Rabu, 21 Maret 2012

THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN NORTHERN MAINE by Peter Nolan Smith

Bing Crosby couldn’t have sung WHITE CHRISTMAS on December 25, 1990. The sidewalks of New York were bare of snow, sleet, slush, and ice. The city entered 1991 equally whiteless. The month ended without any storms from the north and people were celebrating the end of winter.

Few of us had heard of global warming.

The term had first broken through the public unconsciousness with a SCIENCE article in 1975. ‘Inadvertent climate modification’ was gobbledygook to the normal man worried about the harsh conditions preceding the expectant nuclear exchange between the USA and USSR. The National Academy of Science warned of carbon increases in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1988 that ‘Global Warming’ was mentioned before Congress and our representatives shelved the consequences of the impending changes in weather with the combined ignorance of SuperBowl TV audience.

The New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19 in Tampa and every trendy Manhattan was fleeing the north for a weekend in Miami Beach. I had no interest in joining the exodus to the newly discovered art-deco district east of US 1. Too many people who regarded themselves VIPs were crowding on Ocean Avenue for my tastes.

I came from New England.

I was after cold and conjured up an expedition to the frozen tundra beyond the St. Lawrence River.

My friend Philippe ran a nightclub in the Meat Packing District. The long-haired Englishman was equally put off my the fashion elite’s transformation of old Miami and after a brief discussion we decided to go north until the snow and ice stopped any further progress.

The Eurotrash could have Miami Beach. 

We were on an expedition.

The Amtrak train transported us from Penn Station to Boston. The coast was clear of snow. My father met us at the 128 station. He drove us to my 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 tuned for a long road trip. I only used 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. The thermometer was stuck on 45 F.

“I know what winter looks like in Maine.” The seventy year-old Maine native had spent two of the long seasons in Jackman for the phone company. “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.

Philippe and I listened to NEVERMIND skirting the coast along the Casco Bay. Nirvana was as good on US 1 as it had been on the highway. Wells Beach, Old Orchard, and Portland were devoid of snow. I stopped in Falmouth Foresides to see my old house.

“When I was a kid, my older brother and I jumped from the roof into the snow drifts.”

“You would break your legs doing that today.” The grass was as yellow as our backyard south of Boston.

“My grandfather used to say there were two seasons in Maine; the season of good sledding and the season of bad sledding.” I got back in the car. “He never said nothing about the season of no sledding.”

A half-hour later we stopped at LL Bean where Philippe bought real winter clothing good for -20. Fahrenheit.

“Better to be prepared.” He looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy in his new down jacket. The temperature in Freeport was 40. Sweat poured from his face in the parking lot. He stashed the jacket in the back seat and we continued along on the old two-laner through 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 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 hoar frost rimmed the rocky harbor.

We ate at a restaurant overlooking the falls. The heavyweight bartender was in her late-twenties. She weighed in excess over 300 pounds. She wore a flannel shirt and overalls. The fashion sense for the other women in the bar varied between shabby and manly.

“Is this the norm?” Philippe lifted his head from the plate of broiled 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 hovered over freezing. 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.

This was the first time that I had been cold this year.

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 bleached blonde waitress at the restaurant in Bar Harbor was missing two front teeth. The skinny thirty year-old had a big nose. I was attracted to her and pushed my short hair into shape. Philippe had stopped my flirtation by ordering the bill.

“I liked her.” Skinny was better than big in my book.

“You were only leading her on.” The bony Brit was into petite 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. Mine was spotted with morsels which hadn’t made it into my mouth.

“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 Philippe, “You want some fun.”

“He’s with me.” I thumbed at Philippe.

“Then have a good time.” The fat bartender winked, as if she wanted to watch 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. A million stars traversed the clear sky. My breath was the only cloud in the air. The temperature had to be in the 20s. My fingers felt the cold and the car had a hard time starting. It was a good sign. We were getting north.

The next day we traversed the barren potato fields of Aroostock County. The snow deepened past Dover Junction. The grey skies didn’t renege on their promise of snow. Thick flakes clotted the air. The highway was plated by the tire-trampled residue of a recent blizzard. The temperature was hovering around 10F.

Old US 1 ended at its northern terminus of Fort Kent. Key West was 2377 miles to the south. Snow drifted chest-deep against the houses. Philippe tested his new jacket.

“It works.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything else from LL Bean.” I was wearing layers. Heavy boots were a must. We had reached winter and night was falling fast this far north.

We got a room at the motel nearest the ice-clogged river. The grinding floes filled the frozen air with horrid crunches.

“Tomorrow we’ll drive to the St. Lawrence and catch a ferry to the other side.” Icebreakers opened the seaway for ships throughout the winter. “We can reach Manicouagan Lake in two days. If the road’s open, I can make Newfoundland. It’s no Miami Beach.”

“I can’t go to Canada.” Philippe held his hands over the motel’s radiator. 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. Winter would only get more winter farther north.

“My visa is 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 Manicouagan 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 twenty 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.” He refused to look at the other side.

“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 consisted of doughty pizza and greasy burgers. “There’s 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?” Philippe 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 looked like either Brigitte Bardot or Francoise Hardy. Philippe was almost sold by my sales pitch, but he had a girlfriend back in New York.

“I can’t risk it.” They were in love.

“What’s the risk?” No one was guarding the bridge. “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.” Philippe shook his head. His nose was red from the cold wind.

“It’s either that or burgers.”

“Sorry.” He walked away from my grasp.

“Sorry?” I trailed him thinking about dragging him across the desolate bridge.

“You can come back in the summer.” 

“I have no idea where I will be in the summer.” Kidnapping was out of the question.

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

“Fucking Brits.” I joined Philippe in the Moose Inn. It had a pool table, jukebox, and wooden bar with draft beer.

He didn’t take off his hat. Everyone in the bar was wearing theirs. I couldn’t tell the difference between the men and women and threw my watch cap on the bar.

“Fuck the Resto 120.” There were no pommes persillade on the Moose Inn’s menu.

“What?” Philippe asked to appease my anger.

“Shut the fuck up.” I was in a bad mood. I ordered a beer. The Labatt went down in less than thirty seconds. The second took two minutes. The third lasted almost a quarter of an hour.

We ordered burgers and fries. My fifth beer washed down the hockey puck of a paddy and the sixth took care of the sodden fries. At least I was warm.

The bar 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. Philippe played DJ on the Jukebox. The crowd danced to LOUIE LOUIE. My battery was on E. A thickly 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. 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 Philippe.

Long hair hid his face.

“You’re saying that you want to dance with my date?”

“She’s 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.” The Englander’s illegality in America had halted my exploration of the North and I smiled as I said, “Just a dance.”

“You got it.” The townie staggered off to Philippe.

His mouth mouthed ‘you wanna dance’. I put down my beer before I spit it out laughing. The Brit came back to the bar and picked up his beer.

“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’.

“Just so you know, he had the politeness to ask me if it was okay.”

“And what you say?”

“I said okay. Let’s face it, you have to be the prettiest girl in northern Maine by a long shot.” I figured that we were even.

“Thanks.”

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

“Yes.” Philippe had said the magic word.

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

Philippe gave me the finger.

I returned the favor, for 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 a joint and everyone joked about him asking Philippe to dance.

“I’m not gay.”

“Only blind.” I tossed down the tequila.

Philippe danced with a fat woman. He laughed with the drunk about being mistaken for a woman.

No one asked me to dance.I wasn't their type, then again I wasn’t the prettiest girl in Northern Maine. It was a good place to be a man and I didn't see anything wrong with humming WHITE CHRISTMAS.The dead of winter was 2200 from Miami Beach and I was there.

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