The Cowboy Store in Kerrville is gone.
Karen had agreed to accompany me on my search for a pearl snap shirt, a semi-annual ritual during our summer and Christmas vacations to Kerrville, her hometown, from New York City, mine, and where we live now.
I became somewhat taken with this style of shirt upon seeing it worn by a young buck working at Crider’s (spelled with a rope on an overhead billboard), a rodeo and outdoor dance hall in Hunt, Texas, that recently celebrated its 80th year of operation. Karen had told me early in our relationship that only cowboys and dorks wore snap shirts. Despite her clear delineation of coolness, and regardless of the near impossibility of my venturing into the livestock business, I have never been deterred.
Since my purchase three summers ago of a Wranglers snap shirt—white embroidered cotton with ¼-inch blue vertical stripes—I have been on the lookout both in stores and online for such western attire that can be worn in midtown Manhattan by a man who was born and raised there but wants to bring a little Hill Country to the Big Apple.
My four shirts have come from The Cowboy Store, which country music singer Jason Aldean has pitched on the radio, specifically on KRNH-FM 92.3 “The Ranch” and on KRVL 94.3 “Revolution Radio” before they changed their format from Texas country to classic rock. In fact, I couldn’t say that Billy’s Western Wear, off Sidney Baker Street in front of The Home Depot, was ever on my radar until Karen and I saw that The Cowboy Store was no longer in business. Billy’s is about 100 yards from interstate I-10, which gets you from El Paso to Houston in 10 ½ hours, or to your cousin’s in Beaumont in just under 12. This expanse within one state, however, doesn’t isolate the many small towns and larger cities from one another; rather, it draws them together through a sense of state pride unlike, for example, the dynamic mosaic of California, a state of restless or fleeing transplants from the East Coast, Mexico, the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia; or New York, battleground between upstate and downstate—New York City versus everything else, even though the city provides Albany with much of its revenue to serve the rest of the state. Texas is one state and has been its own nation. The one thing I’ve noticed Texans don’t laugh at is any slight directed at their state, whether intentional or innocent.
It was this sense of community that allowed the cashier at Billy’s to tell me, when I asked, not only what happened to The Cowboy Store but also the family narrative of their own business, into which she married. To wit, it’s not often you get a Happy Meal at McDonald’s and learn that the fry chef is the granddaughter of Ray Krok. It’s also this sense of community that gives shows like “Greater Tuna” its bite, charm, and poignancy.
Tuna, Texas, the fictional third-smallest town in Texas—losing its second place status “when Irene had triplets,” and a town where all the characters on stage, men and women, are portrayed by four male actors—is kept informed about local and national news by two gregarious and carefree radio announcers who announce such offbeat headlines as when there is a “Nuclear plant disaster!…Six states affected….” Dramatic pause. “Texas not included. And onto other news…” It is the town where Stanley, the sociopath son of a tormented woman whose adulterous husband keeps her weeping over her children’s foibles and dead-end futures, laughs over the coffined corpse of a judge who earlier sentenced him to reform school. Stanley then proceeds, in soliloquy, to confess—after almost 80 minutes of laughs by the audience at the idiosyncrasies of small town life—that it was he who injected air bubbles into the ailing body of the bed-ridden septuagenarian, killing him. Moments earlier, the killer’s aunt, sister to the cuckolded mother, stares down at the judge’s body as she, too, laments to him—to us—that she should have never fallen in love with him years earlier. And then she fulfills a promise. She starts to sing a song, having told him she would sing over his grave. We see that it is those who are deeply alone, who have been abandoned or shamed or dismissed, who are the most hideous in their character. We see the show performed a regional theater troupe that included the local high school science teacher and my father-in-law’s barber, men showing the full emotional expression—exaggerated though it might be—of the men and women of Tuna, Texas. It is delightful, and—in the arcane sense of the word—terrible.
Sartre was wrong. Hell is not other people; hell is isolation. Or perhaps it’s eternal isolation pressed against other people.
And so as you read about pearl snap shirts and dorks—a title I wear at times whether I like it or not—and as you travel down my narrative into murder and vaunted love, you may wonder where the theme of “community” could have diverged into trails of joy and despair.
They diverge when the judge throws the book at the 16-year-old sociopath (when he was but a troubled youth) and he spends only nine months in a reformatory that so thoroughly deadens his humanity that he takes mortal revenge on his enemy.
The trails converge again at the Guadalupe, as my nephew William, along with three school-age sons Carter, Bennett, and Teak drive to Mo Ranch outside of Hunt to swim in the river. They converge as five sun-tanned bodies float in the water wending between limestone cliffs—our goggles are on and we are staring at the river bottom 18 inches down. We are searching for an arrowhead that missed a deer more than a century ago. The father, a man who grew up in the city and knows more about finding an air-conditioned car on the downtown #1 IRT subway than about Indian artifacts, has offered $20 for the first arrowhead found by a boy 10 or under. The race is on and when it seems hopeless that an arrowhead will be found, the oldest son calls for a new challenge. The father, seeking to extend their time on the river—water at about 80 degrees, air at about 92—says he will pay 25 cents for every shell the oldest boy finds, 50 cents to the middle boy, 75 cents to the youngest. (The father is less concerned about economic justice than about quickly finding another reason for them all to stay.) In the end, of course, the cash winnings vary and the temper of one son flares, but 30 minutes later when they are eating hamburgers and recounting their day, they are content. The five males share a circular booth in the corner of a Fuddruckers in Kerrville, miles from the Guadalupe but still on the trail that had converged in the river. They all agree it is the best booth in the restaurant.
A week before I left for Texas to float in the river that afternoon, at eight in the morning, Sal and Chris from the Gristedes grocery store on 86th and Broadway in Manhattan paid me a personal visit because of a complaint I had emailed to the company’s corporate office the evening before.
[To be continued]