We head up Highland Terrace and stop to peek in the windows of an abandoned house, one I always liked, with its wraparound porch, turreted roof, and buttercup-yellow paint. "The owner is sick but refuses to sell," my mother says as we walk across its battered porch. So this once elegant home sits there, shedding its brightness, yellow flecking the half-frozen ground. Spray-painted in the road near the driveway: "Fuck you, bitch." The fug of the mill swallows us.
We reach the top of the hill, and from there, my old high school. To the east, snowmobile trails; abutting them, the mill's landfills. To the west, the football field slices the horizon. Beyond, lazy fingers of smoke lick the sky.
Inside the school, my mother stops in the office to chat with the principal she knows well. The lobby's smells—warm mashed potatoes, Band-Aids, and damp socks—remind me of Greg Chiasson, my high school on-again, off-again, lumberjackish boyfriend. Greg lived near the town incinerator, whose sweep of ash always whispered across his front lawn. I loved Greg like I would a sorry stuffed animal, one who had lost an eye or whose fur was rubbed raw. Kelly, a girl who wore her black, perfectly feathered hair like a weapon, was in love with him too. When he and I fought—usually over her—I'd listen to sad songs on my cassette player over and over until he called for my forgivingness in a pattern of pain and redemption.
I only saw Greg once after graduating from high school. He visited my parents when I was home from college one Christmas break. He and my mother chatted while I leaned against the kitchen countertop. "Peckerhead," my father said when he saw Greg. He called all the boys I dated Peckerhead, but only if he liked them. If he didn't, my father would sit at our kitchen table like a boulder while the boy fidgeted by the kitchen door in blank-faced silence.
My mother and I leave the school and follow the dirt path behind the football field past Meroby Elementary, where I got in a fistfight with Lisa (nee Blodgett) Russell. Lisa and I took turns swinging horizontally at each other's head until a teacher intruded on the brawl. When I looked in the mirror that night, I was sure I looked different, the way you think you do when you lose your virginity. It was my first and last bare-knuckled fight, except for a few unconvincing swipes at good old Kelly one night after a dance. She volleyed back with sharp red fingernails.
Down Granite Street, an untied dog follows us, growling.
"Just ignore him," my mother says.
The dog sniffs my heels, his tail down. He sits down in the road. I walk faster, looking over my shoulder until we are out of his sight and he is out of ours.
We skirt the Green Church, the library, the town hall, the fire station, and through the mostly empty and oversized parking lot at the Family Dollar where someone is inside a parked car eating their lunch. Nearby, Lazarou's car lot is filled only with puddles, and where the bowling alley used to be, a sunless cavity notched into the side of a hill. Behind it, St. Theresa's, our shuttered Catholic church where I received my first Communion, the sacrament of Confirmation, and made my first confession to Father Cyr. I'm sorry I lied to my parents, I said to him, though that itself was a lie.
On the corner at the traffic light is a newish gardening store, newish to me anyway. Lawn decorations, perennials, stuffed animals, and miniature tchotchkes for terrariums strain the well-stocked metal shelves. As in many small towns, most of the mom-and-pop shops have closed over the years. In their place, discount stores like Walmart or local iterations like Marden's Surplus & Salvage, Wardwell's Used Furniture, the What Not Shop thrift store, and other such secondhand outlets and pawn shops appeared, as if everyone here deserves only leftovers.
I'm inspecting a snow globe when I hear my mother shout, "Kerri, guess who's here? Do you know who this is?" Inevitably, she plays this remembering game, often in the grocery store, where she will stand next to someone, grab them by the arm, and ask if I remember so-and-so, and I will stand there, frozen in the frozen foods, staring at my mother and so-and-so, everyone's eyes like dinner plates, waiting for my answer. Sure, yes, I remember you! I had said yesterday to Mr. Martineau who lived across the street from my grandfather. After Mr. Martineau left my mother told me he has Alzheimer's. He doesn't remember you, she whispered.
"Kerri, come see who's here!" she shouts. I walk toward her, my steps jiggling the shelves of dollhouse-sized terrarium décor as if I'm Gulliver. My mother raises her arms upward like a magician: "DO YOU KNOW WHO THIS IS?" she asks.
"Hi," the woman next to her says. "Long time no see." I don't recognize her beneath dry yellow bangs that slump over round eyeglasses hiding her pink powdered cheeks. On her bulky sweatshirt, something plaid.