After it was over, the police asked me how much I knew about what Uncle Everett was up to. First the local police, then the state police, and finally the FBI. They all wanted to know if I realized something funny was going on. When I said no, they stared at me, open-mouthed in astonishment, as if they couldn’t believe anybody could be so stupid.
I wasn’t stupid, just inexperienced. I grew up in Mexico. By that I mean the little town in western Maine, not the country of Mexico. Maine’s got towns called Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Peru and China. It’s got towns called Paris and Frankfort and Naples. Maybe the original settlers came from those places, although I have my doubts about China. We do have Chinese people in Maine, but I don’t think a boatload of them came over and started a town, although I could be wrong.
I graduated from high school that June and didn’t have many options for earning money, other than continuing to work at the Kone Zone. I worked there after school and in summers ever since I turned fifteen. The Kone Zone was an ice cream stand that Vernal Mosher opened after he came back from what he simply called “the war.”
“Which war?” I asked him one time. Vern looked like he could be either a well-preserved ninety or a weather-beaten seventy, depending on whether or not he was wearing his dentures.
“The Spanish-American War, missy,” he replied, looking at me over the top of his bifocals. “I was the second man up San Juan Hill, right behind Teddy Roosevelt.”
Vern had what you’d call a poker face. You never knew when he was joking. History wasn’t my best subject, but I knew the Spanish-American War happened sometime after the Civil War and before World War One. That would either make Vern the world’s oldest man or he was full of it. I thought he was full of it.
He proved me right by grinning. It was one of the days when he had his dentures in and I could see a trace of the cocky eighteen-year-old he’d been when he went off to fight his war. “Nah, missy, I was in the big one, dubbya dubbya two.”
The Kone Zone used to stay open through the end of moose hunting season in late November, but lately Vern closes up shop shortly after Labor Day. That’s when he takes off in his ancient Toyota Avalon for his condominium in South Carolina where he spends the winter. With the Kone Zone shuttered until May it meant I was going to have to look elsewhere for work.
The largest employer in that neck of the woods is Catalyst Paper, known locally as “the mill.” It’s in Rumford, across the brown, slow-moving Androscoggin River. Its most notable features are the tall smokestacks that pump out white clouds of smoke. From anywhere in town you can smell the tangy stench—part pulpwood, part chemicals—and hear the monotonous ca-chink, ca-chink, ca-chink of the conveyor belts.
My parents both work at the mill. I grew up hearing them complain about it and I had no desire to follow in their footsteps.
There’s a Walmart on River Road. I could apply there, but the thought made me depressed. There had to be more to life than standing behind a cash register, ringing up disposable diapers and motor oil and frozen hamburger patties all day.
My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college and my grades weren’t good enough to qualify for a scholarship. Even for people from in-state the tuition at the University of Maine cost nine thousand dollars a year, with an extra three thousand added on for books and supplies and a mysterious something called “mandatory fees.” Factor in room and board and I’d have to come up with around twenty-three thousand dollars a year.
Assuming they were willing to accept me, with my mediocre grades and my lack of participation in sports or in any extracurricular activity other than library club, and assuming I could get a loan, I could save by commuting from home. UMaine at Auburn is the closest of the state colleges. Auburn’s about an hour from Mexico. The fastest way to get there is by taking Route 108 East. That’s all right in good weather, but in winter with an icy wind howling like a pack of hungry wolves and snow blowing down like a white curtain, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of the headlights, it would be a nightmare. Plus, it would take forever to pay it off.
There was always one of the community colleges, where I could learn a trade, but I had no interest in becoming a hair stylist or doing HVAC repair.
I was stuck. It looked like I was destined for either Walmart or the mill.