Robert Hill—A Story About a Story
It was a warm night on the hotel patio, as I sat listening to Georgia’s nocturnal noise. In the morning we would all be busily getting ready for my aunt Alison’s wedding, but right then I was relaxing and enjoying the evening. Being a bit of a night owl, I was just wondering what to do with myself until sleep finally took me, when out of the darkness strolled my other aunt, Stacia, and her husband, Robert.
They stopped to talk for a bit—it wasn’t often we could just walk up to each other, the couple having flown in from their home in England for the wedding—but Stacia soon decided to take herself off to bed; she had a sister to help guide through a wedding in the morning. Robert wasn’t ready to retire, though, and we sat whiling away the night in pleasant conversation. My uncle seemed designed for pleasant conversation, with his soft, smooth way of speaking, and a smile both gentle and infectious.
At one point—it must have been around 2:00 am—I was telling Robert the story of a large fish I’d caught somewhat by accident. I was quite enthusiastic about fishing at the time, and I’d gotten fairly involved in my story. I enjoy telling stories, and I was in full voice, and using intricate gestures . . . and halfway through the tale I realized, from the questions he was asking, that Robert didn’t know all that much about fishing. It occurred to me that, for someone who doesn’t fish, hearing my rendition of how I landed the big one might be akin to my having to sit through a shot-by-shot description of someone’s golf game: I’d rather have a tooth pulled.
Assuming he was merely being polite, and feeling an ass for not figuring it out sooner, I cut the tale short and apologized for keeping him up so late; this was his opportunity to quietly slip up to his room where he could tell Stacia how he’d finally managed to escape her babbling nephew.
“No, please,” he said, taking me quite by surprise. “Do finish your story."
So I did, in just the way I’d been telling it before. Eventually the fish was landed, the story complete, and we sat there a minute, looking at each other across the patio table and listening to the quiet night. For my part, I was wondering if he had simply out-polited me, something I could very well imagine Robert doing. For his part, it appeared he was trying to figure out how to tell me something.
“You know,” he said, finally—and somewhat seriously. “I really don’t know much about fishing.”
“I figured that,” I said, feeling the blush creep up my cheeks.
“The odd thing was, it didn’t matter. The way you went about telling it, a minute or two into your story I already wanted to know how it turned out.” Then he broke into one of those beautiful, infectious smiles of his, leaning forward a bit with the happy urgency of his idea. “Have you ever thought of writing these stories of yours down? I really think you should.”
He had no way of knowing I’d been wrestling with that very idea, wanting to start writing but more than half convinced no one would want to read what I wrote. As I sat there, somewhat joyfully stunned, he went on, and though I can’t remember his exact words anymore, I remember his enthusiasm, and his grin, somehow gentle and intense at the same time. It was very late by then, and we said our goodnights and went off to our rooms . . . but that smile of his was still on my mind, and the happy feeling he’d given me clung like a warm second skin.
A couple of months later, that very fish story won a small writing contest, becoming my first published work.
That was a few years and quite a few stories ago. Nowadays I do occasional public readings, and writing events, and one of the questions I’m most commonly asked is How did you start writing? And every time, my mind goes back to that patio table and chairs, that warm Georgia night, and that gentle-yet-intense smile pouring forth words of unexpected encouragement.
Robert Hill casually reached out that night and changed my life very much for the better. He didn’t intend to; he wasn’t even aware he was doing it. He was simply being Robert Hill: gentle, enthusiastic, and oh-so sweet. He created a moment in my life that I will never forget, and I thank him for it with amazing regularity. Perhaps now he will hear me when I do.
Thank you, Robert.
He will be sorely missed.