To the Oklahoma Historical Society:
My name is Grady McClarty. I am seventy years old, the retired general manager of Wolfcamp Chevrolet in Midland, Texas, where I have resided for most of my life. I am writing in response to a request I received from one of your archivists, Marguerite Talkingthunder, to record an oral history of the “great leopard escape” that occurred in Oklahoma City when I was living there as a young boy in the early 1950s.
I hope it won’t disappoint you if I provide a written reminiscence instead of an oral one. I ordered a little digital recorder from Amazon and did my best to tell this story into it. But I’ve always found it difficult to order my thoughts when speaking out loud, and even though I tried recording myself in the garage, out of the hearing of my wife, Jeannette, I still felt too conspicuous and self-conscious. For one thing, this is an intimate story about a little boy and his family, and trying to tell it out loud meant always having to resist the temptation to make it bigger, to inflate it with a meaning it didn’t have then, and I assume does not have now. (Although of course the leopard escape was at the time a very big deal, and I and my family played a part in it, which is the reason you asked for my memories in the first place.)
This might turn out to be a lengthy document. Your request had the effect of knocking the lid off a big box of memories, and reminding me that despite or because of a lifetime in the car business, I’ve always imagined a parallel existence for myself as a writer. A strain of artistic aspiration, mostly frustrated by real-life demands, runs through my mother’s side of the family, going back at least to my great-grandmother, who wrote a privately published, surprisingly colorful history of the Kansas county where her Czech ancestors settled. That particular family trait didn’t spare me. I was an English major at the University of Texas until some sort of reality panic—a sense that I was whimsically indulging myself in a hobby and not investing in a real career—caused me to switch to business. But I never gave up reading. I’m the ringleader of a Midland book club that has met every month for forty years. My children, after I die, will one day open a locked drawer in the desk of my home office and find a puzzling artifact: a dozen old-time floppy disks that contain an unfinished and hopelessly unfocused historical novel about the early days of oil exploration in the Permian Basin.
And now it seems you’ve given me something else, something closer to home, to write about. I’ve reached an age where looking into my past, trying to sort out who everybody was back then, and what they were thinking, and how I came to be who I am, feels not just natural but sort of urgent. I don’t know why this should be so, particularly in the case of someone like me who has lived an utterly ordinary life and has nothing exciting to report. But there does seem to be a kind of summing-up instinct that hits people around this stage of life, if we’re lucky enough to have made it this far—a sudden interest in family origins and ancestors and, especially, the unsolved mysteries of childhood that we didn’t even know at the time were mysteries.
I was only five years old when the leopard escaped, so you’ll have to take that into account when judging the accuracy of these recollections. I searched the Internet under “childhood memories” recently and it seems to be the case that people can remember highly significant or highly emotional events from their childhoods—losing a parent, getting a dog, moving to a new house—as early as three years of age, but that most real memories don’t form until about four and a half. I suppose that puts me in the zone of reliability, at least somewhat. But memories are mostly about the events that for one reason or another seized our attention; they’re not a continuous record of everything that happened in between. What I retain from those distant years is a more or less random accumulation of textures, smells, gestures, tones of voice, feelings of safety or fear, a strong sense of a particular place experienced with a child’s hazy awareness of time. In order to write all this down in a way that makes sense, I’m going to have to pretend that I was observing things more clearly and listening more carefully than I really was. You should, for instance, treat the conversations that I recount here in quotation marks as only an earnest effort to approximate what might actually have been said. It’s up to you to decide whether any of this can be thought of as history, and not merely fiction, but I wanted you to know it’s as conscientious an effort as I could make with the fragments of memory available to me. I was just a young boy; I wasn’t taking notes.
This all happened in the summer of 1952. My mother and my brother, Danny, and I lived in a two-bedroom backyard apartment on NW 34th Street that backed up to a sprawling public park. In front of us, across a small patch of fenced-in yard, was the two-story prairie-style house where my grandparents and my aunt Vivian lived, and above us lived my two uncles, in a garage apartment whose main room was dominated by a pool table.
It added up to a kind of family compound. My grandparents’ house, where they had largely raised their children, was erected before World War I. The addition in back—our place and the bachelor apartment above it—was several decades newer. My grandfather had it built a few years after the end of the next war so that my suddenly widowed mother and her infant son and another son on the way (me) would have a place to live when they came home to Oklahoma City.
I suppose it was a common enough arrangement at the time, when so many young married men had been killed in the war, and so many young mothers were left without husbands and had to be absorbed back into the homes they thought they had left behind to make families of their own. It was certainly no novelty to me or to Danny. Like any children, we accepted the world we were born into without a thought. In our case, it was a world whose center was a mother who was—I realize now—still unsteady from grief and shock. We called her Bethie, because there were so many people in our household who called her that—our grandparents and aunt and uncles— that the words “Mother” or “Mom” never had much of a chance to enter our vocabulary.
I’ve gone back through all the newspaper accounts about the leopard escape. There’s a clear beginning and end to that story, and I’ll try to write this so that it tracks along with the larger narrative and has a beginning and an end as well. The experienced writer I once hoped to become would have a better idea of a compelling place to start, but I’m just going to have to follow my instincts and hope that my memories—my own story—will end up being relevant and useful to the Historical Society.
So I’ll begin on a summer night that was probably a week or so before Oklahoma City went insane, when the little world I inhabited still seemed orderly and peaceful. It was dark, and it must have been late, otherwise when I woke up in the bedroom I shared with Danny I would have still heard the thock-thock-thock of tennis balls echoing in the summer night from the park behind our house. I was awake because I had to tee-tee, as we said back in the 1950s. The bathroom was midway in the hallway between our bedroom and our mother’s, but when I got out of bed and took a step into the hallway I saw that the light was off and the open door leading to the bathroom was like the entrance to a chasm. Our room had a night-light, a translucent plastic six-shooter set into a holster with the word “Hoppy” on it, and a depiction of the face of the white-haired cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy beneath his enormous black hat. But the night-light’s glow was as weak as the lens of a flashlight with dying batteries, and it didn’t reach much beyond the door to our bedroom.
The hallway wasn’t completely dark, though. There was some moonlight seeping in from the bathroom window, just enough illumination to highlight contours and create shadows. And there was something terrifying lying on the floor in the middle of the hallway—a black, shapeless, menacing entity. There must have been a few swaying tree branches outside the bathroom window that, with the moonlight filtering through them, created the effect that the thing was moving. Moving very slightly and quietly, like it was breathing. Breathing and waiting, ready to snatch me if I entered the hallway or tried to run past it to the safety of my mother’s room.
I was paralyzed. Danny was asleep in the room behind me. He was a year older and I was still young enough to think of him as my protector. But if I called out to him the thing would hear my voice, and if I turned around and tried to wake him up the thing would sense my movement. As it was, it hadn’t yet noticed I was there. But if I moved or made a sound, it would get me.
I must have stood there for a long time, quietly shaking with fear, until I began to try to convince myself that if I ran fast enough, and kept low enough, I could get past that shapeless monster. I could sprint down the hallway to the room where Bethie slept, slam the door behind me, and leap into her bed, where I would be safe beneath her green satin bedspread. She had let me sleep there before, after I had had my tonsils taken out and was suffering from a bad sore throat. If she knew how scared I was she would let me stay there again.
I would be okay if I could only reach the open door at the end of the hallway. I got ready, told myself “Run!”; but before I could work up the nerve to do so I realized the thing had already spotted me. It was looking at me. It didn’t have eyes, but it somehow saw me. It knew I was going to try to run past it. I was convinced that it knew everything I was thinking. I wouldn’t be able to make it even halfway down the hallway before it grabbed me, and now I was sure that if I turned around and went back to bed it would slither in pursuit, creep over me, and smother me.
I continued to stand there motionless, or as motionless as I could make myself, for several more excruciating minutes, with my full bladder only sharpening my sense of urgency and terror. I might have stayed there, frozen, all night, if the spell hadn’t been broken by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. The beams of its headlights swept across the curtained picture window of our little living room and reached into the hallway.
I heard car doors slamming and then the voices of my uncles, Frank and Emmett. Emmett was saying, “For Christ’s sake, don’t let the folks see you like this”; and though I don’t remember hearing Frank say anything in reply I could sense his drunken annoyance at being lectured to by his younger, less drunk, and more fretful brother.
Emmett was pleading with him not to wake up Bethie and the boys, but Frank had already opened the front door that led upstairs to our uncles’ garage apartment. He pounded on our door, which opened onto the same interior stairway. “Bethie!” he shouted. “Danny! Grady! Time to wake up! Time to see the goddamn comet!”
Excerpted from The Leopard Is Loose by Stephen Harrigan. Copyright © 2022 by Stephen Harrigan. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.