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October 24, 2019

Take It Easy


Michael Perry's "Lives" essay, which appeared on the final page of the September 24, 2006 New York Times magazine, was a wonderfully poignant look at what happens when you meet your romantic ideal in the flesh, only to realize that you don't stand a chance of ever getting past the front door.

The piece follows.

River Queen

I was traveling to Black River Falls, Wis., in my reliable-if-not-zippy four-door '78 Impala when the radiator blew. It could have been worse, since I was rolling off the exit ramp at the time and had sufficient momentum to reach the Wal-Mart parking lot. I was en route to research an article on canoeing and had agreed to meet a local guide at a downtown hardware store, so I left the car astride its expanding green puddle and walked the rest of the way.

The guide — a petite young woman named Mindy who kept her blond hair pulled into a ponytail with a pink scrunchie but carried herself with a trace of jock swagger — took one look at my soft hands and determined immediately and quite correctly that I wasn't the kind of guy who could fix his own radiator. My mechanical abilities dwindle just past lifting the hood. Mindy arranged to have the Impala towed to a local shop. Then she loaded me into her pickup truck. The exterior was bashed and scuffed, and the cab was awash in good working-class trash — spark-plug boxes and empty gasket packs, shell casings, that sort of thing. We accelerated manfully from the curb. She handled the stick shift with authority, which gave me certain twinges. And I admit I noticed how her quadriceps arched against her shorts when she worked the clutch. She told me about her motorcycle.

When you grow up tramping around with a shotgun and a fishing pole, reading Louis L'Amour cowboy books while listening to tapes of Neil Diamond singing "And the Grass Won’t Pay No Mind," you tend to nurture visions of yourself as a strong but sensitive roughneck, the end result being that you long for a woman like Mindy. Hardy, beautiful and able to skin things. For a country boy to see this woman at the wheel of a beat-up truck is to see her wearing his favorite flannel shirt in the morning. Add to this that I was in the midst of a dateless stretch bound to extend over some five years and that I had furthermore recently discovered poetry readings, and you will understand that my predilection for romantic pining was wound to the redline. I sneaked a sidelong peek, felt the truck rumbling along and wondered what it might be like to go for groceries together.

When we reached the landing, she jumped out and didn't wait around for me to help lug the canoe. Once launched, we floated the river for a long while. Mindy paddled smoothly and pointed out key fishing spots. "I do a lot of bass fishing," she said. All this, and a pickup truck, I kept thinking. When she drew my attention to a specific cluster of brush and identified it as the spot where she shot her biggest buck ever, I decided it was time to get married.

It's tough to make a marriage proposal in a canoe. I'm not saying it can't be done; it's just that canoes are notoriously tippy. And because I've never mastered the J-stroke required to successfully captain a canoe without switching the paddle side to side every two strokes like an indecisive milkmaid assigned one dasher and two churns, I had been rightly placed in the position of emasculation: up front facing forward, where I could paddle away without yawing us madly into the tag alders.

What I had in mind was a sandbar. With a deft variation of her stroke, Mindy would put us ashore. Kneeling shoulder to shoulder on the beach, we would coax up a fire with moss and flint, then roast frog-legs-and-cattail-root shish kebabs over driftwood coals. Later, while loitering in a muskrat-pelt loin cloth and waiting for the tin-can coffee to boil, I would pop the question. The evening would culminate with a postprandial arm-wrestling match — loser wears the engagement ring. In the morning I would take her in my arms and bear her to the canoe. Or vice versa. We would emerge from the wilderness to notify our friends and reserve the Legion Hall.

The fantasy broke when a well-muscled and wholly corporeal local boy hailed Mindy from shore. There followed a good-natured exchange of insults that implied familiarity. He looked woodsy and capable. A real back-of-the-canoe fellow. Then, to me out of the corner of her mouth, Mindy said something along the lines of "That boy's a weenie."

I hope it is a sign of progress when a man subverts machismo to allow room for frank self-assessment. Realizing there was no way — beyond faking a seizure and flipping the canoe — to leave Mindy breathless, I resumed my brute-force paddling. Shortly we debarked. Mindy dropped me at the shop with my Impala, and I have not seen her since. I recall her shoulders in the sun and the flex of her calf when she hit the gas.

October 24, 2019 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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