Read Maine Online

Authors: J. Courtney Sullivan

Maine (2 page)

BOOK: Maine
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Alice raised an eyebrow. “Gosh, is everyone in this town called Perkins?”

“Just about,” Daniel said, clearly excited to have a bit of inside information. “According to Ned, that family owns half the land around here. They’re fishermen, like his people. Ned went with one of the Perkins cousins back in high school.”

“Lucky her,” Alice said.

“Now now,” Daniel said. “Hey, Ned even taught me a little poem one of them wrote. You ready to hear it?”

Before she could protest, he was reciting it, almost singing, in his best James Cagney voice:

A Perkins runs the grocery store
A Perkins runs the bank
A Perkins puts the gasoline in everybody’s tank
.
A Perkins sells you magazines
Another sells you fish
You have to go to Perkinses for anything you wish
.
You’ll always find a Perkins has fingers in your purse
And when I die, I think that I
Will ride a Perkins hearse
.

Alice rolled her eyes at her husband. “Okay, darling, I catch your drift.”

They turned the car around and pulled onto Shore Road. Daniel drove slowly, looking this way and that. Through a long bank of pine trees on the left, you could see the ocean. Here and there, clapboard houses with American flags out front dotted green lawns. Cows grazed in fields of grass.

“It’s somewhere off of this road,” Daniel said.

They had brought a map, which she held unfolded in her lap. Daniel expected Alice to know how to read it, but to her it looked like a mess of veins and muscles she had seen in her high school biology textbook years earlier. She half expected him to snap, “Oh, give me that!” But Daniel wasn’t the type. He only laughed and said, “I guess we’ll have to follow our noses, since I clearly chose a daydreamer for a co-pilot.”

That was when Alice saw them, a small assembly of women and men in smocks, sitting up on a hill, painting at easels.

“There’s an artists’ colony here,” Daniel said. “Ned told me bohemians are buying up the lobstermen’s shacks. I thought you’d like that. They have a summer school. Maybe you could take a class.”

Alice nodded, though she felt her body tighten. She willed herself not to grow dark. But she could already feel her mood shifting. She stared out the window.

Off to the right was a plain wooden saltbox with a sign out front that read
RUBY’S MARKET
. To the left was a small green building that she might have taken for a house were it not for the word
PHARMACY
inlaid on a plaque above the porch.

There was no sign for Briarwood Road. Ned had told Daniel to take Shore for two miles, until he came to a fork. Then he was to turn left onto a dirt path, and follow it all the way to the ocean.

“He says we’ll think we’re driving straight into the woods, but we’re not,” Daniel said.

Alice sighed, preparing herself for what was probably a patch of overgrown brush that Ned had decided to call his own.

They passed the entrance twice and had to turn around. But on the third try, they turned at what hardly seemed like a fork. Alice gasped. The road was from a fairy tale, a long stretch of sand inside a tunnel of lush pine trees. When they reached the end, there was the ocean, sparkling in the sun, dark blue against a small sandy beach, which was nestled between two long stretches of rocky coast.

“Welcome home,” Daniel said.

“This is ours?” Alice asked.

“Well, three acres of it’s ours,” he said. “The best three acres, too—all this land along the water.”

Alice was elated. No one she knew back home had their own beach house. She could not wait to see her best friend Rita’s face when she came here and saw it.

Alice kissed Daniel smack on the lips.

He grinned. “I take it you like the place.”

“I already have the curtains picked out.”

“Good! I’m glad that’s taken care of. Now we just need a house to hang them in.”

On the way back into town, he stopped the car at the fork in the road and carved a shamrock into the soft trunk of a birch tree. He added the letters
A.H
. and said, “Now we’ll never miss the turnoff again.”

“A.H.?” she asked. “Who’s that?”

He pointed at each letter slowly, like a teacher leading a lesson. “Alice’s. House.”

   Daniel and his brothers built the cottage with their own hands, laid every beam, one by one. The five rooms on the first floor made a loop: The narrow stone kitchen leading into the living room with its black piano from J. & C. Fischer New York, and the iron wood-burning stove in the corner, and the dining table that could comfortably seat ten, though they often had sixteen people crammed around it. That led straight into a small bedroom meant for a couple, which led into the sun-yellow bathroom, which led into the next bedroom, which was as big as the rest of the rooms put together, with two single beds and four bunk beds. There was a lofted space up above it all, the only private spot in the house. Off the kitchen stood a screened-in porch, and off the living room a deck. Beyond that was an outdoor shower full of cobwebs, from which you could gaze at the stars while you washed your hair. That was it. Their little piece of Paradise, where the Kelleher family had spent every summer since.

In the fifties, wealthy out-of-towners started buying up plots of land all around Ogunquit and Cape Neddick. But no one ever built on Briarwood Road, so it felt like the long stretch of glorious trees that led to their home on the beach was all theirs.

They went every June and stayed for as many weeks as possible. If Daniel couldn’t get off work at the insurance company, Alice would invite Rita to come. The two of them would poke into antique shops in Kennebunkport, each with a baby slung over her shoulder, and then they would drink Manhattans on the beach in front of the cottage. On rainy days, they went to the movies or for a drive up the coast. Tallulah Bankhead did a four-week stint at the Ogunquit Playhouse, and they saw the show twice, even though it really wasn’t any good. The town was a strange blend of fishermen and locals, tourists and actors and painters. Everywhere you went, someone was sketching a seascape, a sunset, a stack of lobster traps arranged just so. Alice avoided the artists when she could. In town one morning, one of them, quite handsome, had asked if he could paint her picture. She smiled, but kept walking as if she hadn’t understood.

Some weekends Alice’s and Daniel’s families visited, and everyone would stay up late, eating and drinking and singing Irish songs while Alice played the piano. After she went to church each morning, Alice and her sisters-in-law might lie out on the sand in a row for hours while the sun beat down against their bare legs. Alice always brought a book along since they weren’t the most entertaining gals; they were morally opposed to gossip and clearly jealous of her figure. She wished like crazy that her own sister, Mary, were there. Alice would almost forget about what had passed, expecting to see Mary turn the corner at any moment.

Before dinner, the women shucked corn and boiled potatoes in the kitchen with a Dean Martin record playing in the background. Meanwhile, the men gathered outside around the grill, fanning the hot coals as if it took eight of them to get a fire going.

Later came more children—Alice and Daniel’s three, and forty-two nieces and nephews between them. For years there was an army of kids in the cottage, and Alice gave up on even trying to make the place look presentable. By the time the Fourth of July arrived, all the children would be bright red and freckly from the sun, their brown hair ever-so-slightly lightened, especially the girls, who squeezed lemon juice over their heads after breakfast each morning, same as their mothers. On arrival, everyone’s feet were smooth and soft, but after weeks of walking barefoot out on the stone jetties and across the dunes, their soles toughened up. Daniel joked that by summer’s end, they could walk over broken glass without feeling a thing.

In Cape Neddick, Alice was distracted, surrounded by smiling people, all of them grateful for the invitation. The children ran in a pack with their cousins, demanding nothing. She watched the sky over the ocean turn pink in the evening, a reminder that God created beauty, every bit as much as He created pain. She became a different person there in summertime.

Back home in Massachusetts there were so many memories; left alone in the house with the children, she often felt like she was losing hold. Her thoughts took gloomy turns without warning, and she got terrible headaches that forced her into bed all afternoon. Her life there was by its very nature boring, and she could not stand to be bored. She never cottoned to gaily cooking dinners and folding laundry and scrubbing the kitchen floor, as if that were all the world had to offer, no matter how hard she tried. She had been meant for more. Her cottage in Maine was the only thing that set her apart from everyone else, the only unordinary thing about her.

When her older daughter, Kathleen, ever the wet blanket, turned twelve or thirteen, she declared that she hated going to Maine. The air was too buggy, she said, the water too cold. There was no television and nothing to do. From then on, from the moment they arrived each summer until the inevitable morning when they packed up the car to head back to Massachusetts, Kathleen would complain: “Can we go now? Can we?”

“It’s strange,” Daniel had said once.

“Oh I don’t think so,” Alice replied. “She must have picked up on how much I love this place and instinctually decided to hate it.”

Much later—it amazed her how time sped up more and more, the older she got—the grandkids came along. Daniel retired. Her children drove up to Maine whenever they liked, and no one bothered to call ahead. They’d just bring extra hot dogs and Heinekens, cookies, or a blueberry pie from Ruby’s Market. All summer, she and Daniel were the constant. Other bodies piled into the cottage and slept wherever they happened to drop: children under blankets on the hardwood floor in the living room, teenagers on inflatable mattresses up in the loft, her grandson Ryan’s playpen wedged into the narrow kitchen.

In the mornings while the rest of them slept, Alice would brew a pot of coffee, toast English muffins, and fry up a dozen eggs and bacon. She’d set a basin of warm water out on the porch for the children’s sandy feet, and later, maybe help Kathleen and Ann Marie slather the kids in SPF 50, which by then they understood was essential for Irish skin. Even so, they got burns. Red, painful, blistering burns that they spent long evenings dousing in Solarcaine. The grandchildren, like the children, mostly resembled Daniel’s side—a half hour in the sun and their faces were six pink little pools, covered in constellations of brown freckles.

   A few years before Daniel passed, their son, Patrick, had offered them a gift. He was having a house of their own built for them on the property, he said. A real, modern house with high-end appliances and fixtures and a view of the ocean and no kids screaming, next to the cottage, but worlds better. They would have a big-screen TV with a sound system that was somehow wired through the walls. In the cottage there was only a small radio that picked up Red Sox games if you put it on the windowsill at the right angle.

“I think it’ll be wonderful,” Alice said to her husband after Pat told them his plan. “Our own hideaway, no squirrels in the rafters or mildew smell in the bathroom. No leaky old refrigerator.”

“But that’s what a summer place is,” Daniel said. “If we wanted to be alone in a souped-up house, we’d have stayed home in Canton. Why do I feel like this is a way to get rid of us?”

Alice had told him not to be ridiculous, even though she partly agreed. It was extravagant, and seemed a bit beside the point of a family retreat. But Patrick had already had the plans drawn up, and he sounded so pleased when he told them the news. Plus, as he pointed out, adding another house to the property would only increase its value.

“Like in Monopoly,” he had said, a comparison that made Alice laugh, though she could see through Daniel’s tight smile that he found the comment patronizing.

After the house went up, Patrick had the whole place appraised. When he told her that it was now worth over two million dollars, Alice nearly fainted. Two million dollars for land that had been handed to them for free half a century earlier!

“See? Our boy is a smart one,” she had said to Daniel then.

He shook his head. “It’s dangerous, talking about money this way. Our home is not for sale.”

She looked into his sad eyes and gave him a smile. She wanted to hold on to it all every bit as much as he did.

She put a hand on his cheek. “No one said it was.”

   Of their three children, Patrick, the youngest, had done the best by far. They sent him to BC High. His last year of high school he dated Sherry Burke, the daughter of the mayor of Cambridge. Sherry was a sweet girl, and her family exposed Pat to the finer things. Alice always thought those years with her might have been what motivated him to make money later on. (She still saw Sherry—a state senator in her own right—in the newspaper now and then.) Pat went on to Notre Dame, where he finished sixth in his class. He met Ann Marie, who was studying at his sister school, Saint Mary’s. They were married the summer they turned twenty-two. They had a strong marriage, and three wonderful children—Fiona, Patty, and darling Little Daniel, Alice’s favorite of all her grandkids. Pat was a stockbroker; Ann Marie stayed at home. They lived in an enormous house in Newton, with a swimming pool out back and matching blue Mercedes sedans.

BOOK: Maine
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