I am sitting in a line in Austin, Texas, on a gray and misty November day – the kind that makes you want to curl up with a good book. I’ve got a good book on my phone’s Kindle app, and I’m reading and waiting.
I am eight years old, and I’m sitting on a porch swing at my parent’s house in the New Hampshire woods. The Kindle won’t be invented for another cough-cough years. I’ve got a quart Mason jar filled with ice cubes, but it is beading and dripping on the floor untouched as I turn the pages of a book where a five-year-old - just a kid to my advanced years - faces unspeakable monsters.
I am rubbing the sleep from my eyes. It is long before the sun rises in still-steamy September, but I am on my way to Austin to get in line for tickets to see the writer of that book. My wife sleepily rolls out and joins me, and we sit in line for three hours before the store where he's appearing opens. By the time the doors open, the line stretches around the block.
I am in high school, and I’m wondering out loud – as know-it-all high schoolers are wont to do – why we have to read depressing, dry tomes by the likes of Dickens and Hawthorne. I’m immersed in books about worldwide plagues and evil incarnate, chewing them up relentlessly. Depressing? Nah – bring it on! My English teachers aren't impressed – dismissing my favorite purveyor of scary tales as a hack.
I smile a bit when I find out he’s won the National Book Award, thinking back to those conversations.
Years later, I shut a book and probably will never read it again. The darkness is total, with not even the light of stars to brighten the way.
I’m about to start my sophomore year of high school, and I’m scribbling on a pad one afternoon in my room. (No, that’s not a euphemism.) It’s summer vacation, but instead of swimming or goofing off, I’m deep in this story, figuring out how our hero was going crazy and why. Later, after people read it, I get some odd looks and questions about if I’m feeling all right. I’m fine, I say, wondering if this kind of reaction is always what it is like.
The story becomes one of my first positive experiences while writing when I use it (with the prodding of one of those English teachers) to gain acceptance to a long weekend writing program at Middlebury College.
I look at a picture of the writer when he was young, with a full black beard covering his face, and see a strong resemblance to my dad, whose thick beard would smell of sawdust and chainsaw oil at the end of a long day in the woods.
I am attending college in the nearest major city, and I know this writer occasionally drops in and speaks to a certain professor’s class. With high hopes of meeting him, I take the class – no dice. I keep an eye on any news bulletins from the English department for five years – no dice. The idea of meeting him takes hold as a bucket list idea.
I start working at newspapers, and before long I am working nights as a copy editor/designer. One night I come home after midnight to find my wife sitting in a pool of light, a book clutched tightly in her lap. “Oh, thank God you’re home,” she says, dashing up the stairs she was afraid to climb in the dark, heading for the only bathroom in the house.
It might have been waiting.
I move through life on my track, and he moves through on his – I read about him online now. We're both apparently fascinated by the Harry Potter novels. I start to move away from writing full-time, resuming my on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with my camera that finally seems to blossom. He has a horrific car accident - I hope for his healthy recovery.
There's talk of retirement, but every eight months to a year, there's a new book on the shelf or on the Kindle. I read every one. He's revisiting some old favorite characters now - such that five-year-old boy who faced his monsters and won.
I’m in Austin, and the line moves forward, and before long I see the person I’ve come to see. He’s thinner now, with a clean-shaven face – the beard has long since gone away.
So many things to say, and so little time. I look at him and smile, and say "Thanks for not retiring."
He looks back, tired from meeting hundreds of people and a busy book touring schedule, and smiles. "Well, I'm not so sure about that," Stephen King leans back and says, in that New England way that means "Boy, sometimes that sounds like a good idea." ...and then he hands me an autographed copy of his new book.
I walk back to my life, and he bends over his next book, scribbling with his Coke-bottle glasses close to the paper.