In the drowsy dusk of summertime when the sun dipped under the foothills and the humidity of the day invaded kitchens and bedrooms, people flocked to their porches. There, they chatted while night knit itself into a tight blanket. As the sun sank, one by one, mimicking fireflies house lights flicked on and porch lights flicked off and people streamed inside for the evening. The sounds of clinking dishes, faint music, vehicles purring, and light-as-vapor laughter scented the air. Night fell like a bruise.
During those school-less summer days, I often sat on the dusty curb in front of our house and counted the out-of-state license plates as they sped by on their way to somewhere else. When I could finally drive, I'd cruise around with other teenagers, pivoting our used Monte Carlo in the Tourist Information Booth parking lot before another revolution through town. My parents thought the Information Booth was where all the "druggies" hung out, but really it was a harmless venue in a small town with nothing else to do but drive around in circles.
My parents shaped their own well-worn paths. While my father walked back and forth across the mill footbridge to and from work, my mother lugged laundry up and down the cellar stairs, day after day, one skinny arm cradling the laundry basket, her free hand gripping a Vantage, a cigarette brand whose packet featured a bull's-eye graphic design. With a screech and a whack, the screen door would slam shut after she elbowed it open. She would dump clean laundry on the kitchen table, snap each article of clothing three times, fold them sharply into tight wedges of fabric, and stack them like the reams of white paper my father brought home from the mill. When the screen door wore out, my mother replaced it with a new one that already came equipped with a squeaky spring. She left it defective, announcing herself into infinity with only my father to hear. His hearing, long dulled by the hum of paper machines, was the perfect match to her perpetual clamor. My mother, she'd let her Vantage expire before finishing it and send me to fetch her a new pack from the corner store. I'll time you, she'd say. Now GO! And off I went. She didn't need to tell me twice.
Things stayed in this balance, with minor adjustments every now and then, until America's working-class towns started to ebb alongside the industries that nourished them. The future? We knew nothing of it. Our horizon trembled like a fragile convex meniscus, brimming away from the landscape that held it. All of what was before us was not as bright as what had passed.
• • •
I LEFT MAINE in 1985 after graduating from high school to attend Beloit College in Wisconsin, where an oily, vomit-like smell—the "cheese breeze"—gusted from the nearby Frito Lay Cheetos factory. Even in the funky scrum of Wisconsin air, I believed I had left my past behind. All the old ways and places fell out of view. Little did I know there were armies of us across America who felt this way: hopeful young adults from small towns who were trying to find our way, another way. What none of us foresaw, however, as we marched down those roads not taken by our parents, is that leaving home can be as complicated as living there and as inescapable as our own DNA.
After college, I lived in dozens of places and rotated through dozens of low-wage jobs: short-order cook, cocktail waitress, ski coach, dishwasher, nanny, graphic designer, shipping manager, chairlift operator, gardener, copywriter, high school gym teacher, real estate assistant, to name a few. In 2001, I married a US Coast Guard officer, but in 2009 a permanent job and home still remain out of reach. His duty stations, while not always perfect, are always determined by a perfect stranger (his military detailer), so the only constant in our mobile life is that we are constantly mobile. With him, I slingshotted around the world and back only to return home each time with a dimmer sense of "home," though my parents still live in the same house and my four siblings have settled in the Northeast. I keep returning to Maine, of course, but my visits are always focused affairs: holidays, weddings, family birthdays or anniversaries, and funerals like my grandfather's, which brings me home now, in April 2009.
• • •
Spring has arrived in Maine with driveways full of snowplow debris; salt stains, shredded earth, and derelict mittens lie in the wake of its embracing path. Dirty buttresses of snow linger like pocked monoliths, meting out the season's arrival. The swollen Androscoggin pushes flotsam downriver in the commotion of spring's thaw, and soon, hatches will burst along its surface until summer opens like an oven.
My mother comes out to the porch where I'm standing. The house sighs with winter's leftover lethargy. "Want to go for a walk?" she asks, her face pinched with the sharpness of her father's death.