The Bangor Crows
by Jeremy John ParkerThe crows part before our car like a magician pulling back a black and purple satin curtain. Voilà! Our street has been transformed into a garbage dump. The trash cans and recycling bins are on their sides, lids scattered. White and black bags gutted and shredded and torn, their refuse hurled onto the sidewalk, into the street. It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving and the first snow of the year has drizzled away with this morning’s rain and everyone’s tissues and junk mail and cereal boxes have collaged into the mud. Pastel smears of scraped-plate sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce paint the sidewalk.
There’s nowhere to park; the crows have left no stretch of street unpolluted, the neighborhood’s garbage swirled and scattered. The carcasses of yesterday’s turkeys sprawl in lawns like murder victims found days too late by unsuspecting early morning joggers. A solitary crow, massive and black as midnight, its talons perched on a meatless sternum, tears a thick filament of flesh and tendon from its turkey, tilts its head back, and swallows. As I step from the car, it turns toward me, caws, then flies away. He is the king, I think, The King of the Crows. The rest of the murder, having retreated to the tall autumn-bare elm in our side yard, join it and move on to another neighborhood.
With my Bean boots, I kick the muddy garbage from the entrance of our driveway so Mark can park the Subaru. The path to our porch is strewn with other people’s shit. One of my neighbors uses coffee-flavored toothpaste. Another recently bought new Levis. The wad of paper towels might mean a bloody nose or maybe a mishap with the carving knife last night. Someone’s empty birth control clamshell. Ortho Tri-cyclen Lo, the same kind I used to take. When Mark sees it, he says, “I thought you quit the pill?”
I tell him I did and he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move. Eyes flat, he looks, waits, like I haven’t answered him. “I did,” I say, “Almost a year now.” There’s a flush of heat as he moves past me into the house. He’s a big guy, tall, thick, bearlike. He fits in here, in Maine.
When we first moved to Bangor, the elm had been summer lush. One of the neighbors had shouted from his yard, “You can’t put your garbage out until right before the truck comes!” He was a middle-aged well driller with a black Maine Coon that prowled the neighborhood and killed the pigeons at my bird feeder. I didn’t know its name, but thought of it as Bogart. I thought of the man as Bogart’s Daddy. He didn’t explain about the garbage. I thought some town ordinance. Now I know about the crows.
I hadn’t been keen on moving to the town in which Stephen King lives. A lot of his books and stories are set here, like that one with the kid-eating clown. I’ve never been into horror: the latex gore, the corn syrup blood, the jump-scares, and frightened young virgins always running the wrong way, falling, dying. The clown’s name is Pennywise; these are the things you have to know in Bangor. In the books, it’s a loathsome place with some chthonic evil lurking beneath, possessing the morally decrepit, driving them toward vicious murders, manifesting in malevolent creatures. King calls it Derry, but everyone knows it’s Bangor. There’s a van with a Stephen King Tours decal on the side and for eighty bucks it will drive you around Bangor, show you the sites. Where the gay guy was thrown off the bridge in the opening of IT, where the Pet Cemetery is, and past King’s house itself, a gothic Victorian mansion, dried-blood red of course, with wrought-iron fences forged into spiderwebs and gargoyles.
The townspeople are very protective of King. They don’t approach him in public, don’t treat him like a celebrity. But they all know what restaurants he eats at, which gas station he walks to in the middle of the night when he’s writing and needs cigarettes. He moves through the town and the people part around him and there’s a susurrus of relieved whispers in his wake.
In the house, Mark won’t talk to me. He pretends he’s busy, that he has a lecture to write for his Monday class. Mark’s tenure-track at the University of Maine, his dream job in the forestry department. He’s a midwest boy from the Northwoods of Wisconsin, a lumberjack long before hipsters coopted his aesthetic. He’d have lived in a hut deep in some uncharted woodland if I’d let him, grow his beard until it engulfed him like a blanket, a beast occasionally sighted by wandering hunters or lost hikers until he’d grown into a cryptozoological legend, the Maine Hodag, a Katahdin Yeti. And he still might. He spends his summer field season in the boreal forest tracking tree assemblages and coniferous adaptations to retreating glaciers and speaks reverently of passing down his endangered woodsmen’s lore to our future children.
“I’ll make an appointment Monday, okay?” The house is quiet and cold; the heat’s been off all morning. Out of those little wooden pellets. It’s my first winter here and where I’m from, turning a thermostat is how you make heat. This burning of things feels foreign, ancient, barbaric. “Right now,” I plead, “I’ll call right now.”
His calloused fingers turn a page of a textbook and he scribbles a note on yellow legal pad.
We’re supposed to be trying for a baby. I’m not working, just finishing my dissertation. It’s the perfect time, everyone back in Wisconsin said so. We didn’t tell them that in January I’d miscarried in my second month. It’s common, it’s stress, we’re putting on years, almost thirty-five, Mark and I. Verily, love is death, and death is life to come. But our friends were so excited for us, for me. You’ll have nothing to do but write, research, puke in the mornings, and get as fat as you’d like, my friend Carrie said. She and her husband had two kids while in grad school and I never figured out how they managed it all. But, now, in this new place, I had been ready to try again. Then Derry happened.
Just before Independence Day, Mark and I’d gone to the dentist, and like most businesses here, the dentist was in a converted Victorian house, full of aches and creaks in its blonde hardwood floors and poorly-repaired cracks in its horsehair plaster. After the x-rays and pleasantries, the dentist, this wrinkled, white-haired man with beady eyes behind a pair of Pince-nez, said, “You have magnificent teeth.” He moved the little mirror in my mouth, humming a little dirge, and took a look at my wisdoms just crowning their gums. “Especially for Maine,” he added.
“Oh, I’m not from here. We just moved,” I said, “from Wisconsin.”
“Been here all my life,” he said, and brusquely pushed the light aside. “You’re done here.”
When the hygienist came back in, I asked her what he’d meant. “There’s . . .” she hesitated, looking around, “. . . a lot of poverty and stuff.”
Then, later, my primary care provider said the same thing, that I was in great health, comparatively. She wasn’t from here either. She lowered her voice and said, “My theory, it was the mills. Toxins in the groundwater.” I began calculating the increased odds of another miscarriage.
So my summer was spent in Bangor’s red brick Gothic-revival library, researching the environmental history of this town, reading Stephen King books for the first time in my life, and ignoring my dissertation. That trifecta conspired to prevent Mark and my’s baby-making.
Bangor wasn’t even supposed to be called Bangor. When the first couple hundred settlers decided to incorporate, back when Maine was part of Massachusetts, they’d named the town Sunbury. But the reverend they’d sent to Boston, while waiting in line to file the petition, began to hum “Bangor,” a hymn which meant “high choir” in Welsh. When asked the name of the town, he somehow thought they’d asked what he was humming, and said, of course, “Bangor.” He never corrected the court and Sunbury was lost. The lyrics of that cursed hymn failed to stave my encroaching superstitions:
Hark! From the tomb a doleful sound,
My ears attend the cry.
“Ye living men, come view the ground
Where you must shortly lie.”
“Kings, this clay must be your bed,
In spite of all your towers,
The tall, the wise, the reverend head,
Must lie as low as ours.”
Grant us the power of quickening grace,
To fit our souls to fly.
Then, when we drop this dying flesh,
We’ll rise above the sky.
My doctor had been right about the mills. At one point, there were over 300 mills in town, the Lumber Capitol of the World, it was called. And all of them dumped their chemicals and waste into the Penobscot River. King had called it The Canals where the river narrowed as it passed through downtown before heading out toward the Atlantic. Arsenic, lead, and mercury have contaminated the groundwater, all linked to poor health and bad teeth and birth defects. So I began buying bottled water—to cook, to brush teeth, to wash dishes—even pinching my lips tight when I showered, then toweling off fast. Or was it King’s explanation in his stories, that some evil lurks beneath the town, something dark below the abandoned, burned-out Kitchener Iron Works that corrupts people, an invasive weed burrowing its way through the psychic cracks in broken people.
It was difficult to keep the supernatural from overruling the objective. I’d be reading in the library, looking through the massive leaded windows cased in stone arches, looking over downtown Bangor, over The Canal, over the bridge across the Kenduskeag, while I read studies in the New England Journal of Medicine regarding the effect of mercury in fetal brain development, and a murder of crows would black out the window for a moment before landing in a chattering cloud upon the oxidized green copper roof of the library.
The first time I saw Stephen King in person was a local performance of a musical he’d written. It was our “date night” and Mark had just gotten back from two weeks up near Baxter. He’d be heading out in a couple days for another research trip into the Longfellow Mountains and I’d be alone again, so we planned an evening of dinner, drinks, the theatre, and everything else date night implies. The music was by T. Bone Burnett, the lyrics by John Mellencamp, story by King. It was a dark thing—imagine!—about brotherly rivalry, family secrets, and the inevitable repetition of history.
In the end, just when it seemed like everyone was going to be fine, the devil showed up and convinced a woman to be uncharacteristically jealous and, frankly, insane, which tripped some Rube Goldbergian set of emotional triggers and everyone, who moments earlier had been centimeters from joy, transformed into either murderers or the murdered. It made no sense whatsoever. But when King himself appeared on stage with the cast, the theatre rose to astounding applause, cheering for his great tragedy. Perhaps they identified with it in a way I couldn’t. Maybe they all knew what it was like to have Bangor’s devil whispering chaos and murder in their ears in those moments when all seems safe and good.
Mark and I made our way out, quietly—sorry-excuse-me—through the crowd. We got home and the house was chilly despite the summer humidity of the day. Mark said he was fine, warm, content, but I was cold. He humored me, put a few thin splits of hardwood in the fireplace. Still wet, the wood spit and fizzled, burning up the spring and summer dust from the chain curtain before the fire. When he nuzzled his beard into my neck, when his musk mingled with the smoke in my nose, the usual allure was missing. I didn’t want a child conceived with the thoughts of that devil-possessed girl written into the fabric of its epigenetic memory. Mark left for the Longfellows a couple days later without putting a baby in me.
It was easier to keep Bangor out of me while Mark was gone. He wouldn’t see the bottles of water in the recycling. I refused to buy local, avoided the farmer’s market. I poured over maps of Maine, memorized the nearby towns and avoided produce grown in this cursed valley and meats grazed in this Penobscot watershed. Pre-packaged box meals processed in a Kraft factory in Des Moines, Oscar Meyer hotdogs from a meat plant in Madison, jasmine rice cargo-shipped thousands of miles from Thailand. The further the better. I felt guilty every time I saw the buy local, think global sticker on the hatch of our Subaru. But until I understood what was happening here, I couldn’t let this place into me.
And once Mark came back, when the semester started, there were only so many excuses. We’d never been those people, and when we got married (on a farm, in a barn: rural-kitsch romantic!) we said we’d never be those cold, sexless people. But I feigned headaches or bingewatched Netflix into the wee hours of the morning, waiting until my grizzly bear had fallen asleep. In Wisconsin, we’d drive into the woods, make love in the back of the Subaru; in tents while camping, watching the Milky Way churn above us; in showers, quick, before one of us rushed to campus or the lab. But in Bangor, I watched myself become a cliché, or rather, it only feels cliché because I was acting from such a familiar script.
When I wasn’t at the library, I was in bed reading, devouring the history of this place. The Great Fire of 1911 that destroyed most of downtown including this very library’s 70,000 volumes. There were shipwrecks and cholera epidemics, bridges that mysteriously collapsed, small pox epidemics, freak tornados, forest fires, and floods, so many floods, train collisions, the Spanish flu. Gangster Al Brady came to his demise here, gunned down outside a bagel joint, a photograph of his bullet-riddled corpse plastered on the front page of the Bangor Daily News. A truck carrying dynamite exploded in town of its own volition.
I wouldn’t go to Mark’s departmental events. When other faculty invited him to their homes for dinners, I said I had nothing in common with them. By extension, Mark heard that I had nothing in common with him. Though we had sex a few times, I always stalled him, redirecting his ejaculations like traffic detours to avoid the birth canal. This was not trying for a baby, not in any sense. He watched me disappear with those scientist eyes, some cautionary tale about how fast a species can adapt, the consequences of when they can’t. He gently inquired toward the shadow where his wife had been, and when that failed to yield a response, he interrogated, insinuated, and finally stated.
“I think you should see someone,” he said, “I think you might be depressed.” He wasn’t looking at me, sitting on the edge of the bed, his head bowed, beard curling into his neck, into his shirt collar. It was the week after Halloween, our favorite holiday, and I hadn’t made a costume, planned a party, or designed a wickedly-devised haunted house, something unheard of since I was eleven. Instead, under my orange-striped blanket in yoga pants and a UW-Milwaukee sweatshirt, on my phone, I was reading a history of Bangor’s Standpipe, a wrought-iron tank that overlooks the city, in which several children had drowned—in reality and King’s fiction.
“I think you might be depressed,” I pantomimed, stalling.
“Goddamnit, Lizzy!” There was my bear, his face angry, silhouetted in the bedroom window, its panes thick and warped with age, the bare elm outside, its limbs making a Medusa of him.
“Sorry, I’m not wife enough for you,” I shouted. “You couldn’t wait to get me up here in the middle of nowhere, barefoot and pregnant.” I was melodramatic, but what should I have said? That I was terrified of groundwater, of our mutant fetus, of Pennywise crawling up from our sewers, terrorizing me with my greatest fear? Was I supposed to tell that to a therapist? A Prozac prescription wasn’t going to burn away the shadow that hovered over this place.
I could see his defense and the litany of my crimes readying themselves on his tongue, behind his teeth, in the autumn-chapped crease of his lips, and I cringed in anticipation of their onslaught when a crow, maybe even a raven, it was so huge, landed on the windowsill behind Mark. Its wings unfolded, stretched, almost showing off, some primal mating display, the underside of its feathers a luminous midnight streaked with hints of turquoise. There was something grey and limp in its talons. It rapped its sharp beak against the glass and a large chip came away and clattered on the sill.
“The fuck?” Mark said, but turned back to me. I couldn’t take my eyes from the crow, this King of the Crows. Mark said, “You’re obviously not fine—” but I threw my phone. It careened past his head and shattered on the window frame as I yelled, “Leave me alone!”
I’d meant the crow, but Mark left me alone. The crow did not stir. It watched, questioningly, for a moment. The crow picked up the arrowhead of glass from the sill in its black beak and flew away into the bright blue sky. I went to the window and there, on the sill, was a small mouse, grey with peach fuzz. It looked almost fetal. I opened the window and the November air was cutting and I moved to flick the mouse off the sill but it twitched and took a slow, shallow breath. I scooped it into my palm and brought it inside. I kept it warm and fed it drops of milk from the tip of my finger. By morning, it had passed. When I went outside to bury the mouse beneath the elm, the crow’s arrowhead of glass was on our front porch, next to the newspaper, glistening with frost.
When Thanksgiving break came around, rather than travel back to Wisconsin to visit our parents, we took a trip to Acadia, to Mount Desert Island, off Maine’s midcoast shore. The tourists had long stopped clogging the arteries of Bar Harbor and the few places still open off-season were cheap. We’d have mountains and beaches and cliffs and quiet. I’m sure Mark saw this as some re-wilding project, to take the floundering species out of its failed habitat and introduce it to an ecosystem to which it was more evolved, an ecological niche in which it could flourish.
We drove the Subaru southwest on Highway 1A toward Bar Harbor, and the flat land and thin forests of the Penobscot Valley gave way to rolling hills and thrusts of subterranean stone, thick boreal forests, and shining lakes. As soon as we crossed the bridge onto Mount Desert Island, the towering cumulus cloud that had hung over me since June cracked a final thunder and devolved into insubstantial cirrus. Mark and I, clad in our hiking boots and microfleece windbreakers and goose down vests, climbed the bare ridge up Cadillac Mountain, past scrub pines and hidden mountaintop lakes. Deep in the woods, we stumbled past the largest tom I’d ever seen and his harem of hens, a lucky family who’d survive the coming Thanksgiving massacre.
We crested Cadillac just before sunrise, the wind whipping hard, churning in our ears at that altitude, but we didn’t care. It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen since we moved, the sun moving through the waters on the horizon like a leviathan, a jade serpent through the grey Atlantic, moving from cobalt through that whole range of indigo, violet, amethyst, aubergine, byzantium, boysenberry, lavender—colors I swear didn’t know existed until that moment. Fierce are the fires of the universe, and on their daggers hold aloft the bleeding heart of the Earth. On the way back down, we fucked quick and quiet, rutting like wild animals in the forest, off the trail, bundled against the cold. When we got back to the inn on the shore overlooking the Narrows and the Bay of Maine, we made love again and again, fortified by the heat radiating from the fireplace.
We didn’t have anything remotely resembling a Thanksgiving dinner. I ate locally-sourced lobster mac & cheese and sautéed scallops fresh off the boat. I drank water from the tap. And when we left on Friday morning to head home, I felt as if Bangor had never existed, as if maybe it had always been Sunbury, that a chthonic force had never hummed that hymn in a reverend’s ear that fateful day in Boston. And then we turn onto our street, and the murder of crows parts before our car like a curtain.
The second time I see Stephen King is just before Christmas. Like I promised Mark, I’d made the call the day after Thanksgiving and booked an intake appointment with a therapist. There was a long wait and in the interim, Mark and I are hardly talking. I’ve stopped reading Bangor history, stopped with the long visits to the library, no more Stephen King books. And though I don’t walk past his house anymore, eyeing those dark empty windows, I still haven’t acclimated to Bangor. Mark has said he might fly back to Wisconsin to visit his parents for Christmas. There’s no talk of us, just he.
Just up the hill from downtown, Dr. Hynan is located in a squat post-war brick building that shares office space with a plastic surgeon. His dumpling face rests behind horned-rim glasses. His black wingtips sway just above the floor as he kicks his feet in his leather office chair. He seems nice enough. I tell him why I’m there, the not getting out of bed, the depression, the move to New England, not working, no friends, the miscarriage, the fear of trying again.
I don’t mention the supernatural stuff—I don’t want him to think I’m crazy. And I don’t know if I can trust him yet. The people who are from elsewhere seem okay, untouched. But the locals, the Bangor people, they seem to fairly hum with the hymn and I feel like I’m playing spy, looking for IT behind their eyes, while I pretend I don’t know what’s going on. Dr. Hynan says to call him Clark and I do. I tell him about the birth control pills and the crows and Mark thinking I’ve been sabotaging a pregnancy.
Clark says, “Well, were you?”
“Was I what?”
“Lying about taking birth control.” His eyes don’t leave his notepad.
“Are you lying to me now?” He meets my eyes, adjusts his glasses.
“No.” I am not even close to anything that could even be considered a distant evolutionary misstep from amused.
“Because I can’t work with you if you’re going to lie to me.”
“Why would I lie? I came to you.”
“Women lie. Especially about pregnancy. They get used to the attention and when the pregnancy ends, they act out. Miscarriages feign depression; new mothers get the so-called postpartum variety,” he says, voice flat and bored, as if by rote. “But you,” he added, “don’t seem like one of those.”
Dr. Hynan pulls a shiny black pen from his pocket and scratches a script for Zoloft onto a prescription pad and tells me to make a follow-up appointment in a week; he’s willing to, provisionally, take me on as a client and see me weekly. I take the prescription, walk past his secretary without making the appointment, tread carefully down the icy steps to my car, wad up the prescription, and toss it in the back seat.
But I think about Mark and crane back to fetch the paper from amidst weeks worth of Starbucks cups and Wendy’s wrappers. I flatten the little rectangle on my leg, smoothing it with my palm, then drive to the Rite-Aid by Nicky’s Cruisin’ Diner, this Americana greasy spoon with road signs on the walls and defunct pinball machines hanging from the ceiling. It’s supposedly one of Stephen King’s favorite restaurants, where the majority of King sightings takes place. There’s a line at the pharmacy counter. There’s an old woman with blue hair in a pink sweatsuit arguing about her Medicare part D deduction for her insulin. Behind her, another elderly man has turned around to sit in his walker as he thumbs his big phone. Behind him is another tall man with grey hair and long, thin arms like an orangutan.
Then I hear, “Prescription for King,” and there he is, the grey-haired man ahead of me. It’s Stephen King. Waiting for a goddamned prescription.
The pharmacist says hello, sheepishly. He knows but isn’t going to say he knows. “Have you taken Celebrex before?” He has. “Do you have any questions?” He doesn’t.
Then the pharmacist is saying “Next” and King’s loping toward the door and I slap my Zoloft prescription on the counter.
“Fill this please,” I say, watching King. The automatic doors part around him as he heads out to the frosty morning.
“Have you filled a prescription here before?”
“What?” King is rounding the corner toward the parking lot. “Never mind,” I say, snatching up my prescription, and bolt for the doors.
When I catch up to him, he’s opening a car door. “Mr, King, Mr. King,” I say, breathless. His grey eyes are kind and curious and rimmed in thin wire glasses. If he’s annoyed, it doesn’t show on his stubbled face. He smiles wide, with teeth.
“Hi,” he says.
And then I don’t know what to say. I want to tell him everything I didn’t tell Dr. Hynan, about the crows and the evil and the It and the hymn but how could I say all that and not sound like a crazy fan who took his books too seriously. But he was here. He’s made his home in this place. With his money and fame, he could be anywhere, but he’s stayed in Bangor. And suddenly I’m fearful that he’s one of Bangor’s agents as well, that King might start humming that hymn any moment, that he’s made some sort of compact with these forces and maybe by writing about it, he’s spread that evil outside the confines of Bangor, infecting the world with some force that had, until his arrival, been trapped in this valley, beneath this town. But then I remember, that in all of his books, he’s also told us how to defeat it, with love.
As if he can see this all flit across my features, he says, “It’s okay. You want to sit down?” He motions toward the passenger door of his car.
“No, no.” I rub my forehead and eyes like I’ve got a migraine. “I just moved here,” I say. “You raised your family here, right?”
“Mostly,” he says. “Since ’77.” He rubs his cold hands for warmth.
Either it starts snowing, or loose, icy flakes gust down from the roof of the Rite-Aid. “How do you deal with it?” I ask.
“With what, dear?”
“It. All of it. The poverty, I guess, the toxins in the water.” I want to say but I don’t want to say and I feel myself dancing around it. “The crows,” I laugh.
“What did the crows bring you?”
“A mouse,” I said, “but it died.” I hold the shard of glass in my palm. “And this.”
King picks it from my hand, his fingers cold and soft. He examines it, flicking the edge with his thumb, testing its sharpness. “May I keep this?”
I don’t say anything, but watch his face.
“I never understood why people think the crows are a nuisance,” he says. “They’re like messengers of the gods, bringing gifts, taking offerings. Little black Hermes’.”
“Then,” I say, “I should probably keep that.”
“Right, right,” he says, handing back the glass. “What are you going to offer it in return?”
Suddenly, feeling very macabre, I say, “My first born.”
We share a laugh and he begs off—the cold, the wife, et cetera, and drives away, a pleasure to meet me. “Welcome,” he says from his window, “to Bangor.”
Image Credit: Denis Santerre, on Wikipedia Commons. Image has been cropped and altered with a cover overlay.