The newest “Hark, A Vagrant” reminded me of the summer book group I just finished up with. The Presbyterian church I’ve been visiting had a bunch of activities this summer, including a small group studying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I figured what better way to get to know people than through books. By the last class everyone was pretty comfortable with one another & I happened to overhear someone talking about Verghese’s Cutting For Stone. When there was a lull in the conversation, I jumped in, mentioning that I had read it & that I loved Verghese.
Three of us talked about the book & after a while I mentioned his first book My Own Country was worth checking out if they liked his novel. I gave them a quick few details what it was about & left the conversation. At the end of the meeting that night, one of the older men in the book group came up to me. He seemed like a quiet, genteel man; he didn’t say much but when he did speak, his words were thoughtful.
“I heard you mentioned Johnson City, Tennessee earlier,” he said. My mind thought back to. . . My Own Country. Oh no.
“Yeah,” I said, “It’s the setting of a book I read awhile ago, a book I really like.”
“I’m from there,” he continued with a shy smile. “What is the book about?”
“Umm, it’s a non-fiction book. About a doctor who moves to the area. And the people he meets there.” He nodded, indicating I should go on. “Umm, it’s about the AIDS cases there in the 90’s.”
“Oh.” There is a heavy pause before he said, “That was after my time, I suppose” and moved away to speak to someone else. Southern manners win the day.
I was listening to the Decemberists earlier & thinking how words & intentions diverge. The CD had originally come to me as a kind of peace-offering from someone I had difficulty getting along with. It seemed like every time I opened my mouth, an argument started despite telling myself to behave & be a nice girl. Afterward, I would think, “Lord, why did I say that? That was not how I planned it.” But, the next time I saw this person, the nice thing I intended to say came out sounding ugly as hell.
I don’t really have much more to say about what happened except that I came away with two “souvenirs”. One of them is the nightmares I still have about this person, who on a very basic level I feared. I mean, fear in a social what-will-this-person-think-how-do-they-judge-me-how-do-they-see-me sort of way. The other, a much nicer one, is a book given to me in return for one I gave to them. I remember at the time the pages smelled distinctly like peanuts & it made me think of all sorts of comforting things like pad thai & peanut butter sandwiches. I wanted to put the book somewhere so that it would keep the scent & I would always remember those calming first associations. Instead, it just mixed in with my other books.
But I guess it’s enough to remember. I take the two “souvenirs” equally & see the whole as a lesson in the best & worst of intentions.