This trip has been a bust, dear readers. I’m sorry to say so, but it’s true. I write to you now from a small diner unnervingly near the Canadian border, having driven something like four hundred miles in something like eight hours, all to very little effect. The sun has set, and I have to decide whether to turn around and head home, probably arriving well into the early AM, or just find someplace local to stay. But first, I thought I might write to you, dear readers, especially those of you considerate folks anxious to learn my fate. At least this place has wifi.
The good news is that I have not been murdered, kidnapped, or in any other way assaulted, detained, or mistreated. Another piece of good news is that Maine is a truly lovely place, and today I have seen a great deal of it. But that is about as far as the good news goes, readers. That, and the wifi, as I mentioned. Also this place has pie, which I have decided, because of the extremity of the situation, to order à la mode.
It began about as well as any journey into the unknown can be expected to begin. I was well provisioned, with plenty of snacks, a full tank of gas, and a plan: I would follow my directions to the Hemlocks on Prism Bay, such as they were, until said directions gave out, whereupon my detective skills would kick in, and the investigative journalism would begin. I had a mystery to solve, and isn’t that a writer’s dream? I saw myself interviewing local Maine residents about the enigmatic Prism Bay, piecing together the history of a secret community hidden away from the rest of the world. It would become a ten-part saga. My little blog would be mentioned alongside the Serial podcast, Making a Murderer, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, maybe even In Cold Blood—except, you know, with less murder. Or, anyway, without me being murdered. If I somehow ended up solvinga murder, well, so be it.
Readers, this is not how my day has gone. Allow me, first, to remind you of the directions I set out to follow (though if you haven’t heard them yet, you might want to check out my previous two posts):
For the first few hours, all went according to plan. I headed north on I-95, taking advantage of my brief stopover in New Hampshire to purchase a bottle of tax-free scotch. I stopped for a delightful lunch in Portland. Signs passed overhead, proclaiming exotic destinations: Lebanon, Naples, Sweden, Moscow, Rome, Mexico, China, Troy, Poland, Paris, Bristol, Bath—all towns in Maine, of course, but watching these names go by, I had no trouble imagining myself on some magical stretch of highway that would lead me into realms of mystery. Well, readers, the imagining bit was about as far as I got.
I was scrupulous about following what directions I had. Instead of briefly transferring onto I-295, which cut a more direct route between Portland and Augusta, I stuck with 95, at the cost of about fifteen extra miles driven. Upon crossing the Penobscot River, I took Route 1A to Route 1, even though, if my ultimate destination was somewhere around Cutler, it would have been more direct to take Route 9. This actually turned out to be a nice choice, since Route 1 runs along the ocean, making the rest of my trip to Cutler a veritable bonanza of majestic seascapes. A few pictures, dear readers, to delight your computer-screen-weary eyes.
As you will recall, it was somewhere along Route 1 (eight miles, to be exact) that I was to encounter a dense bank of fog and, after that, the much-touted Route ♃. Well, dear readers, I can at least say that I found the fog. Maybe not the fog, but some fog, anyway. Quite a lot of fog, actually. Today, I have learned that the coast of Maine is very foggy. For a few miles of Route 1, it seemed like there was nothing but fog. And, eventually, I emerged from this fog—but it was not onto Route ♃. I just found a lot more seaside highway. Fabulously scenic seaside highway, but quite lacking in mysterious exit signs to mysterious towns.
Now, readers, I have a confession to make. At one point, I saw an exit sign approaching through one of those banks of fog I was driving into and out of, and I thought it might be fun to snap a photo so that I could claim to have spotted the mysterious Exit [bird holding a small branch in its beak]. I even contemplated taking this exit and seeing what other sorts of stories I could fabricate. Dishonest thoughts, readers, and they were justly and summarily punished. As I lined up my photo, a car swerved past on my right, nearly running me off the road.
It was, I will admit, almost entirely my fault. I was trying to operate a camera while driving—and driving in the left lane, even though I had just slowed down to take my picture. These are not easy things to confess, dear readers, and I hope you can forgive me for behaving so disreputably. Know at least that no one was hurt, and that I derived no benefit from my nefarious and fraudulent actions: I missed my shot (instead photographing only the inside of my car), and my exit, and was honked at quite ruthlessly by the car that had just passed.
The rest of the way to Cutler was pleasantly uneventful, and Cutler itself is a wonderful little town. It is what might be described as a “no frills” sort of place, a lobster fishing village without even a gas station in obvious evidence. Popular activities, I’d wager, would mostly involve enjoying the area’s natural beauty, which can be found everywhere in abundance. One activity I would not recommend, however, is walking around asking the locals for directions to Prism Bay.
Most people were really very nice, even if it soon became obvious I was making a fool of myself, though I did earn a few annoyed glowers and what-is-this-idiot-up-to shakes of the head. Before very long, I’d begun to feel like the host of a hidden camera prank TV show, and decided it was time to make my retreat—to someplace with a restaurant (which Cutler also lacks), preferably far enough away that news of the dickhead driving a car with Massachusetts plates and asking everyone about a nonexistent town would not yet have reached it.
And so here I am, dear readers, awaiting my pie and contemplating my next move. During the wanderings that eventually led me to this diner, I made a few more desultory attempts at picking up the trail to Prism Bay—getting back onto Route 1, for instance; I also gave the directions “From the North” a shot—but I couldn’t even find a decent bank of fog. If you cannot find a bank of fog on the coast of Maine, readers, it is not your lucky day. At one point, I got so desperate that I tried driving inland, then turning east so I could listen for the birds, as detailed in my instructions, but all the birds had to say was “kwee-kwee!” and “kyaaa!” and other birdlike things which I was unable to translate into English. A true journalist would charter a boat and go out in search of Margaret the francophone dolphin, but today has made me question my journalistic chops, dear readers. That tax-free scotch, my only real achievement so far, is beginning to look pretty good.
I am not the only downcast and dispirited patron of this little diner. It’s not clear whether the food is to blame, or the service (both somewhat awful), or whether it’s simple coincidence, but the mood here is pretty glum—much glummer than a place should be on a summer evening in Maine. One small example: in the booth opposite me is a young woman, maybe thirteen years old, and her mother, who have been sitting in sullen silence for at least an hour. This is actually an improvement over the murderous fury with which they had previously been glaring at one another, or the screaming match that had captivated the entire diner shortly before.
The argument, which by the simple laws of physics I could not help overhearing, was about their summer plans. The young woman would have preferred to remain at home with her friends, whereas the mother—who, I gather, does not think much of these friends—has decreed that her daughter is to spend the summer here, in Maine. I am summarizing, of course: the actual conversation played out at high volume and in very colorful language. The mother was victorious, by dint of parental autocracy, but the young woman has not taken her defeat graciously. She appears to be planning something, dear readers. I cannot say what it might be, but I doubt her mother will approve.
I considered offering my condolences to this young woman, to commiserate over my own failures and frustrations, to tell her there is a bright side to all this. A summer is not such a long time, and she will still be able to keep in touch with her friends. And should she care to look, she will find Maine quite a beautiful place. On top of that, she appears to be really owning her early teenage years: she’s dressed almost entirely in black, with dark makeup and a t-shirt that reads, in large block letters, PULL THE TRIGGER BITCH. Anyone capable of putting together that kind of ensemble won’t let mere summer exile keep her down. I understand, however, that young women and their mothers do not usually appreciate being approached by strange men in seedy diners, not even when those strange men have been eavesdropping on them long enough to know quite a bit about their conversation.
But now, dear readers, you must excuse me a moment: my pie is waiting at the counter, and my server appears in no hurry to deliver it, and I would like to make my claim before the ice cream melts. Enjoy a couple of sneaky photos while I’m gone.
Readers, something very odd has just happened. For you, it has been only the space of a page break and two photographs, but I have spent the last several minutes engaged in a most unusual encounter. Do you recall what I said about being approached by strange men in seedy diners? Well, I can now say, with some authority, that young women and their mothers are not the only ones who would prefer to avoid such interactions—because when I returned to my booth, bearing my pie à la mode, I discovered an exceptionally strange man sitting there, waiting for me.
The reason I knew he was waiting for me is that, as I stood there, holding my slice of pie, he said, “Hello, Mr. Black, I have been waiting for you.”
I was about to ask how he knew my name, but just then I noticed my laptop, sitting open on the table, and my laptop bag, which I also use to carry notebooks containing sketches and ideas for stories, in the booth beside this exceptionally strange man. Readers, I probably do not need to tell you how upsetting a sight this was. If you’re like me, your personal computer is probably extremely, well, personal. Mine contains not only a good amount of information about me and my life, but also the stuff of my livelihood: my writing. And here it was, left open to this creep. I hadn’t even locked it when I got up—the counter where my pie awaited was hardly a dozen steps away. I turned my back only for a moment, but in that moment, this exceptionally strange man had time to settle himself in my booth and, it seemed, learn my name, very possibly by looking through my bag or peeking at any of the various social media accounts open on my web browser. Who knew what other nefarious deeds he had perpetrated?
Straining for calm, I said, “Excuse me, sir, but this booth is already occupied. There are plenty of others open, if you need a place to eat.”
The exceptionally strange man did not answer immediately. He seemed to be chewing something in a thoughtfully bovine way. He was lean and rather tall, and wore a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, and a baseball cap pulled low, preventing me from seeing much of his face. A good ten seconds went by before he finished chewing with a small gulp—had he swallowed his gum?—and said, “I am not looking for a place to eat.” Then, in a tone I would describe as enigmatic menace, he added, “not now.”
“Then I kindly ask that you leave me in peace,” I said. “I have work to do and pie to eat.”
“Please, work,” said the exceptionally strange man, motioning to the seat across from him, where my laptop waited. “Eat. I won’t interrupt you.”
It was true that I had no real use for his side of the booth, except as a place to store my jacket and laptop bag, but as everyone knows, when a person is seated at a booth in a diner, that person gains rights to the entire booth. This booth was mine, readers, and I did not want him there. I was prepared to send him off, when suddenly my mind flashed to the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information regarding the Hemlocks on Prism Bay. What if this diner had house rules of its own? What if, in these here parts, any open seat was fair game? Was I about to violate some important local custom?
“There is a sign requesting that all guests wait to be seated,” I said lamely, “and I do not think you did.”
The exceptionally strange man made no reply. He appeared to have regurgitated his gum and begun chewing it again. By now, my ice cream was melting quite catastrophically, to the point where sticky rivulets had begun to trickle onto my hand. I decided to sit before the situation could get any worse. I slid into the booth, shoved one large bite of pie indignantly into my mouth, and began trying to de-ice cream my hand with paper napkins dipped in my undersized glass of water.
“Giving up so easily?” asked the exceptionally strange man. Now that we were both seated, I had a better view of his face. I would not call it a good view, but I could see more of it than before. His skin had a dry, papery texture, and the area around his mouth was crusted with what seemed to be congealed saliva, as is sometimes found in victims of extreme dehydration. He looked, dear readers, like a photo from some drug awareness campaign depicting a meth user after years of unrestricted tweaking.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked. “Some iced tea, maybe?”
In answer to this thoughtful offer, the exceptionally strange man said only, “You shouldn’t give up so easily.” I was watching his mouth when he said this, and readers, I could have sworn his tongue was purple. Perhaps he’d been eating a lot of grape popsicles, who knows. And there was, also, quite a lot of viscous saliva in evidence. It was all very unappealing.
He was also right, dear readers: I shouldn’t have given up so easily. I should have expelled this creepy meth head from my booth posthaste and without any further discussion. Yes, I know drug abuse is a big problem in America, and we’re in the middle of an opioid crisis, and a person with drug problems needs to be helped, not yelled at by a wandering writer with ice creamy hands. And fine, meth is not an opioid, but maybe that purple tongue was the result of a codeine syrup admixture, aka “purple drank”, and anyway, that’s beside the point. The point was that I was being too much of a pushover. I readied myself for a renewed attack—entirely verbal, I promise—but just then, the exceptionally strange man got up and left the booth of his own volition.
Perhaps he sensed my steely determination. It’s difficult to say, since he’s gone now. I’ve recorded the scene to the best of my memory—still quite fresh, given that it all happened only minutes ago and made a pretty strong impression, as I’m sure you can imagine. The whole interaction did not go unnoticed by my fellow patrons, either. As the exceptionally strange man left, I noticed the young woman with the explicit t-shirt and her mother looking my way, both quite aghast. I waved, to show I had not been knifed beneath the table. “You handled that very well,” said the mother, while the young woman with the explicit t-shirt slouched further into her seat.
I’m not sure I actually did handle it very well, dear readers, but I will say I’m feeling empowered. That exceptionally strange man, whether meth addict, opioid fiend, or simple weirdo, has given me a new sense of purpose. Perhaps it’s too soon to give up my search for Prism Bay as well. There is one more thing I can try, mentioned in the fifty-or-so pages of Guidelines and General Information. It is extremely silly, but you know what, dear readers? I’ll give it a shot anyway. If it turns out to be ridiculous—and I can’t really see how it wouldn’t—I’ll find a motel, or maybe a comfy B&B, and a few nice Maine sights to write about. No matter what happens, I’ll get a decently wacky blog post out of it, and wasn’t that more or less my reason for coming all the way out to Maine anyway?
Right, then: I’m off. Tune in next week—or, I guess, click through next week?—to find out how it went. Until then, dear readers, don’t let the day’s discouragements—whether bad directions to your artists’ residency, weirdos in a diner, or arguments with your daughter or mother—keep you down!