“The Sailor’s Gift”: Short Essay in the Dallas Morning News

So as I noted in my previous post (The Goodwill Genius: On Discovering Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister) I actually wrote the “wrong” essay for my editor at the Dallas Morning News, remembering it only to be about a book that changed my life. The idea of the prompt, however, was supposed to be about a book given as a gift—in the spirit of the Christmas holidays, natch. Once I realized my mistake, I wrote another essay, which can be found here. (I’ll also post the text of it below.) It’s all true, and involves a high school student who was expelled from school for an entire semester (that miscreant would be, um, me) befriended by a literary sailor (oddly enough, I’m pretty sure his name was Bill, my own name). In the essay I mention two books—Larry Mcmurtry’s In a Narrow Grave (1968) and James Kirkwood’s P.S. Your Cat Is Dead (1972).

Kirkwood is most famous for writing the Broadway hit A Chorus Line, but P.S. Your Cat Is Dead is actually quite fun, and was an eye-opener for a high school kid, especially one who was waiting tables at his parents’ restaurant as he waited to be allowed to return to high school (which he never really liked anyway, but was smart enough to realize that, whether you like it or not, you have to finish high school; it’s a rule). Among other things, P.S. Your Cat Is Dead features a gay burglar tied up and held hostage by a (possibly/probably) gay tenant whose apartment he was burgling.

Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave is a horse of a different color, and is obviously more appreciated by Texans or those interested in Texas culture (read: Texans). I was never a huge fan of McMurtry’s novels, but I liked the early ones the best: The Last Picture Show (1966), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972). I remember the funniest essay being a kind of ethnographic analysis of Texas sexual mores and practices, including the ranch kids’ habits of bestiality. I remember thinking: Not in my neighborhood they don’t.

For the full (and short) essay, see the text below. I never saw the sailor again. I hope he never sank.

The Sailor’s Gift to the Kid

Bearded, sunburnt and gentle, his long hair in a hippy ponytail, clothes spattered with paint and sealant, every day the sailor would come into my parents’ honkytonk café for lunch, and I would take his order and chat. Our café, aptly named The Tall Tale, was off Fulton Beach Road on the Texas coast, a couple blocks from the boat basin, where he worked. He was building a trimaran sailboat with the ambitious, starry-eyed goal of sailing around the world. The year was 1974. I’d been kicked out of school that Fall (which is, as they say, another story) and had time on my hands. He was a nice guy in his twenties, adventurous and educated, with a Master’s degree in literature from the University of Texas—where I wanted to go, if they ever let me back in high school. You could say our lives were headed in different directions, his up and mine down, and we hit it off in a Luke-Skywalker-and-Yoda way. He turned me on to several books, including James Kirkwood’s “P.S.: Your Cat Is Dead,” a zany comic novel published a couple years earlier, which opened my eyes to a world of lit quite different than, say, high-school favs such as Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Around Christmas the sailor gave me a paperback whose jacket featured an image of a cowboy boot decorated with the lone star emblem of the Texas flag, the first book I was ever to read by the author Larry McMurtry—“In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas.” I was already a wannabe writer but had read more books about life in New York or Paris than Texas, and McMurtry’s little gem showed me even the salt-marsh prairies beyond my back door could be as interesting as Greenwich Village or the Left Bank. One day I looked up to find the sailor gone. Just like that, his boat was finished and he sailed away. But he left a note for me to keep reading and writing, and I’ve come to think, in the odd way common enough in real life, that he made a difference in mine.—December 2016

About williamjcobb

William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of two novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado. He may be contacted at wjcobb@gmail.com.
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