The grandfather wore a fine brown hat and was speaking about landscapes.
The family numbered four in the sedan.
“Mountains are nice, but what I’m saying is, if you’re talking about humanity, certain things are to scale, and certain things aren’t.” He was still a fortunate man, still lived in Porc-épic, with his wife, in the house they rented on the Gwyak River. His granddaughters were still young. The elder was just ten; her cousin was four.
“One of the big mountains, that’s a sight . . . but for a man, or a girl, it’s something to conquer. That’s what they say: ‘I conquered Mount Such and So.’ Crap.”
From the passenger seat, his wife thwacked at him.
“Bugshouse,” he said. The younger girl laughed. “What I’m getting at, where I should’ve started, is the lakes . . . no, no, oceans, to start with. Oceans are beautiful, but so are lakes, and lakes are proportional to people, we fit inside them. Like hills. People live among hills, live with them. Lakes, even the greatest lakes, are fit for people.” There was an unhappy disposition in the family: that of having very many opinions and all too few college degrees.
The day had been perfectly warm and partially cloudy, as they’d left Porcépic late in the morning. But as the grandfather drove north on 51, the sky gathered deep cumulus cover in direct proportion to the growing line of pickups grumbling behind them. The two-lane highway drivers were grumpy, inching too close. It would rain, surely, though it wouldn’t storm, and the grandfather didn’t creep above fifty miles per hour.
The older girl wanted to scavenge the pretty polished pebbles of the beach at Little Girl’s Point—you’d find agates, if you were lucky. She also wanted to swim. She was an expert swimmer. Her grandmother told her it was too cold, even in summer. “People don’t swim in Superior,” she’d said. Grandfather added, “Only the showoffs do.” But the girl was resolved to go underwater. The grandfather had started to embarrass her. He spoke too loudly in public. He sought attention, and she was happiest when invisible. She was aware of the cars behind them—too many. She couldn’t relax. She felt, persistently, the seam at the toe-line of her socks.
Bugshouse. Nutty-bonkers. Cuckoo-bananas-Grampa. That’s what the littler girl thought. And the stink of cigarettes. Bugshouse Grampa. But she didn’t think of him too often. The younger girl wanted to go back home. She [End Page 37] could not have been more precious—an absolute candy to look at, though she had a salty core.
The cousins were caught together by their tiny family tree, but by little else.
They crossed the state line without hurrah, tending to claim the Upper Peninsula for Wisconsin. “Headed through Gramma’s old stomping grounds,” the grandfather said. The grandmother had been born and raised a Yooper.
“Oh, you know,” she said slowly. “Not much to report. Not about Ironwood.” Each of her words was gloved snugly and entered the world in a fussy process, loosening fingertip by fingertip.
“I stole her away with my looks,” said the grandfather.
They didn’t see much of Ironwood, a straight stretch downtown. But there were still old factories, with fat black-red bricks. An overeager mining town, Ironwood had clutched a smatter of optimistic glory, unlike the beige, square camps in White Pine, where the grandfather lost his eye. Way back, their courtship had been quick, for the grandfather was a clever salesman: he’d sold, in essence, the grandmother to herself, as if she’d never known she was a beauty before, being so uncommonly tall, being forced to work at grocery stores and gas stations. Right through the main Ironwood drag, take a left turn, then into the woods.
They knew they were getting close when the land sloped up on the left and dramatically down on the right. The woods grew dense. They’d still pass a swath of orange daylilies here and there, tucking themselves away under...