the first time

It really doesn’t matter how good or not the first time is—it’s usually memorable and that’s enough. My first was James Michener. Well, not technically the first. There were plenty before him if you want to go back to Dr. Seuss. Then Lucy Maud and those Grimm Brothers, Heidi and Black Beauty, E.B. White, and Nancy Drew—who I used to think actually wrote the books; I was somehow oblivious to Carolyn Keene’s name prominently placed on all the covers. I’d love to know who I thought she was.

There were others, obscure names and stories I’ve long forgotten, picked up at the library or found among the slim pickings on my family’s shelves. But it was James that was the real first, the one I found myself opening and not being able to shut until it was done. The first time I went all the way in one fell swoop.

It happened under a tree.

It was summer. I was twelve. I had a bike. This was in the days before people got driven anywhere; when your parents could have cared less where you were as long as your room was clean, the dishes done, laundry hung, house vacuumed, garbage taken out and you were back in time for supper [‘cuz that table ain’t gonna set itself].

It was also in the days before the invention of plastic. At least in the shape of water bottles. People, everyone really, used to go places, everyplace, without water. It’s a miracle we all survived when you think about it now.

In any case, there I was on my bike in summer and it was hot. Very very hot. I rode across the canal into the country where the orchards lived and swiped a few peaches. And then I took those peaches to a small park—no, it wasn’t a park, more like a place for cars to pull over and check what the hell is making that rattling sound in the trunk. It was a small grassy space; there were trees, shade. Peaches. And James between the covers.

The book was The Fires of Spring. I remember the beginning best, how a little boy and his grandfather lived in a poorhouse, happy but poor, you know the type. The old man, beloved by all, died, leaving the little boy on his own. So he joined the circus, the way you do when your poor, beloved grandfather dies, and saw unspeakably exciting and horrifying things and possibly fell in love or lust or confusion. It gets foggy at this point. In fact, I remember very little and what I do recall may or may not even exist in the book. 

Who cares. The story isn’t the point. The feeling is the point and no one and nothing, including the actual plot, can erase the feeling of laying on that small slice of cool grass on that hot day, illicit peach juice dribbling down my chin onto James’ pages as I turned them one after the other after the next… all afternoon.

It was the book that showed me, in ways I can’t recall, the power and the magic of words. It wasn’t necessarily the best I’d ever read, I just remember it that way.

Recently, when Peter and I spend a weekend in Niagara, we find ourselves near the grassy place. I ask him to pull over, tell him about James…I spare him the details.

He finds my nostalgia quaint, smiles, stays in the car while I walk around. Which tree was it? This one, that one? I study branch formation, proximity to the road, until it occurs to me that where matters as little as the storyline. What matters is I”m suddenly breathing deeply, smiling, shoulders drop and I’m twelve, in yellow denim cutoffs—because I’m the only kid I know who doesn’t own blue jeans—lying tummy down on grass, surrounded by peach pits and so engrossed in a book a whole day goes by without me noticing. Best of all, I am not even slightly aware of how I will remember this day, for possibly ever.

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