Tag Archives: sketches

LeRoy, Michigan: Coming Home to the Hill



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

In June, I came home to a hill on West 16 Mile Road in Michigan’s Osceola County. Life on the Texas Gulf Coast can be beautiful, but the sheer lush green of trees that aren’t bent by the wind, that are tall as centuries overhead and march sometimes in rows neatly ordered by the CCC decades ago, the glory of hills that roll up and down and give shape to land and sky. . . there is nothing like it. I know we’re almost home when the sound of the road under the tires changes from a blacktop “whoosh” to the crunch of gravel. I taste the dust in my mouth through the open windows, just a hint before the truck picks up speed and whisks the dust away behind us.

The stone house on the corner of those two roads, whose names I always forget (LeRoy Rd and something) is still my Grandma’s in my mind, and there just past the intersection is the Nelson place. There is a new house beside it, large and bright with gossip that my stepmom imparts as we pass.  Always there is something new: houses that look too shiny and raw, trees grown tall in my absence, the 1/16th mile of blacktop that spans the trout stream we used to throw rocks into in hopes of scaring the beavers away. The beavers, being smarter and not inclined to be stoned, never paid us any heed.

But some things are the same. The light is dappled where it slants through the trees, golden and almost warm to my southern skin. The ferns that grow in the shadow of the woods that have crept much closer to the road than I remember. The pines on the corner that used to be part of a tree farm are too tall for Christmas now, but they smell like Michigan: sharp and cool and redolent of camping trips under a sky bright with stars. My parents’ place is just beyond, at the top of a hill—the OLD Nelson place, folks still often call it, though it hasn’t been owned by the Nelsons since the late 80s.

I hate going inside when I first come home. The air is so clear, so clean and light without the cloying humidity of the Gulf, even with the dust of the dirt road hanging in the wake of our arrival. Birds, chickadees and finches and blue-jays, red-headed woodpeckers and grosbeaks and robins, the cacophony of my childhood, flutter up from the feeders as I bypass the door to wander instead across the patio along the flower garden. I have to see what’s in bloom, what’s still waiting. I have to revel in summer air that still has a slight chill in it. It’s June and I could put a sweater on!

Later, I am surprised by the turkey-hens pecking corn around the bird-feeders. These are new arrivals, and while they will leave if I go out, they stay while I sit on the deacon’s bench under the front window and watch them. I never realized how much dignity a wild turkey has, but these dames are stately in everything they do. Even when Dad comes around the corner with the dog and they decide it’s time to go, their haste has dignity. They are queens, and dog or no dog, will not be hurried across the driveway and into the pines.

After the sun goes down, much later than it does in Texas, so far to the south, I volunteer to take the dog out. There is too much light where I live, but here, if I step around the house and let the motion light switch itself off, the sky is breathtaking. It sweeps away from my little hilltop, so achingly clear that I feel my heart clench for a moment at the wonder of it. I feel, just for a moment, like I can see straight to Heaven from the top of that hill on West 16 Mile Rd.

Vickie Andresen Sedillo was born in Grayling, MI, and raised in LeRoy. Serving in the US Navy took her away from Michigan in 1990, and marrying a Navy man landed her in south Texas, where she still lives with him and their three children. She has a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Creative Writing, and a Master’s Degree in Rhetoric and Composition. Currently, she teaches academic English and writing to international students with ESLI at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and writes in her spare time.

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Hell, Michigan: I’m from Hell


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

By Sswonk (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

By Sswonk (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I’m from Hell.  Almost.

Technically, I’m from Pinckney, but I claim Hell.  How could I not?  The winding roads of the area create a playground for motorcyclists.  Teams of Harleys, mostly, can frequently be spotted along M-36, all the way through Pinckney, making the turn on Darwin to Hell.

Yes, that’s right.  The road to Hell is called Darwin.

The final sharp curve opens to two brightly colored buildings, and a giant pole with arrows pointing in all directions gives the miles from here to various locations across the world.  Sixty-two miles to Detroit, 3,683 miles to North Pole, Alaska.  There is a portable marquee that offers puns, or congratulations to brides and grooms getting married in the chapel out back, in big black letters.  My favorite message:  “Welcome to Hell: Now Serving Ice Cream”.  There is mini golf and a boy and a girl devil painted on a piece of plywood with ovals cut out to stick your faces in and take a picture.  I have permanent proof that “I’m a little devil from Hell”, because that’s what we’ve all always wanted to be, isn’t it?  There is a gift shop full of Hell, Michigan branded merchandise that can be sent to friends who couldn’t make the journey to the dark land.  You can buy a thong that says “I’ve been to Hell and back”, or a keychain with a cartoon devil bent over with its pants half down.

Every possible play on the town’s name is printed on something.  The ashtrays, bottle openers and other tchotchkes will certainly spend their entire lives outside of that shop in the back of the drawer in everyone’s kitchen that no one ever cleans out.  There’s a bar next door to downtown Hell called the Dam Site Inn.  It’s exactly like you want it to be.  The floors sticky, the beer cheap, the light from Big Buck Hunter dim in the back corner.  The motorcycles packed three or four deep out front.

When he proposed and I said yes, I immediately knew I wanted to get married in my hometown.  I looked for fields or barns to rent and came up empty handed.  Then I remembered.  There’s a little chapel in Hell.  I met with the man who owns the place.  He once owned the car dealership in Pinckney so though we’d never met, his name was as familiar to me as anything from my childhood.  He rented me the chapel and field next to it.  I was nervous to tell my future in-laws, very conservative Southern Baptists, we were getting married in Hell, but they thought it was great.  They even told their Bible study group.  My dad was often given the response of, “of course Patti would get married in Hell.”  I knew exactly what they meant.  I sent out Save the Date cards from the post office branch there, and the woman behind the counter burned the corner of each one, then firmly stamped “I’ve been through Hell” in the left corner.  It was perfect.

A wedding in Hell. Courtesy of the author.

A wedding in Hell. Courtesy of the author.

We had the rehearsal dinner at my grandpa’s house a few lakes over.  We ate pizza from Zukey, drank beer and went swimming.  I woke up to a rainbow over Bass Lake, my niece and nephew already dressed in their fancy clothes.  The day was here.  “Congratulations Patti and Jason” on the marquee.  The field opened up and created quite a beautiful scene, the rushing river adding to the soundtrack of acoustic guitar and motorcycle engines.  Hundreds of candy colored balloons dotted the landscape.  I wore an off-white lace dress and walked down the aisle on my dad’s arm.  My oldest best friend officiated the ceremony, and when I looked out at the crowd, all huddled under their umbrellas because it was raining in Hell on my wedding day, I cried. It was, again, perfect.  Full of love and just the right amount of levity.  My sisters of blood and circumstance stood to my side with ribbons tied around their waists.  As soon as the ceremony was over, the rain stopped and sun flooded down on my new life.

Under the high peak of the tent were tables set with antique dishes collected over years by my dear friend.  She chose each cup to match each plate so when you looked at them all in a row, another rainbow appeared.  Flowers grown on a friend’s mother’s land, red, orange, yellow tied with tidy little twine bows, stalks of wheat to represent the prairie of my almost husband’s home. Wheat grass sprouted in planters built for me, lined up and creating a low runner of bright green down the center of the tables.  Soft white round lights climbed the seams of the tent and wrapped around the center pole, and as the sun set they played like the stars that wouldn’t come out in the sky.  I got to dance with Dad to the same song he played every time he’d picked me up from the airport, swaying slowly and completely unaware of everything else.  My husband and I smashed cake into each other’s faces, then he smashed it in my five year old nephew’s face which took everyone by surprise.  The little guy got him back, though, I made sure of that.  We listened to A$AP Rocky as loud as possible and danced and danced and danced.  I was home, surrounded by my most favorite people, eating, drinking, dancing, celebrating my love, in Hell.  The kitsch of the town, it just fit.  I was happy.

The marriage lasted only a few months.  Turns out, the little devil wasn’t me.  Back in Hell, I received an official certificate declaring I got married there.  In the legal sized manila envelope was another piece of paper, this one a coupon for a free second wedding if the first one didn’t work out.  They say a marriage that starts in Hell has nowhere to go but up, but even they don’t believe that.

Patricia Wheeler currently splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and Johnson City, Tennessee. She is the The Moth’s Michigan StorySLAM producer and has the honor of studying storytelling in Appalachia. 

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Fenstad’s Resort, Minnesota: A Most Superior Retreat


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

Fenstad'sJust north of Little Marais, Minnesota a narrow wooded road snakes from Highway 61 down to Lake Superior. Our family’s favorite place on earth, Fenstad’s Resort, perches there on the lake’s North Shore. It is a small unassuming “mom and pop resort” tightly woven into our personal histories. Year by year our photo albums chronicle growth and change in the same beloved spots: around a driftwood fire on the beach, high on the cliffs looking north to Canada, gulls circling and delicate blue harebells nodding in the breeze. In the rocky harbor anchored by the old fish house, an upside down horseshoe above its door.

Fenstad’s has provided snug respite to families for more than 100 years, but was first discovered by ours the year after my dad died, when Mom instigated an annual retreat with grandchildren. But soon one summer visit wasn’t enough and we joined the privileged few with a yearly August reservation—fleeing the heat and humidity of Minneapolis/St. Paul, just four hours south. The North Shore’s natural air conditioning cooled and calmed us, courtesy of Lake Superior, the largest, deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes.

On that first visit in June the ice was off the lake, but as we passed through Duluth lilacs still bloomed—a full month later than in St. Paul. Heat was sorely needed in our little three room cabin at night and Mr. Fenstad hiked up to Hilltop cabin after dark to install a new thermostat. It was a cozy way to get acquainted—the kids tucked into beds and air mattresses, and mere curtains for doors. My mom and Mr. Fenstad were similar in age, and his wife and two grown sons helped run the resort—all quiet Nordic types and dedicated stewards of the land. Seventeen rustic cabins rimmed the beach, skirted the two small rivers that rolled into the lake, and climbed the hill to the cliffs adjoining unspoiled state land.

The moment we arrived, the baseball player trudged up a river path in search of a sturdy stick for smacking rocks far into the lake. The agate hunter sifted stones at the water line, alert to the tell-tale translucent swirls, and occasionally reminded herself to look up, to the distant horizon—no land visible across the freshwater sea. Grandma strolled, searching for one smooth oval stone among the thousands that lined the lake in shades of charcoal—the one she would dub a perfect “worry stone.” The hiker headed up to the cliffs, and the girl cousins lit off for the swings, or perhaps the tether ball—legs lifting, hair blowing, giggles floating back on the breeze.

The Fenstads provided what we needed and thankfully they knew when to stop. Knotty pine paneling, large windows onto the lake, spare, but comfy furnishings, a basic kitchen, no television, and until recently, no cell phone service. Heaven. Regulars at Fenstad’s don’t long for jacuzzis, granite countertops or channel surfing. Dramatic north woods views, quiet and the simple pleasures of outdoor living ruled the days. Raspberry picking with the sun hot on our necks and the smell of tar rising from the wooden bridge over the creek. Beach time building rocky dams, tiny houses, paths and gardens, while lulled by the lap of waves. And competitive hunts for quirky driftwood finds—look, it’s a funny bird, an alligator, a dog.

Fenstad’s anchored our world, but we ventured out occasionally to state parks like Temperance boasting narrow waterfalls churning their way to the lake, boreal forests of birch and pine and boiling rivers the color of root beer. Few seemed to find our spot near the beach at Split Rock, but we ran for it just in case others dared infringe on the lone fire pit for our hot dogs. The crowds clustered up at the famous lighthouse while we gazed at the postcard view from the shade of birch trees below. Birches dubbed “dalmatian trees” by the baseball player as a four year old, noting their dappled bark.

On hot August days the Baptism River at Tettegouche lured us in to swim—its water warm next to Superior’s legendary chill. Each year waves and weather reshaped the mouth of the Baptism and its small beach. In narrow years the river spat us far out into the lake at great speed—an exhilarating ride that entailed a tough swim back to shore.

Later, Grandma unpacked the picnic bag under the lone cedar tree—a speck of shade nestled between the small beach and two cliffs. My mom was the Queen of Picnics, she-who-would-not-willingly-eat-in-a-restaurant, weather-permitting (or not). We lunched on sandwiches and oatmeal cookies while behind us walkers hiked by intent on Shovel Point and jaw-dropping views. As we settled into post=meal snooze time, young daredevils jumped one by one from the rocky crag into the river. Often it was the afternoon heat that chased us back to Fenstad’s, or the biting flies. Sometimes it was the summer fog. We’d see it first as a narrow white line hovering on the horizon, then a curtain drifting closer, to quickly engulf us in damp, and temperatures dropping instantly by thirty degrees.

Twilight always found us back at Fenstad’s around a driftwood fire toasting fire food. Food on a stick of course, as at the Minnesota State Fair, s’mores naturally, but also our family specialty—dough wrapped around a green stick—a burnt biscuit with butter and local blueberry jam. There was no better place to spend a summer evening than on our own beach, gazing at the ragged silhouette of the Sawtooth mountains while the sky went pink.

The hiker roamed far for chunks of birch, while the girl cousins settled for tinder left in tiny piles by the waves. They sang softly, practicing their songs for Grandma—performances for later, after dark, while swatting mosquitoes, listening for loon calls, and hoping for the northern lights. As usual, the baseball player sent stone after stone towards the setting sun. Later he will set down his stick and pick up his guitar to join them.

Lindsey McDivitt is a Minnesotan now living in Michigan and expanding her explorations to all five Great Lakes that rim its upper and lower peninsulas. Sandy beaches and even swimmable lakes! But Superior still has her heart. Now writing for kids and adults, she worked in healthcare for many years, primarily with stroke survivors. Lindsey believes children’s picture books are ideal for sparking conversations to increase understanding between generations and change attitudes to aging. She reviews Positive Aging picture books on her blog at www.a-is-for-aging.com

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

There’s a plaque at the corner of West Wacker and North LaSalle, just above the Chicago River that most workers, tourists, homeless, cabbies, school children and shoppers hustle by without a glance. The bronze sign marks where 844 people drowned right in the Loop on a summer day.

The mammoth Western Electric plant in Cicero once held annual employee parties and promoted them with zeal.  Departments competed for the most attendance. It was a rare day off for employees and their families to dress up for a trip to the beach in Michigan City. There would be a parade and picnics, dancing, games and sports, and a cruise on one of the big steamer ships. In 1915 seven thousand put on their Sunday clothes and went into the city to board in the early morning of July 24.

Western Electric hired five excursion steamers to shuttle passengers back and forth and the S.S. Eastland was popular because she was scheduled to depart first. White, elegant, she was slim as a narrow slice of a five-layered cake. The Eastland once sailed regularly between Chicago and South Haven, Mich. loaded with summer vacationers and docked exactly where I now enjoy my summer drinks on the Black River.  In fact, the Eastland was built to navigate the shallow Black River which made the ship notoriously tippy.

On that July day, while 2,500 Western Electric people surged on board, Ragtime music floated from her promenade deck. They squeezed through the mob to claim an empty chair, their first beer or a spot in the smoking lounge or along the rail to wave their handkerchiefs in happy farewells.

It was the kind of day you proposed to your girl, put your toddler in his best sailor suit.  And maybe when the ship first rolled and righted, you gasped, then laughed out loud. Maybe you skidded and your stomach tightened but saw the ship was still lashed to the dock. When it tilted again, the band braced and kept on playing.  But then it leaned far over. In the stunning quiet a piling ripped from the pier like a yanked tooth and under the weight of too many passengers, too little attention to ballast, the tall, narrow ship rolled right over on its side into the filthy river.

Deck chairs, tables, china, lovers thrown. The piano slid and crushed a man.  Straw skimmers, music stands, the big safe. A refrigerator toppled. Bottles, exploded glass. Layers of fancy clothes dragged mothers under. The calliope. A small boy, his head lolling. Baskets, music stands, mandolins. Gawky young men slammed, pinned. Umbrellas, bookcases, babies, girls and grandmothers plunged below.

They fought for air, fought for help, fought each other. Men helped women; men clawed and clambered over women, and children slipped from their hands. Mouths open in shock filled with water. Rivets popped. The ship shuddered and growled. Those trapped in the black interior groped for purchase in pockets of air.  Held to each other. Held on alone.

The whole city galvanized and sprang to action. They threw beams, chicken crates, life preservers. They leapt, arms stretching, legs kicking, into a soup of bodies, trash and screaming. Grappling hooks and nets fished the river.  They cut open the Eastland’s hull and dropped ropes, ladders, helmeted divers.  A young man the newspapers called “the human frog” dove past exhaustion to pull up forty bodies on his own. The weight of sodden, tangled clothes.  Dresses clawed to shreds.  Hands full of hair.  Bodies were hauled to the great maw of the armory and laid out for someone to come and identify them.  The majority of the dead were young women and children.  The city ran out of coffins.

There were 10,000 witnesses in the Loop that day thinking, “They’ll still be talking about this a hundred years from now!”

Marion Starling Boyer is a professor emeritus of Communication courses at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. She has two published collections of poetry, The Clock of the Long Now (2009, Mayapple Press) and Green 2003, Finishing Line Press). Boyer’s Composing the Rain won Grayson Book’s 2014 chapbook competition and publication is forthcoming. She enjoys spending her summers in South Haven, Mich..

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Dearborn_MichiganBY CAL FREEMAN

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

“Hey Cal Cal, I got that new drill,” my neighbor yells through my side door.  I am at the computer, working on a poem tentatively titled, “Sunflowers in Dearborn.”

This poem may not go anywhere good, and my neighbor, Jerry Nichols, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska and moved to Detroit to drive a double hitch gravel hauler at the height of Teamster power in the mid-1960s, will not likely be remembered by history as a “Person from Porlock,” the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unwelcome visitor while he composed “Kubla Khan,” but his intrusion still annoys me.

I reluctantly get up from the computer to go look at the drill he’s bought and share a Budweiser, though.  After all, I do feel somewhat responsible for what happened to the other one.  I didn’t break it or anything, but whoever stole it did so by sneaking through my yard to get in to his garage, and neither my dog nor I noticed.  The cops are sure the theft is the work of a “crackhead named Kelley Greenway.”  An old guy, they tell us, who just got out of Dickerson Detention Facility last week.  Stealing tools from peoples’ garages and selling them to Inkster pawn shops for crack is his M.O.  Not to worry.  He’ll be back in jail within weeks.

The new drill’s orange; it comes with a half dozen different-sized bits, and get this, it has an extra battery pack.  “Cuz you remember how that old one was always running out of juice on me,” he says, which I don’t, but I nod my head as I sip my beer and look around the garage.  I need to return some bottles.  Eighteen-packs of Budweiser are stacked five high and ten across before the workbench, and the floor is littered with old caps.

I love Jerry.  He’s saved my ass more than a few times when plumbing or cars have broken.  There isn’t much that he can’t repair. I tell people he should have been an engineer, the way he makes his own tools from cast-off parts and can reassemble a transmission after simply glancing at the gears and bolts spread out on his garage floor.  The first time I met him, he introduced himself and handed me a beer saying, “If it ain’t Bud it ain’t beer, and if it ain’t country it ain’t music.”  I kept my dismissal of this apothegm to myself.

I don’t bother to even mention the fact that I write poems to any of my neighbors.  Most of them are diesel mechanics and skilled tradesmen whose notion of relaxation involves vast quantities of beer and throwing horseshoes in someone’s backyard.  As it is, they make fun of me for reading books.

When my in-laws come over, Jerry’s fond of telling them things like, “Cal would’ve raked the leaves, but they don’t got books on that.”

If someone had told me six years ago that my best friend would be a septuagenarian, alcoholic, ex-truck driver who talked like a truck driver, I wouldn’t have believed it, and not having Jerry in my yard every day creating projects for himself would obviously allow more writing time, but time for writing about what?  What’s the point of an un-peopled prosody?  It became clear to me that my neighbors would have to be present in my writing or there wouldn’t be any writing.  One can’t cover Dearborn, Mich., birthplace of the middle class, without giving a nod to these crusty old union folks anyway.

One morning Jerry’s fixing my sink, holding a wrench sleeve he’s made from the straight piece of a drain trap. I’m drinking coffee and reading Claude Levi-Strauss’, The Savage Mind, occasionally getting up to hand him beers or toolsBricolage.  Elements and parts spirited-away, cultural practices borrowed and applied in situations where they seem to work. “Parts of sinks spirited-away to become parts of new sinks,” I write in my notebook.  This line is the hatching for a prose poem called, “A Structuralist’s Guide to Sink Maintenance.”  Instead of lamenting the neighborhood’s interruptions, I allow the interruptions to be the writing now.  Snippets overheard, plumbing and auto repair as figures for the kind of tinkering, reordering, borrowing and outright theft that writing poetry takes.

Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit. His writing has appeared in many journals including Commonweal, The Journal, Nimrod, Drunken Boat, Ninth Letter, and The Cortland Review. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and creative nonfiction.  Recently an excerpt from his novel, Tractors, was published by the journal, Works in Progress.  He currently teaches at Oakland University and lives in Dearborn, Mich.   

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

It’s my opinion that Chelsea, Michigan is the best place to see the stars. I wager them’s fightin’ words for some people, including my dad, who brought me up in Chelsea but now lives in Kodiak, Alaska; a stone’s throw from the Aurora Borealis exploding pink and green and gold across the sky. I live in Chicago. You can’t even see the stars in Chicago. It’s never dark enough. Too many street lamps, too much traffic, too many people awake all hours with the lights on, too much electricity and movement and noise. A couple of lifetimes ago, when I transferred my junior year and moved to Chicago, I walked out of a 2 a.m. bar into the wild late-night city, looked up at the empty sky, and asked my friend, “Do the stars only come out when it’s quiet?” It was exactly the sort of thing I’d have said at nineteen, hiding all that fear under something pretentious. Or maybe I was just drunk. Or maybe I really did want to know about the stars. I don’t remember. I was so young then. I had new friends, a new apartment in Ukrainian Village, new clothes, new music, new fake ID—an entirely brand new identity. I had many identities, over the years. I put them on and took them off like sweaters.

High school had been… let’s say complicated. I imagine that’s the case for most people. Where do you put all that frustration and hope and adrenaline? The hormones and the music and the discovery and the doubt? Growing up, there was a small lake behind my house and sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’d spread blankets on the floor to muffle my footsteps and sneak outside to the dock. Keeping your balance in a canoe can be tricky in the dark, but I’d push off across the water, floating around, and feeling like I was inside the Hubble Telescope. I’ve since seen this scene in dozens of movies; the hero looks up, millions of stars blanketing him from above, and has some sort of epic epiphany about how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things. Or how connected we are in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe how trusting. In high school, I fiercely believed in grand schemes, and those stars seemed like proof, an enormous bibliography for my desperate teenage questions.

Still, something was missing out there. It was too… quiet.

Let’s be honest: I wasn’t only sneaking out to row around alone and Have Feelings. I was also making out in cornfields with boys, boys I totally shouldn’t have been making out with but damn it was fun at the time. If you’re unfamiliar with Southeast Michigan, there are many, many cornfields, and on any given night you’ll be able to find a couple of teenagers rolling awkwardly around on top of those scratchy wool blankets from the trunk of their mom’s car. I don’t remember all of their names, but I remember laying on my back and watching the stars.

Still: it was too quiet. Too much shhhh somebody’ll hear us, shhhhh keep your voice down, shhhhh what’s that noise you’re making? Is that a good noise? Or a bad noise? SHHHHH.

So here’s what I’d do: head west out of downtown Chelsea, towards the really big lake where Jeff Daniels lives, and there’s a curve of train tracks that cuts across the road and runs parallel with it for a half mile or so. And then, right before the road and track split again, pulling away from each other like a slingshot, there’s a little shed. To this day, I don’t know what it’s for, though I imagine some kind of maintenance supplies. Anyhow, that’s where I’d go—that shed—at first leaning my bicycle against it and then, later, after I turned sixteen, parking my awful rundown orange Toyota, the one I’d gas up with meticulously collected pop cans cashed in at Polly’s for ten cents per. I’d sit on the little steps leading up to that shed. It would take the longest time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, allowing me to make out the outline of my own hand in front of my face. In the rare moments that cars would pass, I’d go temporarily blind from the brights turned on high against the deer regularly crisscrossing the road, but then they’d be gone and again—darkness. Darkness and stars, lighting up the sky like some fucking miracle. I’d wait there, sometimes a few minutes, sometimes an hour, but eventually I’d hear the train, first a dull roar from miles off but getting louder, louder. I could feel its tremor, climbing up through the tracks and into my shoes. I could see its headlight illuminating everything like a stage spotlight, coming closer, faster, louder, the engine about to eat me alive and finally—finally—I screamed. That’s what I’d wanted to do all along. To scream my head off. To throw my voice at it, all of it, the frustration and the hormones, the confusion and the doubt, everything raw and awful and wonderful about being so totally out of control, so totally bottled up, so totally young.

Over the past… god, nearly two decades, I’ve gone back to Chelsea many times. A friend gave me the great gift of letting me stay at his farm while I finished my book, a mercifully quiet room of one’s own. I’ve done shows in Ann Arbor with a traveling theatre company, selling out Zingerman’s with wine and stories. But most of all, I’m there visiting my mom. She still lives in the area, and we’re close. Back when I was in grad school, I’d take the Amtrak home from Chicago, showing up with luggage full of dirty clothes because, for some reason, it seemed easier to haul it to Michigan than down the street to the laundromat. Later, I’d drive in between semesters at the college where I taught, reading student work in her basement, reading student work at the Fleetwood, reading student work at Kosmo over Bi Bim Bop. More recently, she plays with her now six-year-old grandson while I try to make deadlines, the two of them hitting the bike trails around Dexter, and I’m grateful for this time for him out of the city, to capture turtles and toads in the river the way I did when I was kid. I’m grateful that he gets to slow down. I get to slow down, too.

There was one night, a few months after he was born, that I called my mom from Chicago crying. I was so tired, so scared, so in the fog of it, and after a brief conversation, I packed him up in the car seat and we drove the four hours overnight to Chelsea. Sometimes, you have to find the place where you can rest. You need your mom to take care of you. You need to let yourself crack. How long did I sleep? Minutes? Days? When I finally woke up, it was the middle of another night and everyone else was asleep. I remember getting into the car, turning on the brights, and driving west from downtown to where the train tracks cut across the road. I followed them ‘til they turned into a slingshot, parked my car, and walked down to the shed, amazed and relieved that it was still there. I sat on the little steps and looked up at the stars—when was the last time I saw them? When was the last time I even looked? My entire life, I’d lived in cities: Boston, Florence, Chicago, Prague. You can’t see the stars from the city, at least not like a blanket above you, or the inside of a telescope, or the answer to an impossible question. My time in Chelsea is the only time I’ve had them at the ready, just a tiptoe down the stairs and out the back door, careful that it won’t slam behind you and wake up your parents. I thought of those midnight bike rides down Cavanaugh Lake Road, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old and all I wanted to do was scream. Now I was thirty-three, sitting in the darkness, trying to see my own hand in front of my face. Thirty-three and waiting for the train. Waiting to throw my voice at it, all of it, the frustration and the hormones, the confusion and the doubt, everything raw and awful and wonderful about being so totally out of control, so totally joyful, so totally free.


Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011, and Once I Was Cool, a book of essays forthcoming in May 2014. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been included in The Best American Essays, The Rumpus, PANK, Other Voices, and elsewhere, and she’s the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series.

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

Faded_RJR-1We talked about doing doughnuts next winter in the parking lot of the school and compared notes on how best to achieve one. Of driving vanfuls of friends to the movies, no longer being dependent on our parents or older brother and sisters. About how cool it would be to finally be able to go on real dates, to drive—ourselves—to pick up the girls, open the door for them and park at Saint Mark Lutheran—way in the back, where you can’t be seen from the road—play a CD and just see what happens.

Then Adam, sprawled out on my bedroom floor, said, “And we can go downtown anytime we want. I heard it’s so crazy down there.

“What about the S-curve? I don’t want to drive on that,” Daren said sitting up.

“No shit. Friend of a friend’s dad lost control of his brakes on it. Almost died,” I said. “Truth.”

“Everyone says they know someone who almost died on the S-curve,” Adam said. “It’s all bullshit.”

“Well, we can just take Eastern all the way down. That eventually gets you downtown.” I traced my finger along the unfolded map spread between us, routes highlighted in neon green and pink, future voyages we had been planning for months that would take us to all corners of Grand Rapids.

“But it takes forever,” Adam said. “The idea is to get down there quick and spend all our time hanging out.” Pause. “Oh, and there’s a hot dog place that we have to try. Heard it was awesome. It’s right by the liquor store.”

“And you’re sure they won’t card us?”

“Chris said they don’t card anywhere in Eastown. We’ll be fine.”

“What about parallel parking?” Daren asked. “Are you guys ready for that?”

“My dad made me practice in the van,” I said. “Set up two garbage cans and if I hit them I had to start over.”

“Are you going to be getting your own car eventually?” Adam asked. “Because you’ll be the first one with a license and I don’t really want to be seen in the van.”

“The van’s all right,” Daren said. “He and Becky made out in the back of it.”

“Yeah, but they were in the garage waiting for his parents to drive her home,” Adam said. “No offense.”

“I think I might be getting my sister’s Honda Civic,” I said. “It’s an eighty-nine.”

“All right,” Adam said. “That works. So you’ll have to be our go-to guy until I get mine a few months later.” Pause. “My dad’s getting me a Grand Prix. Red one.”

“Sweet,” I said, jealous, but trying hard not to show it. “That’s an awesome car.”

“I know.”

“My brother said that they’re working on technology where the cars will park for us,” Daren said.

“Yeah, right.”

“Not now, but in like five years or something.”

“I think,” Adam said while slapping Daren’s back, “that he’s just afraid of the parking test.”

“Leave him alone,” I said. “It’s the worst part.”

“No, the city driving is. You have to be real careful. Plus, they have a little steering wheel on their side of the car in case you really mess up.”


“They have brakes, too.”

We sat in silence thinking about it, about all of the tests on the horizon, if we were really, truly prepared, and then my mind went back to the church parking lot, to the stories I’d heard—the magical place it seemed to be. I thought about whether it was a sin, being in the parking lot, or if the whole property up to 52nd Street was part of the church—if all of it was God’s—and if Becky and I making out and feeling each other up in the back of my parents’ Astro was something I’d go to hell for. I imagined the place as I knew it—old stones making up the foundation, brown roof and stumpy spire, the parking lot’s cracked blacktop split by green weeds, plants I didn’t know the name of that no one had the money to deal with—and I couldn’t help but think that, in the dark, it didn’t matter where we’d go. We’d be there, alone and illuminated by the dashboard clock, the CD playing, the blackness of the deep summer night protecting us from roving cops or prying neighbors.

Then Adam stood, distracted, and pulled out the crinkled PlayStation Magazine from his coat, the one with Resident Evil on the cover—the guy making that grunting face carrying a big gun. “Whatever,” he said turning on the little television and flipping through the magazine. “We’ll all pass and before we know it we’ll be men. Men with cars. And life will be good.” Daren nodded and removed the CD from its box, blew on the back of it and placed it in the system.

“That’s right,” I said studying the map again, alone on the floor now, following the snaking Grand River and imagining the currents, the salmon and steelhead swimming upstream, the empty buildings downtown and how scared of it all I was. “Real good.”

Robert James Russell is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominated author and founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. His work has appeared in Squalorly, Buffalo Almanack, Pithead Chapel, Crime Factory, WhiskeyPaper, and The Collagist, among others. Find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.

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Kalamazoo_sketchBY GEOFF HYATT

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

Kalamazoo is an easy place to lose your mind, and how much you enjoy that depends on the manner in which it unravels.

The brick water tower of what used to be called the Michigan Asylum for the Insane peers over a wooded hill’s crest and into the valley below to greet visitors approaching from the highway to the west. Equidistant from Detroit and Chicago, the town is a common way station for drug traffickers heading in either direction. Add to this the immortal post-hippie culture endemic to all Midwestern college towns, as well as the established tradition of rural marijuana cultivation combined with the more recent phenomenon of local methamphetamine production, and you have an ideal culture for either a laid-back, chilled-out slacker life of good buzzes and satisfactory art—or a toxic miasma of antisocial behavior and shocking depravity. You only get so much choice in the matter.

I came back to visit a few years ago, meeting with a cohort from back-in-the-day at an electronic music show presented in the back of a pizza parlor. As we approached the crowd smoking outside the venue, my girlfriend leaned into me and whispered, “I’ve never seen so many white people with dreadlocks in my entire life.”

It was nice to see everyone again, crowded together, breathing and jostling in the sweat and grease. The darkened stage area in back was mobbed in a counterculture event, the front well-lit and looking like nothing other than a beer-slinging pizzeria. Gut-thumping dubstep pounded and belched at the command of what appeared to be a 12-year-old decked out in urban street fashion and hopping around a console onstage. Occasionally, other boys and girls joined the show to breathe fire or perform routines with neon hula-hoops. We all drank and yelled at one another over the music and danced a bit, and somehow we ended up over on Oak or Vine, like we always used to, the “student ghetto” teeming with Children of Fortune, cast off and drifting through strange microcosms with no destination other than a good time in great old houses carved into leaning musty apartments illuminated by strings of light and filled with throbbing bass, swarmed and blurred with voices.

All of us and so many strangers crowded onto the front porch of a slouching house, and my girlfriend said, “I’ve never seen so many people just passing around so much pot in my entire life,” and I smiled and passed a fifth of Jack to another girl and the drummer I used to jam with showed up in his Vanagon and released two bounding, energetic mongrels wearing neckerchiefs, the dogs jumping all over everyone and barking, we hugged and somebody was playing a harmonica, and the hash oil came around and a bottle of wine and some kids were making out in the yard and everyone was laughing and hollering until someone from the house came out to angrily shoo everyone off the porch, out of the yard and street, but no one would leave until the cops rolled by and everyone drifted away in all directions as if they had been there by accident and sought another place to start it all again.

Ages or a moment later my girlfriend and I ended up crashing out in my friend’s girlfriend’s kid’s room—the kid was gone that night but all the little books and toys sat on shelves in the dark, the moonlight submerging it all in shades of blue except the dollhouse’s four windows that were shadowed black black black black and she clung onto me and I asked if she was okay.

“Just overwhelmed,” she said. “Sorry, it’s a bit much all at once.”

I laughed in a way that seemed to frighten her for a moment, but then I said it was okay, that I understood, and the only thing we had to do was sleep. I laid curled under the covers with her, all of everything gently spinning, drifting, thinking how good it felt to be alone, to be with someone, to be back, to know that I could leave.

Geoff Hyatt is the author of the novel, “Birch Hills at World’s End”. His short fiction has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Thuglit, Knee-Jerk Magazine, and elsewhere. He has shown intermittent enthusiasm for electric guitars, Bronze Age comic books, and early 1970s black light posters. A Michigan native, he now lives in Chicago. 


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Jackson, Michigan: Nothing is flying tonight


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

Chase, 72, and Zigler lived together for 10 years. In December 2010 though, Zigler died in his sleep at age 67. Instead of letting go of her good friend though, Chase ended up keeping him in the chair in which he died.” Jackson (Mich.) Citizen-Patriot

Sometime after you’ve made it beyond the worst of the worst, you arrive in Jackson.  Jackson is halfway between Here and There, but for you this is it.  Jackson is where you live now.  Park, walk around.  It looks a little stunned, this town, a little shaky.  Streets a mite too wide for the traffic.  Downtown, five blocks of buildings that have all been through too many incarnations to matter.  At one end sits the Carnegie Library, like a dowager whose money used to run the place.

At the other end is a kind of plaza at the feet of a tall, shiny structure topped with a corporate logo.  It looms over the lesser buildings like the motivational speaker who strides into a windowless conference room at the local Best Western in his blue suit and brilliant smile, eager to tell the sparse crowd how their lives could change. A shrine, this building, but the new god blew town one night.  Nobody believed in it anyway, or if they did, they’re getting over it.  Everyone’s getting over it here.  Don’t think the place has given up, though.  Jackson doesn’t give up. Jackson has acquiesced, which is different.  Jackson goes on.

Downtown gives way quickly to gray and brown houses on small lots, a beauty parlor called Shear Magic or Images, a package store.  In a small white house on Cooper Street a woman watches NASCAR with her boyfriend, who died two years ago.  “I didn’t want to be alone,” she says. “He was the only guy who was ever nice to me.” He could always make her laugh. She keeps him clean, she says, he doesn’t smell.  They’ve lived together ten years.  “It’s just that after so many bad things happen to you, I don’t know.”

Out at the west edge of town lies the little municipal airport.  On a rainy evening drive along its chainlinked perimeter, out beyond the runway.  In the fog the lights are vague.  Nothing is flying tonight.

Gail Griffin has published three books of nonfiction, the most recent being “The Events of October: Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus” (Wayne State University Press). Her nonfiction and poetry has appeared widely in journals and anthologies. She is online at gailgriffin.org.

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The author's childhood home in Port Huron.

The author’s childhood home in Port Huron.


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

Ten years in the UK may have dulled my accent but I’m still easy to identify as an outsider. Meeting people always involves a discussion of geography and barely disguised disappointment when they find out where I’m from.

“Really! I love the US, where are you from?” Their eyes will be bright when they ask this. They want you to say New York City. They spent an amazing week in New York City once. They want to tell you about it.

So when you say “A smallish town in Michigan, north of Detroit,” their face will fall just a bit and they’ll say, “Mitch-igan? Where’s that.” And then you’re obligated to educate. Well, maybe not obligated, you could just change the subject or walk away, but the you here is me and since I like to know things I assume that other people like to know things too. So the you that is me will hold up your hand and say –

“Mish-igan is the state at the top of the country, by Canada, that’s shaped like a mitten,” incline your head towards your hand here, “I’m from the knuckle at the bottom of the thumb, the town I grew up in is Port Huron. It’s at the bottom of Lake Huron which isn’t like the sissy lakes you have here, it’s massive, you can’t even see across it in most places.” And here you throw your arms wide in order to express the immensity of a lake you only truly understood to be immense after you moved.

They might ask you more questions, more likely they’ll tell you about that week they spent in New York. But you, if you’re having that kind of day, will find yourself adrift, lost in memories and all the things you don’t say when someone asks you where you’re from.

You don’t say anything about the sticky summer days spent picking up caved-in rotten apples from the side yard. How you wore cut offs and a sparkly pink Andy Gibb t-shirt as you dodged bees while tossing apples into the wheelbarrow, shaking brown apple muck off your hands and wondering how many million more hours it would take to finish.

You don’t mention the thick August evenings spent sitting on a friend’s front porch where you drank cheap beer and smoked cigarettes and talked to a man who believed the Freemasons had turned the Blue Water Bridge into a landing pad for aliens. You spent hours there watching kids circle on their bikes, savouring the last dusky moments before they were called to bed.

You don’t say anything about walking home from the bus stop at the end of the road in your snow suit, gray and pink, and how you would leap from the roadside into the snow drifts that formed each winter. The snow came up to your chest and your friends pulled you out by the arms.


Your cheeks were red and your laughter was white puffs in the air. You all took turns leaping into the cold the whole way home. You also don’t say anything about hooking your Walkman into the waistband of your jeans and riding your bike down streets dappled with sunlight the quality of which you’ve never seen anywhere else. The shadows of leaves passing over your bare arms as you rode to the concrete slabs under the bridge where you sat smoking menthol cigarettes and writing poetry about your stupid broken heart as freighters passed by, making their way to places

Why bring up your first cigarette? Smoked the week after graduation on the swings at Lakeside Beach with an old friend who always smelled of roses. The two of you staring out at the black night-time lake wondering where the next few years would take you. You talked about how everything was about to change as fat stars shone overhead and the lake stretched out forever. unknown.


They wouldn’t care about how you used to go school shopping at Sperry’s, the department store downtown with the elevator operator who took you to the mezzanine full of stylish girls’ clothes. The pharmacy across the street where you got your ears pierced with fake diamond studs, a pain you still remember so clearly and fondly. Sperry’s is a shell now, the pharmacy has been at least ten different shops. The latest iteration sells moccasins and dream catchers. You never go in. The melancholy would choke you.

You don’t say a word about how hard it is to go home now. About the jitters you get on the airplane making it impossible to sleep. About the tightness in your chest when you come to the end, the actual honest to God end, of I-94 and memories flood. The boys who called you a dyke because of your short hair, the girl who followed you down the hallway in eighth grade threatening to kick your ass because you wouldn’t let her copy your answers in Home Ec (Home Ec!), the friend who died on the bend of a beautiful hilly road one March day, your first car totalled on the corner of 17th and Howard and how you were convinced your father would yell, your father who isn’t there anymore.

In that moment the girl you were collides with the adult you’ve become, forcing you to shake the brown apple muck from your hands decades later. And you don’t say how it’s all worth it because in a few turns you’ll be at your mom’s house where you can hear the waves and there will be cookies and coffee and hugs and the lights from the bridges will shine into her living room when the jet lag wakes you at 4:30 in the morning.

You don’t say any of this. It’d take too long and you’d feel corny and they wouldn’t care, because when will they ever visit some random town in a mitten shaped state, it’s not New York City, you know?

Carolyn Kohl grew up in Port Huron, but lives in a London neighborhood called Nunhead now (for an actual beheaded nun). She has an office job where she does not use her English degree from Wayne State University, but she does read a lot of books and write a lot of stories.

Check out all our sketches on the Narrative Map.


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