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what they say about people in maine

Adam Berlin

The Cahills asked Brent to drive their car from New York City to Portland, Maine. They were flying to Portland and Mr. Cahill wanted someone he knew to “deliver” their car. Brent said he’d do it. The agreement was made in the Cahill’s Chelsea brownstone, already packed-up bare except for a row of cardboard boxes pushed against the downstairs wall. Mr. Cahill gave Brent a check for three-hundred dollars for the service to be rendered and fifty dollars cash for the bus trip back to the city. He also gave Brent a half-finished 1.75-liter bottle of Dewar’s. Mrs. Cahill sipped her scotch on the rocks and watched the transaction.
          The Saturday of the trip Brent could see the Cahills moving around the third floor of their brownstone. Brent rented a room across the street and watched as Mrs. Cahill took something out of a drawer, then disappeared into another room. He liked the way she moved even from this distance. Brent opened his own window all the way, put his head out, and looked east. The sky was clear, the day not too hot, perfect for driving.
          Brent showered, dressed, packed a small bag in case the Maine summer night was chilly, went down to the corner coffee shop and ate a breakfast of eggs, French toast, bacon and coffee to keep him going for the trip. He already had keys to the Cahill car, which was parked in a nearby garage. When he finished his third cup of coffee he walked to the garage and gave the attendant the note with Mr. Cahill’s signature at the bottom. It had all been arranged. The attendant came back with the red Mercedes sedan. The car idled quietly. The attendant stepped out of the car, handed Brent the second set of keys, and Brent got into the driver’s seat. He put the car into Drive, pulled the S550 out of the garage, and drove down 23rd Street to the East River Drive.
          Traffic was heavy on Route 95. Brent had meant to get an earlier start, but he’d overslept. Still, there was really no rush. Mr. Cahill had said Brent could drive the car up at any time of day, and at 300 bucks for 300 miles and a long bus ride back, Brent was doing them a favor. He pulled behind an eighteen-wheeler with Rooski’s Produce written on the back in green letters and followed the truck in the center lane so he wouldn't have to concentrate on the traffic pattern and just coast.
          Brent listened to the radio, one song falling into the next, and time passed. He thought of Mr. and Mrs. Cahill moving to Maine. They seemed like cosmopolitan people. When he met them on the street, which wasn't that often in the two years he’d lived in the neighborhood, they were always going to or coming from a city-something. A Broadway show, an opening of an art exhibit, a movie premier, a concert at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. Mrs. Cahill was always well-dressed, showing off her body, walking sexy in heels. Sometimes when he passed by the Gotham Restaurant on his way back from his own restaurant job, he saw the Cahills inside drinking expensive-looking drinks from expensive-looking glasses. They seemed to belong in New York.
          Traffic eased. Brent pulled the Mercedes into the left lane and tested how the sedan handled at seventy, then eighty. He watched the banks of grass ahead to make sure there were no cops. The ride was smooth and he felt like he was going more slowly than he was. He drove through Massachusetts and stopped for lunch just past the New Hampshire border at a truck stop advertised from twenty miles away on tacky road signs, the O’s shaped like tires. Brent sat at the counter and looked over the fruit and cream pies in the mirrored case. He ordered a cheeseburger and fries from a waitress in an orange uniform. The way she held her pen and pad was more dated TV-series than real.
          Brent checked his phone. He looked up the weather in Portland, twelve degrees colder. A man wearing a Steelers cap sat down next to Brent and asked where he was headed. Brent said he was going to Maine. The man said that wasn’t too bad, that he had to drive all the way up the coast of Canada. He pronounced Canada like it had a bad aftertaste.
          “What kind of rig you driving?” the trucker said.
          “I don’t drive a truck. Some people asked me to drive their Mercedes to Portland as a favor.”
          “That’s a pretty big favor,” the trucker said.
          “They’re giving me a few bucks to make it worth my while.”
          “They must know you pretty well to let you take off with their Mercedes.”
          “We were neighbors,” Brent said.
          The waitress served his cheeseburger and Brent turned to his food.

Back on the highway Brent wove the Mercedes through traffic. He was making good time and wondered if he’d beat the Cahills to their new house. The highway opened up inside the Maine border, but when he drove into Portland the road became confusing and Brent got lost on some back streets. He took a U-turn, re-crossed the bridge over the harbor at a slower speed. A few large, rusty ships were in port. He checked his phone—no signal—so he pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant if River Road was nearby. The man wore dirty green overalls and rubbed his fingers, streaked with grease, through his gray beard. The man eyed the new Mercedes. He told Brent how to get to River Road and Brent thanked him. The man rapped his knuckles on the hood of the car like he was checking if it were real.
          Brent crossed back over the bridge, took a right, another right, and followed the man’s directions to River Road. It was more deserted than the other roads he’d driven on. The houses were spaced far apart and became larger as he approached the address he was looking for. There was a space along the road where a small forest of pine trees grew and beyond them he saw a house in a clearing. The number on the roadside mailbox matched the one Mr. Cahill had written down on yellow legal paper. Brent turned the Mercedes into the driveway and drove up to the house.
          There were two cars parked in front of the garage. Brent parked the Mercedes well behind them. He took the keys out of the ignition, took his bag from the back seat, and put it over his shoulder. There was a brass knocker on the front door, but he didn’t use it. He rang the bell, waited, rang again.
          The door opened. Mrs. Cahill stood in front of him. She wore jeans and a flannel shirt and held a paper cup. She looked tired, but she also looked good. She always looked good. Mrs. Cahill lingered over Brent’s eyes and invited him in. They walked into a large room Brent guessed would become the living room when the furniture arrived. The whole house was empty. Brent looked through the large window at the back of the room and saw Mr. Cahill walking around the yard with two other men. Mr. Cahill’s posture was straight, he held himself young, but his jeans didn’t fit right. Old hips. Old legs.
          “You found the place,” Mrs. Cahill said. “Was it an easy drive?”
          “It was,” Brent said. “I’ve never driven a Mercedes before. They’re beautiful cars.”
          “Mr. Cahill has always insisted on driving a Mercedes. He says their engines run like a work of art. Would you like a drink?”
          Brent looked at the paper cup in her hand and guessed it was scotch on the rocks.
          “If you have some water that would be great,” he said.
          He watched Mrs. Cahill walk across the room and go into the kitchen. It was all done in white including the appliances. Mrs. Cahill took a tray of ice from the refrigerator, put a few cubes in a paper cup, filled the cup with tap water.
          “Here you go,” she said, coming back into the living room and handing him the paper cup. Her nails were perfectly manicured. “Mr. Cahill is in back going over the property lines. The real estate agent brought a man from the zoning board to ease Mr. Cahill’s mind.”
          Brent wasn't sure why she was telling him this. Maybe she just wanted to make conversation. Brent had never really spoken with Mrs. Cahill. Whenever he ran into the two of them on the street, it was always Mr. Cahill who did the talking. Mrs. Cahill would just smile and listen to her husband and look on silently. Brent watched her from his window sometimes when she moved around the house behind her own windows. Watering plants. Straightening up. Getting ready to go out. She had medium-length blonde hair and large green eyes that were never quite focused. When he first saw her, he guessed she was taking Mr. Cahill for his money. She was younger than her husband and while Mr. Cahill was a handsome man, he paid her the kind of attention that seemed based on insecurity.
          “Mr. Cahill will give you a ride to the bus station,” she said.
          “I’d appreciate that.”
          “Or I could. There’s nothing for me to do here until the movers arrive.”
          Mrs. Cahill’s eyes were more focused than usual. She sipped her drink and stood in front of Brent. There was no place to sit and Brent felt a little self-conscious standing there in the middle of the empty living room. Mrs. Cahill didn’t seem to mind at all. Her whole body was relaxed and comfortable. She was probably used to standing with a drink in her hand at all the cocktail parties she and Mr. Cahill attended.
          “You must be jaded,” Mrs. Cahill said.         
          “No. I'm fine.”                                                                                  
          Mrs. Cahill took a sip of her drink and kept her eyes on Brent.       
          “It’s a nice house,” Brent said.
          Mrs. Cahill moved her eyes and looked around the bare room. “You think so?”
          “Sure. There’s a lot of room here.”
          “You know what they say about people who live in Maine?” Mrs. Cahill said.
          “What’s that?”
          “They all go to heaven because they’ve spent their time in hell.”
          Mrs. Cahill stayed on Brent’s eyes and waited for his reaction. She swirled the ice in her drink.
          “Well,” Brent said after a while. “At least you know where you’ll end up.”
          “Probably at the local bar,” Mrs. Cahill said. “There’s nothing to do here in the winter except ski and drink and I don’t ski.”
          Brent didn’t say anything. He finished his water and stood in the middle of the room with his empty cup. Mrs. Cahill turned and walked back to the kitchen. He watched her move. He watched her from behind as she took a tray of ice from the white refrigerator, put two cubes in her paper cup. He watched her pull her hair behind her ear, lift the bottle of Dewar’s from the white counter, and pour. Brent heard a door open and Mr. Cahill walked into the house with the two other men.
          “Brent!” Mr. Cahill said as he came into the living room. “You made great time. How was the trip?”
          “Very easy, sir.”
          Mr. Cahill introduced Brent to the two men.
          “He’s an old neighbor of ours from Manhattan,” Mr. Cahill said.
          Mrs. Cahill was still standing in the kitchen with her back to them.
          “What do you think of it here?” Mr. Cahill said. “Beautiful countryside, isn’t it? I was just going over the property lines to see how much of this is mine. Almost fifteen full acres. That’s about how many acres we had when I was growing up. You know I spent my youth here in Maine?”
          “I didn’t know that.”
          “That’s right. I didn’t move to New York until I was out of college, about your age. It feels good to be back.”
          “It’s a great-looking place,” Brent said.
          “You can breathe here,” Mr. Cahill said and gestured outward with his arm to show how much space there was.
          Mrs. Cahill stayed in the kitchen, looking out the window, sipping her scotch. Brent watched her. Mr. Cahill wanted a few trees cut down in the back yard and the real estate man said that wouldn’t be a problem, said he’d send somebody over with an electric saw first thing. Mr. Cahill offered the men a drink, but they said they had to get going and left the house. Mr. Cahill looked at the closed door, smiling. The door looked sturdy, painted the whitest white. Brent remembered he had both sets of keys to the Mercedes in his pocket. He handed the keys to Mr. Cahill. Mrs. Cahill sipped her scotch.
          “I appreciate you driving up here, Brent,” Mr. Cahill said. “The Mrs. hates to drive for more than two hours at a stretch.”
          “It was nothing,” Brent said.
          “Did you drive through the city proper? They have a nice little artists community here. From the house it’s only a ten-minute drive to everything we need.”
          “It’s certainly a change from the city,” Brent said.
          “A good change for us,” Mr. Cahill said. "I got tired of working at the office. And New York’s not what it used to be. It’s become a young person’s town. Maybe it always was, but when I was younger I didn’t notice. Anyhow, I was lucky. I made enough money to retire a little early. It’s my time.”
          Mrs. Cahill came back into the living room. Mr. Cahill told her everything was squared away with the property lines. She smiled. Brent pressed the edges of his empty paper cup. He asked if he could use the bathroom, and Mr. Cahill showed him where it was. It was as white as the kitchen, white as the door. The tiles that lined the bath shone and it smelled of new paint and caulking. He heard their voices through the closed door but not their words. He went back to the living room. Mr. and Mrs. Cahill were standing in front of each other.
          “It’s getting late,” Mr. Cahill said. “I suppose the buses run pretty regularly, so why don’t we get you to the station.”
          “I can take him,” Mrs. Cahill said. “I need to pick up a few groceries.”
          “Are you sure, dear?” Mr. Cahill said. “I can do it.”
          “There’s nothing for me to do here,” Mrs. Cahill said. “It’s better if you’re in the house when the movers come.”
          Mr. Cahill handed a set of car keys to his wife. He told her to be careful. She smiled. Brent shook Mr. Cahill’s hand and wished him luck in his new house and Mr. Cahill told Brent to have a safe trip back to the city and thanked him again for the favor. Brent said it was no problem. He followed Mrs. Cahill out the door to the Mercedes. He watched to see if she was walking steadily and she was. The drinks didn’t seem to affect her. He belted up and put his bag at his feet. Mrs. Cahill moved her seat forward, adjusted the rearview mirror, put on her belt, backed out of the long driveway, and turned left. Brent looked out the window as she sped down the road to the bus station.
          “He seems happy, doesn’t he? He grew up only a few miles away.”
          “Your husband mentioned that,” Brent said.
          “What do you really think of it out here in the wilderness?” Mrs. Cahill said.
          “It seems fine.”
          “That’s a bunch of crap.”
          Brent turned to Mrs. Cahill. She kept her eyes on the road. Her hands were steady on the wheel.
          “What do you want me to say?” Brent said.
          “I want you to ask me why we moved to this hick town.”
          “It’s not my question to ask.”
          He turned away and looked out the window. There were pine trees all around and no houses. And it was cold. He’d put on his sweatshirt when he got to the bus station. Mrs. Cahill sped on. The sky was starting to darken and the tops of the pines in the distance looked black. She touched the brake once, twice, and pulled to the side of the road. She covered her face with her hands and put her forehead against the top of the steering wheel. Brent watched her body shiver as she sobbed. He moved his hand close to her head. He moved his hand to her hair. Her hair was soft. He watched her hand move from her face and take his hand. She held his hand hard and continued to cry against the steering wheel. Brent thought of moving his other hand to her face, to her mouth, and lower. He thought of the way her body moved from one room to the other. He waited until she was done. When Mrs. Cahill lifted her head from the steering wheel, he removed his hand from hers. Brent looked at her eyes and at the lines around her eyes.
          “I’m sorry,” she said.
          “You don’t have to apologize.”
          “I don’t do things like that. At least not in front of anyone.”
          Mrs. Cahill started down the road again and in five minutes they were at the bus station. It was a one-room building with a strip of blacktop in front. Mrs. Cahill said she would wait in the car until he found out if buses were still running back to the city. Brent went into the station and checked the schedule. The next bus to New York would leave in forty minutes. Brent bought a ticket and walked back to the car. Mrs. Cahill lowered the window and he told her it was fine, that a bus was leaving soon. He thanked her for the ride.
          “You used to watch me from your window,” she said.
          Warm hit his face. He forced himself to exhale easy. He forced himself to stay on Mrs. Cahill’s eyes. He would probably never see her again. He had nothing to lose if he said he had.
          “Sometimes,” Brent said.
          “I knew you did.”
          “I didn’t mean anything by it. Sometimes I looked out my window and you were there.”
          Mrs. Cahill’s eyes went out of focus.
          “It’s okay,” she said. “I didn't mind. It made me feel young again.”
          Brent adjusted the bag over his shoulder.
          “Okay,” she said. Her eyes were still out of focus.
          “Have a good trip back,” Mrs. Cahill said.
          “Thank you. I hope things work out for you here, Mrs. Cahill.”
          “Heaven,” she said.
          Brent watched the Mercedes pull into the street and move away. She drove perfectly straight. He watched until he couldn’t see the car.
          He took his sweatshirt out of the bag and put it on.
          He saw himself in the bus station window.
          Young chest. Young hips. Young legs.

About the AUTHOR

​Adam Berlin has published four novels, including Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s/The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/ Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His story collection All Around They’re Taking Down the Lights won the 2023 Tartt First Fiction Award and will be published by Livingston Press. He teaches writing at John Jay College/CUNY in NYC and co-edits the litmag J Journal. @AdamBerlinNYC
Berlin Photo_edited.jpg

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