It is the winter of three snows in Austin. With the first snow and its ice-covered streets comes news of my mother, in another city’s hospital, with a breast lopped off. Second snow — and Austin, not used to such snow, again covered in white — finds me by myself waiting for a teenage daughter who picks the coldest night to run away to the bed of an old carnie twice her age. It is the third snow. The air itself has turned to ice but I walk downtown early anyway to open the bookstore for snow refugees laid off from school and work, for motorists warned off the streets. A woman in a black suit is waiting in a car across the street when I turn the lock and the sign to “Open.” She follows me in and when I answer yes to her question of managership, she opens her wallet and flashes a card. Then she begins to call me Pat and I call her Dolores.
The bookstore doesn’t have much in the way of heat, but today I set a small electrical unit by a front table after I have cleared it of books so Dolores can sit there and be comfortable in the hours she plans to spend with me. She begins to go through the store’s canceled checks, bank statements, and copies of federal employer’s quarterly tax returns, which I do not have enough of, according to the records in the file that Dolores has brought with her.
Who works at the bookstore? My son and I. Our friend Right who works on Sundays in exchange for a room in the basement. Sometimes my daughter. Who owns the bookstore? Dallas friends, who had enough books to make another bookstore and move it to Austin, let us run it. Dolores says that all of us are liable, all our names are on all the checks, that we will need to pay this debt with whatever we’ve got — a car, a house, anything of any value.
The bookstore is our work — our chosen business. The rest of Austin booms with construction and high tech. I tell Dolores how we can’t keep up, how the landlords have never given us a lease and have sold our building and made us move and then sold that building and made us move again, and how we keep selling books but sliding, as she knows, with our taxes.
Dolores, Dolores. I want to give her whatever she wants. The snow melts, but Dolores continues to come several days in a row. She finally arrives at a particular calculation which she gives me on paper. It is a figure in the thousands. She says if we don’t pay it according to her specified schedule of hundreds each week, she personally will see that the Internal Revenue Service takes a lien against us, bars our doors, rents our building from our landlord, and sells our books for tax debt. “Just think,” I tell her, trying to make a little joke, “if you take our books and divide them up among yourselves as bonuses, IRS employees will be the best read of all the downtown office workers.”
But Dolores doesn’t smile. “We do not really want your books.”
So the world of print is dying anyhow, I’ve been told more than once. In the wake of computers, a bookstore is no better than a museum and books the artifacts of a musty literacy. I walk to work through university grounds where trees are uprooted for parking lots and grackles are shot down and left, strewn black feathers and splashes of red among the student cars and under remaining trees. How can the word on the page ever compete with the dazzle of technologically produced hallucination? How can the scholars laboriously shuffle through the pages when the multifaceted crystal-brained computer chip can call up in a moment whatever tidbits of information they are looking for? Words stored in wires and on films instead of pages hacked from trees. Still, I wish while I walk that money will come in today this day all days so fast that Dolores will be happy. Or at least satisfied.
I don’t really know if Dolores can be happy. What, after all, does her name mean? Just last summer when I visited border missions I saw Dolores standing with the other saints but dressed in black, head hanging. And since the missions were built along the banks of the river, I wondered if Dolores was related to La Llorona — the woman who loved her boyfriend so much that she drowned her children to follow him, he who left her, she to follow the river calling her children. Or perhaps they were sisters — La Llorona gives and Dolores receives. The children leave or the children drown. A price is paid. It was summer and it seemed silly to me that Dolores was so drab among the others. But now it is winter and she has come and I understand, after all, why people want to give her something. Sacrifice — money, a daughter, mother parts.
In the basement of the bookstore, under the floor, are the bones of several mastodons. I sweep a broom over their heads and sides and rearrange the boxes of books on their backs and tell them all this about Dolores and more.
Boxes of books. A labyrinth of duplicate titles, columns to the ceiling in places. Enough Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to stock a whole room with the one title, and Star Trek, Sophie’s Choice, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. People say the reason for so many of those particular titles was the push they got from movies and television. But if the people saw the movie first, why would they want to bother with the obsolete book?
The boxes are beginning to heave all around me while I am shoving them back and pulling them around, finding ones that I might want to bring upstairs; the dust is spitting out of their edges, and the basement air echoing with faint bellowing, the mastodons stretching and humming under the shifting weight of me and the boxes. And an answer to my own question pops into my mind: some people simply enjoy exercising their brains and these books help them do it. Delicately stacked boxes of books on top of a mastodon’s head, swaying, smiling while it rouses itself slowly, crystal skull pushing up through the earth, butting the cement under my feet.
Now I’m sweeping. I think of the kids who came in almost daily last summer, a crowd of skateboard boys, some of them hanging over the comic bins for hours as a break from the fancy skateboard tricks they practiced on the downtown parking lots in the evenings rather than watching television, learning to move their bodies in complex ways to make the boards jump and turn. I realize that the alphabet is a kind of vehicle for the brain, rousing it to its image-making activity. Some brains might enjoy having someone else do all that work of imaging for them and might simply lie in front of a buzzing screen, enjoying a blessed torpor kept alive with jolts of splashy action, pictures flashing on the walls of otherwise empty brain corridors. But the urge to exercise must be born to the body along with the gift of its movements. And there are some people who just like to move it! And then there are some who have developed the more advanced techniques of rubbing images and symbols together for the friction that tickles the synapses into bursts of light.
Electricity from mastodon hair spins around the broom in the dust and my own body swings through the books as I walk the path of the spine, the crystal vertebrae swaying, opening long cracks in the basement floor. So many books! Enough to make a whole other bookstore!
A door bursts open upstairs from the great winds spinning outside the building and someone calls my name. When I go up, there is a man about my age, a regular customer, waiting for me at the counter. He wants some advice about opening up a used bookstore. He says he was a real estate developer until recently and made a good sum of money during Austin’s boom years and now owns a building in one of the outlying towns. So he can open a store there and his rent will be free. “Do you believe,” he asks me, “that there is any future, Pat, in a used bookstore?”
I think a minute. I try to remember everything, including Dolores. But just a few feet below us is the mastodon herd and a baby mastodon just waiting to be born, the building still shaking in conceptual bliss. I had just seen them rolling while I climbed the stairs!
The day before Dolores’s first deadline, he puts down his deposit on the 20,000 assorted titles he is ordering up from the basement’s horde. He tells me while we load them in his pickup, “Well Pat, I did make money in the real estate business, but I very rarely liked any of the people I was dealing with. Always when I went into business before, I asked myself what would make money. This time I asked myself, What would I like to do? And the answer was — sell used books!”
His wife is leaving him, partly because of his financially irresponsible preference for used books over real estate. But he has already become a book person. He is moving into one of the back rooms of the storefront — she gets the house. His two teenage sons are helping him unload the truck, dreaming of work at the counter: comics to be bought; science fiction and Dungeons & Dragons stock in trade.
Soon I go to the Internal Revenue Service Building, to the third floor, and ask the receptionist for my representative. She tells me to sit in a chair and wait. I sit for half an hour. There are three cubicles in the room. A man and a woman in one of them are talking to one of Dolores’s counterparts. There’s a portable wall between us but I can hear them clearly.
The auditor’s voice is low. Papers are being shuffled.
The man’s voice, angry: “It seems that one of us or both of us are going to have to pay about seven thousand dollars in taxes.”
The woman says, “Yes.”
“But you said you were paying it!”
“I told you what happened.”
The auditor says, “You should be able to get a loan.”
The three walk out, two of them ruffled. I continue to sit and wait, reading the notices on the bulletin board of auctions of small businesses.
Dolores. Dollars. Dollars are our sorrows.
The Internal Revenue Service itself is in trouble. A change of computer service has caused it to be three times slower in dispensing refund checks compared to earlier years. The workers in rooms of this very building have in fact during the past several days shredded up taxpayers’ returns in order to make their quotas. In the elevator on the way up, I heard two women dressed in black dresses whispering. “But he did not have any knowledge of it,” one said. And the other, solemnly, “Oh yes he did.”
The receptionist in Dolores’s office is also dressed in black. While I sit there waiting, she pulls herself up from her chair and walks unsteadily into an adjacent room full of computer screens and their tenders — all women. “I have a terrible stomachache,” she tells one of the sitting women. “Can I go down the hall for a minute?”
The woman nods. The receptionist is pale. No sound in the room while she is gone, the computer room door pulled shut. She comes back smoothing her dress.
“There’s a great deal of stress on this job,” she tells me apologetically.
After twenty minutes more, Dolores comes. She isn’t dressed in black — bright nylon instead — and I am relieved for that. She leads me into the cubicle where the previous negotiations still fuzz up the air.
“I don’t have the full eight hundred dollars for this first payment,” I tell her, “but here are five hundred.”
I pull out of my purse the five one-hundred dollar bills the ex-real estate man has paid me for his new bookstore, spread them like cards on the table between us. She looks at them, then picks them up slowly and begins to fill out a form with the name of the bookstore at the top. She looks up at me. “When can you get the rest of it?” Her hair is light brown like mine, but strawlike and stiff from seasons of hair spray. Her eyes are brown like mine, her age the same as mine; her height, her weight, her seriousness. I used to work in offices, Dolores. You are me, Dolores. You know that. We know each other. (Dolores is me when I am dead.)
I set a fantastical date — this missing three hundred dollars plus eight hundred more two weeks from now.
A hesitation, a nod, then this sudden blessing: she sticks out her hand across the round tax table, and says, “I hope you can get out of this mess, Pat, and that you don’t get in trouble again.” (Yes, I am gratified. This money simply dead parts of myself. Throw them in the river. Lop them off. Shoot all annoyances. Don’t be afraid to prune.)
Later it is spring and David Y commits suicide, but my mother’s wound has stopped draining, my daughter has dropped out of school and has gotten a job to pay part of the carnie’s apartment rent, and I am still paying Dolores. I never have the amount her schedule calls for, but I give her whatever comes. Whatever I can do — take from the cash register, delay the rent, postpone all other debts, take from benefits, garage sales, pockets of friends, never enough to stop her threats of shutdown, only enough to keep her hand slightly lifted from the final computer button.
I wander through the basement’s dark rooms, around the boxes of books marked romance and mystery and so on and so on. They come and they go, ebbing and flowing like the Colorado, pulled out of dumpsters, dumped at the counter. Dolores should work in a small used bookstore or change her name to that of some more famous saint and get out of that church. The newspapers say that the Internal Revenue Service director who ordered his staff to shred papers has been relieved of his duties and sent to New Jersey. The mastodons tell me that the government may tax us, but mastodons still love Austin, regardless of which landlords come and go and whether or not Dolores believes she is getting enough money. The mastodons say they have caught many a floating baby in the river, hauled them up into the air on curled trunks. They never heard La Llorona call for them and never gave them over to Dolores. Yes, mastodons still carry us parading, streaming paper from hairy backs.