Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wasting away again

In Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett and I just hang out at his house. We “chill,” we “veg out.” We don’t make it down to the beach much, but we know it’s out there. We can hear it, we can smell it. It informs our lifestyle.

We dress as if we’re about to head to the beach, or as if we’ve just returned from the beach. Overpriced tropical-printwear – short-sleeved button-down shirts he wears with swim trunks that pass as shorts here, strapless muumuus for me – from the nearest souvenir shop that also sells frogs sculpted out of cowrie shells and “Beach Buns” postcards still in print since the 1980s, of faceless “bikini babes” photographed from behind with a light dusting of sand across their bottoms, in neon-colored G-strings for modesty at this family-friendly resort where the parents slip down to the hotel piano bar for a drink after the kids have tired of the indoor pool and fallen asleep.

Or maybe it is the 1980s. There are no calendars here in Margaritaville, and no clocks. Neither Jimmy nor I know how to tell the time of day by the sun – it's just up and then it's not.

Jimmy wears his frayed raffia hat, a survivor of his rowdy past; he bought it in another beach town when he was young, spring break with the guys in a Jeep, a different Jimmy who was more trim but just as tan, a swashbuckler grin full of heedless bravado many years before “some people” would “claim that there’s a woman to blame," a Jimmy who exists now only in rapidly fading photographs in an album whose adhesive is wearing off. An impervious Jimmy who would dole out heartbreak (in a good-natured way that made you unable to hate him) and not the other way around.

We’re not romantically involved, Jimmy and I, even though you might hear him call me “babe” or “darlin’,” and the reason we're not involved isn't just the age gap, although there is that. He hits on women much younger than I am, brings them back here in multiples (tells them they can bring their friends) to hang out in the hot tub out on the deck. I see them on bar stools in the kitchen some mornings, bleary-eyed and subdued, checking Facebook on their smartphones as Jimmy mans a skillet of sizzling bacon and mixes us a pitcher of Bloody Marys, hair of the dog that bit us. The reason we aren't involved is that I am not his type. I am too much a reader of serious books, too much a brunette but not the exotic kind, or the fun kind. But we chill, we veg out, we share a common appreciation for “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”

We're not so much friends as enablers. We met when we were the last two still there at the Holiday Inn bar late one night last summer, and the lights came up harshly, the bartender wiping the counter with a wet rag, "you don't have to go home but you can't stay here" and all that. Jimmy invited me to come chill at his place, said he had plenty of supplies there, we could keep the party going, encouraged me to check out of my room early and sleep in his guest bed for free, said some company could do him good, said he hoped I wasn't allergic to cats.

Other people besides the "hot babes" pass through the house here in Margaritaville, especially at night when Jimmy fires up the grill out on the deck and plays his records, the bright steel-drum music and the kitschy calypso (“Come, Mister Tally Man, tally me banana – daylight come and me wann’ go home”), the reggae and even the Beach Boys, anything that reminds him of where we are and where we aren’t. But the people – both men and women, both his age and the younger ones who marvel at his “vintage” records – mostly hang out there on the deck, which Jimmy has strung with lights shaped like chili peppers.

The guests stir their drinks with the colorful paper umbrellas that we buy as frequently as orange juice and suntan oil. They talk and laugh and get boisterously drunk under the cloud-muted stars with the crashing of Atlantic waves in the background. Jimmy’s deck is known as the place to be, right up there with the handful of gaudy nightclubs and bars in Margaritaville. He’s even mentioned in a guidebook you can find in chain bookstores nationwide, although the guidebook politely omits his actual address and only says to ask the bartenders how to find him. All of his parties end in a conga line, a ritual that feels downright tribal when someone plays along on Jimmy's bongo drums.

Besides the guidebook notoriety, of course the local paper has done features on him. It has done multiple versions of basically the same article about him, because there’s always some rookie reporter wanting to do a piece with local color, local flavor, an adjective-laden and atmospheric profile to add to his or her journalistic portfolio that will showcase the writer’s knack for characterization, for pointing out the same chili-pepper lights, the same raffia hat, that reporters have been mentioning for years, and that even I have mentioned here. And always they mention the tattoo, the one that’s “a real beauty,” “a Mexican cutie,” and of which he can truthfully say “how it got there, I haven’t a clue.” He keeps these clippings in the photo album with the bad adhesive.

But during most of the daylight hours, when the sun’s high and monotonous and the air heavy with the East Coast moisture that makes our hair curl and everyone else is at the beach, it’s just Jimmy and me and a calico cat named Jambalaya in the house. Jimmy has a bipolar relationship with the air conditioner – he either floors it full-blast, or he shuts it off completely so he can feel the light coating of sweat that reminds him where he is and where he isn’t. (Sometimes I sneak and crank it up or down a notch when he’s too busy with the blender or searching for his lost shaker of salt to notice.)

We live on sponge cake, we smell the shrimp beginning to boil. We eat what we want, we eat whatever’s around. There’s an abundance of a certain herb Jimmy is fond of, but I don’t partake. He’ll offer to roll me a joint, or to share the one he’s just rolled for himself, and when I decline (disingenuously citing a long-outgrown respiratory issue, or an aversion to feeling “out of control” even as my third drink of the afternoon condensates in my hand) he just looks at me for a moment, mystified, but doesn’t push the point. I’m pretty sure this is another reason why I'm not his type, maybe the main reason.

The house is furnished almost completely with wicker furniture, chaise longues, things meant for outside. It's not a proper grown-up's house. For decoration there are goofy things, Jimmy things – parrot piñatas wearing sombreros, an Astroturf bath mat for the “toilet golf” he has set up in the bathroom off the master bed (and which he actually uses, or so I would be led to believe, by the muffled hollers of “Fore!” and “Hole in one!” I hear when he’s in there). There are crinkled-plastic Hawaiian leis everywhere, even though we are nowhere near that far-off paradise. A cheap festive accessory is never far out of reach in Jimmy's house, just in case a party starts up.  

During the day the TV is always on, tuned to game shows. Never the news, because that would jar us right out of Margaritaville as much as a calendar or a clock would. Never a talk show, never even a soap opera or a sit-com, nothing with even a simulated human relationship that might remind him where he’s not.

We get slowly drunk, giggly drunk, and he tells me stories from his life. The hippie days, when he was a dealer in Morocco, say. Hemingway-esque tales of big-game hunting with his dad back where Jimmy grew up in Montana, or Idaho – the elk jerky, how good it was; I can’t count the times he’s told me how good it was, how I need to try it someday. His blithe college days at a party school where it’s summer year-round, where he studied philosophy because it was his major and Buddhism because it justified his laissez-faire nature. Every story has a girl in it except for maybe the hunting ones – Debbie, Sandy, Linda from the old stories; Caitlin, Kayley, Lindsay from the new stories, the ones that take place here in Margaritaville where he is ever on spring break. The stories are never in chronological order, because time is irrelevant here.   

I never tell him my stories, never talk about my life away from Margaritaville. Compared to his tales, my stories seem inchoate, half-lived, half-experienced, half-remembered, lacking a moral or a punchline. So I just drink and listen and laugh at his stories, at his broad “dad humor” jokes. And sometimes late at night there is drunken philosophizing, which both of us enjoy, and which keeps us convinced that we are kindred spirits.  

Of course he has another home somewhere, in another state, but he avoids it as much as he can for as long as he can. I never ask him how he can afford this, what he does “for a living” as they say, because I don’t want to tarnish my image of him. I’m sure the facts are there in those smudgy clippings from the local paper, but I’ve never read them through all the way, and probably never will. I don’t want to learn, say, that he’s an assistant manager at a used-car dealership somewhere in the Rust Belt, ironically bicycling to work after too many DUIs, sitting in some cramped office with one of those old calculators that makes noise and spits out long paper receipts. I also don’t want to hear that he’s some successful entrepreneur, that he runs an idiosyncratic pizza parlor where there are plastic flamingos on the walls and the wait staff is told to greet customers by saying, “Aloha!” Although this second image is probably closer to the truth, if his house in Margaritaville is anything to judge by.  

Anyway, if I asked him about it, he would probably say, “This is what I do for a livin’!” Get it? The broad dad humor.

He sits on the porch swing, strumming his six-string. He has a good voice and a knack for a memorable if bawdy lyric. I imagine he plays gigs back where his other home is, hotel lounges and pool halls. Maybe he's even recorded an album, maybe at a cousin’s recording studio. Or played guitar or sung in the background of some bigger musician's album. I can’t imagine him bothering to promote this, though. He would rather sit back and have them come to him, the lazy cult leader, the laissez-faire Buddhist.

When I’ve had enough to drink, I stand on wobbly sunburned legs and he turns the music up and I dance, and he joins me. He grabs the cat's two front paws and makes her dance, too. Sometimes he plops a sombrero on my head, or tosses leis around my neck, horseshoes-style. He does this especially if I start to get too serious. He offers me pot, again, and I decline, again.

And so the days go. I don’t know the reason I stayed here all season, any more than he does. Neither Jimmy nor I know how to tell the time of day by the sun. We know seasons, though, and at some point we sense a change in the slant of the light, feel the moisture evaporate and a crispness take its place, the haze gone, "you don't have to go home but you can't stay here." He starts to admit that there’s not a woman to blame after all, and that maybe it’s his own damn fault. And I come to realize something similar, although I never mention what, and so we leave Margaritaville. He padlocks the front and back doors until next time. There’s always a next time.

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