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Authors: Thomas McGuane

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BOOK: Panama
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I rigged the board so that it could be sailed again, standing expertly to the lee of them with my sail luffing. I told them they were ready to continue their voyage and she said to the boy, “Hal, it's a bummer, I'm freezing.” And Hal asked me if she could ride back in my boat because it was drier. I told them I'd be sailing for a while, that I had come out to think, that I was bad company, and that my father had died in the subways of Boston. They said that was okay, that she would be quiet and not bother me. I let her come aboard, politely concealing my disappointment; then shoved Hal off astern. He was soon underway, with his plastic sailboard spanking on the chop, the bright cigarette advertisement on his sail rippling against the blue sky.

I continued toward the Bay Keys while the girl watched me with cold gray eyes, the shadow of the sail crossing her slowly at each tack. Then she went forward and took the sun with her hands behind her head.

“Your boyfriend a football player?” I asked.

“No, he deals coke.”

“I see.”

“Do you like coke?”

“Yes, quite a lot.”

“Well, Hal has some Bolivian rock you can read your fortune in, I'll tell you that.”

“Oh, gee, I—”

“Anybody ever tell you the difference between acid and coke?”

“Nobody ever did.”

“Well, with acid you think you see God. With coke you think you
are
God. I'll tell you the honest truth, this rock Hal's got looks like the main exhibit at the Arizona Rock and Gem Show. Did you ever hear a drawl like mine?”

“No, where's it from?”

“It's not from anywhere. I made the god damn thing up out of magazines.”

“How much of that rock is left?”

“One o.z. No more, no less. At a grand, it's the last nickel bargain in Florida.”

“I'll take it all.”

“We'll drop it off. Hey, can you tell me one thing, how come you got hospitalized? The papers said exhaustion but I don't believe everything I read. You don't look exhausted.”

“It was exhaustion.”

That night, after I had paid them, I asked if the business in the boats that afternoon had been a setup. She said that it had. “Don't tell him that!” giggled the boyfriend. “You coo-coo brain!”

*   *   *

My eyes were out on wires and I was grinding my teeth. When I chopped that shit, it fell apart like a dog biscuit. Bolivian rock. I didn't care. I just made the rails about eight feet and blew myself a daydream with a McDonald's straw. Let them try and stop me now!

By the time I got to Reynolds Street I was in tears. I went down to the park and crossed over to Astro City. The ground was beaten gray and flat and the tin rocketships were unoccupied. I climbed high enough on the monkey bars that no one could look into my eyes and wept until I choked.

I considered changing my name and cutting my throat. I considered taking measures. I decided to walk to Catherine's house again and if necessary nail myself to her door. I was up for the whole shooting match.

I walked over to Simonton, past the old cigar factory, around the schoolyard and synagogue, and stopped at the lumber company. I bought a hammer and four nails. Then I continued on my way. On Eaton Street, trying to sneak, I dropped about a gram on the sidewalk. I knelt with my red and white straw and snorted it off the concrete while horrified pedestrians filed around me.
“It takes toot to tango,”
I explained. Nylon and Platt would love to catch me at this, a real chance to throw the book. I walked on, rubbing a little freeze on my gums and waiting for the drip to start down my throat and signal the advent of white-line fever or renewed confidence.

The wind floated gently into my hair, full of the ocean and maritime sundries from the shipyard. A seagull rocketed all the way from William Street close to the wooden houses, unseen, mind you, by any eyes but mine. A huge old tamarind dropped scented moisture into the evening in trailing veils. Mad fuck-ups running to their newspapers and greasy dinners surged around my cut-rate beneficence. I felt my angel wings unfold. More than that you can't ask for.

Catherine's house with her bicycle on the porch was in a row of wooden cigarmakers' houses grown about with untended vegetation, on a street full of huge mahoganies. I thought to offer her a number of things—silence, love, friendship, departure, a hot beef injection, shining secrets, a tit for a tat, courtesy, a sensible house pet, a raison d'être, or a cup of coffee. And I was open to suggestion, short of “get outa here,” in which case I had the hammer and nails and would nail myself to her door like a summons.

I crossed the street to her house, crept Indian style onto the porch, and looked through the front window. Catherine was asleep on the couch in her shorts and I thought my heart would stop. I studied her from this luxurious point, staring at the wildly curly hair on her bare back; her arm hung down and her fingertips just rested on the floor next to a crammed ashtray. I had the nails in my shirt pocket, the hammer in the top of my pants like Jesse James's Colt.

“Catherine,” I said, “you let me in.” This handsome woman, whom Peavey had once had the nerve to call my common-law wife, was suddenly on her feet, walking toward me with jiggling breasts, to ram down the front window and bolt the door. Then she went upstairs and out of sight. I called her name a couple of more times, got no answer, and nailed my left hand to the door with Jesse's Colt.

2

T
HE SILVER ROOFS
extended from my window in a fractured line under a sky which displayed a small but ineffably shiny cloud to the west. The radio was playing “Volare” by Dean Martin, the notorious companion of Frank Sinatra.

Catherine, bless her heart maybe, Catherine pried me from the door and put me in the guest room. Then she had Doctor Proctor come over and load me good on some intravenous downer. At first I thought I had passed into the great beyond. I thought quite objectively about the dead. They are given so much credit; when, in fact, they don't know much of anything. And why should they? They have enough to do.

I'm busy too. I'm still alive and I'm not ashamed of it. I'm proud of this raiment. Bring on the ghosts. I'll pack them through the streets. Let the ones who have ringed the city, who have made our lives an encampment, let them whiten the air, the sea. I happen to have enough to do already. Let the dead run a grocery store or build an airplane. I am not impressed with them, with the possible exception of my brother Jim. And having to argue as to whether my father is actually dead deprives the whole question of its dignity.

In the photograph of my mother's funeral party, I am the third mourner from the left. I am wearing a Countess Mara tie, older than me, whose blue flowers arise like ghosts toward my throat. It is widely presumed that the expression on my face is a raffish grin; whereas it is plainly the grimace of gastric distress.

In the foreground of the picture, my aunts carry on their bulbous flirtation with the photographer. The picture is covered with the somnolent stains of handling by interested parties who believed me to have been grinning.

By noontime, Catherine had not come home and I had suffered a whiteout, a silence, a space between the echoes of the dead I had trifled with; and I felt prefigured in the vacancy, as though my future inhered there.

My hand was bandaged, I had evidently passed out and hung from the nail until discovered. The muscles in my arm were sore and stretched. From dangling.

I was falling asleep again when I heard Catherine arrive with someone, unloading groceries in front. Then she and the other person, another young woman, came and sat on the bed and looked at me. I pretended to be asleep.

“He's still out of it,” said the other woman.

“This is Marcelline,” said Catherine.

“How did you know I was awake?”

“I can read you like a Dell comic.”

“How do you do, Marcelline.”

“Marcelline has just had an abortion.”

“I wasn't making a pass at her, Catherine.”

Marcelline said, “If I roll a J will you all smoke on it with me?” I told her that stuff was cluttering up the drug scene and that I was opposed to its use.

“Who gave you the abortion?” I asked. All I wanted was to talk to Catherine.

“A laughing nurse in New Orleans. A real card. I had to change planes in Tampa.”

“Marcelline loves Tampa,” Catherine said.

“They make a nice cigar there,” I offered.

“How's your hand?”

“Hurts a lot.”

“You had a nail in it,” said Catherine.

Marcelline said, “A little crucifixion. What a droll guy. I hear you can't remember anything. You're full of little tricks.”

“Used to be he just talked funny,” said Catherine, “now he's commenced acting it out.”

Marcelline said, “Tampa is full of elderly nice persons who know they could eat it any minute. So they don't talk nuts to get laughs. My, it hurts. That nurse just got in there and
rambled.

I looked at Catherine with her berserk mass of kinks and curls. I thought, it didn't matter about men; but when push came to shove, these Southern girls only wanted to see each other. I didn't know what I was, not a Southerner certainly. A Floridian. Drugs, alligators, macadam, the sea, sticky sex, laughter, and sudden death. Catherine initiated the idea that I was a misfit. I took to the idea like a duck to water.

I felt sleepy again. I heard a sprinkler start up, the first drops of water falling on the ground with distinct thuds. I heard the voice of my odious grandfather twenty years ago, “There's a nigger fishing the canal and he's got one on!” My hands were knit together and I was wonderfully happy and comfortable drifting away with the two pretty women chatting on the end of the bed, about Tampa, about the difficulty of getting nice cotton things any more, about Wallace Stevens in Key West.

When I woke up a few minutes later, Marcelline was kissing Catherine. One of Catherine's little breasts was outside her shirt and her panties were stretched between her knees. Marcelline slid the green skirt over Catherine's stomach and bottom, then put it up under her. Catherine lifted one leg free of the panties in a gesture that put her leg out of the shadow the bed was in, into the sunlight. Marcelline slipped away and stayed until I heard the familiar tremolo of Catherine.

When Marcelline stood up, tucking a yellow forties washdress around her good Cajun body, she laughed suddenly. “He's awake!” Then leaned over and pinched my cheek. “I bet he jerked off the whole while!”

When Marcelline left, I said, “So that's it, eating pussy all day.”

“Oh, God,” she said, getting up. “I'm going to the beach. And when your hand is better, you're leaving too.”

“Why did you take me in?”

“I was embarrassed to have you nailed on the door.”

“Oh, Catherine. —Why am I itching?”

“My apartment's got a cistern under it and the mosquitoes are coming up through the floor.”

“Have you turned queer?”

“Don't talk to me like that, you.”

“Can I read my old love letters?”

“Burned them.”

“Burned them! They're worth a fortune.”

“To who? Other depraved perverts?”

“I just don't like that phrase. It's not a clever phrase. It's a dreary phrase and everybody's calling me it. I'm sick of it. You hurt with those hand-me-down phrases. They suggest indifference. Will you get in here with me?”

“No.”

“You committed a crime against nature with Marcelline. What's wrong with me?”

“That's not the point, my dear. You'll forget we did.”

“What's Marcelline do?”

“She's blackmailing a judge in Toronto.”

“I still love you.”

“Fuck off.”

“With my whole heart.”

“Why did you tell the magazines you regretted every minute with me?”

“Because you'd hurt me by disappearing without explanation, by leaving me flat. You can't do that to a psychotic.”

“You told them that I was a nouveau Hitler maiden. Why?”

“Oh, did I do that?”

“That's why I call you a depraved pervert.”

“Slip in here with me.”

“No, I'm a big bull dike. I only like eating pussy. You called me deep-dish Southern plastic in a national publication.”

“Catherine, don't ridicule me. I suspect your motives, doing that at the foot of my bed anyway.”

“Come on, Chet, be the fun guy we knew you to be.”

“Eat it.”

“Not if it's a shlong.”

“God, Catherine, I can't have this smut.”

“Tell it to the dead elephant. Tell it to the creeps who said you're God. Tell it to the mayor of New York.”

I stared at her, loving her hauteur, admiring that she was probably not going to buy it ever again. I wanted her. I was not down on sex, though some of my youthful flamboyance was no longer there.

She went to the wicker dresser and started raking idly through costume jewelry in a tray. She held the pretty junk to the light for an instant. Then her hands disappeared and her skirt fell. She turned and pulled the blouse over her head, then the little turned-in-knee two-step to get rid of the panties. She said, “Apologize.”

“I'm sorry. Forgive me.”

She slipped in beside me, skin cooler than mine, like an otter. I reached down. “What's that?”

“Marcelline.”

“Gee. It's all over the place.” I was a little disoriented, an orphan in the storm. I didn't know if I was what Catherine required. I really was not sure; but when I glided around, slipping all around and touching her, opening her in the slow rude way I remembered her liking, she was right there climbing up under it, thrilled. I loved her quite unselfishly, watching her all the time. She came in a languorous flood and called me Marcelline.

BOOK: Panama
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