Thumbing through a stack of New Yorkers, he sits at the only table in the far back corner of the bookstore beneath the section marked Clearance!, the bright, garish sign above the bookcase pronouncing orphaned volumes.
I prowl my way across the spines looking for author’s last names, head askew, lips mumbling, quietly placing selections on the table he occupies.
I have made a habit of haunting book and thrift stores. I seek treasure among ruins. Today, I am a fortunate hunter: the shelves yield a trove of titles ignored by the masses yet authored by brilliant thinkers or forgotten writers, they cost around two or three dollars, tops: Wallace Stegner’s Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, Robert Bolano’s Monsieur Pain, the authorized biography of Roald Dahl, and, among others, that selection of short stories I have been curious about by Kazuo Ishiguro.
He points to my stack of books, barely looking up from his magazine.
“Wallace Stegner,” he states, his tone declaring admiration.
“Beautiful genius,” I reply. “Forgotten, and we are lesser for it.”
His eyebrows arch a tacit agreement, “Stegner is a great writer. He taught many.”
“Yes,” I said, responding to his volley, “Wendell Berry was his student as was Ken Kesey, I think.”
“Stegner was a self taught man,” his tone a piquant curve upwards.
I make a mental note, I hadn’t pegged Stegner as an autodidact. “I am reading Big Rock Candy Mountain right now.”
He nods, “That's his cornerstone work, no?” He tilts his head back, flipping through the rolodex of his mind, “He also wrote ... Angle of Repose.”
“I love that book. Incredible book.”
He glances at my stack of books, implying he read each title as I placed them on the table, “You seem well read.”
“I try.” I notice the amulet he is wearing, it is on a leather string. Is it a buffalo? A bear? He is obviously Native American but unless one is Comanche, Cheyenne, or Choctaw, I can rarely discern which nation. I study his features, the layered crows feet around his eyes suggests he is a man of mirth. I nod to the stack before him, “I love The New Yorker magazine, particularly the short stories.”
Smiling, he replies, “I never buy any. I just read the table of contents looking for friends or writers I wish to read.”
“Are you an author?” I ask.
“Yes. I write some, prose and poetry.”
“Published?” I regret the question as it leaves my mouth.
“Some. I am the Anthropology Director of Native American Studies at OU. I am editing a work now on Native American Language Revitalization. It is a big task. Many emails and conversations. I transcribed and translated a Kiowan story and it was published last year, ‘How Thebol Got His Name’ in the book Inside Dazzling Mountains."
I pull my phone from my back pocket and quickly search for the title in Amazon, adding it to my wish list as we talk.
“You must be a N. Scott Momaday reader,” I suggest.
“I know him! His health has been in decline but he is doing well. He lives in Florida.”
“I enjoy Momaday, we were born in the same town: Lawton, OK.”
“He still has many family members here.”
“Do you like Louise Erdrich?” I risk asking, knowing it borderline impolite to suggest only Native American authors; I do not tell him I am Choctaw and Chickasaw.
“Oh, yes. I just read The Round House.”
“Me, too. Good book.”
“You should read Love Medicine,” he said. “I find that many author’s later works rarely live up to their first but Louise Erdrich is very good.” He glances at me, “What do you do?”
“I am in business but literature is my love. I love story.”
His eyes crinkle into a slight, knowing smile, “Storytelling binds us together.”
I flash back an agreeing grin. “I taught a class recently for businesspeople on Storyselling. It was pure pleasure for me as I was able to tie together my lifelong profession and my passion for story.”
“Story sets people at ease,” he said. “You can see their defenses drop. I like to use humor and story in my teaching to students, they listen better.”
“For my class, I used Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as our guide. I was afraid I would get laughed out of the room but the attendees enjoyed it. I was surprised at the response.”
He smiled, “Ah yes. Campbell’s monomyth. Very good.”
“Literature and story are important to me.”
He looked away, toward the shelves, yet beyond them. Reeling in something, a vague memory or a perception at the periphery of his mind, “At the end of the day, at night, you rescue your soul with story.”
“Yes,” I can only murmur, "yes". The thought staggers me. Delivers me. I think of the wise words of Jorge Luis Borges in his last interview, "Two men who can speak together can enrich and broaden themselves indefinitely. What comes forth from me does not surprise me as much as what I receive from the other."
The professor observes me for a moment, his glance bouncing off my face back to the cover of the magazine laid on his lap. “You know, Wallace Stevens was a businessman and poet. You can’t make money writing poetry, you must work another occupation.”
“Yes, I am a big fan of Stevens. T. S. Eliot was a banker.”
“That’s right!” He grins broadly.
“I believe Ted Kooser was in insurance as well.”
“I didn’t know that, I know William Carlos Williams …”
“… was a pediatrician,” I interject, finishing his thought.
“You write poetry?” I ask, leaning in a bit too intently.
“Yes. I’ll be doing a reading with other Native American poets at the Jacobson House.”
“I will make that reading,” I reply. “I write poetry as well and try to make readings when I can, I’ve been to the Depot in Norman for a reading.”
“My students have told me about that reading, I really need to make it sometime. They are constantly telling me about readings and I forget”. He smiles, bemused by his forgetfulness, stealing another glimpse beyond the shelves then returning to lift his New Yorker.
I shift my weight nervously. I am fearful I am taking too much of his time yet I want to continue the conversation, to pull up a chair, sit, and talk. Listen better. Take notes. At the moment, I didn't fully appreciate I was talking to a man whose life had been devoted to story. I curse my inability to shut my mouth, a regret I nurse all too frequently. I am in the presence of a real teacher, someone from whom I could learn, but my desire to share overrides my patience. In my world, I rarely meet someone who has read and appreciated many of the same authors I have, this conversation is an oasis, a remnant of the soul-saving act of sharing stories.
I stand, “Well, I probably better get going.”
We shake hands. I grab my stacks of books.
“Nice to meet you. I enjoyed the conversation.”
He grabs another New Yorker from the stack, “Me, too”.