The Last Story I Couldn’t Tell

Corey was afraid when I met him. Of what, I’m still not really sure. It was not acute, but something more pernicious and subtle, too dark and distant for me to understand. We’d be shoveling snow out on the walkway, the kind that’s coated with ice and weighted like stone, and as we’d approach the last of it, I’d feel his pace begin to slow. Not because he was tired, but to draw out the task just a little bit longer. On the unlucky days when Henry Cove froze over or the weather was too rough for the boat to go out, he’d always find something else to do, chopping wood or tinkering with the motor in his truck, anything he could get his hands on. It didn’t even matter if it needed fixing. Looking back, I think it was the fear that filled him with that busyness. The labor wasn’t so much a search for purpose, or even avoidance, but rather a desire to be set free of that dark thing.

I met Corey because I had a professor with some sage advice. It was the fall of 2016 and he told me a good writer needs two things to tell a story: adventure and solitude. So instead of going back home to Boston for winter break, I went North to find my story. The kind of North where the turnpike won’t bring you, but rather its remote offshoots, the winding roads lined with pines, and oaks, and a crooked mailbox marked with a name but missing a number. I wanted a place where the people too were made of a different stuff, the ones who saw towns like York and Ogunquit, the ones of my childhood summers, as “Northern Massachusetts”. They were the people who would recognize me solely by an absence of exposure to their world, a virgin to that colder cold.

I settled on Winter Harbor for the same reason I chose to go North in the first place, it was as good a place as any. As I drove through its quiet streets and past its closed shops, I felt the emptiness of vacationland like never before. It’s the kind of stillness where only the lobster boats continue to churn ahead of the sun while everything else sleeps quietly in hibernation, waiting for summer and flocks of tourists to break through the fog. I pulled up to the town wharf, where the lobstermen unloaded their traps, looked into their faces, and I knew I was in the right place. 

There was one coffee shop on Main Street that stayed open in the off season. That’s where I found a flier with Corey’s listing for a one room annex connected to his house a few miles outside of town. When I called him, he said I could pay cash and rent monthly. No worries if it was only for 6 weeks. Half up front, half on the back end. It was a good deal, so I took it.

When I pulled down his dirt driveway, I saw what Corey offered resembled a den much more than a house. He was outside in a red sweatshirt chopping wood. A few scattered tires peaked their heads above the snow. I told him why I was in Winter Harbor, what the professor said and the history of Walden Pond, and waited for him to break my spirit in a way that only a lobsterman could, with a clever laugh and a cunning joke. But he just shrugged and started helping me carry my bags in before saying anything at all.

“Writing, huh? As good a way to pass some time as any, I guess.”

He explained that he only had one rule in his house. We’d be sharing common areas and I’d have to pull my own weight. I never really knew what he meant by that, but I tried to help out with the tasks around the house and in the yard as much as I could. Outside of the random assortment of chores, ranging from shoveling and cleaning to building and working on nothing in particular, we generally left each other alone. I’d type away draft after draft on my computer, searching for a story to tell. When I couldn’t find one, I’d scribble a few disjointed thoughts in my notebook or on random pads of paper, littering them throughout the room as one idea came and went, until I got back to the keyboard and started all over again. 

Corey was out of the house and off to the boat by four in the morning. He rarely came back before eight at night. He’d usually just crack a few beers before going to sleep and starting all over again too. After about a month with nothing to show but empty pages, I asked him if I could come out on the boat with him. I guess I was hoping the ocean could provide me with my story. But he said no. 

“The fuck you wanna go out there for? It’s cold as shit and you could get hurt. Worse, you could get someone on my crew hurt.”

He wasn’t angry, but I figured it was best not to push the point. So I dropped it for good, returning to the futility of my writer’s den. Corey continued on with his routine too. I’d only see him during our household chores or opening a beer when he got back home at night. I think he offered me one once, but I can’t remember. There was one night though, after another week of blank pages, when I waited for him to have dinner. It’s the closest thing I can remember to a real conversation.

He asked if I had any luck finding a story and I found myself pouring my heart out to him. He just sat there and listened, grabbing us a couple of beers when he could tell how serious I was. He’d nod his head every once in a while. I told him about the pieces of paper scattered throughout the room, about the failed drafts and deleted starts, the characters that never materialized, and the plots that went nowhere.

 “I only have a week left before I go back,” I said. “And I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

“Nothing to show who?” he replied.

“What do you mean? I want to be a writer. That means I have to write.”

“I know, but it’s not homework, right? There’s no essay you need to turn in or anything like that. So, what’re you trying to prove, kid?” 

“That I can do this. That I have a story to tell,” I said, now somewhat frustrated.

“Shit, what story? A story means you’ve got something to say. And that takes life, brother. So, live your life, not mine, not buried away in some room in the woods, not out on a boat you don’t belong in. You think you’d come up here and magically have a story worth telling? Let me let you in on a little secret. Nobody gives a shit about this place, man. That’s the beauty of it. You want my advice? Take a fuckin’ hint.”

It was the only time Corey got angry with me. But there was no fanfare about it. He eventually just said, “early morning tomorrow,” and finished his beer. He went to bed and that was that. I took the hint.

During our last week together, with my dreams of becoming a writer dashed and spring classes rapidly approaching, I did something I still regret. I went to a pub in town, the kind of place that has only a couple taps but plenty of bourbon and even more musty wood. I nestled up at the bar and started asking some regulars about Corey. I had lived with the man for over a month and I knew nearly nothing about him except that he was in his mid-30s, had a finely trimmed beard, drove a Chevy, and worked on a lobster boat. To my disappointment, the regulars wouldn’t tell me much more either, other than the fact that he wasn’t a local. He had moved to Winter Harbor maybe five years before. But they wouldn’t say anything more and I could tell from their glares that I shouldn’t ask. They weren’t stares of hatred or contempt for the college boy who found his way into their local watering hole so much as a look of defensiveness. Because even though Corey was not born and raised in Winter Harbor either, he had paid his time with some sort of currency that I hadn’t and probably never could. 

I left the bar feeling a unique kind of embarrassment, not that I didn’t belong in their world, but a humiliation of character for betraying Corey’s trust. Corey let me into his home and was the only one in Winter Harbor, or indeed in my life, who never seemed to judge me for my naive sojourn North. He could’ve ridiculed me, or simply laughed me away for my pathetic attempt at adventure and solitude. But he took me into his home and gave me the closest thing I have to a story worth telling. 

A year after leaving Winter Harbor, I graduated and decided a career in fiction may not be as wise as the editorial assistant job I got as a stroke of luck at The Boston Globe. One of my tasks was to sort through the local press clippings to bring story lines to my boss who decides if there’s anything worth looking into for the regional section. That’s how I learned Corey died, a headline in the Portland Press Herald

“Bar Harbor Community Honors Local Veteran.”

There was a picture of a modest sized mourning party in front of St. Margaret’s Catholic Church out on Grindstone Neck. A hearse with American flags on the front bumpers was parked in the foreground. I looked closer and saw a logo on its doors that said “United States Army.” My jaw must have dropped a little when I saw the picture of Corey at the bottom of the fold. He didn’t look as I remembered him. He was wearing a black beret and had some ribbons and badges on his chest that I didn’t recognize. 

For some reason, I wasn’t surprised by the tears. It felt natural to cry. As I scanned the article, every sentence seemed to be a new surprise. It referred to him as “Staff Sergeant” and used words like “distinction” and “courage” when describing his service. I didn’t recognize all of the medals but I knew the big ones. Bronze Star for Valor. Purple Heart. Combat Infantryman Badge. I didn’t know most of the places either. But when I looked up the Pech River Valley in Afghanistan, I saw article after article about fierce fighting and heavy casualties. I learned that he was born in Oakland, California. But it didn’t mention what brought him to Maine or that far North. That remains a mystery to me. Through all of the facts, I couldn’t find the cause of death. I tried the local hospitals and even the coroner’s office. But they couldn’t release any information.

It took me a while to build up the courage, but I eventually asked my boss if we could run Corey’s obituary. When he said no, it wasn’t out of disrespect. It was about column inches and something to do with a fire in Brookline. He patted me on the back and said, “I’m sorry about your friend. Take some time off if you need to.”

If I had any fortitude at that moment, I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer. I would have told my boss that this is a story worth telling and convinced him with prospects about increased circulation in rural areas of New England and the seacoast. Or I would’ve worked extra hours and done the journalism myself by finding a connection to a bigger story, maybe the lack of medical infrastructure in Northern Maine or something about the local VA. I could’ve even pitched the story to my bosses. At the very least, I could have paid the nine bucks for a death notice in The Globe or pushed his obituary to a smaller publication. Or maybe I should’ve gotten out of the newspaper business altogether. In that fantasy, I go back to Winter Harbor to find out what happened to Corey and tell his story myself. But I didn’t do any of those things.

I just said, “thanks, but I didn’t really know him.” 

Photo by Антон Дмитриев on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Cam McMillan

Cam McMillan is an Iraq combat veteran. He lives in Boston with his fiance and their black lab, where he enjoys getting up to Maine as much as possible to be by the ocean.