The Bookkeeper

by Nicole Holland Pearce

 

McMurtry4 copyThere he is. A small, rumpled figure unloading books from a sea of boxes, throwing out volumes, piling others on top of themselves. It is methodic. Bookshelves surround him, stretching from floor to ceiling. He stands in the center of them, near a large table, which is also filled with books overflowing to the floor. I walk up behind him on the balls of my feet—I’m not sure if he wants any company. His light gray hair tufts ungraciously on his head, and thick plastic eyeglasses lie across his nose. On a stark white strip of paper, taped on their side, it reads, Mr. McMurtry. I clear my throat and ask him where he found the shipment he is unloading. Stacks salvaged from the Fort Worth Library. He turns to face me.

“What’s your name?” he says.

“Nicole.”

“I’m Larry.”

“I know,” I say, smiling.

The author I’d fallen in love with, like a lot of Texans first had—with Lonesome Dove—stands in front of me. When I was about 10 years old, I devoured the 945-page epic—to this day, the longest book I’ve read. I adored the story of Gus and Call and spent Sunday afternoons watching the movie next to my dad. It was those Sundays that I really got to know him—how much he liked reggae, his interest in Westerns, his talent for grilling—more than when he and my mom were married. When we were together, he spent his time making sure I learned how to use my head—we read about nature; he encouraged me to write. He even taught me how to box. When he died a few months before my 16th birthday, it shook more than my foundation, by my confidence in myself. It wasn’t for another decade that I’d accept how his death had caused my esteem to plummet. I’d fail classes, misbehave and close myself off from the world. I’d protect myself with mental armor. I’d refuse to be vulnerable or expose my true feelings. But I’d make it back—and not without effort. I stare at Larry. It has taken me 15 years to get to this spot. The long journey to the dusty, bantam town of Archer City started when I knew I wanted to write more than anything in the world. And like many roads, mine up to this point had been winding.

Two years ago, I began earning a master’s degree to escape the blighted journalism industry. My most recent job before grad school hadn’t paid me or the editorial and sales staff in six months. While the other employees tapped into their 401ks from previous jobs, depleted their savings, or leaned on their spouses, I worked nights as a cocktail waitress in a hotel. I lived on the tips from the night before, and during the day, the staff and I lived on optimism. Weeks after I quit to pursue my master’s, the magazine folded. I can only guess that other writers would have bailed when they saw signs the ship was sinking, but I hung onto the hope that the magazine would survive. When it didn’t, I, too, was sunk.

During my years in graduate school, I’ve learned I can do math. I’m a great researcher. I can teach a class. I can find a story’s deeper meaning, cut out the adverbs and develop a theme. But what I learned about being a confident writer didn’t come from the classroom. It came during the late winter rendezvous I had with Larry McMurtry.

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When I drive into Archer City that early February day, the town is deserted. No traffic passes under the blinking stoplight, no shoppers mingle in the thrift store. I park in front of The Spur Hotel, a modest, one-man owned inn that for 10 days each August is consumed by a pack of writers. Last summer, I was one of those eager writers. We’d sit around the hotel’s meeting room where a line of nonfiction books split the long conference table like a vertebrae. At first, the
class just stared at the books, then gingerly picked through them. I pull the keys out of the ignition and walk down the town’s main artery, Center Street, heading to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2. As I maneuver each volume off the top shelf, I feel like I’m on a dig—excavating remnants of history from a forgotten place. Some of the antiquarian books are so old that touching them elicits a rustcolored chalk from their covers. Some of the spines look like the bark of an oak. These books are about to turn back into the trees they were made from, I think to myself. I finish leafing through all of the aging editions. I feel as if I should be wearing gloves, as if someone should be monitoring this back room to make sure I’m delicate, to make sure I don’t steal. But it’s completely empty. I sit down on the ground and scribble on a notepad. About 10 years ago, I first came to a bookstore similar to this. It was in Denton, Texas, at Recycled Books. An opera house in early 1900s, it’s now a massive purple bookstore. Larry will later tell me he’s gone there to browse their collection and has bought a few over the years. He, like me, graduated from the University of North Texas, one of two colleges in Denton. He first went to Rice but couldn’t wrap his mind around calculus. He blames that on a thin high school education, where he wasn’t taught the necessary skills.

Years later, he returned to Rice to earn a master’s degree, taught freshman English, and in his last year, a writing course. When I strolled through the aisles at Recycled Books all those years ago, I promised myself I would collect my own trove of books. I would be the wellread intellectual, and write every day. Every day. I wish I would have kept that promise. I walk across the street to the main bookstore, Booked Up No. 1, to see if I can find inspiration. My desires roll
around in my head like pinballs ricocheted by self-doubt.I feel like I’m running out of time to make a name for myself. To make it as a writer. My own waning confidence halts me. I find it harder and harder to write. Like many writers, the desire to perform well can often diminish the desire to perform at all. A blank page is sometimes easier to tolerate than a terrible paragraph. The pressure put on writers, by deadlines and editors doesn’t even measure up to the pressure we put on ourselves. I remember the time I really loved writing. My first short story was written on my dad’s laptop—12 typed pages about a set of twin siblings washed away in a flood. When I went to work with him the next day, he told all the office women with teased hairdos and heavy perfume that his daughter was going to write a book one day, and I believed him. Now when I sit in front of a stark computer screen, the cursor patiently blinks. I’m afraid to let go.I write, then press delete.

Larry stares at me. “Can you show me your rare book room?” I ask. We walk back across the hot stretch of highway. I pull down Dante’s classic, the Divine Comedy. “Is this the first edition?” I ask. He examines it. I can tell he may not even care to recall when or how he acquired it. “No,” he says after some thought. “It’s just a fancy edition in German.” I help him slide it back onto the shelf. A stack of railway records sits next to him. In the front, a pile of British lit. A heap of random anthologies. Four bookstores filled to the brim, overflowing. I ask him: “What are you going to do with all of this?” “I don’t rightly know,” he says. “I’m the last bookseller, and bookselling is dying. Truly dying.” He says it like a man whose passion was fading away in front of him. I understand this. Despite my effort to write, it seems my ability is slipping away.

 

***

When I was 13, I told my dad I wanted to drive a red convertible.I said I couldn’t wait to find out what it felt like to have the wind tangling my hair. The freedom of it. When he picked me up on his next visit, on Valentine’s Day, it was in a cherry-colored Chrysler LeBaron. The Red Baron, we called it. It was a rental, but it was my dream car. We drove all over Interstate 10. I’m sure, as a single man—divorced from my mother for almost five years—the car served as much to his benefit as it did as a gift for his daughter. But, I choose to remember it as my gift from Dad. He remarried a year after that—a lighthearted woman named Cindi whom I grew to love, because he did. I left Archer City that evening after my short conversation with Larry. He calls me the next day. It’s a Sunday. “I’d like to show you where I grew up,” he says, and invites me back out to Archer. On Monday, a bouquet of flowers arrives. The card reads: Happy Valentine’s Day. Larry. All I can think: ohmygod. On Monday, we meet at Booked Up No. 1. Larry drives a modest four-door sedan. We stand in between his front bumper and the front door to the bookstore and stare at each other for a moment before he says, “Ready for our adventure?”

I open the passenger door and climb in. As he drives down the two-lane highway, heading toward his Archer City residence, he tells me about the crew of carpenters who have momentarily taken over his home. They’re working on some updates because his niece will be married there in the spring. I spent a lot of my adolescence in the passenger seat—all those car trips back and forth between Victoria and San Antonio. The passenger seat became my safe place. My dad would pick me up from my mom’s house, and we’d make the three-hour drive. One weekend, we pulled into our town’s small gas station. He asked me to buy some beer for him while he filled up the tank. I was 11. I was proud to do it and had no doubt the six pack of Budweiser would be packaged and sold to me. “You must be Gary’s daughter,” the woman behind the counter said. “Yep. Just this, please.” She wiped a piece of dry blond hair out of her thin lips, which parted into a smile. “Okay, sweetheart.” I walked out with the brown paper bag creased at the top and hopped into the passenger seat of the car. I’m not sure, but I like to think my dad was testing my courage, like he’d do from time to time. That’s the thing about losing a parent. I’m left to connect the dots, and sometimes the pictures I put together may not be accurate. But it’s what I have. He popped open a sweating can, and we drove out into the afternoon—the hot Texas sun piercing the
windshield.

Larry and I twist through his modest neighborhood, designed before curbs and cul-de-sacs became popular. I smile at strangers like I’m supposed to smile at them. It’s what you do in a car with a literary megastar, isn’t it? Or do you just stare out the window? Or do you stare at your feet? I look at Larry as he turns into the driveway, pulling in front of his private library, a little two-story wonderment he calls the book house. It sits a few yards behind his main house and holds some of his most prized editions. Inside, the floor looks like an old-fashioned diner—a pattern of black and white tiles. Sunlight floods the space. “Over here is popular culture,” he says pointing to a wall of colorful spines aligned on the wall. “Up there is Western Americana,” he says. A sturdy set of white wooden stairs with apple red railings leads up to the second story, which is brimming with countless editions in sets of white shelving. Every few yards, a large naked window breaks up the walls of books. Downstairs, near the doors, sits an amassment of H.G. Wells books, for which he paid $60,000. It’s worth twice as much today. “This is the second best H.G. Wells collection in the world,” he says. He seems okay with that. “Book collecting isn’t a race.” His bookstores hold 400,000 volumes. So if it were a race, he’d be standing in the winners’ circle. Near the shelves of science-fiction hangs a small framed picture. “That’s me and Ronny,” he says of a snapshot of himself and Ronald Reagan. Larry spent time in the White House with the Reagans at a private dinner held by Nancy. She was looking for someone to pen her memoir. “It didn’t turn out to be me,” he says.

Tom Petty croons to us from a small black radio on our stroll to the main house. We watch our feet as we walk between power cords and sawhorses. “I haven’t written this morning,” he says. “There’s no place to write.” His home is immediately inviting, despite carpenters hanging on ladders and rafters like monkeys, their debris spread out all over the first floor. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves carpet the walls filled with books. They are organized by section and spread across the entirety of the living room. The shelves are covered with monstrous sheets of protective plastic to stave off the wandering sawdust, but take a moment to imagine this room on another day. Perhaps at night, with the windows pushed open to let in the warm Texas breeze, lamp light gathers in pools on the smooth wood floor, giving the room soft illumination. The crickets chirp. And there Larry sits, near the window, reading. A buzz saw severs my daydream and we get back in the car, heading to his ranch house.

My dad called one evening to say I’d forgotten my toothbrush, and that’s the last time I ever talked to him. A few days later, he was in the hospital. He had a heart attack and died a day later. A week following, I got a letter from Cindi in the mail. It was on thick stationery with laced edges and the handwriting was ornate, written with an inky black pen. Dear Nicole, I know how much your dad meant to you. It went on this way for three adorned pages. I never heard from her again. For the three years that followed, missing him went in phases. Some nights I cried, others I was angry. I read about a girl whose dad died when she was young. She was in so much denial that for months she thought he was hiding in her closet. I can’t remember how many times I’ve dreamt that I’ve found him in another city, living another life.

Here on Idiot Ridge, where Larry penned Lonesome Dove, the grass around the front gate is overgrown. A sharp, cold wind—even in the bright sunlight—makes us pull our coats around us as we walk inside. The furnishings are modest, and sparing. A patterned couch sits with its back against the living room’s large window, facing the small dining room, which leads to a smaller kitchen. It’s filled with bookshelves stuffed with books. He tells me his son uses the house from time to time when he’s in town. I walk around on the worn wooden floors. Larry’s father and grandfather built it, a “simple shotgun house,” he calls it. His love affair with reading began in 1942, when his cousin, Robert Hilburn, stopped by the house and dropped off a small box. It held 19 books, just standard boys’ books—but he read them through and again. “That was my library,” he says. Now, his personal collection holds more than 28,000. Book collecting makes Larry happy; writing fills in the rest.

Over lunch—sandwiches at a little cafe in Wichita Falls—I sit across from the man who has never had writer’s block. Never uses a computer. Who doesn’t wear a watch and methodically writes five pages a day, every day, his entire career. “You’ll be surprised how that adds up,” he says. “I’m 74 and I’ve written 43 books.” I talk about my recent writing struggles, and he simply tells me he looks at writing as a job. He doesn’t get flustered by it, doesn’t agonize over it, doesn’t dread it. It’s certainly a different perspective. We talk about his latest project—Empire of the Summer Moon, a screenplay he’s working on with the book’s author, Sam Gwynn. Larry’s almost done with it. “It needs a polish,” he says, “at the rate of five pages a day.”

On our way back to Archer, he talks about overcoming a severe depression that he suffered a few months back, leaving him worn and empty. Today, he looks like a much healthier man. New projects on the horizon, and what I’ll learn later—a marriage to Faye Kesey, widow of the late literary luminary, Ken Kesey. As he drives, I tell him how much I want to be a writer. Well, that I am a writer—but I’m longing to make a living by it. Write a memoir one day.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“29.”
“You have plenty of time to venture out into books.”
“Thanks,” I say, thinking of my dad who gave me the same advice.

Maybe this time I’ll take it.

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