Give me the weight of a man, his style of dress, and the length of his stride. Tell me how many children he has had with his wife; with other men’s wives. “Ah! Yes, take down a novel of Simenon’s…”
Show me a woman with freshly cropped hair and perfect teeth, who is shod in down-at-heel Ferragamos while her hands are chapped from housework. “Give me two titles you’ve read and enjoyed…”
Talk to me for five minutes, let me study (seemingly my thoughts are elsewhere) the cadence of your speech; how often you employ three-plus-syllable words, break into a smile, or get me to laugh, and I’ll say:
“I have a title for you. The historic facts of this novel are impeccable.” (I can tell by the way you command a room…) Or:
“You like to start at the beginning, I can tell.” (As you do not waste words…) Or:
“Dialogue is more important to you than plot.” (The rhythms of your speech correspond exactly with this author’s crisp and chatty dialogue…)
An old woman who’s walked in the door with shoulders straight back puts me in mind of the ballet. She takes more care in her dress than in the cleaning of her teeth, is used to being seen at a distance; she is muscular and slight. She makes an entrance silently, her eyes sweep the room; not untrusting is she, but alert. For her, setting is central, the broader view is vital. Perhaps, the Hebrides, a century ago…
And this young woman, her dark, cloak-like clothes are finely made if a bit worn. She has some secret joy, and can keep secrets. We speak of the weather generally, then of the rain. When I make mention of London, her eyes for a moment are yearning, so I say with a knowing smile, “Once, many years ago, I took a train across England, with a book called ‘Neverwhere’…”
After ten minutes, I can tell a little more: what parts of them, by how they move, are sore. This book will make them laugh at page one. They won’t put it down, no matter how it tires their arms; clearly they withstand much pain... Laughter will heal them, deep within.
Rings around his eyes tell me: “You’d enjoy this book that kept me up all night…”
Beneath the young man’s Midwestern accent, I can hear crisp consonants: the influence of a family grammarian. The faint whiff of cigar smoke on his clothes reminds me of my grandfather. I can tell, by how he makes room for the aged couple sharing the aisle, he enjoys the company of the elderly, perhaps sees them as contemporaries. I take a risk and select a volume of John Dickson Carr. “He is haunting without being graphic. His characters are great company. An excellent storyteller…”
And just now at the book group, this quiet man, with elbow patches on his modest jacket, was the only one who caught the author’s humorous observations of life in the U.K. He has traveled. He enjoys humor that is subtle, clever. Irish short stories. “William Trevor is for the ages,” I let drop when I later catch him browsing the display table.
And if they speak churlishly, abhorring small talk, say simply and directly: “Here is the master-work of a suicidal poet, ahead of his time…” They will leave feeling less alone, the slim volume now in their care.
This is your calling: talking to strangers, reading their silences, beckoning their daydreams, and matching felicity to mood. You are on your feet for hours without feeling it. Unthinkingly, you take your lunch standing up at the counter, poring over a newly arrived tome you’ve laid out like a treasure map. This vocation often means holiday work without holiday pay. As you shelve the hundreds, the thousands, of books, titles and tales have locked away in the corridors of your mind, you consider: you tune out the world, and listen with your eyes. You catalog readers by cut of raincoat, distance from other shoppers, whether they come alone or in pairs; by their comfort with silences, sensitivity to proximity of others, oblivion to all life not found on a page; those whose motions are swift, birdlike; those who glide along as ghosts. All this you see and more. If they approach you but speak low, turn your hearing aids up, and laughingly say, “Ahh… I was lost in this wonderful book…"
(Photo Credit: Tamas Frank)
[Image Description: A photograph of a smiling white woman with long sandy hair wearing a white beanie.]
Martine Compton is a Metro-Detroit-based artist. After having had her first short story published at 15, Ms. Compton has published cartoons, verse, fiction, and essays for numerous publications as varied as The Midwestern Worker out of Chicago, and Damazine: The Voice of the Arab World out of Damascus, Syria. With her photographer husband she writes travel articles, most recently for the Beijing-based newspaper, The Global Times. She can be reached at email@example.com and via Twitter @MartineCompton.