"She's brilliant I think."
"She's a lunatic."
I'm sitting in Borders, overhearing a conversation between a mother and a daughter. Country-pop music is playing over the speakers. I've heard the song a thousand times.
"Have you read this one?"
"I didn't read the other one, I couldn't get through it . . ."
"Oh, I loved it."
"I read it. I read it. When you went off to college."
Recording these conversations is giving me a slight buzz. The women who disappear around the bookshelves, leave their voices trailing behind them, and I write down their broken fragments without knowing why.
What I love about a person's voice is its distinction. The distinction in personality comes through the volume of the voice, the boldness or timidity of it, and the colors in a voice seem to combine all the person's experiences and attitudes about the world. You don't even really need to take into account what they're saying. You can just hear how they're saying it, and (almost) all is revealed about that person.
But I shouldn't be sitting here, eavesdropping.
I am perpetually standing outside of Borders bookstore. This is my little isle of concrete where I light up my cigarette and watch the cars coming into the parking lot. The people approach the stores with their husbands, boyfriends, children, friends. I never recognize anyone. The various strangers may look at me only briefly, and each person gives me about as much notice as a black crow on a telephone wire.
I remember when I was in college I used to smoke outside the English building before class. The head of the department would always see me by the giant Corinthian columns, puffing away. He usually had a deprecating smile, like rubber bands pulling at the corners of his mouth. He would say my name in a formal way, and then, "Whenever I see you, you're smoking."
I go back into Borders, stopping to get my cup of water. The cafe girls, or baristas, know that after I drink my coffee and smoke my cigarette, I'm going to ask for a cup of water. They are usually pretty upbeat and friendly, and seem to enjoy doing me this little favor.
As I sit down into my faux leather chair, I note that a certain liveliness has overtaken the store. I'm happy as long as I can read my newspaper, but just in case I've brought earplugs. Later tonight, Borders will be hosting an event for educator's week and a dozen rows of chairs are set up on the opposite side of the store. Five authors and poets will be reading from their books. I plan to leave before the speakers arrive.
On a Saturday, around five or six o' clock, you can expect the store to be a little busier. I'm not misanthropic, I like people, I come here because of the energy. Otherwise I would be home all day, in my office cell, staring at the computer screen.
"I'll be talking about the Borders Experience tonight," I say to Jeff, who has walked past my chair and turned around. "Yeah, I'm doing a promo tonight before the speakers begin."
Jeff is a thin noodle of a man with concave shoulders and glasses. He looks at me quizzically. "No, you're not--"
"Yes, they asked me to talk about what it was like to come here every single day for two years. I'm a good representative, you know."
"I don't believe you." His glasses are perched on the end of his nose. He turns away from me with disbelief and uncertainty.
What I like about bookstores, and this one in particular, is how a person will stop in front of a display or bookshelf and fix their attention on something. They pause there for a moment, and it's kind of interesting to watch them. You wonder what's going through their heads at this moment. Why this book? Maybe it relates to their life somehow, their interests. They're captivated by that object they hold in their hands. It's intriguing.
And then, they move on, walking in a sort of deathless trance toward the next object of attraction. They take a few steps in one direction, maybe turn around, go another direction, it's as if they're sensing the forcefield, waiting to see what will pull them in.
Books have always been a part of my life. They offer the promise of some information about myself. I see books as containing personal symbols we're either drawn to or repelled by. We're repelled by what we can't identify with and drawn to the thoughts that seem to echo our own.
So it's no wonder that people walk slowly through bookstores with an air of mystery and quest. These objects are powerful, they speak to our deepest selves if we find the right one. It seems we're looking to extend the conversation we're already having with ourselves. Like our own monologues written by others. That's what I'm seeking in a book.
I tell a couple other Borders staff members that I'm speaking tonight. "I'll be right there behind that podium. Seven o'clock." And they say in unison "really? no," and then I walk back to my faux leather chair to finish whatever it is I'm writing.