What If I’m Actually a Character in a Larry McMurtry Novel?
On the Beautiful Losers of Texas, and Returning to Where You Came From
A little more than a week ago, I drove to Archer City, Texas with an old friend from college and our kids. I haven’t taken a road trip across Texas in years. On the way I remembered that drive from Houston to Waco to see my grandparents, how we would always stop in Bryan for Yoo-Hoos, or taking off my seat belt in the back of the Pacer and looking through a bubble of glass at a starry Big Sky. As we drove through Huntsville I pointed out the prison to my friend and our children, and waited for the commentary. I was by turns proud and ashamed of Texas, which is pretty much how I’ve felt about my home state ever since I came of age. As we neared Normangee, where my parents live but I haven’t visited in years, we drove past a giant marble Sam Houston looming up from the pine trees. I thought he looked beautiful.
We were driving to Archer City to Booked Up, to see what was left of Larry McMurtry’s bookstore. GPS took us through rural roads, and on the way down there were a few flash flood warnings that frightened me more than anyone else in the car; I knew what could happen. This was a road trip my friend had suggested, one I’d always wanted to make but never would have justified making myself.
When I was 13, I fell in love with Larry McMurtry’s writing.
I found his paperbacks in my mother’s closet. I think the first one I read was Moving On; I still remember the book cover, the foreground the color of yellowed book pages, and the sultry looking man lounging with his red shirt open all the way down, a necklace of some sort dangling down his neck. He was wearing cowboy boots. Angled towards him was a topless woman in jeans, her long, shining brown hair covering the suggestion of breasts. She looked happy and comfortable.
Mostly what I remember from Moving On is Patsy Carpenter. She, I assumed, was the topless woman lazing on the grass on the book cover. I didn’t want to grow up to be her; I wanted to rescue her, in much the same way I sometimes wanted to rescue my mother. I remember a long summer of reading about Patsy, and the thrill of discovering a landscape I recognized as mine, but someone else’s vision. A big red sun dangling over the freeway, or Patsy waiting in a hot parked car, eating a melted Hershey bar, waiting for her husband. She had lovers; a graduate student, a rodeo clown. Unlike my own mother, unlike me, she is financially secure. It was not until I read McMurtry that I realized financially secure people could be failures, too.
The horizon, in any good western, is never reachable.
But they failed in ways that I suspected my own parents might consider success. Or would they? The horizon, in any good western, is never reachable. In Moving On, Patsy meets Sonny Shanks, a cowboy, and Joe Percy, a screenwriter who will contribute to a bad film about the great cowboy Sonny Shanks.
I wanted to grow up and into these characters’ lives. Even now, at times, I wish I could load my kids in to a big boat of a car, tell them to buckle their seatbelts, and travel to tenure on a book of prose poems. Could I be one of McMurtry’s women? When I’ve felt laid low, broke, too obsessed with the wrong men and the wrong places, I’ve found some comfort imagining myself as one. Years ago, I won a chapbook competition judged by another writer I gobbled as a teen, Ron Carlson. He wrote the introduction, which I memorized, and still have committed to memory. “Each of Claudia Smith’s shorts is a tilted memory of love and loss,” he wrote, “the father gone or the mother going, friends and lovers in nervous orbit.” I hydroplaned on those words, imagining book deals, movies. And now, a decade later, still working on my credit and grading rhetorical essays into the night, I tell myself, well, maybe not.
I left Houston in 1988; I was 18 years old. I lived in different cities, different parts of the country, even another country for a little while. But 27 years later, I came back. My two children and I live in an apartment building mentioned in a McMurtry book. You may not believe me, but it’s true; I wasn’t aware of this until after we had moved in, when I was driving to work, thinking of how I’d missed the big sun over the freeway, and then my mind wandered to The Evening Star, and I thought, wow. Aurora’s lover lives in our apartments. I thought I might be superimposing my literary daydreams over real life, but I went home and checked my tattered copy of The Evening Star. I was right. He does.
I get a sort of perverse pleasure from knowing this. Somehow, the painful truths of my life seem less bitter, more bittersweet, tinged with sunset and old boots, when I think of myself this way. I’m like one of those guys, Flap, or Danny Deck. A girl version. A mom version. A 21st-century version.
Our building looks, from the front, much the way it did in the late 1960s. I looked it up. The apartment manager, a man with boundless energy, gets back to me within the hour every time I email him with a problem. Across from us are condominiums selling for $600,000. There is no dishwasher, and the place is clean, basic. The floors are all wood. Outside the window is a worn deck and courtyard where my son plays with the boy who lives across from us.
There is a kind of poverty I don’t want my children to suffer. It’s a bitterness I learned from my mother, although I did not recognize it as such. We were, often, pushing up against a different class; were we in the same social class? Well, we were and we were not. We spent more of our time with people who had more money than we did, but this, I was certain, was not about money. It was about education. It was about certain aspirations that were more important than money, although that would come, in time. We knew it would.
My parents spent a couple years traveling the northwest when I was a young child. We had a green pick-up truck, and I sat in the middle. My mother pointed things out to me. There were bales of hay sprinkled with snow, like frosted buns. There were geese flying ahead of us in formation. There were mountains looking like clouds and clouds that looked like mountains. I haven’t kept track of the places we lived before settling in Houston, but some of the names stick in my head: Pocatello, Idaho and Glasgow, Montana. There are photographs of me and my mother, in fields: big sky, empty roads, and tall burned-looking weeds. I was four when we ended up here.
We often camped. My mother made coffee on a Bunsen burner. She was always the first one up. She would put eggshells in the bottom of instant coffee to settle the grounds. She was proud of a set of splatterware dishes and kept them for years. As often as we moved, holding onto certain things was important to her. I had a skewed sense of the value of things; it wasn’t until I was grown and gone that I realized that just because things were old didn’t mean they were worth a lot of money. My mother preferred motels to campgrounds. So did I. In motels, we blasted the air conditioner because we didn’t have to pay for it. My brother and I jumped on the bed. When I think of those motels from my early childhood, they don’t seem so different than the motels I sleep in today. They still have thick vanilla curtains and thin, too-shiny bedspreads. Back then I don’t think we could count on deadbolts or coffeemakers. Carpet came in vivid colors; astro-turf green, gold, aqua blue. Now fake wood flooring seems to be taking over. What we valued—and my mother’s standards formed mine, was cleanliness, affordability. A good motel had free coffee in little Styrofoam cups, no mildew, and pillowcases. A good budget motel was a place you wanted to be, when you were in a little trouble or leaving some place.
* * * *
If you grew up in this country 1970s and 80s, in the US, you probably know about Larry McMurtry. Most people I’ve talked know him best for Terms of Endearment, the 1980s movie that swept the academy awards, with a great soundtrack rivaling Chariots of Fire in popularity; The Last Picture Show, another movie based on one of his books that launched Cybil Shepard’s career, as far as I know; and Lonesome Dove, the grand western turned into a mini-series starring Robert Duvall. But I read the books first, and the world in them sank into my own interior, mingling with the sky outside my window, giving it some purpose and depth for 13-year-old me, whose understanding of the dirty clouds out there was changing rapidly. The clouds in the Houston sky linger like a rotting, bruised banana, I wrote in my blue-lined tablet, and then crossed it out. I wanted to be a writer like McMurtry.
McMurtry is a weather writer. John Leonard notes this proclivity in his 1970 review of Moving On in the New York Times, that McMurtry is “very big on weather.” And “No one in Moving On can drive a car without McMurtry noting how fast they go, where they sit, what the gas stations look like, and the contents of the glove compartment.” How right Leonard is. But as a young girl reading in the rain, it was nothing less than transformative for me to read about the weather. Have you seen the weather in Houston? How the sky breaks into eerie alien planet colors, and how water suddenly rushes down the streets as cars begin to hydroplane? We keep building artificial hills as the water drains and rushes down, down, down. Even as a small child, looking down into the bayou, I could imagine the rusted objects and creatures beneath. And after the floods, we wake up, driving to work through the rain again.
During our trip, on the freeway, driving back from NASA, great gray clouds rolled overhead. We drove towards a towering white cross, that looked to be made out of white cement, and lightening seemed to crack the sky opened behind it. Soon the rain was pouring so hard I couldn’t see, so I pulled over, off the freeway, and in to a Jack in the Box parking lot.
“That’s Texas for you,” I said. The kids were a little bit scared. We waited the rain out.
As a small child in Texas, I was keenly away of the vastness of the universe, of giant refineries rising up like post-apocalyptic castles during late night road trips.
Freeways rise over the flat landscape. For years, living far away from home at a time when my mother had told me I was no longer part of her family, I would dream about being lost on those freeways, driving down down down into a deep, cavernous city, or flying off the sides of the wide overpasses and into bright blue. As a small child in Texas, I was keenly away of the vastness of the universe, of giant refineries rising up like post-apocalyptic castles during late night road trips. McMurtry gave me this feeling back, in words. He pauses to show us pig sandwiches and pies behind thick glass in a roadside Pig Stand. He reminds us of who, exactly, his greatest creation in my estimation, Aurora Greenway, is—by showing her checking her beautiful face in the rearview mirror, by reminding us that she is keenly aware of every item in her glove compartments. I know her the way I can’t know my own mother, because of those sudden, piercing moments McMurtry keeps showing me.
Terms of Endearment, the movie and the book, is the story of two women, a mother and a daughter, and the men who circle them like satellites. Emma marries into a class of people I’ve flitted in and out of, perhaps for my entire adult life—the dilettantes, the true artists mingled with the voracious readers, the graduate students who come from all different backgrounds as they take out student loan upon student loan and convene for a few floating years, when they read and write and obsess over formatting dissertations. Leonard says of Moving On, “The ranchers and cowboys (experiencing life in the raw) are good; the dilettantes and academics (spying on life through grammar, symbol, synopsis and vellium) are bad.”
It’s an astute observation but I’ve never seen it that way. If Aurora is the dilettante, taking the raw material from the messiness of life and trying to shape it into something, then Emma is a cowboy, experiencing life in all its pain and wonder, accepting of it, really. I’ve read what a lot of people have said about the characters of Aurora Greenway and her daughter Emma over the years. It’s been said that Aurora is unfulfilled, narcissistic, dominating, and that Emma lives in the shadow of her mother. But I never read it that way. I read it as the coupling of two fierce and very different souls that the universe threw together as mother and daughter. The book is much like life: tangled, moving in and out of events, looping around.
* * * *
The summer after I was in the first grade, our landlord evicted us. There wasn’t time to find a new place, and my parents had to borrow money to come up with a deposit, so they put our things in storage. It was hot. My brother and I were excited at first and wanted to help, but after a few hours we were nothing but thirsty. We begged for quarters and drank Big Reds and Welch’s until they told us no more. We were all hot, no more.
Years ago, I asked my mother, How long did we live in motels after that? I asked her what she could tell me about one I remember from the summer we had to leave the rental we’d lived in since I was five. I wanted to know how much it cost and if it was as seedy as I remembered. I asked her if people rented rooms there by the hour and she said, “They did say it was a weekly motel.” I asked her about a place I’d always called “The Parrot Motel,” but I thought it had a different name. I told her about what I remembered, how she made us put sleeping bags on top of the beds, the prostitutes moaning in the other room.
My mother sent me an email that night, telling me a few things I didn’t know. I was amazed by how precise her memory was when it came to numbers. We moved out of the McClendon street house on June 15th, 1977 and into the Western Skies Motel. It was on OST at the corner of Alameda Road and had a large parrot in front of its dirty pool. The room had two beds, a black and white TV which ran on an extension cord that trailed across the dirty gray carpet. There were a lot of small roaches. The bathroom had pasty pink ceramic tiles and very mildewed grout. The TV cord ran from an outlet in the bathroom. The cord itself was frayed with hot wires exposed, and it ran through water which came out of the shower. We lived there for only one week. It cost $50. After she told my father she would not stay there with two small children any longer, we moved next door to the Ranger Motel, which had a cowboy out front. It was very clean and seemed safe. The pool was clean, and we swam every day. The Ranger was $65 a week. We ate breakfast each day next door at Guy’s Steakhouse and ate supper out, too: usually at Luby’s. A week before we moved into the Ranger, a body had been found in the pool; that’s one reason it was so clean. The week after we left the Western Skies, three bodies were found in the dumpster there. My parents had about $500 a month to live on then. They paid $150 a month for our car, the Pacer.
The National Wage Indexing Series from www.socialsecurity.gov says the average annual wage in 1977 was $9,779.44. If my family was living on $500 a month, that’s $6,000 a year. Did that place us where I thought we were? The lower-middle class?
What I remember about the Western Skies: we did get in the pool, once. My father wanted to and we did, and then my mother told us to get out. We developed an itchy fungus on the palms of our hands. There was a shag carpet the color of Tang, and a dirty, linty air conditioning window unit. My brother and I would sit with our faces against it, letting the air blow our bangs back. There were no other children around, and it seemed empty because people almost never came out of the rooms. One night, we watched a movie on a black and white television set. It was a marvelous movie, and I told the story to my brother, or different versions of the story, for years, again and again. The movie was about a man who invents a material that can never be destroyed. The man is proud and happy about his invention, but when he shows it to important people in the textile industry, they decide he must die. The rest of the movie becomes a kind of North by Northwest chase. I haven’t seen this film since and I’m not sure I want to; I don’t want to find out I am wrong about it.
I watched stories on TV of a strangler that summer, Son of Sam. At night, I would wrap my long hair around my neck. I knew the strangler chose women with long hair. I thought if a vampire bit my neck, a thick layer of my hair might protect me.
* * * *
By the time I was a teenager, when I began reading McMurtry, my mother’s hair had gone completely gray. She was younger than I am now and younger than many of my friends’ mothers. But she didn’t look like their mothers. She wore her long hair in braids wrapped around her head like a pioneer woman. She didn’t have a dishwasher. I wanted her to have a dishwasher. In wintertime, her hands cracked and bled. Why didn’t she put lotion on them? I wanted to slather them with cocoa butter. Sometimes, I felt like slapping them. She refused to wear gloves; she said the dishes slipped through her fingers, and might break.
I thought I loved her terribly. I thought I hated my father, who vented his rage mostly on me as I grew; my mother placated, maneuvered. Maybe I did hate him, but only in bursts. It isn’t how I feel now. When I think about goodbyes, about leaving them to go north and the years away, there is no one big goodbye. It happened in increments. You don’t always hear someone saying goodbye when they are saying it. I wasn’t going to come home, but I didn’t understand this at first. My mother never said you are not welcome. She said, we can’t afford it. This is not a good time.
It’s the in-between times I remember from that period: Christmas vacations, summers, the long Greyhound rides, and the summer jobs, figuring out ways to stay other places. Squatting in an empty dorm room for two weeks, hoping I wouldn’t get caught. Scavenging the vacated rooms for canned goods. She sent me whatever she could; I knew that. “You should find a friend to stay with,” she would tell me, as if this was easy. “You always know how to make friends,” she said.
* * * *
My father liked to take us on tours of model homes. He was disdainful of the people who ordered houses in these developments, yet would talk excitedly on the drive there about house construction. Our guide and agent would talk about property values, color schemes, and school districts. Sometimes, when he would talk to the agents he put on a fake drawl. He would say things like “It don’t make no never mind,” and play at being a hick. This embarrassed me. I was sure they knew what he was doing, but my parents acted as if they didn’t
He kept a model he made of the house we might all live in someday in the garage. It was a round house, with a skylight in the center. He called the living area the atrium. Our bedrooms were shaped like cheese wedges, with lofts and skylights.
I thought this would be the best house for us and imagined it in different settings. I cut out pictures of furniture and accessories and showed them to him. At some point, I realized that we would not live in this house, and this was his way of dreaming.
For a few years after a difficult divorce, I felt closer to my mother. We spoke on the phone often. She wrote me about the house she had finally settled into with my father, a house in the country. The grasses in the open areas, she wrote, are little bluestem and Indian grass. In the bog there are woods fern. The brush is yaupon holly and huckleberry. The understory trees are dogwood. Some people close to her property have redbud, but she does not. In the wet areas the shrubs are wax myrtle. Indian blanket and black-eyed Susans grow along the road in the summer. In the yard are roses and Esperanza. There is Carolina jasmine, a vine… In the bog, she has some pitcher plants growing, too. A plant called lizard tail grows in the creek and along the edges of the pond. If you were to ask me to point out these plants to you in a book, I couldn’t, but I believe my son could. He is like her in many ways.
I wish my story with my mother ended there. But, like with McMurtry’s characters, the story never really ends until we’re gone. Even then, it would continue, I think, in ways we never anticipate. She stays with a man who hurt me terribly. There are secrets I guarded for her so many years, I wouldn’t know how to tell them now. I told myself I kept the secrets to protect her, but I know that is only part of it; I was afraid that if I told her, it wouldn’t matter. No matter how I say, or what I say, it will never make things right, and it will never be enough. And now I have my own daughter.
According to the GPS in my iPhone, my children and I now live 1.6 miles away from the McClendon Street house my parents were evicted from when I was in the first grade. I’ve driven that street many times. The house is gone now, replaced by a prettier one: a little brick house with red trim. The owners have a Bernie Sanders sign in their yard.
* * * *
So the McMurtry character who lived in our apartment building was a down-and-out character, a slightly unethical psychologist, a lover Aurora takes when she is in her seventies. I imagine McMurtry thinking, yes, the Medical Center Apartments—they have been there since the mid-1960s, a perfect place for a character who needs to live near the museum district and River Oaks, but isn’t quite solvent
I never thought I’d return.
Just the other day, I stood looking over the railing as my daughter napped, watching the sun set very suddenly. I remembered a scene from a McMurtry novel; which one, I’m not sure. It was Patsy, I think, standing in a kitchen, cutting vegetables or meat, looking out at the sun setting suddenly and quite beautifully, the way it often does in this part of the world. I thought of that, how I’d forgotten, and of the giant red sun looming over the freeway, the wide streets, and the odd feeling of coming back and forward in time that I was experiencing.
When my parents moved us from here to a bungalow on the other side of town, it might as well have been another planet. We lived on a street that flooded easily, was filled with dogs tied in the yards, and had a drug dealer next door who watched Woody Woodpecker and hollered at me when I climbed the fence to go through the back door whenever I got home from school. Benji, the drug dealer, called me “legs.” “Hey Legs,” he’d sneer at me from the busted lawn chair in his front yard, and I’d stare down at my skinned knees, pretending I didn’t understand. My mother would tell me she saw his grandfather, who he lived with, begging in the meat market down the road. Why are you begging, old man? Someone asked him, Why don’t you get social security? The old man told my mother that his grandson had stolen his social security check. With the floods came frogs and crawdads, and with the new school, the good feeling that all of us were on free lunch. At my old school, I stood out. In this neighborhood, you could play in the street; the cars drove around you. We collected tadpoles by the railroad tracks
There were new possibilities; there were always new possibilities back then.
But I’ve moved us back here. Across the street from a good public school, and not too far away from downtown, where I teach. The kids at my son’s school are not Rockefellers, but they’re not us, either. Their parents are lawyers and doctors and bankers. The neighborhood I remember vividly from childhood has changed: many of the ranch houses have been knocked down and replaced by mansions filling the St. Augustine grass. But the lawns are not free from fire ant beds or dog poop, and I recognize the same old pick-up trucks with gardening tools from the side of town I moved to at seven, when I left a classroom of mostly white kids for a school in which I was one of the only white kids, other than a boy named Billy whom everyone loved because he could turn his ears red on command.
* * * *
As we neared Archer, Texas, the children began to tire of cattle; even my daughter, who for a couple of hours had exclaimed over them. “That’s a mirage, Mom!” My son said, and I remember watching the silvered heat off the pavement when I was his age. When the GPS said we were three miles away from Booked Up, everyone in the car was a little skeptical. It looked as if ranchland met the sky.
“It could be 1977,” I said.
I love the beautiful lost men in McMurtry’s Houston books. I love Flap, who, according to Aurora Greenway, “can’t even fail locally.” It is only from the distance I have now that I can say I identified with these men, not McMurtry’s women. I even glamorized them. They were all readers and dreamers, the ones in little college towns renting garage apartments in University Place, every single one of them. And it is only now, having dealt with yet another aggressive cockroach infestation in a fairly well maintained old building, one in which I suspect I may be the only to ever recognize its literary significance (and it is significant, if only to me), that I can begin to admit my humble beginnings and my parents’ insolvency may have played a part in my current life. The thing about all those movies and books about beautiful losers—they are all created by people who are not, so much, losers in the same way. They are created by people who published the novel, who sold the book to Hollywood, who wrote the script. I am closer to 50 than 40 now, and I have not gotten that big book deal. I have not written the script. I am only now beginning to save for retirement.
I’m part of a world that did not really exist when Flap dragged Emma Horton out of Texas in search of tenure. I worked for years as an adjunct, as instructors do, getting paid by the course. The institution I work for now has the decency to invest in health insurance and full-time benefits for its lecturers. When I was a child, there were more professors than administrators. Not true anymore. Having a PhD means something, but not the same something. I’m not a professor; I’m a lecturer. I suppose officially I’m an adjunct, because my contract has to be renewed every year. But I get health insurance and retirement. Six years ago, as a single mother, I claimed the earned income credit, and my son was on free lunch. I couldn’t get a credit card at Target. I lived with my son in a little cottage I rented from a professor, and before that in student family housing, carting my books around, much like Emma’s pseudo-scholar of a husband, Flap. And I did love our life; I liked grading student papers in coffee shops, finding pleasure and meaning in student slip-ups. I’ll never forget some of those slip-ups. “Although McBeth was many wicked things, he was never a quitter. He lived life to the death.” I kept my pencil hovered over those words, crossing out, writing in the margins. I kept at it, and now I teach in a giant building in downtown Houston, trying my best to talk about writing to students who grew up in the same neighborhoods I grew up in. Now I’m solvent.
I read McMurtry and I recognized that the places I knew were worth writing about.
The wildness I felt years ago, when I sped through Texas all night thinking, the great thing about Texas is that you can drive all night and still be in Texas, is all but gone. I still love her, that girl who lived immoderately. According to my mother, she is nothing like her mother. She’s the woman who gave me my two children, so obviously from different fathers that people comment on it in the grocery store.
She brought me here, and I am Emma sometimes, and I am also Aurora. How much do the stories we love in our youth sink in to us, forming us? What McMurtry’s books gave to me was a glimpse of life as I knew it, deeper and richer because it was his own particular vision. When I thought I most hated my hometown and this whole city seemed looming with skies as ugly as the bruises she wore like a badge we would never talk about, I read McMurtry and I recognized that the places I knew were worth writing about.
When we finally made it to Archer, we didn’t stay that long. I could have read in that bookstore for hours, but we had children, and a long drive back. What surprised me most about the arrival was that it was exactly as I imagined. Books and books, on barbed wire and old pulp Westerns, and that was the best part—all the out-of-print books. On my limited budget, the only book I ended up buying was an old one from the 70s that my son picked out, on witchcraft. My daughter played with the clerk’s daughter, crying for at least 40 miles after we left because she never got the chance to say a proper goodbye.
As I drove through that seemingly endless ranch country on the way to Bar-B-Q, she cried as if her heart was breaking open. “Mama, Mama, I want to talk to you! I just want to say goodbye!” In the car, once we were parked, the clerk told her gently on the phone that she liked meeting her, and that she could always come back to play with her new friend. This placated. We may never go that way again, but it is too hard to explain this to a four-year-old. Perceptions change, and we think we know where we are, who we can trust, who we can’t trust, and then before you know it the horizon has changed. I mean, that’s what happens in certain parts of Texas. The GPS will tell you a town is three miles away but all your senses tell you otherwise.
What I remember most of McMurtry’s urban southwestern stories, is how very lived in they are. Characters inhabit a world of sweet melancholy, inherited from a past that always seemed closer to the past of my father’s fathers than any John Wayne western. I remember Patsy, and Emma, and Aurora much the way I remember real friends; snatches of conversation, pieces of a love and a life. Aurora sobbing on the freeway in a giant Cadillac on the way to see her grandson in prison in Huntsville. Flap watching his wife and her best friend, feeling horny and affectionate towards both of them; you like him and you are sort of disgusted with him. Emma, reaching out in her loneliness to a lonely middle-aged Des Moines man, telling him she missed Texas. “There is an absence of wildness,” she explains.
His characters still resonate as deeply. I’m not looking to grow into them anymore. Class boundaries are not as fluid as I once believed. What happens when you come full circle, and you don’t grow up to be Aurora Greenway, but you don’t die young like Emma either? I can’t say I grew up and away from my parents’ Houston. I’m still there, and it is as vast and troubling as it always was. I always miss you, my mother emails me from the joint email account she shares with my father. I miss her too. I guess I always will.
Feature photo by Bishop Decker.