You could tell just by looking—grape-soda stains on their kids’ T-shirts, cheap dye jobs, bad teeth—the people of Alna were poor. Some of them liked to huddle on turnouts or thumb rides up and down Route 4, sunburnt and tattooed, but I never thought to stop and pick one up. I was a woman alone, after all. And I didn’t want to have to talk to them, get to know them, or hear their stories. I preferred to keep the residents of Alna as part of its scenery. Wild teens, limping men, young mothers, kids scattered on the hot concrete like the town’s lazy rats or pigeons. From a distance I watched the way they congregated, then dispersed, heads hung at mid level, neither noble nor disconsolate. The trashiness of the town was comforting, like an old black-and-white movie. Picture an empty street with a broken-down car, a child’s rusty tricycle abandoned on the curb, a wrinkled old lady scratching herself while watering her dun-colored lawn, the hose twisting perversely in her tight fist. Crumbling sidewalks. I played along when I went up there, slipping pennies in and out of the dish on the counter of the Gas Plus on State Street as though a few cents could make or break me.
I made an abysmal living back home teaching high school English, and my ex-husband rarely paid his alimony on time. But by Alna’s standards, I was rich. I owned my summer house up there. I’d bought it from the bank for next to nothing, full of cobwebs and tacky wallpaper. It was a one-and-a-half-story bungalow overlooking the Omec River, a sloshy mile-long tributary to a lake twice the size of Alna itself. The real-estate taxes were negligible. The cost of living was a joke. The teenage boys in the sandwich shop in town remembered me from summer to summer because I tipped them the fifty-cents change they tried to give me. Otherwise I didn’t mingle. I’d made the acquaintance of a few of the neighbors—mostly single moms whose teenage children smoked and strollered their own babies around the graveled driveways. An old man across the street had a long beard stained brassy from cigarette smoke. “Hey neighbor,” he’d say, wheezing, if I saw him out walking his dog. But I never felt I was anybody’s neighbor. I was only ever just visiting Alna. I was slumming it up there. I knew that.
Clark supplied a steady stream of coeds to occupy the house during the school year. He taught computer programming at the community college ten miles away, in Pittville. I paid him to look after my place. I sometimes got the sense he was overcharging me, inventing problems and costs to inflate his monthly bills, but I didn’t care. It was worth the peace of mind. If something went wrong—if the pipes froze or the rent was late—Clark would handle it. He’d wrap the windows once it got cold, fix a leaky faucet, a short circuit, a broken step. And I was glad I never had to deal with any of the tenants. Each summer I drove up to Alna, I’d find the house altered—a new perfume lacing the humid air, menstrual stains on the mattress, hardened bacon grease splattered on the kitchen counter, a fleck of mascara on the bathroom mirror like a squashed fly. I mostly didn’t mind these remnants. Having a tenant kept the vagrants out of what would otherwise be an empty shelter from September to June. The street people of Alna were notorious for taking up residence wherever they could find it and refusing to leave, especially during the winters, which were, in Alna, deadly.
There was no scenic hike or museum to visit, no guided tour, no historic monument. Unlike where my sister summered, Alna had no gallery of naive art, no antique shop, no bookstore, no fancy bakery. The only coffee to buy was at the Gas Plus or the doughnut shop. Occasionally I drove to Pittville to see a movie for two dollars. And sometimes I visited the deluxe shopping center on Route 4, where the fattest people on Earth could be found buzzing around in electronic wheelchairs, trailing huge carts full of hamburger meat and cake mix and jugs of vegetable oil and pillow-size bags of chips. I only shopped there for things like bug spray and batteries, clean underwear when I didn’t feel like doing laundry, an occasional box of Popsicles.
Monday through Friday I kept to my summer diet of one foot-long submarine sandwich per day—the first half for lunch, the second half for dinner. I got these sandwiches from the deli downtown, around the corner from the bus depot at the hilltop crossing of Riverside Road and Main Street, where the vagrant townsfolk dressed like zombies and kept wolf dogs on rope leashes. The town was rife with meth and heroin. I knew that because it was obvious and because I dabbled in both when I was up there. Unless it was raining, I walked the two miles back and forth up Riverside every weekday morning, got a soda and my sandwich, and more often than not hit the bus-depot restroom to buy ten dollars’ worth of whatever was on sale—up or down.
On the weekends, I took myself out to eat. I had lunch either at the doughnut shop, where you could get an egg-and-cheese sandwich for a dollar, or at the diner on 122. I liked to sit at the counter there and get a platter of chopped iceberg smothered in ranch dressing and a bottomless Diet Coke and listen to the waitress greet the regulars—big men in T-shirts and suspenders, left arms brown as burnt steak. Half the time I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. For Saturday-night dinners I hit the Chinese buffet for sautéed broccoli and free box wine, or I went to Charlie’s Good-Time, a family-style bar serving french fries and pizza. The bar was attached to a combination arcade and bowling alley. I didn’t talk to anybody when I went out. I just sat and ate and watched the people talk and chew and gesture.
The Good-Time was where I met Clark my first summer in Alna. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and steam from the bar’s kitchen, he was the only person who looked remotely educated. I was inclined to brush him off at first because he was nearly bald and wore a knotted hemp necklace. His hand was limp and clammy when I shook it. But he was persistent. He was kind. I let him pay for a pitcher of beer and try to impress me with his knowledge of literature. He told me he didn’t—couldn’t—read fiction written after ’93, the year William Golding died, and he claimed to know the editor of a well-known literary journal in the city, one I’d never heard of. “Stan,” Clark called him. “We go way back.” I overlooked all the glaring errors in his personality—his arrogance, his airs, his bony, hairy hands. I still remember the humility it took for me to agree to take him home, then the appalling ease with which I accepted his pathetic overtures of gratitude and affection. He wore a cheap white dress shirt and blue jeans, brown leather sandals, and a small gold hoop earring in one ear, and when we undressed in the dark in my empty upstairs bedroom, me crouching under the sloped ceiling, his genitals swung in my face like a fist. Afterward he said I was a “real woman,” whatever that was, asked if I had any children, then shook his head. “Of course you don’t,” he said, cradling my pelvis. I ran my fingers through his soft, thinning hair.
For the next few weeks he helped me sand the kitchen counters, peel off wallpaper, paint, scrub, fix the old stove. He rubbed my back at night while we watched videos we rented from the Gas Plus. He liked to blow into my ear—some high school trick, I supposed. We talked mostly of the house, what needed to get done and how to do it. Things started to feel serious when he got a friend of his with a truck to help move in furniture I bought for pennies from the secondhand store in Pittville. My sister would have called it all “shabby chic,” not that I cared. Nobody was judging me in Alna. I could do whatever I wanted.
Clark was the one to introduce me to the submarine-sandwich diet and to the zombies at the bus depot. One morning he held out his long pinky fingernail. “Sniff it up,” he said. The stuff threw sex and romance under an immediate dark and meaningless shadow. It blotted out all our “feelings for each other,” as Clark had described our rapport. We didn’t sleep together again after that first high, but we did spend a few more weeks in each other’s company, nibbling the sandwiches and snorting the stuff from the zombies. Depending on what stuff they’d given us, we’d spend the days either cleaning or passed out on the brittle wicker daybed or on loose cushions on the porch, overlooking the Omec. The day I left to drive back down to the city that summer was a strange parting. We hugged and everything. I cried, sorry to say good-bye to my narcotic afternoons, my freedom. Clark offered to keep the house up while I was away, find me tenants, act as “property manager,” as he called it. I generally don’t like to hold on to loose ends, but I made this exception. If the house burned down, if the pipes burst, if the vagrants made a move, Clark would let me know.