The line snakes around the building, folding back again and again on itself. A labyrinth traced by sagging lengths of yellow poly police tape winds through the spears of palmetto and twists across the white-hot decorative gravel, then threads back between some leafless, blasted saplings before wandering all the way out past the molten parking lot until it turns again, back up the alley, hundreds of feet, into the last little rectangle of lifesaving shade left in Daytona, Fla., where it loops the Dumpster twice and finally meanders, unmercifully, back out into that terrifying supertropical sunshine and along the malarial drainage ditch that parallels International Speedway Boulevard. There are hundreds of people in the line. The line does not move. The line only gets longer.
At the racetrack across the street Monday practice is still running wide open, and the whole blinding afternoon buzzes like a hive. Over there the line moves at 185 mph. From the pedestrian footbridge, fans leaving the track notice the sunstruck crowd surrounding the Barnes & Noble.
"Looks like Disneyland from up here, don't it?"
"Those people look baked."
"Those poor folks look like they been clubbed."
"What time's he comin'?"
"I don't know what time he starts, but I know he's gonna have a writer's cramp by the time he's done."
And at nearly that moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. ducks out of a slate-gray SUV and into the side door of the bookstore. He has come here to sign books. Many, many books.
This is February. It is 51 weeks to the day, almost to the hour, since his father was killed, not quite half a mile from here, in the last turn on the last lap of last year's Daytona 500. It is a long time gone and he is mended now and it is safe for him to be here; or it is an excruciation, an aching, heartbreaking effort. No one who is allowed, at last, to walk up for his swooping lasso of a signature can tell which. The weight of that name, the noise in his head, the surge and ebb in his chest are none of their business. He is unfailingly pleasant and polite with everyone.
He wears a red polo shirt and baggy khaki shorts and a red B (as in Budweiser) baseball cap clocked around aft in the trademark manner. He is pale and slender with sharp features and a quick, thin smile that seems to flicker out the moment he isn't paying attention to it. Good to see you," he says quietly to each of them as they arrive at his table. "GOOD TO SEE YOU!" they shout or shriek or sob in return, unable to modulate themselves a moment longer.