Indian River, Michigan, U.S.A. – October 2012
Many years have passed since I’ve been up this way. This part of Northern Michigan hasn’t changed much since I was a child. It’s still the blue-collar vacation zone. Off the hipster radar. Weatherbeaten relics of kitsch remain. The locals have a name for summer tourists – Fudgies. We were never Fudgies. We were never allowed to eat fudge, and we came up here all year round. Whenever our grandparents wanted to bring us. Only happy memories, here.
I stare out the window as my littlest brother drives along the winding dirt road that leads to the cottage. Rain and wind is expected for the coming days. It’s peak fall foliage weekend. I wanted to see it once more. There’s no place like North America in the autumn. I feel like crap: jet lag fatigue and nasty sinus headache. The liver-stunning dose of Nyquil has had little effect. It’s always like this when I fly against the turn of the earth. Going back in time.
I’m happy that G is talking to me again. There was never complete silence, only monosyllabic conversations and looks of contempt. All of which I probably deserved. I left him and my littlest sister behind when they needed me. Abandonment was a pattern for G: people who doted on him vanished. My father lost his mind, my grandfather died, I ran away. A Big Brother, someone he finally began to trust, just didn’t show up one day. Left him waiting to go to a baseball game. Didn’t even bother to say goodbye. The bright and enthusiastic little boy shut off and retreated into himself.
G turns down the steep driveway and shuts off the van. I step out and stretch my back. His Chihuahuas leap out the door behind me. One, two, three, four. They scurry into the brush and nose around. G punches in the code and unlocks the door. Our brother recently bought the cottage from our grandmother. He has the strongest connection to the place. Billy and I were the ones who came up here most often. Our grandfather built this place himself. While he tinkered away on finishing touches, Billy and I would wander through the woods for hours, accompanied only by my grandparent’s dog. Bigfoot was a Husky/Malamute/wolf breed. His fur was so thick that, if he went into the river, it would soak up water like a sponge and he would get stuck. My grandfather would have to put his waders on, wade into the ice-cold river, and push him back out.
The air is colder inside the cottage than outside. As usual, there’s a light on upstairs when there shouldn’t be. When I mention it, G just smiles. Everyone says that Grandpa is responsible for the electrical disturbances and other manifestations that various people have reported in the years since his death. Lights dimming and brightening, cigarette smoke, footsteps. I’ve been a witness to the most dramatic – heavy footsteps on the inner balcony, window blinds closing on their own, the radio turning on full blast. There were other witnesses – the first time my grandmother put her hands on her hips and scolded, “Floyd!” The second time, one of my friends nearly ran out of the place. I haven’t been able to stay overnight here since. I’m not so sure that it’s him. This phantom is too aggressive. My grandfather was a gentle, quiet man. Billy doesn’t believe any of it. I’m happy that he hasn’t witnessed anything. It would be sad for him to lose his sanctuary, too. As for G, he doesn’t say one way or the other.
He locks the cottage and we head into the woods. The dogs trot ahead of us. It was a very dry summer, people say. The colors just aren’t what they usually are. Maybe out here I’ll finally find the fiery reds and oranges of my memories. We find the bike path that was once a railroad track. It slices through the forest, leading to the secret haven.
G and I have different lifestyles, but similar outlooks on the way the world is. We have bonded over this. He lives in a rural place on the outskirts of a small city. His friends are Native Americans and rednecks. He enjoys picking blueberries and building contraptions of self-sufficiency. But it’s more out of a desire to be independent than fear of cataclysm. He’s too optimistic to be a prepper. I’m relieved to know that he’s more content than I am with the way things are.
I sweep my eyes across the hidden place. The next time I pass this way, I will most likely be in the form of ashes. I will seep into the earth with the rain and rest here for eternity. The forest that encircles us is brown and dull yellow. More faded than my memory could ever be. What I have come for doesn’t exist. Nothing is ever as it was. Every time I come back to Michigan, I feel that less of me remains. I am a specter in people’s memories. My voice gets lost in the chatter of kids, husbands, homes, work dramas. I’ve become an unsettling disturbance in the mundane. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve passed away and just haven’t figured it out yet.
I look over at G. His hair is beginning to thin on top, friar-like. I remember the delightful little boy who was so fascinated by everything about the world. He turns and looks me in the eye. A piercing awareness in his gaze. A nod of acknowledgment. He sees me. As I am.