MY WEEKEND WITH CHARLES PORTIS
People say I did this for the money. In Canada, where I pay my taxes, I make a comfortable salary, so this nonsense about money is off. I write a horticultural column for a paper of medium-low circulation in Manitoba Province, the Objibwe. I should say I write several horticultural columns for the Objibwe, using various aliases and thumbprint photos, standard policy there. What brought me to the Objibwe was not money but blood. I married in, and it was old Poole, my father-in-law, who with his crush on Portis ordered me to drive the length of the continent to finagle a conversation out of him.
This was not at first glance an appealing proposition. One, I had no interest in Portis. I barely knew of him. I knew they'd made a film of his book recently, the one that originally had John Wayne in it. I'd seen it lose to the Colin Firth picture where Firth stutters, and thought it was a fair call. I'd been called into the old man's Portis shrine numerous times, where he kept two plush burgundy armchairs around a fireplace and as many photos of Portis that exist, in frames, where he sat in the evenings stroking his chin and erupting into phlegmy, sustained laughter with a thin Portis tome open in his lap. But of Portis's oeuvre, his literary output, I knew next to nothing.
By nature the call of the open road does nothing for my ears. I am a nest builder, a homebody, which is why Doreen Poole picked me out of the whole pool of suitors available to her in Lorette. Neither am I good with a lug wrench, and so tend to go for what you'd loosely classify as "city" vehicles, economy sedans. When my Taurus breaks down, I call a mechanic I trust. Given my predisposition to hunker down and my pale journalist's thumbs, I am the very last person you would send 1,500 miles out of his way to see about an American literary recluse.
But Poole wouldn't have it any other way. He didn't trust anyone, probably. He wanted proof and thought only his blood would get this for him. He sent me with fancy equipment; a digital voice recorder he'd never thought to give me before for use on my horticultural pieces, a handsome laptop computer, a Minolta telephoto lens, multiple cans of pepper spray, etc. Poole had this impression of Americans, that though most of them wielded guns, if you showed them a can of pepper spray they would crumple like lemmings.
Then he did the unthinkable. He gave me his babies, his treasures—five first edition Portises he kept in Mylar and low humidity year round. He gave me these in a rust-resistant box with a cake of olive soap and told me not to open it until I was sitting with Portis in his study sipping something. He told me Portis would know what to do. For my reading pleasure the old man presented me with a rushed delivery from Amazon. He told me to read them in chronological order, preferably twice. I was sent out the door the next morning before Doreen was awake.
I don't believe they have it any better in Winnipeg than we do in Lorette. There is more parking there, in Winnipeg, and more fast food, I believe, per capita. I sent Portis my first postcard from Winnipeg. These postcards were my idea. I would send him one from ever rest stop I made so as to prepare him for my eventual visit. The address Poole had given me was not in Little Rock, as I'd thought, but in El Dorado, Portis's birth city. Poole said he'd paid good money for that information.
Dear Mr. Portis,
I am aware that irregular correspondence from doting admirers needles you, to say the very least. Understand one thing: I am not an admirer, I have been sent by a man who is an admirer. This man, Randolph Poole, may be your biggest. I am in Winnipeg now, as you can see from the postmark, and expect to be in El Dorado before the week is out. I intend only to ask you the five questions Mr. Poole has given me to ask. How and if you choose to reply is your business.
Yes, I am a Poole. This was the old man's capriciousness again. Wanting a boy baby and believing, presciently, that I wouldn't be up to the task, he had me change my name, so that at least for these next few years, while he still trod the earth enjoying his Portis, he would have the illusion of male progeny. I have always respected the old man's wishes.
So there I was, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, nine hours later. I've called myself a homebody, and this is true, but give me a task, no matter how against my nature, and I will stick to it until it's done. I'd driven almost nonstop from Winnipeg on steady cruise control, munching on bagged snacks. Poole's GPS had pointed me to a Denny's off the highway.
These Americans south of the border struck me as Canadians gone to seed. I was sitting at a booth facing a man who sold totem poles. He'd seen my plates and decided to bring his work up. He said he transported totem poles from Otto, Manitoba to Titusville, Florida for corporate landscaping engagements and his personal use. He was on his way south too. I asked him about Portis. He had no idea.
"Funny name," he said.
"He's famous among those that know," I said.
He put down his fork.
"Just what are you saying? That I don't know something I'm supposed to know? What state?"
I said Arkansas.
He still didn't believe that Arkansas had produced any greatness unknown to him, so I showed him my copy of True Grit. He remembered the Wayne character and nothing else. He asked to see the others and he put on his reading glasses and perused the various titles, none of which I had yet read. Norwood, Dog of the South, etc. He stopped at Dog of the South. He turned it over and said, "This one sounds good." He asked me if he could keep it and I said no.
I set out early the next morning to visit the Sertoma Butterfly House off of I-29. At 10 in the morning I was the only one there and the butterflies were avoiding me, roosting in a furry, gently undulating mass high up in the rafters of the Monarch Room. I'd imagined something entirely different. I'd seen myself being blanketed in a great velvety cloud of wings and antennae, the butterflies trailing me to the very edge of the tropical preserve, tickling me as I went, until the guard shot a silky puff of air at them and they fluttered off to their next appointment.
I tried to get them to fly down. I whistled at them, I rubbed some aromatic foliage between my thumb and pointer finger. I guess I just didn't interest them. I went to the café next-door and scribbled out a quick postcard to Portis in order to be on the road by 10:15 sharp.
Dear Mr. Portis,
Your country isn't as big as I thought. I am averaging between 57 and 63 mph, a comfortable cruising speed, but I will still be in El Dorado by Friday at the latest. I have decided to stop and see at least one other American roadside attraction so as to prolong my journey and give you time to prepare for my eventual arrival. I hope you will take this notification as a bond of my good intentions towards you.
P.S. I met an American last night who didn't know you but upon reading a description of one of your books had nothing but good words to say about its author.
Well, as I said, the trip was going too fast, and I was afraid that if I got there too early, say before the third postcard arrived, I might spook Portis. He was an old man now and wasn't used to dealing with gate climbers. Who's to say what kind of security services he employed? If he lived in a palatial mansion surrounded by acres of crab grass or he'd settled down in an upscale RV and would fire at will from a sliding vinyl window? I just didn't know.
I kept driving. It didn't suit me to stop once I'd achieved momentum.
Mound City, Missouri was one big speed trap. A cop shot up out of some bushes and demanded $85. At first I looked around to make sure I wasn't on an American TV program where they sprang these kind of surprises on you to gauge your reaction to imbecilic situations. But there was nothing, just me and him and now he was asking for my driving license, my papers. He scratched his head over my plates. I gave him his money, Poole's money, and told the GPS woman to remove Mound City from the box forever but she wouldn't listen. By four o'clock I was in Webb City, my detour city.
King Jack Park was just a canon in some weeds and that was my second and last American roadside attraction. I sat on a bench for as long as I could reading Norwood, a book about a young man of the same name driving cross-country to collect a piddling sum.
At the Carthage Econo Lodge something happened. I was charged for motel soaps. Naturally I demanded to see the manager about this. He was in a hurry. Where? To work?
"What?" he said.
"You charged me for soaps."
He consulted the bill. He had to look pretty hard.
"It says here that you took eight soaps."
"There was a basket. I haven't seen that before."
"Those soaps are 50¢ after the second."
"Why didn't it say that then?"
"Why did you take eight?"
He confessed to me that times were hard, we were in the middle of a fiscal crunch, it hadn't even been his idea, etc. In his improvised explanation I immediately detected the red hand of guilt. That was his basket, he'd put it there and he was pocketing these miserable fees. Just then I felt an unexpected surge of patriotism. No Canadian, no matter how hard up for money, would charge for motel soaps.
I bought a stamp from this fellow, to show him that I bore him and his people no bad will, and I mailed my last postcard to Portis. Obviously he would get this one late. I was just hoping he'd gotten the first two.
Dear Mr. Portis,
As you will almost definitely receive this note after my arrival in El Dorado, please look upon it as a thank you for your warm hospitality and for my many fond memories of our past meetings. I can assure you that your humanity and easygoing manner will be remembered by your greatest fan, Randolph Poole, for years to come.
I was in El Dorado just after lunch that day and I hadn't finished a single Portis novel. I gripped Portis's address in my teeth while I alerted the GPS woman with my fingers of his current whereabouts as given me by Poole. She couldn't locate the address however. I got worried. What if I'd driven all this way with Poole's treasured books and I had to turn back empty-handed? What would I say? That Portis had died? That he'd been locked up? That he'd sold his house in El Dorado and moved to LA?
But El Dorado was a speck of dust like Lorette and I took consolation from the fact that it would take me no more than a month to knock on all the doors individually if it came to that. Then I had an idea.
The US Post Office was on South Jackson Avenue and I was impressed by how modern it looked. I waited my turn inside. There was only one old man on duty. He was pale and dusty and wore a green banker's cap. He looked hungry and bored.
I took a second look at this character and my stomach did a half flip. I would have recognized that face from thirty yards. If only old Poole had come along! This old grumpus was Charles Portis!
When my turn came, I introduced myself and mentioned my business, on the off-chance that he hadn't already ingested the contents of postcards one and two. Portis mumbled something in bad Spanish and vanished out the back door. I tried to head him off out front but he was already gone. Who knows what kind of escape routes he'd developed over the years for just such an occasion, how many times he'd practiced that week alone? I drove up and down Main Street for a while. I kept my eyes peeled for a souped-up roadster, for any unusual disguises or suspicious walking patterns.
I left the Taurus and went out on foot in search of a bar. I was told to try Nunley's Tavern, so I went with The Mink Eye, standard reverse psychology. I entered the bar casually and ordered a draft beer. I left a preposterous tip.
The bartender had never heard of Portis. He said he hadn't. I tried Sitrop, Roptis, Orpist, CP Sitro, C. Torpis, etc. I was getting desperate. I mentioned Portis's current employment, his post office cover.
"Oh, you mean Martinez?" the bartender said.
I couldn't believe this.
"The old man in the green hat," I said.
He didn't remember the hat but Martinez was clearly my man. The bartender said Martinez was notorious for taking three-hour lunch breaks, for herding customers out of the post office at half past four, for holding onto pennies. Thinking back, it makes perfect sense that Portis would use this ornate alias. It was just his style. I was now halfway though Dog of the South and I still didn't get it. A man with a Civil War fetish drives all the way to Belize to reclaim his two-timing wife, without auto insurance. And so here was Portis in El Dorado, probably the city's most famous son, and he was disguised as a Mexican postal worker.
The bartender told me that Martinez stayed at the Old Pino Motor Lodge, a closed down motel ten minutes east on Route 63. I wrote this down and finished my Michelob Light. Now I knew why the Old Pino hadn't showed up before on the GPS. There was no Old Pino, not officially. I left another generous tip and headed back to the Taurus.
I waited until the sun had set and followed the map out to Route 63. I drove right past the Old Pino Motor Lodge. I passed two cemeteries down the road, parked on the shoulder and waited another fifteen minutes and then looped back.
It's true that you will always find people who turn up their noses at company Christmas raffles, at the frivolity of one person buying en masse for so many. I myself have never let the thought of someone gaining enjoyment from a gift I might have chosen or vice versa spoil my appreciation of these yuletide events or the good use I've gotten out of my many fortuitous presents. My Carl Sagan commemorative keychain flashlight had always come in handy but there at the Old Pino, with its non-functioning vacancy sign and blown out electrics, I saw that it had served its ultimate purpose. Even if Portis were at the ice machine between rooms 12 and 14, he might not have seen me reading the old newspapers blacking out the reception windows.
I caught an advertisement for Old Spice deodorant, which we didn't get anymore in Lorette, and something that was cut in half, an article I assumed, but there was only the head of a Bengal Tiger. What had happened? Had this angry beast run away from the zoo? Eaten an unlucky villager? I suspected that if that were the case, it must have happened in India, in an Indian zoo. Then I saw this: King Defeats Riggs in Epic Battle of the Sexes! My eyes goggled. The Old Pino had shut down in 1973!
I decided to make a circuit of the grounds. I kept out of the gravel so as not to announce my arrival with any suspicious pebble crunching. By my count the Old Pino had 350 rooms. Out of those 350 or so rooms only one had a functioning light bulb.
Room 319 was on the far back side with a north-facing window. Parked beneath this window was a mail delivery truck painted in standard US postal colors. On the passenger seat sat a green banker's cap and an open box of diabetic crackers.
So I had found Portis at last. Trapped him in his lair. I went right up without Poole's books, breathing lightly through my nostrils. I did not want to be winded when I knocked on his door. Then I had a pang of worry. I hadn't brought Portis anything, no gift or souvenir from my travels. Lorette is famous for its fur and I hadn't thought to bring Portis a single sample, only things for him to sign, questions to answer. My only hope was a vending machine I'd seen on the second floor landing. I turned backed.
Suddenly room lights began to pop on. 313, 305, 309, etc. From the fifteen-second delay in between room lightings, I understood all of this to be Portis. He had picked up on my presence after all and, cornered, wanted to give the impression of solidarity, of a hotel full of angry roomers with Do Not Disturb signs shaking on their doorknobs. I waited for this to pass.
It did, at about the fifth room. Portis wasn't young and I imagined he was wheezing now, desperate to be over with the business.
I was wrong.
He appeared minutes later on the second floor landing, beneath me, in an over-sized Razorbacks jersey claiming to be the assistant football coach, Boom Simmons. When he failed to convince me of this, he admitted that he was not Boom Simmons but a hotel inspector from Malvern named Curtis Cusp. Was this place shut down or what? he wanted to know. He hadn't seen a sign of life in hours.
I said, "Why not Reo Symes?"
This was his notorious crank from Dog of the South, a sickly doctor with a morphine addiction, and, I suspected, an alter ego of sorts.
"Who is that?" Portis asked.
"One of your literary creations."
"Never heard of him."
"The hours Randolph Poole, my father-in-law, has spent laughing over him and others like him would make your head spin, Mr. Portis. I myself don't see what's so funny."
Here Portis edged up a landing. He verified that I'd meant what I'd just said, about Symes not being funny, and then invited me up to his room, 319.
He explained that the Old Pino was his. He'd bought it for himself after life in Little Rock had gotten too hectic for his taste. The letters, he said. Could I imagine how many there were? The invitations to literary dinners for which he needed suits? He owned only two suits and couldn't keep changing. He complained about two middle-aged men he called "the cousins." He said the cousins were after him, after his literary integrity, his sap. If I understood correctly, these leeches were the Coen brothers, the American directors. Now they were after Dog of the South, or someone was. It wasn't very clear. Portis seemed to lump all Hollywood people together, all people who lived beyond the perimeter of the Old Pino Motor Lodge.
I had a good look at Portis. He wasn't in great shape. He was red-eyed and he had whisky breath and about two pieces of white hair on his head. He wasn't amused to have me there in his room and reminded me in many ways of a naked mole rat smoked out of its hole and into the light of day.
Then I remembered Poole's questions. They were in the box in my trunk and I had to go back down and get them. I told Portis this. I told him that I'd parked in back of his mail truck, blocking him in. If he tried any funny business, I said, he wouldn't get far on foot and I'd find him anyway, more than likely scratched and panting and without his crackers. I was just hoping he didn't think to peek over the railing and verify this claim.
When I returned with Poole's box, Portis was creeping off to 345. He said he'd forgotten his ice bucket there. I told him I believed him. Of course, I didn't, and now I knew he was ready to brave eight miles of country road in the deep of night to escape my presence. I had to get Poole's books signed before he hatched some more daring escape.
The problem was Poole had written his own inscriptions for Portis. I saw this once the box was open on Portis's bedspread. Here is what he wanted for Masters of Atlantis: With fond regards for a fellow Gnomon, Charles. I could see Portis wince at this. Another said: I'm sure my book reminded you of your early travels in Guatemala. Warmest regards, Charles Portis. And so on.
Portis was so distraught at this invasion of privacy he'd started turning colors, not difficult to detect with his pale coloring. His eyes traveled repeatedly to the bedspread. Would he use it as a parachute? I wondered. He finished his forced signatures, grumbling.
I quickly fished out Poole's questions. Only Poole had cemented the stationery shut with a seal. I'd known Portis was to read and answer them alone, without me listening. Now I found out I couldn't even see the questions. I handed Portis the voice recorder.
"Do you mind doing this?"
He said no.
I showed him how to operate the recorder. That is, I showed him how to press the record button. I confiscated his key ring and stood guard outside 319 until he was done.
When I opened the door five minutes later, he was gone. This time he'd taken Poole's first editions with him. These books were probably more sacred to Poole than his own daughter, though I would never put it that way in front of either of them, even if I was drinking beer. My knees buckled and I got dizzy. I began to salivate.
I combed the Old Pino room by room. I turned on the lights where I could. Most of the bulbs just housed dead flies. Then I ran downstairs and popped the mail truck's tires, back and front. I even checked the janitor's closet, just in case Portis was hiding there behind a mop. It was after three when I finally gave up and checked into Room 320.
The next day I drove out to Nunley's Tavern and organized a search party. At Nunley's they were all anxious to have Martinez back. Not for any postal necessities—they said they found dealing with Martinez tedious—but because he owed many of them money on various bets he hadn't paid up on yet. Talking to my search party later that evening, I found out that most of those wagers were predictions of historical events that had already occurred.
A week passed. The truck remained there. Portis never returned for it, or for his things. He'd slipped off and vanished like snuffed candle smoke, for good this time.
Obviously, word of my fiasco hasn't gotten back to Lorette yet, to old Poole. If it does, I can't vouch for what he would or wouldn't do. Safe to say, I'm biding my time in Arkansas for a while.
While all the rooms at the Old Pino Motor Lodge are more or less the same, I decided to take up residence in 319. I am sleeping on Portis's bed, on his sheets, which I haven't yet changed. I am finishing his White Horse whisky, using his toothpaste, his hand towels, his mentholated shaving cream. I have saved body hairs and recovered off the night table what I think is a toe nail. All of this will eventually go in a box for Poole so that when he recovers from the loss of his books he will have at least these keepsakes to remember them by.
In the meantime, I can only hope that if this story makes its way to Mr. Portis, unlikely as that may be, he will read it and return Poole's rightful possessions. He can send them, along with his answers to Poole's five questions, to the Old Pino Motor Lodge, c/o Dwayne Poole, Route 63, El Dorado, AR.
I wrote this story after reading an article about the Oxford American's Best of the South Awards Gala, where Portis seems to have made an enigmatic, fleeting appearance in a beige windbreaker. As far as I understand, he accepted his award and then fled into the Little Rock night, like a character stepped out of one of his own novels. The idea to have a Portis-like character—determined to succeed in his mission but lacking a sense of humor—forced to spend time with Portis himself in a crumbling motel seemed perfect at the time. For some reason I've always imagined Canadians this way—determined but humorless—despite the fact that plenty of decent comedians come from up there.