June 4: “The Watch Trick” by Jennifer Egan

Welcome to Saturday, Story366! Today I’m writing about Jennifer Egan’s collection of stories, Emerald City and Other Stories, out from Picador USA. Egan is the author of a lot of books, one of which, A Visit From the Goon Squad, won her a Pulitzer Prize. Today I’m writing about one of the stories in this collection, “The Watch Trick,” which leads me to my little intro anecdote (instead of the other way around—my anecdotes usually lead to the stories).

So “The Watch Trick” takes place on a yacht on Lake Michigan, off the shore of Chicago, somewhere I’ve never been. In fact, despite growing up in Chicago, I’d never been on a boat in Lake Michigan until last summer, when I took my family on one of those harbor tours. It was pretty majestic, seeing the city from that angle, which I’ve only seen in photos and posters and such.

In any case, most of my experience with yachts on Lake Michigan comes from the periphery. My job as a beer vendor at Wrigley Field—which I’ve talked about a lot lately—takes me past a little harbor (or whatever it’s called) between Navy Pier and Oak Street Beach, a little patch of the lake right off of Lake Shore Drive where, on summer weekends especially, a bunch of yachts park themselves and just hang out, one of the only spots they can anchor without going past the break walls. Ever since I was fifteen, I’d drive this stretch, and when the yachts were out, my older brother—who is also a vendor—would tell stories of what went on on those yachts, what went on below deck. According to him, those yachts were just filled with beautiful bikini models and cocaine. The rich guys who owned the yachts would pick these women up on shore (or piers, I guess), using their boats and wealth and drugs to draw them aboard. Once they got out to this little harbor—like twenty yards from the walkway and Lake Shore Drive—they’d just party. The rich guys would play loud music, do lines of cocaine, and have sex with, I don’t know, all the women who were on the boat?  It was Miami Vice meets Girls Gone Wild come alive, right there in the Windy City, for thousands of passing cars to see.

At fifteen, and twenty, and twenty-five, and … well, I’m not sure how long I believed these stories, but I used to believe them. Why wouldn’t I? I was a suburban kid up in the city with his streetwise older brother. Last week, driving up to Wrigley with my nephew (who has also heard these yacht stories), we were stuck at the light there at Lake Shore and Chicago Avenue and we were looking at the boats. We smiled at each other, like we always do, silently acknowledging my brother’s past tales. We’ve talked about it, hypothesized as to what really happens out there. The boats do seem to have a lot of attractive women in bathing suits. And they are yachts. And surely, some of that stuff my brother has described must go on, to some degree. But I can’t imagine dozens of coke-hungry bikini models, just waiting around Belmont Harbor, for millionaire and billionaire yachters to pick them up so they can get free drugs in exchange for sex. That’s not how it works, right? Still, it’s one of my favorite tall tales from Chicago, even though (until now) it’s only been in the family.

So when I read “The Watch Trick,” I knew this was the story I was going to write about for Story366. The story is set on a yacht out in Lake Michigan, off the shore of Chicago. It doesn’t seem to be right off Lake Shore, and unlike the yachts I see on the weekends—there’s usually around fifty yachts bunched up in the small space—this boat seems to be alone. There also aren’t any coeds in bikinis, or from what I read, any cocaine. However, close enough.

“The Watch Trick” tells the story of two couples out for a day on the lake. One couple, Diana and Jim, have been happily married for over twenty years. The other couple is composed of their longtime friend Sonny, as well as his new fiancé, Billie. Sonny takes front and center of the piece, and at first read, I thought he was the protagonist, from a distant third person narration; actually, the protagonist is Diana, but I didn’t get that until later. Anyway, Sonny is much older than Billie, and he’s just stolen her from her engagement party, where she was set to marry another man, someone she’d dated since fifth grade. How did Sonny wrangle her from this longtime love? The watch trick, which is Sonny talking to her at the railing (her engagement party was also on a boat), then suddenly taking off his Rolex and dropping it in the water, stating, “Baby, when I’m with you, time just stops.”

So, this is how aging Sonny has managed to woo young Billie. At Billie’s behest, he tells it to Diana and Jim. This is where the story takes a turn: Diana and Jim have heard it before. Many, many times. This is Sonny’s go-to, something he pulls to impress young women, and after a week or so, he lets them go, moving on to the next young conquest. That’s a lot of Rolexes. At this point, we finally get the real dynamic: Jim and Diana are cohorts, or at least silent enablers, of their sick but charismatic friend, and this scene has been playing itself out for years, maybe even decades.

From there, Egan tells us more about the characters’ backstories, how Sonny became Sonny, how he knows Diana and Jim, and to a lesser extent, who Diana and Jim are. There’s one big reveal that’ll comes into play later, how Sonny and Diana had a brief sexual encounter years earlier, an encounter that’s described very well by Egan, an encounter that’s more power play and psychological game than anything passionate. Since we know Sonny, however, this is no surprise. James, in all the years, has never found out.

Because Egan’s a great writer, all of these factors coming together in this tight space are going to come to a boil, are going to boil over. Of course they are—that’s why Egan chose this particular outing for her story. I won’t reveal what happens next, but it’s surprising and satisfying and funny and sad. It’s perfect. Even without handfuls cocaine.

I like the stories I read in Emerald City, just as I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Egan. She’s one of our great writers, and this collection is an early testament of the talent she possesses, of what she would go on to do. I recommend.

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