I was the late night donut man up to Ellsworth that winter. Six nights a week from ten until the donuts were done for three hundred dollars a week.
“Dude,” said Bal. “Smellsworth? You can’t live there. Get a place here in Bar Harbor. It’ll be great. Cherie’s mom is in real-estate, she’ll find you something.”
I went in to see Cherie’s mom. I waited in the doorway while she finished a letter and tried to smooth down my hair where it stuck every which way with my hat off. “You’re a friend of Bal’s,” said Cherie’s mom pointing at a chair. She smiled at the mirror.
I set my duffle bag in the corner and wished I’d worn my good shirt. I tucked my worn boots under the chair and put my hands over the worn out knees of my jeans.
“A rental? For the winter?” asked Cherie’s mom. She frowned. “What’s your budget?”
I told her I had five hundred saved from summer lobstering and I’d get a paycheck after my second week with Duncan Donuts.
She glanced at the pictures of lake front cottages and ocean view rooms and tapped her long red nails on her desk.
“There’s the old carriage house. By the hospital.” she said. “You could ask there. The owner rents out rooms for artists and workers in summer. I don’t know what it’s like in winter but it….” She glanced at the clock and smiled at the door.
I walked by the carriage house half a dozen times before I found it. I walked all the way down to the shore path and then back up past the hospital parking lot to Cottage Street, back and forth three times before I took a chance on the broken wrought iron gate held open with a chunk of rotten stump and followed the vague, leaf strewn track into the abandoned estate. Even with most of the leaves stripped away by the late October gales the thickets and tangled brush in the gardens gone feral hid the old place.
The main house had burned in the fire back in late forties but by some miracle the carriage house had been spared. Thirty years of unchecked growth had pushed the brambles and saplings up to the walls. Branches dug like eager fingers at the rot-softened shingles. I could see the arcs they had scraped when the wind blew. Even though I was just a hundred yards or so off the road, the town seemed distant.
The carriage doors stood open though the windows on the first floor were boarded up tight. Dusty scraps of lumber and poles leaned out of the old stalls and rusted bicycles hung from the hooks that once held the tack and saddles.
When my eyes were used to the gloom I made out a set of rough wooden stairs. No one answered when I called out but I could hear footsteps above me and a faint scraping sound.
If it wasn’t for the easel I’d have figured him for an odd job man. Week’s grizzle for a beard. Stained T-shirt, ragged jeans, rough hands. Dagger and snake tattoo on one arm. Skull and rifle on the other. The canvas on the easel was as big as a sheet of plywood and his brush was sized for house trim. I watched him paint a wave rising to meet the shore. The shoreline was jagged with spruce and boulders and wave was caught in that moment when it reared up, shimmering and translucent just before it shattered in a tumble of foam.
He stepped back and noticed me. “What do you think,” he asked.
We looked at painting. He cleaned his brush on his pant leg and set the canvas to dry with the others. All of them ledges and waves, storm clouds and scattered light. They almost screened the dirty sheets and wadded blanket on his bed.
“You sell them,” I asked.
“The hotels buy the seascapes.”
“Seems too much for a motel room,” I said. “Too much power, like you’re really there.”
He picked up a pair of glasses from table, put them on and gave me long look.
“I heard you had rooms for rent,” I said.
He picked a rag off the floor and wiped his hands. “Not my place. I just rent the studio, but I guess the owner’d just as soon rent another room.”
“How much,” I asked.
“Fifty,” he said. “Take whichever room you want. The kitchen’s all yours, I never cook. Bathroom’s down the hall.”
I checked the rooms, opened the cupboards in the kitchen. There was a scatter of greasy, mismatched pots and pans on the shelves, the odd remains of six-packs in the fridge, an opened can of soup on the counter along with some cheese that had dried before it went green and the hard heels of a loaf of bread.
The room by the kitchen had a rusted fitting for a stove-pipe through the cracked plaster into the chimney and an old parlor stove in a corner next to a broken chair. In places the rough plaster had peeled off the laths but none looked to come down off the ceiling. I cleaned a spot to look out one of the wide windows into the wilderness of the old estate. All that and a view as well. I gave him two twenties and a ten.
“There’s an extra mattress down stairs, just make sure the mice haven’t gotten to it,” he said. “And there’s some pots and shit in the kitchen. The owner’s gone down to Florida, she don’t care what you use. When’re you planning on moving in?”
“I just got the bag,” I said.
He looked at the old Navy duffle leaning against the wall. “Fit a lot in one of those,” he said. “Hold a life if you pack it right.”
I thought of my father rolling everything tight and neat when he packed and how he said the same thing the day handed it to me like it held something even empty.
I unpacked. Spread a sleeping bag on the mattress. Hooked up the stove. Hung some cotton bedspreads to cover the holes in the plaster. Made a bean stew for the week. Home sweet home.
That was the winter the pipes froze and burst during the first cold spell. Before the water was shut off a small glacier filled the bathtub and cascaded out into the hallway. It was the winter I bought my first car and totaled it in a spectacular ice storm crash not long after. It was a winter when there were still 50 dollar rents and two-hundred dollar cars, when people would take a chance on a late night hitch-hiker and the police would give the town donut man a ride home. Home sweet home.
“Man,” said Bal every time he stopped by. “You totally lucked out.”