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Kirk Park, Michigan: The Beach at Lake Michigan


100_1402This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project. 

Grandpa is usually quite the talker. There are only two things in the world that I know of that keeps him from talking to anybody and everybody still above ground—sleep and going to the beach.

“Who does he think he’s talking to?” Dad asked.

“Why don’t you get off your beach towel and ask him?” Mom replied.

It was the first Saturday of summer. We drove an hour to get to Lake Michigan. The endless water reminds people of the ocean, especially Grandpa.

“I’m not asking the old man anything,” Dad said. “He always keeps to himself when we go to the beach. Been that way for as long as I remember.”

I hear the ocean’s cleaner than any lake. I don’t know. I’m probably the only 11 year old that’s never seen the sea. Grandpa’s been to shores all over the world, places with funny names like Iwo Jima and Ford Island.

“Oh, that’s right. Talking to fathers doesn’t run in your family,” Mom said.

Lake Michigan was cold but the sun kept us warm. The beach smelled like sun tan lotion. The waves whispered whatever secrets they whisper while the seagulls chirp insults at each other or about us.

“He started that tradition,” Dad replied.

Mom looked around the beach like she was searching for someone. “That explains it.”

As a ladybug landed on my nose, a seagull swooped over my head trying to grab a Kit Kat out of my hand. While Mom and Dad kept talking, I thought to myself, Explains what?

“Explains what?” Dad asked.

Mom smiled, put her big sunglasses on and stretched out on a towel. Grandpa continued to keep close watch over the water, mumbling to himself. My little sister was showing off her stupid gymnastics as she walked by him—on her hands. Grandpa and I ignored her.

“Stop ignoring me,” Dad said to Mom. “Explains what?”

Mom answered as the sunshine lit up her face. “It explains why your oldest son isn’t here to enjoy the beach—with his father.”

Big brother Rob stayed at home again this year. He never goes with us to the beach anymore. He pretty much never goes on any family outings—unless Dad stays home. Grandpa stood at the shoreline for a good hour allowing the waves to gain ground on his toes, only to watch the water retreat again and again. When his quiet conversation with the wind finally wrapped up, Grandpa began walking up and down the beach like he was patrolling a perimeter. Marching up and down the beach as though waiting for orders to stand down. While Grandpa marched, my sister decided to prove just how annoying she could be. Shelby kicked sand all over my towel—even got on my Kit Kat. At Lake Michigan cartwheels are just a messy way to show off.

But with or without little sisters, with or without my family not-talking to each other, I love the beach at Lake Michigan—and I’m not the only one. I’ve noticed how ladybugs love the beach. Seagulls, who have never seen the sea, they love the beach too. It’s even possible that Grandpa loves the beach as much or more than any of us, despite his retreat into silence. The look in his glass eye, as it reflected the lake, looked to me like love. But still there was something in his good eye that made me cautious. Eleven-year-olds might not be right all the time. What I saw in that good eye of his could have gone either way. If not love it might have been something closer to fear. Either way, I’ve never seen love or fear that deep in a good eye.

Maybe he was looking for something that was supposed to wash up on shore. Or he might just of been remembering something or someone just beyond the horizon—maybe both.  But nothing floated to shore this year. Nothing ever does. The only shadows upon the waves belonged to seagulls swooping towards us like fighter planes.

“Ooooh, look at the pretty birdie,” my sister pointed out with her toes as she stood on her head.

The white bird swooped in low from the water right at her.

“That’s a seagull, Stupid,” I said, as politely as a big brother can.

Grandpa squinted with his good eye as though he had recognized something—something he’d been waiting for. Standing bravely at attention before the seagull’s descent, Grandpa finally spoke up.

“That’s a strafing pattern,” he said softly.

“What’s a chafing pattern?” my sister asked. But Grandpa didn’t answer. He looked over at Dad, then the rest of us. He looked around at the ladybugs, seagulls and once again at the waves crawling across the peaceful sand—advancing on our position. I figured that whatever was on his mind had nothing to do with who’s talking to whom. There were hidden sights and sounds all around him. But none of us could see nor hear any of it. Not Dad. Not Mom. And Shelby never would. But Grandpa’s glass eye—now that’s another story. The glass eye sees everything. Everything that’s there, was there, and ever will be.

The glass eye saw all it wanted to see of Lake Michigan. Grandpa surveyed the sky in all directions before cautiously retreating to the safety of the parking lot.

Alan Harris is a 61 year-old hospice volunteer who assists patients in writing stories, letters and poetry. Harris is the 2011 recipient of the Stephen H. Tudor Scholarship in Creative Writing, the 2014 John Clare Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Tompkins Poetry Award from Wayne State University. In addition he is the father of seven, grandfather of seven, as well as a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

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Union Grove, Wisconsin: A walk through memory


union groveThis essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Someday I’ll come back and they’ll be there again, the rolling fields and the small patches of woods, the corn and hayfields, whispering in the midday breeze under a fat sun in a cloudless sky.

They’ll return, and so will my youth, and I’ll run through the tall grass just because I can. My lungs will fill with the warm afternoon air I push through, and I’ll run until I collapse in the cool shade of one of those big oaks just south of the railroad tracks. I’ll close my eyes and when I open them I’ll be dizzy from the fresh air in my lungs. The green of the treetops will swirl with the deep blue of the sky into a kaleidoscope that twirls and spins to the rhythm of my throbbing heart.

After a while I’ll climb up on the tracks and follow them into town, past the empty backyards, the smell of freshly mown grass in my nostrils as I walk passed and on to the grain elevator and feed mill.

Then I’ll be downtown, standing on the tracks in the middle of Main Street, looking south at the storefronts. Everything will be the way it used to be; even the bank will be in that big old granite and marble building. The Ben Franklin store, the pharmacy, the bakery, the café, the grocery store, they’ll all be how they used to be.

I’ll follow the tracks to the old train depot, and it’ll be open again, like it was when I was small, and I’ll step in and sit in the waiting area, brightly lit through big windows by the afternoon sun, dust dancing in the streams of light. After a while, in the distance, I’ll hear the rhythmic hum of my train coming, getting closer and louder, then I’ll hear the clanging of the crossing bells on Main Street as it pulls up to the station. An unattended door will open and I’ll climb up and board the empty and ancient passenger car. I’ll take a seat on one of the wooden benches next to a window. As I sit there, the train will start to move, and I’ll wonder where it’s going to take me.

All I’ll know is that it’s not going to heaven, because heaven will be out my window, fading and vanishing.

David Gourdoux is a lifelong resident of the great state of Wisconsin, born in the rural wooded hills of its northwest and raised in the flat prairies of it southeast and forever attached to both. He is the author of a novel, “Ojibway Valley,” and has had short fiction published in The Midwest Prairie Review and Left of the Lake magazine. He is also a regular contributor of reviews and essays to the web site, “2nd First Look,” and maintains his own web page, djgourdoux.com


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Sault Ste. Marie: A River and Two Cities with One Name


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

When Hemingway dipped his hook in these waters the First World War was not two years over. Prohibition had just begun in the United States and the ferryboat between Ontario and Michigan was the only official way across the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie. Writing in 1920 for The Toronto Star Weekly, Hemingway called the fishing in the area, “…a wild nightmare.” The first people still call the waters and the villages nearby Baawitigong, which represents something like the sound of water over stone. The name has been Anglicized, stultified into hard syllables more accessible to the European tongue, into “Bawating” – a word that carries some of the meaning but none of the music of the original.


Although not as grand as Niagara Falls, or as storied as those on the St. Lawrence, the rapids at Sault Ste. Marie have teeth. Hemingway warned his readers, “It is dangerous wading in the spots that can be waded … for a mis-step will take the angler over his head in the rapids.” Before the dam, which stoppers the only natural outflow from Lake Superior, the sound of the water over stone was said to swallow all conversation within two miles.

In 1900, while Hemingway was in swaddling clothes in Oak Park, Ill., 62-year-old music teacher and daredevil in the making, Annie Edson Taylor somehow heard the rapids, muffled as they were from their unfettered glory by the new power dam. I like to think it was the roar of Baawitigong across the stones at the mouth of Lake Superior that sent her over Niagara Falls in a barrel the following year.

The river is a double-sided mirror with a city on each side each named by French explorers for the Virgin Mary. The “Soo” remains the only Canadian city with a French name to have banned the use of the French language for official city business. And Canada is a bilingual country. The word Sault is a lost word. It meant “leap” to the French voyageurs who tagged it to various water features across North America, but the word cannot be found in modern French dictionaries.

Someone who cares about hockey could fill an almanac with the names of players born here or those who have played here. But I hear the old rapids tear through the ages, see the whitefish leaping into the birch canoes of Anishinaabe anglers. When the Jesuit explorer-priests came through the area in the 17th century, they saw copper in the water and wrote of their findings. It would not be long before soldiers arrived to raise a cross on the river bank, to claim the land and the freshwater ocean beyond for King Louis XIII.

One of the first popular writer the area produced was Alan Sullivan whose 1922 novel The Rapids documented the rise and fall of an American industrialist named Robert Fisher Clark. Sullivan based his story on Francis Hector Clergue, an aspiring captain of industry from Maine, who almost single-handedly built the industrial infrastructure of the city. Clergue, or Clark as he is portrayed in the novel, saw the power of the rapids and its potential. The electricity came first, then the industry – a steel mill and a paper mill – followed by a city. The city was the aftereffect and not the reason for industrial expansion.

There are two Saults: A small Michigan town with a military base, the commercial lock that expedites more cargo each year than the Panama Canal and Lake Superior State University. Then there’s the larger Ontario Sault with its fading steel empire still chugging smoke and effluent, various government offices, a university and a college, hockey stars, a novelist or two, musicians and one world-famous astronaut after whom half of the city’s new buildings are named. Linked by a bridge that opened in 1969, the cities draw their boundaries along the river. From the Canadian side, the Otherworld is south. From the American side, the Otherworld lies north. The river between binds and divides, roots and severs, while it changes and remains unchanged.


Mark Dunn has published two books of poetry, Ghost Music ( BuschekBooks, 2010 ) and Fancy Clapping ( Scrivener PRess, 2012 ). The former has a chapter/section of poems that come from the river. He is currently working on a new collection of poetry, a book about marriage and a novel set in 1900 and a decade or two after. 

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