John Connolly 

The Sisters Strange

A  web exclusive Charlie Parker novella


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The Great Lost Bear was crowded in the way that only the best bars could sometimes be, as though the gods of drinking and socializing had chosen this evening of all evenings to smile upon it.  There was space to move, space to sit, space to speak without being overheard, space to order a drink at the bar, but we were all in sight of one another and a mood of good humor prevailed.  Even Dave Evans – who usually tried to be gone before the evening rush descended on this bar that he’d owned for so long – had stayed late, because sometimes the Bear just felt like the place to be.

            Beyond the Bear’s walls, Portland was changing.  Cities were always in the process of transformation, but maybe I didn’t like the new Portland quite as much as the old.  I wasn’t so foolish as to deny that it was partly a function of age, a desire to hold on to as much of the best of the past as possible because I knew how much had already been lost. Ultimately, we are all descendants of Lot’s wife, unable to resist looking back at what we’ve been forced to leave behind, but in this case it wasn’t the advancing years alone.  I saw locals reacting unhappily as more hotels rose along the waterfront, and they read about the openings of restaurants in which they couldn’t afford to eat.  Cruise ships docked, disgorging blasé passengers who bought T-shirts, fake nautical souvenirs, and maybe a couple of beers in some tourist trap, but weren’t in the market for forty-dollar steaks.  Yet someone was eating in those places.  It just wasn’t me, or anyone I knew.  It felt at times as though the city was being sold out from under us, and when the process was complete we might, if fortunate, be permitted to press our noses against the glass in order to learn how the other half lived.

            But then I could also remember when Portland was less prosperous, and people struggled to make a living amid the decrepit wharfs on Commercial and the empty lots off Congress.  The poor had always struggled, and would continue to struggle, but now they had to hold down two jobs just to stay afloat, and in bad times they drowned.

            Some of this I shared with Dave Evans as we sat in the Bear that night, but it was nothing he hadn’t heard before, or from smarter men.

            “Strange Maine,” said Dave Evans, who was drinking a porter so bitter that some antecedent of it had probably once been offered to Christ on the cross.

            “The store, or the whole state?”

            “The store. That’s the marker, the canary in the coalmine.  When that goes, we can raise a cross above the city that was, and lock the cemetery gates.”

            Strange Maine was at 578 Congress.  It sold old vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, VHS tapes, DVDs, and used Stephen King books alongside ancient gaming consoles and board games so obscure even their creators had forgotten their existence.  It had been around since 2003, but felt like a throwback to a more distant era.  I had no idea how it stayed in business, yet somehow it did.  Every time I passed, I tried to leave some money in the register.  My daughter Sam, who already loved vinyl records and pretty much anything older than she was, thought it one of the coolest places on earth – or in Portland, at least.

            “You know how old we sound?” I said.

            “You started it.”

            “Well, there’s a lot about this city that I’ve begun to miss.”

            Which was when Raum Buker came into view, and I realized there were some things about the city that I hadn’t missed at all.