Last week I read from my new novel at Books, Inc.
in San Francisco.
When I travel for readings, I send out invites to anyone I've ever known in the geographical vicinity ? so I usually end up knowing a good percentage of the audience. But this time, sprinkled among the old friends and colleagues, a few notable strangers caught my attention as I read. One guy, stuffed into a shiny, light-blue warm up suit, got up midway through my reading, suddenly realizing himself in the wrong place. But I was especially curious about an older gentleman in a ratty beret and wool coat in the back row. After the reading he waited until people had cleared out, and then approached me, smiling widely.
"You live in Madison?" he asked, in a heavy French accent.
"Yes, I do."
"Do you know Elizabeth Brown?"
"No, I don't think so."
"She is a ballerina."
"Oh, okay. Madison is a pretty small town. And I have an interest in dance. So I'll keep my eye out for her."
"I met her in Alaska in 1951," he said, "I proposed to her in 1952. But she chose Mr. Brown instead."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Ah well," he said with a c'est la vie shrug. "If you ever meet her, please let me know." He handed me his wrinkled card: Jacques Kourkene Gulbenkian, Prestressing Engineer. "I would like to know if Mr. Brown is still around."
"I will definitely let you know, Jacques. Thanks so much for coming to the reading."
"Au revoir!" he said, as he cheerily strolled away, with a backwards wave.
"Au revoir," I called back.
After much Googling upon my return to Wisconsin, I tracked down a potential candidate for the famed Elizabeth Brown. She (then Elizabeth Crone) graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1954 as a dance major, has been a donor to dance therapy programs (and to the McCain campaign), and currently lives in Waunakee, a village just north of Madison. Could this be Jacques's paramour? I wrote her a note and enclosed Jacques's card, with a fervent hope that she is.
What were they doing in Alaska? Has he been pining for her for over fifty years? Would she call him? Did she make the right decision by marrying Mr. Brown? I'm hoping this Ms. Brown will respond to my letter, and provide me with some narrative closure.
I have heard writers complain about book tours, wondering if selling a few books here and there is worth the effort. But I feel lucky for the opportunity to have reunions everywhere I go. And I love that an old Frenchman happened to wander by a bookstore, see that I was from Madison, and take a chance. I love the fact that, close to 80 years old, he is still carrying a torch for a woman he met when he was a young MIT graduate a half-century ago. And I'm hoping that with a little help from me, these lovebirds might still be reunited.
Bon chance, Jacques. Bon chance.