Read an Excerpt
On that early afternoon in late August, Meyer and I walked through the canvas tunnel at Miami International and boarded a big bird belonging to Aeronaves de Mexico for the straight shot to Mexico City. We were going first class because it was all a private and personal and saddening mission at the behest of a very sick and fairly rich man.
We had the bulkhead seats on the port side because I am enough inches beyond six feet to cherish the extra knee room.
Tourist cards in order, cash in the moneybelts, under-seat luggage only. And the unfamiliarly sedate wardrobes of the airborne businessman because there is a constant flow of them back and forth, the systems analysts and the plant location experts, the engineers and the salesmen, importers and exporters, con men and investment specialists.
The Mexican peso is rock solid, the economy roaring, and the population zooming past fifty million. So it is protective coloration to join the flock, as most trips combine business and pleasure, and the pure tourist is fair game for every hustle in the book.
But in one respect we were not entirely plausible. We'd spent the last few weeks aboard my houseboat, The Busted Flush, puttering around Florida Bay and the Keys with a small, convivial, and very active group of old and new friends aboard. When you get your clock adjusted to the routines of anchoring off shore, you keep the same hours as the sea birds, and the long hot bright days of summer had been full of fishing and swimming, walking the empty beaches of the off-shore keys, exploring in the dinghy rigged for sail, diving the reefs. So we were both baked to the deep red-bronze that comes from the new deep burn atop the years of deep-water tan, hair baked pale on my skull, salt-dried and wind-parched, the skin sea-toughened. Even Meyer's heavy black pelt had been bleached a little and now looked slightly red when the light hit it the right way.
So if we were of the business breed, it was something to do with engineering and the out-of-doors, like pipelines and irrigation projects.
He had the window seat. We sat in the sweltering heat of the tin bird until finally they unsnapped the umbilical tunnel, swung the door shut, and taxied us out toward takeoff. Then the warm air that had been rushing out of the overhead vents turned to cool, and white shirts began to come unstuck.
Meyer shrugged and smiled in a weary way and said, "That poor, sad son of a bitch."
No need to draw a picture. The memory of my short visit with Mr. T. Harlan Bowie was recent and vivid. Maybe any complex and demanding life in our highly structured culture is like that old juggling routine in which a line of flexible wands as long as pool cues is fastened to a long narrow table and the juggler-clown goes down the line, starting a big white dinner plate spinning atop each one, accelerating the spin by waggling the wand. By the time he gets the last one spinning, the first one has slowed to a dangerous, sloppy wobble, and so he races back and waggles the wand frantically and gets it up to speed. Then the third one needs attention, then the second, the fifth, the eighth, and the little man runs back and forth staring up in horrid anxiety, keeping them all going, and always on the verge of progressive disaster.
So Mr. Bowie's white spinning plates had been labeled Vice President and Trust Officer of a large Miami bank, Homeowner, Pillar of the Community, Husband of Liz, Director of This and That, Board Member of The Other, Father of Beatrice known as Bix, the lovely daughter and only child.
He kept the plates spinning nicely, and I imagine he expected to eventually take them off the wands and put them down, with each deletion simplifying the task that remained, until maybe there would be just one plate called Sunset Years, placidly spinning.
But somehow life is arranged so that if one plate wobbles too much and slips off the wand tip and smashes, the rest of them start to go also, as if the sudden clumsiness were a contagion.
One morning Liz had asked him if he had time for another cup of candy. She became furious when he couldn't seem to understand what she meant, and she got the steaming pot and poured another cup and said, "Candy!" She hesitated, frowning, and said, "Coffee? Of course it's coffee! What did I call it?"
By the time she was scheduled for all the neurological tests at the Baltimore clinic, she had lost the differentiation between genders, using he and she so interchangeably she had a fifty percent chance of being right at any given time, and she had admitted to having had sudden and severe headaches for several months, but had paid as little attention to them as possible, because she had never believed in babying herself. They took the top of her skull off like a lid and got some of it but knew they could not get all, and stuck a cobalt bead in there for luck, even knowing she had no luck left. She kept talking for half the time it took to die, but the words didn't go together in any pattern anyone could translate. It took five months to kill her, if you start counting the morning she poured her beloved husband a cup of candy. It was hideously expensive and, to Harl Bowie, hideously incomprehensible. She died on Columbus Day. Daughter Bix had spent the summer at home and had stayed on, of course, rather than going back in September for her senior year at Wellesley. After Liz died, Bix told her daddy she would probably go back at mid-term.
He was not paying much attention, not only because he was stunned by the loss of his wife, but also because there had been a merger of certain banks, and there was a new imperative computer system for the handling of trust account investments, and Harl Bowie had to keep running up to Atlanta for a week at a time to try to find out what the hell the quiet young men who had been posted in the trust department were talking about.
But he paid a lot of attention when she told him right after Christmas that she had decided not to go back. She had decided to go to Mexico for a while "with some kids I know." He had tried every bit of leverage he could think of, and he couldn't move her an inch. He couldn't even get any display of emotion out of her. She reminded him gently that she would become twenty-two in another month, and there was the twenty thousand left her by her mother, and said it would be nice if he could stop being so manic about it because she was going, with or without approval.
So she went, and he got some infrequent postcards, and in April he was driving through thunder to the airport for another bout with the systems analysis people in Atlanta, and a big semi coming the other way got a big blast of wind and lost it, and came piling and jackknifing across the medial strip into heavy oncoming traffic. They said it was a miracle half a dozen or more people weren't killed, instead of just one man seriously injured, a local bank executive.
T. Harlan Bowie had to be prybarred and torch-cut out of his squashed Buick, and there was so much blood the rescue people were in a big hurry. As it turned out, they would have done a lot better taking it slow and easy rather than turning him and twisting him and working him in muscular style out of the metal carapace. Nobody could prove anything afterward. The lacerations were superficial. But there was a fracture of the spine, and between the second and third lumbar vertebrae the unprotected cord had been pinched, ground, bruised, torn, and all but severed. Nobody could ever say whether the accident had done it, or the rescue efforts.
And it killed him--from the fracture point on down to his toes. Meanwhile the fates were laughing dirtily in the wings at another aspect of the treatment they were giving the poor, sad, sorry son of a bitch. T. Harlan Bowie had always been both shrewd and lucky with what Liz used to call "Harlie's funny little stocks." He liked to put his eggs in a couple of baskets and watch the baskets like an eagle. The day they told him they wanted to take the top of Liz's skull off, he stopped watching the baskets. They were a couple of little technology companies. He had about an eighty thousand investment in them, evenly split. It was not savings, because bank officers don't make enough to save money like that after taxes. It was the pyramided gains of a dozen years of those funny little stocks.
His personal broker would call once in a while and try to report what was going on, but Harl didn't want to talk about it or hear about it or even know about it. After Liz died, he was too upset about being so damned alone, and about Bix, to have even the slightest stir of curiosity about his two little dog stocks. Then, of course, there were the weeks in the hospital, and by early July they moved him from the hospital to an elegant place that was a combination rest home and therapy center. When he found out that the tab was running seventy-five a day plus extras, it stimulated the money-nerve and he began to check things out. An old and good friend had emptied out the house on Cricket Bayou, the redwood and coquina stone house Liz had loved so, had stored Harl's personal stuff, and had gotten a very good price for the house the day after it was listed. The personal accident and disability and major disaster insurance was paying off handsomely. His attorney had negotiated a surprisingly fat settlement from the company which handled the trucker's liability insurance. The premature retirement benefit and the bank insurance disability income clause were spewing more money diligently.
So he called his broker finally and heard the awed, hushed and respectful tone, and finally comprehended that the two funny little technology stocks had both come out with a couple of earnings quarters of a fantastic richness, that they had valuable patents in areas Harl had never even heard of, that one was listed on the big board and the other one had applied, and the stock of both of them had been generously split a couple of times. So in one of them, what had cost him six dollars was worth two hundred and fifty, and the laggard had gone only from eight dollars to a hundred and twenty. So there was upwards of two million two, or an aftertax one million six.
He laughed after he found that out; he laughed himself sick. He had his broker arrange a negotiated sale through the floor specialists, and he put the tax money aside in treasury bills, and he stuffed the rest of it into tax-free municipals, and there he was all of a sudden with a tax-free income coming in on the basis of like two hundred and forty dollars a day forever, and it was money he didn't have to touch because what was coming in from all other sources was more than sufficient to his needs, even in Garden Suite Number Five in Tropicana Grove Retreat.
His lawyers had been trying to locate Bix in Mexico to tell her that daddy had been badly injured. But the last plate had to smash and did so when a man with a polite and careful voice tracked T. Harlan Bowie down by long distance from the State Department to tell him that Miss Beatrice Tracy Bowie had been killed near Oaxaca when the vehicle in which she had been riding had gone off a mountain road, and the Mexican authorities wanted to know where the body was to be shipped and who would arrange and pay for the shipment.
Poor sick sorry rich and sad son of a bitch.
All you can say is: Well, that's the way it goes sometimes. It goes very had sometimes because they give you the bad in great big indigestible wads. As if they want to write you off in a hurry. As if the idea is to tear down your whole scene and sow the area with salt and acid, and be off looking for the next fellow who happens to be standing and smiling and thinking that life is pretty good lately.
So only-daughter was airfreighted back to eternal rest beside mother Liz in one of those happy-vale places were the markers are flush with the ground level, the walks and gates have names, and stereotaped organ music comes wafting out of the pole-mounted guaranteed weatherproof high-compliance speaker systems.
Nobody knew whether she had enjoyed Mexico.
So three days ago T. Harlan Bowie got Meyer on the phone and they had a long talk, and then Meyer said I should accompany him to Miami and talk to a friend of his. I said I did not want to talk to anybody about anything, because it had been a very nice cruise and I wanted to slob around and savor it in full measure.
Meyer then reminded me that I had met Bix Bowie, and that last year, a week or so after her mother's funeral, he had brought her around and we had gone with her and some other people on the Flush up the waterway, and the girl had seemed to have a good time, but it was hard to tell. He explained that he had been a sort of unofficial godfather to the girl when she was smaller, before she had gone away to school.
It stirred my memory, but I could not get a clear image of the girl herself. The world seems overful of quiet pretty blondes lately, and the trouble is that when they are silent and withdrawn one no longer knows whether it is shyness, total disinterest, or a concealed and contemptuous churlishness.
But I could see that it had racked my friend Meyer, and that if I continued to drag my feet, he was going to say please, and then I would be unable to help myself, so I agreed before he had a chance to say the magic word friends should not have to use on one another.
On the way down he talked a little about how Liz used to ask him to show up at school when there had been some kind of bring-a-parent situation and Harlan Bowie was too tied up to make it. He thought Bix was glad he would show, but he could never be certain. He had never been able to reach through to her. She had extraordinary composure and control. He and Liz had attended her high school graduation together, because Harl had an appointment in Tallahassee that day.