Down East Homecoming
I pull the Subaru into the dirt parking lot alongside Doris’ Luncheonette and stare at the yellowing white siding of the two-story building for a few minutes. I turn anxiously to Will, and see the fresh scar from his last blackout spread across his face.
“This is steak and potatoes territory. No scenes over not seeing tofu hotdogs on the menu, okay?” I ask. He doesn’t answer me and I repeat, “Okay?”
“Fine,” he finally mumbles.
“Think about first impressions, alright?”
“Fine,” he says again. We get out of the car and Will follows me up the steps.
I open the door, wave Will through, and step in. Twenty or so people spear their eyes at us, curious.
“Anywhere, hon,” Arlene the waitress, a distant cousin, says passing us without stopping. As she walks by, I smell the chemical of her hairspray, fryer grease embedded in clothing, and the tangy pungency of cheap perfume. I am home, I think to myself.
Arlene stops at our booth. “What’ll it be, Cassie?”
“Grilled cheese and french fries, Arlene. Two, please,” I say before Will can notice the menu contains nothing remotely healthy or vegetarian; that, in fact, the menu has remained the same since the era when a healthy breakfast consisted of bacon, ham, and eggs fried in leftover bacon grease. Arlene brings us two waters in short diner glasses.
I’m across from Will in the booth, staring at his neatly groomed face, with clear blue eyes, trimmed dirty blond hair and the brand new scar on his cheek and chin. I can’t help but think about two months ago, getting the call from the hospital then having to wheedle more information from his intransigent mother. Rehab has strengthened him, repaired his body and spirit yet I worry: What will make you drink again?
“Coffee?” Arlene asks, returning from the kitchen. She holds a coffee pot in one hand, waiting for us to flip over our white chipped coffee cups still upside down in their saucers.
“No thanks,” I say smiling. I’m ready to explain the benefits of Clean Living that I read all about in a self-help book and how I’m trying it for Will’s sake – anything and everything to keep him sane and somber. Instead, I shake my head no for emphasis. Arlene turns to Will –the stranger –and furrows her eyebrows down like he’s at fault for this strange behavior.
“Up visiting?” Arlene asks instead of heading to the kitchen.
“Nope,” I say. “Will and I are moving in with my Aunt.”
“Is that right?” asks Arlene. It’s been five years since I’ve moved away and she will require just enough data to input Will and I into the Island’s gossip network. “Weren’t you in school down there in Portland?”
“Just graduated,” I reply.
“Teaching, then?” Arlene continues to ask. I look over to Will. His eyes dart to every corner, catching the tiny details of the old linoleum-floor and fluorescent-lit luncheonette. I brush my foot against his and find him tapping his impatiently.
“Nope, engineering. A firm up in Ellsworth hired me.”
“Engineering, huh? A little thing like you?” Arlene has her hands on her hips, my petite female frame summing up for her everything about me, including my suitability for certain careers. “Always need more teachers.”
“Better money,” I reply, straining to be mild.
“Cassie’s a better engineer than most men, Geez, what is this, 1960?” Will pipes up. Arlene’s shoulders move up and down in a silent sigh and she moves on to check the next table.
I face Will, looking at him like Arlene might. He’s from Away, though it’s not noticeable in how he’s dressed. Except for the Birkenstock sandals, he’s clothed much like anybody his age here: jeans, tee shirt, and a surplus olive green army jacket. It’s the hands that betray his outsider status. The soft, unscarred fingers fidgeting with his wedding ring and the pale, uncallused hands are unaccustomed to the hard work many men his age would be engaged in here.
“Those grilled cheese will be right up,” says Arlene, turning to the kitchen. I look to Will, see him sitting with his proper upper middle-class posture that’s he’s maintained despite the twists and curves his life has taken, a way of moving and sitting and standing that tells me, unlike myself, that adults during his childhood, had cajoled, implored, and reminded him not to slouch, to sit up straight, to pull his shoulders back and I am suddenly a million miles distant from him as the Island takes hold of me.
“Will,” I hiss to get his attention. “First impressions? Remember?”
“What?” He says, in a drawn out whine.
“Nothing,” I say, annoyed. I’d planned on not remarking about my career choice, so folks would come around to the idea of my being an engineer. But Will has mucked it all up with his rude comment.
“Cassie, come on,” he pleaded. I looked up at him, form a question in my mind: What would happen if we broke up? I’ve had this thought before: right after he left from rehab, when I explained my plan for leaving Portland, packing to leave for the island. But I remind myself that love isn’t engineering and it doesn’t have to calculate neatly in figures. I trying shoving the dark thought away as Arlene brings our grilled cheeses and french fries.
I’d been hungry an hour ago but I realized with agonizing clarity that Arlene was only Will’s first hurdle, that he’d be meeting my aunt and uncle, my mother and maybe even the stepfather and my half-sisters and within a week he’d have met a good number of other aunts and uncles and first and second cousins. It was enough to make me not hungry, to reduce lunch to pushing my French fries around on my plate and picking little pieces of grilled cheese off the sandwich and rolling them around on my tongue.
Will’s taking big bites of his French fries, nibbling cautiously on the grilled cheese concoction of white bread slices fried in butter with American cheese. He finishes his fries and half the grilled cheese and I’ve taken a single bite from my sandwich and eaten exactly two fries. We both push our plates to the middle of the table to let Arlene know we are finished.
Arlene walks by our table, pausing only to slide the check onto the table. She smiles vaguely and goes to take the order of the old couple behind us.
“We’ll go to Ma’s first. Okay?” I pull out a ten and some ones, feeling like a big-city gal, planning to give Arlene a nearly five dollar tip to counteract the lousy first impression Will has left.
“Whatever you say,” he says dejectedly. I stand and Will follows me to the door.
“Thanks you two,” Arlene says to our backs.
“That grilled cheese, bleh,” Will says at the car, his hand rubbing his belly. The bread wasn’t whole wheat, the cheese wasn’t soy, and it was fried no doubt on a grill along with chicken and hamburgers. Will’s waiting for me to agree, to make some pithy remark about the lunch. In Portland, we would have complained for days about it but I can’t on Mare’s Island. I can’t explain this to Will so instead I stand on the tip of my toes and kiss him guiltily on his cheek.
“We’ll go to my Ma’s and visit for a bit. After, we’ll head to my Aunt’s and unload the trailer into the garage. I’d like to get it back to the U-Haul in Ellsworth by tonight.” I say, thinking and plotting, getting everything in order so we can begin getting back on our feet.
Will nods, staring at the scenery outside.
I drive back down the Main Street of Briggs Haven and take a left away from Route 77. We roll by tall pine trees and see glimpses of the blue ocean water and after having lived in the city of Portland for five years, I want badly to declare out loud the beauty of it all. I’m afraid though Will might find an opening to complain about something: the lunch, Arlene’s comment, the trees loaded with allergy-causing pollen. I keep quiet instead.
I swing the Subaru onto Ma’s yard out and have just enough room to turn the car and trailer around to face the road. As I’m pulling the car into the muddy set of ruts passing for a driveway, the squall rolls in. The sky turns gray and fat nickel-size raindrops begin plunking against the windshield. The sudden gray gloom with streaks of white rain doesn’t hide the decrepit condition of the single-wide trailer. One end tilts lower than the other, the deck remains unfinished, and the small bathroom window is boarded over with plywood. The sole improvement is a silver satellite dish perched on the roof’s higher end.
“You alright?” I ask Will as I came to a stop. He’s unusually quiet, maybe shocked. Will knows my history, my biological father only a dim memory, growing up with my Mom and her succession of boyfriends until she married the stepfather when I was twelve. He knows all this but here is the history lesson tilting precariously live in front of us and I’m wondering how long he can go without a twelve-step meeting.
I step out of the car and I’m instantly soaked, pelted by powerful raindrops feeling like pennies striking against my face. Will comes out of the car, and I look to him hunching his shoulders against the rain, hearing the drumbeat of rain striking the roof of the car.
I walk between the ruts, and Will follows. I’m quiet in the rain, steeling myself for going into the trailer with Will. The inside will be no better than the outside, a derelict from the 1970’s with worn-out orange shag carpeting and avocado-color appliances and the stink of stale cigarette smoke.
Just as he stands from the car, Dog lunges for us. No one had ever bothered to name the canine beast called now just Dog. It propels itself to the very end of its metal chain fastened against a fat tree and the chain snaps the dog back inches from the footpath between the driveway ruts and the front door.
“Dogs. I hate dogs,” Will whispers to me. We are both very wet, his green cloth jacket and my blue one soaked to darker hues. I take his trembling hand. Tired of leading him around like I had done all day, approaching the porch, I push him ahead of me to knock on the door.
“Go on. Only the dog bites,” I say unknowingly. I wait down at the bottom of the steps, Dog now just growling his rage and I stare it down. It’s been a month since I’ve spoken to my Mom but at the time the stepfather had had a construction job and I wait now for my mother to answer the door, remembering Ma’s and Will’s first meeting in Ellsworth’s IHOP.
It was during our pot and whisky days, with my efforts to clean him up for the encounter by feeding him breath mints and buying him Visine for his bloodshot eyes, while I tried coaching my Mom beforehand long-distance over the phone about what to say to him. All my efforts having gone to crap, for afterwards him calling Ma a hillbilly and her declaring my boyfriend a weirdo. Will, wet yet transformed sane and sober, knocked on the trailer door and I turned to watch the bad past memories transform into new fuzzy warm ones.
Instead, the trailer door flies open and I see a fist connected to a hairy, thigh-thick arm in one fluid quick motion smash into Will’s face. He stumbles backwards, a step past where the deck’s floorboards end, and I hear the muted splash of Will falling and landing in the mud below the porch.
“YOU WON’T GET MY SATELLITE DISH!” The rest of my step-father, all three-hundred-plus disgusting, jiggling pounds of him, materializes. The rain instantly soaks his taut, black tee shirt clad belly protruding from the doorway. He stands at the door shaking the same fist that had just propelled Will from the porch.
“YOU MOTHER-FUCKER!” I scream from the foot of the wobbly stairs before I see Will has fallen within the dirt circle Dog has worn in the meadow. In the mud, Will crawls to me but Dog is on him quick shredding his jeans and tearing at his legs before he can reach a hand out to me. Dog is trying to drag him closer when I finally grasp his hand, The Dog and I play tug of war with muddy, wet Will until there’s a loud ripping sound and I have pulled Will away from Dog whose jaw clenches only the bottom of a jeans leg.
We’re sitting on the ground ignoring Dog and I’m hugging Will and I want to cry but anger over the meltdown of my plans dams the tears. I look up to see my mother squeezing by the masculine mass resting drunkenly in the doorway. My two half-sisters, Anne and Jolene, peek from one window of the trailer. Will struggles against my embrace and stands. The sock on his right foot is pinkish red from the rain and blood leaking from where Dog has torn into his calf.
“FUCK THIS! FUCK ALL OF YOU!” Will cries, turning to shake a raised fist at the trailer. Then he starts towards to the black-top road.
“Will! Will!” I cry to his back standing at the bottom of the stairs. Will is nearly to the road with his bloody, limping gait but the loud falling rain makes him sound much further away.
“He’s not heading towards the bridge.” My mother observes. She is standing at the top of the stairs, arms crossed, seemingly unbothered by the torrents of rains.
“He looked like he’d come to take back the satellite dish,” the stepfather adds. He heaves his bulk back inside the trailer.
“Your father’s been out on disability with his back for three weeks. He’s been a little high-strung,” my mother tries explaining to me.
“He’s drunk, not high-strung,” I state, remembering as a pre-teen the holes my intoxicated stepfather had angrily punched in the walls around my head –the holes he’d tried punching in my head –and later, as a teenager, his inebriated attempts to grope me that drove me to live with Aunt Ethel. I add: “And he’s not my father.”
“Dear, do we have to start this again?” My mother begs.
“Yes, we do. Did you see him? Did you see yourself?” I’m screaming over the rain. I see my mother’s blue sweatpants, the oversized grungy white tee shirt, and her long dirty-blond hair frizzed along its entire length all getting wet above me on the porch. I’m ready to pour years of pent-up anger at her and her husband but the words choke in my throat when my two younger barely-clothed half-sisters –future trailer queens –appear in the doorway behind their mother. I say instead, “You’re ruining things again, Ma. Just as always.”
Will has limped far enough away to disappear from sight. I go for the car, squishing like a soaked towel as I flop into the driver’s seat. I back from the driveway onto the road and quickly catch up to Will.
I roll down my window and though the rain has lightened, it seeps down the inside of the door. I pull up alongside him but Will does not stop walking.
“Leave me alone!”
“Will, come on. Be reasonable.”
“I don’t care! I can’t take this. I just can’t fucking take this!” I am rolling the car beside him so slowly I’m almost stalling in first gear.
“This isn’t Boston, or even Portland, Will. Are you going to just sleep in the woods?” He’s too big to drag into the car and I think of wildlife shows, of tranquilizer darts being shot into large mammals. I wish for a dart gun and a massive sedative.
“I must get away from here,” he states stubbornly.
“How? I know you Will Hubbard. Hitch hiking? I know what you can do and won’t do.”
“Yeah? I bet you didn’t peg me for rehab.”
“Will, I love you. I don’t know why much of the time but I love you.”
“I know. I love you too. But still.” Will has finally stopped to shake his wet head.
“Today sucked, Will. I know. Could you get in the car at least so we can talk?” If I can maneuver him into the car, I can calm him down. He walks around the front of the car and opens the passenger-side door and gets in.
“Don’t get my seat wet,” I say joking. I’m looking at him and he scowls at me until he sees I’m kidding. Then he allows himself a brief grin.
“My leg hurts a lot. Do you think I’ll need a rabies shot?” It’s a scared kid’s voice that asks.
“Yup, and a tetanus shot and antibiotics too,” I say firmly. “Doc Whitehall has the steadiest hands for stitching up dog bites of any eighty-year old doctor I know.”
“I hate dogs,” he repeats. “And I really hate needles and stitches. Is he really that old?”
“Do you think you can stay at least tonight?” I ask softly. “It’s going to get better. Do you want to go straight to the doctor’s? Or do you want to stop by Uncle Guy’s and get cleaned up first?”
“No more relatives, Cassie. Please. Just take me to the doctor’s, okay?”
“Doc Whitehall is distantly related,” I say. Will is covered in mud and his bitten leg looks horrible and it’s all so awful I smile.
It’s past midnight. Will is asleep upstairs and I’m downstairs in my bathrobe drinking a cup of herbal Sleepytime tea at my Aunt’s kitchen table. I can’t sleep.
I’m awake trying to tell myself that my love for Will isn’t wrong, that I haven’t made a huge mistake stubbornly standing by his side. I want to think of picnic lunches and holding hands and going to Acadia for hiking but every one of those pleasant thoughts leads me back to how I would tell Will it’s over, or what I would tell him.
He is strong enough now, I assure myself, to survive a breakup with me. I imagine him leaving Mare’s Island and moving back to Portland, finding maybe a room mate and part-time job while finishing up college. But then I think of him having a roommate, of other human beings putting up with all idiosyncrasies, and my thoughts slink back to how I would make holding hands and climbing Cadillac Mountain at Acadia somehow work.
There’s a sound from across the living room, where Aunt Ethel and Uncle Sam added on their bedroom. I sit and take another sip and my Aunt comes into the kitchen in her bathrobe.
“I didn’t know you drank herbal tea, Aunt Ethel,” I say, surprised fifteen minutes ago to discover boxes of it in a narrow cabinet that before had held only Lipton tea bags and instant coffee. “Do you want me to get you a cup?”
“A cup would be nice,” she says, sitting down across from me. I stand up and move to the stove to re-boil the water.
“You’re up late,” I say, getting a Sleepytime tea bag from the shelf above the stove.
“Your damn Uncle Sam. The older he gets, the worse he snores,” she snorts.
“Yeah, you know, today and my job starting,” I say hesitatingly. I watch the tea pot carefully, not wanting it to whistle this late at night.
“And what else, Cassie? You’re not fooling your Aunt,” she says. The water had been hot already from my cup and the spout leaks steam already. I don’t answer her right away but turn off the burner and pour the water into the cup and bring the tea over to the table. I sit down again and take a sip of my tea.
“Will,” I say after a deep breath. “Your first impression. Do you like him?”
“Look at those boys you dated in high school. Will’s in a whole other class.”
“Yeah, but the alcohol,” I say it, finally.
“Oh, Cassie, he’s a man. Ain’t nothing but children. They’ll act crazy one time or another, whether it’s buying a sports car, betting too much on sports, or getting some little hussy on the side. Will’s drinking, well, he’s smart enough to be wanting to stop.”
“But he’s so fragile,” I say, surprising myself by describing him like that.
“Dear, they all are.”
“I think I stay around just because he’s so fragile. I don’t want to break him by going away. I’m all he has.” My eyes moisten. I am close to tears.
“You don’t love someone because you’re afraid of leaving.”
I’m staring hard at my tea, not looking up at her, but I nod in agreement.
“You two have come this far,” my Aunt says. “There’s a lot more love than you’re seeing.”
“He can be so weak,” I try explaining.
“Cassie, he’s probably a lot stronger than you believe. I can see how much he adores you. He’s not a mean person. You have a good man.” Aunt Ethel’s hand has crept across the table to hold mine. She squeezes my hand in hers then grips her mug again.
“You think?” I ask. She nods her head and takes a sip of her tea.
“How is it you feel when your hand holds his?” My aunt asks. “Underneath that worry, do you still get that little electrical charge, like when you first knew you wanted him?” We sit in silence while I finish my tea.
I get up, put my cup in the sink, and head back upstairs. Will’s snoring lightly in my cousin Scotty’s old room. He’s got a blanket and sheet half-kicked off of him. I walk over to the full-sized bed. I drop my robe and stand over him in my tee shirt and underwear. I pull the blanket up over his shoulders and crawl in beneath the covers. I push my hip against his butt and asleep he scoots over letting me have a little more room. I nestle up close, my breasts against his back and hips dug into his butt. I wedge my feet between his legs and my arm goes over his. I shut my eyes and my hand rises and falls to his breathing.
I’m only half-asleep, worrying Aunt Ethel’s wrong about me, and wondering if this isn’t love after all but then I’m out in a tiny white rowboat in the cove beyond Brigg’s Haven and the tiny skyline of Portland floats by atop a giant green sea turtle and I turn back to face the island and Will is rowing the boat to shore.
Michael Beneszewski lives in Maine, where he teaches and tutors online. He earned his MFA nearly 15 years ago while living in Chicago. Down East Homecoming is his first published short story since settling back down in New England.