Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Green Fields of Michigan: A Short Story

The Green Fields of Michigan
Part 1
By Laura E. Atkinson

Things went badly right from the beginning of the trip. First of all, we had to hitchhike just in front of the bridge approach. Anybody who picked us up would expect us to pay part of the toll or something else in payment. We’d also have only a few minutes to get our story straight before hitting the border. The trick was always to get a ride with someone we knew who was going across the river anyway. Nancy had set it up with some guy but it fell through somehow. So there we were, standing in front of the US border signs. When the beat-up, blue car stopped for us, Nancy didn’t do anything at first but swear under her breath.

“What’s wrong,” I hissed at her. I’d already turned to run along the gravel shoulder to the stopped Chevy.

“Oh, it’s that fucker—Billy Francis. I told him I never wanted to see him again.” Nancy just stood there frowning at her feet as I tugged half-heartedly on the sleeve of her pink tee-shirt.

So I gave up. “Okay, let’s wait then. We’ll get another ride.” But I didn’t believe it. We might never get another ride and the longer we stood there the more likely we’d be spotted by someone. It was hard to get away with anything in our little border town.

“Nah, we can’t wait here forever. We’ll just have to lose him once we get across the bridge.” She turned with a shrug and sauntered towards the car.

“Well look who’s turned up. Just like the bad penny.” He was not much older than us but he had a knowing look on his sharp-featured face. Now I remembered Billy. We’d met him and his friend Joey, at Harmony Beach on one of our trips up there earlier in the summer. Nancy had spent time with him while I went to the secluded end of the main beach with his shy friend.

“You didn’t have to stop if you didn’t want to.” Nancy pushed her dark hair back and wiggled her thin shoulders as she settled herself in the middle of the front seat. She hadn’t liked him much last summer and she wasn’t going to change now.

“Oh, you know me,” he said, smirking at her and wagging his head from side to side, “always a sucker for a pretty face.”

Billy wasn’t that easy to lose. He knew exactly what we wanted, a cover story to get through the U.S. border point and a ride to downtown Sault Michigan where someone who could pass for eighteen would get us a mickey of lemon gin or a six-pack of Colt 45. So as soon as we got into his car, it pretty much followed that we’d end up drinking with him later in the old cemetery beside the golf course on the outskirts of town. We owed him by then and he didn’t seem to have anything else to do.

We got out of the car on the gravel road at the edge of the graveyard and ducked under the bottom of the page wire fence where it had been yanked up to create an easy access. As we struck off towards the river bank, Nancy muttered quickly, “Don’t leave me alone with him.” So even though he wandered off between the gravestones and she followed him with a dark look, I stayed right behind her.

“What’s wrong with her?” he said jerking his chin towards me. “Is she attached? Don’t you two do anything by yourselves any more?” Neither of us said anything. “It wasn’t like that last summer, was it?” He began to sing in a low voice, “The spider and the fly went out on the town. The spider had fun and the fly got . . .” He broke off and looking at both of us and speaking in a high stage voice asked, “What did the fly get, Billy? What did that cute little fly get, anyway?”

We settled on some flat rocks under the straggly willows on the muddy bank of the brown stream. Nancy fished a bottle opener out of her shoulder bag and went to work on three of the beer bottles. As soon as he had it in his hand he held the amber bottle up in a mock salute.

“Here’s to drinking with friends,” he offered. “We are friends, aren’t we?” He pretended to be plaintive. “You are my friends, I hope. A guy’s got to have friends, you know.” He lay back in the grass as if completely relaxed and took a swig of the bottle. I looked at his narrow body in the grass and imagined what it would feel like to be close to him in an intimate embrace. Thinking about it didn’t do anything for me. For me it was always more important what I felt coming towards me from the guy, the quality of the attention that they gave me. I quickly lowered my gaze as his eyes swung over to rest on me but all the time he was talking I knew that, even though he looked at me and pretended to talk to me, it was all meant for Nancy.

“I could tell you a thing or two if I wanted to,” he said cocking his head at me with an exaggerated look of concern. “You, little girl, seem to be in need of education. Nancy here doesn’t need any. She doesn’t have any trouble resisting a guy. But I have the feeling that you need a bit of help. You just don’t get that it’s a game, do you? You think it’s serious, don’t you? Nancy doesn’t take the time to tell you anything, so I guess I’ll have to.

“Now, first of all, I have to tell you that you never want to be nice to a guy. No, no, no. You’re supposed to be mean. Isn’t that right Nancy?” He rolled to the side and held out his arms as if to appeal to her but she sniffed and lifted her chin, dismissing him with a gesture.

“That’s okay. No, no, that’s fine, Nancy,” he continued on as if she had answered. “I don’t mind. It’s no trouble at all for me to help her out. You obviously don’t give a damn about your little friend here.” He was swinging back and forth, focusing on me and then on Nancy. Neither one of us was returning his look.

“She’s screwed up, you know. Do you know what happened at Harmony? She got my friend Joey, all wrapped up in a package. Poor guy didn’t even know what hit him. She wasn’t playing by the rules!” By then Billy was almost shouting at her. Nancy just grimaced, turned aside in disgust and blew out through her opened lips.

“And Joey. Let me tell you about Joey. He’s just as screwed up as you are. Never listens to me. I tried to talk to him. I gave him all my tricks. Even my best line. You know how I get a girl to fall for me? It works every time. I tell her, ‘Don’t fall for me. I’m no good. I’ll only break your heart.’ There! There you have it. The whole bag of tricks.” He held out his hands to Nancy and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Well, what do you think?”

Nancy just looked at him and laughed.

“Aw, hell! I give up!” Suddenly he was on his feet and down the bank of the stream to the muddy verge where he stormed around for a while, grabbing handfuls of grass and throwing them into the water. I felt like laughing too but I let Nancy do it for me. I was a bit worried though—not about what he might do—but that he might leave us there and we’d have to get back out to the main highway somehow. I was just thinking about getting out my map while he was occupied with his tantrum, when he turned toward us.

“Okay, where do you two want to go?” He was up the bank and already halfway back to the car, still grumbling and carrying on under his breath, “I can’t hang around here with you two for ever. It’s not doing me any good,” while we scrambled to our feet, grabbed our stuff, and followed.

Nancy was always so cool in situations I didn’t have a clue how to cope with. She just very calmly told him to take us back to town. She didn’t want to tell him that we were on the road this weekend. We might never get rid of him. So finally after a bit more grumbling, he did just drive us back in. The problem was that we didn’t really have a place to go. Being on the road was the only plan we had. We certainly didn’t want to be stuck in Sault Michigan. That town really was a hole, even compared to the Canadian side which was not much to begin with. Finally we got him to drive us to a crummy apartment building that we knew about, down by the old Union Carbide plant.

The place was a sort of convenience address shared by four coast guard guys for when they were on shore leave in the Sault. We liked to come over here to Sault Michigan for two reasons. The first was that the drinking age was eighteen but, even more important, there were lots of service men around. There was the Air Force base at Kincheloe that airmen cycled through for training but there was also the Coast Guard and most of them were in town for the long haul. They’d taken the four year national guard option to avoid the draft. The draft meant only two years of active service but most probably, it would have been in Vietnam.

We had been to some parties at this place. In fact I had been to quite a few parties here while I was hanging around with this guy called Rory. I hadn’t even really liked him but I often seemed to get into these ridiculous quasi-relationships with these horrible guys. Just to give you an idea about Rory, he gave me a picture of himself when I first met him. It showed him looking as if he knew a secret, holding a guitar and leaning up against a little MGB. On the back of the picture he had written a few lines of poetry that he also quoted to explain why he didn’t have the guitar anymore “I gave it to the first naked nude I saw, with no strings attached.” I guess he never dreamed that anyone else had ever heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I didn’t hold this imposture against him since I didn’t expect very much from any of these guys. But it wasn’t his car either. There’s worse stuff about him but that’s probably enough.

Nancy was not intending to let me get anywhere near Rory or any of the other guys. We hopped out of Billy’s car and she shadowed me up the walk to the building entrance, one hand under my elbow, giving me instructions, rapid fire, all the way.

“Now, we’re not even going to go into this dump. Billy’s a complete asshole but he is right about one thing. You’ve got to stop giving it away free to all these losers. Remember we’re on the road this weekend. We’re trying to get somewhere. We don’t have time to fool around.”

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll just wait in the vestibule until Billy’s gone and then get going. The next street down goes right back out to the highway.” But all the time I was wondering to myself, “If we’re not after the guys then what’s this all about? What are we after?”

We hung around for what seemed like forever at the back of the dimly lit apartment foyer with nothing to look at but the ancient cracked varnish on the wainscoting and the double row of shiny metal mailboxes with their scratched off labels and broken padlocks. But Billy, true to form, always the troublemaker, had decided not to leave. After an age spent in that grimy vestibule with Billy still sitting in his car out front, we finally trudged up the three flights of creaking wooden stairs and down the brown twilight corridors to the door of the apartment. I was actually surprised when someone answered, one of the Coast Guard guys who shared the place. His name was Darryl but that’s all I knew about him. We stood there for a bit, pretty much at a loss, until Darryl finally said we might as well come in.

“I swear, we’ll only be here a minute,” Nancy promised and we rushed to the living room windows at the front to look down at the street. Billy’s car was still there but we couldn’t really see if he was still in it.

“We’ll wait here until he goes,” said Nancy. “He can’t sit there all night.” She slumped down onto the bumpy cast iron radiator with her chin in her hand, her eyes fixed on the top of the blue Chevy. I was left to talk to Darryl. I searched my mind for something to say but came up empty.

“Don’t worry. We won’t be staying.” I said lamely. There was another long moment of awkward silence.

“Uh, that’s okay,” he finally mumbled, looking at me with a vaguely startled expression but not as if I was of any great interest to him. He was a cute guy in spite of the way that his short haircut made his ears look naked and I briefly considered making a move. At that moment it seemed a lot easier than making conversation.

Then I remembered that Darryl was the good boy in the bunch. Instead of just screwing around he’d taken up with a local girl named Brenda. I’d never met her but apparently they just sat around all the time with their heads together holding hands. The other guys teased him about spending all that time with her, designing a house in the suburbs or picking out names for their two point five children. The only thing I could ever remember him saying was that Brenda was going to get a bubble cut.

“So,” I said, now truly desperate, “Did Brenda ever get that bubble cut?”

Suddenly there was a rustling noise and a tall girl in neat cords and sweater and a cap of shiny brown hair emerged from the far recesses of the dining nook that was built- in off the hallway. It was Brenda to the rescue and Darryl sure looked relieved.

“Actually, I’m here,” she said. “And I did get the bubble cut. See?” And for an awful moment she shook her head from side to side swinging her glossy, perfectly cut hair back and forth in my face. I wished myself anywhere but there.

“Well, that’s great then,” I blathered, backing away from her down the hall. “It looks good—really good.” My own hair was stringy and my tee shirt rumpled. I was pretty sure there were grass stains on my jeans. I wheeled around and zoomed into the living room.

“C’mon Nancy. We’ve got to go.” I picked up her pack and headed back towards the door.

“He’s still out there,” Nancy cried, flinging her hand dramatically towards the front windows. “He’s never going to leave us alone.”

“There has to be a back entrance to this place.” I said with sudden inspiration. “We can cut across that vacant land over to the main road.”

“Hey. You’re right! Hah! Billy can wait here all night,” Nancy laughed in triumph as we swept past Darryl and his sorority girl. As soon as we had thundered down the stairs, found the back entrance and burst through it, I felt a lot better. I hated having that girl’s cool appraising gaze on me.

By the time we got to the main road we had been through a vacant lot, a couple of scrubby fields, and two broken down fences. I was picking burrs out of my shoelaces as Nancy stuck her thumb out and the cars whizzed past. There wasn’t much of a shoulder here and the ditches were brimming with water. I was just going to suggest to Nancy that we move down the road to a driveway where there was a wider gravel area, when I saw an approaching car slow down and begin to pull over. We never had to wait for long.

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