I remember only one vacation in my sixteen years on Planet Detroit, though my parents had photographic evidence of me as a baby on the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes looking marooned, disconsolate, in the middle of all that sand. It could’ve been the surface of the moon, a photo doctored like my father claimed they did at NASA.
My father had great faith in the power of they. They were always putting the screws to us, raising taxes, gas prices, insurance. In my father’s dictionary, they had the longest entry, and that entry was blank, for he filled it in at his whim. They were out to get us was his motto, and I would’ve had it carved on his tombstone if they hadn’t already ripped us off for everything else connected to his funeral.
Yeah, I’m a chimp off the old block, as he used to say. I liked chimps, so I didn’t mind. Chimps always seemed to be imagining they were having a good time — something we weren’t very good at — thus, the one family vacation that I remember was a complete disaster.
Michigan’s full of lakes, not just the "great" ones. We’ve got a lot of little inland puddles circled with shacks called cottages and owned and managed by obese men in ball hats with one physical deformity that paid off big for them in a court of law. Or so it seemed, once we arrived at Carl’s Kabins on Tea Lake. My father swore that a Guy from Work came here every year and loved it.
My father’s antidote to what the they of the world were doing to him was to take the sage advice of one of his fellow line workers at the Chrysler plant who was in the same sorry state. Even after he retired, he continued to go to the plant barber, who my father believed should be running the country.
Why’d he change the C on Cabin but not the C on Carl?” my brother Randy asked.
“It’s all about marketing,” my father said, as if he knew something. “Just by getting you to ask that question, he’s already got you interested in the place….See how it works?”
Randy was always getting our father riled up with questions from the backseat or dinner table. He often was sent to his room to eat, which was also my room. Randy was a sloppy eater — particularly pissed off and isolated — so our bedroom smelled of moldy spaghetti half the time. The other half, it smelled like our teenage funk. I’m not sure what was worse. Randy was fifteen, and I was thirteen. “Our last chance to go on vacation with the boys,” my mother had pleaded until my father gave in. It was really already too late for me and Randy to enjoy a good, wholesome family vacation. We didn’t know how. Thus, disaster to come.
The Guy from Work had a boat, it turned out, and was primarily interested in fishing. He had no family. He went up with a group of guys from high school, and they drank beer with Carl and went fishing. They laughed at each other’s farts and had a fine time.
Randy and I still laughed at each other’s farts, but we could’ve done that at home, where Randy was in hot pursuit of Gena Martini from over on Dallas Street. As Randy explained it, Gena could be undiscriminating in her displays of affection, and he was worried that a week away might get him erased from the slate of her attention.
Our father had taken the scenic route to Carl’s, driving up along the Lake Huron coast. He insisted on pulling into every scenic lookout along the lakeshore and making us all get out and look. Then, he’d take various photos of us looking surly into the camera with whatever scenic vista as a backdrop.
The plan was for us to spend a night in a motel — something we’d never done, and our parents hadn’t done since their honeymoon in Atlantic City, a long weekend while my father was home on leave from the Army. They’d ruined his life by sending him to Vietnam where his feet nearly rotted off and he saw people die.
“The draft was fucked-up, but if they bring it back, you boys are going,” he told us.
“Yeah, to Canada,” Randy said, then took his spaghetti into our room.
It turned out that it was the weekend of the Port Huron to Mackinaw boat race and all the motels along the lake had their NO VACANCY signs lit up in the growing dark. We ended up sleeping in the car in a rest stop till an enormous state cop knocked on our window with his enormous flashlight and told us to move on.
“They had to plan their damn race on the same day….” Our father didn’t even finish. Randy glowered in the back seat.
“We’re having some fun now,” he said, and looked at me.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Some fun.”
Carl greeted my father like an old friend, which was understandable, considering most of his cottages sat vacant. It turned out Carl greeted everyone as an old friend, particularly those who came to buy drugs. I guess he was supplementing his income to get him through the off-season, though it looked to me that every season was the off-season at Carl’s.
“A friend of Mitch’s is a friend of mine,” Carl said. “Though don’t be setting any cabins on fire like your old friend, Mitch,” he said. He might have been one quarter joking, not even half joking, because Randy and I saw char marks on Cabin 6.
We never met Mitch, or any of the other Guys from Work. We knew some nights when our father came home late and beery that he’d been “out with the boys,” though the boys were never invited over to the house — our house was so tiny, Randy and I never had our own friends over either. We hung out on the street, even in winter, which is maybe why we were already drinkers ourselves the year we went to Carl’s Kabins.
The cabin we were given was even smaller than that house, and it smelled like dead fish, since it sat next to the fish-cleaning stand, which seemed to be a very popular rental for local raccoons who spooked Randy and me, standing on their back legs and hissing at us like vicious carnival toys in some horror movie we may have seen the previews to.
Randy and I shared a room at home, but at Carl’s we shared a bed, something we’d never done before. We slept far apart on the edges of the bed as stiff as those sides of cribs you slide up to keep the rascals in, fighting against the white sag in the middle of the bed that pulled us together.
Our mother cooked pancakes the first morning, though Carl didn’t have much cooking gear. She used a fireplace tool to flip them with, so they smelled a little ashy, but since our father smoked, we were used to ashes.
“They get you hooked, then they kill you,” he used to say about cigarettes and cigarette makers and all involved parties. Our mother was always after him to quit, and he did, right before he died. His prophecies were often true, though he made few of them.
“Good pahncakes, Ma,” Randy said. “They shtick to the woof a my mouf.”
I was busy wolfing down a glass of milk so I wouldn’t choke — the local grocery did not have syrup.
“What do they put on their pancakes up here so they don’t need syrup?” my father asked. He’d been trying to put a good face on the Guy from Work Mitch’s hot tip on an inexpensive resort vacation.