A sequel to the story: A Moose in the Road (posted a month ago). If you haven’t read it, you should read it first because Mike goes back to the island, twenty years later under very different circumstances only to discover that memories and fantasies can implode.
Three people in line ahead of me. I could have just gotten gas and kept going but Lucas always appreciates a cold Gatorade after practice. I’m not crazy about playing cheerleader for my kid, but if that’s what it takes to keep him away from trouble, coax him along another couple of years till college, then that’s what I got to do. One of us has to do it with Kirsten catching babies at all hours. I drew the job of follow-through for our one. Well, I knew that, marrying an OB. Can’t complain now.
Look at that duffer taking all day to decide which lottery ticket to buy. Sucker’s game. Still, what if I won the Lotto? What would I do with…how much is it? $5.5 million. Half of that in cash. I could buy that fish camp above Agawa Canyon. Imagine…my own island on a three-mile long lake in the middle of a Canadian national forest. We could skip the fish camp bit and just make it our get-away place. Maybe reboot our first time up there, minus all the drama. I wonder if that dock I laid is still holding up?
So, anyway I buy a lottery ticket and drive behind Kalamazoo Central high school to watch Lucas practice. A guy on a ladder is working on the scoreboard above the pitch. They ought to go digital for crying out loud, says the man who runs the bio-medical department. That’s what happens when you spend all your time troubleshooting the bowels of diagnostic equipment. The only thing that saves me from drowning in schematics and circuit boards in my windowless cave is being surrounded by women, that and my fantasy island fix. Thank God hospitals are top- heavy in females. I feel like a botanist at the Meijer Gardens—so many flowers to observe and appreciate but not pluck.
Like Ariel, the PT. We chat at lunch and on breaks. We’ve known each other forever as ‘soccer moms.’ Her Jason and my Lucas have been playing AYSO since they were six—travel teams, car pools, away-games…all that. She’s not pretty, exactly. You might not notice her in passing. But with certain expressions, the right turn of her head, her smile especially, she turns beautiful. Like Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman’s wife. She could surprise you, too: Ordinary. Ordinary. Slam. Stunning. Besides that, she’s easy to talk to. We natter about all kinds of things: books, movies, kids, work. Everything but our marriages. There are boundaries. So, you could call us ‘work buddies.’ Maybe a little more, in my mind, anyway. But yeah, she likes me too. I’m sure. And just now, thinking about my lottery island, it’s easy to imagine the two of us alone with the lake, the loons and the brook trout. I shake my head. Never happen. Shouldn’t happen for a lot of reasons. Damn.
It’s Ariel. I climb out of my car to join her leaning on the fender of her black Sorrento. Her burnished-gold hair hangs free to her shoulders. I love that look, although her pony tail for work isn’t bad either. She’s wearing a mid-calf sundress, chicory blue and bright yellow-strap sandals. So different from her scrubs and white cross-trainers. She turns on her LED smile that lights me up inside. She might as well say, ‘may the force be with you.’ Her large blue eyes belong to a helpless cartoon character signaling can’t do versus Kirsten’s can do. I want to offer to do things for her until I remember watching her pounding the back of a patient with congested lungs.
“Hey, Mike,” she says, holding out an extra cup of iced tea. “Want a hit? Jason will never miss it.”
“Nah. I’m good.” We track our boys chugging and churning in the 90° heat. “This should be the last practice before Labor Day and season start. You got anything planned for the holiday?”
Ariel shakes her head. “Not yet. It’s my weekend to have Jason. I was thinking of getting out of town tomorrow. Maybe go North. We’ve never been to Sleeping Bear Dunes or Mackinac Island. Maybe as far as the Upper Peninsula.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot to see and do, up that way. The Soo Locks. Taquamenon Falls. I lived there one summer. Interning at the hospital.”
We watch the boys hunkered in a circle listening to the coach.
“I’d like to spend some time with Jason before school starts but you never know what you’re going to get touring with a teenager.” We watch our boys walking together and chatting as they approach us. “Too bad Lucas can’t come with. It would take some of the load off me…they get along so well.”
“No, I couldn’t dump him on you.”
“Are you kidding. They would keep each other company.” Face brightening, she adds, “Or you and Kirsten could come too. Like when we’ve gone to tournaments. Isn’t she from up there?”
“She’s off at a conference and then on-call for the holiday.”
“Ah, I see.” Ariel thinks for a moment then pins me with a tentative, almost embarrassing look. “Or we could both go.” Responding to my wide eyes, she quickly adds, “I mean, it’s not like we’ve never gone out of town to our kid’s travel games.”
“With five other parents.”
Ariel shrugs—so? “Besides, you could be the tour guide for our group…showing us the sights.”
What do I say to that? I’m glad for the excuse to get Lucas’s Gatorade from the car. As we leave, I call out to Ariel, “I’ll think about it.” She flashed her half-power, Mona Lisa smile.
While Lucas showered, I grilled burgers, my thoughts rising with the clouds of greasy smoke. I wondered what Kirsten would think of me and Ariel traveling alone…well, with the boys? And for crying out loud, it’s not like Kirsten isn’t always taking off to a conference or workshop with one doctor or another for two or three days. It was my turn, for a change.
Besides, Lucas would like the places we could go. The Chippewa Hotel next to the Locks where the freighters rise and fall right outside your window. And the ferry to Sugar Island. Or the bridge to Canada. Sault Ste. Marie, Canada where the Algoma Train goes to Agawa Canyon. I hadn’t been back since Kirsten and I connected there. It would be like taking a strange woman—well, Ariel wasn’t exactly a stranger—to your honeymoon spot. Ha. Kirsten would just laugh if I told her that. No, the part that rattled me was picturing Ariel, somehow, on my dream island. Could happen. And then what? Damn, I might wreck two great fantasies at the same time. For one thing, the camp might have changed—new owners, condos. Or just the opposite—no one’s touched the place in twenty years and it’s a ghost town. And what about spending way more time than a soccer game or lunch with Ariel? Could find out more about her than I really care to know.
The next day we were driving across the Mackinac Bridge: me, Ariel, Lucas and Jason. The boys were impressed enough to put down their screens for the five-mile span. I played tour guide. “Good thing we’re crossing today. Monday, on Labor Day, they close the bridge to let folks walk across. Can you imagine the engineering that went into this structure? I know a guy who worked on the soil samples for the concrete footings on the bottom of the straits.” In the rearview mirror I watched the guys rubber necking. Not saying anything but obviously engaged. “And it was right about here that a small foreign car got blown off in a severe windstorm.”
“Yeah, can you imagine what that would have felt like?” Silence from the back. “And imagine being the guys who have to paint the cables and girders 500 feet up? That’s Lake Michigan on the left and Lake Huron the right. Pretty slick, huh?”
It wasn’t until we got off on the Upper Peninsula that both boys got back on their handhelds. Ariel and I shared ironic grins…doesn’t take much to get their attention.
After settling in rooms at the Chippewa, we played tourists—Lake Superior State University, souvenirs along Ashmun St. and finally dinner at the Antlers Bar under the staring glass eyes of mounted specimens of the region’s animal kingdom. The next morning, we crossed the International Bridge and boarded the Algoma Train for Agawa Canyon Park. When we entered the high-walled canyon the boys perked up. Especially when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere to pick up two campers with backpacks and fishing rods. “Can you just do that? Get off in one spot and hike around and get back on another day? Like waiting for the school bus?”
“Uh-huh. It’s more like pre-paid hitchhiking.”
“Can we do that?”
“Theoretically,” Ariel said, “we have the time but we didn’t bring any camping stuff.”
“Aww, damn!” Lucas said, “could’ve been fun.”
“Yeah, can’t maximize everything,” I said. “Just enjoy the moment.”
At the Canyon Park the boys dug out their bathing suits and jumped into the river. While Ariel watched them, I strolled to the row of vehicles parked off to the side. There was a familiar green and yellow Gator at the far end. One fender was bent, there was a little rust along the carry-box and when I checked the glove compartment there were three 410 shotgun shells inside. It was Mac’s machine all right. Was it in working condition? I fished the keys from the tail pipe. It roared to life. I quickly turned it off and leaned my head on the steering wheel, thinking. If Mac was still around, how old would he be? He seemed old to us back then…maybe late fifties. He’d be late seventies now. He could still be running the camp. Or someone else was. In any case, if the ATV was here, someone drove it down to catch the train and left it to carry supplies on a return trip from the Soo. Which meant that no one was up at the lake at the moment. Or did it? His fishing clients used to float-plane in. He might have hitched a ride out and back. So, one way or another, the camp was open and Mac or someone else might or might not be there. Ha! This offered interesting possibilities.
Let’s take it one step at a time, I thought.
I pulled Ariel to one side while the boys toweled off. “I got an idea. Let’s see what you think of it.” She kept her expression neutral, chin tilted away, eyes up in the corners. “See that John Deere over there? I drove the owner in it when he was hurt…twenty years ago.” She opened her mouth to ask questions. I held up my hand. “It’s long story. I’ll tell you later. Right now, time is important.” I looked at my watch. “We’ve got an hour and a half before the return trip.” Now her face showed a mix of interest and concern. “There’s this logging trail that goes near his fishing camp. But before that, there’s a bridge over a stream. We could get to it in forty-five minutes and then head back…in time for the train. I bet the boys would have a blast driving an ATV on a two-track in the highlands bush.”
We both watched the boys munching on granola bars and thumbing their screens. “You don’t think he’d mind?” Ariel asked.
“He better not. Mac owes me one. Besides, if we do it right, he’ll never know.”
The boys loved the idea, taking turns behind the wheel until we got to the stream. It was lower and slower than when I last crossed it. This time however, there was a more or less permanent structure in place—logs overlaid with planks stretched across the banks. Takes the challenge out of crossing, I thought. But then I had another thought.
“What?” Ariel asked.
She was learning to read me. “We could keep going.”
“And miss the train home?”
“Today. What’s the rush? We’ve got a day to spare. So, we get home late Monday instead of Sunday.”
I watched Ariel, eyes soft-focused in the middle distance, calculating. “How do you know we’ll be welcome?”
“Or if anyone is there? Or if there are too many people and no room?”
I shrugged and raised my eyebrows. By now, the boys were tuning in. Jason asked, “You mean we could spend the night out here?”
“Like maybe at a camp?” Lucas asked. “Like that fish camp you and mom told me about once?”
We haven’t made arrangements,” Ariel said in a responsible grown-up voice.
“I don’t know…any of those things, for sure. But it might be fun to find out.” I suppressed a grin as I continued. “Look, what’s the worst that could happen. There’s a boat-shed twenty minutes ahead. We could spend the night there. I’ve got a lighter. We could make a fire. Throw some leaves on it to keep the mosquitoes away. We still have some munchies left…right?”
Both boys exchanged skeptical glances. Ariel studied me. Got it. “Aw, c’mon you guys. You wanted to go camping. This could be fun. Save the wrappers from the power bars…we didn’t bring any toilet paper.”
The shed was still there. A row boat was turtled onshore. We all edged to the water. Stared at the island, 200 yards away. The lodge stood solid as ever. No signs of life. So far so good. As I rowed across, I noticed a new water tower next to the utility shed. The dock was in good repair. New boards replaced some of the weathered ones we had nailed in.
“Hello!” I hailed. No answer. We had the place to ourselves. I looked at Ariel. She raised her eyebrows, shrugged—let’s go for it.
I led the troops to the lodge. Found beer and Cokes in a cooler and sat down on the porch with Ariel while Lucas and Jason squirreled around the camp. “You planned this all along, didn’t you?” Ariel asked.
“Not really,” I had to admit. “Not like this.”
“What can I say? It all just fell into place.”
She took a long swallow of her LaBatts, burped gently and asked, “Okay, so what are the sleeping arrangements?”
“Whatever you want. There are three cabins. Your choice. We can find sleeping bags somewhere around here.”
“I’d feel better if we all slept under one roof.”
I nodded. “Cabin 3 would be fine. It looks out on the lake. Then we can think about supper.” Strangely, Ariel picked the same bunk Kirsten had chosen. She rolled out sleeping bags on the top and bottom bunks of the third bed for the boys. I used the bottom bunk by the door. When we finished, Ariel gave me a gorgeous, platonic, ‘isn’t this fun’ smile. Déjà vu with Kirsten, all over again. I paused, unsure what I wanted to happen. Was I trampling memories? Making new ones?
Time to go fishing. I grabbed fishing rods off the wall of the lodge and yelled for the boys.
Cooking supper on a cast iron stove was an adventure in itself. It took forever to cook a packet of mac-and-cheese. The water came to a boil quickly because of the altitude in the highlands. But it took longer than usual for the macaroni to soften. The brook trout was delicious and stale Oreos in the back of a cupboard served for dessert.
Later as sat around the fire pit in front of the lodge, I played fish-camp director telling backwoods tales to the city slickers. I repeated Mac’s story of the moose he shot and how he quartered it with a chain saw a hung it in the root cellar which brought up the practice of hanging geese and grouse down there till their heads fell off. I knew the boys would love to gross out at that. Then I moved on to how the cast iron stove got on the island. Lucas and Jason pretended to be fascinated by the fire. But I could tell they were locked in. “The original owner dragged that heavy-ass stove on a rough sled, in winter, along the road we just traveled.
“All in one day?” Lucas asked.
“Nope. Took him two weeks. He’d walk part of the way, stop and walk back to his tent down in the canyon park.” Ariel, hunched around her knees, shared warm eyes, grateful eyes, cheering me on. “He’d walk back in the morning and drag it another little ways. Head back again. When he got half way, he’d walk ahead to the island, sleep there and go back for the stove the next day. Then when he got it here, he dragged it across the ice and built the cabin around it.”
The boys slept hard. I was restless. It’s hard to sleep in Disneyland where dreams can come true. Ariel tossed and turned a bit, too. But then I must have dozed off, because I next heard birds and opening my eyes, could barely make out the beds in the cabin. I stepped outside to take a leak and found myself wandering down to the water. A misty duvet covered the lake. I shrugged out of my shorts and T, sprinted down the dock and noiselessly knifed in. Treading water a few yards out, I could swear I heard a soft splash. A moment later, Ariel surfaced in front of me. We swam in until we could touch bottom and faced each other. She swept her hair back over her head. I reached around and finger combed it down her back, my hands continuing down her ribs to cup her behind. She closed her eyes and moaned, “Oooh!” Then she placed her muscle-probing hands on my shoulders and ran her thumbs down my chest to rest on my hips. One more squeeze and my knees buckled. When I opened my eyes, she was lost in the mist. I swam out for a long lap before heading in.
At supper back home, Lucas couldn’t stop talking about the trip. Kirsten kept a knowing, ‘been-there-done-that’ smile in place, only interrupting to ask about Mac and the general state of the island. When Lucas finally wound down and burrowed into the TV room, I expected her to comment about Ariel but she seemed incurious about any of that. “You know,” she finally remarked, “you and I should go back there sometime. Good memories.”
I stared at my coffee cup, looked up. ‘No, I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be the same.”