Once a couple summers ago, we played basketball. Jess was my partner in a 2x2—his bad luck as I was out-of-shape and out-of-practice. He kept us in range with a mean 3-point shot, and I had a few lucky slop-shots fall, but it wasn't enough to pull out the win. He shrugged. Good game, he said.
At Powell's, he talks about rejections—his short stories, his boyhood self—without bitterness. As if it is all just a part of the process leading up to the moment of him standing at the podium answering our questions.
I want to ask him what he's reading lately, but we're out of time.
I want to make one more shot, but we'd already lost.
I want to tell him how my first publication was a line from my cover letter to Howard Junker on the back cover of Zyzzyva saying that my writing group closed every week with his quote made famous to any one of us who'd ever gotten that same rejection letter: Onward!
Instead, I hear Jess' voice whenever I read his stories:
Bit slides the book forward. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. What's a hallow, anyway? he asks.
The clerk takes the book and runs it through the scanner. I guess it's British for hollow. I don't read those books.
I read the first one. It was pretty good. Bit looks around Auntie's Bookstore: big and open, a few soft chairs between the rows of books. So what do you read?
Palahniuk. That'll be twenty-eight fifty-six.
Bit whistles. Counts out the money and sets it on the counter. Shit, he thinks, seventy cents short.
The clerk has those big loopy earrings that stretch out your lobes. He moves his mouth as he counts the money.
How big are you gonna make those holes in your ears?
Maybe like quarter-size. Hey, you're a little short. You got a discount card?
Bit pats himself down. Hmmm. In my other pants.
~ Jess Walter, "Anything Helps," from We Live in Water
Jess signs books.
Thanks for talking about the stories being rejected, I say.
Two novels published, he says, and I couldn't publish a short story. Who's this one for?
Twice before I've had him sign books for my daughters. Me, I say. I spell my name for him. Two Rs. I.
They used to tell you to put a collection together. Now they tell you those are never published. But here it is. He hands me the signed book.
That's why this one is mine, I say.
He gives me that Jess Walter smile, and I feel like he gets it.