Read Some Can Whistle Online

Authors: Larry McMurtry

Some Can Whistle (4 page)

At the moment Gladys was wearing orange parachute pants, black Reeboks, and a yellow I Love New York T-shirt. Gladys had never been to New York and would not, in my opinion, love it if she happened to go there, but she was a frequent recipient of hand-me-downs and other surprising garments from various of the ladies I know. Gladys had somehow convinced them that she alone was keeping me sane and healthy, a task none of them had shown much interest in assuming; for this they rewarded her with wild-looking pants or strange baggy coats from places such as Parachute in L.A. or Comme Des Garcons in New York, paying God knows what sums so that my maid could flit around West Texas looking totally ridiculous. People in Thalia assumed that Gladys got the clothes from the Goodwill store in Wichita Falls. She was probably the most expensively dressed woman in the county, but people still treated her like a clown.

And something sad in Gladys stood ready to believe that she
was
a clown, which is why I spoke up instantly when Godwin made his remark.

“Shut up, Gladys looks great!” I said. “She’s the only one around here who dresses with esprit.”

I rushed the comment out, hoping it would arrive in time to keep Gladys from bursting into tears, which she was wont to do if any reference was made to her appearance.

Quick as I was, I was still too late. Gladys burst into tears. Though Godwin and I had both seen this happen many times, we were still always stunned by the speed with which Gladys could move from equanimity, even pugnacity, to despair.

“I hope that poor little child of yours stays where she is,” she said. Tears were streaming down her face, which was otherwise plain as a post.

“She’d be better off staying with the pit bulls than livin’ in a hateful place like this,” she said. As Godwin and I sat silent, she shuffled together a few of the dishes and headed for the house.

9

“I was merely defending myself,” Godwin said meekly. “I didn’t mean to hurt the poor thing’s feelings.”

“When are you going to learn that you can’t kid Gladys about the way she looks?” I asked.

“The two of you insult me constantly,” Godwin said. “But do I indulge my feelings? Do I burst into tears?”

Only yesterday he had stood by the phone in the kitchen and butted his head against the wall for five minutes, sobbing and wailing, because one of his boyfriends had refused to come over for a swim. Gladys and I had been forced to retreat to the front of the house, a considerable distance from the kitchen, in order not to be privy to some loud and messy recriminations.

“You don’t behave any better than she does, if that’s what you’re claiming,” I said. “She’s got a point, you know. What
is
my daughter going to think when she sees this household?”

“What makes you think she’ll come?” Godwin asked. “So far she hasn’t even given you her address.”

That was true, but I still assumed that my daughter would be coming to stay with me now. I wanted to see her. I wanted to hear her voice some more—a lot more. I wanted to meet my grandchildren. I wanted them all to live with me. After all, I
had a huge house, vast stretches of which had never been occupied. I had once envisioned various of my lady friends coming to visit for extended periods, so my architect had designed a series of luxurious semiprivate suites, with saunas and airy studio rooms flooded with fine Texas sunlight. The suites were tailored to the various proclivities of the ladies I thought might come and stay. I had laid in excellent wines, procured a video library of more than a thousand films. I had everything ready.

The house—I could see it as I sat, spreading over the long hill to the east of me—had been ready for nearly ten years, but none of the ladies had ever quite managed to get there. Something—romance or career—always intervened at the last minute. They never quite made it to Texas, never stayed in my house.

The thought that my daughter might come and live with me was the most exciting thought to strike me in at least a decade. What could possibly be better? There was room for several little families in my house; having my daughter and my grandchildren would be perfect. I would get to know my daughter at last. The fact that I even had grandchildren seemed like an incredible bonus.

But now, as I looked at Gladys’s retreating figure weaving across my hill in her orange parachute pants, and at Godwin, a small, naked, virtually demented old man, stewing in his broth of suntan oil, a nervousness, even an apprehension, began to grow in me.

I was fifty-one years old. I thought I knew the difference between fantasy and reality, and I was well aware that the perfect domestic scenes my imagination had already begun to cast up would not likely be that perfect if they were ever actually lived. There might just be tension and anger instead of love and fun.

“What do you think my daughter would really make of all this, if I can persuade her to come?” I asked uneasily.

“She’ll probably think she’s enrolled in a lunatic asylum,” Godwin said bluntly. “She’ll think we’re all crazy as loons.”

“That’s a stupid metaphor,” I said. “Have you actually ever seen a crazy loon? Has anyone? Why would a bird be crazy?”

We were both writers, in a sense, and often criticized one another’s figures of speech, particularly when we were nervous about impending change.

My daughter’s arrival would certainly represent change: three young lives would suddenly have to try and mesh with three old lives. I wanted it, yet I could feel my apprehension rising. Godwin was watching me closely; he knew I was nervous. He didn’t seem disposed to be helpful, either.

“You know she’s gonna think we’re lunatics and you’re scared shitless, aren’t you?” he said.

“I’m a little nervous,” I admitted. “She’s twenty-two and I’ve never met her. But I still want her to come. We’re not
really
lunatics, you know. We’re just a little odd.”

“Do you think a twenty-two-year-old can grasp the difference?” he asked.

“I’ve never met her,” I repeated. “How would I know what differences she can grasp? Anyway, first things first.”

“What does that mean?” Godwin asked. “What do you regard as a plausible first thing?”

“Seeing if the Mercedes will start,” I said. “I haven’t driven it in a while. It may not start.”

10

Godwin looked smug, as if the fact that I hadn’t driven my car in six months meant that I was hopelessly unfit to have a relationship with my daughter.

“Godwin, I’m not trying to pretend we’re not odd,” I said. “Of course we’re odd. If she comes, we’ll all have to do a little adjusting.”

One big difference between me and Godwin was that he had always had complete disdain for what might be called normal behavior, whereas I had never entirely lost the habit of thinking of myself as a normal person, though of course I recognized that the concept of normalcy was comparative. If I had only Godwin and Gladys to compare myself to, I might easily convince myself that I was a pretty average guy.

But my daughter, an evidently healthy young woman who had two small children and worked at a Mr. Burger, might well not see it that way. To her I might just seem like an aging freak, slopping around my house in caftans, not leaving my hill for months on end, watching horrible European
policier
videos half the night, and talking on the phone hour after hour to a kind of aural harem of beautiful women scattered all over the world, most of whom I only saw for maybe an hour or two a year.

Indeed, thanks to the steady advance of technology, not only did I not
see
these women very often, I rarely even talked directly to them anymore.

Most of the time now I talked to their message machines, a new and seductive form of communication that most of us seemed to be coming to prefer. Already, in only a few months of practice, I had become a kind of Proust of the message machine, leaving elegant, finely modulated monologues on the message machines of distinguished, or at least distinctive, women in New York, California, Paris, Rome.

The women, in turn, left me rambling, chatty monologues of their own—little oral letters, in a sense. In only a few weeks we all established a rapport with our new machines; monologues were soon floating in daily from various of my far-flung chums.

“It’s sort of like a new art form,” Jeanie Vertus pointed out shortly after we developed a tendency to talk mainly to one another’s machines.

Of all the minds I kept in contact with, Jeanie’s was the quickest, the most likely to key in immediately to the human consequences of technological advance.

“It’s kind of nice to know you don’t necessarily have to deal with a real naked voice anymore when you dial the phone,” Jeanie said. “Real naked voices have said some pretty fucking ugly things to me.”

“Real voices have, but my voice hasn’t,” I pointed out. “I’ve never said ugly things to you, and I don’t think it’s likely to be destructive if we have a live conversation once in a while.”

“Live conversations are kind of hit-or-miss though,” Jeanie said pensively. “Monologues are more concentrated. I can
dump out a lot of thoughts quickly and then you can sort of sift through them at your leisure.”

Over the next months she delivered a series of dandy monologues, her speedy mind racing over a vast range of subjects.

Then one day she suddenly stopped calling. Worse, she turned off her message machine. I had to call seven or eight times before I got her.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You suddenly stopped leaving monologues.”

“I suddenly stopped leaving monologues, Danny,” she said in a voice thick with sadness. When Jeanie descended into sadness, she descended to pure depths.

“I wish you hadn’t stopped,” I said cautiously—one didn’t just wade out into one of Jeanie’s sadnesses. “I miss your monologues.”

“It’s all getting too remote between us,” Jeanie said. “The monologues are just taking us farther apart, and we’re already too far apart.”

I thought she might cry, but she didn’t. She was resting on the bottom, well below the level of tears.

“At first it was kind of nice just to talk to machines,” she said. “It eliminates the conflict, which saves energy. But the trouble is, it eliminates the person, too. We don’t answer one another anymore, Danny. We just leave our views, separate but equal. Now I feel so separate I don’t even know if I’m your friend.”

“Of course you’re my friend,” I insisted, suddenly panicky at the thought that I might have lost her because of some stupid message machines.

“I’m getting gloomy about it,” she said. “I think we were doing better before we got the machines.”

Jeanie and I weathered that gloom, though—in the ensuing weeks I called her every day, missing her, getting her at bad times, waking her up. Several of the women I called woke up snarling, but Jeanie just woke up blank, puzzled that anyone had supposed she was worth a call. Despite several calls that were duds and a few that were actually setbacks, the sun finally peeped through, to shine on our friendship again; after that I
made only modest and careful use of the message machine where Jeanie Vertus was concerned.

The episode came back to me as I sat at the breakfast table watching Godwin sulk, and wondering whether in fact my household was too odd to receive a normal young woman with two small children.

The thought that troubled me most was that when all was said and done I might
not
be the most normal member of my household, as I was wont to think. Even Godwin and Gladys might react to adult life more normally than I did.

Godwin at least still butted his head against the wall in despair when his boyfriend wouldn’t come over for a swim.

Gladys still got purple with rage when Chuck, her long-suffering truck-driving husband, lingered in north Amarillo for a few extra days, enjoying a fling with a waitress at the stockyards café.

Neither Godwin nor Gladys seemed to be exactly happy, but neither were they conducting their lives via telephone, Federal Express package, and message machine.

I was the one doing
that
—which might mean that I was the craziest person in a crazy house.

11

“Even a sixty-thousand-dollar car needs to be driven once in a while,” Godwin pointed out, once it had been determined that the Mercedes definitely had no intention of starting.

I sat in the driver’s seat in a state of deep gloom. From time to time I turned the ignition key, hoping a miracle would happen. After all, it was a very expensive car; maybe it was just hibernating. At any moment the powerful German engine might roar into life.

Godwin and Gladys were pacing around the garage, smoking: Gladys smoked tobacco, Godwin marijuana. The more nervous they were, the more they smoked, and they were plenty nervous today, but at least they had transcended their immediate differences. Godwin apologized profusely for having hurt
Gladys’s feelings at breakfast. I don’t think he was really contrite; he just feared Gladys’s vengeance, which was apt to take bizarre forms. Once she had poured a jar of molasses into his sock drawer after a similar contretemps. Fifty pairs of socks had congealed into a giant sock ball. Godwin wasn’t taking any chances on that happening again.

“You could use my Toyota,” Gladys offered. “Your daughter probably ain’t used to luxury anyway.”

Her Toyota sat a few feet away, the moral equivalent of a battered spouse. Hardly an inch of its surface was not dented, rusted, or crumpled.

“It’s because I like to let my mind roam free when I drive,” Gladys explained. “My mind will be off somewhere, happy as a lark, and the next thing you know my car’s smacked into something.”

“The thought of driving your Toyota to Houston doesn’t appeal to me,” I said politely.

“Take my bug,” Godwin offered.

“No, thanks,” I said, trying the key again and getting nothing, not even a click.

“He’s impossible when he’s depressed,” Godwin said to Gladys. “Have you noticed that? He won’t take his car and he won’t take mine or yours, although ours are in excellent mechanical condition and his won’t start. I call that perversity.”

“I call it prudence,” I said. Godwin’s Volkswagen was not as battered-looking as Gladys’s Toyota, but enough drugs had been spilled into its floorboards to send me to prison for at least a decade. Also, in recent years, much of Godwin’s love life had been conducted in the bug—the part involving hitchhikers, principally. Gladys and I had long since callously dubbed it the Aidsmobile, though we avoided the term when Godwin was around.

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