Eight hours later and an hour outside Portland, Dave Stebbins, who was now driving, raised a food and rest stop issue. It was 4:00 AM. We were three hours from home, but Dave wanted breakfast. Pete Philbrick, still green about the gills, was for getting home as fast as possible, as was I. Sandy Balatanski, the prostitute we'd brought along to provide diversion from the many long hours of drinking and fishing, wanted a break as well. That left the swing vote up to Roy, which, after two unanswered roll calls, each more profane than the other, led to an uncomfortable silence.
In these situations assessing blame is the first thing that has to be taken care of. Yelling and fist pounding is requisite behavior. Since I drove the van on the first leg from the Canadian border down to Bangor, I was deemed responsible.
"The driver's supposed to check. Any asshole knows that. I think it's on the driver's exam for Christ's sake. Your ass is grass on this one, Kendall." That was Pete's viewpoint and, since he was a paralegal, the others quickly took his side.
I fought back rather well. Yes, there are certain responsibilities a driver has. One of them was not drinking back up in Fort Kent while everyone else enjoyed themselves to the fullest. And, speaking of pleasure, I wasn't the one (I was staring at Dave here) whose main focus after we stopped was getting a blow job from Sandy in the last row of seats. I need to insert here that Sandy got a flat two hundred a day plus fifty bucks each time one of us used her services. This was our twelfth year. Sandy had gone with us three times before, one of the gang almost. Last year she had a kid so an older sister took her place. When she mentioned "older" we figured, since Sandy was in her early thirties, her sister might be a few years from that give or take. Try at least fifteen with a rampant yeast infection that lent an ammonia smell to our cabin, who complained about being cold from day one and insisted on wearing a sweatshirt while having sex.
My rebuttal didn't exactly blow Phil's case out of the water. I made some other decent points however, enough for us to come to the realization that each had lost focus when we stopped whether it was food poisoning, sex or, in my case, having spent too much time with these yahoos and wanting to get home as soon as possible.
The next step was to figure out how to handle the situation. Cells phones don't work in the Allagash Wilderness so calling was out, though we tried. Turning around and driving all the way back up there was something to be avoided if we could. Besides, could we even locate where we'd stopped? Sandy helped out with the information that she'd seen a "Moose Crossing" sign. This is similar to saying "look for the third cactus, a large green one, on the right" in any desert, but we were kind enough not to be too sarcastic.
Contacting the state police was brought up. This had issues. I was the only single (legally separated) male in the group. Dave, Pete and, yes, Roy were happily married family men. Their wives were unaware of Sandy or her ilk on our yearly trips. It was suggested that I could tell the cops Sandy and I were married. A decent idea, but Pete felt that, if his wife found out that women were allowed on these expeditions, then she'd want to go next year.
Then there was our evil weed stash. We'd purchased some killer stuff, a year's supply as was our annual tradition so that would have to be driven to a safe location before the cops went sniffing around.
We hashed it out for over an hour at a Denny's. The inescapable conclusion, like that of the engineer on the Titanic who keeps adding the numbers over and over again, putting his pencil down, taking a deep breath before announcing that, "Yes, it's going to sink," was that we needed to call the troopers and, as a token of concern for our buddy, drive all the way back up there.
Dave Stebbins is in real estate and had an afternoon closing. Pete, as I mentioned, worked in a law office and according to him, had urgent legal business to attend to, plus he was sick (although he seemed to handle the Belgian Waffle platter decently enough). I am a substitute high school English teacher so I could miss a day, and Sandy's time was also her own.
A plan was hastily drawn up. Sandy and I were designated to make the return trip. Pete, the spin doctor, would call the cops; Dave would phone Roy's wife, Arlene, and give her a rose-colored glasses picture of the situation. They would keep the van apprised of the situation as long as we were within range of a phone tower. Dave assured us everything was going to work out fine if we stuck together. He even sprang for the check.
I'd used Sandy on three occasions during the week. I slipped her $150 from the ATM outside Jacques. Earlier in the day I brought up the tipping issue with the guys. I was for giving her a bit extra than the standard fifty a throw. Roy was adamantly against it while the other two felt it was a decent gesture but would set a bad precedent, especially if we used her next year. She had a decent face. Her body, however, was losing its natural charm. Having a baby was part of it, but a diet of burgers, pizza, beer and lack of exercise were taking their toll. She didn't hide her vocation. She had to put food on the table; god knows the scumbag who knocked her up never would, as he was long gone. She'd tried working in a nursing home but it depressed her. She'd waitressed at El Camino, but the manager, well over fifty, kept hitting on her. With a dozen fishing and hunting trips lined up each year, she'd carved out a niche market for herself, spring and fall the busy seasons, which gave her enough cash to limp through the winter. Without any prompting she hoped Roy was going to be okay because he owed her over twelve hundred bucks. I nearly drove off the Pike near Lewiston when she said that. "Christ, that's twenty-five times in five days," I said.
"And that's just for the straight sex! There were a few hand jobs I didn't count. I think he was taking those pecker pills; he's getting nothing at home either. His wife doesn't understand him. He really doesn't like fishing either."
It surprised me that someone of Sandy's experience would believe the "my wife doesn't understand me" line. I was going to inquire as to the extent of Pete and Dave's sexual budget but didn't want to let on I was interested. Plus, if she told me, the odds were pretty good that someday she might discuss my bedroom prowess or lack thereof.
"Do you really think he's all right?" She asked.
"I hope so. It's after nine now. It's close to twelve hours since we left him. The sun's up and there is decent weather but it's October. Back home the temperature isn't that bad, but it was below freezing every night we were at the cabin. He's not the woodsman Pete, Dave or I am so that has me worried. He can be flighty at times. If he kept his head and began walking along the road, even though it's a desolate area, something was bound to come along. Walking would keep him warm."
"His jacket is still in the back. I checked when we discovered he was missing." She motioned with her head at the second row of seats and the rumpled New England Patriots pullover he always wore.
"I know; that's what has me worried."
"I bet he thinks you guys left him on purpose and, after a while, you'd come back to laugh it up before treating him to a steak dinner."
"We've played tricks on him; he's played tricks on us, but nothing that ever threatened a life."
"He told me he liked you the best. You didn't made fun of his never going to college. He thought Pete was full of himself and Dave, the wheeler-dealer, looked down on him because he was nothing more than an assistant manager at Elgin Shop-Rite."
"I liked him too. He was sort of a dopey kid brother you have to look out for even though he had a few years on me. It bothers me that we've already begun using the past tense when talking about it."
"I have a bad feeling about all this. How far away are we?"
We'd just passed Augusta so I told her that. We had three hundred more miles to go. I wasn't sleepy, but my back and arms were starting to feel the strain. The van could only do sixty-five without shaking so it would be a long time before I hit the Millinocket exit and hopped onto Route 11 for the final plunge into God's country.
I drove in silence. Sandy drifted off, her chin drooping onto her chest then snapping to attention when I slowed down. I told her it was okay to nap, climb into the next row of seats and get some shut eye, but she said she was alright, just resting her eyes.
Past Bangor my phone beeped. It was Pete asking how I was. I told him I was tried but more than halfway there. He paused. There was no need to hurry. He'd gotten through to the Maine Highway Patrol. They'd found Roy. He was dead. Evidently one of those huge logging trucks had whizzed by him as he walked along the darkened highway. The backwash had sucked him out into the road and a second truck, following in the first one's wake, hit him flush. He probably never knew what happened. He'd been taken to the morgue at Maine Medical in Presque Isle. Did I want the exact address? Someone needs to identify him. There a chance it's not him but . . . ." His voice trailed off.
"Does Arlene know?" I asked.
"Dave's on his way there right now. We created a convincing story which I'll run by you, but we're probably going to go with it anyway."
I think it was Mark Twain who said, When in doubt, tell the truth; it's easier to remember. We've reached a stage in society wherein making excuses and passing the buck has reached a high art form. I told Pete to tell Dave to forget any story; stick to the facts. "If we get arrested or wind up being sued then we'll deal with it."
"That's easy for you to say; you live in an apartment. I could lose my house, my marriage and reputation. Maybe, for enough cash, Sandy could disappear for a while? She and Roy might have been sweet on each other. Although what he saw in her I'll never know. She's our weakest link."
"Go fuck yourself."
I clicked the phone off, rolled the window down and tossed it out. Sandy was wide awake.
"He's dead isn't he?"
"A logging convoy hit him in the dark. We're going to Presque Isle to identify whatever they found. There's a chance . . . ."
She began crying, her sobs steady and rhythmic, hands covering her face, rocking back and forth as she whispered, "Oh God" over and over. It was strangely comforting, musical, like a dirge.
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