“THE DRUMMOND GIRLS is a thoughtful reminder of the enduring and healing power of friendship.”
— — Lori Nelson Spielman, author of The Life list
“Imagine Hemingway’s northern Michigan, except with ‘mothers who hand-sewed their kids’ clothes, [and] who read used Jane Austen paperbacks,’ and you’d have something wonderful, something lush and welcome like THE DRUMMOND GIRLS.”
— — Sue William Silverman, author of The Pat Boone Fan Club
PROLOGUE OCTOBER 2013
Okay, so check us out. It’s two o’clock in the morning and there we all are, eight bony, dark- rooted, and wide- awake women, sitting around the table at Paw Point Lodge.
If there exists a more improbable group of girlfriends, I don’t know where you’d find them. Not on Drummond Island; we’ve already claimed that rock as surely as the Pilgrims claimed Plymouth. Not with buckle shoes or lukewarm beer from barrels, but with aerobics sneakers and shots of Absolut; otherwise, it’s a pretty similar setup. A group of energetic misfits pools their resources, leaves their familiar confines in a huff, docks in a strange land, and parties like Vikings. (A historic liberty. I can’t recall anyone saying they partied like Pilgrims. Ever.)
At the head of this table is Linda, busy counting the cash in our kitty. She started our trip more than twenty years ago with seventy- five dollars and a roll of quarters from her tip jar; when she arrives at the final sum tonight, it will have a comma in it. A pair of Kmart readers slips down her nose and a cigarette is notched between her fingers. An impressively long ash hangs from the end, but fall off ? It would not dare.
Susan is in the kitchen, mouthing the words to a Van Halen song while also texting her husband, downloading a geocache coordinate, and mixing a cocktail. It might be her second Maker’s and Caffeine- Free Diet; it might be her fifth. Two decades in, yet it is impossible for me to tell which.
Pam is smiling contentedly, simply being her relaxed and happy self. She’s making a snack, scooping up a teaspoon of potato salad, but vowing next year to bring baby spinach with turkey- bacon dressing instead (3.5 carbs). Her cropped hair is a dozen shades of bronze, a style that would look ridiculous on the rest of us, but is the bee’s knees on her.
Mary Lynn is here, yet not here, and I miss her. She was taken from us more than a decade ago by what her doctor called “a cardiac event.” I am older now than she was when she died, and I silently vow to never get myself invited to one of those. Then top off my cocktail, eye a pot brownie, and go for a sloppy joe and a handful of corn chips. I can diet when I’m dead.
I take my place at the table then, across from the two women leaning in and whispering. Yes, the ones who look like they’re plotting a revolution. Andrea and Jill, the youngest of the girls at fortythree and forty-seven. Put them in charge and we’ll be kidnapping a cop, fixing a flat tire with nicotine gum, then popping into the Northwoods to sing covers with the bar band. It’s late now, though — or actually really, really early — and most of us have our Cuddl Duds on, so those shenanigans will just have to wait until tomorrow.
“When did we start going on this trip, anyway?”
Sitting next to me with her perfect posture and that pretty, heart- shaped face is, finally, Bev, aka “the Polish Princess.” She might insist on the senior discount and have a Medicare Part D card in her purse (if she can find her purse; dammit, it was just right here), but she’s still got the cover- girl look. She could draw back the bow, aim the arrow, and be Bear Archery’s poster girl tonight if she wanted to.
She doesn’t. She just wants to know when the eight of us started going to Drummond Island together.
“Was it ninety- four? Or maybe . . . ninety- six?”
The room quiets and a few of us share a look. We’ve answered this question for her already, several times in fact. So I think I’m justified when I turn to her with just a hint of irritation and open my mouth to answer it again.
I lift my hand for emphasis this time, hoping my words will take. But then before I can utter a single one something in the gesture catches my eye.
Because, for the love of Christ, there’s what looks like a twodollar night crawler on the back of my hand, stuck under the skin. It’s purple, it’s tender looking, and it’s big enough to catch a lunker bass if someone had the wherewithal to poke a hook through it.
Then I remember I’m wearing a pair of Lacoste boots — the pink plaid ones I bought just for this year’s trip. Describing my footwear may seem like a random observation until I explain that inside their narrow toes my bunions are screaming the seven words you can’t say on television. One of those words is piss. Not a bad option, as obscenities go.
In my head, I try it out: Piss, my feet fucking hurt.
Which feels satisfying for about one second. Because wait — is that my rotator cuff ? And has it started throbbing?
The nerves inside the shallow socket rear up at odd moments since an ill- advised, backwoods horse race. Considering the heft of the dinner plate in my hand, the one holding my “snack,” I probably just reinjured my shoulder by carrying it to the table.
I swing my arm in a circle to get some circulation going and narrowly miss Bev. She gives me a reproving look. Not for the arm windmill, but for the attitude. Considering my own maladies, is helping her remember the year she first came with us to the island really all that much to ask?
The other girls are looking at me that same way, too. Over her glasses Linda raises an eyebrow. Susan turns down the classic rock, and she and Pam make eye contact, say nothing, and take ladylike sips of their drinks instead. Even Andrea and Jill have stopped strategizing long enough to look my way.
I get the message.
Who am I, with my varicose hand, my horse- wrecked shoulder, and my squee- hawed feet to begrudge Bev a little memory lapse?
They’re right, of course. They usually are.
There was a time when we believed we were immune from the passage of time. That we’d be young and sound forever. Today, we know different. And our once sacred pact to keep the details of our trips to the island a secret (“what happens over the Mackinac Bridge stays over the Mackinac Bridge”) doesn’t feel relevant anymore.
“When are you going to write our story?” the girls asked me.
There are eight stories, I reminded them, not just one.
“Fine,” they said, undeterred, “then write yours.”
That we ever became friends at all is miraculous. Within our group is every combination of married, divorced, remarried, and staunchly single. We’ve got graduate degrees but also high school diplomas barely and miraculously bestowed; world travelers and homebodies; Republicans, Democrats, and several who self-identify as members of the None-of- Your- Damn- Business Party. Besides Drummond Island, Michigan, the one thing we share is a puritanesque independence. And by that I mean that one Drummond Girl does not ask another Drummond Girl for anything very often. When one does, no matter what it is, you do not say no.
I’d do anything for these women.
I’d take a rubber bullet for them. I’d do ninety days at a minimum- security prison camp, plan a hostile takeover of a Caribbean beach resort, or even lift one of those little plastic dump trucks off a baby, and they’d do those things and more for me.
And Beverly, I’m sorry I became irritated with you that night at Paw Point. I remember exactly when you joined the Drummond Girls. It was 1995. I remember the two trips before you came along, and a good deal of what we’ve all shared since then, too.
So here goes. I’m going to start at the beginning and work my way forward. That’s the only way I know how to tell our story. It’s not just mine; it’s ours. The girls knew I’d come around to that idea eventually.
I hope it helps you, Bev, and the rest of us, too, remember every single minute of it.
CHAPTER ONE 1993
Mothers who hand sewed their kids’ clothes, who read used Jane Austen paperbacks and stenciled checkerboards and hearts onto their kitchen cupboards, did not go away on weekend benders. Not according to my husband they didn’t.
“This one does,” I told him, tossing long underwear, a disposable camera, and a Led Zeppelin cassette tape into a denim duffel bag.
It was early October; I was a thirty- one- year- old wife and mother of two, a bar waitress with a college degree, and getting into Jill’s red Fiero that morning was the most radical act I’d committed in years. My older son was three, the younger fourteen months, and I’d rarely been apart from them for more than a few hours. And yet when Jill backed down my driveway, that duffel bag and I were in her front seat.
My husband stood on the rickety front porch, our baby in his arms. Next to him squirmed our older boy, grasping his father’s leg with one hand and solemnly waving good- bye with the other. I blew him kisses and waved back. Then watched out Jill’s windshield as the three of them grew smaller and smaller. Inside my rib cage, guilt battled the anticipation of a girlfriends’ weekend away.
I was leaving behind flannel sheets, family dinners, baby skin smell, and him.
I was leaving behind temper tantrums, dirty dishes, diapers, spit-up, and him.
It’s going to be okay, I thought, it’s only for the weekend. Then almost immediately my mind overrode that with I’ve earned this.
Jill drove the quick two miles to Peegeo’s, the bar where we worked, and we met up with two other coworkers, Linda and Andrea. The plan had been to leave before sunup; we were racing the light and had fallen a little behind. The sun was crowning over the trees when Jill parked the Fiero at the back of the empty lot, and the four of us scrambled into Linda’s Jeep. I knew the name of the place we were going — Drummond Island — and that we’d need four- wheel drive, but little else about the weekend.
By the time we’d crossed the Grand Traverse County line, it was daytime, and those girls and the island — not my guilt — won out. From then on, for that one weekend a year, no matter who was waving good- bye, the island would win. The island would always win.
Linda hit the gas hard and pulled out onto US 31 North, which for the next ninety miles would take us along the coast of the Grand Traverse Bay, then Little Traverse Bay, and finally the shore of Lake Michigan for our approach to the Mackinac Bridge. After we crossed it, another coastal highway, this one running along the northern shore of Lake Huron, would deliver us to the Drummond Island car ferry.
“Sure you’re ready for this?” Jill asked me, when we were far enough from home to see the iconic bridge ahead in the distance.
“Clear your head!” Andrea hollered before I could answer. “And prepare yourself !”
She held her fingers in front of her face and then slowly slid them apart like a security gate, illustrating exactly how I might go about clearing my head.
As for how to prepare myself, I had absolutely no idea.
But I was still young then. And boy, would I learn.
“There’s no cops on the island,” Linda said.
The tone of her voice made it sound as if that fact were a value added selling point. I’d heard her use the same tone when she told customers at the bar that the fish was good and the salad dressing was homemade.
I was sitting in the backseat with Jill, Andrea had turned to the front, and the Mackinac Bridge loomed huge in front of us when Linda imparted that detail. The fish was good at Peegeo’s, the salad dressing was homemade, so what she’d just said about the police was probably true, too.
“Drink and drive, baby!” Jill whooped.
The three of them had been to the island together once before,and even though I was so excited to be along I could barely keep a rational thought in my head, I was aware enough to be in awe of their friendship. When I was around new people, only a tiny percentage of what I was thinking ever came out of my mouth. And what I was thinking was that my presence in that car felt provisional. If I fit in, I’d be included. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. On Drummond Island but back home, too.
I’d still have my waitress job, the four of us would still work together, they’d probably even still be friendly to me, but every woman knows friendly is not the same thing as friends.
No one came right out and said those were the stakes, but it was kind of a given. The three of them were the established group; I was the untested one they’d decided, for some unknown reason, to try out.
Back then, friends were the one thing I’d wanted more than anything else. Not just any friends. I wanted them. Those three women were everything I’d wished I could be: tough, undaunted, independent. I hoped being a wife and a mother didn’t preclude me from becoming those things, too. They had cool to spare. Once we were on Drummond Island, some of it just might rub off on me.
“Hey,” Jill said, unbuckling her seat belt and reaching to the back of the Jeep. “Who wants a beer?”
I looked at the clock on Linda’s dashboard. Eight thirty.
“Not till we’re over the bridge,” Linda said.
“Oh yeah,” Jill said. “Right.”
Her voice carried an unmistakable sigh of disappointment. But she turned back around, buckled her seat belt again, and busied herself with the air flowing by out her window. It was a familiar way to pass the time on a road trip, but when most people put their hand out a car window, they just cupped their fingers and rode the air currents, letting their hand swim easily along. Jill was full-on rock and roll when she did it, even that early in the morning. She punched the wind with her fist, then pumped her whole arm up and down to the beat thumping from the radio.
I’d been so absorbed in whether or not I was going to fit in that Linda’s comment about the police hadn’t fully registered. Jill’s enthusiasm for drinking and driving did, and although I didn’t say so out loud, I wasn’t exactly sure what to think.
Linda had told me there were two bars on the island, plus we all worked in a bar, so I knew there was going to be drinking. Not a problem. I enjoyed a beer as much as the next college-educated waitress with two little kids and a grouchy husband at home.
The girls had also told me about the miles of dirt roads that crisscrossed the island — two- tracks, they called them — where we’d unroll the windows, drive for hours, not see another vehicle, and just enjoy the wilderness. That was why we needed the fourwheel drive, so I knew there was going to be plenty of driving around that weekend, too. I would have preferred hiking, but I was so happy to be along at all, I wasn’t going to quibble about it.
I just hadn’t realized we’d be doing the drinking and the driving at the same time.
When Linda said there were no police where we were going, she’d said it not with caution or warning, but with what today I can only call glee. That’s what should have registered with me. Because Linda didn’t do glee. She was too self- controlled and deliberate for a such girlish emotion. I didn’t know her very well then, but I knew that. Everyone knew that.
Linda could be wickedly funny and was sometimes even animated,but she never gushed. Ever. She was a woman’s woman, not a girly girl. And yet, she’d just said “no cops” with all the excitement of a cheerleader on her way to the big homecoming game.
What had I gotten myself into?
I was raised in an active family of outdoor enthusiasts. We’d camped, fished, hiked, sailed, canoed, swum, ridden horses, and backpacked all over Michigan, and I was absolutely certain the presence of law enforcement (or not) had never been a factor for me, my parents, or my grandparents when planning any of those excursions.
Yet despite having traversed much of my beloved state, I’d never been to Drummond Island. Not once. In my mind the island seemed mysterious and special, a land separate and secret from all those other places I’d seen and all those other things I’d done. Apparently, it was also the kind of place where no one in uniform, trained and obligated to help in case of an emergency, dared tread.
My husband was often irritated with what he called my “completely useless tendency to overthink everything to death.”
I did do that, but it wasn’t something I could control; it was just me, and I silently put the signature trait to use right there in that car.
No cops meant no parking tickets, no speeding tickets, no sobriety tests, no arrest warrants, no nights in a jail cell that smelled like urine and dirty feet. (I’d never been in jail but my brother had.)
Then again, it also meant no help with directions if we got lost; no free lockouts or jump- starts if Linda locked her keys in her car or her battery died; and no armed protection from thieves, gropers, flashers, rapists, wild animals, or serial killers. Drummond Island was not a population center, that much I did know. The demographics didn’t seem very promising for a serial killer. Just perfect, though, for wild animals.
I’m levelheaded, I thought to myself, and reasonably capable. In stressful situations I wasn’t prone to panic, freeze, or scream. When I was in college, a man in an actual tan raincoat had flashed me. I burst out laughing and he ran away. These women would have given chase and then beaten the crap out of that guy, I was sure of it.
I wasn’t going to celebrate it the way Jill had, but I could accept it. If anything bad happened on Drummond, we’d just take care of ourselves. What appealed to me more was another authority figure the island lacked: bad- tempered husbands.
Linda’s tires bumped onto the metal grates of the Mackinac Bridge. I looked down at the water far below and watched fingers of wind shift direction and claw the steely surface of the Straits of Mackinac. The wind was actually blowing backward, from south to north. A thrill came over me so completely then that I could hardly sit still. It was the kind of feeling only a wife and mother, with responsibilities and worries back home, could feel. I might have only been going away for two nights, but I felt like I was on a grand adventure, the kind I’d only read about in books. My companions were unknown, the itinerary unplanned, the destination uncivilized, and the conclusion uncertain.
I leaned back against the seat, stretched my legs out long, and watched the Michigan I knew pass by hundreds of feet below. If drinking and driving was what was required, then drinking and driving was what I’d do. Come to think of it, after we crossed the bridge I was sure a cold beer wouldn’t taste half bad.
I unfocused my eyes and aimed them toward an opaque horizon of land far to the north. Drummond Island was out there. It was going to be reckless and it was going to be wild. We were going to be reckless and wild, and there wasn’t anyone up there to stop us.
Spanning an amazing five miles, the Mighty Mac connects Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas and is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. California’s Golden Gate is only a quarter as long, and when Neil Armstrong returned from the moon, he said he could see our bridge from space.
“Look how far you can see!” Jill said, sticking her head out the window and staring two hundred feet down, straight at the water.
I watched the wind trace patterns on the surface like gusts across prairie grass, and that day, even from so high up, the Straits of Mackinac looked solid, as if you could step off the shore and walk right out onto the water. Then I remembered the news story about that woman from Detroit. What happened to her was so terrifying, I was sure everyone in the whole state remembered it.
She’d been a waitress, too, thirty- something years old, and also headed up north on a weekend off. No one ever figured out why, but as she approached the apex of the bridge she drove straight into oncoming traffic. She’d been able to veer safely back into her own lane, but the police said she must have overcorrected because just like that, her little car flipped over the guardrail. It took a week for divers to find it. When they did, her body was still buckled in the driver’s seat.
No wonder Linda had rules against beer until after we’d crossed.
“Those boats are, like, so tiny,” Andrea said. Like Jill, she’d stuck her head out the window, too, and looked straight down.
“They look like little bugs or something.”
“Yeah,” I said, locking my eyes on the horizon. “Bugs.”
We passed the bridge’s two main towers, started our descent, and about a mile and a half later, the syncopating grates under Linda’s tires were replaced by solid pavement again. There’s a tollbooth on the northern side of the bridge; in 1993, it cost $1.25 per axle for passenger cars. Linda slowed, threw some change in the metal bin, the traffic arm lifted, and we crossed into the Upper Peninsula.
The contours of both peninsulas are so distinctive, any student of geography could have easily pointed out our location on a map. But maps don’t show everything. Our passage from south to north felt imbued with more significance than simply driving over a line of famous topography. We’d left Traverse City only two hours before and were hardly a hundred miles from home, yet it felt like days since I’d waved good- bye to my family.
Our state’s peninsulas are twins of a sort, but fraternal, not identical, and we had just driven onto the wild child. The Upper Peninsula is as large as Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island combined, but only 330,000 people live there. It was a land dominated by old- growth forests, bedrock outcroppings, and a sense of arboreal vastness that had long ago vanished from much of the rest of the country. Less than 1 percent of Upper Peninsula residents lived in a village or town. Car accidents were more likely to be between a car and a deer than a car and another car. Even from the highway, bear sightings were possible. The Upper Peninsula was where one of my favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, went when he wanted to disappear. I relished the idea that my new friends and I were about to become a lot harder to find.
So I was surprised when just five hundred yards past the tollbooth, Linda pulled into the parking lot of the Michigan Welcome Center, a rest stop on the outskirts of the town of St. Ignace. Bathroom break. As we walked in, a shock of yellow sunlight from an east-facing window shined directly in my face, and I saw something that froze me in the doorway. Standing in the sunshine was a full- grown wolf.
“Hi puppy,” Jill said.
The angle of the light changed, moved past our faces and onto a glassed-in cube we had to pass by on our way to the bathroom.
Okay. So after a bathroom break, after being startled by a four- foot carnivore inside a taxidermist’s display, and after chugging a shared can of beer in the parking lot, then we were about to become hard to find.
“Next stop, Drummond Island!” Linda said, when we were all buckled back in.
There were still sixty- something miles of lonely coastal highway to drive and a mile of open water to be ferried across before we’d reach our destination. For the first time I wondered where we’d be staying. Linda had said something about a cozy place with a water view, but that was all I knew. I hadn’t wanted to be the annoying new girl who asks a bunch of rookie questions about something as trivial as a hotel room, so I hadn’t asked any questions at all.
I thought about that stuffed wolf, and when we were back in the Jeep, I asked the girls about it instead. Three hundred miles northwest, on Isle Royale, another island in the Upper Peninsula, there were a lot of wolves. Did wolves live on Drummond Island, too? I was afraid of them, but I kind of hoped we’d see one. A photograph of a wolf would be quite the souvenir to impress my husband and show my sons.
Jill said we were more likely to see a bear. She’d read there could be as many as sixty — sixty! — black bears living on the island, and they were dumber, hungrier, and tamer than wolves. Which also made them more dangerous. Wolves avoided people; bears didn’t.
“How cool would it be to actually see one?” she’d said, her blue eyes sparkling.
Packed in my duffel with the Led Zeppelin, the long underwear, and the winter jacket was a disposable camera preloaded with enough film for twenty- four pictures. The nine dollars I’d spent on it was something of an extravagance. My husband was a Head Start teacher and sold encyclopedias door-to-door. I was a night waitress. We’d just bought our first house — a dated one story with an unfinished garage — on a land contract deal. We didn’t have any extra money. One of his arguments against me going had been the seventy- five dollars I’d needed to contribute to the trip’s kitty.
Hearing Jill talk about bears made me wish I’d splurged even more. Bears were nocturnal. For another four dollars, I could have bought a camera with a built-in flash.
“Say ‘Drummond Island Ferry’!” a whiskered crewman said, his arthritic finger poised on the shutter button.
“Drummond Island Ferr- eee!” we cheered as the flat- hulled vessel rocked, the horizon tilted, and the wind sucked our voices north.
There were about twenty other cars, trucks, campers, and boat trailers on the ferry, all packed in so tight that a few of the drivers couldn’t even open their doors. It was windy, and even the passengers who could have gotten out of their cars stayed inside for the ride from DeTour Village to the island. Some didn’t even look out their windows, but just read a newspaper or napped instead. The remote passage was so beautiful, and the only reason I could think of for anyone to ignore it like that was if they’d made the trip umpteen times before.
What a life that must be, I thought. Living, working, and even raising your children on an island.
It was an odd sensation to be sitting in a car that was stopped, with the engine turned off, and yet was also moving steadily forward over open water. The crewman had directed Linda to park her Jeep in a spot alongside the ferry’s starboard railing. I rolled down my window, smelled fresh water, and felt the cold sun shining on my face. I put on my Ray- Bans, opened my door as far as I could, and squeezed my thin body out. I didn’t want anything coming between me and my first sighting of Drummond.
I walked to the edge of the ferry and leaned out over the railing. A plaque said her name was the Drummond Islander III, and I wondered what had happened to I and II. But I was just curious; none of the gruesome thoughts I’d obsessed over when we were crossing the Mackinac Bridge entered my mind. I was terrified of heights, but I’d learned to swim about the same time I’d learned to walk, been on swim teams in high school and college, and swam across several inland lakes just for the fun of it. There wasn’t an undertow, a current, or a drop- off anywhere in the Great Lakes that fazed me. Drop me into the swirling depths of DeTour Passage, and even in that cold water I’d pop back up and swim to shore.
The other girls came outside and watched with me as the ferry cruised within sight of a small lighthouse looking like it had been anchored there forever. After we passed I scanned the unfamiliar shoreline the captain was aiming us toward. Drummond Island was a sentinel hunk of rocky earth grounded in the unpredictable currents, just like that lighthouse. Except for a ferry dock and a limestone quarry, its coastline looked uninhabited. I saw nothing but waves splitting onto man- sized boulders, trees swaying in full fall color, and a hill behind them so dense with evergreens it made the island look almost timeless, like a prehistoric continent modern life had chosen to leave alone.
On the map I’d found under Linda’s seat, the island was shaped like a big blue crab. The St. Marys River, the North Channel, and Georgian Bay bordered it on the north, and nothing but the open water of Lake Huron flowed to the south. Drummond was a chunk of rock, forests, dirt roads, and one little town floating within a slingshot of Canada. There was no bridge to the island, so the only way for people to get there was by car ferry, boat, or private plane. Deer, bears, and wolves might be able to swim there, and I’d heard that in the wintertime animals sometimes walked to the island over the ice. Drummond’s crab claws faced due west, and on Linda’s map it looked as if they were trying to pinch the shore of the mainland and hold on.
A woman could lose herself in there, I thought, shocking myself with how tempting that idea actually felt. She could just walk on in and never walk back out again.
“Who’s up for a cocktail?” Linda said, shooing us away from the railing and back into her Jeep as the ferry docked.
“Me, definitely,” Andrea said.
“Ab-sa-freakin’- lootly!” Jill agreed.
“We’ll check into our place first,” Linda said, “and then head over to the Northwoods. Sound like a plan?”
I didn’t have a plan. If the three of them did, they sure hadn’t discussed it with me. But that was okay. I could already feel myself adjusting to not having a schedule, a to-do list, or the slightest idea of what time it was.
Back home I didn’t wear a watch, even though there were things to do and places to be at appointed times. I had a good natural clock inside me, and whether it was my sons’ naps, bedtimes, mealtimes, or my shifts at work — I was never, ever late. When we docked on that island, I felt a mental click, as if a series of invisible gears was grinding to a stop. It was the timepiece in my mind turning itself off.
I’d first met Jill, Andrea, and Linda on a night I’d randomly fled to Peegeo’s for a beer, desperate for a break from my second- born son. He was six months old then, and usually I could make it through his two hours of crying every evening, but that night it had worn me down to nothing.
I’d never been to Peegeo’s before, and it was Jill who’d said hello when I walked in the door; Andrea who’d poured me a Bud Light draft; and later, when I noticed the Help Wanted sign, Linda who’d handed me an application. I hadn’t gone there looking for a job and didn’t want to work at all if it meant leaving my sons with a babysitter or putting them in day care. Back then our family finances were as raw as my nerves, so the sign caught my eye.
I’d never waitressed before, but when Linda handed me the application, I filled it out on the spot.
My thinking was that by working nights I could not only make some extra money, but also solve the babysitter dilemma. If I worked at Peegeo’s, I could be with my boys during the day, and they’d be with their father in the evenings. Linda hired me the following week. Four months later, she’d invited me to go to Drummond with the three of them.
Of our group, Jill was the youngest at just twenty- one, yet the only one besides me who was married. She was short, pretty, and after working with her, I knew she could also be what my mother would call “mouthy” but what I would call a survival adaptation when you looked like her and worked in a place like Peegeo’s. The bar and restaurant wasn’t rough or scary, just male dominated and economically diverse; it was not unusual to see a golfer in plaid pants, a biker in skull tattoos, and a salesman just passing through, sitting on adjacent barstools.
Jill had worked there since she was fifteen. She was so good at it that she could cover the bar, the window booths, the takeout orders, and the dining room all by herself. You could not rattle Jill or put her in a bad mood. Not for anything.
Andrea and her boyfriend had been roommates with Jill and her boyfriend, right up until Jill got engaged. She and Jill still joked about the house they’d lived in together. How ramshackle it was, but how that was also part of the fun of living there. No matter how big a party they threw, it couldn’t stain, break, or damage a place already so decrepit.
As someone who actually owned a house, I almost felt sorry for their neighbors. Andrea’s voice could’ve carried through concrete. She talked loud, laughed loud, and jokes seemed to launch from her mouth at random. When someone I was waiting on complained about anything, I’d apologize profusely, assuming whatever had gone wrong was somehow my fault, but that was not Andrea’s style at all.
“I smell what you’re steppin’ in!” she’d say, then tell the complainers she’d fetch them one of two things: their bill or another round. Andrea apologized to no one. She was nearly a decade younger than me, and yet I was in awe of both her wit and her intensity.
Linda managed Peegeo’s bar and the dining room. She hired and fired the waitresses and bartended every Friday and Saturday night, reigning from behind that counter of blue Formica like cross between Wonder Woman and the Queen of Sheba. The fact most customers behaved themselves — no matter how late it was, how much they’d had to drink, or how different they were from each other — was largely because of Linda. Peegeo’s owner was a mercurial man named George. He’d given Linda a nickname, and I still remember the night I learned what it was.
We had a regular named Dan, a tall, skinny housepainter who came in every Friday, sat at the end of the bar, and didn’t get back up until he’d drank a good portion of his paycheck. Dan didn’t like to run a tab — he thought Linda padded his bill — so he always paid with cash. As the evening wore on, the pile of dollar bills and loose change on the bar in front of him would first grow, then slowly diminish until he was out of money.
One night, when Linda’s back was turned, he picked up a penny and threw it at her butt. Who knows why. I worked at that place five nights a week for four years and never figured out why drunk men do half the things they do.
The bar was full, and when Linda felt that penny, she whipped around, glaring at each customer trying to discern the guilty one. Dan’s oblivious act must have been convincing because she failed to pick him out. Emboldened, he ordered another beer, took a swig, waited a few minutes, and then hit her with another penny.
Peegeo’s was always packed on Friday, but it was particularly busy that night, and so Linda had been mixing drinks at a furious pace. Liquor bottles were stacked against the wall, her back was often turned to the bar, and she’d missed catching his second delivery, too.
But Dan had a fatal flaw. He could not quit when he was ahead. A few more minutes passed; he slid his hand over to a glass ashtray — heavy, gold, and trapezoid- shaped — and flung it, Frisbee- style, straight at her backside again. I’d approached the bar with a drink order just in time to see Linda reach behind her back like a circus juggler and snatch it out of midair.
Dan’s face turned the color of his painter pants. Linda — all five feet one inch of her — came around that bar, launched herself up onto her tiptoes, grabbed Dan’s earlobe in her fist, and yanked him off his barstool. Everyone else sitting at the bar froze as she jerked him into a human question mark and marched him out of the building.
“You think they call me ‘the Dragon Lady’ for fun?” I heard her yell after him.
So those were my three new friends and my traveling companions. A mouthy beauty, a cocky comedienne, and a bartending dragon. As I rode happily along in the backseat of that Jeep, on my way to what I thought was a hotel on the water or perhaps even a log cabin, all I could think was Man, am I ever lucky.
Like Linda, I wasn’t a girly girl, either. I wasn’t picky, I didn’t mind rustic, and I liked camping and being outside in the woods. Besides the coveted water view, I’m not sure what I’d expected of our accommodations.
I know what I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect Linda to turn her Jeep off the main road and into a place called Barb’s Landing. I didn’t expect a long muddy driveway, the smell of lake fish, or the sight of travel trailers parked on a patch of bleached gravel, either.
And I definitely did not expect Frank.
“Call the National Guard, the girls are back!” said a burly man in his sixties, wearing a blue- and- white golf shirt stretched to capacity over a cannonball of a belly.
“Here’s your keys and towels, blankets are on the beds. Live bait’s in the cooler, but don’t put no guts in the water. You gals need a boat.” He smirked. “I should have one freed up by tomorrow afternoon.”
It took a moment, but then it dawned.
There wasn’t going to be any lakeside hotel or cozy log cabin. This was a fishing camp for fishermen, with a bunch of old trailers for rent. I looked around for one molecule of evidence that a woman had ever set so much as a pinkie toe ring on the place, but that effort was in vain. To complete the shock, it seemed like our white- haired host was getting his jollies by making fun of us.
A flock of turkeys ran into the woods, then flew into the halfdead branches of a gargantuan pine tree. Ragged flannel shirts and white waffled long underwear hung from a nearby clothesline, their stained and saggy flies flapping open in the breeze. The voluptuous Mudflap Girl adorned the rear wheel wells of every vehicle in sight, and a fleshy scent hung in the air like a manly poltergeist. The trailers all came with fish- cleaning stations, buck poles, and charcoal grills, and somewhere nearby, forest meat was being charred.
I looked back at Frank. He had his arms crossed over his chest and was stifling a laugh. He knew we weren’t there to catch fish, and it was pretty obvious to me he’d found our gender both helpless and amusing. Which made me furious.
The decision to leave home and spend a whole weekend away from my husband and children wasn’t made carelessly or on a whim. I’d thought long and hard about it before I’d said yes. Getting into Linda’s Jeep that morning and leaving town had been a big moment for me. On the way I’d accepted the “no cops” announcement, the drinking and driving plans, my own bout of bridge vertigo, the dead wolf in the display case, as well as Jill’s bear population estimate.
I hadn’t anticipated any of those things, yet offered no protest because I didn’t want these tough and capable women to think I was a sissy la-la. Which was what George and my coworkers called someone they thought was a wuss, a wimp, a gutless wonder. At Peegeo’s, the worst thing anyone could be in life was a sissy la-la.
The drive north had been majestically scenic, the conversation fun, and I’d expected our arrival at the prearranged lodging to be met with a warm or at least a polite welcome. I’d slept in sleeping bags under the stars, out on sand dune beaches, and on the hard ground in plenty of tents, so I really didn’t mind staying in a travel trailer.
But that smirk on Frank’s face struck me wrong.
I might have been just the new girl, but someone was still going to tell me what the hell had happened to Barb.
“So, like, where’s Barb?” I blurted.
I’d seen the sign marking the turn into his muddy driveway, and it had said Barb’s Landing. Next to those words, hand- carved animals frolicked under a cartoonish pine tree. Nothing had prepared me for burnt meat smell, long underwear, fish gut protocol, or being the subject of one rude old man’s amusement.
“There ain’t no Barb,” the man said. “Not no more. I run the place now and I’m Frank.”
His face broke into a genuine smile as he proffered a shovel of a hand for me to shake. My own hands were dirty, and I went to wipe them on the thighs of my jeans before I shook his. Looking down, I spied a brick- sized rock. It was gray and appeared to have fossils embedded inside of it. Worms and shells and what looked like creatures straight from a biology textbook. It was the kind of rock you might see in a museum display or a rock shop. I picked it up and brushed off the dirt.
Frank looked at it, too. It was a limestone fossil, he said. The island was full of them, but this was a particularly good one, and I could have it to take home with me if I wanted.
I held the rock in my left hand and met his palm with my right. Frank lived in the small bi-level across from the rental trailers. He was the first local I’d met on Drummond, and so his handshake — calloused, knowledgeable, and engulfing — turned out to be my official welcome to the island.
“Look at it this way, Mardi,” Linda said later, as the four of us raised shots in a toast at the Northwoods bar. “It’s right on the water, and we’re still only paying fifty- five bucks!”
That was fifty- five dollars total, not each. Which was a good thing, because although we’d pooled our money — our one- dollar and five- dollar tips, a few twenties from savings accounts, and all of the change in our coin jars — we still didn’t have much in the kitty. Three hundred dollars to house, feed, fuel, and quench the thirst of four wild women for a whole weekend. Well, three wild women and me.
That tight budget didn’t stop them from toasting my Drummond Island debut with what seemed like every flavor of Pucker the Northwoods had on their shelf. I was just an occasional beer drinker, but after downing those shots of schnapps, I felt both loaded and loved on. My impenetrable exterior required lubrication to let those women in, and for the first time in years, I felt like I was becoming part of something. I wasn’t sure what yet, but whatever it was, it was going to include me.
The bar, those welcoming women, and the island when it was still new to me would appear often in my memory, sometimes in almost microscopic detail. Externally, my world that night was small — the backseat of a Jeep, a car ferry loaded down to capacity, the inside of a rented trailer, and our little pinewood table at the Northwoods bar — yet it felt limitless.
I was getting to know them, they were getting to know me,and the longer we sat at that table, the less anything else about the trip mattered. Not the doomed waitress from Detroit who’d driven off the bridge, not Frank, not even the trailers. There I was, past thirty, a wife, a mother, a taxpayer, and a mortgage holder, an adult woman with goals and responsibilities, and finally being accepted by the cool girls.
I was too amped up for anything approaching introspection that night, but many times since, I’ve thought about that first year, of my all- consuming eagerness to fit in, of the angst I felt about being the new girl and how unnecessary it turned out to be. Whenever my mind goes back to those first hours inside the Northwoods, I feel the weight of my life and those heavy- bottomed shot glasses in our young hands.
Each of us had so many options for our lives back then, the years ahead were like an endless road map spread out before us, our futures akin to the unexplored two- track roads cracking through the surface of Drummond’s crab claws. And we didn’t even know it.
Thanks to what was in those shots, by 2:00 a.m. or sometime thereabouts, we at least knew it was time to leave. Not because of the late hour — up there no one cared, or for that matter even knew, what time we’d finally get to bed — but because our bar tab totaled an unimaginable eighty- two dollars. More than a night in one of Frank’s trailers and way beyond our meager budget.
“Keep it between the ditches, girls!” the bartender cautioned as we pushed out the plywood door and swirled together into the dark.
I scanned the parking lot and spied the red of Linda’s Jeep, a bright and happy square to aim for among the dozens of dark and shadowy vehicles. Had there really been that many other people in the bar?
“I’m married!” Jill shouted randomly to the night sky, her pretty head thrown back, her warm breath floating like lace in the cold black.
It sounded to me like Jill was trying to convince herself that she really was a newlywed. She did seem so young, and while I didn’t know her well, at least not yet, I had a hard time picturing her as someone’s wife. A year before, Linda and Andrea had surprised Jill a few months before her wedding with a trip to the island. Their weekend away had been her bachelorette party, a reminder that they had a history that didn’t include me.
Andrea wrapped her arms around Jill’s waist and swung her in a lopsided orbit. They lurched and weaved, this way and that, floating around the parking lot like the last stubborn seeds on a dandelion head. Together, they could defy geography, time, and apparently even gravity, too, because when they were stationary again, they were also miraculously still upright.
I stood to the side and listened to their voices harmonize in a throaty laugh. The sound made something uncontrolled expand inside of me. They might have been friends before I came along, had adventures and shared memories, too, I thought. But that was last year. This was now; I was here, the night was clear, and when I looked up, I saw that every star in the sky had come out. There was no one else around, so all those stars must have been shining up there just for us.
“I’m married,” Jill said again, when the spinning stopped. But she said it in a monotone that time, instead of a cheer. “To one of those,” she added, pointing.
We followed the angle of her arm and saw exactly what she saw. Through the shadows and the cold and even the liquor, we saw.
Pickup trucks. The parking lot of the bar was full of them. Dirty, rusty, bashed up, and dented. Bald tires, cracked windshields, and matted pairs of fuzzy dice hanging from rearview mirrors. Most had ridiculously high lifts and giant CB radio antennas sticking straight up from bent hoods. I marveled at the number — I’d been so focused on being with the girls I’d barely registered there’d been men inside the bar, too.
Some of the drivers’ side windows were open a crack, and we thought we could even smell their stink: generic cigarette smoke, paper sacks that had once held cold lunches, but now only abandoned crusts of meat, and the mildew of work clothes and stale sweat.
Back home, I’d met Jill’s husband a couple times. He was a slight and handsome smooth talker who drove a puke- green rig that would fit right in.
You could always divorce him, I thought and was dizzy with the shock of it. Was that really my first instinct? One disillusioned comment from Jill, and bam, I was ready for her to just chuck him? It frightened me to allow the word divorce into my consciousness. Once I did, there was no telling what might come of it.
I thought of my own husband. The father of my sons who was home with them, and caring for them, so I could come here. What did I have to complain about? He might have been in a perpetually bad mood (especially, it seemed to me, when his pot ran out), but he worked hard and drove a Chevy Cavalier station wagon, not a junky pickup. Whatever my opinion of marriage was back then — of my own, of Jill’s, or of marriage in general — it did not include divorce.
I wouldn’t have felt comfortable giving relationship advice, not to Jill or anyone else for that matter. Linda and Andrea had to have heard the tone in Jill’s voice, but they must have shared my reluctance to acknowledge it because they kept their thoughts to themselves, too.
Linda was thirty- seven then and Andrea was twenty- two. Neither was married but both had steady boyfriends, and so you would have thought that we’d have discussed our men. And yet that first year not one of us did. Love was still a mystery to us, its own strange and mostly unexplored island. Perhaps we didn’t want to admit we knew so little about it.
If you’d have asked me back then was I content, I wouldn’t have known how to answer. I couldn’t have articulated that being a mother was what I’d really wanted, while having a husband felt like a necessary step toward fulfilling that desire. Within months of my own wedding, I was self- aware enough to recognize I’d become a lonely bride, but I thought that would fade as soon as I’d had children. It hadn’t, not all the way.
Linda joined Andrea and Jill and was now swinging in circles with them around the parking lot. As they giggled, then tried to catch their breath, she untangled herself and cupped her hand to her ear.
“What’s that?” she said, suddenly serious and alert.
“What’s what?” we asked, looking beyond the parking lot and into the dark.
“Don’t you hear it?” Linda asked, and we listened again, harder.
I expected the sound of something foreboding. A wolf’s howl, the stick snap of a backwoods kidnapper, or a bear growling and charging at us from out of those black woods. When all we heard was wind, trees, and foghorns — normal sounds of the Great Lakes at night — the three of us shook our heads no.
“The two- tracks!” Linda hollered, running for her Jeep. “And they’re calling our names!”
The lopsided twirl around the parking lot seemed to take Jill’s mind off her marriage, and while two- tracking was probably not the most traditional way to bolster a girlfriend’s spirits when she needed encouragement, that was Linda. A woman made of equal parts instinct and action.
She’d seen rough times herself, far rougher than any of us knew back then, and had little use for hand- wringing, mulling over, or excuses. As it turned out, the two- tracks — unmarked and rudimentary vehicle trails meandering through the woods — were exactly what Jill needed.
“Shotgun!” she called, dashing to the Jeep on her short legs and beating both Andrea and me there by at least a full stride.
People who have never been to the Great Lakes state hear the word Michigan and probably think of big lakes or the industrialization of Detroit. But three- quarters of our state is actually covered by trees. We have more state forest property than any other place in the country, and much of it, including 53,000 of Drummond Island’s 83,000 acres, is interwoven with two- tracks and accessible by car. (Of course, by “car” I don’t mean Cadillac sedan on a Sunday afternoon drive. I mean something with 4WD that you don’t care all that much about the paint job on.)
I have no idea whether other American women in their twenties and thirties liked to two- track, but boy, we sure did. Back home, I’d gone with Linda a couple times and knew Jill and Andrea had, too. From our houses or from Peegeo’s, it was a bit of a drive to access the rugged dirt roads that twisted through the woods. On Drummond, two- tracks were around every corner. On Drummond, two- tracks were the corner.
Branches brushed across the Jeep’s hood, the lights of the bar faded, and soon it felt like we weren’t only in the woods, we’d become part of the forest itself. That was the lure of two- tracking for me. Yes, we were inside a vehicle, but all of our windows were rolled down, so that didn’t preclude being overtaken with a sense of eternity and I felt wild with the independence of it.
We weren’t on any tracks Linda or the other girls knew; we were on a frontier. We were exactly like the women adventurers of old, crossing the prairie in our one- wagon wagon train. Well, exactly like those women if they’d traveled at night, with their 4WD engaged, their forward motion fueled by gasoline and bluesrooted, guitar- driven rock and roll. Did eastern red cedar trees dig Led Zeppelin as much as I did, I wondered, giggling. How about creeping juniper? Did it “Ramble On”?
With Linda at the wheel, we charged through those woods, bouncing up and down over rocks and sticks at forty miles an hour, her tape player blasting my Zeppelin in darkness so complete, headlights were just pinpoints in a vast black universe.
It had rained recently and mud splashed onto the windshield and into my open window, and yet I was still able to identify the native flora. I couldn’t decide whether my college botany professors would have been proud of my retention or aghast over the circumstances in which I was using it.
“Copper beech!” I hollered out the open window. “Tamarack pine! Prairie sedge!”
An hour or more must have passed like that before partialsobriety returned, we slowed down, and Linda turned off the music. We didn’t need Robert Plant to tell us we were the girls so fair, driving around in the darkest depths of Mordor, although we could’ve used an autumn moon to light our way. Without the music, it grew eerily quiet inside that vehicle. No one said much because the scenery veering in and out of the headlights had remained disturbingly constant.
Trees, shrubs, mud, night.
“Where are we?” Jill finally asked.
I’d started wondering the same thing but hadn’t wanted to say so. Linda seemed to know her way around the island so well I’d started thinking of her as a human compass. Even as the woods closed in, the trails led nowhere, and the scenery took on a disconcerting repetition, I’d been taking it on faith she knew where we were going.
After Jill asked the question, no one spoke at first, probably because not a one of us, not even Linda, knew the answer. We thought we were somewhere west of the ferry dock and the Northwoods bar, on state- owned land, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the USA, North America, Earth. But as far as our specific location was concerned, a precise point on the planet, we were lost.
Only moments before, I’d been feeling mighty proud of my plant identification abilities, but when it came to navigation, I didn’t have any skills at all. None. My sense of direction was so bad, I’d sometimes find myself lost in my own town. As my sons grew, this became a running joke among their friends. It didn’t matter if we were only going across town, add an extra half hour if Mrs. Link was doing the carpooling. On Drummond, I felt wholly dependent on Linda to find our way back to civilization. I may have started to worry if I hadn’t remembered something germane.
Yes, we were lost.
But we were lost on an island.
All we needed to do was keep going, as straight as the two track would allow, and we’d eventually come to the shoreline. Barb’s Landing was on the shoreline.
The thought struck me funny, but I did my best to stifle the impulse to laugh. Sure, I’d downed every shot of Pucker those girls had put in front of me, but I was still present enough to realize that most women, and (as tough as they were) probably these three included, didn’t want to hear maniacal giggling coming from a coworker they didn’t know all that well, while she was sitting in the backseat of their car, lost in the woods at night.
Linda leaned forward, stared straight ahead, gripped the steering wheel, and drove on. Andrea lit a cigarette, exhaled out the window, and Jill turned around and leaned toward me.
“You okay?” she asked.
I knew she was just being nice, but I felt my grin fade as I considered the subtext of her question. She thought I was worried, or worse, scared. She thought I was a sissy la-la.
I’d been so focused on the fact that I didn’t know Linda, Andrea, or Jill very well, I hadn’t considered our acquaintance from their perspective. The truth was, they didn’t know me all that well, either. They knew I could handle the Friday night crowd at Peegeo’s, but they didn’t know I’d backpacked through the Porcupine Mountains with my family when I was only twelve. They didn’t know my grandpa and I once missed a trail turnoff at dusk and had to swim our horses through a river cresting over our saddles in order to find our way back to camp. Not one of them had children, so they didn’t know what it felt like to give birth the old fashioned way, in a regular bed without an IV, a beeping monitor, or so much as an aspirin. Then, two years later, to choose to do it that same way again.
They didn’t know me at all. Because I hadn’t let them.
“I’m good,” I told her, and she turned back toward the windshield and the witchlike arms of trees reaching for us out of the headlights.
Jill didn’t seem scared, though, and neither did Andrea or Linda. More like curious, excited, and alert. I wanted to prove to these women they were definitely my people and I, theirs.
“Let’s just think about this for a second,” Linda said, her voice steady. “Let’s just stop right here and get our bearings before we run out of gas.”
She stepped on the brakes right there — no need to pull over and let the traffic go by, because there wasn’t going to be any traffic, ever — took her hands from the steering wheel, and turned off the ignition. Without branches passing by the windows or the constant sound of grass and weeds whipping by underneath us, we could have been anywhere. Visibility was so absent we could have been crouched in a cave or floating in the vastness of outer space.
“We could sleep in the Jeep,” Andrea said, her voice chipper. “Find our way back in the morning.”
“No way,” Linda said. “We paid for that trailer and we’re sleeping in it.”
Drummond’s unknowable darkness closed in, but the emptiness of it wasn’t frightening to me, it was intoxicating. A month before I’d read in the newspaper that NASA had lost contact with its Mars Observer. The space probe had been on a one-year interplanetary cruise and only three days from reentry when it disappeared. I pictured it without power, locked out of orbit and catapulting through space.
Next, I remembered visiting Mammoth Cave with my family as a kid, and how when we were as far down into the earth as the tour went, our guide had switched off the overhead lights. Inside that darkness my little girl’s body felt like both nothing and everything at the same time. The only sounds were the dripping of cave water and my mother’s soft breathing.
Being in the blackness of Drummond Island felt just like that. It was damp and chilly, and the only sounds were the tick, tick, tick of the engine cooling down and the soft exhales of my companions.
I wasn’t only someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or even someone’s mother anymore. I was a person in my own right, a woman who had real friends now, a woman who was part of a silent, woodsy sisterhood. The even breaths I heard going in and out sounded like they were coming from something bigger, something older, than four sets of young female lungs. That night, for those few moments, they could have been coming from the earth itself. Like my mother’s had, from inside that dark cave.
Just then there was a rustling in the leaves. Perhaps it was a trick of the dark, but the sound seemed big and only inches from the outside of the Jeep. Bear? I reached in my jacket pocket for my camera. If Linda turned her headlights back on, even without a flash there might have been enough light for a picture. But my pocket was empty, and I had the sudden image of the camera I’d just had to have, sitting right where I’d forgotten it. On the gold speckled table back inside our trailer.
The rustling might have been a bear or maybe even a wolf, but I’d spent enough time outside in the woods at night to know everything sounded bigger in the dark.
The mystery of something wild and alive in those woods was still thrilling. I’d found a sense of what I’d been craving — real wildness — and whether I could get a photograph of it or not, I felt a surge of ferocity I wanted to capture and take with me when we went back home. It was a primal vibration resonating beyond expensive bar tabs, past men- only fishing camps, and deep into the island that was just the four of us.
I thought about my husband and how he hadn’t wanted me to go and how he was back home, sleeping alone. I thought about my sons. At that moment they’d be sleeping in their beds, too. I thought about the cozy log cabin and the clean lakeside hotel room I’d once imagined, before ever setting foot on the island. Then I pictured Frank’s old travel trailer parked on a square of gravel with the plastic lawn chairs we’d arranged in a half circle nearby. And I longed for them. I longed for the chairs and the bare lightbulb in the trailer’s galley kitchen, and the teeny bathroom with the chipped plastic accordion door, and the bedsheets that smelled like cigar smoke and mothballs.
“I say we just keep going,” I said, offering up my first real suggestion of the weekend.
“Works for me,” Jill said.
It wasn’t a particularly brilliant idea; it was just the obvious choice and the only way we’d ever get back to Frank’s before daylight. But it would still become our motto. Continued motion — sometimes even paced and steady, other times hell- bent — would be the operating mode on all our future trips to Drummond Island. But it would guide our mainland lives, too. Our sisterhood would grow; four more women, including Bev, would join us on our annual sojourn north, and no matter what fate put in our way, we’d travel in one direction: forward.
Linda said she thought we might be somewhere near the center of the island, and she started the Jeep, put her foot on the gas, and a few minutes later we spied a diamond- shaped light blinking in the distance. It was slim and bright, its shape reminding me of wolf’s eyes, but it couldn’t be that. It was too high up, too big, and was going off and on in a reassuring rhythm.
Linda was the one who figured out what it actually was. The beacon of the DeTour Reef Light, the old lighthouse anchored in the St. Marys River, not far from the ferry dock. Which meant we weren’t in the center of the island after all; we were out on its southern claw and no more than four or five miles from Frank’s.
It must have been after 4:00 a.m. when we pulled down his driveway. The light in the front window of his house was still on, and a face appeared in the glow. We knew it was his by the pinecone of a nose practically pressed against the frosty glass. The light clicked off as we drove by.
Linda parked next to our trailer, her headlights passing over the lawn chairs, the awning, a square planter of fall flowers, a log picnic table I hadn’t even noticed before, then illuminated the steps leading up to the door. I had to duck my head down a little when we entered. The thrill of braving the night woods faded into exhaustion and once we walked inside I felt a collective sigh exit our bodies as one breath.
The next morning, Jill made an absorption- platter breakfast using groceries we’d packed in the cooler with the beer and brought along with us. Eggs, green peppers, shredded potatoes, cheddar cheese, and ham all cooked together in a cast- iron pan. We ate outside on the picnic table, all of us wearing souvenir sweatshirts over our pajamas. We’d shopped for them the day before — I couldn’t afford the expensive one with the zipper and the hood and had bought a simple gray pullover instead, but on my chest it still read, “Drummond Island, Gem of the Huron.”
“Clear your head!” Andrea had hollered before we’d even left town.
It wasn’t possible she’d offered that advice to me only fortyeight hours before, was it?
So much had happened since then. And yet, when we drove back over the bridge, when I completed my reentry to earth and my husband asked me what we’d done on the island, I already knew that no matter what I told him, it would seem insufficient.
Found a fossil? Downed shots of Pucker at a bar? Drove around in the woods? Ate breakfast outside? None of those activities sounded life changing yet my head felt clearer than it had in years.
The sun was out and shined its thin and vernal light upon us, reflecting off our waxy paper plates. We ate fast so our eggs wouldn’t get cold. When we were finished, Jill’s voice turned serious and she said she wanted to ask us something.
I thought of those dirty pickup trucks, of everything that remained unspoken the second time she’d said, “I’m married,” and I braced myself. I was certain she was going to ask for some advice on her marriage. Dark woods didn’t frighten me, but that did. She was my friend now, I was the only other one of the girls who was married, and yet I had no advice to give her.
“Can we come back here?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t just want to come back next year. I need to come back.”
Jill hadn’t wanted advice, she’d wanted a promise.
None of us could predict what was going to happen in our lives between now and next October, she explained. Maybe she’d decide she wanted a baby. Maybe Linda would move in with her boyfriend, Kenny. Maybe Andrea would get married to her boyfriend, Steve. Maybe I’d get one of the stories I was always working on published. The island didn’t care about anything that happened on the other side of the bridge, Jill said. The island cared about us, when we were on it together.
“Can we all promise, right now, that we’re coming back next year?” Jill asked, looking around the table at each of us.
Can I promise? I thought. Does a wolf shit in the woods?
I thought of my husband, and his irritation at both my presence on the island and my tendency to overthink everything, and worked out next fall’s scenario. I’d start saving my money as soon as we got home. I’d get a black permanent marker and X out “Drummond Island, 1994” on the calendar. Starting in September, I’d make a bunch of dinners ahead of time and freeze them so my family would have healthy meals to eat while I was gone. And I’d make sure I had enough money to buy the more expensive disposable camera. The one with the flash.
I’d had the impulse to shriek, “Yes! Yes, I can promise you!” To get up and hug Jill, slap Linda on the back, high- five Andrea, and run around the table in my bunny slippers.
“I don’t know about the rest of you,” I said, faking a yawn, “but I’d probably go.”
In or not, I didn’t want them to know how desperate I’d been for friends. If there was anything that marked you as a sissy la-la, it was desperation.
All three of them looked at me, tried to keep a straight face, but then started giggling. They’d seen right through my act — that’s what happened when you had friends. They knew the real you, let you be yourself, but called you out on it sometimes, too.
“We’re not just coming back next year,” Linda said. “We’re coming back every year.”
“Unless we’re pregnant,” Jill added.
“Or dead,” Andrea said.
We’d all laughed out loud at that. On the outside, we were adults; but on the inside, we really were just girls back then. And girls were immortal. Death wasn’t real for people like us; it was a punch line.
“We’re the Drummond Girls now,” Andrea said, extending a clenched fist. It was the first of several such gestures, rituals even, that she would originate. We all touched her fist with our own, and that’s how our pact was made. On a Sunday morning in October 1993, sitting outside on Frank’s wobbly picnic table, under an endlessly clear sky and within sight of the million-dollar view we’d paid fifty- five dollars for, it was decided. The four of us would come back to Drummond Island together every year on the first weekend in October unless we were either pregnant or dead.
Of all the possibilities fate might decide to heave in our direction, those were the only two we could imagine keeping us away.