Copyright © 2000 Larry McMurtry.
All rights reserved.
Introduction Wallace Stegner, Buglesong Dave Hickey, The Closed Season Dao Strom, Chickens Dagoberto Gilb, Romero's Shirt William Hauptman, Good Rockin' Tonight Jack Kerouac, The Mexican Girl Ron Hansen, True Romance Diana Ossana, White Line Fever Robert Boswell, Glissando Tom McGuane, Dogs Louise Erdrich, The Red Convertible Max Apple, Gas Stations Mark Jude Poirier, Cul-de-sacs Rick Bass, Mahatma Joe Jon Billman, Indians Richard Ford, Rock Springs aymond Carver, The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain Leslie Marmon Silko, Lullaby William H. Gass, The Pedersen Kid
From To Skin a Cat
Dutton, 1986, first appeared in Grand Street, Spring 1986
No one imagined how it would turn out for Howie Reed. But it all began when he was beaned at the rodeo picnic when the Jacquas, the Hatfields, and the Larrimores all thought that everyone was so sick and tired of having to clean up the fairgrounds that a game would be fun. Howie Reed got beaned in the first inning. It was softball and he didn't even fall down. At fifty-one, he was close to the average age of all the players. It was a stately game with no scores.
Right after that he went on a trip. He was gone for about two weeks, and just before returning, he called his friends to tell them he had walked into a door at the bank and blackened his eyes. When he got home the black eyes were almost gone. But it was clear that he hadn't walked into a glass door. Howie had had his face lifted. It is not possible to really explain the effect on us, his old friends and acquaintances, of his new glossiness: the incisions behind the ears, the Polynesian serenity of his new gaze left many of our circle in Deadrock speechless.
The next time we all got together it was for a trout fry welcoming the new internist to town. In an area of long winters like ours, the entire community grows to hate all its professional people in about five years. A new doctor is taken in with urgent affection. The arrival of Dr. Kellman, fresh from the Indian Health Service at Wolf Point, was no exception. A horseshoe pitch was improvised; an extension cord was found so that a television set could be left running in the yard for guests following serials. Most of us drank and pitched horseshoes or skipped stones on the beautiful river. Howie fainted.
Dr. Kellman examined him and then came over to the carport where some of us had gone to avoid the sun. There, Dr. Kellman assured us that Howie was faking and that we should realize our friend was a mild hysteric; bring him a glass of water, possibly. Even accepting Dr. Kellman's diagnosis, it was awfully touching to see our old friend stretched out with his sleek new face aimed at heaven, the river flowing past him like time itself. In my view, it was either that very time, or the beaning, that explained Howie's face lift and faints. But that didn't lessen my concern for him.
No one noticed exactly when Howie left, but he was gone by the time the party wound down. And if there was any worry over him, it was lost in the uproar of the Kellmans' discovering that the thirteen-year-old corgi the doctor had owned since his medical school days was gone. Sylvan Lundstrom, who was everyone's lawyer and Johnny-on-the-spot, called the police, the sheriff, and the radio station, carefully describing a generic corgi from the Kellmans' American Kennel Club guide to breeds. It would be morning before we could reach the drivers'-training group at the school; they were usually most successful in finding lost dogs. Mrs. Kellman said she wished she knew less about the experimental purposes to which stray dogs were often put.
The dog was not found.
Monday I saw Howie in front of the Bar and Grill at the lunch hour. He was going out, I was going in. Howie is in insurance and busy as all get out, and a good kind of family man. So, the following seemed odd.
"You're on the phone with an old girlfriend," said Howie. "Your wife is at your elbow. Your heart is pounding. Your old girlfriend says, 'Just wanted to call and say I still love ya!' 'You too!' I shout like I'm closing on a huge policy. How much of this the old lady buys, I can't say." Howie shoots off with a little wave. I am not painting Howie as an ugly customer but as a troubled guy who didn't ever talk like this. It used to be you'd bump into him and he'd tell you something homely like the difference between whittling and carving (whittling you're not trying to make something). Now everything seemed sofinal.
Howie's wife went back to South Dakota in September, for good. To show he wasn't upset, Howie had his car painted: JUST MARRIED. He went to a sales conference in Kansas City and forced a landing en route in Bismarck. He had to pay a huge fine for that, which he could certainly afford. But Dr. Kellman assured his new admirers that forcing a landing was a well-known thing disturbed people do. When Howie finally got to Kansas City, his company made him Salesman of the Year.
By October, Howie seemed completely his old self. The face finally seemed to be his own. His wife stayed away. We had another softball game after the fall rodeo. He was still driving the JUST MARRIED car and he was wearing a sweatshirt copy of the Shroud of Turin. He was all over the field and drove in four runs.
Dogs kept disappearing. It was making the paper. Dr. Kellman was not building a practice as rapidly as he wished and he threw a Thanksgiving party, supposedly to introduce Diana, a yellow Labrador he had bought to replace the corgi. He said the corgi had left a hole in his heart that nothing could fill, but he let his pride in the new dog show. We all went to the party, even the other doctors. Howie was so disheveled-looking we asked if he was in disguise. "To be the leading adulterer in a small Montana town," he said mysteriously, "is to spend your life dodging bullets. It is the beautiful who suffer." His whiskers pressed through the taut skin of his face. For the moment of our nervousness, in the central-heating itch of fall's first frosts, it was as if the house were equipped with self-locking exits. We were quiet in the drifting cigarette smoke for just a moment, then went back to our carefree ways. Right out of the blue Howie added, "What the hell, I forgive you all. Everything I know I learned from Horatio Alger."
The dinner was served buffet style, and we ate with our plates in our laps. The Kellmans' new dog was beautifully trained and took hand signals, retrieving everything from black olives to ladies' pumps with a delicate mouth. When we'd nearly finished eating, Howie said to a young woman, a dental hygienist, in a voice all could hear, "That food was so bad I can't wait for it to become a turd and leave me."
Dr. Kellman diverted our attention by sending Diana on a blind retrieve into the bedroom. When she returned, Howie asked Kellman what he had to "shell out for the mutt." And so on, but it got worse. Spotting a pregnant brunette in her thirties, he said, "I see you've been fucking."
Mrs. Kellman tried to distract Howie by describing the problems she had had keeping the grosbeaks from running every other bird out of the feeder.
"You know what?" said Howie.
"What is that?"
"I wish you were better-looking," he said to Mrs. Kellman.
"Get out now," said the doctor.
"Suits me," said Howie, once the mildest of our chums. "I've monkeyed around here long enough. I prefer white people." So Howie left and the party went on. Actually, the relief of Howie's departure contributed to its being such a terrific party. We all told stories that, for a change, weren't deftly to our own credit. I thought once or twice of making a plea for Howie we'd been friends the longest but thought better of it. Dr. Kellman had had to be restrained, once.
When the time came to go, it was discovered that Diana was missing. Mrs. Kellman cried and Dr. Kellman said, "I guess it's pretty clear that crazy son of a bitch has my dog."
In order to keep the police out of it, I agreed to go see Howie. At first I tried to get someone else to do it, but when I saw how anxious some of the others were to call in the authorities, I got a move on. He really had been a friend to all of us. But the pack instinct, whatever that is, was on alert. I think I felt a little of it myself, sort of like "Let's kill Howie."
Anyway, I made the feeling go away and drove up to Howie's house, a cedar-and-stone thing of the kind that went through here a while back. Diana met me at the door. Howie turned and wearily let me follow him inside. Various dogs gathered from the hallways and side room and joined us in the living room. Howie made drinks.
"I'm glad it's you," Howie said, handing me my Scotch. "The bubble had to break. Margie gone. Salesman of the Year. Every breed I ever dreamed of." He gestured sadly at our audience: Diana, a black Lab, an Irish setter of vacant charm, a dachshund, a few mixed-breeds who seemed to have a sheepdog as a common ancestor, all contented. And the old worn-out corgi.
"We didn't know what you were going through," I said. I didn't know who I meant by "we," except that I thought it was in the air when I left the party that we were pulling together over a common cause. "It started I guess when you got beaned." Howie looked at me for a long time.
"That wasn't it. I admit the beaning was what gave me the idea. I fell down to gain time to think. I lay there and thought about how happy I was that my marriage was on the rocks. The time had come to be off my rocker whether I felt like it or not. Margie had a guy but it wasn't enough. Then the company saying the future belonged to me. It was too much. I did the fainting business because I needed a jinx, I was superstitious. One thing led to another and I started grabbing dogs. It sounds crazy, but I felt like Balboa when he saw the Pacific. I'd never known anything like it. By the way, getting caught is no disgrace."
I took Diana down to the Kellmans, and Dr. Kellman, who is such a young man, made a seemingly prepared speech about how much Diana had cost and how in a practice that was starting slowly, you cannot imagine how slowly, Diana had been a crazy sacrifice both for himself and for Mrs. Kellman. Among the party guests there was the gloom of drama slipping away, of a return to the everyday.
In another two hours, I had restored each dog but one to its rightful owner. The doctor and his wife said they were glad to be shut of the arthritic toothless corgi, hinting it was Howie's punishment to keep it. Howie said it suited him fine.
Anyway, as things go, it just all blew over. And in fact, by spring, when Howie
started having some chest pains, probably only from working too hard, he went to
Dr. Kellman, joining our new doctor's rapidly growing list of devoted patients.