Authors: Thomas Berger
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
To John Hollander
It stood to reason that Bob Crews, who hated and feared any kind of flying, would be drunk in the little private airplane being flown by his old college roommate and so-called friend Dick Spurgeon. The other two passengers were a tall, thin man named Comstock, whom Crews had never met or in fact heard of until ten minutes before boarding, and the jowly Jack Beckman, who had some kind of business connection with Spurgeon. Crews had encountered Beckman now and again at the latter's social events and very likely had insulted him on one or more occasions, for Beckman had greeted him coolly this morning. Though Crews had no particular memory of such offenses, he was well aware that he could behave outrageously when drinkingâand he
drinking most of the time.
Crews needed no airplane to be drunk. He was usually in that condition anywhere on the ground afterâoriginally it was after six p.m., but as the years went by, the line of departure was moved over earlier, to teatime for a while, then after lunch, finally coming to a tentative stop at high noon. Unless emergency conditions prevailed, as now, he had thus far held the line against drinking in the morning, which was done only by hopeless alcoholics.
Given Crews's disdain for hid old roommate, his distaste for flying, and a total lack of interest in anything he had ever heard about trout fishing, one of Spurgeon's countless favorite sports, he might well have wondered why he was a member of the party at hand. And though he did not pose such a question, because having lived with himself so long he was not obliged to, his answer would have been to the effect that one ought to do something as the season turned warm, and such an enterprise as this was as good as anything else. There was nothing to keep him in town. Having lately endured his third divorce, he was in fact without a current home, unless a shopworn residential hotel could be given that name. While Spurgeon was becoming a force in big-time city real estate, Crews had managed to squander all his own father had left him.
Beckman now climbed aboard, the light aircraft vibrating under the imposition of his considerable weight. He squeezed himself into the copilot's seat, and he was welcome to it. Crews was on the left, in the rear. He would not have looked forward to a flight of hours while trapped in a side-by-side with Spurgeon.
While Comstock and Spurgeon were speaking together on the ground just outside, Crews took the opportunity to tip another gout from his flask of vodka into what remained of the coffee in the cup thoughtfully provided by his host, a role that, as usual, Dick played to the hilt: the coffee was the special breakfast blend supplied by his gourmet purveyor and poured from the thermos that accompanied an outsized wicker basket which presumably carried some version of lunch, to be eaten during the flight to Spurgeon's fishing lodge up in the north country.
Just as Crews was in the act of dosing his coffee with vodka, Beckman turned and looked at him. But Crews made it a point of pride never to apologize for taking a drink in whatever circumstances. He now pushed the dull-silver flask at the other man and made an exhortation of the meaningless sort associated with drinking for effect. “Have a head start.”
Beckman snorted, his fleshy under-chin wobbling. “At eight in the morning?”
Crews snorted back. “Suit yourself.” He flipped the cap shut, on its hinged arm, and secured it in place, then returned the flask to a side pocket of the old seersucker jacket he had chosen, along with a pair of chinos and battered rubber-soled moccasins, as a costume for fishing. Spurgeon had promised to provide all the tackle needed, but he had groaned in chagrin when Crews appeared in this attire. “Christ, Bobby, we're going up into the bush, not for cocktails at the Fog Cutter.” But in a moment he was snickering again. Crews for him had become the provider of comic relief, the flunky who in an earlier age would have worn multicolored tights and belabored people with an inflated pig's bladder. Crews could assume that his devoted friend had long since defined him for Beck-man's uses.
What does he do? He drinks. And gets married a lot. Father was J. C. Crews, you know. The lawyer? Left him well fixed, but women have got all his money. I have had to help him out. Known him since college. Got a sense of humor, you can say that for him
Spurgeon to Crews was a pretentious ass. The “bush” happened to be, judging from photographs, a handsome fishing lodge, professionally decorated by an expensive practitioner and equipped with every contemporary gadget including computer and fax machine, all powered by a private generator sufficient, one gathered, for a small city. Crews had not yet been there, but on the video of the exterior, the place was so large it looked like a resort hotel. To be sure, the lake on which it was situated might well be thirty miles from the nearest village, which supposedly consisted of only a general store and a few attendant shacks, but as always Spurgeon could call on a staff of retainers, in this case a number of local Indians, all of the same family, who maintained the lodge in working condition whether anyone was using it or not, and served as guides, handymen, and even cooks, when the owner and his guests were on the premises.
There was apparently an indeterminate number of these folks, who might be father, mother, brothers, or cousins, according to Spurgeon, including a teenaged girl that he suggested Crews might want to nail if he got desperate during the weekend and if he did not insist on a bed partner perfumed by Chanel rather than pickerel: this was the sort of abuse Crews had to endure from his old roommate and as a good sport find funny. The fact was that while he admittedly drank too much at times, he had never considered himself inordinately lecherous, not even back in the old days when irrespective of the alcohol in his system he could perform consistently between the sheets, and even then he had never had a predilection for adolescent girls, who were far too vain and demanding.
His taste was rather for married women, wives who needed some relief from insensitive husbands like Dick Spurgeon. To be sure, Crews could sometimes be outrageous at this endeavor. Once he had enjoyed Denise Spurgeon below while Dick was up at the boat's wheel, pompously lecturing on celestial navigation to Margo Hines, Crews's joke date: Margo had sex only with other females. On this three-day sail, she and Crews kept to their own bunks. Denise, of course, was in on the hoax and probably enjoyed it most. Her dislike for her husband very likely exceeded Crews's own, but people persisted with Spurgeon, obnoxious as he was. Because he made a go of whatever he undertook, which in adult life meant money.
Crews had never made a dollar in his life, and while he sometimes reflected on this fact with what was supposed to be a proud defiance, he was well aware that he was therefore at a disadvantage in a vulgar world, especially since squandering so much of what he had been given, and not only by way of his wives. International law enforcement was presumably still looking, or making a pretense thereto, for the criminal trustee who had absconded with the funds that were left. In reality Crews saw no possibility of his earning a cent throughout the rest of his existence and lacked in further relatives to die and leave him one.
Comstock now came aboard the aircraft and lankily stepped past Crews to sit down in the seat on his right. He immediately and prissily fastened the seat belt, then caught Crews's eye, which the latter had been too slow in trying to withdraw, his reflexes not being what they once had been.
“Supposed to be some bumpy weather up ahead,” Comstock said.
Jesus Christ. Crews gulped the rest of his spiked coffee in one swallow and, regardless of Comstock's presence, refilled the mug with pure vodka. He selfishly recapped the flask without even making an insincere offer to either of his fellow passengers: it was all but empty anyway.
It was Beckman who responded. “Dick's a master pilot. We've got nothing to worry about. He wouldn't go at all if there was any real trouble.” He nodded at the control panel and the windshield that was too high, Crews was wont to notice, to see anything throughâexcept maybe another airplane a certain distance above. There was little about flying that tended to give the confidence implicit in the material details of a car, the visible brake pedal and gear selector and the sure sense of a solid surface under the tires. Crews's driver's license had been taken away for life, though in none of his crashes had he hurt any person but himself.
“I know,” Comstock said, chortling no doubt to dramatize his lack of concern. He was answering Beckman but pointing his long chin at Crews, presumably for confirmation. “Else I'd haul my butt right outa here, right now.” He sported a floppy canvas hat, with ventilation grommets large as quarters at various places in the crown. He wore a field jacket and matching pants, and short laced boots. Beckman's somewhat similar jacket had no sleeves and was thus a vest. Except for Crews, they were all dressed as if going to the front in some guerrilla war. Spurgeon encouraged that sort of display. He was himself decked out in the ultimate in posh safari gear, in what must be the latest of trendy colors, a dark khaki very near but significantly distinguished from green, and furnished with all manner of straps, buckles, and zippers. His headgear was, however, a tan cap of the baseball genre except that the bill was overlong and vulgarly covered with tan suede.
Comstock was still leering at Crews. Spurgeon's friends invariably expected others of presumably the same ilk to be comparable toadies.
Crews asked irritably, “What in hell is he
“Aha.” Comstock was the sort who relished an opportunity to enlighten the baffled. “He's balancing the luggage. There's a baggage compartment in each wing. The weight has to be more or less equalized on both sides, so the plane will fly on an even keel.”
A mixed metaphor. Crews had gone to a preparatory school of old-fashioned standards, including those of grammar, and still retained a few traditional phrases associated with Western culture: dangling modifiers, the subjunctive mode and passive voice, not to mention, from the wider range, benevolent despotism, the (whichever number) Law of Thermodynamics, the Rump Parliament, and scraps of notable verse, e.g., “bird thou never wert,” “say not the struggle naught availeth,” and an old ballad about someone named Lord Randall, who ate poisoned eels.
Comstock grew more companionable. “Dick tells me you're inâart?”
Crews glumly took a drink from the cup, which action Comstock chose to interpret as the response of modesty, and he added, “Says you're really talented.”
Crews was approaching the state in which, at certain social gatherings and sometimes even in public places, he flagrantly insulted others. He made no allowances for those likely to retaliate violently. He was no coward when the adversaries were human. He would take on anybody of any size, brandishing fists which might well not launch a punch, let alone land one, before their owner was flat on his back and often bleeding from the mouth. Three of his teeth in the left front were artificial, and his nose had been reconstructed twice, though one time this had come about through another mishap while behind the wheel of a car.
“My daughter Cary's going in for art,” Comstock went on, “and intends to head for an M.F.A. next year. She's in her senior year atâ”
Crews tuned out, having an uncharacteristic impulse toward prudence. If he was to spend a weekend in this man's company, it would not be sensible to make an enemy of him so early on. Instead he sipped more vodka as Comstock continued. Yes, he had had some small talent, as people had assured him from time to time when he was a schoolboy, but the simple truth was that when he got old enough actually to see what he looked at, it was obvious that he could never approach the masters whose works overwhelmed him (a roster extending from Cimabue to Matisse, but nobody of more recent vintage, if only because he had not gone to a museum or gallery in years). There were those who told him this was no acceptable excuse to quit. Crews understood quite early in life that the way to quiet one's advisers is apparently to agree with them, to which there can be no rejoinder but an impotent smirk. His only ghost of a true regret was in disappointing his mother, or rather her memory, her untimely death having come in his last year of college. But he was twenty-one at the time, a man by any legal standard. Thinking back, he felt only a rotten sort of gratitude for the excuse: surely he would have turned out as badly without it. She had framed and hung the ContÃ© crayon “Head of a Lady,” a work of his fifteenth year, where she could see it from her sickbed. In an excess of what he believed grief over her death but what he later recognized as his earliest example of self-loathing, he smashed the frame and shredded the drawing.