Sweet old nightshade, his mind whispered as he lurched across the saloon, bumping other drinkers but intent on leaning over the spittoon to make a vertical shot. Not for him the sleek parabola or the deadeye straight line between two points. He hardly wanted to be seen, which was never true of him in his bright seemly days back in the postbellum South before being told when he was twenty-one how sick he was. No one here saw a dull red blob fall from his lips into the mouth of the cuspidor, not even making it resound faintly, and nobody cared among that ravenous, besotted rabble. Doc was part of the scenery, alive, doomed, or dead. Now the old wonder-worry began of what was he doing there; was this all he had been born for? Poker, faro, killing, and haughty buckaroo justice meted out with an erratic hand and a good aim? Here he was, pretending to be several kinds of men, mingling with killers and desperadoes, far from chiming Chopin pressed into sound by his thick muscular fingers, and fine judicious reading, from the Bible to -- well, by now he had forgotten the names of the poets he used to read. He even read some Latin. What had drawn him into the stark company of the Earps? His familiarity with death? His ability to sum up his lived life in the teeth of all the days he was going to be dead and all those days he had remained unborn? Who then had urged him to move westward in search of a better clime in which to breathe, as if breath were a tournament of hard icicles in copper-plated lungs? The Earps' closeness to death had echoed his own, he thought, as once again, many times hourly, its raw shadow limped across the buoyant outline of his heyday, one day soon to take him and dust him away as if he had never been. Or, he wondered, did he keep on playing dangerously in the hope of forestalling the reaper's knock? Ida Pempest had urged him, that was who, she of the spoken spittle and the beefy legs.
Having advanced from sobersides good citizen to playboy, then onward into gunplay addict and glowering death-fancier, Holliday had become an incontinent figure in certain saloons whose gaming tables drew him in like fragments of some holy grail: chance writ large as mediocre heraldry. He pondered, as ever, the spectacle of himself, simply pleased but sometimes even awed that he could be going downhill, up and down Boot Hill, so completely, becoming a man who, the more his lungs wore out, the more he needed to lunge in on other lives. It was a poor bargain, he decided, worthwhile to some other man maybe, less educated than himself, less of a funereal cavalier, but skewed, shameful, almost as if he Holliday were bucking for attention from popular novelettists of the times, to whom Earps were bread and butter. He winced at being himself so much and resolved to do better, though lacking anyone to model himself after. The horrors of being unique in Trinidad and Leadville, Cheyenne and Deadwood, made him wish he had stayed a gullible boy gnawing on a toothpick in pseudo-masculinity, hoping never to be caught out in greenstick maundering, aping other boys while wondering how anyone could come into this world without a blueprint, a clear direction to go in, even a clearly defined road to hell. Was this what Earp provided, then? That old question, nagging at him daily, making him sure of himself even while he went on trembling and his mouth, like that of any dental patient, went on filling with blood? Doc Holliday shook his head at himself, trapped in the tenseless tension of his day-to-day, doing something irrevocable every second, unable ever to draw back from the vast ongoing suck of life, patron of all sweet atoms as they rose and fell.
How had it gone when he rode into Jacksboro, Texas, in '72? Right there at the edge of town had been an oldish bald man carpentering coffins, who looked up at the stranger riding in and called as if in greeting, "Five foot eleven, I'm never wrong, mister. Be seein you." At that Holliday had drawn and threatened to blow the man's brains out, miming the whole performance as he rode slowly through the uplifted fan of the other's gaze, the pair of them held hard in mutual disdain. Then he was past and he holstered his gun, thanking the gods for the reassuring smack of metal against his palm. He was not a killer yet, although a premonition of that status gnawed at him somewhere deep inside as he advanced westward toward health, noting how behavior got more and more boisterous, more final and absolute, as if the Devil had come home to roost. Doc didn't mind this gross declension, rescuing him as it did from the poor fate of becoming a fop, done up in pale blues and satin grays, nattily crafted suits and cravats tied like roses. It had not taken him long, torn as he was between the dandyism of the Southern dentist and the clinking leathers of the Western shootist, to decide how to dress for his journey and indeed all the years afterward (as he thought): in a long gray coat closed at the neck, like a clergyman gone to seed, though perhaps a gravedigger or a sexton would have dressed thus as well. Already he was Doc Holliday rather than Dentist Anyone, an unkind intervener, a confident man who, if he ever made the time, would write an autobiography entitled Left to My Own Devices, an epic of lordly whim. Airs and graces he had left behind him in the land of sly gentility, and now he figured on that harsh and arid landscape as of no more significance or consequence than a mosquito on a naked calf of a leg, setting up its unique filtration circus. Early on, he had developed the knack of ridiculing himself just to keep from getting too uppity with the wrong folks (such as the instantly measuring coffin crafter), and would keep things that way, mildly insinuating himself into that or this limb of society until he could bear to show himself off, sponsoring gunplay. In short, as he saw it, he was a hell of a prospect who, once he got himself launched in a dry climate, would soon become a somebody to be reckoned with, taut and stern and no huge respecter of human life. Going out to infect or infest the prairie, he reveled in the prospect of himself, born to elegance, graduand in deviltry, not so much a self-made man as one self-destroyed and ravished by the process of his own decay. How many souls he took with him on his deadly swoon he cared not, provided they did not haunt him in the afterlife. He would be happy to be thought of as accursed, maldito, self-abused into rotting bravado.
I, he mused, am very much a man of blood, fancy as that sounds. I am at home with it and its pumps, its pomps. I am an invader, coughing disease all over the West after having polluted the South, forcing that metallic-acrid aroma of blood into the mouths of who knew how many willing patients.
He thrilled to be so decisive about himself, knowing how women recoiled from his breath and then became accustomed to its fruit-of-death bouquet as if his very saliva were the manna of orgasm and, when he came, he came red or frothy pink, spluttering with it as if God had first choked him on it and then told him to relieve himself. Rougemont, he murmured, that might be my name; sometimes, I am red's rider.
What he had learned had not been much, but he had absorbed something precious that told him an abiding truth. Early in life, he had found, the battle was with other students, with memory and manual demands, examiners and resisting teeth, all a matter of smarts and qualification. You were always sticking your head in the sand for safety's sake only to expose to the world the parts you did your thinking with. All that was behind him, kind of, at twenty-one; the battle, henceforth, was with mortality, hardly a competition like that in medical school, or for the hand of some Southern belle sans merci whose mouth prefigured, modeled, that other slimy workbench of nature he had first discovered when he was twelve. Whatever he managed to bring off from now onward would have to be ranked opposite death, compared with it, measured against it, tested against it, which ennobled whatever he did. It was like testing a burp against a tornado, all out of proportion of course, but huge and insolent. How many men have you killed compared with how many death had? The very idea gave him potent shivers even as he recognized the nonlogic in the thought. Death was not a competitor but, if you could bear the thought, an ally, a goal, a prize. Surely that was how to think if you happened to be, as he, spoiled, ripe for plucking, a youth dwindling into a fated man, swapping a dental tool for a six-gun in the hope of some infernal reprieve, so much death's that death spared him.
Here he came again, the overmotivated young adventurer, heading west by stagecoach and horse to save his life, confident of the outcome and thus unable to sever the expedition from greenstick notions of savorship. Something exalted preyed on him and supplied a carnal thrill that almost replaced lust or fantasy; he was not leaving the South merely to make a living, to get rich, he was en route to a resurrection that would take him to ninety and beyond, into the flaming new century. When the truth emerged, as he awoke daily or settled down to sleep, the cough always racking him, he was the young explorer gone sadly wrong, exchanging visionary milk and honey for a superlative wasteland on which nothing grew, ran, or cried. It was hard for him to come up with an attitude that responded fully to having failed to save his own life, doing that very thing each day without the faintest idea of what to do next other than go farther, taking his blight with him.
Where, oh where, were the sanatoria he had heard about, mostly in alpine climates, where sufferers lay on long chairs in leaky sunshine, wrapped in furs and quilts, inhaling the frost that (he thought) slaughtered the bacillus? They were in his mind, defunct idylls, denied him by some mishap of geography. So he would be unable, either, to fall in love on an elegant veranda facing a partly frozen lake, with another consumptive of course, forbidden to kiss, or even to breathe upon each other, but mentally enraptured while their lungs teetered.
Where had he acquired the notion that, if things went wrong, they went wrong late, in doddering dotage with a whole other generation on hand to help out? Here he was, an invalid in early manhood, uselessly trekking from one place to another in quest of some accidental angel who would purge him of disease overnight and swoop away with him, offering him career and fortune with the same glad hand, and love's delicate conflagration to boot. Not only did it not bear thinking about; it made him wonder if losing an impromptu gunfight wasn't the best way out, under the roasting sun, in the eyeteeth of a screaming blizzard. All he needed was an end, which he would then attach to his life with disconsolate brio as if brio were glue.
Hence, for him, the interchangeability of all places. One after another they came and went, or rather he came to them and left them, staying when he stayed like a trapped insect, moving on when he did so with weak-willed callowness. There was no compass to this ride, only a journey up and down like the mercury's in the thermometer with no way out, never mind how far his eyes could see over the tight-stretched drumskin of Kansas, say. After a while he began to understand that he did not need an attitude to the spiritual inanity that had overtaken him. He thought of surrendering himself to a monastery in which to spend his last few years in a rough black or brown habit, waiting for the final spasm; but he dismissed the notion in favor of what he came to call his floating fury.
How he longed for the days, not long ago, when he aimed that imitation six-gun and made explosive sounds with his mouth: kisk, kisk, after which triumphant smoke curled from the barrel commemorating accuracy's kiss. It had been the same when he rode into Jacksboro; the gun had been fully loaded, but the shots had been pretend. He wanted to head back into the gulch of the make-believe, where Wyatt Earp was only a myth and the Latin that Doc quoted was dog Latin, all fake, far from country-dentist erudition. The point-down triangle of his bandanna folded double was something else he wanted to revoke; had he actually held up the Benson stage, a masked man with sullen good manners, asking them to stand and deliver like the Dick Turpin of old, back in the old country? English highwayman, subject of legends, the book had said, not Doc Holliday, American consumptive, subject of make-believe. Had he ever shot open a strongbox and then kept the box as a spittoon, closing its lid when visitors came by? What had he done with all that scratch? All that blood? Had he really carried old dental tools in a leather bag, telling folks he kept them for torturing people with? They jangled as he lurched and formed new patterns when he jerked to cough. It was never enough to arrive in a saloon, ask for a bed and a bottle; his needs were more elaborate than that. Most of all he needed an audience, not to talk to, but to watch him as he retched and then wiped tears from his eyes, the tears he called neutral because they had no feeling behind them save that of discomfort. A tin cup perched on a chipped plate was never enough either, though he had made do in many a saloon and lean-to. "None of your beeswax," he had said a thousand times when he asked for some decent crockery, an unencrusted fork, and they had wondered none too civilly what he was being so fussy about. Had he once worn an india-rubber jacket guaranteed to keep the cold out, but not the lead slung at him by those who hated the cut of his jib, as he nautically called it?
It must have been the dentist, doctor manqué, in him that noticed as no one else seemed to the constant wailing of women in those Western towns, the canker sores, the cold sores, the boils and styes. Something was wrong with everybody without their ever needing to handle poisonous snakes or drink full-strength strychnine, or, more privately, inhale the noxious odors of a severed head kept in isinglass like an egg, to ward off evildoers and encourage sanctity when hung on a pulpit. He had not seen everything, but he had seen too much without, ever, managing to stitch it all together into what he might have been able to call a social code, a mode of life, a tissue of unruly habits. It was not his way to integrate, but to leave disparate phenomena be, refusing to call a million grains anything so united as sand. To him, experience was an addition, a forever ongoing process with nary a sum at the end, enabling him to live (as he wished) from incident to incident without thinking either to death.
He was a chameleon, then, and had often heard that word applied to him, even thinking back to his first train journey from Georgia, when he undressed in a sleeping car so cramped it felt like undressing under a bed. Three berths high, the overnight accommodations held all three of him (the hothead, the aesthete, the dentist) in suffocating proximity. That night in Kimball's sleeping cars, which took him only as far as Chattanooga, did little to calm him for the odyssey -- Memphis, New Orleans, Galveston, Dallas -- that followed. He had the paralyzing sense that America was insurmountable, actually expanding the farther he went by train and steamer. Fuming, he asked his fellow passengers why the trains were so slow (he had checked on them before leaving) only to be told that, although they could go at a good clip of 60 if the throttle puller allowed it, local by-laws restricted them to a mere 20. At this rate, he thought, the dreaded consumption would sweep him off long before he stumbled gasping into the drier climate out West. Woodburners, hell, he said, they could always burn the dead, just s'long as you could git. Once having seen a hippopotamus in the Atlanta zoo, he remembered its image of congenital slowness, with the bottom cape of its dense overcoat hanging low over its hocks as it trudged away from him. He had hoped that train travel would be swift, river travel lavish, but he soon had a sore spine and a numbed rear end. What did he hear that haunted and perplexed him as his fellow travelers speaking to or past him summed things up and wished themselves far enough? "Horsepital at the depots, they gotta have em." "Unlessen they's dead." No one had the spirit or vim to talk, but, crunched in the bone and yielding periodically to nausea, all assented to the miserable summaries that moved back and forth along the trains.
Dallas, which some of his nebulous-minded friends had assured him lay out West (what was out West was never quite clear to Southerners and Easterners anyway), was as far as the railroad went, and, to be sure, its artesian water might do an ailing dentist a power of good. Boomtown, he said, not a doom town. Who needed to go all the way to legendary Colorado? One who went that far might never get back. At Dallas he would make a stand, sinking not into tonic immobility but being a dentist all over again, plying those big hands of his at something he loved doing. Only later did it occur to him, in one of his spells of highly attuned instinct, that a man could talk himself into anything; no matter where he went, he could persuade himself he was in the right place to cure him, Vancouver or Brooklyn, Archangel or Fiji. He had not pored over maps for nothing at Valdosta Institute, where his early schooling took place. Mentally he had traveled all over the world at a speed of 60 miles an hour, hardly able to distinguish a passport from a pisspot but sucking on horizon.
Sickness, he had discovered, taught you how memory revolved around itself, disobeying time and maltreating space. Even while traveling by train across Georgia, or riding sore-eyed into Jacksboro, he was back at the Withlacoochee swimming hole, where, to clear the water for white swimmers, he had fired into the air above some blacks he found swimming there, vaguely yelling at them in a non-English imperious in tone and jagged in shape. That was the Valdosta bathing beach, purchased by Doc's uncles back in 1872 as a private facility. At first the black youths had refused, obeying some dim memory about water belonging to the planet, but cowed by his gunplay. Behind his words skulked the other words, almost Git off mah land, but he was never that hidebound, although about the offspring of manumitted slaves, which these youths were, he wasn't quite sure, not having thought it through. In newspapers and legend he killed several on that occasion, with others moaning on the ground even as he emptied his pistol. Odd that the mythic West toward which he headed in the sleeper or on horseback was close to the West as it was, whereas this mythicized episode from his early manhood wandered far from the truth; they wanted him a badman before he had even started, when he had only loosed off a few rounds to clear the air and the swimming hole. All the same, there were those who said he had no business shooting a gun when language would have done almost as well. He left under no cloud, though. No stigma attached.
There were those who said he had gone to Dallas to try out his meanness, though why he could not have tried it out at the Withlacoochee swim hole remained unsaid, a plausible slander suppressed. Clearly John H. Holliday was a restless, impatient sort of fellow, uncurbed by a father who, on losing his wife in 1866, had promptly remarried, thus incurring the lifelong disapproval of his assertive only son. After all, the boy had grown up fatherless, Major Holliday having been away at the war, and, to prove something, or to get something out of his system, had at the age of thirteen ridden toward the disbanding armies to pick up his uncle, en route running into plenty of hardened fellows who might have knocked him in the head for his horse. He thus proved himself by returning with both uncle and horse, having passed through the hordes of Georgia soldiers mustered out, tough veterans trudging back from as far away as Savannah and Virginia. Denied a robust diet during the war, Doc had succumbed, like so many young Southerners, to the beginnings of tuberculosis. So it would be right to think of him almost as an undernourished daisy, a mother's boy suddenly unmothered. The boy graduated without any acclamation of trumpets, ever aware of the federal garrison stationed at Valdosta to keep an eye on the vanquished. These were poor auspices, inviting clamorous display and high-handed pretension, almost as if, through some quirk in military reciprocity, he had been among the few who won the war for the South after all. Where the flag bit the dust, his ego took root, enabling him to assert himself in ways that other people secretly admired. If the war had been a means to draw the South into the Union, now the South found itself thrust out. The young Doc who fired on would-be swimmers at the Valdosta bathing beach was punishing the blacks who manned the Negro garrison there. No one had required this of him, but he had gleaned it from the smoke of postwar bickering. He grew up a rebel fully formed, having learned, so to speak, to eat scraps off buzzards' beaks and how to hold a wolf by the ears.
Victim of austerity and frustration (all natural luxuries of a well-to-do class suppressed, fastidious connoisseurs of wines now imbibing common potions made from bark yet appraised as vineyard classics), he would make his way through the social detritus of the peace, but hampered and doomed even as he began to feel outward toward a career, an unregional life. Into and two years later out of the Pennsylvania Dental College he went (not the more prestigious Baltimore College of Dental Surgery), then to Atlanta, a young man with a nameplate but also a bacillus that was going to bring him down fast. In his beginning was the malefic blueprint of his end.
So, by the time Doc reached the significant age of twenty-one, he had achieved some reputation as a killer of blacks male and female, defender of family property (much as the monarch of Britain was the emperor and protector of India), and, extrapolated into the harsh ruckus of postwar Georgia, the rightful descendant of a clever youngster with excellent manners "bred in the bone of the small fry belonging to his kind and time," witness the opinion of John Myers Myers. Wise amenders of the local social record went to the Withlacoochee property and noticed how, if you happened to be firing a Colt 1851 Navy revolver toward the broken fencing that gave the far end of the swimming hole a derelict temporary look, as if an ill-built rig had crashed there, a huge bank fifteen feet tall would accommodate any loose rounds; it was like a firing range, so there was little chance of hitting anyone beyond, even if you fired high over the grinning heads, shiny like a drowning piano.
"Shoot over they heads, boy!" John Holliday soon to be Doc had cleared that area himself to make it a commodious pond, sweating and cursing as if he was in the thick of the war itself: his peaceable contribution, he lucky to have missed joining his uncle when that worthy was mustered to the colors. Wholesale lists of revolvers could be had from John P. Moore's and Sons on receipt of a business card. You wonder, though: the holster of Doc's Colt was not so much frayed as charred-looking, having fallen into a campfire on one occasion. A keen observer of the fencework at the swimming hole would have seen the lead shot into the wood when Doc and his uncles practiced with their weapons in the terminal moraine of war, almost as if to frame an elegy in gunshot's echo. This was hardly the frontier, though, only a hormone nursery where a young whippersnapper, whose first cousin, Robert A. Holliday, had founded the first dental school in Georgia, might entertain the idea of going on to greater things.
In fits of insecure, doting adoration, young John clings, cleaves, to his mother, inhales consumption from her like any lover. The bacillus moves among them like a social climber, making the household one of muted coughs and furtively stowed smeared handkerchiefs, wadded absently down between the side of a cushion and the arm of a couch, often forgotten only to be retrieved days or even weeks later, more crisp than before, a rose in hemorrhage buried in once-fresh-ironed linen. It was a house of handkerchiefs, then, as Alice Jane his mother came to white heat in the putrid, choking summers, hoping always for a reprieve, nibbling on petals to sweeten her breath, then turning to mint like an alcoholic. She had never been well since marrying Henry B. Holliday in 1849, who had brought back with him from Mexico two years earlier a war souvenir called Francisco Hidalgo, Frank Somebody as Doc came to call him, an orphaned ten-year-old Mexican. Lieutenant Holliday had raised the boy himself, for no doubt garish and atavistic reasons that held steady even when his son John was born in 1851, the wife unequal and uncommitted to the task anyway as her strength leaked away from her, wondering as she did what the unspeakable relationship was between her unknowable husband and that young dago forever years ahead of her own boy. Just say, and leave it be, that Doc was an angry young Southerner, rebuffed, challenged, provoked, slighted, wounded, snubbed, and heaven knew what else, who cast around and around for some worthwhile outlet for his singularly graceful rage. A volatile melancholic, he prided himself on his slightness, as if not all of him was ever there, as if a phantom inhabited him, wanning and winnowing, and his pet theory -- that fair-haired blue-eyed men were invisible in the South -- proved itself again and again; he was never seen where he was supposed to have been seen, shooting or wrecking, shouting or threatening with the raffish audacity of a person mostly wounded.
So, although a successful product of refined education, he grew up part refined, another part posing crude. Did he even answer "I already et" or claim something "shriveled mah pod" or boast about shoveling horse-poop or claim he felt like a bump or ask a friend to "quit pullin on that jug afore our damn lives end"? He did more, angling his mouth to say "thang" for "thing" and claiming in select company that he was actually a "spa," as it sounded, when he meant a spy. This baroque exfoliation of his already firm accent must have been a throw-forward to his frontier days when speech cheapened by everything else cheapened itself by becoming not a lingua franca but a stuffy barrier between ranting egos. There was something theatric in him that endeared him to some, his strategy having always been never to try it out on those who couldn't stand it. This called for some subtlety in figuring folk out as soon as met, which he did while almost playing possum: a sly, quizzical fellow while he summed you up, which gave him a reputation for being a cold fish in black, which he never wore, preferring various grays. He had never dreamed actively of the West, but sometimes his malingering imagination conjured up gaunt cowpokes with bushy mustaches riding through rainstorms in long white mackinaws, dread bearers of death and famine. He never suspected he would one day be among them, a sophisticated changeling sent out to grass; for some reason he thought of Colorado, and not even of Arizona; his version of the promised land had silk and gentility within it.
Ever hearing his father arrive home from the Mexican War and dismiss him, he tried to abolish the talk he overheard and transform it into golden reunions of the heart. Instead, however, he heard the old barrage line for line, with his father becoming irate merely because the damned exchange went on and on, his mother weakening and yet, in bursts of well-spoken frenzy, reading the riot act to herself in private disgust.
"You found him where?"
"I did not say. He's kin, come home."
"Your own chile not enough."
"I'll raise him by myself."
"To be like you."
Instead of answering he smiled his military smile, clapped Francisco Hidalgo on the back, and hauled him off to the kitchen for a lemonade, leaving one final remark to pollute the air behind him: "This boy got a bit of bull in him."
That was it, the declaration of dependency, hopeless as a knife fight in a sentry box; Doc felt ousted and failed, wishing he too had a Mexican name. His absent missing father had come home to remain absent: it was as simple, crude, and lethal as that, and Doc winced at his sheer sensitivity, amazed that any fifteen-year-old could feel anything so devilish, so vast, within the natty confines of home sweet home.
He soon became familiar with the wearisome apparition of himself burning midnight oil, studying with a beaker of bourbon at hand, marking important places in his dental texts with a spreading dab of liquor in the margin, made by his left-hand little finger being oh so delicate. Or, if drinking at the time, he incised the same marginal place with his thumbnail, sometimes making two little parallel lines, yet haunted by not the most important of phrases: abrasion of the vermilion border or heavy metals (e.g., lead and bismuth) may cause gingivitis. Most of this sank in as if he had prepared a bed for it; he was amazed by his receptivity to learning, which shows he had already forgotten what a ready student he had always been. To become an expert on people's mouths while his own seeped and purged appealed to his ironic sense of travesty, and the maybe banal concept of the injured surgeon nibbled away at the heroic side of his mind, urging him on, holding him back, assuring him that there had to be another way, another career beyond this, at which he was bound to fail, not for lack of zeal, charm, skill, none of that, but because he was already one of the walking wounded. Was he the forerunner of the man he kept seeing (his mind's eye monopolized)? Alone on a rickety chair, not a dentist's one, in an empty room, this man crouched where he sat, trying to bring a drink to his lips yet somehow always stopping short, unable to raise the glass the last few inches. Saddle trash he may have been, but mythically thirsty he squirmed and writhed, prisoner of invisible bonds perhaps in seven places, even trying to push his lips lower and lower by simple Yoruba-type extrusion until they reached the low-held glass, but to no avail. He was permanently in check, a man bent out of shape by a bad dream, implacable arthritis, a weird notion that he was not dead yet.
Such was the least palatable, least comprehensible, of his daydream follies, nowhere near as stirring and comfy as his lascivious meditation on women, on the secret that made them half-smile, which, he was convinced, was the remembrance they had of their first yielding to male importunity, when the big expressive blood-choked bulb blundered its way past the famous lips, and forward. No woman ever forgot it, and women in a group looked at one another in almost choral unanimity of memory, each knowing what the others were remembering, as if the first time, like the first time Homer spoke aloud his Iliad, never died, could never be replaced, became the sole witness, the experience of experiences. This proved, he thought, his openness to women and their experience; he understood that conspiratorial feline smile as it fondled first memory after, just perhaps, the long agitated wait. His women patients loved him, the huge unyielding hands that skimmed their upper bodies as he adjusted their position in the chair, but they flinched from his boyish cough, the cough he coughed instead of coughing outright.
What was the brogue he lapsed into in flagrante when he mumble-blustered his own way in, half smirking at how it was all mouths? What on earth would he have done with a vagina dentata in the chair? Occupied it, he told himself. No, don't you flinch, he'd say, you gotta have it, you bin waiting your best years for this, don't you shrink now. You lit it all relax, honey, like you lost control, an I'll do the rest. No cocksman (he drank too much for that), he nonetheless cut his swath among the girls and ladies of Griffin, Georgia, to which he had moved after a brief stint of dental practice in Atlanta with Dr. Arthur C. Ford on the corner of Alabama and Whitehall streets. He needed a more private office, beginning in spite of himself to develop a circular rather than a straightline notion of his career, putting the most recent thing first, and vice versa, as if tucking time's aberrant tail back into its mouth and canceling all cause-and-effect explanations of why, so early on, he was going downhill though with cheerful fatality, his debonair demeanor the core of his livelihood. Where would he move to next? Someplace he had already been? His career was a carousel, he thought, created to entertain a distant somebody with a passion for the ridiculous, like setting a man with asthma to work among lions, a blind man to lead an expedition to the North Pole. Oh for something more sweeping, he said, like a mustache.
Certainly he possessed a sense of humor although uncertain what having it entailed. Did it mean that, in his heart of hearts, nothing mattered, that all was ridiculous? If so, why try for any career at all? It would be better to float along for seventy years ridiculing everyone else: the sardonic passenger. Why bother taking train or stagecoach to anywhere? Why trouble to keep trespassers away from your own private swimming hole? Why fight a Civil War, so-called? When this mood came upon him, like darkness absorbing light, he turned to drink, though even that struck him as too rational a response. Practicing with knife and revolver, just to protect himself against men more powerful than he in the gambling saloons he frequented, he caught himself asking a series of whys, his mind circling like a dog trying to sit. Why learn to be a son of thunder when, already, he was doomed? The upshot of all these worries was that he decided to live absurdly in an absurd world as best he could, dimly aware of how passionately the mind clung to old ways of making sense of things. So Julian Bogel's saloon in Dallas became the venue for Doc's display; it was here that he rolled the easily moving barrel of a six-gun along the naked arm of Hester Osiris, an only too willing prostitute, just to show that he could do it and how familiar he was with guns. Soon famous for his gentle admonition to "play poker, hombre," a stage line learned, its meaning don't cheat, Doc worked on his persona, sometimes setting his knife on the gaming table as an earnest of his good intentions; he had heard that, at Navy courts martial, the accused found a knife on the table at which the presiding officers sat. If the point was toward him, he had been found guilty. So Doc took to pointing his sheath knife at the Ed Baileys of this world, at least until he lost patience and slashed Ed Bailey, the one and only, in the brisket, ensuring his departure from a game corroded by his constant monkeying with the deadwood or the discards. Bailey had offered to pull a gun on Doc, maybe to intimidate him, but Doc was faster. Then they all wanted his blood because Ed Bailey was a popular man in town, but Big Nose Kate got him out of there, tethering a horse for him out in the alley and then setting fire to the small shed in which the horse had been stabled. Peering at Doc through a back window, she had liked the look of him and decided he had little chance of getting out alive. So she found him a six-shooter too. Her cry of "Fire!" got them outside, all except the marshal and his constables, who had the drop on Doc.
"Come on, Doc," he heard as she handed him the gun, "time to go." The marshal and his men made not a move. Rescue by loose woman, Doc was thinking, unable to cure himself of the bad habit of ironic thoughts at dangerous moments. They spent that night in the willows down by a creek and next day she dressed herself in male duds of Doc's brought by a woman friend and the two of them rode the four hundred miles to Dodge City still unintroduced but comrades in arms, always in their mind's eye backing out of that saloon, she in a filmy pink dress, her hair in a carefully arranged upward tousle. Having come together through the rough-and-tumble attending a poker game, they almost wanted their time together to replicate their debut: informal, hectic, no time to think. It could not be, but their impetuous lifestyle guaranteed a dearth of dual thought; they were always involved in some scuffle or skirmish there in the gaming rooms, and often on the move, leaving behind them a gaggle of frustrated lawmen and cardsharps. They expected to be trusted and admired, she the altruistic guide, he the walking dead man sent to sober them up. Bighearted and bumptious, she had the slightly blown looks of the woman who drinks, with her tiniest capillaries (the nose; beneath the eyes) beginning to show like finest spiderwebbing. At some point, the nose would deviate, bloat and begin to wander, changing from dainty upcurl to tuber, but she still had years to squander and her complexion would not achieve that crushed-coral look until she was long past it as a whore. Doctor Holliday, she made sure, would continue as a dentist -- "Office at room no. 24, Dodge House. Where satisfaction is not given money refunded" -- no matter how much he made from gambling; she wanted a respectable professional man offering her his arm, a role into which he could slip whenever a more ribald, frontier lifestyle threatened to let them down, coaxing them nearer to debt and death.
"You need to see a doctor," Big Nose Kate told him, her hand gripping his forearm as if trying to arrest him.
"I a doctor am," he answered. "Some who are doctors can consult themselves, at their own risk. Some who are doctors don't suffer. Most of the people who do suffer are not doctors at all, yet they go on consulting themselves. I have seen doctors. They all tell me the same thing. What I need is a doctor who tells me a different thing, who says my nose keeps on bleeding and the blood pools in my throat, not coming from my lungs at all. Now that's what I'd call doctoring." He envied those people who knew everything, answering all questions, confounding miscellaneous interrogators with templefuls of data culled from the sciences, the history of ideas, summaries of world literature, distillations of economic records. He was not a learned man but one with a narrow, fixed emotional stand from which he never budged, never mind how much Kate pushed him, urging this or that upon him only to recognize in the end that he had long ago made up his mind about his fate and had gotten used to it, gambling always, surrendering prematurely so as to have a smooth decline into deathliness. Was that fair to himself? She thought not, but she could see how much he needed to be firm about things, as if it would be effeminate of him to keep on hoping; it was braver, more heroic to take the death sentence on the chin and tough it out.
"You need a doctor," she insisted. "I care."
"Maybe," he said, locking his big hands together and cracking the knuckles to some unknown rhythm, "I need Colorado. If I really cared, I would try to go to Switzerland. You might say, and here I quote as only a boy who attended grammar school at Valdosta Institute can, I am half in love with easeful death."
She had not heard the phrase before, and she found it repulsive, fresh-raised from some sewer; romantic dalliance with morbid melodies was not her forte.
"I was quotin," he said.
"Oh, I don't know," he joshed. "I sometimes go a whole month without that. I remember stuff but I don't say it 'loud."
He was looking into the oily sheen of a certain swimming hole as if, a mirror to futurity, it contained his fate, the exact length of his days, the manners of his final cough, the last words he would utter, a far cry from her humdrum daily talk about sloshing milk, choking on a pepper, possum pie and whupping storms, stogies smoked and men contemptuously addressed by other men as "girls, you girls." Above all he didn't want the black of a high school band uniform; that was too much and a rending nostalgia to everyone. He was not a mere cowpoke craving a poke, but a doctor denying his own sickness, then going along with it as his own special impresario, proud of the manner of his going, although always choosing the wrong words when talking about consumption to those who did not have it. He yawned the gape of a man not getting enough oxygen, murmuring to her, "It don't have to be this way, I shouldn't have to talk about the thing at all. I'm my own man, with all my old speeches rammed back inside me to wait for the last trumpet. Honest."
She blotted her tears with something silky and bulky, not altogether fresh, but salty from an earlier use; when had she last cried? Oh, five minutes ago, in her cups maybe, when she failed to manage the spontaneous sympathy that had sent her to him in the first place with a horse and six-shooter just to get him out of an impossible standoff. Had she been weeping then? She had not, but how she felt about him, on sight, had been the internal form of grief, seeing how he was fixed and not backing down, a doomed man standing his ground. Now, how had she known from the back of his head, the set of his shoulders, that he was doomed? It was something that came off him, diluted lightning or dispersed blackness, she could not say exactly what, but it had been there hung over him like a miserable, grave canopy shielding him from livid rain. She sometimes thought she was a mystery woman, all visions and hunches, maybe a long-distant ancestor getting through to her across the ocean of time to acquaint her with truths as bizarre as peach trees wrapped in goatskin gloves. Doomed men were entitled to marry whores; that was the truth of the moment, though she had not told him and never would, she never, nivver, a pleader once her mad was up, and it was up now.
Copyright © by Paul West