Someone forwarded me a link today to a facebook post by writer Richard R. Becker. Richard recounts a recent experience he had when purchasing a copy of Earth Unaware at a bookstore. I’m thrilled that the book by me and Orson Scott Card played a small part in the story. I share the full text here with Richard’s permission. The comments at the conclusion are also his.
by Richard R. Becker
He was anxious, almost desperate; the elderly man who swooped behind my wife and me as we stood in the checkout line of the bookstore.
“What name did you say,” he asked, his voice frail and quaking as his eyes drifted down to the book. “The author. What is his name?”
“Orson Scott Card,” I said, perplexed by his advance, but not nearly as taken aback as my wife.
“Can I see it? You said you reviewed it,” his voice still shaking in anticipation. His eyes becoming glassy in disbelief.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, glancing ahead at the registers and listening for my turn. “Here you are. Is everything all right?”
“My wife died two weeks ago,” he said. “She used to listen to his books when she got too old to read them on her own. Do you know if they have it on audio?”
“I don’t. But I did listen to it on audio,” I offered. “They do a fine job with it, giving distinct voices to each of the characters. The book, though, it was the last one in the store.”
“I’ll have to ask if they have the audiobook. I don’t know anything about this Ors, um …”
“Orson Scott Card,” I finished for him.
“She used to listen to him and I never took an interest. What is the name of the book?”
I pointed to the title he couldn’t see, despite holding it in his hands. He considered it, but the font seemed to escape him as if it was a foreign language.
“It’s a gift for my son … part of the prequel to one of the finest science fiction books ever written. This was one was written with another author, Aaron Johnston.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “She used to listen to him and I never took an interest.”
The line advanced another step forward and both of us felt the looming and expectant acknowledgement from the next available clerk. One word would conclude any spontaneous confession that was about to sweep over him.
That is the way it goes in a checkout line. Every conversation has a time limit, especially one between two strangers whose only common bond is a briefest moment in time and space.
Time was running out. As soon as the clerk called for us, any spell of limited familiarity would be broken. One of us would be called and we would walk out of each other’s lives forever. There was no time for either of us to give up our coveted spot at the front of the ever increasing line that snaked back and forth between shelves of trivial impulse gifts.
“I can only buy one of them,” he said, looking down at a different audiobook he picked up on his own. “You say it’s good? I suppose it doesn’t matter. I have to make a choice.”
“If you like science fiction, you’ll like it,” I said and then assured him. “She would have liked it.”
“I miss her,” he said. “I should have listened to her books when I had the chance. We could have talked about this author over Christmas.”
And there is was, laid out bare and cold. He had spent a lifetime with her but this was the first time he thought to take an interest in her independent pleasures. His expression told the unspoken story.
He was too late. And yet, right there in the least likely space of place, he had a revelation that something as simple as a book could resurrect her memory, even if for only a few fleeting hours.
I held out my hand, an unspoken gesture to request the book back. He briefly clutched it to his chest but then gently held it out, remembering it was a gift for my son.
“I’ll never remember the name,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “Let me write it down for you.”
I asked the clerk for a pen and paper as she hurriedly rang up the rest of the books in a small stack. She smiled, but glanced over my shoulder in impatience, fearing that five words would disrupt her loosing battle. The line was growing longer despite her best efforts to shrink it. My own wife looked rushed too. Nobody wants to hold up a line during the holidays.
“Here you are,” I said, holding out the yellow sticky before assuring him again. “She would have liked it.”
He smiled, giving off the first glint of life in eyes mostly hidden under tired and age worn lids. He turned his attention to the other clerk and asked about the audiobook. He had made his choice, albeit two weeks too late. Or maybe not. Perhaps he would find her again for Christmas, sharing an adventure she would have enjoyed taking with him.
I signed the receipt and the clerk held out the bag with a gratuitous good day. All stories have endings, but they also begin. As I left him behind, considering the randomness of it all, I glanced down at the book my wife had bought.
“Maybe I could read it when your done.”
“Maybe,” she smiled, pressing her had in mine.
Book Ends isn’t much of a story. It’s mostly just a draft scrap of paper, a slice of life that happened a few days ago. I decided to write it down before it slipped from my own head. Writing is like that sometimes.
We never know the people closest to us as much as we might. But that’s the way it goes. You never really know how long you have with the person standing next to you before the clerk calls one of you forward. And then they check out, leaving us to wonder what might be tucked inside the bag.