The story is a form of a fish tale in reverse, condensed with each telling, cinched down to its singular, salient point. I select my listeners carefully; they are the ones who already believe. Here is the story:
I am standing at the used bookstore. I am leaving town the next morning and I have crammed an afternoon of errands into the next hour. In my mind I am already checking off this errand, striding out the door on the way to the bank, dry cleaner’s, grocery store for airplane snacks for the kids. I am shuffling my feet loudly while the guy ahead of me takes his sweet time selecting a pastry from the display case, which really, I decide, is just for display. People only order coffee here, they browse books and sit at a prominent table up front and pretend to be learning Sanskrit. All of it’s for show. Also, I think, eager to feel mean, this man is way too fat to eat dessert. He’s huffing pretty hard, the short, concerning breaths of men with hard, huge stomachs, and I think, crap. Cardiac arrest. CPR. Medics. I will never get out of here in time to finish my errands.
I’m irritated. Not really at any of this. I’ve gone from feeling broken-hearted to angry. My most recently completed novel, a manuscript I’ve spent years and years writing and the past two years editing–think of taking a house down to its studs, tearing everything out and rebuilding–will never see the light of day. My literary agent has emailed to say that while this novel is likely the best version of itself, she cannot submit it to publishers. She will not. My novel, she has written, does not arrest; it does not startle her or stun her into suddenly seeing herself, to understand what it is to be human and alive on this planet at this very second. She is someone I respect deeply. In her rejection of my work, she has described the implicit mandate of literature, what I must build with words, an experience, an examination, maybe even consolation. I cannot be angry at her reaction, but today my sadness, my plummeting heart has just veered hard into anger, and now, here is this man, straight out of central casting with his suspenders stretched to snapping over his absurd belly and plaid shirt in the middle of July. Santa Clausy tufts of grey hair spring from his straw cowboy hat and delicate translucent plastic threads curl into his ears. I squint at them. Some sort of sophisticated hearing aid? Later, I will wonder who he is listening to.
He chooses pie, the deep dish. When he looks away, the woman behind the counter rolls her eyes at me by way of apologizing.
“A. La. Mode,” he announces dramatically.
Son of a gun, I think. This is a bookstore. A USED bookstore. They don’t have ice cream or they shouldn’t have ice cream.
My book, the one I’ve requested over the phone, sits on the counter with my name misspelled on a yellow Post-it note. I want to reach around this melon belly and snatch the book and fly.
As if he reads my mind, he drums on his belly and turns to me.
“My buddy,” he says. “It was his dream to sail around the world.”
I look around. Is he talking to me? I have decidedly not engaged this man.
“It’s been done before, sure,” he says. “But,” he shrugs. “It was his dream, so…”
I try to relax my face into something respectful. I try to stand still, stop fidgeting. I want to care about his story. Suddenly, I am sure that I should.
“So my buddy, this here fella, he’s gonna do it. He’s really gonna do it. Sail around the world.”
He stops and guffaws and I note the dangerous way his stomach spasms when he laughs.
“He almost dies, mind you. Plenty times. Heck, he probably shoulda died. There was this one time around the Horn of Africa…”
Here I start to space out. Why has this strange man singled me out? Had you ever seen him before? my father, an angel believer, will later ask. I live in a small town, so chances are strong I’ve seen everyone at least once. “No,” I told him. “And not since.” Proof.
The man is telling me how his friend was basically shipwrecked. It was a miracle the boat survived. The sailor’s marriage did not survive. It dissolved, not in a shattering against rocks, but in the placid waters of the Caribbean.
He’s rumbling to an end. I’m breathless now. He tells me the sailor’s wife went on to form her own publishing company. There is a long pause. Maybe he’s finally wrapping up, I think. He is quiet. The woman behind the cash register is looking hard at me. Now I’m the one she’s impatient with for holding up the line.
The man has been speaking to me in three-quarter profile but now he turns to face me full on. He pauses.
Finally, he says this: “It takes a long time to publish a book.”
Then, just like that, he turns, the wedge of pie and dollop of ice cream held high above his belly.
I stand there stunned. I pay for my book and walk to the door. I know not to look for him. Maybe he is there at the corner table by the small display of brilliant new hardbacks, festive covers, which both thrill me and make me sad.
“Did anyone else see him?” My husband, the doctor, a man of science will ask later.
“Of course. The woman behind the counter. Probably other people at the store.”
“Hmmm,” he says, nodding.
When I left the bookstore, I looked up at the sky. “Okay,” I said. “Copy that.”
There have been other angels. At the funeral of my husband’s patient, a man who was also his friend. He had died suddenly in the hospital the night after my husband performed a successful surgery. My husband was without blame but his friend’s wife, the widow, was threatening a lawsuit, one which would embroil our family for two years, threatening our home, even at times our marriage.
At the gravesite my husband and I stood apart from the other guests. He was the most formally dressed in suit and tie. I did not hold his hand. To be seen offering or receiving comfort while his friend’s daughters wept over the open grave felt obscene. Suddenly, before us there was a woman, older but not quite grandmotherly.
“Doctor,” she began and we startled to attention. She spoke of how my husband had cared for her, fixed her ankle when other doctors told her she would never walk without pain. But he had restored her life. She said all this frankly and without smiling, without any attempt to elicit a smile from us. She was almost robotic in her delivery. It was the message we were meant to hear. A message delivered in a German accent, the language of my husband’s ancestors.
In case we had not heard her, she repeated herself. My husband had saved her life and she would be grateful for the rest of her life. And then, she was gone. I do not mean to say she vanished–poof–into thin air. Maybe she simply slipped away when I turned to sidle closer to my husband, to take his hand to tuck with mine into my warm coat pocket.
“An angel,” I said.
He nodded. “Yes.”
Later, much, much later, long years later, a jury deliberately briefly and exonerated him of any wrongdoing. I saw how the jury members sought his eyes, so eager to communicate their being on his side all along. The bulk of my muscular husband’s body slumped in the defendant’s chair.
An angel or a ghost, the woman at the graveyard? A ghost of one of his relatives from the other side? An angel still to come? The pre-ghost of a grandchild years away from being?
I don’t want to see the fat man in overalls again. He remains an angel, both unbidden and summoned. I think of the many pep talks I’ve received over the years, the words uttered exhaustively by my husband, my parents, my dear and supportive friends: don’t give up. Keep writing. Keep the faith. But I needed to hear it from a stranger, a farmer in overalls with a special hearing device. How I’d love to hear the other voices in his ear, the simulcast in there, the dispatch service:
“Ten-four, Charley. We’ve got a despondent novelist. Corner of Wall and Minneapolis. Dudley’s Books. Copy?”
There were other far more pressing calls that afternoon. People had died. People were scared. My dear friend’s fiancé had collapsed suddenly after yoga. Dead at 54. Another woman I know receives a diagnosis of cancer, which has spread everywhere. She is 45.
Dispatch is a cacophony of voices. People are losing their jobs, their homes, their minds. They are hated for their bodies, for the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, because they were born in another country.
In the Jewish tradition the angels flutter at God’s ears and sing praises to Him all day long. Blessed are you, they sing.
Blessed are you.
They are singing to you.
The angels are everywhere.