We began with “A is for Alibi” and Kentucky Hall of Fame author Sue Grafton’s opening lines: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”
It was February 2016. My husband had lost his job; we were in the process of moving from city life in northern California to rural Kentucky, leaving a life we’d been building for a decade to save money and be closer to family; and though my husband had no symptoms, his doctor had called with news: prostate cancer.
To say we had a hard time focusing on anything but sickness, moving, and money would be an understatement. We were both big readers, but who could read at a time like this? He’d recently made it through Shelby Foote’s Civil War series and everything Cormac McCarthy; for me it had been Jane Hamilton, Mary Karr, Ann Patchett, the collected short stories of Grace Paley. And yet, we both knew we needed an escape, maybe something fast-paced and light and out of our ordinary, and wouldn’t it be fun to read the same books for change?
“I ordered the first one, A for something,” he said one morning over coffee, handing me his New York Times crossword with less than half the answers filled in. “You want to read it first or do you want me to?”
We were tag-team crossword solvers, yes, but regardless of who started our puzzles we both wanted to be the one who finished, the one who could claim victory. I took the folded newspaper and went to get my own pen. “You start,” I said. “You read faster than me, and that way you can move on to “B is for Burglar” without having to wait on me.”
“Wait, is this a trick?” he said, laughing.
Two weeks into social distancing, with mounting fears about the spread of coronavirus and the lack of enough ICU beds, healthcare providers, and ventilators, I’ve been thinking about 2016 —not about the Donald Trump getting elected-part, but about the year we spent trying not to panic. The year we spent escaping into Sue Grafton’s 20-plus books and the fictional life of private detective Kinsey Millhone — and how I couldn’t wait to get through it all so life could get back to normal.
And yet, isn’t “normal” simply code for wanting our old life back? For what Joan Didion famously called “magical thinking” in her 2005 memoir?
In 2016, we read Sue Grafton during a year of magical thinking. Our adult son who now lived nearby would come often for dinner. My husband would finally, after decades away, get to spend time with his parents. After he finished treatment, and if he was healthy (which of course he would be!) he would find a new job, which likely meant a lot of traveling. And I’d be home alone, out in the country with no distractions, so I’d get back full-time to the book I’d been researching and writing. Everything would be back to normal.
The good news is that my husband is cancer-free, for which we are so very thankful, but he decided to retire, to stay home. Then his parents died within two months of each other, our son moved to Boston (you saw that coming, right?), and with Trump’s shocking election, I set my step-parenting book aside as I started writing about Kentucky politics and teaching at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
A normal — a life — I could not have imagined in February 2016.
I bailed on our Sue Grafton reading marathon after “N is for Noose“—I’ll give you the win,” I said. “I need to read something else.”— though my husband, as is his character, kept his commitment and read all the way through “Y is for Yesterday,” Grafton’s last book before she died.
In these terrifying and uncertain days of 2020, I worry for all of us and wonder what our new normal might one day be, how on earth we are going to come out on the other end of this, and I try not to panic. Try.
I have four stacks of new books on my bedside table. I can’t make myself care about any of them. Not a one. I’m too scattered, too scared.
But I remember the year we read Sue Grafton and how it helped. It’s time to go back, I think, to pick up “O is for Outlaw” and find out how Kinsey survives her next close call. To find out what happens. To see how her story ends. There’s still time, right?
The comments section is open. Please share the books you’re reading, the shows you’re binge-watching, how you’re getting through these unfathomable days. I wish you and your families good health and good spirits. Here’s to fighting on.