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Fire Point


If he had a religion, it was that things in this world ought to be plumb, level, and square. He was forty-four and had lived his entire life in Whitefish Harbor, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a village on a hilly node of land that juts into Lake Superior. His full name was Joseph Pearl Blankenship Jr. To distinguish him from his father, a Canadian ore boat crewman who was washed overboard during a squall in November 1956, his mother always called him Pearly. Her maiden name was Janet Pearl Hanninen. Her mother was Ojibwa; her father, a Finnish miner. She died violently, too, in the spring of 1974. While driving home from Marquette in a blizzard, a cement truck veered into her lane and hit her Ford Fairlane head-on. Pearly was only comforted by the fact that the impact was so great, there was no time for her brain to register pain as her body was thrust into the backseat by the car's engine; however, he was certain that there had been a moment--the notorious split second--when she was horrified by the sight of the oncoming truck.

Sometimes Pearly believed he could see them both, his mother, crushed and bloodied beyond recognition, and his father, bloated and adrift in the deep, cold waters of Lake Superior. He was convinced that they still resided where they had died. His father was in the better place. After his death his mother became a taciturn, bitter woman, and, not surprisingly, a drinker. Pearly hoped that if his father could find refuge at the bottom of his beloved Lake Superior, his mother, at the very least, might be allowed her tumbler of whiskey, her chaser of beer. Because of the way his parents had died, he suspected that he, too, would die violently.

He knew what people thought of him and, to put it politely, he didn't care. He was a loner, but then it had always been a Yooper's privilege to be left in peace. If he hadn't lived in his dead mother's house, he'd have had difficulty keeping a roof over his head. His jobs were mostly seasonal; long spells during the winter months you'd find him mid-afternoon in the Hiawatha Diner or, more likely, the Portage, one of the bars along Ottawa Street. If there was a problem, something that might involve the police, the first name that came to mind was Pearly. Yet some, particularly older folks, also knew that he frequented the public library. And to be fair, he was a good house carpenter. If he repaired a roof, it wouldn't leak; if he hung a door, it wouldn't stick. If he had a philosophy, it was that things in this world ought to be plumb, level, and square, but seldom are.


Hannah Leclaire climbed the steep path carved in the bluff overlooking Lake Superior. She was nineteen, her legs were strong again, and she liked to walk, even on such overcast afternoons, when the damp east wind could make April seem colder than January. From below she could hear the pounding of the breakers on the rocks. She reached the top of the bluff, walked through woods toward the old house, and paused at the edge of the backyard. The property was in miserable condition: cracked and split clapboards with peeling white paint, broken windowpanes, mullions in need of glazing, black shutters sagging of their own weight.

Something was different this time. Hannah noticed that the back door was ajar, and she waded through chest-high weeds toward the house. She squeezed through the door sideways and entered a dim kitchen. Plaster crackled beneath her boots as she moved through the rooms on the first floor. There was a powerful smell--the scent of animal decay--which caused her to hold her wool scarf over her nose and mouth. She tried going out the front door, but it wouldn't open, so she decided to return to the kitchen. Halfway down the front hall she stopped and let out a gasp as a man stepped out from the shadows beneath the staircase.

"That stink is really something," he said. There was the slightest gleam and she realized she was looking at the roundness of the man's skull.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Dead cats." He took another step toward her--he was tall and lean, his head was shaved, and a trim mustache seemed to give his face definition. He might have been ten years older than she was, and kept his hands visible as if to show that he wasn't dangerous.

"Whose cats?" she said.

"Vivian Pence's--the last of the family line," he said. "Seems she had a house full of cats, I suspect." His eyes were pale blue and he was wearing an old overcoat, dark wool, knee-length, with the collar turned up.

"What are you doing here?"

"That's just what I've been asking myself," he said. "You've been here before?"

She hesitated. "I walk here a lot. The back door--I never noticed that it was open before." He smiled, which she took to mean that he was responsible. "The house is condemned," she said. "They're going to tear it down."

"Who is?"

"The town, or maybe it was the county--there was a piece in the paper." She raised her eyes to the hall ceiling. Large sections of plaster were missing, exposing wood lath beneath. "It's sad. Something should be done."

"Someone would have to buy it, then invest a lot of time," he said. "And money."

"I remember coming here on Halloween. All the kids were afraid of the old woman--Vivian Pence. So naturally we wanted to come up here and see inside. That was ten years ago. The last time I was in this house I was nine."

"What were you when you were nine?"

"A gypsy, I think."

"That makes you, what, nineteen? I thought you were older."

Hannah wanted to explain--she wanted to say that she should have graduated from high school last year, with the class of '95. But she didn't, and he nodded his head once--it seemed like an old-fashioned gesture of courtesy--and walked into the kitchen and out the back door.

She suddenly felt weak and sat on the bottom step of the staircase. Her heart was beating fast, and for a moment she could only stare at a knot in the worn tread. Raising her head, she watched as the man passed by the window above the stairs. Quickly, she went out through the kitchen door and up the overgrown driveway. He was climbing into a gray car, something vintage but well maintained, something European. He rolled down the window and said, "A lift in to the village?"

She hesitated.

"I understand," he said.

She walked across the gravel and got in the car; it had bucket seats, black leather that smelled rich and creaked beneath her. When he turned on the ignition, the engine rumbled deeply. She watched his hand work the stick shift--the knob looked like it was made from ivory.

"What is this? Looks like it belongs in a black-and-white movie."

"It's a Mercedes."

He put the car in gear and drove halfway down the hill, where he pulled over to the side of the road. "Ever drive a standard?" For some reason the question seemed incredibly personal. Before she could answer, he said, "Care to learn? Not here on the hill, but in the parking lot by the harbor--that would be perfect. No traffic. Not until you get the hang of it, working the clutch and stick."

She could see that his skull was covered with fine black stubble. His eyes were direct yet acquiescent. "How old are you?" she asked.

"Old enough to give a driving lesson."

"Are you thirty?"

"I will be next winter. Why?"

"I should get home. It'll be dark soon."

"All right. Perhaps another time."

Martin Reed's mother was from Whitefish Harbor, so since he was a boy he had been coming north from Chicago to visit relatives. When he was eleven his mother died of cancer, his aunt Alice quit her job with an insurance agency and moved into the house in Winnetka. She had never married and had no children. Like Martin's father, she believed in work and she approached raising her nephew as though it were a job. She cooked, cleaned the house, did the laundry. Her fierce efficiency nearly concealed her tenderness for Martin.

During his visits to the U.P. he often listened to aunts and uncles at night in the kitchen. They'd talk about the mines, about ships on Lake Superior, and always about the weather. Compared to Winnetka, Illinois, the U.P. seemed a heroic, even mythical place. He used to walk or ride his bike all over this little peninsula and he knew every inlet in Petit Marais, which meant "small marsh" and was the shallow water that embraced the west side of Whitefish Harbor.

Now that Alice had died, his mother's other sister, Aunt Jane, was the last of the U.P. clan. Her health was so poor that she couldn't travel from her condominium in Florida; she couldn't even manage the flight up to Chicago for Alice's funeral. The ceremony was small because most of Alice's friends had already died. The day after she was buried, Martin learned from her lawyer that she'd left him $40,000. But there were stipulations, which didn't surprise him because Alice had always been a great believer in stipulations: She placed them on the food he ate, the time he had to be home, where he could go, what he could do. Once, while she was in the kitchen folding laundry, she said, "If you get anything from me, it'll be an appreciation that in life there are always stipulations." Her stipulation now, in death, was that Martin could use the money only when he married or bought a house. This made perfect sense, coming from a woman who had never done either.

Late afternoons martin took to waiting for Hannah to return from school. He would park on one of the side streets above Frenchman's Channel, the deep bay to the east of the harbor, and watch for the school bus to come out to the village. He usually had Cokes in the car that he'd bought at the Hiawatha Diner. At first all Hannah knew about him was that he was from Chicago. She really didn't want to know much more about him, because that would only invite questions about her own past.

They would drive to the parking lot above the harbor, which at this time of year was usually as empty as it was long. Hannah would sit in the driver's seat, working the gears, and she couldn't believe how splendid it felt. She only ground the gears occasionally, but he was very patient, even when she stalled out. "Let's go somewhere," she said during the third lesson.

"Think you're ready?" he asked, and she nodded. "All right, take Shore Road and we'll go all the way around the peninsula."

She liked working the clutch and shifting as the car went in and out of curves in the narrow road.

After a couple of miles, Martin said, "Pull into this road and stop in the second driveway on the left." When they were parked in the drive, he opened his door. "Come on in for a minute. I've got Cokes, then we'll get you back to the village."

"You live here?"

"Belongs to my aunt Jane. Come on--I want you to meet someone." He walked away, and after a moment she got out of the car.

The cabin was small, but next to the kitchenette there was a sliding glass door with a view across Petit Marais toward wooded hills. He got her a Coke from the refrigerator, a bottle of beer for himself. A large gray cat sat at the edge of the sink and he stroked the back of its head.

"This is Gracie," he said. "I want to ask you a favor. One of my other aunts, Alice, died recently and I have to go down to Chicago to deal with some legal matters. I was wondering if you'd check on the place for me while I'm gone. Gracie will need food and water, and I know she'd like the company."

"When will you be back?"

"Four, five days."

She sipped her Coke and stared out the sliding glass door. The deck was badly weathered, except for several new boards in the floor, which were pale as flesh. "Did you replace those?"

"Yes." For the first time since she'd known him he seemed uncertain, even awkward. "I could pay you ten dollars a day."

"That's not necessary."

"It'd only be fair."

Hannah suspected there was more to this trip than a visit to a lawyer, but she didn't want to ask. A job. A girlfriend. Maybe even a wife. "I'll be glad to take care of Gracie, but not for pay. I like cats."

Fire Point
by by John Smolens

  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • ISBN-10: 1400083230
  • ISBN-13: 9781400083237