And so we pull off the interstate, not because Evelyn and the kids care in the slightest what St. Ignace, Michigan looks like in July but because she needs a breather after white-knuckling the Mackinac Bridge in driving rain. When she thinks I’m not looking, she shoots her not another word eyes into the rearview mirror, and the backseat mumbling ends. The turn signal clicks. Tires swoosh against the damp, grey asphalt.
I file and order and prepare in my mind retellings of all the childhood stories, the way we stayed at the hotel with rooms shaped like teepees and the cork guns Dad bought us—the way Mom never let him live down the decision to buy pop guns for two car-bound boys, 300 miles from home. They were confiscated by Sault Ste. Marie. A few exits later, they were laid to rest in the garbage at a freeway-side McDonald’s.
I prepare to narrate it for them, the majesty of St. Ignace. The glistening Lake Huron water and the feel of sand under our feet, damp but still loose. About the rock we found, it’s hidden just under the water’s surface so that you can swim out and climb up on it, and it looks from shore like you’re walking on water. There’s a picture somewhere. Evenings in the taffy shops and the kitschy diners. Playing miniature golf at midnight, trading numbers with other vacation kids from towns we’d never heard of and would never see for ourselves. Au Sable. Charlevoix. Auburn Hills. Breitung. The girls from those towns seemed like people worth buying calling cards for, even if we never once followed through. Even if they never did, either.
The sheen of it all hangs on my tongue. I lean forward.
Because this was a piece of my youth, I want it to be a piece of my kids’ youth.
Because Evelyn doesn’t want to watch me pout all week, she ventures further than she cares off the Interstate, past the string of gas stations, and steers around the bend.
The broad main boulevard is still pothole-pocked, but nothing else is right. Rust everywhere, neon extinguished. The Excelsior Hotel is for sale by owner, and the miniature golf course is decayed past use; its parking lot home to a soft-serve hut on wheels. There’s not even a line, and the bored attendant fiddles on his phone while rain pelts the closed walk-up window.
Half the teepees are gone—and the swimming pool—replaced by a Dollar General and a Subway. The rest of the lot is overgrown in small shrubs and anemic grasses. The remaining huts decompose in that sad way only stucco can. Beyond their slumping husks, our water walking rock is exposed, at least three feet of it peeking up from the anemic waves.
I softly place the memories back into their files, try to put them back as they were. The neon empire is so far gone, there’s no point trying to explain.
Evelyn squeezes my shoulder.
She pulls a U-turn in the middle of the road because no one’s coming toward us and no one’s following behind, and no one’s going to come ever again, it seems.
On our way out, I look farther off in the distance, where the wooded edges of Mackinac Island arch up out of the lake. Dad swore he’d take us out there one summer, that we’d stay in the Grand Hotel, even. I imagine what it must have meant for him, staying in this compromise of a resort town. It never seemed a compromise at the time, but with adult eyes I can’t help but see it that way. From the plastic beach chairs and smudged glass restaurant windows, he must’ve felt like he could make out the silhouette of his boss out on the island, living it up for real with the polo shirt set. Pre-trip searches of Priceline discounts hadn’t gotten me any closer to the island than Dad’s daydreams had.
An inexplicable stoplight still functions, Evelyn waits for no good reason in the center of town.
To our left, the lake sloshes against the shore, brown and murky. Tired. Further out, a freighter steers toward the straits. Even it wears the color of rust.
To the right, empty storefronts wear fading labels that promise saltwater taffy and fudge and fake gelato, things that could be had in bulk back home for next to nothing. Because it was vacation, they felt like manna. They were priced that way, too, and on the backs of our allowances and our parents’ working class guilt, the tourist trap owners built a tiny neon empire on the lake.
Now, it’s crumbled and I wish the red light would give up like everything around us already has and release us back on our way.
Through the entire episode, Britt never bothers looking up from her book. Jack pretends not to, but I see enough of his reflection in the windshield to know he’s shaking his head and looking away, feeling sorry for me: the shreds of another back in the day story that got punted by reality. Too sweet of a kid to harp on it, he switches instead to his long game: “What does stupid Canada have that Netlflix doesn’t anyway?” When he puts it that way, I’ve got nothing.
The light switches and two minutes later, we pull back onto the interstate. I lean back in my seat, and from the rear of the car I hear pages turn as the tires kick water up from the asphalt, and I try my best to stop thinking about things as they were.
“Thanks,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” Evelyn says.
The highway inclines just so: if I were to look in the passenger-side mirror, I’d see the whole expanse of bridge behind me. It’s a beautiful sight, I know, but it’s best that I keep my eyes forward.