Will McGrath on Traveling Through Rural Maine With Young Children
“I marveled at how much older they’d grown since we first entered this place.”
We found ourselves up in timber, Sam four, Eve two, the three of us hung between banks of Maine pine, out on a suspension footbridge humming like picture wire. The Androscoggin churned beneath us, engorged with melt, and from the bridge we watched a lost blue oil drum nod along toward big rocks downriver, where the water tore itself to shreds, became confetti, a dirty white celebration thrown for these early days of spring.
We were waiting to see what would happen when that barrel crested and hit the rocks below—at least that’s what I was waiting for, and I think the children as well, although their minds are veiled at times. Some part of me hoped for an explosion. It was an oil barrel, was it not? And oil barrels—this I learned from the action films of the late 1980s—do on occasion explode. I relayed my hope to the children and they agreed this would be thrilling. We braced ourselves, held breath. Over went the barrel:
Sam sprinted off along the bridge, antelope boy-child, all the toddler in him burned off very recently, leaving a dusting of new freckles across his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose. I held Eve in my arms and we jumped and jumped against the wooden planking, sending tremors down the line, coded vibrations aimed at Sam, asking him to please come back, please return so I can feel confident that you will not slip into the charging water and become another lost barrel.
At my thunderous jumping Eve squealed and clung to my neck. Sam returned, older than before, and we left in search of solid ground.
We headed into a mill town whose main street you’ve seen in the background of underperforming rom-coms or featured on the pages of nostalgic collectible calendars, and there we found a storefront donut shop where we could bivouac for the afternoon. The woman at the register had black black hair and attended to us with a generosity of spirit that felt like a holdover from another vocation—perhaps she had been a happy nun in another life, or a beloved preschool teacher. She was in her mid-forties, first grays starting to fissure her dark hair.
Her hair!—this beyond all else I need to convey: bangs piled into clouds, her hair was a buoyant holdover from the early nineties, hair that predated the tech bubble, hair that predated Enron, hair that had never looted anyone’s pension. It was the kind of optimistic hair you ride out a recession underneath. I didn’t want to stare in dazed admiration for too long, so I paid for my donuts and coffee and gave Sam a crumpled dollar to cram into the tip jar, an undertaking he performed with priestly solemnity.
This donut shop in Maine was glorious, a vision in burnt sienna, laminate countertops and swiveling vinyl stools—if they were not playing sixties doo-wop then I have overlaid it so in my memory. In the storefront window, the owner had set up a toy kitchen: two plastic ovens, tiny wooden whisks, child-sized aprons stitched with the store’s name, and racks of wooden donut simulacra with interchangeable frosting tops. Sam and Eve bustled, serious in bright red aprons, bringing me plate after plate of wooden donuts.
–Jelly-filled with chocolate frosting: simply divine! But might you have a chocolate donut with vanilla sprinkles, and perhaps a maple donut with raspberry swirl frosting?
–Right away, sir! Of course, sir!
They returned to their kitchen and swapped frosting tops, stacked donuts into careful pyramids. Eve watched Sam, mimicking his subtle motions. The game lasted for nearly fifteen minutes, a blissful eternity, and I ate well in that donut shop: two fresh cake donuts, one chocolate and one apple, dense and moist, no airy yeast donuts in this establishment. I don’t believe they trafficked in that particular kind of monstrosity. The thought filled me with pride—that the donut makers and I should be so morally aligned—and I was filled equally with pride and with donuts.
A woman entered the store. She was in her later sixties, silver hair chopped at the collar, modestly dressed in a blue-gray pantsuit. This woman had been watching us through the storefront window for a while now, I realized, frozen in the street as she observed the rites and rituals of the children’s donut factory. She approached with a hesitant smile.
“How old is the girl? Is she two?”
“Just under,” I said.
The woman and I watched Eve for a moment, grunting to herself as she baked, dressed in a tiny denim jacket that gave her the appearance of a tiny Joan Jett. I squinted my eyes and tried to picture her with punk eyeliner and a Gibson Melody Maker slung over her shoulder, hair back in a ponytail but strands coming loose and messy in her face, one tendril stuck finely along a sweat-beaded temple as she stomped in time to the kickdrum. This reverie filled me with such electric joy that I had the momentary urge to grab my daughter and squeeze until she became a fine paste. The circuits in my brain had flooded: the lines for love and violence run parallel, and the surge of emotion had crossed the two in uncanny fashion.
“Lovely,” the woman half-whispered.
“I’m four!” Sam interposed, putting down a tray of donuts.
Eve heard this and turned, saw us observing. She stretched out her arm in rigid salute, fingers splayed. “Um two!” she yelled, attempting to bend fingers, trying to count her age and not yet succeeding.
“Well,” the woman said, and looked at me, her eyes rimming with tears. She was still trying to find the shape of whatever she had come in to tell me.
She left to place an order, then returned a moment later, fidgeting and clutching at the white wax paper bag. The woman was unsure of this whole endeavor now and the smile had left her face.
“The problem—” she said, “—the problem is when they get older.”
She tried a smile, but all the warmth had blown off, dissipated on the way to the register. The woman looked haunted, hunted, eyes flitting toward the door like she might run for it, flee whatever silent calamity had visited her hearth. I guessed her to be a bit older than my own mother, so I guessed her children to be a bit older than me. I glanced toward the register but the happy nun was out of sight. We were alone with the woman in the blue-gray pantsuit. Sam and Eve had stopped playing, were watching us now. I became aware that it was very quiet in the donut shop, the needle having skidded from the vinyl.
The woman opened her mouth, girding herself, but didn’t speak. Then she left the store without looking at us. Eve raised a hand to her as she passed the window but the woman was somewhere else entirely.
We watched her go. Suddenly I wondered what would happen if we followed. A surreal vision slipped into my head: the three of us trailing behind this woman from innocuous remove, ducking behind hedgerows if she grew suspicious and began to turn, stacking the children onto my shoulders like a human totem pole as we slid into a beech tree’s silhouette. I would make a game of it for them, conceal my desperation, winking theatrically and pantomiming broad gestures of secrecy, index finger pressed to lips.
We would follow, we had to, but the woman in the blue-gray pantsuit must never know. We would trace her path through the neighborhoods as she worried at the white wax bag, our little caravan progressing toward the edge of town. Soon we’d arrive at a quaint ranch house nestled into pine stand—was there a picket fence? Did she have lawn ornamentation? I couldn’t see it yet. But once she was inside, the children and I would creep to the window and peer through the blinds to see what had befallen her. Would she sit on the sofa, face in hands? There must be clues, signposts pointing toward and away. If we looked carefully enough, prepared thoroughly, if we were diligent in our choices, we could learn the ways to neutralize whatever banal mechanisms had cleaved her home.
Through the shop’s plate-glass window, I watched the woman turn a corner and disappear. The children continued to play for a while at donut-making and I marveled at how much older they’d grown since we first entered this place. The air in the shop had thickened into something autumnal, cold drafts sliding through invisible seams in the building’s foundation. This was an encounter we had in a small mill town along the Androscoggin River, a few miles inland before the coast of Maine ruptures into thousands of Atlantic shards, unmapped islands carried into frigid water.
Excerpted from Farewell Transmission: Notes from Hidden Spaces by Will McGrath. Copyright © 2022. Available from Dzanc Books.