map-of-xanthA few weeks ago, NPR’s episode of This American Life was called “Show Me the Way,” (a rerun from 2012) and it focused on stories of people in trouble who sought help in strange places. The main story was about a fifteen-year-old who, feeling antagonized by both his stepfather and his high school, walked himself eight miles to the airport and then flew off to Florida using several years’ worth of paper route money in search of Piers Anthony, his favorite author.

Xanth, the fantasy kingdom in Piers Anthony’s books, looks remarkably like Florida, and fifteen-year-old Andy used the maps in the books to track down Piers Anthony’s home. After a tumultuous day of flying, taxiing, and hitchhiking, Andy arrived, and this, from his perspective, is what happened:

I knew that Piers Anthony had dogs. But I didn’t expect them to be insane, big, mean dogs, which is what they turned out to be. At least, in my memory they are. And there’s a house. And then, there’s a little shack out back which I immediately gathered was Piers’ writing shack…

And so the ruckus draws his attention. And this bearded head pops out and sees me standing at the gate and comes out. And I was like, “Oh my god, it’s the man. This is my idol here.” And he just comes up to the gate. And he’s like, “Can I help you?”

And at that point, I’ve been through so much. And I didn’t really–when he said, “Can I help you,” or “What can I do for you,” I didn’t even know what to say. How do you explain, “What are you doing here?” And I just burst into tears and starting saying, begging him, “Can I stay with you? I can cook. I could help you do blah, blah, blah. Please, help me.”

And I could tell he was just totally taken aback. And he just kind of shook his head and was like, “Ah, you should– you better come inside. We need to talk about this.” And I was like, “OK.” And that seemed like progress. I was invited into the house. So we went in the house. We went in. And he sat down with me and proceeded to listen to my story and listen to my tale of woe of high school misery.

Interestingly, Andy believed that he could help Piers, not the other way around. Andy hoped that in exchange for his hard work, cooking, cleaning, helping around the house, that he might earn an extended stay in Florida. Piers Anthony, on the other hand, opened the door and asked, “Can I help you?” No payment necessary.

After listening to his story, Piers Anthony told Andy that he could not stay with him in Florida. Piers refused to shelter a runaway, or, in Andy’s terms, allow him to stay in the idyllic central Florida farm with his favorite fantasy author, painting landscapes and baking the days away. Instead, Piers told him, he would have to go back home, face his stepfather daily, and re-enter the misery of daily life according to high school. “Can I help you?” he had asked. This was no help. This was exactly the opposite of what Andy had wished for.

I felt a little disappointment that my fantasy had smacked into an uncooperative reality. But I felt sort of invigorated about reality itself from that and more interested in working with reality rather than retreating into fantasy. Which is ironic that that’s what a fantasy author–that my interaction with a fantasy author was not more fantasy, that my interaction with a fantasy author was plain reality. And it just felt good to be heard and to be accepted.

…and it was completely refreshing. Yeah, it wasn’t what I thought it would be or what I wanted it to be. But it was exactly what I needed it to be. It was great.