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Produce department. Photo by the author

The Pine Tree Market sits between the newsstand and a Lilly Pulitzer dress shop on Main Street, Northeast Harbor. Its green awning offers shade from the weak sun and shelter from the soft persistent rains that wrap the Maine islands from June through August. Fog settles thickly in the harbor below the town, sometimes for weeks. The fancy yachts come in, pick up a mooring and send their crew up the street to buy more liquor and the niceties that yachting people are fond of: goose liver pate, hearts of palm, expensive soft cheeses. The Pine Tree is the only market in town, serving a modest year-round population and wealthy summer residents, along with the yachting folks. It’s an old building with large windows facing the street, high ceilings and wooden floors worn into grooves at the front and back doors and in the meat department. The cash registers, when I worked there, were the old-fashioned kind with scrollwork and typewriter-style buttons that you might see in a western saloon.

Mary and Henry Jordan owned the Pine Tree back then. Mary was a short, plump woman who wore her black hair tied back in a ponytail that released wisp after wisp as the day wore on. Her day ended well after dark, and by then the ponytail would be all but gone. She ran everywhere. I have never met anyone who worked as fiercely as she did. She made all the decisions so it was she who hired me when I found myself at the door of that establishment one June, looking for a summer job.

Her husband Henry was unlike her. He was easygoing to a fault and loved to stop you on your way somewhere, especially when a demanding customer was at the front of the store complaining of wilted basil and you were running ragged to sweep the imperfection away. “How ah yuh, deah?” he’d say, putting his giant hand out to lightly grip your arm. His Maine accent was strong but not as strong as Frenchie’s. Frenchie stocked shelves, unloaded trucks, kept Henry company and repaired the VW buses we used as delivery vehicles, though he did not drive them. He was a small wiry man, French Canadian. His uniform even on the hottest days was a pair of old leather work boots and a thick belt tightened to an impossible degree around heavy woolen trousers. He had a fox’s pointy face and doused his hair with brilliantine. We seldom spoke to one another but every now and then, when Eddy the butcher put out little pieces of rotisserie meat for us employees who never had time for lunch, Frenchie would find me in the cellar where most of the shelf-stocking originated, and hand me a paper towel covered in tasty beef scraps. He'd duck his head in a wild kind of embarrassment then climb back upstairs.

I spent the first month of my employment as a shelf-stocker, moved on to the cash register and from there to deliveries. Deliveries, no question, was the apex of my Pine Tree career. For one thing, I learned how to drive those cranky old VW buses. Their stick shift was wobbly and unreliable and the brake and clutch pedals often fell right off. I’d be taking a particularly hairy corner along Sargent Drive, a winding scenic route with a view of the ocean, and suddenly the brake pedal would thump to the floor.

More often, though, human error not mechanical glitches got me in trouble. I had a license but little driving experience to go with it, and the market often got calls from irate customers whose gardeners complained I intentionally popped wheelies in their freshly raked gravel driveways. In fact, I was simply trying to manage first gear. Or Mrs. Rockefeller/Mrs. Peabody/Mrs. Astor would call and say I’d breached etiquette by arriving with my sacks of groceries at the front door instead of the back. I was innocent of any intentional harm—back doors, the “service entrances,” weren’t always easy to find. But once inside those vaulted kitchens I was greeted by the inspiring smells of cooking as well as the cooks themselves. A few were surly and impatient, but most were generous women who invited me to sit down and eat a piece of warm Irish soda bread with butter. “Don’t eat so fast,” they’d say, knowing I was a summer stray, a dog of the street. I was a wild thing watching the door, in need of nourishment yet wary of it, gulping her food and skittering out again to climb in the bus and get that gallon of melting ice cream to Miss Frick and Madame Yourcenar’s house.

I worked two summers at the Pine Tree then passed on the job to my cousin, Anne, whose career there evolved much as mine had, from shelf-stocking to deliveries. I learned from anonymous sources that her driving skills were worse than mine. Never mind, we were briefly a Grocery Guild of two. After my second summer at the market I had a kind of breakdown, left college, lived in a boarding house across the street from the Pine Tree and tried to get hired as a carpenter, a set of skills I didn’t have. Then for a time in the dead of winter I moved to a room above the market where I sanded the floors for Mary and Henry in exchange for rent. It was as if the place had a hold on me I couldn’t shake, had given me an identity I was afraid of or unable to lose. I was a member of the Grocery Guild, after all. I knew what kind of after-dinner mints Mrs. Rockefeller/Peabody/Astor preferred. I knew the cooks and their kindness. I knew the VW bus and its quirks. I was useful. I knew how to quell disturbed waters at the front of the store and stock shelves in the cellar. I liked my co-workers. I was part of a team. I’d learned how to talk to Frenchie (not too much or too often was the trick). I could pick out a perfect apple. I knew the shelf life of cilantro. I knew that albacore was really just tuna fish. I was someone, and someone specific in a small town at the edge of the sea. I liked to think I was indispensable. I liked to think I was wanted. The rest of the world seemed too wide open and random, indifferent to my presence. A little frightening. A little cruel.

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Margaret Erhart is a writer, teacher, traveler and landlady. Some of her favorite work has been as an artist-in-the-schools in Tuba City, as a firefighter and as a Grand Canyon hiking guide. She is the author of five novels and has published essays in a variety of magazines. To find out more about her work, take a look at www.margareterhart.com.

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