When the left-hander found me, I was sitting in my usual chair in front of the fire, trying to stay warm. The calendar said April, but April in Paradise is still cold enough to hurt you, and I could feel the sting of it in my hands and on my face. I sat there by the fire, watching the baseball game on the television over the bar, nursing a cold Canadian beer as the left-hander made his way in the darkness. He knew where he was going, because he had a hand-drawn map in his back pocket, with a little star on the right side of the road as you come north into Paradise. The Glasgow Inn, that was his destination. He knew I’d be there. On a cold Tuesday night in April, where else would I be?
His trip had begun early that morning in Los Angeles. He boarded a 747 and flew to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He had to wait two hours there, and he had already lost three hours in the time change. So the sun was going down when he finally got on the little two-propeller plane with twelve passengers, a pilot, and a copilot who doubled as the flight attendant. That plane took him first to Alpena, where he sat on the runway for a half hour while half the passengers got off. The copilot got out and sprayed the ice off the wings, and then they were in the air again. The plane was noisy and cold, and it bounced around in the wind like a paper kite. It was after eleven o’clock at night when they finally touched down at Chippewa County Airport. There are only two flights per day that land there, two little airplanes like the one the left-hander was on that night. The funny thing is that those little airplanes land on a runway that’s over two and a half miles long. It’s one of the longest runways in the country, long enough to be on the space shuttle’s emergency backup list. The left-hander asked one of the other passengers why the runway was so long, because that’s the kind of thing the lefthander does. He asks strangers questions, as if he’d known them his whole life. And they always answer him, because he has this way of making them feel at ease.
“This used to be an air force base, aye,” the stranger said. He was a local man from the Upper Peninsula, so he had that yooper rise in his voice. “Kincheloe Air Force Base, back in World War Two. Did ya know the Soo locks were the most heavily defended position in America back then? I guess they figured if the Japs or Germans were gonna bomb us, they’d start at the locks and cut off our ore supply.”
“That’s interesting,” the left-hander said. I’m sure he said it in a way that made the stranger feel that it really was interesting, and that therefore the stranger must be an interesting man himself. That’s the kind of thing the left-hander can do, with just two words.
The airport terminal itself is a one-room hut sitting next to that long runway. The left-hander went into the terminal and picked up his luggage. It didn’t take long, because the copilot just grabbed the suitcases two at a time and carried them in himself. If the lefthander was worried about getting his rental car at such a tiny airport at eleven o’clock at night, he had no reason to be. A woman named Eileen was there waiting for him, keys in hand. That was her job, after all. When somebody reserves a car, she stays up late that night and waits for the plane to come in. The lefthander signed a form, took the keys from her, and thanked her. He thanked Eileen with a smile that she’d remember for months afterward, I’m sure. Then she went home to bed.
He found his rental car in the parking lot. Across the street from the airport, there is a factory where they recondition auto parts, twenty-four hours a day. The factory sends up a constant stream of smoke, and the light from the airport makes the smoke look silver against the night sky. He must have stood there and looked at the smoke for a moment, breathing in the cold air. The coat he had just taken out of his suitcase was not warm enough. He had started his day in California, where it was seventy-one degrees. Here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on an April night a good three weeks after the official start of spring, it was twelve degrees.
He left the airport and drove down a lonely road with no streetlights. It must have seemed then like he’d come to the end of the earth. There were still piles of gray snow on either side of the road, what remained of the mountains made each year by the snowplows. When he found 1-75, he took that north toward Sault Ste. Marie. The Soo, as the locals call it. But he didn’t get to see the Soo itself that night, because the map he had laid on the seat next to him told him to take M-28 west, right into the heart of the Hiawatha National Forest. He passed through a couple of small towns named Raco and Strongs, and then he hit M-123. He took that road north. After a few miles, he could see Lake Superior in the moonlight. There was ice on the shore.
When he saw the sign, he knew he had finally reached Paradise, WELCOME TO PARADISE! WE’RE GLAD YOU MADE IT! He paused at the single blinking red light in the middle of town, and then he found the Glasgow Inn a hundred yards up on the right. He pulled his rental car into the lot and parked it right next to my twelve-year-old Ford truck with the wood-stove in the back, covered in plastic.
I didn’t know about any of this at the time, of course. About the plane to Detroit and then the plane to Chippewa County, about the words to the stranger or the smile for Eileen, the rental car lady. I didn’t know he was coming all this way out to see me on that night. The Detroit Tigers were playing a late game out on the West Coast, the same coast Randy had spent all day flying away from. I was just sitting by the fireplace at the Glasgow Inn, watching the game on the television that hung over the bar. The place is supposed to resemble a Scottish pub, with the big overstuffed chairs and footrests. It’s a lot more inviting than most bars I’ve seen. And Jackie, the owner of the place, cannot be trusted to do anything right on his own, so it is my duty to stop in every night and share my wisdom with him. He never listens to me, but I keep going back anyway.
I own some land up the road, with six cabins my father had built back in the sixties and seventies. I live in the first cabin, the one I helped him build myself in 1968. The other five I rent out to tourists in the summer, hunters in the fall, and snowmobilers in the winter. Spring is the off-season in Paradise, a time to clean out the cabins and wait for the snow to melt.
There was a time when spring meant something else, the four years I was catching in the minor leagues. A lifetime ago. I didn’t think about those days much anymore. A lot of time had passed since then, and a lot of things had happened. Eight years as a police officer in Detroit. A dead partner and a bullet still inside my chest. And then fifteen years up here in Paradise, spending nights like this one watching baseball on television and not even thinking about the days when I played the game myself. I certainly wasn’t thinking about Randy Wilkins, a left-hander I had caught back in triple-A ball in 1971. When he opened the door and stepped into the place and shouted my name, I couldn’t believe it was really him. If the Pope himself had come through the door wearing his big hat, I wouldn’t have been more surprised.
Almost thirty years later, the left-hander had found me.