Hell, Michigan: I’m from Hell

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

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

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.