Part 1 (1/2)

Maine : a novel.

by J. Courtney Sullivan.


Alice decided to take a break from packing. She lit a cigarette, leaning back in one of the wicker chairs that were always slightly damp from the sea breeze. She glanced around at the cardboard boxes filled with her familyas belongings, each gla.s.s and saltshaker and picture frame wrapped carefully in newspaper. There were at least a couple of boxes in every room of the house. She needed to make sure she had taken them all to Goodwill by the time the children arrived. This had been their summer home for sixty years, and it amazed her how many objects they had acc.u.mulated. She didnat want anyone to be burdened by the mess once she was gone.

She could tell by the heavy clouds that it was about to rain. In Cape Nedd.i.c.k, Maine, that May, you were likely to see a thunderstorm every afternoon. This didnat bother her. She never went down to the beach anymore. After lunch she usually sat out on the screen porch for hours, reading novels that her daughter-in-law, Ann Marie, had lent her during the winter, drinking red wine, and watching the waves crash against the rocks until it was time to make supper. She never felt the urge she once did to put on a swimsuit and take a dip or muss her pedicure by walking in the sand. She preferred to watch it all from a distance, letting the scene pa.s.s through her like a ghost.

Her life here was ruled by routine. Each day, she was up by six to clean the house and tend her garden. She drank a cup of Tetley, leaving the tea bag on a dish in the fridge so she could use it once more before lunch. At nine thirty on the nose, she drove to St. Michaelas by the Sea for ten oaclock Ma.s.s.

The surrounding area had changed so much since their first summer in Maine, all those years ago. Huge houses had gone up along the coast, and the towns were now full of gift shops and fas.h.i.+onable restaurants and gourmet grocery stores. The fishermen were still around, but back in the seventies many of them had started catering to tourists, with their breakfast cruises and their whale watches and such.

Some things remained. Rubyas Market and the pharmacy were still dark by six. Alice still left her keys in the car at all times. She never locked the house eithera”no one up here did. The beach had stayed untouched, and every one of the ma.s.sive pine trees dotting the road from her door to the church looked as if it had been there for centuries.

The church itself was a constant. St. Michaelas was an old-fas.h.i.+oned country chapel made of stone, with red velvet cus.h.i.+ons in the pews and brilliant stained-gla.s.s windows that burst with color in the morning sun. It had been built at the top of a hill off Sh.o.r.e Road so that its rooftop cross might be visible to sailors at sea.

Alice always sat in the third row to the right of the altar. She tried to remember the best bits of wisdom from Father Donnellyas sermons to pa.s.s along to the child or grandchild who needed them most, not that they paid her any attention. She listened intently, singing out the familiar hymns, reciting the prayers she had recited since she was a girl. She closed her eyes and asked G.o.d for the same things she had asked for all those years ago: to help her be good, to make her do better. For the most part, she believed He heard.

After Ma.s.s on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the St. Michaelas Legion of Mary met in the church bas.e.m.e.nt and said the rosary for ailing members of the parish, for the hungry and needy around the world, for the sanct.i.ty of life in all its stages. They recited Hail Holy Queen and drank decaf and chatted. Mary Fallon reminded them whose turn it was to bring m.u.f.fins next time and who would accompany Father Donnelly on his weekly trip to the homes of the infirm, where he prayed for a recovery that usually never came. Though it was terribly sad, watching strangers her own age dying, Alice enjoyed her afternoons with Father Donnelly. He brought such comfort to everyone he visited. He was a young man, only thirty-four, with dark hair and a warm smile that reminded her of crooners from the fifties. He had chosen a vocation from another era, and he was thoughtful in a way she didnat know young people could be anymore.

Alice felt a sense of deep dedication watching him pray over his paris.h.i.+oners. Most priests today didnat make time for house calls. When they were done, Father Donnelly would take her to lunch, which she knew for a fact he did not do with the other gals from the Legion. He had done so much for her. He even helped her around the house now and thena”changing the high-up lightbulb on the porch, hauling away tree branches after a storm. Perhaps this special treatment was only a result of the little arrangement they had made, but she hardly cared.

Father Donnelly and the seven members of the Legion of Mary (no fewer than five of them actually named Mary) were the only people Alice interacted with on a regular basis at this time of year. She was the lone summer person in the group, their foreign exchange student, she called herself as a joke. The year-rounders were suspicious of outsiders. But they had agreed to let her join just for the season after the archdiocese shut down St. Agnes two years back.

St. Agnes was her church at home in Canton, the church where Aliceas children were baptized, where her husband, Daniel, was eulogized, where she had gone to Ma.s.s every day for the past six decades and run both the Sunday school program, when her children were small, and the Legion of Mary once they had grown. She had co-chaired the campaign to save the church with a young mother of four named Abigail Curley, who had translucent skin and a soft, childlike voice. Together, they gathered five hundred signatures; they wrote dozens of letters; they pet.i.tioned the cardinal himself.

At the final Ma.s.s, Alice cried quietly into her handkerchief. These closures were becoming common practice; you read about them all the time. But you never thought theyad impact you. At St. Agnes, Abigail Curley and some of the other congregants refused to leave. Thirty months later they were still occupying the church around the clock, holding vigil even though there was no priest there anymore, no lighting or heat. Alice started going to a new church in Milton, but she felt no connection to the place or the people there. Now her summer church was her main link to her faith and her past. The Legion members seemed to understand as much.

They were mostly widows who had let themselves go. They wore sweat suits and chunky white sneakers, and their hair was a uniform disaster. Alice was the sole one among them who had kept her figure. Only her deep, deep d.a.m.n wrinkles even hinted at the horrifying fact that she was eighty-three. But like the rest of them, she was alone. Sometimes she wondered if they all took their morning prayer sessions so seriously because they each needed someone to bear witness to their presence. Otherwise, one of them might have a stroke at the kitchen table some morning, and simply go unnoticed.

Her husband, Daniel, won the property in 1945, just after the war ended, in a stupid bet with a former s.h.i.+pmate named Ned Barnell. Ned was a drunk, even by the standards of his fellow navy men. He had grown up in a fis.h.i.+ng village in Maine, but now spent his time squandering his paychecks in some of Bostonas finest barrooms and underground gambling clubs. He made a fifty-dollar wager with Daniel on some basketball game, which absolutely enraged Alice. They had been married two years then, and she was pregnant with Kathleen. But Daniel said the bet was a sure thing, that he never would have made it otherwise. And he won.

Ned didnat have the money to pay him.

aSurprise, surprise,a Alice said when Daniel came home that night and told her the news.

He had a wild grin on his face. aYouall never guess what he gave me instead.a aA car?a Alice said sarcastically. Their twelve-year-old Ford coupe sputtered and p.o.o.ped out whenever she started it. By then, they were so accustomed to gas rations that they mostly walked everywhere anyway, or took the streetcar. But the war was over now, and another New England winter was coming. Alice had no intention of being one of those mothers on the train, shus.h.i.+ng her screaming newborn while others looked on with disapproving stares.

aBetter,a Daniel said.

aBetter than a car?a Alice asked.

aItas land,a Daniel said gleefully. aA whole big plot of land, right on the water in Maine.a She was skeptical. aYou better not be joking, Daniel Kelleher.a aI kid you not, Mrs. Kelleher,a he said, coming toward her. He pressed his face to her stomach.

aYou hear that, jelly bean?a he said to her belt.

aDaniel!a she said, trying to push him away. She hated when he talked directly to the baby, already attached.

He ignored her.

aThis time next summer weall be making sand castles. Daddy got you your own beach.a He straightened up. aNedas grandfather gave all his grandkids some land, but Nedas got no interest in his piece. Itas ours!a aFor a fifty-dollar bet?a Alice asked.

aLetas just say it was the last in a long line of fifty-dollar bets that may or may not have gone unpaid.a aDaniel!a Despite the good news, her blood boiled a bit.

aHoney, donat worry so much, you married a lucky guy,a he said with a wink.

Alice didnat believe in luck, though if it existed she was fairly sure that hers was lousy. In two years of marriage, she had already miscarried three times. Her mother had lost two babies in infancy before the rest of her children came along, though Alice wouldnat dare ask her about it. All her mother ever said on the topic was that she a.s.sumed G.o.d had taken away the things she loved most as some sort of test. Alice wondered if in her case the children simply vanished because they knew they werenat quite wanted or, more to the point, that she was no mother.

She was used to the routinea”no dark spots on her delicates at the usual time of the month, followed by a few weeks of nausea and vomiting and headaches, and then the sight of blood in the white china toilet, another soul gone.

She had overheard a gal in the elevator in her office building whispering to her girlfriend that a doctor in New York had fitted her for a diaphragm.

aSuch a relief!a the girl had said. aLord knows Harryas not doing anything to make sure I donat get knocked up.a aIf the men had to push the babies out, then theyad take the precautions,a her friend said. aCan you imagine Ronald, huffing and puffing?a She closed her mouth and filled her cheeks up with air, squinting her eyes until they both began to giggle.

Alice wished she could say something to them, find out more. But they were strangers to her, and it was a vulgar thing to be talking about in the first place. She didnat know who to ask, so she went to a priest before work one morninga”someone a few parishes away from her own. Everyone acted as though penance was an anonymous process, but you could see the priest before he went into the confessional, and he could just as easily see you. This one was old, with pure white hair. FATHER DELPONTE, it said on a plaque on the outside of the box. Italian, she supposed. Everyone knew Italian girls were fast. She hoped he wouldnat mistake her for one of them. She was married, after all.

In the dim box, she kneeled down, closed her eyes, and crossed herself.

aBless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last confession,a she began, the same words she had uttered so many times before.

Her cheeks blushed a fiery red as she told him about the babies she had lost.

aI wonder if perhaps now isnat the time for me,a she said. aI wonder if thereas something I might do to hold off. My sister died a couple years back, and Iam still not myself. Iam afraid of being a mother. I donat think I have it in me to love another person enough, at least not yet.a She wanted to say more, but then he asked, aHow old are you?a aTwenty-four.a Alice could swear she saw him make a baffled face through the screen.

aYouare more than old enough, my dear,a he said softly. aG.o.d has a plan for each of us. We have to believe in it, and do nothing to put it off course.a She did not know if he had understood. Perhaps she should have been clearer.

aThere are ways Iave heard of to delay,a she began, fumbling for the words. aI know the Church frowns on it.a aThe Church forbids it,a he said, and that was all.

She cried for a moment in the parking lot and then set off for work. She never told Daniel what she had done.

This pregnancy had lasted six months so far. Alice was terrified. She tiptoed everywhere, afraid to breathe. She had to drink half a gla.s.s of whiskey each night to get to sleep. She smoked twice as many cigarettes as usual and paced around the block in the afternoonsa”she had been reprimanded by her boss three times now for being away from her desk when she wasnat supposed to be. Mr. Kristal was downright wretched to her, probably because he recognized her condition, and knew from experience that shead be giving her notice soon enough.

The after Daniel won the land, they took a ride out to Cape Nedd.i.c.k. Alice didnat know what to expect. She had been to Maine only once before, on a day trip with her brothers and sister when she was a teenager. All six of them were jammed into their fatheras Pontiac, barreling along with the windows rolled down. They ate lunch at a clam shack and then drove east until they found a slip of beach to relax on. The boys skipped rocks into the water, and Alice and Mary sat in the sand, talking. Alice did a sketch of the dunes in her notebook. They didnat know what town they were in, and they didnat linger for long. They couldnat afford to stay overnight, not even at one of the cheap roadside motels that lined the highway.

Only a few years had pa.s.sed since then, but it seemed like another lifetime.

Daniel drove the car through downtown Ogunquit, past a motor inn and a dance hall and Perkins Drugstore, and the Leavitt Theatre, where Anchors Aweigh was playing at two oaclock. They went straight, past the stone library and the Baptist church and a row of grand hotels, until they reached the tip of town, where fishermenas shacks and lobster traps stood on the land, and fis.h.i.+ng boats bobbed up and down in the harbor. There was water on three sides: the Atlanticas rocky coastline to the left and in front of them, and to the right a small inlet with a footbridge leading to the other side. Carved into a stone at the base of the bridge were the words PERKINS COVE.

Alice raised an eyebrow. aGosh, is everyone in this town called Perkins?a aJust about,a Daniel said, clearly excited to have a bit of inside information. aAccording to Ned, that family owns half the land around here. Theyare fishermen, like his people. Ned went with one of the Perkins cousins back in high school.a aLucky her,a Alice said.

aNow now,a Daniel said. aHey, Ned even taught me a little poem one of them wrote. You ready to hear it?a 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 everybodyas tank.

A Perkins sells you magazines Another sells you fish You have to go to Perkinses for anything you wish.

Youall always find a Perkins has fingers in your purse And when I die, I think that I Will ride a Perkins hea.r.s.e.