By Bill Roorbach
Created Oct 4 2007 - 1:48pm
Back to Maine weekly from my visiting professor job at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, a five-year position at that marvelous campus on its hill. The drive is three-and-a-half hours, down on Mondays early, back home to Maine on Wednesday evenings, 230 miles, a yo-yo burning about eight gallons of gas each way, stopping in Portland for dinner, usually taken at the bar at Fore Street.
But a couple of Wednesdays ago I had an evening literary event to attend-Baron Wormser, former poet laureate of Maine, a really smart and moving reading from his new work, questions and answers after. Baron's so intelligent, so direct. He doesn't talk around the poems a great deal but simply reads them in a loud, fast voice. At the dinner beforehand the talk ranged all over Maine both in time and geography. Baron was a high-school librarian for many years, lived in Mercer, not far from me in Farmington. He and his wife lived off the grid-no power, no phone-raised their kids that way, only considered moving when beloved neighbors died and the kids moved on and they found themselves alone. He's got a really good memoir out about all that and about poetry, too - The Road Washes Out in Spring.
We ate seafood, large group of writers. I drank two whiskies, grew voluble. Afterwards, I crossed the street alone to a coffee shop I'd never noticed (I don't generally drink coffee - too nervous), got myself a grande latte, because a grande latte has chocolate and is grande. Espresso is the active ingredient. Hot dessert. I meant to stay awake for my drive. The barista had the head of Botticelli's Venus looking out of the neck of her flannel shirt. I said, "Is that `Venus on the Halfshell'?" And the young woman liked that I knew my art history and just opened her shirt and showed me, one of the really nicest tattoos I've ever seen (after a certain pink lotus flower I've known), Venus rising from a formidable freckled cleavage.
And at Baron's reading I was coffee ripped, whiskey buzzed, synapses fizzing and popping, loving that poetry, inspired.
Anyway, I left Worcester (the Woo, Wormtown) at 8:30, just cruising in the dark on coffee, the whiskey worn down to a faint mood somewhere in my head, well metabolized, road-legal by all indications. Interstate 495-know it?-three lanes all going 105 mph, all those mispronounceable Massachusetts towns: Chelmsford, Billerica, Leominster. And through Lowell at a snailish 75 mph on the 50th anniversary of Kerouac's On the Road, dark of night, radio talk, Fresh Air with Terry Gross (talking to some gov't bonehead: war is peace!), and later a baseball game, Boston stations, wonderfully biased play-by-play, the Red Sox on their way to the division title. Sorry, northeastern New Englanders, but I grew up in southwestern Connecticut and am an old Yankees fan, used to go with my dad to games featuring Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Clete Boyer and Joe Pepitone and Elston Howard and Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron. These guys smoked Lucky Strikes in the dugout, drank beer. Don't get me wrong, I root for the Sox as soon as the Yankees are out of the picture, but was once asked to leave the Granary Pub in Farmington before the end of a playoff game between the two teams for my own protection.
Anyway again, you join 95 north of Boston, fly through Portsmouth, over the Piscataqua River (accent on the cat), view of the harbor, the million lights of the little city, melancholy buzz-buzz, and into Maine. An acquaintance in every town along the way. Mike Kimball in York, for example, runs the York Library reading series, terrific writer of plays and fiction himself. Quick stop in Kennebunkport to confer with President Bush Senior-I'm one of his advisors. We get on the phone with his son, you know, lots of laughs and small talk, advice. You can tell the kid doesn't listen to us much. The Iraq war was not my idea, for example. Barbara makes cucumber sandwiches, big mugs of cocoa laced with gasoline.
Then onward. In the day I'll often stop at Scarborough Beach, collect some ocean vastness for my soul to work with. But not this trip, the hour is late, late. I'll be getting home after midnight, maybe later at this speed: Portland is lost in fog, Falmouth ditto, Yarmouth worse, Freeport, Brunswick, Topsham, onward into a wall of white! The traffic thins, thins more. Bowdoinham. The Red Sox lose. I click to AM radio, find NewsRadio 88, all the way from New York City, catch the last inning of that game: Yankees win. Gardiner. Hallowell. One-and-a-half games back. Augusta, where I stop for gas and few breaths of air. Fog is rising up from the highway, fog pours from my mouth, fog rolls over the Irving sign, over Wendy's, over rich and poor alike.
Imagine this journey in 1907.
Imagine it in 1807.
Keep going back in time.
Such was my mood.
No cars on the road after Augusta, 27 North, midnight chiming as I glide through Belgrade Lakes, not a person in sight, thick billows of fog, my lights shining back at me. Then clear. New Sharon: quiet, fog again, then clear. Route 2: empty, except for two huge Quebecois trucks on their route to New Brunswick. One I meet in a fog bank - we both slow to twenty miles an hour, crawl past one another in a blaze of reflected lights.
At Farmington I take a left, don't get to go through town, over the Sandy River (glistening in starlight). Quick right onto 43, the Temple Road, sudden bank of thick fog pouring down out of the Temple Stream valley. I crawl. Just a league left, 3 miles, the distance a person can walk in an hour.
Suddenly, after one of the tight curves (road following the same hill contours as the stream), driving a mere fifteen miles an hour in the dense mist, I see a giant woman in the road.
No, really, a giant woman!
A giantess with long hair, it looks like, an apparition in and out of fog, the muscles of her shoulders working weirdly, face wide as a stop sign, baboon nose, everything hairy, feet dancing. Whoa! She disappears as I stop. Bright the lights, dim the lights, crawl forward-five miles an hour, heart pounding, mind working to explain what I've seen, but can't. Witch? An hallucination? Caffeine induced? Whiskey gone stale in my system? Have I fallen asleep? I give myself a sharp little slap.
But the giant woman reappears around the next corner, same distance ahead, taller seeming, just as ghostly in thicker fog, that queer jogging of the shoulders, the giant face, some kind of fur garment, a great crown or penumbra or halo hovering ghostly above the head. I'm safe in the car. I'm safe, right? So I speed up. I've got to see if she's real. Speed up to overtake her. She's in the oncoming-traffic lane, legs still dancing.
Abruptly, the apparition resolves in thinning fog. The giantess is real, all right, but she's just the rear end of a very large moose, great rack of antlers coming visible for what they are, no halo. The weird heaving of the giantess's shoulders was simply moose hips working, the dancing was moose legs, all the bizarre movement simply the moose trotting to stay ahead of me in the oncoming-traffic lane, fifteen or twenty miles an hour, trotting through more tight curves. If a car comes, he's toast, and the car is toast, too. I take the risk of speeding up, thinking to urge him off the road, but the road falls away to the valley there, steel barrier, cow fence, steep drop. My moose is trotting easily, clearly aware of me, hurrying a little. I hurry too, thinking to help the creature.
I flash my lights just in case, but don't see any lights coming. The moose hurries faster. I hurry faster too: the big curve is ahead. Before we get to it I'll just stop, leave room for any oncoming vehicle to swerve - we're all lucky it's so late, one o'clock in the morning. Still no lights coming. The huge animal trots just ahead of me in the left lane. I'm still cruising in the right, at a loss.
But at Jackson's house I give a honk, one sharp toot, and the unaccustomed noise turns the moose left and into their driveway. He trots to the house, right up to their porch, veers off through their dooryard and into the back fields. He'll make it to where he's going.
After that home, and to the tossing raft that is my bed. Didn't get to sleep till, like, three, the apparition, even explained, still spooking me, the giantess, having taken form, retaining form, coming real, the caffeine still at work in my head, the moose running, running, beside me all night.