Read Maine Online

Authors: J. Courtney Sullivan

Maine (6 page)

BOOK: Maine
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“I hate fighting like this,” he said. “I can’t stand it.”

“We haven’t fought like this in a long time,” she said, getting to her feet.

“Yeah, because you got what you wanted,” he said.

“I thought it was what we both wanted.”

“Look, you don’t trust me,” he said. “That’s what this living together thing is really about. Maybe this needs to be over. Maybe we should take a break.”

“A break?” She felt desperate. She wondered if there was someone else. “Are you kidding me?”

“Nope, starting now. So we’re not together at the moment, and I’m gonna go watch the Yankees.”

“God, you’re horrible, Gabe. You’re so selfish.”

“If I’m so horrible, why don’t you fucking leave?” he said.

“No,” she said. “I’m not leaving. Jesus. Let’s calm down. We need to talk about this.”

Sometimes this sort of fight—the sort where she accused him of lying, and he got all hot and indignant over the accusation, even though he had, in fact, lied—could fade quickly. But not today: He left the bedroom, and she trailed behind him into the kitchen. He screamed at her to go. She refused, and they were shouting louder and louder, until he actually grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her toward the door leading to the outside hall.

“Gabe, let go of me,” she gasped, her heart pounding. She thought of the baby. She wondered where Cunningham was hiding, that coward. Gabe’s hands were too tight on her. She recalled the tender way he had touched her an hour before. Their most brutal fights always came on like this; quick, unexpected, and fierce.

“I don’t want you here,” he said.

“Too bad. There’s something I have to tell you. We need to talk.”

“I don’t need to do anything. This is my place. Now go.”

“Gabe—if you won’t talk to me now, then it’s over,” she said, terrified.

“It’s over,” he said. He let the door close, and she stood alone in the hallway for a moment. Then he reemerged, and her heart soared pathetically until she noticed the suitcase in his hand, her aunt Ann Marie’s old Louis Vuitton. She thought of how all of this misery was their own construction—there was nothing stopping them from ending it now if they really wanted to, just going back inside and watching some baseball, and being happy, making a family together, making a life. And yet.

“Have a great trip,” he said, putting the suitcase on the ground at her feet and letting the door slam.

An old familiar feeling washed over her, the one she’d get every time they had a fight and she walked out of his apartment, slamming the door behind her; or every time she gave him an ultimatum that he brushed aside by telling her to leave. The act of leaving felt empowering.

But then she’d stand in the lobby of his building for ten minutes, make circles around his block for twenty, hoping he’d come after her, feeling the weight of her gesture, her penchant for the proud and the dramatic screwing her as usual.

“You’ve got moxie, butterfly,” her grandfather used to tell her when she was a teenager.

Yeah, well. In the end, moxie always seemed to come back and bite you in the ass.


Kathleen woke to the synchronized impact of a fat, speckled tongue running over her nose and a heavy weight pressing down against her right thigh.

“Get off me, you savages,” she said, opening her eyes. They kept at it, the tongue now slobbering across her chin, leaving behind a trail of drool. Kathleen wiped it away.

“Okay, I’m up.”

Mack and Mabel were full-grown German shepherds. He weighed eighty-two pounds, she weighed sixty-eight. But they danced about the bed like a couple of puppies, scratching her bare arms, mussing up the sheets.

“Cool it, you two,” she said in a fake stern voice. When it came to business matters she could be tough, but she had never had a knack for discipline, not with Maggie and Chris, and not with her dogs.

They calmed down after a bit, lying side by side in the now empty spot where Arlo slept. It was Sunday, but he had left at the crack of dawn to give an eight o’clock presentation to a town’s worth of Junior Girl Scouts in Paradise Pines, two and a half hours north.

Mack and Mabel panted, despite the fact that the room was cool, a swivel fan aimed toward the bed. Kathleen felt momentarily sad. She had rescued them when they were days old, from a litter of pups someone found abandoned on the side of Route 128. What kind of person would do that? To this day, she couldn’t fathom it. Now her babies were somehow fourteen years old and completely worn out from a few minutes’ worth of play.

She rolled over and burrowed into Mack, who burrowed into Mabel, for a sort of three-way spoon. This was how they had slept every night before she met Arlo. When he came along, he insisted the dogs sleep at the far end of the bed or, preferably, on the floor. Which explained why Mack still snubbed him, even ten years later.

From the time she was a kid, she had had a fondness for strays and lost creatures. How many evenings had she taken home a dog she’d found wandering around, only to have Alice say she’d have to let the dog go? Kathleen would tell her mother fine, and then she would set him up in the shed out back anyway, with a bowl of water and the contents of her dinner plate and a soft blanket and the big flashlight they kept for hurricanes switched on to its highest setting. The next day, her father would help her post signs around town, and soon enough, someone would come along to claim their Toby or their Duke or their King.

Arlo could take or leave the dogs, but they had a policy of indulging each other’s passions, no matter what. Hence the fact that she lived on a worm farm, and had once allowed herself to be filmed having sex while a concert recording of “Sugar Magnolia” played in the background.

Her ex-husband, Paul, was allergic to dogs. That should have been a sign right there. After the divorce, she adopted a retired greyhound named Daisy, who nobody liked, poor thing. (“I know how you feel,” Kathleen would tell her when Alice came over and turned up her nose.) She had had at least one dog—more often two or three—ever since. The dogs were partly responsible for keeping her sane. The relationship she had with them was pure joy. No ulterior motives, no spite, just love and care and kindness, exactly the emotions she wanted to cultivate.

Kathleen rose from her bed now and went into the bathroom to pee. On the other side of the closed door, two wide mouths hung open, eager to start their day. It was almost ten. Arlo always let her sleep as late as she wanted, perhaps for his own well-being more than hers. She was definitely not a morning person. Lately she had been having trouble getting to sleep at night. She was stressed about the farm and all the extra work they’d taken on. And, even more than usual, she was worried about Maggie and the way the Kellehers were treating her.

Maggie and Gabe were driving to Maine to join Alice tomorrow. Kathleen often wondered why her daughter felt such a sense of belonging and trust when it came to their relatives. She herself felt nothing of the sort, especially now that her father was gone. She loved her family, in that way that you have to love your family. But it saddened her to see Maggie let down by them, over and over again. The latest was that obnoxious phone call from Ann Marie. Kathleen couldn’t get it out of her head.

She made her way downstairs with the dogs underfoot. In the kitchen, she opened the back door, and they bolted out to begin their daily ritual of eating bluebells and terrorizing innocent butterflies. Kathleen stood in the doorway for a moment, as she did most mornings, taking it all in—the view of the mountains, the border of giant oak trees far off in the distance, their gorgeous flower beds (proof positive that their products really worked), the vegetable patch, and the two red barns separated by a swath of green, green grass. If you drove for a few minutes, you were in the heart of a vineyard, with grapevines in every direction.

Two dry drunks in wine country!
That was how Arlo had described them to the group at their first Sonoma Valley AA meeting. Everyone laughed, since they too were part of that strange contradiction.

They had met ten years back at a meeting in Cambridge. He invited her to go for coffee and she said yes, despite the fact that he wasn’t at all her type. Arlo was an aging hippie with shaggy silver hair who had spent his early thirties following the Grateful Dead. He had once revealed in a meeting that before he joined AA in 1990, it wasn’t uncommon for him to down a bottle of whiskey and smoke three joints in a single day. He had never really had a job, outside of coffee shops and bars. Despite having gone through her own ugly addiction to alcohol, Kathleen was still on some level judgmental of drug addicts. And her father had always hated hippies.

But Arlo had been sober for four years when they first went out. He made her laugh. They both enjoyed meditation, though Kathleen thought he was more indulgent about it—it was all very
let the sun shine in
with him, whereas for her it was about staying rational and trying not to turn into her mother. She liked his passion for gardening, and the fact that he volunteered at a nursery. He told her he dreamed of running his own composting business one day, comprised of feeding trash to worms and making grade-A fertilizer from their droppings.

Arlo was six foot four and lanky. He was sensitive and mellow and kind, and when he laughed, the sound could shake furniture. People always fell in love with him. Well, people other than her family, but that was no surprise. Kathleen thought (she hoped) that Maggie genuinely liked him, and her sister, Clare, too. The opinions held by the rest of the Kellehers were irrelevant.

When people asked her what she did, Kathleen told them she and Arlo were in the vermiculture composting business and hoped they would not ask her to elaborate. In layman’s terms, they sold live worms and a spray fertilizer known in the trade as worm poop tea to small and medium-size nurseries all over California. They always had worms at each stage of the process: worms being born, worms just taking their first infinitesimal bites of banana peel, and worms that had finished composting, leaving them with a magnificent pile of fertilizer to sift through. Their three million worms made three thousand pounds of castings each month.

They had bought the farm ten years earlier, site unseen, six months after they met. The house sat on five acres in Glen Ellen, a tiny farming town outside of Sonoma. They sold both their homes in Massachusetts to buy it, and with the addition of the money Kathleen had inherited after her father died, they could almost afford the place. Almost. Maggie had been alarmed when Kathleen first told her about the idea all those years ago, but after considering several hours of conversation and a thick folder’s worth of research, even Kathleen’s worrywart daughter had agreed that Arlo’s plan had potential. He needed only the financing to get it off the ground, and someone to believe in him.

This year, the company was thriving. Arlo’s special orchid tea had been written up in a national magazine about organic living and orders were through the roof. Best of all, they had been profiled in the
Los Angeles Times
and the
Sonoma Index-Tribune
that spring, leading to an account with a chain of gardening stores that had operations in three states.

Kathleen had surprised them both with her business savvy. It was her outreach that had earned them all the press. It had been her idea to work with local schools to get the steady supply of garbage necessary to run their company. She was even able to channel the pushy, Alice-like parts of herself into getting nurseries to take more product than they might have, or securing Arlo a better deal on bottling fees.

Her mother and her brother, Pat, made it clear that they still thought the whole endeavor was goofy and extravagant, never mind that Kathleen had turned a profit of more than two hundred thousand last year. She understood how they might have thought the idea was suspect in the beginning, but she wished that just once they could give her credit for her success.

She’d show them this coming year, anyway.

In the early winter, she was taking their business to the next level. The tenth anniversary of the farm was in November, and she planned to present Arlo with a surprise: a worm gin, which would potentially triple their monthly output. The gin cost twenty thousand—most small farms like theirs couldn’t afford that. But she had carefully saved two hundred dollars every month since they had arrived here, no matter what.

She knew Arlo would be overjoyed, and when she pictured his reaction, she felt elated. Kathleen imagined car commercials from the eighties—a man gives his wife a Lincoln wrapped up in a big red ribbon for Christmas. Perhaps she’d be the first person to ever tie an oversize bow around a machine designed to mass-produce poop.

She stood in the middle of the kitchen for a moment, and then called the office in town where the orders were processed to make sure that a bunch of invoices had been sent out on Friday. She spoke to Jerry, their faithful assistant, who was there seven mornings a week. When she hung up, she glanced around at the room and sighed. The windows were streaked and the dishes stacked up. The trash was overflowing.

The entire house was a mess. She and Arlo could never manage to get the dirt out from under their fingernails, no matter how much they scrubbed. They left smudges on clothes and walls and book covers. There was dog hair everywhere. The bathroom probably hadn’t been cleaned in months. She blamed it on the business, but really she had never been one for housekeeping. In theory she’d love a tidy home like Ann Marie’s, but when she set that desire against all the other possibilities for what she could be doing if she weren’t inside with a mop, well …

Kathleen put two pots of water on the stove to boil—a small one for her ginger tea and a large lobster pot for steaming the worms’ food. One of many facts she had learned about worms along the way was that just because they ate garbage didn’t mean they weren’t discerning. They loathed orange peels, and weren’t fond of citrus in general. They preferred their food soft and mushy, so when she had the time she over-steamed banana peels and vegetable scraps and hunks of carrot tops and apple cores before loading them into the worm bins.

She pulled a ginger root from the cupboard and set to peeling it in front of the window. Outside, the dogs were lying side by side in the grass. She chopped the ginger into cubes and dumped them into the pot, leaving them there to simmer. Then she returned to her spot at the table, soaking in the quiet.

She opened the newspaper, which Arlo had set out for her. She flipped past the front-page news and the Arts section, landing finally on the Sunday circular. She didn’t clip coupons, but the women in her family had always been so obsessed with them that she could never shake the habit of looking them over, just in case there was something amazing to be found, though of course there never was. One ad offered free floss with the purchase of five tubes of toothpaste. As if floss had ever broken the bank for anyone. Human beings were strange about free stuff. Her mother was the queen of it—
I got four bottles of ketchup for the price of one
, Alice had bragged over the phone a few weeks earlier. Who needed four bottles of ketchup?

Kathleen made a point of speaking to Alice once a week, even though when she did this she often felt as though she had been roughly awakened from an exquisite dream. From this distance, it was easy enough to pretend her mother and the rest of the family didn’t exist. Well, all of them except for her children, who she missed every minute.

Kathleen worried about her son, Chris, about what kind of person he really was. He didn’t seem to have much ambition or enthusiasm: he drank a lot of beer and got into fights with his girlfriend, after which she ended up in tears and he ended up out at a bar with friends. In short, he was terrifyingly like his father.

She had to admit, at least to herself, that she felt jealous watching Pat and Ann Marie bask in all of Little Daniel’s professional success. That kid seemed to get a promotion every year, while Chris could barely find work. Maybe if he had had a real father, it would be different. She wished she had seen it sooner, done more for her son. But Kathleen’s attention had always been drawn more naturally toward Maggie.

Her daughter had turned out so well, despite Kathleen and Paul’s best efforts at completely fucking up her life.

Kathleen had taught her to be her own person. When Maggie was a kid, wanting desperately to fit in, Kathleen repeated a single phrase to her, over and over: “Don’t be a sheep.” She wished someone had said it to her when she was young. She couldn’t stand the thought of her remarkable daughter living out some ho-hum life like everyone else. And Maggie had taken this advice. She had made it as a writer in New York City, the sort of big, bold, independent existence Kathleen had realized too late that she herself wanted.

By the time she figured out that she was no Kelleher, not really, that she didn’t want to spend her entire life watching college football at Patrick and Ann Marie’s every Saturday while the kids played outside and the women made pasta salad and talked about laundry detergent—by then, it was too late. She was married with two children. Discovering that you craved independence when you were a young mother was about as convenient and feasible as shooting a man in cold blood and then deciding you didn’t feel like being a murderer after all. So she drank far too much and fought with her husband, and fought with Alice, and was generally an absolute mess. Once, she had stumbled drunk into Chris’s first-grade classroom for a parent-teacher conference, scaring his teacher half to death. Most days, she had started drinking at lunchtime. She carried on like this until the spring she took her kids to Maine and really hit rock bottom. She knew now that sometimes a person needed to sink that low to be able to get up again, and she didn’t regret it. She had changed after all that, and somehow become a woman she actually liked.

BOOK: Maine
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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