Booksigning/Publishing Horror Story (9/11/01)
by Abby Bardi
This is my personal horror story, but we all lived through it.
My first novel The Book of Fred was scheduled to be released on September 11, 2001. My first book signing was on September 10, at Olsson’s Books in Washington, DC, one of my favorite bookstores. For years I had been browsing there on my way to the dentist, so it was a thrill to see my book on their shelf. I spend an hour signing lots of copies.
This author thing is going to be great, I thought.
All summer, I had been in a mysterious depression. I’d wanted to publish a book for as long as I could remember, but now that it was finally happening, instead of feeling elation, I felt something akin to grief. The private world of writing I had inhabited since age seven was suddenly public, and while on one level, I was honored and excited, it was also terrifying to see words I had scrawled thinking no one would read them suddenly become a physical book—with a gorgeous hand-painted cover—in a bookstore.
In hindsight, I think my sadness was some kind of premonition. Sometimes I think I’m a little psychic, though there was no way to predict what was about to happen. Apparently. At least, no one did.
That day in Olsson’s, I was suddenly filled with soaring joy. It was a beautiful day, more like summer than fall but with the dry air we get in September, and the sky was the same brilliant blue it would be a day later when we all saw it on TV in lower Manhattan.
That night, still bursting with euphoria, I went to my friends’ farm in the then-rural (now filled with McMansions) western part of my Maryland county. I can’t remember why, but we ended up behind their house gazing up at the night sky filled with stars you can’t see from where I live. We said the usual things people say about how small and unimportant the stars made us feel.
That feeling of my own personal insignificance helped a lot during what happened next.
When we all finally crawled cautiously out of our homes after 9/11 as if emerging from caves, something occurred to me: my book. My book was now toast. I had to cancel a number of events. The newspapers and magazines that might normally would have reviewed a new novel were now focused on analyses of the Middle East.
I did a few more book-signings and readings in the sad month post 9/11, but their atmosphere was funereal. At Vertigo Books in College Park, MD—another wonderful independent bookstore—the owner was clearly overwhelmed with grief as she mourned the loss of a local family who had been on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
Ironically, The Book of Fred is about a girl from a religious cult that predicts a major cataclysm they call “The Big Cat.” Now in real life, the cataclysm had arrived—I told you I’m a little psychic—and in that brave new world, the things we had thought were important turned out not to be. All that mattered was love, which is more or less what my book was about.
My most recent novel Double Take is set in the 1960s—another interesting time—and I don’t know about you, but I can’t help looking back at both of these difficult periods with some nostalgia. We made it through, and there are still books. Yes, the publishing industry has taken some hits, but even if in the future we all end up in caves to avoid nuclear winter, we will still tell stories as humans always have.
Like many indie bookstores, Olsson’s and Vertigo Books are no longer with us.
The friends I visited the night of 9/10 had a terrible divorce ten years ago. But that’s another story.
Title: Double Take by Abby Bardi
Publisher: Impulse Australia
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Length: 186 pages
Set in Chicago, 1975, Double Take is the story of artsy Rachel Cochrane, who returns from college with no job and confronts the recent death of Bando, one of her best friends. When she runs into Joey, a mutual friend, their conversations take them back into their shared past and to the revelation that Bando may have been murdered. To find out who murdered him, Rachel is forced to revisit her stormy 1960s adolescence, a journey that brings her into contact with her old friends, her old self, and danger.
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I recognized his voice from across the room. When I handed him a menu, he looked up absent-mindedly and went on talking to some guys, then did a double take.
“Cookie?” he said.
I tried on the name like an old article of clothing to see if it still fit. It felt like a suede fringed jacket. “Yep,” I said.
“Wow. You look so different.”
“I cut my hair.”
“I’m older,” I said.
“You look exactly the same,” I said. He was wearing a beat-up leather jacket over a green T-shirt, maybe the same jacket and T-shirt he had always worn. His thick black hair was shorter now and curly, skin still tan from summer, small mouth with perfect teeth. He still looked tough and handsome, but in a creepy way, like someone you couldn’t trust.
“Cookie, what the hell are you doing here?”
“I work here. I’d rather you didn’t call me that. My name is Rachel.”
“I thought your name was Cookie.”
“Nope. Do people still call you Rat?”
He laughed. “Nowadays I go by Joey.”
“Okay, Joey,” I said, since this was nowadays.
“Miss?” a voice called from a nearby table. The voice brought me back to where I was standing, in Diana’s Grotto, a Greek diner on 57th Street, with ten tables full of customers. For a moment, I had thought I was in Casa Sanchez.
It took me a while to make it back to Joey’s table. A divinity student had found a fly in his milkshake, and it wouldn’t have taken so long if I hadn’t made the mistake of saying, “So, how much can a fly drink?” Like most academics, this guy had no sense of humor and gave me a lecture on hygiene. It was amazing that knowing as much about hygiene as he seemed to, he would continue to eat at Diana’s Grotto. By the time I got back to Joey’s table, the men he had been sitting with were gone. Off-duty police, from the looks of them, I thought, or plain-clothes. We got a lot of cops in Diana’s; they slumped on stools at the counter with their guns hanging from their belts, sucking down free coffee. Back in the sixties, the sight of their blue leather jackets had always made me nervous, like I’d committed some crime I’d forgotten about.
“So why are you working here?” Joey asked. “I thought you were a college girl. A co-ed.” He flashed his white teeth. “I don’t mean to be nosy.”
“The problem with college is they make you leave when you finish.”
“And here I thought it was a permanent gig.”
“But why aren’t you doing something a little more—”
“Collegiate? Don’t ask.” I slid into the booth next to him. From across the room, Nicky, the maître d’, shot me a poisonous glance. I ignored him. “I like it here.” I smiled a crazy little smile.
“Hey, different strokes.” His eyes swept the room, resting on a mural of a white windmill on an island in the Aegean. The windmill’s blades were crooked. I remembered this eye-sweep from Casa Sanchez, where he had always sat facing the door so he could constantly scan the whole restaurant. His eyes returned to me. “Didn’t I hear a rumor you were supposed to be getting married? Some guy in California?”
“Just a rumor. Glad to hear the grapevine still works.”
I felt someone hiss into my ear. Nicky had slunk up behind me. He looked like a garden gnome in a plaid jacket and baggy pants, reeking of aftershave that had tried and failed. “Rose!” he snapped. He never called anyone by their right name. “What’s in a name?” I always murmured.
“Be right with you.” I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
“This is a classy place,” Joey said as Nicky ambled away.
“He’s the owner’s brother-in-law.”
“There is no Diana. She’s a mythological figure.”
“Hey, you want to have a drink after work?”
“Actually, I don’t drink any more.”
“You want to come watch me drink? What time do you get off?”
“Nine thirty. You could come help me fill the ketchups.”
“You know, take the empty Heinz bottles and pour cheap generic ketchup in them.”
“Sounds like fun, but why don’t you meet me at Bert’s? Back room?”
I thought for a moment. This did not seem like a good idea, but I didn’t care. “Okay, why not. So, can I get you anything?”
“You want a side of taramasalata with it? It’s made from fish roe.”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
When I brought him his coffee, he said, “You’re still a hell of a waitress, Cookie.”
“You’re still a hell of a waitress, Rachel.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Abby Bardi is the author of the novels The Book of Fred, The Secret Letters, and Double Take. Her short fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, Rosebud, Monkeybicycle, and in the anthologies High Infidelity, Grace and Gravity, and Reader, I Murdered Him, and her short story “Abu the Water Carrier” was the winner of The Bellingham Review’s 2016 Tobias Wolff award for fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland and teaches writing and literature in the Washington, DC, area. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, the oldest railroad depot in America.
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