The thing is, I’m trying to finish my novel, but the water keeps coming in the basement. Not the basement of the novel, but the basement of my fiancé’s house in Michigan where I spend my summers.
It’s a strange feeling to go downstairs during an intense July storm just to unplug the computer and notice that the beige carpet in the northeast corner of the room has darkened to a wet triangle. Stranger still, to watch the stain spread to shades of taupe and dirty chocolate in the next few minutes, moving under the desk, toward the floor lamp and file cabinets.
I don’t begrudge water; it can go wherever it wants, but even at that moment, it struck me as wrong. Water should not be here, in the house, bypassing the maze of foundation walls and footings that architects designed centuries ago to keep the inside in and the outside out.
And even as I turned and closed the door behind me, I knew it was irrational to think that maybe I didn’t need to bother my fiancé with this information—that this lovely ten-year-old house with vaulted ceilings and wood floors that we’d poured all of our savings into had sprung a leak.
He was out in the flash flood street anyway trying to clear the woodchips from the storm drains. We’d watched them flow into the streets from our neighbors’ yards moments earlier. He was standing in thigh high water flailing away with a garden rake as puffs of lightning flashed and popped around him. Despite his efforts, the flood water had advanced halfway up the lawn.
When you buy property, you stake a claim to a small spot on earth. You trim, prune, and beautify. You fortify and defend. If the usual intruders try to enter—ants, mice, crickets, thieves—fixes can be found. But when 3.18 inches of rain falls in 23 minutes in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and you are (as we found out later from the Drain Commissioner) the lowest and last house to drain out of the watershed, plus your property has the poor taste to sit on a clay seam, well then you’re just screwed. Because once water has found its way into your house, it will always remember you. It will always find a way in.
The downstate part of Michigan is shaped like a human palm. Sometimes [End Page 193] if you ask Michiganders where they’re from, they’ll look around, as if searching for a map or a piece of paper, then they’ll just give up and raise their right hand as if swearing an oath and point to the spot on their palm where their town is located. Detroit, for instance, is in the eastern part of the state, close to the crook of the thumb. My fiancé’s house is in the heel of the palm, in Kalamazoo, in a direct line below the little finger.
The upper peninsula of Michigan also resembles a human palm, which people will sometimes demonstrate by hovering their other hand horizontally like a cumulus cloud over the vertical downstate palm. A few years ago, some guy made millions of dollars when he had the ingenious idea to make oven mitts with the upstate and downstate maps of Michigan printed on each hand. I’m not sure what became of him—the oven mitt millionaire—but I’ve wondered if he has since retired to gentler climes, as Robert James Waller did after he wrote The Bridges of Madison County, then quit his job as a college professor in Iowa and retired to a spacious ranch in Texas.
Now that I spend part of the year in Michigan in a house that takes in water, I’ve observed that the state is also a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Great Lakes, which is why Michigan is sometimes called The Fourth Coast.
If not for dependable Ohio and a few stubborn sand-dune miles of Indiana, Michigan would be an island, floating untethered like a lily pad in the filmy marsh upon which the...