As you may have heard by now, I’m on book tour. Tonight I’m at HUB CITY Bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Hub City was named by Southern Living magazine as one of the South’s finest bookstores and I always try to get up this way because that’s more than just a label, it’s the truth.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to stop by local libraries and visit with people. I’m sitting in a library now, typing this. I got into this habit years ago when iPhones and wireless didn’t exist in hotel rooms. I’d use local libraries to dispatch reports to the newsroom, etc.
When I’m in a local library I almost always try and stop in at their bookstores. Most libraries have some form of a store, usually run by the Friends of the Library or some other local volunteer group.
I was browsing one recently when I took the time to introduce myself to the gal working the desk.
The thing about traveling about the country this way is that you usually don’t have to do anything more than tell folks your name and where you are from and then sit back and listen because, sure enough, a good yard will unfold.
“I have a cousin with the same first name as me,” she said. “Brenda.”
“Oh, that’s funny. My sister has the same first name as our first cousin.” Wonder, is that a particularly Southern thing? Or did moms just like to copy-cat each other back in the day?
“Do you know a writer by the name of Lora Lee?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“Her boy was killed in a car wreck over here at Boiling Springs. You go over by the filling station and take the road out that a’way.”
I was stuck on filling station. Hadn’t heard the gas station called a “filling” station in a decade of Sundays. Probably not since Gordon Wofford died. I would have been stuck on Boiling Springs had it not been for the “filling” station remark.
“There wasn’t nothing they could do for the boy, but they did keep him alive long enough for his mama to get in to hold him and say goodbye to him.”
That’s the thing about the storytellers, they don’t stop to see if you are listening or comprehending, they just go on with the telling of whatever it is they are telling you. Brenda didn’t drop a beat.
“She travels all over the place talking now. Takes her messages to churches and such. It’s too bad you don’t know her. She was in here earlier this morning.”
I was beginning to feel guilty that I hadn’t come in earlier to meet this woman I didn’t know. Had I known I was going to miss her, I am sure I would have made more of an effort to not fritter away my morning.
“I got people down in Columbus, Georgia. My cousin she married a Cook.”
I somehow instinctively knew she wasn’t referring to a occupation but rather to a last name. “Oh, I know some Cooks in Columbus. Jimmy Cook was pastor at Morningside for decades.”
“No. This fella ain’t no pastor. He works for the military. He’s one of those computer people. You got any people in the military?”
Believe it or not it was the second time this morning somebody asked me that question out of the blue. This after I read a headline today that said most Americans don’t know any veterans or military service members. I don’t trust the headlines myself sometimes. I don’t believe most Americans don’t know a veteran. But then I am from the South and around here you could toss a rock in any direction with a bad arm and still hit a veteran.
So I told Brenda about my dad. The abbreviated two-sentence version.
“I went to school with five boys, all of ’em went to Vietnam. I guess it’s a miracle, too, that all of them come home.”
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
Then without any further prompting, she launched into a story about a woman named Edith, who was either a cousin or a neighbor, or maybe just a friend from church. I missed that introductory part because obviously I wasn’t listening as closely as I should have been, and everyone knows you don’t interrupt a storyteller in the middle of their story to ask them to repeat themselves because that would break the flow and ruin everything. I am not even sure her name was Edith.
“She married a man who got something in his neck. They had a daughter who was born to seizures. Poor thang. She had her hands full with that husband and child.”
I was totally confused about what the man had in his neck. A wishbone? A goiter? A cancerous tumor? And what did that have to do with a child who had seizures? But instead of asking that I just asked if Brenda had any children of her own.
“No,” she said. “I never kept still long enough to land me a husband. All that passed by me. It’s too bad.”
Shame of me. Here I’d come too late to the library to met Lora Lee, a woman I really needed to meet, according to Brenda, and then I mistook her people for the wrong ones. And now, I’d made Brenda feel bad about missing out on children and a husband. You’d think I’d learn by now to quit asking people questions, to not engage them.
But, nooo… I never do learn. Searching for a way to make Brenda feel better about herself, I blurted out, “My momma never remarried after my dad died. She said she didn’t want a man around to boss her.”
Brenda was too keen for such a diversion. “Your momma probably couldn’t find a man as good as the one she lost,” she said.
“True,” I said, feeling an even greater heaviness pressing in.
I handed Brenda the book I wanted to buy – Race Elements in the White Population of North Carolina.
She rang me up. “Two dollars. That’s a good buy.”
“Yes, it is,” I said and handed her two dollars I’d pulled from my wallet.
You can’t even get a cup of coffee for $2 any more, must less the kind of stories Brenda was telling.
Libraries. If you ain’t visiting them, you ain’t living right.
Karen Spears Zacharias is on tour with CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press). Check out her calendar to see when she’ll be in your neck of the woods.