by Shari Smith
For a good bit, I had a stalker.
He read a piece I wrote about the boys who hang out at the Claremont Café and liked it well enough to repeatedly call the Café and leave messages. I knew that would wear thin in no time. They don’t much care to answer the phone when someone wants to place an order to go. Not much chance they would enjoy playing at being my secretary. He continued to call until one day, he told Angie that if she could get me to call him, I’d have to leave a message because he’d not be available for a few days.
“I got locked up.”, he explained.
I immediately sent an email to all my successful writer friends and told them that they could have all the awards they could carry, lock in their big, fat advance money and count up all their loyal fans but mine would literally give up their one call to a lawyer or bail bondsman just to tell me they liked my writing. Joe Galloway said he’d kill to have that story to tell but it belongs to me.
It almost didn’t.
I’ve had the names of some of the South’s best writers in my speed dial for more than ten years, now. Been to dinner with them, cooked dinner for them, arranged readings for them, sold a pile of books for them and been trapped in a car with a couple of them I felt like killin’. It’s true that some folks need killin’ and two I know of are from Alabama.
If they ever perfect beaming a body from one place to another no one will choose to ride in a car with either of them, again.
In February of 2006, Sonny Brewer told me I should write. He said I was good at it. He turned to me, one night, while we waited for a buddy of his to buy pork rinds and bottled water at a Run-In grocery and gas station which everybody knows it just wrong. Pork rinds should only be eaten while drinking a Sundrop or a Cheerwine, if you can get it. Sonny told me that I needed to take it more seriously when good writers told me to get busy. I said that I was a reader, not a writer and I meant it to sound as haughty as it did.
Claremont is full of storytellers. I used to listen to them, mostly in the Café, and run home to write emails and send them to all my writer friends. In reality, I was writing to only one of them. I thought he was the best, still do. I thought that he was the best as writing about the people in my South, working people, real people who line up at sewing machines or pound together furniture frames, people who can never quite get the red clay stains off their hands or out of their overalls.
I wanted Claremont to have the best.
I knew when I had a good one. I’d listen hard to get the dialog right. Mess that up and the story is ruint, a shadow of what it might could have been if you’d been paying better attention. I wrote them as fast as I heard them, one after the other, and believed that if I could just get one to stick, one to make its’ way in, I would have given my people the thing they most deserved. They would not have to settle for a writer who would portray them as sweet or quaint or any other word that sounds like a compliment but is not.
I believed it was my job, my calling.
Maybe, if I did it, if I wrangled a lion into telling the story of Claremont, North Carolina, it would pay them back for the way they made me family though I am not kin to a one of them. Maybe it would make up for all the tourists who drive by Exit 135 without noticing there’s a town here, without realizing what extraordinary kindness and laughter waits on them if they would forget about getting to Asheville for art galleries and $200 meals and, instead, take a left off Oxford and a right onto Depot Street. If I could give them a book, a real book, they would finally know, these good people, that they are worthy of being written about, of living forever as words on paper and they would know how much I love them. It was a good plan, one I believed would work-
Only he kept telling me that I should write it.
Hanging with writers had taught me that they say things like that when they don’t mean it and that they always say it like they do. I’ve heard it said to the woman standing in line to get her book signed who is sure her Great Uncle Kenny should have a book written about him. I’ve heard it said while a writer is trying to shut his car door and drive to the next bookstore but can’t without knee capping the man who won’t cut short his tale of the time his daddy shot a bear. Besides, I believed we were friends and friends try not to hurt your feelings if they can help it.
It ain't the first time I’ve been wrong.
On this November weekend, four years ago, I was introduced to a publisher as “the best unpublished writer at this conference.” It embarrassed me. “I’m a reader, not a writer.”, I insisted, as I shook his hand intent on being the only person there not to try and pitch to him a book idea. A writer I met that night liked my Claremont stories so much she would later tell folks she “discovered me”.
But it was on Sunday afternoon, out on the Waterhole Branch of Fish River, at the dining room table of Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson that I started listening. We sat for hours while I told them the stories I knew, told them of how I came to Claremont, how I stayed hidden and distant for too long from the very people I now call my own. Feeling good, feeling safe, I told them my plan, confided that I was going to get my people in a book and it would be a best seller, it was just a matter of time. Suzanne said that I should be the one to write it.
Writers say things like they when they don’t really mean it and they always say it like they do.
I said, no, of course, that was a bad idea. It needed to be a king, a man whose name is as big as he is. “They deserve that.”, I insisted. “My people. They deserve him.”
Joe stared at me from across the table. When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. I didn’t know it, then, but I know it now, that the quieter Joe Formichella speaks, the more he feels it.
“Why”, he asked, “Why, why in the hell, would you let anyone else be the voice of your people?”
If I was a writer before that day, I never knew it but it is the day, the moment, I first took the deed to a parcel I would come to own as mine, to a label I would be proud to wear. It was in the time it took for Joe Formichella to finish his sentence that my plans changed, that I began to work at something I now, unbelievably, get paid to do. It was the day I took to heart that I need not to let them down, to honor the privilege of being their voice, the voice of people mostly unheard, often unnoticed.
Joe Formichella is the guy you believe. He’s that guy.
That editors pay me to be that voice is largely disbelieved by the folks in Claremont. Doesn’t sound like an honest day’s work to them because it isn’t. I’m not climbing ladders to paint a house or jumping in and out of a truck to read meters or herd cattle that got gone. They know what work is and it ain't sitting at a computer writing about the time someone set their outhouse on fire trying to rid it of spider webs or the night the Baby Jesus got took from the manger at St. Marks.
That ain’t workin’.
I told the Boys at the Back Table of the Claremont Café about my stalker when they demanded to know why a police car had been parked in my driveway. I explained that I had a diehard fan who didn’t know that he didn’t know me, that because I tend to write about things most people would consider highly personal, a reader had decided that he loved me true. Rick Bumgarner said, “And that you are gonna love him back even if it takes rope and duct tape?”
Sam sits, every day, at the end of the table. He couldn’t understand it. “All on account of your writin?”, he questioned, and shook his head in disbelief when I answered, yes.
Jerry took off his hat and scratched his head with the same hand. He put it hat back on, leaned on his elbows on the table and said,
“Has he seen ye?”