An Aroostook Abrazo:
A Boomer Buddyship In The Woods of Maine
By Paul Cormier
I chuckle inwardly. Is Bill the frolicsome gazelle, or the disputatious rhino? I smile and shake my head, and walk on. We are somewhere up in Midtown late at night, and once again Bill is charging two blocks in front of me. I almost lose him when he impulsively crosses an unattended parking lot and then cuts down a faintly illumined side street where I presume he’ll continue to stalk the oily curbs for, as he puts it, ‘the best little steakhouse in New York City’.
On our exalted expedition Bill is the Grand Gourmand, restaurateur and restaurant critic, and a jaywalker who can out-pace any New York sanitation truck. But with a once-hastily-scissored wallet-pressed (and yellowing) New York Times Dining Briefs review left on an end table back in our room at the Brooklyn Marriott, tonight Bill borrows heavily from a dodgy memory. Also, when we vacated the Marriott and burrowed blindly through the New York subway system, he was, as my mother would say, already ‘two sheets to the wind’; so by now Bill straddles no straight line between a clink-or-two beyond two rye-on-the-rocks. My role is secondary: a caravan of one, I lamely bring up the rear, and, occasionally, like a true citizen of Wobegon agog at the Big Town, I dutifully observe a traffic light. Eventually I catch up with my wily guide, or he allows me to.
Much as I love and accept Bill, such is his first and my second place ranking in the marathon we have run over the many years of our long friendship. And when my buddy isn’t scouting out ahead of me, pointing with one arm, beckoning wildly with the other (his Indiana-bred legs easily maintain a lead over my Maine counterparts), he typically throttles back down beside me and hovers, hovers like an 18-wheeler scrutinizing a wee cyclist; blaring his horn, blowing fumes through my spokes, rating me, scoring me. It’s almost sibling rivalry. Yet we keep coming back to one another - albeit with modestly unrealistic expectations - in successive, somewhat rewarding, at times disappointing, semi-annual reunions. It seems we have a kind of marriage. As Bill often reminds me, “No divorce allowed; not after forty years, buddy.”
Bill knows how much I savor my family’s memories of our Aroostook camp at Cross Lake. He knows this as he knows pretty much all there is to know about me. The Camp is my ‘secret place’ and as longstanding buddies sooner or later he knew that I would want to show it to him. After all our vaunted intimacies, I realized I’d never seized the opportunity to share with Bill the ancestral totems of my youth – the slouching, coniferous, resiniferous, woody Camp itself, more than eighty years in my family with its founder’s signature ivory siding and evergreen trim still aglow, the sharp caw of rampant crows heard through the sleeping-porch screens startling my relatives, my sister, my parents, all of us buried one frigid summer morning or another under layered Army blankets as bright draughts of sunshine poured in, the ceaseless unrolling of scrolls of purled water upon the shore, the crackle of a rise-and-shine fire in the antique Franklin Fireplace of the Camp’s central great room, the white noise roar of the vertiginous poplars as their leaves chattered and their trunks oscillated on big wind afternoons when rumor was Mom had baked a blueberry pie for dinner and that dinner would be early, the ‘summer stone’ submerged thirty feet out in the lake that allowed me to walk on water when I was a boy. Sure, I had confided to Bill about all of it for years, but that wasn’t like experiencing the vital smells, sounds, and sights of even a day at Cross Lake. But now an opportunity was at hand, sounding an alarm in my buddy’s ears like a buzzer in a firehouse. Oh, but would there be details to discuss!
Bill soon started calling our upcoming trek to Maine an abrazo, which is an idealization I wish he would have spared me. But I went along, even referring to it as our Aroostook Abrazo.
What is an abrazo?
Abrazo apparently is a term current in the Latin lexicon and means big hug, or, literally, an embrace. I think Bill plucked the term from a Spanish language pocket dictionary.
From Bill’s point of view, if we were to attain what he regarded as a ‘fully-realized abrazo’ (he was already fine-tuning the notion), we would very much have to be on our own at the Camp, although he said he appreciated that our tete-a-tete would revolve around one other hearty partier, my pill-rotary walker-dependent memory-lapsing eighty-five-year-old mother.
Predictably Bill started fretting, exhaustively negotiating the terms of his travel, his stay, the accommodations, what we would eat, and, above all, the early morning coffee making arrangements, with his usual cagey anticipation of all that could go wrong. That definitely would go wrong!
Flying in from his Vancouver home in British Columbia, and then driving up to Maine with me from my home here in Fairfax, Virginia, would definitely represent a “no-go” in the event my brother and his brood extended their stay even an hour upon our arrival. It could happen, though, I warn Bill. Bill wants a pad-locked guarantee that it won’t.
“So you don’t really know, then!”
“I’ll tell you what I do know, buddy. My brother has served as my mother’s nurse and orderly in the last two weeks. He now expects that in the next four days I will assume his caretaker chores. Buddy, he needs to get back to work in Groton! He has no reason to stay! Of course, he doesn’t yet know of your inspired intervention, either, but…”
“I’m sure he’ll approve.”
“Bill, I cannot control my brother’s schedule. But I’m pretty sure he’ll be leaving as soon as we get there. That’s the plan!”
“Matt is definitely leaving the morning after we arrive. Son Steven and his Goth entourage have already left, it appears.”
Qualifiers, waffles, sidesteps, fancy pants dance steps.
If Bill intends to fortify me, since he knows my morale will be tested later by my mother’s demands, our road time does not exactly launch on a note of solidarity.
Not when, heading north, I ask of a gas station attendant in one of those main street towns along the Garden State Parkway, “Where’s the nearest pancake parlor?” and Bill blurts out, “Pancake parlor?” “Yes, pancake parlor, we can get a good country breakfast there.” “You can eat in one of those artery-cloggers if you want but count me out.” “Count you out, buddy? Come on!” “Nope! Not that hog-eye grease for me! Artery-clogger!” Sternly, I draw the line: “This is my car, and that’s where we are stopping, sir!” “You can stop all you want. I ain’t walkin’.” Then, as we pull up to the pancake house, Bill spots a bagel breakfast eatery just around the corner. “I’ll bet you that’s where the smart money is!”, he says. “Naw, I’m for pancakes and sausage, a real breakfast.” Suddenly Bill is out of the car and loping ahead of me toward the Bagel Shop. Chagrined, I barge in to the blue-roofed pancake parlor. Right away I see Red Flag #1: no diners! And the knotty-pine-paneled interior feels moisty and damp. The waitress snaps at me as she leads me to a table. Meanwhile, around the corner, Bill melds into the rush hour queue with a whistle-and-a-smile-on-a-sunny-day for a heated egg and cheese bagel and strong black coffee. The Bagel Shop definitely has the buzz. My pancake parlor slants front to rear like a listing house boat. Forty minutes later, we rejoin at the car. Bill is already crowing. “Yep, that’s where the smart money was, all right. Best all-dressed cheese and egg bagel I’ve ever had! Throw your money away at the hog-eye grease table?” I had to admit that the experience fell short of expectation. “I’ll bet you even left a tip for the bad service waitress, didn’t you?” I had. “I noticed there wasn’t a soul in there with you.”
“Yep. I mean, Nope.”
It’s just before daybreak, our first morning at the Camp, and Bill cocks an immensely relieved ear from under a sleeping-porch Army blanket as brother Matt and wife Helen pull their canoe-laden van up the narrow muffler-duster and out onto the main road (Molly, the family lab, nosing her inch of open window). If I promised Bill that only my eighty-five-year-old mother might stand in the way of a true Aroostook summit, I have kept my promise—with no little help from my brother. Bill is not really worried my mother will interfere. He knows that Mom’s deteriorating mental capacity will make her often all but invisible, a non-participant unless we make her one (we do). “You ought to give your mother more attention”, Bill remarks later that morning, as he stands behind her Lazy-Boy and gently massages her shoulders. He’s clearly using this demonstration as a pretext to upstage me. “Bobby, you like a massage, don’t you? You see, Paul? Your mother could use a little more of your time.”
As the poplars roar around the Camp toward the end of a day-long stemwinder, it isn’t long before I hear the same old boilerplate nag that Bill lodges against me on all our reunions. Bill complains that, in my middle age, regrettably, I’m not the same soul-to-soul communicator I was back in the sixties. I also seem to put on airs now, presumably because I dress more formally. I may, Bill claims, even have lost my ‘sixties soul’. Bill is not the same, either, though in many ways he is. At least he doesn’t maintain full-time slob status. But that would depend upon his mode: on-the-job or off-duty.
At his office or on appointments with clients, Bill will don his professional ensemble, cultivating the demeanor if not the gravitas of a punctual Munich banker. The impetus behind his off-duty wardrobe, however, is the same sort of adolescent defiance that fuels his stab-a-steer-with-a-pitchfork table manners. Typically he will stumble into a Five Star with a backpack and a dusty satchel like some baseball-capped fisherman unshaven and in need of a hard scrub, with his sunglasses and MP3 ear plugs complicating his check-in, looking as if he’d ridden all the way from the Allagash in one day with skunk and trout scent for deodorant, tottering a Grand Latte from Starbucks on the reception desk, a bottle of Evian stuck out of the back pocket of his overlong and baggy jeans. To think that the character I mildly caricature here is a Senior Account Executive with ‘the single most-accessed resource for online news and information’ in all Canada!
Certainly it was not the Senior Account Exec (nor the aforementioned Munich banker) who gave me the trout when my first wife introduced Bill back in Vietnam-Fast-Draft pre-impeachment Nixon days. A reckless big-boned son of a crusading labor union lawyer out of Indiana, at the time Bill was indulging a slate of Liberal Arts electives at George Mason College back in Fairfax, Virginia. I remember him then as an incessantly bantering loud-mouthed, loud-laughter character who kept ranting Put Me In Jail! as a Quaker-sheltered anti-war long-hair aspiring Conscientious Objector. He had to “flee the country”, finally, under cover of night and January blizzard in the back of a Buick 6 station wagon (with peace symbols plastered over a dull repaint), a “fugitive” then on a wild clandestine ride up the old fugitive-slave’s Underground Railroad north to Canada where, I might add, Bill’s draft resistor status is still a badge of honor.
Bill is waiting for me in the Camp’s great room. He’s pulled up two rockers around the old Franklin. Now he’s looking me in the eye, demanding, “All right, spill the beans!” “What?” I counter defensively. “The beans!” He knows how to wear me down, though, and eventually I concede I have a few problems. He doesn’t hesitate. “Take off the apron!” “But I love to cook, Bill. Who will prepare dinner if I don’t?” “Take off the apron!” he repeats. “Like you I dearly love your wife but she is a black and white girl. She doesn’t appreciate your nuances, Nuance Meister. In any case, be a man, for Christ’s sake, take off the apron, drive a truck or a bus, anything but sit in front of that computer writing poetry all day!” “I suppose you’re right….” “No supposing! Do it! Get out of the house, check into a hotel for the night, drink at the bar, commiserate with the bartender! NOW!”
And Bill’s love life? In recent years Bill has built himself a hermetic lifestyle, a relationship firewall (upon entering, as he calls it, his ‘12th year of celibacy’) after two overdue divorces involving one wild vixen who whirled a brass candlestick holder too close to his forehead on one occasion, and the other an excessively controlling rape hotline counselor who thought everyone she met was in need of psychotherapy. My current spouse calls Bill my ‘Canadian wife’, in resigned perplexity; he calls himself her ‘Canadian husband’, which charms her sometimes. She suspects my old buddy may know more about me than she does. I won’t comment on that. Wives come and go; not so my buddy.
In the supper-oven heat of the Camp’s slant-floored kitchen Bill strips down to his black Stanfield’s briefs and swigs an evening’s opener from his 2-quart reserve of Crown Royal. In lieu of the Crown, of course, Polar Ice or Bloody Marys (with the de rigueur Clamato juice, Canadian brand preferred) will more than suffice. It doesn’t matter what, really, just so long as the supply lasts. If I pride myself a sleeping drunk, when Bill imbibes he becomes accelerated barkeep to all those he perceives are in need of a stiff one. Happily this at least leavens his signature harsh critique of just about everything I say and do. Even in the excessively sentimental mood that crocked and boozy induce in Bill, draping a heavy arm around my neck, now the big teddy bear, and sidling up too close, he still apprises, having examined my demeanor on the spot, and pronounces me guilty of “giving wooden hugs”. This draws out the curmudgeon in me and I stiffen even more. My reflexive retraction is not apparently the hearty abrazo Bill expected in return. My hug back, he thought, was more a brazo partido, an embrace “with a broken arm”, or a hug that “resists forcefully”, “the halved hug” made with one arm.
It’s an overcast day at the Camp and both of us knows that the lake is too cold to swim in. Predictably, Bill dares me to jump in. After briefing my mother, who sits watching from the front porch and occasionally waves at us (we wave back), Bill and I troop on bare feet down to the shore; Bill in his Stanfield’s, me in my BVD’s (we’d forgotten our trunks in Virginia). “You’ve got city soles, don’t you?” Bill taunts. My thin soles and bone-spurred feet don’t belong on the shoreline of sharp poking rocks and driftwood and I moan and groan until I bring my thin skins to water and just beyond, then after a long equivocal pause which is more like a tactical stall, at which time Bill is already doing his best imitation of a whale breaking the surface in the Gulf of Maine, I wade artlessly up to my ankles, then proceed quickly to where I know the soft cold clay is. “Clay is for pansies, Paul!” Bill springs up like a porpoise, skims the surface and spouts water like a whale. I change the subject: “Let me show you where my summer stone is.” “Summer stone?” “If I can find it, buddy . . .” At least I have a trump card here somewhere, if, as I say, I can find it. I walk back to knee-high water. It takes a while to locate the stone. Meanwhile Bill ribs me mercilessly. “Summer stone, hey? Sure, sure, Paul’s got a summer stone. What the hell is a summer stone?” But facing the Camp as my reference point, my knees finally abut with something large. I lift my right leg to anchor my foot on its moss-smooth surface, the biggest baddest boulder that has lurked here for a hundred years or more and, lifting my other leg up onto the submerged flat top of it as I have each year I’ve summered at Cross Lake, suddenly I emerge as if I could walk on water. “Ah, so that is what you are talking about!” Bill acknowledges. “Abrazo!” he shouts! “Abrazo!” “Duly acknowledged, sir!”
It’s our last night at the Camp. I don’t pay much attention to the preparations Bill is making on the front porch. He has been imbibing again and I notice he has grown increasingly gregarious. That he might be getting gregariously inspired proportionate to his drinking is a thought that enters but simultaneously exits my diminishing threshold of awareness. At Bill’s urging I seat myself in one of our old wicker rockers, although I’m stubborn about what I suspect are contrivances. Bill quickly adjusts the lamp to a dim glow, inserting the new posthumously released Johnny Cash CD. He hands me a juice glass. Whiskey is in it. With the other hand he grips a beer mug. Whiskey is in that, too. My mother sits at her ease in the Lazy-Boy with her feet at rest over an ottoman. The shallows are taking on a pink hue, and deep waters are darkening. It’s turning out to be a gorgeous evening; even if to me it might also seem, at least as regards the last of my mother’s last summers at the Camp, like the trilit ill-omen descent of the final dusky curtain. We sit together in our high-back rockers; Bill and I with our whiskies, Mom content to gaze. We listen casually to the new recording, one about Cash’s final passing farther on up the road where, Cash claims, he might meet up with us again. But then the Man In Black seems to cite my own mother when he sings “On The Evening Train” and I think of my mother again some minutes later when he sings “You Are The Rose Of My Heart”. As the Crown Royal softens my resistance despite what I know to be Bill’s unfolding party-hearty playbook, I sink back into my rocker and my heart finally swings into my buddy’s Aroostook Abrazo.
Bill has been good to me, and he has been particularly kind to my mother. When I needed wide-barrel back-up, my buddy stood his ground to link both arms up behind my mother’s tottering wide-barrel torso. If he spent much of the time self-absorbed in a rotation of Woody Allen movies, or insisted on laptop Doritos while glued to CNN in the Camp’s great room while my mother and I dined in the kitchen at a properly set supper table, I cut my buddy the slack he expected and we went on cohabiting (somewhat) agreeably.
The noisy forest fell mute around us then and the lake, not thirty feet down from the front porch, receded to a flat-calm which seemed especially inviting to a (possibly ridiculous) twosome in a canoe.