Shiner Doc

This is the shore of Lake Superior, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. People are at the beach sunbathing. Those are NOT whitecaps but ice flows. Brrrr!

There was that time that I gave the Best Man a black eye. But I get ahead of myself.

When people think about Michigan, top of mind is cars and cold. Most folks don’t realize that in addition to the mitten–i.e., the Lower Peninsula–there is another slab of Michigan. It’s on the other side of the big Mackinac Bridge, which spans the four or five miles where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron kiss. It’s the Upper Peninsula (UP). The hearty people who live in the UP are called Upers.

It’s crossways the 320 miles between Wisconsin on the west and a narrow river separating the U.S. from Canada on the east. To the North is the greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. You can tell it’s the greatest lake because it tells you so. Superior.

My friend’s brother went to school in the UP. I never quite knew how he got there from Milwaukee, but he went to Tech. He studied business at a mining college. Tech is way up north in the Keweenaw Peninsula. [I know, yet another peninsula. What is it with these people?] This Peninsula juts deep into Lake Superior.

Another thing you should know about Lake Superior is that it is cold. Average Keweenaw water temp–when it peaks in the summer–is still less than 60°F. It’s big. It’s cold. And it has a reserved, maybe even a foreboding, personality. If you stare at it too long, it will brush you off. It doesn’t care.

It was at Tech, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, strutting out into that cold, indifferent, arrogant, Superior lake, where the brother met a girl. She was an engineering student at Tech. She must have come from that Scandinavian stock that settled in the UP. The immigrants that set up the saunas in every deer camp that encouraged a naked plunge into the snow. Her long blonde hair cascaded over her shoulder like Upper Tahquamenon Falls. She had a quick smile and a smart wit that was punctuated by the wink of her cerulean eye. And legs for days.

She was from Hancock, which was the town across the bridge from Houghton. When she and the brother decided to make it official, the wedding was in her home town.

So the brother was getting married, and we were off to the destination wedding. Destination far. But we knew some people along the way. And we had bug spray. Fact: the mosquitos can be as big as birds up there on some of the inland lakes. I don’t think, though, they stood a chance off the frigid, Lake High-and-Mighty.

As was our modus operandi, we were late. I think that’s why I don’t remember the rehearsal dinner. It was likely embarrassing.

We were in Marquette for a few days before the wedding and likely slept in or decided on more coffee. There may have also been a side trip to someone’s childhood memories at a lodge purportedly haunted by a murdered doctor of John Dillinger. The purveyor of that story, however, was the step-father who was known to enjoy an acid trip or two and would tell you about his out of body experiences, even without you showing any interest. We didn’t see any ghosts. But I was scared to death when my friend told me about the wild dogs that were on the premises. This was an odd story, too, because the feral beasts were the spawn of a beloved bitch from his childhood named Penny. When I heard a howl or maybe it was a rustle of a bush, I ran back to the car. It might have been Penny’s mad babies. 

It wasn’t my family. And it wasn’t my affair. And I was along for the ride. So we missed dinner. But we did not miss the bonfire.

I knew my friend’s mom. She was awesome. I knew why he loved her so much. She was very kind to me whenever I was on a visit. And she would always bum a menthol off of me. She and her floating spouse smoked regulars. I don’t know if she preferred the mint of my Virginia Slims or just wanted a change, but she was always a little excited to take one out of my pack and light it between her lips. She was pretty, but like a mom. She was probably 44 at that time.

I think we were hungry, but, like I said, blew through any food festivities. There were literally no food options at 9 p.m. in Hancock, Michigan. The all-night diner closed by eight. I bet it opened at 4 a.m., though. For the working folk.

The young people, that would be us and my friend’s brothers and the friends of the betrothed, were on the move. We tried to catch up with them by downing a few cans of whatever cheap beer we drank then. It was likely a Wisconsin brew, since we were close to that border. Somehow I am thinking that we also ate cheese balls for our dinner, on the way.

We left the SuperBeetle behind and climbed in the back of somebody’s truck. There were trucks and vans and cars in the caravan headed to the pitiless and Imperious Lake. For a bonfire.

I knew the groom-to-be. He was super amiable. He and his fiancée were gracious and begged off from the ongoing celebration. They had a big day coming. They took their leave.

This was the first time that I had met the other brother. He was the family favorite.

I had heard his name many times. He was the eldest. The smartest. The chosen. The most charming. He was a medical student at a prestigious Jesuit university in the east. I never thanked him for my introduction to Washington, D.C., which I met on a trip for his graduation. The ceremony was at the Kennedy Center. I was much affected by our nation’s capital and vowed to return. Spoiler alert: I did two years later, for the duration.

There may have been a few dozen of us, with coolers full of beer and melted ice. My friend and I were grubby from the drive and the {mis}adventure of the day, but nobody noticed. The cars rolled up to the Super Lake. Lake Superior. We piled out, grabbed beers, and stood between the fire and the water. The bonfire of driftwood was going as strong as it would. It wasn’t big, but it was a fire.

The brother was in our transport. He was erudite. He was also condescending to my friend. Maybe it was their relationship, the older and the younger sibling.

I thought the brother was obnoxious. He wasn’t my favorite. No, not at all. He wasn’t like he was advertised by his family. He was tall, but slight. I thought that he was throwing me menacing looks. And me, buoyed especially by a few downed cold cans, threw barbs back his way. I may have been rude. I likely was rude. But I was thinking that he was not boss over me, I was not part of the family dynamic that excused his vainglory. To me, he was an ass. Not an asset.

He was peeved by my disdain, and I liked that. I dismissed him by turning away and taking another beer from a cooler. They were less cool now.

A few people were stepping into the ice water that was lapping along the sand. Some rolled up their pants. One stripped to skivvies and jumped in. I found that amazing. I was not that drunk. I don’t think I could be that drunk. And if I were that drunk, hitting that cold water would reverse any drunk that made me that stupid. But, I was from downstate. These Upers were made of this Superior Lake, of the pines around us, of the dark gray smoke from the damp driftwood. Maybe the copper was in their veins. Not mine, though.

I was ambushed from behind. Lifted above his head onto his shoulders. My swagger quickly displaced my shock. The brother started walking to the water, telling me matter of factly that he was going to toss me in. I was feeling the control leaving me as he stepped into the water. He didn’t even have his pants rolled up. I cursed him loudly, in my deepest strongest voice. He laughed. I told him that he was going to turn around–because now I was unable to leave his shoulders without having a dunk tank experience. He laughed again. That was when I took my fist, and I pummeled it into his head as hard as I could.

He stopped. He was very angry now. Too angry to humiliate me any further because he was being humiliated, too. He took the strides back to the shore, and I jumped off. I found my friend and we had another beer. The brother left in the next car. We left a little bit later.

I was ill-prepared for a wedding, and I was grateful that it wasn’t fancy. The wedding party dressed in gowns and tuxedos, but the guests were more relaxed. The bride’s sisters helped me with my braid, and my friend’s mother fretted over the use of the wrinkle cream she brought. None of us twenty year olds had any clue how to apply it.

The groom and his best man presented themselves to the mother. She screamed. Not loud, but not a little. The best man had a black eye. The pictures!?! I said nothing, but the story came out. And the mother was not a little angry with me. It was unfathomable that her favorite would have earned that shiner.

I, on the other hand, stepped away and lit up one of those Virginia Slims and felt very, very, very proud of myself. Almost, Superior.


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