The other night it was fixing to rain again and I was getting a little stir crazy, what with no TV or nuthin up here to keep me occupied. Hell, there's only so much reading you can do before you start hearing voices. I ast myself, am I schizoid or is this normal? The dark wasn't gonna give me any answers, so I slipped on my moccs and slicker and sashayed down the hill to the OK Tavern, Danny O'Keefe's joint out on the highway. The place was nearly empty, just a coupla lifers sittin over by the round window under the Budweiser sign working on their neon tans.
This is Sussex County, New Jersey. The only culture up here is the black goo what sits in the sink drain. These folks work for a living, and when they're not working they're doing chores. They're too tired for culture. They're happy with canned goods, the stuff you can digest while driving or nodding off. Talk radio, beer and TV usually do the trick. These two were talking politics, just another form of entertainment. "Obama's a black cat but he's got white paws -- you gotta watch him: he's slick." "He just keeps rammin government shit down people's throats. I'm gettin sick of it." "Yeah, somebody's got to take him out before the whole country goes down." I thought to myself, jesus, the salt of the earth has sure done lost its flavor. Murder begins in the heart and it's never funny when it does.
Crystal was pouring drinks. She worked for the school district during the day, some kind of clerical job, but she needed the bartending gig to make ends meet. She had two kids in elementary school and an old man she hadn't seen in three years. She was philosophical about it. "He lost his job and his pride couldn't take it. He was never mean to me, just weak. One day he was gone. We hadn't officially tied the knot, so what was I gonna do?" I wanted to tell her that all men without work get weak and lose their bearings, that rarely are we content to amuse ourselves without self-destructing. But I figure she knew just as much about men as I did, maybe more.
I ast for a pilsner and a shot of Jameson's to keep me warm. I saw she had a dog-eared paperback tucked away under the bar. "Whatcha reading?" "The Stand. It's by Stephen King. Did you ever read it?" "A long time ago, when I was working in a bookstore. I thought it was pretty scary." "Imagine a superflu getting loose and killing off most everybody. Captain Trips isn't that far-fetched. I think we're closer to it than ever. I just don't know if we'll have the chance to set things right. I keep wondering if Stu is gonna make it. King is definitely right about one thing: there's more evil in the world than there is good, and it keeps coming back no matter how hard you try to destroy it." She went off to take care of two women who had just come in, wearing blue hospital scrubs. They ordered a plate of wings and two Stellas.
I thought about King's novel and how so many ordinary readers consider it a classic of sorts, the great apocalyptic novel of our time. I couldn't finish it. Fact is, I've tried reading King a bunch of times -- he's got a wicked imagination and knows how to drive a plot, but I always find his characters are stick figures, lifeless, more abstract agglomerations of human character traits than flesh-and-blood people. Plus he's no great stylist, no way he'll seduce you with his narrative voice. None of this mattered to Crystal. The book thrilled her and made her think. "Some of the scenes are really gross. I can't believe he makes this stuff up," she said when she came back. She poured me another round. "I wish I had more time to read. I try to get a few pages in when I'm here and it's slow because I'm too busy the rest of the time. Reading is a luxury."
Yup, reading is a luxury. Books are a luxury. You gotta eat first and keep yourself clothed and housed. If you've got kids, you gotta raise 'em up. This is a fast world and books are slow. They won't do when you're so tired you can't keep your eyes open. You need to keep up with technology, you need to learn new things if you want to hold a job or get a new one. You can't be reading for pleasure. I finished my beer and downed the shot. All of a sudden I got a chill. I realized just how estranged I was from the others, the frightened boozers talking trash, the tired nurses, even from Crystal who liked books. What I do for a living -- publish books -- is indeed a luxury in their world, a non-essential, superfluous, the province of dreamers. I was foolish to romanticize it and even more foolish to wallow in my alienation from it. Books were my life, not a luxury. And yet I could see how much good fortune had to come my way before that could be the case. I thought to myself, I should be home, this is not my place. I left Crystal twenty-one on sixteen and waved goodbye. Outside, an evil rain was falling and the night was black and full of remorse.