Adam Matson's fiction has appeared internationally in over twenty magazines including The Indiana Voice Journal, Straylight, Soundings East, The Bryant Literary Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Morpheus Tales, Infernal Ink Magazine, and Crack the Spine. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press).
|Paul Klee 1913 "Houses Near the Gravel Pit"-WikiArt|
I got off the Maine turnpike at Augusta and headed west. It was night, and after a strip of deserted car dealerships and empty fast food joints the road to Jasper became as dark as a lost memory.
I was driving to Jasper to visit Charlie, who had moved back home to help his father deal with the worsening symptoms of M.S. In the morning we would be going hunting, rising before dawn in the November darkness. Charlie’s father would be joining us, if he felt up to it.
I had left Boston, where I lived and worked, around 5:30 PM, and pretty much floored the accelerator up the thinly-trafficked turnpike. So it wasn’t even 9 o’clock when I hit the long curve of Route 133 approaching Jasper. I felt nervous but also giddy, the way anyone would feel during a homecoming, I suppose. I had moved away from Jasper as a kid, but had seldom returned to visit. The air of the old town had a feel, a sort of muted electricity, the buzz of familiar ghosts roaming about, including my own.
The road was lined with trees- pine, maple, birch, all black as old bones in a graveyard. A green Honda Accord appeared in my headlights, parked in the ditch beside a telephone pole. The windows were dark. An “Eat Local” bumper sticker covered rust spots on the fender.
About half a mile further on I saw a young woman shuffling along the road with two children, like a mama bear leading her cubs. I slowed down. Jasper was the kind of community where you offered someone a ride. I rolled down my passenger-side window. “That your car back there?”
“Yeah, that’s us,” said the woman. She smiled at me, searching for recognition but finding none.
“Get in, I’ll give you a ride.”
“Thanks,” she said. To her kids: “Get in, guys.”
The kids climbed quietly into the back seat. The woman took the passenger seat, thanking me again for stopping.
“My fan belt’s been squealing for weeks,” she said. “Finally we heard the pop. I should have just taken a day off to get it done.”
She grinned at her kids in the back seat. “You guys glad we don’t have to walk?”
They murmured in the affirmative.
“We’re up in North Jasper, by the dam,” she said to me. It was a good thing she said so, because the turn for the North Jasper Road was about a hundred feet ahead, and I slowed down quickly to make it.
“You know where you’re going?” she asked.
“Yeah, I used to live here,” I said.
“Yeah. Moved away when I was twelve.”
“No shit, what’s your name?”
“Noooooooo shit.” She laughed, staring at me now. I glanced sidelong at her. Something hit me before I knew it did. “It’s Carrie,” she said.
Carrie Ducharme. Of course it was. That’s what happened in rural Maine. There was no such thing as a stranger walking alongside the road.
We both laughed. She looked like she might attempt to hug me across the gearshift, but she didn’t try it.
“I used to play with Ben Ward when I was little,” Carrie said to her kids, a boy and a girl, who were watching us curiously from the backseat. “So you know where we live then,” she said to me. “Same house.”
“Your folks still around?” I asked.
“They moved in with my Aunt Cindy in Wiscasset. I’m glad to have the house, but it doesn’t make babysitting easy. I can’t just drop off these little goobers.” She jerked a thumb at her kids. “Benji Ward, I can’t believe it. Driving by on a moonless night. I was just starting to not believe in stuff like that.”
I told her I was in Jasper to go hunting with Charlie. Told her about where I was living, and my job. What my parents were up to now. We passed not another soul on the North Jasper Road, driving or walking.
We pulled into her driveway, and her house reminded me of some lost childhood dollhouse, rediscovered behind an old piano in the attic. The clapboard had perhaps not been painted in the last sixteen years, and the lawn was patchy with brown grass, but then November was not the month Maine posed for yearbook photos.
“You gotta come in for a beer,” Carrie said, and though it was late, and I’d be heading into the marsh in about seven hours, I accepted her offer and we went inside.
“You guys get your pajamas on, then we can watch Netflix,” Carrie said, shooing her kids off to their bedrooms. We heard the patter of their feet running upstairs. They returned seemingly in moments and we all went into the living room. Carrie sat on the couch between her son and daughter and I sat in the rocking chair that her father used to sit and rock in when he watched the Red Sox games.
“Pretty weird, huh?” she said, watching me take inventory of the house.
“It looks exactly the same,” I said. “Even smells the same.”
“Like your mom’s apple bread.”
“Yeah. It’s my apple bread now.”
The kids turned on the TV and selected a program. I didn’t watch TV, so I had no idea what they were watching. I sipped my Budweiser casually but with intent to finish.
“So are you married?” I asked her. There did not seem to be evidence of a papa bear on the premises.
“Working on it,” Carrie said. “Nobody seems to stay married up here.”
She touched the back of her daughter’s head. “Janie’s dad is Mike Lewis, you probably remember him.”
I told her I did.
She reached out for her son, who pulled away. “And Jacob came from Todd Waters. And it’s starting to show. Isn’t it, ya little shit?” She mussed up her son’s hair.
“They still around?” I asked, trying not to sound disrespectful.
“Yeah, Mike’s with Brandy Haverson now. They’ve got a new baby girl. And Todd’s down in Warren, thinking about what a bad boy he’s been. No surprises in life, Ben. You get what you pay for.”
I nodded. Life seemed to exist at a different pace in Jasper from what I was used to. I had a girlfriend, but it was nothing serious. Marriage was nowhere on the horizon.
Carrie offered me another beer and I told her thanks but Charlie was probably waiting for me. She said Charlie wouldn’t mind, and she stood up and went into the kitchen. I interrogated her kids about the TV show they were watching, but did not glean much from their mumbled responses.
Carrie returned with two more beers. I glanced over at her as she turned her back to me and bent to adjust a blanket around her daughter’s feet. A lifetime of casually observing women will tell you a thing or two; for example, a little extra posterior cushion could suggest the early stages of pregnancy. I couldn’t see her belly because she was wearing a UMaine sweatshirt.
Ten o’clock rolled around, and the reality of getting up at four-thirty began to press on me. I finished my beer and told Carrie that somewhere out in the Jasper marshes was a soon-to-be-dead duck with my name on its wing. We stood up and she gave me a hug and I tried to feel the firmness of her belly where a bump might be starting to form, but I couldn’t tell anything for certain. She thanked me again for giving her a ride home, and flicked the little toes of her kids until they thanked me also.
“Don’t be a stranger, Ben,” she told me. “Don’t let another sixteen years go by.”
This remark struck me as somehow horrific.
Outside I climbed back into my time machine and drove over to Charlie’s house.
The day before my family moved out of Jasper it was sunny and warm, late August. Many of our friends showed up to help pack the truck, and a barbecue sprouted up to support the endeavor. My parents were soon relegated to supervisory roles as our friends took over the grunt work, assuring us in their neighborly way that it was no trouble for them to do the heavy lifting.
My parents were both professors at Bates College. My mother was offered a position at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, and she decided to take it. I learned years later that there had been no professorial hierarchy between my parents. They had decided early in their marriage and careers that they would follow whosever job track seemed more prosperous, and it so happened that my mother’s number came up first. They both eventually received tenure at Cornell.
Jasper, Maine was everything I had ever known. My friends were the only people on earth, it seemed, the only starring players on the small rural stage. I tried to imagine how life would be different in Ithaca, but I couldn’t, and this worried me.
Toward the end of the afternoon the moving party started to wind down, and we had packed up everything except our mattresses and some odd and ends. We would be leaving first thing in the morning, hoping to make the long drive to Ithaca in one day. As the adults gathered outside for a ceremonial final beer, I went back into the house and wandered through the empty rooms. The house seemed hollow and small. I walked up the creaky stairs to my bedroom. Everything had been removed. Even the carpet had been rolled up and hauled away, exposing the dusty naked floorboards beneath. It was shocking to me how thoroughly my presence had been erased. I sat down on the bare floor. I felt like crying, but didn’t want anybody to see me.
Carrie found me sitting there, staring out the window at the post office across the street. She had tied a blue bandana around her head, a prop which made her look like a character who was helping the main characters move.
“Hey, Benji,” she said, sitting down beside me.
I didn’t say anything. I almost did not feel her take my hand in hers. Her palms were warm and dry the way only a girl’s could be, brimming with nascent life.
“This feels so weird,” I said. “To think I’m not coming back.”
“You’ll come back to visit though, right?”
“At least you’re going somewhere cool,” she said. “New York.” She said it as if she were referring to New York City, and not some little town upstate. Neither one of us had ever been to New York City, but we knew it was where American life happened.
“I feel like I’ll be here forever,” she said. I took no stock of this statement at the time, as I had never really considered the difference between her life and mine. Her father was a carpenter and her mother worked part-time at the Corner Store in North Jasper, right across the street from their house. Her parents had been born in Jasper. Mine were from California and Connecticut.
“I wrote something for you,” she said, her voice almost trembling. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.
“What is it?” I asked, dumbly. Obviously she was about to show me.
“It’s a poem,” she said. “About us, and Jasper, and- well, I’m gonna read it. You can take it with you and then you’ll have it wherever you go.”
I’m ashamed to say that I lost the piece of paper with her poem on it, probably during the frequent relocations of my college years. Now I can only remember the gist of its content. But I remember sitting there with her in my empty bedroom, as the dusk lazily crept into the sky outside, while Carrie softly read to me. By the time she finished we were both crying. My hand was still squeezed in hers, and the comforting warmth of her skin made me feel like I didn’t have to worry about what might happen to me.
When I arrived at Charlie’s house, there was a single light on inside, and I found Charlie sitting at the dining room table, inspecting his shotguns. He gave me a bear hug as I dropped my gear on the floor, and he offered me a beer before I even got my shoes off.
“The folks went to bed, but they’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.
“Henry still coming with us?”
“Oh yeah. We had a few beers to sharpen our hunting instincts. Then we switched to whiskey and Dad soon heard his bed calling. We didn’t know what time you’d be getting here.”
“I stopped to help a damsel in distress.” He listened as I told him about my encounter with Carrie. “I still think about her from time to time,” I said. “But then all of a sudden there she was. She looks good.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “I thought the same thing when I first saw her again too. Ran into her last winter when I moved back.”
“She still lives over by the dam.”
He nodded. “About half our friends still live in town,” he said. “Never left, I mean. At least I left for a while.”
“You going to stick around?”
He shrugged. We had a couple of beers and talked about hunting, and he gave me a long, undulating break-down on the usage of the shotguns we’d be taking into the marsh. He slouched at the dining room table, and I assumed he was just tired from an evening of dedicated drinking, but then I realized he was distracted.
“Well, we should probably go get her car,” he said, after a period of silence. “My dad can fix the fan belt tomorrow. We’ll just call her in the morning and tell her we have her car.”
It was close to midnight, and I wondered if I’d heard him right. “Carrie’s car?”
“Yeah, we should get it off the road. I’m in no shape to drive. You can drive the truck. We have a tow hitch.”
Then we were outside and back on the road in the pitch dark, me driving Charlie’s father’s truck, and Charlie slumped in the passenger seat, thinking about I could not tell what.
“She’ll appreciate it,” he said eventually.
“You see her around pretty often?” I asked.
“Yeah, I see her,” he said. “She took over for her mom at the store. Her kids are cool.”
I nodded, trying to focus on the road. I was not exactly drunk, but neither was I exactly sober.
“Her one kid’s got that asshat Todd Waters for a father,” Charlie said. “I feel sorry for the boy. For Carrie too. Like it or not she’s tied to that guy for life.”
“Well,” I said. “She was a smart girl. She could have seen it coming.”
“Yeah…. I can see how it happened though. Jasper, Maine. You’re home, you’re lonely, you run into someone from the old days. Few drinks out at the Weathervane….”
“Tell you the truth,” I said. “She looked like there might be a fresh bun in the oven.”
He stared out the window. “Mm-hmm.”
A few minutes later we found the Honda. I pulled up in front of it and backed up, Charlie guiding me through bleary eyes. Suddenly we felt a bump.
“Too close,” Charlie said.
We got out and went around behind the truck. I held a flashlight while Charlie dug a chain out of the truck bed and started hooking it up to the frame of the Honda’s undercarriage. Even drunk and sluggish Charlie moved with seasoned confidence, as if he was used to towing cars out of such predicaments.
“You sure that’s safe?” I asked as he inspected his handiwork, letting a bit of slack out of the chain.
“Just drive slow,” he said. “It’s only a couple of miles, and there’s no one around.”
He stared at the Honda for a long moment.
“This thing is a real piece of shit,” he concluded. “What I should really do is get her something new. Well, used. But newer than this.”
I stuck my hands in my coat pockets and rubbed them together. “Why would that be your obligation?” I asked.
I pointed at the car. He looked at me, confused, then seemed to sober up a little, nodding to himself as he glanced at the ground.
“So I guess you’ll be hanging around Jasper for a while then,” I said eventually.
“Looks like it.” He crouched down and inspected the chain again, then stood up and clapped me on the elbow. “Come on, Benji, we’re getting up in like four hours.”
The night air had sobered me up a bit too. Charlie got into the passenger seat of the truck and closed the door. I climbed in behind the wheel and we headed back to his house, my eyes glued to the swerving car in the rearview mirror.
The night before we moved away from Jasper I could not sleep. The four of us, my parents, my sister, and I, camped out in sleeping bags on mattresses on the floor of the dining room. The August air was hot and stale. I kept getting in and out of the sleeping bag until eventually I brushed the bag aside.
Lying against the bare mattress in the darkness, I felt my chest start to constrict. I had a weird thought that maybe I would never be able to sleep again. Indefinite insomnia, which would lead to insanity. I wanted to get out of the house, not to run away, but to be somewhere familiar and comfortable. I knew that now nothing would stop us from moving, and I had accepted that. I just didn’t want my last night in Jasper to be marred by agitation and fear.
Carefully I rolled off the mattress. I could hear my father’s gentle snoring and knew that at least he was asleep. My mother slept silently. My shoes were in the front hallway, so I tip-toed barefoot through the kitchen. The house still smelled like our family, but that smell was the only remnant of us.
I found a piece of paper and left a note for my parents, then slipped outside to the driveway. My bike was already strapped to the bike rack on the back of our minivan. I loosened the straps and lifted the bike down. Above me the moon was milky in the humid sky. The only sound I heard was the buzz of the street light in front of the post office.
The Jasper roads were quiet and still. I pedaled up the winding hills beside the lake, riding the downslopes with a warm breeze on my forehead. I expected a car to pass me on the road, at which point I assumed my mission would be aborted, but no cars passed.
I heard the dam in North Jasper before I saw it. I cruised down the long hill with my hands clutching the handle brakes. In August the spring rush of the dam had subsided to a gentle trickle, and I stopped my bike beside the stream and listened to the water. The village was stone still, but I worried that someone would see me, and I’d be in trouble.
There were no lights on at Carrie Ducharme’s house. I parked my bike in the grass beside their driveway and crept around to the back of the house. Her bedroom was dark, but the window was open to let air flow in through the screen. I almost turned around and went home, but I wanted to see her. I had spent all evening thinking about her poem.
It took several minutes of me scratching on the screen before Carrie appeared at the window, her eyes puffy from sleep, her hair sticking out in rebellious frills.
“Who’re you,” she muttered, her eyes closed.
“It’s Ben,” I said.
She opened her eyes. “Benji?”
“’M I dreaming?”
She pushed the screen out and took my hand in her warm grip while I half-climbed and she half-pulled me into her bedroom.
We crawled into her single bed and Carrie drew a thin sheet over us. A fan buzzed gently in the corner, swirling warm air around the room. I pulled Carrie against me and she fell back asleep within minutes, but I lay awake for a long time. Her body radiated warmth like a battery, the heat pulsing through her tee shirt and mine. This was physically the closest I had ever been to a girl. She smelled of shampoo and fabric softener and the faint scent of something like apples. The smell of pure Girl. I do not remember falling asleep.
In the morning we awoke to the bedroom door opening. Carrie’s father stared in at us, without anger or consternation or even surprise.
“Got a call from your folks,” he said to me. “They’re on their way to get you. Better have some breakfast before you go.”
We sat at the kitchen table and ate Honey Nut Cheerios. Carrie’s mother came in and made coffee. Nobody really said anything. Carrie stared down into her cereal bowl.
When my parents and sister arrived I heard the groaning of the Uhaul, and I realized that since I had snuck out of the house I had missed the final morning. We would be leaving town now and I would never see the inside of our house again.
My parents were not upset to find me in the Ducharmes’ kitchen. Carrie’s mother offered them coffee, which they politely declined, my father saying there would be several pit stops along the road. They waited for me to finish my cereal, which I did with the contemplation of a statue.
Hugs were given all around, and promises made to keep in touch. The Ducharmes came outside to see us off, and Carrie’s father helped my father secure my bike to the minivan.
We pulled out of the driveway as the sun was just coming up over the dam. I rode in the Uhaul with my father, while my mother and sister followed in the minivan. Because of my jaunt to North Jasper we would take a different road to the highway and Augusta, so I didn’t get to see the Jasper village one last time either.
Carrie stood in her driveway as we pulled away. Just stood perfectly still watching the moving van. And then I guess she must have gone back inside once we were out of sight, and gotten on with her life.
© Adam Matson