It’s lunchtime, which means pickups park askew in the lot. They already have their snowplows attached, because hey, you never know. Dave comes at lunch to help Laura sell coffee and cigarettes, to slice the Butterball at the counter in back, and it looks like his bad leg has gone from bad to worse. He mostly stands on the porch and yaks and smokes, calling out to people: “How are the kids?” or “You get that Chevy running?” or “Tell him to keep that kind of shit out of my town!” The place is for sale, but you’d never know it—priced at nearly a million dollars (a dollar, you think, for every feral cat that’s been born and has died within its reach). Surely it’s a joke. A million bucks is about the only motivation you see for Dave ever going anywhere. And then if it happened, where would he go?
The orange hats will be gone by tomorrow. Meanwhile, crackers go stale on the shelves, and the wine bottles that have sat on the racks since summer go from hot to cold to bad. The ATM’s not working, or the card machine’s down, and the fridge holds so much moisture that the handle on your six pack melts every time. Once you saw a bagel covered with hairy mold next to the donuts, but you didn’t have the nerve to say anything. And what does it matter? It’s the only place around for miles. Over the coffee station dozens of mugs hang on hooks, the name of each regular—the Mill Rivierans, you call them—painted beneath a pair of flying geese. You wonder if it sells if you’ll still be living here; they’ll all be here forever, but you’re not in it for the long haul. Each year another shingle falls off the roof, a new litter is spawned in the barn out back, another floorboard buckles and warps with the changing seasons.
Last year a woman tripped on the porch’s uneven boards and you watched from your window as a crowd gathered round, as the ambulance came and took her away. Dave tied a piece of caution tape on the nearest post and scrawled in pencil Watch Your Step! on a piece of white paper, but you had to lean in close to read what it said. The porch is so warped to hell, it looks as though it hasn’t been fixed up since Chief Konkapot signed away this land for three hundred pounds a few centuries ago, scrawling the only thing he could write: his signature turkey foot, a three-pronged symbol which stood for his real name, Pophnehonnuhwoh. Kissed the land around the river goodbye.
Your deer week anthem: Wear lots of orange, make lots of noise. On this threshold between autumn and winter, you don’t venture out without glowing. The men take off two weeks of work to hump their tree stands into the woods; they spray paint the stands camo or cover them with hemlock branches, and they sit for hours perched and silent, or perhaps drunk and less stealth. “Fuck it, it’s deer week,” they say. Late November, and in backyards throughout Mill River you’ll find a milky-eyed buck with his guts cut out dangling from any tree.
In late fall, on the cusp of winter: New England’s autumnal glory is all burned through and the place is left raw and vulnerable. You think of it as bald, exposed; plumes of smoke from brush fires and chimneys cling like webs of mist on the leafless trees.
There are two kinds of houses here. There are those that by now are locked and shuttered for winter. Where people live, if you can call it that, for three months of the year, a weekend here or there. Fancy houses with clapboards and fresh paint, where forsythia spills in golden bursts each April regardless if anyone’s there to see it. And there are those other houses, where people live year round, which seem to sink a little further into the dirt each year. Houses where the paint peels, where doorjambs lean, where they’re shrinking two layers of plastic around each window, since last year one layer didn’t quite do the trick. You know those people will never leave. Can’t ever leave. Don’t want to leave. And it’s those houses you think of when you send a postcard to the general store from a hot tropical country, scrawling “From the heart of the jungle to the heart of New England,” before signing your name. The only thing you can think of to say, stating the obvious—I’m here, you’re there—because the two places are so at odds, and you wonder how you’ve come to be the one who ties them together. Dave will get it two weeks after you’ve returned, after you feel like you never left at all, and although he’ll never remember where you were—“How was Panama?” he asks one day, and then “Do you miss Paraguay?” the next—what matters is that you thought of them, those who will never leave, those who warp along with the floorboards year after year after year.
Real locals don’t leave.
Instead they weather like their houses, rust like the machinery out in the yards, like one of Hoot’s lawn mowers. He finally got rid of his collection about a year ago—probably some weekender complained that it was an eye-sore—and its absence feels like an omen. But with the new clearance of space Hoot’s daughter put up a rabbit cage. They put up a ten-foot-tall inflatable Santa, which played tinny-sounding Christmas carols day and night, the songs slowing until the battery finally died. Sometimes Hoot sits out in his truck with its big antenna, listening to the radio, hooked up to his oxygen tank. And even in this small town you wonder if it’s his attempt to get away from it all—his own private space in a town with no privacy. His red-haired daughter will wave to you, and maybe she’ll call you Nina, or some other name that isn’t yours, and you wonder who she thinks you are. One time last year, when she was selling candy bars door to door for a fundraiser, she reached down to stroke the velvet of your dog’s ears and said: “I wish we had your dog instead of our dog.”
Up past Hoot’s the dogs rule: there’s Sammy, who snaps out of his tether, who busts through his invisible fencing; it finally got so bad his owner lined the yard with four strands of electric fencing. Your dog wants to sink his teeth into Sammy’s throat. And there’s Ratchet, the bug-eyed terrier who runs into the road when you walk by. His owners yell for him from their porch, but what you hear is: “Ratshit! Git up here!” Your dog, who sometimes you wish was someone else’s dog instead, wants to hump the hell out of Ratshit. Just like he wants to hump the black lab next door, and the bitches in heat where the handicapped people live. It’s a small town, and sometimes he gets his wish. Like that summer he busted through the screen door. Your cat jumped out the hole he left and returned to her littermates behind the general store. She couldn’t resist the late-night yowls of her brother, home demanding her back again.
Late fall in Mill River, and Leslie’s still out. She wears a hat beneath her riding helmet now—she can fall at any minute, seizures don’t wait—and she’ll stop to tell you the police are coming, that wait, no, she is the police, that wait, oh…she forgets. Okay, Leslie, you’ll say to her. Does someone know you’re out here? You’ll peer back at the big house on the corner where Leslie lives, with all those dogs perennially in heat. The house is next to the mechanic shop where Steve’s done with the school buses for the year, and he’s onto tractors now. He never has time for you or for your busted Honda, and you wonder if he ever smiled before Vietnam. If he was happy once, or if he thinks about happiness, or what that might even mean to him.
They named the river for the chief. Konkapot. It’s a Dutch name, really. A mile south of Mill River the Konkapot meets the Umpachene. At the confluence the Umpachene spills into a miraculous waterfall, like a grand finale before being usurped, which is best viewed in deep-freeze winter where it’s a series of frozen clouds caught in mid-billow, only a trickle of river to be heard at some great depth far below the ice. In winter, your footprints might be the only ones, besides a deer or a bobcat’s, marking the river’s edge, where you can sit below the steely New England sky for hours and not hear another sound on earth, not catch another puff of breath in the frigid air.
The summer is different—you must wade through knee-high poison ivy just to find a private swimming hole, dodging fishing flies and flailing children, where, when you finally find it, you slice into that breathtakingly cold water, so clean, so crisp, you come gasping up for air like it was your first moment alive. You walk home in your dripping underwear, your shoes rubbing irregularly against your bare feet, the poison ivy already bubbling at your ankles. Maybe you pass several tourists on bicycles, laugh at their neon-colored spandex, think of how as soon as the air turns they’ll high tail it out of here, because no one who’s not from here wants to be trapped here for winter.
But that’s summer. A different story. It’s late November in Mill River, and you wonder if the cats in the barn will make it through the winter. If the cat formerly known as yours will pull through. You’re not leaving food out again this year. If Dave had his way he’d shoot them all, but Laura won’t let him. “Saw your kitty again,” she always says. But what do you do? The cat is as good as gone. You can’t make her come back.
Years ago, you might wonder how many toes you’d lose this year, like in those pictures of the children with their malnourished eyes, who made up the first school up on Brewer Hill, kids who scuffed around in too-big boots. “Konkapot can keep it,” their eyes seem to say. And really, maybe it’s not much different now. You wonder who they’ll find face-down in the snow this year, like they did Hoot’s brother a couple winters back, his heart stopped, just like that. Who’ll pull a shotgun on his wife this year, like your old neighbor did sometime after his house burned down. He had a Charles Manson beard and called his daughters “daughtels” and the river “rivel.” He just disappeared one day, his house, never properly rebuilt after the fire, reclaimed by the bank. Some people can just leave.
At the store you buy a donut. Ask Dave if there have been any potential buyers. “Shit, no,” he’ll say. “I’ve been sitting here for ten years, and I’ll probably be sitting here for another ten years.” And you know it’s probably true. That you can leave and come back, and that when you do, Dave will say, “Shit, I’ll be sitting here for another ten years.”
Outside the store a plywood sign says, “Deer Checking Station,” and the men gather around the scale. They haul out their bucks and their does from the backs of trucks. They’ll be here next year, and the year after that, a buck a year, a doe a year. Shit, they’ll be here in ten years, because for better or for worse, or what’s worse than worse, some things don’t ever change. It’s lunchtime, and the regulars sit out by the ice machine, near the bundles of firewood for sale, where just a few weeks ago sat a stack of neighborhood squash. They sit and smoke, dragging out their lunch breaks, peering into the back of every pickup that pulls in, waiting to see who bagged a deer this year.