Disappearances

by Jeff Vande Zande Read author interview March 15, 2007
story art

Dad’s hands made small movements on the steering wheel. In my side vision, in the glow of the dashboard, his outline was ghostly. He hadn’t said anything since we crossed the bridge.

“You can sleep,” he said, “if you want.”

I told him I wasn’t tired.

A few seconds passed. “Are you scared?” he asked, turning toward me for a moment and then back to the road.

I wasn’t sure what he meant. “No,” I said.

“It’s just that your mother doesn’t like to drive at night.”

I thought about it. It didn’t make sense. “She drives at night, now,” I said. “She drives to Houghton sometimes after work. John works at the Houghton hospital once a month, and they meet at a restaurant when he gets done.”

Mom was with John now – over in Paris trying to find us a place to live. John was offered a job to be a doctor in France. He’s some kind of specialist.

“That’s fine,” Dad said. “It’s just that she used to be scared.” He didn’t say anything for a moment. “You want me to tell you Rip Van Winkle?”

It’s about some guy who falls asleep and wakes up a long time later and nothing is the same. It was a story Dad told me all the time when I was little. I didn’t feel like I was little anymore. Twelve isn’t little. “No, thanks,” I said. I closed my eyes. The van was warm and hummed with the passing of the road.

“Grayling,” Dad said, waking me.

I opened my eyes, sat up, and looked around. Lights glowed along the edges of the highway. I could see buildings. A McDonalds. “What?” I asked.

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just a town. Grayling. Named after a fish.”

“Grayling?” The lights were becoming more scattered.

He nodded towards the darkness outside his window. “The Au Sable river’s out there. It used to be full of these fish. Grayling. Kinda like trout.”

I stared into the darkness as though I might see the river.

Dad told me that over-fishing killed the grayling. “They have old fishing journals from the turn of the century. Guys writing about catching fifty or sixty grayling a day. Keeping ‘em. They didn’t appreciate what they had.”

I didn’t like that the fish wouldn’t come back. “There aren’t any grayling in the river? How do they know?”

He told me they know. They do tests on the river. He told me they can shock the river and make fish float to the surface. “They haven’t found grayling in a long time.”

The road was dark again. I thought about the fish. I wanted to see a grayling, and it made me mad that I couldn’t. The wolverines bothered me too. I hated stories about animals that were no longer in Michigan. I told Dad that I didn’t like to see things disappear, and he said that he didn’t either.

“It doesn’t make sense, Dad. The town is called Grayling, but there aren’t any grayling? They should change the name. It doesn’t even make sense.”

Dad squinted into the darkness out beyond the headlights. “Sometimes things don’t make sense. Sometimes it forces your hand and you have to make your own sense.”

I looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing.”

We drove on.

“Roscommon,” Dad said later. “Another town.”

I looked but there were no lights. “Where?”

He told me it was a few miles off the interstate. He told me about the south branch of the Au Sable River too and about some auto executive named George Mason who bought up land around the river to protect it. “He gave the land to the state under the condition that it could never be developed. That was a guy who did what needed to be done.”

I couldn’t really listen to him. My eyes kept closing.

“We’ll gas up in West Branch,” he said.

“Where are we going to sleep?”

“We really can stay anywhere. You’re mine, right?”

“For two weeks,” I said. “We got two weeks.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Two weeks.”

I looked for lights out in the darkness. “Why didn’t we just camp by the Mackinac Bridge like you told Mom we would?”

His hands squeezed the steering wheel. “I just think we should do something bigger, something better.”

“Because it might be awhile before we see each other again?” I asked.

He nodded slowly.

“Where are we going to sleep tonight? I’m getting tired.”

He rubbed his hand over his face. “You want to listen to the radio?” He turned it on. He reached over and squeezed my knee. “You listen to the radio, kiddo,” he said. He turned it up. “I’m just going to drive.”

I rested my head against the window. It was cold. I stared into the darkness. Then, I thought of something. “Mom said that you can fly to Paris. She said that there are times in the year when it’s not so expensive. You can come see me.”

He turned up the radio a little more. “Just go to sleep,” he said, not turning from the windshield. “I feel like I could drive for a long time yet.”

About the Author:

Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College in Bay City, MI. His stories have been collected in a chapbook called The Bridge (March Street Press) and in a full-length collection, Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press). Individual stories have appeared in Night Train, Passages North, Controlled Burn, and Crab Creek Review, among others. His novel, Into the Desperate Country, just came out from March Street Press. He maintains a website here.