The Mailboat

The following fragments, documenting my morning commute to and from work, were recorded in piece-meal fashion, and date roughly from June to September of 2013. I was then a resident of Northeast Harbor, Maine, living in a flea-bag apartment above the town general store. I was employed as a small farm-hand, and worked on a nearby island by the name of Little Cranberry. To get to work each morning, I boarded the Sea Queen, a modest vessel owned by Beal & Bunker Co. As it happens, the Beals and the Bunkers both make out pretty well, because it is in fact the only passenger ferry available between Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles. It is referred to exclusively, by the locals, as the Mailboat.

* * *

I am running late, but the mailboat hasn’t yet left. The open-air deck is crowded with sun-burnt construction workers, piles of wood, shopping bags, three quivering dogs, and an open box which appears to be full of frozen fish. I make my way inside, where the majority of passengers are standing up. It has been raining and the seats are drenched. Someone hands me a roll of paper towels, as a helpful suggestion. I sit down, carrying two heavy canvas bags.

The ticket collector approaches, at a slight limp, and I tell him that I’m supposed to go on a charge account.

“Put me on the Fernalds.” I say. He leans closer, and looks confused.

“Which Fernald?”

“Put me on Erin’s account.”

“Which Erin? You mean Aaron?” Having leant increasingly close to me with each question, the left ear of the ticket collector is now practically resting on my lap. To my left, three children are staring at me with dumbly open mouths. They appear to be wearing inflatable torture instruments.

Suddenly, the entire boat is shaken by a resounding thump, and an indignant chorus of passengers shouting out “Jesus Christ!” and “Caheful there!” A load of lumber has just been unceremoniously dropped on the hood of the boat. Three dogs have started barking. The ticket collector is still looking at me. An impatient voice speaks up.

“Just tell Ted you’re working for the Pine Tree Market. He’s hard of hearing.” The speaker, whom I haven’t met, is straining at the leash of his Weimeraner, which is off attempting to sniff at the frozen fish. Ted, apparently satisfied, shuffles on down the row.

To my right, I look over to see a passenger already rifling through one of my canvas bags, which is full of sandwiches. I venture, by way of explanation, “They’re going to Islesford. We sell them at the farm-stand, where I work.” The passenger, who tells me he’s named Lee, grins and continues hungrily rifling through my wares.

“Man but I do love a good turkey-swiss sandwich. You say you sell those? Man but I sure could go for a turkey-swiss.”

The mailboat takes off, swaying.


The mailboat ticket collector, Ted, is pontificating again. The polar ice-caps, he insists, are actually expanding in surface area. He has photos.

Mr. Pyle ostentatiously rolls his eyes, settles more deeply into his seat, and opens the mailboat copy of the Mount Desert Islander. The front page headline reads: Ninety year old lobster-fisherman dives into Atlantic to save grandson, lives.

I hand Lee his turkey-swiss sandwich, as arranged. He hands me a five dollar bill, which I pocket. With great animation, he continues telling his friend why it is that he’ll never again eat another pumpkin pie. I take out a book.

The man sitting to my left cocks his head, and comments upon the selected title. “Renata Adler.” He says, flatly impressed. “Of this one, I approve.” Ben graduated from Swarthmore around twenty years ago, and now owns a small construction company. I’ve gotten to know a lot about his literary taste, these string of mornings. He hates David Foster Wallace. Suspends judgment on Haruki Murikami. Enjoys McCarthy’s westerns.

Sometimes, the mailboat driver listens in on the passenger conversations. He turns the wheel lightly, feet spread, gut protruding. You can tell he is listening because he turns his head, ever so slightly, an unnecessary degree to the left. That, and he’ll sometimes laugh at overheard jokes.


I am standing on the Islesford Dock, lugging two cardboard boxes, waiting, as always, for the mailboat. Once, I heard a woman joke that the mailboat “is so predictably late you could set your watch by it.”

There is one other person waiting besides me, cradling an antiquated wooden pipe. He strikes an imposing figure, bulging slightly at the middle, wearing a yellow rain-jacket, a thick woolen sweater, and a waterproof cap which ties at the chin. His hair is shock white, his beard still yellow. Up and down the length of the dock, he is pacing, or perhaps rather waddling with great dignity.

He introduces himself, firmly, as Robert Pyle, and extends a square hand.

“Nice to meet you,” I say, introducing myself in turn. He requests a surname, which I had omitted. I answer, “I’m not from around here.”

He nods knowingly, again puffing. We both look out at the water, which is rough, and shrouded in white. I ask Mr. Pyle a question.

“Do you know what fog is?”

I ask this in good seriousness, having experienced, for the first time, a strong onset of fog three mornings ago, riding in a roaring Boston whaler, and afterwards having concluded that finding oneself within that cornerless white, suspended and careening forward in a tiny buoyant shell, is an experience that can only be described as an encounter with nothingness itself. Nothingness, which is not at all, as I had always imagined it to be, black.

Mr. Pyle inhales gravely and repeats with a furrowed brow, in a deep voice. “Do I know what fog is?”

I nod earnestly, reassuring him that I mean no disrespect. He exhales. He tells me, learnedly, and with impeccable diction, that fog is a phenomenon which occurs due to a difference in temperature between water and air.

I nod along, silently crestfallen.


There is a small commotion on board when, at 7:28 am, an elderly woman drops her purse into the ocean. Said commotion quickly intensifies into a small panic, because this particular morning, the entire membership of the Tuscon Ladies Red Hat Society is riding the mailboat, on an impending tour of the Cranberry Isles. They’re dressed exclusively in red and purple, feathered, jeweled, and dispersed in pairs between the construction workers, with whom they attempt to express the gravity of the present crisis. “Did you see that?” “Well I never!” “How on Earth!”

The purse is swiftly fished out, by a hooked instrument that would appear specially designed for fishing out the wayward purses of elderly ladies. Evidently havocked, the woman in question takes a seat directly to my right. Grave speculation begins among the membership of the Red Hat Society, concerning where in heavens one might find a bag of dry rice on a mailboat. Alice’s cell-phone is likely drenched. A real damper has been put on the whole expedition.

The construction workers, unperturbed, continue to tiredly drink their coffee.


“What happened to your leg, Ted?” One of the construction workers asks, having just surrendered his ticket. I arch my neck to catch a glimpse of Ted’s leg, which does in fact appear to be mildly cut.

“Oh this thing? Good question. The doctor I’ve been seeing is totally stumped. So what I mean to say is that I really have no firm idea, although I do have a theory.”

Ted is comfortably slouch-backed and bespectacled, standing with his hands in his pockets, between the first and second row of seated passengers. The aisles aboard the mailboat are uncomfortably narrow, such that making sustained eye-contact with Ted, as a seated passenger, is enough to make even the most weathered-looking of the workmen squirm and drop their gaze. But the querying construction worker brought this upon himself. He continues.

“Well then let’s hear it. What’s your theory?” Ted throws back his head and laughs, in anticipation of the punch line.

“Don’t ever go to see a woman doctor.”


“You must get hit on all the time on this stupid mailboat,” Brendon says, this time without his Weimeraner. I roll my eyes.

“Not exactly. If a guy on this boat is staring at me it’s usually because he wants a sandwich.” I toss my head in the general direction of Lee, who grins and waves.

“Nah, watch. You’re the only girl on this boat not married or over one hundred and ten.”

Two weeks later, on the mailboat, I met Brendon’s brother, Gabe. He asked what my book was about. I told him it was about an old Japanese man who can talk to cats. We dated, non-commitally, for about a month.


Ben is agitated this afternoon, and pronounces his words with insistence. "For exactly one week and six days, the food at the Pine Tree Market just hasn't been the same. I'm going to have to talk to Beth. I hope she's doing alright. Maybe she is depressed. Best cook the Pine Tree has ever had. But something for the last one week and six days just hasn’t been right." He proceeds to describe the latest dish, and its unsatisfactorily cooked broccoli.

I interrupt. "Beth was fired exactly one week and six days ago," I approximate. "Their new cook is Joel. He's Dominican. He makes excellent gumbo.”

It occurs to me that I have just, out of compulsion, interrupted the broadcast of the local gossip in order to publicly correct the record. I am mildly horrified. But no one seems to mind.

"I knew it.” Ben continues. “I just knew it. No one can make stuffed pork-chops like Beth." He sighs. "I guess good things just don't last long.”


Deidre Nelms