Uncle Pete died of thick blood. I imagined his heart being stalked, blood cooling mid-artery, crusty and black like those pictures in National Geographic of wide walls of lava slowly devouring green fields and igniting palm trees, sneaking up on sleeping villages. Cigar and cigarette smoke surrounded Pete wherever he went as if he, too, was smoldering. Smoke seeped into his nostrils, mixed with his blood like paste.
Once a month Pete would drive himself to the hospital in Traverse City where phlebotomists would bleed him, thin him out.
“Be sure to drink plenty of water with your pills,” the nurses would remind him.
“Blood thinners are for wimps,” he would bark. He was so stubborn nothing could dilute him.
He didn’t die alone, though. Lyda, his Best Girl, was by his side and a green Mercury Cougar collected fresh snow out in the nursing home parking lot. Lyda could no longer take care of him alone, going on eighty herself and her health failing. She was reluctant to leave Pete in the tiny, airless room surrounded by slick white walls that reflected every movement. They were used to rooms of knotted pine, darker than dirt, that absorbed every minute of their slow days. Pete and Lyda had lived on Black River for more than forty years, unscathed by scandal, as content as catfish. All of his brothers had passed on – six feet under or a mile up, depending on the brother, Pete used to joke. He and Lyda had no children, just the dusty cabin on a small patch of woods.
When he died at the beginning of a February in the early 1980’s, the ground was still frozen solid. The cemetery workers kept his body in the small stone building that doubled as a tool shed. Next to the riding lawn mower, backhoe and fertilizer, Pete would have to wait for the thaw before he became one more nutrient added to northern Michigan’s sandy soil. By May, his grave would be dug and Pete firmly planted, but the marker would be lost in the delay. Above town on a breezy hill, Pete would watch geese returning above gnarled lilac bushes and teenagers speeding away down the country road, though no one knew quite from where.
Pete, the flannelled henchman of northern spruce and paper birch woods, caretaker to a number of “downstater” cabins, had the keys to everyone’s back doors rattling in his sagging pockets. You would know if he had checked on the well pump, or for frozen pipes, if at the end of the driveway, cigarette butts were piled in a neat mound on the ground.
My mother would forgive this lazy habit, scoop up the mustard-stained filters and move them to the fire pit, not three feet from where Pete’s car door had opened.
As close friends of his favorite nephew, we had a special relationship with Pete. He was more concerned about our cabin than the others because he and his brother, Edward, a wounded WWII veteran, had built it in the early 60’s. With only three arms between us, Pete liked to brag. The cabin had the marks of craftsmen who knew the lay of the land: high up from the lake on well-draining soil, the cabin’s simple frame faced south; a central wood stove heated the pine walls, the hearth a glowing heart; and a deep, clean well delivered icy water that tasted of metal and blackness. Sometimes I thought Pete parked in the driveway and smoked simply to admire his own handiwork.
The only payments that he expected from my family for checking in, or that I saw exchanged, were the endless cups of black coffee and the occasional carton of Winstons. My father would lay out a few chubs on greasy newspaper, their flaky skin gleaming like the backs of mirrors. The salty smoked fish still had their heads attached, their mouths opened to a shocked, bronzed “O.” The two men would eat in silence, wiping their fingers on their jeans, and smoke.
The exchange of news swirled between and above them in a manly shroud. How many workers can Iacocca scrape up for a peso? Pete would demand, his voice like wet leaves on dry gravel, his stubby arms crossed. Besides being a logger in the Upper Peninsula in the 40’s, Pete had also worked in the auto plants in Detroit, a union member when it was young and as strong as steel. While Pete received both city papers, The News and The Free Press, two days late, he would always read them cover to cover. He needed to hear what another man thought about things that mattered. He consulted my father on most issues. The two men rarely agreed on anything.
Standing in my swimsuit and cut-offs one morning, I waited for them to pause. All I wanted to know was when the dam would be “dropped,” a mysterious event that I had yet to witness. The turbines ran rhythmically day and night, but the floodgate was used only to manage the lake’s levels, and keep properties dry. During one visit the pond water would lap at the undersides of the dock, high enough to cover my chest. A month later, the pond would be rimmed with smooth amber sand and olive algae, the water shallow and warm.
“Winter,” he guessed.
“If they dropped the dam tonight,” I argued, “we could have a beach.” As an eight year old girl, I was beginning to test the limits of persuasion.
“Could be so, sure.” Pete nodded and wedged a cigar in his mouth as if he had the keys to the dam, too.
When he was full of coffee, fish and news, Pete would shake my father’s hand, thank my mother, who had been sewing in the living room, and walk stiffly to his car. Sometimes Lyda’s poised, cottony head could be seen above the Cougar’s creamy white front seat, closer to the middle than to the passenger side. She never took up my mother’s offer to come into the cabin for a cup of coffee. My brother, Kurt, and I could sometimes see her eating out of a giant bag of potato chips while she waited, oversized binoculars propped up to her eyes, watching the trees that seemed empty to us. Pete would give her a small smile when he returned, slide into the driver’s seat and pull the long, squeaky car door shut. The Mercury would heft into gear, snake out of sight.
Dammed at two ends, Black River bloated into a pond, full of walleye and pike. I imagined sweaty crews of men digging in the 30’s, their chain-gang songs rising above the trench. When they finished, a gaping pipe reached out of the eastern dam, releasing the pent-up water. The riverbed’s taut skin swelled. The silted river churned the roots of birch, pine and spruce, trying to loosen their decades-long hold. The water turned from tannin to ink, inviting its name-sake to slide back in like an otter. The river rested. I imagined drowned deer tracks and the swollen and collapsed tunnels where rabbits hid.
Early in the spring, my father and Uncle Pete liked to cross-examine each other about fishing prospects: which leaf piles were the best for night crawlers; which pools would get hot enough for catfish; when to use tackle, when to use bait. My father’s red Victor tackle box held more oddities than a treasure chest. Careful not to prick my fingers on the hooks, I would sort and organize the lead sinkers by size, bobbers by color, and the rubbery worms and larvae according to brightness and strangeness. I was never allowed to use any of the small feathery flies for the proven fact that I would snag them on rocks below the dam. I imagined the tiny clots of color at the end of the line, wet and streamlined, pulled across the water’s thin shell, mesmerizing the fish below into a hunger-trance. The fish moved by instinct toward the wash of light and color that held, for a split second, all they desired in the world. The water, like churning oil, would suddenly tear open, birthing their pink-green bodies. Slapping themselves into a stunned state on the rocks, the fish would soon be dead.
Pete caught more fish than anyone I knew. He had the winters to practice his patience in an ice shanty. These get-aways were built of warped plywood, discarded shingles, and flapping tar paper and dotted the frozen pond like oversized outhouses. Big, white lettering proclaimed who each shanty belonged to – last name and town – as effective as NO GIRLS ALLOWED scrawled across a fort’s entrance. With propane heaters attached to each shanty like a suckling piglet and a case of beer snug inside, these enclaves were occupied all winter long. I pictured the men inside – their thoughts focused only on the hole between their unlaced boots, the thick green ice, the stagnant black water, and the hope of fish.
Sometimes we would hear reports of men who died alone, frozen in their tar-papered palaces.
By the end of March, any shanties not hauled off the ice by snowmobile or a brave pick-up, fell in. Leaning gradually, almost secretively, like the moon waning or water receding, they would crack the ice open with their bulk. During the spring thaw, if we were there to witness, Kurt and I would make bets with polished Petoskey stones on which day we would wake up and find the shanties drowned. The fossil prints on each stone rose to the surface like released air bubbles from a lake bottom.