Roberto Fisk awaited his crew. He leaned back against the mailbox, tensed his shoulder blades, and pushed himself off. Then he fell back and did it again and again, slowly. Roberto Johnson was seventeen. Yesterday he had found something that Farnum had bought years ago at Kip’s Army Surplus in Windsor: a starter pistol, an ugly foreign-manufactured toy that looked and felt somewhat like a real forty-five. Roberto, who was seventeen, applauded Farnum’s having made such an elegant purchase.
About three hours ago, the theatre management had sent all the kids home. The opening act had already performed when the M.C., smiling and sweating, had come on to announce that there was a disturbance going on in town that would be settled all the sooner if the kids would leave in an orderly manner and return to their homes. They would all be back for the next Motown Rhythm and Blues Review just as soon as they could, but for now it was best that everyone go directly home. Martha Reeves had stood up to second the management’s request. The words had awakened in more than a few kids the same disquiet they remembered from when they had learned at school that President Kennedy had been shot.
That day Roberto had gone home with a leaden feeling in his stomach. A feeling of imminent tears. But Roberto had grown up since then, and though some engulfing danger now seemed present in the city, he felt exhilaration, energetic feeling on the edge of hilarity. The kids all left the Fox, and there was shouting outside in the street. A riot was going on. A riot. Roberto was not absolutely certain what a riot was, but he was determined to find out.
Some of the kids started acting up, and these included Roberto and his crew. Cops had shown up and urged them home more forcefully than the theater management had.
Heaven was a Midwestern casbah which attracted a steady clientele of local entrepreneurs in untraceable firearms, drugs, stolen property and moonshine, and of men who brought to the premises their hired dates. Many Detroit factory workers had a connoisseur’s thirst for white lightening, the colorless liquor with no label and no taste other than a throat-scorching blast the practiced drinker eased with cooling draws from a Lucky Strike and great gulps of Hamms, Goebels, or Phieffers. Moonshine hangovers rarely left drinkers permanently blind. It was just a matter of seeing spots for a week or two, as if one were watching flashbulbs go off.
Heaven lived up to its name in one respect: it was a rare island of racial equality, as familiar to the more adventurous of the men from the suburbs, who worked in the offices nearby, as it was to men of the neighborhood. A strict code of conduct, mandated by the owners and implemented by hard-faced, refrigerator-sized male staff, made Heaven safe for everyone — at least while they remained on the premises. This policy could be credited with helping the motel retain its popularity among fun-loving whites who had learned how to strictly compartmentalize their pleasures. By Saturday afternoon they would be back at the Little League game. By Sunday morning they would be back at church. It was not unusual to find that the man standing beside you at the bar of Heaven, waiting for his hostess, was a recognizable judge, or newscaster, or journalist, or auto executive. Every once in awhile somebody did something stupid, something that menaced the steady flow of business and the easy anonymity. Bad things happened to those people, and nothing stupid would happen again for a while.
Roberto bounced himself casually off the mail box and thought about the pistol, gaudy and greasy with chipping chrome plate and mother of pearl panels for grips. A horizontal steel bolt blocked the barrel, and the chamber would not hold bullets, only plastic powder caps that you loaded behind the fake chamber. When you fired off your shots, nothing came out except a big bang. Eight shots, loud as hell. A machinist could have gotten that bolt out and fixed the chamber so that the gun might fire one shot at a time, if you happened to have the leisure to load it one shot at a time. In any case, the contraption would look real enough to anyone who had it stuck in their face while you screamed at them for their wallet. Roberto was in the mood for the experiment. But, no, he would never do that. Roberto bounced himself again and again off the mail box, and nodded his head repeatedly.
He imagined the white guys in Heaven, drunk and sweating. You could get one of those cats in the alley out by the parking lot and empty his pockets. But he wouldn’t do that.
But as he waited for the others, Roberto was coming to understand the pistol’s full potential. It enforced itself on Roberto’s thoughts, stuck uncomfortably in the waist of his tight pants. He wore a long Banlon golf shirt, to cover it.
Thirty years ago, Seven’s Heaven had been known as the Bird of Paradise hotel. It was located on the southeastern edge of a neighborhood called Paradise Valley. The original structure of the small four-story red brick hotel had hosted important names in jazz and rhythm and blues. The Bird of Paradise had been an elite black hotel. In the early fifties the original owners had sold the hotel and the name had been changed as if to mark a descent from dreams of an achieved Paradise to hot visions of dumb luck. The switch had not paid off. Within fifteen years Seventh Heaven was one of a string of disintegrating motels that marched up Woodward Avenue as far as Ten Mile Road.
Briefly, Seventh Heaven had blazed its name into the night from an exotic new neon sign that combined writhing palm trees sailing into outer space on an aerodynamic triangle. A new annex of pastel pink stucco looked out onto a swimming pool which was awash with deck chairs and patio furniture every morning and into which drunks threw each other every night. The ambitious new owners, mesmerized by Las Vegas, sought to suggest romantic vacations abroad, but Michigan winters and the exertions of its patrons soon gave Heaven the distinct aura of a crime-scene-in-waiting.
Roberto lifted himself, with a twitch of his shoulder blades, off the mail box, and then let himself fall back. The graceful exercise showed off Roberto’s tall, lanky frame. He was tall, athletic, very dark, very thin, with a handsome, sharp-featured face and intelligent eyes. He was a persuasive leader of boys who inevitably compared their own skills, strength and looks to his and felt inferior.
Roberto waited three beats before turning to watch one of his lieutenants approach. As Roberto turned, Randolph impersonated hurry by lengthening his stride and moving his shoulders. He was a short, wide, tense young man with sinus problems. Every sentence came in a breathy gasp.
Roberto turned away and maintained silence until the boy reached him. Then he extended his right hand and they exchanged a fast slap and grip.
"What up, Randy?"
“We going to the old place?”
“Damn right. Dude there owes me twenty-seven bills. I’m pickin it up tonight.”
“He going to give it to you?
“Oh yeah. He might not know it yet, but that’s what he’s going to do. Check this out,” and Roberto, after glancing both ways, reached beneath his shirt for the pistol.
The boys huddled, backs to the street. Roberto worked the pistol out of the waist of his slacks.
"Goddamn," Randolph wheezed. "For real?"
Roberto showed him it wasn't.
"Cool, man. Let’s pop it."
"Not yet. Wait 'til the rest of them get here. We gonna have some fun."
Randolph turtled his head down between his shoulders in hoarse laughter, grateful that the joke, this time, was not going to be on him.
The evening sun lowered and compressed its yellow heat over the narrow roofline. To the northwest an alarmingly wide share of sky was blackened by rolling smoke. Roberto itched to go and check it out, but had already decided to first collect the money he was owed. He did not change plans impulsively. With nothing else on the corner to bounce off of, Randolph occupied himself by glaring at the cars that speed past frenetically, occasionally shouting a taunt and looking to Roberto for approval. Both boys were impressed by the tangible panic in the air, but as long as Roberto seemed unmoved by it, Randolph kept his thoughts to himself.
Saturday night noise, with a hot urgency to it, grew louder at the evening's edge. There were numerous rifle shots, some so loud that Randolph flinched. Michael, Crowder and Rob all arrived with rumors of riot. They took out their excitement by leaning on the light post, balancing on the curb, hoping on and off the mailbox and watching the growing traffic. Almost all of the cars were heading east or south.
At eight o'clock they set off for the hotel. Roberto and Randolph in the lead, Harris between them, and the other boys behind. Most of them felt some distinct fear. That the evening trembled with heat was not unusual, but no one could pretend that the noise that filled the air was normal. It was a kind of roar, a deep revolving sound composed of gunfire, cries, cars, trucks, sirens and many concussive explosions, some loud enough to make listeners jump. Occasionally a single cry or gunshot would tear out of the mass of sound people on the street would duck and look over their shoulders. It was as if the night was bringing the culmination of the anxious haze of suspense that every seemed to realize at once had been growing all summer. Roberto Johnson could feel it. His breath was short, his chest constricted with an excitement or fear that seemed to belong both to the city and to him.
A cop car passed, slowing, as usual, so the two white cops could give a hostile eye to the young men in the brilliant way that Detroit cops had been cementing race relations for the past sixty years. But the cops’ hostile stare did not impose the fear in men of Roberto’s generation that it had imposed in the past. Roberto had heard how the cops could beat men so badly that their own mothers wouldn't know them. The cops could take you into an alley, beat the shit out of you, and even kill you. Nothing you could do about it. But those days were done Roberto decided. And his generation decided with him. The cop car was gone now, and, in the next instant, Roberto was struck by the recollection that Harris owed him five bucks.
"Say, Harris," Roberto said. "You got my five?"
"Ain't got it, man. Have it next week."
"Said that last week, man. I want my five now."
"Well, you're gonna have to get it when I got it, 'cause I ain't got it now."
"Goddamn, man. Said you'd have it by now. I want that five."
"You gonna have to keep wanting."
Roberto turned on Harris with a quiet, puzzled look. His eyebrows raised in question. Subtle. And then he put his hand under his shirttail and pulled the pistol from his waist. He thumbed back the hammer. Click. The crew stopped. The boys spread out in a wary circle.
"What the fuck, man," Harris said, his voice pitched high.
"You don't lie to me," Roberto said calmly. "Never lie to me and never hold out.
I want that five."
"What the fuck, man. I'll get the fucking five. Put that away."
Harris's face was stiff with fear, his eyes pleaded in a way that forced Randolph to turn away and stifle the laughter that drummed inside him.
"Roberto…" Harris said, raising his palms. Roberto looked impassively into his disciple’s eyes. The joke had sucked Roberto into its own momentum. The other boys were speechless. Roberto looked Harris in the face and pulled the trigger.
Each boy, except Roberto, gave a cry at the blast. And then each stood there, roiled by a shock that seemed to reel off the trashcans and shop windows around them.
Roberto came out of the spell first, with a painful laugh.
"Just a starter pistol, man," he said, embarrassed just slightly by the look of real shock on Harris's face. And the other boys laughed and laughed.
Roberto put the pistol back under his shirt and clapped Harris on the back.
"Just playin with you, man. You should a seen yourself. Scared the shit out of you, man."
Tears flowed helplessly from Harris’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Harris,” Roberto said, and he put an arm around the boy’s shoulders
“Pull you together, blood,” he said, and gave Harris’s shoulders a squeeze until Harris gave a hoarse laugh.
The other boys had recovered enough by now to become excited by the acquisition of this great new toy. The world around them came back to life, but no one wanted to look hard at Harris yet. The shame took a while to wear away.
The highway ribboned out numbingly. Veronica slipped back into sleep, wondering how long the radio had been off. There was tire hum, and the crunching of the car's sway-backed suspension.
These journeys from city to city never seemed to end. This country was so idiotically comprehensive. No perspective of boredom went neglected. So the highway ribboned out. And then it would end, temporarily, until Brian got himself stomped. And then it was off to somewhere else. In this, as in all things, patience was the key. This is how Brian would look at it. The heat was unpleasant, but Brian would see it as useful, if it kept up. Hot weather made people edgy and mean. A hot city of overheated workers and sweating, frustrated poor.
Brian sat beside her, pale hands on the big steering wheel, eyes wide and blind behind his glasses. Brian kept the Ford on the road, despite the continuous pull to the left of its broken suspension. His thoughts simmered. He was a rare and fortunate man in that he knew exactly what he wanted, and what his purpose was in life. His face, in profile was, one might say, gravid with responsibility. He carried the people's struggle in his guts like a set of twins.
Veronica slouched wearily against the passenger door. She knew that he was barely aware of her existence, although he would remember it the minute he needed something done. She didn’t care. She looked out at the world speeding past them. They were going to Detroit to push forward the plan.
Brian’s mind did not work like Veronica’s, or like yours or mine. In our heads full of self-justifications, unwanted music, mischief, smart answers arrived at too late, and the endless rainfall of memory, there rarely occurs the sustained linear plotting that Brian could count on almost all the time. When Brian thought about something, he got somewhere. When he added up two and two, he got four. Or at least a number. He didn’t drift off to thinking about what it felt like, as a kid, to have sand in your shoe, or to get punched in the belly. He did not waste much time on sex. He thought about what he called the poor, and he thought about those he considered the rich, and he had decided that a new and better world could be achieved, step by step, if the one could be convinced to wipe out the other. He considered himself a revolutionary. And he believed in it as firmly as you wish you could believe in anything.
The trouble that a lot of his thinking ran into, in one way or another, was that being a revolutionary requires a revolution. And the workers’ revolution had not been as easy an idea to get across to workers as Brian had first thought it would be ten years ago. The workers he had managed to meet had not been cooperative, especially in Detroit. They were always out on their boat, or up at their cottage, or out at the movies, or in front of the TV. The poor, from whom Brian had known better than to expect too much, had also been disappointing. They were good for violence, but indiscriminant in its application, as Brian had discovered a time or two. Also, they lacked momentum. In addition, they weren’t too sharp at seeing the big picture. Theory was pretty much lost on them, unless you had them in prison, where you had a better chance of getting them through the reading. Even then, they were always getting sidetracked into Islam or heroin, or some damn thing. You could not get much commitment. Among its many failures, this nation had not produced a good warrior-grade underclass. But Brian was persistent. Like most of the worst people in history, he had the courage of his convictions.
Brian, take him for all and all, was a man. Yet, officially, he didn't exist. He was what was called an outside agitator. He caused trouble. He used a number of aliases. And his work was made easier by the fact that the very concept of a person like himself, a person who genuinely wanted harm for harm's sake, was so widely dismissed, denied, repudiated and scorned. It was generally denied, by people of good will, that there could really be people who would take upon themselves the mission to which Brian was dedicated: to stir up poor people in the States to riot. To create an ugly scene, stateside, that would rival the ugly scene in Vietnam.
This was what Brian had set his heart on, and he was going to get it, too. No thanks to Veronica. He took his eyes off the road and glanced over at her, the dumb lump. And no thanks to the poor people on whose behalf Brian figured he was acting. The poor were as big a problem to Brian as they were to any bureaucrat. He had never known such uneducable people. Brian hated to say it (though he thought it), but it really did seem as if race might be a factor. He had never come across one of them yet who shared his talent for hatred.
Brian was twenty-eight years old, but his wiry beard and overgrown mustache added ten years to his looks. His hair was brown and curly, cut weirdly short at the back and sides, and bushing out in tendrils on top. His blue eyes and heavy brows were intelligent and expressive, but not in a pleasant way. His eyes instantly signaled skepticism and anger whenever he encountered disagreement, which was often. He had no clique or claque or cell or crew or comrades. He simply could not agree with any proposition put forth by anyone at all, no matter how violent or radical or subtle or persuasive. Brian was a one-man faction. A splinter group of one. It was not unusual for Brian to encounter people who had been so moved by his campus or union hall diatribes that they had foolishly approached him with words to the effect that they understood exactly what he was saying and could not agree with him more. It took mere minutes for Brian to send them on their way, their ears ringing with denunciation.
Among Brian's lack of talents was a complete inability to feign happiness or pleasure. When his expression was as nearly neutral as possible, Brian resembled a paranoid Airedale. Even in sleep, as Veronica had discovered, his brow remained furrowed, his mouth pinched shut. At the moment, slouched behind the steering wheel, it was not apparent that Brian was of medium height, and thin build. But this was the description that appeared in several police reports for such offences as assaulting a police officer, carrying a concealed weapon, disturbing the peace, loitering, trespassing, breaking and entering, and other charges routinely brought against persons arrested in political demonstrations.
You might think, from his record, that Brian was quite a dangerous man. And, since honesty meant nothing to him, he was dangerous indeed to the credulous and naïve. Brian was an experienced provocateur and a truly pathological liar, thoroughly committed to his own ideas. Like many of those convinced of the morality of their causes, deceit was second nature to Brian. But he was not a tough guy.
The beard existed only to be shaved off to change appearance. The same went for the eyeglasses. Brian was near-sighted, but willingly discarded the glasses and lived in a blur if it helped him avoid detection. Something for which there was no disguise was Brian's unnerving intensity. The snarling mouth and furious squint were ineradicable.
Brian was a loner by choice. Veronica stuck with him only through inertia. She was a small woman, but a tower of listlessness. Five foot four and one hundred and five pounds of confused sensitivity. In college, her I.Q. had been tested at 172, yet most people who spoke with her, particularly strangers, felt compelled to enunciate clearly and to maintain eye contact. Store clerks pressed her change firmly into her hand.
Veronica absorbed and muffled and engulfed Brian's meanness, and made him bearable. To her, at least. Why she stuck with him was a mystery neither of them ever examined. And she had no girl friends to help her examine it herself.
In college, Veronica had shown up at one of Brian's ad hoc recruitment drives. Recruitment for what had never been made clear. At that time, Brian had considered himself a Maoist. Constant, assiduous reading had prevented him from seeing that America was different in certain respects from China. He saw no reason why the revolution there might not work out equally well here. After all, the United States had been born in revolution, right? Okay. Brian saw his country's military involvement in Southeast Asia as a bald attempt (in the long run) to annex China. He did not stop to consider why the United States would be interested in acquiring a piece of real estate of that size, or an additional billion or so citizens.
The atrocities of war (read about) had engendered in Brian a high respect for Mao Tse Tung. The night she met him, Brian had permitted Veronica to carry his books and pamphlets and sheaves and file folders back to the basement apartment he shared with another Maoist. Veronica and Brian had wound up having sex. It would not often be repeated. The next morning, Brian woke up appalled at his weakness, and appalled further by this girl's apparent unwillingness to understand that she had served her purpose and was no longer needed. From that night, Veronica had grown on him like mold.
At his insistence she read the Red Book. She read a few other of the tracts and treatises he forced on her, and secretly resumed reading Georges Sand, the Brontes and George Eliot. In the intervals, Veronica fed Brian, typed for him, washed his clothes (not often), begged, borrowed, and stole for him. Brian never noticed. He had never, before Veronica or since Veronica, looked closely into the sources of the food and clothing and shelter placed at his disposal. The transition, during his undergraduate years, from the protection of his family to the protection of Veronica had gone unremarked by Brian. It could truly be said that he placed no value on material things. His family was wealthy, and everything had been given to him. He had inherited his grandfather's humorless persistence. Brian had been cheated out of only one thing, and that was a decent piece of history to live in. Why, with the very same soul, Brian's grandfather had managed to gouge a fortune out of the government on bad steel. Also like his grandfather, Brian had no aptitude for pleasure, and was free of the desires that drive most people. Free to concentrate. And concentration had freed him to create a theoretical world. The challenge before him was to force reality to operate in accordance with his theories. It was uphill work. Put simply, Brian did not want to take from the rich and give to the poor. He wanted no poor people, and he wanted no rich people. Poverty was bad, obviously, but wealth was bad, too.
The Brian world that would arise from the Brian revolution would permit no luxuries for anyone. Only work. Brian had complete faith in work, even of the most mindless sort. Brian had read that laboring people, and everyone else, simply wanted work. No luxuries. Any laborers or poor people who thought they wanted luxuries were mistaken (they could be trained out of this mistake), and had been fooled by a deluded and decadent culture.
Brian's faith in work was rooted in the fact that he had never done any work. Schoolwork had come easily to him (but not to his teachers, who had to contend with his constant, fanatical back-talk). Brian did not see his own unfamiliarity with work as a drawback in instigating a workers' revolution. Hadn't he worked hard at reading? Well okay! Once out of high school, which he had hated for all its coy girl-boy crap, and football players, and marching band, and no one agreeing with him on anything, Brian had confined his studies to texts that tended to support his views. Why read a bunch of jerks that are wrong to begin with? Even as a child Brian had hated surprises, and the one thing he liked least in the way of a surprise was an idea. Brian's theories on the economics of work were, to him, an adequate substitute for the first-hand experience of work, the pleasures of work, the boredom of work, the exertion of work. The work of work. Brian had never even known a working person (most of them were jerks, not their fault, but let's face it.) In his library-bound life, Brian had never heard a workingman yearn aloud for a stiff drink, a day off, a thick steak, or a beautiful woman. Drinking was bad, steak was decadent, and no woman should be considered more beautiful than any other woman. Beauty itself was highly suspicious, and smacked of elitism. Brian was against beauty. He thought poor people and working people were against beauty, too. Or should be, and would be, once the revolution came.
The black, rust-edged Fairlane skittered toward Detroit like a roach on a dirty floor. It was heading home, heading for its birth place of ten years before, where, in a hectic and clamorous eleven days, it had been urged out of the resources of the earth and whacked together on the heaving and jerking belts and hooks and stampers of the auto assembly plant in River Rouge. The Fairlane chattered and skipped as its present driver kept his unworked-in work boot flat on the accelerator pedal. The sunset bounced off Brian’s shades. Veronica snored, crushed against the passenger-side door, saving up a tremendous crick in the neck that she would soon enjoy at her leisure.
III. Veronica’s Dream Diary: Page One.
Gradually, Veronica became aware of light, then of sweaty-thighed discomfort, and then she was awake. The horizon thinned out across her line of vision. Ahead were the petroleum cataracts, and the coils and rhomboids and gallows of the Rouge Plant. She straightened up. A sharp pain shot from her collarbone to her right ear. She groaned, cleared her throat and spoke:
"Do we know where we're staying tonight?"
"Detroit," said Brian.
"I know Detroit. But where?"
"The west side. The address is… Look in the glove box. Where's that note pad? Not that. No. The fucking notepad! Now you dropped it. There. There's the directions."
"Clairmount. That sounds nice. We have to get on to 94 West, and then find Clairmount."
Nice! After forty-five minutes of argument and angry traffic under the slanting sun, the happy couple found themselves on a street of closely ranked debilitated bungalows and two-story apartment houses. Middle-aged black guys watched expressionlessly as Brian ineptly backed and forthed the Fairlane into an illegal parking spot near a brick Bastille of an apartment house at the corner of Clairmount and LaSalle.
IV. Brian and Veronica play house.
It didn't take long for Brian to arrange their residence with the landlady. He paid a month's rent cash in advance as security deposit, while Veronica struggled with the duffel bags and book boxes. They hauled their luggage up to the fairly clean, furnished room, and Veronica flopped onto the chenille covered bed, ignoring Brian's command that she unpack while he went out to buy something to eat. Brian, heading for the door, was less interested in food than in making a quick reconnaissance of the neighborhood.
Once he was back on the street, disoriented after so much time behind the wheel, Brian stopped to consider. To the left, Clairmount bisected an avenue of storefronts and, probably, places where take-out of some kind could be purchased. He walked in that direction, oblivious to the imprisoning heat of the evening, and to the unfriendly stares he received from his neighbors. This was a black neighborhood, but Brian figured he fit right in, and that the residents understood this and somehow appreciated him. He passed small homes with immaculately cared-for yards where middle-aged homeowners watered lawns or sat on their porch steps enjoying the waning day. These homes were interspersed with boarded up, abandoned houses, and weed-grown lots.
Brian stopped at the corner of Twelfth Street, a canyon of bad lighting and crazy traffic, sufficient even to make a man like Brian open his eyes and take notice. The radios of passing cars sent up competing rhythms and cries. A Negro hooker dickered with the driver of a purple Lincoln. A Hudson honked, and Brian was ordered to get his fucking white ass out of the fucking way. Simply to collect his thoughts, Brian entered the first bar he found. His senses were on high alert, but not for fear of danger. Not because he was white and everyone else was black. Brian was high on optimism. According to the texts that had formed Brian's self-education, every conversation in the bar would be centered on dissatisfaction. Embittered poor would be mumbling into their glasses, waiting for someone like Brian to jump up on a table and exhort them to join the struggle. Brian didn't consider this a romantic notion. He had read that this was how it happened, and now he listened hard for murmurings of revolution.
He listened in vain. Sex was in the air. Laughter was on the wing. At least two fistfights were imminent. Drunkenness, ranging from euphoria to stupefaction, was evident. But generally the atmosphere was disappointing. Human, all too human. At first glance, no one seemed inclined to tear up the cobbles from the road (a good thing, since there had been no cobbles for over fifty years) and hurl them at a cowering gendarmerie. Brian placed himself at the bar and ordered a Coke. He didn't drink.
"I'll have a Coke."
The man set up a glass of Coke, no ice, and stared.
"What else you havin?"
"Do you have sandwiches or something? Can I get something to go?"
"You can get up and go right now, motherfucker," the barman declared, then slapped the bar jovially and looked around the room, garnering some delighted guffaws.
When the laughter died down, the man reached under the counter and handed Brian a menu card laminated in well-fingered, yellowing plastic. Brian studied the selections with great care, trying to figure which would offer the most nutrition for the least money. Brian had plenty of money. He still accepted a monthly check from his brother, and occasional gifts from various aunts. He was simply a cheap-ass. While he conned the menu, he kept his ears tuned to the nearby conversations. He detected two arguments that seemed to be about either women or sports or some combination of the two. There was too much cheer. Ironic cheer, coarse hilarity, snorting derision, nothing useful. The unavailability of anything on which to eavesdrop mirrored the paucity of anything on the menu that might satisfy Brian's vegetarian diet. He had his choice of hamburger, cheeseburger, hotdog, fries, and fish sandwich. To his left a large and frightening jar held pig hocks and pickled hard-boiled eggs in a weedy solution. Brian moved so as not to have to see it.
"I'll have two fish sandwiches to go."
"Coupla Cokes with that?" the bartender asked. The man had both hands on the bar, at arms length, his head hanging forward as if in exhaustion.
"Yes. Two cokes."
The bartender slapped the bar decisively, as if Brian had just confirmed his worst suspicions. General conversation resumed. Despite his rapport with the underclass, Brian could understand none of it.
V. Just passing through
Detroit did not have Seven's House for its heart, though it seemed that way to Roberto and his crew. Detroit had already had three lives: as an inland port, as an industrial phenomenon, and as a furnace. In this last role, it excelled. The neighborhood surrounding Seven's House, on Woodward north of West Grand Boulevard was old, full of trees, and now, succulent, enervating weeds. Hundred-year old elms lined the streets. The homes were set far back in deep lawns. At night, fireflies still haunted the shrubbery.
Once the heat of the day had burnt off, these streets were purest summertime evening Midwest, as if the striving, churning, factory town was many miles away. There was a sweetness in the leaf-heavy limbs of the trees, in the splashes of street lamp and house light. An erotic redolence invited couples to laze on the brimming ease of the damp and placid slopes of lawn. The only difference was that now most of the people living here were poor, and most of the older houses had been cut up into apartments.
Seven's House marked the southeastern edge of one of the city's best areas for getting into mortal trouble. The largest and oldest part of Seven's House had once been the home of a Wayne County judge, in the days when the auto industry, such as it was, had been the province of rough-neck machinists and fanatical engineers. The original portion of the judge's home could not be seen from the street. A sketchily designed, two-story, L-shaped cinder block motel, slathered in pink stucco, had supplanted it. In front was a kidney-shaped swimming pool surrounded by umbrella-shaded patio furniture, most of which, on the average summer evening, wound up thrown into the pool. On Woodward, a glaring, supersonically shaped neon sign announced the Seven Oaks Motel. The name was apt, since at least seven oaks had been cut down to accommodate the pink motel. As Roberto's crew moved down Woodward Avenue toward their rendezvous in room eight, a man in the lobby was completing his registration for a night in room eighteen, just above their club.
Ramos Ares had arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that afternoon, on a twice-transferred flight from Matamoras, Texas. Ramos sweated a lot, and was very sensitive about the two Naugahyde suitcases that comprised his luggage. From behind the front desk, Serena Howell noted this as Ramos signed in. She smoked a Kool and eyed Ramos with unsmiling approval. He was handsome, and seemed preoccupied in a serious way. She had the feeling Ramos might not know exactly what Seven's House was about. Maybe he just figured it was another motel.
"How much for a night?" Ramos asked, after signing himself in as Dorrand McLean, of Saginaw (an individual who had recently ceased to be in a position to complain at having his identity usurped), driver of a black 1963 Dodge Dart, license plate 431 CLV.
"That's sixteen-fifty. Check out is eleven a.m."
"Sixteen-fifty. You gotta be kidding."
"It's got color TV. Fully sanitized bathroom."
"Fully sanitized, eh? Damn well better be."
"Need help with them bags?" Serena wasn't sure why she bothered to ask this, except that she was curious about the bags. There was no one around who would have helped Ramos or anyone else with their bags. Not many people brought luggage to Seven's House.
"No. I got the bags. My car gonna be all right in the lot?"
Serena raised up in her chair to look past Ramos at the Dodge Dart, parked near the short, wrought iron fence that surrounded the motel lot.
"You might want to bring it in close to the building. Under the light."
"Then the bugs get all over it, from the light."
"Z'up to you," Serena said with a shrug that Ramos understood as firm advice to park the car near the building, under the light, bugs or no bugs.
"So where's the room?" Ramos had lifted his bags.
"Just go outside to the right. There's the stairs there."
Ramos, burdened with his bags, shouldered his way through the glass doors. As he started up the outside stairway to the second tier of rooms, he saw a group of five black kids enter the motel lot at the driveway. He made a mental note to move his car.
Ramos hustled along the balconied tier. He took only the time necessary to unlock the door and put his bags inside before retracing his steps back down to the parking lot. He noticed with relief that there was a parking spot directly beneath his room. And then he saw that the door in front of which he would park, the door to the room directly beneath his, was open, and inside was that gang of kids. And there were more with them, including at least two white girls.
Ramos parked and quickly cut his lights, which, for a moment, had shown like cop spotlights into the kids' room, making those near the door look out at him. Ramos made sure all the windows were up before getting out and locking the Dodge. Then, with an expression that showed that he did not know the kids, did not want to know the kids, had no interest in what they were doing and was, all-in-all a non-judgmental sort of guy but not one to be fucked with, he walked coolly past their door and back up the stairs to his room. It was Ramos's experience that if he left party gangs alone, they left him alone as well. His flat, unintimidated absence of expression was sufficient warning.
Roberto and Randy had noted Ramos, and knew enough to leave him alone. The cat had that black-haired, dark-browed, tight, pale-brown skin look of the guys who brought shit up from south. Let them go about their business.
Randy pushed the door shut with his foot.
VI. View from the bridge.
Roberto Johnson walked alone on the Belle Isle bridge, passing time before going over to Gina's house. Gina Vecchio. Italian father, black mother, from Philly. Roberto and Gina had been seeing each other for a month or so, ever since they met at a union hall party on Jefferson near Rivard. Gina was one of a half dozen or so sepia people at the party. The appearance of white people at some of the parties thrown by Roberto's crew wasn't an unusual thing, and the relationship that had grown between Roberto and Gina wasn't unusual in their set. The only thing that Roberto was at all concerned about was that the last time they had been together, the weekend before, at Roberto's crib on Cass, Gina had said she loved him. It had given Roberto an uncomfortable itching feeling all over. Why did she have to say that? She had said it in a way that had made Roberto feel he was supposed to reciprocate in the same words, and Roberto couldn't do that. He had never said those words to anyone in his life. The words choked him. Why do girls do that? Don’t they know any better?
Tonight, walking on the bridge, watching the sun pass away, taking the day with it, off at some incalculable distance behind the skyline of the city, Roberto thought about Gina's eyes, and her laugh, and the smoothness of the inside of her thighs, and felt that he was treading some dread precipice over which he might very well slip with the words "I love you, too."
No. No way. Roberto pushed the thought back below the surface and tried to just enjoy the view. The sunlight, blasting out in God rays from behind the city, was melting from gold to rose.
That Gina... her father, Rocco, wouldn't let guys come to visit until after he and Gina had finished supper and Gina had done the dishes. Old world. Roberto worked with him at the plant, and had known him for five or six months and never thought about him as being anything but a guy with a funny dago accent, until he met Gina. Then the okay old guy had suddenly filled out into a full persona that would have to be dealt with and regarded in various new ways.
Roberto did not feel like a kid. He worked. He liked music and dancing and drinking and fun, but his upbringing had been straight southern Baptist. He was accustomed to extending courtesy, behaving with dignity, having respect for himself and others. He had no pretensions toward being cool. His father, Dewey, had worked until retirement as a die maker at Ford's. His mother, Florence, had been a file clerk at Ford's personnel office. Roberto was one of he knew not how many of the children Dewey had sown around the world. Dewey had once set the number at seventeen.
His oldest brother, Farnum, had been killed in 'Nam. Anne was married and lived in Birmingham, Alabama, where Dewey's family came from. Roberto had stayed in Detroit, as had his little brother, Henry. Roberto still lived with Dewey and Flo. Henry, the baby, was the one to be worried about. The only regret that Roberto had about Farnum getting killed in ‘Nam was that he had been there at a time when he might better have been at home, giving guidance to the youngest brother.
Roberto claimed not to care about looks, but his own were clearly in his favor, and the boast was hollow. He kept his hair short, military style. He thought himself a soldier. Besides, his hair was easier to take care of this way. Roberto's face was strong-jawed, and his eyebrows had an upward curve that gave him a slightly Asiatic look. Florence's father had been a Creek Indian, so Roberto’s blood was mixed that way. But thank God he wasn’t part white. Gina was part white, but she looked good. You look good enough and you can be anything. But Roberto had seen some sad examples of mixed race kids. The guys always had to be super tough to counter act the weak impression that being half white always seemed to give a dude.
Tonight James wore a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut short at the elbow. His forearms were long, hard cords of muscle. He wore light khaki slacks, white cotton socks, and brown loafers. He looked like a sturdy baseball team coach, which he was, as a volunteer, at Northwestern High.
It was Saturday, and Roberto had spent the day in the sun laying sod at the tiny lot beside the Chalmers Avenue Baptist church. He had slept for an hour, then showered, and had dinner with his folks. Dewey had been at the beer again, and Roberto had not felt like hanging around, so he walked out here to enjoy the evening and to think before going to see that troubling dream of a Gina.
Midway across the bridge, Roberto stopped, his gaze attracted, or awakened, by the crimson light that washed over the city. He placed his hands on the chest-high concrete wall and watched the temporary beauty the sun shed over Detroit. Something in him responded to the lustrous sky. He could not place it, and it faded. The solar sheen of the city could hold him for only so long before his nature compelled him to think about the people who had built it, and who lived in it. He knew, whether he liked it or not, that they were all his people, his kin. Like it or not. Even the foreigners. He called white people foreigners because they came in each day and then left each night. It was a foreign city to them.
His people had set every brick, pipe, wire, stud, lathe, switch, bolt, nut, screw and nail in place. That they were not all black did not mean they were not his people. They were his people not only whether he liked it or not, but even whether they liked it or not. The ones who worked in the grandest offices were his. The ones in jail were his; the ones in the penthouses and the ones in the flops and the alleys were his. It was a universe of responsibility that had settled soul-by-soul on his shoulders, like mourning doves on a power line. Once, when he was a kid and had been crying about something or other, his mother had said to him that he felt what others felt before they even knew they felt it. James was only aware of a burdensome love, despair and pride. All he really wanted to do at this moment was look at the sunset and think about his girlfriend, so he tossed away the random abundance of his feelings like a handful of small change, and let it catch fire in the golden light.
Roberto, as Florence had said a few million times, had been born old. He had always known what he wanted to do, and what he wanted to say. But he had never been willful or stubborn. He had done what had been asked of him. But he had not done it with a young person's desire for approbation.
The sun had moved down below the skyline. The red glare fanned upwards, filling the sky from west to east. The moment ended, and Roberto knew his walk was over. It was about time to go and see Gina and, unfortunately, Rocco, in the red brick house with white trim and small neat garden on Washington near Kercheval.
As he walked, James thought about his troublesome younger brother, Roberto. He didn't want to think about Roberto. Whenever Roberto came to mind, and that was often, Roberto found himself in a spiral of exasperation. Roberto's careless face smiled at him. Roberto had come back from 'Nam and found, instead of the cute kid he had known four years before, this excruciating smart aleck. Yesterday he had accused Roberto of trying to be white.
Roberto had been through this. It had been painful, in high school, to do well in the courses taught by white teachers. Getting a compliment, in front of other kids, from teachers like Mr. Stradalac or Mrs. Verbeerst was worse than being insulted by Mr. Hert, or Dr. Smythe. Roberto himself had been deliberately cool to the white teachers, even when he did well in their courses, just to hold them off.
Roberto didn't hate white people. Florence and Dewey weren't haters, even though they had come up from the south, and had plenty of stories to tell. They always said that the people who had insulted them or tried to hurt them were just bad people. Florence was a churchwoman, and Dewey was a union man with a solid trade. There were white men with whom he associated at Ford's, but he never invited them to the house. Dewey had been invited on a few occasions to parties where some white men had shown up. But the family had no white friends, and Roberto knew that Dewey was not in a hurry to make any. Dewey's policy was that the more distance you kept between yourself and the white man, the better. Florence's feeling was that we were all equal in the eyes of God, and that there were some nice white people, but that for the most part, it was better to stick with your own kind. Neither parent knew a thing about Gina Vecchio.
Roberto, in James’s view, could not get his mind off race. Their last discussion of the subject had not ended in Roberto's favor: "There are plenty of good white people," Roberto had said. "Name one," Roberto had demanded. Roberto didn't. And couldn't. The fact was, Roberto had not gotten to be friends with any white people, and really did not want to.
Roberto's belief was that Dr. King's crowd could all march and pray and sing and try to get along, and the white man would let this all keep up until hell froze. Now, with Brother Malcolm it could have gone differently, and, to Roberto, much more attractively by far. The white man was lower than a dog. If you watched white folks, you could see the reality of this. Especially if the white folks you watched were cops. For years they had been shaking Roberto down for nothing. Or practically nothing. At first it had scared him. But now the fear had faded. And now Roberto was very much in the mood to make them, and a lot of others, feel the fear that he had felt when he was a kid, and had been at their mercy.
"You'll get killed."
"By who? White man? I thought you said white folks were so nice."
"I said they're not all bad."
"Well, the ones I see are. But they're not going to hold me back.
Roberto slowed to a walk. He was about a half mile from Gina's place, and wanted to approach the Vecchio house slowly. He wanted to study it, and see it in the evening light because the place was invested with her presence. It stood out magically in the teeming atmosphere of this July evening in Detroit. On the street the shadows were lengthening under the trees.
Roberto walked with purpose. A cop car passed by, both cops eyeing him with the cop look. Roberto did not give them a glance. A few years ago he would have stared them down. And if the cops had nothing better to do, they would stop and give him ten or fifteen minutes of double talk and menace. Roberto had to give Roberto his due. Like almost every black man in Detroit, Roberto had never in his life seen a cop do anything constructive or useful. A black cop was as rare as a black politician. Much rarer than a black doctor or lawyer. And as far as Roberto, Dewey, and most of the hundreds of thousands of black men in Detroit were concerned, the role of the cop was to exercise malice against black people. White cops stopped black men and questioned them about nothing. White cops gave out traffic tickets for imaginary infractions. White cops arrived in swarms to arrest, pummel and often shoot black men caught in gambling joints and after hour’s clubs. Colored people dumb enough to call the cops for aid were routinely treated so rudely and subjected to so many accusations themselves, even when they were reporting the robbery of their own home, that they invariably learned their lesson and never called the cops again.
Roberto didn't blame those who looked at the cops as perfect examples of white people in general, though he didn't believe it himself. In the Marines he had known white guys from other parts of the country, and a lot of them were okay. There were plenty who he would trust as soon, or sooner, than a lot of black men he knew. It wasn't the color that mattered; it was the man. But you had to get your head out of Detroit to know that. What kind of guy winds up being a cop? Not the smart people. In Detroit it was guys who preferred being in a gang and beating up people to working at a regular job. Roberto had been afraid of them before joining the Marines. Now he recognized them as cowards of a particularly low grade. Men who became cops were the kids in the families who had failed at everything else, so some uncle or brother-in-law got them onto the force. Roberto reflected that, if this were a different world, Roberto would be prime cop material.
Tonight Roberto ignored the two in the patrol car that prowled quietly past. He sensed, peripherally, the way they slowed the patrol car for a moment, stared at Roberto with brainless hostility, and kept moving. This sort of thing had been more frequent, here on Kercheval, since the minor riot last summer. The black power guys had stirred up a mess, and now the cops were being especially vigilant, since they were now especially frightened. As they passed, Roberto saw the Vecchio house on the corner, across Kercheval. He slowed his pace when he saw Rocco, Gina's father, sitting out on the porch swing having a smoke. Gina was sitting on the low brick wall, talking with him. Rocco must have told her that Roberto was approaching, because she turned and gave him a smile.
Rocco sat back, big-bellied and tough, a cigarette fuming through a wiry gray goatee. Roberto broke into a jog, and ran up the porch steps and seated himself next to Gina
"Say, Roberto," Rocco said. "You think you workin hard?"
"Pretty hard," Roberto said. He waited. Rocco was a relentless joker.
"I don't know, man. I don't see how you could be."
The young people smiled, looked down, waiting for the old guy to get to his point.
"Because if you was," Rocco explained, seeing he would need to finish his joke unassisted," you wouldn't be runnin all the time. You'd be too tired."
Rocco laughed, then coughed.
"You wouldn't be runnin' the streets all night if you was workin' hard all day," Rocco explained.
"The only place I run is here," Roberto said.
Rocco's coughed. "He only runs here…" Rocco said, and stopped, watching how Gina had taken Roberto's arm, twined it in hers and held his hand.
It would take more than that to shut up Rocco. The guy hectored Roberto about his college plans. Bragged about his military service. Suggested that kids had it too easy these days, bullied Gina about household chores, and made unnecessary noise on a number of other topics.
Rocco had the idea that Roberto wanted to be a journalist (Roberto himself figured that might be as good a way as any to begin) and afflicted Roberto with his unremarkable opinions about what the problem was with newspapers (they got everything wrong). Now The Detroit News, that was a paper. Roberto did not want to argue with Rocco. Rocco sensed this, and felt it was because the kid thought he was smarter than the old man. Rocco was pretty sure the kid was smarter then the old man, and he was all the more insulted by the kid's refusal to argue.
Rocco took a deep drag on his Chesterfield that made the red tip glow. Meeting the man's gaze, Roberto could feel trouble coming. He could also feel the warmth of the girl beside him. She wore shorts, and one of her smooth brown thighs scorched Roberto through the fabric of his trousers. Gina looked about as e-lite as a girl could be, but she was tough and for real. And then Rocco looked past Roberto another boy coming up the porch steps.
"What's happening, Danny?" Rocco welcomed Danny with a heartiness that he knew would get under Roberto's skin.
"Everything's happening, man. That's why I had to come here. Get a little peace and quiet with my girl Gina. What's happening, Roberto?"
"You his girl?" Roberto asked Gina, ignoring Danny. Gina smiled and shook her head. "I'm no one's girl. The last thing I need this summer is a guy."
Roberto let this pass, knowing that Gina had to be casual just to make Danny behave. Even though Roberto's feeling was that it would be better to make Danny behave just by whipping his ass then and there and having it over with. Roberto had known Danny all his life without ever having been friends with him. Danny was the type of guy who seems incredibly smart, without ever doing anything remotely intelligent. Roberto wished him no harm, but wished he would suddenly be removed to another part of the world with no hope of returning.
"That's the way," Rocco put it. You tell 'em. I'm getting out of here. Let you young people talk. Gina, you're not going out anywhere tonight?"
"Nope. Stayin right here."
"Good. 'Cause I don't like either one of these dudes."
Rocco got up heavily and went into the house, the screen slamming behind him. Both young men breathed easier.
"Why'd you tell him you weren't going out?" Danny asked. "I was going to take you down to the club.
Roberto tensed up. He knew about the club. It was about the last place he wanted Gina to be.
"I'm not going to that place under any conditions. No way." Gina said, shaking her head.
"You going to the Fox on Saturday?" Roberto asked Gina. He had wanted to ask her alone, like a date, but with Danny on the scene, there was no time to waste.
"You inviting me?"
"How about you, Danny? You want to go with me and Roberto to the Fox?"
Roberto stared at her. There was a limit…
"Yeah," Danny said. "Sounds good. Me and the crew are going. We'll see you all there."
Roberto didn't take his eyes off Gina, and Gina wouldn't look at him. She teased with Danny, giving him that laugh with her eyes wide, pretending offended propriety, or half-shut, her shoulders hunched up in exaggerated mirth. Roberto kept himself under control. He decided that if Gina went with him he would sure as hell find a way to not to meet up with Danny and his crew. Roberto had no fear of any of them. But they were the kind of guys that would make remarks that would embarrass him and Gina. Well, him at least.
"Who's going to be there?" Gina asked.
"Contours, I think," said Danny.
"Impressions," said Roberto. "And I think Mary Wells."
"Mary Wells," Danny said disparagingly. "I want to see the Parliaments."
"Everybody wants to see the Parliaments," Roberto said. "But they ain't on the bill."
"I like to Mary Wells," Gina put in. The boys silently forgave her. Mary Wells was one of those things you put up with to get next to girls.
"Let's take a walk," Danny suggested. "Nice night." Roberto noted the look he gave Gina. He decided it was about three minutes to ass-whipping time.
"Why don't you take a walk?" Gina suggested.
"I'm afraid of the dark. Can't go by myself."
Roberto stopped himself from saying that Danny had other things to fear besides the dark. He kept quiet and Gina looked down at her luminous white sneakers. Even this was special about her, Roberto decided. The white canvas shoes were so thin and delicate and neat. He looked at her slim brown ankles and wanted to hold one of them in his hand.
"How come we don't see you over at the hoops all summer," Danny asked.
"Been busy working."
"Detroit Landscaping. I'm running a gang mower, driving a stake truck. We're replacing all the flower beds at the Detroit Athletic Club."
"Um hm. Bet pretty soon maybe they'll even let you in to the Detroit Athletic Club. You can play basketball there for sure. Be a good thing for you. Be about the one place in town where you can win, playing against old white guys."
It wasn't worth responding to. Roberto was so much better on the court than Danny that it just was not worth responding to. Besides, in a way, Roberto felt sorry for Danny. He was the king of something that was not going to last. Danny was showing strange signs of age, even at twenty-three. He was getting a used-up look.
"So how are things at the club?" Roberto asked. "How's Jen and those guys. You in trouble yet?"
"We're in trouble every damn night, man. You oughta come and join in, 'stead of hanging around with white folks all the time."
"I don't hang out with them. I work. And my crew's black. They work. It don't kill you."
"No? Well, then, maybe I'll come on by and get a job. How about that?"
"Be a good thing."
"Yeah," Gina put in, "you ought to go to work Danny. Roberto can get you in."
Both boys wished she would shut up. Danny had planned on staying as long as he could to wait out Roberto, who would have to leave eventually in order to get some sleep before work, and get at a kiss from Gina. At the least. Now he sensed that Roberto wouldn't move an inch if he had to sit there until dawn.
"I gotta go," Danny said. "Got business to take care of."
He stood, then, swooped forward and gave Gina a kiss on the cheek. She started back, but said nothing.
"Catch you later, man," he said to Roberto, and then started down Kercheval, walking with a breezy hitch in his step, keeping his head turned toward the street, from which he could expect anything: a ride from friends, an attack from enemies.
As soon as Danny had passed out of the umbra of the streetlights, four houses down, Roberto turned furiously on Gina.
"What's the matter with you, girl? Askin him to come with us to the Fox."
"I was mad at you. That's why I said it. Ain't sorry either.
"Mad about what? What did I do?"
"You just sat and wouldn't even talk with my daddy."
"He don't want to talk. He just wants to argue and make his jokes."
"So what if he do? You afraid of him? If you can't stand up to him, what you gonna do if something serious ever happens."
"I ain't afraid of him or any goddamn thing."
"Then you better show it. He ain't gonna respect you no way if you don't talk back to him."
"I'll talk back to him. Don't worry about that. Why the hell you let Danny kiss you?
"I didn't let him. He just went ahead and did it."
"You shoulda said something. Unless you like it."
"I didn't like it," Gina said, wiping that side of her face with the back of her hand.
Roberto was too angry to speak. He was mad at himself. He should have just been on top of Danny the minute he did it. Slam his ass on the ground… Roberto's whole body was on fire with rage. The bad side of imagination. The retrospective beatings and smart comebacks, and everything he should have done different all his life raced through him.
"I'm sick of that fucker making fun of me for working, too. He better hope to hell I don't see his ass at all down at the Fox…"
"Don't you even think of fighting him at the Fox or nowhere. I'm not kidding. You think you're going to take me there and then get in a fight with anyone then I just ain't going. That's all there is to that.
Roberto folded his arms and leaned against a porch pillar. For two cents he'd just walk off and not say another damn word to this one. On the other hand, she was so damn cute, and they were alone now.
Gina came and sat near him on the porch wall, giving him her big-eyed look. Her white T-shirt, like her shoes, glowed against her brown skin. Her shorts were short.
"Well, I ain't gonna start anything. If he watches his ass, everything be okay."
He kept his arms folded severely until she put her hand on his thigh. Roberto turned and took her in his arms, kissed that indescribable mouth until there was the abrupt striking of a match less than three feet away. The big dark shadow of Rocco stood in the doorway, lighting a cigarette. Gina and Roberto sat upright so fast they saw spots.
"Everything all right?" Rocco asked.
"Yes," Gina said. "Yes."
"Good. I thought I was going to have to call an ambulance. Thought one of you had fainted or something."
Roberto cleared his throat.
"Since you're all right, you can come in now, Gina. It's after eleven.
"I'll be right in."
"Now," Rocco said with finality. He opened the door and came out on the porch, holding the front door open for his daughter. Gina got up.
"Good night, Roberto."
"Yeah, good night, Roberto."
And Roberto was left sitting on the porch as the door closed. He had not been able to stand, with Rocco there. And even now he had to continue sitting for a few minutes before he could get up and leave. As he did, feeling both exhilarated and weary, he heard Rocco inside the house ask Gina something like, what kind of a name was Roberto anyways. Was it supposed to mean something?
Roberto walked fast along Kercheval. He had at least a half hour's walk, and he had to be up at six the next day. But Gina was alive in his arms and on his lips all the way. And, next time he got a chance; he would let Rocco know that Roberto was a family name on his father's side, and a damn good name, too.
Roberto's share of the night was warm with promise. It was warm with summer, too, in the eighties, Fahrenheit. In his immediate vicinity, the leaves stirred slightly, giving an illusion of quiet. Further off, the city sent up into the sky the unquenchable noise of a city at night. The pseudo silence full of cars, sirens, gun shots, barking dogs, screeching tires, clanking freight trains, throbbing auto plants and auto parts factories and machine shops, all masked and muffled and hushed by darkness. A night of a million sounds that blend into something generally accepted for quiet. Roberto stretched his jogging stride into a run, one block at top speed, one block long-paced and easy, another block-long sprint, and then another limber mile or so loose-shouldered and easy. He barely broke a sweat, his heart pumped with a scoffingly casual rhythm, his lungs, untouched by cigarettes or anything but the usual city's-worth of fumes, did their work with unhurried elegance. Age and death were eventualities designed for other people, when other people got careless.
He reached the far eastern edge of his street and broke into one last sprint before slowing to a walk. In five hours he would be back at work, in the sun and heat of the company yard, helping hook up the trailers and break out the teams for the day ahead. He let himself into the house quietly. His parents were already long in bed, but not Roberto
Brian made it back to the apartment with sandwiches and cokes. He complained to Veronica about the apathy of the locals, but was confident that he could get them moving once he learned more about the neighborhood and what he called the concerns of the people. At that same time, Roberto and the crew were getting high and watching TV. The starter pistol was being passed around and fooled with, but Roberto kept the caps in his pocket. Not many had come with the gun. Simultaneously, two undercover cops were planning their second visit to the blind pig above the Economy Hardware on Twelfth Street. The after hours joint had been busted a couple times in the past year, but was back in operation. They would get a drink, then bust the place again and take in the twenty or thirty patrons for routine violations. The patrons would probably all be out again in a day or two, and the proprietors might get fined. And of course the place would be back in business in a few months. Busting blind pigs never closed them for long. When they went out of business it was for the same reasons that any other club closed down. Someplace else became more popular, or one of the partners would rob the till.
Jaimie Blaine leaned against the bus shelter and heard screams in her head. She pushed the screams aside and lit a cigarette. This corner, the north east of Mack Avenue and Connor Road, was supposed to be the best place to catch the last shift coming off at the Connor Chrysler stamping plant. Shanna had always claimed she could make her whole day by noon. It was Jaimie's corner now, since an ambulance crew had come last night to an abandoned house two miles away to collect what a stranger had left of Shanna.
A cop car cruised past. Out of nowhere. Jaimie flicked her cigarette into the gutter and moved casually to the Free Press box, just like a citizen buying a paper. The cop car turned right, off the avenue. Jaimie waited, scanning the pictures on the paper's front page. Minutes passed, and Jaimie intuited that the cop was not circling back to check her out. She stuffed the prop newspaper into a garbage can.
A black Ford Country Squire, fake wood on the sides, pulled over. Youngish guy at the wheel, white T-shirt, wraparound shades. Fine. Jaimie went to the passenger window that the guy had partly rolled down.
"Partyin?" she asked.
The man reached over, popped the door handle, and Jaimie got in.
"Hi." Jaimie said. "Where we going?”
Brian was no sluggard. The moment his eyes opened he moved directly from dreamless sleep to full awareness. He was in Detroit. He was here to get in touch with the brothers and sisters who would help him move the revolution forward. Veronica was a heavy sleeper but how she slept, light, heavy, or medium, made no difference in the way Brian slid out of bed, hit the bathroom for a no-nonsense pee, a fast face wash and tooth brushing, and a ransacking of the small apartment for his pants, shirt, wallet, room key, glasses, pocket-size notebook, and ball point pen. And then he was gone.
He knew that Woodward Avenue was some ways to the east, and that he could catch a southbound bus there to reach the university area. He walked up Clairmount until he reached a freeway overpass, where he began to have doubts about his location. Three black kids stepped onto the overpass at the other side, and Brian decided to ask them for directions. He noticed they were watching him approach. To avoid a stare-down, Brian glanced casually back and forth, over the sides of the overpass, watching the cars shoot past underneath. When he came close to the kids he saw that they were in their early teens. The three of them crossed over to Brian's side before he had a chance to cross over to theirs. Maybe they wanted to ask him a question. Brian rehearsed an exhortation. One kid was tall and thin. One kid was short, and seemed a bit younger. The huskily built kid of middle-height spoke first.
"Where you think you're going, motherfucker?"
"Actually, I was about to ask if you guys could tell me how to get to Woodward Avenue, so that I can catch a bus down to Wayne State University."
"This ain't Woodward Avenue. This our bridge, motherfucker. What you doin on it"
Brian recognized this as a rhetorical question.
"Just passing through, man. Don't mean any harm. Sorry about being on your bridge."
Then Brian made a mistake. He dropped his eyes, quit talking, and tried to sidle around the three kids. The husky one hit him with a fast left. The tall kid lit in with a left-right combination to the head, while the little kid, evidently with the most to prove, went for the body, treating Brian's belly and kidneys like a heavy bag in a gym. Brian clutched his head, sank to his knees, and tried to meld himself into the guardrail far beneath which the trucks and cars whizzed by.
Then there was shouting. A car had pulled over, and the kids ran. Brian lay on his side, crouched in a fetal position on the pavement. A big black-haired man with dark sunglasses stood over him. The big man leaned forward, his hands on his knees.
"You okay, buddy?"
"Ow," said Brian.
"You gonna make it? Or do you need a doctor?"
"Ouch. Ow." Brian rolled over onto his hands and knees. Now there was a second big man, but this one had a blonde crew cut. Brian saw they were plainclothes cops. They helped Brian get on his feet. The dark-haired man, who was Polynesian or something, Brian thought, handed Brian his glasses, which Brian tried to bend back into shape. The blonde cop felt Brian's head, and looked into Brian's eyes.
"You're okay. A little marked up. How're your ribs? Ribs okay? Spine feel okay?
"Yeah," Brian managed, getting a little air back into his chest. The body blows had made him nauseous, and the three punches to the head made him see black dots when he looked around.
"Yeah," he said, tonelessly. He hated cops on principle. These cops, actually, were relieved to find that Brian didn't need a doctor, since that would have meant filing a report, which would have bitched the whole morning.
"What happened?" the dark cop asked. "They try to rob you, or they just want to beat you up?"
"I guess they just wanted to beat me up."
"Where you headed?"
"I wanted to get to Woodward. I need to catch a bus down to Wayne State."
"You go to school there?"
"I'll be teaching there this fall."
"And you're living way up here?"
"My wife and I just got into town. We haven't found a place to settle in yet."
"Well, you better settle in down near campus. You'll like it better there. Come on and get in back, we'll give you a lift."
This was a painful irony, being helped out by cops, but Brian was too shaken to refuse a ride. There was a third cop behind the wheel, an entirely different physical type, a twisty little redheaded guy.
"What the hell…" Brian heard the driver object in a low voice to the other cops. "We'll give this gentleman a lift down to Wayne," the dark-haired cop said to the man behind the wheel.
They made a left turn, then a right, and after a couple blocks, another right onto a broad avenue. When they stopped at a light Brian saw by a street sign that they were on Woodward Avenue.
"What's your name?" the dark-haired cop in the front seat suddenly asked. The big blonde man sat beside Brian in the back seat. A heavy wire barrier separated the front from the back.
"Joe," Brian replied. The two big cops both turned slightly in their seats to look back at him. "Dolan." Brian added. The dark cop faced forward again but the blonde cop beside him continued to stare.
"Still got your wallet, Joe?" the cop asked. Both cops talked in deep, measured voices that had a peculiarly unnerving quality. At least for Brian, who had a constant low-burning paranoia like a malarial fever. Brian felt in his back pocket. The wallet was there. A chill went through him at the thought that they might ask him for ID.
"What do you teach?"
"What do you teach about cops?"
The blonde cop had asked this, and Brian stared into the man's flat face. By some minute change in the cop's features, nowhere near as blatant as a wink, Brian realized the cop was joking. Then the cop turned away.
"You didn't know those kids or anything?" the dark cop asked.
"No. I was going to ask them for directions."
"You're a trusting sort. You come from the country or something?"
"My wife and I are from Connecticut."
"Connecticut," the cop repeated, in a way that indicated that Connecticut was suspiciously free of any suspicious associations.
Brian didn't like this. The cops weren't insistent. The cop in the passenger seat could have just been making idle conversation. But neither cop seemed to be nearly as dumb as Brian liked to believe all cops were. And the scrawny cop behind the wheel kept glancing back at Brian in the mirror. Brian realized just how little of a story he had bothered to patch together for himself, should anyone decide to get curious about who he was, where he came from, where he was going.
"Your wife teach?"
Brian knew it had been a mistake to mention a wife. "No. She's finishing her degree. In English literature."
At this part of Woodward there were two large, pale limestone buildings, on the left, the Detroit Institute of Art, on the right, the Detroit Public library. They passed between the two of them, and turned right onto Warren, then another right onto Cass, then they pulled over to the curb.
"You sure you're okay?" asked the dark cop. Brian indicated that he was. Both cops were studying his face as if they wanted to remember it. Brian felt very uncomfortable.
"This is the back entrance to the library. Back there, other side of the street, that's Old Main. You familiar with the campus?
"I've got a few places I know I have to go to. I can figure it out.
"Okay, then, buddy. Take care."
Brian got out of the car. The cop in the passenger seat looked out through his open window.
"You get someone to give you a ride home tonight. Don't try walking it."
Brian moved to the sidewalk, and was not sure which direction to go. The cop car stood idling at the curb, so Brian began to walk decisively toward the building that had been pointed out as Old Main. When he crossed at the corner of Warren, he saw that the cop car had continued on up the street.
Ramos never rested when he worked, and since each job lasted a week or more, each night was worse until the job was done. Several times he had gotten up through the night to look over the balcony at his car, and the buildings across the street. The kids had all left by midnight, but a block away, a party store in a splash of lemon light did a door-slammingly good business until two-thirty. Ramos was awake until three when a muggy breeze whispered over Woodward Avenue and caught him in a net of dreams. There had been automatic rifle fire to the northwest. There had been low-flying prop planes headed for the city airport. And there had been a small, fast car with a broken muffler, heading west, tearing a hole in the night into which cops dived, revolving red and blue. Detroit spun, and cars skimmed its surface, sending up music that Ramos followed down to a monstrous orchestra that played endlessly. The musicians dropped and died by the hundred, but hundreds more rose up to take their places, and it all just got louder until the birds, from somewhere, tore open the fresh wound of a new day.
Ramos lay there, hating their pointless voices. Sweat-soaked from nape to ankle, the bed sheet he had pulled to his waist was translucent where it touched him. It occurred to him forcefully that this was no way to live.
But this was the last day of it, Ramos reminded himself. And this place, even in the middle of town, was better than a lot of places he had stayed at. There were shades for the windows. When he wanted to kill off the day, he could close his eyes and find darkness, and not a blood-colored x-ray of his eyelids. There was air conditioning, and even a swimming pool. Not that he was going to do any swimming. But maybe girls would show up. Ramos lifted his hand off his eyes to check the clock radio. Time to move.
After today, I'm done with it, Ramos told himself. After today, I'm done. There were plenty of other things he could do. What, precisely, he did not bother to specify. He had once thought he would stay in the army. And then this had come up. Ramos had liked the army. He had not been drafted; he had joined. Even combat, even with the tension, and the fear that had made other men cry like children, and the sight of the dead and wounded, and everything else, had not seemed alien to him. And then this had come up.
Ramos, at twenty-seven, had no particular skills that would not have landed him in jail sooner or later in any country in the world. He hated routine work. But nothing he had ever undergone had discouraged him from believing that he would one day wind up in the vague profession of millionaire. The only thing beating him was time. For some reason he had always thought he would have made it by the time he was thirty. And now he was thirty-five. Seemed unbelievable.
Ramos heaved himself up. His toes groped for his rubber sandals. Then he headed for the sanitary marvel of the bathroom where he showered, shaved and brushed his teeth with the many painstaking precautions of a fastidious man. Ramos hated germs. He kept his toothbrush behind his ear when it wasn't in his mouth. Had it touched even for a moment any surface or object in the room he would have thrown it away. Motels were dirty. He moved quickly, but the face in the mirror gave him pause. It was too strained to be as handsome as it ought to be. Still very handsome, but strained. Ramos breathed deeply, made his face relax, and willed a broad, confident smile. A middle-aged man stared back at him.
Back in his room, Ramos put on khaki trousers, low Italian loafers, and a loose sport shirt. He put his shaving kit into his suitcase and swept the nightstand of loose coin and a tightly rolled joint. He put the joint in his pack of Kools, and stuck his pistol in the waistband of the khakis, beneath the sport shirt. That was everything. He put on his sunglasses and left, taking with him the other suitcase, the one he had not opened.
The world around Woodward and Euclid was already up and at 'em. Traffic was heavy. The sun was warming up the swimming pool, in which a tangle of aluminum patio furniture bobbed like ugly sculpture. The Dart had not been fooled with, as far as Ramos could see. He started it up and let it idle while he lit a cigarette before putting it in gear and driving out of the lot. He turned south onto Woodward Avenue. For no reason except that he had time to kill, Ramos headed downtown. At Jefferson Avenue he turned left. He was in the minority of those moving in this direction. Coming towards him on the other side was a steady stream of working people surging into another day on the job.
He glanced at the new cars on display in the front windows of the yellow brick Jefferson Avenue Chrysler plant, and then he was under the walkway, driving straight toward the Indian head sign of Michigan National Bank, at Piper. Ramos rarely had the stomach for breakfast, but decided to look for a place to have coffee. It was just seven o'clock. He had a lot of time, and who knew how things would shake down later? There were coffee shops and restaurants, but for one reason or another Ramos rejected each of them as they passed. Then he was at Alter Road. Beyond that, there were the trees of Grosse Pointe. He didn't want that. He turned left, and headed up Alter. He had gotten as far as the stoplight at Warren when he saw her, or at least the portion of her that stuck out as she leaned into the window of the Corvette. Ramos was not a face man anyway.
When the light changed, Ramos made a tight U-turn into the gas station and pulled up behind the Corvette. Forget him, commanded. Forget that chump. He reached into the back and folded the gun into the paper, and slid it securely as he could beneath the front passenger seat. The girl's rear bobbed conversationally, and Ramos stared as if it were the bright coin hypnotists supposedly manipulate. She wore tight jeans tucked into cowboy boots, and a paisley shirt. Her light hair was tied back with a red scarf. This wasn't a typical Detroit look. It was western, as was Ramos. He had never seen her before.
Abruptly, the girl pushed herself away from the Corvette, making some final and harsh remark to the driver. The Corvette sped away. The girl stood, not looking after the car, and not yet looking at Ramos. The middle-aged attendant in the gas station's front window stayed where he was and looked at both of them, worriedly. Ramos got out of the car.
"Your friend take off on you?"
Jaimie dropped her cigarette and ground it out.
"Wasn't no friend of mine."
She looked Ramos over. "You want to be my friend? she asked.
Ramos had taken it for granted that her face would be a wreck. It wasn't. She was awfully young.
"Get in," was all he could say.
"We gonna party, right?" Jaimie asked.
"Right. Get in."
Brian had no instructor's position awaiting him at Wayne State University.
True, he had completed undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Michigan that would have qualified him to pursue a doctorate in that field. Possibly he could find some assistantship available, if he followed the proper channels. But Brian was not interested in a career. He would not stoop to the life of an academic. He was too busy teaching. He had no desire to teach in a classroom, but Brian knew he could lead workshops, organize teach-ins, head committees, and formulate plans. Not lesson plans. War plans. Generalship, Brian felt, would be in his line. (His experience of the morning notwithstanding.) The only work fit for a far-sighted man was the subversion of the established system. The established system existed in Brian's mind as the sum total of its defects. As a long-distance thinker, Brian could shoot past the notion that the cars and buses and trains and planes he traveled in were part of the established system, nor that the jeans he wore were part of the established system, nor that the food he ate, the radio he listened to, the books he read, the pavement he walked, the water he bathed in, the toilets he flushed, and the cops who had prevented his being beaten unconscious and then thrown over the overpass guardrail (which was what Michael Crowder, the badly disturbed middle-sized boy of Roberto's crew, had in mind when he'd spotted the freakish-looking, glasses-wearing honkie) were all part of a system that had been established system piece by piece over the past two millennia.
Hazy notions of a new and superior order danced at the edges of Brian's stock of ideas. It would simply happen. The first order of business was to abolish the existing order. After that, we would build anew. Brian had not given the building part much thought.
At nine-thirty in the morning, the corner of Warren and Cass was not busy. There were young people with books lounging, smoking, chatting. Brian walked north until he reached a small restaurant. At a table in a front corner, near a window, Brian sat down and opened his notebook. He dated the page, 7/18/67, and began an account of the mornings "encounter." A waitress brought coffee, and Brian ordered toast. He ate in quick, meditative mouthfuls. He was not a fastidious eater. But that was not an unusual sight in the campus restaurant. A man with a notebook, occupied by a problem. The problem was why had he been attacked. What did it mean?
Brian reached the conclusion that his attackers had responded naturally to the appearance of one who they could not have been expected to regard as anything but an enemy. Brian decided they could be forgiven for assuming from his appearance that he was a part of the elitist power structure. How could they have thought otherwise? It was significant that they had not tried to rob him. It indicated the inherent honesty of the oppressed. They would scorn to steal. They sought only to defend their territory. Brian's responsibility, in which he had failed, was to have telegraphed that he was one of them. That he shared their struggle.
He was there to teach them that their ferocity could be put to good use in the right cause. They only needed direction. Because Brian had little sense of fun, there was no room in his assessment for the possibility that they may have kicked his ass for the fun of it
The cops. It was clear by their questioning that they suspected Brian. They were attuned to his intentions in a way that the kids were not. It hadn't escaped Brian's notice that they had not radioed a report of the incident. It was possible that they had been instructed not to take official notice of Brian's arrival in the city. With a slow and comprehensive glance around the room and out the window, Brian finished his coffee. Oh, yeah. It wasn't just the cops on the beat that Brian would need to worry about. It was the higher ups. Officials that had no titles, no uniforms or badges. Yes. Oh, yeah. A cop car passed by Brian's window. Uh huh.
The waitress cashed Brian out, cheerily advising him to have a good day, unaware as yet of Brian's no-tipping policy. A tip was an insult to the working brother or sister.
Outside, the day was warmer, brighter, and busier. Brian was impatient to begin. He walked south on Cass, not really sure of what it was he sought. He needed to make contact. He had to talk to someone. He stepped into a bookstore and took from a stack just inside the door a free tabloid, an underground paper. The date was several weeks old. He continued down Cass, and stopped upon seeing two long tables laden with books outside a small store. The store was called The People's Voice, or at least that was what was painted on the street sign. The small building had been crudely painted in a bold pattern of black, red, and green.
The books on the tables were familiar to Brian. He noticed the work of Fanon, Marcuse, Mao, and a host of texts all addressed to happy, large-scale entities such as The Workers, The People, The Struggle, and Power. There were other, less acceptable texts, mainly regarding Islam. Black Nationalism was an uncomfortable subject for Brian. It was revolutionary energy siphoned off into the wrong direction. But it was revolutionary energy, nonetheless. My enemy's enemy is my friend. Sort of. Brian didn't linger over the thought that virtually none of the writers of any of these books had died at the hands of the enemies they excoriated through so many pages. A good number of them, however, had been directly or indirectly instrumental in bumping each other off.
Brian entered the shop like a crusader setting foot in Jerusalem. And then he had to stop for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The shop was one small room full of books. They were stacked to the ceiling on all four walls. In the center was a long table of magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, newsletters, and journals of strident persuasion at the end of which sat one man, a black man with a graying beard and glasses at the end of his nose, bent over a small notebook in which he wrote with the shortest possible stub of pencil. He looked up at Brian, taking him in with one sidelong glance, and giving a brief shudder. Brian huffed a monosyllabic greeting, which went unanswered, and then began a slow patrol of the room.
Brian could be loud enough in front of a group or a classroom or a crowd, but with individuals he was painfully shy. He did not like conversation in any case, since it too often involved an exchange of ideas, and exchanging ideas was not of interest to Brian. And, at first glance, this black guy did not look like the passive listener type. Finally, though, Brian had to speak.
"Marcuse," he said, handling a volume and giving a learned nod. This wasn't enough of an icebreaker. The man kept writing.
"I had a fucking hassle with the pigs this morning," Brian tried next. The incident, in his mind, had already taken this direction. Brian would have sworn that the overpass ass kicking had actually been an attempt on his part to make contact with local forces that had been thwarted by police. In any case, the man in the bookstore was not interested.
Brian approached him, and stood humbly, and annoyingly, watching the man write. Without taking his eyes off the page, the man set aside his pencil. With an expression of enormous patience the man looked out the front window of the room, seeming to wait for Brian to leave.
"What are you writing?" Brian asked.
"Who wants to know," returned the man.
"I write," Brian said. "You've got an edition of The Spark here that I've got an article in."
By a minute change in the man's expression, Brian sensed he had made a mistake. Maybe The Spark was not worth having an article in. Or maybe the man's own work had been rejected by The Spark. Or maybe the man had had a hundred articles in The Spark and had now turned against it. But the man's continued silence had become terrifying. The fact of being shut down, humiliated, and ignored by one man, especially a black man, who Brian presumed would instantly recognize him as a sympathetic soul, was as painful as the many slights that had made up Brian's childhood. Brian could not move from the spot without some kind of acknowledgement from this man. It would be better if the man stood up and struck him in the face then if he continued to ignore him.
"What do you mean, 'hassled by the pigs,'" the man said quietly. "What did you do to cause trouble?"
"I didn't cause any…"
"The last goddamn thing we need is someone going out on their own causing trouble. We've got enough trouble."
"No. Right. But I got into town last night, and this morning, just coming down here to meet people, I got into this beef with some kids, and then the cops instantly show up to get me IDed."
The man looked at Brian skeptically. Brian's face was newly bruised.
"What are you talking about? Who are you trying to meet, and what is it you're trying to do?"
"I'm here to help," Brian explained, helplessly. "I've been involved for about four years, organizing. I was at the Michigan conference. The SDS. I've been to Mississippi. I mean I know what I've seen. And I've seen enough to know…" Brian said weakly, "that we've got to take the struggle to… To another, uh, level. You know…"
The man smiled, and his smile got broader as Brian tried to muster his credentials. The man had two invaluable abilities: to look directly into another man's eyes without blinking, and the courage to express in his face exactly what he thought. This soon brought Brian not only to silence, but almost to tears.
"You been to Mississippi," the man said at last, mercifully. I was born in Mississippi."
"What are you going to tell me about Mississippi? You spent a summer feeling one ounce of what we've had by the ton? Then you go back to school so that everyone you talked to can get killed. It would have been better if none of you had ever shown up."
"Look," Brian said, grateful for any kind of rhetorical starting point. "I know exactly what you're saying. But we can't go back and pretend we knew then what we know now. If we could do it over, it might have been better for all us kids in the north to have just shipped in guns and let you all (the 'you all' had taken Brian a summer to master) handle it yourselves. We under estimated those fuckers. That's history. But you can't just avoid the struggle…" The writer's face lit up with glee; if the smile could have gotten any brighter, and the eyes any merrier, it was now. He was a Santa Claus of hostile skepticism.
"No, listen. Seriously. You can't just turn back on the whole struggle, because now it's clear that it's 'way past race. It is! We're dealing with a fucking empire here. What the pigs have done here with the blacks and the Indians, is what they want to do to the world…"
"You listen," the man cut in. "Get this straight. We don't care about the fucking world. You've got it ass-backwards. Everyone wants to be brothers with us because now they're starting to see where the real strength lies. Vietnam's just a tiny piece of the puzzle. It's the furthest extension of what's wrong. I care more about one acre of Liberia than I care about every square mile of Asia. And just who are you, anyway? FBI?"
"I'm Tom Brian. And I'm no more FBI than you." Brian held out his hand. The man ignored it.
"Man," Brian declaimed, "this is exactly what the fucking man wants. For all of us not to connect. For all of us to get into our separate struggles. Divide and conquer, man. That's the philosophy we're dealing with."
For the first time, the writer unbent just enough to let Brian continue.
"If all of our struggles get unwound and disconnected, we're all going to die. Man, I'm not from Mississippi, but I am from Detroit. I know what's happening here. I fucking grew up in Grosse Pointe. I know exactly what this scene is, and I'm not trying to take anything away from you, but this is the one place above all others where we really stand or fall. I mean I know my history. I'm sure you do, too. And I know that what happens here, in this town, is going to affect everything from Meridian to Hanoi." Thank God, he was finally getting somewhere; Brian felt like he was coming up for air out of a deep dive. "After all, why are you here? You know as well as I do why a lot of black families made it up here. Because Detroit is where we build the future."
The writer leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the table, and clasped his hands, his elbows resting on the chair's arms. Brian took the opportunity to seat himself on the only other chair, and both men looked out the window at the street.
"Yeah," the writer said. "The future is what we're going to build here. Once we clean the place out."
"That's what I've heard."
"From who? Where?"
"Common knowledge, man. This is one of the most logical targets. This is where exploitation gets packaged. The old south is hardly even worth the effort…"
The writer did not like this.
"Well, except for the people," Brian conceded. "But let's face it. This is where the power is. You take the south: you’ve got a lot of territory that hasn't really supported itself for a hundred years. Cracker land. If they don't have slaves they don't know how to work it. It was already going under by the time of the Civil War. But Detroit. You get a hold of Detroit, and you've literally got the means of production. If the people ever get the power, they're going to get it here. Once you clean out Detroit, you can clean up the whole south as a matter of course."
They were miles a part, but Brian and the writer were close on one point: each believed that the struggle, whatever shape it took, would be fought and won in about three years. Five tops.
Brian wanted to ask a lot more questions, but understood that this would be a wrong step. It was like announcing you were a snitch. This guy had evidently done as much talking as he was inclined to do; he was bent over his notebook again. After an interval of thought, half historical and half just a search for a way to exit gracefully, Brian stood and said, "Later, man," and awkwardly walked out.
Veronica found herself looking sideways at a small, room with walls of a peculiar blue, like robin's egg but more intense, or insistent. It was a brighter blue than most people Veronica had ever known would choose to paint a room. She didn't mean to be racist in thinking that it was a blue you would not often find in the house of a white person. Probably you might find some Poles or Greeks who would choose this color. You would find it, she realized, in the Caribbean, which is where she had seen it before. It was a cheerful color, as cheerful as the sky.
The happiest moments in Veronica's life, these days, were when Brian was away. She hadn't recognized this yet. With Brian gone, there was the feeling that a weight had been lifted. She could get some air into her lungs.
Now that she was awake, she got out of bed and went into the bathroom. She had not taken much notice of the room the night before. She had been too tired, and if there were going to be bugs she didn't want to know about it. She now found the bathroom clean, except for the signs of Brian's cursory washing and brushing. This was an old place, she saw. There was no shower, and the enameled tub stood on iron feet. She opened the wooden, mirror-faced medicine cabinet and found a clean old glass jelly jar. The tessellated floor, and white and blue tiled walls were clean, and the window had faded lace curtains and a shade. Outside, the view was of a grassy backyard and an old garage wall with crackling brown paint.
The apartment consisted only of this bathroom, the room in which Veronica and Brian had slept, and a small, walk-through kitchen that connected the two. Veronica made up the Murphy bed, folded its two front legs, and raised the bed back up into its place in the wall. She hung their clothes up in the one closet, stacked their two suitcases in a corner. And then sat down in one of the room's three chairs. The varnished wood floor had one thin rug with a dark, indeterminate floral pattern, and Veronica spent some time looking at this, then at the blue walls, the white ceiling, and the square table that sat beneath the window. Outside was the street, and it was not a remarkable street. Across the street were small apartment houses with apartments like the one she sat in now. Parked along the street was a selection of more or less battered cars.
Remarkably, Veronica did not turn on the television. Brian supplied all the noise, and more, that Veronica needed in her life. She did not crave supplementary noise in his absence. But to vary the day, she wandered into the kitchen, tried the hot and cold-water faucets, and eyed the spare collection of cookware and table service, all of the jelly jar or flea market or buy-one-get-one-free variety. There was no food, and Veronica was getting hungry now.
She dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and rubber sandals, and made sure she had the other of the two apartment keys. She carried her wallet in her back pocket, like a man. She had not carried a purse since high school. Her wallet was of soft brown leather. She had made it in a crafts class at a summer camp her parents had sent her to when she was ten. The wallet held four dollars. It rarely held much more than that. In it was also a driver’s license issued in Dade County, Florida, which had a picture of Veronica from two years earlier, but carried the name Monique Declerque. Brian had arranged this. His own license had a picture of him, clean-shaven and crew cut, with the name Davis Van Addy. Veronica didn't know that you could go to jail for this. Brian hadn't bothered to tell her. She figured that if a cop found her false identification, he might yell at her and take it away, and that would be about it.
Outside her apartment door she found a hallway so small, with the other apartment door so near, that she closed her door quietly. It was only eight-thirty. She crept down the stairs. On the ground floor, an apartment door was open, and she could hear the rugged lowing of a vacuum cleaner. She hurried past without looking in, and went outside. At the sidewalk, she paused to decide in which direction she might find an avenue with stores, and then she headed east.
This was freedom. Not knowing where you were or why. Not recognizing any of these homes. Across the street a man shut the door of his house behind him and headed toward one of the parked cars. He looked at Veronica and she looked away to avoid giving or receiving a greeting. She wanted to maintain this state of freedom even as she passed down the street and recognized that the avenue ahead of her was busy with cars and people. She didn't know them and they didn't know her.
Twenty years before, she had enjoyed wandering beyond the limits of her parent's yard, down the street and around the corner into another street, just to be alone. There would always come a point where she would have to turn back. Fear would creep up on her and she would retrace her steps until her parent's house was back in view. And then a sense of disappointment or regret would come over her. There was only so far she could go, she knew, before she would have to come back. It was the same now.
Veronica stood at the corner of the avenue, wondering in which direction to turn. To her right there was the sudden honk of a horn. She chose left, crossed Clairmount and wandered up Linwood, her eyes down. She was afraid, being the only white girl as far as she could see. It was bad enough being visible, but to be so visible, so visibly different, made her self-conscious. As she walked she let her arms swing. Then she put her hands in her pockets. Then she took one hand out, and then stopped with relief at a newspaper box. She had some change in her pocket, so she found a dime and bought a paper.
"Say, baby, what's happening?"
Veronica looked up, found herself addressed by a young black man, and was mortified at her inability to reply. She was shy under any circumstances. And she was severely literal. It was bad enough to encounter conversation, or even a question, at any time. It didn't occur to her that the man's remarks were a simple greeting and could have been answered with any noncommittal acknowledgement. In addition, this was a young black man, and he had called her baby. He was younger than her, bigger and stronger than her, and, from his expression, she could not tell whether he was friendly, unfriendly, or in the opening stages of a physical attack. But she was a radical, she thought, and was supposed to respond instantly to black people for what they were: victims of the oppressor. Comrades.
"Damn. I insult you, or what?"
"No. I… I was just looking at the paper."
The man waited.
"Caught you off guard?"
"I see, I see," the man nodded and rubbed his chin.
"You don't like being taken by surprise. Afraid of the stranger. The strange black man, coming out of nowhere…"
"I don't… It's got nothing to do with being black. I just woke up."
"Ah! Still sleepy. There you go. Well, baby, we can take care of that. What do you say we get a cup of coffee? We're right about two doors down from the best cup of coffee in town. Come on."
The man put a hand on her shoulder, urging her along the avenue to a door that jingled when it opened, and then she was sitting in a booth across from the man, who had somehow, in his endless flow of words, introduced himself as Roberto, and picked up that her name was Veronica.
"How's that coffee? You like it black? You don't put cream or sugar in it or nothing? I like both." Veronica watched his hands as he poured cream from the small tin pitcher, emptied in two sacks of sugar, stirred.
"I always put in cream and sugar because when we were kids you really had to get whatever you could to eat, and so that made coffee more like food, you see what I'm saying? My mama made coffee all day long. She and my aunt," he said, rhyming it with haunt instead of ant, "drank coffee all day. No harm in that.
"Aunt Brenda was blind from birth and my mama worked at home. She typed letters for a lawyer. There were about a dozen different types of letters, you see, for these clients, all about the same type of stuff. I think they were reports, some of them. And Aunt Brenda could fold the letters, put them in envelopes, put a stamp on them, and get us kids to mail them. We must have mailed a couple dozen letters every single day. Can you believe that about my aunt, with her being blind and all?"
"They worked hard," Veronica agreed. "What did the letters say?"
"I don't know. Legal stuff. 'Pay me some money!' or something like that. My mama would lay them out as she finished them, and there would be, oh, maybe seven eight stacks of letters. And I mean to all different people. And Aunt Brenda would envelope them up, and, I mean, I never once knew a time in my life that she even got one single one of them wrong. Or if they were wrong, I don't know, we never found out about it."
"My father is a lawyer."
"That so? Well, you know what I'm talking about then. I don't know if we ever even met this lawyer. This white guy, a young guy, too young to be the lawyer, anyway you could tell he wasn't a lawyer yet, but he sure was headed there he would come by every week and drop off an envelope of cash. No checks. That's something about lawyers. This guy was smart. I'm not sure if he was Jewish. Are you Jewish?"
"No problem if you were. Everyone's something. But you could tell this was all off the books. But, my God, my mama could type! Before she had all us kids there was eight in our family, I'm the baby, three of my brothers are dead she'd been a secretary. For a lawyer. Not for this one. At a law firm. But, damn, mama and my auntie drank a hell of a lot of coffee. And didn't eat a whole hell of a lot. Which is where I got the whole cream and sugar thing."
And the whole caffeine thing, Veronica decided she hadn't had time to look around the room, much less interrupt. Roberto never took his eyes off her. He was an attractive man, in a squirrelly way. His head was small and round, with small, close-set ears, eyes, and smooth, dark brown skin. He had somehow finished his cup of coffee, and had it twice silently refilled by the old woman who served them without Veronica's ever seeing him stop talking long enough to drink. Now the old woman gave Veronica a refill, too.
"You hungry? I ate breakfast already. I've been up since six. My oldest brother Del is a distribution manager for the newspaper. That paper you got, he put it in that box where you bought it. I help him out but I don't want to get a full time job there. I don't feel like working yet. I guess I better. He says I have to. I live with him and his wife. You should get the pancakes. They make good pancakes here. Everything they make here is good."
Veronica looked at the waitress. The waitress limped arthritically off to the kitchen.
"What do you want to do?" Veronica said.
"I think I could do just about anything," Roberto said breezily. "Except be a doctor," he added, with sudden dejection. "I couldn't stand cutting people up like that. If there's one thing I can't stand," Roberto said, shaking his head, "it's the sight of blood." He gave an exaggerated shudder.
"Doctors don't always have to operate on people. You wouldn't have to be a surgeon. You could be a psychiatrist or something. How old are you?"
"Sixteen." Roberto shook his head decisively. "No. I wouldn't want to be a psychiatrist. I don't think. I'd have to look into it more."
"Have you… Are you still in school."
"I'm temporarily out of school. We'll see. I went to a psychiatrist for a while when I was a kid. We had some trouble in the family, and as a result, I had to see a psychiatrist a couple times." Roberto slouched in a corner of the booth and held up the coffee spoon for critical inspection until Veronica understood that he desired an interrogatory comment.
"What happened? Was he? How did he act?”
"He didn't act like nothing. He just sat there. He had these damn glasses and he always had his mouth open. I don't know if he couldn't hear or couldn't think or couldn't talk or what. I don't remember his even looking at me. I was supposed to go see him six times, but after the second time I went to see him I just stopped going. I said, 'well, good-by.' And he still didn't say anything."
Veronica didn't know whether she should ask what sort of family trouble had brought Roberto to the psychiatrist. Her pancakes had come, and she kept an eye on Roberto, swallowed, and then said, "These are good."
Roberto straightened up and beamed. "Of course they're good. I wouldn't steer you wrong, girl."
What's this girl business, Veronica wondered. Roberto let her pay for his coffee, and sauntered beside her as she returned to the apartment. He provided the lion's share of a conversation that continued without interruption throughout the four-block walk, while Veronica's thoughts raced over what she should do if he happened to ask himself in.
Roberto had somehow gotten her to tell him that they had just arrived in town the day before, and that they were from Connecticut, and that they had met in college and that her husband taught, but that he wasn't doing it right now. She had never put together a coordinated story about her life with Brian, but Roberto hardly seemed interested. Before Veronica could think up a sound reason why he could not visit, Roberto said, "Well, Veronica, you take care. I got to go. I've got stuff I got to do, but you make it down to my corner anytime for breakfast or lunch or dinner or whatever. And bring the teacher, too. He's welcome. You take care."
With that, Roberto speeded his steps and then shouted at two young men in the next block. Without moving any faster, Roberto walked a few paces with extra velocity of elbow and shoulder movement while the two men waited, looking past him at Veronica. When she realized she was being stared at, Veronica turned and hurried up the walk to the apartment house door.
Back in her room, Veronica sat in the armchair and waited for her heart to stop pounding. The man could talk.
The cops who had rescued Brian at eight o' clock that morning had lunch together at noon at Gus's. But not without a preliminary discussion about the bill for the meal not yet ordered or eaten. Jerry Fanner, who was driving that day, hated to pay for anything, felt cheated whenever he did, worried continuously about money, and assumed everyone was the same way. In fact, Jerry skimmed and stole and schemed and double-dipped more than anyone else, out of a desperate fear that everyone else was in on something that had gotten past him. This made Jerry a fun guy to have lunch with for Schweitzer, the blonde detective, and Timook, the dark detective.
"Today it's on Jerry," Timook said, as he rolled himself out of the patrol car.
"What?" Jerry said.
"Yeah," said Schweitzer, "Today's on Jerry."
"Why? Why on me?"
"You know why."
"You damn well know why."
"Why? I don't even like coming to this place. This bastard always makes you pay. Why do we come here?"
"'Cause we like it," Timook said. He courteously held open the door at Gus's for some old colored lady. Jerry flipped his hands at Schweitzer to make him enter next. Jerry didn't like to have both the men behind him. Schweitzer's big flat face turned away and the big kraut went in, giving Timook a gracious nod. Jerry flipped his hands at Timook's sun glassed face.
"Ladies first," Timook mumbled, and stood immovably at the door.
They had to wait for a booth, the two big heavy men, and nervous Jerry. Half the crowd in the diner was black, half everything else. It seemed a little quieter than usual. It was the two big heavy-faced cops who picked up on this, not Jerry, who could be nervous without being nervously perceptive. Jerry's nerves were purely on Jerry's behalf.
A booth opened up. Four construction workers dropped bills and change on the table and walked out past the cops. One of Gus's granddaughters collected the cash, wiped down the table and waved in the men.
"Yep," said Timook, in unsmiling satisfaction with his joke, "this one's on Jerry."
The big guys perused menus while Jerry fidgeted. "Alls I'm getting is soup. Or a salad, so I'm not splitting any goddamn bill."
"We're not splitting any bill either," Schweitzer said. "You're picking up the whole thing."
Rudolf Schweitzer had a head that started big in the neck and chin and tapered upward to a brief, wavy celebration of dark blonde hair. His eyes were clear hazel, he had freckles across his nose, his lips were big and rubbery and his teeth were childishly even and white. These school-boyish qualities were gruesome when blown up to Schweitzer proportions. He had been smart in school, and good at wrestling and football. The only "problem area," so-called in his report cards, was a sense of fun that always veered off into violence. Schweitzer had come to police work after two years in the army, spent in Germany, more or less as a cop. Being a cop was enjoyable work (when you did it Schweitzer-style), with plenty of opportunities for bulling people around. Schweitzer enjoyed every day of it. Last year he had qualified for detective. He had a wife and one son living on the east side of town, on Chalmers.
Jack Timook was an Aleut, but never said anything about it. His family had come to Detroit from Seattle when Timook was twelve. That is, he was old enough to know that his people were considered garbage in Seattle. Growing up in Detroit, going to Denby High, Timook had felt the weight shift off his shoulders and onto those of the colored. He knew it. He regarded black people with silent complicity, and some of them, he sensed, seemed to know it. The fact that Timook didn't discriminate was not remarkable on the police force. He wasn't the only one. Schweitzer was the same. In Schweitzer's case, it was an athlete's condescension. Race, no barrier: everyone received equal treatment. It wasn't a case of favoring blacks so much as providing an equal whupping down for whites. In fact, one of the perks of police work for Timook was busting upper class people on vice charges. He could tell you stories. Timook's secret was that Timook used to be colored, in Seattle, but had moved out of it. Women thought he looked exotic.
"…Give me that shit, picking up the whole thing…"
"You're picking up the whole thing," Timook said, his voice resonating in a sinister baritone.
"So how you guys doin'?" Gus stood like a huffing apparition. His white, wiry hair crinkled toward the ceiling. Gus wore glasses that looked like the first opthamalogical experiment in plastic, a terrible pinkish color, with one lens opaque black because there was no eye behind it. People who looked up at Gus from a side angle always looked away fast. Even these guys. Jerry, who sat on the open side, felt his hair beginning to rise.
"Doin' good. How you doin'?" said Timook. Schweitzer did not talk to Greeks unless he had something devastating to say.
"S' how's the soup?" said Jerry. "What you got today?"
"It's, uh, bean. No. Yeah! Navy bean soup."
Jerry considered. "I'm just gonna have salad."
"Gimme the bean soup," Timook said. "And a hot roast beef sandwich."
"Hot roast beef," murmured Gus, reverentially.
"Jesus," Schweitzer said. "Hot roast beef on a freaking hot day. You gotta be nuts. Gimme a club sandwich, French fries."
"Club. Fries," whispered Gus. "What you wanna drink?"
Ice tea. Gus hooked away.
"That guy," Jerry said, "he's always got his hands under his apron. It's like he's playin with himself or something. That's one reason I don't like coming here."
"On top of you having to pay."
Schweitzer had smiled at Jerry's remark about Gus's hands. It was true. They were always behind his apron, and they were always in action. Schweitzer had to decide whether to refer to this, in baiting Jerry, or to fall back on Jerry's picking up the bill.
"I ain't payin for shit, other than my share. Fuck you guys."
"You're paying." Timook took off his sunglasses and gave Jerry the full effect of a pair of eyes blacker than the sunglasses. Timook actually used sunglasses to shade his eyes. He could intimidate even better without them than with them.
"You're paying, or I'm gonna kick your ass."
"And I'm gonna hold his coat," said Schweitzer, shaking with laughter.
Jerry decided to change the subject. "For an ugly old fucker, Gus has got a cute daughter."
"That's his granddaughter. And Gus is my friend. I'll kill you for lookin at that kid."
Schweitzer shook. The soup and salad arrived. Schweitzer crunched crackers into his bowl and went loudly to work with the spoon. Jerry dabbed at the salad.
"You're gonna be farting all day," Timook observed."
"Good," said Schweitzer.
The meal continued as agreeably as it had begun. As soon as Jerry was done with his salad, he got up and headed for the kitchen.
"Where's he goin?" Schweitzer said. Timook shook his head in disgust. Jerry came back in a hurry.
"Okay, let's go."
"Where's the bill?" Timook said.
"Go go go," Jerry said, flipping his hands.
Schweitzer slid out of the booth and headed for the door. "Thanks Gus," he said, and gave a wave without turning around.
"I'm going to kick your ass," Timook said as Jerry hustled away. But he followed the other two out the door and into the glare.
Timook took over the driving, and Schweitzer sat beside him up front. Jerry didn't fight it, even though it was his car and he was supposed to be driving. They headed up Woodward only as far as Cadillac, then turned right and proceeded at normal speed back toward the police station on Beaubien.
"Jerry," Timook asked, "You get what you need?" He had dropped the menacing tone, as if he could not be bothered to harass on a full stomach.
"Hell, no," Jerry said.
"You didn't see anything?"
"What about that guy?"
"The nutty professor. The beard."
Jerry had not thought so at the time. He considered.
"I don't think so. He didn't seem to have much of an idea of anything."
"I thought he looked suspicious as hell," Schweitzer said.
"Then why didn't you speak up?" asked Timook.
"I got everything I wanted when we talked to him. He says he's not from around here. He's from Connecticut. But you can tell by the way he talks about the place that he knows the town. And I know that the only place where he could rent around that area is on Clairmount or Atkinson or Hazelwood or around there. He teaches at Wayne, or is supposed to? We can check that. He's a fucking troublemaker. It's hanging out of his beard.
Jerry and Timook were silent after this speech. It was rare for Schweitzer to go on at that length.
"After you guys drop me off, why don't you go back and get a second look at that guy."
No one spoke for the rest of the ride, until Jerry got out at the Beaubien station. Then Timook turned the car back toward Woodward, north.
"We'll just take a look," Timook said. Schweitzer raised and lowered his eyebrows, sleepy from his meal.
Ramos, with Jaimie in the seat beside him, started up the Dart. They drove west, back toward Connor, from which Jaimie had just come on her short but industrious jaunt with the plant worker. This here Mex was a different sort. A nervous hood. She hoped he wasn't on smack or something that would hold him down, and keep her working for God knew how long.
"Drives like fuckin' dog, don't it?" Ramos said. The Dodge Dart was roaring as if it was grinding a new gear for itself somewhere between second and third.
"Yeah," Jaimie said, though she had just assumed it was Ramos not knowing how to drive. Her policy was not to be critical of a guy.
"You from the country?"
"I sure ain't from here," Jaimie said, looking out at the street.
"What do they call you?"
"That's a guy's name."
"Not like I spell it," Jaimie said, and she spelled it out.
It figured. The first thing a bitch does is, Ramos knew, was think up some crazy-ass way to spell her name.
"You can call me Ramos."
"Okay, Ramos. Where we headed? I can get us a room."
"No. I don't want no room. I know a place."
Ramos spotted a small market with a screen door already open for business. He pulled up in front of it and took a five out of his wallet, holding it up in two fingers, not looking at Jaimie.
"Get a six pack. And a couple bananas. Get yourself some cigarettes, too, if you want.
Jaimie walked around to the front, wondering about the bananas, hoping the guy was just hungry or something. Ramos watched the door tensely until she reappeared.
They continued down Warren to Connor, then turned south, the heat of the asphalt, even this early, rose like haze over a pan of hot grease, making the street dance. Ramos ate both bananas, throwing the peels out the window. Then he had Jaimie hand him an opened beer. Driving one-handed, he finished it in three long pulls and belched sonorously. Jaimie smoked a Kool and hoped Ramos would forget about his dollar or so of change.
Ramos drove one-handed and sipped his second beer. To their left, the sun peered cautiously over the ragged roofline of working people’s homes. Yellow light smeared backyard sugar maples, crab apples and stunted elms, igniting leaves feverish with an implausible vigor, drawn up somehow from the dust. Pedestrians collected in wary knots at the corners, waiting for buses, or waiting for a chance to cross, darting headlong through the traffic, bowing beneath the downpour of heat and glare.
Jaimie didn't give a damn about the scenery. She tossed her cigarette butt out the window. "Where we going?"
"I can get us a room."
"I hate rooms."
"What do you like?"
Ramos told her.
"Forty," Jaimie said. She knew it was steep, but she knew she was pretty.
Ramos swerved the Dart to the curb and stopped. "See you later," he said.
"What's the problem?"
"What's the problem?"
"Okay, twenty-five. I've gotta make a living, you know."
Ramos wrenched the Dart back out into the traffic.
"You think I'm Mexican," he muttered. "That's where you get this forty dollar shit. I'm no Mexican. I'm Cherokee."
Jesus, Jaimie thought. "Ramos," she said, "it don't make no difference to me. Besides, I knew you was an Indian, anyway. I’m part Indian myself."
Jaimie slapped him on the thigh. "Any old part you want, chief!" She gave a shout of laughter. When Ramos didn't join in, she put herself on the alert, getting a feel for whether or not she was in danger. She could jump out at a light, or even while they were moving, if she had to. It wouldn't be the first time she'd done it. But, sneaking a look at him, no warnings went off. He was just one of these unsmiling types. She patted his thigh.
All this driving around though, she hoped it would be worth it. So far about twenty minutes had passed, and this was the hardworking part of the day. She had the cigarettes and over a dollar in change. The first guy had been an easy trick for a good twenty bucks. Say a half hour for this guy, twenty-five. Then maybe she could get him to drop her off at a good spot. She lit another cigarette.
By the time they crossed the Belle Isle Bridge, the haze had been carried away by a light breeze. On the island, the grass had been newly cut and sewn with sparks of iridescent dew. The sky was such a high, clear blue it reminded Jaimie of Nevada. Ramos drove slowly. He felt drugged. A cold weight hung in his stomach. He followed the perimeter of the island, passing joggers, dog-walkers and fishing men and women. When he passed the Dossin Lake Museum, he turned left and crossed the old stone bridge into the island’s interior. He followed the road into the woods by the zoo and parked in the shadow of an enormous stand of lilac. The scent filled the car, and the shade chilled him. He moved the seat back, closed his eyes and said, “Okay.”
He could barely feel her. He tried to move, and he tried to think of things that would get him started, but nothing worked. There was only the smell of lilac, the chill of his evaporating sweat, and the egg of fear locked inside him. He took Jaimie by the hair and pulled her off him.
"Hey, easy man!"
Ramos started the Dart and drove out onto the main road. They began another slow circuit of the island. Just as they came abreast of the fountain, to their left, and the city, across the channel to their right, Jaimie said, “Stop here.”
Ramos pulled over and slid the seat back again. “Have another beer,” Jaimie said. She took one from the paper sack and twisted off the cap. Ramos listened, eyes closed, as she unbuckled her belt and unzipped. A brace of overweight joggers thumped past, their footsteps slapping a slow duet on the blacktop. Everything faded away except the sound of water and the feeling of the river breeze.
When it was over, Ramos suddenly held her hard by the back of the neck and pulled her close again. “Don’t move,” he whispered against her ear. He held her until she relaxed. When he let her go, she drew away from him, and there was the silence of mutual embarrassment. Ramos looked through the bills in his pocket, pulled loose a twenty and a ten and gave them to her.
“Out,” he said.
“Out? I need a ride back.”
“Listen, Chief . . .”
“Didn’t you say you was a chief?” Jaimie said. “You’re an Indian, right? So I thought you was a chief.” She cringed.
“What are you mad for?” she said. “I gave you what you asked.”
Ramos looked at his watch. He had a half hour to get to Antoine’s. The margin of time that had stood between him and his day’s work had diminished and now was gone. An then it occurred to him that this girl might be able to help. He started the car.
“You want a beer?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “Now you’re talking.”
She reached into the sack, took a beer and twisted off the cap. She held it between her legs as she lit another Virginia Slim, then she slid back cozily in her seat and looked out the window at the day.
Could she do it, Ramos wondered. She probably could. She was young enough to still have some brains. He would pay her a little.
“Tricking for yourself?” he asked, as they headed east on Jefferson.
“Yeah,” she said, still looking out the window.
Bullshit, Ramos decided. If she had to be at a certain place at a certain time, she wasn’t tricking for herself.
“You come trick for me. I got a lot happening right now.”
You got a lot happening, and you’re driving this piece of shit, Jaimie thought.
“I got something I got to do today,” Ramos said. “I could use some help. I’ll pay you fifty bucks.”
“A trick?” Jamie asked.
“No trick. I got to settle something up. Take about two minutes, then I drop you off where you was this morning.”
Jaimie watched the Jeffersonian Apartments slide past the window. Ashen towers of cumulus were beginning to clot the sky to the north.
“I don’t know,” Jaimie said. “I got lots to do today myself.”
Right, thought Ramos. “Two minutes,” he repeated. “Fifty bucks. And then I drop you off where you was. That’s an easy morning for you. With smokes and an orange juice and a beer . . . and my change.”
“Well. If it’s just two minutes.”
“Why do you need a stranger?”
“A stranger is just what I need. We’re in and then we’re out. Two minutes, and then you go your way, I go mine.”
“What do I do?”
“I got to check with my partner. This is his deal.”
“I need twenty-five up front,” Jamie said. “ I got expenses like anyone. I can’t just drive around in somebody’s car all day for no money.”
They were stopped at a light, so Ramos dug down and pulled out some bills. He hesitated, and then handed over a twenty and a five. And it will be a freezing-ass day in hell before you get any more, he thought.
Jaimie hitched up in her seat a moment and pushed the bills into the pocket of her jeans. She glanced at the button on the door to make sure it was up, and that she hadn’t accidentally locked it. When to bolt, that was the question. She didn’t know this street that well, but at the next stop, she was gone. He’s in a hurry already, she thought, and he won’t have time to come after me. Sucker.
But there were no more stops. They reached Dickerson with eastbound Jefferson clear for blocks, and Ramos swung hard left toward Kercheval.
“We got to pick up my partner,” he said. After two blocks they stopped in front of a jungle-like bower of pepper plants, stink weed and dandelions. Behind it all was a fire-damaged bungalow with a dead skin of gray paint. By the time Jaimie had her door open, Ramos was right beside her. She followed him, ducking to avoid the wet branches of thick shrubbery that almost roofed the broken walk. They mounted the hollow-sounding steps and stood on the sagging porch.
While Ramos knocked, Jaimie turned her back on the door and looked through the bushes, up and down the street. Clouds had choked the sun. Over the houses across the way, to the west, the sky was a heavy greenish gray. It’s wet too much of the time here, Jaimie thought. The clouds turn the same ugly color as the buildings, and the people’s faces are the same color as the clouds. Dirty. Behind her, Ramos knocked again at the door, louder. Across the street, two young men stood on a front porch, watching them. One of the men went to the door of the house and called inside. In a moment another young man appeared. They stared at Jaimie and Ramos with theatrical hostility.
“Let’s go,” Jaimie said. “Your partner ain’t home.”
At that moment an angry voice sounded inside the house, and the door jerked open, stopping with a clank at four inches, chained. About six feet from the floor an oily slice of face and a single dark eye appeared. Then the door shut. There was a clank as its chain was unhooked, and then it swung open. The men on the porch across the street watched as Jaimie followed Ramos inside. As Jaimie swung the door shut behind her, one of them shouted. The door cut short the cry, but it still rang in Jaimie’s ears as she stood with Ramos and his partner in the foul-smelling darkness. She began to be afraid.
Ramos made introductions: "Jaimie, Antoine. Antoine, Jaimie," he said, nodding his head from one to the other. “I gotta use the phone,” he added, and started down the back hall.
Jaimie found herself being stared at by the strange man. Without meeting his gaze she took a cigarette from her jacket pocket and lit it. She gave the cigarette her whole attention. He continued to stare as she sat down on the edge of an armchair. Leaning forward, she tapped her cigarette against the overflowing ashtray on the coffee table and gave him one quick look. I must have been nuts to come here she decided. She smoked her cigarette and took in the squalor of the dark room.
Antoine stood with his head cocked to one side, as if listening to her thoughts and not liking what he heard. It was a jailhouse technique of gestural intimidation. It made Jaimie feel tired. This was about as ugly a motherfucker as ever walked. Antoine was a short, heavily built black man with a round head topped with an entirely vertical afro beneath which his face shelved off into a series of horizontal creases. From forehead to triple chin, his face was a portrait of hostility in which Jaimie marked a streak of fear. On his left forearm was an encircled pentagram the size of a half dollar. Not a tattoo but an ugly brand. He smelled very bad, and the whites of his eyes were a gem-like red. Another drug lunatic.
“Where’d Ramos pick you up?” he asked.
Jaimie took the cigarette out of her mouth and looked up, squinting, as if she were looking into a bright light. It was a carefully ambiguous look, devoid of antagonism, judgment or fear. Then she looked away, offering neither resistance nor submission.
“He didn't pick me up,” she said. "I picked up him." Jaimie exhaled smoke through her nostrils and studied her nails.
Ramos came back into the room.
“Man, you got anything to eat?” he asked.
Antoine said, “Nothing. There’s coffee, but it’s instant. She can make it for us.”
Ramos dropped down into a red, plastic beanbag chair, patched with duct tape. He let his legs sprawl in front of him. “Make some coffee,” he said. He had smoked the joint in the bathroom. With a numb weakness in her arms and legs, Jaimie realized that Ramos was going to be no help to her if things started to go badly.
“Give me a cigarette first,” Antoine said. Jaimie drew one out of her jacket pocket and handed it over. The man put it in the corner of his mouth, and then inclined his head toward her, his right eye, rosy with broken capillaries, fixing her with a stare. Jaimie took matches from her jacket pocket, and lit his cigarette without looking at him. Antoine puffed a cloud in her face and leaned back slowly on the couch.
“Go make coffee,” he said.
“So what’s happening,” Antoine said to Ramos, when Jaimie had left the room.
“She’s gonna help,” Ramos said. “She can get him to come out.”
“And then what?”
Ramos shrugged. “She don’t know us,” he said. “We drop her off somewhere when it’s over. It’s better than us goin’ in there ourselves. She ain’t gonna tell nobody.”
Antoine was silent, unhappy with the idea. He decided they would just do her when they did the other one. An accident.
“Where’s that coffee?” he shouted.
Jaimie reappeared with a steaming cup that bore the name of a restaurant, enameled in fading letters.
“I want sugar in it.”
Jaimie returned to the kitchen. There was the sound of cupboards opening. “There’s ant in your sugar,” Jaimie said.
“Give me some with no ants, and get it in here. Takin all goddamn day . . .”
Jaimie brought in the coffee. In what he considered a connoisseur-like manner, Antoine sipped it and found it acceptable. Jaimie withdrew inconspicuously to the kitchen. An unwelcome memory had presented itself. She was thinking of a girl she had known whom some guys, for no special reason, had killed in a dope house. They’d done it slow, videotaped it and sold the video.
She was trying to scald out a plastic cup with water from the pot when she realized what she had to do. Right in his eyes. The water was hot enough, and then she would run like hell. An then she noticed the side door, down three steps from the kitchen. It would be easier just to sneak out without his hearing. She moved silently toward the stairs.
She had taken one step down when she heard him in the kitchen behind her. A wave of something like electricity radiated from her gut to her fingertips, to her skull.
“Get back in here,” Antoine said. “I don’t like you where I can’t see you.” And then, spotting the cup on the counter, he crumpled it in his fist and threw it past her down the basement stairs.
I don’t like you where I can see you, motherfucker, Jaimie thought, and as casually as she could, she followed Antoine back into the living room.
“Ramos tell you what we gotta do?” Antoine, sprawled on the couch, scratching, eyes shut, lionish.
Antoine peeled up his tee shirt, showing a heavy slab of belly stitched over with a raised scar. He looked like a mauve football.
“That’s what this motherfucker did to me.” Antoine rolled his shirt back down. “Now what would you do?”
Jamie had nothing to offer on the subject.
“There’s other reasons, too,” Antoine added.
He signed to Jaimie to give him another cigarette and light it. The he leaned back comfortably.
“Alls you do is go in and get him to come out. Be easier that way. After that, we drop you off wherever you want. All there is to it. You in?”
“Good. Get me more coffee.”
Ramos seemed about to fall asleep. Jaimie took Antoine’s cup, knowing she had been handed over to the bigger man. In the kitchen she glanced again at the stairs that led down to the side door. If she got outside, maybe they would not even follow. If they caught her, maybe they would just beat her, not kill her. And, on the third hand, if this whole thing went okay, she could be back on the street in a half hour, at lease fifty bucks to the good … Jaimie was sixteen, with the boundless optimism of youth and criminality.
“What the fuck takin you so long,” Antoine shouted.
Jaimie filled the cup and went back.
“You really in on this?” Antoine asked.
“Ramos said I’d get fifty bucks.”
“Yeah, fifty bucks. You in?”
“Yeah, I’m in. But I need the fifty up front, something like this.”
“You got twenty-five up front already,” Ramos said.
“We got to get the rest off him,” Antoine said. “He carries a lot of cash. We’ll take it out of his pocket, and you’ll get yours.”
Ramos was stuffing something into an old blue vinyl flight bag, searching his pockets, putting on a pair of dark glasses. Antoine got himself off the couch, took dark glasses from the table, handed Ramos the car keys he had dropped.
And then they were out on the porch. Jaimie squinted in the light. Things were getting dreamy. Fear was something you could escape only by letting yourself drift with it. Turn off you mind, Jaimie said to herself. Fingers numb, she lit a cigarette and climbed into the back seat, realizing that the Chevelle was a two-door, and once you’re in the back seat, you stay until the guy in the front lets you out. The started off.
Antoine handed her the flight bag, and asked her for the canvas knapsack on the seat beside her. She handed it up. It was heavy.
There was a clicking and an oily clashing of metal as Antoine put together the shotgun, racked in shells, and loaded the .38.
“How long you leave this in here?” he asked Ramos.
“A night or tow. Why?”
“It better not be fucked up,” Antoine said. “It’s a good gun. You don’t leave it in an old sack in a car. You’re lucky it ain’t rusted up.”
“You’re lucky,” Ramos muttered.
“You’re lucky, motherfucker,” Antoine said, and Ramos stayed silent.
They headed up Chalmers to the expressway. The sparse, dying trees arched high over the road, straining toward the moisture that refused to drop from the sky. Jaimie couldn’t stop yawning. She felt suddenly exhausted and a little bit sick, and she wondered at the way her instincts had misled her about Ramos. No warning. Jaimie flicked her cigarette out the window. No matter how careful you were in this town, it was just a snap of the fingers before you were in trouble.
“Take the expressway to Van Dyke,” Antoine said, and Ramos made a sharp left toward the on-ramp. They had just entered the right lane when all the taillights ahead of them beamed red, and the flow of traffic congealed and stopped. Ramos turned on the radio. An audio equivalent of their world hammered at the air, wrapping them in a sonic shroud as Ramos eased the car forward in ten and twenty-foot jumps.
“This is what’s fucked up the whole country,” Antoine raged. “People let their cars break down every fuckin’ place and tie up the whole fuckin’ traffic. That’s what’s wrecked the fuckin’ economy: everyone late for work because some son of a bitch can’t do proper fuckin’ maintenance.”
Ramos was impressed in spite of himself. You could tell Antoine had done a lot of reading in the joint, the way he could talk about the issues. The Chevelle oozed forward through a sweltering blue haze. The music on the radio was interrupted by an advertisement for a local restaurant.
“I know the cook at that place,” Ramos said. “Guy’s got AIDS. First thing he does when he finds out is spit into the soup.”
Antoine chuckled appreciatively.
“That’s not how you get it,” Jaimie muttered.
“I know,” Ramos, said, “it’s just the idea of it, you know?”
“How far away does this guy live?” Jaimie asked.
“The cook?” Ramos asked in surprise.
“We’re almost there,” Antoine said.
“Because I got to be someplace at noon.”
“You’ll be someplace at noon,” Antoine said. “I guarantee.”
Ramos got off the expressway at Van Dyke. A file of cars did the same, escaping the traffic. After a few turns, they were in a narrow residential street. Ramos drove slowly, and came to a stop two doors down from a small corner market, just off an unpaved alley.
“Park here,” Antoine said quietly. They sat in the car, radio off. There was the sound of traffic on Van Dyke, a few blocks over. Nearer, Jaimie could hear the cries of children playing.
Antoine pointed up the alley at an old, four-story, red brick apartment building in the next street. “See that place?” he said, turning to look at Jaimie. “Guy name Earl lives on the third floor. You go up and get him to come down to the car. You didn’t want to bring it up ‘cause you was afraid someone would grab it in the street.”
“And then what?”
“Then nothing. You walk over here. Me and Ramos will be crouched down, so you won’t see us. And we take it from there. Now tell me what I just told you:
As Jaimie repeated the instructions, a thought struck and her fear dropped away, chased by a thrill of exhilaration. A chant started up inside her: you are lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky.
“Okay,” Antoine said. He leaned forward and popped the door open. Jaimie got out quickly and Antoine swung the door shut.
“Now,” Jaimie said, leaning into the car window and holding her palm open under Antoine’s nose, “a hundred bucks.”
Antoine smiled slowly, incredulously, and said, “Why?”
“So I don’t tell Earl who you are, and what you’re gonna do, and where you live.”
Jaimie met his eyes for as long as she could, but Antoine’s gaze had an impassive finality, an inarguable, implacable opacity. Even if she were to laugh at this point and claim she had been joking, he would kill her. She knew it. He knew it. He was looking at the anonymous corpse of a prostitute. Jaimie settled her weight against the car confidently, and brought her face within a foot of Antoine’s fist.
In that silent moment, an old woman in a quilted wrapper came out of the front door of the house in front of which they were parked. She carried a broom, but she did not sweep. She stood and stared at the strangers.
Antoine unzipped the blue vinyl flight bag, dug out five twenties, and put them in Jaimie’s hand.
“You bring him out here,” Antoine said. “I’ll give you another hundred. I like your style.”
Jaimie folded the money and slid it into the pocket in her jeans and walked off toward the alley, in the direction of the apartment house. Antoine watched, then turned and looked at Ramos. “Say good-bye to your friend,” he said.
Ramos was silent.
“Why’d you give her the hundred bucks?” Ramos said at last, pretending to misunderstand the situation that he had brought about. “She’ll just run.”
“She won’t run,” Antoine said. “She’s too greedy. She’s like a racetrack whore. As long as someone’s got money, and she’s not dead yet, she’ll keep coming back. But she’s done now.”
Ramos did not let it bother him. He did not think Jaimie would return with Earl; she seemed smarter than that. And he didn’t give a damn one way of the other. All he had to do was get from Antoine the money for the stuff in the trunk, and then give that money to a man named Jars out at the airport Ramada Inn. For Ramos, future and past each lasted about 6 hours in either direction before shading off very quickly into darkness.
They watched the people on the street around them. A gang of little kids chatted with an old man with an aluminum walker. The market did a steady business. Another car slid to the curb ahead of them. The driver got out, took empty bottles from the back seat, headed inside.
“Lot of people here,” Ramos muttered.
“That old gimp better get a move on,” Antoine said. He turned and dropped the vinyl bag into the back seat. Glancing around, he quickly put the twelve gauge back with it. Then he got out of the car an got into the back seat himself.
“Who're you back there?” Ramos asked.
“There’s no room for me to duck down up front,” Antoine said.
Ramos thought about the arrangement: Antoine behind him with a shotgun. Jaimie and the punk coming toward them from the left front. The more Ramos thought about it, the easier it was to picture his head getting blown off. The hair on his neck prickled.
“Uh, I don’t like this,” Ramos said at last.
“You don’t like what?”
“You, behind me with that shot gun. I don’t like that.”
“I’m not gonna fire it in the car. You think I’m nuts?”
“Well, what are you gonna do?”
“I’m gonna open this side door, and get out. I’ll be stand-in’ up firkin’. I ain’t gonna fire in the fuckin’ car. You think I’m crazy?”
Ramos thought about it, then reached over, clicked the passenger door open an inch, then pulled the back of the passenger seat forward, clearing the way. “There,” he said. “Now you just gotta push it and jump out.”
“I was gonna do all that,” Antoine said.
They sat silently for a minute, then Ramos looked back and caught Antoine staring at the back of his head.
“Sit mote over that way,” Ramos said, motioning Antoine to the right. After a moment, Antoine moved.
“Good,” Ramos said. “Now crunch down more. Get down so he don’t see your head. Think he’s gonna come walk-in’ up here if he sees you waiting’ with a shot gun?”
“You get down, too,” Antoine said. Both men squirmed lower in their seats.
“I shoulda told her to keep him talkin, so we could hear how close they are,” Antoine said.
“We’ll hear her boots,” Ramos said.
They were silent for another moment, and then Antoine whispered, “Okay, so we hear them come up to the car. Soon as they’re close enough, I say, ‘Now!’ and then I jump out and fire on him. You get out too and fire on him. I get back in the car, you just run up, go in that bitch’s pocket, get that hundred, and we’re outta here.”
“What?” Ramos said.
“Just run up, grab that cash out of her pocket…”
“I’m not turnin anyone’s pockets out for a hundred bucks. Fuckin’ waste of time.”
Antoine was silent. He had just about had it with Ramos.
“If that bitch gets away and talks…” he began menacingly.
“She ain’t gonna talk. She don’t know nothing. Besides, who gives a fuck about Earl? The cope would thank us.”
Each man squeezed lower in his seat. Ramos could hear a hot breeze in the leaves over the street. He began to sweat. What if Earl had a gun? And then Ramos heard Antoine begin to Wheeze, and the seat shook.
“Now what?” Ramos whispered.
“I’m thinkin’ about earl marchin up here, and the look on his face when he sees us…” Antoine’s head wagged, and he hissed like a radiator.
“The old gimp with the walker…” Catching the spirit of fun, Ramos helped elaborate the scene. They watched the old man. The children had left, but the ghost of a gentle smile still haunted his lips…”Old fucker’ll probably still be inchin along when Earl comes by, cooler’n shit…” the punch line approached, “…and then we come jumpin out, bustin caps!”
“You see Earl tryin’ to run?” Antoine chimed in. “Knockin the old fucker on his ass?”
“Fuckers gonna shit their pants!”
Irresistible tableau: Earl and the old man locked in a polka of terror as Ramos and Antoine threw death at them. The supreme delight of trapping a victim, the thump of shots, the puncturing of bodies – it was too much. They squealed, and wept until the tears ran down their faces. They stamped their feet to keep from peeing their pants. They tried to stop, but the imminent, radiant hilarity of murder kept them going until they were whimpering and side-stitched, furious and terrified at the loss of control. Antoine squeezed his nose, snorted with eardrum damaging force, and cried, “Stop it, stop it, we gotta stop it.” They hushed each other through clenched teeth.
It might have helped if either could have imagined themselves in their victim’s shoes. But it was beyond them. Finally exhaustion wore them down. A couple of times Ramos heard Antoine starting up again, wheezing, making the seat shake. But he kept himself quiet, and it passed.
Jaimie walked slowly through the dust and gravel of the alley to the next street, then took the sidewalk up to the avenue, continuing down the block to the apartment house. She walked slowly and thought fast. I’ve got a hundred bucks and more. But they’re gonna kill me. I gotta run. The voice inside her pleaded, but she had ignored that voice all her life. Something sweeter seemed to beckon. Something almost like a taste, or like having a crush, or like being high. Real life faded as she concentrated completely on the high of fear, and the breathless, dizzying beat of her heart.
Across the street, a gang of kids played basketball in an empty lot. Jaimie moved past them, ignoring their shouts, and went up the apartment house steps. The vestibule stank so bad that for a minute she was afraid she might vomit. Then she pushed the third floor button, and someone buzzed open the door.
Jaimie trudged up three flights to a dark, dust-smelling corridor. One door stood open, emitting voices, smoke, and slowly pumping music. She moved toward it, looked in. Two men turned to stare. Beyond them, inside the room, another man sat on a couch, shuffling a pack of cards, while a fourth man, shirtless, and holding a bottle by the neck, berated him incoherently.
“What you want?” said the man closest to the door.
“Earl here?” Jaimie asked.
No on spoke, except the shirtless, drunken man whose back was to her. The man on the couch, not looking up said, “Who’s lookin’ for Earl?”
Jaimie said, “Simon gave me something to give Earl. It’s down in my car.”
The man put down the playing cards and came toward her. He wore pleated black cotton trousers, thin white socks and leather sandals, and a red shirt, unbuttoned nearly to his waist, with the collar turned up. He wore sunglasses, and his clothes, except for the sandals, which looked new, were as wrinkled and dirty as if he had not changed them for days.
“You got something for me, whynch you just bring it up?” Earl leaned against the doorframe, looming over her.
“I saw the kids and was afraid they might come after me. This ain’t my neighborhood. I locked it up in my car.”
Earl directed the sunglasses at Jaimie for more than a minute, then said, “Might’s well see what you got. I’d call Simon to check you out, but I know he ain’t in. Come on.”
Jaimie followed the man down the hall, her head lowered in inscrutable submission, allowing the man’s languid, confident stride to set the pace for the last moments of his life. A peaceful sense of impending judgment soothed the fear in Jaimie’s stomach. She had caught a glimpse of the pistol in the waistband of the man’s slacks.
Outside, Earl waited for her to show him the direction. She went to the right and he walked beside her, then moved ahead. The boys across the street watched them. “Say, Earl,” one of them called to him. He ignored them.
They reached the corner. There was the car, thirty feet away. They walked toward it. Jaimie could not see either Ramos of Antoine. She wondered if they might have gotten out of the car and hidden in the alley. Then she saw the top of Antoine’s head and, there, beside it, the shotgun barrel. Earl was considering his new huaraches, flecked with alley dust.
“Look,” Jaimie said, and she held out her right wrist, to show him where the posy was tattooed.
“My girlfriend did that last week,” she said.
Earl glanced down at nothing. The girl had taken off at a run toward the market. Earl turned to his right, sinking automatically into a crouch, looking for whatever it was that she must have seen. At that moment, the driver’s side door of the old Chevelle swung open. All became clear.
Ramos crouched in the street, held the .38 up over the top of the open door, and squeezed the trigger hard. Harder. The safety was on. As he fumbled for the button, Ramos watched the stunned look disappear from the man’s eyes, watched the man reach behind him and pull out a gun. Still in a crouch, Earl ran to the right, to Antoine’s side. Antoine, seeing his enemy run toward him, armed instead of empty-handed, and untouched by Ramos, flung himself against the seat in front of him, kicked open the passenger door, and felt the shotgun jerk in his hands. The blast was so loud inside the car that he thought the noise had come from Ramos’s head, a quarter of which had just departed in red spray.
Antoine stumbled into the street, tripping on the doorframe and landing with all his weight on the hot gun he still held as tightly as a lifeline. With his hands pinned to the concrete by his own weight, he struggled, and then Earl stood over him. Antoine screamed. And then an explosion took place in his head. For a second he was a little kid, crying in the darkness. Then he was nothing.
Jaimie took the car. Why not? Earl had disappeared, and for now, in order to drive, Jaimie placed aside the thought of the tow guys who had been here in the front seat only a few moments ago. She drove down Van Dyke until she was downtown. She was breathing hard and her hands shook, but she would have pronounced herself in good shape. You couldn't let stuff like this get to you. Besides, you've got to learn your lessons, and the lesson learned was not to stray too far out of your own profession. The mistake had been to hook up with that asshole when he hadn't even told her what she was getting into. Stupid.
On the right hand side of the street there was a Red Barn restaurant. Jaime pulled into the lot and went inside. She got herself a coke and burger and fries. She took her tray to a window seat that faced Van Dyke. Automatically, she silently rattled through the prayer her father always said at the dinner table. Then she ate. Jaimie had always had a good appetite, and nothing that had occurred that morning slowed her down in the least. In minutes she was licking a fingertip and lighting a Kool. That bag of shit was still in the car. Take it? No. She didn't use it and didn't know where or how to sell it to anyone else. Besides, you sell something like that and, along with any money you get, you get someone else involved in your personal business. No. She had her hands full as it was, so to speak. The keys were still in the ignition, and she left the Dodge Dart where it was. Fifteen minutes later she was on the bus to Woodward Avenue. This time of day was a little early, but she could still make it out to 12th Street to look up Roberto.
In a half an hour she was at the door of the white frame house on Linwood. She had knocked and now she knocked again. Give him another minute. If he didn't answer the door she would go to the coffee shop and ask his Aunt where he might be. But then the door opened.
"Hey," Roberto said, then looked past and around her up and down the street. "You're up early."
"I haven't been asleep for a day or so. Can I come in? I've had about the worse morning of my life."
"You look okay. Come on."
The front door opening directly into a living room. It was James's place, Roberto's older brother. Sharlene had taken the kids to her mother's place. Their room was neat and had a home smell of good food, cleanliness, and peace. Roberto had met Jaimie six months earlier, pretty much the same way he had met that other funny lady this morning. Jaimie, though, had always been all certainty, all definiteness. They sat on the couch.
"So what happened this morning?"
"I met this guy on the east side. Turns out he's some kind of drug dealer, and the next thing I know I'm with him and his partner trying to fuck up some other guy who burned them or something."
"Big fucking gun fight. The guy they was after got away but he fucking splattered both of them. I took their car and burned out of there, left the car at some Red Barn."
Roberto laughed, and then got serious. "Anyone see you? You ain't being followed or anything, right? Cause I see as hell can't have any of that shit around here. This James's crib. And the kids and everything."
"Nobody saw me, nobody knows me. I was invisible.
"Can you do me a favor?" Jaimie asked.
"Let me crash here for awhile. I haven't slept."
"Where are you staying? Why don't you go back to your place and just crash until night?"
"I'm staying at that place near Euclid and Woodward, Seven Oaks Motel. I don't like going in and out in the daytime there. I can't sleep there. I work there, and I don't want to run into anybody right now."
"So you want to sleep here until, when?"
"Til' about seven or so. Things will be quieted down by then and I'll go back there. I can hitch a ride."
Roberto thought about this. Sharlene wouldn't be back until nine or ten. She always stayed to supper at her mama's. So that was no problem. Roberto just wasn't sure he wanted to spend the day with Jaimie, and didn't know if he knew her well enough to just leave her alone in the house. Didn't want to be unsociable or anything, but he couldn't have Jaimie here. It even concerned him a little each time she showed up at the door. What she did for a living was pretty obvious to the neighbors.
"I was just about thinking of going out, " Roberto said. "I don't care if you sleep or something but, you know, I just can't wait while you sleep. Besides, I don't… well, I like you and everything but, having you just staying all day here…
"Roberto, I won't touch a damn thing. I won't do anything but just sleep, and as soon as I can't sleep anymore I'll split. Won't be any problem, I promise. You can trust me."
Roberto mulled this over, then decided, this being the way it was, they could manage a kind of swap, first, then she could sleep her head off…
The clock in the motel office, visible through the locked glass door, said eleven-fifteen, but Dunc Moebus's watch said three thirty-five, and as he stood at the door next to this blonde hooker, Dunc was beginning to think this was one of the dumber moves he'd made in his life.
Jaimie rapped again at the glass. From over to the west somewhere, rifles cracked. Dunc was getting nervous. Jaimie wasn't that calm herself. Some sort of shit had started over in Roberto's neighborhood, and instead of fading out it seemed to be getting bigger. And it was going to scare off this chump if Jaimie didn't get things moving fast.
"There's nobody there," he said. He pulled at Jaimie's arm. "There's nobody here to let us in. I don't want a room anyways. Let's just go in the van." He referred to the battered vehicle with Heany's Electronics effortfully painted on the side that sat fuming and rattling ten feet behind them. The guy was afraid to turn off the van in case he had to run for it, and was afraid of leaving it running for fear that someone would steal it. Right now he was shifting from foot to foot and sweating heavily.
"Relax," Jaimie snapped, pulling her arm away from the old man. "The girl's just out for a second. She'll be back."
"I don't know…"
"Sit tight." Jaimie rapped on the glass again. A car full of black kids sped north on Woodward. "This a nigger neighborhood, motherfucker," one kid yelled. "Get your fuckin' white ass outta here."
Dunc need no second invitation. The carload of black kids had raced through the light at Euclid, but was now executing a U-turn. Dunc decided he was no longer in the mood for a piece of ass. He scuttled toward the chugging van.
"Hey, where you going?" Jaimie yelled. But Dunc was running now. The kids' car arrowed toward the motel. Dunc jumped into the van. In his desperation he turned the key in the ignition of the already-running vehicle. The starter motor shrieked. The carload of kids bumped up the short drive into the parking lot and came to a prancing halt directly behind the van. The last of the kids had gotten out just one second before Dunc reversed directly into the car's right side. The smash shoved the car three feet. Harris screamed. It was his father's car. They had intended no more than to throw a scare into this cracker, but now the crew pounced on Dunc's van, punching the windshield, kicking its sides. Dunc's face was inspirational, to anyone interested in provoking sheer terror. Gathering his wits, the cracker threw the van into drive, turned sharply, wiped out a section of wrought iron fence, and crashed and bounced out onto Woodward.
With the front bumper dangling loose, and one rear tire flat and whapping loudly on the pavement, Dunc swerved out into the center lane and churned his way north. It was only about four miles out of Detroit, a long way to Berkley, but he had no intention of stopping until he got there. And if he got there, he swore to himself, he would never ever come south of Eleven Mile Road as long as he lived.
Roberto popped a few caps with the pistol. The crew watched the van as long as it's tail lights could be seen, and as long as the flat tire beat out its tattoo on the street.
"There goes one shitty-assed motherfucker," Roberto said.
"Look what the motherfucker did to my daddy's car," Harris said. "What the fuck am I gonna tell my dad?"
The boys inspected the damage, trying to feel sympathy for Harris, but there was something coolly drastic about the bashed-in car. Everyone felt glad that it wasn't their father's car, but felt that Harris should not let himself get so worked up as to spoil the evening.
"You just tell the truth," Roberto advised stoically. "Fucking honkie smashes into you. Not your fault man. The fucker takes off before we could catch him."
"We'll help pay for it," Jen suggested. There was some indefinite murmuring of assent to this, but not enough to lighten Harris's mood. He knew how much faith to put in the offer.
And then the boys noticed Jaimie standing at the glass door of Seven's House. Serena Howell had arrived to open the door, and Jaimie was in the lobby. She looked back, clearly with no fear of them. Then she pushed open the glass door and came over to meet them.
"I saw the whole thing," Jaimie announced. That fucker slammed you while you was parked, and then took off. I'll give a statement to the cops."
"See that," Roberto said. "She'll give a statement. Cops'll get that motherfucker for leaving the scene."
Harris felt a little better.
"So what's happening?" Jaimie said.
"Every kind of shit," Roberto said. "What's happenin with you, baby?"
"Nothing but the fact that you just scared off the last date I'll have all night, probably."
"You got us."
"No. My man Raphael has got me. You know him?"
Roberto nodded. "You with him?"
"Yeah. You want to come up to our place?"
Roberto shook his head. "You come down to our place."
At the Self-Betterment House, life was good. Actually, life was good one floor up from the Self-Betterment House. The Self-Betterment House was what the ground floor was called in the daytime. It was supposed to be some sort of community center where you could go and find out how to get jobs. But since almost no money had ever been supplied for this function, it had never really gotten off the ground, Otis Harkin, the man who owned the Laundromat on the ground floor, had made the upstairs into an after-hours club. Easy to do. You just put in a length of Formica kitchen counter, bought some duty free booze in Canada, couple cases of pop, and a record player. Tonight there was a party for Dwight Harkin, Otis's little brother, who was leaving next week for 'Nam, and for Treat Harkin, who, the week before, had just returned from 'Nam. The joint was packed. The atmosphere was a little wilder than usual, since there were about twice as many players and their gals as you would normally have in the pig. Most Saturday nights in the winter, it would be just a dozen or so old guys playing chess or euchre or pinochle or bridge. Summertime, though, the girls came out. And tonight it was young men and girls both. The old guys had been pushed to the walls, and most of them had gone home by now.
Fernando Arcola glanced around at the brothers and sisters laughing, talking joking. If you judged Fernando entirely from his thoughts, and not from his actual and immediate environment, you might have thought Fernando stood at the edge of a vast garden or some gilded pavilion at twilight, instead of in this dark and smoky confine. Here he leaned his belly on the bar and counted a good night's profit from the neighborhood folks who packed the room. A few too many. It was for certain that they would get raided again some time soon. Fernando hoped it would not be tonight. Too much business.
So thought Wallace Gaines, too, as he stood out on the street, a few doors down from the club. Too much business. Gaines was a cop. He had been refused entry to the club earlier that evening. Even though he was black, something had struck the bouncer as not right. "You from out of town? the guy asked. When Gaines had explained that, yeah he was from out of town, the bouncer had quietly but firmly closed the door in his face. Gaines was not easily discouraged, and he had been told many times that he had a lot of nerve.
This part of the job was not difficult. Timing was the big thing. The dangerous did not bother him. Gaines could handle danger. He was divorced, no kids, no one really depended on him, and he hated being bored. All this required was for him to buy a drink, and then call in his guys. In every other raid he had been on, the people in the club had gone more or less quietly. No reason for it to be any different tonight. There were just a few more people than usual. They would shut down the joint, make a few arrests and, if they got the paperwork out in time, he would have Sunday off.
He ought to have a partner, though, and he wondered where the hell Timook was. They had talked at the station that afternoon. Gaines glanced at the slow, cruising traffic on 12th. It should have gotten a little quieter by now, two o'clock. Well, people have to have fun. Gaines jaywalked across, and then loitered a few doors down from the pig simply to be doing something. He couldn't screw around for much longer, though. He was lighting a cigarette when, his elbow was jostled. He turned to see two sisters, in party clothes, headed toward the pig.
"Say, ladies," Gaines addressed them, "everything shakin but the bacon, and you're lookin' good too."
The women turned. One frowned, the one Gaines would have been least likely to have addressed, and the other, creamy and attractive, laughed.
"Where the hell you get off, mister?" the laughing one said. Her friend looked indignant, or sober.
"Just can't help myself. Something just come over me when I see a couple fine sisters as you heading out on a night like this."
"Goin' to the club."
"Well, that's all right. That's just where I'm goin' myself"
"You go where you want man, but we don't know you. I don't think you'll be accompanying us."
"Hell, I ain't accompanying you. Just want to buy you a drink, is all. You'll let me do that, right."
"They were walking together now, Gaines between them. He was a smooth guy. Now the one who had frowned was smiling at him, and the one who had smiled was frowning. They got to the door of Self-Betterment and Gaines followed them up. He hoped someone different would be on the door. He was just too big a guy to show up alone and get let into a place. Now he stayed a stair step below the women as they flirted their way past the doorman. Then Gaines brushed through himself, sticking the tightly rolled tube of a ten into the breast pocket of the bouncer's nylon shirt.
Place is packed Gaines realized. Guys hunched over the pool table and hooked over the shoulders of girls, a blue haze of smoke, shoulder-high everywhere, with music blowing through it and animating it with jerks, swoops and shuffles into a melody of laughter and inebriated pleasure. Gaines hated to bring the whole thing down. But he knew the shutdown would only be temporary. Give it a couple months; it would break out someplace else. He wasn't really wrecking the fun so much as just keeping it moving. Maybe even adding to it a little bit, by helping to supply these periodic interruptions. Everyone's got to do something for a living.
Gaines had lost sight of the women for a moment, but that didn't matter. They had only been his ticket in. Now the less attractive of the two was beside him again, clutching at his arm.
"Baby, why don't you get me a seven and seven," she shouted over the club noise. She gave him a sweet smile. Well, why not? That was what he was there for. Besides, it was not entirely out of the question that he and this babe could get something happening, after the bust was over.
Thanks to his size, Gaines was able get through the crowd at the bar without much trouble. He bought two drinks of Seven Crown blended whiskey mixed with 7-Up for himself and his new lady friend, and had to shake his head over the size of the drink. It was bad enough, operating after hours and without a license. But to serve up such a bitty thimble of booze per drink was a crime in itself.
Not surprisingly, his new lady friend took her drink with barely a thank-you and went off to find some other man to chat with. Gaines sipped, and waited. The barman was a thin guy in his forties with a cigarette in his mouth who Gaines recognized from some previous bust. He was on the jump, serving drinks as fast as he could, and not staring too closely at any of the patrons. The pig was pretty slackly operated. But the booze tasted all right. Too bad they had to bust the place. It crossed Gaines mind that they would not have to if the liquor laws were changed so that folks who worked the late shift had places to socialize like everyone who works nine to five. Why didn't they just change the laws? Oh yeah, some congressmen argued that if they changed the laws the country would be less moral. It made no sense, but then, if people's normal appetites were left unlegislated, it would cut out a big area of what legislators spent there days fooling with. So you had to leave it alone. For the good of the legislators.
Gaines tipped his head back and drained his drink, and then noticed the white guy. He stood straight as a telephone pole at the far end of the bar, scowling. Now what would that be about? The folks near him ignored him. Probably some hooker had got him up here to buy drinks for her. He sure didn't look like he was here for the fun of it.
Gaines looked away, and then looked back. Yes, the guy was a story all in himself. You could tell from his clothes he wasn't any kind of swinger. No style. Plus, that ragged-ass beard, the glasses. Some nut. If they didn't bust the place soon, what would happen is that some brother would "accidentally" bump into him, probably near the pool table, and then the guy would get his ass kicked and be tossed out. Good. It's good to see the system at work. The guy should know better.
Then it happened. Back to work. A burst of shouting erupted outside the locked door. Then a series of loud, cracking blows. The door crashed inward, slamming against the wall behind it, just missing the bouncer who had jumped clear. There was a wave of screams and shouts, and the crashing of dozens of glasses dropped at once. The barman disappeared as if by magic. A crush of people headed toward the back, looking for doors, windows, stairways that, Gaines knew, weren't there. Blue shirted, white helmeted cops surged in the door, and the noise modulated downward. Most of the people in the packed room had quieted down, except for some swearing and furniture-kicking over their bad luck. It was not as if this were an unusual occurrence. In a booming voice, the cop in charge of the raid commanded everyone to sit still and behave so that they could get the familiar routine over with in an orderly way. Then a half dozen cops began lining folks up and escorting them down the stairs to the wagons and patrol cars outside.
"This place is in violation, and we're all gonna take a trip to the station now, so just relax," a cop was saying to one guy who he'd felt he ought to pat down for weapons. The guy was complying. In the club, there was no sense of anything out of the ordinary, just yet. Few of the other patrons noticed Gaines as he slipped out. But the girl he'd bought a drink for spotted him.
"You son of a bitch," she cried, as Gaines sidled way past.
"You're welcome, for the drink," he said in a casual baritone. "That's class, when a girl thanks you for buying her a drink."
Then he passed down the stairs and back out into the night. Or early morning, rather. There was the flashing of the lights of the two wagons and two patrol cars. But something was unpleasantly different. The crowd of citizens was two or three times what it should have been. There always was an audience, drawn by the lights, and eager to see people get arrested. And there were always some taunts and cursing. But not like this. Gaines figured there must be two or three hundred people in the street, and more coming. And there wasn't much laughing or joking either; these folks were pissed. Wasn't there anything on TV tonight?
A ragged semicircle had formed along the sidewalk and into the street around the police vehicles. And for some reason, a lot of them were kids. Young men in their late teens, early twenties. Usually, these guys would be at their own parties or at a girl friend's house, by this time. And they were a hell of a lot madder than usual.
"Say, motherfucker, you! White motherfucker. Whynch you get your fuckin' ass the fuck back to your own part of town?"
It was some kid with a big 'fro, and glasses. And he was hot, man. Gaines was taken aback. What was the big deal? This kid must be angry about something else. The cop he was yelling at didn't like it at all. He turned and glared at the kid and at any other time would have given him a swipe in the head with the stick. You could see him think about it now, and not do it. This pissed off Gaines; you don't ever just look as if you're going to swing and then not swing. Gaines stepped into the street, cruising right at the kid, who didn't look at him, Gaines being black. "Yeah you, motherfucker…" the kid was saying when Gaines shot a shoulder-level right directly into his face. The kid's head jerked hard and his glasses fell off, then Gaines shot him the same right and the kid lost his legs, flailed for a second, and went down among his friends. "There wasn't no call to do that, and you know it," another kid said. Gaines ignored him and walked back up unhurriedly onto the sidewalk.
Gaines saw how the cops, busy shoving the folks into three wagons, turned to look at the crowd. "What the fuck you looking at them for Gaines roared at the cops. "Do your fucking jobs and get these sons of bitches the fuck out of here." One white cop stared truculently at Gaines. "Get the fucking lead out of your ass," Gaines advised him. The white cop pouted.
There were at least four hundred people gathered in the street now. Gaines felt adrenaline catch fire inside him as he faced them down, exerting absolute maximum authority. Their voices beat in his face like wings.
"Fuckin' pigs get the fuck out of here. White motherfuckin pigs, and you too, black-ass bastard…"
It was a dozen voices, then two dozen, and it wasn't about anyone's right to buy a drink, and it wasn't just playful fucking around with cops. Gaines wasn't going to debate civil rights with anyone. It was a matter of getting his crew out of here in one piece. Gaines had never had any compunction about, crossing back and forth between law-breakers and lawmakers. Race didn't mean shit to him. The only thing that was black and white was law versus anarchy. No ambiguity there.
Sergeant Leon Voytec was on the radio calling for at least two more cars and another wagon. The crowd was twice as big as they had expected. And it was getting bigger. He did not exactly feel scared, at the moment. Exhilarated, yes. But the point had been to shut down the pig, at least for a few months a routine job. It looked like there were more patrons than they'd counted on, and that was a nuisance. There would more drugs and guns. In other word, more paperwork. But this crowd. Why couldn't these people just go to bed or something? There were a hell of a lot more spectators than there had been folks in the pig. It was this heat. No one can sleep, so they come out and wait for something to happen.
Patrolman Voytec made his call, and wished the whole thing could be hurried along. They were bringing the patrons down the stairs two or three at a time, and loading them into the wagons. And, of course, you get some roughhousing. He'd seen LaGreca twist this one lady's arm, and she let out a shriek. Dulmick, that asshole, had slapped some smoke in the head, right while the whole damn crowd was watching. That never helps matters. Especially when you've got the guy cuffed already. Looks bad. But why the hell were there so many folks out tonight? And all the wrong kind. Kids, hating authority. The first word these kids learn is motherfucker. They must learn it at birth. Say, motherfucker and hey, motherfucker, and motherfucker, gonna get your ass. Voytec hated swearing.
He finished his call and hesitated about what to do next. Greisbach was standing by the other patrol car, looking as doubtful as Voytec felt he must look himself. They couldn't just leave the cars and go help with the arrests. Some one had to watch the cars. Voytec looked from the crowd, to the cops, and the arrests coming down the stairs, and piling into the wagons, and then back to the crowd. And that other kid there. He was going to do something. Gaines had knocked the kid flat, but here he was like one of those boxing dummies with the lead in the bottom. Back upright, swaying, shooting his mouth off.
Then there was this other one. You spend enough time as a cop in some community and you see just about everyone, and you know there face if you don't know their name. But this kid was unfamiliar. He was purple-black, sweating way too much, like he was scared or high on something. He wearing a white T-shirt, and you could see he had muscles, for a skinny kid. His eyebrows were like a heavily written W over his eyes. Yeah, he was drunk or high or something. Every time he shouted, he weaved. And he had no pals around him. No one to keep him in line.
The crowd edged closer. The circle they formed around the police cars and wagons was getting tighter and tighter. There was no laughter, which was odd. Usually they laughed at the cops more than anything else. Especially if some officer fell or got punched or something. That was always a crowd-pleaser. But all the shouting tonight was angry.
Now at least one of the wagons was full. It moved forward slowly, and the crowd wasn't letting it through. When it was just about on them, they moved, but a dozen hands shot out to thump and hammer at the wagon's sides. Breton came down the stairs, last guy out of the joint, and got into the car with Greisbach. They shouted something to Voytec that he couldn't quite a catch. He took it to mean that they were leaving. He watched the officers get into their car. Now, for a moment, he was the only patrolman on the street. This wasn't lost on the crowd, volley after volley of shouts and threats rolled over him like waves. Voytec got into his patrol car, trying to keep a bad expression on his face.
Then two more patrol cars pulled up. The four cops got out and one of them motioned Voytec to go. Thank God for that. Voytec had as much guts as anyone, but you don't need to be put to the test all the damn time. He had no sooner put the car in gear than the sweating black kid made his move. Voytec saw the wine bottle in his hand. The kid’s body snapped forward as he released the bottle which seemed to Vortec to move with a supernatural grace up to the moment that his rear windshield exploded inward. Voytec inhaled steadily, keeping himself in control.
"Hey! Hey now. Hey! One of the cops shouted at the crowd. It was Gus Panich, not great at street authority, sounding like someone's agitated old uncle. Voytec had never come under physical attack before and he experienced a dull uncertainty about whether to get out and go after the bottle thrower on foot, or whether to leave him to Gus Panich. Then he saw that Panich and Stratton were waving him off. Voytec didn't need to be told twice.
Voytec eased the patrol car into the crowd. Kicks and fists drummed over his patrol car like a gargantuan hailstorm as he moved out onto 12th. It was like driving through a diabolical car wash. The rage on the faces that stared in on all sizes confused Voytech. These were people he liked. People he joked with everyday. Voytech, to his own mind, did not have a particle of race hatred in him. Didn’t these people know that? The blows against the car’s sides fell harder and faster. One lean and ragged boy leapt on the hood and jumped up and down. And when Voytech accelerated to force him off, the car was seized on all sides and the mob began to rock it as easily as if it were a toy. The rocking increased as if the car were in the grip of a huge machine. Voytech heard screaming and realized it was himself. A ball bat struck the windshield in front of his face, and on the third stroke, the windshield splashed in. His screams joined those of the people outside and he drew his gun from its holster. This move alone had scattered crowds in the past, but that did not happen this time. Instead, the rocking reached its climax, and the car lifted higher, and then too high, on the right side. An elastic sensation of weightlessness seized Voytec as equilibrium fled. Feeling the car topple, Voytec made his last mistake, thrusting his flailing left arm out the broken driver side window as if he could prevent the car from toppling. He heard his screams rise to a crescendo Not held in place by a seat belt, he had fallen in a heap onto what was now the car’s floor. The screams of the people, coming through the shattered rear windshield, were like nothing any of the cops had ever heard before. There was no one on the force now who had been on the force during the rioting of 1943.
Officer Howell, isolated from the others by a half a block, had seen Voytec’s car go over. He reported the event scene by scene for the despatcher and then, deciding to consult his own well-being, swung around in a right U-turn and headed toward West Grand Boulevard. A blizzard of sweaty, self-justifying thoughts whirled in his mind and he told himself he was circling around to approach 12th by a side street. But he didn’t.
As the cop car had toppled onto its driver, a roar had gone up from those who had flipped it. A symbolic barrier had gone down and they now smashed windows and destroyed everything within reach. A feeling gripped all of the younger citizens and many of the older ones that this event had been anticipated for ages. This was the coming of the king, hoped for, waited for, and now experienced with hysteric joy. Many in the crowd recognized each other, but it was as if they now saw themselves for the first time. It was if they had spent years in an invisible prison, only clearly apparent to them as it collapsed. The bleak advent of exile of poverty, tenuously lit by the fires of
gambling, prostitution and drugs was at an end. The king had come, and the king was armored in fire.
Tyrone Jacobs had thrown the bottle. No one had ever accused Tyrone of being a bright kid. He was in trouble more often with the neighborhood than with the cops. That's because his breaking and entering had been performed on black homes. His robberies and assaults were against black people. This morning the crowd and the flashing lights had drawn him down to 12th and Clairmount. It might have been a bad car accident or a fire, or someone had gotten shot, or something. And then he was in the front of the crowd, watching the cops haul people down out of the pig. He added his shouts and jeers to those of the crowd. The cops were not hurting the people any more than usual. A few of the guys being handcuffed and hustled were getting the odd poke in the ribs or smack in the face. Nothing unusual there. Especially since those watching, many of whom had been arrested before, were hip to the ways you could make it hard on cops in a raid. You go limp, you "accidentally" step on their toes, you fall down a step or two and head-butt the cop above you.
But Tyrone Jacobs was mad this time. Just the week before he had been stopped by two cops who had driven him a half dozen blocks before turning into an alley and questioning him for twenty minutes, taking down his name, calling him nigger, and trying to get him to say he had stolen two six packs of beer from the Happy Day market, a place that he never even went inside. Before they let him go, one pig had shoved him against a fence and the other had slapped his face. And now these pig motherfuckers were beating up on a bunch of brothers and sisters just for getting together to have a drink. From a wire wastebasket on the street corner, Tyrone grabbed another empty wine bottle. As one cop car was leaving, it's taillights garnet-bright, Tyrone took the bottle by the neck and let fly. The green bottle arched through the night, over the heads of the crowd, and hit the rear window of the patrol car with a spectacular crash. Lucky there were no brothers or sisters in there.
That's when the second two cop cars came and stopped, and the cops got out and looked angrily around. But they didn't go far from their vehicle. Tyrone's example was being followed by more and more of those around him, and in a moment, a heavy rain of bricks and glass was headed in the cop’s direction.
"Where you goin', motherfuckers? You in a hurry, motherfuckers? You want to get your punk white ass kicked, motherfuckers?"
"Fuckin' police brutality, man! See the way they pulling' that girl down the stairs. Ain't no need for that. Chicken-shit motherfuckers…"
Someone grabbed the wastebasket where Tyrone had grabbed his bottle. The heavy metal basket shot through the air and crashed through the window of the hardware store. A brick went through the window of the dry cleaners. A slab of flagstone went through the glass door of the Chaldean market, and a crowd pushed inside. In a second the beer and wine cooler was empty, the bottles handed out fast, bucket-brigade style, to those outside. Finally, there was something to do. The night took on purpose. People came swirling out of nowhere to join the crowd.
There was fire now. Kerosene from the hardware store had been splashed though the broken windows of a half dozen shops. The crowd broke into divisions: window-busting, fire-starting shock troops, and then a growing team of reckless, happy looters. It would be minutes before the cops were back in force, and the late-night members of the community used the opportunity that had been left open for them. In almost all hearts there was a sense that this had been awaited for a long, long time. A lot of scores had to be settled.
Word spread fast. Citizens in the area who had been in bed asleep picked up their phones and spread the news. Loiterers in other after hour’s joints up and down the street came out to see what was up. The cops had raided the Self-Betterment, man, and they'd beaten the shit out of some woman who hadn't been doing a goddamn thing. It was the same motherfuckers who had killed Cleo Dennis last month. Cleo Dennis was a prostitute. It was commonly understood that the cops had wanted her to snitch on her man for dealing. She refused, so they killed her. Well, a stop was gonna be put to that shit right here and now.
The crowd had spread to both sides of the street, up and down the block, the buildings were being broken open, looted and set on fire. Five cop cars pulled into 12th Street, and before the cops had time to open their doors they were swarmed. Kids jumped up on the hoods and did war dances, stamping their feet on the paint job, the hoods buckling beneath their stamping feet. The cops, surrounded, could not go forward or back. And in each cop car, a terrified motherfucker worked the radio, while the other eased the sedan back and forth, trying to work free of the crowd. Officer Wilks Daniloff tried to push open his door to get out, and it was kicked shut. He turned and worked at releasing from its catches the short-barreled pump gun on the rack behind his head.
"Watch it! This motherfucker gonna shoot someone."
Fourteen hands grabbed the car on either side and began to rock it.
"Stop fucking around with that fucking gun and get us outta here," Daniloff's partner cried shrilly. Daniloff saw the sense in this, and, nearly running down a few of the more insistent citizens, propelled his car out into 12th and down Clairmount to the expressway.
"This a riot situation?" Daniloff's partner asked, just to make sure, as he radioed headquarters.
"Fucking right it's a riot situation," Daniloff replied. His hands were shaking. "More than thirty people unarmed, that's a riot." Tell them to send a fucking tank in there."
"You didn't see no one armed?"
"No. Not yet. They're just throwing shit around. I don't see what they'd get armed for anyways. Soon as it's light out, they'll get off the streets and go home and fall asleep. It's just one of those fucking summertime things."
Daniloff's partner had radioed in the news. The radio crackled, and while awaiting new instructions, they circled the area.
"I don't see why the fuck we even bother with busting those pigs. They keep people quieter more than anything else."
"Liquor control laws," Daniloff said. "They can obey the laws same as everyone."
"And we'll have a big fucking riot on our hands one of these days, all for the sake of shaking down some dumb-ass after hours place. You've gotten a drink after late shift, haven't you?"
"Sure. But not down in niggertown. You gotta be on the fuckin alert with these fuckers. It's for their own good, if nothing else."
The radio came to life. They were to report back to the precinct.
In the last hour before morning there was an explosion of another sort, within the fire and broken glass. It was an explosion of ecstasy. The, sky, gray and luminous with dawn, was smudged and thickened with black smoke from the burning storefronts. The smoke coiled in thick braids that ran east past 12th street. Burning rubber and plastic and wood and the various metals of infrastructure filled the fierce clouds with hues of green and brown, violet and yellow. The smoke boiled across the sky, frightening and enraging the people who filled the streets to throw rocks and bottles, smash store windows and grab whatever could. Cops stood in groups on the corners of twenty streets, helpless to stop the mobs, not knowing where to begin. Some all powerful and uncontainable force had taken charge. The people in the streets were intoxicated with exhilaration, elation, and chaos. The encumbrance of civility had been thrown down. Brian stood paralyzed, watching in awe, dizzy with indecision and fear. He felt like the cops. This was too much. It was out of hand. He felt ignored. He was afraid he might get hurt. These people might do anything. This was all wrong. A big mistake. A boy, running past him toward the broken front window of an appliance store suddenly stopped, turned back, stared at Brian, and with a wild cry threw a wine bottle at Brian's head. Brian threw himself on the pavement. This was nuts. A guy could get hurt around here.
Brian Brian woke up on the couch in the brilliant bright of Sunday morning.
Behind the bathroom door the shower was drumming. Veronica was up. Last night they had been out late. So today Brian was waking up on the couch, fully dressed, unaware of how hung-over he was soon to be. Not that it would matter. They had no other plans than to go to the park. Go swimming. And drink. And feel just as good as he had felt last night.
Brian hoisted himself up on one elbow. Alive again. Another bright day. Another chance at life. He was forty-two years old and wrote advertising copy. He liked it. Detroit made a lot of cars and everyone everywhere was buying them, which made for a lot of money. Brian, as a man who had shown talent at writing stuff that helped sell cars, had a lot of money too. He was surprised and pleased by this, since he was a lazy, good-natured man who had never expected to make much money. His father certainly hadn't. Brian would have been just as happy if everyone had money, and it would be fine with him if they earned it as easily as he earned his.
There was a catastrophic noise that made Brian flinch all over. It was as if a bomb had gone off outside his window, but, no, it was only the phone. The phone in the kitchen was ringing. The drumming of the shower ended and Veronica hollered, "Are going to answer that?
There were two reasons why Brian was in a hurry to answer the phone, and neither reason needed any urging from Veronica. For one, a young woman with whom Brian had gotten involved a few weeks earlier was now upset with him, and the second was the occasional weekend demands of his job. Brian slid off the couch and shuffled rapidly, barefoot, into the kitchen. He fumbled with the phone, sucking air into his lungs and clearing his throat. It was nearly eleven o'clock in the morning, and, if this was his creative director, Brian wanted to sound as if he had been up for hours. Possibly, had even been to church. Ridiculous, but this had helped to build his reputation. One of the drawbacks about Brian Brian's career in advertising was that he was sometimes required to come into the office at very short notice in order to write an ad that some fool of an account person had promised a client over Saturday night drinks. The agency liked to show how quickly it could respond to the demands of its grotesquely huge and powerful auto company client, and Brian was well known as a fast and highly creative worker. Brian was a fast and highly creative copywriter, when he was sober. And even if this was Yvonne, instead of work, Brian wanted to sound serious and in control.
"Hello," Brian said calmly.
"We got trouble."
It was an old lady voice, Veronica's mother, who lived nearby on Wayburn, in Grosse Pointe Park.
"What kind of trouble?" Brian asked, dropping the calm tonalities that would be wasted on Sarah.
"Big trouble. The colored are at it again."
"At what again?"
"Rioting. It's all over the news. They're going to burn the place down. Don't you watch news? They started up last night on the west side. The cops can't stop them. Do you own a gun?"
"No, I don't own a gun. I'll turn on the TV. I'm sure the police will handle it."
"They can't handle a damn thing. Veronica's Uncle Miller was a cop and he couldn't handle a damn thing. Let me talk to Veronica."
The voice was cranky, mysterious, and paranoid. In other words, normal for Sarah Phelps, Veronica's 64-year-old mother. Veronica now stood in the kitchen doorway, towel-swathed, head turbaned. She did not need to be told that it was her mother. She could tell from Brian's face as he handed her the phone. Brian retreated to the bathroom.
Veronica was the private secretary of a highly placed executive at the auto company that was the primary client of Brian's agency. Veronica was the youngest of seven children. All of them had moved away from Detroit by the time Veronica had graduated from Wayne State University. Her father, a silent, generous, damp-eyed alcoholic, had died when Veronica was nine. Her mother had married again and moved to Hawaii when Veronica was twenty-two. The grandmother had been become Veronica and Brian's responsibility by default.
Gram had been born in Greenville, Alabama, and had come north with her family in the early Thirties. Negroes ranked high on Gram's list of people, places and things to be feared and hated. She recalled vividly the part she had played in the riot of '43, as a twenty-year-old worker at Budd Wheel. She had skipped work for an afternoon and driven with friends down to Woodward Avenue to cheer on white thugs who attacked Negroes caught on the public tramlines going to and from their jobs. Over the years, Sarah had been able to transform these revolting events into an episode of extraordinary courage, like the Easter Rising, or the American Revolution. She was an extraordinary woman, for whom hatred was water, oxygen, nutrition and rest.
Veronica was still on the phone. Her voice was still miraculously patient when Brian came out of the bathroom. He sat back down on the couch where he had slept, and took a big gulp from the glass of water sitting on the end table. But it wasn't water. It was a little melted ice and a lot of vodka. It gagged him for a second, and then suddenly he felt quite a bit better
Veronica entered the room, and Brian rose from the couch, to escape. But there was no escape. Veronica stood fresh and still damp in a terry cloth towel. She had taken off the turban and her voice came out of its folds as she vigorously rubbed her scalp.
"Ma thinks the world's on fire,"
"She said something about a riot."
Turn on the TV."
Brian hated television, especially on a sunny Sunday morning. Writing television commercials had soured him on television, cars, and money. He kept his contacts with all three on a strictly business level. And television, indoors and on a sunny morning, seemed sacrilegious. He turned it on though, and clicked the round knob through the stations dispatching various denominations of broadcast worship services, until he reached Face the Nation, a program in which men in suits deliberated over the big issues of the day. As usual, the issue was something having to do with Vietnam.
Brian and Veronica Brian stood waiting for a commercial break that might bring local news, if any. Veronica sat down and turned her head to one side, running a blue plastic comb through her dark hair. Brian turned to watch her, which was a lot more soothing than any discussion of the Asian crisis with which Brian had been engaged, as an infantryman, in 1965. He had blotted the whole subject from his mind. It had changed his life The good-natured face he turned to the world today was a conscientiously contrived imitation of how he had been before 'Nam. Until the age of eighteen, when he had joined up to be a soldier, as his father had been twenty-five years before, Brian had happy kid. He had been average. And since then he had been left with average.
When other boys were starting to grow their hair, Brian had quit school and joined the army to please his father. His father was dying, and, at seventeen, Brian may have thought (for all he could remember now, ten years later) that this would buck up the poor guy.
Brian had been in Vietnam when his father died, and Brian had not gone home. By this time he had seen friends die. One had died in his arms. Brian had started thinking. When he came back to Detroit in 1965 and had started attending classes at Wayne State University, he did not talk about the military or Asia. He avoided the demos and the rhetoric. He met Veronica Phelps in a business administration course, and had fallen in love with her black eyebrows, and the wisps of hair at her neck, and the fact that she seemed to love him. He immersed himself in her, wanted her completely, and did not give a moment's thought to the fact that marrying her meant marrying her family. The awful mother, and the siblings who had taken care of themselves and left their youngest sister to care for Gram.
There was a commercial break and, sure enough, a local news report. Veronica stopped combing her hair and looked, and they listened in silence, and watched the humiliating film footage. It was their town. Brian even recognized the street. He had been there, a time or two. Vietnam had left him and some of his friends with a taste for something you didn't often find in Grosse Pointe.
"It won't last," Veronica said, when Face the Nation came back on.
"It will be over by tomorrow," Brian said.
"That's close to where you work"
"It's about a mile northwest. Maybe less. But it won't get near the Fisher building.
Brian turned off the television. Veronica reached into a drawer for underwear and socks.
"Gram wants to go to the cottage," she said, balancing for a moment on one leg. Brian watched her, thinking that there were men who would kill just to watch a woman like this dress or undress.
"What, for the day?" he asked.
"For the duration. She thinks it's the end of the world."
The cottage was about an hour away, southeast of Windsor, Ontario, on Lake Erie. It was easy to reach. Just a quick drive through the Windsor tunnel or over the Ambassador bridge, and then through pleasant farm country and small towns. They had bought the cottage even before they had married, while Brian was still in the service. One of their favorite dates had been to picnic at Holiday Beach, or at Point Peelee for bird watching and sunbathing. They both enjoyed the easy transition to another country. Somehow Canada felt different, even when you only dipped into the edge of it, as they did. They spent part of every summer there, but had never taken Veronica's mother.
"Those are not circumstances under which I want to go to the cottage. I don't even want to think about that," Brian said. Veronica sat on the bed, brow creased in surgical concentration as she took a nail clipper to one of her toes. Brian stared at her until she turned and smiled at him.
"I'm getting dressed," she said, "so forget about it." But Brian Brian did not want to forget about it. And it did not take long to change Veronica's mind. Afterwards, though, he was in a hurry to begin the day. He was desperate to get outdoors. It was noon.
"I'm going to take a shower, then we'll go, okay?
Veronica nodded, and turned to the mirror to fix her hair again. Brian was out of the shower before Veronica had finished dressing. "What in God's name did you do, fall asleep? I thought you would be ready by now."
"Look at this," she said, looking down at herself. She had the T-shirt on inside out. "This is the second time I've done this in a month, and I never did it before in my life."
Veronica pulled off her T-shirt and righted it.
"We've got to get moving," he said, and Brian got moving while Veronica went downstairs.
Veronica made orange juice, and Brian stopped in the kitchen and poured a glass. He felt wonderfully alive. Outside the kitchen window the neighbor's gray roof was sliced diagonally by morning sun and morning shadow. A crumbling old red brick chimney rose gamely in the light, and thrust the gibbet of a rusty old TV antenna into the blue. A second later, Brian he set his empty glass on the counter. The phone rang.
"I'll get it," Brian said.
"Do you want me to…" Veronica had been going to ask whether Brian wanted her to continue packing the car for a trip to the park. The stuff they took a cooler of beer, some towels, books, tennis racquets and tanning lotion usually stayed all summer heaped in the small porch outside the kitchen door, to be loaded in the car every Saturday or Sunday.
Brian waved at her vaguely to continue, while he concentrated on the phone call. A male voice that he could not place had addressed him with dry familiarity: "Brian."
Tom? "Yes?" Brian said, courteously forbearing to ask 'Tom who?' hoping his caller might have the decency to identify himself further.
"Your brother. I'm in town. I'm about a half hour from your place."
It had been four years since they had spoken. The last time had been at their mother's funeral. Brian had not expected to hear from Tom again. The call was ominous. The only reason Tom would call was if he needed something. And his needing something from Brian would not cure him of hating Brian. It would make him hate harder. Tom was like that. Brian wished he had not picked up the phone, but knew that it was impossible for him to hang up.
"What brings you to Detroit?" Brian asked warily.
"The revolution," the voice said.
Brian closed his eyes. When he opened them he found Veronica staring at him. Brian silently formed the word Tom, and Veronica closed her eyes and gave a shoulder-slumping mime of despair. Brian waved at her to continue putting the beach stuff in the car.
"The revolution?" Brian said. "Which one?"
Tom chuckled as only the humorless can. "The one that's going to put you out of business. It's happening right now. I can hardly believe it, but it's happening."
"Look, is there anything you need from me," Brian asked as politely as he could. "Is there something in particular you want? Veronica and I are on our way out the door, but if you need something, tell me what it is."
"Don't need anything, man. Just wanted to see if you were still in the same place."
"Well, I am. Same place, same everything. What is it you're doing?? Are you working or something."
"Don't worry about me. I've never been better."
"That's good. I'm going now." Brian said. And then he hung up
Veronica had the car started. When Brian came out of the house, clumping down the front steps, She pulled sharply away from the curb, cutting a tight U-turn. and stopped in front of him, facing south toward the lake.
She jumped out and went around to the passenger side as Brian Brian got behind the wheel. As soon as they had slammed their doors they were rolling. The radio played oldies. Jerry Lee Lewis sang, "Great Balls of Fire," as they drove down the street. Brian Brian kissed Veronica. It was hot Detroit July, which is great if you have a public park in your community that lets you take advantage of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. Detroit had no public parks on its water front. The largest inland waterfront, possibly, in the world. The Great Lakes. And no mayor or city council had ever considered the possibility of allowing residents of the city access to their water front. Brian kissed Veronica again as three slate-feathered, pink-beaked pigeons rose from the road, and broke for the blue.
"Who was it on the phone?"
"You're not going to believe it. I didn't."
"Tom. My brother."
"Oh my God."
"Yeah. He's in town.
"What does he want?"
"I can't tell. He sounds crazier than usual. He says the revolution is starting."
"Great. How much will it cost us for him to start it."
"I don't know. He didn't ask for anything. He just generally mocked my existence, and then hung up."
"I don't want him at the house."
"Don't worry. He's not going to be at the house. Under no circumstances will he be at the house."
They reached the park and got a red wagon to carry their picnic things. Even at noon the park was filling up quickly, and they were lucky to get a picnic table near the boat wells. They laid out their cooler and hamper and racquets, staking their claim to the table. A freighter passed by, drawing the attention of picnickers. The channel was so narrow between the park and Peche Island, that the freighters always seemed far too close to shore. The brownish red freeboard of this one, an ore boat headed for River Rouge, bulked enormously high as it swept past the boat wells.
After a swim, Sara and Brian had cold chicken for lunch. Brian drank a beer, then lay down on a towel in the shade and fell asleep. Immediately he entered a dream. He was standing at the window of his office, in the building where he worked then. Far below, much further than in reality, the city stretched beneath him. For some reason he could see it all, through some trick or gift of vision. It was all cankered and hazy, dirty and thriving, like the rotting pelt of some enormous dead animal, alive with vermin and smoking with rot. From the streets, miles below he could hear desperate cries and horn blasts. Brian stared a long time, horrified.
His office, in this dream was palatial, ornate, nothing like the cramped cubicle he worked out of in real life. He had been promoted or something. He was some high, exulted functionary. It had taken him a long time to gain this prestigious corner office, with its tall old casement windows. He swung one of the windows open grandly over a generous limestone ledge. He stepped out onto the ledge and examined the chalky droppings of the pigeons. Everything was very real. He stood close to the edge, the toes of his Johnston Murphy's projecting a little, intoxicated by the seduction of gravity, and the sublime perspective of the street.
It was morning, and sunlight poured in from a brilliant cloud over the river. For some reason, Brian felt as if a miracle might be imminent. Somehow he could almost taste it. And, as if apprehensive of this very possibility, the traffic below him snorted and snarled more fiercely than ever. Sirens oscillated deliriously. Rather than feeling alarmed, Brian was euphoric.
And now, by God, his own name streamed past on a lemony ray of sun. Brian laughed, and leaned forward to get a better look. Below him the city was roaring like a furnace. To his left, a clutch of wrens fretted their feathers in a splash of light. To his right, the sun hung in the air, blinding, immeasurable, firing rays over the earth. Then Brian heard the crack of a distant gunshot. Like a starter's pistol at a race, it set events in motion. Brian let himself go limp, and dropped from the ledge.
He only fell for ten or twelve feet, a delicious sensation, and then he stretched out his arms and trapped the bellying breeze beneath him. Like a skater on a rink, except much faster, much weightier, he slid over the elastic skin of air packed into the city's narrow canyons. He shot east toward the old court house, swooped low over Grand Circus, caught an updraft on Washington Boulevard and, after spotting his office window, he returned light-footedly to the ledge. He tucked in his shirttail and then went back into his office.
In the next scene, he was on the ledge again. It was another gorgeous morning, with the hideous city writhing beneath him. The sunlight invited him to fly over to the river. He could see the light playing on the water, in the distance, between dark buildings. The river wound past the city like an endless snake, its skin shimmering with white fire. He had to be a part of it. This seemed perfectly practical and sane, so he threw off his coat, climbed out onto the ledge, and let himself weaken and fall.
Just as his knees buckled, he heard something. It was a baby's voice. He was a baby, but he spoke perfectly clearly in the most indescribably beautiful voice Brian had ever heard. His calm jumped away like a startled deer. Brian wanted to find the baby more than anything in the world. And in the next instant, he was crashing toward the street. The magic was over, and Brian knew he was going to die.
Brian woke up with a heart-pounding jolt on the blanket under the trees in the park.our living room couch, with Veronica's coat thrown over me. I describe this dream to you, so that I can now tell you this. I fell in love with Veronica on a Saturday in the spring, eighteen years ago. It was May, and the first really beautiful spring day of the year. We had been going‚ out together for about two months, and I thought Veronica might love me. But I had just graduated from college, and I had the idea that I wanted to play the field for awhile. When I was a teenager, I had been much too shy to do anything like that. But I was twenty-two when I graduated, and I think that having done well in school, and having quite a good job lined up, I suppose I did not feel like being tied down. As it is, I have never regretted anything that has happened since. Not even for a moment. On this day then, in the morning, Veronica and I had plans of some sort. She was meeting me at the flat I had at that time in the area of Grosse Pointe Park that is called the cabbage patch. It's about thirty blocks of small old homes and flats, built mostly in the twenties and early thirties. Back then it was populated by police, firemen and city workers and their families, as well as laborers, and the servants for the families in the mansions that used to be in Grosse Pointe at that time. It was called the Cabbage Patch because so many of the residents had backyard vegetable gardens. I was not especially fond of this neighborhood at the time. I felt I was destined for better things, and could not help feeling a certain contempt for my neighbors. I did not understand how they could have worked their entire lives, so many of them, and not been able to lift themselves out of this dingy old neighborhood of alleys, geraniums, and hand-painted backyard religious statuary. I think we were going to wash our cars that morning, and then go for a walk. When the front door bell rang, I went down to answer it, and there was Veronica, with a flat of newly-sprouted jalapeno plants. And even though I had no idea what jalapenos were at that time, something about Veronica's smile, and the way she held out to me this dirty tray of plants, made her suddenly look lovely to me. It hit me, as it does sometimes in movies and books, that I loved her.
I kept her standing there until she laughed and handed me the plants and then ran upstairs. To this day, it is a mystery to me. It may have had something to do with her bringing me these damned plants, which she had sprouted herself under a fluorescent light until spring came. I am not a poetic man, although my education has been good, overall, and I am not unaware of poetry and symbols and the like. I'm a litigator for the firm of Desmond and Roth, of which I am sure you have heard. You can judge from what you know, or from what you think you know, about my work, as to whether or not I have the soul of a poet. I tell you this only so you can understand how mystified I was at myself! for doing something like falling in love. Never, to my earliest recollection, did I ever believe their was any reality to the expression "falling in love." When I first developed a larger view of the world, that encompassed facts like families and children, I assumed marriage took place because of the need for adults to combine their assets in order to live better, and provide a habitat for children, if they wanted children. Simply a practical matter, and if a friendship were engendered in the process, well and good. I was not especially aware of loving my parents or my sister and brother. They were there, and I suppose I would have missed them if they were not. My parents especially, since they provided me with certain things I needed to remain comfortable. They ere often, at times, no more than a nuisance, and I would have foregone their presence entirely if I had enough money to supply for myself what I was obliged to accept from them, with attendant obligations.
Veronica was a delightful woman, really, although it's beside the point, who on this day brought me a few plants. And there I was, falling in love. Absurd. Her action must have prompted something in me to see her as a nurturer, a provider of some non-material element that I sensed I would need to live. All things can be looked at in terms of survival. Beauty is beauty, to our eyes, simply because it implies survival. My mind told me this, and so I began to see Veronica as desirable not just for a night or a weekend, but for life, since, somehow, she would help me to survive and to make more money than I would make if I tried to go it alone.
This understanding manifested itself through my senses. I saw for the first time, as it were, how her hair moved across her shoulders. When I put my arm around her, I experienced through my own skin, the living warmth beneath the powdery coolness of her skin. When she moved close to me and put her arm across my back, I felt that it fit as perfectly as if it were some part of me that had until then been missing. We passed a blissful day, and that night we went to a movie, after which, Veronica informed me that she was pregnant. The full impact did not hit me until I was alone in bed later that night. I wept. Fear for the future, and a terrible feeling of betrayal, which I knew was wrong, but could not seem to fight off, grabbed me like two demons and rolled me back and force across the bed. As much as I had loved her that afternoon, I had still thought of marriage as happening some few years away. I had never once actually pictured myself as married. I assumed it would happen some day after I was successful and respected and ready to settle down. The idea that I would have to marry, and then instantly have a child, and possibly be tied down so that I could never achieve the success I had always assumed would be mine, was horrible. I had really never been greatly disappointed even once, to my recollection, in my entire life. If I had been told that I was to be shot at sunrise, I don't think my response could have much more harrowing than my response to Veronica's pregnancy. As for alternatives to marriage and birth, I considered none for even a moment. I was a Catholic, proud of it, and would no more be an accessory to an abortion than I would be to any other type of murder. You may ask, if I was such a good Catholic, how Veronica happened to find herself in this condition. I will answer that the only time or place where I feel constrained to bare my soul is in the confessional. I make no claims to moral perfection, and certainly, regrettably, could not have done so at the period in my life of which I am speaking now. Suffice it to say that after a full night of remorse and tears, I knelt beside my bed and prayed only to be given the strength and the grace to accept God's will, whatever it was to be. Then I showered and dressed and went to early mass.
A few days later Veronica informed me that she had found that she was not pregnant after all. I informed her that, pregnant or not pregnant, I loved her and wanted her to be my mate for life. I made it clear, though, as diplomatically as possible, that I did not feel it necessary to plunge into matrimony at that very moment. Rome was not built in a day. As a Catholic, I know this. And I concealed from her, as best I could, my enormous relief.
As time went by it was to occur to me that her claim of pregnancy might have been in the nature of a test. This suspicion occurred to me most forcefully after Veronica related to me an episode from her life, that, for awhile, threatened to sunder us. She had not come to me entirely
intact, as it were. Some years before, on her sixteenth birthday, she had unwisely complied
with a request from a boyfriend, with disastrous consequences. She had tried to get to New York City for an abortion the only place she knew of at that time where the procedure was safely and legally obtainable. Halfway through the twelve-hour drive from Michigan, the engine of her boyfriend's car blew a rod. Veronica and the boy hitchhiked home. Since his Camaro now needed a new engine, Romeo took back the portion of money he had contributed, and Veronica was finally obligated to break the news to her parents. Her mother responded with the energetic stupidity that fools always bring to a crises. "Your father will kill you," she shrieked repeatedly, loudly enough for the neighbors to hear, and finally lapsed into sobbing hysterics. When she recovered, she phoned Veronica's father at the plant and brightened his day by screaming the joyous news into his ear. Veronica's father, a laconic, taciturn man, left work, withdrew some money from the credit union, and flew with Veronica to New York. Neither at that nor at any other time did he speak a word of reproach to his daughter. I learned never to touch Veronica on the spot where the saline injection had gone in. I pondered long after hearing this. Veronica's family was nominally catholic, but did not practice. That did not bother me. Some members of my family do not practice. The abortion, though. The early sex. It stole something from her, in my eyes. One could blame an absence of supervision, or the laxness of the times. It was the Sixties then. But
in a certain way, I was hurt. It was not that I expected this woman to have had no past at all. I had a past myself, of which I was not proud. But I suppose I felt much less as though my love for her was exclusive or unique. I loved Veronica, and I put these feelings below the surface. But they remained with me, painfully, until I grew up, and saw them fade to nothing.
Veronica and I were a steady couple for three years before we got married. Children were not at the top of our agenda. You may well wonder how I reconciled my Catholicism and my active love for my wife, with our mutual wish to delay having children. I can only say that it was
coincident with our marriage, a Catholic ceremony, that my love and respect for my faith began to take on a certain subtle shadings. It began to be evident to me that my loyalty was to Jesus Christ, God made manifest in humanity, and, only to a secondary degree, to the dictates of Catholicism. I knew that I was not perfect. I believed also that God had made me, and that God knew I was not perfect. And I began to feel that the church, a vessel of the holy spirit, was comprised of men and women like myself, who were not perfect either. I decided I would struggle along with imperfection, and continue to pray to Christ, who I feel will be our ultimate judge. Brian felt it was enough of a change just to be married instead of single, and employed full-time, rather than a student. Veronica was in no hurry either. Her career had begun to pick up. Every time she thought about getting pregnant it was in terms of being shackled to fat while stupider people raced up through the company ahead of her. Among their friends they knew only one couple who had children, and it seemed mainly a matter of wailing noises, bad smells, and no money, time, or fun.
They had each turned thirty before they decided that they were ready to have children. They went vigorously about the business of procreation, and when a year had passed and nothing had happened, it began to seem funny to them that they had been so careful for so long about using contraceptives. After two years, Veronica decided to see a doctor. They had tests. All the different sorts. And they began to try things. Everything. For three years their lovemaking was accompanied by calendars, thermometers and journals.
"This is your responsibility, too," Veronica would remind Brian when he neglected his share of the complicated monitoring process. He remembered the days when they had made love in cars, in the woods, on stairways, in a bathroom at a party.
After three years, Veronica's doctor recommended a fertility drug. When she had been on it a few months, a day came when a lot of things went wrong at work, and she came home so upset that, in telling Brian what had gone wrong, she began to cry. She was laying on the bed, exhausted, and could not stop crying. She rarely cried, and now she couldn't stop. Brian lay beside her and held her. He wanted to tell her everything was going to be okay, but was too frightened to be certain that this was true. Veronica finally stopped crying, but she stayed in bed until the next morning, and was silent for days. When they realized this was a side effect of the drug, it added a new dimension to the impregnating process. One evening Brian closed his book and watched Veronica as she prepared for bed. Veronica was the same about getting into bed as she was about sitting down to a meal, or performing a chore, or working in their garden:
unplanned, unmethodical, unhurried. She took her time. She forgot things, and remembered other things. The spent day fell away from her piece by piece, along with her gently scented clothes. Sleepily, she put back on the blouse she had just removed, and then laughed and took it off again. She wandered into the bathroom and began to brush her teeth, then stopped to examine a blemish and tweak an eyebrow hair. She sniffed her night gown before putting it on, and was about to discard it for a new one, but then shrugged it over her head with a what-the-hell air.
There was a moment, just before she pulled on the night gown, when her body was fully revealed, and it excited Brian.
"Let's make love," he said.
She stopped at the mirror to examine her hair. "We should wait three days," she said. Then she frowned. "My nose looks just like a pig's nose!" she exclaimed. Then she shrugged, and went to let out the dog. She started down the back steps, and then had to come back for her slippers. When she returned, she completed her bedtime preparations, and by the time she was beside him, under the sheets, Brian's desire had faded. He was angry and could hardly bring himself to kiss her good night. And so he lay in the dark, resenting her, and wondering how his life had boiled down to this: the job he didn't like in the day time, and this continuous frustrating struggle at night. It wasn't worth it. He should just take off. He should get out while the getting was good. But the getting wasn't good anymore. There was his job, which he really did not dislike, and which gave him his living, and there was Veronica. The sound of her breathing wore away his anger like a lapping tide on a shadowed shore. He quietly raised himself on his elbow and watched her.
He remembered a night not long after they had first been married, when Veronica had gotten into bed with an expectant expression on her face, as if listening to some development taking place deep within her, her eyebrows slightly raised, her gaze only tentatively fixed on the thing before her, her mouth slightly open in an infant's smile, a genuine smile. Not a smile for effect, as an adult smiles, to briefly impersonate joy or deflect hostility, but an expectant, gift-awaiting set of her lips and a listening look in her eyes which formed an authentic smile, as if she confidently awaited the appearance of an angel.
Brian, watching her, had asked, "What is it with you?"
And Veronica, looking, listening beyond his gaze and voice, had said, "I think I'm happy."
She had pulled the covers up and rested her back against him, then turned her face back to be kissed. He held her head in the crook of his arm and kissed her.
"You urchin," he said.
"Sea urchin," she said.
"Yes," he said. She turned away from him and settled the covers around her.
"Do you want me to read to you?" Brian asked.
"If you want," Veronica said.
He read aloud until he could hear the rhythmic sound of her breathing. Brian's anger dissipated with the recollection. He reached out and put his arm for a moment around the small, gently breathing figure of his wife. And in a few moments they were making love. Later that night Veronica woke Brian into the darkness to tell him she had dreamed that she had been rising up out of some great depth, something like the bottom of an ocean, and that a little child had clung to her. She had cradled it in her arms as it held her around the neck, and slowly, steadily she had brought it up with her, and finally, nearly dead, she had broken the surface.
"But it wasn't a baby," she told him.
"What was it?" he asked.
"It was you. But you were small. You couldn't help yourself"
"I can help myself fine."
"It was strange," Veronica went on.
"So solemn, as if I were saving your life. As if you were drowning. But I thought it was my baby, and it turned out to be you."
A few weeks later Veronica knew she was pregnant. They bought a drugstore test, and it showed positive. Brian felt numb. In the back of his mind there was something he had never thought of before. He wondered if she would now stop loving him. And then I lost my job. It was nothing personal, the human resources manager said. I would receive a good severance package. They would help me find a new position with another firm. In fact, they had delayed my dismissal since it was known that my wife and I were having a child. She left it at that. I hardly need to say that I was astounded. It had only been two days ago, Saturday night, that I had informed my supervisor over
the phone about Veronica. But, as the human resources manager said. It was nothing personal, and I was one of nearly forty attorneys and general staff being let go. Our dismissal did little to solve Desmond and Eckert's problems. In less than a year, the firm had gone under.
I entered the strangest period in my life. If I said earlier that when I was young I had never expected to be married, than I suppose the one thing I had expected less was to ever be unemployed. I honestly do not know of a single member of my family who has been unemployed ever from our earliest days in this country, in the earliest days of this century. And now I was unemployed, and compelled even to undergo the assault on ones dignity of filing for and collecting unemployment compensation. Only Veronica, no one else, has ever known that we had to stoop to this level.
Even after she had gone to the doctor, who confirmed it, I was against sharing the news with our friends. Talking happily about something you really wanted had always seemed to me like the worst sort of bad luck. But Veronica insisted. When I came home from knocking on doors, I found that she had begun (mention her painting early in the story) a new painting; on the dining room table there lay a sheet of heavy, brown paper with a still life of marigolds like a brimming bowl of fire. We invited our best friends to dinner, a couple who had just had their own first child, and broke the news over champagne, from which Veronica abstained. As soon as she writes a check for the car repair, Veronica will drive to the bank and take money out of savings to put into checking to cover the check. As Veronica talks he can only think about how lovely she looks. Her just-cut short hair is combed back slickly, and she smiles at him, noticing the way he's watching her. "I'm getting dressed," she says, "so forget about it. We're in a hurry." But Brian Brian watches until she laughs and moves behind the door. Veronica goes back into the bathroom to comb her hair again after pulling on her sweater.
"Look at this," she says, marching back out, looking down at herself. She's got her sweater on inside out. "This is the second time I've done this in a month, and I never did it before in my life."
It's been two months since Brian Brian was fired. Veronica pulls her sweater back over her head, rights it. Brian Brian swoops her in a hug, pressing his face against her, but Veronica pulls away and puts her sweater on.
"Hurry," she says. "We've got to get moving."
Brian Brian gets moving, taking his shirt and sweater off in one piece over his head, and then swinging his scapular around so it hangs down his back. He brushes his teeth and washes his face. It's been three days since he shaved, but he only shaves when he's meeting with someone about an assignment. While Veronica puts on make-up at the mirror, he changes his
"A change of underwear and he's ready to face the world," Veronica says.
"Why not try taking a shower today?" Then she's in the kitchen, getting her lunch for work. "I'll be out front," she calls. "We've got to get going." Brian Brian feels for his keys in his jacket, and his wallet in his pants. Veronica has made orange juice, and he stops in the kitchen and pours a glass. He feels horrible, wonderfully awful. Alive. Outside the kitchen window the neighbor's gray roof is sliced diagonally by morning sun and morning shadow. A crumbling old red brick chimney rises gamely in the light, and from it thrusts the gibbet of a rusty old TV antenna. Beyond, the sky is a resolute, unfettered blue. Hear me not as I think you to be, but as you know yourself to be, Brian Brian prays. And a second later he sets his empty glass on the counter. The phone rings again, but he lets the machine pick it up. The car is parked on the far side of the street, facing south toward the lake. Veronica sees him coming and pulls sharply away from the curb, cutting a tight U-turn, and stops in front of him, facing north to the
The next day, Veronica began to bleed while she was at work. At first she ignored it, but the flow increased to an unignorable degree, and she was able to reach her doctor who met her at the hospital admission's desk. quickly scheduled her for tests at the hospital. I took the next day off
from work, and sat in a small waiting room with people who all seemed to have good news that they clucked about to each other. I avoided the general conversation by giving my entire attention to a months-old ”Newsweek.
After more than an hour, Veronica, white-faced, appeared in the hall. We went to another, smaller room that seemed to have been decorated in a calculatedly uplifting way. Careless maintenance had short-circuited this plan. Bleached sunlight effused a dirt-streaked skylight, and the parched plants died in the corners. On two chairs near one of the windows sat a young man and an older woman who may have been his mother. They were silent, and appeared to have received some exceedingly bad news. Veronica's doctor now appeared. I had never met her, and did not catch her name when Veronica introduced us. The doctor, was a large, strongish young woman with a red face and bright black eyes. She seemed worried, which made me feel ill. Veronica was pale, and had said nothing to me yet.
I listened while the doctor explained to me that the pregnancy was ectopic and would have to be terminated. The doctor was sincere and intense, and her shiny, button eyes seemed to bulge with fear of an outburst from me, as if I would hold her responsible. I had heard that a woman could die from a tubal pregnancy. What this doctor was saying was that Veronica's life was in danger. What I had helped to create inside of her was a bomb. The red-faced doctor gave instructions on what to do, should an emergency arise, but Veronica was left alone to hear them. There was nothing inside of me. I sat listening to Veronica and the doctor exchanging assurances. Later that day the doctor called and said she had arranged an appointment for them with a specialist she recommended at a hospital on
the other side of town. The appointment was for Saturday. This was Thursday. So that's it, I thought. For three days, the woman I loved had been happier than she had ever been, and now we had to wait and hope that what was supposed to have been our baby wouldn't drift loose and kill her. They arrived at the hospital so early Saturday morning that it was still dark outside. The specialist talked to them in an odd whisper in the deadly quiet of his office. Veronica had shaken his hand when he had extended it to them in greeting, but Brian had sat down hard and looked away. Now the specialist explained to them about the possibility of the tube being damaged, and what surgery would entail, and the chances of Veronica being able to ovulate again. Brian stared at him. The doctor kept
his eyes fixed on Veronica. At the end, he told her that it was necessary to check once more for growth. It was necessary to do a last ultrasound. A technician led Veronica and Brian to a small room almost entirely filled by the machine, its examination seat and monitor screen. Veronica and Brian stood uncertainly. The technician handed Veronica a sheet and snapped on switches and lights. The doctor would be with them shortly, she said. Veronica got ready, and Brian studied the machinery, feeling as
if he should have been able to operate it. The door opened and the doctor entered cautiously, almost bowing. He passed nimbly by Brian to the controls, and the examination began.
They watched as something like a map of the ocean floor played across the monitor's screen. And then there appeared a bright, pulsing dot of light. Brian quailed. He suddenly did not want to see what he was seeing. He didn't want Veronica to see it either. The screen had been considerately turned so that new mothers could see the new life within them. And Veronica was watching. Brian touched her shoulder and, without taking her eyes from the screen, she reached up and touched his hand. The doctor was absorbed in his work. The technician, forgetting, or not knowing, why the present couple was there, responded automatically.
"There it is!" she said happily to Veronica. "There it is," Veronica repeated, after a moment. Then the technician remembered. So did the doctor. He reached out and twitched the screen toward him, as if there were something important he had to check.
No one said anything, and then it was over. The doctor and the technician left and Veronica dressed again. As she was collecting her purse and coat, Brian clumsily hugged her and told her he loved her. She didn't reply. He knew she didn't want to cry in that place, and that she might if she spoke. There was a knock at the door; the ultrasound room was needed. Hallway traffic swirled around them. Veronica clutched her overnight bag, and they stood like immigrants on an unfamiliar shore. And then a nurse came, and Veronica was taken away.
Brian did not know whether he had wandered to this particular waiting room, or whether he had been told to sit here. He put his jacket and his books and magazines on the seat beside him. The room was occupied only by a woman and two children, and at this point he took no notice of them. He couldn't escape the image of the bright, pulsing dot of light that had appeared on the screen. He closed his eyes and it possessed him completely. He let it grow and its vivid, electrical pulsing was a beacon of desperate, helpless disappointment. He knew, logically, that if it stayed where it was it might kill Veronica. It really wasn't a baby, he told himself. It was an accident. The doctor had said it couldn't be moved and placed in the uterus. But it wasn't fair that Veronica had been forced to see it. He pictured her unhappy face and felt for a moment that he could have killed someone. A noise in the hallway made him look up, and he watched an aluminum gurney go by, pushed by an orderly with a placid, West Indian face.
Brian found himself watching the mother and her two children. The woman was quite young, barely out of her teens. An explosive mass of bleached hair fell over a gleaming armory of earrings, necklaces, and chains, onto the shoulders of her studded denim jacket. She sat hunched
forward, as if watching a ball game, her elbows on her knees, her high-booted feet planted solidly, an unlit cigarette between her lips. The kids were tearing the place apart.
Brian leafed through his magazine and peered askance at the woman, searching his mind for an icebreaker. He felt like he could talk to this person. She might have noticed his glances at her, because now she spoke: "Been here four hours now," she said, and shook her head.
Brian mentioned that he had barely been there an hour. "If you want to go outside and smoke that cigarette," he added, "I'd be happy to watch your children. "I couldn't do that to you," she said, grinning. "Besides, I'm pregnant again, and I don't smoke 'em. I just hold 'em." "Oh," Brian said, and before he could stop himself he had poured out their story. The woman shook her head sympathetically. Brian had hoped she might have some special counsel to offer, but when she said nothing he asked her what she was there for.
The woman told him how her husband and her brother had been fixing a
commercial tree limb chipper when a third man had started up the engine. The husband had lost an arm above the elbow, and an eye. "His whole arm?" I asked, astounded. "And his eye?" "Yeah, he's somethin'. It'll be hard finishin' up work this year." I mulled this over, and watched while this person's little boy overturned a magazine rack on his sister. The little girl squalled, and then bared a bull dog's mouthful of choppers and went for the boy's arm.
"You pick up 'em magazines," their mother ordered. And at that moment, an
intern propelled a gurney-load of humanity to the elevator. "Say hi to your daddy," the mother cried. The kids screamed at the
passing gurney, whose shrouded passenger moved feebly at the sound. "Well," said the woman, "He's out, and we're goin'." She gathered up
her bags and collared the kids. "You and your wife hang in there." "I had a sister lost a kid last year," she added, over her shoulder
as they made their way to the elevator. She didn't elaborate, and I had
the impression she regarded the loss on a par with misplacing the car
keys. I waited another hour before a nurse appeared at my elbow and told
me Veronica was in a room. I found her in a feisty mood. She wanted to move
the furniture around. "You better just lie still, or you'll hurt yourself," I said. Then I
sat on the bed beside her and we held hands until her eyes fell shut and
her breathing became steady. I watched her for awhile and then moved away
and sat in the straight-backed guest chair. Reading proved impossible.
The books and magazines I had brought all seemed inappropriate. The words
and pictures seemed trivial. I turned my chair so that I could see the
distant portion of sky the building's architects had allotted to this
room. The sky slowly changed color as the sun moved down through the
afternoon. Just as the last band of pale pink had faded and the sky had turned a
deep nightblue, Veronica gave a sigh. It was a small noise, like a child
coming back to the world. I got up and poured a cup of water and stood at
the edge of the bed, waiting for her to wake. "Want a drink?" I asked,
when her eyes had been open a few moments. She blinked and nodded. My
eyes burned as I held the cup for her. Then she sat up and took the cup
from me and drank some more. We had been sitting quietly, with Veronica making occasional groggy
noises, for some time when a nurse came with supper. "Do you need help
with that?" I asked Veronica. She shook her head no, and after she had
taken a few bites of the green gelatin, she said, "You've been here a long
time," in a way that made me understand she now wanted to be alone. I got my jacket and spent a few moments stacking books and magazines
within Veronica's reach, and making minute adjustments to her bedside table
that almost made her spill her dinner. Then I fooled with the television
that hung on a swinging arm near her, until she said, "It's fine.
Everything's fine." Then I kissed her and left. As I walked down the hallway, now darkened for night, I avoided
looking through the open doorways that I passed. Random islands of light
marked the nursing stations. Some were unattended. Others were occupied
by nurses or attendants with harassed or overworked expressions, or by the
quietly trysting young professionals into whose hands the hospital fell at
night. Their quiet laughter had a ribald and untoward sound, as far as I
was concerned. Didn't they have enough work to do? I was having
trouble finding my way out. When I finally found an elevator to take me
down, I found myself expelled into the parking lot in an unfamiliar spot
where I wandered around angrily under the burning white lamps until I
spotted my car, looking misplaced an unfamiliar beside a pillar. It me almost an hour to drive home. When I passed the old Ford Rouge
plant, I pulled off the road into a deserted factory lot. stopped the
car, and put his hands over his eyes and held them there. Then he looked
out over the factory lot. Huge shafts and blank-eyed walls reared against
the fog. He thought of the young wife and her kids and their mangled dad.
Everyone gets something different, he decided. At the corner of the gateway where he had driven in, Brian spotted
dark movement. Quickly he started his car and headed out. For just a
second his headlights flashed on a raggedly dressed old black man who
raised both arms and cried, "Hey!" as if in an appeal for help. But
Brian drove past. At the corner of his block, Brian saw that the sign was still lit
outside the Chaldean market. He went in to buy pizza and beer. He had
not eaten all day, and he bought a lot. Back in his house, after he had
let the dog out into the yard, he turned on the television and tried to
eat, but he had no appetite. He drank beer, and after three bottles, his
appetite returned. He ate pizza and drank beer, and when he opened his
eyes again, the television was showing a noisy, well dressed man
performing miraculous healings, accompanied by organ music with the
peculiar tone heard in baseball stadiums. Brian turned off the set and
went up to bed. The next time he awoke it was to the ringing of the phone. It was
Veronica. "Come and get me!" she said. "You can get out now?" he asked
sleepily. "The doctor said I could go," Veronica said. "It's sunny outside.
Are you still sleeping? Let's go!" It ”was sunny outside, he noticed, once he had hung up the phone and
run up the shades to look at the day. It was a shy, hazy, lemony light.
A fertile, steamy light. Lightly feverish, a Chaucerian, root-shooting,
well-showered light that made the tree bark shine black and the winter-brown grass gleam promisingly with dew. A crocus-blooming dampness, an
Easter lily light. Brian hurried to shower and shave and dress. He drove back downriver and kept watching for someplace where he could
buy flowers, but it was Sunday morning, and everything was closed except
unfamiliar malls that were too big for him to find anything quickly. At
the hospital, he checked the gift shop, but everything in the cooler
looked like it had been there too long. It all had a funereal look, no
matter how cheery the containers. When he had reached her room, Brian found Veronica up and dressed and
ready to leave. She had even straightened up the hospital bed, and her
overnight bag and books lay stacked neatly together. When he came in,
Veronica turned to smile at him, and then continued the conversation she was
having with a woman in bed on the other side of the curtain. "You look good, though," Veronica was insisting. The woman murmured
something. "That will pass," Veronica assured her. "You'll sleep this
afternoon, I bet." Then Veronica turned to Brian and motioned him forward. "This is my husband, Brian," Veronica said. "'Morning," Brian said
with a nod. The woman was very pale, and her eyes seemed sunken into the
greenish, bruised flesh around them. Her dark hair lay splayed across the
pillow like a sunburst. Brian thought she looked awful. He smiled
broadly to hide the thought. "I'll get your stuff," he said to Veronica, and went back into her half of the room. "Just try to eat the jello," he heard Veronica urge the woman. "They'll bring you tea, too, if you ask." They were out in the sunlight again before Brian had a chance to kiss Veronica. She pecked his cheek in return. On the ride home Veronica told him about Jane, her room mate, who was in for a uterine tumor, and had been so uncomfortable at night that Veronica had rung for the nurse for her, and how, finally, she had gotten up and put a chair next to Jane's bed and sat and talked with her. "We held hands for awhile," Veronica remarked.
"You ”held ”hands?" Brian said.
"What's wrong with that? Veronica said.
"Nothing at all," Brian said.
That afternoon, I went out and bought yellow roses. This was the
flower from our wedding. Veronica put a vase of these in the living room,
and a bowl of the smaller stemmed ones in our bedroom.
They did not resume the fertility drug, and they no longer consulted
the calendar or used thermometers or kept a journal. A year went by, and
after almost two years, a night came when they went downtown with some
friends to hear music at a club. The long, low room was crowded and dark.
Brian had to ease his way to the bar past lit cigarettes and elbows to
buy beer. A Celtic band played somber and passionate songs that gave
their listeners assurance that their own troubles were small, and that
better people had suffered far worse than it was likely they ever would. Veronica stood in front of me, swaying with the music, and I rested my
hands on her shoulders. For no special reason, I bent forward to smell
her hair. What I breathed in was the clean, sweet smell of a child. I
breathed in deeply, drinking in the delicate, soap-clean scent, and was
pierced by a realization so sudden that I froze, sobered. I understood
that someday I would die. It was more than just a realization of the
intellect. It was more as if I had actually felt myself take the full
step closer to death that the day had brought me. And, somehow, in
grasping this, he understood that he had a child after all. She was singing
and dancing his my arms, at this very moment, barely aware of his presence.
At nine-fifteen, one mile southeast of the riot zone, families getting ready for church were surprised and disturbed by the smoke, and by the reports on radio and TV of trouble so nearby. The Johnston had picked up the news from neighbors. On Sundays it was a Johnston tradition to not read the paper, play the radio or watch television until after church. But Mamie Lang had told them some, and Old Arthur Howard had told them more. And it was enough for Dewey to decide that the trouble had been started by, and would probably be confined to, a particular class of people: idiots. Dewey Johnston was disgusted by it, but not frightened. He'd seen worse. Twenty-four years before, when he had been in Italy with the ambulance corps, his brother had written him about the riot in Detroit. Dewey had done his job, stood by his men, and kept his thoughts to himself, all the time knowing the kind of thing the country he was risking his neck for was doing to his people. But he had no doubts that plenty of brothers had dealt out some punishment to the peckerwoods back in his hometown.
Dewey's stand on the race issue was this: most people were fools, and a lot of them were dangerous. Do yourself a favor and give everyone a wide birth. Watch out for yourself. Black, white, China man, Jew: they all had one thing in common: they preferred their own kind. You couldn't blame them, except when they set out to kill the other sort. But everyone prefers their own kind.
Roberto waited with Dewey on the front porch. Florence was almost ready. Dewey sat on the adirondack chair and smoked an Old Gold. Roberto looked out at the street. They kept their thoughts to themselves, but both were aware of the smoke, and both mulled over what they had heard from the neighbors passing on their way to church. It was no surprise that trouble would blow up around 12th street.
Roberto got up from where he had been sitting on the porch steps. He stretched and yawned. He did not feel self-conscious about still going to church with his folks, even though he was nineteen. It bored him, but did not embarrass him. He was proud to be with Dewey. Everyone knew Dewey, and to be with Dewey was to be with a respected man, a man who was tough, intelligent, and not to be fooled with. And Florence was loved by everyone from the most upward sort of strivers to the unluckiest hard-case folks. And Roberto, from when he had been no older than ten, had been known among his crew, and his school as a boy who made his own decisions and could back them up without taking anything off anyone. When he walked down the street with Dewey and Florence, the greetings he received from other kids were respectful.
From inside the house there was an approaching series of drawers shutting, doors closing, a purse snapping shut, all accompanied by Florence's voice in a series of exclamations and excited womanly rhetoric, piping and chirping around her like a flock of wrens, addressing no one, or nothing other than the bright Sunday morning. She backed out of the house, pushing the screen door open with the wide, pleated pastel blue seat of her dress. Then she swirled gravely forth to meet her men, the hunched and solemn smoker, and the upright young man. Florence was all woman, and quite a good deal of woman, too. Everyone on her daddy's side was tall and wide, while her mother's side, the Iroquois side, was tall and thin. Florence was five foot eleven, and her muscles had never lost there tone, thanks to her work in the cafeteria at henry Ford Hospital. She reached up as high as she could and bent down as low as she could one hundred times a day, moving stock pots full of soup and stew, stirring whole tubs of eggs, washing miles of counters, lifting pans of roast and stew and potatoes and pie. And she had walked to work every day. Dewey needed the car to get out to Budd Wheel on Connor, to the east. So each day Florence put her good white shoes and uniform in a small overnight bag, and wore her comfortable brogans to walk down Woodward, then right onto west Grand Boulevard, past the glamorous Fisher Building, and over to the hospital. There and back it was a good six miles a day. Florence was radiant as a sun and strong as steel. And she knew it. From where he leaned on the brick pillar of the old porch, Roberto could smell the scent of Paquins cream his mother used on her hands.
She massaged her hands for a moment now, and looked over at the Dismilla's house across the street. Now that woman had problems. And Florence saw it as her duty, and one she wouldn't shirk another day, to talk to that woman and get her on the right path.
"Roberto, I want you to do something today, after church."
"I want you to take the lawnmower and go over and do that girl's lawn for her."
"I spend my whole week doing lawns."
"That's what makes you just the man for the job. You're the one who can do it right and do it the fastest and so it will look good. And it will mean a lot to that old lady, and a lot to the Barnes' and the Vernons that got to live next door to her. And," Florence added, to prevent the suggestion she knew might be coming, "you know you can do it a lot easier than old Barnes or old Vernon. Won't take you but an hour, and it will be a good thing for everyone."
It was a Sunday. Roberto had no argument with this. It was true. He was young and strong and he could do what a lot of people could not do, or could only do with difficulty.
Finished with her hands, Florence smoothed herself down all over. Her long, pale blue, pleated skirt was flattering to a woman of her opulent proportions. Her matching pumps, gloves, and wide-brimmed, flat-crowned hat were all of the same supercharged azure radiance. She smoothed herself down, and Dewey watched her small, chubby young-looking hands as they smoothed and straightened the bright fabric over her tremendous hips. It still sent something through him, like a holler down a mineshaft, when he saw swell of that fine form. He flicked his cigarette past the impatiens and into the gravel of the driveway.
"Well, let's go then, he said, and they started for church.
Hot? Gat-damn! Son of a pup. Dewey got the gat-damn cap off the Schlitz on the third try. The cap clicked on the kitchen floor. Florence bent over and picked it up, raking Dewey with a hard glance. Dewey ignored her and headed out to the back porch. Florence followed.
“That’s the third today, Dewey. And it ain't even noon yet.”
“Hot damn day, girl. And it's the day of rest. So why don't you just give your mouth a rest and let a man relax. Got to cut the pressure of working. Good sermon today, wasn't it. So damn good it could have saved a white man.”
“Uh huh. But the man who conquers himself is better off than he who conquers a city.”
“Not this city.”
Florence dropped the bottle cap into the waste paper basket under the sink, then followed Dewey out onto the screened porch. Dewey was settling himself onto the glider. His yellow rayon golf shirt was tight over his drum-like belly, and stayed tucked in by some apparently miraculous process. He had to hoist himself off the edge of the Free Press, and then one-handedly flip through it for the sports section. There was no place to set down the beer. Gat-damn, it was like, in heat like this, every damn object you came in contact with either stuck to you or got crumpled or... he tipped the bottle and spilled a trickle of beer on his shirt front.
"Look at that. Can't keep a shirt neat for ten minutes."
Dewey didn't need Florence commenting on everything every second.
“I ain’t working today. I can have three-four beers. Worked seventeen hours yesterday. Sixty hours last week. I’ll do what I gat-damn want today.”
Florence fanned herself with the TV Guide. She wasn’t upset anyway. She just felt part of living with a man like Dewey was to keep him up to the mark. The total opposite of Roberto, who you never had to say a word to. Roberto wanted to be a newspaper man, but Florence knew in her heart he would become a preacher, like her father.
“Listen to that.”
There was a blunt concussion of gunfire, not far away. A shotgun pumped and fired four times. Then the high-pitched smack of a rifle.
“What the hell was that?.”
Dewey turned on the TV. He was not a worrier.
“This gatdamn town. It’s gonna get to a point …”
She watched Dewey. Dewey watched the TV. The man was cold-blooded. What a cold man.
“They’re burning the whole place down. Fools. Burn their own damn houses down." Dewey found the sports pages and snapped them open on his lap. "Where's Roberto?" he said, without looking up.
"He's at Jessie's house again."
"He better watch that he don't wind up married to her."
"I think she's a nice girl."
"He's got college first. I'm going to talk with him. I hope to hell he ain't lying down with her. Nothing ruins a man's ambition quicker than a girl."
There was a lot that Florence figured she could say on this point. Secretly, she had doubts about the whole college thing. No one in either of their families had ever even got a high school diploma. Roberto was smart and all, but it just seemed like tempting fate to even think about college. If she had her way, Roberto would marry Jessie, and work where he was working and have a good life for himself. College. It just didn't seem like a real thing to think about.
Dewey put aside the paper and looked out through the screens at the trees and the sky. He was tired and his eyes focused for a moment on the screens before readjusting and looking out past them. He could see smoke rolling low from the west. It occurred to him that he would need more beer soon. These fool people were going to fuck up the whole day, he could see that now.
“I’m going to the store,” he announced. He got up, tipped back the beer bottle and drained it in a way he had that never failed to shock Florence.
“Look at that. That’s terrible. You’re not going out to no store, neither.”
“You need anything?”
You’re not going out in that. You can’t go out. Just forget it.”
Dewey patted his back pocket. Took out his wallet. He had fourteen dollars, two fives, four ones. He lit a cigarette.
“Be right back.”
The screen door sprang and clacked.
“You’re not back in twenty minutes, I’ll lock you out.”
Dewey walked west on Euclid toward Woodward. There was a market he was certain would be open. If it weren't for the smoke, it would be a nice July afternoon. All this dammed trouble. All on account of two things: no-good trouble-making people, and, two, the goddamed cops that were always after them. It never ended. The upright black man goes three steps forward, and the goddamn niggers push everyone two steps back. And the cops, and ninety-nine point nine percent of the rest of the white folks ready to help push. You get all these people yelling about their rights, and the first right they want to have is the right to make a goddamn fool of themselves, and the goddamn cops just ready and waiting for them. Goddamn Russians ought to drop a bomb on the whole place.
What Dewey had accomplished in 44 years had not been accomplished by yelling about rights, or by hanging around with white people or by sitting up playing the fool drinking every damn night. It had been accomplished by getting up out of bed every day and doing. Taking the next step. Putting every bit of his strength and purpose into doing what each day required. And the days had never required big talk and long thinking. And the problem of being colored in a world where the colored got second place in every goddamned thing was too big to be called a problem. It was as big as life itself. It was a life sentence imposed on all the colored people who had the sense to see how the world worked.
White people, with very rare exceptions, just did not want black people to live. Plain and simple. They goddamn brought us here without us wanting to come, and then they didn't want you here. It was their problem. They couldn't bear any other kind of person but a white one, and they didn't even like each other that much. You could tell. The first thing a white man did if you talked to him for ten minutes, was tell you about all other sons-of-bitches he hates. Talk to an Italian, you hear how much they hate the Irishmen. Talk to an Irishmen, they hate the Jew. And they're all superior to each other. Stands to reason they're all going to hate the colored. They got to have something to agree on.
The white mans' claim to superiority was the biggest joke on God's green earth. The very fact that they make that claim is what stands against them. They steal the African out of Africa, beat them, lie to them, enslave them, cheat them, murder and rape them, and then they think that anyone sensible person's ever going to respect or trust them on anything?
How often did you come across a white person who could look you in the eye without flinching? About once a year. Now that could be for one reason, or it could be for another. Did they feel guilty? Or were they just afraid. Of course, they might not even be able to look each other without flinching. Some of them felt ashamed, you could tell. But others of them felt angry. They were angry at their own guilt. Made sense. No one likes to know they’re wrong.
But they had good reason to be afraid, too, if that was what they were flinching about. They should be afraid. The lyncher feels different when his lynch mob is gone. In ‘43 they had roved in gangs, murdering any black man they could find. Dewey could remember '43. The mobs of white men beating and shooting blacks, pulling them off street cars while white women cheered. What sickening people. It had to be repulsive, to make that daily effort to brainwash your own conscience and tell yourself that the history of slavery should be forgotten, the lynchings should be forgotten, the discrimination should be ignored, and that everyone should pretend it did not exist. That when you went to any town in the country and saw where and how the whites lived and where and how the blacks lived, that this was natural, and a statement about blacks. When every black man you know works hard for less pay than a white man. That white men keep you out of jobs and refuse to hire you and then blame you for being poor. What sickening people.
If you let yourself think about it you would go insane. Which is what happens with a lot of the brothers, in one way or another. What kind of life was it, when every day you face the fact that you're hated. That the mother and father you love are hated. That your children will be hated. Then why did you go and fight for this country? Why not fight against them? That would make sense.
He remembered being hit by white men. The men had come at him in a gang, three of them. Crazy. No reason. Just for the fun of beating up a kid. He had never seen them before. What cowards. If another white man tried it again, Dewey would kill him. And yet, you see them and talk with them, for some reason, you can never work up the real anger. One at a time, they just seemed pathetic, not poisonous. You can sense the violence in them. Others seem afraid. All you have to do is look at them without a smile on your face, and they flinch. Even men much bigger than you. It made you want to give them a damn good reason to flinch.
Enslave the black man, and then accuse him of having no will. Beat the black man and call him violent. Deprive him of education, and call then call him stupid, cheat them and then blame them for being poor. These are the essentials of whiteness; they learn it from childhood on. Their whole lives are lived in such a pattern of lies that they can't even see it. The truth can't touch them because they live off lies.
Everything Malcolm X said was right. So right that it wasn't even surprising. King. It’s an awfully slow march to freedom that man’s talking about. No, I don't feel like turning the other cheek. I've been hit in the face so many times that I don't have an unbruised cheek to turn. The police they set on us are no better than their own dogs. Can't count all of the men I've known who’ve been beaten by cops for no reason. They can stop your car, accuse you of the first crime they think of, take you to jail, beat the shit out of you. Almost everything the black man did was in response to the oppression. And the word is oppression. Oppression is the word. They were oppressive. Their atmosphere was oppressive. Blacks go to church and love the Lord, because in their souls they know that Christ sees us the same as everyone. Why we've been put to this test, God only knows. But the fact is, we will survive, whether they like it or not. We will never give in. Let them do the hating. They're good at it. It comes naturally to them. We turn to crime because of them. They can make good people turn to crime. The best kids you know, the ones who have spirit and won't be held back, they turn to crime as often as they turn to schooling or work.
Whites killed with their eyes and their voices, not just with their hands and their guns and clubs and dogs. It made a man sick with an anger that couldn’t be expressed. There was no act that could release all the rage the whites provoked. Only if the whites were completely eliminated from the country, would the rage come to an end. There was no other way. To take away from them the country they had stolen from others, and for the colored, who had been stolen out of their country to take away from the whites what they had stolen, would be the most Godly thing the colored could do. But in the mean time, it was best to mind your own business.
Dewey left the shade of Euclid and stepped into the sunlight of Woodward Avenue. The market was open, and Dewey arrived at the screen door at the same moment as a white man. They both reached for the door handle, but Dewey got it first and held the door for the white man, who gave a polite nod of thanks and entered. Dewey's thoughts of the previous few moments went into abeyance, as do those of most people, when confronted with the general harmlessness of an individual. Real people, face to face and one at a time, have almost nothing to do with history.
Dewey got a six pack from the tall cooler in the back of the market. The white guy had been and gone by this time, and Dewey met Roy, the owner, at the counter in front.
"What's happening, man?" Dewey said. He set down the beer.
"Big old mess over on Twelfth Street," Roy said. He put the six pack in a paper bag.
"Gimme a pack Old Golds with that, will you man," Dewey said. "So what's been and happened now?"
"Police raided a joint last night. All the people on the street started throwing bottles and shit. Breakin' windows…"
"Looks like they burning the place down now."
"Looks like it. I hope to hell they cut it out before they get over here. Just about the last thing I need. My mama lives over there on Seward." I got to get over there soons as I shut up this place in an hour or two."
"Well, you take care, man. You need some help, you got my number, right?"
"Thanks, man. Hope it don't come to that."
"Check you out later."
The door slammed shut behind Dewey, and now, on the street, he noticed quite a few people had stopped to look west over the roof tops. There was more smoke now, and for the first time, Dewey felt some real concern.
Parker Hagen is killed.
The detective held out a pack of cigarettes, just like in a movie, and although Roberto Johnson smoked, he didn’t reach for one now.
“C’mon, they’re free.”
They weren’t. Roberto looked through the pack, through the hand, past the man, out the door.
The detective sat down, sliding his chair forward.
“What’s your name?”
“You know it.”
“Know why you’re here?”
Roberto knew. It was because of what he had seen at Seven’s House. But that wasn’t what they wanted him to say. And he wasn’t in the mood, by a long shot, to get into a dialog with them now.
“Know what you’re here for?”
There was never a right answer. Roberto had been through this so many times. Even the first time, when he was no more than eleven; it had an old feeling. A familiarity. This was, like, the permanent condition.
“You tell me.”
There was a blow, a silent thunderclap, and Roberto was looking at the linoleum, close up.
“You want another?”
Hadn’t even seen the motherfucker in the room. He must have walked right in behind him. Roberto looked over his shoulder, some skinny, nuts-looking hillbilly with greased hair and thick glasses.
“You want another?”
Cops were the kings at questions like this. This was probably what defined a cop. Hit a handcuffed guy from behind, then ask him if he wants another. Roberto’s head was ringing so hard that he could barely hear his own voice when he said, “No. That’ll do.”
“Okay, Elroy. Enough for now.”
The detective waved the cracker back. Roberto was certain he was about to get kicked. He tried, as best he could, to put his elbow over his kidney. The cracker stood with both fists cocked.
“Elroy. I’ll handle this. If I need you, I’ll call.”
Elroy went out. The detective, who was a big, heavy old-for-his-age forty-two, somehow got Roberto, a lithe, strong man half that age, into the straight-backed chair. The detective resumed his seat, which creaked. The detective grunted. Duet of desuetude.
What the hell was the point of this, Roberto wondered. The town was on fire. They’d grabbed Roberto an hour ago. Roberto figured they’d gotten his whole crew. But the others weren’t around. Malcolm, Free-Up, Ginger, Deke: all loose, he hoped. Why they wanted to question him, here, alone in an office, while cats were being caged all over town, shoved in garages, holding tanks, school rooms, why bother with him? He was nothing special.
“You’re Roberto Johnson. You’re a pimp. Elroy said he saw you kill a cop. You better explain. It doesn’t get any easier from here.”
Roberto stayed silent for a full minute before he decided that the pig was a patient man.
“You know that’s bullshit,” Roberto said quietly, “because if that fucking Elroy seen me kill a cop, I’d never got here.”
Detective Joe D’Amici thought about this. The kid had a point.
The fingers of his left hand were always numb. They were swollen and looked reddish and mottled beneath a white powder of dry skin. You might have thought Joe D’Amici earned his living working with strong chemicals.
The wedding ring hadn’t been off in 16 years. The marriage had been off for four. Joe put in a lot of hours. So this thing was nothing special, in that sense. But, it was an awful thing. Joe could remember ’43; this was worse. It didn’t seem to Joe as if things had been worse for the colored in ’43. So this thing was strange. There had been fewer guns in ’43. More fists, clubs, bricks. Joe reminisced sadly. The colored all heard that a pregnant black woman had been thrown off the Belle Isle bridge by some drunken sailor. The whites all heard that some colored guy had raped a white woman, and then killed her and her kid. Or something. And neither had happened. It had been a big Sunday summer night crowd. Guys, black and white, drunked up and tired. A couple fist fights, then some bottles thrown, then some broken windows. You take it from there. Well, they took it from there all right. Ugliest fucking thing he had ever seen in his life. Until now.
And now there was a cop killed. The worst thing that could happen. Certainly the worst thing for the cop, Floyd Parker, and for his wife and kid. And the worst thing for the whole city. Toss a lit match into gasoline. And no one anywhere knew how bad this was really going to get. The fact was, it was a goddamn jungle, no exaggeration, and when you weakened or got hit or, God forbid, got killed, the whole goddamn jungle vibrated with it. They would rip the lid off. And the stuffed shirts in Grosse Pointe and the yarmlke boys up in Birmingham would all piss and whimper, but you wouldn’t catch them down here on clean-up. No. That would be for the dumb-ass Joe D’Amicis.
There was a shave-and-a-haircut rap at the door, and there stood Jerry Fahner. Joe felt a minor wave of depression. Jerry had a roller coaster of thick red hair, a high forehead with many horizontal creases, self-infatuated yellow eyes, and a mouth like a conger eel. Jerry’s relentless good cheer took an exorbitant toll on anyone who remained in a room with him for long. Joe D’Amici had once met Jerry's wife. She had reminded him of a school girl he had once seen fished out of a reservoir.
“What’s up, Jerry?”
“Natives are restless, baby. Dolan called me in at five this morning. I barely had a chance to shave. Looks like Twelfth Street's finally bust a gut.”
“You hear about Floyd Parker?”
“They’ll fuckin’ pay for that, Joey. I’m gonna see to it personally.”
“We got a kid that saw it.”
“He saw who did it?”
“He saw it happen. He saw Parker go down.”
“Son of a bitch. How’d they get him?”
“Easier than you’d think.”
“Like how? They wing him?”
“Didn’t have to. He didn’t move.”
“I don’t think so.”
“He was kneeling right by him. Right by Floyd.”
“Fucking robbing him.”
“No. Trying to help.”
“Rollins saw him. He was kneeling… Rollins told me he was holding his hand.”
Jerry tried to process this. Joe D’Amici could see gears moving behind Jerry Fahner’s eyes.
“Holding his hand. For what? What's he, homo?"
“For, I don’t know. ‘Cause Floyd was dying. Like, there was nothing else he could do.”
Jerry was having trouble with this. He shut his mouth. His eyes roved over the room, but found no reason why a colored kid would help a cop over the edge into whatever. Heaven, or whatever.
“I’m hungry,” Jerry said at last. “You feel like something to eat?
“I’m not hungry,” Joe D’Amici said.
“C’mon. You’re hungry. You gotta eat to keep up your strenth.”
Joe got up. It was easier to eat than to have Jerry insist on your eating.
“We’ll get Merriam to go to,” Jerry said. “Merriam’s probably scared as hell.”
The truth, in this case, and many others, was the opposite of whatever Jerry said or thought. Merriam was rarely scared by anything. She was not scared now. Detroit was having convulsions. Detroit was her patient, and some days he was better than others. He had his good days, but this wasn’t one of them.
Merriam’s family had made its way to Hamtramck just before Hitler had made his way to Poland. That was when Merriam was born. She was a solidly constructed woman who had been given no illusions about her looks, not by her family, not by her friends, of whom there had been few, and not by the guys she worked with. The assumption was that she was rough. Maybe she was rough. She spent whole weekends at the cathedral and at the mission. Her home was a two room apartment on Joseph Campau decorated in a fashion that might be called Modern Low Catholic. A rickety drinks cart was parked rosily beneath framed renderings of Jack Kennedy, Pope Paul, Jesus, Theresa of Liseuex, and a signed photos of Spencer Tracey and Paul Muni. There were sacred hearts, praying hands, and the serenity prayer, in honor of her alcoholic father who had sobered up just in time for cancer.
Merriam Archangelina Pas was a laconic, well-read, under-appreciated young woman who looked ten years older than her age, and had, for as long as she could remember, been swept, besieged, inundated by a sense of romance so profound, that she had chosen, for her own survival, an occupation that offered bountiful daily, even hourly, reminders of this life's intransigence, the immortal soul, and the implausibility of earthly life's being the only life.
Jerry Fahner, for instance, was exemplary proof of this world’s intransigence.
“Merriam! You chubby little baby doll. You little crumb cake. You baby doll pazki little chubby…”
Merriam raised her eyes from the reports she had been reading and looked out the window, waiting for Jerry to conclude his greeting.
“How about some lunch? Yacht Club?”
“I doubt it will be open.”
"They're not going to close just for this bullshit." Jerry waved a hand at the window.
"It's not like it's the end of the world."
"It looks like it from here. You hear about Parker?"
"I know. I know. But a guy still has to eat. Come on and eat. You gotta keep up your strenth."
Jerry insisted on driving to Ivanhoe’s, known as the Polish Yacht club. Merriam and Joe had struggled briefly for the back seat, neither one wanting to sit in front next to Jerry. Joe's sense of chivalry, or at least the impossibility of giving Merriam a good hard shove, made him give up and accept the front seat. Merriam settled into the back and cracked the window. One thing about Jerry was that he was neat. The car was five years old, at least, and spotless. It even smelled new.
“Say, Merry. You’re buyin,’right?”
“Why am I buying?”
Jerry tipped Joe the wink. Joe ignored it, not knowing why Jerry would tip him the wink, but divining that it would somehow precede a jest that would be to Merriam’s discredit, and knowing that Merriam was worth a continent-full of Jerry's.
“Cause this is Merriam’s party.”
Merriam and Joe waited for the punch line or explanation or whatever would come next. Jerry was waiting for them to eagerly beg him to complete the joke, so there was quite a little wait. Two stoplights worth.
“Okay,” Merriam said, “so how’s it my party.”
“Well, it’s all on account of your buddy.”
“The big King. Martin X. Luther. Big god-daddy of all these spades burning down the world.”
“Jerry,” Joe said, “shut up.”
“The big fearless leader of the down-trodden. And so now they got Hagen.”
Joe gave Merriam a space to jump in. But she wasn’t jumping.”
“King’s got nothing to do with this,” Merriam said, in the strangely airy voice that gave no sense of her physical self.
“Hell he doesn’t.”
“King’s a pacifist. Like Ghandi.”
This was a curve ball to Jerry, who didn’t know Ghandi, and barely knew there was an India. But it only slowed him. Didn’t stop him.
“Well, alls I know is, I figure it’s your treat, since it’s your party.”
Jerry had a way, his friends knew, of being so far off course that the very prospect of all the conversational mileage necessary to bring him in line was exhausting to his auditors. Everyone was hungry. They let him have the game. After a silent second or two, Jerry knew it.
“So! Lunch on Merry! Hot dog. I can smell that cabbage from here!”
He could, too. So could they all. They were in Hamtown.
Three miles east, and, some might suppose, a million miles closer to the realm of reason, Pingree Delaney stepped out of the back gate, at the rear of the yard behind his house, and breathed in the honeysuckle scent of early morning. The big, pale blue blooms nodded from the vines along the fence. Boy, it would be hot today. Pingree could feel it just in moving out of the shadow of the garage and into the glare of the alley. He swung up the garage door, enjoying the cool, metallic smell of his yard tools, and the earthy smell beneath that. He decided to drive to the church not by his normal route, but via a detour through Wind Mill Point, to catch a glimpse of the lake behind the last mansions that still stood their ground along the shore. He was always early. He had time.
Pingree drove all the way down Alter Road, passing the Korte Street bridge on the right, where teen gangs gathered on summer nights, and then turned left onto the boulevard of Wind Mill Point drive. The sunlight lit the high branches, and fell onto the lawns. A cool, hidden scent of night remained in the low ground. Dew still sparkled. Glimpses of the lake flashed between the lichened walls and staunch windows of the old homes. Anyone but Pingree might have been tempted to fantasize about one day living in one of these mansions, with the lake at his door, Pingree only imagined what he would do if he were the mansion's caretaker. How he would pour new concrete basement walls to fight the damp; trim back the enormously overgrown, untended shrubbery and replace it with high, rounded banks of impatiens, gladiolus, sweet William, marigolds, dahlias, poppies, pansies, and explosions of geraniums. And at the end of the day he could drive back to his own small house Alter Road.
Pingree paused at the stop sign at the corner of Bedford and Essex, and lit a cigarette. The tour was over, and he was heading up to Lake Shore Drive, and to work. The morning was so peaceful that he could hear the tiny crepitation of the tobacco igniting. And then, just as if he had lit the fuse of a bomb instead of a cigarette, the world exploded. Or seemed to. A blast of sound from behind startled him so badly that he dropped both lit cigarette and flaming match between his thighs. Grunting in panic, Pingree hoisted himself from the seat, swatting the cigarette to the floor, and accidentally stamping the accelerator to the floor while his left foot slipped off the brake. His car leapt forward.
Police Sergeant Barry Vilks, passing east to west through the intersection at this moment, and thinking about nothing in particular, was in for a nasty surprise. Startled by the blast of a car horn, he looked left to see a well-maintained, late model Buick lunging toward him, an adult male Negro's terrified face behind the wheel. Vilks stepped on it just in time to shoot ahead of Pingree's car, then instantly pulled over to the curb on Essex, ready to swing around and pursue the other vehicle, if need be. But there was no need. Pingree, through the intersection now, pulled over on Bedford. The car behind him, whose impatient honk had put the whole disaster in motion, slid demurely past him and on up the street. Pingree was left alone to deal with Sergeant Vilks, now approaching on foot, his wiry body singing with adrenaline and rage.
Pingree wisely stayed behind the wheel, clumsily stamping at the remains of the cigarette and match on the floor, until Sergeant Vilk's stopped his advance four feet from Pingree's door.
"License, registration, proof of insurance."
Slowly, and while offering the cop his most cooperative face, which was not hard for Pingree, who was a cooperative man, Pingree reached for his wallet. But he had put on a good fifteen pounds since he had bought the work pants he was wearing. The wallet resisted Pingree's tugging fingers, until Pingree was nearly leaning on his own right elbow, butt towards the cop, while he struggled to comply with the officer's request. Vilks did not like this at all. At first it was silly, then obscene, and now it had all the look of an opening gambit at resistance or escape. The coon was going to pull a gun.
"Okay, that's it. Out of the car," Vilks said, in the voice of one who would later be able to testify that he had remained courteous in the face of the defendant's increasingly erratic and threatening behavior.
Pingree, who was partially deaf from working all his life with heavy equipment, and was now practically laying flat across the front seat, left hand groping at his backside, could not hear what Vilks said.
"I said out of the car," Vilks roared.
Pingree heard. He straightened up. He reached for the door handle. Vilks, wild with impatience and fear, grabbed the door handle on the outside. Between them, they rapidly locked and unlocked the door several times before Vilks stepped back in a rage and screamed, "Out! Now!"
Pingree got out slowly, keeping both his hands in view.
"Walk that line," Vilks hissed, nodding at a seam in the pavement. Pingree walked it forward ten paces, then turned and walked it back.
"Both hands on top of the car. Spread your legs."
Pingree obeyed, and kept his mouth shut. The cop patted him down, not gently.
"You got license, registration, proof of insurance?"
"You damn well better. They on you?"
"In my wallet."
"Put the wallet on the car." Vilks put his hand on his service revolver. Pingree reached into his back pocket. Now, of course, the wallet slipped out easily. He put it on the car."
Pingree stood away, and Sergeant Vilks moved forward to rifle the wallet. He found what he needed.
"What are you doing here Mr. McCabe?"
"Going to work. I'm sexton at Grosse Pointe Memorial. I work for Pastor Landors."
"Why you down here? Why don't you just drive straight down Lakeshore to work?"
"Just wanted a look around. See the houses."
See the houses. Yeah, right.
"Don't you worry about the houses, Mr. McCabe," the officer advised, studying the driver's papers. Everything was in order. But Vilks was going to call in and check. Just wanted to see the houses. Right.
"Close that door," Vilks said, nodding at Pingree's car, "and then get in back," he added, pointing toward his patrol car.
Pingree did as he was told, imagining stares from the windows of the homes around them. And then he noticed, from out of the corner of his eye, the dark car that had caused the trouble. It was waiting at the curb on Bedford, halfway up the block. He thought he would bring this other vehicle to the officers attention.
"Sir," he said, over his shoulder.
"That car there…"
The car in question, a small, dark car that seemed of foreign make, started up and continued on its way. At the end of the block it turned right onto Lake Shore Drive.
“That's the one that honked its horned and scared me so that I came out into the intersection like that.”
"Just get in, Mr. McCabe."
Vilks got behind the wheel of the car, and Pingree, sitting in the back, on the right, behind a metal grid, could see the officer's profile as he radioed into the station. Leo could not hear the information that came back, but he knew his record was clean, and he could see Vilks shift slightly with irritated disappointment. They sat silently for a moment.
"You want to explain to me just what you were trying to do back there, running that stop sign? Vilk's finally asked. He had not listened to Pingree before, but he knew, at this point that the guy would have some dumb but plausible excuse. He listened while Pingree told the tale of the small dark car.
"And just what would have happened," Vilks proposed, once Pingree had finished, "if some kid had been crossing the street when you pulled that stunt?"
Pingree thought about this. The way he had explained it, he thought, would have precluded the incident's being considered a stunt. But Pingree knew better than to state the obvious. He kept his mouth shut. Anyway, Vilks provided the answer himself:
"You would have killed him."
Now Vilks turned and looked over his shoulder at Pingree, who looked down at his shoes.
Vilks, finding that he would not be able to make Pingree fight, found nonetheless that the imaginary scene he had invoked had assumed a life of his own. Vilks was the father of a little boy who he now almost helplessly found himself pitching into the starring role of the tale of Pingree McCabe's bad driving. Vilks' body again surged with adrenaline.
"Yep, you would have killed him," Vilks said in a matter-of-fact tone that expressed just how little value Pingree placed on human life. "Is that what you would like?" Vilks snapped at his captive.
Vilks gave a flat stare. "Then why'd you do it?"
Pingree paused. Was he really going to have to explain the whole thing again to this nut?"
"It was an accident," he said at last. "It won't happen again."
"Not here it won't," Vilks said. And Pingree got the point, and knew his best bet, under the circumstances, was to keep quiet.
Vilks turned away from Pingree, and the imaginary scene vanished from his mind, as well as all other interest in this matter. It was practically time for him to meet the other guys for coffee at Janet's. He wrote up a citation for disregarding a traffic signal.
"Get out of the car and walk around up here to my window. Move slowly."
When Pingree got to Vilks' window, the officer handed out Pingree's documents and the citation, and Pingree grasped them carefully. His hands were shaking.
"You watch how you drive. And don't worry about the houses down here. They'll take care of themselves."
Pingree walked back to his Buick, his knees weak beneath him. The patrol car waited until Pingree had gotten in, and had started up the street before it too started up and headed west along Essex. Then, Pingree stopped. He was a few doors from the corner of the street, but he stopped to replace the papers in the proper slots in the worn sections of his wallet. He noticed how his hands were shaking. He read the citation. Now he was shaking with rage, as much at himself as at the cop. But what could you do?
The rest of the way to work, which was not far, Pingree was acutely aware of the other drivers around him, as if they had witnessed his humiliation. He was oblivious to the fine day that had pleased him twenty minutes earlier. When he arrived in the church parking lot, he noticed that his dropped match had melted a tiny hole in the vinyl upholstery of the car seat. He touched the spot with his thumb. That son of a bitch cop. And who the hell was it who had honked at him like that?
Jaimie passed from the echoing radiance of the street into the dark, muted chill of the bar at the East Warren Lanes. She looked at the bowling trophies in the glass case, but pictures of Ramos and Antoine, as she had last seen them, kept flashing into her head.
She needed this darkness. There was just too much light in the street. The portentous roll and slam of the alleys washed over he. She was only sixteen years old. Her home was five hundred miles to the south, in a town where people said hello to you when you passed them on the street. Not she had bus fare back. And more, a lot more.
Once she had reached the alley and heard no steps behind her, she had turned to see what was happening. She had heard the shots, seen, indistinctly, how it had gone for Ramos and Antoine. The moment she had seen red-shirted Earl dart back toward the alley, she had approached the car. “Forgot my purse,” she had exclaimed to the gaping neighbors, and then reached in for the blue nylon bag, and run for the avenue, the neighbors still too gunshot-stunned to follow. Within three minutes she had caught a cab on Van Dyke, shoved handfuls of bills into her jacket and boots, and given a handful to the delighted driver, along with an injunction to shut up.
She had counted he take in a service station restroom at Harper and Outer Drive, then caught a second cab to the bowling alley. And tonight she would get out of this stinking town and never come back. But first she had to get off the street.
Jaimie ordered a beer from the bartender who was one of her regulars. Pictures of Ramos and Antoine exploded behind her eyes with the persistence of an unwanted tune in one’s head. She lit a cigarette, ordered a second beer and took it back to a table. She felt very tired. She felt, also, an obscure desire that at last resolved itself, absurdly, as the desire to cry. It had been ten years since she’d had this feeling and given it to it, so it wasn’t hard to squelch.
By the time she finished her third beer, Jaimie had noticed the man who was watching her while he pretended to watch the TV. She caught him looking. The daddy type. Steely hair, those serious glasses, bundle of keys on the belt, on a retractable chain. Without thinking much about it at all, as if she had no choice in the matte, as if it were being done by someone else inside of her, she gave the man the look she knew she wanted.
The man turned to the bartended and cashed out. The he got down slowly from the high bar stool and came over to Jaimie’s table. He looked down at her, thin lips tightly drawn, livid with hate, trapped by a need that, Jaimie knew, made him hers.
Jaimie lowered her head, trapped by a need that made her his, looked up at him from the bottoms of her eyes. “I been a bad girl, daddy,” she murmured. A tic came to life at the corner of the man’s eye. Small muscles trembled in his face.
“Then I reckon you better come with me.” Voice dry as ash. Jaimie left some change on the table, and followed him to his van.
Twelfth Street in daylight was nothing like Twelfth Street by night.
“Who had the gun?”
“You’ve got them.”
“Me! I’m a cop. I have to have one.”
Roberto sat still. The cop had missed the point that it was the cops doing the shooting.
“There was a sniper up there. Who was the sniper?”
“I never saw no sniper,” Roberto said truthfully. “I’ve never seen one. I’ve never heard talk of anyone being one. Only shots I’ve seen fired were by guards and cops.”
“Well, there were snipers. That’s why they were firing.”
“Snipers in the street? Down on the ground? I’ve never seen one of the guards fire up.”
“I have,” D’Amici said, and it was true. But he had never been able to see what it was they had been firing at. D’Amici had been in the Marines, though, and he knew the guardsmen were not soldiers. It wasn’t a thought he wanted to pursue at the moment.
The phone rang. Florence picked it up.
“Roberto there?” It was Charles, one of Roberto’s crew.
“No he ain’t. He said he was coming to see you. You going to meet him at Seven’s House.”
“I’m going there. Wanted to make sure he’d be there, too.”
“Neither of you should be there. If you go there and see Roberto, you tell him to get home, and you get home, too. You’ve got no business being out.”
“You’re not, you get home, tell Roberto he’s wanted home, and send the rest home, too.”
“I’ve gotta go.”
“You listen . . . . .”
The line was dead. Florence put back the receiver and reached into the shelf beneath the phone table. She found Seven’s House in the yellow pages under Entertainment. Yeah, entertainment, alright.
The phone rang eight times before being picked up. Then there was a languid pause before a woman’s voice said, “Seven’s.”
“Let me speak to the manager.”
“Manager ain’t here.”
“Do you know Roberto Johnson?”
Florence repeated the name and added the names of Bristol Grange, James Bishop, Neil Raleigh and Edward Tremaine.
“I know some of them. They come here. They’re not here now.”
Well, I’m Roberto Johnson’s mother. If he comes there tonight, or his friends, I’m asking you please to send them home.”
“I don’t . . .” the woman’s voice was unconcerned.
“I’m asking you please. Roberto’s father ain’t home. I’m here alone. Do you know what’s happening out there?”
“Okay. . . ”
“I’m asking please. Do you have children?”
“They ain’t here, that’s for sure.”
“Then don’t have my boy there. Get them the hell out of there, please.”
“I’m going to make a note, right here, that you called, okay?”
“I’ve got to have him home.”
“I will relay that message ma’am.”
Florence hung up. Serena Howell, clerk at Seven’s House, hung up. She wrote a note for Sallie Parcells, who would be coming in to work soon, that the boys be told that Roberto Johnson should be sent home, and the other boys be advised that Roberto’s mother had said they do the same. Serena taped the note to the front of the switchboard, so that it would be the first thing she saw when she came in. But Sallie wasn’t coming in Saturday afternoon. Her husband had got her into the car and was already back in Chattanooga, a place to which they had thought nothing would ever send them back, until this.
Serena stuck her Kools in her purse, put on her glasses, and walked to the doorway where she would be able to see her boyfriend when he pulled up. Ray’s Dodge Dart appeared in the street, and Serena hurried out, scared. Before she left, though, she put the sign in the door that said, “Back in Five Minutes.” There was a clock face with movable hands to show when she left, but Serena didn’t move them. They stayed at eleven fifteen.
Roberto found the room at last and entered quietly. He did not recognize his father at first. He looked too small and sick. And then, there at Roberto’s elbow, was Florence.
“How’s he look?” she asked.
Dewey’s eyes opened. “What do you mean, ‘how’s he look?’ You got eyes.”
“Roberto got in ahead of me. I thought you was asleep.”
“Well, now that you’re here, how do you think I look?”
“Ugly as ever.”
“What did the doctor tell you?”
“Said they had to take one third of your stomach. You lost so much blood, they said you lucky you’re alive.”
“Lucky to have a third of my stomach gone. Lucky, my ass.”
"You’re lucky you’re not dead. The rest of your organs are okay. You’re going to have to eat small for a long time, though. Also,” Florence added what she considered a useful contribution, “they said you can’t drink beer no more. That’ll kill you.”
“Yeah? We’ll put that one to the test. I’ll ask him about that tomorrow. Because I damn well don’t believe he said any such thing.”
“He also said you’ve got to go right asleep.”
“I damn well was about two seconds ago.”
Florence leaned over and kissed him. Roberto tried to think of something to say that would shut them up without hurting them, but he was coming up dry.
“Nice room,” he said. “You’ve got a view.”
They all looked at the view. Outside the high, narrow, bolted-shut window was a stretch of flat gravel-topped roof: a desert of tall, gray air-conditioning fans behind steel grills. Beyond that was the smoke of their city, their neighborhood, their home. Dewey gave a snort of laughter.
“Yeah, that’s a hell of a view. Probably charge me extra for that view.
Roberto looked back at his father and the two exchanged flat smiles. Dewey lay sprawled uncomfortably in the bed. Roberto wanted to take him and shake him up, but there was a lot more wrong with him than any amount of pillow plumping or sheet straightening was going to set right. No tidying or sprucing was going to brush the pain and the fear out of that man’s eyes. The washed-out blue gown made Dewey look beleaguered and weak, as if all his sixty-six years had finally caught him, like a bully you’ve alluded for years who at last has you cornered.
“You get a strange sunset, with all this smoke in the sky,” Roberto said. A churchly thought occurred to Roberto about how the sun being out was a sign of a new day, and a fresh start, and all this. But the notion was so desperately inane that he was sure Dewey would try to hit him if he even suggested it.
Instead, “You have everything you need?” was what Roberto said.
There was a wheeled bedside table with a box of tissues and a plastic water pitcher. Over on the window ledge was the plastic overnight bag, hardly bigger than a shaving kit, that Florence had brought over.
Florence hated pauses and silences, and managed to break up this one.
"They had to take a third of the man's stomach," she announced to Roberto, as if his father were not there between them. "You believe that? I know for certain a man like that should never drink beer again. Not under any condition."
Dewey's eyes popped open again. "That's bullshit. Beer heals. If that son of a bitch Amos had had beer in his cooler that day, I wouldn't have had to walk all the way to Trudy's, and I never woulda gotten shot. Besides, in England, in the war, we had a dark beer so black, it was the healthiest thing there was. From the Egyptians on down, beer has saved."
Florence sat on the edge of Dewey's bed and patted his pillow and straightened the collar of his robe, and did all the things Roberto had figured it would be no use doing. And as she did them, Dewey grew more truculent, dignified and strong.
"So tomorrow," Dewey finished, "I want you, Roberto, to talk to the doctors and you only. And get the damn right story."
"I'll talk to them," Roberto said.
Dewey had weakened again, and even Florence could see the pain and weariness in his eyes. A nurse came in quietly and said something about visitor's hours being just about over. Florence kissed Dewey.
"I want you to go and wait outside," Dewey said to her. "I want to talk to the boy."
Florence looked worried, but got up and left the room. After she left, there was a silence, then Dewey cleared his throat.
“So, he said. You going to marry that Gina?”
“I’ll tell you why. You’ll have to decide how you can do that and go to school. You ask me…”
“You ask me, I’d say you’re better off just to marry her. You got a job. She’s a nice girl. That’s about the best there is. You can go to school for ten years and come out and not do any better than that. Or even that good.”
“I’m going to school. I’ll be leaving end of next month. It’s all set.”
“Don't expect her to be waiting on you.”
"I don't. She's not going to be. She's going to school herself, next year."
Dewey greeted this with such a look of incredulity and disgust that Roberto was sorry he had said it. He should have at least waited until the old man was back in one piece. There he lay, his small feet splayed beneath the thin blanket, his small fists curled at his sides. Even with the silver bristles of his unshaved chin, he looked like a kid now. A tough kid, still fighting, but not as tough as Roberto.
"It's your decision," Dewey said at last.
Roberto looked out the window. The words were so few and decisive that Roberto had to let them pass as swiftly as the smoke outside.
“I got to go now,” he said.
The men nodded at each other, as Roberto left the room. There had never been any family habit of touching, so each man’s glance skipped uneasily away and left an unsatisfactory feeling.
Outside, after they had passed through the halls of injured, and their families and the hurrying doctors and orderlies, Florence asked Roberto to take her arm. They would walk it from here. It was the first time Florence had ever asked Roberto to take her arm, and what would have embarrassed him under in the past, under other circumstances, came naturally here. They would walk. They were lucky to live so close by, Florence pointed out.
They didn't talk. Once they were out of the glare, and on a quieter street, Florence recalled other walks. When she was a girl, she had loved taking walks in the evening through these same streets. Back then, the streetlights were lamps, and they had given a softer light. Each curved, cast iron branch had held its drop of gold light. A double row of these disappeared down every street, and the streets, after a certain hour, had been more like a country town then, after a certain hour, when the kids had all been called home from play. It had been quiet. Out at night, with her father, she had felt safe in this hardworking town that had always shut down early.
Florence thought about how, in the hottest nights of summer, they had gone to Belle Isle. Except for the trouble in '43, it had been peaceful, down by the water's edge, especially on the island's Canada side. Families would go there in the summer, and a lot of them would sleep there all night. No fighting. You could hear people singing. Old guys would play cards or chess. Even as late as October, she and her father would go just to see the city lights, and to watch men fishing from the rocks for the walleye that would come in close as the weather got cold.
Florence loved the fall. Each summer, people would slow down beneath the weight of the heat. But when the weather broke, there was an exhilaration. The wind began to sweep things clean again on some fine October night when the cold at set in. Thinking about it, Florence held Roberto's arm and was reassured.
The day would come this year, too, when there would be frost. Withered elm leaves and the flat, waxy leaves of maples would strew the lawns and lay heaped in the gutters. There would be the smoky leaf fires, instead of the raw, killing fires of this terrible time.
Florence came out of her thoughts and into the cold glow of the powerful sodium lights on the asphalt and brick. They could probably get shot even now. There were still soldiers around. Cops were still cruising slow and staring. Florence didn't give a damn about herself, as long as Roberto was not hurt. That was the only thing that could kill her. She didn't mean to be disloyal to Dewey. But she had the feeling somehow that he would be all right. It was Roberto, now. A week ago she had dreaded the thought of his leaving. Now she prayed that nothing would get him before he had the chance to get out. Go anywhere but here. Go somewhere and live. Just live. Roberto, that poor boy, cut down and gone, and for what.
Florence remembered something that had happened when Roberto was little. He had gotten a fever, and was having a bad time. He had been delirious, and had kept having nightmares, even when he was awake. The nightmares had seemed to pursue him. It was the most worried Florence had ever been. She had not slept anymore than her boy. But one night she had dropped off for a while, and when she woke up, she had gone to Roberto's bedroom, and he wasn't there. She had been scared sick until she found him downstairs, crouched on the floor beside the kitchen stove. They had always put a night light down there, in the little space between the stove and the wall, so that when Dewey had to get up before light every day to go to work he could see enough to get dressed and have coffee without waking his family.
Florence had sat down on the floor next to Roberto, and he hadn't even looked around. He just stared at something no one else could see. "Roberto," Florence had said quietly. "Roberto, you've got to go back to bed." But Roberto had just stared straight ahead and rocked on his heels a little. He had always seemed full grown. Now he seemed old. And then he started to talk about the ghost of an Indian who had come to him, an Indian girl, warning about a terrible battle to come. Is the ghost here now, Florence had asked, and Roberto had just stared at that nightlight, down between the wall and the stove. She sat beside him, and they looked into the light.
From the house where Florence had grown up, on Lakewood below Jefferson, it had been only a couple blocks to the water's edge. Near where the maps show Lake St. Clair narrowing like a funnel into the Detroit River, Florence used to stand with her father on the concrete break-wall and look across the moon-silvered water to Peche Island. That was where Chief Pontiac had stopped to plan his attack on Fort Ponchartrain. Florence's father had read her about that. But the plan had been discovered, and the British had chased the Fox tribe and the Wyandottes as far as the marshes of Grosse Pointe, and killed them all. That's why that land was haunted. The ghosts of more than two thousand Fox Indians.
Her father had studied it. He had read Florence about how Pontiac's plan had been betrayed by an Indian woman who had revealed it to her friend, a French woman who was in love with a soldier at the fort. So when Roberto said that, something had passed over Florence. It had made the hair on her arms and her neck come up.
Florence and her daddy would just stand and watch the water, and he would tell her stories from history. They would huddle against the breeze and listen to the jingling of the lines against the masts of the last sailboats of the season. The occasional passing freighters, silent as glaciers, specked with light, dimmed and disappeared down the river. The rainbows of oil and gasoline that stained the water in the boat wells, widened into ribbons of nothing as evening passed, and Florence would imagine they stood in the reedy marshland of two hundred years ago. Ducks floated by in mute huddles, and her father would tell her that once there had been not just mallards, but teal, canvas back, widgeon. He would describe the whole cycle of the year, and how at twilight, the loons would cry as they raced across the lake. At dawn, deer would come down to drink. Up the shore, a bear would tear the earth and bite the berry-laden branches. In winter, timber wolves, big-shouldered and ragged, trailed out on the ice as far as the island, as far, even, as the edge of the village. Her father's voice held it all.
Around them, the old land took shape. To the south there stretched the Grand Marais. Beyond the swamp, wooden shops, warehouses, homes and churches, and then Fort Ponchartrain's wooden palisades. And at the edges of the village, the smoky encampments of the Indians.
And now Roberto had met the Indian woman's ghost. And where Florence and her father stood by the shore was where the Fox had waited for the canoes that never came. And Florence, sitting beside her son on the kitchen floor, remembered what she and her father had seen twenty years earlier. The Indian ghosts on the troubled water. And beneath their feet and in their chests they had felt the geological beat of the city, the throb of the stamping plant at Connor Avenue, the sirens, the gun shots. To the west, the seven chimneys of the Chrysler plant, tonight, soldiers guarding a river like a ribbon of steel. The sounds of the city, the drifting music, the speeding cars, all blend in a death song that years of history have never managed to obscure. From then up through the birth of my son, up to now, all it's done is ruin the sleep of the dead. All it's done is exhaust the thoughts of our children. And tonight my son helps me home through these streets where I walked with my father.
Back in the ferocious days, when the word lived only in the mind and in the mouth, you could rub a bruise and fruit would blossom on your limbs. A succulence would brave your thoughts and make your flesh sweet. You became sacrificial and a feast for the earth. You believed only in the gods that believed in you. Tonight, beneath the ivory-faced and hard-whipped moon, my son helps me home. The hard-shouldered wolves on the ancient ice have crossed over into the village. We listen to the thump of the city, but we can see the Indian ghosts rise from the river.
They pass us by, entering the city, weaving faintly between the homes and yards and alleys, whispering their names, and maybe whispering ours. Somewhere in our children's souls, secret selves murmur in reply to the Indian ghosts. The children are the first to see the flickering. The hot weather of history is passing. The leaf-twisting winds and livid, green-skied lightening is coming up for real. It won't be a peaceful world any more, not for anyone. Not for a long time to come. But then a peaceful world is never what we've wanted.