The road was made of dirt – an improvement over the last road, which had been made
primarily of potholes. The horse-drawn cart that I found myself in hadn’t liked potholes, jumping nervously every time it encountered one. As a result I was constantly toppling in whichever direction physics chose to propel me, forced to grab at the sides of the cart to keep upright.
The cart had once been nicer – I could tell by the upholstery on the seat and the paint
that remained on the outside of the box that it would once have been called a carriage, the sort newlyweds would spontaneously take to romantic dinners. But time and perhaps winters in the snow had been hard on its polished planks. The rough cracks buried splinters in my hands each
time I clutched the boards for stability.
Splinters hurt and all the sliding around was hell on my dress, but I didn’t comment to
the silent driver, hunched in front of me with the reins in one hand and an iPod in the other. It
seemed petty to complain.
When Marian first told me about growing up in Mackinac, I found it hard to believe that
she came from a tiny island in Michigan that didn’t allow cars. It sounded like the kind of place
Gulliver would come upon if he were traveling today, or the sort of destination a tornado might
drop Dorothy into: a cheery town of fudge-makers and carriage drivers, numbering less than
five hundred. It didn’t seem possible outside of Amish country, but Marian assured me it was
so and constantly urged me to come and visit. I never had the chance – Chicago wasn’t that far
away, but once I’d settled into a routine after college every suggested step off the path seemed
exhausting and unworkable.
Opportunities are spiteful, sometimes: they strut along, batting their eyelashes, hoping to
be taken. But when they’re passed up, they make it personal – they seek revenge. “You should
have visited Marian when she asked you to,” they whispered in my ear on the night I heard of her
death. “Now you have the time, don’t you? Now you can come.”
I did come. I’d driven up from Chicago the night before and taken the ferry to the island
that morning. From the boat Mackinac looked charming and self-contained: a tree-covered hill
hemmed at the bottom like a hoop skirt with lacy fudge shops and patio restaurants and other
tourist temptations. Higher up, partial glimpses of pink and white houses spangled the hillside.
The whole image was clean and surreal – a movie set.
The funeral notice had said that free transportation to the church would be provided at
the entrance to the park, but I had some time, so I checked into my bed and breakfast and walked
along Main Street. I wandered into Ye Olde Fudge Shoppe and almost bought some cherry fudge
as a souvenir, but as I stood in line I realized how tacky that was, and retreated. On my way out I
saw a black ribbon taped to the corner of the door, a bow with a little M on it, and wondered if all
the stores had them.
The park entrance had been easy to find, but the transportation less so. I’d stood
hesitantly in the middle of a walking path, looking left and right for I knew not what as knots of
people threaded past me on both sides, until finally I’d seen the driver on his cart waving at me
from the dark shade under a towering pine.
“Funeral?” he’d asked me when I’d made my way over.
“Yes,” I said, and didn’t know what else to add.
He offered to let me sit on the front bench with him – “It’s a bumpy ride in the back” –
but I declined, not wanting to deal with the awkwardness of small talk and close proximity with a
man I didn’t know.
“Bit worse for the wear,” he’d mumbled, handing me up into the back. “I was gonna
bring a blanket or something, but…” He shrugged, squinting at his horse. As soon as he’d settled
back into the cart he turned his iPod volume all the way up, and faced unceasingly forward.
As the cart tottered up the hill toward the church, its lurching distracted me less and less
from my apprehension. My mother always told me that when it comes to death, more is more:
how much worse to have an empty service than an over-full church. But after seeing the tiny
world Marian grew up in – she must have known everyone in it, I imagined, must have been
family to them all – I felt like an intruder for coming all this way, inserting myself into a grief
I had no real reason to share. How close were we, after all? We had been friends, good friends,
in college, but graduation trimmed the fat off my social circle. Anyone unnecessary to my life,
no matter how beloved, had gradually faded out of it; and Marian’s sweetness and humor and
support could, apparently, be found elsewhere. What a terrible thing to acknowledge.
All of a sudden the grating of the wheels and the chattering of birds and the damp,
pressing quiet of the trees around us made me feel like a fraud. I hadn’t even known Marian
was sick until I got the call that she’d passed; I didn’t know her family; we’d only spoken a
few times over the last several years. There was nothing I could provide the people who would
truly mourn her loss – who would feel that the sky hung lower without her, that the sun could no
longer warm them – except another bowed head in the pews and a $25 donation to the American
Cancer Society in Marian’s name. How selfish, really, to go to a funeral and worry about my
own place in it – but there it was. My black dress and appropriate earrings felt like a costume. I
was devastated that Marian was gone, but every time I thought about it I feared the emotion was
getting thinner, as if I were wearing it away with overuse: It’s so sad, I kept telling myself, and
tried not to make it sound like a reminder.
We finally crested the top of the hill and I could see the clustered mourners, a black-clad
mass in stark contrast to the white church around which they stood and beyond that, the lake – I
didn’t know which one – sparkling cobalt. My hands started to sweat and I clenched them into
fists, driving the slivers I’d acquired deeper into my skin with little cuts of pain. I’m here for
Marian, I thought, trying hard to swallow. I can do this for Marian.
The driver pulled to a stop near a line of mingling horses and much fancier carriages
and turned off his iPod. It was nearly two, which meant I was probably his last load, if he’d had
others; he helped me down and disappeared and it occurred to me that he might be attending the
funeral himself. He didn’t bother to tie the cart to anything – apparently the horse was a trusted
member of the community.
I smoothed the skirt of my dress with wet hands. The sweater I’d put on over it had
gotten snagged on little pieces of wood more times than I could count on the way up, but I didn’t
have it in me to inspect the damage. I didn’t suppose anyone would care.
As I walked toward the church under the slow ringing of the bells, I tried to think of
Marian stories to tell, so that when people came up to me after the service and asked, “Were you
a friend of hers?” I would have proof of our connection, something substantial to show them
that I too had lost something when Marian left the world. But Marian had never been the type of
person who made for easy anecdotes: she was steady. We’d spend weekends together during the
semester sometimes, watching movies and talking and ordering Chinese, and on Mondays I’d tell
people I’d had an amazing weekend but be hard-pressed to make them understand why.
There was at least one story I could tell – I’d told it a thousand times, because it was
quintessentially Marian and yet the only story of its kind. It was Marian catching the light, just
for a moment, and glowing with it.
I’d come over to her dorm room one night to find her comparing paint swatches of off-
white beige with her off-white beige walls.
“What do you think?” she said, showing me the two closest matches. “Whitewashed
Taupe or Summer Sheep?”
I squinted at the blocks of color. There was the faintest difference. “Summer Sheep,” I
Marian nodded and stepped back. “I’m going to paint my walls,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow skeptically. “You’re going to paint your walls the color they already
are?” I asked.
She cocked her head at me, which was her way of saying I sounded judgmental. I
respectfully removed the skepticism from my face in response.
“I’m going to paint them all sorts of colors, and then I’m going to paint them Summer
This time I wasn’t judging; I was just confused. “Why?” I asked again.
“Because I’ll always know the color’s underneath,” she said. “And because Home Depot
is having a sale on paint.”
So that was that. We spent an entire weekend painting her walls. There was no pattern to
it: she’d paint bright swathes of red and cover them with smiley faces, and I spattered the paint
on like Jackson Pollock and made all kinds of flowers because they were all I knew how to draw.
Friends would wander in, drag a brush across the wall a couple times and wander out again. On
one wall Marian painted six large purple elephants.
“They don’t all have trunks,” I commented.
“I know,” she said. “But it’s their ears that make them cute.”
The result was a madness of colors and shapes, as if a hundred Crayola commercials had
exploded. We’d all written our names, somewhere or other, and the date. It was beautiful, and
Marian stood in her doorway looking at it all and grinning like I’d never seen before.
Two days later the paint was fully dry and Marian opened up six cans of Summer Sheep.
I worked on an essay on her bed in the center of the room while she rolled over our cacophony of
doodles with neat W-shaped strokes. It took three coats to satisfy her that the evidence was well
and truly hidden. When she was done the room looked exactly like it had before – a little better,
actually, because the scuff marks on the walls were gone.
“Well,” she said, “that was fun.” She threw away the paintbrushes, and the next weekend
we watched a movie.
The service was beautiful but restrained. They talked about Marian’s strength and
stoicism, her calm presence, her loyalty. Marian’s mother stood up and said that Marian had
been as perfect and serene as the water surrounding Mackinac. It was odd, to hear a daughter
described like that.
After the service I stood outside the church with the tightness of tearstains around my
eyes. I stared at its pristine white siding and wondered if Marian had somehow left an invisible
mark under its gleam, something I could stumble on with a few hours and a paint scraper. Maybe
I hadn’t paid enough attention – maybe everywhere she went she slipped herself into the context.
I tried to picture her poking little pieces of Marian-ity into pillows and underneath drawer
linings, or writing in heavy-papered cookbooks with white ink. I wondered how we had fallen
out of touch, exactly. Who had emailed last? I hoped it was me. I hoped against hope that she
had never been lying sick in a hospital bed on the mainland, wondering idly if I would manage to
respond to her last overture of communication before she was gone, trying to work up the energy
to tell me she was sick.
“Were you a friend of hers?”
I blinked away the blinding whiteness of the church and turned to smile a yes at whoever
had asked, but it turned out to be Marian’s mother, and I couldn’t. My face froze, guilty to be
caught even attempting a smile on an occasion that must be hideous to the exhausted woman
standing next to me.
A flicker of recognition crossed her features as I turned to face her full on.
“Oh,” she said. “Allie. From school – I recognize you from her pictures.”
“I’m so—” I choked the words out, forcing them from lungs that had suddenly
constricted. “I’m so sorry. I wish there was…” I trailed off, unable to finish the thought. The
woman’s daughter was dead; what did it matter if I wished there was something I could do?
She put her hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for coming, Allie,” she said, and turned
I almost stopped her. I wanted to tell her the story of Marian’s walls, and give her that
moment of brightness; I wanted to make it worthwhile that I had come. But I thought of Marian
painting those steady Ws over her riotous coloring, without even taking a picture of it first, and I
thought of the way her mother had described her, and I decided I couldn’t. Not here in the place
where she must have known everyone; where she had been known by everyone, as sweet and
stoic and stable Marian. If Marian wanted her mother to know, she already knew. And if not –
well, it was a useless sort of loyalty, but it felt right.
There was a meal, served at wooden folding tables behind the church. No one I knew
had come to the funeral, but a garden of large pale bouquets near the podium had conveyed the
condolences of other college friends. I sat at the most remote table and talked to a distant cousin
of Marian’s about Mackinac winters.
When everything was done I decided to walk back down the hill to my hotel because my
shoes were sensible and I wanted to do something Marian had done. I scuffed along the dirt road,
listening to the clopping of horses in the distance and the rustling of squirrels. The houses were
beautiful there, surrounded by tall, spindly trees or overlooking the lake in all its vast expanse;
but it felt lonely, and limited. I missed Chicago’s crowds.
Around the time when my knees began to hurt and the light started to get dimmer, I heard
the beat of a horse’s hooves pacing up behind me. I stepped to the side of the road to let it pass,
but it slowed next to me and stopped. I looked up in surprise – my iPod driver, who had in fact
been at the service. He’d sat near the front.
“It’s a long walk,” he said. “I’ll take you the rest of the way down, if you’re tired.”
I hesitated at the thought of climbing back into his tumble dryer of a horse cart, but as the
sun set my sense of a long way down grew more forbidding. I knew there had been turns on the
way up – I didn’t think I’d know which turns, in the dark.
“Thank you,” I said, and moved to clamber into the back. I hesitated with one foot on the
“Actually, can I – would it be okay if I sat up with you this time?” I asked, wanting, after
all, some proximity to another human being. The driver nodded and shifted courteously to the
left, and I carefully pulled myself up and settled a comfortable eight inches away from him.
We drove in silence for a few minutes, both staring at the horse and the road, until I heard
him clicking down the volume on his iPod.
“You knew her from college?” he said, glancing at me.
“Yeah,” I said, looking down at my hands, absently tapping one set of fingers on the
other. “She was a really good friend of mine.”
He nodded. “I used to drive her home from school, when we were younger.”
“Oh,” I said. “Like a…” I trailed off, unable to think of an appropriate synonym for
“We were neighbors,” he explained. “I was a couple years older, she was just getting into
high school when I graduated. But before that.”
I made an empty sound of understanding and tried to picture taking a buggy home from school.
“This is it, actually,” the driver said, patting the side of the cart. “The one I used to drive
her in. I have a newer one, that’s nicer, obviously, but… I wanted to drive this one today. You
know?” His voice was thinner, a little forced. He looked out to the left, away from me, and
cleared his throat.
I sat motionless, brought back into sadness and unsure what to do. I thought of putting a
hand on his shoulder, but I was too much of a coward. Instead I nodded, out of his line of vision,
and asked him what Marian was like as a kid – praying that that wasn’t a wrong thing to ask, a
thoughtless thing to mention.
He let out a breath that was half-laugh. “She was an angel,” he said, and I felt oddly
disappointed. Then he turned back toward me, smiling a little.
“To most people, anyway. With me she was a total nutcase. She’d, uh…” He broke off,
laughing a little and shaking his head. “She’d take my lunches and somehow sneak out the good
stuff and leave these crazy notes in their place, but she’d never admit to it. The notes would say
stuff like, you know, squirrels had stolen my cookies to feed their starving children, and I could
accuse her for 20 minutes straight – match her handwriting, you know, find the plastic wrap in
her backpack, have all the evidence – and she’d just sit there innocent as can be. I never once got
her to admit it.”
I laughed, but the laugh was painful. How familiar that sounded, now that I thought about
it, little tricks and jokes she’d played coming back to me. How much I wanted to go back to
those little bright moments that sequined the fabric of our friendship, and this time truly notice
them. I’d always thought of myself as the funny one, the creative one, the leader, and yet Marian
had possessed these more spirited attributes. Looking back, I felt a sourness like humiliation.
“I always thought of her as a little sister,” the driver continued, in a tone that made me
wonder if he remembered I was there. “Until she came back from college the first year and she
was so… but by then it was too late to…I was older, you know, done with college, working. I’d
just gotten married.” He tried to remove the significance from the last word, but it left behind a
significance-shaped hole, and hung in the air still speaking long after he’d stopped.
I’m sorry, I wanted to say, but didn’t. “She was good at hiding,” I said instead, mostly
thinking of my own regrets, trying to assuage my own guilt.
To my surprise he nodded. “She was great at it. I don’t think anyone ever saw all of her.
At least not all at once. You know?”
“Yeah,” I said. I did know.
I thought about telling a story, continuing the conversation; but I felt that my companion
had said what he’d needed to say – to me anyway, to a stranger who didn’t know him or his wife.
And I certainly wasn’t going to pile my regrets on top of his. I needed my own stranger, someone
who hadn’t known Marian. So I said nothing, leaning back against the worn wood of the cart.
The darkness had gotten fuller, but the horse had a headlamp, so the way ahead was clear.
Going downhill must have smoothed the motion, somehow, because the ride wasn’t nearly as
jolting as before. I closed my eyes and the cart rocked me, side to side, back and forth, to the
measured clopping of the horse and the distant shifting of the lake. After a moment, I heard the
driver click up his volume again.