Saturday, April 08, 2006

How to talk to birds

Sometimes it's impossible not to eavesdrop.

Case in point: yesterday's trip to the used book store.

Someone entered the store as I was working my way down the first aisle of fiction and classics and announced to the owner's daughter, who was manning the desk, that this was her first time in the store.

She said she was looking for books "for decorative purposes."

I tightened my grip on The Monkey Wrench Gang, snatched minutes earlier from its shelf. Our outfitter's conservative-leaning husband and our environmentalist-friendly wrangler had argued politely over Edward Abbey on our drive out to the Swell last October and I wasn't about to let a creased cover disuade me from taking the first copy I'd seen in six months home with me.

I glanced toward the front, expecting a perfectly-attired interior design type, and saw a mom in her early thirties with a preschooler asleep in her arms.

She repeated again that she was looking for books "for decorative purposes," but that what was in the books was important as well since her husband was "a collector." What he collected remained unarticulated.

She, of course, was sent down the classics aisle and I will confess to glancing over a couple of times to see what books she'd put in her requested basket. I couldn't tell unless I was willing to make a spectacle of myself, so I moved into the back area of the store.

She followed, and her phone rang. I quickly learned that she would not be staying in a particular hotel because it would cost her family of four $500 a night and they couldn't afford $2,000 on a hotel bill, but where they were going to stay in Palm Beach provided a camp so they wouldn't have to have the kids with them all the time. I learned that someone she loathes had had the audacity to email her an ultrasound picture of her baby and that she'd told her husband, "I don't even like her on the outside," so she certainly found a picture of her insides as being Too Much Information.

Oh, tell me about it. . .

I gave up on the history shelves and moved into the next room, into the science section. By the time she came down that aisle she'd finished her phone conversation and had deposited her sleeping daughter on the sofa next to the rabbit cage. She had a baby names book in her basket and a couple of books about birds in her hands when I moved back to fiction.

She paid while I was still browsing. She told the owner's daughter that she was buying How to Talk to Birds for her son, who talked to owls. Owner's daughter inquired if her son had been to the raptor center and mentioned a paper she'd written in college on the symbolism of owls. The mom countered with her own college paper, written "a long time ago" at an unnamed "small liberal arts college," whose topic she'd thought up on her own, on "symbolic slavery." Her sensibilities were so finely tuned from researching her paper that she'd had to quit going to a shop she rather liked because the owner had a racist lawn ornament inside. She didn't, of course, tell the shop owner why she couldn't come back.

And then she was gone.

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