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by Victoria Gundrum
I was having a crushing headache—which removes any thought-to-mouth filter—so I talked to George Saunders like that. He asked me what I wanted him to write when signing and I actually said, “You’re asking me? You’re the one who is supposed to be clever.” I think he sensed no menace so we worked it out. He wrote a couple words, I suggested the next two, we agreed on where to take it from there.
Together we worked on a present for my friend Laura Hogan and her husband. He said he knew Ron. I had problems spelling L-A-U-R-A. The side-by-side Chipotle take-out bags now look like His and Her personalized bath towels to The Hogans. He drew me a cartoon and said I mustn’t die, be sure not to die.
I should add that I didn’t tell him I was having a headache. (Some of you know I have Cluster Headache, highly medicated.) I told him that he and I obsess on the same things and mentioned one story of his, by example, in which someone died.
On Laura’s paper bag (worked on first), he didn’t jump in and compose immediately. He smiled and drew close. He looked at me expectantly and I said, “Your loveliness!” –meaning he could write that from himself. He said, “But I don’t know her,” and wrote: “You’re lovely.” I nearly said you’ve misspelled “your,” not knowing what he was up to, but he said, “How bout I add, ‘according to Vicki’?”
“Oh, that’s good,” I said.
On Ron’s bag he wrote “Happy eating!” I giggled at that. He knew Ron, I
thought he’d know Ron.
After working on the brown take-out bags, George Saunders noticed I was holding his book—a hardcover, only paperbacks were being sold that night—and he wanted to know if he could sign it for me, “for you.”
I hit the cover of the hardcover for sound and said, “Thank you for your stories. I am just like that man in your story, the man who jumps into the river to save the girl even though he knows he’ll die anyway. You have helped me. I know I can be good like that man but I don’t have to die.” I reminded him that in his talk he said he was tired, and that I didn’t want him to sign for me anymore, his hand could get tired and there was a long line. He gently took the hardcover from my hands and wrote in it. I didn’t read what he’d written until the next morning. Some fuss around my name and an exclamation mark.
I also gave him a gift, a tea light of a Buddha sitting on a snail. I delivered it by reciting a poem by Issa—Oh snail/ Climb Mount Fuji/ But slowly, slowly—with hand gestures to signal slow climbing. (I am shy, why was there no phone camera action on this?)
Because he wrote about the man jumping in the river I know he would understand my book, he might be one of the few to understand it without scorn. He has rare empathy, led there by an imagination and curiosity that chooses to consider sorrow and sacrifice and flaws. He is ahead of our times. I am comforted in believing that George Saunders would understand with compassion a behavior I’ve coined the rescYOU syndrome, and he wrote about it in the short story …. I can’t find it.
One, I still have a headache. Two, maybe it was someone else’s story. The story is not “The Tenth of December,” which is about rescuing others and the self. Or, it’s a misremembered / invented version of “The Tenth of December.”
Sometimes when life is uncommonly good I think I’m making it up—like George’s Verbaluce™ Acknowledged—and when life is utterly horrible I think I am making that up, too. I know George Saunders understands my/his man who jumps into the river to save someone while knowing he himself will die, just as the one he followed into the river will die. George Saunders would know it to be a shame, as in “too bad,” but not a shameful thing. He wouldn’t call the man jumper “stupid” or “loser” or condemn him for a hostile act. He would think like the kind, medieval serfs who thought and called their contemporaries in failing health or economic woes “unfortunates”—that word more compassionate and accurate than anything our advanced culture has come up with.
In the moment before saying goodbye I thought of questions I wish I could have asked: Do you think Steve Martin and Stephen Colbert have something similar in their shtick that appeals to you? Did the 14-years-in-the-making “The Semplica Girl Diaries” come together for you when you thought of putting in the investigator at the end? But I didn’t ask these questions, I was mindful of the line behind me. Though I wished I could have talked to him sitting on a couch, that he was in my family.
I hope he, like me, thought of our time as “play”—and that he believed me when I said we were alike, though unlike me he wouldn’t have the means to discover that.
We shook hands but it was more like holding hands, it lasted a bit. We looked into each other’s happy eyes and smiled and really looked at each other. It was a little like love.
Thank you, Lighthouse, especially Andrea Dupree, Michael Henry, and Nick Arvin.
Vicki Gundrum has been a book editor in NYC, a reporter in Mexico. She is on the editorial board of the international, bilingual Φωνές / Voices: A Literary Journal of the Voices of Hellenism Literary Society, and she joins the reviewing staff of the multimedia magazine Los Angeles Review of Books in December.