The Taste of the Drowned Man's Mouth | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Taste of the Drowned Man's Mouth

The following is the third of four "lost chapters" excised from the published version of Honeymooners, Chuck Kinder's 2002 novel based on his friendship with writer Raymond Carver. Pared down from an original 3,000 pages, Honeymooners depicts the literary exploits of Jim and Ralph -- fictional stand-ins for Kinder and Carver, respectively -- and their troubled relationships with the women in their lives: Lindsey and Alice Ann.

The final chapter will appear next week.

Just as Jim pulled into the parking area in front of the Beach Chalet, they saw a team of paramedics carrying the body of a boy up the concrete steps from the beach on a stretcher. They got out of the car and mingled with the crowd as the paramedics lifted the boy into the ambulance and sped away with the siren blaring. From what they gathered, the drowned boy was just 16. He'd been swimming in the dangerous surf when the riptide took him under.

Ralph declared what he needed was a stiff belt over in the Beach Chalet. His very own dear son was just 16, Ralph declared. Alice Ann told the story about the time Ralph had jumped his very own dear son by surprise in order to strangle him, but Ralph's very own dear son had tossed him and got Ralph in a hold on the ground, which was how Alice Ann found them when she returned home from work bone-tired and didn't need that shit at all.

They spread the blanket 30 feet from where the waves were flopping in from China. The sky was a cloudless blaze of light, the ocean looked green and, out beyond the waves, smooth as a mirror with a hard metallic glint. They sat there soaking up rays, letting time slip away as they took turns sipping a bottle of now-warm white wine.

Ralph and Alice Ann were holding hands, and now and then they whispered something to one another. Jim shaded his eyes with a hand in order to surreptitiously study them. They had grown suddenly tender toward one another, the way they did after hours, or days even, of bickering or all-out war, without any rhyme or reason Jim could figure out, as though they secreted signals to one another no one else could detect: glances, gestures, smells, whatever, that said it was time to rest and forgive for a while, time to lick their wounds and heal a bit before the next inevitable, relentless round of hurt.

Jim took Lindsey by her hand and she smiled slightly. You're awfully quiet, Jim said. She said: I'm just thinking about that poor boy. Jim wanted to kiss her then but looked away.

My God, what's that? Lindsey gasped and pointed to something floating in the surf. Jim looked where Lindsey was pointing. His widened eyes burned in sunlight that seemed to splinter into flakes of fire on the sand. Jim jumped up and ran to the water's edge, where he saw the body of a man bobbing face-down in the waves. Jim splashed into the surf and grabbed a clammy limp wrist and pulled the man onto the sand. He stood back for a moment, stunned, then bent to roll the man over. The man's filmy blue eyes were open and fixed. The man was blond and handsome, 35 maybe. His muscular body was covered with tattoos.

Jim about jumped out of his skin when Ralph touched his shoulder. Holy cow! Ralph said in what sounded like a stage whisper. -- What is it?

What in the fuck does it look like, Ralph! Jim barked.

What are you going to do? Ralph said, still whispering.

Me? Jim said. -- You do something for a change. For once in your wretched life, you take charge! You were a lifeguard or some shit once, weren't you? You told me that anyway.

Not me! Ralph said. -- I never was a lifeguard. Never. Not in a million years.

Lies and more lies, Jim said.

I cleaned pools one summer, Ralph said. -- And that's the long and short of it.

That's true, Alice Ann said. She hovered behind Ralph, her fingertips on this back.

For God's sake, who cares who was what! Lindsey said -- Somebody do something to help this man.

I distinctly remember you bragging around about being a bigshot lifeguard one summer at some fancy resort, Ralph, Jim said.

My God! Lindsey said and knelt down next to the man. She put a hand on the man's chest, which was covered with the tattoo of a sailing ship. -- Somebody help this man!

Don't touch him! Jim said and slapped Lindsey's hand away.

What? Lindsey said. -- Am I going to catch something?

Just don't fucken touch him, Jim said.

Will you look at all those tattoos, Ralph said.

Do something, goddamn it! Lindsey said.

All right, Jim said. -- Everybody stay calm. Ralph, I'll push on the poor devil's chest while you give him mouth-to-mouth.

Not in a million years! Ralph said and jumped backwards into Alice Ann.

Ralph, Lindsey said, -- help him, hon, please.

I've never seen this guy before in my life, Ralph said.

He must have had some really rotten karma, Alice Ann said.

Who elected you captain of the lifeguards anyway, Stark? Ralph said.

Your karma is your karma, Alice Ann said.

My God! I'll do something, Lindsey said and flung herself onto the man. She pressed her mouth on his mouth.

Are you crazy? Jim yelled and pulled Lindsey away.

I'll run for help, Ralph said. -- I bet there's a phone over in the Beach Chalet. Could somebody loan me a fiver?

I'll fucken do it! Jim yelled. -- Why me? Why always me? Jim punched the sand. He pumped the man's chest several times and then opened the man's mouth wide. Jim sucked air deep into his own lungs and then covered the man's mouth with his own, just as a vomit of swallowed seawater bubbled up the man's throat. Jim rolled away strangling. He crawled across the hot sand gagging and spitting out Northern Pacific seawater, as warm now as the human body.

People had gathered around. Thump the fool on his chest real hard, said a black teenage boy. Suddenly a man in a red wetsuit pushed through the crowd. He took matters in hand, began a serious rescue effort, for all the good it did. The handsome, tattooed man was clearly dead as a doornail.

Jim sat back on the hot sand gagging, choking, spitting up warm Northern Pacific seawater. Lindsey rubbed the back of his neck. Jim studied the handsome, drowned man intently, committing to memory the exotic configurations of his wondrous tattoos. And then Jim overhead snatches of a strange conversation from the crowd. I told you he was too drunk to go in the water, Martha, some woman's voice said. And then Jim realized what that other horrible taste besides seawater was: regurgitated wine, red and cheap. He recalled the sickly-sweet wine smell that had risen off the flesh of the drowned man, and that first sour winey tatse of the drowned man's mouth. You better get on over there, Martha, the woman's voice said, but nobody stepped forward. No sobbing woman named Martha threw herself across the body of the drowned man to weep inconsolably.

At last the paramedics arrived, muttering about the coincidence of this double drowning within an hour and only feet from one another, something for the books all right. Presently they carted the drowned man off. The crowd slowly dispersed, including somebody named Martha, who never did step forward to claim what was hers.

Jim crawled back to the blanket. He took a mouthful of the warm white wine and swished it around in his mouth, then spit it onto the sand. He did this several times, even gargled with the wine before he spit it out. Jim had the sudden panicky thought that he would never get rid of the taste of that drowned man's mouth.

You're wasting some perfectly good wine there, Ralph said.