The Legend One Seat Over

Jim Harrison crop

It happened exactly like this, more or less.

I met Jim Harrison on a flight from Bozeman, Montana to Chicago three years ago. I say “met,” but as we soared over the wheaty heartland, not a word passed between us. It remains one of the greatest regrets of my life.

I was on my way to a literary festival in Vermont, where I would read from my novel Fobbit and appear on a panel called “Reaching Out: Building Communities of Readers and Writers.” When I boarded the plane in Montana, little did I know I’d have the chance to build my own community (Pop. 2: Jim Harrison and David Abrams) but would blow it with my crippling shyness.

My wife was traveling with me, but had to take an earlier flight and would meet me during our layover in Chicago. For the next three hours, I was literally flying solo. When I’m alone, I tend to curl inward like an overcooked shrimp—and that’s exactly what I did as I sat in my aisle seat. I ignored the other two passengers in my row. I buried my face in a novel and made some notes on the book festival panel (“how to engage people on social media: Be Bold!”).

From the corner of my eye, I took note of my seatmates: next to me, a blonde woman in her twenties, finger-scrolling through smart-phone screens prior to takeoff; and, slumped against the window, a much-older man, bulky and wheezing and shifting uncomfortably in the narrow seat. We were strangers on a plane, each busy in our worlds: the young woman absorbed by her Facebook feed, me with my novel and notes, the old man staring absently into space.

The flight attendant gave her speech. We buckled our belts. We roared into flight.

I read my book and tried to blot out distractions, but that soon became impossible. The woman was a Loud Talker.

Loud Talkers are the bane of public-transportation readers’ existence. They shoot their voices into the air like arrows. They yearn to break your concentration and pull you into their orbit.

I sighed. This would be a long flight.

“So, Chicago! I’ve never been. How about you?” she asked the air.

I stayed glued to the page. I feigned congenital deafness.

“Oh, once or twice,” the man said.

“My first time,” the woman said. “I’m meeting my boyfriend there and we’re doing some sort of Oktoberfest thing.”

“Beer’s fine, but give me vodka any day.” He laughed. “A glass and a good book.”

“Oh, you like to read?”

“As much as I love to breathe.”

“I like some Stephen King but that’s about it.”

“I never cared for Stephen King,” the old guy said. “You know who you should read? Try James Lee Burke and Tom McGuane, a pal of mine. And then maybe work your way up to Dostoevsky.”

“This one here,” she said, pushing the conversation in my direction, “sure likes to read.”

The sound waves of her voice had vibrated against my faux-deaf eardrum and so I had to do something. I smiled an acknowledgement in their direction, getting a good look at the two of them for the first time.

My heart stuttered. The man, this man, I recognized him. The round head, the tanned-leather skin, the goatee, the wild static of hair, and the eyes. The eye, rather. The good one that now stared encouragingly at me while the other eye—the one a neighbor girl blinded with a regrettable jab from a broken beer bottle when he was seven years old; the one, he once described in a poem, that “jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket”—that eye roved elsewhere.

If I’d had a copy of Dalva with me instead of this other novel, I would have comically flipped a stare back and forth between the author photo and the flesh-and-blood Jim Harrison sitting three feet to my left. I would have leaned across the woman, crushing her into inconsequentiality, and held out my hand, chirping, “I’m a big fan of yours, sir!” I would have made the woman swap seats with me.

I did none of that. I clicked my open mouth shut, and stared at the book in my lap. My throat was clogged with words, but none would come out. This was crazy. Jim Harrison and I shared a publisher, Grove/Atlantic, and so there was already some common ground we could traverse. Granted, he was an already-acclaimed writer whose thirty-plus books had been translated into 22 different languages and I was a debut novelist who, by comparison, had made the tiniest of blips on the literary radar. But still, this was potentially a moment we could have shared, we Grove brothers, and I chose to back down, shy and embarrassed. What the hell was wrong with me? A whorl of hot prickles raced around my scalp and down my back.

The woman talked with him about her job as an oral hygienist (perhaps giving surreptitious, professional scrutiny of Mr. Harrison’s own ruined teeth as she talked), finally asking, “So, what do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Anything I might have heard of?”

“I’ve written about 20 different novels and story collections.”

“Name one.”

“Well, I wrote this thing called Legends of the Fall.”

She perked up. “Oh, yeah! I saw that movie. Brad Pitt! You did that one?”

“Well, I wrote the novella for it.”

“Oh, wow. Well, now I’ll have to read it.”

Every now and then, I acted like I was bored with my novel (which I was) and looked around the cabin. When I glanced over to look out the window, as if to ensure the wing was still intact, Jim Harrison caught my eye. He gave me a smile and a half nod.

The woman between us continued to talk about teeth, but he and I shared something: a vibe, maybe even an understanding. Did he know I was a fellow writer? Could he sense I knew Legends of the Fall first as a work of great literary fiction long before it was Brad Pitted? Wasn’t it obvious I was looking at him, the great novelist, and not checking on the stability of the plane’s wing?

He opened his mouth as if to say something to me, but then the woman asked another question and he was diverted. Our moment was lost.

I went back to my book, but couldn’t read it. The seatbelt sign illuminated. We buckled for the descent. We stowed our tray tables.

On the ground at O’Hare, they allowed Jim Harrison to deplane first because at 76 years old and owner of a body hit hard with gout, shingles and diabetes, he now belonged to that class of “people needing a little extra time.” He hobbled past me and slowly moved down the aisle. I thought that was the last I’d ever see of him.

I wanted to turn to the woman and say something like, “Do you know who that was? Do you have any idea what he has done for the literary wellbeing of our culture?” But she was already absorbed in her phone..

I collected my bags, walked off the plane, and nearly fell into Jim Harrison’s lap.

He was in a wheelchair at the ticket gate, chatting with a tall, stately woman I recognized as Judy Hottensen, an associate publisher at Grove I had met once or twice over the years at trade shows. Whatever I had felt on the flight, I braced myself for a fresh wave of embarrassment because I knew what was coming.

Judy saw me and exclaimed, “David! Wow, fancy seeing you here!”

“Hi, Judy. Small world.”

“I’m here to meet Mr. Harrison”—she beamed down at him—“who’s about to get an award from the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.”

I smiled at the man in the wheelchair.

Judy continued, “David, this is Jim Harrison; Jim, this is David Abrams. He’s a Grove author, too. He wrote Fobbit.”

Jim Harrison looked at me, bewildered and maybe a little hurt. “Yes,” he said. “We shared a plane ride just now.” He reached out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. Officially.”

I took his hand. I held it for as long as I could.

He squinted at me like I was a difficult word he was trying to pin to the page.

My wife was there by this point, saying we should hurry if we wanted to make the connecting flight.

There was so much I wanted to say to Jim Harrison—so much I should have already said. Instead, my voice limped away with a feeble, “Well, it was nice to meet you.” We went our separate ways.

“Who was that?” my wife asked as we jogged to our gate.

What could I say? How should I describe that feeling you get when you brush past opportunity and even as you do a double-take, looking over your shoulder as you rush by, know it’s too late to circle back? How could I possibly explain the lost moments on the plane, the small redemption of my publisher’s introduction, and the milky-eyed man who graciously reached out to take my hand in his own? What would I say about that man?

“That,” I told my wife, “was a legend.”

David Abrams is the author of Fobbit.