So I’m striding toward the grocery store the other day when, a few paces from its front entrance, smack on the public walkway, I come upon an elderly man seated on a folding chair snugged up to a card table.
The table bears a tall stack of books, and a few pens.
As I pass, he stage-murmurs to me just under his breath, the way (in coarse cartoons) sellers of illegal goods say “Psst!”—briefly flashing their visible stashes in the interior pockets of their opened coats:
“Want to buy a book I wrote?” murmured the man.
I glanced, and saw that the book appeared to be a children’s book. I will make up a title for it here (since the actual book is listed online): The Messy Mongoose.
Embarrassed and momentarily undone, I shook my head quickly and hurried past—as if this poor old fellow made a sight too shocking to bear.
Afterward, I felt terrible for hastening past. Even though I didn’t want the book, maybe I should have bought one just to ease the old man’s life, his conviction, his need.
At the same time, of course, I was abashed to the roots of my hair, thinking: isn’t this the bottom-line of it!
Isn’t this, in effect, what authors do! Or maybe rather, isn’t this simply a radically basic form of what we find we must do—what we find ourselves, much of the time, in the midst of doing?
I remember reading at a local book festival years ago, after which I went to hear others read. I watched an older gentleman, who’d written a book of local history, preface his reading with the remark that he often felt, at these gatherings, like a contender at an “elderberry jam” contest at a state fair.
“Buy my jam,” he quipped, in the persona of one contestant. “No, buy mine,” he added, in the voice of an imagined, competitive other.
When I told my husband about encountering the old fellow selling his Messy Mongoose, he smiled wryly.
“Now there’s a story for you!”
He was urging me to make a short story, sparked by that vision.
But I had no heart to make a story from the poignant image of the earnest old man, selling and signing his own books—except to tell it here, softly, this way. It was and is, finally, too close to home.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.