Snapshots from the Trail of The Last Picture Show

Following a literary legend to the dusty small town that gave him his fame, three budding writers learn Texas-sized lessons on love, loss and lament.

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Larry McMurtry wrote the novels “The Last Picture Show” and the Pulitzer-winning “Lonesome Dove,” along with the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” and numerous other books and essays. Much of his work is inspired by Archer City, his small hometown in West Texas, where, fittingly, a small group of storytellers gather for a writers’ retreat each year, hoping to establish their place in the literary world. Along the dusty trails of this forgotten hamlet, they work to find their voices, confront their fears and find home in the backyard of strangers. For the three writers below, their stories may have started at the Archer City Writers Workshop, but their experience in West Texas changed something deep within them.

‪‬‬Jumping off the Truck

By Madiha K

The chill of the winter night air cut through my thin black pashmina shawl as I walked from the car park toward the international departure terminal of the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore. At the counter I handed over my passport and an admission letter from the Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism in Denton, Texas.

The immigration officer looked at my ticket. “Aamreeka?” he asked gleefully. “Un huh” I said. Pakistanis have this fascination with America that borders on obsession. It’s America’s affluence and the attainment of “the American dream” that Pakistanis hope to achieve some day.

“Thomp! Click!” The officer banged the pre-inked stamp against my passport.

A dotted red rectangle surrounded the text:

Immigration Officer

Exit

23 Dec 2009

After a twenty-three-hour flight, I landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. My parents had moved to America three months earlier. As members of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, they had faced years of state-sanctioned persecution. Death threats and political instability were always a looming threat. My watch was still set to Pakistani time; I didn’t have the heart to change it. It felt like the only link I had to home. Changing the time would somehow mean I had abandoned home.

* * *

On a dorm room door a paper cutout of my name greeted me. As I began to unpack, tears rolled down my cheeks. So this is the American dream? Downsizing from the family home? Living out of five boxes? My house in Pakistan was an old Army garrison built by the British before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Vivid and painfully tender memories of my mother and home filled my empty room.

I opened the first box and picked up the mattress pad. I struggled to put it on the twin size mattress. Standing on top of the bed frame, I stretched the white mesh, tussled with the elastic but it quickly scrunched back. My hands gave way and the mattress flopped on the bed frame.

Failure.

I repeated the process.

Failure again.

Frustrated at my inability to do something as simple as putting on a mattress pad, I realized how ill prepared I was for life, how dependent I’d been on other people for my existence. It was my first understanding that life here will never be like Pakistan. No one will make the bed for me, cook for me or clean after me. I will have to leave my upper class Pakistani habits at the door.

* * *

On lonely evenings, the beauty of the sinking Texas sun sprinkling crimson dust into the vast skies made me think of Lahore and of all the times I had chai in the garden. We would sit barefoot in our lush side garden around a low table on white lounge chairs. The setting sun signaled the call of the Maghrib prayer. Loudspeakers punctured the serenity of dusk as nearby imams competed against each other in out-of-tune voices calling the faithful for prayers.

“Haya alas Salah.” Come to prayer.

“Haya alal falah.” Come to success.

A heifer decomposed in a mesquite thicket near a dry water tank on the Seven Bar Ranch in Archer County, Texas, on August 24, 2011. Seven Bar Ranch owner Abby Abernathy said the drought had depleted the area’s grass of nutrition and that his cattle had to walk up to five miles to eat and another five miles to drink. “They’re literally walking themselves to death,” he said.
A heifer decomposed in a mesquite thicket near a dry water tank on the Seven Bar Ranch in Archer County, Texas, on August 24, 2011. Seven Bar Ranch owner Abby Abernathy said the drought had depleted the area’s grass of nutrition and that his cattle had to walk up to five miles to eat and another five miles to drink. “They’re literally walking themselves to death,” he said.

I had not come to success. A friend told me what one of our professors thought about me: I would start projects but never finish them. I would plunge into a project with great zeal only to abandon my drafts. I always felt my work wasn’t good enough or at least not as good as my peers. Am I kidding myself? I wondered. Do I really have what it takes to be a writer?

A few days before the semester ended, a professor asked me to take a class in Archer City. “You need it,” he said. I quizzed former students on what to expect. “It’s a life-changing experience,” they told me. “It will help you find your place in the world.” I agreed with my professor. I did need it. After coming to America, I felt “my place in the world” was disappearing faster than dust in a windstorm. Would Archer City really be the life-changing experience students had assured me of? All I knew was that I had to go and find out.

* * *

So the journey began on a scorching July afternoon in Texas, with a full tank of gas in a 2004 butter yellow convertible Volkswagen Beetle, a roll-on hand baggage, and an empty navy blue journal bought minutes before the journey.

I had considered driving solo but had never driven alone anywhere more than half an hour from home. What if the car broke down? What if I had a punctured tire? What if I got lost and no one could find me? A part of me wanted to get lost, forcing me to take control of my life and find my way back. Taking a solo road trip had lingered in my imagination ever since I had learned to drive. In my imagination, I would drive solo in my yellow convertible on Route 66, one of the most famous roads in America that had been a symbol of freedom and independence in popular movies and songs. But a bigger part lacked the gumption and courage to make even the two-hour drive to Archer City alone.

I tuned up the radio to drown my discordant thoughts. But the radio couldn’t suppress the memories of friends I had lost contact with and dashed hopes of becoming the writer I dreamed of becoming. All my failures – as a person, as a writer – stirred in my head, competing with the voices on the radio. When the afternoon stock report blasted through my speakers “The Dow Jones…..” I abruptly turned off the radio.

My sobs punctured the silence. Somewhere along the double-lane road, I confronted my biggest fear: America might be home. My parents made an abrupt decision: to choose life over home. They chose life, and moved to America while I was still clinging to memories of home. Yet over time I began awakening to a harsh reality: my home no longer existed. Lahore, Pakistan: the flimsy brown gate of my house, the Neem tree that bent over the verandah, white chairs in the backyard, the orange wall in my room. That house was empty now. Everything packed and taped, sealed with ropes and plastic for a who-knows-when time in an uncertain future.

* * *

I parked my car outside the Spur Hotel in Archer City. Eight strangers had signed up for a writers workshop designed to bore deeply into the lives of the locals, unearthing the stories that spoke to them. Just before sunset, about the same time the students finished unloading their suitcases and filling the refrigerator with basic supplies for the week, my professor showed up. “We’ll go to the dirt roads tonight,” he said. “We’ll follow Crystal.”

Crystal was a tomboy and a cowgirl who lived with a pretty blond named Fonda. That made them outcasts in Archer City. As in Larry McMurtry’s screenplay, “Brokeback Mountain,” gay relationships are not accepted in the cowboy culture of Archer City. Maybe that’s why Fonda and Crystal loved hanging out with “the writers,” as they called them.

Crystal wore a big smile and a messy, wavy bob. She had no makeup and it was hard to understand her through her thick Texan twang. But she and Fonda opened their heart and home for us strangers as if we were longtime friends.

We separated into two groups: One group rode in Crystal’s truck while the other climbed into the bed of my professor’s silver Ford Ranger. No streetlights lined the roads. Only the headlights of the trucks offered limited visibility as we moved off the paved streets of Archer City onto the dusty back roads. Loose gravel crunching beneath the tires, the truck caravan navigated the chalky trails surrounding Archer City. Dust blew, making it hard to breathe.

I thought of my childhood in Lahore; a seven-year-old me, chasing lightning bugs. I wished I could see them now. But the darkness was absolute. Crickets sang their song and the night sky twinkled with constellations. We slowed down and came to a stop. In the darkness, only our silhouettes were visible.

A yearling strayed onto FM 2178 in Archer County, Texas, on May 20, 2011. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
A yearling strayed onto FM 2178 in Archer County, Texas, on May 20, 2011. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Country music floated over our conversations. Through the worn-out speakers of Crystal’s truck, the local radio station blared one song after another mythologizing the cowboy culture, cattle, and the love of the land.

I was standing next to a fellow writer when he offered me a beer.

“No, thanks. I don’t drink,” I said.

“You’ve never had a drink?”

“No, it’s forbidden in Islam,” I said. “But I’ll try it some day. Just once.”

“You should do it today. I’ll get you one,” he wandered off in the darkness towards the cooler.

A minute later he came and handed me a beer. “Here you go!”

Reluctantly, I held the bottle, giggling. “What am I supposed to do? Just chug it down?”

“No, let’s have a toast.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, raising his voice above the others. Now all eyes were on me. “We have someone here who’s never had a beer in her life.”

“How old are you?” he asked me.

“Twenty-five,” I said.

“Twenty-five and never had a drink? Get on the truck. Come on, stand up!”

I climbed onto the back of Crystal’s truck and stood, holding a bottle of Shiner.

I pressed the cold glass bottle against my lips and tilted, threw back my head and gulped the liquid. One small sip and I swallowed. All Pakistani conventions shattered, all religious dogma abandoned.

The crowd cheered.

I dedicated my toast to my professor and our tribe of writers.

I had done something no one in my family had ever done. I had done something that would embarrass them.

Yet I didn’t feel it was wrong. In defying my religion, my culture, my entire past, I felt relieved of heavy baggage I had been carrying all my life. As I jumped down from that truck, I felt a rush – of falling and scrambling to stay afloat. In that moment I decided I would rather be the writer who tried and failed and rose up again rather than the writer who never tried. That day on the dirt roads I gained my rite of passage as a writer. A member of a tribe. A writer who jumped.

* * *

On our second day, we met Jackie. An aging, arthritic cowgirl with a biting wit, she seemed to see right through us, as if she possessed in her head x-ray images of our minds. She was such a brutal and honest critic of our writing, such a shrewd judge of personality, that we all swore she was an oracle, possessed with amazing psychic powers. We sat in a semi-circle in her backyard, the night stars game to our confessions. The only source of light was a bright yellow bulb and each time someone read their piece, they had to sit near the bulb. In reading our raw and often emotionally-charged rough drafts aloud in Jackie’s backyard, we exposed ourselves to Jackie in a way penitents expose themselves to a priest.

To one writer, Jackie said, “You are hiding from your true self.” She correctly noted that another was raised by a single mother even though that wasn’t revealed in his draft.

To me she said, “You’ve overcome your fears. You’ll be an amazing writer.” I wanted to believe her. But I was disappointed. She didn’t see through me deep enough to see that I was not an amazing writer. I cried as I read my piece.

Jackie Lane watched her horses feed in Archer City, Texas on June 1, 2011. Larry McMurtry called her "the last real cowgirl." Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Jackie Lane watched her horses feed in Archer City, Texas on June 1, 2011. Larry McMurtry called her “the last real cowgirl.” Photo by Danny Fulgencio

* * *

Earlier that day, gathering under a gigantic antler chandelier in the hotel lobby, my professor instructed us: “Images are doorways to your imagination,” he said. “Find an image that speaks to you and write about it.”

I didn’t know where to go. Everyone seemed to have a destination in mind. I stood still at the entrance of the lobby. Where was my image? Where was my imagination? I remembered seeing a sign pointing towards the Archer City cemetery. A low terra cotta wall marked the front boundary of the cemetery. I stood still at the gate and said a little prayer in Arabic. “Assalam-o- Alaikum ya eh lal qaboor.” Oh inmates of the graves, blessings on you. My mind went back to Pakistan.

I sat for hours on a concrete bench gazing into the scattered graves of people I didn’t know. I stared into the nothingness and slowly I could feel calm. I felt it was okay to walk alone. Mom and Dad might not always be there. I’ll be okay, I whispered to myself. I’ll be okay.

* * *

I know why I was drawn to Archer City. In so many ways it was like Lahore. You didn’t need to call before showing up at someone’s house. You ate and sat in the garden for hours and no one was in a hurry to leave. You shared stories and everyone listened because deep down, we all have a story we are yearning to tell and hear. In Archer City, the spirit of the Old West lingers on. Men wear cowboy hats and drive their rugged Rams and Silverados. They drive slowly through the blinking red light on the square. Amid the locals of Archer City, I found home. In the backyards of strangers on moonlit nights I found my voice. It’s been two years and a lot has changed. I have graduated. I finished the piece I started in Archer City and I went back again. This time I rolled down the windows, cracked up the music, sang along to songs and laughed at my old self.

Madiha K graduated with a masters in Journalism from the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Born and raised in Pakistan, she currently calls Texas her home. She is fascinated by human stories of migration and concepts of home. Her work has been published in Warscapes.

* * *

How the Hell Did I Get Here?

By Alicia Auping

Dust swirls. It’s a staring contest, and I’m losing. My opponent’s eyes are pools of black bulging from his head. His head is the size of my entire body, and he lowers it, swinging it back and forth. Never mind the horns.

How the hell did I get here?

Even though I lived in Fort Worth, Texas, for almost ten years, astonishingly I never stepped foot into the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The closest the annual rodeo ever came to affecting me was the overflow parking that invaded The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where my dad is chief curator. That’s my world: art, poetry, literature.

I spent my formative years in Buffalo, New York. I’m a city girl. I don’t like horses. My encounters with horses have been limited to Susan Rothenberg’s abstract renderings. Horses terrify me. The biggest animal I’ve ever been comfortable around was my black lab, Amigo, and until today, my only glimpse of the inside of a rodeo is a picture sitting on the front desk of the Spur Hotel in Archer City, Texas.

Seven days ago I arrived in Archer City to attend a literary journalism class. I’ve learned a lot over the past week about writing, and about myself. I’ve bonded with an eight-year-old Archer City icon and a ten-year-old cowgirl, attended a cattle auction, won bingo at the community center and learned how to play pool at the American Legion.

Two women passed the marquee at the American Legion in Archer City, Texas, on July 26, 2009. Two years earlier, the community was rocked when one of its own, 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Gary Scott Johnston, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Two women passed the marquee at the American Legion in Archer City, Texas, on July 26, 2009. Two years earlier, the community was rocked when one of its own, 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Gary Scott Johnston, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Now, I’m running for my life.

I’m at the Boomtown Rodeo in Burkburnett, Texas, with my classmate Jason Yang and our teacher George Getschow. My bug-splattered Toyota RAV4 sits in a grassy lot, dwarfed by heavy-duty pickup trucks extended in length by horse trailers. We follow a chorus of whoops, hollers and whinnies toward the entrance to the rodeo grounds, and our noses are met with a rare mixture of sweet and pungent aromas: nachos, cotton candy and living, breathing animals. Young and old cowboys are walking around in worn jeans and boots with huge hats and belt buckles. Their women are wearing head-to-toe denim dripping in sparkly sequins and rhinestones. I wish I’d packed my Bedazzler.

Enormous dragonflies and beetles swoop and dive amid the festivities. Young wranglers practice their roping skills a few yards away. A small child passes by on a miniature horse, and I do a double take. It’s a country western circus.

A veteran of the rodeo circuit, Archer City resident Don Masey, explains all the events to us — barrel racing, calf roping, bull riding, and one of our favorites, the calf scramble. It’s adorable. A ribbon is tied to the tail of a calf and children chase after it to get the ribbon.

When the adult scramble is announced, George practically shoves me and Jason off the bleachers. We hesitate but then give in. Why the hell not? We can chase a calf. It’ll be fun.

We join the parade of good ole boys heading toward the entrance to the arena. I look around at the muscle-bound young men sporting wranglers, boots and cowboy hats, strutting into the ring. Their hands are calloused. I rub my hands together self-consciously; they’re as soft as peach skin.

I look at Jason’s crisply pressed button-down shirt tucked into his slacks, then at my own jeans and sneakers.

“I’m going to be the only girl out there!”

“I’m the only Asian at the entire rodeo!”

And those are the last words we exchange before we step into the ring.

I look down at my neon yellow Nikes kicking up a combination of sand, dirt and manure. They leave a foreign footprint on the ground, which is accustomed to the familiar imprint of cowboy boots.

There is a wall of cowboys in front of us. I can’t see over their Stetsons. I feel like everyone’s staring at me, a Lilliputian under the bright lights. Who are those weirdos? What the hell are they doing in our rodeo arena?

I’m ready to get this over with.

All of a sudden, the wall of bodies scatters. Jason and I stand in the middle of the mayhem as still as stones.

My heart stops.

Tina Robertson leaned on her truck before leading her herd to pasture in Archer County, Texas, on July 31, 2010. To make ends meet, Robertson worked as a rancher, maid and high-security prison guard. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Tina Robertson leaned on her truck before leading her herd to pasture in Archer County, Texas, on July 31, 2010. To make ends meet, Robertson worked as a rancher, maid and high-security prison guard. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“Oh my God, it’s a fucking bull!” I don’t know which one of us says it before we run in opposite directions just in time for the bull to trample the ground where we were standing seconds ago.

My heart has kicked back in at double-time.

I lose sight of Jason in the commotion. I’m disoriented. I don’t know whether to run towards or away from the bull. I’m caught in a cyclone of broad shoulders and cowboy hats. My eyes sting from the dust. Where’s Jason?

Then I see him.

He runs head-on towards the bull. What is he doing? He’s so close. He reaches for the ribbon tied between the bull’s horns. Oh my God, I think, he’s either going to get that ribbon or he’s going to die.

He doesn’t get the ribbon, and he doesn’t die. His fingers are mere inches away from the delicate ribbon dancing around the horns of the snorting, heaving behemoth. Dressed in perfectly pressed business attire, facing a bull head-on, he realizes what he has gotten himself into. At the last minute, he veers out of harm’s way, and a strapping young man twice his size swoops in, easily slipping the bow off its beastly horns like a present on Christmas morning.

The winner, a seasoned cowboy, struts around the ring, grasping the ribbon in his hand like he had just won a million dollars. In reality, it was fifty dollars and bragging rights.

Jason and I meet up and walk out of the ring with the crowd. Our fellow participants pat us on the back laughing because even that bull knew we didn’t belong there. We laugh back, relieved yet proud, knowing we’ve shared an experience we’ll never forget.

Fear is a valuable emotion for a writer. Adrenaline kicks in, and our senses go on hyper-alert. When we are scared we remember every minute detail. This is what writers do to find a story. I’ve learned that being a writer is scary, and it’s normal for me to feel that way. It takes courage to write. Not just courage to translate your thoughts onto paper but courage to step outside your comfort zone, into a world that is so strange and so terrifying.

Like a rodeo ring occupied by a gigantic, ornery bull.

Alicia Auping is an alumna of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, where she also received her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. A current contributor to the Dallas Observer’s arts and culture blog, Mixmaster, her work has been published in Denton Live, Denton-Record Chronicle and Mayborn magazine. ‬

* * *

The Bookkeeper

By Nicole Holland Pearce

There 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. 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 did — with Lonesome Dove — stands in front of me. When I was about ten 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 sixteenth birthday, it shook more than my foundation, but 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.

I stare at Larry. It has taken me fifteen 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.

* * *

When I drove into Archer City that early February day, the town was deserted. No traffic passed under the blinking stoplight, no shoppers mingled in the thrift store. I parked in front of The Spur Hotel, pulled the keys out of the ignition and walked down the town’s main artery, Center Street, heading to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2.

Author and bookseller Larry McMurtry priced books in his bookstore, Booked Up 1, in Archer City, Texas, on February 15, 2011. McMurtry wrote dozens of novels and screenplays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 for his Western novel "Lonesome Dove." Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Author and bookseller Larry McMurtry priced books in his bookstore, Booked Up 1, in Archer City, Texas, on February 15, 2011. McMurtry wrote dozens of novels and screenplays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 for his Western novel “Lonesome Dove.” Photo by Danny Fulgencio

As I maneuvered each volume off the top shelf, I felt like I was on a dig — excavating remnants of history from a forgotten place. Some of the antiquarian books were so old that touching them elicited a rust-colored chalk from their covers. Some of the spines looked like the bark of an oak. These books were about to turn back into the trees they were made from, I thought to myself. I felt 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 was completely empty. I sat down on the ground and scribbled on a notepad.

I walked across the street to the main bookstore, Booked Up No. 1, to see if I could find inspiration. My desires rolled 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 halted me. I found 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 when I really loved writing. My first short story was written on my dad’s laptop — twelve 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 to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2. 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.”

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 is fading away in front of him. I understand this. Despite my effort to write, it seems my ability is slipping away.

* * *

When I was thirteen, 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, to a lighthearted woman named Cindi whom I grew to love, because he did.

I leave 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 is, ohmygod!

On Monday, we meet at Booked Up No. 1. Larry drives a modest four-door sedan. We stand 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?”

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 eleven. 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.

A sundered GMC Sierra Classic rested in a field in Archer City, Texas, on July 27, 2010. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
A sundered GMC Sierra Classic rested in a field in Archer City, Texas, on July 27, 2010. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

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.” 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 O.K. 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.

* * *

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 his house. 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 nineteen 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 seventy-four and I’ve written forty-three 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.

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.

“Twenty-nine.”

“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.

Nicole Holland Pearce earned her master’s degree at the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism. She’s been writing professionally for ten years, covering everything from a fifty-mile canoe trip down the Brazos River to the national mortgage crisis. She lives in Dallas with her husband Eric and two four-legged children, Cora and Diego.

The Archer City Writers Workshop is part of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Begun in 2005 by George Getschow, the in-residence workshop at the Spur Hotel in Archer City is a component of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the pre-eminent literary nonfiction conference in the country. More stories from the workshop can be found here

Danny Fulgencio is a Texas-based portrait and documentary photographer. In 2010, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of North Texas, Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism before taking a vow of poverty as a freelance photojournalist. His work has been featured in various Village Voice publications and the International Herald Tribune, among others. He now serves as photo editor and photographer for Advocate Magazines in Dallas.

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