The Love of Her Father
Way up here in the northwest part of Maine there's a place called Knowles Corner. You might have driven by it without knowing, a lot of people do that. It sits back off Route 11, just past the intersection of 212. It's a town of maybe 120 people. A few more than that in summer and quite a few less in winter.
It's a place -- not distinguished enough to be called a town. Nobody knows how old it is, or where it begins, or where it ends. Most of us agree it extends west as far as the bend in the Noggin River, but there's no telling how far north and south it goes. It's got no history anyone knows of, and no particular natural beauty for that matter. At one time the Crane Paper Company did logging here -- until the trees gave out. When the trees went, so did much of the wild life. Nothing goes on here now -- nothing. Sunday's the same as Monday.
One end of the main street dead ends at Route 11, and the other end peters out just beyond Earl and Kitty Gates general store. Even an old man like me can throw a stone from one end of Main Street to the other. On the main street there's the Gate's store, a machine shop and a hard to classify place -- a queer mixture of drug store and saloon where the men spend a large part of the day. That's it. There's nowhere to stay if you have a mind to spend a week here in summer, and no way to get out of here in the winter for sure.
The main street is our only link with the outside world. A gas truck comes in once a week and fills the pump at the shop, there's a few deliveries a week at Earl and Kitty's place and of course the liquor truck comes whenever Arnold LeMoine calls him from the phone out on Route 11.
Arnold LeMoine is the most civic minded man among us. If anyone has the voice of authority in Knowles Corner it is Arnold LeMoine, our designated Sachem. Most Sachems are granted the honor because of their spiritual or intellectual leadership, but Arnold is in charge simply because he's been here longer than anybody else. Arnold, with his bushy sideburns and chin whiskers, can barely read or write. I do most of it for him. About fifteen years ago he registered all of us at the Houlton Post Office and put a homemade community mail box out at the intersection of 212 and Route 11. Most of us get checks of some kind from the government -- assistance -- pension, and disability from one war or another. Until he did that we'd have to hitchhike or take the bus to
Houlton to get our mail.
We're an isolated community of solitary people. We're misfits, isolated by chance and by choice too you might say. It's as though we decided to stay here to see if we could get by -- like an experiment in survival. My name is Saugus, it's not my real name. Many of us bear the name of the place we came from. I worked for a newspaper in Saugus, Massachusetts -- it was my first job after getting back from Vietnam. I was in bad shape, if you know what I mean -- drugged out, and like most guys who got out of that war I couldn't tolerate having people stand behind me. I drove up here to fish one summer and I stayed with a potato farmer by the name of Mike Lachine who came down from the Eastern Townships of Quebec. For reasons I can't remember, I didn't like the idea of going back to Saugus, Mike and I seemed to tolerate each other as much as any two men can, and with a handshake we agreed to go it together. Mike passed away in '74 from blood poisoning after running his arm through the saw at the mill at the edge of the woods. We managed to stop the bleeding and all, but we couldn't do anything about the infection, and by the time we got him to Houlton he was dead.
Another thing about Knowles Corner is, we're old here -- all of us are old. The youngest person in town is Kitty Gates, and she's 26. She was the only person ever born here that I know of. The rest of us, drifted in and stayed. It doesn't do much good to ask anyone "where y'from" or "why're you stickin' it out in this God forsaken place," because each of us has his own private reason. We wouldn't dare ask the question anyway, for fear of it being put back to us.
There's no school here, Kitty had a few years at Houlton Elementary, but Earl took her out when his wife died. In a way that makes her the least educated person in town because the rest of us got the learning we have before we got here. Come to think of it -- that doesn't make us any smarter either.
We don't have a hospital, we have to take the bus to the outpatient clinic in Houlton. I've never seen a uniformed policeman on the main street, and no one I know has a recorded deed to his property. We're what you might call "squatters," and when you look around at the way we live, you'd swear you'd slipped back 300 years in time.
We gave up a lot of creature comforts to live here in Knowles Corner. We don't have electricity for example, and the only reason we need the gas is for the saw mill up by the edge of the woods. We cut the wood for heat. The wood's free and we chip in for the gas. So far as I know there's only one car in town, a '67 Pontiac that's been standing on its rims out in front of the Gate's place for going on 10 years.
Earl's wife Celia, died of pneumonia when Kitty was eleven years old, and Earl grieved something terrible -- we thought it was unnatural for a man to take on so. He neglected Kitty and took her out of the school in Houlton. A couple of the women in town offered to take her in and care for her until Earl got hold of himself, but he would have none of that. He said he needed her.
Something strange came over the two of them, Kitty in particular seemed to grow up almost overnight. For a kid of eleven, she bore a strong resemblance to her mother, and as time went by she grew to look more and more like her. She went so far as to wear Celia's old clothes, and you would of sworn it was Celia back there behind the counter when you went in to buy your groceries. It wasn't comfortable, if you know what I mean .... she would call her father, "Earl."
Well, that was back some time ago -- fifteen years as I reckon. I'm sure if Kitty lived in a livelier town -- with younger people around, things would have been different -- at least I like to think they would have been different. I hate to think this kind of thing goes on everywhere. I always put the blame on Knowles Corner, because things don't seem to work here like they do in the rest of the world. What we do here we couldn't get away with over in Houlton, or Portland for that matter.
One thing I've learned living in Knowles Corner is how easy it is to get used to things when you're isolated. I still remember how life used to be in Saugus before I came here. I remember television and steam heat -- I remember going to the movies. I think of these things fondly now, but I also look at them as unnecessary luxuries. The quality of life in Knowles Corner, such as it is, seems as full to me as I suppose it would to a savage in the jungles of Brazil -- although it has taken me longer than most folks to get used to the strange relationship of Earl and Kitty Gates -- fifteen years, as I say. There are times when I have to remind myself that it's Kitty, not Celia standing there behind the counter.
What has this woman missed by playing the part of her mother and ignoring the promise of her own life? Then, since I can't answer my own question, I fall into step with the rest of the people here in Knowles Corner who seem to think it's the most natural thing in the world.
So when it happened, I was as unprepared as anyone.
It was near the end of May. The frost was out of the top inch or two of the soil and I was setting out root vegetables. I heard a wailing sound like someone in pain and I looked down the hill toward the Gates place on the main street. Kitty was standing in front of the store with her hands to her face. She rocked to and fro as though she were on the deck of a swaying ship -- and she wailed. A high-pitched, little girl sound that sent shivers down my spine.
I stood up, brushed my hands on the legs of my jeans, and started down the hill. I saw Arnold LeMoine limping to her from out on Route 11, then I saw Caribou, the trapper, who lives on the knoll above me ....
"Somethin's wrong down dere," he shouted.
Arnold and I got there about the same time. Caribou arrived a second or so later, he was carrying a rack of gutted and skinned rabbits and I wondered why he brought them.
Kitty stood in the street with her face buried in her hands. She wore an apron over an old-fashioned dress down to her ankles, her hair was tied in the back just the way Celia wore hers. She still wailed in this unnaturally high pitched voice, almost as though she were a child. I reached out to touch her just as she dropped her hands. She raised her head as though to catch her breath, and for the first time she realized she wasn't alone. To no one in particular she said, "He done it! He went and hung hisself! I tried -- honest to God I tried, but I always knew he'd go and do it some day -- and now he went and done it." She walked back to the front of the store and sat down on the edge of the porch. "Go in and cut him down, somebody. It ain't right to leave him hangin' there. He's in his bedroom -- hangin' from a beam." She looked at Caribou and said, "We won't be tradin' t'day, Caribou .... you got your knife with you? Cut Earl down, Caribou .... it ain't right t'just let 'im hang there."
Caribou and I went in to get him. Caribou pulled a chair over to his side and climbed up to cut the rope. I eased the body down to the floor when it let go. It was his eyes I couldn't bear to look at, the wild crazy stare of a maniac -- I remembered the look from Vietnam.
"Ground's gonna be froze up at the plot." Caribou said. We referred to our burial ground as the 'plot,' it stood on the south slope of the knoll just at the end of the main street. This time of the year the ground is still frozen and we save our burials 'til the end of May.
"Think we should notify Houlton? -- It was a suicide after all."
"The hell with them, it's our dead!" Caribou said. "They don't hafta know."
I looked around the tiny unfinished bedroom. Naked, unfinished wallboard and no ceiling, no curtain on the only window. The view outside was of the privy. The bed was mussed and the striped ticking pillow was tilted up on end and leaned against the headboard. A candle had guttered out on a small bed stand -- I looked for a note, but there was none -- just a small yellowed snapshot of Celia sitting on the porch in front of the store. We took the noose from around his neck and laid him on the bed. I closed his eyes, and then we went outside.
We went through the ritual of a funeral, it was more like a burial at sea than a Christian service. It took four of us a full day to dig the grave next to Celia -- after we got down a foot or so the earth was workable, but until then it was hard going. Nobody had much to say about Earl, he was a hard man to get to know and after Celia died only Kitty could get through to him. I walked her back to the store after the burial and I asked her what her plans were.
"You'd ought to get outta here, Kitty. You're too young to spend the rest of your life here."
"Who'd run the store?"
"Forget it. Knowles Corner won't die for lack of a general store -- somebody's bound to buy it."
"What'll they say about me if I leave?"
"What do you mean?"
"Me and Earl I mean. What'll they say about me and Earl?" She reached behind her and let her hair down. She shook her head and the late afternoon light revealed highlights almost the color of mahogany, her eyes were green as a cat's eyes. She was a beautiful woman in her own right. "If I leave, Saugus .... I'd like f'you to know about Earl and me. I'd like f'you to tell the rest of Knowles Corner about us, and why he killed hisself."
"Nobody's business but yours, Kitty."
She looked at me like a teacher would look at a backward child. "Gossip has a way of makin' things worse, Saugus. People talk -- they change things the way they think they should be." She looked away again with tears in her eyes. "I want somebody to know how bad it really was."
"You want me to write it down?"
"Not now. Just remember it, okay? .... and tell it true."
Kitty had never been happier during those two years in the Houlton school. She was with girls her own age, and she was pretty enough to be a source of irritation to them. To the Houlton boys, she was the only girl from Knowles Corner and therefore an object of constant attention and curiosity.
At home she was in the center of a loving family. Earl and Celia had bought the store from Earl's elderly uncle with the money from Celia's dowry, and though it didn't earn them much of a living, it gave them the opportunity to be together every moment of the day. It was an idyllic twelve years.
There are no doctors in Knowles Corner and it's a risky business to get sick here -- really sick. In Celia's case, a mild case of the flu turned into pneumonia, and within a week she died. The suddenness of it caught everyone by surprise, and it was a shock that Earl never got over. At the laying in up at the 'plot,' the depth of his grieving -- his uncontrollable anger at her passing was frightening to see. That's why some of the ladies in town volunteered to take Kitty in until he pulled himself together. But, he would have none of it. He wanted Kitty to help him at the store -- he 'needed' her, he wanted to hold what was left of his family together.
Maybe that was true. Maybe not. All Kitty remembers is being pulled out of school and standing behind the store counter all day waiting on people while her father slumped in the corner and mumbled to himself. Was it a kind of depression? How would Kitty know?
"I ain't never had schoolin' beyond the sixth grade."
Maybe it was a whole year, maybe more -- but Kitty does recollect a change in Earl. He had saved Celia's clothes; her hats and coats -- even her underwear. She would find him, at times, looking in Celia's closet and fondling her things. He began by asking Kitty to wear a dress Celia had worn before she died. "I wanted my father to love me," she said. "I had so much before, and now there was nothing -- maybe he would love me if I wore something my mother wore." Without realizing the implications, she gladly changed into the dress her mother wore.
"Wear your hair the way she did," her father went on. "Here's a pin I give her the day I carried her across the threshold of the store. Pin that at the neck of her dress."
The things you get used to. Maybe it's Knowles Corner, maybe not. Our inwardness .... we see nothing wrong with what we do, so long as it gives us peace of mind, and in Kitty's case, all she wanted was the love of her father.
"I could hear him sometimes in his bedroom at night .... walkin' up and down. Oh, Saugus -- it was sad to hear. Like she was in there with him. He'd talk in his voice, then in hers. Sometimes he'd bang his fist on the wall and call her name. I was twelve years old, Saugus. I din't have no idea what was on his mind."
When she saw him in the doorway of her bedroom the first time it was horrible. She closed her eyes and counted off the seconds 'til it was over. When it was over, she wondered if it was something all girls went through -- maybe it was a ritual, and when it was over, maybe everything would be the way it used to be.
When it was over, Earl would get down on his knees before her and beg forgiveness. "It'll never happen again, Kitty. I dunno what got in t'me. The Devil I guess." Then he would look at her pleadingly." .... but Kitty my love .... wear the dress she wore. You're the spittin' image of her."
"What would he do if I said no, Saugus? Where would I go? There was nobody for me 'cept my father. I needed a father, Saugus -- and how could I keep my father, lessen -- lessen .... "
"The things you get used to. Mebbe you can make sense of it, Saugus. Try to write it like it felt to me back then. I wanted to go away. Go away? Where? How? Wherever I went, it would go with me -- it's with me now Saugus -- it'll follow me wherever I go."
When Kitty left that morning, I met her at the store and carried her bag down to the bus stop. Her first stop was Houlton. She had the promise of a job in the bakery that used to supply the store. "If it goes okay, I'll stay. If it don't .... I don't know. Maybe I'll move on. Don't come t'see me in Houlton, Saugus. I don't think I could stand seein' someone from here again. I won't be back, Saugus -- I promise I won't ever be back."
The bus pulled in with a hiss and the accordion doors rattled open. She took her bag, kissed me quickly and climbed aboard. The doors rattled shut again, and left me standing there alone. With a grinding of gears, it roared off again, making more noise than speed. I watched it 'til it was just a speck in the distance.
Then I walked home and wrote the story of Kitty Gates.
©Harry Buschman 2000