My parents have friends who spend summers Upnorth. Upnorth is a general area of Michigan loosely defined as anywhere North of (insert your own landmark Michigan town). My family defines Upnorth as anything above The Thumb (a clearly defined and obvious region of Michigan), but we're from Southeast Michigan so it's all relative.
But by any measure, these friends of my parents' "place Upnorth" is really and truly up North, and they have been inviting my mother and me up to stay with them at their cottage for a few days of getting away. Boating, cookouts, Canasta and Euchre, what have you. My mother hasn't really felt up to that sort of sojourn but after the whole neighbor from Hell situation (which is getting worse by the day) she decided she'd "risk it" and take up their offer for a getaway. So, off we went.
And all went well. My mother did exceptionally well on the five hour trip northward, albeit at a slow and shaky pace. She decided she's not up to boating, but that's okay, she had plenty of company onshore. Turns out some of our hosts' grandkids were visiting, too. Yadda yadda yadda I ended up "helping" with the kids while their grandpa gave boat rides. Which means, I kept the kids from falling out of the boat and drowning. Which is okay. I like kids. I like boating. I'm Red Cross certified in life saving. S'all good.
It was intended to be a short jaunt out, but, we stayed out on the Lake a lot longer than anticipated. (A three hour tour, a three hour tour...) And I hadn't applied much sunscreen and the only sunscreen on the boat was spf 10. I kept re-applying it to the kids and myself.
But. I'm white. Really white. My DNA hails from Scotland, where it rains. A lot. And Norway, where the sun doesn't even fully rise several months of the year. You get the picture. I am genetically incapable of tanning and genetically predisposed to severe sunburns. More than an hour of sun exposure with anything less than spf 30 can result in first degree burns.
Several hours later than I expected, we returned to shore. I knew my nose, cheeks, neck and arms were burned because they felt like they were coated in molten lava. Not that I know what being coated in molten lava actually feels like, but, for descriptive purposes I'll use that analogy.
My mother and her friend looked at me in horror. My mother's friend gasped. My mother, having seen this happen to me once when I was a kid, said, "Do we need to get you to a burn unit?" She was only half joking.
I asked my parents' friend if she had any burn ointment or aloe...or ice. She and my mother had just made pitchers of: Lemonade, sloe gin fizz, and mint julep and all the ice had gone to that effort. The ice trays were brewing fresh cubes but they were still just water in ice cube trays.
Which is how it came to pass that I was laid out in a bathtub in a cottage Upnorth covered in Otter Pops, the colored ice pops cased in plastic lined up on my face, neck and arms.
When the burning abated enough that I could move without feeling like I was tearing flesh, I took my last $20 and drove to the nearest outpost of commerce, a party store.
Upnorth (and most of Michigan for that matter) is populated with "Party Stores." Contrary to popular belief or conventional wisdom, these are not stores where you procure Spongebob or Dora or luau themed invitations, paper cups and plates and balloons. Party stores do sell items for parties: Booze (Beer, cheap hard liquor (sometimes Everclear), and there's usually a couple semi-dustl gallon size bottles of Gallo and a very dusty bottle of "Sparkling Wine.") Bottle openers. Condoms. Rolling papers. Cassette tapes of "Romantic Themes" and lower ranking '80s hair bands (I swear I saw a Sweet 8-track in a party store...last year.) Cheap cigars. Lottery tickets. Car air fresheners. Sun glasses that by their style look to have been made in 1978. Jerky (often locally produced, often sold "by the foot" as in, 12" spans of dried animal). Cheesy, old girlie mags like Jugs. Milk. Diapers. Baby food.
If the store is located Upnorth and there's not much in the way of commerce in a 30 mile radius (save for competing party stores) the store will carry a few more items to cater to the tourists, like newspapers, motor oil, live bait, firewood, kids' swim toys, weird candy you haven't seen distributed for 20 years, mosquito repellant, off-brand tampons, really old pre-used maps, cheap nail polish, Depends (as evidence of Michigan's aging population and/or die hard snowmobile enthusiasm) and: sunscreen.
Typically entering party stores triggers the "theme song from Deliverance" response. This is natures' way of reminding you that it's blazingly obvious "you ain't from around here" and you should get in, procure what you need and get the heck out of there, avoiding eye contact with anyone during your entire visit inside the party store, and then peel out of the (usually) gravel parking lot as fast as possible.
I usually avoid party stores. Unless, of course, I need one of the above-mentioned items and can't procure them via normal means. Which isn't very often. But when in Upnorth, do as the sun-burned tourists do: Go to a party store.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the Unorth party stores that also cater to tourists also price gouge. A seven-year-old tube of Chapstick can go for as much as $6.50 at a party store, $9.50 in January when the snowmobilers are up and out there freezing their lips off.
So I knew my last $20 might not be enough for 1) aloe and 2) spf 30 sunscreen. That is, assuming they even had those items in stock. It's mid-July, after all, and this party store is on one of the main roads between popular tourist destinations, and a couple months' worth of tourists had already pillaged the party store. Oh, yeah, I also forgot to mention, a lot of party stores operate on the "cash only" system of enterprise.
Much to my surprise and relief, this Upnorth party store was "better" than a lot of them. Some of their inventory appeared to be less than a year old. They had sunscreen and a tube of aloe vera gel. The highest level spf they had was 30 and the aloe looked suspiciously old and I feared it was more coagulated blobs of synthetic congealing agent than soothing aloe gel, but it was "only" $6.29 and I was in skin-searing agony. I could get sunscreen and aloe gel for under $20. Success.
The girlwoman was wearing a thin, tight tank-top and cut-offs. She was incredibly thin, bordering on emaciation save for what appeared to be about 5 months of pregnant belly (on her tiny frame it could have been 8 months) poking out from under the tight tank top. I supposed she's one of those women who brag, "I didn't bother buying maternity clothes, I just made due with what I had." It concerned me that through her tight tank top I could see her rib cage, which made me wonder if she wasn't pregnant, just carrying/storing every ounce of fat in a very small, unfortunately placed round belly pooch.
I'm sure there are women whose rib cages are visible throughout their pregnancies, but I'm pretty sure most of those women live in the Third World or Appalachia or crack houses.
I didn't want to stare so I didn't get the full tally, but, she had at least the following tattoos:
- Barbed wire encircling upper left arm
- Large swallow (bird) diving downward around upper right arm
- Rose on inner right wrist
- Celtic knot on inner left wrist
- Ring of fire/flames around her (swollen) belly button
- Stars like a seam up the side of her thigh
- (I kid you not) Wolf baying at full moon over and around left shoulder blade
- ...and a large heart with the initials "JE" in upper case Olde English on her chest over her actual heart.
I wondered about the possibilities of the JE. Is/was "JE" a boyfriend, the father of the child inside her, a parent, another child or best friend? Or, is she attempting to bring a bit of Continental flair to her body art and it's French, "Je" and she's going to have the rest of a phrase inked in, like, "Je parle français." Or, thirdly, if she was mid-way through getting "JESUS" tattooed on her heart when she either ran out of money for the rest of the letters. Or had a crisis of faith and stopped at "JE" and is still undecided how/if to proceed, perhaps waiting for God to speak to her, or not. I thought about suggesting that she could go the French route and turn her "JE" into a complete sentence en français but my skin was on fire and I didn't want to admit that I looked at her chest long enough to read her heart tattoo.
She was a walking visual encyclopedia of cliché tattoos. And, not that I know a lot about tattoos, but I know enough to know there are varying degrees of quality and hers appeared to be of the lower quality type. As she rang up my aloe and spf 30, I mused that her next tattoo could read read: "It's not cliché, it's ironic."
She looked at my red nose, cheeks, arms and neck, held the spf 30 sunscreen up to my eye level and said, "It's a little late for this."
Wanted to say, "Yeah. Me buying spf 30 sunscreen is almost as ironic as you working at a cash register under a rack of condoms."
Instead said, "Har har, yeah, I spent a little more time out on the boat than intended. Already paying for it, but the kids want to go back out tomorrow."
And then she said the thing that cemented my thoughts about what her next tattoo should be, giving me a stern look with an air of superiority she said, "There's no such thing as a healthy tan. Sun is really bad for your skin."
As you consider the source of that comment I'll give you a few moments to let her words sink in.
As I gathered my aloe and sunscreen she rounded the counter and yelled out to someone in the back, "Ryan, I'm going on break!"
When I pulled out of the parking lot she was squatting/sitting down on a plastic milk crate, her belly looking even more pregnant in that position, a perfectly formed round ball poking out from under her tight tank top and over her cut-offs. I noticed more tattoos on her ankles but couldn't make out what they were. She was inhaling a heavy drag on a cigarette. In the shade. Because sun is really bad for your skin.