NOW I’M TALKING
By Bob Liter
You look better, Millie, but I’m still worried about you.”
I shushed Joyce and gazed straight ahead, intent on hearing Jason Pollard read the opening chapter of his latest romance. We were among about twenty women in the conference room of Central City’s Edgerton Book Store.
Pollard, a man of medium height with a flattened nose, was not at all like the hero of his novels, Hank Evert, who swept women off their feet and righted the wrongs of the world.
My disappointment in his appearance was similar to my empty feeling when I reached the end of each of his novels. Why couldn’t the stories go on forever?
Now he was promoting his latest novel and as soon as his presentation was over I would get in line and buy a copy. The reading and question-and-answer period ended too soon. I turned and faced Joyce.
“What were you saying?”
“I said you look better. When I left on vacation you still looked like a zombie. What have you done to your hair?”
“How was California?” I asked.
“California was fine. What have you done to your hair?”
I combed fingers through it and said, “Had it cut and colored. I’ve got a job, too. I work here during the day stacking books on the shelves when they come in.”
Joyce parked on a folding chair beside mine.
“You’re all right then, now that the divorce is final?”
I sat down, sighed and said, “Yes, I think so.”
Joyce leaned closer and said, “You think so?”
“Don’t worry. I love this job. And I have a little money from the settlement. Enough to go on a trip if I want. I’m going to night school to learn to be a librarian.”
“I’m sorry, Millie. You’re putting on a brave front, but I don’t believe you. You look better, but you still have that sad, far away look in your eyes. Like you’re lost.”
I said. “Life goes on. I’ve got to get a copy of Mister Pollards’ new book.”
The line, which had stretched from the table in front of the room to around the back, had dwindled. Still, I sat there. What would I say to him? Maybe I’d just read the book. I didn’t need his signature.
When the last buyer left, Mister Pollard stood, stretched and gathered up the few remaining copies of his book. He strolled up the aisle, looking lonely,.
As he passed, Joyce stood and said, “We’d like to buy a book, or rather she would.” She nodded toward me.
Mister Pollard’s warm smile was directed right at me.
“I’ve got to get going,” Joyce said. “Call you tomorrow about tomorrow.”
Mister Pollard put the books on the chair Joyce had vacated, turned to me, smiled again, and said, “I hope you enjoy the book. How shall I sign it?”
I hesitated and finally said, “My name’s Millie, Millie Strand. I’ve read all of your books. I just love ‘em.”
“Really. How nice. That’s the best thing an author can hear.”
He pulled up a chair, sat down, took the top book from the pile, and opened it.
“I’ll sign it, To Millie, one of my favorite readers,” he said.
I thanked him.
“I suppose you’re disappointed that I don’t look like Hank.”
“Hank?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“The guy who gets all the women. The hero of my books.”
“Oh, of course. How stupid. Yes, you don’t look like I imagine he does, but then . . .” I laughed weakly. “But then who does?”
He handed me the signed book, thanked me again, and picked up the others. He took a few steps away, hesitated, and turned.
“I don’t suppose,” he hesitated, “I don’t suppose you’d have dinner with me. This is a lonely business, driving from city to city selling my books. I’ve been on the road two weeks now, and I’m really sick of eating alone.”
I opened the book he’d handed me, looked at the signature and finally managed to say, ‘Well, I don’t know.”
“Of course, if you’re busy.”
“It’s not that. I’m not busy. Where would you want to eat?”
He smiled. “Hey, that’d be great. Any place you want.”
“I don’t go out much. My ex-husband and I used to eat at Harold’s. It’s not far from here. We could walk.”
Harold’s is one of those places with thick carpets, dim lighting, and tables far enough apart that you aren’t bumping into your neighbor every time you move. The food is usually good.
After we were seated I recovered from having nothing to say by asking, “How do you think of all the exciting stuff you put in your novels.”
“A familiar question,” he said. “It’s a developed way of thinking. Newspapers, overheard conversations, our sitting here waiting for dinner, anything could be the start of a fictional idea.”
“You had a scene in Love Around the Corner, where the heroine wound up eating dinner with a stranger.”
“If you say so.” He smiled. “I guess I did. The plots just sort of fade away from one story to another. Sometimes I have to check back to make sure I’m not telling the same story again.”
Our food came. He stopped talking and cut his steak into little squares. He’d fork one, open his mouth, caress it with his lips and chew slowly.
“I haven’t had time to eat all day,” he said between bites.
I nibbled at my shrimp salad as he paused and said, “I’m staying at the Carleton Hotel just around the corner. Would like to come up and see my etchings?”
I smiled and continued to pick at the salad.
“I hope you’re not offended,” he said. “I was only kidding.”
“Well, maybe not entirely, but I would like to see you again.”
At lunch, the next day, Joyce put her coffee cup down, leaned toward me and said, “Did anything happen after I left?”
She said, “C’mon, what happened? You look younger, somehow.”
“He said he would be coming back this way when he completed his tour. I wonder if he will. I gave him my phone number.”
Joyce took my hand in hers, her big brown eyes wide with worry, and said, “Geez Millie, if this guy never calls I suppose it’ll break your heart.”
I smiled again.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Suppose he never calls. He made a pass at me. Maybe there’ll be other passes by other guys now that I’ve come out of my shell. As a matter of fact I’ve got my eye on the manager of the bookstore. He’s not married and he comes around each day and talks to me.”
A grin spread across Joyce’s face and she said, “Now you’re talking.”
I thought about it and decided she was right. Now I was talking about getting on with my life.