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It had been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year.
60 Minutes did a feature segment on the author. Every woman
celebrity anchor and interviewer from Diane Sawyer to Oprah to Sally Jessy to
half a dozen others I'd never heard of had fawned over him on camera. I opened
the Sunday paper a month or so ago, and there he was in the slick magazine
insert: Robert Jefferson Reed surrounded by his wife and three fresh-faced
teenage children, all beaming, looking like they'd just come in from an
afternoon on the slopes. His book was everywhere; you couldn't swing a dead cat
in the Wal-Mart without hitting a copy.
But who would have ever guessed that a book called Life's Little Maintenance
Manual would have been such a run-away smash hit? Or that the author would be from Nashville, Tennessee?
C'mon, give me a break--it's not even really a book. I picked it up at the
Inglewood Kroger about six months ago while I waited in line--my Budget Gourmets
dripping through the basket--behind some wild-eyed elderly lady who was raving
at the cashier. Something about the price of bacon or her food stamps being late
or some such crap. I tried not to listen. You know how it is, when something really unpleasant is happening in a public place and you don't even want to watch, but you're stuck there, so you do anything to divert your attention, right?
Anyway, here I am with this lady screaming in front of me, so I reach down on the rack and pick up this $9.95 paperback and flip through it. It's an odd size, ornate, very thin, anddivided into four parts, each devoted to keeping one area of your life in tip-top shape. Part One tells you how to keep the physical side of your life humming. I opened to the first page of that part, and there in bold type about a half-inch tall was the admonition:
eat your vegetables
And that's it. That's the only thing on the page. There's a cute border around the edge and a couple of swatches of color, but that's it. Eat your vegetables.
So I turn the page:
drink plenty of water
Jesus, I'm thinking, a tree had to die for this? So I flip to the second part, which is all about how to keep your marriage perking along.
never let a day go by without
telling your spouse you love him (her)
Now, mind you, I'm not even Jewish, but expressions like oi,
vey are beginning to run through my head. Meanwhile, the lady in front of me in the checkout line breaks into a continuous stream of obscenities, like a Subic Bay sailor having a psychotic break in the middle of shore leave.
I open to page two of the section on marriage:
never go to bed angry
Or at least not without your lithium, I thought, just as the screaming lady slams down a carton of eggs on the conveyor belt. The cashier picks up the white phone by her register and calls for help, then starts wiping up yellow slime with a nasty rag as the old lady rants on.
Part Three was on the care and feeding of children. I turned the page:
patience will carry you through anything
The guy who wrote that ought to be standing in this freaking checkout line.
Part Four covered the maintenance schedule for one's career:
give a little extra each day
Oh, puh-leeze, I'm thinking, somebody get me some insulin.
By this time, a security guard is trying to escort the old lady out as quickly and quietly as possible, only now she's having what looks like a heart attack. She shrieks and clutches at her chest, then paws at the security guard's face as she slumps to the floor. The manager comes over, rolls his eyes; apparently he's been through this before.
I flip through Life's Little Maintenance Manual one last time. On the last page of the part about keeping your body in one piece is the exhortation:
treat yourself to dinner out every once in a while
I take this as divine guidance. I set my by-now flaccid frozen-food boxes on the conveyor belt and step around the scrum of people hovering over the old lady. Then I get back in my car, ease out of the parking lot, and head to Mrs. Lee's for Szechuan chicken. That was the last I thought of Robert Jefferson Reed, his well-scrubbed family, and his thin little bestseller.
That is, of course, until the day his wife knocked on my office door.