We're All Related

Published by Brock Clarke

A few years ago, at the beginning of one of my introductory fiction workshops at Bowdoin, my students and I had been talking about the weather—

—about how odd and end-of-days-ish it had been, and one student, a Maine native, said, “Well, as we say in Maine, if you don’t like the weather, then just wait a minute.”

I laughed and told him that in every place I’d lived (New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Massachusetts, even California) people had said the exact same thing about their state’s weather, and that when it came to homespun aphorisms regarding the meteorological, the citizens of Maine were absolutely no different than the citizens of Ohio. The student (hi, Anders!) just looked at me as if I’d told him that his mother was not actually his mother, which of course was my intention.

Which is not to say that Maine isn’t special. But it is to say that the things that are said to be special about Maine are said so often that they end up not seeming so special, so often are they insisted upon.

I’ll tell you what’s special about Maine: Steve, my across-the-street neighbor. This is in Portland. Steve has lived all his life in Portland, is the latest of several generations who have lived all their lives in Portland. Steve is the kind of Maine native who doesn’t get talked about enough. He does not ski. He does not snowmobile. He has no feelings about or experience with blueberries, or lobsters, or island life, or mountain life, or lake life. He has never had a mill close on him, but he did get fired from one once, or maybe he quit, or maybe it was a little of both. He did not go away and come back and realize his lifelong dream of starting a five-star restaurant in a grist mill, nor did he go away and come back and realize his lifelong dream of converting his great-grand-father’s milking shed into a studio where he will paint world-famous watercolor paintings of the fields surrounding what had once been his great-grandfather’s milking shed. 

Steve did not go away, and so there was no need for him to come back. He would not know how to say, or want to say, “You can’t get there from here” in the way Maine natives are expected to say, “You can’t get there from here.”

Instead, Steve sounds like he is a member of a lost tribe that long ago got separated from the rest of its people in Revere, Massachusetts. Steve is an avid smoker of cigarettes, and he is also a committed silk screener of T-shirts, many of them featuring our hero Tom Brady, one of them featuring Tom Brady urinating on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Goodell himself is a part-time Mainer, although I don’t think he’ll be inviting Steve over to his house for dinner any time soon.)

I often run into Steve when he’s outside, smoking, which he refers to as “ripping a butt” (this is what he says: “I’m gonna rip a butt,” even when he’s just a second earlier finished ripping a butt), and about 50 percent of the time, he’ll take out his phone and show me his latest silkscreen design, and about 20 percent of the time, he’ll tell me to hold on, then finishes ripping his butt, runs inside his basement apartment, runs back out, and gives me a Tom Brady T-shirt. I offer to pay him every time, and the only time I’ve ever seen Steve mad is when I’ve offered to pay him for one of his T-shirts.

Finally, I got smart, and the last time that Steve gave me a Tom Brady T-shirt, I told him to hold on, ran inside my house, ran back out, and gave Steve a copy of one of my novels. He took a look at it, smiled widely around his cigarette, and asked, “You wrote this?” I told him I did. “When?” he asked, and I laughed, because I don’t think anyone has ever asked that particular question about one of my books. I told him, “Oh, over the last few years.” “Awesome,” Steve said, and stuck it in his coat pocket. I didn’t expect him to read it; I just wanted him to have it, and I would bet Steve feels the same way about me and his shirts.

But the next time I saw him, a week or so later, he said that his girlfriend had been reading the book aloud to him at night, and that image, and that sentence, made me want to cry. I wonder what Steve would have done if I had cried. I could imagine him patting me on the shoulder, offering me a butt; I could imagine him laughing at me; I could imagine him ignoring me entirely. Lots of things seem possible with Steve, and that’s just one of the reasons I say he’s special.

Anyway, I didn’t cry.

Instead I said, “Awesome,” and waited for Steve to say how much he was liking the book. Instead, Steve asked me where I got my ideas. I told him the truth, which is that I often steal them.

For instance, just that morning, I’d read in the newspaper about a woman, somewhere in central Maine, who’d stolen a safe from a convenience store, but then found, once she’d gotten it out of the store, that she didn’t know how to open it. So she decided to open the safe by running it over with her car. Except it got stuck under her car, and, not knowing what else to do, she decided to drive home with the safe stuck under her car, and that’s how the police found her: by following the trail of scorched pavement the safe had left behind.

“Hey, that was my sister!” Steve said.

“Really?” I said, because it seemed plausible: because there are so few people in Maine, and it also seemed to me that if Steve were to steal a safe, that he might have stolen his the way the woman had stolen hers.

But then Steve laughed, and I realized he was kidding, and that while Anders had made an assumption about what it’s like to live in other places, I’d made one about what it was like to be from this one.

“Sure, Brock,” Steve said. “We’re all related.” Then he patted me on the shoulder, flicked his butt into the street, and then went back into his apartment.

Brock Clarke is A. Leroy Greason Professor of English and chair of the English department. His latest novel is Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?

Pat Corrigan is an artist based in Portland, Maine, who makes paintings, drawings, illustrations, murals, and comics. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.

Bowdoin Magazine Winter 2020 issue


This story first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.