I pull off Quartzsite’s main drag into the gritty parking lot of Reader’s Oasis Bookstore. Quartzsite is a tiny Arizona town in tough desert 125 miles from the even tougher city of Phoenix. Reader’s Oasis is a metal shed, a half dozen tables, a tiny desert garden, and a porta-potty in which a teddy bear poster tells us Bear Behinds are welcome…
…as are fronts. The gray-haired man who greets me wears a broad-brimmed leather hat, velour t-shirt, a barely there paisley thong. He waves as I climb out of my truck. It is clear he is not about to give me that cheery Sales Associate “Can I help you?” His smile is real and weathered as his skin.
“I’m Paul,” he says. “You must be Mary.”
“I must be,” I say and look down at my salsa-splotched jeans. “It’s a good thing,” I say, “I dressed formal.”
“You’re fine,” he says — and I am. I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be on a soft February day than sitting at an oilcloth-covered table in the hardscrabble heart of Quartzsite, the snowbird town that goes in winter from a few thousand people to 125,000.
Paul sets two pans of home-baked cake in front of me, says, “We always provide refreshments for book signings,” and wanders off to check in used books. I wait in the perfect sun. I know that even if no one shows, I’m a success.
Four hours later, I’ve sold three books, given away one, and bartered another for six grapefruits and four tangelos from Norman Wood’s 10-acre orchard. He is a regular customer, a tiny 90-year-old man, dressed in overalls with red suspender straps.
By the time the Mohave light goes soft blue, I have talked for an hour with an old Montana rancher down for the winter. His little Pomeranian stands in the open truck window. The dog has one eye, and when I ask the rancher why, he says, “Why, she was talking when she should have been listening. A big mutt took her whole head into his mouth.”
His tired eyes light up as he tells me he’s a flint knapper. “Yep, I wanted to learn something new while I could. You know what I mean? Our age, we don’t have forever.”
I tell him I do know what he means. That’s why I’m signing books at Reader’s Oasis. That’s why I stopped the night before at Burro Jim Motel in Aguila, and ate at a local Mexican restaurant where I gobbled the best homemade corn tortillas you’d never taste in a chain.
By the time I leave, the bookstore owner and I have bartered stories for stories. We’ve traded grace for grace, his face gentle as he listens to my rant against rich fifth-wheel tourists. “You’re right about some of them,” he says, “but you’re wrong about the people here. Most of the folks who come here are blue-collar retirees. They’ve sold everything to buy that rig, and it’s their future. They hope they can sell it when being on the road gets too rough and they have to go back to landlocked life.”
He shakes his head. “You learn a lot loving a place like this.”
The last bronze of the sunset glitters in the dust as the rancher pulls away. I pack up books, grapefruit, and tangelos — and the new story I will carry home, on a desert two-lane that will take me north, past a town named Brenda, a crossroads named Hope.