Old US 1 ended at its northern terminus of Fort Kent. Key West was 2377 miles to the South. Snow drifted chest-deep against the houses. Philippe tested his new jacket.
“I wouldn’t expect anything else from LL Bean.” I was wearing layers. Heavy boots were a must. We had reached winter and night fell fast this far north.
We got a room at the motel nearest the ice-clogged river. The grinding floes filled the black air with horrid crunches.
“Tomorrow we’ll drive to the St. Lawrence and catch a ferry to the other side.” Icebreakers opened the seaway for ships throughout the winter. “We can reach Manicouagan Lake in two days. If the road’s open, I can make Newfoundland. It’s no Miami Beach.”
“I can’t go to Canada.” Philippe held his hands over the motel’s radiator. The interior surface of the windows were glazed by ice. A naked man wouldn’t last thirty minutes outside.
“Why not?”Winter would only get more winter farther north. “French-Canadian girls are very attractive.”
Their Gallic beauty was enhanced by not eating potato chips.
“I don’t doubt it, but I have a visa problem.” He avoided eye contact.
“My visa is out of date.” He was embarrassed by this admission.
“How long?” Mexicans were called ‘wetbacks’. Up this far north illegals were known as ‘snowbacks’.
“Damn.” We were 673 miles from Manhattan. I had a car and money in my pocket. I had dreamed on standing on the shores of Manicouagan Lake for years. I grabbed Philippe by his arm.
“Put on your coat.”
“It’s cold.” He protested without conviction.
“This is northern Maine. Of course it’s cold.” I forced Philippe to walk up US 1 onto the snow-covered steel truss bridge. The wind off the frozen river was ten degrees south of zero and Philippe’s long hair whipped across his face.
"That’s Quebec.” I pointed to the black bank across the St. John’s River.
“I know.” He refused to look at the other side.
“They have good food in Canada.” I appealed to his weakness for good food. Fort Kent’s cuisine consisted of doughty pizza and greasy burgers. “And there’s a great French restaurant in Clair. The Resto 120.”
The restaurant had been recommended by the motel manager. Her last name was Quelette. Fine cuisine was a specialty of the lost tribe of France.
“Tourtires, soupe aux pois, et pommes persillade. Cheese. Wine. Good bread.”
“Really?” Philippe licked his lips.
“And French girls are cute.” In my youth the sexiest girls at Old Orchard Beach were vacationeers from Quebec City. They looked like either Brigitte Bardot or Francoise Hardy. Philippe was almost sold by my sales pitch.
“You said that before.”
“I can’t risk it.”
“What’s the risk?” No one was guarding the bridge. “On the way back you can hide in the trunk. It’s heated.”
If the technique worked for millions of wetbacks, it couldn’t be too much trouble to run a snowback operation at a sleepy border crossing.
“No way.” Philippe shook his head. His nose was reddening from the cold wind.
“It’s either that or burgers.”
“Sorry.” He walked away from my grasp.
“Sorry?” I trailed him thinking about dragging him across the desolate bridge.
“You can come back in the summer.”
“I have no idea where I will be in the summer, you damn limey.”
“Me neither, but it won’t be a deportation cell. Burgers and fries tonight It’s on me.” Philippe stormed over to the nearest bar. Neon signs FOOD and LABATT BEER flashed in its window. I stared across the icy river with disappointment and then joined Philippe in the Moose Inn, which had a pool table, jukebox, and wooden bar with draft beer.
He didn’t take off his hat.
The loggers, snowmobile sledders, and the state road crew in the bar were wearing theirs and I couldn’t tell the difference between the men and women.
“Fuck the Resto 120.” There were no pommes persillade on the Moose Inn’s menu. I threw my watch cap on the bar.
“What?” Philippe asked to appease my anger.
“Shut the fuck up.” I was in a bad mood and ordered a beer. The first Labatt went down in less than thirty seconds. The second took two minutes. The third lasted almost a quarter of an hour.
We ordered burgers and fries. My fifth beer washed down the hockey puck of a paddy and the sixth soaked up the sodden fries. At least I was warm.
A storm was due in two days, so everyone was getting in their drunk tonight. I bought drinks for the road crew. Philippe played DJ on the Jukebox. The crowd danced to LOUIE LOUIE and a thickly bearded drunk tapped my shoulder.
“My name’s Rick.” The man had a cross-eyed squint marred by a cracked lens of his glasses. For a second looking at him was like seeing my personalized ‘Portrait of Dorian Grey’. We were nearing forty. Cathy Burns was the same age, but in my mind she was still pretty.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“I was wonderin’ if I dance with your date?”
“My date?” I was confused for a few seconds, until he glanced over his shoulder at Philippe.
Long hair hid the Englishman’s face.
“You’re saying that you want to dance with my date?”
“She’s better looking than any of the other girls in this town.” Rick lit a cigarette with a match, which flared over a calloused thumb. The townie didn’t register any pain and said with a dull vice, “Girls around here weigh as much as moose in a peatbog. I like them skinny. You mind?”
“Be my guest.” The Englander’s illegality in America had halted my exploration of the North and I smiled as I said, “Just a dance.”
“That’s savage good of you.” The townie staggered off to Philippe.
His mouth mouthed ‘you wanna dance’.
I put down my beer before I spit it out laughing.
The Brit came back to the bar and picked up his beer.
“Some guy just asked me for a dance.” Philippe was outraged by the offer.
“And you said no?”
“Of course I said no.” He was horrified by the thought that I presumed that he might say ‘yes’.
“Just so you know, he had the politeness to ask me if it was okay.”
“And what did you say?”
“I gave him the green light. Let’s face it, you have to be the prettiest girl in northern Maine by a long shot.” I figured that we were even.
“Did he offer to buy you a drink?”
“Yes.” Philippe had said the magic word.
“So get to it, Thelma.” I went over to the jukebox and dropped two quarters to play KC and the Sunshine Band and Nirvana. They were good dancing songs.
Philippe gave me the finger.
I returned the favor, for I was ready to party along the St. Johns. The meteor lake was for another day or year. I ordered tequilas and told the bartender about Rick’s mistaking Philippe for a woman. The logger bought another round and announced, “I’m not gay.”
“Only blind.” I tossed down the tequila.
“Being blind helps when you’re mating with swampdonkeys.”
“Drunk too for mating with a moose like you.” A woman shouted an inch from my ear. She had a nice smile. “But not the prettiest girl in Maine.
She pointed to Philippe.
He was dancing with a fat woman. Her face was glowing red. She was happy to have a stranger in her arms. I squinted to see if she was Cathy Bates. There was no resemblance and I returned to my beer. None of the woman at the Moose Bar asked me to dance.
I wasn’t their type, but I was good with that, for Fort Kent’s dead of winter was 2200 miles from Miami Beach and I didn’t see anything wrong with humming WHITE CHRISTMAS, for tonight promised that tomorrow would dawn on a good day for sledding, both for me and the prettiest girl in Maine. To purchase THE PRETTIEST GIRL IN MAINE by Peter Nolan Smith on Kindle for $1.99, please go to the following URL