The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Molly sat, dressed in her underwear, on a dusty box in the middle of her attic. What had driven her up there in the first place, she could no longer remember. An old photograph album was balanced on her lap, its cracked vinyl sticking to her bare thighs in the mid-July heat. Pinpricks of sweat popped out on her arms and brow as she dug through the open cardboard box at her feet.
Her husband John shouted up the stairs. “Moll, what the hell are you doing up there?”
Molly looked up from the box toward the sound of her husband’s voice and said softly, “I have absolutely no idea.”
“Moll, come on, I thought we were going to the store.”
She pushed her damp hair back from her face, took a deep breath. “You go on without me. The list is on the counter. I’m too sweaty, need to take a shower.”
She could hear his footsteps on the stairs, imagined the disgruntled look on his face.
“You’re not dressed?” he said as he stepped into the attic. “Seriously Molly, what are you looking for?”
She shook her head, clutching the photo album tightly. She knew if she looked at him, she might burst into tears, again.
“Hey, I thought we were going to the store?”
She pushed the flaps of the box closed and let her hair hang down into her face. She could feel her lip start to tremble, never a good sign, and John’s growing impatience.
“Is this a menopause thing or something?”
“No.” She stood up, set the photo album down on the box, crossed her arms in front of her.
“Why do men always jump to those kinds of conclusions John, tell me that.”
“I give up, Moll,” he said, throwing his hands up in the air. “Why do we?”
She glared at him without answering, trying to keep her chin from trembling. “Seriously, stay up here in the stinking heat all day if you want to,” he said.
She waited until she heard him slam the door to the steps before she sat back down. All she wanted was a few minutes of peace, to be able to take some time for herself, not have everything so regimented, so scheduled. She wanted to wallow in her unwashed, stinky, semi-nakedness, to linger over old photos in a hot dusty attic and cry for no good reason if she felt like it.
“I’m going now!” John shouted from the other side of the closed door. “Try and pull yourself together by the time I get back would you?”
He had to go and say that, she thought, just as she was starting to feel guilty about her little display.
“Screw you!” she said, flinging the photo album down the stairs. But he was already gone and all she’d managed to accomplish was to destroy an album full of forgotten pictures.
“What is your problem, Molly?” she mumbled to herself. “John did nothing wrong. You told him that you wanted to go to the store.” She kicked one of the boxes with her bare foot, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Maybe it was menopause, she thought. She’d been moody and tense lately, burst into tears at work for no reason, her periods spotty and irregular. “I’m too fucking young for this crap,” she said, stooping to pick up the scattered pictures from the album. “Too fucking young on the whole — too young to have kids in college, too young for gray hair.” Too young for this to be the beginning of the end, she thought.
She gathered up the photos and splayed album at the bottom of the steps, walked to her bedroom and dumped it all on her bed. Then she drew herself a bath. She would make John a nice lunch when he came back from the store, she thought, and apologize for being so weepy.
The water was about as hot as she could stand it as she poured the foaming salts under the tap. She stripped off her t-shirt and panties and slid into the tub. There would be time to pluck her brows and fret over her roots and sagging breasts later; right now she wanted to be the woman she pictured in her mind: young, firm, relaxed.
A breeze blew through the open bathroom window and Molly smiled as she listened to the random tumble of the wind-chime ringing in her backyard. She knew that outside it was one of those glorious mid-summer Michigan days and to waste it would only bring on another month of winter later in the year. After lunch, she would go weed the garden, pay some penance to Mother Nature.
She laid her head back against the cool porcelain of the tub, slipping deeper into the bubbles. Her hand rested lightly on her belly and she tried not to think about John.
After twenty-two years of marriage there were days when she would look at him and ask herself — Who is this man? Why is he in my house? It was her problem and she knew it. John was the same man she’d fallen in love with in college, the same thoughtful caring father, attentive and supportive, but now whole days would go by when she knew that she’d said nothing of importance to him. Another day of rain, she’d say and he’d nod. Tigers lost again, he’d say and she’d nod. And so it went with only the occasional intrusion of their youngest daughter Logan, home from college for the summer.
Through the open window she could hear a car pull into the drive. It was either Logan or John, it didn’t matter which, it was time to get out of the tub.
“Hey, Moll, what’re you doing?”
She was standing naked in the bedroom, her towel around her ankles, looking intently at an old 8” x 10” black and white glossy. The photo was crinkled around the edges, with one corner completely missing. Molly turned when she heard him come in and caught him staring at her butt.
He smiled at her sheepishly. “My dear, you still have a superior backside,” he said, “even at 46.”
“John!” She clasped the photo to her chest, her elbows covering both breasts.
“Are you okay?” He reached over, put his hand on her shoulder. “Not that I don’t appreciate the view, but it’s not like you to just hang out in your birthday suit.”
She smiled, “Ha, look at that. I forgot to put on my bathrobe. What’d you know?”
John handed Molly her robe, which she had laid out on the bed.
She handed him the picture while she dressed.
“My dad must’ve taken that picture when we were on vacation,” she said as she cinched her belt tight. “Do you see the name of the ship?”
John held the photo at arms’ length. “I didn’t know your dad was a photographer.”
She nodded. “He loved taking black and white shots whenever we went on vacation. He had an old 35 millimeter Nikon, manual focus, state-of-the-art back in the seventies.”
“Is this at the Soo?”
“The Edmund Fitzgerald?”
Molly was shaking her head again, her hand to her lips, like she might start to cry.
“I remember this trip. It was late, after school had started. My dad used to get it in his head sometimes to just take off, and there we were freezing our asses off in Sault Ste. Marie.”
“Your dad was a funny guy.”
Molly looked at him, her eyes narrowed. “I still miss him.”
John handed the photo back to her.
“Moll, I didn’t mean anything.”
She sat down on the bed, staring at the photo. “I know.”
“Is that why you were up in the attic this morning?”
He sat down on the bed next to her, slipped his arm around her waist. “What’s going on?”
“I honestly wish I knew,” she said resting her head on his shoulder. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a stranger to myself. I look in the mirror and have no idea who is staring back at me.”
He kissed her ear and she softened in his arms. It had been a while since they’d sat together like this, a month, maybe more.
“Everyone feels that way sometimes,” he said.
“Do they?” She turned and looked at him. “Do you?”
He frowned at her. “Of course I do.”
“I don’t think so. At least you don’t seem that way to me.” She held up the photo so that he could see it too. They both stared at it in silence for a while.
“Look at that kid,” Molly said pointing to a figure in the photo. “He looks like he must be Shannon’s age. Can you imagine? Sailing on a freighter like this, up and down the Great Lakes in all kinds of weather. Could he have had any idea that this would be his last trip through the locks? That six weeks later he’d end up at the bottom of Lake Superior?”
“I’m sure none of them had any idea what was going to happen, or they would’ve done something to prevent it,” John said.
“I don’t know about that.” Molly sat up while she was talking. “Sometimes, don’t you ever just get a feeling, deep in your gut, but ignore it, because it seems so ridiculous at the time and then, when it’s finally too late, something’s already happened and you think to yourself, why am I surprised by this? I knew this was going to happen all along.”
John stood up from the edge of the bed, placed his hand on her forehead. “Are you feeling okay?” He let his hand run down her neck to her shoulder. “Maybe your blood sugar’s low, because you’re not exactly making any sense.”
She frowned at him and crossed her legs.
“Logan will be home soon, why don’t I make us some lunch?” John reached for her elbow and pulled her up off the bed. “It’ll be fun, come on.”
She smiled at him even though she didn’t really want to and he kissed her. Slipped his arms around her waist and really kissed her. Why didn’t they do this more often, she thought? Then she stopped thinking as his tongue found its way into her mouth, and she felt the outline of his body press into her underneath the silkiness of her robe. The photo was crushed between their bodies as her robe slid to the floor, then it too was on the floor as they fell into the bed, John struggling with his belt buckle while Molly kissed his eyes and cheeks. A breeze blew the lace curtains back from the windows as they made love on top of the bedspread, the pictures from Molly’s scrapbook scattered everywhere.
“What’s the occasion?” Logan asked, plopping down in the chair next to her mother.
Molly was seated at the kitchen table, the old photo album and a stack of pictures in front of her while John stood at the kitchen sink molding hamburger into patties.
“What do you mean?” Molly said, still feeling a little flushed.
“Grilling in the middle of the day? Seems rather extravagant for the humble Larsons of Roger’s City.”
“That’s what you know,” her father said. “There is nothing like a midday feast.” He smacked a patty for emphasis. “I’m feeling very European today.”
“Dad, you are so corny sometimes.”
John grunted at their daughter on his way to the grill and Molly smiled.
“What have you got there, Mom?” Molly looked at her daughter for a moment before answering. She took in her fresh-scrubbed complexion, cheeks ruddy from days spent on the beach, her eyelashes bleached blond by the sun. She was beautiful, Molly thought, and she is nothing like me.
“These? Just some old pictures your Granddad took when I was young.”
“Cool.” Logan picked up a stack and started shuffling through them. “Wow, look at this.”
She stopped at the picture of the ship. “Granddad took this picture?”
Her mother nodded. “It was when I was in high school, I guess, my Dad took us out of school one day and said, hey, we’re going to the locks.” Molly looked away, down at her hand resting on the stack of old pictures. “We had no mother to tell him not to do things like that. What were one or two days of school, every now and then?”
Logan smiled, “Granddad was like Santa Claus in a Stroh’s hat.”
Molly laughed, “Three hundred and sixty-five days a year.”
“It must’ve been kind of fun,” Logan said, patting Molly’s hand.
“You know, it was.” She squeezed Logan’s hand in return. “Cold, but fun.”
Logan held the picture up to the light. “Do you know the story of this whole deal?”
“What do you mean?”
“I did a paper on shipwrecks of the Great Lakes last year for my Maritime History class. I would have loved to have had this picture for it.”
“Mom, you have no idea. The lakes can be treacherous. There have been lots of really horrible shipwrecks on the lakes. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is famous because of the song.”
Molly smiled, started humming. “I always loved Gordon Lightfoot.”
“This must have been one of the deckhands.” Her daughter pointed to the figure in the picture. “Most of the others were pretty old.”
She shook her head. “Oh, yeah, they were a grizzled, experienced crew. The two deck hands were the youngest guys on the ship.”
“I told your father I thought he must be about your sister’s age.”
“Probably. I think they were either twenty-two or twenty-three.”
Molly rested her elbows on the table and stared at her daughter. “I had no idea you knew so much about things like this.”
“Mom, I’m a marine biology major. We do more than just study algae and alewives.”
“I’m riveted,” Molly said, and meant it. “Tell me the story.”
“Okay.” Logan shrugged.
When had her daughter gotten to be so smart, Molly thought. Why haven’t I paid better attention?
“The Fitzgerald was one of the largest ore tankers on the lakes. They had just picked up a load of iron ore and were headed to Detroit, through the Soo locks and Lake Huron. Another ship, the Arthur Anderson was about twenty miles behind the Fitzgerald following them into Whitefish Bay, where they were trying to make port. The storm was so bad they closed the locks. It was just like in ‘A Night to Remember’. The two captains on the radio with each other, only in the case of the Anderson and Fitzgerald they were trying to survive a blizzard in open water. Ninety mile an hour winds, twenty-five foot swells, sleet and snow, no radar, listing badly. Can you imagine?”
Molly swallowed. “No, I can’t.”
“At any rate the Fitzgerald lost her radar and was taking in heavy water. They really had no idea they were going down.”
Molly stared down at the photo, at the picture of the young man on the deck.
“I actually had a chance to read a transcript of the conversations between the two ships. The last thing the captain of the Fitzgerald said was ‘We’re holding our own’. Five minutes later they disappeared from the Anderson’s radar and were lost. Eighty-sixed to the bottom of Lake Superior.”
“Fifteen more miles and they would’ve made port and this,” Logan said, pointing to the picture, “would just be another old photo of a ship no one had ever heard of.”
Molly kind of half laughed. “That’s funny, isn’t it?”
“You know what I mean.” Molly frowned. “Ironic, I guess.”
“About how things work out. My dad took this random picture, on a spur of the moment vacation, of a ship that ended up sinking six weeks later in a tragic storm that no one would probably even remember if it weren’t for some Canadian folk singer, and now thirty years later, we’re sitting here, still talking about this shipwreck, awed by the weirdness of having this photo, feeling like it’s some kind of brush with tragedy, feeling lucky that we were the ones taking the photo, not the ones on the ship, I…”
Molly stared over Logan’s shoulder into the living room.
“Are you okay?”
“Of course, I guess I’m just feeling a bit melancholy today, missing your Granddad,” She laughed and patted Logan’s hand. “Your father thinks it’s low blood sugar; maybe he’s done with those burgers.”
Molly gripped the steering wheel tightly and stared at the road. After she’d finished at the doctor’s she had planned to go the craft store and buy a new photo album and a couple of picture frames. The stacks of old photos were piled in the back seat. She’d wanted some nice mementos of her father down in the living room, not jammed in some box up in the attic, but now she found herself on US 31 headed north, towards the Mackinac Bridge, compelled like a lemming about to dive off a cliff. Could it really be true? What the doctor had said? She wanted to cry but it was all stuck in her throat, the incredulity of it all. She wasn’t menopausal, and it wasn’t cancer, her mood swings and spotty periods. She was pregnant. At forty-six. Inside her beat the life of another Larson. A boy, maybe another girl. She shook her head not wanting to know, not believing that it was all going to start all over again. She was twelve weeks along, maybe more the doctor had said. The spotting was nothing to be concerned about as long as it wasn’t heavy, he wanted her to come in for a quad screen and an amnio if she was going to keep it. Keep it! Keep it? The phrase shook her.
“Keep it,” she said out loud like she was trying to convince herself of something.
Ahead she could see the Mackinac Bridge. Signs for the Mackinac Island ferry services and tourist attractions were everywhere. Sault Ste. Marie was only another hour north. She didn’t know why she wanted to go there so badly, what was pushing her toward Lake Superior. Her father wasn’t there. He’d been gone now for a year and a half. And even if he were alive, he wouldn’t have any words of comfort; he wouldn’t have been able to help. All he’d ever been good for was a shrug and a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry now Molly, things will look up in a bit,” is what he always said. He said it when their cat ran away, when she got a C on her report card, when her mother died. Like Santa in a Stroh’s hat, Logan had said. It was the perfect image of him, ruddy-faced, jolly but scruffy. She shook her head.
“Look up in a bit. Is that what you’d tell me Dad?” Saying it out loud made her laugh. A bit? Not a chance. Twenty years of living with Logan and she still didn’t understand her daughter. Shannon was a little easier, a little more like her, but now there would be another one. Another person about whom she should know everything and yet would stare at and think: Who are you?
For a moment as she crossed onto the bridge, everything stopped. Huron on the right, Michigan on the left. No matter how many times she saw the straits, the beauty of it always took her by surprise. Beneath the bridge, freighters were making their way west to Chicago and east to Detroit, pleasure boats and passenger ferries skimmed across the pale blue water, zigzagging back and forth from Mackinaw City to St. Ignace to Mackinac Island. The sky was clear and the sun was hot and bright. Gulls and terns floated on the air currents above and below the bridge and she knew as she entered the Upper Peninsula, that she had been running for no reason. She needed to talk to John and he was back in Roger’s City.
She pulled off to the side of the road and as she opened the car door the scent of scrub pines and cool lake humidity engulfed her. In the back seat she dug through her handbag looking for her cell phone and saw the photo of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the top of the stack of old pictures. Her eyes filled with tears as she dialed the number for home, and when Logan answered, she felt her breath catch in her mouth as she leaned into the back of the seat in front of her, afraid she might faint or throw-up.
Molly could hear the panic in Logan’s voice. Logan, her sweet baby no longer. Could she suffer the angst of a middle child at nineteen? Molly wanted to laugh, share this joke with her daughter. She swallowed hard and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“Mom, are you there?”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing honey, just a bad connection. Is Dad home yet?”
“Mom, the doctor’s office called and left a really weird message about you running out before you made your ultra-sound appointment?”
“It’s just routine, nothing to worry about. Logan I need to talk to dad.”
She could hear her daughter call out to John, hear the tumble of the wind chime in the backyard as Logan set the phone on the counter then opened the screen door and went out into the garden, she could picture all of this in her mind: John shuffling across the carpet from the living room to the kitchen, taking his time, folding the paper as he walked, then picking up the receiver, staring out the sliding glass door and into the backyard, thinking to himself that he needed to mow the lawn, put down the mid-summer fertilizer. How would he look, now that he had touches of gray in his hair, holding a baby?
John’s voice sounded clear and relaxed. Molly bit her lower lip.
“I thought you’d be home by now. What’s up?”
“I uh…” She gripped the back of the seat in front of her with her free hand. “I took a little drive, you know like when my dad was alive?”
“Where are you?”
Now she could hear concern creep into his voice, the nonchalance slipping away.
“I was going to the Soo. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. Maybe it was finding that stupid picture. Maybe it was…”
“Molly,” John’s voice was careful and slow. “What happened at the doctor’s? Are you okay?” His voice started to pick up speed as asked more questions. “Is something wrong? Do I need to come get you?”
She could hear an audible in-take of breath, imagined John clapping his hand to his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut. Outside the car Molly watched a seagull dip and swoop in the waning daylight, listened to the growing buzz of the crickets and the occasional roar of wind as a car rushed by on the highway.
John’s voice was softer, less urgent. “Do you need me to come get you?”
She shook her head. The urge to drive north was pushing at her again, the urge to drive and drive and never look back.
“Moll? How are you feeling?”
Molly looked over at the picture, touched it’s still shiny surface. “I’m holding my own, John. I’m holding my own.”
“Come home, Moll, we’ll figure this out.”
She nodded again even though he couldn’t see her, and moved back to the driver’s seat.
“I’m going to hang up now,” she said as she started the engine. “I don’t like to talk while I drive.”
“I love you, Molly. Be safe.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice quavering. She snapped her phone closed and pulled out onto the expressway still heading north, telling herself that as soon as she could she would turn around and head home.
The first time I read this story in public was at a Philadelphia Stories reading at Fergie’s Pub in Center City. I was number three in a line-up of four; the crowd was buzzed and the room was dark. Not only did people stay awake despite the cave-like ambiance, many came up to me after the reading to ask me about the title’s reference to the famous shipwreck.
I grew up in Michigan and was thirteen years old when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a November gale on Lake Superior in 1975. It really hadn’t occurred to me that this shipwreck, which has been part of my Midwestern consciousness since I was a teenager, would be completely out of the scope of most people’s memory. It wasn’t until I actually sang the opening bars of the Gordon Lightfoot ballad that someone said to me, “Oh, that Edmund Fitzgerald.”
It seems that most of the country — unlike those of us in the Great Lakes — thought it was a fictitious tale of a shipwreck, sung by a gloomy Canadian. In reality, for many, it has become another “Titanic” — complete with its own haunting theme-song. Type “Edmund Fitzgerald” into your Google search bar and you might be surprised to find over a million hits. On one web page, I actually found a sound recording of the Captain of the Arthur Anderson (the ship that was in contact with the Fitz when it sank) talking with the Coast Guard immediately after the Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. (http://www.boatnerd.com/fitz/)
So what is it about this tragic event that has so captivated the imaginations of so many? Perhaps it is the poignant melody and lyrics by Lightfoot. Maybe it’s because the reasons why the Fitz sank will always be a mystery. There have been several investigations but no concrete conclusions. The last recorded words of her captain were, “We’re holding our own,” and then she disappeared to the bottom of Lake Superior. For me, it is the ultimate reminder of the power and awesome grandeur of the Great Lakes. The Fitzgerald had a seasoned and experienced crew; she was a ship built to sail the turbulent waters of the Great Lakes, outfitted with every modern piece of navigational equipment, and yet she sank, crushed by the wind and the waves and the weather. It is this overwhelming ferocity of nature, combined with our human powerlessness over it, that has made a real and lasting impact on me.
In this story, the shipwreck of the Fitzgerald serves as a metaphor for all those things outside our control. Molly seems to be holding her own and then something comes along and pulls her way off course. Will she be able to make the right decision in such unfamiliar waters? It may be too soon to tell.
C.J. Spataro is a 2005 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship recipient. Her work has been both a finalist and won second place in the Philadelphia City Paper Fiction Contest and she has had two stories presented at the InterAct Theatre’s Writing Aloud. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in XConnect and Hackwriters.com. Currently, she is the fiction editor and co-publisher of Philadelphia Stories Magazine and an MFA candidate at Rosemont College.