Aroostook County is like no other place in America. It sits at the top of Maine, wears a hat made of snow most months, celebrates 1958 like it was ushered in yesterday. It’s where people still live with nature’s rhythms, eat brook trout and fiddleheads, glean new peas and potatoes, pick strawberries over home.
Folks tend to never leave.
Not in a creepy way, but in a why bother way. If you’re into simpler times, there’s no better life you can find.
We moved there in ’92, when they were just getting rid of telephone party lines and a sizeable chunk of their population. Folks were heading down Route 1 like the place was on fire, but it seemed like a typical year up there.
And that’s okay. I’m sure folks from the County liked it that way. I know I did. Hell, any place with a town that could lose a McDonald’s and keep a Tastee-Freez gets my vote, even if their pop tasted like mothballs. Not that they don’t have McDonald’s up there, but the one in Ft. Kent serves poutine avec les pommes de terre frites de McDonald’s. Pure gold.
I found that Ft. Kent treasure on the day I had to head up there to a construction equipment supplier to grab a replacement turbo for one of our front-end loaders at the mill, made by initials J and D. I say “had to” but man, I volunteered. Anything to break up the monotony of shoveling poplar bark for twelve hours.
Finding my way up even further north was easy because before the gig at the mill, I had been a repo man in the County for a couple of years. I knew roads that weren’t even on the map, pre-internet days. Hahaha. “Internet.” When we moved away in 2005, I still had 28k dial up. Imagine.
As long as we’re on the way-back machine, I had a gig for a minute during the 2000 census, worked with a Passamaquoddy buddy of mine; he was the local boss so that was cool. When the big bosses came up from Boston, they pulled out this map, started giving us quadrants to canvas. They were all “Okay, take these roads for instance. Head out this way in, let’s see —E-Plantation? Take the first section here…” We all looked at each other and laughed low and slow during their presentation. They finally picked up on it and
“What the hell’s so funny?”
“Man,” Skeej said, “are you gonna give us sleds?”
“What do you mean? Like snowmobiles? What the hell for?”
“Well, those aren’t roads, sir.”
“What are they, then?”
“Those are snowmobile trails, sir,” he laughed. “There’s only one road, really, and it’s called Route 1. That’s it, on the right-hand side. Everything else is seasonal trails.”
“Fine. You’ll be able to get there in your personal vehicles, then, right?”
“Well, sir, when did you want to start?”
“In the spring, in April.”
We all laughed some more.
“Sir, there’s still a couple feet of snow on the ground then. We’re gonna need those sleds sir. I’m an Arctic Cat man myself, if that helps.”
“Ski-Doo for me,” someone called out.
“Bombardier all the way,” I added.
We laughed again.
Boston crumpled up the map and threw it toward the trash can, missed.
About that repo man thing. At the time, I had a pile of jobs. I did home appliance repos, but I also put in the trees and flowers and theater seats at the brand-new mall that was built, cooked in the Mexican restaurant that opened in town, hand painted signs on the side with the missus, and generally hustled wherever I could. All that, sure, but doing repos for a rent-to-own place was my main gig.
It was sad. Folks spent thousands of dollars on crappy appliances and worse electronics because they had no credit, bad credit, and zero knowledge about how easy money worked. But we had all the latest stuff, and all that way up north, everything looked good. I remember the look in this customer’s eye one day, surveying the store. Sean St. Cyr had a couch, a VCR/DVD combo, and a 27” TV on account, along with a washing machine, and he was late on his payments all the time but wanted more. When I told him he was maxed out, couldn’t rent anything else, he said he’d be in one day to pay cash and buy out all his accounts. Said he had a plan. I just laughed. These contracts weren’t made for that. Sure, some people got it, used it to their advantage, though most folks got hooked into the easy terms. But not everyone.
Woodchippers, band saws, tables full of teeth, air shimmering with sawdust, Sean St. Cyr staggered back to his workstation, steadying himself on his way against piles of pulp ready for the plywood press. He had drunk today’s lunch (Lord Calvert!) and prepped for this moment weeks ago. His supervisor, Kenny Baker (who was actually a Boulanger, but whose traitor family changed their name to English two generations ago) put the suspicious eyes on him. He straightened up quick and said hey to a couple of his buddies, tipped his Jean-Pierre Theriault Mills company ball cap to the boss man and grabbed up his safety glasses—PPE first, 354 days accident free, all that good stuff.
Sean wasn’t a smart man, but he wasn’t a dumb one, either. He knew living in the County was a privilege, was something special. It wasn’t the air, though, it was…the light. The trees canted a certain way, cast storytelling shadows. The sun burned across snow tops in ways he could feel but not explain, burnt gold flared across the ground up here as a matter of course, as a way of life. That light, he could never replace, never explain, and never want to. Those scenes and secrets forbid sharing.
He put on his worn tan leather work gloves, tilted the Teflon guard, closed his eyes, and jammed his left hand into the ply veneer table saw. The 10° blade with its 70 carbide teeth sailed through deer hide, meat, and knuckles. The flying fingers never even tickled the e-stop. Sean dropped his chin to his chest, flipped the safety back down, hit the big red button himself, and raised his jetting hand in surrender. The alarm lit up the control board. Kenny looked up from his clipboard and hustled over.
“What the hell, man?!” he shouted over the saws and exhaust systems.
Sean gritted his teeth, brought his arm down. “I don’t know. My glove must’ve caught the rip edge.”
“What about the guard?”
“You see it, man. It failed or something.”
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Christ, you.”
“Do something, man. What the fuck.”
Kenny’s mind wheeled through all that was headed his way. The AAR, the after-action review, the explanation in the old man’s over-lit dusty office, OSHA, the friggin state investigation.
“Goddamnit. How could you let this happen?”
“I didn’t let shit happen. It just happened.”
Kenny searched Sean’s face.
“You let it happen.”
“You’ve been here for years. That doesn’t just happen.”
“Un poil de chatte. That’s all it takes. Or did you forget what that means, Boulanger?”
“I know what it means, you. But I still don’t believe it, me.”
“Believe what you want. You ain’t found my fingers yet, so I don’t give a shit.”
Kenny looked around, knew he was right, knew they probably wouldn’t turn up until the sweepers came through, pushing broomfuls of sawdust and who knows what else. Even then they’d probably look like chewed up pretzels, stubs of hamburg that wouldn’t be worth two shits anyway, reattachment out of the question. He handed Sean a shop floor towel from a bin next to the grease gun table.
Sean sighed, wrapping his hand. “What’s the plan, Stan?”
Kenny thought about it.
“We gotta get you to the hospital.”
“It’ll be a half hour until they show, at least.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that.”
“So you got any hooch in your office?”
“Should have, I think.”
“Well let’s look then, anyway. This shit is killing me.”
Kenny couldn’t even imagine.
“Yup. Let’s look.”
They headed to his little office off the cutting floor, Sean still in shock.
“Here we go.”
“Jesus. I need to sit.”
Sean slammed down into a grey pleather chair, mangled left hand held above heart level, just like all the laminated posters showed.
Kenny took the rolly cushioned seat behind his ancient metal desk, rummaged through its drawers, ketchup packs and useless pens sliding across the pitted rust spots. He found a fifth of Black Velvet jammed behind his personnel files, raised his eyebrows at its fullness, offered it across the desktop.
Sean took it in his good hand, thumbed the cap off, watched it fall to the grey tiled floor.
He tilted the bottle back, chugged two healthy swigs.
Kenny held his hand out, took the fifth and a belt himself, held the bottle on his knee.
They turned in unison, looked out the metal-grated windows, leaned back in their chairs, the dark gathering even at this hour, the -15° air cracking against the panes like quiet, hopeful fists.
Kenny hit the whisky again.
“You know, I don’t really believe all this,” he said, handing the bottle back to Sean.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I think you did this on purpose.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“Man, no one permanently disables themselves on purpose.”
“Bullshit, man. Some people do. I’ve seen it.”
“Your ass. People do it. Old Man Pelletier? Down at the diner, grabbing at the napkins with his thumb and one crookedy-ass finger? He’s got the same shit as you and hasn’t worked in forty years.”
“You saying I’m an Old Man Pelletier?”
“Maybe. Maybe I am.”
“Fuck you. Look at this.” He held up his destroyed hand, blood seeping through the dirty shop floor towel he had wrapped around it.
“I’m looking. And I’m seeing a guy on full disability for the next fifty years at least. Not a bad deal.”
“Man, fuck you. I—”
“No, fuck you. I have to explain this sh—”
“Fuck you. You think it’s so great, lay your hand out and I’ll cut your ass myself.”
Kenny glared at him. Sean’d been threatening to cut him, hell, cut anyone really, since the fifth grade or so when his dad brought home way too many d-grade street fighter / b-boy movies from the video rental in the grocery store up town. And when Kenny had “stolen” Marie-Ève from Sean in high school a few years back, well yeah, he thought he might actually get cut. He glared across the desk, the years of tension coming to a point between his eyebrows. Sean looked back, eyes in and out of focus.
They sat like that for a while, long enough anyway for pure dark to arrive, a hank of moon riding above the bluewhite snow drifts, sap popping in the maple stand, snapping loud enough to hear a hundred yards away. The whisky passed back and forth, stood now at about three fingers in the bottom of the bottle.
“Do you ever miss her?” Kenny wondered, just over his breath, handing the jug over.
Sean took a swig. “You asking me ‘cause you want to know, or ‘cause I only got one hand free right now?”
“I feel kinda bad about that, me.”
“Ah, you don’t, even.”
“Sure I do.”
“I’m having a smoke,” Sean said, shaking a red out of his soft pack, motioning for a light. “Fuck the old man.”
“Go ahead. I might as well have one too, then. Got an extra?”
“This guy,” Sean muttered, shaking out another onto the desk.
They smoked for a while, flicked their ashes on the floor, scuffed them in with their boots.
“You guys have a good life,” Sean broke the silence, flicked his cigarette into the corner.
“Yeah, we do,” Kenny stuck out his chin.
“You ever think about that? Think about how lucky you are?”
Kenny swung his boots up on the desk. “I do.”
“Ever think about how you got that life? Who paid for it all?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I paid for it myself.”
“Bullshit, man. Your ma and dad paid for your associate’s, and you stole my girl.”
“Oh, man. She came to me. Said you had her whole life planned out for her, you were too clingy, too—”
“But here you are, with the life I wanted for us. She seems to like it just fine.”
A plume of smoke rose from the dust pile where Sean’s smoke had landed. Kenny made a big show of getting up and going over to stomp it out, grabbing a cupful from the water cooler on the way.
“That’s right, company boy. Put out those fires for the old man. Shiiit, he’d probably make money, this place burned down.”
“Don’t even say that out loud.”
They both had put out plenty of mill fires. With sawdust, woodchips, oil, welders, and hot metal machinery everywhere, it was a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence. No one ever got hurt too bad, but the stink was something else. Most guys’ wives made them strip down outside the house before they’d let them inside when they came home from a day of running down fires. But to speak of a fire, possibly into existence, that was another thing entirely. Every single building up there was made of wood, the houses, the banks, man, they even had a wooden jail upcountry. And they all knew someone who had lost everything to a fire. So, no. No mention of fires. Sean must’ve been pretty drunk at this point, he thought.
“She likes our life because she helped pick it, you dumbass,” Kenny said, pouring the water onto the little embers and twisting his boot into the pile.
“Same shit, different bucket. She’d be doing the exact same thing with me.”
“You just don’t get it, man. She had to get there on her own. You can’t control people.”
“But it’s my job.”
Sean thought about that, prepped one up, decided he didn’t want to expend the energy on a reply. “Fuck it, man. Where’s that ambulance?”
On cue, flashing red lights eased into view in the corner of the grated window.
“There you go, Sean. Easy Street awaits.”
Sitting behind the counter at the rent-to-own joint on a sunny Saturday, early spring afternoon, I watched the light on Main Street clinging to the downtown buildings longer every day. Up north, it’s light out ‘til almost ten at night in the summer, and the air was gearing up for it. I longed to be on the other side of the storefront’s glass, the boss’s heavy breathing and daily ring anxiety twisted in the bright-lit air of the back office behind me. I decided to walk the showroom floor, talk to the customers considering signing sizeable portions of their income over to his sweaty ass. I usually talked them out of it, mentioned that Service Merchandise and Sears had pretty easy credit.
The crowd thinned; folks headed out to pick up Saturday night supper. The missus called, said the grandparents wanted to head out to Camper’s Paradise in E Plantation. They were having ham and bean hole beans. That made my ears perk up. Bean hole beans are one of life’s treasures, and they knew what they were doing out there. If you’ve never had them, well what happens is a giant pot of Great Northerns filled with water an inch under the top, some fat back, a stick of butter, an onion, and a bunch of molasses (too much, if Papa’s minding the pot) gets covered up tight and goes into a hole full of coals from a good hardwood fire and gets buried in the ground the night before. The next afternoon, man. The best beans you’ll ever eat, no lie. So yeah, I was pretty stoked to close up.
I was doing that, thinking about spending time with the family, digging deep in my repertoire for musical requests (since singing happened at Camper’s Paradise, and Nana always asked me what I wanted to hear and all I could ever think of was “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” cause, jam) and I wanted to offer something different tonight for some reason, and thought I’d try “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Balancing the cash drawer was going smoothly, most folks still paying with checks. I was about done when the front doorbell tinkled.
A huge figure loomed in, heading up the main aisle for the front desk. I couldn’t make out who it was, gold flames reflecting off the storefront across the street backlit his entire frame. Six feet four or so inches ambled my way and the features slowly came into focus as they reached the counter.
Sean St. Cyr thrummed three left-handed bone-white stumps on the Formica, slapped a wad of cash up there with his right hand, smiled and turned away, headed for the door, that goldlight edging a life I’d never know.