A Field Guide to New England Fathers

Sanger's Grocery Store sold binoculars, bows and arrows, canoe paddles, and whittling knives. I pulled down one of each and shoved them at my mom. This was our new rule: she always had to check the price.

"What are the binoculars for?"

"Birds," I said.

"You mean bird-watching?"

I nodded.

"So you hike to a meadow, learn about the animals, that sort of thing?" With her thumb she smoothed the price tag. "Sounds like fun."

I took the binoculars away. "Only fat kids do bird-watching. Pick again."

For the last week of summer camp, all the campers had to choose their favorite activity and spend five days doing it. Archery, bird-watching, canoeing, or woodcraft. But you had to bring your own equipment, because the counselors knew that, in the last week of camp, binoculars tend to fall on the rocks, arrows skitter into the woods, and canoe paddles begin to splinter after the first sword fight.

She kneeled beside me. "We talked about this, okay? Things are different now. We have to save whatever we can."

"I hate binoculars and I hate birds!"

An old woman behind the cash register opened her jaw and snapped like a hinge. "Don't argue with your mother."

While my mom collected the milk, canned meat, and laundry detergent, I stared at a whittling knife on the wall.

"Special today," the old woman said. "Bleach is half off. Shout, Tide, Cheer. And that milk's not going to last the week. Why don't you just take it?"

Coins spilled on the floor when my mom reached into her purse. "I appreciate it," she said. "But I wouldn't feel right, drinking milk I didn't pay for." She looked outside at the bleachers being set up for the seafood festival.

On the drive home I used my new binoculars to scan the blueberry bushes and lilac trees that bordered the road. But I was too close. All I saw was ragged stripes of violent colors. My mom told me to put the binoculars down.

Climbing out of the car, I stumbled toward the porch and threw up on my shoes.

 

I sat on a half-submerged log with counselor named Matty. Matty's black hair was unwashed since July. His brown freckles glowed through a rosy haze of sunburn. "So you're not going home again?"

I shook my head.

"You're one of the locals now."

I nodded.

"What happened?"

I said that for as long as I could remember, my parents brought me to Maine for the summers. Then my dad divorced my mom. He stayed in Boston. She got the house in Maine, year-round, and me.

Matty grabbed my field guide and rifled the pages like a flip-book, letting the bird shapes morph into each other and flap away. "I live here, you know. It's not so bad. In winter, you mostly stay inside and play video games."

A distant splash, and Matty hopped down from the log.

Running behind him, I arrived in time to see two boys fighting, down in the marsh, their fists raised above the cattails, both of them choking on mud as Matty pulled them apart.

 

The quarry hired my mom for some office work. Not as good as being a paralegal, she said, but better than a lobster shack. Or those seasonal antique stores with the oil lamps and rusted tea kettles. She was supposed to pick me up behind the soccer field, every day, until I got a sense of the town. But on Friday, the first week of school, she never showed. I waited until the boys' soccer team packed up their shin guards. Then I sighed the bald pine at the top of Stover's Hill with my binoculars, and I made sure to keep it ahead of me as I walked into town, on Ellsworth Road, dodging the early heaps of maple-tinted leaves.

At the office I slipped into a chair by the door. My mom waved at me with a stapler clutched in one hand and a stack of paper in the other. Behind her desk, the foreman of the quarry stirred his coffee with a finger.

"Call and fix the shipments tomorrow," he said. "But you should file the invoices before you leave."

"Sorry for all this," said my mom.

The foreman slurped from his mug. "I can tell you this now, because we both know that Clark is never coming back to Blue Hill. And if he does, I'll give him a good smack on the nose." The foreman winked at me to show he was kidding. "But I want you to know that everybody in Blue Hill is on your side. What he did to you was wrong."

Slamming a desk drawer, my mom stood and bunched her hair with a rubber band. "All right," she said. "Most of these are back in order. I'll come in early to cancel the shipments." She reached for her purse. All I wanted was for her to gather me up in her arms and leave.

The foreman patted my head. He was the biggest man I ever saw. I could have built a tree house on each of his shoulders. "We were so proud of Clark," he said. "I played football with him, a year behind. And then he won the annual debate contest in Augusta. He used to bring his friends to the town council meetings and raise hell. But always in a good way. He was just shaking things up. We used to say, there goes Blue Hill's first millionaire."

My mom said, "See you tomorrow."

"I'd trade anyone in Blue Hill for Clark. The way he used to be. Even you and your boy."

 

By October, I had learned two things: the geography of Blue Hill, and how to look at my life from far away, through the tenfold magnification of my binoculars. One day, instead of going home after school, I climbed Stover's Hill and spied on my house.

A silver car I had never seen before was parked in the driveway, its trunk jutting open. It might have been brand new. Beside it lay a cardboard box with a tennis racket sticking out. I scoped the scene in slow, rolling arcs.

At the whack of a screen door, I swung the binoculars sideways. My mom crossed the yard, barefoot, in search of something. She raised her eyes to Stover's Hill and called my name. Then she went back into the house. I thought about running away to Boston and never seeing my mom again.

A man in a blue sweater appeared on the driveway. He dropped the cardboard box in the trunk of the silver car. When he turned around, I knew he was my father. He climbed into the car, and the engine snarled.

I had been lying on my stomach beneath a spruce tree, but I jumped up, sloughed off the backpack I was wearing, and tossed my binoculars on the ground. I wanted to know that my father saw me. He was already pulling onto the road. I raised my arms to guard against the branches that scraped my face. I wasn't running so much as falling, little by little, with my feet scraping the dry leaves.

Autumn had chilled the stones. I head never spent an autumn in Maine, much less a winter. I floated down the back of Stover's Hill, toward Ellsworth Road. At the double yellow lines I threw my hands in the air. Stop!

But the car didn't slow down.

A bright light sped forward and scraped over me. I stayed there until I thought I was already dead, and then I dove for the side of the road. It was the wrong car. Seconds later, as I lay deep in the drifted leaves, the silver car whipped by, bearing all the neckties and electric drills and summer gear from our garage.

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