Beside my house, there is a bay outlined by a grim dirt path. It follows the water in a half-circle away and then back toward the town of Portland, Maine. For six months spanning 2020 and 2021, I follow it, too, my own footprints looping in a distinct, singular path that is somehow still visible at the start of each new day. I can’t escape the feeling I am walking in circles.
On my second night in Portland, I take my dog for a walk. The streets are narrow, their sidewalks made of cobblestones. Summer rentals painted thick coats of blue and yellow dot the hill. The sun peeks out from behind them as it sets, like a tongue pressed against the gaps between teeth. I take a deep breath and inhale October air that’s hard, all salt and peat. I blow out city exhaust and whatever’s left of Chicago, the place I abandoned to move here.
Standing at the bottom of the crooked hill, my eyes adjust to the evening light. I realize I have stepped onto a body. The word flashes in my head like a neon sign; not man, but body. Light carves the image: sitting on the body like it’s a chair is a man. His eyes are red. His hand is wedged in the body’s back pocket, fingering a leather wallet.
I step back and away from the man who is pickpocketing a dead body as if I’ve accidentally rammed a housewife with my shopping cart in the supermarket. Sorry about that! I trip on cobblestones sticking out of the earth like busted tombstones. My dog and I are over the hill, but still, my heart is stamping a sickly rhythm into the side of my neck.
The next morning, a bird wakes me at sunrise. The bird sounds angry, like a man screaming. No words, just the same robotic shriek, over and over. It stops eventually or I can’t hear it anymore, like when you say a word so many times it becomes meaningless.
On the day Biden wins the presidency, a man aims his penis and a stream of piss at me. Do you mind if I just get through here? I ask him, pointing at my front door. He takes his time pulling a crusty black shirt and thinning basketball shorts from his body, stepping out of them carefully like he is in a dressing room and will need to return them to the shop clerk. My hands shake, wet, and I struggle to unlock the door. Inside, my phone chimes twice.
Wish you were here, people are dancing up and down Clark!
I wipe my hands with a towel and sit for a long time in the dark of my living room.
For weeks, I walk around the bay again and again with some inexplicable urgency. I get lost in the tangle of one-way streets between the shoreline and my apartment, on pavement where my footprints don’t stick. Outside a shuttered resource center, a place built to give people somewhere to piss and wash themselves and nothing more, a woman barks at my dog. My dog barks back.
The woman smiles and tips an Atlanta Braves hat at me.
Forgetting where I am, I say, Hey, are you from Atlanta?
Her friend, a tall, thin man, tells me his name is Omar and lights up when I say the word Atlanta. Ahd-lanna. I say it the way we southerners say it, without the t’s so it rattles around dull in the mouth. My dog climbs into the lap of the woman with the baseball cap and Omar tells me he’s from Atlanta, but also parts of Ohio, California, and more recently, Massachusetts.
They ship us everywhere, man, he says, shaking his head. What about you?
Before I can answer, he points at the shelter. They aren’t taking any more tonight but we’re splitting a room in a hotel off the peninsula. If you need a place, we got you.
Omar hands me his phone, he wants me to type my number so he can call and check in on me. One of Omar’s friends cracks a bitter laugh from his perch on the curb, burying his head in crossed arms. I am wearing $300 headphones like an albatross around my neck.
I moved to Portland, Maine (“the other Portland”) to get closer to nature. People who don’t live here keep sending me the same article about Maine’s “ghost trains.” These locomotive shells are a tourist mecca, leftover from the log tramway built in 1902 and abandoned in the woods between me and Canada. At the bottom of the article, I find instructions for how to locate the ghost trains and a list of warnings.
- Do not search for the ghost train before packing extra food and supplies, in case your car breaks down in the woods.
- Do not assume the right of way on logging roads. These roads were built for tractor-trailers to deliver timber to the mill, not for your minivan.
- Bring extra tires,
- watch out for deer,
- avoid mud season
- and only take snowmobiles in winter.
- Don’t expect to be able to use your phone.
I picture the kind of person who might make it through that list of warnings and still go. They stand at the top of the ghost train, run ragged by dead deer and logging trucks and gashes in tires. I am not that kind of person. Later, I am relieved to find an article that skips the list of warnings entirely, choosing its headline: Tourists Die Each Year Looking for the Ghost Train.
In fact, I learn that a lot of people die each year wandering the forests between Northern Maine and Canada. These woods are home to some of the last undiscovered land in North America. On the search for something new, people stumble past rotted trail markers and into snow banks where they freeze to death, alone. I don’t want to die. I stay inside and watch the group of men on the other side of my window smash beer bottles against a door until morning.
My best friend who is a poet and highly superstitious calls out of the blue to warn me that I am living at the concentration of an absurd number of ley lines, a kind of lattice that connects ancient sites all over the world and holds supernatural energy at its intersections. For context, last I checked, the Bermuda Triangle has seven ley lines; Portland, Maine has fourteen.
As she tells me about them, I can feel one skewer my torso. It passes through me and into the people who roam the streets around my apartment: the man who screams like a bird, yes, but also the man who leans against my window with a needle in his arm, the woman who sleeps next to the pizzeria and begs me for shoes.
It passes through the sleepy police station on the corner and the big armored trucks that a cop tells me the city uses to displace drug addicts and drunks away from downtown, so they won’t interfere with Portland’s Bon Appétit reinvention. I feel the line cut through my silent neighbors and the grocery store clerks who won’t look me in the eye, through the tourists bent over their $30 lobster rolls or posing for photos next to lighthouses long gone dark. I can feel it just barely holding us all up like wet denim on a winter clothesline.
A week before Christmas, I finally see the bird that shrieks me awake every morning. He is standing a few feet from my bedroom window. He is a big, sprawling man, with thick arms clinging to his body. He waves them like wings and spills coffee from a white Styrofoam cup onto the smaller man huddled at his feet. The two start to fight, wrap their arms around each other as if they’ve done this a million times. As if pinning one man to the ground means the other one gets his wings. Later, on my walk to the grocery store, I step over three bloody teeth like seeds waiting under my window.
When I finally leave Portland, it’s because I need to go home to Chicago for a surgery. As if the only way to rid myself of this place is to cut it out of my body. I take each box of things from my first-floor apartment to the car parked nearby in elaborate stages that go something like this:
- Lock apartment door.
- Lock building door.
- Unlock car door.
- Arrange box.
- Lock car door.
- Unlock building door.
- Unlock apartment door.
A man on the corner yells at everyone and no one that he has a gun and he’s used it before. He’s circling the car now, laughing at me. I only have a handful of boxes, but it takes me four hours to get them in the car. On my last trip with my last box, I see policemen in riot gear and a crowd forming in front of the convenience store across the street. I hold my breath, I sweep the kitchen. It doesn’t occur to me until later that I’ve been crying.
I am tightening the straps of the bike rack on the back of my rental car when a woman approaches me. She says she’s a case worker for many of the unhoused people living on my street. She says her job is hard and only going to get harder. She tells me about the hotel vouchers the city of Portland has used for years to prop up the local economy during the off-season and get the unhoused population through the winter. She tells me that hotels will no longer accept these vouchers from the community starting in the spring.
But that’s hundreds of people, I say. She nods.
Where will they all go? I ask aloud.
She waves her hands and smiles like a woman on a gameshow. Probably here!
She means my street.
At a rest stop in Ohio, I hand an old man the wallet he left in my bathroom stall. He grins big, thanking me with both hands. He’s from Cincinnati, headed to see family in Louisville. When he asks, I tell him about my dog and the car I’ve filled with everything I own. Back to Chicago, huh? he muses, shaking his head. Can’t imagine how you do it. I watch the news! It just seems so dangerous there.
Eli Harvey is a Chicago-based, southern writer whose fiction and poetry used to echo through storefront theaters and house shows across his city. A graduate of the University of Georgia, Eli has been published in Psychology Today, Crowded Zine, and Hooligan Mag.
Edward Michael Supranowicz is the descendant of Irish, Russian, and Ukrainian immigrants. He grew up on a farm in Appalachia and he has lived in Washington, D.C. and Boston. He studied painting and printmaking at the graduate level. His artwork and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Fish Food, Streetlight, Straylight, Gravel, The Phoenix, and other journals.