I don’t know how my neighbor could have had a worse year.
He lost his job when the paper mill shut down, then lost his part-time job when the trucking company cut routes.
His mother died early in the year and his teen-ager daughter decided she had enough of small time life and moved out, choosing to live in New York with her mother.
When his car died in October, I found him sitting on his porch with a six-pack of Bud, well, five empties, and a tangle of plug wires at his feet.
“You gonna need a ride for that, Franklin?” I asked, nodding at the wires.
“Maybe,” he said. “Was thinking Donnie’s Garage might have parts.”
“I’ll take you to Rumford, if you need,” I said. Donnie Macklin was a great mechanic – he learned the trade in the woods, piecing together busted skidders – but not even Donnie was enough of a miracle worker to get electric current to flow through broken wires.
Franklin was as stoic an old Mainer as there was in Andover. His face wore the wear and tear, not of the recent troubles, but of the sometime not-so-gentle passage of time, the creases deep and darkly tanned, his eyes in a permanent squint as if looking into the future requires skepticism.
His family had been in Andover since the end of the Revolutionary War when men from Massachusetts arrived along the Ellis River to claim their acreage as payment for their war service.
Those men found a deep, long valley perfectly shielded by a ring of tall hills with miles of flat riverbottom land. So they built homes, raised families, traded goods and grew a small town in the Maine woods. The black growth forest was harvested to feed the mill in Rumford and life ebbed and flowed to a seasonal hum of saws and trucks that deposited generational wealth in the rocky soil.
Franklin’s family, like many of the founding families, saw their fortunes rise and fall, but in all the town developed a character and style all its own.
Most of all, when someone in town bottomed out, they found a way to help.
“That pick-up of yours running?” Franklin asked me.
“Sure it is,” I replied.
“Might need some help getting a load of wood off my woodlot up at Garland Pond.”
I wanted to smile, but didn’t. “What time?”
Franklin polished off the last Bud and spun the bottle on the porch, watching the brown longneck spin and slow like a pointed arrow on a wheel of fortune.
“Maybe eight?” Franklin said.
“I’ll be here,” I said. “Need to bring a saw?”
“Unless you plan on breaking them logs over your knee,” Franklin said, smiling thinly. Then he stood up and turned toward the house. “Things ain’t as bad as they’ve been,” he said and reached for the screen door. It creaked and squealed as he pulled it open, and slammed shut after he stepped inside. To myself, I thought, that action seems to define Franklin’s life of late: Everything creaks and bangs and then he steps into the darkness.
Overnight a sneaky Nor’easter blew in, rising up over Black Mountain and closing off the sky like a dark lid. Windows rattled and tinkled all night as rain/ice smacked against houses and the wind grabbed corners and shook barns like two great fists.
In the morning the houses were cold and dark after the power went out. Smoke, stiff and grey, rose out of chimneys straight and true into the still, frigid air.
Coffee, drunk standing before that roaring fire in the living room, took the edge off the icy scene.
I called Franklin.
“We still on?”
“You got four-wheel drive?”
The roads had been opened and sanded. We drove through an ice-coated landscape with crystal branches dangling over the road, bowing under the weight of inch-thick ice. A sliver of sunlight cracked through the leaden clouds and a sparking silver trail lighted the clear-cuts.
Past Ellis Pond, we broke the snow and ice on the road, the first travelers of the morning. The chains crushed through the frozen surface, grabbed at the mess and pulled us along.
We had barely spoken. Franklin sat intently staring at the road, the window cracked an inch or so to allow him to blow out his cigarette smoke.
“This would be beautiful if it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to drive through,” I laughed.
Franklin stared ahead.
“Seen worse,” he said.
“My great uncle had a time of it back around the turn of the century,” he said.
What, I thought? “What happened?” I asked.
“It was about ’03. We had a terrible Nor’easter. Lasted three days. We got couple, three feet of snow, and then an ice storm. The whole village looked like one of them snow globes, you know those glass balls with a scene inside, and when you shake it, the scene looks like a snow storm. The wind came up something awful and my great-uncle heard the barn door whapping against the frame, and more than once walked out to the barn to check on his prized plow horse and nail the door closed.
“That horse, a young, strong Belgian, was more than just a prized animal, it was what kept that man’s family alive. He used to plow fields and haul wood and it was essential to his livelihood. So imagine his chagrin when he woke that next morning and found the barn door wide open and the Belgian gone. He immediately set out to search for the horse. There was a trail through the deep snow and as he followed it, he knew that it would lead to his wood lot. He and that horse had trodden that path so many times, the animal instinctually knew the direction.
“The woods looked a lot like they do today. Trees wrapped in ice, glittering in the sunlight, shining drops of ice melted at the tips. Seemed magical. Even to a man searching for his horse.
“He got to the woodlot off the Notch Road and there was his horse. It was standing frozen, covered with ice, its eyes and mouth open. It’s left leg was lifted as if prancing and its hoof pointed off into the dark woods. Like a circus show horse. All the scene needed was a pretty girl with a big smile, standing on the back of the horse.”
Then Franklin stopped.
“How’d he get the horse out of the woods?”
Franklin paused and took a draw from his cigarette and leaned to the window to exhale the smoke into the icy air.
“Waited till spring when it thawed out and used it to plow the back forty.”
Franklin just smiled.