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An Angel of the Upper Peninsula

EXTREME CONTENT WARNING! This post on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is most definitely R-rated. If that might bother you, check out one of our lighter pieces, such as The Amazing Kindness of the Taiwanese People.

I could tell something was wrong when she walked into the bar and sat down next to us.

It was our unplanned second night in Houghton, Michigan, the little college town at the base of the desolate Keweenaw Peninsula, which is basically the upper peninsula of the Upper Peninsula. Dotted with abandoned mines and almost-ghost towns, it juts northeasterly into Lake Superior from the rest of the U.P. We’d spent all day on the Keweenaw, driving through the late-spring mist and shooting photos.

Exhausted, we had arrived back in Houghton well after nightfall, gotten dinner, and checked back into the straight-from-the-1960s Downtowner Motel. We talked to the former Bostonian innkeeper for a while, politely enduring his allergic reaction-inducing cats. Then we dumped our things back in the same double room we’d had the night before, and headed to the bar.

The scene was quieter than the night before — no raucous softball teams this time, just several small groups of friends talking as the Tuesday night wound down. We were so tired, we didn’t even bother to order a pitcher. We’d each have a pint of Oberon wheat ale, go to bed, get up early.

But then she walked in. She was about our age, wearing a gigantic Adidas sweatshirt and black dress pants, and was actually kind of cute. She had pretty, insane brown eyes. She walked right up to us, asked if the seat next to us was taken, and then she started talking.

First, she told us that she worked in the Best Western up the block but it stressed her out when she had to talk to people so she was trying to quit. Before that she had gone to Michigan State, “looking to get knocked up by some fine-ass f**king n****r.” Continuing her oration on males of African descent, she claimed she was waiting to party with a Guyanese grad student from Michigan Tech whom she had met the night before at the very bar where we sat. When it became clear that she was being stood up, she began exchanging angry text messages with her would-be beau:

Best Western girl: u must be f**king some chick
Guyanese Grad Student: f**king some chick wtf?!
[repeat, many times]

As the night wore on and we endured the reading of more texts, she revealed her true occupation: she had stripped all over Michigan. Flint had the best strip clubs in all of Downstate, and I think that was the city where she said she’d been sleeping with the club owner(s). She related the infectious dangers of grinding on people all day, but pointed out that in most clubs, you could let a dude finish on or with your chest for an extra $25. It was a way “to make good money on the side,” but the customers were required to wear rubbers, which sent her home “smelling like condoms” much of the time.

As Dan and I attempted to ignore Angel, which is what she called herself most frequently, the minute hand on the bar’s big wall clock revolved again and again. Our dreams of rest and of an early start the next day vanished over the next two hours as we listened to tales of gradually worsening depravity.

After she asked us if we were dating each other — because our pint glasses were, she said, unusually close to each other — it was time to play a little game. Angel looked up excitedly, like a child who suddenly decides she wants to play peekaboo, and blurted out: “Guess how many abortions I’ve had!”

I now live by a rule of the road that was just beginning to crystallize on this trip: when in doubt, just keep drinking. There was no getting away from Angel, and we certainly didn’t want her to know we were staying steps from the bar. So the Oberon kept flowing and we played the abortion game.

I guessed five. Dan guessed three. I was “warmer,” Angel told me with a smile and a compassionate pat on the shoulder. The answer was seven. I quietly wished I could hand her a pamphlet about the Jesus and leave.

Suddenly Angel decided to sleep with Dan. I know this because she turned to me and said, “I’m going to f**k your friend now.” She climbed on top of Dan, who was facing away from the bar on his stool, and basically laid across him backwards. As Dan struggled to remain a gentleman, his eyes became a picture of paralyzed panic. I could see and almost hear his mind working to disprove the theory that viruses could be transferred through clothing.

I wanted to help. “Your girlfriend is not going to like this,” I said very loudly.

“You have a girlfriend?!” Angel asked, shocked, turning around to face Dan, his own head inches away. Then, without a pause: “I bet she’s the kind of girl who wears ninety-dollar patterned dresses, picks flowers, and doesn’t like sucking dick.”

Dan neither agreed nor disagreed. I marveled at the quick wit.

Dan stared into the distance uncomfortably and he did not speak until Angel eventually got off of him. He later revealed that he didn’t do anything because he thought I might have been hitting on her. Around closing time, which is later in Houghton, Michigan than it is in Boston, we just walked out of the bar, hoping that Angel would go back to the desk at the Best Western or her parents’ house or whatever hole she’d crawled out of. But the lonely stripper followed us to our hotel room. “Can I watch your HBO?” No. “Can I piss in your bowl?” Fine. When she emerged from the bathroom she seemed more messed up than before.

“I KNOW you guys are FUCKING with me,” she said. I know I’ve met you both before. TELL ME where you met me. What are you, like secret agents or something?” We said nothing and stared at the low-pile carpet. She pulled somebody’s prescription bottle from her purse.

“You guys want some Xannies?” she asked. She popped a few. Then she looked at my photographic equipment, and said very soberly, “Don’t forget to charge your camera battery for tomorrow.” I had forgotten. I thanked her.

I had some ideas about what Angel wanted to happen next, but I didn’t say any of them out loud.  Instead a staring contest started and continued for a few minutes — with Dan between the beds, Angel in the doorway to the parking lot, and yours truly in between them. “We really need to sleep,” I finally told her.

“You guys are no fun,” she said. Then, she walked out the screen door and across the street to a car, a full three hours after she sat down next to us. An engine began to purr out on the street and then receded in the direction of the bridge. Dan and I double locked the door and drifted off into a pleasant, hard-earned and STD-free slumber.

See the accompanying photo gallery of Houghton, MI on Flickr here:

Text: Rob Bellinger
Photos: Rob Bellinger & Dan Meade

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