My last two years of high school, I lived in Sweet Home, Oregon, a small logging and mill town. One highlight of my junior year was taking a creative writing class from William Johnson – a teacher so old he’d taught my dad decades earlier. He was completely bald on top with tufts of white hair that stood out above his ears. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and button-down shirts and slacks when he taught.
Mr. Johnson was a great fan of my writing, and the warmth of his support continued after I graduated. We corresponded erratically during my undergraduate years and for awhile afterwards, too. Then one weekend in February, I was scheduled to meet my parents in Sweet Home to visit my grandmother. I thought it would be a good chance to see Mr. Johnson, too.
I phoned to see if he and I could meet for an hour or so while I was in town. “Sarah and I are having some people for lunch on Saturday. You should come for lunch, too.” He wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and that Saturday I left my grandmother’s home in plenty of time to drive to Foster, the adjacent town where he lived.
To get to Foster, one drives down the Santiam Highway and crosses a bridge by the reservoir. What Mr. Johnson had neglected to tell me was that this Saturday, the reservoir hosted a four-wheel-drive mud race. This is pretty much what it sounds like. On the edge of the reservoir, contestants brought their four-wheel-drive vehicles and raced each other through a muddy course along its edge.
It was an alarmingly popular event, and when nearly an hour passed and I’d crept only a few yards toward the bridge to cross the reservoir, I turned back. Nearly in tears, I found a pay phone and told Mr. Johnson I couldn’t make it. He sounded impatient with me. “Just go around the other way,” he chided.
When I finally wound my parents’ car up the twisty roads overlooking the reservoir, I found myself on a little knoll at a charming, rough-hewn cabin. Mr. Johnson came out to greet me and gave me a big hug – the first in our history together. “Come meet the rest,” he said, and flung his arm wide toward the front door. Inside, his wife Sarah (“Second cousin to Katherine Anne Porter, you know”) sat at a round dining table with three other couples in their 50’s and 60’s.
Mr. Johnson said, “Katrina, I’d like you to meet Jim Mason; he’s a lover. And his wife Karen, she’s a lover, too.” He went around the table this way, introducing everyone as a lover. I felt paralyzed and off-balance. Clearly I’d stumbled into some swinging, orgiastic small-town scene with my former grandfatherly English teacher at the center.
Was there some way I could beat a hasty retreat? It seemed impossible since I’d exercised such tenacity to get there in the first place. I clenched my jaw, already in a cold sweat and bracing for an excruciatingly uncomfortable lunch.
Then I realized it was Valentine’s Day.
The potato leek soup was delicious.