Wordstalker, by Tabitha Blankenbiller

Leaving on a Saunders Note

George Saunders wasn’t supposed to be my last. 

I was supposed to end my writing life in Portland with Jess Walter. That was the plan I made with only six weeks to organize my move to Arizona, a pivot my life took when a job transfer fell into my husband’s lap. I made lists and last coffee dates. I intended to float out of the city on a cloud of my favorite writer’s readings. The Powell’s night for Walter’s collection, We Live in Water, was perfect. The crowd was robust but not oppressive, the reading selection buoyant and well under time limit. Walter chatted with each of us on our turn at the table, stretching that moment of intimacy between reader and writer that is so rare outside of literary Mecca. I was gleeful. I was satisfied. I could pack up my best memory, unfold it in the land of Barnes and Noble, and ration it out until I could come home again. 

But then I got greedy. 

While I taped up boxes of dishes and three inexplicable Nintendo 64s for the move to Tucson, I forgot to route my Powell’s Events emails to junk mail. They kept calling me back into downtown Portland—don’t you want just…one…more? 

So when I saw the George Saunders announcement days after his appearance on The Colbert Report (R.I.P., sweet cable prince), I couldn’t resist the siren song. Why not shove one more reading into my last days in Oregon? Life was short! Eat all the fried chicken and waffles, twirl all the moustaches, put birds on all the things! 

Now, two years later, I understand concepts like physical burnout and emotional exhaustion in a way that my gorging, city-bingeing self did not. The event was during crunch time, during the last few days of the job I’d been working and enjoying for two years. Weeks of packing each night after work, eating boxed reconstituted noodles on paper plates, arguing over what should come along and what belonged in the dump like a sick woman on Hoarders: “but that was my cat’s favorite toy as a baby!” Paring down the bookshelf felt like marking friends for death. I’m sorry, Capote. Forgive me, Zinn.  

Today I’d email myself, tell her that it’s okay not to do everything. Not to bring everything. You can’t say goodbye to everything. The world moves on without you, and miraculously, vice versa. But in 2013 I was a clueless little chicken, clocking out of my suburban office at five in a downpour, thinking it’s cool, I’ll totally make it downtown in time. In evaluating whether I’ll actually follow through on a post-work plan, this is the moment I now call the “fuck-it turning point,” the weight of battling ten thousand Pacific Northwesterners driving in the rain against what possible joy the metro area could hold. I must ask:

a. Is it one of my very favorite writers in the universe?
b. Is it someone I know personally?
c. Are they likely to give any shits?

I’d read some Saunders and Tenth of December was on my TBR pile, but not in my I’ll-build-you-a-shrine worship class. No, I was just caught in the flash of a star and terrified about being down to last chances. I went because it was a big deal to the “community,” not because it was to me. By the time I got into the city and up to the Pearl Room at Powell’s, there was no time to enjoy a plate of happy hour sliders from Bluehour or order a restorative latte from the bookstore coffee shop. Even with my sprint from the parking garage, I found each dainty folding chair was already claimed by a butt. I hugged back into the corner, next to the giant Taschen art books of Swedish furniture designs and MAC eyeliner applications. A group of three people, padded in black flannel and leather, huddled behind me. 

“Is there anywhere to eat around here?” the girl asked.

“There’s a few places, but they’re not open very late,” one of the guys answered.

“Yeah, it’s not like Brooklyn,” finished the other. “It’s, like, only the bars stay open late here. And even then it’s, you know. Pussy late.” Portland, apparently, has awful pastries. And even worse coffee. The public transportation is a fucking joke. And where is the street art? And studio space? All we had was this bookstore, and bitch please. It’s not Book Court. 

There needs to be a designated cage match ring on Couch Street to defend our fair city’s honor from tourists. 

It was around minute ten of Notes on How Portland Is Not Brooklyn that I noticed my boots. My brand-new, knee high black boots, the ones that had been delivered to my doorstep just a few days before, now breaching their tenth hour of straight wear. That dreadful shoe moment where you transcend from walking or standing without a thought to immediately being in the worst pain you’ve ever fathomed. Every foot cell begged me for mercy—the pinched toe, throbbing heels, jacked arches. They screamed louder than the Brooklyn tourists, than the Powell’s employees returning to the mic to remind us, “no re-entry without a hand stamp!” 

Saunders was humble and endearing, with Big Bird’s aw-shucks charisma. But ten minutes of anecdotes felt like a crucifixion, and I couldn’t follow the reading above the din of my own misery. How long is one goddamn short story?! I couldn’t follow the plot. A guy, breaking in or something? A knife? Anyone who reads more than 500 words in public needs to be throat-punched, I decided. My fingernails left crescent moons on the hardcover jacket. I glanced down to see if I had the square footage to sit, but the Brooklyn boots were right on my heels. 

I should have ducked out between the home construction shelves, hobbled back to my car, gone home. Instead I sat through the reading and then the Q&A, hate-fucking every person who stood up to give life stories and meandering observations in lieu of answerable questions. After three and a half eons, we all sieved to the right side of the room, where employees waited to write our names on Post-Its for Saunders to quickly inscribe. I wasn’t at the head of the queue like I usually was, my favorite get-in-line-first second row outside chair snagged long before I exited off the freeway for downtown. But I was ahead of the Brooklynites and their fear of no decent place to eat in Portland.

I could make it. I could say hello, pointlessly introduce myself, bring another precious book back home to pack in a box. 

It was at that moment that a prominent writer’s publicist decided she wanted pictures of the two luminaries. She cut in front of the entire multitude, dragging her client alongside. 

“What are we, the reader proletariat?” I grumbled.

 Something was wrong with the camera. Oh, wait, you want to take this too? Let’s do it again! No, both of you! And now all of us!

“ARRGGHH!” I cried out from the brink and as the iPhones flashed, I stumbled down the staircases to the street below. A few extra minutes to reach the red book-signing table may as well have been a few hundred years.

None of my friends understood. “But you were almost there, right? Couldn’t you have just waited, or taken your boots off, or something?” And for the nearly two years until my next trip to Powell’s, I didn’t get it, either. Not until many months and miles later, at my first reading back as an Oregonian (Patton Oswalt), when I ducked behind the Literature-S shelf to hide my shaking shoulders and strange, unexplainable sobs. 

Somewhere in the dark, ruthless depths of my heart, I knew that I couldn’t stand a perfect last literary memory. I had to mess it up, make it a little tougher to remember how incredible the Pearl Room congregation was. The only book signing I went to in Arizona was Grumpy Cat, full of lines and celebrity cutsies and insufferable wait-mates. But hey, at least it was better than Saunders. I was wearing flats. Tardar Sauce read no passages. No one “asked” how amazing it was that she bridged the paradigm between emotional realism and middle class fabulist prose. 

Leaving my writing community gutted me. By seeing Saunders, I wasn’t trying to soak up one last dunk of love with Powell’s. I was trying to break up with it. I knew what I was missing during those eighteen months in the desert. I was giving up a life I’d built here in this city, with places and people and events that gave my life color and light. All the chatter about “new beginnings” and “opportunities” in a place I’d never been was a weak mask for the sacrifice I was making. I was giving up a happy life for a new one. There was no pretending that this wouldn’t break my heart. I couldn’t erase the last few years from my mind like that Eternal Sunshine movie I’ve never actually watched. Instead, we edit our stories to serve us. We make up narratives in order to endure. Portland will never be Brooklyn. Readings aren’t that great. There is no magic in the City of Books. You can survive without what makes your heart beat.