When I got my first invitation to give a reading, I was terribly flattered. It’s not surprising. After all, I’d laboured in obscurity, if not the butt of my acquaintance’s derision, then the unwilling recipient of their pity. Invitations to read were a sign of acceptance, of success. The idea that someone would actually pay for me to get on an airplane and fly somewhere and then listen to me read my stories and, maybe, actually buy books, was astounding. I had fantasies of a wild life. I wasn’t sure what the wildness would actually consist of but I had seen TV reports of adoring fans screaming in ecstasy when Elvis descended from a plane, heard stories of beautiful women bribing the bell hop for the number to his room, had seen mobs of teenagers beside themselves with joy when he touched the string of his guitar.
My first reading was in a town with one grain elevator, a church, a Co-op, and a curling rink. Remember that curling rink.
I got up at 5:00 a.m. I left the house at 5:30. I arrived at the airport at 6:00. I left Victoria at 6:50. I waited in the Vancouver airport until 9:30. I flew to Calgary and then to Regina. I ate a sandwich and a salad made of cabbage and carrots with three raisins in it. I caught a bus and rode to my destination, where a tall, thin woman in a large fur coat led me to her car. She said her name was Verna and she couldn’t stay to chat because they had the vet coming to look at a sick heifer. She dropped me off at the local motel. The local motel had a fine view of the grain elevator. There were the railway tracks, drifting snow, a snow fence that was propped up with pieces of two by four and a sun that was just starting to set. At five o’clock I had the peroghi special in the motel dining room. At seven, a woman who also was wearing a very large coat with a hood, a woolen cap and frosted glasses, and introduced herself as Agnes carried me away in her Ford station wagon.
“Brush the hay off the seat,” she said, “we’ve been using the wagon to haul bales the last few days.”
The library was decorated with Santa Clauses and angels, some paper snowflakes, and crepe paper. It was quite cheery. There were three kinds of cookies and a plate of dainty sandwiches. Coffee was perking in an urn. There were thirty-three chairs set up in a semi-circle and my book was prominently displayed on a small table facing the audience. The audience was made up of an elderly woman who was still wearing her fur coat.
“This is my mother,” Agnes said.
We shook hands.
People should be arriving soon, Verna said, going to the window. Like the motel, the library faced the grain elevator. In the dark, you could just make it out against the horizon. A prairie icon. As she watched headlights appeared from the west, then turned down the road toward us. We all leaned forward in anticipation. The car drove slowed, looked like it was going to pull in, then drove past. We all went back to the urn.
“People are working late,” Agnes said, helping herself to a cookie. “Why don’t you have another cup of coffee while we wait.”
Three cups later, Agnes’s mother said, “I think I’ll go and see what’s happened to Jeb. He said he was coming.”
She shrugged her coat into place, did up the buttons and disappeared in a cold blast of air.
“Jeb’s her boyfriend since my Dad died,” Agnes said. “They’re having an affair.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “We’re pretty liberal out here nowadays.”
“Your Dad dying, I meant.”
“Oh, that was twenty years ago. Cow kicked him. He should have known better. Everyone knew that cow kicked if you came up on her left side.”
We drank another cup of coffee and I went to the bathroom. When I came out, Agnes was gone.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She’s gone looking for her mother. She’s worried she might have slipped and fallen. It’s terribly icy out.”
There were ninety-five cookies and forty-five sandwiches and nine-tenths of an urn of coffee left.
All at once, Verna said in an exasperated voice, “It’s that damn bonspeil. They all promised they were coming but they’re over at the rink. Nothing matters in this town except curling. Throwing a bunch of rocks down the ice.” She said it angrily, as it was something had stuck in her craw for a long time. “My husband’s there. You know what’ll he say when he gets home. He forgot. How can he forget. This has been planned for two months.”
She went to the stacks and took down a book. I thought she might open it. Instead, she clenched it in both hands, held it against her breast for a long time, then put it back.
“That’s all right,” I said, “I’ll read to you.” And I did. For an hour. Just her and me and the coffee urn. I read three stories and she listened and when I finished, she gave me three dozen chocolate chip cookies to take back to the motel with me.
When I got back to Victoria, one of my colleagues said, “Had a wild time while you were away?” and winked. “Get lots?”
“I guess,” I said. I wasn’t sharing the cookies with him or anybody else.