This is me without fear. And a 62-pound hall pass.

We gave away our last three chickens the other day. The hen house is empty, the coop deserted. It’s like a little ghost town out there, except with feathers blowing around in the deserted streets instead of tumbleweeds. And also except there are no streets in the chicken coop, just a lot of dangerous potholes where the chickens dug themselves into the dirt to cool off on hot days. A chicken in every pothole.

I'm not very sorry to see them go. They ate a lot of our leftovers, which was nice because it made us feel like we weren’t wasting stuff. But chickens are vile creatures (and have you noticed that “vile” is “evil” spelled almost backwards?) whose only redeeming quality is their contribution to culinary efforts. I would be sad to live in a world without omelettes. Most people equate the chicken with cowardice and fear. I, however, think their top personality trait is stupidity, then cruelty, and then fear. (Hmm, sounds like some kids I used to know when I was a substitute teacher.)

Well, so the chickens are gone and don’t need to be replaced any time soon. We have no need of cruelty and stupidity in this house, and maybe I can make Ian eat the leftovers. As for fear, I think I got that covered myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been rather a chicken when it comes to doing things that I’d really like to do but that involve social interaction with strangers. It’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

Last Monday, author Jacqueline Winspear was scheduled to speak and sign her latest book at Vroman’s, a bookstore in Pasadena. I learned about the event a few weeks ago and wanted to be there, partly because she’s a very interesting speaker and partly because I wanted to get her signature on some books for Megan and myself. She writes the Maisie Dobbs series, which I particularly enjoy. The Maisie Dobbs books came along just when I was thinking there would never be another author I could trust. So anyway, I was looking forward to hearing Ms Winspear again. That is, until Monday morning. On Monday morning I started telling myself about how long the drive was and how many car accidents there were likely to be and besides how my head kind of hurt and how there was so much to do at home. Then I reminded myself I’d regret it a lot if I didn’t go and that I knew I’d never do the stuff at home anyway. So finally I went.

The drive up was not unpleasant: not much traffic and the weather was nice and someone had sown a bunch of wildflower seeds along portions of the highway. It reminded me of springtime in that mountain pass where the I-5 goes by Gorman, only there the effect is as if God had scribbled the mountainsides with brilliantly colored chalks. But it was nice to see the same thing on a smaller scale.

I put in the cd of As You Like It as I drove, and smiled at and re-listened to my favorite parts (“be it known by these presents” and “me, uncle?” and “is it a man?” and “she phoebes me” and the rest). The view and the Shakespeare kept the tedium away.

Once in Pasadena, I parked just off Colorado and walked about a block to the bookstore. I picked up a copy of An Incomplete Revenge, Winspear’s newest book (the fifth in the series) and, since there were about 15 minutes before the presentation started, spent the time quite contentedly reading the first chapter.

Ms Winspear’s presentation was, as always, interesting, informative, and humorous. She speaks very well and sounds like she’s done a prodigious amount of research on the period in which the books take place. Then she read part of a chapter – happily, not the same chapter I’d been reading (which is what happened the first time I went to hear her speak). After a question/answer period, it was time for us to line up and have her sign our books. This is the part that made me nervous. I mean, aside from the drive and walking to the bookstore and going upstairs and sitting down. I never know what to say in situations like this. “You’re a very good writer.” “Gee, but your books are swell!” “I really enjoy your books.” “Thank you for writing these books.” (Like she’d done it with my happiness in mind.) Anyway, she’s probably heard it all a half a million times before. In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, I’m unsocial and taciturn and unwilling to speak unless I expect to say something that will amaze the whole room. So I didn’t say much of anything, aside from arguing with her over whether she should inscribe my copy of the book. The conversation went pretty much like this:

Ms Winspear (looking at the sticker with Megan’s name on it that the Vroman’s employee had provided in an effort to expedite things): Megan. Are these for you?

Me: No, they’re my daughter’s. She really enjoys your books [cringe]. She wanted to be here, but she couldn’t make it. [I also wanted to say “Because she lives in Utah. Why don’t you ever go there and sign books so that I don’t have to stand here with five books in my hands and all the people behind me wondering why the line is not moving?”]

Ms Winspear (pointing to the title page of Birds of a Feather, her second book): I really like this one. I mean, I like all of them, but there’s something about this one. I don’t know what it is . . . [That’s not exactly what she said, but it’s pretty close.]

Me: [Absolute Silence, even though she gave me a perfect opening for discussing her work. And it did occur to me that I thought Birds of a Feather was, of all her books, the most like a traditional detective novel, with its progression from scene to scene and its little clues of feathers wafting about at the crime scenes. And if I didn’t know that it was fiction, I’d have suspected my chickens of having committed the murders. But did I say any of that? No. Not one word to throw at a dog.]

The next few minutes passed in utter silence while she signed Megan’s books and I despised the man in line after me for making me think with his presence that I was holding him up. Then she got to my copy, which did not have a little name sticker because I didn’t care if it was personalized.

Ms Winspear: Is this one Megan’s, too?

Me: No, that’s mine.

Ms Winspear: No name?

Me: No, I feel silly with my name in a book. [What I mean is, but what I don’t have time to tell you – and even if I did have time, I'm not sure I’d say it in front of this man who’s standing next to me – it seems kind of narcissistic to have the book personalized to me. I know the book belongs to me. And you don’t know me anyhow, so why should you have to write my name in it?]

Ms Winspear: Silly? What do you mean silly?

Me (after making a very quiet, inarticulate noise halfway between a gurgle and a groan): I don’t know, it just makes me feel silly.

Ms Winspear: You shouldn’t feel silly. It’s your book, your name.

Me (starting to loose my balance and leaning on the table, then wondering if she thought I was trying to menace her with my physical presence): Okay.

Ms Winspear: What’s your name?

I gave her my name, she spelled it out, I said “yes”, she signed the book, I said “Thank you” and went away.

But not very far. I noticed a guy taking about 17 pictures of her with a flashing camera, so I decided to take a photo. I pulled out my camera and, trying to be unobtrusive, took a few pictures. I had to take quite a few before I got a good one. First, my hands were so shaky, the pictures kept turning out blurry. Then, just when I got myself settled down, some joker in line would step right in front of the camera. I got half a dozen shots of people’s bums. Finally, the timing of the gaps between people in line and the shaking in my hands was just right, and I got a picture I could live with.

Afterwards, I went downstairs to buy the new books. As I was paying, I noticed that, behind me in line also waiting to buy books, was Ms Winspear. But did I say anything? I most certainly did not. I went across the street to a Quizno’s and bought a chicken sandwich and ate it. And then I drove home, feeling like all the chickens we’d ever owned had taken up residence in my soul.


Shannie said...

heck, i don't know what to say...gee your writing's swell!
i was in tears through all of it. very emotional. (-ly funny)
don't feel bad. you'll see her again and eventually you two will be very good friends and witty remarks will come quite easily.

eric & adrien said...

i laughed, i cried, it was definitely better than cats.

but really, i think you're so funny. and witty, etc. i'm a little jealous sometimes.