Some things are done out of desperation.
People go to meetings. People find Jesus. Some people dig up a bottle or a gun. Their fingers grip the edge.
I didn’t go to meetings. I didn’t put change in an offering tray. I didn’t find a bar or a coffin. My fingers also clung to the edge. But if you are not going to die, after a while the body becomes restless. Fingers pull you up.
So I walked into a thrift store. The typical shit was there. Outdated clothes and shoes. Sandwich bag action figures. Old covers. Mirrors. Someone’s golf clubs. Someone’s microwave.
And then: a book section.
I didn’t once think about alcohol, the commandments or suicide. The focus was momentarily on finding a signed book. Any signed book.
Which made me remember something. See, I’ve been to that thrift store before. And during that time, I found a signed first edition of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. For $2.98.
On a return visit, I found the printed version of Call by mail of the story channel. Signed in black marker by R. Lee Ermey. Semper Fi! And also: for $2.98.
Stress affects memory. Alcohol too. Head injuries. Things get lost. But I took a book from the shelf. Then I did it again. My hands tingled as if sleep was running out.
The next half hour I spent forming a mechanism. Like hitting a speedbag. Moving the weight from right to left. I didn’t once think about alcohol, the commandments or suicide. The focus was momentarily on finding a signed book. Any signed book.
I couldn’t find any that day. It didn’t matter. I started going after work. At the local thrift stores the last half hour they were open. Anything that interests me, I’d pull off the shelf.
Often there was nothing inside. Sometimes a word from a loved one. A bookmark. A business card. A boarding pass.
Or a 2015 ticket stub from a Rainn Wilson show at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee inside a signed copy of his book, King Bassoon. For $3.
The more I searched, the less I thought of anything else. A few days without drinking turned into six months. Then a year. I thought I was less sad. My .38 Special minus. I didn’t need porn anymore. The same feeling people get when exercising or soaking up natural sunlight or meditating. I felt like that.
A few copies transformed into three full libraries. Friends said I looked well rested. I spent my evenings scouring the internet for books I couldn’t afford. Mylar protected and for sale. A niche market at best but safer than dope traffic. Whore.
I started leafing through cheap signed books. And here the math worked. If you can follow me here: x + y = n. To see? In other words, sometimes two or three integers are combined in order to equal the value of a single integer.
So, assuming that x, y, z and n are signed books: x + y + z = n.
Or in other words: Debt of honor by Tom Clancy (x) + The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (y) + The painted house by John Grisham (z) = salvador by Joan Didion (n). I could resell everything. And never have to wear a name tag again, outside of meetings or hospital visits. Or I could keep them.
My signed books by authors, politicians, actors and athletes were bubble wrapped and shipped via US Mail on invisible lines. So much so that books that I had never been able to afford suddenly became available.
The 500 hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by the recently suspect Dr. Seuss. Earth’s Last Night Poems by Charles Bukowski. The death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. All signed.
I tell people about it and look into their glassy eyes. Like narcolepsy. Like cataracts.
Find a signed copy of The last Samourai by Helen DeWitt for $2 and three books signed by Richard Nixon (The real war, 1999, seize the moment) for $9 the same week, hardly interests people.
Archaeologists must feel like that. The same goes for sound engineers and physics teachers. And they say the smell of salts will wake up a fighter.
But I met Sissy Spacek while browsing through books at a roadside antique store in Gordonsville, Virginia.
I leafed through the books. I found one signed by Richard Ford, and I looked up and made eye contact with this woman. She’s about my mother’s age, but something inside me immediately knew her. Like she was a swim team or the baseball mom to one of the kids on the team I played/swum for.
So we stayed three or four seconds looking at each other. I’m holding Richard Ford’s book and I think she has some sort of canvas bag or purse or satchel. Suddenly, she gives me a bright smile, waves at me, and nonchalantly walks down another aisle. We were 20 feet apart and I still had no idea who she was.
I turned around with my book and BOOM, “That was fucking Sissy Spacek.” Then my heart pounded for a minute or two because I had just had a friendly, silent exchange with a screen icon.
I kept wandering around the shop not really seeing anything interesting that I could reasonably afford. I went to the counter to pay $4 for Richard Ford, and I left. Suddenly, I hear a voice behind me.
“Sir. Excuse me sir?” I turn around and it’s this older guy. He asks me if I have a few minutes to help him move a large wardrobe.
“Sure,” because that’s what you tell someone’s grandpa if he needs a favor.
I walk in and Sissy and her daughter walk out. I asked the guy to hang on just a moment. I came out and explained that I was a fan and something about In the bedroom and Carrie and that the likelihood of all of this happening again is absurd.
I asked if she would take a picture with me. She was absolutely adorable. And it’s probably the best picture I’ve ever taken. Which makes that bookstore trip worth a hundred million dollars.
“Hi. Nice to see you again.”
You know, it’s the only match in town where victory is guaranteed. You don’t get those odds in Vegas or Johns Hopkins or Mass on Sundays, and you don’t have to pay to get in.
I walk through the door and I have won. I have nothing to find and I won.
But my father once told me that success is not measured by wealth. It’s about whether or not you can handle being alone. The fingers pulled me up and I didn’t die.
Some things are done out of desperation.