Phil blinked at the bay and spit, and it looked like a glob of noxious amber resin hardening against the brittle grass. With his tongue he pressed the chew down into its comfortable place between his gums and his bottom lip. He groped lazily through his jacket pocket for his keys (a big bunch – like the kind somebody with a lot of doors to open would carry), and when he found them he spun them on his finger twice, catching them in his fist on their second go-around. The breeze off the lake rifled through his hair, which was dark brown and at the stage where his mother would’ve suggested a haircut. He breathed in and climbed into his dirt-colored 1970 Gremlin, coaxed the engine into turning over, and it lurched forward. He took a left on North Whitefish Point Road.
It was one of those days where everything was gray. The water was gray, and the sky was gray, and the gravel was gray, and the people were a little gray, too. Lake Superior stretched out endlessly in a rippling plane toward the horizon, where it crashed and blurred into the bleary autumn sky. Phil pulled his fingers through his hair, habitually, and cranked open the window. He spit. The rainy wind gusted through the open window with such force that it made his eyes water a little. It was one of those winds that was electrifying and cold and felt significant. The date was November 9th, 1975.
He had just come up from Alma that weekend to spend a few weeks with his family in their cabin just south of Paradise, but he had a tendency to overshoot the place, maybe out of absentmindedness, maybe out of sheer self-preservation. His family was loud and sometimes mean, and when they ran out of things to say to each other they’d all start yelling and keep drinking. Back in those days, Whitefish Point was just a point, and there were no museums or flyers or fanny packs or drinking fountains. The old lighthouse was there, paint peeling like bark from a birch, and the old lightkeeper’s quarters. Phil liked to sit on its crumbling stoop and look and get lost in the wind and the whitecaps. Sometimes he smoked a cigarette. Actually, he always smoked a cigarette. Winston 100s.
Phil made accidental eye contact with himself in the rearview mirror, blue eyes on blue eyes. He scratched his knee and reached to twist the dial to turn on the radio; Gordon Lightfoot oozed out of the raspy speakers. Carefree highway, let me slip away. Slip away on you. Let me slip away on you.
His wife, Lee, had stayed home, where her freshly printed undergraduate degree left her working sixty hours a week at two dollars an hour. They’d been married two and a half years, and sometimes it felt like a minute and sometimes it felt like an eternity. She was young and tan and delicate and from the city and did not seem to belong in this place, a place teetering precariously on the border between civility and something wild.
His grandparents had built the cabin in the early 1950s, sending supplies across the still-unconstrained Straights of Mackinac on the drive of the roaring wake of a double-ended ferry. It was a first-generation log house; hand-hewn, Franklin stove, covered porch. It was not beautiful; even when empty it echoed with the pounding, alcoholic battles fought long ago.
Phil pulled his fingers through his hair and cranked the steering wheel toward the head of the sandy two-track. The spitting rain had mottled the surface of the sand, and it looked as if some ancient acne plagued the substrate. He pulled through the preliminary row of red pines at the road’s edge and skidded into a soggy spot next to his father’s yellow Ford F-150. He stepped out onto grass, his boot squeaking against dewy blades. Thumping the pack against the meat of his hand, he slid out a cigarette, his second to last one. He closed his eyes and leaned against the open tailgate of the pickup and the nearly inaudible crinkle of burning tobacco was a relief.
Phil didn’t even open his eyes. He blew smoke up toward the smoke-colored sky. “Dad.”
Ray Barbel set his glass of R&R and water on the tailgate. Like his son, Ray was a sturdy, imposing man who was smart and looked at things critically from under furrowed eyebrows and laughed easily and lived heartily. Unlike his son, he carried a trademark manner of cruelty and an inclination toward violence, which he deployed frequently and without remorse.
Ray picked up the pack of cigarettes. He lit the last one and breathed in, holding it at the filter between his thumb and his index finger. He looked at Phil. “Looks like we’re gonna have one bitch of a storm tonight, eh?”
“Sure feels that way.”
Ray took a drag. “Yep, sure does.” He sauntered back up the driveway in the way proud men do. “I think dinner’s close, Philip.”
“I’ll be in.” Phil finished his cigarette and opened the hatch of the Gremlin. He grabbed the handle of his burnt orange suitcase, sticky with the humidity of the evening. He slung a cooler under his other arm, the melting ice pitching back and forth inside.
He set everything just inside the front door, and stuck his head in. The living room was empty, and the choking haze of the smoke-filled room seemed to smolder in stillness like the aftermath of a battle scene might. He ducked back outside and walked further down the drive, past the house, past the porch. He walked until he reached the edge of the lake, and he knelt down, plunging his fingers deep through the cold layers of sand. Leaning on his buried hands, he looked out at the unsettled water, waves lurching. There was a slate-colored cloud hanging low to the north, dense and murky with rain. “Huh. A bitch of a storm,” he said, to no one at all.