Excerpt: FictionBerniceLast Chance, Colorado, may have been the first chance I've had to be happy naked in public, but the carnival must move on and so must I. Before the whole troupe wakes up I sneak a note inside Polk-A-Dotty and Buster's trailer thanking them for introducing me to a new kind of living theater, the closest I'll ever get to Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty . . . only nice. You can never have too many careers, I've always said, and now I write them, "If the book doesn't turn out or Fruitcake underperforms, I'll be back to ‘spin for my supper.' "
The sun is coming up and there's no such thing as rush-hour traffic in this part of the country but, yet again (!), the very first car that approaches pulls over. The problem is, how do I get in? The entire vehicle, a beat-up yellow eighties Chevy Citation, is completely filled with books—every kind imaginable—hardcovers, trade paperbacks, but especially mass- market editions, some missing their covers. The passenger seat is piled so high I can't even see who's behind the wheel. Slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle being assembled in reverse, I see a face as she throws the books in the back, under the seats, even in her lap. "Sorry," the rather haggardlooking woman in her late sixties, with the weakest chin I've ever seen in my life, mutters, "I like to read."
"I can see that," I answer good-naturedly as I jump in, pick books off my seat, and then pile them back in my lap. "I like to read, too," I say, taking a gander at the eye-popping cover art of the vintage sex paperback Teen Girls Who Are Assaulted by Animals."This one is amazing," I say, wondering what the editorial meeting at the publisher's could have been like to green- light this title. Here's a niche audience I hadn't imagined. "All books are amazing," she corrects me with a passion. "Are you a librarian?" I ask cheerfully, knowing, after being the keynote speaker for several of their conferences, how wild librarians can be. "Not officially . . . ," she answers with practiced bravery. "I was . . . ," she confides, "and then something happened and I wasn't." Oh. "I'm John," I introduce myself, trying to change the subject away from her obviously painful past. "They call me Bernice," she answers without fanfare, "and I read your last book. I loved the chapter ‘Bookworm,' but you're too ‘literarily correct' for my tastes."
Before I can stick up for my published reading recommendations, she suddenly brakes for a car that swerves around some tire rubble on the highway, and a huge pile of cheap paperbacks stacked pack- rat style in the backseat collapses on top of me. I pick off Saddle Shoe Sex Kitten, Some Like It Hard, and Freakout on Sunset Strip, with the amazing politically incorrect subtitle Fags, Freaks and the Famous Turn the Street into a Hippy Hell.
"They're not for me," she explains as she pulls off I-70 onto a rural road; "they're for my book club readers." Before I can protest that I can't go off the interstate, she tells me, "Don't worry, I'll take you back to the highway." We cut back into an even less traveled country road, turn the corner, and see a Tobacco Road–style hut constructed entirely out of paperback books missing their front covers. The owner has shellacked the books to make them semi-weatherproof, but the elements have not been kind—the volumes, soaked through many times from rain, are swollen, tattered, and can't offer much in the way of protection. "Publishers don't want cheap paperbacks returned when they don't sell," Bernice explains. "The newsstand managers are supposed to rip off the covers and turn those in and they get their refund. The retail outlets are expected to then just throw away the books, but I rescue them from this biblioclasm and redistribute the volumes to alternative readers at the lowest end of the used-book market. I know it's hard to imagine, but a few very dedicated collectors only want books with torn-off covers. It's these specialized readers I serve. I am not alone. Flea-market vendors, paper-recycling workers, relatives of deceased dirty-book collectors, we are united in a mission to do what libraries cannot: bring the customer the lowest of the low in literature.
"Ah, there's Cash," she says as a skinny, grubby fortyish-year-old white guy with a potbelly and a Prince Valiant haircut comes out of his self- styled reading room. I quickly realize by "Cash" she means her customer's name, not actual money. Her books are, of course, free. "Cash is a very specific customer," she explains. "His books must be soft-core and pre-porn, with a missing cover done by a collectible artist. He then actually reads these smutty volumes, writes endless critiques of the writer's style, which he never allows anyone else to read, and then uses the ‘read' book as a building block for another room in his shantytown abode."
"Hi, Bernice," shouts Cash in some sort of regional accent too obscure for me to identify. "Hello, sir," she says with a literary grin, "this is my friend John." Cash completely ignores me, so Bernice just goes into her routine. "I got some good ones for you today," she promises as Cash's eyes light up and he licks his lips in anticipation. "Here you go," she teases, "She'll Get Hers by John Plunkett." "With a missing cover by Rafael de Soto," Cash yells back with postmodern literary enthusiasm. "I remember that one, Cash," Bernice reminisces like the specialist she is; "that was great pulp art but it's gone now!" "Who wants to go to an art gallery?! I want to read!" yells Cash as he grabs the volume and hugs it to his chest in literary fetishism. "How about this one?" tempts Bernice, holding up a yellowing paperback with both the front and the back binding ripped off . "Remember the pulp jacket with the sexy lady on the couch clutching the pillow like her lover?" she quizzes. "Restless by Greg Hamilton," Cash shouts back like he's on a quiz show, "with cover art by Paul Rader. And I'm glad the cover is gone. I read these books, Bernice, I don't look at them! I read every word until I understand perfectly what the author was saying just to me; the last reader these volumes will ever have." Bernice hands him the damaged volume and he grabs it with a scary gratitude. "See you next Thursday, Cash," Bernice promises, and with that, we're back in the car and off to the next outsider reader.
"I'm no judge of what people read as long as they read," explains Bernice once we're on the road. "Are all your books dirty ones?" I ask with great curatorial respect. "No," she answers proudly, "I've got true crime, too. A lot of libraries won't carry the really gruesome ones. Just like bookstores, they discriminate—putting the true crime sections way in the back of the store. Hidden. Near the gay section." Before I can agree she gives me a sudden look of traumatic desperation that stops me in my tracks. "Believe me," she whispers sadly as we suddenly pull into the driveway of a suburban ranch house, "I know about censorship."
Out comes Mrs. Adderly, a most unlikely matronly true crime reader still dressed in her housecoat. "Hi, Bernice. I'm glad you're here. I got in a fight down at the library just yesterday. They take my taxes, why can't I have a say in what books the library buys?" "Hi, I'm John," I butt in. "I thought the library had to get you a book if you ask for it." "Oh, they say they do," Mrs. Adderly answers without missing a beat, "but they lie! I happen to be obsessed with ‘womb raiders.' Are you familiar with that genre?" she asks me point-blank. "You mean women who tell their husbands they're pregnant when they're not and then follow real pregnant ones, kill them, cut out their babies and take them home claiming they've just given birth?" I reply. "That's the ones," acknowledges Bernice, impressed I'm so well-informed in this specialized field. "Well, I read Lullaby and Goodnight by D. T. Hughes," Mrs. Adderly continues, "but there's another one I want. Hush Little Baby, by Jim Carrier, where the ‘raider' cuts out the baby with the mother's car keys and the baby actually lives! Well, this literary snob of a librarian says to me when I ask if she has the book, ‘There's no need to know about somebody that ugly.'"
"Yes, there is!" I yell in outrage, completely agreeing with Mrs. Adderly's anger. "The public needs to know," I rant, "that when you're pregnant, strangers are following your every step, ready to jump out and cut out your baby with your car keys! Womb raiders are everywhere." "Exactly!" agrees Mrs. Adderly, thrilled to have someone else in her corner. Bernice gets a sly grin on her face and whips out a mint-condition bound galley of this very title and hands it over. "Oh, Bernice," Mrs. Adderly gushes, "you know how to make a true crime buff happy. Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart."
We're off. I'm impressed. Bernice turns on the radio and we hear that delightful little country song "Swingin' Down the Lane" by Jerry Wallace and merrily sing along, harmonizing over the instrumental bridge between verses. I continue picking through the books on the floor by my feet and laugh at One Hole Town, a hilariously titled soft-core vintage gay stroke book. "You want that one?" she asks with generosity. "Sure," I say, mentally adding this rare title to my collection of cheesy gay-sex paperbacks. "It would go right along with my ‘chicken' volumes," I tell her. "You mean titles with the word chicken in them?" she asks immediately, understanding my oddball bibliophile specialty. "Yes, I've got Uncle's Little Chicken, Trickin' the Chicken, Chicken for the Hardhat, even Chain Gang Chicken." "I know them well," she announces with bibliographical respect.
"And you, Bernice," I gently pry, "what kind of terrible books do you collect?" She freezes, suddenly protective of her most private scholarly taste, but then seems eager to have someone in whom she can confide. "The novelization of porn parody movies," she admits with great pride. "It's a small genre, but one that is growing in importance," she explains with deep knowledge of her field. "I tried to introduce these specialized volumes to the general public when I was head librarian in my hometown of Eagle. But Colorado is such a backward state! Trouble started as soon as I displayed Splendor in the Ass and Homo Alone with the covers out instead of spine in. Busybody little prudes noticed and made a big deal out of it, but I stood strong against censorship. Porn parody titles need to be discovered and celebrated. I was vilified in both the local and the national press, but I didn't care! I fought back! I passed out valuable, extremely rare copies of Clitty Clitty Bang Bang to any high school reader in the library who asked for it. Satire needs to be taught! These youngsters loved Clitty but I was fired! I called the Kids' Right to Read and the National Coali tion Against Censorship organizations, but they wouldn't help me. I became a scapegoat for the humor-impaired."
Before I can offer my unbridled support, she pulls her car over to the I-70W entrance ramp and we are buried in sliding paperback books. With great concern and kindness she asks gently, "Do you have the Twelve Inches series?" "Yes," I murmur in excitement, trying to stack Bernice's volumes back up in some kind of order. "I've got Twelve Inches, Twelve Inches with a Vengeance, Twelve Inches Around the World." "But do you have Twelve Inches in Peril?" she demands with excitement, whipping the title out from inside her glove compartment and holding it up like the Holy Grail. "No!" I shout with rabid delight, quivering in reverse literary excitement. We look at each other in our love of disreputable books and she hands it over, completing my collection. "Thank you, Bernice," I say in heartfelt appreciation, caressing this title like a sexual partner. "You must go now, John," she says with sudden concern. "I can't be exposed. My readers will continue to hide me. They know. They know I'm the best damn alternative librarian in the country." "You should be proud, Bernice," I say as I get out, bow in respect, and blow her a kiss goodbye. "Run," she says with urgency; "run to read!" But where do you run to in Parachute, Colorado?
Excerpted from CARSICK: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters, published in June 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by John Waters. All rights reserved.