waiting for the scream to start in the shag carpet. Nevertheless, it was all acceptable to him; he would shrug. Drunk enough, he would turn his head between his upraised shoulders and look for the next instance of the disease, something crooked, the smell of a child's run-over puppy hidden in the garbage, beginning to turn in the heat. Or simply the suddenly unkempt lawn of a young couple learning to watch the dream vanish. As my life quiets down, menaces begin to appear, and whether I'm inventing them or they are real doesn't matter to me.

I stand for those who have made themselves up.

I am directly related to Jesse James. That is true. We were out of Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and hid him in our barn more than once. I have played in that barn, and in fact, it is within the gloomy space beyond the hay mow where Jesse James is supposed to have hung upside down, with his percussion Colts in his trousers. Cole Younger didn't have his black impracticality, and while Jesse disappeared mysteriously with his beard in the nineteenth century, Cole Younger shaved every day and timed quarter horses on the brush tracks of Missouri when nobody knew what a quarter horse was. Everybody in my family lived on the edges of the Civil War, Key West, and the bloody borders; we couldn't live on the main line. But we fought shit-suckers whenever we found them. My maternal connection, on the Jesse James side, owned an interest in a foundation horse still talked about, White Lightning, stolen out of Reconstruction Tennessee and taken to Missouri. If any of this is not true, I will say so. Two men came out of Tennessee to reclaim White Lightning and were not heard from again. There was a cloud on the title forever. All of this horse's progeny were running fools, sorrels and chestnuts. My grand-uncle said that when they would come into the barn out of the rain to shake themselves dry, it sounded like thunder. And that was how you knew they could run. He said that if Jesse James had had colts out of White Lightning instead of just grade horses and plugs, he would have been governor of the state of Missouri. I personally think he was someone who could not live on the main line any more than me or my fairie uncle. And I'd like for nobody to find that out the hard way. White Lightning's get came to one hundred thirty-six live foals; and the prettiest one, a chestnut with a blaze face, kicked him to death in a Missouri corral.

They could all run.

*   *   *

We want a little light to live by. A start somewhere. Little steps for little feet. Or even something commanding, scriptural or mighty. I myself am discouraged as to finding a hot lead on the Altogether. Like every other child of the century deluded enough to keep his head out of the noose, I expect God's Mercy in the end. Nevertheless, I frequently feel that anybody's refusal to commit suicide is a little fey. Walking about as though nothing were wrong is just too studied for the alert.

*   *   *

There was a writer on Elizabeth Street who had had some success and broke down or burned out. We drank together once in a while in a bar whose owner had nothing more to say for himself than that he had thrown Margaret Truman out for disorderly conduct. He enjoyed needling the writer on crowded nights when the writer liked to stand up to watch the band playing.

“Down in front!” The owner.

“I can't see sitting.” The writer.

“I said, Down in front!”

“Get fucked!” The writer.

“Line up!” The owner.

The writer fired a beer bottle at him and the owner put the bouncers on him and unloaded him on the sidewalk. The writer and I walked toward Captain Tony's in the meringue night amid the social terrors of our epoch. The writer said, “I'm not going through with it, this work of mine. No one believes in it, least of all me. You're a mess too.” I told him it was the age.

“Well,” he said, “the age is breaking my balls. I'm going home.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I said.

“I had a friend, he took the scissors to his face. My sister's a dead zombie in her twenties because of your fucking age.”

“If you picked me to stand up for the Republic, you got the wrong Joe.” I thought this was hideous, railed at as though
wanted any of this frightful shit-heel madhouse.

“I been thinking about you,” says the writer. “You and your trashy friends laying waste to our mythology. You're gonna choke on it, you smut-mongers.”

“Keep it up, I'll tear out your windpipe.”

“Let me buy you a drink.”

The Whistle Bar: the bartender is talking into mid-air. He's an old friend and won't let people bother me. Also, he keeps pushers off me on a specific basis. He won't let them give me coke; whereas a Percodan or Eskatrol guy can get through. The next week, the diet changes. “I'm glad the college girls have gone back,” raves the bartender, “I don't want any more pussy. I don't want it, I don't like it. I'm fuck-foundered. I'm to where if I was with Miss World, I'd lose my hard-on over a barking dog. I'd rather dynamite shellcrackers on the Caloosahatchee.”

The hotel across from the post office burned down that night and we watched the inferno from the balcony drinking straight Lemon Hart on ice. I filled my mouth with one-fifty-one and hung out over the tourists and blew a flame into the night, a flame from my mouth to encourage the burning hotel to leap the street.

The writer said, “I'm a goner, see. So, I'm willing to help a new guy.”

“I'm not a new guy,” I said. “I'm Swiss cheese.”

“Shut up you mouth. You might write someday. Your memoirs. The overnight sensation. You may turn to immortality to keep from looking down the street. The immortality of an artist, you should know, consists in the lag between his death and the time his collected works are flushed down the loo. I got the title for your memoirs, chum, and I been carrying it like a hot potato till I could run into you. I want you to call it
Eleven Ways to Nigger-Rig Your Life.

He had a piña colada in his bony surgical hands and he held it up like a chalice attempting to watch the burning hotel through the milky glass. I went home and wrote a letter to my brother Jim on the Olivetti. Then it seemed that I couldn't read what I had written. And hours passed. I don't know, you just drift away. Then you can't wake up. It's the middle of the night, no-man's-land. They're all laughing at your handwriting. It seems like a small thing but you suspect that it will kill you. One thing leads to another; daytime arrives on an evil wind. You can't get your hand off the doorknob, your teeth out of the girl's teeth. Increasingly, you can't remember anything and you are suspicious that perhaps you shouldn't. In the end, your only shot is to tell everyone, to blow the whistle on the nightmare. It will work for a while; no one knows how long. The worse the dream, the more demonstrative you must become.

I took to the stage.


Wednesday night loaded, having had enough of the writer. An isometric bull with the jaws of a wolf was guarding the door to the patio. So I knew I needed coffee. It was raining.

The instant coffee dropped in veils through a fathom of hot water and then a cockroach fell off a framed recipe into it and drowned. I flipped him out with a butter knife and bethought myself of change and a new life.

O Catherine, don't leave your dead meteor! I'll be better for you and the weeping will end. I'll be better for you and the weeping will end.

*   *   *

Yet when I awakened, something still hung over me. I went over to Francis Street for bollos and coffee and was taken aside, right on the sidewalk, by a man who wanted to know if I had any angles on local attics. He was a collector of everything but especially of barbed wire and Orange Crush bottles. He had the world's largest collection of early New Mexico burglar alarms and that wasn't even an area of specialization for him. “No attics,” I said simply.

He said, “Take it easy, pal. I'm not gonna bite you.”

I ate the bollos and drank the coffee. Back out on the street, I noticed something: my shadow was pointing in the wrong direction. I was walking toward the sun and my shadow was straight out in front of me.

Then the police pulled the big cruiser up alongside of me and kept it at walking speed until I nipped up Lopez Lane and bought an aloe plant for a dime.

When I got to Roxy's, all was not well with her. She was now engaged to marry Peavey and she was rolling around the floor, fully dressed, crushing a fine old straw hat with each revolution. I ordered her to her feet. She got into a kind of crouch and ran across the room into an armoire. That was the end of the hat. Then the phone book walked to the sofa like an octopus before it sloughed to a stop.

“What's the matter with you?” I asked. She got up and began to march. Her diphthongs seemed to last forever.

“I'm never going to enjoy life,”
she said.
“I hate everything.”

I got out of there.

*   *   *

They are raising the contents of a wrecked galleon below Key West,
Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
There is distress; for, in addition to the numerous pieces of eight, they are finding coke spoons. There has been an attempt to describe these as spoons for ear wax. They won't go in an ear. The divers knew what they were. They find jeweled rosaries and crosses; they find swords. The divers pay off bar tabs with pieces of eight. Where did all that coke go? And how much did this New World brain-raker have to do with the Golden Age of Spain?

They hauled two cannons up on the beach at the foot of Greene Street. Catherine and I went to look at them. The bronze was sea green and cast dolphins curved at the trunnions. The tops of the cannons were beveled flat and polished by sea turtles.

Catherine said, “Will they still shoot?”

“Where'd you come from?”

“I saw you standing here. I said to myself, ‘What's he doing with those cannons.' And I'd been thinking about you.”

“Let's go someplace and get drunk.”

“It's nine o'clock in the morning.”

“There's more than one way to skin a cat,” I said. I wanted minestrone and Frankie Laine records, something other than this heat, the steady clangor from Mike Brito's shipyard, and the thought of Roxy marrying Peavey. I had no sudden ideas for making Catherine fall in love with me again; on the other hand, she wasn't leaving the key; and, given that she was out of work, I gathered I might, I said
be part, I said
of the reason she was staying.

I wandered into the street a little and Catherine motioned me to the curb. I suggested going to the bank and making a cash withdrawal and investing it in party drugs. She was very much opposed to this idea in all respects and, in fact, challenged the notion that I had any bank account at all. I thought to nip this one in the bud. She suggested that my short-term memory loss was getting to be a problem to me more than anyone else.

We went into my bank, a mozarabique mockery at the foot of Duval Street. Most of the staff was drinking coffee and arguing. One teller's window was open and a line of more than twenty people wound around the inside of the bank to this teller. Catherine and I got in line and were there for a very long time. A Cuban immigrant, a woman in her fifties, carrying a plastic mesh bag with a can of Bustelo coffee in it, arrived at the window and said something to the teller in a soft voice. He looked out into the indeterminate space beyond her shoulder and said, “I can't understand you.” He was resting the point of his pencil on the counter. He turned it carefully and rested the eraser while she repeated herself.

BOOK: Panama
11.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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