Picture credit: Dylan Sauerwein

Art McKinnon had been driving north for the better part of five hours in a Chevy wagon packed to bursting. The extension ladder hung out the back window, but it was the shop-vac that claimed the most space. Still, he’d wanted to be prepared for the long weekend. Flint was in the rear-view and signs for Saginaw passed overhead, meaning he’d already crossed half the state of Michigan, more or less, assuming you didn’t count the wedge that might as well be Wisconsin. It was a route he knew well, one he’d traveled often since boyhood, though not in the last decade. That long hiatus had ended abruptly a couple weeks ago, the day his Uncle Red called.

Out of the blue, Red had asked if Arthur could take some time and drive up to Holy Island. He needed help closing the cottage, he said. Apart from Red, Art was the only member of the family who knew how to snake a drain or patch a roof. He agreed. He felt he owed it to his uncle, had the guilty sense he ought to put things to rights.

As he drove, Art listened to a book on tape so he wouldn’t fall asleep and wouldn’t have to fuss with the radio as the signal ducked in and out of range. It also helped anchor his mind firmly in the present.

I-75 tilted west before tipping north again. Once he left the interstate, the day turned grey and overcast. Rigid pines stood in linear formation on both sides. A windfall maybe, or telephone poles in the making. Clusters of hemlock and spruce were interspersed with birch baring their white skeleton branches, hunkering down for their long season of dormancy. Brown needles and leaves gathered in tufts on the shoulders of the road, like so much dandruff.

After nothing but woods and more horse farms than he remembered there being, he hit a stretch of mom-and-pop mechanics, small ranch homes, a church. Closer to town, they’d put in a dollar store, a major pharmacy and, next to that, a McDonalds, presumably so people could stop at the drive-through then pick up their cholesterol medication on the way out. Just about the only thing that hadn’t changed was the ironworks plant, with its rust-red arteries jutting out over the water. That, and the combination gas-bait-n-tackle. He pulled up to the pump and went inside to pay. The attendant hadn’t changed either.

“Arthur? Art McKinnon? Haven’t seen you in ages. How you been?” They shook hands.

Art said, “Can’t believe this place is still kicking.”

“Hey, I’m right there with you. This town’s changed, let me tell you. It’s turned commercial and everybody’s gotta have one of those mega-mansions.”

He’d seen those, too, lumbering, unsightly giants crowding the shoreline, vying for attention. He missed the smallness, the unpretentious way things used to be.

“Red stopped in earlier today,” the attendant said. “Seems he’s doing alright, for an old guy. Drove up in a shiny new Cadillac.”

Arthur found that hard to believe. Red, the lifelong pinchpenny.

“He’s gotta be, what, almost ninety?” The attendant looked like he wasn’t far behind. In fact, he might be ahead.

“Gettin’ there. I’m helping him close this year.”

“How long’s it been, since you been up this way?”

“’Bout ten years.”

“That long, huh? Heard you got yourself in a bit of a pickle a while back.”

“Not just me,” he admitted, figuring the attendant had already acquired the family gossip secondhand.

The thing was, Holy Island, the whole darn thing, had once belonged to Art’s great-grandfather. Before him, the abundant land and prime fishing waters were probably used by the Odawa. To this day, a man could live a good long while on what he could catch and hunt and gather in that neck of the woods. During the Great Depression, though, sections of the island had been sold off until only two square plots on the south shore remained in his family’s name. Since then, those two plots and the cottage that sat upon them had been divided – or was shared, rather – between three generations and two families: his late mother’s family and her brother Red’s.

His mom had been a gaping twelve years younger than her brother. She’d barely made it past seventy. Taken by some form of fast-acting dementia. When the diagnosis came, she deeded her portion of the island property over to her three children so they could take over as its stewards.

In an ironic twist of history repeating itself, Arthur lost his share of that inheritance during the Great Recession, just shy of a year into part-ownership. Just shy of his mother’s passing. The way it happened was, his home-repair business went under, and he’d gone into bankruptcy. The debts he owed, and there were plenty of those, went into collection. Somehow, in the mix of all the legalese, his portion of the family property was considered an asset and went up for grabs along with everyone else’s. Suddenly, the family had to come up with a sum in the six-digit range to buy up Art’s share lest the whole property be lost to developers.

Art’s older brother, Otis, and their Uncle Red had been the only two with enough set aside to meet the unexpected demand. They hadn’t taken kindly to the highly invasive surgery he’d forced on their savings and investment portfolios. Arthur had been excommunicated, more or less, and was officially uninvited from all island get-togethers and most family gatherings besides. That was ten years ago.

He paid for gas, filled up as much as a twenty would allow, and got on his way.

A few miles further up the road, he slowed the car to a crawl to avoid missing the turn. Some tailgater in a pickup took the opportunity to whiz past on his left. Then, all of a sudden, there it was. “Holy Island Road” read the sign, half choked with vines and brambles.

On the one-lane bridge connecting the island to the mainland, he pulled the Chevy wagon to a halt. He switched off the player and cranked down the window. The scent of lake fish and forest loam passed through the car, a quick pit stop on its way downwind. Even at peak times of year you could count the vehicles that crossed the bridge on a given day on one hand. Late October was not one of those times. Not a soul in sight. Most of the island cottages would’ve closed for the season. Only one woman he knew of stayed year-round, had stuck around even after her husband died. Drowned in a boating accident, is what he’d heard. Art’s sister, Tabby, had called to tell him about it. She’d always been one to keep up with those sorts of things, with people from the past.

Sure enough, a creamy Cadillac was parked in front of the old log cabin they had forever called “the cottage”. Arthur pulled up behind, wondering how the suspension on a car like that handled the island’s dirt road, all those potholes.

Soon as he stepped out, Red emerged from the house. Art raised a hand to shoulder height. He was shocked by how much older his uncle looked. The hair that had once been the source of the nickname was as good as absent.

For a long, awkward moment, Red seemed not to recognize him. “Otis?” he said, calling him by his brother’s name.

“It’s me, Uncle Red. It’s Art.”

“Oh, Arthur. Good to see you.”

“You, too. Been a few years,” he said.

“Just got here, myself. The last renters left their dirty sheets in a wad in the living room.”

“I’ll help you with that in a sec. Got a bunch of stuff to put in the bunkhouse,” he said, meaning the shed where they stored life vests, fishing poles, spare water shoes and what have you.

“Come help me a minute, will you, Arthur? There’s a pile of laundry to bag up.”

He left his tools and luggage and followed Red inside. The place smelled musty, like iron and mildew, like it hadn’t breathed in weeks. Apart from a new microwave, nothing had changed. The furniture, the oil painting of the cottage hanging over the mantle, everything was exactly as he remembered it.

Red had already laid out laundry bags. Art stuffed them full of pillowcases and duvet covers and still-damp beach towels.

“The renters are supposed to take their linens to the cleaners on their way out,” Red said.

“When did they check out?” Art asked.

“Oh, it’s been a couple – three days or so. On the twenty-fourth. I marked it on the calendar.”

“Could always hire a cleaning service to come out, then you wouldn’t have to worry about it,” Art suggested, but got no response. “Once I unload the car, I’ll run these to the laundromat,” he said.

“Good of you to help close this year. My boys are no good at this sort of thing and the girls, well…”

Mention of his cousins made him think of the last time he’d seen them altogether, at his mom’s funeral service. Red and all the rest of them had driven down from Ann Arbor, but even a death in the family hadn’t been enough for them to bury the hatchet. They’d said nothing of his transgressions, how he almost lost them their most precious family heirloom, but neither did they forgive him for it. He wondered how often they came up here.

“How ’bout some coffee?” Red asked.

“Coffee sounds good.”

From the kitchen, he heard, “Hm, milk’s gone off.”

“How many renters you have this year?” He got no response from the kitchen. Maybe Red’s hearing was going. With a loaded bag in each hand, he said, “I’m gonna run these out to the car.”

As the coffee began to drip, Red asked, “Do you take milk?”


Art was perched on the extension ladder, head in the rafters, ushering support joists into place. Red stood below.

“You got those in straight? Can’t tell from down here,” said Red. “Looks cockeyed.”

“It’s solid,” Art assured him.

“I don’t want another problem like last time. Those cheapskates I hired a few years back messed the job and part of the roof caved in.”

Art guessed it wasn’t so much the weight of the snow, the lack of sufficient support, but the age of the shingles. He’d heard about it from Tabby, and about how much she’d had to chip in to repair the damage. It was unexpected things, expenses like that, that made him glad he was no longer part-owner. “Well, everything got replaced that time, and the roof sheds snow well enough. It’s at a good steep angle. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

When they stopped for lunch, Art made a plate of sandwiches, enough for both of them. He’d made a point of stopping at the supermarket on the way back from the laundromat that first day to pick up the essentials: bread, lunch meat, coffee creamer, paper plates. They’d been eating either toast or sandwiches ever since. He ought to take Red to the marina. They could use a proper dinner.

With a pitcher of tea in one hand and a loaded plate in the other, he ambled down to the beach. Red carried cups and napkins. They sat in lawn chairs in the shade of a cedar grove, eating and listening to the sounds the water made. Arthur’s work boots shifted over the sand, clacking broken shells against smooth stones. Only a few boats passed.

“The Campbells got a new sailboat this year,” Red said. “Did you know the Campbells? Richard and Donald were the boys’ names.”

Dick and Don Campbell were older than him by a couple years, closer to his brother, Otis, in age. Their old man owned a law firm in Lansing. When they were younger, the Campbell boys showed up every summer with new gear that made them all envious. Canoes and fishing rods, then water skis, jet skis, and finally their own sailing yacht. “We haven’t stayed in touch over the years,” he said.

“Damn good sandwich,” said Red.

“So, Red, are you still painting? I noticed the one you did of this place is still hanging over the mantle.”

“Oh, that.” He shook his head. “Gave it up. I got this carpal tunnel issue, makes it so you can’t hold a brush.”

“When did that happen, recently?”

Red leaned back in his chair, hands locked over his belly. “Had a big gallery showing. Everything sold.”

Tabby never mentioned an art sale. “How much does something like that go for?”

“Depends. Sold every last piece, though.”

Art nodded. “I always liked the one you did for my mom, of their old house.”

“I did a lot of houses back then. Frank Lloyd Wright’s, mostly. Michigan, Wisconsin, went as far as Falling Water just to paint those Wright places.”

“I didn’t know that.” He’d known his uncle had worked as an architect up until he retired, but hadn’t known how far he’d taken his hobby.

Apart from being the oldest and most senior member of the family, it struck Art that that had to be the reason it had always fallen to Red to manage the cottage and its endless affairs. Like him, Red knew a thing or two about houses and didn’t like paying somebody to do a job he could do himself. Only, in Red’s case, he’d outlived his capacity for the labor.

He finished his sandwich and considered going inside to make another, but Red kept talking. “The way the water just rushes by, underneath that house – the man was a genius. The painting I did is still in their collection.”

“Falling Water?”

“Oh, get this, you won’t believe who showed up at the sale,” said Red, and slapped his knee with his palm.

Art tried to think.

“Your brother, Otis. All the way from Seattle.”

That, too, was news to him. For all the grief he’d given Art, his brother rarely made it out this way. Whenever he got time off from his practice, Otis and his wife preferred jetting off to places with names you couldn’t pronounce. Last he’d heard from Tabby, they’d gone sandboarding in Marrakech, whatever that meant.

“We all went out afterwards, to celebrate,” said Red. “I still have a few prints left, little ones, somewhere around here. Remind me, I’ll give you one before you go.”


The next day, he sent Red to the hardware store to rent an air compressor so he could blow out the water lines. With the house empty, the work went faster. He swept the roof and the deck, cleaned the gutters, installed the storm doors. A few questionable branches needed trimming, so he brought out the extension ladder again and did that too.

Red returned while he was sealing in the porch. Arthur suggested they take a break and go to the marina for dinner. It used to be a summer tradition. They’d drive the motorboat up and dock it. Then, wind tousled and pink from the sun, they’d feed their ravenous appetites, the sort of hunger only a day on the water could muster. Red agreed. Arthur drove. Nobody kept a boat at the cottage anymore.

Even the restaurant was closing up for the season. The patio tables and chairs had been stacked to one side. The hostess seated them indoors. Art ordered the fish fillet with roasted potatoes. Red had to put on his glasses to read the menu, then ordered a burger and fries.

“Do you remember coming here with your folks? We’d all sit out there on the water,” Red said. “You could smell the gas from the boats and the gulls would come over and try to steal scraps off the boardwalk.”

He nodded. He did remember.

“I couldn’t believe it, when Edith died,” Red said. A “before me” seemed implied. “I’m glad you could be there for her in the end, what with your brother being out west and your sister – where is she again? Madison?”

“Minneapolis.” He didn’t want to discuss his mother’s final days, her swift cognitive decline.

“Shame she didn’t get up here before the end,” said Red. “She loved walking the island road, going up past the bridge. I can just picture her in those white tennis shoes, swinging her arms.”

“It happened so fast, there wasn’t a lot of time…well, you know,” he trailed off.

Red took off his glasses and put them back in his breast pocket. “When you get as old as I am, you think about death quite a bit. Seems every day somebody you grew up with’s in the obits.” Then, “She gave me hell for making you feel unwelcome up here.”

Art frowned. He hadn’t known that. He thought back. Based on the timing of things, it must have come up right before she – he couldn’t picture that conversation, what it would’ve looked like. Hell, by that time, she hardly recognized him.

“Edith was like that, you know,” said Red.

“How so?” He said it lightly, thinking Red might elaborate.

“Oh, just the way I acted.” He waved a hand, as if shooing a fly. “She was right though. End of the day, it’s only money. Family, well…” Red nodded, as though they’d reached an understanding. “Next time there’s an art sale, I’ll be sure your name’s on the guest list.”

He decided not to mention that, by Red’s own admission, his entire collection had already sold, and no more paintings were forthcoming.


Art spent the last morning blowing out the water lines and putting RV antifreeze in the plumbing traps while Red tidied a few things away. Then it was time to lock up. Red suggested stopping at the marina for lunch on the way out, but it was in the wrong direction and Arthur had a full day of driving ahead and still had to return the air compressor. They shook hands and Arthur watched as Red’s Cadillac pulled out, jostled by the potholes.

After he was out of sight, Arthur took one final look at the old cottage nestled between the birch and pines, then settled himself behind the wheel. As he reached for the CD case containing the book on tape he planned on finishing, he noticed a yellow envelope on the passenger’s seat. Handwritten on the cover, it read, “Thanks for all your help. Good seeing you again.” He tore open the seal. Inside he found one of Red’s postcard-sized prints, a view from the beach, looking up at the cottage. He wondered whether he’d be back. Maybe next April, when the place needed opening up again. Arthur turned the key in the ignition and the engine churned to life, drowning out the sound of waves nudging the shore.

About the Author

Emily Grandy is an award-winning novelist and editor based in the Midwest.

Before she became the owner and lead editor of Grand Literary, Emily did scientific research for the Cleveland Clinic. In addition to taking on clients from leading academic medical institutions, Emily continues to work as a biomedical editor for a major government contractor.

As a former researcher, Emily’s writing aims to communicate science-based knowledge through storytelling. As an artist and environmental advocate, she hopes to help heal our relationship with the more-than-human world. Her debut novel, Michikusa House, was awarded the Landmark Prize in 2022. Her second novel, Cupido Cupido, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction in 2023. Her other writing has appeared in both scientific and literary publications and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Emily has lived in many places, both in the U.S. and abroad, but always gravitates back to the Midwest and its Great Lakes. She currently calls Milwaukee, Wisconsin home.

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