FAIRHOPE—A bookstore downtown. A book signing. I am wearing a sport coat, shaking hands, and smiling. There are a lot of people here tonight, and I am writing my name in their books.
The ironic thing is that I am not a legitimate writer. At least, I have a hard time seeing myself that way.
I have always seen myself as a Ford-owner first, a redhead second. A close third would be a devoted husband. However, in my house this job title has no official description. It would be hard, for instance, to view my family role as any different than the role of our dogs.
My dogs and I both sleep a lot, we both depend on my wife for meals, and the highlight of our day is finding a tree in the backyard that needs watering.
But here at this bookstore, I am signing books, and people are treating me like a real writer. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.
What am I supposed to do? Smile and pretend that I’m actually what these people think I am? It feels ridiculous. It just doesn’t feel real.
I am thinking about the time in fourth grade when my mother told me I was smart, but I didn’t believe her. I seriously thought my mother was full of beans.
I made the worst grades in class. And bad grades take a toll on a kid’s mind. They make him feel like he’s doomed to be a janitor.
Imagine: All your friends are getting papers back with A’s, but your papers always bear a D, F, or a frowny face.
Also, I often got in trouble for things I didn’t do. Like the time when Mark Campbell brought a racy magazine to class. Mark’s desk was beside mine.
Mark whispered something to me but I ignored him because our teacher was reading “Where the Red Fern Grows,” aloud, which was my favorite book.
So Mark Campbell started passing the magazine to boys on the back row. And there I was, minding my business, listening to storytime, and the magazine landed on my desk.
The teacher quit reading. The class was silent. And it’s important that you understand this: The teacher did not look at Mark Campbell, she looked at me.
(Cue theme music from Jaws)
The teacher said, “What’s that on your desk, Sean?”
“Let me see that.”
Mark Campbell whispered, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
I got the blame. The next thing I knew, I was in the principal’s office. The principal was telling me that he was disappointed in me. Then he brought out my “file” and said that if I didn’t improve my grades I might be pushing a broom for a living.
So when I grew up, that’s what I considered myself, a broom-pushing, underachieving, D-student.
I applied for D-student jobs. And after clocking out, I participated in D-student activities such as sleeping late, microwaving pasta, and playing games of Let’s See How Long I Can Ride Around Town on “E.”
So a writer? No. I don’t know what I am.
I was in New York City a few months ago at a book convention. I felt like a fish out of water. The convention center was roughly the size of the Indian Ocean. I met TONS of actual writers. Legitimate ones.
And I was thinking: “What in the Sam Hill am I doing here?”
It was about that time that I met a woman. She was mid-seventies. She looked lost. When she saw me, she said, “Sir, do you work here?”
“Yes, you look like you work here.”
I inspected my clothes.
“Sir, I need to go to the bathroom.”
I looked around for an employee, but saw none. So I thought to myself, “Why not?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I work here.”
I pretended to be very official and guided her to the bathroom like a member of the Secret Service. She thanked me. And the universe has a good sense of humor because I realized something important that day.
Some men are made to be doctors and lawyers and such. Some are made to be authors. But me? I make a good custodian.
And I’m okay with this. I come from farmers, steelworkers, and trailer dwellers. I come from men who made bad grades but learned to work hard for a living.
And this is what I am thinking about at this book signing.
The Fairhope crowd thins out, and people go home. When I am done, I find myself alone in the store. The lights are off and the place is empty. As fate would have it, I find a push-broom in the corner.
That’s when I see something on a bookshelf. I pick it up. I feel a jolt go through me, followed by a warm feeling.
It’s my book. It is sitting next to “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I have to sit down.
I don’t know what I am. I don’t know where I belong sometimes. But I am not completely clueless, I know a few things. I know my mother still thinks I’m smart. I know my wife believes in me. I know where the bathrooms are.
And I know that wherever you are, Mark Campbell, you’re going down, sucker.