It is heady and depressing to finish a book that has taken close to two years to write, it’s a little like having a senior graduate, you want them where they’re going. You don’t want them to leave.
I want this book on an agent’s desk and I want to write it again.
Sooner or later, the floor stops sliding around and the clouds break and the world opens up again with the time that is now available for other projects that won’t result in shelving the book for awhile. I’ve had passing thoughts already about the next project but it all starts with the exercise of observing life, making notes, making assumptions about what people do and don’t do to live in the world each day. I’ve got a list now, people at the airport, at the supermarket, at the vet, at Staples, and at the countless places where I stop for lunch and pretend to read while I actually eavesdrop if my kids aren’t with me to say, “Stop it.” And that was where I saw two people today that I will remember for a long time.
It was at Subway, where I eat often, book/notepad at the ready, and there was a man I’ve noticed is there at least as often as I am, maybe more. Always at the same table, he sits by himself because he never brings company. He avoids eye contact while he eats and when he’s through, he doesn’t linger but stands and collects his wrappers, then throws them away on his way out. He is about five-seven, probably not more than a hundred and forty pounds. He is always well dressed with gray hair and a beard that are neatly trimmed. He is also severely handicapped with feet that point toward each other, hands that he keeps clasped together, a head that is always cocked as if to listen closely, and eyes that he never raises above waist level. His mouth is crooked, one side doesn’t move. He was born this way, or he was in an accident, or maybe he suffered a stroke but he had the look of someone who lives in the world with doing. I've never heard him speak but I've imagined it would sound muffled, or garbled.
Today, he was before me in line and when the sandwich clerk asked him what he wanted he said in the clear, articulate voice of a college boy, “I’ll try the Roast Beef today.” He was asked if he wanted it toasted and he said, “Sure, why not?” Then he ordered almost every vegetable item, and some mayo, and shuffled to the register, where he presented a frayed Subway card and waited to have the total deducted from his points. The card didn’t work. The clerk swiped it, swiped it again, and again and finally the man turned his head toward me and said, “go ahead and help her instead.” And so I paid, but I walked to my seat and watched while the clerk continued. Finally he said to the man, “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what to tell you, it’s not taking your card.”
I began to wonder how I’d pay for his lunch without embarrassing him when the supervisor emerged and said to the man in a mock-scolding tone, “Did you wash this thing again?” I heard the man laugh and the supervisor said to her clerk, “He’s got a ton of points, let this one go.” Then she turned to him and said, “You’re good to go. After you eat, come and see me and I’ll get you a new card.”
He came to a table in front of mine, sat down and assumed his eating posture; head down, all business. I said, “Hey, that was close!” And he looked around, confused. I leaned so he could see me it was me talking and I said, “Hey.” He looked at me with very startled navy blue eyes, smiled a half smile and said, “Yeah, they’re good to me here.”
Because I’m shopping for themes and the people who live them, I considered the assumptions I make about people as I craft their stories, real or imagined. But today’s was a show of the difference between sympathy which serves the conscience, and kindness which serves others.
The ones who are kind, do what they do the way they tie their shoes and start the car. They are the ones I love to write about, because they make life what they wish it could be in reality. The way writers do.