Jumat, 18 November 2011

THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN NORTHERN MAINE by Peter Nolan Smith

Xmas 1990 had been mild and snowless and winter had failed to arrive in New York by the end of January 1991.. Everyone trendy was heading to Miami Beach for weekends in the sun and the art-deco district east of US 1 was suffering from discovery by the fashion elite. I had no interest in joining the exodus. Too many people who regarded themselves VIPs were crowding on Ocean Avenue for my tastes.

I wanted cold.

Snow had to exist in the north and I conjured up an expedition to discover the frozen tundra beyond the St. Lawrence River.

My friend Philippe ran a nightclub in the Meat Packing District. The long-haired Englishmen was equally put off my the transformation of Miami. Neither of us liked crowds and we opted to drive to the farthest reaches of Maine instead of sun-bathe with groovy Eurotrash. 

An Amtrak train transported us to Boston. The coast route was clear on snow. My father met us at 128. He drove us to our family home in the Blue Hills south of the city. My car was in the garage. The gray 1982 Cutlass had good heat and a working stereo. The passenger window was paralyzed by faulty wiring, but the V8 was ready for a road trip. I only drove it on weekends in the summer.

"You want to come with us?" I asked my father in the sun room. The sky was a bright boreal blue. The grass behind our house was a withered yellow. My mother was in the kitchen cooking beef stew. Her recipe came from my Irish grandmother. It was a good winter meal.

"I know what winter looks like in Maine." The seventy year-old Maine native had spent two of the long seasons in Jackman. “The trees crack from the cold. They sound like cannons. Why can’t you be normal and go to Florida?”

“I want to see Lake Manicouagan.” A five-kilometer meteor had struck the Laurentian Shield to create a a ringed impact crater.

“The roads will be closed for the season.”

“It has been a warm winter.”

“Nothing is warm north of the St. John’s River.” The four-hundred mile stream served as the border between the USA and Canada.

“And that’s why were going there. To see winter.”

My mother understood my reasons. She loved to see the world.

“Be my eyes.” She kissed my cheek in the morning and pressed $40 in my hand. “Buy yourself a nice lobster.”

“Drive safe.” My father was firm believer in defensive driving.

“I’ll keep the car between the lines.” I hadn’t had an accident since 1974.

We listened to NEVERMIND skirting the coast along the Casco Bay. Nirvana was as good on US 1 as it had been on the highway. We passed through Wells Beach, Old Orchard, Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Bath, Wicassett, and Rockland. Each town held a story from my childhood. I told Philippe each one. This was the land of my childhood.

We stopped at LL Bean. Philippe bought real winter clothing. It was good for -20. Farenheit.

We arrived in Camden at dusk. The motel cost $40 for two. The picturesque seaside resort was asleep for the winter. The temperature was below freezing and ice rimmed the rocky harbor.

We ate at a restaurant overlooking the falls. The bartender was 27. She weighed in excess over 300 pounds. The fashion sense for the other women in the bar varied between shabby and manly.
“Is this the norm?” Philippe concentrated on his halibut. The waitress promised it was fresh. In Maine fresh meant an hour off the boat.

“Any woman in Maine is twice the man either of us will be.” A man at the bar was eyeing Philippe in a funny way. The Englishman was near-sighted same as me, but refused to wear glasses. I didn’t mention the attention of the stranger.

The next day we drove farther Downeast. The temperature was hovering over zero. Patches of snow hid in the woods along US 1. We reached Bar Harbor mid-afternoon. After finding a cheap motel Philippe and I headed over the Shell Beach. The polar air was crisp as a potato chip. Small waves rippled through the tidal ice. I had bot been this cold in years.

That evening we ate lobsters in Bar Harbor. Philippe and I were the only two diners. No one was drinking at the bar. The fat woman serving us beer looked like she had been spawned by salmon. The waitress at the restaurant in Bar Harbor was missing two front teeth. The skinny 30 year-old had a big nose. I was attracted to her. Phillipe had stopped my flirtation by ordering the bill.

"I liked her."

"You were only leading her on." The bony Brit was into Asian women. New York had plenty of those.

"And she me." I hadn't expected it to go anywhere further than holding hands. 

"She's uglier than sin." Philippe had eaten every morsel of lobster. His shirt was unstained by butter or stray meat. 

"Nothing wrong with ugly." I had drunk enough to make me good-looking in the bathroom mirror.

"You'd regret it in the morning." He was scared of having to share the room with rutting Mainiacs. As I paid the bill, the bartender asked, if I wanted some fun.

“I’m with my friend.” I thumbed at Philippe.

“Then have a good time.” The fat bartender winked, as if she wanted to come along with us

“Aren’t there any attractive females in this state?” Philippe asked under his breath.

"Not many." I was pissed at him for having ruined my chances with the skinny girl. She was talking to the chef. He looked, as if he thought he was going to get lucky tonight.

"I'll regret nothing." I started for the kitchen. "You're a buzzkill."

Philippe dragged me out of the restaurant before I could do something stupid.

The next day we traversed the barren potato fields of Aroostook County. Old US 1 ended at its northern terminus of Fort Kent. Key West was on the other end. Some two hundred miles south of Miami.

Snow drifted deep chest-high against the houses. Night was minutes away. Fort Kent was the end of the road for today. We got a room a the motel nearest the ice-clogged river. The grinding floes filled the frozen air with horrid crunches. This was winter. It was no joke.

"Tomorrow we'll drive until the road is impassable." We were a day’s ride from Manicougan Lake. At the worst it might take two days. If the road was open, I planned on making it all the way to Newfoundland. It was no Miami Beach.

"I can't go to Canada." Philippe held his hands over the motel’s radiator. The The interior surface of the windows were glazed by ice. A naked man wouldn’t last thirty minutes outside.

"Why not?" He was English and I thought he might have a prejudice against French Canadians.

"I have a visa problem." He avoided eye contact.

"What kind?" French Canadian women were attractive. Their Gallic beauty came from not eating potato chips.

“Out of date.” He was embarrassed by this admission.

"How long?" Mexicans were called ‘wetbacks’. Up this far north illegals were known as ‘snowbacks’. They were mostly Canadian.

"Two years."

"Damn." We were 673 miles from Manhattan. I had a car and money in my pocket. I had dreamed on standing on the shores of Manicougan Lake for years. I grabbed Philippe by his arm. "Put on your coat."

"It's cold." He protested without conviction.

"This is northern Maine. Of course it's cold." I forced Philippe to get into the bulky parka that he had bought at LL Bean. We walked down US 1 to a snow-covered steel truss bridge. The wind off the frozen river was 20 degrees south of zero and Philippe's long hair whipped across his face.

‘That’s Quebec.” I pointed to the black bank across the St. John’s River.

“I know.”

“They have good food in Canada.” The French had colonized the region over four hundred years ago. I appealed to his weakness for good food. We had eaten lobster the previous evening. Fort Kent’s cuisine was centered on pizza and burgers. “There’ a great French restaurant in Clair.”

“The Resto 120.” The restaurant had been recommended by the motel manager. Her last name was Quelette. Fine cuisine was a specialty of the lost tribe of France. She wore her weight well. “Tourtires, soupe aux pois, et pommes persillade. Cheese. Wine. Good bread.”

“Really?” Phillipe was a hearty eater for a thin man.

“And French girls are cute.” They ate ‘frites’ not potato chips.

At Old Orchard Beach the sexiest girl in the summer were from Quebec City. They all looked like either Brigitte Bardot or Francoise Hardy. Phillipe was almost sold, but he had a girlfriend back in New York. They were in love.

“I can’t risk it.”

“What’s the risk?” I pointed at the bridge. No one was guarding it. “On the way back you can hide in the trunk. It’s heated.”

If the technique worked for millions of wetbacks, it couldn’t be too much trouble to run a snowback operation at a sleepy border crossing.

“No way.”

“It’s either that or burgers.”

“Sorry.” He walked away from my grasp.

“Sorry?”

“You can come back in the summer.” 

"I have no idea where I will be in the summer."

“Me neither, but it won’t be a deportation cell. Burgers and fries tonight.” Phillipe stormed over to the nearest bar. FOOD and LABATT BEER flashed neon in its window. I stared across the icy river with disappointment. This was as far north as I would go this year.

“Fucking Brits.” I joined Phillipe in the Moose Inn. He didn’t take off his hat. No one in the bar did off theirs either. I threw mine on the bar.

The St. John’s Bar had a pool table, jukebox, wooden bar with draft beers.

“Fuck the Resto 120.”

“What?” Philippe asked to appease my anger.

“Shut the fuck up.” I was in a mood.

We ordered burgers and fries. I drank Labatt on draft. The bar was filled with loggers, snowmobile sledders, and the state road crew. A storm was due in two days, so everyone was getting in their drunk tonight. I bought drinks for the road crew. We were out of speed and I was crashing hard. Phillipe played DJ on the Jukebox. The crowd danced to LOUIE LOUIE. My battery was on E. A thick bearded drunk tapped my shoulder.

“What?”

“You mind if I dance with your date?” The man had a cross-eyed squint. One lens of his glasses was cracked. He was about my age. For a second looking at him was like seeing my personalized ‘Portrait of Dorian Grey’. We were both forty.

“My date?” I was confused for a few seconds, until he glanced over his shoulder at Phillipe. Long hair hid his face. The rest of the girls in the bar weighed more than a log. The Englander’s illegality in America had halted my exploration of the North. I had to get back at him and asked the drunk, “You’re saying that you want to dance with my date?”

“She’ better looking than any of the other girls in this town.”

He lit a cigarette with a match. It flared over his thumb. The townie didn’t register any pain and said with a dull vice, “Girls around here weigh as much as moose in a peatbog. I like them skinny. You mind?”

“Be my guest.” I was too tired to explain his mistake. “Just a dance.”

“Cool.”

The townie staggered off to Phillipe. His mouth mouthed ‘you wanna dance’. He said something else and Phillipe looked shocked. The Brit came back to the bar.

“Some guy just asked me for a dance.” Philippe was outraged by the offer.

“And you said no?”

“Of course I said no.” He was horrified by the thought that I presumed that he might say ‘yes’. I had made my bones.

“I said it was okay. You have to be the prettiest girl in northern Maine by a long shot.”

“Thanks.”

“Did he offer to buy you a drink?” We were running low on money.

“Yes and he had speed.” Philippe had said the magic word. All was forgiven.

“So get to it, Thelma.” I dropped two quarters and played KC and the Sunshine Band and Nirvana. They were good dancing songs.

I was ready to party along the St. Johns. The meteor lake was for another day or year. I ordered tequila. The logger gave me some speed. Philippe danced with a fat woman. He laughed with the drunk about being mistaken for a woman.

No one asked me to dance.

Then again I wasn’t the prettiest girl in Northern Maine.

I was only me.

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