Clark Street Diptych
1 • Last week I walked past a couple with two young children. They were having a good-natured family argument of some kind, the parents doubtless battling against some ineluctable construction of kid-logic. I heard them say, "here, we'll ask this gentleman."
"Excuse me, sir," they said. I stopped and smiled. "Is there such a thing as ghosts?"
I hesitated. The parents prompted me by subtly shaking their heads "no."
"Not that I've ever seen," I said dutifully. "Nope."
They thanked me and we continued walking our separate ways.
I couldn't help but qualify my response. They'll never know how badly I wanted to say "yes" or "maybe," to leave the door open, to let those little imaginations keep right on believing in everything, everything, everything.
2 • In August 2011 I went to Pie Town, New Mexico with a few friends. As we drove into town we stopped, predictably, for pie. The Pie-O-Neer cafe has one of the world's great front porches. We sat there and ate, and observed under a bench a few large cardboard boxes full of paperbacks. "FREE" was scrawled across the boxes in black marker.
So we took some books. I found a warmly broken-in copy of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary with a bookmark advertising a used bookshop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Some very intelligent people have told me that this novel is one of the greatest. I didn't plan to read it right away, but I figured I should have a copy. After all, it was free.
I moved it to Chicago with me. It sat on my shelf for two years. I returned to New Mexico, and even to Pie Town. But I never read Madame Bovary. Somehow it avoided the culling that occurred when I moved to a new apartment. For some reason it continued to accompany me.
Today, in the deepening thrall of a minimalism kick, I donated more books to a charitable resale shop. I recently saw a helpful guideline suggesting you should keep only books you plan to read in the next six months--with scrupulous attention paid to your actual rate of reading. I just wasn't convinced I would get to Madame Bovary in half a year.
In his prose Flaubert famously sought "le mot juste," the avoidance of cliche, the right word at the right time.
As a reader I am hopelessly dedicated to serendipity and flow. I'll always take the book that falls into my hands at the right moment over the one that has been waiting in the queue.
So I gave the book away. Which doesn't mean I'll never read Flaubert; now is simply not the time. I felt light as I left the store. For some reason I was chosen to transport that particular book from Pie Town to Chicago, to deposit it on this precise day. I trust it'll fall from my shelf into someone's hands at just the right moment.
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