Authors: Larry McMurtry
“I guess I’ll have to ask a doctor about this male menopause,” Karla said. “I think Duane might have it.”
“I heard he did something weird but I can’t remember what it was,” Candy said. “My brain don’t seem to work till I have my makeup on and I don’t have it on yet. You sound real stressed. Have you been crying, or what?”
“Duane walked out at three-fifteen this morning—he left on foot,” Karla said, unable to hold back the dread truth any longer.
“That’s right, he was seen walking down the road, that’s what it was,” Candy said. “One of our roughnecks offered him a ride and he wouldn’t take it. What’s got into that man?”
Personally Candy felt that she could easily learn to overlook a harmless little flaw like a tendency to take walks if she could have a man as sweet and as good looking as Duane Moore. He looked better to her than her Temple of Luxor new house; it had
even occurred to her that if he was really out walking around by himself she might want to get out and get a little fresh air herself. She might even join him on one of his little saunters if he didn’t mind.
She didn’t say that to Karla, of course. Karla was in shock, which was only normal under the circumstances. In a hicky place like Thalia people just didn’t take walks at three-fifteen in the morning, though of course it was common practice in Las Vegas, particularly if you were walking around inside a casino.
“I think Duane’s just real depressed right now,” Karla said. “He just seems to have lost his sense of motivation or something.”
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a man who’s down in the dumps and won’t do anything about it,” Candy said. “Oops, here’s my architect. What’s he doing here this early? I better go put on my face so my brain will work.”
Actually, it wasn’t her architect, it was just a young carpenter with a real good bod that Candy had been hoping to get a little better acquainted with, and one good motto she had brought with her from Las Vegas was that there was no time like the present.
Karla found herself holding a phone that had nobody to talk to on the other end. She felt like she had been hung out to dry, to some extent, and reminded herself that people from Las Vegas just probably weren’t brought up to have very good manners. The fact that Candy had married Joe Don Morris, a twitchy little nerd who couldn’t even dance, indicated that her judgment was a little bit off, in some respects.
Karla dialed the phone again, and this time got Babe Collins, an old friend and a person who had spent much of her life in Thalia, as Karla had. Babe was twice widowed; she had a tendency to marry men who drove too fast while they were drinking too much—but the fact that Babe had kept on trucking so determinedly that she had just managed to snare a third husband, Randy Harcanville, meant that she knew at least a little bit about the temperaments of men from the north-central-western part of Texas. Randy Harcanville wasn’t much to look at, but was a fine dancer nevertheless.
Babe, too, had heard about Duane’s deviant behavior, but
felt that it didn’t do to rush to judgment where Duane and Karla were concerned. The death of their marriage had been predicted many times, by various and sundry; many of the predictors were now dead and buried but Duane and Karla were still married. Maybe they had just had a particularly bad fight. Duane might have just wanted to walk around for a while, licking his wounds, like an old dog might do.
“Duane’s sensitive, honey,” she offered, when Karla called. “Maybe you hurt his feelings and didn’t realize you had hurt his feelings.”
“I’ve hurt his feelings a million times and he’s never done nothing like this,” Karla pointed out. “Usually when we have a fight he gets in his pickup and goes to a bar and drinks beer.”
“There aren’t many good bars around here,” Babe said. “Maybe he just got tired of doing the same old thing.”
“But, Babe, we didn’t have a fight,” Karla said. “Things were going along real smooth, and now look.”
Though Babe was polite, it was soon clear to Karla that her friend didn’t take this walking crisis very seriously, which might actually be a sensible reaction. Of course, people would gossip about it at the post office, but that didn’t mean it was really all that important. People as hard up for excitement as the people in Thalia were would gossip about anything. The wild extravagance of Joe Don’s new Temple of Luxor house had been the main subject of local gossip for months. Maybe Duane was just doing everybody a favor by giving them something fresh to turn their attention to.
Nonetheless, when she hung up the phone—feeling slightly ridiculous—and let Babe go back to her new life with Randy Harcanville, Karla experienced a momentary spasm of pure hopelessness that she knew herself was way out of proportion to anything Duane had actually done. Probably part of the hopelessness was the knowledge that she wasn’t going to pick up much sympathy by complaining about Duane to her friends. Everyone in Thalia, men and women alike, knew she had the best husband in town. People who saw him walking down the street wouldn’t necessarily assume that Duane had gone crazy; quite a few of them might assume that she had been so mean to
him that he couldn’t take it anymore and just walked out the door and left.
The main part of her spasm of hopelessness, though, had nothing to do with public opinion, which was bound to be fickle at best. The core of her disturbance was the suspicion that some fundamental change had just occurred in her husband—a change that left her out. It was not totally unheard of in Thalia for couples to exercise together. Couples, fat or skinny, could sometimes be seen jogging around the track, or, if the weather was pretty, walking along the street. She herself owned walking shoes. She wouldn’t have minded taking a stroll with Duane, if he had asked her—but he hadn’t.
About that time she heard a yell from Baby Paul, and Little Bascom straggled in, dragging a blanket and a stuffed squirrel. Though Baby Paul kept yelling there was no sign that anyone was responding to him, so Karla hurried in and plucked him out of his crib. Rag was in the kitchen making Little Bascom Cream of Wheat when Karla returned with the baby.
“You look like you’ve been crying already today,” Rag said amiably. It was clear to her that things were not quite right in the Moore household—they rarely had been in the ten years that she had worked there. Of course, with kids as wild as Dickie, Nellie, Julie, and Jack, quiet times and peace and harmony were not really to be expected. Still, it was a little unusual for Karla to look so upset at breakfast time.
“He walked off at three-fifteen this morning—what if we never see him again?” Karla asked, plopping Baby Paul into his high chair, taking care to position it far enough from the table that he couldn’t tip it over as he had the evening before.
“Oh my lord, so the man went for a walk in the early
,” Rag said. “It’s not a hanging offense, is it?”
Nonetheless, something of Karla’s disquiet communicated itself to her. When a man left the house on foot at three-fifteen in the morning, it was a sign of something. But what?
In her distraction she forgot what she was about for a minute or two and scorched the Cream of Wheat.
“Oh my lord, now look... I don’t do that once a year,” Rag said.
UANE HAD NOT HURRIED HIS WALK
. In Thalia there had been a few scattered streetlights, but along the dirt road it was very dark. An oil rig strung with lights, seven or eight miles away, provided the only challenge to the starlight, and that a faint one. Besides the startled deer there was a surprising amount of game along the road. The country was thick with small feral pigs—twice he saw families of them snuffling in the underbrush. Crossing a river bottom he thought he heard some wild turkeys flush, but he couldn’t see them. A family of coons waddled ahead of him for a while, and, just before he reached the cabin, with only the faintest light beginning to show in the east, he heard the beat of wings and looked up to see some Canada geese, rising from a small lake nearby.
When he walked across the narrow gravel road that ran along the edge of the hill to his little cabin he thought he saw something move in front of the cabin door. His first thought was that a coon was trying to break in, to forage in what few foodstuffs he kept in the cabin, leaving the kind of mess that coons leave.
A second later, though, he realized that the animal sniffing around his cabin wasn’t a coon, it was a low-slung little dog. It was Shorty, a Queensland blue heeler, the sixth in a ragged and uncertain line of descent from the first Shorty—the first blue heeler that Duane had owned. Shorty, who had been Duane’s
constant companion for nearly ten years, not only had offspring all over Thalia; he had offspring all over the oil patch as well.
Shorty the Sixth, as he was sometimes called, had been a very winning puppy, and they had kept him at home until he began to exhibit the same tendencies that Duane’s blue heelers always exhibited, that is, a tendency to herd children in the same way they would have herded cattle or sheep: they nipped their heels. Shorty the Sixth had shown himself particularly eager to nip Little Bascom’s heels—in his view Little Bascom was essentially an erratic, two-legged sheep. After Shorty the Sixth’s nips had broken the skin of Little Bascom’s heels the third time, Karla insisted on dispatching him to the camp of some wetbacks who lived north of town, sustaining themselves by fixing fence for a number of ranchers in the area. The wetbacks had no children for Shorty to attempt to herd; besides, they were lonely men, and grateful for the company of a little blue dog.
The only problem with the arrangement was the same problem that had prevailed with the other five blue heelers, and that was that no man, whether wetback or Anglo, could compare in their eyes with Duane. Even though the descent from the original Shorty was ragged and irregular, an intense loyalty to Duane, and Duane alone, somehow got passed down the generations. Shorty the Sixth was perfectly nice to the three wetbacks, but at least once a week, he would decide it was time to go back to Duane—and he went. It was only four miles from the wetbacks’ camp to Duane’s spartan cabin. Shorty the Sixth knew the way, and there he was, waiting patiently, when Duane came walking up.
“Oh hell, you again,” Duane said mildly.
Shorty, as always, shuffled around submissively; it was too dark to tell much about his expression but he probably looked slightly guilty. An air of slight guilt was typical of all the Shortys.
Despite the danger to Little Bascom’s heels, Duane was glad to see Shorty. He liked having a dog—intense loyalty of the sort Shorty displayed was hard to resist. Besides, now that he had become a walker, having a loyal pet to walk with might make what he wanted to do a little more acceptable to the general populace. He decided not to bother taking Shorty back to the wetbacks.
“Come on in,” he said. “I guess Juan and Jesus and Rafael will just have to look for a new dog.”
When dawn spread its cool clear flush over the meadows and fields and thorny pastures to the north and east, Duane pulled an old lawn chair out of the cabin and sat down to watch, cradling a cup of coffee in his hands. It was chilly enough that he threw an old poncho over his lap.
Shorty, deeply content, lay at Duane’s feet, his chin on his front paws. He kept his eyes open, though, just in case an intruder of some sort—a coyote, a bobcat, a skunk, or a wild pig—strayed into Duane’s territory.
Duane too was deeply content. He had cracked pecans for breakfast—the pecans were left over from last year, but they were still tasty. Nuts and coffee and the peace of the country were all he needed, anyway. It certainly beat the morning clangor of his home, with Karla or Rag or Julie yelling at this kid or that, and the TV blaring as the same old celebrities spoke their brief pieces on the various morning shows. The phone would usually ring, announcing a crisis at this rig or that, or a banker would call, just to give him a friendly reminder that one of his notes was coming due. All that occurred so noisily at his home was, he knew, just the sound of ongoing life, as his wife and his hired help, his children and his grandchildren each struggled to get a little bit of what they wanted out of the day or the hour.
They were all doing more or less exactly what they should be doing—wanting, living, getting, squeezing as much as possible out of their little moments, just as Rag squeezed as much as possible out of the two dozen oranges she turned into juice every morning. Deep in his heart Duane wished them well, wished them luck, wished them happiness, wished them love and money, wished them honesty and grace, wished them strength, wished them hope.
He didn’t think, though, that he would be contributing much more to their efforts or their achievements. He had stepped out of the flow of ongoingness. He had other things to do, though it would not have been easy for him to say what the other things were. Indeed, finding out what he
wanted to do was his first task—all he knew at the moment was that his desires
lay somewhere in the spacious realm of unsatisfied curiosity. All his life he had worked too hard to allow himself the time to be curious, to learn things that were interesting rather than merely useful. He had always meant to learn a little botany, a little agronomy, but had just never really taken the time. He had only a vague, layman’s knowledge of weather patterns, of how the jet stream worked, or the Gulf Stream. He knew a lot about machinery but very little about animal habitats or the rhythms of bird migration. He knew a little about rivers, but nothing about oceans. He could cook simple foods but had never made biscuits from scratch or baked a pie or cake. He had read very few books, and had not even attended very closely to the newspapers—he had always just got the broad outlines of what was going on in the world from radio or television. He had a certain curiosity about the Siberian oil fields, and also about the oil fields of the OPEC nations—after all, the latter had controlled his financial destiny for much of his life—but he had never been to Russia or the Middle East. A piece about the pyramids, read in an airline magazine, intrigued him enough that he had cut it out and saved it, but he had only seen the pyramids on the Discovery Channel. It struck him as a little sad that in sixty-two years he had only acquired firsthand knowledge of one place—the very place he could see from his lawn chair, where the new sun was just beginning to shine on the distant buildings of Thalia. He only knew one place, and an unremarkable place too, of the thousands of places there were to see and know.