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Vacationland
Author: Meg Mitchell Moore


June

 

 

1.

Kristie

 


The Greyhound from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Rockland, Maine, takes twelve hours and thirty-three minutes with three stops, all of them in places where you don’t necessarily want to use the bathroom but may find you have no choice. Even so, the first part of the journey isn’t too bad—Kristie Turner has two seats to herself. But in New Haven, six hours into the journey, she gains a seatmate in the form of a sixtysomething named Bob who wants to talk with Kristie about the granddaughter he is going to meet for the first time, and also about his abiding love for Creedence Clearwater Revival. Never mind that the bus left Altoona at eleven at night, so by this point it’s five in the morning.

Can’t you see I’m tired? Kristie wants to say. Can’t you see I’m grieving? But, of course, Bob can’t see that. Grief is not something you wear on a vest, like a Brownie patch. She rolls up her sweatshirt to form a pillow and angles her body away from Bob’s, falling deeply asleep.

Along with her grief, Kristie is traveling to Rockland with $761 in cash—the very last of her tips—a duffle bag that fits beneath the seat in front of her, her phone, a trucker’s hat from the last restaurant she worked at, $27,000 in medical debt, and an envelope her mother gave her the day before she died. The envelope contains a letter, and even though Kristie has the letter memorized, she knows it is something she will carry with her at all times, or at least whenever it is practical, like a lucky coin or a rabbit’s foot.

Two days before she died Kristie’s mother, Sheila, emerged briefly from her morphine haze, becoming, for less than a minute, the woman Kristie remembered: nervy and resourceful, if a little worn at the edges by life.

“I know it was hard on you, honey. I wish I gave you more. I’m sorry if I was a disappointment.”

Kristie lay down in the hospital bed and curled into her mother the way she used to, when she was little, when it was just the two of them. Sheila felt different by then. Cancer had whittled her, she of the gorgeous breasts, tiny waist, and curvy hips, down to fewer than one hundred pounds, all of it bone.

“Stop,” Kristie said. “Just—stop.” She’d been more of a disappointment to her mother than her mother ever could have been to her.

When the bus pulls into the Greyhound station in Rockland Kristie wakes. She’d been dreaming, she realizes, about Jesse, whom she’d left three years ago passed out on their sofa in Miami Beach, coming down from whatever it was that had brought him up the night before. In the dream Jesse was in her mother’s hospital room, pulling all the plugs out of all the outlets. Kristie tried to stop him, but then Nurse Jackie came in, with her blue scrubs and her stethoscope and her attitude, and told Kristie it was okay. “Sometimes we just have to let go,” Nurse Jackie told her. “It’s the circle of life.”

Bob is gone—he’d been on his way to Portland; she must have slept through that stop. She gathers her belongings, feels in her pocket for the letter, checks her bag for her envelope of cash, and walks down the three steps from the bus and into the great unknown.

Immediately the smell of the harbor assaults her. It’s a friendly assault. The water smells different here from how it did in Miami Beach, and, of course, in Altoona there is no ocean. Here it’s more—briny. More alive than in Florida. The Greyhound terminal is some sort of ship terminal too. There are boats everywhere. She sees boats dry-docked in a parking lot; she sees boats in the water, and a sign that says ferry to vinalhaven. She sees an American flag. She sees a man in overalls looking at her.

“You look at little lost there,” he says. “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?”

I doubt it, thinks Kristie. Can he help her find her way out of debt? Out of sorrow? The man’s eyes are kind. “Where can I find coffee?” she says. Her voice is dry.

“Fancy or not fancy?”

“Either.”

“Dunkin’ Donuts that way.” He points to the right. “And downtown is that way.” To the left. “Atlantic Baking Company or Rock City.”

“Thank you.” She takes a deep breath and turns toward downtown. And then, for the first time since she lay in the hospital bed, pressed against her mother’s razor-sharp clavicle, she feels like everything might be okay. Maybe not right away, but sometime. It could be the man’s kind eyes that make her feel this way, or the possibility of fresh adventure. Or something more nebulous.

Over a small coffee at Atlantic Baking Company she answers an ad in the free paper for a furnished apartment and arranges to see it that very day. It’s on Linden Street, which her phone tells her she can walk to from the coffee shop—a longish walk, with her bag, but doable.

“Most of my other places are gone,” the landlord tells her when they meet outside the building. “You really need to start looking in April if you want one of the good ones.” He’s wearing jeans over which a soft belly pouches, and he has a Maine accent like those she’s heard on television.

“I don’t want one of the good ones. I want one of the cheap ones.”

“Well, all right then. I guess it’s your lucky day.”

The apartment is crummy, the top floor of a two-family that is crying out for renovation. In the driveway there’s a truck with lobster traps stacked in the back. Two little kids, girls, are running around the front yard, and a woman in a tank top and cutoff shorts is sitting on the steps watching them.

The included furnishings are a double bed, a couch, a rickety wooden coffee table, and a recliner that looks like it’s been through two world wars.

“I’ll be tearing this down soon,” the landlord says. “To rebuild. But it’s yours for now if you want to put down first and last.”

She talks him into taking one month’s rent instead of first and last, and a security deposit in installments, and then she says, “What about the family downstairs?”

“You don’t bother them, they shouldn’t bother you.”

“No, I mean when you tear it down. What’ll happen to them then?”

He shrugs. “They’ll go someplace else.”

Outside a bike leans against the house. The landlord inspects it. “Last tenants must have left it,” he says. “It’s yours if you want it.”

The bike is a three-speed, not a vintage-cool three speed, just old. Kristie wants it. In Miami Beach Jesse drove a motorcycle, and Kristie used to ride on the back. She loved that. Motorcycles are glamorous, and dangerous, like Jesse himself, like Kristie used to be—like a Technicolor movie. Abandoned old bikes are like black-and-white television with rabbit ears you have to adjust by hand.

Still, it’s something. She rides the bike around most of that first week, putting in applications at North Beacon Oyster, Rockland Cafe, Archer’s on the Pier. One by one they tell her that they’re covered for the summer. All set, they say. All set, all set, all set. They hired everyone they needed by Memorial Day, a week ago. She hears the same at The Landings, Cafe Miranda, In Good Company. She can leave her number on the application, they all say. They’ll call her if anything changes.

Two doors down from her new apartment is a house full of college kids. Lots of cars with stickers that say middlebury and university of virginia and even harvard. These are the kids who have the jobs that Kristie needs, and they probably don’t even really need them, not the way she does. In the early afternoons they sit outside and drink craft beers from cans, toss a Frisbee back and forth. The girls all have long straight shiny hair and smooth brown legs and complicated sets of bracelets. The boys take off their shirts to play. Their bodies are hairless and slender and at the same time muscular. Kristie feels nostalgic watching them, even though it should be impossible to feel nostalgia for something you never experienced. Those years, the years when she could have been doing what these kids are doing, are lost.

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