"The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one”; Bill Monette has never read this; in fact he barely reads at all.
On the tips of my toes and straining to get a decent camera angle on the covered bridge opposite my road shoulder, I — unwittingly and ungracefully — danced en cloche beyond a “No Trespassing” sign into a gravel driveway; this didn’t go unnoticed.
“Hey there!” boomed from a porch to my back. Uncertain whether the voice welcomed or warned, I quickly turned and beheld a sweater, a flat-brimmed hat and a cheshire grin, each endearingly suspended — none more than five feet above the porch boards — by a man who later revealed his name was Bill.
“Ya cah'ta see somethin' breathtakin'?” he asked — after, I imagine, noticing my camera bag — with the hard and short vowels of a Yankee. “We can hop in the rig.”
Reluctantly — and imagining the various methods of murder that may befall me — I accepted his offer and climbed into a Jeep parked farther up the gravel drive; he descended the porch and did the same.
After some additional introductions and explanations, we were off. Bill told me of a high hill — his “favorite place in the world” — where a looker may see, so long as skies comply, New Hampshire's mountains melt into a faraway sea.
“I used to climb up heya’as a boy, through the woods” he said, “the man who owned the place didn’t care. Now there’s trails; I mow 'em twice a year.”
“How long does it take to mow them,” I asked, noting we’d been navigating a maze of freshly-cut forest paths for nearly an hour by this point.
“Months each time; first thing in the Spring and late Summer. The widow asked me to do it.”
Bill told me of a widow — a woman, in age, near his own — who’s now the sole owner of this 350-acre woodland estate.
“Everyone in town says she’s sweet on me,” he said. “I like her a lot, too. She asks me sometimes to come read with her; sometimes she wants to watch movies.”
“Have you taken her up on the offer?”
“Nah. I can barely read; I didn’t even finish junior high. She deserves a brilliant type, a smart type, like she had before,” Bill said as we pulled into a hilltop clearing; evening sunbeams shone through low clouds on Mt. Ascutney, countering only partly the blue-shifting effect of late-day light.
After a moment, I asked Bill if I could take his picture; he warned me it may ruin my camera; I laughed; he laughed; the photo captured the grin I’d first seen, an hour earlier, on the face of that porch-top figure. Bill really does love this place, I thought internally.
After pictures had been taken and moments of silent appreciation had given way to dialogue, Bill ushered me back into the car; we began our descent through an ancient, overgrown apple orchard.
Bill told me he once stole apples from this stand of trees, though he suspected Mr. S. wouldn’t have objected; he told me of the deer and the blue birds he sometimes sees when he mows this length of trail; he told me the care he takes to avoid the anthills; he smiled as he said these things.
I asked Bill if he’d ever heard of Candide, by Voltaire; he hadn’t.
“Why?” he asked of me, a few beats later.
“Well the way you love this place… I can tell you love it by the way you speak of it. There’s a line in that piece about gardens, how if one tends his own, tends to it faithfully and joyfully and well, that’s success; that’s real and true success. It just seems like you tend this garden well…”
“Thank you,” he said genuinely, “I love it here. I’ve never left New England; this is my home.”
I told Bill he ought to go read with the widow; he dismissed my suggestion with a declaration of illiteracy that belied his lingering sense of unworthiness.
“She could never love me. I’m not a reader, I’m no writer.”
“You’re you; and she likes you for that.”
“Mr. J.D., he was brilliant; Ms. Salinger, she deserves someone brilliant again. I could never think up something like that “Catcher in the Rye” book of his; I just mow his old paths.
This entirely derailed my train of thought; I found myself speechless, gazing dumbly out the windshield at a manicured forest path.
Bill began to speak; I turned. “But,” he said with a smile, “I’ll keep mowing the paths.”
We parted ways a half hour later; I think he may ask her out.