small talk

doorway night-light spiderweb

(1) Overheard at Goodwill last weekend:

"Oh, my goodness, John! I haven't seen you in so long! How've you and Trudy been?"

"We're doing all right, can't complain. How 'bout yourselves, you and Joe?"

"Pretty good, pretty good. Well . . . [lowers voice] except that Joe is having chemo . . . for his prostate. It really knocks the wind out of you, like they say. But he's doing okay."

[Voice also lowered] "Well, actually, I just got the results of my prostate test this week, and . . . "

The conversation continued as I browsed away through the linens, thinking about all the little lies of small talk.

(2) Conversation with my new doctor yesterday in which small talk was not so small:

"Well, I can't see yet if there's an infection because there's a big plug of wax in there, so we'll soften it up and flush it out first. You might get a little dizzy, but we'll be as gentle as possible."

[She inserts softening drops into my ear and leaves the room. Ten minutes later . . .]

"Oh, you're reading Richard Ford's Canada. My son can't wait to read that one. Have you read his Independence Day series?"

"No, this is the first Ford book I've read. It's good." (—but the entire book-length lead-up to the climax is overly drawn out and repetitive with all the non sequiturs, the characters circling around awareness and meaning and connection like hawks hovering over a field but never diving for the mouse, which is perfect for a short story but torture in a novel.)

"So you like the post-War authors, big suburban family dramas?"

"Uh, I'm not that into Updike and DeLillo."

"Have you read Franzen?"

I nod.

"Which do you prefer, The Corrections or Freedom?"

"It's hard to say." (The Corrections, because it felt truer, though I don't remember much of either. Franzen's good with dialogue, characters, and scenes, but I can never hear his name without remembering a review from years back calling him a purveyor of "wide-screen fiction," which is funny considering HBO just passed on The Corrections' pilot, finding all the flashbacks too hard to script and follow on screen.)

"You must read Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee. It's wonderful. Which book do you read over and over?"

"Okay, thanks. Mm, I don't reread books, really. But I've kept a few to reread. I love Nabokov, so I'll read Speak, Memory again at some point." (I don't reread books because there's too little time, too many books. If it's a book I'm not enjoying, I won't even finish it anymore. I only have half my life left, if that. One must become more selective, ruthless even.)

"So you want to write like Nabokov. Where'd you go to school?"

"I grew up Mormon, so I went to BYU, and then I became not-Mormon. My master's was at San Francisco State."

"That must have been hard on your parents. They're still Mormon? Do you have siblings?"

"Yes. It was. Is. We don't talk much." (We don't have much in common—so many topics to avoid.)

"Well, that sounds like something to write about."

(Doc, there's so much dirt under the family rug I don't even know where to start beating.)

(3) Postscript with the medical assistant:

"So your prescriptions should be ready soon. Do you know where the pharmacy is?"

"Over that way." I did a little wiggly motion with my finger in the air, pointing behind her.

"Good. You're all set then."

"Great, thanks." I picked up my bag, book, and jacket and followed her out of the exam room. "Well, that was disgusting."

"That was nothing. This week a guy came in saying his ear was bothering him, and they pulled out a huge spider."

"Wow. . . . I assume it must have been dead by then?"

"Oh, yeah. Have a good weekend!"

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