No, I'm not speaking of my mantis, even though he's renowned in certain circles for his dry wit. I'm referring to his namesake, the original Charles Portis, someone who truly deserves to be preceded by that word.
Sometimes (as in, all the time) I let little scenarios play out in my mind, such as what if someone came up to me and said: if you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be?
The actual truth to that answer would be no one, dear reader. No one. For sure no one famous, at any rate. Because I cannot imagine how lopsided that meeting would play out, with the famous person whipping out his black Sharpie, assuming I'd want an autograph, favoring me with a glazed smile: Oh, brother. Here comes another one of those worshipping rubes!
No, I suppose if I were given the chance to meet anyone, I'd pick someone I don't even know. I would ask if there was, perhaps, a little old man sitting in a cafe in some sophisticated city in south America and take my chances on him. It doesn't even have to be south America. It could be eastern Europe, or parts of Asia.
But then I would want to indulge another fantasy, the one wherein I walk up and plunk myself down at the table, speaking his native language like nobody's business. Well, I wouldn't just walk up and plunk myself down. For heaven's sakes, dear reader, there's more hope for me than that! I'd keep to a respectful distance in case my presence violated any cultural mores, some social nuance I was not made aware of in finishing school.
Once I caught his eye, though, I'd use the old line: Excuse me, but is this seat taken?
Only I wouldn't speak in English, dear reader. Nor would I fumble over beginner's Spanish, Polish, or Korean. No, I would lay out the most rapid fire, legitimate version of the dialect of his mother tongue which he grew up speaking in some tiny fishing village (unless we're in a landlocked state), which he hasn't heard since he was a boy.
And the look on his face would make everything worth it, dear reader. Just...anything in my life which hadn't been worth it to that point would instantly redeem itself in spades.
But none of this has anything to do with my original point, which I will get to once I wrap up what I'm trying to say here, namely: there's a small part of me that secretly wishes to meet Charles Portis. Well, I don't really wish to meet him. I wish I already knew him. I wish we were friends, or even just acquaintances. I wish I was the librarian at the library where he checks out books, or perhaps his dental hygienist. Wait, no. Not that. There's no meaningful conversation to be had in a dentist's chair. I wish I was the barista at his local Starbucks, even though I cringe in saying that because he's probably the type who has nothing but contempt for his local Starbucks, fancy caffeinated drinks in general, and anyone who'd venture to call herself a barista.
Not that I have any reason to think that, mind you.
Bonté divine, Charles Portis! Why must you elude me at every turn?
And now I will cycle back to my original point, which is to tell you how funny he is. Not that I intend to do a comprehensive job of the subject. As if I would presume! No, if you have ambitions to become an expert in the field, you'll have to do the legwork yourself.
But this is the thing about Charles Portis. It's not a matter of asking: when is he funny? It's a matter of asking when he isn't. He's not writing punchlines, dear reader. He isn't building to a laugh. It's in almost every word, every situation. Sometimes I think humor is the invisible main character of his stories.
I'm not the type of person who laughs out loud easily. At movies, when the rest of the audience is guffawing like maniacs, I'll be the one with a curiously pinched look on her face. But I read Mr. Portis's stories and smile, and I feel that smile to the pit of my stomach, remembering it for days on end.
Here, randomly, are a few passages from his novel, Gringos. Even without knowing the context, see if these don't have a similar effect:
Bollard lived on the top floor of the Napoles Apartments and wrote novels. Of the grim, modern kind, if I can read faces. I hadn't read any of his books. My fear was that they might not be quite as bad as I wanted them to be.
"Don Ricardo is looking for you," he said.
"So I heard."
Let him look. He knew where to find me. "Don Ricardo" was another of Flandin's self-bestowed titles. This one had never caught on outside his own household. His wife, Nan, had pushed it, and of course the servants had to call him that. The rest of us refused to do so, out of pettiness, no doubt. All except the guileless Mott.
It was too crowded at the bar. I went to the Crouch table and had a piece of cake. Minim recited some verses he had composed for the occasion, a long poem for him, which ended with these words: "And so we say good-bye for now to Peg and Vernon Crouch."
I don't know what it is about words, dear reader. About their sounds and syllables, their nuances of meaning, the rhythm of a phrase. They mesmerize me in and of their own accord, but when humor is stirred into the mix, it creates an effect which draws me like a moth to the flame.
I'll be running through the desert, sitting at a stoplight, or wandering around a grocery store, thinking of that guy Minim and all the other poetry he wrote which somehow managed to fall short of the one reserved to bid adieu to his friends, Peg and Vernon Crouch.