"Someone in your position," the man said, "could do a lot of good as a spokesperson for alternative medicine — that is, if you were so inclined."
I said, "My book is a novel. The character is made up. It’s true that I’m a failed cellist, but my, you know, thing works okay." They exchanged a glance, and I got the feeling that the younger of the two of them was going to get yelled at outside of the store. They thanked me for my time and left.
By now, my dismay had turned to annoyance. The young man in the back stood up and walked toward me, his eyes never meeting mine. The design on his T-shirt was a small exclamation point.
He extended his hand for me to shake. I expected it to be clammy, but it was feverish and dry. He said, still not looking quite at me, "Hi. I’m a Zen student."
I thought: He’s come to lecture me about Buddhism.
Still clutching my hand, he said, "I’m also schizophrenic."
Everything slowed down. My eyes scanned the bookstore for the media escort. I hoped to see her in a three-point crouch, preparing to throw her body between mine and the fan’s in case he pulled a gun. That’s part of the escort’s job, after all — protecting the author. But she was in the Ethnic Studies section, talking on her cell phone.
I turned to face the schizophrenic Zen student. I hoped he was not familiar with primate behavior; anyone who has ever seen a terrified rhesus monkey, I figured, would not have been fooled by the expression on my face, which was supposed to be a smile. He raised his eyes, glanced for half a second at me, then let go of my hand and reached into his puffy coat.
He pulled out a copy of my book, which looked as if every third page had had its upper corner folded down to mark a place. "I loved this book," he said in a flat voice. "It meant a lot to me. Would you sign it?"
Reeling from a mixture of shame and adrenaline, I wrote an inscription to him that began on the title page and didn’t end until it had spidered down the margins of Page 3 of the story. When I finished, he thanked me, stuffed the book into his coat and left the store. No fuss, no awkward conversation, no requests that I read his work and give my honest opinion. I watched him cross the empty parking lot, then lost sight of him in the blizzard. He didn’t appear to have come by car. He was the best fan I’d ever had.
Mark Salzman’s novels,The Soloist andThe Laughing Sutra, and his nonfiction books,Iron and Silk andLost in Place, are available as Vintage paperbacks.