Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Stone Angels - Chapters 1 & 2

Stone Angels
by Michael Hartigan

Below you'll find the first two chapters of my award-winning novel Stone Angels. Please enjoy, and then go grab your own copy at:

Chapter 1

We were clearly lost and the dashboard light blinked desperately, telling me I was running on empty. Voiceless, it screamed for help, saturating the car’s interior in a red-orange hue, in a last-ditch effort for my attention. What the little light didn’t know was that I was already responding to its begging cry for help.

What the little light didn’t know was that I was already responding to its begging cry for help.

I turned my Ford Explorer from the highway onto the next available exit ramp, prompted by a large blue fluorescent road sign promising twenty-four hour fuel somewhere down the road. I obliged, proud of my attentiveness to my surroundings and the mechanical effectiveness of my aging sport utility vehicle.

But as the interstate fell away into the darkness of the rearview mirror, so did any further direction as to where this mysterious gas station was hidden. So disappeared my confidence.
The smooth, state-maintained highway quickly crumbled into a cracked and rocky backcountry road. The asphalt – I was surprised there even was asphalt – rose and split under my fog lights, wreaking havoc on my car’s aging shocks.

There were no street signs or streetlights along the road. It was darker than the highway was and much narrower, wide enough for one vehicle. Imposing southern pines soared along both sides of the pavement, like sentinels guarding a secret. I tried to see just how tall they were through the moon roof but all that could be seen was a hurried onrush of colorless clouds. No moon. No stars, either. The treetops peaked somewhere in the infinite darkness above.

Nature was being very difficult. Granted I was attempting to refuel a manmade gas-guzzling nature-killer. I couldn’t blame her for refusing to lend a hand. Nevertheless, I could have benefited from some moonlight, a few stars or hell, even a swath of fireflies.

But no such luck. I was on my own.

The three other people in the car were sound asleep and useless. Even if I were to wake them, this was only their second trip through the American South. The first being a week ago when we drove right past this very exit in the opposite direction, southbound. At that time none of them were paying attention, I was sure of that. They were too occupied by anticipation for the Florida sun and our last spring break vacation as college students.
The two girls on our trip, Emily and Lindsey, had terrible senses of direction. And Marcus – or Shoddy as we all called him – was most likely hung-over, if not still drunk, on both the ride down and up the Atlantic coast. All too often he was caught sleeping off the booze and mistakes of the night before.

I felt his pain. Like him, I had a pounding headache. Unlike him, it wasn’t only because of rum drinks.

I turned my attention back to the unforgiving darkness stretched out ahead. The station had to be up around a bend. If only I could see farther than the ten yards of pavement illuminated by my headlights. Maybe then I’d notice if there were any bends.

There weren’t any. Not even a slight bow since we left the exit ramp. I drove a straight and steady path deeper into the unknown, what seemed like ages away from the relative comfort of the interstate.
I’m usually a very reserved young man. Which to many is odd for a college senior. One would expect craziness, frat boy intensity or at least intermittent jubilation at the upcoming death to homework.
Not me. I kept it all inside, which isn’t to say it did not exist. It did. But long ago I had erected a wall in front of my emotions intended to keep all that in, and everyone else out. For the most part, it worked. Very few people ever got past that wall. I locked away a lot of things back there.

Recently, for various reasons, the wall was weakening. The very real danger of running out of gas on a backcountry road at midnight threatened to add to those recent chinks. Running out of gas was more than just a logistical threat. There would be very real consequences. I’d have to wake up my friends. My mistake and failure would be evident. I’d be vulnerable and scrutinized. The wall would be unguarded.
The headache still lurked behind my eyes. Rubbing my temples didn’t help.

Again, I tried to focus back on the road and the task at hand. My mind was being easily distracted. I set my gaze through the windshield and thought only about practical solutions. I’d probably have to leave the car and find the station on foot. Marcus should stay in the car with the girls. I’d have to change into sneakers instead of the flip-flops I had on. I should probably carry some sort of weapon, just in case. Did I still have that heavy metal flashlight in the spare tire well?

I could not help but get nervous after another ten minutes went by with no gas station. The emergence of a soft but urgent ding ding ding that began emanating from the dashboard did not help. That little orange light wasn’t kidding around anymore.

My practical questions quickly diverged toward paranoia. Did I have my AAA card? Would a tow truck find us? Would a service station be open this late at night this far away from real civilization? What if the tow truck driver was suspect? Would I call 911 or was that too extreme? If not, did I even know what number to call for assistance?

I instinctively pulled my cell phone from the center console and checked the service bars. Full. Thank God. Apparently whatever Southern municipality we trekked across was in tune enough with the Twenty-first century to have erected a cell tower. That was good, in case the tow truck driver happened to be a serial killer.

I had to chuckle at myself. Nothing had even happened yet and already I thought of the worst possible scenario, something straight out of a low budget horror movie. This sort of thinking spoke to the doubts I held about my own ability to handle a potential crisis situation. Which was actually not that foolish, considering the crises I had dealt with in the past and their horrifying outcomes.

Regardless of my failing confidence, the only choice I had was to continue on the current path and hope the blue highway sign was no liar; hope the fumes we coasted on lasted just a few minutes more. Turning around wasn’t feasible. I doubted I had enough fuel to make it back to the interstate. Besides, I had no idea how far away the next exit was or whether or not I’d face the same problem there.

I had to hope the gas station promised me would rise out of the darkness like the Emerald City, ready to fulfill my needs. But I didn’t need a brain, a heart or some courage. I needed gas. Gas to help me get home.
Five more minutes went by, the dinging grew more frequent. My body tensed.

Then suddenly the road was smoother. A few yards later it curved.

I must have understood a change in road condition to mean a change in luck. Here was the bend I was looking for.

At the same time the dinging from the dashboard got faster and louder. It was telling me this was it, the last push. We weren’t even riding on fumes anymore, just lingering particles. Some people might have stopped then. I usually would have stopped then. But for some reason adrenaline stopped me from stopping. Subconsciously I increased the speed of the Explorer. The dinging hurried and I sped up more, trying to keep up with its urgent pace and maybe beat it to the gas station I was now sure existed. It had to, right up around the bend. I instinctively psyched myself up. My body reacted naturally. My pulse quickened. My body arched forward in the driver’s seat, knuckles white gripped around the steering wheel. I came alive. The hours of driving in virtual silence and darkness slipped away like the blurred pines lining the road.

The words of someone I once loved flashed behind my eyes. “Before this is over, I’m going to lighten you up. I’m going to make you come alive,” she said to me. Amen to that. Screw my cracking wall. Screw my sleeping friends in the car. Screw the serial killer tow truck driver. If I were going to break down on a backcountry road, I’d at least get a thrill doing it. If I were going to open myself up to failure, I’d do it speeding around a hairpin turn.

One gradual curve right followed by a wide arc to the left then a twenty-yard uphill straightaway. At the top I sped through another curve left around an especially looming group of dark pines at fifty miles per hour. A quick S bend, my pulse quickened and another wide sweeping turn to the right. Was that perspiration on my forehead? A hard right, sharp left, the speedometer fluttering excitedly. We spit out onto another straightaway and ten yards ahead the road dropped down over the horizon like a cliff.

Without hesitation I took the Explorer over the top, hitting sixty-five miles per hour. As the car breached the hill and came into its descent a sliver of silver moonlight split the clouds above; the high beams from heaven. All at once the full expanse of the road and the decline ahead was visible. The black curtain parted and I saw down below, nestled at the bottom of the hill, a dimly lit gas station. The moonlight mixed with its orange fluorescent bulbs gave it an eerie green, almost emerald glow.

My head, now full of adrenaline, still throbbed. Respite ahead but we were still lost. Maybe clarity was up ahead too.

Chapter 2

I barely took the keys from the ignition before I jumped from the driver’s seat. The excitement of finding the station kept my blood pumping fast. The adrenaline kept rising while I popped the tank latch open and removed the gas cap. It only subsided when I reached for my wallet and pulled out my Visa student credit card. My headache had disappeared.

I went to swipe my credit card. There was no place to swipe a credit card.

“Dammit,” I said to nobody.

It was then that I became aware of my surroundings.

All around was darkness. In the time it took to descend the hill, the clouds had re-covered the moon and that initial shimmering emerald glow around the station had evaporated. The same southern pines that led the way here now formed a three-sided barricade around the lot’s border. Even though the station’s existence was our salvation, the trees’ effect was more fortress than oasis.

Without the moonlight or my headlights we were bathed solely in the orange fluorescent light from four large street lamps situated at the square lot’s corners. Two double-sided gas pumps sat in the middle of the square, just barely illuminated by the perimeter lighting.

The Explorer was parked at one of these gas pumps. Old gas pumps. The retro, non-digital kind that had rotating numbers and a flip up handle. The orange light accentuated their rusty front panels.

The station wasn’t a franchise and there was no canopy or giant neon sign adorned with a Pegasus or tiger. The only identification was a painted wooden sandwich board sign in between the pumps that read, “Welcome to Mo’s.”
At the rear of the lot was a rectangular clapboard building that housed a one-bay garage and a small store. The garage door was up but no lights were on. Inside I could make out the shadowy outline of a tow truck. The store was three windows long and unlike the garage bay, was lit. A paper OPEN sign hung on the inside of the glass door.

Other than a few trash barrels and a picnic table under the lamp in the back right corner, the station’s lot was vacant. Ours was the only vehicle besides the sleeping tow truck. We were the only visible signs of life besides the OPEN sign and lit up store.

It was exactly what I would have expected a gas station to be down a back road in Northern Florida. I should’ve expected a station like this to be cash only. It fit with the d├ęcor.

I double-checked the ancient gas pump before sliding my card back into my wallet. Definitely no place to swipe a credit card but there was a small sticker that said cash only. I missed that the first time around.

Fortunately the lack of credit card payment wasn’t much of a problem. We had planned for this to happen at some point. Last Saturday morning, before we pulled out of Providence College’s student lot, the four of us each threw fifty bucks into an envelope and stowed it away at the bottom of the center console. It was Emily’s idea. She argued – correctly – that at some point on our thirty-two hour drive down to Key West or on the thirty-two hour drive back we’d need cash for gas.

If she weren’t still fast asleep in the backseat, I would’ve kissed her in thanks. Well, probably not. That would have been a very bad idea. But I would’ve thanked her regardless. I went back to the driver’s door and retrieved the envelope full of money from the center console. Two hundred dollars should have felt heavier. I opened it to find one Benjamin Franklin starting back at me. Someone had pilfered our gas stash over the past week.

The memory of last Wednesday night flickered into focus in my mind’s theater. We had walked by an ATM on our way down Duval Street. Everyone took out cash, except Shoddy, which was odd since I knew he tapped out his cash the night before at Irish Kevin’s bar. That night, when we reached the Lazy Gecko, Shoddy started buying rounds. And he had taken the car by himself that afternoon to find a package store.

Looked like I had prime suspect number one. I reminded myself to address that with him when he woke up. I never did.

I was surprised Shoddy and the two girls were still sound asleep in the Explorer. Lindsey wasn’t a very heavy sleeper, I knew from experience. But neither she, Shoddy or Emily had even flinched since we left the highway. I was amazed the sharp turns, racecar antics or the sudden stop at the gas station didn’t rouse them.

I checked on them all before walking to the store.

Still sleeping. Emily and Shoddy were out cold in the backseat; Lindsey snoring with her face pressed against the front passenger window. They’d never know how close we were to breaking down. I’d never tell them. I’d just add it to the list of other things, much darker, much more significant things that I wasn’t planning on ever telling them. Compared to those, Shoddy’s thievery from the gas stash seemed trivial. Perhaps I wouldn’t mention it to anyone.
I left my three best friends in dreamland and made my way to the storefront.

Inside was smaller than I expected. To the left, two racks of automotive necessities and snack foods. One drink cooler covered the back wall. Immediately to my right was the checkout counter. A tall promotional display urging customers to change their oil sat on top. A large relic cash register, continuing the retro gas pump theme, waited proudly, to the left of center. A screwdriver and some mechanic’s tools were placed next to it.
The register was unmanned and upon further investigation, it appeared nobody else was in the store.

I took a lap around the candy racks and only on the way back around did I notice the small door behind the checkout counter. The oil change display must have blocked my view of it. I briefly debated whether or not someone positioned it deliberately.

When I looked inside the door I saw what was probably used as an office. Right on the wall in plain view of the doorway was a small black safe. There was a folding chair and a metal desk upon which were propped the feet of a young man. He had on a red trucker’s hat with the number of some NASCAR driver I didn’t know. He wore a blue, oil-smeared mechanic jumpsuit, the zipper pulled down to his bellybutton. Underneath was a similarly oil-smeared white t-shirt. On the jumpsuit was a patch with the name, “Bobbo” stitched on. I had walked into a stereotype and had to suppress laughter.

I knocked on the counter outside the door. Bobbo didn’t move. I knocked again. Nothing.

“Hey Bobbo!” I finally yelled, pronouncing it Bo-Bo, like a clown’s name.

The man jolted upright, his hat falling over his eyes in the process. He jumped up and immediately zipped up his jumpsuit and brushed it off; as if he could clean the oil stains that way.
“Hey there, sorry to wake you but I just want to fill up out there,” I said.

Bobbo recognized the situation immediately. He must have done this before.

He rubbed his eyes and pushed past me, making his way behind the counter. I followed but took the customer’s customary place on the other side.
“It’s Bob-O,” he said with a yawn.


“My name. It’s not Bo-Bo, like a clown. It’s Bob then O.”

“Oh. My bad. Sorry about that,” I feigned apology. “Well I just wanted to fill up. Probably take fifty.”

I handed him the one hundred dollar bill from the envelope. His face screwed up in annoyance.

“Not from around here, eh friend?”

“How’d you guess?”

“We don’t get many of these around here,” he waved the hundred like it was on fire. “Actually we don’t get many people in here that I don’t know personally. So that tells ya something.”

“Yeah, I can see that. But thank God you’re open. I coasted in here on fumes from the highway. If you were a few more minutes down the road you would’ve been coming to get me in that tow truck you got out there.”

Bobbo huffed.

“That’s if I answered the phone, friend. Pretty deep sleeper, I am.”
He punched a few buttons on the relic cash register and started flipping through bills. After a minute it became obvious Bobbo was having trouble making change.

“You wanted fifty, right? I don’t have a fifty to give back, friend.”

“That’s fine, I’ll take whatever bills you got.”

“That’s the problem, I don’t have enough in here to make fifty. I gotta go out back and open the safe. Be right back, friend.”

“No problem, Bobbo,” I said, pronouncing it wrong again. He scowled and made his way into the small office behind the counter.

I moved over a little and watched him dig through the desk. After finding a small black notebook, which I assumed held the safe combination, Bobbo got to finding me some change.

I looked away, not wanting him to think I was a thief. I studied the wall behind the counter. It was covered with local advertisements, lost pet notices and a dispenser for rolls of lottery scratch-off cards. An old plastic cigarette pack holder was hung underneath a novelty singing fish. All were typical backcountry gas station paraphernalia.

All except the frame hung right in the middle of the wall. There were no ads or lost cat papers crowding it, just a halo of off-white cinder block. The black plastic frame outlined its contents, a bright red piece of paper, demanding attention and a tinge of urgency. It must be important. Every regular customer waiting for change would notice it immediately if they just refocused their eyes over Bobbo’s shoulder. The paper would have peeked around him, flirting with locals and travelers like myself, daring them to ask the obvious. Since I took an indirect route to the cash register and had an indirect encounter with the slumbering Bobbo, I only just recognized the fiery notice. Without Bobbo, I was free to investigate the paper. It was the only object in proximity that didn’t immediately belong with the redneck motif.

I checked on Bobbo still trying to open the safe then glanced back at the frame. In order to read the black letters on the red paper I leaned as far over the counter as I could. I propped myself up and stood on my tiptoes, braced by my hands on the countertop.

Whoever designed the message clearly harbored strong sentiments and certainly wanted every human in search of gasoline to believe in their blazing credo. But he must have had incredibly good eyesight or terribly poor vision because what he had in flare, he lacked in basic color scheme and graphic design.

I dangled precariously over the counter’s back edge and squinted to read the text.

In the frame was a list of ten items with the list’s title in big bold letters that read: “The Paradoxical Commandments.”

I started reading them out loud but softly under my breath.

“One: People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway. Two: If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway. Three: If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. Four: The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Five: Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.”

I paused at five and read the line over again, this time in my head.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

I read five over once more. I couldn’t pull my eyes from that line. I think I hated it. But I totally agreed with it.

Uneasiness and some other uncomfortable emotion began creeping down my brain stem, into the buzzing nest of nerves. I had to move on to number six. I never got the chance.

“Hey friend, what the hell are you doing?”

Startled, my hand slipped and I stumbled backwards off the counter. I caught my balance on a candy rack before I fell, Bit-O-Honeys scattered on the linoleum. As I pondered the fact someone, somewhere still enjoyed Bit-O-Honeys enough for them to continue being manufactured, I looked up to see Bobbo standing behind the counter. He held a wad of bills in one hand and the other was resting on the screwdriver next to the cash register. His fingers started curling around its handle in anticipation of trouble.

“What? Oh shit, no. I’m sorry Bobbo,” pronouncing it correctly for the first time. I put my hands up in a gesture of innocence.

“You trying to get into that register, friend? I wouldn’t try it.”

“No, absolutely not Bobbo. I just want my change and to pump my gas.”

“Then why was you climbing over the counter, friend?”

“I wasn’t. I was just trying to read your commandments back there.”
Bobbo looked confused. His knuckles whitened around the screwdriver.

“What are you talkin’ bout.”

I pointed to the black frame behind him. He hesitated but I shook my outstretched hand in assurance. He turned quickly and his stressed face calmed. His grip on the tool loosened. He gave me one last look up and down and concluded either I was no threat or that his lumbering frame could easily subdue my inferior one. Or at least he was confident in his ability to stab me with the screwdriver.
Bobbo punched a few keys on the register and the drawer popped open.

“Yeah, that there’s Mo’s idea of employee training,” he offered as he shuffled a few bills.

“Who?” I asked.

“Mo. Mohammed, Ajay Mohammed. He’s the owner of this joint, my boss. This is his station,” he said and without looking up, pointed to the glass storefront.
There on the window next to the door were white adhesive letters. From inside the store the words were backwards but still easily readable. I read out loud, “Ajay Mohammed – Owner.”

“Yup, that’s him. Good ole’ Mo,” Bobbo said, his words laced with sarcasm. He handed me two twenties and a ten dollar bill. “He puts them things up in all his stores around here. Says we should all live by them rules like they’re a code or sumthin’. Says if we all did, we’d change the world.”

His belly jiggled with a deep, cynical laugh. Bobbo clearly was only a believer as far as it earned him a paycheck.
I put the money back into the white envelope and stuffed it into my back pocket. Then I asked a question just for the sake of conversation. I had to make sure Bobbo wasn’t planning on following me outside wielding a screwdriver. I mimicked his cynicism, hoping to keep his mind away from that possibility.

“So this can’t be Mo’s only gas station. How many stores does he have? Probably need a lot if he wants to change the world with a piece of paper.”

“About ten or twelve, I think. Has ‘em from here on up through Georgia. Mo’s got the dough. He’s a little wacko, comes in here once a week always pointing at that damn list and askin’ me if I’m livin’ by the code. Then goes out back to count his money.”

“What do you tell him?”

“I always just say yes, boss. It’s easier that way. But I don’t think I’ve ever
read the whole list. I figure when you got all the dough like Mo, it must be nice and easy to go around livin’ all good and honest and preach to other men. He don’t have to worry about two kids, an ex-wife or paying rent.”
I was getting more information than I really wanted. It was time to bid Bobbo farewell.

“Well Bobbo, thank you for being open. You saved my ass,” I said and turned to exit the store. I took one last look at the framed red paper list before I did.

“No problem, friend,” Bobbo said. “Sorry ‘bout sleeping on ya. And for not having the change right away.”

“No worries,” I said. “Have a good night. I’m sure you can head back to sleep now.”
I pushed through the door next to Ajay Mohammed’s backwards name. As I did, Bobbo yelled out one last sarcasm.

“Hey friend, don’t forget to live by the code!”

The glass door closed behind me and I laughed. But it was an uneasy laugh, the kind that jolts your insides for a second like a tiny, unconscious punishment.
I could feel the tremors of another headache. I thought of turning back to Bobbo and buying some Tylenol, or perhaps he knew where I could get something stronger. But I had enough Bobbo for one night. And for some reason, I really did not want to go back into the store. My body was instantly averse to standing in front of that red paper again.

I walked back to the Explorer in a daze, my mind hopscotching around the image of the red list of commandments on the store wall.

A few times it landed on number five. Be honest. Tell the truth regardless of the consequences.

It was a novel concept I never lived by. In twenty-one years of life I had done some bad things. I had hurt some people. Revealing truths would certainly have consequences, life changing ones. Being honest would make me vulnerable. I wasn’t comfortable with vulnerable. But was I comfortable with the current state of things? Maybe I was warming to the idea of change.

The rear passenger side door was open. Shoddy was staring unconvincingly at the retro gas pump, a credit card in his hand.

“Hey Auggie,” he mumbled when I reached him. He was the only one that ever called me that and he did so infrequently. “You know this thing doesn’t take credit cards?”

“Yeah, I already took care of it. Paid inside with Bobbo the attendant,” I responded, not looking at him. I was looking back into the car, checking to see if the girls were awake. Shoddy must’ve noticed the direction of my gaze.
“She’s still asleep, don’t worry.”

“Good,” I said, finally looking at his face.

“You alright man? You look like shit, with those bags under your eyes. Like a raccoon coming down off a bender.”

Where did he come up with those analogies? It didn’t matter. I barely registered this one anyway. The haze of headache surged.

I stared at Lindsey’s face pressed up against the glass.

“Hello, Augustine Shaw, wake up bro,” Shoddy said and waved his hand in front of my face.

I blinked and looked back into his eyes. We stared at each for a few seconds.

“You ain’t been right lately, bro. You’ve been off all week. I haven’t seen you this bad since, well, last Friday night outside Primal Bar,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I got defensive.

“Before we left for Florida, last week, we went out drinking? Something happened that really fucked you up.”

I opened my mouth to respond but the words weren’t ready. Almost, but not quite.

“Forget it,” he said. “I gotta take a piss. Did you see a bathroom inside this shithole?”

“Um, I’m not sure. Go ask Bobbo in there. And don’t call him Bo-Bo.”

“Bo-Bo, got it. I’ll be back. You want anything?”

I just shook my head no. Shoddy shrugged and headed for the store.

After he left the haze descended again.

Taking the handle, fitting it into the gas tank, squeezing the handle. It was all done almost instinctively. I didn’t even look at the numbers swirling by on the old pump’s face.

I instinctively went back to staring at Lindsey. Her breath had fogged the glass a little near her mouth and there was a tiny wet smudge from drool. She didn’t look comfortable. The seatbelt cut into her neck. There was a slight red mark around the strap where it gently compressed her skin.  But she must’ve been sleeping well. With the door behind her open I could hear her muffled snores. They weren’t feminine but they weren’t Neanderthal either. More like heavy breathing. Her unconscious way of letting me know she was still there.

Lindsey must have felt me staring at her because for a moment she woke up; or at least her eyes snapped open and locked on my own. They were a deep blue: almost unnaturally so, with a hypnotic way of grabbing the attention of the opposite sex. Her lips curled up at the corners in a sweet smile. The way her head was tilted, resting against the window, gave her a coquettish smirk. I had seen it that way before.

The headache I anticipated exploded at that moment. A sharp pang sliced from ear to ear. It was a familiar pain but something I had never become accustomed to.

About a year ago I started getting the headaches. I had migraines as a teenager, but these were different. They came strong and fast; they dissipated just as quickly. I assumed it was some onset of adult migraines. But I never went to a doctor, which in hindsight was probably a bad idea. Over the last week, since the morning we left for Florida, they came with more frequency and force. I never told anyone about them. I stuck with the migraine thing. I handled it as a young teen, wasn’t something I had to worry about now. Besides, I was always good at hiding my emotions, especially pain. I hid pain really well.

What I had trouble with was guilt. It was what ultimately was going to get me. Not the headaches or speedy driving, but the mutinous guilt. Guilt over so many things that in so many ways hurt so many people, Lindsey included. It was corrosive. It chipped away the ramparts I erected to hide some things. The guilt was stronger than a sledge, more precise than a jackhammer and more determined than a late-1980s Berlin twenty-something. The pain was just a warning – a warning that the wall would soon come crumbling down.

Yes, the guilt was going to get me. The wall had cracked. I had to get control before a flood spilled through unchecked. You want one thing but you get the opposite, the dichotomy of control. You want to be honest but it makes you vulnerable. It was time to stop seeing that as a bad thing.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Maine’s main muffin

Maine’s culinary highlights are a unique sort of surf and turf – lobster from the ocean deep and blueberries from the mountainside brush. If the nearest Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor souvenir shop isn’t laced with red crustacean fare, it’s doused in blue – blueberry syrup, blueberry pancake mix, blueberry soda; the list is endless.

But for my money, the best foodie representation of Vacationland is the blueberry muffin. Nothing says comfort food on a blustery New England winter morning like one of these breakfast confections sitting next to your coffee. But they require skill to master, to perfect the right texture, right amount of berries, right balance of sweet and tart. This means that the state’s restaurants are chock full of old time recipes, innovative twists on the classic, and boring, tasteless attempts. 

There are plenty of blueberry muffins in Maine; but there is no blueberry muffin like the one at the Maine Diner. Spiked with blueberries and flavor, just the right amount of sweetness with a texture that lingers somewhere near aerated pound cake, these Maine staples certainly do the state’s most famous berry proud.

Located on Route 1 in Wells, Maine, the family-owned Maine Diner opened in 1983 and continues to open daily at 7:00am. The restaurant’s amusing history, which is recounted on the restaurant’s website, reads like Maine folklore: a transplant from down south (Boston) retires up north; he opens a diner, utilizing the land to grow fresh ingredients for his dishes, shutting down in summer to tend the garden; the first ever diner customer walks in the front door after driving his car into their telephone pole; the next day, hundreds more stroll in and a Maine icon, clad in simple blue and white awnings, takes flight.

In the ensuing thirty-plus years, the Maine Diner has won numerous awards, been featured on television morning shows and cooking channel segments, and served more than 6 million customers.
And yet, every morning locals still occupy the stools lining the counter – the same few rotating in and out depending on the day. In the winter, they’re clad in their coats and hats, sipping hot coffee.

The blueberry muffins, or most any of their muffins or pies, are the diner’s highlights. But the entire menu smacks of hearty, classic dishes that spotlight the fare Maine is famous for, and incorporate local ingredients, many of which are still grown out back in the Maine Diner’s garden. The food is comfort food at its best; and the home grown cooking is complimented by an old school hospitality, both of which are too often forgotten in so many other tourist hotspots.

For me, Wells, Maine, is all about hospitality and homegrown cooking. My wife’s parents live there, just a few minutes down the road from the Maine Diner. A visit to the in-laws, in typical Maine fashion, usually entails multiple days of feasting, regardless of whether or not a holiday is upon us. This comes from my mother-in-law’s heartwarming combination of old world Italian family traditions and adherence to New England hospitality (not to mention her expert cooking skills).

But my father-in-law is never one to be left out. Breakfast is his domain and he has no qualms about looking to the Maine Diner for a frequent assist. Nothing compares to waking up in Maine, walking downstairs and seeing a Styrofoam container on the kitchen table. We all know what’s inside, especially with the smell of the blueberry muffins, fresh-baked and recently picked up, infusing the room. They bring the family together around the breakfast table like no cereal box or store-bought pastry ever could.

Many mornings, my father-in-law calls ahead to the diner before he leaves the house. They’ll gladly set aside an appropriate amount of muffins for him before the crowds get in and devour them like locusts. He’s not one of the local guys at the counter – yet. But when that day does come, when he settles in as a local at the counter, I’ll gladly pick up the mantle of the morning blueberry muffin run to the Maine Diner.

Michael Hartigan is a Massachusetts travel writer. His first novel, Stone Angels, was published in August, 2015. Hartigan will be signing copies of Stone Angels at Barnes & Noble in Saugus on Saturday, February 6, 2016 at 1:00pm.