The Story of the Stories: Part III — Fording Rivers with Jon and Not Disappointing John Denver’s Doppleganger

Jon knew the best time to leaf peep along the Kancamagus Highway. So that I could fully appreciate the beauty of his homestate, he drove his Le Car and I gaped out the windows at the scenery. We stopped often so he could take pictures and teach me the kind of lessons he picked up in the required New Hampshire history course he had taken in high school. Once he learned them, Jon never forgot facts. Campus was a couple hours south. The demands of our full courseloads in a place that had yet to change color, that would offer up for dinner the Sunday special Yankee pot roast, were far away. Instead, we had this. Was there traffic? I don’t remember. Crowds? In my memory, we are alone against the calendar page settings. The day was perfect and then it was time for lunch.

We’d packed something and, as I scouted the road for a White Mountains picnic spot, Jon pulled the car over, instead, onto a gravel shoulder and got out. Below us, the shallow rapids of a river sparkled.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Jon clambered over the guardrail with our cooler. “Come on,” he said. “There’s the perfect spot.”

I looked around. Trees. More trees. The faded little Le Car with its implausible  racing strip. The river still racing towards the Atlantic.

When I hesitated, Jon motioned to where a house sat on the opposite shore, a vacation cottage, its windows blinking in the sun.

“That’s someone’s property,” I said.

Jon insisted no one was home. Even if they were, he doubted they’d mind someone using their picnic table for a few minutes. Live free or die, I thought. Live free or be arrested for trespassing, but Jon was on his way to the river. Live free or get washed away by the rapids before you get a chance to trespass.

“I don’t know about this,” I said, and that’s when Jon altered the course of my life.

“You don’t really have a sense of adventure, do you?” he said.

I love Jon. Best friend love. The kind that lasts no matter how infrequently we get to see each other. He’s brilliant and funny and earnest and, in those glorious days when we did see each other more than once every other year, he made me look at myself in ways I had not before. A mirror kind of friend, someone who saw who I was, and said: What the hell. I’ll hang out with her anyway.

I didn’t have a sense of adventure, but when he held out his hand that day, I took it and, in that moment, I began to remedy something.

I’ll never jump out of airplanes (like Jon did a few years later), but his words stay with me, urge me forward, still. Even onto Minneapolis.

As do these:

Eighth grade, Westerly Babcock Junior High School:

Mrs. Serra would stand before us with the book in her hands, read passages aloud, coax discussion from us. She liked books and that might sound odd, but it was the first time I thought it about a teacher: she reads. I’ve forgotten the novel we were studying, but once we’d finished the unit, the assignment was to write a different final chapter.

And I loved the job. Did what I always did: slipped into the world and wrote from it. The difference? No one had yet asked to see any of what I produced.

Mrs. Serra handed the papers back a few days later, calling us up to her desk to retrieve them. When it was my turn, she held the paper out to me just out of reach.

“You need to enter the school’s essay contest,” she said. I had no idea the school had an essay contest, but before I could ask for details, she added: “You can write.”

Sophomore year, University of New Hampshire:

Will Evans looked like John Denver who I had a soft spot for since a) that was the first concert I had ever attended (all decked out in my Dutchmaid lime green pantsuit), and b) Back Home Again was the only song my brother would let me sing to when he played guitar. Will rolled the sleeves of his plaid shirts halfway up his arms. He loved John Gardner and Joan Didion. I didn’t have a crush on him but I did feel very tender towards him. He was so earnest. You didn’t want to let him down even when you tried several times to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and finally had to fake it in discussions. I’d cruised through freshman English. Writing papers had become rote for me. Five pages a week. Easy A.  For Will’s latest assignment, I scribbled some stuff about missing my niece’s birthday, homesick stuff, blah blah blah, yanked the finished product from my typewriter and headed into Lauren’s room to battle with the television’s rabbit ears so we could watch M*A*S*H*.

The next week in my one-on-one conference, Will slid the paper back to me.

“You know what your problem is?” he said.

He had a cowlick, I swear to God. Blond bangs and a cowlick. Not the kind of haircut you’d expect on someone who is about to excoriate you.

“You’re lazy.”

Lazy? No. Writing was just easy. Maybe I told him something like this, but I doubt it. I’m pretty sure I was stunned into silence and trying not to bawl.

“This isn’t an essay,” he said. “This is just some flowery description. You’ve got talent, but that won’t get you anywhere if you aren’t willing to do the work.”

Back in my dorm, I grabbed the box of tissues and the Webster’s New Collegiate: Essay, I read. A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

This didn’t help me one bit. But I didn’t want to let Will down. Or Mrs. Serra. I started working then. Not just writing. Never again just writing.

Writing is easy. You put the right pen to the right paper and dream away. But Will was right. Good writing? That takes work. Work and possibly, a sense of adventure. An understanding of the power of words.

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