I walked into the room where I was about to read from Fobbit and saw my wife sitting with another man. He was handsome, bearded, and seemed to be having a very intimate conversation with my wife.
It took my brain a few seconds to catch up to my eyes before I realized that was my son. My SON!! What was he doing here in Missoula at the Montana Festival of the Book when he should be back in Savannah, Georgia where he's enrolled as an art student?
After a series of breath-robbing hugs, I learned that Jean had flown Deighton out here as a surprise for me (as well as to brighten her own days while I was out on the road promoting my debut novel). And what a surprise it was! I'd just flown in to Missoula from Seattle and while I'd previously arranged to meet Jean at my reading, I had no idea she'd have my son in tow.
The book festival, sponsored by Humanities Montana, has been one of the highlights of my year since I moved back to Big Sky Country in 2009. But this--this was icing on the frosted cake. Unless he's able to make it to my appearance in Atlanta later this month, I knew this was probably the only time Deighton would hear me read from Fobbit. I chose the opening from Chapter 2--a section I'd never before read publicly, but which Jean had told me was one of her favorite passages from the book.
This was not good.
With Iraqis pressing around him on all sides like circus spectators leaning forward to see the man on the high-wire act slip and tumble, Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret looked through his field glasses at the man slumped in the driver’s seat. The man should be dead by now but he was still breathing and every so often his shoulders gave barely-perceptible twitches.
This was definitely something to be filed under Not Good.
As far as I could tell, my first event at the festival was Good; and while I appreciate all the other people who were there with me in that room, I was really reading for one person that day.
Deighton and I spent the rest of the weekend together, strolling through downtown Missoula's First Friday art walk, eating breakfast at The Catalyst, hiking to the "M" (okay, hiking one-third of the way to the "M"), and attending readings and panels at the book festival. I couldn't have asked for a better three days. Unless my other two children showed up. But then I would probably have burst into sobs. And that is so unbecoming.
* * *
At my reading, I was paired with Kim Barnes, author of the memoirs In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country and Hungry for the World and the novels A Country Called Home and Finding Caruso. Her newest novel, In the Kingdom of Men, proved to be a good companion piece to Fobbit. In the Kingdom of Men is set in Saudi Arabia in the late 1960s and follows a young wife as her husband takes a job with an oil company and they live in a confined, gated community in the desert. Both of our novels are about strangers in a strange land--Americans encountering a culture clash with the Middle East. Kim's novel also has a great, hooky opening:
Here is the first thing you need to know about me: I’m a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that.Kim and I were also part of a panel, moderated by the affable and unflappable John Clayton, in which we discussed the relevance of setting in our novels. We were joined by Alyson Hagy and Jess Walter who talked about their landscapes of Wyoming, California, Italy, and Hollywood. So, our novels covered enough territory to keep a cartographer busy for several hours. A lot of smart, funny things were said during that panel (most of them by Kim, Alyson and Jess).
Here is the second thing: that young woman they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove—my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did.
* * *
The rest of the festival was a blur and, atypically for me, I forgot to write anything down in the small notebook I keep in my back pocket. Consequently, thanks to an increasingly faulty memory (aka Swiss-Cheese Brain), I'm left with only the impression of stacks of books in the festival bookstore in the hotel's atrium, a long succession of handshakes (some from friends congratulating me on Fobbit's publication, some from authors I was meeting for the first time--writers like J. Robert Lennon, Pam Houston, emily danforth, Charles Finn, Tami Haaland, Lowell Jaeger, Joe Wilkins and Jess Walter), and a falcon perched on the arm of Kate Davis who was there to promote her book Raptors of the West. I had just enough time to take in a panel on the "road novel" with Houston, Lennon, Jonathan Evison and Patrick deWitt; a screening of clips from the upcoming movie of James Welch's Winter in the Blood; and readings by Lennon (from his new novel Familiar), Alyson Hagy (who read a poignant passage about death from her new novel Boleto), danforth (from The Miseducation of Cameron Post), and Walter (who opted not to read from his new novel Beautiful Ruins, but shattered the crowd with a short story from his forthcoming collection; you can go online and read "Statistical Abstract for My Home of Spokane, Washington" for yourself, but you won't get the full effect of the emotion choking Walter's voice as he reached the final line of the story--absolutely devastating).
* * *
Despite the many attractive pieces of book-fruit hanging from the trees here at the festival, I limited myself to one book and one book only (my suitcase already has that "Unbearable Heaviness of Books" feeling to it). Stories for Boys by Gregory Martin was an easy choice after meeting the author at the festival's opening reception, hearing a little bit of his story, then reading the opening pages of the memoir. I'll leave you with the first few paragraphs from Chapter 2:
On Thursday, May 3rd, 2007, at about six in the evening, in Spokane, Washington, my mother and father had a fierce argument. Fights and conflict were rare for them, and never lasted long. They'd been married thirty-nine years. They had a happy marriage. My father said, "If you want me to go, then I'll really go." He went upstairs. A few minutes later, my mother followed. She found him sitting on the end of their bed, his eyes unfocused, his head and shoulders sagging. "What did you do?" she shouted. "I took some pills," my father answered. "You won't have to worry about me anymore." My mother went into the bathroom. All the bottles from the medicine cabinet, a pharmacy's worth of drugs including the Ativan and Trazodone my mother took for bipolar disorder, were out and open and empty on the counter. She called 911.
The last thing my father ever wanted was to be a character in a melodrama. He did not want to step on stage at sixty-six, his hair gray, a small paunch over his belt, and play the tragic lead. He wanted to drink Coca-cola and watch Jeopardy! and listen to the Kingston Trio, to bowl and play cribbage with my mother, to read science fiction novels and watch movies with explosions, to work as a speech pathologist in a nursing home, helping the elderly to speak again and swallow soft foods like yogurt and rice pudding.
Two days later, on the fifth floor of the psychiatric ICU of Spokane's Sacred Heart Hospital, after my father had spent thirty-six hours in a coma on a ventilator, the intubation tube was removed from his throat. His head back on his pillow, his eyes closed, his face pale, he slowly regained consciousness. He recognized me as I gripped his hand, touched his forehead. The agony etched on his wrinkled face was clear. He did not want to be alive.