A couple of days ago I was showing Maine to a friend from away, which is what they call you in Maine if you were born anywhere else. In fact, they'll say you're from away even if you were born in Maine but your parents weren't. "If the cat gave birth to kittens in the kitchen, you wouldn't call them muffins," they'll say. I was born in Maine, but I'm from away. Still, to my friends who grew up elsewhere, I'm mostly the closest they've been to a Mainer. It's kind of like when I grew up in Maine, Meeting me was the closest many of my real Mainer friends had ever been to meeting a Jew, even though I was really only half Jewish, and the wrong half -- my dad's half -- at that.
My friend and I were standing at the edge of a pier in Portland. He wanted to see the spot where a guy had fallen off and drowned last month. It had been in the news all over New England. The victim had been from away, and was visiting Portland to celebrate his recent completion of grad school. He had disappeared sometime after midnight.
The piers in Portland are dark at night, and precarious. It was midday when my friend and I were taking stock of the situation, and in the sunlight it's clear where not to step, but still, he got the gist of how easy it would be to trip and disappear. The water off the Portland piers is thick, still, and brown. We were peering over the edge when a craggy man called out to us.
"Hey, do you like pollock?"
We looked over. The man was wearing well-worn cut-offs and work boots and nothing else. Maybe socks. With the hand that wasn't holding a fishing pole, he gestured downward to the weathered dock, where a small fish lay gasping for breath.
"Apparently they're expensive now, pollocks, and they serve them in fancy restaurants," he said, and looked at me as if for confirmation. When I was growing up in Maine I never thought I'd end up the kind of person who knew from fish in fancy restaurants, but I did turn out to be that way. I hang out with food writers, very good ones, and sometimes I am one, and I knew that cod prices have been crazy enough lately that a lot of restaurants have been serving pollock instead, even in Massachusetts, where cod is sacred. There's a sculpture in the State House called "The Sacred Cod." I know all this, and he looked at me as if I knew all this.
"They do serve them in fancy restaurants," I said.
"Yut," he said, which is what people from Maine really say more often than the stereotypical "Ayuh," and he offered the fish to us. "Usually I have to decide whether to feed it to the seagulls or to throw it back in," he said. The implication was that we'd be saving him a decision if we accepted the offer, but my friend didn't want the fish. Had I been alone, I probably would have accepted it and then, when the guy wasn't looking, thrown it back in.
"Well," said the man. "I suppose I'll throw it back in."
But instead, he kicked the fish in the head, twice. The second kick was powerful enough to send the fish flying, flopping off the edge of the pier. The water was too murky for us to see whether the fish swam away. I held out hope even though the man's work boots were steel-toed.