One serene early spring evening, I was walking with my white cane on a path through the Amherst College campus when I encountered the author, Robert Stone. I was taking a course of his, albeit not for credit and I’d never spoken a word in class. It was 1974, the spring semester of my sophomore year.
I don’t remember what we said at that encounter. Since I can’t see who is coming toward me, he must have greeted me, and since I usually can’t recognize a person’s voice when they address me out of the blue, he must have had the wherewithal to identify himself, no doubt as “Bob Stone.” He evidently understood that for me, such situations are like picking up the phone and trying to figure out who is calling.
I know we stopped. Stone must have said something more than his name, and I would have overcome shyness enough to reply. But my next memory has me walking ahead as he continued on behind me. That’s the extent of it.
That moment came back to me on reading Madison Smartt Bell’s biography of Stone, entitled Child of Light. Author of such novels as Dog Soldiers and Flag for Sunrise, Stone lived in the town of Amherst for several years, and Bell names several professors I knew who worked with him, including a man I am forever indebted to, my thesis advisor Richard Cody.
Recalling that chance encounter with Stone, I have an impression of a man who was as curious about me in that moment as I was about him, and that he was as incapable as was I of surmounting the invisible barrier between us. Partly because of his demeanor in class, I sensed a kindness about him, but also a probing intelligence. The two don’t always go together. Intelligence can transform feelings into abstractions, conversation into interrogation. Stone’s identifying himself followed by our shared embarrassment tells me that what I took as his awkward curiosity about me came from a gentle place.
I recently recommended Bell’s biography to my friend, Dana, who told me his own anecdote about Stone. An actor, as well as theater director, he played Lenny in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, in which Stone played Lenny’s father. (I learned from Bell’s biography that Stone often performed in theatrical productions.) The first night, Stone arrived backstage with a drink in hand. The next night, Dana showed up with a bottle and two glasses and told Stone to wait until the performance was over before imbibing. After the curtain came down, they stood together, drank down a single shot, clinked glasses, and went their separate ways. So it went for the rest of the play’s run. Neither made anything of it. No authorial or thespian condescension. Stone treated Dana as an equal, if not more—certainly with respect. The anecdote tends to confirm my sense that during my own brief encounter, Stone’s curiosity about me was free from patronization.
Why do I remember such a seemingly insignificant moment? Because, in that chance meeting, we connected. My empirically-inclined mind is skeptical, but why else would that moment return to me after all these decades? Some people have sheer presence. It isn’t necessarily what they say. It’s something in what they project.
In 2013, I met a woman who had a similar impact on me. My wife, Laura, and I were traveling with a couple who conduct tours of the United Kingdom and who wanted to introduce us to a restored Elizabethan home and friends of theirs who own it. The afternoon we arrived, the husband was away on business, but his English-fluent Cypriot wife welcomed us. The five of us sat around a table in the garden and talked. Then it came time for our host to go to her next commitment and for us to resume our drive to the Lake District. She’d been sitting diagonally opposite from me at the long wooden table. On her way to the house, she stopped before me. Again, I remember nothing of what we said, but a similar feeling of connection came to me as she stood there. Then she resumed walking. I thought that under different circumstances, we could have gone off into a corner somewhere and had the kind of conversation that goes all over the place and leaves a lasting impression. Something like that might have happened with Stone had I been older and more confident.
Friendships have started this way, but in that case, the moment is superseded by all that follows.
People talk about love at first sight, but this isn’t about that kind of romance. A flash of understanding and perhaps recognition occurs. Then someone else speaks up, a taxi arrives, a cellphone chirps. The world moves on, and the moment is fossilized in time.
Bob Stone died in 2015, an all-but-stranger I miss. John le Carré died last week, another author I miss. I never met him or even attended a reading of his, although I’ve heard him interviewed and I’ve listened to his narrations of his own novels, which are the more engrossing for his rendition. John Lennon died forty years ago. I miss him, too, though all I have of him are his introspective songs, his emotion-laden but unaffected singing, and his interviews. I could go on with such a list. But with Stone, another artist I admire, I have something more: our campus encounter when we were alone in the universe, unable to give form to our thoughts, but transfixed in that eternal moment.
Note: My thanks to Dana Westberg for his anecdote, for helping me get it right, and for so much more.