Older people, richer ones, better ones, walked ahead of him. They sipped wine from long stem glasses. They giggled, or at least the women did, and they chatted. Even as he thought it, he knew he was being unfair, and he realized how strange he was feeling and that it was affecting his mood.
Some 40 or 50 of them gathered in the hall to listen to the authors who had led a writers conference in Rosemary Beach this week. The man gathered with them, feeling odd, the odd one out, the outsider. Not for any reason obvious or because of anything said or done by the others. In fact, he had friends here, or at least acquaintances. People he knew were present.
Malayne, from the town’s promotions office, lit up with genuine happiness when he introduced himself. She was slim with short-cropped dark hair and positive energy radiating. They shook hands, and she held the grip loosely for a moment longer, welcoming him. And John, the featured author at the conference, the university professor and novelist and flash fiction writer with Einstein’s hair and a ready grin, welcomed him in a similar fashion, if a firmer grip.
“Where’s your daughter?” John asked, recalling the man’s youngest child, who had accompanied him to a similar evening reading in Seaside many years before.
“Actually, she had a date,” the man said, happily surprised that John had recalled his daughter. John put the fingers of one hand to his mouth as if shocked. “She’s 19,” the man added, and John laughed and said he would have done the same.
They asked if he wanted to grab a bite with them after the reading; he mentioned that John had asked the same thing — though, John actually had said “Maybe we can have a glass of wine and catch up?” during a telephone conversation earlier in the week. John apologized then and said he had agreed to meet someone else, and the man said it was no problem, he understood.
In fact, he wondered if he understood at all.
“I have a present for you,” the man said, and he handed John a copy of his short story collection. John asked him to sign it and handed the man a pen. He signed it, “To John — You’re an inspiration,” and he said it would be good bathroom reading because the portions were small.
Everyone took their places except the man, who took a chair but still wondered where his place was.
The woman who introduced the authors received a note from Malayne in the middle of her intro and thanked the man for attending. He tipped his hat and smiled at the audience, glad to be there for a moment and aware of the emotion. She asked if the man would write about the event, and he admitted “Most likely.” The man looked across the crowd, saw John sitting beside his wife on the front row; John was looking at him with a smile in his eyes.
During the readings, the man took a couple of photos and a few notes. He wrote down when John said “I write about love and death. That’s what all stories are about.” He wrote it down because he agreed with it. It was true. It’s even what this story is about.
The giggling women sat behind him, and the man wondered what their stories were. What they loved and what was killing them.
She was gracious and asked if he had been the one who wrote the advance story in the local newspaper about the conference, and he said he had. An awkward moment followed as neither knew what else there was to say, and perhaps there wasn’t anything, but then a woman from the audience came up to hug Lynne and talk to her, and the man stepped away.
John was helping Malayne to gather the folding chairs. He put down the one he held, leaned it against one leg, and shook the man’s hand again. The man told John how much he enjoyed hearing John read. John said there would be another conference here in September, and would the man want to participate, maybe present or read something?
The man almost groaned, seeing an opportunity present itself from a genuine and interested source. “Oh, John. Thank you, but no, I really couldn’t. I’m not up to this, I’m not — I’m not in this class.”
John grinned, shrugged, having none of that. He said how he hoped the man would come back.
The man slipped through the lingerers then, and stood on the stoop of the hall and felt the cool rain on his face. He remembered that Michael and Linda had asked if he wanted to join them for a bite after the event. He did, but he didn’t want to impose, and besides, he was feeling odd tonight. Out of place. Queasy. An older woman asked if he needed an umbrella; he looked at the broken and bent mint-green one she held over her head and smiled. “No, thank you. I have a hat.”
And he walked into the lightning and soft rain, across the gravel parking lot, between small oak trees surrounded by a carpet of pine straw. He climbed into his truck, circled through the signal and around the other side of the central square to the book store, which was now closed. He parked anyway, got out and walked along, looking in the windows of closed shops.
He called his daughter and left a message. He drove 30A to U.S. 98 and turned toward home. Almost immediately off to the right, he saw the looming shapes of forgotten houses, multistory beachside properties some company had begun to construct before the bubble burst, left now to the weather and time. He turned onto their lonely lanes.
Torn skins of Tyvek and tar paper flapped in the wind. Windows were dark against the roiling gray. Buildings became black obelisks backed by the lightning. Around the houses empty lots and brick driveways indicated where other houses were supposed to have grown up. Almost there, he thought. They almost made it. Not finished and slick like the nearby buildings of Rosemary, these were the almost-homes, the gaping holes shaped like houses where no lives would be lived. The missed potential.
He could live here. He fit. He wasn’t odd. This was a place for him.