a good book is hard to find

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I sit in a room six by nine feet, looking out a window at the night sky. Clouds move as if on a conveyor belt, darkening to purple against a sky faded to yellow-green, sunset residue. I should brush my teeth. They’re coated with sugar, fat. I craved a cookie and lacking one, melted chocolate chips and butter together on a tortilla, rolled it up and called it good.

It was good.

When I was 18 and living in San Diego, I used to smear PB&J on warm tortillas, same kind of thing. Warm bread forever comforts. I just read a book in which the protagonist makes peanut-butter-and pickle sandwiches, which sounds horrible, until you get to the part where he talks about how the pickles, sliced thinly, make the peanut butter swallowable, and the salty brine balances out the sticky sweet. I may try one. I like sweet-savory. Cherry-chile chocolate bars, habanero-mango salsa, potato chip cookies, blackberry-serrano yogurt.

I read more books last year than I had for several before, the Golden Age of Television luring me to binge-watching show after show no matter how often I said after a finale, “OK! Taking a break!” But finally I pulled a couple books off the $5 shelf at the bakery, added them to my order and, along with my “special breakfast sandwich (no bacon),” took home Love in the Time of Cholera, White Teeth, then found A Brief History of Seven Killings at Booklegger and somewhere in there, another Brief book, and Wondrous, too, poor Oscar Wao. Plus The Girl on the Train and Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and a friend gave me Americanah and all those clever, gorgeous, golden TV shows are doing just fine without me.

Reading soothes my tendency toward insomnia. Watching a show, golden as it may be, means struggling to stay awake at some point, then falling asleep to the glow – whoever is spying on me through the webcam has likely fallen asleep first. I’m a voyeur’s nightmare, exiting the scene to stumble up the stairs to the bedroom, computer far behind. I wake back up along the way, collapse into bed brain freshly spinning. But reading a book, I’m an author’s dream. Face scrubbed, teeth brushed, curled up in bed, devouring pages until my eyes fail and I stretch out a hand to turn out the light, distracted and pleased and thinking not at all about my own life.

My life is lovely.

Devouring pages reminds me of the cats in Mirror Mask, a favorite movie based on a story by Neil Gaiman, whom I’ve not read enough of, whose name came up today in the sauna, when my girlfriends and I were dressing after sweating and showering, door ajar to let the cold air mingle with the residual heat, but not so much that a passerby might see us naked. That one author, my friend said, searching for his name. Neil Gaiman. I was trying to think of his name, she said, telling my husband something, and then as I was trying to remember, sitting there in the bar, a commercial came on the television.

American Gods? I asked her.

Yes, that’s the one.

Is it a movie or miniseries or…?

I think a miniseries, she said. She’d admired the book, hoped the adaptation would be good.

A paper bag leans against my bookshelves waiting to be filled with the books I won’t read again. Nothing personal, books, I just don’t re-read in general. But every time I start the task of purging, certain books escape their fate. This time I’m determined to clear the space, make room for new. And yet – some of these books I hold near my heart. Maybe I should make a project out of reading the most beloved ones again. Not Beloved, that book scarred me. Brilliant and important and the minute I finished it, I took it to my car, drove through my sobs to Booklegger to get rid of it, lest I accidentally ever read it again. But other books I own and was moved by, less destroyed by, Poisonwood Bible and The Bone People being not easy reads, also dark with something powerful to them – I should read those again. Or The Raw Shark Texts, a novel I remember mostly as “really weird” and “such a crazy cool read.”

I stop typing and go downstairs to see if American Gods still sits on my bookshelf. I find Good Omens and The Graveyard Book, and my daughter’s absconded with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but no American Gods. I crick my head sideways and scan through the novels annoyed that I can’t Google search my bookshelf. Oh, look – Deliverance. Several books by Richard Russo and an equal number by Ann Patchett. On the top shelf, the shelf of good intentions, all the nonfiction I believe I should read, but rarely do – Night of the Gun being one exception.

As much as I worship her as a writer, I am never going to read Joan Didion’s books about the deaths of her husband, daughter. Slouching Through Bethlehem, maybe. I do want to read her new collection, about California and the South.

I push my other daughter’s ancient manga collection aside in case American Gods lurks behind, but no luck. Instead I find the Philip Pullman books, the Rachel Cohn books, all the young adult novels I read out loud to the kids or shared with them when they insisted on reading on their own or, perhaps best of all, books they insisted I read because they loved them. I’m tempted to bring The Golden Compass back upstairs, consider The Lot of Crying 49 because I remember how it begins and that I thought the end perfect, but have no recollection of what happens in between, or maybe Wolf Hall, but no, that’s too much. Lacking American Gods, I dig out 3 by Flannery O’Connor, a ’70s-era paperback, cover more off than on, pages dog-eared, the stories inside known to be “strong, fiercely comic, powerful fiction.” As Time notes, “a style of writing as direct as a death sentence.” I’ve read these before, notably A Good Man is Hard to Find, way back in a College of the Redwoods fiction class, the class that launched me into writing for real.

Is this for real?

The sky has blackened. The light above me illuminates fingerprints smudged across the window glass. If anyone drives by, walks by, along my dark street, and looks up, they will see me framed, in the window, mostly the top of my head, blonde hair pulled back in a headband as I’m hunched over typing these words they can’t yet read.

I need to brush my teeth.

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