Last Friday, I flew down to the Southern Independent Booksellers Association trade show, held this year in Greenville, South Carolina. For the vast majority of you who don’t work in publishing, what goes down at SIBA is that the good folks who own and/or work for independent bookstores around the South show up, look at what’s out there, maybe meet some authors and publishing-house reps, and decide what they’re going to order for the upcoming year. (That’s a simplified version, but close enough.)
Of course, that means it’s a chance for publishing companies and authors to get out there and cajole, beg and plead for their books to be considered. And I think we all know it goes without saying that I’m not the type to shun publicity and a chance to sell himself or his work. I signed a couple of boxes worth of uncorrected advance reviewer copies of The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival and even learned that Kensington had a poster printed up for the trade-show floor. A POSTER!
So down to South Carolina, I went. Susan came along with me and did a champion’s job of trying to distract me from my nerves all day long on Friday — which couldn’t have been a very fun job looking back at my behavior for most of the day.
But, for the most part, it worked. That and all the kind words from you folks prior to the event. When the time for the reading came, I was not terrified. What also helped was emcee Marjory Heath Wentworth (who’s also the poet laureate of South Carolina) being so damned nice and making it all seem like a fun, informal family gathering.
Hell, when I approached the podium, I was barely even that nervous, and this despite having to follow the opening reader, Cordell Adams, who showed up with props and gave such a performance while reading from his book Light Bread that people were practically rolling in the aisles. Immediately preceding me was James Everett Kibler, author of The Education of Chauncey Doolittle. Following me were: Laurel Snyder, author of Any Which Wall, and a Twitter buddy (and, also, thanks to my efforts, now a fan of Bookers bourbon); Philip Lee Williams, author of The Campfire Boys; and Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress.
Each reading lasted about five to seven minutes. I’d been deciding between two passages, the first few pages of the book and a passage surrounding Christmas morning. At the last minute, I went with Christmas. I’m happy to report that people didn’t fall asleep, I didn’t stutter or otherwise stumble over my words and, most important, people laughed at the appropriate places.
What did I read? Well, how about I share it with you. Below is a snippet from The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival. Here’s the set-up – and Louisiana people, please keep in mind this is all FICTION, so no, it’s not real, or based on anyone real.
Our humble narrator is a Catholic priest by the name of Father Steve Sibille, pastor of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Grand Prairie. Miss Rita is the over-100-year-old black woman who used to help his grandmother around the house. She now lives in an old folk’s home in Opelousas. Vicky is Father Steve’s age. She also happens to be the daughter of the previous priest at Grand Prairie. (I told yall it was fiction!)
Anyway, here it goes:
* * *
Christmas morning finds me not on the altar of St. Pete’s standing in front of 100 somber white faces, but in a pew at Zion Baptist Church surrounded by shouting faithful and their even louder clothes. Who knew that a woman would wear a purple dress and gold shoes for something other than an LSU game? I’m hemmed in by Miss Rita, sitting in the aisle to my left, and Vicky to my right. Vicky, the only other white person in the church, looks slightly amused. . . .
Miss Rita is beaming, pleased as punch with her Christmas gift.
Every year, she demands something slightly absurd—sometimes something small and inconsequential, sometimes something ridiculous and extravagant. Every year she gets what she wants.
Last year, it was a bright orange Mr. T t-shirt. Mr. T’s Mohawk was made of some sort of puffy material. Under his face were the words, “I Pity the Fool.” The only other thing she asked for was a matching battery-powered key chain that repeated Mr. T’s most famous phrases. For the whole week of my visit from seminary I couldn’t utter more than two sentences without hearing the phrase “Quit yo jibba-jabba” coming from the key chain and accompanied by Miss Rita laughing so hard she’d almost slide out of her wheel chair.
Three years ago, she requested a hand-held GPS unit.
“For what?” I asked. “You’re in a chair in a nursing home. You can barely read and I don’t think you can even see the numbers on a screen like that.”
“You sure know how to make an old lady feel good about herself,” she told me.
“But what do you need a GPS for?”
“Just in case,” she said. “You never know.”
Of course I bought the thing. After it was out of the box and powered up, she thrust it at me. “Tell me where we at.”
“We’re in your room.”
“Don’t make me get out this chair. Tell me what that GPS says.”
“Fine.” I read off the longitude and latitude numbers. Then I showed her the map.
“Ain’t that something,” she said. “Now show me where your Mawmaw’s house was.”
This year, I wasn’t going to let her catch me off guard. While I should have been planning for the festival, I pored through catalogs trying to guess which absurdity she would wish for. A robotic monkey head? A 7-foot-wide Thomas Kinkaid painting? A two-man tent? An English saddle?
But no. Nothing that easy.
“I want you to come to church with me Christmas morning,” she said.
“What? I can’t do that.”
“Why not? You shamed of me?”
“It’s Christmas morning. I’m a priest,” I stammered. “It’s, it’s. It’s Christmas.”
“Boy, I know you got that old Cajun priest doing a French Mass at 8:30.”
“How do you find these things out?”
“Don’t you worry yourself about my business.”
She changed the subject. “It ain’t going to kill you to come to early service with me. You can drop me to Teddy’s house afterward, be back in Grand Prairie in time for your other Mass.”
How convenient. “Wouldn’t you rather an iPhone?” I asked.
“An iPhone? What the hell I’m gonna do with an iPhone?”
“What the hell do you do with a GPS?”
“I get plenty use out of that GPS. I never get lost going to the community room. Besides, I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“I don’t know,” I whined. “I’m a white Catholic priest. Don’t know if I want to start off Christmas morning in a Baptist church hearing about the white devil.”
“Please,” she said. “They ain’t going on about white devils in that church.” She paused. “Not on Christmas, anyway.”
“Look, boy. It ain’t that much to ask. Just come to church with me. One time. Could be my last Christmas, you know.”
She had me there.
“Okay. Fine. I’ll go to church with you. Anything else you want? A pogo stick? A pool table?”
She smiled. “Now that you mention it, there is one more thing.”
Then she demanded I bring Vicky. After five minutes of arguing, she really laid it on, said it was the dying wish of an old woman on her last Christmas on earth. Hadn’t she helped to raise me since I was a child? After a century of hard living, it would do her heart good to see me with a woman just once.
“Even if it is just pretend,” she threw in.
After I finally agreed to ask Vicky, Miss Rita insisted I call here right then and there to get an answer.
“If she says no, tell her I got Stage Ten cancer.”
“There’s no such thing!”
“You ain’t a doctor. Now shut up and call that girl.”
Thankfully, Vicky agreed immediately.
This morning, when we drove up to Easy Time, Tameka told us Miss Rita was in her room dressed and ready to go. “She’s been up since five this morning,” she said as she let us in to Miss Rita’s room.
“I couldn’t wait to see my Christmas present,” she said without a trace of embarrassment. “Now get over here, girl, so I can get a look at you.”
“Hi, Miss Rita,” Vicky said, offering her a hand. “I’m thrilled to meet at least one other person trying to knock some sense into Father Steve’s head.”
Miss Rita laughed. “I must not be doing a good job if he’s still dressing up in that monkey suit with a pretty girl like you running loose back there.”
“Okay. Let’s go,” I said, but otherwise kept my mouth shut. To open it would have been to invite more scorn from both of them. They did well enough without my help.
* * *