Down East 2013 ©
Set in fictional Fort Angus, Maine, Show Me Good Land tells the story of a small rural town struggling with poverty, loss, and acceptance after decades of prosperity. Loosely linked through the murder of Odie Hollander’s mother, its characters must navigate the ambiguous moral landscape of a decaying community. It is a moving, sometimes melancholy, often funny novel about family, community, loss, redemption, and coming home.
Show Me Good Land by Shonna Milliken Humphrey. Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 207 pages; $24.95.
While Emmett Pratt spent the late-summer weeks in Fort Angus being questioned about his role in Sheila Hollander’s murder, Rhetta Ballou had spent those same weeks unpacking in the southern part of the state.
Rhetta’s tiny apartment was a second-floor corner walk-up above an Indian restaurant on the edge of Portland’s Arts District. She’d rented the space with plenty of time to settle in before the university’s next session, and when she toured the apartment, she saw the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow statue from her kitchen window and heard music from the tiny concert venue across the street. Cunningham’s Rare Books was easily walkable, and Rhetta looked forward to getting lost among those dusty shelves.
After she signed a lease with the frog-eyed landlord, she had ordered takeout from the Indian restaurant. Rhetta’s mother, Ada, called just as she picked up the bag of food.
Ada told Rhetta about Sheila Hollander’s murder and how Hartley Monroe was looking at Emmett Pratt, and did she think she’d make it up in time for the funeral. “That would be nice,” Ada mentioned with an edge in her tone.
Rhetta held the phone in the crook of her neck as she opened the door to her new apartment, and she sighed heavily into Ada’s ear. Rhetta had just started her research job and could not take the time to attend the funeral. Rhetta spoke the words with a hint of apology, so Ada backed off. Ada said she understood. Work was work.
At 35, Rhetta spent her time on a graduate research fellowship for something Ada did not immediately understand. “You should go to school for computers,” Ada told her again that day on the telephone. “Or, to be a nurse.” Rhetta agreed those were both practical, smart ways to earn money, and then changed the subject.
She was just an Aroostook County girl back in Maine after nearly twenty years away, still disappointing her mother, but, she reflected when she hung up the telephone and rummaged to the bottom of a newspaper-filled packing box for a fork, she was also eating hot red curry in her own space. Things, she hoped, would be different.
Ada called again in late September, nearly two months after Sheila Hollander’s murder, about cousin Wendy Jo, and this time Rhetta was on the road the next morning. She could avoid coming home for Sheila Hollander’s funeral, but Wendy Jo was actual family.
Wendy Jo was placed in the intensive care unit at Fort Angus Regional Hospital for a methamphetamine detoxification regimen. The methamphetamine caused a severe kidney infection and while her cousin was not dead yet, it looked bad. Rhetta left messages for her professors and packed her car for the six-hour drive north.
The infection seeped into her bloodstream, and now Wendy Jo was all hooked up to the constantly beeping machines, her dirty blond hair framing a gaunt and unkempt face. At least, this is how Rhetta imagined it.
Rhetta could clearly envision the hospital and its gray exterior. She saw the large revolving glass door and the long stretch of green shiny floor tile leading toward the intensive care wing. What Rhetta could not see clearly was Wendy Jo’s face. Blond, she knew. Skinny too — rail thin, pale, haven’t-eaten-in-a-week skinny.
The last time Rhetta saw Wendy Jo, she’d stopped in to Ada’s house on the way to the postponed Fourth of July fireworks. Rhetta was in Maine to sort out moving details, and she’d driven north for a visit.
Wendy Jo’s youngest daughter had to use the bathroom, and she walked her upstairs by the hand. Wendy Jo’s older son was outside on the front porch, hollering to hurry up. Rhetta remembered Wendy Jo’s bony shoulders, bony arms, and bony hands.
The cousins had nothing to say that day. Rhetta was shocked at the physical change in Wendy Jo, and for her part, Wendy Jo did not seem to even notice Rhetta sitting at Ada’s kitchen table.
So when Ada told Rhetta the details of Wendy Jo’s overdose that late September night, Rhetta tried to remember Wendy Jo’s face, but all she could summon was the gaunt image of Wendy Jo slapping her son’s head and telling him to shut up as they walked down Ada’s hard dirt driveway.
Just after the fireworks, Wendy Jo moved out of the farmhouse she shared with her husband and the rest of her extended family, leaving the youngest kids with her mother, Ada’s sister Christine, and she went to live by the river in an old shack with Sam Shane. Ada said Wendy Jo’d been high every day since.
Sam Shane ran guns across the Canadian border for money, Ada told her. Weed, too. And, Rhetta suspected when Ada described the rotten teeth, methamphetamine. Ada said Wendy Jo drove Sam’s black Chevy through a stoplight and when she came back with a ticket from Hartley Monroe, Sam cracked her jaw with his fist.
As Ada told the story, Rhetta could not shake the image of Sam Shane himself. She could not imagine his chapped and scabby knuckles anywhere near her body, nor his yellow-toothed mouth on hers. Rhetta tried to imagine what he could offer any woman.
“Drugs,” Ada repeated, bringing Rhetta back to the immediate conversation. “They are all on drugs.”
Rhetta reminded Ada that they’d been doing drugs in some form for years. All of them. Christine and her husband Paul, even. Wendy Jo, and all the people in and out of their old Fort Angus farmhouse. Rhetta told Ada that if she were a social worker, she’d remove all the kids from that environment immediately. Like, today.
That was when the conversation with her mother had twisted, Rhetta recalled, struggling with one hand to peel back the flap on the coffee cup lid while she steered her car down outer Congress Street, over the railroad tracks, past the road to the correctional center, toward the ramp for I-295 northbound. After Ada detailed the rampant drug use for an hour, after going on and on about the safety of all those kids, Christine and Paul’s age, the mental stability of all involved, how they were poorer than poor, and the necessity for someone to do something, she turned on Rhetta, saying she didn’t know where Rhetta got off saying as much.“Those kids are loved there. Christine and Paul are all they’ve got. Taking them away would be the worst thing for everybody.”
Rhetta heard her mother’s shallow breathing on the telephone, but she could not stop herself from responding. She pointed out that since they were children, they would be loved anywhere, that grandparents had very few guaranteed legal rights, and that it certainly was not the worst thing, but before Rhetta finished her sentence, there was an irreversible chill between them.
Ada told her not to forget where she came from, that she was no better than anybody else, and that she had best quit trying to put on airs. Rhetta sat quiet on the opposite end of the phone and took it. She marveled at Ada’s quick turnaround from running down her cousins to running her down, but she took it, silent, all the time thinking that she didn’t know which direction to move.
Rhetta was in a doorway, one foot on either side. She could join with her mother in the tirade, blaming this situation with Wendy Jo on the drugs and lack of drug enforcement. Blaming it on the area, the northern Maine economy, the lack of opportunity would buy Rhetta some validity, and for a moment, she’d feel a sense of belonging in that shared injustice of fate and place. Ada would relax her focus, content that her daughter was right there beside her.
Or, she could point out that Wendy Jo made some stupid choices, facilitated by her parents’ stupid choices, and was likely to perpetuate stupid choices in her own children — that to break that cycle would be the kindest thing possible.
But by saying as much, Rhetta knew she was placing her own stupid choices somehow above Wendy Jo’s. She’d be placing anyone’s stupid choices above Wendy Jo’s, and when it came down to it, dumb was dumb, with little distinction. Wendy Jo’s stupid choices were no better or worse than any other person’s, and Rhetta’s own stupid choices stung her mind with amazing clarity.
Rhetta Ballou left Fort Angus when she was still a teenager, straight off an affair with a married teacher and an abortion nobody knew about. With a high school equivalency certificate and a brand new driver’s license, Rhetta just pointed her beat up Chevy south and pushed the gas pedal hard.
“Get out of this town,” Ada told her daughter over and over, almost every day as she grew up. “Get out of this town,” she’d said. “Don’t be like me,” but Ada was still shocked when Rhetta left Fort Angus.
Leaving, Rhetta often thought, leaving home was the easy part. As Rhetta tried to walk a middle line with her mother on the telephone, she knew the hardest part was figuring out a way back.
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” she said, hanging up with a hollow click.
In the twenty years since Rhetta left Fort Angus, she’d acquired two graduate degrees and moved through twelve states. She was now headlong into a research fellowship that made no sense to her family.
“Rhetta must be the smartest woman in the world,” Ada had said during the recent Fourth of July visit. “She’s been going to school long enough.”
Rhetta ignored the comment at the time, but her grandmother, Nellie, out from the nursing home, snorted. When Ada spoke the words, Rhetta winced at Nellie’s laugh.
Rhetta pushed that memory from her mind as she drove into the early-morning sun toward home. Twenty minutes up the highway, she passed the Freeport signs advertising L.L. Bean and the outlet shops, and she relaxed into her seat as she pondered the next six hours.
Fort Angus is a speck on the map. Printed in the tiniest font at the end of I-95, and then thirty miles north from the exact spot where the state becomes Canada, Fort Angus is part of a handful of towns and townships scattered throughout Aroostook County.
Fort Angus, the largest town in Aroostook County, the largest county east of the Mississippi River, was her hometown. She’d taken to calling Aroostook, “The County,” but it never felt right, like something a person from away would say. Rhetta thought about Aroostook, its geographic remoteness, and of leaving her family who still lived there.
She put last night’s conversation with her mother out of her mind, and tried to summon clearer, better, and more positive images of her cousin Wendy Jo. She wanted a sense of the cousin she had left, and the first memory was easy.
Ada used to drop Rhetta off at her sister Christine’s house, just on the edge of Fort Angus — a rambling farmhouse inherited from the Delfino in-laws — a structure that had potential once, but now inspired very little in its current state of haggard yellow chippedness. Christine had eight children before she was twenty-three. At age fifteen, with her mother Nellie’s endorsement, she had married a logger named Paul Delfino. “He don’t beat you, and he makes good money,” Nellie’d said.
Ada said her sister let her kids run wild, but young Rhetta thought her aunt was hip and fancy. Christine sold Avon from shiny square catalogs, and Rhetta practiced wearing the pink and red lipstick samples with Wendy Jo.
Nothing was off-limits at Christine’s. There were no sheets on the bed, no need for a peanut butter knife when you had a finger, and sometimes Uncle Paul came home at lunchtime to make whoopee with Christine behind a closed bedroom door. Whoopee day or not, Rhetta and the cousins climbed onto countertops, drank straight from pitchers, and raced in stocking feet across the torn kitchen linoleum.
Christine’s place had huge overgrown potato fields with a decrepit shell of a farm truck and an equally decrepit tractor, both prime places for hide and seek. Once, Wendy Jo and Rhetta made a secret clubhouse on the remains of the truck’s flatbed. Wendy Jo said a garter snake ran over her toes the week before while she was wearing sandals, and that her dad had to beat the new dog when he wouldn’t stop barking the night before.
“It’s the only thing they understand,” Wendy said. Rhetta nodded like she too understood, and then the two cousins threw a battery of choke cherries at Wendy Jo’s little brothers and some other farm kids until they cried and ran inside to tell.
Christine’s dusty stereo played country and western songs, and Rhetta and Wendy Jo used rolled up pieces of paper for microphones, learning all the words to every lonely, cheating ballad ever made popular by northern radio.
Christine inspected mosquito bites from her kitchen table, loaded down with magazine flyers, drawings, paper plates, and an open bag of potato chips. She drank Allen’s Coffee Brandy with the lady who lived across the road and talked about dirty things, saying “partied too hard” and “honky-tonk whore.”
Sometimes, if they all were good and could settle down and get out of her hair for five minutes, Christine would load the entire group into the old green Pontiac and drive to the quarry swimming hole near the north edge of the Abnaki River. It was before seat belt laws and all the kids clamored into the car, some standing on the floor and gripping the head rests, trying not to fall and injure those piled on the back seat.
Christine would pour her coffee brandy into an old Pepsi bottle, top it with milk, and find a True Confessions magazine. She’d sit herself at the edge of the water, adjust her bikini bottom while she rubbed Johnson’s baby oil with iodine onto both legs, and warn about bloodsuckers. “I’m putting the salt shaker right here, so don’t knock it into the water.”
Then there was a tangled, wet mass of muddy kids. Splashing, the older ones tried not to hurt the babies. The big cousins told stories of old Leander Lambert’s creepy river shack in the woods, and the little kids kicked and screamed and splashed away even faster.
It got cold at the end of the day, goosebumps eventually driving Rhetta and Wendy Jo in a barefoot clammy trek back to the Pontiac. There were only two thin orange towels to share, but Christine promised grilled cheese and baloney sandwiches if they all could shut up, and as a little girl holding hands with her best friend and favorite cousin, Rhetta couldn’t imagine anything that tasted better or any day that could be more perfect.