For many years after the release of the award-winning motion picture Dances With Wolves, Dad believed he was descended from Native Americans. We are not, but that didn’t stop him from conducting hours of blundering research on the early Internet in an attempt to validate such claims. He found a sepia-toned picture of a tall woman with the face of a mule and proclaimed she was his long-lost Cherokee aunt. My older brother Sam and I were skeptical. Dad always had a way of bending the truth to his starry-eyed will.
In his final years, Dad became enamored with the idea of being an English lord. He surrounded himself with pipes and tweeds and volumes of Rudyard Kipling. I interpreted it as a subtle endorsement of colonialism. Sam and I pointed out he wasn’t English – mostly German and a little Scots-Irish – but Dad continued putting on airs. He liked teasing Sam and I for our Mediterranean blood even though he’s the one who married a Greek girl to begin with.
“You ethnics get so emotional,” Dad would say with a smirk, chugging on his pipe in a tweed coat. “We WASPs are just more sedate. We manage ourselves better. It’s why we conquered the world.”
Dad was a contradiction. He was a problem drinker, philanderer, casual racist and an upholder of the patriarchy. But he was also an inspiring high school English teacher, competent fly fisherman and, in the end, a fairly decent father.
Dad’s final wishes were to be incinerated, put in an empty canister of Captain Black pipe tobacco and have his ashes spread on a remote stretch of the Fox River in the Upper Peninsula, the real location of Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River,” one of his favorites. The actual Big Two-Hearted River is nearby in the U.P., but doesn’t run through Seney, the town described in the story. Hemingway bent the truth a little. I’d heard Dad tell hundreds of stories where he similarly fudged facts for effect, such as when he started telling people that the woman in the faded picture was his Aunt Ruth, a full-blooded Cherokee. I tended to overlook his romantic fibs, but it drove big brother Sam crazy.
“He lies. What’s the point of that?”
“It makes a better story,” I’d say. “Which makes it more meaningful. Fictions aspire to a higher purpose. Reality is just raw experience trash-heaped onto itself.”
Sam, the construction project manager, sighs when I say such things.
“Sounds like a bunch of horseshit to me.”
When Dad died, Sam and I instantly disagreed on how to implement the burial instructions. Sam lobbied to go against Dad’s wishes and have a regular funeral, as did Mom. I argued for the trip, but I was frequently on Dad’s side no matter how sentimental or idiotic his ideas were. He wrote us a note a few years ago when he first got sick. The penultimate paragraph said something along the lines of: “I’ve had a good life. I’ve lost my way a few times, but I appreciate your forbearance.”
Lost his way. Accurate.
Our forbearance? Inaccurate.
I may have had forbearance, but Sam did not. He was the tightwad. The older brother. The responsible son with a wife, mortgage, children and a retirement fund. Me? I’m the fuck-up. The jerk off. The forty-year-old failure whose only achievement in the last twenty years was finally getting sober, an expensive affair that’s left me deep in the financial and emotional hole. I still owe Mom and Sam thousands for the wrecked Toyota, the court fees and the rehab clinic, not to mention two years of room and board at Mom and Dad’s house. Dad was the one who always lent me money without question. We always had a nudge-wink relationship about fucking up, mostly because he knew I learned it from him. I’ve also lost my way a few times, but I don’t have children to feel the effects. There’s no one to examine my cracks in the same way Sam and I examine Dad’s.
Is it fair to look so closely at a person’s character? To inspect every bit of them? If you don’t think so, then don’t have children. There are cracks in everyone, of course, but only children and perhaps spouses will go on the hunt to explore them in such detail.
Sam arrived in his pick-up truck as I was getting all my bags together in the kitchen. Mom made us sandwiches and packed a cooler. The Captain Black can with Dad’s ashes sat on the kitchen table as if Dad just got back from the tobacco store with a new purchase. I used to like going with him to the tobacco store as a kid. I remember the strong, liquid smell while gawking at the carved wooden and clay pipes in the display cases while Dad rooted through bins of brown, flaky tobacco. He pretended to be a connoisseur, but always ended up with the same basic brands like Captain Black or Borkum Riff.
I’m constantly assailed with moments like this while I’m doing something else, such as hauling my sleeping bag up from the basement. Suddenly I’m in both places. I’m forty years old in the narrow staircase from the basement to the kitchen with my old blue sleeping bag and I’m four years old in the tobacco shop. These spasms of memory have increased in volume and intensity since Dad died.
Sam arrived while I was in the basement searching for the sleeping bag. Like me, Sam is tall, big-shouldered and dark haired. Our voices and speech patterns are nearly identical. Only close family can tell us apart on the phone. He’s a little thicker and has Mom’s pronounced Grecian nose while I inherited Dad’s stubbier nose. We’re both a foot taller than Mom, the little Greek lady scurrying around the kitchen. Her hair would be grey but is jet black from what she calls “the bottle job.” Mom is a flurry of frenzied energy. She’s been on the verge of a nervous breakdown for about thirty years.
“I packed a lunch,” she said.
“I already made us a lunch,” Sam said.
Mom didn’t care. She needed to be busy. She had to be making someone a lunch out of habit. For all Dad’s swagger, he was a helpless man. He couldn’t do simple things like figure out how to unlock a door or make soup. Mom did it all. I think he felt he was above such mundane tasks. Mom, on the other hand, relished her role as caretaker.
“Well, you can have this later then. I packed sandwiches, apples and pops.”
“We’re going to be hungry,” I said. “We have a heady emotional task to complete.”
“I still don’t see why we have to waste a weekend driving up there,” he said. “Why can’t we just have a regular funeral? Why can’t we just plant him at the cemetery up at the corner?”
“We’re going,” I said. “Because sometimes you just do what you have to do.”
My tone was a little saucy. I didn’t usually talk to my older brother this way. It prompted silence in the kitchen. Sam shifted his weight.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go, Mom?” I asked.
“No. You boys go. I have to work.”
Mom had presided over the front desk at a local doctor’s office for thirty years. She got the job years ago to supplement Dad’s teaching income, but the money and health insurance became a necessity after his early retirement from teaching to work on a novel. He referred to it with reverence as, “My Book.” He never finished. I was helping him with edits when he died. It was extremely long and not very good – sentimental, unfocused, meandering and fairly racist. Dad’s racism was more of a confused reaction to a changing world rather than anything else. He wanted to return to an era of “simpler times.” He spoke in reverence of America’s pioneer days and his own childhood in the 1950s, stubbornly blind to the fact that the world was really only good for white folks back then. These ideas seeped into his work. I remembering recoiling with disappointment when I skimmed the 700-plus page opus. It chronicles a sprawling family in America over hundreds of years. The early chapters are centered around early settlers in Mississippi, where our actual Bearden clan is from. Among them there is a “beautiful dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with Indian blood coursing through her veins.” I made a red loop around that phrase and commented “This is a pretty offensive stereotype. Do better” in the margin, though I’m fairly certain he never took any of my notes seriously. The later chapters depict the exploits of a modern-day Presbyterian pastor in Northern Michigan, a descendent of that “dark-eyed native beauty” and a hearty white settler, who has a crisis of faith. Like Dad, the preacher gets drunk, chases women and goes fly fishing without much overarching purpose in the end. The manuscript, entitled The Last True American, sat on a little desk in the basement where I’d been living since the drunken crash and my subsequent divorce.
But maybe I’m being unfair. Perhaps I’m projecting too much of my own literary failures on my father. I, too, have written several novels that are not very good. One was decent enough to be taken on by a small press and came out five years ago to nearly no reviews, fanfare or attention. I hadn’t done much writing since.
“It’s going to snow,” Sam said.
“You boys just be careful.”
“It’s not supposed to snow until Monday,” I said.
“Bullshit. The National Weather Service says two inches in Marquette by Sunday morning,” Sam said.
“Maybe you boys shouldn’t go if it’s snowing,” Mom said.
“Exactly,” Sam said. “Let’s wait until spring.”
“Two inches is nothing,” I said. “Let’s just do this. Let’s get it over with. It has to be done.”
“Why?” Sam said. “He won’t know the difference.”
“Yeah, but I will. And I won’t be able to sleep unless we do this. C’mon. For my sanity, let’s just do this with no complaining. Please.”
“Fine,” Sam said. “We’ll just get stuck in a snowstorm.”
This was our normal style of brotherly bickering. A few minutes later all my gear was loaded in his truck: sleeping bag, clothes and steelhead rig. Sam and I decided to try and do a little fishing, too. We said good-bye to Mom, who was already sick with worry, doing the Orthodox cross three times on her forehead and chest.
“You boys be safe. Call me when you get up there.”
Soon we were on the freeway headed north, blasting out of Detroit.
We recounted all the terrible things Dad had done on our way up. All the infidelities we had witnessed over the years.
“You know Dad banged your second-grade teacher, too, right?” Sam said. “What was her name? Mrs. Schwarzenegger?”
“Yeah. I remember Mom and Dad getting into a huge fight about it. You were too little to know. What was her name? Mrs. Rammstein?”
“Yeah. That’s it.”
I was shocked. My body seized up in the passenger seat of the pickup truck. I momentarily forgot about the Captain Black canister at my feet. I should have picked it up and dumped it out the window on the side of I-75 between Grayling and Gaylord.
“No way,” I said. “I don’t believe you.”
“I thought you knew.”
Mrs. Riemenschneider was my favorite teacher growing up. I hadn’t thought about her in years, but now I could see her sharply. She was young, energetic and beautiful. She doted on us. Taught me cursive and manners. My crush on her had no end. I adored her.
“I don’t know. I just remember Mom and Dad arguing about whether you would have to change classes. I thought you knew. I could have sworn I told you.”
“No,” I said. “You didn’t.”
Usually Sam and I would discuss Dad’s caddish behavior with an ironic energy that made us laugh with the pain, but that was only because many of the events happened so long ago that the real pain had already been felt and dealt with. But Mrs. Riemenschneider was something I didn’t know. I couldn’t hide behind irony. This pain was fresh.
“He ruins everything,” I said.
“Yes,” Sam said. “In the end, he does.”
We were silent for a long time after that. Sam turned on the radio.
We made it to the Mackinac Bridge by two. Sam said he was starting to get a headache so he let me drive. I directed the old white pickup truck over the green grates of the long bridge. It was an easy crossing. The sky was blue, the sun was out. There was barely any wind and the waves were light in the Straits of Mackinac hundreds of feet below. When I was still drinking, the bridge crossing would give me great anxiety – sweaty palms, heart palpitations – but those kinds of torments stopped when I finally got sober.
It had been two years since the crash. I didn’t get hurt, but my ex-wife, Marie, broke her leg. We were fighting on the way home from a Detroit bar at two in the morning when I flung our old Toyota into a light pole. I was three times the legal limit to drive. I was arrested and hauled into Wayne County Jail. Marie was taken to the hospital with a broken leg and other minor injuries. She stopped drinking after the accident, too. Our newfound sobriety made us rethink our marriage, which was already teetering. We called it quits. Since then, it had been a harrowing two years. Divorce, rehab, recovery. I moved back in with Mom and Dad and helped take care of Dad as he died. I realized I should have stop drinking years ago. It had been going so well that I hadn’t desired a drink since.
Until driving over the Mackinac Bridge.
The plan was to get to Seney, find a place to stay for the night, go out and do some fishing, then ceremonially spread the ashes the next morning at a particular spot way back in the woods where Dad, Sam and I used to camp. About midway through the bridge, though, that old thirst hit me. I decided right then and there I would drink that night. It was my secret. I fondled it with joy the rest of the ride. I should have called my sponsor, a near-sighted magician named Skip. Skip used to perform on the cruise ship circuit until he literally fell off one of the ships. True story. It seems unreal, but go to an A.A. meeting and you’ll hear things. Skip was a disturbed man, but most performers are. He said he was learning to manage his narcissistic tendencies and obsessive behavior in The Program. He had been very helpful to me in the beginning of my sobriety, but since Dad got really sick and died, I’d drifted from The Program and daily meetings. This didn’t sit well with Skip, who was enjoying his second stint of long-term sobriety.
“You’ve got to work The Program. If you don’t, you’ll drink. If you drink, you’ll die.”
I scoffed at such rigorousness. The best way not to drink was just to not drink. Simple as that. As we were delivered into the wilds of the Upper Peninsula, I thought maybe Skip was right. I shrugged. I didn’t care. I was going to drink that night. Fuck it.
Our fishing plans were derailed after the bridge.
“It’s only like 24 degrees up here,” Sam said. “And I think I’m getting a migraine.”
The sky was still sunny and bright. I cracked the window. He was right. Wintery air blasted in.
“Yeah, it’s cold,” I said.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples with his fingers.
“I don’t know about standing in a river in this kind of cold,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
Steelhead fishing sounded like a good idea a few days ago, but now it felt like a chore.
“We better just find a place to stay,” I said.
The lodging options in Seney were minimal, a few of those cinderblock roach motels where you sleep on top of the bed without peeling back the blanket. When Nick Adams first arrives into the burned-out town on a train, he stops at the bridge and looks down into the river where the water moves swiftly over the stones to see what the trout are feeding on. Sam and I drive over that same bridge looking for the least-sleazy looking motel. Seney was the Wild West of Michigan in the logging days. The population was triple if not quadruple what it is now, mostly with lumbermen and prostitutes. Dad loved to regale us with this history as boys. He relished in telling us the details of the whorehouses with a bawdy wink when I was seven, eight and nine years old.
Sam and I checked into the Seney Motel.
“It’s only for a night,” Sam reminded me after we walked into the room. “I really just need a dark place to lay down. I don’t care what it smells like.”
It wasn’t outright unclean, just old and funky. The smell was somewhere between swamp and old gym shoe. The bedcovers were a gold shade popular forty years ago. I definitely wasn’t pulling those puppies back. But I didn’t care. I agreed to the room for the sole reason that Andy’s Seney Bar was right across the street.
“Looks great,” I said.
Sam had already drawn all the curtains and flopped down on the bed.
“This migraine is killing me. Can you track me down some medicine? Motrin? Anything?”
I left Sam in the room alone. I perched the canister of Captain Black in the passenger seat and drove down the highway to a small market that doubled as a gas station. Just since we’d gotten there, gray and purple clouds had moved in overhead. It looked like snow was a serious possibility. The man behind the counter at the market told me they expected a few inches.
“Weather moves fast up here,” he said. “It’s nothing.”
He was an old man wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans with a raspy smoker’s voice. By the end, Dad coughed and hacked his way through the day and kept his body alive with the help of an oxygen tank. Memories of helping him in and out to smoke with his oxygen tank gave me an unpleasant spasm as I scoured the market for the medicine aisle. The store’s wares were mostly overpriced cans of Spaghetti-Os and loaves of white bread, though there was a cooler of suspicious looking pinkish-gray blobs of meat wrapped in cellophane. I felt a blast of cold air when I hit the walk-in freezer room called the Beer Cave, separated from the rest of the sales floor by long slats of plastic dangling from the ceiling. I went in and grabbed a 12 pack of beer. I also went down the liquor aisle and found a fifth of George Dickel, Dad’s favorite. I got Sam some Advil and special migraine Excedrin. I plopped it all down in front of the guy at the counter and had him get me a pack of Marlboro Reds, Dad’s brand. When I got it out to the pickup truck, I surrounded the Captain Black canister with the whisky, beer and cigarettes like they were offerings and the passenger seat was an Egyptian shrine. If Dad wanted to take anything to the afterlife with him, it would be these things.
Sam was moaning in pain when I got back to the motel room.
“Are you gonna be all right?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just need some medicine and some darkness. You’re on your own tonight, though. Sorry. You’ll be all right?”
“What are you going to do?”
The question was parental, a subtle reference to my sobriety. People had been skittish and skeptical since I dried out. He really meant to ask: “Are you going to be tempted to drink if I don’t watch over you?”
“I think I’ll just take a drive around the woods, maybe grab some dinner,” I lied. “I’ll get to bed early. That way we can get the ashes spread early, maybe do some fishing, then get home.”
He was too weak to give it much thought. I left him the medicine and told him to call me if he needed anything. A few minutes later I was already off the main highway, on a two-track entering the deep wilderness of the Upper Peninsula in the pickup. There was an old Hank Williams song blasting on the radio, a half-drained bottle of beer clenched between my thighs and a cigarette propped in my mouth. The Captain Black canister sat in the seat next to me like a passenger. Just me and Pops getting shitfaced in the backwoods like the old days.
I woke up and felt sick. Sam was standing over me.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Nick.”
“Why didn’t you say you were feeling like you were going to drink. We shouldn’t have come. This was a bad idea.”
“I didn’t drink. Why? What? I’m fine. It’s fine.”
Images of the night before started to surface but made little sense.
“Then where’s the Captain Black can?”
“He’s in the truck.”
“No it’s not. I just looked. Where did you go last night? How drunk did you get?”
“I’m fine. The tobacco thing is in the truck.”
“It’s not. But there are a shitload of empty beer bottles and a mostly-empty bottle of Dickel in there.”
I wanted to cry. I had never relapsed before. Not in two years. The shame was deafening.
“I had the Captain Black thing in the passenger seat. It was sitting there.”
“Well it’s not there. Where did you go? Did you get all drunk and spread the ashes without me? You guys always did have some weird special bond.”
“No. I wouldn’t do that. It’s in the truck somewhere. I swear. I gotta use the bathroom.”
I never used to get sick in my drinking days, beyond a few times in high school and college. By the time I was in my thirties, I could drink all night and never throw up. But something about being sober and drinking so much the night before made me horribly sick. I spent a few minutes retching like a wild animal before coming out into the motel room. At least I made it back here somehow, I thought. Sam had the door open to air out the room. His gear was packed in the truck and the engine was running. He came back inside.
“I double checked. No pipe can. Where did you go last night?”
“I drove around in the woods. I stopped by the river.”
“Then I went to the bar.”
“Jesus,” Sam said, annoyed. “Did you take Dad in there?”
I took a deep breath and focused.
“Yes,” I said. “I took him in there to say good bye. He loved that place.”
“I know,” Sam said.
His tone was calmer now. He understood.
“Then I came home. Well, here.”
“Did you maybe forget it there?”
I searched my soggy brain.
“Maybe,” I said. “I can’t remember.”
“Well, it’s closed now, but we can check when it opens in an hour. Was there anyone in there? Did you talk to anyone?”
I talked with all sorts of people at the bar. The night slowly re-collected itself in my mind. I’d been trying to score with the barmaid, Brenda, even though her boyfriend was in the bar with us. I was hoping he’d leave with his friends and it would just be Brenda and I, that she’d be so enamored with my glossy cosmopolitan ways that she’d take me back in the kitchen for a handjob. Brenda was cute around the eyes, but big and intimidating in that backwoods barmaid sort of way. I recalled keeping Dad on the bar stool next to me the whole night, but I had no memory of leaving.
By the time I showered and packed up, there was a car in the bar’s parking lot. It seemed someone was getting ready to open for lunch. Sam and I went over there and pounded on the door until someone answered. It was Brenda herself. She looked somehow more pleasant in the cold daylight. I explained my predicament.
“That’s what you had in that can?” she said. “You brought a dead guy’s ashes into my bar? I should report you.”
Brenda wasn’t outright pissed, but definitely irritated. I didn’t blame her. She searched the bar, but didn’t find anything.
“I bet Julio took it. He thought you had weed in there.”
“Who’s Julio?” Sam asked.
“Just some local,” Brenda said. “He’s not Mexican or anything. I think his real name is Jim. I’m not sure why they call him Julio. He’ll probably be back here tonight.”
We thanked Brenda. Sam was frustrated again. It was cold. There was an inch of crunchy snow on the ground and the sky threatened more. We went into the pickup truck to warm up. We decided to drive around a little bit, find the spot in the woods on the river where we were going to spread the ashes, have a similar ceremony without them, then head home. Just as we left the parking lot of Andy’s Seney Bar, it started to snow.
I daydreamed about Mrs. Riemenschneider while Sam drove through the snow. My adoration of her was ruined, of course, but I forgave Dad. At the bottom of his bawdy horseplay throughout his life, there was a deep and profound sadness of failure. Dad often referred to Thomas Carlyle’s thoroughly and righteously debunked Great Man theory which posits that history (or History, rather) is nothing more than the actions of mighty men, not the sum of a million slow-moving and mostly random parts. You’re either the guy doing the cannonball or just a ripple. Dad yearned to be a great man. I don’t think he would argue that he shaped history in any way, but I do feel he believed he was a cut above the rest and that he was allowed certain liberties. Great men are special and allowed to behave outside the boundaries of boring, ordinary morality, goes the thinking. But all the theories and ideas Dad lived by came crashing down at the end of his life. The world had moved on, but Dad was still stuck beholding his perceived greatness. This delusion was happening to entire generations of white men all over the first world at the same time. Power was shifting and it wasn’t always pleasant.
“If I can find the river, we’ll be all right,” Sam said. “Nothing looks the same.”
We used to camp in this part of the woods thirty years ago, but the woods had changed. The land was owned by a logging company which cut and replanted over the years. The river was also subject to various state-run embankment preservation projects. Sam and I were foolishly determined to find the place where we used to camp on the river. What would we do once we got there? Stop the truck, look at the river in the snow, then leave. What we were really seeking was conclusion, not just to the trip, but to the imperfect life of our father himself. Not just conclusion, which suggests a mere ending, but resolution and emotional satisfaction.
It was soon an outright blizzard.
“I can’t see three feet in front of us,” Sam said, slowing the truck down to a crawl. “But I think we’re getting close. I think the river is right down this road.”
It was true. Snow was everywhere, a soft storm of white making the road invisible. Sam stopped the truck.
“Let’s just walk.”
There was no debate, no talk about if it was safe to leave the truck. We were close to the stretch of the river where we camped with Dad. Sam and I both recalled the trips with great fondness. I would have been about eleven or twelve. It was when I really learned how to fish. We camped on a high bank overlooking the small thread of brown river. There was a campfire going at all times. We caught brook trout and fried them in an iron skillet on an open fire. This place was how we wanted to remember Dad.
Sam and I both had on reasonable winter boots and coats, but we weren’t anticipating the type of snowfall that occurred in the next hour. We walked into the blizzard down a clear lane we assumed was the road. Sam was right. We ended up at the place where thirty years ago Dad pitched the canvas tent and we ate brook trout. We went down to the river and felt the fast rush of water buried in the snow.
“This is it,” Sam said.
“Yeah,” I said.
We usually had something to say about everything, but in that moment neither of us said anything. We just stared at the river in the falling snow. I started crying. I looked over and Sam was crying, too.
“This would have been a great moment to spread the ashes,” Sam said.
“And Julio is nowhere to be seen,” I said.
We chuckled and wiped our eyes.
“All right, let’s get back to the truck while we can still see,” Sam said.
We tromped back to the truck in the snow. Neither of us had much more to say. There was a feeling that nothing was settled and would remain that way for some time.