Sunday, August 08, 2010

Other-Worldly Maine

It was December 30th. I had just walked out of the Southwest Harbor Public Library in Maine, where I had been working, because (being a telecommuter), I could, and the Southwest Harbor Public Library is one of the most charming places I know. If you are going to have to work while in Maine, I can't think of a better place to do so.

I decided to take a walk. Yes, I know the temperature was hovering somewhere around 12 degrees (we're talking about Maine in December. The temperature was merely being lazy, doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing. After all, a mere two days earlier, it had put all that time and effort into rising way up to nearly 40 degrees). The wind was no longer blowing the way it had been for a day and a half, and with my multiple layers and warm mittens, I was most definitely dressed for 12 degrees. Besides, in the part of Pennsylvania where I live, I don't often get to walk in 12 degree temperatures.

Southwest Harbor is a tiny little coastal, blink-and-you-miss it New England town. The library is on what must be Main Street (although I've never seen any signs to that effect. It's just a route number). If you turn town a side street, you'll find, along with a coffee shop and a couple of restaurants, the post office. Among other things on Main Street, there is a wine and cheese shop and Sawyer's Market, which sells atrociously-priced-for-visiting-New-Yorkers groceries and specialty foods but is a fun place to visit, nonetheless, especially for freshly baked cookies. The street lights this evening illuminate these little shops, as well as the real estate agent, insurance company, and other businesses that are mostly closed this time of year. In August, the streets would be lined with parked cars, and the sunset would be hours away yet, but now there was only one other car parked on the street besides mine.

I think of John Irving. This is John Irving's New England. I probably think of John Irving, because he was the first author who made me long to visit New England (technically, to revisit it. I'd visited it when I was six, and my family drove from North Carolina to Canada, but my memories of it are of hotel rooms and swimming pools). No, there is no boarding school, which would be necessary to make this a real John Irving town, but it's a town -- village, really -- straight out of the pages of John Irving. The fishermen and construction workers sit next to the teachers and tourists at the local bar.

However, I also think of Richard Russo. The fishermen and construction workers and teachers would be sitting in his local bar, which could be in Maine but is probably somewhere in upstate New York instead. The tourists are few and far between, so we have lawyers, or something, to replace them. No tourists, but there may be a whore sitting at the far end of the bar. Nobody knows it -- yet -- but she's actually the lawyer's (the richest man in town's) illegitimate daughter. Her brother, however, is about to discover this fact.

I turn down a well-lit side street, a residential street. The snow crunches under my feet as I walk past modest houses and cottages, many unlit, either because they are summer rentals or because their families have not yet arrived home from work, and I search for tell-tale signs of life. I look for bookshelves through the windows of those few houses that have lights on inside. I notice that I don't see any televisions, usually noticeable in most lit homes after dark. I think of Ray Bradbury's story The Pedestrian. I haven't read it since I was in high school, but I think of it every time I am on an empty street, walking through snow after dark. I'm not sure I even remember the story all that well. I ought to reread it. But I remember snow. I remember dark. And I remember the character who saw the blue glow of television sets through house windows. I also remember it being one of those few stories I had to read for school that I actually loved.

I pass by a manhole-covered storm drain. For some reason, water is gurgling in a very odd way underneath it. It sounds almost like a park fountain is hidden underground or something. Why is the water doing that? I wonder if there is a clown down there under that manhole cover, because suddenly, I am no longer in John Irving's New England. I am in Stephen King's New England, his Maine. My steps quicken to hurry past it. It is one of the few books that so scared the crap out of me that I couldn't finish it, and I'm not one of those people who is normally terrified of clowns.

So, I have gotten past the scary manhole cover. However, I am approaching a part of the street where there are no lights. I know perfectly well that I am going to have to go back past that manhole cover to get to my car. Do I turn around now and quickly get past it, or do I dawdle a bit? No, if I dawdle, it might discover me and follow me. I turn around and try not to run past that sound of gushing water.

I make it safely back to the main drag and decide to stick to its well-lit sidewalks for the remainder of my walk. I remember that a few days earlier, Bob and I had been at Lowes looking for an extension cord. I'd been walking around the store and happened to pass some huge, black storage bins, big enough to hold a couple of good-sized bodies. I found myself thinking, "One of those could be used in a horror story. Someone gets trapped inside somehow and dies and haunts it." As I wandered around some more, I began to realize that so much in the store could be used in a horror story. Good horror stories, after all, always come from the ordinary, from what people don't expect to find, from the aisles at Lowes. My next thought, of course, was, "I'm so weird. Does anyone else come up with horror stories while walking the aisles at Lowes?"

I do not, for a minute, delude myself into thinking I am a John Irving, a Richard Russo, a Ray Bradbury, or a Stephen King. I'm wondering something, though. Did John Irving ever walk the streets of a small New England town and find himself thinking, "That wine and cheese shop would be a great place for my eleven-fingered, one-legged, sex-addicted, feminist proprietor to work"? Has Richard Russo sat at a bar, in a strange town, on a frigid night and thought, "This is where the bartender who narrates the story and is secretly in love with the whore works"? I don't have to ask: I know Ray Bradbury has walked down a deserted, snow-covered, residential street at night. But did Stephen King ever pass by a manhole cover and hear water that sounded like it was struggling to push itself up and out? I'm hoping the answer to all these questions just might be "yes." That way, if I'm weird, at least I'm in good company.

4 comments:

Stefanie said...

What an evocative post! I felt like I was walking down that snow covered street in Maine with you. I don't think you are weird, but regardless, I do think you are in good company.

litlove said...

You know how there are books called Literary Paris or somesuch which walk you around the city pointing out where so and so wrote their famous classic novel? Well you could clearly do a variation on this, tracking down the atmospheric conditions reproduced in various writer's works. Wouldn't that be fabulous?

Dorothy W. said...

Isn't it fun to think about what might possibly be going on in authors' minds? My guess is that you have Stephen King exactly right, and probably the others as well, although I don't have as strong a sense of their sensibility (surely an illusion, but oh, well). It's fun to have just been in the cute little town you're describing!

Emily Barton said...

Steph, "evocative!" Ooo, I like that. I hope some of that is coming through in my novel.

Litlove, that sounds like a fabulous excuse for a long, extended European vacation.

Dorr, I wrote that and then went over to your place to discover you'd been writing about Maine, too. Same town: a little different in the summer, though, huh?