The Accidental Atwood (Or Not)
Once a year (sometimes twice a year) Pop is struck with the sudden urge to make the rounds of all his doctors. At least once a year this is a valid urge; within a two-month span he'll want to set appointments with his internist, his dentist, his dermatologist, his optometrist, his proctologist, his ears-nose-and-throat specialist, along with the others that don't readily come to mind. The thing is, were he to visit every single one on The List, he'd have enough appointments to fill up every single day of the work-weeks for an entire month—or so it seems.

Here's the point: When this happens (our Tour De Medico), a LOT of time is spent in waiting rooms. And then more time is spent waiting in examination rooms. Indeed, two weeks ago, during an impromptu visit to the internist, the waiting lasted forty-five minutes in an examination room the size of two public toilet stalls. These examination rooms are strung together by a labyrinth of narrow hallways; and when the doctor's nurse practitioner finally entered, she apologized; she explained that she had some difficulty locating the room in which Pop had been deposited. But, as nurse practitioners go, this one was exceptionally courteous and comely—which made her easy to forgive.

The point is this: Going to all these doctors, we wait. We wait a LOT.

So, to waiting rooms, you usually bring a book, and the book is usually whatever you are reading at the moment, and whatever you are reading at the moment is usually fiction. But you have trouble reading fiction in public places. You can't sink into a novel unless you have all the comforts and the relative isolation of Home. That's the thing. Non-fiction, though, you've found you can read that anywhere. Sure, waiting rooms always have magazines, but you never know if they'll supply the ones you like to read, and, what's more, you'll never know how many sick people have sneezed upon the pages.

So, yesterday, you're at the nearest chain-drugstore, a Walgreens, and you're in the mostly magazine aisle, and there's the modestly stocked bestseller book-rack. On the book-rack, you'll find all the usual suspects: the Kings, the Crichtons, the Graftons. Invariably, you'll see Dean Koontz represented. And, of course, what would a drugstore book-rack be without selections by the ubiquitous Nora Roberts?

But then, shoved in at the bottom of the rack, lying on its back; its spine sticking out at you, there's a Margaret Atwood. The point of it is, it's not even on the rack proper, it's where a stock-boy would've crammed in an extra copy of a crossword dictionary that's sure to sit there for years.

An Atwood. No, not just an Atwood, a hardcover first-edition Atwood—one with the pages intentionally jagged where you'd flip the book open. It's a first-edition hardcover of The Tent—published last February. The book jacket tells you that The Tent is a collection of short "fictional essays." No, it's not non-fiction, but it looks to be close enough. Here's the thing: Atwood is on your personal list of the next fifty-something authors you've required yourself to read before you die. A year back you heard a terrific short-story of hers read on the radio. What's more, she's from Canada, and, even more than that, if you get your way, you'll be living in Canada as a writer within the next twenty years.

The thing of it is, the sticker price says eighteen bucks. But the sticker itself, there's something odd about it. It's the sort of sticker you'd find stuck to a book shelved at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble. It's not like any price sticker you've ever seen at Walgreens. (Not that you're in the habit of comparing and contrasting the design of price stickers slapped onto the cornucopia of goods sold at all the various national chain-stores.) But maybe there's some big-time corporate synergy in play, like those Taco Bell / KFC / Pizza Hut amalgamations. All the same, finding a first-edition Atwood at a Walgreens is akin to finding a Lamborghini Diablo at a Ford dealership. Okay, okay, maybe it's more akin to finding a Bentley at a Ford dealership. It's damn rare and it's damn peculiar is what it is.

But when you go to the counter the book doesn't scan. The check-out clerk calls the manager and the manager consults a database. Turns out Walgreens doesn't sell The Tent by Margaret Atwood. The thing, the point, is that you walk out of Walgreens with a free book that somebody else deliberately brought in and placed on the bottom of the book-rack. And these are the moments that make you wonder not only whether or not there is a God, but whether or not He or She or It is trying to tell you something.

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