One-Way Bridge: A Novel

One-Way Bridge: A Novel

by Cathie Pelletier


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Now in paperback, the highly anticipated novel from beloved literary master Cathie Pelletier

Cathie Pelletier draws readers back to the beloved town of Mattagash, a seemingly quiet New England outpost in northern Maine. Yet Mattagash is anything but tranquil. While the people bicker publicly over small-town theft or their neighbors offensive mailboxes, they privately struggle through deeper life issues: scandal, loss, failed ambitions and the scars of war.

Reaching across the vastness of America and into the jungles of Vietnam, The One-Way Bridge is an unforgettable portrait of loneliness, family and community—and the kinds of changes we make for love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402287619
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 10/08/2013
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Cathie Pelletier was born and raised on the banks of the St. John River, at the end of the road in Northern Maine. She is the author of 11 other novels, including The Funeral Makers (NYTBR Notable Book), The Weight of Winter (winner of the New England Book Award) and Running the Bulls (winner of the Paterson Prize for Fiction). As K. C. McKinnon, she has written two novels, both of which became television films. After years of living in Nashville, Tennessee Toronto, Canada and Eastman, Quebec, she has returned to Allagash, Maine and the family homestead where she was born. She is at work on a new novel.

Read an Excerpt



There is something in the northern Maine air that speaks of the first snowfall hours before it arrives. This is the same knowledge that birds find in those minutes before a rainstorm, or the tremor that rabbits feel in their paws before the quake. Snow has a way of talking, if you know how to listen. Billy Thunder, who was from downstate and therefore an outsider, heard it first that autumn.

"If this air had teeth, it would bite," Billy said, as if maybe he were talking to some of the guys at Bert's Lounge in Watertown. But he was standing alone at the upper end of the long and narrow Mattagash bridge, waiting by his mailbox for Orville Craft to arrive with that day's mail. Billy was expecting a shipment from Portland that would be marked DO NOT OPEN UNTIL CHRISTMAS on the outer brown wrapper. But he intended to open it immediately, maybe even smoke some of it.

A wind rose up from the river, caught the invisible current between the bridge's columns, and then swept out from under the ends, a wind ripe with winter. Billy zipped up his jacket, then reached into a pocket for his cigarettes. Being a native of distant Portland gave him the courage to say out loud what everyone else in town feels in their bones but rarely speaks. Get ready for a long stretch of ice-cold white.

No one knows when the first flakes of the year will fall. Sometimes, people are asleep in their warm beds when it happens. Other times, they are putting up firewood for the winter or feeding the dog or getting the mail. No one ever asks why it happens. They know that it does and that it will. When ice crystals in the upper atmosphere grow too heavy, they drop to the earth as snowflakes. If they fall in the night, snowflakes have only the sharp pinpoints of porch lights, those tiny sparks of human lives, to guide them down. But if they fall by day, then inside some warm Mattagash house or standing in a field of dead goldenrods or driving to the store, there is always one person who is first to say, "Look, it's snowing."

That Monday in October it was Billy Thunder, owner of the first mailbox above the one-way bridge, who would have the honor.

"Hurry up, Orville," Billy said. He was about to give up on that day's delivery when he saw the mail car, a blue Ford Taurus, poke its nose onto the opposite end of the bridge, three hundred feet from where Billy stood. At that same moment, Tommy Gifford flew by, so much wind left in his wake that Billy's jacket billowed, beating itself against his body. Tommy was in that black pickup he was so proud of, a truck that rode on four wheels large enough to carry a tractor.

Orville Craft had already driven his mail car a few feet onto the lower end of the bridge when Tommy roared onto the upper end. Orville kept his foot steady on the accelerator pedal. Bridge etiquette was simple. Every driver in town knew the rule well. Even the children in Mattagash knew it, as if they were born with it encoded in their DNA. Whoever drives onto the bridge first has the right-of-way. Because Orville was first, Tommy braked the pickup, threw it into reverse, and backed up. He sat waiting until the mail car drove off the upper end. Then the truck shot onto the bridge in a burst of acceleration. Seconds later, Tommy Gifford had crossed the river and disappeared down the road.

The first mailbox Orville had above the bridge was a new one, erected on a cedar post that past summer. Orville had grown used to seeing Billy Thunder hovering about at the end of the bridge like some kind of Fuller Brush salesman as he waited on the mail car. Tall, with straight, dark hair that grew an inch too far below the ears for most Mattagash men, Billy had a groomed appearance that indicated he hadn't done much heavy lifting in his life. He certainly hadn't done the kind of strenuous woods work that Mattagash males did to make a living. There was too much spring to Billy's step, his arm muscles resembling those that came from a gym, from lifting barbells rather than chainsaws. And the expression on his face spoke of a steady confidence and not the worried look that said prices for lumber might dip again and the bank would be coming to repossess the truck, the kind of worry that brought early wrinkles to a man's face. At twenty-eight years old, carefree and not married, Billy had the kind of personality that made the female species give him a second look when they thought their husbands weren't watching.

Orville was careful not to run over Billy's toes as he pulled up next to the box and put the Ford in park. He reached for the thin stack of letters on the seat beside him, the one with Thunder #46 written on a piece of paper and tucked under the elastic band. He handed Billy his mail, another electric bill the boy had no intention of paying and several Resident and Occupant letters. Orville glanced down at the brown field bordering the river, at the tiny trailer sitting catty-corner to a grove of birch trees, their leaves yellow with autumn. It was more a makeshift camper than a trailer, but Billy Thunder had rented it his first day in town. On his second day, the mailbox had appeared, nailed to its skinny post. It was obvious that Billy Thunder was not one to sit around and wait for the Welcome Wagon.

"Have you done anything toward insulating yourself for the winter?" Orville asked. This was the loaded question that had been circulating the town for days.

"Yup," said Billy. "I bought a fifth of Jack Daniels. Hey, did you see that?" Billy was looking at a wet spot on the hood of Orville's car where something soft had hit, then vanished. "That looked like a fucking snowflake." With a cigarette firm between his lips, he used both hands to sort through the letters. He quit sorting when he felt a soft splat on the top of his hair. "Okay, that was definitely a snowflake. Fuck Almighty, it's still October."

"When was the last time you went to church?" Orville asked. "They do have churches in southern Maine, don't they, along with all them lobsters?"

Most of Mattagash would prefer to deny any ancestral connection to Billy Thunder, but since everyone in Mattagash was related somewhere back on the genealogical road, this wouldn't stand up in a court of law. Why, at a time when he should be looking for a sensible wife, Billy had jumped into a white 1966 Mustang convertible and driven eight hours north looking for his ancestors, as he put it, was good fodder for gossip. And fodder was always welcome in Mattagash, especially if it arrived in time to feed some of the ladies throughout the long winter.

"Nothing else?" Billy asked. He was shivering. "No package?" He watched as Orville turned and rummaged among the boxes on his backseat. "Hurry up, Orville. My balls are like ice cubes."

"If you stay in that camper all winter," Orville said, "they're likely to be snowballs, come spring."

Finding no package addressed to Billy Thunder, Orville turned back around in his seat and put the car in gear. Billy leaned down to the open window and looked into Orville's eyes.

"I bet you'll find it if you look again, Orville," he said. "I know you're a first-class mailman."

"You're kissing the wrong butt, Thunder," said Orville. "I'm not the man who sends the mail. I'm the man who delivers it."

Before Billy could reply, Orville hit the gas pedal and the mail car pulled away. In his rearview mirror, he saw Billy growing tinier, rings of smoke floating above his head as though they might be the gray ghosts of those ancestors he'd come searching for. One thing was obvious: Billy had as much Fennelson in him as he had Thunder. His mother had been born and raised in Mattagash but had disappeared downstate early in her life. She'd married a man named William Thunder, one that Mattagashers had never met and didn't care to, not with a name like that. There had long been talk in town of a Fennelson curse, an affliction carried in the family's genes that had plagued Fennelsons since the first ones arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. But after reasonable discussion over the years, most townsfolk had decided that the stupidity gene played a larger part in the curse than had fate. And now, here was a Fennelson descendant with plans to winter in a flimsy camper next to a windswept river. A betting club had started at the local café, just like the one they had each spring when folks bet on which April day the river will thaw and break free of its ice. Now they were gambling on the day Billy Thunder would either leave the camper voluntarily or an ambulance would back up to the door and take his frozen corpse away, a cigarette propped in its mouth.

As Orville drove from mailbox to mailbox, he kept watch for a large gathering of cars in the driveways of the more social houses. He had assumed there would be a surprise retirement party in the works somewhere. But the women must be getting better at planning their secret events. Or they were emailing each other, for Orville had not seen any signs of party subterfuge. He had just pulled up to Rita and Henry Plunkett's box, ready to deliver the pile of catalogues and magazines that Rita would have to stay up all night for years in order to read, when Billy Thunder zoomed by in the white Mustang. As usual, the car's canvas top was down and Billy was wearing earmuffs. Not long after Billy arrived in Mattagash, the mechanism that put the convertible's top up and down had broken, and now the canvas itself was caught fast in the gears and wouldn't budge. A few sensible men had offered to rip the canvas and raise the top manually, but Billy had refused. "You gotta be crazy." Billy had said. "This is a classic car. I'll drive with the top down until I can get it fixed." Certain that Billy Thunder was the crazy one, the whole town was holding its breath and waiting, what with the days turning so cold that even fur-covered animals were considering hibernation. And then, who but God would be able to find a white car in a snowstorm?

Except for a few newer homes that had sprung up on wooded back roads, most of the houses in Mattagash sat on each side of the main road as it followed the river. This meant most folks had a front window or a back window that could catch at least a small piece of river view, if not a big piece. And it meant Orville's job was all the more pleasant since every mailbox sat along the main road. Orville liked to think of his workday in two parts: the forty-five boxes below the bridge and the fifty-two boxes above the bridge. It was a nice way to break up the monotony of the day, and he had learned the technique from his father, Simon Craft, the previous mailman. Orville was almost fifty when he stopped delivering milk and started delivering letters. He saw in the job a great social act, the kind of work that joined and informed whole and distant communities, even if they didn't want to be joined or informed. In the sixteen years that he had been on the job, he had encountered only one significant thorn. And that's what Orville was thinking as he pulled up in front of #77, three miles above the Mattagash bridge. That, and the fact that it was, indeed, snowing. A few wet flakes were drifting down, disappearing as quickly as they landed.

This mailbox belonged to the Mattagash house with the best view of all, sitting atop a hill as it did, its windows able to see the river in both directions. This was Harold "Harry" Plunkett's house, part wood and part gray stone. Orville put the car in park and reached for the banded stack of mail that said Plunkett #77. He had expected the moose again, since he had gotten the moose for the past three years, ever since the feud first started. This was when Orville Craft refused Harry Plunkett's request for permission to fish at Craft Pond, which lay within easy sight of Orville's little get-away cabin. Since the cabin was a private place where Orville went to read the newspaper, he didn't want Harry intruding every time he had an urge for fresh trout. He figured Harry would understand, but he was wrong. And he realized this the day he drove up to #77 and discovered that Harry's traditional, silver-colored mailbox was gone. In its place was a mailbox shaped like a moose. The wooden antlers, firmly attached to the head with screws, served as the clamp that, when unclamped, would lower the moose's head and open the mailbox. It was into this creature that Orville Craft, as a proud and official mail carrier, was expected to place the United States mail. He had listened as Harry rattled on about how he had seen the moose mailbox at a craft fair in Quebec, Canada, and now he couldn't face life without it. That was the day Orville and Harry quit speaking.

To be exact, Orville quit speaking. For more than three years, he had done what his postal rule book insist he do. He had delivered letters to a sound and acceptable mailbox, with no lewd words or drawings upon its surface. But there was nothing in the book that said he had to have social conversations with his customers. So other than answering a quick postal query, Orville said nothing to Harry. It was the only form of ammunition a mail employee had, unless he grabbed a gun and started shooting. The whole town knew Orville Craft was too meek to go postal. Now, he had one week left to deliver the mail before he would retire. Five more days of Harold Plunkett.

Harry had to know this was Orville's last week. How could he live in Mattagash and not know? That was probably what had fueled him. At least Orville saw it that way as he sat in his mail car, holding a hand on the car's horn. A few seconds later, he saw Harry pulling on a denim jacket as he strolled toward the mailbox, taking his time, using that slow gait of his, knowing it would annoy Orville even more. Harry was still a good-looking man, his dark hair showing enough strands of gray to give him a splash of dignity, unless you saw him through the eyes of his mailman.

"What's all the noise about, Orville?" Harry asked. He was wearing a baseball cap that said Jesus Loves You, But I Don't. "You're gonna scare my moose."

Maybe Orville hadn't spoken much to Harry in three years, but for all those many days, he had practiced as a kind of mantra the things he would say once he retired.

"Oh, I bet you're wondering why I changed my mailbox," Harry said. He bobbed his head at the moose. "This morning I got to thinking. What's the use of owning such a fine-looking animal if I got to sit on my porch and look down at its backside? So I transmuted it. You know, transmute. To change in form, nature, or substance."

Orville felt anger so pure he envisioned being fired for running down a customer with the mail car on his last week before freedom. Harry had probably used a hacksaw and a welder to do the work, for now the moose's head pointed up the hill at Harry's front porch. Its ass, which had become the hinged door, pointed at Orville Craft. Harry Plunkett could have gone to a sensible craft fair in Caribou and bought something for his living room wall, maybe a canoe paddle that had a moose painted on it, art that was perfect for that long narrow space over the sofa. But no, he had gone to Quebec, where everyone is French.

"I'm not gonna stick mail into that," Orville said, the most words he'd spoken to Harry in three years.

"But aren't you the mailman?" Harry asked.

Orville had hated the moose for three years, its mocking dull eyes, its round, black nostrils. He despised everything about it since he'd come to know it well. While it did resemble the real moose Orville had seen drinking water from his pond or swimming the river in front of his house or eating up Meg's fresh garden lettuce, real moose did not have red flags glued to their sides. And now, five blessed days from retirement, the moose was mooning him, and that was more than Orville Craft could take.

With Harry watching, Orville spun the mail car around in the middle of the road. He felt certain there must be a rule against postmen doing police turns, but he didn't care. Three miles later, he flew across the one-way bridge, which was free of any oncoming vehicle. His and Meg's house sat not far from the bridge, but Orville didn't glance in to see if Meg was home yet from grocery shopping. Another five hundred feet past his own mailbox, Orville made a sharp right onto the gravel road that led up to Cell Phone Hill, the only spot in town high enough that cell phones could transmit. He put the car in park and then rummaged in the glove compartment for his cell phone. It was his daughter who had given him that skinny phone for his birthday. All professional postal carriers should have cell phones, Daddy, she had written on his birthday card.

Clicking the phone on, Orville punched the seven numbers he knew would cause a real phone to ring at the post office in neighboring St. Leonard. The office manager, Edwin Beecher, finally answered with his long and annoying "Heeeelllooooo," as if he were the host of a popular game show. Orville explained what was happening at Harold Plunkett's mailbox. He listened for a minute as Ed shuffled through the rule book. Finally, Ed told Orville what he didn't want to hear. Harry's moose mailbox wasn't violating any postal codes or restrictions, so as long as it's sound and acceptable with no lewd words or drawings.

"Blah, blah," Orville said. Ed's voice was tiny, as if the post office itself existed down there in the coils and valleys of the cell phone.

"Come on, Orville, don't be so cantankerous. You only got this week left." Ed was still talking when Orville clicked the phone off.

The little mail car drove back down the gravel road that led up to Cell Phone Hill, taking its time now. But when Orville arrived back at Harry Plunkett's mailbox, Harry was still waiting, a few white snowflakes melting on his cap.

"I've been thinking while you were gone," said Harry. "I believe you're being cantankerous, Orville."

Without a word, Orville reached out, pulled down the moose's hindquarters, and stuffed the mail inside. Two bills and a personal letter. He had done it. He had delivered the mail come rain, come snow, come sleet or hail or moose shit. He put the car into drive, grinding the gears generously. His tires spit some gravel back at Harry as he drove away from the box. In his rearview mirror, he saw Harry run a jacket sleeve across the moose's back, as if petting it for a job well done.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"I loved [The One-Way Bridge]...[Pelletier's] characters, with all of their flaws and synchronicities, are all believable and lovable. I've looked forward to a new book by Cathie for some time and she hasn't disappointed with this one. " - Susan Porter, Maine Coast Book Shop

"Cathie does a wonderful job of capturing [her characters'] moods and loves and losses, and yearnings...Her writing is lovely and so descriptive" - Annie Philbrick, Bank Square Books

Customer Reviews

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The One-Way Bridge: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Engaging read about small town northern life. You may want to pass on this book if earthy language and liberal use of the "F" word is offensive to you.
irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
One of the best novels I have read in a long time. What's more, I think I may have to read it again. This is what I call a 'meaty' novel: one that pulls you in, keeps you sitting up into the wee hours because it is just not possible to put it down--even though you know finishing it will be sad as the experience is over. Pelletier has created a terrifically readable and engaging story of a tiny, isolated, rural Maine town with a cast of characters that not only grabs you right away, but not one of these characters ends up taking us where we think we're going. The anal-retentive/uptight mailman, the 'loser' small-time drug dealer, the long-married housewife fed up with her life and lost dreams, the cranky vet suffering from PTSD, bumbling gangsters, an eccentric former teacher who teaches the town a new word every week by posting it on a sign in her front yard: these are characters you find yourself caring about deeply: even after you think you don't. This is a novel full of eccentricity, humor, tragedy and simply lovely revelations on the nature of love, community connection, family. This is a book I will recommend to everyone as a first rate, repeatable, read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed book First time reading a book by this author and am impressed enough to look at her other works. As another reviewer said, there is some frequent use of the "F" word which doesn't bother me but it might bother other readers. I found the more I read, the harder it was to put the book down. :)
JacksonNH More than 1 year ago
I've been waiting for a return to Matawaska, Cathie Pelletier's tiny town in the Maine woods. Her vision of the world through this village is wonderful and sweet, not syrupy. Her prose and her dialogue come to her as easily fall colors along the one-way bridge.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A down to earth good read almost impossible to put down. Enjoy!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really liked this book. The characters in it are so interesting. I could see this book becoming a Cohen Brothers movie.
me2nc More than 1 year ago
Originally being from Maine, although not the northern tip, I really enjoyed this book. Nice character set-ups and smooth storytelling.
QueenMummy More than 1 year ago
I took a chance on this book because it sounded like something I might like being that it is set in Maine. I do not usually choose books with a comic overtone so I was a bit wary. But I was very pleasantly surprised. I have nothing but New England ancestors and the characters in this novel remind me of the people in my life. It is wry entertaining and also wise! I enjoyed this book immensely and think it is a good read for anyone who wants a break from heavier or darker tomes!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
excellent read. very hard to put down.
MrsO More than 1 year ago
Such a good read. Likeable characters with good hearts and a sense of humor...the best book I have read in awhile.
Jamie03 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I enjoyed this book to the point of when I wasn't reading it, I couldn't wait to go back. The town and the characters are funny and endearing. This book was humorous but it also did have some foul language. The language did not take away from the book for me. It grabbed me on the first page and kept me the whole time. Great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thought this would be fun to read but the constant vulgar talk is disgusting. I am deleting it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Small town, regular folks, great story. The humor is dry, what I always think if as "yankee humor" but smart. Love the characters. Totally thought provoking. The stories of all the different characters seemed real and believable. Love that it ended with everything tied up nice and neat. Read it now...its the right season!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting story of small time gossip and lives that intermingle. what one percieves may not be the true story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I felt as though I lived in this town.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very funny quick read. Did have underlying serious theme
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CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
Mattagash is a small town divided by a one-way bridge.  Everyone in town knows that the first to the one lane bridge has the right away.  The town is divided by this bridge, so every citizen has to use it. The citizens of Mattagash live a typical small town life.  It’s citizens all know each other’s business.  They argue over theft and mailboxes, but secretly struggle through scars of war, scandal, and loss. Cathie Pelletier wrote a great novel where you develop relationships with the character.  I found myself caring about the character and really hoping that they would find the peace or happiness that I truly wanted for each person.  I was charmed and sometimes amused by every character. Orville Craft was my favorite character. He is the town mailman, who is in his last week before retiring.  He seemed to take his job and life very serious and that made me smile.  The drama of him and his use to be friend, Harry, and Harry’s mailbox was so small town.  Having lived in a small town growing up, I know how something as small as a mailbox can be a HUGE deal.  This made me laugh and think back on my younger years with a smile.   The One-Way Bridge is a story of real life.  A story of small town drama, both real and imagined.  This is a great book to sit and read and enjoy getting to know your new friends.