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"Rose of Sterling" by Gary Campanella



Part 1: Down by the Lake


"Hey Tin Man, you think I could walk across that lake?"

"I don't think the ice is thick enough, Rose."

"No. Not on the ice. I mean, do you think I could walk across it? You know, like wade across. It's such a dumb ass little lake."

"Why would you want to do that?"

"I don't know. Whenever I see a lake I think about doing that."

"I think it's over your head, Rose."

"I think it's over your head."

"Ha.  Easy with them thorns, Rose."

Rose smiled but didn't laugh. She didn't laugh a lot. We sat on a bench at the edge of Elizabeth Lake. It was a cold as fuck October morning in the middle of nowhere Maine. We drove down from Sterling without a plan. I wanted to stop at my house and introduce Rose to my mother, but Rose wanted to take a walk. So instead I brought her to the saggy shore of tiny Elizabeth Lake. "The lake looked bigger when I was little," I told her. "I used to skate here in Winter."

"You skated, Tin Man?"

“I fished too. Right here on this lake. I liked fishing more.”

“You are a fish.”

“I hated skating.”

“I can’t picture you skating.”

"Well it wasn’t really skating. I had these hand-me-downs my mother got from God-knows-where. The blades were bent and dull, and the leather was torn. They were three sizes too big. She had me wear three pairs of socks to keep them from sliding off. It was like they never fit any better, year after year, like they were growing with my feet."

Rose rested her chin on her hands and gazed up at my face, as if she couldn't wait to hear more of my story, which maybe she couldn't. You could never tell with Rose. She had green eyes with that thick black eyeliner and black lipstick that she wore like a mask. Her cheeks were red from the cold. She wore my blue Patriots knit beanie over her golden hair.

"The lake was always crowded after the freeze. The whole town came here on Saturdays.  It was a big, stupid community thing. The only good part was all the thermoses of hot chocolate."

"I used to skate here too. My dad drove me here a few times." She sounded sad and I took my eyes off the lake and stared down at her pretty face.

"You did?"

"I bet we smashed into each other," and she bumped her shoulder into me hard, pushed me away from her and got up. She started walking toward the lake, which was gray with light ice and patchy thin snow.

"Maybe," I said, "but I doubt we bumped into each other. I'm sure it was me knocking you over." And I caught up to her and grabbed her shoulders from behind. "I was a shitty skater. My kid ankles wobbled so much in those giant skates. Man, I couldn't start or stop or get away from anyone without falling down. I could never get the blades to groove into the ice.”

"Not great for Shithole, Maine, Tin Man."

"Not great. There was always this time in the morning when everyone would skate with shovels, clearing the snow off the ice. Do you remember that? I would slip around, lean on the shovel hard, and try not to fall down. Afterward, when people skated around and my friends played hockey, I hung onto my shovel and pretended to tend the ice. My friends either laughed at me or skated away in horror."

We stood at the lake shore, looking at the freezing surface, and I remembered those awful days. I could feel my embarrassed kid self out on the ice again. 

"Were you called Rusty then? Rusty Brown? Or had you turned into Josh?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe you were Rusty Blades."

"I don't think so."

"You definitely weren't Tin Man."

"You gave me that one."

“I bet you were Josh. Little Josh. I kinda like that best of all your names. I think that's what I'll call you now. Little Joshy."

"Sure. It doesn't matter what you call me."

We held hands and walked back to my car in the parking lot on Old Mill Road. A couple years ago they paved over the gravel where people parked, planted some grass up on the bank, and threw down a park bench for the three days a year it's warm enough to sit near the lake. That was my town trying hard. My town is a fucked-over Maine backwater known as Elizabeth, Maine. At some point they put up a sign telling you that you're looking at Elizabeth Lake, and that the Little North River trickles off the far side of it, over where the grass and mud are a swamp. Not that anyone who comes here doesn't already know that.

We stumbled across the dead grass and freezing mud, arm in arm, back to the car, sharing my last cigarette. I went to open the door for her, and she turned to me and put her arms around my neck. I asked, "Do you love me?"

"Don't be stupid. Of course not." The clouds spit out little slashes of cold rain. This was her everyday answer, and I didn't believe it. She wore thin jeans and a sweatshirt and the little tan fleece jacket she wore year round.

"What about today? Do you love me today?"

"If you insist."

"I insist."

"OK Tin Man. I love you today. You can let me down tomorrow."

"I won't let you down, Rose."

She didn't say anything. She leaned into me, staying warm against the wind. I folded my arms and jacket around her.

After a long silence, she looked at me with a crooked smile, teasing me. "Hey Little Joshy, can you teach me how to skate?"

"Easy with them thorns, Rose."

"Easy with that ax, Tin Man"

We left the lake and I drove Rose back up to Sterling. I made that drive every day. Twelve miles in thirty minutes. Rose nodded off with her head against the passenger window. I held her hand and didn't want to let go, so I drove the winding road with one hand. The road was wet from the rain, and I kept an eye out for trucks racing down the hill, or deer crossing, or slick spots where the blacktop might be ice. The gray skies brightened, Maine weather, and the light reflecting off the road and the street signs glowed bright and surreal. The trees still had a few straggly orange and yellow leaves, and the woods were carpeted with leaves turned brown, ready for winter. I thought that we might see some sun before the day ended.

I slowed way down at Black Bear Bend, a hairpin turn that leads us into Sterling. Rose slept but still held my hand, so I didn't pull it away for the turn. Her hand was soft and warm. I could feel her resting, and I knew this had been a good little drive for her, and for us.

Slowly around the turn and heading downhill, the stink of Sterling slapped us in the face like tear gas, or mace, or smelling salts that wouldn't go away. It oozed through vents and permeated the car. Sterling, you see, stinks. Like it actually stinks. It's a paper mill town, upriver from Elizabeth, and it stinks like only a paper mill town can stink. There is a thick, mildewy, rotting pulp stench that gets in your clothes and skin and everything else. It's worse in summer, but it's always there. I worked in the mill and so the stink got stuck on me. I thought it would always be on me. Rose lived at Lumber Jack's, the local whorehouse tucked at the top of Maple street, off Main Street. Everyone had to pass it when they get off work, and a lot of guys didn't pass it. Lumber Jack's rush hour started when the day shift ended, and Rose was a main attraction. So she had the stink too, but on her I never thought it stunk.

Rose caught the whiff and roused. She'd been sleeping, and I could tell she woke up grouchy, because Rose mostly woke up grouchy.

"Where are we?"

"Stinkin' Sterling"

"Fucking great."

"I could turn south and never come back."

"Mmmm. That would be nice."

"I'm serious."

"I know."

"No Rose. I'm serious."

"I know you are, baby. But you know we can't. What about your mama? And we don't have any money. We'd run out of junk. We'd run out of gas before we got to Portland. Lumber Jack would drive up and shoot you."

"Let him try."

"I'm hungry, Tin Man."

That meant she wanted drugs. It was our code. We parked on Main Street in front of the BMC Diner. The BMC Diner is a fixture in Sterling. You get a counter table there to pick up on the town gossip. Everyone calls it the Eat It Diner because Bob MacAfee, the guy who's owned the place since before I was born, works the counter and growls, "here, eat it," whenever he drops your food in front of you.

Rose and I sat in a booth, across from each other, near the front. I never sat at the counter because I didn't care about the town gossip. Rose never sat there because she was often the subject of the gossip. Rose plopped her head down on the table and whined, "I hate this place."

"We all do."

I tried to see out the window, but it was fogged from the cold and wet outside, and the smoke and steam from the kitchen. Natalie came and took our order. She was a chubby girl with bad skin and a worse attitude. Five years ago we went to high school together in Elizabeth. Like most of us, she wound up here in Sterling, sucking off the paper mill teat. We weren't friends in high school.

"Hi Josh, what do you want?" She took a quick glance at Rose but didn't address her.

"I'll have a cheeseburger. And extra fries. And a Coke, and a Sprite." She wrote something on her pad and walked away. The fries were for Rose. I knew she probably hadn't eaten all day, and wouldn't after I scored her the junk.

I turned to watch Natalie walk back toward the kitchen. The diner wasn't busy. Everyone else in the place sat up at the counter. I scanned the lumpy backs of all the old men and a few women who talked too loud about whatever shit crossed someone's mind and fell out their mouth that day. I caught only a few side-eye glances back at Rose and me.

It was hot in the diner and before the food showed up Rose sat up and took off her fleece and my hat. "Why the fuck are we here, Tin Man." 

"I'm hungry."

"I don't want to be here."

"I know. But I'm fucking starved."

"I want to go to Oz, Mr. Tin Man."

"I know. I know."

"Where's the yellow brick road?"

"You gotta eat, Rose."

"I want to eat."

"Food, Rose"

She flopped her head on the tabletop and pouted. She pretended to fall asleep while I waited for my cheeseburger. I was in love with her.

Her hair was tangled. I brushed it from the side of her face and smoothed it down. Her head rested on her right arm, which stretched out toward me. I grabbed her hand and turned it up. There was a tattoo of an ax on the inside of her wrist. I hated that tattoo, and I covered it with my left hand. It was something that Lumber Jack made all the girls get. He called it their hand job wrist, hand jobs being the Lumber Jack special. When the shift ended at the mill, guys would stop by, plunk down their twenty bucks, and be slinking back home to their wives in fifteen minutes. The ax was Lumber Jack's mark, but when Rose and me started hanging out, she started saying it was mine. She called it the Tin Man's ax.  I still hated it.

Natalie brought over the food. She slid the plate with a cheeseburger and a couple of sad pickles toward me. She slid the basket of fries between Rose and me. She said, "Eat it," but she wasn't imitating Bob or talking about the food. That "eat it" was for Rose and me.

I said, "Can I get a bag for it all? We're leaving."

Natalie sighed and grabbed the food and stomped away. I liked her attitude, even if it was directed at Rose and me, because it reminded me that miserable Natalie knew the one simple truth that I also knew: this whole goddamn place sucked.

We got our bag of food and I paid and said, "Let's go, sleeping beauty," loud enough for all the fat asses at the counter to hear. I was suddenly exhausted. I had been up all night. I worked at the mill three shifts a week, 6 pm to 6 am, cleaning up. I started working there after I got laid off from my job at Cumberland Farms, a job I kept for five years after high school.. When I went to high school, I swore I would never work at the mill, but unless you can find a way out of here, there's ain't much work to be had.



Part 2: Before the Lake


I worked at the mill for almost a year before I ever went to Lumber Jack's. Everyone knew about it, and everyone talked about it, but it took me awhile to get up the guts to go there. The first time I went was after work one morning. I knew right where the house was, but still I walked by it a couple of times before going in.

It was a white house with peeling paint and a wraparound front porch. At night, in summer, Lumber Jack himself, the greasy giant, sat on the porch, rocking out in a rocking chair. He preferred Metallica, or Black Sabbath or another one of those horrible old heavy metal bands. He carried a clipboard, and a pouch for money, and he kept a handgun on his lap. All of that was OK in that fucked up town.

The first time I went, the door was closed and the porch was empty. The sun was barely up. I rang the doorbell and after a long time a tall black woman came to the door and said, "What'chu want little man?"

I stammered and she laughed and let me in. There was a foyer with no furniture and three or four guys who I recognized from the mill. They sat on pillows on the floor. I stood there, no one said anything, and I sat down on one of the empty pillows. I looked at the ground and watched everyone out of the corner of my eye. It was supremely awkward. Finally, a woman came down and said, "Bill, good to see you."

Bill worked as a saw mechanic. I worked the night shift with him. He was fifty, bald, and fat. I knew for a fact he was married. He struggled to get up off the floor and the woman, Stephanie, took his hand to help, and Bill followed her up the stairs. After a while the other guys got up, one by one, and went upstairs with others. The girls were all hags, and the men were all old. It was the morning shift. The younger girls worked the night shift. No one came down and no one else came in. The woman who let me in, Nina, didn't come back. Nina didn't work as a hooker, but as Lumber Jack's business manager, whatever that meant. I sat there alone and looked at the walls and thought everyone forgot about me. I thought I’d been rejected at a whore house. I was about to leave when Stephanie came back down and said, "Let's go honey." She had long black hair and wore pink sweatpants with Pink on the ass, and a blue t-shirt over her big but saggy tits. I thought about leaving but it was too late.

I followed her up two flights of stairs and into one of the four rooms on the third floor. All the doors were shut, and the hallway had a single, dull bare bulb hanging down from the ceiling with a pull chain. The walls were painted dark red. I followed Stephanie through a wooden door and into a room with a queen-sized mattress on the floor.

"You're a new one."

"Yeah.  I guess I am"

"What's your pleasure, sweetie."

"I don't know." I eyed the door.

Stephanie sat on the mattress and patted the spot next to her, asking me to sit down. "It's twenty for a hand job, seventy-five for a blowjob, and you can't afford nothing else."

I saw the ax tattooed on her hand and made my choice.

I was 23 and I lived in a trailer park with my mother. After that first visit, I started going to Lumber Jack's once or twice a week. I tried a couple of the other hags but started waiting for Stephanie on the filthy pillows by the door. Altogether Lumberjack had about fifteen girls there. The place had eight bedrooms total on the second and third floors, and three rooms converted to bedrooms on the first floor. There was also the attic, which had three rooms with tiny, slanted ceilings. That's where Rose lived. Most of the girls came from Portland or Boston or New York, and so they all lived there. Lumber Jack paid them with board, and booze, and drugs. They had nowhere else to go. There was a stairway in the back of the house that led down to the kitchen and the back door.  That was the way out.  It was always morning when I left and so there were often girls in the kitchen, drinking coffee or eating Corn Flakes or smoking cigarettes.  I walked past them invisibly, beelining for the back door, grabbing the wood railing and hopping over the three back stairs, the middle one missing, and landing in the back yard.  

Stephanie was all business at first, and I couldn’t look at her serious face without thinking about the awfulness of her job.  I mostly just tried to block her out.  After my third or fourth time with Stephanie she started taking her clothes off and letting me touch her a bit. I did this, even though I knew she was about my mother's age, and the whole transaction started to feel less like I was at the register at Target.  "I'm from Boston," she said one day, out of the blue. "Did you always live up here in the middle of nowhere."

"I'm not from Sterling. I'm from down in Elizabeth."

"Sounds amazing, cutie."

"You wouldn't believe it."

"Why do you come here?"

"I work at the mill."

"No shit, Sherlock, but why do you come to this fucking place?"

"I don't know."

"You should get a girlfriend. You ain't half bad if you got yourself a haircut and shaved off those little baby whiskers. You could have those local town cunts crawling all over your shit."

"I got no time for that. I take care of my mother. She's got nothing since my father up and left. No money. Bad health. Bad attitude too."

"That old story."

"That old story."

"You should get your skinny ass a girlfriend."

I started running into Lumber Jack, and he started to recognize me. He was huge, way over six feet, with a weightlifter's chest and arms, and a few too many pounds on his belly. He had long, black hair that he sometimes had in a ponytail. He always wore sweatshirts with the sleeves cut off, blood or oil-stained jeans, and work boots. He growled, cussed and threatened all the girls. I saw him grab girls by the arms and push them down the stairs. Once I saw him drag a girl down the stairs by an arm. He turned around and looked down at her, and laughed, "Shit, girl, you never fall down the stairs the same way."

Lumber Jack seldom talked to the customers, but one time he came stampeding through the front door and he saw me waiting alone for Stephanie.

"Shit, boy. What's your name?"

"Josh."

You got a fucked up name Josh."

"Whatever."

"Good answer. Hey, shithead, I see you here all the time. You interested in a job?"

He stood over me and I thought he was going to kick me. "What kind of a job?"

"I gotta go down to Portland tomorrow. Pick up a girl. I need someone to drive." You'll make like a fucking week's salary."

I considered for a minute, but Lumber Jack scared me. The thought of spending half a day in the car with him, probably doing something like forcing a drugged out girl to get an ax tattoo, did not seem worth the money. Lumber Jack stood over me, glaring at me, until I said, "Sorry, man"

"Suit yourself, kid," and he walked away.

Later I asked Stephanie what the deal was with Lumber Jack.

"Stay away from him, baby boy."

"I will. But what's he up to?"

"He drags in new girls from everywhere. He sniffs out girls with nowhere else to go. Like me. Not a lot, but girls get all used up here fast, so he has to replace them. Lately it's Chinese girls. We got three now. Not girls, really. All of them are in their thirties. Or older."

"I never seen Chinese girls here."

"They're rush hour girls, morning glory, night shift."

"What happens to the girls who leave?"

"All kinds of shit. Most of it bad. You stay away from Lumber Jack. He's a bad guy."

Rose was one of his "rush hour girls," and so I never saw her because she was always sleeping in the morning. She was in demand on the night shift, which went from 6:00, after the day shift at the mill ended, and went on until after the bars closed. Rose was one of the younger ones, and the creepiest part was that she was his only girl from Sterling, so a lot of her customers knew her when she was a kid. Rose told me she hated them all the same.


**

I met Rose in the kitchen. I slinked down the back stairs, passed through the kitchen, and she was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee with one of the Chinese girls at the table. It was after midnight, and I was with Mario. Mario was a millworker I hung out with on the weekends sometimes. Mario was like a runaway lumber truck. He had a hair trigger temper, especially when he got drunk. We had been out shooting pool in Sterling, and after about ten drinks, he loudly announced, "Man, I'm so fucking horny."

"Don't look at me."

"Let's go see Lumber Jack."

I didn't want to go, but Mario had decided, and Mario does what he wants. On the walk over, I asked, "What's the fucking deal with Lumber Jack?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, where does he come from? And how the fuck does he stay in business when everyone knows what he's doing?"

"You mean human fucking trafficking? Running a whorehouse?"

"Yeah. That's what I mean."

"He has the cops in his pocket, that's how. I don't even think he pays them. Except in pussy."

"So how does he get away with it?"

"You don't know? He was a football star. University of Maine. He was like our only All-American. Like ever. He might have even played in the pros. I think I heard that."

"So he does this now?"

"Yep. For years. The fucking cops treat him like a god. It helps that he's twice the size of all those fat fuckers."

We walked up the front steps and Lumber Jack was sitting in his chair, sipping a can of beer.

"Fucking Mario!"

"Fucking Jack. You still open?"

"Always open for you, mother fucker."

We went inside and waited on pillows with some other drunk guys. A black girl with a big ass came down and surveyed the other guys and went straight over to Mario. She took him upstairs."

I sat there a while longer as guys went upstairs, and a few other guys came in. When my turn came, an older Chinese girl came down and brought me upstairs. She didn't say a word and didn't look very happy. I was kinda drunk and none of it seemed very appealing, so I gave her my twenty bucks and said, "I'm leaving." She didn't say a word.

When I got downstairs, Rose was in the kitchen. I stopped. The overhead light was right over her head, and she looked like an angel. A tired angel. She didn't look up. She was painting her toenails black. Her blond hair was curly and scraggly, down past her shoulders, and she wore short white shorts and her tan fleece, all zipped up. She was painting her toes to match her fingernails.

I lingered. I stared at her. And she finally noticed me. "What's your name?"

"Josh."

"Did you have a good time, Josh."

"I was just a visitor. Not a customer."

"A visitor? I didn't know we had visiting hours."

I'm waiting for my friend. A dumb Italian guy. Mario. Did he come down yet?"

"Mario? You need better friends."

"Don't we all."

"I haven't seen him. Maybe you missed him."

"What's your name?"

"None of your business."

"Fair enough. Nice to meet you, None of Your Business."

"You can wait outside. See ya!"

"See ya."

When I reached the door, I took a quick look back, and she was watching me.

"It's Rose. My name is Rose"

"I like your thorns, Rose."

I don't know what made me say that, but I walked outside smiling. I had salvaged a bad night. I had spoken with an angel. I lit a cigarette and waited for that pain in the ass, Mario, to stumble his drunk ass down the back stairs. It was September, but it was still warm, and the black flies were gone. There was a cold little breeze, and I watched the smoke from my cigarette float up and away with it. I wasn't thinking about anything. I never thought about anything. I was a Podunk guy in a Podunk town making the best of a bad situation which, at that moment, was smoking a cigarette.

I was still waiting for Mario when I heard screaming from inside. There was banging and things breaking, and I heard Lumber Jack yelling, "Shut the fuck up." There were shadows in the doorway and Mario came falling out the back door. His nose was bloody, really bloody, like it had exploded on his face. He was yelling "fucking bitch, fucking bitch!"

There was more screaming, and I thought about Rose, the angel I just met, and pushed past Mario, who fell onto the grass from the three back stairs. In the kitchen I saw Nina, who had been the one to break Mario's nose, supposedly when Mario paid for a hand job and then tried to fuck the girl he was with in the ass. Nina stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the rooms. Lumber Jack stood in the middle of the room and held his gun in the face of the Chinese girl who sat next to Rose, and Rose was on the floor. I didn't know what happened or what they had to do with Mario's nose, but everyone froze when they saw me.

Rose shouted, "Fuck you, Lumber Jack!"

Lumber Jack turned and pointed the gun at her. The Chinese girl bolted past Nina, who hip checked her into the wall, but she kept going. Rose held his gaze and Lumber Jack cocked the gun. She said, "Fucking shoot me, asshole."

Without thinking, I ran across the room, slid across the floor, and got to Rose's side. I lifted her up, and Lumber Jack lowered the gun. He laughed and growled, "Get the fuck out of here, or next time I'll shoot you both."

I had to practically drag Rose to the door, but I got her outside. I heard Nina yell, "Yeah Jack, shoot that Mario fucker too."

Outside I looked around, but Mario was gone. Rose hyperventilated, still worked up, and I walked her around the house and down the street. When we got a few houses down, away from Main Street, I said, "What the fuck happened?"

"Just another night in Shithole, Maine."

She was shaking, either from the breeze, or from all the excitement. I put my arm around her, and she let me.

We walked around the block. The house behind Lumber Jack's, on Maple Street, sat back from the road, a big house painted yellow. Rose was barefoot and we walked on the grass, browned but softer than the sidewalk. After that was another house like that, and then another one. I talked to her to calm her down. Once you walked away from the hell and chaos of Lumber Jack's, Sterling was a quiet place. Most of the houses were much smaller than those ones, the standard split levels and salt box style you see all over Maine, but the streets were clean and quiet. Some of the houses were run down or abandoned, but most were kept up. They were filled with people who worked hard and pretended, I guess, not to notice some of the shit that went on behind the scenes. Aside from the mill, and Lumber Jack's, and the skeevy bars downtown, Sterling was a lot like Elizabeth. Except for the smell, of course. The paper mill stench made it Sterling, and kind of fucked over everything.

Rose looked at the lawns and the houses and didn't say a word. She seemed to me a fish out of water in these neighborhoods. I felt like that myself. She said, "I gotta go back there now."

"But you can't."

"No. I gotta. It'll be worse if I don't."

"Should I walk you there?"

She laughed. "What are you gonna do? Don't worry, I can handle that asshole."

"Are you sure?"

"Josh, once you give somebody a blowjob, you have all the power."

I noticed she'd remembered my name.


**

I was only twenty-three, and I'd only had two girlfriends. I knew next to nothing about girls, especially working girls, but I knew right away that Rose liked me. I had no idea why, but I could feel it. And though I couldn't tell my friends that I had fallen for a hooker at Lumber Jack's, I knew I had.

Within a day or two I was going there at night, whenever I wasn't working. I waited on the pillows for Rose. Usually she had to see other guys first. I didn't care. I put that part out of my mind. When it was my turn she grabbed my hand and brought me all the way upstairs to the attic, four floors, holding my hand, leading me like a dog, I paid her twenty dollars every time, so she could pay Lumber Jack, but I didn't have sex with her. Not even once.

The first time after the Mario incident, I gave her the money and said, "Let's just talk."

She took the money and slipped it between the mattress and the wall. She turned and faced me from the bed. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Were you OK the other night? Did anything else happen?"

"Oh that. Lots of shit happened, but none of it touched me."

Rose patted the mattress, indicating I should flop down next to her, which I did. She wore black sweatpants and a t-shirt with a picture of a cowboy on a horse swinging a lasso. She said, "Every day's a fucking rodeo around here."

The second time I went she was glad to see me. I know 'cause she said so. She was tired and we talked about nothing. The third time we kissed, but only kissed, and she said, "You really do have visiting hours here."

I said, "Why do you stay here?"

"Nowhere else to go. My father's dead. My mother went nuts and split."

"Jeez, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"Well that's bullshit. Everyone knows about me."

"They do? I don't."

"I'm RoseMarie Perrin. Ring a bell?"

It didn’t. Half the county is French Canadian, so all the names seem a little familiar, but I never heard of Rose. "I don't know. What happened?"

"Rangeley Lake. My father? Everyone in Sterling thinks I killed him. We drove into the lake together. I got out. He didn't."

"Jesus. What happened?"

"He had just finished raping me. Again. I was fifteen."

"Oh my God."

"Don't matter now. He was drunk off his ass and I was curled up in the back seat. I don't know how the fucker did it, but all of a sudden we were upside down in the fucking lake. My window was down, or broken, I can't remember, and the cold water poured in and I jumped out. The water wasn't deep. I practically walked out."

"What happened to him."

"I never looked back."

"So why do people think you killed him."

“Word got out. You know this fucking town. They all figured I did it 'cause he raped me. It's not like anyone blames me, they just kind of brand me as damaged goods, white trash, and now a fucking whore. You know."

"I live in a trailer. I know."

Rose’s hair was the color of yellow gold, and it was wavy.  It was parted on one side and hung down to her neckline.  She was thin, but not too thin, and her skin was pearly white, and her arms were strong.  She was sitting up on her mattress when she told me this.

I was lying on the mattress looking up at her, studying her face, trying to see through the hardness of her exterior. She was wearing a white V-neck t-shirt. She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke away from me.  Her nose was a little runny.

“Did your mother, at least, believe you?”

Rose took another drag, reached across me and flicked ash into an old paper coffee cup.  She took another drag.  I was content to let the subject drop, but she went on, scratching her nose with her cigarette hand.

“She believed me.  But the whole thing fucked her up.”

“How?’

“I don’t know.  She just got more unstable.  She was always a little unstable, but it got worse.  Drinking mostly.  We didn’t have a funeral for my father.  We just had him cremated.  I think his family picked up the ashes or something.  Well, my mother started drinking in the afternoons and I’d come home, and she’d say things like, ‘We have to bury your father.  Today.  Help me get his ashes.’  I would just ignore her and go to my room, and then the next day she wouldn’t stop hugging me, tell me she should have protected me better.”

“She must have been crazy with guilt.”

“She was crazy alright.  One day she got really drunk and showed up at the high school totally naked.”

“During class?”

“Right as school got out.  I think she was gonna walk me home.”

“That’s nuts.”

“I’ll fucking say.  Eventually she took some pills with some booze and OD’d.”  She reached over me and doused the cigarette in cold coffee.  “Let’s change the subject.”

“Sounds good.  Can I kiss you again?”

“First you have to tell me about your mother.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Is she fucking crazy, too?”

“I don’t think so. You know she lives with me, right?  I don’t think she’s crazy.  I think she’s depressed.  My father sucked.  Walked out on both of us when I was eight.”

“Men suck.”

“I’m glad I’m not one.”

“Me too,” and she leaned down and gave me the kiss I asked her for.  I held her head in my hands like a baby.  I pulled her closer and she leaned in.  It was a long kiss, and it wasn’t a nothing kiss.

I said, “I wish I knew your mother.”

“Probably not.”

“No.  I do.  Where is she now.”

“No idea.  Didn’t I tell you that?  After the OD, she went to a treatment center.  I was all alone for that.  Then she came home, and she was on meds and weirder than ever.  One day I came home, and she was gone.  All her clothes.  Our blender for some reason.  Her crappy car.  Gone.”

I rolled back on my back and stared at her crooked ceiling and thought about that.  Rose lit another cigarette.  I asked, “Is that how you got here?”

“Pretty much.”

Our twenty minutes was up, and I started to leave.  I waned another kiss but was afraid to ask.  As I got up she grabbed my hand.  She said, "So you take care of your mother?"

"Well she has her disability check."

"That's sweet. You're sweet."

"It's OK."


**

After a couple weeks, my mother noticed how much less of my money I was spending on our food, and she asked me if I was saving up for something. I didn't answer. She said, “It’s OK if you are.  Your money is your money.”

“I know, mom.”

“Are you thinking of moving out?  It’s ok if you are.”

“I’m not thinking of moving out.”

“Well, maybe I will.  Something’s gotta happen someday.  Did you hear about your Uncle Ray?”

“I have an Uncle Ray?”

“Oh stop it. Your Aunt Lydia’s husband.”

“OK. That guy.”

“Yeah that guy.  He has lung cancer.  Stage four.”

“That’s bad.”

“He’s got maybe a year.  Probably less.”

“That’s a drag.  But are you saying that I should do something with my life before I get lung cancer and die?”

“Oh Rusty. No. I’m saying your Aunt Lydia might need some help.”

Later that day, Rose asked me to meet her the next morning, out on the street. I drove there after work. We walked and held hands. She said, "Josh, I'm hungry."

"Well let's get food."

And she held my hand and pulled down on my arm and looked at me with longing eyes. "Not that kind of food."

I thought she meant me, but I was wrong.

"Can you buy me some H? I got the money, but they won't sell to me anymore."

"Why not."

"Lumber Jack. They're afraid of him. I'm only supposed to get my drugs from him, but he holds back, tries to make me sick, saves the shit for himself."

"You shouldn't do that stuff."

"OK, mom."

Just like everyone in Sterling knew about Lumber Jack's, everyone in Sterling new where to score drugs. You wanted food in Sterling, you went to the local IGA. You wanted drugs, you went behind the IGA, down a little path, and knocked on the door of an old sugar shack.

I went there for weed whenever I had a few extra bucks. Maine was so fucked up that you still had to go to shacks in the woods behind supermarkets to buy weed, even though it'd been legal for years. There just weren't any weed shops. The closest one was in Bangor, like an hour away.

I told her I'd buy her the heroin because I knew what we both knew by then: that I would do anything for her. I told her I'd meet her back at Lumber Jack's. She gave me a hundred bucks, but I had never bought heroin before, so I asked her how much that got me.

"Plenty for the week, my boy. Plenty for you, too."

I was nervous and so I went into the IGA and walked around the market in the bright light and air conditioning. The ordinary place became surreal. I bought some food for my house and three packs of smokes, Marlboro Red for me, Marlboro Light 100's for my mother, and American Spirit yellow for Rose. Then I took my plastic bag and went around back and knocked at the door of the Sugar Shack.

Tim, I guy I knew from the Sterling bars, answered. His eyes were red, and it looked like he was high or crying. I guessed high.

He said, "Yo Josh. You looking for a little weed? I got weed. Indica though. You OK with that?"

Tim was there a lot, but he didn't run the place. I didn't know who did. I knew you'd get weed in the same packaging as down in Bangor, but you paid like twice as much.

I said, "You got heroin?"

Tim got wide-eyed for a second and didn't look so high. I handed him Rose's hundred dollars. Tim pushed me back outside and closed the door in my face. After five minutes I knocked again, and Tim opened the door and handed me a baggie, handshake style. He shut the door in my face again.

I went over to Lumber Jack's and up the back stairs to the attic, like Rose said. I felt like I was gonna get my nose broken doing it, but Lumber Jack didn't let the girls have cell phones, so I had no choice.

I got up there and her door was open. She said, "C'mon in baby," and she pulled me down to her bed and we had sex. It wasn't hooker sex, either. It was real sex, with kissing, and with all our clothes off, and without rushing away afterward.

I gave her the cigarettes and the drugs, and she went to her bag and pulled out a couple of needles wrapped in plastic.

I said, "I don't want any."

"I didn't think so. Can you stay with me, though?"

"I want to."

She dug through her bag and her sheets and clothes, looking for something to cook up the heroin in. She said, "You got anything? I don't want to get dressed and go downstairs."

I remembered the bag of groceries and pulled out the tin foil I’d bought for the house.

"Will tin foil work?"

“Tin foil?  What the fuck is tin foil?”

“Tin foil.  You know, this stuff.”  And I held up the box of Reynolds Wrap.

“That’s aluminum foil where I come. See.  It says it on the box.  Right there.”

I figured it would work, and so I opened the box and tore off a sheet and handed it to her. “Well, I ain’t from where you come from. We always call this tin foil.”

She smiled and took the foil and folded it into a little cup.  She looked up, still smiling, "This'll work, Tin Man." And my nickname was born.





Part 3: After the Lake


After the drive to Elizabeth Lake and the take-out food from Eat It, I ate the burger while we walked around the corner to the big white house with the broken back stairs. By then, Rose and I were a public thing. We went for rides and walks, mostly in the mornings after I worked all night. It's why the locals at the counter turned their backs on us, and why Natalie was such a bitch. Rose and me, we didn't know what we were doing, but we were doing it, and we walked the streets of Sterling like we were free to do what we pleased, which we really weren’t, not in that small town, and not with Lumber Jack looming. We didn't care what people thought.

I had the needle, the bag, and the tin can in my pocket, in a Ziploc, which was the way we did it, me carrying it in, because the other girls, or sometimes Lumber Jack, would shake Rose down if she came in alone.

Lumber Jack was outside with a Sterling cop, Danny "fuckhead" Lemieux. He was a fat, middle-aged asshole who liked to hassle teenagers and sniff Lumber Jack's jock. I knew he was Lumber Jack's protection. Rose hated him. I didn't ask why.

They stood on the sidewalk in front of the house. It was gray outside, and colder, the bright morning gone. It was about to rain or snow again. Lumber Jack wore his signature flannel, the buttons undone and his belly open to the wind. He eyed Rose and me as we walked past them, toward the back. He called out, "You don't fuck her without paying me."

Rose said, "Fuck you."

"Fuck you Rose. Everyone does."

The cop laughed, and I knew he had too.

We went upstairs and she took out her tiny tin can top.  She sat cross-legged on her bed and laid everything out like she was about to start a ceremony or put together a Lego kit.  I watched her as she used her lighter to liquify the powder, and then I held the lid while she loaded the needle.  The first time she did it in front of me I was self-conscious, like I would embarrass her by watching.  But she wasn’t self-conscious at all, and she said I could help her find a vein, and I could even shoot her up if I wanted.

“I don’t think I want to do that, Rose.”

“Too queasy, Tin Man?”

“Not at all. But you should quit.”

“Your right. I should.”

And she shot up and laid down and I watched her as she got high.  I kissed her, laid down next to her, turned on my side and stared into her half-closed eyes. There were so many barriers between us:  the heroin, her occupation, my lack of money.  I wanted to knock them all down.

I watched her a while longer, kissed her on the forehead, and left.

Outside, it was not snowing after all. It was raining. I went walking around town anyway. I stopped back at Eat It, bought a coffee to go, and kept walking. I went by the town hall and the two churches, and the river that feeds the mill. I crossed over it and walked up to the IGA, where I went round to the sugar shack and bought more heroin. Tim by then knew why I came and didn’t ask me what I wanted.  He didn’t say anything. He left the door open, and I could walk in if I wanted, which I did.  By the door was a small table with uncovered shoe boxes on it. One held packages of rolling papers and the other was full of individually wrapped, clean needles. It was like a public service. When Tim came back from the back room, I said, “You got condoms too?”

He didn’t get the joke. I took a handful of needles. I was a regular, a guy with a habit who didn’t have a habit. I walked back to the house and got in my car and left. I felt sad and empty after Lumber Jack's wisecrack. I was bugged out by Lemieux's laugh. I felt dread and isolation when Rose nodded off. I was angry and frustrated, too. I had to get Rose and me out of Sterling, out of Elizabeth, probably out of Maine. I needed a plan, but didn’t have one.

Instead I went home and made steak for my mother. She hardly ever went out anymore. Most days, she didn't even get dressed. Her uniform was a powder blue robe and slippers. If we talked at all, it was about TV.

I set up the tray in front of the couch, and served it up with mashed potatoes from the IGA, and half a can of corn.

"Oooh. Just the way I like it, Rusty."

"Don't call me that, mom."

"I'm your mother. I can call you what I want."

"Call me Tin Man. That's my name now."

"Ha. Tin Man! OK Tin Man."

She ate part of her food and watched Wheel of Fortune. I thought she was spacing out, but she said, "With all this rain, Tin Man, I think you'll be my Rusty again soon."

I had to laugh at that one.


**

I didn't work the next few days, and I didn't see Rose. I cleaned up the trailer and threw out all the crap that we didn't need. The place was starting to look like we were hoarders. I felt like shit, and I thought that cleaning the place up would snap me out of it, or give me an idea for my thorny problem with Rose, and maybe even snap my mother out of it too. I think it worked a little, but the rain didn't help.

When I went back to work, I spent the whole night missing Rose. Part of the work that night was cleaning up a giant blood stain caused when someone lopped off a finger. I heard the guy who did it didn't even cry out. I heard he picked it up and walked down to the nursing station and said he should go to the hospital. Millworkers are tough like that.

After work, in the morning, I went back to see Rose. I went up the back stairs and straight to her room. I found her sleeping on her crappy mattress, the window open and the room cold and smelling like the paper mill. I closed it. I laid down next to her. She smelled of roses.

When she woke I cooked up her breakfast and shot it into her arm. We kissed for a while and fell asleep.

When I woke up, hours later, something like clarity hit me. I realized I was lying with her on the lumpy, filthy mattress in her attic room in the big white house off River Road. Her yellow sheets were too yellow, which I tried not to think about. Her blanket was a cheap green army surplus thing that made you itchier than the sheets. I had my right arm underneath her neck, and I turned on my side to face her. This was it, I thought, this was as good as it got for me. I was all in with Rose, and she acted like she could be all in with me. I watched her sleep and watched her wake up. It was time to find something better for us. It was time for us to leave this place, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, if that’s what it took.

When she came all the way awake, I could see she was mad that I'd been away for a few days.

I said, "Let's take a walk. The sun might come out today."

"Lumber Jack is my boss," she said, "not you."

"I don't want to be your boss."

"Well, you ain't."

"So we agree, then."

The room smelled like her, like Rose, like roses, and not like the mill.

I got up and crawled to her little window under the slanted ceiling, so low I had to sit on the floor to see out. I could see the mill. The lights were silver and red in the afternoon sunset. I grabbed my pants from the folding chair in the corner and put them on. I grabbed my shirt off the floor and put it back on too. I sat back down on the mattress. "Let's go get something to eat. I'm off tonight."

"You gotta go."

"Hey Rose, you ain't my boss either."

Maybe so. But you gotta go. I'm at work now."

So I left, miserable again, and I drove down the winding road to Elizabeth, and home.


**

Maybe because the place was a little cleaner, or maybe because she thought I was saving up for something, mom was up for a heart-to-heart.

"What've you been doing lately?"

"Working."

"Who's the girl?"

"What girl?"

"Don't act stupid."

I didn't want to have this conversation, but the one true thing about a trailer is that there's no escape from the people you live with. My mother knew this, and she sat at our kitchen table playing solitaire with her Atlantic City deck of cards, and watched the TV in the little living room. She didn't say anything else, and she didn't turn away from the TV or the cards. She waited me out.

I stepped around her and rifled through the cabinet for the box of mac’n cheese I knew was in there. I pulled the pot from under the sink, clean for once, filled it and started boiling the water. "Her name is Rose."

"Rose is a nice name."

I sat across from her at the table and watched her play cards. She was quick with a deck of cards, always had been. She liked stuff with her hands, playing cards, cooking, texting, clicking the remote like a pro. When she worked she was a typist, or something with computer typing. I forget what, but she sat at a desk and typed. It was her back and legs that betrayed her. She hurt her back years ago and stopped moving. That made everything worse, and she ended up with a back that always hurt, and swollen knees, and an ankle she sprained years ago that caused her to use a cane to get around with.

The ankle's what got her the disability check, but the disc problems and arthritis in her back are what kept the checks coming, and what kept her on her ass. The last couple of years had been bad ones. It was like she was under this wicked vortex of gravity that kept her stuck in place, that place being a rented trailer in WTF, Maine.

I said, "She lives up in Sterling."

"What's she do?"

"She's a hooker, mom."

"Oh Rusty."

"Don't call me Rusty, mom. It was my nickname from when I was boy. I'm not a boy."

"You're my boy, and you're my Rusty. Remember those little red curls you had?"

"I remember."

I added the pasta to the pot and let it cook.

"How'd you meet this Rose?"

"I just did. I don't know. I wasn't a customer, if that's what you're asking."

"I wasn't. But that's good."

I stirred the pasta, and she dealt out a new hand. On the TV Judge Judy was berating some dumb guy for being a dumb ass. We watched for a few minutes, me standing by the stove, and I drained the pasta and added some butter and milk and the cheese powder and stirred it all up. "You want some, mom?"

"I think so. Do you want to add some tuna to it?"

So I pulled down a can of the tuna and popped off the lid and scooped it into the bowl. I thought about keeping the lid, but I threw it out.

"I think we love each other."

"Be careful with that one, Rusty."

"I know. I'm not a dumb ass."

It was six o'clock, and I was late for work. We ate and I cleaned up and I kissed my mom on the forehead before rushing out the door.

She called out, "I'd like to meet her, Tin Man."



Part 4: Near to the Lake


In the morning, after work, the back door to Lumber Jack's was locked. I went around front and walked in. The place was empty. After a minute, Stephanie came in from the back of the house. She carried a cup of coffee and a serious look. She said, "You gotta go."

I knew Stephanie well, and I knew that something was wrong. "What happened, Steph?"

"Nothing happened. It's just a bad time to see her."

"What happened?"

"Let's take a walk. You got a cig?"

Stephanie was wearing a short leather skirt that made her look older than she was. I could see she was cold, and so I unzipped my hoodie and gave it to her. I was feeling like a regular, like a friend to the friendless hookers.

We walked a block and lit up.

"What happened, Steph?"

"Rose is off limits right now. Especially to you."

"Stephanie, tell me.  What the fuck happened?  Is Rose alright?"

"She got smacked by a john last night. Not too bad. But then Lumber Jack took the john's side, like he always does. He beat her up some more. Me and some of the other girls stopped it. We did. But they were both yelling and then Rose yelled that she was leaving with you.”

"She did?"

"She did. She said you were gonna get her out of this shit."

I was thrilled. I could feel it down through my toes. "That's good."

"No. That's bad. Rose is rush hour. He'll fuck you up if he sees you. And he'll fucking kill Rose."

“He can’t stop us.”

“Trust me, Josh.  He can stop you.”

“What did Rose say after?”

“She didn’t say nothing. Lumber Jack said he would kill you both. It was Rose who said to keep you away.”

And just like that, things were falling apart. Lumber Jack was a monkey wrench in the gears, a big scary monkey wrench who could ruin everything.  Stephanie sat on a stone wall and blew smoke rings. I walked in a circle around her. She said something but I didn't hear her. I started back towards the house, but Stephanie asked me, told me, to give it a day. She said she would tell Rose I came by.

I went back home, but couldn't handle the smothering insides of the trailer. I took another long walk. I walked around town. I walked over to the lake and up the hill behind it, through the town boneyard, and then back down on a path in the woods that led to Elizabeth's long shut down paper mill. I tried to decide what to do, but I came up empty. Rose said she would leave with me, but would she really, when push came to shove, when Lumber Jack’s shove turned to something worse? I drove back up to Sterling and parked outside Lumber Jack's and watched the windows. It felt like I was casing the place, which I was. It was mid-afternoon, a slow time, and I wanted to march in and grab Rose and make an escape.

But I didn't. I couldn't. I knew I was mentally tough, but not physically tough enough to lop off a finger and walk calmly across the mill, and definitely not tough enough to take on Lumber Jack, at least not directly. Rose was also tough, much tougher than me, but she was tiny. We didn't stand a chance against Lumber Jack. What we needed was a plan. Or a gun.

At six, I went back to work, made it through on coffee and a co-worker's Ritalin, then drove home and passed out in my little bedroom room in our double-wide trailer. I got up again in the afternoon and went back to work, then came home and passed out again.

The feeling that everything with Rose was coming apart, and out of my control, persisted. I kept hoping that things would start to feel normal, forgetting that normal sucked. At work or at home, cleaning floors or watching TV, I could distract myself for an hour or two, but then something would make me think about Rose and I'd spiral downward again. It was a roller coaster of powerless shit. Back at the lake I told Rose I wouldn’t let her down, and I wouldn’t. But I didn’t know how. I had the next night off, and so I decided to drive up to Sterling and see if I could get in to see her. My only plan was figuring it out when I got there.

Leaving the trailer, I saw my mother watching me from her usual chair at the table. She said, "Sit down, Rusty. We have to talk."

"Not now, mom."

"Yes now. And she clicked off the TV."

I sat down, exasperated. "What is it, mom?"

"It's time for me to leave." I thought maybe she was drinking, but she was clear-eyed and sober. She was firm. Like the mom I had when I was young. "I mean, you have a life to live, and I'm holding you back."

"You're not holding me back, except for right this minute."

"No. I am. Listen to me. You're 23 years old and taking care of your mother. You don't need that. I don't need that."

"But where would you go?"

"I have my sister. Your Aunt Lydia. She's down in Portland."

"I know you have a sister. You two haven't talk for years."

"Well, we're talking again. She has a husband who's sick with cancer.”

“I know.  You told me.”

“She needs my help. And I need her help."

"But you two don't like each other. You always said you were different peas from a screwed up pod."

"We're older. That stuff doesn't matter now."

"This is a dumb idea."

"She's picking me up tomorrow.  It’s just for a month or two."

"Mom, you don't have to do this. I'm fine."

"I know you're fine. You'll be fine. This is for Lydia as much as you. And for me"


**

I got in my car and drove up toward Sterling, feeling alone, but also unburdened. It was a strange feeling, my mother leaving home, like my unravelling continued, but that it was all OK.  I almost drove off the hairpin turn at Black Bear Bend feeling it.

I got to Lumber Jack's and went up the back stairs and knocked on the door of Rose’s room.

"What?"

"It's me."

Silence. I went in. Rose sat on the floor by the window. She had a black left eye and the bruising radiated outward and down her cheek. Her bottom lip was cut and swollen. She wore no lipstick or eyeliner, the tools of her trade, and her golden hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. She looked warm, her skin was flushed, and I knew she was high.

"How are you, my thorny rose."

"I'm fine, Tin Man."

"Where'd you get the shit."

"It doesn't matter."

"Let's get out of here."

"And go where?"

I dove across the room and landed on the floor by her side. I put my arms around her, and she didn't pull away. "Anywhere you want."

"California?"

"California."

"That would be cool."

I put my cheek next to her cheek and whispered. "What do you want to do there?"

She closed her eyes and a long time passed. I heard the whistle from the mill. It was the end of the day shift. She said, "We could watch the sun set over the ocean."

"I love the beach. Anything else?"

"I could get clean. We could make money."

"We could make a lot of money. We could get famous."

"Let's be famous."

I kissed her on the forehead. "Let's leave tonight."

"What about your mama?"

"My mother is moving out. She's leaving tomorrow."

"Then let's leave tomorrow."

"Tomorrow it is. But you leave Lumber Jack tonight. Come with me to my house. My mother wants to meet you."

Rose got up and went to her bed. She got into the bed, pulled up the blanket. She threw it off and grabbed her fleece off the chair and put it on. She was thinking about it. She wanted to go, but I could see she was fighting against the flood of the high. She came back and sat next to me, leaned against me. "Tomorrow is fine," she said. “I'll bring you all my money. You get me some food for the drive. And a brand new box of tin foil.  Is that good, Tin Man?"

"Come with me now. We got enough money."

She looked far away. She seemed lost and high. "I think I'll stay the night."

"Let's just go," I argued. "It'll be OK."

"You ain't my boss."

I stuck my face into her neck. She smelled like roses. I whispered, "Easy with them thorns, Rose.

She whispered back, "Easy with that ax, Little Josh."

She wasn't going anywhere, and so I snuck down the back stairs, making sure that no one saw me. I drove my car down to Elizabeth and helped my mother pack. She seemed excited. We both seemed excited.

She said, "I want to meet this girlfriend of yours."

"Very soon," I said.

As darkness came the weather turned cold. I went outside, smoked cigarettes, and paced around the trailer park. I felt the breeze rise up, grab the cold from the sky, and push down on our sad little home. I replayed my conversation with Rose over and over in my head. I wished I told her to be careful. I had said everything else, but I forgot to say that.

I made a mental plan for the morning, and then an actual list on the back of an envelope. It was everything I would do before picking up Rose, and it felt solid, but I still couldn’t shake the nerves. When Rose was high she was lost to me, and I kept thinking how she was up in her room, not only lost, but working, and not only working, but under threat and all alone, and not being careful.  It was before nine o’clock, but I got in my car and drove up to Sterling.

Parking outside Lumber Jack’s, I set up watch.  I had a Red Bull and a bag of potato chips.  I sipped and munched and watched men straggle out from the back.  I watched a few customers turn the corner from Main and climb the big front stairs and walk into the house.  The attic light in Rose’s room was on, and I could see her ceiling, but not her.  When Lumber Jack came out to the porch, sat in his chair and lit a cigarette, I decided to talk to him.  I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking, but it was something like wanting to keep him occupied, wanting to keep him away from Rose.

“Well if it isn’t boy wonder.”

“How is Rose?”

“Rose is mine, not yours.”

“How is Nina?  And Stephanie?  How are all the girls?”

“What are you, a baby social worker?”

“I just like girls.”

“You let me worry about the girls.  If you’re a customer tonight, get inside.  If not, get lost.”

Lumber Jack moved his hand to his waistband, and I could see the bulge of his gun beneath his shirt. I wasn’t scared. He said, “Listen, kid. Get the fuck out of here, ok.  There ain’t nothing here you want to fuck with, including that fucked up local girl.”

“Her name is Rose.”

“Her name is whatever the fuck I say it is. You understand?”

I didn’t know what to say back, so I turned and left. I walked past my car up to Main Street, took a left and walked past Eat It, then another left and circled around the block and back up Maple to Lumber Jack’s. The wind had really whipped up by then and it was cold enough to snow. The sky was clouded over as usual. When I got back Lumber Jack wasn’t outside and so I ducked into the relative warmth of my car. I got back to my vigil. Rose’s light was still on. Most of the lights were on, including the porch light, the sign that Lumber Jack’s was open for business.

It was a slow night, a Thursday, and too cold for most people to be out. The house looked almost joyful, like inside there was a big family reading books and playing music and getting ready for the holidays. Around midnight an old blue pickup truck parked directly behind me. I didn’t slouch in its headlights, but I didn’t move either. The driver got out and walked up and looked in my window. I ignored him, stared straight ahead, and he knocked. I looked and rolled down my window.

“Hey Josh, what the fuck are you doing?”

“Tim. What the fuck are you doing?”

“I thought you were the fucking cops.”

“Would that have been a problem?”

“Ha. Probably not. But you never know. You waiting for someone?”

“Yeah. I got a friend in there. You?”

“Just a delivery, man.”

“You make deliveries? What are you like Dominoes now?”

“See you, man.”

Tim took his hippie-looking lumbering ass up the steps and into the front door. I thought for a second that he was there for Rose, as a john, and for the first time I let myself think about that, and I got jealous. I thought again about marching in the front door and pulling Rose out. I considered sneaking up the back stairs and sneaking her out. I was scared, though. I was scared she would be stubborn, and a scene would get caused and something bad would happen. Mostly I was scared that after the long dark night of wind and cold and maybe snow, and probably more heroin, that Rose’s mind about leaving with me in the morning would change.  

Tim came out, waved at me, and drove away.  Everything got quiet again and I started to feel better. Two more hours inched by and nothing moved, inside or out.  Rose’s light was still on, but so were the other lights. No one had gone in, and no one had come squirreling out from the back in a long time. My car engine was off, and I was cold. I had my window down a couple of inches and the only sounds had been the wind and the trees and some wind chimes from a house down the road.  

Sometime after two Nina came out onto the porch and stood looking out at the street. She didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, but she eventually saw me, squinted, and then came over. I could see when she reached the street that she was wearing a Canada Goose down parka. It was like a thousand-dollar jacket. I got out of the car and met her in the road.  

“Hi Nina.”

“Do you need something kid?”

“No. I’m just thinking.”

“You should do your thinking somewhere else.”

“I will. Are you closed for the night?”

“We’re closed for you. Got that?”

“I got it. Sorry.”

“Kid. Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry. Just think about falling in love somewhere else. You gotta stop coming here. There’s no freakin’ scenario that’s gonna make this end well for you. Or her.”

“OK.”

“Good. I’m glad you got a brain in that stupid looking head.”

I got back in the car, started it up, and drove away slowly. I watched Nina in her fancy coat watching me as I blasted the heat and edged up Maple. Again I went around the block, but this time I parked on Main, in front of Eat It, and walked around the corner, back to Lumber Jack’s.

The first floor lights were off, and I stealthed my way around to the back. The kitchen lights were also out, and so I hoisted myself up the stairs and checked the back door. It was unlocked, and so I very carefully opened it up and went inside. I tiptoed across the dark and empty kitchen, determined, and took the stairs, one at a time, waiting five or six seconds between each step to listen. Halfway up, the stairs got creaky, but by this point there was no turning back. I didn’t know where Lumber Jack slept, or where Nina slept, or if they even slept together, but I made it all the way to the third floor, and then down the hall to the attic stairs without anyone confronting me. Up in the attic, Rose’s door was ajar, the light on, and I went in and found her sleeping on the bed, on top of the blanket.  She was wearing her fleece and sweatpants and socks.

I laid down next to her, between her and the door, and stilled myself. My heart was running like a chainsaw. I listened to her breathing and smelled her hair. I was careful not to touch her or move too much. She was sleeping deeply and peacefully and there was no need to wake her. For the first time that day I felt like I was where I was supposed to be, between her and the door, protecting her.  

I drifted off to sleep, but woke before dawn, near five o’clock, and realized we had made it through the night. Rose was safe and sound. I wanted to wake her up and get her out of there then, but she was sleeping deeply, and she always woke up grouchy. I knew I still had to do everything just right to make sure she would leave with me. I pulled my list from my pocket and looked it over.  I had a few hours of stuff to get done before we could leave, and Rose was never good about stuff to do. And so I left her to finish sleeping. I snuck out more soundlessly than I’d arrived, literally on air, holding the walls and lifting myself down three or four stairs at a time in my stocking feet.

I ran around to my car, my shoes still in my hand, and drove home from Sterling and packed. I made coffee and eggs and had a plate ready for my mother when she woke. I told her I got called in to work and couldn’t wait for Lydia. She said she would call from Portland. The last thing she said was, “You were a good boy, Rusty, and now you’re a good man.”

I drove away from the trailer, and I felt like an explorer at the head of an unknown canyon. I felt a feeling I barely recognized, something like hope and excitement tied up in a knot. It was hope that Rose and me could find something better than the empty promise of backwater Maine, and the heartless mills that run it. And it was the excitement of finally being there, at the start of a great adventure.  My no sleep felt like a lot of sleep, and I waited for the bank in Elizabeth to open, and then took out all my money, just over $800. I hairpin-turned my way up to Sterling and the mill, playing rock n’roll loud on my stereo. I went to the HR office and told them I quit, and then I waited forever, pacing the carpeted waiting area outside the office, and got my last check. It was almost ten by then and Rose would surely be up. I hoped her grouchies had passed. I thought about stopping for coffee, to bring her coffee, but I was too excited to see her. I couldn’t wait another minute. My fear that she would change her mind was a barking dog being held at bay as I turned the corner onto Maple Street.

I stopped in the middle of the road. Stephanie was standing outside when I pulled up, and she came right over. There were three cop cars out front, and police tape. There were five or six cops standing on the lawn, talking to each other. I saw Lumber Jack in the backseat of one of the cars. I got out of the car and Stephanie hugged me.

"The bastard got her."

"What do you mean?"

"He killed Rose."

My legs stopped working and I fell to my knees. Steph grabbed my arm and kept me off the ground. 

She cried. “Lumber Jack shot her up with fentanyl. He did it on purpose.”

I was still on my knees and everything around me began spinning, fast and slow, in stops and starts. People and cops were moving around the doorway of the house, in front of the house, in the driveway filled with cars. I couldn’t focus.  Words came through muffled, disembodied, like from the clouds. 

“He watched her die, Josh. Other girls saw it happen. The two Chinese girls up in the attic were there. They tried to stop him, but Lumber Jack hit them both really hard. An ambulance took them both. All the other girls heard the commotion and ran upstairs. I did too. I saw what he did…I did…then I ran back downstairs and called the cops. But it wasn’t in time, Josh. I’m sorry. It wasn’t in time.”

I buried my hands in my face and fell forward. My elbows slammed on the pavement. I closed my eyes and for a moment everything went quiet, and I remembered everything, everything there was to remember about Rose.  The memory of all that she was, all that she did and said, flooded my senses, overwhelmed them.  I bent my head to the ground and ached for her. I wanted to grab myself by the hair and yank myself back in time, back a few hours to my stupid decision to leave her behind. It was the worst pain ever, the worst thing ever. I let her down.

Time passed, though I don’t know how much. Maybe just a minute. On the lawn, in front of the house, there were little movements from people gathered, and murmurs. I heard Lemieux say to the other cops, "Not a big fucking deal when a whore dies."


**

But he was wrong. The next day Natalie from the diner washed out a big white plastic mayonnaise jar and started up a collection for Rose at the diner. The next day all the stores along Main Street did the same thing. There are no secrets in Sterling, and the money came to me. I used it and the money I saved for our getaway to bury her, down in Elizabeth, in the cemetery near the lake she wanted to walk across. Stephanie and all the girls who hadn’t left town were there. My mother came back and placed a rose on her grave. Most of Sterling came, too. It was a big fucking deal.



Across the Lake


A week later, I watched a little boat move slowly across our lake, Rose Lake, which is what we started calling it, the group of us who remain. The town doesn’t get to own it anymore. The boat was a one person fishing boat, an aluminum thing, the kind of thing we call a Jon boat up here. It’s small enough to fit into a pick-up truck. I always wanted one. This one was painted white, and as it bobbed in the water, I could see it was painted red below the water line.

I sat on the bench with Stephanie. It was the day after we buried Rose. I was doing most of the talking.

“Do you think anyone in Rose’s family knows she’s dead?”

“I don’t see how. She had nothing to do with her family. I don’t even know if she had any.”

“Aren’t the police supposed to contact them or something?”

“The police here? Fuck, Josh, they don’t do nothin’ they don’t have to. They don’t even do what they have to.”

The boat looked like a toy boat. It was out near the shallows and reeds where the lake drained off into the river. The fisherman wore a green bucket hat. He held his rod in his lap and seemed to be looking at us. It was everything that was good and everything that was bad about this whole fucking place.

“Fuck!” I stood up and waved my arms, making sure I got the fisherman’s attention. I flipped him a double bird and shouted, “Fuck you, asshole!”

Stephanie said, “Be quiet, Josh. That’s just Bob Healey out there. He’s a fucking idiot, but he’s harmless.”

“I can’t stand this fucking place.”

“I get you, kid. You gotta get yourself out of here.”

“Me? What can I do? I got nothing. I lost Rose. I was supposed to get her out of here with her, not on my own. This place took everything.”

Stephanie held my hand. She was awkward, but she was trying to help.  “You’ll be ok.  You’ll figure it out. One thing I learned is life’s gonna keep slapping you down. All you can do is keep getting yourself back up.”

“I guess.”

Stephanie was wearing no make-up and she looked tired. She had worry lines on her face and her hair looked gray. Rose getting killed was her loss too. When I first started going to Lumber Jack’s, I thought Stephanie was so much smarter than me. I thought I was a pup and she had smarts from her tough life. Over the last months, and more, after Rose died, I saw something else, too. I saw that she was strong, a survivor. I saw that nothing was gonna keep her down for long. I saw a kinship, too. Me and her, we would always have Rose. The whole world was gonna forget, but not us. She looked me in the eye. “Listen. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Don’t give them that. They don’t get to have that shit.”

I stood again, paced around. “Sterling, man. Lemieux’s gonna be there forever. I don’t know if I can take that. And Lumber Jack, he ain’t even arrested. You know that? None of the girls said shit. They were all too fucking scared, and now they all left town.”

Stephanie reached for my hand, but missed.  “I know, kid.”

I sat down next to her and looked at her hand. I was all worked up again. I had been going up and down like that. I had tears in my eyes. “What are you gonna do, Steph? You’re not gonna stay, are you? I mean, you can, you can stay with me as long as you-”

She laughed and placed her hand on the back of my neck. “That’s not one of my choices. It’s time for me to go. Besides, if I stay, Lumber Jack would probably kill me too. He might anyways.”

Out on the lake, Healey wasn’t moving. It looked like he was listening to us, and I gave him the evil eye, even though he was too far away to see it, or hear us, or probably even think about us. Stephanie said, “Besides, I’m sick of this life. I talked to a social worker this morning. She’s a volunteer for these people trying to stop sex trafficking. She said I could help. She said she could help me get settled in Portland. I think I’m gonna do it. These fuckers have to be stopped.”

“Lumber Jack’s the one who has to be stopped.”

“Lumber Jack is stopped. Even if they don’t arrest him-“

“Which they won’t-“

“Even if they don’t, he’s done here. Probably everywhere. If he leaves town he can’t just go somewhere else. There’s turf for this stuff. I know. Lumber Jack and Nina might be tough guys here, but they ain’t that tough when they ain’t picking on girls.  I seen way worse than them.”

Healey cast again. There was no real wind and a few mosquitoes. It was a good day for fishing. I lit two cigarettes and gave one to Stephanie. She put her arm around my shoulder. I wasn’t as sure as she was that Lumber Jack was finished. I knew this place. “Do you really think you’ll go down to Portland?”

“You’ll be alright, Josh.”

“I know. I mean, do you think you’ll work with the sex trafficking people?”

“The more I think about it, yeah, I do.”

“I think that would be good.”

“I need to do something good.” She looked out at the lake, and we sat there a few minutes in silence, watching Healey do the beautiful nothing that is fishing. She laughed again, that funny little half laugh she had. “You know, when I was your age, my biggest goal was to be one of them girls in a music video. I was gonna marry me a big rock star. Fuck. That didn’t work. It got me here.”


**

Stephanie was staying with me at the trailer since the day after Rose got killed. She even stayed on the couch the night before, the night my mother came back for the funeral. The two of them liked each other. I drove us back to the trailer. Both Stephanie and my mother down in Portland would be nice. We went inside and Stephanie started to cook. I said, “It happened a week ago. Already a week. Only a week. Fuck me. Time isn’t moving normally.”

Later I went out. Stephanie said she wanted to do something good. I also needed to do something good. I didn’t know what, so I drove on auto-pilot up to Sterling, up to the mill. I thought about blowing it up, that would be good, but instead I found my old boss, Art Stoneman, and told him that I wouldn’t be coming back, something he had offered. He said, “Good luck, Josh.  Get yourself right.”

I wanted a beer and so I went to the pool hall. Mario was there, like he always is. I ignored him and sat at the bar and drank my Allagash. He came over.

“Josh, what the fuck, man.”

“What the fuck.”

“Can I do anything for you?”

“Wanna go fishing?”

“I don’t fish, Josh. It’s too fucking boring.”

“How about hunting?”

“I like hunting. But dude, there aint no hunting this time of year.”

“I think I want to kill something.”

Mario didn’t flinch. He said, “How about you kill that beer, and I’ll buy you another one?”

“That’s a good start.”

We sat at the bar, side by side, not saying anything, watching some shit on the TV. When we started the next beer, I said, “I’m like the only guy in Maine without a gun. Can I borrow a gun?”

“What do you want to shoot, Josh.”

“I don’t know, maybe a bear. Maybe a moose. I don’t fucking know. Maybe a raccoon so I can make myself a hat.”

“Not a Lumber Jack?”

“No, man. Not a Lumber Jack. Maybe just a bunch of bottles.”

“I tell you what, my hunting rifle’s at home, but my .38 is in the pickup. You wanna go target shooting? I’ll take you.”

“Can I borrow it?”

“For bottles?”

“For bottles.”

“Ok fine. But I want it back tomorrow.”

“Maybe a deer.”

“Don’t shoot a deer with a pistol.”

“I’m kidding.”

I killed beer number three and we left. Mario had the gun, loaded, under the driver’s seat. He said, “You know how to use it?”

“I do.”

Mario looked at me like he didn’t believe me. “Well, don’t fucking shoot yourself.”

“Don’t worry.”

“And don’t get caught.”


**

I double-checked that the safety was on and stuck the gun in my waist band, in back, like a TV gangster, putting my shirt and jacket over it. Mario went back inside the bar, and I walked to Eat It, dizzy from the beer in my head and the gun in pants. I fell into a booth and ordered a coffee from Natalie, who looked nervous when she saw me. 

When she came over she didn’t say anything, and when she brought me the coffee, I asked her for a cheeseburger. She leaned over and whispered, so that no one at the counter could hear, “I’m so sorry, Josh.” I hadn’t seen her since the funeral. She had tears in her eyes, and she looked almost pretty.

“Thank you, Natalie. Thank you for everything.”

Up at the counter, the idiots were talking about the murder, caught in an endless loop like CNN after a hurricane. One of the guys tilted the mayo jar back and looked at Rose’s name. He was talking to the woman next to him, who had her hair in curlers, stuffed into one of those plastic shower caps, but also to the two guys a couple seats away, both in flannel, both in Red Sox hats. They were interchangeable. If they got drunk and went home to each other’s houses by mistake, it would take weeks for anyone to notice.  

The woman said, “Too bad about Rose, huh.”

“She wasn’t a bad kid.”

“She was a mess, though.”

“That’s because of him.”

Then the other guys started. “The town’s better off without that place. Lemieux should have shut it down years ago.”

“Lemieux was the reason it was there.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think he had a choice.”

The first guy said, “Did you hear? They’re gonna arrest Lumber Jack.”

“Finally,” said the woman.

Flannel guy number one challenged the rumor, like he knew better. “Where’d you hear that?”

“I heard. Reliable. They’re gonna charge him with manslaughter. If he’s guilty, he’ll get fifteen years.”

Even though I could only see their backs, I could hear the woman scoff. “What do you mean if he’s guilty?”

“There were no witnesses.”

“Don’t forget she was a junky,” said flannel guy one, and the others nodded knowingly.

“Yeah.  How do you know she didn’t OD?”

They kept on going like that. The food came but I wasn’t hungry. Rose was already a story, already a legend, already claimed by Sterling. I stared at my goddamn cheeseburger like I wanted it to tell me something. I ached for her touch and her smell and her wise ass teasing. I longed to hear her contented sigh after shooting up. I missed kissing her and making love to her. I put my head down and started sobbing. We had been so damn close to getting away.

Natalie saw me and came over and poured me more coffee. She said, “It’s on the house, Josh.”

I had to move. I had to do something. Something good. With my tears on my face, I left and walked around the corner, and of course I found Lumber Jack and Nina sitting on their porch, holding drinks, enjoying the afternoon. They were free as birds and looked like a retired couple sipping gin and tonics.

I walked up the steps and stopped in front of them.

Lumber Jack said to Nina, “Well look at that. What do you think the Cisco Kid wants?”

He turned to me, “What’s up, kid?”

I said nothing, just glared at both of them.

He said, “Get lost. We’re done here.”  He reached behind his leg, fishing for his gun.

I reached back and pulled out Mario’s .38, flipped off the safety, and shot. The bullet hit Lumber Jack in the throat. He fell back, and then forward, as if lunging at me. Nina hopped over the porch railing and ran down the street, away from downtown. Lumber Jack pawed at his throat as blood spilled across the porch. He gurgled, blood also pouring from his nose and mouth, and he writhed and slipped in his blood until his eyes went blank and his body went still.

I felt bad that Mario wouldn’t be getting his gun back.


 Inspired by SF




Gary Campanella writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in print and online publications, including Unfortunately, Charge Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, PikerPress, Blink-Ink, the 2021 Annual, Knot Magazine, and Silver Birch Press. He is Editor of the Muleskinner Journal.  He lives in Los Angeles, so there’s that.


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