The winter I was twelve, my father found work as a surveyor and we moved north to the Upper Peninsula, to Sault Ste. Marie. He hated the cold and the deep drifts of snow, but he'd been laid off from Ford's River Rouge plant and needed work wherever he could find it.
We rented a small brown house at the edge of town near the university and on days when he was working, I'd walk up to the locks. I had a pen and a small book that I filled with drawings of ships as they approached—the big ships and the smaller ships that would sneak in before the lock doors closed, the ice breakers, the pleasurecraft, the tugs.
The freighters were most thrilling. The upstream freighters would float in light and high. Days later, they'd return, headed downstream and weighed down by the coal or the ore or the whatever they'd loaded out of the woods lining Lake Superior. Each ship was longer than a football field and sometimes three and the ships coming in heavy and low looked about a foot tall like the men on deck were almost walking on water.
With only a few feet of clearance between the sides of the ships and the sills of the lock, their captains had to be exact. Most times, it was clockwork. The ship centered on the lock, powered in, and tied up. The doors closed. The ship was lowered to the level of Lake Huron, the downstream doors opened, and the freighter powered out, bound for Detroit and other points south and east.
Except one afternoon. A winter storm had rushed in. Wet snow sleeted sideways. It was early in the season for such a strong storm and early in the day to be so dark and white and I could barely see the far side of the Poe Lock from the front railing of the observation platform. My fingers stung frozen inside the gloves my father'd bought to tell me we were moving. All I could hear was wind. I was the only one up there.
And then the beacon lights at the sides of the lock switched on and circled and the lock doors opened for the gray and red-orange of the Walter J. McCarthy, which showed up out of the snow, fast and listing. The superintendent and his men ran out onto the lock walls. They were in their yellow slickers and winter hats and they waved flares toward the entrance in a desperate attempt to lead the ship safely in. There was a gale right as the boat got close. It took the low and leaning ship off line. Someone hit the alarm—raised a horn wail. The captain cut what speed he could and turned. Still, the edge of the boat gashed the south side of the lock chamber. Metal scraped metal and rock sounding a hard cry of the manmade earth so loud I swear the whole town could hear it. The ship slowed quick and the captain got it centered. The crew threw out ropes and tied up and the lock started to empty. The men checked the lock and the ship's starboard side. There was no bad damage. Minutes later, the ship powered up, untied, and left as fast as it had appeared.
As we watched the news that night, I asked my father if he'd ever heard anything like that noise. He was almost passed out in his chair and he twitched when I spoke as if he'd forgotten I was there. He said the only thing close was the grind whenever a factory line started up after a strike or a shutdown, when the machine parts hadn't been cleaned or oiled in too long and the first signs of rust had settled in.
Another afternoon, my father was out on the frozen highway shoulder when a drunk-driven Mercedes crossed the double yellow line and took out his legs and back. He spent three weeks in a coma and another four relearning how to walk. The first thing he said when he woke was that in his sleep he'd seen angels. The next thing he said was that he never heard the car coming.
The guy in the Mercedes swore he braked hard but that the road had already disappeared under him before he could do anything. They settled criminal charges with community service and the Mercedes' insurance company paid a million dollars to avoid a civil suit. My father took all of this—the Mercedes and the angels and the money—as a sign he shouldn't waste time working and should instead have adventures while he can.
That spring, we returned downstate to Detroit and my father bought a boat he said he'd sail around the world. Of course he never did. He sold the boat a year later. But whenever he'd tell the story from the end of the bar he later lived out back of, he called it the luckiest day of his life.
The only house I've ever owned was a huge four-story red-and-gray brick Tudor Revival with a circular drive, a turret, and a grand, ivy-covered entranceway. Our twin sons were two and Melissa and I were trying for a third. We needed the space and were tired of paying rent and also, I guess, we were really hoping for something old we could make new and beautiful again.
The place had been built in the 1920s by an early auto baron at the edge of Indian Village near Belle Isle. Over the years and owner by owner, small problems had gone unfixed. By the time we could afford it, the house was near falling down but still more salvageable than others around us. We found a bargain mortgage and dumped all our savings and everything I made on the couple of contracting jobs I got that year into doing the rehab.
It was a loud first summer. We spent every weekend working on the house—cutting back trees, retiling the roof, hammering out the tin ceilings, repairing the wooden banisters and molding, redoing the bathrooms and the kitchen. As pretty as we could make it, maybe once a month we'd wake up to new graffiti on the driveway or the doorway or the brick. Sometimes a broken window on our Buick. Twice we woke to someone in the house looking for something worth selling. So we added locks and bars, raised the fencing, and left lights on.
After a while, even that wasn't enough. The police, too busy or too overwhelmed, stopped responding to calls. One by one, working people in the neighborhood started to clear out. Houses had stopped selling; they left anyway. Every night there were sirens and fires and we got the sense the whole city was starting to go.
And then six months in, a woman jumped off Belle Isle Bridge near the yacht club. The news said she and her husband had been fighting and he drove her out to the bridge and pushed her out of the car. Instead of running away, she kept yelling after him, spidered the windshield with her purse, and he got out and attacked her. He was a big guy and he pinned her against the guard rail and tore at her face and her clothes. A crowd gathered. Some cheered him on. After minutes of this, the woman escaped over the side. They found her body washed up on the banks of the river the next morning.
When he was arrested, the man argued the woman was high on PCP and the PCP made her irrational. Her fall and her drowning, he claimed, were the result of the angel dust and not the abuse. Ultimately, he was convicted for murder and sentenced to life. The media was less interested in him than the cheering lookers-on, though later it came out that some of the crowd wasn't cheering and a few people even jumped into the river in unsuccessful attempts to save her.
All of this within a mile of our house. We thought about selling or just leaving, but short of pulling a fraud or setting it on fire, there was no way we could figure to make it work.
Some summer days, we'd take the kids out on Lake St. Clair. We'd sail them down the river under the Ambassador Bridge and around the old Boblo Island amusement park and back. The kids weren't alive when Boblo was running and as good as we got at telling the story—the magic of the day, of leaving the car at the dock, boarding the steamer, watching the island approach, riding the rides, and chugging around on the park's scale-model railroad—we couldn't keep their interest.
The boat was a 19-foot Mastercraft, white with red racing stripes, called the Nadine. It belonged to Jim Grot, my best friend from college, who'd made a fortune day-trading in the 90s and was smart enough to sell before the tech bubble burst. He moved all his funds to real estate and bought a house for himself a mile from the lake. He kept the boat, which he rarely used, in drydock. Maybe once a month, I convinced him to let us take it.
Though when real estate turned, so did Jim. I remember sitting with him in his big backyard in the early fall and the air was cold but he had the sprinklers on and he was wearing his beat-up boat shoes and he was halfway through a pack of cigarettes. We took turns pulling from a fifth of vodka, same as in college.
"It's a racket," he said—what he kept saying over and over. "It's a racket." He'd invested with a few other guys in a neighborhood of warehouses on the west side thinking they'd find tenants no problem. The tenants never came and soon the other guys stopped showing up to meetings. "Ever done something so stupid you can't believe it was you?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, though I couldn't think of anything really, other than buying into the city as it died. "Things'll turn up," I said. "They have to." As we talked, he kept looking around the yard, resting his eyes on each manicured bush, each fountain and sculpture, like he was calculating their value.
That was the last I saw of Jim until a six a.m. call for bail the next spring. He'd survived a day on the lake and was headed back home with the Nadine hitched to his truck. Drunk and high on cocaine and maybe other stuff too, he sped through the Grosse Pointes, over the traffic island at Alter Road into the city. Half a mile later, the truck hit a street light. The trailer buckled and the boat launched thirty feet through the air. It landed upside down on the roof of an abandoned wig shop. When the cops eventually showed up, Jim was still in the driver's seat, passed out and bloody, surrounded by shards of a broken gin bottle.
The holding cells were nearly full so they let him go for half the normal bond, which still maxed out my card. Jim seemed sober enough on the drive home and we stopped for a coney. He told me he had no memory of the crash or anything leading up to it. The most recent thing he could remember, he said, was climbing to the roof of one of his west side warehouses a day or two earlier, watching the smokestack haloes and the everburning fires of Zug Island and wondering whose job it was to feed the furnaces inside there and how they could keep all those fires burning alive all at the same time.
Melissa and I scattered my father in Canada among the monarchs at Point Pelee, not because it’s what I thought he’d want but because it was maybe the only place he’d ever in his life described as beautiful. We carried him from the car along the trail through the forest and underbrush to the beach. Melissa stood behind me in a red windbreaker, her hand on my back. I had no words to say. The butterflies lifted off from the woods just as I opened the urn and the ash swirled in their wake. The wind caught hold and breezed them all out over the lake in a spray of bright colors and gray.
Once it was done, I put the lid back on and we got back in the car and drove back toward the border.
This was early in our time together, maybe a month in while she was still interning. I'd let myself get excited about the possibilities for us and had dived head-first, even though I knew she was serious about things. We were already talking about sharing a place. She'd found the urn in a closet and suggested it might be good for me to leave him to rest.
On the way home, I got us lost looking for the entrance to the bridge. I turned onto the wrong side street and we got stuck in the flow of Windsor traffic at rush hour north through the city past the distillery, which smelled like stale dough. I tried a dirt road to turn around, but the road was not wide and it curved through some trees toward the water. There was an electric fence with a locked gate and, just beyond, a graveyard for ships. It was an inlet from the river formed by retaining walls and there were skeletons of boats tied up, maybe a dozen, and on land a whole yard's worth of abandoned boat wood.
The empty urn was just a flowery vase with a lid and my father didn't care for sentimentality, so I took it from the backseat, made sure the lid was secure, and handed it to Melissa to hurl over the fence into the inlet, where it made a low splash between two dead ship hulls. That night we had champagne and decided to get married.
Prohibition in Detroit started three years before the rest of the country and the gangs in the city got a head start learning to bring in booze. Most of the trade was controlled by the Purple Gang, whose members scouted all the unguarded shoreline for weakness. In the winter, when the river froze, they drove the liquor across. They loaded casks into the beds of a small fleet of trucks, which made the ice-slicked trips back and forth. Some of the trucks were loaded too tall; they weighed so much they slivered cracks in the ice. The cracks accumulated and joined and, after too many trips along the same route, the ice would give and the last truck over would sink to the riverbed. Other times of year, the gang tried all kinds of watercraft: ferries, sailboats, speedboats, pontoons. They set up an elaborate system of signals from shore to shore and when the cops weren’t looking, they’d send a load across. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the water was rough and the boat simply sank. Sometimes the boat would be seen by the Coast Guard or the police and the crew would go down in a gunfight. The loss on the trucks and the boats was something more than nothing, but the bootleggers wrote it off as the cost of doing business.
And that was Jim Grot’s big get-rich idea the year after college. He and another friend of his, Stan something, would drive to the city’s south side and park near old Fort Wayne, pull on diving gear, and swim out into the water to look for lost liquor. Five Saturdays they went in and five Saturdays they came out with nothing but the bends.
“Can’t get the bends that shallow,” Jim said to me over a beer as he told the story. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a hard time hearing. He was trying to convince me to join them. “The more eyes the better. We’ll split the proceeds three ways.”
“There aren’t any proceeds,” I said.
We were in Dearborn at Miller’s Bar, which, even on a Friday night, was sad and lonely. It was my father’s regular before he died, the bar he lived behind, and I half expected to see him there. It’s why I winced when Jim asked me to meet him and probably also why I went. I hadn’t been there since cleaning out my father’s place. “And plus, it’s illegal.”
“Such respect for law," he said. He smiled sad. "Okay. Then be our lookout.” It was the first time in a while I’d noticed his face, how it expanded through college and now had withered and paled. And his teeth had cracked. And he was right: I wasn’t clean either. Neither of us were how we had pictured ourselves.
That Saturday I laid back on the hood of Jim’s Fiero watching the road as he and Stan strapped into wetsuits and tanks. While they were under, I took out my book and drew. I made them into characters from the deep, stiff-armed and alien in metal deep sea diver suits and copper helmets with portholes for eyes and hoses to breathe. I radiated lines from their chests to make them bioluminescent. I made them glow from within.
Jim and Stan emerged an hour later with a water-logged crate of bottles. The wood was rotted and splintered and the bottles were mostly broken glass filed dull by water and time. Only one bottle was intact—Harry Low, a brand we didn’t immediately recognize. Jim uncorked it and we stood against the car and took turns sipping and thinking up what other treasures we might discover if we could carry more oxygen or hold our breaths for longer, if we could only stay down long enough. As far as I know that was the last time he went looking, or at least it was the last time he told me about anything he’d found.
Our house was a small labyrinth with two stairwells, four floors, a dark basement, and three bathrooms. We only ever used the one on the second floor in the hallway between our bedroom and the kids’. The window was misshapen and drafty and the floor was white tile that would go cold in the winter and the mirror and the window would steam up. The room was big enough for the four of us to be in there all at once, always in our various states of undress. Along one wall there was a long clawfoot tub that was old and rust-stained on the outside but smooth on the inside and we would fill it near to the top and bathe the boys.
When Peter and Alexander turned three, we bought them a toy boat to share, a steamship, plastic and yellow, that they liked to bring into the tub with them. They were still young enough that, in the wrong light, I had difficulty telling them apart when naked and wet. But I know it was Peter, especially, who loved to steam it around the outside edge of the tub like a lake and bring it into port at the tub's round corners. Sometimes he'd send it off across the water toward Alex on its own long voyage. The boat had difficulty staying upright. Even in still water, it rarely made it across.
"It fell down again," Peter said one night. "The boat fell down."
"Capsize," I said. "When it's a boat. Boats don't fall down. They capsize."
I could see Melissa try to stop me. She has such a telling face; she usually hides it behind glasses or hair, like when she's talking to patients. But in the bathroom she was bare.
"No—it's okay," she said in that soft mother tone she had even before the kids were born. When we first met, it's what made me know she was safe. And I did feel wrong for correcting him. They were both just learning language, pulling together concepts and seeing all the different ways words could fit together. I'd stopped him for no reason. "Fall down works too."
That night there was another break-in, with the two of us still awake and talking well past three a.m. and we heard the glass shatter. I grabbed a flashlight and Melissa took the golf club she kept under the bed and we shouted down the stairs, getting down there just in time to see three kids run from the living room out through the back door. We did an inventory and nothing was gone except for a couple whiskey bottles we probably wouldn't have used anyway. We moved the boys into our room for a week to be safe and eventually the fear wore down into just another reason the house never felt like it was really ours.
I've always thought if I were ever stranded at sea, I'd be lost and dead. I can't swim more than half a lap without heaving breath and taking on water. Even in high school, the mile run was impossible. We'd go out to the track around the football field, line up at the start, and by the third turn I'd be on my knees.
In college, I was diagnosed with asthma, told my lungs hold less than others'. "Less what," I asked the doctor.
"Air," he said.
Over time I learned to deal with it, learned the seasons. That the spring and the fall bring dust to cake my insides, make the lungs feel even smaller, and that the summer humidity will squeeze my chest, make it hard to pull wind as though every breath is swallowing an anvil.
I can feel it coming on now. I can feel the ache grow on my right, sometimes at the side near the waist under my ribs, sometimes closer to the center and higher. It takes a moment to recognize. Sometimes it happens after a long walk, other times it happens on the couch watching television. The ache grows from a pin to a nail to a bolt to a fist. The blood vessels contract around the lung. Each breath is a sharp tug that takes as much muscle as I can flex.
And I have to focus my mind or the anxiety sets in, the anxiety that I am what I feel like: drowning. Once, I centered on wood, how it splits and splinters. The chaos of it. Whether it separates into grains, throws off jagged limbs. Or buckles at the knot. Whether any of it retains its shape, its integrity. Or whether in its wet roundness it can be crushed, especially when worn and tumulted and crashed upon by waves and rocks and driftwood and coral and fishbones and seal tusks and whale skins and whatever other formerly living and currently decaying and beautiful heavenly things the wood may have found floating into the light from the dark depths that day.
It was Jim's boat we were on.
We put in with the Nadine north of St. Clair, in Algonac, early in the day. We'd left the car in the dirt lot by the marina and we motored south into the traffic of families and day drinkers jockeying for space on the water to watch the fireworks, laying out anchors like beach blankets. By five, the boats almost formed an island and we were jammed into the middle of it: the boys and me. Melissa had to work. I'd told her we'd pick her up from the riverside downtown or from Belle Isle, but she said it was fine. I'd already made the promise to the boys, a promise I couldn't not keep.
The sun started down and what I remember most were the fishflies that descended with night. The boys were getting tired, Alexander especially, and we were all feeling a little sunsick. The Nadine was getting knocked around by the other boats bobbing in the wind and tide and rip that would drift each boat into the next, soft but firm, and away into another and then again. And it was hot too, and I made sure we all kept our fluids up, and five times I decided we'd leave but we couldn't leave because we were blocked in. And even after the fireworks, which were spectacular and the boys both oohed and aahed, it took a while for the river to clear before I raised the anchor and turned on the motor.
There was a foul smell of rotting seaweed and a layer of smoke hanging in the air. It was pitch dark but for the bounce of the light of the cities on the river's either side reflecting in the water. And then as I turned the key there was a hard jolt against the side of the Nadine, not from the motor starting up I realized after an instant but from another boat, and when it jolted the Nadine I bent my knees and swayed to absorb the impact and catch myself from falling. One of the boys did fall. Peter was close enough that I could see him through the dark and flies and I could hear him wail as his knee scraped the deck. I turned toward him and immediately I worried about his child head and his child neck and a whole scenario of racing to the dock, running red lights to the hospital, and throwing open the passenger door and rushing him into emergency.
And in the moment that this passed, I saw Alexander slipping white like a ghost. I saw him slip into the water.
I felt a rush of heat and a release of air and I collapsed to the deck to reach for him. He was wearing a glow-in-the-dark bracelet and I grabbed for the neon green of his wrist. I found his hand but I couldn't hold a grip. I tried to grab his small fingers but still he sank. His last knuckle slipped slowest and I swore I thought I could feel his fingers feather into the tip of a wing as he floated away, outstretched and fading, a halo of bracelet.
The Nadine had a floodlight bolted to her rear and I flipped it on but still couldn't see more than a wrist's length into the water. My ears were ringing and I couldn't move. The lights of other boats came on and lit up the water, but it was a dark muddy brown that refused clear sight.
Somewhere deep in the cavernous shafts of this light, though, a wrist rose.
The driver of the boat that hit us had seen it all happen and somewhere in this time he'd jumped into the water without thinking and six feet down he grabbed hold of my boy, grabbed hold of his chest, and dragged him up out of the water. Alex was pale white and out cold. One of the women knew CPR and she inflated his tiny lungs and stroked his wet hair in the rhythm between compressions, and in the fly-specked boatlight I could see life retake him and I could feel strength collect again in me and I breathed for the first time in hours, maybe, or minutes, and we breathed together at the same time.
In the car, I fought with whether to tell Melissa. I managed to convince myself that she didn't really need to hear it, that Alex was fine and she'd be better saved from whatever anguish the news might bring. I knew also that she wouldn't see it as an accident; she'd blame me and I didn't want her to be right.
When I called, she demanded us toward the hospital and met us there, already in her scrubs and stethoscope. She wouldn't look away from the boys, she wouldn't look at me, and she hurried them both through the ER, back toward the bright lights of triage where she and our boys disappeared behind a pulled curtain.
Miller's was my father's bar and it stayed open through all the tumult of the fall of the city around it. From the street, it was dark red wood siding and a black overhanging roof. The windows were high and thickly-paned such that you couldn't see in from the outside but could see outside fine from within. The sign was a marquee with neon stars.
I don't remember the first time my father took me to Miller's other than that it was maybe a year or two after the accident when he still had the cane and I was the age you start thinking it's a good idea to have a pocketknife because who knows when you'll need it. Which is why I'd stolen my father's pearl-handled switchblade. Every night for a week, he tore through the house, angry and drunk, looking for it. Until one night he all-of-a-sudden gave up. I didn't know whether he'd decided it'd been stolen or that he lost it or if he realized I'd taken it.
That next morning, we went to Miller's. There'd been six inches of snow in the night, enough for them to call off school, and the snow didn't stop at daybreak. My father suggested we walk over to the bar for lunch.
I strapped into my boots and pulled on my hat and he carried a flask for the walk next door. We sat at the end of the tall bar and watched the storm continue to bury Michigan Avenue. By noon, the entire streetscape was white. The median had long been covered over. Bare tree branches bowed. Some fell. Wind plastered snow to the sides of the streetsigns and the empty and burned-out storefronts. The entire outside was one long scene of squared-off valleys and hills.
The salt truck passed once, its orange lights swirling and slicing through the white. The truck had already spilled its load so it just kept moving. The wind kept up, too, and we could hear it whip and rattle.
A maroon Buick tried to rudder its way west moving half as fast as its tires were spinning, fishtailing with every slight tap of the gas. The driver made a mistake in trying to honor a stop sign. His wheels wouldn't grip and he lost the car sideways onto the snow-buried walk. The car was stopped by the metal of a light pole in front of what had once been a liquor store. His tires sank into the snow as he tried to regain momentum. They crushed any traction before he could get moving and he had to back off the gas and do the rocking thing—throw it into reverse, touch the gas gently, throw it into drive, touch the gas gently, and so on—until finally, he was able to dig out and turn slow back into the road and drive off into the white distance.
The bar was mostly empty but for my father and me and the bartender and the cook and a couple other older guys my father seemed to know well. The five of them told stories about other storms they'd seen. One of the guys claimed to have been up north to see the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. "The Witch of November came riding in on her broom and swept all the poor souls to the bottom of the lake" is how he said it. The bartender explained the November Witch, how the ice cold winds sweep down from Canada across the Great Lakes in autumn, how it's early in the season and always comes by surprise, and how it's nothing any of the ships can plan for and so they keep hauling and hoping.
I asked if this storm outside was a witch, and the old man said no. "No, you'd know it, boy, you'd know it."
We stayed until dusk. The snow had stopped and the air had warmed a bit. The snow pulled at the powerlines. The lights inside the bar flickered a few times and once went fully off for five or ten minutes before stuttering back on. My father tried to add up the bill, saying "It's an honor bar. We tell them and that's all what we owe." His words were starting to string together and turn around on themselves. I didn't see him do it, but he'd been keeping hash marks on his palm and was trying to match them against the menu.
"It's good. You're good," the bartender said when we tried to pay.
My father wouldn't have it. He laid a twenty on the bar and said, "No no—my boy and me—no, we don't take things we don't pay for. No no."
I returned the knife that night after he passed out, though I never saw him use it and I learned later when I was cleaning out his place that he'd sold it to a pawn shop for a tenth of what it was worth.
The summer Melissa locked me out for good, Jim and I shared a house in the city that stood alone among the wilds of abandoned plots. We only stayed a month or two before Jim got sent up to Jackson on a DUI. But every night there wasn't rain we'd build a bonfire in the backyard and trade stories over the firelight.
One night, Jim told the story he'd heard once in church about a ship of angels whose wings had been clipped, who'd been expelled out the gates for some reason he didn't remember, and who sailed back to earth in disgrace. They didn't leave with nothing. Heaven built them a boat. It was simple and wooden and its planks were lashed together with filament and harp strings. The hull was sturdier than a viking's. The deck was clean, the captain's wheel made of brass, and the angels took turns navigating the clouds—going where, none of them knew. Some safe harbor, they supposed. The angel ship descended slowly, glided among the birds, and settled onto the waves of the Pacific.
The ship sailed for ages, passing ports and bays, points and put-ins. They weaved among archipelagos. They passed slip after slip where they could've docked and set out to live their lost angel lives on land. It wasn't indecision that kept them out as much as not knowing where they were needed most.
They tacked low on the earth around the Cape of Good Hope, rode the Gulf Stream through the Atlantic up into the North Sea. And in the North Sea, they were swept into a fast icy squall that twisted their ship, tore at the lashings and at their mast and sail. The angels prayed then for calm, for safety, for the return of their wingtips. Still, the storm slashed them against glaciers, which carved their shipwood into an unsailable drift. The angels were tossed into the sea, flightless and cold. They swam for what seemed like an eternity.
Jim stopped the story here and turned quiet, too drunk or too tired or too sad to continue. He spat tobacco at the ground, held his hands out over the fire. And it wasn't until this moment he got quiet that I realized there was so much sound in the city at night. Like turning off all the lights and suddenly seeing stars. There were sirens and jackhammers. There were bird calls and dog barks. And then also there was the strong leaf-raking press of the wind moving in again ahead of a coldfront.