Sunday, June 3, 2007

archaeology v: looking for Larry McMurtry

mom at the lake, 1970

the air conditioner has gone out, and we sleep restlessly with the windows open in the hope of a breeze with crickets chirping all night outside. We go swimming and wear our swimsuits the rest of the day inside, still damp and smelling faintly of chlorine. Our shoulders and cheeks are burned. We take long, languid naps with the blinds drawn. I am filled with longing, with overwhelming nostalgia for those lazy summer days at the lakehouse at Possum Kingdom.

If there is a time in our childhood around which we form like pearls, these lakehouse days were mine. I was almost born there, because my mother refused to go to the hospital. Eventually she must have relented, but I think her longing to be near the elemental fecundity of the lake slipped through her veins and into me. How many times had I sat on the edge of the dock examining schools of minnows that shimmered beneath the surface. The smell of the boat house got under our skin, and we carried that smell back up the steep steps to the house, and into our dreams. In the narrow hall between the bedrooms, seated before a small bookshelf, I first realized that words were a code that had to be cracked, and I sat for hours as if before the Rosetta Stone, trying to find the patterns. I knew that if I were to be given one word, I might be able to learn all the secrets hidden there.

Years ago, after reading Horseman, Pass By, I embarked upon a mission to find Larry McMurtry. His book town, Archer City, was not far from Mineral Wells and the Crazy Water Hotel and the lake where I spent my childhood. We drove into Archer City crushing hundreds of the thousands of tarantulas which flooded the two-lane highway. We slept in a (also un-air conditioned) bedroom in a Bed and Breakfast, and wandered bookshop after abandoned bookshop. The townspeople at the Dairy Queen eyed us suspiciously, pegged us rightly perhaps as drawn their prodigal son, to whom it seemed they had a rather contentious relationship. In the end I found him at the desk when I went up to pay for my copy of The Black Prince. I struggled to recall who Iris Murdock had been married to, and he informed me it was John Bayley.* I didn’t have the guts to say any more about my mission, about wanting to connect to this eccentric Texas writer who expressed yearnings so similar to those I felt, who grew up saturated perhaps by the smell of the lake not far away, by the crazy water that coursed beneath the land. I just drove off with unrequited longing, down the quiet road where with the solitary street light on a cable swinging in the breeze, a cinematic moment from The Last Picture Show.

On the way back to Austin I passed through Possum. I tried in vain to find the lakehouse, but everything had changed. The lake of my imagination was gone. We stopped along the shore just to look at the vast expanse of water. I felt nothing. A sudden cold front blew in, and it began to rain, pelting us with hail. The temperature dropped from over a hundred down to the forties in a matter of minutes. I drove home, made it the four hours back to Austin, but I was utterly lost.

*thank you for keeping me on my toes...