Living now on the gulf coast of Florida, Dan sometimes misses the gray, chilled Thanksgivings of what used to be home, but not too much. He got in all the gray chill he’d ever need nearly half a century ago on a single evening that ended his old life and started a new one.
Sometimes as he walks the beach in a pair of paint-spattered cargo shorts, he can see the end of this second life coming without much hope for a third, but he’s not greedy. He’s never been greedy, not for life or for fame or even for money. Once he needed $200,000 and that’s just what he asked for, not a penny more, which is probably why he got it.
The universe punishes greed, that’s one thing Dan has always believed, though not in a particularly religious way. It’s just inefficient, and a man with an excess of money is as much at a disadvantage for survival as a rabbit with an excess of food – slow and complacent and surprised when the owl swoops.
Dan usually stops around the same spot on the jetty each day to talk to the Fishing Blowhard among his PVC fishing pole holders and bucket of rancid-smelling shrimp. The Fishing Blowhard probably has a real name, but Dan hasn’t bothered to learn it because it couldn’t possibly be as descriptive.
The Fishing Blowhard is about Dan’s age, and the main problem with being old, Dan has found, is that other old people assume you’ve followed the same ruts your whole lives from the idealistic 50s to the hippie 60s to the hedonistic 70s to the greedy (yes) 80s to the head-scratching 90s when the computers and young people took over.
For instance, the Fishing Blowhard assumes that Dan was at Woodstock, even though neither of them were, and that they both narrowly escaped going to Vietnam, which Dan didn’t. The Fishing Blowhard also assumes that Dan’s back is crooked from the weight of decades of beer instead of a sudden impact on the aluminum underbelly of a 727 at 10,000 feet.
Lesson learned: it turns out that the CIA reinforced their aft airstairs from the wind during the drops over Laos while commercial carriers didn’t. That gives them a wicked bounce when you jump from the last step and into the night.
“Dan the Man!” cries the Fishing Blowhard in the same way every day as there’s a string to pull in the center of his spine. “Danbo! My beer buddy! Grab a brew and let’s scare the fish together!”
Dan peers into the cooler of mostly melted ice in which three cans of Old Milwaukee float like pale turds. He prefers bourbon but reaches in and takes one of the cans.
“You out here hiding from the hens and the chicks?” The Fishing Blowhard opens Dan’s beer for him. “Me, too. Fucking Thanksgiving turns the condo into a madhouse, all those women and kids bumping around the kitchen. I say leave them to it, right?”
Dan nods. Back in his little cottage on stilts, his wife is sitting out on the balcony with a David Baldacci novel while the oven does all the work.
“We did our part by bringing in the money, right?” says the Fishing Blowhard. “It’s their job to spend and eat it.”
Dan doesn’t remember Gretchen ever eating money, but maybe the Fishing Blowhard’s family has different ways.
“It used to be simple, didn’t it? A man, his wife, a couple of kids, you eat the bird and watch the game and take a nap. But then the kids have to have kids, and then there’s some idiot Democrat brother-in-law just out of rehab, and maybe an old bag from the church whose husband croaked on the riding lawnmower, and suddenly your home is an insane asylum.”
Dan’s family is small; he and Gretchen never had kids, never wanted any, and he has been content to watch his sister’s children grow up way better than they might have without $200,000 to move from Tacoma to Ontario where a psychopath couldn’t follow.
That’s what we used to call an extraction, Dan thinks.
He doesn’t often imagine the Thanksgivings that might have happened with fucking Lonnie still sitting at the head of the table, screaming at Sandy and Gavin, maybe grabbing one of them by the arm and twisting like he’d seen more than once even with guests in the house. If he tries hard enough, he can imagine Janie, too, slowly caving in from the inside with her sinking eyes and rangy limbs while she watched her children fade from their hearts on outward.
“You know what I like about you, Danbo? You don’t say much. I’ve always thought that the real badasses in this world are the guys who don’t have to talk. You can just, you know, feel their badassery.”
“I’m not a badass,” Dan says.
A badass, especially one with certain kinds of friends, might have showed up one day while Janie and the kids were at the movies watching Black Beauty or Willy Wonka. He might have knocked and waited and when Lonnie answered, he’d have plugged him with one of those handy one-shot pistols they’d given to the ARVN guys in Vietnam.
But that would have been greedy, presuming to be the employee of justice. That’s what had lost them the war, and that’s what would have lost him his family because they track down murderers a lot more carefully than they do hijackers.
“Get the fuck out,” the Fishing Blowhard says. “We’re all badasses if we’ve lived this long, am I right? You provide for a family, that makes you a badass.”
“Maybe so,” Dan says.
“I don’t know much about you, Dan, but I do know this: you’ve got the look of a dude who’s seen some shit. And you know what you deserve?”
Life in prison for air piracy? Dan wonders.
“You deserve to walk this beach on all the pretty days until they’re gone. That’s what I’d give you if it was up to me.”
Deserve. That’s a word that Dan doesn’t think much about. It’s hard to guess whether Northwest Orient Airlines stockholders deserved that $200,000 or Janie did, whether he deserved to notice the one dummy parachute instead of plunging at terminal velocity into the Earth, whether he deserved the strange thrill and privilege to be a man in a business suit flying with thousands of dollars strapped to his body above the Douglas firs and the winding streams, descending through the freezing mist to break only an ankle on the rocks.
Deserving means someone or something is doing the judging, the choosing, and if there’s one thing Dan knows, it’s that nobody deserves anything but sometimes they get it anyway.
And sometimes, we’re lucky enough to be the ones doing the giving.
Dan claps his hand on the Fishing Blowhard’s Hawaiian shirt spotted with Woodie wagons and says, “So far so good.”
The Fishing Blowhard raises his beer. “Here’s to getting away.”
Dan wonders, worries, but for only a moment because the Fishing Blowhard is only ever accidentally right, like most of us.
“Here’s to exactly that,” he says.