Maine Turnpike to Exit 75
Follow the three-lane highway through the southern part of the state. Be patient when it narrows to just two. Notice how the pine trees multiply. Pass cornfields and cow pastures, used car lots and trailer parks. Pay the tolls. A dollar, then two-twenty-five. The money is supposed to fix blacktop cracks and frost heaves, but does it ever really make a difference? The roads warp and crumble each winter under the weight of ice and snow. In the summer, wave to the tourists in their overstuffed SUVs, en route to campgrounds and seaside cottages, anxious to see The Way Life Should Be.
Route 4 through Androscoggin County
Brake for the logging rigs, the tractor-trailers, that blue Ford pickup with truck nuts dangling from the bumper. Pass a yard sale, a swimming hole, a run-down motel – or, rather, an empty lot where the motel used to be. In July, stop at the big red farm stand for green beans, fresh eggs and prickly-skinned cucumbers. In October, a bag of crisp McIntosh apples. In December, a woodsy balsam wreath and a cup of mulled cider. In January, drive on by. Everything is closed until springtime.
Cross the two-lane bridge, iron beams painted green to scare the rust away. On Independence Day, watch a garland of American flags twist in the breeze. Celebrate the local vets, their names once Sharpied onto yellow ribbons and posted on telephone poles during wartime. Turn right at the ice cream shack, its wooden picnic tables covered with melting rainbow sprinkles. Bump over the railroad tracks, then climb the hill to the old high school. Notice there are no students left, no buses or bells. Teens go elsewhere now, to the regional school one town over. Come February, this hill will be frozen. One giant slippery slope.
Cedar Street to Highland Avenue
Pass the football field, the small brown barn that used to be a church, and the white clapboard house where neighborhood kids on summer vacation once turned over plastic trash bins and played them like drums, dreaming rockstar dreams. Remember racing bikes from one fire hydrant to the next, playing cards clacking against metal spokes, no worries about passing cars or beguiling strangers or layoffs looming at the paper mill. Keep an eye out for the golden glow of the streetlights. That’s how you’ll know it’s time to go home.
Highland to Chestnut
Take the third street named for a deciduous tree. Watch for potholes, abandoned baseball mitts, stray cats napping in the middle of the road. Park at the last lot, next to the lilacs that bloom violet and sweet for two weeks every May before rotting on the branch. Look for your mother’s battered Honda in the driveway; see her face in the kitchen window, tears at the ready. Climb the wooden steps to the front porch. Smell pie in the oven, bleach in the bathroom. Sit on the couch next to your father. Take his hand. Feel his cramped fingers, his swollen knuckles, the small and brittle bones beneath withering flesh. Tell him you love him, that you miss him, that he looks good even though he doesn’t, even though he’s aged ten years since you last saw him at Thanksgiving. Rest there, listening to his ragged breath. Watch his game shows, one after another – then one more as he dozes off. When those streetlights come on, know that there is no place left to go.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/InAweofGodsCreation