At the Soo Locks

Devin Kelly

When the first ship appears, it is a skyscraper eased down, steel oranged by rust and sunset. A low burn on the horizon. Not yet time for stars. The water between the two Great Lakes still, marinating. You must know this before I go on. How the ship inched at a speed barely perceptible, measured by what it took its snail-long time to pass. A tree. The beginning of a dock. A boat, wholly dwarfed, anchored near land. How there are no words for the ship’s size other than the words we use for land. Vast. Stretching. Unconquerable. Other man-built things are labeled by how close they come to touching, then overcoming, nature. A building so tall it scrapes the sky. A tower reaching such great heights it becomes possible to climb into heaven and hold conversation with the dead. But here, in its slow parade, the ship seems only to be resting atop the water, pushed gently along. 


We are across from Canada, my father and I, in Sault Ste. Marie, watching the Soo Locks from an observation deck a few stories above the St. Mary’s River. Over a hundred people stand with us, tourists and townies alike. My father and I are merely passing through, in town for a night, a stopover before next morning’s flight. The streets emptied near dusk, strangers snagging ice cream before meandering toward the water. Behind them, neon lights flash out names for fudge stores and restaurants, gift shops and motels, the c in vacancy burnt out and missing. We are here only because there seems to hover the hazy possibility of missing out, because we have nothing to do, because here, then, is something.


A man says watching boats pull into a lock can take a long time.


A woman says this is exciting. 


There is no sarcasm here. The massive freighter, nearly a quarter mile long, pulls into the lock from Lake Huron, which sits 21 feet below Lake Superior. The pulling in takes close to half an hour, foot by steady foot. Onlookers lean over the railing with cameras. I also lean, taking photos that signal only incremental progress. I send some to my girlfriend. Is it moving, she texts back. 


When the boat finally manages itself into the locks, some unseen science begins. Water pools in from Lake Superior. The boat, which can carry upwards of 70,000 tons, sits in a bathtub, waiting to rise. There could be a metaphor here. An animal caged. An onslaught of onlookers. But I’m not sure. The boat simply sits. No one leaves. Nothing happens that is seen. The boat is rising, some people say. Look at it, they say. But really, it’s silent steel. More people come. The observation deck fills up with bodies filled to the brim with water. The sun sinks, glazes the river. Boat nerds chatter up my periphery. They remark on the length of the boat, its cargo of iron ore, its destination. I forget my father by my side. Then remember.




My mother worked in construction. In Boston, long before my birth, she twirled downward from a steel beam and snapped her ankle clean through. Growing up, I was a child visitor at many a construction site, borrowed hardhat teetering upon my small head. I sat in the shovels of bulldozers. I never went to a site after the job was done, never saw the finished thing. The process was more important than the result. To know that before a building might scrape the sky, a giant hole must be dug into the ground. To know that a laced pattern of steel, standing bare against the world, is required to support what floors might come, what walls, ceilings. Underneath the skin of what we see is a kind of architecture, a woven song of brick and bone.




Soon, from the West, another freighter begins its slow advance. Though smaller than the other, it nearly blacks out the setting sun. A man whose shirt displays an array of various boats spies it first, and soon, a litany of fingers point toward horizon. A hurried stifled hush.


We got lucky, my father says. 


There is a sense of communion on the observation deck. People begin to talk with strangers as one boat sits, gently rising, and another makes its slow progress. My father and I have been here for almost an hour now. 


I begin to think of narrative, and time. The crowd doesn’t dwindle; it grows. We each know the ending here. That the boat will pull in and sink or rise and then leave. We know the process takes a long time, a time to traverse some large number of miles. 


Most stories beg climax and revelation, problem and solution, the threat of violence and the violence itself. They beg suspense, the lingering, uneasy, addicting feeling of being kept on the edge of your seat. They do not beg slowness, an ending known from the start. Most stories fail to mimic life itself, those days so steeped in the mundane that the hours pass in a hazy vagueness. 


“The short man just stands there and says nothing. The magician vanishes,” Daniil Kharms writes in Today I Wrote Nothing. The mystery of life is that most days there is none, and we are left in our various places of stillness, alone, still living. Here, one boat is still. Here, another is still moving. Here, we each are, still here, watching. 




A few hours before the boats, we sat at a tourist trap of a restaurant, Lockview, saying nothing. Families sat at other tables, and there was an irregular rhythm of conversation, sentences cut in half by the ring of a phone, the scream of a child, the whatever’s-I’m-fine’s of life. I began to realize we were losing our ability to talk. My father scraped the peppercorn off his steak and trimmed the fat with his knife and raised the fork to his mouth. When I attempted conversation – what do you think people do here, should we go see the boats – the question was answered or I-don’t-know’ed and the conversation reached a barricade, a lock filled to its edges with silence. 


I’m learning now that there are different types of silence. The silence of removal, the void you create when you don’t want to engage. The silence you fill with other noise, manufactured to let you forget about what first brought you to that silence. A noise of major chords. Then, there is the silence of awe, a quiet hushing itself into you, knowing itself and speaking to your unknowing, stiffening your body into a wakefulness that comes, simply, when you don’t know what to say. You cannot share this silence. You can only try to tell others about it, and you’ll never succeed, never bring them to the same stiff watchfulness you felt. This is a mystery of life. The other silence, and what fills it? You can share it. It happens again and again. It is known; it is no mystery.




The approaching boat reaches the lock. The other stays in its lock, rising. They are, for a time, sisters. The closer boat’s hull is marred and scarred by nature, scratch of rock and dock, rust of rain and water. Onlookers raise cameras to the Merchant Marines, who pause their throws of rope to wave. Come join us, one says. A boy tiptoes to see more clearly.


Everything that was supposed to happen has happened. The boats will leave eventually, but no one watching has left. There’s still chatter, excitement, the speculation of destination, and cargo. See how the boat is riding high in the water, my father says, that mean’s it’s not carrying anything. What do you know about boats, dad, I say.  


I should explain why my father and I are at the end of a journey through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, how we met at a regional airport so he could drive a hundred miles to watch me run a marathon and then stretch my aching muscles, how we ate at roadside taverns and cheap Italian joints, how the spaces connecting the places we travelled brimmed with water or wood, a distance of forestation, how I’ve seen him drink over twenty Cokes, how we have hardly had a conversation last continuously over five minutes, how I still love him more than I did yesterday, a year ago, a decade. But that would take time, and you understand. Some things are better kept in their places, untold. Each year my father tells me one more thing about his life I didn’t know. Each year the love I have for him blooms a tree in my chest. This is why our limbs are called what they are. How rooted we are. How we ache, while gone, for the places where we’ve grown.




Over ten years ago, not long after my parents divorced, my mother took me on a boat with the man who became my stepfather. We were in Jersey, near Little Egg Harbor, fishing. I dipped my hand in the glowing water, and the salt stained my fingers after drying. I caught my first fish and thought it so much heavier. It wasn’t even legal, just a small wiggling thing on the end of my line. I didn’t think then about the architecture of a marriage, or even a boat. I was not even wondering how we stayed afloat.


The architecture of people is different. There is the steel of our bones and the steel of our eyes and the steel of our pasts and how we are buoyed or sunk by what we’ve done or failed to do or what has been done unto us – violence, grief, sorrow, joy. Since people are both structure and nature, we suffer and cherish the ways in which we can float upon the nature of others. It’s what comes with being a structure that creates its own environment and is still affected by the environments of others. A marriage is a graceful architecture all its own. Some skyscrapers that are too narrow are built with gaps that allow the wind to blow through them. Buildings stand for ages because of the work humans do to compensate for nature. A marriage needs a hammer some days and glue on others. I don’t know how to account for this, how to harbor blame for the unknowable. A body holds a weather report that only extends backward. 




I don’t know how this story ends. My father and I leave before the ships pull from the locks. It grows dark and the town is awash in moon and starlight. We get ice cream, the last customers before closing.


As we eat our ice cream and look from a distance at the ships, my father mentions how Lake Superior is the most dangerous of all the Great Lakes. Here, then, is another grain to this story. How one ship arrived through that supposed peril, how another is about to journey into it. There’s so much here, I think. The magician vanishes and appears and vanishes again. A small town sends its townsfolk out to the water to watch a small thing happen, night after night. Boats travel over water even while we sleep. A couple gets married. Another divorces. People worry and cry for that worry or people smile out of joy and cry for that joy and worry still at the thought of losing that joy. I stand with my father eating ice cream, not talking, feeling older and younger for it, at the end of a short road seeming long or the beginning of some long road, sinking or rising, rising or sinking, all this or, simply watching, then, the hulking ships still in the distance, the flashes of cameras lightening up their rusted hulls, waiting for one of us to speak, to say a word about what’s in front of us, what we’ve left behind.


 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the books, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen  (forthcoming 2017, ELJ Publications). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.