Northern Michigan, U.S.A. – June 1982
We scan the treetops for the first signs of the Mackinac Bridge. Billy, Pebby, and I ride with Grandma in her fancy custom van. Grandpa, my mother, Grant, Jessica, and the dogs follow behind in Grandpa’s gray work van. We drive north on I-75, passing billboards that announce famous northern Michigan attractions. Mystery Spot. Call of the Wild. Sea Shell City. We’ve never been to any of these places. We know better than to ask. Grandma told us that they are tourist traps. These billboards have been here for as long as I can remember. The blood red Sea Shell City signs have faded to dusty pink. Man Killing Giant Clam! Free Admission! I used to want to go to these places, because if the signs say that they are exciting, then they must be. Now I know that Grandma is probably right.
Billy and I chant, Sea Shell City. If you say it quickly, it comes out as Sea Shell Shitty. We always do this when we drive up to Mackinaw City. We pretend that it’s an accident. My father always thought that it was funny.
That’s enough, Grandma says.
A long white building appears on the side of the highway.
Billy turns to me. Sea Shell Shitty. His expression is blank.
Sea Shell Shitty, I grit my teeth to keep from laughing. He always wins this contest.
I said that’s enough, you guys. Don’t make me pull over and paddle you.
I see the bridge! Pebby points to the metal posts that appear over the pine forest. I saw it first!
The Mackinaw Bridge is the second-longest suspension bridge in the world, Billy says.
I scowl. I know. You tell us that every time we come up here.
The highway curves and the bridge disappears. I hold my breath until it reappears. Usually, we only go as far as Mackinaw City, but this time we’re going across. My grandparents are taking us on this trip because we need to get away from Auburn and everything that’s happened.
We’re silent as we drive across the bridge. I look down at the hard gray water and then over at Mackinac Island. My father doesn’t know that we’re going to the U.P. For a couple of weeks, we will be safe. When we reach the other side, the knot in my chest doesn’t go away. We’re not far away enough yet.
The CB radio crackles. Grandpa’s voice breaks through. Break one-nine for the Gypsy Lady.
Grandma turns down her country music and picks up the receiver, Ten-four, Silver Dollar. This is Gypsy Lady. Grandpa’s handle is Silver Dollar, because he always wins when he gambles. Grandma’s is Gypsy Lady, because her great-grandmother was a gypsy.
Grant wants to stop at Castle Rock.
Ten-four, Silver Dollar. Over and Out. She veers the car towards the exit ramp.
Castle Rock looms over the parking lot. It’s just a tall, crumbling hunk of limestone. It’s the only tourist trap that we’ve ever visited, because it only costs twenty-five cents to climb to the top. Billy, Pebby, and I race to the top. I win, but I feel nothing inside. We stare at the view of Lake Huron in silence.
The last time we were here, Pebby was a baby. My father dangled her over the safety fence. He snickered while she kicked and squirmed. I squeezed my eyes shut. I kept seeing Pebby slip out of his hands, her crushed little body on the ground far below. It’s not funny, Bill, my mother said. But he didn’t stop until he felt like it.
Before he went crazy, he thought that it was funny to do things that you’re not supposed to do, things that scare people. We always knew that he was joking. Then he heard nothing but the voices. He stopped trying to make us laugh.
Grandma appears a few minutes later, leading Grant by the hand. This is his first time here, so we hang around for a few minutes. We teach him the names of the lakes and Mackinac Island. Before we pile back into the vans, Grandma snaps our photo in front of the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe.
In less than an hour, we arrive at Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The campground is almost empty, because of the cold weather. My grandparents back the vans up against the thick woods. We are completely hidden from the other campers. Bigfoot and Cruncher bound off into the woods.
Grandma hollers, Stay around here, you guys!
The dogs stop, look over at their shoulders at us, and then start nosing through the underbrush.
After we set up camp, Grandpa says that he wants to take us to a special restaurant in the Soo, which is the what local people call Sault Ste. Marie.
The restaurant is called the Antlers. From our table we can look out the windows, across the river, at Canada. Grandpa gives me a quarter for the jukebox. I pick out a country song by Kenny Rogers and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, which is about a shipwreck that happened around here a few years ago.
Every imaginable kind of animal is stuffed and hanging from the walls. Grant squeals and points at each one. That’s a bear! That’s a beaver! That’s a rainbow trout like the one Grandpa caught, but bigger! Look! That fish has fur on it! His orange Kool Aid mustache reaches almost to his eyes. He is Billy with the volume turned up.
My mother smiles as she says, Shh, honey, other people are trying to eat.
What’s that one? he whispers.
Grandpa’s eyes twinkle as he tells Grant about the rare jackalope. Half jack rabbit, half antelope. I think I saw one near the cottage a couple of years ago, but I’m not sure.
Grant’s big brown eyes widen. Really, Grandpa?
We order kiddie cocktails and hamburgers. The restaurant gets louder as we finish our meal. Grandpa says that we can have another kiddie cocktail. Grandma warns us that we better not be bouncing off the walls all night. The cigarette smoke thickens. A sign on the wall says, No minors after 9PM. Billy, Pebby, and I tell knock-knock jokes for Grandpa until Jessica gets fussy and we have to leave.
The next day, we explore the park. I take Jessica from my mother as we walk to the lookout point at Tahquamenon Falls. Grandma walks behind us, filming with her Super 8 movie camera.
Stand up straight, she says to me. There’s nothing to see on the ground.
I once found twenty dollars that way, my mother says. Ever since then I’ve been thankful that I’m shy. She smiles at me.
I scowl, shift Jessica from one hip to the other, and then walk up the path. I don’t need her help.
Grandma snorts. You’re not doing her any favors by telling her that.
It’s hard for her. She’s thirteen years old and still looks like a little girl. The other girls in her class are already developed. High school starts in just a couple of months. She’s always tried so hard to fit in, and she’s so sensitive.
Grandma snorts again. Well, she’ll have to toughen up or she’ll never get anywhere in this world.
I hurry up the path so I don’t have to hear them talk about me anymore. I look down at the new bloomer shorts that my mother sewed for the eighth grade class trip to Cedar Point. They’re white terry cloth and have elastic at the bottom of the legs, around my upper thighs. My mother says that they’re modeled after the bloomers that women used to wear under their long dresses as underwear, but much shorter. She says that they make me look less skinny and that they’re in style. For once, The Clique didn’t seem to notice what I was wearing. It even asked me to play spin the bottle in the back of the bus on the way home. I only spun once, and it landed on Kyle. He grabbed my face and slobbered all over my mouth until I pushed him away. I felt like I was going to throw up. I got up and went to sit by Sally before the others could notice the tears in my eyes and call me a baby. There was no place to wash my face, so I smelled his spit all the way home.
No one in Michigan wears bloomer shorts, no matter what ‘Teen Magazine says. My stomach flutters as I think about high school. What if nobody likes me there, too? I squeeze Jessica tightly. She lays her head on my shoulder. I bury my nose in her downy blonde curls. My little bug.
The root beer colored water shimmers in the sunlight. Look at the pretty water, I whisper in Jessica’s ear. I stare at it until it becomes a river of gold. My head tingles and the rest of the world falls away.
A woman next to me says, It looks so dirty.
Billy’s voice breaks through my daydream. Tannin gives it that color. Tannin comes from tree roots. He stares at her, blinking rapidly.
The woman makes a face at him and walks away. What an odd kid, she says to the man with her.
I close my eyes. My father is schizophrenic. Psychotic. He says that God gave him the permission to kill anyone, even us. I won’t let him kill us.
My mother walks up to me. Everything is going to be okay. She strokes my hair, and then takes Jessica from me. The imprint of her little body is still pressed into my sweatshirt. I wrap my arms around myself to keep the cool air from eating up the warmth.
Nothing is ever going to be okay and I’m not surprised.
**This is an excerpt from my memoir, Wish I Were Here. Except for the family photo, these were all taken sometime in the late 1990’s. The family photo was taken in the summer of 1973 at Castle Rock, during the visit I mention in this memoir. Was it taken before or after he dangled her over the fence? It’s possible that my mother took the photo as a way to get him to stop.**