This is day Twenty-seven of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
A teacher once told me it was possible to make a living selling books that you had paid to have printed. This was decades before ebooks and online publishing. He said you could go around with cases of books and give talks or readings at book clubs, schools, and such and sell enough to get you through the day and on to the next stop. It would be a hardscrabble hand-to-mouth life… but it could be done.
I knew he was right, because I had met someone like that.
Nacogdoches, Texas, is a big town… or a small city in the deep piney woods of East Texas. I was there to deliver a talk on the effects of acid rain on the calcium cycle in red spruce forests at Stephen F. Austin University. My talk was over by noon and I had a hotel room for that night paid for by the University, and I was going to use it – so I had an afternoon to kill in Downtown Nacogdoches. There wasn’t much to do, but I wandered into some place off the square that sold antiques and notions – called The Runaway Mule.
There was a guy that seemed to be the owner, setting up folding chairs in a fan shape around a little worn wooden lectern. Nothing to do, I decided to help, and we chatted while we worked. I asked him about the name of his store.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “In 1912 a singing group called ‘The Six Mascots’ were singing in the opry house here. Someone rushed in and yelled that there was a runaway mule outside. The crowd left, figurin’ that the mule would be a better show that those singers. When they filed back in the head singer, Julius, was so pissed he let ’em have it. He was yellin’ stuff like, ‘Nacogdoches is full o’ roaches,’ and ‘the jackass is the flower of Tex-ass.’ Well, the crowd thought it was hilarious and the singers decided then and there to be comedians. That guy, Julius, changed his name to Groucho and they started goin’ by their family name, the Marx Brothers.”
That story seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but I had to admit it was a good one. We finished setting up the chairs. “What’s happening now?” I asked.
“Oh, the Nacogdoches Ladies Reading Society is having a meetin’.” the owner said. “Some writer I sure never heard of is coming in to try and sell some books.” He tapped a ratty looking cardboard box that had obviously been opened and re-sealed a few times, then pushed it under a folding table he had set up next to the lectern.
I thought this might be worth sitting in on, so I walked down and had a burger and shake a few doors down and came back in time for the Ladies Reading Society. Sure enough, I found the seats full of Texas matriarchs, gossiping and waving their programs to try and bat away the flies and heat.
Right on time, the author, Armando Vitalis appeared from the men’s room in the back of the store and took his place at the lectern. The writer was very tall and almost impossibly thin. His hair was thick, dark, long, and wild, with only a touch of gray starting to pepper his temples. He wore a light suit that was fashionable and expensive at one time but gone to shiny at the elbows and knees.
He introduced himself and went into a long story of how he had decided to become a writer while working as a bookkeeper at a foundry in Cleveland. He name dropped a few popular authors and expounded on their theories of fiction that he had pried from them during various parties at New York publishing houses. At hearing these famous names and stories of the exotic big city, the level of excitement of the Ladies Reading Society became noticeably higher – their faces would flush and their waving of programs went faster and more desperate.
Then Armando Vitalis did a couple of readings. First, he read an untitled short story that seemed to consist of a series of odd action-filled short scenes that seemed unconnected to each other. The women were confused, but eventually settled down in that way that folks sometimes do when they assume they are simply too uneducated and ignorant to understand what is being presented to them… but don’t want to admit it to anyone, even themselves.
Then he recited a scene from his new, as-yet unpublished novel, Laid With Iron Rails. It was an embarrassingly detailed love scene between an older woman and a much younger man. You could see the Reading Society ladies squirming, uncomfortable… but riveted nonetheless.
They all applauded with enthusiasm when he finished.
He sat at the folding table and commenced to autograph and sell copies of paperbacks he pulled from the ratty cardboard box and stacked on the table. The Nacodoches Reading Society lined up clutching their pocketbooks, waiting excited yet patient. Everyone bought at least one book. About half left with their purchases and the rest stayed behind, clumped together and talking in low tones, maybe hoping to get another chance to meet with the author.
I bought a copy of a novel, Game for His Crooked Jaw. I asked Vitalis to sign it “To Starbuck.” He glared at me, but I wanted him to know I recognized the quotes that he was using for his titles.
I never read the book. It was so poorly printed and cheaply bound, that it literally fell apart before I could get around to steeling myself up to diving into the thing.
The funny thing is, I did see Armando Vitalis one more time. That night, at the hotel bar, I saw him sitting at a table with the gray-haired, but remarkably well-preserved vice-president of the Nacodoches Ladies Reading Society. He seemed to be hitting a dark whiskey pretty hard while she sipped at a white wine. They were still there when I went back to my room.
There doesn’t seem to be any record of Armando Vitalis on the Internet anywhere. I don’t know how long he was able to keep up his dream of writing and selling his books. The only work I could find was this strange little short story From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee – which was published in a shoddy online zine called Handicapped by Laziness. The zine is long gone, but the link to the story still seems to work.
I’m not sure for how long.
She reached a point near the end of the market and was beginning to worry that her contact would not show. She was looking at a pyramid of strange, oblong, spiked fruits, nonchalantly resting her fingertips on one of the samples. She was trying to ignore the peddler that had sliced one open with a rusty machete and was offering her a sample of dripping purple flesh that gave off a pungent sour odor and was rapidly drawing an even thicker swarm of flies. Right then the top fruit in the pile exploded in the crack of a high powered bullet, spraying her with pieces of warm, sticky pulp and sending the crowd into a panicked frenzy.
—-Armando Vitalis, From Hell’s Heart I Stab at Thee