Right before I left for Fresno, Krista's e-mail arrived. I knew I was in trouble.
"The program will be in the Police Station conference room, which is right next door to the library... I hope we get a good turn out!
The library was in Clovis, CA, an area just northeast of the city housing both Fresno State University and a hot, dusty Old Town section of western-theme antique stores. It was also going to be the locale for the first of two public library readings I would be doing in one day for Mystery Ball '58, my third historical baseball replay novel.
With the period whodunit set largely in the Bay Area the first season the Giants and Dodgers played out west, I had already booked a couple of events in San Francisco in September. A month ago I had a fun signing at Skylight Books in L.A. with Stars and Strikes author Dan Epstein, but was eager to get my solo reading feet wet in a more remote locale that still had a fair number of Giants fans. Without an agent, publicist or big-time book publisher, I've been doing virtually all of the Mystery Ball promotion on my own, which certainly isn't a rare thing these days. The publishing industry is going through a huge transition in this digital age, and unless you're Stephen King they're loathe to spend two cents on promoting an author anymore.
* * *
The drive from L.A. to Fresno was roughly three and a half hours of brown hills, dust, rumbling Peterbilts and heat-baked crops. I always marvel at the way the stretch of Interstate 5 called the Grapevine winds its way down a very steep grade for six miles before it dumps you into Virtual Indiana. Anti-bullet train signs adorned flat fields the whole way, in between gas plazas, abandoned shacks, fast food clusters and teeny parched towns with paper-thin dwellings right out of The Grapes of Wrath.
Fresno's modest skyline slowly appeared out of nowhere, like Omar Sharif on his camel in Lawrence of Arabia, and I curved around a few freeways to exit in Clovis. I was a bit early, as I tend to be for everything, so parked in the Old Town section and headed into the Rodeo Coffee Shop for a quick lunch. This place had faux wood paneling, assorted steer horns on the walls and maybe a dozen people eating.
Fresno was home to San Francisco's Triple-A team for many years, having recently abandoned the town for Sacramento--where they became the River Cats--but even though the Fresno Grizzlies were now featuring players in the waiting room for the Houston Astros, I suspected that on a major league level, most of their fans still rooted for the defending World Champs.
The Rodeo's grilled ham and cheese was just okay, and right as I was paying my check the two counter waitresses started yakking it up about Thursday's Grizzlies game, which they had both attended. Apparently, over 16,000 others also did for Throwback Taco Thursday, and people had to be turned away. Well, that was a glimmer of hope: People in Fresno loved their baseball, or at the very least, their tacos and baseball! Surely a decent number of them would show up for my baseball noir reading, right?
After strolling around the village of antique stores until the top of my head began to fry, I cruised down the street to the Clovis Library. It took some doing to find it, because even though I had the address, the actual library had no sign and was behind some trees. Luckily, there was a sign for the police station so I pulled into the lot.
Krista, the thin, friendly program director with an even thinner voice, welcomed me inside the library. The Friends of the Clovis Public Library had created a very attractive flyer for the event, and it was plastered all over the lobby and various doors with a big arrow and the words "POLICE STATION CONFERENCE ROOM" scrawled on the bottom.
We went next door to the station, where Krista went on a security phone to produce a woman with a key to the conference room. We began arranging the chairs. The podium I would use had a giant Clovis Police Department badge on the front side, which would be an odd visual but make me look more official, I guess. I had been told that the Friends of the Library were "very excited" about the program and approved it quickly, so I assumed people would start filling the room by around 2:15.
By the start time of 2:30, we had five people. One was Krista, and three others were Friends of the Library. The other was a quiet guy named Troy wearing a Giants cap. Jim, one of the library friends, made it a point to tell me about the Fresno Grizzlies' Taco Thursday game.
Disappointed but undaunted, I read for a good 45 minutes anyway and took questions. All I could think of was the story about Joe DiMaggio playing on a day he was hurt because "one fan out there might not have ever seen me play." Of course, this was a far smaller, lifeless and surreal setting, but to their credit, everyone in the room seemed entertained and bought copies of the book.
The lack of a turnout still had me down, though, and the prospect of finding a bigger crowd up in sleepy Auberry, a town in the Sierra foothills a half hour up route 168, with a population of less than 2,500, didn't seem likely. The road rolled over dusty hills before winding upward, past farms, horse ranches, home junkyards and the occasional overpriced petrol station. What was I getting myself into? I thought. Did people actually read up here? Were there actually people?
A mile past a sleepy corner called Prather there was a turnoff onto an even more narrow road for Auberry. Scrub oak, black oak and bull pine trees clawed at the cloudless sky. Any grass I managed to see was yellow. If I didn't die of thirst or lack of an audience, I figured a wildfire would do me in just fine.
I curved past a "WELCOME TO AU-BEAR-RY" sign affixed to a giant goofy bear statue and came upon Auberry's Fresno County Free Library on my left, directly across the road from Daddy Joe's Lodging on my right. Unsurprisingly, both places were completely deserted. Daddy Joe's was a nondescript two-story motel with a coffee house called Java Time A.M. wedged into its bottom floor. The coffee house was also closed, but as I pulled into the motel lot, an open jeep roared up to the office door. Out climbed a blonde middle-aged woman who introduced herself as "Betty, Joe's wife." She was expecting me, gave me an out-of-nowhere sweaty hug and told me how to self-check into my room by retrieving my key from a combination lockbox beside the door. Java Time would be closed the next morning, but there was a coffee maker in the room so she went inside and loaded me up on sugar packets, a half-gallon of creamer, date nut bread, a biscotti and real coffee cup. I was feeling better already.
My plan was to meet Loren, the library organizer, along with Rick Flores, a Fresno DJ who had me on his "Wasteland of the Free" radio show at KCFC back in April, at a Mexican eatery down the road called Don Fernando's around ninety minutes before the reading. Maybe I could just drown myself in tequila and have a good time reading to myself.
So I freshened up, changed, drove down to Don Fernando's--and the entire day cleared up, like a summer storm blowing over a mountain pass. The good news was that my bottle of Corona Extra had nothing to do with it. Loren and Rick were fabulous guys, as was Rick's artist wife Janet, as was retired schoolteacher Tim, as were Ann from the Friends of the Auberry Library and her husband Stan. I had never met any of these people in my life, but they greeted me like I was a long lost traveling son. They were excited about hearing me read, excited about baseball, excited about the food we were about to order, laughing and ribbing each other, saying hello to most every new person who walked in the restaurant door--who of course they knew. The second we sat down, a waiter brought over a "secret" hot salsa and set it in front of Loren, and I knew this would be a great time.
The conversation ran from the Giants' pitching staff to Ted Williams' swing to backpacking to social media (Tim insisted on calling Periscope "Snorkel") to yoga to sensory deprivation tanks to friends of theirs I didn't know having issues but it didn't matter, and my Carnitas a la Fernando's was supreme, and the ninety minutes just flew.
The reading? Even better. There were no more than a dozen folks on hand, but they were engaged, and appreciative and even laughing at the lines I intended to be funny. I read more passages than I intended, and we cracked jokes, and I had my picture taken with them, and I doubt I'd ever felt more welcome in an out-of-the way place in my life.
Afterwards, I stood in the library parking lot as people were leaving and peered down the road at the Stonehouse Tavern and Eatery, a biker-ish road house with lots of noise and rock music wafting from its open door and patio, cars jammed into its lot like suckling pigs. Apparently, beer (and free tacos) were a guaranteed huge draw in these parts, maybe more than anything. A self-published baseball novel author from L.A. didn't stand a chance by comparison.
Numbers be damned, though. In one evening I was able to make a dozen new friends and entertain them and was absolutely glowing inside. Write on, people.
Jeff Polman writes for various Web sites and has published three "fictionalized" baseball replays. His latest, Mystery Ball '58, is now available on Amazon. He'll be reading from it on September 23rd at Lefty O'Doul's Restaurant in San Francisco, and on September 24th in the Sausalito City Hall Council Chambers, as part of the Sausalito Public Library Speaker Series.