'Blueberry Bears'

Blueberry Bears: A Story

LEAVING BANGOR’S GREYHOUND STATION, Sash and I drove across the bridge toward Clifton, his old red pickup cruising along Route 9. Called “The Coaster” for its hills and curves, the road hugs the acrid Cheemo River. Through Brewer and Eddington the road passes neat suburban plots and whitewashed schools until the junction of 160 when the scene degrades. Dwellings are now mismatched, all in stages of disrepair. Trailers, Quonset huts, sagging barns, half-cellars, and tar paper shacks crop up alongside family farms with split-rail fences, weathered shingles, and a goat in the yard. Sash is pointing to the cottage where he buys milk when he slows and hooks into Sam’s dooryard.

The first impression is ramshackle. Then you see it’s homemade. The dog sniffs your leg like it would anywhere, the horse barn stinks like any other. The house is two gray stories, complete with mosquito wetlands in the rear. Inside, the family watches Bible TV on the color set that will be paid for next week says laughing Sam Branch. A wood-stove dominates the living room. Tacked-up family snapshots cover half of one wall. A gold-framed photograph of President John F. Kennedy stands on a table in a side room. His daughters are buzzing around the house, up and down the stairs with art supplies for a 4-H Club project, the older one, Lily, helping the younger, Tammy.

Rangy, grizzled Sam wears a tan County Glass shirt and sweat-stiff jeans. In an easy chair, he’s propped his white-socked feet on a hassock. Sam and Sash have worked together since Sash arrived in the area two years ago, leaving Rhode Island to Roger Williams. Sash is also wearing his shop shirt and features blue gas station pants. Sam showed him the ropes when he got hired by County Glass. They are often paired on service runs for big jobs in Machias (they say “Match-iss”) and Eastport.

On this day, I’m the new guy visiting from down south. I’m between jobs and hanging out with my old pond hockey teammate. What’s really going on is that I lost my girlfriend, and it was my fault. I didn’t know how to act with her. I thought it would help my attitude to get out of town, shake loose of the gloom.

Sam’s wife Edie has a mouth that seems to be customized for a cigarette. She’s short and dressed in a print blouse, evergreen slacks, and pink slippers. While talking to us she pins up her grainy silver hair. After serving us coffee, she needles Sash about women that he has or doesn’t have, depending on the season. He’s been through this routine with her.

“What are you doing with Katey Morin? I hear she’s gettin’ a rise out of numb-nuts Chester Wilkins at Otis Hardware sayin’ she needs a male plug for her female socket—and askin’ does he have something on sale that he could deliver? She’s crazier-en hell, but you’d be missing out. Don’t let Chester connect the dots.

“Katey’s sister put Ray Marcotte out of her fancy trailer when she found out he was jumpin’ on the donut shop lady in Brewer whose husband drowned last spring. What a shame. The husband must-a got a cramp doin’ his exercise laps by himself less than a hundred feet from shore. He was studyin’ to be a medical technician, can you believe it? Some fisherman from Mariahville found the body.”

She carries on about her tasty pepperoni pizza last night at Jimmy’s Grill in the next town over—and the milk adder she chopped up with a shovel yesterday. “Big around as a garden hose,” she says, making a circle with her thumb and middle finger.

Sam interrupts her to ask if we want to buy a CB radio. “Still in the freezer coolin’ off. Son-of-a whore sold it to me has a friend at Radio Shack, know what I mean.”

His jokey talk is clipped and full of wheezy noises. “I’m watchin’ church on TV. Every Sunday.”

“Did you see Larry and Louise with their new outboard over to Graham Lake? He’s been dyin’ to give it a run. I thought I saw his trailer down by the boat landing close to your place. What’s the deal on your well, anyway? Did the driller hit China yet? Ha!”

Sash finishes his coffee and says, “Max and I come to pick blueberries out back.”

Edie offers to fix muffins if we get a “couple-three quarts.” With that, Sash and I and the two Branch daughters climb into the truck and start down a dirt path leading to a hill where the fields are heavy with berries.

Sixteen-year-old Lily has shaggy curls and a heart-shaped face. She wears denim cut-offs, a black halter, and clomp-heeled school shoes without socks. Her legs are scratched from cutting vines on the side of the barn. Tammy, ten years old, is a talking machine, wondering if we’ll see a bear around the next curve and retelling her every woodsy adventure. She’s in a T-shirt and cargo pants, red basketball sneakers.

The road is washed-out in spots by a week of rain, so a mile in we leave the truck and hike the last steep stretch to the blueberry bushes. We begin to pick the plump fruit, in no time filling a plastic lemonade jug, a marshmallow spread container, and three family-sized jelly jars. We eat our way up the hill, following a path narrowed by a wet gully and clumps of yellow flowers. Brown-eyed Susans dot the high grass. Granite stepping stones become islands for us to crouch on as we bring in the harvest. Berries ease into our palms when we rake fingers across the top of low bushes. Among the ripe ones are smaller reddish berries that will be ready in another week. It’s not like fish that you can throw back in the lake if they’re too small. The spheres with small crowns look dusty until you rub them—then they gleam midnight blue. In the mouth, they’re sweet with a bit of raw tang. Carrying our full containers we walk to the top. Clouds mass, threatening a shower. Sash hollers, “Max, I’ve never seen so many blueberries. Look at all the bushes. This is like the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz!

Lily gets after Tammy, saying, “You better not be eating any berries when we get home ‘cause you didn’t pick any, all you did was eat. Plus, Ma is making a set-down dinner later for family Sunday. Chicken with roasted potatoes. And apple pie.”

“I don’t care. I’m not hungry anyway,” Tammy snaps.

On top we see rolling hills, valleys, many-fingered lakes, and five shades of green stretching to the horizon. To the east is a sheer rock cliff—higher peaks on the horizon. Huge flat stones around us are rafts in the noon sun. A deserted cabin leans near a thick pine tree.

The long view reminds me of who I’d like to be standing close to. My girlfriend told me it was too much, too fast. She didn’t want to be taken care of. I feel like I’ve put on a full-body shock absorber to get through the days. The situation did not go unnoticed by my family. My mother said, “If you were with her you’d be in heaven—and this, right here where we are, this is not heaven.”

Tammy starts talking bears. Her mother saw a bear at the back door one time and said it made her hair stand straight up like a wire brush. Her father hunted around here. Once, he and two friends were caught “jackin’” or jacklighting. Somebody saw them shooting into a field from a car window at night and called the cops. The fine was $200 each. Jacklighting is almost as bad as killing someone, Sash says.

Back at the house, Sam is in his truck hooking up the hot CB. Edie says it’ll be good to have so he can raise her on the home box to let her know he’s coming for supper. She sings a few lines from C. W. McCall’s “Convoy” CB novelty song that was a hit coast-to-coast, mimicking the truckers.

The girls want to ride horses. Sash offers to help with the saddles. This is not my area of expertise. He declines Lily’s request to join the riding party with a flip of his palm: “Sorry, no slow dances, I’m strictly boogaloo.”

After a bit of parading and short races in the corral, Lily switches to her sister’s horse and lets me ride the calm horse, Sonny, both of them deep brown with white blazes. We walk with increasing pace along the fence and then head up the path to the street. Right off, Sonny gallops and has me bouncing and hanging on as I try to slow him. On his own he pulls up and walks nicely just as Lily said he would when we reach the street. We go a short distance up the street, and then turn back to the house. Tammy catches up to us on a brown-and-white spotted pony just before I get Sonny back to the yard without more surprises. I’m glad to get back on land.

The girls now have company—two Micmac Indian kids with smooth bronze skin and hair so black it’s almost got blue highlights. Pete and Sarah, young teenagers. They’re on ten-speed bikes and want the girls to ride with them to Cheemo Pond, a mile away. That leaves the grown-ups to sit under the chestnut tree drinking beers and telling stories.

In a while Edie jumps on the tire swing and pushes off with both feet. She uses what weight she has to build momentum. Quickly she’s in motion and smiling widely. “Up, up, and away in my rubber Chevrolet.”

It’s time for Sash and me to move along. Sam points at his wife and blows her a kiss. We get his goofy wave. Back on the road, Sash says to nobody, “Katey Morin, Katey Morin. I could share a quilt with her.” He’ll call me in a week or two with a progress report on Katey or maybe Karen. Tomorrow, I’ll get the Greyhound bus in Bangor and ride the turnpike back into my past. This isn’t heaven, but it’s not hell either.

* This is a work of fiction. No character in the story is based on a real person, living or dead. Any resemblance to a real person or real incident is coincidental.