“Damn it, Rob!…I mean Paul. I can’t keep your names straight. You might have mentioned this before we drove six bloody hours to come here.”
Robert Das, who wrote his bestseller under the pseudonym Paul Thebét, was having second thoughts about this very public book reading. To say he was getting cold feet would be an understatement. His agent, Murray Levitt — everyone called him by his last name — was losing his patience.
Levitt continued his rant. “What the hell am I supposed to do now? Seriously. I could have gone golfing today. And it’s actually sunny back in LA. I’m here to support you instead. My acid is going through the roof. I should have brought my damn reflux pills.”
“Have a coffee and some hot chili peppers,” said Robert.
“You’re an asshole sometimes,” countered Levitt.
“I value my privacy. You know that.”
“And that’s why you created the pseudonym. I get it. Nobody here knows who you really are. You’re Paul Thebét. Relax. By the way, are you supposed to be French-Canadian or like, French-French? You never told me.”
Robert ignored his sarcastic and rhetorical question. “Just cancel it. Let’s leave. Nobody paid to come here. We don’t have to give anyone a refund. I suspect it’s all locals anyway. We drew, what, a hundred people to the store? I’m sure folks will buy a book while they’re here. The owner will be happy. Tell her I have food poisoning or something. You’re a good liar.”
Levitt winced and shook his head. “No. We’re not going to cancel it. You made a commitment to your publisher, and to me, that you’d do some readings. These aren’t easy to get, you know. This is a big deal. And you’re here in Carmel. You love Carmel! Locals are going nuts for this. You should see the Twitter chatter.”
“I don’t do social media.”
“No shit. That’s another thing we need to talk about. You’re expected to be active on social media, and connect with your audience, to promote the book…. to build your brand. Work with me here please, Robert. You love to write. Social media is just another form of writing. It doesn’t take a lot of work to write 140 fucking characters!”
“I’m not a writer. I’m a storyteller. You can’t tell a story in 140 characters.”
“Bullshit! Hemingway once wrote a short story in six words. Six words! Hemingway was a businessman… and quite content to sell books, anything, to make a buck. Listen to me, Rob. I am a businessman. I represent writers who tell stories and understand that publishing is a business. Consumer buys book. Retailer makes money. Distributor makes money. Printer makes money. Publisher makes money. Writer gets paid. Agent gets paid. It’s simple. Think of it as one of those circle-of-life things. Like the forest and all its adorable creatures.”
“You mean the ones that kill each other?” asked Robert.
“No, the ones that live symbiotically. Like the birds who knock pine cones off trees so the squirrels can eat the seeds.”
“Birds don’t do that at all. The owls in those woods out there,” he said, motioning with his head, “kill and eat squirrels and even other birds. You mean that circle of life?”
“Great. You’re a wildlife naturalist now. Be a writer for one hour… please. Maybe your next book can be an allegory with animal characters. How about a boy and a tiger stuck together on a lifeboat? Nobody buys that shit, Robert. Look, I know you’re anxious. I know you aren’t into the public speaking thing. But do this one reading and we’ll talk about the others. Better yet, jump on that revolutionary new social media thing and you might never have to leave the comfort of your home again.”
Levitt opened the stockroom door and pointed to the throng that had gathered on this rainy Saturday afternoon.
“Look out there. There’s a bunch of successful, well-known business people, artists and even a few celebs here today. Look. It’s crazy… in a good way.” The look on Levitt’s face suggested he regretted his comment the moment he released it. His observation probably reinforced Robert’s stage fright.
“I should have returned to law,” Robert sighed.
Levitt attempted to redeem himself.
“People hate lawyers. Lawyers only take. You give.”
“But writers can’t hide anymore.”
“Truth,” conceded Levitt. “But don’t do the delicate genius thing.”
“I am neither.”
Levitt motioned to the room. “He probably doesn’t do social media either, but Clint-fucking-Eastwood is out there. He’s incognito, but I’m sure it’s him. Geez, he got old. He used to be the frickin’ mayor here. He’s a living legend in Carmel. If all those people tweet about this, thousands of followers — readers — will hear about the book. This is business, Robert. When we deliver the numbers, I’ll get you an advance for your next book. Then, you can tell another story. Any one you want. Please, as your agent, I’m begging you to do this. This crowd came because they love you and adore the book. You’re a local hero, Rob.”
“I live in Los Angeles, Murray.”
“Whatever. You know what I meant.”
Levitt grabbed Robert by the shoulders and manhandled him out of the skunky bookstore stockroom — like a football coach might a losing quarterback onto the field for the final quarter. They had been sequestered in the cramped and stale-smelling room for the last twenty minutes. Levitt noted the time — ten minutes later than the advertised start time of the reading. He spoke into Robert’s ear, so he could be heard over the background noise, as they entered the bookstore proper.
“You crafted a great story, Robert — a real story. Write yourself a convincing story now. You’re not afraid. You’re an entertaining and confident speaker who loves his adoring fans and is equally loved by them. Play that role for an hour — like a character in a book. Put on sunglasses and an ascot and smoke a fucking pipe if it helps you create that persona. After this, drinks are on me. Promise. You can get drunk if you like. I’ll drive back. You can get drunk while I’m driving back.”
Robert looked grim. The bookstore owner saw them exit the stockroom, her cue to read a prepared introduction for Thebét. The sound of restrained applause replaced the muffled sounds of a hundred private conversations. Robert’s heart raced as he shuffled onto the bookstore floor.
Robert appeared uncomfortable and out of his element standing before the group of locals, all presumably devotees. The throng filled every square foot of floor space in the modest bookstore not otherwise occupied by books — waiting. The number of people likely exceeded the allowable limit defined by local fire regulations. If the storeowner cared, it didn’t show. She looked ecstatic. Thebét was a local celebrity, making the event a bit of a coup. It had taken a lot of cajoling to snag him. He was known to be reclusive. This was Thebét’s first and, given his demeanor, might be his last reading ever. The proprietor of the store, a tiny woman of about sixty, waited patiently, like everyone else, for him to begin.
A damned podium or lectern to hide behind would have been nice, Robert fumed silently. He considered public speaking to be the worst form of torture for an introvert. Many writers are private people at the best of times. Robert was the personification of the solitary artist. His anxiety and fear of crowds had only increased over the years. While her intentions might have been honorable, the bookstore owner had only made things worse by providing a small, raised stage for him to stand — improving the view for attendees.
He swayed nervously on the platform, dressed in grey jeans and a black cashmere sweater — head adorned by a duckbill cap he’d neglected to remove. It represented the very last barrier behind which he could hide. Shifting his weight between feet, he looked as if he might’ve had to pee.
The cowbells on the front door jangled, creating a welcome distraction. One last couple pushed their way in, stomped the rain off their feet, and attempted to find a space to stand. The overcrowded store was uncomfortably damp — so many warm bodies exhaling humid air. The proprietor felt it too. She pushed her way back through the throng, excusing herself profusely as she parted people with outreached arms. She swung open the top half of the Dutch door, common in entrances to retail stores in tony Carmel-by-the-Sea. A blast of fresh, cool air flooded the room. The opening also provided additional guests the opportunity of viewing from the sidewalk outside. The proprietor could offer gawking room only at this point.
Robert had no reason to be anxious, really. The crowd had come to see and hear him, the writer they so admired, read from his bestselling book. They wouldn’t be here, he reasoned, if they didn’t like it. You wouldn’t attend an author’s reading if you didn’t. Who heckles an author at a book reading? Breathing deeply, he tried to calm his nerves enough to get started. A glass of anything alcoholic would have come in handy right about now. Sherry. That would calm my nerves. The crowd looked increasingly impatient as he stood there fidgeting with a copy of the book, fashioning dog ears on the cover. To the author, it felt like twenty minutes had passed. In reality, it had been a minute and a half since the introduction. If the crowd had had any idea how personal the book was, they might have empathized more. They didn’t. No one could’ve known.
The guests also couldn’t be privy to the frantic deliberation going on in Robert’s head. What would I or should I reveal about what I know about the Hermit? The man deserved his privacy. While he wished to respect that, the book, he felt, needed to be written — and for so many reasons. Robert felt pride in the work, sure, but more importantly, he hoped it would speak to readers, particularly those with exposure to grief and depression — their own, or that suffered by friends or family. Writing the book had been therapeutic for him on a personal level, too.
Group psychotherapy, Robert thought, must be exactly like this. Stand; introduce yourself; tell a bunch of strangers why you’re there; and bare your soul for all to judge. Few would deny that writing a book — compiling those words, paragraphs, and chapters — demands that an author render him or herself vulnerable. He felt extraordinarily so now. He was one neurotic thought away from a full-blown anxiety attack.
Robert lifted his cap, ran his hand through his thinning hair, and looked back at the crowd to gauge their level of restlessness — another stall tactic. Will the crowd all leave in another minute if I don’t start? A slight smile broke onto his face at the thought, and he considered delaying further. Scanning the room, he spied a striking woman. She was slim, well kept, well dressed, and standing near the back of the store — attractive, by any measure. The two locked eyes for a moment. She looked back at Robert without blinking and gave him a warm and knowing smile, crow’s feet framing her kind eyes. The innocuous gesture was the catalyst he needed. His chest rose as he gathered a breath and exhaled audibly. He began.
“Thank you all for coming here today. The weather didn’t cooperate, and I’m not doing much better.” His voice crackled, gaining confidence once he saw a few smiles. The attempt at self-deprecating humor proved charmingly awkward. “I am grateful that you enjoyed my book and took the time to join me here. At least, I presume you’ve read my book already. I also hope that you all paid for your personal copies,” he teased. “If you did, then by my rough calculation, I’ve broken even on the cost of gas to travel up here today, from LA, to sign copies and read a little.”
Subdued laughter at a volume appropriate to a library, or its retail equal, filled the bookstore.
“This is the first time I’ve been asked to read from The Hermit of Carmel aloud, and I’m a little apprehensive. Perhaps nervous is better word. To be honest, I’ve dreamed of doing this, right here in Carmel, for a while. Thank you for making my dream a reality. I’m humbled and honored.”
Robert dipped his head — a deferential bow to the crowd. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Levitt grin, color returning to his face. Robert proved a convincing liar himself. He paused, took a sip of water, and glanced at his wrist without consciously noting the time — a tic he had developed some years before. More than anything, he was checking to ensure his watch was still there. He had lost it once and wouldn’t allow it to happen a second time, under any circumstance. It remained the most important material item he possessed.
Levitt waved one hand for attention and mouthed the words, “Take off your hat,” hoping Robert could read his lips from where he stood.
Robert could, removed his cap and continued. “I knew the Hermit well… at one point. For those who don’t already know, this is a true story — a fictionalized account of sorts. Narrative non-fiction is what the publishers call it. It’s always the first thing readers ask when we meet. Some folks living in the area might know parts of the story. You might have even caught a glimpse of the Hermit. I’m quite certain that none of you truly knew him, though. I’m uncertain that anyone really knew him. He was a complicated man who meant well but had been hobbled by sadness and a profound sense of loss.
“You know,” he continued, gaining some confidence. “I try not to be judgmental. People process and react to grief in unpredictable and sometimes unproductive ways. The Hermit’s loss triggered a deep depression, which in turn, drove him into the woods. In the forest, he battled his private demons, the physical elements, and a few locals. It’s hard to say what saved him — his inner strength, or the game of golf. Perhaps a little of both.”
Robert reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped the nervous sweat from his brow. Holding the copy of his book slightly aloft, as a preacher might a Bible, he spoke with equal reverence.
“This is his story.”
He paused, unintentionally adding to the dramatic effect.
“I’m not sure what you folks want from this afternoon. I’d like to live up to your expectations, whatever those might be. Was there a section or chapter you’d like me to read, or would you rather hear small excerpts from a few different chapters, like you’re sampling a flight of wine?”
He looked around the room, hoping for a hint or definitive response. After a moment of uncomfortable quiet, a female speaker, unseen by the author, but about mid-crowd, broke the silence.
“Just read, please,” she said, in a restrained and respectful way. All heads nodded in agreement. And he did, from the start, in his best narrative voice. The room became quiet again and Robert perceived that the crowd collectively leaned in — just a bit. From her station, at the back of the store, the tall, striking woman caught his attention, again. She placed two fingers on her lips, removed a kiss and pointed it in his direction. To anyone else watching, it might have appeared an inappropriately familiar gesture. Only Robert noticed.