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Authors: Larry McMurtry

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The BMW had stopped in the road, a few hundred yards ahead, which just meant that Karla didn’t know what to make of the sight of him walking. If a grandkid had swallowed a fishhook or something equally awkward to extract she would have known exactly what to do, but this new development was more complicated, and there was no precedent for it—not unless you counted a few tennis lessons he had invested in long ago, during the heady days of the boom—it was a time when many members of the West Texas oil community briefly convinced themselves they had risen into the leisure class, when in fact they hadn’t.

Duane walked on toward the waiting car. Though he had only been walking a few hours, he had already developed a good deal of confidence in his pace. Given a few days in which to time himself from location to location, he felt sure he would arrive wherever he was supposed to be pretty much exactly when he was supposed to be there—at least he could if he didn’t overreach and make an appointment in Olney or somewhere. Olney was eighteen miles down the road; it might be a month or so before he was ready for the eighteen-milers.

By the time Duane came even with the car, Karla was in such a state of nerves that she could not sustain the icy demeanor with which she usually greeted her husband when she was mad at him. Instead she rolled the window down and blurted out the fear that was uppermost in her mind.

“Duane, if you wanted a divorce why didn’t you just say so?” she asked, when he stopped. “Why did you have to scare us all this way?”

“What are you talking about, honey?” he asked. “I don’t want a divorce.”

Karla was flooded with relief. Her husband seemed to be perfectly sane, and he didn’t want a divorce. But that fact, once she took a moment to consider it, made his behavior all the more puzzling.

Duane leaned down and looked in the car. Bobby Lee, inscrutable behind his sunglasses, sat in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead.

“What are you doing here?” Duane asked. “I thought you had a job.”

“I do, but I shot my toe off,” Bobby Lee remarked, adding no details.

“Uh-oh,” Duane said. “Target practice at bugs again?”

Bobby Lee just nodded.

“Duane, could you please get in, I’ve had a hectic day,” Karla said. “Earlene fainted at the sight of Bobby’s toe and when she came to she fell and split her head open on the watercooler, and then Ruth got her feet wet and so on.”

She paused. “Just get in and let’s go home,” she said.

“But I
am
nearly home,” Duane said. He glanced at his watch. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Duane, I wish you wouldn’t be stubborn over this,” Karla said. “Just get in the car. You’ve already embarrassed me enough, walking around all day.”

“I don’t want to get in,” Duane said pleasantly. “I’m enjoying my walk.”

“Well, good for you, nobody else is enjoying themselves much today,” Karla said. “Get in just this once and we’ll talk about it later.”

“I don’t think there’s much to talk about,” Duane said. “Walking is a normal activity—anybody with two good legs can do it. It’s also good for your health—lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes.”

“It doesn’t lower the risk for me,” Karla pointed out. “I could get a stroke right now just from being mad at you.”

“Why would you be mad at me for taking steps to improve my health?” Duane asked. “Isn’t this better than having me keel over in the cab of a pickup somewhere?”

Karla considered those remarks for a while.

“It’s just like you to try and make something unreasonable sound reasonable,” she said.

“I’m not the only person in the world who walks,” Duane reminded her. “I’m not even the only person in Thalia. There’s probably four or five women down at the track right now, taking their walks.

“What I’m doing is a lot healthier than shooting at bugs,” he added, with a glance at Bobby Lee.

Karla was growing more and more irritated, as she often did when Duane got in one of his reasonable moods. At such times he always seemed able to make what he wanted to do seem completely rational, something everybody else would be doing if they had just thought of it themselves. It was true, for example, that several town women, and even one or two men, could be seen walking in the early mornings, before the day’s work started. But the women who walked were mostly just housewives or secretaries or else retired. Probably the only reason most of them were walking was because they were too tight to buy StairMasters or other machines that would allow them to exercise in their homes. Karla owned several exercise machines herself and would have been happy to buy a few for Duane if he had given her any indication that he felt the need for exercise.

“Duane, there’s plenty of ways you could exercise at home without upsetting everybody and making them think you’ve lost your mind,” Karla said, but when she looked up to see what response he would make she discovered that she was just floating words out an open window; Duane had continued on down the road—she could see his retreating back in her rearview mirror.

“What do you think of that, the son-of-a-bitch didn’t even hear me out,” Karla said, turning to Bobby Lee.

“Can’t we just go home—my toe hurts,” he said.

“I don’t want to go home,” Karla said. “I want Duane to get in the car. If we don’t nip this development in the bud there’s no telling where we’ll end up.”

“It’s not a crime to walk,” Bobby Lee pointed out.

“If he went all the way to the cabin and now nearly all the way back, that’s twelve miles he’s walked today!” Karla said, to emphasize her point.

Bobby Lee had to admit that she had come up with an impressive calculation—twelve miles was farther than anyone in Thalia had walked in living memory, at least as far as he was aware. He himself had once had to walk nearly two miles when he got his pickup stuck while duck hunting one morning. Twelve miles, by his rough calculation, was six times as far as two miles.

“Just thinking about all them miles makes my feet hurt,” he admitted.

“But it’s still not a crime,” he added. “And it don’t necessarily mean he’s crazy.”

“I don’t like it that you’re weakening,” Karla said.

“It’s because my toe hurts,” Bobby Lee assured her.

Karla slowly turned the BMW around in the narrow country road.

“You didn’t even ask him to get in,” she said to Bobby Lee. “He never does anything I ask him to do but he might get in if you asked him.”

“Doubtful,” Bobby Lee said.

“Won’t you even try?” she asked.

Bobby Lee was silent, a response Karla took to mean no. Disgusted, she shoved the pedal to the metal. By the time she passed her husband she was going eighty-six. If her husband was determined to refuse her perfectly polite offer of a ride, then she wanted to see that he ate a little dust.

“Slow down, there’s a bridge; we’ll be airborne if you hit it going this fast,” Bobby Lee said, regretting, once again, that he
had allowed himself to be drawn into a controversy between a husband and a wife.

Duane tucked his chin into his jacket when his wife went roaring by. The dusty cloud she raised was still hanging over the road when he crossed the pavement. What was left of the sunset showed yellow through the drifting dust.

6

W
HEN
D
UANE STEPPED INTO HIS HOUSE
the kitchen was a maelstrom, as it usually was when dinnertime approached. Little Bascom, Nellie’s two-year-old, had managed to claw his way up on the kitchen counter and was cramming one fist into a big jar of peanut butter and then proceeded to lick it off, an activity which evidently enjoyed the approval of Rag, the elderly cook, who was frying round steak and making what she liked to refer to as her “signature cream gravy,” all only a foot or two south of Little Bascom.

“Why are you letting him do this?” Duane asked, immediately setting Little Bascom back on the floor where he belonged. Then he spun off some paper towels and managed to get the little boy’s fist more or less free of peanut butter.

“Because he was whining, that’s why,” Rag said, without looking up from her task. “I can’t cook my gourmet food with whiny kids underfoot.”

“Then you’ve taken the wrong job,” Duane informed her. “We’ve got a large surplus of whiny kids around here.”

“Little Bascom was starving, that’s my analysis,” Rag assured him. “Nellie drifts around listening to her Walkman all day and lets her kids fend for themselves.”

“I didn’t say she was a perfect mother,” Duane countered. “Just make him a peanut butter sandwich next time, okay? Who knows what else he’s had his fist in.”

“I know, the poo-poo,” Bubbles said.

“Shut up, you snitch!” Willy said. The two of them were already at table, waiting politely for the food to be served.

“Hi, kids,” Duane said. Not only were his grandkids beautiful; they had healthy appetites as well.

“I’m mad at you, Pa-Pa,” Bubbles said. “I didn’t want you to go crazy.”

“Shut up, he doesn’t look crazy to me,” Willy said.

“It’s not polite to say ‘shut up’ to a person,” Bubbles informed her brother.

Rag emitted a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a bellow.

“Polite. I ain’t seen much of that since I took this job,” she said. Rag’s main problem as a gourmet cook was that she was almost too short to see over the stove.

“You could try setting an example,” Duane told her. “Be a role model, you know? Someone the kids could look up to.”

“They only look up to me while I’m cooking,” Rag said. “They know that if it weren’t for me they’d starve. But once that food’s on the table it’s dog-eat-dog.”

“What makes you think I’m crazy, honey?” Duane asked, sitting down by Bubbles.

“Because you walked,” Bubbles said. Personally she didn’t see anything wrong with Pa-Pa taking a walk, but her grandmother was in her room sobbing so there must be a bad element to it that no one had explained to her.

“Grandma’s cryin’,” she said.

“That’s too bad, unless they’re crocodile tears,” Duane said, easing off his new walking shoes. They were first-rate walking shoes, but, even so, his feet had not quite been ready to do twelve miles. They hurt.

“It’s hormones,” Rag volunteered. “You taking it into your head to go walking around all day has set off a hormone storm. There’s no telling where this will end.”

“Hormone storms are just part of life,” Duane said, massaging his left foot.

“Female life, you mean,” Rag said. “Males only got one hormone
to worry about and once it’s dribbled out that’s the end of that story.”

“What story, Raggedy?” Willy asked. Rag was always making remarks like that and then never explaining them.

“Never mind, it’s a song you’ll be singing soon enough,” Rag told him.

“I thought you said it was a story,” Willy reminded her. “Now you say it’s a song.”

“Grandma’s cryin’,” Bubbles said again, in case her grandfather had somehow missed this vital piece of information.

“Well, maybe she just needs to cry,” Duane said. “Let’s eat supper.”

He was determined not to let Karla overdramatize his decision to become a walker. He knew she would immediately try to enlist the kids and the grandkids in her effort to get him back in the cab of a pickup, but he meant to meet whatever campaign she launched with reasonableness and calm. He would explain that walking was a particularly good exercise for a man his age—it was something that would help keep him in good health. He didn’t intend to let Karla stampede the household into believing that the simple act of walking was tantamount to insanity—though he had no doubt she would do just that and had probably already started.

“Don’t you even care that Grandma’s cryin’?” Bubbles asked. She was extremely curious about her grandpa and her grandma. If her grandpa really didn’t even care that her grandma was crying, then that was a significant clue.

“Oh sure, I care a bunch,” Duane said, easing off the other shoe and massaging the other sore foot.

“Then why don’t you go kiss her and make her well?” Bubbles asked.

“I doubt she wants me to kiss her, honey,” Duane said.

“That’s right, she don’t,” Karla said, marching into the room with Baby Paul in her arms—he was Nellie’s youngest, seven months old, almost. Baby Paul grinned at the sight of his grandfather, exposing his new tooth. He loved his grandfather and held out his arms, indicating that he would welcome a transfer, but
Karla walked him around Duane and popped him into his high chair so briskly that his happy look turned to one of dismay.

“Sit there and deal with it,” Karla told him, when he looked as if he might cry.

“Mean,” Little Bascom said, to the table at large.

“No comments out of you, unless you want me to spank your little butt,” Karla said.

“My tasty gourmet food is almost ready,” Rag informed them cheerfully. She always tried to be extra cheerful when she felt domestic tension building; and she certainly felt it building just at that point.

“I just don’t want to rush my signature gravy,” she continued, when no one responded to her first cheerful remark.

“Take your time,” Duane said. “We’ve got lots of it.”

“Speak for yourself, Duane,” Karla told him. “If I have to spend my declining years dealing with a crazy husband, then I doubt I have much time to spare.”

Before he could answer, Julie wandered in, wearing the sleepy look she wore when she was smoking dope rather than the wired look she sported when she was taking speed. The fact that her own brother, Dickie, was in rehab for the third time, leaving his own three children to the tender mercies of his spaced-out wife, Annette, was not enough to discourage Julie from sampling a wide range of drugs.

“I wish you all weren’t so mean to Annette,” she said. “It’s a lot jollier around here when Annette and those kids come to supper.”

Annette, at the moment, was living in a trailer house at the far west end of the property—the trailer house had been bought for Rag to stay in, but Rag—who had once made the mistake of telling her sister that she felt like Raggedy Ann and had been called Rag ever since—soon decided that she would survive in her job longer if she lived a little farther from work. That way she wouldn’t be available if Jack showed up drunk or stoned at three in the morning, under the delusion that it was breakfast time.

BOOK: Duane's Depressed
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