Today a powerboat sank, marking the start of a new tourist season.
It’s Memorial Day, the time of early graduations and the false hopes of baseball fans. It’s the time of the start of summer jobs for teenagers and college students. For the removal of shutters from all of the windows in Fanny Hooe, Northern Michigan, a small town on the edge of Lake Superior, more or less in the middle of nowhere, with dead copper mining, dead ships, deadening stories and the occasional explosion of a liquid propane tank corrupted over the winter.
The small motel and restaurant I own in Fanny Hooe is bleeding money like a slit-open walleye The temperature here rarely rises above sixty-five, roughly the same temperature as my personality, my wife, Tera, says. No one calls me a warm person.
Tera’s like a trapped wolverine here, all snarl and claws, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when she returns to teach school on the mainland, as she calls it, in southern Wisconsin. She is a walking testimony to the power of pharmaceuticals—she’s depressed off meds, moody and explosive, but on meds a stable person and teacher.
Tera will leave me unless I can sell the resort. She threatens it almost daily. I remind her that cords, once raveled together, cannot come unraveled, but she’s not buying it anymore. But what can I do? I’m elbows and knees, tongue tangles and flat speech. I can’t unknot what’s been knotted. I am married to the resort as much as I am to Tera.
I inherited the motel and restaurant from my parents. The Hooe Resort is the collage of a weather-beaten motel and fourteen separate cabins, a restaurant bordering on a diner, and the attached imported goods store crammed with junk, a 1950s throwback, not the 21st century destination, with spa and fine dining and margueritas all around. It is inarticulate, non-sexual, libido-less: resin, sap, glaringly shellacked pine that does not yellow over time so much as turn the brown of rot, darkening the restaurant to the point where noon looks like night—it cheers me, transforming steadily into the caricature of an old, bad inn.
The resort is not really an inheritance. That’s the legal term. My father had allegedly drowned in Lake Superior, his bruised body not found over autumn and winter until it washed up near Ashland, Wisconsin, with several eels attached. My mother chose me to travel to identify the body that day, though I was only seventeen. Lake Superior and its eels had worked the body I witnessed, sores and suction marks and shoulders of blue with almost no flesh on the face. I told the coroner it was my father, but the man had a barrel chest, which my father did not, and short stubby toes, while my father’s were long, slender, and almost elegant.
When I returned from the identification of the body, my mother said that when she died she was giving all the rest of her estate, “estate” being a grand word for a very modest house and one certificate of deposit, to the Order of the Virgin Mary at the local Roman Catholic Church, where she and seven other women appeared to be the last parishioners. My mother reverted to her maiden name of Cooper shortly after my father’s death, and within a week handed me the keys to the resort.
That keyring provided an emotional and sentimental link to my father, a link my father had not given me growing up on the peninsula. I was nearly an orphan — my father inattentive, and my mother consoling herself with bridge, wine, and whatever women did at vespers when they were alone (which by the smell of it, was more wine). The keys represented a desire, even if misplaced, for freedom, the freedom to wander the shores of Lake Superior, fish, boat, spy on people, provoke the dog, kill a rat for a quarter, joke with the college students, and read, read anything –Twain, Hemingway (who had been in Fanny Hooe), the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Popular Science, Time, and a pornographic magazine that Joachim Hester the handyman would leave in the hammock behind his two-room cabin. I was an oafish boy interested in odd things and theatre, though a stunningly bad actor. I had OCD.
The keys were my re-entrance every summer to loneliness, to the beauty of loneliness and to the sadness of loneliness, and truth was, the sadness I relished as much as the beauty. Recapturing that sadness every summer meant that sadness also recaptured me like a boat without oars, caught in the current.
* * *
My father had a self-made plaque in his tiny, cramped office at the resort that named him “Best Business Meddler,” and by “meddler,” my father meant that he had never made a business more successful or less, but had interjected himself into many. At one time Lloyd Langley had been an appliance store owner, a car repair shop owner (though he had known nothing about repairing a car), a copper mine owner, a furniture store owner (which he was at the time of his death), and owner of the resort. Lloyd Langley loved all of the paper and all of the possibilities that mounds of paper meant, piled one on top of the other. Some men and women calculate success by thousands of dollars at the bottom of a column of numbers, but Lloyd Langley judged by how high his accounting records, receipts, and purchase orders stacked.
My father had one avocation—boating. He loved the bracing winds winds off Lake Superior and racing along the shorelines, or at times venturing far out into the lake with just enough gas to get back to shore. He loved to come within the wake of tankers of taconite headed to Lake Michigan and up the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, and then the tankers from Norway and Japan heading into Superior. He liked waving to the seamen. An hour in Lake Superior refreshed him like nothing else, and he would speak about the ships and the men he saw for hours afterward, often wondering what the men were like, what were their stories, what drove them to become long haul seamen, that seemingly lonely and claustrophobic shipboard life, the breach with family and community. “Zest,” he called it, which was what a boat ride provided. Zest was the reason he did not own a small sailboat or a small yacht, but a big powerboat, dual-engines, the prow lifting out of the water and the stern digging in. To me, my father had been out on Lake Superior since I had been born. I received scant attention, and when my father would wave at me dropping off at school, I often had imagined I was like a sailor on a tanker, known no more and no less than a Japanese deckhand seen from one hundred feet away. He often told me my interest in collecting bugs, beetles my specialty, made me a loner, and a loner was only one swerving letter away from a loser. It was meant as provocation, but being hit with it repeatedly was more like a hammer driving a nail below the surface of the wood. Loner. Loser. When my beetle collection won a prize from the library, and it went on display, he came, he saw, he walked without a word.
One of my pleasures at the resort is the Friday night tour of the shoreline of Lake Superior, a tour for the hearty, especially in June. Tera despises the tour.
“You’re like a dog, just like your father,” Tera says. “You just want to be out in the boat and stick out your head and your ridiculous ears and smell or something. You pivot your head so your enormous sunglasses do not blow off and I swear you sniff. It’s hilarious. It’s the only fun thing to do since you won’t let anyone waterski or wake board or God forbid, have any booze on the boat. These Friday night water tours are the butt of every joke on Saturday morning. The only people who like it are nearly embalmed, either from age or they’ve had a few tonics before they get on board.”
* * *
Shipwrecks, Porcupine Mountain, Copper Mining—saying the same thing day after day, summer after summer, to every person on their first day who had already read the literature but needed reassurance. The three phrases have become like a mantra, my form of transcendental meditation, at first numbingly annoying, but then structured with a sublime if boring sweetness.
Not every shipwreck is the Edmund Fitzgerald, a shift in the taconite in high seas and a rogue wave possibly 60 feet high sending 29 men to drown. Some are as simple as a ship overloaded with grain when a free-floating log hit a seam in the metal-clad wood and the ship took on water, could not be unloaded fast enough as the water’s seep became a rush of grain getting out and water getting in.
Or the French minesweepers Inkerman and Cerisoles that sank in 1918 during a blizzard on their initial voyage, killing seventy-eight men. The snow was so thick that the crews could not see each other though just a hundred yards apart. Nothing was ever found of the ships, not flotsam, not jetsam, not a single floating body, as if all contents had been delivered to a freezer that no one would unlock.
Or the coal carrying schooner before the days of weather forecasts, taking off into a nor’easter, two days of struggling with the snow and the freezing rain, turning back, and within a half an hour of the safety of a harbor floundering, men drowning below deck, four able to stay above deck and climb the spars and masts, and later found frozen under a coat of ice a half-inch thick still gripping the only wood still out of the water.
That is where my father is, I yet imagine, in that Lake Superior freezer, with no bacteria to bloat him to the surface, weighted, out of sight and unrecoverable. In my vision, father Lloyd Langley remains in the freezer. I imagine him that morning taking his powerboat into the teeth of a northeast wind, swells about four feet, perhaps passing a tanker or two where the seamen wouldn’t wave and didn’t want you to wave, the wind cutting into their pallid cheeks, everything blue: sky blue, water blue, cheeks blue, hands blue.
Down below them riding on the water in a powerboat stood a middle-aged man who looked deliriously numb, and as the water broke over the boat and the gas ran dry and the little bailing motor cut out, he sat, removed his life jacket, and watched as the back of the boat began to fill, began to sink, and climbed to the front of the boat and sat watching the back of the boat slip under. Quickly the boat went down, without a hiss or bubble, just gulped in as if a great fish had devoured it.
How cold the water must have been, how it could rob you of motion in moments, not water buoyant, but water chained to the sediment at the bottom. Papa Langley would have kept his eyes open, he would have looked, would have looked at death. Perhaps that was what he was waving to.
* * *
I don’t worry about the loss of money, of investment, despite what Tera says. I am preoccupied with it, but no more than she obsesses over getting just right amount of magnesium oxide in the classroom demonstration, inspiring students with a bang but instilling in them a fear of the exploding force.
I am not a miser, a hoarder, nor am I a spender. Her charge that I could run a trial balance or profit and loss statement in my head after looking at the day’s receipts in the cash registers is not only untrue, but has become a cruel fable that passes around anew each summer through the new student hires.
Fact is, the resort hemorrhages money. The maintenance the last several years, new roofs, new HVAC, repaving the parking lots, has eaten up not only the cash left in the business, but left me with a second mortgage on my home, and not enough income to afford both the resort and the home. The resort cannot be sold in its present financial shape. Closing it and selling the land would be more profitable, but would not clear the second mortgage. I am trapped. Just like Papa Lloyd, who had conveniently died when the furniture store had started going under water, so to speak. The insurance policy had paid off the debt on the store and the debt on the resort. Solvency by death.
Tera and I have no children, so posterity does not matter. It does not matter that at one time Tera wanted children, then did not want them and when I did, she did not. There is no posterity here. Everything is dying. Young people do not stay. They go off to college and disappear–the lucky ones anyway.
The churches are dying, and not because of a lack of young believers. They are dying because of a lack of young. No one under the age of fifty attends the Lutheran church, and the Methodist church somehow lucked into the two families with children, but the next youngest parishioner is probably over sixty. The Catholic Church has young druggies, and not many of them, and I suspected they haunt the sanctuary because they adore the icons and candles.
I know the resort will become a ghost town, like a gold mining camp in Alaska, or farming town in North Dakota, where they sell the whole village for a buck just to get someone to save it. That’s what I think my father saw over the horizon of Lake Superior, why it called to him. Fanny Hooe auctioned off. Bypassed. Orphaned. Abandoned. I think my father left the resort as a curse, and as an urgent plea that I do something else with my life other than drown in Hooe.
But I can’t leave. There is something magnificent about opening up at the start of summer and closing it down at the start of fall, something magnificent about the cheery college students building an essay on their summer vacation with tales of the traveler, booze, weed, random sex, and boredom without end, and something magnificent about becoming their counselor and almost friend. And Lake Superior itself is magnificent, the wind like the cold murmurs at vespers, water churning white waves on top and complete stillness at the bottom.
* * *
Evening comes. Tera wants to take her Memorial Day rinse in Lake Superior, a ritual immersion in the cold water that she says braces her for what is ahead in the summer.
She strikes out quickly, nattering away, and then about fifty feet from shore, starts yelling she has a cramp. Then she goes under. For seconds.
When she comes up, she does not shoot up, but bobs, and yells. She’s in trouble.
I do not hesitate entering the water even though dressed in baggy work pants and a sweater. I do not swim to her as much as thrash and I do not look for her, know her voice like a beacon, and know the position of her body like a buoy I can swim to in the dark.
She goes under again, but not far, and I grip her, return to the surface. Her body’s frantic fight does not relent though she is safely borne in my arms.
I tow her to shore like an unruly boat. When I can stand on the rocky bottom, I stand.
She spews water, laughs, then cries, shaking.
I know she will never return to Fanny Hooe.
She kisses me, kisses me so hard it reminds me of steel, a kiss that parallels the cold, obdurate water.
I kiss her back, my kiss so soft I feel compromised.
She returns a kiss with an equal softness, and as I hold her, we kiss with such enormous warmth the water, at last, feels tolerable.
In Fanny Hooe, I am an anonymous sailor on a nameless ship passing in the cold.
Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Superior, my father’s body scrapes.
I dip Tera, both to assure her and tease her. I love her.
Life bobs, floats, sometimes rises resilient in the face of death, sometimes needs help to avoid submersion. I do not hold to the masts of a shipwreck. I clutch my wife. I wade ashore. I am leaving Fanny Hooe.
My mother used to ask me after she attended mass, “will you rise with me in the afterlife?”
In my mind I tell my mother I rise in this life, in this life I rise.
Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California and works in mental health. He grew up in Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Superior. He has contributed to Gold Man Review, Bird’s Thumb, Consequence Magazine, and Per Contra.