Friday, August 28, 2009

The one book

Sometimes a book tour brings surreal encounters, as happened on the flight from D.C. to Memphis, when I had an unusual conversation with a talkative man in the seat beside me. I don’t normally chat with people on planes, but this conversation, for reasons that will be obvious, was unavoidable.

It was, essentially, a 100-minute exercise in existential theater: A writer on a book tour finds himself seated beside a guy whose lifelong dream is to actually read a book, and thus far has been unable to. My apologies to the guy in the row ahead of us, who was forced to play the role of the dramatic foil, whose baby kept being awakened by the talking of the would-be reader. It was beyond my control.

The conversation is greatly abridged, for reasons that will also soon be apparent, including that it seems unfair and unnecessary to share many of the guy’s more personal details. This account is from memory, so the quotation marks are not entirely authentic, but they’re necessary to make clear who’s talking.

Guy in the seat beside me: “Hey, how you doing? Good, good. I’m OK. Wish I could take a little nap but that is not going to happen. I can’t sleep on planes. I’ll just tell you right off, I’ve got ADHD. I mean I’ve been diagnosed, it’s clinical. They put me on meds but it didn’t feel like me. I’m an intelligent guy, it’s just that I can’t pay attention past a certain point. I don’t remember things. But I’m good at what I do. I’m in the automotive industry. I make lots of things happen at once. I don’t listen to a lot of useless talk. It’s something I have to work with. I’ll rent a movie and I won’t remember it. I’ll go back the next week, rent the same movie and watch it again. I won’t know I’ve seen it before. I tell the people at the video store, hey, tell me if I try to rent a movie I’ve rented before.

“Like, I’ve always wanted to read a book. I’ve never read a book in my life. I’ve always wanted to but I can’t remember what I just read, the last page, so I can’t read a book all the way through. It’s my dream to read a book. I’ve tried. I see my wife curled up, her legs bent, with a blanket pulled up to here, a cup of tea on the table beside her, reading a book, and she just disappears into it. She becomes part of it. She’s lying on a raft in a tropical place; she’s there. I want to be there, I want what she has, I want to read a book, to disappear into a book. So… What do you do?”

Me [with some trepidation]: “I’m a writer.”

Guy: “Really. Do you write books?”

Me, as moth-to-flame: “Yes.”

Guy, as flame: “What books have you written?”

Moth: “Three books. The newest is called Sultana. It’s a survival story set during the Civil War.”

Flame: “When did it come out?”

Moth: “Recently. I’m going around promoting it now.”

Flame: “Is it a bestseller?”

Moth: “Not yet.”

Flame: “Seriously, I’ve always wanted to read a book. I’ll see my wife curled up with a book by the fire, with the blanket pulled up to here, and I want that. When we’re on vacation I’ll take a whole stack of books, all kinds of books -- I’ve tried everything, but I can’t read any of them. I concentrate so hard on trying to remember what I’m reading that I don’t remember anything. It’s just all concentrating. Maybe your book will be the one I read. I really want to read one book all the way through. That’s my dream. So you’re promoting your book now? You’re on a book tour? For this book? Now I guess you’ll tell people about the guy you met on the plane on your book tour who never would shut up, who never stopped talking, the guy who had ADHD, right? You should write a book about ADHD. But I like who I am. I just have to work with it. I’m very successful in my field, which is the automotive field.”

[Further talking.]

Flame: “OK, I’m going to be quiet now.”

[Takes out a digital photo viewer, looks at photos of his family’s Christmas tree; of his grown sons, his daughter, his dogs, his wife. Then: His family’s Christmas tree, his sons, his daughter, his dogs, his wife.]

Moth: Waiting for it.

Flame: “My wife gave me this thing, so I can look at pictures. I gave it to her, but she gave it back to me to take with me. This is our Christmas tree. You see winter through the window. It was a hard winter. Five feet of snow. Beautiful. These are my sons. That’s my son asleep. This is my daughter. These are my dogs. This is my wife. She’s a full-time mother.”

Moth: “Nice looking kids. Do any of them have ADHD?”

Flame: “This son, he has ADHD. It’s hard to talk to him about it.”

[Shows me the one. He has a perfect jaw. He’s asleep. I think maybe he would not be thrilled that his father is showing pictures of him asleep to a stranger on a plane.]

Flame: “Maybe I’ll try to get into your book. Do you have one with you?”

Moth: “Yes.” [Digging around in my book bag for Sultana.]

Flame: “Sultana. And this is you? This is impressive. There’s your picture. My Dad would love this, he loves Civil War history. Here’s a picture of him with my mom’s earrings on. I put them on him and took this picture, and I showed it to him and he said why did you do that, I said I don’t know, it’s funny. The doctor said he’s having tiny strokes every day, it’s killing his brain. He loved Civil War history. What else have you written? Maybe your book will be the one I finally read. Look at us. I’m sitting here with both my hands gripping the tray. I’m holding on. You’re sitting there with your finger on your lip, your legs crossed. I’m holding on. 

[More talking. One hour and forty minutes pass. Toward the end, as the sunset lights the sky and the soft tops of dreamy clouds over Atlanta, he gives me his email address, cell number, and mailing address.]

Flame [in closing, sort of]: “I’ll look your book up. Maybe it’ll be the one book I finally read. That’s my dream, to read one book all the way through.”


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