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Ninety-two in the Shade
By Thomas McGuane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1973 Thomas McGuane
All rights reserved.
Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic ...
Riding home from Gainesville with four people, Thomas Skelton was in a globe of his own hallucinatory despair, a little blown away it is true; but nothing quite as serious as that sense of internal collapse and loss almost of armature that made it increasingly difficult to so much as sit up straight.
Skelton, two men, two women, wound up in a white clapboard hotel near Homestead frequented by citrus pickers; and a long night began of streaks, halos, and comas. Toward its end, Skelton found himself sitting on an enormous expanse of gleaming wood floor. He could see no furniture and the walls were yielding. He seemed to be alone; and he came to wonder what was becoming of him. There was a liquid window filling with silver light; and just over the sill he could see the crown of a palm tree moistly easing itself into his view. Thus he knew he was on the second floor. He turned over on his side and heard the change in his pocket ring out on the hardwood floor. There were voices in fatigue cadences, movement below, and vague, humming vibrations in the joists.
He got to his feet and moved upon the region of the window. There was an empty intersection and a traffic light that changed colors in mid-air at lazy, musical intervals. The red was rather penetrating and Skelton closed his eyes when he saw it coming.
The voices were flying from the bathroom. Skelton left the window and traversed the vague space of the empty room to the voice-filled doorway. In the bathroom a terrible fluorescence curved over the surfaces of the plumbing. The four people were standing naked in the tub with the lurid fluorescence all over them. One of the men was bending over and squeezing his hands between his knees. The other man leaned up against the wall behind the tub as though waiting to board a bus or to light a blonde's cigarette in a 1947 movie. The two women were heating something in a screw-on bottle cap over a Zippo. The tub rested on iron frog's feet.
Skelton studied himself until he was sure that he was dressed and slipped out of the hotel. He walked to Homestead, then right on through town, tripping his brains out in the emptiness of 5 a.m. His feet were making an awful clatter on the pavement. When he got to the far side of town, he felt a small pain in his stomach. He touched himself and discovered a short heavy gun in his waistband, a .38 Colt Cobra. What in the hell was that doing there. He took it out and threw it into a mosquito ditch and walked on. Then he couldn't believe that there had ever been a gun; so he walked back to the mosquito ditch and saw it lying on the bottom, hard and brilliant in the stagnant slime.
The trees along the road were full of catbirds. Skelton kept on. It was getting warm and he could begin to smell the blacktop. Then the intersection of A1A and the sign to Key West. He stuck out his thumb and thought, They won't see I'm insane until I'm already in the car. It is hot and when I get to Key West I'll borrow some money and order a beverage. I'll get a six-pack and take my skiff out on the reef. If they say in the car that I am insane, I will take over the wheel.
No one said he was insane; neither the hardware salesman, the United Parcel driver nor the crawfisherman who drove the last leg into Key West suggested such a thing. When Skelton told the hardware salesman that the paint had just lifted off the whole car in a single piece, the hardware salesman agreed with him about how Detroit put things together. This was the epoch of uneasy alliances.
The sun penetrated the blue-green sea over the reef in shafts like church light clear to the reef. Schools of bait were on the reef like some vast gleaming silver pointillism shifting suddenly when predators passed through, then re-forming around the invisible trajectory of the vanished assailant. Skelton drifted over the millionfold expanse of the bait school calming down and finishing his six beers at some speed. More pelagic fish were finding the bait, and as they drove up under it, sheets of silver erupted from the sea scattering with the noise of heavy rain. The gulls came then by the tens and twenties and dropped everywhere among the bait, heavy and singular.
When the bait was gone and Skelton was drifting once more in the wooden skiff over the stony, illuminated reef, he saw that he would have to find a way of going on.
* * *
Carter had a skiff like Nichol Dance's but where Carter's would high-center on a shallow bank Nichol's would pole in dew and let him drop in those little basins where the fish held faced up tide on the incoming water.
Now it was Dance's system to fish by the tide like a sniper and time his stops so the fish would come to him or to his chum slick; where Faron Carter fished the flats in the old style poling the skiff from the bow on the edge of the flats in the early flood then dropping back to the mangroves on the high water and looking for the waking fish.
But Dance knew the intersections and only touched the pole to set the skiff up and slip the anchor; or to chase a hooked fish in water too shallow to run the engine in. He made twice as many stops in a day as Carter and fished more by his brain as it was his method to be on the money when the fish came in on the moving water. So, Dance not only saw the flat from the top, but he saw it in cross section; because where the troughs were, the little sand streaks in the turtle grass, that is where the earliest fish came.
But on those days on the young moon or when a tide forced him to fish falling water, he was less skillful in poling out a bad situation to find what fish there were.
So, when Tom Skelton decided to guide, he knew it was these two men that he would study; because theirs were the styles that there were. The other men at the dock were averages of Carter and Dance without either edge.
Now Carter was a level person who presented certain civic virtues that could not be ascribed to Dance. Carter could spend the day in the boat with well-known golfers charming them with articulate fishing stories. While Dance would brood about the tide or lose his temper; or, much the worst, begin drinking. The two men were similarly successful as guides over the long haul. Day after day, Carter put a sound amount of fish on the dock. While Dance, the incessant addict of long shots, would sometimes blank out entirely, coming home in an empty skiff black in the face; but on his best days he would produce fish in quantities incomprehensible to Carter. Skelton favored Dance.
Nichol Dance was in one or two ways an interchangeable creature, born in Center, Indiana, in 1930.
Twelve years ago he inherited the hardware store in Center and a woodlot six miles away full of buckeyes that stank in the spring. It took him six months to piss away half of what had been left him; hunting coons and drinking with his and his father's friends, he was picking up everybody's tabs. His sister who had married a Croatian foundryman from Gary tried to sue him out of the rest; but he hung on to what was about now the price of a new Ford, made a trip to Kentucky to buy a redbone bitch and bought a tavern instead.
One year later, in hazy circumstances, he shot and killed an exercise boy of forty from Lexington; and was run out of town.
For many years he carried that handgun, a rather esoteric Colt's "Bisley" model, with Mexican ivory grips showing eagles killing snakes, chambered for the army issue .45. The exercise boy had acted up, true enough; but the Colt made what is called short work of him, about what a two-iron would do to a deliquescent toadstool.
He traded the deed to the bar for a two-door Fair-lane convertible and drove to the sea thinking that would be the spot to start over. He hit the beach at Hampton Roads, a brake drum binding the wheel in a sleet storm; picked up Route 1 and turned south till it ran out in Key West.
He'd driven those many miles without any terminal mechanical trouble, but on Southard Street in Key West the brake drum had had enough and caught fire. Burning rubber and oil from the brake line slowly worked into the Fairlane proper which was loaded down with belongings including a Motorola TV, the pistol in hand, and a case of government ammunition. Nothing to do but stand back and watch her go. When the flame reached eight feet over the sputtering convertible top, the ammunition began to fire; and then the television let go. Dance had the Bisley Colt in the top of his pants underneath a palm-leafed sport shirt he bought in St. Augustine and great alligator tears swam down his cheeks. The truth was he felt free as a bird.
A burning Ford full of things that blow up does draw a crowd. And the conchs—as the old-time white people of Key West are called—the conchs who saw Dance for the next month drove him crazy, toothlessly following him around and saying, "There he is! That'n's the one whats car caught afire!"
A couple of weeks of this and Dance began to wheel on them. He thought, I've got to scatter these bastards. They look like they'd eat you up some dark night.
Then odd jobs, hanging out at the dock, doing things for guides like Faron Carter, sandblasting flamingos on glass shower doors, substituting and finally guiding. And all along thinking about that exercise boy, once every year or so nearly getting to the point about that exercise boy that he nearly gave himself the same as he gave him, as a matter of restitution, as a matter of symmetry and as the one response to that fatal perfidy that put him and the exercise boy on the opposite sides of that empty bar, the deed to which was the final trace of a family business and a woodlot—integers of a winding-down life.
Then, a fifty-seven-day bad marriage to a Catholic from Chokoloskee that ended in the court reconciling everything he had acquired but a skiff and it all went off in a Bekins moving van with the wife up front by the driver, headed for the Everglades. And drinking of the kind that is a throwing of yourself against the threshold of suicide though lacking that final will to your own ceasing, without which all the hemlock and Colt's patented revolvers are of no more avail than ringside tickets, photostats of lost deeds, or snapshots of Granddad's five-bottom plow.
* * *
Nichol Dance's guide boat, "Bushmaster," was nosed up the tidal creek that bisected Grassy Key, not anchored but rammed into the red mangrove roots in a canopy of mosquitoes and sand flies. Nichol Dance's whole end of the creek smelled of whiskey. The ship-to-shore radio was turned on to the broadcast band; and out of its crackling loudspeaker, someone advised the prostrate Hoosier to "think young." Dance lay there, vaguely alive, his brain curing like a ham.
Carter shut the engine down and the two looked at Dance's person and found neither bullet holes nor seepage and knew as they had known in advance that he had polluted himself once more with one of the fifths that he always stored in the live wells. But, Tom Skelton thought, the intention to kill himself, however garbled or interfered with, was quite enough.
"Get in and see can you start the mother," said Carter.
Tom Skelton climbed aboard the Bushmaster and lowered the engine with the power tilt control up forward. With the electrical hum of its motor, Nichol Dance began to stir. Tom Skelton forgot himself for the moment, forgot the rather lurid momentary circumstance and felt only his own fine tremble to be that of the boat when, choked and started, the powerful engine passed its life through the craft and sent fine lapping tremors out around itself into the tidal creek.
Nichol Dance sat up and announced that he wanted a career in show business, with an air of having had one in an earlier life. Chemical impact thickened the flesh around his eyes. On the floor of the skiff was the Colt's patent revolver with Mexican ivory grips; and on his chest, his flowered shirt bore the print of the pistol.
Dance's uncanny presence produced a momentary silence in which the dry velocities of birds could be heard in the brushy creek. Even the bubbling of crustaceans on the red mangrove roots around him and the slow tidal seepage seemed to rise a measure or so while Nichol Dance looked them over with the same remote gaze you would understandably associate with the recently raised dead.
"A person can scarcely be deliberate any more," he said.
"What seems so exclusive to you about that," Carter inquired.
"Does it need to be exclusive for me to bring it up?"
"Not unless you're offering a franchise."
"You're the Skelton kid that's always on the goddamn flat in front of me."
"That's right," Skelton said positively to this basilisk drunk.
"I wonder how come."
"I enjoy water sports would be just about exactly how come."
"Very good. But child, I can't recommend it."
"I wasn't applying for a recommendation," Tom Skelton said.
"I was explaining," Dance said, "about how unattractive a day on the water can come to be."
"But I'd of known," Tom Skelton said, "that a person would spoil a boat trip if he only went out to shoot himself."
"Now look here, fucker, I didn't come here to be sassed—"
"Neither did I."
Nichol Dance picked up the Colt's patent revolver and discharged it into the mangroves all around Tom Skelton with a collective noise that was close to that of war.
"Fucker," he said, "I don't seem to have your attention!"
Carter said, "You have rattled the boy. Now let's just all of our selfs unwind and go home. And Nichol, that pistol has gotten to be a liability."
And Dance said to Carter, "But we've kept so many from crowding our trade, it discourages me to come acrosst a hard case." Then he smiled radiantly.
"I'm not a hard case, whatever that is. I am going to guide is all."
Nichol Dance stared a moment at Tom Skelton with only mildly drunken appreciation. He said, "Then why don't you do the little thing?"
"I think he means to," said Carter. "Now let's run before the sun sets."
Nichol Dance said to Carter, "Let him lead us, Cart."
Well, all right. Skelton reversed the engine, eased backward in the narrow marshy quarters past Carter who followed backing after him, the sandy turbulence on the creek bottom lifting and carrying down tide. Dance sat at ease in one of the fighting chairs, his face still blurred, but the impression of durability remained in the compression ridges of flesh under his eyes. Otherwise, Nichol Dance was just a displaced bumpkin run out of his own unmortgaged bar for shooting a man in the horse business through the wishbone in not quite disputable self-defense; part of the world of American bad actors who, when the chips are down, go to Florida with all the gothics and grotesqueries of chrome and poured-to-form concrete that that implies.
When Tom Skelton had running room, a nicety of judgment based on a precise guess of distance between propeller and ocean bottom, he put the skiff up on a plane and ran the shallow bank on a dead course for the Harbor Keys, then swung abruptly southwest on the crawfishermen's wheel track—a wandering trough perhaps two feet wide—which at this tide was absolutely the only way to cross the bank that separated them from Key West. Nichol Dance turned his head on a dark and sun-wrinkled neck to look at Carter and raise his eyebrows. Skelton centered the bow on the stacks of Key West Electric and started home.
Winter ducks and cormorants got up in front of the approaching skiffs and made off at angles to the boats' running course. Sea fans, coral heads, yellow cap rock, stone-crab and crawfish pots were inordinate and clear in the shallow water. The trap markers were affixed to Clorox-bottle floats that hung down tide on yellow lines; but Skelton by painful and slow process knew very well how to run the country having slept out in mosquito bogs for his misjudgments. He had poled the better parts of full days upwind and up tide with bent drive shafts and wiped-out propellers for having had on the map of his brain previously unlocated coral heads or discarded ice cans from commercial boats; or for having lost surge channels in the glare crossing shallow reefs.
Excerpted from Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane. Copyright © 1973 Thomas McGuane. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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