By: Dianna Wray
Jim Matheson stands on the street corner, looking like he’s just wandered off the set of “High Noon.” His brown leather duster ripples around long skinny legs encased in blue jeans and boots. He sweeps a bit of paper from the sidewalk of Denton’s town square, just as he’s done every morning for the past eight years before settling in front of the Downtown Antique Mall to sell his wares: handmade leather hats, fishing flies and his books — books he’s written and published.
Usually you’ll see him out front holding court. He sits in his chair, smoking Sky Dancer cigarettes, sipping coffee. He speaks to almost everyone who passes by. He always speaks to the females, tipping his hat, smiling a crinkly smile. A born salesman, in different circumstances he might have been president, or head of a corporation. But at 63, he’s set his sights on being a published author. By selling his books, he’s sure he’ll find success.
On a bad day, when the realities of daily life sink in, he won’t even wheel out his sales table. On these days, his dream of being published by a real publisher, of proving them all wrong (his estranged wife, his family, everyone) seems further and further out of reach. I asked him one day if he thought he was a success yet, since he’s become a self-published author. “Am I a success? Oh no, that’s privileged information,” he says playfully. But his eyes go blue to gray and his body pulls itself taut as a metal wire. He needs lightning to strike. He needs to be a success. If sheer will could do it, Jim Matheson would be one already.
Jim has played a lot of roles in life. Watching him stroke his beard and talk, it’s hard to imagine him a troublemaking boy, a soldier, a forester, a farmer, or a hippie. His best and wildest stories come from his hippie years. He’s put them all into his books, and you can see Jim peeking from the corners of his characters. He could use a good editor, but his stories are funny, and wild, and the longing in some of them makes your heart ache.
Who hasn’t wanted to rewrite their mistakes?
Jim has written and published eight novellas as well as a collection of short stories, his first full-length book. There’s a series about a time-traveling girl, a novella about a lost valentine, and two works of erotica — the first about a possessed typewriter, the second centering on an Asian woman who kills her lover/gardener and the girl she finds him with, then buries them in the flower bed. The erotica is inspirational stuff he wrote “to remind old folks that there’s still some fun out there,” he says, chuckling as a grin spreads across his creased leathery face. When he laughs, two front teeth – top and bottom – are missing. (He stopped wearing them when men at the coffee shop “hit” on him, he says.)
Jim is pretty much himself in the erotica. He started writing them when things with his wife went sour. He says there were complaints about his lack of a career, his failure to provide. When he came home from a visit to his Mormon family in Utah a few years ago, his things had been moved into a separate bedroom “like roommates.” At night, coming home, he’d walk up his driveway, leaning on a cane, raise the large front window, lean his cane against the wall, and brace himself on the window pane to carefully maneuver himself through the window and into his tiny room, with a small twin bed and family pictures on the wall. His gnarled hand would reach back through the window to retrieve his cane.
Jim went off to the Army a fresh-faced Mormon kid and came back wild, just in time to get in on the counterculture movement of the ’60s. For the next decade, he traveled up and down the California coast. Crashing in someone’s garage one night, he found a bag of leather scraps, started making braided rings and began selling them. He had a fair number of exploits. He vividly remembers crouching naked in closets, diving out windows, and the time a woman took his clothes, locked him up with a typewriter, and told him he’d better have something written by the time she got home. He did some acid, landed in jail (just for the way he looked, he says) and met a man he believed was Cole Porter (who was not dead but living in the same high rise as the clothes-taking woman).
Once, a woman he was seeing said she was pregnant and having an abortion so he leapt into his car, and fueled by rum and Coke, began a drive from California to New Mexico. He never showed up for the girlfriend and woke for the briefest moment with the headlights of the car pointed straight up to the stars. Things changed after that. The ’60s wound up, he continued wandering, and eventually wandered his way to Denton where he met his future wife. His story got less colorful; sometimes he worked, sometimes he didn’t. The kids grew up, his marriage began to sour, and with criticism coming from every side, he started to write.
He got encouragement from Crystal Tattersall, a small editor/publisher in Denton whose office is filled with cats and who looks like a sort of house cat herself. Tattersall Publishing is for authors who want to self-publish their works — books about firefighters by firefighters, about dogs by dog owners, that kind of thing. For the price of printing and a fee, Crystal does some editing, helps design the book covers, and gets the books printed. Once the product is delivered and paid for, the writers have to sell their books themselves.
The first printing of Jim’s book, A Lil’ Bit of Jim Matheson — his first full-length effort, featuring short stories and his own memoir — arrived in December, two years ago, just before the annual Christmas celebration downtown in the Square. His face was lit up, glowing, and he managed to make the cane he uses to support his bad left leg seem jaunty as he carried the first box of books back to the antique mall. That night he sat out front during the Wassail Fest. A production of “The Nutcracker” was being staged in the Square. Whirling rats and children danced to a Tchaikovsky recording while he sat, expectant in his alcove. As people failed to approach his table, his confidence, the sureness that he normally exudes, shimmered like a mirage and his face filled with doubt. Then two people stopped, picked up a book. He beamed at them, sure again. He adjusted his burnt orange leather newsboy cap and talked animatedly. The woman turned to the man, he pulled out a wallet and handed Jim the money. Jim made a receipt and tucked the money safely away. Then he turned back to the passersby, alert and ready to do business.
Since then Jim has sold out the first printing and made enough money to print more and still turn a modest profit. He’s a writer now, and his head tilts at a proud solemn angle when introduced as a “local author.” But success may have come too late. His wife has announced she wants a divorce. His things sit in a government-supplemented senior apartment building just off the Square. But he is rarely there. The Square is his home. When he wants to rest, or business is slow, he packs up his worn gold-velvet chair, his books, his display stand and the display poster of himself and goes into his stall in the antique mall. In the dim recesses behind a leather curtain, he crawls into a self-made cot, just a foam pad and some blankets atop a long folding table. You wouldn’t know he’s there unless you know to look.
“I haven’t done what they expect of me. I haven’t gone out and gotten a steady job, and left my kids to be raised by strangers. If I’d done that, maybe things’d be OK. I want to sell a bunch of books. Ten thousand. Or just have a regular publisher sell them for me,” he says. He lights a Sky Dancer cigarette and he pulls long and hard, clouds of smoke exhaling through his sharp crooked nose and mouth; he looks like a dragon.
Another day, the mood is lighter. Two young women stand over his book display, fingering the little paperbacks in their pale blue and green and yellow covers. “You know if you want to buy something, this book is the one to get,” he is saying, picking up not the cheery, summer-colored ones but a paperback in dark brown printed to look like a leather-bound book. There is a picture of him in a leather newsboy cap, clutching a pipe. The light in the photograph catches the grizzled beard, showing its reddish gold hue. Jim smiles shyly from the photograph. He’s caught looking hopeful, willing you to buy this book, whoever you are.