Alison Baker is the author of the first prize story in Prize Stories 1994: The O. Henry Awards. Her recent collection is titled How I came West, and Why I Stayed (Chronicle Books, 1993).
I walked out of Jumper Hirsch's office, past the waiting patients, and out the front door. It was still sunny, the air had that crisp September promise, and the traffic hadn't even paused. I thought, What have I always wanted to do? For a minute my mind was blank. Then I thought, Well, I can start with Moosehead Lake.
I called my boss and told her there'd been a death in the family. Then I called Howard.
"So, you've come back to the fat man," he said.
"Just for the weekend, Howard," I said. "I've never been to Moosehead."
He was silent for a minute. "I'll have to bring the dogs," he said.
I'm a dog lover, but Howard's dogs are pugs. When he goes out he has to take up the carpets and put barriers over the furniture. When he gets home he mops the floor before he lets anyone in.
I parked my car at the Island Lobster Pound. They close for the season on Labor Day, which is convenient for carpoolers. I locked up and got into Howard's front seat, and the dogs were on me.
"They love you," Howard said glumly.
Parry had climbed onto my shoulder and was lapping at my ear, and Thrust was standing on my thighs, his front paws on my chest, gazing ecstatically into my eyes, his tongue flapping with every breath.
"Hi, guys," I said. "Hi, Howard."
"So what makes you call me?" he said, easing us onto the road.
"I wanted to see the dogs," I said. "I miss their conversation."
He laughed joylessly. When we were in college Howard weighed 338 pounds. Around five years ago he lost half of it, but he will never believe it. He moves gracefully, the way a fat man has to to get through doorways, and he always laughs too fast.
It's a wide smooth road up to Bangor, and Howard is a fast driver. I leaned back against the seat and rode it out, up and over and down the hills, through dark hollows and into the low brilliant light. Parry snored on my lap and Thrust was under the seat, Howard sped and I stared out the window. We took the cutoff across the Veterans' Bridge and were past Bangor before either of us said anything more.
Then Howard launched into his everyday life. Like me, he runs a town library; but he also tries to be a good citizen. He has claimed to be in love with me for years, which can come in handy during a Maine winter.
His focus at the moment was a fifteen-year-old boy who rode his ATV up and down the road in front of Howard's house. "I've got him on a lot of counts," he said. "No license. No helmet. Creating a nuisance. ATV on a public road. Unregistered ATV. Truancy."
"He's still at it?" I said.
"I'm trying to talk to his father about it," Howard said. "I go over there every night and drink beer with him and tell him his kid's going to get in trouble. He says How? I say I'm going to do it."
"Maybe you've been crying wolf too long," I said.
"It's just that I don't get there early enough. Guy starts drinking at noon. By the time I get there he can hardly hear me."
"Maybe there's a better way," I said.
Howard nodded. "I'm saving it for when he's sober. I'm going to tell him his kid will end up like me."
"He used to be an okay kid, you know? Riding his bike back and forth, harassing my dogs? But since he got his ATV he doesn't get any exercise. He just gets fatter and fatter." Howard smirked, and the lines beside his nose, left over from when he had a fat face, got deeper.
"Oh, Howard," I said. But I wasn't up to giving him a Howard Pep Talk. "What about that dog?"
Howard spent a year and a half trying to get a noise ordinance passed that would silence a barking dog down the road. He rallied the neighbors, spoke at town meetings, wrote letters to town officials. "The guy moved away," Howard said.
"Well, you won that one," I said.
"Enough about me," he said. He looked over at me, then back at the road. "What's new with you?"
I thought about telling him the latest news, but I didn't want to say it out loud. "Books," I said. "Books and more books."
We stopped for lunch at Carroll's Mar-Kit when we turned off the interstate to go west. By the time we got going again it was after noon, and the sun had started to set. That's the problem with Maine—except for one day in June, the sun never gets above your kneecaps.
The sky was clear, the leaves were at their peak, and I was scared. But then I'm often scared driving through small towns where nobody's in evidence. Frame houses with peeling paint, yards loaded with rusting bedsprings and cars and washing machines. Yet always an ornament, a butterfly on the roof or a bending-over lady in a garden. And the gardens—cosmos and zinnias and dahlias and lupine so garish they're almost offensive. It's as if a split personality is in residence, surrounding itself with rusted squalor and floral beauty. I said this to Howard.
"They don't care what it looks like, long's it's free," he said. The end of September the gardens have faded, eclipsed by autumn leaves. No matter how many autumns I see, I am always amazed at the colors. The sun hits a hillside and the reds and yellows burst out, blind you, stop your heart. Every damn time. Now and then there's a dry year, or the frost comes early, and people say, well, not a very good year; but you come around a corner and you gasp just the same.
We rode up to the top of the last hill and there on the other side was Moosehead Lake, spread out below us. Black spruce, birches and maples glowing through it, and blue blue blue water.
"Oh, my," I said.
"Like a picture postcard," Howard said, but I didn't let him spoil it for me.
The dogs bounced from window to window as we rolled down into Greenville. By morning my thighs would be a mass of pug-foot-sized bruises. The sun came through a gap in the mountains and no shadows lurked anywhere.
We had liver and onions in the Chainsaw Cafe, and by the time we came out it was dark. Half a dozen pickups were parked outside the bar. The dogs pressed their noses tragically against the windshield, their tongues slopping against the glass, watching us walk down Main Street and peer into dark shop windows.
A sign outside the Baptist Church said HUNT BREAKFAST, 4:30-6:30 A.M.
"Moosehunting season," I said. "I forgot."
"How long have you lived here?" Howard said. "And you forget the major holidays?" He shook his head. "You're flunking Maine, sweetheart."
We let the dogs run around on the gravel outside the motel. They raced in circles, dribbling pee, their noses to the ground.
"Let's go for a walk," I said.
"Are you crazy?" Howard said. He was watching TV, stuffed into bed among the pillows, covered with dogs.
"Don't wait up," I said.
It was a night when you should either be alone or with someone you can't live without, and I was glad Howard hadn't come. The moon was somewhere around full, just about eye level behind the motel. Parts of the sky were stuck with wintry stars. Other parts were full of clouds that had snatched up some of the moonlight and were rimmed with silver. There was enough wind to stir up the fear I'd been carrying around all day.
I headed downhill toward the lake. People in Maine don't close their curtains, and I could see into kitchens and living rooms, every one of them flickering with television light. All over the country people were watching TV. I was the only one in the world walking through the dark toward Moosehead Lake.
I passed a collection of mobile homes and the road turned to dirt, and then it ducked under the trees. I was in some kind of little park. The wind roared in the treetops and I could hear the chunking of waves, and those trailers I had just seen could have been in Utah, it was so dark. I walked blind and when I came out of the woods the moon had gotten above the trees and was catching the whitecaps in its light. It was out of the west, and wave after wave crested with moonlight before shuffling back into the body of the lake. Everything seemed the same distance away, and the stars had dimmed as the moon grew brighter.
"Loss, or the recognition of loss," I said.
Down the shore something snorted and crashed off through the forest, ripping up trees as it went.
"Shit," said a man's voice. He came out of the woods a few yards away and the moon lit up his rifle. "Well, that big boy's gone," he said. He walked over and we stood looking out at the water.
"What was it?" I said.
"Moose," he said. "Bear."
"Were you hunting it?" I said.
"No," he said.
We watched the waves and the wind scraped our ears. I could feel winter on the other side of the lake.
The man pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it with a deep drag. He offered it to me and I took a hit. I had nothing to lose.
"What would you do," I said, "if you only had so long to live?"
The man with the gun sucked on his cigarette. "Don't we all," he said. He walked down to the edge of the lake and put out the cigarette in the water. Then he came back. "Hell," he said. "I wouldn't do nothing. I've done enough."
"Travel?" I said. "People to see one more time?"
"Nobody," he said. "Glad to get shut of 'em."
The waves kept slopping against the rocks. There was woodsmoke in the air, from stoves and from campfires, and the edge of the wind was getting icy.
"I would never want to leave here," the man said.
"I've never been here before tonight," I said.
"Up in one of them motels are you?" he said, shifting his gun on his arm.
"With my friend," I said, and the man nodded.
He walked with me back through the woods, up to Main Street. I could feel all the creatures in the woods watching us from the darkness, the raccoons, the porkies, the deer and the owls. All their beady little eyes, their sharp, inquisitive noses, taking us in and letting us go by. I hoped all the moose had gone far into the hills.
"Goodnight," I said, and I crossed the street and went up the hill.
When I was almost back at the motel, he shouted, "A stranger rides into town! A man or a woman goes on a journey!"
I didn't answer.
When I walked into the room Howard said, "Will you marry me?"
"No," I said. "We've been over this."
"Sleep with me tonight then?"
"Howard," I said, "it won't work." I'd tried to fall in love with him, more than once. It might have gone somewhere, but Howard was afraid to get on top for fear of crushing me, and I didn't much like Parry licking her private parts on my pillow.
"Well, come snuggle then," Howard said.
I turned the sound down a notch on the TV and then got into bed and scootched my backside up against his stomach. Parry climbed over him, lay down beside my pillow and gazed seriously into my face, her eyelids drooping. Thrust snored behind Howard's knees. We watched the colorful marsupials of Australia live their everyday lives.
"What if I had a brain tumor?" I said.
"I'm incurably romantic," Howard said.
Parry's eyes opened and closed.
"A brain tumor?" Howard said.
"What if it just sat there," I said. "Not ever doing anything."
"Are you serious?" Howard said.
"Sure," I said. "What if they couldn't get at it, and it might sit there forever or it might spread. They don't know."
"They don't know?" Howard said.
"Stop it!" I shrieked. Parry jumped up and peed on the pillow. "Oh for god's sake," I said, sitting up. Thrust stood on the bed barking.
"Guys," Howard said helplessly.
I threw the pillow on the floor and got one from the other bed. "Why don't you get normal dogs," I said. "It's all right. Come on." I patted the bed and Parry crept out from under the nightstand.
"I thought you liked them," Howard said. "When I met you you had that picture of a pug in your room. I couldn't believe it. I thought, Wow, somebody else who loves pugs."
"Howard, that was the ugliest dog contest," I said. "I only had it because it was so ugly."
"I know," he said. He has the saddest voice in the world. "But I thought you liked them anyway."
"I do," I said. I lay down and he curled around me. "I like them as individuals, anyway." The dogs snuffled around us and flopped down with little sighs.
"Love my dogs, love me," Howard said.
When I woke up the dogs had crawled under the covers and inched down to the foot of the bed. The curtain was open a crack and the sky was getting light. I lay still, staring at the piece of light, and I thought, this isn't the worst life a woman could live.
I reached for my glasses and as I did my foot moved into something wet. I screamed and leaped out of bed. Howard yelled and sat up and the dogs barked furiously, scrambling around under the covers.
"What? What?" Howard shouted.
I turned on the light. He was clutching the blanket up to his chest. I pulled it down. "Somebody threw up," I said.
"Oh, god," he said, staring at it. "Oh, guys. Oh, god. Now I've really blown it."
"Stupid, ugly, disgusting dogs," I said. "Get them out of here."
"Oh, guys," Howard said again. He heaved himself out of bed, forgetting he wasn't fat any more, and shuffled around the room. "What do you want me to do?"
"I want to be alone," I said.
"Alone?" he said.
"Howard, will you stop that?" I said. "I want to be alone, I want you to take those dogs away, I want to wash the vomit off my feet."
"All right," he said.
"I'll take the bus home," I said.
"The bus?" he said.
"Go away," I said.
He put his clothes on. I stood looking out the window. "Come on, guys," he said, and the dogs scuttled over to him. All three of them stared at me. "Was that true?" Howard said. "What you said last night?"
"Have I ever lied to you?" I said.
He opened the door and they all went out.
* * *
I took a long, hot shower. I dried my hair, got dressed, and put my things back in my daypack. I took the sheet off the bed and put it in the bathtub, and wrote an apology on the back of the paper bathmat.
When I went outside the sun was lighting up the mist that rose off Moosehead Lake, and Howard and the dogs were sitting in the car. He got out as I walked over. "The bus doesn't run on Sundays," he said.
I nodded and got into the front seat. Parry and Thrust hurled themselves at me, lapping and snuffling. They couldn't help it.
Howard got in on the driver's side. "We missed the hunt breakfast," he said, and we headed back toward the coast.
I was glad Howard had waited for me. Pretty soon trucks would start bringing dead moose into town to get tagged. Moose aren't very smart. They come out of the woods and stand beside any road, chewing on grass, shaking their rumps to get rid of the gigantic flies that cloud around them. They stare out from under their huge racks, not afraid of anything, and during moosehunting season what they're staring at is pickup trucks full of men who sat around drinking beer all night, got up at four this morning to eat pancakes at the Baptist church, and now pull over to the side of the road, roll down their windows, and blow the brains out of any big dumb moose they see.
There's a limit of a thousand permits, and it only lasts a week, but I didn't want to stay around and count.