Tuesday, August 9, 2016

UPPER THERE by Peter Nolan Smith

In August of 1987 friends in Michigan extended invitations to visit them in Onekema and the Upper Peninsula. Paulie, Gregg, and I celebrated our departure at the Milk Bar in Lower Manhattan.

“Why are you going to Michigan for vacation?” Scottie the owner was a New Yorker. The rest of the country was a blank to him.

“I’ve never been there before.” My trips through the Midwest never ranged farther north than the Interstates.

“I want to see America.” Gregg was an English literary agent. His America consisted on Manhattan and Hollywood.

“The real America.” Paulie had been brought up outside of Detroit. His father had built cars for Chrysler. The bearded Midwesterner taught sculpture at School of The Visual Arts. “Onekema has the highest sand dunes overlooking the waters of the most beautiful of the Great Lakes and the Upper Peninsula is the Land Time Forgot with forests primeval by the shores of Gitchie Gumee.”

“By the shining Big-Sea-Water.” I had learned THE SONG OF HIAWATHA in grammar school.

“Have a good trip.” Scottie bought a round of drinks, thankful to be spending his summer in New York.

After closing the club we packed Paulie’s green Ford 150 pick-up, then left Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. Our first stop was the Delaware River, where the three of us changed into jeans and tee-shirts. We didn’t bother to clean out the truck. The mess on the floor gave it character. Crossing the bridge we entered America with the sun rising in the East.

“I understand the attraction of Onekama with the beach on Lake Michigan, but the Upper Peninsula seems far away.” I was counting the miles on a map. It was almost the same distance to Miami Beach.

“The Upper Peninsula has about a third of Michigan’s land and only 3% of its population. The Yoopers or UPers came there to work the mines. Most of them closed and the towns are deserted and the forests are thicker than ever. It’s like traveling back into time. You’ll love it.”

“Sounds heavenly to me.” Gregg was keen on seeing the northern forests. He was from London, where there are more people than trees.

Traffic was light beyond the Allegheny Mountains and the day’s temperature rose with every westward mile. The blue sky gave way to haze by the Ohio frontier. Big trucks crowded the highway and fast cars sped past us. Paulie insisted on driving the speed limit.

“I’m carrying two guns.” A shotgun and 45 were under the driver’s seat. Paulie liked to be prepared for anything. “Neither are registered, so I’m taking it slow, plus who knows what you two are carrying.”

“Nothing.” Gregg and I said in unison. All three of us knew that both of us were liars.

After the next fill-up at a truck stop I crashed in the flatbed. The humid wind ruffled my clothing without any relief from the heat and the heavy sky held the promise of a tornado. An exit sign read AKRON.

I sat up and leaned against the back of the cab. Greg and Paul waved to indicate that we were on schedule. I wrapped a red bandanna around my head. Sunglasses weakened the harsh sunlight. We were a rolling version of MAD MAX, the prequel to the apocalypse.

We passed a state trooper cooping in his cruiser in a copse of trees.

His eyes met mine.

The battered pick-up was maintaining 60. Most of the other cars were traveling faster. The cop instinctively viewed the three of us as potential wrongdoers. His lights lit up and the cruiser roared onto the interstate with lights flashing and siren blaring.

The rest of the motorists parted a way for the statie. The cruiser fell in behind our pickup. Paul pulled over onto the breakdown lane and I thought, “Drugs, guns, drink. We’re going to jail.”

The young trooper got out of his cruiser. Paul was in his 40s. Greg and I were in our 30s. There was a big generation gap between the trooper and us. His hand flicked the safety strap from his holster. He was expecting trouble.

“You want me to get out of the truck?” I was good at taking orders in a situation like this. My grand-uncle had been a detective with the Boston Police.

“You stay where you are.” His hand went to his service revolver and the officer peered into the front seat. The trooper only wanted one thing. “Can I see your license?”

“Sure thing.” Paul fumbled with his wallet. He had been driving over seven hours. His search was taking too long.

“Sir, please get out of the truck?” The trooper stepped back carefully to avoid the speeding traffic. His knuckles were white on the gun.

“Yes, officer.” Paul opened the door. Several empty beer cans fell onto the pavement.

“You’ve been drinking.” His words were a statement not a question.

“Last night, yes, but not today.” Paulie was telling a lie. We had left the Milk Bar at 5am. “Those empties we were saving for the next trash stop. I didn’t want to throw them out the window.”

The trooper wasn’t impressed by his erudite accent.

Cops only needed a high school diploma.

“Sir, please, come to the back of the truck.”

Paulie joined the officer and the trooper wagged a pencil in front of his face. Our friend’s head wobbled on his neck like a spinning top losing speed, but followed the pen without getting dizzy. The officer put down his pencil.

“Sir, I want you to walk in a straight line.”

Paul put one foot in front of the other like a robot.

The officer was disappointed by the results and looked ready to back up his hunch by getting out the Breathalyzer. The pencil dropped from his hand. Paulie picked it up with the grace of a 13 year-old ballerina and handed it back to the clean-shaven young officer.

“Where are you going?”

“The Upper Peninsula to see friends and family.”

“You’re from Michigan?”

“Born and raised.”

“There’s a rest stop five miles ahead.” The officer put away his pen. “I suggest you empty the truck of those beer cans and back on the road obey the speed limit.”

“Thanks, officer.”

Our two vehicles parted ways. I returned to sitting in the front. Paulie started the truck.

“How we get away with that?” Greg asked with relief.

“Because I’m from the Midwest. If it had been one of you, that stop would have led to a different ending.” Paulie pulled into the westward flow of traffic and I checked the map. The Michigan stateline was two hours away.

That night we made Detroit. Dinner was at a bar off Michigan Avenue. We chased down coneys, which were hot dogs with beanless chili, down with cold beer. I played the MC5, Iggy, Grand Funk Railroad, and Mitch Ryder on the jukebox. Gregg chatted up the girls. They loved his British accent. I shot eight-ball with the locals. We could have stayed there the rest of our lives, but Paulie crashed out around midnight and we loaded him into the truck. I drove north past Flint and stopped at a small hotel off the highway. We shared a single room. None of us snored that night.

The next afternoon we reached the Great Bear Dunes. Vonelli’s family had a beach stack a few feet from Lake Michigan. The art dealer took us out on a ChrisCraft. The vast expanse of water rivaled Conan the Barbarian’s Vilayet Sea. Three days passed riding dirt bikes off the dunes, swimming, and drinking beer. At the last evening’s BBQ Gregg recounted told the story about the Ohio cop to everyone. They shook their heads with disbelief.

“You always were a lucky man,” Vonelli’s sister said at a BBQ. They had gone to school together.

“Not lucky. That’s an old police trick and I was waiting for it.”

“What was a trick?” Gregg asked with a burger in his hand.

“Dropping the pen.” Paulie smiled in triumph. “Plus I wasn’t drunk. I was merely hung-over. Mind you, severely hung-over, but I got over it.”

We toasted his escape and finished the night watching the stars revolve over the Earth.

The following morning we said our goodbyes.

“Tell Jim I said hello.” Vonelli was heading back to Paris. The auctions at the Hotel Drouot opened in less than two weeks. He was flying out of Detroit in the afternoon.

“I hope I catch him.” Paulie was speaking about his friend in the Upper Peninsula. “He might have left for California, but his father will be happy to see us.”

We hugged the rest of the Vonelli clan. They were heading south to Florida. Paulie pointed the pick-up north. I sat in the back of the truck. The midday heat zapped my strength and I passed out in the back of the truck short of Petrowsky.

The Ford’s tires hummed over the Straits of Mackinac Bridge. I woke up to the spectacle of two lakes meeting underneath us. The temperature had dropped into the 70s. and I sat up in the back to breathe in the boreal air. Canada was less than a hundred miles away.

Paulie drove for another 15 minutes and pulled off Route 2 somewhere north of St. Ignace. We slept in the back of the truck and rose with the misty dawn. Paulie bought breakfast from an Epoulette diner.

“I know these.” Gregg held the hot meat pastie up in his hand.

“They’re a relic from the Welsh miners working mineral deposits in the mid-1800s.” Paulie bit into his. Flakes of crust scattered over his lap. “They remind me of my youth. Back in the 50s my father would drive up here in the summer. We went ice fishing in the winter. The UP was a paradise back then. Jobs, nature, and good people. Most of them gone since the mines closed. Now all you got are old Finns to stubborn to quit the land.”

“Same as the State of Maine.” I had been brought outside of Portland as a child. All the real jobs had headed south in the 1950s.

“Except the Upper Peninsula has a population density of 10 people per square mile. It’s deserted.”

Paulie wasn’t kidding about the desolation.

I hadn’t seen more than 3 people in a clump the entire morning. The stocky men and woman looked the same in their jeans and flannel shirts topped by a baseball cap. Few cars traveled Route 2’s long straightways bordered by dense pine forests.

We pulled into Fire Lake around 3.

Paulie beeped the horn before an old farm house, whose walls had been weathered by many winters and the two-story structure leaned away from the prevailing wind. A herd of cows grazed in a fenced field. One cow stood by itself. It was not the bull.

Our host limped into the afternoon sunlight. Uvo was in his 50s. He greeted us with a firm handshake and a yellow smile. He lit an unfiltered Camel.

“Where’s everyone?” Paulie’s scratched at his beard. It was more salt than pepper.

“Down at the lake fishing, but Jim left for Ann Arbor two days ago, eh.”

“Sorry, I missed him.” Paulie had attended U Michigan with Uvo’s second son. Both were artists.

He tugged on the cigarette and exhaled a flume of smoke. “You boys fish?”

“Not much fishing in New York.” Gregg regarded Uvo, as if he were a Norman Rockwell painting.

“No, guess they don’t like to swim in concrete.

The afternoon sky that filled with high clouds from the north. The summer was fading fast and autumn was ready to take its place. Uvo held a pair of axes in this hands.

“Going to get cold tonight, eh. Call me old fashioned, but I believe in the work ethic. You work. You eat. No work. No eat.”

The Londoner was no farmer and I was no Paul Bunyan, but we took the axes and laid into the wood.

Both of us had blisters on our hands within minutes, but as an Englishman Gregg believed in doing a host’s bidding and we hacked logs into firewood, while Paulie and Uvo drank Schlitz beer. They were examining Paulie’s 45 and the shotgun. Beer cans floated in a metal tub.

“I see you guys are into the real hard work.” Gregg attached no small amount of sarcasm to this statement.

“It may look like we’re doing nothing, but nothing is hard work to do when other people are working hard.” Uvo sucked at a tooth. He was missing one in the front.

“We’ll be joining you soon enough.” I swung the ax with wild abandon. The two men backed away from us. Hard work was dangerous to someone not used to it.

Gregg and I finished our task in a sweat and joined the other two. He slung the ax over his shoulder, as if he graduated from a dude logging camp. Uvo surveyed the woodpile.

“Not bad for trolls, eh.”

“Trolls?” I had been called many things in my life, but never a troll.

“Trolls is the Yopper euphemism for people coming from unda the bridge,” Paulie explained, as he handed us two cans of Schlitz. The beer that made Milwaukee famous was unavailable in New York.

“I used to drink this as a kid.” The gusto of the crisp cold beer brought back memories of my youth on the South Shore of Boston.

“American beer.” Gregg took a swig. “The only thing closer to water is a canoe.”

“At least we drink our beer cold.” I had been in England. “Your beer is warm piss.”

“But strong.”

“Strong beer is good.” Uvo nodded his approval.

“At least Schlitz isn’t Bud.” Gregg emptied his beer and Uvo handed him another from the icy tub.

I noticed a serious bruise on his forearm. The farmer glanced over to the single cow in the pasture. “Cow butted me, eh. They can get nasty this time of the year. You boys feel like a sauna.”

“Sauna?” I lived next door to the Russian Baths in the East Village. Hot steam was the cure for aches, pains, and hang-overs.

“Yes, the UP wouldn’t be the Up with saunas. Most of us that haven’t left are Finnish. We don’t like the hot weather, but love the sauna. It’s good for you.” Uvo pointed to a traditional Scandinavian steam room next to the barn. “I build that a year after finishing my house. I got it ready for us. Are you ready for it?”

The old man stripped off his clothing and waved for us to join him inside the sauna. The three of us were naked seconds later and entered the low-ceiling hut. The gnarled farmer threw water on the glowing stones. Steam furled from the rocks and the temperature rose close to the surface of Venus.

“Good to see new faces up here, eh. Fire Lake is a long way from anywhere. Most of the people in town are tired of seeing each other. They get crabby as a bear coming out of hibernation, but nothing gets them together faster than talk of a barbecue, so if you want to see people, we’ll have a barbecue.”

“Fresh meat too.” Paulie’s was a total carnivore, although his blood pressure was that of a 300-pound man. He ate steak four times a week. The waiters at the Homestead Steak House on 9th Avenue knew him by name.

“Y-up.” Tinges of Finnish clung to Uvo’s accent. He scratched his buzzcut then rubbed his unshaven face. “Go shot a cow after we’re done.”

Michigan “Shoot a cow?” I was a meat-eater, but my steaks came from a supermarket. I wiped the sweat from my face with an old towel.

“Would rather he kill it with an ax?” Gregg joked from the corner.

“That might get messy.”

“Why you killing a cow?” The English literary agent looked like a soggy mummy under his wrap of towels.

“I kill one cow every fall.” Uvo stated matter-of-fact. “Keeps me in meat until the spring. The way snow falls up here you never know when you might get supplies.”

“Winters are hard this far north.” Paulie was speaking from experience. “200 inches of snow are the norm. A few communities had recorded annual snowfalls nearing 13 feet.”

“I know killing a cow ain’t sport, eh. Heck, I known this cow all its life. I fed it as a calf.” Uvo seemed sad about the upcoming culling of his herd. “Strange, but the other cows sense what’s going to happen.”

“You think they tell each other?” Gregg hailed from London. The only cows in that city arrived dead at the Smithfield Market for slicing into steaks and grinding into hamburger.

“Dunno. Cows are funny, eh.” Uvo stropped the edge of an old straight-razor to the sharpness of an assassin’s blade and stroked the grizzle from his face with an economy of motion.

"You feel like a shave?"

"No place better than a sauna." Uvo re-stropped the edge. My beard was scrapped from my face without a nick. Uvo pointed to Paulie and Gregg. They shook their heads.

“What are you boys religious?” Uvo didn’t wait for an answer and said, “Because up here on the Upper Peninsula we take the Word of God for truth.”

“Okay.” I was a confirmed atheist, but kept my devout non-belief to myself.

“In da beginning dere was nuttin.” Uvo’s accent thickened to a nearly indecipherable patois, “Den on the first day God created da Upper Peninsula. On the second day He created da partridge, da deer, da bear, da fish, and the ducks. On da third day He said “Let dere be Yoopers to roam da Upper Peninsula”. On the forth day He created da udder world down below. On the fifth day He said “Let there be trolls to live in the world down below”. On the sixth day He created da bridge so da trolls would have a way to get to heaven. God saw it was good and on da seventh day, He went Huntin and that works as the Word of God on the UP.”

“Works for me.”

“Time for more beer.” Uvo led us from the sauna. We toasted his version of Genesis with a cold Schlitz and raised our cans to the sky. The sunlight dried our naked flesh. The wind lipped up the silver bottom of the leaves. Uvo looked over his shoulder to the large pasture. The herd of cows were standing against the fence. The one cow was in the distance.

“That the one?” Gregg lifted his head from a nod. He was handsome in a desperate way.

“Weird, eh?” Uvo reached into the bucket and pulled out four more beers. They were going fast. “They shun that one like killing might be contagious.”

Death awaited all creatures. We drank our beer. Uvo saved the empties for target shooting. The cows stared at us like we were holding a vote to change the sacrifice.

“Funny how they’ll protect themselves from other animals but not man.” Gregg aimed a finger at the distant cow. It moped in protest. “That’s because they trust us.”

“Trust?” Uvo laughed with a farmer’s certitude. “Cows ain’t no one’s friend and nuttins as dumb as a cow tied to a post, eh. How you think I got this black and blue on my arm.”

“The lone cow.” Paulie was sitting on a log. His legs were thin. The sculptor needed more exercise.

“Yup that’s the one.” Uvo walked over to the gate. He lifted his fingers to his mouth. A long whistle got the attention of the solitary cow. The others huddled closer to the fence. The cow shook his head.

Uvo whistled again and then banged the grain bin. Corn husk dust misted a halo around the farmer’s head. The cow meandered to the gate. Uvo slipped a noose over its head. Long scars crisscrossed the haunches. Something wild had had at it. Uvo led the beast to a trellis constructed of thick logs. A pulley hung from the beam. The naked farmer fed the lead line through the pulley and hauled the cow’s head upward.

Uvo returned to us. The other cows scattered over the pasture to munch the long summer grass. Gregg was sprawled against the sauna wall. The heat and the beer had taken its toll on the Englishman. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

“Something wrong with that troll. I don’t want no one dying on my farm, eh.”

“I’ll take care of him.”

“You a doctor?”

“No,but I know what to do, but my grandfather was a doctor in the First World War.” I went into the sauna and came out with a bucket of icy water. I emptied the contents over Grieg. The Englishman sputtered to life. Uvo and Paulie laughed as only naked men can laugh.

Hands over their genitals.

Gregg wasn’t too happy with the sudden reveille, but understood that he had violated his guest privileges.

“Thanks for the wake-up call.”

“No problem.”

“I have some calls to make and that cow has a date with a Winchester.” Uvo walked over to his house. He entered by the front door. The cow in the rear mooed our surrender. We followed Uvo’s path across the lawn. I went to my room. It was on the second-floor. The windows overlooked the cow. I stuck wet tissue in my ears waiting for the killing shot.

Uvo and Paul exited from the house. They were still naked. Uvo held a Winchester rifle. Paul had his 45. The cow mooed once and Uvo stuck the rifle muzzle in its ear. One bullet buckled its legs. Paul gave the coup de grace.

The killing took less than 10 seconds.

Uvo and Paul tugged on the rope around the dead cow’s neck. The creature was ready for slaughter. I lay on the bed. The mattress was old. The sheets smelled of the seasons. I fell asleep in a minute.

I woke to the sound of people talking and the smell of sizzling steak. I got out of bed and went to the window. Meat was burning on the grill. Ten people were drinking beer; Paulie, Uvo, Grieg, three women and four men. Everyone was wearing the UP uniforms. The only way I could identify Uvo was by his red cap.

I dressed in the uniform and joined the party.

Paulie’s truck was parked next to the house. The tape deck was playing a tape of garage music. Gregg was entertaining the congregation with tales of Oxford. I had heard them before, but he was a good storyteller and I laughed along with the other guests. We drank beer and ate steak. Blood dripped from our lips. The meat went well with the potato sausage and cudighi, a spicy Italian meat.

"Why are we here?" I asked Gregg with a beer in my hand. It was the only thing familiar to me.

"Because we didn't want to be in New York."

"But here?" The sky was ablaze with the sparks drifting up from the fire.

"I don't have a clue." Gregg was quick to admit the wonderment of the Upper Peninsula. We were adrift from the world. Our aluminum beer cans clanked cheaply together. "But I'm feeling very UP."
One of the women had brought a nisu, a cardamom-flavored sweet bread. Another came with juustoa or spueaky cheese and sauna makkara, a Finnish bologna. It was good eating. The sun went down quick and the stars ruled the cosmos.

Uvo gathered the empties and placed them on a shot-up fence post 50 feet from the grill. Paulie placed his 45 on the table with a box of ammo.

"You're up." Uvo put the gun in my hand.

"Blast away." Paulie was completely at home.

The 45 was heavy. I pointed it at the target and pulled the trigger fast and smooth. My third shot tore into a beer can. I scored with the fifth and seventh.

"Not bad shooting for a Troll." Uvo took my smoking gun from my hand.

We shot the rest of the ammo box in ten minutes. Only two of the beer cans survived the onslaught. Paulie put his pistol under the seat of his pick-up and I sat on the porch.

“Good steak, eh?” Uvo was aglow with beer. His good feeling was shared by his friends. They smiled broader when the stereo played DIRTY WATER.

“Delicious.” Better than anything from the Homestead. “But I meant to ask you. What were those scars on that cow.”

“Bear, eh.” The nisu woman answered my question. Paulie was flirting with the scrawny 40ish brunette. She wanted to dance to LOUIE LOUIE playing on the pick-up’s stereo. They did the two-step.

“Yup, a bear attack that cow last spring. I shot it dead.”

“Don’t say that too loud, eh.” The woman glanced around the guests. “Game warden hear that and Uvo has a big fine.”

“Maybe $2000 for out of season.” Uvo popped open another beer.

“But it was attacking your cow.”

"I understand." Bears in Maine roamed the blueberry patches for a sweet treat. The police warned hikers to stay away from the patches. "Last summer in Maine I spotted two black bears scavenging a moose carcass across a river. Both studied me, as if I were food."

"Bears don't eat people. We taste like shit, unless they’re hungry. Guess that bear was hungry. I shot him with that Winchester, eh.”

"The same one you killed the cow with?"

"Aint' got another."

"That almost like the scene in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA where Lawrence has to shot the man that he saved from the desert in order to seal the alliance of another tribe of Arabs."

"Just a movie. A bear is a bear."

“Uvo called me up and I came over with my backhoe.” A longhaired farmer nodded his head in remembrance of that day. “Big hole, eh.”

“Yup.” A chorus joined by the other locals.

“That cow was a little crazy after that. Always running around the pasture and scaring the other cows. Sorry it had to go, but crazy cows are bad for milk.”

“Yup.” Another round of ‘yups’.

“Bear meat tastes like pork. Best are the legs and loin.” I had eaten some in Maine.

“Bears too strong for me. Too much grease.” Uvo made a face.

“Plus they get trichinosis.” Paul’s date made a face. “Bears are no good eating. Not like steak.

“Yup.”

Gregg and I joined the chant of yups, because after the fifth beer we all spoke the language of beer in the land of bears.

It was a language common to everywhere forgotten by the rest of the world.

And few places were more forgotten than the Upper Peninsula.

It was good to be away from New York.

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