Authors: Larry McMurtry
“Don’t be calling your own cousin a slut, little boy,” Annette said.
“Now see what you’ve done, Duane—you’ve got all these kids talking ugly,” Karla said.
“Honey, they’re kids,” he reminded her. “They can talk ugly without any help from me.”
“What about Six Flags? Have any of you kids thought of that?” Karla asked.
“What about Six Flags, are we going?” Willy asked.
“Yeah, are we going?” Bubbles asked, and the others chimed in, all except Barbi, who refused to join the clamor. Baby Paul banged his spoon and threw his carrots off his high chair.
“The reason I mention it is because Pa-Pa is the only person I trust to drive on those Arlington freeways and Arlington’s where Six Flags is,” Karla said. “If he won’t drive we can’t plan trips to Six Flags because it’s too far for all of us to walk.”
“Hey, that’s not fair, I’m the grandparent,” Duane said. “It’s the parents’ job to take kids to amusement parks.”
Nonetheless he and Karla were usually the ones who took the grandkids to Six Flags. When Julie and Jack and Nellie and Dickie went they left the kids at home.
“We wouldn’t have any fun ourselves if we took the kids,” Nellie said, succinctly summarizing the prevailing attitude.
Duane noticed that all the young eyes had swiveled in his direction. The thought that his walking might deprive them of trips to Six Flags put the whole matter in a different light.
“Well, it’s really no problem,” he said. “The next time you kids all want to go to Six Flags I’ll just hire a limo. And Grandma can ride along with you to chaperone.”
“Oh boy, a limo...a limo!” Bubbles said, so ecstatically that Duane congratulated himself on the clever way he had trumped Karla’s ace.
It was a clean victory, too. All of the kids had seen limos galore on TV but none of them had ever ridden in one. The consensus was that riding in a limo would be even more fun than Six Flags itself—after all, they had been to Six Flags quite a few times already.
Karla, who knew when she had been trumped, didn’t say a word. If Duane turned out to be serious about walking, then it was going to be a long campaign. Better to fight and run away, and live to fight another day.
“Cobbler time!” Rag announced. “There’s not many things better on earth than blackberry cobbler.”
“Riding in a limo is better,” Willy assured her.
“I hope the driver is a member of the Mafia,” Barbi said. “I hope he wears a dark suit and is a member of the Mafia.”
“Why would you want to be driven to Six Flags by a member of the Mafia, honey?” Annette inquired. Sometimes the things that came out of her daughter’s mouth shocked her a little. She never had that problem with Loni, who was so quiet she often wouldn’t even say what color socks she wanted to put on in the morning.
“I love the Mafia. I want to join it when I get big,” Barbi said. “It’s my favorite thing in the whole world.”
Then, while everyone was absorbed with their cobbler, Baby Paul somehow managed to push with his feet and tip his high chair over backward; when it hit the floor he popped out of it like a living cork and went sliding far across the kitchen floor. The fall didn’t hurt him at all but when everybody rushed over to see if he was injured he got rattled and began to shriek at the top of his lungs.
“I told Nellie that high chair was no good; she just doesn’t listen,” Karla said.
“Shrieks and screams, typical day,” Rag said, contemplating the mess of dishes she had to clean up.
UANE HAD PUT A SLIDING GLASS DOOR
along the wall of the master bedroom, so he could step outside at night and gauge the weather, sniff the breeze, look at the stars, or just sit in a lawn chair for a while, relaxing. On a dark night, when there were no stars to look at and no moon to light the patio or the yard, accidents could happen. Once when Duane left the glass door open a little, a granddaddy rattlesnake, almost eight feet long, sidled into the house and made itself comfortable on the bed. Karla noticed it just as she was about to throw back the covers: she let out a shriek that could have been heard in Wichita Falls. The sight of a huge rattlesnake—the largest anyone had seen around Thalia in more than twenty-five years—on her very own bed so unnerved Karla that she slept on the couch in the living room for the next two months. The snake had been killed, stuffed, and given to the county museum, where it was on permanent display, but even so Karla was a long time freeing herself of the conviction that the big snake or one of its kinfolk was under her bed or in her walk-in closet. The incident scared her so badly that she had every object taken out of every closet in the house, to be sure no snakes were lurking among them. The house contained seventeen large closets; the objects they disgorged while Karla was hunting for snakes made a pile the like of which had not been seen by anyone in Thalia, ever.
“They didn’t even have this much stuff in Babylon,
Grandma,” Barbi said. She had only been four at the time, but, even then, she had a good vocabulary.
“Where’d you hear about Babylon, honey? You don’t even go to Sunday school,” Karla asked. The answer, of course, was the Discovery Channel.
“I don’t know about Babylon but this is too much stuff,” Duane observed. “No wonder I’ve already been bankrupt twice.”
“Duane, it just kind of filtered in—you know, like sand does when there’s a sandstorm,” Karla said.
After contemplating the great pile for a few days, Karla decided there might be something to be said for the simple life after all. Rather than try to fit the thousands of objects back in the seventeen closets, she and the girls indulged in an orgy of weeding, carried a whole pickup load of designer clothes to an orphanage in Waco, and got rid of much of the rest in a gigantic garage sale which drew patrons from as far away as Odessa.
“That old snake had a good effect after all,” Duane observed. “Now I can go in my own closet and look for some clean underwear without suffocating.”
“Duane, don’t even mention that snake, I might get a migraine,” Karla said.
That night, though, it was far too cold for there to be any rattlesnakes about. The sky was inky, the stars like white diamonds. Though the norther had mostly blown itself out, it still sighed and whistled a bit; the wind chimes Annette had hung up behind the trailer house tinkled in the distance.
Duane, in his bathrobe, blew in his hands a few times and considered the various places he could walk on the morrow. He knew every road in the county, from his years in the pickup, but there were plenty of them he had yet to traverse on foot. The decision to walk for a while, made on the spur of the moment, had already changed his perspective and improved his attitude. Instead of going to bed with the dull sense that he would just have to get up in the morning and do the same things he had done more or less every day for sixty years, he had a new experience to look forward to.
“Duane, get in here; it’s too cold for you to be standing out
there,” Karla said, sticking her head out the glass door for a moment.
Duane obeyed, yawning. He felt invigorated, rather than sleepy, but he yawned anyway, hoping Karla would just let him go to bed with no more discussion of the walking. He didn’t expect it to work, but he gave it a try, anyway.
Sure enough, it didn’t work.
“Duane, if you’re that depressed maybe you should just get counseling,” Karla said.
He didn’t respond.
“Lots of normal people go into counseling now—it’s not a stigma, like it used to be,” she said.
“If it’s not a stigma, why don’t you get it, instead of liposuction?” Duane suggested, slipping into bed.
“Duane, I’m not the one that’s depressed,” Karla said.
depressed and you just won’t admit it,” he said. “A few trips to the counselor might teach you a few things about yourself.”
“Candy says what you’re doing now is a strategy, Duane,” Karla said. “We weren’t talking about me, we were talking about you. Candy says that’s a strategy depressed people always use. They try to pretend that it’s the person who’s trying to help them that’s depressed.”
“Even if it’s a strategy it could be true. Good night,” Duane said.
“Don’t just roll over and go to sleep,” Karla said. “We need to talk this through. Why can’t you just be normal and get up and get in your pickup and drive off, like you’ve done our whole marriage?”
“Because when I’m in my pickup I
depressed,” Duane admitted. “Just the thought of having to be in my pickup makes me depressed. Don’t you understand? I’ve spent my whole life in a goddamn pickup and what do I have to show for it? Just the thought of having to get in a pickup makes me feel crazy.”
The vehemence in his voice surprised him a little. He hadn’t realized, until he started talking, how much he hated pickups.
The same vehemence surprised Karla a lot.
“Duane, don’t talk so loud,” she said meekly. “It scares me when you talk loud.”
But, now that he was started, Duane found it hard to stop.
“What I’d really like to do is burn my pickup!” he said. “I’d like to burn my pickup and burn all my trucks, too. I never want to ride in any of them again.”
Then he stopped, realizing that he must, indeed, sound a little crazy. Pickups were the commonest vehicles in that part of the country. Almost everyone he knew owned one or two. If someone at the filling station heard him talk about wanting to burn his pickup they would probably consider that he had lost his mind.
As for his wife, she just looked shocked.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry I mentioned it. Go to sleep,” Karla said.
UANE WOKE AT THREE
. Karla had the bed light on and was reading catalogues. She didn’t seem particularly upset.
“Remember when Neiman’s offered those his-or-her camels in their Christmas catalogue a few years back?” she asked.
“I think I remember hearing something about that,” he said. “Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Karla said. “I was just wondering if those camels were still available. I think I’ll call Neiman’s and ask them, as soon as it’s time for the store to open.”
“That won’t be for seven hours,” he pointed out.
“I know, but I was just thinking that if we had a pair of camels to ride around on maybe you wouldn’t be so depressed,” she said.
Details of the Neiman Marcus offering of matched riding camels were beginning to come back to him—or rather one detail in particular: the price.
“Honey, those camels cost a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, and that was years ago,” he said. “If I had to pay a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for two animals I don’t even know how to ride I’d be a lot more depressed.
“Besides, camels spit on you,” he added, by way of a clincher.
“Oh well, it was just a thought. I bet you’d look cute on a camel,” Karla said. “Besides, if you’re depressed enough that
you’re thinking about burning your pickup, then something needs to happen quick.”
“It won’t be riding camels,” Duane said. “I know you’re just grasping at straws, but maybe you ought to try grasping somewhere besides the Neiman Marcus catalogue. Their straws are too expensive.”
“Okay, forget the camels,” Karla said. “Do you think it’s because of our sex life that you’re depressed?”
“What sex life?” Duane asked, and then immediately wished he had phrased his response differently.
“That’s what I meant,” Karla said. “We don’t have one. Maybe you’re just so pent up that you’re trying to walk it off.”
“If I was pent up I think I’d know a way to get unpent,” Duane said. “We’ve probably had more of a sex life than any ten people you can name in this town.”
“Yes, but beautiful memories aren’t enough,” Karla said.
“I wish I hadn’t waked up,” Duane said. “If there’s one thing that’s not going to make me less depressed it’s talking about sex.”
“I know, but right now I can’t think of anything else to talk about,” Karla said.
“We’ve had slumps before,” he reminded her. “A slump now and then has to be expected when you get to be our age.”
“That’s not what it says in my health magazines, Duane,” Karla mentioned.
He politely refrained from asking what it said in her health magazines. He didn’t want to know about tanned, healthy, perfectly adjusted old couples who had sex constantly, even at advanced ages. Besides, he had a feeling Karla was going to tell him anyway, and she did.
“It says in my health magazines that people who have healthy bodies and good attitudes can go right on having sex until they’re eighty-five or ninety or so,” she said.
“Yeah, but those health magazines don’t have anything to do with real life,” Duane pointed out. “They’re just magazines. In real life people have slumps all the time.”
“I guess they do, but that doesn’t mean I like just having sex on my birthday,” Karla said.
“Oh hush,” he said. “We’ve had sex since your birthday.”
Then, once he thought about it, he couldn’t really be sure they
had sex since her birthday, and her birthday was nine months back. Sex was one of those things that seemed to inhabit a no-man’s-land beyond explanation or excuse. It had been there for a long time and now it seemed to be gone. He had no desire to make love to Karla or any other woman—not at the present time.
“Couldn’t you just try a teeny little bit of counseling, just for me?” Karla asked. “My birthday is coming around again. It could be like an early birthday present or something.”
“I’m going to take a walk now,” Duane said. “I’ll think about the counseling while I’m walking.”
“Duane, it’s three-fifteen in the morning; you can’t take a walk now,” Karla said, alarmed that he would even consider such a thing.
“Sure I can,” Duane said. “All it takes is two good legs. The time of day doesn’t have a thing to do with it.”
In fact he couldn’t wait to get out of the house, into the cold air—couldn’t wait to be alone in the night with his thoughts, walking by himself, beyond the reach of expectation or demand.
“If you ask me you’re clinically depressed or you wouldn’t even think of such a thing,” Karla said. “It’s the middle of the night. People don’t just go walking around in the middle of the night—not in this part of the country.”