Duane was in the hot tub, shooting at his new doghouse with a .44 Magnum. The two-story log doghouse was supposedly a replica of a frontier fort. He and Karla had bought it at a home show in Fort Worth on a day when they were bored. It would have housed several Great Danes comfortably, but so far had housed nothing. Shorty, the only dog Duane could put up with, never went near it.
Every time a slug hit the doghouse, slivers of white wood flew. The yard of the Moores' new mansion had just been seeded, at enormous expense, but the grass had a tentative look. The house stood on a long, narrow, rocky bluff, overlooking a valley pockmarked with well sites, saltwater pits and oily little roads leading from one oil pump to the next. The bluff was not a very likely place to grow Bermuda grass, but six acres of it had been planted anyway. Karla took the view that you could make anything happen if you spent enough money.
Duane had even less confidence in the Bermuda grass than the grass had in itself, but he signed the check, just as he had signed the check for the doghouse he was slowly reducing to kindling. For a time, buying things he had no earthly use for had almost convinced him he was still rich, but that trick had finally stopped working.
Shorty, a Queensland blue heeler, blinked every time the gun roared. Unlike Duane, he was not wearing shooter's earmuffs. Shorty loved Duane so much that he stuck by his side throughout the day, even at the risk of becoming hearing impaired.
Shorty had the eyes of a drunkard -- red-streaked and vacant. Julie and Jack, the eleven-year-old twins, threw rocks at him when their father wasn't around. They were both good athletes and hit Shorty frequently with the rocks, but Shorty didn't mind. He thought it meant they loved him.
Karla, Duane's beautiful, long-legged wife, came out of the house, a mug of coffee in her hand, and started walking across the long yard to the deck. It was a clear spring morning; she had already put in an hour in the garden. Her tomatoes were under threat from the blister bugs.
When he saw Karla coming, Duane took off the earmuffs. It annoyed her severely if he kept them on while she was complaining.
"Now you're ruining that brand-new doghouse, Duane," she said, sitting down on the deck. "I guess I'm trapped out here in the country with a man that's going crazy. I'm glad we sent the twins off to camp."
"They'll probably get kicked out in a day or two," Duane said. "They'll commit incest or something."
"No, it's a church camp," Karla said. "They'll just pray for their horrible little souls."
They were quiet for a minute. Though it was only seven in the morning, the temperature was close to ninety.
"You can die if you stay in a hot tub too long," Karla remarked. "I read it in USA Today."
They heard screams from the distant house. They came from Little Mike, Nellie's terrible two. In a moment the baby joined in.
"Nellie may not even hear them," Karla said. "She's probably got her Walkman on."
Nellie, nineteen, had just moved out on her third husband.
She liked getting married, but regarded the arrangement as little more binding than a handshake.
Karla wore a T-shirt with a motto stenciled on the front. The motto said, YOU'RE THE REASON OUR CHILDREN ARE UGLY, which was the title of a song sung by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Karla laughed every time she heard the song.
She had thirty or forty T-shirts with lines from hillbilly songs printed on them. Every time she heard a lyric which seemed to her to express an important truth, she had a T-shirt printed. Occasionally she took the liberty of altering a line in some clever way, though no one around Thalia seemed to notice.
Duane had once pointed out to her that their children weren't ugly.
"They got personalities like wild dogs, but at least they're good-looking," he said.
"That's true, they take after me," Karla said. Her complexion was the envy of every woman she knew. Karla's skin was like cream with a bit of cinnamon sprinkled on it.
Dickie, their twenty-one-year-old son, had been voted Most Handsome Boy in Thalia High School, both his junior and senior years. Nellie had been Most Beautiful Girl her sophomore year, but had lost out the next two years thanks to widespread envy among the voters. Jack and Julie were the best-looking twins in Texas, so far as anyone knew. Dickie made most of his living peddling marijuana, and Nellie -- with three marriages in a year and a half -- would probably pass Elizabeth Taylor on the marriage charts before she was twenty-one, but no one could deny that they were good-looking kids.
Karla, at forty-six, remained optimistic enough to believe almost everything she saw printed on a T-shirt. Duane was more skeptical. He had started poor, become rich, and now was losing money so rapidly that he had come to doubt that much of anything was true, in any sense. He had eight hundred and fifty dollars in the bank and debts of roughly twelve million, a situation that was becoming increasingly untenable.
Duane twirled the chamber of the .44. His hand ached a little. The big gun had a kick.
"You know what I hate worse than anything in the world?" Karla asked.
"No, and I'm not going to guess," Duane said.
Karla laughed. "It's not you, Duane," she said.
She had another T-shirt which read, I'VE GOT THE SADDLE, WHERE'S THE HORSE? It was, it seemed to her, a painfully clear reference to Mel Tillis's sexiest song, "I've Got the Horse if You've Got the Saddle." But of course no one in Thalia caught the allusion. When she wore it, all that happened was that men tried to sell her overpriced quarter horses.
"The thing I hate most in the world is blister bugs," Karla said. "I wanta hire a wetback to help me with this garden."
"I don't know why you plant such a big garden," Duane said. "We couldn't eat that many tomatoes if we ate twenty-four hours a day."
"I was raised to be thrifty," Karla said.
"Why'd you buy that BMW then?" Duane asked. "You could have bought a pickup if you wanted to be thrifty. A BMW won't last a week on these roads."
Their new house was five miles from town, dirt roads all the way. When they started building the house they intended to pave the road themselves, but the boom ended before they even got the house built, and it was clear that dirt roads would be their destiny for some time to come.
Duane had started hating the new house before the foundation was laid. He would have moved tomorrow, but he was surrounded by a wall of debtors, and anyway Karla loved the house and would have resisted any suggestion that they face up to straitened circumstances and try to sell it as soon as the paint dried.
He poked the barrel of the .44 into the water. Refraction made the barrel seem to grow. Shorty moved closer to the edge of the hot tub and peered in at it. Everything Duane did seemed interesting to Shorty. Many human actions were incomprehensible to him, but that didn't mean he couldn't watch.
"Duane, why are you poking that gun in the water?" Karla asked.
"I was thinking of shooting my dick off," he said. "It's caused me nothing but trouble my whole life."
Karla took that news with equanimity. She scratched her shapely calf. Karla believed that the way not to have your figure ruined by childbearing was to have your kids young and then get tied off. Shortly after producing Nellie she got tied off, but ten years later something came untied. Intermittently religious, she decided it must be God's will that they have twins. It should have been medically impossible -- and besides that, she and Duane only rarely made love.
But one afternoon, after ten days of rain, with the rigs all shut down, they did make love and the twins resulted. During the pregnancy Karla tried to cheer herself up by imagining that she was about to produce little human angels, perfect in every way. Why else would God give her twins when her husband wasn't even giving her a sex life?
The twins were born, and as soon as Jack grew four teeth he bit completely through his sister's ear. The angel theory was discarded -- indeed, while sitting in the emergency room getting Julie's ear fixed Karla stopped being religious for good.
Jack and Julie were terrible babies. They bit and clawed one another like little beasts. They shouldered one another out of their baby bed, and stuffed toys in one another's mouths. As soon as they could lift things they hit each other with whatever they could lift. It seemed to Karla that she spent more and more of her life in emergency rooms -- indeed, the twins were not safe from themselves even there. Once Julie grabbed some surgical scissors off a tray and jabbed her brother in the ear with them.
"My kids believe in an ear for an ear," Karla told her friends, who enjoyed gallows humor.
She learned never to take the twins to the hospital at the same time: there were too many weapons in hospitals.
In time Karla concluded that the twins' conception had nothing to do with Divine Will, and everything to do with medical incompetence. She wanted to bring a malpractice suit against Doctor Deckert, the young general practitioner who tied her off.
"No, you can't sue him," Duane said. "You might run him off, and if you do half the people in town will die of minor ailments."
"Shit, what about us?" Karla said. "We got a life sentence because of him."
Shortly after that Karla had a T-shirt printed which read, INSANITY IS THE BEST REVENGE. The line wasn't original with her, nor was it from a hillbilly song. She had seen it on a bumper sticker and liked it.
In fact, Karla found almost as many important truths on bumper stickers as she found in songs. One which hewed very closely to her own philosophy of life said, IF YOU LOVE SOMETHING SET IT FREE. IF IT DOESN'T RETURN IN A MONTH OR TWO HUNT IT DOWN AND KILL IT.
With more amusement than alarm, she watched Duane point the pistol into the water.
"Duane, I don't think you ought to try and shoot your dick off," she said.
"Why not?" he asked. "It don't work half the time anyway."
"Well, I wouldn't be the one to know about that," Karla said. "But it's a small target and if you miss you'll just ruin our new hot tub."
She laughed loudly at her own wit. Shorty, excited by the laughter, began to roll around on the redwood deck. He attempted to bite his own tail and came close to nipping it a time or two.
"Don't sulk, Duane," Karla said. "You left yourself wide open for that one."
She stood up and kicked Shorty lightly in the ribs. Shorty was too excited by the pursuit of his own tail to take any notice.
"I guess I'll go in and see if I can talk Nellie into acting like a parent for a few minutes," Karla said.
Duane took the gun out of the water. In the far corner of the vast yard the new white satellite dish was tilted skyward, its antenna pointed toward a spot somewhere over the equator. The dish was the most expensive one available in Dallas. Before they had even got it aligned properly Karla had gone to Dallas and returned with a Betamax, a VHS and four thousand dollars' worth of movies she had purchased from a video store. So far they had only watched two of them: Coal Miner's Daughter, which Karla and Nellie watched once or twice a week, and a sex movie called Hot Channels.
Duane pointed out to her that it was possible to rent movies. They could even be rented from Sonny Crawford's small convenience store, in Thalia.
"I know that, Duane," Karla said. "Just because I'm horny don't mean I'm dumb. The ones I want to see are always checked out, though."
However, on her next visit to Dallas she considerately bought only eight hundred dollars' worth of movies.
Duane had been in the hot tub nearly half an hour and was beginning to feel a little bleached. He climbed out and dried himself and his pistol. He felt weary -- very weary. Sometimes he would wake up in the night needing to relieve himself and would feel so tired by the time he stumbled into the bathroom that he would have to sit on the pot and nap for a few minutes before going back to bed. Getting rich had been tiring, but nothing like as tiring as going broke.
The minute Duane climbed out, Shorty stopped rolling around on the deck and raced across the yard to park himself expectantly beside Duane's pickup. He knew it was almost time for Duane to go to town, and he was ready to roll.
Copyright © 1987 by Larry McMurtry
One of Larry McMurtry's funniest and most touching contemporary novels.
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