Two years into his sixties, Duane Moore -- a man who had driven pickups for as long as he had been licensed to drive -- parked his pickup in his own carport one day and began to walk wherever he went.
The carport was a spacious affair, built to house six cars in the days when cars still had some size; now that cars had been miniaturized -- as had horses -- the carport could accommodate ten vehicles and might have accommodated as many as a dozen if the vehicles had been parked with some care; but care, defined as a capacity for attention to such things as order and propriety, was not something that most members of Duane's large family had proven to be capable of or interested in -- not so far, at least. In the Moore carport cars tended to stack up behind one another, so that the person who had parked in front could rarely get his or her car out without a bitter quarrel, sometimes involving fisticuffs, with the person or persons whose car or cars were parked behind theirs.
In fact -- and it was a fact that had vexed Duane for years -- the spacious carport mainly housed a collection of junk: welding tools, old golf clubs, fishing equipment, baby carriages whose tires had been fiat for several years, couches and chairs that had stalled, somehow, on their way to the upholsterer, and towering pyramids of objects acquired by Karla or one of the girls at garage sales, department stores, swap meets, or discount malls -- objects that had evidently fallen in their purchasers' esteem before they could even get into the house -- though the house too contained comparable pyramids of objects that had made it through the doors but not much farther.
Contemplation of his own misused carport was one of the reasons Duane parked his pickup one day and began to walk, but it was not the only reason, or necessarily the most important. He had spent almost fifty years of his life in the cab of a pickup, racing through the vast oil patch that extended over much of West Texas, hurrying from one oil-soaked lease to another; but now he was sixty-two and the oil game had lost its thrill, the chase its flavor. He didn't want to be in the cab of a pickup anymore, because being in the cab of a pickup suddenly made him wonder what had happened to his life. It occurred to him one day -- not in a flash, but through a process of seepage, a kind of gas leak into his consciousness -- that most of his memories, from first courtship to the lip of old age, involved the cabs of pickups. His long marriage to Karla, their four children, their nine grandchildren, his booms and his busts, his friendships and his few love affairs had somehow all happened in the few brief periods when he hadn't been in the cab of a pickup, somewhere in the Texas oil patch.
So, one day in February, with a blue norther cutting through the pastures of dead mesquite like a saw, Duane parked his pickup in the southernmost parking spot in the carport and hid the keys in a chipped coffee cup on the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet. Nobody used that coffee cup anymore -- it had sat untouched on the top shelf for years. All Duane hoped was that the keys could be hidden in it for a year or two -- that way none of the grandkids could steal his pickup until they grew adept enough to hot-wire it, which ought to be a while.
Then, pleased with his decision and even rather enjoying the crisp cut of the norther, Duane took the first walk of his new life, a short one of some three-quarters of a mile along a dirt road to his office. His departure was observed only by Willy, the grandson Julie had presented them with only a few days prior to her seventeenth birthday; now Willy was nine. The prospect of great-grandchildren was never far from Duane's thoughts -- or Karla's either. Willy sat in front of the living room TV, playing a video game called Extreme Rampage -- he was merely resting his fingers for a moment when he saw his grandfather walk off down the dusty road. The sight struck Willy as being slightly odd, but he loved Extreme Rampage too much to allow anything to distract him from it for long. He forgot all about his grandfather until his grandmother came into the living room a few minutes later, looking puzzled.
"Willy, have you seen Pa-Pa?" she asked. "I thought sure I heard his pickup drive up, and his gloves are in the kitchen, but I can't find him anywhere."
"Pa-Pa walked off," Willy said, his fingers dancing expertly on the buttons of the video game.
"What?" Karla asked, supposing she had heard wrong.
"Pa-Pa walked off down that road -- that road right out there," Willy insisted. He didn't point -- matters on the screen were critical -- indeed, domination of the world was at stake. He couldn't spare a hand.
"Willy, I've told you not to lie to me," Karla said. "Just because your little sister lies to me constantly don't mean you have to start."
"It wasn't a lie!" Willy protested indignantly. Unfortunately the brief shift in his attention proved fatal: the Ninja Master kicked him off the cliff.
"Oh no!" Willy said. "I was winning and now I'm dead." His grandmother was unmoved.
"I'm gonna talk to your mother about you, young man," she said. "I think you spend too much time playing those dumb video games. They're screwing up your cognition or something. Pa-Pa's never walked anywhere in his life, much less on a day when there's a norther."
Willy saw no point in arguing with his grandmother. Grown-ups who were that old could never be convinced of anything anyways -- indeed, all grown-ups had a tendency to deny the plainest facts. One of the few things he and his sister, Bubbles, agreed on was that grown-ups were weird.
Just as his grandmother was about to leave the room the phone rang and she picked it up.
"Maybe it's Pa-Pa -- he might be on the cell phone," she said, but instead it was Julie, mother of Willy and Bubbles. Julie was just returning from visiting her boyfriend, Darren, who was in jail in Lawton, Oklahoma, awaiting trial on a charge of armed robbery and aggravated assault, a charge Julie was convinced was unjust. Julie was making the call from the edge of her parents' driveway; she was not about to rush into the house without making a few inquiries, not after what she had just seen.
"Did you and Daddy just have a big fight?" Julie asked. "If you did I'm going back to Wichita Falls and spend the night in a motel."
Karla was too surprised to answer right away. She had just put in a peaceful morning watching the international table tennis championships on cable -- it was amazing how fast a little Ping-Pong ball could travel if someone from China whopped it.
"It's bad enough seeing Darren in custody just because he hit some old fart with a wrench," Julie said. "I shouldn't have to come home and be a witness to parental violence."
"Julie, Darren was robbing the old man he hit with the wrench," Karla reminded her. "Darren's a criminal. That's why he's in custody."
"I don't want to talk about that -- I want to talk about you and Daddy," Julie insisted. She was close enough to the house to be able to see into the kitchen, but was not close enough to be able to tell whether there was blood on the walls.
"Honey, your father and I haven't been violent in years, and then it was just me throwing things," Karla told her. "Bubbles is watching Barney and Willy is right here playing video games."
"Then why is Daddy walking down the road?" Julie asked.
Karla threw Willy a quick, slightly guilty glance, but Willy was in space, trying to keep aliens from destroying planet Earth.
"Duane's walking down the road?" she said. "Are you sure it's him -- a lot of men look alike from the back."
"I guess I know my own daddy; he's been my daddy my whole life," Julie said.
"I told you Pa-Pa was walking down the road," Willy said, without taking his eyes from the TV screen. "You should apologize for calling me a liar."
"I do apologize for calling you a liar," Karla said. "I just hope I don't have to call your mother something worse. There's all kinds of dope available in those Oklahoma jails. I don't think your mother's lying but she could be hallucinating."
"Momma, all I took was a little speed so I wouldn't fall asleep driving and leave my children without a mother," Julie said. "I'm not hallucinating! My daddy is walking down the road! Get it?"
"Then oil prices must have really tanked, or else somebody's died," Karla said, suddenly convinced. "There'd be no other reason why Duane would get out of his pickup and go walking down a road."
"Momma, I wish you'd just ask him," Julie said. "He hasn't gone very far."
"Oh, I mean to ask him," Karla said. "What does he think he's doing, scaring us this way?"
Copyright © 1999 by Larry McMurtry
Duane's Depressed is the work of a powerful, mature artist, with a deep understanding of the human condition, a profound ability to write about small-town life, and perhaps the surest touch of any American novelist for the tangled feelings that bind and separate men and women.