Yet, in one way or another, this is everyone's larger issue, and one of life's few consistent blessings is that we cannot know the future. Right now, it's an early evening in July, 1996. I've just finished speaking to a book club in Madison, and my father and I are driving north toward Minneapolis, passing between the endless darkening fields. My father has been evaluating my response to the book club's questions, pointing out places where my answers were too long, recalling missed promotional opportunities, drawing my attention to a moment when, caught off-guard, I made a self-deprecating remark. To an outsider, this post-game analysis might sound unpleasant. It isn't. His delivery is practical, rather than critical. He evaluates me the way he might evaluate a fellow salesman.
"The product is good," he says, thumping my latest book with affection. From the start, he's taken an active role in marketing my books. After Vinegar Hill was published, he filled a suitcase with signed copies and packets of reviews, then flew out to California, where he drove from San Francisco to Seattle, stopping at every bookstore he could find along the way.
"If a product is good," he declares, "it will always sell."
And now we've settled into comfortable silence, polka music chortling from the radio, the last of the sunset lapping the curve of the horizon, when he says, "Are your legs bothering you?"
So they are. I realize I'm wearing what my husband calls my "gray look," the angry, impatient expression I get when I'm in pain. In pain – such a maudlin phrase, and yet I'm fascinated by its implications. In pain, like a faraway place or a state of mind; like a country where you've gone to live for awhile. In the Arctic Circle. In a state of grace. My arms are aching, too, particularly my right elbow and wrist. I am right-handed, and everywhere we go, there are books to personalize, stock to sign.