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It's December 21, 1979, a Friday, in Catamount, New Hampshire. It's late in the day, windless and cold, bits of snow dropping from a dark, low sky. At this latitude at this time of year, the sun sets at three forty-five, and Catamount, a river town laid north and south between a pair of glacial moraines, settles quickly without twilight into darkness. Light simply gets replaced by cold, and the rest remains the same.
A half foot of old crusty snow has covered the ground since the first week of the month, followed by days and nights of dry cold, so that the snow has merely aged, turning slowly gray in yards and on rooftops and in heaps alongside the streets, pitted and spotted along sidewalks and pathways by dogs and mottled everywhere with candy wrappers, beer cans and crumpled cigarette packs. The parking lots and sidewalks, plowed and salted weeks ago, are the color of ash, so that new snow gently falling comes as a cleansing fresh coat of paint, a whitewash that hides the old, stained and tainted world underneath.
Robert Raymond Dubois (pronounced locally as "Doo-boys"), an oil burner repairman for the Abenaki Oil Company, walks slowly from the squat, dark brick garage where he has parked the company truck, walks hunched over with careful effort, like a man in a blizzard, though snow is falling lightly and there is no wind. He wears a dark blue trooper coat with a far collar, and a black watchcap. In one hand he carries a black lunchbox, in the other an envelope containing his weekly paycheck, one hundred thirty-seven dollars and forty-four cents.
Dubois thinks, A man reaches thirty, and he works at a trade for eight years for the same company, even goes to oil burner school nights for a year, and he stays honest, he doesn't sneak copper tubing or tools into his car at night, he doesn't put in for time he didn't work, he doesn't drink on the job-a man does his work, does it for eight long years, and for that he gets to take home to his wife and two kids a weekly paycheck for one hundred thirty-seven dollars and forty-four cents. Dirt money. Chump change. Money gone before it's got. No money at all. Bob does not think it, but he knows that soon the man stops smiling so easily, and when he does smile, it's close to a sneer. And what he once was grateful for, a job, a wife, kids, a house, he comes to regard as a burden, a weight that pulls his chin slowly to his chest, and because he was grateful once, he feels foolish now, cheated somehow by himself.
Dubois parks his car on Depot Street facing downhill toward the river and tight to the tailgate of a salt-covered pickup truck. It's snowing harder now, steadily and in large, soft flakes, and the street is slick and white. Black footprints follow him across the street to a brick building where there are apartments in the upper two stories and a used clothing store, a paint store and a bar at street level, and he enters the bar, Irwin's Restaurant and Lounge. The restaurant is in front, a long, narrow room the size of a railroad car, filled with bright green plastic-covered booths and Formica-topped tables. The room is brightly lit and deserted, but in back, through an archway, the bar is dark and crowded.
The bartender, a muscular woman in her mid-fifties with a beer-barrel body and a large, hard, lipsticked mouth and a mass of bleached blond hair arranged carefully to resemble a five-and-dime wig, greets Dubois and shoves an opened bottle of Schlitz across the wet bar to him. Her name, unbelievably, is Pearl, and she is Irwin's help. In a year Irwin will die of a heart attack and Pearl will buy out his estate and will finally own the business she has run for decades.
These northern New England milltown bars are like Irish pubs. In a community closed in by weather and geography, where the men work at jobs and the women work at home and raise children and there's never enough money, the men and the women tend to feel angry toward one another much of the time, especially in the evenings when the work is done and the children are sleeping and nothing seems improved over yesterday. It's an unhappy solution to the problem, that men and women should take pleasure in the absence of their mates, but here it's a necessary one, for otherwise they would beat and maim and kill one another even more than they do.
Dubois is sitting at a small table in a shadowed corner of the bar, talking slowly in a low voice to a woman in her mid-thirties. Her name is Doris Cleeve. Twice divorced from brutal young men by the time she was twenty-eight, Doris has nursed her hurt ever since with alcohol and the company of men married to someone else. She is confused about where to go, what to do with her life now, and as a result, she plays her earlier life, her marriages and divorces, over and over again. As in certain country and western records on the jukebox by the door, Doris's past never fails to move her.
Except for her slightly underslung jaw, which makes her seem pugnacious, she's a pretty woman and not at all pugnacious. She wears her ash blond hair short, stylish for Catamount, and dresses in ski sweaters and slacks, as if she thinks she is petite, though in fact she is . . .Continental Drift. Copyright © by Russell Banks. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Continental Drift by Russell Banks
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