It’s a sunny day in a quaint Ohio town. I’ve taken up a position on the sidewalk under a blue tent. Most people going by avert their eyes.
I’m here because, nearly two years ago, I agreed to do a book signing at an independent bookshop so adorable it could easily serve as the setting for a novel. The pandemic postponed this signing so long that I’m sitting here with the title that came out before my most recent book.
Although I’ve had four books published, I’ve never done an individual bookstore event before. Readings, yes. Workshops, yes. Group signings like the annual fabulous Author Alley at Loganberry Books, yes. This is a fresh experience for me. Other writers have told me bookstore signings can be excruciating. Often the only people who stop by are those asking if there’s a public bathroom or where the horror section is located. Today I’ll discover what it’s like for myself. Except I’m not inside, I’m out on the sidewalk. The open-sided tent blocks the pavement, meaning passersby must walk under it. This forces them to decide whether to look or not look at the strange woman sitting a few hopeful feet away.
I brought a basket of wrapped chocolates, a pen, bookmarks, and a little poster noting that a portion of each book sale goes to support the work of Medina Raptor Center. I brought what I hope is enough curiosity about this experience to tamp down my ongoing urge to hide in the stacks of the bookstore behind me. I tell myself I will savor the face of every person going by. I will spend by two whole hours being fully present.
People savoring isn’t difficult, especially since it has been over a year and a half without teaching in-person classes. I miss faces! But that fully present thing is as hard as it has ever been. My restless mind wanders every which way. My eyes linger on trees outlined by blue skies but thoughts continue scrolling. Wedding gowns displayed in a store window across the street can’t help but contrast with memories of my own frugal wedding where our church basement reception offered no music, no meal, no table seating. (We’ve stayed married, disproving all the naysayers.) The number of people going by with coffee reminds me of pre-pandemic days when I’d regularly meet friends in a coffeeshop to catch up on our lives. The clock in the town square chimes – 15 whole minutes have passed.
A trapped beetle buzzes angrily in my pocket, except it’s not an insect, it’s my phone. I know I shouldn’t look at it, but I do. Then I do some more, at least when no one is walking by.
I smile at families heading to the ice cream shop or sandwich shop, then smile as they pass by afterwards. A little girl wearing unicorn pants says, “I like your hair” before I can compliment her many perfect braids. I notice how many people walk by with faces aimed at their phones. I listen to conversation snippets, like “They’re finally moving to Portland” and “Naw, no way!” and “He won’t go to therapy.”
A huge streetside pot draped with withering coleus is so dry that I give it half the water from my travel mug, hoping no one hears me say, here you go friend.
I try again to settle my mind by focusing on a lamppost’s reflection in a store window across the street. It’s perfectly meditative for almost a minute. The town square clock chimes – a half hour has passed.
I listen to music blaring from passing vehicles, most often classic rock played by expensive-looking motorcycles ridden, in nearly every case, by gray-haired sunglass-wearing men. This makes the few cars blasting hip hop a nice contrast.
I notice significantly more white vehicles than any other color. At one point there are five white cars parked in the angled lines in front of me. I count colors in passing traffic for a while to get a ratio. Looks like one out of six is white, at least for the few minutes that counting holds my attention. I briefly ponder whether white is a dog-whistle, coded language for what I’d rather not imagine, then chastise my thoughts for heading that direction.
Plots for short stories come to mind. I imagine the guy who has been walking back and forth, coffee in hand, for the last 15 minutes is actually a spy. I think of a story based on the weird dream I had the night before. I was in a dystopian future where desperate people pushed contaminants under their skin hoping they might sell the resulting antibodies to Big Pharma. I consider a story about a writer who quietly dies at her book signing table, but nobody notices. These are all stories I’ll never write.
A man with young children has gone by three times. He shares a friendly aside at each pass, even claims he’s heard of my book. I feel extra tenderness for him, not only because he is jovial with his kids, but also because he looks like a dead friend looked 20 years ago.
A handholding couple stops to talk about a mystery they both read. One lovely elder notes the title of my book, then breaks into Bye Bye Blackbird, a song I used to play on the piano for nursing home residents in my first job out of college. I join her for the chorus and she pretends I have a lovely voice. I insist it’s easy to follow her more melodic voice. The clock chimes – an hour has passed.
The few people who ask, “What’s your book about” recoil almost visibly when I say it’s a poetry collection. Most people don’t ask.
Not long before my sojourn is over, a poet friend pops by to say hello. I’m wildly happy to see a familiar face. We talk about deep time, about the impulse to write, and about book publishing. I’ve enjoyed his presence so thoroughly I don’t notice the clock chiming until I’m a full 20 minutes past my time to pack up and leave.
I carry the books back in the bookstore, apologize that not copy one sold, and head out for the hour’s ride home. From the security of my elderly car I savor a cloudless sky so blue it’s nearly iridescent.