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The Late Child

The Late Child

3.3 3
by Larry McMurtry

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An unforgettable addition to his widely acclaimed body of work, The Late Child is Larry McMurtry's tender, funny, and poignant sequel to The Desert Rose. McMurtry delivers another rich cast of characters — and a heartfelt, bittersweet story that unfolds on the open road, in one woman's search for strength, understanding, and hope.
Harmony is


An unforgettable addition to his widely acclaimed body of work, The Late Child is Larry McMurtry's tender, funny, and poignant sequel to The Desert Rose. McMurtry delivers another rich cast of characters — and a heartfelt, bittersweet story that unfolds on the open road, in one woman's search for strength, understanding, and hope.
Harmony is the optimistic, resilient Las Vegas ex-showgirl who returns home one day to the news that her beloved daughter has died, in New York, of AIDS. She manages to stay afloat, buoyed by her precocious five-year-old son, Eddie, and her two outspoken sisters as they set forth on a journey across the country, seeking answers about her daughter's death. From Nevada to New York to Oklahoma, the eccentrics Harmony and her entourage meet nudge them closer to an inner peace with life, and a way to find hope in the future. Alive with inventive storytelling and honest emotion, The Late Child is a warm, enriching experience that celebrates the unique relationship between mother and child.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ronald Reed Fort Worth Star-Telegram May be the best pure love story he has written.

Malcolm Jones Jr. Newsweek Intensely lively...Harmony holds us even tighter than she did in The Desert Rose...In The Late Child, the former showgirl...achieves heroic proportions.

Peggy Payne The Dallas Morning News Deftly told. Wildly imaginative, with quick, sharp characterizations...delicious in details from start to finish.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
McMurtry's bittersweet 19th novel marks the welcome return of Harmony, the navely optimistic showgirl from The Desert Rose (1983). Now 47, Harmony is working in a Las Vegas recycling plant, retired from her reign as the most beautiful showgirl ever seen on the Strip (she dated Elvis and Sinatra, but slept only with Dan Duryea). Harmony's relentlessly hopeful take on life is shattered when she receives a letter from New York City explaining that her dancer daughter, Pepper, has died of AIDS. Not even the arrival of her sisters, Neddie and Pat (the latter a veteran of three trips to Masters and Johnson for sex addiction) can ease her overwhelming anguish. Fearing that grief might literally drive her insane, Harmony packs all her possessions into a U-Haul and, with her sisters and her precocious five-year-old son, Eddie, begins the drive home to Tarwater, Okla. Along the way, Eddie rescues an abandoned dog-whom they christen ``Iggy Pop''-from a Hopi reservation, and the U-Haul is destroyed in a fall into the Canyon de Chelly. This necessitates a detour to New York City, where the group is carried off to the seedy No-Tel Motel in Jersey City by three Arab-immigrant hustlers. They meet Pepper's female lover, temporarily adopt a homeless teenage hooker and visit the Statue of Liberty, where Iggy Pop survives disaster with a seagull and makes the cover of People magazine. When Harmony finally makes her way to Tarwater, she finds her family laden with troubles so perilous she must turn her grief to strength if she's to save them and herself. Raucous, unexpected and downright quirky, this is McMurtry at his powerful best. BOMC alternate. (May)
Library Journal
McMurtry returns to the territory he mapped out in Terms of Endearment.
Ronald Reed
May be the best pure love story Larry McMurtry has written…
Fort Worth Star—Telegram
Peggy Payne
Deftly told. Wildly imaginative, with quick, sharp characterizations…Delicious in detail from start to finish.
Dallas Morning News

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Part One of Book One

When Harmony got to the line in the letter that told her Pepper was dead, she stopped reading the letter and stuffed it in a glass. She had been home from her job at the recycling plant in north Las Vegas maybe five minutes, just long enough to drink a glass of iced tea. The sides of the glass were still wet — moisture soon began to soak through the yellow paper the letter was written on. Harmony watched this process with a little bit of hope: maybe this terrible information would just soak away and not be true.

Harmony felt like pouring more iced tea into the glass to make the soaking happen more quickly. Just yesterday she had complained to the kids at the recycling plant that she never got any interesting mail. Day after day her mailbox would be stuffed with flyers from supermarkets or department stores, informing her of big savings she could realize if she acted quickly. If something else happened to show up in her mailbox it was usually just a bill she couldn't afford to pay, or an ugly letter from a collection agency, telling her she better pay the bill anyway, even if she was down to around eight dollars in her checking account, the amount that always seemed to be there when she got worried enough to check her balance.

Now, though — if the words in the letter were true — a bill had come that she could never pay. The only feeling she had immediately was that she didn't want the letter so close to her, so she opened the screen and pitched the glass out in the yard. Her apartment was first-floor; the glass didn't break when she threw it out. It rolled up against a little green cactus and stopped. The letter was still in it, yellow as ever.

Jimmy Bangor, Harmony's boyfriend, happened to be coming into the little patio of the apartment building just when Harmony pitched the glass with the letter in it out the window. Jimmy Bangor was a man not much troubled by curiosity — he took life as it came, as he was fond of saying — but the fact that Harmony, the most stable girlfriend he had ever had, had just thrown a perfectly good glass out the window of their apartment did catch his big brown eyes. Jimmy was a parking lot attendant at Caesars; he spent many long days squeezing himself into tiny cars that were definitely not the kind of cars high rollers drove when they showed up in Las Vegas.

Harmony and Jimmy had been a couple for nearly six months — Jimmy had never seen her throw a glass out the window before. It occurred to him that he might have witnessed a freak accident of some kind: the glass might have just popped out of Harmony's hand somehow, and come to rest against the little green cactus in their tiny yard. Why there was a piece of yellow paper stuffed in the glass was beyond Jimmy's ken, but he picked up the glass anyway. It didn't appear to have suffered from dropping out the window; there were no chips in the rim that he could see.

Jimmy could just make out Harmony, through the window, waving at him — he had no idea what the waving meant. He smiled at her anyway, which was easy to do: Harmony was by far the sweetest woman Jimmy Bangor had ever had to come home to.

"I don't want that glass in here, Jimmy, please put it back in the yard," Harmony said, before Jimmy even got both feet inside the apartment. Harmony's voice shook, and she wasn't smiling, which made Jimmy feel a little hurt. One thing he and Harmony had agreed on from the first was that the least a woman owed her man was a welcoming smile when he got home from work in the evening — although, since they lived in Las Vegas, men such as Jimmy Bangor didn't necessarily get home from work in the evening; they were apt to get home from work at any hour of the day or night.

So far, though, Harmony had always produced a welcoming smile, and it wasn't just a "Hi, honey, how was your day?" smile, either. Harmony really was welcoming. She loved to see her Jimmy come through the door; only, at the moment, just as Jimmy was expecting to have his spirits lifted by the welcoming smile, Harmony didn't have the welcoming smile.

"What's wrong, honey?" Jimmy asked. The look on Harmony's face was so different from any look he had ever seen on her face before that he felt, for a moment, that he might have stepped into the wrong apartment.

It wasn't the wrong apartment, though: the seventeen-pound bass that Jimmy had caught up near Green River, Wyoming, was still there, stuffed, over the television set, claiming pride of place over several framed pictures of Harmony: one with Elvis, one with Liberace, one with Wayne Newton, even one with Mr. Sinatra. All of the pictures were taken back in the days — long-ago days, now — when Harmony had been the most beautiful showgirl in Las Vegas. To some women it might have seemed in bad taste, putting a stuffed fish right in the middle of a lot of pictures of a beautiful showgirl hobnobbing with celebrities, but Harmony had not only been nice about it, she had insisted on putting the big bass right there: after all, Jimmy was her man, he had caught the big fish; it belonged where visitors could see it and appreciate it, right away. Anyone seeing that fish would know what a fine fisherman Jimmy Bangor was.

Actually, Harmony and Jimmy didn't have that many visitors, though both of them considered themselves to be friendly people. Most of Harmony's friends in Las Vegas had either died or drifted away — quite a few went east, to try their luck, when the big new casinos began to open in Atlantic City. Some of Jimmy's old buddies had left town, too, but the reason Jimmy Bangor developed the habit of hanging out mainly with Harmony was that he had fallen in life. Once Jimmy had been head of security at the Tropicana, but he had got caught sleeping with a girl who was a little underage — five years underage, to be exact — so he had lost that job and slipped all the way down to his present level, just a parking lot attendant at Caesars. Jimmy didn't care to socialize with too many of the people he worked with, who tended to be either kids or dopeheads. Every time one of the security men at Caesars stepped outside to get five minutes of sun, Jimmy — if he happened to notice the security man — became a little depressed. He didn't like to be reminded of the days when he had been head of security at the Trop, and had a name that was respected all over town.

"Jimmy, I don't want that glass in the house, would you throw it back in the yard?" Harmony said, again. Keeping the glass with the yellow paper in it as far away as possible felt like her only chance.

"Why, hon? It ain't broke," Jimmy said, before he noticed that Harmony had tears in her eyes. She was not the same cheerful woman he had left only eight hours before. It occurred to Jimmy that the freak accident he had been speculating about might have occurred in Harmony's head, but before he could do more than formulate the thought, Harmony snatched the glass out of his hand. This time she didn't simply roll it out the window, either. She threw the glass as hard as she could, not into the street — that might have endangered someone — but at the sidewalk, only a step or two behind Jimmy.

The glass shattered, but the paper that was in it just lay there. There was no breeze; the paper didn't even flutter, much less blow away. The tiny fragments of glass that lay on it and around it sparkled in the sunlight like diamonds.

Jimmy Bangor was dumbfounded.

"Well, it's broke now," he said, noticing that two or three tiny pieces of glass were lodged in the cuffs of his trousers. He knelt in the doorway and picked them out, as carefully as if they had been grass burrs.

Before Jimmy could even get all the glass out of his cuffs, Harmony shoved past him and began to kick at the paper. There were three sheets of yellow paper in all, and Harmony soon kicked them apart. She seemed to be trying to kick them into the air, or into the street, or into the corners of the yard.

"Don't, my God, don't, you'll cut yourself — there's glass everywhere," Jimmy said. Harmony was barefoot, of course; she always kicked off her shoes the minute she was inside the door. Now she was kicking about wildly, on a sidewalk strewn with sharp fragments of glass — kicking at the three sheets of yellow paper.

"Hon, what is it?" Jimmy asked, trying to grab Harmony and pull her away from the glass. Already he could see blood on her feet. Jimmy was respectful of property, and the apartment had wall-to-wall carpet; he had an impulse to go spread some paper towels before he steered Harmony inside, but her feet were cut already, she might cut an artery or something if he didn't get her off the sidewalk quick.

"Is it PMS or what?" he asked — surely some freak accident had occurred in Harmony's head; Jimmy had no idea what the accident might involve.

"PMS — my daughter's dead!" Harmony said, stopping suddenly: out of the corner of her eye she saw the school bus round the corner; in only a second or two it would be stopping in front of the apartment, to let Eddie out. Eddie was five — he was a preschooler — and it would be a big embarrassment to him if his little friends saw his mother kicking pieces of paper around the yard and cutting her feet to pieces in the process. She couldn't be a crazed mother, even if the terrible words in the letter were true. She had to think of Eddie — if the words were true, if Pepper was dead, then Eddie was the one person left that she absolutely had to think about.

"Jimmy, would you just get me the broom and the dustpan, real quick?" Harmony said. "I need to sweep this glass up before Eddie gets off the bus."

Jimmy was only too glad to grab the broom and the dustpan; he immediately started sweeping up the broken glass himself. In his haste he forgot what Harmony had just said, until he looked up and saw that her cheeks were now wet with tears. Jimmy had never met Harmony's daughter, he had no idea what she was like and now he never would, because she was dead.

Just then Harmony saw the red lights flashing, as the school bus pulled up to the little gate in front of their apartment building. She dried her cheeks as best she could. She caught a brief glimpse of Eddie as he came down the steps of the school bus, but then, for a moment, all she could see of him were the golden curls on the top of his head. Eddie was just the height of the little gate that led into the yard; then, there he was, a big smile on his face as he burst through the gate and came racing toward his mother, just as he did on every normal day.

"Eddie, don't run please, there's glass on the sidewalk — somebody broke a glass," Harmony said; but Eddie didn't heed her, he loved to run into his mother's arms at the end of a day of preschool.

"Mom, I drew a lion," Eddie said, and then he gave an almost perfect grrrrr sound, just the sound a little lion might make, as he flung himself into his mother's arms.

Harmony hugged her son tight — really tight. Just for a moment, kneeling on the glass-strewn sidewalk, her sunny five-year-old in her arms, she was able to kid herself, to pretend that it was still a normal day.

Copyright © 1995 by Larry McMurtry

Part Two of Book One

"Mom, you need a Band-Aid," Eddie said, when he saw the blood on his mother's feet. He wasn't too concerned, though. He himself often needed Band-Aids — fortunately there was a big box full of them, in the bathroom. One of his mom's toes was allover blood, though.

"I think it might take five Band-Aids!" Eddie said, when he noticed that his mother was crying. "Can we still have the macaroni and cheese?"

Harmony remembered that she had promised Eddie macaroni and cheese for dinner — it was his favorite meal. Fortunately she had made it to the supermarket the day before and had plenty of macaroni and cheese. She picked Eddie up — he looked so cute, with his little book bag that mainly had coloring books in it. Jimmy Bangor, meanwhile, was frantically trying to spread paper towels to protect the carpet when she carried Eddie in.

"Wait, hon, wait, you're bleeding," Jimmy said, but Harmony didn't wait, she went right to the kitchen and got out the macaroni and cheese. Long ago her friend Gary, a man who knew as much about life and death as anyone in Las Vegas — maybe as much as anyone, anywhere — told her that the best approach when someone close passed away was just to keep on doing normal things as normally as possible. Making macaroni and cheese was a normal thing; so was popping Eddie's favorite movie, Benjy, into the VCR.

"Mom, make it go fast until we come to the grizzly bear," Eddie requested; then he picked up the remote and made it go fast himself — he wanted to get to the scary part right away — the part where the wolf gets after Benjy.

"Maybe Jimmy can watch the scary part with you," Harmony suggested — Eddie definitely liked company while the scary parts were happening. She tried very hard to follow Gary's instruction to do normal things, which meant concentrating on the macaroni and cheese.

"Honey, you're bleeding all over everything, this whole carpet will have to be took up," Jimmy said. He stood by the refrigerator looking helpless, a roll of paper towels in his hand.

Harmony knew that bleeding pints of blood on the wall-to-wall wasn't too normal, but the major normal thing that still seemed within her grasp was to make Eddie the macaroni and cheese she had promised him yesterday, before the tragedy happened, or before she knew about it, at least. She felt that if she concentrated on the macaroni and cheese and made it and fed it to Eddie, as she had so many times, she might not go crazy. But she had to concentrate very hard on that one thing: feeding her son. Her feet were down there somewhere, bleeding, and the carpet was down there too, getting bled on, but Harmony couldn't direct her attention to the plight of her feet, much less the plight of the carpet. She had to get the right dishes out of the cabinet, and she had to turn the stove on.

"Hon, I'm going up to the Circle K and get some cigarettes," Jimmy said, setting the roll of paper towels on the counter by the sink.

"Need anything?" he asked, just before he went out the door.

"No, Jimmy...I guess not," Harmony said, glancing at him. Even before the door closed behind him she had the feeling that Jimmy Bangor was gone. The look in his eye, before he stepped through the door, had been the going-away look, a look she had seen, sooner or later, in the eyes of every man she had ever been involved with except one. At a certain moment, because of this or that, it just seemed that life with her became too much for her boyfriends to handle. One after another, year after year, they went out for bread or beer or cigarettes and never came back. How women got men to stay with them, month after month and year after year, was a mystery to Harmony. Whether it was better cooking, or tricks in bed, or proper housekeeping techniques, she had no way to know. Men seemed to like her, and certainly she liked them. But usually only a few weeks or at most a few months would go by and she would look up one day from making spaghetti, or maybe a sandwich, and there her man would be, at the door, the going-away look in his eye. She was pretty sure it had just occurred with Jimmy Bangor — maybe it was her bloody feet. Jimmy was sort of a squeamish man, even if he did like to fish.

"Do you think he'll bring Popsicles, Mom?" Eddie asked. The grizzly bear had just scared the wolf away from Benjy, which meant that he could relax his attention for a few minutes.

Harmony went to the couch and sat down beside him — she felt like being close to her son, for a little while. As for Eddie, he always liked to be close to his Mom; he immediately climbed up in her lap. After all, the really scary part of the movie was coming up: the part where, just when the black wolf almost has Benjy, Benjy tricks him and the wolf goes off the cliff and falls for a long time and never comes back. It meant the wolf was dead, Eddie believed, though you never really got to see the wolf being dead, which made Eddie worry just a little. It would have been good to see that the wolf was really dead. Then no one would have to be afraid that he would somehow make his way back up the cliff and chase Benjy again.

"Do you think Jimmy will bring Popsicles, Mom?" Eddie asked, again.

"I don't know — did you really like Jimmy?" Harmony asked. It made her feel a failure, that her little boy would always have to be losing people he really liked. But Eddie had been a little cool with Jimmy, a little reserved — maybe it wouldn't be such a heartbreaker for him, if Jimmy turned out to have hit the road, rather than just going for cigarettes.

To her surprise Eddie looked up at her with a giggly look.

"I didn't really like him but I can't tell you why, Mom," Eddie said.

That was sort of unusual — Eddie was such an open little boy: he would even talk to her about his little penis, if he got a good feeling in it while he was wiping himself on the potty, or fooling around a little in the bathtub.

"Honey, if you didn't like Jimmy, why can't you tell me why?" Harmony asked. It took her mind off Pepper for a second: what if Jimmy had molested Eddie or something. Eddie had a giggly look on his face, though; probably he wouldn't have looked giggly if there had been some form of abuse.

"I can't because it's a bad word," Eddie said. "At school you're not supposed to say it."

"Eddie, you're right here with me, watching Benjy," Harmony reminded him. "What kind of bad word would mean that you didn't like Jimmy?"

"Fart!" Eddie said, before dissolving into helpless giggles.

"Oh," Harmony said.

"He farts all the time — I could smell him in my bunk bed," Eddie said.

"Oh," Harmony said again. It wasn't as bad as abuse, of course — on the other hand it sort of made her wonder a little about the level of boyfriend she had chosen to bring home. Why should her beautiful little boy have to smell her boyfriend's farts, while he was in his bunk bed trying to sleep? It wasn't a huge failure, like taking in a child molester would have been, but it didn't exactly make her a candidate for the mom honor roll, either.

"You're supposed to fart outside," Eddie reminded her. "You're never supposed to fart inside.

"I don't care, though, if he brings the Popsicles," Eddie added. His mom looked like she might cry. Maybe he had said the fart word too much.

Harmony was remembering that she had been a little offended by that very problem when she first began to go out with Jimmy — or rather, when she had first sort of given up and gone to bed with him. It was during their intimate moments that Jimmy's habit of expelling wind — lots of wind, and no fragrant breeze, either — had first manifested itself. Harmony's first thought had been, Whoa, what am I getting myself into, here? But Jimmy hastened to explain that it was a digestive condition he had picked up in Asia, while in the service. He didn't want her to think it signified any lack of social graces — it was just a medical problem, really. He looked so hangdog when he discussed it that Harmony, as usual, felt sorry for the man. After that she did her optimistic best to turn off her smeller, at such moments, if Jimmy's digestive condition began to act up — and it usually did.

But then, after all, nobody was perfect. After rashly, and to be truthful, accidentally, having Eddie at age forty-two, Harmony herself had developed a female problem that probably wasn't too attractive — it may have been the reason Webb left her, a bare six months after their son was born. Webb was one of the best tow-truck drivers in Las Vegas — he had spent twenty years racing to every wreck, particularly big smashups on I-15. Webb definitely liked to be first on the scene when there was a big smashup; he was the first to admit that he was an impatient man, it didn't matter whether it was getting a burger quick at Jack-in-the-Box or breakfast or sex or what, waiting was not Webb's mode. Harmony was a little messed up after having Eddie; there had been a few complications. She eventually healed fine, but long before that day Webb had decided he couldn't wait, he was gone. It was rare, after that, that she could get him to take even twenty minutes' interest in Eddie, even after Eddie learned to walk and talk and was obviously a wonderful little boy. Webb was just too impatient to get interested in watching children grow, even his own sons — he had three more sons around town that he also wasn't watching grow.

Why am I thinking about all this? Pepper's dead, Harmony thought: then she remembered birthday parties when Pepper was six or seven, and she remembered dance classes and taking Pepper to school — she began to swirl downward into memories that were like blows, any one of them could knock her reeling.

"Oh Eddie, I nearly forgot the macaroni and cheese," she said, kind of dumping him off her lap as she stood up.

"Mom, it's the wolf part, very soon," Eddie said. "Just watch the wolf part with me — it's too scary."

What Harmony ended up doing was turning the TV a little, so Eddie could sit on the cabinet, right where she was working, and be close to her while the scary part of the video was showing. Having him close was good for her too, otherwise some memory of Pepper might hit her and flatten her before she could finish fixing Eddie his macaroni and cheese.

She did fix it, too. The movie ended, with Benjy still safe — the black wolf, whether alive or dead, at least had never reappeared.

"When are we getting the pup, Mom?" Eddie asked. He had eaten a more than acceptable portion of macaroni and cheese and had been rewarded with a big scoop of chocolate chip ice cream, although bossy little Connie, who worked next to Harmony at the recycling plant, had tried her best to convince Harmony that chocolate was a bad substance that should definitely be kept out of the mouths and stomachs of little children Eddie's age. To hear Connie talk, chocolate was only a little less harmful than rat poison, but Harmony took all that with a grain of salt. Eddie loved chocolate chip ice cream and so far his skin hadn't turned green from eating it, so why not?

"Eddie, we're going to get you a nice puppy, I just don't know when," Harmony said. She opened the door and looked out, hoping she had been wrong about Jimmy — maybe he was just off having a few beers to calm his nerves — the sight of her bleeding on the carpet had probably upset him quite a bit. She still hadn't done anything about her feet, either; the carpet looked like a few chickens had been slaughtered on it, but that was the least of her worries. She was thinking that pretty soon she was going to have to call the person who had been kind enough to write and tell her about Pepper's death. She wanted a few details; well, wanted them and didn't want them, it wouldn't be such an easy call to make. Also, she would have to call Madonna, Pepper's old dance teacher, and Gary and Jessie and a few others who had known Pepper when she was a beautiful little girl, growing up in Las Vegas.

What Harmony was hoping was that Jimmy Bangor would get control of his nerves and come on home; maybe he could give it another week or two, at least. If he would only come back she would have him to hang on to, in bed, and not have to be totally alone on the night that she learned of her daughter's death. Having him there at least for one night would make up for a lot; certainly it would make up for the farts.

So, despite herself, every few minutes, Harmony would walk over and look out the door, hoping to see Jimmy coming up the sidewalk. Finally, after she had given Eddie his bath and read him his favorite Porky Pig story three times, and sat by him until he fell asleep — the falling asleep didn't take long, Eddie had had an active day at school — he counted his mother's fingers once or twice and twisted the little wedding band Ross, Pepper's father, had given Harmony twenty-five years earlier, when they married; then, Eddie's eyelids went to half-mast and, in another moment, he was sleeping like an angel.

Eddie twisting the wedding band reminded Harmony that Ross was also someone who would have to be called — she had not heard from him in more than five years. Ross was a light man and was undoubtedly at some casino somewhere, working the lights for some floor show; but what casino and what floor show was anybody's guess. Harmony would have to do some asking around, which meant that Ross would probably get a few days' grace before he had to face the fact that he didn't have a little girl anymore.

Harmony turned the light off over Eddie's bunk bed and went to the bathroom and ran water in the tub — just enough to soak the crusted blood off her feet. The fact was, her feet were kind of shredded but even so she couldn't keep her mind on them, she just soaked the worst of the blood off and went downstairs. After opening the door and looking for Jimmy and shutting it again in disappointment, Harmony thought, Why shut it if I'm going to open it again in two minutes? She left the door open and sat down outside, on the step. When she did she felt a few prickles — in his panic to keep her from bleeding on the carpet Jimmy had not done a perfect job of sweeping up the broken glass. To keep her mind off things, she gathered up a few sharp specks of glass herself and held them in her palm.

Harmony sat in her doorway till one in the morning, long past the point when she had given up on seeing Jimmy Bangor again. Jimmy was no night owl — nine-thirty was normally lights-out for him, unless it was Saturday night, when he might try to stretch his wakefulness till ten, in order to maybe attempt a sex act or something. Harmony rarely turned her TV off until one or two; years as a showgirl had accustomed her to real late hours. Besides being a farter, Jimmy had been a snorer; she had to keep the volume up a little higher than she normally would in order to hear over his snores. It was a little inconvenient, but at that it was better than what she was looking at now: no one to hold her when she started sinking. Pepper, her daughter, was not only dead, she was cremated. The person who had written the letter, a woman named Laurie, had wanted to know where Harmony wanted the ashes sent — Harmony had noticed that line in the letter before she stuffed it in the iced-tea glass.

In Tulsa, where Harmony came from, dead people were usually just buried whole — she had never given any thought to what should be done once a human body was cremated and reduced to ashes. Maybe the ashes would be as fine as the little specks of sharp glass that she held in her palm for almost three hours. That such a thing as death could happen to a child she had given birth to, and arranged birthday parties for, and picked up after dance class, was too terrible. Harmony felt such a feeling of tearing and ripping inside herself that she began to squeeze the little sharp pieces of glass into her hand. She needed to feel something different from the ripping — even a cut. Jimmy wasn't coming, no one was coming, yet someone had to, she couldn't sit there on her own step and survive the tearing and ripping feeling, not much longer, not alone. Pain was coming up in her throat, it was going to become a scream or something — if it was a scream it was going to be so loud it might wake the neighbors; Eddie might hear it and be scared — sometimes Eddie had bad dreams anyway; he certainly wouldn't get the normal amount of sleep he needed if he had to be awakened by his mother screaming in the yard.

After all, it was one in the morning: Harmony didn't have the school bus coming, or the macaroni and cheese to make, or Benjy or the Porky Pig stories to help keep her a stable mom. She didn't even have Jimmy Bangor, snoring or farting beside her; usually he snored so loud that she couldn't hear the comics on the Comedy Channel. Now it was just her alone, on the step, with the terrible news.

Harmony jumped up — she began to shake and was about to stumble back into the house and dial the first phone number she could remember, when the gate to the yard creaked. Harmony turned in her doorway and saw Juliette coming.

"What's wrong, Harmony — what's wrong?" Juliette asked. She was way back down the sidewalk, trying to get the latch on the gate to work correctly; but she picked up some vibe out of the air — it was most unusual to see Harmony on her doorstep at one in the morning.

Juliette came hurrying up the sidewalk, still in her tux: she was a blackjack dealer at the MGM Grand, dealers were still required to wear tuxedos at the Grand. Juliette was a little chubby; sometimes she reminded Harmony of Lou Costello, whom she had met long ago, in her first days as a showgirl. Juliette was very kind; she would always make tea for Harmony and listen to her troubles if she happened to be low. Juliette herself didn't seem to have troubles — actually, there was no one in her life to cause her trouble, loneliness was probably Juliette's trouble; but, for the moment, with a scream of pain about to pour out of Harmony's throat and maybe wake her young son, Juliette in her tux was the answer to a hope she had not expected would be answered at all.

"Oh, Juliette, Pepper's dead, she's cremated," Harmony said.

"Pepper, your daughter?" Juliette asked — she had never met Pepper herself, but of course she had seen the scrapbook Harmony kept, of all Pepper's recitals and shows. Seeing even two pictures of Pepper was enough to tell anyone that she was beautiful; the camera loved her, always had.

"Pepper, your daughter?" Juliette asked, again — it was a stall, mainly. She was trying to keep her wits about her and think what to say or do next.

"Pepper, my daughter," Harmony said, noticing that her hand was bleeding from the specks of glass she had squeezed into her palm.

Copyright © 1995 by Larry McMurtry

Part Three of Book One

Juliette didn't even take the time to change out of her tux; she was determined not to leave Harmony alone in her distress. In no time she had taken Harmony inside, picked the glass shards out of her hand, and disinfected the cuts.

"Harmony, first things first," Juliette said, when she saw the shredded feet. She did a much better job on Harmony's feet than Harmony had done, too — Eddie had underestimated the Band-Aids that would be required. It took eleven in all, and even then Juliette wasn't really content.

"You ought to go to the emergency room and get stitches for one or two of those cuts, but I guess it can wait," Juliette said. She covered the couch with towels, in case the Band-Aids didn't completely do their job. Then she made Harmony tea, in the largest mug she could find; she got a box of Kleenex out of the bathroom and put the box by Harmony, on the couch. Harmony wasn't really crying hard, but she was leaking, twice Juliette saw a line of tears move straight down Harmony's cheeks and puddle momentarily at the corners of her mouth. The sight of tears gathered at the corners of Harmony's mouth touched something in Juliette — she cried a little, too. The fact that she herself was childless had always pained her; it seemed a failure. Most humans managed to mate, but not her.

Now it occurred to Juliette that maybe childlessness wasn't such a terrible fate, after all; what Harmony was going through, and would keep on going through for the rest of her life, was undoubtedly a lot worse.

"Harmony, we better start making calls — we should probably inform your family first," Juliette said. She got a mug of tea for herself — the only lemon in Harmony's refrigerator was pretty runty but at least it was a lemon, and then she brought the Portaphone over to the couch and pulled up a chair for herself.

"If you'll just tell me the numbers I'll dial and then you can talk," she said.

"I guess I ought to call Gary first," Harmony said. Gary was her best friend — maybe by now he was her only real friend — and he had known Pepper all her life. Gary was sort of an honorary uncle; he had always thought Pepper was totally beautiful. It was going to break his heart when he heard that Pepper was dead.

"If I were you I'd call your family first," Juliette said.

"I know you don't like Gary, he does get bitchy at times," Harmony said, remembering that Gary and Juliette had had words one time, at a party Harmony had been attempting to give. It had been Eddie's fifth-birthday party; Eddie's birthday parties were about the only parties Harmony attempted to give. From Eddie's point of view the parties were a big success, but from Harmony's point of view things were more complicated. It was plain that Juliette wasn't crazy about calling Gary first.

"No, Gary and I made up, we're civil," Juliette said. "I just think you ought to call your family first — it would be more appropriate."

Harmony suddenly realized what Juliette meant: she meant she should call her family in Oklahoma first — her two sisters, her brother, her mother and father. That was the family Juliette was talking about. Juliette was from Iowa herself — of course she would know what was appropriate and what wasn't in times of grief.

"I don't see them very often — they weren't real close to Pepper," Harmony said. But then she took the Portaphone from Juliette and without thinking about it another second called her sister Neddie. Her sister's real name was Grace, but for some reason she had always been called Neddie. It had been so many months since she had called her sister that Harmony was a little surprised to find the number still in her head. Maybe it was because Neddie, who lived on a farm near Tarwater, Oklahoma, had had the same phone number all her adult life — in the same period of time Harmony had had at least thirty phone numbers.

"It's three A.M., who's calling?" Neddie asked; she was always matter-of-fact in phone conversations.

"I'm sorry, Neddie — I'm confused," Harmony said. "My feet are all cut up, and Pepper's dead."

"I'm coming, Sis," Neddie said. "Me and Pat will get ourselves to the airport and be there as soon as we can. What'd the poor child die of?"

Pat was Harmony's other sister's nickname — her real name was Hope. She worked in the bank in Tarwater and had for many years.

"Neddie, she's cremated, that's as far as I got in the letter," Harmony admitted. "The letter's out in the yard. I guess I'll try to read it in the morning."

"If she's dead, she's dead," Neddie said. "It's a tragedy for this family. Have you got a friend with you, hon?"

"Juliette's with me, you met her," Harmony said. "She hasn't even been home to take her tux off — she's here, a foot away."

"Does Eddie know?" Neddie asked.

"No, I was a coward, I didn't tell him," Harmony said. "I just made him macaroni and cheese and put him to bed. It's important that he get a good night's sleep."

"It's important that you get them feet tended to, too," Neddie said, still being matter-of-fact. "We don't need you getting blood poisoning, on top of all this."

"It was just a glass I broke, it had just come out of the dishwasher," Harmony said. Though she had not talked to her sister in a long time, she knew that Juliette had been right and that Neddie, her sister, had been exactly the right person to call. Gary might have gone into hysterics, he was prone to them, though mostly from getting his heart broken by boys he fell in love with who didn't reciprocate. In other kinds of crises Gary was pretty stable, but no one in the whole world, so far as Harmony knew, was as stable as her sister Neddie Haley. Already Harmony had begun to dread the moment when she would have to hang up. Probably Neddie didn't have a Portaphone but Harmony had a fantasy that she did and the two of them just kept talking while Neddie gathered up Pat and got to the airport and flew to Las Vegas and arrived at Harmony's apartment. It was an absurd fantasy, she could never afford to pay for a phone call that long, and anyway Neddie was frugal and would no doubt cut her off at some point even if Portaphones did exist in Tarwater. But it was a comforting fantasy too: if she could just keep her big sister on the line indefinitely maybe the tearing, ripping feeling wouldn't split her apart so badly that she couldn't be a stable mom when Eddie woke up, expecting a waffle and clean clothes to wear to school.

"You better let me call Pat, she's wild in the head these days and there's no telling what she might say if you and her get into it," Neddie advised. It was plain that she was about ready to hang up and start making plane reservations and doing other matter-of-fact things.

"I know she thinks I'm a bad mother, she always has," Harmony said — and it was true, her sister Pat had always disapproved of almost everything she did, particularly her behavior as a mom. When Pat discovered that Harmony had let Pepper go off to New York alone, at the age of seventeen, to dance in a Broadway show, she informed Harmony immediately of her absolute disapproval.

"Pepper's a teenager, she has absolutely no business being alone in a place like New York City," Pat informed her the first time the subject came up.

"How would you know what kind of place New York is? You've never been there," Harmony replied, trying to keep calm. Pat was blunt when she was talking to Harmony — she just treated her like a little sister who couldn't possibly know much. She had hurt Harmony's feelings with her bluntness hundreds of times, over the years.

"You've never been anywhere," Harmony had informed her, at the time. "I wish you wouldn't try to tell me how to raise my daughter. She's in a Broadway show and this is a wonderful opportunity for her."

"Yeah, opportunity to become a drug addict or to get mugged or to get AIDS," Pat said. "I've seen those crack neighborhoods they have up there — they show them on TV."

"I'm sure Pepper doesn't live in a crack neighborhood," Harmony replied, although she had never been in New York either and was not quite as convinced as she would have liked to be that Pepper was living in a safe neighborhood. Really, she didn't know how Pepper lived, other than that she had an address on East Ninth Street. She had plenty of maternal worries herself. Gary had informed her that eight million people lived in New York City — that was too many people even to imagine, and some of them were bound to be unsavory characters. That was a phrase Jackie Bonventre had been fond of before he died — in his view unsavory characters were men who were stingy at the craps tables, ate too much garlic, and got his showgirls pregnant.

But Pat was not convinced by anything Harmony said, and she never had been. When they were teenagers in Oklahoma, Pat had done nothing but try to steal Harmony's boyfriends, what few she managed to have before leaving home at age sixteen. Pat didn't stop stealing boyfriends just because her little sister left home, either — so far she had stolen three husbands from various women in the Tulsa area, and got all of them to marry her. The third one had just dropped dead on a golf course the year before. Harmony was a little surprised that Pat hadn't already got busy and stole a fourth husband.

Neddie, however, had been married all her life to Dick Haley, a farmer. Harmony had only met Dick a few times. He was a stern Baptist who refused to come to a sinful place such as Las Vegas, even though his sister-in-law lived there.

"What about Pat, is she married again yet?" Harmony asked — it was mainly a ruse to keep Neddie on the phone a few more minutes.

"She's working on it," Neddie said. "Pat wasn't meant for the maiden life."

"Neddie, her feelings might be hurt if I don't call her myself — she likes attention," Harmony reminded her sister, though Neddie lived about a mile from Pat and probably didn't need to be reminded.

"Call her if you want to, Harmony, but do it quick," Neddie said. "We got to get cracking right now."

"I'm just afraid she'll say I told you so," Harmony said. "I know she did tell me so but if she tells me she told me so right now I may go crazy — I may anyway, Neddie."

"Well, you lost a child — it's something I ain't had to suffer, thank the Lord, and neither has Pat," Neddie said. "She might suffer it yet though — and I might too. All our kids take dope. They're all just about to the point of being drug addicts."

"Drug addicts?" Harmony said. She wasn't used to thinking of people back home in Oklahoma as drug addicts — much less her sisters' children.

"Yes, and little Deenie has already been in trouble twice for forging her mother's name on checks," Neddie said. "She does it so she can buy drugs for that worthless hulk she's shacked up with."

"Good Lord, she's only about seventeen, isn't she?" Harmony asked, shocked.

"Right, her birthday was last week — you should have sent her a card, hon," Neddie said gently.

"I'm sorry — I know I'm not the best at keeping up family ties," Harmony said, ashamed of herself. Even Pat, despite being disapproving, had never failed to send Pepper and Eddie cards or little presents on their birthdays. The cards and little presents always came just on the right day, too — both Pepper and Eddie had always known that they had aunts who cared. She herself had been shamefully lax; she did mark all her nieces' and nephews' birthdays on the calendar, but then she would forget to turn the pages of the calendar, as the months went by, or forget to check it. Eventually she would always get around to mailing cards and presents — she had Deenie's card in her purse at that moment — but they always drifted in quite a few days late.

"Neddie, I'm going to call Pat myself, I just think it's better — do you think I should call Billy too?" Harmony asked.

"Billy's in jail," Neddie informed her. "He made one too many obscene calls to his old friend Mildred, so they nailed him again."

"Uh-oh," Harmony said.

"Her husband's a dead shot, too," Neddie said. "This is a small town. Married men don't take kindly to having their wives get dirty phone calls in the middle of the night."

"I thought Billy would outgrow all that," Harmony said.

"That's what we've all been hoping," Neddie said. "But Billy's fifty years old and he's still doing it."

"Can't he get counseling?" Harmony asked. It was sad to think of her only brother in jail for making obscene phone calls.

"He's done been to just about every psychiatrist in this part of Oklahoma," Neddie said. "There's got to be a woman somewhere would love Billy and keep him out of trouble, but if there is she sure ain't living in Tarwater."

"He could move out here and be a parking lot attendant," Harmony said. "I know a job that's just come open."

She heard a closet door creak, through the receiver, and knew that Neddie was packing even as she talked.

"What's that mean — did Jimmy leave?" Neddie asked.

"Jimmy left — he went out for cigarettes six hours ago and he isn't back," Harmony said. "He had the going-away look in his eye, Neddie. I guess the tragedy was just too much for him."

"What kind of worthless piece of shit would leave you on the night you got the news that your daughter was dead?" Neddie asked.

"The kind I keep falling in love with," Harmony said. Compared to Pepper's death, Jimmy's departure didn't matter all that much — still, it mattered some. Harmony began to cry so hard that she couldn't talk to Neddie anymore; she had to hang up. It was a lie that she had fallen in love with Jimmy, though; it was not that serious — he was just a man she had brought home for a few months. It was a long time since there had been a man she was serious about; she started counting back through the years, to the last man she had been in love with, but after she had counted back almost fifteen years and was still at zero, zilch, she gave up and let Juliette hand her Kleenex until she cried herself out.

"My sisters are coming, I have to call Pat," Harmony said, listlessly, when she was finally able to stop crying for a few minutes.

"Tell me the number and I'll dial," Juliette said, wondering if she should tell Harmony that Jimmy Bangor had made at least fifty passes at her in the few months he had lived next door. Would it make her feel better, knowing that she was rid of such a scumbag? Or would the knowledge that the man she had lived with for six months was a faithless asshole just make her feel worse?

"Juliette, just go change out of your tux," Harmony said. "I'll be all right for a few minutes."

"Okay. I've got some chicken salad in my fridge, would you like a little?" Juliette asked.

She decided to keep quiet about Jimmy Bangor's fifty passes; Harmony might think she had encouraged the man or something — why take a chance?

"I don't think so, would you please just hurry back?" Harmony asked — she knew Juliette needed to change out of her work clothes but at the sight of her getting ready to go next door Harmony got a bad sinking feeling — she definitely wanted Juliette to hurry back.

When Juliette left, Harmony became so befuddled that she couldn't remember who she had been supposed to call next. Gary came to mind, but there was the factor of Gary and Juliette not being on such good terms. It might not be quite the moment to call Gary. Before she could make up her mind Juliette came back through the door. She had done a really quick change, and she also had a box of Red Zinger tea in her hand.

"Have you called Pat yet?" Juliette asked.

"No, I forgot — that was a real fast change," Harmony said. She felt lucky to have a friend like Juliette, so quick in a time of crisis that she had changed out of her work clothes and come back before Harmony could even think to call her other sister.

"I hope Neddie's already called and told her — if I wake her up she might get real mad, she's got the worst temper in the family," Harmony said. It took her a moment to remember the number, but as soon as she remembered it, Juliette dialed.

Copyright © 1995 by Larry McMurtry

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Ronald Reed Fort Worth Star-Telegram May be the best pure love story he has written.

Malcolm Jones Jr. Newsweek Intensely lively...Harmony holds us even tighter than she did in The Desert Rose...In The Late Child, the former showgirl...achieves heroic proportions.

Peggy Payne The Dallas Morning News Deftly told. Wildly imaginative, with quick, sharp characterizations...delicious in details from start to finish.

Meet the Author

Larry McMurtry is the author of twenty-nine novels, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove, three memoirs, two collections of essays, and more than thirty screenplays. He lives in Archer City, Texas.

Brief Biography

Archer City, Texas
Date of Birth:
June 3, 1936
Place of Birth:
Wichita Falls, Texas
B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.

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