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  • 21. The Lakes of Florida

    By Charlie Smith

    The lakes of Florida are full of unexpected turns and danger—and so is this new story by the legendary poet and novelist Charlie Smith. At first his story—of a father’s confession—seems straightforward. But wait: What is happening at the end of the story, when the thing itself is the only fact, when he and his father come after each other with self-disgust and lies? As Rick Moody says, Charlie Smith is “one of
    the very best prose writers in contemporary letters.” Read, and think on’t, and learn why.

    When I told my father I was going to kill myself he said, “I knew a man stuck his face in a chainsaw. Cut his own head in two.”

    We were on the back porch of the boat house, cutting chunks of sugar cane off peeled purple stalks. A half gallon jar of chilled green sugarcane wine sat on the table between us. We were both drunk as skunks.

    My father cupped his barbigerous head in one hand and stared off across the lake. Dusk was feeling its way out of the sky like a blue silent rain. I had been crying but I’d stopped. It was something I could turn on and off like an actor. My father put down his butcher knife, took a swig of wine from the jar, and looked me in the face. “I tried to kill myself once.”

    I didn’t say anything.

    “It was out in Australia during the war. This girl . . .”

    His voice trailed off. I wanted to hear more about the man who sliced his head in two, but it was my father’s turn to talk. He tapped his long forefinger nail musefully on the table. The water from the wine jar, mixed with cane drippings, had soaked into the cypress wood. In spots it had dried, leaving a fruit sugar dust.

    “How’d you do it?’ I said.

    “Do what?”

    “Commit suicide.”

    “By crocodile.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “As my implement. My weapon.”

    *

    My father was the kind of man who called his aged parents by mean pet names but demanded that all his children call him Father, strictly, no diminutives or pets allowed. He was an ex-professional wrestler who had bought the wrestling association, the FWA, developed it for TV, and sold it for many millions, which he invested in (mainly urban) real estate around the world; a tycoon with the sloped, bulging shoulders of the great apes and a cool, assessing eye . . . ; and the owner of the NBA team that had just sent me home for drinking—drinking on the bench during a game, that is.

    *

    Yesterday, as I was driving up the old post road, a dog crossed, way up ahead of me. The dog had a snake in its mouth. The snake, a brown copperhead writhing out of either side of its mouth, drooped and dragged on the pavement. The dog, without breaking stride, disappeared in tall wheat grass on the shoulder. I thought this must be a sign of some kind, but I couldn’t figure of what, or which. I intended to ask Mrs. Deborah, the palm reader and spiritual forecaster, about it, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Usually I scorned seers and such as that, but if I got low enough—or scared enough—like now—you’d see me down at the library with a big stick newspaper in my hand poring over the occult news, my right hand carrying the red ink-traced lines and stars of the prognosticator’s art—

    *

    I thought of Laney, soaring in her glider over the Black Forest. Her hands light on the stick, guiding with her fingers. The dark fir trees rushing away under her.

    *

    My father took a long pull from the wine jar, dipped a finger in, and patted wine onto his lips.

    “Don’t do that,” I said.

    “Do what?”

    “That. Stick your finger in the jar.”

    “It’s alcohol. Alcohol kills germs.”

    “What about viruses? What about dirt?” He gave me an amused look.

    “What about the crocodile?” I said.

    “What’s that? Oh. Yeah.”

    Across the lake a single white sail, like the symbol of a vanishing happiness, hung in front of the wall of dark pine trees.

    *

    Creech Butler, the coach of the Loggers, my team, had said I would have to get some help—“a righteous help,” as he put it—before I could come back. The league had fined me $50,000 and suspended me for ten games for taking two sips of rum punch from my little silver flask. Larry Burns, the commissioner, knew as well as he knew his daughter Laney’s dimples that they were protest sips, but he’d never admit it.
    “Protest what?” my father had said when I told him. We’d been up in the cupola, his favorite spot in the lake house, eating fried ham and watercress sandwiches. He was eyeing the countryside with his big Navy binoculars.

    “Ourselves,” I said.

    “Ourselves who? You mean you and me and everybody else?”

    “That’s about the size of it.”

    “You do need help.”

    He’d read about the situation in the papers. He was an occasional commentator on ESPN, whenever wrestling was in the news, which, to tell the truth, wasn’t that often. But he was colorful and people enjoyed looking at him. His spot gave him access to all the under-the-table dope.

    He knew, too, that Larry Burns had a personal problem with me. Larry didn’t like his daughter dating a basketball player, especially a nervous loudmouth like me. “That girl still not talking to you?”, he’d said.

    “I don’t want to talk about it.”

    “Hell, I used to wrestle drunk about half the time.”

    *

    My father sliced a long stick of freshly peeled sugar cane, dipped it in the wine, put it in his mouth, and noisily sucked it. “That crocodile,” he said.

    “They have little needle snouts, don’t they—those Australian crocodiles?”

    “Needle? You call a snout wide as a car hood needle—yeah, okay, needle. Jesus.”

    “Tell me,” I said. My voice was becoming officious and preemptory, as it did when I drank. Laney! I screamed in a derelict ballroom way back in my head. I pictured her running in her yellow track shoes along the old dirt road behind her house in Geldersbad. The blighted branches of white birch trees shivering in breeze. The packed dirt creaking like mouse machinery.

    My father re-dipped his cane stalk and re-sucked it.

    “I’m talking about one of these saltwater crocodiles,” he said. “None of those spike-nose. This one in particular hung around a slough up the river from this camp we were staying in. The week before—so they told me—it had attacked a boatload of aborigine children on their way to school, overturned it and eaten several of the children. You could see their little workbooks washed up in the mangroves. My girl—Melody was her name—had gone up there with the rescue crew and plucked some of those books out with her bare hands.”

    He shook his head—big, shaggy, cauliflower-eared, bushy-browed head, fifty-seven years old, a sentimentalist and killer’s head. “Lord.”

    *

    A mist moved slowly out of the trees and onto the lake, rolling as stately as smoke from a windless fire.

    “That gator—”

    “Crocodile.”

    “It had knobs on its back big as apples. Fins like dinosaurs.” He shuddered. “Where was I?” He seemed suddenly, and for no reason I could see, diminished, scared. “Damn. Yeah. Well, I spied him. Over on the far bank, lazing among some reeds. That’s where he liked to stay, back in those reeds, loitering like a road thief. I had decided to do myself in via reptile wrestling match. Like those Seminoles down in Florida. ’Cept I think that’s rigged—and the Indians always win.” I raised my eyebrows. He laughed. High, squeaky laugh, strange for a big man. He was king of the rigged matches.

    “This one wasn’t rigged. It was late afternoon—feeding time as I figured it—and nobody was around. They were all gone to town—Melody, too, I thought. I stripped down and dived into the water. The river—the slough—was cool after a hot day. A green river. About as wide as from here to that white house over yonder. Quarter mile? I took off swimming. I got about halfway across when I remembered I couldn’t really swim that good. I started to founder. I didn’t want to commit suicide by drowning. Strange feeling for a man on his way to a blood fight with a crocodile. I looked back. Melody—that was her name—was swimming after me. I yelled at her to go back, but she kept coming. Then I saw the croc. He was sliding out of those reeds—big yellow reeds—into open water. He was interested in the developments. There was nothing to do except try to make for him. I thrashed and pounded, and got some locomotion, but before I could reach him—or vice versa—Melody caught up with me. I thought she’d grab me, but she didn’t even stop. She kept going smooth as butter right at the crocodile. She reached him and before that beast could get its mouth open, she had bopped him on it with her fist. Right on the end. The blow didn’t faze the gator. Its mouth opened wide. Big yellow teeth. The inside of its mouth white as cotton. The animal seemed to slide just a hair to the side and then in a lunge quicker than anything you’ll ever see on a wrestling mat—or in a fist—it caught her in its jaws. She screamed. It was a scream I never heard the like of before or since. It turned my blood cold. The gator rolled over sideways, showing its big yellow belly. Then it went under, hauling Melody with it. I was so scared I had already started to turn away. But I stopped and looked back. The water was already smoothing itself. Like nothing had happened.”

    *

    He was by now smiling his huge, furious and famous smile. The one that closed deals and kept them closed. He sucked lubriciously on his sugar stick. The sound was like a baby would make—big baby, worn down by life, unhappy about things.

    “Time grips you, son,” he said. “It grips you and it lays you out.”

    I understood this was a bit of theatricality—time and so on, and the tall tale of animal killing, a love he’d battered his way out of—that he needed to stem a tide.

    *

    By now Laney was probably asleep in the big carved teak bed she had bought from one of the Krupp heirs. Shamed him out of really. Asleep—curled up right in the middle, her dark hair flung about her as if drifting in water.

    For some time now I had been making a series of futile, silly gestures. It was amazing how, no matter how slight or insincere your activities—your gestures—one thing followed another like clockwork. Without a break. As if it was all planned out ahead of time. In my life with Laney I had seen this: breakfast—combat—her ring, a gold ring I had bought for her on the Far East tour, bent where she had slammed it on the enamel edge of the sink.

    My life had seemed suddenly preposterous to me, unbelievable.

    *

    “That crocodile,” he said. “I swam back. I was in a shock state. I was afraid, too, of that crocodile following me. But when I got to the little dock I didn’t get right out. I hung back in the water. The river was cool, and even though I was scared, and struck crazy with grief, I wanted to feel the water on my body. Enveloping me, you know. And I didn’t want to get out onto the earth where I’d have to admit how bad a thing I had done, and how badly it had gone. She said she hated me and had I wanted to die. I lay on my back floating. My father had taught me to float on water. I don’t remember him teaching me much of anything, but he taught me that. As I lay on the water it seemed as if the crocodile was catching up with me. I could sense it—hell, I’ve been sensing from that day—but I didn’t care.”

    *

    Night had come to the lake. Under a bright pale sky the water was black and gleaming, as it would be in winter, soon to come, under its coat of ice. The old man, dressed in a gold silk jumpsuit and a raccoon coat, was lying. He’d never even been in the war. But I didn’t dispute him. The thing itself—the deal, the dough, the kiss—was the only fact, he would say.

    *

    I never apologized for my selfish acts. For my threats against him. Suicide one of the worst. That’s why I am here now. To say I’m sorry.

    *

    © by Charlie Smith. Used by permission of the author.

    Read Charlie’s new novel, Three Delays, which Rick Moody calls “so stunningly composed, so wildly, implausibly, excessively written, that it makes the entire shelf of novels from the last generation superfluous.”

    Browse inside it here!



    One Comment

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    3 Trackbacks

    1. LONG « FictionDaily on August 21, 2010

      […] In Long on August 21, 2010 at 7:35 am I wanted to hear more about the man who sliced his head in two, but it was my father’s turn to tal… ▶ No Responses /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', change_location()); […]

    2. […] “The Lakes of Florida,” Charlie Smith […]

    3. […] by crocodile. That’s a new one on me. Charlie Smith’s “The Lakes of Florida” is a story about two men, a father and a son, talking about life while sitting on the back […]

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