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Epitaph For A Tramp, Page 2

David Markson

  The water was fine. I took my bearings on a tank tower behind some dunes and swam easily for about ten minutes, going straight out from the shore. When I checked the tower I had not veered off much. I lay there and rode the swells for a while, thinking about original sin and the fallibility of the human intellect and what the Red Sox would do for base hits when Ted Williams finally quit, and then just to impress myself I sprinted back.

  I touched bottom with the water up to my chest and stood there waiting for my lungs to straggle on home. That was when it came to me that I was never really going to amount to anything in life. Here I was with an audience, and I hadn’t even had the foresight to print up tickets.

  She was at the edge of the water. I could not see her face but in the dim light her hair looked the color of Palmolive soap. She was wearing a light-colored blouse and a dark skirt and no shoes, and she was standing with her feet wide apart. The wash went in and churned around her ankles and buried them as it slipped back. She had a cigarette in her hand.

  I was still twenty yards out and she spoke quietly but I had no trouble hearing her over the surf. She had a deep, throaty voice and she seemed amused. “The cigarette’s yours,” she said. “I didn’t go through your pockets. I just sort of felt around the outside for the pack.”

  “I’m glad,” I told her. “None of the rest of that stuff is supposed to be opened before Christmas.”

  “I guess I can wait. But we can have a tree, can’t we?”

  “I’ll tell you what. You turn your back for half a minute and I could maybe get started trimming it right now.”

  “Don’t tell me!”

  She was laughing. She walked forward a few short steps, so that the water swirled around her calves. Her hair was tinted more yellow than green now, but her face still might have been Jolson’s just after they’d painted him up to do Mammy.

  She had edged forward even more. When it swelled inward now the water was almost to the level of her skirt.

  “Suppose I don’t turn?” she said. “Suppose I just camp right here?”

  “You’ll get a little damp when the tide comes in,” I told her. “Me, I’ll be home by the fire. I’m coming out just about now.”


  “Don’t what?”

  “Don’t come out.”

  “Oh, now look, I know it was probably a dumb stunt, but I just drained out all my anti-freeze last month. If you don’t turn your back I’m going to—”

  “Turn yours.” She was laughing again. And then her hands were at her blouse.

  “For crying out loud—”

  I decided my only hope was to start swimming around to my clothes the back way, via the Oriental trade routes. I went perhaps a dozen lazy overhand strokes, hearing nothing, and then she came up ahead of me. She took a deep breath and grinned after it and her face caught the light now. I saw the way her hair was flat along her skull and the way her eyes sparkled. I saw how beautiful she was.

  “Hello, Harry Fannin,” she told me.

  We were treading water. “I know you. You’re the trustworthy girl who didn’t go through my pockets.”

  “Wouldn’t you? If you found someone’s clothes on the sand?”

  “No doubt about it.”

  “I thought all sorts of things. Foul play, mayhem, drunk and disorderly conduct—”

  “Death by water. The fire sermon—”

  “I know that poem. Eliot. And I thought all detectives were illiterate. Anyhow I was all set to rush off screaming. You ruined it all.”

  “I’m sorry. I would have squandered my savings on a heavy meal first if I’d known.”

  She laughed again, a rich, husky laugh that had nothing false about it. It was as real as the way she’d let her hair get wet like that. Hell, it was as real as her being there. She splashed water at me and then slipped away, going under so that I saw the flash of her back arching just beneath the surface and then the gleam of her long legs, and then coming up ten yards off and swimming out. She did a crawl well, moving with sharp clean strokes and heading off” at an angle against the current. I’d decided she wasn’t tight after all. I watched her for a minute and then I went in and walked back up the beach to where my clothes were.

  I was smoking when she came out. Her own things were scattered along the sand and she stood there at the edge of the water for a long minute before she started to put them on, brushing water from her body and bending over to wring out her hair. Her hair was chopped fairly short. She did not look at me but she did not turn away either. She had a lovely body, with the long legs that I had seen and good hips and breasts that were high and round when she turned into profile against the water.

  I think that was when it happened. She was standing there with her legs wide apart and her back half toward me, and she was wearing nothing but her panties. The line of her thighs was turned beautifully and I watched it as she moved. She wrung out her hair again but did it by leaning backward this time, arching her body the way a diver might at the height of a back dive and holding it that way with her arms lifted back and all of her being fluid and lovely in the moonlight, and I felt the tightening along my jaw. Because she was not doing it for my benefit. She had decided she could be just as batty as the next guy, and now she was getting dressed the best way she could without a towel and it was as simple as that.

  Sure, simple. So why not run and fetch your zither, Fannin, strum us a little mood music? Come off it, huh? Probably she’d turn out to be an untouched little Bryn Mawr sorority president who’d never had a night in bed worth remembering since the time she’d snuggled up with a hot copy of Studs Lonigan. I chucked my smoke into the sand and started walking down the beach away from her.

  And then I decided I was nuts altogether. A screwball dame comes prancing into the locker room and offers it to me all wrapped up with a red ribbon and I start acting like some bashful adolescent too mixed up by puberty to kiss his own mother good night. For crying out loud, Fannin.

  I stopped when she caught up with me. She’d had to run and she was out of breath. Her breasts were rising and her blouse was tight across them where it had gotten wet. I reached out and touched the wet ends of her hair.

  “I tell you you’re the prettiest nitwit I’ve met in months?”

  She laughed. “And I haven’t had a drink since the V-8 juice at breakfast, that’s the silly part of it. I think you’re probably pretty nice, Harry Fannin.”

  We were near the dunes. She was lovely, all right. So make up your mind, I told myself.

  “You’re staring at me.”

  “The way you stare at four aces,” I told her.

  “Because you always think you’ve misread the hand?”

  “Partly. Mainly because you’re sure somebody’s going to call a misdeal before you get a chance to bet.”

  She was smiling. Her eyes were dark and bright under her wet lashes. There was something so alive about her it made my throat ache.

  “Bet,” she said then. “Bet the hand, Harry Fannin.”

  But I was still looking at her. “The limit,” I said. “With four it can’t be anything under the limit.”

  “Suppose I raise? Suppose I’ve got a straight flush. That would win, wouldn’t it? You and your measly four aces.”

  “Have you? My bets in.”

  “God, we’re talking. Have you got any idea why we’re talking so much?”

  There were beer bottles. There were tin cans and chunks of driftwood and seashells. There could have been hot coals.

  Her arms were across my shoulders. Her body was warm and damp beneath me and her face was turned against the sand. My face was along her neck where her hair had fallen away and I could feel a pulse, fast at first and then slowing. And after a very long time the sound of the surf came back.

  “Who dealt that?” she said then. “Oh, my God, did I deal that?”

  I pressed my hand over her lips, turning my head. They were coming toward us along the water’s edge, talking, and she saw
them and lay still.

  One of them was sketching jerky little abstractions against the darkness with a cigarette. His voice was high-pitched and nasal but it carried across clearly as they passed us. “He’s a beautiful little boy,” he said, “beautiful. But the only person who knows if he’s mine or not is my wife. I love that kid, I do. But I tell you, I just don’t know if he’s mine—”

  Surf took the rest of it. I watched them going away, not moving and hearing her breathing softly next to me.

  Her voice was distant. “If you go now you won’t have to fumble through the talk,” she said. “It can be messy to fumble through, particularly when you don’t even know the girl’s name.”

  “Mrs. Harry Fannin,” I told her.

  I could feel her laughing without hearing any sounds or seeing her face. She said, “I did have the straight flush, Harry, and thanks. But it would be kind of silly to think there could be two winners in the same hand, wouldn’t it?”

  “Marry me,” I told her. I didn’t know I was going to say that. You’ve got to think the whole thing was something you’d just invented to say that, and it was something I had had before. But I could count the times. I had had it once in the army in Texas but after a while it had come out that the girl had a husband getting shot at somewhere, and so there was nothing to do but go off with my lip quivering and get shot at myself. I’d had it once at college also but the girl was killed in an automobile wreck and what I did after that I didn’t much like to remember. I’d had it those two times and here it was again after six or eight years and how do you know you’ll ever find your way back to the same stretch of sand? So I said it again.

  I had lifted myself to my elbows and she turned her head, watching me. “I told you I went through your wallet,” she said. “I saw your investigator’s license and that Sheriff’s Association card and the gun permit and, gosh, all sort of impressive things. But I guess I must have missed the release papers from that mental institution. I never did see them at all.”

  I was kneeling. I dug out two cigarettes and lit them and gave her one, grinning back at her. I picked up her wallet where it had slipped out of her skirt and lit another match. Hawes, it said. Catherine.


  “Let’s get out of here, Hawes. Right now.”

  She had lifted herself slightly, braced on one arm. She took up a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers. “It would be gone before we got to Pennsylvania Station,” she said remotely. She was looking past me. “Something like this, so damned quick. What was it, maybe twenty minutes? Old first-glance Cathy. You don’t think it’s the first time, do you? Go away, Fannin. Take another swim and wash the hayseed out of your hair. I was reading a Dostoievski novel before I came out for my little walk. I’ll go back and finish it now, so I can see what it’s like when people really suffer things that tear out their guts instead often cents’ worth of romantic twinge just because there’s moonlight and for five minutes you don’t have to feel alone anymore or—”

  I had taken her by the shoulders. “Hawes, come on.”

  “Oh, damn,” she said. “Oh, goddam.” She was chewing her lip and I was sure of it then if I hadn’t been before. Because you get so many with whom there’s never anything left. But here it was afterward and I was kneeling there and I was still feeling it. It hurt me to look at her. It hurt me the way her voice was, the way the line of her thigh joined her hip.

  Which was romantic as all hell, but was still no concern of our two wandering companions. They were coming back up the beach and this time the other one of them was holding forth:

  “I’m telling you, Lou, with three kids around you’re paying for fifteen meals a day. Fifteen. That’s one hundred and five meals a week. And when you’re doing it without love, well, brother—”

  Her arms slipped around my neck then. “Fannin, Fannin, Fannin, it’s insane. Of all the idiotic, impossible, scatter-brained, impulsive... and I just don’t know what I’m going to tell Frank Sinatra in the morning!” She was trembling, maybe laughing, maybe crying, I don’t think it mattered which. Because we came together and it was all there again and it had to be right. It was. For maybe ten months.


  She was twenty-four. She had gone to Barnard College for two years, and she worked as a secretary in the sales department of a publishing house on Fourth Avenue. She had a mother and an older, unmarried sister named Estelle who lived on West 72nd Street, and she had been sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village with two other girls. She had a tiny scar under her left eyebrow from diving into water that was too shallow; and when she was six years old, before her father had died, she’d been lost in the Adirondack Mountains for three days. She’d camped out her share of times since then also.

  “Sometimes it’s gotten a little messy, Harry,” she told me. “But I never knew what I was looking for. Now I don’t want anything else, just you and me.”

  Just us, and Beautyrest made three. Maybe we could have gotten a patent on it after all. Once in a while we also boiled some eggs or went to the films.

  Fannin had it, all right, and he had it badly. During his mottled career Fannin had also had several .32 and .38 caliber bullet holes in various inconsequential portions of his anatomy, a knife wound in his right shoulder, shrapnel in his left, not to mention two broken noses and sundry other minor disabilities. Once in a while he has even been known to pick up something which lasts, like smoker’s hack.

  It happened on the 4th of June.

  I’d been to Chicago for three days. I had those out-of-town jobs from time to time. This one was blackmail. I’d been trying to pick up some of the cash my client had paid out before the Illinois law could move in and impound it all. I’d made out well enough, but there’d been a lot of chasing around and I’d missed sleep. It was five o’clock in the morning when I hit LaGuardia Airport coming back, and I took a cab to the place without calling Cathy. She flicked on a small light while I was undressing.

  “Baby,” she said. She could even look beautiful waking up.

  “I was trying to be quiet,” I told her.

  “Old Harry, the silent sleuth. I’ll bet you were.”

  “I really was. I’m one weary husband, mam.”

  “That weary?”

  I got into bed. The sheets were crushed and warm and her arms came around me. “I’ll live,” I told her.

  I woke up about eleven and phoned the client to make an appointment. I did not get out of bed to make the call. I kept looking at the mirror across the room and grinning at what Cathy had written on it in soap before she’d gone to the office. It said, “Go ahead, you bastard, sleep while I slave.” I called her next.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  “Fine time to be getting up.” They should have paid her extra for the way her voice sounded on the phone. “Thanks for what?”

  “For saying hello on the mirror. I just called to return it.”

  “You already did.”

  “What, talking in my sleep?”

  “You said hello this morning, idiot. Most of my men don’t forget such things.”

  “Shucks,” I said. “That.”

  “Ummm, that.” She was laughing. “You going to the office?”

  I was taking a cigarette, holding the phone wedged against my neck. “Couple hours,” I said. I shook out the match and leaned across to drop it into the ashtray on the telephone table. That was when I noticed it.

  “Bye, Harry.”

  I did not answer her. I was staring at the tray.


  “Here,” I said.

  It must have gotten into my voice. “Harry, is anything wrong?”

  I kept looking at it. “No,” I told her. “Just thinking about something. I’ll see you tonight, Cath.”

  She hung up. I let the phone dangle in my hand for a minute and then I put it back. The ashtray was one of those big ceramic modern things you could have served chops in. There were ten or a dozen butts in it. Three o
r four had Cathy’s lipstick on them.

  I remembered it clearly. The tray had been loaded when I’d been packing to catch the plane three days before. Tidy Harry had picked it up and carried it to the trash basket in the John and dumped it.

  Cathy did not smoke much. A pack of short-size Kents lasted her close to a week and frequently she would go another three or four days without buying any, chiseling a few of my Camels. The butts with the lipstick stains in the tray were Kents. The other seven or eight were Pall Malls.

  I was sitting there and seeing them, trying not to think what I was thinking. Try that sometime, especially when you’re in the trade.

  I got out of bed and picked up the thing and dumped it. I got dressed and heated up the coffee she’d left and toyed with a cup. I picked up the phone three or four times to dial her office number. Each time I stared at the receiver and then put it back.