Last night Noah surprised me by taking me to a book signing. He'd been planning it secretly for over a month, which means I knew about the surprise for almost a month. Not what the surprise was going to be, just that there was one. We learned years ago that whenever he tries to keep a secret from me—even the good ones—he becomes peevish and defensive from the stress of bearing such weight alone. Which really puts a damper on the big reveal.
Anyway, I knew there was a surprise, but I had no idea what. Over time he shared small but important details, like the date of the surprise; then that we'd have to get the kids ready to stay with my parents and their godfather, Nick; that my attire should be casual but nice; and finally the location and time: 5:30, downtown.
As we drove toward downtown, I figured it would be some kind of show, maybe at the Reynolds Auditorium or the Stevens Center. Perhaps a comedian? Then I started to worry it might be an interactive experience, like a cooking class or magic show, which under certain circumstances would be fun, but not really something I want to be sprung on me at the last minute. For one thing, I probably would have worn different shoes.
Twenty minutes later we pulled into a parking lot that appeared to be attached to nothing, surrounded as it was by some rundown houses and overgrown lots. But then I saw a little sign: Bookmarks, the nearly-year-old non-profit bookstore I had yet to visit.
"Are we seeing David Sedaris?" I asked excitedly, wringing my hands.
"How'd you know?" Noah smiled and, I imagine, unclenched his butt cheeks.
I'd seen David on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert recently, promoting his new book Calypso. (In that interview he told the story of having a fatty tumor removed, which he then fed to a snapping turtle.) Before seeing the segment, I was only vaguely aware that he had a new book coming out. I remember getting a preorder email, but because I've been fulfilling my new mother duties so dutifully, I kind of forgot about it.
If I'd had my wits about me, I would've thought of the fact that David always comes to Winston-Salem on his book tours, because his sister Lisa and her husband Bob live here. Miraculously, Noah heard about it before tickets went on sale (the cost of the hardback plus $2), remembered to go to the website the very morning sales opened and snagged two tickets before they sold out, which happened in just a couple of hours—something I heard from other excited attendees while standing in line outside Bookmarks, waiting to be let in.
Also amazingly, when we arrived there were only a handful of people lined up. As luck would have it, about an hour before the reading David walked past and said hello. He was wearing a light blue button-down and blue striped shorts that maybe were a beach cabana in a past life. "I think I may have overdressed," Noah quipped, looking down at his own button-down, jeans, and leather brogues. An employee came out shortly thereafter and said David had agreed to do some book signings beforehand.
The last time I went to one of his readings—the only other time, actually—I was with my friend and mentor Lisa (whose husband, incidentally, is also named Bob). That reading was almost a decade ago, for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, and it was held at a chain bookstore. We arrived plenty early, congratulating ourselves, but in our naivete, we went and had dinner at a restaurant across the parking lot before checking in. Consequently, we were in the third group for signings afterward, and David likes to chat with everyone. I stuck it out for several hours before deciding to throw in the towel and go home. It was a work night back then, and Ethan was just an infant.
This time, I imagine Lisa would've come to the reading, but she's currently cycling the entirety of the East Coast Greenway with her friend Dee. (You can follow their journey at eastcoastbikeride.com). Since the price of admission included a book per ticket, we had an extra copy, so I decided to ask David to sign one for Lisa.
"Do you know what you're going to say? You should think about what you're going to say," counseled Noah, who at this point was relaxed and basking in his triumph.
"I'll tell him about Lisa," I replied.
I consider Lisa my mentor because, more than anyone I've ever worked with, she opened doors and facilitated my growth as a writer.
My first job out of college was a special sections editor at the Winston-Salem Journal. About a year into the gig, my boss, Myra, asked if I'd be interested in assisting the new editor coming on board to launch a magazine called Winston-Salem Monthly. That editor was, you guessed it, Lisa.
Lisa was from Boston via Ohio—so, like me, decidedly not a Southerner. She was immediately chatty with a reassuring, familiar disposition. She didn't seem to be affected by the fact that I was 23 but looked 16. (At least she wasn't until, at a working lunch, we ordered the same thing, and our waiter said cheerfully, "Like mother, like daughter!") She soon asked what I really wanted to do, and because she was so candid herself, I felt compelled to tell the whole truth: "Write," I said.
So she assigned me my first feature, with a cherry on top: I had to taste test the best ice cream places in town. She assigned more features and even a food column, and in doing so I got a taste of publishing. It was all delicious.
Another benefit to being Lisa's mentee (although she's always insisted we're just friends) was she'd invite me to tag along to cool events, like when she interviewed Phil Hanes (yes, that Hanes). We attended literary do's, like the David Sedaris reading.
We once drove to Durham to see Mary Oliver at Duke. As I searched for seats in the crowded auditorium, Lisa leaned over and whispered, "Say excuse me."
"Okay, MOM," I replied impetuously. She has helpfully advised me on manners ever since.
So these are the kinds of things I was hoping to tell David. I say "hoping" not because I was starstruck (though I admit to a certain level of mental fuzziness), but because he disarmed me with an off-the-cuff off-the-wall comment, as is his way. (He once told a hotel employee he'd found a whole toenail in his room. "At least it tasted like a toenail," he'd said.)
We stepped up to the table where he'd been signing and drawing Snoopy on each title page.
"Is that glitter on my hand? Where'd I get glitter from?" he asked rhetorically as I handed him my book.
"It might be from me. I got dolled up," I replied, trying to be useful. (I wasn't covered in the stuff; one of my eyeshadows, though, had a finely milled gold glitter in it. I did not get this detailed with David.)
"Would you mind signing this other one for my mentor Lisa?" I asked as he pulled up an image of Charlie Brown on his phone.
He said something agreeable, then asked, "What is she your mentor in? The whorehouse?"
"Yes. Thus the glitter," I replied instantly, which made him laugh. But the whorehouse bit was disorienting, so I fumbled through my story about Lisa.
"To Lisa..." he said.
"World's Greatest Mom," I concluded.
"Eh, I don't know about that," he said. "I mean she's not really if we're being honest. How about: To Lisa. A mother, a fine one."
The reading was a story forthcoming in the New Yorker, called "Active Shooter." It's about the time he and his sister Lisa went to the local gun range and took a class from Lonnie, the owner. Just so happens, Lonnie is a retired police officer Noah knows, so the story was especially sensational for us. And of course, the story was both hilarious and poignant.
Every time he said "Lisa" I couldn't help but think of my own funny Lisa, about her house on the Neuse River that we'll be visiting for two weeks next month for our turn pet-sitting her dogs while she's cycling the summer away. Her house, it turns out, isn't far from David's house on Emerald Isle, which features prominently in Calypso. I plan to take both copies with me: mine to read, Lisa's to leave there for her return.
David's house on Emerald Isle is named, as is customary for North Carolina beach houses. He called it the Sea Section. I don't think Lisa's beach house has a name, though now "the ShoreWhore House" comes to mind. Although speaking of floozies, "The Calypso" would serve the purpose nicely.