Whaddya do when a villain from your non-fiction book appears at a reading?
Gotta admit, I did a quick double take when I walked on stage for last week’s Brown Bag lecture at the awesome Portland Public Library. Biggest crowd, so far, for a Tough Island reading. Was gonna be a friendly audience, I could tell from the start, because of the laughs and giggles I heard while taking an eye dropper full of tincture as a way to demonstrate to the audience a discreet technique of attaining the wondrous benefits of Maine grown weed. That, in combination with the bowl of organic blueberry ganja I had inhaled just prior to the event, provided me with the wonderful feeling of being both intellectually relaxed and artistically energized simultaneously.
So I was on fire as I launched into some dramatic story-telling about life on Maine’s most remote inhabited island. Forty minutes later, as the reading section of the event grew to a close, I explained how difficult and unfair it must have been to be a woman on Matinicus during the centuries they weren’t allowed on the boats. Then I went on to read an excerpt about my first captain’s wife, Mary-Margaret and the occasion I witnessed when Mary-Margaret messed up dinner big time. The story begins as a humorous tale about a gossip-driven harpy, with a couple of laugh lines that always cracks up a certain type of audience member. But when Mary-Margaret’s food mistake becomes apparent, the mood shifts and Captain Donald explodes with the fury of a nor’easter on a February night and cusses her until he runs out of swears.
At events, I read this selection directly from the book because of the dramatic tension. For the Brown Bag lecture, I took the story one step further. I left the text behind and acted out the next scene from the book, the one depicted on the cover, of Captain Donald getting dragged overboard and me, knife raised, ready to slash and he screams at me, “Don’t you dare cut those friggin’ traps. That’s a hundred friggin' dollars.”
Then I continued with a little more acting and pantomine, resulting in me collapsing, falling to the stage floor, re-playing Captain Donald’s post-near-death-experience. A pause, then I sprang back to my feet. “Any questions?”
The Q&A went well and somehow I ended up telling, for the first time in public, the story of my EPIC FAIL at stand-up comedy, a decade ago, when Lauren Wayne at the State Theatre asked me to be the local opener for the Comedy Central tour featuring Dave Attell, Lewis Black and the late Mitch Hedberg.
(Stupid move, because I’d never done stand-up before, or since, and was motivated by the promise of a hundred dollar check. And at that point in my life, so poor and almost un-employable, greed clouded my judgment and I went on to... someday I’ll tell you that story.)
After the reading, I sat behind a table for the meet and greet. First in line was a lovely older woman from Yarmouth. (I’m constantly amazed by the spectrum of ages that show up for my events.) This lady had already sent me an nice email the week before, and she was telling me about the time her son’s lobster boat sank, only to be saved an SOS via the sternman’s waterproof cell phone, when I saw HER.
(Gonna let you know a little secret. While in public, I may appear to be big, goofy and stoned, but that’s just an act. Under the influence of the sweet ganja, I have catlike reflexes and the omniscient hyper-awareness of a TSA security system. That’s right. Copious amounts of marijuana, coupled with two decades of dodging enemies and old flames, has resulted in the innate ability to spot trouble before it sees me. This super-power has prevented many unwanted surprises and saved my life a couple times.)
So there SHE was, walking toward me, slowly, intent on cutting to the front of the line. Mary-Margaret hadn’t changed much in 20 years. A little more wrinkled, perhaps, but still as gray as I describe her in the book.
She was 100 percent gray. Her short hair. Her sunken eyes. Her skin. The color of cigarette ash. Clothes. Aura. Minivan. All the same dismal hue.
She seemed determined to interrupt the conversation between me and the Yarmouthian, but my new pal wasn’t taking a breath from her tale-telling. Mary-Margaret also seemed a bit confused, like she couldn’t figure out why all these people were waiting in line.
And when the conversation paused for a second, she interrupted.
“DO YOU REMEMBER ME?” she said loudly. But over the chatter of the crowd and post-reading hub-bub, I was the only one who could hear her. “I SAID, DO YOU REMEMBER ME?”
I turned and looked at Mary-Margaret with my mask of non-committal locked in place. Back in the day, I despised her. She made my life hell, because as her husband’s slave, I was her slave too. On many occasions, she drove me to anger and left me with a feeling of powerlessness. She shorted my paycheck, bored me with her petty rancor and insulted me to my face. Two decades, however, softened my hatred. In retrospect, I should have felt more sympathy for her, because of her dickhead husband and tainted water supply. But she’d been such a bitch, it was difficult to see past her meanness.
“DO YOU?” she asked again.
“Yes,” I said, nodding, without showing a single emotion. “Yes, I do.”
Then I turned my attention back to the head of the line and signed the book presented by the happy woman from Yarmouth.
Mary-Margaret stood there, indignant. She wanted a confrontation. Perhaps in her brain, she had envisioned our reunion to be spectacular, with her hurling vitriol and insults. Age, I was sure, hadn’t dulled this viper’s fangs or tongue. But the library’s auditorium wasn’t the right place for a fight, so she walked away and I turned my attention back to the line.
Nice person after nice person talked to me and shared something. Kind words. An island anecdote of their own. Or a question about writing. Because I’m able to compartmentalize, I put Mary-Margaret to the back of the queue.
Until it was time to talk to the final reader in line. The last ones, I’ve found, usually hang around because they want to be unrushed to tell me their story. This kid was no different. He was 18 or so. He’d been into my stuff for awhile and loved it. He too had a Matinicus connection. His great-grandfather had been a lighthouse keeper on Matinicus Rock, an even more remote outpost, six miles to the south of the island.
And his granddad lobstered on Matinicus. Until a dirty rotten thief stole all his traps and ran him off the island. Told me how his grandmother vibrated in anger every time she thought of the bastard who had made their lives miserable.
“Do you know his name?” I asked. “The bad captain.”
“Yeah,” the kid answered. “His name was xxxx xxxx.”
Whoa!! That was Captain Donald’s real name which I changed in Tough Island to protect the guilty and innocent.
“You’re telling me xxxx xxxx stole traps from your grandfather?”
“Yup.” The kid nodded. “That son-of-a-bitch...”
Then it got a little weirder. Another fella, who looked vaguely familiar, approached the table. He too had Matinicus ties. After a while, he told me his name. It was Bob Dyer, a longtime Portland painter whose relatives hailed from several Pen Bay islands. Bob had sat next to Mary-Margaret during the reading. Not that he was pals with her, but he happened to know some of the peeps she’d accompanied to the library.
(A few more minutes of conversation revealed why I recognized Bob. About 18 years ago, along with a bunch of artists and musicians, including some of the fellas from Rustic Overtones, we both rented spaces in 547A Congress, a Portland building filled with studios of high-ceilings and nice light, that became a frat-house for bohemian boys and party-holics.)
Bob had watched Mary-Margaret approach me, say something, then return to her seat, where she told her comrades, smugly, “I just wanted to see the look on his face.”
“Did you know that she was the woman I called Mary-Margaret?”
“What?” Bob said, incredulous.
“Yep.” Then I turned to the young lad. “And she was the wife of xxxx xxxx.”
“What?” the kid said. “She was just here?”
“Wish I'd known,” both fellas said in unison.
We all laughed. What a peculiar situation. I wonder how often a character from a book shows up at a reading, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Tough Island is non-fiction and set in Maine. (And this is the third character that’s appeared at readings in real life, though the other two weren’t villains.) Probably should have predicted the appearance of an adversary. Believe me, I’ll be on the look-out from now on, especially when near the coast.
It’s been almost a week since the reading and I’m still thinking about Mary-Margaret. Can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to be her. What was going through her mind as she sat, anonymous, among the crowd that laughed, then went hushed, while I re-enacted a painful scene from her marriage 20 years earlier?
Thing is, I don’t feel bad in the least bit. No guilt or regret or trauma. I think that’s indicative of my confidence in my version of Matinicus in particular and of Maine in general. Since I’ve been writing books, I’ve been overwhelmed by the compliments and fan mail from those in the know. The haters, and believe me there are many, are prudishly uncomfortable with my realistic perspective and gritty, honest portrayal of some of the folks who live here.
The truth hurts. That old adage silently permeates my story-telling. After two decades of working and living in various locations across the great state of Maine with my eyes wide-open, I’ve come to this realization: This is an amazingly special place to call home, yet the rosy, L.L. Beanesque perspective of the Pine Tree state is fraudulent and phony. So when I tell a story that contradicts pretty pictures of lighthouses and lobsters, the cheerleaders get uncomfortable and wish I’d shut my trap.
Living in Maine ain’t easy. Winter can be harsh and summer is too short. That’s the price we gotta pay for being so close to the sea, the mountains and the meadows. That’s the cost of existing in a world not yet completely paved over and ruined by shopping malls and gated communities.
My Maine may seem a little rough, tough and uncouth. But I’m not interested in the Urban Outfitters version or Martha Stewart’s adaptation. The blood, sweat, tears, laughter and joy that come with existing among trees, tides, lakes, streams and woods is what captivates me. As a storyteller, I need to show the harshness of the struggle of those in the trenches and have to remain true to the reality of life here in Maine. Because our towns, cities, farms and islands are rife with sex, drugs and conflict. Indeed, these are key ingredients to the human experience. Passion, ecstasy and adrenalin make life Down East so much more wondrous and exciting. And real. And I love it, seedy danger and all.
UPDATE JAN.31, 2012 7:15 p.m.
I've just learned from a trusted source that Mary-Margaret is now deaf and wouldn't have heard a word I said.